Sunday, August 29, 2021

Fringe Festival's second weekend: Vexed and vexatious families and frayed bonds

Many years ago, reviewing theater for the Flint Journal, for several summers I got to zip over to Stratford, Ontario, during opening week of its Shakespeare Festival. By the early '70s, the event had spread its wings to glide through more non-Shakespeare productions. It eventually dropped "Shakespeare" from its name, while continuing to specialize in the Bard of Avon's plays, most of them presented on its  sturdy thrust stage. No artfully framed proscenium-arch peep-show presentations for the Stratford Festival! Speedy aisle entrances and exits and an emphasis on main-action three-dimensionality were embedded in the style.

Memorable in this repertoire among the guest stars was the appearance of Peter Ustinov in the title role of "King Lear." An actor of considerable range and subtlety, Ustinov had a genius for comedy. So his casting in the leading role of Shakespeare's most searing tragedy stirred both eagerness and anxiety.

The role is  regarded as "unactable" with admiring despair by critics alluded to in "Lear's

the Bard Fest production at the current Indianapolis Theatre Fringe FestivalBrian  Elerding's play is both about "Lear" and through "Lear" in applying contemporary family tension, a tragic accident, and behind-the-scenes troupe troubles to the original. 

I'll never forget Ustinov's entrance from a darkened upstage, the intermittent glow from a cigar clamped in his teeth leading the way, moments before a word was spoken. Lear's resolve to divide his kingdom  by testing his three daughters' expressions of devotion was foreshadowed in that fierce glow. 

The ancient king was presented as unshakable partly through the production's way of contrasting Ustinov's entrance to the promise of helter-skelter thrust-stage presentation. People who, without justification, seem to know their own minds too well can be inadvertent clowns, as Lear's Fool helpfully establishes in Shakespeare's play. Ustinov's Lear and his Fool were brothers under the skin. His Lear could rage on the heath as well as any, but what a shift in understanding the play was required to see Ustinov make a qualified success of it! The leading role proved actable after all. The ridiculousness of the king dug deep.

Elerding's Jackie, with Nan Macy playing the role originally designed for a man, seems irascibly self-possessed as the major force behind a small, serious company. But the character's entrance is distracted, with a mysterious air of anticipation and irritation. It turns out her standards are as inflexible as Lear's, whose persona she takes on at a trusted colleague's invitation as she waits for a rehearsal to begin. "Where's Janine?" she keeps asking, and we believe in the perceived necessity of Janine's appearance even as we know next to nothing about her. 

But Jackie is damaged in judgment and her wonted capability, a fact drawn to her attention firmly and at first tactfully by that trusted colleague, Stephen (Mark Hartzburg). There is no touch of humor here. We learn why Janine will not be showing up. The appearance of daughter Rachel (Afton Shepard) is simply delayed until the conflict between Jackie and Stephen reaches fever pitch. A resolution is wrenched from their conflict, which shadows the opposition of the mad Lear to the entire world. The secondary plot is wisely and explicitly discarded: there is no place for Gloucester or his scenery-chewing sons, Edgar and Edmond, in this small-group therapy.

Therapeutic immersion in Shakespeare's play proceeds for Jackie and Stephen. The two actors conveying huge chunks of the original work well together while dealing creatively with the present-day people they are supposed to be. Glenn Dobbs directs them with insight into the play's difficulties. Each is obliged to "tear a passion to tatters," to quote Hamlet's famous warning to the Player King, and so they do.

The playwright deals too obliquely with the parallels between the addled king and his disfavored daughter Cordelia on the one hand and Jackie and Rachel on the other. Nonetheless, Rachel is touchingly worked into the overwhelming pathos of the tragedy's ending, with Stephen incidentally getting help overcoming a persistent deficit in his acting: he has been unable to cry onstage. In a tightly packed hour, Elerding has scrutinized the politics of theater and family life while doting on Shakespeare. It's the kind of fantasy many actors and directors might get behind; in "Lear's Shadow," audiences can share in the spellbinding encounter.

Stubbornness crossing over into senility, much more lightly treated, also concerns Garret Matthews in "Driving Kenneth and Betsy Ross." Presented on the modest Oasis stage at the Murat, the show sets three actors in a similarly modest mockup of a car seen from the front as a Southern car trip of 2010 is evoked. Driver Colin, the title couple's son (Thom Johnson), is a middle-aged historian of the civil rights movement who has long been at ideological loggerheads with his father, Kenneth. To their conflict, wife and mother (Wendy Brown), carrying the iconic name of Betsy Ross, provides both insight and conversational distractions. Both parents seem infirm, though Betsy sees her husband's drawn-out loss of physical and mental abilities more steadily, and he acknowledges his weaknesses hedgingly.

The playwright makes use of a couple of long parental bathroom trips to permit dialogue between Colin and each one. Some chores of exposition are thus dispatched. The work feels overreliant on its simplicity of structure, with maybe too little heightening of the long-running lack of rapport between father and son. Kenneth's prejudices are stoutly expressed but mild compared to the explicit racism we have all recently become familiar with. Any nastiness is expurgated, except for the old man's gross focus on his digestive tract.

Matthews is clearly wanting to emphasize the family  bond and to sound the theme, wedded to the old song "Sentimental Journey,"  that family ties endure and can be secured with nostalgic warmth during a rare automobile trip together. The cast plays comfortably with their roles, but "Driving Kenneth and Betsy Ross" leaves lots of room unoccupied to explore how white families process internal conflict over racial attitudes — even given the hour limit of Fringe shows.

I was further out of my comfort zone in Casey Ross' brilliantly written "Copyright/Safe," an

intense fantasy involving the dilemma of four comic-book characters after their creator has died. Their identities are totally manufactured, yet each one is burdened with marketable self-esteem. How much does that resemble true individuality, and how will they face the end? And what remains in the narrative of their valuable and renewable identities, primed for combat and a connection with fandom so intense that it has generated a fan-fiction subgenre?

As The Mask, Taylor Cox masters such a role. You might call it fawn-fiction, dependent on faithful imitation of storylines and set behaviors created by the genre's geniuses. If you're a fan, you buy into the fates of the characters and try to contribute to them. The Mask is comically integral to the assertive struggles of Badger (Dave Pelsue), Eyepatch (Zach Stonerock), and Creature (Doug Powers). All are authentically costumed with signature specificity by the play's multifaceted author. The competitiveness runs in certain prescribed channels, against which the characters struggle for assurance that the creator's death is not also their own.

Pelsue takes a break from Badger's thundering rants to sing several original songs, which lay stress on the fate of creatures who are as hedged in by their vivid stock personas as today's Republican candidates are by their primary voters. The final song addresses the open question of endings by defining them as "continuation forever." It's not the same as immortality, but a kind of death-in-life ruled by market forces and fields of action too stipulated to be redirected. Somehow the vitality has to be resupplied by new creators who may be put into place by corporate takeovers.  "Copyright/Safe" is a blisteringly funny parody about our illusions of freedom. Comic-book culture is the cleverly assembled vehicle for carrying our imaginations to someplace less bleak than continuation forever.

In the same venue, "Being Black: The Play — the Life" puts together post-George-Floyd vignettes of African-American life in conflict with itself as well as with the white mainstream. Tijideen Rowley directs the ensemble cast of eight. Vernon A. Williams' fast-paced script  has the persistent exuberance and jeremiads of hip-hop, with some of the richness of imagery dating back beyond the scintillating poetry of Melvin B. Tolson to the black tradition of storytelling that testifies and amuses at the same time.

Some of the vignettes are sobering indictments of white supremacy; others tackle illusions that remain embedded in that relationship as well as illusions that divide the black community. A job applicant gets advice from a company man to temporarily alter her officially questionable hairstyle in order to land a job that will increase black representation on the company's staff. It's a vigorous battle in which the applicant finally gets the upper hand over the recommendation that she trim her sails for the time being.

 A popular deejay runs down the pantheon of black music, demonstrating the integral role his job plays as protector of a vast legacy. But he also advises the sanctified critics of the secular love songs he broadcasts: "Stop playing church, y'all!" That's among the energetic monologues, the most riveting being Monica Cantrell's explanation of why even well-off blacks don't go in for adventures like skydiving and whitewater rafting. They live an adventure every day, she explains fervently, even though it is not a matter of choice: the adventure of surviving as black in America while jogging or sleeping or playing with a toy gun in a public park.

There are lots of powerful words delivered in this show, often at too fast a pace. But early on it was a wordless gesture that moved me most: When Shirley tries to restrain her husband Cliff, aroused by the latest police outrage, from participating in a possibly dangerous demonstration, she reminds him verbally of the status in life he has worked so hard to attain. 

But a well-meant wifely lecture can't say everything. So then she puts a hand, palm up, under his chin and gently lifts his head.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

First Fringe Festival weekend: Singular and collective

 Variety in performance styles, purposes, and a wide range of content is a given in the annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, which returns to Mass Ave and its immediate neighborhood after a year in hiatus. Two more weekends are left.

Any summary of individual selections necessarily covers a wide ground without any obvious way to make the account cohesive. My first 2021 festival weekend comprised just five performances. Three of them were one-man shows (a format massively represented in the schedule, including one-woman shows, of course).

So why not start with those? Danny Russel's "Abraham Lincoln: Hoosier Hero," "Dadbod," standup comedy from Brad Hinshaw, and Timothy Mooney's "Shakespeare's Histories: Ten Epic Plays at a Breakneck Pace."

Mooney's show, well described by the word "breakneck," is a virtuoso tour of the Bard's versions of

English royal history, with a slant in favor of the Tudor dynasty, represented in his time by the formidable Elizabeth I. The complicated struggles around royal succession are succinctly (yet exhaustively!) summed up in Mooney's narration. That's where he loads most of the witty fun that the show's publicity advertises. Obviously, there's little humor in the excerpted speeches so essential to the show, except for appropriate bits of Falstaff, Hotspur and the sneering Dauphin of "Henry V," where the playwright's satirical chops are exercised. 

Famous evergreen moments are included, such as Henry's rousing speech at Agincourt and Richard III's opening declaration ("Now is the winter of our discontent") of what he's all about in his play. But I liked Mooney's choice of other excerpts not nearly as well-known. The juicy role of the rebel Jack Cade (in "Henry VI," Part Two) is effectively represented. And, in the normal run of Shakespeare offerings onstage, playgoers rarely hear so extensive regrets about the status of kings as Henry's second-act meditation on time, a granular look at how anxious monarchs need to be about crucial events.

Mooney's ability to slide into and out of Shakespeare's characters is as remarkable as the adroitness with which he brings off the entire, well-honed concoction. His voice and gestures were fitting and exemplary; none of it was overdone, and all of it as well-judged as the show's length itself, which an onstage timer confirmed. 

True, he called for a line near the end Saturday night, a forgivable lapse insofar as he had to deal with a technical surprise that forced the informative projections on a screen behind him to be cued from the booth. But the triumphs of professionalism and love for his material clearly carried the day. You may now turn to these plays as readers who formerly passed over most of them as you browsed your complete Shakespeare.

Danny Russel likewise had to be selective from the blend of established truth and myth about the historical figure he chose for his one-man show. What Shakespeare interpreted about Elizabeth's predecessors had to be colored by the reigning historical myth about the subject. Yet the relative recency of Lincoln is no absolute protection against Lincoln mythology; the man attracts legends, and perhaps always will.

Since his play carries the alliterative convenience of "Hoosier Hero," one expects a focus on Lincoln's formative years in Spencer County. Indeed, there's about as much as may be gleaned from what turned the Kentucky boy into the Illinois lawyer as he passed through Indiana. Russel's physical appearance and conscientious costuming go far to bring off Lincoln as an authentic character. His twangy Midwestern voice in the high tenor range jibes with what has been  reported about Lincoln's speaking voice.

I'm far from familiar with the bulk of Lincoln bibliography, which I once read is nearly the most extensive of any historical figure's. Still, I wondered: Russel chooses to make Christianity explicit in the mature Lincoln. Though Protestant piety was formative through his early and enduring acquaintance with the King James Bible, the Christian fervor Lincoln expresses in this show does not match the evidence that, despite his oft-expressed reliance on God as Providence, he never joined a church and seemed to leave aside any theology centered on Jesus.

For dramatic purposes, "Hoosier Hero" might have gone beyond the Gettysburg Address, though by the same token that was an obvious place to stop. But the main dramatic liability of the show, however one wants to conceive the truth of Lincoln's personality, seems to me an excessive reliance on Lincoln's loss of composure whenever he recalls serious matters: the deaths of his mother, and later his sister, and still later the loss of two sons, Willie and Tad; the carnage of the Civil War also brings forth tears. True, Lincoln suffered from depression, and probably cried often. But as drama, different ways of expressing deep feeling and compassion might have served the show better. It probably would have displayed the actor's range more extensively as well.

The third one-man show had the informality that Fringe history has often allowed. In "Dadbod," Brad

Hinshaw was trying out new material, and he managed to segue with few hitches to different episodes after consulting his notebook. He even took a punchline from an audience member and wrote it down with immediate approval. It's fortunate that his engaging manner and his way of relating anecdotes about family showed him to be personable and amusingly reflective on various shortcomings as husband, father, and son.

As for the group shows: there was one well-designed ensemble presentation (Indianapolis Ballet) and a fresh premiere reflecting the author's personal and professional focus on environmental perils in Jim Poyser's "Climate Follies" (a Strike Home production).

I ended my first weekend with the Poyser show, an ensemble presentation of warnings in the format of fanciful sketch comedy and satire brought off by five women who are somewhat well-known on local stages. "Climate Follies" opens with a slapdash song-and-dance number and moves onto an uneven plane of mordant commentary, with props of wildfires, calving glaciers, and one of the tools of humankind's tendency to inflict environmental damage — gasoline-powered leaf blowers.

'On Saturday night in the Oasis Room at Old National, the energy the actors poured into Poyser's concept was unstinting. Yet the show as a whole felt a little underrehearsed. I suspect some of the dialogue was improvised to a point. Assuming that to be a deliberate decision, it's always an element subject to rises and falls of inspiration and pacing. Though it may be essential to Poyser's message, the masking of the actors throughout deprives the cast of a theater essential: communication through vocal and facial expression. The cast working under these conditions consisted of Kerrigan Howard, Jaddy Ciucci, Beverly Roche, Annabel Watson, and Dena Toler. Raphael Schwartzman directed.

The script has some sharp points to make about the serious costs of complacency among the temporarily better-off sort of people. A mordant funeral sermon in gospel style for a self-cannibalized man was stunning.  There is a call to action that could have been better designed, as the audience is encouraged to look up on their iPhones their representatives (in the U.S. House, I guess) and direct them  to save the planet. Implied violence with a toy baseball bat toward an audience member came up a few times in a puzzling way. The Fringe history of workshoppy experimentation was sustained.

Perhaps in a revised form, with an experienced sketch-comedy troupe performing it, "Climate Follies" could have a successful future as a rare piece of educational, agit-prop theater that doesn't forget to be entertaining. 

No such "we're-not-quite-ready-for-this,-but-here-it-is" sense adhered to "Beyond Ballet." The successor to the Indianapolis Ballet's 2019 festival debut reflects some of the recharging  atmosphere that has affected all arts groups as the promise of managing the pandemic widens. There is a blitheness to much of the program that founding director Victoria Lyras almost apologized for before introducing "Beatlemania." But everything looked well-prepared.

The new show, with a home at the Atheneum's Basile Theatre,  cuts back somewhat from the flair and imaginative range of the 2019 show. And the new setting lacks the intimacy of the District Theatre's Main Stage;  the dimensions of the stage make the wings too visible; keeping the right illusion — a delicate matter when it comes to ballet — may be a problem depending on where you sit..

It was a treat to see the pas de deux from "Diana and Actaeon," after its local premiere in April, danced with inspired partnership by Yoshiko Kamikusa and Chris Lingner. Kamikusa also offered a poised and poignant performance of Saint-Saens' beloved solo cello piece, "The Swan," imaginatively staged by Lyras. 

"Scherzo Passionato," brilliantly choreographed across broad emotional terrain by Kristin Young Toner, opens the program, as thrilling to watch as it was at the Toby last April. "Fantasia Concertante" sets a half-dozen women in continuous motion to choreography that seems more attentive to phrasing in the large sense and does much less with the string orchestra's heavy accents in the recorded score. No one wants mickey-mousing of sharply accented music, but  the dancing seemed to emphasize flow above all. I wondered if Filipe Aragao-Benton was striving for modern classicism in the Balanchine manner. But the impression of a mismatch between music and dance remained.

"Beatlemania" opened unpromisingly with "I Saw Her Standing There," as if only a sock-hop vibe needed to be evoked. Nuance came later: Lyras has placed a couple of solos well in the lively mix. William Robinson brought out the wistful notes of "In My Life," and Jessica Miller shed a little extra radiance upon "Here Comes the Sun."  The sentimental side of the Beatles got a further outing in "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" (the program transposed a couple of the title's words). A female ensemble had fun with  "All My Loving," and some virtuoso turns of exuberance emphasized the straightforward wish behind "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Money is probably never far from an arts organization's mind, so give Lyras extra points for the sincerity with which she set the company finale, "Can't Buy Me Love."

Saturday, August 14, 2021

'The Convent' wrings spiritual discoveries from a jerrybuilt community of women


It goes way back: building "safe spaces" for people with fragile links to each other but an overriding sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. What the world writ large may have denied to them they can access through discipline and the paradox of self-denial pointing the way toward self-discovery.

It's the cultural foundation of the monastic communities that helped Christianity flourish in spite of its worldly entanglements from the start. In "The Convent," it's the annual retreat a middle-aged woman who styles herself the Mother Abbess has established in a medieval setting in France and nurtured upon the unfulfilled desires that bubble up out of the flotsam and jetsam of needy participants' lives.

In three staged readings (just two remain) with seven actors under the direction of Kelsey Leigh Miller,  Summit Performance Indianapolis  revels in the sometimes raucous comedy and links it smoothly to the work's probing of spiritual depths. Seen opening night Friday, "The Convent" is an emotionally wrenching drama that withholds most of the hard-won resolutions characteristic of comedy. Interrupted by surprising, often uproarious notions and revelations, it rips through aspects of the retreat's chockablock curriculum, layered on observance of the canonical hours, devotional calisthenics, hallucinogenic vision quests and improvised prayers.

 "There is nothing else to listen to but you," the Mother Abbess reminds the six participants at one point. It's a bromide that may well leave all the women back where they started, but promises something much greater: liberation from male religious tropes and their well-stocked barriers to female self-realization. She says the goal is "to become one's own Interior Castle," an image both anatomically suggestive and transcendent.

Jen Johansen radiates the resolve and guarded desperation of the Mother Abbess, whose control and confidence are undercut by the leader's secret agenda.  Each of the six retreat participants is lent vivid individuality by the well-honed cast. At crucial points, eye contact conveys volumes of information. You almost forget that each actor holds the script in her hands. Apart from action conveyed in stage directions (read aloud by Chelsea Anderson), the production seems loaded to its emotional capacity. The succession of scenes is so well-designed that even when an announced blackout seems abrupt, it feels like a full stop at just the right place — a thunderclap that has you eagerly anticipating the next flash of lightning.

At the start, every difficulty is comically foretold by each visitor's panting, profanely expressed annoyance at the steep, stony climb up to the convent. The characters quickly distinguish themselves in these performances by Maria Argentina Souza, Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Andrea Heiden, Suzanne Fleenor, Shawnte P. Gaston, and Stephenie Park. There are a few searing monologues placed among conversations that strain to adhere to, then burst through, the prescribed schedule. That opens with the Mother Abbess' insistence that each woman choose a "nomen" (Latin for "name") associating herself with a female mystic of the Middle Ages whose visionary achievements are meant to guide and inspire the participants.

Turned on by God: St. Teresa in ecstasy

Not being well-acquainted with the stories of these remarkable women, I knew a little about three of them. Because of her eminence in music, there's Hildegard of Bingen (the town name should be pronounced with a hard "g," by the way); Teresa of Avila, familiar to me from an art-history class in which we were amazed by the suggestions of sexual as well as spiritual ecstasy in a photograph of Gianlorenzo Bernini's marble sculpture; and Julian of Norwich, a modest but intellectually formidable English nun. She wrote better English prose in the 14th century than her contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, in the judgment of Seth Lerer in his compact account of our language,  "Inventing English."

In a paragraph quoted from her "Revelation of Divine Love," Lerer emphasizes Julian's importance to written English as a vehicle for translating "Latinate religious idiom into English."  Julian credits her ability to communicate Christian teaching to God's example: "I have received it from the revelation of him who is the sovereign teacher," is how Lerer modernizes it.

The word Julian used for "revelation" is "schewinge" (which we would spell "showing"). The Anglo-Saxon  skeleton of English often gives us a way of looking into concepts that words derived from Latin obscure, even though we use the latter all the time.

In this sense, it's easy to admire how this shrewd staged reading carries revelations that may well engage the disposition and stimulate the spirit. But it's through its "schewinges"  that "The Convent" will grab your heart.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Focusing on his first jazz love, John Coltrane, Frank Glover returns to public stage

Frank Glover reconnected with his wonted magic.

One of the matters John Coltrane had to contend with as he moved into his final phase in the 1960s was the perception that his music sounded angry. This put off many of his earlier fans, especially in Britain.

In significant contrast, as readers of Lewis Porter's excellent book on Coltrane know, the pathbreaking saxophonist was anything but angry. But his pushing back the boundaries of tonality and conventional tone production, especially with robustness and intensity on the tenor saxophone, wore out and annoyed many listeners.

Frank Glover also plays the tenor, but his primary instrument of choice is the clarinet. And that's what he brought to the stage in his long-awaited return to the Jazz Kitchen Wednesday night. He headed an all-star quartet, all of whose members are well-known hereabouts: pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps.

It is hard for the clarinet to sound angry, as I hear it. When a player produces a gritty or split tone, notably the immortal Pee Wee Russell,  the result barely registers as irritated or querulous. It's more an indication that the instrument's charm extends well to the outside of its conventional timbre. Glover draws on that charm no matter how he expresses himself on the clarinet. And his facility and energy are a match for the Coltrane manner, which Glover has overlaid for decades with his individual gifts and instincts, schooled harmonically by his longtime mentor, pianist Claude Sifferlen (1940-2010).

It's part of the inherently nuanced expression of the clarinet that probably branded it as relatively inexpressive to the first generation of beboppers. On the other hand, the instrument's open-hearted appeal  and compatibility with others have long made it attractive to classical composers. As a solo instrument, the late-arriving saxophone, particularly the tenor, tends to sound eccentric even when not roughhewn. From Coleman Hawkins through Chris Potter, the tenor has had to work to come across as both aggressive and occasionally intimate. Yet of all the single-line instruments, it is probably the supreme incarnation of the jazz spirit and, as the heart of a section, it's the diapason of big bands.

Coltrane set the standard for saxophone modernism, and indulged his lyrical bent notably with the more dulcet, but hintingly exotic, soprano saxophone. His exploration of scales and modes, with a virtuosity that made everything available to him on a moment's notice (to allude to one of his best early compositions), covers a wide expanse that seems familiar terrain to Glover.

The quartet opened with "India," which took shape after a rubato introduction by all four players in spontaneous improvisation. The theme emerged after the rhythm section set a steady tempo. Individually, the quartet brought to the performance a grounded sense of using the theme's phrases motivically in their solos. You always knew where you were, and Tucker's first solo of the night illustrated everyone's knack for rounding off his time in the spotlight before it moved to someone else. Phelps, who dependably knits together all the patterns he introduces, seemed to pay tribute in "India" to Coltrane mainstay Elvin Jones in what's been called "spread rhythm": The "pulse" remained steady underneath, while the "beat" shifted around on top, complementing the leader.

Tucker's playing was reliably well-rooted and deep-delving while giving him room to soar. Allee's performance was at his personal height of habitual rapport, and in solos he reached out as fruitfully as Glover. His solo in Coltrane's tender "Naima" was exemplary, and creatively underlined by the pungency of Phelps' sticks on rims and tom-toms. This version's quiet ending, after a considerable ruckus, was most effective.

Coltrane wrote several quite distinctive blues, and my memory couldn't quite bring up the title of the one that followed "Naima." But some of the most exciting eight-bar exchanges between piano and clarinet on the one hand, drums on the  other, took place here and in Bronislaw Kaper's "Invitation." That tune, a favorite of Glover's since at least the '90s (it's on his CD "Something Old, Something New"), featured a delicate, single-line solo from Allee as well. 

"Invitation" signaled a temporary swerve away from Coltrane, as the quartet launched into a teasing, funky version of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," with seductive bent notes from the clarinet and a tambourine episode from the percussion section. I was struck by the approach Allee took in his solo, suggesting Count Basie as well as Duke Ellington in a song embedded in the latter's repertoire. As the texture thickened, I happened to think someone could have taken a transcription of this solo and made a big-band chart from it that would have done credit to either ensemble. It reflected Allee's seasoned skill as an arranger.

In the only remarks Glover made from the stage beyond personnel introductions, the clarinetist announced this was the first time he'd played in public for a year-and-a-half. Then he announced the set's finale,  Coltrane's "Impressions," which proceeded with nonstop virtuosity and a so-happy-to-be-here vibe. A clamorous ovation from the COVID-capacity crowd brought back longtime colleagues Glover and Allee for a magical duo encore, "Lush Life." It was the sort of thing that could have you smiling through your tears. Welcome back, Frank!

[Photos by Rob Ambrose]

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Finally, a jazz tribute album that doesn't try to put arms on the Venus de Milo

 Kevin Sun calls his all-absorbing take on the music of Charlie Parker "<3 Bird," which I guess has to be said, with pun fully intended, "Love Bird" (Endectomorph Music).

Kevin Sun digs deep into Bird.
The love is certainly in place. Bandleader Sun has come up with new compositions based on Parker originals as well as on aspects of recorded Bird solos, sometimes blended. His study of the pioneering alto saxophonist dives deep. In putting a band together with slight shifts of personnel, he is clearly well beyond simply updating the sound and performance styles of early bebop masterpieces.

Parker's centennial was last year, but the pandemic has somewhat delayed many big-round-number observances. Sun has not made a survey of Bird compositions explicit, though he tells which parts of the legacy he draws upon in liner notes. Fortunately  a tenor saxophonist (thus muting copycat pushback), Sun draws compatible performances throughout from bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor, as well as, to various degrees, from Christian Li on piano and Fender Rhodes, Adam O'Farrill on trumpet, and Max Light, guitar.

Recorded in Brooklyn last February, the release joins a bunch of well-thought-out contributions musicians have forged out of the pandemic's interruption of concert and club gigging. Sun's dedication to the subject seems extraordinary; it may even exceed the near-universal veneration with which jazz musicians regard Bird and link their music to his. Here's what Sun wrote about a year ago on his blog (which is worth browsing on his website, linked above): 

 "I believe I've heard most of the publicly available recordings, although there are still a number of recordings that I haven't been able to get a hold of—most  notably tunes from a spring 1951 performance supposedly in Boston, as well as a quartet performance as part of Jazz at the Philharmonic from November 1948. What surprised me most wasn't any single holy grail-type recording, but instead the consistency of the entire body of work, which is almost unerringly excellent and many times great." 

The closest to an update is still stimulating: "Salt Peanuts," the perky tune with the title repeatedly vocalized, which Dizzy Gillespie got the President to sing at a famous, and rare, White House outdoor concert hosted by Jimmy Carter. A much-anthologized 1945 recording with the young Gillespie doing the vocal presents Parker as an equal partner, and the saxophonist's nailing the first solo, then returning for something more substantial, shows how indelibly he put his stamp on whatever he lent his pioneering efforts to.

The sheng: traditional Chinese reed instrument

That hints at the Bird consistency Sun admires, which he doesn't try to replicate in updated vintage garb. Instead, his admiration for Parker guides the tenor saxophonist and his bandmates in fresh directions. "Dewey Square" is punningly reconceived as "Du Yi's Choir," and Sun picks up on his own heritage by turning for the only time on the disc to the sheng. Otherwise, he's a tenorman, with occasional firm yet shadowy outings on the clarinet. 

The average track length is on the short side, which in itself pays tribute to how the recording limits of the 78rpm format  forced concentration on the new style, emphasizing concision and immediate impact as Parker became introduced to jazz fans who couldn't necessarily hear him live.

Of the longer tracks, "Greenlit" brightly introduces this captivating set with its funhouse-mirror reworking of "Confirmation," a piece in which Parker combined Great American Songbook tunefulness with characteristic bop rhythms and accents. It's about the best possible introduction Sun could have made to how he wants, in his own terms, to address the wide expanse of Parker's innovations.




Friday, August 6, 2021

In Monument Theatre Company's new show, 'Smart People' confront frustration about race and identity

In her intense, lengthy drama "Smart People"— relieved though it is by drollery, some of it satirical — Lydia Diamond seems to have gotten overwhelmed by "representation," as if her four characters had run away with her in detailing the core and outgrowths of American racism.

Academic understanding: Ginny and Brian get acquainted.
Seen on opening night Thursday, Monument Theatre Company has put on the Fonseca Theatre stage a challenging work. It  keeps being thought-provoking and emotionally engaging, perhaps too bulkily, all the way through the final scene. That epilogue reminds us of the play's historical context: the successful presidential campaign leading to the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president. The inflated promise of that event as heralding post-racism serves as a kind of shrewd commentary on the main action — the tortured relationships and identity struggles of four smart young people, two black, one white, and one Asian-American.

In a recent slang expansion of the word, you represent when you put forward your authentic identity, despite temptation and explicit pressure to hide it. It seems to have arisen from black culture to remind people not to shed their backgrounds, but rather affirm and express them. Meanwhile, you have to honor contrary pressure to find "time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," to quote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a T.S. Eliot poem that continues to resonate with questing young adults.

The agendas that result from the warning to represent imply that none of us is well-advised to
discard our influences, even when some of them become outdated or unfashionable. What shapes Brian White, who receives the play's main focus, is his lofty status of highly "evolved" white-skin privilege. He tries to atone for that by demonstrating scientifically that white people are programmed to be racist. Holding on to Ivy League academic status in light of such a finding has resulted in career-imperiling controversy, which casts a toxic shadow over his personal life as well.

A young black doctor deals with obstacles.
Ours is a hard environment in which to have allyship credentials confirmed, and Professor White's struggle is disorienting. But so is the struggle of nonwhites to find places for themselves when they may well have what it takes to rise above marginalization. It dogs Jackson Moore, a young doctor called on the carpet for making an independent medical decision in surgery; Ginny Yang, a fellow academic specializing in research on Asian-American women while resisting pigeonholing as white; and Valerie Johnston, an ambitious fledgling actor trying to rise above stereotyping even while having to support herself in housecleaning.

Under the direction of Rayanna Bibbs, the cast pours abundant energy into their roles, which seem constantly striving to give the show's large theme its due. That's why I began to wonder if Diamond allowed the characters to take over in the sense that novelists often like to talk about. This worked to the play's advantage and detriment at the same time. As much as the characters are individualized, at length they became representative to me — a little too much illustrations of the playwright's concerns. As the type stood out, the individual receded. Representation took over.

The actors were required to simulate real people as well as distinct positions in a society overstocked with racial and cultural norms and barriers. Those distinctions were signaled in the opening scene, a clutter of brief monologues whose significance couldn't be put together until the interaction got under way.

Valerie studies a script, but the script of her life is tougher.

As the focused scientist White looking into the cognitive basis of racial bias, Maverick Schmit displayed access to the credentialed researcher's articulate self-control as well as to a tangled self-consciousness that gave way to his explosiveness in the second act. The impersonation had a vivid contrast in Barbara Michele Dabney's blithe Valerie, who puts up a sunny front, knocking on doors for Obama as a sideline, while nurturing dreams of landing serious roles at considerable remove from her natural ebullience.

Jamaal McCray put across the irritated idealism, genuine but paper-thin when countered or thwarted, of a young black doctor making his way in a white-dominated profession. And Kim Egan brought edgy vitality to Ginny's studious assertiveness about her demographic identity, which is nicely counterpointed to her vanity in matters of fashion. 

The conflicts are complicated by the romantic involvements of Brian with Ginny, Jamaal with Valerie. The former liaison is clearly the more intense and consequential, a quality that was well brought off Thursday.  I sensed that more intimacy coaching was needed, though. One prematurely applied lighting cue didn't help, as the cast's efficient moving of props between scenes in one case got brightly illuminated before Egan and Schmit resumed their acting duties. 

Otherwise, the show seemed in good technical shape, despite the labored succession of short scenes and the growing entanglement of the characters with each other and with the play's overwhelming thematic content. Here's just one of "Smart People"'s points to ponder: If racism is indeed endemic to white people, individual responsibility to do anything about it nearly disappears. You can tell that this paradox about Brian's research annoys Jackson. You white people always find ways to let yourself off the hook, you imagine him thinking.

This brought to mind an offensive example of white racism I remember reading long ago. In Norman Mailer's brilliant but sometimes fatuous "Miami and the Siege of Chicago,"  a self-indulgent quasi-journalistic account of the 1968 national political conventions, the author says of Ralph David Abernathy's lateness to a scheduled press conference that, tired of waiting, he'd had his fill of hearing about the problems of black people. 

This seemed like a petty swipe even for a narcissist of Mailer's caliber. I wondered at the time if Mailer would have been as dismissive of the problems of white people (perhaps ramping up his identification as Jewish) if a goy dignitary had been annoyingly late to a press conference.  In the terms of "Smart People," such casual racism, not only the more virulent kind, would have to be counted as a natural outlet for the programmed white brain.

We all tend to bring up to ourselves what we don't like about our friends if they are way late to a meeting we had looked forward to. When they finally appear, all those little negative bits vanish, don't they? With someone we hardly know whom we can otherize, it becomes so easy to load blame for their lateness on their otherness. This may leave us with having to interpret racism as the channel into which all sorts of unrelated prejudices and dislikes most naturally run. So what's embedded may turn out to be the racialized interpretation of just about everything in a multiracial society. There are no reparations for that!

For my part, the character of Brian White eventually generated a Mailerian wave of disgust. I'd had about enough of hearing about the problems of white people, dressed up in science and anxious white privilege. Oddly enough, I offer this as a recommendation for seeing this production. If an old white guy finds the racialized application of science off-putting, such unwelcome knowledge remains almost compulsively inviting.

In this borderline exhausting, but generally well-executed, form, Monument Theatre's "Smart People" may be necessary tonic in the year of our sorrows, 2021. Healthful doses will be administered through next weekend.

[Photos by Chandra Lynch]

Sunday, August 1, 2021

'Moon on the Lake": The art of the piano trio, taken far outside the norm

Satoko Fujii incorporates varied legacy into new works.

 Long ago, in an interview by the tireless jazz advocate and scholar Dan Morgenstern, the venerated pianist Bill Evans pushed back against a prominent critic's pronouncement that "no musician relies less on intuition than Bill Evans."

Evans objected in thoughtful terms, saying that his reliance on intuition is about the same as any other jazzman, then explaining cogently that "when you play, the intellectual process no longer has anything to do with it." In light of that, it was interesting to become acquainted with a contemporary jazz pianist from Japan, Satoko Fujii, who has said she models her concept of the jazz piano trio on Evans' path-breaking work.

As far out as "Moon on the Lake" (Libra Records) goes, there are signs that by explicitly pushing the intuitive side of trio playing, Fujii indeed channels Evans' example.  But the listener must understand the solid basis on which Evans objected to the judgment that he lacked intuition. The mind that sets out in advance what she wants to put across is firmly linked to this trio's embeddedness in the "now."

Studio recordings of course allow for planning to the nth degree, particularly when made away from public exposure, thanks to the pandemic. The current recording contains five Fujii compositions, which she interprets with resonant help from Takashi Sugawa, bass and cello, and Ittetsu Takemura, drums.

Still, it's easy to trust Fujii's declared emphasis on what happens in the moment of performance. Of the five pieces here, I found only "Aspiration" excessively sprawling, perhaps too reliant on three-way individual expression and an overconfident trust that everything might hang together over an 18-minute span. In this number, for instance, Takemura isn't even heard from until halfway through. Placed in the center of the five tracks, "Aspiration" may well represent Fujii's conviction that this new trio represents the ultimate of her current inspirations. It remains too much on the outside for me.

On the other hand, the introductory "Hansho" is inviting, and the more patiently laid-out "Wait for the Moon to Rise" brings to full flower a trust in natural process that the title implies. The trio works up a certain amount of apparent impatience with the initially calm waiting. The performance amounts to an arresting, full-spectrum interpretation of the mood behind such a wait.

"Keep Running" sets the dial at a feverish impression of headlong hurry, sparked by Takemura's virtuosity, which is centered on the accented thump and rat-a-tat of tom-toms.  The parameters of "free jazz" are inherently wide, and the trio's inheritance of that boundlessness serves it well here.

The title piece ends the set. "Moon on the Lake" carries the disarming program note in the booklet: "I may blush here because both the title and the musical content are quite romantic. I did try to play it as dryly as possible." The romanticism — another oblique link to the Evans example — comes through without cliche. The impressionism that results has the kind of understatement and precise placement of elements of a Zen garden. It reminds the Western listener that nearly all art with avant-garde bearings retrieves some part of what the artist regards as a usable inheritance. Such an amalgamation comes through brightly in this recording.