It doesn’t always look that way, I know. But critics usually don’t go to a show for the purpose of basking in their own smugness and perceived superiority over the material, the genre, the company or the audience. (At least, they shouldn’t. When one does—and occasionally it happens, even here—little more is served than their own ego.)
But what do we make of a performance in which the performer appears to be doing this instead? That is the riddle posed by one Melissa Madden Gray, whose caburlesque performance under the stage name Meow Meow, Beyond Glamour, closes this evening in PSI Theatre at the Durham Arts Council.
By themselves, the 15 songs in this cabaret-concert-with-a-twist take us on a willfully eclectic trip. After an opening out of the American songbook, Gray quickly goes continental, mixing multiple selections by Edith Piaf and Astor Piazzolla with works by Bertolt Brecht and Monique Serf, best known during the 1960s as the single-name French songstress, Barbara. (Over half of the songs sung in this performance are in their original tongues; translations are provided for some, but not all.) These are interspersed with fashionably downbeat numbers by Radiohead, Fiona Apple and Patty Griffin (with an ostensible cameo by John Cage in the midst).
But, as Dr. Lamaze repeatedly observed, it’s all in the delivery. Unfortunately, Gray’s renditions of these works evokes more question marks at times than exclamation points.
If you want to explore some of the outer limits of theatrical discourse this evening, you now have two choices, not one.
For as chance—and producers’ schedules—would have it, less than half a mile away from IN THE HEIGHTS’ amazing musical fusion of slam poetry, rap and meringue-edged songs at DPAC (which earned our latest 5-star review earlier this week), Dublin's Abbey Theatre pursues a different form of verbal gymnastics in a production of Irish dramatist Mark O’Rowe’s latest work, TERMINUS, at the Carolina Theatre.
Given the edgy spoken-word jazz already intrinsic to O’Rowe’s work (which the region savored in a Delta Boys’ production of HOWIE THE ROOKIE in March 2008), the literary dare he undertook here is at least understandable: to write a contemporary full-length play, using rhyme, from first to last. The few indulgences allowed by technique—since rhymes, after all, can be broken, perfect, internal, off-center or slant—are likely the only factors permitting any other outcome here besides kitsch.
With a gripping tale, grippingly told by this trio of actors, TERMINUS is not a disaster by any means. But as much as I’d like to report that O’Rowe bests his self-set challenge, when literary filigree upstages the drama as often as it happens in TERMINUS, the work can't be called the artist's best.
The Durham Performing Arts Center was energized Friday night with the North Carolina homecoming of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Cunningham founded the company in 1953 at Black Mountain College in western North Carolina; he died a year and a half ago, and his will outlined plans for a final two-year tour for his company, which will disband for good in December. Though turnout on Friday night was modest, those who did turn out were treated to a spectacular farewell for the storied troupe, which will perform one final time tonight.
The first dance, Duets, featured pairs of male and female dancers who took the stage in turn, moving in and out of synchrony, accompanied by a percussive score by Cunningham’s longtime companion and collaborator, John Cage. The musicians took advantage of DPAC’s elaborate sound system, sending skittery, trebly clicks and bass thumps 360 degrees around the space.
Two stories from the archives, before this weekend's performances by the MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY on its farewell "Legacy Tour," for those seeking further background on his work: a revealing interview from last summer with Cunningham dancer and dance reconstructor JEAN FREEBURY, followed by an earlier critical review from his company's last appearance at the American Dance Festival.July 2010 interview, she gave a revealing look into what his work looks and feels like from the inside; one woman’s personal, guided tour through his art.
Nine years before that, the ADF presented Cunningham’s company, for the last time, in 2001. I was there. My critical response to WAY STATION was published in the local press, on the international dance website, DANCEINSIDER.COM—and, ultimately, in the book Who’s Not Afraid of Martha Graham?, the final work of dance history by ADF’s beloved, long-time philosopher-in-residence, Dr. Gerald Myers.
Here's what I saw on the night of July 12, 2001, in Page Auditorium:
DURHAM, North Carolina — You can't miss her: in the middle of "Way Station," Merce Cunningham's latest creation, seen Thursday at the American Dance Festival, a woman enters slowly from off-stage left; walking, not quite tip-toe, on the balls of her feet. Less than a fourth of the way across stage, she stops. Still extended, she proceeds to take in the world around her with no small degree of fascination; head erect, slowly turning.
The inventory doesn't stop when she gets to her own form. As she looks at her arms, legs and torso the same rare air of discovery intensifies. At points she seems to be measuring gravity itself, and its effects on the body she is in. She deliberately articulates and extends each extremity individually, observing its responses, with what appears to be predominantly an intellectual interest — but one mixed with more than a glimmer of deep delight.
It's an unalloyed sense of wonder, at both the possibilities of physical form and the world it inhabits. In these insufficiently post-postmodern days, it's as rare as it is refreshing within the realm of modern dance. Cunningham had it when he started choreographing a little over fifty years ago. Obviously, miraculously, he still has it. We saw it clearly fund three separate — and quite rigorous — explorations over the space of thirty-three years in Thursday's concert.
“We had a lot more walk-outs last night than usual,” said lighting director and production manager Christopher Kuhl prior to the Saturday night performance of New York-based choreographer Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? “Ralph is interested in it. He likes to track when people leave, when they start texting.”
The evening began whimsically enough with a video piece featuring 102-year old Walter Carter—Lemon’s muse and mentor, now deceased—wearing a silver spacesuit. Seated beneath and to the left of a large screen, Lemon spoke generously and openly; giving us full, intimate view of his intellectual inner workings, creative impulses and personal losses.
From about midway through “the wall” and throughout the performance, dark silhouettes began to rise from seats in the audience and scurry up the aisles to the exits. Singly, in couples or small groups, souls simply got up and left the theater. These shadowy rustlings and quiet disruptions temporarily backgrounded the stage action, yet they were eerily in harmony with the strong currents of grief and dissolution that propelled it.
It takes a measure of depth and strength to deal with the radically disorganizing principles that Lemon harnessed for How Can You Stay, and, well, not everyone could hang. Too bad, because those who bailed early missed Jim Findlay’s magical animals: Silvery projections of creatures and birds that wandered silently on to the stage, waited patiently with us for a while, and then stepped quietly back into their invisible homes.
After creating a series of "testimonial plays" based on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, playwright Yael Farber approached a group of women from the Xhosa people in 2008, and told them the story of The Oresteia. The Greek tragic trilogy still confronts us with dilemmas our civilization hasn't fully solved. How do we distinguish justice from vengeance? What is the appropriate punishment for murder? And once "eye for an eye" violence is ingrained in a culture, how can it be stopped?
At the time she was looking for umngqokolo—traditional overtone throat singing for her new project. But the women's responses to the tale shocked the playwright. What became a spontaneous Greek—yet uniquely African—chorus sought and found a solution to this ancient dilemma of justice. It differed from the one depicted in the writings of Aeschylus.
This week, those women, their musicians and three actors sing and enact the conclusions they've reached in the Farber Foundry production of MoLoRa (Ash) at Reynolds Industries Theater.
We spoke with Yael Farber by phone for an hour on March 11.
INDEPENDENT: I’m aware that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had a profound influence on your work. I’m wondering what lessons you believe the rest of the world hasn’t learned yet from South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Why is a work like MoLoRa (Ash) needed—why is it a work the world should have?
FARBER: The genesis of project was actually images of New York City after Sept. 11. For days after the tragedy, there were those incredibly poignant and moving images of ashes falling down on people in Manhattan.
The Nov. 12 performance by Urban Bush Women at Duke’s Reynolds Theater began with a lone dancer, her arms and shoulders rippling with muscles, standing under a misty spotlight as someone offstage read the names of African-American leaders and activists from Sojourner Truth to Malcolm X. It set the tone for the evening.
Though Urban Bush Women performances are ostensibly a form of modern dance, they’re more Toni Morrison than Martha Graham. The troupe’s six dancers avoid nearly any hint of classical ballet forms, focusing on athletic, dramatic stomps, slaps and chest bumps. Troupe founder and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar uses dance to give voice and movement to the African-American experience.
The four choreographed works performed at Duke were social commentary as performance, and not in a subtle way either. The opener to “Naked City,” a new work designed to represent the history of Harlem, began with the dancers, in turn, howling like animals as they sat in folding chairs. The show’s final moments, at the end of a long piece based on the diaries of African-American dancer Pearl Primus, showcased a kind of tribal dance hybrid, complete with chants from the dancers and an onstage reading of excerpts from Primus’s writings.
But the best moment, for my money, was from one of UBW’s earliest pieces, “Sisters,” which managed to tell a compelling and often hilarious story of childhood without a word spoken. Like Morrison’s writing, UBW’s performances are interpretive and sometimes inscrutable, but the focus on impressionistic, non-linear storytelling opens the door to something that is unconventional and beautiful, and couldn’t be expressed any other way.
Indy freelancer Sam Wardle attended opening night of The Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of Waiting for Godot. Here's his report.
Waiting for Godot
Performed by The Classical Theatre of Harlem
Duke Campus: Reynolds Industries Theater
Friday, Oct 23
"Why people have to complicate a thing so simple, I can't make out," playwright Samuel Beckett quipped more than 50 years ago about his masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. Oddly enough, I was left wondering, after watching the Classical Theatre of Harlem's retelling of the play as a Hurricane Katrina morality tale, if this new interpretation didn't go too far in the other direction.
While critics and viewers have spent the six decades since Waiting for Godot premiered wondering who symbolized what, and why, this retelling leaves little-almost too little-to the imagination. What was once a surreal work about, well, God knows what, the Harlem reimagining places the play's six characters within parameters we can all understand, or at least recognize: The two tramps are Hurricane Katrina refugees in a wasted section of the Ninth Ward. Pozzo is a white slave owner, a throwback to New Orleans' pre-Civil War days as a center of the slave trade, and Lucky, his slave, is, well, a slave. Godot is the federal government, coming too late-or not at all-to the city that it so badly failed, and Godot's nameless spokesboy is the media, or the White House public relations machine, or whatever polite arm of society it is that the master refrains from whipping. Or maybe Pozzo and Godot are one, two sides of the same frivolous, oppressive coin.
Indeed, if there's any doubt as to the thrust of this particular Beckett renaissance, the Classical Theatre of Harlem premiered this production to massive crowds in Gentilly and the Ninth Ward. It's a tremendous and inspiring example of sheer, almost inaccessible art finding voice in a current event, but it's not necessarily true to the original.