Some rites are seasonal. It's a fact those who've spent any part of their lives in close contact with the land know, intimately. Plant tomatoes in the spring under the sign of Scorpio; set potatoes in the dark of a Cancer moon. Feed a pig generously—until the last week of its life. Then, at the first hard frost, gather family members or neighbors. Shoot it in the head, hang it by its heels and slit its throat.
But, as many have observed, our culture has largely determined to estrange itself from nature, as well as estrange ourselves from one another. In doing so, it has created something not entirely predicted. Call it an epidemic of rites.
They have no season. The rite of need, for example: enacted each time an inadequately compensated laborer draws his wages and is forced to choose which necessity his family must do without. The infinite rites of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The rite of alcoholism. The rite of post-traumatic stress. The rites of domestic violence and rape.
Over and over, they occur. Months or weeks from graduation, the overconfident teenager edges a car he’s not that experienced with just over the borderline. A man, far more fragile than he imagined, is confronted with one last indignity, one last unbearable change, and looks at the pistol, the rifle, the semiautomatic weapon in its case.
And somewhere in northern North Carolina, a reactionary board of education provides its students with all the tools they need to thrive—in a culture and economy that winked out of existence some 40 years before. It is the Spring. More than one family is thankful that the military is willing to offer their children a ticket out of the dead mill town.
Later, the officer, in immaculate dress blues or the crisp taut gray of the Highway Patrol, walks across the yard to the front door of the house. She hesitates, then knocks. Again. And then again.
And thus we arrive at the title of choreographers Bill T. Jones, Janet Wong and director Anne Bogart’s new work whose world premiere took place last weekend at UNC’s Memorial Hall.
When it comes to good art, sometimes late is better than never. In August of last year I wrote about Volume I of Project 35, Independent Curators International (ICI)’s collection of new video works, 35 artists chosen by 35 curators from all over the globe, housed in a small dark room at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The series offers the chance to witness the great equalizing medium of video and its myriad expressive possibilities as taken up by a spectrum of artists from around the world, all within the confines of a single venue. Last Saturday, I returned to the small dark room at the NCMA just in time to catch the end of Volume II, which closes on Jan. 13. I came away invigorated but challenged, with the distinct sense that I’d been exposed to an array of new modalities of expression.
Daniela Paes Leäs is a Portuguese artist who lives and works in Amsterdam. Her video, "The Freedom to Question" (2008) is a meditation on the politics of hospitality in the relationship between sponsor and sponsored in the arts. It centers on Igor Dobricic, a programming administrator for the European Cultural Foundation and Dutch artist Jeanne van Heeswijk who swapped offices every Wednesday for six months in 2007.
With the exception of a very brief glimpse of them at the start of the piece, the video’s protagonists are represented solely by their words, scrolling texts of their email correspondence. The piece includes occasional voiceover narration by Dobricic and van Heeswijk and by Canadian performer Tabitha Kane, who serves as a surrogate for Leäs, musing on her role as witness/observer. Leäs’s first-person commentaries blur the boundaries between artist and camera (“I” and “eye”) as it wanders through empty sterile office interiors past desks piled high with boxes and papers, gliding over books imprinted with salient words such as “gift,” “guide,” and “dialogues.”
The scrolling texts make it difficult to process the heady terms that are tossed back and forth by the two arts professionals. Phrases such as “Positive disposition of a negative condition (difference)” are challenging enough to parse in the relative stasis of the printed page or computer screen. Trying to manage them as they scroll past, often competing with voiceovers and other soundtrack elements, is close to impossible. The cumulative experience of "The Freedom to Question" becomes by necessity a kind of sonic/ visual abstraction, seeding our psyches with shards of word clusters and concepts that might subtly get us thinking about the dynamics between funder and funded in the arts.
Eschewing the standard video aspect ratio, "Man with Cockerell II" (2004) by New Delhi-based Ranbir Kaleka is framed vertically against a ground of black and comes off as an ink painting of the ocean that has come alive. From the video’s first moment, its stained, distressed surface is activated with rippling waters as a bare-armed man glides into frame grasping a large rooster to his chest. He raises his head just in time to stare directly into the camera as he fades swiftly into the mist. A bell clamors as gulls flap energetically across the top of the frame. Amid further sounds of clanking and crashing, the man reappears in the center of the frame clutching the rooster, which now begins to writhe, destabilizing the man, who stumbles out of frame as the bird escapes. Thus begins the set of binary actions that repeat throughout "Man with Cockerell II," establishing a philosophical construct: sometimes you keep the bird, sometimes you don’t.
The video’s absurdly cacophonous soundtrack, with its uproarious clanking, cranking, creaking and all manner of other madcap sonorities could have been lifted from a Laurel and Hardy film, a somehow perfect foil to the peaceful through-line of Kaleka’s video, which is the continual flow of the waters, eventually brought into welcome sync with actual water sounds toward the end, followed by blissful silence.
If you’re not a Deborah Cox fan, you’ll probably become one if you see Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical at the Durham Performing Arts Center this week. The Grammy-nominated R&B star pushes the rest of the cast out of the way with her round, rich voice and nuanced singing. It’s too bad this show doesn’t keep her onstage enough.
Cox, as hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Lucy Harris, belts bawdy brothel songs like “Bring On the Men” as well as she croons moony ballads “Such as Someone Like You” and “A New Life.” The same can’t be said for co-star Constantine Maroulis, who’s only up to the Hyde half of his dual role of innovative, headstrong Doctor Jekyll and lunatic murderer Edward Hyde.
Maroulis moves comfortably in Hyde’s muscular stalk, and Hyde’s vocal turns fit the Rock of Ages star’s skills perfectly. But his Jekyll is stiff and hesitantly voiced, suffering from the restraint he applies in order to contrast the character with Hyde. It’s a little silly, also, that director Jeff Calhoun makes Maroulis take his glasses on and off and put his flowing black hair in and out of a ponytail with each of his character’s transformations. We get it.
Calhoun’s choreography doesn’t help Maroulis either. The stagehands, in the process of shuttling various set pieces on and off, exhibited more interesting movement than the stars. Featuring almost constant video projection onto parts of the set, Tobin Ost’s scenic design was busy but effective. In the song “Confrontation” in one of the play’s last scenes, Jekyll argues with a gigantic video Hyde who’s periodically distorted and washed by waves of fire as if a pop metal show had broken out.
The live band is cooking, and dead ringers for the first generation of rockabilly royalty nail rave-ups from “Who Do You Love” to “Great Balls of Fire.” But even at its full (and considerable) force, the 2007 jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet seems haunted by something surprising, given the supposed durability of the subject matter. It’s hard not to conclude that Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s book ultimately celebrates—and mourns—its evanescence.
Yes, history proved Sun Records founder Sam Phillips right when he said “Rock ‘n roll ain’t a fad; it’s a damn revolution.” Even the briefest look around confirms that the culture-wide transformation sparked by this generation remains in progress.
But the way this show re-enacts the night that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis got together to do a few numbers in the studio that first catapulted them to fame asks a pointed question to those sharp enough to hear: Was Dec. 4, 1956 really an evening of rock apotheosis? Or, to borrow the phrase from Hunter Thompson, was it just the night a great wave crested—and then fell back?
During the latter half of Skyfall, Judi Dench’s M, testifying before a bureaucratic inquest, declares that today’s true threats to safety and security are “individuals, not nations.”
Punctuated by a passage from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the expertly edited scene plays like a commentary on our post-Bin Laden world. However, the megalomaniac or terrorist-led organization was always the central villain throughout Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and the now-50 years of films they spawned, unlike most of Fleming’s Cold War spy novel counterparts.
It’s an allusion that’s likely intentional, for Skyfall is steeped in a nostalgia for cinema’s most enduring series. The indomitable iconography of the Bond films continues to make every new release an event. However, here it serves a more fundamental function. Whereas Casino Royale was a reboot of the Bond franchise, this represents its restoration.
Opening with a mistaken demise that harks back to You Only Live Twice, death and rebirth are the film’s overarching themes. Bond (Daniel Craig), a neurotic who word-associates “murder” with “employment” and “woman” with “provocatrix,” uses pills and drink to self-medicate demons dating back to some unresolved childhood trauma.
He’s also a relic in the age of cyberterrorism where, to quote his new quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), “I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.” Meanwhile, M is a lioness in winter, on the eve of forced retirement after a computer list of undercover NATO spies is stolen and slowly leaked online.
Frank Abagnale’s life story, vividly related in the jazzy Broadway musical Catch Me If You Can, beggars belief. A prodigy as an adolescent (albeit at check kiting and gaming various mechanisms in the American financial system), before age 18 he’d rung up well over $1 million dollars in multiple bank frauds. By 21, he'd established and lived under at least eight separate assumed identities, posing (and traveling across the world) as an airline pilot, teaching at Brigham Young University, managing interns as an ersatz doctor at a Georgia hospital, somehow passing the Louisiana bar exam and working in that state’s Attorney General’s office.
But that's not all. After his eventual capture and imprisonment, Abagnale started working for the FBI, instructing them on security vulnerabilities in the banking system. After his release, he set up his own consulting firm, advising banks and businesses on (what else?) fraud detection and avoidance. Some 40 years later, he’s a success and a millionaire several times over—legitimately, this time.
True, Abagnale and his chroniclers may have padded his felonious resume somewhat (in a manner at least potentially similar to his original modus operandi). Still, the 2002 Stephen Spielberg film with the same title, a Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks blockbuster which grossed over $350 million, proved that this was a life clearly meant for the silver screen. The musical stage adaptation of Catch Me ran six months on Broadway last season; if not a runaway smash, it still was a respectable showing, with a Tony and Drama Desk award for best leading performance. A national tour kicked off last month; its Raleigh stand this week is one of its earliest dates.
Out of the show's (literal) opening gate—somewhere at Miami International Airport, circa 1964—Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s propulsive score and Matthew Smedal’s sharp swing orchestra yank us onto the dance floor, through a series of original numbers reverently ripped from the school of jumping jive. Swing and jump blues aficionados have all the reasons they could possibly need to pony up for a ticket well before the end of the first act.
Also, not much happens. The first half of the program consists of the solo from Monk’s 1972 Education of the Girlchild. For perspective: Ms. magazine began publication in 1972. Title IX, ensuring equality in sports education for girls, passed in 1972. Women were not admitted as Harvard undergraduates until the following year. So when you watch the slow, constricted life-memory unfold, keeps those things in mind. Monk was 30 when she made this piece, imagining herself an old woman time-travelling, remembering and honoring the stages of her life.
Girlchild is meditative, not active; distant, not passionate. It may frustrate, anger or bore, and it will certainly demand your patient close attention. The movement language is not all that interesting—but the way in which the movements are carried out can be. At the very least, the piece has value has an historical marker. For me, the voice work overrides all other considerations. Even nearing 70, Monk’s voice thrills. Her range extends from unusually deep to high and light, and she makes many instruments sound from her throat and mouth.
The program’s second half, Shards, features sections from two 1971 projects, and three songs from Girlchild, performed by Monk and three other women. There is some dance, but these pieces are primarily musical, with much in common with Philip Glass. Both the electric organ and the voices (sounds, with words or phrases sometimes swimming to the surface) advance and repeat, repeat and advance, almost to the point of making you crazy before they come to a surprisingly well-resolved halt. Again, the voice work is far more compelling (from today’s perspective) than the staging or the movement.
The younger women’s voices and performances are fantastic, and they sound as Monk must have decades ago. Her voice, though, is the essential one, full of wisdom, full of joy. I’m glad I saw the Education of the Girlchild solo again, but the Shards make me happy. Inexplicably, wordlessly happy.
Meredith Monk performs the program again tonight at 8. Visit the Duke Performances website for information and tickets.
LEGALLY BLONDE—THE MUSICAL
* * * stars
@ Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
Through Oct. 14
Of the approximately nine billion theatrical films rebranded onto Broadway, Legally Blonde is a smoother translation than most—it's easy to envision Judy Holliday or Kristin Chenoweth in their younger years as Elle Woods, the smarter-than-she-looks sorority queen who brings her pink wardrobe to Harvard Law in pursuit of an ex-boyfriend. The show presented at NC Theatre's production of Legally Blonde: The Musical could have worked perfectly well as a from-scratch show with its witty lyrics and endless energy. However, the show is occasionally dragged down by the need to service its source material, namely the 2001 Robert Luketic-directed film that screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith adapted from a novel by Amanda Brown.
One might not expect to bring up Stephen Sondheim when discussing a musical based on a Reese Witherspoon movie, but the songs by Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy: The Musical) and Nell Benjamin embrace many of the personal rules Sondheim lays out in his lyrics collection Finishing the Hat. Chiefly, the lyrics succeed by relying on multiple and sometimes obscure rhymes to keep the energy high ("I won a Fulbright and a Rhodes/I write financial software codes").
The image has come to symbolize the chaos and carnage of war: A panic-stricken horse, impaled by a spear, whose death-dance dominates the center of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Man’s inhumanity to man is a fundamental trope in the discourse of war—and one we can grow all too quickly numb to. But evidence of the widespread suffering of animals—in World War I accounts of biological agent testing, or the massacre at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in 1943—provides a different, and necessary, kind of shock, and a reminder that the damage inflicted by war is not limited to humans.
The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of WAR HORSE valiantly attempts to make a wartime epic out of a 1982 children's novel of the same name, in which novelist Michael Morpungo sought to view the First World War through the eyes of a horse and those closest to him.
To do this, it embraces spectacle. And Christopher Shutt and John Owens' sudden sound effects, Paule Constable and Karen Spahn's piercing lights, Adrian Sutton's alarm-filled score and Rae Smith's affecting illustrations, animated by 59 Productions and projected along what appears to be a stage-long piece of torn manuscript above the actors, all effectively convey the horrors of the battlefield.
Meanwhile, the cunningly engineered and remarkably animated two- and three-person puppets devised by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company convey the strain and the terror of the title character, a hunter thoroughbred named Joey, and another horse named Topthorn, as they try to drag a field gun through a battlefield's mud.
But when this production focuses on humans, and not animals, the script's weaknesses start to show.
Those who complain about the proliferation of these types may consider themselves lucky that they never encountered 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson.
Chris, the alter ego of actor Chris Elliott, was the star of the late, great Fox sitcom Get a Life, which ran from 1990-92 and has finally been released in its entirety on DVD as Get a Life: The Complete Series from Shout! Factory (previously, only a few scattered episodes were available on now out-of-print discs due to music rights issues).
But instead of lying around a filthy apartment with a bong or coming up with slang terms for the female anatomy, Chris’ path was far more whimsical and destructive. Over the course of the 35 episodes of Get a Life, he nearly drowns in his shower after assembling a mini-sub he ordered from a comic as a child, violently crashes a fashion show, inadvertently drives his childhood friend away from his family and reverts to savagery after eating hallucinogenic berries on a camping trip.
By the end of the series’ run, he’s also engaged in mind-switching, temporarily developed psychic powers, encountered a pudding-spewing space alien, traveled through time with the help of self-mixed “Time Juice,” and won a series of international spelling bees with toxic waste-enhanced intelligence. Most of these adventures end with him shot, stabbed, poisoned or blown to pieces, but by the next episode, he’s up for more disasters.
Get a Life ran during the early days of Fox, where the network distinguished itself with such left-of-center comedies as Married… with Children, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, In Living Color and of course The Simpsons. It managed to somehow be stranger than any of those shows, shot like an old-fashioned sitcom with a laugh track, then twisting stock sitcom plots into surreal, sometimes disturbing pretzels. Viewers might have gotten a clue from the opening credits, set to R.E.M.’s “Stand,” where the innocent image of a paperboy on his route gave way to reveal Elliott’s flabby, bearded form hurling papers from his tiny bike.
Rather than the endless pop-cultural riffing and shock-oriented humor of such Seth MacFarlane series as Family Guy that have come to dominate Fox’s airwaves, Get a Life allowed its weirdness to speak for itself. Chris’ parents were played by Elliott’s real-life father Bob Elliott, who’d developed his own surreal comedy as part of the Bob and Ray comedy team, and Elinor Donahue from Father Knows Best, as deadpan, indifferent figures always seen in their bathrobes at the kitchen table.
By the second season, Chris moves out (his parents then fill his old room with concrete) and moves into the garage of a gruff ex-cop played by Brian Doyle-Murray, who introduces him to such vices as the lucrative world of corrupt health inspectors. According to series co-creator David Mirkin in a call from his office in Los Angeles, had a third season been produced, Chris would have become a homeless drifter, “and every week he would have touched someone else’s life, and made it a little bit worse”.
The abbreviated second season saw a writing staff that included Bob Odenkirk (later of Mr. Show and Breaking Bad) and future Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman (appropriately for the Being John Malkovich scribe, the real Malkovich was a Get a Life fan, according to Mirkin).
Their warped chops are apparent on their scripts (Kaufman wrote the “Time Juice” episode), but a rewatch of the episodes reveals the show’s dark, bizarre tone is present from the very beginning—it simply gets even darker and more bizarre as it goes on. By the end of the second episode, Chris’ deluded efforts to become a male model (don’t ask) have ended in him crashing a runway show, which he narrates in a rapturous voiceover while shoes are flung at his head and police cart him away. “To him, that’s a triumph,” Mirkin says. “We originally thought of him as an adult Dennis the Menace.”
From the show: Chris, as male model "Sparkles," is horribly exploited when he's expected to pose topless.