Through Oct. 13
When I was a kid, my parents used to read me T.S. Eliot's poems from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats; as a teen, I owned a best-of-Andrew Lloyd Webber CD before I got into more Sondheim-y composers.
And yet, I had never seen Cats, Webber's massively long-running staging of Eliot's poems, until NC Theatre's production at Duke Energy Center's Memorial Auditorium.
The reason was simple: By the time I was old enough to go to stage shows myself, I had already experienced countless parodies of Cats on various TV shows (most notably Chris Elliott's immortal "Zoo Animals on Wheels") and had already built up a firm prejudice against Webber's play. It didn't help that it looked like a cross between the trauma-inducing kids' show Zoobilee Zoo and my preferred brand of cat-people, the kind who battled Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living.
But it is one thing to judge by reputation, and another to judge through actual experience. So, I attended opening night determined not just to review Cats, but to understand what has made it both the second-longest-running show on Broadway and a perpetual punch line for theater pundits.
The first thing I noted was that Eliot's wordplay and subtle commentary on the corollaries between human and feline behavior is not exactly an ideal fit for the more-is-more production style of Cameron Mackintosh, the Jerry Bruckheimer of musicals (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera). The sprawling junkyard set provided by FLCO Music Theatre, and the garish spandex-and-fur costumes from the Kansas City Costume Company, give the sense that whatever you've paid for the ticket, NC Theatre at least sunk every penny back into putting on the show.
There's also a full set of colorful felines constantly in motion, doing all manner of Cirque du Soleil-level flips and fancy footwork, is also a bang for one's buck. And then there's the infamous moments where the cast heads out into the audience, thus ensuring that you get a good look at the cat makeup for yourself.
Assuming you aren't blinded by the Day-Glo spandex and/or traumatized by the visits to the audience, you might start to notice that this show doesn't really have a plot. There's a vague through-line about the elder Old Deuteronomy (Ken Prymus, who was in the "Suicide is Painless" sequence in the original M*A*S*H film) deciding which cat will be reborn into a new life (don't cats have nine already?). Will it be the enfeebled and disliked Grizabella (Jennifer Shrader), who performs the show's most famous piece, the non-Eliot ballad "Memory"?
Ah, "Memory." Lovely when performed by an actress of range and projection; deathly when mutilated by endless aspiring actors, lounge singers and elevator music. This was a part of the show I knew already, and Shrader pulls it off. However, I was a bit puzzled by how little the rebirth plot, and Grizabella herself, figured into the overall show. And I was appalled by how the whole thing ends with a literal stairway to heaven.
I found myself enjoying the numbers that stuck more to the simple narratives of the original poems without adding too much bombast. For example, you can get through the whole opening song and still not understand what the hell a "Jellicle Cat" is (it's a simple mispronunciation of "dear little cat" in the poems). Whatever my perception of the Rum Tum Tugger (Thay Floyd), I didn't expect him to resemble the love child of Marc Bolan and Sun Ra.
Likewise, I never envisioned the criminal cat Macavity (Joe Moeller) in orange spandex painted with hell-flames, but there's always an artistic license that comes with symbolic representation, I think, maybe.
When all the stuff with reincarnation and feline ballet is out of the picture, there's a nice, simple quality that can be quite charming. The Mungojerre and Rumpleteazer number (with Will Porter and Amanda LaMotte as the respective tongue-twisting troublemakers) is a nifty little soft-shoe piece, while the second act gains considerable energy and poignancy from Dirk Lumbard as "Gus, the Theatre Cat," who enacts the pirate tale "Growltiger's Last Stand." It's a goofy bit that still has some of the wit of the original Eliot lines. Likewise, the jazzy "Macavity" is a playful take on a playful poem, but the whole hell-demon symbolism is a bit much.
My feelings on Cats remain conflicted. On one hand, I can see where the spectacle and raw energy captivate audiences—credit the direction and choreography by Richard Stafford and the music direction by Edward Robinson for keeping pace with the intricate sound and movement required by the production. Yet, while I appreciate the elaborateness of the show, I kept wishing that about half of it was on the chopping block, that there was a simpler Cats that just acted out a few of the poems for kids and didn't try to cover up its plot holes with dance numbers and glitter.
There was a nice moment at the end of the evening, though. The couple sitting alongside me expressed their bewilderment at what they'd just seen. They took my advice to check out Eliot's poems, which were conveniently for sale at the lobby's souvenir stand. Perhaps, like many a musical-theater snob, i will never fully comprehend Cats. But it's nice to know I'm not alone, and that for all the spandex and all of the actors' horrific ventures into the audience, it'll at least get some people to experience Eliot's work.
Well, that's one more pop-cultural black hole checked off. I'm still not sure about reading 50 Shades of Grey all the way through, though.
The government shutdown has affected people in life-threatening ways—the suspension of clinical trials for children suffering from cancer, for example—so the cancellation of a film at the N.C. Museum of Art is merely a minor annoyance. However, it does demonstrate the small ways the federal government intersects with our daily lives.
The Crowd Roars, a 1932 film directed by Howard Hawks and starring James Cagney, was scheduled to screen tomorrow at 8 p.m. However, as the NCMA website explains, the museum couldn't get the film from the Library of Congress Film Archive.
RALEIGH—This sentence has been severely mediated. Typed on a word processor, it was converted from human thought to digital data, then encoded in an email to an editor and now you’re reading it as light from a screen.
A hundred years ago this sentence would have been Linotype. A hundred years before that, letterpress. Technological changeovers may not be immediately evident in this sentence, which could have just as easily been hand-set verbatim in lead type, but then it wouldn’t be the same sentence, would it? Messages don’t mean independently from their media.
Michael Itkoff, in CtrlAltDel through Sept. 30 at Flanders Gallery, mulls the gap between medium and message in the digital age, when media are in constant changeover. With appropriated photography and imagery, and video capture that brings the images of visitors into the work, the accomplished photographer and cofounder of Daylight Books and Daylight Digital in Hillsborough reaches back toward 1960s conceptualism in the exhibit.
But I started to get bigger and to win the ugly game
When I made a little money and I got a bit of fame
And I saw how this could wound him, yes, this could do the trick,
And f I made it big enough I could kill him off quick
Got a dead man’s rod and a dead man’s reel
Dead man’s tuxedo with a lived-in feel.
Had a dead man’s desk and a dead man’s chair
No I ain’t dead yet, but I’m gettin’ there.
He just arrives unbidden in the long-running film of my thoughts like Hitchcock in his pictures, and he looks for all these 40-plus years of disembodiment much like himself, big and sandy-haired with freckles on the backs of his hands, perhaps a bit more diffident in the way he holds himself than I remember.
He doesn’t stay long. As far as I can tell, his visits have no message. Yet even though years of therapy have led me to make the dark, whistling claim that he’s finally dead and gone, my father, who died when I was 17, continues to be my principal ghost; a lifelong eminence grise, and only my own end will finish it.
You’ll never change, neither will I,
We’ll stay the same till the days that we die.
I’ll never win, neither will you,
So what in this world are we gonna do
People hate change, they make a fuss,
They stay the same, people like us,
Folks wanna win, when they can choose,
But more important than that, folks don't wanna lose
Cooper's long and varied career includes not only a bevy of children's fantasy novels, but also numerous works of journalism and several collaborations with the late actor Hume Cronyn (to whom she was married from 1996 until his death in 2003), including the oft-produced Appalachian stage play Foxfire and the Emmy-winning TV-movie versions of Foxfire and the novels To Dance with the White Dog and The Dollmaker with Jane Fonda.
On the phone from her home in in Marshfield, Mass., Cooper wryly calls herself "a writer with several strings to the bow."
"I mean, I started as a newspaper reporter and feature writer, and I’ve written — obviously! — fantasy books for young children, and nonfiction books, and for the theater and television," Cooper says. "But those are all different parts of my imagination doing all those different things. There must be something that links all those parts together, I suppose. But I’m first of all a novelist, and one whose novels almost always seem to involve fantasy."
Why fantasy? "That’s like asking, ‘why are you left-handed?’ It’s the way the imagination was born, I think.”
Cooper began writing fantasy novels with Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), an entry for a children's story contest that expanded into a tale of siblings on vacation tracking down the Holy Grail to protect it from evil beings. Seven years later, she revisited these ideas with The Dark is Rising (1972), about a young boy who discovers he has magical abilities and must be trained to save the world from the forces of darkness.
If that sounds familiar.... well, Cooper is more than generous about the debt J.K. Rowling and company owe to her work.
"The dark and the light have always been with us and always will be," she says, simply.
She also hardly considers herself a pioneer in children's fantasy: "I think you will find an awful lot of us have never thought, ‘I am writing a children’s book’ — we’re just writing the books. Maurice Sendak used to be very vehement about this. We write the books we want to write for ourselves, and often we’re writing them for the child we used to be that is still alive inside our heads."
Cooper credits her childhood experiences for the extensive use of history in her work, which draws from everything from Arthurian legend to figures from Celtic and Irish mythology such as The Mabinogion.
"It’s partly England, I think — when you grow up in an area with 10,000 years of history around you," Cooper says. "When I was a kid, I’d walk to school every day past a grassy mound that was an Iron Age fort, and I had a view of a castle that was 900 years old from my bedroom window, and a farmer dug up a Roman path and pavement in a field. Things like that, you take them for granted. So you have a sense of time as well as place, I think. And if you’re born to be a writer, it affects the type of imagination you have, I’m guessing."
The turbulent world in which she was raised also influenced the darkness in her works, which often seen children beset upon by monstrous beings of pure evil: "If you grew up in England when I did, then you grew up in a really terrifying environment, the way children in the Middle East do today, because WWII was going on and people were trying to bomb you. So that sense of terror is imbued in you like the sense of history that’s in the land.
And a few encounters with living legends didn't hurt: "I studied at the University of Oxford, and the English syllabus stopped at 1832, because there were two gentlemen named Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who had resisted taking it any further — they were both teaching there and we went to their lectures. So we encountered, thanks to those two, things like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and above all, Shakespeare. A friend of mine once said, 'They taught us to believe in dragons.'"
Her newest book, Ghost Hawk, explores more of American history, with minimal fantasy elements ("There’s one basic element in this book that could not happen, but otherwise it deals with human behavior"), and explores the relationship between a young Native American and an English settler.
"It’s kind of the flip side of the happy Thanksgiving story," Cooper says.
Susan Cooper will read from Ghost Hawk at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7 p.m. This is a signing line ticket event, with tickets available with the purchase of Ghost Hawk. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com.
The Triangle is a liberal stronghold within a North Carolina that’s not. That dynamic has long activated citizens and artists here during the Civil Rights era and the Helms years. The ongoing Moral Mondays response to the current rogue, throwback legislature registers on that historical scale.
Two shows in downtown Durham galleries—the group show Speak Truth to Power: Communicating Messages of Social Justice through Visual Art at Pleiades (through Sept. 15) and Amanda Hakanson-Stacy's WRK, Inc. at the Carrack (through Sept. 7)—pick up on the moment to make broad political and social statements with mixed results. These exhibits speak as much to the difficulty of imbuing political artwork with more subtlety or substance than a politician’s speech as they do to the high stakes of the issues in play for North Carolinians.
WRK, Inc. is a solo show at the Carrack Modern Art Gallery by Carrboro-based artist Amanda Hakanson-Stacy about both literal and psychological labor inequities. Although the show lacks a singular message, a few individual works break through their hasty execution to express clear truths about workers and wages in the state with the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation.
You begin the show by filling out a timecard and clocking in. If this seems a gimmick, then you’ve never had to punch a timecard before. The harsh mechanical report, followed by the slightest vibrating metallic whine, elicited a physical memory of a telemarketing job I had in college—the only job I’ve been fired from, actually. It’s a great choice with which to open the show.
In many of her works, Hakanson-Stacy uses office supplies as her media, which comes off as a bit literal even if the timeclock doesn’t. In two series of color printouts, white-out obliterates the faces and hands of workers on the job and of people in scenes of a horrific building collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh in April. The erasure is poignant in the second series, honoring the 1,129 victims, most of whom were garment workers forced to return to the building to work the day after inspectors issued public warnings after finding huge cracks in the structure.
“Worker Skins” is comparable to the white-out works, but it’s the best piece in the show. Hakanson-Stacy cut coveralls into hand-sized human outlines and dragged them through cement. Then she pinned them to the wall in a tight cluster. The more heavily caked ones clump and curl, contorted, expressing the physical toll of manual labor. The others give the feeling of staring back at you with a posture of exhausted witness. The overall shape of their cluster is ambiguous—it could be the continental United States or it could be nothing intentional at all.
For the piece “One Minute,” Hakanson-Stacy cites Bureau of Labor statistics to compare a minute’s earnings, represented in pennies, for the average CEO ($116.66) to those of a minimum-wage worker (12 cents). The CEO’s pennies overflow a large glass bowl to scatter on the floor around its pedestal. The minimum-wage worker’s pennies are barely visible at the bottom of the kind of glass ramekin that servers bring your ranch dressing in.
Instead, a poorly executed video work entitled "Success" dominates the show, taking the front half of the gallery and suffering almost total illegibility from sunlight during the daylight hours. You can’t escape the audio drone of William Penn Patrick—a John Birch Californian who ran for Governor against Ronald Reagan (and lost for being further to the right of the Gipper)—reading his essay "Happiness and Success through Principle." The monologue is perforated occasionally by the pop of a balloon, which is shown onscreen. Hakanson-Stacy very effectively conveys the boom-and-bust economic reality beneath Patrick’s theocratic rhetoric with “Success” but, at almost 30 minutes, the audio loop is too long and a television would have been a better choice than a large video projection screen. One could easily assume that the video was turned off, it’s so washed out by the sun.
More disappointing was "Dreams," an audio piece that you listen to with headphones while staring at red threads pinned to a wall that a fan blows upon. The recording sounds as if it was made in the same bar all on the same night. A succession of young, white-sounding twenty-something voices basically state that, if they could do anything, it would be to travel, drink, and eat, in that order. Unselfish aspirations rarely appear. These narrators fall heavily on the lazy, “I don’t wanna work” end of the labor struggle, and the recording is embarrassing for the unnamed people who lent it their voices.
Frankly, “Dreams” pissed me off. It’s tantamount to middle-class whining, turning an overeducated, underemployed and disenfranchised generation into slackers complaining that their entitlements aren’t being recognized. Meanwhile you can hear the bartenders and dishwashers clinking craft beer glasses in the background, earning their wages. This piece takes a tipsy swing at class struggle.
If this critique is harsh then it’s because Hakanson-Stacy is obviously sincere and passionate about the issues she’s concerned with in this show, namely that a corporate ideology has been so driven into us—governmentally, societally and personally—that we can hardly get outside of it enough to think and talk about it. Her expression embodies that position at the expense of her sincerity and passion at times.
Appropriately enough, I sandwiched a “no U.S. military in Syria” protest at Five Points between visits to the Carrack and to Pleiades Gallery to see Speak Truth to Power: Communicating Messages of Social Justice through Visual Art. Pleiades, more or less a commercial gallery, is stretching itself with this juried group show of 44 works by 39 North Carolina-based artists.
The current state legislature, which is taking advantage of a Republican swing in 2012 to cram every oppressive policy they can think of into the law books, provoked Speak Truth to Power. State Senator and former Durham City Councilman Mike Woodard (D-District 22: Caswell, Durham, and Person Counties) served as guest juror. Like the Moral Mondays protests that soon will register their 1000th civil disobedience arrest, the exhibition expresses outrage, defiance, frustration, gloom and hope all at the same time.
Erring on the side of inclusion, the show is also as crowded as the protests—but not to its benefit. Along one wall, framed pieces are literally an inch apart. The handful of abstract works particularly suffer, disappearing among the more direct, figurative work that competes for your engagement. Take a third of the pieces out of this show and it’s twice better.
Another curatorial improvement could have been to organize the show into several themed areas, but the range of issues dealt with makes that pretty difficult. My rough stab would be: a section for Moral Mondays and other protests; a section about economic inequity; a section about violence; and a section about race. But there would still be straggler issues.
Corletto bent coat hanger wire into the shape of the female reproductive system suggesting, with her choice of materials, the abortion option that legislators have left women now. What looks like an empty, scroll-like trash bag or intravenous drip bag hangs from the hook at the bottom of the uterus. The full text of the law is reproduced on the bag, beneath the mattress-tag text "Under penalty of law this tag not to be removed except by the consumer."
In combining the commercial warning with the legal document, Corletto suggests (as she does with the choice of the coat hanger) that abortions will now be performed on home mattresses instead of in clinics, and bitterly points at the rhetorical profit the Governor and his legislators are making at the expense of women needing the most sensitive care. By presenting that text in the context of a medical service, Corletto implicates the legislators as the ostensible doctors they’re pretending not to be.
Corletto’s is a brutally honest, provocative work. Every part of the sculpture is considered, and works together as a whole. You can’t look at this piece without viscerally feeling it. I can only guess at the overwhelming reaction women must have to it.
Virginia Tyler's "Ten Hours of Work for Abena Duffee" is comparably direct. Beneath a photograph of Duffee, a 14-year-old Ghanaian girl who breaks granite into gravel for her living, a pile of the gravel sits on the floor with a hand sledgehammer and a rusted basin. Tyler informs us that Duffee was required to produce four basins of gravel daily, totaling 480 pounds of material. She's 21 now so, older and stronger, her quota has risen to 800 pounds per 10-hour day.
Libby Lynn's 9-panel oil painting "Recession Porn (Death of the Mom and Pop Shop)" would have been good to pair with Lee’s image. Lynn presents a desolate grid of numbered surveillance camera frames of an empty parking lot and a hallway of closed sex-shop viewing booth doors. Lynn’s been working so much with encaustic these past few years that it’s easy to forget her straightforward talent as a painter.
Several works in the show use images of flags. Saba Barnard's painting "WTF NC" ghosts the Confederate flag behind the North Carolina state flag, with the textured letters “WTF” overtop. It’s more successful than her "Filthy," a take on George Washington's image on the one-dollar bill with collaged magazine cutout words and Trayvon Martin’s face peeking thru. (Originally I thought this face was a reference to Washington's slave ownership, but Barnard corrected me.) Both paintings lack the subtlety and flatness of Corletto and Tyler. However it’s interesting to see work of Barnard’s other than her wonderful and expectation-defying portraits of Muslim women.
Calvin Brett's "My America" is a crudely painted flag cobbled together from wood scraps into a wall panel. Its construction is a terrific mess, at odds with itself, falling apart. The drywall screws that hold it together read as gunshots. It’s a ramshackle image, using what's at hand in a time of depleted resources.
There are always lots of flags at protests, which two photographic images capture. Tim McGloin's journalistic shot at an antiwar march on Washington shows a huge flag blanket laid out, with the crowd densely packed around its perimeter, not wanting to step upon it. A peace sign is painted on the flag and a single man stands on its star-spangled field, pointing and wearing a full skull helmet over his head. McGloin catches some of the incoherence of a large-scale protest—and of this exhibition—in one image.
Eric Raddatz’s simultaneous exposure photograph “Moral Monday (July 8, 2013)” is an impressionistic take on a vista of the crowd beneath a U.S. flag. But the image is too blurred to have a dynamic quality, giving the crowd as much a feeling of lockstep as of community. It’s equal parts unnerving and inspiring. Raddatz is neither critiquing nor describing; he’s insubstantially marveling at the turnout.
I like the clarity and simplicity of Ernest Oliphant’s "Young Skateboarders of Durham," which looks like a framed photocopy with a ballpoint signature. An outlined boarder hangs in the air in front of a fingerprint-gnarled field of text, ranging from complaint to inspiration. The skateboarder would have gone nicely next to a work that it faces across an aisle: Jean LeCluyse’s "Mugshot Icon: Hoodie Halo." A young black man—impossible not to read as Trayvon Martin—stares from beneath his hood, expressionless. But the intensely textured surface of the painting implies the sheer social noise that mediates his image. A single puzzle piece hovers over his shoulder, a cipher.
Many individual works here are powerful but, lacking in curation, Speak Truth to Power resolves to a restless liberal din. Several participating artists step forward from that din to give a voice to their works at a talk on Thursday, Sept. 5 from 6-8 p.m.
Speaking truth to power brings nobility to righteousness, but power doesn’t listen except to register a vague threat. And power is artless—witness the North Carolina House members dancing on the legislative floor right before passing their abortion ban and rolling back voter rights to the Pleistocene Era.
Art and self-expression, however, can be means toward positive ends on election days (the ultimate speech one can deliver to power), inspiring the likeminded and jaded to fundraise, get out votes or even run for office. Both of these exhibits have their faults but, especially seen together, they will likely make you feel like doing something for the greater good when you walk out of them.