Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Notes from an Old Man

Okay, so I'm now in my mid-thirties; I'm 34 as of 9:15 (or so) yesterday morning. I left work at 1:00pm yesterday, had lunch, went to look at some furniture and caught a matinee (X-Men: The Last Stand, which wasn't bad, wasn't great, was sorta disappointing--look for a review sometime in the next day or two on 5 C Reviews, reachable via the "Our Reviews" link to our right). Before that, on Sunday, we ordered a lot of Italian food and had friends over for celebrity guessing games, Cranium, and the imbibing of mass quantities of . . . well, all sorts of things. I can't remember what all the food goodness was, but there was a lovely pasta with white sauce, cheese and prosciutto; prosciutto also figured prominently on a pizza with red peppers; one of the pizzas had goat cheese. Two people brought two boxes each of fudgcicles, and we're still munching on those.

I was given a dark chocolate bar with chilies and cocoa nibs, Aztec style. I ate it on Monday. Mmmmmmmmm.

Oh, and I got an I-POD!! Madness, I tell you. I listened to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum on a trip to the store, Modest Mouse (not my favorite band, but I can't resist "Gravity Rides on Everything") on the bus yesterday and These Arms Are Snakes on the way to work this morning (note: pre-emptive hardcore DOES make the morning go more smoothly). I need to upload some more of my CDs.

Anyway, I went CD shopping with a gift certificate given to me by one of my friends. I bought Hidden City of Taurmond by Wizardzz (again, look for a review in 5 C Reviews). Holy fuck.

Looks like I'm in for a free introductory class at a local, mixed-martial-arts program this next Monday (6/5). I'm pretty excited. We'll have to see what the $$ looks like & such, but at least steps are being taken. The program offers a mixed class, a program specifically dedicated to sparring, and then the option for regular classes focusing on the individual elements of the mixed discipline (grappling, kickboxing, Muay Thai).

I've also started some preliminary work adapting some old short stories, in a horror vein, with an eye on creating songs therefore, just as an early exercise in marrying music & text. I figure if I start with "micromusicals", or "microperas", I can start to work the muscles that allow me to mix metal, cabaret and jazz with narrative and gonzo physicality to create . . . something. Or nothing. We'll see.

Anyway, that's all. I just wanted to keep y'all up to date. Keep an eye on the other site--I've got at least 2, possibly 3 reviews in the hopper (depends on whether I want to review Trouble Every Day, a seriously fucked up French flick we watched last Friday).

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Eulogy For Certainty: An Evening with Miss America

If you're someone who's reflexively suspicious of a man who reviews his friends' art, you may wish to have the proverbial grain of salt--or a whole shaker of the stuff--handy; since art criticism is already about the attempt to quantify and codify subjective reactions, I feel relatively little urge to affect journalistic objectivity in apology for the fact that that the author of the play I intend to discuss spends an hour or two nearly every Saturday morning helping me pick the world apart and analyze it over coffee.

And if the dialogue his play seeks to establish with its audience is much like the dialogue between us, well, that's probably because ours is the dialogue we've always intended to carry on, with each other, with the audience, with humanity; it's the dialogue we've felt our culture needed to have, however differently each of us may have processed it.

So there it is: the disclaimer.

Moving on . . .

Miss America: A Fugue Born in 1969
A Review

David Mamet? It seems like half the reviews I've seen for this work compare Josh Beerman's eliptical phrasing to Mamet's celebrated sentence-cleaving. Now, while I'm certain that Mr. Beerman would claim Mamet as an influence, reading his style as "merely" Mamet-esque mistakes form for intent. Yes, both employ sentences that die--or perhaps dissipate, or keel over exhaustion--before their time; both are filled with ellipses and interruptions; both offer these slices of semantic confection through the lips of potently flawed organisms.

But a past review, for Beerman's A Eulogy for Citizen, suggested a more apt peer: Hal Hartley. As in Hal Hartley's films, the characters in a Josh Beerman play seem to be fumbling around for the compassion and vulnerability they KNOW is in there somewhere, under the layers of half-cooked dialectical epiphanies, pop-culture saturation, reptilian desires and failed attempts at developing inner peace. While both Mamet and Hartley clearly write from male standpoints, only Mamet's shortened sentences seem to be a function of a precisely masculine stance. Where his abbreviations seem to emerge from either impatience or constant interruption, Hartley--and, by extension, Beerman--seem to emerge from, more than anything, a failure (or highly mitigated progress) in the attempt of the modern, liberal, intellectual male to adopt the free-flowing communication and ongoing emotional narrative traditionally associated with women. It's a form of impatience, perhaps, but an earnest and empathetic one: the focused-yet-incomprehensible rambling of someone who's gathered all the ingredients of a cognitive or spiritual breakthrough, but can't seem to elucidate the excitement, the dread, the ardour to another human being.

Whether it was the influence of our friendship or the force of my narcissism (perhaps a little of both), I was all too quick to see myself in the author's clearest surrogate, struggling writer Charlie (played with impeccably wiry aplomb by Jason Marr). Charlie isn't the smartest, most level-headed, hardest-working or even most neurotic character in the play. What he is is the perfect stand-in for the show, for he's as lost between all the stories as we are (which is to say, less than we believe we are); he's smart enough, level-headed enough, compassionate enough and neurotic enough to contain some piece of each story within him. He's less the protagonist than the observer; less the observer than a hapless participant a la Candide; and, as Captain Ahab said, "Another lower level": he embodies the convergence of all tensions.

The tension Charlie embodies is the collective burden of communication. To count the miscommunications in the play would be a futile gesture; when communication succeeds, it's almost a fluke, and often leads to yet more fertile ground for communication failure.

To lay out the varying conflicts would be to reduce the crowded-yet-perfectly-integrated story (read: stories) to a series of situation dramedies. Since nothing could be further from what you'll see onstage, it'll have to suffice for me to say that we'll witness multiple crises of faith, only one of which is the usual one (as relates to belief in God); a recently blind woman and a lifelong deaf woman struggle within their separate relationships, as well in in their relationship to one another, though it seems by the end that they see and hear no less than any of the other myopic residents of this (barely) fictional Seattle; a man who sells IP addresses is approaching implosion under the weight of both his workaholism and emerging concerns about some of the clients using his wares. Voices of reason emerge (or try to) and recede (or are forced into the background). Dialectical strains erupt and fizzle. People justify themselves with varying degrees of success. Everyone knows each other, but no two people know each other enough, not even those in the most intimate of relationships.

It's almost criminal to mention stand-out performances in a cast as uniformly strong as this one (see bottom for a full cast list, and let it be clear that every last one of those people is spectacular in his or her capacity), but Jane May's performance as Molly, the aforementioned blind woman, haunted me well into the night; Philip Clarke balanced gravity and levity as Alvin, a pastor struggling with faith; Ray Tagavilla is admirably contorted by the twin demons of conscience and ambition as Thomas; and Brandon Whitehead conveys, effectively, both calm reason and ineffectuality.

Jennessa Richert, as America, "born in the '60s", is a welcome presence, but her character is an enigma, one all the more frustrating in that one wonders whether the solution to her mystery lies in realizing she's just as mundane as the rest of us. She arrives too late and gives us too little. This has nothing to do with Richert, who invests her few scenes with a lot of dimension. And to be perfectly fair, it may not even be the fault of the writer or director; indeed, given her loaded name, that my primary reaction to "America" was one of confused apathy--when apathy is the last thing the rest of the play could be said to inspire (though it does explore the inaction that results of having too much insight--or attempted insight--for one's own good)--might well be entirely fitting. In a play of ellipses and uncertainty, she speaks in whole sentences (except when interrupted), and seems eerily certain of things. This sense of clarity is, not unexpectedly, something of an aphrodisiac for Charlie, but after this festival of reason, folly, nuance and neurosis--and compassion, our tenderest and most useful neurosis--certainty and simplicity seemed, for Charlie (if not for Beerman), like a little bit of a copout.

That said, I wanted to believe that there was a free spirit who could help poor Charlie anchor himself, and Miss America might well have been the best woman for the job. Given that it's a minor quibble (and that I can always ask the playwright what he was getting at with her), I'm willing to concede that I might be experiencing a reflex (reflux?) based on my own less-than-spectacular experiences with so-called "free spirits".

Production elements were strong. The synth-heavy sound design confirms any Hartley comparisons I'm inclined to make (I was particularly reminded of the maudlin-yet-icy tones of his score for No Such Thing), the lighting conveyed both a heady delirium and a sense that events were unfolding in something close to the real world, the set was gloriously minimalistic and functional. Rob West's direction was solid throughout, with bursts of inspiration in the yoga class scenes (you're just gonna have to see, 'cause I couldn't possibly do justice to explain them) and several group scenes in a coffee shop. He also handles the many scene changes with flair (I've seen MANY a solid production nearly sunk by the dead air that occurs when furniture's being moved).

I've suffered more than my share of disillusionment with "plays" of late. People talking to each other about prosaic affairs is well-served by film, with its closeups, its negative space, its specificity of locale and arsenal of formal tricks inherited from the French New Wave. That Beerman's play seems to reinvigorate the form is a testament to his wordplay and knack for construction, but there's something more potent at work here; his writing is an ongoing, unfinished (unfinishable?) dialogue with the actors and the audience, one that genuinely engages the audience without offering resolution. It revives the too-long dismissed idea of art as discourse, a meeting place where we pick ourselves apart, mock foibles we wouldn't ordinarily think to notice and make a collective commitment to get just a little better at being. Here's hoping that, on his road to finding some peace, the jittery Charlie remains a bit jittery, that he continues to indulge gloriously confused (and intermittently profound) reasoning, and that he doesn't go finishing those sentences 'til he's damn sure where they end.

Miss America: A Fugue Born in 1969 runs one more weekend at Theatre Schmeater, to close on May 20. For those readers in Seattle, I really can't recommend it enough.


Patrick Allcorn
Paul Bergman
Philip Clarke
Chad Evans
Erica Evans
Lindsay Evans
Rob Jones III
Erin Knight
Matthew Lyman
Jason Marr
Jane May
Jennessa Richert
Ray Tagavilla
Brandon Whitehead

Artistic Company:

Josh Beerman - Writer
Rob West - Director
Anne Hitt - Stage Manager
Michael Perrone - Set Designer
Tim Wratten - Lighting Designer
Wrick Wolf - Sound Designer
Carla Moar - Costume Designer

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

From the Fray . . .

Two articles appeared on Slate yesterday, both relating to music. The first involves a dispute between (the brilliant) Stephen Merritt and a critic/musician who finds him to be a racist. The second is more nonsense on the "rockist" label vs. "poptimism"; basically, it's an amusing but empty critique of how we reach musical preferences.

My response was more to the first article than the second, but it used the terms of the second to dissect the first. In any case, the first is the one you really need to read to make any sense of this post; the second is interesting fodder to geeks like me who give a damn.

In any case, my post:

Of Music & Identity

These last two articles on pop music--regarding the Stephen Merritt snafu and the drawbacks of the "rockism" label--both seem to speak to the matter of music as a signifier/source of identity.

It seems to me that if you take the tendency to identify music by its racial characteristics, and the impulse to judge not only the music, but the people who like or dislike said music, in terms race, it's all too easy to continue digging and find further matters of cultural impropriety. To whit: might we reasonably ask whether the desire to see Merritt as a racist is itself indicative of homophobia? From the article:

Merritt is diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual. His music is witty and tender. He plays the ukulele. He named his Chihuahua after Irving Berlin.

The Irving Berlin reference is telling. Let's look at Berlin himself: a Jewish immigrant known for writing an enduring Christmas classic ("White Christmas"); an admirer of blues and ragtime often accused of racism, and even more often accused of co-opting and diluting black music for white audiences; a man of cryptic sexuality writing love songs in the model that--along with the works of Cole Porter, another wordy ponce with a gift for multiple entendre and half-serious sentimentality--has come to define the "love song" as we've known it ever since. It seems, from where I'm sitting, that we're talking about the "Tin Pan Alley" tradition discussed in the other article. Indeed, even a perfunctory spin of any one of the three discs of 69 Love Songs, Merritt's own immodest masterpiece of irony juxtaposed with sincerity to the cause of creating an epic opera of cruel obsession and botched breakups, reveals a clear debt to that tradition.

This tradition is, of course, fraught with cultural complications, the most obvious being race. Musical theatre, such as we now know it, emerged as Tin Pan Alley pop, vaudeville and operetta collided over the course of the 20th century. But both Tin Pan Alley pop and vaudeville owe clear debts to the minstrel show and medicine show, two popular--and racist--forms that emerged from the previous century. It's hard to deny that the minstrel show had a profound effect on both the aesthetics and marketing of black music--it borrowed black rhythmic traditions in order to mock them; the music that resulted therefrom (ragtime) would be reappropriated by blacks and reimagined to produce the blues and jazz that sprouted up later--but it also began a tradition of white, American popular music that clearly borrowed those principles and turned them into something else.

That this trajectory of music's evolution brought us musical theatre, however, complicates the issue even further. Because as I'm sure we all know, musical theatre has never been embraced by any single group so thoroughly as it has been by the gay community (a generalization, I know . . . but as a theatre practitioner, I can assure you that it is one that is generally bourne out by observation). This already puts "gay" music culture in a bit of a spot, allying itself with a cultural movement that, if its surface is scratched, has such troubling "racist" roots.

If this weren't already tricky enough, we have the consistent antagonism between gay culture and hip-hop culture, the latter of which has been overwhelmingly hostile to the former, for reasons too numerous and complex to get into now (unless someone's just itching for that discussion). This is, in turn, either a sign, symptom or cause of the broader unease between the respective political movements of each minority group, the ongoing (and tiresome) dialectical battle of nurture/nature, etc. Again, the politics and sociology are complicated in ways that have nothing to do with aesthetics.

Back to the music, or at least to the driving theories of music criticism. "Rockism", such as it is, holds "authenticity" to be the paramount musical virtue. But such elitism isn't endemic to rock; hip-hop, at all levels--underground, mainstream, backpack-rap, gangstas, trip-hop--is absolutely obsessed with notions of credibility. There is a semi-prevalent school of thought that suggests that the authenticity of any popular music is measured by its proximity to its black roots. One of the Presidents of the United States of America kvetched on an interview on NPR that the "problem" (he was careful to word his assertion more benignly) with Radiohead was their excessive distance from the blues tradition.

So is Frere Jones's essential critique of Merritt's musical tastes a mutant form of rock-ism (funkism, maybe)? Do those who simply dismiss Merritt's taste as "bad" for liking sentimental love songs fall into the trap of demeaning a good hook in favor of perceived "grit"? Or, if we want to keep riding the identity boat, is Frere Jones a homophobe? Are his musical tastes too straight, too black? Do people who diss Merritt's preferences failing to recognize the rich legacy of an ongoing musical tradition that grows from racism and co-opted aesthetics, but has since blossomed into a fecund and creative aesthetic soil of its own sort?

Quick thoughts: Hip-hop is too varied a form to settle on it as something one either likes or doesn't, though I know people who hate all hip-hop and people who reflexively like most hip-hop. There's nothing wrong with appreciating all kinds of music; nor is there any shame in being a genre fiend. All discernment is snobbery, even if not all snobbery is defensible as being mere discernment. Stephen Merritt probably isn't a racist, but I don't know the man. His music is brilliant, IMO, and I'm no more inclined to stop listening to his music because he MIGHT be a racist than I am to stop listening to Eminem--whom I also quite admire--because he's demonstrably a homophobe.

A personal lament: since musical theatre and rock & roll emerged from the same traditions, why has one evolved/mutated so much more quickly than the other? When does musical theatre get its Sonic Youth, its Mogwai, its Mr. Bungle?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Because I've Got Too Much/Too Little On My Mind . . .

I'll just give you a taste of the what's been rattling around in my head with regards to new music.

'Stine and I have been talking, with more and more seriousness, about trying to make music together. I think these guys would give us a great window for exploring some good, hard keyboard noise (she really liked the track, and my goal is to find something that's pretty and transcendent, but as hard, dark and monolithic as a mountain of onyx).

I'm debating as to whether or not I'd like to pursue at least a little musical instruction within the next few months. It'd be nice to get some refresher on technique as regards the alto sax and flute, but it's not like I can't play. I might get more mileage out of simply playing at whatever level I can, and allowing techique
to grow from practice. As a student of post-punk, I'm always intrigued by the idea of "incorrect" technique creating a whole new set of rules for relating to the instrument. I'll have to give this a little more thought . . .

While I'm thinking of it, does anyone in the Seattle area know if there are classes in Butoh around? I'm having no luck on Google . . .

Anyway, that's all I've got today. A few crumbs . . .

Monday, May 01, 2006

Excrutiating Ephemera . . .

. . . is the way of all things theatrical, I suppose. And so it was with The Swan, which closed Saturday night. We were a small, tight, congenial cast; but we weren't a partying cast, which unfortunately meant that all things ended in a fast strike, quick departures and something like an unceremonious shrug. The most satisfying role I've ever had, robbed of his wings, is waddling off into the distance, sqawking plaintively because he's not sure why I've abandoned him.

In any case, I thank my stars that this show happened to me after such a long break, that so many people who came to see the show said so many nice things, and that I didn't sustain any major injuries from either the piece or from trying to haul the antique refrigerator that served as the swan's perch up and down the narrow staircase at the Northwest Actor's Studio. I'm thankful that I was able to work with artists with whom I'd never yet been on stage, and that I was able to re-connect with Atlas Theatre in the wake of trying times with mutual acquaintances. I'm thankful to come out of a show that I loved, my head abuzz with hope and beauty, rather than ennui and misanthropy. As usual, I'm a little sad and lost, a little uncertain about what's next. But now that unease is well tempered with an unfamiliar ember of compassion.

In other news: Today I'm wearing khakis and a blue shirt, the absolute uniform of NW business casual. Yes, I too am bourgeois (like there was ever any doubt).

Listened online to new works by Om (transcendent stoner metal) and Wizardzz (freaky, prog-ish, synth-heavy, movie-soundtrack instru-metal). Whoa. Good stuff. I need to get my hands on that Wizardzz album stat, so's I can write a proper review.

OK, that's it. Just a quick check-in today. As the nature of my "hopeful melancholy" begins to reveal itself, or I find new morsels to review, or if I manage to get good and pissed-off about something, I'll be checking back in.