Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pittsburgh Opera's The Grapes of Wrath

Posted By on Wed, Nov 26, 2008 at 12:13 AM

Heading to the final performance of this show at the Benedum, on Nov. 23, I wondered a little about accommodating myself to a revered novel about some of the country's most downtrodden people -- humans who breathed well within living memory -- rendered in an art form that's among the planet's priciest to produce. Simply on the level of formal expression, it seems problematic to take characters practically defined by the simplicity, even inarticulateness, of their speech, and make them communicate in powerful trained voices: They'd end start seeming powerful, which Steinbeck's Okies are anything but.

And yeah, hearing a baritone sing, "Them pigs they is all died off" is strange. But only at first. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korrie's 2007 adaption (co-produced by the Pittsburgh Opera, although it premiered in Minneapolis) brilliantly and rather boldly retains the novel's spirit of populist outrage as well as its humanity.

The three-and-a-half hour show mostly follows the Joad family, from Dust Bowl despair to struggle, betrayal and a battered sort of redemption in California. But the show never stops reminding us -- with dark humor and biting wit -- about the economic and political machinery behind their misery.

In a barbershop-quartet style number, for instance, used-car salesman sing about stiffing hicks. But two longer set pieces really dig in. In the first, "Not My Fault," the buck for the bulldozing of the Okies' repossessed homes is passed from their hard-up neighbor who's just driven his tractor through the wallboards all the way to double-breasted bank regulators in Washington. In the second, the savage logic of capitalism is made simple as a California plum magnate (and his cannery workers) sing about pulling profits from the earth, crushing the little-guy competition -- and leaving the fruit to rot if the surplus would raise prices too much, even if hungry people are standing just on the other side of the orchard fence.

The show, with its vintage jalopy, catwalk, clever staging and video backdrop, was pretty grand spectacle, too. Its very slickness, in fact, felt like the Trojan Horse that let Gordon and Korrie (whom I interviewed for CP in October) smuggle their (and Steinbeck's) populist politics into the halls of elite entertainment, for an audience of people mostly sure, current events notwithstanding, that capitalism will never collapse on their heads like a dust-freighted clapboard shack.

But who knows what sinks in, and when? On my way out, I heard a young woman tell her older female companion (perhaps her mom) that the show hadn't been "uplifting" enough.

Then again, if a story about people stripped of what little they had helping other people with nothing doesn't move you, what could?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Quantum Theatre's Museum of Desire

Posted By on Mon, Nov 24, 2008 at 1:22 PM

"Breaking the fourth wall" is a pretty hoary concept in theater, but Dan Jemmett's approach to it is refreshing. As he demonstrates in his latest Quantum collaboration, the British-born director exploits the fourth wall at once so casually and so thoroughly because we are never sure that he even acknowledges its existence.

Like much of Jemmett's work, the recently wrapped Museum of Desire has for source material a non-play that suggests no easy route to the stage: It's based on a short story, by John Berger, about looking at art in a rural French museum. Through his usual semi-improvisational creative process, Jemmett and his cast -- most of whom conspired with him on last year's raucous The Collected Works of Billy the Kid -- arrived at a structure wherein the actors take turns as the narrator and also together explore selected exploded moments of the story.

Staged in a gallery at the Frick Art museum, some of these sequences are wonderfully theatrical in a classic sense: barrel-chested Rick Kemp transforming into a horse before our eyes; Kristin Slaysman and John Jay wordlessly desiring each other from afar. Other strategies for shattering the invisible barrier that conventionally divides spectators from actors include having the two halves of the crowd seated facing each other (making us both watchers and the watched) and dispatching the actors at one point to "inspect" audience members as though they were artifacts, even to the point of infringing on personal space.

Like a sequence that's a self-concious tableaux (it might be titled, "The Company Harks to Distant Music Heard Faintly Through a Door"), these passages all of course serve to emphasize the artifice in art. A few other moves,  though, were pure Jemmett, and seemed to peel back layers of experience (or maybe just meta-experience) one hadn't been quite sure existed. For instance, while the play's action was continuous, and intermissionless, often a "scene" suddenly leapt to life with an actor hitting "play" on an old-school desktop-model cassette-player; the chamber music then scored the subsequent action ... which abruptly halted when someone hit "stop." (Were the cassette-handlers in character or out, and does it matter?)

Best of all, I think, the show's first half ended with each of the performers exiting singly, on lines of Berger's ruminative prose, never to return to the gallery. Their failure to return, even for a bow, is a very rare thing, even in experimental theater, and it made even more palpable the play's sense of unfulfilled longing, of people passing into History and Time. ("To be desired," writes Berger, "is the closest anyone can come in this life to feeling immortal.") Then, after all this angularly elegant play -- and a long, pregnant pause -- a decidedly rumpled Jemmett himself strolled into the gallery to hit "stop" on the player one last time, and to tell us to go look at the 16th-century drawings in the next room during intermission.

The show's second half was über-traditional: In the Frick's little dollhouse-like theater, we were treated to a casual literary reading (by Jemmett, of another short Berger story about art) and a gorgeous performance of Schubert's piano quintet "The Trout" by a CMU student ensemble.

During the intermission, by the way, Jemmett wandered the galleries, offering guests wine gums (little British candies) from a silver tray. The candy had been mentioned in "Museum," and -- like the shots of whiskey the audience got to knock back during Billy -- it too connected us sensually to an imaginary world.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Phase 3 Productions' Miss Julie

Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 2008 at 10:09 AM

Startup theater companies doing classics in drafty old buildings is one thing that promises to keep my job interesting. So there's ample reason to celebrate Phase 3 staging Miss Julie at the Brew House. What puzzles is how Strindberg's 1888 work fulfills the company's stated mission of socially relevant theater.

The story of a count's spoiled, capricious daughter's brief, torrid and ultimately tragic affair with her father's stableman was surely provocative, once. And indeed, there's still bite to the groundbreaking Strindberg's methodical mapping of each class-conscious pressure point and bitter irony of a risky, transgressive upstairs-downstairs relationship.

Trouble is, the play turns on a premise essentially vanished from contemporary society: the idea that a rich, unmarried woman would be ruined by sex with a social inferior.

Of course, a play needn't be written (or set) today to be relevant today; timeless themes of honor and integrity echo in works like Ibsen's Enemy of the People, for instance. But while there remain plenty of provocative things to say about social class in America -- not the least being that it still exists -- Miss Julie's storyline from 19th-century Sweden (transposed to Ireland) doesn't resonate with many of them.

Phase 3 has a good pedigree. Co-founder Melissa Grande, who runs the marketing department for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, has substantial theatrical training and experience, as do conspirators Rachel S. Parent, Dek Ingraham and J.R. Shaw. The fledgling troupe's seriousness and credibility is attested by the solid Miss Julie production, with its imaginative set (the walls are made of white linens, bloomers and shirts draped from laundry lines) and good performances by the youthful cast, including Nicki Mazzocca, Terry Hoge and Alyssa Herzog in the title role.

In other words, thematic carping aside, it's not a bad start at all. (There are five more performances through Sun., Nov. 30, at the South Side landmark; see www.phase3productions.org.) The troupe's inaugural season continues in 2009, with Jean Anouilh's The Lark (as adapted by Lillian Hellman) and the Pittsburgh premiere of Swamp Baby, a new play by Aaron Carter. There's plenty of reason to hope Phase 3 will fulfill its promise to explore the concerns of the present.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Yes Men at Carnegie Mellon

Posted By on Mon, Nov 17, 2008 at 10:30 AM

In the very week The Yes Men pulled their latest big stunt, everyone's favorite anti-corporate pranksters also marked Nov. 14's Pittsburgh opening of Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism With The Yes Men, the first-ever solo exhibition of their culture-jamming memorabilia, at Carnegie Mellon's Miller Gallery. The stunt involved 1.2 million copies of a faux New York Times, distributed in NYC and other U.S. cities. The front page -- dated July 4, 2009 -- announced the end of the Iraq War. Other headlines: "Senate Gets Tough on Limited Liability; to Rein In, Humanize Corporations" and "Nationalized Oil to Fund Climate Change Efforts."

Yes Man Mike Bonanno, at the Miller conducting a pre-reception workshop titled "How to Be a Yes Man," classified the Times prank among the group's "honest proposals": Unlike its Swiftly satirical "modest proposals" -- like posing as ExxonMobil reps to tell a roomful of petroleum-industry types about a new form of fuel rendered from the dead bodies of climate-change victims -- honest proposals depict the world the way it ought to be, and require the world to explain why it's not. Another example was the infamous 2004 stunt when Bonanno's frequent conspirator, Andy Bichlbaum, posed as Dow Chemical spokesman "Jude Finisterra" and told the millions tuned in to BBC World that Dow now claimed full responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, including $12 billion in reparations and environmental cleanup. The reason, Finisterra told the Beeb, was "simply because it's the right thing to do." (On discovering the imposture, Dow immediately denied it had any plans to do the right thing.)

Speaking to a packed Miller Gallery -- some 350 people, half or more of them students -- Bonanno described the thinking behind honest proposals: "Let's imagine what we want to see, and see how we can make that happen, instead of 'What do we want to oppose?'" The "newspaper full of hopes and dreams" was meant to spur citizen activism as well as to hold president-elect Obama to his promises of change.

Bonanno's advice to aspiring Yes Men -- anyone can effectively join the decade-old collective -- included how to write press releases. "We follow the same rules that any corporation does when they're sending out their fake news," said Bonanno, a compact, dark-haired guy in his 30s recognizable to viewers of 2004's The Yes Man Movie. (Another feature film is forthcoming.)

Keep It Slick was curated by the Miller's new director, Astria Suparak, who continued her practice of inventive receptions. Whereas the partially concurrent exhibit Your Town, Inc., featuring photos of repurposed Walmarts, opened with a "Hometown BBQ" (vegan corndogs; homebrewed beer), Keep It Slick debuted with a "Business Casual" reception. In a world of gallery openings boasting lavish wine-and-cheese spreads, this was an hilariously, and knowingly, sad little affair: In a corner of the gallery lined with circa-1970s paneling, two dinky tables held plastic corporate coffee carafes, small boxes of sweets and little trays of salted peanuts. Everyone who wanted a bite had to crowd in, then wait his turn, one more piggy at the trough.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Putting the Pop In "Popiel"

Posted By on Sat, Nov 15, 2008 at 4:15 PM

I'll be honest: I approached the Warhol Museum's 1958 exhibit -- especially its display of Popiel Brothers "as seen on TV" wares -- with a jaundiced eye. I have a recurring nightmare in which some future tribe of humans, wandering the post-apocalyptic landscape, digs through the detritus of our once-mighty civilization and finds, like, a "Hang in there!" cat poster. Or, say, the Popiel Veg-O-Matic itself, a device that chops fruit and vegetables in just a fraction of the time. As the ragtag survivors pull these relics from the smoldering ruin, the whole of existence -- ours and theirs -- will reveal itself to have been a sad, sick cosmic joke.

So for me, putting this stuff in a museum seems a bit like choosing your casket -- and deciding to line it with polyester.

But I'll say this much: The exhibit makes a pretty convincing case that the "Popiel Pitch" -- the hard sell of a thousand "how-much-would-you-pay-don't-answer-yet" ads -- dovetails nicely with Warhol's own beliefs about fame and success. (To wit: Utter shamelessness almost always pays off.)

And the display obviously gives curator Tom Sokolowski a chance to indulge his taste for fun. Many of the wall plaques consciously echo the Popiel sales pitch, talking about the items as breathlessly as the TV ads themselves. (Sometimes, in fact, Sokolowski out-popeils the Popeils. The text describing one item -- a combination trash-compactor and kitchen stool -- extols the virtues of harnessing the "ever-expanding power of the human backside.")

Of course, the first thing that strikes you about this stuff is what an awful pile of shit it is. It's the kind of cheap-looking lurid plastic you can imagine in a landfill even before it comes out of the box. The fact that the Warhol heremetically seals many items inside glass vitrine, as if they were artifacts from ancient Egypt, does nothing to change this.

But as I watched the old Popiel ads on a TV mounted in the 7th-floor gallery, I'll confess to feeling some nostalgia. I grew up when many of these ads were on the air. Immortal lines like "Hey good-looking! We'll be back to pick you up later!" -- spoken by a Willie Ames-knockoff wielding a "Mr. Microphone" from the back of a car -- hit me in the solar plexus, like finding a childhood toy you forgot about decades ago.

And there's a kind of innocence, or at least ingenuousness, to the Popiels' merchandising. The ads were so crass that it's hard not to be charmed by their brashness. It's kind of a relief to watch a marketing campaign in which, for once, you feel smarter than the marketers.

Take the spot for the Popiel automatic toothbrush, which shows a kid brushing from side to side with a conventional brush. "If you're brushing your teeth this way," the announcer informs us, "you're doing it WRONG!" No marketer today would ever suggest a customer was anything less than perfect.

And once you scrape away the styrene from these products, there is something oddly intimate about them.

I've always associated the Popiel Pitch with the phrase "batteries not included." But many Popiel products -- the blenders and choppers and pocket-sized fishing poles, for example -- were hand-powered. When weighed against the gadget-inundated lifestyle of today, these things are about as modern as Technicolor butter-churners. There's almost something rustic about them, despite (and because of) their claims to be labor-savers that "work like magic."

Hell, some of the Popiel products -- like the glass-cutter that allows you to convert empty bottles into vases and drinking glasses -- could have been used to furnish some of wares I was looking at during last weekend's "Handmade Arcade."

Is it too much to say that 1970s "as seen on TV" housewares  lend themselves to a pomo DIY ethic? Probably so ... even if many of these products WOULD work just as well (or as badly) if you were living off the grid. But it's not like the shlock we buy today is any better: It's just more alien to us, jam-packed as it is with microchips whose inner workings are utterly inscrutable. (Whereas with a Popiel Hav-A-Maid, you can tell exactly how shitty the product actually is.)

According to Marx, a key characteristic of industrial society is that  workers become alienated from the things their work produces. Looking at the Popiel product line, it occurred to me that in post-industrial society, we've become progressively more aliented from what we consume.

Friday, November 7, 2008

John Sokol's Obama Portrait

Posted By on Fri, Nov 7, 2008 at 4:36 PM

Now that Campaign 2006-08: The People (Finally) Decide is over, in retrospect the most interesting piece of election art I saw is one with a Pittsburgh link.

It's poet and artist John Sokol's portrait of Barack Obama, composed of hand-scripted excerpts from the 2004 Democratic Convention's "A More Perfect Union" speech that made Obama a political star. Sokol, who's in his early 60s, is based in Akron and lived in Pittsburgh in the 1990s. In late September, when I showed up at Obama's South Side campaign office to volunteer, Sokol's friend Bob Ziller, himself a busy Pittsburgh artist, was out on the East Carson sidewalk, selling T-shirts bearing the striking image of a pensive Senator.

That speech, like most of Obama's addresses, was good. But Sokol's portrait suggests a deeper symbolism: Obama as a man literally made of his words.

Critics enjoy deriding Obama as nothing but a pretty speechifier. "Mere words," say many of the same people who profess to revere the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, or who salivated over Ronald Reagan's cockeyed bromides and happily wet themselves when George W. Bush bravely gambled other people's lives with "Bring 'em on."

Words matter. They have power even when you use them without knowing what they mean: "Socialist." "Mission Accomplished." "War on Terror."

One of Obama's strengths, I think -- maybe his biggest -- is his ability to find common ground between people, to empathize with opponents and locate the humanity that binds us, even on ancient and seemingly insoluble matters like race, war and abortion. And he locates it through language.

When we think, we think (mostly) in words, and though misused words can lead us astray, a thoughtful person's words can reveal new ways of seeing the world. Obama's speech on race, in Philadelphia this year, drew the fine line between knowing that someone (the grandmother who raised him) held racist attitudes and loving that person anyway. Surely Obama's talk of bridging such gaps was at least partly responsible for a Democratic presidential candidate's geographically inclusive win in more than 40 years.

Words, of course, must eventually resolve into action -- promises rendered in deeds. And now's the time to begin working to ensure that Obama is not just the man of words in Sokol's vision, but a man of his word.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Unholy Three at The Andy Warhol Museum (Oct. 31)

Posted By on Mon, Nov 3, 2008 at 7:36 PM

On a night when a lip-syncing drag queen did backflips behind the plate-glass windows of Downtown's Space Gallery (at a reception for the new photography show Then & Now) and half-naked boys dressed as winged, fanged angel/devils lined up on Liberty for a Halloween party next door at Pegasus, you'd expect a movie from 1930 to seem tame by comparison. But this second entry in the Warhol's Unseen Treasures from the George Eastman House Film Series offered a few surprises.

Unholy stars Lon Chaney (senior) as a sideshow ventriloquist who when the circus is shut down leads the strongman and the midget into a life of crime. Chaney, as "Echo," spends half the film in high-voiced, dowager's-humped sweet-little-old-lady drag as "Grandma O'Grady," owner of a pet shop. Echo's girlfriend (Lila Lee) pretends to be his daughter, and diminutive Tweedledee (Harry Earles) his grandson, while Hercules (Ivan Linow) is the muscle.

The film, directed by Jack Conway, remakes a 1925 version directed by Tod Browning, who'd later shoot the classic Freaks (in which Earles also starred). While Chaney (in his lone talkie and final film) is almost unnervingly excellent, this Unholy's no Freaks: The visual style's pretty conventional, for one. But the script has fun playing with how everyday people accept appearances as reality, a gullibility that the wily sideshow veterans are especially adept at exploiting. A particularly engaging subplot has a pet-store customer, a guileless fellow, falling for both Lee's hard-bitten character and the jewel-heisting trio's costumed ruses. (Watching baby-faced, 20-inch-tall adult Earles play-act a bonnetted baby is bizzarely hilarious.) The shop setting also provides an intriguing glimpse at how Hollywood portrayed the pre-Depression consumer economy: While the pet store looks gray and drafty by contemporary standards, the customers are already fully engaged in the instant gratification of acquiring top-quality status symbols.

Then there's the bookended plot. The film's opening sequence depicts the sideshow, and the climax, in a courtroom, echoes it as the only other crowd scene. Conway's decision to shoot both passages largely over the hatted heads of ordinary rubes slyly suggests that the justice system, too, is something of a circus.

The Warhol's Eastman House series, featuring preserved classics from the silent and early-sound eras, continues Nov. 28 with King Vidor's 1925 anti-war classic The Big Parade, and on Dec. 12 with the 1930 Louise Brooks vehicle Prix de Beauté.

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