Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll at PICT

Posted By on Thu, May 28, 2009 at 3:31 PM

True to form, Stoppard explores many ideas in this 2007 play, getting its local premiere in a solid, fast-paced production at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical. Maybe the most interesting of these ideas concerns what creates social change -- cultural revolution, or the kind of revolution that alters who holds the political and economic reins of a society?

The play takes place in Cambridge, England, and Prague, in short scenes drawing a dotted line from 1968 to 1990 -- from just before the Prague Spring (and Soviet invasion) to just after the smashing of the Berlin Wall. The debate is largely defined by characters representing the antipodes. Max, the Last British Marxist, holds that the only real revolution took place in 1917. Jan, the rock-obsessed, Czech-born graduate student, believes that art -- and other new ways of living and thinking -- matter most.

Max is a true believer, but he's not blind: Stalin's crimes bloodied a beautiful idea, one still worth fighting for, even if it means repressing reform with tanks, and dissidents with jail time. And if Jan is naïve, his beliefs are similarly complex. He argues that the Plastic People of the Universe, a whacked-out rock band the Soviet-backed Czech government banned, is a truer threat to the repressive order than are mannerly dissidents, because to inquisitors, "pagans" are scarier than mere "heretics."

Stoppard, it's worth noting, leaves Max's side of the argument largely to the aging Max himself. Even the Czech Commies whose repressions he theoretically supports are more cynical, like a secret policeman who contends that -- far from solidarity -- all most people want is a bigger TV and a little peace and quiet. Meanwhile, Jan's fellow younger characters, implicitly or explicitly, tend to agree that cultural revolution is where it's at. "Politics is over," says the expat Czech student Lenka. Minds can be freed with music and weed; the social order scarcely matters.

Of course, it mightn't be possible to change society without changing both minds and who owns the means of production. But Stoppard frames these propositions as, in practice, mutually exclusive, because they proceed from divergent world views. People like Max, materialists who believe in politics and the "collective mind," think pop music is irrelevant. Consciousness-raisers into hedonism and spiritual awakening, meanwhile, aren't going to bother organizing the masses, let alone running factories.

Stoppard's own views, as best as can be divined from the play and the interviews in PICT's well-stocked program, align more with Jan (who is, the Czech-born Stoppard has acknowledged, a kind of fictional alter-ego). But here too of course there's nuance, in the play's intimations of the ills unbridled capitalism will bring to the Eastern Bloc. There's also the sense that the bracing spirit of freedom that animated the dissident cause can't really survive the actual attainment of freedom. That it's just different times, and that the Rolling Stones playing Prague in 1990 is a triumph, on one hand, and a sort of post-coital letdown on the other.

If the goal is personal freedom, after all, capitalism can supply it endlessly, at least to the fortunate ones, just as advertisers have learned to sell rebellion and individualism in mass-marketed boxes, bottles and packets … in album sleeves, CD jewel-boxes and download software. Cultural revolution does change some things, and in Czechoslovakia, it seems to have helped changed governments. But from inside capitalism, it feels more and more like another product.

(Rock 'n' Roll continues through Sun., May 30.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Seven Guitars at Pittsburgh Playwrights

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2009 at 12:18 PM

August Wilson was never noted for his tight plotting, and as many have observed, Seven Guitars seems desultory even by his standards. This is a play, after all, whose briefer digressions include a recipe for collard greens. Most of the story is just people talking; tensions gather, so the climactic act of violence doesn't quite come out of nowhere. But the play feels like Wilson is working on ideas, on revealing the outside forces that shape his characters, as much as on the characters themselves.

Of course, half the pleasure of a Wilson play is just hanging out in the world he creates, in this case the Hill District of 1948. (Wilson was born there, of course, in 1945.) It is invariably hilarious and poignant and thoughtful at once -- deeply funny, you might say. In the first scene of Seven Guitars, most of the major characters gather in a backyard after the funeral of the protagonist, a murdered young bluesman named Floyd Barton.

RED CARTER: I was sure hungry.
CANEWELL: I didn't eat nothing this morning.
LOUISE: It was hard to eat. I ain't felt like eating nothing either. But I said, "Let me gon on and eat something 'cause I don't know how long it be before I eat again."
CANEWELL: I want Reverend Thompson to preach my funeral. He make everything sound pretty.
RED CARTER: I was just thinking the same thing! He almost make it where you want to die just to have somebody talk over you like that.
CANEWELL: It sound like he reading from the Bible even when he ain't. I told myself Floyd would have liked that if he could have heard it.

Wilson's plays -- though each of them, so far as I know, is set in a single room or small outdoor space, like this backyard -- are very full of the world, and it's all brought in by nothing but talk. Pittsburgh Playwrights reached a peak of this, I think, with last year's Two Trains Running, which filtered 1969 through a Hill District diner.

But even Seven Guitars is so full of talk about angels, and cigarettes, and Joe Louis, and of stories about relatives and of sexual byplay, that the forces that bring the story to its end only run like a current beneath. These are the old family grievances nurtured by the butcher Hedley, and Floyd's attempts to make it as a musician.

Both struggles revolve around money, and hence power -- two resources pretty much everybody in Seven Guitars lacks. One of Wilson's achievements in the play is to make us see the effects of this circumstance without preaching about it -- indeed, by making it simply part of the fabric of lives in which joy and tragedy lay side by side.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Disinfecting Edwin at Open Stage Theatre

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2009 at 12:54 PM

I quite liked the premiere production of Amy Hartman's mad, shockingly moving dark comedy. But because CP has already done a formal review (and because the run ended last weekend anyway), I'll just write about what I wanted to write about from the moment I saw it: David Maslow's inspired set.

It's not just that the playing space was claustrophobically small and wackily cluttered -- it was representing a small-town Texas bomb shelter, after all (more accurately, a basement with pretensions to bomb-shelterdom). It's the rumpus room for a half-nuts housewife held hostage by a dubious and anxiety-ridden young woman who's upset (it turns out) over the college professor who's married to one but sleeping only with the other.

Maslow nailed the space from its parquet floor and dark paneling to the exposed ductwork and mock joists hanging above. The centerpiece was a quilted single bed. But what your eyes wanted to search relentlessly were the shelves, full of unsettling quirks, from the mason jars full of mysterious, lozenge-hued liquids to the rows and piles of paperback self-help books that figure into the plot. And the cardboard boxes labeled stuff like "4th of July, 1977" (riffing on something else in the script) and another box full of suggestively empty champagne bottles. The level of detail was such that through the set's lone door was visible an anteroom with a well-used water-heater that was nowhere in the script, just there for atmosphere. Other nice touches: the scant lace curtains on the high, tiny window; the cactus visible outside it; the empty antique birdcage high atop one set of sheet-metal shelves.

The genius of Maslow's scenic design, however, lay not in the cinematic, tactile verisimilitude of what was onstage, but rather in the set's highly theatrical relationship to the seating around it. While upstage was defined by two full-height walls, the remaining two faces of the square -- the ones facing the audience -- were bordered by half-walls we had to peer slightly over. It suggested the boards of an ice-hockey rink. Maslow (OST's artistic director as well as a seasoned scenic designer) thus both emphasized the fictional conflict inside the walls and ratcheted up the voyeurism inherent in a play that strips its characters figuratively naked.

Moreover, while the larger of the two sets of risers was set somewhat decorously back from the stage, the smaller abutted it. I sat in the front row of the latter: The stage began inches from my toes, and the rail at my knees -- made of weathered steel pipe and old 2 x 4s -- further suggested a kind of domestic prison.

Hartman (a Pittsburgher who attended the May 9 final performance) has an unsettling knack for putting her characters' pain into words. "It's embarrassing how much the skin craves to be touched," says the housewife. "Once you know someone's fears, you know everything there is about how to hurt them," says the hostage-taker. By inventively separating the audience from the action, Maslow's set paradoxically brought us closer to that pain.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rescued Afghan Movie at the Warhol

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2009 at 12:14 PM

"The Suitor" is one of a handful of movies a couple of film-lab employees in Kabul saved in 1996, when the Taliban took over and burned everything not to their fundamentalist liking. (That was when they also blew up those giant Buddhas carved in the mountains.) Even a not-very-good-quality video transfer of the 1969 film, screened as part of the museum's May 8 shorts program, offered a fascinating glimpse into a way of life made distant by time as well as a couple of coups, the 1979 Soviet invasion, the Talibs, and the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The 40-minute film, a sort of tragicomic fable, follows a youthful ne'er-do-well as he schemes to win the hand of a young woman, a college student from an affluent family.

Immediately, it's apparent that this is scarcely the country we know (and not just because the video dub of this black-and-white film erratically sped up voices and action). The men are almost exclusively in Western dress of the time, complete with the protagonist's Ringo-circa-'65 sideburns. The young women wear mini-dresses, and a girl whose father wants to marry her off tells her sister, "It's our duty to fight for our rights against these archaic traditions."

Of course, we shouldn't read too much into the fact that there's not a burka in sight; filmmaker Khaleq A'lil was giving us his version of Kabul, after all, not a documentary. He seems to want to show how -- in spite of night clubs where men mix openly with women to the music of a fancy-attired lounge band complete with female singer -- old ways persist.

Bad values, too: The girl and her sister discuss the false promises of happiness material wealth brings. (That was a nice echo of another short the Warhol showed, "Beirut Outtakes," Peggy Ahwesh's expertly edited assemblage of found-film scraps from a Lebanese movie theater, notable for its ad images of chic young 1960s housewives trolling aisles of gleaming appliances.) And the young anti-hero is left out in the cold when it's discovered that the jewel he offered the girl's father as proof of his family's status proves stolen.

Still, it was hard to watch the film without a double-consciousness, comparing what you were seeing on screen to what we know Afghanistan's become. My viewing companion, a photographer who went to Kabul in 2006, was particularly struck that the city streets in "The Suitor" sported trees -- now nowhere to be found. Yet in terms of gender relations, once couldn't fail to note that even in a Westernizing Kabul of 40 years ago, the suitor in this cautionary tale and the object of his affection never once meet face to face.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The State Budget and the Arts

Posted By on Fri, May 8, 2009 at 12:40 PM

It goes without saying that the version of a state budget approved May 6 by the Pennsylvania Senate with zero funding for the arts is a bad idea.

Of course, such proposed budgets are of just first sallies in a longer battle, perhaps even bargaining chips. But as Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts chief Charlie Humphrey told the Post-Gazette earlier this week, this feels like a real threat. The state faces a massive budget shortfall in a down economy, and difficult choices must be made.

With people hungry, homeless and jobless, and other vital services on the chopping block, it might seem tough to argue for funding symphonies and museums, arts education and projects by individual artists. But here's a go: This isn't solely about money, notwithstanding the $14 million in arts-and-culture funding advocates have proposed (itself a substantial drop from the $15.2 million in this year's budget).

As Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk of the Mattress Factory wrote in their open letter to arts advocates, this is "about the gesture being made by some of our State officials that the arts do not deserve even the smallest level of support."

One might even see the budget as a shot across the bow in the never-ending culture wars, which reached a national crescendo two decades back with conservatives yelping about National Endowment for the Arts funding of "obscene" art. (This seems a good place to note that the man who introduced the senate's budget bill, Sen. Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican, was once a top aide to U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.)

People who think the arts should be merely decorative, and avoid directly disturbing anyone's thinking, are more likely to consider the arts disposable, rather than a fundamental part of human culture that needs at least a little help to thrive. If we can't muster $1.10 in tax money per state resident for the arts, we're in even worse shape than it seems.

And ultimately, it is about the money, too. Artists, of course, will always get by -- they'll keep making art because that's what they do. But art organizations might not be so lucky. For most of them, while government funding is only a small part of the budget, many of these groups (like many households) are only a paycheck or two from insolvency.

And bigger funding sources are drying up, too, especially corporate giving. Many groups report that individual donations are down, along with earned revenue from ticket sales and the like. And the foundations whose support is crucial to many groups have watched their endowments dwindle, arts giving is likely to shrink only further. In the next few years, that government money is going to be needed more than ever.

Here's the Save the Arts in Pennsylvania page on Facebook:

Here's another site about supporting government arts funding:

It'll be some weeks before the state legislature finalizes the budget, but it wouldn't hurt for your representatives to hear from you in the meantime.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence's One Shot: Rhapsody in Black & White

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2009 at 3:14 PM

Charles "Teenie" Harris was the artist as photojournalist and vice-versa. The Hill District native might have spent his working life doing studio jobs and, more famously, on assignment for the Pittsburgh Courier. But his workaday documentation was also a huge -- perhaps unparalleled -- statement about a diverse and vibrant community. Many of the shots were posed, but the tens of thousands of negatives credited to him, and now owned by the Carnegie Library, offer a rich counternarrative to the racial stereotypes about blacks that pervaded mass culture before and since.

Thus, one of many satisfactions of this dance performance, which got its Pittsburgh premiere at the Byham last Saturday. Acclaimed New York-based choreographer Brown understands that a primary value of Harris's images lies in the commonplace nature of the people and places they depict.

The photos were light on the famous jazz musicians and athletes he also shot from the 1930s to the 1970s. In fact, Brown's selections weren't even that heavy on Harris's most famous images of ordinary folks (a notable exception being that one of the tiny boy with the giant boxing gloves). A majority, instead, were along the lines of the smiling diner waittress, a pencil behind her ear, whose image opened and closed the jazzy "Free Spirits" section of Act I: Regular people whose dignity and personality "One Shot" Harris gave a moment in the sun of his single flash bulb.

Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture and other groups had commissioned Brown to build a show around Harris' photos, and to set it to music primarily by Pittsburgh-affiliated musicians. It's hard fault with the music, which ranged from Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal to Mary Lou Williams, Lena Horne and Phyllis Hyman. And Brown and his dancers certainly didn't disappoint. The solos, duets and group numbers beautifully combined the grounded style of traditional African dance with modern and ballet movement.

Big gestures were the norm. Brown himself exemplified this in his solo in before a montage of photos of children. His movements suggested a mixture of joy and praise, even as he occasionally halted simply to gaze at a projected image. Passages performed by various permutations of the company, wearing olive-drab outfits recalling military fatigues, followed. Images of everything from the dapper Harris himself to a funeral, and folks day-tripping in a park were the backdrop. Bedraggled street urchins (black and white); a woman at sedan-side, dressed to the nines; a street panorama with hulking mid-century automobiles, streetcar tracks and storfronts; and a 1966 anti-job-discrimination picket on (I think) Downtown's Smithfield Street were all in the mix.

At times, admittedly, the photos and dancers competed for viewers' attention -- especially the occasional mystifying image, like one of two sets of males, one consisting of adults and the other of children, side by side and each carrying size-appropriate white coffins. You wanted to search the frame for clues -- but you didn't want to miss the dancers, either. It was almost a relief during a couple passages when the screen went violet and you could just watch the dancers.

The show's tactic of zooming in and out of large images was sometime effective -- how else would we have seen the hilarious expressions on the faces of two young women in a back row of a group shot from Rodman Street Baptist Church? Other times, the show's tendency to section photos into "floating" heads and individual figures seemed a betrayal of Harris' photojournalism, severing them from their necessary context. It felt like we were getting whole bodies on stage and partial photographs on the screen.

Overall, though, what emerged powerfully -- through the costuming and repeated motifs of music and movement -- is the sense of a culture building on itself, inventing new forms of expression while somehow incorporating the old. That felt fully stated, and a fitting tribute to Harris' multidecade career.


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