11 December 2017

"Those Guys"

by Bilge Ebiri

[Bilge Ebiri’s “Those Guys” is an article (originally published in T: The New York Times Style Magazine on 3 December 2017) about “character actors” in cinema.  Indeed, its on-line version is entitled “The New Generation of Character Actors.”  (We’ll see that the application of the term is slightly different in stage work.)  What does the phrase actually mean?  It’s sometimes tossed about by moviegoers and reviewers—casting directors and agents sometimes use it, but actors seldom do—in such a cavalier way that its meaning is no longer clear.  It did once have a fairly concrete use, but it was a term used almost exclusively inside the theater world—before there was such a thing as a film industry, much less television.

[Back when theaters were all “repertory companies” with standing corps of actors who would play different parts in each play, often changing roles from one day to the next, the troupes had to have actors to cover all the possible parts for each new script.  There would be lots of doubling, of course, with some actors playing more than one role in the play, but the principal parts all had to be covered every afternoon.  Theaters didn’t put out a call for auditions and cast new actors for each production like they do now; every troupe had a permanent company of actors on which to draw for all the roles.  So, to cover all the possible parts of a play in an Elizabethan or Jacobean theater, the company was composed of actors of several designated “types” or categories.  This, in fact, is the origin of the concept of “typecasting,” a system which was formalized and codified in the mid-19th century—although the word has shifted in meaning since the practice ceased in the middle of the 20th century.

[The actors who played the Richards, Henrys, Macbeths, Benedicks, Hamlets, and so on, were the leading actors.  Younger and less-experienced actors in this category also played the Parises, Macduffs, Claudios, Laerteses, and similar  parts.   (After the Restoration in England, when women were permitted to appear on stage, the designation of Leading Man and Leading Lady came into being.  All the categories expanded to include complementary types for each gender.)  The roles of children and youths (and, in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater when women were prohibited from acting in public, female roles) were played by the juveniles (later ingénues for women and girls). 

[Nearly all other roles were played by character actors—Character Men and Character Women after women were permitted to act—whether they were older people, comic figures, or unusual or even fantasy characters.  Out of this came the tradition that character actors and actresses played a variety of parts of very different appearances, often altering their physical looks with make-up, prostheses, and costuming.  It also began the tradition that character actors were often unrecognizable from play to play, role to role, and that off stage, spectators didn’t know who they were.

[In the days of typecasting in the theater, it was largely true that character actors were “strictly supporting performers,” as Ebiri observes, but that hasn’t always been true in the world of film and, especially, television.  Many of the lead characters in film and later TV have been character parts: think of the roles played by Margaret Rutherford, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, David Warner, Lynn Redgrave, Sidney Poitier, Dustin Hoffman, Richard. Dreyfuss, Paul Giamatti, Jane Lynch, Frances McDormand, and so many others who have played the main role or an important featured part in many films and TV shows.  Donald Sutherland, arguably the ultimate character actor, was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile last Sunday.  (Few TV series could even air without the character actors filling the title/lead roles, from Telly Savalas’s Kojak, Peter Falk’s Columbo, and Sharon Gless’s and Tyne Daly’s Cagney and Lacy to Anthony Anderson’s Andre Johnson Sr. on Black-ish, William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher on Shameless, James Spader’s Raymond Reddington on The Blacklist, and Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson on Mr. Robot.)   

[Ebiri defines character players as “actors who immersed themselves fully in their roles, often using realistic makeup to become unrecognizable.”  That’s a fair description, but very limiting.  Today, character actors don’t often use extensive make-up like, say, the Lon Cheneys, père et fils.  Indeed, some of the best film actors of the last couple of generations have been essentially character actors trapped in the bodies of leading men and women: think Maggie Smith, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Meryl Streep.  The closest definition I found that sums up what I think of as character acting is quoted in an on-line article called “Treacherous Terminology: Just what is a character actor?”; it’s from the talk page of the Wikipedia entry for “Character actor”:

Character acting occurs when an actor makes a significant physical, vocal, external and/or psych[o]logical adjustment from the actor’s primary persona.  This is in contrast to personality acting, where an actor simply uses their habitual persona while they act.

[It has little to do with the visibility of the role, its significance to the movie, but with the degree to which the actor disappears into the part.  One of the greatest actors of the English-speaking world in the 20th century, who played Shakespeare’s Richards, Henrys, and Hamlets, was a character actor of some distinction: Laurence Olivier (1907-89).  You need only see him do Archie Rice in the 1960 film adaptation of John Osborne’s The Entertainer.  It’s the very definition of character acting in the cinema.]

Character actors were once strictly supporting performers, their faces identifiable if unmemorable. Now, though, a new generation has emerged as essential players in a rapidly changing Hollywood.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Ryan Reynolds’s character, a loner named Curtis, says to Ben Mendelsohn’s poker fiend Gerry, early on in the 2015 gambling drama “Mississippi Grind.” “How much do you owe?”

“A lot,” Gerry replies.

“To who?” Curtis asks.

Gerry looks around, gestures weakly at the bar and whispers, “Everyone.” Mendelsohn draws out this line, cracking a proud little smile, which transforms into a nervous grimace — as if he’s sharing a secret better left unsaid. It’s one of the most impressive eight seconds of film acting in recent years; with a single word, an actor pulls us into his character’s anguished world.

All actors play characters, of course, but only some are called “character actors.” The term is contentious — performers rarely use it to describe their peers — yet it has persisted for more than a century. It first became common in 19th-century theater criticism to discuss actors who immersed themselves fully in their roles, often using realistic makeup to become unrecognizable. By the 1930s, the term had changed in Hollywood to refer to entertainers who played specific types: Walter Brennan as the leathery old codger, Ward Bond as the avuncular authority figure. “Many character actors had created their archetypes in vaudeville or theater,” says Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum. “Hollywood was turning out so many movies that character actors allowed for a kind of shorthand — you didn’t need a lot of exposition. It’s why films of that era are so breezy.”

These men also injected a note of humanity into what would otherwise have been broad, even stock, roles. “You recognize something concrete in them,” wrote the critic Gilbert Seldes in a 1934 Esquire essay, “The Itsy-Bitsy Actors.” Unlike a movie’s charismatic leads, character actors could be “rude, violent, ironic, mean, brutal and mocking. They say what the audience often feels.” For this, they didn’t go unnoticed — Brennan won three Best Supporting Actor Oscars from 1936 to 1940, a feat no actor has since matched. By the 1980s, the definition of a character actor again had shifted, this time to include supporting players who were familiar without being famous: people like Jon Polito, Vincent Schiavelli, Xander Berkeley. (Don’t recognize their names? Google their faces.) Occasionally, if he stuck around long enough, a character actor became an institution unto himself; look no further than the tributes to Harry Dean Stanton — known for playing grizzled oddballs — when he died in September.

Now, the concept of a character actor is changing once more. Over the past decade, a new kind of performer has risen, one defined by his skill and versatility. Men like Mendelsohn, J.K. Simmons, Don Cheadle, Michael Shannon and Andy Serkis are among the most prolific working artists today — in-demand and highly lauded — but they are the opposite of what character actors used to be: Instead of playing types, they are hired for their ability to play no type at all, to disappear into roles completely while at the same time imbuing their performances with something memorable; they are chameleons in the truest sense of that word. A character actor — as opposed to a celebrity — never plays himself, nor does he display his ego onscreen or accept the same kind of part year after year. Between them, these actors have taken on everything from a sadistic music teacher (Simmons in 2014’s “Whiplash,” for which he won an Oscar) to a flamboyant bounty hunter (Mendelsohn in 2015’s “Slow West”) to actual famous people (Shannon’s Elvis Presley in 2016’s “Elvis & Nixon”) to famous fictional non-people (Serkis’s Gollum in 2001-03’s “Lord of the Rings” series). The weirder and more singular the role, the more unforgettable the actor stands to become.

These performers may not be conventionally handsome, nor are they truly household names, but audiences increasingly seek them out, in parts large and small, in projects that vary from billion-dollar blockbusters to tiny, barely seen indies. Their talent (often grounded by early careers in theater) is matched by their ubiquity across platforms, from movies to television, to plays, to voice-over work for video games, even to the occasional insurance commercial. Hollywood has always run on journeymen, but it’s these actors who have replaced movie stars as the essential human labor in cinema. That’s because celebrities can no longer be monetized the way they had been in the past: “Movie stars have become an endangered species,” was how Peter Bart, a journalist and former Paramount executive, predicted this shift in a 2014 essay in Variety, noting that a performer’s inherent adaptability was becoming more valuable — for the actor and the producers — than star power itself. Character actors, who take on several projects simultaneously and are therefore accustomed to building diversified careers, can still become successful even if some of those choices end up being blunders. “Historically, these guys have always been the workers,” says Susan Shopmaker, a veteran casting director. “When they’re not pigeonholed, they can fit into lots of places.”

While there are many forces behind the rise of such performers, chief among them is the implosion of Hollywood’s star system over the past two decades. The unchecked increase in movie-star salaries in the 1980s and 1990s led to a reckoning throughout the 2000s, as expensive talents like Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy released films that vastly underperformed. Even Will Smith — once considered infallible — has struggled to achieve anything approaching the box-office triumphs of his mid-’90s heyday. Studios didn’t respond to these deficits by cutting budgets, though; instead, they pursued increasingly extravagant franchises, many of which were engineered solely to manufacture new celebrities to replace the outdated models. These films varied in quality — some were admittedly entertaining — but they were formulaic when it came to plotting and casting.

That uniformity, however, made it easier to market these movies to a global audience, so even the weakest entry in an established series could gross astronomical sums. (This year’s example is “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which opened to execrable reviews, but still earned $795 million worldwide.) And as franchises continued to dominate Hollywood, the financing for serious, midbudget dramas, the sort that enthrall critics and discerning audiences, decreased with each year, making it less likely that big stars would appear in them; they were too busy doing the work of becoming global celebrities. Instead, it was the character actors, men like William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti, who took their places. Such actors “have more control, in terms of being creative and pursuing fulfilling work,” Shopmaker says, “rather than worrying about whether projects are big enough for their careers.” As the nature of celebrity changed, so too did the domestic definition of a movie star.

Over the course of this great fragmentation in the film industry — a system increasingly divided between major-studio blockbusters that are announced a decade in advance at shareholder meetings and tiny indies that often disappear after a week in theaters — character actors have only moved further into the mainstream. In lower-budget projects, they are cast in complicated leading roles that win them acclaim; in mega-films (especially superhero ones), they are relied upon for their ability to bring soul to underwritten, potentially clichéd parts: Cheadle is mesmerizing in what is essentially a glorified sidekick role in this decade’s Marvel “Avengers” films; Mendelsohn brought a uniquely weasel-like quality to the one-dimensional villain of 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’; Shannon was unusually stirring as the nutty interplanetary invader General Zod in 2013’s “Man of Steel.” In an era in which the authentic — in food, in fashion, in social media — feels increasingly elusive, these men, all of whom have been working for decades, don’t feel fake (Hollywood’s favorite epithet), but slow-grown and purposeful. Especially when compared to those we call “leading men,” beautiful vessels who all compete for the same few superlative parts, yet seem more naïve and distant from reality with each passing role.

Indeed, what truly defines a character actor is that he “makes the person he plays feel approachable,” says Avy Kaufman, the casting director of “The Sixth Sense” and “Life of Pi.” (Stars, by contrast, are never approachable: Even when they play imperfect people, there’s something perfect about them.) And in the absence of new models in Hollywood, audiences and critics alike have anointed these character actors as the emotional anchors of an otherwise mundane two hours. That holds true even when they aren’t playing actual humans: In Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performance as Caesar, the simian protagonist of this decade’s “Planet of the Apes” series, he is completely transformed into an ape using CGI. But Serkis makes Caesar’s conflict — his rage toward humans versus his need to preserve his tribe — terrifyingly real.

There’s one other reason character actors are ascendant right now: When Hollywood stopped producing scripts of real merit, veteran filmmakers and screenwriters began making “prestige” television, which inadvertently became a training ground for these actors, much as theater once was. “I like to say that television is about character and movies are about story,” says Keith Gordon, an ’80s-era character actor who now directs television, including “Homeland” and “Better Call Saul.” “With a film, you ask, ‘What’s going to happen?’ With a TV show, you ask, ‘What’s going to happen to this character I like?’ ” Only great actors — those like Mendelsohn, who won a Lead Actor Emmy last year for his role in Netflix’s “Bloodline” — can bring the required depth to roles that are meant to encourage binge-watching: hours, if not days, spent with a character (and a person) who must be compelling enough to sustain the audience’s interest and emotional engagement.

Perhaps this isn’t so different from The Itsy-Bitsy Actors that Seldes eulogized almost a century ago. They, too, had the ability to break through the confines of the screen to present feelings that were recognizably human. Yet those original character actors offered a brief respite from the uniformity of Hollywood’s dream machine — they supported the stars, helped them tell their stories. Today, it’s the character actors who viewers remember long after the rest has faded to black. And the only thing these supporting players are supporting is the weight of the industry itself.

[Two comments about this article that I believe should be noted.  First: it’s exclusively about character men; Ebiri mentions no character women at all.  Yet they not only exist, both now and in the past, but many of the best actresses on the screen are character actors:  Margaret Rutherford, Margaret Hamilton, Ruby Dee, Judi Dench, Mary Tyler Moore, Cicely Tyson, Meryl Streep, Taraji P. Henson, Melissa McCarthy, and many others.

[The second remark I feel needs to be made is that Ebiri has also restricted his discussion of character acting to film.  The phenomenon goes back, as I said in my introduction, to the beginning of professional theater in the English-speaking world in the Elizabethan era—and it continues on Western stages till today.  Most stage training, beginning with Stanislavsky’s System and including Lee Strasberg’s Method and Uta Hagen’s acting technique along with almost all other programs, focuses on character acting.  Most of my favorite actors, especially in the musical field, have been the character performers (Ray Walston, Howard Da Silva, Stubby Kaye, Tom Bosley, Stanley Anderson, Robert Prosky, Richard Bauer—three Arena Stage actors I first saw as a boy in Washington, D.C.—Virginia Capers,.Lois Smith, Michael Countryman) —maybe because that’s what I was, even though I didn’t know that until years after I began seeing plays.  It’s what I wanted to be: I didn’t want to play Hamlet or Romeo; I wanted to play Iago and Richard III!

[Bilge Ebiri, who studied film at Yale University, is a journalist and filmmaker.  In 2003 he wrote, directed, and co-produced the low-budget feature film New Guy, released in 2004.  After positive reviews in the New York Times and Variety, the film had a successful theatrical run in New York City and was released on DVD in 2005 by Vanguard Cinema.]

06 December 2017

'Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale'

When I got the brochure for the fall season at 59E59 Theaters over the summer and went over the offerings with Diana, my frequent theater partner, she glommed onto an odd little show called Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale, described in the brochure promo this way: “Through the exploration of identity and the piecing together of lives torn apart by war, TOYS ultimately asks what it means to belong.”  This caught Diana’s attention and, though I had reservations, I figured the seats were only $25, so why not give it a shot?  (This was the same brochure from which Diana selected The Violin, my report on which was posted on Rick On Theater on 22 October.)  

I’ve learned over the years now that Diana is susceptible to the hype of promotional prose and ad quotations, at least in theater listings.  I keep reminding her that those little capsule descriptions are composed—and the ad quotations are selected and edited—by theater employees charged with selling her tickets, but she keeps falling for them.  (Following the performance of the execrable pseudo-mystery play Perfect Crime, which had been an impulse-buy so we never read any advanced publicity before buying the tickets, Diana wondered how the ads quoted on the flyer could be so enthusiastic, considering what we’d just seen.  I tried to explain that the ad excerpts were carefully selected, sometimes even out of context—skirting the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs prohibition of that sort of tactic—to give a false impression.  I’d been at a loss on how to write up Perfect Crime until then: I decided to look at how such an awful play could get produced Off-Broadway and stay on the boards for 25 years.  My report on that phenomenon was posted on 5 February 2011.)

I, on the other hand, seem to have a sixth-sense ability to read those promos and get a feeling for whether the show’s likely to be good or bad; I discovered this minor talent when I was trying to be an actor and read casting notices in Back Stage and Show Business.  My intuition warned me about this play, but I deferred to Diana’s wish and we booked the show for Friday night, 24 November, the day after Thanksgiving, at 8:15.  It turned out, my instincts were golden.

Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale by Saviana Stanescu was commissioned and created by J.U.S.T. Toys Productions as “a platform for multicultural theater artists with Eastern European roots.”  Stanescu composed several different versions of this play, going back at least to 2011, following immigrants from Eastern Europe to the U.S. with starkly different experiences.  Earlier productions of Toys ran as long as 70 minutes to as short as 50 (depending, I gather, on how much director Gábor Tompa cut or how much visual imagery he inserted); according to one report, there was also an earlier, “more fleshed-out script with many characters,” but Tompa recommended a two-character “rendition in order to explore the duality of human nature.”  

The final version of play premièred at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles from 6 November to 13 December 2015 before coming to New York City.  In between, it played at the Interferences International Theater Festival in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, at the Hungarian Theater of Cluj (director Tompa’s home theater) from 8 to 26 November 2016, and as a special program selection of the Contemporary Drama Festival, Katona Jozsef Theater, Budapest, Hungary, 9 and 10 December 2016.  Toys was also presented at the Avignon Theater Festival in France from 7 to 30 July 2017.  It opened at 59E59 in Midtown on the East Side of Manhattan in Theater B on 8 November 2017 and closed on 26 November.  

The play is something of a vanity production in that the producers—that is, the founders of J.U.S.T. Toys—are also the two cast members of Toys.  (Director Tompa, who believes in auteur directing, also seems to have had a strong hand in shaping the final script.  He even recommended Stanescu, with whom Tompa has a long-time professional relationship, to the company’s founders when they were looking for “a small scale text” to produce.)  Tunde Skovran and Julia Ubrankovics, according to their own program notes, are both 34-year-old actresses of Eastern European origin living in Los Angeles. (Skovran was born in the Transylvania region of Romania and Ubrankovics comes from Hungary.)  

J.U.S.T. Toys Productions (a name chosen when the troupe decided to produce Stanescu’s play), by its own statement, “produces passionate and provocative theatrical experiences by inviting outstanding professionals from Europe to collaborate with American theater makers” in order to “initiate cross-cultural discussions, foster collaborations, and enrich their community with a diverse cultural heritage.”  The company’s only previous production seems to have been María Irene Fornés’s Fefu and Her Friends in May this year in L.A. (in which Skovran and Ubrankovics were among the cast).  J.U.S.T. Toys’ New York production of Toys was presented with the support of the Romanian Culture Institute in New York.

Saviana Stanescu, born in 1967 (on Washington’s birthday!) in Bucharest, Romania, is an award-winning Romanian-American poet, playwright, and journalist whose work has been seen in the U.S and internationally.  She was a college student (in computer science) in 1989 when she participated in the Romanian Revolution that overthrew Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and then worked as a journalist in post-communist Romania.  With a Fulbright Fellowship from the U.S. embassy in Bucharest, she came to New York City in 2001, just two weeks before 9/11.  She is currently the New York State Council on the Arts playwright-in-residence for New York City’s Women’s Project, writer-in-residence of Richard Schechner’s East Coast Artists, and Director of the New Drama Program for the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York (which sponsored the New York presentation of Toys).  She taught in the Drama Department of New York University’s Tisch School of Arts and is currently a faculty member in the Department of Theatre Arts at Ithaca College, where she teaches script analysis and playwriting.  Stanescu moved to Ithaca in 2013 after a dozen years as a playwright and part-time professor at NYU.  She holds an MA in Performance Studies (Fulbright Fellow) and an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Tisch, and a PhD in Theatre Studies from the National University of Theatre & Film in Bucharest. 

Stanescu has published four books of poetry and three of drama, including Waxing West (2007 New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Full-length Script) and The Inflatable Apocalypse (Best Play of the Year UNITER Award in 2000).  Her play White Embers was a Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival winner in 2008.  An important question for the playwright, she explains, is whether she did the right thing by leaving her home country.  Does she now inhabit a new land she calls “In-between” and was “moving” into speaking and writing English the right decision? “Since I moved to the U.S.,” says Stanescu, “I’ve been interested in exploring living between two cultures and how you negotiate between the old values and the new.”  We’ll see that these years-old statements are still applicable in Toys.

Gábor Tompa is an internationally-known Romanian-Hungarian theater and film director, poet, essayist, and teacher born in 1957 in Romania.  Born into a totalitarian world just after the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev crushed the 1956 uprising in neighboring Hungary, just 100 miles west, Tomba began early to espouse subversive ideas.  He turned to theater as a way to express these thoughts in a veiled way.  “I hoped and believed that theatre can be a force of opposition,” he’s said, “because its language can be metaphorical and not explicit.”  That sounds like the philosophy of every East  European theater pro in the Cold War era from Janusz Glowacki of Poland to Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia to Russians Yuri Lyubimov and Mark Rozovsky—as well as Athol Fugard and Mbongeni Ngema of South Africa in their fight against apartheid.  For Romanian artists, Tompa explained, the way was “to express themselves in metaphoric ways which were visually strong.” 

Tompa, who adopted U.S. citizenship a few years ago (while retaining his Romanian nationality), studied stage and film directing at the I. L. Caragiale Theater and Film Academy in Bucharest, graduating in 1981; he was a student of Liviu Ciulei, Mihai Dimiu, and Cătălina Buzoianu, founders of the world-famous Romanian school of stage directing.  Since then, the director’s staged plays at the Hungarian Theater of Cluj, the unofficial capital of Transylvania that’s equidistant from Bucharest; Budapest, Hungary; and Belgrade, Serbia (then the capital of Yugoslavia).  (The Cluj theater is the oldest Hungarian theater company in the world, formed in 1792.)  In 1987 he became the artistic director of the company and after the 1989 Romanian Revolution, Tompa became the managing director of the theater as well.  He has staged more than 100  plays and produced others in a variety of languages in Europe, South Korea, Canada, and the United States in addition to Romania and Hungary.  In 2007, the director founded and served as artistic director of the biennial Interferences International Theatre Festival in Cluj.  

Tompa’s taught classes and workshops and run theater programs for actors and directors in many countries in Europe and across the globe.  A sweeping change to Europe’s higher-education system (known as the Bologna Process), initiated beginning in 1999, clashed with the director’s strongly-held philosophy of teaching directing, however, and he left his home country—with which he maintains strong ties nonetheless—and found a new artistic home for this practices in California.  From 2007 to 2015, he was head of the directing program at the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, San Diego, where he continues to teach directing classes. 

When Diana and I left the theater after the performance, she asked me if I would be writing about it.  I explained that when I launched ROT back in 2009, I had made myself a promise that I’d report on every play I see—and so far I mostly have.  (The few exceptions have been performances or readings by people I know or was working with.  It was impolitic—and too uncomfortable for me—to write about those shows.)  Then I confessed to Diana that this play may be the one to defeat me.  I almost gave up on one long-ago New York Fringe performance, and the afore-mentioned Perfect Crime almost didn’t make a blog report—but I came upon an approach both times that made it possible to write about them; Toys seemed like another one I couldn’t get my writing mind around.  Now, a day or so later, after working on a couple of other ROT projects, I think I can give it a go.  I did need some help with a synopsis of the script, however.  (I cribbed some of it!  Don’t tell anyone, okay?)

Stanescu’s 55-minute, one-act play opened at 59E59 on a minimalist set, designed by director Tompa (who also designed the lighting and the show’s soundscape and composed the original music), made up of a stage with a completely white back wall and a white square floor.  (59E59’s Theater B only seats 97 and the small stage is just 24½ feet wide by 15½ feet deep.)  There was nothing else on stage but a video camera on a tripod and what looked like a fax machine or computer printer down right.  (There were sounds of an old-style dot-matrix printer working between scenes.)  The actors sat on the floor, sometimes cross-legged in the middle of the stage, sometimes leaning against the back wall with their legs straight in front of them.  Tompa’s lighting threw the actors’ shadows, enlarged and often in multiples, on the rear wall and his sound design included portentous noises and original compositions, along with a mix of both classical and modern music excerpts.

As the pure, white lights came up at the opening, a pretty, young blond woman was lying on the floor in something of a fetal configuration, holding a stuffed teddy bear while a woman dressed in black leather and wearing dark glasses stood motionless against the wall at stage left.  (As Steven Ross observed on Front Mezz Junkies, “It definitely brings a creepy edge to the proceedings . . . .”)  Unfolding in not only a non-linear manner, but also alogically, Toys focuses on Clara (Ubrankovics), the young blond woman, adopted as a child from Eastern Europe by an American couple.  As an adult, she’s a doctoral candidate at NYU finishing her dissertation about women in war zones.  Her research brings her together with a recent immigrant, Madonna (Skovran), the menacing-looking woman in black, who’s from Clara’s native country and whom Clara wishes to interview.  Madonna, though, has met with Clara to tell her that they’re, in fact, sisters who were separated when Clara—originally named Fatma—was adopted and taken to the U.S. as a baby.  (I was never sure if this was true or a fantasy of Madonna’s—a nickname she adopted but later discards for her birth name, Shari—that Clara buys into.  It wasn’t the last bit in the play that confused me, and I also never sorted out if this was a response Stanescu—or Tompa—wanted from the audience.  It is a “fairy tale,” after all.)

Clara/Fatma was raised in the safe confines of Connecticut (while toiling in the ivory towers of academe and planning her idyllic, suburban wedding) whereas Madonna/Shari has lived in the fictional, war-ravaged country of Karvystan (there are hints that Shari is Muslim or that the population of Karvystan, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, is divided) under constant threat and danger.  While Clara was being coddled in comfort and security, Shari was forced to give up being an English teacher in the capital of Galajevo to “volunteer” as a nurse whose principal duty was to wash the bodies (and unidentified body parts) of the dead and prepare them for burial.  The two women have had diametrically different life—and immigrant—experiences.  This dichotomy is, perhaps, symbolized by the fact that Clara/Fatma is mostly dressed in white (or very light colors like pale blue) and Madonna/Shari wears black leather.  (On stage, Ubrankovics, who vaguely resembles actress Cynthia Nixon, wore her blond hair in a wavy bob, while Skovran’s dark hair was cut in a boyish style.  The costumes were designed by Elisa Benzoni—the only designer who wasn’t Gábor Tompa.)  Soon Shari accuses Clara of having forgotten her roots and when Clara rejects the suggestion, Shari terrorizes her by tearing the heads off Clara’s collection of little rubber dolls while mimicking a conversation in eerie voices between their parents about sending little Fatma to America.  (Shari, by the way, carries a hand grenade around with her.  She produces it a short time into the play.)

As different as Clara and Shari are, through a series of surrealistic and symbolic interactions, often wordless and dance-like (Skovran especially is either a dancer or has acrobatic training), the women come to an accommodation.  In the end, they participate in a mock wedding, wearing long, ratty, black wigs and do-it-yourself wedding gowns made from white plastic bags (some inflated with air to serve as sort of make-shift farthingales.  There’s even a groom or parson in the form of an anthropomorphic dummy.

Stanescu writes often—nearly exclusively, it seems—about immigrants and immigrating; she and all her principal collaborators on Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale are relatively recent immigrants, some permanent residents in the United States and some who split their time between here and abroad.  Indeed, Tompa introduced Stanescu to Skovran and Ubrankovics “because of their passion and their interest in the subject of immigration, which is of personal and political importance to the director,” and the playwright “is herself an immigrant and is interested in this subject.”  Of course, the experiences of immigrants in the U.S. isn’t a new topic in American theater; I think immediately of David Henry Hwang, the son of Chinese immigrants, whose body of work centers on plays about Chinese arrivals coping with adjusting to and often struggling against the ways of their new home.  (I’ve posted performance reports on several of Hwang’s plays: The Dance and the Railroad, 17 March 2013; Golden Child, 9 December 2013; and Kung Fu, 11 March 2014.)

Toys “ultimately asks what it means to belong,” according to the show’s PR.  The playwright has said of the two immigrants in the play:

They have such different experiences. . . .  One is from the West, and one is from the East. . . .  [One] was raised in a country like the U.S. with everything there, with loving parents and everything she needed in terms of education and material needs, and the other one lives in a country torn by wars. . . .  My idea was to bring these two women together.  They confront each other, but then they discover that they share a secret.  They share something.

Tompa has his own perspective on what the play’s about:

The immigrant tries to take a new identity and get rid of the old one.  That doesn’t really work.  In order to be able to go further, I think we have to face and confront our past.  Sometimes, the more we try to get rid of it or deny it, the more it starts to haunt us.  Follow us.  We have to make peace with the former identity, our roots, and our traditions.

He continues in a more universal vein:

One of the problems this play talks about is not assuming.  We are wearing a couple of masks all the time.  In a Freudian way, we lose our real identity.  Because of these masks we get frustrated, or we [become] scared of our own real identity.  This play talks about trying to run away from that identity, instead of integrating it into everyday reality, which is always changing.

“I like to say that initially I wrote the play for these two women as two separate characters,” the playwright remarks, “one coming from a war-torn country, one from the U.S, and now it’s very interesting.”  Reinforcing a frequent interpretation of the play, Stanescu adds: “Now . . . [the] nightmarish confrontation may be with yourself as an immigrant, as a person born in another country, as a person who is still trying to belong here in the U.S.”  Are the two characters Clara and Shari avatars of the same person, perhaps a mind on the verge of disintegrating?  Director Tompa seems to confirm this interpretation: “The characters, at least as I look at them, are almost not two characters, but two sides of the same character.”  I can’t say one way or the other myself, but several theater writers have concluded so (see Howard Miller’s review for Talkin’ Broadway, summarized below). 

My problem, however, wasn’t with the subject matter, but that the play and production were full of hints, symbols, and smoke screens.  What Stanescu or Tomba say in interviews (as I’ve remarked about program notes) is all well and good, but if it’s not on the stage, if I can’t see it in performance, it’s just claptrap.  It’s even worse, I think, when the playwright or director (or both) expressly set out to obfuscate their point, to bury it in theatricality and showmanship (or showing off, as it may be).  My response, when I feel I’m being manipulated for the purpose of deliberately confusing me, is to shut down.  I get pissed off and lose interest in the project.  (And, no, I’m not a fan of Harold Pinter’s work for the most part.)  That’s what happened to me at Toys.  To put it bluntly, the play’s just too peculiar, too self-indulgent.  I felt like I was watching some over-indulged children let loose in a roomful of toys (no pun intended) and allowed to play however they wanted without adult supervision while Mommy and Daddy (ummm—those would be some of the reviewers I’ve encountered on line) uttered encouragement and compliments from the sidelines.  Me, I say the emperor has no clothes!

I’m not going to say much about the performances in Toys—I can’t really: I don’t know what anyone was really doing.  I assume that Skovran and Ubrankovics did what Stanescu and Tompa wanted them to do, and must have done it to the playwright’s and director’s satisfaction because they all stayed together for all the months and even years during which the play was developed and performed before reaching New York City.  As far as I can tell, the four creative people formed a little mutual-admiration society, and it seems to work for them—if not for me.  I don’t know if Toys is typical of the work of any of them, or if this collaboration is a one-off effort.  I don’t know the work of any of the artists, but they all have substantial credits (many accompanied by glowing reviews), both abroad and in the United States.  Then again, maybe that emperor’s been walking around naked for some time.

The press coverage of Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale was minimal—the New York Times, which usually covers almost everything, didn’t publish a review, and neither did any other New York print outlet—but, unlike the two Lincoln Center Festival performances I saw this summer (While I Was Waitingreported on 1 August 2017, and To the End of the Land, 6 August), there was a round-up on Show-Score.  The review site included several notices from the L.A. première of Toys in its tally of 12 published reviews, so I recalculated the site’s results based solely on the New York coverage.  For seven reviews, the average rating came out to 69, moderately low from my observation.  The highest score was a single 90 (Broadway World), backed up by one 85 (TheaterScene.net); the lowest score was Theatre’s Leiter Side’s 45.  The breakdown for the seven local notices was 43% positive, 43% mixed, and 14% negative.  While the L.A. press was apparently kinder to Toys, with Show-Score giving those reviews four 75 ratings and an 85, raising the site’s average score to 70 with 67% positive notices, the local notices were all over the field.  Because there were so few New York reviews, I’ll be including all seven cited by Show-Score in my survey; I found no additional coverage that Show-Score didn’t include in its calculations.

All the New York reviews were on websites, as I affirmed above.  On Broadway World (the highest-rated notice), Marina Kennedy called Toys “an engaging play, one that stirs the imagination.”  She labeled the play an “adult fairy tale,” reporting that it “is completely original as [it] merges reality and fantasy in surreal settings.”  Kennedy also deemed that Skovran and Ubrankovics “excel in their demanding roles as they master both the dialogue and the action of the show's enthralling scenes.”  The BWW reviewer asserted that the performance “is an inventive show that challenges ideas about people’s backgrounds and lifestyles” and concluded that Toys “is truly an unforgettable production.”

At the other end of the Show-Score scale (the lowest rating at 45), Samuel L. Leiter, reminding us on his blog, Theatre’s Leiter Side, that he has “a friend who compiles an annual list of plays under the rubric ‘Bombs of the Year,’” declared, “Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale is a ripe contender although, given its subject matter, it should probably be ‘Grenade of the Year.’”  (That’s a reference to the hand grenade Shari carries with her.)  Leiter signaled his displeasure with this anecdote:

It’s been a while since I exited a production only to run into people standing right outside the door complaining about what they’d just seen, or for another critic, someone I barely know, anxious to tell me that his review will express his gratitude that the play was only 50 minutes long.  I had that same thought myself.

Characterizing Toys as “an antiwar play,” the TLS blogger acknowledged that both actresses “deserve kudos for their strong and valiant work on behalf of a play . . . whose appeal, reportedly, is strong for some but seriously knotty for most others.”  He found, though: “If a play is going to seek universal understanding and compassion for a serious problem, it will have to do better than that.”  Leiter had problems with all the information that the script doesn’t provide, concluding, “We must, I imagine, remember that this is ‘A Dark Fairy Tale’ and forget logical considerations.”  He went on to say, “However much this loose narrative seems to make sense of a sort on the page, regardless of the many huge expositional gaps it exposes, in performance it often becomes indecipherable.”  He put the blame for this on director Tompa, who “has given [the production] a radically theatricalized, nonrealistic, surrealistic, avant-garde staging that diminishes whatever it’s saying by drawing attention away from content to style.”  After describing the mock wedding scene as “dancing around like asylum inmates,” Leiter summed up his estimation of Toys with these words:

Assuredly, there are metaphorical explanations that exist for the women’s experiences and relationship, and one could even assume that Shari/Madonna and Clara/Fatma are projections of a single personality.  These, however, are irrelevant when you’re watching a play that seeks to evoke awareness of and sensitivity to dilemmas concerning immigration, war, violence, and family disruption.

This isn’t to say some won’t find the production and its subject engrossing, and even comprehensible.  But for those who find themselves wishing even a 50-minute running time were shorter, it’s not likely they’ll want to spend more time trying to find a cerebral explanation for what should be a visceral response.

On Front Mezz Junkies, Steven Ross (who uses only his last name in his byline) called Toys “a complicated creature to digest.”  He explained: “It begs us to try to dissect the feast of abstractionisms served up in this short 65-minute piece.”  (Note: estimations of the running time of this play at 59E59 varied anywhere from Leiter’s 50 minutes to Ross’s 65.  Possibly it varied from performance to performance.  I timed it at 55 minutes.)  The FMJ reviewer characterized the play as a “convoluted dissertation of what it means to be a woman in a war-torn country as opposed to one removed and raised in an American suburban fairy tale existence.”  He wondered, “Is this a dream, a fantasy, or a nightmare, playing out in the suburban’s guilt-ridden mind?”  Stanescu, who, Ross asserted, is “considered by many as one of the most exciting voices to emerge in Eastern Europe” since the end of communism, “has written a piece that demands attention, but confuses as much as it enlightens.”  As the cyber review-writer explained:

Throwing images of dead babies and boyfriends, both real and imaginary, all over the stage she’s attempting to create a theatre of war and its impact on women.  Some of her lines and structures are provocative and drenched with meaning, such as “you can’t say ok and everything bad is gone”, but more often than not, we are left to try to put together the oddly shaped pieces of this dark fairy tale all on our own.

Ross blamed some of this on the director, whose “go-for-broke creation is meandering and disturbing as much as it is thoughtful on and off throughout this experimental piece.”  The reviewer’s judgment of Tompa’s staging was:

There are some disturbing visual and sound concepts that are off-centered leaving much to be interpreted and discussed after the show.  It fluctuates from being engaging to confusing within its non-linear psychology. . . .  As theatre, it left me with lots [to] think about, but not engaged enough to try too hard.  Either you will be charmed and inspired by this creation, or, like me, amused but disinterested.  Toys is like a box filled with the mis[-]matched pieces from at least two puzzles, but not in their entirety, begging us to try to assemble the images without too much guidance or structure.  More time is needed than the 65-minutes given, that is if you are still interested in the end to do the reconstruction with the hope the finished images will be meaningful.

In stark contrast, interestingly, to Samuel Leiter’s evaluation of the final scene, Ross found “the last scenario playful as the costume designer, Elisa Benzoni[,] discovers a creative use of plastic bags to make a strong but abstract comment on the dramatically different focal points for those women at war and those that are not.” 

In the second-highest-rated review on Show-Score (85), Darryl Reilly of TheaterScene.net declared of the play, “Hilarity and menace converge in Romanian-born playwright Saviana Stanescu’s absorbing and mysterious theater piece” that unfolds “over the course of 50 delirious minutes.”  Asserting that the actresses “are sensational,” Reilly found that Skovran and Ubrankovics “are a dynamic team who each offer vivid portrayals with their powerful physicality and resonant voices.”  The playwright’s “dialogue is a heady mixture of Ionesco-style absurdism and fierce realism,” wrote the TS.net reviewer, and Tampa’s direction had “the intense sensibility of one of Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic dramas and the look of Andy Warhol’s 1960’s screen tests and home movies” that was “visually and emotionally arresting with its striking imagery.”  Reilly praised Tompa’s “hypnotic lighting design that has strobe bursts, pulsing electronic original music, enveloping sound design and stark scenic design” and “Elisa Benzoni’s artfully simple costume design.”  His final word was: “Though brief in length, Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale is stimulating, provocative and memorable.”

Howard Miller said, “Watching Toys . . . is like attending an exhibit of abstract expressionism and trying to make heads or tails out of what you are seeing,” on Talkin’ Broadway. He continued:

Cryptic, bewildering, absurd, nightmarish.  Take your pick of adjectives.  They all apply to this work, which is more a piece of performance art than a play, elucidating little and requiring you to interpret as you will.

A “few minutes” into the performance, found Miller, “meaning become muddied and open to multiple perspectives.”  He warned, “But do not seek coherent explication, as things become more and more metaphysical from here to the end.”  The “inference” Miller “came away with” was “that Clara/Fatma and Shari/Madonna are one and the same, and that we are viewing the piece from inside a PTSD-ravaged mind,” which perspective gives the play “some seriously disturbing images” in Tompa’s direction “with a distancing air of dispassion.”  Miller concluded:

Toys is unusual, to say the least, opaque in its delivery but nevertheless packed with meaning, like a particularly dense poem.  But if you are interested in experimental theater, now is your opportunity to see a piece by Ms. Stanescu, an award-winning Romanian-American writer and teacher.  You will either shrink away in bafflement, or take up the challenge to piece together the scattered remains of this convoluted jigsaw puzzle of a play.

On Theatre Is Easy, Piper Rasmussen reported, “An eerie, floating feeling pervades the production” of Toys, which has a “story that . . . must be pieced together from the abstract staging.”  Asserting that the play is “a timely one for a country struggling to empathize with refugees,” Rasmussen felt that the staging “is less about the story than about recreating a feeling of loneliness and disembodiment.”  Quoting Shari saying, “You never know what animal hides inside a person,” the Theasy reviewer declared, “It is a true pleasure to watch these actors share some of the animals inside them in Toys’ unpredictable fantasy world,” but added, “To connect with the story and zesty dialogue, best to read the play.”  In conclusion, Rasmussen confessed, “I would be interested to see a production of Toys that combines Stanescu's poetry and humor with less frenetic movement and fewer splashes of bright colored light.” 

“The process of creating a connection can be instant and peaceful, it could feel like fate intervened so that it happened,” contended Nelson Diaz-Marcano on Manhattan with a Twist. “It could also be the opposite, a violent and breaking process that interconnects two ideals that usually don’t connect.”  He posited, “It’s this brutal undertaking that drives the plot  of ‘Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale.’”  Skovran and Ubrankovics “are fantastic as the two women” in the play, whose souls by the end of which “are connected in a way that only a violent procedure could connect people.”  Diaz-Marcano found, “We are yearning to be part of their journey.”  But the Manhattan with a Twist review-writer went on, “It’s when the linear narratives are broken down by more experimental scenes that interest gets a bit muddled.  There are some truly perplexing moments, but most of them either are longer than they need to be or serve as a distraction of what’s happening between them.”  His final assessment, nonetheless, was: “Despite this hiccup, ‘Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale’ delivers a strong and powerful tale of the links the human condition creates and how they can help us move forward.” 

01 December 2017

Bob and Ringo

by Kirk Woodward

[Following shortly on “Frankie,” his report on a recent Frankie Valli concert appearance (posted on 16 November), my friend Kirk Woodward is back on Rick On Theater with a new post on a couple of rock ’n’ roll oldies.  This time it’s folk-rock icon Bob Dylan and former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.  As regular ROTters will know, Kirk is a long-time fan of both Dylan and the Beatles; he’s previously written on both for this blog: “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” posted on 8 January 2011; “Bob Dylan at Woodstock – And a New Album,” 14 November 2012; “The Beatles And Me,” 7 October 2010; “The Beatles Box,” 30 September 2012; “The Beatles Diary,” 8 January 2013; “The Beatles’ Influence,” 13 July 2015; and “Now, Live, The Non-Beatles,” 27 September 2016.  As I’ve frequently said of Kirk’s contributions to ROT, his accounts of these musical experiences are informed both by his personal responses and his background and knowledge of music and performance.  I am beyond delighted to share Kirk’s thoughts with ROTters and I know you will find edifying notions here.  ~Rick]

Since I recently wrote on this blog about a sterling Frankie Valli concert I saw in November 2017, I may as well report on two other shows I saw in the same month, both involving older performers, although neither are as old as Valli, who is 83 (he was born in 1934). Both are close, though – Bob Dylan is 76 (born in 1941), and Ringo Starr is 77 (born in 1940). Both are known quantities, first making their musical marks in the early 1960s. Both remain remarkable performers today.

Of the two, Bob Dylan is the more mercurial. On the one hand, he is an established figure in the world of music, to the point where he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. On the other hand, he remains unpredictable, as demonstrated by his response to receiving the Nobel Prize: he remained invisible for days, finally released a statement saying the award left him “speechless,” did not travel to Stockholm to receive the award, and delivered his acceptance speech, which the prize rules require in order to receive the cash award, two months after the deadline, in the form of a recorded speech accompanied by music.

His Nobel experience may be taken as a model for nearly everything he does. It is not just that he does not meet expectations; he scorns them, defies them, dares the rest of the world to follow him through any amount of curious behavior.

For some of us who saw one of his five concerts at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan during the week of November 13-17, 2017, the biggest example of Dylan’s unpredictable behavior, among many possible choices, involves his voice.

Beginning around the time of the release of his celebrated album Time Out of Mind (1997), and intensifying by the time the album Modern Times (2006) was released, Dylan’s voice noticeably thickened, contracted in range, and took on a gravelly sound.

Many, including me, assumed that the years had taken their toll on his vocal equipment, and we did our best to enjoy what was worthwhile in Dylan’s new sound. I don’t regard purity of tone as the only standard for a singer.

Years ago I heard the cabaret singer Mabel Mercer (1900-1984) at a period when she literally had lost the ability to sing – she could only speak the lyrics of her songs. (I have read that her singing voice later somewhat returned.) I remember her  renditions of songs as among the best I have ever heard, with versions of “Send In the Clowns” and “Being Green” that stick with me to this day – and at that time she couldn’t sing a note.

So I accepted Dylan’s hoarse later voice, and was stunned at the recent Beacon concert to hear him not only sing, but sing as tunefully and clearly as he has in decades, and with greater range – occasionally singing relatively high notes in an easy semi-falsetto.

What in the world? How did he clear up his sound so well? Will he keep singing this way? One never knows with Dylan, but there’s the possibility that his rugged voice of recent years was another of the many constructs out of which he has built his public persona.

Many “stars,” it appears, seem to have a mysterious ability to shape their environments. There is a tape of a Dick Cavett TV interview with the actress Katherine Hepburn (1907-2003), who Cavett says at the beginning of the tape had been uncertain whether she wanted to be on the show at all.

Cavett asked the staff to begin taping as soon as Hepburn arrived in the studio. What we see on the tape is Hepburn immediately taking charge of the show, ordering the cameras into different locations, moving furniture around, and generally dominating the whole scene without concern for who is “in charge.” She was.

Along the same lines, I talked once with a man who had encountered Dylan on a New York street and spoke to him briefly. The man told me that as people began to notice that Bob Dylan was right there among them, and a crowd began to gather, Dylan somehow maneuvered his position so that the man was a shield between the other people and Dylan. Then, he said, he looked around and Dylan had disappeared.

That story, which I have no reason to doubt, is consistent with everything we know about Dylan’s performing life. He “shapes the environment” of both his music and his personality as the public experiences it. (I have no idea what he is like in private life.)

The issue is not what he is communicating – I am not at all doubting the genuineness of his interests and his love for his art – but how he presents it. He so seldom does the expected that some have referred to him as “perverse.”

There is another way to look at what Dylan does, of course, and that is to see him as someone who wants his audience to pay attention – to be alert, to participate in what he’s doing, to share with him the experience of encountering the world the way he sees it. To accomplish this, perhaps, he specializes in doing the unexpected, or, to put it another way, to doing what he wants instead of what people want him to do.

In his remarkable autobiography Chronicles Volume One (Simon and Schuster, 2004), Dylan drops hints that he consciously engineers his persona. For example,  he writes, “If you didn’t have some kind of trick, you’d come off with an invisible presence, which wasn’t good.” He’s specifically talking about what he learned from watching the singer Richie Havens, but the comment certainly seems to have larger implications.

In Chronicles (a book well worth anyone’s time to read) Dylan also talks about his exposure to the famous off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera (which opened in 1954, and then returned in 1955 for 2,707 performances), with music by Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), translated by Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

Dylan devotes five pages of his book to the effect the work had on him, especially the song “Pirate Jenny.” It is tempting to link Dylan with Brecht’s famous theories about drama as an instrument for shaking an audience out of its usual expectations and making it think (often referred to in English, somewhat inaccurately, as the “alienation effect”). Dylan’s many personae and his varied approaches to his music certainly seem to call Brecht’s approach to mind.

Dylan is notorious, in particular, for recasting his songs into rhythms, melody lines, and even harmonies, that barely resemble those of the original recordings. My friend at the Beacon concert said, “I wish that he’d sing just one line of “Blowing In the Wind” the way he wrote it! That’s all I want – just one line!”

I understand that request, but I think I also understand that Dylan seems to be saying, “Why should I sing a song in the way it sounded on its recording? I’ve already done that!” Another friend of mine feels that Dylan shows disrespect for his own songs. I see that situation in exactly the opposite way – it seems to me that Dylan respects his songs so much that he believes they can exist in many forms different from their original style. That approach is also part of the folk song tradition that (among other traditions) has influenced his writing.

In any case, the effect is to make a Dylan admirer approach each of his concerts wondering what kind of Dylan we’ll get this time – in other words, an alert, interested audience, an active rather than a passive audience.

Having said all that, as a matter of fact there may be a simpler reason that Dylan is singing better than we’ve heard him in a long time: in the last few years he has released three albums of music from what is often called “the great American songbook,” “standards” of popular music, many of them most famously recorded by Frank Sinatra (whom Dylan knew slightly, and greatly admired).

When you hear Dylan sing these songs (for example, at the Beacon, “Once Upon and Time” and “Autumn Leaves,” among others), you certainly know it’s Bob Dylan singing them; but he sings the songs simply and with feeling. He sings them. Perhaps that activity has spilled over into the way he performs his own songs.

In any case, the concert I saw was a huge success, with one high point followed by another. In recent years Dylan has completely stopped playing the guitar, and at the Beacon he didn’t play the harmonica either. Instead he either sang the standards while holding a microphone stand like Sinatra or Elvis might have done, or he sang from the piano, often standing up while playing, pounding on it like Jerry Lee Lewis. When he first started playing piano in his concerts, his playing was unobtrusive and tentative. Now it’s boisterous – a vigorous lead instrument.

Dylan, of course, caused a huge musical upheaval in the 1960s: he opened a new world of lyric writing by showing that words to songs could be personal to an individual,  a window into a specific person’s mind. (He was helped in this by the fact that he is in many ways not just a lyricist but a poet, a fact that his Nobel Prize surely acknowledges.) Everyone who has written popular music since then, including the Beatles, rappers, and everyone else, has benefited from the revolution he caused.

Revolutions don’t come along that often, so Dylan has replaced revolution with revelation. Each appearance is a revelation of what a singer/instrumentalist/songwriter can accomplish, and a look at the possibilities of the human spirit as well – a spirit that may well at times be cranky, individualistic, even, well, perverse.

Ringo Starr also participated in a revolution, the revolution that happened musically, culturally, and perhaps even politically as the Beatles – hugely influenced by Dylan – transformed popular music, in some ways taking Dylan’s insights and presenting them in a more accessible way than Dylan has.

Since 1989, Ringo, long past his Beatle days, and his All-Starr Band have toured widely, with Ringo showcasing a changing series of outstanding musicians from the 1960s and 1970s, and recently of the 1980s. The round-robin format of his shows gives each musician a chance to be showcased, and allows all of them to stretch out musically.

The current band has been together for five years, and includes singer-songwriter Todd Rundgren, keyboardist Gregg Rolie (from the bands Santana and Journey), guitarist Steve Lukather (from Toto), bassist Richard Page (from Mr. Mister), woodwind player Warren Ham (from Bloodrock and Kansas) and drummer Gregg Bissonette, plus of course Ringo, also on drums. 

I saw the last show of their 2017 tour at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey. It is not revolutionary, but it is definitely a revelation of how well a rock group can work together. The members seem to genuinely enjoy playing together (and I have heard anecdotally as well that that is so). 

Ringo continues to be a splendid host on stage, relaxed and funny, singing well, drumming (as I read someone say) impeccably, and reminding us of some points we ought to remember: that older folks can accomplish great things; that music can inspire, excite, stimulate, enliven; and that happiness is not only worthwhile but sometimes achievable. Perhaps those things are revolutionary after all.

26 November 2017

'Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib' (2007)

[On 21 November, I posted “A Passion for Art,” an article about my parents’ art collecting.  Prominently featured in both the article and the collecting was a painting by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who was also the subject of several exhibits at the art gallery in which my parents had an interest.  Back in 2007, my mother and I went to a very special show of work by the artist, Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib, and I decided my archival report on  the show would make a good follow-up to “A Passion for Art.”  So, here is a reedited version of that pre-ROT report.]

I spent ten days in Washington, D.C., through the Thanksgiving weekend because there were several art exhibits and some shows that seemed worth visiting.  I took my usual bus (the “Kosher bus”) down on Friday morning/afternoon, 16 November 2007, and on Saturday, my mother and I drove to the nearby American University Museum to see the exhibit of Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings, part of AU’s “Art of Confrontation: AU Exploring Human Rights through Art,” a three-exhibit series at the museum  

The Botero exhibit was a display at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center of his paintings about the torture and mistreatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, inspired by the photos that were released in April 2004. The depictions of torture are unnerving and the artist doesn’t intend to sell these works because, he says, he doesn’t want to profit from the pain of others.

Fernando Botero was born in 1932 in Medellín. Colombia, the second of three sons to David Botero, a salesman who traveled by horseback, and the former Flora Angulo, a seamstress.  David Botero died of a heart attack at the age of 40 when Fernando was four and his mother supported the family; his uncle Joaquín took a major role in his life.  Although isolated from art as presented in museums and other cultural institutes, Botero was influenced by the Baroque style of the colonial churches and the city life of Medellín, at that time a relatively small and isolated city, while growing up.  He began drawing and painting watercolors as a young child. 

He received his primary education at the Antioquia Ateneo and, thanks to a scholarship, he continued his secondary education at the Jesuit School of Bolívar.  In 1944, Joaquin enrolled him in a school for matadors for two years, but it was soon obvious that the boy was more interested in drawing and painting the bulls than in fighting them.  His earliest works, watercolors of bulls and matadors, were sold by a man who traded them for bullfight tickets.  In 1948, when he was just 16, Botero had his first illustrations published in the Sunday supplement of the El Colombiano, one of the most important newspapers in Medellín.  He used the money he made to attend high school at the Liceo de Marinilla de Antioquia.
From 1949 to 1950, the young artist worked as a set designer before moving to Bogotá in 1951.  His first one-man show was held at the Galería Leo Matiz in Bogotá, a few months after his arrival.  In 1952, Botero travelled with a group of artists to Barcelona, where he stayed briefly before moving on to Madrid, where he studied at the Academia de San Fernando and spent his days copying the Old Masters at the Prado Museum.  In 1952, he traveled to Bogotá, where he had a solo exhibit at the Matiz gallery.

In 1953, Botero moved to Paris, where he spent most of his time studying the works in the Louvre.  He lived in Florence, Italy, from 1953 to 1954, studying the works of Renaissance masters.  While Botero was enrolled in art schools for periods during these early years, he considers himself to be essentially self-taught.  In 1958, he won the ninth edition of the Salón de Artistas Colombianos.

Botero’s early artistic inspiration began with the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera (1886-1957), José Orozco (1896-1974), and David Siqueros (1883-1949), as well as the Spanish masters Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Juan Gris (1887-1927). While Picasso’s Cubist breakthrough came after experimenting with the deconstruction of a guitar, Botero found his artistic insight in a mandolin. In 1956, while he was living in Mexico City, Botero painted a mandolin with an unusually tiny sound hole, allowing the instrument to suddenly take on exaggerated proportions (Still Life with Mandolin).  (Personal note: the Botero canvas my parents owned is Boy with Mandolin, ca. 1960.)  This began the artist’s iconic distortion of figures, known as “Boterismo,”  including people, animals, and objects, in his paintings and sculptures.

Botero maintains that “art should be an oasis, a place of refuge from the hardness of life,” but some of his work is blatantly political.  He and his art have even been the target of criminals and suspected terrorists: Colombian drug dealers tried unsuccessfully to kidnap him for ransom in 1994 and in 1995, a bomb was exploded beneath one of his sculptures in Medellín, killing 25 people.  In the 1990s, he started a series focusing on Colombia’s drug-related violence (which was largely centered in Medellín), including Death of Pablo Escobar, which depicts the notorious Colombian drug lord being gunned down by police.  Later, of course, the artist produced his Abu Ghraib series.  As Erica Jong, who wrote an editorial review of the exhibit for the Washington Post, averred, “Before the Abu Ghraib series I would have shrugged off this image.  Now I see all Botero's work as a record of the brutality of the haves against the have-nots.  I would be surprised if the Abu Ghraib series of images did not completely change our view of Botero as an artist.” 

In recent decades, he has lived most of the time in Paris but spends one month a year in his native city of Medellín.  The prolific artist has had more than 50 exhibits in major cities worldwide, and his work, which is seen all around the world in museums, private and corporate collections, and in public spaces, can command prices in the six and seven figures.  (Botero’s second solo show in the United States was Botero at the Gres Gallery, the gallery my parents part-owned in Washington, D.C., in 1960.  It was from this exhibit that they bought Boy with Mandolin.  It was also from this show that the Museum of Modern Art purchased Mona Lisa, Age Twelve, 1959.)  Over his career, Botero had donated more than 300 works of art, including both his own and those by 19th- and 20th-century European Masters, to cities, museums, and public spaces all around the world, such as Reclining Woman in the cultural plaza on Avenida José de Diego in San Juan across from the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico which I spotted when on a visit to the island in 2008.  In 1993, 14 of Botero's monumental, voluptuous bronze sculptures of people and animals were exhibited for about 2½ months along the grassy median strip of Park Avenue. 

Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib at the AU gallery, part of the new Katzen Arts Center on Ward Circle near my mom’s [then] apartment, from 6 November to 30 December 2007, is an exhibit of 79 paintings and drawings of the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  The series was reportedly inspired, in part, by Picasso’s 1937 Spanish Civil War-protest painting, Guernica.  (Full disclosure: Mom went to the opening of this exhibit because Botero was there.  Furthermore, as I said, we own a Botero painting.)  Botero was so incensed and angered by the photos and reports of the acts by American soldiers entrusted with the oversight of the Iraqi prisoners that he spent much of 2004 and ’05 creating the series, which is graphic, disturbing, explicit, brutal, and, unfortunately, accurate.  “I did it because I was very angry.  It was a shock for the rest of the world—for everybody—but for an artist, even more,” said Botero in an International Herald Tribune review.  “The whole world and myself were very shocked that the Americans were torturing prisoners in the same prison as the tyrant they came to remove,” the Washington Post quoted Botero as stating to the San Francisco Chronicle

For those who don’t remember the scandal, the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison 20 miles outside Baghdad became widely known when CBS News broadcast a report in April 2004 on its television news-magazine 60 Minutes, followed by a detailed story by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker in May.  The war to unseat Saddam Hussein, the military dictator of Iraq who’d made the United States his principal enemy, began in March 2003 and Baghdad, the capital, fell in April.  The U.S. and its allies occupied Baghdad and took control of the prison in the city’s outskirts.  It housed both criminal detainees, including those arrested by the post-Hussein Iraqi government, and suspected Hussein and Ba’athist partisans and supporters, who were under the control of the coalition forces. 

In January, members of the U.S. unit serving as prison guards and interrogators, both military (at least one woman among them) and contracted civilians, were convicted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice of prisoner abuse, including the torture and humiliation of Iraqi detainees.  The report and published photos, taken by the perpetrators, horrified American citizens and the international community as well.  Fernando Botero began sketching the series in 2005 after “stewing over the outrage.”.  “I started seeing these images in my mind of what was going on,” the artist explained.  He completed the series around September 2006.

While the artist didn’t try to recreate the photos, he says he didn’t paint anything that wasn’t reported in the news media.  “I didn't invent anything,” said the artist.  “If I did, then all the rest of the paintings would lose their significance.”  The figures of prisoners, guards, and dogs, while bearing all the bulbous features of the artist’s habitual style, are nonetheless frighteningly realistic.  Zadzi, a reviewer on an on-line journal (who happens to be Egyptian-born), characterized the pictures as “a strange marriage of horror and caricature.”  Post critic Kennicott made an interesting point about this aspect of Botero’s series: 

These paintings leave you with the sense that two worlds have collided with very odd results.  The men at Abu Ghraib may not have been skeletal, but they weren't pleasantly plump, a condition that suggests (in artistic terms) bourgeois prosperity or complacency.  Indeed, being fat, in our image-conscious society, is almost the same as being guilty, and yet the guilt, at Abu Ghraib, rests squarely with the Americans—who are never explicitly represented as such; no identifying flags or insignia appear in any of these works.  The perpetrators are often faceless or are represented only by a hand or a boot coming in from the margin of the painting.

The artist has previously used his roly-poly figures as objects of amusement and fun—commenting wryly on the indulgences of the upper classes in his South American society. 

Whereas Botero’s typical paintings are brightly colored, however, the palette of the Abu Ghraib pictures is subdued: flesh tones, military olive drab, a kind of bile yellow for the floor tiles, and black for the darkness and the bag hoods the prisoners wear in some of the renderings.  Bright colors are reserved for what Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott designated “the paraphernalia of sadism: a blue latex glove worn by an American captor, strangely festive blindfolds, or bright-red women's underwear, used to demean and embarrass the men.”  Then there’s the dull, brick-red of the blood that stains the prison clothes of the abused men in many of the paintings.

These portrayals are not fun.  Botero composed the works after reading official reports of the atrocities, but he concentrated on the suffering and dignity of the victims, often naked and blindfolded or hooded, rather than their tormentors.  All of the images we saw in the photos are interpreted here, including sodomy and forced fellatio, as well as several images of guards urinating on prisoners.  There are also a number of details of bound hands and feet and one of a pair of hands, bound at the wrists and suspended over the unseen prisoner’s head from a ceiling.  Some of the scenes are very reminiscent, intentionally I believe, of crucifixion scenes and other depictions of Christian martyrdom.  In fact, Jack Rasmussen, director of the AU museum, acknowledged that Botero is “using the iconography of Christian art.”  Having noted the same parallels I did, Rasmussen continued, “In a way, you could argue that hes making martyrs out of Arab men.”

The pictures, which are all untitled (they are given numbers, like prisoners I guess) are intentionally difficult to look at, graphic and unblinking; Botero believes that Americans have been willfully blind to the actions of our surrogates and their leaders—and I’m not sure he isn’t right.  (This atrocity isn’t an issue in the current presidential primary campaign—among Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson for the Democrats and  John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Fred Thompson, Alan Keyes, Duncan Hunter, and Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans—and though Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey, who replaced Alberto Gonzales at the end of the George W. Bush administration, was asked about waterboarding in his confirmation hearings—a depiction of which is the subject of one of Botero’s paintings—the actual use of torture wasn’t raised.  Mukasey was ultimately let off the hook—no pun intended—and confirmed even though he never answered the questions.)  In the Washington Diplomat, Rachel Ray calls the exhibit “an in-your-face experience of the media-reported atrocities.”  Just as the victims are blindfolded, the faces of the tormentors are unseen or hidden—they are anonymous, generic.  Often all we see of the American torturers is a latex-gloved hand, a boot kicking out of nowhere, or a leashed dog snarling  at a terrified prisoner.  Except that we know who they are, of course. 

Erica Jong noted that “Botero calls art ‘a permanent accusation,’” and posited that “his Abu Ghraib series seems to me more than an accusation.”  The novelist, poet, and nonfiction writer observed, “Botero’s Abu Ghraib series has been shown before, but never in Washington.  It is a moment: The people who got us into Abu Ghraib can contemplate what went on there.”  Jong added, “I dare them to look at these images and be unmoved.”  Also in the Post, Kennicott, who viewed the pictures in a New York City showing at the Marlborough Gallery (which handles Botero’s work), declared:

It is a remarkable show, and a disturbing one.  Few artists in this country have focused so obsessively on the events at Abu Ghraib, and even fewer have done it in a figurative, representational style.  And no artist with a style so recognizable as Botero's has dared to infuse his cash-cow calling card with such nakedly political sentiment. 

The artist doesn’t hold out any hope that his work will actually change anything: “Guernica was the greatest painting of the 20th century,” Botero asserted, “but it could do nothing against (Spanish dictator Francisco) Franco.”   Botero’s Abu Ghraib depictions, said Kennicott, “form a kind of history book, not one written by the victors but one sketched and colored by the meek of the earth, hidden away until the tables are turned and the truth can come out,” and the artist himself proclaimed, “But this will remind people of a dark moment of this government, of what is torture.”  

Perhaps not ironically, no U.S. museum would show the Abu Ghraib works until AU’s gallery the next year so they had their U.S. première here in a commercial New York gallery.  Rasmussen revealed that he had had to be especially persuasive to get the American University administrators to present the exhibit.  In the end, the museum director affirmed, the freedom of speech and academic inquiry prevailed.  The university spokeswoman, Maralee Csellar, attested, “Because the museum is linked to the university, we are allowed to be more open and daring with our exhibits,” and then Botero added, “There was criticism, phone calls, letters and hate mail.  It was expected.” 

The AU showing, which is the first exhibit of the entire series, is the opening of a tour to several U.S. galleries, as well as abroad, following New York’s Marlborough (18 October-21 November 2006) and the University of California at Berkeley from 29 January to 25 March 2007.  Botero has announced he will donate the entire collection to UC-Berkeley.  

Jong asked in her review if Botero’s art will have any lasting effect on our attraction to violence and brutality.  “No,” she said.  “But the role of the artist in raising our consciousness and bearing witness is essential.  The artist makes us open our eyes to our own cruelty, our own passivity, our own indifference.” 

[With a man in the Oval Office who, as a presidential candidate, said he “would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding,” Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib pictures may have even more significance now than they did in 2007.  Though I doubt the depictions of the depravity perpetrated by U.S. personnel at the Baghdad prison would have any effect on Donald Trump, it might remind those around him and the lawmakers in Congress of the excesses our country and its government have already committed.  As Botero himself has said, “I hope that these paintings will serve as a testimony through time.”]