Month: October, 2007

The Butterfly incident

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007 | All Things, Arts

I had been looking forward to the Met’s new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly since it debuted in New York last year. That premiere, which also served as new general manager Peter Gelb‘s inauguration, was attended by a host of celebrities and broadcast live simultaneously on screens on the Lincoln Center Plaza and in Times Square.

Anthony Minghella, Oscar-winning film director of The English Patient (1997) was responsible for the new staging of the oft-performed opera, which went on to win the 2006 Olivier Award for “Best New Opera Production” for its run at the London Coliseum. This Met season, with a new cast, it opened to a mixed review from The Times, but Minghella’s production — considered by a few critics to be too much style over substance — has garnered enough praise that he has been commissioned by the Met to write the libretto and direct a new work by composer Osvaldo Golijov that will make its debut in the 2011-12 season.

Madama Butterfly

The sets are certainly beautifully spare and elegant, and the costumes (by Shanghai-born fashion designer Han Feng) are striking, but the most extraordinary part of Minghella’s concept is its incorporation of traditional Japanese Bunraku-style puppetry. To portray Butterfly’s lovechild, Sorrow, three black-clad puppeteers from London’s Blind Summit Puppet Theatre manipulate a lifesize doll: two operating some combination of the doll’s head and hands, and another responsible for its feet. It’s a carefully choreographed dance that somehow manages to convey eerie realism and remarkable expressiveness despite the fact that the puppeteers are fully (if discreetly) visible to the audience the entire time.

In this production, similarly black-clad figures are also responsible for moving some of the props and set pieces… which leads to the “incident” of this blog post’s title. As the curtain rose on one such person sliding a large rice paper screen across the stage, I jokingly turned to my companion and whispered, “Ooh, since when are there ninjas in Madama Butterfly?” He chuckled politely — hey, I didn’t say it was comic gold — but a young woman seated directly behind us, obviously overhearing my comment, scornfully spat out “Pfft! STUPID!

Wha-at?! My eyes widened in shocked surprise. I may have even gasped, as much over the unexpected hostility as the disproportionate response to my light-hearted quip, but before I could deliver a comeback, the orchestra started up. I spent a good portion of Act I seething in silence, and as soon as the curtain came down for the first intermission, I turned to my companion once more to squawk incredulously, “Did she call me stupid?!

His response, which I took as confirmation, was to shake with uncontrollable laughter.

Hmph. She is lucky that I’m not this guy.

Madama Butterfly

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Monday, October 22nd, 2007 | All Things, Events, Music

When Morrissey‘s June concert dates at MSG were postponed due to the singer’s viral infection and eventually canceled, I took it as a sign that I was just not meant to see my onetime favorite artist again. Certainly not reunited with Johnny Marr — that’s Professor Marr to you; Moz reportedly turned down an offer of $75 million(!) to tour with his former bandmate. Much as I loathe the whole reunion-for-cash idea — World tour! (“Media whore!”) “Please the Press in Belgium!” — that’s one concert I would have made sure not to miss. Cruel fate, being born too late to attend a Smiths concert; this year marks the 20th anniversary of the band’s break-up.

Morrissey solo, though, I’ve managed to catch in concert many times over the years, which is probably why I’d pretty much forgotten about this most recent lost opportunity until a press release announced that Morrissey would be returning to New York to make up for the missed dates in venues specially chosen for being “small and intimate.” Five dates in late-October at the Hammerstein Ballroom… which I suppose one could consider intimate as compared to Madison Square Garden. But the kicker: “these shows will be the last Morrissey will do for the foreseeable future.”

Hmm, vague hints at a farewell tour, without crassly promoting it as such… well played, marketers! But even so, at $60 a pop plus Ticketmaster fees, it was not enough to lure me back into the fray. Let’s face it, I hadn’t even bothered to pick up the last album. Back in 2004, Moz’s comeback concerts at The Apollo were among the hottest tickets in town, selling out with remarkable swiftness, and sending fans new and old into a frenzy all over again. (We saw him at Radio City that year.) But as these most recent concert dates drew near, it became embarrassingly apparent that five dates may have been a bit ambitious. The die-hard fans, of course, still snatched up their special 5-night packages for all NYC dates ($200), but the other tickets languished at the box office. It made me a little sad; even if I personally hadn’t been moved to fork over the $70+ dollars for the privilege of standing in a crowded concert hall for a couple of hours, the man is still a legend.

Ticket prices were slashed repeatedly, at one point to a mere $20. We picked up ours for opening night the week before the concert… not for $20, but we won’t begrudge Moz a little extra.

Back in the day (i.e., the early to mid 1990s), I would have made sure to arrive early and stake out a spot up within hand-grasping, gladiola-hurling distance to the stage. No longer. Over glasses of red at The Chelsea Mercantile, we plotted our arrival time to entirely skip opening act Kristeen Young (good move: she was ousted from the tour later in the week), hitting the concert floor shortly before 9PM, just as Moz came on the stage.

Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” kicked off the 90 minute-set, during which we never made it to stage closer than this. (Better pictures here.) But I was fine with that.

Morrissey concert

Morrissey concert

Moz sweated through several shirts on stage — this black tee says “Je Suis Morrissey.” At one point, he dispensed with the tops entirely, performing bare-chested, and looking fitter than I would have expected for a man approaching 50. (Not everyone approved.)

Morrissey concert

Morrissey concert

Our concert’s set list was an interesting mix of new(ish) and classic; it was not until JK pointed it out to me afterwards that I realized that Bona Drag went entirely unrepresented tonight.   Pity.  (“Interesting Drug” and “Disappointed” were trotted out in the later shows.) Moz reached even further back than that, though, culling several tunes from the Smiths-era catalog: “Stretch Out And Wait,” “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” “Shoplifters Of The World Unite,” and of course “How Soon Is Now?,” which closed out the show to mad cheers.

This is the last song I will ever sing
No: I’ve changed my mind again
Good night, and thank you

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Philoktetes at Soho Rep

Sunday, October 21st, 2007 | All Things, Arts, Friends

Soho Repertory Theatre is a small theatre company, known for its development and production of non-traditional works. The company mounts at least two mainstage productions and two to four workshop productions a year in its 70-seat theater on Walker Street. This season, to promote their new pieces, the company launched “99 cent Sundays” for all mainstage productions, which is to say that one day a week, every seat in the theater, normally priced at $25, would be sold for less than a dollar. It was a deal too good to pass up. Soon enough, we had a full group on board for a trip to the theatre.

The production this month was avant-garde writer/director (and 1996 MacArthur Award winner) John Jesurun’s contemporary adaptation of Sophocles’ Trojan War play “Philoktetes.” In addition to his writing and directing duties, Jesurun designed the set for the work, which was distinguished by his minimalist staging and integrated use of cameras and video projection. I didn’t attempt any photos during the actual performance, but you can check out some images here.

The play, for those a bit rusty on their Greek mythology, surrounds the fate of Philoktetes, a heroic archer who was left stranded by his fellow soldiers on the island of Lemnos, after a serious snake bite on his foot eventually festered, rendering him insufferable and foul-smelling. (I don’t know why, but every rendering I’ve heard or read of this story seems to emphasize the malodor, so I’m including it here as well.) A decade later, when an oracle reveals that the Greeks will not be able to conquer Troy without the weapons of Hercules (inconveniently still in Philoktetes’ possession), Odysseus and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, return to Lemnos to retrieve the man they abandoned years earlier. (Awkward!)

I recalled an article that appeared in The New York Times in March about how Sophocles’ play was being used as a teaching tool for medical students at Cornell. Faculty found the depictions of illness and the reactions of friends and family to the sick person psychologically accurate today, and particularly relevant for doctors in training.

Jesurun’s rewrite was originally commissioned in 1993 by actor Ron Vawter, founding member of The Wooster Group. The action takes place on a bare stage lit with projected images on the floor and back wall. Over the course of 75 minutes, the three protagonists/antagonists meet and verbally spar. The plot takes something of a backseat to Jesurun’s vivid language, most of which fell into poetry slam-esque rhythm. I had a bit of difficulty following the trajectory with all the subtext of war, morality and homosexuality. Plus there was a distracting funk wafting through the air, which we decided later (much to our dismay) was not part of the intended effect. The Variety review suggests that “[i]t’s worth letting the experience of “Philoktetes” sink in for a while before trying to dissect it.” True that: it wasn’t until I read the reviewsgenerally solid — that I was able to better grasp what we saw that night.


Maybe experimental theatre isn’t really my thing.

For more straightforward drama, check out the Astoria Performing Art Center’s terrific production of “Proof,” David Auburn’s Pulitzer-prize winning play about mathematics. The proof in question just frames the action, though — one need not be able to discern i from π to appreciate the play. (Auburn himself did not advance beyond college-level calculus.) More universally, “Proof” is about the intertwining of genius and madness, the burdens and betrayals of family and lovers. See it especially if, like I, you missed the Broadway production which played to near-unanimous critical acclaim in 2001, earning three Tonys. Tickets are $15 each in advance via the website, or $18 at the door — Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through November 18, 2007. Blog entry about our November 4 visit to APAC coming soon.

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