Saturday, March 31, 2007

Uncommon cold

My review of the compilation Bippp: French Synth-Wave 1978/85 is in the current issue of Time Out New York. Let's use this opportunity to pay tribute to the cold wave that did not sweep a nation back in the late ’70s and early ’80s with songs from Bippp and Transmission, a comp covering the 1980s French dark wave.

Quite a few French alt-bands discovered synthesizers and punk at about the same time, as the Métal Urbain reissues from a few years ago showed. Add to that a predetermination to embrace doomed romanticism—France loves a perdant magnifique, or beautiful loser—and you have all the ingredients for a particularly thriving "back to black" musical movement. Do visit the amazing French New Wave site, which is to its topic what BNR is to metal.

MP3 A trois dans les WC "Contagion" From Bippp: French Synth-Wave 1978/85 (2006)
I only knew of that band, which hailed from the northern town of Saint-Quentin, under the name WC3—which it adopted after signing to CBS. Its first single, "Contagion," was independently released under the group's original moniker. Seventeen, the label responsible for the Métal Urbain CDs, recently reissued A trois dans les WC's early material.

MP3 Visible "Le jour se lève" from Bippp: French Synth-Wave 1978/85 (2006)
Hailing from Troyes, Visible was completely unknown to me until now. Love the elastic beat on "Le jour se lève."

Released a couple of years ago by the excellent label Infrastition, Transmission covers the years 1981–89, focusing on the French equivalents of Joy Division and the Cure. It's an indispensable purchase if you want to discover Gallic goth. That scene pretty much passed me by at the time, but I'm now diving into it with great enthusiasm—I even prefer it to the British strain I liked so much 20 years ago.

MP3 Clair Obscur "The Pilgrim's Progress" from Transmission (2005)
Founded in Creil in 1981 (this track is from 1983), Clair Obscur was one of the most theatrical and physical acts in the doom ’n’ gloom scene; remarkably, it's still active.

MP3 Opéra de Nuit "Ami-Amant" from Transmission (2005)
Fantastic 1986 track from this super-confidential band from Provence. It's as if the band is catchy despite itself.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Hayes code

Today a colleague playfully—I think—called me evil. But how can I be evil when I go weak in the knees thinking about Darren Hayes? Really, it's just a metaphysical impossibility.

What possessed me to go see Hayes—oh hell, let's just call him Darren—at Joe's Pub last night? Savage Garden, of which he was half, used to send me to sleep. In addition, I'd heard only a couple of his solo songs, including the admittedly excellent "Popular." Actually what pushed me into going was the fact that Darren's two gigs sold out in something like ten minutes. Who wouldn't want to see for herself what could prompt such fandom?

Result? As much as I enjoyed seeing Justin Timberlake a few weeks ago, Darren came very near to obliterating his scrawny little Mouseketeer ass.

The quickest way to describe Darren and his solo music is as a male version of Kylie Minogue. Like Kylie, Darren is an Aussie now living in London. Like Kylie, he's perfected a specific kind of dance-pop that's very Euro. As the Sheila remarked, "It's Eurovision night at Joe's Pub!" Little else need be said. Oh okay, if you insist…

Darren's releasing a 25-track (!) album titled This Delicate Thing We've Made (!!) in August, so I'm sure I'll come back to the songs themselves. The thing that really struck me is how damn good a performer he is. None of that "I'm going to show you my intimate, emotional side ’cause I'm in a small venue" crap: He sold it as if he was playing to 15,000 people, not 150. That falsetto! Those dance moves! Combine the two, as in a turbocharged cover of Prince's "Baby I'm a Star" (which slyly incorporated bits of the aforementioned "Popular") and…oooh, there goes the knees again. About midway through the evening, the Sheila and I realized we had huge, uncontrollable grins plastered to our faces and eyes the size of saucers. Not a pretty sight, I can assure you.

As for the Darren freaks dedicated enough to grab those tix, much to my surprise they were 90% female—I'd expected more gay men, if only because Darren's so pop these days. But I think the women in the audience had really gotten into him back in his Savage Garden days and have remained faithful to the cause through the years. So faithful that an astonishingly large number went to both gigs. Remember that metal show I saw at Roseland last week? Both crowds were polar opposites in their composition yet similar in their die-hard fandom. Now that'll warm the evilest soul.

Climbing the fourth wall

Coincidentally, I've just seen back-to-back two shows that look at what being a performer entails. Never mind that one is a decidedly mainstream Broadway musical and the other is staged by a British experimental company at PS 122—both, in their own ways, look at what it means when the world is a stage, and the stage is your world.

Kander & Ebb's latest (and last), Curtains, is getting a bit of a rough deal from the press. Are my expectations simply lower when it comes to Broadway musicals, so that I'd find that tuner so satisfying? Granted it's creaky around the edges: The jokes are draped in showbiz cobwebs and you have a much higher chance of having a good time if B fare such as the Destry Rides Again musical holds a special place in your heart. I wouldn't be surprised if the same people who enjoy Curtains also had a pretty nifty time at Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me. (As an aside, it probably says something depressing about the audience's knowledge of world theater that the lyric "Don't bother me with Molière/Those Russians never pay," sung by a bottom-line-oriented producer, didn't get a laugh.)

But aside from the endless plot resolution at the end, I thought Curtains moved at a good clip and featured enough instances of old-school all singing/all dancing excitment to qualify as a minor (very minor) success. Two numbers, in particular, come to mind. Debra Monk is superb throughout and explodes with big-broad energy in her second-act showpiece, "It's a Business." But the most interesting number is "A Tough Act to Follow," in which David Hyde Pierce's police inspector obsessed with musicals crosses the invisible line between the drab world of the audience and the glittering one of the theatah. Pierce doesn't dance very well and he's only an adequate singer, but that's okay because his character is an amateur in the purest sense of the term. The number really captures an everyman's overwhelmed excitment at being annointed as one of the show people, and also works as a literal illustration of the transference process that happens when a stage production hits a right note.

Doublethink, a piece by the English company Rotozaza at PS 122, comes at the issue of performing from a decidedly more aggro perspective, casting a keen eye on issues of power and control. In Doublethink, two local volunteers agree to follow all the directions given them by Rotozaza's Silvia Mercuriali and Neil Bennun, who first sit at a table, then get onstage, manhandling—and getting manhandled by—the two guinea pigs. The first clever trick is that the stage is divided in two halves by a white curtain so each guest performer cannot see what the other is doing. The second one is that while the audience hears the directions at first, so we can see how well the guests execute them, we stop being privy to that information as the piece goes on—the directions get whispered in someone's ear, or they are silently read on pieces of paper that then get discarded. Despite a dip in tension at the two-thirds mark, the show—which starts in a mood of surreal humor—ends with a startling release of pent-up aggression. Our guests, who included Neal Medlyn, looked shaken and stirred.

You only have until Sunday to catch Doublethink—and Ann Liv Young is scheduled to participate! After that, Rotozaza will stage Five in the Morning, which presents a similar concept in a water park. Score another one for PS's artistic director, Vallejo Gantner.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Unswitched-on Classics

BAM seems to have turned into an annex of the British Consulate. Right now, it's hosting not one, not two, but three imported productions at the same time—and in longer runs than is usual at BAM.

Let's start with the dispensable offering. At the Opera House we have Matthew Bourne's adaptation of Edward Scissorhands. The production is eye candy but its pleasures pretty much stop there: It never graduates from pleasing to thrilling. Even the big ensemble dances—something to which I usually respond in a Pavlovian manner—failed to raise my pulse. It's hard to pinpoint where exactly Bourne failed: It's all aesthetically pleasing, the individual performances are just fine. But Terry Davies' new score is a lite-jazz wash (Danny Elfman at least can do big-band stomp very well, a legacy from his Oingo Boingo days) and Bourne rushes through the story with such precipitation that nothing sticks. Like my colleague David Cote, I agree that his finest work in recent years has been Mary Poppins, and wish he'd work with better material—and on a real musical, not another of those those flaccid "dancicals."

On the other hand, I cannot recommend enough The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, in rep at the Harvey. Edward Hall's all-male Propeller company plays both, with the same cast and the same basic décor. I particularly loved Shrew, in which the comic elements are very, very funny, while the turn to harsher emotions in the second half is heartbreaking. The only two Shrews I'd seen before contorted themselves to sugarcoat the ending, trying to make it look as if Kate was a liberated woman on equal standing with her husband. But Hall plays the text literally and shows a woman broken by a lout.

Still, beyond my immediate liking of these two productions, it's hard not to be a little bit disappointed by BAM's overall trend of betting on dead white men (particularly Shakespeare) to bring in the punters. It's also showing Cymbeline this spring, and Ian McKellen's King Lear in the fall—and it's safe to predict those productions aren't going to fuck with the Bard, unlike Jan Lauwers' memorable King Lear, during which people fled the Harvey Theater in droves during the show.

I find this reflex emphasis on safety classics disheartening and the vision of world theater it presents ossified. The presence of contemporary non-American playwrights is dwindling, as are the appearances of major non-English directors (repeat visits by Thomas Ostermeier's being a major exception). The days when we could see Company B Belvoir's adaptation of Cloudstreet or Bernard-Marie Koltès' In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields at BAM seem sadly over.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Out to Loach

News has surfaced that lefty filmmaker Ken Loach—whose latest, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, is currently playing in NYC—is supporting the candidacy of Olivier Besancenot for the French presidential elections. Give me a friggin' break! Besancenot means well, but he's also stuck in an illusory past and preaching for a no-less-illusory future.

Besancenot is the candidate of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), a Trotskyist party long associated with Alain Krivine, who himself ran for president in 1969, 1974 and 1981. To his credit, Besancenot, a postman by trade, isn't as reactionary and sectarian as fellow far-left candidate Arlette Laguiller, from Lutte Ouvrière, a party that's been called a cult but its opponents and still positions the working class as a revolutionary vanguard despite the fact that a) its definition of said working class is stuck in the 19th century and b) said working class is equally prone to vote for the extreme-right National Front these days.

In a way it's easy to see why Besancenot's anti-capitalist campaign is alluring to Loach: It's exciting to see a candidate who's an actual working man and questions the entire system the world is built on, including, as Loach points out, privatizations like the ones that were so disastrous in England.

But why isn't Loach reaching out to the Parti Socialiste? Too middle-class reformist for his taste? On the one hand that's understandable, and I'll be the first one to deplore the wimpy way the PS has drifted toward the center in the past 20 years. On the other, we need to be realistic: Besancenot has zero chance of making it to the second round; his candidacy is divisive because he's taking essential votes from the PS candidate and could prevent her from reaching the second round.

I know there's no chance this would happen since he probably thinks she's way too centrist, but how great would it be if Loach directed some campaign videos for Ségolène Royal? She needs someone to light a match under her bourgie ass, and he's just the right guy to do it.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Now wait a minute!

See these guys on the left? They played Roseland Thursday night, except for some reason they were never mentioned in the New York Times' review of the show. The very first sentence announced "a very strong triple bill"—Machine Head, Trivium and headliner Lamb of God. Poor, poor Gojira, who went on first and completed what actually was a very strong quadruple bill.

Reviewer Kelefa Sanneh also described "the most discordant moment of the night" as when the crowd responded to Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe's injunction to "Give it up for Trivium!" with a mix of applause and boos. But an equally discordant moment had happened earlier, when the French Quartet That Wasn't There was greeted with boos, raised middle fingers and shouts of "Fuck you, Frenchmen!"—I know, 'cause some of the eloquent meatheads were standing right next to me.

Gojira proceeded to shut those morons up with a blistering set played at top volume. (And the sound was crystal-clear, in contrast to Machine Head, which played equally loudly but with a muddled balance that made me feel as if the double kick drum was positioned right behind my eyeballs.) There's a reason Gojira was on the cover of Terrorizer a few months ago: Its latest album, From Mars to Sirius, is a massive slab of prog-death metal (with environmentally aware lyrics, natch), and live the band was pulverizingly heavy, like Mastodon without the dumb facial hair. Randy Blythe seemed to think so too: He joined Gojira onstage for half a song.

MP3 Gojira "Backbone" from From Mars to Sirius (2005)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

TV on demand

The indispensable INA (Institut National de l'Audiovisuel) is the repository of French public television and radio archives, and there's gold in them vaults. INA has been putting a lot of its holdings online lately; most of the footage is for rent or purchase (prices usually range between 1.5 and 6 euros), so you can download and watch at your leisure, and there are plenty of free clips and teasers.

Recently, INA uploaded a whole slew of Apostrophes, a wildly popular literary talk show that aired between 1975 and 1990, and remains a classic of French television. Just search for Solzhenitsyn (or rather Soljénitsyne, in French), for instance, and you'll get a special, shot in 1983, where host Bernard Pivot visited the Russian writer (seen playing tennis at one point) at his Vermont house. Other classics I still remember from my childhood include a very drunk Bukowski, a cigarette in one hand, a glass of something boozy in the other, staggering out of the set after driving the usually unflappable Pivot crazy, in 1978.

You can also listen to the news broadcast from the day you were born, and of course, the INA site is loaded with great music, from Sheila singing "Les Rois Mages" in hot pants to entire operas from the Aix en Provence festival, like a Così fan Tutte recorded live in 1955.

Have I mentioned the plays? French public TV used to show a lot of theater, and my generation grew up devouring everything from boulevard stars (all hail Jacqueline Maillan!) to Marivaux in prime time.

Thank you, INA, for giving us the biggest time-suck outside of YouTube.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Young the restless

It was pretty fitting that a blizzard hit New York Friday night; walking down 10th Avenue in whiteout conditions added a layer of deep-freeze fun to Ann Liv Young's retelling of Snow White at the Kitchen.

From what I gather, many—including, it would appear, some of her own (now ex) collaborators—think Ann Liv Young is a fraud who's getting press and European grants solely because her shows are in-your-face raunchy. She usually gets reviewed in dance sections but there's relatively little dancing (or what is traditionally thought of as dancing) in the two pieces by her that I've now seen, and it can be very crude, owing more to 1980s music videos and cheerleading routines to Judson or Martha or Twyla or whoever the hell it is NY choreographers look up to these days. The overall aesthetic is rough and amateurish, but you can't tell if this is a deliberate choice executed with canny precision or the result of a certain haplessness on Young's part. Likely, it's a mix of both, which is one of the reasons I like her shows so much.

While Michael, performed at Dance Theater Workshop in 2005, was mondo trailer trash, Snow White is a gonzo-karaoke Twilight of the Fairy Tales. The cast of three—Young, Liz Santoro and Michael Guerrero—already was onstage, wearing eye-shredding white leotards and black ankle-high Reeboks, as we took our seats. Santoro in particular looked as if she was dreading what was about to happen; rarely have I seen so much anxious boredom ooze out of a performer doing strictly nothing.

They started things off by singing along to Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal"; the effect was oddly powerful, with Young in particular looking magnetically feral. In another highlight, Snow White (Young) got fucked by the Prince (Santoro, sprouting a dildo attached to her hips with pink duct tape) to the strains of the original version of "Someday My Prince Will Come." At one point, the Prince berated Snow White in French ("You sucked off all the dwarfs, etc."); at another, Young explained her creative process, which seems to mainly involve harshing on her team, "like when I tell Liz she's a dyke with no singing ability. The next day, she's impeccable." The ensemble of three dressed and undressed constantly, going from one hideous getup to another, while Young, clearly in charge, requested water in the middle of a dance, petulantly barked directions and bossed the other two around.

The entire time, Young's expressions ranged from bratty to angry to frustrated to bored to resentful, as if she was pissed off with her own show and couldn't wait for it to end. It didn't matter if she was play-acting or not and it's this ambiguity that's her strength, this confusion that makes her so bewilderingly interesting. Does it matter if we know what's planned or not? Young is very clever at making it all look like a gigantic car crash in progress but she let us in on her self-awareness with a brilliant idea toward the end, when the three performers sang along to a recording session of the vocals to the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" complete with studio fuck-ups and interruptions.

Young's choices challenge ours as supposedly hip audience members: Okay, so we've taken an endorsement of junk aesthetics as far as it will go—now what? Cannily, her perpetually angry, perpetually frustrated mix of self-flagellation and self-satisfaction mirrors that of arty, lefty America.

Snow White plays again at the Kitchen on March 21–24. You'll be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend $12 this year.

Friday, March 16, 2007

News from the front

The French front, that is. As the U.S. sinks into further insanity with every passing minute, the first round of the presidential elections is a month away in France, and things are both heating up and…not.

Heating up, because the center-right candidate, François Bayrou, has come from way behind to pull up to pretty much the same level as the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal (candidate MILF!), and now both of them are a few points behind the frontrunner, rightist Nicolas Sarkozy. A few months ago it was assumed by most that Sarko and Ségo would duke it out in the second round, on May 6. Now things are up in the air.

But not heating up either, because the campaign, at least seen from New York, feels rather dull. Sarko has a proven record as a power-mad authoritarian, the great muckracking weekly Le Canard enchaîné has unearthed juicy stuff about his real-estate holdings, and yet he's ahead. But Ségo's campaign is disastrous. She's not any more or less knowledgeable than her male competitors but when she is caught not knowing something, it sticks like glue. Meanwhile, members or former members of her own party are coming up with books attacking her.

On Tuesday, Alan Riding had an article in The New York Times about how contrary to years past, culture doesn't figure out much in these elections. What caught my eye is that how he remarked that unlike in England, in France there's still a "gulf between subsidized high culture and commercial popular culture." First of all, this a rather big overstatement. Unlike in France "directors and actors move freely between serious theater and movies" in England, says Riding; I'm sure this will be news to the likes of Michel Piccoli, Philippe Torreton, Jeanne Balibar, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Frot—actors who move freely between theater (both serious and not) and movies (ditto). I mean come on: even Alain Delon is starring in a stage adaptation of Bridges of Madison County right now!

Also, since bridging the "gulf" between high and low is to be praised, Riding may want to look into it. A new opera in Copenhagen? Check. Something cooking at the Tate? Right-o. Just don't expect any coverage of what sociological tidbits can be gleaned from Nouvelle Star, the French take on American Idol, for instance, or even of the commercial theater scene anywhere but England (see Alain Delon reference above).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

On the newsstands

The new Time Out New York is out, with two short pieces by yours truly: a review of Natsuo Kirino's latest novel, Grotesque, and a preview of the Justin Timberlake shows.

In other publishing news, I'm perversely thrilled to have been called a Nazi by a Salon reader reacting (anonymously, of course) to my article there.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I could have listened to her all night

I blogged about Marat/Sade first, but it actually was the last entry in the weekend's trifecta of shows—on Saturday, I'd seen the revival of Prelude to a Kiss followed by the Philharmonic's concert staging of My Fair Lady at Avery Fisher Hall.

I've never been bowled over by Craig Lucas's plays; they are competent but fail to touch me either emotionally or intellectually. Prelude to a Kiss didn't do anything to change that opinion, especially in the Roundabout's competent but lackluster production. The only thing I have to say is that I don't understand why the character of Rita is so often described as "neurotic." Even in Annie Parisse's high-strung interpretation, Rita strikes me as having not so much neuroses as a variety of issues. When did "neurotic" become shorthand for "strong personality" in America? What's up with the medicalization, especially considering that it's usually employed in reference to women?

Moving uptown for My Fair Lady, which ranged from charming to absolutely thrilling—the latter every time Kelli O'Hara, who played Eliza Doolittle, sang. I'd missed the 1993 revival that starred Richard Chamberlain and Melissa Errico (has it really been ten years since she was scheduled to be the Next Big Thing of musical theater? What happened to that?) so this was my first time seeing My Fair Lady since moving to New York in 1990. It's going to be hard to top the production, even taking into account the fact that no B'way orchestra could ever dream of matching the Philharmonic's insane lushness. Kelsey Grammer may have been typecast as Henry Higgins, but he did a fine job, and it turned out that Brian Dennehy can sing. Who knew?

As a tribute to Lerner & Loewe, here's Mathilde Santing's gender-bended take on "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," recorded in 1982 with a dinky Casio and drum machine.

MP3 Mathilde Santing "I've Grown Accustomed to her Face" from Mathilde Santing

According to her website, Santing is playing Glinda—in alternance with Glennis Grace, who represented the Netherlands at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005—in a Dutch production of The Wiz. She's also a brunette now.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The filth and the fury

Sensitive souls were well-advised to take a pass on the Classical Theatre of Harlem's staging of Marat/Sade, which I was lucky to see yesterday, on the last day of its run: It featured the most realistic shit I've ever seen on a New York stage—as opposed to the shitty realism one sometimes encounters at the Roundabout or MTC.

It boggles the mind to think that not only was Peter Weiss's play (full title: The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade) once on Broadway, but it won four Tonys in 1966! Glenda Jackson, who played Marat's assassin, Charlotte Corday, was nominated for Best Featured Actress but didn't win. Director Peter Brook also handled the movie adaptation, from which the photo above is taken.

Except for one silent role, there weren't any women in Christopher McElroen's staging for CTH. And this is the least of his conceptual touches. McElroen's biggest stroke of inspiration was to reconceive the physical space so that the action would take place in a central ring enclosed by chain-link fences; the audience sat in two rows on three of the sides, with two lateral galleries allowing the actors to roam behind the spectators. Since Marat/Sade happens in the titular asylum, this entirely made sense, creating the suffocating impression to be prisoner in a pressure cooker. And McElroen ratcheted up the tension already present in the text, keeping the proceedings at a fever pitch the entire time.

The high dramatic point comes during Sade's big speech—which T. Ryder Smith, as the divin Marquis, must give while getting flogged, his white shirt sprouting crimson flowers. Once that's over, he grabs handfuls of excrement from a bucket and smears it all over his face. A woman sitting in front of me laughed loudly, and was told "This is not funny!" (I couldn't identify who said that—a fellow audience member or someone from the cast.) Sitting a few feet away and watching in horror as turds were flying about, I felt as if a huge weight was pressing down on my chest.

My main caveat with the whole endeavor is that too often Weiss's text—which essentially contrasts two ideas of revolution, Marat's radical dream of a revolution by the people and for the people and Sade's highly individualistic philosophy—got lost in the general mayhem (we're talking hoses to calm down the inmates here). Weiss was a leftist German who in the 1960s realized socialism as practiced by the USSR—one of two large-scale models of communism in action at the time—could not work without crushing the individual. (See also Vasily Grossman's extraordinary Life and Fate for the daily practice of Stalinism.) "On the one hand the urge with axes and knives/To change the whole world and improve people's lives/On the other hand the individual lost in thought/Caught in the throes of the calamity he's wrought," summarizes Sade. But it's hard to focus on ideas when someone is banging on a pipe right behind your head or pulling on your chair.

As we embark on presidential campaigns in France and here, those of us passionate about the arts should keep in mind something else Weiss wrote (not in Marat/Sade): “Art is never a weapon in the sense of concrete political action. It only conveys activity, it communicates qualities which we have to detect in ourselves. We are the ones who, upon closing in on a work of art, liberate the powers confined within. Without our ability to ingest, our own ability to think, the work remains powerless. However, with our attentiveness we transpose the latent vision into real, perceptible deeds.”

Partly this is saying that going to a political show—writing a political show—just isn't enough when it comes to "concrete action." Let's keep this in mind when do-gooders start going on and on about the importance of political art: As much as I'd like to think otherwise, art will never replace the less-glamorous practice of politics when it comes to actually changing the world. You can go listen to Springsteen and feel good about yourself, but that won't prevent Rome from burning—ie, the Republican machine from savagely gutting your country's institutions, moral fabric and individual lives.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

All the art money can buy

Last week, Lincoln Center announced the lineup for this year's summer festival. My colleague Gia Kourlas has already expressed what she thinks about the dance component, but fortunately the theater offerings look more inviting.

At each of the last three Robert Wilson shows I've seen, I've told myself "never again!" only to get suckered into going just one last time. The familiar thought last popped up after seeing Quartett in the fall, but once again I'll go back to the trough since Lincoln Center is bringing over the staging of La Fontaine's fables that Wilson did for the Comédie-Française, complete with Français actors. I'm also totally psyched by the return of the Kabuki troupe Heisei Nakamura-za, whose last appearance at the festival in 2004 remains a great theater memory, and very intrigued by the prospect of a Taiwanese King Lear (the third major Lear of the year, with the Kline Lear currently at the Public and the McKellen Lear coming to BAM in September).

Also appealing-looking are the four Spanish-language plays, including Gemelos, an adaptation of Agota Kristof's amazing novel The Notebook (which is part of a trilogy but holds up on its own), and Proyecto Chejov, a deconstruction of The Three Sisters by Argentine director Daniel Veronese, whose Hamletmachine I'd quite enjoyed at BAM in 2000.

All in all, we have many reasons to looking forward to July.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Lusophone love

The new issue of the good-looking cultural webzine Obscena is out and it's packed to the gills, with pieces on the Judson Church group, Caden Manson and Richard Foreman, and my own overview of current New York theater on pages 20–22. You can download the pdf here.

Er…it's all in Portuguese. Not a problem, right?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

She's a maniac

Catching up with the ongoing fourth season of The L Word, I must grudgingly give kudos to creator and frequent writer Ilene Chaiken. I'm not sure I'd like to share an espresso with her, and I can't tell whether her choices stem from cluelessness or rebelliousness—there's such a thin line between visionary and nincompoop—but her blithe disregard for narrative conventions and psychological logic makes for addictive television. Ever since the series started, characters have made stupefyingly dumb choices (Bette's flirtation with the carpenter and the student, Max going out with his boss's daughter), undergone personality transplants (Helena's turn from arrogant rich bitch to poor patsy, and hard to remember now that she's a saint, but Bette started as an obnoxious alpha female) and somehow tolerated asshole behavior of the highest order (psychopathic Jenny and cheating, scheming Tina still have friends).

And yet…oh, Chaiken, how you torture us with your gallery of self-involved L.A. lezzies in tight tank tops and horrifying haircuts. The show is like a trip to Payard: shiny colors and sweet, sweet indulgences, including my personal favorite—the hilarious name-dropping in conjunction with Jenny's literary career.

I might also mention that Jennifer Beals has been inducted in my highly selective roster of stage/screen crushes, which includes the likes of Vivica Genaux, Valérie Lemercier, Karin Viard, Elizabeth Marvel and Catherine Keener (Diana Damrau, I have my eye on you too). There are many things to praise about Ms. Beals in The L Word, but a personal favorite may well be the fact that unlike less high-profile cast members, who have no choice but to bare all, Beals seems to have a no-nipple clause in her contract. She's been in quite a few sex scenes over the past four years, and every time it's a pleasure to watch the director of photography go through exquisite contortions in order to avoid showing the Bealsaboob.

Another pleasure has derived from seeing the extremely gifted cartoonist Ariel Schrag benefit from gainful employment as a story editor and occasional episode writer (she displayed a sure comic touch in the recent episode in which the girls comfort Cybill Shepherd's husband). She's come a long way since I wrote about her autobiographical comics in the Village Voice back in 1999.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

You missed me, you really missed me!

Fine, I know nobody actually noticed I was on vacation so let's go straight to this year's vastly entertaining movie awards—no, silly, not the Oscars but the Césars, the ones that are given out in France. For the second consecutive year the ceremony was hosted by Valérie Lemercier, whom I worship with the goo-goo eyes of a home-schooled 13-year-old. And after what she pulled off a couple of weeks ago, I'll start a cargo cult.

First of all, her entrance to the tune of Zouk Machine's 80s hit "Maldone" has already become an insta-classic. Check out, in particular, Almodovar's baffled look. Lemercier again pulled all the stops in another musical display later on, when she performed the cult dance scene from The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1974) as part of a tribute to that movie's director, Gérard Oury, who died in 2006.

Another memorable moment came about when the French distributor of Little Miss Sunshine, which won for Best Foreign Film, accepted the award on behalf on the directors and unconsciously began lasciviously fondling the statuette. Classic live-TV moment.

And because nobody gets rudely interrupted by a swelling orchestra at the Césars, writer-director Pascale Ferran (whose Lady Chatterley eventually won for Best Film) was able to squat the stage with a very long prepared speech about the state of French cinema and the benefit situation of those who work in the industry. She went on and on and on in a deafening silence but the earnest awkwardness of the moment was delish.

Marina Hands (daughter of stage legend Ludmila Mikaël) won Best Actress for the title role in Lady Chatterley. Marion Cotillard might as well start preparing her 2008 acceptance speech now: She's selflessly amazing as Edith Piaf in La Môme. The movie's surprisingly good and I'm sure there'll be plenty of opportunities to come back to it when it's released here in June under the title La vie en rose (never mind there's already a charming Belgian movie called Ma vie en rose).

Other than that, it was really fun to be in France a few weeks before a presidential election. The big talk was about the candidates' real-estate holdings and just how many nuclear submarines the country owns, a question that stumped both major candidates, Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy. I also witnessed Sarko host Canal+'s evening show Le Grand Journal. Sarko's problem right now is that he has zero emotional capital, ie the French think he's efficient but also a cold-hearted jerk. When asked to pick a favorite movie scene, then, Sarko showed a clip from the 2001 tearjerker I Am Sam, in which Sean Penn goes all Method on us playing a retarded man. Unbelievably, the show's hosts didn't blink at such a naked display of political calculation.

Sarko's literary pick was Yasmina Reza's thin novel Nulle Part, from which he even read an excerpt. Though Reza's latest piece for the stage, A Spanish Play, has been panned in NYC, the choice seemed interesting until I later learned that Reza's following the candidate around in order to write a book about him.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Back in black

Ah vacation…a week away, several days to recover. While I concoct a little something about what I saw and heard when I was over in Europe, here's a link to my Salon piece about the debate surrounding Jonathan Littell's novel Les Bienveillantes in France. I can't wait to hear Abraham Foxman and GLAAD's shrieks of righteous indignation when the book comes out here next year.

I also saw and enjoyed the new Jackie Hoffman show, Jackie with a Z, a couple of weeks ago. My review in TONY can be found here.