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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Cultural Thunderdome: For Your Consideration Reviewed

Three events enter, one event leaves. That's rather how I'm feeling recently as I play catch up in writing about some of the things we've done over the last few months. For example, I no sooner get an opportunity to fan girl all over my new tenor boyfriend and his Beautiful Opera Hair than we go to see Webb Wilder at Fitzgerald's last night and will be returning there both tonight and tomorrow for Robbie Fulks and Pat McLaughlin, respectively.

Spoilers for For Your Consideration follow.

So JRH didn't like For Your Consideration. Given that we are very frequently on exactly the same wavelength regarding movies (so long as they are not movies for which you'll want to be routinely using your DVD player's ability to zoom in and enhance, if you take my meaning), this was distressing news. Nonetheless, it's not like we weren't going to see a Christopher Guest movie. After all, Mr. Guest figures prominently in my fool-proof spousal choice system. On the CD that the Zombie King and I made for our wedding favor, "When You're Next to Me" by Mitch & Mickey was one of the songs on it. At the time, I wrote this: "If you're in the market for a spouse, I suggest that you apply this simple, but very important test: Show them a Christopher Guest movie. Does your intended get it? Does he or she love Corky? Is the Congress of the Cow a difficult position for him or her emotionally? This folky little love ditty from A Mighty Wind embodies all that's good and loving about these movies as far as I'm concerned. No one can touch Guest in the 'affectionate parody' arena."

I can't remember when we actually saw the movie. It was sometime just after Thanksgiving, I think. It's certainly Guest's least likable movie, but it's not Attack of the Clones Bad (although for the record, I didn't think Attack of the Clones was the worst of the three).

One of the biggest strengths of Guest's movies is the tightrope of humor that he walks. He unflinchingly shows us that his characters are ridiculous, oblivious, narcissistic, parochial, and sometimes just not that bright. But he loves his characters and is just as eager to show us the bizarre ways in which they are quick witted, generous within their limited means, talented, and comfortable in their own wacky skins. I've always thought that he does this beautifully, and I tend to love his characters almost as much as I think he does.

But not everyone sees it that way, I guess. Notably, The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum sees in Guest nothing but loathing for himself, his characters, and humanity in general. No accounting for tastes and all that—a chestnut that became more meaningful to me than ever when I found myself, along with my sister-in-law, trying to explain to my sister why satire a la Borat can't really be evaluated on the same terms or taken, more or less, at face value in the same way as racist screed from Mel Gibson. Have I mentioned that I think my sister needs to get off the frontier more frequently?

Anyway, I have to admit that For Your Consideration is not as adept at walking the line between laughing at and laughing with. I don't think it's necessarily a function of deviating from the mockumentary format, although that seems to contribute and there are some signs that Guest (and Eugene Levy as a cow-riter) was not entirely comfortable leaving that format behind. For a relatively short movie (86 minutes), there's a lot of screen time spent with individual characters or small groups being interviewed in one way or another. Early on, these take the form of a PR minion (Carrie Aizley) trying to get insights from the cast and crew to market an unmarketable melodrama set in the 40s about a family of Southern Jews. These dead end pretty consistently.

Later, it gets worse, as Fred Ward's character monopolizes a painfully long and stilted Entertainment Tonight-style interview with the whole cast. I've got nothing against Fred Ward, but a little of the character he plays in these (which is the same every time) goes a long, long way. Guest also sticks to the interview format when he sends his leads on the talk-show circuit as the Oscar Buzz ramps up, and some of these work better than others. For example, I had to watch through my fingers as the newly frosted Harry Shearer busted a disturbing move on the set of Chillaxin', but in the promos and opening segments for the ET-style show, Deborah Theaker's stiff body language and blank-to-pouty facial expression cracked my shit up every. single. time.

In addition to the come-hither-get-ye-hence relationship with the mockumentary style, the central conceit is a big problem. Yeah, I just said central conceit in an entry about a Christopher Guest movie, you wanna go? And I might just go to the Aristotelian Unities place before it's over, so as the current movie quote meme advised: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy Matilda."

Seriously, the movie itself is a problem as the thing that supposedly has brought all the characters together. Initially called Home for Purim, it really does seem to be a kind of demented Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?. Harry Shearer is the weak, pencil-thin-mustachioed father, and Catherine O'Hara plays the possibly dying matriarch of a Jewish family in the Deep South in the 1940s (?). Their son (Christopher Moynihan) is home from the Navy for the holiday, and they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of their daughter (Parker Posey). Posey does arrive, but has her female lover (Rachael Harris) in tow.

The problem with it is not so much that it's completely unbelievable that anyone would ever make this movie. It's much more that there's no particular reason why anyone on the canvas would make the movie. Sure, Shearer and O'Hara's characters are more or less washed up and need the work; Posey and Moynihan are a would-be Brangelina-type couple, and Harris is an "Indies Only" method snob. But Jennifer Coolidge's (Who, by the way deserves major kudos for her Barbara Streisand impression being the only non-heinous thing about Date Movie. Alyson Hannigan: Here's a nickel. Get yourself a fucking agent and some taste.) role as producer is inexplicable, and the script takes no trouble whatsoever to explic it, seeming content to "insert freakish trophy wife with unlimited cash #464." Worse yet, our brief exposure to the writers (Bob Balaban and Michael McKean, both sorely underused) and the director (Guest himself, taking much more of a back seat than in any movie so far) indicate that they know little or nothing about Jewish culture or their characters.

There seems to be no reason why anyone is concerned with telling this particular story. Without the passion of Corky and his crew for the hopelessly hokey celebration pageant, of Cookie and Gerry Fleck for their terriers, and so on, there's little to love and a lot to be uncomfortable with regarding Home for Purim. There are two moments when the love for the demented creation shines through. First, Catherine O'Hara and Parker Posey, bless their little cotton socks, do have a genuinely schmaltzy-but-touching mother-daughter scene, despite the horrible Yiddish-meets-Southern dialogue (could there be any more hyphens in that sentence?). The second is the Purim Song (unsurprisingly written by Levy and Guest) that the family sings around the table. But these are too little love and far too late. By the time the studio instructs everyone not to be so "in your face" about "the Jewish thing," and the title gets changed to Home for Thanksgiving, it doesn't even feel like a cheat that we saw no resistance from anyone.

Guest remains true to the structure of the other movies in that For Your Consideration contains the traditional "fast forward X months" segment. But in this case, it contains the climax of the movie, as it were, and isn't simply a wry, bittersweet coda as it is in the others. I couldn't estimate how long this section actually is, but it must be in the neighborhood of 20 minutes, so it represents about the last 25% of the movie. That's a long time to be watching the sell outs the characters have become, especially when we never really got around to loving them in the first place. I will say this for Guest, Catherine O'Hara's first appearance in sell-out mode is the most shocking moment I've experienced in the theater since I saw Old Boy. Just before the inevitable climax of all the selling out, there's a party scene at the house of a studio suit (played by Ricky Gervais). It's plastic and miserable and uncomfortable and unkind (Parker Posey and Catherine O'Hara are quite good in this scene, it's worth nothing), and yet the real coda of the movie goes to an even darker, meaner place.

Wow, that all comes out sounding a lot more like JRH was right. I still don't think that's the case. There are still a lot of funny moments in the movie, and most of the performances from regulars and newbies alike, are whole-hearted and impressive, if not lovable. I wouldn't go so far even as to say that none of the characters is likable. Both O'Hara and Shearer are good enough that I hated the sins but liked and had empathy for the sinners. And for most of the others, it was more that the script gave them such short shrift that I didn't know enough about them to really get them.

It's a movie that's worth a rental, but real fans of Guest should steel themselves for a spotty effort.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Starcross'd: Lyric Opera's Charles Gounod's Romeo + Juliet

I don't know anyone who hasn't, at one time or another, expressed a desire to regain some facet of their cultural virginity. I'm not talking about wishing that you'd spent the hours you wasted on the first 300 pages of Bleak House on more fruitful and pleasurable pursuits, like jabbing sharp, rusty things into your groin repeatedly. I do not speak of coming down on the side of death when contemplating "fate worse than" issues with respect to the 4 hours you spent in the Gitmo known as the first Harry Potter movie.

I'm talking in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind terms here. (This is an ironic metaphor as I've never seen said film, and I do most earnestly wish that I'd never lost my Jim Carrey virginity.) A chance to read Fire & Hemlock or Emma or The Edible Woman for the first time, to see The Princess Bride and have a genuine "Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?" moment because it's possible that nobody's going to get Humperdinck.

Much like literal virginity, losing literary virginity isn't all it's cracked up to be, and there's something to be said for a text that knows which buttons to push. Possibly the best of all possible worlds is when one finds oneself yodeling "Oh Sweet Mystery of Life at Last I've Foooooouuunnd Yooou!" upon viewing a known text in an entirely new, quasivirginal light.

This is all my 'round about way of saying I 'get' Romeo and Juliet now.

It's not that I have ever disliked Romeo & Juliet. For your semi-ubiquitous Shakespeare, I come down firmly pro-Hamlet and moderatly anti-A Midsummer Night's Dream. On the old R&J, I've remained a true neutral. I think it's rather clever and lends itself to temporal displacement and oddball staging better than some of the Bard's other work. Once I started teaching Cultural Anthropology, I realized its utility for teaching about kinship and how kin identity can be a prime mover for individual action. But thinking about the story as TEXT—in those terms and those terms only leads one down the path of Eurotrash Madness.

But it's not like I rush out to see it when I learn that it's being staged somewhere nearby. It's rather like To Catch a Thief in that regard: It's always on somewhere, so what's the big rush to watch it right now? But I guess I've been creeping up on a Romeo & Juliet renaissance for a decade now. Credit for getting the ball rolling goes, of course, to Baz Luhrmann for assembling a stellar cast and actually using his updated setting with the play, rather than against or irrespective of it.

More recently, the tragically Rachel McAdams-less R&J subplot of the second season of Slings & Arrows seemed doom to doom the doomed ones once again to "meh" territory. And then Paul Gross went and did it. It's a scene with more lead up than this entry (bear in mind, this is about opera . . . eventually). Geoffrey is dealing with a number of crises in his office. Periodically, the young leads from R&J poke their heads in, looking sweatier and more breathless with each appearance. Each time he sends them off again and we realize that he has them doing laps and push-ups. Ultimately, he keeps them on hand and has them do Act II, scene ii. Not Juliet's soliloquy, but the juicy after bits.

It's a scene so famous and so often done that it's not too surprising it's so often done badly. The most common mistake is pausing for a languid poetic interlude. The pace of the action has been accelerating pretty steadily up to this point, the scene itself takes place immediately (well, almost immediately. Even Lurhmann takes a bite out of the pacing by having Juliet's schmoop go to 11 during her soliloquy) after an aborted manly confrontation, and the stakes are higher than ever. If the world ground to a halt when their eyes met across a crowded room in scene i, it's making up for lost time now, and the frenzy both fuels and is fueled by Romeo and Juliet's passion. Bringing things back around to the To Catch a Thief analogy, it's the critical moment in the Western world's first romantic thriller. Geoffrey evokes that frenetic pace in his actors, and the result is a beautiful moment of clarity that this is not just bloodless, reflective romance, it's raw, in-the-moment sexual desire.

And from here on out, I swear to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I'm going to talk about Lyric's production of Gounod's opera. My sister-in-law was my ride along for the December 12th performance. Originally my tickets were for December 9th, but M and I were off visiting L and N. I'd note the bitter irony of rescheduling to accommodate the person who abandoned me on the opera-going front, but I'm too delighted that I got to see the performance that I did to even joke about such things.

I'm not sure why Matthew Polenzani was not available for what seem to have been the last three performances, but the 12th marked the beginning of a three-performance run with Massimo Giordano as Romeo. As A and I were looking through the Pompous Booklet, I pointed out that we would be seeing the Special Edition Romeo with the Beautiful Opera Hair. A, after a beat, said, "Strangely, I have no problem with that."

When the "cell phone and pager" man of doom stepped out into a spot, paper in hand, the usual tsk of irritation went up from the crowd. This seemed to be a tsk in principle given that there was no palpable outrage when he announced that Dina Kuznetsova was indisposed and Susanna Phillips would be singing Juliette. A leaned over and said, "That's ok, too, so long as we have the guy with the hair."

It's been my experience that the substitutions work out pretty well. I think L and I were more or less alone in not being heart-broken when we had a replacement for Jane Eaglen in Götterdämmerung. Our reward was seeing Jennifer Wilson in what proved to be a pivotal moment in her career and possibly a pivotal moment for Wagnerian opera.

I can say that this trend held strong and true for this performance of R&J. For Juliette's part, I have enjoyed hearing Dina Kuznetsova grow from her enthusiastic, youthful performance in Cunning Little Vixen to the breadth and depth she displayed in Rigoletto. But I'm always eager to hear new singers, especially when I've enjoyed them in minor roles, as is the case with Susanna Phillips and her performance in Carmen earlier this year. Phillips voice more than matched the promise of her acting, and her acting continued to be a thing of beauty.

But if I'm being completely honest, the happiest coincidence for me in this performance was Romeo. I have nothing against Polenzani, and I'm sure he's a fine singer, but I think that my new tenor boyfriend and I owe him a thank you gift for bringing us together. Giordano truly had me from, "Non!...non! Vous l'avez promis."

If anyone wants to argue that he vocally sinned (and I will fuck your shit up for it), they might cite him for power far exceeding that of any of the other male singers. Truthfully, I couldn't quite believe that it was a tenor reaching the far corners of the place, let alone that the power was accompanied by the kind of warmth and richness that I associate with baritones and basses (hence my antitenor bias). And the fat netting wrapped around that—the truffle bribe atop it—was the complete absence of the blaring, brassy quality that most tenors adopt to convey the drama.

Even if his voice hadn't knocked my . . . erm . . . socks off (remember Bare Feet = Teh Sex), his dramatic performance as Romeo was so right in every way, I couldn't have helped being grateful at the opportunity to see it. In his blurb in the PB, Giordano says, "The portrayal changes according to who one's partner is onstage in this opera. When Juliet's a light soprano, you have to balance with her in a different way than with a lyric. I especially love Romeo because this is a characterization in which you really can show the audience what you can do — and you have so many opportunities to bring them along with you."

Of course this reads, in retrospect, like a prophecy: What would his performance have been like opposite Kuznetsova? I have to admit that if it had been remotely feasible to do so in the manic week leading up to Christmas, I would have scored a ticket to one of the two remaining performances in the hopes of finding out. But I remain more than content with the stellar alignment of Phillips and Giordano. It seems likely that they'd never appreciably rehearsed together before the performance, but having seen it, that's nearly impossible to believe. From their moments of giddy flirtation to the tragic, desperate passion following their wedding night, they matched one another note for note, smile for smile, tear for tear. In light of how eerily well they played off one another, it's worth noting that like Giordano, Phillips' bids fair to rise ever above other performers in terms of vocal power. This happy coincidence not only because this opera is so duet dependent, but also because it serves to set the two apart from all others.

It really is hard to pick a highlight, because the whole performance was pure beauty for me. However, the opening of Act IV of the opera (Act III, scene v of the play) deserves special mention. It's another scene that frequently has violence done to it, oddly enough because all of the play's sexual passion is transferred to it and the growing up that both Romeo and Juliet have had to do since that first innocent moment is lost.

Gounod, with the help of librettists Barbier and Carré, has the opportunity to do a bit of script doctoring, of course. The scene begins not at Juliet's window, but in her bed; turning this on its head, he begins not with the lovers' sweet reluctance to part, but with Juliet repeating to herself that she forgives Romeo, though there is nothing to forgive (and, like another lady, she doth protest too much, methinks). Phillips is beautifully transformed from girl to woman here. She sits rigid on the edge of the bed, though her hair is loose and she is wrapped only in sheets—a perfectly aching mixture of wanton satisfaction, grief, and shock. Her first 7 lines are not monotonous enough for recitative nor melodic enough to be the introduction to the duet, they bear the faintest hint of her forgotten prayer, "This intoxication of youth/Lasts, alas, only for one day!/Then comes the hour/When one weeps. . . . Sweet flame!/Stay in my soul/Like a sweet treasure/For a long time still."

Romeo joins her song only when he hears her declaration of love, but again, Giordano plays it as combination of willful deafness and Romeo's need for reassurance and absolution. There's also a magnificent undercurrent of feeling that they are simply talking past one another. Juliette absolves Romeo of Tybalt's murder because it saved his own life. Romeo seems only to have thought of the danger to his own life after the fact, having avenged Mercutio as a man (and a kinsman) must. Carrying this undercurrent through Giordano is equally adept at injecting just the right touch of passive-aggressiveness into Romeo's "Ah, come then, death! I am staying," even without Shakespeare's pointed "Juliet wills it."

When their duet dissolves into passion (and boy howdy, they must have had sentient or remote-controlled bedsheets, because that was one active and well-blocked love scene between two mostly nekkid [and pretty, did I mention pretty?] people), all the weight of events remains, tinging the scene with melancholy but also with fierce determination. It's a love scene between two people who are learning that there are places in the heart of hearts that need to remain closed even to (especially to) the ones we love most.

And it's not just that I had a fixed idea that this scene simply must be done this way and had that vision validated. It was a truly enlightening moment that made me want to run for my copy of the play the minute the opera was over. (Ok, I'll be honest, it's possible that there might have needed to be some intervening time in my bunk to give the beautiful opera hair its due.)

If I must stop gushing about Giordano and Phillips for a moment, the convergence of Gounod and his librettists, the directorial take of Ian Judge, and the acting chops of Kevin Langan (Friar Laurence) deserve special mention. A few years ago, Second City did The People vs. Friar Laurence: The Man Who Killed Romeo & Juliet. I didn't see it, but the very concept cracked me up. After all, the critical misses in R&J are truly his fault for generating the most be-guy-planned Guy Plan in the history of Guy Plans. Luhrmann's missed DHL delivery (and blown-away delivery-attempt notice) are a nod toward improving this. Gounod writes in a trouser role, Stephano, and does a plot fix by having him killed before he can deliver the message.

It's not Wuthering Heights, where Heathcliff overhearing exactly the wrong part of Cathy's speech to Nelly: "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightening, or frost from fire." Because, after all, she is a whiny bitch, he's a controlling psychotic, and they would've been miserable anyway. It's not even Macbeth getting what he deserves for engaging in the eternally pointless art of prophecy evasion (especially when one has deliberately courted certain aspects of the prophecy). The pointless deaths of Romeo & Juliet are entirely Friar Laurence's fault.

In this production, they take that notion and run with it. It's not that Friar Laurence has anything in particular against the couple. In the marriage scene, Langan masterfully moves from overdrawn buffo lecturing to paternal fondness. But from the moment that Romeo reveals that he is speaking of Juliet, not Rosaline, an idea is born in him. In some sense, he sees the two not as individuals, not as a couple, but as a viable solution to the Montague/Capulet feud, and he is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to bring that to fruition:
Yes, had I to confront/ A blind rage,/ I will lend you my help,/ May from your houses/ The age-old hatred/ Be extinguished in your young loves!

There's a subtle emphasis on the hatred and rage over the young love, and from there on out, there is a rigid determination underlying every line of his, no matter how comic. That potential brutality is realized in Act III when he asks the distraught Juliet what is, perhaps, the most unfair question in the history of opera: "So then, death hardly troubles your soul?" and ends his dizzying, fearsome aria with "Do you hesitate?"

I remember being appalled to learn that Marguerite in Gounod's Faust is frequently emotionally gutted when two of her arias are cut. That feeling of "Whatwhatwhat!??!" has nothing on my righteous indignation in learning that Juliette's potion aria, which follows hot on the heels of Friar Laurence's emotional manipulation here, being traditionally cut because Marie Caroline Carvalho, the diva for whom the opera was originally written, didn't feel it suited her voice. Phillips sang the hell out of that aria and in doing so became Juliet incarnate. Absolutely magnificent.

You might have noticed that I've completely reversed my usual ways here and have yet to even mention the set, costumes, or other physical trappings of the production. I assure that is simply because I was totally seduced by the beautiful opera hair, the magnificent opera lungs, and the formidable opera chops of the leads. I was, all things considered, a fan of the design after a bit of uncertainty at the outset. John Gunter had these not inconsiderable goals for his set: "Ian Judge and I wanted something spectacular and had the ability to change in itself, but also to have both the light-heartedness and a dangerous feeling." This speaks to a unity of vision within the production, because that's how I'd describe the dramatic performances of the major players, too.

Before the opera begins, there are, literally, two houses, both alike in dignity on stage. These happen to be metal frames of four-story townhouses, sharing a wall at center. On the second floor of each, a blood-red-velvet chair sits with its back to the shared wall. Both A and I said, "Kind of . . . industrial" in skeptical tones. There were also references to the Barbie Town House . . . you know the one, with the "pull it up yourself, bitch" elevator? But as the overture began, these were rotated toward the wings and upstage, like wings being unfurled (very noisy wings, as the supers were doing the moving and things were very squeaky). A few additional pieces in much the same vein were rolled on and suddenly the vast majority of the stage was open space bounded by these wire-frame outlines. Six or seven red-glass lanterns hanging from chains were lowered in, and Romeo and Juliet's deathbed was rolled on to left-center, flanked by two pillar candles. In general, the lighting design (with kudos to Nigel Levings) works so well with the transitions that all of the industrial feel vanished once there were players on the stage.

The chorus filed on (again, none too silently, which was an unfortunate detraction from what was otherwise a magnificently sombre scene), candles in hand as they took their places. They filled each floor of the "houses" and the main floor, surrounding the Montagues and Capulets, as they sang the prologue. This same set, of course, needs to be transformed in an instant into a swirling, decadent (for Victorians, anyway) party. This was accomplished by whisking out the creepy lanterns, extinguishing and abandoning the chorus's candles, and moving the deathbed offstage in record time and under the cover of a flurry of chorus members peeling off their black cloaks to reveal stunning Victorian ball gowns in every shade of red imaginable. It was so dramatic and effective that I've literally no idea where the candles or the cloaks went.

This is the basic approach to most of the set. The arch that is formed up-center by the two original "townhouses" serves variously as the entrance to the Capulets' gardens, the passage from one street to another, a private nook for conversation away from the throng of the party, and so on. When a more intimate space is demanded (e.g., the balcony scenes, Stephano's aria outside the Capulet house, or when the Nurse flirts with the servants in the garden), one of the pieces along the wings is rolled further toward center, providing a small space of its own above and apart from action on the main floor and considerably reducing the square footage on the main floor and making that available for more private interactions as well.

There are precious few set pieces other than those permanently set into these metal frame structures. I wouldn't swear to it, but I think I can name the three very deliberate deviations from the otherwise uniform set approach: The first are the chairs that are set on stage as a focal point before the music begins; the second is Romeo & Juliet's crypt, which both begins and ends the opera; and the third is Juliet's bed, which is set on the main stage, down right. It is backed by a lush, red velvet curtain hanging from the top of (and, by extension, masking entirely) the metal frame structure behind it. Although I think it was a lovely note and worked well in the context of the design, I did have a bit of a giggle about it, because Gunter also designed Otello in 2001-2002, which was notable for exactly the same bed set up as the backdrop for Desdemona's "Ave Maria."

Other than the party scene, the costumes were not particularly notable. I don't mean that in a damning (or even damning with faint praise) way. They worked well with the set, they flattered the performers, and they added in every way to every scene. About the only complaint I would lodge against Tim Goodchild would be in reference to Juliet's party dress, which had fooferaw that went to 11. It was a dreadful layer-cake style that was all too authentically Victorian. Phillips did not look especially good in it, and it came near impinging on her movement during the opening of her waltz. But then again, it was made for Kuznetsova, so I withdraw even that small complaint.

The rest of the cast, other than my beloveds, whom I've discussed in sufficient, gushing detail, was strong for the most part. I've noted that GIordano's power put Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris at something of a disadvantage, but it's worth noting that the performers (Christopher Feigum, Bryan Griffin, and Phillip Dothard, respectively) did themselves more than proud when not singing up against him. Feigum's "Queen Mab" aria also allowed him to show off his own acting chops. Wayne Tigges as Capulet embraced Gounod's vision of Capulet as a comic character with some tendencies toward peacemaking, which breathed some much-needed depth and believability into his descent into rage after Tybalt's murder.

Meredith Arwady was a true stand out as the Nurse (or Lady Gertrude as she's called here). She's broad and bawdy as easily as she is scolding and maternal. Her affection for Juliet is palpable, and the fact that Juliet herself will never grow to be such a comfortably not-quite-faded beauty is unexpectedly poignant.

I wish I'd gotten around to writing this up sooner, because I feel like I've lost a dozen vital details about this production. I'm sad that its run is over.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Unbuilding a Mystery: Robbie Fulks Secret Country with Kevin Gordon & Pat McLaughlin

My comparative silence here may have led to the mistaken conclusion that I've had positively no life whatsoever over the last two months or so. Quite the opposite, actually. I've been living two entirely separate lives: the one in which I do nothing but grade terrible papers and exams 24/7 and the one in which I've been doing a bunch of awesome culture and culture-adjacent things about which I have no time to write. But hear ye, hear ye, let the twain meet.

Given that a month has elapsed since M and I finally got off our asses and got tickets to see Robbie Fulks Secret Country in its natural habitat, I'm unlikely to do either the experience or the performers justice. But what the hell, I'm giving it a shot.

So we actually have to set the Way-Back machine for same day that I volunteered for the Dan Zanes and Friends kids show. Your resident genius left her cell phone at home that morning (but it was at least left plugged into the charger for once in its life). This resulted in my having to find and actually use a pay phone, something I have not attempted since, I believe, Gerald Ford was president. (Oh, wait, I just remembered that I tried futilely to use one to contact JRH the day that I inadvertantly left him broasting on the steps of the Field.) Although I am about as well suited to use a pay phone as I am to . . . do whatever it is one does to make the space shuttle go, I did successfully place a call informing M that, yes, we did have tickets.

M and I met up and grabbed some dinner at Daily Bar & Grill, and then headed in. I'd panicked when buying the tickets and gone for one of the tables on the floor. I don't necessarily object to these (and I rather like having a table to serve as an altar for my beer), it did mean we were about 7 feet from stage left and the giant, Old Timey Mic that they use to record the show for rebroadcast on XM Radio. So, assuming that they don't fuck with the schedule on account of Christmas Day, you should be able to hear our goofy laughs and/or profanity laden conversations on X-Country's "Slip Stream Special" at 11 AM (and assuming I can read [a big, big assumption] that will be rebroadcast Thursday at 7 PM and again Saturday at 11 AM).

All told, the Secret Country shows last around 3 hours. In the first, Robbie follows an introduction by someone from WLUW with his own dead pan intro and does an "interview" with someone on the Secret Country staff. This time it was with the two troglodyte sound engineers who spend every performance in the basement, never interacting with other staff, let alone the talent. But that's ok, because neither of them really likes country, you see. It's the kind of funny that is absolutely made roadkill by trying to explain, so I'll abstain and simply note that The Quirk is strong in this one.

After this portion of the festivities, Robbie sits down in a little conversation nook (three folding chairs and a floor lamp that, as far as I can tell, does not function) with the two artists for the evening. Here, he conducts an informal interview that is treated with approximately 7% more seriousness than the staff interviews, yet still manages to extract interesting tidbits from the performers and, more importantly, insight into them and their work. The ease with which Robbie pulls this off fills me with professional envy, especially given that it seems he does little or no prepping for the interviews (e.g., he didn't seem to know whether the performers would be playing alone or with a band that night).

As Robbie himself put it, November's Secret Country performers—Kevin Gordon and Pat McLaughlin—fell more on the secret end of the spectrum than is sometimes the case. (Case in Point: One half of December was Jimmie Dale Gilmore—tragically sold out early on, though, so I can provide no inside into how the Voice That's Always Driving By is accomplished.) As synchronicity would have it, though, M and I would meet up with some old friends before the night was out, stealth performers or no.

Among the things Robbie covered during the interview was the writing process. In no particular order, I'll share the two factoids that stuck with me most. The first is that Kevin Gordon was at Iowa Writer's (and got his MFA from there). This is interesting to me to me for a couple of reasons. First, because he seems to have a mixture of scorn for and sheepish pride in the degree that strikes me as about right. Second, there really is a certain something in his song writing that makes it wholly unfair that he's (so far) remained on the secret side of things. Whether Iowa plays a causal role in that, or it's just his innate talent that landed him in Iowa and continues to serve him well on the lyrical side, I don't know. More on that in a bit, but if you feel like dirtying yourself to brave myspace, see his blog entry from October 13 for a bit of what I'm talking about.

Pat McLaughlin's contribution to this side of the discussion was hilarious in the grand Robbie Fulks tradition. For once sounding serious, Robbie asked specifically about a song of Pat's that has the lyric "Ain't that a pretty bird? Sure ain't a friendly bird" and how he'd come to write it. Answering, just as seriously (something of a feat, as Pat has a smile to rival that of Ray Wise [actually, he rather reminded me of {noncrazy, nonloser} Ray]), Pat admitted that the song had been inspired by a particularly exciting case on the People's Court in which the Defendant's bird had bit the Plaintiff. No one, up to and including Robbie, seemed to know whether or not to take this seriously. When it became clear that Pat was on the level, Robbie thanked him wholeheartedly for completely and forevermore ruining the song for him.

One of the other main topics of conversation was their approaches to guitar. Both described a somewhat adversarial relationship with their instruments (um, literal, noneuphemisitic instruments). I can't remember now whether it was Pat or Kevin who revealed that he quit guitar lessons every single time the spectre of playing individual notes appeared. Thinking on it, I believe it was Pat, because it led into a discussion of his approach to the guitar, which is rather . . . ballistic. Cool, definitely. Difficult to describe, decidedly. Violent, indubitably.

Robbie was also struck by (um, not literally this time) Pat's approach. He turned to the guitar set up center stage and asked as if it was Pat's. It turned out to be Kevin's, and Robbie asked if it worked ok without amplification. At this point, I think Kevin realized that Robbie was looking for Pat to do a brief demonstration of his technique. It's possible that he blanched a bit at the prospect of his guitar getting the McLaughlin treatment, but he was ultimately saved by an open-D tuning, which apparently has three asses as far as Pat is concerned.

This interlude, I've just found, is somewhat ironic. I've been trying to remember the 60s actor whom Pat said inspired his playing style (it's possible that this was some kind of David Lynch-esque joke that went over my head), and I came across this puremusic interview with him that he plays a Robert Johnson-era Gibson (although I'm reasonably sure that's not what he was playing at Old Town). Dude, Timex should use that baby for one of their misguided ads.

The third and final topic of conversation that stuck in my mind was Lucinda WIlliams. She recorded the title track with Kevin on Down to the Well and Robbie asked about the experience. Kevin looked like a deer in headlights for a moment, but Robbie smoothly stepped in and—with the mixture of brutal honesty, full affection, and frank fan-boyish admiration—shared his own experience recording with her, which is immortalized here. Kevin looked relieved and rolled with a similar sentiment. When they'd recorded "Down to the Well," she was late, horribly so, and utterly incognizant of any culpability on her part. But when all's said and done, and the track is a piece of tasty goodness, it's hard to care.

Between the interviews and the sets, there was a brief break after which Kevin was up first. He'd noted that he'd been playing with a trio and one of his band had flown down specially for this gig. In the general lunacy of the day, neither M nor I made as much as we ought to have made of Kevin mentioning "Tom Comet" on bass, despite the fact that my covetousness rays were on full alert in the direction of a suspiciously embiggened bass sitting on stage.

Of course, when Kevin came out, he was accompanied by another guitarist, who looked incredibly familiar to me and yet I haven't been able to place him, a drummer, and none other than Tom Comet, the bassist we've seen play with Webb Wilder easily more than a dozen times over the last 10 years. As if we weren't already feeling at home, Tom's simple presence invited us to kick our shoes off.

I've already spilled that I think Kevin Gordon is an exceptional song writer. If I can leap ahead from the interview to the performance, I'll direct my gentle readers' attention to "Flowers" (scroll down to it. You know you want to.) in support of my point. If he only had his prose skills at his disposal, "Flowers" could easily have become a maudlin nightmare. (In fact, I'm pretty sure it has become a maudlin nightmare in most communities in the US, just not in song form.) Instead, "Flowers" is haunting, beckoning, and condemning. It scolds and demands and evokes and rouses. It's fully as eerie as the truest recordings of Billie Holliday performing "Strange Fruit." I haven't yet heard the recording by Irma Thomas, but I can't wait to do so.

Though I'm egregiously white and wholly unsuited to do so, I'd also like to give a shout out to "24 Diamonds," a song Kevin had talked about under the interrogation light with Robbie. Being a Northern Louisiana boy, KG had been acquainted with Joel Rundell of Better than Ezra, who died at 24 under unclear, but inevitably depressing circumstances. The song, KG revealed, was inspired by running into Rundell's mother in a bar and seeing bracelet, set with 24 diamonds, she'd had made of his guitar strings. Talk about your recipe for maudlin (and I say that while firmly standing in the camp of "everybody dies, and yet when someone does, it is the worst possible thing that can happen"), and yet there's not a hint of that in his performance of it, and it would take a willfully twisted reading of the lyrics and music to make it so.

If I had only heard him talk about his background and then heard his songs, I'd be worried about my own tendency to gravitate in the general direction of academia. As it happens, I don't have to be overly concerned that I'm unduly impressed by his white collar street cred and therefore predisposed to favor his lyrics: I heard a Kevin Gordon song months ago, before I'd ever heard of Kevin Gordon. To be sure The Last of the Full-Grown man has a voice that brings all non-rock-and-roll-based activity to a screeching halt, but apart from that I remember distinctly being stopped dead by the lyrics to "Jimmy Reed (is the King of Rock and Roll)":
Dark sunglasses, shark-skin suit
Standin' on the broken glass of East Dubuque
On a Sunday mornin', on a Sunday mornin'

I feel like a snob, a heel, and all sorts of other smite-worthy things admitting this, but I don't think I'll ever be able to hear anyone sing "Jimmy Reed" without longing for Webb's erotic basement tones. All the same, I wouldn't trade hearing the songwriter's version for the world. Furthermore seeing Kevin Gordon sing it had a power to match or even exceed Webb. The thing about KG is that he's so talented writing in so many different genres, styles, and so on that his voice couldn't possible be suited to singing every single one of them. When I remind myself of that, I feel slightly less guilty for having loved see him perform his own creations, but either eagerly awaiting or preferring to listen to others' versions of his lyrics and music.

As far as Pat's performance goes, I felt like I was slapped between the eyes by a 2 x 4 when I was asked to accept the high-energy chameleon that performed for almost 90 minutes as the same self-effacing, good-humored individual we'd seen Robbie Interviewed. I'd say he performed alone, but I think his aforementioned special relationship with his guitar elevates it to the status of com-usician.

Throughout his performance, I was trying to reconcile his guitar style with the fact that he plays fairly routinely with John Prine. I could fill many, many screens with my extremely passionate feelings about John Prine, but I'll try to curtail the Prine commentary here and just say: Seriously, Dude. WTF? I love, worship, and adore John Prine. John Prine has motivated me to practice finger picking (and no one who does not live in my head can appreciate the profundity of that news flash). But, let's face it: John Prine has been playing the same 4 chords in the same way for the last 35 years. And that way, in defiance of all laws of probability, is the one way in which Pat McLaughlin does not approach his guitar with malice aforethought.

As I sat, completely entranced by Pat McLaughlin's guitar playing, vocals, and engaging performance, my brain staunchly resisted thinking of him within spitting distance of John Prine. When he started a song with "Beagle Hound, Beagle Hound, Where you gonna sleep tonight?" something tingled in the back of my brain. By the time "Her Own Good Time" rolled around, and he sang "When I learn how to work my new Tascam Rewriteable CD Recorder/when Miami Beach is under six feet of snow," I thought "Not only is this a man who has been spending time with John Prine, he's given as good as he got." Furthermore, it's within the realm of possibility that he once got fired for being scared of bees.

While I was in the bathroom, M, a paragon among spouses, snapped up all the available Kevin Gordon CDs and we've yet to look back, despite my intention to seek out others who have recorded his songs and thus cheat on him at my earliest convenience and at every opportunity, we haven't looked back. He also ordered Pat's CD's via his website, and we got a hand-written note on the back of a scrap of paper (no hair sample for forensic purposes, which distinguishes all packages sent out by moi) saying "thanks." It's the "I am not a rock star" touch that made already great performances from both him and Kevin Gordon all the better.

Catching as many of the Secret Country shows as possible is definitely on the resolution list at Telecommuniculturey.

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