Category: Reviews

Guests, pre-insanity (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, an opera based on a 1962 film directed by Luis Buñuel, is absurd. Aristocrats return to their mansion after an opera outing. They soon discover that they cannot leave the dining room. Naturally, they become crazy and turn on each other. It is the idle domesticity of Clue mixed with Lord of the Flies savagery.

I was initially concerned that Adès’s music glorified these lifeless subjects. How could he write high-strung heroisms for such ennui? Juxtaposed elements, though, frame the opera’s macabre. Lovers fondle each other naked. Luscious harmonies hug crazed language: “Birds of our coupled mouths, while death enters through our feet.” This is not a prototypical tragedy; we’re not meant to feel for the plutocrats. But the music points toward sympathy. Disparate moods compete in this creation of unreality.

Accompanying exhibition for the production. Human hands, lamb legs, and olive branches for dinner. Bon appétit!

Adès etches continuous, pulsating phrases in the love scene (See “O Albion,” from Arcadiana, for an example of this style). The music pictures a spaceship creeping through a mysterious fog. Cohesive linearity is rare in New Music aesthetics, which often favor disjunction and fragmentation.

The work clearly targets the aristocracy. After the richies go crazy, the mulling mob asks: “Are they all dead?’ Answer: “This is to be hoped.”

Could the affluent figures stand as representations of the one percent in tonight’s seats? Wealth inequality unabashedly lurks in the Met’s walls. Price of my ticket has $115 base rate, plus $7.50 service fee, and then a $2.50 facility fee (thank god for press tickets.). This is a hierarchized concert life. One price does not fit all.

The bottom-dwellers – those on the lower levels – finance opera. At intermission they chow down on über-expensive meals on the second tier, gazing out on Lincoln Center’s plaza, served by dressed-up waiters. It’s possible to witness the residual effects of aristocratic ass-kissing. Met employees grunt, curse, hold curt, stony expressions. At the ticket window, my ticket was flung at me with disgust. Misery swirls among workers. Yet, galas “celebrate” the one percent’s contributions. The Met wants to wrestle money from their coffers to supplement their seemingly-perpetually sinking finances.

Adès confronts the art form, crusting with opulence, and the Met, which stages stagnant, thoughtless “tradition” for commercial indulgence – here you will not find feminist productions of troublesome “classics.” Through financial support, donors implicate themselves in the opera’s demands: Adès skewers those who bankroll him. I wonder if ticket refunds will soon be in premium demand.

 

Image made by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

Content Warning: sexual assault

As everyone reels from the news about Harvey Weinstein, the question of inequality for women in Hollywood finds itself once again at the forefront of conversation. Behind the camera, women are coming forward with stories of sexual assault, and we’re finally engaging in a conversation that should have begun years ago. But… what about in front of the camera?

In her acceptance speech at last month’s Emmys, Best Actress winner Nicole Kidman explained that she and Reese Witherspoon produced Big Little Lies to create “more great roles for women.” She was met with thunderous applause acknowledging her role in Lies as “great.” But I was lost.

Over the summer, I binged-watched probably hundreds of episodes of television and saw every movie in theaters. And there were, indeed, great female roles. Elisabeth Moss’s Offred was a strong feminist, Kimmy Schmidt made her way to college, Wonder Woman dominated at the box office, Anne of Green Gables made a triumphant return to television, and the women of This Is Us, Veep, The Crown, and so much more were complex and inspiring.

But when I turned to Kidman’s Big Little Lies, I couldn’t help but gasp at the tireless repetition of sexist tropes and same old plotlines. For those who don’t know, Big Little Lies follows four different mothers in an upper-middle class suburban town. Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, is the town gossip and an overbearing and self-centered mother. Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, is a single mom, new in town, with a troubled past. Her son, Ziggy, gets into trouble with Renata Klein, the hard-working businesswoman whose daughter claims Ziggy hurt her. And Kidman’s character, Celeste, is a stay-at-home mom who’s hidden the truth about her abusive husband for years.

If you look at the logline, you may buy Kidman’s claim about “great roles for women.” Save for perhaps Witherspoon’s one-dimensional character (who’s literally portrayed as if Elle Woods just grew up a tiny bit), the rest of the women indeed seem complex. But rather than focusing on the crux of the women’s troubled stories, the show spends the bulk of its time rehashing the fight  fight between Jane and Renata’s children. While the fight begins with a serious accusation, before long it becomes clear that Ziggy didn’t hurt Renata’s daughter, and that the fight has spiraled into an all-out war over who works harder: the working moms or the stay-at-home moms. By the end of the first episode, everyone in town has taken sides, and suddenly it’s like you’re watching a glorified version of a middle-school cat fight, but with birkin bags instead of friendship bracelets.

The subplots are equally uncompelling, and wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test if you gave them all the leeway possible. Madeline can’t seem to get her new husband to get along with her old one, or convince the town to let her put on a production of Avenue Q. These are ridiculously privileged problems, yet the show makes them out to be as dramatic as the abuse Celeste is experiencing at home. Madeline finally connects with her teenage daughter by admitting that she cheated on her new husband. Oh great, isn’t that wonderful motherly guidance? Meanwhile, Renata doesn’t have sex often enough with her husband, and her poor daughter can’t get enough kids to come to her million-dollar birthday party.

But while all this is happening, the only two characters with the possibility for a compelling subplot also fall short. A few episodes into the series, we learn that Jane was raped and she fears that Ziggy will inherit his father’s violent tendencies, but this intriguing storyline barely gets any airtime. Celeste finally works up the nerve to go to a therapist, and the show’s only truly “great” female moments are in Kidman’s painfully accurate portrayal of a woman struggling to come forward about abuse. When Celeste finally decides to leave her husband, the depiction of women on the show finally feels empowered.

But within one episode, everything swings back again. In the final scene, at a ridiculously over-the-top school function, Celeste’s husband discovers she’s leaving and starts to hit her. Coming to her defense, Madeline, Jane, Renata, and one other woman hit him back, and we learn that Celeste’s abusive husband was the man who raped Jane all those years ago. Finally, the women accidentally push him over a cliff and kill him. It was an act of self-defense, and the audience breathes a sigh of genuine relief and hope for Celeste’s brighter future.

But then, they deny the murder. In talking to the police, not one woman comes forward with the truth. He simply fell, they say. In talking to the police, not one woman comes forward with the truth. Why? I’m not sure. In their silence, the women of Big Little Lies end their show not with a message of the importance of speaking out for victims of abuse, but of the harmlessness of staying silent. Suddenly, everything about the showKidman’s character and even Jane’s intriguing subplotseems far too convenient. For Jane, the question of her own PTSD and her son’s violent tendencies are suddenly resolved. And true, it seems like Celeste was about to finally stand up and leave, but by choosing to kill off the abuser, the writers eliminate the incredibly difficult period abused women struggle through, physically and emotionally, to take that step away. If this were a real woman, Jane’s and Celeste’s  struggles would not be over with a timely shove off of a cliff and a promise to never speak of it again. Abuse lives with people forever.

The show ends with a reconciliation. Like they’re in middle school again, Madeline, Jane, Celeste, and Renata are suddenly friends, joined together with a secret. But let me put it plainly: abuse is not a cute little secret you share with your friends. Abuse is not a problem that deserves less screen time and the same dramatic emphasis as does the question of whether to put on Avenue Q. Abuse is real, abuse is terrible, and abuse doesn’t resolve itself that easily.

Big Little Lies took home five Emmys this year. In her acceptance speech, Nicole Kidman said that the show helped “shine a light” on abuse. Maybe, but the small light the show shines is not enough. The women in the show aren’t “great”: they’re simple, naive, entitled, and don’t reflect the true complexities that women like Celeste and Jane (or even real-life Madelines) face every day. And in an industry where actresses experience sexual harassment every day and a world where men like Harvey Weinstein find success, Hollywood needs to do better.

So yes, Ms. Kidman: you’re right. Hollywood does need more great roles for women. But I’m afraid this wasn’t it.

Do you believe in magic?

Regardless of if you do or don’t, the show “In & Of Itself” at the Daryl Roth Theatre will convince you that you do in 75 minutes. Executive Producer Neil Patrick Harris presents a unique theatrical experience that blends illusion with a narrative of identity. Derek DelGaudio, the sole actor, does a fantastic job crafting an authentic performance, taking audience members on an emotional journey that explores identity, memory, how others perceive us, and what is meaningful in one’s own life.

Walking into the theatre, guests are presented with a standing board of “I am” cards. Guests are invited to choose a card that will later be used throughout the show. I chose “I am a ray of sunshine.” Why? It spoke to me. But they had a wide range of options, from alien, to C.E.O, philosopher, accountant, and troublemaker. Identities one strives to be are paired with true identities, such as occupation or family titles. You pick one that speaks to you, whether accurate, funny, or fictional.

The theatre is small and intimate. Perfect for what unfolds next. Delgaudio combines magic and storytelling seamlessly, leaving audience members in awe not only of the tricks he pulls, but also at the story he seeks to tell. Both personal and relatable, the story brings up our own memories and experiences – forcing us to confront who we are and how we identify.

The interactive element of the show is what really allows for the human quality of the production to come through. Each night something different occurs on stage because of the unique audience members present, who each bring with them their own identities and perceptions of themselves. Delgaudio forces you to question your identity labels and reminds you that sometimes people will never fully see you and your experiences for what they are – but that’s okay.

You will ask: Who am I? How do others perceive me? How do I perceive myself? Does it even matter? That’s the point of the show. Delgaudio reminds us to be cognizant of the fact that people are more than what they appear to be (just as magic is more than what it appears to be!). Dig a little deeper and you’ll see more and more of who a person is. It’s a glorious thing to dig below the identities we assign to ourselves and allow others to assign to us.  

If you want a different theater experience that is both intimate and beautiful, then see this show. Keep an open mind and go with someone you care about. It’s an experience worth sharing.

 

“In & Of Itself” runs through May 6, 2018 at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Tickets can be found here.

Photo Courtesy of the Vanishing Point Chronicles

Mid-October marks many things in a college student’s life. It’s the beginning of midterms, the end of the beginning-of-semester haze, the hangover from homecoming, the warm weather’s slow abandonment. We desperately begin to count down to Fall Break, but the wait seems impossible. In this hour of need, you ask, what else but film can lift our spirits? What films and shows can we turn to?

Fall TV premieres are slowly trickling in, but for immediate therapy, check out this summer’s best premieres and releases:

  1. Dunkirk

Only Christopher Nolan can write a 70 page screenplay, cast Harry Styles as the most talkative character, and then insist that his film be shown in 70mm across all theaters in the US. And only Christopher Nolan can turn all of that into a smashing success. Based on a true story, Dunkirk is not only the most visually stunning film you’ll see this year, but also the most enthralling. Commonly mislabeled as a typical war movie, there’s really no way to describe Dunkirk to someone who hasn’t seen it. What Nolan has created is a plot line with twists and characters unlike those you may be familiar with. And that’s precisely what makes it so great.

  1. The Big Sick

I don’t think I’d be able to count the number of times I burst out laughing while watching Kumail Nanjiani’s debut feature film. A movie based on Nunjari’s own love story, The Big Sick was the romantic comedy version of Dunkirk. Nanjiani refuses to conform to the tropes that often plague this genre and instead infuses this story that isn’t really about romance at all with an incredible sense of humor and relevant social commentary . This innovative story, combined with Ray Romano’s adorably dopey performance as the girlfriend’s dad, catapults The Big Sick to the top of romantic comedies.

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

If you’re only planning on watching one of this summer’s blockbuster superhero hits, skip Gal Gadot’s overrated Wonder Woman for Tom Holland’s stellar performance in Spider-Man. Sure, Wonder Woman broke a glass ceiling and it’s great that a woman superhero is getting her chance to shine, but amidst the massive boost of superhero movies, Spider-Man returns to the genre’s roots. Unlike Wonder Woman and other recent films in the genre, Spider-Man is light and funny, and it finally feels like the movie-for-all-ages superhero films promise to be. Holland’s character is indeed “super,” but he’s also relatable, and I found myself rooting more genuinely for him than I had for any Marvel or DC character in a long time.

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale

If you don’t want something dark, don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale. But if you want to experience television’s most thrilling and thought-provoking series of the summer, it may be worth it. Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale follows a dystopian futuristic America in which women are forced to return to domesticity. Our protagonist, played by Elisabeth Moss, is chosen as a breeder– and while her performance is outstanding, nothing could prepare you for the chills that will run up your spine when Yvonne Strahovski’s and Ann Dowd’s characters come on screen. In fact, nothing really could prepare you for the whole show at all, so I guess you’ll just have to watch it yourself.

  1. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I know I’ve spoken about this show before, but in this season Kimmy attends Columbia, and her observations are so spot on that it should probably be required viewing for incoming first-years. Although they filmed at UTS and not Columbia, the Kimmy Schmidt showmakers somehow found a way to harness the culture of Columbia– stress levels and all– in a wonderfully concocted season of puns, social commentaries, and Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs. Even if you haven’t watched the first couple of seasons, season three is worth your time. Maybe use it as a study break when you’re up late in Butler– and perhaps take Kimmy’s advice when she tells you there’s more to life than studying.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni

Hypercube: Brain on Fire

(le) poisson rouge 10/15/17

 

If you want to learn about philosophy in action, talk to Hypercube, a NYC-based contemporary music ensemble comprised of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and piano:

“A hypercube can be described as an analogous shape, a 3-dimenseional cube, in four or more dimensions. The cube formation is essentially a 3-dimensional equalizer. We like to think that it enters another dimension when the music is added,” Erin Rogers, saxophonist, explained over e-mail.

Does the music transport to another dimension? Or is this just lofty language – is the actual experience more conservative?

To answer these questions, I will describe the musical experience. Mikel Kuehn’s Color Fields (2006/8) sounds like painted landscapes. Barren, desolate tundra morphed into desert glow. In the most colorful moments, it is hard to determine which instrument is playing which line. Disembodied sound eliminates the individual, presenting a blurred image.

These mixing timbres – a fancy term to say how an instrument sounds because of its physicality (i.e. what makes a clarinet sound like a clarinet and not a flute) – are explored in Andriessen’s Hout (1991). I appreciate Rogers’s commentary before the piece; she describes how the instruments interact through a displaced motive. Tree branches shoot out, overlapping, rustling into each other. Rare unisons sound like the manifestation of unshakeable wood.

Behind me, as I listen, ice cubes rumble. Spaghetti and meatballs float in waiters’ hands. This is a new concert experience for me – I am used to the absence of most extraneous sounds – and I am not very happy about it (boohoo for me, I guess).

Rogers leans back with her instrument, like a rocker with their guitar or mic stand. Jay Sorce, spectacled, navigates his instrument’s fingerboard, stoically, with an occasional head wiggle. A grey-haired man in the front row moves his head in time with the music, outwardly satisfied. Unflinching precision masks Chris Graham’s face; he is a Secret Service agent on the marimba. Between pieces, he appears relaxed, friendly, smiley. Pianist Andrea Lodge’s head bounces in a groove. Yellow, blue, pink light shroud the performers, their instruments, sheet music, and iPads. One forlorn disco ball dangles, misplaced, from the ceiling.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni.

Most composers treat Sorce’s guitars – he plays both acoustic and electric – with extra care, making sure to not have them overpower the ensemble. Schuessler’s Liminal Bridges (2016) and Hurel’s Localized Corrosion (2009) stand in contrast: Sorce shreds, riffs, wails, screams eruptions of living sound. Flutter-tonguing in the saxophone complements these outbursts. Who knew these instruments could mix so convincingly?

Considering these sound worlds, does the program achieve its goal of setting the audience’s “Brain on Fire”? This program is as a challenge to concertgoers: the music should, in theory, cause vigilant attention, surprise, visceral responses. Hurrel’s Localized Corrosion best accomplishes this task for me.

Intense, overwhelming sound catapults the piece. Thunderclaps in the bass drum, a growling saxophone, trembling guitar. Quick switch in texture. Sad vibrations stream from the solo guitar. Ensemble jumps at him, vigorous, interruptive. Disconsolate saxophone sighs: hell-plunging, uneasy piano pulsations: metallic acceleration on a small gong: vigorous, bold guitar. A bass drum orgasm terminates in profound stillness. Tense energy radiates from the stage. 10, 15, 20 seconds. Nothing. The performers hold their positions. Lodge rustles; her head moves slightly downward. Then, they release their stance, breaking the spell.

Because of its multifarious, competing textures, Hurel’s work causes continual engagement.  This is not mind-numbingly music: it cannot be turned into Muzak, lightly pacified in shopping malls and convention centers. It demands the precision and daring of this ensemble to strike the deep chasms between passages, to become alive. Provocative music ignites an experiential fire.