Old-Timey Future Rock: The Lisps Present “Futurity” at MASS MoCA
Indie rockers do not often traffic in hope, but the Lisps are not your run-of-the-mill, irony-wielding indie combo. With their acclaimed Civil War-era steampunk rock musical Futurity, at MASS MoCA on Saturday, April 27th at 8 p.m., the Brooklyn-based band brings heartfelt storytelling to their mostly Tumblr-friendly audiences, while also introducing postmodern rock ‘tude to theater folk. All walk away smiling, and hopeful.
Futurity debuted last year at Boston’s American Repertory Theater, and ever since, folks have been trying to describe this mélange of Americana, choral singing, old-timey science fiction, and drums comprised of metal film reels, a tractor seat, and a meat grinder, among other things. The Lisps sum it up thusly: “Futurity is a unique and compelling portrait of war, human imagination, and technological hubris.”
And it rocks. Even before Futurity came to fruition, the Lisps had achieved renown as rollicking, neo-vaudevillian, yet techno-savvy, showfolk, with three CDs and several tours under their collective belts. This not-to-be-missed MASS MoCA performance is partly preparation for the musical’s inclusion in Soho Rep’s 2014-2015 season, and partly to serve the Lisps’ need to get their ya-ya’s out.
Futurity is the story of Julian Munro, an inventor and Union soldier played by Lisps’ frontman and primary songwriter Cèsar Alvarez. (Futurity began as his Bard honors thesis, four years ago.) In the midst of the horror and crushing drudgery of America’s bloodiest conflict, Munro, obsessed with the promise of steam technology, conceives the Steam Brain. Munro hopes the Steam Brain, in its godlike properties, will help mankind see beyond the need for war. While this may sound far-fetched, Englishman Charles Babbage, eminent 19th Century mathematician and “father of the computer,” did, in fact, conceive the “Analytical Engine,” a proto-computer, which he was working on at the time of the American Civil War. Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Romantic poet Lord Byron, and a fellow genius mathematician and metaphysician, assisted him. Modern scientists credit Lovelace–“the Enchantress of Numbers”–with articulating Babbage’s work and writing the first computer program in 1842. Both Lovelace and Babbage knew their ideas were sound, yet the hardware to manifest their visions did not yet exist, and funding for Babbage’s engine was cut; it would take over a century for Babbage and Lovelace to be vindicated.
“Futurity is a musical about ideas,” says Lisps’ co-founder, singer, multi-instrumentalist and resident siren Sammy Tunis, who plays Lovelace in the musical. Tunis sings Lovelace’s manically enthusiastic (imaginary, though sourced from her actual writings)correspondences to Munro; the two of them work, via trans-Atlantic letters, to complete the Steam Brain, represented by Lisps’ drummer Eric Farber’s aforementioned Franken-kit. The specter of war–mankind at its basest–hangs over everything, while the desire to rise above it via technology spills forth in song.
“You know in the beginning these people aren’t going to succeed,” Tunis says. “But it’s a play about how important ideas are to people’s hopes and dreams, even if they don’t have the technology to pull it off.”
In addition to providing everything from vocals and melodica to percussion, Tunis brings her experience as the only legit, trained thespian to Futurity. “It’s mostly Cèsar’s vision,” she says,“ but I contributed a lot as far as the theatrical component. Ada was not a main character in the beginning. I thought she should be an equal character. Everybody says Ada needs her own musical. In the evolution of the piece, we went back and forth saying ‘How much of her life can we fit in this show?’ Her life is so layered. Her history and family are fascinating.”
Also fascinating is Alvarez’s contention that “science fiction is always about where we are right now… rather than really being about the future.” And he is right. When taking in Futurity, one wonders what modern misunderstood genius, undeterred by present-day horrors, is toiling away in a basement right now, conceiving a technological wonder that will change humanity for the better. This hapless inventor, decades or even centuries ahead of his/her time, has little or no support. Yet, like Ada Lovelace in real life, and Julian Munro in Futurity, he/she forges on, daring to think differently, daring to traffic in hope. Not unlike a certain indie band from Brooklyn. —Robert Burke Warren
The Lisps: Futurity
Saturday, April 27, 2013, 8:00 pm
MASS MoCA, Club B-10
$12 advance / $16 day of the show / $10 student / 10% member discount
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Bulgarians Invade Lenox
(L-R) Kevin Coleman, Ivan Dobchev, JoJo Hrstova, Walton Wilson
Photos by Enrico Spada
Walton Wilson has been cradling his head in his hands for about a half hour now, his face completely hidden from view. The character he’s portraying in an informal performance of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is feeling cut off from his surroundings. A few feet away in the spacious rehearsal studio, Kevin Coleman runs through multiple attempts at a short speech, inching through it line by line between frequent interruptions.
Ivan Dobchev and Margarita Mladenova, founders of Bulgaria’s Sfumato Theater Laboratory, sit behind a fold-out table and break into Coleman’s performance, speaking to the actor (who happens to be a Shakespeare & Company co-founder, and the head of its education program) through a valiant translator. (Dobchev and Mladenova find common ground with actor Daniela Varon in the neutral language of French, which they use to sort out logistical details throughout the day.)
Although the actors are working from an English-language translation of the Russian playwright, the two visitors know the play so well that it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Finally it’s time for Wilson’s first line. His character is frustrated, increasingly agitated, and asks haltingly for a glass of water. Obligingly, Varon hands him a bottle of water and a plastic cup. Disregarding the cup, he shoots up out of his chair and pours the water over his head, shaking his torso and sending beads of water flying.
The Bulgarians intervene. They counsel Wilson not to go too big too soon. They want to place the emphasis on an upcoming exchange, when Wilson’s character details his years of financial commitment to the family farm.
That part could seem dry on paper, but Dobchev knows what he wants—he has decades of experience delving into Chekhov’s words. He hurries over to the actors, suggesting that Wilson pantomime writing out the financial figures on a large blackboard, with exaggerated intensity. Dobchev, seen above between Mladenova to his left and translator JoJo Hrstova to his right, then goads Wilson raise the intensity for this portion, even banging his head against the wall as a demonstration.
On a later run-through, the request for water is tossed off inconsequentially, setting up the much funnier bit to come.
The Lenox-based company is receiving its own bracing jolt of cold water, in a way, in this cross-cultural collaboration with Sfumato, an experimental outfit based based in Sofia, Bulgaria. A series of exchanges beginning in 2010 have led up to this week-long visit; Varon previously took an acting workshop led by the Bulgarian artists, and later, returned with Wilson to lead those actors in a Shakespeare workshop. S&Co. artistic director Tony Simotes also visited Bulgaria and took a tour of its theatre scene, including a production of The Winter’s Tale put up by Sfumato.
At a technical level, the approach of the two companies is very different. The Sfumato technique is clearly coming from a European conception of the director as auteur, for instance, whereas S&Co. technique is grounded in the actors’ personal connection to the text. This immersion in Sfumato’s rehearsal methods, in which 18 S&Co. members participated for a week in March, is strictly a behind-the-scenes affair. But its impact may linger.
Earlier, over sandwiches, Varon (who has directed many well-received productions at S&Co., including Martha Mitchell Calling, Much Ado About Nothing and Sea Marks) recalls her first Bulgarian visit, sponsored by the Drama League.
“The work blew me away, the individuals blew me away,” says Varon, seen at right with Dobchev and Hrstova. Then she offers what is pretty much the biggest compliment an S&Co. veteran like herself can give. “When I met Margarita and Ivan, I had the same feeling of excitement I had when I met Tina [Packer], Dennis [Krausnick] and Kristen [Linklater] as a young actress,” Varon says, invoking S&Co’s founding artistic director, its director of actor training, and the venerated author of the voice technique that is one of the most distinctive elements of that training.
“These are visionary artists and master teachers and people who have a passion for the theatre that’s beyond putting on shows. It’s about a sense of mission and a sense of purpose. Even though their work is radically different from us on the stage,” Varon continues, “I felt there is a deep affinity.”
Simotes, too, sees this residency in the context of S&Co.’s founding mission. Sfumato describes itself as a “laboratory,” and it was in that spirit that the Lenox company first took up residence at The Mount.
“It reminded me of our classwork, that kind of intensity,” Simotes says of the Sfumato-style training he observed, comparing it to the late-1970’s New York University scene out of which S&Co. sprang. “There’s something there that was really right.”
The Sfumato method sounds grueling to the ear of the American theatre fan. In an interview after a long day of work on Uncle Vanya, Mladenova describes the ethos, through a translator. “In this laboratory, the rehearsal is even more important than the end performance in front of an audience. The process is the result.”
Dobchev elaborates, describing a schedule that would make any self-respecting member of Actors’ Equity blanche. In the States, rehearsals end and the director’s work is over after a show’s official opening night. Not so at Sfumato.
“We keep on exploring and rehearsing, which can lead to a point where there is actually a brand new version of what we’re doing that has nothing to do with what was there on the opening night. The actors who work in Sfumato know that this kind of process is a law. This will happen.”
Then Mladenova offers the coup de grace: “We rehearse until the performance is alive. Which means a few more years after the first opening night.”
Krausnick, who participated in the Uncle Vanya workshop, says the approach is fundamentally different.
“For them, it’s not about the word, it’s about the action. It’s about: What is happening? So the exploration in the room is about the actions. They know what they want and why they want it, but in their work with the actors they explore how we get there.”
Although these theatre artists are finding common ground in their passion, they’re also noticing cultural differences imbedded in their acting approaches. In an S&Co. training session, where actors are encouraged to draw on their personal experiences, an ice-breaking question between teacher and student might be: “What is your deepest fear?”
The Eastern Europeans are more reserved.
“Their actors are super talented, well-trained, incredibly courageous, and will do anything you ask of them—except get up and say something, unless you point to them and say ‘your turn,’” Varon says. “This is a society where for a long time talking about your feelings was very dangerous. You talked about yourself within a very tiny circle of trusted family and friends. They’re amazed by how quickly Americans want to talk about their feelings to people they just met.”
Bringing it full circle, Simotes says that Dobchev and Mladenova’s first reaction to working with the Americans was an echo of the impression made by S&Co.’s founding generation on the English transplants like Packer, Linklater, fight director B.H. Barry, and movement choreographer John Broome.
“It was about the Americans’ willingness to jump in and show their feelings immediately. That was the same thing Tina and all those guys talked about. That’s why they came here. It’s still true. Here we are so many years later, and what describes the American experience is a willingness to say: Here I am, this is what we are, this is what’s going on.”Comments
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Selected Shorts: Review of BSC’s 10x10 New Play Festival
If you have to have a citywide arts festival in the dead of winter, you absolutely must have good theater somewhere, if not everywhere. And preferably of the kind that doesn’t strain the audience’s understandably frigid attention span. This is a hallmark of 2013’s 10x10 Upstreet Festival in Pittsfield (running until February 24 in venues throughout the city), with so many events crammed into a week that just reading the itinerary requires special magnifying glasses. Considering the large number of participants, few of the individual pieces performed could possibly go on for more than a handful of minutes. Nope, no dramatizations of The Mahabharata on the schedule this time around, folks, and that’s just as it should be.
Barrington Stage Company is the primary instigator for all of this helter-skelter creativity; it’s 10 x 10 New Play Festival, consisting of ten, ten-minute plays by ten playwrights, eight of whom have never been produced at the company, is also its most entertaining cornerstone. The short format of story telling is a nascent form in the culture at large, with radio shows such as “The Moth” and “This American Life” doing to the artful telling of real life experiences that “Selected Shorts” trailblazed with fictional ones years ago. BSC’s New Plays production, playing through March 3 at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, turns out to be a wonderful blending of both sides of this genre; comic or poignant dramatic précis with a contemporary smartness, each of which has a twist that is delightfully evident at first or that unfolds more gradually, ending with a kick that leaves the audience universally murmuring in surprised satisfaction. It hits the spot so many times and in so many different ways that one can feels as if one is receiving a Reiki session.
The best of the evening includes the opening salvo “There’s No Here Here” by Craig Pospisil, a Midnight in Paris-esque mind trip about a writer (Dustin Charles) living what he is writing at a Paris café, with attendant appearances by Gertrude Stein (Peggy Pharr Wilson), a capricious French chick (Emily Taplin Boyd), and an arrogant French waiter (Scott Drummond, the latter two at top), who demands not to be treated as a stereotype. The quickening playfulness of the work transcends the familiar nature of the concept; it’s Woody Allen without the travelogue sentimentality. The following act, “You Haven’t Changed A Bit” by Donna Hoke, involves two elderly people attending their 70th high school reunion; the realization that one makes clear to the other over the piece’s short course of time is performed with such realistic restraint by Matt Neely and Wilson that it has as an impact as quietly haunting as it is touching.
Amelia Roper’s “Camberwell House,” about an older woman (Wilson) recounting how a fellow assisted-living housemate is still planning to put into deadly effect a plot the two hatched when they were much younger, is an engaging monologue that is the most “Short Stories”- like of the entire evening. Two others—James McLindon’s Civil War confrontation “The Wilderness” (with very strong performances by Neely and Drummond) and “Freefalling” by Aurin Squire, about the last minutes of a plane crash, with Shakespeare & Company’s Elizabeth Aspenlieder (in her BSC debut, above right), Charles and Drummond – are intensely dramatic pieces that make a powerful impact in novel ways.
While other works vary in effectiveness, they each manage to leave a little tickle in the end, or provide enough throughout to make one want to go to the next event on the 10x10 list. If only I had my reading glasses handy. —Scott BaldingerComments
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His Brother’s Keeper: Van Gogh Takes Center Stage
He was a zealous Evangelical preacher, a surrogate father to the children of a whore, a lover of wheat fields, an artist…but above all else, Vincent van Gogh was a misunderstood man with an unbridled passion for love of all kinds. So says his disabused brother Theo in Starry Night Theater Company’s production of Leonard Nimoy‘s Vincent, directed by Brant Pope, now showing at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage through December 31. The one-man show features James Briggs (who is also Starry Night’s artistic director) as Theo van Gogh, and is part eulogy, part confession, and part historical overview. Through more than 500 letter written by Vincent to his benefactor and brother, we learn of the artist’s early years as a preacher among poor miners in Belgium, where a young, evangelical Vincent slept on a straw mat and lived in poverty as his parishioners did. We also learn, through his soul-struck accounts, that the troubled artist had a deep faith in doomed love of all sorts; he kept house with a prostitute acting as a father to her two young children, he put all his efforts into nurturing the art of Paul Gauguin, neglecting his own work and rising fame, and, as the story always goes, he succumbed to the troubles of his fragile but brilliant mind.
The account is heartbreaking, and Briggs, whose physical stature is a far cry from the presumed diminutive figure of Theo, employs a tone of pleading indignation at the way he and the world have treated his beloved brother. Unlike Nimoy’s rendering of the two brothers in his original run from 1978 to 1981, Briggs’ inflection remains unchanged as he vacillates between renderings of the two brothers, first playing the grieving Theo, then on to Vincent. The effect of his steady, somewhat high-strung voice is twofold: it serves to emphasize the brotherly connection between the two characters and, more importantly, to convince the audience and all who might hear Theo’s pleas that Vincent van Gogh was by far a madman. Sick, yes, very much so, and made sicker by the rumors spread by his neighbors and supposed friends, but mad, certainly not.
“I’m not going to ask you to believe that he was perfect,” Theo says. “He was far from perfect and he seemed to thrive on failure…He never allowed himself to believe that he had accomplished anything!”
To drive the point of the artist’s genius home, a giant canvas at center stage, reflects images of Vincent’s well- and lesser-known masterpieces including his earlier sketches of coal miners and boat scenes as well as several of the more than 100 paintings of the corn fields and gardens surrounding the hospital in St. Remy, where the master committed himself for the last 70 days of his existence, before a fatal, self-inflicted bullet wound to the chest at the age of 37 (in 1890), ended his painting frenzy and his life. The gorgeous slide show is made more poignant by the music — a selection of works that includes the sad, singular notes of piano compositions by Erik Satie, yet another tortured contemporary of van Gogh’s. One brother’s eulogy quickly transforms into a family requiem, when, at the very end of the play we learn that just six months after Vincent’s suicide, the ever-devoted Theo joined his beloved elder brother in death. —Nichole Dupont
Written by Leonard Nimoy and directed by Brant Pope (presented by Starry Night Theater Company) will run through December 30, 2012. Tickets are $30.
Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage
36 Linden Street
Pittsfield, MA 01201
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Kelly Meets Cage, Once Again
Left: photo of John Kelly by Billy Erb; right: photo of John Cage poster by Everett McCourt
On a New Year’s Eve in the early 1990s, John Kelly was invited to a party at a downtown Manhattan loft while working on a production of his Light Shall Lift Them, about the French clown Barbette and Jean Cocteau. It was a night the acclaimed performance artist would never forget, since it was there that he met avant-garde composer and monolith of modern music, John Cage, whose 100th birthday was celebrated at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on November 17. As part of the mixed media tribute, John Cage: On & Off the Air!, with the remarkable percussion ensemble NEXUS, Kelly performed Cage’s 1942 radio play, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, mounted by Bard professor and John Cage Trust executive director Laura Kuhn.
Following a solo cabaret act of Kurt Weill and Charles Aznavour songs at Joe’s Pub in New York last week, he remembers the meeting well. “Most of all I was struck by Cage’s luminous smile and remember wondering whether he might have been doing mushrooms.” (Which made sense: Cage was an expert fungi hunter.)
At Cage’s side that evening was his lifelong partner, the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham (left, with Cage) who attempted to slow the rapid-fire pace of Kelly’s delivery of excited conversation by inviting the young man to “take a breath” so Cage could resume what he was saying. Moments later, in sotto voce, Merce would then gracefully choreograph Kelly back into the conversation with “Begin again ”—as a teacher of a master class might cue an overzealous student.
In recent years, not too many figures such as Cage have wielded such power over this legendary, irreverent, and sometimes voluble chameleon. A former dancer turned performance artist, singer, mime, musician, writer, painter, and video artist, Kelly delves deep into each of the multifaceted stage characters he portrays, passionately honing aspects of his alter egos, sometimes even to the point of injury. In 2002, for instance, he fractured two vertebrae in a fall during a trapeze lesson while attempting to portray a minor character from the classic French film, Children of Paradise.
Following the mishap, he spent months in recovery but rather than allow the near fatal accident to dim his creative spirit, Kelly found instead that the experience had galvanized his inspiration. In The Paradise Project, which was performed later that year, he interlaced the story-telling aspect of the mime Baptiste with startling video closeups of the supine character’s face constrained by angst. Remembering Cage’s fondness for using chance and randomness in his compositions, Kelly mined his own pain to show how a random circumstance had transformed his own life and work. Had he still been around, Samuel Beckett might have stood patiently in queue to see John Kelly accomplish this remarkable feat.
With the play only a few weeks away, Kelly hands me his score of the piece, which is annotated with many tadpole-like squiggles and scrawls—notations resembling a cuneiform text. “I’m basically shy,” he says. “I still get nervous going on stage and sometimes feel like I’m walking a tightrope over a river with crocodiles below. I prepare myself like a race horse before going on stage.”
“But,” he adds quickly, “in spite of all the notations, I’ll always be guided by Cage’s firm belief that chance and indeterminacy must come into play for a work to succeed.” For Kelly, that philosophy jibes well with his own nonconformist approach to his most memorable characters, such as Joni Mitchell ( Paved Paradise) or the fictional renegade diva, Dagmar Onassis. The illegitimate transvestite child of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, she survived her diva mother’s miscarriage and was destined thereafter to roam the smoke-filled bars of Alphabet City, trolling “for truth and expression, a dragon swimming underwater in a clear stream, embracing loss and hope in the same focused breath.”
Although John Kelly never met John Cage again after his brief encounter decades ago, he has espoused Cage’s credo throughout his life and career. With his German-Scots-Irish DNA, Kelly likes to say that his goal is to become “a man who is able to be present, accept life and death in the same breath and still remain in the game.” And for the most part, Kelly has succeeded in that goal. A survivor of the soul-stripped plastic Disneyland of post-punk Bohemia, he’s spent his career fine-tuning an artistic legacy that reflects his meticulous and lifelong scrutiny of self and others.
When finally asked about Cage’s influence on his own work—and the trend in music today, Kelly smiles enigmatically and says that he basically agrees with his faux contralto, Dagmar Onassis: He will accept no boundaries, embrace the eclectic, remain multi-curious and above all, add some menace to the mix! — Everett McCourt
John Cage: On & Off the Air! with John Kelly and NEXUS.
Saturday, November 17 @ 8 p.m
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson