Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shakespeare One-by-One

In the repertoire of a theatergoer, it's practically mandatory to have seen some Shakespeare. Slowly but surely, I'm attempting to see all the plays on stage. It'll take a lifetime I'm sure, as the stars will have to align with my being near theaters putting on the plays that I have yet to see. I imagine it'll be years before I come across some of them.

I can check Macbeth off the list having just seen an inventive staging of the play, co-directed by Teller of Penn & Teller fame. Teller's Macbeth brings the supernatural to life, so to speak. A bloody ghost appears and disappears. Imagined blood becomes "real" stains on a dress. And a hallucinated dagger shines for all to see. Throw in some scary witches, and lots of bloodletting, and you're in for a gory good time.

But it wasn't just the special effects, nor just the skilled acting and great set design, that made this play grand. What I enjoyed most was the creative use of space. The small stage held a two-floor set, with numerous entrances and exits including stairs off the front of the stage that let actors depart and arrive through the middle aisle in the audience. The entire theater became part of the play as actors roamed the aisles, and on more than one occasion, the characters acknowledged the members of the audience in interesting ways. Not what one would expect in the middle of a bloodbath.

I expect Teller's staging will move on to other venues; if it comes near you, it's one not to miss. I chalk up this performance of Macbeth as one of my all-time favorite Shakespearan stagings. Other favorite tragic performances include Ralph Fienne's brooding portrayal of Hamlet at the Hackney Empire in the mid 1990s (made all the better by having seats in the third or fourth row) and in the same season a riveting Hamlet in the West End, in which Hamlet-gone-mad memorably appears on stage stark naked for a bit.

On the less tragic side, an uproarious Covent Garden production of As You Like It with an all-male cast as Shakespeare intended ranks highest. The Taming of the Shrew in Stratford-upon-Avon, Love's Labour's Lost at the Barbican, a West End staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream and a local Shakespeare company's staging of The Tempest were memorable as well. Except this list means that I have many more Shakespeare plays that I have yet to cross off my list -- including those I've never seen and those few that I think I might have seen but if so the productions weren't inspiring enough to be memorable. Ah well, all's well that ends well.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Museum Roadtrip

Art museums are usually a stop for me whenever I travel, particularly if I'm in a place I've never been. So when I happened across America's Art Museums by Suzanne Loebl, I was curious to see what hidden gems might be out there.

The paperback offers short descriptions on 158 museums in 39 states and D.C. I was hoping for more focus on little, less well-known museums, but a lot of time is spent on the larger ones. That means much of the book is centered on New York and California, instead of giving mention to museums in the smaller states, which often get only one listing. But I liked the fact that Loebl devotes space to how the museums came about, in addition to the works they hold.

Divided by state, you can easily flip to areas you may be traveling to, to see what museums might be worth a visit. I also enjoyed reading up on museums I've been to, to compare Loebl's thoughts with my own. It's worth a quick read, especially if you're planning a vacation and looking for sights to see.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Best Seat in the House?

Attending a symphony concert is good for the soul, but I still can't decide what I think is the best seat in the house.

At one concert at my local concert hall, I sat in the cheap seats. The seats were immediately behind the symphony, and because they were chorister seats, they also allowed you to look down on many of the musicians. It was an amazing view, watching the professionals play up close. But you also had a view of the entire audience, who was faced in your direction. It was a strange feeling, as if you were part of the performance. A bit unsettling, and I found after a while I missed seeing the front view of the symphony.

Another concert found me down in orchestra seats. They were in the front half of the house, but still a fair distance from the stage. I could see the performers well enough, and the sound was clear. But I felt slightly removed.

Recently, I sat in box seats. Not quite the traditional separated box, but a box tier, which had only a few rows. That I liked, because it felt more private. But the seats were in the back of the house. I had a full view of the stage, and could hear fairly well, though better on the louder pieces than the softer ones. I felt more distant than in the orchestra seats.

I think box seats near the stage might be the magic combination I'm searching for, semiprivate but closer to the action. Of course, every concert hall can be a little bit different, so what's best in one hall may not be best in another, I suppose. Plus, there's personal preference to factor in. And at the end of the day, I'd rather have any seat in the house, than no seat at all.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rising Young Classical Star

60 Minutes had an interesting piece tonight by Bob Simon on a rising star in the classical world, Gustavo Dudamel. At the amazingly young age of 26, the Venezuelan has been hired as the next music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a job he starts in 2009.

His dashing good looks may first catch your eye, but Dudamel's exuberant conducting style will also grab your attention. It's always a wonderful thing for classical music when a young "rock star" stirs things up and attracts notice to a style of music that may seem too stodgy or highbrow to some.

But one of the most exciting aspects of Dudamel's upcoming tenure in L.A. is the program he says he wants to set up for the area's kids. Venezuela has a nationwide program that gets kids mostly from poor neighborhoods off the streets and into youth orchestras to learn how to play instruments. Dudamel, a product of that program, says he wants to do the same in L.A. to bring kids from poor communities to the music.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Wright Stuff

Frank Lloyd Wright is undoubtedly one of America's greatest figures in the world of architecture. From his Prairie Style to his philosophy of organic architecture, Wright's signature is decidely modern yet earthy at the same time. His use of clean lines and geometric patterns stamp his work -- buildings that are unmistakably his, both inside and out. With a lengthy career spanning decades, examples of Wright's work can be found throughout the United States.

One hotspot of Wright's work is Oak Park, Illinois, where seemingly at almost every turn you run into a building touched by Wright. The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust offers tours of his Oak Park home and studio, where he spent the first 20 years of his career, and serves as a great starting point when visiting Oak Park. But in addition, Oak Park contains a number of private homes he designed as well as Unity Temple, his first major public building.

Seen here, Unity Temple is one of my favorite Wright works. The juxtaposition of the stark concrete outside and the natural interior is striking. I am a great fan of modern style, but often its failing is producing a feeling of being cold, icy and unforgiving. Wright's combination of modern style with natural elements is what makes his work so inviting -- in a stroke of genius, he turns modern into homey and comfortable.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sense and survivability

Jane Austen and her witty, sensible heroines are back in style, a trend most recently marked by the current Masterpiece Theatre Austen run, last year's "Becoming Jane," a fictionalized retelling of Austen's young life starring Anne Hathaway, and, more recently, "The Jane Austen Book Club." Despite the two centuries since her writing, the characters remain as modern and relevant today as they must have been back then. The most memorable versions of Austen's novels are the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice" starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, the most recent version starring Keira Knightley, "Emma" with Gwyneth Paltrow and "Sense and Sensibility" with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet. Our favorite though? "Mansfield Park" with Frances O'Connor and Alessandro Nivola.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Between the covers

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's great novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera" was recently made into a, by all accounts, dismal movie starring Javier Bardem and Benjamin Bratt, directed by Mike Newell. But, to be fair, to top the beauty of the novel would be an almost impossible task. It's not only one of the greatest love stories ever told, it's one of the most beautiful novels ever written. It's the story of Florentino Ariza's love for Fermina Daza, which is unrequited for more than 50 years, yet never diminishes, despite his best attempts. "Little by little the fragrance of Fermina Daza became less frequent and less intense, and at last it remained only in white gardenias."