August 2011

NOTES & COMMENTS

We will be posting dated commentary and news on this page for the balance of the summer. New items appear at the top. Check back!


2011: September / October / November / December
2012: January / February


8/31 - THEATER: Pooh's Author Wrote Plays, Too
A fact unknown to most lovers of Winnie-the-Pooh and the other denizens of Ashdown Forest is that the extraordinary popularity of A. A. Milne's children's books had the unfortunate effect of eclipsing all his other writing. That extensive body of work included more than thirty plays, several of which had considerable critical and popular success in their day. One of them, The Dover Road (1921), was given a delightful reading by the Pearl Theatre Company in New York this summer. An antically anti-romantic comedy cautioning against marrying in haste and repenting at leisure, the play has not lost its humorous bite, and makes us want to know more of Milne's forgotten works. Directed by Melissa Maxwell (who brought this little gem to the Pearl's attention), the reading was also a testament to the skill and talent of the Pearl's resident actors. With the benefit of just one afternoon rehearsal, the Pearl's Bradford Cover, Jolly Abraham, Robert Hock, and Sean McNall--ably joined by Dudley Knight and Hollis Witherspoon--succeeded in bringing Milne's characters to hilarious life.

8/22 - THEATER: Reviving Forgotten Gems
The Mint Theater is an Off-Broadway troupe "dedicated to searching out worthy but neglected voices from the past, with a sharp appetite for timeless but timely plays." A mission after our own heart! In 2002 the Mint deservedly won a Drama Desk Award--for "unearthing, presenting and preserving plays of merit," most of which (see highlights) "have lain on the shelf more than 41 years."

On occasion, other theaters stage plays first revived by the Mint. Five years ago we attended one such production (see New York Times review)--Harley Granville-Barker's century-old Voysey Inheritance (in an adaptation by David Mamet), which the Mint had presented in 1999.

Though we enjoyed it immensely, veteran critic John Simon later deemed it "vastly inferior" to the original version (the one staged by the Mint--which makes us wish we had seen that production). As Playbill noted: "The story is about the son of the title family, who discovers [that] their fortune, which has allowed them to live in the lap of luxury, has been acquired through a history of embezzlement." In comments written in 2009, Simon notes the compelling parallels between this fictionalized family drama of financial mismanagement and the recent real-life drama surrounding the infamous Bernard Madoff, who succeeded in defrauding countless investors over a period of two decades in what has been characterized as the largest Ponzi scheme in history.

Since the Mint's performance space is intimate--just seven rows--most seats (including the CheapTix ones at half-price) are good, but aim for the middle if available.

8/13 - THEATER: Critics Honor New York's Pearl
As we've indicated in the past, the Pearl Theatre Company [more] [more] [scroll down to relevant items], is one of New York City's cultural treasures. We're not alone in our judgment. This year the company received one of the Drama Desk's special awards for excellence and significant contributions to the theater. The Pearl was fittingly honored for "for notable productions of classic plays and [for] nurturing a stalwart resident company of actors." For information about the 2011-2012 season and subscription options, see the company's website.

8/13 - THEATER: A Contemporary Play Worth Noting
In its final production of last season, the Pearl departed somewhat from its mission of presenting "the classics of world theatre" to stage David Davalos's Wittenberg, a play first produced in 2008. This was a departure in a literal sense only, however, not in spirit, because Wittenberg is a scintillating play of ideas that George Bernard Shaw himself might have loved.

Characterized by Davalos as "tragical-comical-historical," the play was inspired by the odd fact that three major characters in fact and fiction were each linked to the north German university town of Wittenberg in the early sixteenth century. They were Protestant reformer Martin Luther, German alchemist Dr. Johann Georg Faust (who spawned legend and literature), and Shakespeare's tragic prince Hamlet. Davalos's brilliant conceit is to make Luther and Faust fellow faculty members at Wittenberg U., where they vie for the mind and soul of their star pupil, Hamlet. The time is October 1517, shortly before Luther posts his Ninety-Five Theses challenging the Catholic Church and launching the Protestant Reformation.

In a rich dramatic twist, Davalos imagines Luther, the man of faith, and Faust, the nonbelieving man of science, to be the best of friends. What results is a remarkably nuanced view of the struggle between faith and reason. In yet another fruitful twist, Davalos's Hamlet is in the midst of a psychological crisis precipitated by his having spent his summer abroad studying with the good Dr. Copernicus. Entrusted with the paper setting out the latter's world-shattering heliocentric theory, Hamlet is in a tailspin, his own faith sorely tried. Each of his academic advisors offers his own distinctive remedy.

Kudos to the Pearl for doing full justice to this intelligent play--in particular, to J. R. Sullivan for his direction, and to Scott Greer, Chris Mixon, and Sean McNall for their pitch-perfect performances as Faustus, Luther, and Hamlet, respectively. Though you can no longer have the pleasure of seeing these fine actors romp their way through Davalos's Wittenberg U., you can still savor the delights of his script. Wittenberg is published by Dramatists Play Service in a paperback acting edition. --M.M.K.

8/9 - Rattigan Centenary Productions
In this second half of Terence Rattigan's centenary year, any news regarding productions of his plays on this side of the pond should give fans something to cheer about. We've learned of four more--three in the U. S. and one in Canada. See our Rattigan Centenary page for details.

8/9 - EXHIBITION: A Dutch Old Master
Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum, July 26 - October 10, 2011. Aristos readers know well who Rembrandt is, and Vermeer of course. But Frans Hals? Maybe not. Though scholars regard the three as the most important artists of the Dutch Golden Age (generally spanning the 17th century), Hals has never achieved the widespread popularity of his compatriots. This compact exhibition of eleven paintings from the Met's collection and two on loan from private collectors has much to offer to visitors new to his work as well as to all who know (or think they know) it well. For both groups it should spur a further look at the work of this Dutch Master.

Primarily a portrait painter, Hals also did genre scenes, and the Met owns choice examples of each. Regrettably, it lacks any examples of the famed large group portraits of civic guards and of directors of charitable institutions, however--all of which reside in the Netherlands (see especially the collection in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem).

The present exhibition includes a selection of other choice Netherlandish paintings from the Museum's collection, including one each by Rubens (Study of Two Heads [more], c. 1609) and Van Dyck (Study Head of an Old Man with a White Beard [more], c. 1617-20).

Rembrandt, too, is represented--sort of. Young Woman with a Red Necklace [more] (c. 1644-45) is said to be in the "style of Rembrandt." No matter, for we get to see a marvelous small painting (approx. 8 x 7 in.) of a pensive young woman that is very likely by one of Rembrandt's pupils--perhaps Samuel van Hoogstraten.

The other showstopper of this modest exhibition for us is even more diminutive than that painting of a young woman. Samuel Ampzing, a portrait miniature on loan from a private collection, is painted on copper and measures a mere 6.5 x 5 inches or so. Its subject is a Haarlem clergyman, poet, and historian. Note the prominence given the book, especially the manner in which Ampzing holds it while marking with his index finger the page he has been reading. Notwithstanding the loose rendering of his hand, the gesture seems of a piece with the intensity of his gaze. In this portrait, Hals has captured an essential quality of his sitter (whom he undoubtedly admired)--something of his inner life. (For more on this aspect of portraiture, see the last two sections of Louis Torres's "Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought" [Aristos, August 2003]) Since a private collector owns this remarkable portrait, try not to miss what may be your only chance to see it in person.

Other noteworthy Hals paintings on view include Merrymakers at Shrovetide (1616-17) [detail] [more]; and Portrait of a Man (early 1650s) [more]; and Portrait of a Bearded Man with a Ruff [more].

We cannot resist citing a work not included in this show--the sweet, sensitively rendered Portrait of a Woman 5 [detail]. The image we link to is just one among a generous listing of images of 116 Hals paintings. Dates and sizes are not given, however, and in at least one instance--regarding Samuel Ampzing --information regarding the work is erroneous. As indicated above, this portrait is painted on copper, not canvas.

(Note: As always, we recommend that you view each painting in the exhibition before reading its accompanying wall label. We especially suggest that you skip the audio guide. Viewing a work while listening to someone jabber on about it--no matter how informatively--robs you of the pleasure of responding spontaneously on your own terms.)

8/9 - EXHIBITION: "Drawings" or Wallpaper?
Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, Metropolitan Museum of Art, through August 28. With this "first retrospective of drawings by the contemporary American artist Richard Serra" the Met has assuredly sunk to a new low in its coverage of what passes for contemporary art. It is difficult to say which is greater, the work's utter vacuity or the pretentiousness of the statements about it. If we didn't know better, we would swear that both were meant as a parody of today's artworld. Here's what the museum has to say about Serra's monumentally scaled "Installation Drawings" from the mid-1970s--among them Abstract Slavery, Taraval Beach, and Blank (an apt title)--which measure up to twenty feet wide and fill most of the exhibition's walls:

To make works such as Pacific Judson Murphy (1978), the artist attached Belgian linen directly to the wall and covered the entire surface with black paintstick. The Installation Drawings marked a radical shift, altering conceptions of what a drawing is and how it can interact with architecture. Serra's drawings of this period control the space of entire rooms and alter perceptions of spatial relationships.

Of Serra's more recent "drawings"--including Weight and Measure IX [more], out-of-round X [more] [more], and Solid #13 [more]--the Met's press release informs us that "the accumulation of black paintstick on paper is extremely dense and that nearly the entire surface of the paper is covered in a layer of viscous pigment. To make such works, Serra often pours melted paintstick onto the floor and then lays the paper on top of the pigment." (See "A Conversation with Richard Serra" [scroll down to video and transcript]).

Lest we miss the significance of Serra's creative process, the Met assures us that his "innovative ideas have radically transformed the traditional understanding of drawing." While the Met and Serra (not to mention the curator at Houston's Menil Collection who organized this show) think that Serra has transformed drawing, as we see it what he has really done amounts to nothing more than fabricating humongous sheets of solid black wallpaper.

For more on Serra's work and the artworld hype promoting it, see "Richard Serra's Fun House at MoMA" (Aristos, November 2007) and "Today's 'Public Art': Rarely Public, Rarely Art" (Aristos, May 1988), both by Michelle Kamhi.

8/4 - IN MEMORIAM: A Maestro Who Brought the Joy of Classical Music to Children
We were saddened by the untimely death last March, at age 67, of Dino Anagnost, the longtime music director and conductor of New York's Little Orchestra Society, whose concerts for children we noted with warm appreciation not long ago. (See "Classical Music for the Very Young," in Notes & Comments, December 2009.) For his notable contributions to music for both young and old, see the obituary on the WQXR website.

8/4 - New Barzun Bio
In June, we updated our page dedicated to Jacques Barzun, where we announced the forthcoming publication (in November) of a biography of this venerable cultural historian and friend to Aristos, who is now in the fourth year of his second century. We also added links to eight other items of interest in the sections devoted to articles, books, videos, and essays.


September