Some observations based on recent cultural travel at home and abroad:
1) You want to see great theater? London is good---but so is New York. On a weekend binge last fall the three shows I saw in New York were all better than the six shows we saw in London this January. OK, one of them was a production that began in London, La Bete, featuring an indelible 20 minute monlogue by virtuouso Mark Rylance, the French beast of the play's title, in which he delivered idiotically enthusiastic non stop pronouncements on nearly everything while spitting food, taking a crap, and wiping his bottom with a page ripped from an old book. You just had to be there. Whenever I am beseiged by a non-stop talker (an expanding breed) I now smile and take comfort, knowing it could really be much much worse, and so, so much better.
Mark Rylance in "La Bete"
Yes, all right, I must also admit the second great production I saw wasn't native born either—Penelope was an import from Ireland's Druid Theatre, written by the astonishing new playwright Enda Walsh, who is creating an entirely new poetry for the stage along with some hallucinatory viusual images. This play was about the suitors of Homer's Penelope, who were hanging around and still competing at the bottom of a drained swimming pool awaiting return of Odysseus and their own imminent doom. Just terrific.
But best of all was the truly native American Gatz, the seven hour marathon retelling of The Great Gatsby (every word of all 182 pages was spoken).
Ben Brantley of the New York Times, who gets my vote as the best theater critic now writing, said it was the greatest theatre of the 21st century--and from what I've seen (quite a bit), that's almost an understatement. I won't begin to describe the show--you can read Brantley's review here.
Each show I saw in New York was worth the trip, and to see three on one weekend was entirely unprecedented.
2) Great Shakespeare is hard to find. In London we saw two critically acclaimed productions--Rory Kinnear's Hamlet and Derek Jacobi's King Lear. Both deserved praise, both were stylishly and inventively built around lovely leading actors, and yet ... the Hamlet felt both overproduced and oversimplified (every effort was made to make Hamlet the entirely sane and sympathetic target of a soviet style surveillance state), while Jacobi's Lear, for all of its subtle intelligence and delicacy, never took you over the falls--it never plunged into the wilderness that is Lear's consuming heartbreaking experience. From everything I have heard the best Shakespeare in the world is now being done in .... New York, where Theatre for a New Audience is doing thrilling work I have never seen. I plan to see it.
3) The Good is the Enemy of the Great-- That's Voltaire's line, and when it comes to sex or theatre the opposite also applies. Alas, great theatre--great art of any kind-- makes it much harder to be satisfied with the merely competent or the just fine stuff you see a fair amount of time in the provinces where most of us live. Right here. Two weeks ago I went to see the Metropolitan Broadcast broadcast of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride, an opera I did not know (there are a zillion operas I do not know).I went because Carleton Gamer, who does know,told me it was wonderful music---and it certainly was, radiant and rich from start to finish. The production was state of the art too, directed by the baroque master Stephen Wadsworth, beautifully sung (Graham, Domingo and Groves), costumed and set so that everything you saw was deeply satisfying and rich, a vast improvement on the original (what to do with great but impossible Greek Tragedy? Turn it into opera!).
Iphigenie en Tauride
The opera matinee was like the best bath I've ever had, and the Met's broadcast more or less ruined my experience the next afternoon at The Barber of the Seville in the Pikes Peak Center. Let me say the Opera Theatre of the Rockies did a very decent job through and through . . .. and yet, there really was no comparision: Seville looked like a standard issue stucco home airlifted from west Los Angeles and lowered onto the vast Pikes Peak Center stage. The lighting was uniformly dull, the costumes were satisfactory, the singing was justfine and so on. I couldn't wait to get out of there. Lest you think I am just dumping on a good neighbor's nice lawn, let me also dump on our own. I felt the same way about seeing Boeing Boeing in our own theatre. The show was a stylish huge hit, and gave many people a lot of pleasure---but after seeing the Matthew Warchus London production (which also won a Tony when it went to New York), our show just wasn't as much fun for me. The great is the enemy of the good;it leaves the good looking flat. And while my dump truck is making its rounds I might as well unload on the Denver Center's recent Midsummer's Night's Dream, perfectly mediocre in every way, lacking only heart, humor, heat, beauty and imagination; just the sort of show that makes Denver feel like a third rate theatre town (A friend asked what's a second rate--or second rank-- theatre town? Seattle, San Francisco, or Boston perhaps).
4) The Great is elsewhere---and sometimes right here too. In our brave new world of telecommunication and global travel, where we have unprecedented access to the state of the art in nearly everything, even those of us with relatively modest means have a chance to experience the great stuff--though the great stuff never really easy to find (in London, for example, this year it was only really good stuff). Local culture, with much more limited resources and talent, will suffer by inevitable comparisions. And yet, don't always count us out. Three weeks ago Betty and I were at dinner and seized with a sudden impluse to check out the symphony, which we hadn't attended all year. It was getting late; the performance had already started. By the time we got in the door the first part of the concert was nearly over--we got the last two seats in the back of the loge and slipped in to hear the end of the Saint Saens. At intermission there was a palpable snap and crackle in the lobby. I venture to say I have rarely been in an intermission like this. A friend came up and told me, "I've never seen the musicians respond this way--they are so alive,they are paying so much attention." Everywhere I looked people were excited--buzzing, I believe, is the word--full of nectar, flapping their tiny happy wings. Back in we went to hear the Berlioz, a terrific show-off piece, and boy did the orchestra show off, with Maestro Josep Caballé Domenech carving out the air with lucid and strong gestures,and when it was done we all rose as one--as one!--and beat our hands.
Maestro Josep Caballé Domenech
There was a roar. It was the fullest, most spontaneous audience response I've ever seen or been a part of in our town, and it was directly produced by our band turning out sensationally alive music. We felt the way some of us did seeing unheralded Bob Beamon breaking the triplke jump record by two feet at the 1968 Olympics. What? Did he really do that? Yes, he did! I think we all felt the philharmonic had just broken their old world record by two feet. This was art as good as it gets, it was better than good, it was absolutely great. And it was all right here, right in our town. And there's more to come, too.