Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Measure of a Man

 Kurt Rhoads as The Duke and Cameron Folmar as Lucio in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of 'Measure for Measure', directed by Jonathan Munby. Photo by Scott Suchman.

William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is one of the author's stranger plays. Although the play is full of comedic characters and funny lines, many aspects of the plot are deeply disturbing. The play is currently being performed on the Lansburgh stage of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.

The Duke of Vienna plans to leave his city because he feels that he has become powerless to correct wrongdoing since he has not enforced the laws in such a long time. He goes on to tell us that he has put Angelo, a strict and religious man, in charge of the city. Angelo is a man who believes that justice is a fixed, unbendable concept. The Duke believes his replacement will be able to frighten the people into following the law without damaging his own reputation.

After the Duke has left town, Angelo begins to enforce the ancient laws of the city, including a law that prohibits begetting a child out of wedlock. According to the citizens of Vienna, this law has been nearly obsolete for some time. Claudio, the “son of a noble gentleman,” is immediately arrested, to the dismay of Claudio’s engaged fiancĂ©, friends, and the other judges before whom cases are tried. They appeal to Angelo’s own experience of passion and desire to try to convince him of the universality of Claudio’s crime. Angelo says that he has never felt such feelings.

Later in the play, Angelo succumbs to his own lust and almost rapes Claudio’s sister, a novice nun named Isabella. He insists to her that the only way she can save Claudio is to yield her body to him. The Duke, wearing a disguise in order to watch Angelo, overhears a conversation in the prison between Isabella and Claudio and offers to help them. The Duke then brings the play to a conclusion by subterfuge, taking the reins of power from Angelo and revealing his true identity.

Miriam Silverman as Isabella in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of 'Measure for Measure', directed by Jonathan Munby. Photo by Scott Suchman.

STC’s production is set, like the original play, in Vienna. However, the Vienna that Shakespeare thought he was writing about may not be the same one we think about today. According to some scholars, people in Elizabethan England may have imagined Vienna to be a city in Italy. Given the profusion of Italian names in Measure for Measure (Angelo, Claudio, Isabella, and Lucio) it seems likely that Shakespeare really did believe he was writing about Italy. The Shakespeare Theatre production sets the play firmly in Austria. In fact, in an inventive and appropriate decision, director Jonathan Munby chooses to use Fascist-era Austria as a backdrop to this play about authority.

At the beginning of the show, the set (designed by Alexander Dodge) establishes a bar or lounge. The center of the stage is filled with a raggedy curtain and a wooden platform stage. Tables line the exterior where a man built like a bouncer serves drinks. The “bawd’s house” of the original Shakespeare is replaced with a racy cabaret of pre-war Austria.

Cameron Folmar as Lucio and ensemble members Gracie Terzian, S. Lewis Feemster, Jacqui Jarrold and Amber Mayberry in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of 'Measure for Measure', directed by Jonathan Munby. Photo by Scott Suchman.

In the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of the play, the Duke’s opening scene shows him at the cabaret, drinking heavily, and flirting heavily with a young man--until the Duke erupts in sudden rage. Here, the Duke's concern about his ability to enforce the laws of the land seems directly related to his "deviant" desires. Sexuality (including homosexuality) is a significant theme throughout the play.

While the STC’s production features red banners and military crests referencing the fascist leaders of the era surrounding World War II, there is an interesting comparison in the production with an event in recent Austrian politics. Jorg (sometimes spelled Joerg) Haider was an Austrian politician and long-time leader of the “Freedom Party” in Austria, raised by parents active in the Nazi Party and continuing to espouse fascist beliefs throughout his political career. Haider died in 2008, driving away from a gay bar, extremely drunk and supposedly in a rage.

Occasionally, STC’s Measure for Measure seemed disjointed or awkward. For instance, at the very end of the play a mysterious figure is seen standing on the back balcony of the stage. After the curtain came down, the audience began to wonder who the figure was and what he was meant to represent. No conclusions were made, and few plausible ideas were even suggested. The actors did not always form a strong ensemble. The Duke, played by Kurt Rhoads, had many beautiful lines, most of which he delivered excellently. But some of his lines felt dragged down by the complexity of the plot. Even during comedic scenes, actors seemed bogged down in the weightiness of the play.

While I did not find this production of Measure for Measure fully compelling, it had an inventive conceit. In addition, the play itself is full of many beautiful lines.

Monday, August 26, 2013

From One to Eight Hands

This past weekend I went to a music festival in Staunton, Virginia to see a "Piano Extravaganza": a performance of eight different pieces by a mix of four pianists.

The first piece was “Prelude for the Left Hand” by Scriabin. Just as its title suggests, the pianist played it with only his left hand. The next piece, “Duet in G from Klavierbung III” by Bach, was written for two hands.  The piece was performed by two musicians, each using one hand. Next was a work for three hands, then four, working all the way up to eight hands--still with all the players sitting at the same piano. The different pieces spanned many genres and eras of music from Bach to Scriabin, German baroque to American Jazz.

My favorite piece to watch was “Piano Roll Blues” by David Liptak. Even though the piece requires seven hands, only three pianists sat on the bench. The fourth sat behind them, sometimes moving his hand in very dramatic ways to the music and at other times coming up behind the musicians to play notes over their shoulders.

The pianists not only used great technical skill to play the pieces, but also incorporated physical humor into the performances. Each work was filled with crazy hand motions, shoves, and careful attempts to gain more room on the bench. They even made the classical music funny. I loved to watch how the different pianists’ hands flew back and forth, often over the top of other players’ hands, in order to get to the next notes.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

John Cage's 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence

My father loves to sing along with this piece:

I don't usually listen to Metal, but I do like this cover of Cage's piece--even though he really pushes the tempo:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Head in the Clouds

For this envelope and postcard, I tried to explore the overlap between my dreams and my memories of the past. Many of my dreams feel like memories. I wake up fully believing I have had conversations and adventures that happened only in my dreams. Sometimes I also forget that favorite moments of my life have actually happened and believe they were merely dreams.

The psychedelic brain on the cover of the envelope reminds me of my subconscious. It emanates the waves of thoughts that make up both my everyday world and the altered world of my dreams. I found the picture in a newspaper article about hallucinations. Could a dream be considered a hallucination of memory?

The back of the envelope is cut out of a long-exposed photograph of the night sky. Night reminds me of sleep and dreams, but also of the time where I first got my interest in the sky, looking through a telescope in Pennsylvania. Around the edges of the cut-out photograph, I continued the design of the photograph with colored pencils.

The inside flap is a rubbing of the brain and sky. I like how they both became clouds (or perhaps thought bubbles) when the images were transferred through the paper.

The postcard inside is composed of three main images. The squirrel can be a symbol of home. Many of my earliest memories are of my home, the only home I have ever lived in. The squirrel could also be the small, energetic me of my youngest childhood. The central figure might be the more contemplative me. The music is an intentional reference to two things: how music triggers memory, and how it is one of the things that I remember best.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Arp Notes

After looking at Jean Arp’s "automatism" or "chance" work, I began to think about the randomness of different actions and what meaning is constructed out of random results. As a musician, I was interested in experimenting with the randomization of music. I thought about how musical improvisation is really a kind of composition on the fly. So what if I just threw notes onto a sheet of music paper?

I scattered each of my cut-out notes and other musical symbols randomly onto the music paper. While I did adjust the notes’ orientation, I tried to retain the essential randomness of the process. Because my goal was to create art rather than music, I used large blue notes.

Unfortunately, the result was just like that of trying to play totally random music. It is close to impossible to play random music; the musician’s instinct takes over and corrects for the “mistakes”. In the process of making my art, I experienced the same thing: it was very hard to put the blue notes down without thinking about the aesthetics of the result.

The result of fully random music isn’t typically audibly appealing (even though it may be an interesting concept). The same is true with a sheet of essentially random notes. While I like the idea of my artwork, I don’t enjoy the visual result.

The process of putting the notes on the page imbues the artwork with a sense of time. The visually static marks become organized in time when they are seen as notes placed on linear music paper. A page of sheet music is read left to right to create a dimension of time. This kind of artwork challenges the viewer to look at it as both a static picture and a developing piece of art through time.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Visiting the Hirshorn

Today I took my grandparents to one of my favorite museums, the Hirshorn in downtown DC. While I love their permanent exhibits, I really enjoyed the current showings as well.

One of the best parts:

Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto

I think Venus's closet was raided by this artist, whose installation made out of coat hangers is displayed on the same floor:

Hirshhorn_Coat hanger sculpture
Sculpture by Dan Steinhilber (and photo by Lia)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Winter's Tale...in the summer

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is hard to classify. In the first half of the play, everything is bleak and cold. As one young character says, “A sad tale’s best for winter.” The king of Sicilia suspects his wife is unfaithful, precipitating tragedies including the loss of both his children and his wife. He is cut off from his family by his intense jealousy and fear that others are deceiving him.

Hannah Yelland as Hermione, Mark Harelik as Leontes and Sean Arbuckle as Polixenes in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'The Winter’s Tale', directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Following intermission, the tone of the play changes dramatically. The setting is now summer in Bohemia, a colorful and crowded land full of fluttering butterflies, drunken shepherds, and young lovers. During these scenes, the play becomes a comedy darkened only by conman Autolycus who lies and cheats the residents of Bohemia. At the end of the play, the characters reunite in Sicilia. The tone is neither clearly tragic nor clearly comic. Shakespeare scholars often classify this play as a romance.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production has a cast of only nine actors, quite a feat for a play with many more characters. Six of the actors play two characters apiece, one in the Sicilian court and one in the Bohemian countryside. By choosing to cast actors like this, director Rebecca Taichman emphasized the similarities and differences between the doubled characters.

The transitions between doubled characters were sometimes shown deliberately rather than being concealed behind the curtain. Actor Mark Harelik, for example, changes out of the tattered remnants that clothe Autolycus into the formal black suit of the mourning king, while never leaving the stage. He slicks back his hair with his hand and steps into the character of the king. The transformation allows the audience to connect the deceitful rogue (whose lies hurt all around him) to the jealous king (whose lies to himself do the same).

Alongside the actors are three musicians who play their parts beautifully. Composer Nico Muhly’s compositions contrast Sicilia and Bohemia with both echoes of the same musical themes and dramatic shifts in mood. The final scene is enhanced by the magical music, the outstanding acting of Hannah Yelland (who plays Hermione), and the set design of Christine Jones.

Hannah Yelland as Hermione in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'The Winter’s Tale', directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Winter’s Tale is a play about transformations, magical and otherwise, as well as love reunited. This production brings out depth and meaning carefully. The most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare (“Exit, pursued by a bear”) is safe in the hands of these actors.