Sunday, December 10, 2017

Suffering and Creativity at the Peabody

The Peabody Institute has provided many splendid concerts and symposia for the Baltimore public.  One of the apexes of that splendor occurred last Friday.  In conjunction with the medical school of Johns Hopkins University, the Peabody sponsored a panel exploring the link between mental illness and artistic creativity.  The focus was the poetry of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), a national poet laureate and a leader of the confessional school of poetry in mid-twentieth century.  The centerpiece was the lecture by Kay Redfield Jamison, a medical school faculty member (specialist in mood disorders) and the author of a recent biography of Lowell, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Knopf, 2017).  She explored how Lowell's bipolar illness, especially the phases of mania when he ranted, sang, rhymed, and rapidly explored words, informed his brilliant but terrifying verse.

Later in the evening The Flux String Quarter performed Images from A Closed Ward (2010), a thirteen part musical composition by Peabody faculty composer Michael Hersch.  Austere and slow-moving, the work evokes the various seasons of mental illness.  Often atonal, this is painful music to hear, but as the work progresses, rays of hope and normalcy seem to penetrate the muted sounds of bewilderment and despair.  The slow, repetitive movements gradually take form into something more sun-streaked and harmonious.  Renowned for its championship of contemporary serious music, the Flux String Quartet brilliantly performed this demanding piece, with its arctically slow tempos, and turned its painful emotional impulses into alternately muffled and soaring plaints.

During the performance stark passages from Lowell appeared on the screen--"And the laugh of Death is hacked in sandstone"---as did slowly dissolving black-and-white photographs of old, abandoned mental institutions.  Both visually and audially, the weight and lacerating power of mental suffering undulated from the stage.   In this work and performance of genius, the unbearable could be heard and seen, indeed almost touched.

This is very difficult music.  As the composer lamented in his introductory remarks before the concert, serious contemporary music has difficulty finding an attentive public.  The modest crowd on Friday night was far smaller than the usual crowds for Mozart or Brahms.  At the end of the first movements some of the concertgoers made clear their displeasure as they slammed the theater doors and exited.  For those of us who remained, we not only heard a lecture about the link between mental suffering and creativity; we witnessed its embodiment in something sublime.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Marseillaise goes agitprop

Lauren Gunderson's quirky The Revolutionists is a play trying very hard not to be the play it is: a didactic political tract sternly teaching the audience its feminist lessons.  Everyman Theatre is currently giving the recent play a dazzling East Coast premiere, with florid costumes, brilliant special effects (that guillotine!), and Edith Piaf singing us into our seats to the strains of the Marseillaise.  But despite the many efforts at humor and the energetic performances by a wired cast, the play is a stern warning that we have unjustly forgotten the women at the center of history's big events.  And that we must atone for this forgetting.

The play brings together four women who lived at the time of the French Revolution: Queen Marie-Antoinette (Beth Hylton); Charlotte Corday, the assassin of revolutionary leader Marat (Emily Kester); Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean anti-slavery activist ( Dawn Ursula); and the playwright Olympe de Gouges (Megan Anderson).  These four historical women never met in real life.  Gunderson's strategy is to gather them all into De Gouges's study as they ask the playwright's assistance in various literary projects of their own.  The cast members deliver fine performances, with Hylton and Kester giving sympathetic treatment to two controversial characters whom textbooks and films have long reduced to caricatures.   Casey Stange's energetic direction moves the cast quickly through the more languorous stretches of dialogue and very effectively incorporates brassy sound and sight effects to recreate the revolutionary atmosphere of the period and the play's action.

Despite some humorous lines and many absurdist twists in plot and the play's internal timeline, the play can never shake its moralizing purpose.  We are repeatedly reminded that women did important things in past and that history has unfairly forgotten them.  It's all true but the repetitive lesson grows thin before the end of the first act.  In the second act, Olympe de Gouge's all too serious musings on the vocation of a woman playwright have the solemnity of a sermon for an obligatory catechism class.  Even the attempt to unmask misogyny gets tangled up in its own misogyny.  The play's Marie Antoinette is a reprise of the old misogynist caricature of her: a greedy, callous numskull who cares only for her jewelry and cosmetic appearance.  This is one area where the script could use a revisionist tune-up.

One of the real injustices facing the theater at the moment (and certainly in its past) is the small number of women playwrights whose works enter into full production.  Everyamn's first-rate production of Gunderson's drama is part of its admirable effort to rectify this gender balance.  Especially ambitious is Everyman's spring season, where it will offer staged readings of five plays by contemporary women playwrights.