Performance Highlights from a Winter in New York
By ELGA WIMMER, APR 2016
Art today encompasses many spheres. More fusions are happening than ever before, mainly in the performing arts, and may range from a rock musician collaborating with actors to an artist giving a performance on New York's High-line or staging an opera.
My picks of this winter season 2015/16 were Lulu, an opera at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in a new production by William Kentridge; Lazarus by David Bowie and Enda Walsh under the direction of Ivo van Hove, and inspired by the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Trevis at the New York Theatre Workshop; and A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, directed as well by Ivo van Hove.
William Kentridge, a renowned artist from South Africa, projected animated drawings onto the stage to create the light effects that tell the story of Lulu, an opera written by Alban Berg during the 20's and early 30's. The fragmentation of Kentridge's images reflect the scattered life of Lulu, and the many facets of her character, as she evolves from child-like innocence into a murderess temptress, and, finally, into a victim herself. Imaginatively depicting place through the superimposed leaves of a book, the installation enhanced the story through an almost dizzying, partly Dadaist succession of visuals: newspapers and dictionaries turned by hand; Rorschach inkblots; caricatures of historical figures, including Berg himself and his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg; women in various stages of dress and undress — all the dark and sensuous imagery recalling paintings by Max Beckman, George Grosz and the Blaue Reiter group. The costuming of the dazzling German soprano Marlis Petersen extended the artist’s projections. Much like Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel,” Ms. Petersen might not represent a soprano of the operatic style, but she was absolutely perfect for her part. Wearing costumes created by Kentridge, posing as a painter’s model in Vienna, in a flapper dress with attached pieces of paper suggesting body parts, the main character moved in ways closer to contemporary performance art than traditional opera. Kentridge recently said in an interview: "All opera is about excess in its very nature, and, it's true of this production in particular. When you're in the opera house you've got an overload."
Mr. Kentridge created two silent characters for his staging. A mannequin-like woman with slick black hair (Joanna Dudley) was always present, sometimes playing a piano, mostly sprawling atop it or inside it, completely twisted and contorted. At times she donned a Lulu-like cylindrical mask and struck Lulu’s dance poses. It was as if this piano-playing stand-in for Lulu were presiding over the performance. Her partner (Andrea Fabi) is a wiry valet who provides props to characters and lurks about ominously. Maybe he’s a Wedekind stand-in? In any event, an idea that could have been heavy-handed provided a surreal touch in sync with the overall concept.
As with his first production at the Met, The Nose (2010), Kentridge deserves a standing ovation. He makes opera not only very contemporary, but also mesmerizing and enjoyable!
The musical Lazarus was presented from December 2015 to January 2016. Michael C Hall starred as Thomas Newton, the role played by David Bowie in the 1976 movie. Thirteen songs, old and new, were performed by a cast whose stand-outs were Michael C Hall; Cristin Milioti as Elly, his more than devoted assistant; and Sophia Anne Caruso as the girl who helps Newton return to the intergalactic world. The story is very simple (as it mostly is in musicals or operas): Newton is an extraterrestrial, trying to return to his planet. He was sent on a mission to earth to better the life of his companions back home. Now he is captured in a luxury apartment drinking gin, eating twinkles, reminiscing on his lost love with an earthly woman, and receiving both imaginary and real visitors. What makes this musical is the performance of its cast, the set design (with projections on screens showing the actors running towards the audience in surreal landscapes, only to suddenly appearing on stage), and the fabulous band behind a scrim as backdrop to the stage.
David Bowie has never left us since his beginnings in the 70's — and he never will. Like Lazarus in the bible, he has resurrected (first in the film, and now in this musical) in a spaceship. Art and fashion totally fused in the 70's and 80's. And as working in the field of fashion, I met David Bowie in Japan during one of his tours. This absolute new star! Yet he was very approachable and “down to earth," with a great sense of humor. When telling him that his “colleague” Brian Ferry admired his music, he countered with a smile: “Oh really? He likes my music?” Having heard of his illness and death after seeing Lazarus on stage in December of 2016, I felt like I had lost a longtime friend, and certainly an omnipresent influence in music, fashion and art. For me, as so many others around the world, "starman"' will always be around!
Ivo van Hove, whose minimal style with maximum effect has become his trademark, was also the director of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. It marks the 100th anniversary of this playwright, and is an astonishing example of a modern day "Greek tragedy." Seated in an amphitheater-like stage, a minimal cube covering slowly rises, revealing two men scrubbing their torsos after a hard day as dockworkers, as though ritualistically. Alfieri, the lawyer of the main character played by Michael Gould, is acting as the "Greek Chorus," forecasting the tragedy yet to come. He steps in and out of the square inhabited by the actors, creating a tension between stillness and movement. A continuous background sound of an insistently throbbing requiem, distant thunder and drums, keeps the audience on their toes (or might I say at the edge of their seats). This was masterfully arranged by sound designer Tom Gibbons. It’s the underscore of the world of the dockworker Eddie Carbone (Mr. Strong), and the wife he loves too little (Nicola Walker), and the niece he loves too much (Phoebe Fox). The audience is placed in a mood of anticipatory anxiety, incurring a sense of dread as a "warning" of what is to come. The play arrives at its most tragic turn, when Marco (Michael Zegen) and Rodolpho (Russell Tovey), who have come to New York illegally to find work, arrive on the scene.
In the end, the black cube descends again on a scene of blood and destruction, as if erasing the horrific scene from our eyes, but certainly not from our minds. The way the play utilizes extraordinary visuals, atmospheric sounds and psychological effects, makes it the closest thing to classic Greek tragedy, set on a modern stage, I have experienced in a long time! WM