One of the main drawbacks to being the Seattle Star’s publisher is that I do not get to write half so often as I’d like. Over the course of the past year, I published a couple dozen pieces from writers new to the Star, and I’m happy for the diversity. I believe it makes the journal stronger than ever–certainly it is more diverse both in voice and subject matter. With the addition of Chip Phillips to the staff, our tech and science writing has finally started to take off. Our political and writing, too, has grown stronger than ever.
But I miss getting a chance to talk about the arts. Properly surveyed and understood, the arts reveal much about the spiritual health of the city and by extension our national culture. Yet I wrote far fewer reviews in 2014 than in the two years previous–a fact that I regret.
If I were the type for New Year’s resolutions, I might resolve to change that in 2015. Instead I’ll just say that I am trying to correct that problem, though the road is long.
Meanwhile, here are some things I would have written about in 2014.
SnowGlobed — I find holiday plays generally dreary. Too much happy, so much fake, and much too much ham that rather belongs on the dining table than the stage. SnowGlobed at the Schmee still has far too many of those qualities (Stacy Flood’s “Kids in Snow” segment is especially annoying in this regard). On the other hand, each play is better than the last, leading up to the final two, Juliet Waller Pruzan & Bret Fetzer’s “Thermal Rapture” and Maggie Lee’s lovely “The Last Light,” her reconfiguration of the Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Little Match Girl.” Both of these plays are unafraid to deal with the subtext of winter, which is, after all, a season of darkness. But it isn’t because of their darkness that they are superior, it’s because of the commitment of the actors. It’s especially difficult to establish the tone that the cast manages in “Thermal Rapture” without turning the whole episode into mere burlesque, and director/producer Rachel Delmar helps the cast walk that fine line quite adroitly.
I remain of two minds about Nick Edwards’ piece, “For Christmas.” The theme is appropriate enough: the secular commercialization of Christmas. It features two excellent performances by the leads. And yet, frankly, I couldn’t care less what happens. It might be that the endless profanity sounds like someone cast Jesus and Santa in Glengarry Glen Ross by way of Scarface. It might be that the stakes–Christmas–seem high but are in fact completely ludicrous. But most likely it’s because I’m a Grinch whose heart has not yet grown three sizes. I suppose someone has to be.
John McCutcheon/Seattle Symphony/Seattle Choral Company — Three holiday music shows with very different overtones (excuse the pun). The Seattle Symphony‘s Messiah is exactly what one would expect. With vocal veterans Heidi Grant Murphy and Ross Hauck and 2014’s winner of the Georg Solti Conducting Award, Christian Macelaru, the level of performance is high. I truly enjoyed hearing mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell for the first time live. I love the dark yet smooth sound of her voice and I can hardly wait to hear her take on other Baroque repertory–her Dido and Aeneas would be especially interesting. While I can argue with conductor Macelaru’s choice of tempo in various sections, and his rhythmic sense often goes right past me, he clearly has an excellent ear for coloring an orchestra. Yet there’s something about this version that nags me. It feels more inclined to be beautiful rather than exciting. There is a story about a famous conductor telling his choir that if they’d sing “All we like sheep have gone astray” with more attention and less conviction that they would meet the aesthetic as well as the moral requirements. I wish someone had enjoined the symphony orchestra here to play similarly: more attention to overall structure, less conviction within individual sections.
Seattle Choral Company‘s On Christmas Night is different, due, I think, largely to artistic director Freddie Coleman’s commitment to composers who are still alive. Even the pieces derived from traditional sources–Lo, How a Rose, In the Bleak Midwinter, etc.–are arranged with a particular sensibility that puts them well beyond tradition. Latin texts like O Magnum Mysterium coexist with Dolly Parton songs with no hint that anything is out of the ordinary. Because it isn’t. This is Mr. Coleman’s style: to unify the present with history and tradition, thus creating a new tradition. I think this particular bill is fairly successful. Mr. Coleman has very fine soloists in Heather Shaw, Carol Ritchie, and the studly Jim Ginn, and is aided well by the piano of Joan Lundquist and the timbres of the Resonance Handbells, who open the evening with all-bell versions of classic Christmas carols. The main program links together sensibly with a different reader to introduce each piece, adding a nice coherence to the evening and giving it a feeling of casual conversation with the audience as well.
John McCutcheon‘s performance comes from a tradition as well, but a different one from the Seattle Symphony, and even different from that of Freddie Coleman. Above all, Mr. McCutcheon is a narrator. While it might seem a stretch to compare his contemporary version of folk music to the classical tradition of the symphony, one does well to remember that it’s only been recently in music history that people have made this phony division. Stravinsky wrote a ragtime. Dvořak incorporated African American spirituals into his symphonic work. Saint-Saëns absorbed French popular songs into his. The traditions are not so far apart as one might think. In case one had any doubt, in Mr. McCutcheon’s concert his Christmas in the Trenches concert incorporated the Seattle Labor Chorus. And, in typical solidarity, he played from behind them rather than in front of them. His show was an excellent mixture of music, narration including the Readers Theatre reading letters from the soldiers, and heartbreaking photographs and slides from the alleged war to end all wars. That it did not end all wars is due largely to what Frances Tolliver finds out in McCutcheon’s legendary song:
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame.
Sobering to contemplate, as one looks around the world and wonders if there will ever be peace in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa…in America.
Seattle Jewish Film Festival — The SJFF had more than just custom-designed Rice Krispies treats by Tom Douglas. It also had some brilliant films. Surprising some, I was very fond of The Zigzag Kid and its unsentimental yet still wondrous approach to the adventure story–a “coming of age” story in another, more subtle guise.
The documentary When Comedy Went to School I found much more interesting than most, though it’s assuredly an introduction to the subject of Borscht Belt humor. I grew up with those albums, so I’m far from a beginner, but it was still nice to hear all the reminiscences of the time. Somewhere in the future there is a much richer documentary that reconstructs the entire social milieu around the Catskills’ humorists, but one can’t criticize the makers for not making that film; one can only appreciate what they’ve actually made.
The troubling yet crystalline Wagner’s Jews offers a counterpoint to Stephen Fry’s personal approach to the same subject, reminding do-gooders everywhere that even a completely deplorable, loathsome piece of human garbage can still contribute extraordinary art to the world, once one disentangles the problem. In our current political climate, that reminder falls by the wayside easily, yet contains probably one of the most helpful secrets for untangling the biographical fallacy of art, and teaches that one may learn something even from people who want your destruction. On that subject, I also appreciated the fine documentary Before the Revolution, which reminds viewers that it hasn’t been such a long time since Jews lived comfortably and happily among the Muslims of Iran.
Tails of Wasps — Generally I love Stephanie Timm’s writing. Without question she is one of the most intelligent playwrights working in Seattle, and her work deserves far more attention than it receives. Then why do I feel so conflicted about Tails of Wasps? Is it the way that she sustains the play and its La Ronde-like structure so perfectly, only to pull the rug out from under me in the final two scenes? Is it the way she handles so masterfully the corrupting influence of a political system upon normally good individuals, only to reduce the action of the play finally to simplistic psychodrama? I’ve seen her handle complex relationships deftly before, in her script for The Re(dress) Party among others. Why did she take the easy road in this piece? Because it’s the kind of thing she believes and is told that is necessary to get your play produced in Seattle? I sincerely hope not. I want more from her work than easy wish fulfillment and liberal confirmation bias. She is far too talented to accept the boring Seattle theater saw that conflict needs tidy resolution. And yet, Tails of Wasps sees everything good about her writing undone so easily by this overarching, immanent cultural Will, Schopenhauer-esque in its reification, determining things in the drama it absolutely ought not determine–not so much a deus ex machina to resolve things neatly so that people don’t have to think unpleasantries when they go back home to their middle-class safehavens, but a deus in machina that coerces everything toward an inexorable finish. The piece is filled with fantastic performances, but for me that’s not enough. I want the Stephanie Timm play that I know she is capable of writing: social, without being reductive; psychological, without being glib; political, without being platitudinous; structural, without being rigged; and finally complex, without being dismissive. Tails of Wasps is close, but it isn’t it.
Real Time Comic — It’s no secret that I admire the work of Paige Barnes highly. What I’ve gradually begun to understand about her recent work is that she has a strong impulse to extend the human body into space that is not limited by the dance floor. Simultaneously she tempers this personal investigation with an urge toward stripping away everything — costumes, props, recorded music — and returning to the most primal elements of dance vocabulary. So it makes perfect sense for her pursue Real Time Comic as a continuation of ideas that she felt incomplete at the end of Lead Bunny. Here Ms. Barnes operates somewhere in between her two regular strands of inquiry. This is both improvisation with a primordial dance vocabulary and an extension of the human body into a non-dance space–in this case animation. Guiness Waller and Stefan Gruber’s live animation extends the human movement of the dance, but also the human movement extends the animation by creating images of line that find their way into the animation–and both are extended by the wonderful improvised music of Kate Olson and Naomi Siegel’s Syrinx Effect. There are also amazing interplays between the animators and the environmental objects in the Open Flight Studio itself, not to mention between Ms. Barnes and her partner, the lovely and lissome Nadia Losonsky, and the studio chairs. It’s really lovely and visceral–so visceral that even my compatriot who does not normally attend modern dance events found himself amazed at various happenings. Ms. Barnes remains one of my favorite dancers in Seattle, and with work like this I am confident that the next work she does will be even more inspired.