Who: Janet Biggs, Vinson Fraley, Earl Maneein, CERN-IARI,
What: Livestream multimedia performance
Where: Cristin Tierney Gallery
When: Thursday, April 8, free with RSVP, 7:00
Why: A performance from multidisciplinary artist Janet Biggs is always something special — and something hard to define. For last summer’s Augmentation and Amplification for Fridman Gallery’s “SO⅃OS: a space of limit as possibility” series, the Brooklyn-based Biggs brought together singer and dancer Mary Esther Carter; machine learning program A.I. Anne; composer and music technologist Richard Savery; drummer Jason Barnes, who lost an arm in an accident and now uses a robotic prosthesis; marathon runner Brian Reynolds, a double (below-knee) amputee who is fitted with carbon fiber running prostheses; and violinists Earl Maneein and Mylez Gittens, to explore artistic connections between humans and technology.
On April 8, Biggs and Cristin Tierney Gallery will present another unique and fascinating collaboration, the virtual Singular Value Decomposition, featuring dancer Vinson Fraley, violinist, violist, composer, and arranger Maneein, the Seven)Suns String Quartet, and CERN video footage mathematically manipulated using quantum mechanics and linear algebra. The multimedia “research and development” performance is part of Biggs’s work with Arts at CERN, which is part of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and the Integrated Arts Research Initiative (IARI) at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas; also involved are KU associate professor of mathematics Agnieszka Międlar, high-energy nuclear physicist and KU associate physics professor Daniel Tapia Takaki, Spencer Museum research curator Joey Orr, and IARI research fellows Clint Hurshman, a KU graduate philosophy student, and Olivia Johnson, a KU undergraduate studying mathematics and dance. Got that? It might not exactly be easy peasy, but it will blow your mind all the same.
The first in-person, extended-run indoor theatrical presentation in New York since restrictions lifted has arrived, and it’s a doozy. British playwright Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago’s 1995 dystopian novel, Blindness, was long in the works prior to the coronavirus crisis, but its subject matter and staging are tailor-made for this precise moment in time.
The seventy-minute socially distanced sound and light installation debuted at the Donmar Warehouse last August and opened last night at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square. Originally conceived as a fully staged production with a cast of a hundred by Tony winner Stephens and director Walter Meierjohann, it has been reimagined for the pandemic. A maximum of eighty-six masked people are allowed in the theater, seated in chairs in pods of two, either facing the same or opposite directions; each couple is at least six feet away from other pairs.
The set consists of dozens of horizontal and vertical fluorescent lights hanging from above, forming a kind of abstract traffic pattern, warmly changing colors from red, blue, and green to yellow and orange; as the audience enters, the sounds of cars can be heard. The otherwise empty, ominous set is by Lizzie Clachan, with lighting by Jessica Hung Han Yun. Every audience member receives a pair of headphones through which the foreboding tale unfolds. The text is performed by Olivier-winning English actress Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply; Death and the Maiden), who starts out as the Storyteller before becoming the protagonist. “If you can see, look,” the Storyteller begins. “If you can look, observe.”
The dark parable immerses you in an epidemic in which a man driving down the street suddenly and inexplicably goes blind — everything turns white — and after he goes to an ophthalmologist, the doctor and several of his patients soon lose their sight as well. The contagion spreads, and only the doctor’s wife retains her vision; she takes over the narrative, which turns into an apocalyptic nightmare in which the nation’s leaders turn their back on its citizenry. “If there was a government, it was a government of the blind trying to rule the blind,” the doctor’s never-named wife says. “I didn’t know if there was going to be a future. We needed to decide how we were going to live.”
The audio was recorded using a binaural microphone, called Trevor, that is shaped like a human head, similar to the one Simon McBurney used in his 2016 Broadway show, The Encounter. Stevenson’s physical proximity to Trevor affects how we ultimately hear her words, giving it a three-dimensional quality. At times it seems that the doctor’s wife is far away, her voice muffled in the distance, while a minute later you can practically feel her hot breath on your neck as she whispers in your ear, as if she is standing right next to you. It can be unnerving, and it’s supposed to be, melding well with the story, which grows harsher and harsher. The genius sound design is by Ben and Max Ringham, who previously used binaural recordings and silent disco headphones for Ella Hickson’s spy thriller, Anna, at the National Theatre in May 2019. You might be sitting in a space with no stage, no furniture, no props, only chairs and lights, but Stephens’s writing is so descriptive, and Stevenson’s reading so clear and poetic, that you’ll think you are in the quarantine bunker where the blind characters are struggling to survive.
Although the theater does transform into total darkness for several scenes, random flashes of white lights in the second half are distracting, with no apparent connection to the story except to perhaps evoke an instant of white blindness. Depending on where you are sitting, you might be facing another audience member, which can be unsettling; usually at the theater, the only people in front of you who you might make eye contact with are the actors onstage. That said, it’s fabulously exciting to be in a theater with other people, experiencing something together. In addition, everyone gets a flashlight to turn on in case they require technical or personal assistance, although that can be disruptive, particularly when it’s pitch black and someone suddenly flicks the light on. There is no intermission, no bathroom breaks, no gathering in the lobby to chat; if you have to leave for some reason, there is no reentry. And speaking of distractions, the night I was there, I did not see anyone on their cell phone or hear any ringers go off. Sheer bliss.
Blindness, which was adapted into a 2007 play by Godlight Theatre Company, a 2008 film by Fernando Meirelles starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Danny Glover, and a 2011 opera by Anno Schreier and Kerstin Maria Pöhler — Saramago also wrote a sequel, Seeing, in 2004 — is not simply a technological marvel that explores the breakdown of society in a health crisis that is all too familiar today; it examines how we as a culture interpret how and what we see. It’s merely coincidental that we are watching a show about a pandemic, involving food insecurity, economic distress, governmental refusal to take action, and so much grief and loss, during a pandemic. Blindness delves into the interconnectedness of humanity amid greed, selfishness, and a metaphorical blindness that can lead to racism, hate, militarism, and othering. Stephens follows Saramago’s style of not using proper names for characters or locations; this could be happening to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
In writing the play, Stephens (Sea Wall, Heisenberg, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), who is partially sighted, consulted with Hannah Thompson, a partially sighted professor of French and Critical Disability Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, who explained ocularcentrism to him, the belief that sight is the most privileged of the five senses and how misunderstood having less vision is. (She prefers the term “vision gain” to “vision loss.”) Early on, the Storyteller says, “Who would have believed it? Seen at a glance, the man’s eyes seemed healthy. The iris looked bright, luminous. The sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open, the wrinkled skin of the face, the eyebrows suddenly screwed up.” As this immersive sound and light installation reminds us, taking life, and all its wonders, for granted comes at your own risk.
Through April 18, $37-$65
I’ve had several opportunities to see Mike Bartlett’s play Cock, which ran at the Duke on 42nd St. as well as a Spanish version at the Producers Club, but for one reason or another I passed. I’m sorry I did, now that I’ve seen Studio Theatre’s sizzling virtual adaptation, streaming through April 18.
Originally staged by James Mcdonald at the Royal Court Theatre in 2009,
Cock uniquely approaches questions of identity by exploring personal responsibility, love, and sexuality. John (Randy Harrison), a nice guy who lacks the inner strength to make important decisions, is living with M (Scott Parkinson), an acerbic, irritable stockbroker, but has surprisingly fallen for W (Kathryn Tkel), a sweet-natured young divorcee. While M endlessly belittles John, W appreciates him for exactly who he is, even if John’s not exactly sure what that is. When M and W meet, neither one is about to give up, ready to fight to be with John. John is soon put into a position where he must choose either M or W, so his longtime partner enlists the help of his father, F (Alan Wade), a working-class man who wants the two men to stay together.
Directed by David Muse (The Remains, The Effect), the play was filmed with three cameras in one day following Covid-19 protocols by video director Wes Culwell at Studio Theatre, on a large dirt-filled circle surrounded by a rope, evoking a wrestling ring where the four characters, barefoot, wearing everyday clothes, engage in conversation and do verbal battle. Scene changes are indicated by a dimming of the octagonal light fixture dangling above and a sharp sound, as if another round in a championship fight has concluded; the lighting is by Colin K. Bills, with sound by James Bigbee Garver. Bartlett was inspired to write the play after watching Mexican cockfights; the title refers to roosters, the male organ, and several other American and British usages, from moving a part of one’s body to getting a gun ready to fire to a slang term for a friend and nonsense.
The actors remain at least six feet apart at nearly all times. There are no props, no costume changes; activities such as eating, drinking, and removing clothes are mimicked by the actors. Culwell often uses split screens, putting characters in their own vertical boxes, which can be confusing, since they are acting together onstage at that moment, not Zooming in from wherever they are sheltering in place. It takes us out of the rhythm of the play, which is otherwise brilliant. Early on, when John is telling M that their relationship might be ending, he tries to keep them physically apart. M reaches out, but John rebuffs him. “No. Don’t. Just stand over there,” John says, motioning for M to stay away. M walks a few feet back, then says, “An illustration, showing me the distance between us. . . . But you’re not showing me the distance. You’re creating it. You put me over here, put that thing there between us.”
Bartlett’s (Love, Love, Love; King Charles III) writing is sharp and intuitive, sexy and funny. The cast is uniformly excellent; Harrison (The Habit of Art, Cabaret) displays a cautious, tender vulnerability as John. Parkinson (The 39 Steps, Our Town), who earned a Helen Hayes nomination for his performance in Studio Theatre’s original 2014 production, is a bundle of energy as M, his body, head, and hands in near-constant motion, while Tkel (An Octoroon, Jefferson’s Garden) is alluring and affecting as the positive-thinking W, and Wade (Choir Boy, Scenes from an Execution) is stalwart as a father who just wants his son to be happy. John — the only character with a full name but the one who least understands himself — isn’t really deciding on whether he’s gay or straight; his conundrum could be about any one of us, faced with choices about who we are and who we want to be. “Him and me, we must both be stupid,” W tells John, who is not necessarily such a great catch, for a man or a woman. “What is it about you?” It’s a question we’ve all asked at one time or another, and Bartlett and Muse are not about to offer any easy answers.
George Street Playhouse
Twenty-four-hour stream available on demand through April 11, $33
In my review of the 2016 Broadway premiere of Becky Mode’s Fully Committed at the Lyceum, in which Jesse Tyler Ferguson portrayed a struggling actor taking phone reservations at a hot New York City restaurant as well as forty other characters, I wrote, “It might work in small, intimate theaters, but on Broadway it feels more like an interesting comedy sketch that never ends.” The one-person show has now found just the right table setting in the George Street Playhouse’s tasty virtual adaptation, running online through April 11.
One of the most produced plays in America since its debut in 1999 at the Vineyard Theatre and subsequent long transfer at the Cherry Lane, Fully Committed requires an immensely talented, intrinsically likable actor, and director David Saint has found that in Maulik Pancholy, who embodies the protagonist, Sam, as well as dozens of other characters, including the hotheaded chef; Sam’s coworker, Bob, who is supposed to be helping him on the phones but is stuck in traffic; such demanding VIP customers as Bunny Vandevere and Carolann Rosenstein-Fishburn; Bryce, Gwyneth Paltrow’s assistant, who is arranging a special party with unusual requests; and his friend Jerry, who is often up for the same parts as Sam. He also portrays his own father, who desperately wants him to come home for the first Christmas the family will celebrate after the loss of Sam’s mother, although Sam is scheduled to work that day. For each character, Pancholy, wearing a headset and a blue zippered sweatshirt over a button-down shirt, adopts a different voice as well as body movement, shifting back and forth smoothly.
The ninety-minute show takes place in a cluttered, messy downstairs office filled with file cabinets, trashcans, a coat rack, a Boston Red Sox pennant, music posters, and Broadway memorabilia, which in 2021 reminds us what we are all missing. (The appropriately crowded art direction is by Helen Tewksbury.) It was shot by cinematographer and editor Michael Boylan in the basement of George Street Playhouse board member Sharon Karmazin’s home on a lake in New Jersey; the company also filmed its previous online play, Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates, in the house, as well as its next production, Nia Vardalos’s Tiny Beautiful Things, streaming May 4-23.
Boylan’s camerawork provides an intimacy and connection that was lost in the Broadway staging. Pancholy, who has appeared in such television series as 30 Rock and Weeds and on Broadway in Grand Horizons in addition to writing the award-winning middle grade novel The Best at It (for which I served as managing editor), is seen in closeup and longer shots that help define the claustrophobia and loneliness Sam is experiencing, from his mother’s death and his breakup with his boyfriend to his inability to snare a quality acting job and the abandonment of his colleague, Bob, who has left him all by himself to handle crisis after crisis. Although the play has not been rewritten to incorporate a much more significant crisis, the coronavirus, the pandemic hovers in the dank air, particularly at a time when restaurants are only just opening up for indoor dining and actors are hoping to get back to work now that some venues are beginning to experiment with limited-capacity in-person shows.
Fully Committed might not satiate your hunger for food — the chef’s complicated “molecular gastronomy” doesn’t sound very appetizing — but the play will quench your thirst for high-quality theater in these difficult times.
RICHARD THOMPSON WITH ELVIS COSTELLO
Montclair Literary Festival
Tuesday, April 6, $20 ($35 with book), 8:00
“There is dust, and then there is dust. It’s thickest here, in my memory. This remotest room of my mind has been shut up for years, the windows shuttered, the furniture covered with dust sheets. Light hasn’t penetrated into some of these corners for years; in some cases it never has. If something is uncomfortable, I shove it in here and forget about it. When was the last time I dared look? I don’t want to remember, but now it is time to think back. The arrow is arcing through the air and speeding towards its appointed target.”
So begins British folk-rock legend Richard Thompson’s new memoir, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967–1975 (Workman, April 2021, $27.95), written with Scott Timberg and illustrated with personal photographs. Thompson, who turned seventy-one last week, is one of the world’s finest guitarists and songwriters and a musicologist; he has made classic records with Fairport Convention, French Frith Kaiser Thompson, his then-wife, Linda Thompson, and as a solo artist. His project 1000 Years of Popular Music features tunes that go back to 1068. He peppers his extraordinary live shows with engaging patter with the audience, highlighting a snarky sense of humor and a wry smile. During the pandemic, he put on a series of living room concerts with his partner, Zara Phillips, from their home in Montclair, New Jersey, and released the six-track EP Bloody Noses, which he debuted from their house. So it is fitting that on April 6, he will be launching the book at the virtual Montclair Literary Festival, discussing it with Elvis Costello, who wrote his own memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, in 2015. Tickets are $35 with a copy of the book, $20 without.
Thompson will be back online April 15 for the 92Y presentation “Beeswing: Richard Thompson in Conversation with David Fricke,” speaking with the longtime Rolling Stone journalist about the memoir, named for one of his most popular songs, an autobiographical tune about falling in love as a teenager. “She was a rare thing / Fine as a beeswing / So fine a breath of wind might blow her away / She was a lost child / She was running wild, she said / As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay / And you wouldn’t want me any other way,” he sings. Exploring his formative years, the book features such chapters as “Instead of Bleeding,” “Yankee Hopscotch,” “Tuppenny Bangers and Damp Squibs,” and “Bright Lights.” Thompson will be bringing his guitar with him to play a couple of songs as well.
As he writes in the afterword, “Like Fairport, like so many of my contemporaries, I don’t know when to stop — and hooray for that. There are more mortgages to be paid off and bills piling up, but more motivational than that, there is still an audience. It may be twenty thousand at a festival, a thousand in a theatre or ten in a retirement home, but the desire to communicate from my heart to their heart is the strongest pull, and the sweetest feeling.” If you’re not yet part of that audience, now’s the time. Hooray for that.
Who: Song Ming Ang, Melanie Kress
What: Live online artist talk
Where: The High Line Zoom
When: Tuesday, April 6, free with RSVP, 1:00 (exhibition continues through April 28)
Why: In the 2019 interview “A New Understanding of Place” for the High Line blog, associate curator Melanie Kress explained why video was part of the elevated park’s continuing celebration of site-specific public art. “When we think of public art, most of us think of murals and sculptures. But to fully showcase the range of mediums that artists are working in today, video is indispensable,” she said. “Video also has the ability to cross back and forth between many different worlds and forms at the same time — between advertising, social media, film, documentary, documentation, television, music videos, and more. It provides a really interesting place for artists to play with viewers’ expectations. In a public space, visitors aren’t necessarily expecting to encounter art — especially video art — so those lines can be blurred in all the more challenging and creative ways.”
The latest video art installation to screen on the High Line Channel at Fourteenth St. is Singapore-born artist Song-Ming Ang’s “Piano Magic,” which consists of 2014’s Backwards Bach, in which Ang, who is based in Singapore and Berlin, plays Johann Sebastian Bach’s C Major Prelude from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier on the harpsichord both forward and backward, and 2011’s Parts and Labour, in which he fixes a disused piano. On April 6 at 2:00, Ang and Kress will discuss the project, which continues through April 28, in a live Zoom Q&A. Ang is also represented at the Asia Society Triennial with the multimedia site-specific installation True Stories, twelve music stands with text and images that explore the demise of societal norms, which he detailed in the Instagram Live program “Talking Dreams: A Conversation with Artist Song-Ming Ang.”
Who: Red Bull Theater company
What: Conversation about William Shakespeare character Falstaff
Where: Red Bull Theater website, YouTube, and Facebook Live
When: Monday, April 5, free with RSVP (donations accepted), 7:30
Why: The last hand I shook was the large paw of Drama Desk Award–winning actor Jay O. Sanders, following his performance in the Broadway show Girl from the North Country at the Belasco on March 10, 2020, two days before the pandemic lockdown shuttered the city. With most theaters and the Great White Way still closed, Sanders will take part in Red Bull’s next online RemarkaBULL Podversation, “Exploring Falstaff,” on April 5 at 7:30. In the free virtual event, streamed live on Facebook and YouTube, the Austin-born actor and activist will perform an excerpt from Act 2, Scene 4 from Henry IV, Part 1, in which the bearish Sir John Falstaff tells Prince Hal at the Boar’s Head Tavern: “Shall I? content: this chair shall be my state, / this dagger my sceptre, and this cushion my crown. / Give me a cup of sack to / make my eyes look red, that it may be thought I have / wept; for I must speak in passion.”
After the speech, Sanders will discuss the character, who appeared in both parts of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor before being eulogized in Henry V, with Red Bull associate producer Nathan Winkelstein. The conversation will include several questions from the audience as well. Sanders (Uncle Vanya, the Apple Family plays) has portrayed such Shakespearean figures as Titus Andronicus, Marc Antony, Macbeth, Toby Belch, Caliban, Petruchio, and Bottom and has the record for most appearances at the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park presentations at the Delacorte, so he knows what of he speaks. Up next for Red Bull’s ambitious lockdown programming is a Zoom benefit reading of Paradise Lost on April 12 and 26; you can watch previous RemarkaBULL Podversations with André De Shields, Kate Burton, Patrick Page, Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Urie, Chukwudi Iwuji, Stephen Spinella, and others here.