Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Theatre de la Jeune Lune-an Appreciation

Last weekend was a very sad one for the Twin Cities. It was announced that Theatre de la Jeune Lune is closing on July 31st. Jeune Lune started in 1978, and for thirty years they have been an innovative and essential part of the Twin Cities landscape. For a longtime Jeune Lune fan like myself, it was heartbreaking to hear this news. However, I should add that it wasn't totally unexpected. Honestly, their last few shows haven't risen to the high standard Jeune Lune has set for itself. It came out last fall that the company was staggering under the weight of $1 million in debt. It's a sad end for an amazing group of artists, who won the regional Tony award in 2005.

I've seen about 45 Jeune Lune shows since 1992, when my Mother took me to see "Scapin," a commedia dell'arte play by Moliere. I was 11 then, and I've grown up watching this wonderful theater group. Jeune Lune was started by Dominique Serrand, Robert Rosen, Barbra Berlovitz, and Vincent Gracieux. In a unique structure, these four actors were co-artistic directors. Steven Epp joined the company in the mid-80's, and became the fifth artistic director. This core group of five actors are some of the most talented I've ever seen. They all brought something a little different to the mix, and they could all move from physical comedy to heartbreaking drama at the drop of a hat.

But a Jeune Lune production meant more than just great acting. It meant a totally different theater experience, from the building itself to the beautifully detailed costumes. In 1992, they moved into the old Allied Van Lines building in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis. In it, they created a unique and versatile performance space. The stage and seats could be in any number of different arrangements, and they were hardly ever in the same place twice. The space allowed actors to appear at different heights, by climbing ladders to different levels of the warehouse. It's difficult to describe, but it is such a dramatic performance space, and the stage almost becomes a character in and of itself. The company almost always created fresh interpretations of their source material. When a play was based on a novel, it was always adapted by the company. Even when they were performing a play by, say, Moliere, they would search for the translation that best suited their idea of the material. And even then, they still might change it further. But their changing and adapting never took the material away from the author's original intent, they just shed more light on the brilliance originally within the material.

Some of my favorite memories from the years at Jeune Lune are:

their production of Zola's novel "Germinal," with a powerful lead performance from Steven Epp.

"The Hunchback of Notre-Dame," with Dominique as Quasimodo and Vincent as Dom Frollo.

The glorious lunacy of "Yang Zen Froggs," which showcased Jeune Lune's physical comedy at it's best.

"Honeymoon China," more general craziness, with Dominique as "Umlaut." My Mom and I still quote Dominique's line, "Oh-oh, another day, another dust bunny."

"The Pursuit of Happiness: Cinemamerica and Lifeliberty," written by the company, an epic and fascinating look at life in America, this is one of the best plays I've ever seen, anywhere. Of all the Jeune Lune plays I've seen, this one might be my favorite.

"The Dreams, Delusions, and Nightmares of Queen Elizabeth II," was one of Barbra Berlovitz's greatest performances, which is really saying something, as she's great in everything I've ever seen her in.

"Red Harvest," an adaptation of the crime novel by Dashiell Hammett, this featured my favorite Robert Rosen performance. This was the moment that for me, he transformed from a funny guy into a leading man.

"Twelfth Night," even better than the Guthrie's own production, which was a couple of years after this, I believe. Great acting by Joel Spence and Sarah Agnew as the leads.

"Tartuffe," Jeune Lune has done this several times over the years, and Steven Epp's masterful performance in the lead role was breathtaking. A brilliant study of hypocrisy and evil masquerading as piousness. Vincent was especially good as Aragon, the head of the household who falls under Tartuffe's spell.

"Cyrano," a heartbreakingly beautiful version of this tale. I will always remember the moment where Roxanne, played by Sarah Agnew, finally realizes after all these years that it was Cyrano, played by Dominique, who truly loved her. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater.

There are still so many more, like "The Magic Flute," as Jeune Lune moved into it's "opera period," highlighted by the beautiful appearances and singing voices of Bradley Greenwald, and the Baldwin sisters, Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin.

"Carmen" was probably my favorite opera. It was done simply, with a piano providing the only accompaniment for those gorgeous voices. Bradley Greenwald as the doomed Don Jose, Christina Baldwin as the title temptress, and Jennifer Baldwin Peden as Michela.

And even at the end of this list, there are more productions I could mention, more brilliant, complex portrayals of humans at their best and worst. Through the years, Jeune Lune brought the Twin Cities brilliant, challenging theater. Even as a long-time fan, I can't say that I understood everything in every play, that I could tell you what it all meant. I'm just glad I was there to see the magic happen. Dominique, Vincent, Steven, Barbra, and Robert, and all the wonderful actors and artists you worked with over the years, thank you so much for letting us be a part of your artistic journey. Thank you for all you've given us.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Meeting Mikhail

On Friday night, I got to meet Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the greatest dancers ever. How exactly did I meet him, you might ask? Well, the Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis is showing an exhibition of photographs that Baryshnikov took of Merce Cunningham's dance company. Friday night was the opening, and Mikhail was there! Since the Weinstein Gallery is just blocks from where I live, I figured I'd head over to the gallery. I saw Baryshnikov dance a few years ago, and it was simply amazing. I can't say I'm an expert on dance, not by a long shot, but I do enjoy watching it.

The Weinstein Gallery is tiny, just two large rooms, and the window air conditioners were ineffective. The rooms were crowded with people trying to get a glimpse of Mikhail. He was dressed coolly, in a white shirt and black trousers, and I was surprised at how tiny he is. He can't be more than 5'6" or 5'7", and his frame is just so small, petite, even. He still has a thick head of hair, dark brown flecked with gray, and his blue eyes are piercing. Needless to say, at 60, he's still incredibly handsome. (Surprise, surprise!) And he's an incredibly nice person, posing for photographs with people, signing autographs, chatting with them. I got to shake his hand, and told him how much I enjoyed seeing him dance. Then I said, "It's nice to meet you." He replied, "It's nice to meet you too!" What a cool guy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Readings on Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, by Robert S. Mattison, 2003.

Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, by Calvin Tomkins, updated edition, 2005.
Obviously, Robert Rauschenberg's life and artwork cannot be summed up by me in one blog post. There are many avenues of his work I didn't even touch on, such as his performance art pieces, and his work as set designer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. There are several books I would recommend for further investigation about this wonderful and fascinating artist.

Calvin Tomkins's Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, is a great book that covers Rauschenberg's life and career up to the mid-60's. (Merce Cunningham comes of as a major jerk in this book, he seems petty and annoyed when Rauschenberg become successful.) Originally published in 1981, it was updated in 2005 with a chapter Tomkins wrote for a New Yorker article.

Leo Steinberg's Encounters with Rauschenberg is a good little book, showing how one wary art critic (Steinberg) eventually became a fervent supporter of Rauschenberg's work.

Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, by Robert S. Mattison, is a good, well-illustrated book. I haven't read the entire book, but it's good.

Robert Rauschenberg: October Files, edited by Brandon Joseph, is a good compendium of important articles about Rauschenberg's work.

Robert Rauschenberg, by Sam Hunter, though unimaginatively titled, is a solid work featuring reproductions of more than 100 Rauschenberg works. It includes many later works, although Hunter, like most other authors, concentrates in the text on the 1950's and 60's. Hopefully soon someone will write more about Rauschenberg's post-1964 work.

Rauschenberg is also sadly lacking in entry-level, ie, cheap, art books about him. For some reason, he was not included in the Abbeville Modern Masters series, although they did include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. It's like, okay, there's someone missing among this group of artists...he has also never had a Taschen book written about him. Taschen has a great series of cheap books about the canonical "great artists," and they are a good introduction and overview of an artist's life and work. There are books covering just about every major painter, ever, from Leonardo, Caravaggio, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, to Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. Guess who still doesn't have a Taschen book? Robert Rauschenberg. Anyway, if I whetted your appetite for more Rauschenberg, check out some of these books. If you're interested in more images of Rauschenberg's work, check out the Sam Hunter book, if you're interested in more about his life, check out the Calvin Tomkins book.

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008.

Robert Rauschenberg at work, circa 1963.

Retroactive I, by Robert Rauschenberg, 1963.

Trophy II (For Teeny and Marcel Duchamp), by Robert Rauschenberg, 1960.
The American artist Robert Rauschenberg died in May at the age of 82. He was one of the 20th century's greatest artists, and one of my own favorite artists. He was brilliant in many different mediums, and consistently prolific. His friend Jasper Johns said once that Rauschenberg was the artist "who had created the most in this century, except for Picasso."

Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, and had no idea becoming an artist was a career possibility until about the age of 20, when he visited the Henry E. Huntington Library, in San Marino, CA. There he saw Thomas Gainsborough's famous painting, The Blue Boy. "This was my first encounter with art as art," he said. When he understood that "somebody actually MADE those paintings, it was the first time I realized you could be an artist." He studied at the renowned Black Mountain College under Josef Albers in the late 1940's. One can scarcely imagine two artists more different in approach than Albers and Rauschenberg. Albers's most famous works come from a series of more than 1,000 works called Homage to the Square, which are rigidly geometric works, most with the same basic pattern. In contrast, Rauschenberg's work always looked thrown together, he always let the outside world into his works, and he engaged with the outside world in a way that was scorned by many serious art critics at the time. Although the two men did not get along, Rauschenberg respected Albers, saying of him, "Albers was a beautiful teacher and an impossible person. He wasn't easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it. Years later, though, I'm still learning what he taught me, because what he taught me had to do with the entire visual world. He didn't teach you how to 'do art.' The focus was always on your personal sense of looking. I consider Albers the most important teacher I've ever had, and I'm sure he considers me one of his poorest students."

Some of Rauschenberg's earliest important works would set the tone for Minimalism, a movement that was still a decade off, and in a way, became the first and last words on the subject. He created a series of all-white canvases in the early 1950's, and also painted a series of all-black canvases around the same time. What could possibly be more minimal than that? These works also had a great influence on the composer John Cage, and his famous piece 4'33", which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Or so it seems. What actually happens during the silence is that the audience becomes aware of all the other noise around them, as nothing is ever totally silent. A similar thing happens with Rauschenberg's white paintings. You can see reflections of what's happening in the gallery on the all-white canvas. In this way, the painting becomes a reflection of the outside world, just as Cage's piece, which is ostensibly silent, becomes a reflection of the concert hall.

But Rauschenberg's restless nature would not let him stay in Minimalism very long. By the mid-fifties, he was creating challenging new works that were a hybrid of sculpture and painting. Rauschenberg's term for them was combines, because they combined the two art forms. A typical combine work would feature all kinds of different colored paint, along with artifacts from the outside world, such as neckties, a stuffed rooster, a bedspread, and, most famously, a stuffed goat. The combines are difficult to interpret, but they show an artist willing to engage the outside world in a conversation. In his 1955 work Bed, Rauschenberg took his pillow and blanket, attached them to a canvas, and slathered them with different colors of paint. Similar to Jasper Johns's work of the same period, Rauschenberg was littering his work with man-made objects, like Coca-Cola bottles, thus paving the way for Pop Art.

It was around this time, the mid-fifties, that Jasper Johns entered Rauschenberg's orbit. There was an instant connection, and soon the two lovers were sharing an apartment. They would discuss art endlessly, and their influence on one another's work was of lasting importance. By the time they broke up in 1961, both artists were at a creative peak. Johns's career was taking off, as MOMA had bought three works from his 1958 solo exhibition, and Rauschenberg was building momentum.

Rauschenberg's work underwent another huge change when he discovered silkscreens around 1961. Now, in addition to his combines, he was creating canvases with silkscreened images of stop signs, bald eagles, JFK, and glasses of water, all held together by expressionistic brush strokes. Because of the silkscreened images, these pictures were somewhat similar to those being done by Andy Warhol at the same time. Indeed, Warhol may have been the person who introduced Rauschenberg to silkscreening. But, instead of focusing on rows and rows of the same image, as Warhol often did, Rauschenberg's canvases were jammed, almost overloaded, with visual information. Rauschenberg's work, largely critically derided until this time, was now being re-evaluated. He had a major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1963, which raised his stock considerably. But the biggest honor was yet to come. In 1964, he won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, becoming just the third American artist to ever do so. The art establishment was finally taking notice of this striking artist. So what did Rauschenberg do? From Europe, he called a friend in New York, and told him to go to his studio and destroy all of his silkscreens. He would never work with that set of images again. Now that success had finally beckoned, Rauschenberg firmly broke with the past, partly for fear of repeating himself and becoming stale. As he said in an interview from 2000, "I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop. At the time I am bored or understand-I use those words interchangeably-another appetite has formed."

His work continued to change and grow throughout the rest of his long career. In 1984, he formed the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, or ROCI for short. The aim was to travel to other countries, and exchange art and ideas, in the hope of promoting "world peace and understanding." To the end, he kept right on creating and transforming, always seeking some new idea. He was once asked what his greatest fear was. He said, "That I might run out of world." Thankfully, he never did.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

RIP, Tim Russert

Like everyone, I was sadly shocked to hear that Tim Russert died yesterday. For a political junkie like me, it was a bad day. He will be sadly missed on Election Night in November. Who will be there with a dry-erase board working out Electoral College possibilities? I know John King at CNN has that super high-tech touch-screen thing, but it's just not the same. Seriously, though, Tim Russert will be missed for the dedication and intelligence he brought to his job. Clearly, he loved what he was doing, and it showed. And he asked good questions, not crap questions like, "Where's your flag pin?" or, "How much do you think Reverend Wright loves America? Does he love it more than he loves his dog?" Okay, so a viewer/voter asked the flag pin question, thus further eroding my faith in democracy. Russert seemed like a really nice guy who just happened to host the most important political talk show on TV. On NBC's nightly news last night, Brian Williams talked to two colleagues who had both asked Russert to be the godfather to their sons. I think that says a lot about the kind of guy Tim Russert was, on and off-screen. He will be missed.

I'm Back!

Greetings, dear readers! I apologize for my absence, but I was having computer issues. Yeah, it was not a lot of fun. But now I am back on the Internets, as our President would say. (It's a good thing there's more than one, it could get crowded out there!) Anyway, now I will get back to the business of posting, and by business I mean "thing I do in my spare time that I don't get paid for." Just to be clear.