“Vanya” gives haunting new life to a masterpiece of world drama

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David Flores plays the emotionally and spiritually frustrated Uncle Vanya, here interacting with Alicia Rice, as Elena, the wife of the scholar he dedicated his life to, in Off-the-Wall’s “Vanya.” Photos courtesy of Off-the Wall.
A contemplation more than a review:
Vanya, at Off-the-Wall Theater, based on Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov, running through Sept 29 in Milwaukee, Info: www.offthewallmke.com, or 1-262-509-0945
I was just reflecting on Vanya, Off-the-Wall Theater artistic director Dale Gutzman’s courageous, tenderly painful and insightful new adaptation of Chekhov’s great play Uncle Vanya. It seems tackling classics takes courage for a very small, low-budget theater that cannot attract the biggest name actors.
But as he showed in his ingenious recent take on Melville’s Moby-Dick in Call Me Ishmael, the director seems to possess a profound sense of history (and humor), both literary and dramatic. Melville, of course, also had a profound sense of history and humor, both literary and dramatic, considering that Shakespeare was his greatest literary influence.
Sections of Moby-Dick even have what you might call wannabe stage directions.
Of course, many people have written great things about Melville and his concerns and themes but he is constantly trying to reach to the depths of matters, including Ahab’s famous “strike through the mask” of the white sperm whale’s huge face, signifying the somewhat cosmic, inscrutable and horror-inducing “whiteness of the whale.” (God? Satan? or Nature?)
Then regarding Nature and deep history, you can swim through his then-unprecedented gathering of cetology and meditations on the whale and the oceans, and finally of course the great, watery, vertigo-inducing closing sentence of Moby-Dick, imprinted on my memory:
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet-yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Note a fine point, Melville’s bracing, buttressing use of two semi-colons in the sentence.
Of course, this ending precedes the beautiful, sunrise-like, shark skin-shedding of danger in the epilogue.
I recall a friend saying MD came down to fate, an excellent and surely central subject of the novel, but not a theme per se, as the English prof would say.
I am not proposing to offer a single theme for MD here partly because today I want to really honor the local theatrical artistic director Gutzman, his company and Chekhov.

I highly recommend OTWT’s Vanya.

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Randall Anderson plays Dr. Astrov, a troubled family friend in a scene with Elena.
To that end, I offer this as a brief, indirect homage to this production and Chekov’s play, and a point of comparison, my review of American Players Theatre’s Uncle Vanya from some years ago, which should provide exposition and assessment of the play.
OTW’s small, black-box theater provides a claustrophobic and nostalgic atmosphere that I think the playwright would approve of, given this tense family drama. The set is more apt than that of APT (play on words merely felicitous), which was spacious and outdoors.
And given the much smaller Milwaukee theater’s uniformly excellent acting and sensitive direction, I put this production in the same major league as American Players Theatre.

Here’s a link to a PDF of that American Players Theatre review, published in The Capital Times:

vanya APT PDF

 

 

 

 

Our House is on Fire! Hear it. See it. Believe it.

“This planet is our home, and our house is on fire!”

Singer-songwriter Harvey Taylor says he’s not sure what one “small song” can do, but he has to sing it. Every one of us must speak out in the best way we can against the self-destructive madness of climate change and global warming. You just never know what the impact of your commitment, — however seeming small — to justice and truth will be. This is video is what democracy looks like (OK, I know there’s a joke embedded there). But if I do nothing, nothing good comes of it, even potentially.

For example of something good, this Web-posted video is much more potent than mere words, as impassioned as those are. Taylor has a gifted collaborator in videographer Susan Ruggles, who illustrates each of Taylor’s dire points with raging and ravishing potency.

This is the real world we live in today, the real planet we are destroying, our home and that of every other earthly creature and plant. Here’s hoping this video will inspire others to other creative means of fighting the madness.

Thanks to Harvey, Susan and percussionist Jahmes Finlayson.

Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio follows it own dedicated path, like musical Robin Hoods

Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio performs “Memphis.” Courtesy Just Jazz

Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio:

Saturday: Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, Milwaukee 

Sunday, Sept. 22: Arts + Literature Laboratory, 2021 Winnebago Street, Madison, 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance (https://rosettatrio.brownpapertickets.com) and $20 at the door. Student tickets $5 off with a valid school ID. Advance ticket sales end 1 hour before the show. Doors open at 7:30 pm. 

Outside of classical circles, astringent might describe a string trio. But once you hear Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio, especially in person, such austere implications melt away into pools of concentric counterpoint, and welling surges of warm passion. The passion and warmth radiated primarily from the bandleader Crump and his buoyant, enveloping bass-playing at center stage, Saturday night at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. The bandleader seems to possess an innate but well-cultivated musicality and soulfulness, even as it vibrates at a slightly more subtle, lower dynamic level then his two guitar-playing band mates.

Bassist-composer.-band-leader Stephan Crump. Photo by Ralf Dombrowski

Often Crump seemed to talk or sing to his bass, to spur it to some higher level of communication. For one tune, he literally used the big, upright bass as a percussion instrument, slapping various parts of its wood body, and zinging sharp effects along the side of the instrument’s neck.

That tune was called “Rose,” named for one of his formative artistic inspirations, a woman he knew in his early years in Memphis, Tennessee. The group may even be named for her.

This piece had strong country overtones embedded in its modern overall style, bringing to mind the atmosphere plectral magic of Bill Frisell who coincidentally played the night before not far south in Evanston, Illinois. Considering I almost attended the sold-out solo Frisell event (with tickets ranging from $25 to $55), I daresay I got more for my money Saturday with the Rosetta Trio, especially in the intimate setting of the Jazz Gallery, amid a too cozy-sized audience.

These are all world-class musicians, with Crump best-known as one of the formative members of the celebrated Vijay Iyer Trio, and with credits ranging as far afield as Portishead’s Dave McDonald and The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano. Yet Crump has been so dedicated to his personal vision in this form that this trio has soldiered on for 15 years in its exact same configuration of players. The guitarists are Liberty Ellman – well-known for performing with an array of progressive jazz artists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning saxophonist composer Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Gregory Porter, and Jason Moran – and the somewhat less-renowned but no-less-talented Jamie Fox.

In this group, Ellman dedicates himself to acoustic guitar with subtle and sparkling elan, while Fox handles the hollow-bodied electric duties with great aplomb. What’s also impressive about this group is, for all the virtuosity and conceptual sophistication, there’s an unassuming humility to their presence, especially in Crump’s almost shy-but-eager way of sharing anecdotal information about each tune. This lent the music a human aspect even as it sometimes veered into the abstract, as it does with several tunes by Ellman, the most-overt intellectual in the group.

But what consistently engages listeners is the interplay among the players, most conspicuously the delicious array of contrapuntal felicities rising from the two guitarists together, riding Crump’s fulsome bass.

It was perhaps most purely engaging on the bandleader’s tune “He Runs Circles” inspired by his young son’s “eloquent” manner of literally running circles around his father when he practiced. The evocative effect of the three musicians here was an infectious three-part swing that almost prompted at least one audience member to dance circles around the trio. Here and elsewhere, the group engaged the body, heart and mind with music as stimulating as it was sometimes challenging.

If you have a chance, don’t miss this group, which happily presses on like slightly covert Robin Hoods – taking from the richness of both vernacular and art musics, and giving back to the musically hungry fortunate enough to cross their path. That artistic realm is encapsulated in the title of their latest abum, Outliers.

Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio has just embarked on an extensive Midwest tour in support of Outliers, so check out their website for a concert near you: Rosetta Trio tour

Blood is at the Doorstep of Congress

 

A gun safety rally speaker in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park shows a photo of Stephen Romero, age 6, a child killed in a mass shooting in California. All photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise indicated.

I really want to celebrate Labor Day today, the working men and women of many immigrant backgrounds who built his nation, and sustained its success and glory, time after time after time. I hear their work in my mind, the rhythms of the hammer, and of the sewing machine, of the printing press, even the offbeat hits of the teacher’s chalk on the blackboard. They are why America is still a great nation and continues to be. I fly my American flag proudly today in front of my home.

But Lord, we have our profound faults and that drives me to this post, because of the profligate abuse of guns everywhere, because of the seemingly mindless, or racist or vengeful carnage, and the heartbreak, the shattering of families and the blood-spattered social fabric. And because of the facile, pathetic rationalizations for inaction.

I am prompted to revisit a rally I attended on August 18, after the very latest mass slaughter in Texas and elsewhere –– how do we keep up with them all? – and another protest for gun safety this weekend, which I missed. The gun safety rally in Milwaukee I attended was held in Red Arrow Park, the site of the killing of Dontre Hamilton. This was a powerful and moving experience. I try to gain inspiration from it. So I am sharing some photos and video from that event in hopes blog readers will gain some inspiration for action.

Red Arrow Park is profoundly significant because part of our nation’s terrible gun problem is the militarization of the police, and their excess of deadly weapons, their institutional and, for some, individual racism, and their reflex to shoot in the slightest doubt, and argue that it was self-defense. In 2014, Hamilton was shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer who approached him where he was sleeping under the Red Arrow Park sculpture, a block from City Hall, and across the street from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (I’m happy that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attended in support of this event.)

Maria Hamilton (far right, in white), mother of Dontre Hamilton speaks a few feet away fro the red arrow sculpture, under which her son Dontre was killed by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014.

Police had previously responded to a call about Hamilton sleeping there and determined that he was causing no harm. But another officer, Christopher Manney, didn’t get that message and showed up and woke up Hamilton who, after being confronted, apparently grabbed the officer’s nightstick, at which point Manney immediately emptied his gun into Hamilton.

The late Dontre Hamilton. Courtesy USA Today

The full Hamilton family story, tragic but also inspiring, is told magnificently in the award-winning film Blood is on the Doorstep which wrote about in depth in this blog at its Milwaukee premiere, and which I dearly recommend to anyone who cares about the deaths of unarmed black men. Here is a link to a trailer, and access to the film which is available by streaming currently, and available through Netflix: Blood is at the Doorstep

The protest event I attended was extremely special because of the presence of Maria Hamilton, Dontre’s activist mother. She spoke briefly, saying “now is the time” for common sense gun safety measurements like background checks. We also need to get rid of the military-style assault rifles on our streets, and in the hands of more potential mass murderers.

Maria Hamilton (top, right) speaks with U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore beside her. A rally attendee (above) consoles Maria after the rally.

When Maria Hamilton took the microphone, it hit me very hard. She spoke only a few feet away from the spot where her son was gunned to death. All new reports I’ve read say he was either “beneath” or “beside” the red arrow sculpture. Then, after the rally, I was stunned by something I saw, when I sat down on the base of the sculpture. I looked down at my feet at the granite surrounding the sculpture and I noticed some stains in the stone, faint red stains that many might easily overlook at this point in time. But I could not help feeling that I was looking at bloodstains and that, whose else might they be but Dontre Hamilton’s?

After the rally, I sat down at the base of the red arrow sculpture (top) and saw these red spots (above), next to my shoes, right on the location where Dontre Hamilton was shot 14 times in 2014. Now I believe they are Dontre’s blood stains.

I don’t even know if Maria Hamilton knows that the stains are there. I did not feel like approaching her afterwards. But I took a photograph of the stains and you can think what you might about this. But, believe me, those stains haunt me, even symbolically, even if it is not really what it appears to be. Philip Roth once wrote powerfully of “the human stain” of racism, and the phrase’s symbolism resonates to the deep heart’s core of the America.

Several speakers spoke on the broader issue of gun violence at the event which was one of over such rallies 100 nationwide that day, sponsored by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, Students Demand Action, and Hometown for Gun Safety, the nationwide organization which I was happy to help support on my birthday on Facebook with the assistance of various friends, whose contributions I am very grateful for.

A young college student activist speaks extemporaneously at the Every Town for Gun Safety rally on August 18 in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park

One of the most impressive speakers was a young black woman activist (above) who had said she had a prepared speech. But when she got up there she was so fired up that she simply spoke spontaneously for about five minutes. She spoke intelligently, directly, eloquently, and passionately.

I will try to post the video of this remarkable young woman on my  Facebook page (Kevin Lynch, Milwaukee) posting of this blog post. It is too large for this website. 1

The blood is clearly on the doorstep of Congress, just as were the numerous pairs of shoes that were laid out symbolically on the lawn in front of the Congressional building In Washington, representing the hundreds (thousands?) of children we have been killed by gunfire since the Sandy Hook massacre of school children and their teachers.

A recent protest involved placing pairs of shoes on the lawn of Congress to signify every child killed by gunfire since the Sandy Hook massacre. Courtesy GettyImages

Any paranoid gun owner who worries about the ridiculous “slippery slope” notion of gun restrictions, is basing his fear on no evidence.

Neither I nor anyone who cares about reasonable gun safety gives a hoot about your collection of guns. We just want to stop the insane carnage in the only advanced country in the world in which this happens to this degree, by a long shot (sad pun intended).

Guns do kill people, about 40,000 in America every year. When the NRA says “no, people kill people,” remember, no person has ever killed any person by pointing with a forefinger and a “cocked” thumb and shouting “bang!”

A killer has to have a gun in his hand, dammit. I’m sorry, like Beto O’Rourke in Texas and most of America, I’m beyond horror, unhappiness and grief. This is our nation and these deaths were our lives, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our dear friends. They will continue to be.

Every citizen and inhabitant must play a part now, in changing this self-destructive and self-centered brain-lock, and heart-lock — at least among a small group of powerful American politicians and gun industry lobbyists.

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1 Full disclosure, I attended this rally as a belated participant, not as a reporter. Consequently I didn’t take notes (my hands were full) so I don’t have IDs on all the speakers pictured in the photos. There was very little post-rally news coverage of the event that I can find, with such details. My apologies.