wet earth

Reversal of Feeling

“There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened,” remarks one of the characters in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” which Actors Collective is presenting in a taut production smartly directed by Jeffrey T. Heyer at the Carl Cherry Center, in Carmel.  “There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place.”

This challenging and richly ambiguous play is about the jagged uncertainties of love and memory.  Deeley (Greg Falge) and Kate (Julie Hughett) are a married couple living in the English countryside, in a house near the sea.  They are visited by Anna (Nina Capriola), an old friend Kate hasn’t seen in twenty years.  As the visit unfolds, small-talk niceties and recollections soon give way to more loaded suggestions of past entanglements.  Deeley tells the story about how he met Kate at an out-of-the-way movie theatre in London, but was Kate alone when he met her?  More than one scenario is eventually raised.  Other remembered encounters begin to fill in the story, but shadows of conflict and confusion remain.  The stakes of this uncertainty are heightened considerably as the play nears its spine-tingling conclusion, when dark mysteries in Kate and Anna and Deeley’s shared past are explored.

Explored, but not solved.  “Old Times” is not one of those “trick plays” in which there is a sudden reversal that changes everything you thought you understood, clearing the way for a tidy dénouement.  Instead, Pinter’s extraordinary cut-glass prose designs a kind of textual trompe-l’oeil, in which distinctions between surface and depth, past and present, self and other, cannot be trusted.  “You can’t say where it begins or ends,” Kate says of the sea, but she might be talking of the world of the play.  This may unsettle some viewers.  I found it thrilling.

Because of its surreal aspects, its emphasis on language and repetition, and its structural complexity, “Old Times” runs the risk of being chilly and remote.  Lives, memories, and identities are dissected with an almost clinical scrutiny.  (The production’s one distracting off-note was Anna’s costume, which to my eyes resembled a doctor or lab researcher’s coat.  Perhaps this effect was intended.)  Fortunately, the actors breathe warmth and feeling into Pinter’s austere script.  Capriola’s Anna is vibrant and alert, with a store of rivalrous emotion lying under a mask of friendly bonhomie.  When she and Deeley trades lyrics from old tunes by Gershwin, Kern, and Rodgers and Hart, her eyes shift from playful to cutting in a flash.

As Deeley, Falge portrays an elegant Englishman bound to certain traditions and expectations.  One of his most significant displays of anger is toward an imagined class of wealthy foreigners, “a slim-bellied Cote D’Azur thing we know absolutely nothing about, a lobster and lobster sauce ideology we know fuck all about.”  Yet despite his burst of anger this, too, is a form of protection—the mask of class rage.  Deeley’s character is pure concealment, until at the end, when it isn’t.  The effect is powerfully moving.

Kate is a fantastic role for Hughett, a sensitive, expressive actress.  Kate is a dreamy, enigmatic woman who loves softness, who deplores edges and “harsh lines.”  There are moments when Anna and Deeley speak of her in the third person, as if she weren’t there.  Yet it is Kate whose actions and stories form the core of the play’s mystery.  And it is the dreamy Kate who interrupts her husband’s tirade against the “beautiful Mediterranean people” with the swiftly slicing “If you don’t like it go.”

All three characters undergo reversals of feeling as the points on this three-cornered map of desire and betrayal shift and unsettle whatever sense of reality has just been established.  “Old Times” is a Rubik’s Cube of a play: you can keep twisting and turning and still never get all the parts to match up.  Though Pinter denies us the satisfaction of narrative closure, isn’t his open-ended depiction of human emotion more ultimately truthful than case closed or happily ever after?

“Old Times,” through Saturday, March 3, at the Carl Cherry Center, 4th and Guadaloupe, in Carmel.  (831) 595-7053.

Perpetual Motion

Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Afternoon of the Faun” is about the creative urge.  At the poem’s opening, the half-man, half-goat declares that he wants to “perpetuate these nymphs,” the sensual creatures of his half-waking dream he would prevent from slipping out of his grasp.  Claude Debussy’s musical response to Mallarmé’s brilliant poem highlighted the flute, the faun’s potent instrument of creativity and desire.  The poem and music inspired further creation when Nijinsky danced the role of the faun in a legendary performance that emphasized the faun’s sexuality.

“Perpetuate” means “to continue or extend without intermission,” and such were my own desires last Saturday evening at the performance of “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun,” presented by the Monterey Dance Collective and Ensemble Monterey Chamber Orchestra at Hidden Valley Institute for the Performing Arts in Carmel Valley.  This was a gorgeous performance I didn’t want to end.  Choreographed by Deanna Ross, and featuring the compelling Brendan Barthel as a randy alpha-faun who flirts with any pleasing nymph drifting by and keeps rival fauns in their place, this “Prelude” successfully conveyed the atmosphere of the poem, in which raw lust ripples just under the translucent elegance of the poem’s form.

The excellent dancers were given strong support by the onstage musicians, conducted by John Anderson.  Today, it is rare for dance performances to benefit from live music—recorded music has sadly become the norm, even in larger cities.  Yet dance is a living, breathing art, and to replace the living breath of real instruments played by real bodies with electronic music is to cheat the audience—whose breath and bodies are also part of the equation—of the deeply satisfying experience that inspired performance provides.

The other works on the program were “Ballet de Cour,” with music by Gabriel Pierné, and “Concierto del Angel,” with music by Astor Piazolla.  “Ballet de Cour” was a delightful sequence of courtly dances and flirtations, marked by a sense of ease and pleasure.  “Concierto del Angel” told the story of an angel who arrives in a gritty barrio of Buenos Aires to rescue the community from the darkness of their souls, only to be killed by one of its cruelest members.  The company offered a vivid theatrical performance of this tango-inflected piece, shaped by Ross’s imaginative choreography.  I especially liked the descent of the angel (Eli Weinberg) on a laundry-strewn piece of scaffolding, a simple piece of stage design that took on deeper resonance when the angel is confronted by the violence he is unable to heal.

On a dark and drizzly evening, Hidden Valley’s wonderfully embracing auditorium was packed for the occasion; if there were any empty seats I did not see them.  Another meaning of “perpetuate” is “to preserve from extinction or oblivion,” and it was deeply gratifying, in this season when our community college arts departments are under seige, to see such a robust turnout for this collaborative effort.  Those who attended were treated to a superb expression of artistic commitment—the creative urge on full, triumphant display.

On Knowing Where to Stand

Trees are falling in the forest but no one is there to hear.

Imagine the sound! The accelerating arc of creaking and crackling and ripping and groaning, the final crash that sends tremors of energy throughout the forest, the rise of sweet-smelling dirt and dusty bark and old sap, molecules of scent, waves of sound, particles of light shifting and mingling and moving through air. And then, days or months or years later, we come upon a fallen tree as we pass through the forest, and we pause and marvel at the surrounding silence.

We don’t think about the sound of falling trees because we don’t hear them and no one is there to tell us what the sound is like. We think we live in a world oversaturated with non-stop information and stimulation, but in fact there are amazing sounds and stories and events and opportunities that are missed each day, and our impoverishment from what we miss grows. Far from the ground where we live, corporations are deciding who is included in our public conversations and who is excluded. What gets left in and what gets left out.

This blog is about what is getting left out. Not long ago, the local Monterey paper decided to cut back—way back—on its arts coverage. Suddenly there were no more reviews of local theatrical productions, no more information about upcoming classical music concerts. The second-class citizenship of the arts in this country is an old story that makes me angry, but rather than stay angry I’ve decided to transform it into an opportunity. That’s what art does: transformation. Art collects bits and scraps of ideas, images, sounds, language, gestures, emotions, memories, desires, and turns them into something of value.

For a newspaper, not to report on something is to act as if that something were dead, unimportant. Yet the arts tell the truth about our lives in a way that mere facts cannot. Monterey County is a vitally rich area for artistic flourishing. I’m calling this blog Arts Alive to reflect that vibrant tenacity.

Arts Alive will be citizen journalism, an evolving platform for cultural locavorism. I will review and discuss plays, art exhibits, music events and other arts happenings. Not everyone will agree with what I write, but the arts teach us that there is more than one solution to any problem and that the process is as important as the result. The arts also teach us to be flexible. My goal is for this blog to reflect that.

Most of all, the arts encourage the development of important inner qualities. At a time when many of our elected officials and corporate leaders are borderline sociopaths, it behooves us to look within to find personal sanity and freedom. An artist knows when her painting or poem is finished, not because she is following a rule or someone else’s standard. Instead, she follows the path set by her inner compass, a compass of such deep knowing that when a tree is falling in her life she will hear its first crack and she will know where to stand.

Tell your friends about Arts Alive, show up for the arts in your neighborhood, and let me know what you think. I look forward to hearing from you.

I believe in the arts, and I believe in this community of artists. Arts Alive is the manifestation of that belief.