22 June 2017

Whitney Biennial 2017

Easily one of the most important art events of the year in New York City, if not the entire country, is the Whitney Biennial, “the longest-running survey of contemporary art in the United States.”  From its inception, the Biennial has brought new, young artists unfamiliar to American collectors and viewers to the attention of the U.S. art scene while at the same time displaying established artists side by side with the newcomers.  Some of the best-known of the artists the Whitney Biennial introduced include Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and Jeff Koons.  It’s been known as a showcase for less well-known artists, including those working in unfamiliar media and forms.  In 2012, performance art was presented for the first time.  

Since 2000, the Bucksbaum Award has been given to an artist exhibited in the Biennial “to honor an artist, living  and working in the United States, whose work demonstrates a singular combination of talent and imagination.”  Established by the  Bucksbaum Family Foundation, the award is a $100K prize, the largest award in the world for an individual artist.  (The 2017 Bucksbaum winner was Pope.L, also known as William Pope.L, a visual and performance artist known for his “interventionist” street art.  In “Art as Intervention: A Guide to Today's Radical Art Practices,” Julie Perini defines this as art that “disrupts or interrupts normal flows of information, capital, and the smooth functioning of other totalizing systems.”)

As the name implies, the exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art occurs every other year, but when it began in 1932, it was a yearly event called the Whitney Annual.  In the 1960s, the plan became to alternate each year between painting and sculpture, but by 1973, the idea evolved into a biennial show that combined both art forms and expanded to all media.  As the art world evolved over the decades and visual artists experimented with new materials and forms, the Whitney Biennial developed with it.  The 2017 Biennial, for example, in addition to  paintings in a variety of pigment types on a range of foundations beyond traditional canvas, included assemblage art and installations, films and videos, and many different kinds of computer-based creations from screen prints to digital recordings (both audio and video) displayed on monitors to kinetic assemblages programmed by computer to several pieces in which a smart phone was a key component to virtual reality creations.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942), a wealthy patron of the arts and herself a successful sculptor, founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931.  As an art patron, Whitney’s interest was in new American art, focusing on the avant-garde and the work of unknown artists.  By the 1920s, Whitney had collected close to 700 pieces of American art and in 1929, she offered to donate 500 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Met turned down the offer and, noting that both the Met and the new Museum of Modern Art, opened in 1929, were more interested in European art than American, Whitney founded her own dedicated to contemporary American art.

The museum, which began with a collection of 600 works, has been somewhat peripatetic over the years.  Its original location was at 8-12 West 8th Street, between Fifth Avenue and MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.  (Whitney maintained her own sculpture studio nearby on MacDougal Alley.)  In 1931, Whitney had three townhouses on the south side of 8th Street converted into a museum.  One of the buildings had been the location of the Whitney Studio Club, which Whitney had established in 1918 as exhibition space for American avant-garde art.   In 1954, the Whitney Museum moved to a small building at 22 West 54th Street, directly behind MoMA’s 53rd Street location, between 5th and 6th Avenues; the museum’s collection had grown to approximately 1,300 pieces at the time of the move.  (The West 8th Street space is now occupied by the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.)

When the Whitney outgrew the five-story 54th Street building, it made another move further uptown—and to the Upper East Side, the Silk Stocking District.  In 1961, the museum began looking for larger quarters and settled on a location at 945 Madison Avenue.  The museum hired Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith to design and construct a new building to house the collection and the new Whitney Museum of American Art went up on the corner of 75th Street between 1963 and 1966, a distinctly Modernist building in contrast with the understated, mostly Beaux-Arts townhouses and elegant post-war apartment buildings of the affluent neighborhood.  Nearby, however, along with the up-scale art galleries of Manhattan’s established art scene, were the venerable, city-owned Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, between 79th and 84th Street on the west side of the avenue in Central Park) and the stunning, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 5th Avenue at the corner of East 89th Street).  The Whitney Museum established a policy at its inception that it wouldn’t sell any art by a living artist lest it harm the artist’s career; it will, however, trade a piece of an artist’s work for another by the same artist, and by his time, the museum’s holdings had reached about 3,000 pieces of American art; the museum began a collection of photographs in 1991.

The museum continued to grow in the decades it resided at 75th and Mad and it occupied a number of satellite spaces such as at 55 Water Street (1973-83), a modern skyscraper in the Financial District in downtown Manhattan, or the gallery established in the lobby of the Philip Morris International (1983-2007), the tobacco company (later renamed the Altria Group), at 120 Park Avenue at 41st Street.  (After the Philip Morris deal proved successful, the Whitney made similar arrangements with other corporations to set up galleries in their headquarters lobbies in the 1980s: Park Tower Realty, I.B.M., and the Equitable Life Assurance Society.) 

Constantly short of exhibit space, the museum proposed several plans for expanding its Madison Avenue home, but cost, design problems, or local opposition always defeated them.  Finally, in 2010, the Whitney Museum began construction of a new building in the far West Village, the old Meatpacking District that had become a trendy spot for boutiques, clubs, restaurants, and new residential highrises.  Designed by Renzo Piano at 99 Gansevoort Street at the intersection with Washington Street, the southern terminus of the relatively new and very popular attraction, the High Line park (opened in 2009; see my blog article on 10 October 2012), the striking, new Whitney Museum of American Art opened in 2015 (less than two miles from its first facility on West 8th Street of 61 years earlier, and a very pleasant 20-minute walk through the Village from my home). 

The $422 million new building rises eight stories (plus one below ground) above the surrounding structures, both the old 19th- and early 20th-century ones, former warehouses and meatpacking plants, and the new ones that have risen up in the past five or six years as the Meatpacking District has become trendy and popular with the 20- and 30-something crowd.  It also stands out for its appearance, silvery-metal clad and angular with what look from a distance like turrets and bulkheads, as if perhaps the superstructure of a great ship were being glimpsed from dockage on the Hudson a short distance away.  (Coincidentally, like a ship, the building is deemed to be water-tight, part of its flood-abatement system, designed into the plans after Superstorm Sandy five years ago.)

There are walls of windows and the ground-floor lobby space is glass-enclosed.  From a block away, the glassed-in ground floor makes it look as if the building were hovering over the street like a weirdly-shaped mother ship.  Piano told people at the opening, “The new Whitney is almost ready to take off.  But don’t worry, it won’t, because it weighs 28,000 tons”!  (I wonder if the Guggenheim had people making such comparisons when it was brand new and never-seen-the-likes-before?) 

The new museum, the first totally new museum building to open in New York City in many decades, has 50,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space and another 13,000 outdoors.  (20,500 square feet of gallery space is dedicated for the Whitney’s permanent collection.)  A staff of 300 keeps the place running.  Besides the galleries and the terrace spaces, the new Whitney houses a study center, a theater, and classrooms.  The lobby encompasses the book store/gift shop, café, and a free gallery open to the public. 

The museum’s current collection contains over 21,000 works of art.  The still-viable Mad Avenue building was taken over in 2016 by the Metropolitan Museum as the Met Breuer, a satellite museum for exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.  Over its 89 years, the Whitney Museum of American Art has exhibited the work of hundreds of artists, many of whom have become prominent.  Among these have been Maurice Prendergast (1858-1925), Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Josef Albers (1888-1976), Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Man Ray (1890-1976), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Mark Rothko (1903-70), Arshile Gorky (1904-48), Willem de Kooning (1904-97), Barnett Newman (1905-70), Lee Krasner (1908-84), Franz Kline (1910-62), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Robert Motherwell (1915-91), Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Andy Warhol (1928-87), Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Frank Stella (b. 1936), Mary Heilmann (b. 1940), Bill Viola (b. 1951), David Wojnarowicz (1954-92), Raymond Pettibon (b. 1957), Keith Haring (1958-90), Lorna Simpson (b. 1960), and many more recent artists with whose names and work I’m not familiar.

On Thursday, 8 June 2017, I walked over to the Whitney to catch the 78th Whitney Biennial before it closed on Sunday, the 11th.  (The exhibit, the first Biennial in the museum’s new home, had opened on 17 March.  Because of the move to new digs, the Biennial is a year late, the previous installment having been in 2014.)  I hadn’t been to a Whitney Biennial since 2004 when my late mother and I went up to the Mad Avenue location because Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama was featured among the exhibitors (see my report on this fascinating artist, posted on 18 May).  When the Whitney announced plans to build  a new museum within my cruising range (Mother and I had walked the High Line twice when she came up for visits, made the rounds of the Chelsea art galleries, and shopped the Chelsea Market a couple of times), we started talking about checking out the new place as soon as it was open.  (We had made a beeline for MoMA back in 2004 when it reopened after a two-year redesign.)  Unfortunately, we never made that visit: the new Whitney opened on 1 May 2015 and Mother died on the 26th after nearly a month’s stay in a Maryland hospice.  I had made plans for an earlier trip to Gansevoort Street a few weeks before the Biennial opened to see the new museum, but circumstances scuttled those plans. 

Museum-going had been one of the activities Mom and I did together when I visited her in Washington, she came to see me in New York, or we traveled together anywhere there were museums or art galleries (San Juan, Quebec City, Vancouver, Istanbul).  ROT-readers will know about this shared pursuit from my occasional reports on art shows that sometimes accompanied my theater reports.  I hadn’t consciously stayed away because of the association with my mom—but it may have been subconscious, and it was definitely a transitory sensation I noticed when I entered the Whitney Museum building that Thursday afternoon.  It wasn’t all that strong—I had a more powerful feeling of missing something when a friend and I went to MoMA to see Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934-1954 in February 2016 (see my report, posted on 4 March 2016).  Though checking out the new Whitney would have interested Mom, she’d have loved seeing that Pollock show.  Less than a year after her death (and the first art show I’d seen since then), it was just the kind of exhibit we’d have saved to enjoy together, and I never entirely shook that underlying feeling of loss.  At the Whitney Biennial, though, the feeling passed as soon as I got up to the fifth floor to start my walk through the art. 

(I must add, though, that seeing an art show by myself like that is an experience I’m not used to.  I’ll go to a play or even a movie alone and be perfectly content, but art, while it can be enjoyed in silence, really demands to be discussed—at least for me and, as it happens, for Mom.  We would point out pieces we thought the other should see—we didn’t sick together in the galleries—or compare notes as we went along through the exhibit.  Afterwards, of course, we’d talk about what we saw and what we got from it—and there’d always be the customary plans for a “Midnight Shopping Trip”!  ROTters will know what that little private joke means: it shows up in all my blog reports on art shows.)

Filling the galleries on the museum’s fifth and sixth floors (including outdoor spaces), plus scattered pieces throughout the rest of the new building, the 2017 Whitney Biennial, co-curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, over a hundred pieces representing 63 artists.  Though some of the artists are established in the art world, none is a celebrity yet and half of the participants are women or artists of color.  (Both curators are Asian-American.)  The museum identified a “key theme” of this year’s exhibit as the “formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society,”  and the art on display was decidedly political, and left-leaning, making clear critical, and often strident comment on current American society and culture.  Locks elucidated:

It became apparent that the idea of ‘humanness’ or what it means to be a human right now was an energizing force for the show. Many of the works in the show address interesting questions about how we view ourselves as human beings and the forces that bring us together and the forces that bring us apart.

The museum’s own description of the exhibit stated that it “arrives at a time rife with racial tensions, economic inequities, and polarizing politics.”  (Lew and Locks actually began organizing the Biennial in 2015, when Barack Obama was still president and it was presumed that Hillary Clinton would be his successor.)  A lot of the work on exhibit in the Biennial was created within the current calendar year and, though Donald J. Trump rarely appears in the art directly (his name comes up twice), is obviously meant to reflect the artists’ response to his election and presidency and his stated and implied policies on art and culture.  The day before the Whitney Biennial opened, President Trump revealed his budget plan which includes his intention to zero out the entire budget of the NEA and NEH (the first time any president had proposed that).  Adam D. Weinberg, the museum’s director, even includes a statement on the Whitney website declaring, “The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities . . . now face the threat of being abolished” and affirming, “As an institution specifically dedicated to presenting and discussing contemporary American culture, the Whitney Museum of American Art feels a special responsibility to speak as an advocate for the  continuing importance of the NEA and NEH.”

My general response to the show was that it was more interesting than artistically stimulating.  Part of that reaction comes from the unremittingly political nature of the art, which got repetitive in its intent after a few dozen works, and part—perhaps a greater part—because I find the latest trends in art, encompassing the 21st-century offerings, unengaging.  This is not a new revelation to me: I noticed my coolness toward the newest art when I went to that last Whitney Biennial in 2004 and it was confirmed when I first went over to the then-new galleries in Chelsea, which began opening in the mid-1990, in 2011.  By the 21st century’s second decade, the Chelsea art scene had entered its adolescence when, as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith put it, there were

mega-bucks, big-box spaces on the same block as holes in the wall not much larger than a walk-in closet; great work within a stone’s throw of schlock; older art alongside the freshly minted; and blue-chip brand names across the street from young and emerging artists or forgotten and overlooked ones. 

I viewed early and mid-20th-century art (Picasso, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Noland) right up against work by artists whose names I hadn’t even heard yet.  There were canvases, sculptures, and installations, and the pieces to which I responded most were the older ones—it seems wrong to call them “more traditional” since they were the height of radicalism in their days; these were the guys with whom so-called modern art got started!  Still, the newer stuff mostly didn’t move me.  At the 2004 Whitney Biennial, which I explained my mother and I attended because Yayoi Kusama was one of the artists exhibited, I had the same reaction to the new works—and even the current works of Kusama, as exemplified by the 2002 mirrored-room installation Fireflies on the Water.  It left me rather cold.  I don’t have a problem with political or socially-critical art per se, but the work in that 2004 Biennial didn’t have the social and political critical component that the 2017 exhibit had, so it was even less interesting than this year’s show.  But the 2017 exhibit was unrelentingly socio-political and, as I intimated, that got enervating.

So, how do I evaluate my art experience at the Whitney Museum this year?  Well, I found myself more focused on the media and techniques, the forms, of the art on display than the content or even the point.  I noticed, for instance, how much of the art wouldn’t really work in someone’s home.  That, of course, may have been the message of some of the artists—to create works that no one could own, that could only be viewed and shared in galleries and museums and public spaces.  (Conceptual art, which started in the 1960s, was adamantly non-commercial and often transitory as well, defying both ownership and permanence.)  There were a large number of works, maybe even half of the show, that relied on technology of one kind or another, especially recorded and projected images.  That was another trend I spotted. 

I also felt that most of the art at the Biennial was, for lack of a more precise word, angry.  (That was also ultimately taxing—it’s hard to listen to people scolding, berating, and protesting constantly, even if their causes are righteous.  Eventually, it sours the artistic experience.)  Any artist  in the Whitney Biennial who expressed something positive or joyful about our present time—and there are some, rare thought they may seem—was drowned out in the cacophony of discontent and deprecation.  It also muddies the protesting artists’ messages because they just become part of the shouting.

I’m deliberately staying away from a discussion of the biggest controversy of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the painting Open Casket by Dana Schutz (b. 1976).  As most readers will know, this was the artist’s 2016 rendering of the broken and mangled body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American teen lynched in 1955 by a Mississippi mob after a white woman falsely accused him of whistling at her, lying in his coffin.  Schutz is white and black artists and other members of the African-American community demanded that her painting, based on a contemporaneous photograph, be removed from the show and even destroyed, arguing that she could not possibly capture the true horror of Till’s murder or the feelings of his mother (who ordered the open-casket funeral so the world could see what had been done to her son).  First of all, the controversy, which turned bitter at times, has been extensively covered in the press both in print and on line—not to mention social media; besides the fact that I have no standing, I couldn’t possibly contribute anything more to this debate.  Second, my own feelings are dichotomous and confused at this point—I understand and agree with some of the points of both sides of the disagreement, but I’m also, as I’ve often stated, nearly an absolutist on the First Amendment—so I don’t know what to say in any case.  Third, my focus here is my overall artistic experience of the show, not one or two works on display.

By most critics’ estimation, this Biennial is the most overtly political since the 1993 show, which I didn’t see but which was roundly criticized for its focus on issues of the time rather than the art.  While the 1993 “political” or “multicultural” Biennial, as it was frequently dubbed, generated lots of journalistic opprobrium, the 2017 edition was met with general, not to say universal, approval and praise.  If nothing else, it’s a testimony to the turbulence of our moment in history and the virulence of the artistic response to it.  Schutz’s Open Casket was inspired, for instance, by the Black Lives Matter movement.  She has two other paintings in the show.  Elevator (2017), which appears to be a comment on Americans inability to get along with one another, shows a crowd of people in an elevator violently tearing each other apart.  (Commissioned for the Biennial, Elevator, which measures 12  by 15 feet, greeted museum-goers as they exit the lift onto the fifth floor.  Co-curator Lew drew a connection to the museums large art elevator, which also carries passengers.)  2017’s Shame is a depiction of a monstrously contorted woman, a comment, I decided, on  the state of female self-identity in our society today.  Women’s identities, that is, where they fit in society, has been a serious issue at least since the start of the modern feminist movement in the ’60s (with echoes reaching back to the Suffragists of the 1910s and even earlier), but in the era of Trump and his macho-posturing followers and imitators, it has clearly become much more problematic.  (By extension, Shame can be interpreted as a comment on all gender-identity issues.  I don’t know if Schutz meant that, but art can have extensions beyond the artist’s intentions.  After all, I’m a man looking at her painting, so I’m bound to see things differently from her or a female viewer.)

Among the sculpture, I found myself intrigued by John Riepenhoff’s Handler creations.  This is a series of papier-mâché sculptures of the artist’s own body (from the waist down), dressed in perfectly casual pants and shoes, holding paintings or video art by other artists in his hands.  (One was identified as a piece by Allen Ginsberg—the late poet, I presume, but I couldn’t confirm that.  He also installed The John Riepenhoff Experience, a box in the ceiling of the gallery that was purportedly a little gallery itself, but viewers has to stand in line to climb up a ladder one by one to stick their heads into the box to see the exhibit and the line was just too long for me to wait on it.  Reportedly, in the box gallery was a miniature reproduction of one of Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored Infinity Rooms.)  It’s meta-art, a theme that ran through the exhibit often as a sidelight to the other socio-political issues treated in the Biennial: Riepenhoff (b. 1982), who’s also a gallerist, is combining his two occupations by spotlighting the art of other artists.

Another project about art, but with less of an homage air, was Debtfair, an installation by Occupy Museums.  Formed in 2011 as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, this activist  collective shines a light on the economic and social justice failings of the art world in its treatment of and dealings with artists.  Debtfair, the work of 30 artists, shows how artists have gone onto debt to the same corporations that have created the art boom among the wealthy who use art as investments.  (The installation centers on artists of Puerto Rico, an island that’s in precarious debt itself and where poverty is a continuing problem.)  While the corporate manipulators, who make up the majority of museum boards and  the art-collecting public, grow rich from buying, selling, and reselling the art at ever greater prices, the artists go into heavier and heavier debt from which they can never extricate themselves.  (The CEO’s and board chairmen of these maga-businesses that own the artists’ debt are in Donald Trump’s circle, possibly some are even his friends.  Given the art and culture proposals he’s already made, and his thin skin when it comes to protests and disagreements, it’s a chancy tack to challenge this class right now, I’d imagine.  I guess we’ll see if there are repercussions.)  Debtfair is an exhibit taking up two large walls of a gallery, one filled with illustrative images and documents of the companies in question and the other lined with three computers which visitors are invited to use to log onto one of several sites they can use to buy up some of the artists’ debts.  This is the most straightforward of several all-text exhibits in the Biennial that is not just more socio-politics than art, it’s all socio-politics.

One of the more remarkable works in the show is Samara Golden’s multi-story installation The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes (2017).  Taking a page from Kusama’s installation manual, Golden (b. 1973) uses mirrors to expand space into infinity—in this instance going up to the heights and down into the depths.  But while Kusama’s mirrored rooms were abstract and disconnected from the environment that surrounds them (that is, the museum structure), Golden’s construction is conceived to seem part of the Renzo Piano’s museum building.  His environment is a glimpse into a highrise, using the Whitney’s floor-to-ceiling windows and the view out over the Hudson River from the fifth-floor gallery, that hosts incongruously juxtaposed medical facility-cum- beauty parlor-cum-prison, penthouse, middle-class apartment, waiting room, gym, restaurant, and office space.  It’s  a vertiginous stage set—or, more  accurately, Hollywood soundstage with eight meticulously furnished interiors available simultaneously for telling a complex story we can make up ourselves.  But it’s a funhouse set, the various locations upside down and endlessly reflected in the mirrors.  Which images are reality and which merely illusions is impossible to discern, which doubles the sense of dizziness I felt.  To add to the sense of being at a great height and looking over a thin balcony or rooftop rail, Golden incorporates a soft wind and sound effects.  (I actually had to hold onto the handrails in the slight incline that leads to and from the artwork when I left.  I felt a little foolish, I admit.)  The structure looks solid, as if made from actual building materials—or, at least, movie-set resources—but the list of materials for the work of art are all flimsy and even ephemeral.  It also looks full-sized, but it’s really half-sized.  Illusion upon illusion.  Assembling The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, a name that seems to match the fantastic vision and the improbable story that  must go along with it, surely took hundreds of person-hours.

Another installation, by Kaari Upson (b. 1972), was a collection of her soft sculptures (Supplement II, T.T., Snag, Eyelids, In Search of the Perfect Double I, In Search of the Perfect Double II, all 2016).  These look like distorted and upended pieces of upholstered furniture—I sure thought they were, like found objects Upson repurposed—but they’re mostly constructed for the work of art.  The assemblage occupies a gallery of its own, scattered around the floor as if some kids had found an abandoned room and just shifted all the left couches and chairs randomly.  The curators asserted that the pieces suggest “at once the interior and exterior of the human body.”  I didn’t see it. 

Claim (2017), the installation by Pope.L (b. 1955), the 2017 Bucksbaum winner, is  a large walk-through box constructed of whitewashed wood.  On the walls of this room-within-a-room, inside and out, are nailed 2,755 rotting baloney slices, each precisely centered in a four-inch square—more or less: there was an error in the installation and Pope.L wanted it left—forming a grid.  In the middle of each baloney slice (pretty smelly) is a small black-and-white portrait.  Pope.L claims (in a text mounted in the box) that each portrait represents a percentage of the Jewish population of New York, a figure he’s arrived at by some arcane formula.  But the artist’s figures “are a bit off”—the number of bologna slices is off by 2 and, what’s more, the photos on the slices were taken without concern for the subjects actual ethnicity.  Not only is this a commentary on the arbitrariness of identity, both what we claim for ourselves and what others claim for us, but Pope.L is playing sarcastically with our obsession with data and numbers, leading, perhaps to quotas (something with which Jews are more than familiar) and how identity and data can be misused for nefarious purposes such as representation in legislatures or access to the vote.

This hardly even scratches the surface of what was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and it’s not even really representative of the art on exhibit.  I didn’t even mention the works on film and video, or the computer-driven works.  I can’t even say these few works were the ones that most impressed me for any reason—though they were among the ones that I remembered most clearly after I left the museum.  The art critics were more thorough, and more impressed.  Adam Lehrer called the exhibit “stunning” in Forbes magazine and listed “10 of my favorite pieces and installations” in the show.  In New York magazine/Vulture, Jerry Saltz declared this years Biennial “the best of its kind in some time” and praised it for the way it shows “that artists are always addressing and channeling issues of the day. With gravitas, grace, intensity.”  Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker asserted that the exhibit “is earnestly attentive to political moods and themes,” but caviled that it “already feels nostalgic.”  Nonetheless, Schjeldahl found the show “winningly theatrical in its use of the Whitney’s majestic new spaces.”

Time Out New York’s Howard Halle made a curious statement about the very rationale on which the Biennial is founded.  Questioning why “attention must be paid,” Halle wondered “why a subjective selection by a handful of organizers necessarily constitutes a definitive snapshot of contemporary art, which is how the show has always been sold.  It doesn’t, of course, though that hasn’t stopped people from thinking otherwise, especially since the Biennial has the felicitous effect of stove-piping careers into wider art-market and museum acceptance.”  The man from TONY concluded with a back-hand compliment to the Whitney: “The museum is to be commended for showing restraint in using its facility, and for trying to strike a balance between its role as a custodian of art and the compromises that follow.  It will be interesting to see where the Biennial goes from here.”

On artnet, Ben Davis stated in his opening sentence: “Here’s a super-short, bottom-line, first-impression review of the Whitney Biennial 2017: It’s good.”  He dubbed the exhibit “a stylish and professional affair” and affirmed, “There’s enough cool painting to satisfy that crowd, but also enough new media and other novelties to satisfy that other crowd.”  Davis quibbled a tad that the exhibit “errs on the side of seriousness,” but acknowledged that “that’s as it should be.”  His one complaint was that “the Lew-Locks formula . . . feels, maybe, a little formulaic, like the show doesn’t exactly have a big hook or curatorial conceit beyond smart taste-making and the expertly executed balancing act.”  ArtNews’s Andrew Russeth called this year’s Biennial “an intensely satisfying display” and reported that he “left it feeling shaken and optimistic, with the exhilarating sense that exhausted tropes are falling away, that art is being propelled headlong into an uncertain future.” 

Peter Plagens of the Wall Street Journal, proclaiming that this year’s Biennial “offers rewards to all those groups” and “is decorously political while at the same time good-looking.”  At the end of his review, Plagens reported that he asked how much the show had cost to mount, “mentioning that movie companies provide that information.” 

The response, which came with a smile, was, “We don’t give that out, but it was certainly much less than the $300 million Disney spent on its remake of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”  Which might be, by the way, not a bad working title for the 2019 Whitney Biennial.

In the Guardian’s U.S. edition, Nadja Sayej reported that the Biennial is “a politically charged show on the state of America but without the predictable satire.”  Indeed, Sayej acknowledged that it “feels like a graveyard of the establishment’s broken promises with glimmers of hope from some of its suffering citizens.”  Ariella Budick of the U.S. edition of the Financial Times admitted to approaching Whitney Biennials with trepidation: “I quail at the prospect of entering a bubble full of belly-gazers, recent art-school grads obsessed with arcane process, crude provocateurs and prolix polemicists.”  This time, though, she “came away shockingly content.”  Budick found, “This Biennial’s corps of artists soaks up the political energy crackling on the streets outside the museum and converts rage into creativity.”  She concluded, “The divisions that demoralise citizens and supercharge outrage also give art a bracing sense of purpose and make for a trenchant show.”

On WNYC, the National Public Radio outlet in New York City, Deborah Solomon declared this year’s Biennial “the show that everyone loves to love.”  She explained: “It goes out of its way to spurn fashion, slickness and unearned celebrity” so that “the show offers you a genuine acquaintanceship with new art, rather than just some lame buzz about who’s in and who’s out.”  In conclusion, Solomon asserted, “The show attains a high level of aesthetic quality, and proves that making fun of the Whitney Biennial has become an obsolete sport.”  Elizabeth Blair of NPR reported, “If you’ve been out of [the] loop on the American contemporary art scene, the Whitney Biennial is here to catch you up.”  She observed that the “range of this year’s contributors” included “many new works that have never been shown before.”

In the New York Observer, David D’Arcy lamented that “this edition of the Biennial was underwhelming.”  He complained, ”The purported rise of painting . . . doesn’t live up to its promise here.  And the politics of the works on view, often presented with art’s version of a megaphone, reminds us why our expectations of Biennials are low.”  Then D’Arcy added, “But there’s work to like and to admire.”  Finally, the New York Times’ Roberta Smith declared that the Whitney Biennial’s “strength and focus make it doubly important at a time when art, the humanities and the art of thinking itself seem under attack in Washington.”  Pronouncing the show “an adult affair” and “exceptionally good looking,” Smith did add, “It needs a little more edge.”  At first look, she wrote, “it has some immature inclusions”; however, “Once you really start looking, there’s edge all over the place.”  At a time when support for the arts is in danger, Smith asserted, “this exhibition makes and exciting, powerful case for art.”

17 June 2017

Dispatches from Israel 11

by Helen Kaye

[Below is Helen Kaye’s newest installment of “Dispatches from Israel,” a small collection of her reviews from the Jerusalem Post.  The first is the review of a Hebrew translation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, written by Hanan Snir, the adapter and director of 2016’s stage version of the novel To the Edge of the Land by David Grossman, Helen’s review of which appeared on ROT on 12 September 2016 in “Dispatches from Israel 8.”  (That play will be part of New York City’s Lincoln Center Festival in July 2017 under the English title of the novel, To the End of the Land, and I will be seeing it there and reporting on it on this blog over the summer.)  The other  JP notices cover a stage adaptation of George Orwell’s famous futuristic novel, 1984 (currently playing on Broadway with an official opening on 22 June), and The Play that Goes Wrong (also now on Broadway).  All these  productions took place in Tel Aviv, but in three different theaters: the Cameri,  the Habima, and  Bet Lessin.  As usual, Helen’s comments are perceptive and I’m delighted to be able to share them with ROTters.]

Three Sisters
Translated, adapted and directed by Hanan Snir
Set/costumes/masks by Polina Adamov
Music direction by Yossi Ben Nun
Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv; 11 April 2017

Hanan Snir and his team have produced a masterpiece.

This Three Sisters looks at Olga (Lea Kenig), Masha (Gila Almagor) and Irina (Evgenia Dodina) 50 years on, still living in a provincial town, still relying for their intellectual and social stimulation on the garrison’s army officers, and still longing, longing to go back to Moscow, their Promised Land.

Chekhov always insisted that his plays were comedies and was furious with Stanislavsky who turned them into brooding tragedies, thereby ensuring generations of often pompous, pretentious productions that would have made Chekhov livid!

But this Three Sisters is as fresh, as lively, and as funny as if he had dropped the manuscript into Mr. Snir’s hands, page by page. And because of that it is also able to be touching to heart-breaking, with all the layers in-between as the well-known tale unfolds, at whose end the three sisters stand watching as the utterly superb marching brass quintet leads off the garrison.

That same quintet starts the show, marching down the aisle as the Prozorov household watches from behind the (none-too-clean) French windows of the definitely gone-to-seed mansion. And music pervades the production from the band’s solos to the folk-songs it accompanies, to the younger soldiers’ very neat dancing to Vershinin’s (Eli Gornstein) elegant cello solo.

As always in a Snir production, the acting leaves you both exalted and wrenched to the core. As always the characters are rounded, speaking as much from their silences as from their words. As always the characters are talking to rather than at each other so that they are spontaneous, immediate.

Lea Kenig gets laughs just by walking onto the stage, never mind the beloved little schticks she employs. Not this time. The laughs come because her Olga is compassionate, wise, ironic, a woman who knows she’s missed the boat to fulfillment as a woman, but isn’t bitter about it in the least.

That bitterness lashes Masha’s soul, leaving room for nothing but heartache and regrets so that when Vershinin, the new brigade commander, walks into her life she’s totally unprepared. Almagor lets love for him remakes her every molecule so even her body changes as her spirit expands. There’s the most glorious episode as the elderly lovers, coming home for tea, giggle helplessly at everything because everything is radiant and oh-so-ridiculously funny. The leave-taking at the end is almost unbearably poignant.

“Take her Olga,” says Vershinin, unable to deal with it. For Gornstein’s Vershinin duty replaces life so he’s utterly unprepared also for the love that penetrates the carapace he lives behind. The warmth he experiences at the Prozorovs draws him like a moth to a flame.

Dodina’s Irina is a woman who refuses to grow up until, quite suddenly, she does, gaining the depth that is hinted at and that will stand her in good stead with or without Count Tusenbach. Igal Sadeh plays the Count almost puppyishly at first, then, as his love for Irina grows he begins to understand a bit more, and to grow up.

And so it goes. Rami Baruch’s pathetic Andrei broadcasts futility; Natasha is a vulgar harridan, a liar and a bully. Maya Maoz, swanning about most of the time in night clothes, plays her so well you want more than ever to hit her; Dvora Keidar imbues aged Anfisa with both fear and feistiness; Shlomo Vishinsky’s Ferapont, an unrepentantly comic creation is precisely that, as is Ezra Dagan’s unrepentantly ignorant drunk Dr. Chebutkin. Let’s not forget Oded Leopold’s arrogant, social-climbing Solyoni nor Dov Reiser’s self-effacing Kulygin, the school-teacher wimp who’s Masha’s husband.

Reiser particularly engages us as Kulygin because he leads us from a kind of contempt for his shameless toadying to a realization that his is a brave and generous spirit. Which is, when all is said and done, what the characters have. Which is what this production has completely.

Like I said, a masterpiece.

*  *  *  *
By George Orwell
Adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Hebrew by Eli Bijaoui
Directed by Irad Rubinstein
Habima Theatre, Tel Aviv; 10/5/17

In 1984 George Orwell sounded a tocsin for its time that is tolling again today when totalitarianism seems to be more than a specter raising its ugly head. He wrote it in 1948, basing its world roughly on Stalin’s USSR, the awfulness of which wouldn’t fully be revealed until Khruschev’s disclosures at the 20th party congress in 1956. Recently 1984 has once more been selling like hotcakes, impelled (it would seem), by such as Mr. Trump’s election, the rising tides of populism or Wikileaks. And so also the play, given on its small stage in the intimate space of Bertonov Hall at Habima, itself an irony because intimacy is proscribed in Oceania’s brave new world.

Another irony, vicious this time, is Paulina Adamov’s Rubik’s Cube set, a series of interlocking transparent cubes that serve both as storage for props and /or memories as well as the story’s various venues. It’s that the Rubik Cube has some 43 quintillion possible permutations but only one solution, like the one permissible way of life in The Party’s orbit.  Behind the cube is a globe of various-sized screens from which – amid the rest of Guy Romem’s excellent and unsettling videos - Big Brother’s all-seeing eye glares balefully out.

But there’s an added dimension. We are watching through the eyes of a group of identically clad people from 2084, and they aren’t sure: is this or is this not a fiction?

We know the story. Outwardly, Winston (Alex Krul) and Julia (Oshrat Ingedashet) are enthusiastic, compliant, grey-overalled cogs in The Party’s debased, dehumanized world. Inwardly, perilously, they are rebels. Not only does Winston keep a diary, he and Julia are in love. Cardinal sins both. They snatch greedily at joy knowing beyond all doubt that they will be caught.

Their nemesis and merciless embodiment of the regime is called O’Brian (Gil Frank) who swiftly breaks them utterly. Now they are become perfect citizens. They love Big Brother devotedly.

Krul and Frank have worked together before as Oedipus and Creon in Sophocles’ Oedipus. There it was as patient and healer; here it’s victim and torturer.

Krul’s Winston is at once fearful and reckless, bold and timid, his body language reflecting his moods. There’s a wonderful moment when he takes off his overalls; it’s like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. I do wish he’d pay the same attention to his voice. There are many nuances between conversation and shouting.

As Julia, Ingedashet is out of her depth. She’s very much alright with the physicality of her role but not with the tempestuous inner rioting that impels Julia to rebel.

Uri Hochman’s Tom Parsons is touching as time and again he extols the regime and his daughter, even desperately exalting her betrayal of him while in the dual role of antique shop owner and food server, Shahar Raz is suitably diffident as the former and crawlingly servile as the latter.

Then there’s Gil Frank. His chillingly colorless O’Brian becomes the more frightening the more he seems to efface himself physically. He never raises his voice, speaking sweetly, reasonably, regretfully. He is the perfect avatar of the regime, an Eichmann. Frank grows with every role he undertakes and to this ambitious, hard-edged yet too remote production, he gives its needed depth.

*  *  *  *
The Play that Goes Wrong
By H. Lewis, H. Shields and J. Sayer
Hebrew by G. Koren, M. Rozen and U. Ben Moshe
Directed by Udi Ben Moshe
Bet Lessin Theater, Tel Aviv; 14/5/17

Allow me to present the Drama Group of the Community Center at Ramat Hashikma who, courtesy of Bet Lessin, are presenting “Murder at Hamilton Manor” directed by Omri Ronen (Liron Baranes) who introduces the play and the cast with winning modesty and confides to us that, owing to the indisposition of a cast member, he will play Inspector Parker.

Please enjoy the performance which is set in Hamilton Hall and an upstairs study. And we do, laughter bubbling, rippling, exploding as cues are missed, props go awry, doors stick, lines are forgotten, sound goes silent and lights fail.

But the Show Must Go On, and it hilariously does with the various cast freezing like rabbits caught in the headlights when something particularly awful happens in this play within a play which is actually the play.

There’s nothing more difficult for professionals than playing amateurs and this talented cast sails  through Play’s cumulative disasters with serene aplomb.

Baranes shuttles gracefully between efficient Inspector P and horrified director Omri scarcely believing his eyes. Sharon Huberman plays femme fatale and beauty salon owner Iris Confino alias Flora Peacock at full wiggly blast while Yuval Yanai harrumphs and blusters his highroad through Avishai Borko alias Thomas Peacock. Yanai is also responsible for the “atmospheric” music.

Uri Lazerovitch relishes to the full shameless crowd-pleaser and complete neophyte Matan Ben Baruch, also Phillip, brother to the apologetically restless corpse of murdered Henry Hamilton aka Yaron Bello whom Ofri Biterman gleefully inhabits. Ofir Weill is Danny Gez who’s Perkins the Hamiltons’ beautifully inept butler.

Last but not least we have techies Bacho Abayev (Yaniv Suissa) on lights and sound and Stage Manager Anat Ganon (Naama Amit). As the beautifully gormless Bacho, Suissa about steals every scene he’s in with Amit throwing herself with abandon into shy, yet winsome, not to mention ambitious Anat.

Sasha Lisianky’s rickety set, Orna Smorgonsky’s on-the-nose costuming and Nadav Barnea’s light all contribute to the “catastrophe”, but it’s Ben Moshe’s comic expertise that adds the cherry.

Towards the end the gags started to repeat – the play could easily have lost 15 minutes – and The Play that Goes Wrong has not a single redeeming social value, but does it ever make us laugh! And as they say “laughter is the best medicine.”

[For readers new to ROT, Helen’s past “Dispatches,” are well worth looking back at.  ROTters might also enjoy looking back at her other contributions to this blog: ”Help! It’s August: Kid-Friendly Summer Festivals in Israel,” posted o 12 September 2010; ”Acre (Acco) Festival, Israel,” 9 November 2012; “Berlin,” 22 July 2013; and “A Trip to Poland,” 7 August 2015.  Helen’s currently on a trip to Vienna, Austria, with her daughter, during which  she’ll be keeping a travel journal,  and she’s promised to share it with readers of ROT.]

12 June 2017

'The Government Inspector'

Mistaken identity’s been around as a plot focus for a long time--certainly since Oedipus mistook his father for a highway robber and his mother for a grieving widow.  Of course, that boo-boo ended in tragedy—and the fall of the entire House of Thebes.  Sometime later, writers started using the gag for comedy rather than tragedy and we ended up with stories like The Comedy of Errors (two cases of mistaken ID’s).  Often Shakespeare liked to use disguises to help set up the mis-recognitions, specially dressing gals up as guys—which was especially weird in Elizabethan times since the girls were played by boys in drag to begin with, so you ended up with a dude in drag pretending to be a chick in trou.  Talk about your identity crisis!  (Usually in those plays—Twelfth Night, As You Like It—the girl-dressed-as-a-boy falls in love with some guy and he starts having feelings for him/her and before Mike Pence can show up, the secret identity is revealed.  Never mind that it’s two guys to begin with—which was humongously frowned-upon in the 16th and 17th centuries.) 

Anyway, we’re still using that gag today.  Watch any sitcom long enough and you’ll catch an episode that centers on a mistaken ID.  I particularly remember an episode of the Britcom Fawlty Towers in which hotelier Basil Fawlty, played memorably by John Cleese, finds out that a hotel inspector is coming incognito and, of course, Basil picks the wrong man to fawn all over, while neglecting and insulting the actual reviewer at every turn.  Of course, as with nearly anything with John Cleese, it was hilarity elevated—or sunk—to the max. 

Hey, wait!  I know that one.  Isn’t that ripped off from The Government Inspector?  Sure it is—Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 farce, sometimes also called The Inspector General.  It’s practically the same story, reset some 150 years later and moved from a small town in the Russian provinces to a small hotel in the English countryside—but the same exact premise.  Oh, as Gogol might have said (if he’d lived to be 166—and got a TV that received BBC in Russian):  Znayu ya vashego brata!!  “I’ve got your number, John Cleese!” 

Well, as someone or other said, There’s nothing new under the sun.  Someone else also observed that there are only so many plots and we just keep recycling them with little tweaks.  So Cleese and his writing partner, Connie Booth (who also played the chambermaid, Polly) based “The Hotel Inspectors” (1975) on The Government Inspector, Gogol’s farce about an über-corrupt mayor in a provincial backwater who learns that an official from Saint Petersburg is on his way incognito to suss out dishonesty and incompetence.  The local innkeeper figures it must be one of his guests who arrived unannounced from the capital and has been taking notes on the diners in the inn.  So, for the rest of the play’s two hours and 20 minutes, Mayor Anton Antonovich and his equally venal family members, the other town officials, and the county’s landowners all try to bribe, cajole, and seduce the stranger, Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov, so he’ll overlook the mess the town around him is in. 

The problem is, of course, that Hlestakov (spelled Khlestakov in some other translations), just about as doltish as the locals, not only isn’t the inspector from Saint Petersburg, he’s a total nobody, a minor clerk in a meaningless ministry who’s so broke he can’t even buy his girl a nickel coke.  (Oops!  Sorry.  That’s Most Happy Fella, another plot that revolves around mistaken identity!  My bad.)  I mean, pay is inn bill and he’s just about to shoot himself—if he can just get himself to look good doing it—when the Mayor and his entourage burst into his room and start throwing money at him.  Hlestakov has no idea why everyone wants to give him money—but he’s more than happy to accept that and more.  You see, young Hlestakov is something of a con man his own self.  (One source on Russian lit describes the character as “the liar, the shallow imposter, the vulgar symbol of universal emptiness”—sound like anyone you know?  But the book was published when Donald Trump was about 12, so he couldn’t have been the author’s template!)  He’s also not above taking advantage of the situation when both the Mayor’s wife, Anna Andreyevna, and his daughter, Marya Antonovna, throw themselves at him and arrange assignations with him.  Hlestakov’s been impressing everyone with his erudition and class—when everyone else is a low-bow moron, it’s easy to be the smartest in the room—and before anyone can find out who he really is, he absconds—in the Mayor’s cherished troika, mind you—for his father’s hut in a nearby hamlet where he’d been heading when he ran out of money.

Of course, the real government inspector reveals himself in the end.  I won’t say who it is and spoil that surprise in case prospective theatergoers don’t twig to it before the dénouement (or haven’t read the play beforehand), but I will say that the people of Gogol’s town in the boondocks all get what they deserve and are left with broken dreams of the glory and wealth that Hlestakov—who gets clean away, by the way—promised them.  As the town officials and the Mayor's family stand stunned, the Mayor predicts that “centuries from now they’ll still be laughing at us.”   In Gogol’s comic indictment of tsarist bureaucracy and officialdom, there’s not a single admirable person, no one who’s side we can take, no one we can root for—and yet, as if to prove Gogol, adapter Jeffrey Hatcher, and Mayor correct, the audience at the Duke guffawed throughout the entire play nonetheless. 

If any of you knows The Government Inspector (or The Inspector General) and my description of the play above varies from what you’re familiar with, that’s because the production on which I based my synopsis is an adaptation by playwright Hatcher (Never Gonna Dance, 2003-04, book; A Picasso, 2005; Scotland Road, 1998; Three Viewings, 1995) as staged by the Red Bull Theater at the Duke on 42nd Street.  Hatcher wrote the treatment, based on Gogol’s original, Revizor, for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2008; artistic director Joe Dowling directed the première.  (Subsequent productions were mounted by Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2009; Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2012, and by the Furious Theatre Company, resident company at the Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California, also in 2012.  It’s also popular with college and university theaters.)  Hatcher’s text was published in an acting edition by the Dramatists Play Service in 2009.

Gogol (1809-52) began writing Revizor (the Russian word for ‘inspector’) in 1835.  He’d apparently begun an earlier play on tsarist bureaucracy in 1832 but abandoned it in anticipation of official censorship.  He wrote to Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the great Russian poet who was a sort of mentor to the younger writer, asking for an idea, “an authentically Russian anecdote” which he could turn into a stage comedy.  Pushkin sent him a description of a incident that had actually happened to him in 1833 in which the poet himself had been mistaken for a government inspector.  The Government Inspector was published in 1836 (and revised in 1842 for a later edition); the Russian press protested loudly and Tsar Nicholas I (reigned 1825-55) had to step in to get the play staged at Saint Petersburg’s Aleksandinsky Imperial Theater (April 1836); it was staged in Moscow at the Maly Theater in May 1836.  The petty bureaucrats and corrupt politicians he lampooned so assailed the playwright, he eventually went into self-exile, remaining outside Russia for 12 years. 

The play’s been revived many times around the world in many translations and adaptations.  Productions were mounted on Broadway in 1923, 1930 (staged by Jed Harris with Dorothy Gish as Marya Antonovna), 1935 (as Revisor, performed in Russian by the Moscow Art Players), 1978 (directed by Liviu Ciulei with Theodore Bikel as the Mayor), 1993-94 (from Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre, with Randall as Khlestakov and Lainie Kazan as Anna, the Mayor’s wife).  The play has been adapted for film many times in various languages; the only English-language film is a 1949 musical adaptation, entitled The Inspector General, directed by Henry Koster starring Danny Kaye for Warner Bros., a severely bowdlerized version that is reset in Napoleonic France.  In 1958, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a television adaptation of the play (available on video).  The BBC broadcast a series based on the play in 1976.

The first recorded Off-Broadway staging is the current Red Bull production, which began previews at the Duke on 14 May and opened to the press on 1 June; the revival is scheduled to close on 24 June.  Diana, my frequent theater companion, met me at the theater in the New 42nd Street Studios west of Broadway for the 7:30 performance on Tuesday, 30 May, the production’s penultimate preview.

Red Bull, which apparently does only one full production a season (they do readings and other programs, such as the Short New Play Festival), seems to have something of a following, though I know nothing about them (I’d heard its name here and there, but that’s all).  The company, which one reviewer characterized as a “sort of alternative classical theater company” which “has made a niche out of producing rarely-seen historical plays that similar companies won’t dare touch,” was founded in 2003, taking its name from one of the leading theaters in Elizabethan London. The original Red Bull Theatre, built in 1604, continued to present illegal performances, especially drolls (short farcical sketches incorporating songs, dances, physical comedy, and witty language), after 1642 when the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell closed all the theaters.  (The theater was raided several times during the Puritan interregnum for performing plays and actors were arrested for working there.)  According to the modern troupe, the original Red Bull was the first theater in London to reopen after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  The Red Bull Theatre burned down in 1666, one of the last theaters to fall during the Great Fire of London.

“Embracing this rejuvenating spirit,” the current company states as its mission, “the Red Bull Theater aims to be in the vanguard of new classical theater for the 21st century, creating a home for plays of heightened language and epic expression in evocative performances.”  The company focuses on exploring and creating “heightened language plays.”  (Berger apparently has a fondness for the grim and gory dramas of the Jacobean period—decidedly not among my own favorites.)  Since it débuted with William Shakespeare’s Pericles (2003), the Red Bull, which is a peripatetic theater without a permanent home, has produced such classic plays as The Revenger’s Tragedy (2005-06); Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second (2007); Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (2008), and The Witch of Edmonton by John Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley (2011), along with modern language plays such as Jean Genet’s The Maids (2012), Loot by Joe Orton (2014), and Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (2014).  According to its own publicity statements, Red Bull has received awards and nominations from the Lucille Lortel Foundation, Drama Desk, Drama League, Off-Broadway Alliance, and the Joe A. Calloway (Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation) and OBIE committees.

Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, born in the Ukraine on April Fool’s Day, was a descendant of Cossacks.  (His 1835 novel, Taras Bulba, is a heroic tale of a 16th-century Cossack chieftain, filmed in 1962 with Yul Brynner in the title role and Tony Curtis as one of his sons.)  His father, Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, a member of the so-called petty gentry (who had the privileges and status of nobility but didn’t own serfs), was an unpublished Ukrainian-language poet and playwright and, as a child, Gogol helped stage plays in Ukrainian in his uncle’s home theater.  Unpopular with his classmates at the Prince Bezborodko Gymnasium of Higher Learning in the city of Nezhin (now Nizhyn Gogol State University), they nicknamed him the “mysterious dwarf” because of his physical and social peculiarities.  He was secretive, had a tart tongue and a wicked talent for mimicry, and apparently took delight in being different from his fellows—but the gymnasium started the student on his road to writing.  Upon leaving school in 1828, Gogol took a low-level, low-paying clerkship in the tsarist bureaucracy in Saint Petersburg (much like his character Hlestakov in The Government Inspector).  The would-be littérateur brought with him to the capital a romantic poem (Pushkin’s forte) he’d written, a long narrative of a rural German life called Hans Küchelgarten (the name means “Johnny Chickenyard”), which he self-published under the pseudonym V. Alov.  It was roundly derided by critics and editors, and the young poet bought up and burned all the copies of the magazines in which he’d paid to publish the piece.  

After failing at his first post, Gogol took a second government job at which he also failed.  Then he took up teaching at a girl’s boarding school in 1831, the same year he published the first volume of collected stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, based on Ukrainian folk stories; volume two came out the next year, firmly establishing the young author as a Slavophile writer.  The collection became an immediate success, bringing the young author to Pushkin’s attention.  This success made him welcome among Russia’s literati.  In 1834, Gogol took up his second teaching position,  Professor of Medieval History at Saint Petersburg University, a post for which he had no qualifications and quickly proved himself no better at higher learning than he’d been at government work; the writer lasted only one year.  (He satirized himself in one of his own stories!)  That year, however, Gogol put out two more books: Mirgorod, more short stories, and Arabesques, a collection of essays.  The works the writer published between 1832 and 1836 moved Russia’s literary critics to consider him a Russian rather than Ukrainian writer. 

During this period, Gogol also published two plays, Marriage and The Government Inspector, launching the theatrical aspect of his writing career.  As I’ve already noted, The Government Inspector was taken up by Tsar Nicholas I, who requested the first production in 1836.  The audience was stunned, and the resultant controversy, which completely surprised the 27-year-old Gogol, divided Russian society into Government Inspector revilers and defenders.  Ultimately, the response of the government bureaucrats—“Everybody is against me,” he complained—drove the author to leave Russia and he spent the next 12 years traveling in central and western Europe.  (Of a frail constitution, Gogol suffered from severe hypochondria, among other complexes, both real and imagined.)  Upon Pushkin’s death in 1837, however, Gogol was accorded the great poet’s status as the leading Russian writer of the day.  His novel Dead Souls, considered his masterwork, and the first edition of his collected works were both published in 1842, and six years later, the writer returned to Russia, settling in Moscow.  Dead Souls, intended to be the start of a larger, three-volume project, sealed Gogol’s reputation as the great satirist of Tsarist Russia.

In 1852, Gogol died at age 42, the result in large part of extreme asceticism under the guidance of a spiritual “elder” (known as a “starets,” literally an ‘old man’).  The writer became deeply depressed and began burning some of his manuscripts, including the second part of Dead Souls.  Taking to his bed, Gogol refused to eat and died in great discomfort.  His remains are buried in Moscow.

It’s remarkable that the total farce that is The Government Inspector came from the same pen as Dead Souls, a morbid, grim but naturalistic satire.  (Gogol wrote the 1842 novel  Dead Souls; the famous stage production directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky for the Moscow Art Theater in 1932 was an adaptation by Mikhail Bulgakov.  The ‘souls’ in the title is the word Russians used to refer to serfs, not considered fully ‘persons,’ and Chichikov, the novel’s main character, “buys” deceased souls to show on paper that he owns hundreds of serfs to increase his standing in the community.)  The adaptation by Hatcher, which runs two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission (Gogol’s original is a five-act play), is contemporary without updating the action or the references (though there are some double entendres that suggest current events and figures)—however, Hatcher does play loose with the language and sexual innuendos that I doubt would have passed the censors in 1836 Russia.  

Red Bull’s Government Inspector is pretty good and well handled.  Farce isn’t easy, but the company does all right.  Diana left at intermission, but I don’t know if she didn’t like it, or was just anxious about her departure for Chicago the next morning.  (She kept comparing the production to Saturday Night Live, but I don’t know if she meant that’s good or bad.  I went off SNL years ago, but I have no idea how she feels about the show.)

The rest of the audience at the Duke was extremely receptive to all the humor, verbal and physical.  They behaved almost like a claque!  Still, I have to say that the cast is pretty adept at the style—occasionally, they seem to be trying a little too hard—and the leads, Tony-winner Michael McGrath (for Nice Work if You Can Get It, 2012, Best Featured Actor in a Musical) as the  Mayor and, especially, Michael Urie as Hlestakov, are excellent.  Urie, who looks like he should be playing young leading men, is particularly adept at the physical comedy; he does a marvelous drunk scene at the end of act one.  Not long ago, I complained about a comedy performances that the actors played the comedy too lightly when I thought they’d be funnier if they approached their characters as if they were in earnest.  The Government Inspector works that way a little, too, and director Berger keeps his company in check enough that they all seem to be taking their lives, their circumstances, and themselves seriously.  We know they’re fools and buffoons; they don’t.  If the actors play the buffoons as buffoons, making faces and silly gestures like clowns . . . well, you get Danny Kaye’s film version.

The Government Inspector is another in a string of ensemble shows I’ve seen this season—have I unearthed a pattern?—and each of the performers has at least one terrific turn in a scene with no more than one or two other characters.  (Ryan Garbayo and Ben Mehl as the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber of  landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, for example, are never seen out of each other’s company—the two come off as a poor man’s Harpo and Chico without the horn, the accent, and the wiles—so their scenes with the Mayor or Hlestakov always include at least three actors.  Of course, that’s a big part of the gag, and Gogol set it up that way—which is why their names rhyme; both their given names are Pyotr Ivanovich.  Another part of the joke is that, although they’re not related, they even look alike—and Garbayo and Mehl, with their identical facial hair, could pass for brothers on stage.)  When the company is all together on the rather narrow playing area—the cast numbers 14 actors playing 24 characters—they often convey the impression of disorganized chaos; other times, they perform what in the army we used to call a group grope.  Seven company members play 17 parts and they make them astonishingly distinct—some of which is from the excellent work of costume designer Tilly Grimes and hair and wig designer Dave Bova.  Especially successful in this deception are Arnie Burton, who plays Osip, Hlestakov’s servant, as a sullen, slovenly, malcontented serf and the Postmaster as an affectedly loose-lipped and habitual snoop; and Mary Lou Rosato (taking the honors for playing four characters), whose Grusha, the Mayor’s family’s maid is a more kempt female version of Osip, and the Waitress at the inn which she plays on her knees as if she were a very short woman.  (There’s even a joke that capitalizes on her stature.)  

(One silly sidelight:  Back in 2014, I saw a Classic Stage Company production of David Ives’s adaptation of a French classic comedy, The Heir Apparent—see my report on 25 April 2014—in which David Pittu also played a character on his knees.  I wondered if  Rosato and Pittu know each other or if Rosato saw Pittu’s performance.  Some coincidences are just too perfect to overlook!)

There’s one odd staging choice—which may have been unavoidable.  Alexis Distler’s serviceable set (lit brightly by Megan Lang and Peter West) is on two levels and on the lower level is the Mayor’s office on stage left and Hlestakov’s room at the local inn, stage right.  A curtain covers one while the other’s in use.  Above is the interior of the Mayor’s house where all the rest of the action occurs after scenes one and two of act one.  So for two-thirds of the play, we’re looking at the top level of the set, with a closed red curtain below.  The seats are pretty steeply raked, so the upper stage is close to eye-level of row D, where Diana and I sat, so it wasn’t a hardship—but it was kind of odd.  I wonder if reversing the sets would have been any better.  Is it easier to ignore a closed-off upper stage than a closed-off lower one?

As I reported, I don’t know if Diana didn’t like the play—when she left, she said, “I can pretty well tell what’s going to develop,” which isn’t necessary an apt way to approach a farce.  Seeing how the playwright and the director and actors handle the developments is what you miss.  In a farce, it’s not just the plot but the antics and how they’re executed that we’re supposed to judge, no?  Diana, for instance, witnessed the impromptu party at the Mayor’s house at the end of act one, which, in addition to Urie’s inspired drunk scene—he gets increasingly inebriated and out of control until he literally collapses on the floor and ends up hanging off the edge of the upper stage with a look on his face that’s reminiscent of that ubiquitous photo of a cat hanging from a line—but she missed the scene at the opening of the second act in which Hlestakov is importuned by both the Mayor’s wife, oversexed and convinced of her attractiveness, and his daughter, like a sullen and  petulant teenager, in the same room at the same time or the scene that follows where all the town officials hide in the same closet and then come out one by one (or, in Bob- and Dobchinsky’s case, two at a time) to offer the young imposter bribes.  The audience, as Diana remarked somewhat astonished, ate this up (a standing O, of course)—but I enjoyed it, too.  Not as uproariously as the others seemed to, but more than well enough.  (I have never had any objection to plays that are just fun—though, of course, The Government Inspector is a commentary on the tsarist bureaucracy—well, Russian, since that country’s had inept and corrupt officials running rampant in every political regime, including the present one.)  

Show-Score rated The Government Inspector’s critical reception an 82 off of a sampling of 30 reviews.  The breakdown was  95% positive, 4% mixed, and 3% negative notices, with the high score being one 95 (ZEALnyc), with six 90’s (including the New York Times); the lowest-rated review was a single 40 (Front Row Center), the only negative notice.  My survey will include 15 reviews.

In one of Show-Score’s 90-rated reviews, Diana Barth remarked in the Epoch Times that when the curtain falls on Red Bull’s The Government Inspector, “We have been greatly entertained.  But mightn’t we also be a bit uncomfortable?”  She asked of the performance: “Is it possibly a mirror of ourselves?  And of our governing officials?”  Barth dubbed the production “a hilarious comedy, beautifully cast and acted” with a “spiffy two-level set” and “excellent costumes.”  The ET reviewer also had high praise for Urie (particularly the drunk scene, “the highpoint of the production”) and compliments for Mary Testa’s Mayor’s wife and Talene Monahon’s daughter.  In am New York, Matt Windman described Hatcher’s adaptation as “freewheeling” and Berger’s staging as “big, brash and buoyant.”  It is “a high-energy, fast-paced production with gleefully over-the-top performances and door-slamming slapstick comedy,” Windman affirmed. 

“Few plays, though, have taken [mistaken identity] to the mad heights occupied by Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Government Inspector,’” observed Ben Brantley in a pre-opening blurb in the New York Times, adding that the play “infuses scathing satire with giddy surrealism.”  In his regular review (rated 90 on Show-Score) a few days later, Brantley called the play a “rollicking 19th-century satire of bad behavior in the Russian provinces” being given a “buoyant production” that “generates the kind of collective enthusiasm in its audience that you associate with home-team football games.”  He reported, “The pleasures afforded by this breakneck show—. . . featuring a virtuosic cast led by a path-clearing cyclone of silliness called Michael Urie—are as old as the days when cave dwellers discovered that human stupidity was really kind of funny, as well as potentially tragic. ”  The Timesman asserted that from the “freewheeling but spiritually faithful adaptation” by playwright Hatcher, you “might think that [its] worldview is a little too close to real life these days.”  In that party scene at the end of the first act, Brantley noted that the celebrants are all drinking the local wine (fermented in a spittoon!) that Hlestakov describes as “[v]iscous and yet so bubbly,” which “isn’t a bad description for this show as a whole,” the review-writer added.  He also acknowledged that Urie’s drunk show is “one of the most exquisitely controlled displays of uncontrolled drunkenness I’ve ever witnessed.”  Part of the responsibility for this is Berger’s direction, of which Brantley wrote:

But Mr. Berger. . . has staged his “Government Inspector” with a subversive straightforwardness.  While there’s plenty of hilarious Marx Brothers-style anarchy here, all the performances are dead serious in their ridiculousness, capturing the big, self-preserving egos beneath the small-town madness.

“And what a team Mr. Berger has assembled to execute that mission,” the Times review-writer exclaimed.  In his other piece, Brantley described them as “a doozy of a cast, which includes such masters of mayhem as” Burton, DeRosa, McGrath, Testa, and Monahon.  (He admitted he “felt remiss in not mentioning every cast member.”)  Brantley made special mention of Urie as the “lamest of lamebrains,” declaring, “His Ivan is [a] distinctive comic creation, a dimwitted narcissist who nonetheless makes thinking on his feet a self-contained slapstick ballet.”   He further proclaimed, “Mr. Urie establishes himself as a bona fide leading man, in the tradition of great physical comedy performers like Kevin Kline.” 

In the “Goings On About Town” column of the New Yorker, the reviewer reported that Hatcher “retains the original framework” of Gogol’s original 1836 play, “but gives the jokes a zingy modern spin.”  Dubbing the Red Bull production “raucous,” the unnamed review-writer observed that director Berger “freely mixes in bits from the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Woody Allen.”  The notice had top praise for actors Urie (“charming as hell”), Burton (“superlative double duty”), McGrath (“bluffs and blusters to the hilt”), and Testa (“earns big laughs just by changing the pitch of her voice”).  Adam Feldman of Time Out New York warned, “A play that depicts a politician as a greedy, vindictive, incompetent boob desperate to ingratiate himself to the leader of Russia . . . may no longer sound like comedy”; however, he continued that “humor is doled out generously in” the Government Inspector revival as “zippily adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.”  The man from TONY described Distler’s set as evoking “a cartoon in the Sunday funny papers” and reported that the “talented cast of 14 commits hard to fill out its panels.”  He concluded, “Although the play’s lampoon of corruption is wide-ranging, it is tempered by the jovial spirit of farce, which feels like a mercy.  There’s a lot to be said for shouting, but sometimes you just need to laugh.”

In the low-scoring review (40) on Front Row Center,  Tulis McCall (who posted the same notice on New York Theatre Guide) proclaimed, “There are two delicious reasons to see Red Bull’s The Government Inspector”: Michael Urie and Arnie Burton.  She gushed over Urie’s act-one performance—“He is quick.  He is nimble.  And if there had been a candlestick he would have jumped over it”—but then backed off.  “Urie does appear in the second act, but because his scenes depend on the actors with whom he is partnered, the steam runs out quickly,” McCall lamented.  “No one, with the occasional exception of Mary Testa, who knows from timing, seems to have a clue what is happening.”  She blamed director Berger for a production that “feels flat and heavy” and, except for Urie and Burton, a cast that “seems to be playing in what we thin[k] of as the broad style of 19th century melodramas.”  She asserted, “There is no nuance, no inner life, no spark.”  Hatcher’s “text as written is either a poor translation or the original was as dull as a box of rocks.”  Like me, though, the FRC reviewer found, “The two-storied set is awkward to look at, and confines everyone to the equivalent of a long hallway.”  She returned to Urie and Burton, however, for additional and abundant praise.  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer declared that the Red Bull revival of The Government Inspector “is loaded with laughs; but, like all good comedies, even those going way over the top, it's underpinned by all too real relevancy.”  Hatcher’s script is “smartly modernized and streamlined” and Berger’s production “land[s] every joke and double entendre.”  In direct contrast to her colleague at FRC, Sommer raved, “What a cast!  What a clever set!  What witty plot and humor supporting costumes!”  Though she did find the comedy “perhaps a tad too TV-sitcomish,” the CU reviewer felt that “for all the vaudevillian shtick, the terrific actors manage to keep their characters’ excesses within the realm of relatable reality.” 

TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart, calling The Government Inspector “uproarious” and Hatcher’s adaptation “irreverent and highly watchable,” affirmed that the Red Bull company “captures Gogol’s mischievous frivolity.”  Stewart heaped deserved praise on the whole cast whose “physical performances stand out,” and reported that director Berger “creates [an] atmosphere of lunacy through a surprisingly compelling mixture of slapstick comedy and operatic design” for his “zippy” production.  On Broadway World, Michael Dale labeled Gogol’s play a “rip-roaring classic” and Berger’s revival “a gloriously silly mounting.”  Hatcher’s adaptation is “punchline-laden,” but Berger “loads up the evening with terrific sight gags and wacky antics performed by a top shelf cast.” 

“Hilarity reigns in this madcap revival of” The Government Inspector, wrote Darryl Reilly on TheaterScene.net; “It’s a Mel Brooks-style presentation with coarseness, slapstick, pratfalls and gags galore.”  Hatcher’s adaptation is “frothy” and “jocularly crammed with one-liners, zingers, anachronisms and double entendres” and Berger’s staging is “fast-paced” and “an exuberant amalgam of physical and verbal virtuosity combined with visual flair.”  Singling out all the principals for special praise, Reilly labeled the ensemble “dynamic,” adding that they “all excel with their loony turns.”  The review-writer for TheaterScene.net concluded, “This highly entertaining Red Bull Theater production is a wonderful opportunity to experience the play’s timeless splendor.”  Joel Benjamin characterized the Red Bull revival of the play on Theater Pizzazz as “a pleasantly chaotic production” given an “outrageously farcical staging.”  With “a cast of gung-ho actors who have no fear of being over-the-top silly,” each of whom he compliments, Benjamin found that “Berger might have pulled in some of the high spirited performances.”  Nonetheless, the TP reviewer concluded that “the overall mood was consistent and the pacing remarkable.”

On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller asserted that Gogol’s comedy “has been given the full ‘Marxist’ treatment by Red Bull Theater” and Berger—but he assured us he meant Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (what, no Gummo and Zeppo?), “whose style of zany buffoonery is echoed in the show from start to end.”  Miller pointed out that “everything here is thoroughly and unabashedly soaked in slapstick, farce, and low comedy.”  Having set up the premise, Berger’s Government Inspector “quickly descends (or ascends) into full-blown madness and mayhem.”  The TB review-writer summed up with: “All in all, Jesse Berger and Red Bull Theater have put together a marvelous romp of a production, which boasts richly comical performances by its wild and woolly cast” and ended by recommending, “If you are in the mood for good, silly fun, The Government Inspector will more than fill the bill.”  Ron Cohen of TheaterScene.com (not to be confused with TheaterScene.net, above) called the Red Bull revival of The Government Inspector “a rollicking good time” and labeled the production an “exuberant mounting” of the play.  Hatcher’s “sprightly” adaptation “keeps things in 19th Century Russia, but gives the dialogue a bright contemporary spin” and director Berger “demonstrates a grand flair for comedy in his appropriate anything-for-a-laugh staging” with a cast of “superlative farceurs.”  Cohen singled out several of the principal actors for individual praise, especially Urie and McGrath, but affirmed, “Just about everybody contributes to the hilarity.”  The review-writer observed that “the bits come so thick and fast, you don’t have time to ponder the misfires,” but he had this advice to theatergoers: “Grin and bear them.” 

The Huffington Post published two notices for The Government Inspector; the first one is from Steven Suskin, who quipped:

And now we have graft, greed, bribery, cupidity and all-round corruption.  No, not in our local city hall; nor the halls of various congresses and executive branches, neither.  At least not specifically.  The vile misdeeds are purported to take place in Russia, although our present-day leader’s buddy-in-chief needn’t take offence or send out “fake” reviews from fake drama critics. 

That’s, of course, because it’s all in the 19th-century farce, The Government Inspector.  “Gogol’s satire remains razor-sharp . . .,” reported Suskin, “and Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation . . . contemporizes the humor while keeping the action in Gogol’s dusty old provincial town.”  The Red Bull production is “resplendent” and the actors “[a]ll feast on the festivities, and the pleasure is ours.”  Suskin lauded the entire cast and reported that Berger “does a thoroughly assured job, wrangling his clowns and keeping the laughter percolating.”  He labeled Hatcher’s adaptation “canny” and concluded, “All in all, the Red Bull Inspector General [sic] is bright, funny and as refreshing as a bowl of cold summer borscht crowned by two dollops of sour cream.”  (A note to Suskin, however: Russian borscht is a heavy soup of meat and vegetables, served hot as a whole meal.  That cold soup, presumably the one made from beets—it’s, ummm, Polish!) 

In HP’s second review, Michael Giltz, after giving a short disquisition on why stakes are high in comedy, called Berger’s The Government Inspector an “amiable, too-soft revival” that “remains this side of great, despite some strong lead actors and a classic text.”  Giltz felt that “an essential tension, the desperation that drives the best comedy is lacking.”  The problem?  “Quite simply, the cast is having too much fun.”  According to this HP writer, “It means we have fun too, but not as much as we’d have if every member of the cast feared for their life.”  Essentially Giltz asserted that everything comes too easily for all the characters in the play, and that while “a sense of anarchy builds, . . .  the sense of characters under siege does not.”  In the end, when the reveal happens, the “comedic feeling of ‘My God, their every sin has been witnessed’—or even ‘uh-oh’—does not arise.”  He applauded the principal actors, but added that “everyone else . . . fades into the background.”  (Giltz split over Burton—“good” as Osip, “bad” as the “tired gay cliche of a” Postmaster.)  He blamed Berger for “the too-friendly atmosphere,” though he liked the “tech elements”—except the two-tiered set because the lower level was abandoned and unused for so much of the play.  (The reviewer wanted to see both levels in use at the same time at some point.)  “Never let them see you sweat,” admonished Giltz, is bad advice for comedy—and he asserted, “Unfortunately, the cast of The Government Inspector remain as cool as cucumbers.”  (Though several reviewers mention the Fawlty Towers episode about which I wrote a bit at the beginning of this report, Giltz was the only one I read who actually drew a comparison between that TV episode and this production of The Government Inspector—and Red Bull’s Government Inspector came out the worse!)