The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Friday, November 27, 2015

In “Shadowland,” Pilobolus invents a form of silhouetted kinetic poses

Filed under: Dance — Lucy Komisar @ 6:53 pm

By Lucy Komisar

The dog meets a monster, photo Ian Douglas.

The dog meets a monster, photo Ian Douglas.

Pilobolus takes dance theater to a new dimension, transforming the performers to silhouetted figures behind a screen, using body artistry to turn dancers into shadows of elephants, café tables, lobsters and a centaur.

It’s a clever device that fascinates, though sometimes it seems more like mime or kinetic poses than dance.

The company started in 1971 and did its first silhouette performance in 2007. This production dates to 2009 and has been performed in 32 countries, but only for the first time now in the U.S. Looking at the earlier works, you can see how acrobatic body sculptures led to the new signature style. The skills of the artists, in moments between silhouettes, made me want to see an entire evening devoted just to dance.

The cleverness starts when dancers jump into their clothes. Then, to very modern music, a young girl (Heather Jeane Favretto), puts on makeup, but all the while holds a rag dog.

Making soup, photo Emmanuel Donny.

Making soup, photo Emmanuel Donny.

She sleeps on a bed made up of three male dancers and dreams of being grown up. When she awakens, the bodies make a shadowy hilly landscape. Fingers become shoots, a cactus flower; petals engulf her, then spit her out.

The piano music is atonal. Sometimes we hear a flute. A dream hand comes down to tickle her, grasps her head and takes it off, puts it back, then engulfs her torso and she emerges in the shape of a dog. She lies on her back, kicks her feet, wiggles dog ears and tongue.

Now, she sits at a café and barks. The waiters and other patrons (transformed from the table) laugh.

A large pot appears, hands and fingers turn into flames. Cooks chase her with cleavers and a rolling pin.

The dancers, photo Ian Douglas.

The dancers, photo Ian Douglas.

Dancers become a pickup truck, and we hear country music. A guy with a cowboy hat drives the truck, with the dog on the seat next to him.

In the next adventure, the dog is taken by a hunter to a carnival, where we see the figures in front of the screen, along with glittery costumes and rock music: a strongman, a veiled eastern dancer, a sword swallower. When the dog is tied up, it is near a huge elephant—of course made by interconnecting dancers’ bodies. When the dog escapes and jumps into the sea, we see dancers become a seahorse, a lobster, a crab.

When the dream is over, the young girl jumps into her parents’ arm. She is joyful. So is the audience.

The dog and the Statue of Liberty, photo Ian Douglas.

The dog and the Statue of Liberty, photo Ian Douglas.

The coda, done especially for the New Yorkers, shows dancers creating the shadow forms of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, a mammoth in the Museum of Natural History, a subway turnstile, a 42nd Street Library lion, a taxi….there seems to be no end to their imagination and versatility. Pilobolus, which sounds better than it means, is named after a fast-growing phototropic fungus.

Shadowland.” Written and directed by a collaboration of Steven Banks, Robby Barnett, Renee Jaworski, Matt Kent, Itamar Kubovy and Michael Tracy. Pilobolus Dance Theater at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square South, New York City. 212-998-4941,  Opened Nov 22, 2015, closes Dec 6, 2015. 11/27/15.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Nature and politics in Soho

Filed under: art — Lucy Komisar @ 2:28 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Robert Lobe and metal sculpture, photo Lucy Komisar.

Robert Lobe and metal sculpture, photo Lucy Komisar.

I went to an art opening the other day and discovered the modernization of the ancient art of repoussé. Plus a prominent artist who does political art. All at the new West Broadway Gallery in Soho, in New York City, in an exhibit called American Realism Today.

Robert Lobe has for years created unusual sculptures, presented outdoors and in galleries, that use natural rocks, logs, leaves, and the like as the basis of metal sculptures.

Robert Lobe's shelf with feathers, photo Lucy Komisar.

Robert Lobe’s shelf with feathers, photo Lucy Komisar.

And Neil Jenney does some powerful political statements. The show is at Jenney’s gallery.

We see Lobe’s aluminum wall sculptures done by metal repoussé. He goes into the woods and hammers aluminum over rocks and logs and then welds or rivets the pieces together in his workshop. He uses both hand and pneumatic tools. The results are stunning.

Lobe’s works are in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum, Brooklyn Museum in New York, the National Gallery in Washington DC and others.

Neil Jenney and email to NY Times.

Neil Jenney and email to NY Times, photo Lucy Komisar.

Neil Jenney, known for his realistic and neo-expressionist art, in this exhibit has some pieces that are blatantly political. One is a framed proposed op ed emailed to the New York Times after the Citizens United decision of 2010.

It urged a law requiring that all candidates participate in mandatory debates for as long as 8 hours so all topics could be discussed “unrushed” and another requiring a “debate channel” network that would “let content, not sound bites, rule.” Below, in big red letters, are the words The New York Times, REJECTED.”

And he painted a large thanks to Bradley Manning.

photo Lucy Komisar.

photo Lucy Komisar.

Jenney’s works are in the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

I was pleased when he took me to a back gallery, his archive, he said, and showed me one of the series, North America Divided, from the 1990s.

One of Jenney's series "North America Divided" from the 1990s, photo Lucy Komisar.

From Jenney’s “North America Divided,” photo Lucy Komisar.

The West Broadway Gallery, 383 West Broadway in Soho, between Spring and Broome Streets, is open Sunday and Monday 11am to 8pm or by appointment, 646 335-5155. The exhibition will be on view until January 14, 2016.

Robert Lobe.

Neil Jenney.

 

 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

“Sylvia” a shaggy dog story that raises feminist questions

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 7:20 pm

By Lucy Komisar

A play one could expect to be very silly turns out to be entertaining, largely due to the smart acting of Annaleigh Ashford as a dog and the quirky light touch of director Daniel Sullivan. My companion was an actress who remembers how hard it was in acting classes to play such anthropomorphic characters. Ashford succeeds brilliantly, being at various times pert, bitchy, sexy and – well anything a human could be. But as I thought about that, I had some concerns.

Julie White as Kate and Matthew Broderick as Greg, photo Joan Marcus.

Julie White as Kate and Matthew Broderick as Greg, photo Joan Marcus.

In this play by A.R. Gurney, first produced off-Broadway in 1995, Sylvia is picked up in Central Park by Greg (Matthew Broderick). Broderick plays the same nerdy, spacey character with the same voice and inflection we have seen in his last umpteen plays, and it’s getting pretty tiresome. But Ashford saves the day.

Greg and his wife Kate (the fine Julie White) live on Central Park West. She, shown to be a very competent woman, more together than her husband, is a teacher who is developing a plan to teach Shakespeare to inner city kids. Greg is unhappy at work, has had a fight with his boss and taken off for the park. We learn later that as he sat on a bench, Sylvia jumped into his lap.

Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia and Matthew Broderick as Greg, photo Joan Marcus.

Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia and Matthew Broderick as Greg, photo Joan Marcus.

He takes Sylvia home and there shows more interest in the dog than in Kate, who becomes understandably annoyed. Especially when Sylvia leaves a puddle on the floor and hairs on the couch. And gets in the way of their life which, now the kids are in college, includes dinners out, concerts, Knicks games etc.

Ashford is wonderful as the dog, who tells Greg, “I love you, I think you’re god.” [I thought I hope Sylvia is channeling dogs and not women.] Her bark is “hey, hey, hey!” Her body language is twitchy. When Greg says she is a French poodle, she breaks into “La vie en rose.” Kate routinely gives us lines from Shakespeare. Of course, there will be “Who is Sylvia?”

Robert Sella as Phyllis, Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia and Matthew Broderick as Greg, photo Joan Marcus.

Robert Sella as Phyllis, Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia and Matthew Broderick as Greg, photo Joan Marcus.

Kate isn’t the only wife with a problematic spouse. Her Vassar classmate Phyllis (terrifically played by the angular Robert Sella, who also does two male roles) says she is on the wagon and declares that “liquor is the curse of our generation and our ethnic group.” But she has a very good excuse to fall off the wagon. She complains that her husband has adopted a goldfish that he takes into his bathtub. We don’t learn if the fish has a name.

A discomforting moment occurs when Sylvia repeatedly nuzzles Phyllis’ crotch, to that lady’s great consternation. When Sylvia wants to sleep in Greg and Kate’s bed, Kate proclaims, “I hate Sylvia. I never thought I could hate anyone except Nixon.” Crotch? Bed? Is Sylvia asserting her sexual power? In a way that puts down those women?

Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia, photo Joan Marcus.

Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia, photo Joan Marcus.

A major challenge arrives when Kate gets a grant to study in England and the dog can’t come because of the six-month quarantine. But Kate had followed Greg for 20 years, isn’t it his turn? Feminism, right? The more I thought about it, beyond the surface comedy, I realized there is an underlying anti-woman note here — female dog thinks Greg is god, his own wife is wrapped up in her career, Phyllis, played by a man, is flaky, both women seem targets of the dog.

Gurney says the play is about the need to connect. Is this really about the human condition, interpreted with the help of a deus ex machina mutt? So that if your job is not satisfying, leave it and find a pooch in the park who thinks you are god? Or whatever that signifies? Is Sylvia his fantasy woman? And how about Kate’s need to connect? I didn’t like the politics of the play, but I did relish Ashford in a performance that is a great model for acting classes.

Sylvia.” Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Daniel Sullivan. Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street, New York City. 800-447-7400. Opened Oct 27, 2015; closes Jan 3, 2016. Discount to Dec 23 with code, SVNSA814, orchestra $55 (reg $89 to $147), balcony $32 (reg $32 to $67). 11/18/15.

“King Charles III” is riveting and surprising critique of British elites

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 1:48 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles holding the crown, photo Joan Marcus.

Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles holding the crown, photo Joan Marcus.

If you take Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III” as the possible future, it makes no sense. But if you take it as a story of hubris and betrayal connected to a critique of British elites, it’s right in the realm of current real-life political theater.

It follows the Shakespearean tradition of plays as grand political dramas. In fact, the actors speak in rhyming couplets and sometimes bear resemblances to the Bard’s iconic characters.

The idea is that Queen Elizabeth has died and her son Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith, who seems to live the role) is about to be crowned king. However, he gets the idea that, especially when principle is concerned, he ought to be more than a figurehead. And parliament has just passed a bill to limit press freedom in cases that put that at odds with peoples’ privacy. You know where that came from. (As in many Shakespearean plays, this one has a ghost. And we know who she is.)

Oliver Chris as William and Lydia Wilson as Kate, photo Joan Marcus.

Oliver Chris as William and Lydia Wilson as Kate, photo Joan Marcus.

Meanwhile, Charles, who Pigott-Smith plays as a rather diffident fellow, says he wants boldness. He raises the question of press freedom. And says he won’t put his pro forma signature to the bill.

But even the opposition leader, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Calf), who opposed the bill (he counts editors among his friends), thinks Charles should not buck tradition. The monarch just signs on the dotted line.

Charles, of course, is terminally naïve, not only about politics, but about his family, especially his son William (the cool Oliver Chris), supported by the Lady Macbeth-like Kate (a steely Lydia Wilson), who is salivating for the palace. He is also naïve about the vipers in his entourage, especially the palace flack, James Reiss (an unctuous Miles Richardson). The great Shakespearean lather of perfidy is thick.

But surely the Bard never had a character so silly as to hold a teapot and say, as Charles does, “Shall I be mother?”

In fact, Bartlett is really skewering the whole royal establishment. And the politicians that connect with it. At first I had a problem figuring out the parties of the prime minister, Mr. Evans (Adam James), who turns out to be Labor, and the opposition leader, who is Tory, which was not initially made clear. They seemed like mirror images, which may be Bartlett’s point.

Tafline Steen as Jessica and Richard Goulding as Harry, photo Joan Marcus.

Tafline Steen as Jessica and Richard Goulding as Harry, photo Joan Marcus.

For a moment, you think that maybe one of the royals will opt out of the game. Harry (Richard Goulding), Charles’ other son, is as close to a punk (black clothes, albeit no spike hair) as you’d get in the House of Windsor. He has a “whopper” at Burger King and takes up with Jessica (Tafline Steen), a leftist art student, who is exploring Muslims’ relationship to pornography. [Is Bartlett risking a fatwa?] He tells Charles he wants to ditch the palace and live with Jess. For a while, Harry steals the show. The leftist is warmly welcomed by Charles, who also thinks it’s fine if Harry gives up the profits of his pedigree for her.

When Charles has his weekly meeting with the prime minister, he notes that Britain in some ways may be in decline, “But still we demonstrate the way a just society should work.” He is concerned about the privacy bill. But the PM replies

Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles and Adam James as Prime Minister Evans, photo Joan Marcus.

Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles and Adam James as Prime Minister Evans, photo Joan Marcus.

“Your views mean much, but on this subject yes.
I disagree with what you think and if
You want my true intent, I will say more:
That even if there was a chance to change
The bill to take account of what you think.
I would not see it done. The public vote
To choose the members of their parliament
And that is where decisions will be made
Not in this room between the two of us.
But sir, now please, it matters not, because
The law is drawn, and voted on and passed.”

Well, the PM has a point there. We are not in the 1500s when the royals ruled. Charles is appealing, but the stuffy politicians are right. Charles sees he is powerless: “Then our weekly meeting’s done,” he says, adding that he will give time to the leader of the opposition. “Your mother never felt the need,” the PM replies.

Charles is studied, calm, concerned about the responsibility he feels and angry that he has been made into a puppet, even threatened, by a country that

“Thatcherated, Reaganized, did place
The profit higher value than the pride
Belonging to the man who travels day
By day upon the Clapham omnibus.”

Oliver Chris as William and Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, photo Joan Marcus.

Oliver Chris as William and Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, photo Joan Marcus.

So is he a left-wing royal, railing against the elite? A shrouded ghostly Diana (Sally Scott) gets his grit up by telling him, “You’ll be the greatest king we ever had.” He says, “Redraft the law with changes that defend the independence of the press …and I will sign.” He seems to forget British history, how parliament took power from the royals.

There’s plenty more coming, including a privacy threat connected to texted nude photos, street protests outside the palace, family treachery (“how sharper than a serpent’s tooth….”) and Charles in his military uniform confronting a constitutional crisis. Actually, since he’s been reminded that Britain has no constitution but governs by tradition, one might call it a “traditional” crisis. Director Rupert Goold does a good job of making this almost a cliff-hanger.

Margot Leicester as Camilla and Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, photo Joan Marcus.

Margot Leicester as Camilla and Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, photo Joan Marcus.

To avoid being a spoiler, I won’t allude to the dénouement, except to say that I was disappointed at the minor role played by Camilla (the very mild Margot Leicester), who I’d have expected to have more gumption in fighting for her spouse. This Camilla is no Kate.

All takes place with a backdrop of the flat red bricks of a Romanesque cathedral (set and costumes by Tom Scutt), the space for the Queen’s funeral that starts the play and the King’s coronation that ends it.

As a political critique of British elites, it’s a fascinating, layered, complex work.

King Charles III.” Written by Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold. Almeida Theatre production, The Music Box, 239 West 45th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened Nov 1, 2015, closes Jan 31, 2016. 11/17/15.

 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

“Cuckooed” a riveting true story by British comic and activist of how arms company spied on him

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 4:26 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Theater as investigative reporting or investigative reporting as theater, however you cut it, Mark Thomas, a British TV actor/comedian and activist has created a fascinating show. It’s by him and about him: how he ran stings that put some illegal arms traffickers out of business or in jail and how he was deceived and betrayed by a “comrade” who turned out to be a spy for BAE Systems, the UK’s largest aerospace and weapons company.

Mark Thomas, photo Richard Davenport.

Mark Thomas, photo Richard Davenport.

Oh, and one must mention that all of this has led to hearings by a committee of Parliament into corporate spying on British citizens. So, even before the reviews on this theatrical exposé came in, Thomas had won.

The performance, directed by Emma Callander. was first presented at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh at the Festival Fringe in 2014. Traverse is the most innovative space for Edinburgh theater. Callander is co-director of the global movement Theatre Uncut. The play won a “Fringe First” at Edinburgh. Callander keeps the pace fast, partly comic, mostly serious, with a strong tinge of outrage.

This is Michael Moore on steroids. Thomas, in casual blue shirt and pants and brown walking shoes, stands on a set that includes a table and a couple of filing cabinets. Yellow bands around the cabinets say, “Warning, arms trader at work. This is not OK.”

In the back is a large screen that begins the show with a BAE promotional video of planes and weapons. BAE is the major bad guy in the play, as well as a major bad guy among arms traders, albeit one wonders who the good guys are. (In 2010, BAE pled guilty in the U.S. to charges of false accounting and making misleading statements in connection with an arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The issue was bribery to get a Saudi contract. British Prime Minister Tony Blair quashed an investigation there, as he wanted the contract.)

Thomas is (in real life) part of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, CAAT. He participates in demonstrations and non-violent actions. At one point, after an arrest, he jokes about a cop who is critical of his TV performance. “Name? address? Keys, phone. Occupation?” “Comedian.” The cop says, “On a fucking good night he is.” Thomas: “I have just been heckled by a cop!”

Thomas does voices, he jokes about accents. But as an actor, he has some special skills.

He persuades people attending an arms fair to ride on his “free” bus from their hotel to the fair and then lets them off a mile away (he claims he doesn’t have the proper pass to go beyond police lines), so they have to walk passed the protesters. But that is mild.

Mark Thomas with spy document, photo Richard Davenport.

Mark Thomas with spy document, photo Richard Davenport.

His “gotcha” moments are elaborate stings (helps to be an actor), such as one that flummoxes an Indonesian general into admitting on camera that his government engages in torture. Thomas, who had set up a booth at a real arms fair, was pretending to be a public relations advisor offering free training on what to do “when Amnesty International comes calling.”

Or he pretends to want to buy arms and phones dealers to get them to agree to sell weapons to countries that are embargoed. He gets several dealers arrested or their companies closed.

He says, “If an arms dealer talks to you they will explain what they are willing to do. First one is a South Londoner arms dealer offering to sell illegal electro shock torture equipment. But it wasn’t enough that he agreed to supply them, I asked, “Would you supply them to Zimbabwe and break UN sanctions?”
“Yes”
“I call HMRC [Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs] and he is shut down.”

Among the most important revelations is the discovery of organized corporate spying on activist critics. A Sunday Times Insight Team exposes the spying by BAE. CAAT discovers that for years a trusted activist has been forwarding emails from members of the group to a company called Threat Response run by Evelyn le Chene. On the firm’s board sits Barrie Charles Gane, ex-deputy director of MI6, the UK’s CIA. (Evelyn le Chene now has a hotel in France.) Threat Response works for corporations that target activists who target them.

In court documents, BAE Systems will admit to spying on CAAT (a legal consent order is projected onto the main screen) and to hiring Evelyn le Chene.

Mark Thomas tells how he caught the villains, photo Richard Davenport.

Mark Thomas tells how he caught the villains, photo Richard Davenport.

Much of the drama in the piece involves discovering that a “comrade” named Martin, who for seven years had been the CAAT campaign coordinator, was actually a spy for BAE. The reason BAE did this goes back decades.

The company had supplied fighter jets to Indonesia, which used them against its colony, East Timor, in a war that killed a third of that population. In 1966, three British women got access in Lancashire to a BAE fighter jet which was destined for Indonesia and smashed the cockpit. In court, the judge allowed them a defense that says it is legal in English law to commit a small crime in order to prevent a greater crime from occurring, ie it is legal to break a plane in order to stop the plane killing civilians.

The jury heard representatives from BAE, East Timor and human rights groups, and it acquitted the women.

Thomas declares, “BAE have the ignominy of having lost a £13 million state of the art fighter plane, which ironically is not hammer proof, they then end up on trial, lose in the court of public opinion and the jury let the activists walk free. And it is at this point that BAE decides to put Campaign Against Arms Trade on the radar.”

A lot of the play — a bit too much for outsiders — involves Thomas discussing with fellow campaigners (via video on screens pulled out of the filing cabinets) their reactions to what Martin had done. One reason they trusted him was his working class roots, including militant talk in a heavy Cockney accent. Thomas says, “It was as if he had walked out of every Johnny Cash song I ever loved.” Which makes Thomas as naïve as some of the arms traders he suckered. The campaigners’ sense of betrayal is reflected in the title “Cuckooed.”

Thomas presents evidence to a select committee of Parliament. He criticizes the Revenue and Customs Service for not properly controlling arms exports. Three weeks later, he says, he is the target of a tax inspection.

Mark Thomas and video interview, photo Richard Davenport.

Mark Thomas and video interview, photo Richard Davenport.

He also talks about companies running a blacklist against 3200 construction workers who want to join unions or raise concerns about health and safety. He runs videos of some of the blacklisted workers. The companies have admitted liability, and the case is in the courts.

Now, Thomas and five other members of the National Union of Journalists are suing the London Metropolitan Police for spying.

Political theater has always been among the best theater, telling stories of the issues raised by political campaigners and activists. But in this case, stirring political theater is activism itself. For a final dig, Thomas rented a BAE sports and social club to which he invited friends and activists for a preview of the play.

Cuckooed.” Written and performed by Mark Thomas, directed by Emma Callander. All for One at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59 Street, New York City. 212-753-5959 x104. Opened Nov 4; closes Nov 21, 2015. Tickets $35. 11/5/15.

For Mark Thomas’ “Martin and Me” in The Guardian.

For key details, Spin Watch, Investigating Martin.

 

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