Friday, September 23, 2011

Candide Indeed

A production of the Voltaire/Bernstein/Zimmerman play Candide is in performance at the Huntington's BU Theater for its season opener. It is a vigorous and pleasurable, if long performance. It originated in Chicago at the Goodman a year ago, then played at Shakespeare's Theater in Washington, D.C., in December. I couldn't find if it went anywhere between then and now.

Candide is famously a work by Voltaire published in 1759 satirizing a philosophy of predetermination in which everything that happens is "for the best" and is as it should be. Candide receives the teaching from his mentor Pangloss while growing up comfortably in Westphalia, which is overrun, forcing him out into the world where he experiences its many hardships. The story proceeds rapidly with vignette-like incident after incident of disasters and trials. Early he meets and falls in love with a baron's daughter Cunegonde who, with Pangloss, winds in and out through the odyssey that takes him from Europe to South America and back to Arabia. In the end Candide rejects the optimist philosophy for a more measured view of mankind.

The operetta is a reworking of what was once a Lillian Hellman effort with Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s that never got off the ground. The lyrics are written by Richard Wilbur and others. This production is done in a kind of energetic story theater style, with a cast of 19 and lots of sudden props and onstage costume transformations. It was directed and somewhat adapted by Chicago's Looking Glass Theater artistic director Mary Zimmerman. A few years ago she also directed a production of Journey to the West that played the Huntington.

The Boston Globe review by Don Aucoin is favorable and fairly uncritical. It's difficult to tell audience response because the Globe has gone all subscription, and I haven't found the reader responses though I am a subscriber. The unsigned Chicago Tribune review was fairly soft but complained that after the first scene change, "the carnival of multifarious acting styles returns, as does some needlessly fussy staging, especially frustrating when Bernstein's exquisite score needs to communicate without models of boats or balloons floating by." There were quite a few critical reader responses appended to that review, and it was evident that the McArthur Genius Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman has a reputation for the kind of mythical story-telling staging used here and as we saw in Journey to the West. As one Chicago review reader wrote:

"For the life of me, I will never understand the Zimmerman love in this town. It's the same thing over and over and over again. Someone dies, red fabric flies out. Time to cross the ocean, blue fabric shimmies across the stage. Two people have sex, they roll around the floor without touching in a choreographed move. Toy boats are handled by actors to show crossing the ocean. And this is genius???"

In terms of staging, it was no different at the Huntington.

The most common criticism of the Chicago production, other than Zimmerman's style, was the small orchestra and the disservice to Bernstein. There wasn't much to correct that in Boston.

The set was designed by Daniel Ostling, whose web site says he is based in San Francisco, in residence at the Looking Glass theater in Chicago and on the faculty of Northwestern University in Evanston, north of Chicago - I'm sure resulting in many frequent flyer miles. He has designed at many of the resident theaters across the country, as shown in the portfolio of his work . His site shows generally spare and open, quite uncluttered designs for a number of LORT houses. He has used the deep box design employed here, and a few other enclosed environments, but most of his portfolio shows what appear to be more open staging with arrangements of interesting pieces, shapes and necessary furnishings.

Candide opened with an 18th century table scene within a small proscenium frame, backed by a red toile image of a period interior on a loose fabric curtain, all of which whipped away at scene end to reveal a full stage-sized box that walled in the production. Within this box the company continually transformed the space with movement, choreography, and ever-changing furniture piece or two to suit the story telling.

This oaken-beamed box had panels that slid aside for props and people to enter and exit at several levels. The entire back wall flew for skies and exterior scenes, such as a Rousseau jungle, or a sky of fluffy clouds for a scene with red fluffy prop sheep. There were traps in the floor that swallowed and disgorged people and props. The overhead lighting came through huge oak-paneled shafts in the ceiling, and there was a double row of lighting units with dozens of color scrollers slung right under the top of the proscenium arch to light tightly the downstage areas. You can get some feel of the setting from the image here, but I had to enhance it substantially to show the dark wood, resulting in some overall color distortion.

Costumes were by Looking Glass designer Mara Blumenfeld. I thought they were handled well and I was impressed with the attention to character and variety in the 18th Century dress, and with the onstage redressing and much doubling of roles. I did wish there had been a costume choice to single out Candide better because he sometimes got lost in the crowd in the narrow palette. Regardless of the variety of shapes and pieces, the whole show seemed very brown. The few shows on Mara's web site show facility with the 17th and 18th century period look in design, particularly her work on The Glorious Ones about Flaminio Scala and Company.

T. J. Gerckens, whose lighting credits are all over the regional theater circuit, was able to capture the moments well. With so much onstage scene-changing and transforming episodes, one into another, things were placed well and usually the focus of the scene was clear. Some clever lighting choices were used, but sparingly. I noticed the choice not to do a cliché lighting change for a couple of "slo-mo" fight sequences. Full-screen projections of period text on the act curtain accompanied the opening of each act.

As for the performances, the principals of Pangloss (Larry Yando), Candide (Geoff Packard), and Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) carried their roles quite well. Yando was a clear and distinctive tall and skinny Pangloss, later sporting a metal nose. Packard gave Candide much naivete and enthusiasm. Molina drew some fire in Chicago from those who thought she wasn't up to the operatic role, but I actually thought she was quite good. She engaged me in her performance. There were other distinctive performances from the 19-member cast, but the number of characters is too overwhelming to focus. One interesting moment for me came as the play neared its conclusion: the chorus went a capella for the anthem and Candide's discovery speech was presented clearly and directly.

This is a regional theater road show. I know it has become general practice to share productions, but I'm not sure how I feel about that. A wonderful show should travel and share the work everywhere it can, and the economics of production can be optimized. But I can't imagine that it is particularly good for developing and employing local artists.

Then, I have to wonder how much local talent the Huntington employs beyond production staff under any circumstances.

23 September 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

And so it begins (redux)

And so it begins. The last post was about the grand ideas. This is about the nitty-gritty.

Like every teacher, I'm deep in piles of old syllabi, academic calendars, production schedules, class registration lists, and a scramble of notes from past semesters. I look down my class lists and see students whom I know in the major courses, and all new names in my introductory class. Out of all of this I must come up with 25 or so scintillating learning experiences for each course, carefully linked to learning goals and sequenced for optimal development while observing all of the research and data on how students learn best. The good part is that this isn't the first time I've done it. The bad part is that although I have had some good classes, there always are students who don't achieve my learning goals for them. How does one deal with the disappointment that every student didn't get it . . . all?

I have my own history as an occasionally indifferent student, and I recognize that students do wind up doing triage on what gets attention. I always try to figure out how the courses that students do invest in can be the ones I teach. The content I teach generally is not very difficult in my introductory courses, and my measures do not really require much original thinking or conceptually difficult perspectives. Everybody can get a good grade, they just have to DO THE WORK.

So I review the syllabus and notes on these courses I've taught annually for years. I am facing those issues all teachers face: Which assignments worked well and which didn't. Why. Did the sequencing and the timing build toward the learning goals. How valid are all the learning goals. How much content is essential, beyond the curriculum framework. What would everybody expect students who succeeded in this class to know or to be able to do. What would we be appalled that a student who got a good grade didn't know or couldn't do.

How can we turn this lecture into an activity. How can we make these class experiences more active. What activity can we invent that will get at the goals that they don't get out of our lecture and won't get out of the reading they won't do. How can we motivate more through fascination than fear. Or even through fear. How can we create assignments that these students actually will invest in. Or will do at all.

Into all this, fit the new. What have we been teaching that is getting dated. What is happening on the topic today that we need to incorporate. What are the likely recognizable references for undergraduate students today -- they were born in the early 1990s and connect with historic and cultural references only since about 2000.

I have to think about how to make reference to current experience without sounding out of place and faux-hip. (See: the annual Beloit mindset list) And how to avoid dangerous dated references (like "hooking up").

And so . . . it begins. It will be great semester. I feel it.