Saturday, January 30, 2010

As You Like It

On Thursday, Annette and I went to see BAM's As You Like It. We were pretty excited since we had both worked on it in college; I had directed and Annette had been my stage manager. We love the text and had high expectations for this production. They were quickly dashed. The director Sam Mendes squeezed everything joyous and lovely out of the script. It was cold, dark, and depressing.

Actually, it shared quite a lot in common with Sir Peter Hall's production, which I had seen in Boston my junior year, and which was equally as disappointing. Both Hall and Mendes's versions embraced the cold elements of the play--emphasizing the harshness of the world and man's precarious place in it. Both featured snow covered stages and modern-slob dress. Both downplayed Rosalind, making her almost an appendage to the male characters, who they clearly found more interesting. Frankly, it made me yearn for a professional production by a woman director.

To me, the play has always been a study in artifice. A play which sets a cast of characters in a court where they must use their wits and smarts to survive. Rosalind must be an exemplary, tough as nails woman who does not show the psychic damage of being the daughter of a banished duke. Outside of the court she must pass herself off as a man in order to protect her physical safety. Orlando is a youngest son forced to hide his light under a bushel so as not to provoke the rage of an eldest brother who is not as intrinsically good as he. Touchstone and Jaques may place themselves in the positions of fools, but they are the cleverest and most clear sighted of the bunch. Ultimately, it is the vividness and truthfulness of Rosalind and Orlando's characters that forces them beyond artifice to embrace who they truly are and restore peace to Arden.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Americana Week

At my first auction, I fell asleep. The room was warm; I was exhausted from a week of forced marches through New York to see as many antiques and museums as possible; there weren't any chairs and I was sitting propped up against a wall. But really, those are just excuses. I fell asleep because I was bored out of my mind.

At first, there was sort of an ironic fun in watching poorly-dressed people bid on objects for thousands of dollars (one had to suppose their discretionary funds were entirely devoted to their antiquing mania). It was kind of intriguing to watch Sotheby's employees sitting at the phone banks intently whisper-narrating the auction floor to a bidder. It was even mildly exciting to watch people raise their paddles on the floor and be recognized by the auctioneer--"150,000 to the gentleman standing in the back. 160,000 to the lady seated to the left." But that was the first 15 minutes. Then it became a sort of monotonous litany that accompanied a slideshow that seemed to loop every 20 minutes or so. Oops, there's another side chair. Wait, didn't we see that card table before. I know I saw that folk art painting of a child just a few minutes ago. In any event, I didn't have a real desire to ever attend another auction.

Imagine my own surprise then when I found myself accompanying Patty to Sotheby's this morning. She was meeting Katie there to watch the "Important Americana" auction and I promised to meet Sarah (a 2nd year Winterthur fellow and a dear friend from college) there in the afternoon to get some lunch. I figured I might as well just go see the auction too; maybe, I'd like it better this time. Again, the people watching was pretty good for the first 15 minutes. There were even a couple of on the floor battles, and I got to observe Leslie Keno at length. I think I've found the new brand-face for Energizer batteries--I have never seen someone look so perpetually engaged and excited for quite so long. But even Leslie couldn't detract from the fact, that it was the same schtick over and over--"20,000. Fair warning, selling for $20,000. Peer intently around the room. Sold. Sharply rap the rapper thingie.... 40,000. Fair warning, selling for $40,000. Peer like a bird of prey for a rival bid. Sold."

Luckily, I didn't have to be bored the entire time. I had brought along We Two: Victoria and Albert-Rulers, Partners, Rivals--an intriguing biography that examines both monarchs' childhoods and the power dynamics that drove their relationship. I picked it up after seeing the movie Young Victoria with Emily Blunt. I couldn't quite believe that the movie accurately reflected her character or her relationship with her husband. It just seemed too modern. It turns out I was largely right. The book "complicates our historical understanding" (to borrow a phrase from the pedants) of the relationship and shows how the social mores of the age even constricted the life of the Queen of England, the most powerful person in the land. In any event, Patty told me later she was relieved I had brought the book. She said I acted the part of the dutiful boyfriend on a shopping trip. To which, I should reply: Just doing what I can. Some people's furniture is another girl's shoe shopping.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Weekend Spent Largely at the Met

Skipping out of order: on Sunday, Sal and I ventured up to 190th St. to visit the Cloisters, the Met branch dedicated to medieval art and architecture. Sal joked that we had ventured so far from Brooklyn that we were likely to see unicorns roaming the streets. Little did he realize that we actually had entered the land of unicorns. The Cloisters are home to the "Unicorn Tapestries," an incredible collection of 16th century tapestries that depict the hunting of unicorns.

Though I had some inkling of what to expect, nothing quite prepared me for the splendor of seeing these tapestries in person. They are beautiful, whimsical, and heart-rending. There is a vivid aliveness to their representation, as if the men marching through the forest will step out of the tapestry and into the gallery themselves. In The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle one can almost hear the men on castle's ramparts whispering to one another.

We explored the rest of the Cloisters too, but nothing is quite as breathtaking as those mind-boggling tapestries. I doubt if Athena's tapestry of the gods at play on Mt. Olympus could have rivaled these. How on earth could someone have woven, by hand, these intricate, detailed images. How does thread become an rabbit's eye that twinkles with such rabbity good humor?

On Friday night, Patty and I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life at the Met. Our friend Katie is a curatorial assistant in the
American Wing and has spent the last year working on the exhibition. She also authors the exhibition's blog (make sure to check it out). On our tour, she regaled us with stories of how the show came together--from choosing the paint colors on the gallery walls to writing labels to make sure the color correction in the catalogue was correct. We particularly enjoyed this shop talk because Patty and I had our own small part in the exhibitions' behind the scenes. On a road trip in the Berkshires, we drove Katie to the Smith College Museum of Art so she could look at the sky in a Lily Martin Spencer painting in person. Happily, it really was blue and not the yellow the museum's slide indicated it was.

But about the show: it was pretty great. It sweepingly showed how America perceived and conceived it's nationhood from the time of the Revolution to the start of WWI. It's only open until the 24th, so head over to the Met soon. It's unlikely that such an impressive grouping of American paintings will be seen together anytime soon.