27 June 2017

Donald Julius Trump


As many readers will know, New York City’s Public Theater presented a production William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park earlier this spring (23 May-18 June, Delacorte Theater).  The  production became controversial and a lightning rod for harsh criticism and denunciation because director Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the house that Papp built, cast actor Gregg Henry, a tall man with blond hair, in the title role.  The production was played in modern dress, and Henry’s Caesar wore a dark blue suit with an over-long red tie, making him resemble Donald Trump.  As nearly everyone knows, in act three, scene  two of the play, Julius Caesar is stabbed to death in the Forum by a group of senators who fear he’s on the verge of becoming a tyrant, ending Rome’s republic and taking it to one-man rule.  It didn’t take much imagination to see that Eustis intended audiences to conflate the would-be tyrant who’s assassinated as our current president, Donald J. Trump, but protesters went further and proclaimed that the production, director, and theater wanted to see the actual president killed.

Following on Kathy Griffin’s execrable video performance this May in which she held up a prop severed head that looked like Trump, some people saw the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park as a step too far in its apparent expression of the director’s opinion of President Trump.  Many artists and others who make their lives in the arts have made it clear that they oppose this president and his government, including his arts policies as epitomized in his budget proposal, released in March, in which he revealed his intention not just to cut the appropriations to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but to eliminate their funding altogether.  No previous president has proposed a budget that goes that far, and people in the arts are both frightened and enraged.  (In my report on the 2017 Whitney Biennial, posted on 22 June, I quote from a statement on the museum’s website by Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney Museum’s director, directly linking the museum and the Biennial exhibit to this issue.) 

I referred to the Public Theater earlier as the house that Papp built, and I didn’t do that just because Joseph Papp did, indeed, launch what was long known as the New York Shakespeare Festival, the company that became the Public Theater sometime after Papp’s 1991 death.  (For several years in between, it was known as the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Theater.)  I intended to make a connection with the man who, in 1990 rejected a $50,000 NEA grant rather than sign an anti-obscenity “loyalty oath” that he saw as “an abuse of the fundamental ethic in artistic endeavor.”  Papp considered the proposed restrictions to his “freedom,” his “privileged right to make my own judgment” according to “principle, taste and artistic standards” to be “unthinkable, if not downright subversive.”  That set the standard and eventually other heads of important arts organizations followed Papp’s lead and, despite the great need for the grant money, which was vital in some cases, turned down NEA cash as long as it came with strings attached.  Oskar Eustis, standing as he is on his predecessor’s shoulders—and in his shadow—is in a similar position.  He, too, has stood his ground.

I have often acknowledged on this blog that I am just about a First Amendment absolutist.  Except under the most extraordinary circumstances—incitement to violence, slander or libel, falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, for instance—I do not believe in censoring any speech or artistic expression.  I fiercely believe that the only proper response to speech (including symbolic speech such as visual art) you don’t like is more speechThe only proper response.  (By the way, that doesn’t mean shouting someone down.  That’s just a verbal form of censorship.)  I have written about this often: “The First Amendment & The Arts,” 8 May 2010; “Culture War,” 6 February 2014; “The First Amendment & The Arts, Redux,” 13 February 2015.  I said so again as recently as last Thursday in my post on the Whitney Biennial which confronted a controversy over a work of art on display.  Let me state my position on this matter by quoting a line from Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’s musical 1776.  The character is Stephen Hopkins, the irascible delegate to the Continental Congress from Connecticut: “Well, I’ll tell y’—in all my years I never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. . . .  Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything . . . !”  You debate people when you don’t like what they’re saying, you don’t shut them down.

In February 2006, the New York Theatre Workshop announced a production of Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner’s controversial, pro-Palestinian documentary play, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, to run from 22 March to 14 April 2006.  After protests from Jewish groups and threats to withdraw financial support by contributors to NYTW, however, the theater decided to “postpone indefinitely” the production in order to set up some “context” for the performance (read: schedule defensive panels and other counter-events).  Rickman and Viner denounced the decision and withdrew the play.  Many First Amendment advocates and free-speech activists, as well as prominent members of the worldwide theater and arts community such as Vanessa Redgrave, Harold Pinter, and Tony Kushner, viewed the NYTW decision as a capitulation to blackmail and an acquiescence to censorship.  NYTW never reinstated the production, which would have been the U.S. première, and Rachel Corrie ultimately had a commercial Off-Broadway run at the Minetta Lane Theatre from 15 October to 17 December 2006.

In 1999, after the opening of Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2 October 1999-9 January 2000), then-New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and other critics publicly denounced one work in the exhibit, The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, declaring it anti-Catholic because the artist used elephant dung among his media.  Despite the explanations of Ofili, a British artist of Nigerian heritage, that the painting was a homage because elephant dung in his African culture is considered sacred, Giuliani and his supporters unsuccessfully tried to close Sensation and then moved to have the museum evicted from its city-owned building.  BMA stood its ground and won its fight for freedom of expression in court. 
                                                                                                 
In May 1998, the Manhattan Theatre Club momentarily caved under threats of violence and yanked their production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, his contemporary retelling of Jesus’ birth, ministry, and death in which Jesus and his disciples are all depicted as gay.  The play, which no one had actually seen or even read at this time (it wasn’t even finished), was assailed by conservative Christians and others as blasphemous and MTC suffered a vehement protest campaign that led to bomb threats at the theater and threats of death to the theater’s staff and the production’s company which nearly succeeded in canceling the play’s world première.  (One caller left this message on MTC’s voice-mail: “Again, message is for Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally.  Because of you we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground.  This is a message from National Security Movement of America.  Death to the Jews Worldwide.”  McNally is, it might be worth noting, gay, but he’s Catholic, not Jewish.)  Once again, free-speech advocates chastised the theater for bowing to pressure, with figures like playwrights Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, David Henry Hwang, and Larry Kramer publicly excoriating the theater for its action; Emily Mann, a playwright and the director of Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre, also denounced the cancellation.  Athol Fugard withdrew his play The Captain’s Tiger from the company’s schedule while other theaters stepped up to offer the play a stage.  A week after announcing the cancellation, MTC reinstated the production.  Similar protests arose wherever McNally’s play was produced, from professional regional stagings, to college productions, to community-theater presentations; when the 1999 London première was staged, a British imam issued a fatwa against McNally.

The protests against the Public’s production of Julius Caesar at first just succeeded in driving away two major sponsors, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America; Delta actually severed its longtime association with the theater as “the official airline of the Public Theater” while BoA merely dropped its support of the Shakespeare in the Park production.  That  lasted until outlets like Breitbart and Fox News got a hold of the story and geed up a frenzy of manufactured outrage.  Then threats and insults of one kind or another started to be hurled at the Public and Eustis, including the demand that the play be taken off the stage.  That seems to be the standard demand these days for a work of art some people don’t like: remove it from public view. 

That painting at the Whitney Museum I mentioned earlier, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a rendering of Emmett Till’s mangled body at his funeral—the protesters wanted it removed from the Biennial; in 2010, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture in the face of protests (once again on the grounds of blasphemy); this past May, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center removed artist Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold, which referenced the hanging of 38 Dakota Indian men in 1862 by the United States Army, from the June reopening exhibit in its Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in response to demands by Native American groups.  The problem with these efforts is that, while no one forces anyone to see an offending work of art, censoring it prevents everyone from seeing it.

But removal hasn’t been sufficient remedy for the aggrieved parties.  Protesters wanted both Open Casket and Scaffold destroyed, though only the Durant sculpture was actually dismantled and burned.  (The Whitney refused to remove Schutz’s painting from the Biennial.)  I find this problematical beyond the act of censorship the removal demand represents: it smacks of book burning, one of the most heinous acts against human thought anyone can commit.  It’s the province of totalitarian governments like the fictional one in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 and the very real one in Nazi Germany.  The puritanical priest-prophet of 15th century Florence, Girolamo Savonarola, burned books he deemed “immoral”—a judgment of which he, alone, was the final arbiter.  Modern-day dictators and would-be dictators like Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the ’70s and Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Ratko Mladić in the ’90s burned books of their enemies and opponents.  The Taliban and Isis burn books and destroy art works and cultural treasures of which they disapprove.   This is the line into which protesters in our own democracy fit when they demand the removal and destruction of paintings and sculptures which they claim harm or distress them.

Like the Corpus Christi protests, warnings of death and other assaults were phoned into Eustis’s home, targeted at him, his wife, and his daughter.  One call, picked up by Eustis’s 26-year-old daughter, threatened, “I want to grab you by the pussy”—a clear evocation of Trump’s offensive “locker-room talk” during the campaign.  “Your husband wants Trump to die. I want him to die.”  (This kind of verbal assault spilled over to other theaters around the country unconnected to either the Public or the Julius Caesar production.  Whether this is a case of tarring all theaters with the same brush or ignorance on the part of the callers isn’t clear.  Considering the spelling in some of the e-mails, I’m inclined to go with the latter.)  At the final performances of the play, activists invaded the stage at the Delacorte Theater or shouted from the audience:  “Goebbels would be proud,” yelled one protester, referring to the Nazi propaganda minister of the Third Reich, on the closing performance on Sunday, 18 June, as he stormed the stage.     

In a statement published by the theater, Eustis affirmed:

We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions.  Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy.

Our production of “Julius Caesar” in no way advocates violence towards anyone.  Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save.  For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.

In an interview with Michael Paulson of the New York Times, the Public’s artistic director asserted:

Those thousands of people who are calling our corporate sponsors to complain about this—none of them have seen the show.  They’re not interested in seeing the show.  They haven’t read “Julius Caesar.”  They are being manipulated by “Fox & Friends” and other news sources, which are deliberately, for their own gain, trying to rile people up and turn them against an imagined enemy, which we are not.

The director pointed out that five years ago, director Rob Melrose staged a production of Julius Caesar for the Public that had an Obama-like Caesar.  “That production played all over the country,” said Eustis.  “Not one peep from anybody.”  Furthermore, he insisted when asked “Is Trump Caesar?”: “Of course not.  Julius Caesar is Julius Caesar.”

What we are doing is what we try and do in every production, which is make the dramatic stakes as real and powerful for contemporary people as we can, in our time and our place.

Eustis acknowledged, “This production makes some fun of him”—as it does of “this president or any other president.”  The director made public statements reminding people that Shakespeare’s play does not support the assassination and, in fact, warns audiences that violence is no way to preserve democracy.  Indeed, Julius Caesar’s death precipitates the very danger the conspirators were trying to avert when Caesar’s nephew, Octavius, seizes power as Augustus Caesar and the Roman republic becomes an empire.  “This production does not hate Julius Caesar,” averred Eustis, ending his comments by stating firmly and unequivocally: “This production is horrified at his murder.”

But all this was to little avail.  The opponents to the Public’s production of Julius Caesar had gotten up a head of steam and it seemed nothing could stop them.  After the 14 June attack on Republican congressional baseball players in Virginia that left Steve Scalise, a representative from Louisiana, gravely wounded, Donald Trump, Jr., appeared to link the shooting with the performance at  the Public.  He also tweeted: “Serious question, when does ‘art’ become political speech & does that change things?”  I guess he doesn’t know that it’s irrelevant since political speech, just like artistic expression, is also protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution—so, no, it doesn’t change things. 

That’s the rub, isn’t it?  Art people like Donald Trump, Senior or Junior, can ignore—it’s meaningless to them (unless it’s a portrait of the Donald he can charge off to his foundation). That’s why President Trump can blithely propose to  zero out the miniscule government support for the arts this country parsimoniously and grudgingly provides.  In terms of the national budget, it’s insignificant—but it’s annoying, like a fly buzzing around in the Oval Office.  Those pesky artists!

But let it turn political or socially conscious . . . .  Whoa, Nelly!  Then we got trouble.  Because art can make people listen—and, more dangerously, it can make them think.  Vaclav Havel’s plays made a generation of Westerners think about the Soviet communist domination of Eastern Europe and what that made life like there.  Athol Fugard made people see apartheid the way South Africans saw it day to day, and it was painful and ugly.  Their art traveled the way no history book, essay, or political lecture could.  It touched people.  Larry Kramer’s plays and David Wojnarowicz’s paintings and sculptures made people look at what gay life and the AIDS crisis was like for the people living inside it.  Turn that kind of spotlight on an American politician or a political philosophy or a proposed policy and something might happen.  Better put the kibosh on that, double quick!  Can’t let that imp out of the bottle.

But the Constitution won’t allow adversaries to censor it.  They can try to go after the financial support for the art or the art’s presenters—that’s what the opponents to My Name Is Rachel Corrie did—and it worked for a while.  The challengers to the Public’s Julius Caesar took aim at that, too, but it didn’t succeed this time—and, as far as I’m concerned, Delta and BoA looked craven for buckling.  So the forces who don’t want to see art of which they disapprove and don’t want others to see it, either, fall back on the last resort of the fearful: violence—or the threat of violence.  The Manhattan Theatre Club turned tail and ran in the face of that, but found their courage again when they were assailed by their own constituency—theater artists.  Oskar Eustis and the Public, true to the spirit of Joe Papp, stood up to the scare tactics and prevailed. 

Forgetting for the moment that the Public’s Julius Caesar was never advocating assassination—not of Caesar nor of Trump—the real message of the production, the warning that William Shakespeare was sending and that director Eustis made contemporary and relevant, is one we all have to hear, and hear again, and hear often.  And, yes, it is political—not partisan politics, or the “intrigue or maneuvering within a political unit or a group in order to gain control or power,” as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it-—which is what Little Trump meant (because it’s the only kind he or his ilk knows about, I imagine), but “the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation, and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs”—a bigger, more august matter.  In that context, we must heed the advice of Walter Lippmann from his 1939 essay “The Indispensable Opposition” (I’ve republished the entire essay on Rick On Theater, and I strongly recommend everyone read it—http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2011/11/indispensable-opposition.html.):

We take, it seems to me, a naïvely self-righteous view when we argue as if the right of our opponents to speak were something that we protect because we are magnanimous, noble, and unselfish.   The compelling reason why, if liberty of opinion did not exist, we should have to invent it, why it will eventually have to be restored in all civilized countries where it is now suppressed, is that we must protect the right of our opponents to speak because we must hear what they have to say.

Like it or not, we have to hear what the people we disagree with say.  Doing politics in an echo chamber, which has become the practice for too many politicians in this country for too long, is dangerous—not to mention just plain counterproductive.  Donald Trump doesn’t think he does, and he doesn’t like to, but he, most of all, has to hear what opponents and critics have to say.  Lippmann’s analogy is most apt: He likens listening to our opponents to paying a doctor “to ask us the most embarrassing questions and to prescribe the most disagreeable diet.”  We recognize, Lippmann held, “that if we threaten to put the doctor in jail because we do not like the diagnosis and the prescription it will be unpleasant for the doctor, to be sure, but equally unpleasant for our own stomachache.”

For this reason, the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, Sam Durant’s Scaffold, David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner’s My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, all must be seen and heard—and considered before being dismissed.  They and other works like them, no matter how painful (like some medical treatments) or distressing they are, must never be suppressed, removed, silenced, or destroyed.  We owe it to ourselves to hear what they have to say.  We owe it to ourselves.

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 stick 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.

*  *  *  *
1984
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.]