Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Maudsley: Duo slaying them in Europe ... we think

Still no action on the band's web, but it's still early. Maudsley's mad musical adventure, or "grand European tour," as the duo puts it in its tongue-in-cheek video biography, has just begun. Barely. Ashley Plante and Joe Berardi are on the ground in Belgium, the beginning of a two-week, seat-of-the-pants Old World buskers tour of Europe that will take them from Amsterdam to Brussels to Paris to Marseilles. They'll be singing for their supper, tightening what they have and writing and posting new songs born on the road as well as shooting video to document this tour and to acquire raw material for future projects. They'll be dragging around their gear, crashing in hostels, making mad dashes through puzzling train stations. And they'll also be blogging about the tour and writing to the folks back home and .... and it's beginning to sound a lot more like work than fun. But, like all good plans, it's not set in stone. "It's about living in the moment," Plante said during an interview just a couple of days before mandatory groping by the TSA. "We'll know what to do when we get there."

Friday, August 12, 2011

A deserved buzz about 'The Flies'

Theater in the Open has been messing with myth for three decades. It's  what they do, they do it well, they always have. But when someone finally gets around to writing a proper history of the troupe, the company's current production, a dizzying, kaleidoscopic retelling of Jean-Paul Sartre's epic play "The Flies," will be one of the shows they will linger over. It's a startlingly original take on the French existential drama, blending chaos and pathos, one that finds the poetry and visual clarity in a difficult and sometimes tiresome work, one ultimately wrestled into submission by director Stephen Haley. No mean feat considering the nature of the beast. Because Sartre was a philosopher, not a playwright. A straight production of "The Flies" is a gabfest, about three full hours of audience-numbing blah blah blah about the absurdity of life  — wonderful, thoughtful, perceptive blather, but treatise rather than drama, and one that doesn't really fly, so to speak, on stage. Not for the audience, anyhow. Yes, we are alone. There's no God, there's no Devil, to save us, to trick us. There's no transcendence, nothing beyond the immediate, what can be sensed. Meaning is illusion. We're condemned to live in freedom, free to curse the gods or blame the "other" political party or whatever evasion strategy is required or comfortable, but escape is not possible. Whatever is wrong can be left on our own doorstep — a terrible responsibility that we, naturally, ignore — especially, being Americans, when it taxes our attention span.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Notable: Smith's 'Truths' looks at Port's past

Not saying it's all he does, but Kile Smith, the composer-in-residence at this year's Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, is "a choral guy," so he probably can't help getting all caught up in the literary side, in the words, in the history, before getting down to the music. Just part of the job description. But sometimes the Philadelphia-based composer takes the word thing almost to the point of obsession: By the time he gets around to writing the music, he sometimes will have spent months digging through biography and history, selecting and rejecting and editing texts. Like, with "The Waking Sun," a piece commissioned by The Crossing, a 20-plus voice Philadelphia chorus, which is based on Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca. An interesting guy, to be sure: Playwright, scholar; banished by Claudius for having an affair with Caligula's sister, brought back to tutor a preteen Nero and eventually forced to kill himself for plotting to kill the little firebug. Supposedly. "They wanted a Seneca piece, and there’s a truckload of his writings," says Smith, "so I read reams, including all the plays, and the piece eventually came from those. Lots and lots of editing." And he went through the same process, pretty much, for "Plain Truths," a 20-minute piece for baritone and string quartet based on texts of prominent Newburyporters from the community's storied past, including the pot-boiling 19th-century novelist Harriet Prescott Spofford, the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and of course, self-appointed Lord Timothy Dexter, who presided over High Street, if nothing else. In fact, the title of the piece, which gets its NCMF premiere on Aug. 20, comes from Dexter's "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones; or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress," an 1802 work that is part political screed, part sermon and part diatribe against anyone who owed him money — in addition to being "one of the most remarkable writings ever produced," according to NCMF Artistic Director David Yang, who commissioned the piece. He was able to find all this material online. As usual, Smith got caught up in the history, especially the Dexter — so much so that he considered building the whole piece around just this one of the city’s most colorful figures before being talked off the literary ledge by Yang, a fellow Philadelphian. He admits to his weakness, his infatuation with words and history. Just don't call him a buff: "I love words and I do enjoy history," he says. "I’m no buff. Didn’t George Costanza say that? 'I'd love to be a Civil War buff. What do you have to do to be a buff?'”

Talking about a 'Conversation'

Google "The Dangling Conversation" and, naturally, you’re swamped with references to the Simon & Garfunkel song from the monster "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" album, but it’s also the name of an ongoing improvisational performance project by Port actor Brendan Pelsue and Natasha Haverty — a piece that is informed and inspired by the Simon song. Well, not really, but sort of. It’s not like something from the song jumped out at them, there was never that “aha moment” when the name emerged out of nothing, like grace, clarifying everything they were trying to do, says Pelsue, now living in Cambridge, but using his hometown as a staging area for productions of "The Dangling Conversation" at the Actors Studio, and “The New New England,” a show in Salem in which Latino youth from the St. Peter’s Summer Theater Project interweave their experiences with those of immigrants from the past. No, they’re “not totally crazy about the name,” says Pelsue, but it will have to do until inspiration finally shows up. Besides, the song, which is about a couple's inability to communicate, does bump up against what they are trying to do, which is ... well, complicated: It's about a nuanced relationship between two people that is created in the present — the actual present, at the very moment the show takes place, right before your eyes. The story continues next week on the Tannery stage.