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Shows Worth Seeing:



Orpheus X
By Rinde Eckert
The Duke on 42nd St.
229 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (646) 223-3010

The mythical Orpheus was undone by a moment of desperate doubt. A musician so skilled he could move rocks and trees with his lyre, he convinced the rulers of the underworld to release his beloved Eurydice but lost her again by looking over his shoulder. In Orpheus X, the writer, composer and performer Rinde Eckert (whose musicalized Moby Dick adaptation in 2000, And God Created Great Whales, was extraordinary) reimagines this heartbreaking tale as a mini-opera about the obsessions and chronic self-doubts of a famous rock star. The meteoric career of Eckert’s Orpheus comes to a standstill after a taxi he is riding in accidentally kills a beautiful poet named Eurydice. He then reads her poetry and comes to know and envy her as an artist courageous enough to face questions of emptiness he had always avoided. Meanwhile, Eurydice adjusts to the underworld, where all writing is done in chalk, easing the process of forgetting. What is the meaning of a rescue attempt in this circumstance? What good, and whose interest, does it serve? In this piece, Eckert has graduated from the quiet duo cast with piano in And God Created Great Whales to a trio cast with a crackling four-piece jazz-rock band. He performs here with the marvelous singers Suzan Hanson and John Kelly. Directed by Robert Woodruff, he has also incorporated video, collaborating with videographer Denise Marika and set designer David Zinn to create a fantastically spooky and resonant environment that never lets the eye rest. This is a place where coming to terms with mortality and finding enduring reasons to make art seem self-evidently like twin obsessions--two sides of the same creative coin. The show is also unforgettably sensuous (Hanson, for instance, furiously writes on the floor with chalk, in the nude, beneath the bleachers as the audience enters). It's also powerfully haunting, not least because the music alternates between heartbreakingly simple melody and grating dissonance.




Idiot Savant
By Richard Foreman
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Box office: (212) 539-8500

For several years Richard Foreman has been trying to incorporate film and video into his theater works, with rather spotty and frustrating results. The biggest problem, in my view, has been that while his theater always drew its life-breath from an intense engagement with present-tense moments, perpetually refreshed and reinvigorated by his fragmented texts and enigmatic staging techniques, film and video could never replicate that experience because they were always showing past events. The superimposed media passages could never be risky or unpredictable like the live theatrical action; worse yet, they were inherently competitive with it. They had the effect of draining energy from the live action, making it seem slow and anemic, and one left the productions wondering why Foreman didn’t just make a film.

In his latest work Idiot Savant, he has wisely returned to his core strength: theater that trades on the perpetual surprise of each and every newly arriving moment. The show’s text is ostentatiously resistant to story and character development, as always. The stage is outfitted, as usual, as a cluttered art installation, with Hebrew letters, strings, and fetishized bric-a-brac everywhere. What’s new this time is a certain air of compromise with conventional theater in that the actors now often do what they say: e.g. hold out a gift-wrapped box when referring to one, or attempt to kiss when speaking of kissing. This literalism makes the action seem more accessible even when it isn’t. The show’s pace is also slower and more deliberate than in the past, as if Foreman had made a pointed effort to meet his larger audience in the middle (the show is performed at the Public rather than at Foreman’s own tiny space), only to demonstrate that this middle is every bit as bewildering as the extremes they may have feared. There is a certain confident savoir faire in the air here, emanating no doubt partly from the star actor in the leading role: Willem Dafoe.

Foreman’s recorded voice warns the performers near the beginning that they shouldn’t try to steer the action toward any particular purpose but rather allow it to remain a series of obscure and ambiguously related moments. Dafoe enacts the central consciousness charged with upholding this doctrine of resistance to Aristotelian drama—a role (if we can call it that) that he plays with marvelous, nonplussed savoir-faire. Foreman teases him (and us) with various allurements from the dramatic model we supposedly hunger for, such as a sudden desire at one point to appear not in Idiot Savant but rather in a different play called Arrogant Fool (presumably akin to Oedipus Rex), but he bumbles on to fulfill his Foremanian anti-destiny with Mister Magoo aplomb. The etymological root of the word “idiot” is the Greek “idiotes,” meaning a private person lacking particular skills and hence any meaningful relationship to the social group. Foreman’s “idiot” refuses what is the traditional lead actor’s relationship to his public, based on ingratiation and servility, offering instead a reinvigorated concept of the social group based on our mutual enjoyment of present-tense moments. In such a utopian world, everyone is a “savant.”


By Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones
Eugene O'Neill Theater
230 W. 49th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Before Fela!, Bill T. Jones’ and Jim Lewis’ musical about the career of the Nigerian song-writer and performer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997), my high standard for sheer dancing energy in a Broadway show was In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s salsa-packed musical-explosion about love and loyalty in an unsung Manhattan neighborhood. Astonishing as it may be, the first hour of Fela! is actually more percussion-pumped and ice-water-in-the-face bracing than Miranda’s show. It also tries to evoke a very specific place. Fela!’s producers have decorated the interior of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre like the Shrine nightclub in Lagos where Fela made musical and political history by developing a form of rebellious music known as Afrobeat, combining his songs with seditious talk from the stage, and refusing to leave the country even when threatened, arrested and beaten by the authorities. There are works of African art, political posters and news clips from the 1960s and 70s on nearly every surface, and some seats have been removed to allow performers to dance and frolic in the aisles.

In this happy and upbeat environment, the show begins with an infectious, pelvic-gyrating number illustrating the tremendous appeal and tenacious hold of Afrobeat, and it doesn’t let up until intermission. The electric dynamism running through the lead actor (I saw Kevin Mambo, who alternates with Sahr Ngaujah), as well as the seductively undulating chorus of female dancers and the crack jazz-rock band, makes the political threat that this music posed to Nigeria’s dictatorial regime clear and palpable. That is a remarkable achievement when you think it over: Jones and Lewis have done (at least for an hour) what no rock musical since the original Hair (NOT the recent revival) has managed to do: communicate viscerally how music itself may be truly political dangerous under certain social conditions. The problem is that, after this dynamite opening, the show unfortunately has nowhere to go. It can’t tell a sophisticated or complex biographical story while keeping its music and dancers constantly pumping, and the percussion alone isn’t enough to sustain interest for 2 hours and 40 minutes. The show’s book, mostly stuffed into extremely brief remarks between songs, soon gets bogged down in very sketchy political slogans and romantic bromides, and the evening seems to limp to a finish despite its non-stop energy. The first half of Fela! is well worth it, however. You’ll learn much that you didn’t know, and you won’t soon forget those swinging pelvises.



Finian's Rainbow
By Burton Lane, Yip harburg and Fred Saidy
The St. James Theatre
246 W. 44th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200

Finian’s Rainbow is a charming, feel-good artifact from 1947 that turns out to have a few pointed political barbs for 2009. A fanciful, often preposterous tale about people who bury leprechaun gold in the emblematic southern state of Missitucky, it offers a loopy version of the same refreshingly exuberant post-war optimism that made Oklahoma such a landmark in musical history. The key difference between the two shows is that Finian’s Rainbow confronts several serious potential obstacles to the putative golden future of the nation: namely, greed and racism. The Irish immigrant Finian brings stolen leprechaun gold across the ocean because he’s convinced that burying it near Fort Knox will make it grow. It doesn’t literally grow, but it does instill hopefulness in the local populace—a feeling that’s presented as a moral obligation. Interestingly, one of the show’s key songs is about the virtue of buying on credit. The audience laughs heartily at that, most of them no doubt oblivious to the fact that the play is in part laughing at them. The message, I suppose, is that people have to trust one another; that’s what makes our country and our capitalist system great. Yet it’s also made clear that the future is only as secure as the next outsize order for the tobacco the sharecroppers break their backs to harvest. In any case, the best humor in the play isn’t about greed but rather intolerance. The satirical sequence where a racist U.S. Senator is turned temporarily black by leprechaun magic will never grow old. The play also quietly mocks the no-brain optimism of the star couple’s happily-ever-after marriage with a subplot marriage between a lonely mute girl and a roving-eye leprechaun who admits he just wants to “love the girl I’m near.” This revival directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle is solidly cast and infused with just the sort of wit-inflected earnestness the material needs. (Any whiff of South Park cynicism would kill it.) The producers also deserve credit for recognizing the affinities of such old and comparatively simple material with our complicated current moment.


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