17 June 2013

From Opera to Shakespeare with Janice Hall

Jason Wilson (Claudius) and Janice Hall (Gertrude).
Wilson is by far the youngest Claudius I’ve seen in a grownup production,
which lends his scenes with Gertrude an additional sexual charge.
Gertrude was a cougar: who knew? And yet it makes sense.
Photo by Russ Rowland.

I have sometimes used the word “reinvention” to describe what Janice Hall is doing as a performer — and her latest work persuades me that I should stop it. As she expands her horizons beyond the opera house and into cabaret and “legit” theater, she is adapting, perhaps, as she applies her skills to different forms, but she remains very much the same artist.

The performance in question is Janice’s assumption of Shakespeare’s Gertrude in the Seeing Place Theater’s production of Hamlet, currently running in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead through June 29 and 30. (Janice plays Gertude in the Stoppard play, too.) Janice previously appeared with the troupe in Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, and to see Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican’s productions of these plays, one is struck by the similarities between the Shepard and the Shakespeare, particularly in Walker’s performances as the tormented American and the melancholy Dane.

As the Queen of Denmark, Janice brings to the stage a number of strengths, and while she may have picked them up on the street corner when she was a kid, for all I know, it’s certain that she honed them in opera. Really, I am beginning to think that all actors ought to spend a little time in the opera house before they turn to Shakespeare.

After all, for the greatest part of her career, Janice has been communicating with poetry. It must be said that very few opera librettos rival Shakespeare’s plays, but they do contain poetry. In Shakespeare, however, the actor must take on the roles that singer and composer take in opera. She must locate the music in the text, and then give voice to it. Even more challenging is the fact that she must locate the music all over again, every time she steps onto the stage.

And yet it’s absolutely imperative that she do so, because speeches in Shakespeare demand structure — or else the audience won’t be able to follow them. Even in a play as universally familiar as Hamlet. These Danes tell one another stories, such as Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death, which is in a very real sense an aria.* Again, Janice has been telling stories onstage this way all her life, and the approach she uses works in other kinds of theater, too: consider the way that another classically trained singer, Dixie Carter, constructed Julia Sugarbaker’s tirades on Designing Women.

Another great advantage that opera brings to Janice when tackling the Bard is command. Most of the major characters in Shakespeare, like most of the major characters in opera, are nobly born and accustomed since childhood to giving orders. Even Violetta and Cio-Cio San (to name two of Janice’s roles) have servants. This isn’t a question of being bossy, necessarily, but it does suggest an authority, a kind of confidence: Janice plays characters who, like Queen Gertrude and nearly everybody else in Hamlet, expect to be obeyed. (That’s one reason the Gravedigger’s scene is so much fun: he’s tweaking the Prince with the reminder that death is more powerful than any king.)

In Hamlet, the nobility of the characters is key not only to the fulfillment of the Aristotelian dictates for tragedy but also to understanding the stakes in the play. Shakespeare doesn’t give us Hamlet’s exact age, but he’s over 30 (his boyhood playmate, the jester Yorick, has been dead for 23 years), and in most societies, that’s very much considered maturity.** The laws of primogeniture therefore would deliver the crown to Hamlet, not to Claudius, the dead king’s younger brother.

Claudius’ hasty marriage to Gertrude thus takes on political significance, beyond the currents of sex and alcohol that run through Shakespeare’s depiction of them. Their alliance enforces his claim to the throne. And as a result, he needs her more than she needs him, and he’s naturally more alarmed by Hamlet’s attempts to influence her.

Janice is a little bitty slip of a thing in real life, and soft-spoken in all my interactions with her. But she is always gracious — which is, after all, part of being regal and fundamental to Gertrude’s character — and onstage she knows how to convey the necessary bearing and authority of a monarch. This works even in an updated Shakespearean production, such as this one, and in turn it heightens the effectiveness of the more basic, domestic passages in the play. Look at her exasperation whenever Hamlet starts to complain yet again about the marriage to Claudius. She’s like a suburban mom tired of her teenage son’s rebelliousness: she’s heard this rant a million times, and when will he ever let it drop? And yet she’s still every inch a queen.

Another actor friend, that eminent Shakespearean Andrew Weems, told me long ago that he’d developed an interest in opera (long after I’d tried and failed to steer him that direction), because he wanted to learn “how to roar.” He didn’t mean mere loudness, of course (I think he was born knowing how to do that much), but rather a sense of command, of grandeur in the occasion. Marilyn Horne talks about something similar in master classes, when she tells young singers, “You’ve got to be big.”

So much of opera, like so much of Shakespeare, entails bold passions, which an audience can’t fully appreciate unless the performer can rise to them. For singers, as I say, the trick is to find the inner music of the text — and to sing out, even when speaking.

So quite beyond my usual awestricken admiration for Janice’s talents and her success in finding new outlets for them, her performance as Gertrude has helped me to grasp several ideas that have been kicking around in my head for some time. That’s one of the lovely things about Shakespeare: there’s always something new, even in Hamlet. And it’s the mark of an artist to help us to understand anything in new ways.

There’s much else to recommend the production, and I do also want to single out Erin Cronican’s Ophelia, whose ultra-contemporary sassiness is absolutely faithful to the words on the page and helps her to build a surprisingly effective character — recognizable and yet still registering all the horror and pity of the poor girl’s plight.

And in the mad scene, she sings, too. So there.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
May 31–June 29
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7PM
Also Tuesday, June 25 at 7PM
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
June 1–30
Wednesdays at 7PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2PM
The Seeing Place

At ATA Sargent Theater
314 West 54th Street, 4th Floor
New York
For more information and to order tickets, click here.

*NOTE: Gertrude’s speech inspired Hector Berlioz, among others. Ambroise Thomas cheated by letting Ophélie act out what Gertrude tells us about. But that’s what we might expect from a composer who lets Hamlet survive at the end of his opera.

**I except myself from this analysis, of course. I was Peter Pan when I was 30, and I still am.

Read more!

14 June 2013

Revisiting Jane Pittman

Where to start, Lena? Where to start?

Even before she won the Tony Award on Sunday, my friends and I were looking forward to seeing Cicely Tyson on Broadway in Horton Foote’s play The Trip to Bountiful. Ms. Tyson’s stage appearances are exceedingly rare — indeed, when I saw a poster for the show, I supposed that it was a made-for-TV adaptation on a cable network. That in itself would have been something, but the reality is that, on Sunday afternoon, I will be sitting in a room with Cicely Tyson herself, and she will be doing what she does better than just about anybody else who ever drew breath: acting.

In anticipation, my friends and I took a look at the film that pretty much sealed Ms. Tyson’s destiny, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, from 1974.* She had already won an Oscar nomination for Sounder, which I’d seen during its initial release, in 1972. Somewhere along the line, I realized that I’d seen her even earlier, in a guest appearance on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which tweaked the audience’s racial consciousness by presenting her as a potential love interest for Bill Bixby, who was white. In the context of a sitcom geared mainly to children, that was a form of consciousness-raising, and pretty daring. But it’s really from Miss Jane Pittman onward that it seems most clear that Ms. Tyson was not going to squander her gifts in the service of piffle.

Shortly after winning the Tony Award on Sunday night.

It’s true that not many other name actresses could have played such roles as Harriet Tubman and Coretta Scott King, and fewer still could have played them as well as Ms. Tyson did. But, give or take the occasional “Coffee Achievers” commercial on TV, she seems to have made a decision to take on projects that mattered, and especially those that spoke to the experience of black people in America. In so doing, she helped other Americans to understand that experience.

And so she was Kunta Kinte’s grandmother in Roots — not a big role, but an important one. Even more recently, in The Help, while playing what might look like a stereotypical “maid” role, she revealed the precarity of a woman’s position in a hierarchy that’s based not only on race but also economics, where personal relationships aren’t enough to ensure security.

But what of Miss Jane Pittman? My friends had never seen it, and I hadn’t seen it in three decades, at least. Surely I remembered the movie through the filter of those subsequent performances, and the hazy memory of the boy who sat in front of the television set. Was Miss Jane Pittman — and Cicely Tyson’s performance — as good as I remembered it?

The answer is emphatically yes.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines (which, as a boy, I ran out and read shortly after seeing the movie), portrays the 110-year life of a Louisiana woman, from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. As depicted in Tracy Keenan Wynn’s screenplay,** Miss Jane’s survival depends in large measure upon her failure to take action. Those who stand up for themselves — the freed slave Big Laura (played in the movie by the singer Odetta); Laura’s son, Ned; Jane’s common-law husband, Joe Pittman; and young Jimmy, an associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. — come to violent ends. She waits and waits for “The One,” the leader she has prayed for, but to no avail. It’s not until the end of her life that Miss Jane takes political action, in one of the most memorable scenes ever filmed for television.

With Michael Murphy (left) as a reporter,
and Beatrice Winde as Lena.

Cicely Tyson portrays Miss Jane in all but the first few years of her life. This gives her a lot to work with as an actress, a range of emotions and experiences, but it also poses challenges, notably physical ones. Makeup artists Rick Baker and Stan Winston help her to surmount many of these, with age makeup that’s — still — just about the most convincing I’ve ever seen. The massive wrinkles are no latex mask: they move as Ms. Tyson moves, and they become, with her, the embodiment of a woman’s life.

But there are other physical challenges, too, mostly associated with making sure that Miss Jane is the same woman in every scene of the movie, even those in which she’s played by another actress, Valerie Odell (lovely and utterly unaffected). One tiny gesture has always impressed me, not least because many of my women relatives do the same thing: the way Miss Jane pounds her fists against the back of any loved one who embraces her.

It’s mostly through an absolute economy of gesture, however, that Ms. Tyson conveys Miss Jane’s extreme old age. She is spry, and yet she is weary — and once we’ve seen her history, we understand why. There is no movement to spare, and thus none of the quaveriness that some actors use when playing old age. She’s frail, but still proud, and one of the most telling moments in the film comes when she waves away her friend Mary (Elinora B. Johnson). She’s impatient to take the most important steps of her life — by herself.

She hits the right vocal notes, too, turning her voice to a soft rasp, maintaining a credible accent, and above all savoring certain words until they turn to poetry — the way so many little old ladies in the South tend to do.

The movie’s climax is briefer than I’d remembered it. I won’t say much about it here, however, because I suspect that, for those seeing the first time, it will seem a little lifetime in a single scene, just as it seemed for me. So many things are going on here, and at this point the viewer’s adrenalin may be pumping so that the details are heightened and time seems to move at another pace — just as it happens in moments of shock or thrill in our own lives.

I will venture to say that, since viewing Miss Jane Pittman for the first time, water has never tasted the same to me.

Ms. Tyson won two Emmy Awards for the movie.
Somehow, it seems 20 wouldn’t be enough.

The movie meant a great deal to me perhaps least of all because I was a diva-mad kid, or because Ms. Tyson’s performance possessed a kind of grandeur that, while not what most people think of as operatic, was always inherently musical. Her work is imbued with the grace that comes to those who hear music that others don’t, and that some people call spirituality.

On a more personal level, the movie gave me a glimpse of another side of my own family story. Miss Jane spends most of her life in and around plantations near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my grandfather’s family owned plantations. Early on I developed the peculiar anxiety of liberals whose ancestors owned slaves: it’s a question that can be summed up as How bad were we? And it’s a question that our white families can never answer satisfactorily. So, timidly, in fits and starts, we go looking for the truth elsewhere.

Directed by John Korty, a specialist in made-for-TV movies, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman fits proudly alongside big-screen films of the 1970s: it possesses the naturalistic seriousness, the maturity, the confidence of Martin Scorsese’s or Francis Ford Coppola’s work (if not quite their flamboyance). And thus it doesn’t try to romanticize or deny the experiences of former slaves.

Some aspects of those experiences are touched on lightly or not at all (sexual exploitation, for example, isn’t mentioned), but there’s a clear-eyed look at the violence (including a massacre of freed slaves and the lynching of a black schoolteacher by Klansmen), the hardships and the privations. We see Cicely Tyson herself chopping sugar cane in the Louisiana heat, and we must instantly understand that it is brutal work.

The movie doesn’t rub our noses in the awfulness of Southern whites (as Roots tended to do), but it doesn’t provide false comfort, either. Ultimately, you realize that no matter how “nice” your ancestors may have been, and no matter how gentle the gentlemen and ladies, the very system they upheld was cruel, and wrong, and there’s no way around that. Miss Jane Pittman helped to open my eyes, and especially when I look at Ms. Tyson’s subsequent career, I have to believe that’s one reason she took the job: not merely because it was a juicy role but because it would matter.***

So now she is turning to The Trip to Bountiful, and with her that story becomes a story of the migration of Southern blacks in the 20th century from rural areas to cities — and of the consequences of that migration. These things happened to white people, too, and it seems that this is the first time Mr. Foote’s play has been performed with black actors in the leading roles. (Ms. Tyson is joined onstage by Cuba Gooding, Jr.; Vanessa Williams, and Condola Rashad.) As I’ve often noted, Mr. Foote’s work holds special meaning for me because our family backgrounds are so similar, to the point that I (and above all, my mother) sometimes feel that he wrote about us.

That “us” will now be a black family, and I will be invited to see myself and my loved ones in them, even as I am invited to appreciate the ways in which their lives weren’t like ours. Art is supposed to help us to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people — and Cicely Tyson is at it again. You can’t make me believe that’s an accident.

Going to Bountiful, via Broadway, with Condola Rashad.

*NOTE: Another star of Miss Jane Pittman, the late Beatrice Winde, appeared in Mr. Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta on Broadway, when I got to know Mr. Foote. Winde plays Miss Jane’s friend Lena, the mother of Jimmy, the activist.

**Tracy Keenan Wynn was the grandson of comedian Ed Wynn and the son of actor Keenan Wynn, who played, among many other parts in a long career, the white racist magically turned black in Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow.

***We watched Miss Jane Pittman not long after learning of the death of the actress Jean Stapleton, who around the same time took a television role — that of Edith Bunker, on All in the Family, of course — and used it to teach the audience something about women’s lives in a changing America. We may tend to look back at 1970s television as frivolous, and much of it was, and yet it’s striking to look back and see how many artists brought seriousness of purpose to pop culture, precisely when I needed it most.

GENERAL NOTE: Watching Cicely Tyson and her co-stars on The View the other day, I was struck by the way they refer to her as “Miss Cicely,” a sign of their respect for her. I like that: it may be as close to a knighthood as America can offer its finest actors. I’m a feminist, though, so I’ve used “Ms.”

Read more!

08 June 2013

World’s Best Recipe for Authentic New York Cheesecake

Almost ready to serve!

It’s a sad truth that most New Yorkers don’t make their own authentic New York cheesecake from scratch. Who has the time? Or the space? Or the patience?

And which recipe can be considered truly authentic? Lindy’s? Junior’s? Your lunatic Aunt Sadie’s? Isn’t it really better just to go out and buy a freakin’ cheesecake?

The answer, of course, is no. After a great deal of research, I have arrived at the world’s best recipe for authentic New York cheesecake, which I share with you now, just as I make it at home in my incredibly spacious, admirably well-stocked, impeccably clean kitchen.


For the Pastry
1/2 cup sugar
1 lemon, zest of, finely grated
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces.
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour

For the Filling
5 (8 ounce) packages neufchâtel cheese, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 orange, zest of, finely grated
1 lemon, zest of, finely grated
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
5 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup heavy cream

For the Sauce (Optional)
3 cups ripe strawberries, rinsed, patted dry, and stems removed
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1 pinch salt
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

575 gallons of rainwater


1. For the pastry, place the sugar and lemon zest in a food processor for 5 seconds. Because who in New York City does not own a food processor?

2. Add the butter, egg yolk, water, and vanilla, then ride the New York City subway until the mixture looks granular and lumpy.

3. Add the flour and take the subway home again, stopping occasionally to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl, until the mixture almost gathers into a ball.

4. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap or used Duane Reade bag and press the dough into a 1-inch-thick cake.

5. Wrap and set outside for 1 hour to refrigerate.

6. Adjust an oven rack on your windowsill. The weather has turned warm again.

7. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Which of course you own. Because who in New York City does not own a springform pan?

8. Detach the sides; set aside.

9. Cut off slightly less than one half of the dough. Next, break it into pieces, and scatter them over the springform bottom. Then press firmly and evenly with your fingertips to make a thin layer.

10. Set the bottom crust on the rack on your windowsill and bake until pale golden brown, about 8 minutes.

11. Remove from the window with a wide metal spatula, then return it to the windowsill to cool completely, because the weather has turned cold again.

12. Meanwhile, shape the remaining pastry into a square.

13. Roll it out on a lightly floured surface such as the floor or sidewalk, forming a rectangle slightly larger than 10 x 6 inches.

14. Borrowing a large sharp knife from that creepy guy down the hall, trim away the edges so that the pastry measures 10 x 6 inches.

15. Cut the pastry crosswise into five 2-inch strips.

16. Reassemble the springform pan. You do own a springform pan, don’t you?

17. Line the sides of the pan with 4 of the pastry strips, pressing the pieces firmly together where their edges meet and pressing the pastry firmly against the pan so that it will stay in place. If the pastry resists, try cursing at it.

18. Cut what you need from the last strip to fill in the last gap.

19. To refrigerate while you prepare the filling, place the pastry outside.

20. For the filling, beat the cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Because who in New York City does not own an electric mixer?

21. If for some reason you do not own an electric mixer, then hail a taxi and ask the driver to take you around the block while you continue through the following steps.

22. Add the sugar, flour, salt, zests, and vanilla and drive or beat until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes.

23. Drive or beat in the eggs and yolks one at a time, beating only until thoroughly incorporated, about 15 seconds after each.

24. Drive or beat for another 30 seconds.

25. On low speed or at rush hour, drive or beat in the heavy cream.

26. Scrape the mixture into the pan and smooth the top. Pay the driver.

27. It’s gotten hot outside again. Place the cheesecake on the windowsill to bake for 10 minutes, then bring it inside, where the heat in your apartment should be about 200 degrees, and bake for 1 hour longer; the top will be golden brown.

28. It’s gotten cold outside again, so cool by placing on a rack on your windowsill. Cover loosely to protect from pigeons, and refrigerate by leaving it outside for at least 6 hours; overnight is best.

29. For the strawberry sauce, if the strawberries are small, reserve 1 cup of the prettiest ones. If they are large, slice enough to make 1 cup. If they are mildewed and rotting, as fresh produce generally is in New York City groceries, throw out and buy more berries, repeating the above steps until you have enough.

30. Place the remaining berries in a medium saucepan and crush with a potato masher, because who in New York City does not own a potato masher?

31. If for some reason you do not own a potato masher, place the remaining berries in a plastic bag, deposit in the street, and wait for a few taxis to drive over it until crushed.

32. Add the sugar, water, salt, and cornstarch.

33. It’s gotten hot again. Leaning out of your window, stir well with a heat- proof rubber spatula, because who in New York City does not own a heat-proof rubber spatula? Bring to a boil over your windowsill, stirring constantly.

34. Keep stirring.

35. Fuck it, just use strawberry jam.

36. To serve, retrieve the cheesecake from your windowsill. Dust off any excess pigeon or rat droppings, according to taste.

37. Next, run a small sharp knife or used Metrocard around the edges of the cake to release the pastry, then carefully remove the sides of the pan.

38. Take the 575 gallons of rainwater and begin to pour over the cheesecake.

39. Keep pouring.

40. Keep pouring. It isn’t authentic New York City cheesecake if it isn’t soaking wet, because lately the rain never stops in this freakin’ town.

41. When the water has risen to your shins and completely ruined your new shoes, and the fine aroma of mildew begins to fill your kitchen, then rinse a knife and slice, serving each portion with a spoonful of the strawberry jam.

42. Enjoy!

So yeah, we’ve been having weird weather.

Read more!

05 June 2013

Far from Criticism

Beverly Sills gave me several bits of good advice when she launched my journalistic career with an interview in her dressing room, in 1976. “You have to do your homework,” she said of being an operagoer. I took her seriously, and by golly, just look at me now: from time to time, I actually get paid to be an opera critic. (Though more often I simply assign myself to cover performances.)

In that interview, Sills also observed that, “If a critic tells you you heard a bad concert, and you had a marvelous time, then it’s still a good concert. It’s just one person’s opinion.”

True indeed, and it’s this truth that gives me the courage to write criticism, even when I’m feeling out of my depth. Hey, this is just one opinion, from someone who has some education and background and sympathy, and who knows how to write. But over time I’ve found that the “one person’s opinion” condition is exceedingly difficult for a reader — including this one — to bear in mind while reading criticism.

Still more difficult are those times when I can’t find in a critique any trace of the performance I actually saw. The urge is to throw the newspaper across the room — a bad idea, since I do most of my reading on a computer these days — and to shout, “What is wrong with you? How did you not get this?”

Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara (foreground);
that’s Nancy Anderson on the stairs.

These reactions come to the fore again this week, as I read some of the reviews of Far from Heaven, the new music-theater piece by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, to a book by Richard Greenberg, based on the film by Todd Haynes. This is show biz: some of the reviews were spot-on, by which I mean overflowing with praise. Others were mezzo-mezzo, and others flat-out baffling. The review that provoked me most went so far as to question whether there is something wrong with musical theater today, citing Far from Heaven as a symptom of a malaise.

As it happens, I do feel there’s something wrong with the American musical today. It’s British, or it’s an amusement-park ride, or it’s both, and it’s generally as dumb as a sock puppet. Thus I feel there’s an urgent responsibility — an imperative — to listen closely to artists who are trying to do something different.

In Grey Gardens, Scott took a documentary film, of all things, and set himself the task of finding the music that only the Beales can hear. He’s up to something similar in Far from Heaven: this is the music of yearning, of desires that can’t be expressed outright. And what they’re yearning for, in the case of each of the three principal characters, is freedom. Freedom to be themselves. Freedom to express themselves.

In the repressive culture of Eisenhower-era America, they can’t do this outright. Therein lies the drama. Scott taps into their very souls and gives them voices (exquisitely tailored to the instruments of the actors onstage, as I observed in an earlier essay). He makes us hear them — and therein lies the art.

It turns out that there’s a lushness and lyricism inside these people. To one another onstage, the passions are invisible and silent: they’re outwardly dull, cramped, repressed, square. Even Raymond isn’t a firebrand; he’s just a guy trying to stay out of trouble and to provide for his little daughter. The most radical step the characters take is Frank’s abandonment of his wife and children in order to live with another man. (How? Where did they go? Surely they didn’t stay in Hartford! What did a gay couple do to make money in those days? Todd didn’t explain, and neither do the creators of the musical.)

But no matter how unlikely the odds, Scott manages to liberate the characters in music, just as Todd did in images. They respond by sweeping us away on the purest emotional level possible. Is this not why, as a culture, we tell certain stories in song?

The score to Far from Heaven goes far beyond words, in the way that music expresses what language can’t, and in the way that American musicals today too seldom remember. On Broadway, the old “prima la musica, doppo le parole” debate appears to have been settled by now, in favor of the lyrics (whether or not the lyrics are any good). Those occasions when music and text balance (as they did in Grey Gardens and Hands on a Hardbody, and as they did in all the greatest Broadway shows) are exceedingly rare; those occasions when the music is strong enough to stand on its own, even rarer.

Paradoxically, the responses of some critics have made me all the more passionate (or staunch) in my own. Yeah, this is just one person’s opinion. But I believe that you really owe it to yourself to experience Far from Heaven.

Read more!