ARTS & LEISURE
(With Photo - 'Tantalus')
Denver Center Theatre a 12-hour
Copley News Service
Bungee jumping off bridges, free-climbing
sheer rock faces, running marathons, hurtling down some highway on a road luge,
or snowboarding into space: These may be your idea of extreme activities, ways
of pushing body and mind to the limit.
But I would challenge any runner, biker,
climber, snowboarder or luger to take on the challenge that is
"Tantalus" - a 12-hour marathon of Greek theater that explores the
intricate web of whys and wherefores, curses and punishments, passions and
violence surrounding the Trojan Wars.
massive $10 million co-production, involving the Denver Center Theatre and
London's Royal Shakespeare Company, may soon appear in pages of the Guinness
Book of World Records as the longest play ever presented (in the Western
tradition), leaving former contenders such as the RSC's "Life and
Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" and Peter Brook's treatment of "The
Mahabharata" in the literary dust.
nine-play cycle by English playwright and scholar John Barton ("The Hollow
Crown" and "The War of the Roses") was some 20 years in the
writing, which is twice as long as it took the Greeks to conquer Troy.
is a theatrical undertaking that many thought would never be produced. And they
probably would have been right, if it hadn't been for Donald Seawell, founder
and chairman of the Denver Center Theatre (and a former Broadway producer and
executor of the Center's substantial endowment fund) who substantially
underwrote the project. It was Seawell, along with Denver Center Theatre's
artistic director Donovan Marley, who made it possible to unite the British and
American companies under the leadership of director Peter Hall.
marathon premiered recently at the Stage Theatre of the Denver Performing Arts
Complex, an elegant arena stage, the configuration of which closely resembles
that of a classic Greek amphitheater. Not only was this a first-time experience
for the audience, which had committed itself to go through the entire cycle in
one sitting, it was the first time the actors and technicians had presented the
show in consecutive acts; this following 25 weeks of rehearsals.
amazing in the inventiveness and power of its staging (as directed by Hall with
assistance from his son, Edward, with sets and costumes by Dionysis Fotopoulos
and lighting by Sumio Yoshii), the production features a core of eight actors -
four American, four British - who play a multitude of roles. They are
accompanied by a 10-member female chorus that made its initial entrance as a
bevy of bikini-clad suntan worshipers on a sandy Greek island beach. They, in
turn, are supported by an ensemble of nine actors who play soldiers, slaves,
the day of the premiere, in an effort to aid those who would be attending
"Tantalus," The Denver Post printed a few survival tips, urging
would-be patrons to bone up on their Greek myths, suggesting that "a little
study helps to follow the story." "Definitely wear comfortable
clothes," the writer advised, and drink lots of water, "it's a long
time in a theater seat."
heeding this advice, water bottles were in abundance as the Prologue to
"Tantalus" began shortly after 10 a.m., with a cleverly conceived
scene in which lady tourists succumb to the advances of an aged souvenir
salesman, who, in his white suit and Panama hat, might be the ghost of Lawrence
Durrell. First, the man tries selling them plaster statuettes of the gods. When
that fails, he says, with a hint of mystery, that for a fee, he will tell them
the most amazing story.
story ended more than 12 hours, eight intermissions, with a lunch and dinner
break, later. And in that time a large segment of the great tapestry that is
Greek mythology was unfolded: The universe was created out of chaos, making way
for the birth of Titans and the pantheon of Olympian gods who ruled above the
clouds, beneath the waves and in the grottoes of the underworld. And, in turn,
the storyteller explained how their rapacious sexual appetites and capricious
behavior gave birth to the generations of demigods and mortals.
goal in writing "Tantalus," however, was not to retell familiar tales.
Instead, the challenge the Cambridge graduate set for himself was to fashion an
"Epic Cycle of the Lost Bits" - alternative accounts of events,
characters, causes and results surrounding the Trojan Wars, accounts that do not
appear in the verses of Homer and those of the Homeric bards who set down
"The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."
title figure, Tantalus, was cursed by the gods for trying to share the secret
ambrosia of eternal life with mortal men. His punishment was to be held in the
depths of the underworld, forever standing in water that he cannot drink, with
fruit just beyond his grasp and a giant rock above his head that might fall at
any moment. He is also the great grandfather of Agamemnon and Menelaus (the
husband of Helen).
while Barton's lyrical (if sometimes pretentious and repetitive text) gives
prominence to the familiar characters of the myth, he pays as much, or more,
attention to a large group of lesser-known figures, critical players in the
events leading to and following the sacking of Troy.
many people recall the character of Thetis? She was the immortal sea nymph who
was captured and raped by the mortal Peleus, himself a former sacker of Troy.
Out of that union came Achilles. But because he was such a nasty infant, who bit
his mother's nipples until they bled, she left him to be raised by bears, which
accounts for his lack of social skills.
list of some of these other lesser-known characters includes Neoptolemus, the
son of Achilles, who by masquerading as a girl was able to penetrate the Trojan
fortifications and free the men who were lying concealed in the belly of the
wooden horse. There is Hesione, who was the daughter of King Priam's father,
Laomedon, whose kidnapping by Heracles from Troy set the events of the second
Trojan war in motion, along with the more familiar cause, the
"abduction" of Helen by Paris.
Polymestor and Polyxena, Calchas and Telephus, Hestia and Artemis, and on and
on. There are times when this succession of passionate love affairs, devious
plots, rapes and murders takes on the aura of a mythological soap opera, a Greek
version of "All My Children." There are other times when it is as dry
and wordy as a doctoral dissertation. But the one persistent point that Barton
drives home is that there is a definite relationship between the lives of the
mythological heroes and heroines and the contemporary horrors of our modern
world, which is equally ruled by the cause and effect relationship of deeds and
it is no accident that the refugee camp that houses Hecuba and the women of
Troy, following the sacking of the city and the brutality they suffer, exactly
resembles a refugee camp in the Balkans or Africa or the Middle East.
is presented in three sections: "The Outbreak of War," "The
War" and "The Homecomings." Each of these sections is then
subdivided into three play segments, each of which runs about an hour. Part I:
"Prologue," "Telephus" and "Iphigenia." Part II:
"Neoptolemus," "Priam" and "Odysseus." Part III:
"Cassandra," "Hermione" and "Helen and Epilogue."
the skilled director, Hall (with his son) creates a succession of scenes that
introduces an indelible, remarkably diverse cast of characters, whose identities
change as easily as the masks they wear during the course of the performance.
these, it is impossible not to be moved with anger and anguish by Alyssa
Bresnahan as the tormented Cassandra, who sees what is to come and tells all,
only to be hated, abused and ignored.
Hicks emerges as the play's most sympathetic warrior, and ultimately its most
tragic, Agamemnon. He is a rational man who is condemned to live and die at the
hands of an irrational world where humans are the god's playthings. If Hicks'
Agamemnon represents the struggle to remain a good man under the worst of
circumstances, Robert Petkoff, first as Achilles, and later as his son,
Neoptolemus, represents the face of madness and irrational blood lust, along
with the pragmatic soldier, Odysseus (Alan Dobie).
David Ryall, a seasoned British character actor (and longtime member of the National
Theatre), plays the role of the storyteller with a perfect combination of
reverence and tongue-in-cheek humor.
the numerous intermissions and meal breaks, the conversation was animated.
it work? Why doesn't it work? Did you stay awake?" and "Who was so and
so?" were the most common questions. There was also a debate as to whether
drinking wine with lunch was such a good idea. Ultimately, stimulants - sugar
and caffeine - were judged more necessary for survival.
the beginning of the final play, everyone was tired and more than a little
the coup de grace was delivered by Barton himself. In the conclusion, which
deals with "The Trial of Helen" at Delphi, (some seven years after the
end of the war), Helen presents a most unusual defense, claiming that she never
actually was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, rather that the gods whisked
her away to Egypt, where she remained for the entire period of the war. It was
an airy fabrication, a replica, who went in her place.
that were true, Barton seems to be saying, then how can the gods be worthy of
respect, let alone worship? How could they let so many men and women die for
nothing? And as the saga ends, back on the beach where it began, the storyteller
essentially says that it was ultimately disrespect for the residents of Mount
Olympus that brought about the death of gods.
is a uniqueness to the marathon theatrical experience that is unlike any other,
because the audience is taken on such a substantial journey. But when one
finally comes to the end of the "Tantalus" odyssey, the feelings are
vague and ultimately unsettling, possibly by design. There is certainly none of
the warmth and comradeship that were so much a part of "Nicholas Nickleby,"
or the aura of immense spirituality that were omnipresent in "The
Mahabharata." Perhaps the reason, just as Barton says, is that
"Tantalus" is an epic of missing bits. And even after 12 hours, these
bits are not enough.
Denver, "Tantalus" will travel to England, and then, if funding can be
raised, to Greece. It is quite possible that this will be the only time the
entire epic is presented in the United States. Like the gods, it's flawed. But
like the gods, it has the power to amaze.
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ARTS & LEISURE
(With Photo - Johann Sebastian Bach)
Bach's Mass in B minor a gift to
Gary A. Panetta
Copley News Service
Johann Sebastian Bach once referred to them
as a "trifling product" - portions of music he had written toward the
end of his life for the weekly church service that Roman Catholics call Sunday
there's nothing trifling about those initial compositions or about the much
longer work they eventually became a part of, a work that has come down to us as
Bach's Mass in B minor.
among Bach's many monumental works, this musical setting of the traditional
Catholic Latin Mass stands as his magnum opus - a gripping, thrilling, profound
piece of sacred chorale-orchestral music that has more than a little of the
spirit of the great cathedrals and great spiritual ages about it.
for Laura Lane, the music director for the Nova Singers, the piece is more than
Bach's magnum opus. It's nothing less than Bach's gift to the world.
really think he was looking into the future," Lane said. "He was
thinking, 'A hundred years from now, 200 years from now, I want to leave
something that will appeal to lots of people. That people will look back and
study this piece and do this piece and say, 'Wow, this is Bach.'"
on March 21, 1685, at Eisenach, Thuringia, in Germany, Bach was a descendant of
a long line of musicians. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was a string player
employed by the ducal court of Eisenach and by the town council. His
great-great-grandfather, Veit Bach, a Lutheran baker, used to take his cittern
(a guitarlike instrument) to the local mill and pick out notes as he waited for
the grinding to finish.
pretty noise they must have made together," Bach later wrote.
"However, he learnt to keep time, and this apparently was the beginning of
music in our family."
at 9, Bach fell to the care of his older brother, Johann Christoph, a church
organist who gave the youth his first keyboard lessons. A few years later, Bach
went on to earn money by singing in a choir of poor boys. At 18, he found
himself appointed as church organist at Neukirche in Arnstadt, a town near his
appointments followed - a court organist in Weimar, as court conductor for the
prince of Cothen and finally as a director of music of Leipzig's St. Thomas
Church. Music was as much craft as art in those days. Composers were expected to
grind out pieces regularly for use on specific occasions. This constant deadline
pressure by no means prevented Bach from creating works of genius. But his
monumental Mass in B minor, which he began composing some time around 1733, was
the traditional Catholic Mass text, which was very unusual for Bach because he
was Lutheran," Lane said. "Most of what he composed was specific
pieces for the Lutheran church services. He would write a cantata in German
based on the sermon of the day, specifically for this Sunday's service. He'd
write it that Monday and rehearse it and put it on that Sunday.
was very unusual about (the Mass in B minor) was that in the last 10 years of
his life as a very old man he decided to write something he knew would not be
performed in his lifetime. He never heard this piece performed. It was not for
the Lutheran church. In fact, it was too big, too massive to be performed at
that time. People were not in the habit of putting on big chorale orchestral
he wrote this for posterity. What he was doing was spending some time at the end
of his life pulling together examples of his life's work in vocal music."
chose the Catholic Mass for two reasons: its form and language, both of which
lent his music an air of universality, according to Lane. The Catholic liturgy
is among the most ancient of the Christian churches, a basic worship pattern
later denominations would alter and re-shape. Latin, meanwhile, was for
centuries the unifying language of empire, scholarship and theology.
who has attended a traditional Latin Mass - or even its contemporary form in
English - will recognize the basic divisions of Bach's music. The first section
is a prayer for mercy called the "Kyrie," which means "Lord"
in Greek. (This is the only part of the Latin Mass in Greek.) The term comes
from the two short, simple prayers repeated throughout this roughly 20-minute
section: "Kyrie eleison" ("Lord have mercy") and "Christe
eleison" ("Christ have mercy").
next section is the "Gloria." Here a five-part chorus accompanied by
trumpets sings in Latin a hymn of praise. In English it reads: "Glory to
God in the highest, and peace to his people on Earth ... " Three final
divisions follow: the Credo, in which the Church's beliefs are outlined; the
Sanctus, a hymn of praise; and the Agnus Dei, a prayer which begins in English
as "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world ... " The last
words of this prayer "Dona nobis pacem" - "Grant us your
peace" - conclude Bach's music.
did not merely follow this broad framework, however. He also shaped it in subtle
ways that pay repeated study.
so much meaning and expression in the music at every level," Lane said.
"The overall structure has a definite shape. Down to the tiniest little
detail which is deeply expressive of the word (being sung) and yet also the
meaning of the whole movement it happens to be in."
of these details can only be gleaned by examining the score itself. The keys of
each movement, for example, when written out on a staff create a melody that's
the same backward and forward, Lane said. And in the Credo, where the
crucifixion of Christ is mentioned, Bach has arranged the notes on the page in
such a way that if lines are drawn through them, crosses are formed. The Credo
section is significant in other ways, too, Lane said.
nine movements that make up the credo fall into three related groups, a
reference to the Trinity. Each movement in turn echoes and contrasts with the
other movements, the last three referring back to the earlier three. And in the
same way the Credo comes roughly in the center of the Mass, the statements of
belief regarding Christ's birth, death and resurrection come at the center of
the Credo. And that's fitting, Lane said, since these three statements make up
the core of Roman Catholicism and Christianity in general. Bach chose his best
music making for them.
in the center are these movements that are absolutely, stunningly
beautiful," Lane said. "The first two of them are so deeply expressive
of their texts. The 'Et incarnatus est' ('And was made flesh ... ') about the
Incarnation has the cross symbol going on the accompaniment. It has descending,
very sad lines in the chorus that overlap very slowly. And it has the pulsating
accompaniment that repeats.
the second movement is slightly slower, and even more grief-stricken, if you can
say that, because it's the crucifixion. He uses a lamento bass. It's an ostinato
- a repeating pattern in the bass part - that goes down by half steps. It
repeats every six bars and the chorus sings above it. It's so harmonically
complex. The chords are changing in such unusual, difficult, dissonant,
chromatic ways, that it's really beautiful and painful.
then at the end of it, the chorus goes down lower and lower and lower, until
they're singing the lowest notes they can physically do in the last part of the
text that says 'et sepultus est' or 'and was buried.' So (Bach) 'buries' the
chorus. They actually, literally go down in to the depths of their voices and so
does the orchestra - way down."
comes a surprising change of keys, one that makes the burial sound more like a
resting place or a setting of stage for what follows: Christ's triumphant
resurrection and ascension into heaven, signified by a full orchestra, a
brighter key, quickening tempos and dramatically rising melodic lines.
Catholic Mass had been set to music before Bach. But none of them quite have the
soul-shaking depths of Bach's Mass in B minor. In a way, he started a tradition:
Since Bach, many major composers have wanted to emulate the great German master
and write a Mass of their own. None of them, however, quite plumbs the same
spiritual depths as Bach's masterpiece.
something all chorale conductors aspire to do once in their lives," Lane
said. "It's kind of like the Brahms Requiem, the Mozart Requiem or the
Verdi Requiem. ... It's not only a great chorale work. Some people would say it
may be the greatest chorale work ever written."
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ARTS & LEISURE
(With Photo - 'In the Garden')
Bug-eyed over Keane art
Robert L. Pincus
Copley News Service
LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. - It may not be
among the proudest cultural achievements of the 20th century, but it has to be
on the list of defining characteristics: the widespread love affair with the
bad. As in: pulp fiction, cheesy music, hackneyed painting and it's
so-awful-we-love-it design in everything from furniture to clothes to
of the bad come and go, like glossy, slice-of-tree-trunk coffee tables, leisure
suits, and even (may they soon become a thing of the past) Beanie Babies.
Amusingly awful television shows, such as "Gilligan's Island," can
enjoy eternal life in reruns. Widely available kitsch, like paint-by-number
sets, turns scarce and then becomes a collectible.
you thought that those once-famous paintings of children with eyes far too large
for their faces, simply signed Keane, had been relegated to the thrift shop or
the garage sale. After all, their days in the sun were in the '50s and '60s.
chances of finding one in either setting are slim to none. Such collectors as
the acclaimed singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet and zine publisher and painter
Megan Besmirched have already snapped them up and lent several works each to the
Laguna Museum of Art, where the exhibition "Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia"
is on view.
paintings are awful, wonderfully awful, and the show is fascinating - on more
than one level. The exhibition is curated by Tyler Stallings, who is also
responsible for the brilliant and funny solo exhibition by Sandow Birk running
concurrently at the Laguna Museum: "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works
From the Great War of the Californias."
Keane show raises a question that goes to the heart of an art museum's mission:
Why should a reputable venue devote space to bad art?
one thing, there are different kinds of awful and the show raises this issue
with style. For another, in a culture fascinated by the bad, bad art has
influence. The impact, back when and now, is clearly laid out and makes this
show as much cultural history as art history.THE APPEAL OF THE AWFUL
paintings show us that some kinds of awful art are more fascinating than others.
Consider the landscape painter or vapid abstractionist whose picture hung in
your hotel room on one trip or another, and whose name you will never remember.
That "artist's" work is just boringly bad; you probably can't even
remember what it looks like. But Margaret Keane's paintings are unforgettable,
because they are so boldly and amazingly awful. If you came upon one in a hotel
room, you'd likely either change rooms immediately or find yourself staring at
children in Keane's paintings (usually girls) stare back at us and what gazes
they possess! The biggest part of their faces is taken up with the eyes, which
are dominated by the pupils. These deep, dark liquid pools make her children
look intensely needy, mournful and sometimes pathetic, as if they are unloved
and yearn for us to embrace them.
Climb" (1962) is quintessential Keane. There is the hackneyed metaphor of
the stairway as a symbol of the subject's difficult future. She pauses long
enough in her climb to stare at us. If she didn't, this wouldn't be a Keane. And
just in case we don't feel enough sympathy for her, there's a black kitten (a
stray, like the girl?) whose stare is just as sad.
was as unhappy as the children I painted," wrote Keane in 1975. Reading the
narrative of her life - available for perusal online at http://members.tripod.com/(tilde)besmirched/eyes.html
- you don't doubt these words.
how sincere Keane was - and continues to be - as an artist can make one feel
guilty about disparaging her paintings. After all, her pictures just want to
make us aware of how some children suffer; how they feel estranged from the
adult world. For instance, the rich palette of the flowers in the exhibited
"In the Garden" (1963), which surround a girl in a yellow dress, only
heighten our awareness of her intense, oversized gaze and troubled expression.
one can't feel too guilty, because her paintings emotionally bully the viewer.
One possible reason for their immense popularity in the '50s and '60s: People
felt guilty if they didn't like them - and still do. A viewer can't turn his
back on a needy child - even if it's just a fictional one. Covertly, her
paintings say to us: I dare you not to like me.
like them people did. Such celebrities as Jerry Lewis, Joan Crawford and Natalie
Wood bought originals and commissioned portraits. The giant-eyed waifs were
reproduced by the thousands and even supermarkets carried posters.
show is rife with spinoffs from Keanemania, like the 1965 Hasbro doll
"Little Miss No Name," who like many a child from the paintings had a
tear dripping from one eye. There are mostly one-name painters in the section
labeled "Other Big-Eyed Masters" - artists like Eve, Lee and Gig. None
rival the master, but Gig took the pathetic aspect of the big eyes to a new
extreme with such plastic and ceramic figurines as "Pity Kitty" and
"Pity Puppy," also from 1965. (The kitty and puppy were available as
deodorizers for the car, too.)
one suspected that Margaret Keane, who painted all the commissioned portraits,
also invented the trademark big eyes. Her second husband, Walter Keane, claimed
that he painted them and, during the '50 and '60s, she didn't deny it. After a
painful divorce, a self-imposed exit from her art career in Hawaii that began in
1965 and a conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith, she was ready to claim the
mantle of Big-Eyed Master. His contribution, it seems, was the marketing savvy
to gain them a wide following.
has never been a controversy over attribution that had its resolution in an
event quite like the highly publicized Keane "event." In 1970, there
was the first of two paint-outs. Walter didn't show for the first duel. The
second, in 1986, was part of a trial to determine authorship of the paintings.
He refused to take paint to canvas, claiming injury to his shoulder.
painting she made in court is in the exhibition and on the cover of the
exhibition catalog. It's called (what else) "Court Painting." A little
girl, eyes of characteristically epic size, peers over a the top of a desk or
table. It's probably not coincidental that, given the place where the picture
was made, it evokes the image of a child approaching the bench, begging silently
art has remained true to form in the years since she was found to be the true
mother of these children. That is to say the eyes have remained as
disproportionally big as ever. But a happier Keane yields some happier children.
a statement picture of the 1990s, "Love Makes a World of Difference,"
there are joyous faces on the right and sad ones on the left, positioned on
either side of a vertical border. The smiling ones - the loved ones - live in a
world that is brightly sunlit, full of blooming flowers, frolic and festive
hot-air balloons. The sad crowd exists in a place where buildings are stark and
the gray skies contain pale, deathly faces. The basic sentiments of the picture
are noble. Who doesn't think all children deserve happiness and love?
it's impossible to ignore the major visual facet of this and every Keane
painting of children: They're plain weird. They look as much like otherworldly
beings as little humans. (Even Spielberg's E.T. reveals traces of the Keane
painters in the "Inspired Contemporary Artists" of the exhibition have
obviously picked up on this curious, often creepy aspect of her pictures. Dave
Burke makes explicit the Gothic undercurrent in Keane's images with his
paintings, mostly in browns, of grotesque big-eyed creatures, like the familiar
guy in "Freakenstein" (1998), who holds a two-headed, Keane-indebted
Ryden borrows his wonderful technique from Flemish Old Masters, but the eyes
belong to Keane in "Their Sympathetic Majesties Request" (1997). In a
sendup of the cover picture for the Stones' "Their Satanic Majesties
Request," the devil, a big bunny and a row of dolls all have the bulging
apertures. In a little painting on wood, "Liddle Lisa" (2000), Lisa
Petrucci turns the tables, by transforming the Keanelike child into an artist
who paints women.
course there's a heavy dose of irony in these homages, a kind of love-hate
relationship to the Big-Eyed Master. Tim Burton, with the sharp eye for the
comically grotesque he reveals in "Beetlejuice" and "Edward
Scissorhands," would be sure to catch the same in Keane. He recently
commissioned her to do a painting of his fiancee and their dog Poppy.
there seems to be only straight-faced admiration for Keane and her art in a
feature in last year's New York Times Magazine. She was commissioned by the
publication to do paintings of models in new dresses by leading designers.
the curator Tyler Stallings winking as much as young artists or Burton seem to
be? Hard to say from his introduction to the catalog. Working with the artist,
he may have wanted to be a bit coy. But this was a show waiting to be done and
"Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia" is skillfully curated.
says something about our culture that Keane's art is flourishing again and an
art world that saw the rise of the "pathetic aesthetic" in work like
Mike Kelley's stuffed animal sculptures a decade ago isn't as quick to deride
her. Keane's influence reaches much beyond the art world, too. Just look at the
eyes on the trio of little heroines in the Cartoon Network series, "The
Powerpuff Girls." And just in case you miss the influence, their
kindergarten teacher's name is Miss Keane.
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