Category Archives: Arts

Banksy/Warhol @ MOCO

MOCO is a new Museum of Contemporary Art in Amsterdam, next to van Gogh Museum on Museumplein.  Their inaugural exhibitions are Banksy/Warhol, separately presented, in the most part, but with some overlap.

Pawn has seen several exhibit of Banksy, which is always a little odd, since he’s known primarily as a street artist, a Graffito.  Here, however, we see quite a few of his works on canvas, board, metal and wood.

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There are still samples of his street work, such as these, excised from their original locations:

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As for Warhol, while there are many familiar items on display, the real joy was in seeing some of his drawings and paintings without the Pop-Art angle.

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There is of course much similarity to be drawn between these two artists, and that is where the strength of this paired exhibition lies.  Here are some side-by-side encounters:

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Kate Moss, Gray – Banksy, 2005 Marilyn – Warhol

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The problem with this show, however, lies in the simplistic and sometimes baffling text panels.  One wonders if the curatorial staff has any clue.  Pawn was particularly irked by the panel accompanying Forgive Us Our Trespassing, a Banksy work.  Here is the piece, originally conceived in collaboration with Los Angeles schools students:

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The original version, in LA, was created by the kids placing graffiti on a wall, and then Banksy painting the window frame and praying boy on top of that.  Here, however, is the text the curators chose to place with it:

Like Cardinal Sin, a work with a biblical theme. “Forgive us our trespasses” is th 7th sentence in the English Catholic Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father, the most used prayer in Christian tradition.

Trespassing is also an act and word strongly associated wit Graffiti and street art, as street artists have to trespass private property in order to get a certain tag or artwork on a particular wall.

In this work, Banksy used a very literal approach by depicting a church window, which is tagged on with colors and by different artists.  In front of the work, a boy is praying for forgiveness.

The implication here is that the boy seeks forgiveness for having tagged the window.  To my eyes, however, the boy is seeking forgiveness for having painted the arches on top of the tags.  He ha seen beauty in the colours of  the graffiti, and has converted the mess of tags into stained glass.  I think they’ve got it all wrong!

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An Odyssey

The youth of Europe spoke today with a United voice. A voice at times strident, but more often hopeful. They scolded and coddled, preached and implored. They came from across the continent to speak together but separately. They appealed to our better angels, after reminding us we still have them. Mostly, however, they made clear that it is they who are our inheritors, and they shan’t be denied.

The European Parliament, you might ask; The British? Nee, I speak of An Odyssey, an audacious undertaking by Platform European Theatre Academies, PLETA. This group, along with ITS Festival, Europe by People, and others, brought together eight leading European Theatre schools for this production. Each academy produced a piece for an island from Homer’s tale of venture, nostalgia and return.

Our Odyssey began near a small dog park, next to a ferry launch, about a mile from Centraal Station, Het Stenen Hoofd. At the appointed hour a small squadron of brown-shirted youth arrive and start to bark orders at the audience. These students of Theatre Academy Helsinki TEAK put us on a forced march to Calypso, where we are ridiculed and cajoled, made to march in strict lines, then taken into small groups. Pawn finds himself with a group of 8, sitting around a refugee campfire, where our brown-shirt guide tells us that she will soon put us on a boat out of here, but first we are to partake of a brief ceremony; she is to make for us a pot of coffee, which we will share together, before never seeing each other again. As she prepares the pot of coffee over a propane stove, she sings us a Finnish song, and then explains the lyrics in English. They are of separation and finality.

This isn’t just any Odyssey, you see, This journey is informed by Europe’s current refugee crises. Here is a brief excerpt from the programme:

This project represents a unique connection between future actors, mixing cultures, languages and artistic expression into one vision; to create a performance that mirrors the humanitarian challenges we face today. Never before has the need for tolerance, openness, and respect felt more urgent than now. I believe that a better world is possible, and that anyone can contribute, regardless of religion, beliefs, colour of skin or sexual orientation.

-Andreas Koschinski Kvisgaard (Student Westerdal, Norway)

From our imaginary Calypso, we are led to a ferry, which takes us through Amsterdam harbour and deposits us on the banks by the Tolhuistuin cultural compound. This is where the rest of Homer’s islands will be. But first, along the way, we are provided wireless headphones (Sennheiser Outdoor Cinema, for the curious amongst you) through which we hear seabirds and music, voices and more. We are told a tale of Poseidon, how his bureaucratic duties as God of the sea are boring and wearying him, and how, finally, he lays down his trident and retires. This portion of the presentation is by Theaterakademie August Everding, Munich.

This overwhelmed yet bored Poseidon is based not on Homer, but Kafka. When we finish our journey, however, we are led into the Tolhuistuin compound where we are met by flashy, bikini-clad girls with selfie-sticks and few barriers. They in turn lead us to a boisterous man lounging is a small pool, where we are allowed to share in the Champagne. Suddenly a woman appears in the windows above us and launches into a speech about globalization and corporate responsibility. Inspired by the text of a speech given by Cor Herkstroter, former CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, the rhetoric here deplores government for demanding too much from corporations, and encourages it to get out of the way and let corporations do what’s best; “scrutinizes the Janus-faced Europe of today, whose values of openness and solidarity are being ground down by the very bureaucratic manchinery designed to protect it.” as the programme tells us.

Near the conclusion of the speech, some White Power nationalists filter through the crowd and commence to shout and chant. They sweep through the crowd and over to a small clearing, where they roust a refugee from a tent, and proceed to rough him up, under the gaze of a black-trenchcoat wearing religious figure. The refugee is finally thrown into a shallow grave, and that’s the end of the Cyclops, brought to us by Akademie Teatralna, Warsaw.

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Latvian Academy, Riga, bring us Phaiacians. Rather than the purely theatrical techniques used by the others we have seen heretofore, this group share with us some cold, hard facts. Latvia is a country of 1.95 million people, and have accepted a mere 80 refugees. Even if they take their full allotment over the next decade, that is only 700, fewer than half of which are expected to wish to stay. The citizenry may be up in arms, but the country faces severe depopulation, having lost over 10% of the population in the years since the Iron Curtain fell.

The troupe scheme how to entice the refugees, represented by one young man, to stay. They compose little songs and practice being friendly. The song starts to take form, “Welcome to my country, here you don’t belong. Welcome to my country, here you can go wrong…” They eventually get it right, but the whole effect is to poke fun at the efforts by well meaning progressive forces to coax a reluctant populace to see the benefits of immigration.

Ask many people if they’re familiar with Homer’s Odyssey and they may say yes, but they probably only know the story of the Sirens. Odysseus has his men lash him to the mast of the ship, and then bung their ears with wadding, so they may safely traverse the shoals around the island of these temptress singing maidens. Odysseus becomes the only man to hear the Sirens’ song and survive to tell the tale. Thomas Bernhard Akademie, Salzburg, presents this island to us, with a mixture of dance, spoken word, song and music. It is keening and rich, overlaid with language in Arabic, Turkish, German, and English:

The history of the occident is also the history of tying down the body and the musicality of its languages and hence a history of bodies that get in panic when they are confronted with the otherness of the voice or the voice of the other.

This scene attempts a rhythmic-repetitive bodily and musicalized retelling of the triumph over the jeopardy of the voice…

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We watch all of this from a room fronting a canal, the performers on a barge, the musicians in the room with us, video screens providing various translation, full and partial.

Next up we are dragged by a frantic, jubilant woman, to a new space, her island. She is Circe. Erasmus Hogeschool/RITCS Brussels bring us a raucous and bawdy rendition of this island of lions, wolves and pigs. In this version we are serenaded by In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and what amounts to a lurid and yet lyrical dance, which in turn tells us the story of debauchery offered and escaped. This was a truly stunning and unnerving interlude, and quite moving. Doesn’t seem to say much about modern Europe, or refugees, but that’s fine with me. We deserve a break!

Toneelacademie, Maastricht, next bring us Underworld. For this we are led to the mezzanine of a small studio theatre space, where we are looking down into a pit. This stunning piece uses a phalanx of video projectors, painting the floor and walls of this sunken chamber. Odysseus enters the underworld, represented here as a placid pool of water dotted with stepping stones, a small geometric island in the centre. When Odysseus steps onto a stone, the ripples he releases show us the lost souls trapped beneath the surface, tangled webs of bodies trapped in eternal struggle for rest. This is by turns disturbing and alluring.

I cannot even begin to describe just what a gift this revelatory experience was. It is immersive and voyeuristic, knowable and mysterious, beautiful and ugly, all at once. When Odysseus pulls Theresius from the lower depths, and they step out onto the water, the surfaces of this CGI disappear, and we are left only with the underlying mesh scaffolding upon which all of this imagery has been constructed. The effect untethers us, leaves us adrift without reference or anchor. It was profound.

The actors and the CGI are perfect together, bound to each other by 3D-scanner coordination, to great effect. I suspect we’ll see more of this in live performance, for it brings the promise of video augmented live performance to a level Pawn has certainly never seen before.

Return. No Odyssey is complete without return, right? That, after all, is what separates Odyssey from misadventure. Here we find return in a quiet glen, where Odysseus is first confronted by suspicious descendants of those left behind so many years ago. But he is eventually recognized, first by his loyal dog, and then by the rest, as who he is. Westerdal, Oslo, present this with masterful sound design and finely choreographed movement. It is triumphant!

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An undertaking of this scope and scale would be laudable in the best of times, but what makes this piece so extraordinarily suited to this time, to this moment, is the events of recent days. Not a week ago, even, England and Wales have dealt what could be a lethal blow to the European project. Last night, parties unknown deployed automatic weapons and suicide bombers in the Istanbul airport, killing 41 and injuring over 200. Funerals have already started and we don’t even have final casualty counts.

It is against this backdrop that these students have spoken, have sought a voice which says No! They want Europe, they love Europe. They embrace this ideal of shared cultural norms with separate histories and traditions.

One cannot experience this and not find hope for our future, regardless of the orange-haired monsters in our midst.

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Three One Acts – ITS Amsterdam 2016

Almost forgot to write this one up.  Oops!

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While the title “Theatre Triple Date #2” doesn’t convey too much information, it was an interesting night of theatre.  First up was Play Maids by ArtEZ Music Theatre and Acting, Arnhem, directed by Mart van Berckel and performed by Margreet Blanken, Anne Freriks and Robin Kuiper.  The latter two play a pair of maids, Claire and Solange, loosely based on Jean Genet’s The Maids, by way of Grey Gardens. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on The Maids:

Solange and Claire are two housemaids who construct elaborate sadomasochistic rituals when their mistress (Madame) is away. The focus of their role-playing is the murder of Madame and they take turns portraying both sides of the power divide. Their deliberate pace and devotion to detail guarantees that they always fail to actualize their fantasies by ceremoniously “killing” Madame at the ritual’s dénouement.

In Play Maids, these games appear at first to be more playful than anything, but we shall see.  Performed in the round (mostly) the set consisted of a sort of wire-frame wardrobe from which hung garments and from which sprouted work surfaces and other accoutrement necessary to the maids’ work.  The setting and props were fresh and inspired; the performances frenetic, farcical and fun.  Blanken as the matron was marvelous, and her seeming obliviousness lent much to the production.

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Perhaps a bit longer than was needed, the entire enterprise was well done and a joy to watch, perhaps more so because of the physical similarity of the two young actresses.  I could see this doing well in a Fringe (and, indeed, they will be at Fringe Amsterdam this September).  Interestingly, fashion label Maison the Faux is listed as a collaborator, for Scenography.

Next up was De Spectacular Schandelijke van Een Jong Meisje en het Tragische Einde Dat Daarop Volgde, again from ArtEZ Music Theatre and Acting, Arnhem.  Herein a single performer, Laurien van Rijswijk, performs an augmented monologue.  I can’t tell you too much about it, as it was all in Dutch, which I don’t speak.  I think the gist of the piece was that this young woman is coming into her own as her mother is dying of cancer, but that’s just a wild guess.  It did have moving scenes, which I could judge by the waterworks in the audience.

Lastly was The Sound of Circles, Codarts Circus, Rotterdam.  Ralph Ollinger and Marko Hristoskov conceived and present this piece of juggling accompanied by string bass.  It was lovely and well executed.  Seemed an odd fit after the earlier entertainments, but it did leave one with a clear head.

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Hedda a resounding Success!

Pawn loves a good drama, especially something new and edgy, and if it’s got a dark and funny aspect as well, more the better.  No, this is not another Brexit article.  That’s tonight’s performance of Hedda in spades!

Director Loek de Bakker has collaborated with fellow script writer Belle van Heerikhuizen and scenographers Studio Dennis Vanderbroeck to present a taut and suffocating take on Ibsen’s classic drama.

The original Hedda Gabler, along with Ibsen’s similar pieces, particularly Doll’s House, are the very first “Modern” theatre productions, in that they had fully realized three-dimensional, sets, not simply flats and drops. The script begins with a description of the single set, and tonight this was read aloud by the actress playing Hedda:

A spacious, handsome, and tastefully furnished drawing room, decorated in dark colours.  In the back, a wide doorway with curtains drawn back, leading into a smaller room decorated in the same style as the drawing-room.  In the right-hand wall of the front room, a folding door leading out to the hall.  In the opposite wall, on the left, a glass door, also with curtains drawn back.  Through the panes can be seen part of a verandah outside, and trees covered with autumn foliage.  An oval table, with a cover on it, and surrounded by chairs, stands well forward…

Vanderbroeck turns this on its head, or perhaps more accurately on its side.  The set could barely be simpler than it is.  A white triangle, parallel to the stage, hangs 8 feet above it.  From this strong horizontal element hang three pairs of “Vertical Blinds” of the kind found on patio doors or glass-walled conference rooms.  That’s all.

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The device is brilliant, absolutely brilliant!!  Throughout the play, various characters open and close one or more blinds, making windows, doors, archways.  They lurk and listen on the other side, they draw a door and walk through it, or open a window and peer out it, or walk behind a wall and listen at it.  They twist the panels from thin slats to opaque panels, sometimes to devastating effect.

The script is another wonder.  Pawn has bridled at poor cuts of Hedda Gabler in the past, but cutting this otherwise 3 hours behemoth is not at all unusual.  In this case the story is modernized, a lot of historical referential cruft is tossed out (along with all minor characters), and along the way a bounty of hidden humor is uncovered, all to great ends.  The show tonight came in at a tight 75 minutes, which is amazing, given that all of the bones of the story remain.

I would give nods to the performers, but without a cast list, that’s hard to do.  I will say this; there was not a weak performance in the lot.  Here are the performers, I just cannot tell you who played whom: Sven Bijma, Yela de Koning, Marit Meijeren, David van Uuden and Abel de Vries.

Costumes by David Laport were spot on for a late ’60s country club feel, with Hedda in a pale blue shift, Thea in a tight, short tennis outfit, Judge Brack in professorial-looking corduroy, Eilert Lovburg a disheveled mess and Tesman in a pale pink shirt and khaki shorts.

If there is a weak point in this production, that would be the lighting design, uncredited in the only guide I’ve got.  The choice was made to use only low sources, mostly from oblique angles, which yields long shadows and poorly lit faces in many scenes.  While I might be able to be convinced that there were valid artistic reasons for this, I’m at a loss to tell you what those might be.

I hope this production sees more life than just this single performance.  It’s a real gem, and all involved should be very very proud.  I’ve spent about $70 for tickets to five shows at ITS Festival 2016, and if this were all I were to see, it would be worth it.  It’s worth the visit here.  Luckily, given how good Een Lolita was earlier today, I have no worry that it need be all there is.

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ITS Festival 2016

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Coincident to my visit to Amsterdam is ITS Festival 2016.  Here’s how they describe themselves:

Every year, at the end of June, the latest crop of performing artists will flood the city of Amsterdam. Graduating actors, dancers, mime artists, (film) directors and other performing artists – national and international – will make their first appearance at several professional theatres in the cityheart of Amsterdam.

The International Theatre School Festival Amsterdam is the biggest European student festival where you can scout over 200 theatre talents in more than 50 unique productions. It is a wonderful opportunity to catch a glimpse of how the performing arts will look in the coming years. Alongside the productions, the festival programme is filled with inspiring debates, lectures and workshops.

Fertile ground for this fan of New Work and New Talent.  This afternoon I saw Een Lolita, a meditation on a future for Nobokov’s characters, taking off on the idea of unrealistic expectations which faced the young anti-heroine and her lustful suitor:

We all know the famous characters of Nabokovs masterpiece. The sensual teen Lolita and the more-than-twenty-five-years-older man Humbert Humbert who falls madly in love with the girl, with fatal consequences.

In this play a man and a woman, no longer man and girl, wander around in the memory of the most important memory of their lives, thirty years ago.
With might and main they try to keep the memory alive. What if the highlight of your existence lies far behind you?

Quite good, although I sat too close to be able to both read the supratitles and watch the acting.  Lesson learnt!

Tonight brings Hedda, a modern take on Ibsen’s classic:

It’s better to burn out than to fade away.

She is gorgeous, rich, adventurous, bored and suicidal. She is the female Hamlet and a desperate housewife. She is Hedda.

Loek de Bakker graduates with his own version of Ibsens Hedda Gabler (1890). His Hedda is young and wants to live life to the fullest, but she can’t escape being bored to death. In an attempt to feel any kind of excitement, she manipulates the people around her. When she’s about to lose her last shred of freedom, she leaves this humdrum life with a bang. If no one around her acts big, she will.

Tomorrow I have a triple-header of shorts, following my conference, but I may not be able to actually make that.  Wednesday brings The Odyssey, in which 8 different theatre academies each undertake to dramatize one of the islands in Homer’s tale, with heavy metaphorical reference to today’s refugee crisis (or so the promotional materials imply) in a performance which will have us audience trudging around from place to place.  Not sure I have the best footwear for that, but I think so.

The Odyssey – a theatrical investigation freely based on Homerian motifs

One of the most pressing problems facing our society at present is that of refugees, people who leave their home country for a variety of reasons in search of help, security, and a new start. And most of them come to us because of an idea: the idea of Europe. Europe is more than a common economic area and common external borders. Europe has a common system of values which starts with human rights and cultural similarities. It is absolutely true that this will change the very core of our society. But there are achievements that we can agree on, that make us who we are and are therefore part of our identity. To this end, the Platform of European theatre academies starts a theatrical investigation with the purpose of exploring this question of cultural unity. We do not want to leave this research to sociologists; we are interested in the attitudes of young people who are currently about to join the cultural sphere.

Finally, Thursday is Geisha’s Miracle, a dance piece featuring three young Asian performers testing the limits of western stereotypes of Oriental womanhood:

Three Asian performers invite you to experience their universe; shiny and blue, light and white. They take you on a journey to a place in between live and death, a place in between a transformative reality and a fountain of imagination. Geisha’s Miracle is a synesthetic physical experience that reaches out to the perception of the audience. The surreal visual and musical landscape speaks not only to the ratio but also to the irrational sides of our beings, and asks us to immerse in the absurdity..

Lots to see!

 

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Elevation, Evacuation and Rapture

The day began with a stroll east along the Regent’s Canal to Cambridge Heath and Vyner street, to meet with the lovely ladies of Degree Art, my favourite gallery in London.  Along the way I received an email from Is:

Am currently sitting in the coffee shop on the corner of Vyner St as I had to lend my keys to one of the members of staff yesterday and because of the storms and flooding, the trains are very delayed and everyone is running behind schedule, so if I spot you coming down Vyner Street before I get into the gallery, I might leap out and grab you for a coffee in here!

There had been raging thunderstorms in the overnight.  Nothing too severe to my Midwestern sensibilities, but quite out of the ordinary here.

Sure enough I fond Is sitting in the cafe, and as we waited for the rest to show up, we had a nice chat about art & business.  Then off to the gallery to look over some new artists and confer on recent purchases.  A joined us there, and once all was sorted, she & I said our farewells and hopped a bus down to Millennium bridge and over that to Tate Modern and its new Switch House expansion.

The Switch House represents a significant expansion of the already mammoth Tate complex, and is a stunner.  Rising 10 storeys, just to the south of the Boiler House and Turbine Hall, Switch House springs from large concrete silo bases.  We first queue with many others for one of the four elevators to the observation deck on 10.  Shockingly, each elevator is quite small, claiming a capacity of 17 each, but we figure more like 12.  People pack into each car, often to the point where doors won’t close.  The whole lift situation seems poorly considered.

Here are views from the 10th floor:

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A points out just how new this addition is; the paint is still wet!

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The Shard, commonly known as The Salt Cellar.

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The neighbours likely didn’t expect this level of exposure.

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New Blackfriar’s Bridge.

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St Paul’s, across the Millennium Bridge, Boiler House in the foreground.

Once done on 10, we descended to 9 for the restaurant.  We were seated, ordered a glass of champaign, and made our selections — blue cheese soufflé starter and lemon sole main — when all of a sudden a klaxon sounded and a voice came over the PA, “Please follow your steward’s instruction and evacuate the building by the nearest exit.”

Lovely.

We walked down countless flights of stairs and spilled out into the rear courtyard. Here’s the crowds outside

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We did ultimately get back inside, but had to settle for a rubbish meal at Leon’s.  Here’s some of the art from the permanent and temporary exhibits within:

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We did try to go back up the tower, to the member’s lounge on 8, but the lifts were totally unusable, and after waiting about 15 minutes, we gave up.  Grumpy, we left Tate.  “Coffee and cake!” declared A, and off to Paul, a posh French patisserie,  we went.

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Shortly after we settled in to chairs at Paul, with our coffee and cakes, a downpour ensued.  Everyone in the shop looked on with awe at the sheer volume of water coming down; fists full of rain lashed the windows and overtopped the table umbrellas outside the door.  We hid out there over an hour, waiting for the storm to clear.  I went to find the gents, and what I found was a toilet spewing shit into the air, overwhelmed by the torrents of rain hitting the sewers.

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A long, grueling bus ride up to Camden Town took us to Oxford Arms and Etcetera Theatre for Rubber Duck Theatre’s production of Rapture.  This taut little show envisions a near future in which medical wonders have rendered much disease moot, and with the long lives which ensue, there is now a need to cull the population.  The process by which this happens is the Citizen Review.  Our four protagonists are there to represent, to justify their existence.  A fifth, the auditor, is there to facilitate the process.

I won’t delve further into details, but it was a good and thought provoking piece of social commentary, especially crisp on this night of Brexit.  Kudos to the entire cast, who took on archetypal roles with gusto and nuance (more than was written for them) and found humanity within each of them.

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London 2016, Day 2, Summer Exhibition

Yesterday was an art and recreation day.  After fitful sleep and early rising, breakfast ensued.  Then a voyage down to Green Park underground and out into the hustle & bustle.  My destination was the Royal Academy of Arts for their annual Summer Exhibition.  This is a riotous celebration of art, with over 1,200 works selected from 12,000 entries by a hanging committee of 10, including architects & artists, sculptors & painters.

Pawn was especially drawn this year by the news that among those selected was Sophie Derrick, six of whose pieces are in Pawn’s collections.  Sophie’s Shift 6 hangs in gallery 11:

There is so much to see in this show, and it fabulously presented.  Here are a few shots to give you an idea of just how dense the show is.  I would draw your attention, however, to how many “red dots” there are!):

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Above overview and detail of The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci, by Kutlug Ataman.  On these hundreds of small LCD screens appear faces of people with whom Sakip Sabanci, a prominent Turkish business tycoon and philanthropist interacted.

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138: When They Come Out o Play, Mick Rooney; 143: Apartment, Seung Yeon Choi; 147: Facade, Tom Down; 137: Lesson, Max Renneisen; 144: Princess Aurora, Stella Parsons; 145: I Am Rick, Kirsten Goemaere.

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637 (left): How To Operate As A Human Artist, Or The Antichton, Alex Anikina; 638: Jane Eyre – What She Wrought, Charlotte Cory.

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599: Snowfields, Nadia Attura; 601: Grand Hotel II, Tracey Emin; 598: Inishowen, Tim Allen; 602: Grand Hotel I, Tracey Emin; 597: Puppet, Stephan Balkenhol; 603: Billiards, Stephan Balkenhol.

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576: Solo In Blue, Eileen Cooper; 582: Luna, Eileen Cooper.

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963: At The Sign Of The White Horse, Tom Barker.  The text reads, “A charming Georgian tableau, a young woman with a familiar dilemma, has she overpacked?  The coach awaits, Tobys loiter, perhaps the situation will have its benefits.”

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1196: Rave In The Basement Of The Elks Lodge, Braddock, Mark Neville; 1197: Shift 6, Sophie Derrick; 1199: Mouthwatering, Oliver Dunsch.

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1139: Iggy, Stephen Haines.

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1051: David Noble Tractus, John Humphreys.

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1109: What Unites Human Beings Is Huge And Wonderful, Bob & Roberta Smith.

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Ambitious Isn’t Always Good

Last night brought Pawn the first performance of this trip; Karagula by Philip Ridley, at the new Styx performance space in Tottenham Hale.

I’ve long been fond of Ridley’s work, since seeing Pitchfork Disney at Arcola, back in 2012. That show has stuck with me ever since, and represents a high bar for any new work to overcome. Sadly, this latest from Ridley, Karagula, does not achieve escape velocity.

Last year Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, at Soho Theatre was a quirky & delightful treat, with strong performances, concise direction, a clean book, and good lighting. A highlight of that trip’s shows. In contrast, however, Karagula is quite simply a mess.

It should be a tip-off when all of the review quotes on the adverts use some version of the word “Ambitious.” That’s a good term for this sprawling Sci-Fi/Poli-Sci mashup which takes place in a galaxy far, far, away, in a time other than now (we think) and spans centuries. The dozens of characters are performed by just 9 actors, with varying degrees of success. The fault lies not with performances, however, but with the far-too-messy script and poorly executed technical aspects.

This show is 3 hours long, with a single interval. The entire theatre is rearranged during said interval, going from audience seated along the two long sides of the rectangular black-box space, to all seated along one short side.

The basically unadorned stage of the first half is supplanted in the second act by a cave set, in which the ceiling is represented by a patchwork of parachute fabric, coffee & tea stained in colour, held aloft by ropes. These ropes are affixed to the fabric by Velcro, to facilitate tear-away scene changes. Unfortunately, early in the action, a critical support tore away prematurely, leading to the collapse of one side of the drop, and flooding the audience with bright, white light from the back-lights. No effort was made to correct for this, leaving a blinded audience to squint at the rest of the scene.

There is much frenzied action during this play, which like most of its genre depends heavily on seemingly important exposition delivered in opaque language with unfamiliar or invented terminology. Unfortunately, in this case much of that is shouted, with or wihout amplification, with a very wearing result. By the time of the final scenes, Pawn found he just wanted it to be over, and was actively rooting for the doomsday device to be triggered.

Fans of Burgess, Orwell & Huxley will find many familiar themes here, from milkshakes to Marshalls, teachers to cheerleaders, oracles to animals. Little coherency binds them to the story, and one often might think they’ve napped through some vital section, but with no awareness of such nap.

You’ve let me down, Mr. Ridley. I do hope this show returns to workshop, however, and reëmerges some day, trimmer, sharper, quieter and more orderly.

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2015 MKE Film Festival picks

It’s been a few months since the end of the 2015 MKE Film Festival, and many of the films screened are now available, either in theatres or via streaming or disk. Here’s my 4 and 5 star selections. There are trailers available for most of these films on <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzr864NSWigv-oX2u_zyrXQ”>MKE-Film’s YouTube channel

Four Star picks: ****

  • The Russian Woodpecker

A quirky documentary follows a tenacious Ukrainian activist as he seeks to bring a Cold War Russian intelligence scheme to light, all while a revolution plays out in Kiev.

  • Stockholm Stories

Five interlocking stories weave in and out over the course of a few rainy days. Clever and visually lush.

  • Almost There

Moving documentary by two friends who discover an “outsider” or naive artist living in the same dilapidated house he grew up in, a house which is tumbling down around him. Thus begins an 8 year effort to save this man from himself, and bring his art to a broader audience. Several interesting turns await.

  • Nicola Costantino: The Artefacta

Biopic of the Argentinian artist provocateur as she prepares new work for the 55th Venice Biennale. Very lovely to watch, strange art and sometimes inexplicable acts.

  • Magicarena

Documentary tells of a Spanish theatre company, La Fura dels Baus, presenting Verdi’s Aida on the bicentennial of his birth, in the 1st century Verona Arena. They recruit people from the area to serve as supernumeraries, technical & stage hands, grips, and prop makers. A beautiful setting, visually stunning presentation and engaging story.

  • Villa Touma

An orphaned teenage girl goes to live with her upper-class aunties, Palestinian Christians, in their closed and stultifying household, following her parent’s deaths. A deeply moving portrayal of life in an odd temporal bubble, a disappearing part of Palestinian life. This film was made by Palestinians, with Israeli support, but both countries have disowned it.

  • Second Mother

Brazilian look at class and work. We meet Val, live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family — a Reality TV star, her Art Professor husband and spoiled-brat son. Val’s own daughter, whom she hasn’t seen in ages, having sent her to live with relatives, comes to town to enroll in college (the same haughty school as the brat son). This disruption lays bare the compromises Val has chosen to make in her life in order to make money, and the truth of her feelings for her own kin versus the sense of importance she gleans, reflected, from her employers.

  • Hallahalla

A middle-aged woman tries to put her life back together having been left by her husband for a younger woman. Disrespected in her work in the local hospital, desperately seeking a new grip on a life she no longer feels connected to, in a suburban (Swedish) world she never wanted to inhabit, Disa slowly finds her way through episodes both comedic and tragic.

  • 30 Seconds Away

This documentary by local film maker, and former federal agent, Faith Kohler, exposes the reality of life lived on the streets of Milwaukee, focusing on a handful of mostly middle-aged men struggling to survive in spite of societies’ efforts to help them, however altruistic, intrusive or ill-advised such efforts might be, and in spite of their own efforts to sabotage any do-gooders they encounter. A deeply effecting, but ultimately, to me, incomplete and reductive film.

  • Breaking a Monster

A fun and music filled documentary about a heavy metal band of teenage African-Americans from Brooklyn who make it big after video of them performing in Times Square goes viral in 2007. They go on to be signed by Sony, play Cochella, open for Metallica… It’s a whirlwind ride and we get coach seats. Wildly engaging and loads of fun.

  • Imperial Dreams

An ex-con, recently released, tries to hold on to his son and some kind of life after his girlfriend goes to jail. He struggles to stay away from the same dark forces which left him behind bars in the first place, and to keep his son and himself free.

  • A Ballerina’s Tale

Biopic on Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal performer for a major company (American Ballet Theater). A well made, engaging and compelling film.

  • Theeb

A young Bedouin boy joins his much older brother to guide a British surveyor in the remote reaches of the Ottoman Empire as the Great War and the Great Arab Revolt encroach from all sides. The men are slain by bandits, and the boy must learn to make his own way without camel, water or adults. A tale of betrayal, distrust, danger and revenge, Theeb could have been made by John Ford. Rich, lush and parched.

Five Star picks: *****

  • Safety Last

No chance to see this as we did, sorry to say. This is a classic Buster Keaton silent feature screened with live organ accompaniment on the Oriental’s lovely Kimball organ. An all out joy; thrilling and hysterical.

  • Beatles

Norwegian coming of age drama set in early 60’s. Beatlemania hits and a group of youth imagine themselves as the Fab Four, each taking as his idol a different Beatle. This engaging and touching film brings us inside the lives of these four kids, mostly focusing on the young Paul McCartney wannabe. While such films are often predictable and pat, this outing manages to both hold one’s attention and reveal truly unexpected and sometimes dark aspects of the young protagonists.

  • The Wonders

Magical Thinking comes of age in this “Felilini-esque portrait.” A young girl is being groomed to take over from her beekeeping father. Her family lives in an idiosyncratic outpost along the Italian coast. Both parents are dreamers, little anchored to reality, but for the imperative of the constant filling of buckets of honey by the centrifuge. A reality TV show seeking to find Italy’s “Most Traditional Family” while shining a spotlight on the region’s natural food products, comes to town and brings with it a disruptive spirit and an enchanting hostess. This was my favorite of the festival, and left me with a warm glow.

  • Romeo is Bleeding

An amazing documentary focusing on a youth diversion program in suburban Richmond, CA, “RAW Talent.” A young poet, Donte Clark, himself just out of high school, leads a group of similarly detached and disaffected youth in a production of Romeo & Juliet, but this is not the version you read in high school. The kids in this gang infested city know all too well the meat of the story — the two feuding families, forbidden love — as Central Richmond and North Richmond have been engaged in a gang feud over two decades old. Even the old-timers can just barely remember why the gangs are fighting. The students rewrite Shakespeare’s story in their own words, raps and songs, weaving their own stories of love and loss into the fiber of the tale, amidst a rising death toll all around them. Easily the best documentary of the festival, and the winner of multiple awards, I cannot express enough just how good and moving this film is.

  • Bang Bang Baby

This was a fun romp, silly and stupid, and just loads of fun. Many people will not like it, but I sure did. A blend of 1950s musical and schlocky Si-Fi. Stepphy is a high school girl with big dreams of making it big in music and winning the heart of performer Bobby Shore. But industrial disaster, purple haze and walking dead threaten her happiness.

  • Very Semi-Serious

A documentary of New Yorker cartoonists and cartoons. Well made and hilarious.

  • Hotell

A Swedish film telling the tale of a group, a Group Therapy group, who decide the venture out of the community center and into a hotel, where they expose their deepest secrets and desires to each other, and allow themselves to try to live their dreams in the safe embrace of each other’s trust and support. A very strange view of the group dynamic, and a reflection on what we allow of ourselves when we just let go.

  • No One’s Child (Nicije Dete)

A Serbian film which deals with a difficult time in that nation’s history. Based on a true story, this bleak film starts with the 1988 discovery of a feral child living in the Bosnian wilderness, literally raised by wolves. He is institutionalized in Belgrade, in an orphanage, where he struggles to adapt to shoes, clothes, language and eating utensils, not to mentions other kids. With the death of the dictator Tito and the collapse of the Yugoslavian state, he faces ejection from Serbia and a return to Bosnia. This film reveals a countryside as desolate as the war and a child with an indomitable will and incredible cunning. One of the most powerful films of the festival.

  • The Wrecking Crew

A documentary literally 20 years in the making, this film tells the story — not yet complete — of the greatest session outfit of all time. “Their music won the Best Record of the Year Grammy six consecutive years. Their hit records span decades and number in the hundreds…” began the program description. These musicians made records with everyone from the Birds to the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke. There is just so much good music in this, you’ll be tempted to get up and dance more than once. A great double feature with 2013 festival favorite 20 Feet From Stardom.

  • Run Boy Run

In the spirit of Europa Europa, this German/French film tells the true story of a Polish boy, a Jew, who is left to fend for himself in the countryside during Nazi occupation. Srulik takes a Christian name, hides with people of great warmth and love and with people of opportunism and caprice. He takes charge of himself and nearly loses touch with his history and the legacy he represents. Pair this with No One’s Child for a double feature of Oprahesque dimensions, and make sure to have plenty of tissues on hand.

Okay, so I went a bit overboard I guess. I hope you can find and see a few of these. In retrospect, I guess it was a better festival than I thought, as 2/3 of the films I saw I ended up rating 4 or 5 stars!

I didn’t mention here the major studio films which were also part of the festival. Those were Youth, which is now in theaters; starring Michael Caine and Harvey Kietel as aging best friends, one a retired composer and conductor, the other a film maker looking to redeem himself after artistic and critical failure. Set in a Swiss resort in Davos, this film is beautifully shot with wonderful scenery. The minor characters are a treat, as are the supporting roles played by the likes of Paul Dano, Rachel Weiss and Jane Fonda.

Also on the program as the Member’s Only screening was Mississippi Grind, starring Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds. Mendelsohn plays Garry, a down on his luck gambler and Reynolds a free spirit who seems like a winner and befriends Garry when he’s down. This is a road film of sorts, with many twists and turns, and a few detours along the way. Fun, and not too formulaic…not as formulaic as you fear it will be. A great performance by Mendelsohn, normally relegated to supporting roles but allowed to shine here.

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