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A Sampler: Writing on the Arts

ON M.C. ESCHER (new york times) Art usually presents us with incontrovertible facts. Abstract canvas or marble bust, representational drawing or fanciful relief — all fix a specific image in a specific way for all time.


And then there’s M.C. Escher. His paradoxical, mind-twisting prints tell you over and over again that there are no incontrovertible facts, even in art. The negative space around an image suddenly resolves into a positive image of something else — absence becoming presence, presence disappearing into absence. What you are looking at is not what you see.


Or is it?


The question comes up repeatedly at the New Britain Museum of American Art, where “M. C. Escher: Impossible Reality” brings together 130 works spanning the artist’s entire career. This departure from its normally American focus includes prints, of course (many of them now world-famous and visible on neckties, T-shirts and, I can personally attest, hand-woven rugs from the Andes). But there are also rare and less familiar pieces — portraits, illustrations, even sculpture — that fill out the picture of Escher and his art.


ON ATHOL FUGARD (new york times) When, on a Friday afternoon in December 2000, a black woman, her 2-year-old strapped to her back and her 3-year-old and 5-year-old in her arms, left a South African squatter camp and stepped into the path of a speeding commuter train, it was no accident. But the white motorman who unavoidably plowed into them — he was an accident, a random accessory to the mother’s despair.


But was he innocent? With “The Train Driver,” which opened Wednesday at Long Wharf Theater, Athol Fugard enlarges a 390-word newspaper account of this horrific murder-suicide into an exhaustive examination of the tangled, unyielding mysteries that can link the fates of two strangers, three strangers, an entire universe of strangers.


ON 'THE DRESSMAKER'S ART' (new york times) What fanciful designer came up with the asymmetrical fluting, flowing train and pleated hem on the cream-colored wedding dress of silk satin from around 1880? Whose delicate fingers stitched the dotted netting, lace ruffles and velvet ribbons that transformed an all-black afternoon dress from 1898 into a symphony of texture? Whose ample purse paid for the fantastically inflated sleeves and extravagant trim of the 1895 silk satin ball gown from the House of Worth in Paris?


There are no answers. Most of the people who made and wore this clothing are lost to history. Only a magnificent handmade bridal veil of intricate Belgian lace and an elegant satin wedding gown can be matched to the women who got married in them.


Looking at the rest of these objects, you cannot help wondering how they survived and why they became detached from their stories. Were they heedlessly passed down; overlooked amid the jewels, houses and family silver; hidden in dusty, long-forgotten attic trunks? Maybe a few languished unworn in their original boxes after some elegant young woman died one of those appalling 19th-century deaths. And do we, perhaps, owe a debt not only to the workers who made these dresses and the wealthy customers who bought them, but also to the undoubtedly overworked and underpaid servants who preserved their beauty while washing, ironing and mending them?


ON JON AMIEL'S 'CREATION' (new york times) Pale, winded, a blanket draped across his twitching knees, a sick, despondent man confides his woes to the minister who has stopped by. Stretching a sympathetic arm around the man’s shoulders, the minister murmurs, “God moves in mysterious ways.”


Yes, yes, the man agrees with a glower, adding that “he has endowed us — in all his blessed generosity — with not one but 900 species of intestinal worm.”


As a comeback the line may not rank with “Make my day.” But “900 species of intestinal worm” is a pretty fair rebuttal to the idea of a beneficent creator, and the minister doesn’t try to argue. He retreats, insulted by his old friend’s hostility.


It’s not the only moment that finds the forces of religion in retreat in “Creation,” Jon Amiel’s new film about Charles Darwin. And if arguments about the existence of God were not enough to mark “Creation” as, well, highly unorthodox, the movie also dares to be unapologetically eclectic in style, incorporating elements of historical drama, psychological thriller, horror, romance and ghost story in recounting, with minimal fictional flourishes, how Darwin came to publish his landmark theory of evolution by natural selection.


ON 'EVERY LITTLE STEP' (new york times) Early in his career James D. Stern got a job assisting the writer of a small — really small — Off Broadway musical. When a few hundred people showed up to audition, Mr. Stern recalled recently, he was shocked. “I kept saying, ‘They’re not all here for this, are they?’ ”


It taught Mr. Stern, who went on to produce plays, musicals and movies, just how steeply the supply of stage performers outstrips the demand. So when he and Adam Del Deo, with whom he has shared the producing and directing of two documentaries, agreed to do one about the casting of the 2006 Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line,” they had a pretty good idea of how many auditioners they would face. And on Friday, long after the initial 3,000 became several dozen, after 26 were hired, after they played 759 performances and closed, the movie “Every Little Step” will open — 400-plus hours whittled down to the essential 95 minutes that capture, even more accurately than the musical does, what Broadway gypsies endure to get onstage.


ON TRANSLATING STAGE CLASSICS (new york times) Rehearsals were not going well. Tony Kushner’s adaptation of a 17th-century French comedy by Pierre Corneille was being dogged by persistent technical glitches. Convinced that professional jealousy from beyond the grave was at work, Kushner and the play’s director decided to reprint the program. They changed the title page from "'The Illusion' by Tony Kushner, based on a play by Pierre Corneille" to "'The Illusion' by Pierre Corneille, freely adapted by Tony Kushner."


"The minute we did that," recalls Mr. Kushner, "all the technical problems stopped. Except the night before the opening, someone came by and pulled half the letters of my name off the marquee."


If the ghosts of playwrights past are rattling their chains these days, it’s not without reason. Big-name dramatists --David Mamet, Lanford Wilson and Tom Stoppard, to name a few--have come increasingly to dominate the rendering of the great European plays into English, sharing the billing with Chekhov, Ibsen, and Turgenev and shaking up the theater’s approach to the classics in the process.


ON HAIRSPRAY(dance magazine) For those of us whose teen years overlapped with the ’60s, the words "Wa, wa wa Watusi," call up a horde of crisply remembered outfits, hairstyles, songs, and, of course, dances. For Jerry Mitchell, who’s sure to get another Tony nomination for turning the Watusi, the Twist, the Pony, the Locomotion, the Hully Gully, and other ’60s dance crazes into the joyous choreography of Hairspray, it was all research.


He’s too young to remember the steps that could be seen near any juke box in 1962, when Hairspray is set. John Kennedy was in the White House, duplicates of Jackie’s bouffant hairdo were being back-combed in front of fancy vanities and bare bathroom mirrors, and the social upheavals to come were still largely invisible, simmering beneath the surface. John Waters used his 1988 film comedy both to satirize and glorify the period, and the show takes the same affectionately ironic tone towards the doings at Patterson Park High School in Baltimore. That’s where Tracy Turnblad (played in the movie by Ricki Lake and in the show by Marissa Jaret Winokur) is desperately trying to be cool despite her plus-size figure, her loving but rather grotesque parents, and her unpopular insistence that segregation is wrong. And for Tracy--as well as for millions of real teenagers across the country--the very coolest thing is to be one of the regulars on the American Bandstand clone on local TV.


ON FIDDLER ON THE ROOF(dance magazine) There are only a handful of Broadway numbers distinctive enough to go by their own names. For people who’ve seen Fiddler, the words Bottle Dance summon up more than steps. You remember what you saw, of course: a line of black-suited men, arms linked, knees jackknifed in deep plie, brows furrowed in concentration, slowly, deliberately thrusting their legs out and propelling themselves forward without toppling the wine bottles perched precariously on their hats. But more than that, you remember the delicious mixture of surprise and delight and suspense--the feeling that you were being transported into the realm of the impossible.


"There was a rule about the Bottle Dance," says Wallace Munro, who’s now an executive with the Actors’ Fund of America. He first danced in Fiddler in 1969, with the national touring company. Then he got into the Broadway company, and did the show again in 1976, when Zero Mostel repeated his landmark performance as Tevye. "Periodically, one of the dancers had to drop his bottle. And there was stage business to cover for it. Jerry Robbins wanted it to be exciting. He felt that the audience needed to understand that those bottles weren’t glued on--they were really balanced."