I know that I’m guilty of emphasizing the creator over the performer; I’m more comfortable talking about writers than actors. But, recently, I’ve had a series of experiences that put me into that thoughtful muddle, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
This summer’s Grand Performances schedule employed the low trick of deceptive advertising, promising 400 French horns at noon. The actual headcount announced at the concert was 250. This was OK because 250 seemed to be as many French horn players as the California Plaza stage could hold. Besides, we got the sound. They were brassy when they wanted to be, but the most haunting effect was when the massed horns rang quietly—they sounded like a choir harmonizing. As appropriate for a free, mid-day concert, they kept the program light. But playing movie and TV music proved challenging, at least to me. “I know that, but what is it?” The exuberant high point of the whole concert baffled me until the conductor identified it as the theme to The Muppet Show. This French Horn Massive turned out to be part of the International Horn Symposium taking place at the Colburn School. Earlier that week they did a flash mob intervention in the garden at Disney Hall.
I must have been the last person on earth to see Twenty Feet from Stardom. I already knew and loved Darlene Love, but now, for me, her story is enhanced by knowing about her colleagues Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Claudia Lennear, and Julia, Maxine & Oren Waters. I want to hear their work as solo artists, even though one of the themes of the documentary is that none of their solo work was really successful—either artistically or commercially. Obviously they each have vivid, engaging personalities. But for whatever reason they didn’t get the material or the arrangement or the production that could help transform virtuosity into something more.
Shakespeare didn’t write a single word of Paolo & Vittorio Taviani’s Caesare deve morire, but it’s an indelible production of Julius Caesar. The scene is Rebibbia prison, outside Rome. We see auditions and bits of rehearsal. The actors are identified with their names, the felony they have been convicted of, and the length of their prison sentence. But the rehearsals imperceptibly turn into Julius Caesar, performed scene by scene, inside the prison. These are beautifully, disturbingly apt: Antony does his eulogy in a courtyard, as his fellow prisoners look down from their cells. Sometimes the actors go off script, and speak as themselves: Caesar taunting Decius turns into Giovanni Arcuri taunting Juan Dario Bonetti. It’s too well done to be spontaneous, but it might be based on something that really happened. Depending on how you feel about it, the movie demonstrates as a fact or exploits as a convention the idea that all criminals—as well as all Italian men—are skilled bullshitters, i.e. actors. Hence they are an ideal cast. The movie scares up questions right and left: Are they really prisoners or actors? What is documentary and what is fiction? Does the movie romanticize a bunch of dangerous thugs? But in the end, the setting, the actors and the drama converge in Shakespeare’s story of an accomplished man overcome by the accomplices he frightened. A behind bars scenario if there ever was one.
[Image: mosaic of theatrical masks at Hadrian’s Villa, 2nd century, A.D.]