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Arts & Entertainment Preview - May 1999

Dance and Theater
B Y   N A N C Y   D A L V A   &   J O H N   I S T E L

Capital Commerce

   The Merchant of Venice

Too bad someone didn't remind Congress that the quality of mercy is not strained. With the partisan politics on display in our nation's capital of late, the last line one would expect to ring true is Portia's famous exhortation from The Merchant of Venice. Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, however, has recently been trumping expectations regularly. Last season the company presented Patrick Stewart as a white Othello in a race-bending production; earlier this year it exhumed the little-known King John to critical acclaim. This month it tops the season off with Mark Twain's most famous impersonator, Hal Holbrook, taking on Shylock. Holbrook's career-long infatuation with Twain (he first portrayed the irascible writer in a one-man show more than forty years ago, winning a Tony Award in 1966) is frequently leavened by stints in film, television (he's won five Emmy Awards), and classic stage roles (he recently played Willy Loman, and first assayed Shylock in 1991). Michael Kahn, the artistic director, stages Shakespeare's problematic play with help from three members of the King John team: the dean of American set design, Ming Cho Lee; the lighting designer Howell Binkley; and the composer Adam Wernick. May the play's moral -- that true friendship can't be bought or bound by rigid readings of the law -- resound in Washington. --J.I.

Stravinsky Spring

Christopher Wheeldon  

For many of its fans, one of the deep and abiding pleasures of going to the ballet is recurrence -- that is, seeing a beloved work again and again. As with reading, familiarity breeds content. But for a certain segment of the balletomane population, and for a significant segment of ballet funders, something new is always better by far than something old. Indeed, the occasional novelty (and I must add here that to the purist, novelty is a depressing rather than a cheering notion) does add a certain frisson to any season. At New York City Ballet the spring program usually brings a number of fresh items, and this year is no exception. In addition to the blockbuster offering -- a new Swan Lake by Peter Martins -- there are smaller dances. Here what one really wants is to see something full of promise. In that regard I am placing my bets on the Englishman Christopher Wheeldon, whose newest dance is being performed by the students at the School of American Ballet as part of this year's Stravinsky Festival (May 19 and 22). Wheeldon himself is not so far out of school; he trained at Britain's Royal Ballet School and joined its company in 1991. Two years later he emigrated to NYCB, where he now holds the rank of soloist. Last spring he made a work for the company called Slavonic Dances. It was intelligent; rather than denying tradition, it made good use of ballets that had gone before. It was appropriate -- an actual ballet using actual ballet steps, which is not always the case. (Renegade genius is truly uncommon, but taste and sense serve well in its absence.) Wheeldon's dance had an internal logic and a consistent tone that fell somewhere between elegy and romance. Best of all, it was beautiful, with great swooping movements, grand lifts, and an ardent spirit. It made one hopeful. Novelty comes and goes, but beauty never goes out of style. --N.D.

Relativity Theory

   David Gordon, Ain Gordon,
    and Jeanine Tesori

One of the charms of The Family Business, the choreographer and director David Gordon's award-winning collaboration with his wife, Valda Setterfield, and his son, Ain Gordon, was its mordant and moving combination of reality and fiction. Related stage characters were played by real-life relatives, but in dizzying dimensions: Ain portrayed father and son, both frustrated artists making a living in the family plumbing operation; David played the terminally ill aunt whom the two men must nurse. And this is not the only Gordon collaboration: David and Ain worked together on the slapstick Punch and Judy Get Divorced. This season the duo re-teams at the American Conservatory Theater, in San Francisco, for The First Picture Show, a multimedia musical about the early days of silent film. With songs by the heralded newcomer Jeanine Tesori (Violet), the play focuses on a filmmaker named Jane Furstman who discovers that an early moviemaker named Anne First, ninety-nine years old and abandoned in a nursing home, is a distant relative. Their reconnection brings catharsis, a theme common in the Gordons' work, invariably brought to life in a bold theatrical vernacular that is as distinctive and determinative as a slice of DNA. --J.I.

Nancy Dalva's essays appear in the magazine 2wice.

John Istel is a senior editor at Stagebill.

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Photo Credits -- Stravinsky Spring: Costas. Capital Commerce: Ken Howard. Relativity Theory: Carol Rosegg.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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