The Middle Ages

Presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, now playing at the Kirk Theatre, Theatre Row, off-off-Broadway.

Dramas in which we plunge into ongoing action intermittently are always rather interesting—not always effective (does life really work like that, vast periods of unimportance punctuated by a few sudden turning points?) but definitely interesting.* I enjoy piecing together context and elapsed time with each new scene, and the plotting is generally rather tight: after all, we only drop into a particular moment because something significant is happening.

Such structure also allows the story to cover a long period of time without needing to become epic. For example, in The Middle Ages, a play by A. R. Gurney, we spend time in just a single room, with only four characters, but span more than thirty years. I’m not quite convinced that the setting—the trophy room of a big-city men’s club—is truly so meaningful to the characters as to justify its being the site of so many critical moments in their lives, but I can set that aside. It’s an interesting conceit.

Ashes of Time Redux

In theaters.

The best way to describe Wong Kar-wai’s moody, impressionistic wuxia epic is as a tone poem—a metaphor I particularly like. Tone poem isn’t just a pretty term; it refers specifically to a type of composition that emerged during the Romantic period. Before then, most orchestral works were symphonies, and symphonies followed rules, a specific architecture that outlined musical structure before a composer wrote a single note. The tone poem was a rejection of that architecture, an attempt to use the orchestra to convey something different: a story, a painting, a tableau, a feeling. Without the architecture, a tone poem can feel amorphous, but it can be beautifully evocative, too. Freed from symphonic strictures, the tone poem can find textures and flavors and colors so vibrant that the missing walls and roof hardly matter.

In Ashes of Time Redux, a reworking of his 1994 film Ashes of Time, Wong, like Liszt and Dvorák and Debussy before him, rejects the architecture of his medium. Ashes lacks a firm narrative and solidly defined characters. Even the swordplay that inevitably crops up in wuxia is vague and painterly here, conveying atmosphere without articulating details. It’s bewildering, even frustrating, until you stop trying to make sense of it, stop trying to find an A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C plot, and appreciate the haunting, mercurial, doleful enigma for what is.

Conrad Tao, piano

At Paul Recital Hall at Juilliard on Saturday, October 18.

Conrad Tao is fourteen years old—a true prodigy, I suppose, though I hate that word—and I went to his solo recital at Juilliard with a friend from my old college piano studio. Sitting next to her, someone who’s heard me mangle basic Chopin nocturnes and Mozart sonatas, while some kid flew through a few pillars of piano literature was bizarre and kind of funny. Clearly I made the right decision in choosing not to pursue a career as a professional musician.

San Francisco Ballet at 75: The American Tour

At New York City Center on Sunday, October 12.

I went to see the San Francisco Ballet because I wanted to diverge from the Balanchine-heavy repertory of the New York City Ballet, but perhaps inevitably, my favorite element of San Francisco’s program was Balanchine’s classic “The Four Temperaments.” What’s more, San Francisco felt somehow softer and less crisp than New York. I enjoyed the program—the dancing was lovely—but I think the New York City Ballet has brainwashed me more than I realized.

Don Giovanni

The Metropolitan Opera on Friday, October 10.

There’s been a lot of talk about opera companies taking looks as well as vocal abilities into account when making casting decisions. Our collective fixations being what they are, the talk tends to focus on women and their weight, but if we must obsess about the issue, we probably should broaden the conversation. I know I couldn’t help notice that while the female leads in the Met’s Don Giovanni were extraordinary, Don Juan himself was only okay—at least when it came to the arias. He rocked a Harlequin-style mane and torso to convincing effect.

I don’t want to overstate the case. Erwin Schrott was fine, but in comparison to Susan Graham (Donna Elvira) and especially Krassimira Stoyanova (Donna Anna), his projection was inadequate and his musicality lackluster. Nonetheless, he gave an entertaining performance, not just looking the part but acting it quite well. Aside from his hammy closing scene, he was the finest actor on stage by a wide margin, so more than anything else, this Don Giovanni impressed upon me how difficult it is to find an outstanding actor and an outstanding singer together in a single outstanding package.

True Blood

Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Five episodes into the first season.

When it rained on Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, our satellite reception went staticky and I wasn’t able to watch the new episode of True Blood. (Why the hell is cable not available on our street? We live in New York, a huge metropolitan area, the media capital of the nation! Arrgh.) I sighed and scheduled the DVR to record a rerun of the episode later in the week. It rained that night, too, so I found another middle-of-the-night reshowing and, on the third attempt, finally got a complete recording. Yay!

But through this whole satellite fiasco, with all my cursing at DirecTV, I was sort of embarrassed for myself. This was a lot of effort to watch a TV show that I know in my heart to be pretty mediocre. The stereotyping of the small-town South is inappropriate. The allegorical treatment of vampirism manages to be both heavy-handed and wildly inconsistent. Much of the “drama” is laughable and way too reminiscent of late-night softcore fare, which it already kind of resembles in other ways (ahem). And yet, and yet, and yet … I kind of like it.

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken

By Daniel Mendelsohn. Published in 2008.

When people complain that blogs are lowering the level of critical discourse, I always take it kind of personally, which is stupid for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that this site is a poor excuse for a blog (too insular and infrequently updated). But even though I think it’s silly (not to mention offensive) to generalize about such a wildly diverse medium, I believe I understand what the Luddites are condemning. Lazy, glib, vicious, uninformed criticism does, in fact, proliferate on the Internet, but let’s be honest: that kind of dreck can be found everywhere. (I studied movie reviews in mid-tier newspapers as part of my master’s thesis—yes, really!—so I know of what I speak.)

The fact is that truly great criticism is a rare commodity, both online and on paper. Criticism that gives you something new to think about, criticism that both educates and entertains, criticism that inspires you to look at something familiar in a new way or to look at something new, period—that kind of writing is special, and it always has been.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing is definitely special. His new collection of essays, most of which were previously published in The New York Review of Books, showcases elegant and persuasive arguments, beautiful turns of phrase, and a deep understanding of his subjects. That alone would make How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken well worth reading, but what elevates the work to a higher level is Mendelsohn’s obvious passion for his subjects. He cares about contemporary interpretations of Tennessee Williams’s plays and what they might say about contemporary culture. He cares about well-meaning but misguided attempts to universalize the tragic love story of Brokeback Mountain. He cares about cinematic dramatizations of the 9/11 terrorist attack, what they conceal and what they reveal. That caring is contagious, and what’s more, it immediately belies the nasty myth that an intellectual reading must be a cold one.