Postcard from New York 
Then She Fell, Fun Home, Neue Gallerie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, The Tempest
New York, New York, it’s a helluva town – as the words of the song originally went, before the Production Code intervened and changed them to ‘it’s a wonderful town’ for the sanitized film version. The original words are more biting, though, and more ambivalent.
New York, New York, it’s a helluva town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.
The people ride in a hole in the groun'.
New York, New York, it's a helluva town!
New York, New York, it’s a visitor's place,
Where no one lives on account of the pace,
But seven millions are screaming for space.
New York, New York, it's a visitor's place!
New York, New York: wonderful town, helluva town; the setting for some of the most exciting theatrical experiences on my Fellowship travels, and the scene of my undoing. It’s been just over a month since I left there, and it’s going to be harder than ever to separate the strands of my cultural and personal life in what follows.
I didn’t get much sleep on the night train from Chicago. I hadn’t forked out for a sleeper, so I tilted back my chair and dozed as best I could as the Lake Shore Limited plunged on through the flickering darkness across Indiana and Ohio, slowing as it passed through the fading lights of Cleveland around dawn. The scenery the next day was spectacular, even through bleary eyes – especially once we reached New York State, the Catskills and the plunging shores of the Hudson between Albany and New York City.
I arrived at my Airbnb in the achingly hip district of Williamsburg just across the bridge from the Lower East Side to discover that no one was home to let me in. Fortunately a helpful tenant downstairs let me through to the back yard where I managed to do something I’d only seen in movies and scale the fire escape (quietly congratulating myself on my last two weeks of body-mind training in Minneapolis), and was lucky enough to find an unlocked window to the apartment, which was on the third floor. It turned out I was sharing it with two young guys from Long Island, a law student and an IT consultant, who both had work placements in NYC over the summer. They were as surprised as I was when they got home from the gym and found an intruder in their apartment, as our elusive host (who lived in Paris) hadn’t informed them I was coming. It was definitely the most random Airbnb experience I’d had so far, but I took it all in my stride and settled in, despite the chaos, the heat, the absence of aircon and my tiny room. I was in New York, after all.
I was here for two weeks’ down-time from the training and workshop activities at the core of my Fellowship travels. I planned to see some theatre, have a couple of meetings, and do some writing of my own.
The night after my arrival I went to an immersive/site-specific dance-theatre work in a disused former hospital in nearby Brooklyn by Third Rail Projects called Then She Fell and based on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as well as Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell, the eleven-year old girl who was the inspiration for the books. Carrroll befriended and photographed her until the family mysteriously but abruptly severed contact with him a year later (the relevent pages from his diary have been tantalisingly torn out).
The show was intelligently conceived, elegantly designed and performed, and appropriately dreamlike and seductive given the ambiguity of the material and the venue itself. In fact it was impossible to tell what was introduced or ‘found’ in terms of objects, props, furniture, décor or interior architecture. The whole experience was explicitly framed as an exploration of liminality. There were only about twenty of us in the audience, and for two hours we were led from floor to floor and room to room, invited to drink various substances (most of which contained alcohol, so we had the option of declining), gradually separated from each other, and shown or invited to take part in various activities (most of which were highly choreographed but became increasingly intimate, and in the course of which we progressed from being voyeurs to active participants). The only rules were: don’t speak during the performance, and don’t open any closed doors. Otherwise we were free to explore the rooms and any objects (or people) we encountered; but mostly the experienced was carefully guided and choreographed, with a continuous music score playing throughout the building, which cleverly kept everything synchronised.
Often I find immersive work formally interesting but a bit thin when it comes to content and execution, but this show delivered on all fronts. Afterwards I went for a drink with a few other audience-members and we shared what we’d been through, as we’d all had different experiences with different performers in different sequences. As with other successful immersive performances I’ve attended, I still felt like I was in the show when I left the bar and wandered back through the unfamilair and slightly hallucinatory environs of Williamsburg to my apartment.
This lingering sense of having passed through to the other side of the looking glass and being in a dream persisted throughout my time in New York. Indeed, it took on a nightmarish aspect when things started spiralling out of control at the end of the week.
The following day I took the crowded subway across to Manhattan for a meeting. Afterwards I headed uptown to the Circle in the Square theatre to see the matinee of a Broadway (formerly off-Broadway) musical called Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel about a small-town young girl who comes out as gay in her college years, while her father subsequently commits suicide after his own closet homosexuality is exposed.
I’m not a big fan of musicals but I found this one consistently involving and deeply moving, with an interesting and complex chamber score (in the sweet-sour Sondheim idiom) by Jeanine Tesorim, intelligent lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, skilful and economical staging in-the-round by Sam Gold, and superb performances, especially from Michael Cerveris as the father (a role he orginated at the Public Theatre production in 2014). The story itself packed a real emotional punch – especially the central father-daughter relationship, and the crippling impact of homophobia on an individual and his family – leavened with lighter moments related to the three children’s involvement in the family business (a funeral home) and the narrator-daughter’s discovery of her own sexuality in college (including the hilarious and touching first-love song, ‘I’m changing my major to Joan’).
Diversity is alive and well on Broadway, it seems – together with a healthy succession of works transferring from original off-Broadway seasons. Certainly I saw more evidence of this symbiotic relationship between alternative and mainstream theatre in New York than back home in Australia: how many Blue Room, La Mama or Griffin shows end up on the stages of Black Swan, the MTC or the STC, let alone commercial theatres? Perhaps in this respect there’s something to be said for the more ruthless (and comparatively underfunded) American theatre scene, which to some extent facilitates this kind of symbiosis by eliminating the sclerotic middle-ground of funded State Theatre Companies competely.
The following afternoon I visited the Neue Gallerie on the edge of Central Park, where a special exhibition featuring Klimt’s first portrait of Adèle Bloch-Bauer was on show to coincide with the recent release of the film The Woman In Gold. The museum houses a superb permanent collection of Viennese and German fin-de-siècle art, and has a scale and focus that reminded me of the Bergruen Museum in Berlin with its collection of classic modernist art.
The painting itself is a stunning example of Klimt’s so-called ‘golden phase’, but I was a little sceptical about the exhibition’s sensationalized and oversimplified frame-narrative of how a heroic American lawyer restored the portrait of Adèle from the Austrian State Gallery (who had acquired it after it was requisitioned by the Nazis) to her niece (who promptly sold it for a record-breaking sum) – especially when Adèle herself had requested that the painting be left to the Austrian State Gallery in her will (a request which was subsequently overlooked by her husband, who outlived her and then left all ‘his’ possessions to his descendants when he fled Vienna in 1938). To me, it suggested a more complex story from which none of the litigants emerge without blemish, and raised complex questions about art, ownership and property.
Upstairs at the Neue Gallerie was a much more interesting exhibition juxtaposing early 20th century Russian modernist art with contemporary German early expressionist paintings by the Brücke and Blaue Reiter artists in Dresden and Munich, some of whom also exhibited in Russia, and whose work was known by their Russian counterparts; both were mutually influenced by Fauvism in France at around the same time. Once again, I had a sense of the international efflorescence of a certain phase of modernism, which was cruelly truncated by the First World War and the subsequent rise of totalitarianism in both countries.
Afterwards I meandered through Central Park until the lamposts lit up and dusk began to fall. Then I headed back to midtown Manhattan to see another Broadway revival of an off-Broadway musical: Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco Theatre. The original star and co-writer of Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell had recently finished reprising the title role and handed it over to TV heartthrob Darren Criss (Glee); and the theatre was packed with fans of both the show and Criss. As a Hedwig-virgin (never having seen the show or the film) I knew little of what was store for me, other than that it was a neo-glam post-punk rock musical about a former East German genderqueer rock singer whose botched sex-change operation has left her the mutilated sole member of ‘a gender of one’.
In the event, I was transported by the wit of the book and lyrics perhaps a little more than the pastiche of the music, which perhaps inevitably felt a little tired seventeen years down the track. I imagine seeing the original off-Broadway incarnation in 1998 might have had something of the impact that The Rocky Horror Show had on me when I first saw it at the converted former Channel 7 Tele-Theatre in Fitzroy in 1975 starring Max Phipps, whose vampire-like interpretation of Frank-N-Furter imprinted itself indelibly on my young and impressionable mind. Still, I was once more impressed by the appetite for sexual and gender diversity displayd by a mostly straight-looking Broadway crowd, many of whom looked like office parties or young couples on a date night. Admittedly they were probably mostly there to see Criss; you could spot the Hedheads in contrast by their dark clothes, makeup and inevitable wigs.
As an experienced musical theatre star, Criss himself was more than able to hold his own as a singer, hoofer and deliver of zinging one-liners, although he struck me as perhaps a little young, sculpted and cleancut for the role. It almost felt as if an element of ‘slumming it’ in the realm of genderqueerdom lent him added sex-appeal for the crowd, who went beserk whenever he twerked or flirted, and completely lost it when he finally stripped off the drag to expose a perfectly ripped torso for his final song as Hedwig’s alter ego and soul-mate Johnny Gnosis. I must admit I lost the plot at this point, as it all became a bit heavy and conceptual for me; I found myself pining for the simple, innocent, vacuous camp of Rocky Horror, which paradoxically felt more liberating than the normalising morality that seemed inherent in Hedwig’s final ‘acceptance of her true self’. Give me wigs and heels any day.
The next day I braved the crowds at MOMA to see Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, followed by two 1950s treats in MOMA’s ongoing film program: Douglas Sirk’s glorious Techicolour melodrama Magnificent Obsession; and a rare 3D screening of John Farrow’s classic John Wayne vehicle Hondo.
If Yoko Ono’s popular celebrity has been enhanced by her association with John Lennon, her status as an artist has been unfairly eclipsed for the same reason. This two-way distortion has been intensified by politics: specifically the inherent politics of being a woman, being Japanese, being a peace activist, and having a reputation for being an obscure avant-garde conceptual and performance artist – all of which are more ‘well-known’ than the work itself. Of course, to ‘know something well’ is a form of not-knowing, ignorance, denial or even repression – all of which is directly relevant to Yoko’s work as well as her person.
The first MOMA exhibition exclusively devoted to her work takes as its point of departure her first ‘one-woman show’ at the museum in 1971 – a conceptual intervention which took the form of the artist claiming to have released flies in the museum grounds and inviting the public to track them through the city. The substance of the current exhbition is a remarkable survey of her work over the decade preceding that intervention.
In fact a consistent thread throughout Yoko’s work takes the form of invitations or instructions, along with paradoxical installations, works of participatory performance art, and the use of film (especially in extremely slow motion) to explore the difference between aesthetic and routine perception. As such, her work has more in common with Dada, Surrealism and Duchamps in particular than with her contemporaries in the Pop-Art movement (Warhol being the most obvious parallel, especially in their respective use of film). Beyond this stretches the lineage of Japanese art and thought, from the tea ceremony to the Zen koan. In short: unlike Warhol or Pop, Yoko is not interested in the social phenomena of celebrity or the mass media and their trade in images, so much as in the existential phenomenology of objects and embodiment.
Above all I was struck by the sense of an artist courageously confronting and exploring what she referred to as her own ‘shyness’ – a word that in this context has manifold implications: personal, political, psychological, cultural, sexual and gendered. Two famous performance works from 1964 reenacted or recorded this with great force. In Bag Piece, spectator-participants were invited to climb into a black cloth bag – which was fastened so that it completely enclosed them – and lie on the gallery floor, shed their clothes and move around however and for as long as they please. Meanwhile a projection on a nearby wall of Cut Piece showed a young Yoko sitting quietly on the floor onstage while audience-participants were invited to cut away pieces of her clothing with scissors (needless to say, in both works the use of the floor, clothing and silence all have distinctive Japanese cultural references).
Ironically though, given my earlier caveat about the distortion of Yoko’s reputation by her association with Lennon, perhaps the most beautiful and moving work in the exhibition for me was an extreme slow-motion film projection of John’s face gradually breaking into a smile. In part it was the sheer beauty of that face (no matter whom it belonged to); in part the revelation afforded by slow-motion of the timelessness of images, even moving ones; but undeniably also the anecdotal pathos of knowing the fate that lay in store for the man himself. What distinguishes this from comparable works by Warhol is a quality of innocence distinctive to Yoko’s oeuvre. For Warhol, mortality is something inherent in the image itself; for Yoko, slow-motion film captures an image of eternity at the heart of life.
The following night I was back in Central Park at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre for The Tempest, part of The Public Theatre’s annual summer season of Shakespeare in the Park (along with a forthcoming production of Cymbeline). Despite the incipient rain, there was a great sense of occasion among the 2,000-strong crowd: a mixture of paying subscribers and those determined enough to queue early and secure a free ticket – the core purpose of the season (as initiated by The Public’s founding director Joe Papp) being to make Shakespeare available to everyone regardless of income.
In the event, the production itself was like a bad school play, and featured some frankly amateur performances. The Prospero-Miranda-Ferdinand scenes were painfully awkward; the scenes with the marooned Duke and courtiers almost unwatchable; and the closing masque of Iris, Ceres and Juno staged like a kind of eisteddford, complete with excruciatingly lame choreography and musical score. The Stephano-Trinculo-Caliban comic subplot scenes were more successful; and the Prospero-Ariel scenes had real pathos, accentuated by Sam Waterston’s somewhat shaky but still forceful presence as Prospero (a part he famously played forty years ago), in which physical and emotional fragility were poignantly heightened by a deeply felt connection with the text. If both play and role can be read as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage as a playwright, here there was a sense of an ageing actor contemplating his own twilight. When he stepped forward to deliver his final quavering appeal to the audience – ‘Let your indulgence set me free’ – I had a lump in my throat. Sometimes great works speak to us even more revealingly in productions that miss the mark completely, or in actors who identify with an aspect of their character all too closely.
Later that night after I got back to my apartment in Williamsburg I wandered down to the ferry terminal a couple of blocks away. It was a Saturday night, and there was a small gathering of revellers scattered around the park benches on the lawn overlooking the jetty. I found a place to sit and gazed out across the water at the lights of Manhattan, feeling a little like Woody Allen, but without my own version of Diane Keaton sitting there beside me.
The next morning – it was a Sunday, the end of my first week in New York – I headed downtown to the Film Forum for another cinephilic indulgence: a marathon screening of Satyajit Ray’s classic Apu trilogy. Over six hours in total of beautifully restored black-and-white neo-realism, the films tell the story of a young boy who grows up in an Indian village, moves to the city with his family, moves to an even bigger city as a promising student, has a serendipitous marriage, finds love, and finally becomes a father, in the face of a series of increasingly devastating personal losses. Based on a famous Indian Bildungsroman, in some ways it’s more like a pilgrim’s progress, with a spiritual dimension and luminous beauty that set it apart from the Italian or French neo-realist films of Rossellini or Renoir that inspired it.
Just before the last screening began of Apu’s World, I glanced at my smartphone in the darkness of the cinema, and there was an email from my wife. I began reading it, and felt my world begin to dissolve.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on, as Prospero says at the end of the pageant in the last scene of The Tempest.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on, as Prospero says at the end of the pageant in the last scene of The Tempest.
New York, my fellowship, my sense of reality, and apparently my marriage, had melted into air.
Into thin air.
Humph’s third and final Postcard from New York will be posted next week.