Thursday, 20 August 2015

Postcard from New York 3

Sleep No More, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Hand To God, The Flick, David Greenspan/Gertrude Stein

My final week in New York was overshadowed by the email I had received from my wife in the cinema on the Sunday, and the flurry of communications that followed over the next five days.

Without going into details: after ten years, my marriage was over, much as my previous marriage had ended fifteen years previously. Once again I was completely blindsided, although in retrospect I should have seen it coming. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: to lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. This is not the place to expand further on the immediate circumstances or the underlying causes of either separation, except to say that both were to some extent unconsciously self-engineered if not exactly self-inflicted. Now I veered from one emotion to another as the total and irrevocable nature of my current loss gradually became apparent.

In what follows, I make no effort to separate my impressions of the city itself or the theatre I saw there that week from my somewhat unhinged state. It had indeed become a hell of a town, and my vision was as clouded by shock, pain, grief and despair as one who wanders through the underworld – like Orpheus, to emerge at last alone.

In the words of Clive James’s recently published translation of Dante, which I carried with me on my travels:

How harsh and bitter that place seemed to me –
Merely to think of it renews the fear –
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possbily be worse. As you shall hear
It led to good things too, eventually.


After a sleepless night in my sweltering third-floor box room in Williamsburg, I decided to head into Manhattan and spend the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If nothing else, continuous access to free wi-fi would at least keep me in potential communication with my wife, from whom I hadn’t heard since tentatively replying to her still somewhat veiled email the previous day. This led to a morning of torture, as delays in the subway saw me stranded underground and in a state of mounting panic and paranoia about my marriage (all my fears being subsequently confirmed when I finally heard from her again).

When I got to the Met, its glories were imbued with a dawning sense of loss. I wandered the Greek and Roman galleries, and then the even more spectacular Ancient Egyptian wing, overwhelmed by feelings of regret, remorse and grief: how my wife would have loved these collections; how I should have asked her to come to New York with me; how we would never share such experiences again. I had taken too little care of this – and other things. And now it was too late.

Just before five o’clock – upstairs in the Italian Renaissance rooms, but unable to take in the paintings around me – I received another email from her, this time spelling things out with terrible clarity. I hastily composed a reply, attempting to bargain with her, while an amplified voice overhead announced that the museum was now closing.

Outside on the crowded steps I could no longer access wi-fi, so I dialled her number and began leaving an incoherent voicemail message, before my voice and words failed me. Then my phone battery died.

I got into a cab and began heading blindly downtown.


That night I had a ticket to see Sleep No More: the famous long-running immersive production by English company Punchdrunk at McKittrick’s Hotel. Despite my increasingly frantic state, I decided to go ahead and see the show.

This turned out to be a disastrous mistake. To be honest, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it in any event. As the title would suggest, it’s based on Macbeth, and takes place over multiple floors in the hotel (in this respect, much like Then She Fell, reviewed in my last Postcard). Unlike that show, however, Sleep No More plays to a much larger crowd (there were at least a hundred of us the night I saw it), and is much more chaotic: the audience, left to its own devices, rapidly fragmented and followed the action, chased the actors or explored the floors, rooms and their contents at will. Moreover, every audience member was issued with a neutral mask, which had the effect of encouraging a level of display and irresponsibility which I found irritating, as people pushed past each other, interposed themselves as part of the action and got in the way of the actors. I had the impression that there was an in-crowd of afficionados who came regularly in order to hog the limelight and show off in front of the other spectators.

Conversely, unlike Then She Fell or other more properly interactive works, the audience didn’t seem to have any designated role, and were largely ignored by the performers. In other words, it could have all happened without us; there was a kind of conventional ‘fourth wall’, which seemed to cut through the heart of the work and disconnect us from what we were watching. I found this lack of connection frustrating, and felt it added to the level of hyperactivity among certain members of the crowd.

Beyond this, the performances and choreography were much less impressive than Then She Fell, and in comparison with the latter the whole production had less to say. In short, the immersive form was more like a gimmick that had been imposed on the ghost of Shakespeare’s play – whose plot, scenes and characters were diluted to the point of cliché. The overall atmosphere, mood and design also felt clichéd: a kind of contrived decadent 1920s world that, again, seemed to have no intrinsic connection with the material.

After an hour of mindless to-ing and fro-ing in search of something interesting to watch, I’d had enough. I was also feeling increasingly trapped in my own internal immersive nightmare. It took me another fifteen minutes to find my way back to the floor I’d entered from and escape. I re-entered the underworld of the subway, and made my way back to my box room in Williamsburg, where another sleepless night awaited me.


The next morning there was another painfully honest email from my wife. I replied straight away, and we arranged to meet in London on the weekend to talk things through. Then I went out for a walk, found a park and lay down under the trees, letting my body and mind catch up with the events of the past two days.

That night for a treat I took myself out to see Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall, on tour after their recent album Cheek to Cheek. They delivered a solid set of jazz, swing, lounge and cabaret standards from the 20s to the 60s, backed by two separate bands and a shared orchestra. At 88, Bennett ruled the stage like an old king, relaxed and comfortable but still in great voice and more than capable of belting it out, especially in the big solo numbers, the lion’s share of which fell to him. In this context, Gaga somewhat uncharacteristically played second fiddle, but still held her own as a Broadway-trained baby, shifting as effortlessly from idiom to idiom as she did from frock to frock during Bennett’s solos. I let the onslaught of sentiment wash over me, enjoyed the grandiose sense of occasion, and admired the effortless artistry and stylishness of two very different but eminently compatible master-performers. We shall not see their like again.


Wednesday proved more challenging again, emotionally and theatrically. Once more I braved the subway to midtown Manahttan, to see a matinee of Hand to God: a Broadway revival at The Booth Theatre of Robert Askins’s dazzling new play, which was originally produced at The Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011. As with Fun Home, this was a revival of the original off-Broadway production, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and featuring a central tour-de-force from Steven Boyer as the nerdy teenager Jason and his foulmouthed handpuppet alter-ego Tyrone, who apparently becomes possessed by the devil, leading to scenes of mounting chaos – sexual, aggressive and finally bordering on the psychotic and even supernatural.

To an even greater degree than Fun Home or Hedwig, Hand to God is both a challenge and a tribute to Broadway’s capacity to confront Middle America. Mostly set in a Christian puppetry workshop in a school basement room in Texas, the play mocks not only religious and cultural hypocrisy but the entire human project to subdue, civilize or demonize our shadow-selves. In short: it gradually transforms from being a hilarious black comedy to a terrifying satire of truly Swiftian proportions.

Boyer’s facility with the puppet and his capacity to play two opposing characters (or dual aspects of the same personality) simultaneously had me spellbound – and finally covering my eyes in horror during a final scene of frenzied mayhem, when Jason took a hammer to his own right hand in an attempt to save himself and others from its increasingly deranged clutches. This was preceded by a graphic handpuppet-sex-scene between him and his equally mild-mannered girfriend (wearing her own insatiable handpuppet for the occasion), which the audience found side-splitting but I found almost unbearable to watch, now firmly in the grip of my own demons.

I sat in the auditorium shaking until everyone else had left, then stumbled out into the crowded streets. I had nowhere to go, but I couldn’t face the maelstrom of people and traffic, so I headed back into the maw of the subway, feeling like a drowning man being dragged down by the undertow.

I finally emerged again on the Lower West Side in the more peaceful ambience of Greenwich Village, not far from a small off-Broadway venue where I had a ticket to see another play a few hours later – although at this point I couldn’t imagine ever setting foot inside another theatre again.  Instinctively I headed for a park in Washington Square; as I entered its green haven, the tears came, and I sank down onto a lawn under the trees. People were sitting around me on the grass listening to a jazz trio busking nearby; no one seemed disturbed by the man weeping uncontrollably in their midst. It felt like a river that would never run dry; words, images and thoughts dissolved in the flow of feelings. Eventually this too came to an end, and I stopped crying, got up, dropped a five-dollar note into the trumpet-player’s instrument case, and walked off to find something to eat before the show. Life goes on.


The play I saw that night at the intimate Barrow Street Theater was a sweetly subtle relief after the lurid horror show of Hand to God. Moreover, I was in Greenwich Village, and off-Broadway at last; it was almost like being in Carlton or Fitzroy, and going to a familiar Melbourne independent theatre venue like La Mama or Eleventh Hour.

Annie Baker’s The Flick was first staged at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, and won the Pulitzer Prize last year. The remount at the Barrow featured the same cast (Alex Hanna, Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten), designer (David Zinn) and director (Sam Gold), whose similarly understated approach to Fun Home distinguished him as one of that rare breed of directors who put their playwrights and actors ahead of their own creative egos.

Indeed, direction, writing and performances in The Flick were so understated that I felt like I could have been watching an off-Broadway equivalent to Tsai Ming-liang’s arch, slow-burning Taiwanese masterpiece of minimalist cinema Goodbye Dragon Inn, which like Baker’s play is set in a run-down old movie house. Unlike Tsai’s film however – the continuous action (or inaction) of which is set in a cinema in Tapei during its last 90-minute screening, during which it follows various patrons and employees in and out of the auditorum and elsewhere around the building, using long static shots and almost no dialogue – The Flick is set in a cinema in Massachusetts, consists of a discontinuous series of long and largely static scenes (almost all of which take place inside the auditorium after various movie screenings), focuses on just three characters (who are all employees), and is all talk (albeit of the most deadpan and desultory kind). Behind both works of course lurks The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s haunting cinematic ode to small-town life, growing up, nostalgia and indeed cinema itself – as crystallized in the form of the local independent, single-screen movie house, typically specializing in cult, arthouse or recent release re-runs. In the case of The Flick, this image was simply but brilliantly realised in Zinn’s design by putting a hyperrealistic auditorium onstage with rows of seats facing the theatre audience so that the fourth wall became a virtual movie screen.

Perhaps there’s something about the vanishing institution of the movie house, the medium of the moving image, and even the materiality of film itself that uniquely suits the theme of time’s passing as their privileged subject-matter. If so, Annie Baker’s play and Sam Gold’s production (the two seem inseparable) seize on this elective affinity between cinema and time, and bend it towards their own highly original theatrical ends. Certainly the studiously slow pace of this production apparently divided audiences and critics alike during its previous run. The first act alone ran for ninety minutes; the entire show including interval came down at just over three hours; but the real challenge and beauty of play and production lay in their quietly observational tone. For me however there was nothing gratuitious or enervating about this measured pace and tone, which perfectly captured the situation of three lonely people suffering from a very contemporary form of melancholia and trying to connect with each other in the context of a workplace and an economy that seemed to be relentlessly dissolving all traditional forms of connection, solidarity, value or meaning – a condition which the sociologist Durkheim analysed in the late 19th century under the concept of ‘anomie’, particularly in his study of suicide.

No doubt my own situation made me even more receptive to the mood of this work. Not that it made me suicidal: on the contrary I found it strangely restorative after the hallucinatory vortex of Hand to God. Paradoxically, it gave me a context for the loss of connection, solidarity, value or meaning which I was currently experiencing in the dissolution of my marriage, especially in the heightened circumstances in which I found myself – doubly alone, so to speak, and infinitely isolated in this vast unfamilar city where I knew almost no-one.

After the madness of the afternoon, I went home calmly that evening; but for the third night running, I still couldn’t sleep. The demons raised by Hand to God continued to torment me.


The next day, there was another sad but resolute email from my wife. I responded as best I could, bowing to the inevitable. Then I headed back into Greenwich Village and met up with the one friend I had in New York, an Australian actor who’d lived there for the last ten years. She sized me up, then announced that she’d meet me again that evening outside the theatre where she was performing and give me some of her husband’s sleeping pills. She also insisted that I move out of my box room in Williamsburg the next morning and spend the day at her apartment on the Lower East Side before I flew out of New York that night to meet my wife in London the following day.

We said goodbye, she left to pick up her son from school, and I went back to Washington Square Park and listened to the same jazz trio under the trees. A couple of hours later I met my friend outside the theatre a few blocks away and collected the sleeping pills as instructed. Then I walked a few blocks further through the heart of the downtown off-Broadway district to the Connelly Theater in the East Village, where Target Margin Theater were presenting a Gertrude Stein season. Tonight’s offering was Composition…Master Pieces…Identity: two lectures and a poem, all written by Stein, and presented by off-Broadway legend David Greenspan.

‘Composition as Explanation’ was a lecture given by Stein in 1926 about the paradoxical relationship between artists and their era. Greenspan recited it from memory, neatly dressed in a button-down shirt and pants, and sitting in a chair. His somewhat feline delivery and demeanour made no attempt to imitate Stein, but he held me captivated, even as my mind alternately wrestled and danced with her words.

Stein’s language typically combines a kind of abstract prose-poetry, biting wit, passages of lucid analysis and what might clinically be termed ‘perseveration’ – in this case the repetition of words and phrases beyond their apparent terms of reference, relevance, appropriateness, logic or even grammar. The opening sentences of the lecture, for example, read as follows (the entire text can easily be found on the internet):

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

If this looks dry and even opaque, Greenspan’s playful delivery brought out shades of meaning and musicality that had me hanging not just on every word but every inflection and flicker of expression, from his voice to his face and hands.

The second piece, ‘What Are Master-Pieces, and Why are There So Few of Them?’, was a lecture dating from 1936, and delving more deeply into the psychology of creation, and in particular what might be called the antinomy between artistic creation and personal identity. As a striking passage from the lecture has it:

The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognising that he knows, that is what destroys creation.

Greenspan simply read this lecture seated behind a table. As he read, though, the spirit of Stein and her words began to inhabit and intoxicate me, and I felt increasingly liberated – from myself and at least potentially from my own creative and psychological habits. I had a sense too of Stein as the great enabler, to whom the greatest Modernist writers and painters– from Pound to Picasso – were so singularly drawn. 

The final piece, ‘Identity – A Poem’, also from 1936, was the only one actually written for theatrical performance (although of course lectures are also performances of a kind). Broken up into a series of randomly numbered ‘acts’ and ‘scenes’, it continued and developed the themes of the earlier lecture, including the repeated refrain: ‘I am I because my little dog knows me.’

This time Greenspan was on his feet, his whole body and voice fully animated, like a kind of marionette possessed by the soul of Stein herself. There was still not the slightest trace of impersonation or even ‘acting’, at least in the sense of ‘characterisation’; but I felt in the presence of a master performer who had timed the formal development of the show and the progressive revelation of his craft to perfection.

I found this final work, and the accumulated impact of the whole evening, exhilarating and deeply moving. The final ‘scenes’ and lines of ‘Identity’ spoke to me very directly, not just about creativity, but about life’s transitions:

Act 1 Scene 1.

The necessity of ending is not the necessity of beginning.

Chorus: How finely that is said.

Scene II.

An end of a play is not the end of a day.

Scene IV.

After giving.


With those abrupt and enigmatic last words, the performance itself was over; but as I walked out onto East 4th Street, I had the glimmer of a sense that things might not be over for me, if I could find the need to begin again.

Back in my box room in Williamsburg, I took a sleeping pill and blessed my friend. Tonight I would sleep; there would be no demons. Tomorrow I would pack my things, take a cab across Williamsburg Bridge to her apartment, and spend the day there, recuperating. And tomorrow night I would leave New York – wonderful town, helluva town – and fly across the Atlantic to face my wife, and my future.


Humph will be resuming his regular Postcards from Perth as of next week.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Postcard from New York [2]

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.

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.