Thursday, June 08, 2006

Opening night at Grendel

Our seats just happened to be on opening night, thanks to the last-minute computer glitches and rescheduling, so JW and I went to see the big world premiere of the Julie Taymor/Elliot Goldenthal behemoth tonight.

I have gone from excited to scared to doomsday about this production, and that was before I sat down in my seats. Hearing about all the problems and hearing no consensus whatsoever from those who saw it in previews, I just tried to be hopeful yet realistic. When it was all over I was mostly just frustrated.

There is so much skill involved here. There are gorgeous moments throughout, as one would expect, I assume, from Julie Taymor. My only familiarity with her work is through the movie Titus which, if memory serves, is high camp as much as anything.... But Grendel's supposed to be the real thing, right?

Well, yes and no. One of the main conceits of the show is that we are viewing the world through the lens of a monster, as he is our narrator. And yet, the world he comes from is so beyond grotesque it's just a plain eyesore. His mother is represented as this massive tree-puppet with pendulous breasts, along with two or three other unidentified tree-people puppets (seriously, who the hell were those guys?), and their scenes are such an assault on the senses I was always a bit relieved when the long-haired maidens came on to dance again. Is self-hatred what all this hideousness is about? Envy? Perhaps...but god, those puppets were ugly. I wondered what would've happened if the lens were focused a bit differently; if there was something odd-looking about the villagers, and Grendel's folks looked less cretinous. Would we have identified differently? Or at all?

Oh, but the world of the Grendel isn't supposed to be pretty, you say. I know, I know, and I told myself that constantly, whenever I'd have a moment of doubt about what was going on least during the first act. During the first act I was on the verge of being won over. Eric Owens is a marvelous singer and he's got one of the hardest, biggest roles he will probably ever sing here. He does a splendid job. He's quite persuasive. And the first act is full of other persuasive moments as well. The choreography is most engaging here, and there are countless visual spectacles that dazzle...full of projections and sharp lighting and just plain old-fashioned great staging. Even the silly dragon scene with Denyce Graves got a chuckle out of me. Although by the time it was over I wasn't convinced she was diva enough for that role. Or singer enough.

JW suggested it was the music's fault, not hers. He's the expert there. I was never overwhelmed by the music, although I did enjoy passages. The writing for Grendel and his Shadows tended to make me prick up my ears the most. Goldenthal complemented Owens by giving him a bit of a chorus with a small group of "Shadows", who served as his dark side, his subconscious, his romantic self, etc. It's a conceit with a lot of potential -- potential I felt was unfulfilled....

But we'll get to that in a minute. I'm getting ahead of myself. So Act I ended and JW and I rushed for our ritual Diet Pepsis and brownie (we split one -- we're disciplined that way), and I could tell he was not happy. I was surprisingly feeling good about the whole experience. I had my misgivings, but there was enough razzle-dazzle and just the right suggestion of substance to make me think this might not be so bad after all. I told him it felt big, weighty, and ambitious -- and it did.

And then Act II started. It started with this clumsy, flat-footed comic scene that broke the narrative convention the show established. And Grendel acknowledged this break with a laugh line. That got laughs. But it wasn't funny. It was just confusing. Oh, well, actually, it was funny, but only because Grendel used the phrase "shit-ass" and the phrase "shit-ass" is funny, right? Of course it is; I just typed it twice and I'll bet you giggled, or at least smiled, both times you read it. But let me explain to you what happened in this scene. Grendel, our narrator, who has spent the whole show being the only person speaking/singing in modern English, plays a scene with a warrior who vows to fight him. The warrior is suddenly, inexplicably, also speaking in modern English. This is after we've spent the entire first act being told that NO ONE BUT GRENDEL speaks in modern English. Then, to explain it all, Grendel says "this shit-ass scene was his idea." WHAT??? DID YOU HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH HIM BEFORE IT STARTED? IF SO, WHY??? AND SINCE WHEN IS ACKNOWLEDGING THIS IS A PIECE OF THEATER A PART OF THIS SHOW? OKAY, FINE, SO THERE WAS THAT ONE LINE DENYCE GRAVES HAD IN ACT ONE BUT THAT WAS AN OBLIQUE REFERENCE AT BEST. YOU CAN'T DO THIS!! YOU CAN'T! AND THIS SCENE ISN'T FUNNY. NO MATTER HOW MANY PIECES OF FRUIT YOU THROW. IT'S NOT FUNNY. GO AHEAD! DO THAT LITTLE DANCE TO GET A FEW MORE EASY LAUGHS, BUT IT'S NOT FUNNY.

Okay, enough with the caps lock. Anyway, as you can tell, this is when it all started to go downhill for me. After that, I just remember a passage of Grendel's singing involving his repetition of the phrase "Something's Coming." And I'm sorry, but you just don't have a singer in a show sing that phrase unless it's followed by the words "come on in, don't be shy, meet a guy, pull up a chair!"


Sorry about the caps lock again. I promise I'll stop. Now, I meant to get back to the unfulfilled potential of the splitting of Grendel's voices, but I don't know what to say except that it was inconsistently applied and a wasted opportunity. Goldenthal doesn't really activate the voices to suggest any sort of internal conflict until late in the second act, and even then he doesn't do it strongly enough for it to matter. So as is they're neither entirely "shadows" nor developed, effective representations of a fragmented personality, which he seems to want to turn them into.

And then there's the big climax, with the chorus singing this big heavy poetic text that sounds like it wants to be in John Adams' El Nino (and God, did JW and I ever want to be in El Nino by then too). Except the whole time they were singing something like "the windy hill will fall" and I was wanting so badly to like the moment but I couldn't help thinking "how in the world is a hill windy?" (NOTE: see comments for more info here, but JW has said that if Chicago can be the Windy City, then Grendel's hill can be windy too; I never said I was the smart one in our relationship). Still, how do hills fall, exactly? Nit-picking aside, my point is that I just don't think this text is as weighty or rich as Taymor and J.D. McClatchy (her co-librettist) do.

It just felt like a mess to me. A big, inspired, beautifully performed, occasionally brilliant, definitely eye-catching, sprawling, frustrating mess. And Laura Claycomb sounded positively heavenly in her small role. Just wanted to get that in there.


meg said...

I liked it better than you did, although your points are well taken. Esp. about Beowulf -- ye bogs.

But in defense of the "shit-ass" line, it's in Gardner's original, and in a prominent place. (My objection along those lines was the addition of the dragon's "Sit on it!" -- and people stopped saying that about 20 years ago anyway.)

frank's wild lunch said...

Point taken about the "shit-ass" line. I read that thing in high school and have very little memory. I was mainly concerned that it introduced a narrative conceit we hadn't seen at all up to that point, and I don't think we ever saw again.

And I'm starting to relent on the "windy hill" issue; although I think the text is still far less substantial than the writers want it to be there, I suppose a hill can be windy. That is, the air around the hill is windy, so it's a windy hill. Am I overthinking this one? It just sounded weird to me when they sang it!

meg said...

The "shit-ass" line does break the fourth wall in a way that jarred to me. But the sassy (overly sassy, if you ask me) note has already come up in "Bullshit!" (Grendel, early on) and "Conservationists will howl" (Dragon).

"Windy hill" didn't bother me until you mentioned it, so I went back to the book to see what Gardner has to say. And lo, there it is:
"The wall will fall to the wind as the windy hill will fall."
But it's only mentioned once, and it doesn't really figure thematically -- it's a throwaway. In my entry on *Grendel*, I muttered about the way that they make a big hairy deal about the wall, which Gardner doesn't... For him, walls are just a hardness that proves reality, whereas given the stage machinery, The Wall ends up as central to Goldenthal/McClatchy/Taymor as it was to Pink Floyd 25 years ago.

And the more I think about it, the more the gold-lamé Roman warriors annoy me. Ugh... for me, the whole treatment of Beowulf was the worst part of the show.

BTW, thanks for writing up the 8 Rules... much as I enjoyed *Grendel*, I certainly see her point.

frank's wild lunch said...

Yeah, Lydia's great. I miss her!

I forgot about that "conservationists will howl" line. When I mentioned the oblique Denyce Graves line, I was thinking of something she said about minding her history; maybe they were bits of the same line....

Thanks for the links and the comments!

denise said...

I had high hopes for Grendel since I loved The Black Rider (saw it 3X) and I'm a sucker for Julie T's puppetry. Maybe the build-up was too big or something but I was antsy and bored at last night's show. It started cool and I actually liked those sad monster tree people (ents?) and Grendel's pendulously breasted Mommy but I found the big wall set hulking and overhwelming and bullying and attention-hogging and not that visually interesting. The errant technology is the real monster villain that the creators of this opera are all in thrall to, not Grendel.

Props to Eric Owens for throwing himself magnificently into a huge and strenuous role, he's got the chops, though I could have gotten him a ratty, distressed fur coat from my local thrift shop for a fraction of what his costume must have cost. But the character of Grendel himself seemed to wobble all over the place personality-wise, from being tragic and mythic to goofy and snarky. I was hoping for something Norse goth/horror or post-modern absurdist, and either of those would have worked had they been more seamlessly woven, but as it was presented I found the juxtaposition jarring. It was like trying to fuse together a stag and a monkey, without it first being established that we're in the laboratory of a mad scientist.

And if I was supposed to empathize with Grendel's outcast monster status, well, I just didn't feel his pain. And when he said "I didn't write this scene" after that painfully long back and forth with the warrior trying to kill him and all those frecking apples getting lobbed as frank's wild lunch pointed out, I wanted to throttle everyone involved. To me it was like he was admitting it's crap but he was being paid to sing/act it. Maybe it's in the Gardner novel but maybe it also doesn't work in the opera libretto. Fine to break the 4th wall between audience and stage but then do it throughout, or with a sense of continuity, or coherence that is established upfront.

Also, I don't understand at the climax when Beowolf slays Grendel, why they didn't have an operatic Beowolf to engage Grendel. Here was the perfect dramatic opportunity for the two sides (light/dark) to have a conversation that might bring the interesting themes home. This is the dramatic crux of the whole story after that big build up, and it was utterly wasted with a guy twirling around in a pair of Calvin Klein bikini briefs. (not that I have anything against such briefs but at least give him a period loincloth out of sealskin or whatever they wore then!) The ballet moves were also jarring and not thematically linked to the other dancing, which I liked a lot more.

The music, sadly, was not compelling. I know that Goldenthal had that tragic accident and resulting head injury and that according to LAT he was still writing the score several months prior to the opening but it seems like another wasted opportunity. I got excited when I heard a Phillip Glass riff at the beginning, whose dramatic, fugue-like music seems perfect for such an opera, but then it was gone.

Meanwhile the dialog between Grendel and the Dragon Lady goes on way way too long and was complete gobblety-gook to me. Other than that Grendel spends way too much time talking to himself, which is just not very compelling or engaging.

And while I love what Taymor did in the Lion King, I didn't understand why the soldiers fighting Grendel needed their own soldier puppets. It seemed redundant. Why didn't they just use their own swords to attack Grendel? I thought the puppetry worked fine when it was a wolf or the queen puppet (that was a cool scene) or the big huge billowing Grendel puppet though, and I did like the dragon and the dragonettes.

My favorite scene which I thought showcased the dramatic potential of the epic was where Grendel stormed the meadhall and you had all the flickering lights and the Grendel grown huge and the wonderful airborne accrobats. To me that was spectacle. But it was over so soon.

I admit I'm a neophyte to opera and especially prog opera, and I also write murder mysteries for a living, so I'm a hopeless lowbrow, but I just didn't much of it. I'm glad others did, and I think it's a very fertile area for discussion, and thanks to frank's wild years for opening up the discussion, cuz I totally may be missing something profound, I think there were many interesting things in that opera, but at $3.2 mil or whatever, sheesh, what a waste.

frank's wild lunch said...

Wow, Denise. You don't sound lowbrow to me; your thoughts on the show are all quite insightful. And even if you are lowbrow, I'm a big supporter of all kinds of brows! And I'd suggest Grendel, Taymor, and Goldenthal are too (and I don't mean that as a slam).

Regardless, it's nice to know I'm not the only one who thought that apple-lobbing scene was unfunny. I also love that you loved The Black Rider. Thanks for the comments.