Category Archives: Bob Hicks

Ashland times 2: A Q&A about the festival’s new direction

It’s been around since 1935, when, legend has it, a young college prof named Angus Bowmer persuaded the town fathers of Ashland, Oregon, to let him produce two performances of “Twelfth Night” and one of “The Merchant of Venice” on an old Chautauqua stage for the town’s Fourth of July celebrations. They gave him $400 and one stipulation: He’d also have to stage some boxing matches to cover the expected deficit from the Shakespearean shows. The boxing matches lost money. The Shakespeare did boffo business and covered the prize-ring losses. And with that, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was off and running.

A lot’s changed in the intervening 73 years. The festival is by most measures the biggest regional theater company in the United States, producing 11 plays annually — usually four or five of them by Shakespeare — in a season that runs from late February through October, and which uses three theaters: the 1,200-seat, open-air Elizabethan Stage (actually an outdoor Elizabethan-style stage attached to Greek-style amphitheater seating with a wraparound porch like a vintage 1930 baseball park’s); the exquisitely adaptable, 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre; and the sophisticated black box known as the New Theatre, which averages about 300 seats. To these shows the festival sells more than 400,000 tickets every season, making Ashland a particularly upscale sort of tourist town, with an Elizabethan purse, sweet Victorian buildings and, underneath both, the practical bones of a modern Western working town.

As the festival goes, in many ways, so goes Ashland: The commercial success of the two are intricately linked. Both have benefited from the festival’s astonishing stability. After Bowmer, it’s had just four artistic directors: Jerry Turner, Henry Woronicz, Libby Appel and, beginning this season, Bill Rauch.
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Ashland report: Hedda in the headlights

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, Jeff Whitty’s festive romp through a field of razor blades, brings to mind a couple of things. The first is the flap over the now infamous New Yorker magazine Obama cover illustration, the one that takes the various racial and incendiary whispers about the presidential candidate and his wife and gives them visual form. It’s clearly satirical, and clearly potent: It hits with merciless accuracy at precisely the points of fear and loathing that the dirtier fighters among Obama’s opponents are eager to exploit.

Yet, here’s the funny part: Obama’s camp itself, the presumed beneficiary of this political counterthrust, has found it necessary to protest vigorously against the images, even though the candidate undoubtedly understands their satirical point. Funnier yet: Obama’s opponent for the presidency, John McCain, has also found it necessary to protest, even though he surely understands the difference between satire and actuality. (Do the candidates truly believe that Swift wished to eat children?)

Now that they are presidential candidates, Obama and McCain find themselves the main characters in a pre-scripted drama. They are the guardians and servants of the nation’s images, and it becomes more important for them to respond to the illusion of reality than to reality itself. The script says, Americans don’t talk about such things. So the candidates, no matter “left” or “right,” must protest: To do less would be to place themselves outside the devoutly desired center of the let’s-pretend debate. And so they become the not-Obama and the not-McCain, fictional characters in a ritualized national drama that they can’t escape.

The second thing that Whitty’s comedy, playing in the Angus Bowmer Theater of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, brings to mind: Jasper Fforde‘s sly comic novels (The Well of Lost Plots and several others) about Thursday Next, a human investigator of crimes and misdemeanors among the vast pages of fiction. In Fforde’s universe, fictional characters have an actuality of their own, even though they operate under severe constraints: They find it difficult, for instance, to speak without employing quotation marks and a liberal sprinkling of explanatory “he saids” and “she saids.”

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Ashland report: fabulous cockroach, deadly deceiver

Sure, Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa is a brilliant conception, one of the touchstones of 20th century thought. But when it comes to literary cockroaches, my heart belongs to Archy. A free-verse poet, an ink-stained wretch, a nervous moralist of the demimonde, an insect in love with a slatternly cat, Archy first saw the light of print in a 1916 column by New York Sun journalist Don Marquis, who stuck by the little fellow and his feline companion, Mehitabel, through hundreds of columns and a few book collections until Marquis’ death in 1937.

If The Metamorphosis is a comic nightmare vision of the dehumanizing essence of modern culture, Archy and Mehitabel is a sadly knowing comic ode to optimism, and as such, a much more American tale. Life on Shinbone Alley, the little fetid corner of New York where Archy and his pals hang out, has a mythic quality, and the myth that comes to mind is Sisyphus: always reaching for the top, always falling back into the same old muck, always dusting off and starting the journey again. For Mehitabel the sensualist, hope is just another alley cat away. For Archy the world-wise, despair and joy are almost the same thing, and like a Beckett character but with a good deal more joie de vivre, he can’t go on, yet on he goes.

Archy, as Marquis tells the tale, just showed up one night in the Sun newsroom and, choosing Marquis’ typewriter because the columnist seemed “a little less human” to him than most humans (a race with which he held little truck), proceeded to relate the stories of Shinbone Alley. To do this required a good deal of physical pain. Archy climbed onto the keyboard and flung himself headfirst onto the keys in order to type out his first-hand reports of life on the dangerous but always fascinating streets. He wrote everything in lower-case because he couldn’t hit both a letter key and the shift key at the same time. At least he didn’t have to worry about an editor, and that alone endeared him to the corps of semi-anonymous reporters who flung their own heads against the immutable forces of the newsroom in order to record straight the tragedies and comedies and everyday occurences of the strange boisterous brute that was the big city.

What brings Archy back to mind is a visit to the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, a spiffy space carved out of a onetime Baptist Church building just a couple of blocks away from the grounds of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The cabaret’s current show is a revival of Archy and Mehitabel, a lightly jazzy, hipsterish 1950s musical adaptation of Marquis’ columns. A sly fusion of the strain of sardonic optimism that flavored the United States of both the 1920s and the 1950s (decades in which a lively underworld put the lie to the official order of standardized moralism), Archy and Mehitabel provides a pleasantly raffish break from the shows at the Shakespeare festival and also fits neatly with them: After all, like the classics that the festival embraces, the enduring qualities of Marquis’ cockroach and cat are built upon a masterful scaffolding of words, words, words. (The festival and the cabaret have always enjoyed a sort of cross-fertilization of talent. In Archy and Mehitabel, stalwart festival actor Michael J. Hume is the highly effective taped voice of Don Marquis, setting the stage with brief interludes of narration.)

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Ashland report: singing twins, a military hero gone wrong

In 1938, when Richard Rodgers, Larry Hart, George Abbott and George Balanchine brought The Boys From Syracuse to Broadway, no one had ever before made a successful musical from a Shakespeare play. And Boys, a free and breezy adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, was successful. Its jazzy score landed several songs — Falling in Love With Love, He and She, This Can’t Be Love, Sing for Your Supper — in the Great American Songbook, to be picked up and played around with by interpreters as diverse as Mel Torme, Oscar Peterson and Sonny Rollins.

But while Boys paved the way for such later hits as West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, and helped inspire many more musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, including Arne Zaslove’s popular Twelfth Night with Gershwin tunes for the old Bathhouse Theatre in Seattle in the 1980s, it hasn’t had a lot of revivals. New York’s Encore series of staged musicals produced and recorded a top-flight version in 1997, but a 2002 Broadway revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company was by most accounts (I didn’t see it) badly botched.

Too bad. I’ve listened to the music a fair amount, but I’ve seen a production of The Boys From Syracuse only once, years ago at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, and it’s left me longing to see it again ever since (like another Rodgers & Hart show, 1940’s Pal Joey, which also has a terrific score and is rarely revived).

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s new outdoor production of The Comedy of Errors isn’t The Boys From Syracuse. But it is a free musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy (which was itself an adaptation of a Plautus comedy from ancient Rome), and it has its considerable charms.

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Ashland report: Words fail (and rescue) the festival

I walked into the open-air circle of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s Elizabethan Stage last night a disgruntled man, and three hours later walked out, finally, with what I’d come to Ashland looking for: the emotional, intellectual and aesthetic transformation that fine theater can achieve. Thank goodness for Our Town.

The trip’s been fine: that glorious drive south of Eugene, where the climate changes and the road becomes a curving slice through the mountains. (Why is Rice Hill at the bottom of the hill and the Rice Valley exit at the top?) An overnight stop, with two good meals, at the Wolf Creek Inn, where Jack London stayed in a tiny room for a few weeks in 1911 and wrote a story called The End of the Story. (I’m going to have to look it up: I’ve never read it.)

A quick stop at the nearby gold-mining ghost town of Golden, where volunteers are working to stabilize the remaining wood-frame buildings (the church has new glass in the windows) of a little boom town that was always different: Built by preaching miners, it had two congregations and no saloons. Two or three genuine markers lie in the little cemetery, but most of the headstones are fakes, set there many years ago for filming of an episode of Gunsmoke: So the not-so-wild West reinvents itself. And bless the volunteers, who have split new rails for the fence along the little road and are slowly reclaiming the natural state of the gouged-out mined areas below the town. May they outfox the woodpecker who was tap-tap-tapping away at the old church spire.

But in Ashland, aesthetically, it hadn’t been a good beginning. On Saturday afternoon, indoors at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, a gauche and vulgar version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that deserves far, far better. Dream is a wonder of the Western World, one of the most nearly perfect plays ever devised, and I’ve often thought it close to foolproof. Turns out it’s not. It can be defeated by a director and designers determined to overwhelm the magic of its language with insipid pop-cultural winks, incessant visual distractions, head-scratching hand gestures that appear to be choreographed but have no apparent link to the emotional lives of the characters or the plotting demands of the story, and a general busy-ness that makes it almost impossible for the actors to settle into the quiet glowing heart of the story. It was the Roman circus, not the magical wood. My congratulations to Ray Porter, who managed a fine low-comedy focus as Bottom, and Kevin Kenerly, who kept his dignity intact as Oberon while all around him were being engulfed in foolishness.

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A “Laramie” lawsuit: Footing the bill for censorship

Here we go again: More trouble over a school play. Don’t these people ever learn? I mean the principals and school boards who do the censoring and always seem to do it so clumsily, as if critical thinking were anathema to education and free speech were a legislative inconvenience to be swatted away on a whim — usually the whim of a frightened administrator or a few right-wing parents determined to make everyone else line up with their rigid view of the world. Where do they think they are, Guantanamo Bay?

The play in question this time around, almost predictably, is The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman’s moving and mostly even-handed exploration of how the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998 affected the people in his town of Laramie, Wyoming. This one’s just too much for the great 16th century thinkers who seem to be running, and running roughshod over, our public schools. Controversy? Perish all thought.

As Melissa Navas reported this morning in The Oregonian, Portland actor and onetime teacher Wade Willis has sued the Beaverton School District for $125,000, claiming he was “harassed, intimidated and humiliated” for his attempt during the 2005-06 school year to bring The Laramie Project to the stage at Southridge High School, where he had been a music, drama and language arts teacher. Shattered by the experience, Willis quit a job that he presumably loved.

His lawyer argued, Navas reports, that “a wrongful discharge lawsuit can be filed when an employer ‘maintained specific working conditions so intolerable’ that a person would resign.” Navas also reports that Kaufman had given permission to take out the play’s profanities to make it appropriate for a school audience, and she points out that although the play is about a hate crime against a gay man, it’s not about sex.

I don’t know Wade Willis, but I’ve seen him many times on stage, and he’s always struck me as an actor who approaches his job in a totally professional manner. (Right now he’s on stage in Broadway Rose Theatre Company‘s critically hailed production of the musical Les Miserables.) The loss to the students who no longer get to learn from him is of course impossible to measure, but I imagine it is significant: Here is a man who understands music and theater from the inside out, deeply respects his craft, is exceptionally good at it, and was willing to pass that knowledge along. Further, he wasn’t afraid to confront his students with topics that demand critical thinking — and what greater skill can a school hope to impart to the children in its care?
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Scatter friends go out on the town

With the summer solstice having hit town at precisely 4:59 p.m. Friday — was that a sylph we saw cavorting in the woods? — it’s a semi-beautiful weekend here in Portland, Oregon.

All right, clouds are moving in. Yet we are undaunted. Some cool things are happening around and out of town involving Friends of Art Scatter (this is not an official organization, but we like the sound of it, though not as much as we like the sound of “The Loyal Order of Moose”) and we would be remiss not to fill you in on the upcoming action. Some of these are this-weekend-only opportunities, so get on your dancing shoes, and don’t let the door hit you on your way out of the house.

Subversive operatics at Someday Lounge: We like Opera Theater Oregon. How much? Read our report on OTO’s winter production of “Carmen,” sung live to a screening of Cecil B. DeMille‘s 1915 silent-movie version of the Bizet opera. So we are happy to report that this seat-of-the-pants company, which dares to believe that opera ought to be fun (its motto is “Making Opera Safe for America”), is throwing a one-night wingding Saturday at Someday Lounge to show off its new season, raise a little money (there’ll be a silent auction) and generally blow the art form’s reputation for stuffiness all to hell.

“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” will preview the three-show season of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium” (paired with a 10-minute original called “The Head of Mata Hari”) in October, “Camille Traviata” (music from Verdi’s opera accompanying the 1921 silent-movie “Camille” with Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino) in February ’09, and “Das Rheingold” (a scrunching-together of the Wagnerian wallbanger with an episode of television’s “Baywatch”) in June ’09. All shows at the Someday Lounge, where you can drink to all that.

Bonus attraction Saturday night: OTO performs Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with Classical Revolution PDX and Karaoke From Hell. Ouch, we think.

7 p.m. Saturday, Someday Lounge. $25, $40/couple, 10 bucks if you just show up for the after-party from 9 until the cows come home.

Loie Fuller in the Columbia Gorge: Maryhill Museum of Art, our favorite concrete castle on a cliff with a backside view of Mt. Hood within easy driving distance of Portland (see our report on its affiliated Stonehenge replica) was established by visionary engineering entrepeneur Sam Hill as his home and the center of what he hoped would be an agricultural utopia. That failed, but three of his far-flung friends — Queen Marie of Romania, San Francisco dowager Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (wife of the sugar king) and Loie Fuller, the American girl who became an interpretive dance sensation in Paris — turned the place into one of America’s unlikeliest, and quirkiest, art museums.

On Saturday Maryhill is sponsoring a day-long series of events in celebration of Fuller’s life and art, to culminate in an evening performance in the nearby city of The Dalles by the New York company Jody Sperling and Time Lapse Dance, which will perform three dances inspired by Fuller. 7 p.m. Saturday at At the Dalles-Wahtonka High School Auditorium,
220 E. 10th Street, The Dalles; $7-$10.

Looks like a swell day trip, and if you need a break, some good wineries are nearby. The mammoth Maryhill Winery is just down the road from the museum; we’re also partial to the little, high-quality Syncline Cellars in nearby Lyle, Wash. (The poster shown here, part of the museum’s permanent collection, is by Alfred Choubrac, who with his brother Leon was one of Paris’ first poster designers in the 1880s, anticipating Toulouse-Lautrec. She’s probably doing Le Papillon, her butterfly dance.)

Glass at the Portland Japanese Garden: As many of you know, Portland is Glass City, U.S.A. this summer, with a major retrospective of the work of contemporary master Klaus Moje at the Portland Art Museum through Sept. 7, the annual international conference of the Glass Art Society this weekend, and glass work on view at about 40 galleries and other spots around town.

One of those “other” spots is the beautiful and soul-refreshing Portland Japanese Garden, where work by six Japanese or Japanese American glass artists is on view. The work of five (including onetime Moje students Yoko Yagi and Etsuko Nishi) are inside the Pavilion through June 30. But bigger-scale outdoor installations by one of our favorite artists, Jun Kaneko, remain on the grounds through July 31. “This Kaneko piece seems as if it has always been in the Garden,” Diane Durston says of the serene glass bridge in the photo above. We first got to know Durston, the garden’s curator of culture, art and education, when she was the director of education for the Portland Art Museum, and we trust her taste and enthusiasms.

The return of Chamber Music Northwest: One of Portland’s most congenial summer traditions returns Monday night for its 38th season, and we’re not afraid to say we’re looking forward to it. Sure, the crowd’s heads are largely streaked with silver, but these are geezers (and we count ourselves as part of that category) who know a good time when they see one. Great musicians playing great music under very Portland-friendly conditions: no leader onstage, just a small group of talented artists working on something together, and paying attention to the nuances that requires. Scatter pal David Stabler gives details in The Oregonian; we’re looking forward to festival vet Fred Sherry doing a little Wuorinen and Schoenberg’s first 12-tone quartet on July 12.

Through July 27; Reed College and Catlin Gabel School. (The photo is of cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Pei-Yao Wang in last summer’s “Schubertiade.”)

Feeding the masses: What would Tolstoy do?

Reading William J. Broad’s fascinating report in the Science section of Tuesday’s New York Times about a possible breakthrough in world rice production got me thinking about Leo Tolstoy‘s masterful War and Peace, which I’ve been enjoying, in small gulps of 20 to 40 pages a sitting, in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s lively 2007 translation.

For all of the novel’s cinematic scope and dense cultural and moral observation (the closest thing to an American equivalent of this amazing piece of writing, which Tolstoy himself referred to as an “epic” rather than a novel, is Herman Melville‘s similarly discursive Moby-Dick), Tolstoy could draw a character and an intimate conversation like nobody’s business: Reading this translation, you feel like you’re in the room, observing with the invisible narrator himself, smiling or shuddering at facial expressions, nodding in agreement with Tolstoy’s acute descriptions.

So let’s drop in, early in the going, on a conversation about the old roue Count Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov, who is on his deathbed and has no legitimate immediate heirs, although illegitimate ones are apparently scattered across Russia like seed from a flock of migrating birds. One of this prodigious offspring, the fine, fat, clumsy bear of a fellow Count Pyotr Kirillovich, or Pierre, looks to be on the ascent:

“Princess Anna Mikhailovna mixed into the conversation, clearly wishing to show her connections and her knowledge of all the circumstances of society.

” ‘The thing is,’ she said significantly and also in a half whisper. ‘Count Kiril Vladimirovich’s reputation is well-known … He’s lost count of his children, but this Pierre was his favorite.’

” ‘How good-looking the old man was,’ said the countess, ‘even last year! I’ve never seen a handsomer man.’

” ‘He’s quite changed now,’ said Anna Mikhailovna. ‘So, as I was about to say,’ she went on, ‘Prince Vassily is the direct heir to the whole fortune through his wife, but the father loved Pierre very much, concerned himself with his upbringing, and wrote to the sovereign … so that when he dies (he’s so poorly that they expect it at any moment, and Lorrain has come from Petersburg), no one knows who will get this enormous fortune, Pierre or Prince Vassily. Forty thousand souls, and millions of roubles. I know it very well, because Prince Vassily told me himself. And Kirill Vladimirovich is my uncle twice removed through my grandmother. And he’s Borya’s godfather,’ she added, as if ascribing no importance to this circumstance.”

Fine, witty writing. But what’s it got to do with the price of rice in China? Hold on. We’ll get there.

Forty thousand souls, the princess counts among the old man’s fortune. That means 40,000 serfs — in effect, slaves — whose lives and labor are in the power and patronage of a single man. Tolstoy finished writing War and Peace in 1868, seven years after the emancipation of Russia’s serfs; America’s Emancipation Proclamation was even fresher news. But the novel is set during the Napoleonic wars, from 1805 through 1812. And at the beginning of that period the world population was about 1 billion (up from a scant 1 million in 10,000 B.C.E.), or roughly one-seventh of today’s estimate of 6.7 billion. So with the same equivalent of the population, Count Bezukhov today would have directly controlled the destinies of 280,000 men, women and children — an astonishing figure, even in the contemporary world of runaway wealth and the new Russia of extreme fortunes got fast and furious. And how does a master feed 40,000, or 280,000, or 6.7 billion souls?
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Bob Hicks on Drammy night

NOTE: This was in the comment section to the post below, but I’ve moved it up. It’s Bob’s account of Monday night when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Drammy committee, which dispenses awards to the local theater community.

Ah, Barry. Thank you sincerely for tooting my horn, although that headline’s a bit over the top. My impression of last night’s Drammy Awards is one of humor and grace, and I believe I’d feel that way even if I hadn’t been pulled into the midst of it. (I confess to feeling just a little like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn peeking in on their own funeral.)

I’ve made fun of Portland’s penchant for standing ovations in the past, but let me tell you, standing on a stage and actually receiving one is a heady and discombobulating experience. It felt like a blessing, and we can all use as many blessings as we can get. But I am more than willing to leave the experience from this point on to actual performers, who after all, put their emotional lives on the line every night.

And now let me point out that my little corner of the awards ceremony at the Crystal Ballroom was just that: a little corner, as it should be, in a large and generous evening that celebrated the accomplishments of Portland’s lively theater community. And “community” is right: This was an evening of both polish and spontaneity, with an air of genuineness that overly scripted events like the Oscars can only wish they could recapture.

Mom-and-daughter co-hosts Vana and Eleanor O’Brien set the mood by inviting all the presenters to tell a joke, and so they did, from the corny to the blue to the downright hilarious. My favorite was a yarn about a couple of tekkies and a stage manager who are stranded on a desert island and stumble across the inevitable genie in a lamp, who grants each a wish. After the first two have themselves whisked off the island to lives of leisure and wealth, it’s the stage manager’s turn. Looking at his watch, he says, “I want those two back here in 10 minutes!” The house erupted.

The evening had its serious moments, particularly from best-actress winner Luisa Sermol on the ways the nine Iraqi women in “9 Parts of Desire” got inside her skin, and from supporting actress Michele Mariana (Fraulein Schneider in “Cabaret”) on the links among theater, family, courage and politics. But in general this was a lovefest – a far cry from the awards’ early days, when they were called the Willies, and when booze-fueled actors and directors were as likely to boo a selection from the crowd or pull a Marlon Brando and refuse an award as to cheer the winners. Those days had a certain bravado, a certain unpredictability, a certain rough-cut charm. Last night had, as I said, humor and grace. It was like the difference between the Ride of the Valkyries and “The Magic Flute.”

I liked the way the awards reflected the diversity of Portland theater: a dozen of 39 total awards for the city’s biggest company, Portland Center Stage (half of them, including an outstanding production nod, for “Twelfth Night”), seven (including an outstanding production for “Grace”) for the lean and vital Third Rail Rep, and a liberal smattering for smaller companies ranging from the musical-centric Live on Stage and Broadway Rose to such adventurous alternative troupes as defunkt and Sojourn. The rewards represented the validity of varying approaches to the art of theater: the traditional resident-theater professionalism of Center Stage; the high-quality, low-rent professionalism of Third Rail; the tradition-bending adventurousness of the smaller companies (Sojourn won the third outstanding-production award for “Good,” an original, site-specific show that took place in a car dealership).

Someone asked me after the ceremony if I’d ever been an actor. No, and I never wanted to be. Nor did I ever want to be a playwright, or a director (although now and again I DID wish I could re-direct a show). I was never in competition with the people who made theater; I was content to speak for the audience – to start a conversation, really.

Writing is a solitary adventure. Theater is a social art. As a writer, that excited me – that sense that art can rise from collaboration, from the unspoken spaces between. It excites me still, and I am happy to have left The Oregonian’s theater chair in the intelligent and capable hands of Marty Hughley, whose eye and ear and voice compel his readers to approach the stage with an open and curious mind.

I would like to thank Gretchen Corbett for her generous words of introduction, Richard Wattenberg for his kind essay in the Drammy program, the entire Drammy committee for coming up with the audacious idea that an award might be given to a critic, and that wonderful roomful of theater makers who so generously showered me with the grace of their good wishes. And I would like to officially apologize to the fine young actor Taylor Caffall, who won a supporting-actor award for his work in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Garden,” and to whom I mistakenly referred, in an admiring notice way last fall, as Taylor “Calfall.” Enough said.

The high price of art, the cost of keeping up with it

Maybe a dozen years ago, when I was filling in for a few months for the art critic at the daily newspaper that was my bread and margarine, I decided it was a good idea to print the prices of the works of art being discussed in reviews of gallery shows. Seemed reasonable at the time. Why shouldn’t the paper give its readers an idea of whether that new painting by Gregory Grenon, say, was going for $1,800 or $18,000? Why not let the working-two-jobs-to-make-ends-meet art fan know that if she really liked that piece by the brand-new art school grad, she could pick it up for $250 instead of assuming it was going to be swooped up by some dot-com turk because it was out of her price range?

The response around me in my corner of the newsroom was unison and aghast. It amounted to this: Art is for art’s sake. Money has nothing to do with intrinsic value (I wasn’t arguing that it did). To discuss price is to taint the critical process (all I wanted to do was list the prices in the information box). Besides, money is, well, you know, tawdry. I quickly scotched the idea, and pretty much forgot about it: No smudge of commerce would taint the culture pages, where truth and beauty are all you need to know.

So why is it so damned fascinating to read about the high-roller art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s? The latest report comes from Carol Vogel in the New York Times, and the frenzied buying seems to indicate that, while working-class saps are getting kicked in the rear by the recession, the big spenders are spending, well, big. Real big. Like there’s no tomorrow big. “The market is defying gravity,” Vogel quotes financier and collector Eli Broad.

Follow the money, everyone says, to which you can add, Follow the art — it’s following the money. To Japan in the 1980s, to Las Vegas and the marketing and advertising whizzes of London in the 1990s, to the culture-cloaking Wal-Mart matrons in the ’00s. And to just about anybody who’s cashed in on the biggest upward transfer of wealth since the days of the 19th century Robber Barons (who actually seem a bit like pikers compared to the new bunch of sudden zillionaires).

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