Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971 at Museum Of Modern Art

Yoko Ono’s work from 1960-1971 on view at the Museum of Modern Art in NY through September 7th is as avant garde today as it was then. What has changed is that her explanations of why the works were created and what they mean are no longer laughable but the reflections of a quite serious artist who was far ahead of the mainstream culture’s ability to fathom her gifts when the works were first presented.

It’s hard to remember that Ono truly was recognized within avant garde circles in the late 1950s and early 1960s — before she met John Lennon, before her (to many of us absurd) reputation as “the dragon lady who broke up The Beatles” took top billing over her art.

I was very young in the early- and mid-’60s but I remember reading about some of the works displayed at MOMA at the time, and the dismissive attitude. Was Ono naïve? Innocent? Was it all merely titillation? “What makes this art?” was often the response, at least in this country.

• A film of a fly on a naked body.

• A “half a room” (the other half, at Lennon’s suggestion, put in bottles).

• An audience invited to cut the clothes she was wearing at Carnegie Recital Hall and keep pieces of the fabric.

• The “bed-in for peace” staged after she married Lennon.

• And, given generous space in the exhibition here, “Grapefruit,” a series of instructions to other artists, typed on postcards, for creating new works — from counting all the words in a book instead of reading them to taping the sound of snow falling and using slices of the tape for wrapping gifts.

The creativity is astonishing. But most striking: Ono’s willful demands that an audience interact with her work in order to complete it. Sometimes the demands are playful, sometimes serious, most often a mix of both, as in the bag people are invited to get into, take off their clothes, put their clothes back on, and come out, or the film of people’s behinds. Ono thinks outside the box — but sometimes literally inside boxes, such as the windows one opens at MOMA to reveal a series of “smile boxes.” I know none of this is to every taste, but I find it hard to imagine anyone not responding to at least some of these works in wonder, let alone admiration for the continuity within the approaches she takes to her art.

The references to other artists with whom Ono worked, shared stages (a whole section of the show is devoted to her own Chambers Street studio loft, which she opened to performances and installations by others), and traveled in similar orbits begs for a venn diagram of her professional relationships. The names keep surfacing: LaMonte Young, in particular, but also John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg (cited as “Bob” here), Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock.

Beyond this show, I have three very personal images of Yoko Ono:

  1. I lived on West 70th in the mid- to late 1970s, and Yoko and John were often out and about the neighborhood. But I particularly remember walking behind them as they strolled westward on West 72nd one evening, John’s arm around Yoko’s shoulder, her head nestled in his chest. No body guards. Just two lovers strolling and so completely as one.
  1. Being invited to the studio in the middle of the night by May Pang when John and Yoko recorded the single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Phil Spector, and having the privilege of watching the three of them work through the vocals over the choir that had been recorded earlier that night — all while eating blintzes Dave Stein (another friend of May’s and mine) and I picked up for them at Ratner’s.
  1. I have a necktie based on John’s drawing of Yoko, Sean, and John and lots of “balloons” (which definitely resemble sperm) flying. This was several years after John had been murdered. I always used to wear it with a particular black checked shirt. One day I wore the shirt but not the tie and dining at Basta Pasta in Chelsea there was Yoko eating at the next table. I don’t know if I would have had the guts to show her the tie had I been wearing it, but thereafter, if I wore that shirt, I wore the tie, too. (The shirt is long gone, but I still wear the tie.)

Back to MOMA, as my wife Riva said when we left the exhibit, “That was as satisfying as a wonderful meal.”

Footnote: The quality of the Yoko Ono show, which crosses media boundaries to encompass art, sculpture, film, music, performance art, and more, further points up (as if any further proof were needed) how inane the Bjork show at MOMA is.

Review: The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek

Through June 7, 2015

Athol Fugard’s “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek” at the Signature Theater is, as most of Fugard’s plays are, about apartheid in South Africa. It is also, as most of his plays are, about the struggle between any two sides — when it comes to divisions over race, class, and economic status — to, at the very least, listen to each other.

“The Painted Rocks” resonates simultaneously as a look at two moments in recent South African history (during and after apartheid) and as a lens on current smoldering race/class/economic frustrations that are fueling protests around the U.S. and, indeed, the world.

Some tightening in the second act might benefit the dramatic flow, but the cast is so thoroughly enveloped by Fugard’s language, and the issues are so universal, that it hardly matters. Bless the Signature’s benefactors, who make $25 tickets available; take advantage.

The rapport between 13-year-old Caleb McLaughlin, playing an 11-year-old orphan named Bokkie, and the aging servant (played by Leon Addison Brown) who has taken Bokkie under wing and who together spend their Sundays painting flowers on rocks on the bosses’ arid land, is stunning.

In the second act, Bokkie returns 20 years later (now played by Sahr Ngaujah) to restore his mentor’s final painted rock but equally to try to make some sense and peace with the white Afrikaner land owners, in particular the wife (Bianca Amato) who had wanted to wash the rock and threatened the young Bokkie.

The arguments are hardly surprising, but the dramatic tension, and the overtones touching on such immediate issues are devastating. Ironically, as we left the theater on 42nd Street at 10th Avenue, a line of protesters in solidarity with those in Baltimore (and Ferguson and Detroit and . . . ) were rounding the corner as they marched downtown, with police closely in tow. Athol Fugard himself — a hearty if surprisingly elfin 83 — had left the building just a few minutes earlier. (Seen April 29, 2015.)

Review: Dying For It, Every Brilliant Thing

Dying For It
Atlantic Theater Company – Linda Gross Theater
Through January 18, 2015

Every Brilliant Thing
Barrow Street Theater
Through March 29, 2015

The common thread here is suicide, with both pieces evidence humor and great empathy.

“Dying For It” is a more conventional play, and a true ensemble-driven farce about suicide, at that. Playwright Moira Buffini’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s “The Suicide,” which was banned in Russia when it was written in 1928 and not performed there until the 1980s, is the tale of a man so bereft of reasons to live under the Stalinist regime that he announces he will kill himself at an appointed hour. The townspeople seek to leverage his death as political statement, as representative of the failure of religion, and as a money-making proposition. There is music! There is comedy! There is love (and resentment)! This isn’t the greatest long-lost play of the century, but it works. The cast, with Joey Slotnick in the central role of would-be suicide Semyon Smyonovich Podeskalnikov, is particularly apt with a maniacal, frenzied performance. Directed by the Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe. (Seen January 6, 2015.)

“Every Brilliant Thing” falls into the looser category of “performance piece,” but is no less dramatic for it. This is the story of a son, played by Jonny Donahoe, whose mother first attempts suicide when the boy is 7. With an uncommunicative father, the boy’s response is to start a list of all the things worth living for — a 7-year-old’s view, of course. The son adds to the list over the years, as the mother attempts suicide repeatedly, and in response to other life events. That the mother will succeed is never in question. That the son will go through the worry of whether he is prone to suicide, and that his mother’s story (and their relationship) will cast shadows over his life, are also never in question. Donahoe takes a ringmaster’s approach to his material, incorporating the audience brilliantly (this is NOT “audience participation” in any usual sense), and weaves sweetness through the pain without diminishing the drama. Written by Duncan Macmillan and Donahoe; directed by George Perrin. See it. (Seen January 11, 2015.)

Review: I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard

Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2

Through February 15, 2015

Great writing, excellent acting, and highly unpleasant to sit through (intentionally so, which I suppose makes that a compliment). Famous playwright father David (Reed Birney) and aspiring actress daughter Ella (Betty Gilpin) tear each other apart while drinking, snorting, and waiting for the reviews of Ella’s first off-Broadway performance. The two characters in Halley Feiffer’s “I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard” are neither likable nor sympathetic, nor is the father’s late-in-the-play attempt at reconciliation easy to believe.

It’s hard to imagine any father-daughter in such an astringent relationship (if that’s what it is), even allowing for dramatic license of condensing a lot of lifelong pain into 90 minutes. Feiffer is cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer’s daughter; I can only hope this isn’t autobiographical.

That said, Feiffer knows how to write, how to build tension, how to create star turns. I haven’t seen her film, “He’s Way More Famous Than You,” which she both wrote and stars in, but in answer to Ella’s question to an interviewer in this play, “Did I move you?” Feiffer moved me to want to take a look at that film and to see her next play.

Mention also to Trip Cullman, whose direction puts Birney and Gilpin in a nonstop pas-de-deux through their own discomfort. Cullman’s work on Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” had a similarly memorable choreographic fluidity. (Seen January 13, 2015.)

David Amram: Still Tearing Down Walls

At 84, David Amram is ever the musical polymath, playing French horn, piano, percussion, flutes of all manner from around the globe — all with four additional musicians (bass player and three percussionists) on the postage stamp-sized stage of what he lovingly refers to as the Cornelia Street Stadium.

(For those who haven’t been to the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, the joke stems from the fact that the music room downstairs squeezes in about 35 people. The miracle is that Amram, whose bags and instruments cover the floor of the tiny stage, hasn’t broken his neck in those 10 years navigating between the piano and the center-stage microphone throughout the evening.)

David Amram at Cornelia Street Cafe, January 4, 2015; bassist Rene Hart behind him. Photo © 2015 Ira Mayer.

David Amram at Cornelia Street Cafe, January 5, 2015; bassist Rene Hart behind him. Photo © 2015 Ira Mayer.

With the turn of the calendar, Amram the symphony and chamber music composer, jazz musician, verbal improviser, first-ever composer-in-residence with the NY Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, world music celebrant, social commentator, and educator marks 10 years playing at Cornelia Street on the first Monday of every month. Last year, the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center held a mini-festival of sorts celebrating Amram’s life in music in recognition of his donating his papers to the Library.

Having not heard him perform in many years, seeing him the first Monday in January this year was a reminder of just how far his musical, social, political, and personal interests range, and how they all intermingle. I first reviewed his album “No More Walls” and met Amram in the early 1970s; his music is still about tearing down walls, crossing borders, manning the barricades of progressive politics, mixing the past (his years as part of what he doesn’t like calling ‘The Beat’ generation) with a brief exegeses on scat as the Cro-Magnon antecedent of rap.

On a blistery cold night right after New Year’s, Amram probably wasn’t joking that he feared the number of musicians might outnumber the audience. But that wasn’t the case at all, and those of us who ventured out — many of whom seemed to know Amram from some part of his life — were treated to a delightful ramble:

  • The classic jazz of “Take The A Train”
  • Recollections of the clubs he played with Charlie Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie
  • The “Waltz from ‘After the Fall’” which he wrote for the Arthur Miller play about Marilyn Monroe
  • Commentary on the benefits of being a vegetarian
  • Celebrations of Jack Kerouac — performing “Pull My Daisy” and accompanying six Kerouac poems read by actor/director Michael Kelly, and actors John Doman and Suzanne Hughes
  • Improvising behind contemporary poet and actor Frank Messina reading selections about 9/11 and baseball
  • Playing a Chinese flute that gave a warm glow to his closing (and plenty of other flutes throughout the evening, sometimes, in a trademark bit of showmanship he’s also been doing for years, playing two at a time)

The night was all of a meandering yet highly crafted patchwork piece. Amram’s is a worldview rare to encounter today. You can encounter it next Feb. 5th at the Cornelia Street Stadium and hopefully for many first Mondays thereafter.

Rene Hart, bass
Kevin Twig, drums and glockenspiel
Eliot Peper, bongos
Adam Amram, congas

The documentary, “David Amram: The First 80 Years,” is available on-demand on Vimeo (and due soon as a DVD from Newport Classics).

Amram’s latest symphony is due next month, this one based on songs by Woody Guthrie.

Plenty on Youtube, including “Waltz from ‘After the Fall’” and “Pull My Daisy”.

One of my favorite Amram performances was when he and the late Steve Goodman improvised a song based on “Moby Dick” at the 1974 Mariposa Folk Festival. A recording of the workshop is in the York University Libraries, available exclusively for academic research because of a lack of clearances. Goodman recorded an abbreviated version under the title “Moby Book” on his album “Jessie’s Jig and Other Favorites.” The song is available here.

Frank Messina’s book of poetry about the NY Mets, “Full Count,” is available here.

Cornelia Street Café: www.corneliastreetcafe.com; for show reservations: 212-989-9319.

© 2015 Ira Mayer.


Wanting to Be Pete Seeger

I grew up wanting to be Pete Seeger. Problem was I couldn’t sing; I never got the 5-string banjo down no matter how closely I followed Pete’s instruction manual and accompanying record, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo;” and try as my 12-year-old-self did in front of the mirror, I could never get my Adam’s apple to jut out like Pete’s.

The first time I saw him was in the mid-1960s at his annual Carnegie Hall Thanksgiving concert. My sister and I had stage seats, and we came home with a souvenir: a sheet of wrapping paper Toshi had made out of newspaper — with a Japanese symbol for peace. Looking back, what I really wonder is that Carnegie Hall allowed Pete a log on stage with an ax, and he duly did some chopping.

At the Newport Folk Festival in 1969 Pete was on right after Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. He came out and said he’d just watched it on TV backstage and had written a song. He “taped” the lyrics to the microphone stand with some chewing gum. I don’t know if the song ever had another performance, but talk about “ripped from the news.”

The passion of songs like the vehemently anti-war “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy” spoke loud and clear to a budding lefty in high school, who tried his best to emulate the 12-string guitar sound Pete had on “Turn, Turn, Turn” and loudly sang “If I Had A Hammer” in the privacy of my room (truth be to Peter, Paul & Mary’s version).

Today, I give a copy of the complete Pete Seeger Town Hall children’s concert CD to every newborn I know. Everyone should hear “Abiyoyo” growing up. Everyone should know what it means to sing along. I’ve had young families tell me they knew some of those songs, but never knew where they came from. It’s my own small contribution to what Pete called “the folk process.”

For all the times I saw him over the last 45 years or so, on the sloop Clearwater, at festivals, in concert, I never met him. The last time I saw him was this past Thanksgiving when Arlo Guthrie turned his Thanksgiving concert (which he first started doing together with Pete) into a tribute to Pete, who was frail and a little forgetful, but sitting center stage the whole night. If the banjo playing was largely stilled, and the words tough to find, Pete still knew just how to command that Carnegie spotlight. Wasn’t that a time.