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The Grand Tour

May 23, 2011

Back from NYC, flush with my semiannual cultural infusion.  Saw School for Lies, Book of Mormon, War Horse and Jerusalem, and while I wasn’t disappointed in any of them, my reactions weren’t what I’d expected. 

Book of Mormon is the “South Park musical,” nominated for 14 Tonys and acclaimed by all critics as the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Which of course sets your expectations so high that you’re bound to take a fall – it was funny, of course, but only hilarious once, when the Ugandan converts put on a musical-within-a-musical for the visiting Mormon church elders, wherein they illustrate the entirely incorrect theology they’ve been taught by a ne’er-do-well missionary who has only managed to make religion interesting by including frog fucking, the starship Enterprise, Star Wars and other equally ridiculous additions – the point being of course that all theology is pretty ridiculous, so why not add a dash of fiction to the already fictional, if it makes you feel better?  I think I was expecting “Team America” level hilarity, which I didn’t get, but it was worthwhile.  I got my ticket long before the reviews came in, and could have sold it for $300 or more, it was such a hot ticket.

Jerusalem was fantastic, especially Mark Rylance as the wastrel antihero, living in a trailer in rural England as the suburbs encroach on his forest, holding court with a handful of teenage misfits and a couple of adults who’ve refused to move on.  Take away the English accent and he was the spitting image of a former friend, right down to the walk, the facial expressions, the whole picture of glorious ruin, a former champion gone to seed.  I could have sworn he’d met the guy I knew, and taken his performance from studying him, but then you realize that this is a type of person, after all – rare, but not unique. 

School for Lies was fun, with Hamish Linklater showing off some serious star power clearly turned down for the occasion for ensemble-acting purposes, but the killer show of the trip was War Horse.  I wasn’t that interested in this one until I saw a segment on CBS Sunday Morning on the puppeteering and immediately booked my ticket.  The “horse” is two people inside a wicker and metal contraption manipulating the legs and tail, and another standing next to it working the head…but from the moment that horse’s eyes looked down at me (another fortuitously early booking got me a front row seat), I simply stopped seeing the people and saw a horse.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s crying in public, but there was no stopping it – you end up as invested in this animal as if it were your own, and the suspension of disbelief is total and almost immediate. 

I was surprised to find myself pretty detached from the art on this trip – I would have thought I’d be more engaged, what with having been through art history and having more background on what I was looking at.  I don’t know if it was that I’ve been depressed lately (currently feeling better under the intercession of St. Wellbutrin), but I just didn’t feel as amazingly moved by anything this time.  I toured the “Rooms with a View:  The Open Window in the 19th Century” exhibit at the Met.  To be honest, the conceit itself was more of an attraction than any of the works, mostly by lesser-known artists.  But there was one picture that grabbed me, interestingly enough by an unknown artist.  The Met knew it was one of the best pictures, too, as they saw fit to make it one of the handful of pics available in postcard form.


Most of the other pictures are conventional pictures of bourgeois serenity, happy families gazing at bucolic scenes, but this is the only one that makes you wonder.  Though you can’t see it here, the pictures on the wall and easel are deliberately amateurish, in contrast to the crisp hyperrealism of the painting that contains them.  You have to wonder at a portrait of an empty uniform – is the artist dead, a soldier killed in battle?  Why is there a caged bird in the window?  Is this someone transitioning from artist to soldier, soldier to artist, is he both at once?  The artist is unknown, so we can’t guess; what’s amazing is that someone with such amazing technique could have been or become “unknown.”

Then again, maybe that’s why so much of what I saw failed to move me – maybe my standards are just higher. 

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