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Friday, July 4, 2014

Next Wave Festival Preview:
Independence Day Edition

By Robert Wood

A slightly cheesy, glibly bohemian, and yet entirely reasonable proposition for this Fourth of July: art has had everything to do with creating what we understand to be America (and the Declaration of Independence has done alright, too). The Great Plains are Woody Guthrie’s masterpiece. Main Street USA? Much obliged, Frank Capra.

That’s what we’re thinking about, at least, on this Independence Day—that and our upcoming Next Wave Festival, which will feature a handful of shows with an American bent to them: a new production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America from Dutch director Ivo Van Hove, a staged version of Teru Kuwayama’s Basetrack project, which documented the experience of Marines serving the front lines in Afghanistan, and a concert of American and other folk music from Kronos Quartet, Sam Amidon, Rhiannon Giddens, and others. All three are sure to contribute fruitfully to the red, white, and blue imaginarium.

Angels in America
From a certain perspective, you have to look hard to find the proverbial angels—much less anything patriotic—in Tony Kushner’s epic saga, set in the AIDS-ravaged 1980s. If anything, there are demons at play here: homophobic bigotry, censorious right-wing Reaganisms, and a disease that seems to spare no one. But as Kushner has implied, the play sprung out of nothing if not a sense of hope for what the country could be. It is, in a sense, the mirror of a world that, by virtue of being art, manages to point beyond it. None of that is lost on director Ivo van Hove in this spare, passionately acted production of the work, which Kushner himself called “overwhelming” in the best sense. With little more than a turntable and a minimal number of props, the production puts the heavy lifting done by the fantastic actors at the center of attention. The soundtrack is mostly David Bowie, who could be considered an honorary Yankee. And while the production's Dutch-language translation doesn't do much for the production's American cred, the sheer determination of the characters, each of whom is restless for change, transfiguration, or self-reinvention in one form or another, certainly does.

Nonesuch Records at BAM:
Kronos Quartet, Merchant, Giddens, Amidon, and Chaney   
Sam Amidon
Granted, new music juggernaut Kronos Quartet isn’t the first group that comes to mind when thinking about the rustic strains of Appalachian balladry and other American folk music traditions. But listeners familiar with the group—which has performed and arranged everything from traditional Iranian song to the music of Azerbaijani ashiqs—won’t be at all surprised that they've turned towards homeland roots. To do so, they’ve aligned with respectable company. Two excellent singer-fiddler-banjo players are on the bill: Rhiannon Giddens, the magnetic (and—shh!—classically trained) frontwoman of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; and Sam Amidon, whose reworked versions of old-time tunes somehow sound like the ur-texts of the tradition itself. The intense, silken-voiced English folkstress Olivia Chaney will appear, as will Natalie Merchant, whose introspective recent Nonesuch release reveals an artist leagues beyond her 10,000 Maniacs days. Expect musical evocations of the collective American unconscious, as well as a reminder that what’s next can sometimes be what’s been around for a bit.

Exit folk, enter fighting forces—namely those of the Marines, refracted through the transformative lens of theater. True, the military and the theater haven’t exactly thrived as kindred spirits over the years. But that’s all the more reason to pay attention to this gripping work in which soldiers step up as writers of history and not merely actors in it. Based on photojournalist Teru Kuwayama’s titular project, an online hub that, since 2010, has provided a place for Marines embedded in Afghanistan to share their stories with the rest of the world, Basetrack adapts those stories for the stage. The production uses actual Marine Facebook posts, photos, and other contributions to create a moving, and formally inventive, account of life on the front lines. If all of this seems a little heavy on the citizen journalism and light on the art, note that adapter Jason Grote has promised an evening of challenging, uncompromising theater that brilliantly utilizes found texts through experimental means. Democracy, at least as pertains to the writing of history, will also be in the building; the story of America’s longest war has rarely been told from such a collective, decentered perspective.

Also see:

The Ambassador
Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane's bittersweet love letter to LA.

Nonesuch at BAM: Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish
The beloved soprano and pianist perform works by American mavericks George Crumb and Charles Ives.

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