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The good, bad and ludicrous make for another tumultuous year in the Cincinnati arts

By Steve Ramos · December 29th, 2004 · Arts Beat
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Most Nonsensical Policy
Washed-up TV actress Linda Gray drops her clothes as Mrs. Robinson on the U.S. tour of the Broadway comedy, The Graduate, including her 12-day run last December at the Aronoff Center, and no administrators at the performance hall batted an eye. Which is fine and fair. The Graduate's highbrow striptease, a winking gesture to the middle-aged, middlebrow, scotch-sipping, suburban men who accompany their wives to Broadway touring shows in Cincinnati and other cities, has become its key sales tool since Kathleen Turner bared all for the play's early runs in London and Manhattan.

If a nude Gray is good enough for Graduate audiences in Pittsburgh and Columbus, why should Cincinnati husbands in attendance miss out on the Playboy wink? A bare Gray is good, decent, straight-arrow nude. You'd have to be some sort of pervert to find something wrong with Gray showing off her fit body as part of a Broadway tour.

Adjacent to the mammoth Procter & Gamble Hall, in the intimate Jarson-Kaplan Theater, home to the Contemporary Dance Theater (CDT), longtime presenter of modern dance and performance to Cincinnati, the rules regarding nude performers are drastically different. Nude dances in a visiting dance company's repertoire are banned from the Jarson-Kaplan stage. It doesn't matter if CDT Director Jefferson James informs patrons beforehand that the show contains mature content, limits ticket sales to adults 18 and older or cancels the lobby bar selling alcoholic beverages. Nude dancers, more often male than female, are outlawed as a violation of policies of the Cincinnati Arts Association, the managers of the Aronoff Center, as well as Music and Memorial Halls in Over-the-Rhine.

Here's the score on Aronoff Center lunacy: A bare Linda Gray is a good nude; if a dancer from the acclaimed Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company were to perform the landmark piece "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin," that's a bad nude. Policies are determined in Aronoff Center offices, but the debate belongs to the ticket-buying public.

Even a Tony Award Doesn't Make All Things Right and Bright
Ed Stern's biggest success after 13 years as Playhouse in the Park's producing artistic director is the 2004 Regional Theatre Tony Award. His network TV shout-out to Cincinnati, by far the biggest Queen City plug in recent memory, was sweet, positive and more than a little Pollyannaish: "A very big thank you to the great city of Cincinnati, where the arts -- all the arts, performing and visual -- are flourishing.

You are the best."

With all the hype, hoopla and happiness surrounding Stern, it was easy to understand how he could forget the stinging controversy over Glyn O'Malley's Paradise, a play about two West Bank teenage girls, one Jewish and one Palestinian, that was shelved from a school tour a year earlier after protests from the Muslim community. The withdrawn support of Lois and Richard Rosenthal for the Playhouse's annual New Play Prize (because they disagreed with Stern's choice) was also pushed aside for the time being.

Stern's greatest setback, his stalled effort to create an incubator theater offsite from the Playhouse's Mount Adams' home, has been replaced by something glorious, a real lifetime achievement. The Regional Tony puts the Playhouse on the map, and it will be interesting to see what Stern and Playhouse leaders do with the added recognition.

If we are to buy into Stern's Cincinnati love, if the arts are truly flourishing locally, then it's because of grassroots, creative projects like Cicada: The Musical, a wonderful give-back to the community led by Paul Kreft and a diverse group of artists, ranging from ages 55 to 20. Over two June weekend nights at the worn and rickety College Hill Town Hall, Kreft (performing as Betty Anderson), returning artists Kim Humphries and Susannah Rosenthal, and numerous locals including Kendall Bruns, Gary Gaffney and Andy Marko came together to create a series of funny, eclectic performance pieces set around the theme of cicadas. Like a true variety show, some performance pieces outshined others.

Eric Appleby paid homage to Matthew Barney's tap-dancing satyr from his Cremaster films with "The Cyclical Cicada," about a tap dancing crooner clad in a bright summer suit. The highlight of the show was spoken word artist Keith Wahle and dancer Claire Miller whose three performance sketches fused the spirit of performance art, dance and vaudeville comedy in the manner of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Wahle and Miller played off each other perfectly, as if they had been together forever.

Although not as inspired or as dazzling as Kim Humphries' 1999 Rock opera, Gillombardo's Hams (the credited inspiration for Cicada: The Musical), there were more than enough highlights to offset the avant-garde baloney that often drags down shoestring productions.

The Mighty Fall the Hardest
Cincinnati Opera Managing Director Patricia K. Beggs taught us new math about opera programming. It added up to the departure of Artistic Director Nicholas Muni.

The elementary equation which is the key to future success at Cincinnati Opera appears to be 3+1. Three represents the number of familiar or popular productions necessary to make a four-season opera attractive to season subscribers. One is the maximum number of avant-garde productions a given season can contain -- works like Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins and Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. These operas reflect Muni's creative preferences, and have been his best work, in addition to the best work presented by Cincinnati Opera since his arrival in 1996.

Beggs refers to these avant-garde productions as "stretch" pieces for the Opera, but that's where the ambiguity about the company's future begins. By Beggs' standards, such pieces also include traditional operas unfamiliar to Cincinnati Opera audiences, like The Daughter of the Regiment in summer 2004, or new commissions like next summer's Margaret Garner.

No one is going to confuse Margaret Garner with The Maids, composer Peter Bengston's 70-minute minimalist, chamber opera based on Jean Genet's play, Les Bonnes. There is nothing avant-garde about Margaret Garner in terms of staging, music or content. Yet, when it comes to calculating the 3+1 formula, Margaret Garner constitutes that desirable, edgy "one" spot, pushing out a revival of Muni's 2000 production of Leos Janacek's Jenufa.

As a result, the Opera's artistic integrity is in question.

Things Are Brighter Elsewhere
The biggest news in Councilman Jim Tarbell's three years as chair of Cincinnati City Council's Arts & Culture Committee is the recent elimination of half of the city's funding for the arts. On Dec. 13, a majority of city of Cincinnati Council approved a version of the 2005-2006 budget that includes a 50 percent reduction in arts funding.

The $432,000 in grant money awarded last year to individual artists, and local arts organizations both large and small, will be shaved to approximately $224,000.

The lone bright spot for arts supporters is that the news could have been worse. Council Members John Cranley and Pat DeWine recommended completely eliminating arts support from the 2005 budget.

 
 
 
 

 

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