The venerable American Repertory Theater has come under considerable fire recently because of its supposedly crowd-pleasing, profit-seeking tendencies under the reign of new artistic director Diane Paulus. Well, the A.R.T.'s latest offering -- The Blue Flower -- would seem to defy that populist notion, careening instead into the realm of deliberate alienation and artistic pretense.
A.R.T. purists will no doubt be delighted. This reviewer? Not so much.
The Blue Flower is without question an ambitious and well-intentioned effort. Local Boston-area couple Jim and Ruth Bauer have apparently spent the better part of the last ten years working on the The Blue Flower. I'm told the show was quite captivating at the New York Musical Theater Festival, catching the eye of one Stephen Schwartz (yes, that Stephen Schwartz), who has since signed on as a producer.
Well, either people are seeing something in The Blue Flower that I wasn't able to, or the piece has changed considerably for the worse since its previous incarnation, because the show I saw this past Thursday at the A.R.T. was a tedious morass of obtuse stage business and oblique musical numbers. The Blue Flower seems to want to be both intellectual and sentimental; however, it serves neither of those functions effectively.
The story centers around a fictionalized foursome of artists, lovers, and free-thinkers in Germany in the very early 20th Century: German Expressionist painters Max Beckmann and Franz Marc, Dada artist Hannah Höch, and scientist Marie Curie. Set against the backdrop of World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the rise of the Nazi Party, The Blue Flower sits perched above a vein of great dramatic potential, which the Bauers, despite ten years of trying, haven't even begun to mine effectively.
The main problem with The Blue Flower is its method of storytelling. The authors seem to have made the conscious choice to have the characters rarely - if ever - speak in character, relying instead on subtitles, visual projections, and the supposed narrative power of the songs to carry the day. But often the lyrics appear only obliquely connected to the action, or are opaque to the point of inscrutability. As a result, we have the egregious and off-putting use of narration to set the scene and communicate what the characters are feeling. Ideally, the songs should be doing that, but only rarely do, which saps these inherently fascinating characters of any possible pathos.
It's entirely likely that the Bauers have deliberately chosen this Brechtian presentation style. But here's the rub: Brecht usually had something revolutionary to say. The Bauers don't, other than what appears to be the standard war-bad-art-good mantra. In case you miss the Brechtian parallels, the score here even quotes The Threepenny Opera. But whereas in Brecht the alienation devices serve to enrage, here they merely enervate.
To fill in historical holes, the authors employ the rather inert device of flashing forward 20 or 30 years and having now Professor Bauman (the fictionalized version of Beckmann, played by the remarkably protean Daniel Jenkins) deliver a lecture on World War I or expressionist art. This only serves to further emphasize that the songs aren't doing their narrative job. When the Bauman character actually does speak, it's usually in "Maxperanto," a language that the character invents and speaks as a protest against the supposed meaninglessness of existence. Again, alienating and off-putting.
As I've said, the story here is potentially powerful, but the Bauers don't seem able to evince the inherent drama, which is admittedly rife. For example, when Franz Marc joins up as a cavalryman in World War I, he encounters a gruesome scene involving a severely wounded horse. Anyone familiar with Marc's work will know that horses were a recurring motif. In The Blue Flower, Marc performs a humane act for the dying horse, the sole moment during which I was actually engaged emotionally in this show, and then a narrator steps forward and dispassionately announces Marc's own fate. What could have been a cathartic moment is robbed of any dramatic weight by taking the actual people out of the equation, a situation that happens all too frequently during The Blue Flower.
Jim Bauer's music for The Blue Flower comprises a bewildering and seemingly random mix of styles, from country and western to warmed-over Weill. When the lyrics aren't maddeningly vague, they're banal. After Marc (played by the appealing Lucas Kavner) meets his fate, Marie (a strident and dynamic Teal Wicks) sings, "This day was like no other. I climbed the Eiffel Tower and I closed my eyes and thought of you." She continues, "Things will never be the same." Yes, well, thanks for the bromide: at this point in the show, I was actually in need of a sedative.
As another lyric from the show puts it, "Oil sits on the surface of the water, annoyingly still." Well, in The Blue Flower, it isn't just the oil that's irritating. It's the whole damned painting.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received complimentary press tickets to this performance of The Blue Flower.