Music Addiction: For the Moment, Satisfied

I hate heroin. But I can empathize with the addicts, who always want more, stronger, purer, better–because I’m a live music junkie, drama doper and general art addict. Loving art creates a real problem that no one has any sympathy with: ever-spiralling higher standards. In school they called it “connoisseurship.” As you learn to distinguish more carefully and refine your taste, you learn to want only the best and become impatient with the rest.

But sometimes you get the best, and it carries you on the crest of a wave and the world is fine and beautiful for some hours or days. This week I got two thriller doses: Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion (read my review on CVNC here), and then last night, a very different kind of greatness, as The Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields, with violinist Joshua Bell, played UNC’s Memorial Hall in a Carolina Performing Arts Program. Their silken precision, their pouncing attack, the purity of their sound whether softly ethereal or boldly blazing, were an aesthete’s dream and are only going to make me more demanding.

The program was beautifully designed, beginning with the merry order of J.S.Bach’s Concerto no.2 in E major (BWV 1042)  then swooping into Beethoven’s Symphony no 1 in C major (op. 21). It is so wonderful to watch musicians playing with the same joy with which you are listening. After intermission, the tone darkened with Camille Saint-Saens’ foreboding-streaked “Introduction” and the whirlwind “Rondo Capriccioso” (op. 28). Then the piece one rarely hears–wants to hear, but can barely withstand–Schubert’s dread-infused String Quartet in D minor (D. 810) “Death and the Maiden,”‘ in the Gustav Mahler arrangement for string orchestra.

In it, I see Spring (and as we know, “Spring can really tear you up the most,” especially in D minor) witnessed by a company of ghosts, endless ranks of them. I hear Death’s cantering horseman–that’s how I think of the motif that builds throughout the movements, increasing in speed and number of repetitions until he sweeps by leaving sonic emptiness. I remember being seriously frightened by this music, but I have a better acquaintance with Death and his steed now. He’s not coming for me yet, but he may come at any moment.  The best thing I know about immortal music is that it can reconcile one’s precious self to mortality’s inevitability.

Joshua Bell leads The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Joshua Bell leads The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Photo: Ian Douglas.


GROUNDED at Manbites Dog

Madeleine Lambert gives a powerful performance as The Pilot, in Manbites Dog Theater's production of GROUNDED. Photo: Jon Haas.

Madeleine Lambert gives a powerful performance as The Pilot, in Manbites Dog Theater’s production of GROUNDED. Photo: Jon Haas.

In Grounded, currently at Manbites Dog Theater, an American Air Force fighter pilot tells an unusual story, constructing herself for us onstage as meticulously as a child building a model plane and dressing it in its paper skin patterned with the markings of its identify. From the moment we meet her until she metaphorically crashes and burns, The Pilot wears her flight suit. She’s not just a pilot, but a fighter pilot, an elite warrior. The Pilot is a Major and a hotshot, and feels her greatest happiness when alone with the blue, riding her “Tiger” through the vast blue sky. But getting pregnant changes all that.

George Brant’s 75-minute, one-woman play (2013) packs an enormous emotional and philosophical wallop in this production, which is directed by Talya Klein with Madeleine Lambert as The Pilot. Both women studied theater at Duke, and both went on to earn MFAs from Brown/Trinity Rep before launching theatrical careers. Together again at Manbites, they have made something almost unbearably intense. Klein’s adept pacing of Lambert’s engrossing, finely-calibrated performance keeps us alert and focused. The room is stripped to its black cinderblock walls. There’s a folding chair, a bottle of Pepsi. And video cameras.  Under Andrew Parks’ excellent lighting that enlivens the spoken “action,” it is enough; enough for us to imagine the scenes limned by The Pilot as she spirals from power and personal freedom to a serf-like captivity, and madness.

The deeply personal quality of the story grabs you by the throat, and at the same time the playwright pushes multiple hot buttons, forcing you to contend mentally with macro-issues like like surveillance (“Everything will be witnessed!”) the military use of drones; the validity or not of the spate of desert wars; the place of a woman of childbearing age in the military; the invisible wounds of the warrior; the strange balance of procreation and death-dealing in the human race. It is quite a work-out. Brant has made his story up from these big issues and more, but they don’t stick out in lumps–they’re the girders of the story, and the story is told in order to reveal its structure. Brant is also skilled at piling several possible meanings onto a word, phrase or situation. Beginning with the play’s title, you must consider the simultaneous presence of multiple interpretations. Grounded is at once a fine piece of rhetoric, and an explosive drama.

The Pilot gets pregnant after some hot sex while on leave, and has to quit flying. She can’t bear to “kill” her baby. The father’s thrilled; they marry, and baby makes three. Now, The Pilot is never alone. After a suitable period, she returns to the Air Force after maternity leave, but instead of returning to the blue she craves, she’s assigned to a team guiding drones from a windowless trailer on a base in the desert outside Las Vegas. As she notes, she’s back to fighting the same war, but from a different desert. Nor is she any longer an action figure, her own heroine. She clocks in and out, and in between she’s a team player.

And, we are forced to realize, the new military is the same as the old: even though all bodily danger has been removed for the drone operators, all the mental poisons and traumas of war remain. They are only exacerbated by turning war into a kind of shift work with deleterious labor conditions. Now the “Chair Force” warriors must go home to spouses and families after a shift of war. No more decompressing with the guys after a mission–got to get home. In fact, there is never an end to the mission, just a change-off in the workers at the machine of war.  I was particularly struck by the profligate cruelty of a military that would take people they’d spent a million dollars apiece training, people with psychological profiles close to that of Icarus, and enclose them in dark boxes where they would stare at gray video screens for 12 hours. How could the military planners not expect human breakage? Ahhh. They do. The hazards of war will always cause loss of personnel.

This remarkable piece of theatre continues at Manbites through April 5.

Madeleine Lambert as The Pilot. Photo: Jon Hass.

Madeleine Lambert as The Pilot. Photo: Jon Haas.




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