Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-12.

Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel: Celebrating Five Hundred Years of the Greatest Vision of Hope

Sprawled across the east wing that stretches from the papal residence to the Vatican Museums is an inscription commemorating one of Pope Julius II’s most important contributions to the complex now known as the Apostolic Palace: IULIUS II PONT MAX LIGURUM VI PATRIA SAONENSIS SIXTI IIII NEPOS VIAM HANC STRUXIT PONT COMMODITATI. The text is ambiguous in that “VI” may signify the ablative case of the word vis meaning power or strength, or it may stand for the Roman numeral “6.”

Aaron Krohn as King Henry V. Photo by David Hou.

Henry V by William Shakespeare, directed by Des McAnuff, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

The prologue to Henry V is not only an appeal for the audience to indulge its imagination. It is an encomium to the art of acting and its capacity to teach us how to live. It sharpens our sensibilities to the parallels between drama and reality, the stage and the world, the past and the present. It evokes sympathy in us for ourselves as much as for the actors, and it prepares us to recognize a moral lesson in every chronicle. So when he has the Chorus urge us to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; / Into a thousand parts divide on man / And make imaginary puissance,” Shakespeare puns on the plural pronoun, hinting that he is about to effect a catharsis, a flushing out of our “imperfections” in the very act of pretending that what happens on stage is real.

Laura Condlln (left) as Chrysothemis and Yanna McIntosh as Elektra in Elektra. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sophocles’ Elektra, translated by Anne Carson, directed by Thomas Moschopoulos – until September 27, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

Before this play even begins, one can understand why artistic director Des McAnuff was so taken with Thomas Moschopoulos when he saw a production of the latter’s Alcestis at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus a few years ago. As you settle into your seats for this production, members of the cast mingle with the audience before the curtain rises to chat about Elektra, her moral dilemma, and the incontestable role the audience plays in bringing this drama to life.

Deborah Hay as Beatrice and Ben Carlson as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo: David Hou.

Much Ado About Nothing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

One of the greatest challenges facing any Shakespearian actor is putting on and peeling off various layers of pretense throughout a play. This is what makes Much Ado About Nothing so interesting. Whoever plays the part of Beatrice must pretend she is a woman pretending she is not in love with Benedick, who, in turn, is played by an actor pretending to pretend he doesn’t love her. The actor playing Don Pedro must pretend to pretend to be happy, shirking sadness by means of his clever plot to bring “Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection the one with the other” (II, i). Whoever plays Hero may well choose to portray her as a young woman pretending to be in love with Claudio, who, in turn, pretends to want her hand in marriage until rejecting her at the altar. The stage is full of characters portraying false feelings while trying to ascertain the true feelings of those around them.

Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, Detroit Institute of Arts, through February 12th

Since fully reopening five years ago after a magnificent renovation and expansion project, the Detroit Institute of Arts has emerged as the premiere institution when it comes to displaying and labelling artworks for the twenty-first-century public. Pieces in the permanent collection are labeled with clear, concise descriptions that encourage visitors to look closely but to think for themselves. They provide essential information without insulting the viewer’s intelligence. It is not uncommon to see complete strangers, often with disparate backgrounds in art, standing in front of a picture and discussing it at length. You cannot help but come away from the DIA feeling you have engaged art rather than having absorbed a lot of information about art.

Seana McKenna as King Richard III at Stratford, Ontario. Photo Stratford Shakespeare Festivall/Daivd Hou.

Richard III by William Shakespeare, directed by Miles Potter – until September 25, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario

In 1953, the town of Stratford, Ontario inaugurated its annual Shakespeare Festival with this very play directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starring Alec Guinness. This year Seana McKenna takes on the title role, adding—as husband and director Miles Potter explains—“one more layer of artifice on Richard.” With over twenty years of experience at Stratford, McKenna hardly needs an excuse to play the part. Yet I understand the public’s demand for an explanation.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, directed by William Church, at Interlochen

It is easy to understand why Shylock, the reviled Venetian Jew, became the focal point of The Merchant of Venice in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though we all felt profound sympathy for those he came to represent, we are all familiar with the abuses that exclusive attention to an otherwise fascinating character led to in the theatre. This play is about much more than Shylock. Yet Interlochen had every right to place Shylock at the center of Merchant once more given that the part was played by David Montee, Director of Theatre Arts at the Academy for twenty-one years. The cast included no less than ten of Mr. Montee’s former students.

Arnulf Rainer

Arnulf Rainer: der Übermaler, Alte Pinakothek (Munich), closed September 5th, 2010

I have long deemed Munich’s Alte Pinakothek one of the most underrated museums in Europe. Thanks to aristocratic connoisseurs like William IV, Maximilian I, and Ludwig I, the city now boasts an outstanding collection of Renaissance, Dutch, and Flemish masterpieces. The museum is well complimented by Alexander Freiherr von Branca’s Neue Pinakothek and Stephan Braunfels’s Pinakothek der Moderne since 2002. In fact, these robust institutions have allowed Munich’s Kunstareal to rise above the current economic crisis as promising young talent finds a slow but steady stream of patrons.

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