The City made sure I never slept: Art, eats and theater in the Big Apple
Thank goodness New York is the city that never sleeps.
Houston heats slows everything down, but with only 48 hours to get myself into a New York state of mind, I had to make the most of it. Happily, the Big Apple rarely disappoints. In two blissful days of urban strolls, subway rides, taxicab adventures and sold-out shows, I communed with the ghosts of Shakespeare and Alexander McQueen and spent an evening in a haunted hotel.
I went to New York via Boston to visit a few friends, which gave me the chance to see the brand new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. With everything from pre-Columbian splendor to classic American painting, the gallery is worth a trip. At moments, the mixture of paintings and furnishings seemed clunky and tiresome, but I can't complain about a room full of John Singer Sargent's magnificent canvases. And the MFA isn't done with construction, either; its Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art will open in September.
It took me about an hour to get into the museum, which is unusual for the MFA. The city went mad for the Technicolor splendors of Through the Looking Glass, featuring Dale Chihuly's improbable glass sculptures. The works seem to wonderfully resist the fragility of their medium, and some are quite startling. I'm not sure these sculptures actually bear the weight of such intense scrutiny.
But if ordinarily dour Bostonians can go wild over Green Icicle, maybe there's something more to Chihuly than meets my eye. The MFA has launched a special campaign to raise funds to keep this work in the gorgeous new courtyard outside the Art of the Americas wing.
Waiting in line was a theme for this trip, and the MFA got me in shape. Even more impressive than the lines for Chihuly were the hordes pouring into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the record-breaking show Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Demand was so intense that the museum opened special evening hours, and people stood patiently in line for hours. It only took me two and a half, and I can honestly say that although I don't really follow fashion (beyond a littleProject Runway) it was a spectacle I'll never forget. You can take your own video tour here courtesy of the Met.
There's something very special about seeing McQueen's signature work in halls that were themselves gorgeously attired for the show. Carousels spun dresses that were somehow simultaneously sadomasochistic, romantic, gothic and bizarrely naturalistic. One jacket, It's a Jungle Out There, was composed of a print featuring images of crucifixion while Eclect Dissectdeployed vulture heads for shoulders. And these were by no means the most extreme fashions in the room. What seemed special, too, was the introduction of video footage of McQueen's characteristically inventive runway shows, with everything from chess matches to burning rings of fire. No wonder McQueen called himself a "romantic schizophrenic."
There is also a kind of schizophrenia built into the Royal Shakespeare Company's residency at the Park Avenue Armory, which at one point housed the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard. This atmospheric building, chock full of historical paintings and murals, now happily houses an incredibly innovative season of performance. Inside the massive halls of the Armory, the RSC built a stage that resembles a spaceship from the outside. The audience enters this ultra-modern container to find a replica of Shakespeare's Globe.
Alas, I couldn't see all of the performances, but the RSC's The Winter's Tale was a marvel of excellent acting and extraordinary art direction. This lesser-known late play is one of the best examples of the bipolar nature of tragicomedy. In the first half of the play, King Leontes develops a sudden and inexplicable jealousy and drives his best friend away and his young son, his infant daughter and his wife to apparent death. The second half of the play leads to improbable reconciliation and family reunion as his daughter is found and his wife has been turned into a statue that comes back to life 16 years later.
In spite of Leontes' violent misogyny, The Winter's Tale is a gold mine for parts for women. Queen Hermione, played admirably by Kelly Hunter, and her lady Paulina, masterfully performed by Noma Dumezweni, entirely stole the show. And the play features the most hilarious and enigmatic stage direction in the history of theater: "Exit, pursued by a bear." The company handled this beautifully, as a massive bear puppet, made of the pages of old books, swallows an unfortunate soul alive midway through the play.
All the magic, reconciliation and hungry bears made for quite an appetite. My theater companion prevented me from devouring another playgoer by taking me to Casa, a marvelous West Village eatery with perfectly prepared Brazilian classics and deadly but delicious Caipirinhas.
Still, there's no rest for the weary on a quick trip to New York. I pounded the pavement one last time for an experience unlike any I had ever had. Through September 17th, you, too, can have what I like to call an interactive Macbeth experience in the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Street. Intended to be one of New York's finest, the hotel was shuttered days after the outbreak of World War II and has been left undisturbed until the recent arrival of Sleep No More.
The London theater group Punchdrunk has, since 2000, pioneered "immersive theater with roving audiences" in atmospheric spaces. Imagine, in this case, if Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lived in a grand, if fading, hotel at the time of The Great Gatsby and you could follow them around and watch them act out their tragic tendencies. Of course, you're wandering around in a dark hotel with a mask on, so strange things will happen as you rifle through drawers, read Lady Macbeth's letters, get pushed out of the way by the actors and find yourself chasing after what seem like ghosts.
At one point, I was alone in a taxidermy studio connected to what must have been a witches' den. At another, the sounds of a rave sent us running after actors writhing in a dance of the damned, complete with strobe lights and a bloody, naked man wearing a Satanic goat's head mask in an abandoned bar. The performers rarely spoke, but were utterly compelling, as was the setting itself. It's hard to imagine the precision required to make so much space alive with the specificity of history and the magic of theater.
As I walked back to my hotel after three hours in the maze-like McKittrick, I thought two things: If this is the future of Shakespeare adaptation, I'm all for it, and let's hope Punchdrunk heads our way.
I also thought, in a place like New York, who needs sleep?