It may surprise some people that movie star Willem Dafoe (Spiderman, The English Patient, Platoon) has roots deep in the stages of experimental theater. Dafoe was a founding member of The Wooster Group in New York, along with director Elizabeth LeCompte and Spalding Gray. Recently, I was lucky enough to catch him back in his old stomping grounds in Richard Foreman‘s “Idiot Savant” at the Public Theater.
Sauntering in looking like a Samurai Libertine with a pacifier-like plug in his mouth, Dafoe plays the title role of the wondering Idiot with the petulance of a child and the anger of a madman. The set is a kind of padded Victorian cell, where his partners onstage, the ethereal Marie in the Black Dress and the booze slugging Olga in the Riding Pants, partake in a tense, abstract verbal dance culminating in the question: “What makes certain words… magic?”
Foreman (playwright and director of the production) famously writes page after page of non-linear dialogue – but in the hands of an outstanding cast, its meaning is clear. As absurd as “Idiot Savant” appears on the surface, to experience it is an oddly poignant event. Dafoe’s masterful performance is a touching reflection on our longing for meaning in life.
By the way, if you feel the urge to create your own experimental piece, Richard Foreman has made all of his notebooks available to the public.
Graphic nonfiction achieves a new level of elegance in a very rarefied subject: the career of Bertrand Russell – mathematician, philosopher, and educator — and his search for the logical foundation of mathematics. Against the backdrop of two world wars, Russell tries to argue for humans to base their behavior on reason; but the cruelty of his fellow logicians gives the book its skeptical edge.
Here’s a Black Friday deal that the big-box retailers can’t beat. Buy the new album from the up-and-coming indie band Ezra Furman and the Harpoons and you’ll get a personalized song thrown in, for no extra charge. Just send them a letter with your life story (or a condensed version, perhaps), and they’ll churn out a folk-rock ditty with your name on it.
Moon Face: Bootlegs and Road Recordings 2006-2009
Since coming together at Tufts University, Ezra and his band mates have written so many songs and played so many live shows that there were plenty of cuts left off of their first two releases. Those songs find a home on Moon Face: Bootlegs and Road Recordings 2006-2009 — alongside that unique, personalized track. There have been more than 100 orders in the first weeks since the album’s release, which means the band will be busy writing odes to its fans during any downtime on its current tour. (Ezra plays a solo Thanksgiving Eve show tonight at the Lincoln Park Whole Foods in Chicago).
Ezra (in the center of the frame) and the Harpoons
And speaking of harpoons, we’re serving whale for Thanksgiving this year in “Studio 360.” You can hear all about the classic novel that Ezra’s band took as inspiration as we rebroadcast our Moby-Dick episode, the Peabody Award-winning installment in our “American Icons” series. Guests include playwright Tony Kushner, artist Frank Stella, and science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Get hooked this weekend to find out if Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece still holds water. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
The hottest music out of Brazil at the moment might actually be from Minnesota. On Rádio do Canibal, Twin City beat-makers BK-One and Benzilla have crafted one of the most musical hip-hop records of the year. As the title indicates, the American DJs cannibalized a slew of records gathered on a recent trip to Brazil. Dirty salsa beats mix with Tropicália melodies in a seamless 19-track excursion from the City of God to the beaches of Ipanema. It helps that the roster of guest hip-hop talent includes such stellar wordsmiths as Black Thought, Murs, and Raekwon.
British poet Ruth Padel shares Charles Darwin’s DNA — she’s his great-great granddaughter. Inspired by the life of her (relatively) early relative, this descendant of the Descent of Man author pays tribute to her forefather in verse to commemorate the 150th anniversary of On The Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Darwin: A Life in Poems tells the naturalist’s life story in spellbinding odes like “Survival of the Fittest,” which describes his guilt over the death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie, who was the product of his marriage to his first cousin Emma:
You can also listen to Kurt’s full interview with Padel:
And poetry isn’t the only lyrical form inspired by Darwin’s theories. Science historian Richard Milner punctuates his lectures with Jimmy Durante-style tunes about Darwin’s findings. It’s all a part of his effort to humanize him: “Everybody has to find their own Darwin,” says Milner. “He’s so large, you can find yourself in him.”
Jeanne-Claude and Christo in 2007 (photo by Bryan Obrien)
Last Wednesday, the artist Jeanne-Claude, wife and creative partner of the artist Christo, passed away. New Yorkers remember Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s ambitious 2005 piece, The Gates, a sweeping installation with 23 miles of saffron fabric fluttering throughout Central Park.
The Gates in Central Park, New York
The couple showcased their dramatic work all over the world, famously wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris in fabric.
The Reichstag, Berlin
The Pont Neuf, Paris
But Jeanne-Claude and Christo aren’t just known for the grand scale of their work; they’re also known for their determination to get past all the red tape to bring their colossal visions to life. Back in 2005, just before The Gates opened in New York, Studio 360′s Sarah Lilley talked with the couple about how they took “beauty into battle.”
It’s almost exactly 150 years since On the Origin of Species was published, so for this week’s show we decided to put evolution to the test. We learned a lot of cool facts in producing this hour: did you know the human species was nearly extinct — dwindling to just 2,000 people — 70,000 years ago? And if you ever worried about genetic engineering going awry, don’t miss the amazing sci-fi short story we commissioned from writer Lydia Millet.
All our brainstorming for this show got me thinking about a favorite old TV program with an all-chimp cast. But this week’s Studio 360 didn’t have room for this particular pop culture reference, so our blog is where my love for Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution will live.
Kids never do as they’re told. The lauded novelist Vladimir Nabokov asked that his unfinished manuscript The Original of Laura be burned upon his death. But lucky for us, his son Dmitri didn’t listen. This week marks Laura’s inflammatory publication, which means that fans of Nabokov’s will now have to decide whether to respect the master’s wishes or run to the nearest bookstore to crack open the spine of this much-anticipated book and bite into some forbidden fruit.
Written on 138 index cards in the final years of Nabokov’s life, mostly from a hospital room, Laura spent more than three decades under lock and key in a safe-deposit box somewhere in Switzerland. It’s the story of the aristocratic Flora Lanskaya’s life with her morbidly obese (and otherwise morbid) husband Philip Wild. After the passing of Nabokov’s own spouse, Vera, the question of whether or not to publish “Laura” fell upon Dmitri’s shoulders. In the end, the thought of not sharing his father’s final work with the rest of the world was apparently too much for Dmitri to bear… (coupled with the thought of not possessing the financial means to get from point A to point B: “It’s true that my wheelchair requires some costly modifications to fit into the trunk of a Maserati coupe,” he told The New York Times last year.)
The Nabokovs: Vladimir, Vera, and Dmitri
Dmitri in front of a portrait of his father. Photograph: Patrick Aviolat/EPA/AFP
This isn’t the first time an author’s wishes have been overruled in favor of publication. Kafka wanted The Trial incinerated after his death, and long before that, Virgil requested that The Aeneid be destroyed. “Read the works!” journalist Ron Rosenbaum pleaded in 2005. “Life is too short to care more deeply about the life of the one who wrote them, whose secrets are usually irretrievable anyway.” Playwright Tom Stoppard had a different take: “It’s perfectly straightforward: Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it.”
Hard to believe, but the Muppets turned 40 this month! And my favorite segments from “The Muppet Show” are still “Pigs in Space.”
In honor of Carrie Fisher’s appearance on our show last week, we bring you a clip from 1980. It’s the Muppets do “Star Wars” – and even though Fisher didn’t make it aboard the ship, the Muppets offered a class act in her place.