Friday, December 2, 2016

Hay that creaks, eyes that lift altars: How contemporary dance helped me to be a better reader of poetry

You must tread carefully when it comes to conclusions about how different arts reinforce each other. Just because you find different art forms stimulating hardly confers the right to smudge the integrity of each simply because you find the mutual influences you may detect fulfilling.

With that caveat, I have to declare that a piece Dance Kaleidoscope has put on two of its programs has helped me find a way through a knot that afflicts the interpretation and enjoyment of poetry. The dilemma is how to read a kind of fused image that showcases both stasis and motion. 

Choreographer Brock Clawson
I didn't see this for a long time, until memories of a DK guest-choreographer premiere came back in a new light. Originally, Brock Clawson's "Lake Effect Snow" struck me in my blog review for its look inside the emotions of a protagonist (danced by Noah Trulock) as both actual events and dream-states influence him.

That's one kind of fusion that this piece encompasses superbly.  But "Lake Effect Snow" has also stayed in my memory for the way it covers a spectrum ranging from stillness, or minimal motion, focusing on the protagonist, to rapidly paced movement — some involving him, some of it for the ensemble— in whole or in part. With its narrative emphasis, "Lake Effect Snow" enfolds within its movement vocabulary the progress of time itself. But stillness, especially with the solo dancer seated on a bench, his back to the audience, or in fleeting arm-around-the-shoulder hugs with another, is a crucial part of a narrative that privileges change. And a wonderful unity is achieved.

Poetry, like dance, is also linear. But dance has the advantage, when it is as skillful as Clawson's piece, of telling a story in contrasts of movement and stasis that make sense in more than the practical sense of husbanding dancers' energy and giving them and the audience "paragraphs" into which the choreography's discourse falls. Even more important, its handling of time can be more natural, especially because lyric poetry,  while the reader takes it in over time, is a block of unmoving words you can readily come back to. Poetic imagery has to do extra work, sometimes by fusing different sense impressions to represent both what we see as portraiture or still life and what we move through. This can cause problems for interpreters.
Swinburne: Can sandals be bound over speed?

One of those problems spurred this essay. A vastly experienced literary critic allowed himself to be tripped up by what he found in one poem, only to praise the same kind of device a few pages later. Terry Eagleton, in "How to Read a Poem," heaps scorn on a stanza of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Atalanta in Calydon," introducing it as an example of the poet's "worst":

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
     Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
     With a clamour of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
     Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night. 

In a brief analysis, Eagleton notes with asperity that "the narcotic music of the words works to muffle the meaning." But only by taking the most literal view of Swinburne's imagery can the critic find this stanza short on meaning. "It's hard to see how you can bind on a sandal over speed," he says, also scoffing at the last line: "How can day and night have feet?"  

Yet, less than ten pages later, in the course of praising the unconventional form of
Robert Lowell's creaking hay got a critic's approval.
Robert Lowell's "Mr. Edwards and the Spider,"  Eagleton incidentally admires the same kind of fused image he deplored in Swinburne (1837-1909): "The homely image of the hay creaking to the barn, where the  imaginative masterstroke of 'creaking' redeems what might otherwise prove too banal a phrase, comes wrapped within a highly sophisticated manipulation of metre." Here's the stanza: 


  I saw the spiders marching through the air,
  Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
      In latter August when the hay
      Came creaking to the barn. But where
        The wind is westerly,
  Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
  Into the apparitions of the sky,
  They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea....


How can hay creak? one might ask if one were echoing Eagleton. And can't you indeed bind a sandal over speed, if "speed" is understood as being a potential quality of a runner's stationary foot, soon to move fleetly in one of mythology's most famous foot races? In the same way, the hay being moved to the barn is itself motionless and noiseless, but on a wagon moving into the barn, it takes on the "creaking" of the vehicle hauling it. Lowell (1917-1977) has fused sight and sound.

It is somewhat forced but not false for poetry to do something that dance accomplishes naturally. In a continuum, the meaning of a dance piece's still moments is caught up in episodes when there is quite a bit of movement. Sometimes stillness and movement are simultaneous, as they are at various points in "Lake Effect Snow." Together, they help create the work's significance.

Before leaving Swinburne, it's worth noting that Eagleton scorns the stanza's next-to-last line, dismissing the language about east and west at opposite ends of daytime as "merely verbal counters to shuffle around in place of genuine observation." In fact, the progress of time is one of the main ways we measure motion, so that using fragile descriptors for dawn and dusk emphasizes the brief temporal hold each phenomenon has on our experience of days: Phenomena that are "faint" and "wan" in snapshot perceptions can, under the spell of passing time, also quicken and shiver. "The passage is full of florid gestures and empty of substance," says this learned critic, in my view missing the point.
Hart Crane: Much to explain.

This kind of fused image is not hard to find in poetry. Hart Crane (1899-1932), a poet whose complexities both excited and baffled his contemporaries, used one in the middle of "Voyages: II," and explained it in an essay, "General Aims and Theories." The phrase is "adagios of islands" in this stanza:

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,--
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.



Crane wrote: "The reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc." Obviously, the islands are stationary. Assigning a slow tempo to them is really placing them in relation to the observer's being on a boat moving slowly among them.

Crane was a poet with a lot of explaining to do, some of it forced on him by editors and patrons. An anthologized exchange of correspondence in 1926 with Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, offers many fascinating insights into Crane's procedures, including what I am calling fused images, where two different kinds of perception are blended. Here's the third stanza of "At Melville's Tomb":

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars. 

The third line, Crane wrote Miss Monroe, "refers simply to a conviction that man, not knowing perhaps a definite god yet being endowed with a reverence for deity  — such a man naturally postulates a deity somehow and the altar of that deity by the very action of the eyes lifted in searching."

"Lift" is a powerful verb, because it involves both movement and exertion. It's no accident that lifts are such an important feature of both classical and modern dance. It also has symbolic import, suggesting ascent to some element or realm above this world. Crane makes the word work extra hard here, because it is actually the eyes that lift their gaze aloft in search of a deity. Here that motion fuses with the stationary heaviness of altars in the actual world.

Robert Frost preferred unfused imagery.
Some poets are averse to this kind of verbal welding. They may want to contemplate the yin/yang of stillness and movement, but they prefer to set them side by side, as Robert Frost (1874-1963) does in "The Most of It.

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush—and that was all. 


There are bookends of stillness around the extraordinary movement described here. The concluding bookend is particularly powerful in that it suggests that the meaning the human observer wants so badly to extract from nature seems both final and questionable. In between falls this narrative of a powerful creature emerging from the lake, past the man on the "boulder-broken beach" and into the woods. 

If he were not temperamentally opposed to what he might have seen as a blurring of experience instead of feeling a duty to clarify it, Frost might have worked on an image like the buck lifting the lake (where the lake is a metonym for the "crumpled water" it's pushing), or perhaps (to bring in the element of sound) booming the lake as it emerged from the water. Frost's poetry is instead full of clear-eyed contrasts of stillness and motion.

Fused imagery is thus not for everyone. And the temptation to contrast something seen as still, as if in a mental photo album, with the motion it represents may mislead a lesser poet.

Rod McKuen: Definitely not going with the flow.
Many years ago I dipped into Rod McKuen (1933-2015), hugely popular at the time, to find this prose-poem passage. I just now located it again online, since I don't have any of his books. Here's McKuen: "I have no special bed. I give myself to those who offer love. Can it be wrong? Lonely rivers going to the sea give themselves to many brooks in passing. So it is with me...."

No, it isn't, Rod. He's so anxious to show his willingness to merge with others — it's an almost creepy sort of intimacy with McKuen — that he reverses nature by having rivers flow into tributaries, rather than vice versa. A poet may thus confuse himself  in searching to fuse something still (the river system as a structure, as if seen statically from above) and something moving (actual river flow). So may a critic (Eagleton on Swinburne) in trying to apprehend this sort of imagery.

Such fusion is entirely natural to dance, particularly in works with an implied narrative. Clawson's protagonist in "Lake Effect Snow" owns his solitude and his quiet moments in addition to episodes that engage him actively with others. It's all of a piece.

Dancers don't flow into tributaries, and they may well bind sandals onto speed.

A reader of poetry can learn much from dance, and come back to poetry with renewed insight and appreciation.





















Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Just a Country I Used to Know": How has the United States already changed in difficult ways since Donald Trump was elected?

An adaptation of an old love-lament hit sung by George Jones expresses dread at the prospect of how the country is already taking a turn for the verse as the Trump presidency approaches.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's "Basically Baker Vol. 2" memorializes seminal jazz educator David Baker

Almost 12 years ago, with the honoree still very much alive and active heading jazz studies at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra recorded "Basically Baker" for Gunther Schuller's GM label.
The soul of Indiana jazz education: David Baker (1931-2016)

In June, at a studio in Bloomington, a BWJO with significant changes of personnel expanded on that project with a two-disc set of David Baker compositions and arrangements. "Basically Baker Vol. 2" (Patois Records) is a culminating tribute by Brent Wallarab, Mark Buselli and their colleagues to the Indianapolis native, who died last March.

Adventurous in his jazz visions as a performer as well as a composer, Baker in these big-band charts challenges performers with countermelodies, key changes, washes of acoustic sound, rhythms that rub up against each other, and the spice of dissonance. When we hear the skittering of saxophones complicating the introductory measures of "Harlem Pipes" (the first disc's opening track), we know we are in a questing milieu. And it's a good place to be.

Even the relaxed pieces, such as the no-stress calypso "Walt's Barbershop" (featuring an exuberant Rob Dixon tenor solo) are dotted with challenges: the precise ensemble without rhythm-section support near the end, for example. Many pieces show off a composition's different facets, but not so drastically as to fragment it. Rich Perry's laconic tenor near the start of "Soft Summer Rain"  presents one side of the piece, while later, riding on a tempo boost, Tim Coffman's trombone solo suggests that those soft summer rains can energize us, too.

David Baker always had a down-to-earth side, for all his musical sophistication. So the typical variety within each number seems to present the whole man.  "Black Thursday,"  for example, is like a jaunty stroll down "the Avenue," keyed to Bill Sears' alto saxophone solo. I think of this pace and the swagger that goes with it as a "Killer Joe" tempo, after the famous Farmer-Golson Jazztet song. Mark Buselli's sly, plunger-muted trumpet solo is like a stylish man looking out curiously from under a fedora with a snappy brim pulled low on the forehead. It yields the street to a punchy, accented episode recalling Art Blakey's "Blues March." No one was more steeped in the 1950s idiom that produced such music than Baker.

The one work on the two discs not by Baker, but featuring his arrangement, is Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop." It offers another indication of Baker's insider status with the era's most characteristic jazz. And Graham Breedlove's trumpet solo thoroughly captures the Dizzy spirit, glinting in and around the upper register.

It's hard to adequately credit all the good work on these two CDs  without getting long-winded. Rarely, a piece's basic material seemed a little weak, but the arrangement and the solos rescued it. In "Shima 13," for instance, solos by pianist Luke Gillespie and tenorman Perry prove well worth waiting for. Otherwise, the piece struck me as somewhat tedious.

Co-leader Wallarab describes this project as "a way we could all channel our grief into something productive," and the result will certainly buoy up the many people, musicians and fans alike, who remember Baker fondly. Proceeds from sales of "Basically Baker Vol. 2" will go to the David N. Baker Scholarship Fund to benefit IU jazz students.




"Chimes of Freedom" revised to comment on the through line from resistance to the 14th Amendment to today's voter suppression

Sunday, November 27, 2016

IRT evergreen: Janet Allen returns to directing 'A Christmas Carol" for the first time since 1998

The dramatic crux of this year's production of "A Christmas Carol" by Indiana Repertory Theatre occurs when the up-and-coming Ebenezer Scrooge pauses on the stairway to his lonely counting-house perch to scrutinize the ring his distraught fiancee Belle has just returned to him.
Ghostly tours of his life behind him, Ebeneezer Scrooge begins to discover joy.

In that moment, Dickens' durable miser confirms his change of heart from someone alive to the fullness of his experience to a man dead to anything beyond his narrow focus on a fiercely guarded wealth he's unable to enjoy. Charles Pasternak's intense, jeweler's-loupe view — the merest moment in an opening-night performance full of revelations from a seasoned cast under the guiding hand of Janet Allen — feels like a dark parody of transubstantiation.

Like wine to Christ's blood in the rite of Eucharist, the ring changes from its symbolic promise on Belle's finger to a commodity in the fledgling businessman's grasping hand. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. When Scrooge puts on a cynicism that will last until four ghostly visits convert him, his course is set. For IRT, Ryan Artzberger once again represents the iconic skinflint suffering under visions of his past, present, and future before being delivered back to heartening experience.

At the end, this Scrooge becomes aware of his supernatural spiritual renewal in a fit of sobbing that turns into laughter. All is not lost, it dawns on him, and his outburst of silliness has been hard-earned. "Silly" is a cognate of the German word "selig," which means "blessed." Artzberger signaled the blessing Scrooge recognizes in two marvelous ways: I liked the tonelessness, the stunned, blank quality he gave to the repeated line "I don't know what to do." The Scrooge whom everyone recognized and tried to avoid on the street always knew what to do; the Christmas spirit he firmly rejected lies at the opposite pole from that steely certainty.

Even the cruel winter weather could not gain the upper hand over Scrooge, Dickens writes. In this production, it overcomes the street urchin singing "In the Bleak Midwinter," a song then taken up by the compassionate Lamplighter (Scot Greenwell), joined by an ensemble of the play's characters before the story gets under way. The vulnerability of children is immediately set in contrast to Scrooge's apparent imperviousness.


Returning to the last scene: After simple astonishment at his second chance, giddiness about his reclamation floods over Scrooge.  He praises the boy passing on the street below for the lad's direct answers to his questions; a plan has formed in Scrooge's mind to have a large turkey sent from the neighborhood poulterer to his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit (more lovable than ever in Jeremy Fisher's portrayal), and his family. The boy is the first real-life agent of Scrooge's new orientation to the world, so of course he is "delightful," "intelligent," "remarkable." The genuine buoyancy in the actor's voice put a seal of authenticity on the miser's transformation.

Allen's approach to the Tom Haas adaptation of Dickens' short novel is in some respects more direct than that of her immediate predecessor, Courtney Sale. The action seems to be placed more forward, under lighting that doesn't attempt to compete with the ubiquitous snow on the raked stage.  If I recall correctly, there is a more frequent use of trapdoors this year. The miraculous happenings are less shrouded. Stagecraft is as boldly evident as it is in, say, "Our Town."

The large frame that serves as a doorway to several interiors and the mirror in which Scrooge first encounters a vision of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, is also used — when held horizontally — as a box or a cell, briefly signaling Scrooge's confinement within his isolating mature self. The Christmas frolics of Fezziwig, the young Scrooge's  employer (Robert Neal at his most boomingly gregarious), together with the later revels at nephew Fred's, indulge more wholeheartedly in Dickensian caricature than the 2015 production. In vigorous support of them, the contributions of composer and sound designer Andrew Hopson are more pronounced.

Superstar of death metal: Goad as Marley's Ghost
A specialist in devised theater, Sale eschewed any feeling of set pieces in favor of an open flow of action amid a few refreshing anachronisms. By no means does this production lack imaginative touches, however. I've already mentioned young Scrooge's stopping to consider the returned ring's marketability. Pasternak, who also plays Scrooge's nephew Fred, makes the most of another original episode: Though the text presents Fred as relentlessly upbeat and steeped in Christmas cheer, Pasternak makes him a little edgy and argumentative in the scene in which Scrooge dismisses his nephew's Christmas invitation. I thought this worked as a legitimate way of interpreting the Scrooge-Fred dialogue. Pardon the vulgarity, but I liked the more ballsy Fred.

Charles Goad's presentation of Marley's Ghost clanked menacingly and spoke in blood-curdling tones of warning. His costuming and makeup looked straight from the tomb. The other three spirits (Emily Ristine, Milicent Wright, and Rob Johansen) were uncomplicated guides, strict teachers richly distinguished from each other, all focused on reminders and admonitions. When the Ghost of Christmas Present swept downstage and (quoting Dickens) said: "You have never seen the like of me before!" the audience responded with a laugh of recognition. It was a pure Milicent Wright moment — in her best performances, it's just how she comes across, though that
Milicent Wright as the Ghost of Christmas Present
message is usually unspoken.


So much else could be said about this show, but why risk arousing Scroogian "Bah, humbugs!" from my blog visitors? I want to suggest, however, that "A Christmas Carol" seems to me more than a seasonally specific entertainment and more than a literary classic. I see it as genuine modern myth,  with Scrooge as an outsized, unlikely hero. Writing with keen foresight into the long-term effects of the Industrial Revolution, Dickens anticipated what the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton has called the commodification of experience. Scrooge has become alienated from the truth of his own experience ("I had forgotten," he says pathetically to the Ghost of Christmas Past), with everything he cherishes reduced to mere calculation, figures in a ledger.

Most of us may not be close to Scrooge's flinty meanness, but the modern world encourages us to confer value upon our experiences, as he did, based upon what we have invested in them, what they have cost us. Dickens foresaw the danger of turning how we live into a treadmill and repository of consumption.

We have to trust that there is a different way, "A Christmas Carol" reminds us. One of the novella's most moving scenes, left out of Haas' mostly pitch-perfect adaptation,  recommends such trust. At the outset of their journey, the Ghost of Christmas Past invites Scrooge simply to step out of his apartment's second-floor window; Scrooge understandably balks. "'Bear but a touch of my hand there,' said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, 'and you shall be upheld in more than this!'"
The Ghost of Christmas Past (Emily Ristine) emerges to guide Scrooge.

Along with Tiny Tim's hope that churchgoers seeing his crutch might think of Him who healed the lame and restored sight to the blind, this is the most explicitly Christian passage in the story. Yet "A Christmas Carol" doesn't require that you subscribe to any particular belief. A myth resists literalism. It holds out resonating values each can apply in his or her own way across a wide swath of common culture. 

As the IRT production amply demonstrates, it can be fully entertaining as well as instructive to savor the benefits of not commodifying our experience. The alternative might mean sinking to the assessment of Old Joe (Goad again) in the Christmas Yet to Come scene — a receiver of stolen goods haggling with greedy scavengers over the fair price of a dead, unlamented pennypincher's personal effects.


[Photos by Zach Rosing]




Saturday, November 26, 2016

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Burning Away Cliches: 'A Very Phoenix Xmas 11' hits the stage

Tilting toward seasonal  harmony, a striking setting of "Carol of the Bells."
I used to think a certain lively Christmas carol was addressed to "merry gentlemen," but that was before I became versed in the subtleties of punctuation. My father, a church choir director, first pointed out to me that the title (and first line) runs, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and the conscientious singer should insert the slightest of pauses after "merry."

A minor "aha" moment — yet not irrelevant when considering Phoenix Theatre's latest version of its popular "Very Phoenix Xmas" series, a seasonal variety show stitching together submitted playlets with cleverly produced songs and commentary.

You see, that English carol pegs the wish that the gentlemen be merry on the grace of God in arranging for the birth of the Savior on the day we celebrate as Christmas. They are not merry to begin with.

In the broader culture of today, more receptive to other religious orientations and on the whole determinedly secular, the gentlemen (where are the ladies, one wonders?) no longer enjoy the narrow point of rest that "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" holds out to them. We're all on our own when it comes to merriment.

That heavy burden makes the carol's "tidings of comfort and joy" hard to identify and internalize now, especially in light of election results that producing director Bryan Fonseca boldly addresses in the program's printed insert. The production doesn't waste time on hand-wringing, however. "A Very Phoenix Xmas 11" gathers in the holiday season's nagging lack of comfort and joy while vowing successfully "to respect and celebrate this special time of year," in Fonseca's words.

Seen on opening night Friday, the show delivers across the emotional spectrum. It is both humane and caustic, open-hearted and cryptic, boisterous and reflective. The range is tied together with continuity provided by Fonseca and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan and voiced by cast member Jay Hemphill, ringing the changes on the stereotypical cowboy he plays in the first dramatic scene as he expounds on peculiar Christmas customs around the world.
Walt Disney (left) visits  his "Small World" singers, awaiting the next boat.

The international perspective is launched by Mark Harvey Levine's spoof of the dancing dolls in Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom. Precisely costumed and moving with mechanized zest, a sextet of national stereotypes gripes, banters or shrugs about the work of delivering "It's a Small World" every time a boat approaches. The routine of mindless work for the sake of ensuring others' kitsch-laden happiness is ripe for satire; it's a tradition going back to S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy," a 1935 parody of the agitprop theater of Clifford Odets. Levine is a proven "Phoenix Xmas" champion of poking fun at the season; last year's "Oh Tannenbaum" was a highlight of that show.

A feast of contentiousness: Celebrating the holiday in the Age of Trump.
The cast brings such a variety of personality and poise to the sketches and songs. The dancing styles stipulated by Mariel Greenlee's spirited choreography are well-met challenges. With mixed results, the actors are called upon to mimic a host of accents, which it would be cumbersome to enumerate here. Besides Hemphill, this Ocean's 11 of a show heists the audience's holiday reserve immediately: Jean Childers-Arnold, Paeton Chavis, Paul Collier Hansen, Andrea Heiden, Devan Mathias, and Keith Potts.

On a dark stage, in ovoid costumes outlined by strings of lights, Heiden, Hemphill, and Chavis get things started dancing with designed clumsiness to "Carol of the Bells," ending with the diminutive Chavis getting bumped to the floor. It's a sign of the undercurrent of untoward outcomes built into the show. There will be constant struggles to find comfort and joy, from the jerrybuilt Nativity scene assembled across sectarian lines in devastated Homs, Syria (by Kenyon Brown) to the unanticipated complications of air travel in "Home for Christmas" (by Andrew Black).

These are among several excursions into political matters rubbing up against the vaunted Christmas spirit. Politics having become so much about status and identity, the levels of preference airlines build into their handling of passengers and the attractions of personal "re-branding" are neatly addressed in Black's piece.

The audience-participation gimmick of Mad Libs works well in Lizz Leiser's "Holiday Dinner." Opposing viewpoints that emerge in family gatherings (already sharpened by tense Thanksgiving feasts) are mocked by inserting the audience's submitted nouns, adjectives, and verbs into scripted dialogue so as to obliterate sociability in a food fight of name-calling.

The insistence of often self-marginalized groups upon "safe spaces" forces rewritten "Progressive Christmas Carols" (PAINT, aka Jon Cozart) to skirt offensiveness by such awkward detours as that suggested by this show's subtitle, "I'm Dreaming of an Intersectionally Thoughtful Multicultural Winter Holiday."

The welter of cultural input during the season gets a somewhat confusing send-up of tour-guide narrative, pagan investment, and visitor thrill-seeking in the first-act finale, Jean Childers-Arnold's "Stonehenge Midwinter." Sometimes the season's disturbances take the form of illness, setting aside culture and politics. In "Phoenix Xmas 11," this varies from a moving narrative poem by Lauren Briggeman, recited by Childers-Arnold with informal brilliance, to Steve Korber's "World's Worst Christmas," in which Potts and Mathias play superbly two pharmacy customers on Christmas Eve who fall into a kind of rock-paper-scissors game of holiday self-pity.

The set by Jeffery Martin and Bernie Killian has a carefully assembled junkyard ambiance — with ladders, discarded tires, I-beams and other urban flotsam and jetsam whose purpose becomes clear in the Homs sketch. Projections on the area's few flat surfaces enliven several episodes, especially a devastating vocal-ensemble setting of a Verdi prayer aria and a mordantly funny Dutch solo song (with translation and film clips).

This is a brave show. There's enough jolliness in it to satisfy those who insist on comfort and joy. But thinking about that set brings to mind the  difficult solace that William Butler Yeats sought in "The Circus Animals' Desertion." The Phoenix casts a jaundiced eye at the holiday season's "circus animals," its tinselly images and confections.

"A Very Phoenix Xmas 11" finds plenty still to celebrate. Contrary to the Magic Kingdom's recorded reminder, it does not remain seated or keep its hands inside the boat, which is on a dark ride in more than one sense. The ladders of war-wrought Homs have nothing to ascend to. And yet, with Yeats, "now that my ladder's gone/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

Not your usual cup of Christmas cheer, is it? But, as in Yeats' poem, the heart has the final word. Let nothing you dismay.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]