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May 15th, 2011

Carson McCullers Talks About Love

I've always admired Suzanne Vega.  I like her wordy, impressionistic, slightly trippy songs.  I like her slightly monochromatic voice.  I like her reserved, wry stage persona that 's more "If you like me, that's nice, but if you don't, that's fine" than "Love me love me love me" or "Worship at my feet or die."  I like her pointed face and her long, long hands.  And I never, never expected to see her on the stage of a pocket-handkerchief theater in the West Village, doing an extended monologue with musical interruptions on the life of Carson McCullers.

But that's just what I did last night.  And I enjoyed it very much.

I'll tell you right up front--the music is better than the monologue.  The lyrics are taken from McCullers' stories and events in her life, and they're lovely.  There's a number called "Harper Lee" ("the mockingbird is not the only thing I'd like to kill") and a retelling of "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" that encapsulates not only the novella but how it feels to read it.  The music is more melodic than I'm used to with Vega, the result, possibly, of having been written with Duncan Sheik, of Spring Awakening fame.  And she delivers it, as always, from her heart and back in her throat, fluid and dry, earnest and detatched--very like McCullers' writing, now I come to think about it.

She delivers her lines the same way, and it works.  Mostly.  There's a little too much business with booze bottles, cigarettes she never even pretends to light, drinks she picks up and puts down, coats she puts on and off.  She's physically awkward, standing stiff-legged in a tweed skirt that hits her shin at a funny length, the elbow of her drink-holding arm propped on the wrist of the other.  Which would be fine, and completely appropriate to the subject, if I had had a stronger sense that the awkwardness was McCullers' and not Vega's.  I could never forget she was acting, and that acting doesn't come naturally to her.  Still, what a wonderful character Carson McCullers is--a kind of sub-Colette, who would have loved to be all brash and arrogant and joyously hedonistic and self-centered and bisexual and performative, but was prevented from going her length--because of her temperament, because of life-long chronic bad health caused by an attack of rheumatic fever when she was 15, because it was very, very hard to be a joyous bisexual hedonist in America in the 30's and 40's, even if you are naturally self-centered and arrogant, which she certainly was.  To be fair, she seems really to have loved her husband Reeves McCullers, however difficult the marriage turned out to be for both of them

And that's what I got out of the performance, knowing little to nothing about McCullers going in.  Which counts for a great deal, I think.

So, yeah.  Go see it if you can.  You'll get an insight into a real American original. Suzanne Vega is a fascinating performer, and I have a lot of admiration for someone pushing herself out of her comfort zone like that.  And the music's great. 

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