By Bill Marx
Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) serves up a cool emotional package.
Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) Music composed by Bryce Dessner. Libretto by Korde Arrington Tuttle. Music direction and conducting by Brad Wells. Directed by Kaneza Schaal. Presented by ArtsEmerson and Celebrity Series at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street Boston, MA, through November 3.
Are the once notorious photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) transgressive any longer? And does it matter if the artist’s fall from (dis)grace means that his work will now be admired for its aesthetic placidity? Those are just two of questions raised by the New England premiere of the gloriously sung (by Roomful of Teeth with Alicia Hall Moran and Isaiah Robinson) Triptych (Eyes of One on Another). This musical event seems to be part of a cultural reappraisal of Mapplethorpe, from a 2019 film bio on his life (Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe) to a recent exhibition of his photographs at the Guggenheim Museum, which NY Times critic Arthur Lubow wrote was intended “to lionize the photographer” but “instead suggests that his sexually explicit images, once shocking, now look like clinical illustrations in a textbook on fetishes, while his glorifications of black men feed into old, odious stereotypes.”
It is hard to tell, after one viewing of this work, but to me the creators of Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) want it just about all ways. On the one hand, the giant projections of Mapplethorpe’s magisterial black and white photographs (divided into three sections: images of gay S &M, flowers, and profiles and nude portraits of black men) assert the classical beauty of his work, along with its ribald embrace of eroticism, from the innocent to the demonic. (An anarchistic — though white male-dominated — expression of humanity as both angel and devil: “it was said he had a face of a god / yet some saw a demon with rope shoes.”) Yet Korde Arrington Tuttle’s libretto (poetry by Essex Hemphill & Patti Smith) is not only lyrical and celebratory, but also investigatory, sometimes even accusatory, particularly regarding Mapplethorpe’s objectification of black men. There is a sharp critique here of the dominating, commodifying ‘white gaze.’
Yet an inspiring conclusion, proclaimed by Hemphill’s “American Wedding,” underlines Mapplethorpe’s desire for aesthetic and political freedom, driven by his iconoclastic urge to photograph the taboo and pornographic. It embodies a kind of idealistic moral/civic call to arms: “in america,/ place your ring/ on my cock/ where it belongs/ Long may we live/ to free this dream.” Pretty? Clinical? Exploitative? Liberating? Take your pick…
The strategic ambiguity of Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)‘s attitudes toward Mapplethorpe’s work is intriguing if not entirely satisfying. Meanwhile, the score by Bryce Dessner of The National has the merit of artful restraint though, for my taste, he is far too comfortable with an undernourished minimalism. There is a calming sameness to the music — which often alludes to the liturgical, with one memorable excursion into gospel — perhaps as a way to cushion (for bourgeois consumption) the visceral impact of Mapplethorpe’s pictures. (The trope of combining beauty, God, and the desires of the flesh is an old one.) The fine nine-member NEC Ensemble performs with smooth tastefulness. Thankfully, the score is enlivened by the marvelous voices of Roomful of Teeth, who has a world of sounds at its command: from cherubic oohs and aahs to a fascinating collection of rattles, creaks, and something that sounds like scraping at back of a throat. This group is capable of sounding sacred as well as profane — and coming up with a surprising fusion of the two. It really makes you wish that Dessner’s score was less earnest and more playful.
Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) serves up a cool emotional package: the vocal wizardry of Roomful of Teeth, the eye-catching photographs of Mapplethorpe, and the dense poetry of Smith and Hemphill. But the piece doesn’t steam up the room, despite the shots of X-rated fare. This is partly because the show’s dramatic progress is murky — the sections, aside from the final one, don’t follow a particularly clear dramatic arc. And, though the libretto is skeptical of the distance Mapplethorpe established from his subjects, the usually sober Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) is guilty of the same sin. (At one point, Roomful of Teeth has fun accenting the word ‘aesthetic’ with mischievous clicks of the tongue.)
The only possible wild card amid all the arty grooming is Martell Ruffin. This “classically trained dancer… functions as a kind of ghost of both Mapplethorpe’s subjects and invisible audiences,” the program notes inform us. He “literalizes the sense of multiple viewerships and makes us aware that as we take in this work and Mapplethorpe’s work there are and will be other other eyes, other ways of engaging with these bodies, these sounds, these hearts.” Sounds promising, but Ruffin isn’t given much to do when it comes to dramatizing alternative reactions — he looks out at the audience from the stage, dances a bit, and yells once as he sits in one of the theater seats. There is no challenging dialogue with spirits of the past. A tasteful monologue dominates — for our eyes only.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.