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“Exit Strategies”: PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature
Kronos Quartet with Rula Jabreal, Tony Kushner and Marjane Satrapai
Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wednesday, May 2
Better than: The funniest right-wing parody of what they think liberal Manhattanites do in their spare time.
“This is a very odd evening,” Tony Kushner said to great laughter at one point, “and I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
I was not sure whether to believe the sincerity of his second thought there. The PEN World Voices Festival of World Literature is an ambitious project, with literary events happening all over the city in all kinds of venues this week. (Today, for example, will see Symphony Space host the second ever performance of John Cage’s experimental “How To Be Good.”) It was the brainchild of Salman Rishdie, who was on hand to introduce the quirky experiment that was “Exit Strategies”: the Kronos Quartet collaborating with playwright Tony Kushner, Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi, and Israel-born writer Rula Jabreal.
No one seemed to know how this experiment would work, but as nervous as Kushner seemed throughout (“I really don’t like to experiment in public, but here we are,” was a typically uncomfortable outburst from him, along with the musing that the evening was like family therapy, “but with a string quartet”), Kronos never seemed daunted. Violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler strode onto the stage and proceeded to play with confidence for nearly the next two hours. No matter how absurd their spoken-word accompaniment got, they kept on playing stoically, like veteran, unflinching straight men in a slapstick comedy routine.
Kronos has a willingness to try almost anything and collaborate with nearly anyone. As Rushdie himself pointed out in the introduction, Kronos has collaborated with “just about everyone on the planet,” from DJ Spooky to Philip Glass to “Noam Chomsky. Imagine trying to collaborate with Noam Chomksy!” Rushdie bellowed.
The evening began with Kronos playing music that was almost ambient in nature, and lights coming up on author Rula Jebreal while Marjane Satrapi and Tony Kushner sat in the dark (Kushner was visibly uncomfortable). Jebreal launched into a series of “questions” she was posing to the audience. But after haranguing the audience about how she was not declaring answers, but merely “asking questions”—about U.S. foreign policy, Republicans, corruption and the “legalized corruption” known as “lobbying”—it became obvious she was not asking “questions” at all. Jebreal was beating the audience over the head with rhetorical questions whose answers were obvious, the kind that implied only an unethical, idiotic moron would disagree with her.
This did not work particularly well with Kronos’ music, and felt rather forced and awkward.
Satrapi was next up. It was amazing, even at a distance, to see how perfectly the illustrator had captured her own eyes in her childhood self in her drawings in Persepolis. Of the three authors, she was the one who was least comfortable with the English language, which seemed to work; she said in a straightforward manner that she did not like speaking over the beautiful music of the Kronos Quartet and had every intention of doing so as little as possible. In her short talk, which she delivered without notes, she spoke about themes that would be familiar to any reader of Persepolis: how she hated that before 1979, Iran was a country known for “Princes and flying carpets” and how after that year it became a culture-less, fear-riddled concept to the rest of the world. To Satrapi, stripping all the people of Iran of their individual identities was a great shame, as was thinking about “the Middle East,” a region of multiple countries on two countries. Between her self-deprecating desire not to talk, her lilting voice, and her comic timing, her section actually worked pretty well with the music.
Kushner read his poem “The Second Month of Mourning,” a piece that shows him to be every bit as excellent a poet as he is a playwright. It was while reading this poem that he seemed the least nervous. The tone of the music and the beauty of the words complimented each other. For the most part, the rhythm of Kushner’s reading worked in tandem with the music that Kronos was playing; and even when it didn’t, the tension of the two rhythms against each other worked, echoing the dynamic between the narrator of Kushner’s poem who bemoans losing “you” to merely “the loss of you.”
Getting to see one of America’s premier living playwrights read with arguably our nation’s finest current string quartet would have been an admirable way to end the evening, the risky experiment closing out on a high note. It even could have gone out nicely with the next number, which (finally) had Kronos playing on their own, although they were accompanied by a pre-recorded man’s voice (my date and I suspected it was Ron Paul) railing about “tribalism” and nothing being as “unholy as a holy war.”
But then it devolved when Rula Jebreal leapt back in, reading an awkward first person speech about being born a prostitute and performing her mother’s abortions (she later revealed she was reading someone else’s experience, as filtered through a French philosopher). That led to an even more awkward exchange where Jebreal attempted to moderate a conversation about culture, politics and the “questions” she’d raised earlier in the evening.
Jebreal continued to belabor that “we don’t all have to find the same answers” to the “questions” she was raising, all the while ticking off a list of talking points that could have come straight from the Democratic National Committee. It grew most uncomfortable when Jebreal asked Satrapi what she thought of Mitt Romney (trying to goad her into saying she didn’t like him). Satrapi responded by saying she was sitting between these two wonderful authors, she was listening to the Kronos Quartet, she was having one of the most beautiful experiences of her life, and she didn’t want to ruin it thinking about Mitt Romney. She threw speech under the bus and declared music a superior means of communication, to much laughter and applause.
Like most of us, Satrapi just wanted to shut up and listen to the music, and eventually suggested all three of them sway and dance to the music instead of speaking.
Eventually, audience members started to leave, and Kushner looked increasingly panicked about how (or even if) the evening was going to end. He was looking for comic relief (if not outright salvation) to a crystal-ball light on the table in front of them that was conspicuously unlit. When it finally came, however, it was of little use for comic fodder, for Jebreal was in the middle of talking about the rape of prostitutes. Even more unfortunately, the light that came on was red.
God bless Kronos for trying something new, though, and playing on with straight faces and fortitude to the bitter end, just like the Titanic’s band. And bless the authors in forgoing the typical author’s panel for something different, odd as this was.
Somehow, Satrapi negotiated their own “exit strategy” off stage, while the audience finally, if too briefly, got to hear Kronos straight-up, without being interrupted with tired jokes about Romney (did you see the bumper sticker that reads “My dog rides on the inside”?) or, as a woman who came up to me after it was over put it, “the kind of garbage we all say to each other all day long.”
Indeed, the ultimate effect of “Exit Strategies” was like trying to listen to your favorite band while simultaneously hearing comments left on their Facebook fan page being read aloud at the same time by an actor you like. You may agree with what’s being read, you may even like the actor, but you’d still just want the actor to shut the fuck up so you can hear the music.
Leaving “Exit Strategies,” I couldn’t help but think that even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t make up a funnier parody of what Upper East Side Manhattanites do on a Tuesday night: go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to listen to three intellectuals bash George W. Bush like it’s October 2004, underscored by a string quartet.
Critical bias: I am a big fan of the Kronos Quartet, and though I interviewed David Harrignton for SOTC earlier this year, I have been kind of interrupted whenever I’ve tried to see them in person. I was at the aborted outdoor screening of Dracula in the middle of a thunderstorm in 2005. And Tuesday, with their music repeatedly being interrupted by text that didn’t quite gel with it, I still feel like I haven’t heard them live in a proper way.
Overheard: “I wished [Jebreal] would just be quiet!”
Random notebook dump: The only time the evening’s theme of “exit strategies” came into focus was when Kushner talked about Obama’s speech from Afghanistan the night before. which he was surprisingly supportive of. (My date, a political scientist who has interviewed Kushner, was surprised to hear him not only glowingly endorse the president, but also to compare him to FDR and Abraham Lincoln.) As interesting as this was, it wasn’t especially musical, and I still would have much rather have heard Kushner wax political and listened the Kronos Quartet separately.