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The Quiet Power of Giorgio Morandi: Worth Shouting About

By Terry Teachout
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page N04


Never mind the damn election. The most important art exhibit in Second City -- maybe even in all of America -- is the Giorgio Morandi show on display at Lucas Schoormans Gallery through Dec. 4. That's what I call news.

The effect of this show is wildly disproportionate to its minuscule size: six oil paintings and two works on paper, all of them still lifes and none in any obvious way imposing. Yet as you look at how the greatest Italian artist of the 20th century painstakingly arranged and rearranged a dozen bottles, bowls and boxes on a table and painted them over and over again, you find yourself whisked out of the grinding noise of everyday urban life and spirited away to a place of intense stillness. It's as if a soft-spoken man had slipped discreetly into a small room open to the public, whispering life-changing confidences to the fortunate few who visit him there.

Mario Cantone in his one-man show, "Laugh Whore." (Bill Streicher -- AP)

What gives Morandi's paintings their near-inscrutable power? It's partly the brushwork, at once delicate and forthright, and partly the extreme subtlety with which he varied his narrow palette of colors. I'm no less fascinated by the way in which he pushes himself to the edge of abstraction in so many of his later works. Those homely objects (some of them easily recognizable from canvas to canvas) grow increasingly vaporous, even transparent, as in the 1960 watercolor that is for me the high point of the show.

Though coveted by connoisseurs, Morandi's tabletop microcosms have never been popular in this country, or anywhere else. None of them is currently hanging in a New York museum (though two exquisite etchings just went on the block at Sotheby's), nor has Morandi ever been the subject of a full-scale American retrospective. Until last month, Washington was the only city on this side of the Atlantic where you could occasionally see more than one of his paintings at a time: three at the Hirshhorn, two at the Phillips. In addition, several regional museums own individual Morandis -- there's one in Princeton, N.J., for instance, and another in St. Louis -- but if you want to see his work in bulk, you pretty much have to go to the Museo Morandi in Bologna, Italy, from which three paintings in this show are on loan.

So it is a boon and a blessing that Lucas Schoormans has put together this tiny, unforgettable exhibition, not for profit (only one of the pieces, a pencil drawing, is for sale) but for love. It's worth a trip to Manhattan all by itself, and it repays frequent and repeated viewings.

While you're in town, you can always take in a show, though I can't think of anything on- or off-Broadway at the moment that is remotely compatible with the sublime experience of spending an hour communing with eight Morandis. Your best bet might be to lunge in the opposite direction, in which case you should go see Mario Cantone's "Laugh Whore," a raucous one-man show at which I laughed so hard that I expected to find bruises on my rib cage when I got home. Cantone, best known as the loudmouthed gay sidekick on "Sex and the City," is a stand-up comedian-singer who does impersonations on the side and likes nothing better than to howl unprintable truths about showbiz and its peculiar practitioners. In "Laugh Whore," he roasts one sitting duck after another, piling up corpses with lunatic glee. If you're a prig -- or Michael Jackson -- you'd better stay far, far away from the Cort Theatre.

Otherwise, it's the place to be.

American Ballet Theatre just wrapped up its annual winter season at City Center, but though the company looked as fine as ever, I was sorely disappointed by "VIII," Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet, all the more so because he is the young choreographer I admire most. Still, I guess everybody has to drop the ball sooner or later, and this overblown, overripe piece, which purports to portray the three-way relationship between Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, is a failed experiment I trust Wheeldon won't find it necessary to repeat. It shared a bill with Trey McIntyre's "Pretty Good Year," a half-hour of strenuous calisthenics set to Dvorak, and two short Mozart ballets by Jiri Kylian, the first of which was so repulsively Eurotrashy that I excused myself from seeing the second.

Far more to my liking was New York City Opera's revival of its wondrous version of Rameau's "Platée," staged and choreographed by Mark Morris. A zany fantasy set in a seedy downtown bar and (no fooling) a terrarium, it's one of Morris's happiest meldings of song and dance.

City Opera followed this sublime confection with a gripping new production of "Dialogues of the Carmelites," Francis Poulenc's masterpiece, in which the martyrdom of a cloister of Carmelite nuns who died on the guillotine in revolutionary France is transformed into a harrowing parable of faith, fear and grace. Tazewell Thompson's uncluttered staging isn't as impressive as John Dexter's staggering 1977 Metropolitan Opera production, but it works, and the opera itself comes through with clarity -- which is, after all, the point.

Two especially fine cabaret performances caught my ear in October.

Wesla Whitfield, who sings standards better than anybody, set up shop at Danny's Skylight Room for a three-night stand. Among other things, she's my favorite bait-and-switch artist. Just when her kewpie smile and lightly mocking patter leave you wondering whether she takes anything seriously, she comes zooming in under the radar with a payload of deeply felt emotion, singing songs like "This Time the Dream's on Me" and "Lost in the Stars" in a silvery drypoint voice that makes you shiver.

Mary Foster Conklin, one of the smartest, least predictable songbirds I know, brought a most unusual show into Mama Rose's. "Under the Covers: A Tribute to Peggy Lee's 'Mirrors' " is an evening of theater music by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, whose cheery rock-and-roll ditties (they wrote "Hound Dog" and "Kansas City") have cast an undeservedly long shadow over their unsettling, often macabre art songs. Conklin has taken the 10 numbers recorded by Lee in 1975 on "Mirrors" (with "Is That All There Is?" as the perfect encore) and spun them into a one-woman show sung with boldness and imagination. I was more than happy to catch it in a club, but "Under the Covers" really belongs in an off-Broadway theater, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't end up there sooner or later. You heard it here first!

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