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On the Culture Front: Jerusalem, Fleet Foxes, and Living in Havana

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I've been doing more traveling these last couple months and fell out of the routine of writing this column. There's been a lot happening on the culture front, far too much to encapsulate below, so I've decided to focus on my most vivid moments of the past few weeks.

Last Wednesday night, I finally saw Jerusalem. I have to confess I was reluctant at first due to a previous unpleasant experience I had watching a play of Jez Butterworth's at the Atlantic years back. Then there were the incredible reviews the show was receiving, the kind of reviews that make disappointment inevitable. But when I profiled Josh Gad, he told me it was the play he was most looking forward to see, which piqued my interest, and I'm really glad I went.

Jerusalem is truly an exhilarating story of lives unfulfilled that captures something rare about the human condition. The play opens as a slacker farce, with a bunch of drug-addled teenagers and their older counterparts partying with the town's aging drug dealer Johnny "Rooster" Bryon (Mark Rylance). They muck about the land outside his trailer after a particularly destructive party, rambling incoherently, so much so that it's understandable to wonder why exactly we should care about these characters. Their fragmented stories, though, are punctuated by sight gags like the entrance of The Professor, a widowed scholar who somewhere along the line decided to let everything go. He appears from a bush upstage and wanders through Rooster's property with just a dog's leash. Like everything else in his life, he seems to have lost the dog somewhere along the way.

It's one of many moments where tragedy and comedy collide while encapsulating some of the play's darker themes of emptiness, delusion, and the search for something that never existed. The title takes its name from a William Blake poem that was turned into an English hymn to give hope to soldiers fighting in the bleak first World War, and there's a mythological strain that runs through the play's three acts. What's most astonishing, though, is the restraint of Butterworth's dialogue. He lets simple utterances and blurred remembrances unfold effortlessly into poignant dénouement. It's the kind of play you can think about for weeks after seeing.

The Fleet Foxes made a similarly vivid impression when they took the stage at United Palace the previous Thursday amidst a packed and unusually spirited crowded for a folk show. Drunken screams could be heard intermittently throughout the evening. There's obviously a lot of love for this Portland septet, and it's easy to see why. They draw heavily on the medieval-tinged melodies of early Simon and Garfunkel -- frontman Robin Pecknold recounted a chance street encounter with Garfunkel -- but their rich harmonies bring to mind the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. A roots backbone throws the sound into a unique realm.

The 100-minute set featured many of the songs from their excellent new album, Helplessness Blues, including the beautiful lament "Montezuma." Rolling guitar riffs of "Bedouin Dress" and the rhythmic chord changes of "Battery Kinzie" balance out the more introspective moments nicely. Pecknold and co. also played old favorites like "White Winter Hymnal," which has a wonderfully circular melody that wraps around you, delighting in its simple pleasing sound.

Before the show, I stopped by the opening of Living in Havana (runs through June 18th at the Marlborough), a gallery show exhibiting a few dozen works by five Cuban artists, many of which have never been exhibited in the states. I felt giddy walking through the lofty space of the Marlborough, peaking into a culture that's largely been a mystery. There didn't seem to be a lot of love lost for Castro in the works that depicted a vibrant society held hostage by a dictatorial communist system, but rather striking portraits of dissent. One of my favorites, Ernesto Rancano's "Have Patience with Luck," shows a tiny man sitting on a large metal sickle with a magnifying glass swinging gently in front, illuminating the man.