Saturday, January 30, 2010

Paint It Alethea Black

Some weeks are really tough, and that last workday feels exceptionally long. All I want to do is transport myself home to a hot bath and a hot toddy. But then a Friday evening plays out so well I remember why I live in New York. Last night at The Players was one of those evenings.

I go to The Players to hear my friend Patricia Randell read plays and stories with other actors. Patricia’s work is invariably precise, heartfelt, and gripping. She gets me every time.

New River Dramatists presents readings along with and at The Players, and each evening I’ve spent there has been a joy. As New River’s Artistic Director M.Z. Ribalow said, the writers at New River write in more forms than plays, so why not showcase the playwrights' non-dramatic works. At The Players I’ve heard wonderful stories in prose by Sharon Pomerantz, Denis Johnson, and Alethea Black, among others.

Last night The Players and New River presented four short stories by Alethea Black in an evening called “Paint it Black.” Four marvelous actors –- Christianna Nelson, Bill Camp, Campbell Scott, and Patricia Randell –- read stories from differing points of view about different lives. Each of the characters was a whole human being created from Alethea’s multi-layered mind, and each was enthralling. Each story plays out with tension and humor. Alethea’s work is just delicious: She paints pictures and people moving through space and time and life. And she never, ever goes where I expect her to go.

All Friday nights should be like that.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Big Screen and Small

There’s something wrong in the world if I draft a review of a film on a Saturday and don’t get to re-read it let alone revise for a whole week, and then don’t have time to revise and post for yet another week. Or it’s just my world. The new year is crazed, expectations I feel compelled to meet grinding me down within weeks of an almost hopeful start to a new year that has proven just like the old. What to do? Go to the movies.

Broken Embraces. Like many Americans, my introduction to Pedro Almodovar was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Loved it, rented more. I’d been looking forward to Broken Embraces, not only because it looked gorgeous, but because it was supposed to be noir. It’s also supposed to have very witty dialogue, but I cannot tell that. The extent of my Spanish is reading ads on the subway when they’re next to the same ads in English. That means it all must be visual story telling for me, which has historically worked just fine.

Since much of the film didn’t work for me, I’m thinking there was a lot of language lost. The opening in the present moved along gently, setting things up, until the creepy guy showed up, which set up the return to backstory in the past – a very noir sort of segue. The Noir worked for me until it was explained in the Melodramatic present day. I have issues with coincidences, and I couldn’t believe these. While noirish in some ways, the film is quite melodramatic– downright Douglas Sirk-like. Rock Hudson would have felt at home.

The main character was a film director/writer named Mateo Blanco who used the name Harry Caine for his screenwriting. Fourteen years before Broken Embraces begins, Mateo/Harry (Lluis Homar) lost his sight and became solely Harry Caine, writer. Part of the film takes place in the present, part in the 1990s. In both parts we see “Harry” interacting with his sometime production manager, sometime agent, Judit, played unsmilingly by Blanca Portillo. Judit’s grown son, Diego (Tamar Novas ) is a frequent visitor in Caine’s apartment, sometimes collaborating with him on stories or scripts. Diego also works as a DJ in a club where drugs are popped like candy.

We are shifted back to the 1990s by a present-day newspaper obit on Ernesto Martel – realistically played by Jose Luis Gomez as sad and creepy at the same time. Although Caine is clearly affected by the death, it is not meaningful to Diego. Enter a new character calling himself “Ray X” (skeevily played in past and present by Ruben Ochandiano) who says he directed a documentary 14 years before and wishes now to work with Caine on a vengeful biopic about his unnamed but recently deceased father. The reaction of both Caine and Judit to this young man is fear. He insists they needn’t fear him, he is not his father, but they usher him out of their lives anyway.

In the opening, Judit walks in on an afternoon delight between Harry and a young woman who helped him cross the street. I couldn’t tell who lived where with whom. It is particularly confusing in the present since Harry’s apartment, which can be entered at will by Judit or her son Diego, looks just like Judit’s apartment – same color schemes, same decorative elements. Judit is sour, and remains so throughout the film, so who belongs to whom is also confusing. It is during Diego’s convalescence from an accidental mixing of drugs that he demands to understand why both Caine and Judit are frightened of the creepy guy.

This is how Almodovar sends us back to the 1990s to introduce us to Magdalena as played by a glowing Penelope Cruz. In the 1990s, Lena works as a secretary to that very powerful man who died in the present, has occasionally worked as a call girl out of desperate need, and has a dying father. Lena’s choices lead her to several years of living with Martel, then meeting film director Mateo Blanco, and then…. Well you can guess the rest if you’ve seen one or two noirs and any number of melodramas. Acts of violence occur (Martel actually pushes her down the stairs when he sees irrefutable proof of his mistress’s affair with Blanco), building in intensity to the final act of violence which we are expected, by the end, to believe was a coincidental accident. This viewer says fat chance. This disbelief I could not suspend distracted me, until I found the finally wrapping up of the film in the present to ring untrue, despite my pleasure in the final scenes of artists at work.

The revelations in the last twenty minutes of this film were a bit obvious by then. Revelations in the last 20 minutes of any film had better be about Colonel Mustard in the Library with a Lamp and led by a fellow with a funny moustache, an odd accent, and a habit of referring to himself in the third person. No, not George Bush, Sr.

Spoiler alert – Judit's revelations were that she and Mateo had, in the long past, been lovers. Got that. That she was angry back then, when Mateo and Lena left them in the lurch. That she had betrayed Mateo in some way to Martel. Then, then, finally, she actually tells Diego that Mateo is his father. Where’s Rock Hudson when you need him. That scene annoyed me so much I wanted to break into Almodovar’s editing room and cut it out.

Of course Penelope Cruz is lovely and delightful as advertised in shots of her with her Hepburn (Audrey, not Kate) and Marilyn looks. The performances were all fun, if sometimes over the top.

In simple, the noir storyline of the past I liked, but the neatly tied bows of the present bookending the story struck me false.

On the other hand, earlier in the day I chanced upon a Guy Ritchie film from 2008 on cable: “RocknRolla.” I had no expectations of enjoying that one, but I found myself laughing at a sharp, terrific script and hysterically pitch perfect performances. I believe I missed the first 5 minutes, but when flipping channels I found Tom Wilkinson and Mark Strong on screen together, the remote met the table and my butt stayed on the sofa for the duration.

Reasons to see this film --

  • Tom Wilkinson as Lenny Cole. One of my favorite actors of the last decade or so, I was introduced to him in the first installment of “Prime Suspect.” From there he danced delightfully into our hearts in “The Full Monty,” charmed us in “Shakespeare in Love,” transformed to a woman in “Normal” (with Jessica Lange), and on and on. Tom Wilkinson is a good reason to watch any movie.
  • Mark Strong (Archy) on various British television programs seen here, and most recently the villain of “Sherlock Holmes.”
  • Idris Elba (Mumbles), from “The Wire” and lots of other things in the last few years
  • Gerard Butler (One Two) has been mighty busy making money on this side of the Pond, in films like “300,” “P.S. I love You,” two movies released in the last six months!
  • Tom Hardy as Handsome Bob was familiar. Take away the knowledge, make him a sweet innocent at the beginning and a far too experienced smartass at the end, and remember one of the many wonderful young actors from “Band of Brothers.”
  • Plus 2 Russian gangsters – Karel Roden as the head Russian gangster, Uri Omovich, and Dragan Micanovic as his right-hand, Victor.
  • A sharp and snappy cut-cut-cut somewhat improvisational sex scene between Butler and the ultra skinny Thandie Newton. It was funny, fast, and rhythmically in line with the rest of the film.

Finally, lots of really good lines in this movie, courtesy writer director Guy Ritchie.

Mumbles to One Two: “If I could be half the human being Bob is at the cost of being a poof… I’d have to think about it. Not for very long, but I’d have to pause.”

Thandie Newton rings Gerard Butler’s doorbell. Over the intercom--
Butler: “Well what do you want?”
Newton: “You.”
Butler: “Well you had better come in then.”

The film’s tagline is on the mark: “Sex thugs and rock’n’roll.” And drugs and Russian Gangsters vs. English gangsters. Clear, snappy, scrappy, funny, sharp, fast moving, this surprise delight made me unable to pull myself away from the small screen. Cheers to Guy Ritchie and the entire cast of “RocknRolla,” and looking forward to the continuing adventures as promised at the end of the film.

~ Molly Matera signing off. Thanks for listening to my rant.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"As You Like It." Or Not.

Time was, I worked in my day job with a friend as passionate about theatre as I. I’d come into the office with my program the morning after seeing a play, and we’d go over it together. I would already have marked it up with Xs and check marks, and scribbles throughout, so we’d relive the good and bad bits of the production for a little while before the work day robbed us of our real lives.

Alas, we no longer work together, so I write reviews instead of speaking them. I still mark up the program with X’s and checkmarks and scribbles, and did so again on the subway ride home from seeing “As You Like It” (hereinafter “AYLI”) by William Shakespeare, at the BAM Harvey Theatre on Wednesday night, as directed by Sam Mendes for the Bridge Project. I’d been looking forward to it. The idea of the Bridge Project has been my dream of the perfect working life since I was about 14 – a group of actors playing in repertory, this one bettered by the ‘hands across the water’ aspect of the Bridge Project’s Anglo-American company.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

AYLI is not a play for which I have strong feelings – I’ve never acted in it or seen the perfect production. Nor do I have directorial yearnings to do an interpretation that brings the play to life in my mind. I preface my review so as to explain that I have no expectations that need fulfilling for this play. No hurdles need be leapt. I do, however, have expectations of the Bridge Project and Sam Mendes, and Wednesday night both were sorely disappointing.

Some highly skilled actors and some with lesser skills have not found the heart of this play. My conclusion: The director did not lead them to it. Sam Mendes, do not take a bow for this one. In fact, Mr. Mendes, tell me this: Have you read AYLI, and do you realize it is a romantic comedy? By the rules of Shakespeare, AYLI is a comedy because the young lovers, despite all the obstacles in their way, get married at the end. Romance. Get it?

This is not to say I had a dreadful time. There were plenty of good, even lovely moments during the evening. Just not a coherent whole.

POSITIVES (or "Good Stuff"):

Stephen Dillane as Jacques. His presence is entrancing – it’s an indefinable thing some performers have, and he’s got it. He’s so alive onstage that he owns it although he’s not trying to pull focus from anyone else. His phrasing is spot on, his wit disarming. In one brief scene I couldn’t quite hear him, and I hope someone from the production was in the audience so as to tell him to pick up that one scene with Rosalind-as-Ganymede. Beyond the technical, I have heard complaints that he wasn’t melancholy enough. But really, what does anyone think those quips and jibes are about. Dillane’s Jacques may not seem melancholic, unless you’ve ever met a comic. Melancholy does not mean his assessments aren’t on the mark or that he’s not funny. He’s scary funny. Jacques is just smarter than your average melancholic.

Alvin Epstein’s old Adam. Servant to Orlando’s family for decades, he chooses to follow our hero into exile. Epstein was believable, living, loving, as he trudged faithfully to the Forest of Arden, and dies beautifully at the end of the first half. With music.

Music: A positive and a negative. The music was well done, pretty, sweet and melancholy. With all the depressed people in this production, Jacques need not be morose. As I write this, I can hear Dana Falconberry’s new album, Halletts, in the other room. She can combine sweetness, light, and a touch of melancholy in a single phrase. Perhaps if Mr. Mendes had remembered AYLI was a comedy, he could have hired Dana for the music.

Edward Bennett’s Oliver. As the nasty elder brother of our hero Orlando, Edward Bennett was smarmy and mean. His transformation in the Forest to a better man, quite unusually, worked. More, I believed that sparks flew between him and Aliena/Celia. That instance of love-at-first-sight was played sweetly and surely, and not just for a laugh, as was Rosalind and Orlando’s. But more of that anon.

Michael Thomas as both Dukes, the usurping younger brother at Court, and Senior in the Forest, was solid as a rock, the actor in the company that plays whatever role he’s given well and honestly. He delineated both roles and played them surely, even when other actors on the stage may not have given him much to work with.

Ron Cephas Jones played the usurping Duke's wrestler Charles quite well, then reappeared in the Forest of Arden as the First Lord accompanying Duke Senior, doing his double duty well.

Thomas Sadoski as Touchstone was excellent, funny, and I wished him onstage much more often than he was. He’s in love, he’s not, he was, he wasn’t, he wants to wed Audrey, just not permanently. He’s hilarious and he had more heart than many a clown and just about anyone else on the stage, with the exception of Anthony O’Donnell and Aaron Krohn.

Anthony O’Donnell as the old shepherd, Corin. A funny fellow, good company, a wise old teacher, he is much smarter than those city folk think he is, rather sly, and sweet voiced. I quite enjoyed him.

Aaron Krohn was Silvius, the foolish young shepherd in love with Phoebe. He was sweet, sincere, focused, and paying attention. We should pay attention to him.

Jenni Barber’s Audrey was delightful. She lifted the scenes she was in, often in silence. The girl doesn’t need lines to be entrancing. She’s one of those small women often cast in ‘clown’ roles, presumably so she can throw herself into the arms of any size man and not only not knock him down, but bowl him over wrapping her legs around his waist -- as Elton John might have put it, “like a well worn tire.”

Ashlie Atkinson played Phoebe intelligently. She’s got the smarts but not the chops yet. I watched her and felt she was still in training, not yet fully committed or developed, or self confident. Brain, not heart. Nevertheless worth watching in years to come.

I’m torn on this one. I’m not sure if I liked this, but it certainly gave me a start when William (Ross Waiton), the “country youth” who also loves Audrey, with whom Touchstone is smitten, head-butted Touchstone. I actually let out a cry. Waiton was charming in his brief conversation with Touchstone, and certainly left an impression.

Michelle Beck rather overplayed Celia in the Court scenes at the beginning of the play, but came into her own when disguised as “Aliena.” She handled the abuse of Aliena well – the poor actor in that role is always stuck on stage with Rosalind talking and talking and talking. This may not always be hell, if the Rosalind/Ganymede is fun and not reciting rote lines with intellectual rigor. Through it all, Aliena must always stand witness. Ms. Beck had a response to all of these scenes, and it was negative – loyal to the death to her cousin doesn’t mean she can’t be angry with her and disapproving of her behavior. A valid choice well played in difficult scenes.

NEGATIVES (or "Not So Much"):

Alvin Epstein’s Oliver Martext. Yes, I know, I get it, the name is Mar text, but I didn’t understand a word he said, I didn’t know what he was doing, where he was going, who he was. He seemed to be from a different play. (Clear positive being that I didn’t recognize Epstein.) For me, that scene was wasted time on the stage. I believe it was one of too many contributing to this comedy running 2 ¾ hours.

Time. Comedies should not be 2 ¾ hours unless they’re interrupted by singing and dancing and good stuff. The Love's Labour's Lost I saw at Pace last month was three hours long and not a moment of it was wasted or annoying -- it was delightful. Generally, if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers can do the main romantic comedy, sing and dance, plus subplots in about 80 minutes, everyone should. That may be extreme, but it’s a theme for me.

Dunking Oliver’s head into a bucket as inducement to get information on Orlando was far too reminiscent of modern waterboarding and did not belong in the play. I repeat: AYLI is a romantic comedy. Please!

I recognize that a director or actor may say, “Comedy, sure, but they are still people, with feelings, including anger and fear, etc., etc.” Yes, quite so. Please do play the character in the moment, stakes for each person must be high. That does not mean that the usurping duke’s methodology should in any way resemble Gitmo. And that’s all I have to say on the matter.

Final dance. I’ve seen it too many times before at the end of too many plays to find it charming, no matter how well the lively Audrey begins it.

Flow. Scene followed scene, but there was no flow, no ebb, no build, no rhythm to carry the story forward. In fact, what was the “story” of the play in this production?

Core issue: This is a comedy and a romance. The primary romance is between Orlando (Christian Camargo) and Rosalind (Juliet Rylance). Sound out those characters’ names. Or – lan – doooooooo. Rozzz – a lind. Lengthen the vowels. Relish them. These people are supposed to have fallen in love at first sight, they should speak each other’s names as if they were the most beautiful sounds in the world. They do not. (“All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word… Maria. Maria Maria Maria.” Thank you Stephen Sondheim.) If we don’t believe in the love story, if we don’t care if the lovers ever get together, where’s the story? Why was the audience expected to sit there for so very long waiting to see if those two people who did not appear to be in love would get together at the end?

Juliet Rylance was too busy showing off her skill in scansion to take the time to say Or Lannn DOoooo. She was, in fact, Johnny One Note throughout the evening, with minimal changes in her rhythms or stock of vocal and facial expressions. And she wouldn’t stand still. An annoying actor.

Christian Camargo as Orlando began the play dully (in an admittedly difficult opening scene in which his entire first monologue is the exposition of his own back story). (Aside: In this very same scene, Alvin Epstein showed inexperienced actors how to listen without appearing to be listening too hard.) Orlando’s wrestling scene with the Duke's man, Charles, appeared overly choreographed – as well as poorly lit -- as if Mendes couldn’t decide between a totally stylized or a realistic fight. After said match, Camargo was actually funny, when he could not speak in response to Rosalind. I had hope, then. Alas, he continued dull through the rest of the play. He lacks rhythm. He knows how to speak the verse, everyone in this production knows how. The intellect should take care of the scansion and memorization, and then let the character take over.

There should be a tug of war between Orlando and Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind in their wooing scenes in the Forest, but there’s really nothing going on. Even after the faux wedding performed by Michelle Beck as Aliena, Orlando and Rosalind kiss – this should reverberate through the theatre, but it does not even cause a ripple between the pair. This does not bode well for a love life.

These two actors may be married in real life, but they have no chemistry onstage.

I think the primary problem is that Camargo is miscast as Orlando. Even when Rosalind’s not around, the man’s uncomfortable in his skin. The stage does not belong to Christian Camargo. Orlando is a disgruntled boy, not a man until more than halfway through the play (and that’s about Adam, not Rosalind). When Orlando rushes the camp of the banished Duke in his armed attempt to steal food for his old servant, the Duke and his men refrain from killing Orlando-as-Armed-Interloper only because it’s in the script. Orlando’s actions should be totally inept, he should appear as the desperate child he is. That’s the reason Duke Senior should spare and befriend him. But Camargo appears to be about 15 years too old for this part, so Michael Thomas’ Duke Senior had to play the scene as if Camargo’s Orlando was clearly more endangered than dangerous despite what the audience could clearly see.

So where does that leave us? For me, at least, there are three major problems here.

1. Juliet Rylance playing Rosalind like a lit major with no training in acting, just interpreting verse. Conceivably her reserve could have been broken down by a sweetly romantic likeable Orlando.
2. Unfortunately she didn’t have that to play with, since Christian Camargo just doesn’t have “it” and doesn’t seem to try. He was a very languorous Orlando. Still, these first two problems are not insurmountable.
3. Insurmountable is a director who doesn’t recognize a comedy when he sees one, who directs the designers to be dark, dull, sullen, and sodden as the actors fade into strange backgrounds that belong in a Beckett play, when said actors should be leaping into the light.

How and why did Sam Mendes come to interpret this play as dark and gloomy even after all the characters arrive in the Forest of Arden? I cannot know, but he did not direct a comedy, and that’s a shame. It could have been fun.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

David Cromer's Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre

Our Town. A Play in Three Acts by Thornton Wilder. At the Barrow Street Theatre, NYC. January 2010

It took me several days to write a word about this production. What could I say? I’d never been drawn to the play. Perhaps that first read in high school ruined it for me; perhaps it had seemed too sentimental for a high school girl in the early Seventies. I really don’t recall.

Time goes by. Last week I was so enthralled with the production Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre that I could not wait until the weekend trip to my storage unit to drag out my copy of the play – I bought a new one at the box office (with a terrific intro by Donald Margulies and Afterword by Tappen Wilder), which was fun reading for several commutes ­ my first re-read after several decades. I feel rather like I did a few years after my cousin gave me my first Billie Holiday album – as a teenager, I had not appreciated it, but later, listening to it in my twenties, Billie finally got me. Or, more accurately, I finally heard her. When I was forced to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in that summer between junior and senior high school, I hated it. Years later in college, I re-read it of my own volition, and finally got it.

How did I not get the allure of this play before? I’m just a tad slow, I suppose. Sometimes by five years, sometimes ten. Sometimes by decades. At the Barrow Street Theatre, I finally heard Our Town.

The production at the Barrow Street Theatre burned away all memories and assumptions of the play and left me with this distilled story and theme that I hadn’t recognized before. I think Thornton Wilder would concur, this was a definitive production. The simplicity of the Stage Manager’s direct addresses to the audience set the tone of an anti-maudlin evening.

David Cromer directed this production to be, well, direct. Crisp and clear as an autumn morning, Stephen Kunken’s Stage Manager followed in the director’s footsteps. Cromer, like Wilder before him, had played the Stage Manager earlier in this production. There is nothing folksy about this Stage Manager, or about the other characters in Grover’s Corners. These are people going about their days; days like and utterly unlike our own. The characters are clearly drawn, angular and shaded, first by Mr. Wilder and now by this exemplary cast.

Allow me to set the scene as Mr. Cromer did. The stage is the floor surrounded by audience on three sides. The fourth side is covered by a heavy black curtain, over which is a balcony containing the Congregational Church choir loft, including piano. The entire space is used: Actors enter from three corners and a staircase, and traverse all parts of the space except for those chairs in which audience members are seated. A row of chairs is on the left and right side of the acting area, then an aisle separates them from the house left and house right audience sections. In the “acting area” are two kitchen tables surrounded by requisite chairs. The aisles are the streets and gardens of Grover’s Corners, so we first meet milkman Howie Newsome (Robert Beitzel) leading his cantankerous horse, Bessie, right through the audience. At what would be, in another staging, the “front” or “downstage” of the acting area, another aisle connects the roads of the town and separates the central audience area from the acting area. The lights don’t really go down – sometimes they’re dimmer than others, depending on the time of day in the story. The Stage Manager begins the production by holding up, not a pocket watch, but a cell phone. (He does not need to say, Shut yours, and pay attention to the time!) This production is in full ¾ staging. There is no attempt to “act” in any direction. These actors, these people are just living their lives engaged in quotidian tasks and conversations which occupy them entirely. We are eavesdropping, invisible to them. This makes the play even more intimate than the script already is.

Emily Webb is a difficult character to play – we see her as a child, a teenager, a bride, and a grown woman with a child of her own. Jennifer Grace’s Emily was unlike any I’ve seen, and I was delighted with her. This Emily is not cute, not tender, or sentimental; she’s downright angry at her confusion and her feelings and fears, as they come upon her during the first two acts. Ms. Grace is alive on stage, living Emily’s life. James McMenamin’s George is rather dense, much softer than his beloved Emily, and totally sincere. The mothers– I would say the “heart” of the play if only the fathers weren’t as soulful as their wives – are Mrs. Gibbs (wife of Doc Gibbs and mother of George) and Mrs. Webb (wife of editor Webb and mother of Emily). These are the women Thornton Wilder loves, the women even homicidal “Uncle Charlie” of Wilder’s screenplay for Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” admires – “Women keep busy in towns like this,” Uncle Charlie says. From the moment they rise, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibb are working, cooking, feeding chickens and tending the garden and the children, caring for their husbands, looking out for one another. As typical a kitchen scene as two women talking while they string beans is, when Lori Myers (Mrs. G) and Kati Brazda (Mrs. W) did it, I believed it.

The fathers seemed wise and just. Emily says to George that she expects men to be perfect ­ after all, his father is perfect! Doc Gibbs, as played by Ben Livingston, would appear perfect to Emily. Of course he’s not. He’s jealous of his wife’s innocent time out of their house. Doc Gibbs may not deem that a problem, but all women do! And Editor Webb (Davis Manis), perspicacious and insightful, while he seems a fair and honest editor, is less than probing. Probing might be impolite.

This production gave us exactly what the Stage Manager promises when he plans to place the script in a time capsule in the cornerstone of the new bank being built in town. This was a detailed picture of the daily life in the northeast of the United States in the beginning of the 20th century. Our town (that is, Grover’s Corners) is one of those towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and yet there was a kindness and tolerance in enough of the townspeople to keep that from being a frightening prospect. Even Simon Stimson, the organist at the Congregational Church, also the town drunk, is accepted, tolerated by the majority ­ Stimson was played by Daniel Marcus, who needn’t speak to bring us inside his personal hell. Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Gibbs, and Mrs. Soames (Susan Bennett) discuss him after choir practice, but two of the three don’t condemn him for his blatantly drunken behavior. Later Mr. Webb and the town Constable (George Demas) treat him with a careful respect, saying only that he’d had “a peck of trouble.” The details of this man’s life were known to all, and they were bad enough to force a stream of painful bile to spew from Stimson in Act 3. The Constable is the kindly town policeman Mr. Wilder repeated in the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt, although there as a city policeman who knew everyone by name. Different clothes, different place, largely the same guy.

What is fascinating about this production is that Cromer realized that Daily Life continued whether the characters had lines in the script or not, so Simon Stimson spends a good deal of time in that choir left, occasionally playing the piano, mostly just drinking. He almost looms over the town – especially interesting after Editor Webb stated that there wasn’t much in the way of drinking in town. He didn’t mention what we came to see was a clear exception. Throughout the play Mr. Wilder shows us ourselves, and then, in the third act, the Stage Manager explains the human race: "Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense….”

I want everyone in our town to see this production of Our Town for themselves, so I cannot, would not tell you the fine bit-o’-theatre that shocked me into tears in the last ten minutes of the play. Act 3 is the end of life as well as the play –first act, daily life; second act, love and marriage. Third act, as the Stage Manager says, you can guess.

David Cromer’s production of Our Town has done it for me. I get it now. There is so much LIFE in Our Town, but the main question raised by Emily is this: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? -- every, every minute?

Such simple, straightforward, punch-me-in-the-heart drama cannot be accomplished without a group in great accord with one another and their joint intent. David Cromer assembled a marvelous cast and worked with remarkably subtle designers: ­ Scenic design Michele Spadaro, Lighting design Heather Gilbert, Costume Design Alison Siple, and Musical Director Jonathan Mastro ­ to create an unforgettable Our Town.

In this remarkable revival, David Cromer brings Our Town back to life in the truest sense. Go while it’s here for you in living, if muted, color. This wonderful company plays it out for you each night at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Definitely not your father's Sherlock Holmes. Or your grandfathers'.....

My first film viewing of the New Year, Sherlock Holmes was fun and not at all disappointing – that is, my expectations were set for an entertaining film, not something true to a literary tradition. It’s not a Holmes Aficionados’ sort of Sherlock Holmes, although said aficionados must acknowledge the pleasure of seeing Dr. Watson restored to a non-bumbling status as a decorated war veteran and real medical doctor.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes is scruffy, downright Grunge, terribly witty, terribly depressed, terribly unkempt. He appears quite fit – Basil Rathbone was a fine and fit fencer, as well, of course, but Basil Rathbone kept his clothes on. Jude Law is also quite fit, which is not problematical for Dr. Watson. Just for Nigel Bruce. All in all, the duo are a pleasure to watch.

Mr. Ritchie (Guy, of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and Madonna’s Ex fame) does a brisk and entertaining job of directing what is doubtless a first film in a series. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are clear equals on camera and work marvelously well together.

Kelley Reilly looks vaguely familiar, may always appear so to viewers. She has a quiet strength as Watson’s fiancée, Mary, who can keep Dr. Watson in line and hold her own with Sherlock Holmes. No mean feat. I could have done with more of Ms. Reilly, and I could wish for more of Geraldine James’ very interesting Mrs. Hudson. Gladstone the dog had more screen time than she did, which is unfortunate. Nothing against the dog, I like dogs, and Gladstone’s running joke was sweet. I just like the character of Mrs. Hudson and the actor Geraldine James and would like to see more of her. Them.

Mark Strong’s villain Lord Blackwood is worthy of Holmes – Strong is particularly reliable in the secondary and tertiary roles I generally see him in. Love that voice. Hans Matheson as Lord Coward was appropriately smarmy but not subtly played since I knew he was the secondary villain the moment he appeared on screen. James Fox was his usual solid-as-a-rock aristocrat as “Sir Thomas” – a very high fellow in the hierarchy of the Brit government of the time, and that’s all I can tell you until you’ve seen the film.

Rachel McAdams, although a respectable performer, is at least a decade too young for the choice role of Irene Adler. She hasn’t the heft, the inner darkness, the cosmopolitan air, the savoir faire, the je ne sais quoi for Irene Adler. Not yet. Her scenes with Mr. Downey are well written but she does not match him. And Irene Adler is always a match for Sherlock Holmes. Ms. McAdams’ scenes fall flat, and that is disappointing.

I wish I was saying that Jennifer Ehle made a slyly powerful villainess/love interest as Irene Adler. She’d be my casting for Adler. A few years younger than Downey (looking more than a few years younger, but that’s about Downey’s life), Ehle can play a contemporary of Downey’s Holmes and is more than capable of playing Irene Adler. Her stage and screen credits make for a longer and better list than Ms. McAdams’, so she should not give any producer pause. These people should call me before they miscast good actresses.

Screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg wrote a snappy screenplay based on a sharp story by Johnson and Lionel Wigram. Nevertheless, there’s a dip, a lessening of tension in the film. I’ll need to see it again to figure out where it dropped in the third quarter, as if everyone took a little break. This requires re-examination. I think it coincides with the loud noises. Biggest problem outside of casting was: Explosions. Too many, too big -- the 8-year-old boy in Mr. Ritchie had too much control in certain sections of the film. One would have been plenty, but the continuation made the effect quite unbelievable. Any more would be a spoiler, so I’ll be quiet now.

So let’s get down to it. Is Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock the Sherlock of the stories I’ve read multiple times over the last ~4 decades? No. I adore Downey and will see anything he plays in. And play is the word. He is having so much fun as Holmes we are obliged to join in. While not Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, he is the Sherlock Holmes in this screenplay – and in those that will doubtless follow.

Jude Law’s Dr. Watson is not Nigel Bruce’s charming but bumbling Dr. Watson, but Nigel Bruce’s charming bumbler was not Doyle’s Watson either. After all, bumbling was Nigel Bruce’s specialization (see him in Hitchcock’s Suspicion). Did Holmes aficionados complain then? I don’t know, it was the 1930s and ‘40s and I wasn’t born yet. Jude Law and the screenwriters have restored Watson’s dignity and gravitas without robbing us of this wonderful stimulating (keep your imagination in check, there) relationship between Holmes and Watson. This Holmes and Watson joust, they parry; one pushes, the other pulls back; they throw punches, they protect each other; it’s a bit of a bromance, no denying it. And it’s fun.

In the PBS series (or the series we in the U.S. saw on PBS), Jeremy Brett gave us the Holmes who was not entirely an armchair detective. Brett was, to me, totally the Holmes of the stories. I love watching Downey work and he’s certainly taken the gloves off of Sherlock Holmes (quite literally in a bare knuckles boxing match), but he won’t replace Brett’s Holmes in my mind.

Sherlock Holmes aficionados may rejoice, however. I believe the uninitiated will read the stories now. Some may say What? Who? This is not the Sherlock played by Downey. Others, though, once introduced, will fall under the spell of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant and deeply flawed detective as the rest of us have.

Some viewers may take issue with the final deduction showing up in a quick cut of scenes we have seen. It was all there for us, as all the clues in a classic mystery detection story should be. I loved that section. It was old fashioned, done meticulously, quickly, didn’t pound us over the head, merely reminded us of those thing we did not watch closely enough. Not a standard sequence for an action film, but Holmes is a detective, not a superhero. Some may also have a problem with the mockery of the religious faith, zeal and idiocy of, well all sorts of people, but particularly secret societies, that permeates the story. This to me was quite enjoyable.

Scenic design and execution were beautiful; my favorite interior was the oddly multi-roomed lab of the “ginger-haired dwarf” named Reardon. Least favorite: the terribly obvious half built bridge. Lighting, colors, lack of saturation thereof, all these evoked a black and white and gray London of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s era. Hans Zimmer was responsible for the music, all of which was quite enjoyable, even if hearing The Dubliners was, while amusing, decidedly odd.

So. Looks: 9. Content: 6.5. Performances…wonderful Downey, Law, Reilly, James, Fox, Strong, and many other characters. I was disappointed only in the casting of a perfectly capable actress in a role for which she is too young. Not Ms McAdams’ fault. Not the screenwriters fault – they wrote Irene Adler well. Director and producers (one of whom is Mr. Downey’s wife) must take the blame for doing Ms. McAdams and the film a disservice. (I have since read on Wikipedia that McAdams was Downey’s idea. If so, don’t let him produce! Just give him free rein as the fine actor he is.) I presume I'm supposed to be grateful they didn't cast Scarlett Johansson. And I am.


The plot was complicated without being indecipherable. And the incognito appearance of – oh, that would be a spoiler also, never mind. The severely cloaked fellow was a delightful tease.

Sidebar: Why is it that easily 80% of the scenes of the trailers are not in the film I saw? Not that I mind – I hate seeing 80% of a film in the trailers. The Sherlock Holmes trailers showed me the most important part of the film – the relationship between Holmes & Watson – without telling me the whole story. This is a pro in my three columns (pro, con, and not-sure-yet).

And what about that Raven?

~ Molly Matera, signing off and turning off the computer. I’ve got some old stories to re-read.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sing the Old Year Out, Dance the New Year In

2009 be gone, 2010, come on in.
Yes, we must look back, we cannot help it. And yet I am not a pillar of salt.

Continuing Belief: Somewhere there’s a job that’s not awful and is only 8 hours a day.
Lost Belief: That President Obama can unite legislative branch of the U.S. government to accomplish anything good, healthy, and straightforward.

So what has 2009 wrought?

  1. The launch of my blog.
  2. I wrote a bunch of reviews (films, plays, dance pieces) and "published" them on said blog!
  3. I wrote my first short-short stories. I still don’t quite know what to do with them, but I like them.
  4. In fact I’ve started several short (not short-short or microfiction) stories, none finished to my satisfaction yet.
  5. I continued working on my first mystery novel.
  6. Submitted one short story to a magazine. Still waiting.
  7. My love of performing was reignited when I read Ophelia in Matthew J Wells’ delightful Countrie Matters. Let’s do it again.
  8. There are even more pounds of fat on my belly and butt.
  9. My first ever tetanus shot (good for 10 years!) due to the first of two infection-inducing bites from my doddering old cat. I’m sure he really meant to bite the vet’s assistant.
  10. My latest review at work seemed to be a good one, but in fact was really a directive to stop doing what I do well and only teach the young’ns to do what I do. As if my boss knows the increased commute to the new building in spring 2010 will kill me. As Elizabeth I said, “Balls. If I had ’em, I’d be King.”
  11. My acid reflux was verified by two medical tests by two different doctors. Ain’t that swell.
  12. 1 friend stricken with cancer seems to be doing just fine.
  13. 1 friend stricken with cancer in ’08 had a recurrence in ’09 that made us all wonder just how important that first place one is treated really is. She’s doing just fine now, but wondering continues.
  14. Tried “progressive” glasses and hated them. Need bifocals in 2010.
  15. I saw an opera (or was it an oratorio?) I actually thought was fabulous (Kepler, by Philip Glass). Does it explain the persistence of opera as a theatrical art form (which is the reason I go to the opera at least once a year, in my quest to “get” the form). Well, if it was really an oratio as Matthew suggested (and I agree), no. My quest goes on to understand this form with its bad acting, pointless repetition, and great sets. Opera is like a James Cameron film post Aliens – “Looks 10, Plot 3” (see
  16. A delightful production of Love’s Labour’s Lost that made me finally appreciate the “play” for whatever it is.
  17. My goddaughter got engaged.
  18. 2 other engagements
  19. 1 wedding
  20. 2 separate vacation weeks away from my apartment
  21. Started weekly allergy shots in hopes of someday being free of allergies. My single act of faith for the year.
  22. Writing group fell asleep and has yet to be revived.
  23. Saw many films, 5 of them at the Tribeca Film Festival
  24. According to my calendar, I experienced
    8 live musical evenings
    5 dance pieces
    16 plays
    5 readings
    2 documentaries
    Participated in 2 readings
  25. New heating system – I no longer wear shorts in my apartment through the winter!

That's enough looking back. Let’s move forward.

Plans for 2010
  • Learn to meditate in order to be able to fly again – what else can I do for an hour at the end of a flight when not allowed to read a book or scribble in a notebook.
  • Exercise minimum 5 days a week. (Plan for execution: Bought a Wii console on New Year’s Eve to facilitate.) Plan within a plan: Alternate Yoga & Cardio via Wii, and still walk at least 30 minutes a day to build up breath.
  • Build up Resiliency for me, not my employer.
  • Write and/or edit on the bus either to or from work each day. No more napping.
  • Write more Story, less back story.
  • Create Time out of none.
  • Create clear, flat surfaces in my apartment, on which to lay out storyboards comprised of index cards, chapter by chapter.
  • Visit my friends more.
  • Do some readings in addition to attending them.
  • Cut down on taxis! Think how much reading/editing can be done on subway.
  • Leave the office by 6:30 latest every night.
  • Leave office by 6 once a week.
  • Maybe learning to delegate isn’t such a bad idea.
  • Find that job that’s not awful and is only 8 hours a day.

    That’s a start. Happy New Year, everyone!

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off. Must plug in that Wii! Thanks for stopping by.