Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Das weisse Band" or "The White Ribbon"

Written and directed by Michael Haneke, with gorgeous s cinematography by Christian Berger, “The White Ribbon” takes place in the 15 months prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914. In that moment when World War I became inevitable, the odd events in this little village in northern Germany were pushed to the back of the residents’ minds, but they resurface in the memory of the village Schoolteacher years later.

This film begins in silence. Opening credits are in stark white against black. The narration starts over the black screen that lightened so gradually I was uncertain it was really happening. When the light finally takes over the screen, the picture is in black and white and oh so many shades in between. The cinematography is crisp and clear, the whites so bright they hurt, the blacks deep and dense. Night scenes are lit by lanterns and torches. The mood of this place is somber and the light and its lack reflect that.

From the narrator’s worn voice we know he survived this time in the fictitious village of Eichwald and even the war that followed. He tells us that somehow what happened in the village that year may have been a portent of what was to come in Germany. Maybe.

The first scene shows what is referred to as the Doctor’s ‘accident’; but a wire strung between two trees to trip a horse and kill or cripple its rider is no accident. The Doctor’s daughter Anna (Roxane Duran) runs out of the house to him. He is not dead, but will be carted off to hospital quite a long ways away from his home and children. Anna looks at the horse lying on its side, kicking and screaming. The next time we see it, men with torches, including a uniformed policeman, talk over the still form. At the inconclusive close of their conversation, they walk away from the horse, leaving it in the dark.

That’s the first mysterious incident. Those that follow will not make a pattern inclusive of this, but there are connections. That evening, Anna tries to comfort her five-year-old brother Rudi (remarkably well played by Miljan Chatelain), but is interrupted by pebbles rattling against the window. The village children are there – those who are the oldest in their class, 10 to 14 year olds. The only one who speaks will be the one who speaks throughout the story when adults question the group of children: Klara (precisely and chillingly played by Maria-Victoria Dragus), daughter of the Pastor. She asks after Anna – are you all right? The children are stiff, odd, and this visit offers Anna no comfort.

The Schoolteacher (Christian Friedel on the screen as a young man; the Schoolteacher’s older self narrating the story is voiced by Ernst Jacobi) presides over a dozen children in a one-room schoolhouse, from 6 or 7 through 13 or 14 years of age. He also teaches choir, and gives special care to Karli, the retarded son of Mrs Wagner, the Midwife. No husband is ever mentioned (at least not in the subtitles), but we presume she was widowed at some point. Since the Doctor’s wife died in childbirth five years before the film starts, the Midwife has been the Doctor’s nurse, housekeeper, nanny, and mistress. Susanne Lothar is always disturbing and sometimes heartbreaking in this role.

Klara and her brother Martin (Leonard Proxauf) are preteens, the eldest of many, many children in the Pastor’s household. One night, the brother and sister got home quite late, after dark, causing distress to their mother, their father, their young siblings. So they were informed while standing at attention in the dining room. The whole family is present, but all bowls on the dining table are empty. The lecture is in process, and this Pastor believes in punishments to all for the infractions of the few. The entire family would go to bed hungry, and the following evening Klara and Martin would each receive ten strokes of the cane in front of their siblings. Additionally, once ‘purified’ by their punishment, the two would wear White Ribbons, as symbols of purity, until their father could trust them again.

These are not healthy children despite the idyllic surroundings. They are cold and unsmiling, respectful to their elders in the manner of Eddie Haskell – no, Eddie talked too much. These children do not speak until spoken to. Their appearance on a scene is alarming.

Throughout the film, Martin looks sickly, dark shadows under his eyes, and he is much too quiet. While fishing one day, the Schoolteacher sees Martin climbing along the handrail of a ramshackle bridge over a river. It’s not a long distance to walk, but it would be a long fall down. The Schoolteacher berates him: Don’t you know you could have been killed? Martin answers: Yes. That’s why he did it. If God had such an opportunity to let him die, that He allowed the boy to live showed that God must love him.

Standard adult responses – that is, frightening children whose actions frighten the adults – are repeated by the Pastor. He talks to Martin sincerely and sternly, asking why he looks and acts as he does, as if he gets no sleep and doesn’t eat. The Pastor tells a tall tale of another boy who’d looked like that and got sicker and sicker, with pustules all over his body, and languished into death because of what he was Doing. The Pastor asked Martin if he understood, and was he Doing it too. Martin, crying, says yes. Thereafter Martin’s hands are tied to opposite sides of his bed so he won’t masturbate in the night.

Scenes cut away quickly in this film. Night to day, town to country, idyllic to chilling. In a daylit scene, we hear that a tenant farmer’s wife died in an accident at the Baron’s sawmill. We see a woman bathing another woman’s feet and legs, the upper body blocked by the room’s wall. A figure appears in the doorway through which we see the scene, and he tells the woman to leave. She covers the body with a blanket and goes. The man walks to the bed and around it. He pulls the edge of the blanket slightly, covering a part of the body we cannot see. He moves to the head of the bed and sits so that we only see the curve of his back, and eventually hear quiet sobbing. Branko Samarovski plays this Farmer, whose life becomes too impossible as the film goes on.

The eldest son of the dead woman investigates the sawmill where his mother died, sees that the accident was clearly caused by the rotted condition of the floors, and considers the Baron (coolly played by Ulrich Tukur, alternately fair and insensitive) and his Steward (a jocular, lecherous, and casually violent man as played by Josef Bierbichler). There is no recourse; only revenge. At the harvest festival, that eldest son beheads the Baroness’ neat garden of cabbages. In the days that follow, the Baron’s young son, Sigi (who does not go to school in town with the other children, but rather has a tutor at home on the Estate), disappears. All the men are called out to search for him, and he is found, bound and hung upside down, inside the sawmill, the victim of a vicious whipping on his bare buttocks. The adults of the village are buzzing about this fresh atrocity, when that band of clean and pressed repressed ‘children’ appears again, with Klara speaking for the group – they just want to know how Sigi is.

When the Doctor’s little son Rudi disappears, the village is out in force to find him, fearing he too is the victim of an attack. He’s not – he misses his father, and was found walking on the main road toward the distant hospital. This induced his father to leave the hospital and return home for the rest of his recuperation. The Doctor (played in a quiet, matter-of-fact manner by Rainer Bock, cool and civil even when he is remarkably cruel) is disturbing the moment he steps out of the carriage. Daughter Anna awaits him. She is unsmiling, as usual, except when she motions to where her little brother is hiding shyly from his returned father. A chill runs through the viewers when the Doctor turns to his young daughter and asks her age. “Fourteen, sir,” she says. “You look so much like your mother.” If anyone wondered why the Doctor was targeted for attack, that moment was explanation enough. His housekeeper/mistress will point out his abuse of his daughter later, and finally Rudi comes upon father and daughter in the Doctor’s examining room in the middle of the night. The Doctor is, of course, a beloved pillar of his community.

The only bright spot in this film is the sweet romance between the Schoolteacher and the nanny to the Baron’s twin infants. Eva is from another village, almost a child herself. The Schoolteacher is immediately besotted. Leonie Benesch plays Eva sweetly; she is shy and reserved, yet her feelings and behavior are straightforward. The couple is affected by the incidents in Eichwald, when, after Sigi is attacked, Eva is fired from her nanny position when the Baroness leaves the country house with her children.

In a short period of time, then, we have experienced the attack on the Doctor, the death of the tenant Farmer’s wife, the beheading of the Baroness’ cabbages, the attack on Sigi. And a seemingly unrelated late night visit by the Doctor, his arm still in a sling, to the Steward’s house to treat a sick infant whose window was opened in the middle of the winter night. One of the estate Steward’s children, Erna, tells the Schoolteacher she has bad dreams, that she had one about her brother opening the window in the baby’s room. Now her 'dreams' are of the Midwife’s son Karli being abducted and tortured. Unlike the other adults, the Schoolteacher listens.

When Karli is indeed attacked, the Schoolteacher calls in Police, who interrogate the girl. The Schoolteacher realizes the weeping Erna is paying as much attention to the back door as to the Police, and flings it open to find the children gathered, listening. As ever, when he demands to know what they’re doing there, Klara speaks for the group – we only wonder how Karli is.

The group of children is more and more reminiscent of Salem, without the accusations of witchcraft. Or maybe Village of the Damned.

A clue to the reason behind the attacks is left with Karli when he’s found in the woods, beaten so severely he may be blinded. A note quoting a psalm, one of those psalms justifying violence against children as payment for the sins of their fathers, grandfathers, and whole generations. Surely the villagers recognized it, surely the Pastor recognized it, but no one tries to understand its meaning.

Since this story takes place on the eve of World War I, the question must arise: Is Haneke saying that the children will die in the war that generations of sinful adults have been building up to for years? Or does he expect these children to live through the war and create the Germany of the 1930s?

The men of power and position in the town -- the Pastor, the Baron, the Doctor -- have lost control of the situation. Finally the Schoolteacher goes to the Pastor’s house and confronts Klara and Martin, then speaks to the Pastor himself.

As the Pastor, Burghart Klaussner is quietly splendid throughout. He is chilly, cold, certain in his faith. We do see his heart – his concern for his son Martin is not feigned nor merely righteous. He is a softy to his younger children. As the Schoolteacher tells the Pastor his suspicions, the Pastor’s face is still, noncommittal, but for momentary lapses in his thin-lipped mouth. His eyes don’t quite well up, but it is there in his face: a glimmer of pain, of knowing, of decision. An utterly brilliant performance. The decision, of course, is to deny all, call the Schoolteacher perverse for having such ideas, and threatening his position.

The saddest storyline in the film had nothing to do with the village mysteries, but of a family ruined by a series of events over which they had no control. From the death of the tenant farmer’s wife to her eldest son’s act of revenge on the Baroness’ cabbages, to the loss of jobs by the rest of the family and the blacklisting by the Baron, the Farmer’s life spiraled downward too fast for him to handle. The scenes of this family’s life, meals, work, hardship, and deaths are beautifully acted and filmed.

The village structure is falling apart, the Baron’s marriage is falling apart, and the world is falling apart, exemplified by the assassination of the Archduke far, far away in Sarajevo. The Midwife tells the Schoolteacher she knows who the culprit is, leaves for “town,” and is never seen again. Nor is her son. Nor are the Doctor and his children. Gossip runs faster than horses. The Midwife and the Doctor, how long were they lovers, did they kill the Doctor’s wife, why did they disappear?

At the onset of war, the people gather in the church – the center of village life, where announcements are made to the populace by the Pastor and sometimes by the Baron, where births are celebrated and deaths mourned. The Pastor does not march in as the leader of his flock. He walks in head down and sits quietly, his flame doused. The narrator tells us that these events faded, explained away by gossip, speculation without facts – human beings’ usual practice of making up stories to make sense of it all. The scarcer food gets, the more delicious scandal tastes.

Childhood in the early twentieth century in Eichwald was strictly guided, and errant behavior harshly punished. While we do not see the beatings with sticks, we hear the first four strikes and a child’s cry. Fathers cuff, even punch their sons. It is no terribly surprising the Pastor’s eldest child is a little devil, reminiscent of Abigail Williams in The Crucible – although younger with better manners. Manners enough to hide psychoses. We can certainly see Klara growing up to run a concentration camp.

The White Ribbon” is not a mystery story. It is a cautionary tale – told to adults, instead of children.

Fade, so very slowly, to black.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. But leaving the lights on.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I Can See Clearly Now the Rain is Gone

The other night I saw When the Rain Stops Falling by Andrew Bovell, directed by David Cromer, at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center. Having seen Cromer’s Adding Machine: A Musical and Our Town, I’ve decided Mr. Cromer is a flawed genius. (The flaw was apparently shown in his choices for the Neil Simon plays that abruptly closed, but I didn’t witness them so cannot provide elucidation. Perhaps he works better in the smaller houses in which I’ve experienced his productions.)

I like the Newhouse. It’s a nice size; one cannot be too far from the stage to see or hear. Its rounded stage is three quarters surrounded by an audience on a steep rake up to Row H (where I sat). It’s tough to find a bad seat (unless the scenic design creates one – more on that later).

The playwright Andrew Bovell is no newcomer – he is a quite well known in Australia, having written many plays and several films – “Lantana” and “Strictly Ballroom” among them, and this year’s “Edge of Darkness.”

When the Rain Stops Falling” weaves and tangles lifelines through the space/time continuum. The play opens in the dark. The quiet is softly broken with creepy sounds. The noises increase in tempo and volume and clarify to a torrential rainstorm. The sound builds to a crescendo that explodes into light on a round playing space that revolves slowly. One man is in the center, a tall thin man in a worn suit, his white hair spiked in disarray, not fashion. He is terrified. Other people huddle under their umbrellas running across the playing area from different directions until finally the white-haired man screams, a woman falls, and a fish drops down from the sky.

Now that’s an opening.

Michael Siberry is Gabriel York in 2039. Fish is no longer available for the consumption of your standard human, so this gift from the skies is miraculous. The rain is ever present, most people live in poverty, and he ran out on his wife and son a good two decades before. The large fish that fell from the sky sits on the large table that will serve every character in every time period throughout the play. The suggested room also includes a coat rack and a small stove with a smaller cabinet attached to it, which contains soup bowls and spoons enough to serve the nine people who wander through time and space during the play. And no, the play is not science fiction. The future time in which the play starts and ends allows us to see the whole story and how these people’s lifelines connect and diverge and connect again.

Gabriel York tells us that fish is supposed to be quite good for you, and should be eaten two or three times a week. This is the first of many lines and phrases that will be echoed by linked characters throughout the play. He tells us of his mother and his stepfather Joe, the father he never knew (also named Gabriel), and his son, Andrew, who called just today to visit the father who deserted him many years ago. In preparation for his son’s visit, Gabriel scrubs and cleans his tiny apartment, but it appears to him just the same. So he paints it. Now it looks the same but white. Or off white. We’ll hear this again, too. In the past.

This story-telling is multilayered over different time periods in which we meet the same people, some played by different actors, at different parts of their lives. And sometimes they’re all onstage together, doing the same things, ordinary things, like eating soup. Fish soup, of course. The play runs a little under two hours (without an intermission, which probably would have been a confusing time), and is interesting throughout although it gets a bit bogged down in the middle. Perhaps when we have finally met everyone and just aren’t sure what to make of them.

We first see all the characters coming onto the stage in raincoats, shaking out their umbrellas. Each raincoat is hung on a rack, followed by each umbrella. Each character goes to the stove, ladles soup into a bowl, then sits at the table. Eventually all the characters are eating their soup in synch. Some of the characters are not dressed as the others – the Sixties characters are more formally dressed than those whose lives are in later times, but we otherwise didn’t know who these people were, or how, or if they were related. Each character rises after the Spartan meal, gathering raincoats and umbrellas, and departs. Scene changes are accomplished economically by the stage revolving to a different point, and different characters entering the space.

Throughout the play, in its various times and places, lightning flashes, thunder rumbles and roars. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a black-and-white filmed ghost story, but it’s not that. Or is it?

The two female characters are played by four actors depending upon in which year a particular part of the story takes place. Sometimes they’re onstage at the same time. This is an intriguing method, and the women were interesting creatures. Each actor had to believably be the younger or older version of another actor. In the 1960s we have Henry and Elizabeth Law in London, parents of Gabriel Law. By the end of the 20th century baby Gabriel has grown up without his dad, he and his mother still in London. His father left them years before, and disappeared in Australia. In Australia during the last quarter of the century lives Gabrielle York, whom Gabriel meets while searching for some trace of his father.

The two women who play Elizabeth don’t look alike but manage to resemble one another appropriately. Kate Blumberg is the younger, hopeful, energetic, and literary Elizabeth Law in the 1960s; Mary Beth Hurt’s Elizabeth is older, tired, fuzzy (is that her mind or the alcohol her son is sure she’s drinking), angry, and fully out of hope. These two performances make sense, one stems from the other, and both actors are marvelous.

Susan Pourfar is excellent as moody Gabrielle York at age 24, the girl Gabriel Law meets on his Australian quest. She is already rather broken, orphaned, with a brother whose early and mysterious death is a dark cloud that will never break away. She speaks of the area in Southern Australia where her brother died, the Coorong, as if it were that dreaded fairy tale place outside the castle walls where bogeymen roam. The Coorong. The word doubtless resonated deeply the several times this play was produced in Australia. Here, it makes me want to look it up and find out if it’s as spooky and frightening as Gabrielle makes it out to be.

In later scenes, I only realized Victoria Clark was an older Gabrielle because the Gabriel York (Siberry, remember) we met in the opening of the play talked about his stepfather Joe, who appears to be married to the second Gabrielle. Well, OK, that’s confusing. Ms. Clark’s Gabrielle bothered me, but I think the question goes to the playwright. She reached across the boundary of time and shouted at her younger self when we were watching Pourfar’s younger Gabrielle in a moment of indecision. This made a sort of sense, considering the older Gabrielle’s mental deterioration, but she was the only character to do so. Does the playwright imply that madness is not bounded by space or time?

The play began previews last week and has several weeks to opening, so I’m going to assume that my few quibbles with the cast will be resolved. That is, the two younger men in the cast: Gabriel Law, in England and Australia in the latter half of the 20th century, was played by Will Rogers. Mr. Rogers is unpolished, uncertain, and most certainly unBritish. This becomes pointed when he’s said to be speaking with an English accent. Whatever he’s speaking with, it’s not an English accent. This is quite forgivable if this major character was a three-dimensional human being instead of a tool for women to play off of – Mary Beth Hurt as his mother in England, and Susan Pourfar in Australia. I’m as uncertain as he – is this the playwright underwriting? The scenes are, after all, really about the women. That the play’s been produced multiple times in Australia over the past two years doesn’t altogether deny the possibility that Gabriel is not fully developed. Or is it Mr. Rogers?

Note about that uneven quality in the production – the allegedly English do not speak as if they’re English, but most of the Australians speak like Australians toning it down a bit for the American audience (at least to my untutored ear – an Australian will be required to make a determination). Accents are not the most important thing to me, but why have the Australians speaking Australian if the English aren’t particularly English?

The other younger man appears in only one scene, which we (or at least I) have anticipated since the first scene – Henry Vick as Andrew, the son of Gabriel York, was disappointingly weak. I do not expect Mr. Bovell to explicitly write what Andrew feels when he meets his father after several decades, but I do expect Mr.Vick to live it enough for me to sense it.

The other gentlemen, though, were excellent:
-- Richard Topol as Henry Law, father of Gabriel Law, the mysteriously missing father depending on what time period we’re in, is just marvelous. Quietly loving, repressed, hiding behind his fascination with weather and its effect on history. Perhaps because he’s not sure how to live in his present. Mr. Topol gives this troubled character shading and depth.
-- Rod McLachlan as Joe, the husband of Gabrielle and stepfather of her son Gabriel York, was hearty and soulful, sweet and loving, just as he is remembered by stepson Gabriel. Interestingly, although the London scenes were certainly not in chronological order, the distorted chronology of the Australian scenes with Joe did confuse me.
-- Michael Siberry as Gabriel York opens and closes the play. He’s so good I wondered from the beginning when I would see him again. In terms of story, particularly in the construction used here, the reappearance of Gabriel York must wait until the end. I just wished to have seen more of Mr. Siberry’s character because he is interesting as the point of convergence of all the characters we meet in the past, reflecting their choices, their actions, and inactions. And because Siberry is mesmerizing in an ordinary Joe kind of way.

This is not elementary storytelling. Backwards and forwards, forward and back, this play takes concentration and some openness on the part of the audience. The audience is rewarded by the end of the evening, when the play’s tangled strands came together and it all seemed perfectly clear. (To me, at least -- based on lobby conversations afterward, not to everyone.) What we learn by the end of the play is exactly why there’s a family tree in the program.

The setting by David Korins is almost perfect. A smaller circle revolved within (but well off center of) the revolving stage, rather like the revolution of planets and moons. The floor was, I believe, as multi-layered as the play in that the weather shone off of it. After the rain diminishes in the opening, puddles on the stage reflect a second view of Michael Siberry’s Gabriel Law. Later in the play, when it snowed in the Australian desert, we could see the frost and snow again in that floor. Wondrous.

My one quibble about the set: Although my view was fine, people in the first row (possibly the second as well) would occasionally have a moving coat rack obstructing their view as the slowly revolving stage changed its position.

The lightning and lighting were excellently designed by Tyler Micoleau, the sound and fury by Fitz Patton. The costumes for all time periods were on the mark as designed by Clint Ramos.

Earlier I said this is not science fiction, and it’s not. Science is required for science fiction, and no one’s deliberately traveling through time other than in the way each of us does in our own lives. The time crossing is more philosophical. By the end of the play, I wonder if this play is not, after all, a ghost story.

~ Molly Matera signing off. Gone are the dark clouds that made me blind. Gonna be a bright bright bright sun shiney day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Noir in the Jutlands

Terribly Happy is a Danish film by Henrik Ruben Genz, based on a novel by Danish writer Erling Jepsen. It’s a noir western mystery of the Hitchcock school via the Coen Brothers.

The film has cows, odd children, sullenly uncommunicative townspeople, a bully in a cowboy hat, a nightly poker game, a bar fight fought with beer and shots instead of fists, and a scene in a men’s room with a trough urinal as the center of the action. It is present day, but this town, these people are so cut off that it could be half a century, even a century in the past.

The countryside is unpleasant: It has no depth, no heights, no trees, mountains or even hills. It is reminiscent ­-- in a wet way -- of the endless fields and right-angled junctions of North By Northwest. Wetly because of the bog. Anything can sink into the oblivion of the bog. Can’t it.

Back to the beginning. The film is in such unsaturated color it could easily have been shot in black and white. It ends as it begins, quietly, in a town you not only don’t want to live in, you don’t want to visit, or even pass through. It is in the Jutlands, the Danish end of nowhere, a place that inspires depression.

The new ‘Marshall’ is Robert, played by Jakob Cedergren (when this film is redone in the U.S., by Genz, I’m hoping for Damien Lewis in this role, despite how well Cedergren played it), is driven into town by a higher ranking officer from a larger town nearby. The new Marshall has been banished from Copenhagen where he apparently did something so awful his wife won’t let him speak to their daughter. If he does well here, though, it is implied that he could, someday, go home again, at least to Copenhagen.

There’s no one on the puddle-filled streets when he arrives. The first thing he does is step into the mud. He does that a lot. There is an interesting focus on boots here. Boots forgotten, boots borrowed, boots returned. Boots sucked into the muck. Boots cursed.

The first person Robert meets tells him that the fellow who should be running the empty bicycle repair shop has disappeared, as people do around here. This is Ingerlise, the blonde therefore bad girl of the piece. Her daughter is Dorthe, who walks the empty streets of the town with her baby carriage. Ingerlise is married to the town bully in a cowboy hat, Jorgen. Then there’s the town doctor (Lars Brygmann), who came for a few months and has stayed for years. He’s been the caretaker for the last marshall’s cat (billed as “Katten”) and delivers it to the new marshall. This man is creepy, clearly bad news the moment he walks in the door. Bad news as he plays cards, sweating, with the shopkeeper (Anders Hove)and the preacher (Henrik Lykkegaard). It’s a 3-handed game since the old marshall left. Robert does not play cards. Shame, card players say.

A fuss is made over a juvenile shoplifter but not the blatantly abusive husband Jorgen (Kim Bodnia). Jorgen cheats on his wife, his presence in the bar frightens people, he sneers, if he had a moustache he would twirl it. The whole town knows he beats up Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen), and no one intervenes or contradicts him.

Ingerlise, of course, insinuates herself into Robert’s life, wants him to take her away from all this. This is, after all, noir. Yet when a not untypically drunken Jorgen comes to the Marshall’s house to demand her return, after shouting at Robert to keep him away, Ingerlise goes to the door herself, and asks her husband tenderly, “How are you?” She leaves with him, continuing the cycle. She pushes and pulls and manipulates, a typical woman of the noir tradition.

The predictability of this film is merely because it’s noir. Danish noir with the tone of a Western. I can find no particular flaw in the film. I laughed (however inappropriately, as one does at a Coen Brothers film). And I found it absurdly interesting that the word “two” sounds the same in English and Danish. There is something lacking in the film, but I’ve yet to figure out just what. It asks all the right questions --

  • What was the deep dark secret that exiled Robert to this muddy town?
  • Why does Dorthe push her baby doll carriage around the town at odd hours?
  • What does everyone in the town bar know that Robert doesn’t?
  • What is it about those abused indecisive women that gets men like Robert into trouble every time?
The more I think about it, the more the film resonates with me, the more the scenes flash before my mind’s eye. The resolution is highly satisfying. There’s sex, there’s death, guns, fists, a blonde, and mud. Still there’s something worrying me.

Maybe it’s that bog.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, wondering what else may be down there.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Meyers Uncomplicated

Several years ago, Nancy Meyers brought us the delightful “Something’s Gotta Give” in which Jack Nicholson, after a lifetime of chasing younger women, chases Diane Keaton. Younger than he is, certainly, but not by so much. In this delightful romantic comedy, we got to cry with Diane, to laugh with everybody, and totally accept that the wicked old Nicholson was courting the no-longer-a-spring chicken Keaton (mind you, if I looked like she does at her age, or at my age, or even a decade ago, I’d happily and unabashedly shed my clothing onscreen too). Meyers also asked us to keep our minds open to accept that the handsome, available, heterosexual young doctor also wants Keaton and not her daughter played by Amanda Peet. Now if you believe that, you’ll believe anything, including all aspects of Meyers’ newest offering, “It’s Complicated.”

Don’t get me wrong; I adored “Something’s Gotta Give” and “It’s Complicated.” Some films are made in hopes of making the audience think. Generally if the filmmakers want anyone to show up at the theatre, this request to think is made subliminally in between explosions, car chases, and tits-and-ass. Nancy Meyers’ films are not asking you to think at all; quite the contrary. Do not think about, ‘who could afford that house in that location by running a bakery,’ do not think about ‘how does she have time to create that lush garden,’ do not think at all. Just sit back, relax, and for the better part of two hours, laugh at the humanity before you.

Which I did.

Meryl Streep is delicious and devilishly funny as Jane Adler, 10 years divorced, finding her way on her own as she becomes an empty-nester. The onscreen rapport between Streep and Alec Baldwin as her ex is wise, witty, and wicked. Baldwin’s Jake, six years married to a much younger woman, is also a lawyer, so the sleaze aspect is to be expected. Any family with three children and parents no longer married to each other is complicated, and Jake’s new marriage is also complicated.

Jane wants to put an addition on her perfect house. I’d take it as is, thank you very much. This desire, however, provides the next complication: Her architect Adam, played by Steve Martin, has interpreted all of Jane’s e-mails on the subject. His perspicacity shows him to be the perfect match, having drawn the perfect plans. Adam, too, is divorced.

So here’s your threesome, again the … oh let’s just say 50-something successful beloved woman who finds herself wanted by two men, and wanting both for different reasons.

If you want to know who else was in this movie and were they good, just look up the list on imdb [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1230414/], read those names, and you'll know who did a terrific job. Yes, everybody. I did particularly like John Krasinski as the almost son-in-law, Harley.

What matters here is that the characters are all funny, the actors all perform them very well, the timing is as quick as the wit. It was not only a pleasure laughing at this film myself, it was a pleasure sitting in a darkened auditorium where everyone was laughing throughout the film. Mind you, I doubt there was anyone under 40 there either, but that just means that only one person didn’t turn her cell phone off.

I’m not going to run through the plot – you know the plot if you’ve seen the television ads and the trailer. Don’t know the resolution from those? Good. I’m not going to tell you. All I want to say is, if you want to think, go see Kathryn Bigelow’s devastingly brilliant “The Hurt Locker.” If you want to laugh a lot with your fellow movie-goers, go see “It’s Complicated.”

Don’t analyze this. Just laugh.

~ Molly Matera, logging off the computer to play left-handed tennis on the Wii.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Shannon Rocks - Lez Zeppelin at the Gramercy

Last night I saw Shannon Conley strut her stuff on the stage of the Gramercy. Lez Zeppelin played to an enthralled crowd for over two hours. Gone are the Bic flicks, but the joint was jumping, and the packed house was in love with this band. Little did I know when I’ve attended the theatre with her over the past year that Shannon was born to play Robert Plant.

Shannon leaps and flies and bounces, then takes a stance and with beautiful gestures does fab vocals fronting Steph Paynes on guitar – her solos are amazing; very fine Megan Thomas on bass and keyboards; and terrific Leesa Harrington-Squyres on percussion. The band is remarkably good and I found myself chuckling with pleasure all the while.

The only downer of the evening was entrance into the Gramercy – I don’t mind some guys looking in my bag for contraband or weapons (I saw guys being frisked in front of Irving Plaza the other week, what the hell is that!), but I do mind them making me pour out the water I carried in a metal bottle. The staff replaced my bottle with a plastic bottle of water, which I sipped through the evening. But. Not green and not cool.

As advised by Shannon, I wore my earplugs, but the whole place buzzed and vibrated so that my head is still heavy and throbbing the morning after. Small price to pay for an exciting show.

Rock On!

~ Molly Matera, signing off.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The New Group Tells A LIE OF THE MIND

The New Group is presenting a moodily musical production of Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” at The Acorn Theatre. That is not to say that it’s “a” musical. It is musical.

Human speech can be musical. This may depend on the speaker, the writer, or both. Tennessee Williams, for instance, is utterly rhythmic such that particularly accented vowel sounds aren’t necessary when playing his characters – it’s all about the rhythm. Sam Shepard has rhythm. He’s a morose son of a bitch, but fiercely truthful. He demands each of his characters speak some form of truth even when it’s inconvenient. Some can’t hack it and they crumble before us. Each of Shepard’s characters speaks his/her own truths, and he leaves it up to us, the listeners, to recognize which of those characters speaks “Truth” or is just plain wrong. Deluded. Stupid. Shepard is not … kind. He’s not kind to his characters. Why should he be. No one else is.

The house at the Acorn was full Wednesday night, and the players filled our senses with fascinating music and words, and characters riveting to watch. We had pleasure, too, in that we were watching not living those lives -- although my friend did recognize her parents’ non-conversations during a second act scene between Baylor & Meg.

Entering the theatre, we could see a set neatly a-clutter with brown things stacked and hanging, right side up, upside down, and sideways, cramming multiple lifetimes onto the empty stage. Lamps, model airplanes, suitcases, chests of drawers, old box television sets, bureaus, boxes, baubles, bangles and beads, all the accoutrements of a family homestead where nothing can be thrown away. No matter what is discarded from the front of the mind, it will remain at the back. Baggage elegantly arranged as hodgepodge, this production’s set is a work of art inseparable from its story. Once peopled, that setting by Derek McLane was alternately comfortable and claustrophobic, and always cold.

The play began with music by “Gaine” (a pair of brothers – how appropriate is that for a Sam Shepard play!) giving voice to found objects that aligned with the set. From where we sat on house right, we could see them, just, behind a stage left wall that sometimes hid a kitchen. Original music opened the scene in dim light where two men, on opposite sides of the stage, spoke into telephones. Jake, a frightening and just-enough-buff Alessandro Nivola, punched a pay phone, and Josh Hamilton as his brother Frankie drowsily responded to curt, only somewhat coherent ejaculations from Jake. Hamilton’s Frankie appeared fragile in this disturbing conversation and is clearly the sane -- or at least saner -- of the brothers.

We next see another brother as well as the subject of Jake and Frankie’s conversation — Jake’s wife Beth, beaten to brain trauma, bandaged in a hospital bed, and cared for by her brother Mike (Frank Whaley). Whaley is protective, capable, wild, determined, uncontrolled, and passionate, a regular guy who wigs out shrilly by the end of the play, largely because there’s no other way for him to be heard within the play’s two totally messed up families.
Sidebar -- It’s really difficult to use what I still consider “appropriate” language for a review when the subject is a Sam Shepard play. I searched the thesaurus, but it doesn’t list synonyms for ‘f--- ed up,’ although the dictionary includes the term, first defined in 1939, as “thoroughly confused, disordered, or damaged.” That’ll do.

The families of “A Lie of the Mind” are beyond help.

The broken sister (of Mike) /wife (of Jake), Beth is played by Marin Ireland. She’s remarkable, physically, vocally, and verbally. When she climbs the set in Jake’s imagination, I was completely drawn in to the moment, and wondered what path the story would follow next. Marin Ireland’s work in this play is amazing and breathtaking

The other sister, Jake and Frankie’s sister Sally, should be more broken than Maggie Siff plays her. Her psyche has surely been shattered and glued back together again with no support from her batty family, but Siff gives us no inkling of this. She’s a city mouse, not country – she’s just not part of the mad dysfunctional (what else) family of which she pretends to be a part. That said, while Siff is disappointing, she does the job. After all, her clear portrayal allowed me to envision who Sally really was. She just wasn’t complete.

Sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers. Everyone in this play is connected and broken. It seemed to me (I don’t think it’s defined) that Frankie (Josh Hamilton) is that middle child – perhaps because I’ve known those middle children. Jake the eldest, Frankie the brother who’ll never be good enough to their mother no matter how screwed up Jake is and behaves. Sally is… just a girl.

Hamilton’s Frankie is such a sad character, quite different from the others I’ve seen him play, and the discipline of the man! There were 10-15 minute scenes in which he was so (appropriately) still I was sure the character had died, as was, no doubt, most of the audience. He’s sweet and pathetic and so real it hurts. The scenes between Frankie and Beth are heartbreaking, he’s so torn and tumbled. Ireland’s confused and damaged Beth is broken and loveable and filled with an odd hope. “I live inside now,” she says to Frankie, as if her disability has allowed her to see which brother really loves her.

Nivola – what a sea change from the characters I generally see him play. On the phone in the opening scene he was creepy; the moment his Jake was in the physical presence of other human beings, he was truly and immediately frightening. He is relentless and intense – not to mention scarily hot.

Whaley – loved him since he gave Kevin Spacey paper cuts in “Swimming With Sharks” – plays this role as if it’s nutrition for him. Unlike Siff, when Whaley’s Mike stands apart from his family, he’s still in the same universe. He just doesn’t want to be. It’s inescapable.

The first act sped by (this production ran 2 hours and 40 minutes at least, but who noticed), but there’s a scene in Act 2 that is probably not as long as it felt. It’s Sally’s scene where she finally tells her mother Lorraine what only she and Jake have known for years -- and only she admits. It’s a tough scene, lots of exposition telling us a great deal about Jake, and herself, and their father. Unfortunately the Sally in the script is not really there in the actor. If it hadn’t been for Karen Young’s obnoxious, mean, and knowing interjections, the scene was in danger of going flat.

As for the parental generation –
Laurie Metcalf (Meg) is the mother of battered daughter Beth and is more than a bit dotty, but finally reveals the underlying strength that has kept her family together all these years. She deals with the use and abuse with dignity and an odd klutzy grace. And she’s damned funny.

Keith Carradine as Baylor, Meg’s husband and father of Beth and Mike, is ornery and irascible. Long-suffering he seems, but you just know he’s inflicted as much or more on the family he complains of. He’s terrific – relaxed, real, alive. The attitude of “This is just who I am, deal with it,” emanates from him. And I absolutely loved the scene in Act 2 where his wife Meg rubs Baylor’s stinky and cracked feet with mink oil (meant for boot leather!) while he berates her for … oh, anything that comes to mind.

All these strange moments -- Baylor pulling the afghan off the probably dying Frankie (whom Baylor accidentally shot on the last day of hunting season because Frankie wasn’t wearing anything colored orange), Baylor folding the flag with Meg – epitomize Shepard and his take on our society, in a time and place that really doesn’t seem all that different from now. We all recognize that oblivious male of a certain generation. It’s hilarious, as is Meg’s unheeded conversation about the differences between male and female. Yes, it’s of the 80s, but really, has anything changed one skin cell below the surface?

Finally Karen Young as the mother of crazy Jake, sad sack Frankie, and the girl who doesn’t quite fit, Sally. In the first production of this play in the mid 1980s, Karen Young played the role of Sally. Here she plays Sally’s mother “Lorraine.” There were moments in the second act when I watched Young, wondering what it was like to watch this young woman play the role she’d originated. Had Ms. Siff been rivetingly right for the role of Sally, I would have forgotten that tidbit. Karen Young’s Lorraine is annoying, on the mark, bats, harsh, real, obsessive, unlikeable, yet sympathetic, which makes Young ballsy and stunning. Lorraine not only is a nightmare, she’s lived a nightmare for a couple decades.

Ethan Hawke directed. I’ve never really had a strong opinion of him one way or another. I like his acting much of the time, not all of the time. As a director of a Sam Shepard play, he’s done a fine job in a not surprising way – it makes sense to me that Hawke would connect with Shepard, and they would make music together. The script is disturbing, filled with dark humor. That is not difficult to associate with Hawke. What really made this work for me, though, was the way Hawke and his colleagues made the play sing. Mournfully, but sing.

On my way home I read the program as usual, all the way through the director’s notes, which this time were not about what he intended for the production (which is fine, since most Director’s Notes explaining a production show the gap between intent and execution). Hawke’s notes in the program were labeled “About the Music.” I found this passage so fascinating I have reproduced it here, hoping I’m not infringing copyright. This passage was so stimulating to me in evoking the creative process behind this production that it makes me want to see the play again, and I hope this will make you want to see it, too.

About the Music
Shelby Gaines has long been a music producer and sound designer that I’ve admired. In the spring of 2008, he told me of an art exhibit he and his brother, Latham, had up at a gallery downtown. The sculptures were found objects like a barn door, a pitchfork, an old telephone sign, etc., that the brothers had somehow transformed and given “voice” to sonically. I commented that they all looked like props from a Sam Shepard play. Latham, who is also an actor, laughed and agreed – adding that he’d always wondered what a ‘barn door’ or a ‘chair’ would say if it could talk. Somehow, by the end of the night we decided to have a reading of A LIE OF THE MIND after hours at the gallery. The set designer, Derek McLane, came to listen. All of us were struck by the scope and landscape created by these ‘instruments’ and how well they were suited to the play. Quickly we began work on this production. The Gaines brothers built instruments specifically for the play and Derek designed a set that could be embraced by these sculptures. Each instrument has been created to give “VOICE” to a different character. Through the rehearsal process with the actors, we have attempted to integrate these sounds with the text.

-- Ethan Hawke

Those Gaines boys are fascinating and make beautiful soulful music. I think this production hints at so many aspects of the creative process that I hope somebody took notes. Dispassionate notes – we’d read them, we’d get it, we’d imagine, we’d take part. It could be one wonderful teaching tool for writers, actors, musicians, producers, directors, and just people.

Not forgetting that Theatre is a collaborative art, all parts work with each other to make the whole, including:
· Set design by Derek McLane who, as mentioned, created a fascinating space that was useful to the actors and stimulating to the audience, and a visual match to the music and the prose.
· Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Blue jeans and boxer shorts are of all time, and yet the costume choices were significant and emotive, particularly for the mothers. The combination of boxer shorts with leather jacket was distinctive.
· As I said earlier, Gaines’ Musical contribution was invaluable. It requires my second viewing/hearing just to know if they change it up from night to night.
· Lighting by Jeff Croiter was in tune with the actors and the story.
· Sound design by Shane Rettig – since the music was live, I wondered about the dog barking. Dogs are, of course, anxious to please humans, but could the cues be so consistently produced, night after night, without a designer? I think not.

To sum up –Family is hell, as is the lack thereof. And just how many lies of the mind are there?

Sometimes I look at a story -- especially one in which multiple characters are fairly equal in their importance and contribution to the whole -- and actively ask “Who took a journey?” Sometimes the answer is “no one.” In this story, there are several journeys. They’re broken, incomplete, they do not satisfy the travelers, and they’re certainly not happy. But they are journeys. I was very glad to be along for the ride.

It’s a limited engagement, closing March 20th, so Go. http://www.thenewgroup.org/

~ Cheers. Molly Matera signing off to re-read some Sam Shepard.