Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Virtual Visit to Pompeii

Pompeii and Herculaneum are on the Bay of Naples, below Mt. Vesuvius. Until the eruption of the volcano on 24 August 79 A.D. (we know the precise date because of the writings by Pliny the Younger from his view in Misenum, northwest across the Bay of Naples), the people didn’t even know what a volcano was. Mt. Vesuvius was just the mountain. Then hell literally broke loose.

Pompeii The Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius,” on display at the Discovery Center in Times Square, is a dense and awe-inspiring exhibit. It took me over 2.5 hours to experience it, reading all plaques and captions, examining artifacts. There’s an opening film before entering the exhibit, introducing the presumed life pre-eruption – presumed based on the evidence left by the preservation of the entire city under the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius.

You walk through hallways with statuary, frescoes in marvelous earth tones, some of gardens, some of daily life in the marketplace, mosaics from the floors of Pompeiian houses. Around the corner are display cases filled with coins of different sizes – gold for saving, bronze for using – scales, reminding people that Pompeii was a thriving market port. And quite a few amphorae in the traditional red clay of Pompeii , as well as some very beautiful alabaster jars. Around another corner and there’s a discreet little room emulating a chamber in a brothel – more like a cubicle -- with graffiti and erotic paintings on the wall, and lewd etchings on clay lamps. Then a gladiator’s helmet, shin guards. The exhibit shows articles and elements of everyday life in Pompeii.

The art of Pompeii was very fine, and after gazing up at the varying sides of two white pillars, a digital clock counts down to the next showing of an “immersive” film. You step into a separate room, which is just a big box, like a large elevator car, and it’s dark and rather cold. The film includes light and sound effects and a floor shaking to the speakers to give a not-too-alarming idea of the quaking of the earth under Pompeii. The time lapse photography brings us from a normal morning to the gradual destruction of the homes and shops. You might think you were at the end of the world as you watch a simulation of the stages of destruction culminating in a tsunami-like wave of ash rising over then swallowing Pompeii.

Darkness and a bit of a chill in the air is only slightly relieved when the screen rises and a doorway reveals a body frozen in time by volcanic ash. It’s a white plaster cast – they’re all white plaster casts – filling a dry yet somehow foggy room with body casts as well as 18 skeletons found in a room in Herculaneum. The skeletons get the imagination going well enough, and then the full body casts: men covered in ash on the stairs, a child alone, a child reaching for its mother, a pig, a dog trying desperately to climb above the suffocating ash. The room itself and its contents promote an eerie feeling. It’s all quite affecting, standing amidst such startling representations of the last frantic moments of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

This creepy and remarkable section leads to an excellent archeology lesson, along with vulcanology. No space is wasted, yet there is no clutter either. (The design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates is clear and clever.) The found objects are ordinary – tables, cook pots, jewelry, stoves, dried apricots, an entire carbonized loaf of bread, everything you can think of that was left when a disaster with no warning overcame the people. This is a valuable history lesson of how we live – a comb is a comb in any century, the jewelry found would not look out of place in our time. Life is ordinary until it’s gone -- an event, not a human act, just an event -- can make that life disappear in moments. Despite my immersion in Pompeii and Herculaneum, I cannot help but think of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Those lives ended, buried, changed.

The exhibit brings you as close as it can to being in Pompeii -- computer screens with 360-degree views of the excavated ruins allow you to travel the streets; you can peer down into a diorama of a typical house, then watch a computer generated tour of a Pompeiian house (the sort of tour you can see on real estate sites online) even showing some of the frescoes – of which we’ve seen pieces – complete in place as they would have been.

If you go – and I suggest you do -- wear comfortable shoes and don’t carry much. No one made an issue of my ever-present compact backpack (only big enough to carry my small netbook), but backpacks are not actually allowed. There is a complimentary coat check. The audio recordings (optional, an extra $7 -- nice to have but not necessary as the captions, posters, and timelines are very informative) have two settings, one for adults, one for “family.” In the first half of the exhibit there’s no place to sit down, but after the second film there is a bench in each of the two final halls.

“Pompeii the Exhibit” is fascinating and chock full of artifacts, demonstrations, and information. And of course the website ( has more information on the exhibit, with links to and the exhibit’s excellent blog for still more.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, ready to re-read Lois Hamilton Fuller’s “Fire in the Sky: Story of a Boy of Pompeii” – my childhood introduction to that tragic city.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mark Rylance Rocks "Jerusalem"

Being neither English nor Anglican, I did not grow up singing “Jerusalem.” My first memory of the song was the rendition by Emerson Lake and Palmer, who rocked it. Then I read William Blake’s poem, and subsequently heard passionate to passive renditions of the song in countless British films. Still the song does not have an emotional meaning for me outside of the cultural events with which I associate it. For me, “Jerusalem” is not the heart and soul of my country. Jez Butterworth’s play of that name, though, makes me think it is otherwise for the English.

Mark Rylance rocks Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” at the Music Box Theatre. This production traveled from London’s Royal Court Theatre with a buzz before it, and it does not disappoint. Setting, lighting, sound, cast, direction, are all spot on, exciting, and mesmerizing. The play’s three acts fly by.

A curtain adorned with a faded Cross of St. George hides the stage. A young girl dressed as a woodland fairy, wings and all, walks center and stands before the curtain. She sings “Jerusalem” a capella -- it is poignant, yearning, lonely. Then a raucous blast frightens her away. The curtain rises on chaos, a happening, a helluva party, the sort few will remember hours later in daylight.

The morning after: A long and very old mobile home has settled down in the forest. Loudspeakers are attached to its roof. Chickens in a coop live underneath at one end, somehow surviving the party and many others like it. The place looks like a junk yard – broken chairs, a table, an old turntable that has somehow survived life outside, a moldy old couch on a lopsided deck, a stack of LPs, bottles, a refrigerator, rubbish everywhere, and a trough filled with water. A man and woman of officialdom enter, Mrs. Fawcett cajoling Mr. John Byron to come out with her very own loudspeaker -- he does not -- and telling him what the notice they’re posting on the trailer door says: He’s being evicted. This entire incident is videotaped by the man, Mr. Parsons, who lets us know that this is a choice spot from which Mr. Byron is being evicted. Which makes his eviction immediately suspect, does it not?

Mark Rylance owns the stage before we even see him, and when we do, we are won. Hung over from the happening the night before, he heads for the trough of water, but he doesn’t merely splash water on his face. He does a headstand into the water. He shakes his head like a matted mutt, he growls, he drags his bad leg, he’s a mongrel pacing his territory. He is the ruler of his rubbish pile. An Englishman’s home is his castle.

Into this solitude breaks Ginger, a petulant, lost young man, older than the teenagers who are drawn to Johnny’s free lifestyle, cynical, perhaps heartbroken. He is played with sympathy and anger by Mackenzie Crook. He is immediately put out that he wasn’t invited to whatever party destroyed Rooster’s homestead – Rooster insists it was just a gathering, unplanned, and proceeds to tell the first of many utterly absurd stories to divert recriminations, responsibility, or reproach. He uses stories and seduction to fend off chiding.

One by one, partiers and chiders join this St. George’s Day gathering while not far off the town is having its more staid Flintock Fair – at which Rooster entertained years before, as a daredevil.

These people have all the “mod cons,” a large flat screen television, texting, videos on the cell phone, but the story is an old one. The pied piper for the youth of the area, going beyond one generation, and the people who turn him out.

The entire cast is sterling -- these actors live inside their characters’ hearts, they move with their characters’ bodies. This company is compact and concise in its absolute wildness. One might almost think they’re all just improvising, but of course they’re not. The stoned storytelling, the revelry, the uninhibited and far from sober behavior of the characters -- almost all of the characters -- could mislead us into thinking this a mash, a morass. It is not. It is precisely plotted, its rhythms building boldly to its closing drumbeats.

Butterworth’s seemingly disheveled script is all over the place, mad in its precision. Ian Rickson’s direction is tight, sensitive, choreographed chaos. This is a complex orchestration of a multi-layered story, and Rickson conducts masterfully. Add to this that Rylance plays the central role with abandon, his whole heart tossed into the hands of the audience, and “Jerusalem” becomes an entrancing night of enchantment in the Wiltshire woods. I felt as if I had been at a wild party, dancing on tables, crooning the blues into the night, partaking in heady conversations…which I forgot half of next morning.

Not surprisingly, aspects of “Jerusalem” remind me of the Angry Young Men writing in England in the 1950s (the label appropriately coined by the Royal Court Theatre back in the day). Butterworth’s Johnny “Rooster” Byron was an angry young man some years ago, not of the right class, not of the right background to be accepted into the middle class society, but he had no inclination to be part of that hypocritical mass. Johnny has always lived on the outskirts of society, in his youth as a daredevil, and for close to thirty years in this immobile mobile home in the forest – for so long that many of the locals call this spot “Rooster’s Wood.” He is no longer an angry young man: Fifty if he’s a day, and rather the worse for wear, with one bum leg, an inability to wake up or get through a day without massive quantities of drugs and alcohol, he has managed to get himself barred from every pub in town despite the fact that he’s the town’s drug dealer.

We’re more than halfway through the play when someone calls Rooster “Gypo.” Once said, it’s repeated. Rooster’s position degrades as the play progresses. Rooster is not just the odd man out, the outsider– Rooster Byron is a total outcast. The angry young men of the 1950s might not have championed him; their class war was not without its prejudices. Jez Butterworth is the angry young man for the 21st century, putting age old racism center stage.

Rooster seems to have some friends of his own generation – the Professor, a mild-mannered and very muddled man who mistakes Ginger for a Doctor Maureen Pringle from the university mathematics faculty, and searches in vain for Mary, his dog, who will never return. Alan David is delightful in this role. His sweet and sad professor has moments of lucidity which never lead him to unkindness. Wesley, on the other hand, is a publican who enters wearing the belled costume of a morris dancer. Max Baker plays Wesley as a sad sack, a man in mid-life crisis, sorrowing over his (and Johnny’s) lost youth. He needs Johnny’s accepting company and his drugs, but won’t stand up for him when it counts. Mostly, though, Rooster is the pied piper of Flintock, Wiltshire, welcoming its teenagers to his caravan and his campfire.

Woven through the tale of Rooster’s trials is the missing girl, Phaedra, whom we suspect is being abused by her lout of a stepfather, Troy (an earthy Barry Sloane in a repulsively realistic performance). Once the other teenage girls tell us about Phaedra, we realize we’ve seen her, and suspect we know where she’s hiding out. Where do all the teenagers hang out, as their parents did before them?

Johnny "Rooster" Byron is a storyteller, and a hilarious one is of his conversation with a giant. He tells the story of their meeting near the A14, in which they talked of the weather. Johnny, of course, plays both himself and the giant. He tells his rapt teenage listeners (and Ginger, who is no teenager) that the giant gave him a gift of an earring – the giant’s own earring, which of course is rather large when brought to the scale of a mere human. It’s a conga drum. Johnny challenges the disbelieving Ginger to play the drum, which would bring forth the giants. Ginger insists he doesn’t believe it, but he daren’t strike the drum. Such is the mesmerizing effect of Johnny’s tales.

What struck me most in this production is that no member of the company disappointed for the briefest moment. Every actor lived his or her role so completely, each performance is fully informed, fully committed with exquisite timing. Besides those I’ve already mentioned --

Aimeé-Ffion Edwards plays Phaedra of the sweet voice as an ordinary bubble-headed teenager, demanding Johnny be what he is not.

Sarah Moyle is appropriately uptight and righteous as Ms. Fawcett, sent by the Council to inform Mr. John Byron of his place – but what is she hiding? Harvey Robinson as Mr. Parsons follows her, younger, a bit awestruck, toeing the line that will age him to match Ms. Fawcett.

Lee, the teenager preparing to leave home to embark on a great Australian adventure, the thinker of the group, yet dense, is played by John Gallagher, Jr. His Lee has heart, regrets, fears, and honor.

Davey is played by Danny Kirrane as an angry young man with no illusions. He spends his days in the slaughterhouse and his nights getting stoned and drunk enough to go to work the next day.

Pea, a silly and kindhearted teenager reveling in her acts of rebellion is played on the mark by Molly Ranson; and her buddy Tanya, who desperately wants to give herself to Lee, is brazenly played by Charlotte Mills.

Dawn, played by Geraldine Hughes, arrives expecting Johnny to be a responsible father for their son while she knows he’ll never be more than a loving one.

Scenic and costume design by Ultz are extraordinary, imaginative, bringing us to this place to hang with these people. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting design warms us as the day brightens and maintains the reality of Rooster’s Wood. Ian Dickinson’s sound design welcomes us into the theatre with birdsong, then blasts our eardrums for the gathering and, well, whenever Rooster wants to.

Rooster’s home is an eyesore to anyone who is not a teenager or a juvenile delinquent (the latter not circumscribed by age). More, he does not live peacefully in the woods. He is loud. 400 yards away from Rooster’s Wood is the New Estate. Within a year or so of Rooster’s eviction, we just know the forest will have been razed and a new New Estate will overlook the old New Estate. Putting aside the fact that few, if any, of us would want Rooster as a neighbor, this smacks of eminent domain, overdevelopment, and just plain greed, along with enforced conformity. Johnny “Rooster” Byron is, unfortunately for him – and perhaps for England -- not Robin Hood, just a pied piper, and none of his followers are going to rescue him.

By play’s end Johnny is beaten down by the law, beaten bloody by the bad guys, betrayed by his friends young and old. He beats the drum, and we are with him as he calls forth the giants. The people of England -- not the councils or corporations, the people -- cry for the giants of old, Johnny’s giants who built Stonehenge, cry for St. George, for freedoms gobbled up by conformity and civilization. Johnny “Rooster” Byron commands it, and we believe. And hope.

"Jerusalem" is a play to be seen, heard and experienced. Happily it’s here in New York City at the Music Box Theatre through 24 July 2011. Do not miss it.

~ Molly Matera, logging off to read some Blake…and perhaps some Shakespeare…Happy Birthday, Will

Friday, April 15, 2011

Insidious Is As Insidious Does

The definition of insidious is: “awaiting a chance to entrap, treacherous. Harmful but enticing. Or…of a disease: developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent.”

Insidious” is an intriguing title. Screenwriter Leigh Whannel (“Saw” and “Saw II”) drew on his memories of “Poltergeist” to structure his story, with a few minor changes here and there. However, this script isn’t as good as the one Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor wrote for “Poltergeist.” Further, “Saw” notwithstanding, while director James Wan does what he can with the script, he’s no Tobe Hooper.

The older house we see a young couple move into is quite attractive. It’s a much nicer house than the one that looks just like its neighbors in “Poltergeist.” This old house has an open central staircase, which is divided into half landings allowing for stops and starts as the adults individually run up those stairs to respond to cries from above. These staring stops are what passes for suspense in the early part of the film. Of course, the house is mostly wood, which creaks nicely. Trees older than the house creep up close to the windows in the wind, making it just the right setting for a haunted house story. And the attic appears to contain things the last owners did not clear out….

The family that moves in is young – Renai, thin as a rail, appears slightly nervous and tries to write songs. She is a good mom, very well played by Rose Byrne. Josh seems to be a nice guy, leaves much of the unpacking to his wife, but is at least appreciative as he goes off to work and leaves her alone with the baby. He’s rather dull, actually, played by Patrick Wilson. They have three children. As these parents are younger than those in “Poltergeist,” so are their children. And instead of the disturbances in the house centering on the youngest child, here it is the eldest child, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), whom we meet when he gets up early with his mother and they look at a photo album with snapshots of Renai when she was younger -- but none of Josh. The photo album is a very tired ploy, but at least it’s earned later.

Dalton, who is drawn to that mysterious attic, falls, appears fine, then fails to awaken next morning. Medical science is not helpful beyond saying it doesn’t seem like your standard coma. The comatose boy, with wires and tubes and monitors, is set up in the house, where a visiting nurse gives instruction to an ever more fragile Renai.

Boxes are not where they ought to be, books are dislodged from the shelf. Sounds are heard over the baby monitor, something flashes by interior and exterior windows. Initially these plants hint of good stuff to come. “Insidious” has some moments of nifty frights in this house, and while Josh is not around much to see the issues – he stays much later in his grammar school classroom than he logically would, nods out over his computer there, so he’s clearly avoiding going home – he takes his wife’s fears seriously and they move to another, smaller, newer house.

But the house was not the problem. Josh’s mother Lorraine did not help unpack at the first house, but she shows up at the second. Lorraine (played by Barbara Hershey – after her last mother in “Black Swan,” this one’s nothing special) gazes at a pretty standard family photo of Josh, Renai, and the two boys – no baby yet. She is surprised that Renai got him to pose for a photo. We remember there are no photos of Josh as a child. The two women are rather distant in this not at all homey kitchen scene, implying a less than warm relationship between the wife and the mother of Josh, or perhaps between the actresses. Yet Lorraine is supportive because she’s quite certain Renai is not imagining anything. She brings in an old friend to investigate.

In “Poltergeist,” when the two guys walked in with equipment, we took them seriously. In “Insidious,” in walk two nerds with some lame equipment. These guys have watched “Supernatural” and “Ghost Hunters” and tried to emulate television and built their own equipment. The characters are bumbling fools played by worse actors (one of them the screenwriter). This is someone’s attempt at humor falling flat.

Lin Shaye plays Elise, the “medium” in this film. She has a fabulous face, long and narrow, and she makes us take Elise seriously. She recognizes Josh, whom she apparently knew as a child, although he does not remember her. Elise learns pretty quickly that it’s not the house that’s haunted – it’s their son Dalton. That’s no spoiler, it’s in the trailer. The spoiler is that he’s a “traveler,” that is, he unknowingly travels by way of astral projection, although he thinks he’s just dreaming. And she knows this because Josh did it himself. Spoiler Alert: Elise shows Josh and Renai photos of Josh as a child – in the background of each and every one is a creepy old woman with fuzzy features and demonic eyes, gradually moving closer to him. Review definitions of the word “insidious,” above.

Funniest bit: Elise, when trying to talk to the absent Dalton, wears a gas mask. It is connected to the headphones worn by the guy taking down her words, who chooses to do so with something resembling a charcoal pencil. This caught my wandering attention, since it was totally inefficient. Just use a Sharpie -- the charcoal stick does not have the panache of Stephen King’s Black Warrior pencils.

I don’t think the makers of “Insidious” could quite make up their minds what this film should be. Their version of "Scream" perhaps? Or an homage to “Poltergeist?" Just the basic cast list is all too similar:

Husband Josh (Patrick Wilson)
Stay at home Wife Renai (Rose Byrne)
Three kids
Medium Elise (Lin Shaye)
2 guys with equipment

Husband Steve (Craig T. Nelson)
Stay at home Wife Diane (JoBeth Williams)
Three kids
Medium Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight)
2 guys with equipment

Even once the astral projection theory is revealed, Whannel doesn’t veer from the tried and true “Poltergeist.” He just substitutes something called “The Further” for the Native American burial ground. “The Further” is a place where astral projectors wander and sometimes get lost, as Josh did as a child, and as comatose Dalton has done now. Where “Poltergeist” horrified us with the hellish realm where the actual child was imprisoned and wreaked havoc on the physical house (not to mention the pool!), “Insidious” tosses a few people about in the new house, then goes back to the first house and shoots the “horror” scenes there, hoping against hope that lighting effects will make up for the lack of imagination used in creating this alternate reality. And by the way, “The Further?” Really? That’s what they came up with for this netherworld, dreamworld, etherworld, otherworld, dark dimension, lost dimension, la-la-land? Mr. Whannel needs a dictionary and thesaurus.

If Mr. Whannel and Mr. Wan didn’t want “Insidious” compared to “Poltergeist,” they shouldn’t have copied so much of it. If they meant it as an homage, they fell short. Byrne and Shaye are very good, the rest of the cast merely serviceable -- except for the screenwriter. All in all, “Insidious” was disappointing.

If my response to this film appears harsh, consider this: I still remember the night, back in 1982, when I first saw “Poltergeist.” Once home alone, I went to bed, turned out the light, then shrieked when my long braid appeared to move on the pillow next to me. After seeing “Insidious” last night, I slept just fine.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer – or maybe I’ll stream “Poltergeist” and watch a really scary movie….

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Meek's Cutoff is No Place for the Meek

Going to see Michelle Williams at the movies can lead to some pretty morose evenings. She has a way of picking deep, layered characters in starkly realistic films that leave the audience feeling hopeless at the end. Witness last year’s “Blue Valentine,” and 2008’s “Wendy and Lucy.” Gritty, realistic films with endings that don’t argue hopelessness, but rather accept it. That’s what reality does for you. In her new release in theatres now, “Meek’s Cutoff,” Williams is not meek for a moment, nor is the director Kelly Reichardt. This film is powerful and breathtaking, frighteningly quiet in a landscape that is as terrifying as it is beautiful. Yet the film is not at all morose.

Meek’s Cutoff” is a western of the northern variety, and far from typical. It has standard elements of wagons, oxen, horses, a donkey, high plains, big skies, and tiny human beings traveling west across an enormous, untamed frontier. From there, however, director Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond veer off the usual course.

The film is painfully realistic, painted in the dusty earth tones of the desert. Three Conestoga wagons lumber across a plain. Before a word is spoken, we see the wagons and people ford a river, the women carrying baskets and a birdcage high over their heads as they walk through the surging water that reaches up to their chests. The men drive the oxen pulling the wagons through the river. The travelers fill their barrels with the fresh, clear water. Not a word has been spoken in the film at this point. On a felled tree trunk that looks as parched as the land, a man carves letters – L O S T.

Oregon, 1845. Part American, part British, not even a territory yet. The travelers to it are "Americans" from the United States and its territories. Theirs is a small wagon train, with Mr. Stephen Meek contracted to lead three families over the Cascade Mountains. The travelers are “Americans,” but the territory is not yet. The “cutoff” of the title is Meek’s alleged shortcut off the beaten track. The cutoff is already taken, and the people are in mid quandary as we come into their story. That they’re lost is one thing; that Meek won’t admit it is another. It is the bone of contention for these determined but dependent people.

The three couples at Mr. Meek’s mercy are Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her husband Solomon (Will Patton). This couple converses quietly, respectfully. He does not keep secrets from his wife, unlike the other husbands. William White (Neal Huff) tries to protect his wife Glory (Shirley Henderson) in every way and she does the same for him and their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson). Glory is far enough along in her pregnancy to make every day walking along the plain without water an even greater danger than usual, although she never complains. She runs against the wind to grab a scarf of her husband’s before it's lost to the winds, she works as hard as the other women. And the work is grueling. The third couple is the youngest, Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) and his wife Millie (Zoe Kazan). Gately is a young man trying very hard to be a good one; Millie would be hysterical if she were of a different class. As it is, hysteria from anyone on a trip like this would be deadly. Their cocky leader, Stephen Meek, dresses in buckskin with long ragged hair. He would be reminiscent of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill, except the Bills came of age later. The actor was a mystery to me until halfway through the film, when I realized it was Bruce Greenwood. I do love it when I don’t recognize a very familiar actor.

These actors inhabit their roles, their shoes are wearing out, their skin drying and tanning. The women’s cotton and muslin dresses are lived in, billowing about their legs as they walk on cracked ground with the wind whipping all around them. The men trudge next to the oxen. No one speaks for hours at a time. All hands are ready to work for each other – when the axle of the young couple’s wagon breaks, the journey stops for breath, and all the men work to fashion a new axle.

Days are the same, except when a new danger enters. On a day like any other, the men have ridden off to look for water, and the women wander the brush surrounding their camp, bent over to gather kindling. Emily comes upon an Indian. He does and says nothing. She turns and runs back to the camp, loads a rifle (in 1845 this takes a very long time) and shoots into the sky to signal the men to return. Meek questions her closely in the growing dark, doing his best to encourage her fear. He talks on and on about the Native Americans, different tribes, different pejoratives, ugly stories of travesties. Of course, we already know Meek is not strictly truthful, so we are in the same position as the travelers – how much of what he says is to be believed.

Soon the boy Jimmy sees the lone Indian again; Meek and Tetherow ride off after him. They return hours later with the captured Indian walking bound between them – Meek says he wants to kill him; Tetherow wants to find out from him where there’s water. The need for water by now far outweighs his fear of this unknown.

Ron Rondeaux is intriguing as the Native American, listed as “The Cayuse” (the Cayuse is a tribe native to northeastern Oregon). Initially silent, he begins to speak in his own language, even sing what appears to be a healing song at one point. He watches and waits, seems to accept young Mr. Gately’s offer of barter – blankets for leading them to water. If the travelers weren’t torn before, the tension rises with the addition to their party. None of the “Americans” speak the Native American’s language, and he does not speak English. Meek shouting and threatening is clear without understanding the words, as are the more civil, cajoling tones of Tetherow and Gately. Emily Tetherow tries to make the Cayuse beholden to her by mending his torn boot. He is as fascinated by her sewing basket as by her actions. The picture of frightened Millie Gately gripping a boulder as she stares at Emily is an intimate revelation of horror.

This is an engrossing picture of the hardy folk who traveled across this untamed country. There is no distant planet in space exploration more frightening than the unexplored American desert. When a cry of water goes up, it’s from miles away. Only up close can the travelers know whether the water is potable or alkaline – if the latter, deadly to humans and animals alike.

The characters of “Meek’s Cutoff” are intense and pushed to that point where a person finds out what’s inside, like it or not. This film is like a finely wrought short story, told by the details and the depictions – of the terrain, the faces, the clothing, the hands, the wind, the shoes, the postures, the silence. Always more silence. Tension builds day by day and moment by moment, characters clashing quietly at first and finally at an impasse. The last day of the film’s story leaves it to the viewer to decide: To choose to believe that water will be found in the next day by following the captured Cayuse. Or not.

Jonathan Raymond (who also wrote “Wendy and Lucy” with Kelly Reichardt) crafted the spare script that brings the audience along on the grueling journey. The few words spoken are choice. Each character speaks only what he or she must, and can.

Director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) keeps her actors in view, sometimes at the edge of the screen. Each of them gives her a finely tuned performance. Shirley Henderson is glorious as the resilient Glory, Zoe Kazan affecting as the anxious Millie, and Michelle Williams inspiring as the powerful and strong Emily – they teach us that American women can do anything. Most Westerns are about the men, and the women are peripheral. In “Meek’s Cutoff,” if either gender is portrayed more richly than the other, it would be the women. These are some of the best performances you’ll see this or any other year. The three men, different as they can be, are also giving subtle, strong, characterizations – Patton, quiet, strong with the the kind of quiet that other men recognize and follow; Huff drawn long and tight, sacrificing, carved of knotty wood; and Dano, with hope and plans of youth, and somehow patience of age. Finally Greenwood, brilliantly unrecognizable as the dislikeable, untrustworthy Meek.

The loving care given by director and editor Reichardt to every shot, every stoic face, every frame is evident. This is a gorgeous film, a harsh film, a frightening film. And yet not morose, and not ending on a hopeless note. The hope is up to the viewer. "Meek's Cutoff" poses hard questions, without giving answers.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dreamlike Macbeth at BAM

Cheek by Jowl’s production of “Macbeth” is performed without an intermission, which makes it rather suspect – those of us with a smidgen of cynicism wonder if there’s no breaking point because the director or producer fear the audience won’t return for the second half. I can assure you, that’s not why there’s no intermission in this production at the BAM Harvey Theatre.

As we were shuffling out of the theatre last night, one woman said to her companion, “Well, those are two hours I’ll never get back.” But, while not alone in her opinion, it’s fair to say most of the audience didn’t agree. Of my companions and myself, one loved the production wholeheartedly, one more than halfheartedly but not wholly, and then there was me. I liked a lot of it, but have bones to pick. For one thing, a production that’s been around for the better part of two years should know how long the play runs, and both the BAM web site and the program said two hours, without intermission. When we arrived at the theatre, we were forewarned more accurately – two hours and twenty minutes, without intermission.

For this production, its flow, its forward motion, would not bear the interruption of an intermission. Director Declan Donnellan has his actors moving, touching, stroking, reaching, watching, listening, throughout the play. The action is non-stop. Then why is this, one of the shortest of Shakespeare’s plays, two hours and twenty minutes? Because what is not non-stop is the speaking of Shakespeare’s words. In the title role, Will Keen totally ignores Shakespeare’s advice to the players. He does not speak the speech trippingly, he most certainly does saw the air, and he added twenty minutes to the running time with his pauses alone. As my friend said, there were no trucks in Brooklyn last night because they were all idling in the pauses in this production. Which is too bad -- Mr. Keen’s characterization was more than interesting. His compact muscled body was taut with repressed energy, his eyes darted suspiciously, angrily, he was the embodiment of a paranoid man of power. But my attention wandered when his gaze glazed over between the third and fourth words of a phrase, again and again. Mr. Keen’s Thane of Cawdor jabs out a word or two, then searches the air for more, glares angrily toward the audience, then grabs a few words from them. This made him the most verbally incomprehensible Macbeth I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen the play in Japanese.

Lady Macbeth was tightly wound from the moment she appeared, growing toward a harridan, and by the time she’d decided upon murder, she was a regular fishwife. Anastasia Hille was thin to the point of gauntness, her hair wild and untamed, her pale feet bare as she read her husband’s letter. In her “unsex me here” soliloquy, I felt Ms. Hille’s Lady Macbeth was mad because none of her babies had lived. This did not make sense of her actions– even in an irrational way – but seemed to clear the way for her mad dash to murder and mayhem. Once company came, she was no longer disheveled, she put on pumps (!), hair pulled back in a bun. Her public persona still shrill, she held it together better than her husband. The problem, though, with starting at such a pitch in her early soliloquies is that, like starting a song on a high note, where on earth can you go in the second half of the play? The woman was no different in her mad scene than she was in her opening scene.

For me the main problem was that while she ranted, her husband paused. This, of course, is appropriate to the story of the play in the first half or so and mayn’t have been as distracting if he’d paused prior to killing Duncan and then pulled his speech together as he became more and more murderous. If he’d used that jagged, annoyingly slow speech -- it was not a pattern, it was lack of pattern -- to differentiate his mental state from one part of the story to another, it might have been effective. As it was, he appeared incapable of stringing enough words together to make a phrase. My friend thought this was a valid depiction of madness. I thought he was applying the Method to Shakespeare. Not to mention (although I will), that in the beginning of the play, he’s a great general, admired and liked and respected by his countrymen and his king. We’re not talking “I, Claudius” here, where a speech impediment made ignorant people think the man stupid. This is a style of inarticulateness that would be unlikely in an eleventh century general and is annoying from an actor of Mr. Keen’s obvious talent.

Moving on to the physical nature of the play – Nick Ormerod designed a spare acting area ripe for lighting effects, with wooden crates of different sizes lining both sides of the stage. These are made of Birnam wood, of course.

Everyone (except the extraneous gatekeeper, below) wears black. All black. Black on black. The actors’ movements are smooth, choreographed, coordinated. Donnellan keeps the Macbeths at the center, to the point of not naming many characters in the program’s cast list. Noticeably toned down, the other characters and actors fade back into the usually visible ensemble when their characters were not needed.

One might even wonder if Donnellan was making everyone else a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.

From the play’s opening, the creepy factor is established – Judith Greenwood’s design illuminates the frightening, casts shadows here and beams of light there, and allows whispers to come from the almost dark. We see people standing on stage, but we cannot see their faces. The “weird” sisters speak, and there are constant whispers around them – this effect is used later in the play as well. From this beginning we hear an excellent sound design by Helen Atkinson. Voices from the dark are one thing, but whispers are truly creepy.

These sounds also lean toward the interpretation that Macbeth is hearing voices throughout – could it be that no one else is there, just the whispers….?

A man breaks ranks with the formation onstage, and runs through and around the lines of people. He comes in front and appears to stab himself in the hand, prompting the line, “What bloody man is that?” Throughout, the actors use no props but the wooden crates. Despite the lack of props, all the fight scenes and murders are highly effective because of the actors’ reactions. Credited as an associate director of the company and movement director, Jane Gibson did marvelous work with the cast.

The introduction of Macbeth and Banquo is intriguing, setting up the disparity of each one’s behavior and speech patterns. Banquo is laid back, relaxed, he lopes from here to there looking for the owners of the voices speaking to the pair. Macbeth rather stomps about, as if he could pounce on the ethereal voices prophesying his future. Throughout, Mr. Keen’s Macbeth can barely restrain his pent up energy. And throughout, Ryan Kiggell’s Banquo is calmer, more judicious, and then suspicious.

Banquo’s ghost, when “seen” at all, is so precisely lit that only his head shows, and then two shadows of his head and shoulders radiate out as his bright head looms toward the cowering Macbeth. It’s gorgeous. Throughout, there was fine lighting over an excellent, stripped bare design.

The lack of props didn’t mean the actors didn’t use objects, and herein lies danger. Miming can be annoying, potentially jarring the audience out of the scene – in one instance, after Macbeth’s fit on seeing Banquo’s ghost, the Thanes exited at Lady M’s exhortation – she screams them all away. The now royal couple sits at opposite ends of a long (invisible) dining table and have a perfectly ordinary conversation about death and murder while serving themselves invisible food. What distracted me was Macbeth serving himself from an invisible someone holding a bowl for him. And yet something similar was done in the MacDuff murder scene, in fact in all the scenes of violence – we do not see the perpetrators of the acts of violence, only the reaction of the victims. Therefore there are invisible people on the stage…

…or in Macbeth’s mind.

Once the first murder was done, Mr. Donnellan got Akalaitis fever and opened a black hole to another universe, pulled the vulgar gatekeeper out of it for a loud scene that had nothing to do with anything, then pushed her back to her galaxy far, far away. The gatekeeper’s scene is not funny, ever; just cut it. (My companions loved this scene, by the way.)

Despite the dreaded gatekeeper scene, Mr. Donnellan’s carefully choreographed direction of this finely focused production was fascinating. The ensemble leaned against and held onto the wooden crates, moving them, sitting on them, placing them where they were needed. They were constantly on the fringes of the “private” scenes, impassively watching the Macbeths go mad. All figures commiserated physically with any one character’s triumph or woe with group hugs of black-clad figures stroking the suffering character.

There was little focus on scenes without Macbeth – he, in essence, introduced those scenes: He said what he would do to MacDuff and his people for running off to England, and the scene of the savage murders of Lady MacDuff and the children is enacted as if a dream, an extension of Macbeth’s wishing it so. (Kelly Hotten gave us a striking Lady MacDuff in addition to Lady Macbeth's gentlewoman.) The England scene with MacDuff and Malcolm was the longest without a Macbeth in it, and played a little flatly except for MacDuff’s response to his family’s murders.

Once again, the possibility looms – was it that no one else was ever there, just Macbeth and his fevered brain?

Additions to the play are party songs and a scene of dancing (music by Catherine Jayes). This Lord and Lady Macbeth are not afflicted with coldness in the marriage bed. They embrace, they touch, they hug, they definitely cleave. Once the doctor (well played by David Collings after his extremely likable Duncan is murdered) says he has no art to cure Lady Macbeth, she sits center while her husband, ordering his men about, caresses her face.

Lady Macbeth gazes up at her husband adoringly even after the scream that signals her death. Yet another point toward the idea that all of this is in Macbeth’s mind.
There are some wonderful ideas and exciting scenes in this production. The Macbeths dancing together with the Thanes looking on and applauding is mesmerizing, and is one of the scenes that makes me believe this is one long dream sequence of Macbeth’s madness. Mr. Keen’s choice, though, to say every line so differently from everyone else in the world to the extent that the lines became indecipherable, drained some of the production’s power and energy.

Regarding the thought that this story is all told inside Macbeth’s head:

1) Should this be titled “Macbeth’s Dream?”

2) If it is his dream, perhaps the reason Keen stops, stares, says a few words, stops, glares, etc., etc., etc., is that when one dreams, one might exit from the dream for a moment, rather like nodding off, and then come back into the dream. But if he’s nodding off, there's the danger the audience may as well.

Macbeth” is running another week (to 17 April) at the BAM Harvey Theatre. Go. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer so I can rustle through my box of paperback editions of Shakespeare.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A New York Saturday

Had a fine time yesterday at the New School Arts Festival presentation of “A Checkroom Romance.” It’s a musical with cartooning -- that is Mark Mulcahy’s music with libretto and drawings by Ben Katchor.

The cartoons telling the story were projected onto a screen and carefully timed to the lyrics sung by the wonderful musicians – Mark Mulcahy singing the most characters, the composer’s prerogative; Flora Reed singing the checkroom girl, Lena Basilicia, extremely well along with other characters; keyboards player Ken Maiuri also plays percussion and sings a few characters; and hidden from my view, Dave Trenholm was busy playing the sax, clarinet, and flute, in addition to guitar, so that when playing any of first three, he clearly wasn’t singing. But he did sing on occasion. These people were tight, if not perfect, imaginative, and very funny. As is the off-the-wall story by Katchor.

In this mad story, the main character, Marcus Rule, has a checkroom fetish. He toured the capitals of Europe to visit great checkrooms. He fantasizes about checkrooms. He evicts his young daughter from her bedroom in their New York apartment so it can be converted to a checkroom. Really. The subplots with the checkroom girl and a scam artist addicted to salted peanuts is mad as well, and they come together to create chaos. It’s absurd, it’s a blast. But it’s too funny to be noir.

Now, many a checkroom girl could be found in noir films. They had pouty lips and were part of the story’s mystery – or they were sweet innocents like “Mildred Atkinson” in the great Nicholas Ray film, “In A Lonely Place,” who checked the ubiquitous gentlemen’s hats and explained the story of a bestseller to struggling screenwriter Humphrey Bogart. Lena Basilicia, the checkroom girl in “A Checkroom Romance,” however, is no femme fatale, so I don’t know why this musical was in a so-called “noir” program.

But no matter. I had fun, the rest of the audience had fun, and, in this crazy city that drags the money out of our pockets from the moment we awaken, these two hours of laughing to music were free. Yes, free. In the New School Arts Festival this week, there are movies, readings, and who knows what, all free, listed and described here:

~ Molly Matera, signing off, looking for more free fun.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Not Your Grandmother's "Frankenstein"

Since 2009, the National Theatre has been filming performances of its plays and screening them in moviehouses around the world, while the play continues running in London. This is quite a gift for those of us whose passports are getting moldy.

While this extraordinary “Frankenstein” is on in London, I am in New York. The National Theatre’s broadcast of the play has all sorts of juicy extras. Emma Freud introduced the play and an excerpt from a National Theatre documentary on the making of the production. Called “Creating Frankenstein,” the excerpt whets the appetite for the full documentary.

Seeing a play on film is not the same as seeing it live, but the National has done this very well. The play is not performed on a proscenium stage but a thrust, and the film does not merely shoot the stage from the audience point of view. We are up in the flies, among the extraordinary web of lights looking down on the characters, we are house left, house right, we are close up, we are removed, but only so much.

The play opens with a membrane stretched across a frame -- a canvas? We see a figure, perhaps a child. Then the extraordinary series of chandeliers flash and the body moves. It is alive, moving forward. The development of the child is explored physically, from lifting the head, to flopping about, to crawling, to trying ever so hard to balance, to the miracle of standing. The “child” shouts out his pain and glee and he discovers walking, skipping, running. Finally he collapses from his exertion near his incubating membrane. A fully dressed man enters. Touches it. The manchild moves, appalling and frightening his creator. And we’re off.

This “Frankenstein” gives voice to Victor Frankenstein’s experiment, and tells the story largely from the Creature’s point of view. Born alone, rejected by its creator, the Creature wanders into the world, meeting more rejection as people scream running from his horrific looks. He spends a year in and around a mountain cabin where only the blind man does not reject him, and from this man he learns not only speech but reading. He reads Milton, and, just as importantly, he reads Victor Frankenstein’s journal. He learns great philosophies and he learns about this race of which he is a part but separate. It is here in the mountains that the Creature, once again rejected, reveals that flaw that will always keep him apart. He is, after all, still a child, and, despite his articulacy, does not, cannot restrain his viler instincts. The culture he has learned cannot teach and strengthen him to disdain revenge and retribution on those who’ve hurt him. No short measures for him, all he knows how to do is kill. All that learning has taught him to strategize, so once this Creature’s only friend is dead at his own hand, he makes his plan – to demand a “favor” of his creator. Or else. He sets off from the woods and hills around Ingolstadt and makes his way to Geneva.

The director has not merely cast one man as the Creature and one as Victor. No, he cast two, and Benedict Cumberbatch (the new Sherlock Holmes in Masterpiece Mystery’s modern series) and Jonny Lee Miller (“Eli Stone” a few years back, among other things) play both roles, trading off on alternate nights. I didn’t care which combination of actors was in this film, and the performance I saw shows Cumberbatch as Victor and Miller as the Creature. I now yearn to see the alternate version, partly because of the bits of the documentary shown in which the two men talked about preparing for the role of the Creature. Were I in London, I’d book a ticket for the next performance opposite to the one I’ve just seen.

This is not to say I didn’t like the actors in these roles. I’m just fascinated at the idea of watching them switch back and forth between creator and created, between overweening man brought down by his own hubris and the “lesser” being that brings him down. Really interesting to watch these two guys work. In their first meeting, the Creature is frighteningly alive, full grown, horribly scarred, but inarticulate. By their second meeting, the Creature has become well read, and he quotes Milton to Victor. Victor says, amazed, “You’ve read Paradise Lost?” The Creature responds, “I liked it.”

The production has an interesting, warm, strong Elizabeth (Victor’s fiancée) in Naomie Harris. Victor’s father, the magistrate, is a tad over the top as played by George Harris in a classical style. Victor’s younger brother William, a very deliberate victim of the Creature in his quest for Victor’s attention, is rather stiffly played in this performance by Jared Richard (three young boys play William on different nights). The mountain family the Creature resides by, the De Lacey’s, are played by a wonderful trio of actors who make this segment in the larger tale a really interesting story in itself: Agatha is well played by Lizzie Winkler – she is so likable, so appreciative of the mysterious gifts that she never questions (but which could only have been provided by the Creature), her husband Felix by Daniel Millar, a solid man of the earth; both of these lovely people disappoint us dreadfully when they immediately react violently against the physical appearance of the Creature, despite his developmental leaps. Finally the blind teacher DeLacey, a sweet, sensitive and giving performance by Karl Johnson. The four seasons the Creature passes with DeLacey, hiding from all others, are the only good he experiences. And he doesn’t behave at all well when fear and hate overpower the good old man’s kind intentions. The Creature’s revenge is swift and final, showing us who he will become when his will is thwarted.

Back at the Frankenstein estate, we see a delightful actress we saw early on as a prostitute, but here she is Elizabeth’s maid, Clarice. Ella Smith steps out from the ensemble in these two characters and does right by both of them. The entire ensemble is fabulous, playing a train and the citizens around the tracks in town, hobos, Scottish fishermen, estate workers, things and people, whatever’s needed. A terrific group of players.

Meanwhile, the rest of the production was imaginative, polished, and inspired: We see fire, we see rain, we see cold, we see good, we see evil. We see causality. All this through the smart and sharp script by Nick Dear and the masterful direction of Danny Boyle, augmented by the broad to highly detailed strokes by scenic designer Mark Tildesley, which worked in brilliant harmony with Bruno Poet’s exhilarating lighting design. All through the work as seen by Dear and Boyle (who’ve been working on this creation for many years), we see the age of science and reason faltering in its very humanity. Victor Frankenstein substitutes electricity for God, and creates a faulty circuit. Had he not deserted the child, could he have taught him well? Could Victor, by taking responsibility for his actions from the get-go, have prevented the death and heartbreak wrought by his neglected child? Who is the monster in this story?

The Creature would like to be called Adam, and he wants an Eve. He dreams of her as being put together from mismatching pieces, just like him, someone who would not reject him. This dream Eve is played with balletic grace by Andreea Padurariu. We see her again later, when the Creature has made his pact with his creator: He and his bride will leave for South America if only Victor will make him that mate. Victor travels first to England, then the northern islands of Scotland to meet the Creature’s demands.The bride is clearly a step up in Victor’s work – not yet animated, but movable, she is not as hideously scarred as the Creature. Victor learned from his technical mistakes. Addlepated by whatever he was drinking, not to mention his gruesome practices, Victor converses with his dead brother William, who questions the wisdom of creating two such beings, asking will they reproduce, and therefore what race of monsters will Victor bring into the world this time?

The showdown between Creature and creator sets up the rest of the story. When Victor shows a lick of sense and destroys the not-quite-living “Eve,” the Creature demands vengeance. Victor knows this, knows the Creature will follow him back to Geneva. Either he mistakenly believes the Creature’s vengeance will be simple, demanding Victor’s own death, or he uses his new wife Elizabeth as bait for the Creature. In either case, Victor underestimates his creation. As Elizabeth awaits her husband on her wedding night, the Creature breaks in, woos away any reserve she had, conversing with her as a civilized man, and she, open-hearted, agrees to speak to Victor on his behalf. The audience, too, is lulled into complacency here, until the Creature quietly says he’s learned all about man, including the one thing that nothing except man does. He’s learned to lie. He rapes Elizabeth as she screams for Victor, who shows up in time to see the deed and Elizabeth’s death, but for some reason is unable to shoot the monster his Creature has become.

Finally the Creature leads Victor to hell. Otherwise known as the vast expanse of lifeless ice that is the Arctic Circle. In the book, we see Frankenstein die, we see the Creature mourn him, then build his own funeral pyre. Here the Creature cradles the seemingly dead Victor, but Victor revives, his fur-clad body writhing in much the same way the Creature’s had as he learned to move, crawl, and stand. The two walk into the white light of the ice, Creature and creator continuing the journey until death.

It’s a rather gorgeous production, and I’d love to be able to fly over to London on a whim to see it live in person instead of live on film. As it is, this well-filmed live performance was a treat. Theatres where the National’s program is available are shown on their website, I hope it’s coming soon to a theatre near you.

~ Molly Matera, signing off but not turning off the computer -- the National’s online programme is a treat, too.