Friday, December 28, 2012

History and Art Make Movie Magic

Since his TV-movie Duel 40 years ago, we’ve known director Steven Spielberg as a master manipulator, but he left his bag of tricks at home for his new film, Lincoln.  Mr. Spielberg directs this film with restraint, his presence subtle; he lets the words and the pictures and the actors tell this sadly joyous story.  Tony Kushner’s script is warm, deep, and utterly brilliant.  Messrs. Spielberg and Kushner worked with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, focusing the film on the last four months of Lincoln’s life, when the most important thing in the world to him was to abolish slavery permanently, through a constitutional amendment.  Passing the amendment before the end of the war was vital, since the Confederate states, once reunited with the Union, would never allow it to stand.  But this is not a documentary.  Lincoln does with history what good films and plays must:  It condenses people, time, events, and cuts to the chase.
Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln.

Lincoln is a work of art.  Its scenes are filmed and lit with a painter’s palette of natural and somber hues, as if a gray gauze lay over the land and the people, inside and out.  Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is beautifully composed and moving.  The enormously talented group of people who put Lincoln together left me awestruck — from the costuming by Joanna Johnston, to the production design by Rick Carter that complements the art direction and set direction and the whole.  John William’s music is discreet and fitting, film editing by Michael Kahn is masterful, casting by Avy Kaufman was piercingly on the mark.

Daniel Day-Lewis was Abraham Lincoln.  He was possessed — in a good way — as if Lincoln had heard this man searching for him, and said, “At last.  Someone who really gets me,” and proceeded to inhabit Mr. Day-Lewis and speak through him for the duration of the film.  I could listen to Daniel Day-Lewis channeling Lincoln via Kushner all day long.
Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.  (C)2012 DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox

Sally Field gave us a Mary Todd Lincoln with whom we could empathize even when Mrs. Lincoln grated. Bruce McGill inhabited a stressed and tough Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The elder statesman of our theatre and film worlds, Hal Holbrook, was a tough old bird, Preston Blair, whose behind-the-scenes machinations for a negotiated peace brought the story to crisis.  
David Straithairn as William Seward.  (c) 2012 DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox

David Strathairn was the wise and restrained Secretary of State, William Seward.  Seward handles the political manipulation that Lincoln doesn’t want to touch, the trading of positions for votes, employing three slightly scurvy wretches gorgeously played by the highly skilled and unexpected instruments of James Spader (in the most delightful impersonation I can recall seeing him take on), Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes.  Fighting the fight on the legislature floor, his sad basset hound face heavily lined beneath a heavy wig, Tommy Lee Jones had a fine time playing irascible and intimidating Thaddeus Stevens.  Jared Harris’ Ulysses S. Grant was subdued and powerful.  Lee Pace is a furious opponent of the amendment as Democrat Fernando Wood of New York, and Michael Stuhlbarg gives a finely tuned performance as George Yeaman, a Kentucky representative torn between what he fears will be the long-term results of passing the amendment, and his certainty that its passage is morally right. 
Tommy Lee Jones as  Thaddeus Stevens.  (c) 2012 DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox.

There are no lackluster performances.  There are no lesser scenes.  This film is gripping from beginning to end.  The night I saw it, the audience applauded as the credits rolled.  Still not a documentary, Lincoln nevertheless is an excellent lesson in how politics works, in how compromise makes change possible.  Yet  the film does not let us forget the horrors of war — the hands-on and hand-to-hand kind.  We see President Lincoln torn between a possibility that he might negotiate a peace, potentially saving thousands of lives, or passing a monumental amendment that would save many thousands more — as well as the American soul.

Lincoln used Euclid’s axiom “Things equal to the same thing are equal” to prove, logically, that all people are equal to one another — this in a late night conversation with young men in his employ.  Not politicians.  Not statesmen.  Just people.  This is the man the film is about, and this the moment that evokes the man…..

The only audience to whom I would not recommend this film are young children.  It was not made to excite with guts and gore.  Its scenes of war evoke horror as they ought.  I cannot emphasize enough how brilliant and serious this film is.  Go see it on a big screen. Then see it again.

It's time for me to go. But I would rather stay,” Lincoln says to his cabinet as he leaves for Ford's Theatre.  We’d rather he’d stayed as well.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, looking for the next showing of Lincoln.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Phantasmagoria

Faust:  A Love Story, a wild and witty production by the Icelandic theatre companies Vesturport Theatre and Reykjavík City Theatre, has two flaws: 
  1. The first act, despite quirky performances, falls a bit flat after the initial set up. 
  2.  The smoke.

Gísli Örn Gardarsson looked at the Faust story and its appearance in literature through the ages and said, we need to rework this for now, and our particular way of doing theatre.  Which includes climbing and leaping and crawling and generally freaking people out.  So Nina Dögg Filippusdottir, Gísli Örn Gardarsson, Carl Grose, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, and Vikingur Kristjansson created a new take on an old tale.  This phantasmagoria of Faust:  A Love Story was grown, wrought of fire and smoke, heat and lust.  This Faust is pedestrian in his desires, but the playing of it is fun.

For those of you who don’t know it, the story is generally one of a disappointed or sad human made a pawn in a contest between God and the Devil.  Think Job, think Crossroad Blues, or even the Aesop Fable of the Sun and the Wind.  What wins the lowly human, kindness or harshness, good or evil?  Promises, promises. The wind blows harshly but cannot dislodge the traveler’s cloak; the sun shines warmly to make the traveler willingly remove his cloak.  Darken your thoughts and see the sad and lonely man at a crossroads — real or virtual — so desperate he makes a deal with a demon for whatever it is he wants, in return for his soul after a period of time.  The Faust story varies, particularly in the ending, between Goethe and Marlowe and the old tales on which they based their works. 

In this acrobatic version, Faust is Johann the retired old actor, whose seemingly glamorous life has left him alone and poor in a nursing home on Christmas Eve.  He never played Faust, and at the bidding of his fellow residents, he begins the tale of Lucifer and God battling or betting over Faust’s soul.  The insensitive male nurse, Valentin (Runar Freyr Gislason), interrupts and sends them all off to bed.  Valentin’s sister, Greta (Unnur Osp Stefansdottir), is a much kinder nurse, and Johann would be happy to go off to bed with her, but he’s an old man and she treats him as such.

The interruption came too late, though, as if speaking the words has brought forth the Devil’s minions to torment and tease Johann.  One elderly resident dies while Johann speaks to him, and miserable Johann wraps Christmas lights around his neck to commit suicide.  Enter — or rather, rise from his wheelchair — Mephistopheles, Mephisto to his chums, wickedly played by Magnus Jonsson.  Let’s not forget the demons Lilith (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) and Asmodeus (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), who join the fun.
Magnus Jonsson as Mephisto

The sets by Axel Johannesson included a transparent fence that appeared to be the windowed wall of a common room in a nursing home, allowing for effective and suspenseful happenings in and out of the common room.  Then the net:  A full-blown circus net, sturdy enough to appear under a trapeze act, was strung from the balcony to the stage of the BAM Harvey Theatre.  Billowing into the orchestra was smoke.  We get it, hellfire would cause smoke, and it’s an interesting visual effect onstage.  Nevertheless, it made members of the audience (including myself) cough and the stink of it remained in the theatre even when it wasn’t floating about.  Lose the smoke.  Keep the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.  And the net.

The daring exploits of the company are a highlight of the evening’s entertainment.  Hell opens up in the trapdoors of the stage, devils climb the walls and leap from the balcony into the net.  It’s startling, it’s funny, and occasionally poignant.  The cast is more than competent and sometimes marvelous — Thorsteinn Gunnarsson as Johann is a sad old man, then a sprightly and menacing demon Asmodeus.  The transformation of Johann into Asmodeus was a marvelous display, with the suddenly young Johann well played by Mr. Haraldsson.  As a young man, Johann starts an affair with his nurse Greta, destroying her innocence in the process.  Count this as among the dark versions of the story.

Alas, it appears this production’s brief run at the BAM Harvey Theatre was the end of a two-year worldwide tour, but keep an eye out for the Vesturport Theatre and Reykjavík City Theatre companies. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read some mythology….

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Friends, Romans, Dutch?

This is not really a review.  I am merely contemplating a production I saw the other week.  A production of three Shakespeare plays, one after another, intertwined.  A long Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  But I’m not reviewing.  Merely musing, if you will. 

My anticipation had waned in the months between ordering tickets for Roman Tragedies and the date to attend.  In fact, I dreaded the advertised 5 ½ hour performance.  Mind you, having survived a 4 ¼ hour opera earlier this season, I felt I could do anything.

Now I know the truth: It is good to be mad, if it’s mad to book tickets for an adapted mash of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies — Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra — being presented with neither reserved seating nor intermissions.  In Dutch.  For those who wonder why I’d see a play in Dutch, it’s simple:  A good silent film still tells a story.  Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and glorious as the verse often is, he was a dramatist, a storyteller, and a good one.  More, consider this:  When the actors speak in a language I don’t understand, I don’t have to suffer anyone mangling the verse.  The story still works and the characters still live.  I can guarantee it works in Japanese, Swedish, Portuguese, French, and now Dutch.

In director Ivo van Hove’s interesting gambit with his company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, news crawls of today’s reality (Israel, Gaza, Hurricane Sandy) combine with crawls of the Volscian War, which appeared below a huge screen showing some part of the onstage action.  Time recorded and broadcast somehow flies faster than time ignored.

The conceit was this.  The company of Dutch actors were in modern dress.  The stage was covered with seating areas you might see in a large lobby of a beige hotel whose guests enjoyed eavesdropping on one another’s conversations.  And the audience was allowed onstage for most of the play, during which time they could lounge in that lobby, wander at will, get a drink from the onstage bar, or access the internet from a work station.  They were encouraged to Tweet to #RomanTragedies during the performance, therefore no phones or cameras were hidden away.  [Note:  This is annoying.  Flashes from the stage should have meaning, not just be a nuisance factor.]  The audience could watch the actors live and watch the actors on the live feed while reading the English subtitles.  Set and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld supported van Hove’s parlor game, and the video design by Tal Yarden was quite good. 

And the crawl: Never forget the crawl.  Clearly van Hove assumed (rightly) that the audience knew nothing of 5th Century BC Rome, or Volscians of any time, let alone that the new Roman Republic’s famed senate only represented the upper classes until the fifth century BC, and then the plebeian tribunes were barely tolerated by the less humble of the upper classes, all of which is rather important to understanding the action of the first play, Coriolanus — well, I don’t know where that sentence started, but suffice to say, the “news” crawl was welcome.

For our amusement, van Hove uses and abuses television and internet news styles.  By providing the barest necessary information in Tweet form along the bottom of the screens all over the stage and in the BAM café, the audience felt no pain at the production’s length and remained tightly focused on the action from the fifth century to 44 all the way to 30 BC.

It’s always odd to read a translation of Shakespeare back into English, but this adaptation is sharp: Large blades were applied to the texts of Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.  Rather unfortunately, by the time the shears got to Antony & Cleopatra, they’d been dulled a bit.

But I digress.  In any case, the news crawls explaining the wars and the politics and the power struggles were enlightening and often hilarious.  When somebody died, the name of the character with years of birth and death were displayed (e.g., Julius Caesar 100 BC - 44 BC), then augmented by startling spoilers, like “180 minutes to the death of Brutus;” or “240 minutes to the death of Cleopatra.” 

Each scene change included a countdown clock, telling the audience they had 4:36 to use the bathroom or down a half pint of a local harvest brew (mediocre).  Tweets that had made their way from the stage to the internet joined the crawl, some of which were quite amusing.

With all these shenanigans going on, perhaps we all laughed a bit more than we ought to have.  These are, after all, Roman tragedies.  The small but excellent cast left us in no doubt of that.  This is a remarkable repertory company production with most of the actors appearing in all three plays in roles of varying prominence. 

For instance, Chris Nietvelt played a television interviewer in Coriolanus (slyly interviewing the Volscian Tullus Aufidius after his defeat by Caius Martius a.k.a. Coriolanus, and later after his storming of Rome with Coriolanus after the latter’s exile — got it?); a fine nervous Casca in Julius Caesar; then she topped off the night with Cleopatra in Antony and.

The only actor I didn’t particularly care for was Roeland Fernhout, whose Cominius in Coriolanus and Thidias in Antony & Cleopatra were unobjectionable in themselves yet too similar in the same evening.  His Brutus in the middle was mostly dull, until he called for his slave Lucius, and answered… himself.  Sweetly.  Is Brutus mad?  Was there a political point to be made by Brutus speaking for or as Lucius?  Am I dense?

The production had, perhaps, three minor flaws: 
  1. The audience onstage, moving freely about, was distracting and sometimes annoying (see earlier note re cameras flashing). 
  2. Microphones in addition to the audience onstage.  I couldn’t tell where Tullus Aufidius was for most of his first scene with Caius Martius because he was surrounded by audience members and the voices of miked actors all come from the same place.  It was the same feeling I’d had years ago when the Delacorte staged Richard III with Mary Alice’s powerful Queen Margaret speaking from behind a crowd of men on her first entrance.  She could have been a ghost, since we could not hear where she was until the men parted and she came through.  Annoying in 1990, miking of actors without compensation in staging by directors is barely forgivable in 2012.
  3. Finally, if the director and translator could shorten Coriolanus and Julius Caesar as much as they did, surely they could have cut 20-30 minutes out of the Antony & Cleopatra. 

A high point was when there was … nothing.  There was no noise beyond the audience shuffling about on the stage.  Television screens showed a pop band performing, but there was no sound.  Cleopatra cried out for music.  Marc Antony finally came out and said “let’s take it back to….” [I could swear he said it in English but cannot be sure.]  Then Cleopatra and Charmian essentially said to hell with the absence of music and started to dance wildly, to which the audience responded with uproarious approval.  Great way to get past a technical glitch. 

The end of Coriolanus, taken as a rebuke against anyone attempting to mess with the Republic of Rome, jumped ahead 400 or so years to blend seamlessly into Julius Caesar.  There are great speeches in this play, family relationships galore, and many ways to confuse an audience. Director van Hove and Adaptor/Translator Tom Kleijn avoided them cleanly. 

Julius Caesar rolled naturally into Antony & Cleopatra with the same actors continuing in the roles of Octavius, Lepidus, and Antony, joined by Chris Nietvelt as Cleopatra.  Here the actors who played larger roles in the first two plays play smaller (still vital) roles in the last play, finishing up with a bang.  A hoot and a holler.  An altogether marvelous evening in the theatre. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the Roman tragedies before she goes back to BAM to see the Trojan Women…in English.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Argo, the Science Fiction Film That Wasn't

Argo is the third Ben Affleck-directed film I’ve seen, and I’m impressed.  I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck the actor.  He’s there and not there; my eye and ear pass him by.  But as a director and writer (don't forget Good Will Hunting) he’s getting my attention.  I’m interested in watching what he’s done, learning his point of view.  Affleck has found his place, behind the camera, and so many wonderful actors are in this film that I think Hollywood and its actors have figured it out.  From the screenplay he wrote and directed based on Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone to The Town to Argo, Affleck has become an actor’s director to watch.

Argo is loosely based on the very real, front-page news of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.  While the Iranian revolutionaries took hostage everyone in the embassy, six Americans slipped out of the compound and found refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (a reserved and realistic performance by the always thoughtful Victor Garber), where they lived (sometimes under the floorboards) for three months.  CIA operative Tony Mendez, a.k.a. Kevin Harkness (played with quiet intensity by the director Ben Affleck) came up with a hare-brained scheme to smuggle them out of the country as a Canadian film crew working on a Hollywood science fiction movie.  This highly unlikely scenario worked — that truth is so often stranger than fiction may be the best part of a good story.

The six hidden escapees became known in the halls of the U.S. government as the “Houseguests.”  Their story is an engrossing one in which the audience can give a damn about everybody. Argo is a riveting two hours.  This level of tension is extraordinary in light of the fact that we already know how it turned out. 

“Harkness” calls on friends in Hollywood to help him set up the background for his plan. Alan Arkin is seriously hilarious as Hollywood producer Lester Siegel, who’s still got at the least chutzpah.  John Goodman reminds us what a fine straight man he is as the great make-up artist John Chambers.  These two men use their usually more frivolous professions to fabricate a false reality to cover the CIA story.  The Hollywood scenes of this conspiracy tickle us as the old pros set the P.R. wheels in motion to make the science fiction film “Argo” appear to be a real Hollywood movie.  That the Press believed — and therefore published — that this film within the film was a real movie was essential to the escape plan.  These efforts include a fashion show of a “table reading” of the absurd script with actors in costume and alien make-up to promote the film that would never be made.  A highlight of this was the appearance of Adrienne Barbeau as an oversexed Hollywood has-been cast as a galactic witch.  Inside jokes, yes, but it’s still great stuff.
Goodman as Chambers, Arkin as Siegel, and Affleck as Mendez/Harkness  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures

In contrast, the scenes in Washington, DC, are frustrating and infuriating, showing us men who all look alike repeating tired old ideas, plans that were used thirty years before.  The “suits” were as we expected them to be:  short sighted bureaucrats that almost derail the mission.  Bryan Cranston is Affleck’s supportive boss Jack O’Donnell.  He growls, he reins himself in to play the politics, until he cannot stop himself from blasting the desk jockeys when they make the wrong call.  All the DC characters are played by experienced and recognizable actors, from a tired-looking Kyle Chandler, to Bob Gunton and Philip Baker Hall, Keith Szarabajka and Zeljko Ivanek, and more.  While each one has only snippets of scenes to play — Mr. Affleck may have expected the American public to remember who those politicos were, which is a naive error — the actors are good enough to be spot on without any background provided for the audience.
Bryan Cranston as Jack O'Donnell  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures.

In the nail-biting scenes set in Iran, the actors cast as the Houseguests appeared remarkably similar to the actual people, only partly due to the ministrations of an expert hair and make-up crew.  Even better, the acting was so intense and realistic they could have been those people.  With straightforward characterizations, they created living people in a crisis situation — warts and all.  Kudos to (clockwise from the bottom front): 

-         Christopher Denham as Mark Lijek
-         Kerry Bishé as Kathy Stafford 
-         Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford
-         Tate Donovan as Bob Anders
-         Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz
-         Clea DuVall as Cora Lijek

The Houseguests.  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures.
 As Ambassador Taylor’s courageous and gracious wife Pat, Page Leong allowed us to see her fear of discovery under a graceful diplomatic facade.  As the ambassador’s maid, Sahar, Sheila Vand showed quiet strength and compassion.

Editor William Goldenberg and director Affleck kept the screenplay by Chris Terrio (based on an article by Joshuah Bearman) terse and tight. Every objection of the “houseguests” themselves, each procrastination, every hold-up in Washington or the airport, induced an internal scream.  I’d long since finished my popcorn before the last 15 minutes and found myself twisting and crushing the bag that had held it. By the end I bit onto the crumpled paper bag as if to keep from crying out when…well I wouldn’t want to throw in a spoiler.

Reports on this secret mission (declassified in 1997) are doubtless thousands of pages long.  It takes skill to tell the story as briskly as Argo does in less than two hours.  For all that, it is a movie, not a documentary.  Those who point out shortcuts and inaccuracies are missing the point.  I recommend this film for its sharp story-telling, its fine acting (including by those who never speak a word) and editing. Though home screens these days are two or three times the size of those sets on which some of us watched “Nightline” reports about the hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, the truly big screens remain the best place to see this one.  Go to the movies and have a good time. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to plan my next escape ….

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Creaky Heiress

My friend Matthew said it best after a torturous first act: “Creaky, isn’t it?”  The play The Heiress is as rusty as the Tin Man, and that’s not just because it takes place (allegedly) in 1850.  The more I think about what went wrong and what went reasonably well in this production of The Heiress, the more it seems I must take the director Moisés Kaufman to task. 

By the end of the second act we were admiring of the play’s structure, in which the daughter becomes her father.  It unfortunately takes a long time for this production to get there.  The play (as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay based on it back in 1949, and a Burt Lancaster film I’m fond of, Trapeze) was written by the husband and wife playwriting team of Ruth and Augustus Goetz, and based on the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James.  Not a bad pedigree.  

The scenic design by Derek McLane created a performance space that can be appreciated from the steeply raked mezzanine as well as the orchestra, and it’s gorgeous as well as functional. The tastefully appointed living room of the Washington Square townhouse was lush, and atmospherically lit by David Lander with a discreet sound design by Leon Rothenberg.  Albert Wolsky’s costumes are period, and the actors wear them with grace and naturalness.  In fact one of the problems of the production may be the naturalistic style in which it’s played, when it’s clearly a creaky old melodrama.  Mr. Kaufman staged the play well, but his direction of his actors and the styles of the play were questionable.

In the first act, Jessica Chastain played Catherine Sloper, in an early scene with her Aunt Penniman (the stalwart Judith Ivey), as a shy but sweet and fairly normal young woman.  For the rest of the first act, she played her as Temple Grandin.   Her voice was more in line with her intentions in the second act, but I felt she has vocal work to do to return to the theatre — while not grating on film, her voice is unnatural onstage.  On the other hand, Ms. Chastain’s physical choices made sense.  She could show grace in a practiced if old-fashioned movement like a deep curtsy; she was appropriately less than graceful in her shyness and bouncing about, and later despair.  But whenever she spoke, I wanted to just read the script and cut her out of it. Where Ms. Chastain’s Catherine ends up in the second act is fabulous, but where did that woman come from?  Intellectually she came from the images of her held by the most important men in her life, her father and Morris Townsend.  But I didn’t see that progression in her, I just know it because the play’s structure showed me.  

David Strathairn, whom I will see do anything, struck me as more of the decade before World War I than the decade before the Civil War, and was a rather soft variation on Dr. Austin Sloper.  He was well mannered while insensitive.  His daughter has minimal social skills because he hasn’t many.  He only knows how to be polite — his kindness is restricted to his medical practice. 

Judith Ivey is (Aunt) Lavinia Penniman.  Dr. Sloper’s widowed sister, married for many years to a Reverend, is an absurd romantic with a practical streak, and Ms. Ivey’s portrayal is an utter delight.  It is she, rather than Catherine, that Mr. Townsend romances so very well, and her scenes with Morris are a pleasure — she knows what he’s doing but enjoys him too much to be concerned.  After all, every man has some flaw.  The audience would know neither Catherine nor Austin Sloper were it not for Lavinia’s incessant chatter that annoys them enough for them to show us their true colors.

My favorite performance is a tie between Ms. Ivey and Caitlin O’Connell, who played the doctor’s other sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Almond.  We meet “Aunt” Liz at the same time as we meet her daughter — Catherine’s cousin — Marian Almond (played with a warm and lively manner by Molly Camp), who is engaged to marry Arthur Townsend (a dull fellow well played by Kieran Campion).  Ms. O’Connell’s Liz is warm, clever, practical, yet still shares some of her giggly sister Lavinia’s everlasting hope.  

The Almonds bring along Arthur’s cousin several times removed, Morris Townsend, just back from Europe where he learned to love fine things.  The Sloper house is fine in itself and filled with beautiful things, consumable and not.  This handsome young man was played by Dan Stevens, who sounded like good casting for the role.  However, he had better chemistry with Ms. Ivey than with Ms. Chastain, so at no time could the audience feel this was a romance thwarted.  We always knew Dr. Sloper was right about that fellow.  While Mr. Stevens’ work on Downton Abbey lead us to believe he could handle old-fashioned, formal language, Morris Townsend’s words sounded stiff.  

Virginia Kull did good work as Maria, the Slopers’ loyal maid, with true affection for the members of the household she serves.  We didn’t see Ben Livingston, we just heard him as the voice of the coachman from across the square; yet we appreciated his fine work as we heard his despair when his needs were not met.  

Dee Nelson brought hope onto the stage then left it behind as Morris’ widowed sister, Mrs. Montgomery.  Her affection for her brother is not blind, and while she starts the scene with anticipation of a good match for him, she sees the bleaker future when she meets Catherine.  

This scene in particular makes Dr. Sloper seem much crueler than Mr. Strathairn plays him.  Clearly Mr. Strathairn sees Dr. Sloper as a man who cannot be less than honest, although he is unfailingly polite.  What he sees as flaws in his daughter are the shields she has created to protect herself from his cold gaze.  

The problems of this production are fourfold. 
  1. The play creaks with stiff language despite a solid structure.  Melodrama doesn’t play awfully well in this century, especially when more than half the cast are playing it naturalistically.
  2. Dr. Sloper was rather too soft.
  3. Ms. Chastain ‘s choices, while consistent, seemed to imply that Catherine Sloper’s personality issues were mental instead of emotional, so her transformation in the second act did not follow.
  4. There was no chemistry between Ms. Chastain’s Catherine Sloper and Mr. Stevens’ Morris Townsend.  There can be no heartbreak — for Catherine alone, of course — without love.
This The Heiress had far more laughs and chuckles than I would have expected.  I enjoyed several performances and recognized the quality of the play, but wondered what the production with Cherry Jones several years ago might have looked like.

~ Molly Matera, signing off and sighing in disappointment.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Steppenwolf's Scathing Revival

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, playing at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, is scintillating, surprising, and still vicious after all these years.  At the conclusion of the three-hour performance by four remarkable actors of this searing play that Albee wrote fifty (!!) years ago, the ending was a bit of a let down.  And I thought, how sad is that.  Not for the play.  For me.  For American society.  For humanity.  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I am.

Even the play's poster is clever.
Fifty years ago:  1962.  Witness to the last days of formality in public spaces, in clothing and behavior.  In 1962, we hadn’t experienced the assassinations of President Kennedy or Dr. King.  Nor had we seen a man walk on the moon.  And that’s only the rest of the decade of the play.  Certainly people did not have massive television sets in every room of their homes. 

1962:  George and Martha’s house, the living room.  The kitchen is off right, where there is clearly a back stairs because people go to the kitchen and end up coming down the stairs stage left into the living room from the bedrooms up above.  There is no television set in the living room.  Probably not in the whole house.  George and Martha don’t sit and get lost in the fictional problems of good-looking, polite characters on TV.  What need have they for such things when they can make their own soap opera/melodrama into sick sitcom.

The other thing that George and Martha — not to mention the audience — could never have imagined in 1962:  Jerry Springer.  Jerry Springer’s show was not the first nor will it be the last on which people abuse one another physically and verbally — to extraordinary heights of ignorance and nastiness — on national, and perhaps international television.  The aftermath of that television genre engenders the only potential weakness of the play:  the 21st century audience.

Are we so inured to the cruelty, the depravity and vulgarity of people playing out their wicked fantasies in public that the realization of what George and Martha have been doing for three hours is no longer shocking?  I know it was a shock when I first read the play close to 40 years ago, it was astounding.  I very much doubt I understood what was going on when I first saw the Burton/Taylor film.

By the way, Burton and Taylor did not, could not hold a candle to Tracy Letts and Amy Morton.  Some will consider that sacrilege.  They’re wrong.  Film acting is supposed to be a subtler art.  Instead the subtlety of portraying George and Martha, the infamous, iconic venomous American middle-aged married couple, was all on stage at the Booth Theatre.  Amy Morton’s Martha howls with the frustration and fury of disappointment, while Tracy Letts’ George was so sensitive to every nuance, every sound, every silence that I found myself clasping my hands so tightly together that they hurt.

Pam MacKinnon has directed her fine cast in this acerbic, wild, highly literate play like a whirling sculptor, with moments of devastating quiet and more that were exhausting in their vicious speed.  This Steppenwolf Theatre production is irreverently funny, surprisingly heartbreaking, and a wild ride.

Carrie Coon is Honey, academic wife of the new biology professor.  She is a petite, “slim-hipped” actress with a broad voice, almost a foghorn sound, who, according to the program, was also the fight captain.  Ms. Coon, who as Honey crowed, “Violence, violence!” in rapture, until it came and she curled into a ball, is not the fragile creature she appears.  Her Honey is a little mouse who roars — probably because she’s already drunk when she arrives.  I wonder if her voice is always like that or if she chose it to belie her diminutive stature and Honey’s scripted slim-hippedness.

Finally there’s Nick, the new biology professor, played by Madison Dirks.  He smirks.  He’s “baby,” “cutie,” “sweetie,” whatever Martha felt like calling him at the moment.  Sleazy and vulgar under his show of manners, that veneer is peeled back by alcohol.  In an excellently oily performance, Mr. Dirks was truly of this early 1960s era.
Carrie Coon as Honey, Madison Dirks as Nick, Amy Morton as Martha, and Tracy Letts as George.  (c) 2012 Michael Brosilow.

The script of this play actually provides titles for each of its three acts.  Act One is “Fun and Games,” Act Two is “Walpurgisnacht,” and Act Three is “The Exorcism.”  These are fitting titles, and if weren’t 1962, they could have been superscripted over the set.  The script is full of sharp, witty repartee, damaging lines that are now part of the American vernacular.  Think: “humiliate the host,” “hump the hostess,” “get the guests.”  Talk about a Halloween Haunted House.

By the third act, Amy Morton’s fully developed Martha is not drunk anymore, and her steaming rage escapes only weakly here and there, not full force as it had been for two acts, leaving her unprotected from George’s final game.  This act has a different tone.  Martha’s worked all the alcohol out, she’s worn out, and becomes a tad introspective in front of Nick.  Such conversations don’t always ring true, but at the level of exhaustion of the characters — not to mention the audience — we believe her.

The final “game” of the evening is intensely cruel, but inevitable because Martha broke the rules.  These are rather like the first rule of Fight Club.  And we all know that the first rule of Fight Club is “don’t talk about Fight Club.”  Martha talks and talks and talks.  And George cannot allow that to pass.  Mr. Letts’ embodiment of George inspires such empathy that we do not take him to task for his last desperate act.

Brilliant as the acting and directing is, it's all the better with costumes by Nan Cibula-Jerkins, which are precisely right for each character. Scenic Design by Todd Rosenthal and lighting by Allen Lee Hughes are both gorgeous, detailed, leaving some things there unexplained, just there. The room is rich and faded, full and messy, with books everywhere, scattered across the window seat, stacked in the fireplace and piled next to the drinks table.  Heating grates are set in the floor, ashtrays overflow, table lamps give off a beguiling glow.  Next to the front door an evergreen tree is seen through the front window, beyond which we see the glow of dawn as the play ends.  What a long night it’s been.  George and Martha are exhausted.  Nick and Honey are exhausted.  The audience is exhausted, but unlike the characters onstage, the audience is very happy in their exhaustion to have experienced such a powerful production of this shattering play.  Fifty years ago, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was cutting edge and Martha and George’s words sliced like razors.  They still do.

~ Molly Matera, off to get a Scotch to toast to the brilliance of Edward Albee in this exceptional and enduring work.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Wee Hamlet

Last week, the compact traveling production of Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Globe was quite entertaining and unlike any Hamlet I’ve ever seen.  That said, was it Hamlet?  It didn’t feel like Hamlet, although it was certainly Shakespeare.  The language, rapid-fire and musical, was intellectually challenging, and, by virtue of the words themselves and the rhythm of the lines, emotionally fraught.  But were the characters? 

The play opens with song, Laura Forrest-Hay’s music performed by the eight actors who portray all the characters in the script.  Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole co-directed the play with Bill Buckhurst on a tight, clever set by Jonathan Fensom, who also designed the versatile costumes.
Scenic Design Jonathan Fensom, Lighting by Paul Russell.  Photo credit (c) 2012 F. Stop Fitzgerald

The spitfire Hamlet of this production was Michael Benz, a very young man in whom we could see all those things the play says Hamlet was wont to embody — courtier, scholar, etc.  Mr. Benz articulated the brilliance of Hamlet, rather like a teenager whose genius was appreciated before but no longer, not under the reign of the usurper.  This boy is hurt, rather frightened, and still responds with immaturity to much that occurs around him.  Which comes off quite funny.  The lines of the play have always shown us that, but Mr. Benz gave us more of the young man’s brash uncertainty than the older actors to whom we are accustomed.  This Hamlet was a stranger in a familiar land.

Tom Lawrence played the grounded best friend, Horatio, with warmth and humor, and lent life and reality to his other charges, Reynaldo and the Norwegian Captain.

Peter Bray gave equal weight to his portrayals of Rosencrantz, Osric (witty and swell), and Marcellus, although his Fortinbras was not as well defined. 

Matthew Romain plays a fine fiddle, a sensitive and loving Laertes, and a Guildenstern with some depth.
Benz, Bray, and Romain, Miranda Foster in the background.  (c) 2012 Fiona Moorehead.

Christopher Saul was grave as both Polonius, who didn’t talk nearly as much as usual, and the Gravedigger in a greatly shortened scene.

Dickon Tyrrell did good work as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the usurping Uncle Claudius, his characters clearly differentiated.  While his lively First Player and Player King were quite delightful, playing all those roles did require some suspension of disbelief from the audience, particularly during the cleverly curtained scene changes surrounding the play within the play.

Miranda Foster played Gertrude rather as a fishwife, braying her tears and fears.  Mind you, in this shortened version of the play (I wish I could see the actual script), Gertrude did seem to have been given short shrift.

Carlyss Peer played Ophelia as a country girl, strong, not too bright, which was fine in the first half, but not so much in the second.  Her mad scenes did not come off as a girl deranged by loss but rather as acting exercises.
Hamlet and Ophelia.  (c) 2012 Fiona Moorehead.

Sometimes, despite the skill of these players, it almost seemed like a production of youngsters, perhaps because most of the players seemed to be physically slight in comparison to the blatant adult males — Saul’s Polonius/Gravedigger and Tyrrell’s Claudius/Ghost, both men much taller than the other players.  Must give us pause.

While the set was fabulous and imaginative, the upper portion was barely used — primarily when Hamlet “hid” Polonius’ corpse and when he returned from his sojourn with the pirates and tells Horatio the tale.  Unfortunately at the time they were upstage of the people clearing the stage (rhythmically, artistically) of the graveyard scene, so it was easy to miss what Hamlet had to say about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Polonius, Claudius, Hamlet, and Gertrude.  (c) 2012 Fiona Moorehead.

The humor in the play was at the forefront here — perhaps that has to do with speed — and the musical opening, interludes, and closing were jolly.  And, of course, there was time for them since you cannot tell me that the text workers (they’re not called dramaturgs in the program) didn’t cut quite large swathes out of the script.  The play wasn’t a mere 2 hours 40 minutes just because Hamlet spoke so fast.  It’s been cut and cut and cut, and while the result was not precisely a new play, it’s a different version.

Back to my earlier question:  Was it Hamlet?  It was not a tragedy, nor was it emotionally engaging.  Well, it was a “Wee Hamlet.” All in all, a flawed but enjoyable afternoon at the theatre.  While the New York run has ended, the production also plays Boston and the West Coast. See it if you have the opportunity.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play.  The long version.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Everyman Will Not Conform ... Will He?

The Theatre de la Ville (Paris)’s production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros played for three nights at the BAM Opera House last week. In Rhinoceros, Ionesco’s main character — a sad sack hung over Everyman named Bérenger — watches his fellow villagers one by one become mindless, soulless beasts, of their own free will.  Tomes have been written about the meanings of this allegorical staple of the absurdist theatre.  This production won’t help you understand them.

Somehow it’s much easier to watch French film than French theatre — the superscript changer had trouble keeping up with the very brisk French being spoken and, all too often, shouted onstage.  Director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota had his entire cast at the same level — loud — from beginning to end, so there wasn’t much of a big deal, aurally, as they became rhinoceroses. 

The first act was just flat — I seriously thought the director had no depth perception — barely introducing Ionesco’s main character, Bérenger as played sweetly but dully by Serge Maggiani, before the shouting began.  Bérenger’s friend, Jean, as played by Hugues Quester, was an annoying Johnny One Note.  An intervention that consists merely of denigrating the subject — Bérenger — is not interesting theatre.  When the actors and designers let us know something rather large, heavy, and unusual was running by, it could as easily have been a tank as a rhinoceros.   
Rhinoceros runs wild in the streets.  (c) 2012 Jean Louis Fernandez

The second act had some fun contributions from the scenic designer (Yves Collet), and that helped the actors engage since they were physically discombobulated by floors rising (shades of Titanic).  As humans slowly changed to rhinoceroses, their physical interpretations of the change were quite interesting, starting with the loud Jean.  Unfortunately his standard bellow did not help the audience to know when his transformation was beginning.  Still, it’s an effective scene, with Bérenger doing his best to distance himself from his frightening friend.  Bit by bit, the entire village turns, although we only witness two more:  Bérenger’s colleague (and rival in love) Dudard (Philippe Demarle) and his dreamgirl Daisy (Céline Carrère), who both make the transformation from human to rhinoceros appear more lightening than weighty, as if the simplicity of following indiscriminately is communicated to their bodies as well as their minds. 
Serge Maggiani as Berenger and Celine Carrere as Daisy.  (c) 2012 Jean Louis Fernandez.

The closing moments of the play are quite effective, when Bérenger is truly alone and determined not to join the pack of his lazy-minded compatriots, without showing a definitive resolution.  But the director’s best idea was not from the play.  The evening began when Serge Maggiani spoke a prelude in front of the curtain that was an excerpt from Ionesco’s only novel, The Hermit.  This was a really good idea, featuring similar themes to those that would follow in Rhinoceros.  However….the rest of the production let us down.  I’m sticking with the late actor/director/teacher Herbert Berghof’s “golden words” on this one.  That is, if you shout, you’d better have a damned good reason. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play.  En anglais, s’il vous plaît.