Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The only math in Life of Pi is in the CGI

Life of Pi is a gorgeous film, a visual feast — once you get used to the 3D.  I’m glad  the technology exists allowing stories like Life of Pi to be told by great directors like Ang Lee, without harming any animals, but I do wish film publicists and marketers wouldn’t tell me about it.   I prefer not to wonder if the birds and mammals and reptiles in the Patel family zoo in Pondicherry, India, are real or CGI.  As for 3D, I continue to find it distracting. Film is a 2-dimensional art form.  3D is provided by the human mind, which needs no techno-tricks.

As for the story:  The Patel family runs a zoo in India.  Financial realities lead the father to pack up the zoo animals and his family to head for Canada.  This is no luxury liner, the family cannot even get vegetarian meals — just rice.  The zoo animals are stowed below decks and sedated (in an attempt to allay the inevitable seasickness and fear).  When a storm at sea tosses people overboard and sinks the ship, it tossed most thoughts of technology out of my mind.  The storm was magnificent, the zebra swimming, the zebra leaping, all these things known to be CGI captivated me.

Mind you, I cannot help thinking, in the case of Life of Pi, if wondering what’s real and what’s technologically contrived, mayn’t have been, at least partially, the point.  What’s real?  What’s not? Which reality would you choose?

Life of Pi is beautifully filmed (can it even be called that anymore?  Is it not “generated” nowadays?), and Mr. Lee’s collaboration with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and editor Tim Squyres has not only created a work of art, but told a riveting story.  The animals are magnificent and have personalities and roles to play — the Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, Orange Juice the orangutan, the poor zebra, and the hateful hyena.  We come to know the charming Piscine Patel (and the young boy’s story of how he came to call himself Pi is a delight) from early days at the zoo to life on the ship to survival at sea.  The stories this movie told kept me rapt, tethered to that lifeboat with Pi and Richard Parker. Who would care if he was hallucinating by the time he got to the nocturnally toxic island of the meercats.  Meercats!

Pi and Richard Parker’s survival on the ocean, learning to fish, the wonder of the whale, the light, above and beneath the surface of the ocean, all these things enveloped me.  I never questioned that reality.  Only representatives of the shipping company who owned the sunken ship would do so.  I prefer the beautiful story to the brief horrid story Pi tells them. The latter made excellent sense, and casting certain people as certain animals was much more likely than the story the audience witnesses with Pi.  Nevertheless, I prefer the original story.  Giving the audience the opportunity to examine the nature of truth is unusual,   exciting, and telling. 

In addition to the wonderful animals, there were simple, realistic human performances by Suraj Sharma as Pi (Piscine) Patel for most of the film (Pi is also winningly played by Ayush Tandon and Gautam Belur in his childhood), Tabu as Pi’s mother, Adil Hussain as his father, Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi Patel, and finally Gerard Depardieu played the vile ship’s cook to perfection.
Suraj Sharma as Pi, Richard Parker as himself.
Ang Lee’s film of Life of Pi is clever, heartfelt, and a brilliant telling of a thoroughly engaging story, which encourages me to read the original novel by Yann Martel.  Mr. Lee’s specialty as a director is the human heart, which is why his films of Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and now Life of Pi, despite being so extraordinarily different, all work so extremely well. 

~ Molly Matera, looking forward to seeing the film at home:  A good story still works on a smaller screen in 2D 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Much Ado About Something

The something is a breezy production of Much Ado About Nothing by Theatre For a New Audience.  Last winter I saw TFANA’s Arin Arbus-directed production of The Taming of the Shrew  with Maggie Siff as Kate.  This year the same director pairs Maggie Siff as Beatrice with the marvelous Jonathan Cake as Benedick. 

TFANA makes excellent use of the space at the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street.  Again they create multiple playing levels by using the catwalk above the two-stepped stage, plus a tree for climbing and hiding.  As if that weren’t enough, there’s an extra variable level: a swing for Beatrice, Benedick, then both to rise and fall on.  This clever, compact scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez is both warm and practical, as is the lighting design by Donald Holder.  Director Arbus set the play in Italy before World War I, so the men’s costuming is fairly modern while the women are still in the confining clothing of the prewar period, illustrating the difference in levels of social freedom accorded to each sex, which feeds the Don John subplot that casts doubt on Hero’s chastity.  That said, the costuming by Constance Hoffman is less than exciting, but the hair is fabulous.

Any production of Much Ado must find the balance between the light and dark of its two storylines, since the lightness of the primary romance between the juvenile and the ingénue is darkened by the evil machinations of Don John.  Claudio and Hero are such dull creatures that they couldn’t carry a standard romance, so Shakespeare threw in the classical “chaste-maid-falsely-accused” plot to keep it moving.  Unfortunately for a modern audience this plot causes some issues; for instance, we cannot understand why Margaret does not speak up immediately upon recognizing her own actions falsely ascribed to Hero as the bride is falsely accused at the church.  But not to worry.  Beatrice and Benedick elucidate all while falling more deeply in love. 

Cake and Siff are good partners, their sprightly badinage a challenge and a delight to classical actors.  Reluctant lovers Beatrice & Benedick are the ancestors of every good romantic team in theatre and film — think Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in, well, anything.  Maggie Siff is having a fine time as Beatrice, but is not having quite as much fun as Jonathan Cake is having with Benedick — he’s having such a lark that he almost sweats his beard off.  Seeing this production makes me think of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film, that of the spectacularly funny opening credits, and the magical connection between Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson as Benedick and Beatrice.  They were magnificent because of the sparks each created in the other.  Siff and Cake are good, but the magic doesn’t quite happen. 
Photo by Richard Perry (c) 2013 New York Times

I recall that Michelle Beck’s performance as Celia in the Bridge Project’s As You Like It was uneven, and here, too, she sometimes overcomes the character Hero as written, then other times succumbs to the blandness, as most actors do.  Her occasional flashes of anger at her accuser are most welcome.  Matthew Amendt’s Claudio is childishly enthusiastic, then jealous, and his work at the tomb of his bride is moving, but his Claudio has less depth than Ms. Beck’s Hero.

Graham Winton is a vulnerable Don Pedro, and his proposal to Beatrice is quite touching, her rejection even more painful.  John Keating, not unusually, plays two opposite roles and both quite well, the priest and Verges.

Robert Langdon Lloyd does heartfelt work as Leonato, father of Hero. It’s always good to see Peter Maloney, here twice blessed as Leonato’s brother Antonio and the Sexton.  John Christopher Jones’ Dogberry stumbled over the English language with veracity and vigor.

Denis Butkus and Paul Niebanck work well together as Conrade and Borachio respectively, the followers of the villainous Don John, who is played with a quirky intensity by Saxon Palmer.

Kate MacCluggage is quite entertaining as the overly friendly Margaret.  Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as her pal Ursula is rather amateurish — she seems to be playing a stock character, in common with the other tertiary characters such as Balthazar and the Watch.

.  Cake as Benedick and Siff as Beatrice.  Photo (c) 2013 by Gerry Goodstein

The company is charming and energetic and the audience is happy to spend a few hours with them.  Arin Arbus’ leading actors did fine work together, always returning to the witty and swell repartee of Beatrice and Benedick.  This Much Ado About Nothing is a cleverly pleasant evening in the theatre and runs through April 6th.

~ Molly Matera, signing off once I’ve ordered the DVD of the Branagh film.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Where is the Other Place?

KING:     Where is Polonius?
HAMLET : In heaven; send thither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i' the other place yourself.
      - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act IV, Scene 3

Before I arrived at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of The Other Place, I wondered if the title referred to Hamlet’s “other place,” or something else entirely.  Now I think it’s at least both, and maybe many more places. 

Thursday night I saw great theatre.  That must be clear.  Such evenings, such performances are rare indeed.

Laurie Metcalf as Juliana Smithton sits in a chair lit by a square spot on the spartan stage as we enter.  The audience slowly, noisily gets settled.  Strange sounds, like a PA system in an airport, but far, far off, begin to overcome the chattering.  The house lights go down.  Metcalf stirs.

Initially, not knowing what’s going on, Juliana is not particularly likeable.  She’s giving a lecture, she’s giving us snarky asides, she is brash, a bit cruel, insulting, full of herself, and always right.  But we believe what she says, for … why wouldn’t we.  Soon we come to realize she may not be a reliable narrator of her own story.  Still, we’re halfway through the play before we realize that not all the characters we’re meeting are as they seem. 
Zoe Perry and Laurie Metcalf in "The Other Place."  Photo by Joan Marcus. (c) 2012 The Manhattan Theatre Club

This is a magnificent production of Sharr White’s intense play with precise direction by Joe Mantello.  The timing of this piece is clearly defined and spontaneous at once.  From the imaginative and oddly beautiful set (Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce) to the thrillingly emotive lighting design (Justin Townsend), the right costumes (David Zinn) for each of the eight characters played by a company of four at different times in different places, all the way to the video and projection design (William Cusick) that take us from inside the character’s mind to different places in her life.  While speaking of production values, music and sound design by Fitz Patton joined with all the other elements to make this a perfect evening in the theatre.  But this play does not rely on technological brilliance alone. 

The physical behavior of the four actors determine the time of day, the year, the place, and the emotional state of these people — howling in pain, clenched in despair, or just confused — all augmented by the single set with multiple personalities.  We are enthralled. 

Bill Pullman as Ian Smithton.  Photo by Joan Marcus, (c) 2012 Manhattan Theatre Club.
Bill Pullman as Juliana’s long-suffering husband Ian breaks our hearts, as Juliana breaks his.  It is Ian's behavior that tells us who Juliana was, is, leading us gently into the reality of her life.  Ms. Metcalf’s real life daughter Zoe Perry plays three different characters with nothing in common, and without a second of stage time in which one character might be mistaken for another.  John Schiappa also plays a few roles, precisely demarking each one from the others.

And some of the roles these last two play are not entirely … well, real.  Sharr White has created multiple worlds, each one totally believable, but only one true.  These universes and lives are interwoven so expertly, so tightly, that each moment Laurie Metcalf creates is as immediate and real as the last. 

Ms. Metcalf gives us the glamorous to vicious, pathetic to raging woman that is Juliana at different times and places.  She slips sharply into the past, back to the present, into unreality, and we always know that something has changed just by virtue of Ms. Metcalf’s body and face and voice. As we watch this woman and her brilliant mind deteriorate, we forgive her fury.  We forgive her trespasses.  We pray it doesn't happen to us.  We grieve with Juliana as she comes to understand who and where and what she is.

Such performances are rare, as are complementary elements of stagecraft clarifying the questions, the answers, and more questions, with a dash of hope, into a fine piece of theatre.  The Other Place is only playing to March 3rd.  Do not let this play pass you by.  (Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

~ Molly Matera, with images visual and aural as well as lines running through her head six days later.