Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Much Ado About Nothing" in the Whedonverse

Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film of Much Ado About Nothing had one of the wittiest title shots I can recall.  I burst out laughing in the theatre when I first saw it, and it still tickles me.  It’s over the top, as is much of the film.  I like Branagh.  I love Joss Whedon.  I like Kenneth Branagh’s work as an actor better than that of Alexis Denisoff.  And yet, watching Branagh’s delightful Much Ado, his Benedick seemed to be overdoing it a bit — downright broad for film.  This did not diminish my enjoyment of that Much Ado then or now.  Set in a vivid and hot Italian landscape in another century, Branagh’s film was more. exuberant than Whedon’s modern version, which setting required something resembling realism. 

Joss Whedon said in an interview that he felt some of the choices made by characters in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing had to have been made under the influence, which makes sense.  Perhaps therefore everyone in this film is drinking excessively.  While Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado was lush, in Joss Whedon’s film everyone is a lush.

The innocence of a period film’s ingénue and juvenile (Hero and Claudio) cannot be captured in a film set in the 21st century.  That presents a problem, yet not as great a one as the fact of Don Pedro and his followers.  They wear no uniforms, yet they carry guns.  They are not soldiers.  In what wars do civilians in well-cut suits carry guns?  Drug wars?  In the 21st century, must give one pause to wonder if Don Pedro’s a drug lord.  And his brother Don John tried to strike out on his own.  What was “this ended action” (I.i) about?  The scene in which Benedick challenges Claudio is extremely well acted by Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), Claudio (Fran Kranz), and Benedick (Denisoff), but that he was carrying a gun made Benedick a troublesome personage.  It tends to make him look like a hood.  Don Pedro and Benedick and Leonato and Claudio don’t seem like they’d be involved in the illicit drug trade.  This problem and that of Claudio’s churlish behavior at an American 21st century wedding are slight distractions from the pleasures of the film.
Amy Acker as Beatrice and Jillian Morgese as Hero.  (c) 2012 Elsa Guillet-Chapuis & Roadside Attractions

Alexis Denisoff surprised me with his adept use of Shakespeare’s language in a modern setting.  The chemistry between Denisoff and Amy Acker has been well documented in their years together on Whedon’s television series, Angel.  I never had doubts about Acker — I had complete faith she was great casting as Beatrice, and the pairing did not disappoint.  Ms. Acker’s Beatrice is highly intelligent, her wit sharp, her heart aching.  The pair was funny and believable whether fighting or loving. 

Reed Diamond is excellent: straightforward and real as Don Pedro whether serious or comic.  I’ve always liked his work, but this side of him surprised me, quite pleasurably.  Fran Kranz is sweetly hilarious as the foolish Claudio.  The party scene in which Claudio rises from the pool in a snorkeling mask (see poster) only to be misguided by the heads above water belonging to Don John, Borachio and Conrade was incredibly funny and quite possibly the best I’ve seen that scene done.

Sean Maher, whom I would not have envisioned as Don John, was a fine, understated villain and I quite liked his performance.  Clark Gregg was a goodhearted Leonato, struggling with what seems to be (but regrettably probably is not) an outdated character and trying to bring him likeably into the present.
Lenk as Verges and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry.  (c) 2012 Elsa Guillet-Chapuis & Roadside Attractions

I’ve been a fan of Nathan Fillion since Firefly, and am delighted that he took on Dogberry for this film.  He plays the famously mangled lines absolutely straight, so the humor really works.  Dogberry’s ego shines through, and just little touches make the “low” humor parts of the story truly funny.  Clearly, physical comedy need not be violent.

Jillian Morgese was practically a real live girl as the ingénue Hero, filling the blanks of that thankless role with a level of self-confidence in addition to obedience.

Beatrice eavesdrops....
Ashley Johnson as Margaret was excellent, old-fashioned while modern, innocently knowing.  Emma Bates was very good as Ursula, and Riki Lindhome was quite interesting as Conrade, a different sort of companion for Don John.

Dull as dishwater, however, was Spencer Treat Clark as Borachio until the moment he heard Hero was dead, which brought to him a spark of life.  Tom Lenk as Verges was dull and obviously acting.  Romy Rosemont as the Sexton brought some gravitas to the legal proceedings but, more, made us believe she had a life waiting for her when those danged fools stopped talking.

Elsa Guillet-Chapuis as the Photographer was focused and intent on her work, a naturally unnatural part of the proceedings. 

The costume party scene is a sultry modern gas; the world of excess that is in this 21st century Much Ado seems so much more vulgar than the aristocratic excesses of the past.

I keep comparing these two very different films of the same Shakespeare play, but they’re both wonderful and exciting in their very different ways.  Joss Whedon’s film is in a lower key than Kenneth Branagh’s, as it must be since it is set in the present and in a small, intimate, black-and-white film.  (I love black and white.  It seems some how more real to me than color.)  And Whedon’s addition of a silent prologue providing us a glimpse into the back-story of a modern Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship was priceless. 

While the 21st century works just fine for Shakespearean tragedy, somehow this romantic comedy that is the beginning and model for all romantic comedies just didn’t quite work in our time.  Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is a film I’ve been looking forward to for years, and while I enjoyed it, I did not walk out of the theatre whistling, or floating on air.  I never thought I’d say this about a Whedon Shakespeare film, but although I liked it, I did not love it.

~ Molly Matera, recommending the film, while accepting the disappointment of reality.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bucks County Playhouse Premieres New McNally

Last week I was privileged to see the World Premiere of Terrence McNally’s new play, Mothers and Sons, in its limited run at the Bucks County Playhouse. In the 1990s, Mr. McNally wrote a play called Andre’s Mother for PBS’ American Playhouse series (based on a shorter play produced at Manhattan Theatre Club).  Now at the behest of Jed Bernstein, Producing Director of the revived and revitalized Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, McNally has written a beautiful piece of theatre about some who survived the decimation of the 1980s and 1990s along with some who know it as history alone.

Mr. McNally’s play engendered passionate conversations and tears of remembrance as well as gratitude for the enormous social strides that have brought us so far from the “furtive lives” Andre’s mother says he and other homosexuals led back in the day.  In 1993, Andre died from the scourge that is AIDS. 

The lights come up on Tyne Daly at the foot of the stage (and yes, the audience applauded her just for being at work when the lights came up).  She is Andre’s mother, Katherine Gerard, and her son’s lover/caregiver Cal is pointing out the sights of Central Park that are visible from his Upper West Side apartment window.  That they are avoiding something between them is clear from the start, but this is at this moment unknown.  The tension is almost palpable.

Tyne Daly & Manoel Felciano in Mothers and Sons.  (c) 2013 Bucks County Playhouse.  Photo by Mandee Kuenzle
Andre’s mother could never deal with her son’s homosexuality let alone his death, but here she is in 2013 visiting her late son’s former lover and caregiver, Cal Porter, in New York.  Within two years of Andre’s death 20 years before, Cal tells Katherine, other friends had new drugs to allow them to survive — one skiing at that very moment at Park City.  Cal’s anguish is present despite the decades.  Nevertheless, he has moved on, and is now married to Will.  They have a young son named Bud. 

This new world is a shock and a nightmare to Katherine who is so blinded by her past expectations of life and the world that she cannot recognize reality, even in hindsight.  She says her son had not been gay when he left their Dallas home at 18.  No one in the audience knows what she said next, because the laughter that broke out sounded like a sustained bark drowning out the next line.  Katherine would be agitated and confused.  Ms. Daly was not.

Cal and his husband Will are raising a generous little boy who keeps it simple and offers this lonely woman a chance she’ll never otherwise have.  Andre and Cal did not have the opportunity, in their time, to even contemplate fatherhood. Cal’s new partner, 15 years younger, came into a new world that allowed him to always believe he could have a family, always believe that he could have what heterosexuals have.  Cal, on the other hand, is amazed that he’s living the life he now leads. 

Daily, Grayson Taylor, and Felciano.  (c) 2013, Bucks County Playhouse.  Photo by Mandee Kuenzle.
Will seems harsh and angry as he protects his husband against a woman who’d blamed Cal for her son’s death and her own misery.  Yet it takes that outsider, Will, to force the reason for Katherine’s visit out into the open and to actually read Andre’s diary, stinging both Katherine and Cal with Andre’s words after the mother and lover had refused to read them for twenty years.

Tyne Daly is spectacular as Andre’s bereft mother, a woman chewed up from the inside out.  Katherine is not a terribly likeable woman, but Daly makes us feel her pain and see the world through her eyes long enough to forgive.

Manoel Felciano is very fine as Cal Porter, sometimes shattered by his old loss, sometimes rejuvenated by his son and new life.  A lovely and tempered performance.

Bobby Steggert is fierce as Will Ogden, and Grayson Taylor is charmingly blunt as Cal and Will’s son Bud Ogden-Porter.

At the refurbished, wonderful and welcoming Bucks County Playhouse, Wilson Chin designed a warm home setting, and costume design by Jess Goldstein was on the mark as were lighting design (Travis McHale) and sound design (John Gromada).  Sheryl Kaller directed with rhythm and silences and discomfort and truth.

This was a very fine production of an important play, whose powerful emotions reflect on our society then and now for 80 minutes.  I would tell anyone and everyone to go see this play, but its brief initial run is over.  Now it’s time for some producers to pick up Mothers and Sons and give it legs to play NYC and Boston and Chicago and Minneapolis and LA and London and Paris and all the towns in between.  The writing is lean and limber and passionate and smart.  Mr. McNally’s contribution to the growth of the new Bucks County Playhouse can now run off to illuminate the world.

~ Molly Matera, wishing she could have transported the production home with her.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Come Saturday Morning

I'm back from a few perfect days with friends in Pennsylvania (more of that anon, when I sort through my photos of the Solebury/New Hope area and write my review of the wonderful new Terrence McNally play we saw at the Bucks County Playhouse), and now home with my cats.  I will not write about my fury as I drove back to New York.  There is not now nor will there ever be any excuse for it to take an hour to go from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to my part of Queens.  A full hour.  Even the approach to the Bridge wasn’t as bad this time was as the BQE.

Enough of that.  I had my usual grumpy musings about the uselessness of vacations away that were obliterated by returning here.  But this morning, as I sat out back with my coffee before it gets too hot, I saw this:

Those, my friends, are zucchini blossoms.  It's a short-lived flower, and one must be paying attention to the garden (and you all know I'm a benevolently negligent gardener) to see it, let alone eat it.

I pulled out my best cookbook, Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and looked up the simple recipe. 
It's a boy!

 Pastella for dipping...

oil for frying (very quick frying)....  

Et voilà! Naturally, I made a large mess in a very short time, but none of that mattered.
What a lovely breakfast, fresh from my garden!  It’s the only time I’ll have this for breakfast, but how sweet that it wasn’t a Monday when I wouldn’t have had time to sit out back with my coffee, let alone cook them up. 

All this and the hydrangea are blooming too.

~ Molly Matera, signing off of electronic communications devices to read a real book.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Weekend in the 'burbs

Friday night I saw Joss Whedon’s newly released film version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (black and white, modern dress, modern sensibilities…except....) at Lincoln Center.  Saturday I watched the DVD of Kenneth Branagh’s film version from 1993. Branagh also directed Thor (2011), which led me to my DVD of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers from last year.  While I contemplate what to tell you about Whedon’s new film, I thought I’d bring you up to date on the garden.  And the cats.  And the squirrels.

I don’t expect any “squirrel-proof” bird feeder to be proof against New York City squirrels.  Their ways with bird feeders are imaginative as well as intrusive.  The birdfeeder hangs from a tree branch and even has a lid.  Which is no obstacle to a New York squirrel, who just lifts the lid and digs in.

The “small or medium-sized rodent of the family Sciuridae” are tough, fearless, and smarter than I’d thought.  You know those big tins that are given at holidays, usually full of pop corn, sometimes divided into three types?  Well, I like tins and save them.  For cookies, for popcorn, for anything.  My winter scarves and shawls and gloves go in this one.

And for some reason, I decided to use this one outside to hold plastic bags of birdseed.  Guess who’s smart enough to open it.  Greedy little thieves.
Watchful Wilbur and Millie
 The cats have been intent on the visiting birds as well as the resident squirrels who’ve ventured onto the garden shed to stare through the window.  No, of course I don’t let them go out to run off the rodents.  So they wait and they watch, they twitch their hind quarters, and then they nap.

Wilbur is trapped

Chick is rapt

This weekend in the garden:  The hydrangea I planted last summer near my front window is taking well and blossoming.

The crookneck squash plant and the zucchini plant are both doing nicely out back,

Alas, the cucumber is not taking.

Finally, inside, my experiment with organic celery seems to be going well.  I bought the organic celery at Whole Foods a few weeks ago, and then followed the instructions here:  Five days after “planting” the base in water and setting the bowl in the kitchen window, this is what I’ve got.  It seems to be working.  How cool is that!

~ Molly Matera, signing off to enjoy the Sunday papers in my little hideaway.

7th day:  I transferred the celery base into a pot with some nice potting soil.  Watered.  Will water every day and see what happens next.  Tee hee!


Sunday, June 2, 2013

EST Marathon of 1-act plays -- Series B (2 out of 3)

Back to EST for Series B, the second set of One Acts in the Marathon.  The clever and creative production staff at EST has created a mix-and-match playing area, with pillars offering their services as posts or door jambs or windows, transforming the space into different places for different plays.  Kudos to the scenic design by Nick Francone. 
Series B played like this:

Daddy Took My Debt Away (by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Jamie Richards) is a comment on our times, but it’s really just a sketch.  Potentially interesting characters are painted in broad strokes, all well acted by Emma Galvin, David Gelles, and Jonathan Randell Silver.  This begins the feeling that some of these one-acts are meant to be parts of a larger whole.

In The Favor, Leslie Ayvazian’s heartfelt story of Ralph and Ellen at a crisis point, we’ll never know if anyone changes or if the main question is resolved.  It’s a sweet and warm slice of a story, the characters are expertly drawn by writer/director Ayvazian and passionately and thoughtfully acted by Grant Shaud and Janet Zarish.  It’s a charming teaser to a potentially larger whole.

The very funny Grant Shaud and Janet Zarish in The Favor.  Photo courtesy Ensemble Studio Theatre.
Something Like Loneliness is a clever play with an interesting conceit:  We’ve all thought, “if only I could bottle that feeling….” Ryan Dowler wrote a world in which emotional moments can be preserved in Tupperware (or Ziploc) containers. Well directed by Colette Robert, apartment dwellers Dan (Chris Wight) knocks on Mia’s (Jane Pfitsch) door.  He lives upstairs and there’s nothing between her ceiling and his floor.  He hears her, and she him: “I don’t have to turn on NPR in the morning,” she says, “I can just listen to yours.”  These two characters capture moments (the sound of a woman pulling on her jeans in the morning, or of an orgasm) and then use the simple conceit of bartering with their containers to engage and maybe take a chance.  It’s fun yet somehow it seemed a bit cerebral.

Waking Up, by Cori Thomas and directed by Tea Alagić, is an impressive counterpoint between two women separated by continents and oceans, yet not separate at all.  The American woman (Amy Staats) finds a lump in her breast, as does the African woman (Lynnette R. Freeman).  The disparities in their societies and experiences make the women seem different as night and day, and yet, and yet….  they are the same.  Each survives breast cancer, and each ends up with hope because she’s alive.  The performances of Ms. Staats and Ms. Freeman are lovely and powerful.  But….it’s more a vignette than a play.

The second half of the evening gave us a gift by Sharr White.  In A Sunrise in Times Square (a phrase that now brings me a horrifying image because of the power of this play), Madeline and Marky take enormous emotional steps forward.  Claudia Weill directs this intense script in which the set is covered with bric-a-brac that disguises the fear and loneliness of damaged Madeline, played tautly by Julie Fitzpatrick.  Her gentlemen caller is Marky, played with simplicity and truth and heart by Joseph Lyle Taylor.  He is a retired fire fighter who instructs office building workers in the proper safety measures in the event of a fire.  He’s just doing a little favor for nervous Madeline, checking her apartment for safety.  But there’s more.  The plays is funny and heartbreaking, the characters meticulous and raw.  For Madeline and Marky, heart and soul and body and mind take chances, leap forward, and live.  These two characters are fully realized by the writer and the marvelous actors, who take on Marky and Madeline’s risks full throttle.  This was the high point of the evening.

The program closes on an odd note:  Love Song of An Albanian Sous Chef is witty and sexy; the title in particular is clever in that the Chef is truly sous la table.  Finally, though, this is a rather long, if deep and dark, sketch on the subject of seduction by food.  Sex, foreplay, promises, betrayal, and violence in about 15 minutes. Written by Robert Askins and directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, it has sparkling performances by Danielle Slavick, Brian Luna, and Andy Nogasky, supported by quirky puppetry by Mike Smith Rivera as the Food.  Funny as it was, it won’t stay the course.

Through this interesting evening, I wondered what made a play work for me.  On this evening, it seemed "change" played a big part in my assessment, and the lack of change lowered a piece's "rating."  In the first two plays, nobody changed. In the third, two people took steps toward potential change.  In the 4th play, the characters had already undergone change and told us about it.  In the last play, nobody actually changed.  In A Sunrise in Times Square, however, Madeline changed from a frightened reclusive victim of her past to a vibrant, courageous woman looking for a future.  That was truly exciting.

Criteria incorporated or aside, Sharr White's play was the most involving and invigorating to me, and leaves me looking forward to Series C in a couple weeks.

~ Molly Matera,  signing off to enjoy the beautiful day before the storms hit.