Sunday, June 29, 2014

Words and Pictures Fail Us

The under-advertised film Words and Pictures boasts two fine actors on its poster:  Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. It looked vaguely like a love story between two not-young people, a second-time-around sort of love story. 
Juliette Binoche as artist/teacher Delsanto.  (Photo Credit Roadside Attractions)

Both characters are artists and teachers: she a painter teaching fine arts (Honors class), he a writer teaching English (ditto). They share the same very bright high school students.  They share one more thing:  Each of them is broken.  Jack Marcus (Mr. Owen) and Dina Delsanto (Ms. Binoche) spar over the strengths of their art forms – which becomes a “war” between words and pictures.

He needs a war because he is broken by his disease, alcoholism, which is an immediate threat to his job.

Her disease is rheumatoid arthritis, which keeps her from painting as she used to.  She must recreate herself because her body has betrayed her.

Words and Pictures holds no surprises. Any film with an alcoholic as a main character requires that he hit bottom, which he does. The road to true love never did run smooth, and this one had sinkholes. Still we have confidence that the sparks would not be put out by common sense or guilt or anything else.

While I am not a poet, it seemed odd to me that a literature teacher who chastised his students for researching online instead of using books (which have the advantage of turning the pages, so students can come across odd bits of information as they search through the books to fulfill the assignment) would stare at a computer screen attempting to write a poem. I should think he’d prefer pen or pencil on paper for some tactile connection. (Poets out there, feel free to tell me the medium is irrelevant.) A man staring at a computer screen is no more interesting — rather, less — than a man scribbling by hand, reading, and crumpling the paper.  Yes, it’s a clichéd image, but Words and Pictures is a cliché itself. 

Since Dina’s problem is physical, we can be sure she has a friend to look after her.  We meet Dina’s protective sister Sabine, well played by Janet Kidder. Ms. Kidder even looked something like Ms. Binoche, if a bit harder, which was suitable for her role.  Fellow teacher Walt, who, not surprisingly, appears to be Jack’s only friend, is warmly played by Bruce Davison. A bullied student, Emily, as sweetly played by Valerie Tian, goes from fragile and frightened, to crushed, to a blossoming young woman who can help an adult – Dina – move forward.

The scenes of Dina Delsanto struggling to paint when her body could not do what it had in the past were moving and believable.  Her passion continues despite her body’s deterioration.  Dina Delsanto’s paintings were in fact painted by Ms. Binoche, which is the most interesting part of this movie.

I generally do not try to guess outcomes, preferring stories to unfold themselves on their own terms and in their own time. Yet even I knew where this one was headed, how the romance would be derailed, and pretty much how it would be repaired. (By their students, of course.) This is a pleasant film, but it offers no questions, merely easy answers.

Fred Schepisi’s direction improves Gerald DiPego’s script.  Mr. Schepisi provided interesting views of Ms. Binoche working and struggling to overcome her disability, leading step by step through the character’s changing path.  Unfortunately Mr. DePego’s script did not afford similar opportunities for Mr. Owen’s regrettably stock character.  We’ve all seen far too many scenes of people in AA, although Jack did start off wrong:  not with his name and his addiction, but his profession, illustrating his continuing egotism.  Both director and screenwriter have a long track record, yet this appears like an early effort of an inexperienced writer. 

Despite its good cast, these Words and Pictures just don’t tell us a new story.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to find a better film with any of these actors.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Much Ado About Summer Shakespeare

At the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park last Friday, Jack O’Brien’s production of Much Ado About Nothing tripped the light fantastic. Nature cooperated with clear skies and a balmy evening. Only the helicopters interfered.
The home of Leonato.  Photo credit Matt Hennessy
Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing is a delightful play but carries no guarantees. If there’s no chemistry between the romantic leads, Beatrice and Benedick, the play will fall flat. Even if they sparkle, the play can still be brought down by bad timing among the clowns. The most difficult obstacle the play must overcome for a modern audience is the cruel (not to mention unfounded) behavior of Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato toward Hero. This was the downfall of the Joss Whedon film, set in modern times. O’Brien’s production is set in a non-specific (probably late 19th century) past, when rules of behavior were strictly enforced, at least for women. The problem of how to like or respect a Hero who could forgive the idiotic Claudio without appearing to be a dishrag can only be solved by the actor.
Don Pedro masked
Having cast the right Beatrice and Benedick, O’Brien went on to solve problems the play hadn’t had when Shakespeare wrote it: Our 21st century world is a far cry from that of the 16th Century. We wonder how on earth the Prince and Claudio could be outside Hero’s window and mistake Margaret for the young heroine, even though both Imeria Mendes (Hero) and Zoë Winters (Margaret) are petite brunettes?  A lightning storm momentarily distracts us, until we realize it’s part of the production -- an O’Brien solution using the expert lighting design by Jeff Croiter. We wonder how people hear disparate rumors about for whom Don Pedro is wooing Hero, so Mr. O’Brien – in conjunction with dramaturge Dakin Matthews - has Leonato’s slightly dotty brother Antonio overhear only part of the conversation, therefore report it inaccurately. Now we understand perfectly.  Bravo O’Brien and Matthews.

The next problem was solved by the director and actor’s belief in Shakespeare’s world. The portrayal of Hero by Imeria Mendes was the best I have ever, ever seen. As the most innocent and forgiving of Shakespearean ingenues, Hero’s obedience and malleability often come across as foolish, making her seem a born victim. Ms. Mendes’ interpretation shows us a young woman living her faith in her (and Shakespeare’s) belief system. When accusations against her are proven false, Hero’s forgiveness is gracious and righteous. The purity of Imeria Mendes’ Hero makes forgiveness, and therefore hope, possible.

Having seen the fine work of Lily Rabe previously (as Rosalind in As You Like It), I knew she’d make a sharp and sparkling Beatrice. After all, both Beatrice and Rosalind have the verbal wit to best any man.  Ms. Rabe’s elucidation of complex language while getting every laugh available was on point throughout the evening. Hamish Linklater as Benedick was goofy as well as witty, and an excellent foil to Ms. Rabe’s Beatrice. Mr. Linklater is physically and verbally hilarious.  They are a well-matched comedic couple.

John Glover as Leonato was overflowing with emotion, liltingly Italian while precise in his verse; Brian Stokes Mitchell was sophisticated and lusty as Don Pedro. A high point of the play was when he sang along with Balthazar (Steel Burkhardt) on “Sigh No More,” holding that last note of Hey Nonny Nonny for a strong, long and beautiful coda to the joyous interlude.
Imeria Mendes as Hero and Lily Rabe as Beatrice.  Photo Credit Joan Marcus.
The evening’s entertainment began in Italian, the residents of Leonato’s estate sounding warm and light, their musical chatter dancing on the breeze. Geraniums, tomatoes and pepper plants (with a light scent of insect repellant) lent their color and juices to the morning duties of the people dressed in relaxed yet period costumes by Jane Greenwood. In the opening idyllic scenes, we learn that the handsome young man lackadaisically tending to the tomato plants is Borachio (Eric Sheffer Stevens). He’s part of Leonato’s household, and as he is a bit lazy, we know he’d enjoy coming into some easy money. Mr. Stevens’ early, silent character work sets up the plot point that will so affect the fate of the main characters later on.

The gentle movements of characters performing morning chores in the garden and petite villa designed by John Lee Beatty shape and color the world of the play. Each member of the household is revealed at the windows and balconies as they hear the day’s news. Leonato speaks the first English words of the evening as reads Don Pedro’s message that he has won his war and is returning home.

A potential problem of any Shakespeare play is unfunny clowns bogging down the comic scenes. In Much Ado, the clowns are the police. Happily John Pankow is a fine Dogberry, that great mangler of the English language. Pankow plays the Constable of the Watch naturalistically, funny in Italian and English.  With David Manis doubling as a hilariously fragile and pugnacious Antonio as well as the almost intelligent Verges, Dramaturge Matthews’ judicious editing cut Verges and some ineffective dialogue out of two scenes. This allowed Pankow’s Dogberry to drive solo through conversations with the Sexton and then Leonato, thereby keeping those scenes lightly tripping along.
Lily Rabe as Beatrice and Hamish Linklater as Benedick (Photo Credit the Public Theater)
Finally, many a Don John — the bastard brother of Don Pedro, the villain of the piece — is a dull dog, merely angry.  Pedro Pascal’s Don John was lithe and witty and his pleasure at the misery of others closed the first act with a big grin, leaving the audience laughing.

Technical aspects were good but for the level of Lily Rabe’s microphone, which was disconcertingly louder than the rest of the cast’s the night I saw the play. Worthy of mention are the excellent hair and wig design by Tom Watson, movement design by Danny Mefford, and music direction by Nathan Koci.  The whole cast deserves praise, for the only false notes in the evening came from those helicopters.

The sweetly romantic and very funny Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing runs only through July 6th, so take a day off and wait in line for this one.  It’s worth it.
The cast on John Lee Beatty's set (c) 2014 The Public Theater

~ Molly Matera, signing off to listen to some happy Italian singing…

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sound Only Signifying Nothing, or, Theatre for the 1 Percent

As far back as high school, I learned that a good director sits in every section of the house to see what the audience can see and hear.  She or he may then re-stage bits, scenes that are blocked from the view of certain sections of the house. Theatre, after all, is not a solitary art, nor is it meant only for the people in the first five rows.  Theatre does not exist until the audience joins. The audience is the final piece of the ensemble — any good director knows that.

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford may, individually, be good directors.  But as their co-direction of Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory demonstrates, as a team they are not good directors.  They set the scene for the “theatrical experience” to start as soon as tickets were scanned.  Based on their ticketed section numbers, audience members were given wristbands marked with the name of their clan, which groups were to gather before the performance so that all clans would enter the performance space (The Drill Hall of the Armory) together.  Sweet.
We Were MacDuffs.  Photo by Matt Hennessy
Alas, the seating ritual is the best part of the evening.  Walking down the stone path, between vast areas of the Scottish heath that fills the first half of a hall the size of a football field, is a sensory delight, peaty and dense, and thrillingly dark. 

The path ends at the Stonehenge-like formation at one end of the playing area, and there the clan veers left or right to the back stairs and climbs 5-6 flights to get to the seats.  Once there (my clan was seated first or second), we waited and watched for 35 minutes as the rest of the clans were brought in.  That made the play start 20 minutes later than scheduled, and made it clear that exiting the performance space would take a half hour as well. 

The Stonehenge Goalpost.  Photo by Matt Hennessy
Christopher Oram’s set and costume design are without doubt marvelous.  However, by the time most of the audience was seated, we knew that our view of the proceedings would be more than partially obscured (no we did not purchase “partially obscured” or “impaired view” seats).  The muddy central playing area was largely blocked by the row of heads of people in the seats ahead of us, and in the seats ahead of them, and on and on on, rather like the repeating series of Banquo descendants we would try to see later in the play.

From our $90 nosebleed seats, we could see that the goalpost on the far end of the performance space was loaded with candles and a cross and so must be an altar opposite the pre-Christian stone formations.  Clever.  Between these two extremes was a long dirt corridor separating two sets of bleachers, rather like an untended bocce court.  What was clear was that we’d have a hard time seeing anything or anyone between the goalposts.

Reviewers who liked this production presumably sat in the first five rows on either side of the performance area, near the 50-yard line, else how could they have seen all the spiffy staging? The Armory is a fascinating place, but it is not a theatre space.  The producers and directors and designers set it up well to get us into the mood for the Scottish play the way an art gallery might.  For a theatre-goer, the production of the play itself was wanting for all but the 1%.
Things We Could Not See (Photo by Sara Krulwich (c) 2014)
The atmospheric setting was gorgeous, but the action of the play and the players were barely visible to over 75% of the audience.  There was also the tennis match aspect, with characters speaking to one another from the altar end of the stage to the Stonehenge.  I would tilt my head one way and another in order to occasionally see a tiny head between the mass of heads before me.

When you cannot see anything, you listen.  After all, the root of the word audience is not about our eyes.  So we listened.  Listening without seeing is not something most of us are practiced in.  Our culture is not filled with radio plays or fireside chats.  Listening takes work.  And listening reveals a good deal.  And since most of what I did that evening was listen, I will note that the sound design by Christopher Shutt was excellent.
Macbeth was not a clever fellow, he was a brute.  Despite his always brilliant line readings (Mr. Branagh as an actor invariably finds a new way to say an old line and reveal its depths and shadings ̶ that, I believe, is his genius), I did not believe Branagh was Macbeth. Maybe if I could have seen him…. Alex Kingston fared better as his unladylike Lady – her initial ignorant enthusiasm for the thorny path on which she and her husband set out eventually twisted and spiraled out of control for her, physically and mentally.  She, at least, had the good sense to play her most famous scene upon a high platform over the altar so even we peasants in the $90 seats could see her. 
Alex Kingston as Lady MacB.  Duncan dead on the altar....Photo by Sara Krulwich.
While I liked Alexander Vlahos’ Malcolm most of the time, his very difficult and lengthy self-denigration in IViii rang false such that the wise MacDuff engagingly played by Richard Coyle would not have fallen for the subterfuge.  Jimmy Yuill’s Banquo was tough and hard and yet amusing.  Real live human being, that Banquo.

Other highlights in the cast that sounded very good were:
  • Scarlett Strallen as Lady MacDuff
  • Edward Harrison as Lennox
  • John Shrapnel as Duncan

Servants were full of life, the three sisters were weird indeed, with high-pitched voices that were annoyingly fitting.  I hear that they levitated.  That would have been nifty to see.  Alas I could not.
Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm. Photo credit Sara Krulwich
I have seen many performances from the last seat of the last row of the highest balcony of the BAM Harvey Theatre, and while I may have needed binoculars to see facial expressions, I could see the whole stage and all the action of the play or dance program I was attending.  The Armory is not a theatre space.  It treats the audience as necessary evils to fill the seats and pay the bills and bamboozle with minimal views and too few ways out.  The play runs a brisk and correct two hours, but the audience is stuck in the space for closer to three.

This “review” is about the entire theatrical experience of this Macbeth at the Armory, not just the play, mostly because I could not see enough of the production to review it.  For this, Messrs. Branagh and Ashford are not forgiven.

What I can say is this --

  • Setting:  Cool. 
  • Staging:  Impossible to tell since we could not see.
  • Therefore, Direction:  Abysmal.
  • Acting probably good, but actors use their bodies as well as their voices, so as I could not see their bodies, my data is incomplete.

P.S. The following day, my friend Matthew got himself to Central Park at 6:30 in the morning, acquiring FREE seats for a marvelous production of Much Ado About Nothing directed by Jack O’Brien for the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park. (More on that anon.)  Free seats from which we could see the entire play, instead of $90 seats from which we could see Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane, but not much more. 

~ Molly Matera, recommending NO ONE EVER waste time or money going to see an alleged theatre piece at the Park Avenue Armory.