Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Richard Maxwell's Isolde at TFANA

Opening the fall season at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn is the New York City Players’ production of a modern play with a twist on a classical story.  Richard Maxwell thought of his love triangle quite independently of the old “Tristan & Isolde” legend, and “romance” is not the focus in his play, Isolde.  Maxwell’s Isolde is about memory and beauty and art and the need in the human mind and soul for culture and nature.  In question:  Who are we when our memory fails?

The Triangle.  (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)
Richard Maxwell has been hailed as an auteur.  When, during the brief evening performance, I found my interest waning on occasion, it was the director in him I held accountable.  Mr. Maxwell wrote and directed Isolde, and cast his wife as the title character, the sole female.  In the hands of this mediocre actress, I could still hear how very good and sometimes illuminating Maxwell's script was.  Why then were his actors sometimes totally present, sometimes overly stylized, and generally inconsistent?  As a director Mr. Maxwell’s work is uneven, the pacing stodgy. The director did not, in my opinion, do justice to his own tantalizing script that infuses us with high thoughts and emotions, dreams and nightmares.  It’s a fine piece of work that holds the attention during the play and keeps it for hours and days afterward. 

While I cannot claim to have ever championed “experimental” theatre, when stylized experimentation is intermixed with truthful human behavior, so long as the theme is examined and/or the story told, I’ll follow along. However, in this production the stylization was off-putting.  I understand modern marketing theory is all about disturbances and disruption, but with the beguiling material and themes of this play, not to mention Mr. Maxwell’s lyrical script, why distract?  The construction is in place with the chronology of “Tristan & Isolde,” and the script builds on it.

The elements of the spare scenic design enabled the actors to “watch television,” or stare at a lake with no change in the set or furnishings.  Characters sometimes gave the impression that they were in a rather cold home, other times they may have been at an empty building site. Not that their behavior changed, but the lines indicated places we could not see. While I enjoy a Spartan setting, I did not feel grounded.  Perhaps Mr. Maxwell did not want me to be grounded, did not want me to know where I was.  

This off center sensation was supported by the scenic design by Sascha van Riel, which was clever in its elements of disconnected walls and floors that might suggest an unfinished building.  Alternately, it could have brought to mind a deteriorating, disappearing building, like the memories and words in Isolde’s mind. 

The warmest aspect of the scenic design was a large painted drapery, pulled to one side for most of the play, but revealed in full as the characters reverted to actors playing the legendary characters of Isolde, Tristan, King Mark, and…a friend in front of a painted tapestry that put me in mind of a medieval romance as depicted in a Classics Illustrated comic book. 

A hint of the tapestry behind Gary Wilmes as Massimo and Tory Vazquez as Isolde.  (Photo credit:  Gerry Goodstein.)
Elements that make this evening work begin and end with the script.  The characters chosen to discuss the themes in the play make sense:  the dreamy Isolde, an actress, vain, self-centered, losing her memory and therefore terrified; her loving husband Patrick, a building contractor; and Massimo, the award-winning architect who cannot draw a representational rendering of what he wishes to create for Isolde.   

Jim Fletcher as Patrick, the pragmatic and patiently kind husband, sees the architect as any contractor would:  an “artist” with no math, who can’t draw plans anybody else can read.  Yet Patrick has the same needs as the more blatantly “artistic” architect — he too needs music and Shakespeare and art.  This frequently inarticulate character has some of the most beautiful lines and visions in the play when he recalls his discovery, during his very practical business training, of museums, paintings and sculpture, of the theatre, opera and the symphony.  

Jim Fletcher, Brian Mendes, Gary Wilmes, and Tory Vazquez.  (Photo Credit:  Gerry Goodstein)
But Patrick needs concrete representations of the surprise, the joy of the culture humans can create, while Massimo the architect only needs to think and imagine them.  Massimo speaks well, but not actually to other humans.  Like Jim Fletcher, Gary Wilmes as Massimo sometimes takes stage but is uneven, here completely in a moment, there seeming to stumble waiting for a cue.  Where Fletcher seemed more alive when interacting with another person, Wilmes was most vivid when alone. 

Brian Mendes as Patrick’s friend and colleague, “Uncle” Gerry, appeared to be even more down to earth than Patrick.  Mendes’ Gerry was clear and focused, until the overly stylized final scene we could barely see in the dimness — the one objection I had to van Riel’s scenic and lighting design. 

Unfortunately for the audience, all that Patrick and Massimo and even Uncle Gerry see in Isolde may be in the script, but she’s not on the stage.  Tory Vazquez is uninteresting as Isolde, she brings no charm to the role, she is brittle and cold and there was no way of knowing who she once was.  I’ve seen fine actors play characters losing their words and possibly their minds, but they did not make me wonder if the actor was forgetting her lines or if Isolde was forgetting herself.  Ms. Vazquez’s speech and motion were choppy and posed and appeared overly rehearsed.

Isolde is the center of the play.  She is often rude, curt, and eventually responds to non-existent stimuli.  The character made me think of a groundbreaking performance by Joanne Woodward as a woman with Alzheimer’s, a woman we had never seen before when she appeared on our television screens in 1985. Mr. Maxwell’s play is more striking than that “Do You Remember Love?” television movie, but I still recall Ms. Woodward’s performance thirty years later.  Unfortunately Ms. Vazquez is no Joanne Woodward.

Isolde the play and the character bring our fear of dementia to the fore:  Without our memories, who are we?  Did we live?  Do we still?  If Isolde does not remember her husband, does Patrick exist?  Isolde herself says, “I don’t exist.” The themes of the play are important and inherently frightening, but the personification of the fears does not elicit sympathy as played by Ms. Vazquez. 

Isolde ran 85 minutes but felt longer.  This might not have been the case had someone else played the title role. There were moments of bare truth on the stage, moments of beauty. Since this tight-knit cast created the play in 2014, I think this is set where Mr. Maxwell wants it.  Isolde is a very fine script and the production is smart and generally holds the attention.  Despite any flaws I see, do go to TFANA.ORG to get a ticket — the play runs only to September 27th.  Isolde generates conversation, and that’s always a mark of good theatre 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some old poetry or perhaps some Arthurian legends.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Not every Phoenix can rise from the ashes

In the rubble that was post-war Berlin, survivors of the war and the camps wander like ghosts looking for the familiar in places and people.

Phoenix” is noir at its darkest, a story of a missing heir, a treacherous husband, and broken hearts lost in the cracks of a devastating world war.

After her rescue from the concentration camp by friend Lene Winter, Nelly Lenz, her face disfigured by a bullet to the head in Auschwitz, searches for herself.  She doesn’t see herself in the mirror despite excellent work by the plastic surgeon.  Nina Hoss is riveting as Nelly, physically fragile but so strong willed that she survived Auschwitz and continues to search for her past life, particularly for her husband Johnny.  Ms. Hoss makes Nelly complex, lived in, and shattered.  She is broken but determined.  Pre-War Nelly was a singer, she cared about Johnny and music and her jolly pre-war life.  But to the Nazis, she was a Jew. Johnny hid her existence for some time, but then she was discovered.

Or was she?  According to Lene, Johnny turned her in.  We see the divorce papers to show that he saved himself by betraying her. Or was it ever a choice?

Nelly searches night time Berlin for Johnny, finds the wrong people, and a club called Phoenix.  Its neon-lit charcoal gray shows it as a grungy, desperate attempt at recreating 1930s Berlin nightlife.  Two women dress alike and sing old German and American songs.  Nelly finds Johnny, but he denies the name (going now by Johannes) and is sure she is not his wife.  He convinces her to pretend to be Nelly — he will groom her, model her, train her — so as to inherit her family fortune. He’ll split with her, he says.

As Johnny Lenz, Ronald Zehrfeld has a sad, bad boy charm.  While there is no comparison with his wife and her lost family, he too is broken, like the devastated Berlin.  The film is oddly suspenseful, though we cannot help but know how it will turn out.  Nelly comes home from Johnny’s basement room and tells Lene the plan to disguise herself as herself in Johnny’s plan — think “Anastasia.”  Lene tries to argue for their emigration to Israel, but Nelly is adamant that she doesn’t consider herself a Jew and all she wants is her husband.  The next time Nelly goes home, Lene is gone forever.

Lene, the wonderful Nina Kunzendorf, cannot bear to hear the German songs she sang before the Nazis decided to annihilate the German Jews.  And the Polish Jews.  And all the Jews.  She was part of Germany that was and now she cannot bear to hear German songs.  Speak Low, with music by the German ex-pat Kurt Weill (lyrics by Ogden Nash), runs through the film and is set up to be heartbreaking.  Nelly used to sing it, accompanied by her pianist husband Johnny.  Nelly promises to one day sing it again for Lene.  We cannot believe she will, or even can, but eventually she does on the day she acknowledges that Lene was right about Johnny all along.

Christian Petzold directed his own screen play, co-written with Harun Farock, based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le Retour des Cendres), which is also the basis of a 1965 film by J. Lee Thompson, “Return From the Ashes.”

This is a tale of two movies.  Phoenix, made in 2014, which I saw this summer at my local movie house.  The other, Return From the Ashes, was made in 1965, and I watched it on DVD out of curiosity, since it is said to be closer to the original source material.  Two quite different films with the same plot points, based on a French crime thriller by a crime writer, Hugo Monteilhet.  I cannot verify this because I haven’t found the book.

I found Phoenix moving and riveting, but I also found the disparity between two films based on the same book to be fascinating.  Clearly screenwriter Julius Epstein and director J. Lee Thompson were filming a nourish thriller based on the novel when they made Return from the Ashes.  Petzold and Farock, however, had a different story to tell with similar plot elements.  Instead of a French Jew returning to France at the end of the war, as in the film Return From the Ashes, Petzold’s German Jew, who spent a great deal of pre-war time in Paris, returns from Poland to Germany.  There is no romance in Phoenix, there is no philandering.  There is no sex.  Where, in the earlier film, the husband betrays the missing wife with other women, including her own stepdaughter.  But he did not betray his wife to the Nazis as in Phoenix.  Return From the Ashes is just a crime story set at the end of World War II where a woman who survived the camps needs plastic surgery to look like herself when she returns to her unfaithful but beloved husband.  Phoenix tells the story of a woman who can never find herself despite plastic surgery.  Epstein and Thompson flashed back to the past to show how the characters got to where they are.  Petzold does not flash back to the past, for it is too far gone.  Phoenix shows more of the aftereffects of war, which the earlier film — and perhaps the novel — did not.  Both films are interesting, and since they’re really different genres, I could not choose one over the other.  While I am glad to have seen Phoenix at the movie house, both films are available on DVD.

So see both, but be warned:  The 1965 British crime thriller is entertaining but dated in its style (and its trailer is annoying) and a paler shade of gray.  In shades of noir, bear in mind that Phoenix is very much darker and meant more to give us pause than enjoyment.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a different novel by Monteilhet.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Raised From the Sixties

I always remembered the TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. being in black and white.  Apparently that was just because we had a black-and-white television set at the time.  Well now, it’s the wonderful world of color.

Guy Ritchie’s signature style works well in the fashionable 1960s European haunts in his film The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  It’s snazzy, it’s sharp, it’s brisk.  Still clever, still violent.  And surprisingly good, so long as you accept the genre — which is what, you may ask.  It’s not “tongue in cheek” espionage like the original Casino Royale.  It’s not Americanized tongue in cheek like the original TV series that was for adults but American adults so politically childlike.  It’s rather as if Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram couldn’t quite make up their minds whether to do a comedy or an espionage thriller.  They’re leaning quite heavily toward comedy, except when the implied violence goes too far… I mean, sure, they blew up Dr. Watson in the first Sherlock Holmes film in Ritchie’s franchise (and the good doctor should have been dead), so we can see how little Ritchie cares about realism.

Nevertheless, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (in case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) was a lot of fun.  But it’s flawed, and although I’d like to see the franchise with the nuclear acting family continue, some pondering is in order for Ritchie & Wigram.  For now, let’s break this down:

Musically:  From the moment the music started I knew I wanted the soundtrack.

Visuals:  Oliver Scholl's production design and John Mathieson's cinematography are on the mark.  Their visions are in accord, presenting a film fine-tuned to seduce our senses.  We are fooled into believing it all works together.

As to the Story:  Screenplay by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram was fast-moving entertainment.  What does fast-moving mean?  Don’t think.  John Kennedy is president, the Cuban Missile Crisis is past, the Berlin Wall is up and East Germans are shooting their own people who try to get over said Wall.  American agent Napoleon Solo’s backstory seems to be more like Alexander Mundy, the thief turned spy in “It Takes A Thief,” yet another 1960s television program.  But I digress.  Solo is trying to get a cute East German girl mechanic over the Berlin Wall to help the U.S. recapture their asset, the girl’s father, a Nazi scientist who has worked for the U.S. since the end of World War II.  On the other side, Russian agent Illya Kuryakin’s orders are to keep the girl in East Germany.  Guess who wins.  And guess who the best driver is:  the girl!   

Cavill as Napoleon Solo and Alicia Vikander as Gaby
Once in Western Europe, the antagonists are forced to work together for the same goal:  keeping a possible nuclear weapon out of the hands of neo Nazis.  Where in Western Europe?  L’Italia.  Perfetto for spectacular vistas and style.

Cavill as Solo and Debicki as Victoria
Things roll along nicely with betrayals, tantalizing sexual innuendo, shenanigans and silly plot twists.  It’s just when we get to the torture scene that it stumbles off track.  It’s not easy to balance serious subjects and funny style, and Ritchie and co-writer Wigram do well most of the time.  But when Solo is strapped into the comfy chair with the crazy Nazi war criminal, well, he wouldn’t have survived. 

This sequence would have worked on “Archer” because that actually is a cartoon.  This might have looked OK in storyboards or on the panel of a comic book, but once you put it into a colorful spy live-action dramedy, it veers into a different chromatic scale which could work but did not, even when crazy Nazi doctor said the photographic record of this torture would be in Kodachrome instead of black and white.  The whole bit broke the spell, if only for a little while.

The Cast:

  • Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, charming, smooth without being oily, very cool, dapper. Having read the list of potential casting, I am here to say they picked the right guy.
  • Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin grew a foot, and is not the Illya I recall from the television series, but I enjoyed him.  Clearly he’s the deadpan straight man and Cavill the wit, and they play off one another very nicely.
    Cavill as Solo and Hammer as Kuryakin
  • Jared Harris with his strange American accent is comic book tough as CIA guy Sanders, said the same things into Solo’s ear as Misha Kuznetsov as Oleg, Harris’ counterpart in the Soviet Union, was saying to Kuryakin. More fun.
  • Alicia Vikander as Gaby Teller, the East German mechanic who is sought by all as a means of finding her (former Nazi?) scientist father.  Vikander is a wonderful actor, playing for laughs here and achieving them.  She is dressed by men, of course, as is Elizabeth Debicki, in the paper doll cut-out style of the Sixties.  Vikander is Goldie Hawn, while Debicki is wearing Twiggy’s clothes fashioned for Monica Vitti.
  • Elizabeth Debicki is not merely tall and young and lovely as Victoria, the sultry Italian mastermind.  She is elegantly evil, sinuous, sultry, and classily dangerous.  She is the essence of chic, just Napoleon Solo’s type.
    A match made in Mary Quant
  • Luca Calvani is attractive as Victoria’s husband Alexander, an heir to fantastic wealth that cannot have been come by honestly, whom we meet for the first time as a playboy in a racecar.  Shades of Tony Stark, but not as clever.
  • Sylvester Groth as the gross Uncle Rudi is appropriately creepy in a Marvel comic book way.
  • A charming Hugh Grant sneaks in as Alexander Waverly — his spiffy line from the trailer loses its thrust in the film, which is clearly the director’s error, not Grant’s. 

Admit it, Hugh Grant is cuter than Leo  G. Carroll
Absurd events compound upon others, then all ends neatly making us hope the franchise continues as the end implies it will.  Because it was fun. 

And, as is standard with Ritchie films, it isn’t over just because the credits are rolling.  They are fantastic, sketched across a band of red, with 60s style dossiers, black and white snapshots, essentially some back story in pictures.  Terrifically stylish stuff.

Yes, more style than substance, but it is still summer, after all.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch some black-and-white Solo, Kuryakin, and Waverly on MeTV.