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    Now that my tree is bare, one of the interesting things to notice is how the tree trunk I could not see before has, over two decades, leaned outward, toward the southeast.  Interesting, but I'd still rather the tree was covered by its healthy branches.

    My back garden is in dire need of weeding.  I charged the weed whacker yesterday, but that’s just what I use as a “lawn” trimmer, out front and back.  Today is not the day for weeding the back garden.  For today, I’ve done quite enough outdoor work on a 90-something-degree day.   

    Yesterday I snipped some Swiss Chard and rinsed it in a little strainer.  I set it on the counter.  This morning the strainer and about 1/10 of the Swiss Chard leaves were on the floor.   What strange cats I have, eating all that Swiss Chard.  The three are lying around in today’s heat.  After working out front, my shorts were wet as well as dirty, so I just dropped them where I stood.  Chick promptly lay down on them and slept.

    What I learned today:  Spruce roots are fairly shallow and spread wide.  That means it’s tough to find places where I can dig enough to plant two 6” pots of New Guinea impatiens.  Therefore, they’re staying in their pots.  The 3” pot I planted in the ground.  And I planted the somewhere-in-between pots of Bandana Lemon Zest Lantana.  The hydrangea is far enough off to dig a goodly hole in a spot that will get morning sun and later shade.  Small now, it’ll grow wide and tall in equal measure and give some shelter to my bedroom window.  My hydrangea out back are about 3 ½ feet wide and tall.
    Stage 1: Hydrangea, New Guinea Impatiens, Lantana and little Artemesia

    The little gray things are another story.  I see them all the time, and I like them, they’re visually interesting.  After searching on the internet for blue-gray frilly foliage, I am reasonably sure they’re artemesia.  I came back inside after planting in the noonday sun (I’m neither an Englishman nor a mad dog — I did, after all, come inside), I’m also reasonably sure I planted them too close together and too close to the front stoop. 
    Stage 2: I don't like red mulch, so I went with dark stuff.  Unfortunately I just got 1 bag when I clearly need 3.

    Next year….assuming as I am that the branches will not be growing back at all, and new growth will take years, next year I’ll get some pretty — and heavy — pots to ring around the tree with overflowing annuals.  The two hoses stretching to the front from out back may not be the best solution, but it’s all I’ve got.  Hey, maybe that slinky, creepy blue garden hose that’s curls up to a foot and then stretches out to 50…...ah, television commercials that look like the product can solve problems.  Will I never learn?

    Back to those roots — and maybe next year I’ll do this — another option would be to set in a root barrier (might be a little corrugated metal fence, might be a ring of cobblestones set deep in the soil), since a little root-snipping and blocking wouldn’t hurt the tree.  It is, after all, over twenty years old.  The only thing that hurts it is when ignoramuses hack off branches.  They won’t grow back.  But there is new growth.  

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to dream of a place where only people who love trees prune them.

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    The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a surprising pleasure.  The main draw, of course, is its exemplary cast, who are introduced in their British habitats precisely in time to leave them.
    Maggie Smith, Ronald Pickup, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, and Judi Dench.  (c) 2011 Fox Searchlight.

    -         Evelyn Greenslade — the delightfully subdued and spectacular Judi Dench— is recently widowed, having some issues with income and outsourced call centers as we all have.  While the remaining men in her life try to solve her problems as they see fit, she decides to give a whole new life a try.

    -         Douglas and Jean Ainslie — Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton— are retiring.  Well, he is.  She is a housewife with dreams of glory.  They’ve entrusted their retirement funds to their daughter, so presently cannot afford to live as Mrs. Ainslie would like to become accustomed.  Listen for her “turning left” dream.  They’re a mismatched pair, him self-effacing, self-sacrificing and kind; her, not so much.  Even when she’s not whining, we brace for a sour note.

    -         Graham Dashwood, a dashing judge — the always welcome Tom Wilkinson — is suddenly of a mind to retire.  Get away from it all, and back to the land of his youth.  And possibly more than just the land and its light and color.

    -         Mrs. Muriel Donnelly is retired, alone, and trapped in a wheelchair.  She is humorless, bigoted, and terrified, and as played by the irresistible Maggie Smith, still likeable.  She cannot get about without a new hip, the waiting list for which is too long in England.  She can get it more quickly and cheaply elsewhere….

    -         Madge Hardcastle — the wittily impish Celia Imrie— is tired of being a live-in babysitter for her married daughter.  She wants life, and sex, and a new husband.  Her adolescent grandchildren understand her better than her own daughter, and off she goes.

    -         Norman Cousins has still got it, he’s certain, he just needs to find someone who wants it.  Ronald Pickup makes this character a 20-something stuck in a 60-something’s body, but his forays into London nightlife are disheartening.  Norman needs a new audience for his old pick-up lines, so he joins these strangers awaiting a flight to a new home for “the elderly and beautiful,” the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

    The journey is hard, the arrival disappointing, despite the optimism and warmth of their host, the proprietor of the hotel, Sonny Kapoor.  The sweet-faced and sincere Dev Patel plays Sonny with just a tad too much enthusiasm.  Sonny is in love with (but can’t say it) the lovely Sunaina (a delicately feisty young woman played by Tena Desae), who works for her brother Jay’s (Sid Makkar) call center. 
    Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Madge (Celia Imrie) arrive at their new home.  (c) 2011 Fox Searchlight

    Sonny Kapoor has a dream:  to resurrect his father’s dream of this ancient hotel in this rundown part of Jaipur, India.  His ruling mantra is “It’ll all work out in the end.  If it hasn’t, it is not yet the end.”  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a disappointment to say the least.  The phones don’t work (although the computer connected to the internet does), and Madge’s room doesn’t even have a door — until she takes over Sonny’s room, so now he’s in a room without a door.  That’s Madge for you.  Madge and Norman look for love separately and keep bumping into each other.  Graham was brought up in India, so he’s looking for his rose-colored memories, perhaps, or perhaps something more.  Evelyn reinvents herself in this new land by getting her very first job — in Sunaina’s brother Jay’s call center of all places.  Douglas Ainslie is enthralled by his surroundings, the smiling faces, the food, the land, the buildings, the history.  Jean Ainslie won’t leave the hotel she hates.  Mrs. Donnelly gets her surgery despite her fears, and settles in, talking to the silent food server.  Real life interferes on occasion in the person of Sonny’s mother (Lillete Dubey), but not too much.  Even the traffic jams are entertaining.
    Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy.  (c) 2011 Fox Searchlight.

    Does all this sound too good to be true?  Sure, but during the film no one cares. 

    The actors are all very fine.  They take a lightweight script by Ol Parker (based on a novel by Deborah Moggach) and make it work. John Madden’s direction is swift without rushing.  The film pronounces its themes clearly:  Love is possible at any age, and retirement — not to mention life — will be what you make of it, money or no money.  And, of course, Sonny’s mantra. 

    Every character (almost) has his or her arc of learning, growing, taking that first terrifying step into another life.  I won’t get specific here and produce spoilers.  Structurally I pronounce The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel sound — that is, the film, not the building!  If something’s amiss, it’s that the film is largely predictable, as is any story that strives for a happy ending.  This is a bit of summery fluff.  If you want no more than a sweet summer fling, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
    Evelyn reinvented.  (c) 2011 Fox Searchlight.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to look for a verandah and an exotic cocktail….

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  • 07/26/12--20:44: Straight Up, Water Back

  • The bar napkins read:   

    Horvendile and I had planned to meet at 7 at the Algonquin.  I arrive at 7, then see his text:  Be at the Blue Bar at 7:15.  Well all right then.  The greeter at the Algonquin lobby wonders, what did we do before cell phones?  I say something like, we agreed ahead of time on a place and time, and kept to it.  Or near it.

    I’ve been thinking about a Rob Roy since 6:15, so I settle in at the Blue Bar and ask for one.  The bartender says, “Sweet or dry?”  “Sweet,” I answer.  We smile.

    The bar itself is not merely blue.  It’s like a mood ring, little chips within it change from rose to yellow to green to blue.  Tiny blue lights shine on white rings around a chandelier, and the back wall is a pale, pale blue that one might expect to turn into a waterfall any moment.  A few minutes go by, and a different bartender says, “Rob Roy?”  Yes, thank you.  I sniff it.  Luscious, warm, tart.  I sip.  Perfection.  My perfectly nice dress is suddenly out of place and I feel underdressed.  Not in comparison to other patrons.  In comparison to my own desire. 

    I’d put on a little make-up before I left the office to compensate for the nice dress I feared was too ordinary.  On the way over, I saw the lipstick stain on my Starbucks cup lid.  When I was a teenager acting the sophisticated lady — onstage only, in school plays — I contemplated that lipstick just would not come off.  Unfortunately I contemplated that aloud, which gave boys ideas.  I eventually learned to keep my mouth shut.  About lipstick, anyway.  Nowadays I’m sure lipstick is made differently, of different stuff, because the color won’t survive a humid stroll across town.

    I work so I can pay for my own drink, thanks.”  This runs through my mind, unreasonably, as no one had offered.  I’d never thought of it when the offers came in the past.  But a Rob Roy in a classy joint costs more than a pint in a dive.

    Olympic soccer is on the silent television.  Soccer is so colorful.  The socks with horizontal stripes, apron-like tunics with vertical stripes, primary colors within teams and opposing them — it all makes me think of Dr. Seuss.

    Yes, even the classy Blue Bar has a television, but its sound is off, and some good old jazz is the undercurrent beneath the chatter.  I text Horvendile:  "This Rob Roy is delicious."  When he arrives, he orders one — dry.  We spend an hour or so, talking of words, soccer, people.  I think, I’m supposed to give him a hug from Elizabeth.  But I don’t want to interrupt.  Eventually the thought flutters out of my mind.  Je suis desolé.

    – Dry or sweet?
    – Sweet. please
    – I’m sure you don’t need it.
    – You certainly don’t.

    The imaginary conversation floats through my head as I carefully grasp the banister on the way down the twisting marble steps to the Ladies’ Room.  They make me think of a building on 105th Street that I haven’t been to in twenty years.  We ladies attending the ladies’ room agree that it was designed by a woman:  The stall doors swing out. 

    Horvendile and I move on, south for him, northeast for me.  It’s an early night, stormy, but no tornadoes despite what the radio says.  The Blue Bar continues on quietly, classic cocktails pleasing those who come and go. 

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, looking up the lyrics of “Long John”

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  • 08/09/12--19:27: Batman's Human Tragedy

  • The “Batman” comic book series tells a dark story, and director Christopher Nolan captures that in his film trilogy, ending with this summer’s final installment, The Dark Knight Rises.  Batman is Greek tragedy, and clearly the brothers Nolan know it.  This film has a sharp and involved screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolanbased on a story by David S. Goyeralong with Christopher, in turn based on Bob Kane’s original characters .
    One of the many posters.  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures.

    The last time, in 2008, we were blown away by a tragic hero fallen, taking the rap for the unexpected villain that District Attorney Harvey Dent evolved into, Two-Face. (To have seen The Dark Knight is not required to enjoy this film, but it’s a terrific movie and you ought to see it in any case.)  Here we are eight (story) years later, the unjustly excoriated Batman is believed to have been driven away, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, and even Wayne Industries has fallen on hard times.  Harvey Dent has taken on new life, but not as Two-Face — rather as a poster boy for a reactionary law-and-order regime.  The Harvey Dent laws would have condemned their namesake to life in prison without hope of parole since the insanity defense is no longer allowed and all prisoners are detained in a prison in the middle of the city. Bruce Wayne is still broken hearted, and Commissioner Gordon is still keeping a dreadful secret for the good of the people.  Or so he believes.
    Tom Hardy -- really! -- as Bane.  (c) 2012 Warner Brothers Pictures.

    A new super-villain has stepped to center stage. Bane is a masked reject of the League of Shadows. Unlike other villains in the series who threaten Gotham, Bane poses a serious physical threat to Batman himself, as well as a criminal threat to the city.  Batman and the comic book series have lots of history, much of which I’ve forgotten, but which Christopher Nolan brought us in the first film of this trilogy, Batman Begins.  The brothers Nolan do their best to bring us up to speed to fully appreciate the story they’re telling, mostly but not entirely succeeding.  For instance, the League of Shadows, which was where Bruce Wayne learned a lot of Batman stuff from Ra’s Al Ghul and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), until the League plotted to wipe out Gotham because of the evil that raged there.  That’s as far as my memory reaches – it is rather vague on the complexities of Bruce Wayne’s past; nonetheless I had no difficulty following the story, the characters, and the plot of The Dark Knight Rises 

    Christian Bale returns as the troubled, repressed and still furious Bruce Wayne, more Howard Hughes in his later years than the powerful playboy he was in his wealthy youth, and the first two films.  Bale is a wonderful actor, whether maniacally evil or dumbly sane, and his Batman is a tragic hero whatever his origins.  Terrific work throughout this trilogy is crowned in this last film.

    The old standbys are here: 
    Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine as Alfred.
    Alfred, the Wayne butler, a handsomely aging Michael Caine.  He cries, we cry.  We knew at the time he shouldn’t tell that lie, even though he was trying to protect Master Bruce from any more pain.  Sometimes parental figures just cannot help themselves.

    The wily Morgan Freeman returns as Mr. Fox, the clever fellow who runs Wayne Industries in the boss’ absence and presence.  Mr. Freeman is a figure of strength and contained power, a good guy we could wish was real.

    Commissioner Gordon, loyal, strong, too honest, is played beautifully by the chameleon Gary Oldman.  Gordon hasn’t lost his touch, immediately spotting the talent and passion of young Officer Blake.
    Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon.

    Through these interwoven stories of people’s hearts and lives, fury and faith, we meet officer and then detective Blake in the person of the wonderful Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Since childhood, he has had the power to hypnotize, and he’s a worthy addition to the canon of memorable characters.  He is fierce and sure and strong and makes me regret this is the end of the trilogy. 

    Catwoman is this time around played with anger and intelligence by Anne Hathaway.  Hathaway’s Selina/Catwoman is flawed, she is exciting, weak and strong, and she helps make the political game believable here.  This Catwoman is one of the poor and powerless, until the roulette wheel of Bane’s plot revolves.  A truly interesting character as recreated by a largely character-driven script (despite all the explosions), brilliantly embodied by Ms. Hathaway. 
    Anne Hathaway as Catwoman.

    The lovely and charming Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a smart, rich businesswoman who’s quite annoyed at business partner Bruce Wayne for holding back a device that could provide unlimited energy to the city, all because he fears it would also be misused as a weapon.  Well, guess what happens.  Guess again.
    Morgan Freeman as Lucius Cos and Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate.

    Bane is a terrifying and dastardly fellow filled with hate — some of it righteous — played by Tom Hardy behind a mask and a beefed up body.  Honestly, I had thought it was a body double, so far was it from the lean body I’ve seen on Hardy in recent films.  Hardy bulking up for the role put me in mind of DeNiro putting on pounds of muscle to play Jake LaMotta, and I hope Mr. Hardy’s career is as solid and long as Mr. DeNiro’s in reward for his gutsy dedication and terrific character work.  There was just one problem with his performance, and that was that although Bane’s mask was appropriately creepy, it also occasionally muffled his words.  This detracted from his all-important storyline. 

    If there’s a flaw in The Dark Knight Rises, it is that of any single unit of a trilogy.  The first was a long time ago (2005, to be precise), and there are moments and characters that, while they work fine on their own in this film, do not have the intended depth if you haven’t seen the first 2/3 (preferably recently).  For instance, Cillian Murphy reappears as Dr. Jonathan Crane, here the Judge in the masterful courtroom scenes.  We met him in the first film, Batman Begins, and his presence here makes good sense if you (1) saw that film and (2) remember it, or (3) if you’re a fan of the comic books, in which case you’ve already accomplished (1) and (2).  For the rest of the audience, powerful as these scenes are, just a little bit is lost. The “trial” scenes were beautifully recreated in the style of starkly detailed comic book panels, showing the devolution of Gotham society to one reminiscent of the French revolution as Gotham goes mad.

    The Dark Knight Rises has all the requisite fights, chases, explosions (really clever ones), and other forms of action.  There are more good performances in roles large and small, but it’s out there on the big screen, and I advise you to go see it.  Christopher Nolan has done a superb job directing the fast-moving script that knows when to slow down, pause, then kick it back up.  The film runs a bit long, but darned if I’d know what to cut.

    I look forward to owning three DVDs to watch in order on a dark and rainy — or snowy — weekend, but the power of the images on a huge screen is undeniable in a film like this.  It is terrifying and disturbing to see chunks of my city blowing up — Gotham is way too familiar and realistic.  This is not a criticism.  In The Dark Knight Rises, there was no attempt to make believe Gotham was part of a comic book, as other interpretations of the great city have done.  If a tad fantastical, that was ourcity — whatever city you live in.  And we all want a Batman to rise to help us help ourselves.

    As for the ending of the film….I leave that up to you.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, wondering if I should see it again at the Imax….

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  • 09/12/12--18:53: Inglorious Summer… Ends

  • Moon over Montauk

    It’s been a weird couple weeks.  Well, month. 

    In August, I learned of three deaths.  Not the usual celebrity deaths of people we don’t actually know and who are way older than my friends and myself.  No.  Closer.  First an old friend, teacher, mentor.  He’d been ill — various — for some time, so the email from his grown children wasn’t a surprise, exactly.  More like, I was due to give Robert a call, and now I’m too late.

    The next day, my friend Horvendile informed me of the death of a newer friend, ill for a shorter period of time.  A lovely man, a man of the theatre and the world.  A mentor to many.  I was glad to have had him in my life, albeit for too short a time. 

    That weekend I learned of my third:  a woman I’d worked with a quarter century ago, when I still worked in juvenile publishing.  She and I shared a room at my first and only science fiction convention, outside Philadelphia, decades ago.  She gave me freelance work reading and reporting on over-the-transom manuscripts.  Josepha had friends throughout the publishing industry, in various genres, and my long-ago memories of her were good ones.  That she’s gone is shocking. 

    That’s how August ended.  I started September by going on vacation to my favorite spot out in Montauk.  Favorite is a silly word — it implies a vast knowledge of spots, people, books, whatever, from which to choose.  I haven’t been so many places that the Atlantic Terrace in Montauk being my favorite for a relaxing, totally laid back vacation is meaningful or measurable.  Nonetheless, it was the right place at the right time for me this year.

    Tuesday, 4 September

    It had rained hard as I drove east on the LIE, visibility distressingly low. My audio-book purchase was validated.  Allyson Ryan’s recording of a charming children’s book (SuddenlySupernatural by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel) was a comfort, if it did pull my attention from the dull road on occasion! The storm lessened to nothing as I turned off the expressway, onto Suffolk 111 south down to Montauk 27. 

    Traffic was light after the Labor Day weekend, and I made good time until I stopped at “Lunch” (a.k.a. Lobster Roll restaurant ) between Amagansett and Montauk and had my first fish meal of vacation.  It’s such a comfortable place, with music of my youth playing not too loud, no one rushing me over my lobster roll and slaw and good fries. 

    I had requested the ocean-facing room with the most light — a window in the wall facing southwest (ish) in addition to the balcony looking out on the ocean.  I could lie on the bed and see a show of seagulls swooping and gliding outside that window, coming in low, then veering south or upward at the last moment.  Missing my cats, at least I could watch the gulls, and listen to their calls outside between poundings of the surf onto the shore.  They would have been fascinated by the roar of the surf — Wilbur would be under the bed, of course, but eventually he’d stand with his hind feet on the dresser and peer out the side window. 

    Wednesday 5 September

    I woke two hours after hitting the snooze.  I heard a cat breathing around me, but no weight rolled onto my head as she settled.  I heard a cat crying outside, then realized it was a child screching as the waves bounded up the shore toward her.  She ran behind her father, who carried another child on his back.  Montauk.

    The ocean was rough, moving inexorably up the shore.  Perhaps that’s why I dreamt of being out there, happily diving through one large wave only to be caught by the next that followed close upon.

    People are in the pool, adults and children, children taken out of school during the first week so they could go on vacation.  Odd.  To me.  The wind was hearty but warm.  The cloud cover was heavy, the outcropping to the southeast a blur.  A patch of sun a quarter mile out on the surface of the sea looked manmade. 

    A young fellow flew a kite, with intensity.  A gull opposite him flapped violently, fighting the wind before it could settle where it chose among its cohorts.  I’d thought for a moment the man was working a kite that looked like a gull landing, so in synch were their actions.

    A boxer pup evaded his human’s camera and watched the kite flyer, who landed his black and red and purple kite precisely.  It was not shaped like a gray gull.  A female in a pink hoodie walked toward the water with the dog running to keep up with her on its stubby little legs.  When she stopped reading her phone, she tried to take a picture.  To the dog, it must have seemed its human was not only looking at him but pointing her toy at him, that toy that takes all her attention away from him, so he walked right to her, spoiling her shot.  Which makes me think of Dashiell, dead 15 years at least, who always did the same thing.  Sweet cat that he was, he’d walk right to me, ruining the focus. 

    When I finally went for a walk to town, I was in the wrong shoes.  My left heel had started bothering me over the weekend — for "bothered," read "hurt.Stretching it hadn’t helped yet.  Nor did Dr. Scholl’s Comfort Fit Orthotic Inserts.  It started to rain on my way back, and I took off my shoes to walk along the shore toward the east.  Ah.  The only time my heel didn’t hurt was when it sank into the sand.

    The fog made the distance fuzzy.  There was a new ridge of sand on the beach; the storms must have been worse out here than in the boroughs.  A spot I walk by each visit, and photograph each visit, was dry, but different.  It’s been wearing down gradually for years, with run-off from storms carving a slope into the beach itself.  It appears to have fallen down aggressively since last time I was here.  That was just 11 months ago.  I must compare the photos. 

    Thursday 6 September

    I walked to the post office to mail my postcards to friends’ children, then couldn’t keep away from Montauk’s tiny bookstore.  With the clear exception of the front bay window, the small space is lined with shelves, from floor to ceiling, back to front.  I always stop by here and always find something I must have, despite the books already in my hotel room (not to mention my home).  I walked back past what used to be Nick’s and is now Sloppy Tuna.  Instead of gourmet meals of Nick’s (which were rich and delicious), simpler fare is now offered there, and I went back in the evening for a light meal and a drink overlooking the sea.  Nicely redone interiors and exterior, great view as the sun sets behind the diners and twilight falls onto the sea — but the food was nothing special. 

    8 September

    On my last night I had a nice meal at Shagwong.  On my last morning, I swam in the pool for half an hour or so before heading home.  Television news said a storm was heading in.  When I stopped in Amagansett at the farmer’s market, my friend called to tell me there were tornado warnings.  The drive home was windy but without precipitation — the tornados touched down on the south shore of Queens, nowhere near me.  Lucky again.

    12 September

    Settling back in to real life.  Back to work, back to laundry, back to cooking and doing my own vacuuming. 

    Last night, I read an article — well, not so much an article as an opinion piece, I suppose — in the New Yorker that basically told me that I, as a woman who is not a mom, am extraneous.  Swell.  There’s a rude gesture I could make to any society that labels me “extraneous.”  My vacation relaxation is now officially gone.  Summer is over.  Moving on to the winter of my discontent, it’s time to immerse myself in the new theatre season so as to avoid my immaterial, inessential inner thoughts.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Extraneously.

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  • 09/22/12--12:23: From Gershwin to Glass

  • Friday to Friday, I saw two musical performances, one 2 ½ hours, one 4 ¼ hours.  Those who know me know I believe most stories can be told within 90 minutes.  OK, The Life and Adventures ofNicholas Nickleby took longer, but that was special.  OK, Shakespeare usually does, but… well, I just think 90 minutes is perfect.

    Nice Work If You Can Get It is a bubble bath, a frothy fuzzy drink, a guilty pleasure.  

    Matthew Broderick (center) as Jimmy Winter with the cast of "Nice Work."

    In the last several months the production at the Imperial has tightened up so that not a moment goes astray, while all the players are still having a blast, and so is the audience.  Really, who couldn’t enjoy 2 ½ hours of George and Ira Gershwin’s magical music and lyrics, Kathleen Marshall choreography, and the comedy and wonderful voices of Matthew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, Michael McGrath, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Judy Kaye, Chris Sullivan, and Robyn Hurder.  All the marvelous dancers are so elegant and jazzy and flashy, plus they’re beautifully dressed by Martin Pakledinaz.  If you need to just get away from it all without leaving town, this is the show for you.  It’ll leave you dancing in the street and singing in the rain.


    Once a year, I try to see/hear an opera.  Not because I like opera — because I don’t.  I yearn to understand what keeps this archaic form going year after year, century after century.  Kind of like church.  Sure, lots of the music is gorgeous, powerful, sweet, etc.  But those voices.  I don’t like the singing style, with a few exceptions.  But my biggest exception to opera is the never-ending repetition.  Some people use it well.  Most people don’t.  But even Mozart takes over three hours to tell a story that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could — and did — tell with song and dance and laughter in 80 minutes.

    So I guess opera isn’t about storytelling.

    And in that way, it’s fair to call Einstein on the Beach an opera.  It is billed as an opera, but I beg to differ.  I don’t know what it is, but opera it ain’t.  Yes, there’s lots of choral singing.  There’s lots of music.  And yes it’s very long!  What shall we call it?  A cultural event?  A theatrical program of music and dance, words and numbers — that is, as in numerals.  People speaking or singing numbers.  Gesticulating numbers.  "3."  "1."  "8."  Numbers. "Do re mi fa sol la ti…" yes, that too.  There is no plot — and no one ever pretended there was, so it’s not misleading.  This is about precision, articulation, counterpoint, and an incredible feat of memorization for every member of the company.  At one point in the second courtroom scene, the defendant (the role originated by Lucinda Childs in the Seventies, played sinuously last night by Kate Moran) lies on a “bed” and repeats a sentence 30-40 times.  An odd sentence that becomes mesmerizing.  

    There are very talented musicians, dancers, actors, singers at the height of their powers on the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House, but I must mention one who was as mesmerizing as the odd sentence — Antoine Silverman, made up to resemble Albert Einstein, playing a very fine violin.  Exhilarating.

    Robert Wilson’s direction and design of this strange piece make it almost seem comprehensible.  It is impossible to walk away from his production without questions buzzing around you, in your head, in the streets, questions. Questions, not just about art, but about the society that generated Wilson, Glass, and Childs as well as Einstein on the Beach.  And questions are good. Lucinda Childs' choreography is stimulating, riveting, and repetitious in the good way.  Her dance company does her proud. 

    I do not generally care for the music of Philip Glass, but it all works here.  Not every moment of the 4 ¼ hours (no intermission, but wander off for a while if you must).  But the company of players, the music, the odd words kept me in my seat for most of this performance, and kept my attention for the better part of 3 ½ hours.  Sometimes annoyed.  Sometimes amused.  And I admit to nodding off a few times in the first courtroom scene.  But mostly I was fascinated.  At the 3 ½ hour mark, a particularly silly scene pushed me right out of the performance.  There were no humans involved, you see.  Humans — speaking and moving rhythmically, if nonsensically — are interesting.  They were missing.  The scene that drove me away had a broad bar of light (called the “Bed”) lying horizontal on the dark stage.  Accompanied by harpsichord, the bar went from horizontal to vertical very slowly.  Fifteen minutes of that.  During which I decided, “Now you’re messing with me.”  So I got up and went to the Ladies Room. 

    The Cast of Einstein on the Beach.  (c) 2012.  Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

    But that’s OK.  I do think Einstein on the Beach was a seminal work, artistically revolutionary, and we can see how much it has influenced artists in all media in the 30-odd years since Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Lucinda Childs collaborated to create something life-changing.  And I must thank them for it. 

    This is an immense production touring the globe, at BAM for just two more performances.  Meanwhile, I suspect I'll spend some time revisiting some of those four acts on YouTube.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, chastened, tired, confused, but happy.  And Happy Autumn Equinox to us all.

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  • 09/30/12--11:15: Upstairs at the Duplex

  • The overhead light in one of the only two bathrooms at the Duplex was out.  A woman stepped forward and said, “Wait!  I have an app for that!”  She pulled her boyfriend into the small bathroom to hold the smartphone “flashlight” for her. 

    This was an apt prelude to the Duplex cabaret’s offering of Social Intercourse, which — as creator/director Lisa Moss instructed us — is not about what you think.  Social media, and some forms of technology, have fostered a lack of face to face contact.  Social Intercourse talks about cellphones, voicemail, email, and, of course, Facebook.  You see it yourself — even a couple walking down a street together aren’t in touch:  One’s talking on the cellphone, the other’s texting as they just miss walking in front of a bus.  Got a technology gripe?  Social Intercourse has it covered with music and laughter.

    Creator Lisa Mossput her time  in corporate purgatory to good use, collecting the funny emails that have made the rounds of the Internet over the past 15 years.  With jokes, skits, and appropriate songs collected for the purpose, she compiled Social Intercourse, then cast some talented singer/actors to offer it to the cabaret crowd. 

    Friday night was the second time I’d seen the program, and the cast was even tighter than before.  SI” includes group songs, solos and duets, with some non-musical skits and jokes interspersed.  For an hour, the audience laughed over the next lines, applauded the sad sacks, the lovers, the anxious, the angry, the needy, and the negligent.  Once that delightful hour was done the director’s voice introduced her cast, so I could tell you that:  Tim Marriott did a terrific job with the sole ballad in the play, a wistful country style song called “Austin” which dealt with the oldest technology of the evening — an answering machine.  Remember them?  Facebook got a lot of play with an early song called “My Simple Request,” another song in the middle of the show called “The Facebook Song” (hilariously performed by Katie Mack, who does a great misery face); another angry song called “Facebook” sung with power and emotion by the delicious Rebecca Geggatt.  Facebook even got the closing number, performed by the entire cast.  We all laughed immoderately. 

    The perpetually dizzy Jillene Johnson sang about her Gambian boyfriend in “He’s For Real,” and we watched her possibly “Breaking Up” with her boyfriend — sung by Mr. Marriott — over cellphones that kept hitting dead spots.  Miss Johnson’s acting made up for the moments her singing voice wasn’t quite up to the task of these complex songs.  Charles Marleau’s powerful voice and comic timing serve the audience in a song about how one’s “Online” personality may differ from reality, and another song about the perils of internet theft.  The non-musical skits are just hilarious.

    Producer Thomas Honeck made a guest appearance as an über-frustrated hotel guest, and Musical Director David Sotomayor accompanied his charges beautifully.  Social Intercourse fills the small cabaret space with priceless laughter and song, and therefore needs more performances so more people can enjoy it.  Listen up, Duplex!  Book more shows!

    Here’s my program, scribbled on so I could put the names with the voices, faces, and songs:
    ~ Molly Matera, signing off — and turning off the technology for a while....

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    The Theatre de la Ville (Paris)’s production of Ionesco’s Rhinocerosplayed 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.

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  • 10/12/12--18:46: A Wee Hamlet

  • Last week, the compact traveling production of Hamletfrom 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 Lawrenceplayed 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 Romainplays 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 Saulwas grave as both Polonius, who didn’t talk nearly as much as usual, and the Gravedigger in a greatly shortened scene.

    Dickon Tyrrelldid 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 Fosterplayed 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 Peerplayed 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.

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    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.

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  • 10/31/12--19:38: 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 Landerwith 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 playedthe 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.

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    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 Goldenbergand 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 ….

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  • 11/28/12--18:32: 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 #RomanTragediesduring 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 Coriolanusand 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 Caesarrolled 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.

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  • 12/19/12--19:13: 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 Caveand 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….

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    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.  Lincolndoes with history what good films and plays must:  It condenses people, time, events, and cuts to the chase.
    Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln.

    Lincolnis 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 Lincolntogether 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’smusic is discreet and fitting, film editing byMichael Kahn is masterful, casting byAvy Kaufman was piercingly on the mark.

    Daniel Day-Lewiswas 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.

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    Quentin Tarantinoloves his arterial spray.  Geysers of it, in fact.  For his fans looking for that sort of thing, Django Unchained did not disappoint.  Something did though. 

    Christoph Walz as Dr. Schulz and Jamie Foxx as Django.
    Django Unchained was sort of fun while it lasted.  Christoph Waltz as Dr. Schulz is brilliant, hilarious, and perversely lovable, as is his little traveling dentist’s wagon.  Jamie Fox does good work growing from a slave who barely raises his head to a free man on a mission.  And it was fun to pick out all the old TV/movie cowboys in the cast (Bruce Dern, Don Stroud, Lee Horsley, Michael Parks among others) and other “cameos” by Tom Wopat, Russ Tamblyn and his daughter Amber, not to mention Mr. Tarantino himself.  Yes, it’s a self-referential Hollywood western film, and pure Tarantino — a revenge masquerade on people who deserve the punishment. There was a lot of excellent work by the likes of Don Johnson as a southern slaveowner as well as Dennis Christopher as a sycophantic family lawyer.  Before I sound like the Academy Awards, I will take note of Leonardo DiCaprio’s slimy and marvelous work as Calvin Candie of the Candyland plantation, one of the most despicable characters ever seen on the screen.  Kerry Washington was beautiful and heartbreaking, Walton Goggins perfectly repulsive, and Laura Cayouette was creepily fragile as Candie’s widowed sister. This was all topped off with an unpleasant performance by Samuel L. Jackson, whom I did not even recognize until halfway through his first scene.
    A hammer-wielding DiCaprio.
    Unpleasant.  This film is unpleasant.

    Many scenes in Django Unchained— perhaps I should say most — are deeply disturbing, and Mr. Tarantino may have been right to shove it down our throats.  Nevertheless, there’s really only so much blood and gore I can watch before it — dare I say — bores me.  While I sort of enjoyed the film as I watched and cringed and sometimes put my hands over my eyes, I really was not inspired to read or write or urge others to see this movie.  Loved the soundtrack, though.

    Django Unchained is a little too long and a little too much, but while it is not likely to win him new fans, Mr. Tarantino’s work has plenty of fans who will probably love it.


    In December, I saw the quietly delightful Red Bull Theater production of Volpone or The Fox during its limited run.  Ben Jonson’s moralistic comedy shows the deteriorating mores and hypocrisy of Venetian society circa 1607 and is remarkably funny until everyone comes to their just ends, which were rather harsh in the 17th century. The production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre starred a sparkling Stephen Spinella as Volpone accompanied by a sleazy Cameron Fomar as Mosca, his “Parasite.” These two were joined by the unerring Alvin Epstein as Corbaccio, with a saucy turn by Tovah Feldshuh as the English Lady.  Even Christina Pumariega in what could easily have been the thankless role of the Merchant’s wife was a delight.  The entire cast shone under the tiptop, brisk, funny direction of Artistic Director Jesse Berger


    I liked Silver Linings Playbook.  I didn’t love it.  Largely because by the end I felt it was a crock.  Early on, even halfway through, the mental issues of the characters were, so far I could see, honestly portrayed.  There is humor, compassion, crazy people, misunderstandings, and a lot of laughs.  Then suddenly love conquers all.  Oh well.  It was fun while it lasted.

    David O. Russell, directing his own screenplay based on a novel by Matthew Quick, has a splendid cast and they all have a rollicking good time, as does the audience.  Bradley Cooper is the damaged young man who is just getting out of a psychiatric institution where he was incarcerated after his violent attack on his wife’s lover.  Pat (Junior) seems like a nice guy, looking for a positive way to view life — and then he loses it, for no good reason.  We see and hear the cues, but they are not good reasons for a sane person to trash the attic room or wake people at 4 in the morning.  Of course he doesn’t want to take his meds, or see his shrink (a warm and fuzzy Anupam Kher), or abide by the restraining order his wife Nikki has out on him, which Officer Keogh (Dash Mihok) is prepared to enforce.  In fact, the whole neighborhood seems ready to enforce it. The reaction of Pat's former employer (an excellent scene for Patsy Meck as the high school principal) when he approaches her tells us just how scary this guy was.
    Cooper, Weaver, and Tucker
    Pat’s parents are played by the remarkable Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver.  This woman is amazing, such a wonderful mother, loving, protective, tolerant of her sons and her husband.  It’s as if she and DeNiro and been married for decades, they all fit together perfectly. To watch these two performances alone, this film is worth anyone’s time.

    Back to Pat — all of Pat’s behavior is suspect, all of it is self-destructive, and he believes he and his wife have an amazing love and will get over this little bump in the road.  He is the only one in the film and in the theatre who believes that for a moment.  Pat visits an old friend (John Ortiz as Ronnie), married to Veronica (a good job by Julia Stiles) who is a friend of the estranged wife, Nikki.  Underdressed at dinner with Ronnie and Veronica he meets Veronica’s little sister Tiffany, young, recently widowed, and with problems of her own.  These two first connect over the medications they dislike.  Jennifer Lawrence gives a terrific performance as a tough girl who appears to be fighting for her life.  And then she’s fighting for Pat’s.  All of this through dance.  The visit from Danny, Pat’s friend from the mental institution as played by a delightful Chris Tucker, adds some pizzazz to that dance routine.
    Cooper at Pat, Lawrence as Tiffany, and Tucker as Danny.

    The film is fun, the characters engaging — even when we really want them to take their meds — and the insanity of “normal” people over sports events is delightfully portrayed.  Americans’ relationship with sports plays a part in this story, as does gambling, as do anger management issues…. The apple did not fall far from the tree, is all I need say.

    So up until the last few scenes, I quite enjoyed being all positive with Pat and his parents and his friends.  I am well aware that film compresses time and events, but really.  Love does not conquer all, and I found the final scenes of “normalcy” to be quite annoying. 

    Nevertheless, all the performances are quite good, with outstanding work by Mr. DeNiro and Ms. Weaver. 

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off until next time.

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    From the get-go and throughout, Anna Karenina was breathtaking. Bearing in mind that I read the novel only once several decades ago and am not a purist when it comes to Russian literature, I believe director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s conceit for telling this story reached the heart of the matter. Some political ramifications were doubtless lost (despite an early scene that looked as if it could have come from Dr. Zhivago), but it’s clearly the love story (and the fall-out therefrom) that counts in this version. Fittingly, the railroad plays a recurring role in the story of Anna Karenina, and it’s a marvelous vehicle — snow-covered, city to country, country to city, mixing people, gentry, serf, drones. It separates young lovers, then joins them, then separates again. Nothing’s more thrilling than a train ride through the movies.

    The theatricality of the entire enterprise was a never-ending delight. I was hooked from my first sight of the stage, the bird’s eye view available from the upper levels of the theatre, characters looking down on the room they just left, and turning turning turning to walk out of the stage set into a field of whatever it is that Domhnall Gleeson’s Constantine Levin and his freed serfs scythe. Visually splendid are the actors as well, with the traffic-stopping Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina in stunning costumes by Jacqueline Durran. Costumes and settings and certainly Ms. Knightley’s jewelry did not adhere strictly to the time period any more than the ballroom dancing did, but who could care if beauty took a left turn for a joyride. The dancing in particular was fanciful and clever and quite possibly the way the lower classes might have imagined the upper classes to have moved in those overly ornate rooms, as if a luxurious birth afforded people grace and rhythm to do the complicated, flowing movements.
    Jude Law as Karenin (c) 2012 Focus Features

    Who hasn’t said, to themselves or aloud, that just a few years ago it would have been Jude Law as Vronsky, and wouldn’t that have been swell. Well, yes, but I’m happy to see him grow into the mature man he is, playing surprising roles for the joy of it. Jude Law does some of his very best work, subdued and thoughtful, as the properly repressed yet unalterably kind Alexei Karenin. Matthew Macfadyen put aside his often dour countenance to be a playful brother to Anna as the philandering Oblonsky. The wonderful Kelly Macdonald represented all women as betrayed wife Dolly. Her reaction to Anna’s behavior is yearning and admiring, in sharp contrast to the women of high society, exemplified by Shirley Henderson as an unknown woman at the opera, where everyone recognizes Anna. In contrast, Princess Myagkaya (an elegant Michelle Dockery) was empowered with the strength to be loyal.
    Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky

    Country fellow Levin loves the lovely Kitty (a sweet, sullen, then warm and tender Alicia Vikander), who is smitten with the dashing Vronsky (a seductive Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who dooms Anna Karenina as quickly as he falls for her. The lovely Ms. Knightley and delicious Mr. Taylor-Johnson are beautifully intertwined throughout the film.
    Alicia Vikander as Kitty and Domhnall Gleeson as Levin

    Emily Watson was morose as usual as Karenin’s friend, the Countess Ivanova. She represents her times well in its beginnings of forward-thinking actions by privileged classes, fighting for social equality for all except her own gender.

    Mr. Wright’s direction is bold and exciting, aided by gorgeous cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, expert film editing by Melanie Oliver, an extraordinary production design by Sarah Greenwood that combined imagination and history, allowing the imagination to win. All of this was accompanied by a thrilling and moving score by Dario Marianelli.

    As I left the theatre, I saw a poster for A Royal Affair and recognized Alicia Vikander who had just played the delightful Kitty. While that hadn’t been on my short list of films to see (isn’t winter swell, though, sending us indoors even in daylight to keep warm in the movie house?), but Ms. Vikander’s lustrous performance in Anna Karenina may yet move A Royal Affair up the list.

     If Anna Karenina is still playing on a big screen near you, go enjoy the visual splendor. If you’re a Russian literature purist, I can’t help you but to say it’s a fine film in and of itself. Read the book again later. Much later.

     ~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a good book….

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  • 01/28/13--20:37: Mama's Got the Stuff
  • The opening of“Mama” is intriguing.  A car, its driver’s door open, is parked haphazardly in front of a well-kept suburban home where a little girl is choosing a toy — one for an ever so slightly younger child — to bring with her to school.  A gunshot is heard, but the child, Victoria, does not recognize it as that.  She has no foreboding.  We have.

    (c) 2012, Toma 78/DeMilo Production Co.

    Something is amiss.  Over these scenes we hear a radio report of financial failures, fraud, and murder.  That’s when we meet the totally stressed out father of the child.  He bundles his two daughters into the car and drives off, too fast, onto icy roads around the mountain and into the woods.  Without telling you something quite startling that occurs, I’ll move on and just say that each step in this story is fraught with dread.  From a wild ride then walk through the winter woods, two little girls cling to each other in an empty cabin, without an inkling of what’s going on.

    The children in this film have been remarkably well cast.  In the opening scenes, Morgan McGarry is intelligently precious as young Victoria, wrapping her arms around baby sister Lilly, played by Sierra and Maya Dawewith the simplicity of the small children they are.  When the scene advances to five years later, Miss McGarry grows into the lovely Megan Charpentier as Victoria.  The baby-faced Isabelle Nélisse is an apt choice for Lilly, with the same drooping apple cheeks as the Dawes.  When we meet the girls again after five years alone in the woods, I wonder if young Victoria had been somehow computerized, so similar are the two different girls playing the child.  Miss Nélisse’s Lilly is terrifying in her feral nature, and Miss Charpentier’s Victoria heartbreaking as she struggles back to civilization.
    Uncle Lucas, Annabel, Lilly and Victoria in MAMA.

    Nikolaj Coster-Waldauas Jeffrey and then Lucas (the Daddy of the girls and then his brother Luke), does straightforward work, but the rollercoaster is ridden by Jessica Chastain as Lucas’ Goth rocker girlfriend Annabel, an unwilling maternal figure who warms to the role when they win custody of the children.  After the girls are discovered in the woods, they are treated by Dr. Dreyfuss (a solid performance by Daniel Kash), a doctor with as much imagination as academic knowledge.  The adults are very fine in this film, and Chastain continues to build her repertoire of characters, each one different from the last.  But it’s the children who are riveting.

    Mama is good, but not great.  At times the underscoring was more obvious than ominous, though it never diminished the excellent work by director of photography Antonio Riestra.  Director Andrés Muschietti wrote the striking script with his sister Barbara Muschiettiand Neil Cross.  There is no room for ambiguity in their story.  From the first ten minutes (not to mention the trailers and advertising) the ghost is corporeal.  Generally I find that less fun than the ambiguity of Robert Wise’s classic film The Haunting, but the influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro was apparent in the stunning visualization of “Mama.”  More importantly, while Shirley Jackson’s heroine in The Haunting thought she sought death with a family of sorts, the anti-heroine of Mama sought family and life after death. 

    The goal of a ghost story is to startle the audience, who should be overcome with shivers, shrieks, gasps, and screams. And some times that gasp could be in wonder at the utterly surprising scenes this film reveals.  Not your usual ghost story, Mamais sophisticated, visually polished, and worth your time if you like a good ghost story creatively visualized.  

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Not likely to sleep well....

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  • 02/13/13--19:45: 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 Perryplays 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.

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  • 02/18/13--20:00: 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 HisGirl 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 Thompsonas 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 Lloyddoes 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.

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