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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • 03/03/13--09:22: The Joy of Reading

  • The best thing about commuting by public transportation is the opportunity to read.

    I am, once again, utterly enamored of Michael Ondaatje.  When I first read The English Patient back in the early 1990s, I remember thinking, on the very first page, “this man is a expletive deleted poet.”  I soon learned that he is a poet as well as novelist, and immediately read one of his books of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.  

     Ondaatje’s interests range wide through the human experience, and his focus and dedication to his subject draw his readers into the stories he writes, and along whatever pathways he chooses.  We are powerless to do other than follow along, listening and watching.
     
    I recently read two books from my “still unread” stack, both by Ondaatje.  The first was The Cat’s Table, about a child’s journey from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) on a ship with a few other children and a wide range of adults, to England, where the narrator would grow up to be a writer.  Ondaatje dips into the present, then goes back to the past, and introduces us to characters with such depth we believe we know them, and hope to know them when the narrator grows up.  Seeing the world through the eyes, and heart, of Mr. Ondaatje's young and adult narrator is an education and a joy.

     It’s a riveting piece of work, which I relived with delight at a friend’s apartment whose bathtub shower curtain is a world map!  I could follow the route from Colombo across the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean.   I love maps almost as much as I love books.

    The next was Divisadero, a story of a fractured family, some blood-related, some not, their lives together and apart.  The continuing stories of Claire and Coop over decades in the western United States are obliquely contrasted with the life of Anna, who ran away from a family tragedy, winding up in France studying a French poet in the house he lived in for his final years. I believe the most wondrous thing about Divisaderois that, although I’d never heard of the French poet Lucien Segura, I assumed he was real.  Then I looked him up and every reference to him on the internet was in Mr. Ondaatje’s novel.  While this was disappointing, in that I could not read the poetry, it was far more hilarious that a character in a novel had seemed so real to so many readers that internet search engines continue to explore the world wide web in vain to find Lucien Segura outside Mr. Ondaatje’s novel.  Beyond the poet, though, scenes of the other characters’ lives, their connections, broken and unbroken, continue to step forward to the front of my consciousness even when unbidden.

    Today I was gathering together all the slips of paper and post-it notes on my desk, hoping to consolidate them in some kind of order.  One of the slips of paper was a post-it with numbers and words.  Just looking at them, I could readily deduce that this had been my bookmark for Wolf Hall.  It is apt that I’ve just re-discovered this post-it (and will look up all of these words, names, phrases again) since I’m now reading Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall,  Bring Up the Bodies.  I am thrilled to read that this is intended as a trilogy, so I have yet another to look forward to once I’ve finished Thomas Cromwell’s and Henry the VIII's and Anne Boleyn’s adventures in Bring Up the Bodies.

    When I read Ms. Mantel’s work, I feel I’m reading history, even while fully aware that her work — told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell — is fiction.  Just so with Mr. Ondaatje’s prose.  I believe it’s all true.  This is the power of finely wrought fiction.  These are the joys of reading good books.

     Next:  to dip into the stack of non-fiction books awaiting my attention.

    ~ Molly Matera, readily ignoring the laundry and mopping that I really intended to do this weekend.

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    The Radiant is a clever title for a play about Madame Marie Salomea Skłodowska-Curie, a brilliant and courageous woman who discovered the element radium and the science of radioactivity, and was the first person to win two Nobel prizes.  Unfortunately the play by Shirley Lauro performed by the Red Fern Theatre Company does not live up to its title.  We tend to forgive geniuses their poor social skills, but all we saw on stage in the Madame Curie enacted by Diana LaMar was a self-centered, cold woman who was unpleasant to all around her, without evidence of the brilliance.

    Ms. LaMar is tentative, stiff, and puts her hands in her pockets far too often.  While one might expect her parchment skin to take on a pallor or a blush, it remained resolutely unchanged while rough seas presumably roiled within.  Ms. LaMar is not a generous actor, sharing neither an intellectual nor an emotional passion for science or for people.

    AJ Cedeno as Paul Langevin was the only actor who used his voice well in the space and at least appeared enthused by his character’s desires.  This is not to say he was good.  His professions of love for science, teaching, or Mme. Curie herself were not convincing.  However, his voice was not unpleasant.

    Rachel Berger as Madame Curie’s niece Katarina (sometimes Katya) had a voice to shatter windows.  However, while undeveloped as an actor, she showed more honesty in her characterization than the others onstage.  The only truthful behavior in the production was provided by Katya, whose actions sprang from her love and respect for her aunt. 

    Timothy Doyle played three roles, each one better than the last.  This is not to say he rose to great heights, just that he improved as the evening wore on.  His clumsy paymaster with a dreadful French accent moved on to his overly foppish Lord Kelvin with an unrecognizable accent; both were gratefully forgotten in his most sensitive role of Wilbois, the poor old scientist who had the unwelcome task of telling Marie Curie she had not been accepted into the French Académie des Sciences.

    Shirley Lauro’s script is skittish, jerkily moving from one scene to another, without taking the time to develop her characters.  It’s rather like a child’s book report — Lauro wants to show us that she knows the pertinent facts, and lays some out for us, but apparently doesn’t understand them well enough to flesh out this drama.  Some scenes are too short, some too long; and none draw us into Mme. Curie’s world.

    Toward the end of the play, the widowed Mme. Curie’s affair with her assistant — the married, Catholic Paul Langevin — hit the front page of several Paris newspapers.  People with nothing better to do hurried to break her windows (not his), and call out profanities and accusations.  Although such catcalling did occur in Mme. Curie’s life, the incident did not move the story forward, and in the theatre, the “crowd” was so very loud that the audience could not hear Katarina and her aunt in what was probably a significant conversation about the possibility that the family was Jewish.  Were they?  I could not tell from this production. Nor could I tell, through all the noise, if there was any dramatic purpose to bringing it up where Ms. Lauro inserted it.

    Mme. Curie’s affair with a younger, married man became Ms. Lauro’s focal point, instead of the woman’s mind and her drive and her work.  I am unfamiliar with Ms. Lauro’s earlier work, but she appears as undisciplined a writer as Melanie Moyer Williams is a director.

    Ms. Moyer Williams’ direction made it impossible to know what was important, what was not, and whether or not her cast could act.  She did no favors for Ms. LaMar, who needs to open up to the audience so we can experience her pain, not merely suspect her of having some.  She did not assist Ms. Berger in modulating her voice to fit the space, nor did she clarify the play, focus the audience view, or encourage her actors to go an extra foot let alone a mile. In short, the direction was lazy.

    This play is amateurishly written, performed, produced, and directed.  The structure is jagged and arrhythmic, is not about science as one might hope, nor does it give us the human drama we’d gladly take in exchange.  Points were made as in a term paper, and that’s where this play belongs:  in a high school.  I’m all for combining the arts and education and social causes, but bad theatre serves no one.

    ~ Molly Matera, looking fora good biography of Madame Curie

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    My musing continues on Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie a week later.  I find myself still pondering its form, its message, and the fact that it’s still riffing in my head.

    Tina Benko is vaguely creepy and very amusing in Elfriede Jelinek’s Jackie playing at the Women’s Project Theater at City Center.  But is she Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, or merely a vehicle for the themes Ms. Jelinek’s been writing for most of her career?  Ms. Jelinek’s script is obsessed with the clothing, the look, the public figure hiding behind the men in her life like a properly brought up society matron.

    The excellent lighting design by Brian H Scott is compelling, sound design by Jane Shaw startling.  The scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg is … not pretty.  It might have been a neglected basement pool in a shuttered YMCA or a lost subway station.  It is unkempt, dried autumn leaves and other detritus having made their way in.  It may stink of death.

    A metal trap door is lifted upstage.  Tina Benko climbs into the set wearing a neatly pressed trench coat, a silk scarf perfectly covering her perfectly coiffed wig, large Jackie-style sunglasses camouflaging her face.  She is in disguise but in such a Jackie way we know it’s her.  The outfit by costume designer Susan Hilferty is quintessential Jackie O, as is the wig by Tom Watson.  This Jackie is mischievous; it’s almost as if she’s escaped (the nanny?  paparazzi?) and stolen away for a moment to talk with us.  From the trap door, she drags a duct-taped covered faceless dummy, then another, and another, bound together by strips of fabric.  Then we see three small dummies, infant-sized, and now we know that, not unlike Jacob Marley’s chain that he forged in life, Jackie wears Death.

    She knows she’s dead.  She knows everybody’s dead, including people who died after she did.  She talks to us for almost an hour and a half about herself, about Jack, about Teddy, and the other Kennedy wives.  We explore as much of her life as she chooses to share.  It’s not new. We’ve heard all the names before and most of the rumors.  Why is she here?

    Jackie is not traditional.  Throughout the evening,I listened for a theme, a through-line, but only heard the elements, connected, disconnected, that ramble and run and repeat in the soundtrack of this woman’s memory.  Clothing, death, the babies, Jack, Bobby, Ari.  Clothing.  The dresses.  The design.  The appearance.  Appearance, that fallback position of the female, the way society expects her to look. 

    While I’m not strictly a traditionalist, I do take comfort in established forms.  Jackie isn’t really a play in the traditional sense.  It’s a one-woman show offering Ms. Benko the opportunity for a bravura performance which will be remembered and spoken of for seasons to come.  Ms. Benko relishes the musical quality of the words, the conversation, the occasional rant — from which Jackie reins herself back into a well-mannered society girl.  The script is brisk, flowing, poetic, so I must assume Gitta Honegger’s translation is sterling, and director Téa Alagichas staged the work very well. 

    Thing is, a play, to me, has a beginning, middle, and end. Structure matters, just as the structure of a good genre novel keeps people reading their predictable suspense, romance, crime, and mystery novels and reaching for more.  While enjoying a twist and a turn, they expect the story to eventually conform to the traditional form.  Ms. Jelinek does not oblige.  Jackie has a beginning, but the rest is essentially the same tune. It made me think of a roundelay, the words repeating with new and overlapping voices, the chorus always about the clothes.  Whatever this form is — musical terms come to mind, which makes a certain sense, since Ms. Jelinek was trained in music in her youth — Jackie’s hypnotic hold is aural. 

    Jackie’s meanderings and driven crosses — often back to that intriguing trap door — hold our interest and are not forced, even if we don’t know the wherefores.  What could we know, after all, of Jackie’s No Exit?  And wherever she goes, they go, those odd duct-taped dummies Jackie lugs around the playing area.  One is labeled Jack, one Bobby, one Telis — apparently a pet name for Onassis. 

    The most interesting aspect of Jackie’s growth after death is the change in her feelings toward Marilyn Monroe.  “Marilyn” is first referred to and not named while clearly disparaged, then the name is fairly growled and spat. By the end of the evening, though, Jackie commiserates with Marilyn as one who was trampled underfoot by the masculine society that bound Jackie herself.  Jackie was stronger, maybe smarter and not as soft, so she survived longer. 

    By including Jackie O in her dramatic series “Death of the Maiden – Princess Plays,” Jelinek compares, even equates Jackie with fairytale princesses like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, as well as Marilyn. Ms. Jelinek’s work is rarely done in the U.S., nor is it included in university curricula.  What’s that about?  Might she be feared?  Contrarily, I’ve already ordered the only English language translations I found online (also translated by Ms. Honegger), a few of the Princess Plays in a theatre magazine.  Modern retellings of fairy tales (there are so many modern feminist interpretations of fairytale heroines and villains, I almost don’t need to know Ms. Jelinek’s in particular) deal with the female self image, submission to societal powers (that is, men) that control the life and death of females; most try to clarify that men wrote down those old stories, those are men’s teachings and interpretations of women’s actions:  disapproving, frightened, insecure men.  The retellings sometimes explain what those horrid old women were doing and why.  Scholarly men’s views and fears are stamped on all the old stories, and thereby stomp on the females in the stories, not to mention the females reading them.  This subject is interesting enough to make me wish to read all five of Jelinek’s princess plays — but not while I’m at the theatre.  And that’s my point.  That’s what’s been buzzing around in my head.

    Should the audience be expected to be well versed in the prior writings of a playwright in order to fully understand and appreciate the play viewed at the moment?  Me, I think not.  Knowing a little something more than I did before about Elfriede Jelinekmakes Jackie appear a better play, but should it?  Is it? 

    This undefined theatrical evening was entertaining and thought-provoking, thanks to the material and to the hypnotic Tina Benko.  However good, though, I cannot say riveting.  Now and then I’d wander off in my mind.  (That was where the terrific sound and light effects came in handy.)  I heard the repetitions but they didn’t build to go anywhere, to mean something.  These are my expectations.  Should anyone care if Jackiedoesn’t fall inside the traditional theatrical definitions? Should anyone care if Ms. Jelinek colors outside the lines?  Mightn’t “outside” mean “beyond?” Considering Ms. Jelinek’s professional defiance of traditional roles, mores, and forms, perhaps I shouldn’t be setting too much store by Aristotle’s Poetics from whence I long ago derived my modified definition of a “play.”

    Would you look at that.  I’m questioning my pre-conceptions, my training, my definitions, my society.  Clearly something in Ms. Jelinek’s “play” has succeeded.  In any case, and whatever Jackieis, I am intrigued by Ms. Jelinek’s mind and Ms. Benko’s method.  If you ever wanted to or did color outside the lines, you might want to try this:  http://www.womensproject.org/jackie_team.html

    And then there are the Barbie® dolls.  Not all productions can claim an effective use of Barbie dolls; this one can.


    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, recommending the Women’s Project Theater’s production of JACKIE to people who like to open up new cowpaths.

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    Jack the Giant Slayeris not a feminist retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk or Jack the Giant Killer.  Just because it has “slayer” in the title doesn’t mean this is a Whedonesque female empowerment story.  Quite the opposite.  This is a combination of two tales that shows us a gold harp but doesn’t use it.  A lot about this movie is a tease, come to think of it.  Princess Isabelle is a bit of a rebel, but it all turns on Jack.  The movie is fun, it moves fast, it has pretty young people.  But the protagonist is the guy.  Jack rescues the princess more than once.  It has a tiny egalitarian bent, but that’s as far as it goes.

    I believe this film has received less than stellar reviews, but the audience when I saw it had a good time — although I felt rather alone the several times I laughed out loud, but I was one of the oldest people in the house.  I guess they put a few jokes in for people like me. In any case, I’m sure it’ll have a good long run on DVD.

    Nicholas Hoult as Jack is sweet, wholesomely cute, defers to his elders, a very old fashioned hero.  The love story is rated G.
    Hoult as Jack and Tomlinson as Isabelle.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers.

    Eleanor Tomlinsonas Isabelle is lovely, doesn’t quite make it to feisty.  I could wish she’d had more to do because what she did was very good.
    Ewan McGregor as Elmont was a fair-minded knight doing right by his betters and lessers, a charming fellow, stalwart and brave.  Fun.
    McGregor as Elmont and Marsan as Crawe.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers.
    Eddie Marsan as Crawe, Elmont’s second in command, is funny, sleepily sharp and a fine fellow.
    Stanley Tucci as the nasty Roderick.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers.

    Stanley Tucci as Roderick, the vaguely creepy nobleman Princess Isabelle is betrothed to, is delightful as ever. 
     Ewen Bremner as Wicke is wussily wicked, a doofus with a nasty mind and manner.
    Ian McShane. 
    Ian McShane plays King Brahmwell — a far cry from Al Swearengen, but a charming king and dad.
    Christopher Fairbankas Jack’s uncle is a good solid character.  OK, maybe caricature, but that’s the writing.  In fact, a lot of the characters are caricatures, but I don’t think that was an accident.
    Ralph Brown as General Entin was really entertaining.  I had hopes for more villainy, but the story kept him on a tight leash.
    Bill Nighy as General Fallon was fun in a predictable way for General Fallon, but less fun than I would have expected from the great Mr. Nighy.
    John Kassir, left, and Bill Nighy, right.  Sort of.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers.
    John Kassir as General Fallon’s Small Head played off his elder well.  A welcome oddity.

    Rockerick and Wicke could have gone further in their villainy as could Generals Fallon and Entin, but then it could have been a less unrealistic movie and directed toward adults instead of the 7-12 year olds it’s really meant for.  Everyone behaved predictably and in scope of this sort of story.  The ending is cute but not inspiring. 

    Costume Design by Joanna Johnston was nifty.  Director Bryan Singer had a good time with his animation/CGI budget, and his actors did their jobs well. The screenplay by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney did not soar to new heights despite the beanstalk, but it was serviceable.

    That’s it.  There’s no Prince Charming here because the hero’s a farmboy.  The film is a muddy sort of charming.  This is a kids’ movie — there are some cool effects, some gross-out jokes, even some visual puns.  Don’t look for sophistication or originality, and you’ll have a nice afternoon. 

    Oh, and about that damned 3D?  It does not improve the film in any way and it makes my eyeballs ache. 

    ~ Molly Matera, having seen quite enough 3D to boycott it.

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    Ginger and Rosa is a subdued film in its story-telling style and cinematography.  The England of 1962 apparently had little sunshine and what there was of it was filtered through fog and dreary lives filled alternately with fear of the bomb and post-war numbness.  People here have accepted their lot, however grudgingly, and it feels like most are unlikely to climb out of the muck that sucks at them. 

    The film starts in 1945, with the bombing of Hiroshima followed by a bird’s eye view of two young women in a London hospital.  Labor pain was mushrooming for the roaring red-headed Natalie, and the brunette Anoushka reached her hand out from the next bed to comfort her.  Women’s hands, girls’ hands open the film as we watch the brunette and redheaded children holding hands as they grow up. 

    Christina Hendricks as Natalie (c) 2012 A24 Film.
    The new mothers of 1945 become the exhausted mothers of teenage girls in 1962.  Without words, we see Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and husband Roland (Alessandro Nivola) in a dark if homey scene with young daughter Ginger (Elle Fanning); in contrast, we see young Rosa (Alice Englert) looking out the window as her father leaves the family.

    Ginger and Rosa is the story of two teenage girls going through their rites of passage, exploring politics and religion, sex and passion, and discovering trust and betrayal.  Natalie and Anoushka’s daughters are the closest of friends.  Ginger and Rosa are inseparable, and, like all 16-year-old girls in every era, they question everything.  They experiment, explore, play hooky, practice kissing, sneak out at night, do all sorts of foolish things (hitchhiking to the beach, learning to smoke, getting in cars with strange men).  Rosa is a slim and pretty brunette, her crucifix clearly displayed on her chest even as she tries on clothing to look more grown-up. 
     
    Ginger has no chance of looking grown-up — tall and slim she may be, but she has a child’s face, a child’s innocence, a child’s heart that fears and breaks.  She asks her questions of the world in her poetry and wonders if she’s going to live to the next day because talk of the Bomb on the radio is non-stop.  Governments threaten to retaliate, always assuming someone else will launch their nuclear armaments first.  It’s the Cold War and the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Annihilation appears imminent, and apocalyptic self destruction weighs heavily on many, especially Ginger.  Ginger leads Rosa to meetings where a young man tries to rally those seeking an alternate to immolation by the Bomb.  This activism becomes Ginger’s lifeblood — and escape. 

    Ginger and Rosa at a Ban the Bomb rally.  (c) 2012 A24 Film.
    While Ginger’s father Roland still lives with the family, he doesn’t play by the rules (as he proudly pronounces later), including the rules of marriage.  He has young students, and just as he preferred Natalie when she was a teenager, so he clearly prefers girls younger than himself and therefore in awe of him.  Roland is a pacifist writer and professor who was jailed for his conscientious objector status during the War which still hovers over everyone’s lives.  Also in this vaguely left-wing community is Ginger’s godfather Mark (Timothy Spall), who also conscientiously objected during the War but chose to drive an ambulance and take part rather than enjoy his righteous sacrifice in a jail cell like Roland.  There’s also Mark 2, Mark’s American partner (Oliver Platt).  These gentlemen live in a much nicer flat than their friends, and sitting with them one might believe that everything can be solved over a nice cup of tea.  They also have an American friend, Bella (played with a frosty intellect by Annette Bening).  These three encourage young Ginger to explore, to talk, to learn.  It is when she is separated from Bella at a sit-in against the Bomb that Ginger is arrested, refuses to speak as she sits alone in a jail cell (she’s clearly a child, what were the police thinking?) that things come to a head.

    Ginger with her godfather Mark (Spall), Bella (Bening) and Mark 2 (Platt).  (c) 2012 A24 Film.
    After enough arguments, eventually Roland moves out of the household, and not long thereafter, the husband/wife fight is reflected in a mother/daughter confrontation.  The outcome is the same, and Ginger moves into a dingy spare room at the flat of Roland’s friend. It’s a cluttered storage room with paper thin walls, through which Ginger will eventually hear more than she can bear.

    Nivola as Roland rowing Fanning and Englert  (c) 2012 A24 Film
    Although Ginger and Rosa still see quite a lot of one another, they grow apart as their duo becomes a trio with Roland (who refuses to be called “dad”).  The three go sailing together.  Rosa is clearly developing a crush on this handsome, smooth older man.  Ginger looks on with consternation, not understanding her friend’s lack of interest in those things they once did passionately together, and takes a while to recognize that Rosa is infatuated with Roland.  As I said earlier, Roland doesn’t play by any rules. 

    Sally Potterdraws with a fine point pen, pencils the shadings, setting the scene for these girls to live on the screen.  Ms. Potter’s attention to detail both as a writer and director brings us directly into the lives of these best friends — Rosa clutches her crucifix and wants to pray against the Bomb, while Ginger wants to march against it.  Rosa chooses to make out with boys at a bus stop while Ginger writes poetry.  Rosa suddenly starts wearing eyeliner, making Ginger appear even younger.  And yet, she still shares the liner with Ginger, who just doesn’t look the same in it.  

    Alice Englert as Rosa and Elle Fanning as Ginger.  (c) 2012 A24 Film.
    Elle Fanning as Ginger and Alice Englert as Rosa work beautifully together, opposites who fit each curve of the other.  It is a splendid cast, with Alessandro Nivola’s handsome Roland a shallow narcissist who has his good points, Mr. Spall and Mr. Platt as warm and loving godfathers as anyone would wish to have.  Annette Bening's chilly exterior is belied by her clear affection for Ginger.  Jodhi May is sad and drawn as Anoushka, the bereft mother of Rosa.  Christina Hendricks has some nice moments but isn’t quite as believable as the others.  Accents are uneven (even Ms.Bening’s American accent is odd and she’s American) but that rarely detracts.  Ms. Englert is very interesting as Rosa, even though the story’s clearly about Ginger and told from Ginger’s point of view.  Ms. Fanning, of course, is magical, heart-breaking, adorable.  When Ginger finally breaks down, her emotion is raw and honest, the truth pouring from her not to inflict pain but to share what’s been inflicted more subtly on her.

    The music supervisor for the film was Amy Ashworth, and she has compiled a moody playlist for the time, with jazz ranging from Basie to Bechet to Bird and Brubeck to Monk.  The mostly smoky jazz steps aside for the occasional early rock and roll.  The music is often played on a small turntable, then made most personal when Natalie sits alone in the dark by the fire, playing on her accordion and singing  “The Man I Love.  (OK, rather obvious, but sweet and truthful.  We women do things like that when the man we love breaks our heart.) So far I see no indication that a CD of the soundtrack is planned for release, but I hope it will be. 

    Ms. Potter and her panoply of producers brought together a fabulous group of artists who provided fine results in the production design by Carlos Conti, cinematography by Robbie Ryan, and film editing by Anders Refn.

    The film is not perfect.  It starts in a leisurely fashion, and we are mere observers of the 1962 Britain Ms. Potter recalls.  Ginger and Rosa sometimes dips from leisurely into slow, and takes a while to engage the audience.  It is Ms. Fanning and Ms. Englert who draw us into Ginger and Rosa’s world of hope and fear, love and despair.  Maybe even forgiveness. 

    Although the film opens with a mushroom cloud, there are no gunfights, no fighter planes, no video games.  Ginger and Rosa draws us quietly into Cold War Britain and reminds us that the good old days were just as difficult as today.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, recommending the film to patient film and jazz lovers.

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    Happy April.  Still pretty chilly, but I can offer some hope:  My cats are shedding like crazy, so the cold weather is almost behind us. 

    It’s been quite a week.  My friends and I have seen three plays over eight days and all of them provided fascinating, funny, and/or thought-provoking evenings in the theatre.  I’ll go chronologically and start with Christopher Durang’s new play on Broadway:  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at The Golden Theatre. 

    Naturally I have a gripe:  When will audiences stop applauding just because a movie or television star shows up on the stage?  It’s their job to show up.  OK, I’m over it.  Until next time.


    In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang speaks to the discomfort of growing older in times unfriendly to society’s elders.  The first three named characters of the title are doing just that — the last won’t age for quite some time, and that contrast is telling.  Happily, it tells in a very funny manner.

    The scene is a charming rural home in Bucks County.  Two 50-something siblings, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), don’t do much of anything these days in the family home, which is paid for by their sister Masha, a Movie Star.  Their professor parents named the children (even the adopted daughter Sonia) after characters in Chekhov plays.  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is Durang’s mash-up of Chekhov plays in modern times with mod.cons.,* and just as my friend Horvendile predicted, it gets funnier and funnier, hits its pathos of sad and romantic and sweet, and ends (relatively) happily.  The first twenty minutes notwithstanding, this old broad found the play delightful and recommends it despite being uncertain about the Chekhovian themes — I recognized and enjoyed them (probably not all), but cannot be sure if these were extra layers for people who got them, or if the Chekhovian novices won’t get the play at all.  I would hope and wish all theatregoers get the Chekhov, but hope is pretty slim (pickings) in the 21st century.
     
    Sonia and Vanya and Masha
    Mr. Durang pushes his assumptions a bit more:  The house cleaner is named Cassandra, and she comes in with a buzzing energy warning everyone of bad things to come connected with various words or names of unknown persons, sometimes sounds that don’t resolve themselves into names until later.  Shalita Grant is a whirlwind, funny if often incomprehensible in the role. 

    Masha the Movie Star (Sigourney Weaver) has been advised by her young assistant (who is not a financial advisor) to sell the parental home where Vanya and Sonia have lived their entire lives, much of which was devoted to caring for their aging and demented parents.  Masha was off making the money to pay for the care of the parents, the house, and her otherwise unemployed siblings.  She suffered no hardship doing so — she’s a movie star, after all.  Masha is, dare I say it, aging and not getting cast in the juicy roles (with their associated pay levels) as she used to, so she worries about her future like anyone of her age.  Apparently the reason for her visit is to tell her siblings that they’re going to have to find somewhere else to live.

    What ensues is an emotional roller coaster of a houseparty filled with odd and discordant creatures together for the weekend.  Happily one evening is devoted to a costume party being held by a neighbor down the street.  Vanya and Sonia, who live there full time, do not know this neighbor, but Masha the Movie Star was invited, and she’s arranged costumes for her siblings that support her own choice — to go as Snow White, with her handsome boy toy Spike dressed as her Prince Charming.

    Masha, in constant need of reassurance, insists her siblings go as her dwarves.  Vanya of course acquiesces, but this is too much for Sonia to bear, and she goes to get her own costume.  She agrees to go as the wicked queen.  Ah, but which wicked queen?  The scene is set for Ms. Nielsen's Sonia to do one helluva Maggie Smith impression, and wear a fabulous dress.

    Spike loves everybody and invites a stranger to join them, a young girl visiting her aunt and uncle next door.  She’s an aspiring actress and her name is … you guessed it: Nina.  Now we have a house of mismatched siblings, a boy toy, a psychic housekeeper, and the nemesis to all aging movie stars, a ”Nina.”

    The imperfection:  The first 20 minutes were rather excruciating, as Kristine Nielsen’s Sonia tried too hard to fit someone’s view of a slightly disturbed person.  Even Mr. Hyde Pierce, who is an absolute genius, couldn’t pull Ms. Nielsen into Vanya’s playing space.  Considering Kristine Nielsen’s priceless performance for the rest of the play, I think it’s fair to blame that opening misstep on the director, Nicholas Martin.  The balance of the characters’ universe was fake in the opening.  It began to correct itself when Ms. Weaver showed up as Movie Star sister Masha.  (No, I am not repeating myself. Masha is never merely Masha.  She is always the Movie Star.)
     
    Spike and Sonia and Masha and Nina and Vanya
    Director Martin let Ms. Nielsen live her character in relation to Ms. Weaver’s character and Mr. Hyde Pierce’s for the rest of the play.  Ms. Nielsen is splendid, regal, adorable, and hilarious.  Unfortunately Ms. Weaver is not in the same class as the actors playing her siblings.  She tries very hard, but this is not her medium.  In some ways, you’d think Mr. Durang wrote this role for her, it seems to fit her so well.  But no matter her history with the playwright, she lacks absurdist skills on stage.  Mr. Hyde Pierce’s naturalism is a great foil for his sisters, but he and Ms. Nielsen show up Ms. Weaver without even trying.

    Christopher Durang is writing for his own generation and we appreciate his voice.  It is, after all, our voice.  Just funnier.  When Mr. Hyde Pierce’s calm and calming demeanor cracks, he speaks with thousands of voices about our lost comforts and our discomfort with the ease and speed and shallowness of those mod.cons.  Once this play starts moving, it runs, it glides, it flies, it bounces and barely rests for laughs.

    Billy Magnusson’s Spike is endlessly hilarious as the hunk of a Boy Toy who accompanies Masha back to the old homestead.  Spike likes to touch people intimately, he likes to take off his clothes, he likes to talk, and he can multitask on his smartphone, and he almost got called back for a part in the sequel to Entourage.  He is very fit.  He really likes stripping.  When Masha wants him to put his clothes back on because she’s jealous of Nina (you remember Nina, a sweet young thing visiting her aunt and uncle next door, played quirkily by Genevieve Angelson), she advises him to do a reverse strip.  Which he does rather literally, to everyone’s consternation — except Vanya, who sits down to enjoy the show.

    It’s funny, during an evening in costume for a party, the siblings disguised as other people (or fictional characters) come closer to the truth of who they are than they do when dressed as themselves. Next morning, we get a play within a play, the truth will out, and Vanya’s magnificent rant that is totally comprehensible to people of a certain age. I felt his pain item by item.  And who knew about Tommy Kirk!  Important to note is that I understood every word he said despite his rage and railing, but did not understand about half of what Shalita Grant as Cassandra said.  I hope she learns from him.

    Naturally we end up listening to the Beatles with the siblings, which makes everybody happy.  Other technical matters:  I want to live in David Korins’s beautiful warm set.  I would and/or have lived in the perfect costumes by Emily Rebholz, and the lighting design by Justin Townsend was just right.

    It must be noted that we continued laughing even after the play was over as we fought our way out of the theatre onto the very crowded street.  Sweet.  The only thing wrong with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is that Kristine Nielsen’s name comes after the title instead of above it.

    *Mod.cons is an old real estate term in ads for residences, meaning "modern conveniences.That originally meant things like running hot water, a bathroom inside the apartment as opposed to down the hall and shared with strangers.  Now it means smartphones and PDAs and tweets and constant yet meaningless communication and multi-tasking.

    ~ Molly Matera, logging off.  I have more theatre to tell you about, but I need to sleep on those reviews.

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    Finks is a powerful piece of theatre with a lot of laughs. 

    For those who would look across the oceans at other countries that curtail the freedoms, physical and intellectual, of their citizenry, and say, “that couldn’t happen here”:  Well, it did, it has, and doubtless will again.  While this is no place for a history lesson, suffice to say that when World War II ended some people still needed an enemy.  Those who feared that our former ally, the Soviet Union, could infest our government, schools, lives with infiltrators to subvert the American way, decided to attack people who either were or had been members of the Communist Party in the U.S., or appeared to sympathize with them.  Thus was born the House Un-American Activities Committee (“HUAC”), one of the most un-American things I’ve ever heard of.  (There are others, but that’s for another time.)

    Madeleine Lee Gilford and Jack Gilford
    The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Radio Drama Network produced Finks at EST, which tells the story of two performers, Mickey and Natalie, who in real life translate to Jack Gilford and Madeleine Lee Gilford.  Other characters don’t align precisely with just one person during the McCarthy Era, but I guarantee you’ll be looking up actors, directors, choreographers from the early 1950s when you get home after seeing Finks.  The story of the play resonates as if we were transported back to 1951 as flies on the wall.  Looking back, we know the Gilfords survived their ordeals, if only by watching Mr. Gilford’s work in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Zero Mostel, who was also “blacklisted” for most of the decade.  Nevertheless, careers were derailed and these victims and their families were punished for the better part of a decade for no crime.  The “blacklist” (which was really a booklet called Red Channels listing whomever was named by anyone) was enforced by private corporations like Proctor and Gamble and Kellogg’s who pressured radio and television networks not to employee actors named in the book.  The sickness that was the McCarthy Era touched education and politics as well.

    Finks is a well-structured play, intriguing, and well written by Jack and Madeleine Gilford’s son, the playwright Joe Gilford.  The action goes back and forth between the Committee meeting room (its heavy wooden desk always present onstage and hovering), the club where we first see Mickey perform, Mickey and Natalie’s home, theaters, clubs, living rooms.  Giovanna Sardelli directed briskly, creating with her actors the right rhythm for each scene.  Choreography by Greg Graham was fun and exciting and perfectly performed by Miriam Silvermanas Natalie and Leo Ash Evens as Bobby.  The storytelling is electric, building to the explosive events of the HUAC hearings and winding down to the denouement of unemployment because of the blacklist.  The scenic design by Jason Simms was clever and simple enough to fit many locations, and Sydney Maresca’s costume design was on the mark, as was Jill BC DuBoff’s sound design.

    Leo Ash Evens as Bobby and Miriam Silverman as Natalie.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein.
    Aaron Serotskywas excellent as Mickey Dobbs (a.k.a. Gilford), a stand-up comic, singer, and actor, on the way up in the entertainment world. When he meets and falls for Natalie, he describes her perfectly as “Emma Goldman in Paulette Goddard’s body.”  Serotsky’s depiction of Mickey is simple and sweet, and we care deeply for him as he struggles to maintain his career while remaining true to his beliefs — he’s not demonstrative the way Natalie is, but once he’s with her, he’s with her all the way.   

    Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, Ned Eisenberg as Fred, and Miriam Silverman as Natalie.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein
    The tireless Natalie — actress, singer, dancer, activist and steadfastly loyal friend — was played by Miriam Silverman with gusto, enormous energy, warmth, and certainty.  Natalie and her dancing partner and friend Bobby (Leo Ash Evens) created a small group within the actors’ union who leaned left to seek aid for those in need.  She was also Bobby’s beard, which is all swell until someone (read lawyers working with the Committee) blackmails Bobby.  The list of people who named names back then is shocking, and when it is enacted before us — friends naming friends — it is heartbreaking.  Finksis what they are to Natalie, with no sympathy for their human weakness.  Mickey has more empathy, perhaps fearing he hasn’t the personal courage to stand up to the Committee.  Ned Eisenberg is just marvelous as Fred Lang (a combination character, including Zero Mostel, but without Mostel’s survival ability) — funny, angry, and frightened, a man who eloquently took the 1st*— as had the Hollywood Ten — and was, along with many others, sent to prison for it.  Eisenberg looks nothing like Lou Costello but does a fine impersonation of him.  Finally it’s Mickey’s turn in front of the Committee, and we hold our breath, as uncertain as he is, waiting to see how he will answer the call. 

    Eisenberg, Serotsky, Silverman, and Michael Cullen.  (c) 2013 Gerry Goodstein.
    All performances were excellent, with some actors playing and clearly differentiating multiple roles, including Thomas Lyons, Kenney M. Green, and Jason Liebman.  Michael Cullen was straightforward as the self-assured Representative Walter bullying all who came before him. 

    This is seriously good theatre, worth the walk (or cab) to 11th and 52nd Street.  Finksis only running to the 21st April at EST (http://ensemblestudiotheatre.org/finks-joe-gilford), so put it in your schedule.

    * Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off.  There’s so much more reading to do about what happens when we’re not looking….

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    Kafka’s Monkey is distressing, fascinating, and riveting because Kathryn Hunter subsumes her human self and becomes an ape. She is dressed in white tie and tails and can do a sweet soft shoe, but she is an ape, with her gamboled gait and swinging arms that bend back and off kilter. When she speaks her voice and intonation are not quite … human.  For Kathryn Hunter enters the stage, crouched and dragging a suitcase and cane, as “Red Peter,” a male chimpanzee from the Gold Coast who was shot and captured by Europeans.  This ape in man’s clothing has learned that, while freedom is impossible, he can find his way out of total captivity by emulating man.  He learns to drink alcohol and spit to be a man, and even learns to speak and swear.  So completely humanized has he become that Red Peter has a pretty silver flask that fits neatly into his jacket pocket, just like a Jazz Age swell.


    This sort of piece is not merely imagined and written.  No open call discovered Ms. Hunter.  This is a joint creation developed by theatrical colleagues.  Colin TeevanadaptedFranz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy” to create — along with director Walter Meierjohann and Ms. Hunter — this unusual bit o’ theatre.  It is one miserable story magnificently enacted at the Baryshnikov Arts Center where Theatre for a New Audience is presenting The Young Vic’s production.  Walter Meierjohann directs Ms. Hunter, who worked closely with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s movement director Ilan Reichel as the ape in Kafka’s story, who is specifically a chimpanzee in Ms. Hunter’s interpretation.
    Kathryn Hunter as Red Peter with his Baby picture.  Photo (c) 2013 Keith Pattison.

    A massive photograph of a baby ape’s face dominates the stage.There is a stool, two bananas, and a lectern. Otherwise the theatre space is just that — a space with lights and ladders and poles and pulleys.Kafka’s Monkeyneeds no more.  Its point is funny and sad, and its audience must laugh as well as weep. It is the story of a chimp abducted and tamed and trained for various purposes— a European zoo, perhaps a laboratory.  Eventually, Red Peter says, he chose life on the stage instead of captivity in a zoo and has become a renowned music hall variety star, come this evening to address a scientific academy — and an adventurous theatrical audience. Kafka’s Monkey is an indictment of humanity for its acts against all life.

    For all my rapt attention and shame at being human, Kafka’s Monkeydid not feel precisely like a play.  Not because it lacks a beginning-middle-and-end, but rather because we wait while Kathryn Hunter struts her hour on the stage, we wait for the story to go … somewhere else.  Eventually, just as the Ape says there is, in fact, no way out despite his “accomplishments,” he spies the Exit sign, and goes out.  Terrific story.  But a play?
    Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey.  Photo (c) 2013 Keith Pattison.

    Ms. Hunter as Red Peter stares down members of the audience as any animal would.  Watching Red Peter interact with members of the audience, grooming a man’s hair as he would a fellow ape, and eating the nits found there, is a delight.  He also kindly shares a banana with another member of the audience. Red Peter’s speech patterns go from cultured European gentleman to chimp chatter and shrieks to an angry man.  Er, ape.  He hangs from ladders and twists and turns and contorts his body till we wince. He gazes at us, forcing us to look into his eyes and see ourselves.

    Kathryn Hunter is amazing.  Her 50-odd year old body does everything she requires of it, which is an enormous amount.  She embodies Red Peter entirely.  Messrs. Teevan and Meierjohann and Reichel are brilliantly and bravely creative.  Still, it’s a story not a play.  In the same breath with which I say, “This is not a play,” I shout, “This is thought-provoking theatre.”

    After the fact, I recalled a scene in Cabaretin which the Emcee dances with an ape in a flowered hat and a frilly skirt, singing “If you could see her through my eyes….she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!”  I wondered, was that Kafka’s monkey?  The short story was first published in 1917, and has been discussed and critiqued for decades as to all its possible meanings — including the assimilation of Jews into Christian society — and the cabaret scene of Weimar Germany combined various forms of high and low culture.  Or perhaps it was just the cleverness of Kander and Ebb.  In how many other places, references, had I already experienced pieces of Kafka’s story without having read it, and without knowing? 

    Run don’t lope to the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Jerome Robbins Theater on 37th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues to see this limited engagement (April 3-17).  Luckily for us, the remarkable Kathryn Hunter will return the following week for another short run in Fragments, from the texts of Samuel Beckett, as directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne.  She is a performer worth traveling to see.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off.  So much to read and see, so little time…..

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    I have a fondness for the play Julius Caesar. Several years ago I directed a staged reading of it with an all female cast, and it was an enlightening experience. For instance, despite the fame of certain speeches in this play (not as many as in Hamlet, but still, enough), each and every one sounded new coming from a woman. Equal we are to men, but different indeed.

    Design by Michael Vale. Photo (c) 2012 Kwame Lestrade.
    Schoolkids are often forced into reading and reciting Julius Caesar, what with its nifty, time-saving combination of history and literature. And it’s true that, while technically a tragedy, this is one of Shakespeare’s historical-ish plays that doesn’t stray too far from the original source material. Who’s to say how far the original source material strayed from the facts, the setting down of which always depends on the politics of the time. At any rate, most of the time your Mark Antony, your Marcus Brutus, your lean and hungry-looking Cassius are pretty much what you’d expect, but not in the current production by the Royal Shakespeare Company playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (through 28 April). This production is set in 20th Century Africa, where all sorts of dictators, liberators, and military leaders have been rising and falling and toppling in the last several decades. Despite the modern setting, modern technology does not interfere in the telling of this story; rather, the lighting (Vince Herbert) and sound (Jonathan Ruddick) designs effectively help it along. The storm preceding the Ides of March is thrilling, with deep dark rumblings and flashes to frighten anyone.  

    Theo Ogundipe as the Soothsayer.  Photo by Kwame Lestrade.
    Michael Vale’s scenic design is earthy and practical, an imaginatively off-kilter setting that provided not only multiple levels for playing, but tunnels, or caves, and many steps. This is all topped by an imposing, outsized statue of Caesar, his back to the audience. Think what might happen to statues of dictators in the 20th Century. Vale also designed the costumes which, despite a hint of Roman togas, were decidedly not European. Lively and vibrant music by Akintayo Akinbode and dancing (movement by Diane Alison-Mitchell) introduce us to the citizens of “Rome,” who open the play celebrating their leader, Caesar, in the heights of rapture. That first scene foreshadows the people’s thoughtless reactions to come. Theo Ogundipe’s Soothsayer is covered in ash powder, painted to alternately stand out from and blend into the desert. He draws us from the ecstatic dancing and singing to moments of stillness as he speaks silently, questioning, looking upward. He dances, he talks, he lurks, and he finally pronounces the fateful words to Caesar: Beware the Ides of March.  
    Ray Fearon as Mark Antony.

    Gregory Doran, the RSC’s Artistic Director, directs this play briskly, powerfully, building on relationships, looks, whispers. Although the play runs close to three hours, Mr. Doran doesn’t allow us to feel it for a moment. The acting was generally excellent (although some of the African accented English was difficult to understand, noticeably Mark Antony).

    Despite this, our ears become accustomed to the speech, and physically Ray Fearon was a remarkable Antony, a canny alpha male who can cajole, calm, and incite his listeners. It is Antony that becomes the hero of the piece as Brutus and Cassius and their faction diminish. Paterson Joseph presented a strange interpretation of Brutus as a glad-hander instead of a stoic, as if he had found Brutus’ entire character in his admonition to the conspirators on that first night in his garden, when they came with faces hidden from the darkness. He urged them not to mask themselves but rather to hide the conspiracy “in smiles and affability!” This jovial Brutus is an unusual choice, but it worked toward a fine balance of the driven characters. Poor Cassius was totally screwed and we felt each slight by Caesar as Cyril Nri showed us the reality of a man who is no longer preferred, no longer a part of the in crowd. He is filled with fear, paranoia, and resentment. In this production it was always clear that everything Cassius said was smart, and each time Brutus denied him, Brutus’ ego diverted and weakened the plan and his co-conspirators.  
    Brutus and Cassius over the body of Caesar.

    Joseph Mydell’s Casca was witty and malleable. Jeffery Kissoon’s Caesar was a jealous old man, a corporate kingpin with the power of life and death, chilling in his ordinariness. Several members of the company, like Ricky Fearon and Jude Owusu, had a fine time playing disparate roles. Simon Manyonda, as Brutus’ servant Lucius, was engaging in each scene, whether sleeping or waking. As for the women, Calpurnia seemed to barely exist in this production, although the image of Portia did linger, particularly in the reactions of Lucius, Cassius, and Messala (Chiké Okonkwo) to her death.

    This is a forceful and vibrant production, a new interpretation of a story that still remains the same. If you’ve seen Julius Caesar, you haven’t seen one like this. If you haven’t, go learn a little history, listen to a little music, and love a lot of Shakespearean tragedy.  

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play yet again.

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    On Wednesday I caught the last (for now at least) performance of Aaron Mark’s one act play Another Medea upstairs at the Duplex. This is not a modern Medea. It is not Medea in drag. It is not funny, although it has some good laughs as human dramas always have. It is a conversation about how someone comes to lose himself so completely that he does dreadful things. It is an exploration, an investigation, and it is heart-breaking. We are not complicit in the acts, we don’t approve, but we are filled with dread as we comprehend.

    Tom Hewitt walks onto the Duplex stage as the Writer, a tall and handsome man, unassuming, and a bit uncertain. He is here, he tells us, to talk to Marcus, who hasn’t spoken to anyone in years, but after a lengthy correspondence has agreed to talk to this unnamed writer. He is unnamed because this is not about him. It’s about Marcus. The stage is empty but for a table, with a file folder on it, and a chair. Mr. Hewitt walks behind the table and sits in the chair facing us. Once he removes his glasses, he becomes Marcus.

    Marcus, an actor who must tend bar to make ends meet and shares a Queens apartment with two others, is in his 40s when he discovers love. This man holds us rapt in his gaze for over an hour. He tells us a story and plays all the parts in it, without ever leaving that chair. His face and his voice become other people in the split second it takes for dialogue to bounce back and forth. Mr. Hewitt, while barely moving his body, becomes ten people during the play.

    Playwright and director Aaron Mark asks many questions in this modern study of ordinary people which finally resolve into a story that all too closely parallels that of Medea. He questions human fascination with that awful story century after century after century. In Another Medea, Marcus’s lover is even named Jason. Near the end, Jason denies doing and saying something that starts the spiral toward destruction, and it was all I could do to keep from crying out “You LIAR! You did!” We are invested in Marcus, feel his joys and his hurts. Empathy in the situation brought about by Marcus and Jason and Jason’s sister (all played by Mr. Hewitt) holds us in our seats until the final horrific moments. Then silence falls.

    Mr. Mark’s script is intricate, layered, emotional, and chockful of life even though it runs just over an hour. Mr. Hewitt’s performance is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Another Medea at the Duplex was an intimate piece in an intimate space, and that makes for a powerful evening of theatre. Keep an eye and ear out for a return of this play.

    Two Acts Too Many 

    On Thursday I saw a production of August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death in a new adaptation by Mike Poulton. We’d looked forward to the Red Bull Theater’s production because we’d enjoyed the company’s productions several times in the past year or two. Alas, the evening played only two notes — one each for the usually charming Daniel Davis as Edgar and one for the shrill Laila Robins as Alice. A cipher appeared as the third character in the overlong first act. The best part of the second act was that Ms. Robins found a second note, and that it was shorter than the first act. Director Joseph Hardy created no levels, no rhythms, no reason for anyone to go the long way west to the Lucille Lortel Theater.

    Oh well.  We’ve seen lots of good stuff lately, and were due for a disappointing dud.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to ponder her birthday present to William Shakespeare.

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  • 04/23/13--19:00: My Year In Shakespeare
  • Once a year, some of us, we few, we happy few — or, as my cousin calls us, people with greasepaint in our blood — celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.  Why celebrate the birth (and death) date of someone who wrote over 400 years ago, is not in my family tree by any stretch of the imagination, and is recalled as school days torture by the majority of people I talk with every day?  Because listening to and reading Shakespeare sharpens my mind and has afforded me great pleasure over the years, as well as being the first building block in a number of friendships that have blessed my adult life.  I am grateful, more than once a year, to the Bard and those actors/directors/teachers/friends who taught me how to take his words in and make them mine, in particular Eric Hoffmann and the late Robert Mooney.


    The year’s wheel has come full circle, so I started writing down all sorts of fascinating things about Shakespeare, but then I had too much of a good thing, so I had to stiffen the sinews and start from scratch.  While setting goals for next year (for which I intend to plan ahead, just as I probably did last year for this), I’ll move apace with this year’s musings. 

    Once a year my friend Horvendile posts to his blog, A Likely Story, a list enumerating things he’s done — how many poems he’s written, how many plays, short stories, how many pints of Guinness or bottles of wine drunk, among other things (and thereby hangs a tale), as well as every play he’s attended.  Many of the last will overlap with my list of plays seen because we cannot get enough Shakespeare.

    I come to list Shakespeare, not to praise him, the plays and books I’ve seen and/or read that were by or about Shakespeare in the year since I last posted to the Happy Birthday Shakespeare Blog.  What would be impossible would be to list how many of Shakespeare’s phrases I have heard in everyday conversation without anyone realizing the debt.  There are too many to count, so that way madness lies.

    Last year I blogged about the role Shakespeare played in my theatrical experience in terms of performing and directing.  I said it then and I’ll say it again:  I’m no scholar or academic, and my experience with Shakespeare is certainly neither as consistent nor as long as I would like.  Still I remember learning to scan, learning how the verse (or lack thereof) can inform an actor more than 400 years on how to say a line, what it means, where the stresses go.  This is a remarkable gift.  (Or curse, when the actors strutting their hour onstage mangle the verse, which is why it can be so rewarding to experience the stories anew in a foreign tongue.)  So although I haven’t acted Shakespeare in some time, I continue to attend productions of his plays several times a year, I re-read some of the plays each year and someday soon I’ll re-read the entire canon, preferably aloud with friends.

    Just before we celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday last year, I saw the excellent SimonCallow perform Being Shakespeare which was written by the scholar/academic I am not, Jonathan Bates.  This is an historical fabrication bent on clarifying that Will Shakespeare had education and experience enough to have written the plays and poetry attributed to him, and happily had a number of monologues and soliloquies included in it.  This in contrast to Mark Rylance’s play, I Am Shakespeare, which I did not see but rather read.  It’s a lot of fun, but did not convince me that anyone besides Will wrote the plays.  (I still haven’t seen Anoymous.)
     


    Will was busy, so Artie posed in a ruff.  Ruff.  (c) 2013 Eric Johnson Jr.

    As summer 2012 dawned, I saw the NYC Public Theatre’s delightful production of As You Like It on a perfect evening at the Delacorte in Central Park.  Droll and heartfelt, it transported us all to joy.

    In October we trekked to lower Manhattan to see a production of Hamletfrom Shakespeare’s Globe.  I called it a Wee Hamletbecause of the charmingly compact set the company traveled with and the short playing time — due to the very fast delivery of a streamlined script.
     


    A representation of The Globe in London. 

    In November we journeyed to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for an unusual production from the Netherlands — it was an all-day affair featuring news crawls, newsreels, no intermission, however imbibing, wandering and tweeting were allowed.  This was Roman Tragedies, which is a mash of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra, by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam.  It was close to six hours, mostly fascinating.  Oh, and it was in Dutch.  No, I do not.

    In the new year, a delightful Much Ado About Nothing (by the same company that did a marvelous Taming of the Shrew last year, Theatre For a New Audience at the Duke Theatre in Manhattan) and most recently the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar at the BAM Opera House.



    A few decades ago (guess the year), my friends Judy and Alan and I purchased the best bargain of our lives — New York’s Public Theatre intended to perform the entire canon of Shakespeare over the course of five years, and we paid up front what then appeared to be an enormous sum to subscribe. For that investment, we saw all of the plays at least once, with extra productions over a period that stretched beyond those original five years, including reserved seats even at the summer venue, the Delacorte! Final tally: $11 per performance. The like will never come again.

    One of those friends is Alan Gordon, author of the Fools Guild Mysteries whose latest publication is an essay in the new book Living With Shakespeare, an anthology of essays by writers, actors, directors, and others edited by Susannah Carson and Harold Bloom. This book has given me hours of delight and I’m not even halfway through. The evening before Shakespeare’s birthday, the editor and several contributors chatted about the book and Shakespeare and the plays at the National Arts Club in Manhattan. An evening’s discussion among friends and strangers about Shakespeare — who could ask for more on the eve of the Bard’s birth.

    Also in 2013, looking forward to (I can practically hear Carly Simon singing “Anticipation”) Joss Whedon’s “home movie” of Much Ado About Nothing due in theatres in June. Then… whatever productions at BAM or elsewhere catch my eye. 
     

    Just when there was too much time between live theatre productions, Public Television provided the exciting Shakespeare Uncoveredseries, with Jeremy Irons, David Tennant, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, Joely Richardson, and Ethan Hawke exploring the texts, the sources, the lore of spending a life performing or directing Shakespeare.

    Videos (or DVDs, I have both) recently watched include Roman Polanski’s Macbeth with Jon Finch,Francesca Annis, and Martin Shaw.  I saw this on a high school field trip to Manhattan in the early 1970s.  Just as the nuns hadn’t realized that Romeo and Juliet would show some bare flesh in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet (how short-sighted of them!), I don’t think they realized the witches and Lady Mac would be naked — after all, the moors and stone castle floors of Scotland are quite chilly….  What I remember most clearly about the trip to see Macbeth was my friend Carolyn’s nails leaving marks on my arm when Macbeth’s head was lopped off by MacDuff. 


     
    Shakespeare inspires.

    With no malice aforethought but rather this birthday blog in mind, I’ll take note of anything Shakespearean that may come my way over the next twelvemonth….and once again I’ll post it to the website dedicated to bringing together people who blog and love Shakespeare and … whatever else the Happy Birthday Shakespeare bloggers do at this year’s celebration of the Bard’s Birthday.

    ~ Molly Matera, off to re-read Coriolanus before I view the DVD….

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  • 04/30/13--17:49: Spring Planting
  • I gave myself a 3-day weekend to ensure I had time enough to do my usual weekend collapse as well as planting flowers and/or herbs/veggies in the front and back gardens. The front is along the Grand Central Parkway, so although it has lots of sun, I wouldn’t want to plant edibles there what with all the soot and exhaust fumes. Of course, planting the front garden was not necessary in years past, but since Metro Management vandalized my tree, I’ve had to cover what was formerly covered by the blue spruce’s branches with flowers. The blue spruce’s roots are far reaching and shallow, so digging in the soil is precarious. Therefore I decided to create a “moat” of sorts, not dug in but built up with fencing and topsoil mixed with peat moss.


    Leave it to Lowe’s — I found a couple different fencing choices. None of them would do what I envisioned. Actually, I am much too lazy to do what I envisioned, which was to have a higher “wall” on the side of the tree farther from the building where the land sloped down, and a lower one close to the building. I did this:

    OK, I can not only not draw straight lines, I can’t make a border (or whatever) that is consistently 8 inches across. The result may be a bit lopsided, but it has ... character. I then planted some pretty red and pink flowers, some white pansies, something resembling 8 inches apart. Hopefully they’ll fill in. Water water water.

    Now what did I forget?









    Out back I planted some veggies, which are always an experiment: a zucchini plant, a cucumber plant, and a crookneck squash.

    Then I piled a bunch of pink petunias into a couple pots, and watered all. Not bad.

    What did I forget?
     

    Mulch. The front and back new plantings in the new topsoil should be protected with mulch. By this time the aching from carrying seven bags of top soil around was already setting in, so I decided the rest would wait until tomorrow. So on the third day of my weekend, I set off in the morning to the local hardware store, with a little wheely thing in tow. There were workmen digging away near the laundry room, so I determined not to do laundry only to have it covered with dirt on the way back. I assumed they were Verizon employees, who had marked the locations of Time Warner’s underground cabling some weeks earlier, I suppose so they don’t cut them while digging new trenches to lay Verizon Fios cable inside pipes.  The pipes didn’t look awfully sturdy to lay i’ the cold ground.

    Out here in the boondocks, we don’t have “city blocks” to make judging distances easy, but the hardware store is about a block past my morning bus stop, which is approximately five city blocks from my front door. Winters I’ve carried home my Christmas trees from the same block, and it’s easy. But a big bag of mulch? Probably not. Alas, they didn’t carry mulch at all, so I’d have to drive somewhere. The closest supplier I was sure would carry mulch was the Home Depot on Metropolitan Avenue, “around the corner” (a very large corner) from the supermarket, so away I went, combining chores, and praying to get the same parking spot on my return. 

    With a large bag of mulch in the trunk, two flats of red and pink impatiens on the back seat (must vacuum back there!) plus several bags of groceries later, I got an even closer parking spot to my front door. Frabjous day.

    But what’s this? A bunch of guys sitting on my front stoop and the step of the apartment opposite me, having their lunch. Equipment, shovels, stuff. These must be the Verizon guys, but now they’re digging between my building and the next. It seems unlikely that I’m going to work in my front yard with these guys there, so I leave the mulch in the trunk, and lug in the groceries. Returned for the two flats later, so now they’re sitting out back.

    Out back: a guy with a machine that digs trenches. It’s odd to have a motor turning over in my back garden, a disconcerting sound. The machine driver and I cleared my pots and plant tables and birdbaths from the path of the machine (most of which are technically not in my territory, which is the width of my apartment – the no man’s land where he wanted to dig a trench to the cater-corner building is covered in weeds and vines. Maybe they’ll get rid of some of those.). He said he’d put them all back, but I doubted it.

    Note: Tuesday, he has not moved it all back.

    Over the last several days as I worked in the garden with the wonderful soil, I started deepening an annoying cold and cough I’d picked up somewhere. My aches became less muscular and more flu-like. Sigh. Now my head is too heavy to do anything but photograph the long mound in between my building and the next. Too long for a grave. There are young men in the back again today, digging and covering the trench to the cater-corner building. Now I have lumpy graves.

    If I feel better later, maybe I’ll break out the mulch.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off. Unfortunately not cleaning up the back garden until the weekend comes.

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    I wasn’t in the mood for explosions or wearing my rock club earplugs to the movies, so the weekend Iron Man 3 opened, I went to my local movie-house and saw François Ozon’s Dans La Maison (or In the House).  Ozon wrote the screenplay based on Juan Mayorga’s play, with which I am unfamiliar, but the action probably played well onstage.  It’s a seemingly simple story simply told and I was riveted.  Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, who teaches literature and writing at the French version of high school; his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) manages a small art gallery for an owner who just died.  Germain’s newest and most intriguing student is Claude (an intense Ernst Umhauer), whose writing skills grab Germain’s interest.Claude’s writing assignments are based on his visits to a schoolmate’s home as he tutors the other boy (Rapha, realistically played by Bastien Ughetto) in math.  Claude has been watching Rapha’s house from a park bench for some time, hungry for what he calls “the perfect family.”  He involves himself with Rapha and his father (also Rapha, played by Denis Ménochet) and mother Esther (the wonderful Emmanuelle Seigner), insinuating himself into the perfect family he craves.

    Fabrice Luchini, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Ernst Umhauer (c) 2012 Mandarin Films
    Claude writes his adventures, Germain advises him on empathizing with and developing his characters. Germain also shares Claude’s stories with wife Jeanne, involving her in this questionable journey.  As we willingly follow along, the possibilities for nasty ramifications coming of Germain’s adventures with Claude amplify — not just in terms of how others may interpret Claude’s stories, but what Germain might do to ensure Claude continues writing the stories to which Germain is addicted.  Or is he addicted to Claude, his wife wonders. All the while, of course, we see Claude’s infatuation with Esther growing — Mother?  Lover?  We watch Claude revise his stories to please Germain, then watch as the experiences at Rapha’s house change. Which scenes that Claude wrote really happened?  The originals or the revisions?  How much of what Claude shows Germain is true, how much of what Ozon shows us is true?  How does one tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction?  What is truth in fiction, what is voyeurism?

    Mind you, one does not wonder such things during the film.  During the film we are experiencing what Germain experiences, questioning when he does, taking his side when others are unjust to him.  And marveling at the light touch of the delicious Monsieur Luchini, at the clear and natural behavior of Ms. Scott Thomas and Mlle. Seigner, then gleefully watching this young man, Ernst Umhauer, knowing we’re witnessing the beginning of a fascinating film career. 

    By the end of the film, Germain and Claude sit on a park bench looking at the windows of an apartment bloc.  Life is taking place through each window, and stories can be assumed or made up about all of them.  Dans la Maison is a fascinating piece of work, each character fully realized by the actor.  Monsieur Ozon captures the imagination and the conscience of his audience, and makes us question our own stories.

    ^^^^

    Last night, I saw David Edgar’s adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder at BAM, as directed by Andrei Belgrader.  Not fascinating.  John Turturro was a little bit of Pacino and a little bit of George C. Scott, but not particularly Halvard Solness, the egomaniacal Master Builder.  Santo Loquasto’s set was practical but disappointing, while the incidental music (by Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery, also credited with sound design) was lovely.  Wrenn Schmidt was alternately engaging and annoying as Hilde Wangel, the “other woman” who isn’t quite real.  The highlight of the evening, however, was watching, hearing, and delighting in Katherine Borowitz as Solness’ wife Aline.  Each time she entered the stage, the play picked up.  She was a human being, with ticks and character and a history lending her a fragility that drew us to her.  The rest of the cast paled beside her, but the most amateurish performance was by Ken Cheeseman as the local doctor.  
    Katherine Borowitz, John Turturro, and Wrenn Schmidt.  Photo (c) 2013 Graeme Mitchell.

     So ends our spring season subscription to BAM.  Some good, some not, yet always worthwhile.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to get some sleep before the EST One Act Marathon starts.

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    It’s not that I’m a Trekkie, but I did read Stephen E. Whitfield& Gene Roddenberry’s book Making of Star Trek when I was in high school.  I learned spiffy things like how the doors were made to slide open and closed in that swooshing way, and that the phasers were made from salt and pepper shakers.  I watched most (not all) of the spin-offs of the original program (which I own in its original state — no fixing up of those cheesy effects for me).

    When, in 2008 or so, I heard that a new movie was coming out with all the original characters in their youth, I said please!  That’s ridiculous.  They didn’t know one another at the beginnings of their careers, every body knows that Chekhov wasn’t even there until the 2nd season, that Bones wasn’t the first doctor on board, and that Spock had ties to his former captain, Christopher Pike.  I was offended at the concept.  Yet somehow, director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman pulled it off.  They came up with a twist that changed the universe as we had known it just enough to throw our beloved original characters — Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Chekhov and Sulu, Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Commander Scott — onto a magnificent starship Enterprise much earlier in their formation than in the former universe, essentially starting the relationships from scratch, with a difference.  And then another twist.  The 2009 Star Trek was a blast.

    Bearing in mind that a good film director is a manipulator —Hitchcock manipulated the hell out of us, Spielberg manipulates us to feel fear, anger, hope, joy — the new Star Trek films work despite their holey scripts and bumpy (not edgy) storylines.  J.J. Abrams has manipulated us into ignoring what’s insufficient and remembering the fun.  I’ve got no problem with that.

    I have issues with explosions and shoot-outs (the issue is that I'm bored) and making the Star Trek tradition just another special effects in space war movie.  Star Trek is supposed to be about the people and ideas and ideals.  Second time around for this alternate universe, and I was full of dread — according to the trailers, which of course are horrendous advertisements most of the time, and they’re certainly not directed at me — the new Star Trek promised to be overly noisy without enough character interaction.  Nevertheless, they’re trailers, so I would not allow them to stop me from seeing the new Star Trek Into Darkness, with my handy-dandy earplugs at the ready.

    Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures.
    This second outing, written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof (all based, of course, on Gene Roddenberry’s original ideas) is another triumph of wooing the die-hard fans of the old show while inviting new fans into this new franchise.  Yes, there are explosions, but some are natural.  Yes there are “gunfights,” but they don’t take awfully long before they become interesting in a character-based way.  Characters matter, character growth occurs, relationships mature.  What a delight.  The hardest part of this post will be to avoid spoilers.  I want everyone to have as good a time when they see Star Trek Into Darkness as I had this weekend.

    Chris Pine as Jim Kirk with Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike.  (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures
    The story does still touch on a battle of ideals:  Is Starfleet a scientific organization engaged in exploratory voyages and peacekeeping, always abiding by the Prime Directive, or is it a military organization doing some science on the side?  Unfortunately it only just touches upon these important themes because the director/producer/writers do not trust the audience to live without the explosions long enough to think and question.  We all know the historical and present Kirks have nasty habits of ignoring the Prime Directive when they consider it needful, and Kirk does love to fight.  Orci, Kurtzman, Lindelof and director Abrams are trying to balance the thinking Kirk and the emotional Kirk, allowing him to learn to know himself better, but we’re losing patience with him.

    Zoe Saldana as Uhura (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures
    The gang from the last film is back, and each of them deserves praise, but particularly Zachary Quinto deepening his interpretation of Spock, Zoe Saldana as tough and tender Uhura, and the warm and wonderful Bruce Greenwood as Admiral Pike.  Simon Pegg’s Scotty is too good and funny and endearing (if a bit too skinny) to leave out, and then there’s the drop-dead gorgeous Karl Urban channeling DeForest Kelleyas Bones.  John Cho is a powerful Sulu and Anton Yelchin is constantly on the run as Chekhov (including in one of the most absurd and overly long scenes of chaos).  New characters are Peter Weller as the leader of Starfleet, Admiral Marcus, Alice Eve as Dr. Carol Marcus (ring any bells?), and Noel Clarke (Rose’s sometime boyfriend Mickey in Doctor Who) appears as a Starfleet officer.  Of particular note, of course, is this film’s marvelous villain, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, rogue Starfleet operative.  He is lean and limber, wears long coats very well, and has a savagery and intelligence that drives him above and beyond other mere humans.  He’s a fine opponent for both Kirk and Spock, as partners and individually.

    Benedict Cumberbatch and Karl Urban (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures
    About Kirk, or Chris Pine…. I’m not a fan.  I’m not saying Pine’s not a good actor, I just don’t see him or hear him as James T. Kirk.  The James T. Kirk who grew up with a father in the other universe was running the Starship Enterprise before the age of 34.  This guy couldn’t run a horse at the age of 34.

    The thing about this film is that it’s filled with delightful echoes, visual and aural, of the original series I grew up with, not to mention one of the better (although I can’t say “good”) early films. Thing is, I don’t want to give anything away (although we do see a tribble!).  I want each viewer to enjoy the surprises and the nods and the tugs on heartstrings as much as I did.  Go see Star Trek Into Darkness(2-D is just fine) and we’ll talk.


    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch an episode from Star Trek’s first season. No, I won’t tell you which one.

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    The Ensemble Studio Theatre’s 34thMarathon of One Act Plays begins with Series A, running from May 18ththrough June 2nd. 


    The first half of the evening includes three one-act plays.  First up, a short play that John Patrick Shanley probably had lying around on a floppy disc for years.  Poison, directed by John Giampietro, is cute and ends with a joke.  It’s merely a sketch, with Jacqueline Antaramianfunny as the Gypsy, Aaron Serotskyput upon and impatient as Kenny, and Alicia Goranson mostly manic.

    Next up was presumably an excerpt from a longer work, dramatic or otherwise.  Kandahar to Canada by Dan O’Brien, directed by Mark Armstrong, was rather pointless and lazy, but at least it was brief.  It is not a one-act anything, rather a chronology going nowhere but Ottawa.

    The evening picked up a bit with Something Fine by Eric Dufault, directed by Larissa Lury.  Beth is a trucker, and her truck’s cab is depicted on the stage adorned with a balloon, a cooler with cake and ice cream for her daughter’s birthday, and a pair of statuettes on the dashboard:  a bobble-hipped hula girl and a Virgin Mary.  Beth (Cathy Curtin) is brash and crass and sleepless, chugging 5-hour energy drinks.  Hula Girl (Lucy Devito) and Virgin Mary (Diana Ruppe) also appear as full grown people – they sway and jiggle with the truck’s journey.  Hula girl chats happily, while Virgin Mary is furious that they’re merely plastic statuettes.  Beth has been driving for 36 hours without sleep, so we are in constant fear she’ll drive herself off the road before she makes it home.  Instead she comes to a different crisis.  Something Fine was quirkily entertaining, going from hilarious to almost poignant.

    You Belong to Me by Daniel Reitz, directed by Marcia Jean Kurtz, opened the second half of the evening with a New York story that includedgorgeous performances by Patricia Randell as Susan and Scott Parkinson as Robby.  Ms. Randell’s stark white face is frozen in horror as the lights come up on a subway car setting.  In a spring dress and lightweight cardigan, she stares at a man a few seats away, a rather messy man in a winter coat, his thin arms wrapped around his backpack.  He is apparently homeless.  Ms. Randell’s character finally speaks:  “Robby?”  The man recognizes his name, perhaps the voice, and turns to look at her.  “Susan?” he says.  Thus begins a surreal portrayal of a New Yorker’s nightmare, that we know the homeless man we are trying desperately to not see or hear or smell.  Susan and Robby knew one another well, when they were both at Columbia University.  Their lives took different turnings, his more obvious than hers, although Susan is lost in her way, too.  It’s a heartbreaking exchange between them, and Patricia Randell and Scott Parkinson both shine through.

    The final play of the evening has a perfect title:  Curmudgeons in Love by Joshua Conkel, directed by Ralph Peña.  Curmudgeon #1 is Ralph (the wonderful David Margulies), a grumpy old man in a nice assisted living facility, who yells at his nurse (tough and tender Daniela was well played by Veronica Cruz), who yells back.  Ralph’s granddaughter Robin (Nina Hellman, who looks frail but can hold her own) comes to visit and he yells at her. When she yells back, it becomes clear that yelling means love.  Ralph is not a happy fellow, though.  After a 30-year marriage with children and grandchildren then years alone, at 80 he fell in love.  All he wants now is to live with Jackie, but he’s told he cannot.  Jackie’s grandson Brant (Alex Manette) comes to visit, and Ralph yells at him, too, so we know how he feels about Brant.  Finally someone else is yelling from outside, and Brant runs out to wheel in his grandfather, dressed in a tux but confined to a wheelchair.  This is Jackie (Martin Shakar), and all becomes clear.  Two old widowers fell in love, and their grandchildren connive to have them married now that same sex marriage is legal in New York. The old men who discovered true love late in life can live together in wedded bliss.  Totally believable robust characters give us the sweetest moment of the evening, when Jackie’s grandson dances as proxy with Ralph. 

    Everyone left the theatre happy — smart programming.  Five plays in two hours (including a 10-minute intermission) is an auspicious start to this year’s marathon.  List of plays and playwrights at:  http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/node/2009


    ~ Molly Matera, signing off, drying off, hoping everyone has a fabulous Memorial Day Weekend. 



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  • 05/27/13--21:05: The Not Great Gatsby
  • The best thing about Baz Lurhmann’s film of The Great Gatsby is that it inspires me to re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel for the first time in decades. I remember quite well that it was about much more than Lurhmann got or portrayed, despite his florid and opulent style of filmmaking. Much of the screenplay by Lurhmann and Craig Pearce comes straight from the novel, but without understanding and with a jumbled structure. The framework that they used as an excuse to tell the story is false and overdone as is most of Mr. Luhrmann’s work. Just tell the story.

    Great Visuals, Lacking in Depth

    Mostly I found Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby boring. In the same vein, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway was boring. Carraway shouldn’t steal the limelight, of course, but he need not belong nowhere to the extent Maguire’s Nick did.

    The good bits:  
     
    Myrtle and Tom standing, Nick and Catherine (c) 2013 Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow

    Joel Edgerton was revolting as Tom Buchanan, therefore excellent. Tom Buchanan is a thug, born to old money or not, on the page and on the screen. Real emotion plays over his hard face, and much as I dislike Tom, Mr. Edgerton made me feel for him – just a smidge.  

    Elizabeth Debicki appears sleek and smooth as Jordan Baker, with depths and humor peeking out from her eyes. She is the one character we don’t see enough of. There’s so much more going on with Jordan than we get to see, but that’s probably because Gatsby and Daisy are just not as interesting as she is. More Jordan would throw the picture out whatever balance it has.  
     
    Jordan and Nick (c) 2013 Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow

    Isla Fisher was striking as Myrtle, almost as vulgar as Tom. Her desperation came through every moment she was onscreen. As her sad husband George, Jason Clarke lived in the time and the town and the muddy dead end all too convincingly.

     Leonardo DiCaprio does a good job as Gatsby, making him untrustworthy while endearing, and perhaps slightly mad.

    Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and Nick.  (c) 2013 Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow
     I’m a Carey Mulligan fan, and she did a good job as Daisy, but Daisy is so boring it’s hard to recognize it. Daisy is pretty, shallow, helpless, and utterly unlikeable. Somehow that didn’t make the novel difficult to bear, but it does this movie.

     As Myrtle’s sister Catherine, Adelaide Clemens looked like an overly made up Carey Mulligan, so I did wonder what Luhrmann was up to. But he didn’t follow through, so I suppose he wasn’t up to much of anything interesting at all.

    This film is full of throwaway characters, famous names, and hints that the story may have a point. Mr. Luhrmann doesn’t get it, so he didn’t give it. I’m tired of filmmakers taking books and leading people to believe the shallow films coming out of Hollywood and Australia and wherever else are actually related to the original books on which they’re allegedly, very loosely based (but from which they clearly have merely stolen the titles).

    Reason to be glad to have seen it:  an actress I hadn't seen before but will remember:  Elizabeth Debicki.


    ~ Molly Matera, wishing she’d chosen to see Iron Man 3 instead.

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

    Series B played like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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  • 06/09/13--10:22: Weekend in the 'burbs

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

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










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


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

    Wilbur is trapped

    Chick is rapt














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


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




    Alas, the cucumber is not taking.





    Finally, inside, my experiment with organic celery seems to be going well.  I bought the organic celery at Whole Foods a few weeks ago, and then followed the instructions here: http://www.17apart.com/2012/02/growing-celery-indoors-never-buy-celery.html.  Five days after “planting” the base in water and setting the bowl in the kitchen window, this is what I’ve got.  It seems to be working.  How cool is that!


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

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

     

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  • 06/22/13--08:23: Come Saturday Morning
  • I'm back from a few perfect days with friends in Pennsylvania (more of that anon, when I sort through my photos of the Solebury/New Hope area and write my review of the wonderful new Terrence McNally play we saw at the Bucks County Playhouse), and now home with my cats.  I will not write about my fury as I drove back to New York.  There is not now nor will there ever be any excuse for it to take an hour to go from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to my part of Queens.  A full hour.  Even the approach to the Bridge wasn’t as bad this time was as the BQE.


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



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

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

     Pastella for dipping...

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


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









    All this and the hydrangea are blooming too.

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

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