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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Kenneth Branagh’s1993 film of Much Ado About Nothing had one of the wittiest title shots I can recall.  I burst out laughing in the theatre when I first saw it, and it still tickles me.  It’s over the top, as is much of the film.  I like Branagh.  I love Joss Whedon.  I like Kenneth Branagh’s work as an actor better than that of Alexis Denisoff.  And yet, watching Branagh’s delightful Much Ado, his Benedick seemed to be overdoing it a bit — downright broad for film.  This did not diminish my enjoyment of that Much Ado then or now.  Set in a vivid and hot Italian landscape in another century, Branagh’s film was more. exuberant than Whedon’s modern version, which setting required something resembling realism. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Over 90 degrees in the day, 80s at night.  Nice breeze if you’re in the right spot.  Where is that spot?

    Millie and Wilbur celebrate Independence Day
    Thursday – the 4th

    Recently I’ve taken an interest in plantings that may keep the flies and mosquitoes away from me when I dare to sit in my back garden.  Not unusually, I went a smidge overboard.  I used my 4-day Independence Day Weekend to shop and work in the garden.

    I’d done some reading and came up with a list of possibilities, none of which would interfere with anything I’ve already planted.  Herbs have amenable companions and irritable companions, and it’s best to plant friendly herbs and vegetables in the same area.

    My first shopping trip included a stop at Ace hardware, just because I like hardware stores.  There I picked up, inexpensively, two rectangular plastic containers for planting, and a small bag of potting soil that I figured I’d keep around for when I re-do my organic celery experiment (which went awry, probably because I used what I had when I planted it, which was topsoil).  Also two little caramel rolls, which I only just remembered were in my purse, so I’m eating one!

    Next stop:  Garden World, where I picked up Catmint (Nepeta), a large Rosemary plant (Gorizia), and two Lemon Balms.  All of these allegedly repel mosquitoes, and the Rosemary should attract honeybees.  Lovely idea, since it’s going near the zucchini and squash.  Also a large bag of potting soil for whatever I chose to put in pots instead of the ground.

    Note – the cats do not differentiate between catmint and catnip but roll in its leaves regardless of suffix.

    In the evening I watched a DVD of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  Silliness played straight, with some nice performances.  Just as it started to get dull with an overlong fight, it picked up again, so by and large quite enjoyable.

    Friday the 5th

    I’d ordered some things online at the Home Depot in Glendale, so used picking those up as an excuse to buy more things at their nursery: Italian Flathead Parsley (this year it'll go in a pot not the ground), Basil (even though I have some, it’s not as if one can have enough pleasant aromas in the garden), Chamomile, English Thyme, a container tomato plant, and a Japanese cucumber that was labeled as good for growing in a container.  Since the cucumber I planted in Spring didn’t work in my soil (for any number of reasons), I’ll try a pot.  Finally, I picked up a Citronella mosquito plant.  It’s not attractive, but I couldn’t find a geranium-citronella hybrid in Garden World or Home Depot.  And once I start, I want to do it all in one weekend, so it’s not as if I’d search elsewhere.

    In the evening I watched The Odd Life of Timothy Green.  It’s sweet, unapologetically magical, a relaxing delight.


    Citronella -- not pretty.

    Saturday the 6th

    Didn’t get into the garden until 11 this morning, more fool me.  Over 90˚ again.  Mad dogs and Englishmen….  I used both the big and small bags of potting soil since I used several containers.  The available space in the garden is clogged with the ubiquitous ivy vines, and it’s too hot to dig.  Not to mention, the spots left really don’t get a lot of sun.  Of course, with pots I can move things around, which I’ve done several times already.  I took photos of morning sunlight in the garden, afternoon sunlight, and late afternoon.  The trees block it at various times of day, but I love the trees, so will make do. 


    First, I cleaned out leaves and dead plants and detritus, so it just looks nicer.  Being more accustomed to beans than squash, I thought to tie up (stake) zucchini and crookneck squash plants, but online wisdom (checked during a water and air conditioning break) said they are ground spreaders, so I left them, just mulched well under them. 

    The Rosemary plant is huge, and since the last one didn’t do well indoors over winter, I planted the new one in the ground between the zucchini crookneck squash with a lemon balm plant nearby.  Although the white impatiens are flourishing in their original containers on these hot sunny days, they generally prefer some shade, so I’ve moved them behind the crookneck and under the hydrangea. 
     
    Rosemary and lemon balm and crookneck.  Container since moved has cuke, thyme, and more lemon balm
    The hydrangea is very well but a bit off kilter as it reaches for the sun.  I re-arranged some supports under different parts of it, and cut back some of the evergreen that forced the hydrangea to reach out.  Hoping for a cooler weekend next week so I can do some serious tree pruning, as well as plant the remaining red impatiens around the blue spruce out front (where, on Friday, the management company’s people actually weed-wacked away where needed, hooray).


    Presently one of the basil plants is in a hanging pot near the birdbath.  Before winter I must repair the wall over the kitchen window so I can hang the basil inside.  Chamomile likes part shade so it’s in a pot in the shadiest part of the garden, which gets afternoon sun. 

    I scrubbed both bird baths, shifted the white plastic one a bit, away from the bird feeder, and put the one I know full well is cracked into the middle of the garden.  It looks nice there but will require frequent filling.  The water should be changed more frequently than in the past to keep the skeeters from delighting in it.  I don’t think the birds liked the new placement of the feeder, so I moved it back closer to where it had been.  When it’s a bit cooler — when??? — I’ll sit and stare for the best spot.  

    Finally I knew I had to clean up before I could see the garden in its new configuration, so raked and hauled off garbage.  Too darned hot.

    After a delightful cool shower and a little lie down with my feet up — don’t worry, Millie didn’t let me rest for long — I went back outside in the early evening, still full light.   
    This had sat by the door as shoe scraper, but that didn't like frequent immersion it received. Now it leads into the garden

    The neighbors have company (I knew they would, I heard the leaf blower before I went in to shower), children shrieking with pleasure then whatever else children shriek about.  There’s a bit of a breeze.  There are also mosquitoes and flies.  So far they don’t understand that they should be repelled by all my new plants.  Containers will need to do some shifting about, I think…..


    Tomorrow I’ll spend the hottest part of the day at the movies instead of out in the midday sun. I hope your holiday weekend was relaxing, independent, even cool.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to sit out back and stare at my revived garden in the waning light.


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  • 08/26/13--19:19: Conjuring the World's End


  • I saw two movies in August, one for which I’d had a smidge of hope and one for which I had high hopes.  The one for which I’d had only a smidge of hope in the first place, The Conjuring, was quite disappointing.  Director James Wan gave us a few startling jumps, but nothing really frightening.

    Lesson the First:  When the family dog refuses to enter the big isolated house they bought at auction, the human family shouldn’t enter either.  Alas, humans never learn.

    In The Conjuring, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren discover the real thing in a secluded farmhouse that the Perron family bought with the last of their savings.  The clothes and hair are the first clue that we’re in the 1970s.  The music seems occasionally out of time.  The mentality is older — God and Demons are one thing, but the Warrens believe unhappy women were witches and could control the actions of the living centuries after their own deaths.

    While there are plenty of frights and gasps and starts, this movie talks too much, shows too much, and tries to make believe it’s practically a documentary.  I’ll see Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor in just about anything, but I hope they pick better going forward.  A good cast did what they could with the material, but when it devolved to absurd records of a woman called Bathsheba (Lesson the Second:  If you want your daughter to be a good girl, there are certain names you oughtn’t stick her with) accused of consorting with Satan and centuries later she was the evil presence in the house in which, for some reason, we could see as well as hear clapping hands.  For goodness’ sake. 

    Just a note re witches: Everyone knows that women accused of being witches were not consorting with Satan; they merely had property or power that the local men wanted.  Real witches were entirely different:  Read Roald Dahl’s The Witches. He explains it all.

    Now for the good movie of August:  The World’s End, which is the name of a pub.  A good start.  Director Edgar Wright introduces us to 1990 Newton Haven, a cozy-looking small town somewhere in England, then passes by a little real life that’s not fun at all, and brings us back to Newton Haven 20 years later.  1990 is amusingly narrated and yet what we see rather conflicts with what the narrator recalls.  Five friends somehow graduated from school and went on a pub crawl called “The Golden Mile” in their home town — yes, Newton Haven — which includes 12 delightfully named pubs at which the boys had intended to have one pint each.  That’s twelve pints per boy.  As anyone might imagine, it didn’t work out.

    (c) 2013 Focus Features
    Twenty years later, a sadder but no wiser Gary King (the scathingly brilliant Simon Pegg) wants to get the band back together, as ’twere, and do the Golden Mile.  Life didn’t go so awfully well after high school (or whatever they call it in England), and Gary thinks re-living this epic night with his old pals will save him. His pals (whom he hasn't seen in many years) disagree, but go along because he lies to them.

    Simon Pegg as Gary King and the Map
    This is Simon Pegg and Nick Frost at their hilarious best, having a fine time with Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman as all five pals grown up.  The touristy map that could pass for a hotel placemat shows the route through town to the 12 pubs, and Gary marks off each one as they achieve it.  The present attempt is as doomed as the first, but not for the same reasons as the 1990 crawl.

    Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Eddie Marsan in a pub.
    The brisk script by Pegg and Edgar Wright (co-writers of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) builds and grows under Wright’s whimsical direction.  The humans are all totally real, dreaming of a barely recognizable past that did not prepare them for adult life they don’t really know how to live, with Gary in particular compounding his unhappiness with foolhardy dreams of reliving past glories.  Bruce Springsteen sang about it, and Pegg & Wright have written a sweet, thoughtful, and incredibly funny film about it all.

    And then there’s the darkness. 

    The men gradually realize that not only have they changed, so has their home town.  Rediscovery of all this is a jolly journey for us, not so much for the guys.  In lesser, duller hands this would just be about 5 merely chronologically adult males behaving foolishly and getting gutter laughs.  Pegg & Wright go much further, touching on dreams of freedom, lost youth...and then they take a roundabout turn into crazy.

    Frost, Rosamund Pike, Considine, Marsan, Freeman, and Pegg.  In a pub.
    From the quickest shot of a passerby to the leads, the cast is formidable.  I’ll just list a few:
    Simon Pegg as Gary King
    Nick Frost as Andy Knightley
    Martin Freeman as Oliver Chamberlain
    Paddy Considine as Steven Prince
    Eddie Marsan as Peter Page
    Rosamund Pike as Sam Chamberlain (Oliver’s kid sister, love interest for both Gary & Steve since childhood)
    Pierce Brosnan as Guy Shephard, the cool teacher
    David Bradley as Crazy Basil
    With a special non-appearance by Bill Nighy

    The World’s End has two lessons:  1) you cannot go home again, and 2) if your high school memories are warm and fuzzy, you’re probably misremembering.  The World’s End has a terrific script well directed by Edgar Wright, and its cast is top notch and pitch perfect.  I will see this again and again and find more to laugh about.  Because humans are funny.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off and purchasing another ticket!

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  • 09/08/13--18:08: Vacation in Amagansett


  • Tuesday 3 September 2013
    The drive to Amagansett, which should have been a smidge shorter than the drive to Montauk, took two and a half hours.  OK, I stopped briefly at the grocery store, but the 2-lane highway was backed up for miles until I reached East Hampton, then it all broke up. As I got closer to the end of the Long Island Expressway, the storm clouds built up to the east.  As long as I was driving east, I drove toward the storm.  By the time I got out to Amagansett, though, the storm had passed, leaving several inches’ worth of puddles behind.

    Didn’t arrive at Driftwood on the Ocean (Montauk Highway, next to the Hither Hills State Park) until almost 4, unpacked a bit so I could get into the beautiful pool.  It’s open 9-7 barring stormy (that is, lightning) weather.  After swimming gently for half an hour (no exercise in far too long, so I started slow), I walked out to the beach.  Rough surf, just beach as far as you could see east and west.  I found myself a bit tired, but pushed on.  On the way back from the beach, I stopped in the office to ask if any of the eating places were in walking distance.  Three:  Lobster Roll (a.k.a. “Lunch”), Cyril’s Fish House, and the Crab Shack. 

    view of the ocean dunes from my patio
    room with ceiling fan and patio
    After showering me and rinsing the bathing suit (1 of 3), I hung the suit in the shower and headed out.  It was dark twilight by then, and I walked down the road from the resort toward Montauk Highway.  To my right was the pool, then some separate buildings, perhaps cottages (what an American would call a cottage, not a Brit), all shielded by the shrubbery and trees of the dunes.   

    path to the beach
    In the twilight I saw a deer.  A buck, but not terribly big.  He watched me, and I motioned him – all right, I told him, to go back into the park.  Don’t go toward the road.  I walked forward, watching him, and he walked parallel, watching me, bushes between us.  Then I saw the doe.  I gave her the same instructions, don’t go toward the road.  Twilight and dawn are prime times for deer getting hit by cars.  She seemed spooked and leapt into the brush.  He kept watching me.  He walked between the bushes and the cottage, watching me.  I walked along, keeping an eye out for cars.  One drove by me, but there were no awful sounds afterward.

    Cyril’s Fish House is just across Montauk Highway, so I stepped around the massive puddles from the afternoon’s storm and ran across the highway to eat.  Bob Marley sang all the while.  Children marveled at the mosaic fish scenes on the walls. 

    Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to sleep.  Pains, a bit of nausea – so glad I brought that can of ginger ale that came with a Chinese restaurant order.  I had left the curtains slightly open, wanting the dawn to wake me.  Well it did.  I got up and looked to the east, and the red band lightening the sky was beautiful. 

    Wednesday 4 September 2013
    Woke much later than planned.  Put the “do not disturb” sign out.  I need nothing.  My arms vaguely achey, as is my neck, as if I slept badly.  Which I did. 

    The patio is raised one story, and concrete, with concrete molded fencing and wood fencing between the rooms.  If I stand at the edge and look south east, I can see the ocean, just.  For a while, in the wee small hours, I could hear the ocean as the traffic diminished.  But mostly I hear traffic, the railroad’s horn, and the creatures in the preserve.  In the night.  Beautiful place, but I’d rather hear the ocean.

    After a walk on the shore did nothing to alleviate the stress brought on by some aggravating phone calls, I went to Montauk.  I made my annual stop at the Montauk Bookstore, bought Shirley Jackson’s first published novel, and picked up a few more things (of course) at the IGA.  The drive made me feel better.  Ate at home.  Love my back patio and the table.  It’s all wrought iron, the seat cushions firm but soft, and I put one on the back as well.  Spent much time there.

    sunset over the pool and the highway
    Thursday 5 September 2013. 
    I can’t seem to get myself down to the pool for “adult hour” between 9 and 10.  Later morning, I swam for a bit.  Annoying children who didn’t belong on the deep end.  I remember loving to jump into the water, but that boy with the green goggles never let go of the ladder or the side wall, so he clearly was too afraid to be in the deep water, but his adult was on the shallow end of the pool.

    sun paints dune and treetops gold as it sets
    In mid afternoon I took a walk along shore, picked up some trash rather than see it washed out to say. Tide was coming in, and someone was going to lose primary-colored earth-moving machine toys.  Sat for a while and stared from a lounge chair piled up near the entrance.  Then at dinnertime swam in the pool.  Decided not to walk the mile or so to Lobster Roll but drive, and went carefully at twilight (when the deer might be out again).  Didn’t see them, did see a rabbit. 

    Again woke multiple times in the night, had even closed the patio door in prep for a chilly forecast.  Dreamt, I presume – someone walked along the walkway of front doors, shouting that we should find the button on the blanket and push it and it would get warmer.  I found small pearl sized buttons along the edge of the blanket, pushed one, and it was warmer.  Definitely a dream.  Not a dream was my damn phone.  It kept saying “Verizon Wireless.”  Several seconds would pass, and then something about “leaving service area.”  At least once an hour, as if the hotel were moving.  The hotel didn’t move.  At 3 in the morning I turned off the phone, and therefore my alarms.  Dream-filled sleep.

    Friday 6 September 2013
    Friday, last full day.  It’s chilly, delightfully. Bright sun on pool, kids there, I can’t go in just now but should go down there and just scribble what they say.  Little girl with a harsh voice, the harridan cried, Emily, you said you’d jump, JUMP!  Emily says she’s going to, harsh girl shouts VIDEO IT VIDEO IT to her mother, who foolishly says OK, but Emily won’t jump despite the harsh girl’s bullying.  She does later. 

    i do love my patio
    Saturday 7 September 2013
    Woke a little after 8 from a dream in which all the cat food dishes were totally empty. 
    It’s very cold this morning, so tough to take advantage of “Adult Hour” in the pool.  The weekend brought rowdies, the kind who do 4 to a room.  They were rowdy up to midnight last night and they’re rowdy now.  Luckily there’s some barrier between their patio and mine, but still.  Mostly packed, just want to take a plunge in the pool.  As soon as I put on some clothes, I can start bringing things down.  I can walk along the beach even after I’ve checked out, I know where the bathroom is, so I can relax. 



     
    Note for next time – Although checkout time is 11 a.m., when I checked out at 10:55, she said I didn’t have to leave.  That I could use the pool, go to the ocean, whatever, and just use the shower and bathrooms in the Recreation room, pretty much under my hotel room.  So next time, I should plan on going home much later.  
    Room 62 was lovely, but far from the water, so I heard the highway, not the ocean until the wee small hours when I should be asleep.  Next time – a room numbered in low 50s would be closer to ocean, and still have private patio overlooking the ocean dunes.   

    A less than relaxing time, but beautiful.

    ~ Molly Matera, back home, happy to see the cats, otherwise miss jumping in that pool every day….

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  • 10/14/13--18:02: "Big Fish" Tells a Whopper


  • The thing about Big Fish is that it looks fabulous.  Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman knows how to set ′em up then pull out all the stops with energetic and/or synchronized dance numbers.  She overwhelms us.  Combining fantastical scenic design by Julian Crouch and imaginative Projection Design by Benjamin Pearcy, glittering lighting design by Donald Holder and the always fresh costume design by the ubiquitous William Ivey Long (he designed Norbert Leo Butz’s trousers to cling just enough to showcase his lovely bum, thank you very much), these fine theatrical pros have created a visual feast of a thousand delights. 

    If only the music could keep pace with it.

    In this carnival like atmosphere we are surrounded by Edward Bloom’s wondrous view of the world. Composer & lyricist Andrew Lippa’s contribution is outclassed by the rest.  Yes, it gives Butz and the sweet clear voice of Kate Baldwin a little fun, a little sorrow, and allowed Bobby Steggert to pierce the upper register.  But Mr. Lippa has not given us any tunes to stay with us as far as 52nd Street, however pretty or character-appropriate they seemed when sung by the excellent company.  Since this is a musical, one must pause — is all that razzmatazz, rather like special effects in a film that lost its plot along the way, there to make us ignore our disappointment with the unmemorable music, lyrics, and book?

    Kate Baldwin is strong and sweet as the redhead Edward Bloom loves at first sight, while Kirsten Scott is equally effective as Jenny Hill, the girl he left behind. Special marks go to the young Zachary Ungerwhom I saw as young Will and later as Will’s son.  Bobby Steggert as Will is adept yet not inspiring; Krystal Joy Brown is charming as Will’s wife.

    Excellent the company surely is, exemplified by the fact that I saw an understudy in the role of Amos Calloway the circusmaster.  Preston Truman Boyd, while he seemed a bit young for the role, stepped up with confidence, if not yet polish.

    I don’t believe in applauding a performer because he or she shows up on time, so I didn’t applaud when Norbert Leo Butz made his first appearance as Edward Bloom.  Many did, however, yet it was a different sort of ovation: This was not people applauding because they saw a Star of stage or screen.  It was a wave of love.  Thus began a remarkable performance.

    Norbert Leo Butz is our Everyman on that stage.  He makes suspension of disbelief in this magical musical easy.  He speaks, then suddenly you realize, oh, he’s singing now.  Effortless.  Beautiful.  There’s no transition.  He speaks, he sings, he walks, he dances.  He lives Edward Bloom on that stage and makes it all seem worthwhile.  For a while. 

    The question is, can this show survive without Mr. Butz?  My presumption is… not for long. However luscious the production values are, I do not believe the book by John August (who also wrote the screen adaptation) or Mr. Lippa’s music can hold up without Mr. Butz’s astonishing and engaging emanation of love and hope.  Mr. Butz’s Edward is a man with dreams, and if life is too ordinary, he’ll tell the tales so as to make it wondrous. 

    Mr. August’s book has left me hungry, and for that I am grateful.  While I saw the film and enjoyed it, I now wish to go further back in the life of Big Fish and read the original novel by Daniel Wallace.  There’s stuff in there that did not make it into this musical version, and I yearn for it.

    The visual production of Big Fish will make you gasp and exclaim.  It’s wild and crazy, a gorgeous world overflowing with fields of daffodils, populated with circus giants and witches and a mermaid.  You won’t exit the theatre singing, but you will be happy.

    It’s at the Neil Simon Theatre.  On 52nd Street. Where you will forget any music you heard as soon as you exit the theatre.  You will not, however, forget Norbert Leo Butz.


    ~ Molly Matera, signing off in search of a bookstore.

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    "Girls! Girls! Girls!That’s what “theatrical” venues used to say about their female stars.  Phyllida Lloyd’s scintillating production of Julius Caesar is not titillating in the usual sense, and one would be foolish to call any of these women “girls.”  From London’s Donmar Warehouse to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, this Julius Caesar is the opposite of traditional, since traditionally Shakespeare’s plays were performed by all male casts.  This production turns the tables.  The conceit for this is the setting of the play in a women’s prison.


    Fair warning:  It’s not your standard entrance to the theatre space either. The crowd gathers in the aromatic coffee shop next door to pick up tickets, then masses in front of a loading dock’s corrugated metal door waiting to enter.  We wait a long time.  When we finally get in there, the audience is treated like visitors to a women’s prison, with lots of rules — though no pat-downs.

    The masks of Julius Caesar

    It’s past eight (which the officious email that had gone out to ticketholders said was curtain time — no latecomers allowed in!) when that big metal door rolls shut a second time, and a different door opens. Gray-clad women enter, and the action begins.  We are rapt, captive not just because the scary corrugated doors are noisily closed and guarded.  Physically, emotionally, intellectually, we are captivated.  Perhaps a little nervous.

    The female prisoners are broken, shuffling creatures, weighed down by the incarceration and the hierarchy of the prison population.  They are mean to one another, small cruelties at first, ready to explode any moment.  The women show new life as they take on the characters of the play, changing no words to fit their gender (although, running a little over two hours, this script has been heavily and well edited).  It’s still Rome, they’re still “men.” Besides cutting scenes in their entirety, the 35 named characters of the play are whittled down to 20 as played by the company of 14 women.

    The opening scene features women holding masks before their faces — the masks all the same photograph of Frances Barber as Julius Caesar.  The opening scene of the original script is accomplished very quickly without any of the text, just behavior and those creepy masks.  There are occasional insertions reminding us where we are.  Like those gray sweats, although the attempt to make all the women alike and equally downtrodden does not entirely succeed.  They are individuals, some willingly submissive, some frightened to be otherwise.  Each one comes to vibrant and sometimes violent life as citizens and senators of Rome.  The time is now, and the music is rock, driven by a bass guitar and drum set.  Harsh, loud, percussive.  
     
    Slayers with bloody hands
    Harriet Walter’s brittle Brutus is stuck in her head — his head? — overthinks, tries to be upright, and spells doom to his cause and comrades.  Frances Barber’s Julius Caesar is a bully (which makes even more sense at the play’s end, which I won’t spoil), easily scarier than any man I’ve seen in the role.  Jenny Jules’ Cassius is lean and hungry, spoiling for a fight.  Cush Jumbo is a smooth and moving Mark Antony, and Susan Brown a cunning and repressed Casca.
     
    Harriet Walter as Brutus
    Scenes are pared down to the bone, sharp, concise.  Things are not all orderly, there are shouts, a bloodied nose, a substitution of one prisoner for another to move the play forward to its inevitable end.  At one point a guard yells out “Meds!” offering a flash of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

    I’ve seen quite a few productions of this play and directed a staged reading of it once, also with an all woman cast.  I heard then how different all those famous speeches sound in a woman’s voice, from a female state of mind, a woman’s heart.  At St. Ann’s Warehouse, the language is as fresh and new as the interpretations.  This Julius Caesar is totally different while equally tragic.  It is harsh and no one wins.

    This is a limited run, only to November 3, yet it’s not sold out — I highly recommend you run to catch this excellent, rather thrilling production.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play, hoping to hear those marvelous words and phrases in my head.

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    Harold Pinter’sBetrayalhas been revived on Broadway, the West End, or wherever else many times since its debut in 1978.  Not because it’s a great play, but because actors love the challenge of it.  Betrayalis an interesting character piece, a study of intertwined relationships, with a gimmick — a conceit, if you prefer — in which the playwright plays with our perception of time as he manipulates his characters back in time.

    Its three characters live backward before us, so that we see (and the actors play) the end at the beginning all the way through, reverse chronologically, to the beginning at the end of 75 or so minutes.

    Mike Nichols is a highly skilled director and the production presently playing to full houses at the Barrymore is polished from curtain rise on 1977 back to 1968, with sets by Ian Macneil sliding in and up and out and down, portraying places where these three characters live and love and hate. 

    Pinter tells us in the very first scene everything that’s happened and that therefore we are going to see, but that doesn’t keep us from watching all the way through.  It’s about how, not what.  Each time something is revealed, we yearn to see what happened before that, and before that, and before….instead of next, next, next.  It’s a fascinating conceit and it does work.

    While Rafe Spall may not yet be a star in the U.S., he will be.  His besotted Jerry is a delight, Jerry who is nothing special, whom one would pass by on the street, but who inspires love in the other characters.  Mr. Spall’s lanky form curls and slopes and leans into and away from his fellows.  It’s impossible not to watch him onstage, even when Daniel Craigis beside him. 

    It is Jerry who is in most of the scenes, and even if he’s not present, the other characters are thinking about him, so we are as well.  The second scene of the play, between Jerry and Robert (Daniel Craig), is beautifully staged, with the long estranged friends starting on opposite sides of the room, crossing past each other’s territory, until the truth allows them to become comfortable with one another again, sitting together.  Gorgeous.  This immediately sets us up, as well, to not particularly like the woman who came between them, Emma.

    Despite the fact that Robert admits to having “bashed” her once or twice, Emma (Rachel Weisz) seems always in control of the relationship between herself and Jerry.  Her only vulnerability shows when Jerry leaves for America and she breaks down in front of her husband, whom we’ve just learned knows about his wife and his best friend.

    Robert likes to play squash with his male friends and go to the pub afterward, an afternoon and/or evening of all male companionship.  No women.  We can tell he’s a terror on the court and he has noticed that the men he knows or suspects are sleeping with his wife will no longer play squash with him.  He may not be Menelaus, but the savage sometimes rears its head beside that of this cerebral man.

    Of the three characters, Jerry is most breakable, most childlike.  Robert has built up a hard shell, humorous when he oughtn’t be, seeming callous.  Daniel Craig makes it clear there’s much more going on than that. 

    I was surprised to find Rachel Weisz, whom I quite like on film, to be the weakest link on stage.  Pinter pauses are one thing, but her side of the stage sometimes appeared, sounded, rather empty.

    Stephen deRosa’sdelightful turn as the waiter in the Italian restaurant is as polished as the three primary roles.

    Pinter and the company stimulate our laughter at the vagaries and vanities of human nature.  An intellectual play, Betrayal is not quite great, but it’s more than clever.  It’s not easy to connect with these characters however similar their stories may be to some of ours.  Despite the tight and smart direction, despite the performances, nothing about this production engaged me.  The people did not engage me.  So for all its clever mind games, my heart was untouched.

    The second Pinter play was one I’d never seen before and which, although in chronological time, was by far the more confusing of the two.

    No Man’s Land is part of a double bill with Waiting for Godot — which I look forward to seeing in a couple weeks — with a highly anticipated cast:   Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellensupported more than ably by Billy Crudupand Shuler Hensley.

    No Man’s Land, unlike Betrayal, is played in chronological time.  Note I did not say “real time,” because this earlier effort of Harold Pinter is wilder, more Beckettian.  Two men are onstage, and we know nothing about them except that one rarely speaks and the other rarely stops talking.  In the grandiloquent role of Spooner, Ian McKellen shines, glows, and takes flight.  As the quieter (for the first act) Patrick Stewart is fascinating in his stillness and sudden spurts of drunken energy.  Mr. Stewart’s character Hirst is falling down drunk but that does not deter him from heading for the drinks cabinet.  The babblefest continues until the entrance of Billy Crudup as Foster, the glibly dangerous younger man, self-appointed caretaker to Mr. Hirst along with Shuler Hensley.  This is typical Pinter, a couple of guys menacing by their very presence.  Foster holds in his violence with enormous effort, which does not lessen his ability to bully.  Shuler Hensley’s Briggs, the more obvious bully, barely speaks while holding himself at the ready.  Mr. Hensley is terribly still, emanating menace. 

    The second act gets even more confusing with Hirst, now sober yet less than clear-headed, reminiscing with Spooner while addressing him by another name.  We start to wonder if these two men who’d appeared to be strangers the night before are now old … rivals?  Surely not friends.  None of the confusion is down to the direction by Sean Mathias, which was crisp and clear, rhythmically moving from quickly paced to leisurely.  It’s Pinter having fun with his audience again.

    Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land.
    The scenic and costume design by Stephen Brimson Lewis were perfect, lighting (Peter Kaczorowski), music and sound (Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) all contributed to the feelings of claustrophobia, menace, with a bit of “no way out” tossed in  No Man’s Land is beautifully put together.  We may not understand what happened in the second act any more than in the first, but with Pinter, we can always just raise our eyebrows and say, Oh, well, it’s Pinter.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off as the fall season really kicks into gear.  So many plays, so little time….

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  • 12/03/13--20:04: 2 Becketts in 2 Weeks

  • “Nothing to be done.” 

    That’s the first line of Waiting for Godot, which Patrick Stewart accompanies with a shrug.  This combination becomes not just a running theme but a running gag.

    Waiting for Godot is the other half of the two productions playing in repertory at the Cort Theatre, both starring those two Sirs, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.  (The other half, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, was reviewed here on November 10.)


    Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen as Vladimir and EstragonPhoto Credit Joan Marcus
    This new production of Waiting for Godot, with its “new” pronunciation (stress on first syllable GOD followed by a clipped long “o”) sounds right, looks right, feels right.  In fact, everything about this production directed by Sean Mathias is so right that I’m calling it the be all and end all of Godots.

    The ruined set of rubble and broken boards, crumbling walls and one lone, bare tree is already more set than Samuel Beckettwrote.  Nevertheless, its decrepitude is as magnificent as the decadence of the old Palladium, assuring us that life was once lived here but now not so much.  Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design for this set and the utterly natural costumes are perfection.

    In contrast to their roles in No Man’s Land, Patrick Stewart here is the exuberant one, and Ian McKellen the morose and unusually quiet one.
    Patrick Stewart entered the stage as Vladimir, a.k.a. DiDi, seemingly delighted to be alive.  When Sir Ian climbed onto the stage from nowhere to appear as Estragon (GoGo), people in the audience annoyed me beyond measure by applauding just because the actors showed up.  It’s their job to show up.  Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart and Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup all did a good deal more than just their jobs.  They found a way to live in that dreadfully confusing, perversely funny world created by Samuel Beckett and made us love — or hate — them for a while.  Laughter assuages the pain of that reality.

    Back to McKellen’s entrance — he climbs onto the stage from a ditch where he was beaten the night before.  Not for the first time.  DiDi’s insistent cheerfulness is apparently more than GoGo can bear past dusk and he goes off alone after their long wait.  Over and over.  And back they come, to wait for Godot.

    Shuler Hensley as Ponzo and Billy Crudup as Lucky.  Photo Credit Joan Marcus.
    One must wonder why anyone continues to force survival in this lifeless world.  Yet Act 2 shows a few buds on that bare tree.  So is Act I the winter and Act 2 the beginning of spring?  Early spring, cold, but budding.  GoGo & DiDi survive each day by each other’s company.  DiDi talks GoGo out of suicide by hanging in order to keep his company.  After all, if one helps the other to achieve such a final goal, the survivor will lack help to join him.  Hell, apparently, is not other people as Sartre told us in No Exit.  It’s loneliness.  Two people, three, four together can survive anything so long as they are not left alone.  They can and will come back every evening in hope and belief that the expected Godot will arrive.  While their hope is dashed at every dusk, they’ll do it again so long as there is more than one waiting.

    To break up GoGo & DiDi’s day, Ponzo — interpreted as a good ol’ boy by Shuler Hensley with a southern snarl and frightening clown-like make-up by Tom Watson— does hog calls and leaves all the heavy work to a slavelike creature named Lucky.  Lucky, while not a pig despite Ponzo’s repeated calls, is barely identifiably human, as played with fragility by Billy Crudup.   His focus and concentration on whatever world Lucky lives in is remarkable to see.  These guys were having a fine time.

    Once or twice a boy comes to see Estragon and Vladimir, professing not to recognize them at all and denying he was there the day before.  He tells them that their wait for Godot is over, because Godot is not coming that evening. Surely tomorrow. 

    Estragon, Ponzo, and the boy appear to recall naught of the day before, while Vladimir is cursed with remembering it over and over.  Lucky — well, who can tell what Lucky remembers besides a long string of fabulousness.  Vladimir reveals to his fellows what has previously occurred, but it’s meaningless to them.  Is it Vladimir’s memory that gives him faith?

    The Sirs' Curtain Call.  Photo Credit Matt Hennessey
    I think we enjoy being mystified by the “meaning” of Waiting for Godot, which is revived quite regularly.  I think we long for interpretations that tease us and then allow us to stop thinking about it, interpretations that allow us to trust the director and actors to tell us, obliquely, what they think it’s about. I am happy to entrust the “Meaning” to this company.  Some forms of art should creep up on you while you’re not looking. 

    Out thinking Beckett is not my line.  I can imagine Sam Beckett chuckling, nodding, perhaps saying, “Well that passed the time.”

     * * * * * * * * * *

    Speaking of Samuel Beckett, we saw another one last week at the 59E59 Theaters – All That Fall.  This is one of Beckett’s radio plays, transported to the stage as a play within a play — sort of.  There’s no muss, no fuss, no extraneous set.  Just a room with old-fashioned microphones hanging from the ceiling, and half a dozen chairs lined up on either side of the stage, facing each other.  One set piece will be a car later.  This spare set design was by Cherry Truluck, with clear lighting by Phil Hewittand apt sound by Paul Groothuis. 

    The actors walk in and take their seats while some sound effects come into play.  These are the radio actors.  This concept was interesting to watch as actors played actors playing characters.  Odd, without a doubt, but interesting.  It was clear when an actor was the actor playing a character.  Sometimes the actors laughed silently when not “onstage” (but seated on the side).   The heart of this play is a riveting, sad and hilarious performance by Eileen Atkinsas Mrs. Rooney, who is walking to the train station.  We see she drags a leg (and hear the radio sound effect), and watch as she meets neighbors on her journey to the station to meet her blind husband played by Michael Gambon.  Each of the neighbors with whom she chats, laughs, or disputes along the wayhas his own cross to bear, and each is vocalized by an actor playing an actor….you get the picture. 


    Michael Gambon & Eileen Atkins in All That Fall.  Photo Credit Sara Krulwich
    As No Man’s Land is Beckettian Pinter, so All That Fall is rather Pinteresque Beckett, with laughs at the human condition surprised by a devastating burst of sorrow.  Director Trevor Nunn kept it clean and simple, and every actor was on the mark.  Standouts were Trevor Cooperas Mr. Slocum, Catherine Cusack as Miss Fitt, and Ruairi Conaghan as Christy. 

    Two PInters + Two Becketts = theatre that forces you to think, then forces you to admit it was pointless.  Nothing to be done…..

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read some Beckett….

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    All the superlatives have been used up on Julie Taymor’s various productions over the years, so I’ll try to refrain.  That’s not easy, however, in light of this scrumptious presentation of WilliamShakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream— a fitting inaugural production of the new permanent home of Theatre for a New Audience:  the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.

    A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a delectable feast for language lovers, comedy and romance lovers.  This production is imaginative, light, sprightly, clever, funny, well designed, well acted….superlatives rain down.

    After the debacle that was Ms. Taymor’s film version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, my faith is restored by this staging of Midsummer.  Here, Ms. Taymor uses a hodgepodge of technology and arts available to theatre and circus, and blends them to a euphoric wholeness that never overwhelms the words Shakespeare gave us (and the actors) in this beloved play. 

    Once we’ve gasped at the beauty and cleverness of the active scenic design — very active — we are enthralled by Puck, in white face, chalky like a sloppy jester, played by the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter.  Hers is a highly intelligent, impish and athletic Puck, doing aerial acrobatics and leading all the players, human and fairy, between Athens and the magical wood “a league without the town.”

    You may have heard that the stage is filled with children.  That’s true, playing the sprites and fairies of the forest, singing, swooping, creating the mist and the skies, almost flying.  These images are helped along by the organic choreography by Brian Brooks.  Musicians Jonathan Mastro and Wilson Torres carry the children and us to the fairyland to meet Titania, Oberon, Mustardseed and the rest on waves of music by Elliot Goldenthal. All the designers combined in this production created a wonderland for us, including Es Devlin (Scenic), Constance Hoffman (Costume), Donald Holder (Lighting), Matt Tierney (Sound), and Sven Ortel (Projection Design).

    The stage, the balconies, the edges and tops and bottoms and sides are all well used — characters disappear into trap doors, up to the heavens, backward and forward, and the trap doors provide still more levels for the actors to play in.  From the lovers to the mechanicals, this ¾ stage and above production afforded space and angles and highs and lows.

    Tina Benko as Titania
    Tina Benko’s towering Titania (children playing fairies aids in this image) has ivory skin and a musical voice making for a sensual and funny and extremely pale embodiment of fair Titania. In stark contrast to Titania’s whiteness was the darker than deep brown of DavidHarewood’s Oberon, his magnificent voice commanding then cooing and wooing.  Shakespeare’s verse flows trippingly on the tongues of these two well-matched artists.

    David Harewood as Oberon, Kathryn Hunter as Puck at right
    Back in Athens, Egeus is well played by the always reliable TFANA stalwart, Robert Langdon Lloyd.  Okwui Okpokwasili and Roger Clark were well suited to each other and their roles as Hippolyta and Theseus.  The four lovers were quite delightful, passionate, lithe, limber, enjoying a fine pillow fight abetted by the fairies.  Those disguised children even play the magical forest, putting obstacles in the way of the benighted and bewitched lovers lost in the woods.  It was all very clever fun.  Good work by the mix-and-match lovers, Mandi Masdenas Helena, LillyEnglert as Hermia, Zach Appelman as Demetrius, and Jake Horowitz as Lysander.

    Zach Appelman as Demetrius, Lilly Englert as Hermia, and Jake Horowitz as Lysander
    The Mechanicals are a motley crew, led by a charmingly gauche Joe Grifasi as Peter Quince; a haplessly huge Brendan Averett as Snug the Joiner, the frightened lion; a sweet-voiced Zachary Infante as Francis Flute and a femininely feisty Thisbe; William Youmans as Robin Starveling, an easily affronted Moonshine; Jacob Ming-Trent as Tom Snout, or The Wall; all mastered by the remarkable Max Casella as Nick Bottom, the (dream) weaver.  The edits in the script were made with a light precise touch, nothing was missed, least of all Philostrate’s prattling about the various offerings for entertainment at the Duke’s nuptials.  As played by Puck, who knows how to entertain a crowd, Philostrate passes by the hemming and hawing about what play was to be presented — we want Pyramus and Thisbe, and we are not disappointed.

    The only flaw in the TFANA’s brand new Polonsky Shakespeare Center is that the central section of the orchestra is not adequately raked — from my second row seat, I could not see action just left of center especially when the actors were lying or rolling or otherwise on the ground, as fairies and imps and lovers are wont to be.  Bits in that spot garnered laughs, but not from me – and the fellow in front of me was not inordinately tall 

    Midsummer Night’s and Bottom’s Dreams are many-leveled, quite literally, as Ms. Taymor likes to lift and swing her sets and her actors into the heavens and down to the ground (thanks and praises to Airealistic for the aerial design and flight), starting with Puck in the opening scene.  The stage starts off spare and grows to the limits of imagination and a midsummer night’s dream.  This production happily runs to January 12.  Start your new year off right!

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the play, and check the savings account to see if she can afford to go again. 

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    Shakespeare’s Globe is in town, and instead of performing one play at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University downtown as they usually do, they brought two to perform in repertory for a few months on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre.  The Belasco is gorgeous, but with this company, it’s difficult to appreciate the beauties of the interior because as the audience enters the theatre, the actors are onstage dressing and being dressed.  Watching this fascinating process is riveting — observing the way period costumes are built, layer upon layer, onto the human body; some actors are sewn into their costumes; and seeing men turned into women. 

    As in Shakespeare’s time, the female roles are not played by women, but rather by men.  Each man playing a female has a diverting way of walking, almost gliding across the stage, sometimes mincing, swinging the heavy skirts to their best advantage.  Watching them before the play even starts is mesmerizing.

    Twelfe Night deserves its own glowing review.  Alas, I bubbled over with praise of it to friends and didn’t write down a word, so its mentions here will essentially be comparative.  I saw the plays a month apart — Twelfe Night (as named in the First Folio and printed in the program) on Friday the 6 December and, to start the new year off right, Richard III on Thursday the 2 January (yes, the night of the first snowstorm of 2014, nicknamed “Hercules”).  Perhaps we should have seen the Richardin this program first, so our expectations for the next play would not have been so high.  The Twelfe Night was deliriously funny, a pinnacle for all others to attempt.  As it was, the near perfect Twelfe Night left us with high expectations that were dashed the night the snow fell outside the performance of The Tragedie of KingRichard the Third. 
     
    Sebastian and Olivia, Orsino and Viola in Twelfe Night.  (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)
    What is it about Richard III?  I am often dissatisfied with productions of the play, no matter who excels in the leading role.  Is it just poorly written?  Well, with all due respect to the incomparable Bard, compared to other plays, it is, rather.  (He had to be careful, of course.  The late-arriving protagonist/hero of the play, Richmond, would be the great grandfather of Shakespeare’s Queen, so the War of the Roses had to end on a particularly redeeming note for the ancestors of the ruling monarch.)  This production from the Globe is well cast but that isn’t enough — especially not with someone as strong and magnetic as Mark Rylance prancing about the stage as Richard of Gloucester.
     
    Rylance as Richard and Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth
    Once costumes are donned and the musicians applauded, Mark Rylance as Richard seduces us immediately.  Rylance found every hint of humor in the play, and made us as guilty as Richard by making us laugh with him throughout the evening.  The problem — and it may be the play as much as director Tim Carroll— is that the good actors working with Mr. Rylance fade in his aura, with two exceptions:  Samuel Barnett (a fine Viola in theTwelfe Night) as Queen Elizabeth (mother of the princes in the tower, wife of the sickly then late King Edward IV) gives as good as he… she… gets and is marvelous and powerful, every inch a queen; and the Buckingham as played by Angus Wright (last seen in one of the most delightful performances of Andrew Aguecheek I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience) could more than hold his own with Rylance. 


    Often we see a star turn in a play like Richard III, and often we just think we got the second string touring cast in all but the lead role.  This time, though, we have very recent evidence of the finely honed skills of this company of players.  Which leads back to the play, which needed some judicious cutting, but perhaps not the cutting it did, in fact, receive.  More on that anon.
     
    Joseph Timms as Lady Anne and Mark Rylance as King Richard III.  Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus.
    Let’s look at the actors in this company.  Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Catesby was better than his often incomprehensible Feste, but Liam Brennan’s Clarence partook in one of the longest and dullest death scenes (and very poorly staged, Mr. Carroll) in Shakespeare despite his sexy turn as Orsino in Twelfe Night.  Paul Chahidi was a marvelous Maria in Twelfe Night, but his Hastings seemed stock and his Tyrrell seemed… well, rather mad.  As if he were speaking in tongues, his delivery rang through the theatre without cohering. 

    Colin Hurley’s King Edward IV and his Lord Stanley were well defined and differentiated.  After his wild and woolly and hilarious Toby Belch in Twelfe Night, he was happily not a disappointment in Richard.

    Joseph Timms was an unusually good Sebastian in the Twelfe Night. Generally a rather thankless role seemingly cast because of a resemblance to the Viola, his Sebastian had verve and vigor. Timms’ turn as Lady Anne (one of the most difficult roles in Shakespeare since her actions make no sense at all) in Richard III was interesting in large part due to his physical behavior.  That the character is ultimately unconvincing based on the famous wooing scene is the fault of the playwright more than the actor.

    Kurt Egyiawan was not as interesting a Valentine in Twelfe Night as he was in his two roles in Richard III:  His Duchess of York (that is, King Richard’s mother) was basically cranky, but his physical work was good.  In the second half of the play he was Richmond, quite believable as the virtuous prince, a just man, a tad dull (Richmond always is), a fitting founder of the Tudor dynasty leading in a direct line to Shakespeare’s real life monarch, Elizabeth I.

    Someone missing, you say?  Yes indeed.  There was one queen missing from this production of Richard III:  Margaret, termagant, widow of the dead Lancastrian King Henry VI who was ousted by the Yorkists (Richard’s family), and mother of the slain Prince Edward (who was the husband of Lady Anne, later Queen Anne – get it?).  This character should be the canker, the boil on Richard’s butt, an enraged victim of the Yorkists who teaches all others how to curse.  She was a major character in the Three Parts of Henry VI, and she’s fun.  She plays a major role in the conversation of the once powerful now powerless women of the play, leaving only the ineffective Queen Anne written in to join the bereft Queen Elizabeth, and the cranky Duchess of York to lament in Act IV scene iv, the traditional wailing women scene.  Perhaps the embarrassment of riches of too many queens in the script was seen as too confusing?  The long feud between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists certainly does not come as second nature, particularly to an American audience.  Nevertheless, Margaret is a vital part of the chemistry of the players.  Her absence contributed to the lopsidedness of the production, leaving out chunks of the politics, oversimplifying the changeable loyalties, essentially eliminating the history of each individual in the story, as if their own actions or inactions hadn’t brought them to this very place.  Richard III is the culmination of generations of internecine warfare; neither he nor his England sprang from nothing.  Ignoring what came before for the rest of the characters makes Richard III a showcase for Mr. Rylance instead of a play with intricate plotting and storylines.  What goes around comes around, that’s the moral of the story, but you won’t get it in this production.

    Losing Margaret is short-sighted on the part of the producers and director.  I am far from a purist, but cutting Margaret’s character and its function diminishes the play — and even without her the production ran three hours!

    Gentle reminder:  Twelfe Night was well nigh perfect.  Its subtitle is “or What You Will” and we will, we will.  Liam Brennan’s Orsino fell in love with the girl disguised as a boy played by an actor disguised as both, the wonderful Samuel Barnett.  Their chemistry was sparkling, ready to burst into flame.  The old gang at Olivia’s place were naughty and lusty, with superlative performances by Colin Hurley as Sir Toby Belch, Paul Chahidi as Maria, and Angus Wright as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
     
    Rylance as Olivia and Fry as Malvolio in Twelfe Night (Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus)
    Mark Rylance proves he does not need to edit a play to make himself the star — his Olivia is timid, brittle, then giddy and lusty and wild, his powdered face malleable, his body alternating between stiff and yearning, girdled and rubbery.  His line readings will overpower my mind whenever I re-read the play.  He’s a comic genius with brilliant timing — which shows up in his Richard as well, of course.

    The member of the company who appeared in Twelfe Night but not in Richard III is the estimable Stephen Fry, whose Malvolio was articulate, witty, arrogant, and deserved what he got — until he didn’t.  Suffice to say, Fry was an excellent Malvolio and I hope he returns to the New York stage soon.
     
    Samuel Barnett as Viola and Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfe Night (Photo credit Joan Marcus)
    In general this is a marvelous company.  The scenic and costume design by Jenny Tiramani merge into a whole that is magnificent.  The audience members on the stage may see a lot of backsides, but their proximity to the players makes them part of the experience, and the players’ connections to living audience is just thrilling to see.  Music by Claire van Kampen is period, fitting, and well played and well utilized in both productions.  Director Tim Carroll worked wonders with the great Twelfe Night but fell down on the job with Richard.  That said, I have no knowledge of the script he was handed, since no dramaturge is mentioned in the program. 

    Editing Shakespeare isn’t easy, though often necessary.  The wrong bits were edited out of this Richard.  Thankfully the Twelfe Night was so extraordinary it entirely redeems the problems of the Richard.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off and urging you to see at least one if not both of these plays in repertory.  (If just one, you know the Twelfe Night is the better!)

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    Ensemble Studio Theatre’s production of Year of the Rooster by Eric Dufault is dully pretentious, superficially acted (with two exceptions), and altogether disappointing.  The play, in its current incarnation, was last done at EST just a few months ago, receiving enough good press to influence the theatre company to present it again.  Having sat through its tedious two hours, I do not understand what all the fuss was about, and JohnGiampietro’s tepid direction did nothing to pull the overlong piece out of the mire.

    The main character, a pathetic little guy named Gil whose McDonald’s name tag reads “Girl,” is played cartoonishly by Thomas Lyons.  He is put upon by the various bullies in his life.  This “protagonist” is the same at the play’s end as at its beginning, and his cyclical journey was not in the slightest bit interesting or surprising.
     
    Lyons, Bess, and Moreno in Year of the Rooster.  Photo Credit:  Russ Kuhner
    The play opens with Dickie Timble (played with oozing slime by Denny Dale Bess), as a master of ceremonies at a cockfight, comparing that habitual torture to “culture” handed down from the Golden Age of Greece.  Dickie is a vulgar bully and an ass-grabbing back-slapping good old boy.  He is not an individual human being with realistically human traits.  We follow him to meet Gil behind the counter at the McDonalds.  Gil is the epitome of ineffectual, easily intimidated by his mean-spirited mother, Dickie, and the young woman who has just made manager at McDonald’s, Philipa.

    Megan Tusing does remarkably good work with Philipa, a character full of stereotypical anger issues, then continues to stand out as the overfed McDonald’s hen with whom Gil wants his rooster to mate.  Said rooster is the most interesting creature in the play, the very angry and drug-abused cock Odysseus Rex, extremely well played by Bobby Moreno with birdlike twitches and physical and verbal passion.  Cockfighting is offensive yet the scene portraying it had the best staging of the play, choreographed by fight director Qui Nguyen.

    It is a bit disturbing that the best drawn and acted characters in the play are not human. Gil’s mother Lou is a liar and a cheat, but Delphi Harrington is wasted on an outline of a caricature.  Everyone in this play is foul-mouthed and full of hate for everyone and everything around them, except for the hen.  When Gil makes it to the top of the pile of his insular cockfighting circle for a short while, he’s just as vicious and ugly as everyone who was cruel to him.  Because he’s as stupid as he is dull, he of course is not on top for long.
     
    Apparently roosters, like cats, will attack their reflections
    If that is the point of the play, please someone beg playwright Eric Dufault to revise it as a one-act.  In its present stage of “development,” it is two hours of torture. Mr. Dufault must go back to school.  Tossing in some cockfighting sports history of the Greeks merely implies he read some Cliff Notes about ancient Greece.  What he needs to do is finish reading Aristotle’s Poetics in order to understand what constitutes a play.  Year of the Rooster does not make the grade. 

    ~ Molly Matera, recommending you go see some other play in NYC.

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    Downstairs at New York’s City Center, the Women’s Project Theater presents a play about the United States, human beings, divisions, and Pickett’s Charge.  Director Daniella Topol has guided her fine actors in an engaging and engrossing play about us, then and now.

    Jessica Dickey's Row After Row is a treat, stimulating heart and mind, beautifully acted and directed.  The clever scenic design by Clint Ramoseven provides a stimulating smell — wood, woodchips, and sawdust surround the warm set of an old wood and stone pub. 

    Playwright Jessica Dickey has lived in Gettysburg, where history is not confined to the past.  Civil War re-enactors travel to each battlefield of the war and dress in Confederate and Union army regalia and weaponry as accurately as they can afford, and repeat battles.  At Gettysburg, the playwright participated herself in a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge and found a story to express.  Thus Row After Row.

    If you do not recall, Pickett’s Charge was the disastrous “hail Mary” play in the Battle of Gettysburg, in which Confederate soldiers marched then ran a mile through an open, undulating field, defenseless, toward their Union enemy. Not surprisingly, they were slaughtered by enemy cannon fire, a furious hail of bullets, and finally, when a decimated group made it to the Union line, bayonets and fists.  Over 2000 soldiers died that day, and well over half of them were Confederates.  Thousands more were wounded and captured.  It was devastating.  It still is.

    Rosie Benson as Leah, Erik Lochtefeld as Tom, and PJ Sosko as Cal.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg
    In Row After Row, the scene opens on three people — Lieutenant General James Longstreet watching the charge, a Union deserter, and a woman in the garb of a Confederate soldier.  Moments later, we see the woman sitting on a stool in a stone-walled pub, and the two men enter exuberantly.  They are re-enactors, the men having done this for 20 years, the woman a new participant.  The action of the play shifts back and forth between these three re-enactors in the present day and their counterparts during the real battle of 1863.  Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau creates these time shifts subtly by a dimming, almost clouding of the lights when we revisit the sooty battlefield — the heat of a July day, men, horses, guns, and cannon all collaborating to kick up dust and smoke — then a slight bump to the soft but brighter light within the modern-day pub. 

    The three actors are compelling in both eras.  Rosie Benton plays Leah in the present, a former modern dancer from New York, and a resident of Gettysburg in the past.  Leah simmers with anger and pain, yet an openness to new experiences and new people.  Benton is sharp, precise, and soft all at once, quite marvelous.  Erik Lochtefeld is Tom in the present, a schoolteacher, a re-enactor who chooses each year to play the Yankee deserter — an outsider who sues for peace in both eras.  Lochtelfeld’s skill and warmth bring us into his heart in both time periods.  PJ Sosko is Cal, who takes his re-enactments very seriously, and chooses to be General Longstreet.  Leah’s description of him as a “bona fide meathead” is probably the kindest epithet of the evening, yet he’s not all bad. He and Tom have been friends since 6th grade, but in recent years Cal has seen less and less of Tom and is almost as heartbroken as General Longstreet is upon watching his men charge to their pointless deaths.  Sosko grabs us ungently and brings us along as he tries to grasp the world around him.

    Rosie Benson as the Woman in 1863.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg.
    Cal and Leah provoke one another once Leah sits at Tom and Cal’s traditional table.  Cal immediately dubs her a “farb” — a person who takes part in a re-enactment with less than authentic fabrics and costumes and weaponry.  A fight between the two men and another that includes the woman are brilliantly choreographed by J. David Brimmer, who more than met the challenge in the theatre’s close three-quarter staging.  

    The Woman, Sosko as General Longstreet, and Lochtefeld as Union deserter in 1863.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg.
    Eventually we learn enough about these three people to hope they find their way, make the best choices, to do their part in making their lives, and our union, “more perfect.”  Like the Civil War, the past is not done with, and lives on in the present.

    Cheers to all the cast and crew and creators of this fine piece of drama that includes some hearty laughs leavening the serious subject matter.  It was a satisfying evening at the theatre, but only runs to February 16th, so order tickets here:  http://wptheater.org/show/row-after-row/. 

    ~  Molly Matera, off to re-read some history that Jessica Dickey has clearly read already.

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    This week, at 2 p.m. New York time, I saw the Donmar Warehouse’s current production of Coriolanus simultaneously with its London audience at 7 p.m. their time.  The six camera set-up did more than justice to the production for the benefit of those of us who are far from the theatre’s Covent Garden location.  Watching British theatre is fascinating to a U.S. audience as we recognize so many people from British television.  For instance, in coming attractions for a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Una Stubbs(from the Gatiss/Moffat “Sherlock” presently running on PBS) appeared onscreen.  Someone in the New York audience cried out, “Mrs. Hudson!”  And now, back to “live” theatre.

    Coriolanus is a difficult play in which we’re hard pressed to actually like any of its characters.  As a preview film reminds us, this is not the Rome of Julius Caesar or even I, Claudius, but long before those settings.  It is primitive, there’s no such thing as Italy but rather a bunch of quarreling tribal territories.  There will be blood.  Rome is governed by the Senate, which is made up for the most part of “patricians,” or upper class and aristocracy.  There are representatives (tribunes) of “plebeians” or commoners.  The primary external enemy of these Romans is the Volsci, or the Volscians.  At any rate, the people of Rome are hungry.  The appropriate distribution of grain is at issue, with the patrician class getting most of it and the plebeian class getting little if any.  The rancor of the plebeians against the upper classes and particularly the outspoken Caius Marcius opens the play. 

    The problem is, the audience doesn’t know any of what I just wrote, so the fury of the plebeian class against Caius Marcius seems baseless. 

    Bloody Hiddleston conquers Corioles.  Photo credit Johann Persson
    The title character, who starts out as Caius Marcius, is an exemplary soldier and leader of men in war.  He also personifies the difficulty of a war hero re-entering civilian life in or out of politics.  That’s on a personal level; Coriolanus also exemplifies a society teetering on the verge between tyranny and anarchy, in an ever-growing class war.  This Coriolanus is directed by Josie Rourkein the compact Donmar Warehouse, with a three quarter stage and a small cast.  Director Rourkestages the play well in the confined space except that the design hasn’t given us clues, even in a slight costume change, when members of her fine company of actors change roles from Roman to Volscian.

    Tom Hiddlestongrows from Caius Marcius to Coriolanus (an honorary surname based on his leadership in the conquest of Corioles) and back to a Caius Marcius we hadn’t previously met.  Mr. Hiddleston emphasizes the human weakness in the man and wins us to his side no matter how close to fascism he steps.  We see him bloody, watch him shower it off, and so see his wounds that he is unwilling to show the plebeians to get their sympathy or votes.  This Coriolanus is staged to empathize with this individual man.  And then he opens his mouth in anger and contempt and turns most people against him.  He is undisciplined at best.  Hiddleston is a hurricane strength force on that stage.

    Deborah Findlay as Volumnia.  Photo by Johann Persson
    Deborah Findlay as his mother is a powerful and smug Volumnia, able to rule much of the Senate from her living room, but also able to humble herself by the end when Rome needs her to.  Birgitte Hjort Sǿrensen as Virgilia was full of emotion and cried a lot, but to be fair the script doesn’t give her much to say. 

    Mark Gatiss as Menenius. Photo Credit Johann Persson
    Peter DeJersey was noble and likeable as the general Cominius, powerful in his glory days, then broken after the banished Coriolanus’ rejection of him.  Alfred Enoch was a strong, warm and clear Titus Lartius.  Mark Gatiss made for a highly intellectual and warm Menenius.  His belief in his own superiority aside, his fatherly feelings for Coriolanus and friendship with the family are as real as his attempts to negotiate a peace between the plebeians and Coriolanus.  His heartbreak at his rejection by Coriolanus is shattering.

    Alfred Enoch as Titus Lartius.  Photo Credit: Johann Perssons
    The plebeian tribunes, Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger) and Brutus (Elliot Levey) are truly vicious and as smug as Volumnia.  They set us up to think as little as possible of the plebeian class — a.k.a. “us” — since they are as manipulative of the plebeians as the patrician class is dismissive of them.  What reads as overreaction to what has not been seen makes the plebeians seem ignorant and hateful.  Helen Schlesinger’s performance as tribune for the plebeians was so fine that I utterly despised her.

    Director Rourke spoke at the interval (British for intermission) about the youth of this Coriolanus, which really does help make his behavior more understandable, even forgivable, if not acceptable.  The audience is not siding with Coriolanus just because Tom Hiddleston is so attractive.  The plebeians are portrayed as weak, malleable, and consequently untrustworthy.  Their grievances are not clearly aired, just the word “grain” tossed about without explanation — perhaps the audience is expected to know.  Or perhaps in Shakespeare’s time there was a similar enough situation in England for the audience to know the Commoners’ grievances without having them spelled out. 

    Hadley Fraser as Aufidius and Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus.  Photo Credit Johann Persson
    The play’s love/hate relationship is between warriors, brothers under the skin.  Aufidius, the Volsci commander played by Hadley Fraser,is the Volscian enemy of Rome (as opposed to the Roman enemies of Rome already mentioned), loving and hating Coriolanus. He’s overtly emotional, practically weepy when the banished Coriolanus comes to join with him, and decidedly sad when he orders Coriolanus’ death.  Mark Stanley plays several roles but shines as Aufidius’ second in command. 

    Coriolanus vs. Aufidius.  Photo Credit Johann Persson
    The evening’s performance was engrossing, active, and intimate.  Fight direction by Richard Ryan was tightly staged and frightening. 

    As Rome betrayed Coriolanus by banishing him, he, like the ill-tempered child he is, betrays Rome in turn.  While he is stone-hearted to his former general Cominius and even his father figure Menenius, the pleas of his mother, wife, and son turn him from his vengeance, which of course determines his own fate.  When the end comes it is swift and shocking.

    I enjoyed this production — the staging, the design, the lighting, and all the actors — but it seems to have brought out the inherent weakness of the play:  the assumption that the audience knows the preface to the story when the play begins.  Nevertheless, if a re-broadcast shows up in a venue near you, I recommend you take advantage of the opportunity.  Even on film, good live theatre is too exhilarating to allow to pass by.  Check out the National Theatre Live site to see if there’s a venue in your tribal territory:  http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/


    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some ancient history.

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  • 02/22/14--08:53: Miracle in Manhattan


  • Musings on the MTA

    A local bus in Queens idles at the bus stop, the first of the route.  Doors closed, plenty of seats available, plenty of passengers.  The bus driver sits chatting with one of the latter.  I tap on the door.  She doesn’t acknowledge my existence, so I tap again.  She’s in the bus stop, no signal indicates she's about to pull out, but she doesn’t open the door.  I tap again and make some sort of gesture with my hands and face to say “what’s up?”  She opens the door, doesn’t look at me as I use my Metrocard and thank her, then closes the door and pulls away a minute later.  What was that?

    An evening bus driver downtown makes no attempt to come near the bus stop but rather stops two bus lengths back.  After running for it, I ask why he hadn’t come into the bus stop.  He insists that he's in the bus stop.  “But the sign…” I begin.  He waves it away and says, “The sign’s wrong, I’ve been stopping here for years.” 

    A morning express bus driver insists that, despite 20 years of express passengers standing on one side of the bus stop sign and local passengers lining up on the other side, that the bus stop is on the other side only and he will not stop where the passengers are lined up. 

    A local bus in Queens with very dirty windows on which someone has rubbed slightly cleaner areas to read:  “No Free Rides.”

    The funny signs in buses saying the driver will stop to drop off passengers wherever they ask, barring dangerous conditions.  When pigs fly….

    This is the MTA.   

    Then, a miracle.

    I saw the miracle in a man’s face as I ran to the bus.  I had walked down 6th Avenue, somewhere near 11 p.m., not knowing if I would have to wait 5 minutes or 35, when I saw my express bus over a block away. I started to run, then added waving, but before I got to the corner (let alone across the street to the bus stop), the light turned green and the bus pulled away.  I slumped.  But then I heard slow brakes, and I turned to see the bus pulling to a stop half a block up, just the other side of one of those fences Bloomberg put up to try to make New Yorkers stop jaywalking, and idle there.  Waiting for me. I ran up to meet it, and a man stood on the sidewalk, watching, a little smile on his face saying, “I just witnessed a miracle.”

    Will wonders never cease.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to explore more bus stops.


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    I am so far behind in my film viewing that I’ve only seen three films in the last four months.

    One of these was Gravity.  While 3-D is often annoying and just another gimmick to me, in Gravity it was finely used technology.  The film is breathtaking, occasionally terrifying, with lovely performances from George Clooney as well as the quietly realistic star turn by Sandra Bullock.   Director Alfonso Cuarón (also co-writer with Jonas Cuarón) has a tight rein on his audience as he throws us into a spectacular journey, leading us gently into complacency and confidence, then dropping us into the void.  Between Ms. Bullock and the 3-D, we are following in her wake all the way, hovering between life and death, imagination and reality.  Gravity is riveting and gorgeous.  I left the theatre lightheaded, very glad my feet were on Mother Earth.

    12 Years a Slave is a devastating film, a personal and intimate tale of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery.  We follow Solomon Northup, a black man from upstate New York in the year 1841, down to Washington, to Georgia and Louisiana.  Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup with dignity and passion.  When the excellent script by John Ridley gives him no words, his eyes, his posture, his entire person still speaks to us.  We feel the horror with him and through his eyes, marveling at the obvious monsters and those who appear civil and yet live despicably immoral lives.  The easy-to-spot monsters are portrayed brilliantly by Paul Dano as a psychopath who is master carpenter on the plantation of Solomon’s first owner, Mr. Ford, and the cause for Mr. Ford selling Solomon to the totally mad Edwin Epps, who was frighteningly embodied by Michael Fassbender.   Similar to what I felt when I saw Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, if I were to see Michael Fassbender along the street, I’d cross it.  That’s how scary he is. On Mr. Epps’ plantation we also meet Mistress Epps, a frighteningly cold Sarah Paulson almost as monstrous as her husband. The object of Epps’ obsession is the object of his wife’s malice:  Patsey, a young and beautiful slave who somehow picks more cotton than everyone else and endures nightly rape by Mr. Epps.  Portraying Patsey is an enthralling actor named Lupita Nyong’o whose work here will be long remembered. 12 Years a Slave is a horror show; it appears impossible:  People could not have lived through this.  And yet they did. 

    Almost worse than the monsters were the seemingly sane people.  Solomon’s first owner, Mr. William Ford, played with gentle restraint by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his dreadful wife are the sort who appear normal, and yet they are part of this vicious society, confusing someone like Solomon by treating him with relative kindness.  It’s more difficult to recognize or understand Evil when it is well bred.

    Director Steve McQueen orchestrates the dark and the light, the despair and the hope, and keeps the story moving while not rushing through moments of silence and reflection that the characters and the audience require.  Cinematography by Sean Bobbittescalates the contrast between good and evil showing us the beautiful landscapes of Louisiana as they are dirtied by the disfiguring disease of slavery.

    Finally, this weekend I saw The Wind Rises, the last film (so he has stated) of Hayao Miyazaki, the masterful creator of such entrancing animated featuresasSpirited Away andHowl’s Moving Castle.  It is, of course, gorgeous.  I gasped as the world rippled in the earthquake that occurs while the main character,Jiro Horikoshi, is riding on a train to university.  The earthquake was visually stunning as it broke down villages and railroad tracks alike, and the fire that followed hard upon it sounded like a monster chasing all the people away.  Masterful. 

    Jiro is an historical character, a man who designed airplanes that became fighter planes against the Allied forces in World War II.  He was fascinated by flying, like many another Miyazaki character.  We go on his dream flights with him, beautifully drawn sketches of fantastical airplanes, over soft and shimmering landscapes.  The Wind Rises is the story of a man in love with flying and aeronautical engineering, and then with a woman who shares his vision just because it is his.  It’s a sweet love story and an adventure as the planes Jiro imagines in his dreams are built.  The characters are oddly voiced by a star-studded cast led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, andEmily Blunt. 

    Despite its marvelous dream sequences, this film was less enchanting to me than Miyazaki’s previous offerings, so I admit to being a bit disappointed.  But it all goes to show that we are all just humans when our flags are taken away.  Jiro Horikoshi was a brilliant man whose story was worth telling and Miyazaki told it well. 

    I just missed the magic.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off until the next time with “All the Way with LBJ!”

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  • 03/05/14--18:42: The Accidental President

  • If the test of an historical drama requires an audience on the edge of their seats, then Robert Schenkkan’s new play “All the Way” earns an A. 

    Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson
    The play is about LBJ and the American way, dirty politics and blackmail, illegal wiretaps and racial prejudice, hatred and fear and joy and hope.  It was developed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with some of the Broadway cast and its excellent creative team, including director Bill Rauch, the Festival’s Artistic Director.  This production stars not only the superb Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson, but also its clever minimal scenic design (fit for traveling the continental U.S.) by Christopher Acebo, “period” costuming by Deborah M. Dryden, and great hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. 

    Shawn Sagady’s evocative projection design served to transform the single set into indoor and outdoor spaces in Washington DC, Mississippi, Atlantic City, and Georgia so that every aspect of the production had multiple parts to play.  Also projected were names of the politicians speaking onstage, but that might have been augmented: With twenty actors playing over forty roles, knowing who was who was occasionally confounding, as were all the acronyms of the government and political groups (defined in the program, but who reads that during a performance).  The cast list numbers less than half that of the characters, and the excellent actors do themselves proud playing multiple roles, but we weren’t always certain of the part they played in history.

    That’s it for constructive criticism from me.  Most of what I felt about this play and production was “wow.”  One does not expect to be on tenterhooks wondering if LBJ will win the Democratic nomination for the presidential election.  “All the Way” is meant to evoke the campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ!” and it does so by the second act as the political stakes rise for Johnson.

    Bryan Cranston in the American Repertory Theatre production.  Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.
    About some of those actors: 
    • Betsy Aidem was a fine Lady Bird Johnson (et.al.)
    • Susannah Schulman switched gears with ease between a put-upon secretary, Mrs. Hubert Humphrey and Mrs. Lurleen Wallace
    • Robert Petkoff’s portrayal of Hubert Humphrey was astute and sympathetic
    • Rob Campbell was unapologetically greasy and egotistical as George Wallace
    • Christopher Gurr was a testy Strom Thurmond
    • Michael McKean was smarmy as J. Edgar Hoover
    • James Eckhouse played several politicians then was totally unrecognizable as Robert McNamara
    • Roslyn Ruff was heartbreaking and powerful as Fannie Lou Hamer and Coretta Scott King
    • Christopher Liam Moore was sweet and tireless as LBJ’s aide Walter Jenkins, then heartbreaking
    • Peter Jay Fernandez switched between a stately Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and an angry MFDP* delegate
    • J. Bernard Calloway was passionate as Reverend Ralph Abernathy (SCLC*)
    • William Jackson Harper was angry and reasoning as Stokely Carmichael and James Harrison,  SNCC* and SCLC, respectively

    Calloway, Dirden, and Harper in the A.R.T. production.  Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
    John McMartin,snippy and sharp as Senator Richard Russell, was one of only three actors playing just one role each, along with Mr. Cranston and Brandon J. Dirden as Dr. Martin Luther King.  WhileMr. Dirdendid not resemble Dr. King physically, he got the voice and inflections and — most importantly — the heart right.  The wrangling and placating of differing opinions in both Johnson’s and King’s cadres mirrored one another in a fascinating manner.

    The play covers one year from November 1963 through the following November when Johnson fought tooth and nail for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Bryan Cranston as LBJ was driven, an indefatigable powerhouse demanding that we come along for the ride.  He becomes the LBJ who pushed through advanced bills that were too little for some and too far for many, doing whatever it took to get them done, even disemboweling the Civil Rights Act to get it passed.  He was appalling and infuriating and oddly endearing.  Bryan Cranston made us abhor him while we admired him for his single-minded pursuit of certain inalienable rights for people like and unlike himself.  Were all his motives good?  Doubtless not.  He was vile and he was great, achieving courageous and amazing things.  And Bryan Cranston made us love him. 

    This is one of those shows where the collaborative nature of theatre becomes clear.  Twenty actors are on stage, offstage, entering, leaving, hovering in the background to overhear, manipulating the set to be different places, changing their behaviors toward one another as they change persona.  All this is beautifully tempered and flows seamlessly as director Rauch orchestrated it.  The play is fast-paced and challenging, inspiring the audience to pay attention to the goals and the characters and the hope for LBJ’s Great Society (Mr. Schenkkan’s next play).  All the Way makes the audience laugh, think, wonder, question, and laugh some more.  At ourselves, of course. 

    It’s a limited run at the Neil Simon Theatre, so get your tickets now.

    *NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; MFDP: Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; SCLC: Southern Christian Leadership Conference; SNCC:  Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some American history she lived through.

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  • 03/20/14--19:27: Sewing Saga
  • My niece is having a baby. Her first. As the modern custom goes, she and her husband are registered on Buy Buy Baby for the stuff they need and/or want. Mostly I plan on buying whatever I like for the baby, otherwise it’s no fun for me. But I did buy a needful gift at this horrifyingly huge box store out near Old Country Road. After all, my niece and her husband aren’t allowed to bring the baby home without an infant car seat. I bought the big box from the box store around Christmas (I guess I wanted dibs on an absolutely necessary item), so its wrapping suffered from yuletide chaos and exhaustion. I brought the bruiser to my brother’s house in its mediocre wrapping just to get it out of my apartment, where the cats were setting up house on it. Months passed and I regretted the poor wrapping job and dreamed up a better one. Not paper. A sack. Like a flour sack but way bigger. I happen to have a flour sack and figured out the basic structure and closure from it. But extrapolating from the measurements of a flour sack to the size needed for a box that was 31 inches high and 17 by 17 square, well, that takes mathematics, maybe even a slide rule. I don’t have a slide rule — nor would I know how to use one if I did.

    So I drew it, still in miniature. Couldn’t figure it out. I piled boxes on top of each other to approximate what I’d need in fabric. The cats, of course, assumed the new box configuration was for their pleasure and planted themselves in and on the boxes. I bought a bolt of lavender fabric (my niece’s favorite color) online, and bought a broad velvety violet ribbon at Sam Flax. I also bought a cute little “Stitch Quick” hand-held battery operated stitcher. Ha!

    It seemed to me that once I figured out the measurements — which just boggled my mind — it should all go smoothly. I recalled shopping with my mother at Alexander’s department store. We took a skirt we couldn’t afford into the dressing room, where she looked at its panels, and scribbled measurements and quick sketches into her ever-present memo book. Yes, she also carried a measuring tape, always. She subsequently created then cut out the pattern and made that skirt for me. I love that skirt no end and still have it although I’m quite a few pounds too thick to wear it. Presently. Who knows.

    Well, now that I’ve gone off on that tangent, what precipitated it? Ah yes. Boggled mind, blown brain, how do I do this? In the past I have had a lot of trouble getting past the “measure twice” step in “measure twice, cut once.” This time I had no actual pattern, so I just cut. And pinned and hemmed (bless Stitch Witchery forever), and draped. The toy stitching machine at the ready, I stitched one side closed. Well, partly, a little clunky, uneven, some stitches too loose and long, some tight. What does that matter, they’ll all be inside the sack. I tried again.

    Machine wouldn’t stitch. I wiggled it, examined it, tried again, and again. After many attempts to figure out why it wouldn’t stitch, with just a day before the baby shower, I discarded the deceitful machine and sat down to sew by hand. 17 x 17 x 31, how long, how wide, which sides are stitched, which open? Oh no! Wrong side stitched closed, where’s that little tool, the seam ripper, maybe that’ll keep me from destroying this thing completely. Maybe not.

    I shooed the cats away from the model boxes. Wilbur, that is not a new hideout for you!

    I pinned and pinned and pinned some more. Pins, thread, needles, where’s that thimble I use to make the dent in thimble cookies? How did my mother do this, my eyes were killing me, I couldn’t even teach my eyes to look through a magnifying glass to rethread the needle. Does it reverse? No, it’s my brain. Thread, knot, sew, sew, sew, knot — aw, come on, surely I left enough thread to knot. Not. Repeat repeat repeat.

    Turn it inside out. Pull it down over the model boxes. OK. Go back to the flour sack. See where to fasten the ribbon. Done. More than a full work day to make a sack. My mother would be… amused? ashamed?

    I enjoyed the sewing, because I’d set aside the time for it. It was calming. My hand hurt the next day, my eyes ached, but it worked. The portable stitching device didn’t work, but I got it done. At the shower venue, my brother carried the box in, and my niece’s mother-in-law Sue helped me to tie the violet bow, and there it went.

    I wonder if they’ll keep the sack for … something. Is Mom looking down, chuckling with her sisters with just a little bit of “I told you so” happening, since I never listened when she tried to teach me to sew, or to knit. Curse the academic course in high school, which taught nothing so useful as the commercial course! My mother would say A for effort, D for execution. Maybe I’ll get to that toppling pile of mending now….  

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to plot the route to the hospital where my niece has given birth to a wonderful daughter.

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  • 04/23/14--18:18: On the Birth of the Bard


  • Last year I wrote a reasonably well-prepared post about William Shakespeare and his plays in celebration of his birthday on this very blog. Alas, this year, well, I’ve been a bit lax in gathering data and thoughts and such, so I may be a bit doddery (Lear creeps in already) in these scribblings.  I will now stop procrastinating, for as Will said, “In delay there lies no plenty.”  Or Good’n’Plenty.  Off we go.

    The thing about Shakespeare is that we go to hear the words.  We see the same plays over and over again because the same play can take a different path when someone new directs it or acts in it or designs it or thinks about it and puts it all together to communicate their interpretation to us, the willing audience.  And if we disagree, we get to argue about it.  Who could ask for anything more.

    We will see their spiffy production values and costumes and themes and such, but still we go to hear.  Hear the same sentence sound remarkably different because a different actor is saying it to yet another actor.  Let’s take King Lear, for example; it’s a year for Lears.  There’s your Lear, and there’s your Lear talking to your Regan.  Or your Goneril.  Or your Cordelia.  And your Lear has different feelings about each of these daughters depending on the actor playing Lear, the actor playing Goneril, the actor playing Regan, the actor playing Cordelia.  So many dynamics to play with, so many possibilities.  And each time we hear this Lear we haven’t seen before speak the same lines another Lear did to his daughters, the words are new and fresh.

    Everyone wants to do Lear — the play has very fine male roles, of course, but also two excellent female roles and one possibly impossible female role — so there’ll be plenty more to come and to compare.  All of this applies to many of the plays, of course.  Lear is an easy example this year. 

    Diana Rigg as Regan
    Last month I saw Theatre For a New Audience’s (“TFANA”) production of King Lear in which Michael Pennington undertook the role of Lear under the direction of Arin Arbus.  His Lear was a pretty angry fellow in full control of his faculties when he makes all the foolish assumptions and foolhardy decisions of his first scene.  Later he goes a bit dotty and becomes softer and more understanding.  He notices things then — things like there were subjects (people) to be cared for, to be protected, in his kingdom, and he hadn’t done his job well.  It was a very socially-aware Lear.  I’m told, although I didn’t see it myself, that Frank Langella’s Lear performed the month before at BAM, started off that same first scene practically doddering and then became clearer in his madness.  Utterly different men, utterly different choices, utterly different relationships.  In the TFANA Lear, my favorites were the Regan (a marvelously sharp and cynical Bianca Amato) and her husband Cornwall (a delightfully perverse Saxon Palmer).  I decided to re-view a Lear still in my memory from the 1980s for its fabulous Edmund and Edgar pairing of Robert Lindsay and David Threlfall.  The Lear was Olivier.  The Fool, oh the Fool, was John Hurt!  Next week I’ll be seeing a live broadcast from London of a production directed by Sam Mendesin which Simon Russell Beale takes on Lear.

    But I digress. 

    In the past year I saw some splendid productions of Shakespeare plays, including —

    • London’s Donmar Warehouse’s production of Julius Caesar1 set in a women’s prison transferred handily to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.  Directed by the fabulous Phyllida Lloyd, Dame Harriet Walter as Brutus and Frances Barber as Julius Caesar led an all-female cast to the heights and depths and yes it worked.  This was the perfect example of familiar lines carrying all new meaning based on the interpretations of different direction, actors, genders, and styles.

    Harriet Walter as Brutus
    • TFANA’s inaugural production in its new home in another part of Brooklyn was of A Midsummer Night’s Dream2directed by Julie Taymor.  It was as magical and delectable and high-flying as you might expect from Ms. Taymor.

    Tina Benko as Titania
    • In addition to more snow than we’re accustomed to, winter brought us two plays in repertory3 from Shakespeare’s Globe, not in its usual visiting venue in lower Manhattan.  Rather, these two gorgeous (costumes, set, music, everything), all-male Globe productions traveled to Broadway. 
    -         Twelfe Night starred Mark Rylance as Olivia in what might be the most extraordinary performance I’ve seen him give yet, and he’s always remarkable.  Stephen Fry’s Malvolio was also delicious.
    -         Richard III starred Mr. Rylance again in the title role, but the play showed itself as it is — so much about Richard that the other characters and the story are short-changed.  Not by the actors, however.  For just one example, Samuel Barnett (a fine Viola in the Twelfe Night) was a fabulous and powerful Queen Elizabeth in Richard III.

    At a movie-house I saw the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Coriolanus4broadcast live from Covent Garden, London, to Kew Gardens, Queens.  The live broadcast was almost as exciting as being there live to see Tom Hiddleston’s performance as a youthful and disdainful Coriolanus.  It was an interesting production of a problematical play.  And, to follow up, I also watched the Ralph Fiennes film version.  Two views of Coriolanus in one year is quite unusual.

    The long-awaited JossWhedon black-and-white modern day Much Ado About Nothing5opened on a rainy night last summer.  It was fun, and there were some delightful performances, but the mores and manners of Much Ado do not lend themselves well to modern settings, in my opinion.  Viewing that film did, however, inspire me to re-view Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film of the same play, which was a polar opposite to the Whedon film.  It’s all a matter of interpretation, not to mention mood.

    How far afield can one go in interpreting Shakespeare’s words?  From The Tempest played on an Elizabethan stage in which the sea and sand and cave are all artfully explained in poetry because they cannot be physically brought into the old Globe, all the way to a science fiction film that introduced Robby the Robot as a sort of Ariel and Dr. Morbius as Prospero, with Anne Francis— in remarkably skimpy outfits for 1956; there is clearly nothing new under the sun — as Miranda on the planet Altair IV instead of a desert island.  Shakespeare:  Passport to the Universe.

    Among my theatre goings this year, I saw an interesting new play that echoed themes of A Doll’s House, which I also saw this year in an excellent production directed by Carrie Cracknell with Hattie Morahan as Nora. But I won’t be seeing either of those plays again.  It’s Shakespeare that bears repeating, that we go to year after year, wondering how will that director show it, that actor interpret it, what will it look like to an audience that can never get enough of Shakespeare.  How will it sound this time?

    Right now, for mood music, I’ve got a DVD of “Theatre of Blood” playing in the background — the story of a Shakespearean actor who decides that first he must kill all the critics, all by methods found in the Bard’s plays.  Vincent Price, Diana Rigg— full of Shakespearean quotes and plots and a cavalcade of British actors of stage and screen.  Such fun.

    By the way, Michael Graves, an old friend from my acting days, moved down to New Mexico, and he is right now rehearsing his first Lear for a reading at the Aux Dog Theatre.  Anyone anywhere near Albuquerque, please go see him on Thursday for me and continue this Lear year (http://www.auxdog.com/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=60&products_id=502).

    Happy Birthday, Will.  Many exciting returns of the day.  And thank you for your never-ending gifts.


    ~ Molly Matera, sending you off to another site where lots of people are wishing Shakespeare a happy 450th Birthday:  http://birthday2014.bloggingshakespeare.com/

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  • 05/03/14--17:24: The Many Faces of Lear


  • That King Lear is a great play is evidenced in how many ways it can be played and still work to bring out its audience’s fears, fury, loathings, loves, sorrows, and laughs.


    Laurence Olivier brought a filmed version of the play to American broadcast television in 1984.  I remember seeing that broadcast and videotaping it.  It told the story in an even-handed manner, strictly by the book.  Foggy days and dark nights kept people in their fort-like homes and the landscape was bare but for the Stonehenge-like formations people and dogs ran around in the mist.  This was ancient Britain, pre-Christian, as was the Theatre for a New Audience (“TFANA”) production this year.  The National Theatre (“NT”) production that was broadcast live around the world this week was set in the twentieth or twenty-first century in what is presumably a modern dictatorship.

    Traditionally Lear goes mad at his cruel treatment by his daughters and a night spent unsheltered in a wild storm.  Director Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale did not go the traditional route for this NT production.

    As Lear, Simon Russell Beale clearly played a man slipping into the dementia he feared, and it was that fear that decided Lear to give up his kingdom.  This makes his foolishness as he divides his kingdom appear to be a noble act, even if badly done.  At what point does responsibility for one’s past actions end?  When he starts to lose his mind, is Lear no longer guilty of his pastbad acts that we can reasonably assume from his present bullying actions played out before us from the moment we meet him?  This Lear is feared.  Is he the cause of Goneril’s coldness — did he force her into a loveless political marriage?  And Regan’s blatant instability, her inappropriate flirtation, her ill-timed giggles, her sudden shouts, were these also due to Lear’s earlier actions?  Jane Smiley theorized so in her novel A Thousand Acres. 

    Do, should we forgive bad men because they’ve grown old?  Do we stop hunting criminals when they reach a certain age?

    Simon Russell Beale is a very subtly expressive actor.  After his truly shocked surprise at Cordelia’s refusal to embellish her filial love as her sisters had done, his hissy fit diminished his power in its childishness.  He forced her to stand on a chair, as if on a slave auction block, humiliation compounding his cruelty, thereby proving that he is brutal with the self-centered and thoughtless viciousness of a spoilt child.  While we feel for him at Goneril’s home and in his reception at Gloucester’s by his second daughter, we have to wonder how much of this he has deserved.

    The NT production’s second daughter Regan behaved like a child seducing an older man, sitting on her father’s lap, kissing him, all to Lear’s delight.  It was grotesque, particularly when Lear laughed as he reached out and smacked her bum the way uncouth men smack waitresses’ behinds.

    The Duke of Albany is often played as quite stoical.  At the NT, Richard Clothier played a more emotionally available Albany, furious with his wife not merely disapproving or disinterested.  Although I generally like Anna Maxwell Martin, her Regan’s giggles did not excite as the glares and leers of Bianca Amato’s Regan had at TFANA this season. The NT Cornwall was a barrel-chested bully, who was brutal as we believe Lear had been (which is attractive to Regan, of course). Michael Nardone played him with gusto and malignity.
     
    Bianca Amato as Regan and Michael Pennington as Lear in the TFANA King Lear.
    Stanley Townsend’s Kent could be seen as a bully as well, with Oswald being the nerd that is mocked and pushed and tripped.  Oswald’s no innocent, of course (certainly not in the TFANA production), but Lear’s men clearly pick on him. 
    Stanley Townsend as Kent in the National Theatre King Lear.

    Everybody loves a Fool.  The Fool for TFANA was quite young and his interpretation was not interesting, but the fact that I did not recognize him as the Lysander I’d seen a few months before does say something about his ability to inhabit a character.  The Fool in the Olivier production was rather frightened and ultimately lonely as played by John Hurt.  The Fool in the NT production was the right Fool for this Lear, quite excellent, saucy, wise, not a “boy,” yet not as old as Lear.  Adrian Scarborough’s Fool has worldly wisdom, never sounding mad as Fools sometimes do.  His relationship with Lear was solid and real, making his death all the more shattering.  I generally find the Fool’s death confusing because I don’t know why he “hangs himself.” Well, in this production, the most shocking and distressing incident was the Fool’s death in the hovel.  When this Lear says later that the Fool hanged himself, he knew full well what he had done.  If this Fool had hanged himself, it would not have been until after the crazed Lear had beaten him bloody and broken his heart as well as his head. 
     
    Simon Russell Beale as Lear and Adrian Scarborough as The Fool
    Playing off the parent/child story of Lear and his daughters is the parent/child story of Gloucester and his sons.  Gloucester seems to have raised his sons similarly, but harps on the illegitimacy of his youngest, Edmund, right in front of him.  At best this is rude, and Edmund pays him back with interest.  Edgar is, to Edmund, too noble to recognize evil when it’s coming right at him, but to me he always seems a bit of a fool until he loses everything and becomes Poor Tom.

    Edmund/Edgar.  I’m just prejudiced, I guess.  I saw my favorite Edmund in 1984 in Robert Lindsay opposite David Threlfal’s Edgar in the Olivier Lear.  The Edmund in the last two productions I’ve seen were nothing to write home about.  Same with the Edgar I saw in TFANA, although Tom Brooke’s Edgar in the NT production was deeply layered. 

    I expect Gloucester to look like Rumpole of the Bailey, since Leo McKern undertook him in the Olivier version.  Stephen Boxer in the NT production does not look like Rumpole of the Bailey, and plays his Gloucester quite differently.  He, too, was crueler than usual (not just verbally), less controlled.  Boxer’s Gloucester was a man who has a great many right instincts and got inordinately punished by his gods (by way of Edmund, Cornwall and Regan) because of a past bad act:  adultery.  I heard that word late in the play louder than I’ve heard it before when the gently mad Lear spoke it to the blind Gloucester. 

    As in many of my theatre experiences (this is not limited to Shakespeare, it plays for Ibsen, Chekhov, all the classic works that are produced and heavily attended by people like me over and over) there were things that were marvelous in the Arin Arbus-directed King Lear at TFANA, as well as this Sam Mendes-directed King Lear at the National, so I start to think ‘give me this Regan and Cornwall from TFANA, this Gloucester and Fool from the National, this Oswald, this Kent…’ but they wouldn’t all belong in the same production, and chemistry and dynamics would change the very different interpretations. 

    In the NT’s large production in the large Olivier theatre, Lear’s followers seem to be a huge bunch even though there can be no more than twenty of them on stage.  They’re all fit, wearing black, a bunch of rowdy, arrogant young men.  Their presence in Goneril’s home can be perceived as a threat.  Although we never see them at Regan’s, surely 100, or 50, or even 25 of them could readily be a disruptive force in any household.
     
    Kate Fleetwood as Goneril and Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan at the National
    Sometimes it’s easy to see Goneril and Regan’s points, particularly in a production set in modern times. The National Theatre’s production made these issues clear.  This is not to say other productions didn’t show the same actions.  But Sam Mendes and Simon Russell Beale may not be altogether sure their Lear is redeemed after adversity…and no one carried the bodies off stage at the end of the play.  Must give us pause….

    All in all, we come back to “what is this thing called King Lear?”  Is it about the ages of man, from helpless infant through adolescence, adulthood, all the way to the helpless elder.  Do we forgive our elders for the evils they did us when we were powerless and they empowered?  Does Lear get what he deserves?  To modern sensibilities, it appears his two eldest daughters go too far, but should he have 100 rowdy men following him around the countryside with nothing to do?  Would we feel so much sympathy for Lear if his followers went off on a rampage raping and pillaging? 

    This is why plays as good as King Lear are produced over and over again.  The questions it engenders are open-ended and can be explored in too many ways to enumerate.  Once is not enough.

    Continuing from what I wrote about Shakespeare last week, we go to see Shakespeare plays to hear them. I heard differing interesting things in the TFANA and National Theatre productions of Lear.  Nobody’s “wrong.”  Each production has its point of view, its jumping off place, and the execution of both the productions I’ve seen this year were very fine.  I tend to think the smaller TFANA production was more in the spirit of the production in Shakespeare’s own time, but the NT production was remarkably powerful and memorable.

    As Sam Mendes’ production of King Lear built its world, body by body, it grew into a remarkable whole.  And I will remember Simon Russell Beale’s Lear longer than I’ll remember those of the excellent Michael Pennington or the legendary Laurence Olivier.  Check this site to see if a re-broadcast of the NTLive production is playing near you:  http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/44084-king-lear.  Highly recommended.
     
    Olivia Vinall as Cordelia in the NT Lear
    P.S.  In my last post I referred to the role of Cordelia as possibly impossible to play.  This, like all other roles, will be dependent upon how the rest of the characters are portrayed, but the one that made most sense to me — in context — was that of Anna Calder Marshall in the Olivier Lear.  And speaking of Cordelia, someone sent me a copy of Garson Kanin’s novel Cordelia.  It arrived yesterday with no indication of who sent it, so I thank you and look forward to reading it.

    ~ Molly Matera, signing off to view yet another DVD of another Lear, re-read the play (folio, quarto, conflated?  I know not), and search my bookshelves for my copy of A Thousand Acres. 

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