Last week I went downtown again.
In the ‘90s and early ‘00s, come winter my colleagues and I would sojourn to South Street Seaport, meet up with some husbands and some kids and shiver as the Big Apple Chorus, bundled up in matching hats and scarves, climbed up the steps to wrap around the tree and sing Christmas Carols, conducted by a swell Santa who gave candy canes to the star-struck children. It was a highlight of the season for us, year after year. Even when I no longer worked down there, it was worth the trip.
Then in 2012 came Sandy, and the South Street Seaport has been trying to recover. So this year, I went downtown, but you really can’t go “home” again. The simplicity of the Singing Tree and people milling about, standing in the cold to listen and sing along with familiar carols is apparently a joy of the past.
In 2014, the tree is big and beautiful (48 years on Long Island, now on Fulton Street), a new ice skating rink is in place, and a small stage is slightly sheltered from the elements as individuals with names people younger than I may recognize sing unrecognizable melodies that blast out of huge speakers bawling all over downtown. And they’re onscreen as well, of course. Half the space is taken up by the “Talent Green Room.”
But at least you can learn to curl on Thursday nights.
My friend and I retired to a place engagingly named “NYC Stout” and recalled the fun it used to be.
~ Molly Matera, trying to get into the spirit of the season....
Brooklyn Academy of Music
The last week of November, my friends and I traveled underground to BAM Opera House (rain, rain, rain, but that evening the MTA did its job) for a program by Philip Glass: The Etudes. There are twenty of them, and they were played in chronological order starting with Mr. Glass himself followed by nine virtuoso pianists. The first act was spectacular, downright awe-inspiring. Mr. Glass’ music requires advanced technique (apparently he wrote them to force himself to play better) but they’re not just exercises. There is depth, intricacy, and passion. By the 14th etude they start sounding rather alike, but just watching the very different styles of the pianists was fun. I am a new fan of Timo Andres, Jenny Lin, Bruce Levingston, and Tania Leon.
|Philip Glass surrounded by great pianists. Photo credit Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM|
The Vineyard Theatre
For my friend’s autumn visit to the city, we went to the Village to see “Billy & Ray” at the Vineyard Theatre. It’s about the writing of a screenplay for the great Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (based on book by James M. Cain which everyone disparaged as trash). The play was written by Mike Bencivenga and directed by Gary Marshall, who of course knows how to direct in any medium, so it was put together well. The play was a lot of fun for me since I got the in-jokes about the movie, the actors, the ways of the studio. My companion’s brother would have enjoyed it. While my friend enjoyed the play somewhat, she definitely looked at me questioningly each time I laughed at something she didn’t get. It was only at intermission that I discovered she’d never seen Double Indemnity; and that she didn’t know Fred MacMurray had played a sweater-wearing dad named Steve Douglas in My Three Sons (one of the laugh lines for old folk like me). I tried to explain what Double Indemnitymeant to me, since I knew MacMurray as that dad and seeing him in Double Indemnity was mind blowing, realizing that the middle-aged actor was once sexy and seriously noirish in the film that started noir. I compared the experience to seeing Robert Young, seen in the same decade as My Three Sonsplaying the kindly Dr. Marcus Welby — a family doctor who still made house calls — and the shock of seeing him as a Nazi in a Hitchcock film. My friend had never seen Marcus Welby either. Clearly I watched way too much television in my youth.
The play’s fun for those of us in the know and reasonably well structured until the end, when it runs into the problem any “fact” based story has in winding up — telling the audience what happened to Chandler afterward and Wilder and the movie, etc., and film noir itself. Larry Pine was more than competent but not quite on as Chandler and Vincent Kartheiser, while better than I expected as Billy Wilder, was still not the Billy in my head (even though Billy must have been young once). Still I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was good. The scenic designer used the space well, and the period music was spot on. So it was a pleasant if not scintillating evening, and I was delighted to know that Chandler was well aware that doors open into rooms, not out into hallways, so that great, nail-bitingly tense scene in which Barbara Stanwyck hides from Edward G. Robinson behind the open hallway door was “grammatically” incorrect. Billy Wilder didn’t care for reality, but rather for the dramatic moment.
Do see Double Indemnity, the film, if you haven’t — or even if you have. The play’s fun, but does not hold a candle to the film it holds up for examination.
|Kartheiser as Wilder and Pine as Chandler. Photo credit (c) 2014 Carol Rosegg|
A Delicate Balancing Act at the Golden Theatre
Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is back on Broadway, but this one does not compare to the 1996 production, despite Pam McKinnondirecting. While I loved her production of Who’s Afraid ofVirginia Woolf, this evening is well staged, but not well directed mostly because it’s not well cast. I hesitated to see this production because I did not want to sully the memory of the perfect production of the play we saw on Broadway in the 1990s — with the brilliant George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch and Rosemary Harris. Sometimes — well, often — one should follow the gut.
The Leading Lady, Agnes, is a tough creature to play: she is the delicate balance. Glenn Close doesn’t get it, coming off as merely officious. John Lithgow is also rather shallow and dull as her husband. As their daughter, Martha Plimpton is also loud and shallow and dull.
Lindsay Duncanis downright brilliant in addition to being courageous for taking on a role we all remember Elaine Stritch doing. Ms. Duncan does a great deal more than hold her own. Bob Balaban (pitch perfect, tonally and physically) and Claire Higgins(mad and rather hateful, meaning perfect) as the frightened neighbors Harry & Edna are fabulous. It made me happy just to see them enter the stage. They nailed it.
One of my favorite aspects in the scenic/lighting design were the shadows of people about to enter – down the stairs, from the kitchen area, toward the front door, all the visual “foreshadowing” was marvelous. The staging and design elements were cleverly “off balance.”
I know A Delicate Balance, and it’s not a dull play. I should never have timeto sit and think, “I am so bored with these rich people, they should go out and work, why is the drunk the only interesting thing onstage, what is the issue with the bedrooms with these people, they have servants and no guest room??” But that’s how I felt the evening I saw this production. The last 3-hour play I saw was Stoppard’s Indian Ink at the Roundabout, and I wasn’t bored for a moment. Big difference.
Six actors, of which three do fine work — really, Lindsay Duncan is the epitome of alive onstage, living as a whole person (however broken as an alcoholic, or, as Claire insists, a drunk) with relationships, history, power, humor, and guts. To see her work, and that of Clare Higgins and Bob Balaban, is a delight. But there must be a better way.
Save your money on this one.
|Lithgow and Close. Photo Credit (c) 2014 Brigitte Lacombe.
The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theatre
Sting’s new musical (music & lyrics by Sting, a.k.a. Gordon Sumner) has a terrific book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, is directed by Joe Mantello, and rather thrillingly choreographed by Steven Hoggett. When we saw it, we predicted: The Last Ship will be touted as and win awards as the best new musical of the year. Unfortunately, the wrong people wrote reviews on it. If you like Sting’s musical progression over the years, you’ll like the score. This is not what he did with The Police, this is later Sting, which leans more toward older music, music of the working people, which is pretty much the play.
The critics are wrong about The Last Ship. It’s musically exciting, emotionally engaging, and different from the usual Broadway. The choreography is suited to the characters doing the dancing, and the scenic and lighting design (David Zinn and Christopher Akerlind, respectively) are fabulous. Michael Esper as Gabriel returned to his hometown and Rachel Tuckeras the girl he left behind lead an excellent cast. We had a wonderful evening. The play does not need Sting to appear onstage, he’s already there in its heart and sound, although he will join the cast as a means to bring more people into the theatre. Unfortunately, this means those who see Sting will miss the hearty and heartfelt performance of Jimmy Nail.
A fine Christmas gift it would be if this musical play’s box office turns around and it runs on, despite foolish critics.
|A scene from The Last Ship. (C)2014 Sara Krulwich/NYT|
~ Molly Matera, hoping everyone is enjoying their preparations for holidays, which should include seeing some live theatre.
Theatre for a New Audiencecontinues to use its new space at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center well. This time they’ve provided the opportunity to see Marlowe’s Tamburlaine for the first — and presumably last — time.
For some gladsome reason Michael Boyd decided to cut the two 3-4 hour plays that comprise Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Parts 1 and 2, into one play that runs about 2 ½ hours with 30 minutes in the middle to give the stage crew time to mop up all the blood during intermission. The play may not be so bloody as Evil Dead the Musicalnor The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and yet it holds its own.
The play follows a chronological and geographical structure as Tamburlaine (a Scythian shepherd who has turned to raiding and marauding and gathering followers along the way), goes from territory to territory in Africa and Asia to conquer and control. While this pointless continuation of killing for titles appears illogical to a modern audience, that doesn’t keep the playwright from moving from one place on a map (he loves place names!) to the next, so Tamburlaine can kill one king, regent, prince after another. It’s mad. And it’s bold. The battle between religious groups is nothing new — Marlowe has some Christian king breaking his word to Muslims, Muslims betray one another, and the only one who wins is the Scythian marauder Tamburlaine, who claims the title of every man he kills — King of Persia, Emperor of Turkey, Kings of Fez, Morocco, Argier, the map expands as the play continues. It certainly sounds like nothing much has changed since Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine around 1587 and the present. The maps have merely expanded to more land and changed some names.
I offer immense kudos to director/editor Michael Boyd as well as gratitude since I’m not likely to sit through two nights of four hours of bloodletting however heightened the language. The theatricality of the blood-letting is admirable, the effects horrifying — although the gallons of blood did not compare to the tossing of a single cut-off tongue, which left us all aghast. Tamburlaine goes beyond beyond, and even the come-uppance of dis-likable characters goes too far. Mind you, there are a lot of laughs in this production of Tamburlaine, particularly from the ever off-kilter Saxon Palmer. Add to him the delightful Steven Skybell, Matthew Amendt, Chukwudi Iwuji in an extraordinary performance going from the heights to the pits... really the whole cast is marvelous.
John Douglas Thompson and Chukwudi Iwuji (Photo Credit Gerry Goodstein)
The brilliant, amazing, lovably terrifying John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine the Great is a requirement for a play like this, and Mr. Thompson can carry it. Although I cannot understand quite how his (or anyone’s) rhetoric could lead Theridamas (Andrew Hovelson) to betray his country or king (etc.), nor to persuade his captive to happily become a wife, Thompson’s Tamburlaine was magical and funny and oddly down-to-earth. And quite mad, of course. No resting on his laurels, no matter how many he conquered — he just liked the conquering. Merritt Janson did fine work as Tamburlaine’s other conquest, the unlikely wife, Zenocrate (daughter of the Soldan of Egypt). Nilanjana Bose was more than convincing as Olympia, the conquered woman still loyal to her husband even in death.
Of all the wonderful actors in this play, I think my favorite was Paul Lazar, who set us up to laugh from the opening, so we knew it would be OK to laugh through the bloodletting as he played the doomed King of Persia, later the Soldan of Egypt, and finally Almeda the Jailor.
Finally, the choreography by Sam Pinkleton, music by Arthur Solari, fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth all worked together to bring us this remarkable piece edited and directed by Mr. Boyd with dramaturgy by Jonathan Kalb. Rather than rolling over in his grave at the massive cuts to his scripts, I suspect Mr. Marlowe is grinning ear to ear at this modern re-telling. After all, everyone but writers know that less is more.
Alas, I saw this play near the end of its run so recommending it is practically a pointless exercise — EXCEPT that run has been extended through January 4th
Do your darnedest to make it there — otherwise, just keep an eye out for anything edited or directed by Michael Boyd
, and anything in which John Douglas Thompson
Well done, TFANA.
~ Molly Matera, signing off, probably for the last post this year….or maybe not….
The cast of An Octoroon is fabulous — funny, sharp, imaginative, courageous. This company is tight, it transforms its delightful costumes into normal apparel, and much of the play is very funny except when it’s suddenly appalling. Mind you, the horror has been there all the while. An Octoroonis effective. Then what about it irks me so?
Comedy is hard, and particularly terrifying when it’s about serious subjects. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play, while a hit last year at SoHo Rep and receiving accolades this year in a new production with Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, is to me a brilliantly executed (cheers to director Sarah Benson and the aforementioned cast) schoolroom exercise in theory, with a cast that makes it appear complete when it’s not done baking yet. It works much of the time until the author interrupts to tell us how clever he is, and how he’s manipulating us. Melodrama is supposed to make us feel, not think, but playwright Jacobs-Jenkins wants both. I don’t mind a good manipulator, and this play has plenty of points to make, in its beginning in the present leading to the play within the play. The playwright tells us this play is about race and race relations and morality. And yes, doing any version of An or The Octoroon will generate passions surrounding those subjects. The problem is that the playwright’s attempts at cleverness interrupt the play, stopping the action and extending what should have been a longish one act to an overlong two act.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ fascination with mid-nineteenth century melodrama, particularly a play by Dian Foucicault, is the basis on which he stages the issues he wishes to discuss in this play. The 19th century playwright Foucicault appears to be a character in the play within the play, along with the narrator/playwright of this play. Yes, it’s that confusing. The opening of the evening immediately distanced me from it when the playwright’s stand-in opens the play with a conversation between said playwright and his therapist. Luckily it’s not actually Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, but rather the delightful newcomer Austin Smith, who plays the playwright in the present, a romantic hero visiting a plantation in the melodrama (George), as well as the mustachioed white villain of the piece (M’Closky). Oh yes, he’s in whiteface for most of the evening. Brilliant.
Foucicault’s play was called “The Octoroon,” which is a person who is 1/8 black. The new play is called “An Octoroon,” but it is not about a woman who is 1/8 black. It is about us, white people, black people, what happened then, what’s not all that different now. The title character, Zoe, is beautifully portrayed by Amber Gray, who sings, and laughs, and loves, and cries and leaves us hanging – and caring. During a melodrama, the audience may care about its characters, but not three weeks later. Ms. Gray’s “Zoe” still follows me around. I want to know what happened. Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t wring the last tear out of us – he is unusually and wisely silent about her fate. Her last several scenes, when her life as a free woman is torn apart as she’s sold as a slave, are just devastating to her and to us.
|Mary Wiseman as Dora and Austin Smith as George in An Octoroon. Photo Credit: Gerry Goodstein|
Except in the narrative breaks where Jacobs-Jenkins makes his characters instruct us as to the form of melodrama and his intent with his version of the play, the story ranges from funny to heartbreaking, as do the performances by the brittle yet glittering Mary Wiseman as Dora, a southern heiress who loves George; Ian Lassiter in multiple roles of various races; Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand as battling and loving Minnie and Dido, the funniest out-of-time house slaves you can’t even imagine; Haynes Thigpen as Foucicault and a devoted but sometimes drunken Indian brave; and Danielle Davenport as the desperate field slave Grace. Yes, these are all dreadful stereotypes brought to glowing life by this fine cast.
In addition to the actors, who all sing with warmth and/or gusto, the evening is hauntingly accompanied by Lester St. Louis on cello.
The play had memorable staging and shocks, but some of them were of the sort that hit the audience over the head with a bat, which takes us out of the play and therefore we stop trusting our responses to the story before us. If Jacobs-Jenkins must bracket his play with lectures, he would be best advised to cut them down and let the actors play on our heartstrings and manipulate us more subtly.
Some stage pictures were horrifying, some silly, and some unspeakably lovely, courtesy Mimi Lien’s scenic design and Matt Frey’s lighting design.
Although I have issues with some of Jacobs-Jenkins more obvious techniques, still I came away from An Octoroon moved and glad to have seen it. I look forward to Jacobs-Jenkins’ maturation as a playwright.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to prepare for an ever busier theatre season.
The other night we went down to the 14th Street Y to see a "science" play by Jack Karp called Irreversible, produced by the Red Fern Theatre Company. We left with conflicting feelings -- what a terrific play, sharp, well structured, tightly directed. With one huge flaw, and not one that could be put aside lightly: the leader actor was horrendous. Luckily, it was a play, not a film, so the next production of this play -- and Irreversible deserves another production -- need only cast a better actor as J. Robert Oppenheimer and it will garner itself a longer run.
Irreversibleis a damn good play about the sons of bitches who made the atomic bomb. It is about physics and math and those bright boys who get as excited as children as they discovered a means to commit genocide and paralyze the world with fear. Central to the play is J. Robert Oppenheimer (called “Oppy” throughout the play, except for his mistress and his wife).
Set in Los Alamos between 1944 and 1945, when great scientific minds gathered in a “secure location” akin to a prison to find a way to end the second world war sooner rather than later, the play uses five characters to represent the thousands of employees — scientists, military, administrators, not to mention wives — involved in the Manhattan Project and raise questions about the work that was done there. This is a fine play, well wrought by playwright Jack Karp and directed by Melanie Meyer Williams. The five characters Karp placed at Los Alamos, plus another important component back at Berkeley, gave him the bare necessities to tell the story, with a few extra names like Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi tossed in but not appearing — why confuse the issue, except as in the case of Teller, the originator of the incredibly dreadful idea of a “super” bomb that could out-do and out-destroy the atomic bomb.
Five of the six actors did excellent work. One did not. Irreversiblehad a hole in the middle called the lead actor, Jordan Kaplan, who is not capable of playing a mystery like J. Robert Oppenheimer. Kaplan played the man like a middle school boy who'd received too much praise, over-acting up a storm. He hit all his marks and knew all his lines (presumably). He filled his performance with annoying physical quirks and breathy commentary. He couldn’t even fake smoking with an electronic cigarette, or cough convincingly.
Not to worry, though. The rest of the cast was quite good:
Amelia Mathews, Josh Doucette, Hugh Sinclair, and Kaplan. Photo Credit Red FernTheatre Company 2015.|
Dan Odell played a convincing Niels Bohr, a man of calm and confidence with important things to say, to teach. Too much of it falls on deaf ears.
Hugh Sinclair as General Groves was as exuberant about the pyrotechnics as a little boy, representing the military that cannot trust someone with a foreign accent, yet cannot resist a big boom.
Amelia Mathews as the other woman in Berkeley was marvelous, very much of the 1940s and yet wild as a political and sexual radical. Even as she entered the set in semidarkness to turn pieces of office furniture into a liquor cabinet for her apartment, she moved in character, a depressed, lonely, and drunken woman.
Laura Pruden as Oppy’s wife Kitty was an opposite type, sharp, understanding. Where Jean was danger and excitement, Kitty offered safety without claustrophobia — a scientist herself, she was caustic without being scathing. Pruden engaged us as a mature, intelligent, and warm woman, just the sort a genius like Oppenheimer needed to balance his life.
Josh Doucette as Oppy’s younger brother Frank was the moral compass, he represented us. Presumably not as smart as Robert, but more balanced and straightforward, Frank, with Kitty, tried to bring out Oppenheimer’s humanity, but J. Robert Oppenheimer sacrificed that to his god, physics.
|Dan Odell as Niels Bohr and Jordan Kaplan as Robert Oppenheimer. Photo Credit Red Fern Theatre Company.|
When Kitty wants to go horseback riding, on the horses they’ve brought to the complex —horses their son had fed and named, that Oppy and Kitty had ridden on their honeymoon — Oppy says he’s moved them to a different pasture. In fact, Oppenheimer sacrificed them to science — the new pasture was part of the first test of the “gadget” in the desert. The play is harsh and truthful (which is not to say its history was all on the mark, but this is a play, not a documentary). The star-scientist Oppenheimer was stripped of his charm to show that his particular genius would always put science — and himself — above it all, above humanity. This portrait of Oppenheimer is rather like that picture in Dorian Gray’s attic.
|Laura Pruden as Kitty Oppenheimer (Photo Credit Red Fern Theatre Company)|
Playwright Karp employs visual foreshadowing to set up the frightening end of the play. The military and scientific personnel viewing the first test of the “gadget” were advised to lie prone on the ground, and the actors lay face down in a circle. This stage picture is echoed in the second act by the actors in white kimonos, their faces hidden by white masks, this time lying face up in the same circle surrounding the oblivious Oppenheimer.
The Red Fern Theatre Company’s production of Jack Karp’s Irreversibleis a good piece of work that was so well written, directed, lit, and, for the most part, acted, that it could almost cover that gaping hole in the middle of the performance. We let the lapse of casting Kaplan slide as we hope to see a future production as good as this one with someone in the central role who is worthy of it.
~ Molly Matera, signing off. Despite Jordan, see this and hear the play before it closes on the 29th.
The most exciting and discouraging aspect of a good production of a 134-year-old play is its timeliness.
The Almeida Theatre and Sonia Friedman Productions company has brought HenrikIbsen’s Ghoststo BAM. This 95-minute adaptation by director Richard Eyre of Ibsen’s scandalous 1881 play is beautifully produced at the BAM Harvey Theatre, with a 19th century living room backed by a dark scrim through which we could see the 19th century dining room. The smooth design of the play was gorgeously integrated, the scenic design by Tim Hatley merged with the lighting design by Peter Mumford and the sound design by John Leonard. Before the first word is spoken the play is set in its time, place, and mood.
|Pastor Manders and Mrs. Alving. Credit: Almeida Theatre 2015|
In 1881, Ibsen’s play shocked its readers and reviewers, dealing as it does with adultery, deceit, debauchery, and syphilis. In 2015, when it appears nothing shocks us, we are still dealing with similar brainwashing. Yes, I call it that when a woman takes responsibility for a man’s actions. More than a century later, this attitude still resonates. It happens today (“look what you made me do”) and in 1881, the society, the church, and the people themselves put an unbearable load on the backs of women.
The main character has been dead for ten years. An orphanage donated by his widow will be dedicated on the day the play occurs, named after the Honorable Captain Alving, a misnomer. Mrs. Alving is excited, this has been a long time coming. Better, her son, who lives abroad, is home and promises to stay the winter. Her little maid is a local girl who practices her French on Mrs. Alving and the lady’s business manager and pastor. The son, an artist, sleeps late. Oh, and there’s the maid’s father, a typical drunken brute with whom the girl Regina does not wish to live She is part of the Alving household and wishes to remain so, in any capacity.
That’s the set-up. By the end of the play, the dishonorable “honorable” Captain Alving is revealed to all, his orphanage is burned down, and his name will now be attached to a proposed home for sailors we’ve nodded and winked about all evening. The Alving line ends here, onstage, with the only legitimate son suffering from inherited syphilitic fits before us. That’s not a spoiler in a play first produced in 1882.
|Lesley Manville takes wing as Mrs Alving|
Mrs. Alving has known and hidden all these years that her husband was a debauched drunkard who took his sexual pleasures wherever. She did her duty as a married woman, protected her son from his father as best she could, and made the family rich with her business acumen disguised as her husband’s. The bull-headed pastor for whom she had unreasonable affection insisted she did her wifely duty.
We are shocked to see her response when she first hears the “ghost.” The “ghost” is a repetition of a sound, a sound Mrs. Alving heard when she realized her husband was having an affair with the maid, under Mrs. Alving’s own roof. In the dining room. The same sounds, the same murmurs recur with her son in the dining room with the maid. But wait, it gets better. The maid in the present dining room is the illegitimate daughter of Captain Alving and that other maid, and therefore half sister to young Oswald Alving. Stakes rise.
When Oswald’s behavior echoes that of his father, he raises the Ghost, causing all the truths to come out in exorcism.
The revelations of the last act affect each character differently, but Mrs. Alving’s final revelation was the most distressing. She seems to believe that, since Oswald wants the same things his father wanted, that this meant that Alving Senior’s profligacy, drunkenness, carousing and multiple adulteries were her fault. A distressing reaction.
I’m still bothered. That’s the effect the theater should have on its audience, days later, and longer. The son’s fits at the end of the play were disturbing and heart rending. The fact that Mrs. Alving and her son were totally alone in that big house was fitting as lights dimmed red into that dark dawn.
|Dawn for Mrs. Alving and Oswald Alving.|
Lesley Manville is a wonder, always a living, thinking, feeling human being on the stage, listening without artifice when the other characters — and the audience – focus away from her. Sometimes beautifully still, always controlled, Lesley Manville as Mrs. Helene Alving was fascinating to watch and hear. She held us all in her thrall from start to finish. The evening was hers, as Ibsen intended.
Brian McCardie as an Irish version of Jacob Engstrand was rather standard as a habitual drunk, the alleged father of Regina, known to the region as unreliable at best. He has a dream and a scheme woven through the lives of the other characters. Mr. McCardie’s performance held no surprises.
Charlene McKenna as Regina Engstrand was a bit much, playing “young,” eager to please, too jumpy. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Eyre directed her to do in order to appear young and energetic and potentially joyful, but it didn’t ring quite true.
Will Keen as Pastor Manders was on the mark to the point that he annoyed me. It’s right there in the lines that the man doesn’t listen, and Keen inhabited Manders well, showing us a man who is so sure of himself and his faith and his place in society, and everyone else’s place in society, that he hasn’t listened in decades. His narrow beliefs, uncompromising and unfeeling ways, lead to his destruction, and Mr. Keen’s tightly strung body was on the verge of collapse once he realized he had indeed destroyed the orphanage and subsequently his own soul.
Billy Howie played Oswald Alving as about 17, although I believe he’s supposed to be in his mid twenties. He was sulky, spoiled, and totally his father’s son, and the only person who couldn’t see that was his mother. But she heard it at last as he was ready to repeat his father’s history with the maid. Mr. Howie’s final scenes were harrowing and heart-rending and brought the play to a shocking climax.
I liked Richard Eyre’s adaptation, I feel it captured the spirit of the original without being bogged down with 19th century verbosity. Good theatre is supposed to make us feel and think, and sometimes change comes of it. Ibsen played his part in the early days of the quest for women’s social equality to men. The quest is not yet realized, it is not won. For this play, a 21stcentury adaptation reminds us that while some advances have been made, it’s not enough. Ibsen’s fears live on.
~ Molly Matera, signing off with a recommendation to see this production of “Ghosts,” playing at BAM through May 3, 2015.
What was it W.C. Fields said — never work with animals or children? Well, despite the concentrated and wonderful work by Ian McKellen as a very lived-in Sherlock Holmes devastated by a failing memory, Milo Parker playing the kid Roger steals the show. Mind you, the tiniest role in Mr. Holmes was perfectly played so I knew from the opening moments that this film would be a discreet little jewel. First there was the woman on the train platform, Eileen Davies, with oneline, who immediately made it real. And then the mother of the little boy on the train, Zoe Rainey. In that opening train ride, Sherlock Holmes explains to a young boy, and us, the difference between wasps and bees. A quiet foreshadowing of events.
|Milo Parker as Roger and Ian McKellen as Sherlock in retirement|
Small moments build and build, a community of fine subtle performances, all the way to Charles Maddox, a very grown-up name for the boy who played creepy Oswald. All in all there was wonderful casting of an engaging script by Jeffrey Hatcher based on Mitch Cullin’s novel (A Slight Trick of the Mind, which I now must read). Martin Childs wraps up the story in a lovingly detailed period production design.
Hattie Morahan is haunting as the woman Sherlock could not save, an image encouraged by Bill Condon’s direction, the fine editing by Virginia Katz, and gorgeous cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler. Carter Burwell’s score accompanied, enhanced but never overpowered the film as it moved in time back and forth from the period between the wars to after the end of World War II. A different sort of haunting comes from the images of Hiroshima and its survivors after the war on Mr. Holmes’ visit to Japan in search of a remedy for his failing memory.
Loneliness is the primary theme in this story.
- The Japanese man (sensitive work by Hiroyuki Sanada) and his mother lonely for their missing father and husband.
- The housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (despite her imperfect accent, fine work by Laura Linney as a worn out, tired and lonely war widow)
- Her son Roger (the aforementioned Milo Parker), lonely for the father he does not quite recall
- The staid and proper man (Patrick Kennedy, playing a man so prim I could have screamed) who misses the woman his wife was before her two miscarriages.
- The lonely mother of two unborn children who cannot reconcile herself with their absence, the haunting Hattie Morahan.
- And most of all, Sherlock Holmes – lonely for friendship, lonely for companionship, for conversation, for purpose, and for memories.
|Holmes and Roger (Photo Ed Miller)|
Fine actors appear for memorable single scenes – Roger Allam as the brusque and tender Dr. Barrie, Philip Davis as the respectful country police inspector. Each man created a whole person in a few minutes onscreen. Frances de la Tourwas an aging exotic — one could imagine her playing the stages of Europe before the war.
In the course of the film, Sherlock must teach the boy to respect his mother, himself, and the bees. To himself, he must teach forgiveness.
Mr. Holmestells a story about how, after losing everyone and everything, Sherlock finds a family. It’s a sweet, sad, lovely story with a pleasing ending which explains any negatives reviews this film may receive.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some Sherlock Holmes stories…..
I always remembered the TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. being in black and white. Apparently that was just because we had a black-and-white television set at the time. Well now, it’s the wonderful world of color.
Guy Ritchie’s signature style works well in the fashionable 1960s European haunts in his film The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It’s snazzy, it’s sharp, it’s brisk. Still clever, still violent. And surprisingly good, so long as you accept the genre — which is what, you may ask. It’s not “tongue in cheek” espionage like the original Casino Royale. It’s not Americanized tongue in cheek like the original TV series that was for adults but American adults so politically childlike. It’s rather as if Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram couldn’t quite make up their minds whether to do a comedy or an espionage thriller. They’re leaning quite heavily toward comedy, except when the implied violence goes too far… I mean, sure, they blew up Dr. Watson in the first Sherlock Holmes film in Ritchie’s franchise (and the good doctor should have been dead), so we can see how little Ritchie cares about realism.
Nevertheless, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (in case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) was a lot of fun. But it’s flawed, and although I’d like to see the franchise with the nuclear acting family continue, some pondering is in order for Ritchie & Wigram. For now, let’s break this down:
Musically: From the moment the music started I knew I wanted the soundtrack.
Visuals: Oliver Scholl's production design and John Mathieson's cinematography are on the mark. Their visions are in accord, presenting a film fine-tuned to seduce our senses. We are fooled into believing it all works together.
As to the Story: Screenplay by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram was fast-moving entertainment. What does fast-moving mean? Don’t think. John Kennedy is president, the Cuban Missile Crisis is past, the Berlin Wall is up and East Germans are shooting their own people who try to get over said Wall. American agent Napoleon Solo’s backstory seems to be more like Alexander Mundy, the thief turned spy in “It Takes A Thief,” yet another 1960s television program. But I digress. Solo is trying to get a cute East German girl mechanic over the Berlin Wall to help the U.S. recapture their asset, the girl’s father, a Nazi scientist who has worked for the U.S. since the end of World War II. On the other side, Russian agent Illya Kuryakin’s orders are to keep the girl in East Germany. Guess who wins. And guess who the best driver is: the girl!
|Cavill as Napoleon Solo and Alicia Vikander as Gaby|
Once in Western Europe, the antagonists are forced to work together for the same goal: keeping a possible nuclear weapon out of the hands of neo Nazis. Where in Western Europe? L’Italia. Perfetto for spectacular vistas and style.
|Cavill as Solo and Debicki as Victoria|
Things roll along nicely with betrayals, tantalizing sexual innuendo, shenanigans and silly plot twists. It’s just when we get to the torture scene that it stumbles off track. It’s not easy to balance serious subjects and funny style, and Ritchie and co-writer Wigram do well most of the time. But when Solo is strapped into the comfy chair with the crazy Nazi war criminal, well, he wouldn’t have survived.
This sequence would have worked on “Archer” because that actually is a cartoon. This might have looked OK in storyboards or on the panel of a comic book, but once you put it into a colorful spy live-action dramedy, it veers into a different chromatic scale which could work but did not, even when crazy Nazi doctor said the photographic record of this torture would be in Kodachrome instead of black and white. The whole bit broke the spell, if only for a little while.
Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, charming, smooth without being oily, very cool, dapper. Having read the list of potential casting, I am here to say they picked the right guy.
Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin grew a foot, and is not the Illya I recall from the television series, but I enjoyed him. Clearly he’s the deadpan straight man and Cavill the wit, and they play off one another very nicely.
|Cavill as Solo and Hammer as Kuryakin|
Jared Harris with his strange American accent is comic book tough as CIA guy Sanders, said the same things into Solo’s ear as Misha Kuznetsov as Oleg, Harris’ counterpart in the Soviet Union, was saying to Kuryakin. More fun.
Alicia Vikander as Gaby Teller, the East German mechanic who is sought by all as a means of finding her (former Nazi?) scientist father. Vikander is a wonderful actor, playing for laughs here and achieving them. She is dressed by men, of course, as is Elizabeth Debicki, in the paper doll cut-out style of the Sixties. Vikander is Goldie Hawn, while Debicki is wearing Twiggy’s clothes fashioned for Monica Vitti.
Elizabeth Debicki is not merely tall and young and lovely as Victoria, the sultry Italian mastermind. She is elegantly evil, sinuous, sultry, and classily dangerous. She is the essence of chic, just Napoleon Solo’s type.
|A match made in Mary Quant|
Luca Calvani is attractive as Victoria’s husband Alexander, an heir to fantastic wealth that cannot have been come by honestly, whom we meet for the first time as a playboy in a racecar. Shades of Tony Stark, but not as clever.
Sylvester Groth as the gross Uncle Rudi is appropriately creepy in a Marvel comic book way.
- A charming Hugh Grant sneaks in as Alexander Waverly — his spiffy line from the trailer loses its thrust in the film, which is clearly the director’s error, not Grant’s.
|Admit it, Hugh Grant is cuter than Leo G. Carroll|
Absurd events compound upon others, then all ends neatly making us hope the franchise continues as the end implies it will. Because it was fun.
And, as is standard with Ritchie films, it isn’t over just because the credits are rolling. They are fantastic, sketched across a band of red, with 60s style dossiers, black and white snapshots, essentially some back story in pictures. Terrifically stylish stuff.
Yes, more style than substance, but it is still summer, after all.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch some black-and-white Solo, Kuryakin, and Waverly on MeTV.
In the rubble that was post-war Berlin, survivors of the war and the camps wander like ghosts looking for the familiar in places and people.
“Phoenix” is noir at its darkest, a story of a missing heir, a treacherous husband, and broken hearts lost in the cracks of a devastating world war.
After her rescue from the concentration camp by friend Lene Winter, Nelly Lenz, her face disfigured by a bullet to the head in Auschwitz, searches for herself. She doesn’t see herself in the mirror despite excellent work by the plastic surgeon. Nina Hoss is riveting as Nelly, physically fragile but so strong willed that she survived Auschwitz and continues to search for her past life, particularly for her husband Johnny. Ms. Hoss makes Nelly complex, lived in, and shattered. She is broken but determined. Pre-War Nelly was a singer, she cared about Johnny and music and her jolly pre-war life. But to the Nazis, she was a Jew. Johnny hid her existence for some time, but then she was discovered.
Or was she? According to Lene, Johnny turned her in. We see the divorce papers to show that he saved himself by betraying her. Or was it ever a choice?
Nelly searches night time Berlin for Johnny, finds the wrong people, and a club called Phoenix. Its neon-lit charcoal gray shows it as a grungy, desperate attempt at recreating 1930s Berlin nightlife. Two women dress alike and sing old German and American songs. Nelly finds Johnny, but he denies the name (going now by Johannes) and is sure she is not his wife. He convinces her to pretend to be Nelly — he will groom her, model her, train her — so as to inherit her family fortune. He’ll split with her, he says.
As Johnny Lenz, Ronald Zehrfeld has a sad, bad boy charm. While there is no comparison with his wife and her lost family, he too is broken, like the devastated Berlin. The film is oddly suspenseful, though we cannot help but know how it will turn out. Nelly comes home from Johnny’s basement room and tells Lene the plan to disguise herself as herself in Johnny’s plan — think “Anastasia.” Lene tries to argue for their emigration to Israel, but Nelly is adamant that she doesn’t consider herself a Jew and all she wants is her husband. The next time Nelly goes home, Lene is gone forever.
Lene, the wonderful Nina Kunzendorf, cannot bear to hear the German songs she sang before the Nazis decided to annihilate the German Jews. And the Polish Jews. And all the Jews. She was part of Germany that was and now she cannot bear to hear German songs. Speak Low, with music by the German ex-pat Kurt Weill (lyrics by Ogden Nash), runs through the film and is set up to be heartbreaking. Nelly used to sing it, accompanied by her pianist husband Johnny. Nelly promises to one day sing it again for Lene. We cannot believe she will, or even can, but eventually she does on the day she acknowledges that Lene was right about Johnny all along.
Christian Petzolddirected his own screen play, co-written with Harun Farock, based on anovel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le Retour des Cendres), which is also the basis of a 1965 film by J. Lee Thompson, “Return From the Ashes.”
This is a tale of two movies. Phoenix, made in 2014, which I saw this summer at my local movie house. The other, Return From the Ashes, was made in 1965, and I watched it on DVD out of curiosity, since it is said to be closer to the original source material. Two quite different films with the same plot points, based on a French crime thriller by a crime writer, Hugo Monteilhet. I cannot verify this because I haven’t found the book.
I found Phoenix moving and riveting, but I also found the disparity between two films based on the same book to be fascinating. Clearly screenwriter Julius Epstein and director J. Lee Thompson were filming a nourish thriller based on the novel when they made Return from the Ashes. Petzold and Farock, however, had a different story to tell with similar plot elements. Instead of a French Jew returning to France at the end of the war, as in the film Return From the Ashes, Petzold’s German Jew, who spent a great deal of pre-war time in Paris, returns from Poland to Germany. There is no romance in Phoenix, there is no philandering. There is no sex. Where, in the earlier film, the husband betrays the missing wife with other women, including her own stepdaughter. But he did not betray his wife to the Nazis as in Phoenix. Return From the Ashes is just a crime story set at the end of World War II where a woman who survived the camps needs plastic surgery to look like herself when she returns to her unfaithful but beloved husband. Phoenix tells the story of a woman who can never find herself despite plastic surgery. Epstein and Thompson flashed back to the past to show how the characters got to where they are. Petzold does not flash back to the past, for it is too far gone. Phoenix shows more of the aftereffects of war, which the earlier film — and perhaps the novel — did not. Both films are interesting, and since they’re really different genres, I could not choose one over the other. While I am glad to have seen Phoenix at the movie house, both films are available on DVD.
So see both, but be warned: The 1965 British crime thriller is entertaining but dated in its style (and its trailer is annoying) and a paler shade of gray. In shades of noir, bear in mind that Phoenixis very much darker and meant more to give us pause than enjoyment.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a different novel by Monteilhet.
Opening the fall season at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn is the New York City Players’ production of a modern play with a twist on a classical story. Richard Maxwell thought of his love triangle quite independently of the old “Tristan & Isolde” legend, and “romance” is not the focus in his play, Isolde. Maxwell’s Isolde is about memory and beauty and art and the need in the human mind and soul for culture and nature. In question: Who are we when our memory fails?
|The Triangle. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)|
Richard Maxwell has been hailed as an auteur. When, during the brief evening performance, I found my interest waning on occasion, it was the director in him I held accountable. Mr. Maxwell wrote and directed Isolde, and cast his wife as the title character, the sole female. In the hands of this mediocre actress, I could still hear how very good and sometimes illuminating Maxwell's script was. Why then were his actors sometimes totally present, sometimes overly stylized, and generally inconsistent? As a director Mr. Maxwell’s work is uneven, the pacing stodgy. The director did not, in my opinion, do justice to his own tantalizing script that infuses us with high thoughts and emotions, dreams and nightmares. It’s a fine piece of work that holds the attention during the play and keeps it for hours and days afterward.
While I cannot claim to have ever championed “experimental” theatre, when stylized experimentation is intermixed with truthful human behavior, so long as the theme is examined and/or the story told, I’ll follow along. However, in this production the stylization was off-putting. I understand modern marketing theory is all about disturbances and disruption, but with the beguiling material and themes of this play, not to mention Mr. Maxwell’s lyrical script, why distract? The construction is in place with the chronology of “Tristan & Isolde,” and the script builds on it.
The elements of the spare scenic design enabled the actors to “watch television,” or stare at a lake with no change in the set or furnishings. Characters sometimes gave the impression that they were in a rather cold home, other times they may have been at an empty building site. Not that their behavior changed, but the lines indicated places we could not see. While I enjoy a Spartan setting, I did not feel grounded. Perhaps Mr. Maxwell did not want me to be grounded, did not want me to know where I was.
This off center sensation was supported by the scenic design by Sascha van Riel, which was clever in its elements of disconnected walls and floors that might suggest an unfinished building. Alternately, it could have brought to mind a deteriorating, disappearing building, like the memories and words in Isolde’s mind.
The warmest aspect of the scenic design was a large painted drapery, pulled to one side for most of the play, but revealed in full as the characters reverted to actors playing the legendary characters of Isolde, Tristan, King Mark, and…a friend in front of a painted tapestry that put me in mind of a medieval romance as depicted in a Classics Illustrated comic book.
|A hint of the tapestry behind Gary Wilmes as Massimo and Tory Vazquez as Isolde. (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein.)
Elements that make this evening work begin and end with the script. The characters chosen to discuss the themes in the play make sense: the dreamy Isolde, an actress, vain, self-centered, losing her memory and therefore terrified; her loving husband Patrick, a building contractor; and Massimo, the award-winning architect who cannot draw a representational rendering of what he wishes to create for Isolde.
Jim Fletcher as Patrick, the pragmatic and patiently kind husband, sees the architect as any contractor would: an “artist” with no math, who can’t draw plans anybody else can read. Yet Patrick has the same needs as the more blatantly “artistic” architect — he too needs music and Shakespeare and art. This frequently inarticulate character has some of the most beautiful lines and visions in the play when he recalls his discovery, during his very practical business training, of museums, paintings and sculpture, of the theatre, opera and the symphony.
|Jim Fletcher, Brian Mendes, Gary Wilmes, and Tory Vazquez. (Photo Credit: Gerry Goodstein)|
But Patrick needs concrete representations of the surprise, the joy of the culture humans can create, while Massimo the architect only needs to think and imagine them. Massimo speaks well, but not actually to other humans. Like Jim Fletcher, Gary Wilmesas Massimo sometimes takes stage but is uneven, here completely in a moment, there seeming to stumble waiting for a cue. Where Fletcher seemed more alive when interacting with another person, Wilmes was most vivid when alone.
Brian Mendes as Patrick’s friend and colleague, “Uncle” Gerry, appeared to be even more down to earth than Patrick. Mendes’ Gerry was clear and focused, until the overly stylized final scene we could barely see in the dimness — the one objection I had to van Riel’s scenic and lighting design.
Unfortunately for the audience, all that Patrick and Massimo and even Uncle Gerry see in Isolde may be in the script, but she’s not on the stage. Tory Vazquez is uninteresting as Isolde, she brings no charm to the role, she is brittle and cold and there was no way of knowing who she once was. I’ve seen fine actors play characters losing their words and possibly their minds, but they did not make me wonder if the actor was forgetting her lines or if Isolde was forgetting herself. Ms. Vazquez’s speech and motion were choppy and posed and appeared overly rehearsed.
Isolde is the center of the play. She is often rude, curt, and eventually responds to non-existent stimuli. The charactermade me think of a groundbreaking performance by Joanne Woodward as a woman with Alzheimer’s, a woman we had never seen before when she appeared on our television screens in 1985. Mr. Maxwell’s play is more striking than that “Do You Remember Love?” television movie, but I still recall Ms. Woodward’s performance thirty years later. Unfortunately Ms. Vazquez is no Joanne Woodward.
Isolde the play and the character bring our fear of dementia to the fore: Without our memories, who are we? Did we live? Do we still? If Isolde does not remember her husband, does Patrick exist? Isolde herself says, “I don’t exist.” The themes of the play are important and inherently frightening, but the personification of the fears does not elicit sympathy as played by Ms. Vazquez.
Isolde ran 85 minutes but felt longer. This might not have been the case had someone else played the title role. There were moments of bare truth on the stage, moments of beauty. Since this tight-knit cast created the play in 2014, I think this is set where Mr. Maxwell wants it. Isoldeis a very fine script and the production is smart and generally holds the attention. Despite any flaws I see, do go to TFANA.ORG to get a ticket — the play runs only to September 27th. Isolde generates conversation, and that’s always a mark of good theatre
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read some old poetry or perhaps some Arthurian legends.
It was the last week of September, and Mercury was still in retrograde.
I had looked forward to my first theatre outings of the BAM Next Wave autumn season. The first production for which we had tickets was Sophocles’ Antigonein a new adaptation by Anne Carson directed by Ivo Van Hove, playing at the BAM Harvey. It’s catch-as-catch-can with van Hove – sometimes his productions are exhilarating, sometimes exhausting. I’d enjoyed his 5 1/2 hour Roman Tragedies, Shakespeare’s three Roman plays (in Dutch) (http://www.mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2012/11/friends-romans-dutch.html), but could not say the same for others. This time around, the British cast is led by Juliette Binoche, who, while she looks better than most women look ever, cannot pass for the essentially teenaged — in body and mind — Antigone. Whoever plays her, Antigone should be young and impetuous and passionate, whereas Ms. Binoche merely shouted her frustration.
|Kirsty Bushell as Ismene and Juliette Binoche as Antigone. (Credit: Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times )
The production includes a beautiful backdrop with alternating sun/moon/eclipses happening back there, although at some points the desert sun was just too bright. While I understand the fiscal sense of double-casting in a traveling production, only Eurydice (Kathryn Pogson) consistently differentiated her “Chorus” character from her wife of Creon character. When the audience cannot tell if the actor is playing Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) or Haimon or members of the Chorus, clearly some doubling just doesn’t pay. Antigone is an interesting story, with valid problems to probe, but the actors in van Hove’s production were so busy emoting that the right questions weren’t asked. Ms. Carson’s adaptation and Mr. van Hove’s production added nothing to the canon of Antigone.
The next evening we went to BAM’s Opera House to see James Thiérée and his company perform a piece called Tabac Rouge. M. Thiérée and his company are marvelous performers, extraordinarily skilled in circus gymnastics and dance. Unfortunately, that evening things went wrong. The performance (not the first time in the space) started ¾ hour late and played ¼ longer than originally stated. It was dark, visually and presumably thematically as well. It began so very slowly, which is not unusual for the troupe, but when the non-narrative dragged on in the same vein, I waited, needing the performers to pull me in. They did not, despite some unfortunately few and far between magical moments. I’ve seen this company perform several times, and have generally enjoyed whatever they gave. The company does not do linear pieces, and we are talking weird: the audience must and does surrender to whatever vision comes forth. But Tabac Rouge just didn’t work for me. Sadly, I was bored to tears, the confusion and darkness lulled me into nodding off more than once. I’ve already apologized to my friends for waking with a snore, and now I’ll happily apologize to other members of the audience for the disturbance. But that’s all I can do.
|(Credit: Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times )|
Tabac Rouge appeared to be a Steampunk “Lord of the Flies,” but the island was wood and metal and filled with screaming feral females, all gathered 'round the dominant male, Monsieur Thiérée. All the performers are extraordinary, twisting and turning their powerful bodies this way and that, but I really didn’t like the show at all.
Two unpleasant theatre experiences in a row, for both of which I had high hopes. Not a good way to start my fall season.
But then, despite the fact that Mercury was yet in retrograde, the weekend served up something jollier when a friend and I attended “Hand to God,” expecting an amusing evening and no more.
Steven Boyer (and Tyrone) and Sarah Stiles(Credit: Sara Krulwich for NYT)|
Hand to God is very, very funny. Every performance is excellent (as are the set, lights, sound, all), and the “understudy” we saw in the female lead was fully integrated with the rest of the company and quite marvelous. There’s little time for thought during the evening, as the audience continually roars with laughter, so you don’t worry about things like “is it a play or a sketch.” Hand to God presumably started life as a more than clever sketch that someone told the playwright to expand into a play with a through-line. He did, and that made the second act a bit unbalanced with too much denouement, but it was brief, and the evening‘s performances kept the audience gasping for breath between laughs. The language and story are utterly profane, the psychology perhaps juvenile, but sometimes there is just no need to think about such things. Bravo to playwright Robert Askinsand director Moritz von Stuelpnagel for a fun evening at the Booth Theatre with stellar performances from Steven Boyer, Mark Kudisch, Pamela Bob, Sarah Stiles, and Michael Oberholtzer. Whatever Hand to God is, it sure is funny.
Happily, Mercury is no longer in retrograde, so we can all go back to the theatre in safety.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to prepare for some Pinter
HAMLET at London’s National Theatre, broadcast live around the world and captured in Queens, NY, was thrilling.
While no dramaturg was listed in the program or online, he or she had a large influence on this production, since a great deal of editing was done on the script, scenes re-arranged, as well as interesting combined characters. From the point of view of a filmed performance, I found only one flaw: one or two too many close-ups in what was clearly a beautifully staged production by director Lyndsey Turner. I want to see the actors in relation to one another and whatever was happening on the part of the stage the cameras weren’t showing me.
But that’s minor. What I did see was scintillating theatre with fine acting in a coherent production of a great play. The dress is modern, the time not set, the formality of the address, and dress, and Elsinore itself tells us that this world is removed from ours no matter the year.
|Will he or won't he? Cumberbatch as Hamlet. (Photo Johan Persson)|
The first scene on the ramparts was skipped and instead we are met by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in front of the curtain,listening to a small phonograph play Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Nature Boy.” Hamlet weeps. Soon after Horatio enters, they jump ahead and right to the dinner scene, which is magnificently staged. A long table is sumptuously set parallel to the edge of the stage so we can see everybody, and here begins a conceit through the play: Hamlet comes forward (walking across the top of the table) and the action continues behind him silently, in slow motion, as Hamlet speaks directly to the audience.
In this scene we meet the major players, including a Laertes who was clearly a friend of Hamlet’s, and who, loving his own father well, felt the sting of Claudius’ insensitive exhortations to Hamlet to forget his dead father. No words are exchanged between them, yet a relationship is clear, as is the relationship established in the next scene with Laertes’ sister.
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes is not so self-absorbed here as he is often played, and is part of the court. Siân Brooke’s Ophelia is young and in love, and the relationship between her and her brother Laertes is solidified when they sit at the grand piano stage center and play a little ditty together. This follows through later, when the piano, amid the shambles that Elsinore becomes in the second half, is out of tune and harsh.
Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is striking: he is in pain, he is in mourning. His mother Gertrude is oblivious to his pain and forgetful of her first husband since she’s so enamored of the second. And yet we see this Gertrude, as played by Anastasia Hille, is connected to the people around her, Ophelia in particular.
Ciarán Hinds is a very good if cold Claudius. I saw no passion for Gertrude, just affection. He is a purely political animal. Gertrude‘s path through the play is succinct — no dallying while her first husband was alive, this woman sees the truth only when Hamlet shows her, and finally sees Claudius for who he is.
|Hinds as Claudius in Elsinore as designed by Es Devlin. (Photo Johan Persson)|
When the Players present the play within the play, a small curtained stage is set up for the introduction of the Player King and Player Queen, then Hamlet, manic and sweating, plays Lucianus (nephew to Gonzago in the play within a play) himself. Later in his mother’s room, the same small curtained stage is used to hide Polonius behind the arras, which I found rather witty.
Karl Johnson was effective both as the Ghost of King Hamlet and the Gravedigger. Morag Siller played a character comprised of Voltimand and Osric well, yet we miss the hilarity of a different sort ofOsric.
Jim Norton as Polonius was fine without standing out from many an old man, his lines deeply edited.
Some of the cuts were too deep, I think, but the actors made the most of them. Particular points for the work of the powerful Anastasia Hille and poignant Siân Brooke.
Act one ends with Claudius exhorting England to “Do it, England” meaning “the present death of Hamlet.” Then an autumn wind blows across the stage….
Light and wind made for some very nice effects joining the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. At the opening of the second half, detritus, dead leaves and dirt have been piled all over the stage, creating new levels of deterioration.
When we see Ophelia in the first act, she carries about and uses a camera. In the second act, she drags a trunk banging down the stairs. Gertrude opens it when Ophelia exits and finds the trunk filled with torn black-and-white photographs and Ophelia’s camera. Seeing this, Gertrude knows what Ophelia is about and runs off after her, to no avail, of course. In the second half, the women are a bit less well coiffed and dressed, in synch with the trappings of power that droop dwindling on the stage.
|Anastasia Hille as Gretrude. (Photo by Johan Persson)|
After Ophelia’s death, director Lindsey Turner created a lovely stage picture of Claudius rushing after the enraged Laertes, stopping at the top of the stairs to reach back for his wife. But Gertrude turns her back and walks away from him, barefoot through the dirt. This Gertrude had not thought for a moment that her first husband died an unnatural death, but finally sees her nation crumbling around her and knows that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
In the second half, Hamlet’s cry from Ophelia’s grave to Laertes, “I loved you ever,” is a reinforcement of the friendship that appeared at that dinner table in the first half. The fight scene is fabulous, beautifully staged by fight director Bret Yount and fought by highly skilled Hamlet and Laertes. It brought about swift death.
All in all an effective rendering, but close-cropped to focus on Hamlet and the nuclear family at the expense of some of other characters. Although a slimmed down version of the play, this was a memorable Hamlet, produced by Sonia Friedman Productions.
Pinter is not about shouting and emoting; it’s about repressing. The play is under and between the lines. Pinter knew that shouting reduces the efficacy and impact of anger, diluting its power. Pinter must be underplayed. Director Douglas Hodge should know that, whatever his credentials. Surely the three wonderful British actors (Kelly Reilly, Clive Owen, and Eve Best) must know that.
|L-R Reilly, Best, and Owen. (Photo: Joan Marcus)|
As for the rest, the immediate assault by light (Japhy Weiderman) and sound (Clive Goodwin) started us off poorly. The set design by Christine Jones was quirky and odd and I did wonder if it signified being at the edge of the world….perhaps a bit distracting. While costumes by Constance Hoffman were fitting, music was ill-chosen by Thom Yorke.
This is not to say I’m not glad I saw it. I’m glad. But it wasn’t …. Pinter.
~ Molly Matera, signing off, recommending National Theatre’s HAMLET
(still playing at select theatres, see http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/
) and not so much the Roundabout Old Times
KennethBranagh Theatre Company (Live) broadcast of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s inaugural season plays Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” in London’s Garrick Theatre, a little jeweled box of candy. The heavy, dark red curtain rose on a wintry scene – a sparse set given warmth by the Victorian Christmas tree surrounded by wrapped gifts and eventually members of a happy court. As always, no one addresses God in Shakespeare, but Apollo is the god they pray to, and who freely shows his displeasure when disrespected.
As ever, kudos to Christopher Oram for his thoughtful scenic and costume designs, as well as Neil Austin‘s beautiful lighting design. Christopher Shutt’s sound design seemed to stutter a bit in the opening moments when the actors appeared to be in overly full voice and far from subtle. Within a few moments, however, the sound evened out and was thereafter so well done that one did not note it.
Happily, the Garrick Theatre has a proscenium stage. Some readers may recall that the last time I reviewed something directed by Kenneth Branagh I was rather annoyed with him and his co-director/ choreographer Rob Ashford. [If you’ve forgotten, see http://www.mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2014/06/sound-only-signifying-nothing-or.html]. The advantage of a proscenium stage production is that Messrs. Branagh and Ashford can actually stage the play so that everyone in the auditorium can see everybody on stage. Nice.
With regard to Mr. Branagh the actor, I must say that this is the first time (of three or four) I’ve seen “The Winter’s Tale” and given a damn about Leontes. Every time that horrible man is unforgiveable, which makes the final sappy scene unbearable. Kenneth Branagh is such a good actor that he delved into the man and found his heart and showed it to us. Well done.
|Dame Judi Dench in The Winter's Tale.|Dame Judi Denchis a powerful Paulina, here immediately introduced as an intimate of the family playing with the King’s son Mamillius (in a scene not penned by Shakespeare). While Paulina is usually the same generation as Leontes, here she’s clearly a friend of his granny’s. This is not a complaint: Judi Dench can do anything as far as I’m concerned. It’s just not how I generally think of Paulina, since everyone in the play ages 16 years between Acts I and IV. Except those who die, of course.
Michael Penningtondoes fine comedic work as Paulina’s beleaguered husband Antigonus, loyal to his king and to his princess to the very last.Miranda Raison is a serene, confident and loving Hermione, well matched to Branagh’s Leontes.
|Miranda Raison as Hermione and Kenneth Branagh as Leontes|In the opening scenes we see a convivial gathering of Leontes’ court, to which his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, has been visitor for almost 9 months. Hadley Fraser’s wide-ranging portrayal of Bohemia in the opening to a man some years older in the latter part of the play was always on the mark. We also meet Camillo, Leontes’ loyal subject who is too good to do his king’s bidding. John Shrapnel portrays the conscience of both kings he serves excellently.
John Colgrave Hirstwas a very tall, very funny Clown, Tom Bateman a fine Florizel, the young prince in love with the shepherdess Perdita, who is charmingly played by Jessie Buckley. There were no sour notes in this cast, and I wish I were in London to see the entire season played by this company. Extra: During the intermission (a.k.a. the Interval) Rob Brydon spoke “The Shakespeare Poem” by Bernard Levin to illustrate how often in our daily discourse we quote Shakespeare. Delightful.
My one gripe was not with the production itself but rather the filming of the production. The “cinema broadcast” was directed by Benjamin Caron, who has also worked with Mr. Branagh on the PBS series Wallander. Clearly he likes to photograph Mr. Branagh, unfortunately to the detriment of the production, Ms. Dench, Mr. Shrapnel, and the audience. We want to see Paulina when she is haranguing Leontes, not only Leontes’ reaction. Reactions are important and Mr. Branagh does them very well, but widen the shot. We want to see Camillo as we hear him plead with Leontes, not merely Leontes’ reaction. Widen the shot. Show us the excellent staging by Branagh and Ashford. This is not television.
The “film” of the play aside, this was a fine production of a difficult play, and I look forward to more from this company.
~ Molly Matera signing off and belatedly wishing you all a Happy, Healthy New Year.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre, sort of by William Shakespeare, at Theatre for a New Audience (“TFANA”), Polonsky Shakespeare Center
I haven’t seen Pericles, Prince of Tyre in decades, and when I saw the Michael Greif production downtown at the Public in the nineties, I enjoyed it as a lark. Perhaps because of the old-fashioned theatrical effects they used, like a rumbling sheet of metal for thunder…ah the good old days.
This time around it’s directed by Trevor Nunn, whose credentials are pretty darned good. And yet…. perhaps too good. Pericles must surely be Shakespeare’s oddest and even most doubtful play. Certainly it’s doubtful that Shakespeare had a hand in the first “half.” Occasionally the verse sounds like Shakespeare — the second half of the play, for instance, flows much better than the first. The first, however, is rather like a jiggly early black-and-white film being rolled manually. It moves in starts and stops, so the story jumps and starts as well.
Don’t get me wrong. This production has quite a few good points. I’m guessing that the play’s the thing that gets my goat. It has old stories linked together only by Pericles, with no call to think the stories are from the same eon. Most importantly, if I captained or owned a ship and I saw Pericles coming, I’d ban him from my boat. The man is bad luck.
The focus of the stark set was a striking bronze disk at the back of the stage. While it reminded us of the poorly used bright disk used to blind the audience in last year’s Antigone [http://www.mollyismusing.blogspot.com/search/label/Antigone] at BAM, this one was used to much better effect. The bronze disk looked battered, then patterned, then glowed around the edges, then opened at center, sometimes into a doorway, large or small, sometimes to appear a porthole to view the play’s storms at sea. All sorts of worlds and images live behind the bronze disc, including one that allows old Gower the storyteller to materialize, seemingly a ghost in another dimension, by stepping into our dimension and onto the stage. Raphael Nash Thompson’s practiced voice booms out telling the tale from days gone by, an old tale, of Prince Pericles. Often he sings it — there’s a lot of singing in this production, and it is very fine. Gower is amused and amusing although at times pushing the lesser language a bit too hard.
The next to enter the thrust stage is Pericles, Prince of Tyre, as depicted by Christian Camargo. Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Mr. Camargo. I find him superficial, line-driven instead of character driven. In short, I typically do not believe him to be the character he purports to be. His performance as Pericles was not atypical.
|The cast of Pericles at TFANA (Photo: Richard Termine)|Pericles is a foolish young prince, ready to follow in the footsteps of other foolish princes who vie for the hand of a king’s daughter in Antioch. This is the story with a shocking riddle. Since it’s perfectly clear what the answer to the riddle is, and only Pericles has solved it, one wonders if the other princes were too afraid to say it out loud. Their skulls, perched on poles seen through that wonderful portal at the back of the stage, are a clear warning to any princes who want the king’s daughter. The King of Antioch, in a rather operatic performance by Earl Baker Jr., isn’t willing to give up his daughter to marriage, since he is committing incest with her. His daughter, nicely played by Sam Morales, is not as enamored of her father as he is of her, so earns a bit of sympathy. But not from Pericles. The scenes in Antioch set the tone of the play in which royals are clothed richly, but the style is dependent on the character. The King of Antioch is in a billowing and shiny fabric in a rich jewel tone. His daughter is in a translucent version. Costume designer Constance Hoffman does a fine job differentiating the island nations in dressing the characters.
The last particular person we meet in Antioch is Thaliard, whom the peevish King orders to find and kill Pericles for guessing the riddle and becoming a threat to the king’s standing in the world. Reputation, reputation. Thaliard is marvelously played by Oberon K.A. Adjepong, who reappears in Tyre without achieving his goal.
The scenes in Tyre are perhaps the dullest with the most tangled language. Here is where we cannot blame the actors or director but rather the sloppy transmission of the play through the ages. Philip Casnoff as Helicanus is stuffy and pompous and rather monotonous, so I was never really sure if he was loyal to Pericles or not. Pericles and Helicanus decide the safest thing for the former to do is to travel until Antiochus gets tired of chasing him or, preferably, dies. This is not merely to protect Pericles’ life — Antiochus is not above making war against Tyre in order to punish Pericles, based upon an alleged slight. To avoid involving his kingdom in his troubles, Pericles loads his ships and travels.
The beautifully designed theatre allows for many entrances so the actors in famine-devastated Tarsus crawl moaning onto the stage from the rear of the house. Will Swenson is very effective here as Cleon, Governor of Tarsus, although he often relies too heavily on his beautiful voice. As his wife Dionyza, Nina Hellman goes from grateful to villainous through the course of the play and excels at both (and then takes a turn as an unrecognizable Goddess Diana). Pericles’ arrival with food for the starving nation makes him a beloved hero in Tarsus, but he continues his travels.
Pericles’ first shipwreck lands him alone on the beach at Pentapolis, where apparently the people are very nice and generous. In a tedious scene, three fishermen talk about nothing on the beach until the bedraggled shipwreck victim comes upon them. They help him to enter a jousting contest for the favor of the King of Pentapolis, Simonides, who is warmly and wittily played by John Rothman. The various young men jousting are also vying for the affection of the king’s daughter, Thaisa, a lovely young woman who is as kind as her father, played by Gia Crovatin. In his battered armor and torn clothes, Pericles (still utterly charmless as he is still played by Mr. Camargo) wins her heart, the king approves, and the couple is married. It is in Pentapolis that Pericles learns of the death of his father, whom we did not meet when we were in Tyre, so he must take upon himself the yoke of leadership. He and his now pregnant wife Thaisa head back to Tyre. Which, alas, must be accomplished by boat.
|Christian Camargo, Gia Crovatin. (Photo: Henry Grossman)|The second storm at sea is enacted onstage by actors swinging on ropes, and Thaisa screaming as her time comes near. She is accompanied by her servant Lychorida, well played by Patrice Johnson Chevannes. Thaisa’s child is born healthy, but the mother apparently dies in childbirth. Thaisa’s body is placed with ritual, jewels, and gold into a coffin and sent overboard as the sailors try to save the ship. Pericles names his daughter Marina and lands next back at Tarsus, where he leaves the upbringing of his now motherless daughter to his old friends Cleon and Dionyza. They are delighted to take in the beautiful child, particularly since Dionyza has her own daughter and can bring them up together. Pericles leaves his wife’s old nurse Lychorida with his daughter and goes off to Tyre.
Meanwhile, on another island nation, Ephesus, a coffin washes ashore and is brought to the local lord, Cerimon, who is a physician. Earl Baker Jr. reappears in this much less showy role, and does very nice work as he inhabits this primitive physician. Cerimon discovers that the body in the coffin is not dead after all. Thaisa, believing her husband and daughter dead in a shipwreck, goes off with Cerimon to the temple of Diana where she will live her life as a votaress of that order.
As in The Winter’s Tale, 16 years pass so that the baby will be a young woman for the second half of the play. Marina, still in Ephesus with Dionyza and Cleon, has grown to be perfect and beautiful and virtuous. Marina’s nurse Lychorida has died, leaving her alone with Cleon and Dionyza, whose daughter, while sweet, is a clod next to Marina, which is demonstrated onstage as the dear friends dance together – Sam Morales reappears in the silent role of Dionyza’s daughter, and is delightful. All the boys fall for Marina, so Dionyza decides she must die. She calls upon Leonine (well played by Zachary Infante), a servant who clearly is infatuated with Marina, to kill the girl. He fails, and pirates come and take her away to Mytelene, where they sell her to a bawd, who is hilariously played by Patrice Johnson Chevannes.
|Earl Baker Jr., Christian Camargo, Lilly Englert, Gia Crovatin, and Raphael Nash thompson. (Photo: Henry Grossman) |
Lilly Englert plays Marina. I’ve seen her work before and enjoyed it, but this time I just could not fall for her virtuous Marina. Physically she was all she should be, fearful, proud, disdainful. But Ms. Englert could not convince me that this girl could convert the pander and the customers to just sit and listen to her talk or sing or dance. Tough role, Marina.
Meanwhile back in Tarsus, Cleon berates his wife but can do nothing as they all believe Marina is dead. When Pericles returns for his grown daughter, he is shown her gravestone. Devastated, he vows to never change his clothes, cut his hair, or bathe and goes off in another ship, this time with his buddy Helicanus. They arrive in Mytelene, and the converted Governor hopes that Marina can convince the man to speak, eat, live again. Marina sings with a friend, gets no response, talks to him, touches him. She gets a response to that, and it is rage. They discover themselves to one another and all is well — this scene should be magical, and while Mr. Camargo is a bit more believable than usual, the scene falls flat and feels forced. Pericles is transformed to a man who must take revenge on his old friend Cleon, but first must make a sacrifice to Diana, which means going to Ephesus, where, you guessed it, the father and daughter are reunited with Thaisa.
At last, it’s almost over.
Director Nunn has cast a threesome of divergent actors as the threesomes that appear in the many locales of the play: In Tyre, they are three unnamed lords, in Pentapolis three unnamed fishermen, and the three reappear in Ephesus and Mytelene individually. These actors include one of my favorites at TFANA, John Keating, another who is not my favorite Zachary Infante, and a third with whom I am not yet familiar, Ian Lassiter. Each one does his best work when not part of a threesome — Keating funny and touching as the pander in Mytelene, Infante very good as the reluctant murderer in Tarsus, and Lassiter grown to a three-dimensional human as the converted Governor Lysimachus in Mytelene. Keating is fine in all his roles, clearly the most experienced Shakespearean actor of the three.
Robert Jones’ scenic design is marvelous, in concert with Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design. Fights by J. Allen Suddethwere rather disappointing, but the choreography by Brian Brooks was pleasing, as were music and songs by Shaun Davey. The evening begins with music, string instruments and percussion, all very well done by Pigpen Theatre Co., with John Blevins, Philip Varricchio, andJessica Wang beautifully accompanying the action of the play from the mezzanine level of the theatre.
All in all, a pretty good production of a difficult and rather nonsensical play. The designers, director, and performers all used the space of the Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage to its fullest extent and did their best with a “mouldy tale.”* If you’ve seen Pericles, you needn’t see it again. If you haven’t, this production at TFANA may be worth your time, if you’ve got 2 ¾ hours to spare.
*Ben Jonson on Pericles, “Ode to Himself” (1631)
~ Molly Matera, signing off....not to re-read Pericles.
Ivo Van Hove likes to deconstruct texts onstage, putting his stamp on other people’s ideas. This typically means that a 2-hour play will run 3 or even 4 hours because of the extra bulk. The “stamps” don’t necessarily add anything, but may rather detract from the original piece.
For instance, in his current version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, he adds “supernatural” effects. If you know Mr. Miller’s play ,or American history, you know the girls in Salem never saw a witch or a spirit. A group of adolescent girls in Salem were trying to get themselves out of trouble for getting caught dancing in the woods in the dead of night — dancing at any time was forbidden in their culture — by pointing accusatory fingers at others. If you don’t immediately understand (and it was quite clear in this production) that the girls were lying, you must have nodded off halfway through the first act. So when Mr. Van Hove adds interludes of a girl levitating and the wrath of God in the way of a lightning storm with high winds blowing singed paper into the schoolroom as if there’d been an explosion in the next county, he confuses the issue. He creates a lie on top of the lie that does not help get the point across. At least not the point of Arthur Miller’s play. He gives an excuse to the adults who go along with the girls and their lies and the hell they create in Salem village. And there is no excuse for the actions of the “righteous” adults in Salem in The Crucible.
First Van Hove brings the action forward to a more modern time. The classroom the curtain rises on had a generic bland look, the hard chairs occupied by girls in their 'tweens and teens. They wore conservative private school pleated skirts, knee-highs and white blouses. Modern and neat. The scene designed by Jan Versweyveld is open and light, with a large blackboard at the back of the stage covered in drawings and occasionally words. The greatest flaw to this scenic design is its freedom. There is no ceiling, and the walls reach out to the edges of the stage. It’s wide open and bright. Salem was neither bright nor open. Just as importantly, Mr. Van Hove’s loosey goosey staging uses all the corners of the set, so the audience sitting house left or right cannot see what goes on there. I’ve written about this issue in the past, when directors ignore the audience viewpoint by staging action where only those who can afford front and center can see it. This is the responsibility of the director along with his designer. This problem would not have arisen had Mr. Van Hove 1) considered the claustrophobic society that trapped his characters and 2) walked the auditorium to see what parts of his staging needed to be adjusted to the theatre. Not everyone sits orchestra center.
The action starts on that banal classroom disrupted, desks and chairs overturned — perhaps to give the actors something to do later. Van Hove (with his costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic) makes the Reverend Parris look like a modern Jesuit in a sloppy sweater. The adult women wear something like loose gaucho pants with baggy tops, the men somewhat deconstructed business suits. Once the play begins, the girls’ white blouses come untucked. Hardly fitting for an overly restrictive society.
|Abigail vs. Mary in the foreground surrounded by, L to R, Hathorne, Parris, Danforth, Proctor.|
Photo Credit 2016 Sara Krulwich, NYTimes
Jason Butler Harner as Reverend Samuel Parris did fine work, showing us the preacher’s desires for monetary recompense and the respect he believes should come with his position, revealing him to be an articulate but weak man. It is impossible to trust that he ever truly believed the girls, but maybe that’s as it should be.
Tina Benko does her job as Ann Putnam, but still doesn’t make that hard-hearted character come to life, any more than Thomas Jay Ryandoes for her husband Thomas Putnam. Brenda Wehle does not embody Rebecca Nurse when she enters, seeming to rely too much on her age to appear a village elder. She does not reflect the strength of character Goody Nurse has that makes the whole village respect her.
Everything was rather dreary and stiff in not-old Salem with not-old-fashioned people speaking Mr. Miller’s lines intended for 17th century characters, until Ben Whishaw entered the playing space. He cast the perfectly competent Mr Harner into the shade. Whishaw, while not physically imposing, took over the stage and the theatre, with his dark voice and straightforward talk. He embodied John Proctor, the voice of reason from an imperfect man in a world gone mad. For the rest of the play, we only wait for him to return to the stage. He did have a rather unfortunate habit of jumping on people, which became distracting in his penultimate scenes. I get it. I just don’t think it worked.
The greatest disappointment of this production was Saoirse Ronan, whose film work I quite like. As Abigail Williams, the teenaged seductress, she was shrill, stiff, “johnny one note” throughout. She clearly had no vocal training or prior stage experience, which is unfortunate if her film experience led her to believe all would be fixed in the editing room. It’s easy to see why the other girls fear her, hard to see why anyone would feel “softly” toward her.
As for the other girls: Jenny Jules’ turn as Tituba, the Reverend Parris’ slave from Barbados, is grounded and appropriately amusing until threatened into submission. Elizabeth Teeter as Betty Parris has fine powers of concentration as she’s mauled about while “sleeping,” Ashlei Sharpe Chestnutas Susanna and Erin Wilhelmi as Mercy Lewis were barely noticeable. Standout here was Tavi Gevinsonas Mary Warren. Initially Ms. Gevinson rather annoyed me as she seemed to be attempting to channel Scarlett Johansson. By the second half, though, she’d gathered her strength and wits and did fine work as the torn participant in the travesty that was the Salem witch trials, suffering through her dilemma: To be a part of the in crowd and do evil is one thing. To step outside of that crowd and do good is dangerous.
|Elizabeth Teeter, Saoirse Ronan, and Tavi Gevinson|
Jim Norton played the litigious Giles Corey with heart and humor. It was easy to believe this man was a friend of many in his community, making that community’s betrayal and murder of him and his wife all the more appalling.
The revered Reverend Hale entered Salem full of pomp and confidence and left broken. His blind arrogance had a great deal to do with the growth of this ridiculous story told by guilty children into an all-consuming monster. Bill Camp was competent enough in the role but neither deep nor varied.
By the time we met Francis Church, his wife Rebecca was already falsely imprisoned so Ray Anthony Thomas had only the opportunity to plead for justice for his wife, his friends, and himself. His performance was on the mark for the scene that leads its hearers to assume the play is really about the McCarthy hearings and naming names. This is echoed at the end of the play by John Proctor when he retracts his false confession because his name is all he has left. Nicely done, Mr. Miller and Mr. Thomas.
Sophie Okonedo was rather dull as Elizabeth Proctor offering us none of the character’s layers. I expected more of Ms. Okonedo.
|Ben Whishaw as John Proctor with Tavi Gevinson as Mary Warren, and Ciarán Hinds as Deputy Governor Danforth..|
I looked forward to the entrance of Ciarán Hinds as Deputy Governor Danforth in the second act, and was not disappointed. Mr. Hinds can command a stage and every other person on it as if he were born to that power. His embodiment of Danforth assured us that the real Danforth is still burning in hell. The only fault was that he seemed too intelligent to be so easily taken in by Abigail Williams, especially Ms. Ronan’s Abigail.
Teagle F. Bougere as Judge Hathorne postured and recited lines, as did Michael Braun as Ezekiel Cheever. Those characters had beliefs and flaws, but these actors did not seem to know it.
Philip Glass music underscores the story, rarely overpowering it. Favorite scene (that Mr. Miller did not write) gave us a wolf examining the stage. A nifty scare.
Two final points about Mr. Van Hove’s direction. First, the staging was clumsy, the playing space overlarge. Bring the set in a little tighter or don’t stage scenes in the far corners. Finally, I must wonder: Are the dull performances of some of the secondary and tertiary characters the fault of the actors or the director? Does Mr. Van Hove prefer the characters who are not primaries to fade into the background like chairs? Does he not bother to work with those actors to develop their performances? If all his focus was on Ms. Ronan, he surely failed.
Somehow despite the three hours it took Mr. Van Hove to tell this tale, his production did not tell the story of the play. It is an important story and always relevant, and this lost opportunity is a shame.
In short, I prefer Mr. Miller’s version of his play to that of Mr. Van Hove.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read a play I first read when I was 12 years old. Full disclosure: Decades ago, I played Abigail Williams in a touring production of the play with far fewer actors and a portable set. It was one of the joys of my life as well as an extraordinary education. Maybe it’s better to not have as big a budget as Mr. Van Hove clearly had. Kudos to the imaginative director of that past traveling production, Eric Hoffmann. And R.I.P. to its fine Reverend Parris, the late Michael Graves.
I am behind my time to write about Shakespeare, about the plays, about “what Shakespeare means to me.” I am way behind in my writing in general, so this blog for Will is, perforce, short but I hope sweet.
W is for the Wily Words he made up
I is for his Imagination beyond compare
L is for the Laughter he showed us all around
L is for the Love he loved to describe
S is for his Shaky historical accuracy
H is for his Heroes and Heroines
A is for the Annual count of the Shakespeare plays, films, adaptations, and books I’ve enjoyed...or not....
K is for the Kaleidoscopic range of characters, places, and times he brought onstage
E is for the Energy he creates in me
S is for the Sentimental love Songs
P is for his Perspicacious Psychological insight long before Freud and Jung
E is for the Emotions his characters juggle in the plays and poetry
A is for the Alliance of Airy Sprites and Articulate Dames….
R is for the Remarkable and Ridiculous…..words words words
We all know Will’s words are in our daily talk, chats, tweets. In the year leading up to this, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s (or Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere or Willm Shakspere) death (and possibly birth), he moved from my unconscious to conscious in the following ways:
Also at TFANA, the Fiasco Theatre Company’s delightful, brisk, sharp and smart production of Two Gentlemen of Verona—
Daniel Sullivan’s production of Cymbeline at the Delacorte last summer —
Which followed the early summer production of The Tempest directed by Michael Greif —
Last spring, I saw a play not by Shakespeare but rather about him. Sort of: Something Rotten. What a lot of fun that was on Broadway —
This spring I’ve just see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings,” comprising Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V, playing in repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Kenneth Branagh’s eponymous theatre company broadcast live his production The Winter’s Tale from London to New York —
And Hamlet at London’s National theatre, broadcast live to Queens, NY, with the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch—
No matter how many Shakespeare plays I’ve seen, I’ll see them again in time to come. Some will disappoint, some will exhilarate. The plays, the good ones (no, they’re not all good) can weather all manner of interpretations, edits, stagings and filmings. I rejoice in them.
My recent breakfast reading is The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606by James Shapiro, about the events in England the year preceding Shakespeare’s writing of King Lear. Fascinating background reading that put me in mind of last summer’s production of The Tempest in Central Park as I read Shapiro’s description of Ben Jonson’s Masque…everything’s connected. Also reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World As Stage, just for fun.
As always, thanks, Will. The world would have a paucity of wondrous, witty words without you.
~ Molly Matera signing off to write about the Great Cycle of Kings playing in repertory at BAM until April 30th. And after that, to watch The Hollow Crown with the same four plays on film.
Love & Friendship is a pretty bit of film. Generally, it is the British — with a few notable exceptions — who make fabulous renderings of Jane Austen novels as feature films and television miniseries, and we know that the great lady’s stories and characters are as much at home in the 20th and 21stcenturies as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The thing is, I’ve never been a big fan of Kate Beckinsale or Chloë Sevigny and the film Love & Friendship did nothing to dispel my indifference to them as “actors.” In the scenes in which they appeared, I wavered between boredom and annoyance. They were not amusing.
When, however, they were either minimal accessories to a scene or entirely absent, those scenes were far more enjoyable and witty.
Xavier Samuelwas quite at home in Jane Austen’s England as Reginald DeCourcy, son and heir to Sir of the same name, and brother to the wife of Lady Susan's brother-in-law. Reginald is a gentleman with a stick up you know where — until he falls in love with the right young woman, that is, the sweet and soulful Morfydd Clark as Frederica Vernon. Which I suspect is not a spoiler.
|Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan, Xavier Samuel as Reginald DeCourcy.|
Emma Greenwell embodies the sweet character with sense and sensitivity, a totally Jane Austen heroine, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon. Her husband Charles Vernon is that favorite of Jane Austen characters, a stodgy, not terribly bright, but loving and kindly husband, who was simply and beautifully played by Justin Edward.
Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet were flawless as Lady and Sir Reginald DeCourcy.
Jenn Murray was delightfully horrid in a marvelous Jane Austen concoction, Lady Lucy Manwaring.
Tom Bennett was naturally and appropriately silly as Sir James Martin.
Ireland substituted marvelously for Kent and Surrey, just gorgeous.
Benjamin Esdraffo’s music was just right, as was Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costume design.
All in all, the film Love & Friendship was fun, but not special. Or perhaps just not as special as I had hoped it would be. Making a film of an epistolary novel is quite a challenge, so the screenwriter /director Whit Stillman gets points for his taste and for even trying. However, it does not quite work, not just because of the dull leads in Ms. Beckinsale and Ms. Sevigny (although it might have been an entirely other film with actors better suited to the roles of Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson, respectively), but because...well, perhaps it was just those two miscast actors. Or it may just be that letters to script work better on stage than on film… perhaps the reading of the letters with scenes described being played behind the letter-reader until they take over the scene might work nicely onstage.... Good Jane Austen characters will not be kept down.
What this film did best was inspire me to re-read the great Jane Austen’s little-known novella, Lady Susan. In fact, why not the entire canon….
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read books…on paper and in hardcover….
is the rather ambiguous title of a film about Maxwell Perkins, who was the editor to the works of several American literary geniuses of the first half of the 20th
century. It’s based on the ambiguously titled biography of Perkins written by A. Scott Berg,
“Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius.” Who is the genius Berg is talking about — this particular editor, or the authors whose work he nurtured to publication, novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, to name the three authors that appear in the film. Who is the genius of the film’s title? The writer Thomas Wolfe, or, as F. Scott Fitzgerald calls Max Perkins, the genius at friendship.
is a sweet little character study of a movie, visually convincing, gentle, welcoming the audience into its beautifully produced world (with the barest acknowledgment of the Depression). Michael Grandage
directed the script by John Logan
based on Berg’s biography of the editor to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, to name a few.
purports to be based on the biography, it’s only a taste, a dram, an excerpt covering the years between when young Thomas Wolfe walked into Maxwell Perkins’ office at Charles Scribner’s Sons Publishers and Booksellers on Fifth Avenue with an overlong manuscript that would eventually be whittled down to become the very long novel, “Look Homeward, Angel.” The younger man’s death in 1938, just over a decade after he walked into Perkins’ office, ends the story of the film. Not even a third, in fact, of Perkins’ 37-year career as an editor of some of the most remarkable American authors of the first half of the 20th
century. But the period it covers provides a beautiful stage for Colin Firth
as Perkins and Jude Law
as Wolfe to play together and become men of another time.
is astute, smart, and heartfelt casting for Maxwell Perkins. Repressed yet passionate, loving and compassionate but oh so quiet that his gentle smile is always a delightful surprise. Maxwell Perkins was a nurturer, and Firth embraces us all.
did deep and detailed character work in bringing the volatile Thomas Wolfe to life, apparently barely recognizable to some members of the audience when I saw the film, with his dark curly hair and southern accent contributing to his bold portrayal of the volatile young writer from Asheville.
|Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe.|
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions
How much like Thomas Wolfe was fellow southerner F. Scott Fitzgerald in his youth and health. Here we see Fitzgerald as a middle-aged man weighed down by responsibility and reality. Ernest Hemingway seems a mature sportsman, subdued yet warm and friendly, and prescient of young Wolfe’s eventual betrayal of his father figure Perkins.
Each famous writer is nicely played as a human being, not a famous author whose books we all read in high school. Dominic West
excels in his brief appearance as Ernest Hemingway. Guy Pearce
is a heartbreaking F. Scott Fitzgerald whose glory days are past, and whose wild and vivacious wife Zelda has sunken into mental illness. In his exquisite sadness, it occurred to me Fitzgerald might have been glad the television series Endeavour
did an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” in a recent episode.
|This shot appears several times in the film with the more modern buildings edited out!|
did fine work as Wolfe’s paramour and sponsor, Mrs. Bernstein. She looked the part of the “older woman,” without vanity, which contributed to her believability. Some of the audience didn’t recognize her, either, until they saw her name in the credits, always a compliment to an actor.
was superb as Perkins’ wife Louise, aghast and downtrodden when Wolfe denigrated playwriting, her passion. She was not merely someone’s wife or mother, she is a fully developed character, loving to her husband and children, angry when he chooses his work over a family vacation, rather judgmental of the married Mrs. Bernstein while still sympathetic. Ms. Linney has grown into a remarkably sensitive actor whose every feeling is subtly offered to us.
There are many pieces creating the whole of a film, and each element of Genius
was of its time, the late 1920s through 1930s in New York City. Music by Adam Cork
was emotive without intruding, at one with fine cinematography by Ben Davis
of a timely production design by Mark Digby
. In my mind’s eye the film is almost in black and white, although I know that it wasn’t. Art direction by Alex Baily, Gareth Cousins,
and Patrick Rolfe
was complemented by costume design by Jane Petrie
|Firth as Perkins and Law as Wolfe commuting to Connecticut|
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions
John Logan, on the advice of biographer Berg, sensibly put the oft-read book aside to write the movie. I read an article by a fellow who had read the excellent book and was very upset with all that was left out. The biography of Max Perkins was about his life and his 37-year career. Such things are difficult to cover in their entirety in a theatrical film. Logan chose an dramatic segment with a volatile writer, and did a good job of it.
Much as I was captivated by the film, when I walked away from the theatre I felt something missing, only realizing what I missed as I wrote this. I missed that whole story, which can only be apprehended by reading A. Scott Berg’s biography of Perkins and the works of Perkins’ authors. If you want more, read the books. If you want to stop in for a visit to 1930’s New York City and the fascinating people who lived and worked there, see the film, Genius
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read….so many choices….
Luckily for me, I caught Joe Morton
in “Turn Me Loose
” during its last week at The Westside Theatre. “Turn Me Loose
” is “a play about comic genius Dick Gregory.” Based on how much I laughed for the 90-minute duration, I’d call that an accurate description. Mind you, the play is as much about Dick Gregory the civil rights activist as it is about comedy, so there was plenty to ponder.
Joe Morton brought to vibrant and seething life Dick Gregory, a controversial comic who rose to fame just before and during the Civil Rights movement. The audience was howling with laughter one moment, then particularly pensive as Mr. Morton enacted a dialogue between Mr. Gregory and Medgar Evers in the months prior to the latter's death. The language, whether Mr. Morton was playing the young, the old, or middle-aged Gregory, was funny, provocative, angry, smart, and passionate.
|Joe Morton as Dick Gregory. Photo Credit Sara Krulwich/NYT|
Playwright Gretchen Law
encapsulated Gregory’s extraordinary contribution to our nation’s conscience and comedy in a brief play (deftly performed on a practical, single set designed by Chris Barreca
and lit by Stephen Strawbridge
) with just two actors: Mr. Morton giving a bravura performance as Mr. Gregory, and JohnCarlin
doing captivating and imaginative work as a 60s stand-up comic, a heckler, a cabbie, and a radio interviewer, among others. John Gould Rubin
directs so that not a moment of raw, scathing wit is lost, nor is a moment of warmth for the man himself.
|Morton as Gregory opposite John Carlin as a Radio Interviewer. Photo credit Monique Carboni |
Every scene was engaging and thought provoking, every drop of sweat off Mr. Morton’s face endearing.
The Westside Theatre’s downstairs performance space was an excellent venue for this penetrating production and I hope the play returns here or to another incarnation in an equally intimate space so those who missed this limited run might catch it next time around.
Not only a fine evening of theatre at The Westside Theatre, but Dick Cavett
was sitting in the row ahead of me! Keep an eye out for a return or revival of Turn Me Loose
~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a little not ancient enough history
It was a perfect summer evening at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Hot but not stifling. Clear, with enough of a breeze to keep most of the bugs at bay. And a brilliant production on the stage for about three hours.
An infrequently produced play, Troilus & Cressida
is set in Troy (a.k.a. Phrygia) when the war between Troy and the Greeks, ostensibly over Helen of Troy, has been going on for seven years. This seems to be symbolized by the debris surrounding the set on its lower level, trash bags and plastic chairs separating the audience from the stage.
Calchas, a minor Trojan priest, allegedly foresees the fall of Troy and moves into the Greek invading camp. His daughter Cressida he leaves to the care of his brother, Pandarus, remaining in Troy. It seems the Trojans do not hold Calchas’ daughter responsible for her father’s surely treasonous actions, and Troy’s youngest prince, Troilus, falls for her. The "romance” of the play is orchestrated by Cressida’s uncle Pandarus.
, my favorite Pandarus to date, opens the play as Prologue, and closes the tale of lust, greed, and violence with sly wit.
|Andrew Burnap as Troilus, John Glover as Pandarus, and Ismenia Mendes as Cressida. (Photo Credit Joan Marcus, NYT)|
The major players you’ll have heard of. Among the Greeks are
- Agamemnon, the great general played with confident strength by John Douglas Thompson
- His brother Menelaus, cuckolded husband of Helen, an appropriately mealy-mouthed performance by Forrest Malloy (who also plays a creepy Calchas)
- Nestor, the old soldier brought to grumpy life by Edward James Hyland
- Ulysses, the canny statesman-like soldier played as a shrewd and smarmy politician by Corey Stoll
- Achilles, famed as much for his pride and petulance as for his prowess on the battlefield, from which he has abstained for some time*, was unexpectedly and marvelously played by “understudy,” KeiLyn Durrel Jones
- Patroclus, Achilles’ special friend lounging around the Greek camp tents played like a juvenile delinquent by Tom Pecinka
- Ajax, an oddly scrawny and remarkably dumb soldier related to both the Greeks and the Trojans played with humor and heart by Alex Breaux
- Diomedes, a hardened middle management level soldier well played by Zach Appelman
*We learn later that this is to honor his other love, Trojan princess Polyxena
In Troy, the setting of the story, are
- The valiant Hector, an honorable man, eldest son and heir to King Priam, passionately played by Bill Heck
- Paris, the arrogant lout who stole away Menelaus’s wife Helen and whose libidinous impulses started this whole mess, was coldly played by Maurice Jones
- Aeneas, a leading citizen soldier was adroitly and cleverly played by Sanjit De Silva
- Troilus, youngest son of Priam — “He eats nothing but doves, love, and that breeds hot blood, and hot blood begets hot thoughts, and hot thoughts beget hot deeds, and hot deeds is love.” — is played in pubescent heat by Andrew Burnap
- As the vulnerable young woman of the piece, in love, yet wise beyond her years, Ismenia Mendes does finely detailed work bringing Cressida to life onstage.
- Alexander, Cressida’s clever gossiping servant sets a light tone in the first act, competing with Pandarus for his mistress’ attention and favor. Well portrayed by Nicholas Hoge
- In Troy we also meet Hector’s wife Andromache, silent until she can bear it no longer, bravely played by Tala Ashe
- Hector and Troilus’ sister, the prophetess Cassandra to whom no one listens, strikingly played by Nneka Okafor
- And Helen. Not a typical Helen, this production gave us a fascinating portrayal of an unhappy woman who is guarded by armed men and supplied with wine. This unusual choice was well played by Tala Ashe
|KeiLyn Durrel Jones in rehearsal, not as Achilles in this photo. Center is Corey Stoll rehearsing for Ulysses, and finally John Douglas Thompson as General Agamemnon. |
Daniel Sullivan’s production for Shakespeare in the Park is the best I have ever seen of this play. It’s generically modern with soldiers in flak jackets, carrying guns as well as knives, the Trojans in black, the Greeks in desert war camouflage. Laptops are used by Pandarus and Cressida to watch the parade of Trojan warriors returning to Ilion after a day of battle, as well as by the Greek military. Ulysses’ long summation early in the first half of the play is enhanced by an amusing slide show.
’s set easily turns from Troy’s hedonistic blood-red walls with a look of watered silk to the metallic gray Quonset hut walls of the Greek camp. A level above the main playing area is put to excellent use by soldiers, the vile Thersites, this play’s unusual “clown” (nastily played by Max Casella
), a betrayed and bereft Cressida, and also serves as a strategic lookout for Ulysses.
Ulysses is a particularly threatening character in this production, a corporate/government type, his uniform a white shirt, a suit and tie. He instigates, cajoles, instructs the Greeks, sounding even tempered and sensible until his rage leaps out only to be restrained once more. In the second half this wily manipulator plays Troilus against himself while condemning Cressida to the fate of all women in men’s wars, particularly those relegated to “camp follower.”
is a brilliant Pandarus, witty, lascivious, and romantic in his matchmaking of Troilus and Cressida — unless it was purely a power play to set himself up for better times to come. Troilus starts out sweet, romantic, but turns into a weak fool, first by not stepping up or even speaking out for his purported love Cressida while the Trojans and Greeks barter her like a goat. By the end he turns against the woman he loves as she attempts to stay alive and avoid gang rape after being tossed alone and friendless into the Greek camp. These are enemies to the Trojan state and likewise to her. Troilus’ character slides downhill from the moment he attains what he thinks is his heart’s desire, the love of Cressida.
Lighting designed by Robert Wierzel
and sound design by Mark Menard
brought forth startling battle sounds of gunfire and explosions. Brightly lit Trojan lovers contrasted with the gloomy grays of the Greek camp where Cressida is surrounded by soldiers hovering to pounce if her protector deserts her.
The fight scenes, choreographed by co-fight directors Michael Rossmy
and Rick Sordelet,
were tight and frightening, and the dread death of Hector, an act of cowardice and misplaced vengeance, was bloody and heartbreaking.
Women are silenced and used, Andromache left alone, Cassandra locked up, while Helen is imprisoned in Troy and Cressida is imprisoned in the Greek camp. Very powerful statements clearly defined in this production. As Thersites says, “War and lechery confound all.”
Bravo Daniel Sullivan, bravo Public Theatre, bravo to a fine cast and crew for this stellar production. Oh, and bravo to William Shakespeare once again.
|Tom Pecinka as Patroclus, David Harbour as Achilles (whom I did not see), and Max Casella as Thersites. |
(Photo Credit Joan Marcus)
~ Molly Matera signing off to re-read the play. The opening of the play has been postponed due to an accident that befell David Harbour, scheduled to play Achilles. The night I saw this play his understudy KeiLyn Durrel Jones gave an excellent performance, so I hope he takes over the role permanently. Go wait on line in Central Park for this one, it’s worth it. You can see a video excerpt of the production here: https://youtu.be/cKSI4GCHhuk