Monday, May 25, 2015

Playing the Crowd: Fun Home and Kiss Me, Kate

Cast members of Fun Home, at the Public Theatre. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Fun Home, the musical based on the memoir Alison Bechdel wrote in the form of a graphic novel, sold out during several runs at the Public Theatre and has recently opened to great acclaim on Broadway; it’s been showered with Tony nominations and a national tour is on the books. The audience I saw it with cheered every song – the confessional numbers, the self-actualization numbers, the mournful yet rousing protests against the repressed, homophobic society that dooms the narrator/protagonist Alison’s father to life as a closeted gay man, (mostly) remote from his children, and eventually to suicide. In the book Alison doesn’t know for sure whether her dad, Bruce, deliberately stepped in front of a truck just three months after she came out to her parents or if it was an accident. Lisa Kron, the play’s librettist, eliminates the ambiguity; her version of the material gets rid of all the mystery around the character, though perhaps, with a flesh-and-blood actor in the role, his motivations are at any rate less likely to stay hidden. Bechdel’s book is brainy and quirky, but I didn’t respond to it with the enthusiasm many other people felt; I found it a cool, unemotional reading experience. Kron strengthens the dramatic arc – Alison’s sexual and artistic coming of age and her coming to terms with her father’s elusiveness and the overlap in their desires and their personalities – and warms up the story. It’s practically a textbook example of how to put together a successful twenty-first-century musical play, with a sympathetic, forthright lesbian, an older-generation gay dad, a square peg who’s struggled all his life to fit into a round hole, and his put-upon wife, who’s spent all the years of their marriage trying to make him happy but whom he’s closed out. Alison, the narrator, who’s moving into middle age and trying to make sense of her mixed-up childhood – lived in a small Pennsylvania town where her father doubled as funeral home director and high-school English teacher – and her cataclysmic college years, is the ideal heroine for a contemporary liberal audience, while Bruce’s is the perfect symbolic tragedy for an age that wants to embrace sexual diversity and pummel prejudice against a homosexual lifestyle out of existence. You can’t object to the play’s values – but “values” aren’t a theatrical virtue. You might be put off, as I was, by the musical’s triteness and banality, and by the way it pushes the audience’s buttons.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The King's Domain: Laurence Lemieux's Looking for Elvis

Looking for Elvis (photo by John Lauener).

Elvis Presley was recently back in the building belonging to Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, the dance company located in Toronto's Regent Park. The occasion was Looking for Elvis, the work created by the Quebec-born choreographer and dancer Laurence Lemieux in 2014 and recently remounted at the couple's intimate The Citadel performing space on Parliament St. for four nights of performances during the first week of May. As he did the first time around, Elvis appeared in the piece as a casualty of his own fame. But with Lemieux having sharpened the focus on his isolation within the culture of celebrity, the poignancy of his end-of-life story was heightened, resulting in a more nuanced encounter of the King. Looking for Elvis shared the program with a 2010 work inspired by another great of 20th century American popular music, James Kudelka's The Man in Black set to a sextet of haunting end-of-life songs by Johnny Cash (and danced in cowboy boots by the National Ballet of Canada in 2013). Both works were united by their use of popular music to get inside the memories and emotions of their viewing public and by a shared masculine sensibility.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Heroes and Villains: Philip Kerr's The Lady From Zagreb, Donna Leon's Falling in Love and Steve Burrows' A Siege of Bitterns

Philip Kerr’s The Lady from Zagreb (Putnam) opens on the French Riviera, in 1956. But that’s just prologue; the story proper begins in the summer of 1942, in Berlin. Bernie Gunther, a captain in the SD (the Nazi security service, or Sicherheitdienst) has been assigned to the Berlin police, investigating homicides and other serious crimes. But Bernie, despite his barely veiled cynicism and smart mouth, has shown a useful talent for delicate inquiries and judicious solutions on behalf of his Nazi masters. Indeed, he has just returned from Prague, where he solved a murder at the villa of the late SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German security services, even as an assassination plot unfolded against Heydrich.

Back in Berlin, Bernie finds himself under the direct command of Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, also head of Germany’s gigantic UFA film studios, who has a personal assignment for him: track down the missing father of Croatian-German actress Dalia Dresner (Goebbels, a notorious womanizer, calls her “Germany’s Garbo”), neé Sofia Branković. Bernie falls hard for the beautiful Dalia, who returns his feelings, and sets off into the chaos of wartime Yugoslavia to find her missing parent. The passages set in war-torn Croatia are bone-chilling, not just because of the German SS troops, who routinely shoot first and ask questions later, but more especially because of the ultra-nationalist Ustaše militia, allies of the Nazis but unpredictably and prodigiously vicious. It is among these barely sane irregulars that Bernie finds Dalia’s father, once a priest, now a militia leader known as Colonel Dragan, famous for the speed with which he can slash Serbian necks. Goebbels and Bernie agree to lie to Dalia, telling the screen star that her father is dead.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Life Lessons - Willie Nelson (with David Ritz): It’s a Long Story (My Life)

Willie Nelson’s story has been told before, by Joe Nick Patoski in a book subtitled An Epic Life. Epic! A quick search for a definition of ‘epic’ leads you to this, in the Urban Dictionary “the most overused word ever, next to fail…use them together to form ‘epic fail…everything is epic now. epic car. epic haircut. epic movie. epic album…saying 'epic win' doesn't make you sound any better, either” and you have to agree with them. Everything is ‘epic’ these days, but in Willie’s case maybe Patoski has a point. Willie (and his co-author David Ritz) have opted for something a little simpler, not epic…but just the humble admission, It’s a Long Story. Not as long as when Patoski told it, but long nonetheless. The epic life took 576 pages, the long story only 392 and that includes the index and credits for quoting song lyrics. Willie is good at editing things to fit his own perspective of what’s important in his long life. The book sounds like Willie. It’s written in his voice. Ritz, from the look of it, organized, and provided structure but allowed Willie to be front and centre telling this story himself. You can almost feel him sitting across the room from you as you read. Some pages have the flow and poetry of his lyrics, others just sound like him, exhaling a puff of smoke and a gem of a remembrance.

“A song is a short story,” he begins, “It might have been my buddy Harlan Howard, a writer I met in Nashville in the sixties, who first said a song ain’t nothing but three chords and the truth…the truth should flow easy. Same for songs and stories…the way a mountain stream, bubbling with fresh clean water, keeps flowing…but what you’re holding in your hands is something more than a simple song or a short story. It’s a Long Story is the name of this enterprise…and I’ll need a lot more than three chords.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Big Picture: The Small Screen

Kevin Chapman as Det. Lionel Fusco on CBS's Person of Interest.

With the network TV season winding down, those critics who like to compile list of actors who ought to be nominated for Emmys but never are should set aside some space for Kevin Chapman. Chapman plays the New York City police detective Lionel Fusco on CBS’s Person of Interest, where he serves as sidekick to Jim Caviezel’s Reese. A former CIA assassin who broke down after he was set up for execution by his own people, Reese got a new lease on life courtesy of Finch (Michael Emerson), a computer genius who set up a comprehensive surveillance system, “The Machine,” for the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11. Finch – who, like Reese, got off the grid by bring mistaken for dead by the powers that be – now has second thoughts about building that system, and to atone for it, he has arranged for The Machine to feed him information about people who may be in danger but who are regarded as too insignificant by the government to be worthy of its concern, so that the super-capable violent operator Reese can help them out, Equalizer-style.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Imaging the Dance: Barbara Morgan Revisited

Totem Ancestor (1942).
A black-and-white photograph of Merce Cunningham depicts the dancer jumping high into the sky, his feet neatly tucked underneath his wiry body. It's a portrait of a body in motion, captured by the celebrated American photographer Barbara Morgan in the blink of an eye. Totem Ancestor, as the 1942 image is called, provides an exciting early glimpse of the dancer who would go on to define modernism in dance as an expression of concentrated clarity: movement as a meditation on the sublime. In this image, Cunningham looks exuberant as he catapults towards imminent greatness. Freed from gravity, he’s a ball of fire exploding in the air. This image of the dance artist who passed away in New York City in 2009 at the age of 90 is in the collection of Toronto’s Corkin Gallery in the Distillery District. I recently got to study it up close during a private viewing arranged for me by veteran art dealer Jane Corkin who has an important collection of historic dance images from the early 20th century. As I sat in a small upstairs room of the Corkin Gallery, one by one, Corkin brought out her dance photographs to show me. The lion's share were by Morgan, a photographer who more than anyone before her or since created an iconography of modern dance that has been widely disseminated around the world. What many people know of modern dance today they know from looking at Morgan's images. She was as much a modern dance pioneer as her subjects.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Vroom Vroom, Boom Boom – Mad Max: Fury Road

Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road.

Smoke-spewing, diesel-gulping engines spit flame into the desert air and propel the world of Mad Max into perpetual motion: so it has always been, and so it is now with director George Miller’s triumphant return to the saga he invented as an independent Australian filmmaker in the late ‘70s, his dreams dominated by dust and oil and blood. With a budget that far surpasses his original efforts (and the cast to back it up) Fury Road is the realization of that dark dream – an orgy of insanity and fun. Buckle up: it’s a wild ride.