Monday, November 20, 2017

Tartuffe: Tripping over Molière

Melissa Miller and Brett Gelman in Huntington Theatre's Tartuffe. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I can’t think of a great playwright who stymies directors with the frequency of Molière. (That may not be true in France; my experience of Molière productions is limited to Canada, the U.S. and England.) His satirical high comedies are vibrant and hilarious on the page, but on stage they tend to fall into two categories: lethal academic readings in which the actors seem straitjacketed by their seventeenth-century costumes and – far more common over the last several decades – showy high-concept editions, heavy on farce, that push relentlessly for laughs. Peter DuBois’s Tartuffe at the Huntington Theatre is an example of the second, with one exception: I can’t figure out what the hell the concept is supposed to be, and there’s no director’s note in the program to provide assistance. The quote from DuBois in the press material, “Boston is going to see 2017 alive on stage within the framework of a 17th century farce, and the result will be satirical, smart, and a gut-buster,” doesn’t help. And what’s the significance of the lipstick-smeared pig on the poster? The setting is contemporary, though Tartuffe himself (played by Brett Gelman), the pious hypocrite whose hold over the aristocrat Orgon (Frank Wood) his beleaguered family is struggling to loosen, has been dressed by Anita Yavich as a cross between a Medieval monk and an imam. 2017 is represented not satirically but superficially, through a series of recognizable accoutrements, the most emphatic of which is a smart phone that Orgon’s son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider) uses to take selfies, and the substitution of a soldier in camouflage gear (Omar Robinso) for a messenger from the king to enact the happy ending. If DuBois has some idea in mind about how the play reflects our world, he hasn’t worked it out. The opening is a series of blackout sketches that mostly frame the two men in various comic-strip interactions that are clearly meant to be hilarious but are merely puzzling. The physical comedy is frantic and the actors have been coached to sprint through their lines, which at least has the effect of bringing the show in at two hours and ten minutes, including intermission – though, as habitual theatregoers know to our sorrow, time is relative, and it’s a long two hours. (I started checking my watch after forty-five minutes.)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Coping, Honestly: Adult Life Skills

Jodie Whittaker in Adult Life Skills (2016).

One of the more interesting film festivals in the film festival heavy city of Toronto is the European Union Film Festival (EUFF) featuring one film each from each of the 28 members of the European Union. It’s actually a world-wide phenomenon with various countries and cities signing on at different times and not necessarily showing the same films. (Toronto’s edition, which runs from Nov. 9-23, is the 13th here but though the film fests in Vancouver – in its 20th incarnation – and Canada’s capital Ottawa – in its 32nd year – have been around longer, they’re not showing more than 25 films, which makes Toronto’s the more accurate representation of the EU film output.) Executive Director Jérémie Abessira works with local consulates and cultural organizations to book the films – often Toronto premieres - and then offers free screenings to Toronto’s film going audience. A select number of tickets to each film can be booked online for a $10 fee but if you’re prepared to line up, it’s gratis. My experience is, except for hot tickets like the annual French entry, most people get into most of the films. Most significantly, as far as I’m concerned, is that these are always films made for an adult, discerning audience. In other words, no superhero movies here.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Temporal Things and a Creeping Sense of Dread: The Fiction of John Darnielle

Author and musician John Darnielle

Paper-based role-playing games and video rental stores in rural Iowa might seem unlikely subjects for a 21st-century novel. Both provide amusements rooted in a past that is simultaneously too recent to have yet become a part of history and too distant to be clearly remembered by just about anyone under 40. Yet the obscurity of these subjects lends them to Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester, two novels by John Darnielle.

Darnielle is best known as the founding and primary member of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats, a group which has effectively consisted of him and a changing cast of musicians with whom he collaborates (when he doesn’t simply play solo). Darnielle’s garnered a well-deserved reputation for crafting off-kilter but deeply absorbing songs about everything from his troubled childhood to small-time professional wrestling. Those songs have gradually become more lavish in terms of their instrumentation, but Darnielle’s keen eye for characterization and narrative remains.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Living with Regret: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

In the last few years, beginning with Frances Ha in 2012, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s comedies have felt like latter-day adaptations of the sensibility I always associated with Paul Mazursky’s in the 1970s and 80s: satirical yet compassionate, hip yet skeptical, partly hopeful and partly rueful. And like Mazursky, he’s become the master of the mixed tone. Frances Ha, whose hapless heroine (played by Greta Gerwig) goes to Paris for a weekend and doesn’t know what to do once she arrives, is hilarious and poignant in equal measure; she evokes our exasperation but also our protectiveness. The paralyzed documentary filmmaker Ben Stiller portrays in While We’re Young (2015) can’t separate out his bid for artistic independence from his own ego, and he falls into one trap after another of his own making, but his efforts, increasingly desperate, to stay on his own wavelength – and to prevent himself from turning into a middle-aged cliché – are touching somehow. As with Mazursky, it’s not necessarily that you recognize these characters from your own life; both men work in very distinct, almost rarefied, narrative realms. It’s that you can see that Baumbach recognizes them – that they represent parts of himself, and his willingness to identify with him even when they’re being ridiculous is the mark of a great humanistic spirit. Pauline Kael called Mazursky a hip Chekhov, and that’s the territory where Baumbach, too, hangs his hat.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hyde and C.K.

Louis C.K. performing on-stage in 2015. (Photo: Charles Sykes)

The current explosion of allegations of sexual abuse and predatory behavior by powerful men in the entertainment industry is a sign of health. A year after a solid minority of the American electorate chose as our president a man who sees women as accessory items to be bought, used, and judged on their looks – and who has sought to empower and has surrounded himself with misogynists, homophobes, and racists – people with stories to tell are coming forward, in some cases after decades of fearful silence, and exposing rich, influential, deeply entrenched power players as monsters. It's clear by now that a seismic shift in public perception and a redefinition of what's acceptable behavior – and not just the behavior of the predators themselves, but those who become complicit in their actions by keeping their secrets and giving them cover – is necessary if the toxic slime infecting the culture and impacting people's careers is going to be cleared away. Some of the ugliest behavior has been on the part of men who've been shaping the culture for more than a generation, like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. But those two are also past their prime as movers and shakers and had plenty of enemies who were happy to see them fall. When it became general knowledge that Cosby is a serial rapist, the news had a special shock built into it because of the millions of TV viewers who, having first discovered him at the midpoint of his career, thought of him as a dispenser of paternal wisdom and family values, both in real life and as the star of The Cosby Show. And Weinstein worked hard at molding his sham image as a nurturer of talent and the businessman hero who made independent American cinema possible and popular. But did anyone in the year of our lord 2017 actually like them?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Soundtrack for the Imagination: Small Town by Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan. (Photo: John Rogers)

The art of the duet is on full display on the recent ECM release by guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. The album is called Small Town yet the music is often larger than life, containing a pallette of places big and small. It hits so many imaginative and emotional notes that I consider it the best album of 2017.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok – What Were You The God Of, Again?

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok.

“I don’t hang with the Avengers any more. It all got too corporate.” – Thor, Thor: Ragnarok
You’d be justified in thinking I’ve been too kind to Marvel’s most recent films. They really are singularly excellent at the art of seduction; of presenting you with dazzling visual spectacle anchored by just enough plot and character coherence that you leave the theatre feeling satisfied, even if their appeal begins to wither once you’re back outside. I really have no desire to ever watch Doctor Strange again, even though I gave it a glowing review. I can understand the shame that sometimes follows, where you feel you’ve somehow been duped. But I don’t ever feel taken advantage of, personally. Disposable, enjoyable, escapist chicanery on the silver screen is as much an essential part of a balanced cinematic diet as anything else. It’s quite enough for me that Marvel’s legion of technicians, production designers, digital artists, costumers, and stunt performers work their asses off to deliver what most moviegoers see as exciting one-off experiences (especially since the sequel is already coming down the pike right behind the one you just saw, guaranteeing that these talented people are still getting work). I don’t hate the formula. The formula works.