Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Robin Phillips: The Stratford Years

Robin Phillips, in 1977. (Photo via Torstar News Service)

Robin Phillips, who died on July 25 at the age of seventy-three, trained at the Bristol Old Vic and spent a decade as a young actor (he played the title role in the 1969 film of David Copperfield) before turning to directing. I own a copy of a TV movie of Strindberg’s Miss Julie that he directed in 1972 with a stunningly beautiful, sexually daring Helen Mirren playing opposite Donal McCann (a decade and a half before he played Gabriel in John Huston’s The Dead). After two years at the helm of the Greenwich Theatre in England, Phillips took the post of artistic director at Canada’s Stratford Festival and held it for six seasons, 1975 through 1980. I was in my twenties then, living in Montreal, and except for 1976, when I was traveling in Europe, I made sure to visit Stratford once or twice every summer, so I saw roughly a dozen and a half of the shows Phillips directed (or co-directed). I thought at the time that he was the most brilliant stage director I’d encountered in my young, fervent theatergoing life. It was an exciting time to be at Stratford: Phillips brought Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford, Peter Ustinov, Jessica Tandy and Margaret Tyzack to act alongside such Stratford stalwarts as Martha Henry, William Hutt, Douglas Rain, Alan Scarfe, Jack Wetherall and Domini Blythe. (Bedford ended up becoming one of those stalwarts.) Phillips claimed exhaustion when he left Stratford, and no wonder: during two or three of those seasons he staged five plays. His subsequent directing career was halting, though he worked in London and New York and around Canada; nothing evidently nothing he did after 1980 matched up to his achievements at Stratford. But those were glorious years, and I count myself fortunate to have attended so many of his dazzling shows.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Based On A True Story: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel and Pacific Rim) searches for things. The oppressively rigid structure of her Tokyo life – represented in her mind-numbing job, her condescending boss, her overbearing mother, and her tiny, stifling apartment – makes her restless, and so she goes out searching for things, perhaps in an attempt to find a purpose for herself as much as any actual buried treasure. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner, opens with Kumiko’s search leading her to a shaded cove, where she uncovers a soggy VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). It’s unclear who left the tape there for her to find, and whose directions she’s followed to get there, but none of that matters: this first, context-free quest establishes the film’s tone of dreamy unreality, and gives Kumiko the first thing she’s had to strive for in years.

Monday, July 27, 2015

All That Jazz: Paradise Blue and The Wild Party

Kristolyn Lloyd and Blair Underwood in Paradise Blue. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Paradise Blue, a new play by Dominique Morisseau at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is set in the African-American community of Blackbottom in Detroit in 1949, during the heyday of bop. Its protagonist, Blue (Blair Underwood), is a jazz trumpeter who owns a club, the Paradise, and headlines the combo that plays there. He’s struggling to attain the zenith of his creative powers while battling the ghosts of his childhood: he saw his father murder his mother. Morisseau intends Blue to embody the musicians in the bop movement, gifted and intellectually self-challenging, restless and haunted. It’s a great subject, but she’s also working with black archetypes that limit the play imaginatively. The quintet of hard-working actors in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production strive to bring a vibrancy to the play but they’re stuck playing caricatures.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Remembering Theodore Bikel

Theodore Bikel on stage as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

I once met Theodore Bikel, the esteemed singer/actor who, earlier this week, passed away at age 91. It was back in 1998, at a conference encompassing the directors of programming and others involved with the world’s various Jewish film festivals – I was Director of Programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival from 1996-2004 – and, for some reason, Bikel was in attendance. Better still, he sat at my table during the conference’s opening ceremony. I remember being quite thrilled to meet him and I introduced myself and we chatted a bit – he seemed nice – and I especially recall this funny joke he told, in his deep baritone voice. The joke goes: The Pope has been invited to ask the first question of the world’s greatest and smartest computer. His question: Is there a God? The answer, from the computer: THERE IS NOW! (Besides being amusing, I think the joke is pretty prescient, as it’s easier to imagine the current Pope Francis being asked to interact with the computer than his two less hip predecessors.) I mention this because Bikel, over his long distinguished career, made quite an impression in big – his theatrical, film and television work – and small – the joke – ways on those who encountered him. Whether it was his involvement with Montreal rap singer Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin) in a smart, catchy re-working of the classic Yiddish song "Belz, Mayn Shtetele Belz" (Belz, my town Belz) in 2007 as "(Rock The) Belz", available as part of the Rough Guide to Klezmer Revolution CD, his role as Rance Mohammitz in Frank Zappa's surreal 1971 film 200 Motels or his powerful turn as the esteemed Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem in his recent one man show Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, Bikel left an indelible mark on those who heard his music or saw his work.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Death and Rebirth: The Beatles, LSD, Brian Epstein and Transcendental Meditation

The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967.

On March 21, 1967, the same day The Beatles were recording the chorus of "Getting Better" on Sgt. Pepper, John Lennon left the vocal session while tripping on acid. Paul McCartney decided he had better get his writing partner home safely. Since it was too far to drive to John's home in Weybridge, Paul took Lennon to his place. After arriving, McCartney was curious to see if taking LSD would bring him closer to his currently distressed friend. Most of The Beatles had taken acid by the time they finished Sgt Pepper, but McCartney had earlier held out. Late in 1966, he finally dropped it with Tara Browne, but with mixed feelings. McCartney didn't enjoy losing control, or putting himself in a position where he couldn't find his way back home. A year later, McCartney actually caused some controversy when he admitted to the press that LSD had opened his eyes to new religious experiences. On that night he tried it with Lennon, he only wished to re-establish a bond they once had as songwriters, as brothers. "[Lennon's] rough edges and fuck-all personality only underscored Paul's pretensions, sparking a contrast that would haunt Paul for the rest of his life," wrote Bob Spitz in his biography, The Beatles. From evening until dawn, the two men hallucinated together, staring into each other's eyes, looking for the firm connection they had when they wrote "I Want to Hold Your Hand." McCartney would later refer to the experience with Lennon as communing with the unknown. He saw John as the Emperor of Eternity, a deity, while they both laughed and shared stories of past glories. For five hours, they communed deeply, barely moving, except for a short excursion taken into the garden. Throughout the evening, these two fractured geniuses briefly blended together as one. But what The Beatles and their fans didn't discover, until shortly after 1967, was that LSD had more troubling ramifications. It first gave credence to religious and political ideologues. When extremists like the Manson Family and the Weather Underground used it to further their apocalyptic agendas, The Beatles became unwitting champions of this new revolution. "The sad fact was that LSD could turn its users into anything from florally-bedecked peaceniks to gun-brandishing urban guerillas," critic Ian MacDonald explained in Revolution in the Head.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Olive Kitteridge: Portrait of a Marriage

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in the HBO miniseries, Olive Kitteridge.

Note: There are spoilers ahead in this review. 

The Maine coastal town where the sensational four-part HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, directed by Lisa Cholodenko and now on DVD, is set seems blighted by disaster and grief, but the story isn’t a Gothic. Jane Anderson’s screenplay, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 novel by Elizabeth Stout, puts the lives of the women and men who inhabit this community under a microscope to reveal how difficult the path is that all of us take through life, tortuous and stone-strewn and obscure. Some of the fates that befall subordinate characters are unusual. One is shot on a hunting foray by his best friend, who mistakes him for a deer. (Perhaps Stout was thinking of the plaintive reel “Molly Bán,” where a young man shoots his fiancée because, her apron up to shield her from a rainstorm in the forest, he takes her for a swan.) Another, whom we only hear about, becomes a psychotic killer. Most of the tragedies, though, are ordinary enough. The assistant to the local pharmacist, Henry Kitteridge (Richard Jenkins), collapses of a heart attack in the street outside the store and dies. Henry himself, in the middle of Part 3 (“A Different Road”), has a stroke and hangs on for four years, unable to communicate with his wife Olive (Frances McDormand), a retired math teacher.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tactile: Carlos Marques-Marcet's 10,000 km


In the opening moments of Carlos Marques-Marcet's remarkable film 10,000 km, Sergi (David Verdaguer) and Alexandra (Natalia Tena) are first seen making passionate love. As the camera fixes on their bodies, which are thrusting and swaying in motion to the erotic rhythms they both invent and discover, we can see how delicately intertwined their sexual and emotional lives are. They seem inseparable. But as inseparable as they might be, it's not a symbiotic partnership. Sergi and Alexandra still retain their individual selves as if sex for them wasn't about losing yourself in your partner, but about connecting at the most intimate and tactile place where you find out some great mystery about yourself. While Sergi is a music teacher in Barcelona who is seeking more secure work and Alexandra is a photographer trying to further her career, they both live together and desire a child. Before she can get pregnant, however, she gets an e-mail from Los Angeles offering her a one-year residency. Although Sergi is initially resistant to letting her go, he values her independence as much as he does his own and he relents. But the distance between them, which makes up the title of the picture, puts their relationship to the test. The ability to hold their connection close initially seems tangible because of Skype, Facebook and e-mail, but Marques-Marcet has fashioned a thoughtful and honestly probing examination of modern romance in the digital age. And it's a corker.