Saturday, April 28, 2012

Agony over the Script, Ecstasy over the Performance: Halifax's Shakespeare by the Sea’s production of Mike Daisey’s Steve Jobs

Jesse MacLean in Shakespeare by the Sea's The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

A one-man (or one-woman) show has its unique challenges – depicting conflict using often one character, keeping the audience engaged with only one actor, and keeping the one actor from exhausting himself. Halifax's Shakespeare by the Sea’s (SBTS) production of Mike Daisey’s controversial The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs does a superb job of alluding all these common pitfalls – through innovative use of technology, copious F-bombs (some contextually necessary, most not) and dynamic acting by Jesse MacLean. From the moment I took my seat in the dim 20 member audience, I was listening intently, cackling intensely and sending knowing looks to my theatre companion.

For those who have seen the production, you know that the title is somewhat misleading. While Steve Jobs is the context, Apple’s industrial practices are the story. And ultimately this play is a story. Unlike the original, SBTS’s version is portrayed as a fictionalize narrative, not a documentary. This takes the pressure off what ultimately doesn’t matter (the ambiguous logistics of Daisey’s trip to China) and places it on what does (the unfair trade practices of Foxconn). SBTS ended the show by justifying their narrative interpretation of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, claiming that if we (the audience) leave the theatre challenged and motivated, they’ve done their job as story-tellers. At the time I thought they’d taken the lazy route, but after researching the history of the Daisey script, I respect their choice.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Jolting the Horror Genre Back to Life: The Cabin in the Woods

Fran Kranz, Chris Hemsworth, and Anna Hutchinson in The Cabin in the Woods

Of all the movie genres, horror has probably been the most debased in recent years. From the highs of films like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), through to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987), many practitioners of the scary arts have been interested in frightening audiences in a smart and savvy manner. But, of late, the genre has been taken over by the barbaric Visigoths, the makers of ‘torture porn’ films like the Saw and Hostel, movie franchises that exist merely to put their characters (though there’s not much characterization involved) through the paces solely so horrible things happen to them in slow, gruesome and highly explicit ways. Subtlety was out, and gore for the sake of just being gross was in. The Haunting eschewed all explicit horror and implied everything, which is what made it so highly effective; I still consider it to be the best horror movie ever made. (There are worthwhile gory horror movies, like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Peter Jackson’s Braindead, aka Dead Alive (1992), but not many.) I’ve never seen a whole Saw or Hostel movie – just enough to be immediately turned off – but I’ve been suckered in by exploitative art house European derivations of those films, such as The Descent (2005) and A L’interieur (Inside) (2007) that have been let into film festivals. Since those needed to be reviewed, I had to sit through the damned things. I was also offended by the empty, glib Shaun of the Dead (2004), a zombie movie which tried to have it both ways: gratuitously and jokingly killing off its characters, then asking us to care about their deaths afterwards. Once in awhile, a worthwhile horror film like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2004) came along, a well done albeit conventional movie that didn’t break the mold, but intelligently respected horror conventions and added some decent characterization in the process. And the sensational, gripping opening of Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) showed the heights of what the genre could attain, even though the film settled down and became rather dull after its prologue.

Mostly though, I’d given up ever expecting to see a horror film with brains or originality – until The Cabin in the Woods. Finally, we have a horror movie that actually reworks the clichés and tired tropes of the genre in a unique fashion. Not surprisingly, the brains behind it is Joss Whedon, whose myriad credits – TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (and its film incarnation Serenity) and his viral video Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog have all successfully played with genre conventions, be they horror, science fiction, westerns or musicals, and made something fresh and complex out of them. (His cinematic take on Marvel Comics’ The Avengers, which he wrote and directed, and which opens next week, will likely be typically innovative.) In Whedon’s welcoming universe, genre is respected, gently mocked and twisted into new permutations. He acknowledges and spoofs its conventions without losing sight of why they worked in the first place, perhaps never more so than in The Cabin in the Woods.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Gentle Rebellion: Moyra Davey at Murray Guy

Moyra Davey's Les Goddesses
We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Amanda Shubert, to our group. 

Moyra Davey’s small, unprepossessing gallery show at Murray Guy in Chelsea, New York City, on view until May 6, is hardly the art event of the season. Toronto-born, Davey now lives in New York, where her steady production of photographic and video work, astonishingly lyrical and persistently feminist, is dwarfed next to the conspicuous spectacle and titanic scale of much postmodern photography. (Davey’s gallery show coincides with a major retrospective of the work of Davey’s better known contemporary in feminist photography, Cindy Sherman, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.) All the same, the exhibition afforded me more pleasure, visual and intellectual, than any installation of contemporary work I’ve seen in years. Entitled Spleen. Indolence. Torpor. Ill-humour – a phrase taken from the journal of one of Mary Wollstonecraft’s rebellious daughters, whose stories are one dimension of the thrillingly multi-faceted video installation, Les Goddesses, at the heart of the exhibition – the show pairs two new gridded photographic series, “Trust Me” (2011) and “Subway Riders” (2012), with a sequence of Davey’s earliest photographs from the late 1970s. 

The eloquent counterpoint of these pieces is terrifically complex. The web of visual relationships within the photographic works is mirrored in the allusive, essayistic narrative Davey delivers in Les Goddesses. The 61 minute video installation, with voice over by Davey, draws together the biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughters Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont and Fanny Imlay, the travel diary of Goethe, and the cinematic philosophies of Louis Malle and Jean-Luc Godard with fragmentary portraits of family members and friends, all set against stunning views of Davey’s apartment with all of its everyday dust and clutter suffused with light from open windows. It is as though we were looking into one of her photographs, perfectly still yet shot through with passing time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Staying the Course: First Position

Rebecca waits in the wings, in a scene from Bess Kargman's First Position

There appears to be no end to the public’s fascination with what goes on behind the scenes at the ballet. Witness the success of Darren Aronofsky’s feature film Black Swan whose lurid backstage view of the ugliness often lurking behind the beauty of the classical dancer had audiences everywhere riveted. If you were to ask Bess Kargman, she might tell you that a lot of what is depicted in Black Swan is true – the dagger-like competitiveness, the eating disorders and above all the sacrifice executed on the altar of perfection. Kargman knows because she was once a member of that perilous pointe shoe world herself, having studied at the School of Boston Ballet, the academy that made headlines in 1997 when one of its young dancers dropped dead as a result of complications brought on by anorexia.

Kargman never went the full course to become a professional ballerina, having understood only too well the level of commitment involved. (She actually went on to play hockey.) Instead of a stage career, Kargman turned eventually to journalism, specializing in fact-driven projects for National Public Radio. She never lost her own fascination for ballet, however, and believed it would be a meaty topic to tackle having seen for herself that it represented a world more complex and nuanced than what often is presented before the footlights. A chance encounter with legions of ballet students on the streets of New York in 2009 eventually showed her the right approach to take, involving her once again in dance but from the perspective of a newly minted documentary filmmaker.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Remembering Levon Helm (1940-2012): Then and Now

In light of Levon Helm's passing last week from cancer at 71, Susan Green and John Corcelli recall moments from his musical life – then and now.

The audience at 1969 Isle of Wight music festival

While thumbing my way from London to Edinburgh on the A1 Motorway, I met a British fellow hitchhiker named Christopher who was only going as far as Sheffield. When we’d driven that distance aboard a clotted cream lorry that stopped for us, he more or less invited himself along on my already scheduled jaunt to the 1969 Isle of Wight music festival a week later. We also discussed issues of war and peace.

"I'm sort of fed up with being American,” I told Christopher. “Vietnam and violence on our streets and police brutality. Over here, you seem so much more..."


Monday, April 23, 2012

Clybourne Park and Race in America

The cast of Clybourne Park (All photos by Joan Marcus)

Bruce Norris’s brilliant Clybourne Park – which just opened on Broadway in the first-rate production, directed by Pam McKinnon, that originated at Playwrights Horizon two years ago – begins as what seems like a satirical take on 1950s America. Daniel Ostling’s set reproduces a staid mid-century interior design; the locale, which the title identifies, is a middle-class neighborhood in central Chicago in 1959. But the backdrop beyond the front door, which we can glimpse through a stage-right window, has a touch of artificiality about it, and it feels as if there’s a film of gray over everything. The inhabitants, Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood), are moving out, so the living room is crowded with piled-up boxes and rolled-up rugs, but the sense you get of remoteness, transience, alienation go deeper. (Allen Lee Hughes did the lighting.) The opening conversation between these middle-aged people is mostly a meaningless disagreement about capital cities. Bev has a smiley-face quality, like that of a camp counselor committed to teaching a group of eight-year-olds the rules to a new game. She has a bit of a baby-talk sound, and a habit of buckling at the knees and rolling her eyes when she wants to make a point, and she waves her hands around to underscore her words, so we seem to be getting the Classics Illustrated version of everything she says. She’s set on getting her husband moving: he’s still in his PJs, and she wants him to get a footlocker out of one of the upstairs rooms but he keeps putting her off. Russ, who is reading a National Geographic in his easy chair, is agreeable enough, but as playful as his tone is, his replies sound like evasion tactics. When the local minister, Jim (Brendan Griffin), enters with a football in his hands – and golden-haired Griffin looks like a college football star – the number of motivators on the stage doubles. He chatters to the couple in wobbly clichés, his tone relentlessly upbeat. Then there’s the African American maid, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), whose husband, Albert (Damon Gupton), has arrived to pick her up. These two are like savvy domestics on an antiquated TV sitcom.

Nothing in Bev or Russ’s demeanor suggests they are people who have been through a tragedy except perhaps (if we’re looking for clues) Russ’s determined immobility. But Jim, who came by because of Bev’s concern over her husband, brings up the verboten subject of their dead Korean War-vet son, and Russ shuts him up by telling him to go fuck himself. Griffin’s Jim blinks and stares into space, disoriented, as if he’d suddenly found himself in the wrong play, and we wonder, too, as what we’ve been watching jogs for an instant into the kind of modern family drama where characters don’t feel the need to mind their language. Albert, who’s been standing around on the periphery of the action waiting for his wife, ducks out in embarrassment. We think we’ve been pulled back on course when another neighbor, Karl (Jeremy Shamos), shows up with a pregnant wife, Betsy (Annie Parisse), and a terrible sidewall haircut that makes him look as if he’d stepped out of a comic strip of the period. But Betsy’s deafness sets off her sweetness and cuteness so that they seem manufactured, and you register that you’d never find a hearing-impaired character rippling the perfect surface of a fifties TV show.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Love and Revenge: The Blu-ray DVD Edition of Dangerous Liaisons

Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, Les Liaiasons Dangereuses, is a diabolically unique book, a sly narrative about devious sexual games and merciless erotic warfare, told in the form of highly confidential letters between two French aristocrats – the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont – former lovers turned wicked schemers who set out to wreck the love lives of others just for the sport of it. The letters read like a series of confessionals where the artifice of their style carries the sharp pungency of juicy gossip, cadenced whispers delicately perfumed in malice. Les Liaiasons Dangereuses peeks under the accepted customs of the aristocracy only to uncover the latent sexual aggression, an arousal of decadence, that ceremonial behaviour masks. Naturally, the novel ended up condemned, banned and burned over the years as if the French aristocracy set out to destroy traces of themselves tucked away in those exchanges.

Director Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons, the 1988 film adaptation of Christopher Hampton's Tony Award-winning stage play based on the de Laclos's novel, was never in danger of being condemned, banned, or burned. But it sure does full justice to the book's wickedness. Perhaps, since Frears (having already directed My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) is a true modernist, he goes beyond providing a cleverly detached voyeurism and reaches instead for the emotional and erotic power buried in the material. Most period costume dramas linger on the decor so we can swoon over all the pageantry, or they take the moral high road of Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract which dispenses with the impacted eroticism in sexual gamesmanship in exchange for cerebral muscle-flexing (to paraphrase the critic Terrence Rafferty, Greenaway is the beach bully as aesthete who kicks art in our faces). Frears, however, shows far more daring, setting up the combatants and their rules of engagement so that we can watch their masks melt away. We ultimately come to feel the full consequences of their carnal games. The artifice gives way to real flesh and blood, blood that even literally spills by the end, as Frears cuts the chords that hold the characters aloft.