Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fan's Folly: Jennifer Tarver's What Makes a Man?

I went to the theatre expecting a play but got instead a cabaret, and with bad acoustics. Talk about dashed expectations. I also went hoping to see what Jennifer Tarver would do to establish further her credentials as one of the most innovative theatre directors working in Canada today, but ended up walking away disappointed if not decidedly under-whelmed. What Makes A Man?, an original piece of theatre used to launch her tenure as director of Toronto’s Necessary Angel Theatre Company, is a great idea gone wrong. Known more for her incisive interpretations of Samuel Beckett, Tarver has radically changed tack in sourcing the prodigious songbook of living legend Charles Aznavour to shape a production that is about, well, who knows what.

The 70-minute performance, which opened at the Berkeley Street Theatre on Thursday night with performances continuing through Nov. 2, lacks a clear focus so it is hard to tell what the message is. The medium itself is also fuzzy. It’s a piece of theatre and yet it’s not a play. There is no storyline. Aznavour, himself, could have provided one – born in Paris in 1924, the son of Armenians who had fled the Turkish genocide, a multilingual and multitalented singer-composer with an uncanny knack for turning people’s stories into gripping, narrative driven songs. But no, his life is not on the stage to admire. Tarver, who admits to not having discovered his music until three years ago (the idea boggles: dubbed the French Frank Sinatra, the man has appeared in sixty films, composed a thousand songs, many of them Top 100 hits and covered by everyone from Johnny Mathis to Elvis Costello, and at ninety is still doing concerts), has let the lyrics in the twenty-three songs selected for the occasion do all the talking. Maybe because she only recently discovered them is why she is besotted by them. At least they appear to have blinded her to a sense of purpose. What Makes A Man? is less Tarver as innovator, and more Tarver as fan.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Hearing Voices: Tom Marshall's Changelings (1991)

In the first few pages of Tom Marshall's novel, Changelings (Macmillan, 1991), we are confronted with voices. The first one we hear is that of Laird Allen Carter, a man in jail for a rape he cannot remember committing. Soon he's joined by other voices – male and female – with different names, describing memories of events involving sexual seduction, violation, incest and child abuse. These recollections build in intensity until we realize that all of these people share the same past. We soon grasp that these voices belong to two people: Laird Carter and his twin sister, Elaine. In one elliptical stroke, Marshall has plunged us into the world of multiple personalities and possession.

Of course, the subject of spiritual possession, or multiple personalities, isn't new to fiction. Edgar Allen Poe gave us a poetic nightmare about the ghost of Lenore, and Stephen King in The Shining tantalized us with the idea of not being the person we think we are, of being possessed by someone evil. But Changelings isn't about frightening the reader: it's about piecing together fractured narratives. The story takes place in 1960 as Laird tries to seek help. He finds it in a prison psychologist named Herb Delancy, a "do-gooder" who wants to believe that "there is a definite science of the workings of the mind." Herb gets more than he bargained for when he meets the many personalities within the body of Laird – including a brutal psychopath named Al, a womanizer known as Lyle, a spiritual twin sister for Lyle called Alana, and the voice of reason who comes in the form of Lou. All of these personalities are unformed, and even split off from each other. The task for Herb is to integrate them so that he can find out who the real Laird is. Running parallel to this story is that of Elaine, also plagued by voices that almost lead her to murder her children. She finds solace in the world of spiritualism, as a medium who makes the voices serve her own needs. One day, Alice Delancy – the wife of the psychologist – stumbles into her life and Elaine is forced to examine how those voices possessed her. Alice is haunted by the memory of her first love, who was killed in the Korean War. When Elaine is able to bring back the spirit of this lost love, it sets loose as obsession in Alice that pulls Elaine into the longings of this passionate, unfulfilled woman.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Learning to Fly: Bird People

Josh Charles in Pascale Ferran’s Bird People

Josh Charles glowers and pouts eloquently through his half of Pascale Ferran’s Bird People. Charles plays Gary Newman, a globetrotting Silicon Valley executive whose name, when spoken aloud, must not set off the same memory trigger for everyone that it does for English speakers of a certain age. (Every time he introduces himself to someone, I wait for him to add, “Here in my car, I feel safest of all.”) Newman is in Paris for a quick meeting with some nervous business partners before heading on to Dubai, where he has some major undertaking waiting that he hopes won’t keep him in the Middle East through Christmas. He never makes it to Dubai; after a rough night in his Paris hotel room, he decides that he’s trotted the globe one time too many, and impulsively quits his job and cuts ties with his family.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

S&M: David Fincher’s Gone Girl

Ben Affleck stars in David Fincher's Gone Girl

This review contains major spoilers for Gone Girl.

“It was long. It was awkward. It had a terrible ending.” So one fellow patron declared at the conclusion of Gone Girl, the latest offering from David Fincher. I might nuance the first statement a bit. Fincher’s movie clocks in at two and a half hours, and though you don’t feel every second ticking by, you certainly sense the lugubrious pace by the second half. As to the ending, it’s insane for sure. The truth is, though, that the wheels fall off this bus well before the finale—about the same time the minutes start to hit you like a bag of rocks. And finally, some might dub the film’s feeling as awkward, the go-to adjective of we Millennials. But I would reach for a stronger descriptive. Sadomasochistic, for instance. Despite these quibbles, the tenor of the moviegoer’s opinion I’d agree with. Fincher’s taken Gillian Flynn’s novel and rendered it into a narrative that not only lacks almost any dint of crime genre thrills, mystery, and tension, but also exposes the shoddy character of the author’s writing. Not having read the book, I don’t know if these problems derive from the source material or Fincher’s direction. What I do know is that Ben Affleck’s performance as Nick Dunne saves this movie, even as it turns the filmmaker's intent on its ear.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Illusory Choice: Memory and Consequence in Gaming

Dialogue choice in Bioware's Mass Effect

High levels of graphical fidelity are not the only way to immerse the player in the virtual world of a game. Many modern games offer choices to the player that will affect the way the game plays out from that point on. Gameplay structures built around a game’s “memory” – that is, the game’s ability to take note of your actions and change outcomes based on your decisions – are the gimmicks-du-jour that are making for complex, unprecedented, and fascinating experiences that can’t be replicated in any other medium.

The most readily available example of this trend is Bioware’s Mass Effect series, in which you play as Commander Shepard (whose appearance and gender you can customize), a veteran soldier tasked with saving the galaxy from impending doom in a futuristic Star Trek-esque space setting. Mass Effect tied its morality system into Shepard’s interactions with his crewmates and the rest of the galaxy’s colourful citizenry, splitting choices in both dialogue and action into threes: a Paragon option, usually representing a kind, gentle, or open-minded response; a neutral option; and a Renegade option, usually self-serving, cruel, or curt. Selecting more Paragon than Renegade responses, or vice versa, would result in unique choices further down the line. In this way, the player could craft an experience that suited their tastes. My Shepard, for example, began her story as a hardened combat veteran, unaccustomed to polite speech and social niceties, preferring the butt of her shotgun to verbal diplomacy when solving her problems. By continually selecting Renegade options, I helped my Shepard become a ruthless and intimidating presence in the galaxy, making a name for herself as the Commander with whom you don’t want to mess. But these choices came at a cost: my bluntness alienated my crew, who came to mistrust my judgment. My rash decision-making led to the deaths of several of Shepard’s closest friends, and as the story wore on, my remorse and guilt translated into Paragon choices, making Shepard stricken by conscience and seeing her do her best to repair the wounds she’d inflicted. My ability as a player to make these choices gave me greater agency in crafting the character of Shepard, and the consequences of those choices made for a deeper emotional connection with the material.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Live from Lincoln Center: Sweeney Todd in Concert

 Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfelin in the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd

At the end of September the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center telecast a concert production of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. There has been no lack of Sweeney Todds. John Doyle’s brilliant 2005 Broadway revival, with Michael Cerveris as the homicidal barber and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime – who bakes the victims of his throat-cutting into meat pies – sharpened the musical’s Brechtian chops, reimagining it as a leaner, less lavish show, with the actors doubling wittily as musicians. Since the TV transcription of Harold Prince’s original version, which opened in 1979, is still available on DVD, aficionados were at liberty to compare them, and see how LuPone’s performance matched up to Angela Lansbury’s. (LuPone did superlative work in the role, but you missed Lansbury’s music-hall humor, especially in her socko first number, “The Worst Pies in London.”) Tim Burton’s 2007 movie was a misstep. He wasn’t right for the material, which is way more gruesome than his pictures normally get, and the leading actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, both non-singers, had all they can do just to hit the notes

The latest Sweeney is in collaboration with the New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert serving as musical director and conductor – and the director, Lonny Price, has had great success with several previous concert stagings, including two other Sondheims, Company and Passion. His wry, ebullient mounting of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide was a revelation. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen that musical work; Price and his cast aired out the Broadway-blockbuster dust and made the wit in the lyrics (contributed by, among others, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and John Latouche) truly glitter. And you recognize that card Lonny Price in the opening moments of Sweeney Todd. The ensemble, led by the Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, promenade up to the podia in formal dress, elegantly bound scripts under their arms, to the eager applause of the Lincoln Center audience, but as soon as the dissonant opening chords of the overture sound, they cut loose, knocking over pedestals of flowers, sending their scripts scattering to the stage floor, and even upending a piano. Thompson rips the collar of her red dress; Terfel shifts (out of camera range, so you don’t see how he pulls it off) into a black wife-beater and ankle-length black leather coat.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Geo-Political Vengeance: Alex Berenson's Counterfeit Agent and Terry Hayes's I Am Pilgrim

Part of the adrenaline that comes from reading espionage thrillers is due to their appearing ripped from the headlines. But it may also be because they are often complex tales that bear a close resemblance to reality, or perhaps presciently anticipate one to come. When the author has worked in the intelligence community, or can write from direct experience – as has Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John Le Carre – or has acquired contacts with that shadowy world, and even covered dangerous conflicts as a journalist (or has personally undertaken meticulous research), it can help considerably. Apart from no experience as an agent, Alex Berenson, a former writer for The New York Times who covered the war in Iraq, has all of the other prerequisites. And most important, he can write well, knows how to pace and provide a plausible plot. His greatest strength lies in his solid grasp of geopolitical realities and the murky politics within the CIA. Like his previous novels, the descriptions of the machinations at its quarters in Langley where jockeying for bureaucratic advantage by self-serving careerists appears at times to trump fighting terrorists – exemplified by the unscrupulous Vinny Duto who recently traded his post as CIA director for a seat in the Senate – appear to be authoritative. Given that the genre requires some suspension of belief, I am willing to provide some slack for his protagonist, the secret ops agent, John Wells, a sympathetically portrayed killing machine, who has endured torture, been infected with a deadly plague weapon, been wounded, and yet always survives to undertake another mission and defuse a global threat. (He can be counted on to stop some terrorist attack or prevent America from sliding into war with another country.)