Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Demonic and the Vulnerable in Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs

Author Edna O'Brien. (Photo: Bryan O’Brien)

“I wanted to take a dreadful situation, and the havoc and harm that it yields, and show how it spirals into the world at large.”
Edna O’Brien on The Little Red Chairs
When Edna O’Brien published her debut novel The Country Girls in 1960, a coming-of-age novel, it was banned and reviled in Ireland because of its frank portrayal of female sexuality and a woman’s struggle for self-determination in the face of social legal constrictions. Since that time O’Brien has written novels, plays, short stories and a memoir that have expanded and deepened these themes. In 1994 she added a political dimension in House of Splendid Isolation, wherein she explored the mindset of an escaped IRA self-confessed murderer and plumbed his humanity beneath the crimes he had committed. Most recently, the grande dame of Irish literature at the age of eighty five has just published her twenty-fourth book and most ambitious, The Little Red Chairs (Little, Brown and Company, 2015) and found little humanity in a mass murderer, responsible for genocide and ethnic cleansing. (Even before the text begins, O'Brien informs us that the title refers to the 11,541 empty red chairs set out in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serb forces in the early 1990s. Six hundred and forty-three of the smaller chairs in the sombre tableau were dedicated to children killed at the time.) Even though her settings are in rural Ireland and London with a brief, hair-raising foray into The Hague, Red Chairs has a global reach as countless numbers from the streams of refugees – the unending diaspora fueled by war, fundamentalism and hatred – make appearances not through impersonal media coverage but as fully fleshed human beings who are given distinct individual voices through the artistry and sensitivity of O’Brien. As a result, she has written a reimagined exploration of alternative history and a harrowing, extraordinary novel.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Crash Landing: Le Petit Prince at the National Ballet of Canada

Dylan Tedaldi in National Ballet of Canada's Le Petit Prince. (Photo by Karolina Kuras)

Le Petit Prince, Guillaume Côtè's ambitious retelling of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic children's story of a planet-hopping boy on a quest for truth, takes a wrong turn by over-complicating what in essence is a poetic tale simply told. The two-hour long ballet, whose highly anticipated world premiere took place at Toronto's Four Seasons for the Performance Arts last Saturday night, is fussily over-choreographed in places, resulting in a blurred focus. What does Côtê want to say about Le Petit Prince? After two hours of watching the ballet unfold against Michael Levine's cosmic set design and Kevin Lau's lushly descriptive original score, this remains the million dollar question. Correction. The two-million-dollar question.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Issues: Flaked Meets Lady Dynamite

Maria Bamford stars in Lady Dynamite, current streaming on Netflix.

“You've got a serious platitude problem.” – Dennis to Chip, Flaked.

"I saw her on Netflix. She works really hard to destigmatize mental illness. Really brave." – an unnamed South Sudanese warlord, reflecting on Maria Bamford's career, Lady Dynamite.
There are two shows currently streaming exclusively on Netflix which, while having a surprising number of features in common, in the end could not be more distinct. Both involve the outsized talent of writer/producer Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development), and each features a comic actor in a very personal role, portraying a character struggling with decidedly unfunny issues. Flaked stars Will Arnett (also Arrested Development) as a 40-something recovering alcoholic and AA leader, and Lady Dynamite stars comedian Maria Bamford in a loosely autobiographical story of her struggles with celebrity and mental illness.

Netflix premiered Flaked in March and Lady Dynamite showed up three weeks ago, and both are the first fruit of the multiyear deal Hurwitz signed with Netflix in 2014 after he joined with the streaming channel the previous year to bring back his Arrested Development for a belated fourth season. He's on board with Flaked as executive producer, and he co-created Lady Dynamite with Pam Brady (co-writer of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Hamlet 2). Perhaps proof that more Hurwitz is better Hurwitz, in practically every way, Lady Dynamite is the better show: it is more original and ambitious, riskier and more personal, more alienating and more engaging, and (perhaps the only thing that truly matters) consistently entertaining. Lady Dynamite also succeeds in being many things at once: a satire of celebrity, an insider comedy about L.A., a pointed and surreal entry into living with mental illness. Flaked, on the other hand, barely succeeds at being one thing at all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Ian McEwen (1987)

Novelist Ian McEwen (shown in 2013) sat down with Kevin Courrier in 1987. (Photo: Andy Paradise)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields.

In 1987, one of those interviews was with novelist Ian McEwen, who had just published his third novel The Child in Time (which would go on to win the Whitbread Book Award.) McEwen has since written almost a dozen novels, including Atonement (2001) and The Children Act (2014). His newest novel, Nutshell, will be published by Jonathan Cape in September.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with  Ian McEwen as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1987.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Genre Domination: Blizzard’s Overwatch

When, as an outside observer, you hear that many gaming review sites have taken to adopting an “in progress” format for some of their reviews, you could be forgiven for thinking that sounds like pretty lazy journalism. It can feel like an admission on their part that they couldn’t get around to writing something conclusive by the time the game came out (and, unfortunately, in some cases that’s quite true). While I would tend to agree that it’s certainly an inelegant solution, I think the constantly-shifting landscape of gaming has made it necessary for us to re-examine how we examine these works – especially when it comes to games like Blizzard’s Overwatch.

Now, the Blizzard detractors out there – which are legion, despite willfully placing themselves in opposition to the developer’s massive fanbase – are already raising their hands to point out that there’s nothing revolutionary about Overwatch; that, like many of Blizzard’s successful properties, it’s a retread of an already-established title by a different developer (Valve’s Team Fortress 2, in this case), and perfectly reflects Blizzard’s evil modus operandi of giving an older game a fresh coat of paint and calling it new. I’m not about to argue this point. TF2 did come first, yes, and nothing Blizzard has done with their own take on the team-based first-person shooter genre stands out as something that demands a re-evaluation of how to write game reviews. But I believe Overwatch’s core gameplay formula contains so much nested variety, and so many possibilities for endless combinations of characters and situations, that the meta-narrative surrounding the game deserves more insight than a simple review can offer. In that light, the whole “this review is still ongoing” thing starts to make a bit more sense, doesn’t it?

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Great American Tragedy: The Latest Long Day’s Journey into Night

John Gallagher Jr. and Jessica Lange in Long Day's Journey into Night at Roundabout Theatre Co.’s American Airlines Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the greatest of all American plays, and every time someone mounts a fine new production of it, the effect on those of us who adore it is two-fold. On the one hand, we’re sucked back into the play’s riptide – its crosscurrents of conflicting realities as each of the four Tyrones fights against the others for his or her version of family history, the shifting alliances, the repeatedly dredged-up memories, the intricate interplay of guilt and recrimination. Like the great tragedies of the Greeks and of Shakespeare, this is a play that keeps biting you, digging at you; when it’s performed well there’s no safe space for an audience. And on the other hand, a worthy new mounting always reimagines the characters – especially Mary, the morphine-addicted matriarch whose husband James and grown-up sons Jamie and Edmund discover, on this August day in 1912 at their Connecticut home, that after a period of hopeful sobriety she’s relapsed. In Sidney Lumet’s 1962 film version, Katharine Hepburn brings her entire thirty-year career into her performance: the regal star presence and oddball mannerisms and air of authority apparent from her earliest screen appearances, the peerless technique for high comedy showcased in Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, the gift for transforming masochism into emotional devastation from Summertime and The Rainmaker, the ability to shift from one age to another with delicate precision that had been a hallmark of her work since her portrayal of Jo in Little Women. I think it’s the greatest performance by an American film actress since the advent of sound. Colleen Dewhurst, in a version performed at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in 1988, seemed to grow slighter and less substantial as the evening wore on, so that by the turbulent last act, when she appeared with her wedding gown in her arms, she was like a ghost carrying a smaller ghost. When Vanessa Redgrave played Mary on Broadway in Robert Falls’ superb 2005 revival, she injected an element of savagery; she seemed to strip down the character and rebuild it physically, drawing on her Amazonian frame to elevate her. It was a creation of dissonant grandeur. Now Jessica Lange is playing the role in a magnificent new production at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre staged by the English director Jonathan Kent. What she brings to the role are an edgy lyricism, a bitter humor and an earthy quality that’s utterly unlike anything I’ve seen in other Marys. Anyone who has loved Lange in movies like Tootsie, Frances, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Crimes of the Heart, Music Box and Blue Sky will recognize her here in a performance that certainly marks the zenith of her acting career.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Accessible Thrills: Netflix's Hush

Kate Siegel stars in Hush, currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Novelist Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) is living the writer's dream, holed up alone in a cozy cottage in the woods while she works on her second novel. The book, a thriller that follows on the heels of her successful debut, is almost finished but Maddie is struggling with the ending. She's started doing the traditional writer's procrastination dance: cooking ambitious dinners for herself and messing them up, phoning her sister Max (Emilia Graves) to see how she's doing, moving from desk to couch to chair to see what works, before ultimately deciding that texting her ex-boyfriend is a great idea.

Her nearest neighbours are couple Sarah and John (Samantha Sloyan and Michael Trucco), friends who regularly take a short hike through the trees to come visit her and make sure she's alive. On this day in particular, Sarah swings by to return a copy of Maddie's recently-published first book. The women chat for a bit before Sarah returns home and Maddie returns to writing self-deprecating notes to herself on her open Word document. Sarah returns a few hours later, though, this time covered in blood and tailed by a masked psycho with a crossbow. She hammers on the glass door, begging Maddie to let her in, but Maddie ignores her and continues washing dishes. A bout of bacterial meningitis in her early teens left Maddie completely deaf and, unfortunately, Sarah knows her friend can't hear her screaming. Sarah doesn't make it, but Maddie proves to be a much bigger challenge as she becomes the masked man's new target.