Saturday, July 9, 2016

Nothing Any Longer is Forbidden: Nazi-Occupied France on Stage, Small Screen, and Page

A scene from Soulpepper's production of Incident at Vichy. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Part of knowing who we are is knowing we are not someone else. And Jew is only that name we give to that stranger, that agency we cannot feel. Each man has his own Jew, it is the other. And the Jews have their own Jews.
– Leduc, in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy
In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.
– Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
As the lights go down, we hear the ominous sound of a train, chilling because the setting is 1942 in France. Incident at Vichy then opens with a daily occurrence: the systematic rounding up of suspected Jews by the Vichy government as it submitted to German racial laws. On this particular day, a number of men and a teenage boy have been shuttled into a ramshackle detention centre and lined up on a bench, none of them certain why, initially thinking that perhaps the authorities are interested only in checking their papers. But as they get called in one-by-one for questioning (off stage), they begin suspecting more sinister motives – there is talk about trains locked from the outside and rumours about work camps – while at the same time they protect themselves with self-delusions that freedom will come, particularly after the first man called in, the businessman is given a pass to leave. Of course the audience knows precisely the reason: most of them are Jews and the Nazis' purpose is to identify individuals who belong to their designated “inferior races” so that they can be dispatched by train east to Poland. The discrepancy between the audience’s knowledge and the uncertainty of the characters contributes to the tension (for some audience members at the Toronto Soulpepper performance I attended that tension was clearly unbearable expressed through fidgeting, movement as if to leave but decide to stay, almost a mirror of what was happening on stage) that Arthur Miller’s ninety-minute one act 1964 drama is designed to generate.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence – Definitely Bigger than the Last One

Well, let’s not waste any time: Independence Day: Resurgence would have been far better with Will Smith in it. He’s been replaced by a gaggle of charisma-free B-listers and a host of returning faces who gamely try to fill the void, but they can’t save the film from its asinine script and its lack of interesting action. It’s a ridiculously, overtly, willfully stupid film, and it knows it; this is both bad (because we should not forgive a work its sins simply for making confession – I’m looking at you, Jurassic World) and good (because self-awareness helps the comedic aspects, intentional or otherwise, land on their feet, and is really the only reason the film works at all). Thank our malevolent alien overlords for Jeff Goldblum.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Podcast: Interview with Eli Mandel (1981)

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 1981, I sat down with Canadian poet Eli Mandel, whose book Dreaming Backwards: The Selected Poetry of Eli Mandel (1954-1981) had just been published. In 1968, Mandel won the Governor General's Award for An Idiot Joy. Mandel would pass away in 1992 at the age of 69.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with  Eli Mandel as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1981.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Dead Ends: Sunset At The Villa Thalia, American Son, and The Spoils

Ben Miles, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Crane and Pippa Nixon in Sunset At The Villa Thalia. (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

On a trip to London three years ago I saw a ghost play called Bracken Moor that worked moderately well as a thriller (it had some nifty effects). But the venue was a well-known left-wing suburban theatre called the Tricycle, and you really had to stretch to see it as a political work. The main character was a factory owner insensitive to the needs of his workers, but that story was definitely secondary to the ghost story, and the class conflict was entirely superficial. The playwright, Alexi Kaye Campbell, has a new play at the National called Sunset at the Villa Thalia that is more overt about its political leanings but, I would say, just as superficial and almost as preposterous. Set in 1967 and 1976 in a small Greek town, it centers on two couples. Theo (Sam Crane) and Charlotte are a young married couple who have rented a house so he can work on his new play. They have met Harvey (Ben Miles) and June (a blonde Elizabeth McGovern), émigré Americans living in Athens for the moment, in a bar and have invited them over for drinks. Harvey is a State Department “floater” whose work is just about finished in Athens, where, at the end of the act, the junta overtakes the government. Aggressive, seductive with both Charlotte and Theo, he ends up manipulating them into buying the house when he finds out that its owners, Mr. Stamatis (Christos Callow) and his daughter Maria (Glykeria Dimou), are desperate for money to finance their emigration to Australia. When Maria admits, in tears, that she’s reluctant to let her father sell the house because she made a promise to her grandmother, its original owner, that she’d always take care of it, Harvey spins a scenario that convinces her that if she moved to Australia and started a new, hopeful life, she’d be keeping faith with her grandmother rather than betraying her. Maria is persuaded; so is the initially skeptical Charlotte. She and Theo buy the place and in act two, when Harvey and June come by to visit, they’ve been living there for nine years, now with two children. That’s when the chickens come home to roost.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Fresh Angles for Overexposed Weiner: Kriegman & Steinberg’s Tragicomic Political Documentary

Anthony Weiner in a scene from Weiner, a documentary by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman. (Photo: James Estrin)

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner made international headlines (and what headlines they were) in 2011, when he accidentally tweeted a photo of himself in his underwear on his public twitter account. The incident, dubbed “Weinergate” by political pundits and late night TV hosts alike, brought disaster to Weiner’s political career. Although he initially blamed his questionable social media behaviour on “hackers,” a little digging proved that Weiner’s wiener pic was part of a larger series of bad choices involving several simultaneous online affairs he conducted behind his pregnant wife’s back. At the urging of no less than Barack Obama, Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in the wake of his sex scandal but by 2013, he returned to the spotlight with an ill-fated campaign for the New York mayoral race. Weiner, a new documentary by Elyse Steinberg and former Weiner chief of staff Josh Kriegman, tells what should have been the disgraced politician’s 2013 comeback story. Instead, what Kriegman and Steinberg wound up chronicling is something entirely different and infinitely more interesting.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Recovery: People, Places, & Things and Cost of Living

Jacqui Dubois, Denise Gough and Sally George in People, Places & Things. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Denise Gough has received a great deal of justified praise (and the Olivier Award) for her energetic, incisive and often uproarious portrayal as Emma, an actress who enters a rehab clinic for drug and alcohol addiction in Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places & Things. (The play began at the National Theatre and transferred to the West End, where it recently ended its run.) Gough’s performance is a miracle of controlled chaos. The play is entirely in Emma’s point of view, and for much of the first act the character’s perspective is splintered (in some scenes half a dozen mirror images of Emma are on stage at the same time) and her sense of time is skewed. Like most movie and theatregoers, I’ve seen dozens of dramatizations of addiction but I’ve never encountered one in which the protagonist’s desire for help is balanced so finely against her resistance against the institution – any institution – that exists to provide it. Brilliant, well read, anti-authoritarian, fiercely atheistic, Emma uses her wit and powers of intellection and acerbic gifts, as well as her acting smarts, to push back against every tenet of the twelve-step self-help philosophy that underpins her treatment once she’s admitted to the clinic. “Have you read Foucault?” she demands of her doctor (Barbara Marten, who also plays her therapist and her mother). “Or Derrida? Baudrillard? Barthes?” “You’re an addict because of Post-Modernism?” the doctor, trained to recognize bullshit in all its forms, replies drily.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Legacy: On the Evolving and Consistent Charm of HBO's Veep

Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in HBO's Veep.

Silena: So who called me a cunt?
Amy: Uh...
Silena: Was it everybody?
Amy: Pretty much, yeah.
                                            – Veep, "C**tgate" (Season 5, Episode 6)

This review contains major spoilers for the fifth season of Veep .

I haven't written about Veep since the end of its somewhat alienating first season. At the time what frustrated me the most was the character of Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) herself, specifically how the show wanted the series to be about her and yet adamantly refused to give viewers anything real about her to hang on to. The same seemed true of all the show's characters: it was a world populated by people whose dreams had already grown so narrow that it hardly seemed to cost them anything to sacrifice them at the altar of politics as usual. As I wrote at the time, "[A] political series whose basic claim is that politics is almost exclusively about the practice of maintaining power from election to election, dominating the news cycle, and scoring points on petty grudges hardly seems like a revelation in the American political context. The only way to draw viewers in enough to care is to detail the painful personal compromises and costs of a life lived in that context." The irony, I noted, was that the less characters have inner lives of any substance, the less devastating are the trials and humiliations they suffer – and that devastation is the stuff of dark comedy. Looking back from the vantage point of the end of Season 5 (as Michael Lueger observed at the beginning of this season), the pathos and the exquisite agony that were absent from Veep's freshman season have emerging ever since – and it is in the fields of pathos and hilarious agony that the show has kept growing, and growing on me, ever since. Though the sixth episode of season five –– quoted above – will likely go down in television history as the one where the (still largely taboo) C-word was used repeatedly and unselfconsciously, this is also a moment that paradoxically displays Veep’s current maturity. In the episode, it's been leaked to the press that a high-level staffer was overheard referring to the President by the "word," and, seemingly appalled, President Meyer launches an internal investigation. But with this small exchange, she confesses that she has few illusions about the love or loyalty of her team. Louis-Dreyfus plays the short scene with a perfect combination of resignation, exhaustion and relief – a passing moment of genuine, and even poignant, self-awareness that reveals just how tired Selina Meyer has become after a lifetime of having to pretend otherwise.