Monday, August 15, 2022

Revisiting Stratford: The Miser and Girls & Boys

Colm Feore, Lucy Peacock and Qasim Khan star in The Miser, at Canada's Stratford Festival. (Photo: David Hou)

This summer I was able to cross the Canadian border for the first time since COVID, on a trip framed by brief visits to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of the Shaw Festival. Regrettably, my timing at Stratford didn’t allow for the chance to see All’s Well That Ends Well, a problem comedy I love that gets produced only infrequently. But I did manage to check out artistic director Antoni Cimolino’s production of Molière’s 1668 prose comedy The Miser (at the Festival Theatre) in a contemporary adaptation by Ranjit Bolt that has been embellished further with Ontario references. In Bolt’s version Molière’s title character, Harpagon, is called Harper, and his children, Élise and Cléante, who desire to marry the people they love without risking being disinherited by their parsimonious papa, are called Eleanor and Charlie. The director’s note in the program argues that the subject of greed and the generational tensions make The Miser relevant to a 2022 audience. Of course you can make that case for any of Molière’s best satires; human nature, after all, hasn’t changed much through the centuries. I’m not sure, though, that the present-day setting adds anything to the play or sharpens its thrust.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Getting Gerried by Nature: Gerry

Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in Gerry (2002).

This review contains major spoilers for Gus Van Sant's Gerry (2002).

In 2002, Gus Van Sant followed his aggressively mediocre Finding Forrester (2000) with the aggressively experimental Gerry (2002). It doesn’t have opening titles, and for most of its 103 minutes the only two people we see are Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, who both play guys named Gerry. (I’m going to use the actors’ names to avoid confusion.) There’s even a running joke about how the name “Gerry” gets turned into a vague, all-purpose word. (Affleck, Damon, and Van Sant co-wrote as well as co-editing.) A few examples: “I crow’s-nested up here to scout-about the ravine ’cause I thought maybe you gerried the rendezvous”; “We could have just bailed early, you know. There were so many gerrys along the way”; “And then we gerried off to the animal tracks.” The first 20 minutes are just long takes of Matt and Casey driving and then walking in the California semi-desert with minimal dialogue.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Shining On Brightly: The Power of Sharing the Spotlight

(W.W. Norton Press)

“The Beatles, like Duke Ellington, are virtually unclassifiable musicians.” – Lillian Ross, writing in The New Yorker in 1967.

How can one possibly explain the majestic presence of music such as Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn’s  “Lush Life” and “Chelsea Bridge”? Or the shimmering beauty of Lennon/McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” and their entire “Abbey Road Medley”? What secret alchemical equation is behind the binary Odd Couple Code in the creative arts that makes such great collaborations so fruitful? A team of rivals, often incompatible and yet somehow incomparable, whose rivalry makes the team grow stronger and succeed far in excess of what either competitive team member could achieve alone, is an often mystifying but vastly entertaining cultural phenomenon. As long as they maintain the precarious balance required to equally channel their dramatically opposite energies in the same direction, that is.   

Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington and the Magic of Collaboration, the wonderful book by Thomas Brothers from W.W. Norton, is one of the most informative and inspiring places to begin examining this remarkable ability for two artists to meld into a unified field, a single creative force in tandem. The odd-couple metaphor of a relational golden mean suggests something hidden but potentially profound, something we could even call reciprocal maintenance. This arrangement of forces basically requires both partners to take turns, maybe even alternate, at being the dominant prevailing portion of the whole, pivoting frequently to allow the opposite partner to assume the same majority role as often as possible. 

Monday, August 8, 2022

New Work at the Goodspeed and Williamstown: Anne of Green Gables and we are continuous

Juliette Redden and D.C. Anderson and cast in Anne of Green Gables. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Based on Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 children’s novel – the most popular work of literature ever to come out of Canada and the first in a series of nine books – the new musical Anne of Green Gables (at the Goodspeed Opera House) is the latest effort to make a classic story feel contemporary. The narrative, about a willful, self-dramatizing orphan girl named Anne Shirley who is adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a pair of aging unmarried siblings on Prince Edward Island, by accident (they’d requested a boy to help work their farm) and winds up winning over the entire town of Avonlea, is easily recognizable. But the playbill identifies the setting vaguely as “the start of a New Century,” and the playwright-lyricist, Matte O’Brien, has circled the proto-feminist elements in red and added a not-too-convincing queer subtext to Anne’s friendship with her classmate Diana Barry, to whom she provides intellectual encouragement and helps to pry out of the grasp of her stiflingly conventional mother. The ensemble, boys and girls from their peer group, has been costumed (by Tracy Christensen) to look like teenagers from the turn of the twenty-first century, and Matt Vinson’s music has a generic 1970s, Stephen Schwartzish folk-rock feel. (Three or four of the tunes are quite pretty.) The disjunction between the chorus numbers and the plot appears to have been inspired by the potent Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical Spring Awakening, but there it had a point. The Frank Wedekind play Sater and Sheik adapted was so far ahead of its time when it was written in 1891 that it took much of the twentieth century for the culture to catch up to it, so when, on Broadway in 2006, the teenagers in Victorian outfits sang out their plaints of abuse and sexual confusion to rock rhythms, the strange period mix sounded exactly right. But you have to work at making Anne Shirley and the citizens of Avonlea, adolescent and adult alike, sound like they could have been at home two decades ago. 

Monday, August 1, 2022

Karen Kain’s New Version of Swan Lake Fails to Fly

Harrison James and Jurgita Dronina in Swan Lake. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

As far as highly anticipated world premieres go, Karen Kain’s Swan Lake had an extraordinary amount of buildup, making it – from a box office perspective alone – a hit before it even opened. Originally scheduled for 2020, and delayed two years because of the pandemic, the $3.5-million production, a presentation of the National Ballet of Canada, sold out its two-week run in advance of its debut at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre on June 10. This is unprecedented for any ballet outside The Nutcracker, let alone one whose merits had yet to be assessed. At the end of the day, those merits were found to be wanting, making this Swan Lake, after all the hype, a total letdown.

What was wrong with it? In brief, everything.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Random Notes on Actors

Matthew Mcfadyen and Colin Firth in Operation Mincemeat.

For anyone who follows British actors – and that includes just about everybody I know who’s turned on by actors these days – Operation Mincemeat (on Netflix) is a banquet. It features Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Penelope Wilton and Jason Isaacs, with Alex Jennings, Hattie Morahan, Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn (from The Dig) in supporting roles and Simon Russell Beale, in a cameo, the latest first-rank actor to in recent years to play Winston Churchill. Across the board, the performances are superlative. The movie, beautifully directed by John Madden from an ingenious, immensely satisfying script by Michelle Alford (adapting book by Ben Macintyre), is a true-life World War II spy story and romantic melodrama. In 1943, British Intelligence Fleet Commander Charles Cholmondeley (Macfadyen, with a bushy mustache) whips up a scheme to mislead the Germans into thinking that the Allies are directing their attention to Greece while in truth they’re focusing on Sicily. Cholmondeley’s plan is to dress up a corpse as an English agent, plant phony documents on him, and have him wash up in Spain, in the Gulf of Cadiz, and then make sure that Allied moles get news of his discovery to Hitler’s ears. Working with Commander Ewen Montagu (Firth) and Hester Leggett (Wilton), head of the Admiralty’s secretarial unit, he appropriates a suicide named Glyndwr Michael for the dead man, renames him Major William Martin, and manufactures a biography for him that includes a romantic backstory. Jean Leslie (Macdonald), a widow working under Hester, gets involved when she offers her own photo to stand in for the sweetheart photo in Martin’s wallet. (Then they throw in a love letter.) Isaacs plays Admiral John Godfrey, their consistently wrongheaded boss, who is skeptical about the operation from the get-go and suspicious of Montagu because he’s convinced his left-leaning brother Ivor (Gatiss) is a Soviet spy. (The fact that the Russians are fighting on the same side as the Allies hasn’t calmed him down.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Anxious Object: The Sublime Void and Art in the Age of Anxiety

The Sublime Void (Ludion Press, Antwerp / DAP, 1993); Art in the Age of Anxiety (MIT Press/Morel Books, 2021)

“Perhaps it was always like this. Perhaps there was always a vast alien expanse between an epoch and the great art which it produced. What distinguishes works of art from all other objects is the fact that they are, as it were, things of the future, things whose time has not yet come.” – Rainer Maria Rilke.

“Art in the age of anxiety explores the ways in which everyday devices, technologies and networks have altered our collective consciousness. We are all living in an age where anxiety has become a part of our daily life.” – Omar Kholeif, curator.

When my wife Dr. Mimi first gave me these two books as a birthday gift, it was not immediately apparent how intimately connected, as if by some subterranean river of meaning, both of them were to me in the present, nor how substantially that meaning would expand exponentially over time to encompass almost every aspect of what tenuously living in both the 20th and 21st centuries actually might signify. That gift might just be the unexpected case where profundity drops down on us, apparently carried on winds that at first are not quite even discernible by us, until later on, one day, it comes crashing through the roof of our skulls and rearranges the furniture in our minds.