Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Forbidden: The Strange History of Censorship

Photo by Valentin Kopalov.

“All the desires we try to suffocate will drown in our soul and poison it. The only way to get rid of a temptation is give in to it.”– Oscar Wilde
Several friends of mine on Facebook have recently been ensnared in their corporate policies around censorship and the enforcement of so-called “community standards.” The irony here is that in two specific cases, one a charming freelance model and the other a roguish lover of freelance models, had both posted images that contained….. wait for it…. nipples, or more accurately, female nipples. For this they were punished, if that is the right word, by being forbidden to post, share or even comment on anything for a varying duration. All because of something everyone in both genders has?

Yet another irony is the fact that the roguish fellow was more fond of posting images of various male hunks in different degrees of undress, with almost always a not so subtle emphasis on their admittedly admirable chest muscles, and yes…. an abundance of nipples…. but male nipples. And those were never in doubt or questioned at all, yet when he posted one of a female model, even one that was totally elegant and in good taste, boom. And this also unfolded in a virtual world where the social media network had no objections whatsoever to spreading Russian lies, right-wing extremist propaganda, racist hate content and misogynistic tripe. How paradoxical.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Starry Messenger: Adrift in the Universe

Matthew Broderick in The Starry Messenger. (Photo: Mark Brenner)

I seem to be temperamentally drawn to Kenneth Lonergan’s plays and movies: his wry, bemused dialogue makes me laugh, and I’m captivated by his characters, even when he can’t quite situate them in fully worked-through scenarios. The Starry Messenger opened in New York ten years ago, with Matthew Broderick, a Lonergan favorite, as a New York astronomy professor enduring a mid-life crisis and Lonergan’s talented wife, J. Smith-Cameron, as the hero’s long-suffering wife, and didn’t attract much attention. The play, resurrected for London’s West End with Broderick repeating his performance and Elizabeth McGovern as the wife, stumbles around – it has only eight characters but four hinged plots, and at the end of nearly three hours Lonergan still hasn’t worked out the structure or completed satisfactory arcs for the main ones. But it’s warm and compelling, and even the plot developments you know are mistakes generate something you can hold onto.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

L'art pour l'humanité: A Bread Factory, Parts I and II (2018)

George Young, Trevor St. John, and Janet Hsieh in A Bread Factory, Part One (2018)

The question of the power of art is an ancient one. Confucius said, “If you do not study the Songs, you will be at a loss as to what to say.” And Plato had such a powerful view of the performing arts that he banned all poet-singers from his ideal Republic for fear their work would override people’s reason. But under the utilitarian logic of our contemporary neoliberal society, the question “What does art do?” has been reduced to a mere shadow of its storied history: “What can art do?” Writer-director Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory (2018), four hours split right down the middle into two parts, ambitiously attempts to answer this question, not intellectually with auteur-surrogate characters spouting exposition, but performatively and cinematically, juxtaposing the contrast between bean-counting life and expansive humanist living in almost every one of his vignette-like scenes. Most audacious of all, the film doesn’t rest on its Manichean haunches; instead, it humanizes even the supposed antagonists, offering us the formal victory of art in the face of its thematic defeat.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Arthur Miller in New York and London: All My Sons and Death of a Salesman

Benjamin Walker, Tracy Letts, Annette Bening, and Hampton Fluker in All My Sons. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

All My Sons was the first play Arthur Miller had produced on Broadway, in 1947, and for me, at least, it’s the only one that works. Death of a Salesman, written two years later, makes loud proclamations about the American dream, but its argument is confused, and Miller is so careful about maintaining a vague Everyman quality for Willy Loman – choosing a symbolic name rather than an ethnic one, even though the rhythm of the lines sounds distinctly second-generation Jewish-American, and not even detailing exactly what Willy sells on those New England road trips – that the realism grows blurry. (One of the qualities Dustin Hoffman brought to the role when he played it on Broadway in 1984 was an embrace of the Jewishness Miller worked so hard to bury. He was brilliant, though the delicacy of the performance didn’t survive into the clumsy TV movie version directed by Volker Schlondorff.) Miller has big, Ibsen-like ambitions in All My Sons, which is no less than an indictment of the American way of doing business, which he pits against the values he believes were embodied in the sacrifices made by American servicemen in the Second World War. But he’s very specific about what Joe Keller does: he runs a company that manufactures key components in a variety of complicated mechanical items, and during the war he and his partner and neighbor, Steve Deever, turned out cylinder heads for bomber planes. When the process developed a flaw and a batch of the heads came out with cracks in him, the plant covered up the mistake and twenty-one pilots crashed and died. Joe put the blame on Steve, protesting that he was home sick with the flu that day and Steve acted on his own, out of fear of losing the government contract. And though in fact Joe told him exactly what to do, a jury exonerated Joe and sent Steve to prison. All My Sons is set during the twenty-four-hour period, three years later, when Steve’s daughter Ann – once the fiancée of Joe and Kate Keller’s older son, Larry, a pilot himself who went missing around the time his father came to trial – and her brother George return to the Midwestern town where Joe’s plant is now making more money than ever, and the truth is revealed.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Small Island: The National Theatre Works the Room

Gershwyn Eustache Jr. and Leah Harvey in Small Island at London's National Theatre. (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)

This review contains spoilers.
Small Island, on the Olivier stage at London’s National Theatre, clocks in at three hours and fifteen minutes and feels more like a miniseries than a play. (Indeed it has been a BBC miniseries, starring Naomie Harris, Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo and Benedict Cumberbatch.) Adapted by Helen Edmundson from Andrea Levy’s multiple-award-winning 2004 novel about Jamaicans struggling to make lives for themselves in World War II and post-war London, it takes the entire first act – an hour and forty-five minutes – to set up the parallel between its two protagonists, one black and one white. The black heroine is Hortense (Leah Harvey), an obstinate, intractable Jamaican schoolteacher whose mother gave her up to be raised by foster parents in Kingston, where she believed the child would have a more rewarding life. Hortense is so desperate to get out of Jamaica – to London, where she assumes she can land a teaching job – that she steals Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jr.), who fought with the British Armed Forces during the war, from her best friend. She offers to pay for his passage to London on the Empire Windrush (which carried Levy’s own parents from Jamaica in 1948) on condition that he marry her and send for her once he’s established himself. The white heroine is Queenie (Aisling Loftus), who comes to London from the country in the late thirties to live with her aunt and work in her news-agent’s shop, marries the sexually repressed Bernard Bligh (Andrew Rothney) and moves in with him and his father Arthur (David Fielder), who emerged from the First World War so shell-shocked that he stopped speaking. When war breaks out and Bernard joins up, Queenie moves back to her parents’ farm in Lincolnshire and waits for her husband to return, but the army sends him straight to India in 1945 on a peacekeeping mission, where he disappears mysteriously. To keep solvent she opens her home to military boarders, including, at different times, Gilbert and Hortense’s cousin Michael (CJ Beckford), the earliest object of her romantic attention, with whom Queenie has a love affair that awakens her both sexually and emotionally. When Gilbert returns to England on Hortense’s dime in 1948, he moves into the working-class London area where Queenie has opened a boardinghouse, and that’s the cramped, seedy and largely xenophobic neighborhood to which he welcomes Hortense.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Last Night in Marienbad: Dancing the Elusive

Christopher House and Jordan Tannahill in Marienbad. (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

To access Marienbad, a mesmerizingly teasing dance work whose week-long residency concludes tomorrow night (June 1), you enter Winchester Street Theatre through a side entrance instead of the usual front door. It’s the first clue that what is taking place inside the converted Cabbagetown church that for years has served as home to Toronto Dance Theatre has upended the normal run of things.

A two-man physical and psychological tour de force, Marienbad – likely named for the 1961 Left Bank film about an affair that may or may not have happened – unfolds not on the flat-floor black stage that normally serves as the romping grounds for TDT’s often sprightly dances. It stomps, jogs, zigs and zags down a cascading tier of stairs located where the audience typically sits.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Flamingo Kid: Bare Bones

Alex Wyse, Jimmy Brewer, and Ben Fankhauser in The Flamingo Kid. (Photo: T. Charles Rickson)

In The Flamingo Kid, the new musical premiering at Hartford Stage, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, an impressionable Brooklyn teenager named Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) spends the summer before college – the summer of 1962 – as a cabana boy at a posh Long Island club. There he loses his virginity to a beautiful, grounded UCLA freshman (Samantha Massell) and gets swept up in the lifestyle and values of her uncle, a car salesman named Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) who is legendary for his finesse at gin rummy. The book, like the screenplay of the 1984 Gary Marshall movie on which it’s based, pits Jeffrey’s real father, Arthur (Adam Heller), an honest, industrious plumber who wants his son to get a college education, against Brody, who is all flash and offers the kid the appeal of an entrée into the high life – though it’s clear to us that, to Phil’s brittle, unhappy wife Phyllis (Lesli Margherita) and the rest of the El Flamingo clientele, Jeffrey will always be “the cabana boy” (whose shapely ass the sex-starved women are forever ogling or pinching). The material, set firmly in the world of New York Jews, is all about class – and it’s rigged. We don’t have to be told that Phil cheats at cards just as he cheats on his wife, and that Jeffrey, who’s a good kid, will ultimately expose him (while he slaughters him in a legit card game) and choose his father’s square, unvarnished life over Brody’s superficial one, which is both morally and emotionally vacuous. If the seductive car salesman weren’t such a transparent phony and Jeffrey’s parents (his mother, Ruth, is played by Liz Larsen) weren’t so solid and decent – if we could sympathize with the boy’s restlessness with his Brooklyn roots and his fascination with Brody – then the musical (and the movie) might be more than a pat fable. But even Karla, Jeffrey’s girl, is drawn to the Winnicks the moment she meets them and appalled at his insensitive treatment of them.