Saturday, February 23, 2013

Breaking the Proverbial Fourth Wall: Soulpepper's Production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Ted Dykstra & Jordan Peddle
In the middle of Act II of Soulpepper Theatre's new production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Rosencrantz (played by Ted Dykstra) ponders the feeling of being buried alive and comes to the conclusion that “life in a box is better than no life at all…I suppose.” Such is the dilemma of two minor Shakespearian characters brought to life in one of Tom Stoppard’s most popular plays. Written in 1966, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was an immediate hit and once you’ve seen it, you’ll know why. First, it’s a wide-ranging comedy featuring a consistent series of pratfalls matched by some of the wittiest dialogue ever written for the theatre. Second, it makes fun of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragedies (Hamlet) as seen through the eyes of two of its minor characters. The rest is an imaginary ride into the unknown as notions of being are seriously considered by the leading characters: Why are we here? Where are we going? And what is the point of all this? The play also offers up cogent ideas central to the art of theatre: What is the difference between acting and reality.

Friday, February 22, 2013

One of a Kind: A Woman Like Me by Bettye LaVette

Bettye Lavette at the San Jose Jazz Festival in 2009 (Photo by Andy Poupart)

Bettye LaVette has been waiting a long time to tell this story. In fact she has been waiting a long time to have anybody care about the story she tells. Her success in the last couple of years has seen this remarkable singer move to the top of the world. Elvis Costello, Pete Townshend and Paul Shaffer are all quoted on the back cover, raving about the book. They all mention her voice in their blurbs. They’re not only talking about her singing voice either. That voice stands on its own as one of the finest R&B instruments in use today. They are referring to the voice she uses to tell her story: a raw take-no-prisoners voice that is not afraid to tell it like it is.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pills and Thrills: Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects

Jude Law stars in Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects opens like a horror movie, with a tantalizingly eerie scene of bloodstains, and bloody footprints, on the floor of a New York apartment. While the audience is perched on the edge of their seats, waiting to find out what’s happened, the action flashes back to the events that brought us here: a young, would-be Master of the Universe (Channing Tatum, the smooth operator who was the central focus of Soderbergh’s previous film, Magic Mike) is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading, and is greeted by his mousy wife, Emily (Rooney Mara). Emily, who appears to be unmoored and suicidally depressed over the change in her family’s fortunes, begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law), and is put on a (fictional) new drug called Ablixa, whose manufacturers have a financial arrangement with the good doctor. (Basically, he’s trawling among his patient base, looking for willing guinea pigs.)

By the middle of the movie, we come full circle and find out how that apartment floor got so red and messy, and it’s a horrific event, all right. But although Side Effects is, in essence, a kind of murder mystery, the murder itself isn’t its main engine for generating suspense. It’s just the plot device needed to get the Law character in a position to worry about being professionally humiliated and discredited, to such a degree that it costs him everything: his reputation, his business (his partners are quick to dump him when things look bad), his income stream, even his marriage (to an expertly tart Vinessa Shaw). Part of what makes Side Effects such a modern American movie is that its hero, whose life never seems to be in danger, qualifies as being in dire peril because his career might be heading for the drain. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

House of Cards: Netflix Deals Us a New Hand

"You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment." – Kevin Spacey stars in House of Cards, on Netflix

On February 1st, the entire first season of the new American version of House of Cards became available on Netflix worldwide. In light of these unique circumstances, I should emphasize that this post only contains very minor spoilers for the first of the show’s 13 episodes.

A little over a year ago, Netflix launched its first original program, making the first season of Lilyhammer available to its subscribers. The Norwegian-American co-production was big hit in Scandinavia and a moderate critical success here in North America (it’s light, but uniformly enjoyable, fare). It was by no means a quiet rollout, but compared to the press and enthusiasm of the Kevin Spacey/David Fincher produced House of Cards, in retrospect Lilyhammer seems almost like an open secret. (A second season of the Steven Van Zandt series, it is worth noting, goes into to production in March).

Last January, when Lilyhammer was first being rolled out, there was some talk about Netflix’s entry into original programming, and even more talk in recent weeks since House of Cards’ much publicized launch on February 1st. Certainly, House of Cards deserves the press – it is actor Kevin Spacey (American Beauty) and director David Fincher’s (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) first foray into television, and it is much more ambitious both narratively and artistically than Lilyhammer, but all talk of revolutions notwithstanding, it isn't likely to herald a new age of television by itself. But let’s just say this: House of Cards is worth watching. What else does a viewer really need to know?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Gothic Mode in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden

On Thursday, March 7th, between 6 and 8pm, at Ben McNally Books 366 Bay St. (Richmond and Bay) in Toronto, Bob Douglas of Critics at Large launches the second volume of his study of the Gothic mode in history, That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. Today we feature a specially prepared excerpt from the new volume.

When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul.
 Former CIA officer. Quoted by Jane Mayer

Gothic is a mode  perhaps the mode  of unofficial history. 
Literature of Terror by David Punter.

Gothic texts frequently chart the trajectory of individuals who suppress or lack the capacity to empathize with others. Similarly, when individuals in the larger world succumb to an ideological virus, neither experience nor reality can disrupt their single-minded quest to achieve utopia. Their narrative often includes sanctioning the emotional humiliation and the physical assault upon people they consider non-persons. If intended victims are regarded as vermin or parasites that must be eliminated, moral restraints to cold-blooded violence are atrophied, if not abandoned. The Gothic mode employs filters – the demonization of the other, the double or a sinister duality, psychic vampirism, the obsession with bloodlines – to explore how individuals and groups inspired by an ideology or opportunism can lose their moral compass and descend into a gray if not dark zone. In Gothic fiction ethical codes “operate at best in distorted forms.” The same can be said of totalitarian states and the militant Islamists. In a chapter from The Dictators titled, “The Moral Universe of Dictatorship,” Richard Overy argues that the Nazis and the Stalinists adopted an extreme moral relativism that subsumed individual conscience into the collective will, one that was driven solely by ideological imperatives. Just as moral elites like the church and the law were co-opted or destroyed by Nazi and Soviet ideology, the original meaning of the Quran is lost, even repudiated by the actions of militant Islamists.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Politics and Poker: Fiorello! at City Center

Danny Rutigliano, center, as Fiorello LaGuardia in Fiorello! (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

One of my earliest musical-theatre memories is of seeing Fiorello! on Broadway with my parents in 1960, after it had won the Pulitzer Prize. I can still remember some of George Abbott’s staging, most vividly the big “The Name’s LaGuardia” number in the middle of the first act, where the title character, Fiorello LaGuardia (Tom Bosley), campaigns fervently in English, Italian and Yiddish to secure the Republican vote for a Congress seat in a district nailed down for years by Tammany Hall. It’s a marvelous show-stopper, one of the most memorable pieces in the musicals of the late fifties, like “Ya Got Trouble” in The Music Man and “The Telephone Hour” in Bye Bye Birdie. This musical bio of the man who became one of New York City’s most beloved mayors – the diminutive but fierce character known as the Little Flower – is a terrific show; the original cast recording captures its brio as well as the melodic range of Jerry Bock’s music and the wit of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics. (It was their first hit, predating She Loves Me by four years and Fiddler on the Roof by five.) So I was in a state of joyous anticipation from the moment Encores! announced that Fiorello! would be the show to open its twentieth season. (The series began with the same musical in 1994, but I missed it.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Hindsight of Time: Ben Affleck’s Argo

Ben Affleck's Argo
There are a number of good reasons why many of the post-9/11 movies (In the Valley of Elah, World Trade Center, Reign Over Me) have failed to come to terms with the aftermath of that tragic moment and the subsequent wars that followed. Besides depicting those events through conventional melodrama employed only to stir audience empathy, these films actually leave little to the imagination.While trying to make sense of a time that is still being played out, each movie leaves scant room for reflection. This might be why Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the mission to kill bin Laden, fails to resonate with the power the subject warrants. Despite all the heated debate about the picture’s point of view on torture, for example, director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) actually backs away from the dramatic core of that subject.

While I think it’s clear that she isn't endorsing waterboarding as a means of getting information, she also isn’t delving into why it would be a considered means of interrogation for tracking down the mastermind of 9/11. Her picture simply depicts the steps of that quest, the full facts not withstanding, but she leaves out the dramatic ambiguities that would give the story a quickening pulse. The performances in the movie are also so attenuated, so inert, that the actors can't take us into the larger, more disturbing questions which means they never get engaged (despite the media hoopla). Zero Dark Thirty fails, for instance, to even bring to light how national policy has changed significantly from the era of the Cold War (where two superpowers with the ability to incinerate the planet tried to avoid that catastrophe) to the post-9/11 period (where the enemy isn’t concerned with what happens in this world, but rather the possibility of salvation promised in the next one). These uneasy examinations of interrogation, international security and the subject of terrorism (which has a whole different cast when seen in the context of religious fundamentalism instead of the secular kind offered by Communism) are not being explored in these 9/11 movies because the thinking in them hasn't moved past the tropes of the Cold War years. They may be contemporary films about post 9/11 but they end up feeling stuck in the past.