Saturday, September 7, 2013

Eloquence: Othello and The Merchant of Venice at Stratford

Othello at Stratford

It might not be the most important thing about the Stratford Festival’s Othello, but it must be said: It’s a beautiful production. Designer Julie Fox and lighting designer Michael Walton – and, of course, director Chris Abraham – have collaborated on a visually stunning set, an apparently simple arrangement of large, blood-red vertical panels, enclosing a raked, diamond-shaped rotating and tilting stage. The three elements – stage, panels and lighting – prove remarkably flexible and evocative.

More important? The excellent performances of the three leads, Bethany Jillard as Desdemona, Graham Abbey as Iago and, especially, Dion Johnstone in the title role. These are not easy parts, for a variety of reasons, but the Stratford cast carries them off with skill and panache.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Shorthand History: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Robin Williams & Forest Whitaker in The Butler
In The Butler, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels use the life of a White House butler, relayed in flashback, to reflect the history of race politics in America from the days of Jim Crow through the election of Barack Obama. It’s such an ingenious idea – and the film is such a moving depiction of the struggle for civil rights – that even when the narrative information feels shoehorned in the movie it still works. Forest Whitaker gives a performance of tremendous warmth and feeling as Cecil Gaines, who leaves the Georgia cotton plantation where he grew up to live in the North. The picture begins in 1926 but for a black family living in the South it might as well be pre-Civil War: as a boy Cecil (played at this point by Michael Rainey Jr.) sees the vicious son (Alex Pettyfer) of the plantation owner, Miss Annabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), shoot down his father (David Banner) after dragging his mother (Mariah Carey) off to be raped. Out of pity, Miss Annabel takes the boy out of the fields and trains him to be a “house nigger,” inculcating him with the virtues of the perfect servant, who must move with such stealth and grace that the white folks he serves can’t hear him breathe. But he grows up under the menacing gaze of his father’s killer and at fifteen (now played by Aml Ameen) he departs for his own safety. And he lucks out: desperate for food, he breaks into a hotel restaurant, but the man (Clarence Williams III) who finds him is a waiter who takes him under his wing. By the time Whitaker moves into the role, Cecil is working at a high-end D.C. hotel, where his skills attract the notice of R.D. Warner (Jim Gleason), who hires the domestic staff for Eisenhower’s White House.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

40 More Years: "Our Nixon," and Everybody's

A scene from Penny Lane's Our Nixon

I’m not the best person to pass critical judgment on the virtues and defects of Penny Lane’s documentary Our Nixon, which was largely cobbled together out of hundreds of reels of home-movie footage shot during the Nixon presidency by H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Nixon’s special assistant, Dwight Chapin. (Haldeman was especially renowned as an amateur movie historian during his time as part of Nixon’s inner circle; a handful of his home movie footage was included in the 1995 CD-ROM edition of his published White House diaries.) Lane’s intention seems to be to invite audiences to re-examine their preconceived image of Nixon by seeing him, in unguarded, “personal” moments, as a human being, while including just enough of the larger context  in the form of TV interviews with Nixon’s abettors and enablers and snippets of the Watergate tapes  to remind us just who it is we’re watching. It’s not easy to get a clear emotional read on how the director feels about any of what she presents, but I’m guessing that, when she chose her title, she didn’t intend to remind anyone of the title that was given to Hans-Jurgen Sybergerg’s epic experimental film when it opened in the U. S. in 1980: Our Hitler.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Touch of Cloth Cleans Up the Brit Crime Scene

John Hannah and Suranne Jones star in A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth on Sky1

Last year around this time – as the summer was beginning to wane, and the promise/threat of the new fall television season loomed – two new series premiered which called me back to the very beginning of my life as a TV devotee. Ask my 15-year-old self what my favourite comedy shows were and I would have quickly answered Sledge Hammer and Police Squad! Neither series lasted long on the air, but both have lived long in my memory. Last August, my inner TV child got two televisual treats: Bullet in the Face, a new series by Sledge Hammer creator Alan Spenser, and A Touch of Cloth. I’ve already written about the hallucinogenic zaniness of Spenser’s show, but with A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth, the second installment of the planned A Touch of Cloth trilogy, airing in the UK this past two Sundays, the time has come to write on the latter.

A timely spoof of the recently reinvented British crime procedural, A Touch of Cloth reinvents the parody genre for our era’s much more media savvy audiences. The series brings the energy and style of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker 80s classics Airplane! and Police Squad! not only to the UK, but to the 21st century. Though it takes its title from a play on ITV’s long-running procedural A Touch of Frost, A Touch of Cloth casts its satirical net far wider, taking on bleak and bloody detective dramas like Luther and Wire in the Blood, and even groundbreaking classics like Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Saying Goodbye: The Civil Wars

Joy Williams & John Paul White of The Civil Wars
Nothing reveals the volatility of the music business more than the early break up of a band. In the case of the duo known as The Civil Wars made up of John Paul White and Joy Williams, their recent split is also a loss to the music world. The duo started out with great promise in 2009, but has quickly come to an end after four years of considerable success that included two Grammy awards in 2012. When I reviewed Barton Hollow, the band's debut album in 2011, I thought it was one of the strongest independent releases of the year. Ironically, one of the best songs on that album, "Forget Me Not," offered up the hope "Let's write a song for us and sing until we're old and gray." Alas, those hopes were dashed when the group cancelled a European tour last winter citing "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition."

Monday, September 2, 2013

Obscure Plays at the Shaw

Jeff Irving & Benedict Campbell in Trifles
Probably the earliest feminist work by an American playwright, Susan Glaspell's 1916 one-act Trifles is often anthologized but seldom produced. The Shaw Festival is correcting that error of omission this season with a stark, potent revival in the lunchtime slot at the Court House Theatre, where it's double-billed with an even more obscure piece, A Wife for a Life, the first play by Eugene O'Neill; both are directed by Meg Rose. Glaspell and O'Neill were friends and colleagues: he was first produced by the Provincetown Players, the outgrowth of a literary circle of which Glaspell and her husband (and sometime collaborator) George Cram Cook were prominent members.

Trifles has a lot in common with Machinal, Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionist play. Each was inspired by a scandalous court case in which a woman was convicted of murdering her husband, and each presents the murderess in an entirely sympathetic light. The key difference aside from style  Glaspell is a realist  is that in Trifles we never meet the woman, Mrs. Wright, whose model is the Iowa farm wife, Margaret Hossack, sent to prison for life in 1900 for hatcheting her husband while he slept beside her. The play takes place in the Wright homestead after Mrs. Wright has been apprehended and is awaiting trial. The county attorney (Jeff Irving) and the sheriff (Graeme Somerville) have brought Lewis Hale (Benedict Campbell), who found the body, back to the house to depose him. Accompanying this trio of men are the sheriff's wife, Mrs. Peters (Kaylee Harwood), a relative newcomer to the area, and Mrs. Hale (Julain Molnar, in the role Glaspell played in the original production), who have volunteered to gather a few items to cheer Mrs. Wright in her jail cell. Their conversation while the men are in another room is the dramatic centrepiece. Reading "trifles" on which the men place no value, Mrs. Hale, who has known the accused killer since they were girls together, reconstructs her lonely, oppressed life, and the two women collaborate to suppress the single piece of evidence that would provide the motive the attorney is seeking for his case  and that confirms their empathy for the plight of a kindred soul, her spirit broken by a difficult, isolated life and a joyless, sadistic husband. The item is a broken-necked bird; the symbolism is both overstated and borrowed (from Strindberg's Miss Julie), but the play is undeniably effective. So are the ensemble cast and Camellia Koo's simple wooden set. Molnar's portrayal of Mrs. Hale, whose compassion bleeds through a gruff rural exterior, is a standout.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

When White & Black Turns to Grey: Danger Mouse's The Grey Album

It's probably not surprising that Charles Manson, despite his psychopathy, heard the beginnings of a race war on The Beatles' 1968 White Album, especially since the album owes as much to black music as With the Beatles did in 1963. In fact, the music heard here, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, does emulate black discontent rather than the romantic hopes heard in the Beatle cover versions of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" or "Please Mr. Postman." The anger buried within the black sound tapped on The White Album would ultimately find its own distinct voice in 2004. A DJ named Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) had taken samples from The White Album and mixed them with the work of rap artist Jay-Z's The Black Album (2003). Jay-Z was born Shawn Corey Carter in the New York projects a year after The White Album was first released. Besides being one of the most financially successful hip-hop artists, Jay-Z was also the former CEO of DefJam Recordings and Roc-A-Fella Records. He went on the co-own The 40/40 Club and the New Jersey Nets NBA basketball team. Yet even though he was one of the most successful rap artists in America, after his acclaimed 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z decided that he'd had enough of the business in 2003 and wished to retire.