Saturday, July 4, 2015

Crossing Moral Boundaries in the Historical Mysteries of Joseph Kanon

Novelist Joseph Kanon. (Photo by Axel Dupeux)

Joseph Kanon, the former publishing executive, has demonstrated two great strengths in his novels: his capacity for providing a textured atmospheric backdrop to his murder mysteries populated by both historical and fictional characters, and his ability to convey to readers the pressing moral questions of the moment. In his seven novels, the setting for at least part of each novel has been between 1945 and 1950 where the unresolved issues of World War II are played out.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Vehicles: I’ll See You in My Dreams and Bessie

Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams.

If Blythe Danner had come into movies in the thirties instead of the seventies, she would have been a star. In Lovin’ Molly (1974) and Hearts of the West (1975), she was as elegant as Claudette Colbert, as funny-sexy as Jean Arthur (and with something like Arthur’s cracked alto) , as quicksilver as Margaret Sullavan, and a transcendent beauty. And, as her performances on the PBS series Theater in America, as Nina in The Sea Gull and Alma in Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, demonstrated, she had the talent of a young Katharine Hepburn. But though she’s had – and continues to have – a triumphant career as a stage actress, and though, early on, she played leading roles in some TV movies (she was remarkable in A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story and especially Too Far to Go, based on some John Updike stories), this summer’s I’ll See You in My Dreams is her first starring role since Lovin’ Molly. She’s shown up in a lot of films in between, sometimes giving performances of glowing intelligence in bum roles (Brighton Beach Memoirs), sometimes lighting up a whole picture in a supporting part (The Last Kiss, where she played the role of the middle-aged woman terrified of growing older that Stefania Sandrelli had created in the Italian version). But only now, at seventy-two – and still a stunning camera subject – has she landed a film role that really seems to acknowledge what she is: America’s greatest living actress.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Last Days at All Saints': Nurse Jackie

Edie Falco and Tony Shalhoub, in the final season of Showtime's Nurse Jackie.

Tony Shalhoub is a great actor, with an easy mastery of his craft and an ability to instantly connect with an audience that enables him to perform miracles. As the star of the detective series Monk, Shalhoub played a broken man trying to put himself back together, a quiet, recessive man whose grief over the unsolved murder of his wife asserted itself in the form of a steady flood of tics, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. If Adrian Monk had been played by a different actor, it’s likely that he would have worn out his welcome with the audience, but Shalhoub made him funny and touching, and kept doing it, week after week, for an eight-year run. It was a remarkable feat, but before the show had run its course, even a fan could wish that Shalhoub had the chance to take a break from making a potentially annoying character seem charming and instead take a chance on playing one with a presence as big as his talent. In the seventh, concluding season of the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, Shalhoub plays Dr. Bernard Prince, who takes over as chief doctor in the ER of Manhattan’s All Saints’ Hospital after the departure of the dim but sweetly well-intentioned Dr. Cooper (Peter Facinelli) and immediately establishes himself as the star of the show.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pulling Off a Miracle: The Sleeping Beauty at Toronto's Four Season Centre for the Performing Arts

The Sleeping Beauty (Photo by Sian Richards)

A ballet based on a fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty celebrates the victory of order over chaos, a theme the National Ballet of Canada expressed with particular exuberance during the week of performances that opened at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on June 10. The company was down 18 dancers as a result of injuries, a number representing almost a quarter of its artistic staff, and so the necessity of transforming a situation of adversity into one of triumph wasn't just a fiction. It was a matter of artistic survival. The wounded ran the gamut from seasoned performer to newcomer: principal dancers and soloists right down to members of the corps de ballets. It is unusual for so many dancers to be sidelined at once, and in the days leading up to opening night the situation looked dire. The classical repertoire's most famous ballet is also its most opulent, typically requiring legions of dancers to do it justice. Rudolf Nureyev's lavish version, which the National Ballet has been dancing since 1972, is no exception. Only a large classical dance company – and with 66 dancers the National Ballet is the biggest in the land – can pull it off. So what do you do when suddenly your numbers are down? You panic. Or, if you are Karen Kain, you think on your feet and pull off a miracle.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Over The Hill: Aging Action Stars and the Culture of Tolerance

Harrison Ford in Ender's Game (2013).

When is the right time to give up the craft? How much does age affect your ability to execute your art? With artisans or musicians, it’s when your body fails, when your fingers can no longer keep up with your mind, or when you’ve exhausted your contribution to the medium and you feel that there’s nothing more you can add. Perhaps it’s both, or more. But for actors – especially stars of action cinema – it’s a different story. Money and special effects can go a long way to help Hollywood’s ever-sagging elite stave off the rigours of time, and artificially extend their influence over pop culture.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Peter Pan: An Awfully Big Adventure

David-Birrell as Hook, and-the-Lost-Boys, in Peter Pan, at London's Regent Park. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

When you attend a play in the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park for the first time, your expectations for the actual dramatic experience may be diminished by the beauty of the space itself: it seems that a theatre company wouldn’t have to do much to make an audience happy on a lovely summer’s night. And though I’ve encountered exceptions to this rule, outdoor theatre is typically restrained in its ambitions and certainly in its production values. But Regent’s Park Theatre Ltd. turns out to be a venue for imaginative directors and designers with outsize dreams, artists who clearly think of working in outdoor theatre as an opportunity to try out ideas that are too crazy for the West End and too extravagant for the fringe theatres. Four years ago I saw a wonderful production there of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera with stagecraft so elaborate that watching the stage hands negotiate it added a daredevil circus element to the proceedings. (That was especially true the night I saw the show: it was the first preview, and not all the mechanical problems had been worked out.)

Early this month I saw Peter Pan at Regent’s Park in a version, directed by Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel, that was conceptually brilliant, visually breathtaking and deeply moving – the most thrilling evening I spent at the theatre in a month of seeing plays in London. James Barrie wrote Peter Pan in 1904, but Sheader and Steel have set it a decade later, during the Great War. Jon Bausor’s set looks initially liked a bombed-out factory framed by scaffolding and derricks, on one of which hangs a tattered Union Jack; beneath is a trench erected from torn sides of metal and random lumber. A bomb explodes and the factory turns into a military infirmary where a handful of nurses tend to the wounded: to one young man whose eyes are bandaged, to another who cries out in agony for his mother, to a captain who is fitted for a hook to replace his blown-off hand. One of the nurses (Kae Alexander) retrieves a copy of Peter Pan from under the pillow of the bandaged soldier (Patrick Osborne) and begins to read it aloud to the entire ward, and the play within the play begins. The nurse turns into Wendy Darling, the bandaged soldier (who knows the text off by heart and recites some of it along with her) becomes her brother John, and the rest of the soldiers and nurses in the ward take the other roles. Other uniformed men are stage hands, scaling the heights of the set to manipulate the harnesses that hold Peter Pan (played by Hiran Abeysekera, he’s the only actor on stage who appears only as a fantasy figure) and the Darling children (Thomas Dennis is Michael) as they fly through the air. Naturally, the captain who has lost his hand (David Birrell) shows up again as Hook.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Send Lawyers, Guns & Money: A Live Concert Tribute to Warren Zevon at Hugh's Room (June 19)

As always, the night begins with a quick trip home, jump in the car and head for the huge traffic jam that is the QEW. Tonight it’s not so bad, and I have my old friend Wayne to keep me entertained with tales of his recent trip to Nashville. Wayne’s a songwriter and he makes a regular pilgrimage to Tennessee to sell songs. He meets all sorts of interesting people down there. This time my favourite is the Vince Gill story! But enough about the car ride. We arrive at Hugh’s Room for a concert tribute to Warren Zevon (curated by A Man Called Wrycraft) and are led to our table. The menu hasn’t changed although they disappoint me by telling me that they’re not serving the chicken pan pesto tonight. OK, the penne with rapini then. There are no bad seats in Hugh’s Room (well…the cafĂ© tables are not comfortable, but you can still see and hear everything) and we’re up close to the stage in front of the PA board. Perfect. Michael Wrycraft is not in the house tonight. It’s been over a year since he went in to hospital for a foot infection and has been recovering. Hopefully he’ll be back hosting his shows in September. The shows lose something without Michael’s presence, his passion and his stories about the songwriter being celebrated. Tonight Bob Reid is hosting. He reads from a biography of Mr. Zevon written by his ex-wife. He chooses segments which relate to the songs about to be performed. Interesting and sometimes quite funny.