Saturday, December 19, 2015

Pierogi, Pop Music, and Portentous Comets: Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 at ART

Denée Benton as Natasha, in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

During the intermission of Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, my friend turned to me and said, “This is probably the future of theatre.” It was meant more as a statement about the difficulty of providing a unique, compelling theatrical experience that could draw people otherwise content to watch Netflix at home than a compliment to the show, although the production is quite enjoyable. As a conventional stage musical, Great Comet certainly isn’t perfect, but the immersive nature of its staging elevates it and makes it something more vital and exciting than it would be in a more traditional form.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Meh Comes to Pemberley: P. D. James’ Jane Austen Fanfiction

Novelist P. D. James, 1920-2014. (Photo by Kristian Buus)

Growing up as a closeted nerd, I’ve always tried to make a positive case for fanfiction: the art of writing original stories with characters and settings borrowed from another artist’s work. Taking your favourite characters and making new stories for them is essentially play time for grownups and any respectable fangirl’s closet vice. When I was an awkward teenager, the genre was often considered to be embarrassing nerdy garbage, some lesser form of writing by geeks who lacked imagination, but today fanfiction has leaked into mainstream media in all sorts of unexpected ways from the controversial commercial success of the 50 Shades of Grey series (originally published online as Twilight fanfiction before taking on a life of its own) to a diverse array of contemporary takes on classic novels. Death Comes to Pemberley, by acclaimed mystery novelist P. D. James, is one such example. The story picks up some time after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Iconic romantic figures Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are now married, rich, fabulous, and suddenly tasked with solving a murder that takes place during a party at Pemberley, Darcy’s sprawling country estate. In the years since its publication, the novel has been transformed into a BBC miniseries starring Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell Martin, lending some much needed legitimacy to the fanfiction genre. Unfortunately, however, the original text offers about as much excitement as a comparably thoughtful undergraduate essay.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Immigrants: Brooklyn and In Jackson Heights

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn is a sweetheart of a movie. Written by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation of Colm Toíbín’s lyrical award-winning 2009 novel about the emigration of a young woman named Eilis (pronounced “Aylish”) Lacey from Ireland to Brooklyn in the early 1950s. In a still-depressed post-war Irish economy, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is stuck: her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) has a job as a bookkeeper, but Eilis can’t do better than land work at a small-scale grocery run by sour, stern-faced Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), who lectures customers who show up on Sunday to buy items she considers non-necessities. Enniscotty in County Wexford is a narrow, parochial community, but it’s all Eilis knows, so when Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), an Irish priest in Brooklyn with whom her mother (Jane Brennan) is in touch, arranges lodging and employment for Eilis, she leaves with trepidation. The movie is about how she adapts to her new surroundings and makes Brooklyn her home and how it alters her.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On the Road with Tom Jones’ Long Lost Suitcase

Tom Jones performing in Los Angeles, February 2015. (Photo: Michael Kovac/

Tom Jones has become an older version of himself. The man with the booming Welsh baritone who broke out in 1965 with “It’s Not Unusual” has delivered a new album, Long Lost Suitcase (Virgin) released December 4th to coincide with the recent publication of his autobiography, Over The Top and Back Again. Jones’ new record is not only a showcase of his versatility, it’s also a cross-section of American music at its finest. Every genre is explored here: country, rock, blues, gospel and R&B – with not a dud among the 13 tracks. Jones feels every beat, every musical hook and grasps the lyrics with gusto in his delivery. He’s also surrounded himself with first-rate musicians and an equally great producer, Ethan Johns, to make it happen with engaging success.

Listening to this unadorned and rather spare recording, it's hard to believe Jones is 75 years of age. He sounds fresh, immediate and completely in the moment on every track. He sings with confidence by planting his feet firmly in the soil and belting it out with gusto and bravado, where the word “nuance” is for sissies. But he takes nothing for granted on these songs, as if he’s hoping to pass an audition rather than reclaim his past glory. So unlike his peers, such as Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton who stepped out of their comfort zone to perform jazz Standards laced with nostalgia, Jones is only interested in pursuing excellence without being sentimental about it. On Long Lost Suitcase, which could be interpreted as a trip down memory lane, Tom Jones has decided to challenge himself by taking his audience on a musical journey with him.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea: A Long Voyage Home With An Empty Hull

Chris Hemsworth in Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea.

I’m not prepared to comment on Ron Howard’s career as a whole (Phil Dyess-Nugent’s 2013 review of Rush does that effortlessly already), but I can speculate on what it appears he was trying to achieve with In the Heart of the Sea, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction opus about the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex. He might have been trying to apply the same flashy Hollywood lacquer he did to Rush or Apollo 13 to yet another historical yarn, or he might have genuinely tried to do justice to this incredible true story (both approaches are troubling, for their own reasons). Or, he might have just been indulging his inner ten-year-old, having fun playing with tall ships. However admirable – or otherwise – his intent, the final product unfortunately comes out as a muddled mashup of all three: a bright, but severely undercooked period piece.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Macbeth: Doom and Gloom

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)

In the late eighties I saw an incoherent production of Macbeth with Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson that looked as if the actors were making it up as they went along. As my friends and I high-tailed it to the street at intermission, never to return, I theorized that if you’d stopped the play at any point and asked the actors what they were playing, no one on stage would have been able to come up with an answer. Throughout its pre-Broadway tour the show had been shuffling off directors like a snake sheds skin: three had departed by the time we saw it, none of them memorialized by so much as a credit in the playbill. Unsurprisingly, it never opened in New York.

The new movie version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, directed by Justin Kurzel (whose only previous feature-length credit is something called The Snowtown Murders), isn’t as bad as the Plummer-Jackson version – and, aside from praising the cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, that’s the single comment I can offer in its favor. It’s punishing. The entire cast, which includes David Thewlis as Duncan and Paddy Considine as Banquo, is stuck on the same lugubrious note. Until the Macbeths ascend the Scottish throne and throw a celebratory feast, everyone wears black, and the bagpipes in Jed Kurzel’s mournful score sound almost cheerful by comparison with the line readings. When Duncan informs Macbeth, whom he has just promoted to Thane of Cawdor in honor of his courage in battle, that he’ll be paying the Macbeth castle a visit, Fassbender responds as if he’d just been asked to make funeral arrangements for the traitor whose title he’s inherited. When Banquo talks to his little boy Fleance (Lochlann Harris), from whom he’s been separated by war, father and son don’t even smile at one another. It’s not enough to say that the characters have been stripped of all their complexities; they’re not playing characters at all, just harbingers of doom and gloom. When the actor cast as Macbeth reads the lines “To know my deed, ‘t were best not know myself” and “Is this a dagger that I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” exactly the same way, it’s obvious that something is getting lost in translation: meaning.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Impact of Aesthetics in Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room

The living room at Villa Tugendhat (to the right of the onyx wall), the setting for Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.

“The Glass Room remained indifferent, of course. Plain, balanced, perfect; and indifferent. Architecture should have no politics...”
– Simon Mawer, The Glass Room
Simon Mawer is adept at reimagining and creating powerful storylines from history. His recent espionage novels, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Tightrope, are a tribute to the female resistance fighters in World War Two and an exploration of the nuclear politics of the early Cold War. In a somewhat different manner, his superb 2009 Booker Prize finalist, The Glass Room (Little, Brown) is inspired, as the author acknowledges, by the history of a cultural landmark, the Villa Tugendhat, currently a museum in the Czech Republic. It was once owned by a wealthy Jewish couple who were forced to flee to Switzerland when the Nazis incorporated Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich and the house itself was appropriated by the Nazis. Then it was confiscated by the Soviets who used it as a ballet school and a clinic before the Czech Republic acquired and renovated it and transformed it into a museum.

Mawer’s novel loosely follows the history of this “jewel of modern domestic architecture,” but in his reworking, he uses the house as a literary device to examine the dreams and illusions of its various inhabitants. The cool rationality and beauty of this exemplar of minimalist architecture serve as a counterpoint to the conflicted emotions of those who live within its spaces, compounded by the combustible forces of six decades of twentieth-century Central European History, much of it tragic. Almost the entire plot takes place within its shimmering spaces. When the narrative strays beyond it, the actions of the characters are a response to the luminescent architecture and its centrepiece, the Glass Room. As a result, a house, or more specifically a room, becomes the principal character in a novel that marries plot with aesthetics, but the aesthetics is not burdened with heavy-handedness or pretension.