Saturday, April 15, 2017

On the Road: Violet at the American Repertory Theater

Coordinating anything in incessantly busy Harvard Square is difficult, but trying to mount a professional-grade production of a musical on a moving bus traveling around the square seems like an exercise in pure masochism. Nevertheless, director Sammi Cannold has pulled off this trying logistical task, staging Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet in a variety of locations around the square, most notably a bus that stands in for the one that’s the main setting of the show. What’s far more impressive, however, is how Cannold has managed to scale her production to its intimate setting, giving what could have been a shallow gimmick some vital depth. Cannold’s production comes as part of American Repertory Theater’s “Mini Series,” a number of small-scale performance events geared towards tiny audiences that, depending on the show, range in number from twenty-five observers to a lone spectator. It’s not the first time Cannold has directed the show in this way: she did an earlier version in the same manner at Stanford in 2013.

Violet has some lovely music, and the Roundabout Theatre’s 2014 revival with Sutton Foster in the title role featured a strong cast, as Steve Vineberg noted for this site at the time. I mostly agree with Steve’s take on the show’s strengths and weaknesses, especially with regards to some flaws in the plot, based on Doris Betts’s short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” which book writer Crawley does little to alleviate. Violet follows its eponymous lead character on a journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma, where she hopes to meet a faith healer who can cure the disfiguring facial scar that resulted from an incident in her childhood and causes people to react to her with shock and disgust. Along the way, she meets not one but two handsome soldiers who fall in love with her. That part’s fairly straightforward, but there’s also another narrative strand, told in flashbacks that weave in and out of the present-day story, involving Violet’s relationship with her father. It might have partly been a function of the unique staging (more on that in a moment), but I found parts of this backstory confusing, especially in the scene when it merges with her quest in Oklahoma and leads her to believe that she’s been cured.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Dance in the Raw: Denmark's Kitt Johnson at Toronto's World Stage

Kitt Johnson in Rankefod, which opened the World Stage Redux festival in Toronto on April 4. (Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen)

Performing Rankefod, a mesmerizing dance piece which opened the World Stage Redux live performance series at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre last week, Danish solo dancer and choreographer Kitt Johnson fully inhabits a minutely observed world of nature, truncating and twisting her half-naked body to conjure creepy-crawly lifeforms pre-dating human existence. An examination of the evolutionary process, it's a tour de force.

A small woman with an enormous stage presence, the former elite athlete at the helm of Copenhagen's internationally acclaimed X-act dance company combines Japanese Butoh with elements of German Expressionist dance theatre to hone a vision of raw and elemental life. The series of grotesque images she unleashes through Rankefod, a Danish word meaning a small crustacean marine creature, are so powerfully and convincingly conceived they discombobulate, completely. Aliens from our own planet.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thy Brother’s Peeper: The Ascension of My Brother, My Brother, & Me

Justin, Griffin, and Travis McElroy. (Photo courtesy of Seeso)

Adapting a podcast into a television show might seem like a strange idea, but if anyone can make such a bizarre transition work, it’s the McElroy brothers. Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy – with frequent contributions from their father Clint – have emerged as media superstars in the past few years, reigning over an empire of websites and audio podcasts so expansive that they’ve earned a Midas-like reputation. Everything these guys touch turns to pure comedy gold, and they took the extra leap to prove it by returning to their humble, bucolic hometown of Huntington, West Virginia to tape a TV version of their biggest and most influential work: My Brother, My Brother, & Me, their “advice show for the modern era.”

I’m a bit obsessed with podcasts. They occupy the majority of my walking-around time (which, as a car-less Toronto urbanite, is substantial), and I tend to burn through a few hour-long episodes on the daily. As a medium, they’ve absolutely exploded in popularity, so I’m spoiled for choice: when I’m feeling intellectual there’s NPR’s Radiolab or Invisibila, or Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History; when I crave gripping narrative, I can sink into classics like Serial, This American Life, or Karina Longworth’s smoky Hollywood history lessons on You Must Remember This; and when I’m in a movie-loving mood I can celebrate the best with The Canon, or the worst with The Flophouse. But few things can balance out my mood – and make me look like a grinning madman on public transit – like a good comedy podcast, and the brightest star in that particular firmament must be MBMBAM (or, affectionately, “Ma-Bim-Bam”). It’s one of the funniest shows in any medium that I’ve ever enjoyed, full stop. And that’s entirely due to the trio of brothers who host it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings

Sharon Jones (centre) and the Dap-Kings. (Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Here is an excerpt from Donald Brackett’s upcoming book, Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, which is being published by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

“The heart of youth is reached through the senses; the senses of age are reached through the heart.” – Nicholas-Edme Retif 
“Too short, too fat, too black and too old . . . ” – perennial refrain from record producers responding to Sharon Jones in the early days of her music career.
Following their traditional performance pattern, when The Dap-Kings started a concert by playing a few instrumentals to get the crowd warmed up to a fever pitch and ready for their main attraction, they would introduce her by having the bass player boom out: “Ladies and gentlemen, 110 pounds of soul excitement, Miss Sharon Jones!” She was all of that and more, with not an ounce of falsehood in her.

This is a tale of triumph over adversity and the lifelong commitment to a pure and positive spirit. This is the saga of Sharon Lafaye Jones, May 4, 1956 – November 18, 2016, and her 60 years of raw, untutored, ramshackle, rambunctious and infectious energy. Performing at a concert in 2014, the year she was valiantly fighting off the pancreatic cancer that would eventually claim her only two busy years later, and going onstage to perform one of her typically boisterous and sensual sets, she was asked how it felt to be suddenly performing with a totally bald head. Not for Jones the feeble world of either wigs or hiding from reality. As reported somewhat jubilantly by Max Blau of Spin Magazine, she declared, “It’s going to be different. I’m just going to go with it. That’s what soul music is all about!” Sharon Jones was definitely different, and she was definitely what soul music was all about. She went with it, all right, all the way.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Just When I Thought I Was Out....Revisiting Showtime's Homeland

Mandy Patinkin, Claire Danes and Rupert Friend in Homeland

There's an infamous scene in Francis Ford Coppola's misbegotten The Godfather, Part III where the aging Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), having survived an assassination attempt, tells his family in a tone of bitter betrayal, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." The implication is that Michael's criminal life was all due to the pressure of others rather than a choice he made out of family loyalty. I think we're expected to be so sympathetic towards Michael that we can ignore the little detail that he was redeeming himself by laundering money through the Vatican Bank and cutting the other mob bosses out of the huge profits he was due to receive from investing in an international real-estate company (one that would make him its largest single shareholder). Many actors and comedians have gained some comic mileage from that line – including Steve Van Zandt as Silvio in The Sopranos, who entertained Tony's crew by doing a spotless imitation of Pacino. But the remark might be more appropriately spoken by CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) on Showtime's Homelanda dramatic thriller loosely based on the Israeli television series Hatufim (Prisoners of War). As a bipolar operative, her struggle to claim a happy and independent life for herself is constantly being threatened by a psyche she's not sure she can trust. If anyone has honestly earned Michael Corleone's complaint, perhaps it's Carrie. Just when she's trying to have a normal life, she is constantly being pulled back into action by the agency – and often by her former boss and mentor, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), another character who would be happy to own Corleone's sentiment. What has made the past three seasons of Homeland intriguing and suspenseful has partly been how her hunger to seek a normal life has created fallout for the agents she works with and cares for.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Hairy Ape: Alienation, Claustrophobia, Isolation

 Bobby Cannavale (centre) and the cast of The Hairy Ape, at the Park Avenue Armory. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
Eugene O’Neill began writing realist one-acts in the teens and became, in his late career, the greatest realist playwright in the history of American theatre. But in the twenties and thirties he was wildly experimental. His first forays into expressionism were full-length one-acts, The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922), that, coincidentally, are playing simultaneously in New York at the moment. I’ll be writing about the Irish Repertory Theatre revival of The Emperor Jones in a couple of weeks; The Hairy Ape is the talented English director Richard Jones’s reconstruction of the production he mounted at the Old Vic last season. The current cast, headed by Bobby Cannavale, is American, but Jones has brought his other London collaborators with him: set and costume designer Stewart Laing, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, composer and sound designer Sarah Angliss and choreographer Aletta Collins. But he’s reconfigured the show for the Park Avenue Armory, and the immensity of the space changes the meaning of the play – or rather develops, in the last section, a quite different set of images to embody that meaning. (I didn’t see Jones’ Hairy Ape in London, but I’m familiar with the Old Vic space: it’s substantial, but it doesn’t dwarf the actors.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

You Can’t Go Home Again: T2 Trainspotting

Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle in T2 Trainspotting.

Note: the following post contains spoilers.

Contrary to my usual inclination when it comes to sequels, I had high hopes for T2 Trainspotting. That’s mainly because all the folks who were involved in the original brilliant and audacious Trainspotting (1996), one of the best films of the 90s, were back for the sequel, which, like the first movie, is based on an Irvine Welsh novel, Porno. (Porno is Welsh's 2002 sequel to his 1993 novel Trainspotting.) Once again director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and the quartet of actors who played a group of Scottish heroin addicts and their pals in the 80s  Ewen Bremner (Spud), Ewan McGregor (Renton), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy) and Robert Carlyle (Begbie) – were to be on screen, twenty years later in real life and in the movie. Their return offered hope that lightning would strike twice and the film would match or at least come close to replicating the unique nature of the original. But T2, though it tries gamely to fashion something new out of old characters, falls flat, rendering what might have been a master stroke, an indelible sequel, into something more conventional, sedate and, ultimately, forgettable.