Saturday, June 24, 2017

Playing Politics: Reflections on the Public Theater Controversy

In retrospect, it was dangerous to put on a play that depicted the murder of the nation’s leader at such a politically unsettled time. The country was divided and facing troubling questions about how secure and long-lasting the head of state’s tenure in office might be. It was bogged down fighting an overseas insurgency, pitting its forces against followers of a religion that some argued could threaten its very existence. Indeed, there were frequent rumors that domestic members of that same faith were plotting violent attacks that could bring down the government and usher in despotic rule by foreigners.

The time was 1601, the place was England, and the drama in question was, according to later court testimony, “the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard the Second,” likely William Shakespeare’s historical drama The Life and Death of King Richard the Second. Shakespeare’s own company staged the play at the request of some supporters of Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, who had recently returned in disgrace after failing to suppress a rebellion in Ireland. Feeling he’d been backed into a corner by his enemies after his defeat abroad, Essex launched a desperate gamble, planning to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I’s government. Some of his co-conspirators decided that, in order to gain the support of Londoners, they should commission Shakespeare’s troupe, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to perform one of the older plays in their repertoire, which depicted the downfall and eventual death of an English king who was known for his ineffectual leadership. Given that he was working with men who were shortsighted enough to stage a play that proclaimed their intentions in advance, it’s not surprising that Essex’s coup ultimately failed. Elizabeth had him and many of his followers executed for treason. She was understandably shaken by the plot; months later, she supposedly asked the writer William Lambarde, “I am Richard II, know you not that?”

Friday, June 23, 2017

London Revivals, Part II: Rare English Comedies

Eve Best and Anthony Head in Love in Idleness at Menier Chocolate Factory. London. (Photo: Alastair Muir)

This piece contains reviews for Love in Idleness in London's West End and The Philanthropist at Trafalgar Studios.

As a result of the renewal of interest in Terence Rattigan’s plays over the last few years, no London season seems to be without one. So this playwright who lost favor after the “angry young man” playwrights revolutionized English theatre in the fifties and sixties is now very much on the boards again. (Rattigan died in 1977, four decades after French Without Tears had catapulted him to success.) Last fall Kenneth Branagh staged his 1948 Harlequinade; just closing at the Apollo Theatre is Trevor Nunn’s production of Love in Idleness, the third of Rattigan’s wartime plays, originally produced in 1944. Nunn staged the first of them, Flare Path, in 2011.

It’s a graceful production of a high comedy, first performed by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, that doesn’t quite work, though you’re right there with it for most of the ride. The title is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – love-in-idleness is the passion flower Oberon sends Puck for so he can daub its juice on the eyes of one of the Athenian lovers. The heroine is Olivia Brown (Eve Best), a middle-class widow whose affair with a Canadian baronet, Sir John Fletcher (Anthony Head, still best known as Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the important man in charge of tank production for the War Office, has lifted her into the aristocracy. They live together happily; he’d divorce his younger wife, Diana (Charlotte Spencer), were it not for his temporary exalted position in the government – and he plans to do so and to marry Olivia as soon as the war is over and he reverts to his old position as head of a company. But in the meantime Olivia’s son Michael (Edward Bluemel), not quite eighteen, returns from four years at a Montreal boarding school with a lot of romantic adolescent notions about the way the world works and more than his share of arrogance and entitlement. Sir John is, in his eyes, the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the English class system; he’s shocked when he discovers that his mother is living off what he assumes are her lover’s ill-gotten gains. He doesn’t credit her happiness with Fletcher – not even when she admits, delicately, that her marriage to his father had gone sour long before his death. Michael tries to put an end to the relationship by contacting Diana, not realizing that she knows all about her husband’s love life and has no objection to it. So his scheme collapses, but his hatred of Sir John is so marked that Olivia, feeling she has to choose one of the two men she loves over the other, moves out of Fletcher’s home anyway and back to the depressing digs she occupied when her husband was alive.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bushido Blues: The Final Season of Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack's fifth and final season concluded on May 20.

The journey of Samurai Jack (Phil LaMarr) is a story of solitude. Loneliness marks every trudging step of Jack's quest to return from the corrupted future to his tranquil past. Like the heroes of Japanese folktale, literature, and cinema that creator Genndy Tartakovsky loves so dearly, Jack will pause along the way to aid the meek and the innocent in their own fights against injustice, but he never lingers in one place for too long. He is a ronin in the truest sense: a warrior without a master, whose goal of finding a time portal that will bring him home is simply an extension of the larger quest to bring honour and righteousness to himself and to the world. And every step along that path is a step he takes alone.

Until now, that is.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Double Solitaire: Creative Partnerships Made in Hell

William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, directed by Wilder.

“When two great saints meet it is a humbling experience." – Paul McCartney, 1968.

1. brackettandwilder

It was called the Golden Age of Hollywood for good reason. The early evolutionary phase of the film industry, which I personally designate as roughly being from 1929 to 1959, immediately established the stylistic devices, narrative techniques, creative content and future direction that cinema would take as both a visual art form and a commercial business enterprise. Most importantly, perhaps, the paradoxical fact that cinema could be both entertaining and profitable, as well as both philosophically challenging and emotionally comforting, was etched in celluloid almost from its beginnings at the turn of the century. Fine cinema is quite simply the best of both worlds.

Among the many screenwriters, producers and directors who blazed that ever-expanding trail, few would have quite the lasting impact on both comedy and tragedy as impressive and influential as the iconic achievements of the volatile collaborative partnership between writer-producer Charles Brackett and writer-director Billy Wilder.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

America Thinks and Goes Home: The 50th Anniversary of Frank Zappa's Absolutely Free

While much of the pop music world today is celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, a few months before that landmark album made its way onto our turntables, Frank Zappa's second album, the rock oratorio Absolutely Free, was already sending up the culture wars with the irreverent verve and zeal of Spike Jones. Of course, it didn't draw anywhere near the attention of Pepper and no one is celebrating its 50th anniversary despite its daring and ribaldry. If Freak Out! (1966) announced the arrival of The Mothers of Invention and their subversive intentions (as well as influencing Sgt. Pepper), Absolutely Free was the fulfillment of those ambitions. On the inside cover of Freak Out!, Frank Zappa listed all those who had an impact on his work. But it’s on Absolutely Free that you can actually hear the presence of Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, Lenny Bruce, and Edgard Varèse. Freak Out! was a beautifully designed map for The Mothers’ music, while Absolutely Free actually takes you places. Critic Greil Marcus wrote, in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, that “on this early effort the wit was liberating, the noise of the band not merely Absurdist but actually absurd. . . .”

Absolutely Free was indeed an oratorio of ridiculous extremes – performed at breakneck speed – with a tangy political satire woven into a musical embroidery. The history of 20th century music, from Stravinsky to The Supremes, happily plays bumper cars and lives up to the title of the record. No genre gets excluded – or not satirized. “We play the new free music – music as absolutely free, unencumbered by American cultural suppression,” Zappa announced. “We are systematically trying to do away with the creative roadblocks that our helpful American educational system has installed to make sure nothing creative leaks through to mass audiences. . . . The same patriotic feeling expressed in songs like ‘The Green Beret’ and ‘Day of Decision’ are embodied in our every performance, only on a more abstract level. . . .We represent the only true patriotism left.” This abstract example of true patriotism barely leaves you time to catch your breath, and the musical quotes just go whizzing past. And the album’s title turns out to be more than apt. All of Zappa’s musical ideas happily and freely collide in the rush hour traffic.

Monday, June 19, 2017

London Revivals, Part I: Political Morality Plays

Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarre in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

This piece contains reviews for the National Theatre's Angels in America, Donmar Warehouse's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and Young Vic's Life of Galileo.

The hottest ticket in London this summer – aside from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, just beginning its second year in the West End – is the National Theatre revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield. I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm about it, but then I’m the stubborn cuss who doesn’t like Angels in America. No one could say that I haven’t done due diligence with the play. I saw Part I: Millennium Approaches, in its original National Theatre production in 1992 (with Henry Goodman as Roy Cohn), and both Part I and Part II: Perestroika, on Broadway in 1993 (with Ron Liebman as Cohn, Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter, Marcia Gay Harden as Harper Pitt and Jeffrey Wright as Belize). I’ve also seen Mike Nichols’s 2003 HBO film version (with a cast including Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Patrick Wilson, and James Cromwell).

Kushner subtitled the work, which runs for seven hours and forty minutes in its complete form at the National, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, and clearly one of the elements that critics and prize-winning committees and the vast number of theatre professors who regularly include it on the syllabi of modern drama classes respond to is the enormity of its ambitions. It’s intended to be a chronicle of the AIDS crisis from the point of view of the gay community; a coming-out play; an excoriation of the repressive spirit of Republican politics targeted specifically at Roy Cohn (played by Lane in this latest production), Joe McCarthy’s counsel and a Department of Justice prosecutor at the Rosenberg trial, and a closeted gay man who died of AIDS in 1986; and a comparative exploration of Mormonism, Protestantism and Judaism focusing on politics and sexuality at the end of the twentieth century, with a disquisition on race in America. Three of the characters are Mormon, three are Jewish, one is white Protestant and one is African American, and there are many others, the roles divided among a small cast whose efforts, in any production of the play, are equivalent in physical endurance alone to running a pair of marathons. In style Angels in America is alternately realist, surrealist and Brechtian, with interludes of satirical caricature.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Very Well Put: Watching Barney Miller in 2017

Jack Soo, Abe Vigoda and Hal Linden Barney Miller.

Det. Sgt. Yemana
: No, I don't watch shows like that. I can't enjoy them because, being a cop myself, I spot the mistakes and inaccuracies and the fantastic things that in real life never happen.
Victim: On the show they caught him!
Yemana: Good example!
Barney Miller ("Copy Cat," Season 4)
Barney Miller was in prime time and syndication throughout my childhood and, while I've long had strong memories of the show, until recently I hadn't watched a full episode in decades. But a few weeks ago, prompted by my reading of Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz's TV (The Book), my wife and I sat down to watch the series from the beginning. The groundbreaking sitcom – a multi-ethnic ensemble comedy set in New York City's fictional 12th Precinct – ran on ABC from 1975 to 1982, starring Tony-award winning Broadway actor Hal Linden as the eponymous Captain Miller. Running from the last days of the Ford administration to the early days of Reagan, Barney Miller offers a current viewer a sustained window into a turbulent decade, even though nearly every scene is set within the crumbling four walls of a second-floor Lower Manhattan squad room. The show has had its successors (most notably Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine), but it holds up brilliantly on its own terms. As a social document of its time, it is unquestionably relevant, but as a comedy Barney Miller is just plain delightful, notably of and ahead of its time: well-crafted and hilarious, pointed and sensitive, as often literate as it is slapstick.