Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Fond Farewells: Rip Torn and Rene Auberjonois

Rip Torn and Jeff Morris in Payday (1973).

In my final 2019 posting on Critics at Large I’d like to pay tribute to two marvelous character actors who passed away this year, Rip Torn (who died on July 9 at the age of 88) and Rene Auberjonois (only 79 when he died on December 8). These two men could hardly have been less alike in style or in the kinds of roles they were drawn to, but though they had long careers and occasionally appeared in movies or TV series that were popular enough to draw attention to their gifts, the quality of their best work has tended to be overlooked.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

American Maestro: George Crumb Interpreted by Yoshiko Shimizu

George Crumb. (Photo by Sarah Shatz)

CD Review of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos 1 and 2, Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for amplified piano, 63:59; Music for a Summer Evening, 34:12.

Recorded February 2016 / June-July 2017, Oizumi Bunkamura, Japan.

Performed by Yoshiko Shimizu (with Akiko Shibata, Rupert Struber and Natsumi Shimizu) on the Kairos Label.

“The ancient voice has ceased. I hear ephemeral echoes. Oblivion of midnight in starry waters.” “Ulysses’ Isle” by Salvatore Quasimodo (Epigraph to Crumb’s Makrokosmos)
We can all celebrate a new double-CD release from Kairos with Japanese pianist Yoshiko Shimizu playing George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Volume I, Volume II and Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III) accompanied by Austrian percussionist Rupert Struber.The title reflects Crumb’s admiration for Bartók’s legendary piano series Mikrokosmos, and is a brilliant creative attempt to enlarge that folk spirit scale and theme to encompass all of our shared experience as humans.

Makrokosmos, Volume I and Volume II are filled with references to the history of humankind, myths, Christianity, paganism and occultism. In Music for a Summer Evening Crumb pays a tribute to poetic quotations of Quasimodo, Pascal and Rilke. The composer himself regards these three works as forming a trilogy that consists of a classical round myth form within a late modernist musical framework.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

White Christmas and Seared: Another Go-Round

The cast of White Christmas at Boston's Wang Theatre. 

I saw Randy Skinner’s stage version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas nearly a decade and a half ago when it swung through Boston on its pre-Broadway tour (at the time Walter Bobbie was listed as co-director) and again five years ago, when I reviewed it here. It’s back in Boston, this time in an even larger space, the Wang Theatre, formerly the home of the Boston Ballet, and I couldn’t resist taking another look. The show has lost a little of its freshness, or perhaps it’s just that the Wang has swallowed up some of its intimacy; the comic bits – not the high points of the David Ives-Paul Blake adaptation of the 1954 movie perennial – feel somewhat rote. But it’s still a charmer and an undeniable crowd pleaser, and I had a lovely time reacquainting myself with it.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Kitty Litter: Cats

Dame Judi Dench in Cats.

For the last few days, my Facebook feed has been inundated with memes and tweets and hot takes and quips and hit pieces all commenting on the single biggest scandal ever to hit the English-speaking world: Cats, the movie. Director Tom Hooper’s hallucinogenic, CGI-fueled take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mammoth musical success is apparently an impeachable offense, and the country is united in proclaiming it so. There are so many cat puns floating around the Internet that I’m sure the one I’ve used for my title has already gone viral for someone else, but as I’ve done my best to ignore the raging interwebs, I use it here with pride.

When Cats the stage musical first came out about 5,000 years and 2.45 billion performances ago, there were apparently millions of folks who thought, People singing and dancing dressed up as cats!? Sign me up for a couple hundred tickets! I wasn’t one of them, as the thought of people dancing and singing dressed up as cats makes me wonder if life is worth living. Besides, I’ve seen Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, which is basically the same thing as Cats, but the people are singing and dancing dressed up as train cars, zooming around on roller skates. (Reader, I have suffered.)

Monday, December 16, 2019

Reverb: The Physical Poetry of James Verbicky

Monetaire 26,  2019, mixed media, collage and resin on canvas. (Jennifer Kostuik Gallery)

Jennifer Kostuik Gallery, Vancouver,
September 20 – October 30, 2019

Some paintings seem to reveal themselves to us through the secret language of visual music; so it is with the palpable presence conducting vital energies through the canvases of James Verbicky. Originally from Edmonton, the now California-based Verbicky has absorbed multiple West Coast surf and music cultural influences into his art over the years. One of the many ironies reflected and refracted in his work is also his extensive experience as a DJ, which resonates visually via the overlapping and intersecting visual ‘tracks’ he utilizes in the construction of his profoundly complex image structures. By recycling linguistic and logo samples and transforming them into a visual field, he also simulates the curious vertigo of those dynamic optical operas that are all around us.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Present Laughter and Pride and Prejudice: Present-Day Laughter

Andrew Scott and Indira Varma in Present Laughter. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The relentless updating of classic material continues apace with the Old Vic revival of Noël Coward’s 1942 Present Laughter (recently broadcast in the NTLive series) and Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, currently being performed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre. Present Laughter stars Andrew Scott as Garry Essendine, the narcissistic stage star Coward wrote as self-parody and starred in himself in the West End. The director, Matthew Warchus, has queered the material by making Garry explicitly bisexual and gender-switching the roles of his backer, Hugo, and his wife Joanna, still an outsider to Garry’s inner circle, who almost ruins everything by first carrying on an affair with Garry’s producer, Morris, and then seducing Garry himself. In this version, Hugo has become Helen (Suzie Toase) and Joanna is now Joe (Enzo Cilenti), so his dalliances with both Morris (Abdul Salis) and Garry are same-sex. Plus, as Garry reveals in the last act, Helen is sleeping with another woman.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Secret Life of a Recipe Tester

Liz Baer in the kitchen.

Liz Baer earns her paycheck teaching Latin, but she’s been moonlighting for a little more than a year testing recipes for the forthcoming Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook by Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner. Perhaps it hasn’t crossed your mind that cookbooks need recipe testers, but they do, in the same way that all books need copy editors – or perhaps more urgently, because readers aren’t generally required to eat typos. (For an exception to that rule, keep reading to the end.) For The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook, Baer didn’t test every single recipe herself, but each one was tested more than once. Two authors and two independent testers meant a total of four people who checked and double-checked (and sometimes triple-checked and quadruple-checked) every single recipe.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Blacks and Whites: Slave Play, Hansard, and Michael J. Pollard

James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood in Slave Play. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

This review contains spoilers for Slave Play.
Slave Play, written by Jeremy O. Harris and directed for Broadway by Robert O’Hara (who also staged the professional premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop last season), begins with three broadly satirical vignettes about interracial couples copulating on pre-Civil War southern plantations: a white overseer with a black female slave, a black male slave with the white mistress of the house, and a black foreman with an indentured white male servant. The style is familiar, especially to anyone who lived through the downtown theatre of the sixties and seventies; only the gay content of the last sketch and the racial reversal, as well as a few outré details (like the huge black dildo the white woman useson the black buck and the fact that he serenades her with his violin after coition), seem fresh. But then two contemporary characters appear above the stage to halt the proceedings for a Brechtian effect and we wonder if we might be watching a rehearsal. They turn out to be not stage managers, however, but therapists, Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio), another interracial couple who are running a program called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy – which, they assure their clients, has had tremendous benefits for their own relationship. Each of the pairs we have just seen performing in the sketches is a couple that has enrolled in the group because the black partner has been unable to respond sexually for some time. The idea of Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy is that the source of the problem – the reason these African Americans have closed down – is that any sexual connection with a white lover invariably evokes the legacy of slavery and these farcical re-enactments are intended to break through the block. The reason the two therapists stop the exercise is that it turns out to be so startlingly effective with Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) that he has an orgasm and then dissolves in tears, while his partner, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer), not only is caught off guard but feels superfluous, even though he knows he’s supposed to be happy for Gary. The subsequent group discussion gives rise to turbulent emotions for all six of the participants.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Classics Without Inspiration: Quixote Nuevo and An Iliad

Emilio Delgado and Hugo E. Carbajal in Quixote Nuevo at the Huntington Theatre Company. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Octavio Sollis sets Quixote Nuevo, his updated version of Don Quixote, in Texas, substituting a town called La Plancha for Cervantes’ La Mancha. In this version, a co-production of the Huntington Theatre Company, Hartford Stage and Houston’s Alley Theatre – currently playing at the Huntington – the hero, Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado), is a retired literature professor sinking into dementia who, as Don Quixote, rides around on a bicycle with the skull of a horse hoisted on the handlebars – the horse, when it was alive, was the companion of his lonely childhood – performing heroic deeds in the name of his muse, Dulcinea. His sister Magdalena (Mariela López-Ponce) and his niece Antonia (Sarita Ocon), who have been caring for him, chase after him in the hopes of getting him into assisted living; his other pursuers are his parish priest (Orlando Arriaga) and his therapist (Gisela Chípe). His Sancho Panza is Manny Diaz (Juan Manuel Amador), who drives an ice cream wagon and whose anxious wife (Krystal Hernandez) is also trying to track down the pair of fantastic adventurers.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Divine Entertainment: The Young Pope

Jude Law and Silvio Orlando in The Young Pope on HBO.

Now that Paolo Sorrentino's new limited series The New Pope has premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has a rumored end-of-year release date, it's a good time to look back at its prequel, The Young Pope (2016). Michael Lueger has written about the pilot episode on this website, but I think a comprehensive appraisal could yield a different perspective.

The Young Pope is a deeply thought-through meditation on the two perennially warring factions of the Catholic Church and, despite what it seems, it displays a solidly Catholic perspective. But to really get it, you’ll have to go farther back in the history and traditions of the Church than the Second Vatican Council – which, ironically, is exactly what Lenny Belardo, Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) – I’ll call him Lenny – would have wanted you to do.

Monday, November 18, 2019

New Works for the Theatre: The Michaels, The Height of the Storm and Admissions

Brenda Wehle and Charlotte Bydwell in The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Michaels: Conversations During Difficult Times is Richard Nelson’s first play since he directed his own translation, with the wizardly translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, of Uncle Ványa in the Hunter Theatre Project a year ago. Now he’s back at the Public, where he presented (also as both playwright and director) his tetralogy The Apple Family Plays and his trilogy The Gabriels, and like those plays – and like Uncle Ványa – the style is what you might call conversational realism. The venue is LuEsther Hall, the smallest space at the Public, and those of us who didn’t obtain a listening device in the lobby leaned in to listen as soon as the actors had created the set out of piled-up tables, chairs and benches, rolled-up rugs and props laid out in trays. Then the lights come up and Jay O. Sanders, as David Michael, a producer and arts manager, tells the assembled kitchen in his ex-wife Rose’s Rhinebeck house about having to appear in place of an ailing actor in his latest show. He describes what it was like to experience the sacred performance space actors and dancers claim that isn’t normally open to mere producers. (Rhinebeck, in upstate New York, is also the setting of The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels.)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Colson Whitehead: Shredder of Illusions

Author Colson Whitehead. (Photo: Chris Close)

Most of us do not harbour a benign view of slavery, namely the belief that the owners of slaves were reluctant masters who generally cared for the well-being of their human property. There are, however, egregious exceptions. In 2016 a curious children's book appeared, A Birthday Cake for George Washington , that portrayed happy slave children baking a cake for the first president; it was a whitewash of slavery that produced a swift and sharp backlash, prompting the publisher to withdraw it. More disturbing is that Roy Moore , the Republican Senate candidate for Alabama in the 2018 election – who subsequently lost in one of the America's reddest states – publicly stated that America was great when slavery prevailed because black families were kept together, a grotesque misrepresentation of the historical reality, which was that slave families were frequently and viciously torn apart.

Instead, we are likely to view slavery as harsh, ruthless, even tragic, though these adjectives do not fully capture the systemic cruelty visited upon slaves by sadistic overseers and psychopathic owners. That gritty reality is viscerally evoked in Colson Whitehead's 2014 The Underground Railway, which earned both the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards, and Esi Edugyan's 2018 Washington Black, which won the Scotiabank Giller award. The trajectories of the two novels are vastly different but the opening chapters bear a striking resemblance: a harrowing captivity narrative illustrating the Hobbesian adage that life (in this case on a slave plantation) was "solitary, poor nasty, brutish and short."

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Light and Sound: Image Makers and The Magic Flute

William H. Daniels, with Greta Garbo, on the set of Romance (1930).

The best time I’ve had at the movies so far this year was watching Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, which TCM ran over the weekend. It’s catnip for film buffs. Written by film critic Michael Sragow and directed and edited by Daniel Raim, Image Makers zeroes in on seven groundbreaking artists – Billy Bitzer, Rollie Totheroh, Charles Rosher, William Daniels, Karl Struss, Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe. It combines historical and biographical material; precise, razor-sharp film analysis; interviews with a crew of extraordinarily knowledgeable scholars, a few contemporary DPs and a couple of relations; invaluable voice interviews conducted at the American Society of Cinematographers while Rosher and Daniels were still alive; brightly-colored comic-strip frames (by Patrick Mate) to illustrate some of the stories; and, naturally, clips from these men’s movies and in some cases the ones that influenced them.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Banality of Evil: Notes on an Appearance

Bingham Bryant in Notes on an Appearance (2018).

Notes on an Appearance (2018), writer-director-editor Ricky D'Ambrose's no-budget feature debut, runs an hour long but feels much longer, in both good ways and bad (the good and bad are mutually constitutive). D'Ambrose has made two previous shorts, using them as experiments to prepare for Notes, and the thought and consideration that went into this film shine through.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The King: Get Me Rewrite!

Timothée Chalamet in The King (2019).

This review contains spoilers.
In a capsule review of a 1932 straight-dramatic movie of Madame Butterfly, the critic Pauline Kael wrote, “Is there someone out there who has always wanted to know what the opera was about, without being distracted from the plot by the music?” The new film The King (which was in some theatres in October and is currently streaming on Netflix) sets out on an equally dunderheaded mission: rewriting Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V without the distractions of, you know, the verse and the humor and the greatest coming-of-age narrative ever written and the most complex treatment of war ever put on a stage.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Living in the Future: Aaron Cohen's Move On Up

The Impressions in 1970: Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden (Phoyo: Giles Petard)

“They were living in the future, those artists. You have to live tomorrow, you can’t think of today. The real beauty is not the music but the reflection of what it shows us. I’m ready to get back to the future.”  – Rhymefest
I first encountered the fine writing of Aaron Cohen in his marvelous little book on Aretha Franklin’s magnificent 1973 live-concert gospel record Amazing Grace. His book with the same title was released by Bloomsbury’s 33-1/3 series focusing on individual albums and their influences on music and pop culture. I use the word “little” in reference not to its content, which is huge, but only to its diminutive format: the series takes short but penetrating looks (and listens) at frequently landmark recordings in an attempt to deeply explore the album as a work of art along the lines of a great painting or compelling novel. I was also fortunate enough to glean some insights from him for my own upcoming book on Tina Turner, and was grateful for the clarity of his grasp of soul music as an expression of black culture in general and Turner’s role in the first wave of popularizing its style with white audiences.

In this new book, Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, Cohen stretches out for a longer and in-depth appreciation of soul music in its city-specific relationship to his hometown of Chicago, where he teaches humanities, journalism and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and received a Public Scholar fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016. Cohen's articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, DownBeat, The Washington Post and The Nation and he is the two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). I like the way author Jonathan Eig characterized Cohen’s heartfelt study of the city and the army of talented musicians who gave it a distinct tone and vibe, one so different from Aretha’s Detroit or Tina’s St. Louis/Los Angeles: “An extraordinary achievement, cue up The Chi-Lites, open this book and enjoy.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

An Appreciation of Philip Kerr's Final Novel Metropolis

Metropolis by Otto DIx (1927-1928).

When the Scottish-born author, Philip Kerr, died of cancer last year at the age of 62, he left behind the manuscript of Metropolis which turned out to be the 14th novel in the Bernie Gunther series. Although he wrote several standalone novels and a children's fantasy series, he will probably best be remembered for the hard-boiled, iconoclastic Berlin detective turned private investigator.

The Weimar Republic, specifically 1928 Berlin, is the locale of Metropolis. The novel is a prequel to the series that began thirty years ago with the publication of March Violets set in 1936 Nazi Germany at the time of the Olympics. Interestingly, that time-span roughly matches the aging of the novels' cynical protagonist since Kerr's penultimate novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts takes place in 1957.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Found and Lost: Fiddler on the Roof, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles and The Late Show

A scene from Fiddler on the Roof at Manhattan's Stage 42. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Since Fiddler on the Roof swept New York five and a half decades ago, there’s never been a shortage of productions. And no wonder: with its Tchaikovsky-inflected score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Jerome Robbins’s exuberant dances and especially the big-boned, amazingly accomplished Joseph Stein book, Fiddler is a strong candidate for the best Broadway musical ever written. (Most likely contender: Gypsy. Extended lists furnished on request.) Of all the versions I’ve seen, Norman Jewison’s 1971 movie, which ends with images of some of the exiled Russian Jews making their slow, fateful way toward America, remains my favorite, but I loved Bartlett Sher’s 2016 Broadway revival, with Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as Golde. Last spring’s West End revival, directed by Trevor Nunn, was less impressive – the performances were of highly variable quality and it contained an embarrassing quantity of schmaltz; by the time it ended every major character on stage had cried at least once, even the young revolutionary Perchik.

The idea of performing the show for New York audiences in Yiddish seems such an obvious one that it’s surprising no one thought of it before the current National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene revival, a runaway hit at Stage 42 on Theatre Row directed by Joel Grey. Grey, who turned 87 in April, has staged the musical with graceful simplicity, in the style of a Yiddish vaudeville, with a farcical Rabbi (Adam B. Shapiro) leading the ensemble of Sholom Aleichem folk-fable shtetl types, and the choice is inspired; it even lifts the second-act village-rumor chorus number, “I Just Heard,” which has always been a dud, and makes it work. Stein’s and Harnick’s libretto is mostly comic for the long (nearly two-hour) first act, the striking exceptions being the verse of “If I Were a Rich Man” where Tevye fantasizes longingly about having the time to pray in synagogue every day, “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” (Shraga Friedman, who did the Yiddish translation, has turned “If I Were a Rich Man” wittily into “If I Were a Rothschild,” which also provides a reminder for musical-theatre aficionados that Bock and Harnick went on to write The Rothschilds.) The pogrom that interrupts the joyous wedding party at the end of act one marks the tonal shift that prepares us for all the sadness in the last hour – Hodel’s joining Perchik in Siberia, Chava’s marrying out of the faith, and finally the eviction of the Jews from Anatevka. The robustness and stylized humor of the first act of this Fiddler give the downbeat elements more poignancy and more potency.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Civilization and Its Discontents: Synonyms (Synonymes, 2019)

Quentin Dolmaire and Tom Mercier in Synonyms (Synonymes, 2019).

In our era of resurging fascism, Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid (and co-writer Haim Lapid) give us Synonyms (Synonymes, 2019), a primarily French film about the fascist prostitution of national identity. It’s an anti-bildungsroman in which the protagonist starts off not knowing what he wants, and ends with the realization that what we want can’t be found.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Thanksgiving Play: Satirical Blur

Jesse Hinson and Amanda Collins in The Thanksgiving Play at Boston's Lyric Stage. (Photo: Glen Perry)

The idea behind Larissa Fasthorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, which is receiving its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage (Playwrights Horizon staged the world premiere last year), is delectable. A high school drama teacher named Logan (Amanda Collins) has received several grants to devise and direct a Thanksgiving play, to be performed for her students, that is sensitive to all the contemporary liberal concerns. She has assembled three collaborators who will double as her fellow performers – Jaxton (Jesse Hinson), her sort-of boyfriend, who calls himself a professional actor but whose entire résumé seems to consist of street performances; an elementary schoolteacher named Caden (Barlow Adamson) with a passion for history who has done extensive research on the history of the holiday; and Alicia (Grace Experience), an actress whose Native American background was the linchpin assuring that Logan would be awarded one of those grants. But at the first rehearsal Logan discovers that Alicia isn’t native at all; she’s vaguely ethnic – she probably has some Spanish in her genes – and has amassed a series of head shots that make her look like she can play characters from a variety of cultures. It’s a promising joke; Fasthorse’s satirical point is that the effort of woke white folks like Logan and Jaxton to do obeisance to all the current PC mandates (like the one against cultural appropriation) and popular assumptions of guilt (like the notion that any straight white person is de facto an abuser of privilege) ends up getting them hopelessly entangled in contradictions.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Fleetwood Mac’s Frozen Love: Ryan Reed’s Chronicle

Fleetwood Mac (from left, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie, pose with their awards at the 1978 Grammys after winning Album of the Year for Rumors. (AP Photo)
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past” – William Faulkner

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”  – Christine McVie
This is a good opportunity to re-examine the long strange trip of a truly phenomenal pop band. Fleetwood Mac was originally formed in 1967 by blues genius Peter Green, long before they morphed into one of the most successful rock outfits in music history. And they refused to break their chain.

Each segment of this band’s incredible saga has been focused on a brilliant guitarist: first Peter Green, then Bob Welch and finally Lindsay Buckingham, all so different and yet all possessed of the necessary ingredient to serve as a pivot for fine vocalists and the superior rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. In the interest of what I guess people call full disclosure, it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been twelve years since I published my own book on the weird evolutionary leaps of this band from gritty British blues to shiny Californian pop and yet, incredibly, it’s true. Back then, in 2007, it was merely the band’s 40th anniversary, hence my title 40 Years of Creative Chaos, but now suddenly I’m delighted to report that Ryan Reed has updated their insanely twisted saga to mark a shocking full 52 years of survival as rock and pop behemoths.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen / รักที่ขอนแก่น, 2015)

A scene from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen / รักที่ขอนแก่น, 2015)

Last night, my sleep was filled with a series of vivid dreams, featuring the appearance of abundantly metaphorical imagery and almost-forgotten figures from my past. It was a deep and continuous sleep, and long. The evening prior, I finished myriad small but important tasks that I’d either forgotten or been putting off, and I did so with a vigorous energy previously hidden by layers of lethargy and procrastination. That afternoon, I watched Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (Rak Ti Khon Kaen / รักที่ขอนแก่น, 2015).

Monday, October 14, 2019

Rosmersholm: The Pitfalls of Idealism

Hayley Atwell and company in Rosmersholm. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The idealists in Ibsen’s plays invariably end badly – sometimes by destroying the lives of others (Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck is the salient and most shocking example), but almost always by destroying themselves. In Chekhov, as in Shakespeare, human folly is the inescapable verity that always undermines the noble talk, though both these playwrights handle the fools with pity and compassion because they know in their hearts that we’re all fools. Ibsen is less pitying. In his 1886 Rosmersholm, which received an exquisite production in the West End under Ian Rickson’s direction early last summer, almost everyone on stage claims to be living according to an unassailable set of principles. John Rosmer (Tom Burke) is a one-time pastor who abandoned God after the suicide of his invalid wife Beth, but the freedom he asserts he has found is limited by his inability – like, apparently, all his ancestors, whose portraits hang on the walls of his house, Rosmersholm – to express emotion, especially sexually. (This is perhaps Ibsen’s most damning depiction of Scandinavian-Victorian coldness.) Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), who loves him and lives at Rosmersholm with him though she does not share his bed, credits him with having brought her to enlightenment, but late in the play she confesses that she helped to drive his wife, whose caregiver she was, to her death. Rosmer’s main adversary is his brother-in-law Andreas Kroll (Giles Terrera), the local governor, who represents the forces of conservatism and, like all of Ibsen’s conservatives, is certain that his politics are the bedrock upon which civilization must stand if it is to survive. Kroll’s bugbear is Peter Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother), who runs a liberal newspaper; Rosmer, who has not forgiven himself for his unkind treatment of Peter and his now-dead lover (another suicide) in his days as a man of the cloth, offers to support his bid to displace Andreas, only to find that a man who has lost his faith is of no political use to Mortensgaard.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Cult of Rock and Roll: Six Degrees of Art, Poetry and Music

William S. Burroughs (right) with Jimmy Page, guitarist/composer of Led Zeppelin.

A writer with the incredibly apt but real name of Alexander Kafka, who frequently writes about literature for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune, penned what I’ve long felt was an ideal characterization of beat legend William S. Burroughs: “Burroughs was an ethereal intermediary between here and the fiery beyond, pausing to give us the purgatorial skinny.” That skinny was transmitted, of course, in haunting and disturbing novels such as Junky, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. However, it is through his influence on every other aspect of 20th-century culture in all media that his spectral presence as a witness was most perhaps most long-lasting.

Music for instance. What do Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Jim Carroll, Jerry Garcia and a few even more disparate musicians all have in common? William Burroughs. Kafka cleverly referred to them all as the writer’s amped-up apostles, and indeed they were, chiefly as a result of his outlaw status but also partly because of his unique and innovative literary techniques. All of the above musical artists, to one degree or another, were influenced by not just the Burroughs style and ethos but also the surreal potential to manufacture new and fresh meanings as the result of aleatory alignments of thought, image and text.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Judy: Finale

Renée Zellweger and Finn Wittrock in Judy.

Renée Zellweger gives a fierce, fearless performance as Judy Garland in the new film Judy. She’s the movie’s Atlas, carrying it on her back; it’s not much good otherwise but you wouldn’t want to miss what she does in it. Adapted by Tom Edge from a play by Peter Quilter and directed by Rupert Goold, Judy is set in 1969, at the twilight of Garland’s career – when, bankrupt in her mid-forties, notoriously unreliable and fighting her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) for custody of their two kids, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd), she goes to London to perform at the nightclub Talk of the Town. At first you might think, as I did, that what Zellweger is offering up is a brilliant impersonation, that it lacks the spooky lived-in feeling of Judy Davis’s version of Garland in the 2001 TV movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. (If you haven’t seen it, I recommend tracking it down: it’s the most amazing thing Davis has ever done, which means that it’s one of the greatest pieces of acting on record.) But when she finally gets up to sing – Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s singular paean to the power of loneliness, “By Myself,” with the lyrics altered to give it a personal slant – Zellweger’s portrayal takes hold. She gets all the elements of the singer in those late, hanging-on-by-her-fingernails days: the ironic, is-that-all-you’ve-got tone, matched to a widening gaze, as if she’s daring whatever monster she’s confronting to do its worst; the broadening of the cheekbones and the space between her eyebrows and her eyelids as she rides a song like a rollercoaster that threatens to jump its track; the way she uses those fragile shoulder blades, the bones practically bursting through the skin, to express sadness and defiance, sometimes simultaneously; the stiff, stick-like left hand, chopping at the air; the reckless belt in her voice that uses the little bit she has left of her range for an assertive thrust; the slurred final consonants; the self-deprecating pout and the half-closing of the eyes to signal defeat and resignation; the tough-broad, take-it-or-leave-it finish as she takes that weird, marionette bow. Zellweger captures Garland’s sardonic quality – part of her survivor’s apparatus – and the gallantry that made diehard loyalists out of her fans (especially gay men, who identified with her).

Friday, October 4, 2019

A Living Cinematic Fossil: Angel Has Fallen (2019)

Gerard Butler in Angel Has Fallen (2019)

You don't need me to tell you that Angel Has Fallen (2019), directed by Ric Roman Waugh, is pretty shitty. The incoherent action sequences (edited by Gabriel Fleming), including one that's so underlit it’s literally incomprehensible (cinematography by Jules O'Loughlin), is par for the course in today's action blockbuster (or "blockbuster") landscape, but you know something's really wrong when even the dialogue scenes are confusingly shot. Secret Service agent extraordinaire Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) returns for another round of mayhem in this third installment of a franchise whose first installment (Olympus Has Fallen) was already inferior to another film released around the same time and with the same premise, White House Down (2013). I wish Jamie Foxx had gotten the threepeat treatment instead.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Struggles and Thrills: What the Jews Believe and Passengers

Benim Foster and Logan Weibrecht in What the Jews Believe. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Mark Harelik’s ambitious new play, What the Jews Believe (Berkshire Theatre Group), juxtaposes three religious positions. Dave (Benim Foster) insists that his twelve-year-old son Nathan (Logan Weibrecht) prep for his Bar Mitzvah, though they are the only Jewish family in a small Texas town and the nearest rabbi – Rabbi Bindler (Robert Zukerman), who married Dave and his wife Rachel (Emily Donahoe) – is in El Paso and can come to tutor the boy only infrequently. Dave has the cockeyed notion that somehow Nathan can learn his Torah portion from recordings made by Dave’s grandfather. His idea of Judaism is inextricably bound up with his feeling about family – his determination that the influence of his father shouldn’t die out, especially in a place where everybody else is Christian, even though (somewhat unconvincingly) the family doesn’t appear to observe any other Jewish customs. Dave’s holding onto this plan, despite the apparent hopelessness of the boy to learn the Hebrew, appears to be connected to the fact that Rachel is dying of cancer. She takes advantage of Bindler’s visit to express her despair over her condition and query him about its spiritual meaning. When he tries to present a Jewish philosophical stance on suffering and faith, Dave hustles him out of the house; his answer to her anguish is to comfort her with love – that is, again to substitute family for what a traditional Jew would see as faith. It’s her Aunt Sarah (Cynthia Mace), a convert to Christian Science in childhood as a result of, she believes, a miracle that saved her life, who offers Rachel an alternative, and overnight Rachel, too, becomes a Christian Scientist.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Redeeming the Past in Alexi Zentner's Copperhead and Eli Saslow's Rising Out of Hatred

Author Alexi Zenter. (Photo: Laurie Willick, Viking)

Alexi Zentner's Copperhead, spins several threads that eventually knit together. Although the President's name is mentioned only twice, in reference to the Woman's March that occurred shortly after his inauguration, the novel is firmly ensconced in the Trump era where racial and class tensions have been exacerbated. The novel's incendiary language exploits these divisions mirroring the raw rhetoric the President deploys in his rallies and almost daily tweets. There is an incisive exploration of toxic race relations and the stigma associated with being labeled as so-called "white trash." It is also an investigation about the relationship between the alt-right and the religious right in America. Throughout, a teenager navigates through these treacherous landmines, makes a serious mistake and as an adult attempts to address it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Flaming Fist of Christ Compels You!: The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자, 2019)

Park Seo-joon in Saja (2019).

What if the titular protagonist of Constantine (2005) (Keanu Reeves) was a mixed-martial arts fighter? What if he was really, really good? What if he could burn demons with his bare hand? Writer-director Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury (Saja / 사자, 2019) answers these questions we never thought we had.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Song and Dance, Part IV: King of Jazz and Miscast

A scene from King of Jazz (1930).

In their efforts to find ways to showcase talkie performers, in the early days of sound film most of the major studios produced elaborate musical revues featuring their leading contract players. MGM released Hollywood Revue of 1929 (for which Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown furnished the song “Singin’ in the Rain”), Warner Brothers had Show of Shows (which included a speech from Richard III by John Barrymore), and Fox came up with Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 – all decidedly mixed bags, as one might imagine. The only one with an actual concept was Universal’s King of Jazz: it was a loving though tongue-in-cheek tribute to Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra staged and shot by the extravagant stage director John Murray Anderson. Anderson sent it flying madly over budget, and after it opened to terrible reviews, it sank quickly at the box office – and neither Anderson nor Whiteman wound up with a movie career. (Whiteman made sporadic appearances in movie musicals over the next two decades, most memorably in Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.) But Criterion’s lovingly restored DVD reveals a charming, inventive early musical in stunning two-tone Technicolor. The palette – pink and carmine and orange, silver and pearly white, eggshell blue bordering on turquoise (true blue wasn’t possible until three-tone Technicolor was developed) – is elegant, Gatsby-ish; Herman Rosse designed both sets and costumes. And the lighting by Hal Mohr, Jerry Ash and Ray Rennahan adds a touch of expressionism, with purplish shadows deepening the images.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Flaccid Fairy Tale: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

The following contains spoilers.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time...  in Hollywood, is a noted departure from his norm. It’s devoid of most of his worst habits, like the repetitive use of racial epithets for sheer shock value, which African American filmmaker Spike Lee has properly called him out on, as well as the mucho macho posturing of his male characters, which has always been a tiresome feature of his films. Those motifs certainly permeated his last two mediocre features, Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015). By comparison to those, this movie is actually quite an amiable effort on his part and a bit more ambitious than some of the season’s other films, such as the vapid Danny Boyle/Richard Curtis alternate-history comedy Yesterday and Jim Jarmusch’s one-note deadpan zombie flick The Dead Don’t Die. But its wispy story line is not thought through and ultimately it’s a slight movie that fades away once the credits have finished running.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Song and Dance, Part III: Brigadoon

Matt Nethersole (centre) and the cast of Brigadoon at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

If you love classic American musicals, then you may feel, as I do, a creeping dread when you attend a revival of one and find a credit in the program for “revised book.” I wasn’t aware that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s lovely 1947 musical fantasy Brigadoon required revising, but the Shaw Festival’s production uses a 2014 rewrite, first seen at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, by a playwright named Brian Hill. Hill has apparently sought to make the show more relevant to today’s audiences by turning the protagonist, the American Tommy Albright (George Krissa), into a World War II veteran and altering the motivation for the spell cast on the town of Brigadoon, which Tommy and his friend Jeff Douglas (Mike Nadajewski) come upon when they get lost in the Scottish Highlands during a hunting vacation. As Lerner wrote it, Brigadoon’s late minister asked God to put the town to sleep every night for a hundred years in order to keep it from falling under worldly influences. In Hill’s version, it’s war – and specifically (though it’s unnamed) the tragic Battle of Culloden – that devastated the Highlands and from which the minister wanted to protect his beloved Brigadoon. The director of the Shaw production, Glynis Leyshon, underscores this idea by beginning the show, clumsily, with Second World War newsreel footage. Who first came up with the harebrained notion that if an old dramatic property can’t be linked to contemporary concerns it’s not worth taking down off the shelf? City Center staged Brigadoon two years ago using the original book and the audience gave it a (well-deserved) standing ovation.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Eye of the Beholder: The Extremity of Vikky Alexander

Between Dreaming and Living #8, by Vikky Alexander. (Image: VAG)

Vikky Alexander: Extreme Beauty runs July 6 – January 26, 2020 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The catalogue/book of this show is well worth ordering from the VAG.

Coming of age in the heady photo-conceptualist decade of the 1980s, Vikky Alexander quickly ascended to the upper ranks of the most visually challenging and thought-provoking Canadian contemporary artists. Becoming well known for her insightful investigations of the found and appropriated image, the artificial representation of enclosed nature and the cultural seduction of both space and place, it was almost as if she was holding up a dark mirror to our beauty-obsessed era and showing us who we were really were beneath the surface of all that bright and shiny glitter.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Shaw Entertainments: The Ladykillers and Getting Married

Chick Reid and Damien Atkins in The Ladykillers at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Photo: David Cooper)

Performed by overlapping ensembles, The Ladykillers and Getting Married, comedies of very different stripes, are the most sheerly enjoyable shows I saw at the Shaw Festival this season. The Ladykillers is Graham Linehan’s 2011 stage version of the screenplay William Rose wrote for the beloved Ealing comedy from 1955, starring Alec Guinness – fitted out with hilarious fake incisors that made him look like a cadaverous shark – as the brains of a gang of robbers who work out of his rented room in an innocent silver-haired widow’s house fronting a railroad track. (The Coen Brothers remade it in 2004, with Tom Hanks in the Guinness part.) Getting Married is a George Bernard Shaw comedy of manners that’s little known, at least outside Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the festival has performed it on four previous occasions.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Russian Play: Chekhov Plus Stalin

Mike Nadajewski and Gabriella Sundar Singh in The Russian Play. (Photo: David Cooper)

 “This is Russian love story,” Sonya (Gabriella Sundar Singh) explains to the audience in The Russian Play, this year’s lunchtime one-act at the Shaw Festival. “Some parts are beautiful but mostly it is shit.” The idea at the heart of Hannah Moscovitch’s wry, surprising play is that what we think of as the archetypal Russian drama – love and melancholy leading inevitably to heartbreak, a vain struggle against fate leavened by improbable hope and seeded with existential comedy – has been transplanted to the Stalin era. (The fact that two of the four characters are named Sonya and Kostya seals the Chekhov connection.) Sonya sells flowers in a shop located on the way to the local graveyard; her lover, Piotr (Peter Fernandes), is a gravedigger. When he returns to his wife in Moscow, she moves to Smolensk, where she’s reduced to selling her blooms in the street.But she meets up with an old beau, Kostya (Mike Nadajewski), who’s become a committed Stalinist. He’s married, too, and their affair is a stormy one. Thus far the play, certainly as Diana Donnelly has directed it, is a comedy: the echoes of Chekhov and Tolstoy are treated as parody, and Singh, who is charming, uses her bright, wide eyes – the eyes of a fairy-tale innocent – for ironic effect. There’s a tonal shift when Sonya is arrested, brought to Moscow, starved and tortured.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Not All Democrat Documentaries Are the Same

Beto O'Rourke in Running with Beto (2019).

The following piece contains reviews of Running with Beto (2019), Knock Down the House (2019), and Time for Ilhan (2018).

In the spirit of our political age, I watched three political documentaries about prominent progressive American politicians (I vote Democrat, for what it’s worth); hagiographies they may be, but they still evince various degrees of insight.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Rarities at Stratford and the Shaw Festival: Nathan the Wise, Sex, and Rope

Diane Flacks (centre) with members of the company in Nathan the Wise. (Photo: David Hou)

Nathan the Wise by the German Enlightenment playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (it was written in 1779) is so seldom performed that I’d never heard of it until Canada’s Stratford Festival elected to produce it this summer. It’s a fable, set in ancient Jerusalem, with more narrative complications than a Shakespearean romance. The title character (played by Diane Flacks) is a wealthy Jew who has used his fortune to maintain friendly relations with the powerful Muslim and Catholic forces in the city, represented respectively by the young Sultan, Saladin (Danny Ghantous), and the old Patriarch (Harry Nelken). When Nathan returns from a business trip, Daya (Sarah Orenstein), the Christian woman who manages his household and takes care of his daughter Rachel (Oksana Sirju), tells him that Rachel was rescued from a fire by an itinerant Knight Templar (Jakob Ehman) with whom she has fallen in love. The Knight Templar, a soldier in the service of the Catholic Church, has also won the affection of the Sultan, who slaughtered his fellows – prisoners captured in the holy war between the Christians and the Muslims – but spared his life because he looks so much like Saladin’s long-lost brother. The story is a series of revelations of the true identities of the characters, not just the Knight Templar but also Rachel, and of Nathan’s own past. And of course, it’s a plea for tolerance in which two of the three voices of racial hatred – Saladin and the Knight Templar – prove to be capable of crossing the boundaries that separate Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Patriarch, who at one point advocates burning Nathan at the stake, is the third, and he doesn’t alter his point of view.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Art and the Limits of Morality: The Night Porter (1974)

Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter (1974).

Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (Il portiere di note, 1974) is probably the most twisted film I've seen in my twenty-eight years of life on Earth. Not, it should be said, because of the sexual kinkiness, or even the portrayal of a twisted psyche, but because of what it threatens to do with the viewer’s identification with the protagonist. From an artistic perspective, it's a pity the film doesn't follow through.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Song and Dance, Part II: Fosse/Verdon

Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in Fosse/Verdon.

Sam Rockwell’s portrait of Bob Fosse – the legendary director-choreographer whose body finally succumbed to drugs, alcohol, nicotine and workaholism at the age of sixty, in 1987 – in the eight-part F/X miniseries Fosse/Verdon is one of those rare dramatic reincarnations of a celebrity that you feel, as you watch, you will retain forever in your mind alongside the work of the real one. (Some other examples: Judy Davis as Judy Garland and Geoffrey Rush as Peter Sellers, both also in TV dramatizations, and Annette Bening as Gloria Grahame in the 2017 movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.) I saw Rockwell was at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2000 in the supporting role of the desk clerk in a production of Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore, which is set in the lobby of a low-rent residential New York hotel. The director, Joe Mantello, staged a pre-show during which some of the members of the ensemble wandered on and improvised behavior that sketched in their characters before we heard any of the dialogue Wilson had scripted for them. I can’t remember what any of the other actors did because Rockwell made his simple tasks so interesting – so detailed and so quirky – that my companion and I kept our eyes on him the whole time. And nearly twenty years later, his performance, in the margins of the show, is the only one I still recall. I had already started spotting him in movies like Galaxy Quest and Michael Hoffman’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he exhibited the same distinctive combination of focus, precision and humor, all guided by an unpredictable perspective, as if his character occupied some space in the world that no one else had ever noticed before. Both those movies came out in 1999; Rockwell has played dozens of roles since, many of them in bad or forgettable movies, and I haven’t always liked him. (I hated his Oscar-winning performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but it would be unfair to pin the blame on Rockwell, since nothing in that repellent movie made an iota of sense.) But I think his gifts are both outsize and off-kilter, and when he’s good he can be sensational. He was the best thing about Vice, for instance, drawing on impressive resources for satirical impersonation to play George Bush Jr. But what he does as Bob Fosse goes way beyond impersonation, though he gets down the man’s slouching grace and his sexy slightness and the way the cigarette tucked insouciantly in the corner of his mouth completed him as definitively as it completed Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart. Rockwell gets inside Fosse – his compulsions about work and sex, his ambition and unsatisfiable perfectionism, his cynicism about show business and about his own talents, the erotic charm that was generated as much by his world-weariness as by his persistence and the appeal of being around his genius.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Fog: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. (Photo: Peter Prato/A24)

Director Joe Talbot’s feature film debut, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, would appear, from all the press and rapturous reviews, to have captured the San Francisco zeitgeist, portraying the city’s uneasiness with its supposed trajectory, in which gentrification and homelessness are erasing a gloriously funky history and ushering in a sleek, soulless, Tech-driven dystopia. Talbot, a native of San Francisco (his father is David Talbot, a founder of Salon.com and author of the well-regarded SF history Season of the Witch), co-wrote the script (with Joe Richert, also a first-timer) based on stories and biographical details from the movie’s co-lead actor, Jimmie Fails, playing a character named Jimmie Fails. (Fails also gets a story credit.) The film definitely has an elegiac feel and a mythopoetic tone, along with some surrealistic touches: the opening sequence follows a young black girl skipping by Haz-Mat-suited workers until she reaches a street preacher on a literal soap box holding forth loudly to an audience of zero. But rather than a transcendent experience, what I encountered was an underpopulated, amateurish effort with glacial pacing, no real narrative drive, and characters that are merely a collection of odd, disjointed gestures, not living, breathing people.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Song and Dance, Part I: Wild Rose and Yesterday

Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose.

The review of Yesterday contains spoilers.
As Rose-Lynn, the young Glaswegian woman determined to make it as a country singer in Nashville in the new Wild Rose, Jessie Buckley has a fresh, totally unaffected camera presence and the instinct to hold the camera, sometimes for medium-long, pensive reaction takes that transport us directly into the character’s complicated feelings. Rose-Lynn is raucous and uncensored, and though in her early twenties she doesn’t initially show much more practicality or awareness of responsibility than she probably did at sixteen, she has a life-embracing personality that naturally draws people to her, and it captivates us too. When the movie starts, she has just been released from prison, where she served a short sentence for being the middleman in a drug deal. Her two young children – Wynonna and Lyle, both named for musical idols of hers – were both born before she was eighteen. During her absence, her widowed mother, Marion (the peerless Julie Walters, typically folding the character around her to make it a perfect fit), has been caring for them, but though she’s happy to continue helping out, she expects Rose-Lynn to take the lead – to land a job to support them and put them first, before her social life and the country-singer dreams Marion hasn’t much patience for – and figure out how to parent them wisely and thoughtfully. This last is a struggle for Rose-Lynn, who loves her kids but has never learned to settle down or think far beyond her own desires and impulses. (The first thing she does when she’s sprung from jail isn’t to rush home to Lyle and Wynonna but to get herself laid.) But she’s lucky. Her lawyer convinces a judge to lift her curfew – enforced by an ankle monitor – so that she can perform at a local club. And when she hires out as a house cleaner (“daily woman,” in Glasgow parlance), her employer, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), turns out to be a kind, sympathetic woman who is so encouraging of Rose-Lynn’s aspirations that she stages a big birthday party for herself and asks her guests, in lieu of gifts, to make donations to get her cleaner to Nashville. (Rose-Lynn conceals both her jailhouse past and the fact of her children from Susannah, who holds onto a romantic vision of her.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner

“Physical strength in a woman, that’s what I am. If you’re unhappy with anything, get rid of it. When you’re free, your true creativity and true self comes out.”  – Tina Turner, in I Tina, 1986
Here are three things about the notorious and incredibly creepy Ike Turner, and three reasons why he is still important even after living a long life of self-destructive disgrace through drug abuse and domestic violence. One, he recorded an incredibly raucous song, “Rocket 88,” in 1951, long before there was something even remotely identifiable as rock 'n' roll.  His indefinable and prehistoric vibe preceded not only Bill Haley and The Comets but also Chuck Berry and Little Richard, the recognized black co-creators of rock music.  He also long predated Elvis Presley, the white genius who borrowed all their vibes and led us directly into the waiting arms of The Beatles. Ike heard the future coming. And he flagged it down to jump on board.

Two, he was of course a tormented talent on a huge scale himself: musician, bandleader, arranger, songwriter, talent scout and record producer of considerable skill, especially as the commanding leader of The Kings of Rhythm, until meeting a certain young tornado from Tennessee and forming his famed co-named revue. Most notable among his early accomplishments was working with the equally notorious Phil Spector in 1965 to create the masterfully booming “River Deep, Mountain High.”

But we could surmise that it is indeed number three that makes us still utter his name at all today: he invented Tina Turner. While watching his band play one night, the diminutive Anna Mae Bullock approached the stage during an intermission and audaciously asked to sing with them. Then in 1960, Ike used Anna Mae, whom he had re-christened Tina (weirdly named after Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, a character he admired), and her throaty voice for his tune “A Fool in Love,” which launched their careers together.

Monday, July 29, 2019

New Plays: Tell Me I’m Not Crazy and The Hunt

Mark Blum and Jane Kaczmarek in Tell Me I’m Not Crazy. (Photo: Joseph J. O'Malley)

The four characters in Sharyn Rothstein’s new play Tell Me I’m Not Crazy, playing at the Nikos Stage in Williamstown, represent two shaky marriages and two generations of a contemporary Jewish-American family. Sol (Mark Blum) is at loose ends after coming to the end of a career in human resources. His wife Diana (Jane Kaczmarek), an elementary-school teacher, hoped that Sol’s retirement would allow them to spend the kind of quality time together that his job has prevented but is dismayed to discover that they’re more distant than ever – and that their sex life has dwindled to nothing. Their son Nate (Mark Feuerstein), having failed to find his niche in the photography world, has been playing the role of caregiver for his two young children while his wife Alisa (Nicole Villamil) pursues a career in advertising that demands more and more time away from the family. When their three-year-old’s behavioral problems at daycare prompt immediate action, it’s Nate who has to carry the ball. Both marriages threaten to implode when Sol, distressed over some recent home invasions in their nice middle-class neighborhood, purchases a gun. Alisa and Nate stop bringing their kids over to his folks’, Diana throws Sol out of the house, and rather than back-pedal on his vow to take extreme steps to keep his family safe, Sol exacerbates the problem by joining a neighborhood vigilante group.

Rothstein has a talent for funny one-liners, and for the first half-hour or so (the play runs an hour and forty minutes without intermission) you think she’s onto something: a satirical comedy about couples trying to negotiate gender roles in the twenty-first century – as well as racial realities, since Alisa is Hispanic and Sol’s anger and paranoia about the danger to his suburb provokes him to assume that the perpetrators must be illegal immigrants. Rothstein keeps piling on more and more issues and revelations, and the only way the play could possibly support all of them is in the form of a nutty absurdist comedy that keeps threatening to go off the rails, like the ones Christopher Durang is famous for. Instead it gets more and more serious and you stop believing in it at all. I think that happens as soon as Sol comes clean about joining the neighborhood enforcers, a totally implausible development for this character except in an absurdist work. The play is a mess. The dramaturgy falls apart completely in a series of second-act scenes where each of the characters makes an announcement that, we find out five minutes later, is actually a lie. It feels as though Rothstein is making it all up as she goes along.