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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.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

On Nonverbal Cinema: Obscure (2019) and The Color of Pomegranates (aka Sayat Nova, 1969/2014)

Kylr Coffman in Obscure (2019)/

Cinema began as a record of physical movement. The advent of sound brought it more in line with the naturalism of everyday life, but it also de-emphasized the camera’s possibility for intimacy. The last half-decade or so has seen a reversal on that front, with renewed arthouse attention to microgestures and minute shifts in affect. I’m thinking of films like Her (2013), Gone Girl (2014), 45 Years (2015), Moonlight (2016), A Ghost Story (2017), and Phantom Thread (2018) , among others. (A Ghost Story would fit perfectly in this piece, too.)

The latest film to join the trend is writer-director Kunlin Wang’s debut Obscure (2019), which has only one line of dialogue in 92 minutes, and it’s in a reinvented version of “an obscure European language,” to boot, Wang told us in the Q&A following the festival screening I attended. Everything else is conveyed through framing, staging, facial expressions, visual situations, and score. Wang said that the script was originally written with dialogue, but when revising she cut all the lines she felt were unnecessary and ended up with just one, the only moment of exposition that couldn’t be avoided.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Skin of Our Teeth: A World in Crisis

Ariana Venturi in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of The Skin of Our Teeth. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth made a splash on Broadway in 1942, where it starred Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge. America was at war and Wilder’s loony conceptual vaudeville, which presented the history of the human race in a modern American setting, intertwining Genesis with anthropology – in act one a dinosaur and a mammoth shiver in the back yard; act two ends with the animals marching onto Noah’s ark – addressed the struggle for survival and struck a chord with audiences. But after World War II it disappeared from the repertory (though there were two TV adaptations, one with Mary Martin and one with Vivien Leigh). Now, with its references to climate change and refugees and its presentation of war as an eternal verity, it’s popular again all over the country.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Uncanny Kingdom: The Enigmatic Art of Mowry Baden

Marsupial, 2013, by Mowry Baden. (Steel aluminum fabric rubber. Image: VAG)

Mowry Baden, curated by Grant Arnold, Vancouver Art Gallery: March 9-June 9, 2019

Ever since the French invented a mechanical device called the camera in about 1840, visual artists have been liberated from the tyranny of mere pictorial representation. Likewise, sculptors, who are best described as making three-dimensional drawings in space, have been offered the authority to leave behind the pedestal in favour of incorporating everyday life into their tableaux. And no one has taken that liberty of expression to heart with as much consistent passion and creative commitment as Mowry Baden, originally from Los Angeles but since 1971 a resident of Victoria, British Columbia, from where a steady stream of emotionally compelling and intellectually rigorous works have issued.

Having decided that by the end of the '60s “painting seemed all used up,” Baden's self-stated strategy was as simple as it was ambitious: provoking a perceptual crisis in the viewer through the manifestation of constructed environments, or “envelope spaces,” which invite us to experience kinesthesia, the sensory awareness of position and movement most often contained in task-oriented and body-centred physical settings. This serious form of play is encapsulated in its earliest stages in the 1970 floor-mounted piece called Untitled (Seatbelt), which is just what it says: an excessively long looped seatbelt bolted in three places to the floor and permitting interactive but non-utilitarian use.

The result is a kind of physical calligraphy whose poetry is hard to describe, with an ever-shifting graphic placement depending on each visitor’s chance re-arrangement and resulting in a palpable haptic haiku written on the museum floor. Basically the entire architectural ground has become his conceptual pedestal. The rest of this career-length retrospective of the Governor Award-winning mixed-media artist is just as cheeky and engaging, a living demonstration of how the basic definition of what an art object is and what it’s supposed to do underwent a drastic upheaval in the post- photography era, culminating in the ascent and supremacy of abstraction in all forms.

The Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition of fifteen sculptural pieces, as well as journal drawings and an archive of public art projects, was a masterful crash course in the efficacy of Jules Michelet’s nearly mystical observation that each epoch dreams the one to follow and creates it in dreams. It showed just how far a liberated artist can go once technology sets him or her free, and in Baden’s case it also celebrated his legitimate allegiance to major international art movements such as Fluxus, assemblage, and art povera, through the elevation of quotidian objects far above their usual thing status.

A perfectly curated coss-section of Baden’s often whimsical and sardonic sculptural assemblages, the eponymous Mowry Baden, was an ideal but not idealistic show perfectly suited to our own epoch. Basically, the trajectory from the strictures of vertiginous modernity to the open-ended ambiguities of the postmodern realm are charted almost cartographically in the creative arc of Baden’s work from the mid-'60s up to the present. Art history itself, in many ways, arrives after its feverish marathon of shifting meanings into the waiting arms of this West Coast tactician of irony.

Cheap Sleeps Columbine,1994. (Mattress boxspring, pillow fabric, wood, mirror. Image: VAG)

His many oneiric sculptural objects, often splendidly tongue-in-cheek re-configurations of engineering poetry and mechanical theatre, almost always relate to or involve collisions of everyday things with a surreal narrative which is usually perceptible to the sense of touch. Pieces such as the superbly chilling Cheap Sleeps Columbine (1994), with its mandala of mattresses, box springs and mirrors, as well as one of my favourites from the survey show, Marsupial (2013), with its spooky wheelbarrow and cage-like enclosure for a human bearer, are definitely canny testaments to the uncanny kingdom we all occupy in this disturbing century.

Cézanne, who practically invented pictorial modernism, once remarked, referring to his own late visionary evocations of nature in oil, “The landscape thinks itself in me, I am its consciousness.” And while strolling like a psychic flâneur through the calm splendour of Baden’s post-industrial mystery-objects, I was struck by the potential to characterize them in a way that echoed but far outdid Cézanne: “The machine thinks itself in us, we are its consciousness.” If art history is a relay race (which it must be) with individual artists passing the baton from one to the next, then Baden has grabbed Cézanne’s baton and run right off the racetrack with it.

Baden’s charming and confounding works, especially a trio of rubber and stainless-steel sculptures such as Braille (2016), Punched and Grilled (2015) and Tachycardia (2016), quite literally embody and personify the character of what Walter Benjamin called the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as well as the vivid personality of a dynamic which that press agent for the future, Siegfried Gideon, accurately declared as mechanization takes command. They are engineered dream objects come to life: emblems of an industrial domain suddenly rendered mute of customary meaning.

Tachyardia, 2016. (Rubber and steel. Image: VAG)

But he is not all about just puns or bemusement; his work is also about suspended satisfaction, anxious anticipation, delayed gratification, and most especially unfulfilled expectations. He often addresses important aesthetic issues such the physical embodiment of spirit through sculpture and its discomforts through thought. Such a piece is his Rubber Thistle (2013), with three interlocked warehouse pushcarts which can be moved in circles but not utilized practically.

Baden explores polarities of life and death, as well as the dualities of waking and dreaming, through the strange affinity that inherently exists between his uncanny engineering effigies in a museum and his clever disruptions of aesthetic representation embedded in certain radical art traditions. Indeed, his pieces can be seen both as a source of macabre spectacle and educational entertainment, via the image of a site which copies life, but also as a territory which negotiates the development of unsettling new genres of representation.

As this gifted senior artist so ably illustrates, the sculptural image itself is deeply wedded to the living human body in motion and at rest, but it is also a passage haunted by stillness and absence, as exemplified clearly by the obscure objects of desire so effectively examined in this retrospective installation. Economy of means, complexity of meaning: few artists employ dislocation as a strategic tool to elicit both empathy and jamais vu quite as powerfully as Mowry Baden.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Lehman Trilogy: Intimate Epic

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

I’ve never seen anything quite like The Lehman Trilogy, currently in a limited run at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End after opening at the National Theatre last summer. The Italian dramatist Stefano Massini conceived it as a five-hour radio play and then it was produced on stage in Paris and Milan; Ben Power’s adaptation runs for nearly three and a half hours and is performed entirely by three master actors, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, under the magnificent direction of Sam Mendes. They play the Lehman brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer respectively (and in order of age), German-Jewish immigrants who land in America in the middle of the nineteenth century and settle in Montgomery, Alabama, where they open a clothing and fabric store that blossoms into a financial empire. But Beale, Miles and Godley also play all the other characters, major and minor, in the enormous saga of a company that withstood the Civil War and the Great Depression, and helped to reshape and redefine the financial world. The Lehman Trilogy is an epic for three actors, who tell their story as they re-enact it. The style is, of all things, Reader’s Theatre, that generally deadly approach to dramatizing novels and narrative poems – but this time around it’s vibrant, electric, mesmerizing. This is one of the best evenings of theatre I’ve ever experienced.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

What We Talk about When We Talk about Anime Logic: Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016)

A scene from Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016).

I want to talk about anime logic and why it's not the same as plot holes, using a number of examples, but mainly looking at Your Name (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は, 2016).
 
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Your Name is not an absolute triumph. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with director Makoto Shinkai when he says the film is "imperfect" and that the production process could have used more time (that is, more money). Narratively, we can separate the film into three acts: set-up, reversal, resolution. (Hegel , anyone?) While the reversal is a bit boring, and the resolution is downright melodramatic, the set-up is a shining gem. We all expect body-swap stories to create fish-out-of-water comedic situations (which I personally detest because the protagonists create so many problems for the hapless people around them), so it's a pleasant surprise when the continual body-swapping between city boy Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and country girl Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) leads them to work together to keep calm and carry on with their lives – and it's satisfyingly funny to see them keep meddling in each other's lives anyway.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Summer Musicals: Rock and Roll Man and The Light in the Piazza

The cast of Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story is a new jukebox musical, currently in a Berkshire Theatre Group production at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, about the DJ who coined the term “rock and roll” and helped to promote what had been called “race music” and kept off white radio stations. Freed was a tireless supporter of African American artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry; when their songs were covered by white-bread singers like Pat Boone, he refused to play the white versions, and he featured them prominently in the concerts he produced. But his career was shattered in the late fifties by payola and copyright scandals, and he died from the effects of alcoholism at the age of forty-three, in 1965. (You can see him in cameos in the mid-fifties movies Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock, as well as a few others; Tim McIntire played a character inspired by him, memorably, in the nifty 1978 Floyd Mutrux picture American Hot Wax.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

People Among the People: The Public Art of Susan Point

Artist Susan Point. (Photo:: MonteCristo)

It’s all a question of scale. Recently on the West Coast we had the great opportunity to experience two sides of the widely accomplished and acclaimed Coast Salish (Musqueam) artist Susan Point. Her intimately scaled gallery works were showcased at the first solo show featuring her in the Okanagan Spindle Whorl, at the Kelowna Gallery, while her large-scale public artworks were celebrated in a remarkable new book, People Among the People, released by Vancouver-based Figure 1 Publishing, with insightful texts by Robert D. Watt and Michael Kew.

Both the interior gallery drawings, paintings and sculptures and the large exterior public space commissions by this gifted artist share an attention to indigenous motifs and an interactive spirituality for which she has been rightly recognized over the last thirty years or so. Ironically, the gallery exhibit has a bigness of heart while the public works featured in Watt’s book have a gripping intimacy which often belies their grander size.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Berkshires Season Openers: Outside Mullingar, A Raisin in the Sun and A Human Being, of a Sort

James McMenamin and Shannon Marie Sullivan in Outside Mullingar. (Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware)

John Patrick Shanley’s 2014 play Outside Mullingar, which opens the Berkshire Theatre Group summer season, is a quirky romantic comedy set in the Irish countryside, and I’d say it’s two-thirds of a very good play. In the opening scene, an ornery widowed farmer named Tony Reilly (Jeffrey DeMunn) and his forty-something son Anthony (James McMenamin) have their next-door neighbors, Aiofe Muldoon (Deborah Hedwall) and her daughter Rosemary (Shannon Marie Sullivan), over for tea following the funeral of Aiofe’s husband. Anthony has been taking care of the farm for years and expects to inherit it, but unexpectedly his father reveals that he doesn’t think he loves the property enough and proposes leaving it to an American nephew. The resulting back-and-forth reveals that Rosemary and not her mother owns a tiny parcel of the land that blocks the Reillys’ access to the sea, and that, due to a gripe she has nursed against Anthony since they were kids, she has no intention of selling it back to them. We also learn that she has been in love with him all her life, and that holding onto the land is her way of holding onto him – though only, of course, if Tony can be persuaded to reconsider his plans for the disposition of the farm.

This section of the play recalls Chekhov’s one-acts, especially The Proposal, though it contains Shanley’s trademark off-kilter humor and his fondness for tall tales. But in the fourth scene it seems to stall. Upon his deathbed, some time after he’s reconsidered his plans for disinheriting his son, Reilly Sr. shares an intimate confessional moment with Reilly Jr., and it’s sentimental – not a word I’d apply to any of the three scenes that have preceded it. It’s also extraneous, except perhaps to signal the narrative shift away from the older characters to the not-quite romance between Rosemary and Anthony. By the next scene Aiofe, too, is dead, and we get a courtship of the two younger figures reminiscent of Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, where the characters have to uncover and then eliminate the obstacles that stand in the way of the happy ending. But the process takes too long and the obstacles are silly ones.

Despite its flaws, the play is engaging – especially in Karen Allen’s skillfully shaped and impeccably acted production. All four of the actors do fine, distinctive work, and the somewhat meandering nature of the last two scenes is countered by the chemistry between McMenamin and Sullivan. McMenamin, who played George in David Cromer’s celebrated Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York and was in the ensemble of Anna D. Shapiro’s revival of Of Mice and Men on Broadway, is one of my favorite character actors: he buries himself so completely in his roles that, though he’s a handsome, rugged man with a broad, recognizable face, from play to play he barely seems to be the same actor. I enjoyed everything about the show, including John McDermott’s set and the way it accordions in and out for scene shifts. A BTG season always proffers surprises; this one, coming right at the outset, makes you feel very bright about what might follow.

Mandi Masdon, S. Epatha Merkerson and Nikiya Mathis appear in A Raisin in the Sun. (Photo: Joseph O'Malley) 

A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 and earned its place in the history of American drama: it’s the first major play about the struggles of an African American family, in this case trapped in a Chicago ghetto, and the work of a black female playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. I’ve always found it a little dull, on the page and even in the famous 1961 movie version, in which all four of the talented stars of the stage production (Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands) repeated their performances. But I think it can come alive on stage, and for the first half of the Williamstown Theatre Festival production it mostly does. The director, Robert O’Hara, has coached the cast to overlap their dialogue, which works against the banality of Hansberry’s dialogue and gives it an electric, lived-in quality. Francois Battiste, who plays Walter Lee Younger, the angry, restless and impulsive son of the widowed matriarch, Lena, and Mandi Masden, who plays his wife Ruth, make it clear from the opening minutes that this marriage has a strong sexual core, and there’s an erotic tension between Walter’s college-age sister Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis) and one of her suitors, an African classmate named Joseph Asagai (Joshua Echebiri), that actors and directors don’t generally get at. And then there’s the amazing S. Epatha Merkerson as Lena. Everyone I know loves watching Merkerson on her TV series (Law and Order, Chicago Med), but you don’t know what a powerhouse she is unless you’ve seen her in the TV movie Lackawanna Blues or on stage. She gave a heartbreaking performance in a Broadway revival of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba a little more than a decade ago, and she’s a commanding and utterly authentic Lena.

In act one these features more than compensate for the production’s shortcomings – a clumsiness in the staging (though the scenic design by Clint Ramos is excellent); intrusive, distracting music cues; and a tendency to indulge the actors in their big moments that damages the rhythm of some of the scenes. This is mostly a problem in Battiste’s drunk scene before intermission, but only Merkerson is immune – her instinct for the dramatic shape of a scene and her generosity as a performer keep her completely grounded. And though it isn’t ineffective, there isn’t much point to O’Hara’s choice to insert an expressionistic element with imposed scenes hovered over by the ghost of Lena’s dead husband – whose $15,000-dollar insurance policy, paid for (we’re told over and over again) with the blood and sweat of a selflessly toiling African American working man, Walter hopes will finance a liquor store he wants to open with some buddies and Lena decides should finance their move into their own house in Clybourne Park, a white neighborhood.

But the second half of this Raisin begins badly and gets worse and worse. O’Hara gives up even trying to orchestrate the scenes or maintain some stylistic integrity. A scene involving an interfering neighbor (Eboni Flowers) feels like it comes out of a bad TV sitcom; in this context the character seems Martian, and because the audience is encouraged to find her a hoot, the point of the interlude – that she represents a ghetto-bred parochialism and reverse snobbery that fight against the efforts of a black family like the Youngers to find a better life for themselves – is lost. When we meet Walter’s friend and prospective business partner Bobo (Walter Miller), he comes across as so obviously disreputable that O’Hara appears to have missed – or ignored – the fact that when their third (unseen) partner runs off with the insurance money that Lena has finally decided to let Walter handle, Bobo is just a much a victim. Most dreadful of all is Walter’s big meltdown, where he shows his family how weak he is. O’Hara stages it as a Brechtian interlude in which Battiste, whose acting has become insufferably hammy by this time, goes into a minstrel routine addressed to the audience while his poor co-stars are stuck in shadow behind him, delivering their lines as if they’re the only people involved in the show who still understand that the style of the play is unfettered American realism. The minstrel stuff O’Hara has grafted onto the scene contradicts the text.

So does the showpiece finale, where, as the family prepares to move to Clybourne Park despite the efforts of the neighborhood committee to buy them out, the set breaks apart and a scrim flies in showing us the front of their new house with “NIGGER” scrawled across it in red paint. Hansberry ended her play on a hopeful note, though she had to fudge a metamorphosis for Walter in order to push it through. The last note is sounded by Lena’s exit holding the plant she’s kept alive in their ghetto apartment. It’s a trite symbol, but it works – and it’s consistent with the rest of the text, which is about a black family fighting to conquer its obstacles to finding a better existence. It’s clear from the covert threats of the representative of the neighborhood committee, the only white character in the play (played here, not very well, by Joe Goldammer), that it will be an uphill battle – but the ending isn’t cynical or sour. You can write a sequel to A Raisin in the Sun that details the complications of what followed – and someone has: Bruce Norris with Clybourne Park, the best play written by an American, in my estimation, in the twenty-first century. But O’Hara’s hammerhead interpolations don’t enhance Hansberry’s play; they violate it. The audience at the matinee I attended, no doubt convinced by the aggressiveness of the production that they were seeing something important, gave it the obligatory standing ovation.

Antonio Michael Woodard and André Braugher in A Human Being, of a Sort. (Photo:Jeremy Daniel.)

The other season opener at Williamstown, on the smaller Nikos stage, is also about race. A Human Being, of a Sort, a new play by Jonathan Payne, is based on a shocking true incident, the exhibition of a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, and it gives audiences a rare opportunity to watch another brilliant African American actor known mostly for his TV work, André Braugher, live on stage. (His last theatrical appearance was in The Whipping Man at City Center in 2011.) Braugher, a mesmerizing presence, plays Smokey, a poor man sent to a Tennessee prison farm for three years for stealing some apples from a street vendor and recommended to the zoo’s director, William Temple Hornaday (Frank Wood), for the job of caring for Ota Benga (Antonio Michael Woodard). If he satisfies his new employer, Smokey will prove that prison has rehabilitated him. If he fails to, he’ll be sent back to the prison farm.

I loved watching Braugher and several of the other actors: Keith Randolph Smith, Jeorge Bennett Watson and especially Sullivan Jones as three black ministers who mount a campaign against the exhibiting of Ota Benga in a cage. (Woodard’s and Wood’s performances are less impressive, and I can swear I’ve seen Wood give precisely this performance before, and more than once.) But A Human Being, of a Sort isn’t a play; it’s a collection of scenes in which actors talk at each other. And since you get half the point the moment you see the cage marked Primate House – that’s not meant as a criticism of the set by Lawrence E. Moten III – and the other half as soon as the moralistic, bureaucratic Hornaday interviews Smokey for the job (another black man in a cage, though this one isn’t visible), all the play can do for the duration is tell you over and over again what you’ve already figured out for yourself. It isn’t the fault of the director, Whitney White, but play goes nowhere. The epilogue, a flashback to the discovery of Ota Benga by a white hunter named Samuel Philips Vender (Matthew Saldivar, whom I liked very much as Mucha in Bernhardt/Hamlet, utterly wasted here), provides one more leaden irony to guide us out of the theatre.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Love in a Fallen City: Transit (2018)

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer in Transit (2018).

The German Fascists are taking Europe by force. Cities are closed off and raids are carried out block by block. If you disagree with the new regime or don't have your papers in order, your best bet is to get yourself to Latin America (the U.S. doesn't want you), but with no flights, you'll need a ship ticket, and transit visas for each place the ship stops en route. That entails long lines at various consulates, all while the number of ships at port dwindles one by one. Welcome to present-day France.

Or is it? One of the stand-out aspects of Transit (2018), written and directed by Christian Petzold, based on the French Resistance-era novel by Anna Seghers, is the ambiguity of time. There are security camera footage and modern-day police gear, but no lighters or televisions; people write letters instead of email, with not a computer or smartphone in sight, and yet petroleum products are ubiquitous. The editing (by Bettina Böhler) and cinematography (by Hans Fromm) has the languor of a historical drama, but the lens and lighting mostly evoke the mood of a psychological thriller. Which brings up some questions: why is protagonist Georg (Franz Rogowski) on the lam? How is he connected to Paul (Sebastian Hülk) and Heinz (Ronald Kukulies), who may or may not be part of a resistance movement (which may or may not exist)? And who is the narrator (Matthias Brandt), who's ostensibly telling the story as Georg has related it to him, but whose voice-over sometimes isn't reflected in the on-screen action? On top of all these is the biggest question: will Georg make it out alive?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Glitter Bomb: Rocketman

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman.

The Elton John of the 1970s was a rock phenomenon that dominated airwaves and album sales unlike any other act of the time. His songs were a potent mix of gospel, country, and blues, and his ballads could have an almost ineffable beauty. John’s piano playing could be rumbling and syncopated as in “Take Me to the Pilot” (from the 1970 Elton John album, his debut in the States), or cascading and driving as in “Grey Seal” (from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) or the opening of his cover of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” On John’s early albums, producer Gus Dudgeon provided a sound both spare and elegiac, fronting the star’s keyboard playing and employing a judicious use of strings that often soared but (almost) never cloyed. John’s songs and outrageous onstage presence, heightened by over-the-top costumes, equal parts camp and drag, connected with the audience, and Bernie Taupin’s maddeningly opaque lyrics caused the teenagers of several nations to spend hours puzzling over them while the records played on their turntables. (John’s songwriting was never as good when he tried any other partner.) Elton John the rock star could make a huge crowd boogie with abandon.

When John retired from touring for two years in 1977, he also ceased using Dudgeon as producer, and he never again achieved the artistic excellence of those wild years. Record sales ebbed as well. He made headlines in 1980 by performing in the Soviet Union, and I saw him in the same year at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre, a relatively intimate venue, accompanied only by himself and percussionist Ray Cooper. (It was my very first rock concert.) John continued to release albums after ’77, but at a much slower pace, and nothing really caught fire, until 1983, when a brand-new medium, the music video, and a softer, easy-listening sound made John a star again, starting with “I’m Still Standing,” from the album Too Low for Zero. (It’s rather astonishing how good John was pre-1977, and how bad most of his music has been since then.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Rutherford and Son: Imitation Ibsen

Roger Allam in Rutherford and Son at London's National Theatre.. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Roger Allam delivers a flawless performance as the icy, single-minded North Country industrialist John Rutherford Sr. in the National Theatre production of Githa Sowerby’s 1912 play Rutherford and Son. Allam is an actor’s actor. I saw him last season as quite a different sort of rich man, the warm, voluble John Christie, the founder of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, in David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano, and the two characters are so utterly unalike you can scarcely believe they’re created by the same man. The film critic Pauline Kael wrote of Jane Fonda as the prostitute Bree Daniel in Klute that when she walks toward the camera it’s Bree and not Fonda you see coming toward you, and that’s the way I felt about Allam in Rutherford and Son: he’s sealed himself inside the character, and the completeness of the portrait is mesmerizing, in the way that a great Rembrandt or Monet portrait is.