Monday, July 6, 2020

Time and Place: Tonight with Belafonte, The Mikado, And So We Come Forth

Harry Belafonte in Tonight with Belafonte (1959).

A friend who was trolling through YouTube this week came across something truly extraordinary: Tonight with Belafonte, an hour-long “special” (as they used to be called) from 1959 directed by Norman Jewison – who went on to make Fiddler on the Roof, among many other movies – and starring Harry Belafonte and Odetta. The Jamaican-American Belafonte was at the peak of his popularity: when I was a Montreal kid in the fifties, every family I knew stocked his albums, his rendition of “The Banana Boat Song” was a big hit, and he even made a pass at a movie career, though it didn’t pan out for him as it did for his buddy Sidney Poitier. (Belafonte made only a handful of movies, including Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s Americanized version of the Bizet opera.) Staggeringly handsome and sexy – he had caramel skin and a taut, high-waisted frame – with a warm, dynamic presence and a magnificent vocal instrument, he was most famous for popularizing calypso in North America. But as charming as those sides were, I think he was at his best with ballads (like my childhood favorite “Scarlet Ribbons”), which he rendered with a focused emotional intensity that lit them up. Odetta was a folksinger with a deep contralto whose fame was eclipsed by the movement of folk to rock ‘n’ roll, but she had one of the great soulful voices of the twentieth century, phrasing of diamond-like purity and precision and a powerhouse delivery. (Think Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone.)

Monday, June 29, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part 2

Pamela Villoresi in Marco Bellocchio's adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) (1977).

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I was published here last week.

It seems strange to think of the iconoclastic, Godard-influenced Italian director Marco Bellocchio, who came into movies in the mid-sixties with the jagged, coruscating dark comedy Fists in the Pocket and the startling class satire China Is Near, settling on the idea of adapting Chekhov’s The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) to the screen. One can imagine Bellocchio identifying with the protagonist, the young tragic aspiring playwright and short-story writer Konstantin Treplev, when he protests, “We must have new forms!” before presenting his symbolist play to a small audience of family and friends that includes his mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous actress. (When she refuses to take his efforts seriously, he rings down the curtain and goes off in a huff.) But The Seagull, first performed disastrously in 1896 and resurrected two years later by Stanislavski and the pioneering Moscow Art Theatre, is one of the signal works of theatrical realism, and Bellocchio plays it straight. This movie never opened in North America, hardly anyone on these shores has ever seen it (it’s available on an Italian DVD), and except for Laura Betti, who also worked with Fellini, Pasolini and Bertolucci, I didn’t recognize a single actor in the cast. But the ensemble is impeccable, and this is certainly the best movie anyone has made yet of The Seagull.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Potentially World-Destroying Virus: World on Fire

Zofia Wichlacz in World on Fire.

This review contains spoilers.

Watching the sprawling, emotionally gripping seven-part drama World on Fire on PBS Masterpiece Theatre has increased my frustration with those (mostly) policy-makers who draw analogies between the COVID-19 virus and World War Two. Boris Johnson has fantasized that he is the second coming of Churchill and Trump absurdly sees himself as a wartime president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, a position that pundit Max Boot hilariously debunks in an acerbic column. In a more serious vein, an historian who has written a book about the politics of mourning wonders why Trump would urge the citizenry to see themselves as “warriors” and return to work even if it means sacrificing themselves, when there has not been even a hint about top-down national (as opposed to personal) mourning, given that, as of this writing, over one-hundred-thousand Americans have succumbed to this virus.

What World on Fire does is to put in perspective how our current crisis, even with an invisible enemy, pales in comparison (provided robust testing, contact tracing and isolation, social distancing and personal hygiene protocols remain in place) with a more lethal form of pestilence, World War Two. I say this with the caveat that the first season takes us only to the fall of France and the epic rescue of British troops from Dunkirk during the spring of 1940. Whereas most war dramas focus on leadership (Darkest Hour about Churchill), a specific episode (Dunkirk) or the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), Fire offers a larger canvas including Manchester, Paris, Berlin and Warsaw. Writer Peter Bowker, reflecting a modern sensibility, explores subjects that are usually passed over or given short shrift through the interlocking stories of ordinary people, their fears, the decisions they make and how the war changes them. What is noticeably missing are the usual nationalistic tropes – the flag waving, the inspirational speeches, the spotlight on masculine prowess – as the characters are primarily driven by personal motives.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I

A still from Three Sisters (1970).

The reason you can keep looking at productions of the four Chekhov masterpieces – The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – is that there’s so much there. A good director and a good cast illumine corners of the text that you haven’t paid attention to before, or shine an unfamiliar light on one of more of the characters, or put the parts of the play together a little differently from their predecessors. I had that experience recently with two little-known Chekhov movies from the seventies. One I was returning to: Laurence Olivier’s 1970 Three Sisters, which transcribed his stage production for the National Theatre. It’s modest – like the movies he starred in of Uncle Vanya in 1963 and Othello in 1965 (both directed for the screen by Stuart Burge), it feels, with the exception of a couple of self-consciously cinematic sequences, like a filmed play. It was released in England, but on this side of the ocean audiences only got to see it as part of an experiment in stage-to-screen translations called American Film Theatre, which visited only large cities for two-day engagements. The other I encountered for the first time: the 1977 adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) by the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio, which never opened in North America at all. Like Three Sisters, it’s available on DVD, but only from Europe. Both movies, I think, are wonderful. In this piece I want to talk about Three Sisters; I’ll deal with The Seagull next week.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Neglected Gem: The Russia House (1990)

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House (1990).

When Australian director Fred Schepisi’s 2001 film Last Orders came out, the best film of that year (yes, even better than the first installment of The Lord of the Rings), I read with astonishment a critic’s description of Schepisi as a “good, second-tier director.” The director of Barbarosa (1982), Roxanne (1987), A Cry in the Dark (1988), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and Lost Orders a second-tier director? What the hell does a guy have to do to move into the first tier?

Monday, June 8, 2020

Forsterland: Howards End

Matthew Macfadyen and Hayley Atwell in the BBC's Howards End (2017).

I approached the 2017 BBC adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, which landed on Masterpiece Theatre last season, with some trepidation, just as I did the 1992 Merchant Ivory movie version. That’s because I’m in thrall to the book; which is one of my half-dozen favorite novels in the world. In it, as in his A Passage to India (published in 1924), the form of the Victorian novel collides, brilliantly but lingeringly, with the twentieth century. Howards End is beautifully constructed, but it isn’t a mechanical triumph like the great works of Forster’s predecessors (Dickens, Eliot, Hardy) that it takes off from. Forster gets himself into perilous territory – into issues he can’t bring into harmony in the final pages. And the book is, I think, more immense, more moving and of course more modern, because he can’t. It begins as a Jane Austenesque high comedy. Helen Schlegel, the impetuous younger daughter of a German-English family, goes off on a country weekend and falls in love with the younger son of her hosts, Ruth and Henry Wilcox. At least she thinks she has; in fact, it’s the whole Wilcox family she’s enamored with, and Paul, she realizes almost immediately, is just the convenient outlet for her unaccustomed feelings. Helen, her older sister Margaret and her kid brother Tibby – orphans – form a throbbing intellectual enclave that interacts with the world in an entirely different way from the Wilcoxes, who belong to the new business aristocracy, and Helen is fascinated by their style at first. Margaret explains the real difference to Helen:
The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one – there’s grit in it. It does breed character.
In the embarrassing aftermath of the momentary romantic tangle between Helen and Paul, Helen loses her quickly formed affection for the Wilcox world and shrinks in revulsion from their unpoetic pragmatism. But then, unexpectedly, Henry Wilcox rents the London house across the way from the Schlegels’, and Margaret finds herself drawn to the family – through Ruth, who, in her last months, forms an attachment to her that exerts an extraordinary influence on the younger woman.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fabula: Transgression and Transformation in the Work of Müller and Giradet

Contre-Jour (Backlight) 2009/Festival of Gijon, 2010.

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in Arcade Project Magazine on May 25, 2020.

“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1935.

“Your camera is the best critic there is. Critics never see as much as the camera does. The camera is more perceptive than the human eye.”  – Douglas Sirk, 1955.

The two members of this creative pair of collaborating film artists are also visual archaeologists, conducting a rich excavation at the site of cinematic mythology. Sometimes a meaning is lost in translation, other times its essence is found in translation. In the case of the contemplative film experiments of Matthias Müller and Christoph Giradet, the immediately familiar territory of conventional storytelling, the art of fabula, and those cinematic stereotypes most often utilized in order to register meaning and emotion, have been translated from pure entertainment into pure reverie. None of the unconscious content embedded in their sources, however, has been left behind. On the contrary, as they explore the virtual edges of our visual domain in their compelling and challenging works, we are thrust into a jarring juxtaposition of painting, photography, storytelling and dreaming with our eyes wide open.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Allen Garfield: A Fond Farewell

Allen Garfield and Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man (1980).

Allen Garfield died on April 7 at the age of eighty, one of the early COVID-19 casualties in the acting community. He was a fantastically vivid performer who managed to straddle the line between the old Hollywood and the new. He was a character actor who, like the most memorable big-studio stock-company players, could bring verve and wit to supporting roles that lit up the margins of the movies he appeared in, but his bristling, aggressive, off-center style was quintessentially modern. (He had attended the Actors Studio in New York.) He belonged in the American renaissance era; he would have been too daring, too subversive for the forties or the fifties.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Search for Human Connection in Songs for the End of the World

Saleema Nawaz, author of Songs for the End of the World. (Photo: Thomas Blanchard)
“Society is still worth protecting, don’t you think? Maybe now more than ever.”
– Saleema Nawaz, Songs for the End of the World
Over a month ago, the Montreal writer Saleema Nawaz received considerable attention in the Canadian media for her novel Songs for the End of the World, about a respiratory pandemic ravaging 2020 America that bears startling similarities to the current COVID-19 virus. Among them: the devastation of New York City from a mysterious infectious virus that originated in China; the inconvenience of self-quarantines; the individuals on the front lines – police and health-care workers – risking their lives to save the lives of individuals afflicted with this virulent pathogen; the need for personal protective gear; social distancing ordinances; conspiracy theories posted on social media; and anti-Asian hate crimes. The novel took six years to research and write, and Nawaz’s imagination, combined with her knowledge about previous pandemics from the Spanish flu (1918-1920) to SARS, is etched into her narrative. Still, given her prescience, it is unsurprising that Songs, scheduled to be published in late August, was rushed out as an e-book in early April.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Neglected Gem Double Bill: Slither (1973) and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975)

James Caan and Peter Boyle in Slither (1973)

When those of us who lived through the great renaissance of American movies – that magical era that was roughly bounded by Bonnie and Clyde (1967) at one end and Taxi Driver (1976) at the other – look back fondly on it, it’s not just the masterpieces that come to mind. After all, The Godfather I and II and The Conversation, The Wild Bunch, Cabaret, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville are as much in the DNA of American pictures as Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard or The Manchurian Candidate. What made the era unique, particularly the first half of the seventies, was the off-kilter, off-the-cuff sensibility that made going to movies, including many small ones that never really caught on and have been buried by the passing decades, a continually surprising and inspiriting experience. Many of these films seemed in the process of unspooling while you watched. You didn’t know where they were going to take you, because tones shifted and both the scripts and the direction seemed to have been set up like tiny fireworks displays showcasing the quirky, unpredictable talents of character actors, some of whom, flying in the face of Hollywood tradition, had become or were becoming stars.

Two movies that embody these qualities are the road comedies Slither, from 1973, written by W.D. Richter and directed by Howard Zieff, and Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, from 1975, written by John Kaye and directed by Dick Richards. (Both are available on Prime and they would make an ideal double bill.) Road comedies, of course, by definition embrace the unexpected (whatever happens to lie ahead) and the open-ended. In a good road comedy, the spirit of improvisation and adaptability and the democratic impulse have prepared the characters to look at the rest of their lives as an unmapped journey and the people they’ll meet as unknown quantities, too complicated for easy judgments.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Artificial Paradise: How the End of the Beginning Sounded

The lads, from The Beatles’ last photo session, in August 1969. (Photo: Ethan Russell)
“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
– Lennon/McCartney, “The End” (1969)

“Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind
Like a leper messiah. When the kids had killed the man
I had to break up the band.”
– David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust (1972)

When The Beatles released the last great pop masterpiece of the 1960’s, they were bringing to a close a remarkable collective waking dream. If only they had allowed their Abbey Road album, possibly one of their three best recordings, to be the band’s final release instead of returning to an earlier fraught effort and letting it out of the studio vault. The self-produced and then Phil Spector-mutilated Let It Be was a mess mostly due to the absence of George Martin, their brilliant guiding light for eight astonishing years together, while Abbey Road had glistened due to his return to the fold as their producer. It also signaled the arrival of a new kind of recording technology, with EMI’s advanced solid-state transistor mixing desk, which would usher in a kind of immediacy the following musical decade would eventually take for granted.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Hollywood: Ryan Murphy’s Woke Fantasyland

Jeremy Pope, Darren Criss, and Laura Harrier in Hollywood. now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Ryan Murphy’s latest offering, the Netflix limited series Hollywood (co-created with Ian Brennan), is so flat-footed and dopey that you watch it with a sort of indolent fascination, as if you’d been brained with a frying pan just before turning on your television set. It should be a camp classic, but it isn’t quite; still, it’s too stupefying to be boring. Murphy has chosen Hollywood in 1947 as the locale for a woke fantasy – an alternate history in which people of color and women and gay men manage, in the course of just a few months, to liberate themselves and make Hollywood the forefront of a cultural revolution decades before America got around to it. Despite opposition from a crew of two-dimensional bigots, while the head of Ace Studios (Rob Reiner) is hovering near death after a heart attack his wife (Patti LuPone) takes over the reins and, stirred by the pleas of her friend Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris), lets a young director (Darren Criss) cast his African American girlfriend (Laura Harrier) in the lead of a movie called Meg written by a gay black writer (Jeremy Pope). The producer (Joe Mantello) invents wide distribution to get over the southern boycotts; the movie is an immediate hit and wins a raft of Oscars, including three for non-whites. At the ceremony the writer kisses his boyfriend – a young unknown named Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) – on the mouth before going up to accept his. Hollywood changes overnight. All it takes is a few courageous souls.

Monday, May 11, 2020

This Nutty World: The Triple Glories of Kaufman and Hart

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1937.

Moss Hart was an aspiring young playwright, still living in the Bronx with his family and working in the office of a theatrical agent, when he sent producer Sam Harris a copy of his satirical comedy about the talking-picture revolution. Harris liked it but thought it needed a veteran’s knowhow, so he teamed Hart up with George S. Kaufman, the author or co-author of many Broadway hits. The story of Once in a Lifetime, which underwent significant changes during an extended pre-New York tour, was rewritten over the summer and rewritten again before it opened to rave reviews at the end of September 1930, is well-known to theatre buffs because it forms the triumphant final section of Hart’s memoir, Act One. Act One is the best theatrical memoir I’ve ever read – and I’ve read it four times, twice when I staged my own productions of Once in a Lifetime. The play would be my choice for the finest comedy ever written by Americans, with the possible exception of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. Both are hard-boiled comedies, a genre that contemporary playwrights and screenwriters seldom attempt.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Plot Against America: Adapting a Novel for Television

Morgan Spector, Azhy Robertson, and Zoe Kazan in HBO's The Plot Against America. (Photo:Michele K. Short/HBO)

It's about: What if the magnetic forces at work in our country were just given a little push in one direction. What if a certain kind of intolerance was just given a slight nod from powers on high?
Zoe Kazan, actor on the HBO series, The Plot Against America
History is a nightmare from which none of us can wake.”
– James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This review contains spoilers.

In Anti Social, a riveting account of the alt-right online trollers who elevate the persuasive narrative above any semblance of accuracy, evidence or fairness, Andrew Marantz interjects the wisdom of the philosopher, Richard Rorty, who contends that history is not preordained but is contingent and depends on the way people bend its arc. I thought about Rorty and Marantz’s far-right profiles as I reread The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and watched the six-part gripping HBO mostly-faithful television adaptation by creator David Simon and his collaborator Ed Burns, widely known for their productions among others of The Wire and Treme. I found the gradual slide into fascism in America more convincing in The Plot than I did when I first read it in 2004 – likely because of the current American political climate – and that the Simon’s and Burns’s rendition offers innovations that enhance the relevance of the novel by creatively blurring the distinction between the early 1940s setting and our time.

Monday, May 4, 2020

A Sad Tale’s Best for Winter: Cheek by Jowl’s The Winter’s Tale

 Orlando James and Natalie Radmall-Quirke in The Winter’s Tale. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Because The Winter’s Tale – one of the late glories of Shakespeare’s career – is a fairy tale, you accept the way Leontes, the king of Sicilia, turns abruptly on Hermione, his queen, and his childhood friend Polixenes, visiting from Bohemia, deciding on the impulse of a moment that they’re having an affair and that the child she’s carrying is his. It’s as if Leontes had been hit by a poison dart that chilled his heart and transformed the two people he loves most, aside from his son Mamillius, into sinister aliens. Declan Donnellan’s beautiful production of the play for Cheek by Jowl, which you can stream on the company’s website, is only the second one I’ve seen that attempts to give Leontes’ behavior a psychological reality. My first experience with the play was in Stratford, England, when I was twenty-five, and Ian McKellen played Leontes as psychotic. He was terrifying, and when he got to the “Too hot, too hot” soliloquy, where the character spins his crazy vision of his wife and his best friend as lovers, I had the sense that he was looking straight at me. (It was nightmarish.) McKellen was great, but the problem with playing Leontes that way was that when we got to the last act, after Leontes, under the guidance of his allegedly dead wife’s gentlewoman, Paulina, has spent sixteen years repenting for his actions, you just didn’t trust him; you kept waiting for him to turn again. In Donnellan’s Winter’s Tale, Orlando James’s Leontes seems to be in hyperdrive from the outset, and all his reactions to the people around him – his young prince (Tom Caute) as well as Hermione (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) and Polixenes (Edward Sayer) – are worryingly intense, even his horseplay with his friend in the play’s opening minutes and the way he hugs Mamillius: with a kind of desperation, as if he were already working to persuade himself that this is truly his son. And mere moments later, when the boy picks the wrong time to approach him, Leontes knocks him down with his fist.  In “Too hot, too hot,” we see Hermione and Polixenes as he’s come to see them, in adulterous tableaux. It’s very creepy: the staging puts us in a madman’s head. When he orders his closest minister, Camillo (David Carr), to murder Polixenes and Camillo alludes to his “disease,” the description seems precise.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Portrait of a Survivor as a Young Man: When Time Stopped

“The past is intrinsic to the present, despite any attempts to dismiss it.” – Ariana Neumann
Ariana Neumann’s moving, beautifully-written memoir, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (Scribner 2020), chronicles her search to shed light on the early secretive life of her Czech-born father, Hans, whom she remembers as a successful, art-collecting, philanthropic businessman. But her account is as much a mystery as a memoir because she combines the tools of both a sleuth and historian to unearth her father’s life.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Journey Is the Reward: In Transit (2015)

A mother and daughter in Albert Maysles's In Transit (2015).

For one glorious week, the last film by documentarian and pioneer of direct cinema Albert Maysles, the posthumously released In Transit (2015), was free to watch online. In a fine bit of irony, it was Maysles’s death that threw the film’s distribution into limbo. Co-directed with Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu (everyone also shared cinematography duties, except True, who edited), the film boards the Chicago-St. Paul/Minneapolis-Spokane-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, the busiest cross-country train in the U.S., in search of passengers’ stories. You think you know where this is going (sorry), and you do – but knowing is one thing, experiencing another.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Take Me to the World: Sondheim, Off the Cuff

Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration is currently streaming at

After technical screw-ups that delayed the show for a little more than an hour, last night carried a virtual concert in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday to benefit Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP). A plethora of (practically all) Broadway performers, most of whom have Sondheim shows on their résumés, sent him birthday wishes, conveyed their gratitude, and performed his songs from their living rooms – or, in the bizarre case of Mandy Patinkin, outdoors, a capella, with his dog in tow. (His choice of song was “Lesson #8” from Sunday in the Park with George: he was the original Georges Seurat, in 1984. It sounded awful.) The title of the improvised revue, cleverly alluding to the circumstances that made its catch-as-catch-can circumstances necessary, was Take Me to the World, from one of the handful of tunes Sondheim wrote for an obscure 1966 television musical, Evening Primrose. Well, relatively obscure, since in the world of Sondheim lovers no treasure remains to be unearthed; you can watch the DVD of Evening Primrose (which is based on a story by John Cheever), and many people have recorded both this song and the other rapturous ballad from it, “I Remember.”

Monday, April 20, 2020

Stunner: The Metamorphosis at the Royal Opera House

Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis at London’s Royal Opera House. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

For the next month, Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which premiered at London’s Royal Opera House in 2011, can be streamed on Youtube – and you don’t want to miss it. I think it’s one of the most astonishing pieces of theatre or dance that I’ve ever seen. Baryshnikov starred in a stage version, directed by Steven Berkoff, in 1989, that I thought was fake and repetitive; Baryshnikov was the only reason to see it, but it didn’t serve him especially well. Pita made this adaptation for Edward Watson, one of the Royal Ballet’s principal dancers, who has a narrow, geometric face that matches his marvelously elongated frame – the perfect physical equipment to play Gregor Samsa, the Czech bourgeois who awakes one day to find he’s been transformed into an insect.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Elegant 1940s Thrillers: The Spiral Staircase and Laura

Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1946).

Two of the most enjoyable and elegantly appointed thrillers of the Hollywood big-studio era came out two years apart – Laura in 1944 and The Spiral Staircase in 1946. Actually they belong to different genres. Laura is a murder mystery; The Spiral Staircase is a psycho-killer movie, one of the few classic examples from that period that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t direct. (Hitch turned out Shadow of a Doubt in 1943 with Joseph Cotten as Charlie Oakley, the “Merry Widow murderer” who provokes the fall from innocence of his small-town niece, played by Teresa Wright, who shares his name; and Strangers on a Train in 1951, wherein Robert Walker tries to crisscross murders with a handsome tennis champ played by Farley Granger.)

Friday, April 10, 2020

Living With Limits: Dancing With Rita Hayworth

Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs . . . Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. (J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World, 1962, p. 41)
The recent passing of my friend, the writer, broadcaster and co-founder of Critics At Large Kevin Courrier, prompted me to engage in some spontaneous and unexpected speculations about mortality and the finite nature of our charming little sojourns here on this odd earth.

Westerners who live in either Europe or North America don’t really like to talk about death, or even to think about it if possible. It’s a foreboding subject that fills us with fear and dread, probably as a result of our trained expectation of punishment for sins of one kind or another, of retribution in hell rather than a blissed-out vacation in Shangri-La heaven. This is unlike Easterners from any numbers of places, such as India, Japan or Tibet, let’s say, who don’t follow the same template of a deity, or a messiah, or some supernatural figure sitting on a throne in space who resembles Charlton Heston handing out post-mortem candies.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Off the Minnesota Strip: Searching for Reality

Mare Winningham in Off the Minnesota Strip (1980).

There wasn’t an ounce of pretense or melodrama in Mare Winningham’s portrayal of the sheriff’s wife in the recent HBO miniseries based on Stephen King’s supernatural thriller The Outsider. Winningham has stayed on the periphery of fame for four decades, but her work has been consistently superlative, whether in movies (like Georgia, where she’s a folksinger who has to deal with the neuroses of her sister, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), on television (she’s the rare touch of reality in Todd Haynes’s misbegotten adaptation of Mildred Pierce) or on stage (mostly recently in Girl from the North Country at the Public). You have to check Youtube to see how stunning she was even at twenty-one, when she starred in the 1980 TV movie Off the Minnesota Strip, as a girl from a small Minnesota town who runs away at fifteen and winds up hooking in New York City – until her insistence on pressing charges against the pimp who beat her up lands her back home in the untenable situation that made her flee to begin with.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

False Prophet: Corpus Christi

Bartosz Bielenia in Corpus Christi (Boze Cialo).

Did you know that Poland has a fake priest problem? You’d think parishioners would catch on pretty quickly, but apparently some of these impersonators are sincere in their ministries, lacking only the credentials. What would drive someone to be a sincere fake priest? How might they handle their duties? Corpus Christi (Boże Cialo), a religious high-wire act based on a true story, offers one tantalizing example.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Rolling Thunder Revue: Showmanship

Joan Baez  and Bob Dylan in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, now streaming on Netflix.

The Rolling Thunder Revue traveled around the U.S. and Canada in 1975 and 1976 in two long arcs with a brief respite in between. I saw it at the Montreal Forum when I was in my mid-twenties, and it was overwhelming – the musicality and the musical variety, the charisma of the performers, led by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, the eccentric but undeniable communal spirit. It was different from the other great rock concerts I sat through around the same time (the best were Dylan’s Before the Flood tour with The Band and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run tour). It was a nutty collage with a rotating cast; performers would join the principals onstage when the show opened in their neck of the woods and then sometimes they’d extend their stay and travel around with it for a while. (That’s what happened when Joni Mitchell appeared in the concert during the Connecticut piece.)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Past and Present Collide in Poetry from the Future: Lorette C. Luzajic’s Pretty Time Machine

“I may lie a lot. But never in my lyrics.” – Courtney Love

Imagine receiving a postcard from a friend who claimed to be writing to you from the year 2120, describing their vacation there through a series of artworks to which they were responding with duende. El duende is the spirit of evocation. It comes from inside as a physical/emotional response to art. It is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry as a bodily reaction to an artistic performance that is particularly expressive. The poet Lorca stated, "The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm . . . All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present." The works of Lorette Luzajic, like those of Lorca himself, are utterly drenched in duende.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Group: Novel into Film

Shirley Knight and Hal Holbrook in Sidney Lumet's The Group (1966).

When Sidney Lumet made a movie of Mary McCarthy’s The Group in 1966, it was a major event. The 1963 book, about the intersecting lives of a group of Vassar graduates from the class of 1933 up to the end of the decade, had been a sensational bestseller, partly because of the notorious second chapter, where one of the characters loses her virginity to a married artist. The casting of the eight young women with mostly unknown actresses rather than movie stars was hotly debated; Shirley Knight, twice nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar, was the only one close to being a known quantity. Pauline Kael, two years away from beginning her tenure as The New Yorker’s film critic , wrote a long, fascinating piece about the shooting of the picture for a glossy magazine. (You can read it in her second collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Yet the film never won general approval – or a single Academy Award nomination. It was, perhaps, the wrong time for a movie adaptation of a novel that straddled the line between social commentary and potboiler. The movies that dominated the art houses in 1966 were, aside from Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, mostly British imports that were less daring – and way less substantial – than they purported to be but that featured the most exciting generation of English actors in movie history. And within a year the old Hollywood had begun to break apart while the new Hollywood was taking over. Next to a picture like Bonnie and Clyde, The Group felt old-fashioned, already a relic from the late big-studio era, and it was quickly forgotten. So was McCarthy herself, not long after. A witty, literate writer who had broken through with the short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” in 1941 and the novel The Company She Keeps in 1942, who published one of the most devastating of all childhood memoirs, the Dickensian 1972 Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and who was as celebrated for her literary friendships and feuds (generally tinged with politics: though initially a member of the Partisan Review circle, she was, outspokenly, both liberal and anti-Communist), she was a culture hero for young women breaking away from conventional gender roles in the post-war era. But she didn’t class herself as a feminist, and the first wave of official feminists, in the early and mid-seventies, didn’t identify with her.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Danse Macabre: Three Works by the National Ballet of Canada

Greta Hodgkinson in Marguerite and Armand. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)
Given that dance seasons usually are organized at least a year in advance, the National Ballet of Canada couldn’t have anticipated the uncanny timeliness of a mixed program highlighting the body’s fragility, ephemerality and resilience – themes now resonating with a public spooked by the global spread of the new coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has recently declared a pandemic. A sure case of art imitating life.
None of the three works the company presented two weeks ago at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for The Performing Arts simulated a contagion – nothing as obvious or as graphic as that. Featuring the world premiere of Angels’ Atlas by Vancouver’s Crystal Pite, a remount of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma and the Canadian debut of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, the two-hours-plus evening more explored momentum and transience – metaphors, if you will, for the human condition in the throes of an existential crisis.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Parodies: The Confession of Lily Dare and Little Shop of Horrors

Nancy Anderson and Charles Busch in The Confession of Lily Dare. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

The last two shows I caught in New York before the theatre went dark were both lighthearted parodies, Charles Busch’s The Confession of Lily Dare (produced by Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village) and the latest revival of Little Shop of Horrors (at the midtown off-Broadway house the Westside). Busch has chosen an obscure subject for a 2020 audience – the mother-love melodramas that were popular in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, the days just before the Hays (Production) Code went into effect in Hollywood, imposing decades of infantilizing self-censorship on filmmakers. But the matinee audience sitting around me, howling with delight, seemed to get the references. (They must have been devoted TCM viewers.) In Lily Dare, the closest pals and associates of a notorious San Francisco madam, a whore named Emmy Lou (Nancy Anderson) and a gay honky-tonk pianist named Mickey (Kendal Sparks), meet at her grave and recall her meteoric rise and tragic downfall. Busch himself, a drag performer imbued with firecracker wit, hair-trigger timing and devastating charisma, played Lily in flashbacks.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Betraying Jane: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma.
Many people love Jane Austen’s novels for the romance of them, and the romance is very good: unsentimental, clear-eyed, with endings and couplings that seem absolutely right. But it’s her wit that has made her greatest novels classics of English literature, and it’s rather astonishing how many people don’t seem to realize this, including many TV and movie adapters of her work. Andrew Davies, who seems to have made PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre his permanent employer, recently supplied the network with his rendering of Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon. Unfortunately, it was a melodramatic horror, devoid of humor, let alone wit. A local theatrical musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice began with Elizabeth Bennet alone onstage reading out loud Austen’s famous first line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The actress then looked up at the audience and said, “But I don’t think that’s true,” thus proving the playwright was unfamiliar with wit and irony and Jane Austen in general. Things went downhill from there.

It’s generally agreed that Austen’s two greatest novels are Pride and Prejudice and Emma, so it’s no surprise that each has generated close to a dozen television and movie versions. The 1996 film edition of Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, features a very good script and a number of other pleasures, but Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam are rather uneven in their performances: Paltrow is sometimes stiff and stagey, and Northam’s Knightley is a little too wan and affable. I remember liking a little-seen 1996 TV version, shown on the A&E Network, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong and written by Davies, even though Davies made a great deal of the Gypsies who attack poor Harriet Smith and the turkey thieves who plunder Mrs. Weston’s coops, underscoring issues of class that needed none. And of course, the 1995 teen spoof Clueless, with Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, is great fun.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Iconosphere: The Ekphrastic Works of Walter Benjamin

The False Mirror, by Rene Magritte, 1929.
“Images, our great and primitive passion . . .”  – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or even experience. The word comes from the Greek words for “out” and “speak” respectively, and the verb "to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name." According to the Poetry Foundation "an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art." More generally, an ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired or stimulated by a work of art.
From the cave wall to the computer screen in the blink of an eye: that’s how swiftly the evolution our deeply ingrained appetite for images sometimes feels. The ekphrastic response to images is equally diverse and sweeping, and it includes work that is not customarily considered to be “poetry” in the common sense of the term but is definitely and defiantly poetic in scope, scale, subject and theme. As a profound craving, it is, in fact, one of the principal features that distinguishes us from all the other life forms around us: the urge to depict images and to watch them. We do seem to need reflected pictures of what we look like, of how we feel, and of what it all might mean. That blink of an eye was approximately 30,000 years long, a lengthy blink indeed, but in the subtle concept of an Iconosphere, the realm, domain, and even the kingdom of images can be examined and interpreted as both overlapping physical locations and also an emotional geography. One that continues expanding in a recursive and endless feedback loop daily.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice: Too Late for Satire

Joél Pérez, Ana Nogueira, Jennifer Damiano & Michael Zegen in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice came out toward the end of my freshman year in college. I had never encountered anything quite like it, and I couldn’t get enough of it – I saw it three times on its initial release. It was a comedy of manners set among Los Angeles’s hip and wealthy, a nouveau aristocracy just a little too old (i.e., in their thirties) and certainly too bourgeois to be the love children they fashioned themselves after but happily infected by the entrancing new ideas in the sun-baked SoCal air – smoking weed, experimenting with open marriage, challenging themselves to try to be completely honest. It was an up-to-the-minute satire yet it laughed at its characters with tenderness rather than disapproval. And the final moments, after the four title characters try to go to bed together and discover the limitations of their sexual freedom, were oddly touching: dressed up once again for a Tony Bennett concert, they walk among strangers who are their peers, looking them in the eyes, still devoted to putting the sixties ethic to the test. Mazursky (who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Tucker) was the most gifted purveyor of high comedy in American movies after Ernst Lubitsch, and he went on to make even better pictures over the next two decades. But Bob & Carol has a special quality – even now, I think, when it’s unmistakably a memento of a long-ago era.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Coal Country: Docudrama with a Pulse

Steve Earle (right) in Coal Country at The Public Theater in New York City. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Steve Earle’s haunting, melodic folk music is the lyrical pulse of the docudrama Coal Country, which is playing upstairs at the Public Theater. Earle wanders onto the stage of the Anspacher with his trademark air of bemused irony, sits down stage left and begins to sing a John Henry song, which functions as a general introduction to the play’s story about some other men and a big machine. In this case it’s the Massey Energy Company, which took over the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, made it non-union and ran it in violation of safety standards until it exploded in April of 2010, killing twenty-nine men. (The company’s chief executive, Donald Blankenship, was sentenced to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine, and when he got out he claimed he’d been framed by the government. He’s still using his fantastic version of the story as a platform for a hopeful political career.) The Public commissioned the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen, who had taken on the subject of innocent men on Death Row in The Exonerated , to develop the piece based on interviews with the Montcoal community, who show up in Coal Country in the roles of survivors and mourners, four men and two women. Blank also directed.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Honey Boy: Coming to Terms

Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy.

Shia LaBeouf does first-rate work in Honey Boy – not only as the leading actor but even more impressively as the screenwriter. The movie, an absolute knockout, is based on LaBeouf’s own relationship with his father, who is called James Lort on screen and played by LaBeouf, a trick that, as far as I know, no other film performer has ever tried to pull off. The role of LaBeouf is played by Noah Jupe as a twelve-year-old child actor named Otis whose father – divorced from his (off-screen) mother – acts as a combination guardian and manager when he’s on a shoot; and by Lucas Hedges as a twenty-two-year-old alcoholic hellion, arrested for the third time for driving under the influence and sent by a judge to rehab before he appears for his court date. Honey Boy opens with the older Otis filming a complicated action sequence that climaxes with a conflagration; it serves as a metaphor for his life and ends with a close-up of Hedges in a state of bewilderment and emotional paralysis in which performance and essence are indistinguishable. What follows is a montage of Otis’s chaotic, sex- and alcohol-fueled off-camera life culminating in the drunken car crash. Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo), the first of two counselors he sees in rehab, assures him he has post-traumatic stress. “No, I don’t!” Otis protests. “From what?” The question comes out of a decade of ferocious repression, and the flashbacks to the young Otis’s precarious, besieged life with his alcoholic, druggy father, who carries around a lifetime of rage that erupts in unpredictable bursts, sometimes verbal and sometimes physical, answer it.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Long Distance Runner: New Works by Yehouda Chaki

Yehouda Chaki, 1503, oil on canvas, 14 x 12 inches.

“I wonder if I'm the only one in the running business with this system of forgetting that I'm running because I'm too busy thinking. You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you by people holding water and bottles of iodine in case you fall, and to get you moving again. All I knew was that you had to run, run, run without knowing why you were running.” – Alan Sillitoe
Review of solo exhibition at Odon Wagner Gallery, Toronto, December  5–December 26, 2019.

Yehouda Chaki is a well-seasoned artist in the mature phase of his long career – in his prime, so to speak. During his many laps in the marathon race of modern painting, his skills have been honed the way a warrior’s are: in the intense heat of those fresh challenges faced with each new canvas. But he also knows well why he is running. And it’s not to win anything as simple as a race. He won that race a long time ago. He has become what we all might become if we dedicate our actions to a singular path: almost a balsamic reduction of himself, with each new painting also being an ultra-balsamic reduction of the history of painting per se, purified and reduced to its final essence. All he knows is that you have to paint, paint, paint.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Looking Back, Stepping Forward: A Choreographer’s Greatest Hits

Devon Snell in Echo Dark (2020). (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Farewells are rarely easy. But Christopher House, outgoing artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, has managed to turn his into a rousing valediction celebrating his 40-year-plus career as an award-winning dancer and choreographer. 

House Mix, the title given to the 100-minute program of past works his 12-member company is presenting at Harbourfront’s Fleck Theatre until Saturday, is one sparkling grand finale, an intelligently curated show of greatest hits that sends House, due to retire at the end of June, off in a blaze of glory.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Lucky One: Miss Americana (aka Taylor Swift: Miss Americana)

People often say that you need to be objective to be a good critic, but I’ve often found that being invested in a work can illumine more pathways into what it’s trying to do and how well it succeeds. Of course, it’s not necessarily a “better” perspective, whatever that means, just a different one. Being a Swiftie, I find the Taylor Swift on screen in Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (2020, a.k.a. Taylor Swift: Miss Americana) to be a familiar presence from all of the interview and behind-the-scenes footage of her that already exists, some of which is used in this documentary. As Swift suggests in an early interview, also included, fame and career longevity have always been on her mind, and the film grounds such abstract musings in raw and emotionally vulnerable moments, captured as they happen.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Timon of Athens: Lonely at the Bottom

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens. (Photo: Henry Grossman)

In Shakespeare’s late, one-of-a-kind tragedy Timon of Athens (now generally accepted by scholars as a collaboration with Thomas Middleton, co-author of The Changeling), a wealthy Athenian given to displays of staggering generosity whose fair-weather friends deny him when he runs into deep financial trouble turns his back on his city and goes to live in a cave. It’s a fable, but still the protagonist’s personality change is so extreme that, for modern audiences at least, I can’t imagine how it would work without a strong psychological reading of his character. When Simon Russell Beale played it at the National Theatre eight years ago under Nicolas Hytner’s direction, Timon’s excessive benevolence was provoked by a desperate need to have people like him, so his eviscerating bitterness in the second half played as fury at being deprived of what he had worked so hard and so continually to secure. Simon Godwin’s new version, which he staged with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has imported to Brooklyn for Theatre for a New Audience, lacks any real explanation for the shift except for the narrative circumstances – and they aren’t enough to make the play work dramatically.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Con Artists: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite

Choi Woo Shik, Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin and Park So Dam in Parasite.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s magnum opus Parasite is his first film to break through in a big way to American audiences. His creature feature The Host attracted some attention, and the presence of big-name stars in the (ludicrous) apocalyptic parable Snowpiercer and the (charmless and also ludicrous) children’s environmental parable Okja led to relatively big releases and a smattering of good reviews, but none of those films was taken as serious art. Parasite is being taken very seriously indeed.

Bong Joon-ho’s previous films possessed a cartoonish pulpiness, so it’s no surprise that Snowpiercer was based on a graphic novel. Its plot – an endlessly running train houses what’s left of humanity, divided by economic class – barges ahead like a movie storyboard followed too literally: nothing connects the independently drawn panels. Every new sequence raises all sorts of questions you’re not supposed to ask. The big leaps, broad strokes, and over-the-top “ideas” in his storytelling are meant to appeal to a fanboy’s unquestioning sensibility. His aesthetic could be summed up by a paraphrase of Nike’s motto: “Just go with it.” Parasite, however, aims higher. Here, Bong seems to be attempting a more realistic, more meaningful, examination of class in today’s world, where populism of both the liberal and conservative varieties is challenging the capitalistic status quo.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Sing Street and Porgy and Bess: Birthing a New Stage Musical and Burying a Classic

Sam Poon, Anthony Genovesi, Jakeim Hart and Gian Perez in Sing Street. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

I caught the sold-out final performance of Sing Street, the stage transcription of John Carney’s infectious 2016 teen movie musical, at New York Theatre Workshop a week ago, but fortunately it’s far from dead; it reopens on Broadway in the spring. This is a lovable show with an energy level that bounces up into the stratosphere, and there isn’t a performer on stage you don’t want to toss a bouquet at. Adapted from the third of Carney’s minimalist musical films, with their distinctive balance of the wised-up and the joyous – the other two are Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013) – Sing Street is set in the economically deflated Dublin of the 1980s. The hero is Conor (Brenock O’Connor), whose parents, Robert (Billy Carter) and Penny (Amy Warren), have decided, in the light of Robert’s recent unemployment, to downsize by taking Conor out of a private academy and enrolling him in a Christian Brothers free state school. His sister Anne (Skyler Volpe) is finishing university; his brother Brendan (Gus Halper), a witty stoner with a close relationship to Conor, has long since bothering even to venture out of the house. (Conor is the youngest.) Their parents’ marriage, never stable, is on the verge of coming apart. Conor’s relocation to Synge Street School, where he immediately runs afoul of the autocratic, sometimes brutal headmaster, Brother Baxter (Martin Moran), might be the last straw, but as it happens he makes musical friends. Conor plays guitar, and Brendan has taken a hand in his rock ‘n’ roll education, so when he becomes entranced by a young woman named Raphina (Zara Devlin), an aspiring model who lives in a home for adolescents from broken families across the street from the school, he pretends he has his own band and invites her to appear in a music video. And then he sets out to put that fictive band together, with his new pal Darren (Max William Bartos) as manager. They rehearse in the home of a boy named Eamon (Sam Poon) whose mother, Sandra (Anne L. Nathan), a local piano teacher, encourages them.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Close Encounters of the Enlightened Kind: Awakening My Heart

Tina Turner shared her own transformative heart experiences with Andrea Miller. (Photo: Nathan Beck).

I wish I had known about Awakening My Heart, this marvelous new book by Andrea Miller from Pottersfield Press, compiling her close encounters with multiple Buddhist luminaries, before I recently completed my new book on Tina Turner’s life and music. Though as a longtime practitioner myself, mostly of a mixture of Zen and Dzogchen, I was, of course, aware of Turner’s many-decades-long affiliation with Buddhist chanting and practice, Miller’s well-crafted conversations with celebrated seekers such as her would have greatly informed the portions of my book devoted to her philosophical pursuits.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Aloft: Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Aeronauts.

 . . . [A]ll balloon flights are naturally three-act dramas. The First Act is the launch: the human drama of plans, hopes, expectations. The Second Act is the flight itself: the realities, the visions, the possible discoveries. The Final Act is the landing, the least predictable, most perilous part of any ascent, which may bring triumph or disaster or (quite often) farce.
– Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air
Amazon Studios put The Aeronauts, one of the best films of last year, in theaters for about two minutes, then relegated it to its Amazon Prime streaming service and ceased all marketing of it. (It’s a film made for the IMAX screen, but if you blinked, you missed your chance to see it there.) A grand romantic movie about a grand, romantic venture, the film is full of thrills, action, and magisterial beauty. Some of it is terrifying, some of it is comic, and all of it is satisfying. It reunites two great young actors, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, so entrancing together in the otherwise inane The Theory of Everything. It soars and it plummets, much like the particolored conveyance whose single voyage is the film’s focus. It’s breathtaking, often literally.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Forgettable and the Forgotten: We All Fall Down and Ivan Passer

Eleanor Reissa and Stephen Schnetzer in We All Fall Down. (Photo: Nile Hawver)

The Huntington Theatre Company’s commitment to producing new work is admirable, but is We All Fall Down, the Lila Rose Kaplan piece receiving its premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion, really the best script they could find? It’s a cutesy sitcom about an assimilated Jewish family holding its first Passover Seder in their Westchester home, and when, around the last third of the play, the broad jokiness more or less gives way and Kaplan finally reveals why the hell the matriarch, Linda (Eleanor Reissa), has gathered them and a couple of friends to honor a tradition she has never believed in, the tone simply shifts to melodrama. Yes, that’s right: this play is firmly in the I-laughed-I-cried genre. There isn’t a moment of authenticity in the entire ninety-five minutes.