Monday, June 20, 2022

Transitions: The Secrets of Dumbledore and Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen

Jude Law and Dan Fogler in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.

The third chapter of the Fantastic Beasts series, The Secrets of Dumbledore, begins with an exquisite piece of fairy-tale storytelling.  In the forests of China, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) – the English magizooogist (i.e., scholar of and caretaker for magical creatures) at the center of the narrative, set in the 1920s – oversees the birthing of a calf by a rare equine animal known as a Qilin, pronounced Chillin. The mother has a woven golden mane and a face like a mask; her tender calf is skeletal, a golden glow pulsating through his fragile skin. When the minions of the series’ villain, Gellert Grindelwald, attack, felling the mother, Newt struggles to save the baby Qilin, but he fails. He has to watch, helpless, as the calf is kidnaped and the mother expires, a single tear rolling down her cheek. It’s only then that Newt sees what everyone has missed in the chaos:  that she actually gave birth to twins.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

White Knight: The Batman

Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman and Robert Pattinson as Batman in The Batman. (Photo: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.)

In his 1957 architectonic study Anatomy of Criticism, structuralist Northrop Frye sketches a taxonomy of literary heroes. Those of the Mythic mode, he argues, are gods: they’re superior in kind to other characters and to their environment. They defy the laws of nature and possess divine gifts. Examples include Zeus, Bacchus, and Shiva. In a tragic narrative, they die. In a comic one, they rejoin the heavenly realm. (The Christian narrative is neither tragic, nor comic, but ironic: Christ is crucified, yet raised to the Father on the third day.)

The heroes of the Romantic mode are superior to others and their environment only by degree. Their actions are marvelous, but they themselves are human beings. In tragedy, their deaths are elegiac and tied to the decay of the created order (think Beowulf). In comedy, they ride off into a pastoral setting (e.g., the cowboy in a Western).

Following this schema, contemporary superheroes dwell in a gray area between the Mythic and Romantic modes. Some, like Superman, are gods – different from us in kind. Others, like the X-Men, are mortals but possess mutations that give them supernatural powers. And still more, like Iron Man, don’t have genetic enhancements so much as advanced technology, making them more Romantic than Mythic.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Tease: Andy Warhol in Iran

Nima Rakhshanifar and Henry Stram in Andy Warhol in Iran. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The first play to be mounted on Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain stage in three years is a two-hander, Andy Warhol in Iran, inspired by the artist’s 1976 trip to Tehran to snap Polaroids of the Empress Farah Pahlavi, the Shah’s wife, in preparation for painting her portrait. (Barrington Stage commissioned the piece, which is one of several new plays promised in this post-COVID season.) The two characters are Warhol – played by Henry Stram, who appeared in Richard Jones’s productions of The Hairy Ape and Judgment Day at the Park Avenue Armory – and a revolutionary named Farhad (Nima Rakhshanifar). Farhad is part of a group that hatches the idea of kidnaping Warhol from his hotel room and holding him hostage as a way of telegraphing their cause. Their scheme isn’t worked out very well, and neither, I have to say, is the plot of Brent Askari’s play, where the kidnaping is implausibly amateurish (Farhad wields a toy gun painted to make it look less obvious) and Warhol continues to cower in fear even after he figures out that he’s in absolutely no danger.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Headtrip: Everything Everywhere All at Once

from left: Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Theories of the multiverse go as far back to ancient Greek philosophy, though we associate them today with the hard sciences. Part of the discussion, historically, involves speculation about whether ours is the best of all possible worlds. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (one of the most important early modern philosophers) made this idea the cornerstone of his work The Monadology. There, the German polymath addresses theodicy, or the problem of evil. He speculates that the world we inhabit must be the best of all possible worlds, since God – who is good and who could have chosen to make any world he wished – made this one. The presence of evil, then, must have some mysterious, salutary effect – perhaps contrasting goodness for us, so we appreciate it all the more. In a world without evil, he surmises, we wouldn’t be able to recognize goodness, since it would just be the banal, uniform state of affairs. A fish doesn’t notice water unless it’s thrown on land.

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Goodspeed Reopens with Cabaret

Aline Mayagoitia as Sally Bowles in Goodspeed's Cabaret. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

One of the most exasperating developments of the last several decades of theatre is the rewriting of classic plays and musicals, because the originals simply disappear – it’s as if they never existed. In the twenty-first century the alterations have mostly come out of an attempt to make the texts more palatable to contemporary audiences, which have a tendency to cheer every time a character in an older setting makes an anchronistic comment transparently inserted to produce precisely that response. Audiences are increasingly being manipulated into becoming Pavlov’s dogs, salivating when someone on stage in a show set in the forties or fifties sounds as if they’re describing Trump. Will we ever again get to see a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire that ends the way Tennessee Williams wrote it, with Stanley beginning to make love to Stella to distract her from the institutionalization of her sister Blanche, rather than replicating the unconvincing ending of the (otherwise magnificent) Elia Kazan movie, where Stella rushes upstairs to Eunice and the audience pretends that she’s actually thinking of walking out on her husband? It’s hard to believe that 1951 audiences didn’t see that rewrite for exactly what it was: a sop to the Production (Hays) Code Office. Now audiences, shamelessly coddled by recent versions of the play, are encouraged to believe that Stella has suddenly acquired a feminist consciousness.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Otherworldly: The Haunting Icons of Fatima Franks

Red Army II, 2022 digital print on metal, 48 x 48 inches.

“Art ceases to be solely a form of self-expression alone in the electronic age. Indeed, it becomes a necessary kind of shared research and of internal probing.” – Marshall McLuhan, Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting (1968).

1. Singularity

The powerfully evocative and resonant works of Fatima Franks are encountered by the entranced viewer as a truly nuanced hybrid of Eastern and Western traditions. In fact, it strikes me that they reveal a salient truth about the artistic urge to make images and our human appetite to absorb them into our nervous systems as a kind of remedy to the stresses of everyday living: the fact that there is no East or West in the immersive dimension of dreams. I instinctively refer to her otherworldly visions as icons, but not in the liturgical and canonical sense of that word, rather in the neutral sense of being iconic: a picture, image or other representation residing in analogy. She is also a visual storyteller par excellence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Off the Shelf: Law & Order, "American Dream" (1993)

Željko Ivanek (left) and Michael Moriarty in Law & Order, "American Dream"

The recent reboot of Law & Order is singularly dispiriting – the writing has as much life as unleavened dough and the acting of the jobbed-in actors rarely rises above the mediocre. The regulars (Camryn Manheim, Anthony Anderson and Jeffrey Donovan as “order” and Sam Waterston, Hugh Dancy and Odelya Halevi as “law”) are working very hard to pretend not to notice that no one has written characters for them to play. Only Waterston has evidently thrown in the towel: he gets more mummified with every episode. I doubt it’s his own fault:  he may be pushing eighty-two, but he just gave the performance of his career as George Shultz in the Hulu miniseries The Dropout.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Self-Renewal: New Tricks by Christopher House

Christopher House in New Tricks. (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Canadian modern dance innovator and Order of Canada recipient Christopher House officially became a senior citizen when he turned 65 in 2020. That’s the age of retirement in Canada and after 25 years as artistic director and chief choreographer of Toronto Dance Theatre, House exercised his prerogative and announced he was quitting the company.

He had planned to have a big send-off – a retrospective season showcasing some of the work he had created over the decades for one of the country’s leading modern dance troupes, in addition to a couple of new commissions made especially for him to dance in. But then the pandemic rudely disrupted what was to have been his grand finale, compelling House to leave his position without the anticipated fanfare.

The curtain never did come crashing down on his dancing career, which in retrospect is a good thing. Without a fixed ending, House has just kept on going, creating, and performing now as an independent solo artist. New Tricks, a multipart work whose premiere took place at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance during the last two weekends of March, is the first choreography he has made since becoming a pensioner, and it's among the best he has produced in years.

Monday, April 18, 2022

The Disintegration of the American Theatre: A Report from the Front

The cast of The Minutes, the new play by Tracy Letts at New York's Studio 54.

This is a review of The Minutes. It includes spoilers.

For the first half of its ninety-minute running time (sans intermission), Tracy Letts’s new play The Minutes (at Studio 54) is an inconsequential but frequently hilarious chronicle of a meeting of the government of a small town called Big Cherry located in an unspecified state. Working on David Zinn’s evocative set, the fine director Anna D. Shapiro – whose Broadway credits include Letts’s August: Osage County as well as The Motherfucker with the Hat and the beautiful 2014 revival of Of Mice and Men – and a flawless cast flesh out the idiosyncrasies, the long-festering petty tensions and the various ineptitudes of this motley group, two of whom (played by Blair Brown and the delightful Austin Pendleton, whose timing is both eccentric and unequalled) have served on the town council for decades. There are three main points of focus. One is the attempt of Mr. Hanratty (Danny McCarthy) to obtain funding for an accessible fountain in the town center, which goes down because hardly anyone in the room has any interest in Hanratty’s spirit of inclusiveness: as Mr. Breeding (Cliff Chamberlain), the most forthrightly insensitive person in the room, expresses it, the definition of “disabled” is an inability to do things that “normal” people have no trouble with. The second is the proposal of Mr. Blake (K. Todd Freeman) to institute a game called Lincoln Smackdown for the annual town heritage festival in which attendees try to knock down someone dressed as Abraham Lincoln (who, in real life, had no connection to Big Cherry). Meanwhile the newest addition to the council, Mr. Peel (Noah Reid of the TV series Schitt’s Creek), who missed the last meeting because he was out of town for his mother’s funeral, is struggling to catch up but hits a brick wall: another member has been unaccountably ousted, and he can’t get anyone to tell him why. Equally mysteriously, the town clerk (Jessie Mueller) has not distributed the minutes from the previous week that might explain his absence. Whenever Peel tries to stop the proceedings and address the mystery, the mayor (played by Letts himself) shuts him down on one pretext or another.

Friday, April 8, 2022

A Rejuvenated Sleeping Beauty at the National Ballet of Canada

Harrison James and Heather Ogden with artists of the National Ballet of Canada in The Sleeping Beauty. (Photo: Teresa Wood)

As a harbinger of spring, the National Ballet of Canada’s recent presentation of The Sleeping Beauty was an especially happy occasion. The first lavishly designed full-length ballet to open on the Four Seasons Centre stage since the March 2020 lockdowns, it burst on the eye like a garden of suddenly blooming flowers. Oh the sumptuousness of it all. And how sorely such choreographed extravagance, the ultimate in escapism, has been missed during the bleak days of the pandemic.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

A Dance to the Music of Time: 4-Dimensional Sculptures by Joachim Waibel

Nude portraits of antique clocks without their hands, silently holding their vigil and thus calmly reminding us of Henri Bergson’s bold 1911 admonition: “Time is invention, or it is nothing at all.”

“For reasons not at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that before we really know where we are, we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careening uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.”  – Anthony Powell, 1955.

When the French novelist Marcel Proust finally published his long-awaited seven-volume magnum opus In Search of Lost Time in 1913, after labouring meticulously, some would say obsessively, over his work for almost as many years as there were volumes, he was sharing with us the culmination of his devotion to memorializing not just memory but the actual passage of time itself. He had attempted and clearly succeeded in producing almost a balsamic reduction of himself and his reveries in words that are at once poetic and precise. Further, he had achieved a landmark, not only in literature but in the poetics of psychological introspection, coming in the end to almost perfectly embody the ethos of poet Wallace Steven’s definition of poetry: the search for the inexplicable.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Street Dance on Stage: In My Body by Bboyizm/Crazy Smooth

 Bboyizm dancers in Crazy Smooth’s In My Body. (Photo: Jerrick Collantes)

Hip hop is a ruthlessly athletic dance form that pushes the body to the limits. The acrobatic moves, requiring immense stores of physical prowess and stamina, are so demanding that break dancing is set to become an Olympic sport when the games resume in Paris in 2024. The fast footwork, head spins, aerial flips and floor drops take a toll. Not for nothing are break dancers called b-boys and b-girls, names connoting the youthful vigour needed to pull it off. Crazy Smooth, aka Yvon Soglo, knows.

The Benin-born, Gatineau-based break dancer has been involved in hip hop culture since 1997, going on to form Bboyizm, an award-winning street-dance company that has been instrumental in the preservation and proliferation of street dance in Canada since its founding in 2004. Today, at age 41, he’s still a b-boy, but a b-boy with knee problems and a middle-age crisis on his hands. How to keep dancing when the spirit is willing but the body is getting weaker with each advancing year? It’s a question that drives In My Body, a thrilling interactive street dance work whose Toronto premiere took place at the Bluma Appel Theatre, inside the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, on March 17.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Under the Radar: Charlatan, All Hands on Deck and Dream Horse

Ivan Trojan and Juraj Loj in Charlatan.

Agnieszka Holland’s Charlatan is based on the little-known story of Jan Mikolášek (an authoritative performance by Ivan Trojan), a Czech herbalist and faith healer who was arrested by the Communist government on a trumped-up murder charge in the 1950s. As a young man in the 1930s (played by Trojan’s son Josef), Jan is trained by an aging healer (Jaroslava Pokorná) to interpret the ailments of the sick by “reading” their urine; his apprenticeship is in direct defiance of his farmer father, who locks him in his room to keep him at home. Jan takes a hatchet to the bedroom door – and almost uses it on his father. When the old woman, Mühlbacherová, dies, he takes over her practice and his herbal treatments become so famous that during the war he is even called upon to dispense curatives to high-ranking Nazis. He gets in hot water from both sides: a Czech Gestapo officer (Joachim Paul Assböck) whose little girl he couldn’t save arrests him and beats him, and after the war he’s charged with collaborating. His protector is the Czech president, Zápotocky (Ladislav Kolár), who is one of his patients. But after the president dies Jan and his assistant, Frantisek Palko (Juraj Loj), are put on trial as charlatans and murderers.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Movie Artists: The Worst Person in the World & Cyrano

Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World.

Socialists are quick to point out that we’ll still have problems after the revolution – they’ll just be more interesting. With our material conditions satisfied, we’ll have the time and means to engage more passions, take more adventures, and pursue more lovers. Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s latest film, The Worst Person in the World, gives us a tantalizing window into this world. Its vision is a society where young people can afford sleek, modernist flats, pursue fulfilling avocations, and indulge the varieties of self-expression – all while holding jobs in the service sector. Who needs heaven when you can have social democracy? With this picture, Trier brings his Oslo Trilogy to a poignant close. The series began in 2006 when he and co-writer Eskil Vogt released Reprise, a Joycean exploration of artistic ambitions between friends that introduced audiences to Anders Danielsen Lie. Lie’s become something like Trier’s muse: the actor’s appeared in each of the Oslo pictures – devastatingly so in the second, Oslo, August 31st (2011). There he portrays a heroin addict who journeys from rehab to fatal relapse in the course of a day. Along the way, Trier folded in elements of existentialism and phenomenology that created a haunting mood of angst. He deepened that philosophical exploration with Louder Than Bombs (2015), an American film that explored the death of a photojournalist through the fragmented consciousness of her kin.

Monday, March 28, 2022

New on Criterion: The Last Waltz (1978)

The Band on stage in The Last Waltz (1978)

In the forty-four years since Martin Scorsese released The Last Waltz, his film of The Band’s final concert, at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, the movie hasn’t lost any of its visceral excitement, both as a piece of filmmaking and as a keepsake of one of the signal events in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the greatest concert movie ever made. (The other contenders, in my view, would be Bert Stern’s 1959 Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a chronicle of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which inspired Scorsese; Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense; and Scorsese’s one-of-a-kind 2019 Rolling Thunder Revue, which casts a backward glance at the all-star show, headed by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, that circled the continent in 1975 and 1976.) The new Criterion disc of The Last Waltz is as beautiful to look at as the film was in theatres in 1978. The veteran Hollywood production designer Boris Leven, borrowing the San Francisco Opera’s set for La Traviata and framing it with a trio of chandeliers, transformed Winterland into something that looks like a remnant of the Romantic era, and Michael Chapman, who had worked with Scorsese on Taxi Driver, lit it, while some of the most talented cinematographers in America (Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs, David Myers, Bobby Byrne, Michael Watkins and Hiro Narita) manned the other six cameras covering the spectacle. It was the first concert film with a shooting script, which Scorsese had drawn up; the stories about the filming, where his meticulous planning met the inevitable challenges and accidents of a once-in-a-lifetime event that had to be captured spontaneously, are sometimes funny and always thrilling. (You won’t want to skip the extras on the Criterion disc, which include two audio commentaries, a 1978 Canadian television interview with Scorsese and The Band’s Robbie Robertson, a twenty-fifth-anniversary doc about the making of the movie, and a supremely articulate new interview with Scorsese conducted by film critic David Fear. There’s also a single outtake, a twelve-minute jam session that occurred at the end of the concert and is the only surviving piece of archival footage.)

Friday, March 25, 2022

Aiming High: The National Ballet of Canada’s Mixed Program

Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James in After the Rain. (Photo: Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

A departure, a beginning, a wobble, a blast from the past. The ebb and flow of life united four works seen on the mixed program that the National Ballet of Canada presented at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts last week. Amid two world premieres – one each by company principal dancer Siphe November and guest choreographer Alysa Pires – was the company debut of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, and a reprise of Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations as the evening’s frolicsome conclusion. But one at a time.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Post-What: Just What Was Modernism, Anyway?

“By 'modernity,' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the so-called eternal and the supposedly immutable . . . “ – Charles Baudelaire, poet of the inexpressible.
It is very important, perhaps even crucial for some of us, that we come to have a full and clear grasp of what modernism actually was before even dreaming of approaching the thorny question of what so-called postmodernism might mean. Let’s not be too hasty here. Like most advanced forms of alternative thinking, at least on the surface, modernity emerged as a discussable notion during the mid-19th century in Europe, specifically France, which had already long established itself as a vanguard socially, politically and culturally, especially with the invention of the camera in about 1840. But also like most advanced ideas, the concept of the modern was imported by America and drastically enhanced before being blown up to global proportions.

In the context of art history, modernité, and the designation of modern art covering the early period from roughly 1860-1870, first entered the lexicon in the head, hands and pen of French poet Charles Baudelaire, whose 1864 essay entitled “The Painter of Modern Life” tossed his invented neologism like a conceptual hand grenade into the cultural marketplace. The radical symbolist poet, and possibly the first modern art critic, referred to “the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis and the responsibility which art has to capture and explore that experience.” 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Acting and Actors – The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act

The 1935 Broadway production of Awake and Sing!

The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler (Bloomsbury Publishing) is a gossipy, entertaining and informative history of Stanislavskian acting – how it developed in Russia at the Moscow Art Theatre and how two of Stanislavski’s associates, Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, imported it to American shores, where, through its dissemination by the Group Theatre in the 1930s, it became the Method. Butler has rounded up an impressive amount of material and presents it coherently and compellingly. I didn’t realize how little I knew about the tensions between Stanislavski and the M.A.T.’s co-director, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko; about the role each of the personalities who were drawn into Stanislavski’s circle played in the development of his approach to acting; about the effect Stalin’s rise to power had on the M.A.T. generally and on Stanislavski specifically – or certainly about Boleslavsky’s intriguing and rather crazy biography. No account I’ve read deals so clearly and in such dramatic detail with the break in the Group Theatre, when Stella Adler, its most gifted actress, challenged the weight Lee Strasberg, one of the company’s co-founders, placed on affective memory, where the actor digs into his or her past to unearth emotional dynamite to blast open a scene. Adler and Strasberg became the most important American acting teachers of the twentieth century. The Method’s examination of the differences in their styles and approaches and that of Sanford Meisner, another Group alumnus who became a famous and influential teacher, is fascinating. He identifies Adler’s greatest quality as her gift at script analysis; her book, compiled posthumously from her class notes, on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov, and to a lesser extent the one on American playwrights, bear him out.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Straight from the Heart: L-E-V

L-E-V Dance Company performing Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart. (Photo: Stefan Dotter for Dior)

Even though Valentine’s Day had come and gone by the time Israel’s L-E-V contemporary dance company appeared at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre at the beginning of March, hearts were everywhere, starting with the company’s name, the Hebrew word for heart. Even the techno beat dance it presented – Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart – had the word in the title. Then there were the tattoo-like costumes worn by the six turbo-charged dancers. Designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of Christian Dior Couture, the stockinged-feet unitards were emblazoned with a bleeding heart on the left side of side of the chest. Spot a pattern? 

Monday, March 14, 2022

New from Criterion: Love Affair (1939)

Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer's shipboard first meeting in Love Affair (1939).

The filmmaker Leo McCarey has been largely forgotten, but his Hollywood career spanned four decades and bridged the silent and talkie eras. Like Frank Capra, he received his training in silent comedy: he directed more than seventy-five shorts, and he was responsible for the collaboration of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. When movies began to speak, he put his expertise at working fast and off the cuff to great effect – he directed the most brilliant of the Marx Brothers’ early Dadaist masterpieces, Duck Soup (1933), as well as helming pictures that starred W.C. Fields, Mae West and Eddie Cantor. His thirties output included two memorable comedies, Ruggles of Red Gap (with Charles Laughton as an English butler in the Wild West) and The Awful Truth, where Cary Grant strives to win back his ex-wife,  played by Irene Dunne. It also includes the romantic melodrama Love Affair, starring Dunne and Charles Boyer, which Criterion has just put out in a glistening print restored from sources in the Museum of Modern Art collection.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Last Stop: Ballerina Sonia Rodriguez’s Farewell Performance in A Streetcar Named Desire

Sonia Rodriguez as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Blanche DuBois, one of the most memorable female characters born of the theatre, is a hot mess of narcissism, nymphomania and other neuroses wrapped in white satin. A nervous breakdown just waiting to happen. The vaporous southern belle at the centre of John Neumeier’s ballet version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire requires a seasoned dancer who can peel back the layers to expose the fragility behind the tragedy of her fall. Sonia Rodriguez is that dancer.

Born in Canada, raised in Spain and trained in Monaco, the National Ballet of Canada principal is one of the country’s greatest dancer-actresses. She doesn’t just perform a part; she inhabits it, bringing it fully, palpably, to life. That’s her legacy, what she will be remembered for after leaving Canada’s largest ballet company following an illustrious 32-year career.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Divertissement: Death on the Nile

Sophie Okonedo in Death on the Nile.

Watching Kenneth Branagh’s entirely entertaining remake of Death on the Nile, the Agatha Christie mystery, I thought I’d finally guessed what he and the screenwriter, Michael Green, had been going for in their 2017 adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Death on the Nile, which revolves around the murder of an heiress named Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) on her honeymoon – which is also an extended wedding party on a boat on the Nile – is played as a combination of high comedy and melodrama. In Orient Express the tone went out of whack: Green and Branagh took the material, which was inspired by the kidnaping of the Lindbergh baby, way too seriously, so the high comedy (a feature of Christie whodunits) got lost and the narrative played as if the filmmakers thought they were making a tragedy. The movie was glum, and once the train got stopped in its tracks halfway through, the glumness hung in the air like a bad smell. Even a first-rate cast, headed by Branagh himself as the vain Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, couldn’t rescue it.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Acres of Time: Signifying Solace

Handmade sonic instrument used in Lance Austin Olsen’s sound environment.

Lost Foundry/Fukushima Rising: a collaborative site-specific installation curated by Sue Donaldson, featuring paintings/soundtracks by Lance Austin Olsen and a sculptural diorama by Jeremy Borsos, from February 4-March 6, in Victoria, British Columbia.   

“What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the actual links which exist. It's not what you see that is art; art is the gap between the things you see.” – Marcel Duchamp

The obscure psychic explorer Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) once confidently asserted, “The medicine of the future will be music and sound,” a seemingly cryptic remark that comes more clearly into focus when one contemplates the power of sonics to alter everything from our perception of time and space to the condition of our own bodies. Especially subsequent to 1945, when the compositions of John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow called into question the entire landscape of silence we had previously overlooked, and then later on in the twentieth century, when ambient music created a whole other dimension to listening in a statue of suspended animation approaching rapture, Cayce may finally be coming into his own.

Monday, February 28, 2022

What the Constitution Means to Me: Amateur Night

Cassie Beck in What the Constitution Means to Me. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In my American Drama class, when we turn from the golden age of Broadway drama to more experimental work of the sixties, seventies and eighties, I like to ask my students if they think that something like Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem” For Colored Girls or Jane Wagner’s one-woman piece for Lily Tomlin, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, or Christopher Durang’s two-hander Laughing Wild, where two wildly dissimilar characters monologue in the first half and interact in a dream in the second, is really a play. The question generally arouses considerable discussion, but it’s essentially disingenuous; obviously I believe these are plays (and fine ones) or I wouldn’t include them in my syllabus. But then there’s Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, currently being presented by Boston’s Huntington Theatre at the Emerson Majestic Theatre, as part of the show’s North American tour. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Horton Foote Playwriting Award, was nominated for the Tony and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, yet it isn’t a play at all, in the sense that a play dramatizes something, i.e., adheres to some kind of dramatic structure. Most of it is a screed that details all the ways in which the U.S. Constitution disempowers women. The set-up is that the Schreck character, played originally by the playwright and currently by Cassie Beck, reconstructs the speeches she used to give as a teenager, explicating items in the Constitution in competitions sponsored by the American Legion, in order to amass tuition money for college. Now, in her forties, she riffs on them – personalizing them, drawing on the experiences of her mother, aunt and grandmother and great-grandmother, all victims of domestic abuse. Her stories are horrifying, enraging and inspiring; the way in which Schreck uses them to work up the audience is cruder and more manipulative than the cheapest melodrama. In fact, the main difference between this section (which takes up most of the running time) and cheap melodrama is that even a third-rate writer of melodramas has some skill, however rudimentary. If Schreck is a playwright, I’m a heart surgeon.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Diatribe: Prayer for the French Republic

Yair Ben-Dor, Molly Ranson and Francis Benhamou in Prayer for the French Republic. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Prayer for the French Republic, now playing in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center, is Joshua Harmon’s response to the wave of anti-Jewish incidents in Paris in 2016 and 2017. And it’s a hefty response – three acts, three hours’ running time, during which the characters never stop lecturing the audience and, indeed, each other. Harmon has provided a narrator, a cosmopolitan atheistic Jew named Patrick Salomon (Richard Topol) who recites for us the history of atrocities against Jews. But it’s not clear why the playwright feels the need of a commentator at all, since he’s built rants into the dialogue of both Patrick’s sister Marcelle Benhamou (Betsy Aidem) and her neurotic twentysomething daughter Elodie (Francis Benhamou). Even the ghost of their grandmother Irma (Nancy Robinette) strides downstage to explain to us the symbolic significance of her tombstone – the grave of a Jewish woman who, along with her husband Adolphe (Kenneth Tigar), survived the Holocaust without leaving France, out of sheer luck. Prayer for the French Republic is barely a play at all. There are characters – nearly a dozen of them, some in modern-day Paris and some in an intercut flashback set between 1944 and 1946 – but they’re mostly mouthpieces for Harmon’s disquisition on anti-Semitism.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Neglected Gem: The Whole Wide World (1996)

Vincent D'Onofrio as Bob Howard in The Whole Wide World (1996).

As Bob Howard, the pulp writer who romances a small-town schoolteacher in 1930’s West Texas in The Whole Wide World, Vincent D’Onofrio gives the best performance of his career. D’Onofrio uses his thick, squarish pugilist’s looks; a walrus mustache he tries out, or an outsize Mexican hats, sits on his face with unexpected ease – absurd appendages you suddenly realize complete him. He gives Howard a physicality that’s both lumbering and exploratory: tracking through the cornfields or down a country road, he always seems to be stretching toward something, a world only he can see. That’s the heart of Bob Howard, the man who created Conan the Barbarian: he lies such a fervent life in his head, rehearsing his stories in the fields or chanting them like fearful verse, bent over his typewriter, that he disappears into it. Conan is Bob’s romantic version of himself, part monster, part seducer. When his ailing mother (Ann Wedgeworth) interrupts him to call him to the phone, she has to shout to be heard above the din of his imagination. For this bold, possessed man, who brawls against the world every time he marks out a new tale, and whose braggadocio and non-conformity mask deep-flowing misanthropy and despair, D’Onofrio seems to invent his own style – a kind of homegrown pulp-theatrical machismo. It’s as if he’d crossed the stylized all-American forthrightness of John Wayne with the romantic sweep and tormented soul credited to nineteenth-century actors like Edmund Kean and Edwin Booth.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Stillpoint: Buddhism and the Avant-Garde

Franz Kline, Untitled, New York, 1952.


“The cultural environment is merely the reflection of what is in us, and if the cultural environment has changed, then something in us must have changed.” – Suzy Gablik, 2004.

Whenever I consider these two subjects and themes, which is something I tend to do several times a week, I can’t help thinking that the reason so many avant-garde artists either practice Buddhism, or are at least deeply influenced by its vibe, is the basic and simple fact that even though it’s more than two and a half millennia old, the philosophy that originated in India and swiftly moved to the East and West already was and still is a highly experimental venture in its own right. Few things, after all, could be more radical and avant than the notion that there is actually no tangible, abiding and independent self, and that impermanence is really the only guiding principle upon which we can construct a code of conduct grounded in compassion.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The Tap Dance Kid: Which Show Are We In?

Alexander Bello and Trevor Jackson in The Tap Dance Kid. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The return of the Encores! series to City Center over the weekend after two years in hiatus was eagerly anticipated, but the occasion – a revival of the 1983 musical The Tap Dance Kid – turned out to be dispiriting. To start with, the show, which I missed the first time out, isn’t very good. Charles Blackwell’s book (based on a novel by Louise Fitzhugh – of Harriet the Spy fame – called Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change) is a retread of the antique melodramatic plot about the boy who has to fight his stiff-backed father’s bias against show business to follow in his dancer-choreographer uncle’s footsteps and dance his heart out on the stage. Here he’s a ten-year-old Black kid from the Buffalo suburbs named Willie (played by the personable Alexander Bello) whose mother, Ginnie (Adrienne Walker), danced with her kid brother Dipsey (Trevor Jackson) and their gifted father when they were children. Ginnie raised Dipsey in cheap hotels on the road and took care of him when Daddy Bates went on benders. Then she married William (Joshua Henry), an ambitious lawyer who promised her a safe, respectable life. He delivered, but his vision of family life and of what bringing glory to the race is highly restrictive. He’s suiting up his son, who is bored in school but deliriously happy when he’s taking tap lessons from his uncle, for a career in law, while his teenage daughter Emma (Shahadi Wright Joseph), a bright young woman who covets that career for herself, can do nothing to gain his approval. He’s not interested in Emma; she’s only a girl. And he bullies his wife, silencing her objections and making jokes about the troublesome women in this family. When Willie’s bad grades provoke his father into taking away his tap shoes and banning Dipsey from his home, the boy runs away to his uncle, who’s rehearsing a musical downtown that he hopes will be his ticket to Broadway. What it needs to succeed, in case you haven’t guessed, is a talented tap dance kid.

Monday, January 31, 2022

The North Water: Elemental Tragedy

Jack O'Connell and Stephen Graham in The North Water.

Set in the 1860s on an English whaling ship that meets disaster in Arctic waters, the limited series The North Water (on AMC+) finds extraordinary beauty in a staggeringly grim narrative. The writer-director is Andrew Haigh, one of the most gifted of the current crop of British filmmakers. Haigh helmed the half-hour HBO series Looking, about a trio of gay men living in San Francisco, which culminated in a very fine TV movie; for the big screen he’s directed 45 Years with Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, about a four-and-a-half-decade marriage that is disrupted by an unexpected remnant of the husband’s past, and Lean on Pete, perhaps the most unusual film I’ve ever seen about the relationship between a boy and a horse. His taste runs to the stark; even Lean on Pete falls into that category. And The North Water, which Haigh adapted from a 2016 novel by Ian McGuire, is truly brutal. The protagonist is Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), who signs on as ship’s surgeon after his military experience in India goes sour and wrecks a promising career in medicine. Sumner arrives on board haunted by nightmares as well carrying an opium jones, yet he turns out to be the most salvageable of the main characters. Both the captain, Brownlee (Stephen Graham), and the first mate, Cavendish (Sam Spruell), are privy to the scheme of the ship’s owner, Baxter (Courtenay), to take the ship, The Volunteer, into ice-bound northern waters with the aim of destroying it for the insurance. And Cavendish’s companion, Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), is a sadistic brute who rapes and kills the ship’s cabin boy (Stephen McMillan) and then frames a fellow sailor for his murder.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Exposure: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog, currently streaming on Netflix.

Reading the rapturous reviews of The Power of the Dog is a bit like talking to an anti-vaxxer. The experience is so disorienting – the depiction of reality so inverted – that after a while you begin to question your own sanity. I forced myself to sit through the movie a second time, just to be sure I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t. Jane Campion has made a pretentious, incoherent, excruciating adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. Many audience members may feel similarly, I suspect, but raising questions can invite gaslighting from critics ready to anoint the film. Witness Slate editor Jeffrey Bloomer, a self-described Campion fan, who found the viewing experience “absolutely miserable.” In response to his heresy, the poor man is led by reviewer Dana Stevens through some kind of struggle session to get him to recant his view and assent to the picture’s inscrutable wisdom. Watching them try to decode the movie like an ancient rune is disturbing. It seems every year brings us an empty art house film that the chattering classes adore. But The Power of the Dog has to rank near the top for eliciting such an Orwellian campaign of misinformation. 

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Inhospitable: Marianne Elliott’s Revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company

Patti LuPone and Katrina Lenk in Company. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

There’s something undeniably poignant about seeing a Sondheim musical about New York in New York weeks after his death and mere months after theaters have opened up again. In the new revival of the 1970 Company, the fact the book (originally by George Furth) has been updated (by director Marianne Elliott, working in collaboration with Sondheim) and many of the roles have been gender-swapped raises no alarms with me, mainly because I think the material, despite its acclaim and legendary status, has never worked, so why not mix things up? What are Company’s faults? First, Bobby, the main character, is largely a cipher. He doesn’t even have a profession – all he does is have dinner with friends. Second, the central mystery of Bobby to his friends – why he isn’t married – is no mystery at all. If his friends are examples of what marriage is, it’s an unmitigated disaster that no one in his right mind would undertake. And third, the big moment when one of those friends, the uber-sophisticate Joanne, suggests that he needs someone to take care of him, leading him to ask, “But who will I take care of?,” feels less like an epiphany than a writerly conceit. It also doesn’t seem like the result would be to convince him he’s ready for marriage, especially when there’s no spousal candidate in sight. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Belfast: Memories of an Irish Childhood

Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe in Belfast.

Watching the black-and-white trailers for Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s fictionalized memoir of growing up Protestant in the titular city at the peak of the Irish Troubles (the film begins in the summer of 1969), I feared that he’d been caught in the trap of turning his childhood into self-conscious neo-realism, like Alfonso Cuarón in the strenuously overrated Roma. I needn’t have worried. Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography opens in almost hallucinatory color that reveals Belfast in all its complexity, modernist and glittering as well as enshrining gorgeous old buildings. And when the color morphs into black and white, it’s the bustling, lived-in black and white of the Parma Bertolucci and his photographer, Aldo Scavarda, captured in his the 1964 Before the Revolution or, as a friend observed, the black and white of the pictures Tony Richardson made in the late fifties and early sixties out of the great English New Wave dramas Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer (both shot by Oswald Morris) and A Taste of Honey (shot by Walter Lassaly). Belfast isn’t quite up to those movies – or the other movies I thought of while I sat through it, John Boorman’s 1987 Hope and Glory (based on his memories of a childhood in London during the Second World War) and Jim Sheridan’s 2002 In America (a too-little-known magic-realist marvel about a struggling Irish family living illegally in Hell’s Kitchen). But Belfast is plenty good enough. It’s vibrant and vivifying, and I was carried away by it.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Ballad of Paul and Yoko: Artfully Linked

Yoko Ono; Paul McCartney.


Yoko One, "Death of Samantha," Approximately Infinite Universe, 1973.

The Firemen, Strawberries, Ships, Oceans, Forest, 1993.

To think of Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney in the same sentence, let alone in the same artfully appreciative article, might strike some people as a surprising proposition, and yet as a narrative ballad they share much more in common that you might at first imagine. Not just the fact that they shared an intimate partnership with a famous musician and pop star but also the fact that they have often been collaterally damaged victims of an ongoing mythology about who they actually were and what they actually did. To some extent, this might just be the occupational hazard of any huge cultural icon, but it could also be a revealing indication of how much we all want to believe what we want to believe, despite what the facts and evidence may show us otherwise. Luckily for us however, Peter Jackson’s masterfully edited documentary called Get Back at least contributes somewhat to their rehabilitation at celebrities anonymous.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Lost Daughter, and Notes on Novice Directors

Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter.

When first-rate actors turn into directors, one thing you can usually count on is the quality of the performances. Rebecca Hall’s work with Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga in Passing is so finely tuned and so subtle that it feels almost preconscious, as if Hall kept catching the two women in the moments before their identification with their characters had translated into action. That description makes it sound as if the actresses weren’t actually engaged in the process of acting, because any good teacher will tell you that acting is action, and when actors don’t play an action (otherwise known as an objective) what they generally wind up producing is a wash of generalized emotion. (That’s what’s happened to Kate Winslet’s work over the last ten years.) But Thompson and Negga aren’t generalizing; they’re so deeply engrained in their characters that it’s as if Hall were simply on their wavelength, recording their process – except, of course, there’s nothing simple about pulling that off. I sometimes had that experience watching the actresses in Ingmar Bergman’s movies (including some of the bad movies) – the sense that the relationship between them and the director was as intimate as the one between a great photographer and his or her subject. The comparison seems especially apt in the case of Passing, which has the feel of black-and-white photographs from the twenties and thirties – and that may be the reason the movie makes some viewers impatient or bored. It’s a piece of experimental filmmaking in which the novice director is striving to get on the screen states of being that haven’t been dramatized before. 

Monday, January 3, 2022

Nightmare Alley and The Tragedy of Macbeth: Cinematic “Art”

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in Nightmare Alley.

William Lindsay Gresham’s tough, darkly lyrical 1946 novel Nightmare Alley moves from the carny life to the world of phony spiritualists – scam artists who make a living off the sorrow of rich people trying desperately to contact loved ones on the other side of the grave. (In real life Harry Houdini was one of the more celebrated marks.) Gresham’s anti-hero is Stanton Carlisle, who joins a carnival and partners up with his lover, Zeena, to revive the mentalist act she used to perform with her husband Pete, a hopeless drunk who dies when Stan hands him a flask of wood alcohol. (It’s an accident: both the poison and a flask of potable gin have been stored in the same trunk. But as Gresham writes the incident, it’s one of those sinister acts of wish fulfillment, like Bruno’s murdering Guy’s blackmailing wife in Strangers on a Train.) Stan proves to be so good at the act that he soon outgrows it and takes it on the nightclub circuit, with a younger, prettier girlfriend as his assistant – Molly, whose carny performance used to involve an electric current and an alluring skimpy costume: sex and sci-fi “magic” intertwined. That’s when he crosses paths with a higher type of parasite, a psychoanalyst named Lilith who teams up with him to take advantage of her grieving patients. Stan and Lilith become lovers too, and their main target is a fabulously wealthy man named Ezra Grindle who is suffused with guilt over the fate of the girl he impregnated when he was a young man. Gresham never lets us forget how important a role sex plays in both low and high-class scams. (The Library of America, faithful purveyor of forgotten treasures, republished the book about a quarter of a century ago in a first-rate collection called Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.)