Monday, June 17, 2024

Authenticity: Mary Jane and Strategic Love Play

Rachel McAdams and Susan Pourfar in Mary Jane.

The title character in Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane, currently on Broadway, is the single mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy named Alex who was born with cerebral palsy, lung disease and a number of attendant maladies including a paralyzed vocal cord. Mary Jane (a luminous performance by Rachel McAdams) balances a job as a real estate assistant with caring for Alex in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment – she sleeps on a pull-out couch in what looks to be the only other room – with the help of a series of nurses. Some fall asleep on their shift or complain that she doesn’t provide enough perks, but the one we meet, Sherry (April Mathis), is dedicated and has become a friend. Mary Jane, an outgoing, positive woman, has also made friends with the superintendent, Ruthie (Brenda Wehle), who is fixing the drain in the kitchen sink when the play opens; she likes the people whom she calls on for assistance to know how much she appreciates them. Mary Jane is also generous enough to advise and buck up new mothers who have found themselves on the same strange, terrifying road; we meet one, Brianne (Susan Pourfar), who is making a list under her guidance of the information she needs that the doctors may have neglected to supply, so that she doesn’t have to ferret it out for herself. About halfway through the play, which is performed without an intermission, Alex stops breathing and Mary Jane, Sherry and her college-age niece Amelia (Lily Santiago), a serious, straightforward young woman who turns out to be excellent in a crisis, have to tend to him while waiting for the paramedics to take him to the hospital. In the second half, the action shifts to that location, where everyone calls Mary Jane “Mom” and where Alex has been in residence for nearly two months. Here we meet four other women: Dr. Toros (Matthis), Kat (Santiago), who runs the hospital’s music therapy program; Tenkei (Wehle), a Buddhist chaplain; and Chaya (Pourfar), another mother with a desperately sick child at home.

Mary Jane avoids every trap that a play with this kind of narrative could fall into.  It contains no melodrama or sentimentality; in fact, not one scene looks or sounds like anything I’ve encountered in another play or movie or TV drama. Herzog has refused to shape the work as a parade of misery or as a triumph of the spirit, though it’s impossible to watch it without admiring the protagonist’s resilience and measured optimism. So you never feel you’re being told what to feel, which expands the play’s emotional scope because we feel so many things at the same time. Not just Mary Jane herself but all eight of the supporting characters as well are fully formed and completely distinctive; under Anne Kauffman’s fine direction, the four actresses differentiate them so precisely and sink so easily into them that they’re barely recognizable, if at all, when they show up in the second act in a new set of roles. Herzog based the play in part on her experience with her daughter Frances, who died at eleven of nemaline myopathy, and it has the freshness and the freedom, for lack of a better word, of lived experience. But though Herzog’s experience informs it, it’s her honesty and sensitivity and the sureness of her craft that make it so good.

We fall in love with Mary Jane, we also fall in love with Rachel McAdams, though in truth many of us who have been watching her work since Red Eye and the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows did so long ago. McAdams is a vivid, even vivacious, but her great gift is her profound normalcy; the characters she plays are always in a normal emotional range, even when they are in extremis, as Mary Jane is, or witnesses to extreme distress, like her Boston Globe reporter in Spotlight. Herzog didn’t write big scenes for the character because Mary Jane is the opposite of a scene maker, yet the performance is mesmerizing. The closest she comes to a big scene is part of her interaction with Kat, where Mary Jane finally verbalizes her frustration with the music therapy program. Because of Alex’s bodily issues and his inability to communicate, it’s impossible to tell whether he’s cognitively damaged, but she has always operated under the assumption that he is capable of understanding her. She keeps telling him that someone will be coming to play music for him, yet this is the first time Kat’s schedule or that of her colleague has happened to mesh with Alex’s, and Mary Jane believes that her broken promises to him are causing him disappointment – that rather than benefiting him, the program is in fact causing him harm. Her complaint (in a beautifully written speech) is her single moment of anger and defeat, and McAdams’s authenticity and understatement make it unforgettable.

Archie Backhouse and Letty Thomas in Strategic Love Play. (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Strategic Love Play, in the intimate Soho Theatre, is a two-hander about a young man, Adam (Archie Backhouse), and a young woman, Jenny (Letty Thomas), who meet on the internet and agree to have drinks at a pub. Adam recently broke up with his girlfriend, and the love of his life is his best friend, who is married to someone else; he has imperiled that friendship with a drunken phone call in which he confessed his romantic feelings for her and put down her husband. Jenny has been so embittered by a history of romantic failure and a self-destructive impulse that, true to form, she plants a series of land mines on this first date with Adam. He sticks around for a while out of politeness, but eventually he gives up and walks out, confirming her expectations. But then, unexpectedly, he comes back with two more pints and a package of crisps, and the playwright, Miriam Battye, a talented writer with a finely tuned ear for dialogue, works hard to provide a reason for the turnaround. The two actors are splendid, especially Backhouse, and there’s never a moment in the play’s ninety-minute running time when we aren’t engaged by their depiction of the two characters. But it can’t overcome our sense that when, instead of getting out of an unpleasant encounter with a woman who seems dangerously on the edge of either explosion or implosion while the getting is good, Adam elects to return for more, it has turned into some other play.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


Monday, June 10, 2024

American Plays in London: Machinal and Long Day’s Journey into Night

Rosie Sheehy in Machinal. (Photo: Foteini Christofilopoulou)

The English director Richard Jones did a fine job with Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, which began at the Old Vic and was showcased at the Armory in New York seven years ago. But his take on another 1920s expressionist classic, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, which just closed at the Old Vic, is a mistake pretty much from beginning to end. Machinal, inspired by the Ruth Snyder murder trial, is a feminist take on the protest play that was more or less forgotten for decades after its 1928 premiere and rediscovered when the Public Theatre revived it in 1990. (Arthur Hopkins directed the original production on a set designed by the legendary Robert Edmond Jones, with Zita Johann in the leading role.) Like other signal American expressionist screeds of the era, The Hairy Ape and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, Machinal lashes out at the mechanized society that squashes individualist impulse and wrecks the soul, but Treadwell was the first playwright to identify that society as specifically patriarchal. The protagonist, known for the first half of the play only by the emblematic title the Young Woman, slaves in an office until her boss proposes marriage; she accepts him because he can make her life and that of her widowed mother comfortable (and, we assume, she’ll lose her job if she turns him down). But he’s insensitive and self-involved and he repels her physically. She finds childbirth torturous and doesn’t feel any love for her baby; Treadwell is the first dramatist to put post-partum depression on the stage. It isn’t until the Young Woman, finally referred to her by her name, Helen, goes to a speakeasy with a friend and is picked up by a handsome young adventurer who takes her to bed that she experiences any semblance of freedom and happiness. When the affair is over she kills her husband and is sentenced to the electric chair.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Olé! Don Quixote Sweeps Toronto Off Its Feet

Rex Harrington (centre) and Jason Ferro (left) withaArtists of the Ballet in Don Quixote. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

The National Ballet of Canada's North American premiere of Carlos Acosta's vibrant production of Don Quixote is an unmitigated triumph – a distinctive reimagining that breathes new life into this classic work originating from Marius Petipa's 19th-century Russian choreography. Acosta cemented his reputation as one of the greatest male dancers of his generation through his performances as the dashing barber Basilio, a central role in Don Quixote. With this production, first premiered by the Royal Ballet in 2013 and later remounted for Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2022, Acosta puts his stamp on a work that showcased his talents throughout his illustrious career. The production opened at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on June 1, with performances running until June 9.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Deep Listening: The Immersive Music of Rosanna Gunnarson and Karin Johansson

Cover: Dan Froberg

I Grunda Vikar Ar Bottnarna Mjuka, 2024
(Outerdisk Recordings, Gothenberg Sweden)


“When they trailed their spikes over the strings, the strings sounded again; but they played in a new way, for now they were tuned to another pitch.” – August Strindberg

“The rest is silence.” – Hamlet’s last words

I once knew an artist, Mario Reis, who told me in a sotto voce tone that he desperately wanted to capture what he called the slow accretion of time, in a painting that would contain the true sediment of time. Not a mere representation of that phenomenon, mind you, he emphasized, but the actual sediment itself, splayed out on the canvas for onlookers to behold in all its fleeting and melancholy essence. He then proceeded, over the course of several years, to immerse his large stretched canvases in rivers, lakes, bays and occasionally oceans, allowing the silt to autograph his paintings, using the riverbeds and rocks as living brushes to establish a base upon which he would subsequently improvise his own subtle stylistic markings. His pictures thus became snapshots of time itself, and also left a residue of flowing watery movements amounting to frozen music. They stunned me in their beauty as artifacts which skillfully narrated nature as a sequence of uncontrolled and uncontrollable moments.

Monday, June 3, 2024

London Tide: Dickens and Brecht

The cast of London Tide at the National Theatre, London. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

As I think is often the case with the iconic nineteenth-century realists, Charles Dickens’s style has never fitted snugly into the official definition of realism. It’s realism embellished, realism plus. In his characters, especially the most memorable ones, the qualities that delineate them, like Miss Havisham’s desire for vengeance against the male sex in Great Expectations and Mr. Micawber’s eternal optimism in David Copperfield, are so exaggerated that the characters become metaphors for those qualities. Dickens’s genius for inventing imaginative visual symbols that sit alongside the characters – for Miss Havisham, the stale, mice-ridden wedding cake and the clock stopped at the moment when her intended groom abandoned her at the altar – enhances the process, lending the stories the aura of enchantment, which goes along with the author’s predilection for moral fables. What situates him in the realm of realism is a combination of his abundant love of detail and his psychological insight, particularly in the passages that elaborate the experience of a feeling or the nature of a behavior. Those are the moments in his novels when the abstract is transformed into the specific, which is the way realism works. That transformation is the midpoint between abstraction and universality: if the writer has rendered the general as an image so precise and layered that we can recognize it from our own experience, then we can see straight through its replication of real life to a profound truth. If you try to boil down Dickens’s approach to simple caricature, you can make him sound like it’s linked to what Brecht did later in his plays, but it’s the opposite – he’s not using exaggeration to distance his readers but to draw us in.

This distinction occurred to me while I was watching Ian Rickson’s Brechtian production for the National Theatre of London Tide, which Ben Power has adapted from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Our Mutual Friend is one of the writer’s more obscure works and one of the most fascinating. It showcases common vices that take up residence in our blood: greed, jealousy, ambition and pride. We struggle against them, unless we succumb to them and become their agents, as do a number of the novel’s characters. It’s also about the corrupt values of an entrenched class society that reinforces those vices. When it appears that John Harmon, the estranged only son of a London rubbish magnate, has been drowned in the Thames River, the fortune he would have inherited goes instead to the millionaire’s loyal servants, the Boffins. They are generous enough to invite the heir’s intended bride, Bella Wilfer, who comes from a poor family, to move in with them and share their wealth. She is happy to do so; she never met her fiancé – their marriage was arranged by the millionaire – but now she feels abruptly disenfranchised, and she loves the idea of being rich. The complication is that Harmon isn’t really dead; the corpse that has turned up in the tide is of another young man bearing Harmon’s identifying papers. Liberated from the manipulations of an unkind father, Harmon takes another name, John Rokesmith, then secures the post of secretary to the Boffins so he can observe Bella. And he falls in love with her. So he sets a test to see whether she can get past her attraction to money if she sees at first hand how damaging it can be.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Toni Stone, Mother Play, Uncle Vanya: Deserting the Audience

Stanley Andrew Jackson and Jennifer Mogbock in Toni Stone. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The titular protagonist of Toni Stone, currently playing in the Huntington Theatre’s revered space in Boston’s Back Bay, is the first woman who played baseball regularly in a professional league. She played for three Negro leagues in the forties and fifties, culminating in a season with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, where she replaced Hank Aaron, who had been picked up by the Milkwaukee Braves. It’s an appealing story for the stage and especially for contemporary audiences. But the playwright, Lydia R. Diamond, hasn’t worked out how to dramatize it.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Water for Elephants: Big Top

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Broadway circus musical Water for Elephants, culled from Sara Gruen’s 2007 bestseller, assembles a cast of thirty singers, dancers, acrobats and puppeteers, some of whom have performed with legitimate circuses, some with the Cirque du Soleil, some with the Montreal artist collective The 7 Fingers (known in Canada by its full-length French title, Les 7 doigts de la main). I’ve never had such a good time reading the cast bios in a playbill. The smart, snappy book of Water for Elephants is by Rick Elice, who wrote Peter and the Starcatcher; the songs, the best of which are roisterous and infectious and have a folky twang, are by Pigpen Theatre Company, which created the delightful offbeat fairy tale The Old Man and the Old Moon. Jessica Stone’s production is simultaneously expansive and intimate; Takeshi Kata’s set is a series of scaffolds backed by a cyclorama with projections by David Bengali. The show is mixed-media in the truest sense – the choreography of the musical numbers by Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (who is also credited with the circus design) always incorporates gymnastics and puppetry.

Friday, May 10, 2024

New Sensations: Gauthier Dance Reinvigorates the Stage

Marie Chouinard in Le Chant du Cygne: Le Lac (from Swan Lakes). (Photo: Jeanette Bak)

Gauthier Dance//Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart recently made its Toronto debut as part of the 2023/24 Torque season of contemporary dance at Harbourfront Centre. The April 18 opener marked a brilliant homecoming for artistic director Eric Gauthier, a former National Ballet of Canada dancer – originally from Montreal – who spent years as a soloist with the Stuttgart Ballet under the direction of fellow Canadian Reid Anderson. Now 47, Gauthier transitioned into choreography before founding the company that bears his name in 2007. And that company is a delight – jaunty, versatile armed with a sense of humour, and charismatic. The 16 multinational dancers effortlessly connect with the audience, shattering the fourth wall with ease especially when (as happened in Toronto) they invite spectators to join them on stage for an immersive experience of shared joy and movement.

Friday, April 12, 2024

Cry Me a River: The Sweet Sorrow of Film Noir

“Life is a tragedy when seen in a close-up, but a comedy when seen in the long shot.” – Charlie Chaplin

Melodrama: the essential link between classical tragedy and ‘dark film’. “Suffering, with style” is the succinct and totally apt way that Turner Classic Movies curator Eddie Muller characterizes this unique mode of film noir storytelling: “The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy and revenge, which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul crushing despair and a few last gasping breaths in a rain soaked gutter. But damned if these lost souls don’t look sensational riding the Hades Express. If you’re going straight to hell, you might as well travel with some style to burn.”

From the moment the term film noir or dark film was first employed by advanced French critics in the post-World War Two global culture, there was also an instant debate about what it encapsulated so vividly. Muller, who is also an author of crime fiction himself, further defines the concept as being about a protagonist who, driven to act out of some desperate desire, does something that he or she knows to be wrong, even understanding what dire consequences will follow. Karma always looms large in noir.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Christopher Durang, 1949-2024

Christopher Durang and E. Katherine Kerr in Laughing Wild, in 1987.

It’s hard to imagine a more tragic-ironic fate for the playwright Christopher Durang than the disease from which he suffered for the last eight years of his life, logopenic primary progressive aphasia, which renders its victims unable to find the words they need to express what they want to say. (He died of complicated from the illness on April 2.) Durang was one of the great wits of contemporary American drama. His plays are outrageous and uproarious. In terms of style he’s an absurdist, but his work isn’t like that of any other absurdist; itis wildly playful and manically inventive, and it runs on pretzel logic. In Beyond Therapy the two protagonists are a newly formed couple whose road to happiness is blocked as much by their shrinks as by the man’s inability to give up his gay lover – his shrink is a bona fide fruitcake while hers has been sleeping with her. One of the main characters in Betty’s Summer Vacation is a serial killer. The characters in the two-hander Laughing Wild wind up in overlapping dreams:  she dreams that she has murdered and then replaced the talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael and he dreams that he shows up on her talk show dressed as an obscure Catholic figure called the Infant of Prague.

Monday, April 1, 2024

Singing Drunks: Days of Wine and Roses

Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara in Days of Wine and Roses. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

At first Days of Wine and Roses, written by JP Miller, was a ninety-minute drama on Playhouse 90 in 1958, at the height of the era of live TV drama, starring Cliff Robertson as a corporate drunk and Piper Laurie as the woman he falls in love with and turns into a fellow alcoholic. The tragedy is that while he finally gives up the bottle and gets his life together, she can’t stop – she winds up choosing booze over both him and their little girl. At this point not many viewers remember the original, which is distinguished by Laurie’s complexly delicate performance. (You can watch it on Prime.) But the 1962 movie, directed by Blake Edwards, is justly famous, for the performances of Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as the couple, Joe and Kirsten Clay, and Charles Bickford, repeating his role as Kirsten’s rough-hewn Swedish papa, is quite fine. The narrative is a conventional addict story but its unadorned quality lends it a certain authenticity, and Lemmon isn’t as showy as he is in other dramatic roles; he may be responding to Remick, an underappreciated actress whose modesty is one of her virtues.

In the new stage musical, adapted by Craig Lucas with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, which just closed on Broadway (it premiered at the Atlantic Stage Company last spring), Brian d’Arcy James and Kelli O’Hara played the sodden Clays, and it’s hard to imagine two actor-singers who could have been more effective in the parts. James gets Joe’s hail-fellow-well-met affability but with an understated desperation that’s there from the opening party scene, where, as head of public relations at the agency where he and Kirsten both work, he’s expected to supply not just liquor but also women for clients; there’s a subtle suggestion that he imbibes not just to have fun but so he doesn’t have to think too much about the seedier side of his job. Drinking loosens him up but when, in the early days after their daughter Lila (Tabitha Lawing) is born, Kirsten eases off and he feels he’s lost his playmate, it can also make him angry. He explodes in the scene – famous in Lemmon’s version in the film – where, when he’s convinced her to cheat after a domestic near-disaster has kept them sober for a couple of months, he can’t locate a bottle he’s hidden in her father’s greenhouse. Partly because as an actor James has a sweetness and gentleness, his fury in this sequence, which takes in the boss who fired him for drink-fueled irresponsibility, is surprising and upsetting.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Subtly Scintillating: The National Ballet of Canada’s Winter Season Triple Bill

Koto Ishihara in UtopiVerse. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada's Winter 2024 program — at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, March 20-March 24 — presented a dynamic blend of tradition and innovation, showcasing three distinct works that push the boundaries of contemporary ballet.

Leading the charge is William Yong’s Utopiverse, a world premiere exploration of alternate realities and the human quest for utopia. It is a first classical dance commission for Yong, a Hong Kong-born independent choreographer whose Toronto-based Zata Omm Dance Projects is known for creating interdisciplinary eco-conscious works that merge dance, technology and other art forms for creative explorations.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

In Passing: The Enigmatic Paintings of Janna Watson

 Air Signs Talking, 48 x 48 in.

“Tantra is a technique that allows you to connect with your inner energy and experience transformation. One can visualize energy moving through the body with each and every breath.” – David Frawley

“Wu wei invites spontaneous and inevitable behaviors to happen naturally. Rather than painting a pre-planned idea, I let go of the ego in order to unify myself with the environment.”Janna Watson

Tantric diagrams. The visually compelling paintings of Flesherton-born and Toronto-based artist Janna Watson, usually produced on sensual birch wood panels, represent a significant development in what has been called biomorphic abstraction. With their energetic dance-like forms coming together, gently colliding and receding apart, they also provide an added visual bonus of taking gestural abstraction itself to new heights of emotive splendor. Viewing her colourful and almost calligraphic work offers us a chance to vividly remember a time when our tired retinas, less lulled by flickering digital pixels, were much more open to being transported out of ourselves and into the open-ended narrative that great painting always invites and provides.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Journalism on Stage: The Connector and Corruption

Sanjit De Silva and Toby Stephens in Corruption. (Photo: T Charles Erickson)

In his new play, Corruption, which opened last week at Lincoln Center, the excellent American political playwright J.T. Rogers dramatizes the scandal in Britain that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper News of the World when it was revealed that phone hacking and police bribery were commonplace procedures at the publication. Most of the targets were show-biz celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family, but the investigation showed that the phones of thousands of ordinary citizens had also been hacked, including those of a murdered schoolgirl and the relatives of victims of the 2005 London bombings. Rogers’s previous plays include The Overwhelming (about the Rwandan genocide), Blood and Gifts (about the war in Afghanistan) and the Tony Award-winning Oslo (about the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine). Corruption is based on Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, an account of the scandal co-written by two men who took major roles in illuminating it: Tom Watson, a Member of Parliament (and future Labour Party Deputy Leader) serving on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and Martin Hickman, a journalist for The Independent.

Rogers has chosen Watson (played by Toby Stephens) as his protagonist, but he doesn’t attempt to whitewash him: as government whip during Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister, his assertiveness crossed the line into bullying and intimidation. When Watson attempts to enlist a fellow MP, Chris Bryant (K. Todd Freeman), in the uncovering of the News of the World debacle, Bryant’s initial reluctance is personal: he hasn’t forgiven Tom for homophobic slurs, and when he does join the fight he insists that their collaboration isn’t an indication of friendship. Still, the lines that separate the good guys from the bad guys in this drama are very clear. It’s an intelligent, well-acted production, exciting (especially in the second act), directed by Bartlett Sher (who staged both Oslo and Blood and Gifts) with his usual command of rhythm and tempo and his highly skillful choreographing of ensembles, and Michael Yeargan has designed a fine set, a halo of screens playing news clips that spins over the stage. But by definition agit-prop plays aren’t subtle. The English playwright James Graham, who wrote Ink (about Murdoch’s early career) and Dear England among others, tends to present rousing material in an entertaining fashion in the first act and then convince himself in the second that he’s making a profound statement; you end up feeling cheated. Rogers reaches farther in Blood and Gifts and certainly in Oslo, which is his best work; in Corruption he’s satisfied to let the material speak for itself. I don’t think that’s a failing; neither the play nor the production makes extravagant claims for itself, and the subject matter is undeniably compelling and infuriating. But his writing here has more punch than elegance.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Down the Rabbit Hole with the National Ballet of Canada

Tirion Law and Svetlana Lunkina Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (Photo: Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

The National Ballet of Canada's presentation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland transcends mere entertainment, offering an unbridled exploration of creativity, imagination, and the human experience. Christopher Wheeldon's shape-shifting choreography, inspired by Lewis Carroll's timeless tale, serves as a poignant reflection on the power of storytelling and the journey of self-discovery. A mesmerizing use of computer-generated imagery, eye-popping colour and actual dancing in the aisles allow for a fully immersive experience, accessible to all.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Dressed For Success: Fashioning the Beatles, by Deirdre Kelly

The Beatles with Little Richard, 1962 (Photo: Horst Fascher/Redferns)

“Now I'm stepping out of this old brown shoe
Baby, I'm in love with you
I'm so glad you came here, it won't be the same now
I'm telling you.

I may appear to be imperfect
My love is something you can't reject
I'm changing faster than the weather”

– “Old Brown Shoe”, George Harrison, Abbey Road.

Although composed and recorded in the late phase of their stellar career, a humble but lovely gem by the always underrated Mr. Harrison for their last masterpiece Abbey Road during their slow motion breakup, the tune “Old Brown Shoe” still seems to encapsulate some of the supersonic swift living the band survived through during the magnificent eight years of their astronomical rise to fame and fortune. “I’m changing faster than the weather” also seems to echo both the breathtaking musical stylistic shifts they underwent as well as to mirror the under-reported fashion styles they first embraced, then embodied and finally shared with the rest of us lesser mortals. Deirdre Kelly’s masterful and insightful documenting of their dramatic clothing coolness, Fashioning the Beatles: The Looks that Shook the World, now finally addresses their nearly supernatural chic and how it paralleled the shockingly inspiring evolutionary leaps they took in the art of the popular song. It’s a literary gift of the highest order.

Monday, February 12, 2024

German Imports: The Teachers’ Lounge and Afire

Leonie Benesch and Leonard Stettnisch in The Teachers'  Lounge.

In the unnerving German drama The Teachers’ Lounge, a theft in the faculty lounge of a secondary school and a young teacher’s protest against the suspicion that one of her students was responsible lead to chaos. The set-up is complicated. When someone steals money from the wallet of a teacher, Thomas Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer), the principal, Dr. Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich), and the vice-principal, Milosz Dudek (Rafael Stachowiak), cross-examine the two sixth-grade student representatives to the class council in front of the other teachers, asking them to identify classmates who may have been acting strangely or walking around with an unusual amount of cash. This approach makes the students’ math teacher, Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), markedly uncomfortable. Then the administrators interrupt her class and demand that the boys produce their wallets. The only one carrying a lot of money turns out to be a Middle Eastern student, Ali (Can Rodenbostel), and though they accept his explanation, his interrogation brings his angry parents to the school. (No one uses the phrase “racial profiling”; no one has to.) Upset by the administration’s assumption that the thief must have been one of the kids, Carla decides to conduct her own clandestine investigation. She leaves her jacket on a chair in the lounge with her wallet inside, and sets her laptop to film what happens after she slips out of the room. Indeed, someone lifts money from the wallet, and though the video doesn’t reveal a face, she recognizes the thief’s blouse. But when she confronts its owner, the school secretary, Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau), hoping she’ll simply own up to the act and return the money, instead Friederike denies it vehemently, so Carla brings in Dr. Böhm and produces the video. The secretary’s response is tears and outrage, and Carla, struggling to be fair-minded, loses confidence in her allegation. By then, however, it’s too late. Böhm has no choice but to proceed with the accusation, and Dudek points out that Carla had no legal right to film the people in the lounge without their permission. When Friederike makes a scene at a regularly scheduled meeting between Carla and the parents of her math students, insisting on censuring her accuser publicly and threatening to take her to court, inevitably the kids hear about it and rumors fly. Friedriche’s son Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), who is Carla’s most talented pupil, is not only confused and unsettled by the assumption that his mother is guilty but finds himself targeted by classmates who assume that he must be a thief too: “like mother, like son.”

Monday, February 5, 2024

In Court and at Dinner: Anatomy of a Fall and Menus-Plaisirs: Les Troisgros

Milo Machado Graner in Anatomy of a Fall.

The gripping French film Anatomy of a Fall may be the most unconventional courtroom thriller I’ve ever seen. When Samuel Maleski is found dead beneath the attic window of his chalet in the French Alps, his wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Müller) is charged with murder. The case put together by her legal team – Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), who is an old friend, and Nour Boudaoud (Saadia Bentaïeb) – is that he jumped, and Sandra claims that his behavior since their eleven-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) was hit by a motorcycle, seriously damaging his optic nerve, has veered into depression and that one incident where he passed out drunk may well have been a suicide attempt. (She wondered if the white spots she saw in his vomit could have been undigested pills.) But the case of the prosecution challenges this theory because of the position of the blood spatter on the snow where he fell and a tape the police found of an argument between husband and wife, which he recorded the day before he died.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Moby Dick for Puppets

Photo by Christophe Raynaud deLage.

In a six-day run at Boston’s Paramount Theater under the auspices of Arts Emerson, the Norwegian company Plexus Polaire staged Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in eighty-five brisk minutes with a cast of seven actor-puppeteers and three musicians. But though some of the effects were nifty and imaginative and the production held one’s attention, I’m not entirely sure what I saw. The show, directed by Yngvild Aspeli, is narrated, like the novel, by Ishmael, the only member of the crew who survives Captain Ahab’s single-minded pursuit of the immense sea beast that chewed off his leg in a previous whaling expedition, and it takes care to introduce us to all the members of the crew of the Pequod. But aside from Ishmael only a couple, the harpooner Queequeg (who becomes Ishmael’s closet friend) and the cabin boy Pip, are allowed to make much of an impression, and when the puppets are in close proximity on the shadowy stage it’s difficult to tell them apart. Aspeli – or the company in collaboration (the program doesn’t offer a writing credit) – hasn’t necessarily chosen the excerpts from the book to clarify the plot, so even if you know it pretty well you might have trouble following the story line.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Year-End Movies IV: Monster and All of Us Strangers

Hinata Hiiragi and Soya Kurokawa in Monster.

The movies of the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda are not just different from those of other filmmakers; they’re also often unlike each other. He seems to trod a new path each time out, and his narrative strategies are always fresh. His pictures aren’t even always in Japanese: his last, Broker, which was one of the best films of 2022, was shot in South Korea with Korean actors, and its predecessor, The Truth, was set in Paris and featured Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche as mother and daughter and Ethan Hawke as Binoche’s American husband. The common denominator is a focus on unconventional family units, usually involving small children. The two fifth-grade boys at the heart of his latest, Monster, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), the protagonist, and the smaller and younger-appearing Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), have each lost one parent and are being raised by the other – Yori by a hard-drinking father (Akihiro Kakuta) and Minato by his mother, Saori (Sakura Ando), who is still mourning the death of her husband and struggles to balance caring for her son with a tiring job in a laundry. 

The starting-off point of this remarkable film is Saori’s suspicion that the boys’ teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), who looks to be barely out of university, has been bullying her son, both verbally and physically. She goes to see Fushimi, the principal (Yûko Tanaka), who meets her with Hori and a committee of teachers, but she keeps checking her notes and avoiding Saori’s eyes, and her responses to the mother’s concerns are so generalized that Saori finds them infuriating. Fushimi assures her, “We accept your opinion with seriousness” and promises that in the future the teacher will “provide appropriate instruction.” “Am I talking to human beings?” Saori demands. Furthermore, Hori insists that the incident was merely a misunderstanding and Saori is being overprotective. He also protests that Minato is the bully and that he has been victimizing Yori. The more Saori investigates, the more confusing the story becomes. She visits Yori at his home and sees that his arm has been burned, but the boy denies that her son is the cause and confirms that the teacher has been beating up on Minato. And that behavior seems to have continued even after Saori’s complaint – Minato falls down some stairs at school while, according to the other children, he was running away from his teacher.

For a long time we think the themes of Monster are rumors and lies, but these turn out to be secondary. There are plenty of puzzle pictures in which the plot elements don’t come together until very late in the running time, but I can’t think of another movie in which the theme doesn’t emerge until the last third. And I can’t reveal it here without ruining the experience, except to say that its treatment by Kore-eda and the screenwriter Yûji Sakamoto is both daring and deeply affecting. (Sakamoto’s script is a thing of rare beauty.) The structure imitates that of one of the most famous of all Japanese films, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where the tale of a rape and murder in the forest is told in four versions that contradict each other, though at the end we still don’t know which one, if any, is accurate; the movie’s subject is the unknowability of the truth. Kore-eda presents us with three perspectives on the events of a few days – Saori’s, Hiro’s and Minato’s – presented consecutively. We know he’s returning to the beginning of the narrative each time he replays a fire that takes down a “hostess bar” (a club that caters to male customers), lighting up the night in the neighborhood where all of the characters live. Each time through he sifts in new, revelatory details. At the end, unlike in Rashomon, we have the entire story. (Rashomon isn’t the only Kurosawa reference; I’m indebted to my observant friend Mark Dellelo for pointing out Kore-eda’s allusions to perhaps the most unusual and one of the least known of his masterpieces, the 1970 Dodes’ka-den.)

In some way each of the major characters stumbles badly. But Kore-eda has no interest in villains; the only person on screen whose behavior is difficult to forgive isn’t a major figure at all, though his influence is profound. Based on Saori’s view of events, we are put off at first by both Hori and Fushimi, both of whom we come to appreciate as we discover their reserves of kindness and sensitivity; what seems at first to be, among other things, a broad critique of the Japanese educational system ends up exposing the good intentions of these two people who are laboring in it and coming up against its twenty-first-century limitations. Fushimi is haunted by a family tragedy that, we learn, is thornier than we thought. Hori is a lonely heart with a tendency to fall in love with women who end up dumping him and whose weddings he attends; we get the feeling that his current romantic involvement is unlikely to reverse the trend. Both these characters have moments when they are apparently considering suicide, but it’s clear that they don’t carry through on their impulses; the ending of the movie is more ambiguous. Tanaka’s and Nagayama’s performances are superb, as are those of Ando and the two perfectly natural yet astonishingly expressive child actors. Among Kore-eda’s staggering array of gifts, his ability to work with children is perhaps the most impressive.

Claire Foy and Andrew Scott in All of Us Strangers.

Initially Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers builds on his 2011 film Weekend, where a one-night stand between two men unexpectedly turns into the beginning of a genuine relationship. In All of Us Strangers, Adam (Andrew Scott), a screenwriter in his mid-forties, makes an unspoken connection with Harry (Paul Mezcal), who lives in the same building, when a fire alarm draws them both into the courtyard. Immediately afterwards Harry, who is maybe fifteen years Adam’s junior, shows up outside his apartment and comes on to him, and Adam politely turns him down. The next time they see each other, in the lobby, Harry is sober and apologizes for his behavior; Adam, a shy loner, wants to suggest they have a drink but he isn’t fast enough – the elevator doors divide them and the opportunity vanishes. The third time they lock eyes, Adam is at the window in his apartment and Harry is outside, and this time Adam overcomes his reticence and beckons him to come up. They wind up in bed, and in the weeks that follow they keep seeing each other and growing closer.

Haigh’s work often deals with gay sexuality, but unlike Weekend and Looking, Haigh’s HBO series about four friends living in San Francisco, and its first-rate movie sequel, All of Us Strangers isn’t in the realm of realism. There are strange undercurrents from the outset. The two men are among a smattering of neighbors in a brutalist high-rise somewhere in London. The building looks fairly expensive but it’s creepy: it isn’t completely finished and there’s no security. If this were a realist narrative we’d wonder who would move in here under those conditions, or how Harry knows which apartment door to knock at, or how it happens that these two men keep running into each other. The movie feels like a ghost story, which it turns out to be. The script Adam is working on is set in 1987 and about his parents, who died that year, shortly before Adam turned twelve, in a car accident after attending a Christmas party. He has a photograph of the house in Dorking, a town in Surrey about twenty miles outside London where he lived with them before the accident, and he trains out of the city to look at it and refresh his memory. What he finds is that his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) still live there, and they haven’t aged. They recognize him, and they even seem to be prepared for the encounter, though they can’t explain how it’s come about; Haigh omits the usual sci-fi appurtenances, like time portals. And as his parents get to know him as an adult, older now than they were when he lost them, Adam begins to take comfort in being around them and keeps returning to visit them. (The transitions between the present and the past become more fantastical as the movie goes on; Haigh includes some surrealistic touches.) He even brings Harry there, but the house is in darkness and no one comes to the door, though Adam can see his parents in the shadows – and, as he learns later, so can Harry.

Haigh is a marvelous director and All of Us Strangers is beautifully made. It’s very compelling, and often powerful and moving, largely because of the quality of the acting in what is essentially a four-hander. Only Mezcal isn’t convincing; he’s the only one of the quartet who behaves as if he were in a Pinter play. The other three are completely naturalistic, and the tension between their approach and the absurdist style is a key element in the way the movie works on us. That’s most potently the case with Bell and Foy, who are so intensely present that their ghostliness is the essential mystery of the film. When I was in my early twenties I saw a friend, a graduate acting student, give a sublimely tender portrayal of Jocasta in Oedipus the King, and when I questioned her about it afterwards she told me that the character doesn’t make sense unless her instincts with Oedipus are maternal as well as romantic. I thought of what she said all those years ago while I was watching Foy in All of Us Strangers, not because we’re meant to imagine a sexual undercurrent in her relationship with her grown son but because the trick to her performance is that, though she meets up with Adam again some three and a half decades later, what she sees when she looks at him is the little boy she left when she died. She understands all the information he passes onto her about his life through that motherly connection. Of course that’s true of all mothers, but the unique detail that colors her interaction with him is that she has had to leap into the future, so to speak – to calculate in just a few meetings the distance he’s traveled without her in his life. The same is true of his father, but he has his gruff working-class masculinity to fall back on, at least at first. What’s remarkable about Bell’s depiction of Adam’s father is that the fact of his son’s homosexuality brings out a sensitivity in him he may not have known was there. In a wrenching moment, Adam remembers coming home from being bullied at school for being too soft, too feminine, and shutting himself up in his room to cry; now he asks his father why he never came in to comfort him. His father confesses that he didn’t want to think about what Adam might be going through because he knew that as a boy he would have been one of the tormentors. Foy and Bell are both spectacular actors. (Foy’s bitter sensuality in the role of the Duchess of Argyll in last year’s A Very British Scandal, along with Paul Bettany’s layered cruelty in the role of her husband, made the otherwise mediocre, repetitive limited series worth looking at.) Here they do something very unusual: suggest what the parents’ feelings might be like if they suddenly appeared from beyond the grave exactly as they were when they were still alive. It requires a balance, shall we say, between familiarity and fervency. Was there any better acting on the screen in 2023?

Andrew Scott is a more complicated case. He’s a wonderful actor, and he shows a warmth as Adam that isn’t usually in his wheelhouse, though it was when he played Hamlet in Robert Icke’s production in the West End in 2017. I kept thinking of his Hamlet, which was marked by a muted emotional alertness in the silences that you see again in All of Us Strangers. Scott did a masterful job with Shakespeare’s language, but I haven’t seen anyone in this role do more with the silences, at least not since Laurence Olivier. (The disappointment about his Hamlet was that he ran out of ideas in the second half and started to repeat himself – a general issue with the show.) Scott’s Adam is an introvert who is always feeling much, much more than he can find words for. It’s a performance of exquisite gentleness, but the problem is the idea to which the characteris tied as if to a sinking stone. It’s ingenious to dramatize gayness in this way: to imagine a fantasy scenario in which a man meets up with his long-dead parents and has to come out to them in his middle age. But the conversations that ensue between Adam and his parents – especially his mother, who recalls how afraid he was of everything as a little boy and who is immediately concerned that his queerness might make him lonely – as well as the ones between him and Harry are too carefully framed to make points about the essential nature of homosexuality. (It’s their shared feeling of alienation that draws the two men together emotionally.)

The movie I kept thinking of while I was watching All of Us Strangers was the 1991 Truly Madly Deeply, in which Juliet Stevenson plays a woman who is so paralyzed by the death of her lover that he has to return as a ghost (played by Alan Rickman) to kick her into moving on. That film, which Anthony Minghella wrote and directed, was a fantasy presented, weirdly and often comically, as realism; technically it’s a piece of magic realism, but it doesn’t feel like any other magic realist movies or literature I know. Truly Madly Deeply worked for me in a way that Haigh’s movie doesn’t because though Minghella’s story is a kind of fable with a moral (you can’t stop living when the person you love most in the world dies), it doesn’t feel didactic. It has a lightness that Haigh, much as I like and admire his work, seems temperamentally detached from. It’s not that I mind the fact that All of Us Strangers is downbeat; its melancholy is partly what makes it distinctive and memorable. But the more it stresses its agenda, the less effective it becomes.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


Thursday, January 18, 2024

Inner Sanctum: The Star-Crossed Music of George Crumb and Yoshiko Shimizu

KAIROS Records, 2023.

“Whatever you think can’t be done, someone will come along and do.” – Thelonious Monk

“Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that, and don’t listen to me: I’m supposed to be accompanying you.” – Thelonious Monk

This new KAIROS recording of works by the esteemed American composer George Crumb, played by the stellar Japanese pianist Yoshiko Shimizu, is a poetic work of the highest order. In addition to being an intensely uplifting collaborative love letter between a composer and his primary performing interpreter, it also contains one of my favourite musical titles ever, Celestial Mechanics, composed by Crumb in 1979, which might be a pinnacle in the annals of works for piano in the four-hands format. It is not a stretch in this case to claim that Crumb’s challenging but rewarding works constitute a unique domain: astrophysics for piano achieved via contemporary recording technology. If that sounds somewhat scientific, allow me to return to my preferred poetic license: these are diagnostic investigations into the human heart. Even friends or readers familiar with my reasoning may pause and ponder: astrophysics for piano? How does this work? Well, it works exactly the way it sounds. The movements of interstellar masses in space through time usually refers to large objects such as planets in their elliptical guided tours of various galaxies; however, it also occurs within an inner sanctum of silence where microscopic movements of sub-atomic particles collide with each other in a kind of unexpected resonance. And they all dance to a sacred tune, one Crumb calls “Cosmic Dances for Amplified Pianos.”

Monday, January 15, 2024

Year-End Movies III: The Boy and the Heron and The Boys in the Boat

The heron in Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron.

One of the cinematic high points of 2023 was surely the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s return from retirement with The Boy and the Heron. (His last feature was The Wind Rises in 2013, though lists a 2018 short, unknown to me, called Boro the Caterpillar.) Conceived and written by Miyazaki, The Boy and the Heron is a gorgeous fairy tale set, like The Wind Rises, during the Second World War. The young hero, Mahito (voiced in the dubbed version by Luca Padovan), loses his mother during the bombing of Tokyo; a year later his father, Shoichi (Christian Bale), moves them into the countryside, where he has opened a new factory. He is now romantically involved with Natsuko (Gemma Chan), who is carrying his child. This will be Mahito’s new home, but it’s alienating to him. Aside from the sudden news that a woman he has never met before, whom he addresses politely as “ma’am,” is about to become his new stepmother, there’s little actual education going on in his new school. The children spend more time working the land for the war effort than in the classroom, and as soon as he arrives he’s bullied by his classmates; his response is to bash himself in the head with a rock, claiming a fall, so he doesn’t have to go back the next day. Yet in unexpected ways this unfamiliar environment links up with the boy’s identity. Natsuko, it turns out, is his aunt and looks eerily like her, and this is the place where the two sisters grew up; the strange, Medieval tower that is the most striking landmark was created by their great-uncle. And a talking grey heron (Robert Pattinson) who gloms onto Mahito insists that he’s an emissary sent to take him to his mother, who isn’t dead at all. The boy’s adventures begin when Natsuko, whom he has seen, from his bedroom window, entering the woods, vanishes, and his quest, at the heron’s invitation, to find his mother becomes, in the mysterious transformative manner of a dream, a search for Natsuko. It takes him into the tower and out again into an island world where pelicans and parakeets are omnivorous creatures the size of human adults (the main pelican is voiced by Willem Dafoe, the main parakeet by Dan Stevens) and where the bent-backed, protective domestics from Mahito’s world are echoed by small wooden dolls that reside on shelves and around beds and operate as totems.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Year-End Movies II: The Color Purple and May December

Taraji P. Henson in one of her spectacularly ugly costumes she wear in The Color Purple.

Why are most of the recent movie musicals so ghastly? Much as I’d loved Paul King’s Paddington movies, I walked out on his Wonka, just as I’d bailed on The Greatest Showman, which looked like it had been made by people who’d never seen a musical, and Matilda, which was so grotesque it was painful to watch, like Cats. In Wonka the overproduction magnifies everything that’s wrong with the numbers – the bland, paltry songs by Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot, the uninspired choreography (by the usually inventive Christopher Gattelli) and hapless Timothée Chalamet in the title role, pretending to be a musical-comedy performer. It’s not just that he isn’t a singer; legends have built up around non-singers who gave indelible renditions of show songs, like Rex Harrison and Richard Burton and the enchanting, recently departed Glynis Johns. It’s that Chalamet has zero showmanship. There were clunky musicals in the early days of the talkies, when the studios were desperate to find ways to show off the new technology; strident musicals from 20th Century-Fox during and after the war years; misconceived musicals during the sixties and early seventies trying to chase down an audience that had been replaced by a younger, hipper one while the studios weren’t paying attention. But these contemporary out-of-sync kitschfests are way worse.

The latest fiasco is The Color Purple, set mostly in Georgia in the first half of the twentieth century and based on the Broadway musical adaptation of the Alice Walker novel that, nearly four decades ago, generated Steven Spielberg’s unfortunate early attempt to break out of the fantasy-adventure niche. I wasn’t so hot on the book, a fruitcake whipped up out of a tawdry race melodrama and a sisterhood-is-powerful fairy tale, but it was better than the Spielberg version. The director was such a wrong match with the material that I assumed that Black audiences and critics would be offended by all the Disney cuteness. Imagine my surprise when I read an interview with Blitz Bazawule, the director of the new Color Purple, in which he proclaimed that watching Spielberg’s picture had changed his life.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Year-End Movies I: The Holdovers and Ferrari

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers.

The review of The Holdovers contains spoilers.

In The Holdovers a prodigiously bright but desperately unhappy teenager with a checkered academic history and the sour, supercilious Ancient Civilizations teacher at his boarding school are stuck with each other’s company over Christmas week of 1970, when the campus, a few hours’ drive from Boston, is deserted except for these two, the cook and the caretaker. Initially there are four other “holdovers” but the screenwriter, David Hemingson, employs a wobbly plot twist to scatter them so that he and the director, Alexander Payne, can home in on the teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the boy, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), and the cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).