Archive for July, 2011

Cooper’s London

July 25, 2011


Two Good to Miss:

Beatrice and Benedick at the Globe, Again!

There’s probably going to be a lot of fuss about the Much Ado About Nothing being produced in the West End (at Wyndham’s Theatre) with David Tennant (who is a brilliant and proven Shakespearian) and Catherine Tate (one of his Doctor Who companions and a brilliant comedienne). However good it is, though, I cannot believe it could be better than the one that just opened at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on 21 May! It’s already in a league where it could not be surpassed–only matched, if you are very, very lucky. (I suspect the Wyndham Much Ado will be different – modernized or updated or whatever – and I know the actors are extremely talented. I would recommend it in “previewing” mode.) But even if you are able to equal it, you simply cannot beat the ensemble playing and sheer energy of the production at The Globe. And it’s such a wonderful place to see it your Shakespeare!

To single anyone out is invidious in such a well-balanced cast. But one has to commend particularly the impressive, feisty, and loveable Beatrice of Eve Best and the outrageously attractive and intelligent Benedick of Charles Edwards. They are as well-matched as were legendary couple like John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft, Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, Janet Suzman and Alan Howard before them. So add them to the list of those who are treasurable and flawless and so totally natural that you feel you are seeing them and the play for the first time. They have the capacity to engage their audiences, and engage with their cast , talking and playing with the groundlings in some of the great comic moments; but also pulling back into subjective pain or pleasure that is nuanced, fully imagined and totally real.

This is a tour de force indeed. Jeremy Herrin, the director, has managed to keep the show in period and yet make it totally fresh and contemporary. The clowns are hilariously funny in a style that makes you think of what their impact must have been in Shakespeare’s time. It reminded me that the role of Dogberry was written for Will Kemp. The rebuilt Globe underscores the resonance.

You will get the impression that I loved it. It helped that I was experiencing the production with an audience that was also engaged from the very start and, by the end, was cheering itself hoarse with delight. It will be tough to get tickets for Tennant and Tate, probably; but don’t despair if you can’t. High thyself to Shakespeare’s Globe, near London Bridge and, if necessary, get thee groundling places. You will in no way regret it, or even suffer sore shanks from standing throughout.


 It’s quite wonderful to go to a play at Stratford-upon-Avon that you have never actually seen, never studied in school, and probably may never see again–only to see it in action, on the stage, and discover that it is a very good play, deserving revival after decades (nay, centuries!) of neglect. The City Madam (1632) by Philip Massinger is being revived this summer with style, panache and a real understanding of the text. Dominic Hill has put together a wonderfully theatrical and amusing production, visually apt, artistically sound.

The story might be described as Tartuffe meets Measure for Measure: Jo Stone-Fewings is superb as Luke Frugal, a character whose quite-believable contrition and kindness of nature turns out to be a sham mask that he discards easily, once he thinks he is in charge of a fortune again; and Christopher Godwin is a strong focus for the play as the apparently hard-hearted businessman Sir John Frugal who disappears into a monastery–only to reappear in disguise, to watch how things play out once he supposedly leaves his brother in charge. Sara Crowe is spot-on as the ditzy, mercenary but ultimately contrite Lady Frugal, and the ensemble acting is simply a joy to behold.

It’s not a great play, it’s not a difficult play; but it is amusing, charming – and, given the current state of everyone’s finances—suddenly quite topical. It is Ben Jonson lite, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It gives a very good excuse for fine theatricality and some wonderful playfulness in the staging.

City Madam is being performed in the newly refurbished Swan Theatre, still one of the best playhouses in the UK. The auditorium has hardly been touched and that’s a good thing, because it was fine all along.

Without forcing anything and while setting the play pretty much in period, the modern parallels will be easily understood. You will enjoy every actor on that stage. and come away wanting to see much more of Jo Stone-Fewings, who takes the play’s central, defining role and inhabits it like a star.

Apollo’s Girl

July 21, 2011


Looking Backwards: Summer Treasure Hunt

Mea culpa! There were so many good films this spring that I simply fell behind. But then I thought you might be looking for something interesting to do while refusing to leave the house and remaining up close and personal with your air conditioner. So here’s an idea: films you should not miss are described below. The only catch: most of them are no longer playing in a theater near you. The good news: many of them are available on Netflix, on Amazon, or by streaming video. The challenge: for you to find them. Think of it as a new hot-weather diversion. Make some popcorn and a cool drink, go to your computer, and start searching for your rewards. 

If you don’t know about the Internet Movie Database, here’s your chance to connect to one of the Web’s biggest and most useful archives. It not only lists virtually every film and TV show ever made, but includes their casts, production crews, filming locations, even box office receipts—and where they’re playing (if they are). In short, everything (even maybe more than you want to know) about them. Full disclosure: it’s also addictive and will provide hours of information so beguiling that you may never actually get to see the film itself. But be patient with it; you have to do a bit of scrolling to zero in on what interests you most. imdb

Of course Amazon is another option (for buying new or used videos and DVDs), and eBay also turns up some surprising treasures. And always, Google is your friend and guide. So, in alphabetical order:

 City of Life and Death (Kino Lorber)

The outpouring of Holocaust films shows no signs of letting up. But almost all of them deal with the Nazis and their legacy; films about Asia before, and during, World War Two are much less common. Lu Chuan’s powerful City of Life and Death reveals what happened in 1937 when the Japanese invaded the city of Nanjing and massacred some 300,000 Chinese. Although a Free Zone was set up in the middle of the city to protect Europeans and other foreign nationals, it secretly sheltered wounded Chinese soldiers, and was eventually granted tenuous life in exchange for 100 Chinese “comfort women” to serve in the Japanese Army brothels. This is a big story, told from within, with heros and villains on both sides; the cast is excellent and the complex plot they inhabit is on fascinating, if unfamiliar, territory.

The Iron Giant (Warner Brothers)

This really nifty animated feature debut by Brad Bird (Ratatouille; The Incredibles) is full of gorgeous hand-drawn images, music by Michael Kamen, and household names voicing the characters (Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr., Vin Diesel). It represents two eras – the Cold War of 1957 (when Ted Hughes wrote the book on which the film is based) — and the end of the 20th century, when animation was turning the corner into full-frontal digital technique awash with musical numbers and pop culture references.

Iron Giant’s story—whose hero is a 9-year-old boy living with his single mother in a small Maine town—is about what happens when a 50-foot-tall metal robot crash-lands near the boy’s home and the boy saves its life. They bond, and the game is on. It’s essentially an affectionate satire of Cold War paranoia, pulp comics, beatniks and educational films whose message of free will and non-violence is very, very welcome. Track it down!

Kings of Pastry (First Run Features)

A second viewing of this last week on POV (PBS) only confirmed my original almost obscenely deep pleasure at peeking under the tent of the fiercely competitive world of Olympian pastry. And no one does “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” better than the French. So when a film opens with a beauty shot, an awards ceremony, and an enthusiastic endorsement by France’s president, Nicolas Szarkosy (acompanied by a Stephane Grapelli-ish version of La Marseillaise), just give yourself up to it. You won’t be disappointed! Especially when it’s from filmmakers like Chris Hegedus and D.A.Pennebaker.

Just watch while 15 finalists convene in Lyon to win the brass rings — in this case, medals confirming them as members of the elite Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, originators and creators of pastries beyond your wildest dreams. Because of their skill and the skill of the filmmakers, you are not only immersed in their fantasies of butter, flour, sugar, and chutzpah as they rise before your eyes, but in their personal dramas and (despite their rivalries) their profound camaraderie. Warning: it gets intense, and you will get hungry, even while you’re shedding tears and smiling, right up to the end.

The Last Mountain (Dada Films)

Seeing how much of Appalachia has been destroyed by Big Coal, and what the horrific consequences in human and environmental terms have been, is hard to face. But filmmakers Bill Haney and Peter Rhodes have enlisted Bobby Kennedy to keep us looking. A big cast of eyewitnesses, including local activists, politicians, and the corporate musclemen who level the mountains, scorch the earth and sicken the children lays out the issues with uncommon clarity. While such stories often remain unresolved, The Last Mountain—and its principal villains (Don Blankenship and Massey Energy)—has a resounding postscript: only weeks after the press screening, several lawsuits were in Federal courts to ameliorate some of the longstanding damage. They continue to progress.

Rabbit à la Berlin (Icarus Films)

Who says the Germans have no sense of humor? Rabbit à la Berlin puts that rumor to rest, with its tongue firmly in its sly cheeks. Remember the Berlin wall? And the 75-mile-long no-man’s land it delineated between East and West Berlin? Somehow, rabbits discovered this empty “oasis of peace and security, a perfect eco-system” early on. And, doing what they do best, they soon turned its grassy acres into rabbit paradise, free from predators and full of relatives. Until the wall came down. Having survived pesticides and poachers, they now live (mostly in West Berlin) in parks, apartment blocks, and ordinary courtyards. As the film’s four collaborators tell us, “Today, the rabbits of Berlin are free. But the price they pay for their freedom is a high one….Now they are left to fend for themselves, without the assistance of the state.” What makes Rabbit à la Berlin so memorable is its consistent, and delicious, irony, both in text and image. It’s brief (50 minutes), but worth the hunt.

Wasteland (Arthouse Films)

I am woefully late on this, but Wasteland has had so much (well-deserved) attention in so many high places, that I can only remind you about it if you haven’t already caught it along the way. In brief, the film follows artist Vik Muniz from Brooklyn to Brazil, where he finds an exuberant colony of dumpster divers (catadores) who work (and sometimes live) on Rio’s enormous Jardim Gramacho, the city’s teeming landfill. The catadores have a hierarchy of trash, sorting it by category and selling it to make a living. 

Muniz’ idea is to not just document some of the most vivid personalities on-site, but to pose and photograph them in ways that mirror iconic works of art and, at the same, time, reveal his vivid subjects themselves. Once the photographs have been taken, they are magnified and reproduced in bits and pieces of garbage, like modern versions of Arcimbaldo’s fruit-and-vegetable portraits. Ultimately, the portraits are sold for the benefit of the colony, and the photographs are framed and given to the subjects. But none of this does justice to the energy, wit, and humanity of the film. It is stunningly photographed and edited, giving life to the possibility of making art out of the least likely sources. Director Lucy Walker (Blindsight; Devil’s Playground) has woven the complex, disparate strands of Wasteland into a really glorious rainbow coalition. And lucky you: you can go straight to some of the videos (yes, on Google’s video option) to whet your appetite for the whole meal on DVD.

Apollo’s Girl

July 14, 2011

Lincoln Center Festival:

 Maryinsky’s Horse a Winner!

It’s time to open Alexei Ratmansky‘s modernist toy chest of The Little Humpbacked Horse, a sparkling new version of an old Russian folk tale danced to perfection by the Maryinsky Ballet. The story has been choreographed for many Russian stages, and made into more than one film over the decades—notably one with Maya Plitsetskaya in 1962—but Ratmansky’s version is very today, without bending the basic plot out of shape.

With sets and costumes in a riot of bright colors and skewed geometric shapes, the classic fairytale has the usual buffoons, conniving brothers, a reptilian major domo, silly old Tsar, a little horse with magical powers and—of course—a pair of young lovers who will triumph in the end (modernist or not, it’s a fairy tale, after all). And because it’s the Maryinsky, this Horse surrounds us with the kind of suppleness and athleticism at which Russians have always excelled. Those arms! Those hands! Those hyper-extended cores! All those boneless limbs and joints! And oh, the astonishing mime from every dancer, making characterization complete, and dialogue and lyrics superfluous.  And don’t forget those applause-inducing leaps!

Act Two,in particular, allowed Thursday’s cast (Yevgenia Obravtsova as the Tsar Maiden, Vladimir Shklyarov as Ivan, and particularly Islom Baimuradov as the ever-insidious Gentleman of the Bedchamber) to ply their mimetic gifts to the max. A last-minute change in the pit brought Valery Gergiev to the podium to conduct Rodion Shchedrin’s cinematic score (used in the 1962 film); it works even better in this production than in the more traditional film. But: the Little Humpbacked Horse was originally a filly, giving a charmingly playful twist to her guardianship of Ivan. Transformed into a foal by Ratmansky, the charm still works, but plays out more like a buddy ballet.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in an audience that was having so much fun. But, alas,  there’s only one performance left (on Saturday), and it’s worth staying in town to see it, especially if you have children who love horses and who deserve a treat. And, while you’re at it, take a look at some of the summer’s other goodies: festival

Apollo’s Girl

July 6, 2011

Hometown Boys Make Good (and a Few Waves)

 Foxes at the Philharmonic

Although Avery Fisher Hall has endured many transformations since its debut in 1962, no one who saw it in June will ever forget it as a sumptuous avatar of the natural world—with giant sunflowers hovering over the orchestra, a forest bursting with trees, vines, and bushes, and pools swarming with the crawling and flying creatures who co-exist with the animals and humans of Janacek’s 1924 operatic masterpiece, The Cunning Little Vixen. This is a simply gorgeous work performed all too rarely; in the Philharmonic’s production an outstanding cast (led by the very foxy Isabelle Bayrakdarian and Marie Lenormand) enacted the story, which remains as fresh as the cheeky costumes and sets by Giants Are Small.

Vixen had a long gestation. When 200-odd drawings by Czech artist Stanislaw Lolek were turned into a newspaper serial in 1920, Janacek read and enjoyed it. Two years later, inspired by it, he began writing and composing his opera, making many changes to the original story along the way. But his libretto provides one inspiration that was his alone: he changed the serial’s comic ending—it’s his own bittersweet finale that touches you indelibly; partly because of its affecting music and partly because of the little frog who sings its last words. Irresistible! Together, they create a perfect expression of nature’s power to maintain the circle of life.

Seeing Alan Gilbert on a leafy podium surrounded by hopping kids and cavorting adults in animal costumes (often only inches away), you realize that he’s truly unflappable. Serene, actually. Otherwise, he could not possibly have wrangled the huge forces needed for Vixen. Gilbert speaks often of trust between performers. But trust can go only so far in such a complicated work: although the orchestra and chorus in Vixen were in front of him (his back was to the audience), most of the soloists (including those agile kids) were in back of him, facing the audience—and no monitors to cue the singers were visible.

Increasingly curious about what was keeping it all together, I finally noticed a lone, agitated arm in the front row above a music stand with a copy of the score. Turns out there were monitors, cunningly placed in the shrubbery for the cast’s view only, and the lone arm belonged to Assistant Conductor Daniel Boico, whose glance raced between the score, the monitors, the singers (occasionally cued with his left hand) and Gilbert’s own cues and beat, giving new meaning to the phrase “watching his back.” This was trust in spades!

The only caveat that comes to mind is that while theatricality (especially at the sensory level that Gilbert and his colleagues have in mind), a broad-spectrum repertoire, and a sense of Event will appeal to a broad spectrum of music-lovers, the realities of mounting an opera requiring three dozen singers, forty choristers, and a hefty orchestra to produce Janacek’s lush score, also leave very little space on stage for them to perform. Perhaps in future years, theatricality can reign uncompromised with fully produced programs requiring a smaller orchestra, or cast, or chorus? The creative partnerships Gilbert is forging promise solutions will be found for every problem.

The Philharmonic understands the urgent need to create new audiences; to that end, Gilbert describes a “palpable sense of Event, with a capital “E”, in which orchestra and audience join together to create a powerful collective experience. Gilbert and the Philharmonic’s President, Zarin Mehta, also use the word “theatrical” frequently. It’s something that needs to be included in the audience-orchestra equation. Since nothing succeeds like success, it’s likely that more Events will be in the orchestra’s future. What else are they planning? For the young at heart, CONTACT!, at the Met Museum; after the lusty cheers for the rock-’em, sock-em (R)evolution series at the Lincoln Center Festival, they will definitely include contemporary sounds. And Gilbert has more ambitious plans for the orchestra, from using its first-chair virtuosi as soloists and for chamber music, to creating more “theatrical” evenings like Vixen and last season’s Grand Macabre.

One of the sure signs of a Music Director’s confidence is the range of repertoire he tackles and conquers fearlessly. Gilbert has done this for two seasons, and – the ultimate test – also hired strong guest conductors, like Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Robertson, and Zubin Mehta. Only someone who knows he has nothing to fear is likely to go that route. (Salonen’s version of Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds was a landmark; I heard three performances, and each was better than the one before it.)

But there’s one problem that never goes away, that even the Philharmonic needs to address: the lure of short-term financing (which led to the canceling of this year’s free concerts in the parks) rules everywhere, and the Philharmonic is no exception. While the orchestra is diligent about using its resources for extensive outreach in and out of Avery Fisher Hall, and Alan Gilbert’s new post at Juilliard as director of the conducting program assures collaboration with Juilliard’s gifted performers (and the built-in audience that comes with the territory), the only solution to the problem of creating new long-term audiences is to make sure that music is once again taught in every public school on a regular basis. Because it has all but disappeared, it would take a preternaturally generous and far-sighted patron to step up to the plate and underwrite a city-wide K-12 music curriculum, ensuring that every child would be exposed not only to music, but to the basics of its history and achievers. By all means, include with it all the newest electronic wizardry. But include the old tunes, too. If you think that an earwig like “This is the symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished” ever goes away, you’re wrong!

P.S. Vixen is available on the iTunes Pass on August 16. If you missed the concerts, tune in. And check in to explore what’s next: new york philharmonic

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