Archive for March, 2015

Apollo’s Girl

March 25, 2015

apollo and lyre


Life Upon the Wicked Stage:
Extensions and Openings

An Octoroon (Soho Rep; at Theatre for a New Audience, Brooklyn). Extended twice, An Octoroon (Best New American Play Obie, 2014) must close on March 29. So you must–repeat must –see it this week!

To say that An Octoroon is based on 330px-DION_BOUCICAULT_PHOTO_1Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana isn’t fair (neither was life in Louisiana in 1859). Boucicault was a wildly successful actor-playwright-manager called “…the most conspicuous English dramatist of the 19th century” by the NY Times when he died in 1890. Although buried in Westchester, he actually lived here only for six years. Whatever he knew, or imagined, about the antebellum South has been gleefully (and brilliantly) turned inside out, upside down, and into a brandon jacobs-jenkinsfunhouse mirror that reflects Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ very contemporary take on the same material. Multiple identities are switched, costumes and wigs are changed, songs are sung, and let’s just say that a lot of makeup is applied as required.

What makes this production a standout (apart from a sensational cast and direction) is Jacob-Jenkins’ mastery of the art of entertainment, using it to cushion the impact of the ideas and the facts octoroon2that underlie the fun. The games begin as Austin Smith (standing in for the author) appears in his underwear, faces the audience, and says “I’m a black playwright, and I’m here to tell you a story…” His improbable story, wacky and wonderful, unspools. Yet, as it’s coming to a close and fire has destroyed a slave cabin, the lyrics of a song suddenly pose a question “When you burn it down it leaves no trace. What do you put there in its place?” The answer may be elusive, but Jacobs-Jenkins is definitely working on it. Go online for the revelations tickets. And find out more about them in the NPR interview: listen up

Five Times in One Night
(Ensemble Studio Theatre, extended to April 19)

There’s no question that EST has ways to make you laugh. Of course there’s always gravitas behind the laughter, but recalling some highlights (Hand to God; Isaac’s Eye) will prepare you for a new foray into a wicked exploration of relationships: now (this week and last week); then (celebrity couples Adam and Eve; Heloise and Abelard); and in the future (if there is one) in 2119.

chiara atikPlaywright Chiara Atik, a member of EST’s Youngblood Program for under-30 emerging professionals, definitely has smarts up her sleeve anda huge bonusa passion for both history and the eternal fallibility of lovers. You will somehow not be surprised that she has authored Modern Dating: A Field Guide for Harlequin, but you will be deeply delighted by the way she tweaks one of the Middle Ages’ great legends, Five Times in One Night (photo by Gerry Goodstein)as Heloise and Abelard conduct their epistolary romance in breezy Twitter-ese. And there’s a bonus to the evening: Five Times is not on EST’s Main Stage, but accessible by an historic freight elevator the size of a dining room, replete with white wine and snacks. It takes you to an intimate performance space full of couches and rugs; you’ll get the idea and the jokes. Director RJ Tolan knows just what to do with Dylan Dawson and Darcy Fowler, the couple for every age. They seem to enjoy their work. To take the elevator and enjoy the extension: up you go

Irreversible (Red Fern Theatre Company)

irreversibleEveryone seems to love anniversaries, but there’s one coming up that’s a painful exception: it’s been almost 70 years since the atomic bomb was set off in the New Mexico desert, and (a month later) dropped on the unsuspecting people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While many scientists and technicians oppenheimer 2were involved in developing and deploying the weapons, the focal point of most narratives is physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Irreversible focuses on the brief period in which Oppenheimer, along with his brother Frank and a growing army of colleagues developed the bomb at Los Alamos. It succeeds in revealing the genius and the complexities that characterized Oppenheimer’s life: his sometimes erratic behavior, the conflict between his drive to control the titanic forces he would unleash and his own emotional needs, and his seesaw relationships with his gifted younger brother Frank, his wife Kitty, and his one-time lover Jean Tatlock.

It’s a virtuoso balancing act which playwright Jack Karp, director Melanie Moyer Williams, and a small, tightly meshed and very talented cast pull off with conviction. The left-wing politics that shaped the drama’s key players are also given their due, along with the repercussions they would cause after the war irreversible3had been won.

Karp has assigned double duty to lines of dialogue so they work both to carry the story forward, and as transitions between parallel scenes. It’s an imaginative trope, and tightens the play’s shifts from one location and one time to another. The play’s conclusion, a glimpse of the siren song of ambition that Oppenheimer, despite his struggles with the morality of his work cannot resist, chills to the bone. And its coda, a mimed reflection of its consequences, is shattering.

See Irreversible and learn about what Red Fern has coming up: tickets and events

Apollo’s Girl

March 9, 2015


apollo and lyre



Another Rendezvous, with Surprises...

There’s always a bit rendezvousof mystery with Rendezvous, and this year there are three of them really worth seeing and being absorbed by. All three are based on real stories, are stylish (they’re French, after all), and sui generis.

la frenchFirst, Cedric Jiminez’ The Connection (La French), a close relative of the classic
French Connection, William Friedkin’s 1971 tougher-than-nails take on the Marseilles drug trade. The Connection reflects the original in a trans-Atlantic mirror that gives us a smart, fast 35mm policier whose period details are highlighted by the pleasures of  Jean Dujardin’s flawless turn as a tough magistrate who cannot be bought, cannot be frightened, and won’t give up. The Artist’s leading man still has a heart of gold, but proves here he can turn it into steel if required.

sk12Next up, SK1—a case that transfixed France from 1981 to 1997, when serial killer/rapist Guy Georges (Adama Niane) attacked seven women. He is defended by attorney Natalie Bye sk1and relentlessly tracked by Frank Magne (Raphaël Personnaz, seen earlier as the political neophyte in The Prime Minister). Georges’ backstory, revealed almost accidentally, describes the creation of a monster by  childhood abuse. Nianne makes him human, and director Frédérique Tellier crafts a first-rate thriller out of facts and emotions.

Next Time, I’ll Aim for the Heart (Cédric Anger) is a real honey (if one can so describe its next time1silky-smooth spider web of mounting tension and serious creep factor). Last seen at Rendezvous riding an underdog steeplechase winner in Jappeloup, and frequently referred to as a rising international actor, writer and director, Guillaume Canet hypnotizes as a truly scary rogue cop. But don’t hold his hunk quotient against him—the movie fits him like a glove. You can see him in person in discussion with Variety critic Scott Foundas; admission free (Tuesday, March 10, 5:30pm, Elinor Bunin Munroe amphitheater).

Fidelio, Alice’s Odyssey (Lucie Bourleteau): this boat floats for many reasons: its cast fidelio(the luminous Ariane Labed; Melvil Poupaud (who has aged well out of his adolescent self-absorption in A Summer’s Tale), and the welcome reappearance of Anders Danielsen (Oslo, August 31). Then there is the freshness of the setting—a rusted tramp steamer kept chugging by Chief Engineer Lebed, the only woman among a polyglot (and randy) crew. There’s plenty of steam in the engine room and the quarters, a story with surprising turns and some fascinating (and realistic) glimpses of life at sea. Dive in—the water’s fine.

My Friend Victoria (Jean-Paul Civeyrac, based my friend victoriaon a story by Doris Lessing.) A quiet, complex and layered film that gives voice to France’s changing attitudes toward race and money through its portrait of a young woman who learns her life lessons by default and an innate sense of honor. Victoria makes its points in unexpected ways, and involves you before you’re even aware of how deep its graceful scenes can cut.

Miss The Smallest Apartment in Paris (Hėlèna Villovitch) at your peril. Villovitch is a smart, adept and smallestprofoundly witty filmmaker who packs civilization and its many discontents into 16 square meters of living space in 15 minutes. This is the last, hilarious word on the urban housing crisis and should be required viewing for every developer in town. For complete Rendezvous schedule: films and tickets

Cooper’s London

March 2, 2015






The Indian Queen by Purcell (revised and completed by Peter Sellars; sung and performed well by everyone else).

indian queen 3To start with, it has to be said that the singing in particular is exceptionally fine in this ENO production. The sets by the inestimable Gronk and costumes by Dunya Ramicova and Danielle Domingue are visually striking and eye-pleasingly attractive. Of course the story sellarshas been updated by director Peter Sellars visually, so that even though they’re talking about the 16th century rape of South America you’re encouraged to see the 21st and 20th century rapes of other parts of the world. I got it! And I’m so used to it now as a trope that I didn’t even get annoyed.

Unfortunately, the musical and dramatic reconstruction of this unfinished work is dire. I came out thinking of a phrase for this approach and this kind of production; I call it Highbrow Pretentious. So let me just say how lugubrious and tedious sitting through this evening was. First, Sellars has pieced together a score based on Purcell’s unfinished original, adding some hymns, some songs, and also his most solemn and dour funeral and religious music; it’s all pretty much lentissimo. It becomes very wearing.

By way of contrast, when the team that created Crazy for You (book by Ken Ludwig, direction by Mike Ockrent) got together they found some snappy Gershwin melodies to add to their rewrite of Girl Crazy and were careful to vary the rhythms and tempos of the songs. On the evidence of this particular Indian Queen, Peter Sellars needs to learn something from the approach of such Broadway compilationsespecially their concept of engaging the audience instead of bludgeoning them into submission.

At the start I thought we were in for a kind of masque; by the middle of the first half I felt I was attending a solemn and unstoppable dirge. There is virtually no dramatic pulse. It was like a particularly depressing funeral staged by the Puritans that insists you are attending a worthy event and, if you giggle, you will be lynched. And Laurence Cummings (who has elsewhere been admirable) conducted as if he were competing for the slowest tempi ever to emanate from a podium. This show needs some pace and maybe even a few laughs, even a tragedy carerroneeds some peaks and valleys.

The story is mainly conveyed by a narrator, well-played  by the actress
Maitxell Carrero,  reading passages from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma by Rosario Aguilar. This gives the evening politically correct feminist credentials as well. Bits of it seemed very interesting so perhaps someone will be encouraged to republish the book. However, the message of the whole opera is that the Spanish were not very nice to the Mayan people. I think we have known this for some time, so I didn’t find anything too revelatory here. (Please note: Don Pedro de Alvarado, the Conquistador, really was horrible to his Indian Queen wife and did a lot of slaughtering and butchering whenever he got the chance.) The production was staged to look like something we would see on tonight’s news from the Middle East or Eastern Europe. Yes, I think I got all the show’s messages, despite its lethargy. On the other hand, I also came to feel Sam Goldwyn was rightif you want to send a message, use Western Union.

The second half of the show is somewhat more interesting than the first since there are actually some moments when Julia Bullock is finally given a chance to convey her character and suffering (although, alas, she actually gets to sing very little). indian queen1She has the same capacity as Janet Baker to inhabit a role and make an audience believe in her, even with minimal exposure. Her acting is very fine and her singing is superb. She has a wonderful voice; she’s the central protagonist and, by the end, the star of the show, and her mime and silent reactions during the long, tiring periods when she has to be on stage and yet hasn’t a note to sing are always convincing. Her duet with Lucy Crowe indian queen 2(who plays a sensitive Spanish woman, the wife of the governor) is a total knockout. I would love to see both women paired in something like The Marriage of Figaro or Cosi fan Tutte, or Semiramide. or some Handel or just about anything where they are given true drama to convey through gorgeous and varied music and some wonderful duos; where they have a director who knows how to show off their talents and not drown them in a Concept; and a conductor who can actually get some drama and movement into the music.

Vince Yi, Thomas Walker, Noah Stuart and Anthony Roth costanzaCostanzo (another rising American star) were all very fine. The ENO certainly knows how to find strong and memorable singers. I also found myself thinking that if you excerpted any five minutes of this production on YouTube it would look gorgeous and even sound good; but that finally, if you sit through the whole evening, it simply doesn’t hang together or add up to anything very much. It was an exceptionally squirm-making three hours of largely forgettable Purcell.

The night that I attended about 20% of the audience didn’t come back for more after the interval. I have to say, Dear Readers, were it not for my commitment to bringing the news from Ghent to Aix for you, I probably would have given up, too. That would have been a shame, because the best of the material and the best chances for the performers to show their talents is mostly later on. There was even one springy, pacey number very near the end that proved that Laurence Cummings, can, in a pinch, ramp up the speed. But it was a long time coming.

The English National Opera has been in the news a lot lately for its collapsing budgets and Arts Council-cut subsidies. It’s a shame. The company actually is sincerely committed to innovation and to ensemble work and when it succeeds it is often brilliant, provocative and even revelatoryas with recent productions such as their Benvenuto Cellini (Terry Gilliam), Girl of the Golden West, Elixir of Love or Traviata. Even something as straightforward as their Mastersingers is admirable mastersingersand serves the work itself well. ENO appeals to a theatrically curious but also democratic audience (their ticket prices are often a third of those at Covent Garden, where we have the big and brilliant international circus of singing and star power).

If the ENO is going down the drain, then this evening felt a bit as if it could be its funeral song, and reminded me of what happened to the New York City Opera, no longer with us. That said, I hope that the company stays alive. We need their approach; we need their cheaper ticket prices; we need their less élitist audiences and a place for younger people to discover opera as an art form. Sometimes, as in this production, their experiments can go wrong. But it’s a failure filled with integrity and some mighty fine singing and acting, despite everything Peter Sellars did to keep them under wraps. And any mike leighcompany that has a Pirates of Penzance coming up (to be directed by Mike Leighremember Topsy-Turvy!), and has taken on Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson is definitely worthy of attention and support.

And you know, Peter Sellars does really try! I don’t question his sincerity. I just wish his approach to The Indian Queen had conveyed more of what I think Purcell’s intentions might have been, given the excellence of its current cast and designers. ENO tickets March 4 – 14, 2015

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