Archive for July, 2017

Cooper’s London

July 27, 2017

Theater/Broadcast

A Tight Andronicus  

I cannot understand why Titus Andronicus has such a terrible reputation. Perhaps it’s because so far I have only seen good and interesting productions? Which suggests to me that there is something stageworthy about it even if it doesn’t read all that brilliantly on the page.

At one level, of course, it’s like watching those contemporary action thrillers or horror films with lots of blood and events. This new production at the RSC in Stratford, updated to a contemporary world on the edge of street riots, embraces (to a degree) that kind of Summer Blockbuster approach. It opens with a prologue of alarums and excursions by a contemporary mob and police, swiftly underscoring the theme that the violence and emotional savagery of humanity are still being played out in the contemporary worldEgypt or China or Venezuela or Syria, for instance?

Director Blanche McIntyre deploys a battery of shock effects and line readings that at times, and rightly, provoke uneasy, spontaneous laughter from the audience. Not that the Grand Guignol is played for laughs. The actors present characters that are believable, if grotesque or evil, and are all the more convincing because of the updating of the visuals to a contemporary world that resonates with echoes of everyone from Erdogan to Asad. Further, the play ties in neatly with the RSC’s “Roman Season “ in which they are doing productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus as well as Titus Andronicus to show how the plays work when given a thematic context.  The good news is that the four plays are being broadcast to cinemas all over the world; you’ll also be able to catch up with them on DVD in the near future and see what I’m talking about.t So you won’t have to go to Stratford-upon-Avon or, later, to London’s Barbican Theatre, to see these shows and decide for yourself, because the RSC now brings its season to you, wherever you are. 

Of course it isn’t quite the same as being in the theatre. But these live broadcasts do capture the sense of occasion. While you are not in a fixed seat with a fixed viewpoint, the broadcast director and cameramen are choosing varied viewpoints for you, and they have become increasingly skilled at this. The compensations of being able to experience the actual new production in real time and see the actors in close-ups definitely balances the disadvantage of not actually being there. So let us hear three cheers for this new dispensation! The RSC Roman Season has already broadcast its exemplary Julius Caesar and extremely fine Antony and CleopatraCoriolanus is to be broadcast on 11 October 2017. And if you miss any of these plays, they will appear on DVD; you can catch up with them later. Another good thing about our era is simply that these productions are being preserved.

The RSC, with this kind of integrated approach to the four plays, and its commitment to widening its audience through new technological means, is enjoying a very good period at the moment under the directorship of Gregory Doran. When you see this season’s plays, each one stands on its own but there are echoes across them of a shared central vision, a core, that makes a point about our world today and what we are seeing on the the news. The news cameras are right there on stage for the big public moments of Titus Andronicus throughout. And the world of a mythical Ancient Rome is just as much a paradigm for our current displaced but suppressed violence, anger, and our populist denial of reason and compassion as are the clips we witness every day from, say, the Middle East.

I recommend this Titus Andronicus very highly (in whatever medium you can access), as you have probably guessed by now. For a start, it’s an extremely intelligent interpretation that’s very sensitive to subtext, and the text is presented with utmost clarity.There’s not a weak performance in the cast. David Troughton  (King Lear at Stratford not long ago) brings out a quality in Titus that is a kind of early, simpler draft of Lear. He begins with immense self-assurance and lack of pity for the plight of Tamora’s son, whom he puts to death. And there’s the rub! He’s tired, he’s old, he’s vengeful, he cannot see beyond the rituals of Rome and appeasement of his gods.  At the start, Andronicus only slenderly knows himself and doesn’t seem to see that his actions might have uncontrollable consequences. Nor will he allow himself to become Emperor, though the people want it. It’s his voice that tips the balance into rousing the crowd to appoint Saturninus as Emperor; it’s therefore his shirking of responsibility that causes so much chaos and damage to ensue. At the beginning, like Lear, he cannot see beyond his entitlements, his power and his beliefs. Does it make you think of anyone in the world of contemporary politics, by any chance? Clearly Shakespeare was already contemplating that the fault was not in our stars but in ourselves. McIntyre’s production suggests this strongly. 

Martin Hutson is a riveting, neurotic, lustful and dangerously self-inflated Saturninus, a modern-day City banker or trader, a Stalin whose fear of losing power makes him paranoid; Nia Gwynne is terrifyingly manipulative, fearsome and predatory as Tamora, as well as bruisingly moving and self-justifying in her anguish. There is a convincing, effective Aaron played by Stefan Adegbola, whose credo is that if he ever did a good deed he regrets it. And yet, when it comes to it, he loves the baby son that he fathers on Tamora and strives to save it. But is this unexpected paternal love or simply projection of his own ego onto the child? The strength of this reading is that we are left with several ambiguities. Aaron comes across as a very early draft of Iago, of course: unfathomable, seemingly motivated only by his own evil.

The production is as bloody as it needs to be (given the text), and visually impressive as it moves about the design outside a contemporary bank of glass and steel created by Robert Innes Hopkins. The set enables a fluid, direct staging, and Tim Sutton’s music is used to great effect;  I was frequently moved by Hannah Morrish as Lavinia and thought the pacing of the play was always superb. Will Bliss plays a clown who must have been one of Shakespeare’s earliest creations as a stark, gasp-making contrast to the unfolding tragedy and mayhem; and Patrick Drury was particularly fine as Marcus Andronicus. The younger generationespecially David Burnett as Quintus, Tom Lorcan as Martius, Dharmesh Oatel as Bassanius, Jon Tarcy as Alarbus, Sean Hart as Demetrius and Luke MacGregor as Chironwere all praiseworthy, as was Marcello Walton in more than one part. 

The great strength and pleasure of the RSC is its ensemble work, the rehearsing until everyone is completely part of a strong unit with one purpose, to find and communicate the soul of the play. In this case, the achievement is all the more impressive because it’s not one of Shakespeare’s best plays and he probably did not contribute more than a few speeches in the first act; yet one is suitably disturbed to see its portrayal of this dark and sometimes uncontrollably brutal side of the human psyche.

Titus Andronicus is playing in repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 2 September and at the Barbican Theatre in London from 7 December 2017 until 19 January 2018. It will be broadcast live from the stage on 9 August 2017.

To experience a first-rate production of this early Shakespeare play and discover its often-disputed and underrated merits, check the web for the broadcast schedule: https://www.rsc.org.uk/titus-andronicus/in-cinemas

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Apollo’s Girl

July 24, 2017

Theatre/Film

Measure for Measure
(Dir.: Simon Godwin)
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky
Shakespeare Center
Since TFANA’s move to Brooklyn to inaugurate its new theater with Julie Taymor’s magical production of Midsummer Night’s Dream https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/apollos-girl-54/, it has been emphasizing the director’s art, seeking new takes on the classics for its new audiences. Simon Godwin’s recent view of Measure for Measure was no exception. Godwin arrived from London with a formidable portfolio of reviews and awards, keen to reveal his solutions to this “problem play” and how to update an Elizabethan plot and setting so its relevance was underscored, yet its original context respected. 
Solutions: keep the city (Vienna) and its period styles, but modernize the costumes of some of the characters; here, the less-humane wear post-WW II business attire to indicate their administrative functions. Also, think of the subtext (which would have been familiar to London audiences in 1604): the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Church of England; it had driven Henry VIII to close the monasteries and convents, and fears of STDs and plague had also caused closings of the theaters and brothels as well, banishing them to the outskirts of town.

Vienna, a Catholic city, was known for its strict morality. Leave it to Shakespeare to marry the two geographies to make his points. And leave it to Shakespeare to focus on the elasticity of his characters’ interpretation and behavior as they confront that morality. They are marvelous at arguing their positions (you can always count on a good argument, and Measure for Measure doesn’t stint on chastity vs. promiscuity, or justice vs. corruption), and marvelously flexible at justifying their frequent changes of heart and mind. You will spot some thought-provoking parallels to 21st-century dilemmas. And of course there will be marriages in the end, following many reversals and equal measures of comedy and bloodshed. What would Shakespeare be without them?

A particularly confident and appealing cast included outstanding work from Jonathan Cake, Thomas Jay Ryan and the wondrous Cara Ricketts, who took no prisoners and gave the language and ideas their due in every scene. As a special treat, Godwin created a labyrinthine brothel to lead us into the theater; its dim lighting, erotic paraphernalia and actors energetically miming some of its featured activities were a way to get us in the mood for the play that followed. Expanding on that theme, Act Two opened in a nightclub run by Mariana (Merritt Janson) who sang a modern version of “Take, oh take, those lips away…” It was not altogether logical, but Ms. Janson was definitely one terrific singer!

Speaking of new audiences, one of TFANA’s recent coups was their double bill of Strindberg’s The Father and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, brilliantly directed by Arin Arbus and brilliantly double cast with Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson, who played to the rapt and discerning crowds filling the house for the marathon. In general, TFANA’s audiences are enthusiastic, but this time there were a lot of New York actors who came to learn from the fun, and ticket-holders from London, Berlin and California who had flown in to experience a theatrical summit. http://www.tfana.org/about/production-history/dolls-house-father/overview#Media

The 2017-2018 season will bring new productions and outreach programs for those who truly relish theatre and are smart enough to plan in advance. Stay tuned for details and tickets: www.tfana.org.

The Fencer (Dir.: Klaus Häro. Writer: Anna Heinämaa)
NYC Angelika; Lincoln Plaza
National: http://www.cafilm.org/thefencer/

The reasons for The Fencer’s presence on the 2016 Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Film will be immediately apparent from its cinematography (Tuomo Hutri); design (Jaagup Roomet) and flawless editing (Ueli Christen/Tambet Tasuji). Director Klaus Häro has made an excellently paced film that flows effortlessly; its cast (especially Märt Avandi in the title role), from supporting to bit players, is alive in every moment of the story. And if elements of the story seem familiar, the beauty of the production and the truth of its emotions and settings will keep you engaged.

What is not familiar to Americans is the reality of the complex politics that prevailed throughout most of the 20th century elsewhere, especially the impact of successive occupations by Nazis and Soviets in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states (The Fencer is based on a true story that takes place in Estonia). It imposed an explosive climate that ruined many lives and twisted the natural civic order for decades, laying waste cultures and traditions that recovered only slowly after the double blows of World War II and the Cold War. Millions were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

The Fencer makes this landscape clear in the swift progression of its tale, yet enriches every chapter and location with the tiny details that add a real sense of place and character and what it was like to be there; so you feel part of the story, rather than a bystander watching it unfold. The film’s perfect balance between issues and textures is extraordinary, like the positions, the moves and the concentration required to excel at the sport that gives the film its title. In the end, the sheer grace of the production and level of art and craft it exhibits make it a standout.

 

Kékszakállú (Dir.: Gastón Solnicki)
NYC Elinor Bunin Munro Center
Argentina seems to produce some of the most interesting (and puzzling) films around, and Kékszakállú is both. Gastón Solnicki claims it was inspired by Béla Bartók’s 1918 opera, Bluebeard’s Castle; a haunting work whose origins lie in Perrault’s French fairytales, or earlier (in real life) in Brittany. In every version there is darkness and mystery. Yet Kékszakállú is more often full of light and always full of water.

The wealthy young women whose repose and aimlessness Solnicki captures are on the verge of adulthood. They find themselves on diving boards in public pools, paddling in hidden gardens, swimming in the ocean, and resting in front of pipes billowing steam in a sausage plant. There is little dialogue; from time to time, excerpts from Bartok accompany their action. It’s something of a social commentary (though an elliptical one), with the foreshadowing of socioeconomic difficulties to come. Yet Solnicki’s saturated images and the music create a sense of dread that gradually and subtly intensifies. The last frames reveal one of the women standing on a ferry with her suitcase, relocating, perhaps to a better life. But has she (or any of the other women) grown up? That’s for you to decide. If you like very elegantly filmed mysteries, this one’s for you to solve.

 

                                                                                                *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

There’s good news and bad news…

The good news: Damian Woetzel has been appointed the new President of Juilliard.

 

The bad news: our Commander-in-Chief is draining the swamp and creating a tar pit.

 

 

Apollo’s Girl

July 4, 2017

Film

Road Trips…


My Journey Through French Cinema;
Pop Aye; Dawson City Frozen Time;
Paulina

My Journey Through French Cinema (Part One)
(Dir./Writer Bertrand Tavernier)
06/23/17 New York NY Lincoln Plaza
06/23/17 New York NY Quad Cinema
06/23/17 Los Angeles CA Laemmle Royal
07/07/17 Chicago IL Gene Siskel Film Center
07/14/17 Portland OR NW Film Center
07/15/17 Nashville TN The Belcourt 
07/21/17 Minneapolis MN St. Anthony Main Theatre 
07/28/17 Miami Beach FL Miami Beach Cinematheque 
08/04/17 Santa Fe NM The Screen

To grow up in New York when the New Wave was cresting was to dive off a cliff into the ocean that is French culture. Life-altering total immersion. As luck would have it, the films were not dubbed, but sub-titled, so every tic and nuance of the actor’s craft was right there in the dark in front of you. Who could not yearn for those characters, those crooked old medieval streets pulsing with post-war social revolution? The birth of story after story played out by Bardot, Belmondo, Signoret, Montand, Moreau? And what about the writers, the directors, the auteurs?

If you missed all that, never mind: Bertrand Tavernier has captured the Wave, along with much earlier and much later French films and poured the whole catch out for us with all the passion and authority conferred by more than thirty films of his own. Tavernier admits to wearing many hats (citizen, spy, explorer and painter, chronicler and adventurer) for his road trip through French cinema, and switches them frequently. We are the lucky ones, who can lean back and share the journey with him as faces, sites, words and music unspool for his pleasure and ours. No need to swim: just sit back and watch this cosmic show-and-tell. While Tavernier is a warm and generous host, one of the great achievements of My Journey is the  way in which it clasps to its very generous bosom viewers thrilled to revisit and expand what they remember, yet bestows equal pleasure by solving the problem that weighs on all who champion a pre-digital agenda: how to mold a context that will lure the Gen X’s, Y’s and Z’s for whom the New Wave is a surfboard, rather than a dive off a cliff. Even compressed into three-plus hours (they whiz by) instead of decades, My Journey is still exhilarating.

Of course, like all filmmakers, Tavernier mourns the favorite bits that languish on his cutting room floor; there are rumors that a sequel will include them. Meantime, he makes loving (if fleeting) references to them with titles, and we feel his pain. “I would like this film to be an expression of gratitude to all those filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, and musicians who have erupted into my life. Memory keeps us warm: this film is a piece of glowing charcoal for a winter night.”

It’s also, in its delicious and ultimate Frenchness, a really cool way to enjoy a summer evening.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K22hX_9BUnU


Pop Aye: (Dir./Writer: Kirsten Tan) NYC Film Forum and national
This elephant (the title character) is out of the room and on the road in Thailand with his new owner
an architect who has, like the elephant, seen better times. They are trekking back to the architect’s hometown for a visit, moving slowly but steadily toward their distant goal until a passing truck is flagged and they climb in. “You don’t look like the type who’d be traveling with an elephant,” observes the driver. “I just bought him,” says the architect. Thus begins this quirky and appealing take on civilization and its discontents, a debut feature from a filmmaker who plies the Singapore/New York nexus with her own 
singular vision and notice from Rotterdam, Sundance and Sydney.

Part of what makes Pop Aye go is the sheer improbability of the ingredients that Kirsten Tan has mixed into a delectable and slightly dry brew. Taken one at a time they would seem to defy blending. When was the last time you found an architect and an elephant in amiable partnership? Or discovered a dysfunctional family with its own take on relationships. Or a truck driver who appears and disappears from time to time (this takes place in Thailand) with an inner GPS of his own. Then there’s a holy man in flip flops who says he will soon join his brother in heaven (he read it in the stars). There are bureaucrats and farmers, ex-wives and partners with little patience for the hero and his faithful traveling companion—and always that marvelously amiable elephant.

Don’t imagine for one minute that Pop Aye can be defined as a linear story; it threatens more than once to disperse, and occasionally makes unexpected (and not always logical) leaps in continuity but, as constructed by Ms. Tan’s whimsical imagination, it’s hard to let go of its sneaky and oddly compelling logic. Surrender to its charms and you will find yourself glad you hitched a ride in the slow lane with some excellent company.

 

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Dir.: Bill Morrison)
(NYC IFC Center; LA Landmark Regent;
Laemmle Monica Film Center; Vintage Los Feliz Theatre)

There are many threads in the tapestry that is Dawson City Frozen Time, and Bill Morrison is its God at the Loom. Not for nothing does Morrison call his company Hypnotic Pictures: this profound meditation on life and death of men, movies and mores, crafted from a trove of old footage unearthed by a backhoe in Dawson City, Yukon, is mesmerizing. Prepare to be transported as it travels backwards and forwards in time, carrying you with it like some spellbound caboose on a rich and improbable road trip in black and white.

Dawson City’s population was a thermometer that measured the heat of the gold rush of 1898, and the ups-and-downs of the fever were mirrored in the photographs by Eric A. Hegg, whose images of hopefuls struggling up the glaciers remain iconic. As native Canadians whose fishing and hunting shacks were wrenched upriver to make room for the town that erased them, Dawson City waxed and waned several times. At its heart was a succession of hotels, provision stores, civic monuments, saloons and brothels catering to itinerant prospectors and, soon after, public halls to screen the movies sent out from early producers to lull and excite the population. The movies—newsreels, shorts, and long-forgotten features—mirrored the world outside, but always after the fact; Dawson City was the end of the distribution line. Since the cost of returning the films to their home base was prohibitive, the orphaned reels simply stayed put, moving in and out of basements and backyards as time passed by, wars began and ended and tastes changed. 

Morrison has a field day with this treasure, marked as it is by decades spent in the permafrost, scratched and flaring, the ghost of movies past (some believed lost entirely until the backhoe dredged them up). But there’s another text that holds it all together: the repeated rise and fall of Dawson City as it fights to stay alive; the transformation of gold mining from manually panned nuggets to digs run by shadowy figures from the world beyond—in fact, the Guggenheims, who bring in big machines to do the job until all the veins are stripped. Newsreels faithfully record strikes and Sacco and Vanzetti, the Black Sox scandal, inventions and progress, always behind the times. And, with his hands deep in movie gold, Morrison sprinkles the film with nuggets of factoids like spices: the founding of Donald Trump’s family fortune by his grandfather, who ran an inn (cum bordello) in nearby White Horse, or what happened to some of Hollywood’s forgotten stars.

Respectability came to Dawson after a while, along with civic structure and society. Not since Edgar Reitz’s Heimat has communal evolution been put under a microscope so cleverly or, in this case, so imaginatively. But, in the end, it remains dreamlike, a leisurely (but rigorously edited) road trip through history in black and white, embraced by Alex Somers’ music and John Somers’ sound. Definitely to be savored. 


https://vimeo.com/180648695

Paulina (Dir: Santiago Mitre) Spectacle Theatre
The question should be how did a film whose many awards include the Grand Prize and FIPRESCI at Cannes find its way to the Spectacle Theatre in Brooklyn? Spectacle is “a volunteer-run microcinema, screening rare and under-appreciated films seven days a week. It is also a spot for radical polemics, in-house edits, live scores, original posters, and filmmaker appearances. We are an ex-bodega of enchantment, a semi-social society, an anti-commercial Atlantis. All screenings are $5 unless otherwise listed.“

Although Paulina is based on an earlier film (La Patota – The Gang) it is Dolores Fonzi’s performance
in the title role that dominates a very complicated story and keeps you thinking about its chronology and narrative reversals. The script tackles enormous issues of political and social justice even as it focuses on the moral positions of its principal and supporting players and their changes of heart and mind. One of the lines that connect the dots shows that random events can change lives forever, and that simple misunderstandings can trigger dominoes that will continue to collapse. Without Fonzi’s power to anchor the story, it might scatter, despite Santiago Mitre’s skill and the cast’s agility with shorthand. And many of its theories are revealed in arguments between Fonzi, (a talented judge-in-training), and her father (a respected and influential jurist), who are equally matched and equally stubborn.

The ideas and characters remain in memory, however, after Fonzi is seen resolutely marching down the road toward her destiny, chosen by her own design.

 

 


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