Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

March 19, 2016

Theatre, Film

apollo and lyre

 

 

TFANA: Pericles (through April 10)
VOD: Angel of Nanjing; Sunny in the Dark

Since moving to its new home at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, TFANA has continued to bond brilliantly with like-minded companies and strong directors; Julie Taymor, Peter Brook, Andre Gregory, Sarah Benson, Jessie Austrian/Ben Steinfeld, andright nowpericles 2that canny Brit, Trevor Nunn. As artistic director of the RSC and the National Theatre, he has turned his hand to art (who can forget Nicholas Nickleby?) and artful commerce (who can forget Cats or Les Mis?); TFANA has charged him with creating the best of both worlds for its new production of Pericles, and we are lucky to have him in the right place at the right timeto celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

pericles 3Pericles is a late play, and its attribution is as intricate as its plot. As Nunn states in his Director’s Note, “After…[Shakespeare’s] inspired completion of increasingly dark and pessimistic tragedies…Pericles appears to be heading in the same…direction. But then something else happens…redemption, rebirth, the relenting of the Gods…hope. The text repeatedly asks for music, dance…mime…and a strong indication that some passages should be sung. …we are no longer able to apply shakespeare2the categories of Comedy and Tragedy… instead…[it’s an] opportunity for what can only be described as ‘total theatre.’” How better to celebrate a birthday?

The production is a marvel of shipwrecks, gorgeous costumes (evocative, yet modern, by Constance Hoffman), protean sets and props (Robert Jones), and a lavish use of tropes that we enjoy and expect from Shakespeare: children and lovers lost and found; power stripped from the worthy by the ambitious; epic journeys from one part of the ancient world to another; and finally that happy ending that seems beyond reach until the dea gives us a machina of justice, reunions and marriages. The cast (some in multiple roles, many familiar from TFANA’s roster) is led by Christian Camargo as Pericles; Raphael Nash Thompson as Gower, the storyteller, pericles 5Philip Casnoff as Helicanus; Nina Hellman pericles4as both Cleon’s wife (one tough cookie!) and the goddess Diana; and Lilly Englert as Pericles’ daughter, Marina. The recognition scene at the end of Pericles’ odyssey is heartbreaking, until (thanks to the author’s skill), it isn’t. The storyteller has the last word: “So, on your patience evermore attending, New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending.”pericles

Shakespeare’s anniversary year, however, is definitely not ending. And TFANA has some aces up its sleeve to keep the party going: a series of readings, exhibitions, and discussions at its home base in Brooklyn, and at the CUNY Graduate Center and the New York Historical Society in Manhattan. It’s truly a movable feast to be consumed with pleasure: www.tfana.org/shakespeare400, and most events are free!

VOD: Angel of Nanjing (Frank Ferendo, Jordan Horovitz)
As it opens,
Angel of Nanjing seems to nanjingbe about the ordinary life of Chen Si, a Chinese Everyman; getting dressed while his wife cooks breakfast, then leaving for work at a logistics company on his moped. But as he pulls away, we see that instead of a number, the back of his jacket has a maxim: “Cherish Life Every Day.” It’s our first hint that Chen Si is most extraordinaryno Everyman, but a Chinese Catcher in the Rye, who has saved the lives of over 300 would-be suicides about to jump off the Yangtze Bridge; since his daily route takes him to the bridge to see if anyone is about to leap, he seldom goes directly to the office.

Part of the fascination of Angel is encountering some of the many grateful survivors who literally owe Chen everything, but much of it is in the revelation of the hero’s character and the incredible ingenuity with which he plies the hobby that has taken over his life. Despite the grim statistics he quotes, “…290,000 commit suicide annually in China; one-third of the world’s total,” he adds “…60% of people who jump off this bridge are from outside the city; so am I. I understand them.” The real kicker in this film is realizing how skillful Chen—a cheerful guy with a happy marriage and a pretty wife, but no formal training in psychology or medicine—has become at his avocation. It has made him famous angel(“All eighth-grade social books in the entire country have my name and phone number!”), driven him to build a “soul center” for recovering depressives, and attracted several student interns to help manage the chaos. They are all invited to his annual Christmas party.

In this country,” he muses, “there are few people who will listen to you.” His secret weapons are being able to talk, and listen to, everyone, and being able to spot a potential jumper from sixty meters away. He copes with drink, billiards and karaoke, and is philosophical about his life: “My wife predicted I would do this only for a short time,” he smiles. And when his wife breaks her leg playing badminton and is told she will wear a cast for two months, he simply picks her up and carries her (and her cast) home on his back. That’s the kind of guy he is.

Angel is an original look at a serious and universal problem, solved by an unlikely hero who simply refuses to give up; a welcome antidote to the headlines that assault us every day. He and the film’s revelation of an unpublicized aspect of China have won the filmmakers Best Documentary awards at eight festivals to date, with more on the way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s53FfWlv6tM

Sunny in the Dark (Director: Courtney Ware; Script: Mike Maden)
sunny
This is one intriguing movie, combining elements of psychological thriller, romance, a dash of the supernatural, sunny1and urban living. It’s Ware’s first, based on an earlier short film, and has a story that plays well in the hands of the remarkably talented Hannah Ward, a waif who can make the most of a character desperately seeking love and companionship without being able to speak to the object of her affections 
(Jay Huguley). He’s a therapist recovering from divorce who withdraws from the world (when he isn’t practicing his chosen profession) by finding a quiet sanctuary in which to listen to music and paint action figures in a tiny Mediaeval scene. Ward (unbeknownst to hannah wardhim) has been living in the crawl space above his apartment, spying on him through a crack in the ceiling. She falls hard, and begins using his rooms during the day to eat, bathe, explore his photo albums and play with his figurines, rushing back upstairs when he comes home. She fantasizes a relationship with him, and gradually escalates her presence, tip-toeing around the apartment while he’s sleeping, hiding when he wakes. It’s a nifty, creative story with several surprises; hinting at any more of them here would turn them into spoilers, so see it yourself to learn how it turns out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SIqlbDJUao

 

Cooper’s London

March 13, 2016

Theatre/Opera

!cid_A15726B8-792D-4BB3-8E63-1E1A0B6E6E5E@westell

Coming Up:
New and Different
(and Same Old) Stuff
in London

Despite regular and justified complaints that the London Theatre is being diminished by economic cuts and producers so terrified of losing money they’ll attempt nothing innovative or unusual, there’s still a surprisingly healthy scene for theatre-lovers. Not just in the capital but also thrughout the UK, where repertory theatres and major touring prouctions are alive and well and doing very good business. The continuing glory of the scene is the variety of approaches from the classics to the funky revivals of more recent plays and musicals; these are almost always original or subversive and also showcase extraordinary and treasurable talents.

Hoff0611Like every other marketplace, though, caveat emptor rules. For instance: I thought a new musical called Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was unadulterated dross, but it’s been touring extensively and has an audience that clearly adores its star, David Hasselhoff, who is the main draw. (He was a US TV magnet in The Young and the Restless, a popular soap, and a leading man in Baywatch.) Is he the Donald Trump of American entertainers, some stranger said during the interval? No. He’s much too classy by comparison. However, to me his show is a perfect example of creativity based entirely on opportunism and the lowest common denominator audiences. And lucky you! you’ll be able to see for yourself what the fuss is about on US TV very soon! It was filmed live on stage here in Oxford just for your delectation. And I bet you’ll be able to buy the DVD damned cheaply about two months after its release.

On the other hand, Chicago, for instance, has a touring company on its third round of all the UK’s notable venues, with such an interesting and slickly adept new cast that it’s selling out again with dangerous liaisonsgood reason. In London, there’s Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar Warehouse, revived after 30 years with Christopher Hampton’s script/adaptation and a cast that includes the excellent Dominic West (as a less sinister but sexier Valmont than usual), and a scary Janet McTear as a believably evil Madame Merteuil, as well as veterans such as Una Stubbs. The pleasure of the revival, of “collecting” the performances, is undeniable; but it isn’t exactly an innovative idea. The play was recently broadcast live in cinemas and hopefully will be released on DVD preserve this production.

An interesting new production of Jean Anouilh’s Le voyageur sans bagages has just followed Dangerous Liaisons into the Donmar; I recommend this because Anouilh is, these days, unfairly neglected and underrated in the English-speaking world. This production is a new English version of the play by Anthony Weigh with a worthy but not starry cast. Weigh has called his new version Welcome Home, Captain Fox! and I’m guessing that it’ll be as much a reminder of Anouilh’s importance as the production of Flare Path was a year ago for reviving interest in Terrance Rattigan. (Written at the height of the Blitz in World War II and a favourite play of Winston Churchill’s, Flare Path has been successfully touring the country since its return to the West End.)

Another classic revival in the West End is a new fiennesadaptation, this time by David Hare, of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. With Ralph Fiennes for his Big Name Star, Matthew Warchus direct’s a very strong interpretation of the play and has a cast that works brilliantly as an ensemble. After 19 March The Master Builder is followed at the Old Vic by a new production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker with the brilliant Timothy Spall and again directed by the very imaginative (and very busy) Matthew Warchus, whose gift for inhabiting the text never fails to illuminate unexpected insights.

Down the road at the Young Vic, you might want to check out the plays in the smaller auditoria for new, funky texts. On the Main Stage, Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabaratha, played to full houses until 27 February, trailing clouds of glory from the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. Brook has a virtual annual residency for his work at the Young Vic, and a very fortunate thing that is for London, too. Following at the Young Vic is a show/musical/cabaret called If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me that sounds both interesting andhorrocks unusual. Starring the multi-talented Jane Horrocks (another Young Vic regular, having done The Good Woman of Szechuan and Annie Get Your Gun there), and conceived by her with Aletta Collins, who directs and choreographs, this promises to be memorable theatre. It runs in the main house from 10 March to 15 April. I am also looking forward to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in the Young Vic’s The Maria auditorium. Annie Ryan has adapted the novel by Elmear McBride and the star turn by Aiofe Duffin promises to be unforgettable.

At the National Theatre, the play that interests me the most this season is their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson. Sharon D. Clarke is Ma Rainey and the director is Dominic Cooke, who ran the Royal Court Theatre so successfully from 2007-2013. From the stylish and apt way this production works, He clearly has a real affinity for this material. It’s ma raineyrunning in repertoire until mid-May according to current listings, but if it’s a success it will hopefully simply carry on. It’s one of the most powerful and exciting of the sequence of plays by Wilson portraying the experience of African-Americans, decade by decade, in the 20th century. Also coming up at the National from the end of March is a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s neglected and virtually unknown masterpiece, Les Blancs. The director is Yael Farber whose work has dazzled me since I saw a production of hers brought to the UK from South Africa about ten years ago. I need know nothing more. If you see the name Yael Farber as director on anything anywhere ever, just buy tickets and go. There’s also a revival of the notorious Harley Grandville-threepennyBarker play Waste that was famously banned by the UK censor in 1910 or so. You can still just catch that one. But just as excitingly as Ma Rainey, the RNT is staging a new production of the Brecht-Weill iconic Threepenny Opera from 18 May. Rufus Norris is directing a cast that includes Rory Kinnear.

Joshua Harmon’s successful comedy, Bad Jews, returned to London for a month from mid-February for a run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Ilan Goodman reprised his much-applauded role as Liam, alongside new cast members Ailsa Joy, Antonia Kinlay, and Jos Slovick. This American play is directed by Michael Longhurst. And Matthew Perry, of erstwhile Friends fame, has just opened in a play he himself has written called The End of Longing, about which I have heard not such very good things. Still, it is a brand-new play! There don’t seem to be many of those around these days!

Meanwhile the Almeida is doing yet another Uncle Vanya in a new version by Robert Icke. It runs through the end of March. It’s always worth seeing Uncle Vanya and the Almeida has a very good record with classics like this, so if you are in the mood for some Chekov, this could be a good bet. And when Nina announces that she’s a seagull for the third time, I think everyone in the audience should shout out: So flock off, lady! and see what happens…

Uncle Vanya is followed at the Almeida by a new play by Leo Butler called Boy. Last year, director-designer team Sacha Wares and Miriam Buether had a success with a groundbreaking production of a play called Game at the Almeida; however, the excitement and hype around this new production of theirs is based not just on their work as a team but also on the writing of Leo Butler who seems to be establishing himself as a talented playwright of political polemics that address hard current issues.

A new play about that Cockney cutie Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale has moved at last from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Apollo Theatre in the Strand. Nell_Gwynne_and_King_CharlesYou may recall that Nell (the mistress of Charles II) was one of the first actresses in England ever, and probably an inspiration for the character of Amber St Claire in the ripe Restoration bodice-ripper Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I’m attracted to this one partly because I just saw the excellent Queen Anne at the RSC and read again the brilliant and unjustly neglected masterpiece of a novel, Henry Esmond, by William Thackeray. This new play is like a prequel to all that.

This time round the consistently brilliant and many-faceted Gemma Arterton is

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn ©Alastair Muir 10.02.16 Nell Gwynn 166

playing Nell. There was controversy over the casting of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the role because she is black, but she’s a rising star and may be too busy with conflicting commitments. Do Google her! She’s quite wonderful. Also, Christopher Luscombe is directing Nell Gwynn again with some other cast changes as well. Luscombe is one of the most consistent, intelligent and witty directors in the UK at the moment. I always try to see anything he puts his hand to. His production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor from the Globe Theatre, for instance, is available on DVD and is a good way to get a measure of just how talented this man is. Even though Arterton and Luscombe are involved, I’ll miss Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who caught the essence of a woman able to captivate both king and country. But then I expect Arterton to do no less. It’s a bawdy, entertaining and informative evening’s theatre. You might also want to check out the overlapping story of Edward Kynaston in Richard Eyre’s delightful 2004 film Stage Beauty (starring Claire Danes).

Also of note: the Royal Court is bringing the play I See You by Mongiwekhaya to London, before it plays at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, part of its commitment to international new plays which has long defined its lineup; while Jamie Lloyd is directing a new production of Genet’s The Maids at Trafalgar Studio 1; and the Kenneth Branagh Company season continues with The painkillerPainkiller at the Garrick Theatre from early March. The Painkiller stars Branagh and Rob Brydon in the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon roles from Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of this material called Buddy, Buddy. Wilder’s film was based, in turn, on a play by Francis Veber; the material is adapted here by Sean Foley who also directs. Another attraction of this production is the appearance in one of the roles of the inestimable Claudie Blakely.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

…and some notes on notes…

The ENO has just done a successful-enough production of Norma directed by Christopher Alden. It has a strong cast and conductor and is set in the 19th century for reasons that make no sense to me, and it’s interesting to see how Alden approaches one of the ultimate, romantic, bel canto works. How many chairs will inhabit the set? Marjorie Owens will sing the demanding title role and to pique your interest further there is actually a preview snippet of her doing “Casta Diva/Virgin Goddess” with piano on the ENO site at https://www.eno.org/whats-on/15-16/norma

As well as a new Norma, the ENO is reviving their famous production of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten for the first time in decades. I recall it as being totally mesmerising. Their musical this year from sunset blvdearly April will be Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard and they’ve got Glenn Close to repeat her assumption of the main role as Norma Desmond. Michael Xavier, who was a brilliant Sid Sorokin in a recent Pajama Game, will be Joe Gillis and Trevor Nunn is directing. And while we’re in a Broadway time warp, there’s also an upcoming revival of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre from early April that will star Sheridan Smith. This is great, it seems to me, for a younger generation for whom all these things are legends they could never before see live on stage. Meantime, a guys and dollsproduction of Guys and Dolls that originated in Chichester and transferred to the Savoy Theatre is so successful that it’s now transferring again, to make way for Funny Girl, this time to the Phoenix Theatre from 19 March 2016. Emma Thompson’s equally talented and totally wonderful sister, Sophie, is playing Miss Adelaide; and Jamie Parker’s singing as Sky Masterson was compared in some reviews to Sinatra’s! With David Haig as a fine Nathan Detroit, the musical is directed by Gordon Greenberg and choreographed by no less a dancer than Carlos Acosta. Beat that!

Meantime, at the ROH, there is that new production https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sehC_IP2Px8 of Boris Godunov for the first time in ages. Pappano is conducting and Bryn Terfel is undertaking the title role, with Richard Jones directing, so there ‘s a lot of excitement over that one! It opens on 14 March and hopefully will be broadcast to the world on cinema screens near you. Looking ahead to May, I would watch out for Enescu’s rarely performed opera Oedipe. There will also be a new production in April by Katie Mitchell of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that is strongly double cast.

Looking even further ahead to June, I am personally very keen for one special thing: that Audra McDonald is bringing her Billie Holiday show, lady daydirector Lonny Price’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, to London. If you couldn’t get tickets on Broadway but are coming to the UK this is an absolute must. There is a fine Broadway cast recording, too. McDonald sings 14 songs and is never off the stage. Book now, and try this sample on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZTwdR3C6_E And please also try to acquire the Simon Rattle concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town in which Lady Audra is a superlatively acted and sung Eileen. She is, as always, utterly gorgeous in every way.

Apollo’s Girl

March 11, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

 

Let’s Meet Again…

Filmmakers are like architects: whatever the time and costs involved, they’re always ahead of the game; cresting the wave of the future, anticipating the next Zeitgeist. And so it is at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Gone are most of the ruling Gallic rom-coms, the brilliant historical pageants and adaptations of classic plays (though there is a lot of sex…). rendezvous 2016In only three years, this always-provocative festival has become a reflection of France now and in the foreseeable future, its cultural, racial and linguistic issues front and center in 2016.

Well, there are two exceptions: on opening night, The Valley of Love, starring the iconic Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert, filmed in Death Valley (largely in English), reaffirmed the French connection to world cinema that began with the New Wave.

thethreesistersAnd although (strictly speaking) by Chekov, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi has turned The Three Sisters into a gorgeous souffle of a tragicomedy that while quintessentially French, is, somehow, more Russian than Russian in its mercurial shifts and failed trajectories. The cast (from the Comédie Française) is superb in every part. But the décor, the costumes, the shorthand translation carry us to the Russia-that-was and will-never-be-again faster than the speed Chekov imagined in 1900, yet with no less power, and with tender attention to spirit and detail that marry the best of Now and Then. (The opening scene is absolutely Now!)

That said, Rendez-Vous’ focus on the present offers a wide-ranging slate from new and seasoned directors (more than one-third of them women) with original ideas about the human condition.

fatimaFatima (Philippe Faucon) is a real honey; one of many entries about Muslims adjusting to (and changing) French culture. In its quiet way, the lives of a divorced mother and her two daughters make a great impact because of the film’s modestyits whisper is stronger than any shout. While one daughter is a rebellious teenager who turns her back on her first culture, the other struggles to become a doctor. The mother (Soria Zeroual) supports the family with cleaning jobs as she navigates the rigidity of the Muslim community she remains part of, yet determined to give her children a future. She keeps a diary (in Arabic) that reveals the keenness of her sensibilities, and studies French to be able to live more fully in her new home. The film’s last image (devoid of any show, any effects) is simplicity itself; yet carries a soaring emotional charge that simply explodes in joy.

While The Story of Judas (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)
judascould be described as an historical film, it’s definitely not an historical pageant, but rather a fresh re-imagining of the Biblical story that could never have been part of Hollywood’s overblown Biblical canon. Like Zaïmeche’s earlier Smugglers’ Songs https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/apollos-girls-12/, it reminds us that legends are always based on elements of reality; in this case, Judas’ part in Christ’s death, as well as the roles of Pontius Pilate, Carabas, and others we think we know reduced to their essence in vivid snapshots among the mountains and deserts of Judea. The air shimmers with heat and dust, the clothes are ragged and begrimed. You are left to connect the dots on your own, based on what you see and what you remember. It’s a challenge worth taking, hard to resist, and definitely original.

The Great Game (Nicolas Pariser) is a politicapoupaudl thriller in the tradition of the British The Ghostwriter, but with an even twistier plot and more populous cast starring Melvil Poupaud, who proves once again (as in last year’s Fidelio: Carol’s Journeyhttps://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/apollos-girl-52/ ) that he has aged remarkably well. The politics here are still being played out in France between the police and a group of idealists trying to live in communal peace; it’s a dark (and accurate) view of limited choices.

Alice Winocour’s Disorder combines the PTSD of a disorderveteran of the war in Afghanistan (Matthias Schoenaerts) with the desperation of a wealthy weapons dealer’s wife (Diane Kruger) and some really terrifying thugs seeking revenge into a fast action movie that had a critics’ audience gasping more than once. Schoenaerts is believable, scary and sympathetic in every scene, and Kruger torn between her sense of entitlement and intense attraction to him (equally believable).

La Tête Haute (Emmanuelle Bercot) reflects a French juvenile justice system reminiscent of the elementary school lunchroom in Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. The phalanx of judges, therapists, teachers and counselors deployed for a decade in the tete hautultimate salvation of a recidivist punk is in stark contrast to our own tradition: Reflect on our teens unlucky enough to be sentenced to serve time and unlikely to receive either sympathy or support, or to be able to rejoin society as functioning adults. (Just as the students in Moore’s film can look forward to a leisurely gourmet feast every day, while lunch here is fast, brutal, and largely about starch, fat, sugar and salt.) Definitely food for thought…

 

chant d'hiverWinter Song (Otar Iosseliani) As complex as Georgian culture and language, Iosseliani’s brilliant jigsaw puzzle of a film is a real pleasure at every level. His ability to deploy crowds of unforgettable characters defined in seconds like Japanese brush-strokes is equaled by his genius for keeping them moving through brief scenes as they skitter in and out of each other’s lives. His gift for connections is both visual and narrative; his tongue forever in his cheek. Worth seeing twice just to join the game going on in his artful and prodigiously humane imagination.

my kingMy King(Maïwenn) stars Emmanuelle Bercot as a lawyer with a broken leg and a persistent memory for her affair with and marriage to Vincent Cassell. As for Cassell? He’s trouble with a three-day stubble (uh-oh), dancing in the street, sweeping her away on a motorcycle when they first meet, laughing her into bed shortly thereafter. Complications ensue. They love each other, but drive each other crazy for a long time. (One suspects that there may be a great deal of autobiography lurking about in Maïwenn’s script, and a brief survey of its watersheds would heighten that conclusion.)

Dark Inclusion(Arthur Harari) is set against a fascinating and uncommon backdrop: the diamond business in Belgium, where gems mined in Southdark inclusion Africa go to Antwerp to be cut and polished. It has been dominated by close-knit families (many of them Jewish) for generations and remains cool to outsiders. While diamonds are at the center of the plot, it is spun by family ties unraveled and ultimately spun again; blood proves thicker than water. As one trick after another unfolds and alliances shift, the multi-cultural nature of the gem trade now includes Arabs, Indians, Jews, Africans and the Belgians who cut the stones and each others’ profits. What goes on behind the closed doors of offices and workshops leaves you wanting to know more.

Summertime (Catherine Corsini) With its theme of intense love between two womenespecially since one of them is named Caroleit’s hard to avoid comparing Summertime to this season’s Carol, a mainstream feature on the summertimesame topic. Yet Carol, despite its outstanding performances and really stunning production, remained, for me, a tale worthy of respect for its achievements, but always a bit chilly under its high-gloss surface. Summertime, on the other hand, while certainly beautiful to behold, was on fire with emotion and the caprices of real-life women with deep conflicts (for different reasons) over the connection that brings them together. It’s definitely not because of the external differences in their lives when they meet, or that they regret their surrender to one another as often as they are torn by it, but the gritty reality (with its constant shifts and contradictions) that frames their every move into, and away from, the flame. Its evocation of city and countryside in the France of the 1970s is immersive. And both Izia Higelin and Cėcile de France capture your attention and your sympathy full-time.

Dheepan (Jacques Audiard) Ever since seeing Read My Lips, I’ve had a thing about Jacques Audiard. No one does light and dark quite the way he does, shooting and cutting at high speed while always digging deep into his characters. dheepanMore often than not, they are flawed, yet give hints of redemption on closer look. Dheepan shifts the balance in the other direction: its hero (Antonythasan Jesusthasan) rejects the violence of his military service in Sri Lanka and emigrates to France to start over again. He is a man of conscience who works hard, sees everything, says nothing and earns the respect of those who share his life in a grim housing project on the outskirts of Paris. Until he’s forced to take a stand. Then he, and Audiard, deliver the kind of electric finale you’ve been waiting for.

http://www.filmlinc.org/festivals/rendez-vous-with-french-cinema/

Cooper’s London

March 1, 2016

Theatre/Music

Mel snapshot 19

 

 

Coming Up, In and Out of London…

For imminent highlights, don quixotemy instincts tell me that first and foremost I must get tickets to see the new adaptation of Don Quixote appearing soon at the RSC. It plays 25 February until 21 May in The Swan at Stratford-upon-Avon and has definitely raised my hopes. The novel’s adaptation will be by James Fenton, whose The Orphan of Zhao in 2012 is still one of the best and most memorable shows that the RSC has commissioned. The director is Angus Jackson, whose imaginative staging of Oppenheimer I saw in 2015 was one of the most original, intelligent and dazzling realizations of a script imaginable. Its sheer theatricality is still with me; as are several of the spot-on performances that Jackson got from his actors. Actor david threlfallDavid Threlfall is playing the mad, appealing Knight of the Woeful Countenance, the original quixotic hero. Have you seen him on TV in the UK version of Shameless? He’s a reliable and dedicated character actor whose popularity goes back to playing Smyke in the eight-hour-long RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby in the early 1980s—a performance that is still available on DVD. Add to that the fact that the novel of Don Quixote is a wonderful but ridiculously long and varied text; it will be fascinating to see which bits Fenton chooses to include. Not long ago the RSC did a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s lost play based on Don Quixote, Cardenio. I am very excited about this project, which is in rehearsal already.

Looking further ahead, I am particularly keen on two of the many major opera and music festivals that arrive every summer. Gaining repute as the new Glyndebourne, this year’s just-released programme at the Longborough Festival in rural Gloucestershire is its most ambitious yet. Several audience favorites are returning among four operas: Handel’s baroque opera Alcina will be jeremy silverconducted by the adept and youthful Jeremy Silver who is working for the third consecutive year with the same production team and with young professionals early in their careers to give them a springboard. They have already shown that they can be both cheeky and moving in this repertory; and there will even be a performance at the Greenwood Theatre near London Bridge on 4 August.

https://lfo.org.uk/young-people/young-artist-programme

As with Glyndebourne, you want to get to the original venue if you can to experience the full pleasure of the place; they provide a show that includes time to wander around lovely grounds and have a long interval for dinner after an early start.

https://lfo.org.uk/

longboroughTannhauser should be powerful in such an intimate venue. John Treleavan and Neal Cooper are sharing the title role; the rest of the cast looks interesting, and the music director of the festival, Anthony Negus, is conducting. He has already been highly praised by the press and audiences for his previous Wagner performances at Longborough and has a solid reputation. Conductor Robert Houssard leads another established production team for a Marriage of Figaro that will star baritone Benjamin Bevan as the Count and the Australian baritone Grant Doyle (formerly a Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) in his role debut as the impertinent valet. The wonderful Norwegian soprano Beate Mordall and England’s Lucy Hall are sharing the role of Susanna. Finally, lee bissettLee Bissett, who is a huge favourite with the audiences at Longborough after taking on Isolde last year, will return to sing Janacek’s Jenufa.

The Glyndebourne Festival, that mother of all summer al fresco festivals in the UK, runs this year from 21 May to 28 August and needs very little introduction from me. Whatever you find still availableeven if you think you do not like that opera—just buy the damned tickets and go for the experience. Established in his stately home by glyndebourneJohn Christie in the 1930s to do Mozart in its original scale (in every sense of the word), many of its productions have been mythical from the very start; much of its work has been broadly influential, and many young artists have gone on from there to important international careers: Janet Baker, who started in the chorus and ended up as Orfeo in Gluck’s opera, among them. (According to legend, they nearly fired Montserrat Caballe, and Roberto Alagna scored an early success as Rodolfo.) Today’s casts are just as riveting and, in a purpose-built theatre, the productions are almost invariably innovative and thought-provoking, while maintaining the highest musical and production standards. Probably all this is due to several factors, two of which must be the long rehearsal periods and being able to work in a rural setting away from the ususal stresses of major opera houses.

For me a highlight of this summer will be more Wagner in a more intimate venue: the revival of the famous David McVicar Meistersinger von Nurnberg with Gerald Finlay as a youthful, sonorous and exceptionally moving Hans Sachs and Michael Schade as Walter. The new production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville draws me like a magnet to see danielle de nieseDaniele de Niese undertake the role of Rosina with the veteran Alessandro Corbelli as her venal guardian, Dr Bartolo. In the past, Glyndebourne has had Victoria de los Angeles and Maria Ewing as memorable Rosinas and I am confident that de Niese will be added to that list. And among the other treats I am particularly delighted to see there is to be a revival of
midsummer night's dreamPeter Hall’s magical interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare set to music by Benjamin Britten) from the 1981 festival.

There will, of course, also be the Proms in London throughout July and August and early September; and there are the interesting productions coming up at Shakespeare’s Globe and Regent’s Park, as well as opera in Holland Park. More of all that anon. But meantime, a reminder to start booking if you fancy a trip around the countryside with a little bit of culture as well. The Brits really do this kind of thing brilliantly.

Coopers London

January 13, 2016

Theatre

Mel snapshot 19

 

Queen and Country;
Sisterhood and Betrayal

I was out of the country when Helen Edmunson’s new play Queen Anne, commissioned and produced by the
queen anne 2Royal Shakespeare Company
opened and so I finally caught up with it only at the very end of December. It has had much praise by critics and audiences and, for me, this praise is largely deserved. Edmdunson’s scriptlike last year’s Oppenheimer, also a commission of the RSCis an historic recreation. In this case, I felt it came across less as a piece of innovative theatre like Oppenheimer and more like a strong BBC costume drama. But it is none the worse for that!

The play is not simply workmanlike, though it’s certainly that too. It tells with both feeling and understanding the personally interesting and historically important story of the friendship between the initially shy and insecure Princess Anne Stuart and the ambitious, glamorous Sarah Churchill. It also covers the complicated, sometimes vicious, politics of the period in ways that make this era come alive. The historic characters (including Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift) are convincingly drawn, and the moments of send-up that reflect the growth of the satiric pamphlets, newspapers and cartoons of the period add welcome wit and theatricality. There are moments of satiric musical interludes as well that are worthy of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and very much in that vein.queen anne 3The design by Hannah Clark enhances the play’s context. Natalie Abrahami deserves praise for her directing of the ensemble. She keeps the action moving; her pacing of the quieter scenes and of the development of the breach between Anne and Sarah strikes all the right emotional notes, indicating the feelings and motivations of both women. Above all, there is not a dud performance anywhere in the evening. jonathan broadbentJonathan Broadbent’s Robert Harley and Beth Park in the role of the favourite who replaces Sarah, the beth parkredoubtable Mrs. Masham, are memorable and the characterizations have a vividness that both explains the background history and also creates a thirst for that fine book about this reign, Queen Anne, by Anne Somerset.

Above all, both Emma Cunniffe as the perpetually sickly, gout-ridden Anne (who experienced 17 pregnancies but left no heir) and Natascha McElhone as the beautiful, supremely confident, ambitious and ultimately thwarted (and increasingly self-destructive) Sarah Churchill, embody their characters and make one feel yes, this is what they must have been like, this is how it must have developed between them. queen anne 4The play does not shy away from the erotic possibilities between the women but, like the film Carol, their implied lesbianism is not really the point. At its heart, the play is about the clash between the expediencies of politics or public responsibilites and personal desires; the fine line between healthy ambition and self-serving corrupt determination; and also about friendship and betrayal.

One of the finest aspects of the play is the way the women and their relationship grow, develop and shift until Anne becomes not only her own woman but a real, intelligent and morally centred Queen, while Sarah is engulfed by her own ego, her venal goals and her self-aggrandizing view of her role and her powers.

john and sarahThere was certainly a power-couple relationship between Sarah and John Churchill (well-played by Robert Cavanah), the first Duke of Marlborough who was a military genius in British history as important as the Duke of Wellington. Nevertheless, advancement in the early days depended on patronage. How Sarah’s relationship with Anne helped John in the early days of his career is beautifully played, and the role that eroticism plays for that couple is mirrored strongly by Anne’s quasi-erotic fascination with Sarah, something the knowing and sometimes smug Duchess uses with real guile to manipulate her friend.

The play makes one reconsider the reign of the last of the Stuarts who presided over a difficult period when the throne was often unstable, the wars were costly but seen as necessary, the Parliament was consolidating its constitutional rights and the succession was very much in question. The story pretty clearly delineates the struggle between the Whigs and the Tories
and their machinations to win Anne’s support. If you become interested in the actual history behind this play, you could start background reading not only with Anne Somerset’s book but also by reading William Makepeace thackerayThackeray’s neglected but masterful and totally fascinating novel, The History of Henry Esmond. It is a brilliant book unfairly overshadowed these days by another of his great novels, Vanity Fair.

As entertaining and informative in its own more circumscribed way as the Thackeray novel (a three-hour play cannot quite do the work of a novel of several hundred pages but it still sketches out a great deal of the background material), Queen Anne is a good start for contemplating not only the politics and difficulties of this era in English history but also the complex friendship of two women that began as mutually beneficial and supportive but ended as bitter and destructive because of the way the two developed and played off one another.

Above all, it is captivating theatre. Watching the growth of Anne’s character as she responds to the necessities of being Queen and observing the over-reaching of Sarah as she becomes too self-confident and too convinced that she is the real power in the land remains fulfilling drama. I hope a proposed transfer to the West End in London comes off. If for no other reason, it’s worth seeing for the superb performances of Cunniffe, McElhone, and Park as the three central figures in the triangle Queen_Anneof female relationships. It’s also worth noting that Anne’s great ambitions as Queen were to end the wars with France and to have Scotland join the United Kingdom; both hopes were achieved before her death. She also wanted a Protestant succession and, with her death, the throne passed to the Hanovers. I think that the RSC-commissioned plays promise to become a welcome tradition, both theatrically and educationally.

Queen Anne will run in repertoire until 23 January 2016 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, and probably transfer to the West End in London after that.

Apollo’s Girl

October 28, 2015

apollo and lyreA View From the Bridge: 
From Across the Pond

Our UK editor, Mel Cooper, saw Ivo van Hove’s production, (now in previews on Broadway) earlier this year in London’s West End. It’s a seamless transfer. His advice (and mine): don’t miss it!

view from the bridge

https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/coopers-london-50/

Cooper’s London

October 5, 2015

Opera

Mel snapshot 19

In London (and On the Road)

The Royal Opera House starated its new season with its first production of Gluck’s seminal Orphée et Eurydice in a long time – that is, the French version for a tenor Orpheus – not the original in Italian written for a castrato and reworked for a mezzo by Berlioz. ORPHEEetEURYDICE- bill cooper-opera-danceJuan Diego Florez was simply an ideal choice for the mellifluous hero, with Lucy Crowe as his beloved. The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists were led by John Eliot Gardiner in what promised to be an “authentic” performance of the work.

luke-stylesFrom 9 September the company will be presenting a new commission in the Linbury Studios, a one-act chamber opera version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by the promising Australian composer Luke Styles. This is followed on 9 October by a new opera by Enda Walsh and composer Donnacha Dennehy. last hotelThe Last Hotel, that I am very curious about because I have enjoyed Enda Walsh’s plays so much in the past.

Back in the main house with the Covent Garden orchestra, there is a revival of David McVicar’s truly gripping and imaginative production of The Marriage of Figaro with a fine cast conducted by Ivor Bolton; I would also wish mattilato attend the revival of Ariadne auf Naxos if only to hear Karita Mattila sing “Es gibt ein reich”. She has the perfect voice for Strauss and is a consummate actress in every role she undertakes. She also has a superb sense of humour and can act irony! For me, the star attractions of the revival of the fine Carmen production by Francesca Zambello playing from 19 October are the conductor, Bertrand de Billy, and the heroic and tormented Don Jose of Jonas Kaufmann (okay, okay, here’s a few choice clips):

and not just the well-sung interpretation of Carmen herself by Russian mezzo Elena Maximova. This is coming in December.

Antonio Pappano is conducting a new Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci directed by Damiano Michieletto, whose Guillaume Tell last season caused a major rumpus because of its graphic rape scene. Many critics and some operagoers hated it; there were boos; there was newspaper hysteria; but it came across well on cinema screens when it was broadcast and many people actually found it very exciting, innovative and a really strong and interesting interpretation of the opera. It remains to be seen what he can do to Leoncavallo and Mascagni who were, of course, in their day, quite revolutionary and controversial themselves as they developed the verismo approach. I bet Michieletto tries to up the ante! romeo and julietteMeanwhile the Royal Ballet will be reviving Macmillan’s classic version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (built originally on Nureyev and Fonteyn) with loads of performances throughout the autumn; and I am particularly looking forward to catching up with Martha Clarke’s ballet Chéri, based on cherithe Colette novels, with Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo returning to dance the roles they created. http://www.roh.org.uk/seasons/2015-16/autumn

Meantime, over at the financially beleaguered English National Opera, which has also just lost its long term artistic director, John Berry, there are three new interesting productions for the autumn. The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Shostakovich has been a huge hit for them in past years, with Josephine Barstow becoming a notable international star by playing the title role. Directed and designed by Sergei Tcherniakov, racette at ENOPatricia Racette looks likely to be as stunning a Katerina as was Barstow; and the estimable Mark Wigglesworth, the new music director of the company, should be able to conduct up a wigglesworthstorm. The musical forces for Verdi’s The Force of Destiny are impeccable; but the betting is that Calixto Bieito’s production will be even more controversial than his Masked Ball with the male chorus sitting on toilets reading newspapers and commenting on current politics or his Don Giovanni that starts out set in a garbage dump in Seville. This one has been updated to the Spanish Civil War; and for my taste Bieito’s approach has become more and more insular and self-referential since his rather convincing and powerful Carmen. That said, I live in hope; know that Wigglesworth is a terrific Verdian; and look forward to hearing this strong cast. All the other autumn shows – Jonathan Miller’s Barber of Seville and his inventive Mikado; the lovely La Bohème directed by Benedict Andrew; and a winning Magic Flute directed by reliably brilliant Simon McBurney – were all hits when they first appeared and go on being eminently revivable and well-cast. The Barber is particularly famous for the stellar turn by Andrew Shore as Dr Bartolo who is, thankfully, returning to the role.

http://www.eno.org/?gclid=CjwKEAjwiZitBRCy0pb3rIbG9XwSJACmuvvzj4Pc-WIw6mTiDr_fi9NlMpHp5wMgdMTBaW4zjD4AahoCtJvw_wcB

Finally, if you are willing to travel out of London, my top recommendation would
welsh national operabe the
Welsh National Opera; it has a particularly interesting season coming up focusing on madness in opera, specifically in Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, I Puritani; Handel’s Orlando; and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. At one of the most consistent companies for fielding imaginative productions that actually illuminate the works themselves, and for its high-level musical interpretations, these works are definitely all worth considering in Cardiff or on tour. https://www.wno.org.uk/whats-on

Apollo’s Girl

October 4, 2015

Music, Video

apollo and lyre

 

 

It’s World Animal Day; just click on the links to celebrate.

JACK Quartet (Miller Theatre)/
Internet Cat Video Festival (MAD);

On September 17, Miller Theatre at Columbia University jackopened its 2014/15 calendar with a take-no-prisoners premiere of Simon Steen-Andersen’s Run Time Error, performed by the composer and the JACK Quartet. It was definitely a trip! I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and am taking the easy way out by pointing you to the NY Times‘ review of the concert by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim.

Times’ review

Miller has become known for the adventurous programs devised by its director, Melissa Smey whose interests traverse the entire range of human history, whose choices require the use of the word “fearless” for every performance, and who appears to know just about everything. The real thrill is in seeing and hearing how she puts it all together.

jl adamsComing up: A triple exposure of John Luther Adams’ compositions (he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014) on October 7, 9, and 10. But it’s not only what’s new but, sometimes, what’s old: a screening of Carl Dreyer’s iconic silent, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), starring the equally iconic Falconetti, with 15th-passion-of-joan-of-arc-480x270century music by the Orlando Consort (October 14 and 16). There’s jazz, too. And, earlier this year (on April 1), even the launch of the Canine Composers series; surely a first, but likely to become an audience favorite:

It’s exhilarating to experience Smey’s seasons, which appear to become more innovative and appealing every year. Just get on board and stretch: http://www.millertheatre.com/.
_____________________________________________________________________________

It was a triumph! The Pope had just left the pope
West Side and was on his way to Madison Square Garden. As the faithful streamed out of Central Park, another crowd surged into the Museum of Art and Design; the Internet Cat Video Festival (from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis) was about to begin, and it was standing room only. cat vidThere were very few old ladies in sneakers, but hordes of millennials wearing them mad_exteriorinstead, and applause and laughter rose from the committed like a much-needed benediction. 

The Museum has unveiled a new season of events including cinema, performance, talks, encounters and workshops. Although I can personally recommend the upcoming 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (previously enjoyed at FSLC’s Human Rights Watch Festival); https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/apollos-girl-44/), MAAD’s season looks more than promising. The cinema, in particular, is well-curated, and free! http://madmuseum.org/calendar?t=Cinema. You know what to do….. 

Cooper’s London

September 27, 2015

Opera/Film/DVD

Mel snapshot 19

This Boat Still Floats

The San Francisco Opera production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat (filmed live on the stage) has just been released on EuroArts DVD 2059688 and BluRay. The cast includes: Heidi Stober, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Morris Robinson, Angela Renee Simpson cap'n andyand Harriet Harris. The stage director is Francesca Zambello and the conductor is John DeMain.

Over two decades ago I was fortunate enough to see the Show Boat done by Opera North in collaboration with the RSC that docked at the Palladium and toured the UK.
It was impeccably cast; the pit band was amplified and was using the brilliant original orchestrations by
Robert Russell Bennet; it not only restored material that had not been heard since the 1928 Broadway version, it interpolated numbers from later revivals, including the novelty number “Ah Still Suits Me” robeson and mcdaninelwritten for Paul Robeson and Hattie MacDaniel to sing in the 1936 film. I have yet to see anything to equal it for justifying Show Boat’s reputation as the true grandfather of American music theatre—until now. Essentially, the new EuroArts DVD and BluRay from the San Francisco Opera production (also acclaimed in Chicago and Houston) is both iconic and also a vivid record of a greatly theatrical, entertaining and moving performance. Director zambelloFrancesca Zambello has achieved pretty nearly what Ian Judge and his team did in that legendary production from Leeds to enflame a new generation of theatregoers.

The cast is a mixture of operatically trained singers who can act and Broadway hoofers or comedians who can belt, with chorus and the dancers really pitching in. The acting is sometimes suitably tongue-in-cheek, early-20th-century “mellerdrammer”, at other times straightforward and moving. Every musical number carries the weight it should, advances the plot or our understanding of character, and appeals directly to our stober and simpsonemotions. When Heidi Stober as Magnolia and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal sing “You Are Love”, you believe it with all your heart. When Morris Robinson sings “Ol’ Man River” and is joined by the chorus of men who tote those barges and heave those bales, you feel their pain, how limited their lives and opportunities are and cannot avoid thinking about the whole history of slavery and its aftermath old man riverin the United States. Those are big claims, perhaps; but it is a big, varied and allusive show and the music is so superb that one has to be careful not be so overwhelmed by it that Oscar Hammerstein II gets the credit he deserves for his strong book and lyrics.

By and large, Zambello avoids the sentimentality that often mars Show Boat revivals and goes for real feeling and serious engagement with a plot that involves addiction to gambling and alcohol, miscegenation in a racist and bigoted society, sexual harassment and bullying, and the abandonment of a wife and child. She also understands the humour, not least in the lovely number “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”. She also appreciates the sheer gut reactions demanded by the big moments and big numbers. Her approach is both superbly intelligent and responsive to all the nuances of the piece.

showboatThis Show Boat is big also in terms of production values, achieving the spectacle that perhaps only an opera company with enough resources to field two chorus and dance groups (one African-American, the other Caucasian)—can in these financially constrained days. The stories of the various couples balance and echo each other, and every opportunity for cheeky humour is grasped as firmly as all the opportunities for the music to engage and lift your emotions.

Heidi Stober manages to convey both Magnolia’s innocence and the ultimate inner strength that will enable her to bring up her child as a single mother and become a major star. Her voice is very beautiful; she always remains in character and builds her development into a strong, no longer innocent middle-aged woman with great skill. Michael Todd Simpson conveys both Gay’s charm and his character flaws and also has the vocal chops to do full justice to Jerome Kern’s music. Show-Boat_SFO_4PosterPatricia Racette’s Julie La Verne makes you see why the role made a star of Helen Morgan and was also one of the most appealing that Ava Gardner ever undertook. Angela Renée Simpson is outstanding as Queenie and has had restored to her character “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’” and “Hey, Fellah!”, both of which are important to the drama. The voice and demeanour of Morris Robinson as Joe have real gravitas (he’s excellent in his comic moments, too); and the roles of Ellie Mae Chipley and Frank Schultz sparkle convincingly with the talents of Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton. It only remains to beirwinsaid that Bill Irwin is immensely
appealing as Cap’n Andy Hawks and that
Harriet Harris’s Parthy Ann Hawks is a treasure, offering real balance to the singing parts. Michele Lynch has created time-sensitive choreography that takes you from the vaudeville turns of 1887 to the jazzy Charleston of 1927 as the story traverses forty years of American history; the set design by Peter J. Davison and Costume Design by Paul Tazewell are just as apt and evocative.

kern-hammersteinIn sum, this is about as perfectly realized a version of the iconic Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II landmark as could be desired, and I am not even prepared to quibble about which other numbers should have been included. John DeMain has been a long-time champion of this and of Porgy and Bess for fully committed performances by opera companies, and his mastery of and sympathy with every nuance of the lyricism and wit of the score is a constant pleasure. The show has been beautifully filmed by Frank Zamacona for the screen.

In my opinion this is, therefore, a DVD that you need to have in your collection to enjoy again and again. If you love music theatre, it will confirm your addiction; and if you are not sure about this genre, this staging, this cast and this team of people on and off the stage will definitely convince you.

This Show Boat also makes a powerful case for how well top-level productions filmed from the stage not only work as entertainment but also convey the sense of occasion and preserve what otherwise would be an ephemeral event. We are very fortunate these days, I think, to see fine performances from anywhere in the world that otherwise we would only know from hearsay or still photographs.


Finally, let us all be grateful to
Edna Ferber ferberfor realizing in 1927 that the story of the showboats of the Mississippi and the transformation of American culture was one that should be preserved; and to Kern and Hammerstein for honouring the novel and its background with an interpretation that looks at the whole phenomenon of entertainment and American society with real acuity, some irony and profound empathy 
for its showboat novelcomplexities. They were pioneers.

Apollo’s Girl

August 21, 2015

Theatre

apollo and lyre

Informed Consent:
A real coup de théâtre

(Primary Stages, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Alfred P. Sloane Foundation)
At the Duke on 42nd Street til September 13

When a playwright can keep several balls in the air at once without dropping any or diluting their content or emotional power, you know they’re good. 11326168_1461309530862943_942195667_nAnd Deborah Zoe Laufer is very, very good! Informed Consent offers dynamic testimony to her gifts for combining the mysteries of DNA, the cruelties imposed on Native Americans, the tension between science and cultural myth, and the searing bonds between lovers, parents, and children. What makes it all hang together is Laufer’s mastery of language and her instincts for storytelling.

As with many plays, there are “true events” that inspired the playwright’s imagination: a case that pitted the work of scientists at Arizona State University against the Havasupai people who had lived in the Grand Canyon for centuries (perhaps millennia). They considered their blood sacred but consented to have it analyzed for clues to the diabetes which had decimated the tribe. Without revealing that it would also be used for many other purposes, the scientists went well beyond their original mandate; when the tribe found out, they sued (and won) for unlawful use of their DNA.

informed consent 4Laufer uses this to launch a human drama on many levels that also revolves around DNA, but with an intensely personal focus: the lead scientist carries a gene for early-onset Alzheimer’s likely to be inherited by her daughter. Should she tell her? In a series of wrenching confrontations, she illuminates the ethics of science and the universal need for belonging, and the pain of making choices that will change lives and destinies. Yet such are the gifts of Informed Consent that its spacious ideas are always matched by its emotional impact.

The production gives the play everything it richly 11850075_524217097736346_706646665_ndeserves:  a compact cast of five (three of whom play multiple roles that are miracles of characterization); Tina Benko as a genetic anthropologist who grows in stature before your informed consent1eyes, and DeLanna Studi as a Native American who tries to bridge the abyss between the history of her people and those who would obscure it. Every scene has complex emotional layers that keep you absorbed and thinking as their balance keeps shifting. There is some searing wit, and there is no dumbing down!

There is a final set of miracles here: the brilliant direction of Liesl Tommy that serves the playwright and the cast at every turn, and Wilson Chin’s set, with stairways like double helixes and walls of boxes used for projections of DNA sequences and, at the end, to reveal essential details of the plot. However complex, everything about Informed Consent is always lucid and full of feeling, yet takes only 95 minutes to speed by. Still, it haunts long after it’s over. Thank Primary Stages, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the Alfed P. Sloane Foundation, and see the play. If you’re lucky, you can catch one  of  the lively post-theatre talkbacks. tickets


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