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, and—right now—that 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 time—to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.
Pericles 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 the 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, Philip Casnoff as Helicanus; Nina Hellman as 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.”
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 be 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 extraordinary—no 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 (“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)
This is one intriguing movie, combining elements of psychological thriller, romance, a dash of the supernatural, and 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 him) 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