Archive for the ‘theatre’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

August 21, 2015


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 on an intensely personal level: 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

Cooper’s London

August 18, 2015

Mel snapshot 19

Summer Catch-up: Staying In…

It’s summertime and the livin’ is so easy that I just don’t feel like making the effort to get to much, so I’m finding that I prefer spending more time catching up with books, DVDs and CDs that have accumulated for the past months and even some that have accumulated even longerthat I never got around to. Sipping a Pimm’s No 1 (usually indoors during a rain storm) and avoiding all the impossible summer tourist traffic where I live, I’ve come across some lovely surprises. (I’ll forego telling you about the duds.)

alexander kantorowLiszt, Two Piano Concertos, Malédiction: Alexandre Kantorow, pianist;
Tapiola Sinfonietta; Jean-Jacques Kantorow, conductor BIS-2100

My fearless prediction is that Alexandre Kantorow, on the evidence of this fine recording, is a name you should notice now and always seek out. As I write this, he is still only 19 and continuing his studies with Frank Braley at the Paris Conservatoire; but he’s also being invited to make more and more appearances around Europe. His interpretations of jean-jacques kantorow2Liszt, on his first concerto recording and his first for BIS, are a stunning collaboration between the soloist and the orchestra conducted by his father. Jean-Jacques Kantorow is a solo violinist as well and has recently picked up his fiddle again to make a recording of early French violin sonatas inspired, I gather, by his son’s tastes and talents. The playing on this disc is full of unexpected appoggiaturas and tempi, and a clarity of interpretation that’s remarkable lisztfor its freshness. Every moment of the playing feels just right! The somewhat unorthodox “concerto” Malédiction is quite fascinating and comes between the two better-known concerti. The booklet has excellent notes. Kantorow’s is a remarkable performance of three revised and finalised versions of piano concerti that Liszt originally wrote to show off his own virtuosity. Alexandre Kantorow certainly has the fingers for them, as one would expect; and, more importantly, he clearly has the feeling, too. The success of this disc transcends technique. I gather from people who’ve heard him live that Kantorow’s Brahms and Gershwin are just as brilliant and fresh as his Liszt. He’s a keen chamber music performer as well. Definitely a career to follow. I haven’t been this impressed by the Liszt concertos since I heard them played by Van Cliburn, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Sviatislav Richter as a very fortunate young man.

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77; Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op35: Leonid Kogan, violinist; Boston Symphony conducted by Pierre Monteux and the Paris Conservatory Concert Society Orchestra conducted by Constantin Silvestri, respectively. Recorded 1958 and 1959. Meloydia CD 10 02328

Speaking of Brahms, and of Russian musicians whom I was fortunate enough to hear long ago, Leonid Kogan’s koganearly-ish performances of the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concerti have been released on a Meloydia CD. Recorded while he was on tour in the West in 1958 and 1959 they are, of course, historic documents by now, commemorating a violinist who was somewhat overshadowed in his own day by his compatriot David Oistrakh. Kogan’s playing had a sweetness, lyricism and inward quality that are displayed in these performances with Pierre Monteux in Boston and Constantin Silvestri in Paris. Time and again there are nuances in the phrasing that startle your ears; but above all there is a focused integrity of emotional understanding and commitment that were hallmarks of Kogan’s captivating playing. The cadenzas are particularly brilliant and the slow movements are as sweetly played as I have ever heard them. Kogan was a very special performing artist on the violin and these performances are to be treasured. As Isaac Stern said, Leonid Kogan didn’t just pay the violin brilliantly, he created music on it as if it were being played for the first time. The technique is impeccable; but it’s always in the service of an emotional connection with the music that is offered with great generosity to the audience. It’s quite wonderful to have these two performances preserved on disc and available again. And Tchaikovsky’s Meditation is a real bonus. This is romantic playing of the first rank and great control in the true Russian romantic tradition.

Summer Catch-up: Going Out

Take note of the name Iqbal Khan! In khanhis last gig as a director in Stratford-upon-Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company he created a memorable production of Much Ado About Nothing set in India that was hilarious, yet exceptionally touching. His cast worked as a coherent ensemble with easy give and take and spoke the poetry . The characterizations were spot-on and all the nuances, humour and poignant dark side were strong. Now he’s done it again. He has directed one of the best versions of Othello that I’ve ever seen with his cast once more working together brilliantly; the poetry is always there, and veins of dark humour and wry social commentary lighten and enlighten the text. You will want and need to see everything that Iqbal Khan does from now on. Khan is a stalwart of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and I would travel to Birmingham to see his work.

In this new Othello, Ciaran Bagnall’s mono-set bagnall's setmanages to reference the canals of Venice, a sumptuous palace, and a war-torn Cyprus as required. It also suggests the claustrophobia of the second half of the story by dropping immense drapes to enclose the palace’s space in which most of the action now takes place. The anachronisms in the design and in the costumes by Fotini Dimou make fascinating references to today without dragging the play out of its period; and the music by Akintayo Akinbode invokes a mood of Orientalism but also, in its rhythms, something like the drums of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones as Othello is driven towards murder.

As with his Much Ado, Khan has put the text first. Everything grows from his deep engagement with Shakespeare. The press emphasized that this is an Othello with a black Iago (Lucian Msamati); and there was much fuss about how this would change some of the implications of a play usually played as the story of an outsider Black Man living in a tight White society. Certainly Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Eton-esque Cassio seems to confront and develop this idea; and there are moments of racist stupidity voiced by some of the characters that cause this Iago to stare in disbelief, rippling out to the audience in a thought-provoking and uncomfortable way.

quarshie an msamatiThat said, the casting is, to my mind, “blind”. Within seconds it does not matter that Iago is black. The colour of the skin is less important than the intensity and rightness of the characterizations; each actor in this production inhabits his or her character. Ultimately, the play rests on the credibility of the Othello. Hugh Quarshie, known in the UK for his leading role as a doctor in a weekly TV hospital serial, is startlingly plausible as Othello in all his aspects, loving not wisely but too well, not easily wrought but once moved wrought in the extreme. He starts as a powerful, martial yet diplomatic man, a man of seeming self-confidence aware that he is the best general of his age. The love he shares with Joanna Vanderham’s attractive Desdemona in the opening scene is strongly conveyed. But as Iago works on him, the insecurities and cracks begin to show and he is tormented into becoming a murderer.

othello3Quarshie grows in stature as he grows in paranoia and madness; Desdemona conveys growing sadness and confusion; and Emilia moves more into the center of the action. Msamati is a brilliant Iago. The conclusion of the play is so immensely moving and powerfully staged. that the audience fell silent. Highest praise to the entire company but most of all to the director, Iqbal Khan. He has clearly thought through the weight and meaning of every line of the script and presents a unique, at times surprising, interpretation. My attention did not flag, ever.

Seriously Foxy

At Stratford, Iqbal Khan may be the newer man in town to watch; but often the old- timers can be just as relevant and trevor nunnsurprising. Trevor Nunn has created a truly intelligent production of Volpone that is extremely funny indeed in its observations of the corruption of a class-ridden, greedy, wealth-hungry society and also at moments both poignant and searing. It’s a masterful balancing act, and a darker look at this play than is usual; don’t expect the non-stop hilarity and sentimental satire of the stereotypes that are the common approach. These are present, but part of an unusually complex take. Although Nunn’s Volpone is rounded, droll, multi-layered and ultimately bitter, it also takes full advantage of all the japes and vaudevilles written into the text, and is shot through with a true commedia dell’arte atmosphere while being set in a contemporary world. (Yes, the update works.)

volponeIn Henry Goodman, Nunn has found his perfect Volpone. Goodman’s physicality is astonishing; you can read Volpone’s every thought and change of mood in his mobile face. Goodman is able to be outrageously clownish; he brings out the sardonic side regularly; cheeky and appealing as required, he does all the disguises and different voices and accents to perfection. His versatility and energy keep the audience’s attention and sympathy despite his being such a scoundrel; partly because he’s so adept and partly because the characters he’s gulling are so much more awful than he is (and so much more stupidVolpone’s intelligence is pivotal in this interpretation) that you hope for his victory despite everything.

By contrast, Rhiannon Handy as Celia and Andy Apollo as Bonario are Volpone’s perfect foils: moral young things of integrity at the other end of the scale, confused innocents who are not cloying. Miles Richardson is outstanding as the prototype of the shifty and greedy lawyer, Voltore, especially when suffering his brief attack of mclaughlinconscience. Annette McLaughlin is wonderful as Lady Politic Would-Be, a modern day Kardashian clone in stilletto heels, the star of a live reality show followed everywhere by her attentive crew.

The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is extremely attractive in a post-modernist way. The one weak link seemed to be Orion Lee’s Mosca. But then, I realized that I had come into the theatre as one often does with preconceptions: in this case, of Mosca based on earlier productions I’d seen in which he is much more a co-conspirator of Volpone’s and also on the lookout for his main chance from very early on. Here he’s very much a servant and very aware of the class differences; only spotting his chance and getting up the nerve to pursue it fairly late in the proceedings. Once he does make up his mind, however, he is dangerous and immoveable. I do have a
couple of quibbles about Lee’s performance, but in the end the interpretation ben jonsonof Mosca is consistent with the rest of this strongly individual production.

Nunn’s approach to this production seems not to be to everyone’s taste; but for me it is a brilliant tribute to the wit and serious moral purpose of Ben Jonson and a worthy presentation of an exceptional play.

Cooper’s London

July 29, 2015

Theatre, Music




Kenneth and Friends

Kenneth Branagh has formed a new company called – wait for it – The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. He will be co-directing branagh theatre co(principally with Rob Ashford)  who directed Branagh in Macbeth not so long ago and worked with him on his recent film of Cinderella for Disney. Ashford himself, if you did not already know branagh and ashfordthis, is a Tony, Olivier, Emmy, Drama Desk, and Outer Circle Award-winner and multiple nominee for his directing and choreography. The creative team of this company also includes designer Christopher Oram. Branagh will clearly be employing a mixture of interesting established actors and extremely talented young emergent ones and I would advise booking tickets right now. If you’re interested, I’m tempted to say it’s worth the trip even if you’re living abroad . The program is running for a year at London’s Garrick Theatre, so there are lots of chances to see what the buzz is about.

First up in repertory is Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale denchnewly re-imagined (don’t ask me, I dunno what that’s supposed to mean! It’s what it says on the label). I have spotted the fact that Branagh and Ashford are co-directing, which is promising; and the big news is that the role of Paulina is to be played by Judi Dench – a fascinating piece of casting in a pivotal role. Branagh himself plays Leontes. The Tale runs 17 October 2015 to 16 January 2016.

jacobiAnother inspired piece of anti-ageist casting is that of Derek Jacobi as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which also has the two stars of Branagh’s recent Cinderella film as the lovers – Lily James and Richard Madden.

Lily James and Richard Madden arrive as Disney Pictures presents the world premiere of "Cinderella" at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, California on Sunday, March 1, 2015. .(Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ ABImages)

Lily James and Richard Madden arrive as Disney Pictures presents the world premiere of “Cinderella” at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, California on Sunday, March 1, 2015. .(Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ ABImages)

Even if you haven’t seen Cinderella, it’s likely you’ve seen these actors; James is also Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, and Madden plays Robb Stark in Game of Thrones. Romeo and Juliet runs from 12 May to 13 August 2016.

In between you can also catch the now-underrated Terence Rattigan’s charming and hilarious Harlequinade, starring Branagh and directed by the multi-talented Ashford (this will be presented in rep with The Winter’s Tale from 17 October to 16 January); and an English adaptation of a classic French farce by Francis Veber called The Painkiller. In this translation, starring Branagh and the inimitable Rob Brydon, the adaptation and direction (already a hit in Belfast) are by Sean Foley. Veber also wrote Le Diner des Cons, adapted by Billy Wilder for the film Buddy Buddy. Essentially, Rob Brydon is being Jack Lemmon and Kenneth Branagh is being Walter Matthau. It runs 5 March to 30 April 2016. Finally, Branagh, who played Olivier so successfully in the film My Week with Marilyn, is undertaking one of the iconic Olivier roles Archie Rice in The Entertainer by John Osborne directed by Ashford.

garrickWhat more do you need to know? Both men have done some impressive stage work in the past; both have access to the best actors and theatre professionals in all spheres. I once attended a wonderfully memorable season of Shakespeare plays directed by Branagh back in the late 1980s; I am quite fascinated by this new company and what I take to be its philosophy. The approach seems to me to be very much that of the legendary actor-managers of past renown, harking back to the age of David Garrick himself. How fitting that the season is scheduled for the theatre named after him.

Perhaps the Kenneth Branagh Season will lead to more seasons and more legends. It may not be wildly innovative or profound, but the proof will be in the pudding and it should be wildly entertaining! For tickets:

Singing the Words

The Oxford Lieder Festival, founded and run by the kynochcharismatic pianist Sholto Kynoch, has announced its 2015 programme (running 16 to 31 October). Kynoch takes a rich, full and multi-layered approach to the artistic direction of this festival; it seems to be stronger than ever this year and to have become a kind of laboratory for exploring the best ways to approach and appreciate art song, whether you’re a performer or an aficionado. It attracts the most renowned of the current crop of singers and accompanists and the programmes are immensely appealing.

Last year the festival scored a triumph with “The Schubert Project”. This year’s theme is the words themselves and how various poets inspired different composers. Starting with a symposium connollycalled Words Into Music: Poets, Composers and Song that will run at Wadham College with forays into the Holywell Music Room, the opening recital that evening has the superb mezzo Sarah Connolly working with pianist Graham Johnson to perform songs by Schubert, Brahms and Wolf. Different days will focus on Fauré, Brahms and Berlioz; others on settings of Verlaine, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Heine, Housman, Hardy and the setting of English text, with a symposium on the tradition of performing songs in English translation. There will also be master classes from people like Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles, a strand of Sacred Music performed in various college chapels, and even classes for amateur singers. Singers include Robert Holl, Christoph Pregardien, Anna Stephany, Henk Neven and Toby Spence; cooperwhile the pianist in residence is Imogen Cooper. There will also be recitals and chamber music. There is an Oxford Lieder YouTube channel that will stream some of the performances. With the beautiful historic city and colleges of Oxford as the setting and a formidable range of exceptionally talented performers, if you love lieder and want to wallow for a day, a weekend or the full two weeks in some amazing live performances, this is an excellent wallow.

wadhamcollegeoxfordparksrdentrance11apr08oFind out more at:

Apollo’s Girl

July 27, 2015


apollo and lyre



Summer in the City:

What to See…

As always, there’s good stuff at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and there’s always a retrospective to remind you of what you may have missed and get you images (3)through the dog days. This year it’s Richard Lesterthe irrefutable answer to the pressing question, “Whatever became of fun?”

Lester’s career followed its own arc: an icon of 60s Britain, he was an American (like many other film expats) who chose London over Hollywood. There were some compelling reasons. While we were ramping up in Vietnam, London was exploding with a revolution in film, theatre, music, fashion and art fueled by idiosyncratic, fearless prodigies who reveled in the city’s openness to change and low cost of living. Being there was a singular treat; next best is seeing what made it so special.

images (2)If Harold Pinter: Comedies of Menace and Quiet Desperation (FSLC 2013) was a bellweather of the era’s dark side; Lester’s upcoming retrospective (August 7 – 13) is the one to make you laugh most of the time and, in the case of the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, to be snatched up into the heart of a whirlwind that retains its magic to this day. Seeing it for the first time? Lucky you – prepare to dance in the streets after it’s over! To find out more about Lester, read Sam Kashner’s Vanity Fair interview (Making Beatlemania: A Hard Day’s Night at 50): article and secure your tickets to the retrospective seats

images (5)Before Lester takes the screens, as part of Sound+Vision (July 29 – August 7) you can dip into some homegrown post-Beatles’ beats with Brendan Toller’s Danny Says on opening night, and meet both filmmaker and subject afterwards, and ponder Julian Temple’s images (4)The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. Johnson may be rock’s only star who can read passages from Canterbury Tales in flawless Middle English and lead you gently into contemplating your own mortality. And there’s much more:

Catch up with Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack , held over and going strong tangerine_6at the Elinor Bunin Munro Film Center. Tangerine is a no-holds-barred dip into the seamy, steamy transgender street life of LA hustlers shot (beautifully) on an iPhone 55, and anchored by the epic turn of newcomer Kitana Kiki Rodriguez. Wolfpack, on the other hand, is Tangerine’s polar opposite. Following the coming-of-age of seven siblings who have been kept indoors on the Lower East Side, schooled at home, and enlightened by a diet of films which they have come to memorize and act out in home-grown performances, wolfpack-1024it’s original and startling all the way through. By the end, as the older brothers finally break away to enter the outside world, you are haunted by what their futures will be like and deeply curious about the possibilities of a sequel.

Finally, Nadav Lapid’s The Kindergarten Teacher (NDNF 2015) is coming back This original and download (2)unsettling look at genius and ambition richly deserves another run. Opening July 31; don’t miss it this time around! (

images (7)And, as an end-of-summer special treat, FSLC will screen West Side Story on August 28 at 7:45pm, outdoors on the plaza, where it was actually filmed in 1960 (when there were vacant tenements, a cement basketball court and some very mean streets about to be turned into what is now Lincoln Center). 

Phoenix (Lincoln Plaza and IFC center)

Eager to see the newest work of the director and stars of Barbara (Christian Petzold, Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld) I enjoyed a recent screening of Phoenix download (4)and set out to write a review. The story of hidden identity, Holocaust survival, betrayal, infidelity and constancy unfolded like a great, twisty period (post-World War II) mystery, acted by a superb cast, directed by a superb director and photographed by Hans Fromm, another Barbara alumnus. It seemed, with a Metascore of 91, like a straightforward rave. And who doesn’t like a great, twisty period mystery?

But it wasn’t about just loving the excellent work of cast and crew; there was also something subtle that wasn’t easily identifiedsomething about the story that made me want to know more about it, and about its origins. A slight sense of displacementperhaps something about its characters and its locationso I pursued the mystery further. Here’s what I found:

Hubert Monteilhet. (Photo by Jacques Lange/Paris Match via Getty Images)

Hubert Monteilhet. (Photo by Jacques Lange/Paris Match via Getty Images)

In 1963, Hubert Monteilhet (prolific French author and winner of the Grand Prix de litérature policière), who specialized in mysteries and historical novels, wrote a best-seller, Le Retour des cendres. The film rights were quickly snapped up in the UK, and a script written (by Monteilhet and Julius Epstein of Casablanca fame); the director was J. Lee Thompson (Planet of the Apes franchise), and the cast starred Ingrid Thulin and Maximillian Schell, with Samantha Eggar playing a character later excised from Phoenix. While the actors spoke English, the story (like the novel) was set in France. The dubious character of the anti-hero was much the same (although he was a chess master rather than a bar porter, and the heroine an X-ray technician, rather than a cabaret singer). The plot was even more complicated then that of Phoenix, but was still deeply concerned with identity and morality. Jazz great John Dankworth did the score for Le Retour (I’m curious about that, too), where Phoenix embedded Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” as a leitmotif throughout the film.

Petzhold’s choices in developing Phoenix were those of a brilliant images (8)filmmaker, but its journey from post-war France to post-war Germany (they were, surely, very different landscapes) wasn’t entirely seamless. Nevertheless, Phoenix’ 91 Metascore tells you how well he stitched the pieces of his pattern together, and why the process of adaptation—without which there would be no film industryis a challenge best undertaken by those, like Petzhold, with the skill and imagination to transform their source material and the actors to follow their lead.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (Cinema Village)

At the end of The Outrageous Sophie Tucker, after all the song 494825881_640credits, where you would expect the lengthy thank-yous that usually end a non-fiction labor of love, the producers (Susan and William Ecker) and director (William download (6)Gazecki) have fashioned a list from the heart: every category includes “Best” before the title noun and name: Best Microfilming Company Ever; New Best Friends; Best Friend Lawyer; New Best Friend Accountant and, notably, New Best Friend and Future Screenwriting Partner: Aaron Sorkin.


All of this is entirely appropriate for a film that is, at its beating heart, an unabashed love letter to a Red Hot Mama like no otherSonia Kalish Abuza Tucker, aka images (12)Sophie—whose immigrant rags-to riches story (she was born during her voyage from the Ukraine to America) led her from singing in her parents’ restaurant to performing at the London Palladium for the King and Queen of England. Her appetites were large; she was married three times, had a son who lived in his mother’s shadow all his life, and enjoyed “intimate friendships” with many women (including Lady Edwina Mountbatten). And that’s only for starters.

In the days before television she became a household word by touring, keeping lists of everyone she met on the way, and staying in touch to build an enormous, effective fan base, writing—by hand—cards and letters to each of them to remind them she’d be returning to their area and hoped to see them in the seats. In the 20s and 30s, she sold nostalgia for an earlier time of vaudeville and burlesque, performing songs her theatrical way with a powerful voice, ample body, and confident patter that crossed every social boundary and geographic border. Her radio shows, films, Broadway musicals, and club dates kept her before an adoring public for more than half a century. Wait til you see the footage, and the celebrity interviews….

download (5)So yes, the film is a cinematic love letter, made by writers on whose biography it is based (Susan and William Ecker), and essentially a family affair by them and director William Gazecki. It certainly gives you a sense of Tucker’s talent and magnetism and reminds you how appealing she was. For those who can remember her performances, Outrageous is a welcome feast of nostalgia. For those too young to have known her, it’s a primer for feeling the love. But, at the end, when sentimental tears are flowing, it leaves you curious to know more, to explore this over-the-top public talent more deeply. As much as Soph (as her friends called her) seemed to let it all hang out, her personal life was way ahead of its time, yet enigmatic and fully understood only by her.

P.S.: Special kudos for Guy Digenti’s Best Scrapbook Design, Motion Graphics, and Digital Puppetry.

Apollo’s Girl

June 8, 2015

Theatre, Film, Film, Film

apollo and lyre


Two Gentlemen/Brooklyn til June 20…
Open Roads/FSLC til June 11…
Dior and I still playing (as it should!)…

two gentelemen 2One of the best songs in Pierre, Natasha, etc. begins, “In 19th-century Russia, we write letters, we write letters….” Apparently Derek McLane (the brilliant scenic designer of The Two Gentlemen of Verona) believes fervently that the power of the written word transcends countries (Italy) and centuries (somewhere in the late 16th), two gentlemen 1and has magicked the stage of TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center into a monument to the epistolary life. Letters flutter from the ceiling and the walls like so many ardent butterflies, and come and go with the cast like rubber bands connecting friends, enemies, and lovers. And that’s only for starters.

Let’s talk about the cast: it’s serving up another irresistible meal from Fiasco Theater, with actors changing parts and props in front of your eyes, speeding on and off the boards at every opportunity, playing instruments and singing the occasional song, andyeswriting letters for very special deliveries by their cast-mates at every opportunity. Chalk this two gentlemen 3concept up to the co-direction of Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, and to the antics of Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Emily Young, and the irrepressible Andy Grotelueschen. (Special kudos to Zachary Fine whose multiple personalities include the dog, Crab, who steals your heart while making you howl with laughter.)

two gentelemen 5Speed and deep smarts reign over this happy band. If you notice that they seem almost to read one another’s minds and their performances appear seamless; it’s because they met and bonded at Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA acting program and (fortunately for us) just kept on going. There is nothing about mistaken identities, hilarity and pathos they don’t know how to mine for theatrical gold. Two Gentlemen, as probably Shakespeare’s earliest play, is both deepened and burnished by cast and crew until is shines. It’s superb playing from its first letter to its last (Think of the letters as the of their day) and ends, like so many of Shakespeare’s works, in marriage.

To be honest, Fiasco’s projects are never to be missed. I was lucky enough to see their Cymbeline, and promise you that Two Gentlemen is in the very same league. You have until June 20th to see what Fiasco can do and reap the fruits of their labor!

Open Roads

open roads1

There are always surprises in Italian cinema, and this year’s Open Roads had a few that were unusually compelling. One was a series of shorts, 9×10 Novanta, whose novel premise was two-fold: to make use of Istituto Luce’s 90  years of archival footage and to bestow unlimited access to its forgotten treasures on ten young Italian filmmakers. Not surprisingly, World War Two figured prominently in the chosen frames. Perhaps it was an idea born in committee, but its results were entirely personal and fascinating, gleaming with the politics and humor that are hallmarks of Italian cinema. As the shorts sped by, their individual ingenuity gathered strength, turning into a collective vision that assured the future of film (at least in Italy). Give thanks for the committee, for the filmmakers, and for Istituto Luce for understanding that one should never throw anything away. Especially archival footage! (I fully admit to having had a very soft spot for Istituto Luce ever since their Pasolini Restrospective at P.S. 1:
see and scroll down to Italy Rules.)

The Dinner

This was an exceptionally intelligent story, whose the dinnertwisty plot about two brothers turning into enemies after a long friendship and a tradition of monthly dinners had one of the best scripts ever (credit de matteowriter Valentina Ferlen, director Ivano De Matteo, and novelist Herman Koch, on whose book the film is based.) Tensions build when the parents learn that their teenage children have not only misbehaved, but may have committed a serious crime. But the facts are not presented in linear fashion; they are revealed piecemeal, revisited with new information, and hinted at to keep you guessing as you assemble and reassemble what you have seen, and what you intuit. The real pleasure is in seeing the revelations of character (they are deep) as much as of story, and the balance between action and morality. De Matteo won three awards at the Venice Festival, and they are not likely to be his last.


Remember the blind girl in Salvo, and how she granted Mafia hit man Saleh Bakri salvation when his job would have made it impossible? Well, she’s back (Sara Serraicocco), this time in a very different role that she inhabits just as perfectly. Chlorine is, cinematically speaking, strong stuff, in which the storytelling is lean and the camera is allowed to do its work.

Serraicocco’s dream is to compete in synchronized swimming. chlorineBut she works in the mountains in solitude, cleaning a motel that includes a pool in which she has to train on the sly, and a brother and father who are her responsibilities. This is a character study with two surprises that develop slowly and explode fast. A debut feature from director/writer Lamberto Sanfelice Sanfelice, Chlorine was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and a Cyrstal Bear at Berlin, and make clear there will be more to come from actress and filmmaker. For Open Roads schedule/tickets:

Dior and I

tchengFrėdéric Tcheng has learned his art and craft the hard way: by wielding camera and Avid for and/or with others: as editor and co-director of Diana Vreeland: the Eye Has to Travel, and as cameraman, co-editor and co-producer of Valentino. (I really loved that film!)(;

Based on Dior and I, I’d say he has nothing left to learn and can fly, spectacularly, on his own. Under what must have been terrifying pressure for even a gifted filmmaker, he undertook to follow the story of how Raf Simons prepared and triumphed with his first collection for the House of Dior with only eight weeks to pull it off.

Where the filmmaker’s own triumph (and gifts lie) dior and iare in cinematography and editing; multiple cameras capture every moment of the eight-week marathon in closeup and long shot; editing is a marvel of reduction, like a great sauce. More: Tcheng is a master of character; Simons is on camera a lot, but never for long, yet you know everything about him by the time he climbs the grand staircase to join his models for the show’s finale. Even more: Dior’s enormous behind-the-scenes crew who cut, stitch, sew (by hand) and cheer on each garment, have only (supremely well-chosen) moments to reveal themselves. And Tcheng is there to capture and place them so that, somehow, you know everything about them, too. Of course the film is a joy to watch and listen to, but it’s not only about fashion. It’s all about that universal subjecthuman nature. Tcheng has done couture, and I’m willing to bet he’s ready to do anything at all….

This Just In…

A press release from the Museum of Art and Design, mirror1revealing that they will have an all-35mm retrospective of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films (all seven features) plus a documentary about him (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) by Michal Leszczylowski. For those of you mad for film and mad for art, these will be mighty nights at MAD.

Cooper’s London

May 26, 2015





Old Tunes/Best Tunes (Again)…

With too many stages awash in irrelevant updates that gypsyforgo context and intentions, it’s a pleasure to welcome back two old friends who simply refuse to go out of style. First, you must definitely see the Gypsy that recently opened at the Savoy Theatre. Jonathan Kent’s meticulous production recreates the original approach but also glosses the characters with real subtlety so that both the “play” (or book), the songs and show numbers are balanced perfectly against each other. The imaginative new orchestrations by Nicholas Skilbeck and Tom Kelly are brilliantly and brightly played by a superb pit band under Skilbeck that certainly has the right pulse and sound—they remind you what a brilliant composer Jule Styne was.

This is, I would say, is Styne’s most consistently theatrical score, and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents are as trenchant and gripping as anything they ever did.

pulver+suttonThere are many good reasons to revive this show (originally Ethel Merman’s calling card); one of the most compelling is having Imelda Staunton in Merman’s part as Mama Rose. She has most of the stentorian tones that are needed for the role as originally written and her interpretation of the brassy Madame Rose has an underpinning of pathos and pain that are superbly touching at unexpected moments.

But the entire cast is superb. Lara Pulver manages
the transition from the shy, wallflower Louise to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee very convincingly—and also has a lovely voice; Peter Davison is charming and appealing as Herbie; and Gemma Sutton is excellent as the appalling, frustrated and hardened older Dainty June. Special mention should also be made of Dan Burton’s Tulsa and his standout dance routine. As for that gimickevergreen icon “You Gotta Get a Gimmick:” Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand are delightful as Tessie Tura and Electra, while the uber-talented Louise Gold is a superb trumpet-blowing Miss Mazeppa. She not only bumps and grinds but has managed to inject the perfect rasp into her voice for the part. The three strippers are a highlight of a show that is inventive and generous in its stagecraft. The material never flags; it also makes one want to read Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, upon which this musical is based.

I could quibble that the production is traditional and not Gypsy-A-Memoir-by-Gypsy-Rose-Leeparticularly revelatory of anything new about the show, but with such an energetic and exceptionally strong cast and such attention to detail both musically and dramatically, it would be invidious.

If you are pining for a reliable night of music theatre that also tells a terrific story via some memorable performances and with a central star turn that is as good as it gets, this is the show for you.

Of course, people who only know Staunton as Vera Drake or from the Harry Potter films will probably be surprised that she is a subtle and classy musical comedy star; but those of us who saw her as a virtually definitive Miss Adelaide in thesavoy National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls years ago will be delighted to rediscover aspects of her talent that don’t get enough attention or exercise. Another bonus is the theatre itself, the Savoy being one of the most interesting venues in the West End with its silver-coated art deco design.

This Gypsy is a fine example of the current trend in the UK for revivals of 20th century theatre pieces that evoke the original production. Now here’s an idea: if only there were talents (and funds) out there for new material for people like Staunton or Pulver and for building original, contemporary shows on them the way they used to for Mary Martin or Ethel Merman…

Suffering Salesman:

Willy Loman still has what it takes

death of a salesmanSecond, opt for Greg Doran’s excellent and moving production of Arthur Miller’s iconic play, Death of a Salesman, now finishing a run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and is moving to the West End in London on May 9. It’s already selling out, so get your tickets before it opens (on May 9). Like Gypsy, it’s another perfect example of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t fix it.

As always, Doran reads and interprets the text without imposing any extraneous thoughts from the outside, but mines its meanings and moods with great subtlety and sensitivity. He has forged a superb ensemble of actors working seamlessly together, and produced results that I think would please Arthur Miller himself. It looks very good on the large thrust stage of Stratford’s main theatre. The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is superbly faithful to the stage directions and concept of the original text and makes full use of the facilities of the house; the lighting by Tim Mitchell helps distinguish between the action that is in the real present and that which is inside Willy Loman’s head. With a poignant jazz score by Paul Englishby to accompany and underscore the action, the characters of Miller’s modern day American tragedy are set in a suitable context.

Anthony Sher powerfully portrays the ageing salesman betrayed by his dreams of glory

Death of a Salesman performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company Sam Marks as Happy, Antony Sher as Willy Loman,  Alex Hassell as Biff ©Alastair Muir 01.04.15

Death of a Salesman performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Sam Marks as Happy, Antony Sher as Willy Loman, Alex Hassell as Biff
©Alastair Muir 01.04.15

and his belief in the System. Alex Hassell and Sam Marks achieve faultless transitions from being his damaged grown-up sons in the “now” to being their hopeful and energetic adolescent selves in his memories and dreams with a superb grasp of the body language and vocal nuances required to portray their different ages on the stage. And for me, Harriet Walter’s is simply the best Linda I’ve ever seen. Her dignity, her fierce loyalty to her husband, her questionable collusion in his dreams that are as much a source of the unconscious damage done to her sons as are Willy Loman’s expectations, are superbly conveyed. All the smaller parts are also well-taken and deeply understood; but above all Sher’s Loman is breathtakingly sympathetic while also being brutal, insensitive, bullying and angry, a man who cannot face or understand the sources of his personal disaster. From the moment he walks on stage we can see the weight of defeat and disappointment he bears; and the contrasts to his earlier self-belief and inability to question the received opinions of his time are all the more unsettling as his memories unfold. As in Einstein’s theory, time is folded in upon itself and the pressures of the past are very much pushing on the present.

This production does not, like the superb A View frommiller2the Bridge that was recently in London, try to rethink the standard approach to Arthur Miller. Instead it is a perfect embodiment of the classic approach that was first inspired by Miller and Elia Kazan and it is truly, painfully and superbly evocative of the well-made Broadway Play of its era. Minutely detailed and truly engaged with the text and its requirements, this is, indeed, a strong playing out of one of the most important American plays of the twentieth century.

Death of a Salesman finishes at Stratford on 2 May and transfers to the Noel Coward Theatre in London, currently booked to run from 9 May until 18 July. For tickets:

Apollo’s Girl

March 25, 2015

apollo and lyre


Life Upon the Wicked Stage:
Extensions and Openings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irreversible (Red Fern Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

Cooper’s London

March 2, 2015






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooper’s London

February 10, 2015


Three Lives: Alan, Lenny and Tennessee;
They Entertained You



Alan CummingNot My Father’s Son: A Memoir, Day Street Books (USA),
Canongate Books (UK)

cumming 1This haunting and, at times, surprisingly funny autobiography of Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son is a story of how Alan overcame years of abusive and outrageously insensitive treatment by his father to finally break free and become his own man. His tale is written with real control and intelligence and is utterly engaging throughout, formated to skip back and forth between his present of success and some eminence to the childhood that scarred and terrified him. Cumming was the subject of a programme about his family and past, Who Do You Think You Are, by the BBC and this is his catalyst for revisiting his difficult childhood and his family. A series of ever-more-surprising revelations, the book is at times almost a mystery story, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. Not surprisingly, the dysfunctional father ill-treated Alan’s brother and mother too, and it’s the bonding and mutual support system of these three people that is one of the most touching aspects of the tale. Not only is the story well written and told with exemplary insight, it unfolds more or less in the sequence in which Alec Cumming figured things out, so when revelations come they are genuinely surprising and pack a real wallop. The format makes it more possible to read the parallels of past and present. The tale is told very personally and, I think, bravely. Friends of mine, male and female, who read the book at my suggestion, came back to thank me for introducing them to it; all of them said they had cried at some points. A moving, touching and very truthful story, Not My Father’s Son is a well-told tale, powerful in its honesty.

Allen Shawn, Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician (Jewish Lives),
Yale University Press

lenny 1Allen Shawn’s new book about Leonard Bernstein probably doesn’t replace the magisterial Humphrey Burton tome about the polymath’s extraordinary life, but it certainly is a superb pendant to it and also a very fine shorter introduction. Its emphasis on considering each of his compositions in turn as well as his TV programmes, lectures, and didactic concerts for children, is also especially interesting. I’ve always preferred Bernstein to, say, his rival and near-contemporary Herbert von Karajan, whose post-World War II career so definitively overlapped with Bernstein’s; I would bet a fair amount that it is Bernstein’s reputation as a conductor and composer that will grow over the next decades, while von Karajan will be found to be, in some ways, a more limited artist. I also expect people to become more aware of Bernstein’s persona, his reputation as a mensch, a real human being. He was flawed; he was complex; he was madly in love with his wife for a time (and with her formed one of the early power couples), but he was also essentially gay and ultimately tormented by his love for men. He could be selfish and thoughtless and he caused problems for many people who knew him or who knew him or got close to him, as this book suggests; but he also was a generous teacher, a superlative mentor for other composers and conductors; and a brilliant entertainer as a conductor, as a teacher and as a composer. He was also a very, very good friend to have. How can you not want to know the story of the man who wrote West Side Story and Candide as well as one of the worst atonal operas in existence? He was a man who had a huge influence teaching about music on at least two generations of children in North America.

Two things come through strongly in this book: his ability to form lasting, loving, loyal relationships both personally and professionally; and his complete dedication to conducting, teaching and composing. He was also a brilliant pianist and a great performer whether on the podium, the piano bench, or in front of a crowd and/or camera delivering lectures. So add to all his other gifts that he was a fine writer. Indeed, Shawn shows clearly that he was, in everything he did, a generous, tireless, and enthusiastic communicator. There was much about his life that, in retrospect, seems messy and sad, but what stands out is how much he was loved and how much joy he brought to everything he did professionally as well as personally.

As well as telling the story of the life and placing it carefully in the social and political context of the times, the book carefully analyses and assesses each of his works individually, cumulatively building up a picture of how important the man was to twentieth century culture both in America and throughout the world; and dealing so fully with this major aspect of Bernstein’s life and mentality, with his artistic intensity and the development of his creativity, made me want to go back to listen to things like his symphonies or even his opera A Quiet Place. Because Bernstein was so gifted and energetic in so many different areas, some people considered him to be facile. Shawn clearly admires the results and argues against that belief. I myself had a brief but delightful acquaintance with Bernstein towards the end of his life that was enriching and enjoyable out of all proportion to the time I spent with him. He even had a joke for me that was delivered a year after his death by Michael Barrett. I came away from reading this book remembering the power and charm of his personality, his astonishing polymorphic brilliance, and that, above all, he was a genuinely generous and endlessly creative man.

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, W W Norton (USA); Bloomsbury Circus (UK)

williams 1John Lahr is a respected critic and biographer and in his latest book, a definitive life of Tennessee Williams, he has outdone himself in creating a completely readable and somewhat provocative re-telling of a story that is almost as bizarre and compelling as any of the Williams plays. Again, like Allen Shawn, Lahr takes the line that the work is an important and central aspect of and also reflection of the life. There are plenty of backstage stories that can amuse or shock, but this biography gave me much pleasure mainly because of its concentration on telling how each work was written and produced; it places each work in the context not only of the life of Williams but also of its culture. The anecdotes about the putting on of plays like The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, let alone The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter created the parts played by Taylor and Burton later in the film Boom!) are worth the price of admission alone. That said, the glory of this book is that it is a fine, extremely sensitive and utterly sympathetic view of a man who was troubled but a remarkable magnet for affection and friendship; as well as in the portraits of his friends and colleagues, including Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. It’s good to find out where many of Williams’ characters grew from in his life; but it’s even better to come away from a book caring so much for the protagonist and having such understanding for this turbulent and immensely gifted personality and how it fed into the creation of one of the most important bodies of theatrical work of the last century. Through letters, diaries and interviews, Lahr has recreated the life of a fascinating playwright and also thrown a spotlight on some of the ways things worked on Broadway and in Hollywood not so long ago. The book is extremely well-written, thoroughly researched and a damned good read.

What links these three books for me is not only the williams 2sense of learning more about the background of three very interesting creative people involved in the worlds of theatre, classical music and film–but above all a sense of getting to know more about them in ways that explain why they and their work lenny 2are to be respected and admired. In addition, all three were gay, and Williams and Bernstein gay at a time when there was a need to be discreet about one’s sexuality. Cumming, on the other hand, has the advantage of being two generations younger, when fluid sexuality is much more acceptable–even fashionable.
cumming 2Times change and attitudes change with them; that, in itself, is part of what makes all three books recommended reading.

Cooper’s London

February 4, 2015


What a Blast!: Optimizing Oppenheimer
(Stratford: It’s not just about Shakespeare…)

The newly commissioned play, Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith is a total triumph for the Royal Shakespeare Company in every way. It introduces an exceptionally talented new playwright, who has risen to the demands of his commission and the requirement to use a large ensemble company brilliantly; a strong new director and his team; and much acting talent that one will want to follow. Every element meshes beautifully to make a truly gripping, dramatic, thought-provoking and thrilling event.

morton-smithTo begin with, Morton-Smith has given the production the strongest possible foundation in a script that’s compellingly intelligent, beautifully constructed, dramatically articulate and deeply theatrical. He’s made vivid and real the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the whole team of extraordinary geniuses (and their wives, lovers and military keepers) involved in the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. Without simplifying, the script manages to make clear and comprehensible the politics, the philosophical implications, the military and political context in which the project developed and the enormous moral issues it raised—all the while also explicating the physics so that a lay audience can actually get the drift.

Britain OppenheimerThe director, Angus Jackson has forged an ensemble of actors into a deluxe team working in synch throughout the play’s three-hour journey. His staging engages the audience not only with the words of the text but with movement. One of the compelling metaphors for how hard and constantly the scientists grappled with their problems is having the oppenheimer.jpg1actors fall to the floor from time to time—a floor that is also a blackboard— to scribble their formulae as they invent them. The set, choreography and costume design work as an almost Brechtian conceptualization, placing the story clearly in its historical period, strongly evoking the era of World War II in America—its music, its outfits, its politics.

The play is remarkable in evoking the inhabitants of Los Alamos and the sense of the isolated and intense hothouse world they were living in. it also interweaves the personal lives and Oppenheimer-2complicated relationships so naturally with the politics and the physics of that strange, dreadful, complex, terrifying, and confused-yet-heroic time that one is enveloped in the pressures, the psychological stresses and the sheer manic fun that everyone must have been having. The musicians not only deserves praise for their idiomatic playing of era’s contemporary music but the actors in the show as well, who play the piano and the bongos, and sing. When the interval comes, get back to your seat in good time because there is a vibrant and evocative cabaret act that introduces Act II before it starts.

The show is simply superb. And above all, oppenheimer-rsc-swan-theatre-theatre-review-atomic4John Heffernan suggests the spirit, the soul, the intelligence and the difficulties of being J. Robert Oppenheimer, responding to the needs of the military, the political and the personal exigencies of his life. His genius, his detachment, his confusions are all portrayed; his body language seems extraordinarily right; and one also understand his stature as a man capable of leading the team to build the bomb faster in a grizzly race with the Germans–a bomb that he hopes will be so frightening that it will put an end to war.

The play has many wonderful, memorable moments, not least the two appearances of a bomb in Part Two and the use of everything from bebop dancing to Native American movement and rhythms. Many of the actors stand out, steadmanespecially Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock Dylanand Hedydd Dylan as Jackie Oppenheimer. In fairness, every performance is memorable. But above all Heffernan’s performance is so staggeringly good that I came away thinking he’s going to be an actor very much like Alec Guinness – a man who can disappear into and become every role he takes on. His awkward body language, his speaking rhythms and tone of voice, his completely non-slip American accent never for a moment allow you to think that you are watching an actor – he simply is J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer is a fine example of what theatre can achieve when it is at its best – telling its story entertainingly, grippingly; provocative; and engaging both the emotions and the intellect throughout. I have nothing but praise for this production, this script and this company. Finally, Oppenheimer deals impressively and lucidly not only with the topic of the building of the A-bomb and its aftermath, but with the inevitable march to manhattan projectMcCarthyism and the Cold War. This play manages to make its bigger-than-life characters achingly human, evoking both our sorrow and our pity for a turning point in global history. There are rumors of a transfer to the West End and, perhaps, to New York—a fitting tribute to the birthplace of the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer is in repertory in the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK until 7 March 2015. It will open in London for an eight-week run on March 27. A must-see! tickets

Much Ado about Love, Lost and Won

LovesLaboursLost-Review-ImageThe RSC has paired new productions of Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing to promote the idea that the latter is the mysterious lost play Love’s Labours Won. Certainly, for centuries, everyone has noted various connections of theme between the plays; and it has always been said that Rosaline and Berowne are a sketch for Beatrice and Benedick.

For those reasons alone it’s interesting to see Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry take on both roles. I attended a matinee of the first and an evening bennet terryperformance of the second on the same day. I was impressed by the committed ensemble work of the actors, the evocative sets and costumes of Simon Higlett, the terrific music by Nigel Hess. Because of the anniversary year of the outbreak of World War One, the first play was set in July 1914, and the second just after the war, so that the men of Messina were returning from its carnage.

It’s a clever ploy, and it enhances enjoyment of both plays in some ways; but it doesn’t really convince me of the premise. Nor do the two plays being done together entirely work. They don’t really illuminate each other except peripherally. In fact, I am pretty convinced after the abrupt ending to Love’s Labours Lost that the play referred to as Love’s Labours Won is not an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing, but actually a lost play. Love’s Labours Lost felt to me as if it hit a surprise climax, rather like the scene in Much Ado in the church that spins the play into an other, darker sphere. I propose therefore that the final scene of Love’s Labours Lost is the climax of a ten-act structure, the climax of a play and its sequel, and that Love’s Labours Won has to be a real sequel continuing the same story with the same characters a year laternot just another, later and better play that happens to share some of the concerns, themes and even character types of the first.

That said, I enjoyed the experience of the two plays enormously. They are good to see together because of the way chris smallChristopher Luscombe has conceived the interpretations and cross references; they are certainly worth a trip to Stratford. There are many felicities in Luscombe’s approach, not the least in some of the cross castings, among them Nick Haverson as Costard in the first and Constable Dogberry in the second. Sam Alexander, who plays the King of Navarre charmingly in the first play, turns into the wicked Don John in the second. Everyone on the stage is deserving of praise.

The RSC is continuing with its policy of intelligent and integrated repertoire that tends to cross-fertilise ideas and also displays an exemplary eye for casting. Christopher Luscombe’s pacing tends to be a bit on the fast side, which is not a bad thing with these comedies, and he has a great sense of invention for business that fleshes out the characterizations and the action. This is a thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable presentation of both plays and well worth seeing for oneself.

Love’s Labours Lost and Love’s Labours Won (Much Ado About Nothing) continue in repertoire at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 14 March 2015.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 129 other followers