Monday, May 30, 2011

Theater feature: Asner as FDR: From one liberal icon to another

Ed Asner as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

By Hap Erstein

He has played a slave ship captain in Roots,‭ ‬Pope John XXIII,‭ ‬adventurer Carl Fredericksen in Pixar’s Up and,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬Lou Grant,‭ ‬the role that earned him five of his seven Emmy Awards.‭ ‬But for Ed Asner,‭ ‬81,‭ ‬the opportunity to become Franklin Delano Roosevelt for a couple of hours each night was too good to resist.

Around the Kansas City household where young Ed grew up,‭ ‬Roosevelt was thought of as‭ “‬God,‭ ‬the father,‭” ‬he says by phone,‭ ‬before flying in to South Florida for a week of performances of Dore Schary's FDR at Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre.

‭ ‬To Asner,‭ ‬Roosevelt was‭ “‬revered certainly.‭ ‬Never for a moment questioned his authenticity,‭ ‬his goodness.‭” ‬Elected to the presidency four times,‭ ‬FDR became an enduring liberal icon,‭ ‬a mantle that Asner has carried on in his outspoken opinions,‭ ‬his actions and the roles he has chosen to play.

As to his current performance,‭ ‬the former Screen Actors Guild president says,‭ “‬I certainly never believed that I would be mistaken for Roosevelt,‭ ‬but the more I did it,‭ ‬the more I convinced myself.‭”

Asner has been acclaimed for his impersonation of Roosevelt,‭ ‬but that was never his goal.‭ ‬He accepted the role,‭ ‬first of all,‭ ‬because‭ “‬Well,‭ ‬I had nothing to do at the time,‭” ‬and secondly to deliver the play’s liberal message.‭ “‬I go around in hopes that people will not only take heart,‭ ‬but take action,‭” ‬says Asner.‭ “‬And implement,‭ ‬supplement,‭ ‬the things that Roosevelt did.‭”

And of that message of Roosevelt’s bold,‭ ‬forceful style made its way to the White House,‭ ‬that would please Asner a great deal.‭ “‬That’s one of the reasons I wanted to keep going on the road.‭ ‬In the hopes of preaching to the choir‭ ‬--‭ ‬which I do most of the time‭ ‬--‭ ‬that the choir will somehow find a way to get the thought of the message,‭ ‬the joy of the message,‭ ‬to expedite the return of those policies.‭ ‬In preaching to the audience,‭ ‬I hope that they’re affected enough that they begin affecting the White House.‭”

Yet Asner has his doubts whether Roosevelt,‭ ‬confined to a wheelchair with polio,‭ ‬could be elected today.‭ “‬Probably not,‭ ‬the press being what it is,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬They’d call him much too crippled to handle the job.‭”

Ed Asner in a scene from FDR.

Certainly Asner feels he could have learned a few things from FDR worth applying to his work in presiding over SAG in the early‭ ‬1980s.‭ “‬I hadn’t studied him sufficiently at that time.‭ ‬I could have used it,‭’ ‬he says.‭ “‬The charm that he used.‭ ‬I never used the charm sufficiently to win over my enemies.‭ ‬And I sure had them.‭”

And no,‭ ‬Asner never seriously considered running for public office.‭ “‬Not at all.‭ ‬I always thought that,‭ ‬yeah,‭ ‬I could get out there and preach enough and maybe win the job,‭ ‬but I felt they’d get cheated,‭” ‬he explains.‭ ‬Cheated‭? “‬That I wouldn’t be thorough enough,‭ ‬that I wouldn’t‭
compromise enough,‭ ‬that no matter how much studying I might do,‭ ‬it would never be enough to satisfy me.‭”

So he insists he is content touring the country,‭ ‬influencing the electorate with his performance skills.‭ “‬And it rejuvenates me,‭” ‬Asner says.‭ ‬Besides,‭ “‬I’m not good for anything else.‭”

He gives a Lou Grant grunt at the suggestion that at his age he could be staying home and relaxing.‭ “‬Oh,‭ ‬relaxing.‭ ‬If you sleep a full eight hours when you get in bed at night,‭ ‬what do you need to relax for‭?”

Well into his sixth decade as a professional actor,‭ ‬Asner feels he is at the top of his game.‭ “‬I’m a better actor now than I’ve ever been,‭ ‬and if I chose to lie on my fat ass and do nothing,‭ ‬I would be morally wrong to deny a script the powers that I have at hand.‭”

So far,‭ ‬he had done about a hundred performances of FDR in‭ ‬50‭ ‬cities over the past year and a half.‭ ‬After Boca,‭ ‬he will continue to criss-cross the country with the one-man show,‭ ‬well into‭ ‬2012.‭ ‬But do not look for him to take the show to New York.‭ “‬I’m not eager to plunge into New York unless everything is absolutely perfect,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬Because New York has favorites and I doubt whether I’m one of them.‭”

Boca Raton,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬is probably ready for Asner and vice versa.‭ ‬As to the play,‭ ‬FDR,‭ ‬he says,‭ "they will be entertained and they will discover knowledge of the past that they either didn’t know or forgot.‭”

FDR,‭ ‬starring Ed Asner.‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Company,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal‭ ‬Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Wednesday,‭ ‬June‭ ‬1-‭ ‬Sunday,‭ ‬June‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$40-$75.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432.‭

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Theater review: Controversial comic Maher pushes all the buttons at Kravis

Bill Maher.

By Bill Meredith

Bill Maher can be‭ ‬--‭ ‬and undoubtedly has been‭ ‬--‭ ‬called many things,‭ ‬including the accurate‭ (‬and printable‭) ‬tags of talk show host,‭ ‬social critic,‭ ‬actor,‭ ‬author,‭ ‬and documentary filmmaker.

But the‭ ‬54-year-old Maher started out as a stand-up comic while attending Cornell University,‭ ‬where he‭ ‬earned a bachelor‭’‬s degree in English that‭’‬s come in handy since‭ ‬1978.‭ ‬The New York City-born,‭ ‬New Jersey-raised satirist used it to deliver a scathingly brilliant‭ ‬90-minute routine‭ ‬Saturday night to a capacity crowd at the Kravis Center‭’‬s Dreyfoos Hall.

Dressed casually in slacks and a T-shirt,‭ ‬Maher entered to the theme music from his seasonal Friday HBO series‭ ‬Real Time With Bill Maher,‭ ‬on which he wears a suit and tie.‭ ‬The early portion of this appearance provided his only tentative moments,‭ ‬as he leaned on lines he‭’‬d already delivered on‭ ‬Real Time episodes while getting a sense of how far he could go without sending hordes to the exits.

Yet this was a younger-than-usual Kravis crowd,‭ ‬and Maher seemed to relax‭ ‬15‭ ‬minutes in as he lit into one of his favorite topics,‭ ‬religion.

‭“‬I‭’‬ve been through the South recently,‭ ‬and there‭’‬s a church literally on every corner,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬Tonight,‭ ‬the devil has come to South Florida.‭”

The crowd roared its approval.‭ ‬Maher is the son of an Irish Catholic father and a Jewish mother,‭ ‬so both faiths eventually took their lumps throughout the evening.‭ ‬His‭ ‬2008‭ ‬film‭ ‬Religulous became the seventh-highest grossing documentary ever by spoofing all religions with equal aplomb.

‭“‬Evangelical Christians believe in torture more than any other group,‭”‬ Maher said.‭ “‬There's only one group that doesn't really believe in Christian values‭ ‬--‭ ‬the Christians.‭”

He also referred to the Bible as‭ “‬that‭ ‬old book of Jewish fairy tales,‭”‬ and called the pope‭ “‬a big,‭ ‬popular Catholic celebrity who should be a‭ ‬float in the Macy‭’‬s‭ ‬[Thanksgiving‭]‬ Day parade.‭”

Politics provided an even more central theme for the night,‭ ‬primarily President Obama and his Republican challengers.‭ ‬The left-leaning Maher,‭ ‬a self-described libertarian,‭ ‬gave the president both praise and criticism.

‭ “‬Obama finally got legitimized by Middle America,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬There's nothing like shooting someone in the face to do that.‭ ‬I bet Gaddafi is‭ [‬soiling‭]‬ his pants now.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve put him ahead of Charlie Sheen in my celebrity dead pool.

‭“‬But Obama seems like the nicest guy in the world‭; ‬always apologizing for things.‭ ‬C‭’‬mon.‭ ‬You‭’‬re the Jackie Robinson of American politics,‭ ‬and‭ ‬40‭ ‬percent of the country wouldn‭’‬t vote for you if you‭ ‬saved them from drowning,‭ ‬so‭ ‬be‭ ‬the first black president‭! ‬Grow your hair out.‭ ‬Rush Limbaugh always looks like he‭’‬s gonna have a heart attack,‭ ‬so give him one‭!”

The president‭’‬s predecessor,‭ ‬one of Maher's favorite targets,‭ ‬also came up on occasion.

‭“‬The Republicans are upset because George Bush didn‭’‬t get enough credit for killing Bin Laden,‭”‬ Maher said.‭ “‬But that's because he‭ ‬didn‭’‬t‭! ‬Obama got Bin Laden‭; ‬Bush got Wesley Snipes.‭ ‬When Obama invited Bush to Ground Zero after Bin Laden‭’‬s death,‭ ‬Bush turned him down,‭ ‬and I don‭’‬t blame‭ ‬him.‭ ‬That would‭’‬ve been like inviting Sarah Palin to a spelling bee.

‭“‬People like to say,‭ ‬‘Remember how you felt after the‭ ‬9/11‭ ‬attacks.‭’‬ Yeah,‭ ‬remember when we started making stupid decisions like invading the wrong country,‭ ‬and getting me fired.‭”

That reference was to Maher‭’‬s ABC‭ ‬show‭ ‬Politically Incorrect,‭ ‬which was canceled due to‭ ‬“low ratings‭”‬ after living up to its name in‭ ‬2001.‭ ‬Six days after‭ ‬9/11,‭ ‬Maher criticized the United States government for not preventing the attacks,‭ ‬and referenced the dedication of the hijackers who successfully killed themselves along with thousands of U.S.‭ ‬citizens.

‭“‬I‭ ‬hope some of this is offensive‭!‬” Maher railed at one point.‭ ‬He then raged against Palin‭ (“‬Stupid people used to at least realize they‭ ‬might be stupid before America got Palin-ized‭”‬),‭ ‬Michele Bachmann‭ (“‬For people‭ ‬who find Palin too intellectual‭”‬),‭ ‬Arizona‭’‬s immigration laws‭ (“‬They now have a law that you can‭’‬t fry beans more than once‭”‬),‭ ‬Donald Trump‭ (“‬That curiosity from the‭ ‬’80s‭”‬),‭ ‬and Newt Gingrich‭ (“‬The moral compass of an infection‭”‬).

Another prospectively offensive reference involved Obama and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.

‭“‬Even after seeing his birth certificate,‭ ‬some Republicans still say that Obama just‭ ‬seems foreign,‭”‬ Maher said.‭ ‬“Well,‭ ‬John Boehner‭ ‬seems feminine to me‭! ‬Mention the American Dream and his lip starts quivering‭ ‬like a gay guy watching‭ ‬‘Rent.‭’‬ ”

Some of Maher‭’‬s leftover ire was saved for the Tea Party movement.

‭“‬The tea-baggers hate being called‭ ‬racist,‭”‬ he said.‭ “‬The other thing they hate is black people.‭ ‬They're cranky,‭ ‬independent bed-wetters who named themselves after a gay sex act.‭ ‬And I know there are some union issues right here,‭ ‬so I want to know:‭ ‬Why isn‭’‬t the Tea Party on the side of the unions‭?”

Maher was invoking the current dispute between the stagehands union and the Kravis Center,‭ ‬which resulted in‭ ‬100‭ ‬or so picketers protesting in front of the performing arts center‭ ‬Saturday.‭ ‬Union activists had tried unsuccessfully to get Maher to either cancel the show or perform elsewhere.

A few of the evening‭’‬s lighter moments also included local references.

‭“‬You have to vote for your own economic interests,‭”‬ Maher said.‭ “‬That's why Republicans want to repeal the estate tax.‭ ‬But there's a reason it‭’‬s called an estate tax‭ ‬--‭ ‬because it's for people who have estates‭! ‬You know:‭ ‬Palm Beach types.‭ ‬But of course you need some help around the estate,‭ ‬right‭? ‬Well,‭ ‬my father had some help around the house in New Jersey in the‭ ‬’60s‭ ‬--‭ ‬me‭!‬”

“And you guys sure have bigger cockroaches here in Florida.‭ ‬But you call them palmetto bugs,‭ ‬right‭? ‬That sounds better‭; ‬more like a drink you‭’‬d order in a bar.‭ ‬Cockroaches must have great publicists here.‭”

Like his comic hero,‭ ‬the late George Carlin‭ (‬especially in the latter half of his career‭)‬,‭ ‬Maher knows how to draw laughs out of otherwise taboo subjects through his cynical writing and often perfectly‭ ‬timed delivery.

Despite a slow start,‭ ‬this performance was arguably‭ ‬funnier than any of Maher‭’‬s nine HBO stand-up specials,‭ ‬four books,‭ ‬his string of TV and B-movie appearances,‭ ‬or even the bulk of his‭ ‬intermittently great‭ ‬Real Time episodes.

Give the devil his due.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Weekend arts picks: May 27-June 1

Ed Asner as the‭ ‬32nd president of the United States.

Theater:‭ ‬Ed Asner as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.‭ ‬It is one liberal icon playing another liberal icon in the one-man show FDR,‭ ‬opening a brief five-day run at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton beginning Wednesday evening.‭ ‬The play,‭ ‬written by Roosevelt scholar Dore Schary‭ (‬Sunrise at Campobello‭)‬,‭ ‬looks at the public man who presided over the country during the Great Depression and World War II.‭ ‬To Asner,‭ ‬a seven-time Emmy winner,‭ ‬playing Roosevelt is more of a political mission than an artistic one,‭ ‬reminding the nation of the positive,‭ ‬lasting effects of government as a nurturer of social programs and the man who initiated them.‭ ‬At‭ ‬81,‭ ‬Asner insists he is a better actor than he ever has been and the critical response from other cities where FDR has played suggests he may be right.‭ ‬Through June‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432‭ ‬for tickets.

Lubna Azabal in Incendies.

Film:‭ ‬Foreign language Oscar nominees get distribution around the country eventually,‭ ‬and South Florida at last gets to see the superb French-Canadian film‭ ‬Incendies‭ (‬Scorched‭)‬.‭ ‬It begins with the dying request of a mother to her twin grown children to travel from Montreal to the Middle East to discover their roots‭ ‬--‭ ‬to find their real father and to meet the brother they never knew they had.‭ ‬Written and directed by Denis Villeneuve,‭ ‬it is a tale of identity,‭ ‬a story of the ongoing conflict over there and a saga of love and hatred,‭ ‬exquisitely and painfully rendered.‭ ‬At area theaters beginning today.

The New Gardens Band.

Music:‭ ‬On Sunday,‭ ‬PBS will broadcast its annual Memorial Day concert from the National Mall in Washington,‭ ‬D.C.,‭ ‬with the National Symphony,‭ ‬the various armed forces musical groups‭ ‬and big TV stars such as Gary Sinise‭ (‬CSI:‭ ‬New York‭) ‬and Joe Mantegna‭ (‬Criminal Minds‭)‬.‭ ‬But the tradition of concerts on Memorial Day weekend continues here with the New Gardens Band on Saturday.‭ ‬Owen Seward leads his community band in a patriotic program‭ ‬called‭ ‬Remembering America‭’‬s Fallen at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$15‭ ‬for the‭ ‬3‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬concert,‭ ‬and‭ ‬$20‭ ‬at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a tribute to the men and women in the U.S.‭ ‬military,‭ ‬who truth be told have one of the toughest,‭ ‬most important jobs anyone could have,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s worth noting that on this long weekend.‭ ‬For more information,‭ ‬call‭ ‬207-5900.

Lily Ojea in For Such a Time as This.

Dance:‭ ‬Florida Classical Ballet Theatre heads to Cuba this August for four performances of its ballet‭ ‬For Such a Time as This:‭ ‬The Queen Esther Story.‭ ‬This ballet,‭ ‬choreographed by FCBT founder Colleen Smith to music by Grieg,‭ ‬tells the Purim story of the queen who saved the Jews from the evil Persian Empire.‭ ‬But you can see the ballet twice today in Palm Beach Gardens,‭ ‬as the company presents this ballet and two others including‭ ‬Fish Tales,‭ ‬a retitling of a charming seaside ballet set by Smith to incidental music by Mozart.‭ ‬Performances are set for‭ ‬1‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬and‭ ‬7:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬today at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens.‭ ‬Tickets range from‭ ‬$22-$32.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬207-5900‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The View From Home‭ ‬26:‭ ‬New releases and notable screenings,‭ ‬May‭ ‬24‭ -June‭ ‬10

Donatas Banionis and Natalya Bondarchuk in Solaris‭ (‬1972‭)‬.

By John Thomason

Andrei Tarkovsky,‭ ‬the Russian New Wave’s most glorified director of rarefied museum pieces,‭ ‬represents,‭ ‬more than any director of his generation,‭ ‬the division between true cinephiles and casual‭ “‬movie buffs.‭”

The latter enjoys Fellini,‭ ‬some Godard and even an Antonioni picture or two,‭ ‬but Tarkovsky’s art-house pedigree is so pure‭ – ‬so dismissive of the standard that films be‭ “‬entertaining‭” – ‬that it alienates all but the minority set of cinemaniacs whose vacation planning revolves around New York or L.A.‭ ‬retrospectives of Chantal Akerman or Mikio Naruse films.

Tarkovsky’s cinema is as fastidious as it is foreboding,‭ ‬as personal as it is daunting.‭ ‬Watching works as dense as‭ ‬Stalker and‭ ‬The Mirror‭ – ‬films I loved,‭ ‬though I can barely explain why‭ – ‬you get the impression no one besides Tarkovsky can even begin to comprehend them,‭ ‬and that thematic deconstruction is a fool’s errand.

His‭ ‬1972‭ ‬Solaris,‭ ‬which just received a Blu-ray and DVD reissue from Criterion‭ (‬$21.99‭ ‬to‭ ‬$26.99‭)‬,‭ ‬is both an affirmation and an exception to the conventional wisdom on Tarkovsky.‭ ‬For a science-fiction film,‭ ‬it’s a deliberate,‭ ‬impenetrable frustration,‭ ‬but compared to the rest of the director’s canon,‭ ‬it’s a breezy flirtation with the accessible.

Marketed as the Russian‭ ‬2001:‭ ‬A Space Odyssey‭ – ‬the first clue that this is a cerebral genre film,‭ ‬and one that will be dutifully dismissed by some as a pretentious bore‭ – ‬it follows Kris Kelvin‭ (‬Donatas Banionis‭)‬,‭ ‬a blocky psychologist dispatched from an Edenic Earth to survey the strange phenomena on board the space station Solaris.‭ ‬There,‭ ‬he finds a skeleton crew of bedraggled scientists,‭ ‬one of whom recently killed himself thanks to the hallucinations prompted by the living,‭ ‬breathing atmosphere of the Solaris Ocean‭ (‬a murky miasma that looks today not unlike the Gulf Coast after the BP spill‭)‬.‭

He’s barely found the restroom until he too falls victim to the hallucinatory milieu,‭ ‬in the form of his clingy dead wife‭ (‬Natalya Bondarchuk‭)‬,‭ ‬who manages to regenerate anew,‭ ‬Groundhog Day-style,‭ ‬every time Kelvin tries to banish her.

The glacial alienation of Tarkovsky’s cinema never had a more fitting visual embodiment than the space station,‭ ‬a rickety edifice as functional and unromantic as a hospital.‭ ‬It’s not a vehicle anyone would willingly want to explore the universe’s frontiers‭ – ‬some of the padding on the walls conjures the look of a mental ward,‭ ‬a kind of character diagnosis via set design.‭ ‬The stirring beauty of the earthbound prologue,‭ ‬flashbacks and fantasy cutaways provide some release from the environs,‭ ‬and the station’s inhabitants movingly try to replicate its sensations onboard‭; ‬a fan hitting streams of hung paper is meant to simulate the susurrus of rustling leaves.

Solaris is about many things‭ – ‬loneliness,‭ ‬spirituality,‭ ‬love’s uncontrollability,‭ ‬the transience of happiness‭ – ‬and it predates more movies than it’s probably given credit for.‭ ‬Its status as a kind of interstellar chamber drama suggests the sci-fi movie Bergman never made,‭ ‬and at various other points,‭ ‬I saw premonitions of‭ ‬A.I.,‭ ‬Blade Runner and‭ ‬Inception.‭ ‬In his essay included with this disc,‭ ‬critic Philip Lopate also includes‭ ‬Invasion of the Body Snatchers,‭ ‬Ugetsu and‭ ‬Alphaville.‭ ‬As for Kubrick’s oft-studied space trip,‭ ‬it’s a masterpiece of comparatively sunny tones.‭ ‬The up-to-interpretation final shot of‭ ‬Solaris‭ – ‬arguably the key to the entire picture‭ – ‬is,‭ ‬to me,‭ ‬a cruel,‭ ‬existential,‭ ‬Twilight Zone twist of utter despair,‭ ‬a cosmic joke from a filmmaker many have said had no sense of humor.

DVD Watch:‭ ‬On May‭ ‬24,‭ ‬the ability to take Charlie Sheen seriously post-Violent-Torpedo-of-Truth is tested,‭ ‬in glorious hi-def,‭ ‬with the Blu-ray edition of‭ ‬Platoon‭ (‬MGM,‭ ‬$15.49‭)‬,‭ ‬Oliver Stone’s blunt,‭ ‬visceral study of servicemen in Vietnam.‭ ‬You’ll never again see Sheen give a better performance in a work of such magnitude.‭ ‬This week also saw the Blu-ray release of another tough-guy classic,‭ ‬Papillon‭ (‬Warner,‭ ‬$22.49‭) – ‬Franklin J.‭ ‬Schaffner’s well-crafted prison-break pic with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen.‭ ‬The disc extras are scant,‭ ‬but the purchase comes with a‭ ‬34-page digibook with an essay and photographs.‭ ‬Elsewhere,‭ ‬actress Samantha Morton,‭ ‬best seen in Lynn Ramsey’s art-house opus‭ ‬Morvern Callar,‭ ‬makes her directorial debut in the heavy drama‭ ‬The Unloved‭ (‬Oscilloscope Laboratories,‭ ‬$26.99‭) ‬and experimental filmmaker Chris Marker deconstructs the life and work of Andrei Tarkovsky in the essay film‭ ‬One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch‭ ‬(Icarus,‭ ‬$29.98‭)‬.‭ ‬Last but most definitely not least,‭ ‬fans of‭ ‬Kids in the Hall can finally purchase the complete series of the legendary cult show in one affordable package‭ (‬A&E,‭ ‬$74.99‭)‬.

On May‭ ‬31,‭ ‬the release of the week‭ – ‬if not the year‭ – ‬is‭ ‬Stanley Kubrick:‭ ‬The Essential Collection‭ (‬Warner,‭ ‬$55.99‭ ‬or‭ ‬$104.99‭ ‬for a limited edition Blu-ray set‭)‬.‭ ‬This box set replaces the out-of-print‭ ‬Stanley Kubrick Collection from‭ ‬2001,‭ ‬retaining the same eight masterpieces from that set‭ (‬from‭ ‬Lolita through‭ ‬Eyes Wide Shut‭) ‬and adding in‭ ‬Spartacus and a boatload of extras.‭ ‬The prospect of seeing‭ ‬2001:‭ ‬A Space Odyssey and‭ ‬Barry Lyndon in the best video resolution available may finally make me invest in a Blu-ray player.‭ ‬A couple of cult genre films also make the Blu-ray cut this week:‭ ‬Sergio Leone’s operatic spaghetti western‭ ‬Once Upon a Time in the West‭ (‬Paramount,‭ ‬$15.99‭) ‬and Dario Argento’s giallo horror film‭ ‬Cat O‭’ ‬Nine Tails‭ (‬Blue Underground,‭ ‬$15.99‭)

On June‭ ‬7,‭ ‬I’m most excited about a pair of long-awaited,‭ ‬long-unseen classics from the tragic,‭ ‬ridiculously prolific German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder:‭ ‬1976‭’‬s‭ ‬I Only Want You to Love Me,‭ ‬about a man driven to violence due to a lack of love,‭ ‬and‭ ‬1978‭’‬s‭ ‬Despair,‭ ‬a strange Nazi drama adapted by Tom Stoppard from a Vladimir Nabokov novel‭ (‬both Olive Films,‭ ‬$22.49‭ ‬each‭)‬.‭ ‬This week is also a Western bonanza‭; ‬the Coen Brothers‭’ ‬Oscar-nominated adaptation of‭ ‬True Grit arrives‭ (‬Paramount,‭ ‬$16.99‭ ‬DVD and‭ ‬$24.99‭ ‬Blu-ray‭ ‬+‭ ‬DVD combo pack‭)‬,‭ ‬along with the Blu-ray premieres of Robert Aldrich’s‭ ‬Vera Cruz‭ (‬MGM,‭ ‬$14.99‭) ‬and Clint Eastwood’s scorched-earth saga‭ ‬The Outlaw Josey Wales‭ ‬(Warner,‭ ‬$24.99‭)‬.‭ ‬On June‭ ‬10,‭ ‬Warner Archive will release‭ ‬Marlowe‭ (‬$24.49‭)‬,‭ ‬Paul Bogart’s obscure adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s‭ ‬The Little Sister,‭ ‬with James Garner as the iconic,‭ ‬titular gumshoe.

A scene from Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds‭ (‬1958‭)‬.

TV Watch:‭ ‬Turner Classic Movies has been honoring Andrzej Wajda this month,‭ ‬having already screened‭ ‬A Generation and‭ ‬Kanal.‭ ‬Set your DVRs:‭ ‬At‭ ‬2:15‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬May‭ ‬29,‭ ‬the network will show‭ ‬Ashes and Diamonds,‭ ‬his most acclaimed war film and one of the cinema’s most humanist evocations of a soldier’s grim duty.‭ ‬For the whole night on June‭ ‬2,‭ ‬get out the popcorn and record your own‭ ‬Mystery Science Theater commentary tracks for an evening of‭ “‬Drive-In Double Features,‭” ‬from‭ ‬1964‭’‬s‭ ‬Ghidorah,‭ ‬the Three-Headed Monster to‭ ‬1969‭’‬s‭ ‬The Valley of Gwangi.‭ ‬At‭ ‬3‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬June‭ ‬5,‭ ‬TCM will screen G.W.‭ ‬Pabst’s‭ ‬1931‭ ‬Kameradschaft,‭ ‬a socially conscious mining drama unavailable on DVD.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Theater review: Young thespian's strong debut makes 'Secret Garden' worth cultivating

By Hap Erstein

More interested in spiritual rebirth than the usual romance that fuels musicals,‭ ‬with a score more attuned to British folk melodies than Tin Pan Alley hits,‭ ‬you can understand why‭ ‬1991‭’‬s underrated‭ ‬The Secret Garden is rarely revived these days.

And then there is the casting challenge of its main character,‭ ‬12-year-old Mary Lennox,‭ ‬the suddenly orphaned tot saddled with justifiable melancholy and a number of difficult,‭ ‬rangy songs.

The former did not faze Caldwell Theatre artistic director Clive Cholerton,‭ ‬who had already prepared its audiences for the unconventional by leading off the Boca Raton company’s Broadway Concert Series with several shows by Stephen Sondheim.‭ ‬As to the latter,‭ ‬he simply lucked out,‭ ‬when Melissa Minyard,‭ ‬the series‭’ ‬perennial leading lady,‭ ‬suggested that her daughter Catherine could handle the role.

Boy,‭ ‬can she,‭ ‬as the audience at Friday’s opening performance of an all-too-brief weekend run quickly realized.‭ ‬The remarkably poised youngster,‭ ‬refreshingly absent of professional training mannerisms yet possessing an assured vocal delivery style,‭ ‬helped this become one of the most accomplished concerts in the series‭’ ‬brief history.‭

The show,‭ ‬based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s enduring,‭ ‬metaphor and life lesson-laden children’s novel from‭ ‬1911,‭ ‬was created by an all-female creative team largely outside the Broadway mainstream.‭ ‬Composer Lucy Simon cobbled her first theater score from folk and pop idioms,‭ ‬with touches of the exotic sounds of India,‭ ‬married to simple,‭ ‬unforced poetry by Marsha Norman in her debut as a lyricist.

It is the saga of Mary Lennox,‭ ‬whose parents and friends die abruptly in a cholera epidemic.‭ ‬So she is shipped off to live with her Uncle Archie,‭ ‬a hunchback hermit having his own problems adjusting to the death of his wife in childbirth.‭ ‬What’s worse,‭ ‬little Mary reminds Archie of his dead wife,‭ ‬Lily‭ (‬played by the elder Minyard,‭ ‬who mostly wafts through the proceedings as a ghostly apparition‭)‬.

If the show’s original Broadway staging had a failing,‭ ‬it was that it was unnecessarily cluttered with ghost figures.‭ ‬Cholerton’s music stands-and-microphones concert cuts back on the spectral images,‭ ‬erring on the side of clarity.

Whether or not he chose‭ ‬The Secret Garden to allow Wayne LeGette a third opportunity to take on a role closely associated with Mandy Patinkin,‭ ‬the area performer is a standout as Archibald Craven,‭ ‬with several opportunities to apply his sweet quirky upper register sound.‭ ‬Shane Tanner came off a tad too much like‭ ‬The Addams‭’ ‬Family’s Lurch for my taste as Archie’s evil brother,‭ ‬but he came on strong in the male-male duet with LeGette,‭ ‬In Lily’s Eyes,‭ ‬arguably the score’s best number.

Other standouts in the‭ ‬17-member cast include Amy Miller Brennan as spunky chambermaid Martha and John Debkowski as her brother Dickon,‭ ‬the charismatic gardener with a rock star manner.

Caryl Ginsburg Fantel serves as music director and sole accompanist on keyboard,‭ ‬handling both with uncanny ease.‭ ‬Sean Lawson again supplies the scene-and-tone-setting photographic projections,‭ ‬moody black-and-white shots until the title garden is eventually revealed in Technicolor.‭

The Caldwell has had a very good,‭ ‬comeback season,‭ ‬extended now to include another winning Broadway concert.

THE SECRET GARDEN,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Company,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬May‭ ‬22.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25-$35.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432.‭

Friday, May 20, 2011

Weekend arts picks: May 20-22

Reece Thompson and Hilary Duff in Bloodworth.

Film:‭ ‬If you crave a good,‭ ‬character-driven Southern coming-of-age,‭ ‬family reunion,‭ ‬eccentricity excess yarn,‭ ‬check out this weekend’s indie release,‭ ‬Bloodworth,‭ ‬fresh from the festival circuit and into a local Palm Beach Gardens theater on a market test basis.‭ ‬Having survived a medical scare,‭ ‬patriarch E.F.‭ ‬Bloodworth‭ (‬craggy Kris Kristofferson,‭ ‬strumming his guitar‭) ‬returns to his family after‭ ‬40‭ ‬years away,‭ ‬to find his three sons‭ ‬--‭ ‬most notably a tubby,‭ ‬womanizing Val Kilmer‭ ‬--‭ ‬each on his own path of aimless drifting.‭ ‬The film,‭ ‬based on William Gay’s Southern Gothic novel‭ ‬Provinces of Night,‭ ‬has a tendency to drift as well,‭ ‬but at its center is a sweet,‭ ‬if hardly original tale of school dropout,‭ ‬writer wannabe Fleming Bloodworth‭ (‬newcomer Reece Thompson‭) ‬who falls hard for an alluring little tramp‭ (‬Hilary Duff,‭ ‬convincingly playing against type‭)‬.‭ ‬Go for the performances,‭ ‬which manage to trump the clichés.‭ ‬At PGA Gardens Cinamax beginning today.

A scene from the Caldwell Theatre’s concert version
of Sunday in the Park With George.

Theater:‭ ‬We will see next season how well the new Caldwell Theatre Company can fully produce a musical when it tackles the split personality jazz musical City of Angels,‭ ‬but this weekend is the latest Broadway concert presentation,‭ ‬which the Boca troupe has proven time and again that it can handle.‭ ‬Artistic director Clive Cholerton take a breather from his go-to composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim for the female-centric creative team of Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman,‭ ‬spotlighting their‭ ‬1991‭ ‬ethereal adaptation of the beloved children’s book,‭ ‬The Secret Garden.‭ ‬Heading the cast are concert mainstays Wayne Legette and Melissa Minyard,‭ ‬but the concert’s secret weapon is Catherine Minyard‭ ‬--‭ ‬yes,‭ ‬Melissa’s daughter‭ ‬--‭ ‬as orphaned Mary Lennox,‭ ‬shipped off to live with her emotionally distant Uncle Archie.‭ ‬Opens this evening for four performances only through Sunday afternoon.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432.

Quartetto Gelato.

Music:‭ ‬The fifth iteration of the Festival of the Arts Boca has come and gone,‭ ‬but organizers are planning to celebrate the March concert series in Mizner Park with a fund-raising concert this weekend.

The concert will feature Quartetto Gelato,‭ ‬the celebrated Canadian salon-classical ensemble of accordion,‭ ‬oboe,‭ ‬violin and cello.‭ ‬The group‭ ‬– its current lineup is violinist Peter DeSotto,‭ ‬accordionist Alexander Sevastian,‭ ‬cellist Liza McLellan and oboist Colin Maier‭ ‬--‭ ‬has been a‭ ‬steady feature of pledge drives on PBS,‭ ‬and does a wide variety of music in special arrangements,‭ ‬such as the‭ “‬Gypsy‭”‬ finale from the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet and‭ ‬Danny Boy‭ (‬violinist DeSotto doubles as a tenor‭)‬.‭

Quartetto Gelato will perform at‭ ‬6:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday at the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center.‭ ‬Tickets for the benefit are‭ ‬$250,‭ ‬with‭ ‬$200‭ ‬of that acknowledged as a charitable donation.‭ ‬Spokeswoman Hillary Reynolds also said,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬that some event sponsors will be not using some of their tickets,‭ ‬and these‭ ‬are now available to the public on a first-come,‭ ‬first-served basis by contacting the Festival of the Arts at‭ ‬‭ ‬– G.‭ ‬Stepanich

Walter Ponce.

Down in Miami Beach this weekend,‭ ‬it‭’‬s the Miami International Piano Festival,‭ ‬which this year stays at the Colony Theatre rather than coming north to the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.

Swiss pianist Cedric Pescia opened the series last night with music by Couperin,‭ ‬Schumann,‭ ‬Liszt and Messiaen,‭ ‬and tonight it‭’‬s the turn of Walter Ponce,‭ ‬Bolivian-born and currently the chief of‭ ‬the keyboard studies department at UCLA.

Ponce will play music by Liszt and Schubert,‭ ‬including the B minor Sonata of the former and the valedictory B-flat Sonata‭ (‬D.‭ ‬960‭) ‬of the latter.‭ ‬He‭’‬ll also play an early Schubert Scherzo‭ (‬in B-flat,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬593‭)‬,‭ ‬and Liszt‭’‬s‭ ‬Hymne a l‭’‬Enfant a son Reveil‭ (‬Song to the Waking Child‭)‬.

He‭’‬s followed Saturday by two concerts,‭ ‬the first‭ ‬at‭ ‬2‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬featuring teenage stars including American George Li‭ (‬who‭’‬s‭ ‬15‭) ‬in music of Haydn‭ (‬Sonata in‭ ‬C,‭ ‬Hob.‭ ‬XVI:‭ ‬50‭)‬,‭ ‬two of Ravel‭’‬s Miroirs‭ (‬Oiseaux Tristes and‭ ‬Alborada del Gracioso‭)‬,‭ ‬and two by Liszt:‭ ‬The familiar Hungarian Rhapsody No.‭ ‬2‭ ‬and the well-known Consolation No.‭ ‬3‭ (‬in D-flat‭)‬.‭ ‬ The‭ ‬17-year-old American cellist Oliver Altdort joins the‭ ‬19-year-old Venezuelan pianist Luis Urbina for the second half,‭ ‬which features two pieces by Chopin‭ (‬the Cello Sonata,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬65,‭ ‬and the Introduction and Polonaise Brillante,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬3‭)‬.‭ ‬Also on the program is the Schumann‭ ‬Fantasy Pieces‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬73‭)‬.‭

Saturday night,‭ ‬the Israeli pianist Amir Katz plays all‭ ‬21‭ ‬of Chopin‭’‬s known Nocturnes,‭ ‬a cycle he recorded last year for a German label called Oehms Classics.‭ ‬And on Sunday night,‭ ‬it‭’‬s something completely different,‭ ‬with the Franco-Algerian violinist Gilles Apap and his Translvania Boys‭ (‬guitarist Chris Judge and bassist Brendon Statom‭) ‬in a program of Gypsy folk and light classics‭ (‬i.e.,‭ ‬Khachaturian‭’‬s‭ ‬Sabre Dance‭)‬.‭ ‬All concerts are held at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach.‭ ‬Tickets range from‭ ‬$15-$40.‭ ‬Call Ticketmaster at‭ ‬1-800-745-3000‭ ‬or call the Colony at‭ ‬305-674-1040,‭ ‬ext.‭ ‬1.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Theater roundup: From Afghanistan war to Victorian sex

Eric Mendenhall and Elizabeth Birkenmeier in
The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider.

By Hap Erstein

Whether or not the pen is truly mightier than the sword,‭ ‬playwright Carter W.‭ ‬Lewis is out to prove in his enigmatically titled‭ ‬The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider that slam poetry can trump a mercenary private army.

If that sounds like an unlikely match-up,‭ ‬then you are grasping the surreal quality of this darkly comic tale,‭ ‬which seems headed towards a rant against the Blackwaters of the world,‭ ‬then takes a distinct left turn to demonstrate the transporting power of art.‭

Instead of political discourse,‭ ‬Lewis turns out to be interested in matters of the heart,‭ ‬even if the most prominent heart in the play happens to be artificial.‭ ‬Confused yet‭? ‬Oh,‭ ‬just head to Florida Stage,‭ ‬buckle your seat belt and go along for the ride.

The theatrical odyssey begins in the headquarters offices of‭ “‬e,‭” ‬a corporate army training facility.‭ ‬There Loretta Harahan‭ (‬Laura Turnbull‭) ‬and her daughter Bethany‭ (‬Elizabeth Birkenmeier‭) ‬have broken in and hacked into the company’s computers,‭ ‬hoping to gain the death benefits they are owed for Loretta’s husband,‭ ‬a high-ranking‭ “‬e‭” ‬officer killed by‭ “‬friendly fire‭” ‬from his own operatives.

Stack and Denny‭ (‬Todd Allen Durkin and Eric Mendenhall‭)‬,‭ ‬the hit men who did in Hanrahan in Kandahar,‭ ‬Afghanistan, have since been demoted to stateside security guards.‭ ‬Between grousing jags,‭ ‬they catch Bethany and abduct her to a greenhouse‭ ‬--‭ ‬impressively realized by scenic designer Victor A.‭ ‬Becker‭ ‬--‭ ‬that is rapidly gong to seed.

There,‭ ‬Bethany attracts yet another intriguing character,‭ ‬a wisecracking Muslim cab driver named Ahmad Ahmadazai‭ ‬--‭ ‬a moniker guaranteed to be mangled‭ ‬--‭ ‬who may actually be dead.‭ (‬Don’t ask,‭ ‬just go with it.‭) ‬As played with sly comic timing by Antonio Amadeo,‭ ‬the character and the performer all but steal the show.

There is more to the plot,‭ ‬but much of it should remain a surprise,‭ ‬as Lewis leads us a few cha-cha steps away from reality.‭ ‬Clarity is not the strength of the play’s resolution,‭ ‬but then you get the feeling that clarity was never intended.‭ ‬What is clear in the poetic resolution is that Birkenmeier pulls off a poetic performance art tour de force,‭ ‬which is best enjoyed when detached from any effort to ascribe meaning to it.‭

Over the past two decades,‭ ‬Florida Stage has produced a handful of Lewis’s works,‭ ‬all comedies,‭ ‬that have grown darker and increasingly more lyrical.‭ ‬As‭ ‬The Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider demonstrates,‭ ‬he has not lost his ability to surprise or entertain us.

THE CHA-CHA OF A CAMEL SPIDER,‭ ‬Florida Stage,‭ ‬Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬June‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25-50.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬585-3433‭ ‬or‭ ‬(800‭) ‬514-3837.

‭ * * *

Kati Brazda and Barbara Bradshaw in
The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Forty-ish,‭ ‬plain-looking Maureen Folan is no pageant contestant and the Irish village of Leenane is no winner among places to live.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬you will want to spend a couple of hours at Palm Beach Dramaworks‭’ ‬heartbreaking and perversely comic production of‭ ‬The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

It comes from the warped,‭ ‬yet amusing mind of Martin McDonagh,‭ ‬who has churned out numerous grisly tales of life in coastal Connemara,‭ ‬County Galway.‭ ‬Beauty Queen was his first work to reach Broadway,‭ ‬in‭ ‬1998,‭ ‬and is a good entry port into his world.

Poor,‭ ‬put-upon Maureen,‭ ‬a spinster with no prospects of romance,‭ ‬has devoted her life to attending the needs of her sour,‭ ‬manipulative mother,‭ ‬Mag,‭ ‬out of some misplaced sense of duty.‭ ‬They spend each day barking at one another,‭ ‬rocking-chair-bound Mag demanding her porridge or tea or other sustenance,‭ ‬pushing Maureen’s emotional buttons,‭ ‬and exasperated,‭ ‬weary Maureen pushing right back.

Maureen sees no way out of her predicament,‭ ‬until a distant acquaintance,‭ ‬Pato Dooley,‭ ‬returns briefly to Leenane from his home in London.‭ ‬Maureen not only reconnects with him at a party,‭ ‬she brings him back to her ramshackle house and takes him into her bed.‭ ‬Mag quickly perceives Pato as a threat to her status quo and she is correct,‭ ‬for he later writes Maureen,‭ ‬telling her about a job offer he has in Boston and inviting her to join him there.

Pato unwisely entrusts his not-too-bright brother Ray to deliver the letter into Maureen’s hands.‭ ‬Typical of McDonagh’s mordant humor is the scene where Ray arrives with the letter,‭ ‬impatiently considers leaving it with Mag,‭ ‬whose eyes dart around the room,‭ ‬feverishly eager to get her hands on the missive,‭ ‬suspicious of its contents and determined to intercept it.

The stakes keep increasing as Maureen and Mag turn their mental tug-of-war into a game that turns violent.‭ ‬With devilish skill,‭ ‬McDonagh plays with the audience,‭ ‬transferring our sympathies between the two women,‭ ‬as we begin to see how alike they really are.‭

Rugged Kevin Kelly lends worthy support as Pato,‭ ‬particularly when reciting his letter to Maureen,‭ ‬and Blake DeLong is even better as gregarious Ray.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬the play belongs to the two women and director William Hayes gets a couple of stellar performances from a couple of actresses familiar to Dramaworks‭’ ‬audiences.

Barbara Bradshaw‭ (‬The Gin Game,‭ ‬The Chairs‭) ‬turns her natural likeability inside out as Mag,‭ ‬a mother worth hating.‭ ‬Yet the actress delves deeper with the character and almost has up caring about the vindictive old biddy.‭ ‬Kati Brazda,‭ ‬so impressive as Josie Hogan in‭ ‬A Moon for the Misbegotten,‭ ‬plays a similar love-starved,‭ ‬no-longer-young woman here,‭ ‬with deceptive complexity.

For the final production at Dramaworks current cramped quarters,‭ ‬resident scenic designer Michael Amico again turns the space to his advantage,‭ ‬creating a drab,‭ ‬grimy,‭ ‬claustrophobic cottage,‭ ‬lit lugubriously by Ron Burns.

Palm Beach Dramaworks leans decidedly towards,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬dramas,‭ ‬with its stated mission of‭ “‬theater to think about.‭” ‬But with‭ ‬The Beauty Queen of Leenane,‭ ‬Hayes and company show that one need not stop thinking‭ ‬--‭ ‬and feeling‭ ‬--‭ ‬at a well-written,‭ ‬expertly performed comedy.

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE,‭ ‬Palm Beach Dramaworks,‭ ‬322‭ ‬Banyan Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through June‭ ‬19.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$47.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬514-4042.

‭ * * *

Irene Adjan,‭ ‬Stephen G.‭ ‬Anthony,‭
‬Jim Ballard and Julie Kleiner in
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play.
‭ (‬Photo by George Schiavone‭)

The applications of that marvelous discovery we call electricity have afforded civilization many modern conveniences,‭ ‬but none more revolutionary than the vibrator.‭ ‬That is the tongue-in-cheek view of playwright Sarah Ruhl,‭ ‬who explores the sexual awakening of Victorian society thanks to a little stimulation‭ “‬down there,‭” ‬in her Tony-nominated‭ ‬In the Next Room,‭ ‬or‭ ‬The Vibrator Play.‭

This amusing one-joke comedy,‭ ‬overstretched to a two-act play,‭ ‬considers the medical breakthrough of a Dr.‭ ‬Givings‭ (‬a charmingly solicitous Jim Ballard‭)‬,‭ ‬who has built up a tidy practice in upstate New York treating women for the catch-all complaint known as‭ “‬hysteria.‭”

You see,‭ ‬he has a marvelous wooden box with knobs and dials,‭ ‬attached to a humming handset which he applies with care to his patients‭’‬,‭ ‬um,‭ ‬female nether parts.‭ ‬The result is an abrupt contraction that Givings calls a‭ “‬paroxysm.‭” ‬His patients have no idea what to call it‭;‬ they just know they are eager to sign up for daily treatments.

Typical of the doctor’s clientele is Sabrina Daldry‭ (‬Irene Adjan‭)‬,‭ ‬who arrives with her perplexed,‭ ‬chauvinistic husband‭ (‬Stephen G.‭ ‬Anthony‭) ‬and is whisked into‭ “‬the next room‭” ‬--‭ ‬Givings‭’ ‬examination lab‭ ‬--‭ ‬to get the vibrator special.‭ ‬The same goes for an effete artist named Leo Irving‭ (‬Ricky Waugh‭)‬,‭ ‬suffering from a similar malady.‭ ‬He is given the same treatment,‭ ‬though with a long cylindrical attachment to the handset,‭ ‬applied to his anus,‭ ‬if you get the picture.

Dr.‭ ‬Givings is so concerned for his patients,‭ ‬yet oblivious to the agitated unhappiness of his wife Catherine‭ (‬Julie Kleiner‭)‬,‭ ‬a new mother producing insufficient milk to nurse her baby.‭ ‬So she hires the Daldrys‭’ ‬housekeeper‭ (‬Renata Eastlick‭)‬,‭ ‬who recently lost her own baby,‭ ‬as a wet nurse and quickly becomes resentful that her child takes so readily to the nurse.‭

Ruhl’s view of these Victorians is rather cartoonish and condescending.‭ ‬The women know nothing about sex,‭ ‬even as they keep popping out babies,‭ ‬and the men are content to keep them ignorant.‭ ‬Virtually every character misreads romantic signals and acts erratically on impulse,‭ ‬but oh,‭ ‬that vibrator machine,‭ ‬it is a marvel.

Ruhl,‭ ‬whose‭ ‬Dead Man’s Cell Phone and‭ ‬The Clean House have also been produced locally,‭ ‬knows how to create provocative situations,‭ ‬but then usually seems at a loss for a justifying point of view.‭ ‬Nevertheless,‭ ‬she is a critics‭’ ‬darling and‭ ‬The Vibrator Play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.‭ ‬At‭ ‬GableStage,‭ ‬Joe Adler does what he can to breathe life into the script and,‭ ‬despite this world of corsets and complex undergarments,‭ ‬he manages to find an opportunity for some nudity.

IN THE NEXT ROOM,‭ ‬or THE VIBRATOR PLAY,‭ ‬GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel,‭ ‬1200‭ ‬Anastasia Avenue,‭ ‬Coral Gables.‭ ‬Through June‭ ‬12.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$37.50-$47.50.‭ ‬Call‭; ‬(305‭) ‬445-1119.‭

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Opera review: Busy, smart 'Giovanni' ends FGO season in entertaining style

David Pittsinger and Georgia Jarman in Don Giovanni.
(Photo by Gaston de Cardenas)

By Greg Stepanich

FORT LAUDERDALE‭ ‬– More so than most operas,‭ ‬Don Giovanni presents its audience with a puzzle:‭ ‬Is it a tragedy or a comedy‭?

The Romantics of the‭ ‬19th century saw it as an exercise in decadence and darkness,‭ ‬and until recently it was common to leave out the final scene,‭ ‬and end the opera with the licentious Don dragged screaming into Hell.‭

But surely seeing it as a comedy,‭ ‬if not quite a‭ ‬buffa one,‭ ‬is what its creators had in mind.‭ ‬A lighthearted story with a moral,‭ ‬but a moral its original audiences were always conscious of,‭ ‬and one that was the last gasp of the‭ ‬memento mori‭ ‬that‭ ‬was ever-present in the daily life of the West until‭ ‬the Romantic era.‭

It‭’‬s much easier to see that if Mozart‭’‬s opera is presented with laughs in mind,‭ ‬and director John Pascoe‭’‬s earthy,‭ ‬funny take on the score made for a successful,‭ ‬highly satisfying end to the Florida Grand Opera‭’‬s‭ ‬70th season Saturday night at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.‭

This‭ ‬Giovanni,‭ ‬set in some sort of mixed time frame of‭ ‬18th-century Spain and‭ ‬1950s Italian cinema,‭ ‬was‭ ‬full of busy,‭ ‬inventive movement,‭ ‬near-slapstick comedy and frank sexuality,‭ ‬most notably in the final banquet scene.‭ ‬There,‭ ‬the Don,‭ ‬whose onstage orchestra consisted of beautiful young women in nightwear,‭ ‬asks Donna Elvira to eat with him,‭ ‬then pointedly sticks his head between the legs of a leggy blonde in a camisole stretched out on the table.

A little much,‭ ‬perhaps,‭ ‬but it was the logical culmination of the very physical way the Don was portrayed all night,‭ ‬and it also was backed up by some fine singing and a first-class orchestra that beautifully rendered this marvelous score.

As Giovanni,‭ ‬the baritone David Pittsinger demonstrated good acting chops and a voice of an almost-conversational clarity and considerable strength.‭ ‬He was at his most affecting in moments such as his‭ ‬Deh vieni alla finestra,‭ ‬when he could let the warmer,‭ ‬lyric side of his voice show,‭ ‬and to excellent effect.‭ ‬He was‭ ‬a believable Giovanni,‭ ‬a handsome,‭ ‬slim‭ ‬man with plenty of money and confidence,‭ ‬and credible as an object of female desire,‭ ‬even if older‭ ‬than‭ ‬the libretto suggests.

Another fine lyrical male voice was that of‭ ‬tenor‭ ‬Andrew Bidlack as Don Ottavio,‭ ‬who in his two uxorious arias‭ ‬– Dalla sua pace and‭ ‬Il mio tesoro‭ ‬– sang with‭ ‬unforced loveliness and an exciting bigness that suggested‭ ‬a‭ ‬Pinkerton or Rodolfo in Bidlack‭’‬s future.‭ ‬He was not able to sustain that level throughout the opera,‭ ‬but he came close,‭ ‬and that this was his eighth performance in the role might have had something to do with it.

The two‭ ‬chief female leads in the all-American cast‭ ‬– sopranos Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna and Georgia Jarman as Donna Elvira‭ ‬– also sang quite well throughout the night.‭ ‬Wagner‭ ‬has a high-floating,‭ ‬silvery quality‭ ‬to her strong voice‭ ‬that was most evident in her pretty,‭ ‬sensitive reading of‭ ‬Non mi dir in the closing moments of Act II.

Jarman‭’‬s brassier voice and more involved‭ ‬acting were very enjoyable to see and hear,‭ ‬and she showed real range in the way she led into her‭ ‬Mi tradí quell‭’‬alma ingrata:‭ ‬this was a woman in emotional pain,‭ ‬and she showed that dramatically by singing most of the recitative leading into it very softly‭ ‬– a risky move,‭ ‬but one that worked well.

Soprano Brittany Ann Renee Robinson,‭ ‬who like Wagner and Jarman was making her debut with FGO in this opera,‭ ‬made quite a good Zerlina.‭ ‬She has a lightly colored voice with a top that expands easily when more power is called for,‭ ‬and her‭ ‬Batti,‭ ‬batti and‭ ‬Vedrai,‭ ‬carino were tastefully and winningly sung.

Baritone Jonathan G.‭ ‬Michie,‭ ‬an excellent Ping earlier this season in FGO‭’‬s‭ ‬Turandot,‭ ‬was a‭ ‬mostly‭ ‬strong Masetto,‭ ‬though his voice lost heft toward the end of the evening.‭ ‬As Leporello,‭ ‬bass Tom Corbeil was great fun to watch,‭ ‬though less engaging musically‭; ‬his voice was clear but underpowered throughout,‭ ‬which took away some of the vocal interest at crucial moments such as his side comments during his boss‭’‬ confrontation with the stone guest.

Morris Robinson and David Pittsinger in Don Giovanni.
(Photo by Gaston de Cardenas)

Bass Morris Robinson‭’‬s huge,‭ ‬creamy voice was excellently suited for his role as the Commendatore,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬stentorian way he sustained his notes made his singing sound like part of the trombone choir that accompanies his words in‭ ‬the graveyard scene.

Conductor Andrew Bisantz had a wonderful group of musicians at his‭ ‬disposal in the pit,‭ ‬and they played exceptionally well,‭ ‬with the kind of‭ ‬thorough polish that‭ ‬highlights all the things we admire about Mozart:‭ ‬his daring harmonies,‭ ‬splendid‭ ‬melodies and canny‭ ‬scoring,‭ ‬and above all his ability to bring the characters on stage alive in the orchestra.‭ ‬

Above all,‭ ‬it was Pascoe‭’‬s staging of this Washington National Opera production‭ ‬that‭ ‬made this‭ ‬Giovanni‭ ‬so much fun to see.‭ ‬Some of it didn‭’‬t quite work‭ ‬– the‭ ‬mobs looking for Giovanni at the beginning of Act II were shouting‭ ‬something‭ ‬stagy,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the women demons that circled‭ ‬the nobleman before he went through the door to perdition came off as hokey‭ ‬– but‭ ‬in most of it,‭ ‬Pascoe kept things busy and used all of his playing space‭ ‬in‭ ‬smart,‭ ‬entertaining ways.

One important pitfall‭ ‬that‭ ‬Pascoe avoided was the first half of‭ ‬the second act,‭ ‬which can come to a complete halt when all the arias from the Viennese version of the score are added in.‭ ‬Pascoe set them up in mini-tableaux‭; ‬Elvira‭ ‬confesses her continuing love for Giovanni while occasionally clinging to a‭ ‬ column for support,‭ ‬and Anna tells Ottavio‭ ‬that she must mourn her father while the two are staring at a giant,‭ ‬Hamlet‭’‬s father-style portrait of the dead Commendatore.

Pascoe‭’‬s moments of broader comedy‭ ‬– a mob does vaudeville‭’‬s slowly-I-turn shtick,‭ ‬and Leporello gets one over on Giovanni only to walk straight into a‭ ‬door jamb‭ ‬– were not out of place,‭ ‬and indeed,‭ ‬this was‭ ‬a Giovanni in‭ ‬which‭ ‬the‭ ‬house laughed loudly,‭ ‬and laughed often.

Marry that with superlative orchestral playing and a high level of singing that was‭ ‬usually‭ ‬good in solos and very fine in ensembles,‭ ‬and‭ ‬you had a Don Giovanni that knew what it was about,‭ ‬and in which the contrast between comedy and tragedy‭ ‬were not in conflict,‭ ‬but part and parcel of the same story‭ ‬– something,‭ ‬in fact,‭ ‬like life itself.


The‭ ‬71st season of Florida Grand Opera will feature four productions,‭ ‬beginning Nov.‭ ‬12-Dec.‭ ‬3‭ ‬with Federico Moreno Torroba‭’‬s zarzuela‭ ‬Luisa Fernanda,‭ ‬a first for this company.‭ ‬Puccini‭’‬s‭ ‬La Rondine,‭ ‬another‭ ‬first for FGO,‭ ‬is next‭ (‬Jan.‭ ‬21-Feb.‭ ‬4‭)‬,‭ ‬followed by Verdi‭’‬s‭ ‬Rigoletto‭ (‬last staged in‭ ‬2006,‭ ‬from Jan.‭ ‬28-Feb.‭ ‬18‭)‬,‭ ‬and Gounod‭’‬s‭ ‬Romeo et Juliette‭ (‬last seen in‭ ‬2004,‭ ‬from April‭ ‬21-May‭ ‬12‭)‬.‭ ‬For more information or for tickets,‭ ‬call‭ ‬800-741-1010‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬

Friday, May 13, 2011

Theater feature: 'Color Purple' director always believed in story's power

A scene from the original production of The Color Purple.
(Photo by Paul Kolnik)

By Hap Erstein

Eight-time Jefferson Award-winning director Gary Griffin made his Broadway debut six years ago with the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s beloved epistolary novel,‭ ‬The Color Purple,‭ ‬a runaway hit now on its second national tour,‭ ‬completing a week’s run at the Kravis Center on Sunday.

Although this story of Celie,‭ ‬a young black girl raped and impregnated by her father and separated from her sister,‭ ‬had already been turned into a‭ ‬1985‭ ‬Oscar-nominated film by Steven Spielberg,‭ ‬to Griffin the appeal was the original material.

The attraction,‭ ‬he says,‭ “‬was Alice’s book and the fact that I knew we were going to go into territory that would be fresh and original.‭ ‬We would have to.‭ ‬If you’re going to make a musical of‭ ‬‘The Color Purple,‭’‬ you’re going to have to take a fresh,‭ ‬original approach with song and dance and theatrical choices.‭”

By the time Griffin joined the project,‭ ‬playwright Regina Taylor‭ (‬Crowns‭) ‬was writing the script,‭ ‬but it was not meshing with the work of pop composers Brenda Russell,‭ ‬Allee Willis and Stephen Bray,‭ ‬who would be making their musical theater debuts.‭

“I think their visions were different and I think we had to look at which one to continue with,‭” ‬says Griffin.‭ “‬You do that all the time when creating shows.‭ ‬You have choices and you have to decide which route to take.‭ ‬So the producers and I had to say that it was better to change that role in the team,‭ ‬rather than spending our time getting them to write the same show.‭”

So out went Taylor and in came Marsha Norman,‭ ‬Tony-winning adapter of‭ ‬The Secret Garden.

As she explains,‭ “‬I’m from Kentucky,‭ ‬I’m a woman,‭ ‬a writer who is able to live in the commercial world but also in the serious world.‭ ‬I want to entertain,‭ ‬but with ideas and emotions.‭ ‬I always felt that‭ ‬‘The Color Purple‭’‬ was not this terrible,‭ ‬dire tragedy,‭ ‬but this story of how this girl survives,‭ ‬stronger for it all.

‭“‬In the book,‭ (‬Celie’s‭) ‬a pretty passive character for a long time,‭ ‬so that had to change.‭ ‬She had to grow before our eyes and had to end up a different person by the end of the show.‭”

Norman never doubted that this story could be turned into a musical.‭ “‬The language of the novel was actually quite musical,‭” ‬she says.‭ “‬When the emotions run as high as they do in this story,‭ ‬that‘s when you have a musical,‭ ‬I’d say.‭”

In addition to making Celie a more active character,‭ ‬Norman’s other main chore was deciding what was expendable from the lengthy novel.‭

“Well,‭ ‬how to tell‭ ‬40‭ ‬years worth of story in an evening,‭ ‬that ultimately is the main challenge,‭” ‬she says.‭ “‬One of the things we had to figure out was how to deal with white people.‭ ‬And our ultimate solution was to cut them out.‭ ‬There’s the mayor’s wife and the mayor and the African colonials,‭ ‬we had to come to grips with the fact that it’s not about them.‭ ‬They always get to be onstage.‭ ‬This time,‭ ‬they don’t.‭”

And she had to determine what she needed that wasn’t there already.‭ “‬We also added in the community,‭ ‬this great vibrant world where people are watching each other all the time and looking out for each other,‭ ‬keeping track of who’s doing what to whom,‭” ‬says Norman.‭ “‬We added those church women who are like a Greek chorus,‭ ‬as a way of commenting,‭ ‬talking,‭ ‬gossiping,‭ ‬in a most classical way.‭”

The show that eventually emerged,‭ ‬while necessarily dramatic and intense,‭ ‬has a through line of love.‭ “‬I tried to be sure that everything had a universal core,‭ ‬that the characters were all acting out of love,‭” ‬Griffin says.‭ “‬Even the darkest,‭ ‬most scary scenes have to do with love or not getting love.‭”

Unlike many,‭ ‬Griffin is not critical of Spielberg’s film and its well-polished visuals.‭ “‬I think he took a very respectful view of the characters.‭ ‬He understood how to get that story to an audience that probably wouldn’t see it otherwise.‭

“It’s a beloved story and it should be beloved.‭ ‬And I think everybody has a feeling about how they want it expressed.‭ ‬I know there are people who wish the musical were more like the movie,‭” ‬Griffin says.‭ “‬And so it was a balancing act all the time,‭ ‬of being sure the audience understood the impact of what was going on,‭ ‬but pointing them towards the resilience of the characters to get them to the next moment.‭”

The show breaks from the images of the movie in its beginning moments.‭ “‬It opens with a musical montage that does everything that a musical’s opening number should do,‭” ‬says Griffin.‭ “‬It tells you why it’s a musical,‭ ‬it gives you an introduction to the characters,‭ ‬it gives you a taste for the kind of score that you’re going to hear,‭ ‬and propels you into the world of the piece.‭”

As the musical evolved,‭ ‬Pulitzer Prize-winner Walker was on the scene,‭ ‬but she never pulled rank about the way her story was being retold.‭ “‬She was fantastic,‭” ‬says Griffin.‭ “‬She would respond occasionally to things she would see that she questioned,‭ ‬but she was never demanding of‭ ‘‬this must change.‭’ ‬She liked the musical a lot so she was nothing but helpful and supportive.‭”

Also instrumental in the show gaining credibility was a producer who came on the scene‭ ‬--‭ ‬Oprah Winfrey.

‭“‬Clearly the stamp of approval for whatever they make in America is Oprah,‭” ‬says Norman.‭ “‬But the fact is that this story meant so much to her.‭ ‬When she did the movie,‭ ‬she wasn’t famous enough to get on the poster.‭ ‬She feels very strongly that that is her story,‭ ‬at least emotionally.‭ ‬As does much of the audience by the end of it.‭”

The show opened in Atlanta in the summer of‭ ‬2004‭ ‬and was immediately embraced by audiences,‭ ‬but Griffin knew it was a long way from being ready for Broadway.

‭“‬It needed clarification and focus.‭ ‬It needed to do its job with more power,‭ ‬to be more assertive,‭” ‬he says,‭ ‬scoffing at the suggestion that the show was ever in trouble.‭ “‬I made adjustments and worked on the show and experimented with different approaches to the scenes and the show evolved over time.‭ ‬I’ve been around troubled out-of-town tryouts and this really wasn’t one of them.‭ ‬I think that only happens when people panic.‭”

The Color Purple opened on Broadway on Dec.‭ ‬1,‭ ‬2005,‭ ‬to mixed responses.‭ “‬I think the pure musical theater audience was challenged by it because it was a score written by pop writers.‭ ‬Some people had issues with that,‭ ‬which we could do nothing about,‭” ‬Griffin concedes.‭ “‬But there were a lot of people who really understood it and got it,‭ ‬who came in skeptical and were surprised at how affecting it was.‭”

The show ran a little over two years in New York,‭ ‬and has been touring the country,‭ ‬drawing standing ovations ever since.‭ ‬Asked what he thinks the show taps into,‭ ‬Griffin says,‭ “‬It’s the kind of church we want to go to.‭ ‬If you love church already,‭ ‬you’re gonna love it.‭ ‬If you don’t think you love church,‭ ‬this might change your mind.‭ ‬Because in church,‭ ‬a lot of time,‭ ‬we go and we sing and we hear a great story.‭

“And if the story is told well,‭ ‬it helps us figure out the problems we have in our lives.‭ ‬Then we can come to this place together and celebrate it,‭ ‬celebrate our struggles,‭” ‬he said.‭

“I think that’s why it’s great.‭ ‬It’s a good visit to a church.‭”

THE COLOR PURPLE,‭ ‬Kravis Center,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West‭ ‬Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25‭ ‬and up.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬832-7469‭ ‬or‭ ‬(800‭) ‬572-8471.‭

Weekend arts picks: May 13-15

Richard Fleischman.

Music:‭ ‬The instruments most musicians work with today are survivors or variations of the sonic armaments they had in other eras.‭ ‬Gone,‭ ‬for the most part,‭ ‬are the ophicleide,‭ ‬the serpent,‭ ‬the sarrusophone.‭ ‬Most of the viol family,‭ ‬with‭ ‬the exception of the double bass‭ (‬and its modern derivative the bass guitar‭)‬,‭ ‬also is gone,‭ ‬heard today only in specialist concerts.‭

But then there are the instruments that have been around for a long time but don‭’‬t get used that often.‭ ‬One of the most distinctive is the viola d‭’‬amore,‭ ‬a version of the viola with no less than‭ ‬14‭ ‬strings‭ ‬– seven of them played,‭ ‬and seven‭ “‬sympathetic‭”‬ strings underneath that vibrate along with the others.

‭“’‬Special‭’‬ is the perfect word for it,‭”‬ said Richard Fleischman,‭ ‬the violist of the Delray String Quartet and a frequent performer in area orchestral ensembles.‭ “‬The low strings are very mellow,‭ ‬and the high strings have a silvery,‭ ‬ravishing kind of sound.‭”‬ It‭’‬s a soft sound,‭ ‬and the kind of sound that doesn‭’‬t do well up against today‭’‬s high-powered instruments,‭ ‬Fleischman said.‭ ‬It‭’‬s more suited for the intimate rooms of the‭ ‬18th-century salon,‭ ‬and this weekend,‭ ‬a whole program of music for the instrument will be heard in Delray Beach.

Fleischman will play the instrument on Sunday afternoon with members of the Camerata del Re,‭ ‬a Baroque performance ensemble based at St.‭ ‬Paul‭’‬s Episcopal Church.‭ ‬Music on the concert,‭ ‬called‭ ‬The Art of the Viola d‭’‬Amore,‭ ‬includes a concerto by Vivaldi,‭ ‬a sonata by the Baroque viola d‭’‬amore specialist Attilio Ariosti,‭ ‬and a short piece‭ (‬Reverie‭) ‬by the French Romantic composer Rene de Boisdeffre.

Also on the program are trio sonatas by Telemann and Milandre,‭ ‬chamber works by Frederik Rung and Francesco Giuliani featuring soprano Karen Neal,‭ ‬and quartets by Ottorino Respighi and the contemporary American composer Elaine Fine.‭ ‬Fleischman is particularly excited about the Boisdeffre‭ ‬Reverie,‭ ‬which he will play in its original chamber music version.‭ ‬The music,‭ ‬which dates from about‭ ‬1890,‭ ‬is reminiscent of Massenet,‭ ‬he said,‭ ‬and was dedicated to Louis van Waefelghem,‭ ‬the greatest viola d‭’‬amore player of his day.‭ ‬“It‭’‬s a lovely little piece,‭ ‬so I‭’‬m kind of excited about playing it,‭”‬ Fleischman said.

The concert is set for‭4‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday at St.‭ ‬Paul‭’‬s,‭ ‬181‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Swinton Ave.,‭ ‬Delray Beach.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$15-$18.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬278-6003‭ ‬for more information.

Russell Thomas.

Russell Thomas is making a great name for himself in the world of the tenor,‭ ‬appearing just a couple weeks ago as Andres in the Metropolitan Opera‭’‬s mounting of Alban Berg‭’‬s Wozzeck,‭ ‬and having been the man who created the role of The Prince in John Adams‭’‬ A Flowering Tree.‭ ‬Saturday,‭ ‬he returns to his hometown of Miami for a concert with pianist Elaine Rinaldi.‭ ‬Thomas will sing Vaughan Williams‭’‬ Songs of Travel,‭ ‬Britten‭’‬s‭ ‬Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Three Songs of Fiona MacLeod by American composer Charles Griffes,‭ ‬and Beethoven‭’‬s beautiful‭ ‬Adelaide‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬46‭)‬.‭ ‬Mentored by James Levine and other luminaries,‭ ‬this is a voice on the way up.‭ ‬Thomas‭ ‬sings at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church of Miami,‭ ‬609‭ ‬Brickell Ave.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬305-274-2103‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬

Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go.

Film:‭ ‬I know this sounds like an oxymoron,‭ ‬but the recommendation this week is a Will Ferrell drama.‭ ‬In Everything Must Go,‭ ‬he plays an alcoholic sales executive who receives a one-two punch of being fired from his job,‭ ‬then comes home to find that his wife has left him,‭ ‬locking him out and dumping his clothes and possessions on the front lawn of their Phoenix home.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬and his company car gets repossessed.‭ ‬So to the dismay of his neighbors,‭ ‬he starts living on the lawn,‭ ‬swilling beers and trying to start over.‭ ‬In contrast to all his juvenile comedies,‭ ‬Ferrell gives a very credible performance,‭ ‬surely his best since‭ ‬Stranger Than Fiction,‭ ‬with nice support from Rebecca Hall and Laura Dern.‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬this is a Ferrell move for those who would not be caught dead going to a Ferrell movie.‭ ‬Opening at area theaters today.‭ – ‬H.‭ ‬Erstein

Elizabeth Birkenmeier in Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider.

Theater:‭ ‬St.‭ ‬Louis playwright Carter W.‭ ‬Lewis has been supplying Florida Stage with quirky comic dramas on diverse subjects for the past two decades.‭ ‬Currently receiving its world premiere at the Kravis Center is the enigmatically named‭ ‬Cha-Cha of a Camel Spider,‭ ‬his wide-ranging and occasionally surreal synthesis of our government’s reliance on private mercenary armies,‭ ‬the transporting power of art,‭ ‬and the lyrical nature of slam poetry.‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬it is a lot to take in and moment-to-moment what is happening isn’t always clear,‭ ‬but the production is never less than entertaining.‭ ‬That is particularly due to Antonio Amadeo as a wisecracking Muslim cabbie and Elizabeth Birkenmeier as the poetry-spouting daughter of a Blackwater-like operative.‭ ‬Continuing through June‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬(561‭) ‬832-7469‭ ‬for tickets.‭ ‬– H.‭ ‬Erstein

The View From Home 25: New releases on DVD

Araya‭ (‬Milestone‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬10
Standard list price:‭ ‬$29.95

Milestone Films releases many different kinds of movies,‭ ‬but if the distributor has a signature style,‭ ‬it’s the merger of documentary and fiction‭ – ‬depictions of real life colored,‭ ‬in one way or another,‭ ‬with the aesthetic control of fiction.

I am Cuba,‭ ‬The Exiles,‭ ‬On the Bowery and‭ ‬In This World all fulfill this compelling generic tendency.‭ ‬Araya,‭ ‬the lone feature from Venezuelan cineaste Margot Benacerraf,‭ ‬is only the latest luminous example of this multidisciplinary approach to cinema.

Like few films before or after it,‭ ‬this‭ ‬1959‭ ‬movie shatters the boundaries between narrative film,‭ ‬documentary and avant-garde cinema,‭ ‬fitting liberally into any and all of these distinctions.‭ ‬Its compositions rich with painterly elegance‭ – ‬the photographs of Walker Evans come to mind‭ – ‬Araya is a document of the three families living around and working on the titular peninsula in northeastern Venezuela.‭ ‬Benacerraf observes the people’s lives from sunrise to sunset and beyond,‭ ‬as they cut salt from the era’s massive lagoons,‭ ‬sell fish,‭ ‬grow food and make pottery.

And that’s it,‭ ‬really.‭ ‬Though the director films the inhabitants‭’ ‬routines with a majestic,‭ ‬un-documentarylike,‭ ‬almost certainly storyboarded pattern of gliding,‭ ‬soaring camerawork,‭ ‬there is no story to speak of.‭ ‬Sharing the ethnographic passions of early documentarian Robert Flaherty,‭ ‬Benacerraf allows us to contemplate a culture,‭ ‬illuminating the repetitive lives of people who labor,‭ ‬day and night,‭ ‬for basic necessities.

The beautiful Spanish-language narration is more poetry than prose,‭ ‬lending itself to florid,‭ ‬strangely appropriate sentimentalizing of the action‭ (‬Shoveling salt will be one character’s‭ “‬soul memory of childhood‭”)‬.‭ ‬The sound of the narrator’s words,‭ ‬with their mixture of poetic reiterations of tropes and elliptical reportage,‭ ‬join with the movie’s natural soundscapes,‭ ‬which are borne of the same atmosphere:‭ ‬The metronomic beating of salt is an aural reminder of the repetition of the dwellers‭’ ‬lives.

The way Bencerraf tells it,‭ ‬the Arayan Peninsula‭ ‬--‭ ‬itself a living,‭ ‬breathing,‭ ‬heaving organism‭ ‬--‭ ‬has been untouched by industry and progress for some‭ ‬450‭ ‬years.‭ ‬The laborers who live and die on the land are skipping records of sweat and scars,‭ ‬forever enacting the same menial tasks.

It’s no surprise that Stuart Klawans praised the recent‭ ‬35mm restoration of‭ ‬Araya,‭ ‬calling attention to its‭ “‬outraged social conscience.‭” ‬This is a people’s movie,‭ ‬perhaps the ultimate study of a class of peasants in perpetual toil‭; ‬a similar film could surely be made about the migrant workers who work under slavish conditions to grow our affordable supermarket produce.‭

But I’m not sure I see the outrage Klawans does,‭ ‬because according to the information we’re given,‭ ‬the workers‭’ ‬spoils don’t go the pockets of multinational corporations but rather to create self-sufficiency on their cloistered peninsula.‭ ‬The politics of‭ ‬Araya are never more than subtextual and open to interpretation.‭ ‬If anything,‭ ‬Benacerraf sides with the preservation of the hardscrabble lifestyle:‭ ‬When industrial development finally arrives on the land at the end of the film,‭ ‬and we learn that machines may finally usurp the human hand,‭ ‬it’s depicted as a menacing scourge,‭ ‬scored by music that might accompany an enemy’s advance in a war movie.‭ ‬At any rate,‭ ‬there’s no denying the beauty of Benacerraf’s bravura vision,‭ ‬a cinematic tour de force that remains immortal,‭ ‬even if the Arayan Peninsula has,‭ ‬finally,‭ ‬changed.

The Milestone disc is loaded with Criterion-worthy supplements,‭ ‬including Benacerraf’s‭ ‬22-minute film‭ ‬Reveron,‭ ‬about a Brazilian artist,‭ ‬two TV interviews with the director,‭ ‬a documentary about Benacerraf from‭ ‬2007‭ ‬and two audio commentaries.

Something Wild‭ (‬Criterion‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬10
SLP:‭ ‬$20.99

Something Wild is a pretty unserious movie,‭ ‬and a curious choice for Criterion to reissue.‭ ‬But it holds up well nonetheless,‭ ‬feeling hiply postmodern compared to many of its‭ ‘‬80s contemporaries.‭ ‬Jeff Daniels gives one of his signature performances as Charles,‭ ‬a flustered,‭ ‬straight-laced workaholic who falls under the convincing spell of Melanie Griffith’s impulsive punk and ultimately fights for her love against her secret husband,‭ ‬a convict played with psychotic gusto by Ray Liotta.‭ ‬Director Jonathan Demme knows exactly how over-the-top this source material is,‭ ‬even when it mutates into a bloody thriller,‭ ‬and if you surrender yourself to its whims,‭ ‬it’s a lot of fast-paced fun.‭ ‬The credits are a rogue’s gallery of counterculture hipsters,‭ ‬from John Waters as a used-car salesman to John Sayles as a motorcycle cop to post-punk act The Feelies playing a high-school reunion house band and covering‭ ‬I’m a Believer.‭ ‬The bonus features are scant for a Criterion disc‭; ‬we just get new interviews with Demme and screenwriter E.‭ ‬Max Frye and an essay by David Thompson.

Such Good Friends‭ (‬Olive Films‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬17
SLP:‭ ‬$22.49

One of the final films by the great Otto Preminger,‭ ‬1971‭’‬s‭ ‬Such Good Friends shares more in common with the films of Mike Nichols and Elaine May‭ (‬the latter wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym‭) ‬and even Robert Altman.‭ ‬Dyan Cannon plays Julie Messinger,‭ ‬a mentally unbalanced housewife turned emotionally numb stoic of sarcasm when her prickish,‭ ‬impotent husband’s‭ (‬Laurence Luckinbill‭) ‬simple mole-removal surgery goes horribly awry.‭ ‬Such Good Friends is a smorgasbord of sexual depravity and dysfunction,‭ ‬a sobering reminder of free love’s disastrous consequences and a wry reflection on man’s‭ (‬not woman’s‭) ‬narcissism and selfishness.‭ ‬A nice addition to the aimless,‭ ‬reckless‭ ’‬70s cinema ethos.

Ward No.‭ ‬6‭ (‬Kino‭)
Release date:‭ ‬May‭ ‬3
SLP:‭ ‬$26.99

Russia’s official entry in the recent Academy Awards,‭ ‬Karen Shakhnazarov’s‭ ‬Ward No.‭ ‬6‭ ‬is a strange,‭ ‬willfully obtuse art-house shape-shifter based on a Chekhov short story of the same name.‭ ‬Told with a mixture of pseudo-documentary interviews,‭ ‬flashbacks and ersatz home movies,‭ ‬Ward No.‭ ‬6‭ ‬is an existential anti-mystery with no resolution,‭ ‬a puzzle with no clear image even when completed.‭ ‬It concerns a large-foreheaded doctor at an insane asylum who is admitted into the psych ward himself after a series of philosophical conversations with a mania-suffering inmate changes his perspective on life.‭ ‬The source material may be brilliant‭ – ‬it’s Chekhov,‭ ‬after all‭ – ‬but Shakhnazarov’s film is a dry and ponderous exercise in style and theory,‭ ‬and about as unsatisfying as cinema gets.‭ ‬Beware the faint yellow English subtitles,‭ ‬whose transposition over the images is one of the worst I’ve ever seen.‭ ‬Many of the translations are unreadable.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Book review: Author's quest to know lost dad revives tales of sadness

Almost a Family:‭ ‬A Memoir,‭ ‬by John Darnton‭; ‬Knopf‭; ‬348‭ ‬pp.‭; ‬$27.95

By Bill Williams

John Darnton was‭ ‬11‭ ‬months old when his father,‭ ‬Barney Darnton,‭ ‬was killed during World War II while reporting on the war in the Pacific for‭ ‬The New York Times.

Almost a Family is a meticulous reconstruction of the lives of the Darnton family‭ – ‬the author,‭ ‬his older brother and their mom and dad.‭ ‬The book is,‭ ‬by turns,‭ ‬illuminating,‭ ‬gripping and sad.

Growing up,‭ ‬the author knew little about his dad,‭ ‬beyond the idealistic portrait painted by his mother.‭ ‬The younger Darnton eventually followed in his dad’s footsteps when he,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬became a reporter at‭ ‬The New York Times.‭ ‬After the author retired several years ago,‭ ‬he decided to find out more about the mysterious man who was his father.

Darnton knew that his dad had been killed by friendly fire when a U.S.‭ ‬pilot mistook an American warship for a Japanese vessel.‭ ‬A bomb fragment pierced Barney’s skull,‭ ‬killing him.‭ ‬Darnton chronicles his dogged effort to learn as much as possible about that ill-fated day.‭

He even hired a private detective to track down the son of the now-deceased U.S.‭ ‬pilot,‭ ‬but the son knew nothing about the errant bombing.‭ ‬After considerable research,‭ ‬the author concluded that his dad’s death resulted from a‭ “‬tragic series of blunders both in the air and on water.‭”

Darnton learned that his dad was a heavy drinker and a womanizer,‭ ‬swept up in the bohemian culture of the Roaring Twenties.

He was shocked when he discovered that his mom and dad were not married,‭ ‬despite what everyone had believed.‭ ‬When they met,‭ ‬each was already married.‭ ‬They both got a divorce,‭ ‬but stopped short of marrying each other.

The book excels in its discussion of memory,‭ ‬alcoholism and the craft of investigative reporting,‭ ‬tied together by the author’s agile prose and smooth storytelling.‭ ‬Reporters who spend their careers writing breaking news stories often stumble when they try to write a book,‭ ‬but Darnton’s account is a notable exception.

Not long after Barney died,‭ ‬Darnton’s mother got a job as a reporter in‭ ‬The New York Times Washington bureau,‭ ‬and later became the newspaper’s woman’s editor.‭ ‬But the author was mystified by his mom’s increasingly bizarre behavior.‭ ‬Meals were missed,‭ ‬and the house started to fall apart.‭ ‬When a neighborhood boy suggested that Darnton’s mom was a drunk,‭ ‬he refused to believe it.

Eventually,‭ ‬Mom hit bottom and sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous.‭ ‬She pledged never to drink again,‭ ‬and apparently kept that promise.‭ ‬She later died of cancer at age‭ ‬61.‭ ‬The author’s vivid description of the devastation of alcoholism is pitch-perfect.‭ ‬He describes the night mom was suffering from withdrawal-induced convulsions,‭ ‬and a doctor instructed him over the phone to press a spoon into her mouth so she would not swallow her tongue.

Almost a Family reminds one of another recent memoir,‭ ‬The Memory Palace,‭ ‬because‭ ‬of each book’s honest discussion of the fragility of memory.‭

Darnton scrupulously reports only what he can verify.‭ ‬He displays the best instincts of an investigative reporter,‭ ‬tracking down people who might have known his dad and poring over old newspaper files and government records.

As a fascinating aside,‭ ‬Darnton describes his career at‭ ‬The New York Times,‭ ‬starting as a copyboy and eventually including assignments in Africa and Poland,‭ ‬which led to a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting.‭

Despite the irresistible pull of this memoir,‭ ‬I have two minor reservations.‭ ‬Darnton recalls his days as a youthful‭ “‬troublemaker‭” ‬who stole cars,‭ ‬was kicked out of prep school,‭ ‬and lost his virginity in a whorehouse in Mexico.‭ ‬But he says nothing about the morality or appropriateness of his wanton behavior,‭ ‬nor does he voice any regrets.

In addition,‭ ‬Darnton’s frank discussion of his parents‭’ ‬sexual,‭ ‬alcoholic escapades raises the touchy question of what is fair game in memoir writing when mom and dad are dead and cannot offer a rebuttal.‭

Nevertheless,‭ ‬Almost a Family is a richly detailed account of one family’s tumultuous intersection with culture,‭ ‬addiction,‭ ‬war and changing values in American society.
‭ ‬
Bill Williams is a free-lance writer in West Hartford,‭ ‬Conn.,‭ ‬and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.‭ ‬He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be reached at‭ ‬