Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Time Marches On, Days Dwindle Down

I’d intended to write a good deal more this month than I have, and as March draws to a close, it is evident that I haven’t done more than scribble disjointed notes.  So, in order to be an April Fool with fresh energy and material, I’m just jotting down some brief thoughts on the two films and two plays I’ve seen in the past few weeks, forgiving myself, and moving on.

Venus in Fur was a delightful surprise.  Oh yes, I’d been told the performances were marvelous and it was hilarious.  They were and it is.  Initially, though, I had to object to what appeared to be the Deus ex machina of the ending. 

Then I slept on it, and realized that the whole play had led just there.  The two larger than life yet totally realistic characters:  Vanda, the aspiring actress, played by the remarkable Nina Arianda; and Thomas, the playwright/director, played by Hugh Dancy in an exhilarating performance of a role that could have been subsumed by the power of Vanda and Ms Arianda.  We meet him first, so we think he’s the protagonist.  But is he?

The epitome of what this playwright abhors in modern woman shows up to audition for his play, and late.  She becomes the woman he most desires.  She switches back and forth.  If you can stop laughing long enough to think, it's fascinating. Who is acting upon whom?  Who is acting?  It’s a very funny play — perhaps a smidge too long in its last third — but you really don’t want to miss these performances.  Not to mention the tight, bright, lightning-flashed direction by Walter Bobbie.

And then, my second John Ford play in a month was extraordinarily inventive, memorable, well-acted — well, mostly —  smartly produced, directed, designed, and totally worthy of the always exciting Cheek by Jowl company.  Yes, I’m talking about their production of ′Tis Pity She’s A Whore presently running at BAM.

Onstage, as we entered the Harvey Theatre, is a teenage girl’s bedroom, complete with posters on the red walls and a teenage girl lolling on the bed.  This is Annabella, in a crisp, funny, sexy, graceful, youthful and age-old performance by Lydia Wilson.  Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod have taken John Ford’s play of the first quarter of the 17th century and tossed it into the air to create a timeless — while quirkily old-fashioned — Italy via England.  It’s an image, a darting, dancing dream, an idea of a play, telling us more about people than one would have thought John Ford knew.  The actors gather round that simple central prop/set piece, the girl’s red bed, and enact scenes that take place here, there, and everywhere.  Why?  Because all that anyone cares about in this play is that girl’s bed and what happens there. 

This was a shortened version of the play, running two hours (without intermission) so probably has a lower death count than usual — but enough.  What violence we see onstage is disturbing.  The violence we do not see because it’s done barely offstage in the bathroom is still more disturbing.  Mind you, this play also has a lot of laughs.

Donnellan has filled this production with movement and song and dance and stomping and sometimes that drowned out the words.  I see some technical difficulties holding back this extraordinary, willful, mad production, but none that would keep me from urging you to get to the BAM Harvey soon.  It closes this weekend.
Lydia Wilson and Jack Gordon (C) Manuel Harlan

Two Movies I Missed on the Big Screen

For Chills and Thrills:
Drive starts with rules.  The driver will give you five minutes.  Within those five minutes he’s yours, whatever happens.  Before or after that window, you’re on your own.  The first five minutes of this movie are excruciatingly tense.  I was in awe of the direction, the cinematography, the writing.  Hooked.

Ryan Gosling is the Driver.  His character is precise, smart.  He drives for the movies (stunt driver), and robbers (wheelman), and wouldn’t mind a real racetrack.  Shane wanted a peaceful life, too.  Well we can’t have everything.

This isn’t a relaxing film, it’s damned disturbing, but so worth it.  Its spare script is by Hossein Amini, directed so tightly it hurts by Nicolas Winding Refn.  This is deep noir, Los Angeles, cars, speed, guns, bad people.  And a few goods ones caught in the middle. Gosling gives a riveting, ravishing performance that makes me wonder what movies the award shows are viewing.  Bryan Cranston is superb, Albert Brooks is terrifying, there’s not a moment to catch your breath in this film, it’s that engrossing. 

It’s also a western.  I think you’ll recognize it.  Let me know.

To Weep with Laughter:
My cousin recommended Paul as a comedy that is actually funny.  He got that right.  Paul includes witty, scintillating and absurd writing, expert characterizations and execution of them with brilliant casting.  Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are back, this time as two comic book geeks speaking English with the occasional Klingon on a road trip to the UFO-sighting sites of America.  Two Englishmen, an RV, a roadside diner (Jane Lynch!), a car crash….and an Alien.  Plus a mysterious voice ordering about an absurd number of men in black (one of whom is the delightful Jason Bateman), a crazy gun-toting bible thumper, a girl, and the extraterrestrial illegal alien himself, Paul, voiced by Seth Rogen. If you want to be happy, see Paul.

So.  Two plays, two movies, not a bad month.  More to come....

~ Molly Matera, signing off, asking you to support your local starving artist -- go see a play!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Electronic Schmectronic,

One rush hour I was carried — not against my will — with the crowd into the downtown Lex Express.  I had my E-reader in my right hand and grabbed the overhead bar with my left.  A young woman leaned her head on a young man’s shoulder and slept in the seat in front of me.  The crowd surged behind me.  I tried not to hit the sleepy girl’s head with my E-reader while the crowd tried to shove me off my feet. 

If I’d held a book, it would have been fine.  But no matter what E-everything supporters say, an E-reader is not a book.  It’s a machine.  In hanging onto the E reader, my finger touched a button.  Something other than what I’d been reading appeared on my screen.  There’s no “Esc” button.  There’s no “Undo” button.  Hanging on tight and swaying, nothing I did made the strange box that had appeared over the text disappear.  I couldn’t read.

If it had been a real book, I’d have been reading.

When I got a seat, I thought the tried and true method of rebooting would help.  The machine refused to be turned off.  It stayed the same.  The same.  The same.  It’s two weeks gone by now, and it still hasn’t run out of juice.  The same non-responsive dialogue box covers the text I had been reading.  I would have finished it by now if it had really been a book.

Earlier in the week I’d gone home with a splitting headache and wanted nothing more than to sit on the bus with my headphones on, connected to my CD player with a classical CD in there.  But it’s 2012 so I had my MP3 player with me, which does not have any classical music on it because electronic music players don’t understand pauses as anything but the end of a song.  Well, not a song, to the MP3 player.  An “entity,” perhaps.  Or a “unit.”  Or a “byte.”  The machines also have trouble with maintaining the order of a series of songs.  In the old days — say, the 1990s — I’d carried my CD player and three CDs so I could vary my listening with my mood.  One was always classical.  It usually took one CD to get to work.  If I had to change CDs during the morning commute, I knew I was going to be late. 

No I didn’t get bored.  My CD players always had a radio as well. 

Fast forward to the present, where the MP3 is conveniently compact, but does not understand classical music and does not understand that pause does not mean change to another song/unit/entry. A pause in music is like a zero in a longer number.  It counts.  I suppose I should download some piano sonatas, but what if there’s a rest? 

A Weekend Morning

Millie sits at the back door, chattering.  It’s an ack ack ack ack ack sort of sound as she watches the bluebird in the birdbath.  Chick and Wilbur are much more interested in the squirrel and remain silent.

My cats stare from their windowsills.  They are annoyed with me as I mop around the litter boxes.  I’m disturbing them when they want to get out there – maybe – and see what that interloper is doing from much closer. 

Outside, the black cat I haven’t seen in months is eating his kill just beyond the juniper. At least I assume he killed the dead bird.  Which is pretty impressive — pigeons are not small and this cat is not big.

He’s been here, in our yard, before.  I started setting up some plastic crates that I would have lined with insulating material had we had an actual winter.  But winter never came.  And yet the black cat didn’t come around during those months.  But before spring even started officially, there he was.  Perhaps his human kept him inside until we sprang forward. 

~ Molly Matera, saying Happy Spring to Us All.  Even if it’s 50 Degrees Again.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

"Tribes" Shouts Out at the Barrow Street Theatre

Billy’s family is hearing.  Billy is not.  Sylvia’s family is deaf.  Sylvia is not, but she’s getting there.  They meet, and fall in love.  Nina Raine fills out this simple set-up, colors, shapes, and shades it to create Tribes, a remarkable new play at the Barrow Street Theatre.

Tribes has been produced in England at the Royal Court, but this is its American debut, and happily for us and Ms. Raine, it’s directed by David Cromer.  It is precise and clear and works to the smallest detail while retaining a feeling of spontaneity and reality that could, in other hands, lead to chaos.

A creative laundry list of theatrical talent:
-         Scenic design is brilliant, cluttered and a bit dusty, full of life and history, and books, books on every surface. A piano, a typewriter, a kitchen table where people live, not just eat.  Scott Pask is a master.
-         Tristan Raines’ costume design gives the actors lived-in, real clothes that tell us about the people before they even speak.  Or rather, shout.  Hair and makeup design by Leah J. Loukas augment Mr. Raines’ work in character definition.  
-         Clean, clear lighting design is by Keith Parham, and projection design is by Jeff Sugg —when we enter the theatre, the projection is “please turn off your cell phones.” Later it’s used when people are signing.
-         Sound design is by Daniel Kluger.  Sylvia tells Billy that her sister, who preceded her in going deaf, never told her of the noise.  What does a deaf person hear?  According to Mr. Kluger, it’s gray and rumbly.  It’s thick static.  It’s a horror. 

All this supports a fine cast in a brilliant play.  Billy’s well-meaning and very loud, raucous family, determined to treat him as “normal,” not “handicapped” or “other,” have failed in their good intentions.  Of course, their good intentions didn’t take any extra work, like learning to sign would.  Mr. Pask’s design brings us right into the kitchen, part of the action, part of the family, the crudely erudite father’s spittle flying across the table as he bellows at his wife, or his daughter, or his son, almost reaches the surrounding audience.  His wife speaks softly so everyone would need to quiet down to hear her.  Siblings scream at each other and are only nice to brother Billy, the way one is polite to a visitor.  Midway through the play even Billy knows this and explodes, telling his family what they never knew —  that in trying not to make Billy different, to the point of not learning any form of signing, as a family they all left him out of every conversation, every family fight, and every family joke.  For a terribly clever family — in music, literature — they are all socially handicapped. 

The family is in standard 21st century crisis — all the “children” are grown, and all have moved back into the parents’ home, unable to maintain themselves on their own.  Mare Winningham is Beth, the mother, warm, loving, and insecure next to her erudite and crude husband Christopher — a splendid performance by Jeff Perry.  Christopher harangues everyone and tries to learn Chinese from the computer. Beth is trying to write a novel — possibly a mystery, possibly not.  Billy (Russell Harvard) is a big galumph of a guy, wearing hearing aids behind each ear.  His father yells that he needs new batteries, but what Billy cannot hear, he sees when others do not.  Billy’s sister Ruth (Gayle Rankin) is into music, not words, and wants to sing opera, which seems incongruous and probably is.  Billy’s brother Daniel (Will Brill) is unruly — you can tell by his hair.  He and his sister fight as if they were still 12.  Also, he has a broken heart.  And he hears voices.

Billy goes out and meets a girl.  Her name is Sylvia and she doesn’t initially realize Billy’s deaf because he lip-reads so well.  He doesn’t realize that she’s going deaf, but it’s never far from her mind.  Susan Pourfar is a powerhouse as Sylvia, a fine mix of intellect and emotion, strength and fragility.  Her Sylvia teaches Billy to sign and opens up a different world to him — a world she no longer wishes to be a part of, but is consigned to as her congenital hearing loss progresses. 

When Billy brings Sylvia home to meet the family, they put her under a lens and demand information on signing, on deafness, on the society Christopher sees as a closed one.  A great deal of this rudeness is intellectual curiosity.  They really want to know.  However, from the audience position just outside the kitchen, we are appalled at their thoughtless, cruel badgering.  Sylvia almost wants to run away from the intense scrutiny, but stops short, looking at the upright piano in one corner.  “Who plays?” Sylvia asks.  Daniel tells her, “We all do.  Well, except Billy.”  Without a plaintive note, she says, “I used to play,” and sits at the piano and picks out a tune.  By touch, not tone.  This poignant moment finally silences Billy’s family.  A miracle.  And that’s just the first act.

What a family.  Ruth is better at music than words, Daniel hears voices.  Billy has never heard more than hearing aids allow, his father hears nothing but his own voice, while mother Beth hears all.  And Sylvia hears in past tense.  This is a very smart play about smart people lacking filters, manners, or sense, and two young people at their turning points.

The performances are searing, soaring, tightly wound, and the play tightly paced.  David Cromer has led this fine cast to a marvelous place and brought playwright Nina Raine’s problem play to life at Barrow Street Theatre.  Go to listen, and hear, and be glad of it.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to listen to some piano sonatas.