Blithe Spirit

Blithe Spirit

Brent Harris, Kate MacCluggage, Tina Stafford; photo: Jerry Dalia

Conceived during London’s 1941 Blitz and brought to the page in a six-day writing frenzy, Noël Coward’s quirky comedy Blithe Spirit was meant to counteract the gloom overtaking the country as battlefield deaths mounted and national collapse seemed possible. It became one of the West End’s longest running non-musical productions, with almost 2,000 performances.

The version currently at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on stage through September 2, once again proves this work’s lasting ability to appeal. With spirited direction by Victoria Mack, it moves along briskly, retaining Coward’s farcical elements, though for me, at least, condensing some of that would be appreciated. A bit of business funny the first time isn’t as amusing on the fourth or fifth go.

Still, the author’s ability to craft a witty epigram that seems perfectly apt seventy years later is firmly intact. My favorite, out of the mouth of Charles Condomine: “It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”

Charles, the husband of the story (played by Brent Harris), lives apparently quite happily with his wife Ruth (Kate MacCluggage) in elegant, upperclass English drawing-room style. With unreliable assistance from their well-intentioned maid Edith (Bethany Kay), they put on a dinner party for friends.

The party entertainment will be a séance conducted by a local spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Tina Stafford). What seemed a harmless bit of fun unexpectedly conjures the ghost of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Susan Maris), whom only Charles can see and hear. She interacts with him, though for everyone else, his reactions to her are inexplicable (too many martinis?). He tries to pass them off as a joke.

Intent on disrupting Charles’s current marriage by one means or another, Elvira is a devious and unsympathetic character. Coward thus avoided evoking the sadness that might have accompanied a play so concerned with the death of a young person. (Note that the play ends slightly differently than the movie version, in which Rex Harrison played Charles.)

Harris, who was brilliant in STNJ’s production of Tartuffe earlier this season, shines again, and MacCluggage, as Ruth, extracts every bit of nuance from her character. Stafford and Kay both have the opportunity for broad physical comedy and make the most of it, delightfully. Somehow, the character of Elvira didn’t work for me; she was so slinky and manipulative, it was hard to understand Charles’s attraction, in either her corporeal or spiritual form.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

All 50!

Welcome to Idaho

photo: pixabay, creative commons license

A highlight of our recent Yellowstone trip was the detour we took into eastern Idaho. I was excited because Idaho was my 50th state! Given the number of stickers plastered on the welcome sign, Idaho must be a notable destination for people from a lot of places!

When we stopped the rental van near “Welcome to Idaho,” I hopped right out to stroll back to the sign. That gave my six family members time to prepare a surprise. They slipped off their overshirts to reveal Idaho-themed T-shirts underneath. As we gathered for pictures, they gave me the ball cap below, a saucer-sized “All 50!” refrigerator magnet, and membership in the All Fifty States Club, signed by President Alicia C. Rovey. It’s hard to say which of us was most excited! Me, the family, or my new friend Alicia!

all 50 ball cap

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

I mentioned this forthcoming accomplishment to the watercolor instructor at the Old Faithful Inn. Turned out she’s been to all 50 states too. Her 50th was North Dakota. Apparently North Dakota is the last state for a lot of people (we can guess why), and the locals make a big deal of it—pictures, T-shirts, the whole deal. I suggested I get my cup of coffee free at the café in Driggs, Idaho, but no. Besides full-price coffee, the town also is home to the Teton Valley Historical Museum, a great lunch spot, and a lovely shop selling local artists’ work.

Michael Pollan’s fascinating book, The Botany of Desire, describes how the obsession with certain crops—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes (to which list I would add tomatoes)—has from time to time created agricultural craziness. Pollan had convinced me that Americans’ love affair with the french fry had turned much of Idaho into an over-farmed, over-fertilized, and over-pesticided moonscape. Around Driggs, however, the farm fields, rolling terrain, and distant mountains were beautiful. Still, for lunch, I ordered a salad. Just another beautiful spot in the fifty!

Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade Comedian Bo Burnham wrote and directed this debut comedy about a girl approaching the end of eighth grade (trailer). Seeing this movie makes your present life look pretty darn good! So while it’s funny, it’s painfully so. Been there. Or someplace similar. While American adolescence has been typically miserable for generations, today’s added dimension is the unrelenting pressure of social media.

The awkward, socially ignored Kayla creates self-help vlogs on topics like “putting yourself out there” and “growing up.” They are mainly a way for this suburban teen to articulate her own confused thoughts and give a pep-talk to herself, because at some point we see her usage stats. No one watches them.

Though New Yorker critic Richard Brody complains that the introvert Kayla has no friends and seems to have no interests (forgetting her participation in the extremely forgettable school band), he’s overlooking not just the video production, but also the way constantly scouring social media dominates Kayla’s day. There’s no time left for swim team or cheerleading practice or piano lessons.

Elsie Fisher does a remarkable playing Kayla. In fact, all the kids are perfect, including “mean girl” Kennedy (played by Catherine Oliviere), for whom Kayla is a non-entity or worse. Message from Kennedy to Kayla: “hi so my mom told me to invite you to my thing tomorrow so this is me doing that.” Kayla is reticent, slightly hunched, but moving forward doggedly, whether to class, a pool party, or, well, life. You have to admire her, including her drive to help others.

At one point, a boy makes a pass at Kayla. Women watching this film will see an all-too-familiar dynamic when he turns what happens into her fault and she ends up apologizing.“Sorry,” she keeps saying, when of course she should have punched his lights out.

Contrast this role and performance with that of Tom in the much-hyped Leave no Trace. Unlike director Debra Granik, Burnham gives Fisher plenty to do, and she does it, with all the stumbling and uncertainty of a thirteen-year-old trying to live up to expectations, but not quite sure what those are.

Kayla’s relationship with her father, a single dad (Josh Hamilton), is what you’d expect. He reaches out, but most of the time she’s too absorbed in her own world to think he’s anything other than embarrassing. Points for hanging in, Dad.

To quote Kayla, “Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.” Absolutely.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 87%.

Bison and Eagles and Elk!

Old Faithful

Old Faithful – photo: pixabay

Recently my family spent nine days in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. Seven people, three under 10, stayed in four different historic hotels in different areas of the park, in order to see the most, yet avoid the park’s infamous traffic. The hotels were each different and fascinating, and early morning starts meant we had few problems. We also covered a lot of territory on foot, with at least some short hiking every day, manageable for all ages (that is, me).

The first three nights we stayed at the beautiful Old Faithful Inn, right by the eponymous attraction. Much within walking distance of the Inn is every bit as interesting as Old Faithful itself—hot springs, steaming geysers, mud pots—all connected by boardwalk, since you cannot walk on the hot ground without injury to yourself or it. As the park contains the world’s largest collection of steaming, bubbling, and bursting features, you have to wonder what early visitors thought of it, whether migrating natives or European trappers and fur-traders. I was reminded of the 70-year-old adventure story written by Pulitzer-winner A. B. Guthrie, The Big Sky. You’ll get an indelible picture of how those early explorers felt about the American West.

A short drive takes you to the nearby Geyser fields include the Grand Prismatic hot spring, largest in the United States, which is one of those things that looks like it can’t be real, but is.

GrandPrismatic

Grand Prismatic – photo: supercarwaar

We were pleased to find so many tourists enjoying the park, a million a month in the summer, and a good many of them were French, German, Spanish, and lots of Chinese, especially.

We had a tour of the Inn (in the park, lodging and food services have been privatized and are run by Xanterra, with varying success from one property to another). The food was better and more interesting at the Snow Lodge behind the Inn, we learned belatedly.

From the Old Faithful Inn, the more reckless of our party went ziplining in Bozeman, while I took a watercolor class. There were artists-in-residence at each hotel, as well as nightly musicians, usually pianists, and one violinist. Gift shops too—the nicest at the Lake Hotel.

We took a wildlife tour, and over the entire trip we saw moose (with binoculars), elk, deer, prong-horns, bison (at a distance, close up, and in the road), a coyote, bald eagles, marmots, ospreys, trumpeter swans, and trout (on our plates). No wolves or bears, which is too bad, because we wanted to get a picture of the kids petting one. (Really, people have done that!) Lots of warnings about keeping your distance from bears and bison and instructions in how to use bear spray. Moose and bear had mostly moved to higher elevations for the summer where it’s cooler, though the park is 7000 to 8000 feet above sea level already.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Mammoth Hot Springs – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

We moved on to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, where elk graze on the lawn in the evening. The hot springs themselves are fascinating, looking like terraced rice paddies formed by the minerals in the spring water.

Then two nights at the Canyon Lodge, which was the least congenial spot, though a convenient jumping off place for seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with its spectacular gorge and waterfalls. At almost 700 miles long, the Yellowstone River is America’s longest undammed river, a tributary of the Missouri. We skirted the edge of the wildlife-heavy Lamar Valley, and had a Ranger-led boat tour on Lake Yellowstone. The Ranger tours in national parks are usually fantastic and not crowded.

Finally, we spent two days in Grand Teton National Park at the luxurious by comparison Grand Teton Lodge, not a Xanterra property. From there we set out for a whitewater rafting trip on the Snake River, which is one place we saw bald eagles. They were gliding down the river in front of us—fantastic! We spent the day waiting for our flight in Jackson, visiting the ski area in summertime.

A great trip thanks to family trip-planner in chief, Neil!

Grand Tetons

Grand Tetons – photo: goodfreephotos.com

 

Pages vs. the Silver Screen – 2018 Edition

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansmanThe real-life Ron Stallworth infiltrated the KKK in the late 70s, but in his movie, director Spike Lee resets the action earlier in the decade and makes some other changes for a stunning result. Every thoughtful American should see this riveting film (trailer), which ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy, passing repeatedly through high drama and providing first-rate acting from a fine cast, start to finish.

The comedy part comes from the ability of Colorado Springs’s first black police officer, Stallworth (played by John David Washington), to convince a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and even former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) that he’s actually a hate-filled white racist. The tragedy comes from considering that the racial issues that divided the country in the 1970s remain painfully relevant today. In a grim coincidence, I saw this film on August 12, the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacist rally.

Stallworth built his unlikely relationships by phone, but when his physical presence was needed, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) stood in. Spike Lee could have made a predictable film out of this basic material, but he works it, proving nuance and impact. He intercuts footage of a KKK initiation ceremony with scenes from a black student organization’s meeting with an aging civil rights figure (Harry Belafonte). Two speeches received with wild enthusiasm by totally different audiences bookend the story: a compelling stemwinder early in the film by Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name adopted by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and, near the end of the film, a speech by David Duke carefully designed to mask his underlying meaning and make it more palatable to mainstream.

Self-awareness, loyalty, respect, humanity—these values are all on view, as are their opposites.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 77%.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, this film, directed by Debra Granik, raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer (trailer). It was inspired by the true episode, which you can read about on Rock’s website, that in its conclusion is more unsettling than the film.

For four years, Vietnam Veteran Will (played by Ben Foster) has lived with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in Portland’s 5200-acre Forest Park, their camouflaged encampment further hidden by waist-high vegetation. Will apparently suffers from PTSD, and selling the drugs the VA gives him is one way the pair makes money. They visit the city for groceries and other supplies, though most of their time is spent in the rain forest.

Eventually, they are discovered. Unexpectedly, the authorities make a heroic effort to find a living arrangement that Will can tolerate. Helicopters spook him. Crowds spook him. Many things. For Tom’s benefit, he struggles to adapt to a more regularized life. The love between them is palpable, but will it be enough?

Foster gives a strong performance; McKenzie has received considerable praise, though the scanty dialog doesn’t give her much to work with, and she hits just a few emotional notes. You can count the times she smiles on one hand.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; audiences 86%.

The Book – Film Smackdown

Quite a few other movies this year are based on well-regarded books, as noted in this Literary Hub article. Which works better? Based on Book Marks ratings for books and Rotten Tomatoes for films, here’s the score:

  • Both darn good: Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, We the Animals, Lean on Pete, Sharp Objects, The Wife, The Looming Tower (I’m watching it on Hulu now)
  • Books markedly better than the movie: Red Sparrow, The Yellow Birds, Ready Player One, On Chesil Beach, Dietland
  • Movies markedly better than the book: Uh-oh.
  • Still to come in 2018: Bel Canto (read the book years ago; looking forward to the film and Ken Watanabe!)

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus

Robberson, Cuccioli, & Cromer; photo: Jerry Dahlia

“A society drowning in violence and seemingly bereft of civil thought or action” is how the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey describes the setting for Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, now in a riveting new production, directed by Brian B. Crowe, through August 5. First performed January 24, 1594, it was one of the revenge dramas so popular among Elizabethan audiences and fans of the Death Wish franchise. Here, the desire for revenge trumps every other human feeling, with no possibility of compromise or negotiation.

It’s well worth seeing, not just because the opportunity comes about so rarely and not just because of Shakespeare’s thought-provoking content, but also because of the high quality of this production. The acting and production values are top-notch.

The title character (played by Bruce Cromer) returns to Rome a hero after his conquest of the Goths. His chained prisoners comprise their sultry queen Tamora (Vanessa Morosco), her three sons, and her advisor, a moor (Chris White). When Titus arrives, Roman brothers Saturninus (Benjamin Eakeley) and Bassianus (Oliver Archibald) are vying to replace their late father, the emperor. Given the opportunity to choose between them, Titus chooses Saturninus, who proceeds to claim his brother’s betrothed, Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson). Skirmishes break out, but Lavinia and Bassianus flee.

Two of Titus’s sons were killed in the war, and the remaining sons demand the sacrifice of the Goth queen Tamora’s eldest son, despite her desperate pleas. Though she speaks honeyed words to Saturninus, her desire for revenge against Titus and all his children is clear.

The moor connives with Tamora’s remaining sons (Torsten Johnson and Quentin McCuiston) to kill Lavinia’s new husband, ravish her, and, so that she can’t reveal their identity, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Titus has lost five sons in the play so far, and his last son Lucius (Clark Scott Carmichael) is banished. He is devastated to see the wreck of his daughter. Only the counsel and forbearance of his brother Marcus (Robert Cuccioli) saves him from total madness.

Near the end of the play is a speech by Marcus that for me was the most relevant to politics in our own time: “O! let me teach you how to knit again this scatter’d corn into one united sheaf, these broken limbs again into one body; lest Rome herself be bane unto herself, and she whom mighty kingdoms curtsy to, like a forlorn and desperate castaway, do shameful execution on herself.”

Fine performances of Cromer as Titus, Cuccioni as Marcus, Morosco as Tamora, and her two reptilian sons (Johnson and McCuiston) were excellent. For me, though, the most moving performance came from Robberson, the handless, tongueless, young widow. And White delivers the moor with relish.

It’s fun seeing such a luxuriously large principal cast—16 actors—ably augmented by 11 members of the theater’s 2018 Summer Professional Training Program in multiple roles.

Dick Block created a memorable set, featuring giant swords and an enormous warrior’s helmet, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical StrangersReviewer Bilge Ebiri in The Village Voice says, “The best way to experience Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers is to do so without knowing a single thing about it.”

The makers of the trailer must have felt much the same way because (uncharacteristically), they didn’t give away much of the story (trailer), except to focus on the surprise reunion of 19-year-old triplets, separated at six months of age, and adopted into separate homes. They find each other by a fluke. The whole idea of “separated at birth” is vaguely sentimental, because in it is the notion that siblings eventually find each other. That there’s a happy reunion. In this film, that’s just the beginning.

I can only agree with Ebiri in saying, see it. It has surprising depths. It will leave you shaking your head, first at the power of coincidence, then everything else. Says an aunt, “When  you play with humans, you do something very wrong.”

Plus, you have the pleasure of seeing interviews with veteran journalist Lawrence Wright.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences: 87%.

Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroeRight in the middle of Wimbledon’s 150th Championships we scored a Netflix copy of director Janus Metz’s 2017 movie about the classic 1980 matchup between Ice-Borg and the Superbrat, with a script by Ronnie Sandahl (trailer). While their rivalry makes an entertaining film, I’d still flunk a quiz on how to score the game.

Sverrir Gudnason plays Björn Borg, instantly recognizable, lean and riddled with doubt, and Shia LaBeouf does fine work as the temperamental, foul-mouthed McEnroe. Apparently, Gudnason had to put on muscle for the role, while LaBeouf had to take some off. They both looked in fine form for the on-court scenes at the 1980 Wimbledon. In what is regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time, Borg blew seven match points as he attempted to win his fifth straight Wimbledon victory. McEnroe might be a bad boy, but he could play some tennis, and, in the end, he got a standing ovation from the Wimbledon fans who’d started the competition by booing him.

While the competition between them was always billed as a rivalry between opposites, fire and ice, what the movie shows is that from his youth Borg wanted to be best in the world. (The young  Borg is played by his son Leo.) As a teen, Borg (played by Markus Mossberg) was every bit as fiery as McEnroe, arguing with the refs and his coach, throwing his racket, stomping off the court. They’re also alike in how deeply they care about winning.

Finally, Borg’s coach (Stellan Skarsgård) told him he was through unless he channeled his anger and frustration into his game. He needed to become emotionless. It sounds impossibly difficult, but he did it. What he also did was develop a lot of peculiar habits and rituals that had to be followed to the letter: the way his rackets were strung, the kind of car they rented. Sports stars are legendary for having “good luck” rituals, and his were all-encompassing.

McEnroe also got his comeuppance from friend and fellow tennis-player Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) who told him he’d never be regarded as one of the greats because nobody liked him. At Wimbledon, his volcanic persona was in check after that, at least in the film.

We see less about McEnroe as a young man (it’s a Scandi movie after all), and I would have liked to. Still, it’s an engrossing film even for someone not obsessed with tennis (me!), and it deserves more attention.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 73%.

The Catcher Was a Spy

The Catcher Was a SpyIt might almost be worth seeing the new movie Gotti with a sneering John Travolta in the lead, simply because it has received a (surprisingly) rare “0” rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Unanimity about a movie’s goodness or apparent awfulness is so rarely achieved that this may be a cinematic low-water-mark. A filmic Sahara. A future cult classic.

Last weekend, I went to another movie most critics have panned, because it is crammed with components I like: spies! history! Nazis! baseball! Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, it recounts a bit of the true story of Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and was directed by Ben Lewin (who gets most of the blame), with a good script by Robert Rodat (trailer).

It wasn’t perfect, and maybe it’s slow for action film devotees, but the acting was superior. Paul Rudd played Berg, a man who loved baseball and had a great smile, but was hard to know. Through his Princeton connections, he was recruited to the fledgling OSS by its head Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), mostly because of his facility with languages and despite his somewhat ambiguous sexuality. He has a girlfriend in Boston (Sienna Miller) for much of the film, but that’s an on-again, off-again thing, first with his baseball travel schedule, then his work in Washington and overseas.

Finally he gets the kind of assignment he craves: the U.S. has the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Allies believe the Germans are attempting this too, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). But they can’t be certain (sorry). Berg is teamed up with a military man (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (excellent work by Paul Giamatti) to find out. If these suspicions are correct, Berg is to assassinate him. Unlike so many celluloid spies, Rudd’s Berg seems actually to weigh the significance of this assignment.

In a key scene early in the film, Berg signals the pitcher, but the pitcher waves him off. The opponent on first tries to steal second, but Berg manages to get the ball there in time to throw him out, ending the inning. Walking back to the dugout, he says to the pitcher, “Never ignore my signal when a man’s going to try to steal second.” Pitcher: “How’d you know he’d try?” “I just knew.” Berg’s skill in sizing up people was perfect for the OSS.

Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, it’s “a juicy story told blandly,” but still a movie worth seeing, and I agree. Maybe Gotti should get a second look.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 32%; audiences 67%.