Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Saint Joan

Saint Joan

Andrus Nichols & Eric Tucker in Saint Joan; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Bedlam Theater Company is presenting, in rotating repertory productions, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through February 12. Each of the plays is done with the same four cast members playing all the parts, which makes for some quick persona changes.

Due to scheduling difficulties, I’ve seen only the Saint Joan—a difficult choice, because Hamlet is always revelatory, and the experience of each is meant to shed light on the other. As with any Shaw, a good twenty minutes near the end could be ditched. Good old G.B.S. seems determined to bang audiences over the head with his messages. Still, you’ll never see a more vigorous interpretation of this work, one that easily keeps you going through a full three acts (in direct contradistinction to the growing trend for one-act, 90-minute affairs), as religious dogma and divine inspiration cross swords.

The cast members manage to be simultaneously energetic and nuanced, and they wring every bit of humor out of the play’s early scenes. Bedlam founder Eric Tucker was terrific in Saint Joan, especially as the Earl of Warwick, but then all the actors (Andrus Nichols as Joan), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe (both in numerous parts) keep your interest and your intellect on their toes. I’m as much a fan of gorgeous sets and inspired costumes as anyone, but Bedlam’s stripped-down, bare-stage version has the virtue of showing how brilliant actors can conjure people and relationships to life unaided.

Bedlam has a commitment to using “all the house,” and for Saint Joan, the first few rows of audience seats were on the stage, and a cast member occasionally emerged from somewhere in the main house. Not to worry, audience members aren’t called upon to do more than observe.

Despite having been a patron of the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Shaw Festival for more than 20 seasons I’d never seen Saint Joan. And, if you also feel this classic is worth getting to know, you might never find a more approachable and engaging mounting of it than this one.

For tickets, call the McCarter box office at 609-258-2787, or visit the box office online.

Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Yesterday in New York City—terrible weather threatening all day, and a one-hour train trip home transformed into a six-hour wait-a-thon due to downed wires. Trains packed to bursting!

All that couldn’t dampen my enthusiastic endorsement of the Rolling Stones exhibit at Industria, a show venue in Manhattan’s West Village near the south end of the Highline (775 Washington Street, entrance on 12th), on view until March 12.

Seeing Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and the others throughout a fantastic 50-year career tickles a lot of memories. One of the themes of the show is how they—Mick and Charlie, especially—recognized early that there was more to “show business” than their music. As a result they involve many of the arts and artists in their work. Alliances with folks like Andy Warhol and top set designers, graphic artists, and fashion designers led not only to innovative, memorable album covers and shows, but also plenty of interesting material for this exhibit!

The music gets its due, as well. You see a recreation of one of their favorite studios, lyrics as they wrote them in a notebook, and, if you’ve ever picked up a guitar, the display of many beautiful instruments they’ve used over the years and their comments about them are fascinating.

An early apartment is recreated (you wouldn’t want to live there), and the show ends with a 3-D movie. “Satisfaction,” indeed.

The Ghostlight Project

Ghost Light

photo: David Nestor, creative commons license

Safety considerations bolstered by a healthy love of superstitions led theaters to always leave a light burning on stage at night. A bulb in a simple stand will do. (I see Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing with one of these, but that may be my imagination). This tradition inspired The Ghostlight Project.

Yesterday at 5:30 in each U.S. time zone, outside some 700 theaters across the country, people gathered to create/shine/be a “light” for values the creative community holds dear, particularly “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone.” Here in Princeton about a hundred people and one dog met outside McCarter Theatre Center to hear pledges from the organizations that use the building—McCarter, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Triangle Club—to uphold those values.

Most important, these efforts are not meant to be a one-off. From these initial seeds, many more activities are expected to grow. If you’ve wondered how you can respond in a positive and ongoing way to negative trends in our country, you may want to track what your local theater community is planning going forward. Artists have always led the way, let us hope they can do so again, despite the increasingly uncertain funding future for the arts.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Octavia Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, & Janelle Monáe

It would be hard not to like this inspiring Ted Melfi movie (trailer) based on the true story of three women—three black women—overcoming early 1960s gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the super-white-male environment of NASA, just as Americans are struggling into space.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) were powerful role models for their, or any, age. Despite being relegated to the pool of “colored computers,” as the black female mathematicians were called, and despite their superb skills being barely recognized, they showed astonishing levels of patience and tenacity, as the story tells it.

At times, the movie feels like a deserved exercise in myth-making. Families are supportive, kids are perfect, home life is smooth. These women are almost too good. Their lives had to be more complicated than that. But those aspects of their stories are secondary to their achievements in the workplace, and that’s where the movie focuses.

With the recent passing of John Glenn (reportedly every bit as open and truly nice as on screen here), the early days of U.S. space program have disappeared into history. Today’s Americans either weren’t born yet or may have forgotten the fear that gripped the nation when Russia orbited the first satellite, when rocket after rocket blew up on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. When  our education system, at least temporarily, geared up for greater student achievement in math and science.

The pressure on NASA to succeed was enormous, and this is the environment in which these women worked and excelled. Despite their significant contributions five decades ago, something essential about the message has been lost. Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics, as did only 66 black women.

I liked this movie; I think the subject is great, and the broader recognition well deserved and too long delayed. The three women play their roles beautifully, as individuals, not symbols. While the subject was new and surprising, the film stakes no new emotional territory. More disappointing, fifty years on, the movie’s “feel-good” moment is quickly trumped by awareness of our society’s persistent racism and gender inequity. Perhaps the fact that this movie has been a top box office draw several weeks running, will help, but I’ve seen that movie before. See it for yourself, feel good, and then ask yourself, what next?

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences 94%.

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea, Casey AffleckCasey Affleck is remarkable as Lee Chandler, full to the brim with bottled-up pain, in this masterful drama (trailer), written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan. You don’t learn the source of his hostile and erratic behavior until a good way in, although multiple flashbacks to earlier, happier times with his older brother Joe and nephew Patrick show different sides of this character—never easy, perhaps, but not a hand grenade with the pin pulled.

The film opens with Lee tending his duties as the maintenance man—and first-line-of-defense against chaos—for four Quincy, Massachusetts, apartment buildings and living in a one-room basement flat in one of them. He has exiled himself from his home town of Manchester by the Sea and the seacoast life there, putting all of metro Boston in between him and his past. (MBTS sounds like the setting for a Victorian novel, but it’s located on Cape Ann, about halfway between Gloucester and Beverly, Mass.)

One wintry day—the weather in this movie is as frozen and blustery as Lee is—he receives a call that Joe has had another cardiac episode and heads north for Manchester. When he reaches the hospital, Joe has died, and he’s been given guardianship of the now teenage Patrick. Forms must be followed, arrangements made, and the funeral survived.

All this brings Lee abruptly into contact with his past. Being in Manchester isn’t easy—too many memories, too many people who know him, too many who remember. But he needs to look after his high school Lothario nephew Patrick, so he sticks it out. Says Matthew Lickona from the San Diego Reader, “It’s Affleck’s movie to quietly own as layer upon layer of Irish impassivity is stripped away from his visage until the unspeakable can be spoken.”

There were no cheap or cheesy moments in this layered tale, thanks to Lonergan’s superb writing. His people aren’t always easy to get along with. Their marriages don’t always work. Their kids aren’t perfect. Yet, there can be hidden strengths in relationships, and sometimes, some people do their best, even when the going is hard.

Top-notch performances all around. Besides Affleck, there are Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, Kyle Chandler as Joe, Gretchen Mol as Joe’s ex, Elise, and C. J. Wilson as the brothers’ stalwart friend George. Lucas Hedges is terrific as Patrick.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 96%; audiences: 82%.

Jackie

Jackie, Natalie PortmanChilean director Pablo Larraín has created a mesmerizing film (trailer) about 34-year-old former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the unimaginably painful three days between the assassination of our 35th President and the funeral she orchestrated for him. A chief virtue of the film is that, although it is deeply moving, it is free of typically sentimental Hollywood touches. For Americans who remember those days, the film will unearth many painful memories.

The film purports to recreate the interview between Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman)—caught as Rex Reed said “in the tragic headlights of history”—and an unnamed interviewer (Billy Crudup). In real life, the interviewer was prominent political journalist and historian Theodore H. White and, as in the movie, the interview took place only a week after the assassination for this issue of Life magazine. You can see his handwritten notes here.

Jackie appreciates the historical significance of her husband’s murder and is determined to give her husband his due. This is as much because she believes the office deserves it as it is to assure his legacy. She takes inspiration for the funeral from that of another assassinated leader, Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of her grief, she embarks on an exercise in myth-making in which the interviewer (again, as in real life) is complicit.

She has had her own accomplishments, of course. She has restored much of the White House with historical accuracy and invited cultural icons for performances there. Her aim, she says, was to make everything in the People’s House “the best” it could be. In the three compressed days before the funeral, it is sometimes as if she is moving underwater through an ocean of grief. Yet much is demanded of her: planning the funeral and selecting the burial site, celebrating her son’s birthday November 25, preparing to move out of the White House, and supporting her children.

Natalie Portman well captures Jackie’s breathy delivery and Peter Sarsgaard Robert Kennedy’s Boston accent. Both give excellent performances, allowing you to set aside differences in physical appearance. As a result, Caspar Phillipson, who bears such a striking resemblance to Jack Kennedy, is startling in his brief role.

Larrain assembled a strong supporting cast—principally, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s secretary, Nancy Tuckerman; Billy Crudup as the interviewer; John Hurt (whom I did not at recognize at all) as the priest called in to counsel the distraught widow; and Richard E. Grant as her design consultant.

Next November 22, it will be 55 years since the assassination, and still the loss of innocence, the loss of Camelot, haunts us. Though this idyllic association was inspired by Jackie and first popularized by White, it took root in Americans’ minds because it seemed so right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 73%.

Up on Our Housetop

Naughty or Nice

photo: Mobilus in Mobili, creative commons license

What with new snow on the ground in parts of the country, there’s a remote possibility you can tolerate another morsel of Christmas. Below find the sum total of my non-culinary creative output for late December! I wrote it for the children in our family—Lincoln (age 8), Indiana (almost 7), and Irving (age 5), plus their mom, Alix (age redacted). Sing it to that familiar holiday tune!

“Up on Our Housetop”

First comes a present for Mr. Lincoln
A Chemistry Set? What was Santa thinkin’!
Next thing we know, a big explosion,
Police cars, fire trucks—what a commotion!
(Chorus: Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go,
Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go-o
Up on the housetop, click, click, click
Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick.

Next is a talking doll for Indie,
She’s so pretty she names her Cindy,
But all Cindy says is “Wash up!” and “Clean!”
And Indie says she’s just too mean!
(Chorus)

Then there’s a deck of cards for Irv,
Boy, that Santa’s really got some nerve,
Irv plays so well, he’s never beaten
And Lincoln says, “It’s ʼcause he’s cheatin’!”
(Chorus)

Last there’s a present for Alexandra,
Oh, what’s this? It’s a movie camera!
She films all the toys that have caused such tears
And writes Santa, “Please do better next year!”
(Chorus)

(Applause and pass the hot toddies.)

Santa Claus

photo: Bill McChesney, creative commons license

La-La Land

La La Land

Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling dancing in La-La Land

Opening scene: stalled traffic. A Los Angeles freeway at the dreaded standstill. Every car blasting a different aural vibe. What next? Road rage? Coughing fits? Valium-popping? Instead, you get the voice of one driver, smooth as honey, singing loud and clear. She climbs out of her car and starts to dance. Soon everyone is out of their cars—singing, dancing, skateboarding on the Jersey barrier. In other words, once traffic starts again, you’re in for a different kind of movie ride!

That’s a joyful suspension of disbelief moment there, true to the conventions of the movie musical. West Side Story is the only movie I’ve ever seen multiple times in the theater, each time wishing, hoping, praying that when Chino appears at the end with his gun, he’d bring along some different outcome. I recall a youthful knucklehead dismissing the film as unrealistic. Yeah, right. You either go with it you don’t. In the case of La-La Land, I did and hope you will.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle has put together a film (trailer), in which each musical number grows organically from the action on-screen. The music is more than just pleasant, with some memorable tunes.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are excellent in the leads roles and effective songsters for the style of their numbers. The dancing seems mostly theirs too. And they really sell it. Two strivers want to make it in tinseltown—he as a jazz pianist, she as an actress. Will they reach their dreams? Will their relationship survive the journey?

It may be a ride you’ve taken before, but it’s a smooth one. And, according to Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, it’s “a filmmaking trifecta—it hooks the heart, the eye, and the mind” that he says is even better when viewed the second time around.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences, 89%.

Winter Break: Quebec City

Chateau Frontenac

photo: Guillaume Cattiaux, creative commons license

Three nights in Québec City was a perfect post-Christmas getaway for three generations in our family. In warm coats, ear muffs, fur-lined gloves, tall boots, and ski-wear, we stayed comfortable, even though daytime temps were in the teens and low 20s and nighttime temps in the single digits. On Thursday, there was what in New Jersey would be termed a blizzard, but to the Québécois was just 18 inches more snow.

We stayed at historic Le Château Frontenac (take the hotel tour). Though there are other hotel choices that look charming, many Frontenac rooms have panoramic views of the St. Lawrence River—persuasive evidence for why this city was considered so strategic by the French and later the English. Québec is an Algonquin word that means “where the river narrows,” and it’s only a kilometer wide here, covered in snow now. We saw a canoe filled with crazy people row across.

A Great Lakes freighter slid past the city one morning, en route to Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, or possibly even Milwaukee, Chicago, or Duluth, since the Straits of Mackinac appear not yet impassable. (This ship tracker showed the John B. Aird going through this morning.)

At the Musée du Fort, you get an excellent bird’s eye view of the several battles that have been fought for control of this location. Presentations are in English and French. We also visited the Citadel on Cape Diamond to see for ourselves what the military leaders could observe. A general “could see everything he needed to see,” a six-year-old member of our party observed. It’s an active military base, home of the distinguished Royal 22nd Régiment Canadién Français.

The hotel has a thrilling toboggan run as well as indoor pool and hot tub for thawing out. Horse-drawn calèches right outside the front door offer an hour’s leisurely tour through the upper city. Excellent restaurants.

maple sugar popsicle

photo: Jaime Walker, creative commons license

The lower city is full of charming shops, restaurants, a bustling farmer’s market, and a funicular to transport you back to the top of the steep cliff.

Not to miss: snow candy! Outdoor vendors fill wooden trays or hollowed-out logs with crushed ice and snow, then pour on stripes of hot maple syrup. As it hardens almost immediately, it’s gathered up with a popsicle stick. Warm and cold at the same time—delicious!

Reading List

To understand the place of Quebec in U.S. history, two excellent reads are: