On Stage: Crowns

Crowns

photo: © T Charles Erickson Photography

Fifteen years ago, McCarter Theatre premiered Regina Taylor’s original Crowns, which has become one of the country’s most-produced musicals. Currently on stage at McCarter until April 1 is an entirely new version of Crowns, again written and directed by Regina Taylor.

Although, as McCarter artistic director Emily Mann says, Crowns is “a joyful, brilliant expression of the past and present lives of African-American women,” the emotional subtext of the story is universal, and the production offers a rousing, end-of-winter uplift. If you recall the original Crowns, you’ll remember the title refers to the extravagant hats worn by African-American women, especially to church, and you’ll appreciate Caite Hevner’s set design that imaginatively incorporates hats by the dozen.

Much more than a tale about headgear, Crowns remains a story about attitude and about asserting individuality when society wants you to be invisible. The hats are a touchstone for memory too, enabling their wearers to reconnect with past experiences, good and bad, with failures and triumphs. Taylor has said that “hats reveal and they conceal,” and in her play, they do both.

Taylor has brought the play into the present by combining the hip-hop of a 17-year-old Chicago girl, Yolanda (played by Gabrielle Beckford), with the gospel of her South Carolina grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison). Yolanda is sent to stay with her grandmother after her brother is murdered in a drug deal gone bad. However, she’s impervious to the support and love offered by her granny and the women of the community, the Hat Queens. “Talk about it,” they sing, but Yolanda won’t, can’t.

Loosely structured around the elements of a church service, the women cast members (Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, and Danielle K. Thomas) are lively story-tellers and singers, and Crawford brings down the house with her rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Any of them could teach a master class in movement. The one male cast-member (Lawrence Clayton) plays multiple roles, donning different personalities as easily as his different hats.

Providing the propulsive energy for the almost non-stop music, much of it original for this production, are Jaret Landon on keyboards and trumpet and David Pleasant on percussion. Alas, on opening night, the “accompaniment” sometimes overpowered the singers. The production makes fine use of projections, which transform the single set from Chicago’s streets, to Mother Shaw’s church, to a South Carolina high school, and much more. Parts of Yolanda’s raps are projected in chalk letters too.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two new restaurants.

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

Trying: A Play by Joanna Glass

The story of 20th century figure Judge Francis Biddle comes alive in Trying, an engaging play by Joanna McClelland Glass, who was Biddle’s assistant during his last year of life. On stage at the George Street Playhouse through April 8, the play is directed by Jim Jack.

It has an apt title, because the irascible judge was very trying during this period, plagued by illnesses, painful arthritis, and growing infirmities. But he also wanted to finish his memoirs, and Glass (in the play, her character’s name is Sarah) must cajole and persuade and badger him to “try.” She learns to work with the prickly, demanding Biddle, and they develop a strong mutual affection and a relationship that contains a healthy dose of humor.

Biddle was the quintessential “Philadelphia lawyer,” accomplished, educated at elite U.S. institutions and related to or acquainted with a significant number of the country’s patrician leaders. He served numerous posts in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, including as U.S. Solicitor General and U.S. Attorney General.

When the internment of Japanese-Americans was proposed, he initially opposed it, and regretted his later support. (In the play, he expresses this regret and said that episode is where he learned to mistrust the phrase “military necessity.”) He took actions to support African-American civil rights. Perhaps his most notable achievements were as America’s chief judge at the post-World War II Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis. The lobby displays posters with a number of his strong human rights quotations.

Ironically, Glass says in her notes accompanying the play, at the end of his life the two events that preoccupied him were the deaths that robbed him of a young son and his own father when he was six. The lost opportunities to know those two people haunted him.

Even though there are only two actors in the cast, the story clicks right along. Biddle—“81 years old, elegant, sharply cantankerous, and trying to put his life in order”—is played by Philip Goodwin, with increasing frailty of body, but not of spirit, and Cary Zien plays off him well as a sympathetic and energetic young Sarah. The set design conveys the passage of time, with the changing weather and flora outside the window, and though spring arrives and the days grow longer, they are a constant reminder that Biddle’s days are coming to an end.

This is a lovely play, and gives audiences a lot to think about, with respect to the contributions a single person can make—Biddle in his legal career and Glass with her acute perceptions about what constitutes a well-lived life.

ICYMThem: The Good and the Bad of Recent Biopics

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Annette BeningThis beneath-the-radar film directed by Paul McGuigan (script by Matt Greenhalgh) shows  the last days of Academy-Award-winning actress Gloria Grahame (trailer). In her final illness, she turns to a former lover, the much younger actor, Peter Turner, and the flashbacks about their relationship in its heyday are sparkling and fun. They knew how to enjoy life and each other.

Annette Bening makes a charming, sexy Grahame, riddled with vanities, and Jamie Bell is Turner—sincere and doing the right thing. One heart-rending moment of unselfish love and compassion from each of them. Julie Walters is excellent as Turner’s mother, unaccustomed to consorting with Hollywood stars, but able to establish a strong human connection.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 80%; audiences 71%.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Mark Felt, Liam Neeson, phone boothWhile Watergate revelations piled up daily in the early 1970s, in all the excruciating details of high-level misdeeds, one mystery remained: Who was the high-ranking source, “Deep Throat”? Washington Post reporters gave this name to one of history’s most important whistle-blowers.

Thirty years later Americans learned the source had been Mark Felt, J. Edgar Hoover’s #2, the man expected to next head the FBI. Felt was aced out of the position by the White House when Hoover died unexpectedly. Were his actions revenge? Or more noble? I saw the film and cannot answer that.

This is great material about a consequential period. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t make better use of it. Liam Neeson (Felt) looks cadaverous, and writer/director Peter Landesman gives the actors some really wooden dialog, offering little depth (trailer).

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating 35%; audiences 43%.

Marshall

Marshall - Chadwick BosemanAnother biopic that doesn’t live up to its source material is Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, written by Jacob and Michael Koskoff (trailer). Chadwick Boseman nicely plays Thurgood Marshall in his early days, fighting for equal treatment under the law for black Americans. He finds a litigation partner in a reluctant Sam Friedman (played by Josh Gad. The acting is fine, but the scenes and dialog are clichéd, and the rest of the characters two-dimensional.

End-titles mention the 33 cases Marshall argued before the Supreme Court—surely there were numerous episodes embedded in those cases that would bring new issues to light, more illuminating than the courtroom drama presented here: a black man accused of raping and trying to kill a white woman. It would have been interesting to see how the nation’s top court responded to civil rights issues, rather than the predictable provincial racism of a local justice system. We’ve seen that scenario before. Says critic Indra Arriaga in the Anchorage Press, “Marshall misses opportunity after opportunity to be truthful and relevant in the world today.”

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 83%; audiences 85%.

Read the Book?

Oscar-Ready? The Long & the Short of It: Call Me by Your Name & the Live-Action Shorts

Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

Timothée Chalamet & Armie Hammer

This languorous film based on James Ivory’s adaptation of a novel by André Aciman and directed by Luc Guadagnino (trailer) conjures all the steamy possibilities of youth in summertime. The drowsily buzzing flies, lying in tall grass whose sun-baked scent practically wafts over the audience, the lure of the river’s cool and limpid water, outdoor dinners on the patio. Guadagnino makes best use of his setting “somewhere in northern Italy.”

Timothée Chalamet has received well-deserved raves for his portrayal of Elio Perlman, the 17-year-old son of two intellectuals (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). He beautifully portrays the confusions of late adolescence, diffidence alternating with aggression, the attraction both to Parisian Marzia (Esther Garrel) and, more strongly, to his father’s summer intern Oliver (Armie Hammer). He also plays the piano with bravura skill. “Is there anything you can’t do?” Oliver asks him and the same question might be put to Chalamet. All the music works, from Chalamet’s playing, to the soundtrack, to dance tunes broadcast on tinny car radios.

The attraction between Elio and Oliver is immediate, but builds slowly, and when they finally do reveal how they feel, “the moment makes you hold your breath with its intimate power,” says Christy Lemire for RogerEbert.com, “and the emotions feel completely authentic and earned.” And from there, to a final few days together, their emotional strength symbolized, perhaps, by the shift from the still waters of the swimming hole to crashing mountain waterfalls. Elio’s father is given an excellent, warmhearted speech to his son about the value of powerful feelings, even wretched ones.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 96%; audiences, 86%.

LIVE-ACTION SHORTS
The five Oscar-nominated live action shorts this year have a “ripped from the headlines” feeling,  with three of them based on real events. ShortsTV has trailers for all five.

DeKalb Elementary, by U.S. filmmaker Reed Van Dyk came with a trigger warning. It shows a white shooter entering a school and how the black receptionist, through a combination of kindness and cunning, has to try to talk him out of carrying out either violence against the children or suicide-by-cop. Inspired by a 2013 incident in Georgia. (20 minutes)

With The Silent Child, U.K. filmmakers Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton make the case for teaching deaf children sign language, using the story of a sweet young girl whose parents expect her only to lipread. She comes out of her shell when she’s tutored by a sensitive aide. (20 minutes)

My Nephew Emmett recounts the tragic story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black child from Chicago murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after somehow offending a white woman. Though the story is a touchstone of Civil Rights outrage, U.S. filmmaker Kevin Wilson, Jr., gives it fresh interest by telling it from the uncle’s point of view. (20 minutes)

The Eleven o’Clock is a hilarious demonstration of confused communication. A psychiatrist, waiting for his new patient, knows only that the man believes he too is a psychiatrist. The encounter between the two of them, each trying to establish clinical control, is cleverly constructed by Australian filmmakers Derin Seale and Josh Lawson. (13 minutes)

In Watu Wote/All of Us, also based on a real episode, German filmmakers Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen show a Christian woman’s uneasy interactions with her Muslim fellow-passengers on a long busride through the Kenyan countryside. Then the bus is stopped by well-armed Islamic militants bent on murdering non-Muslims. (22 minutes)

Try to see some of these excellent short films!

Award-Nominated Movies: The Shape of Water & The Greatest Showman

Shape of WaterThe Shape of Water
The acting alone is a good reason to see writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy (trailer), written with Vanessa Taylor, although the origins of the story are now in dispute. The film received 13 Academy Award nominations, the most for any 2017 movie, including best picture, writing, directing, best actress, best supporting actor and actress (Jenkins and Spencer), cinematography, and costumes.

Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins, who was terrific last year in Maudie) plays a mute young woman who, with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a cleaner at a sketchy 1960s military research facility. The researchers bring in a merman-like creature (the unrecognizable Doug Jones) found in the Amazon, whom they mistreat, believing him violent, but whom Elisa befriends. If you’ve seen the previews, you get the idea.

Playing the heavy is a furious Michael Shannon,  Elisa’s neighbor and friend is Richard Jenkins, and a scientist more interested in saving the “monster” than killing him is Michael Stuhlbarg. All three are super!

Even if you aren’t a fantasy fan, there’s lots of drama and a warm core to this film you may enjoy. I did. As “an enchanting reimagining of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ it is an unforgettably romantic, utterly sublime, dazzling phantasmagoria,” said Colin Covert, reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences, 78%.

Greatest Showman The Greatest Showman
By contrast, this movie musical of the P.T. Barnum story (trailer) directed by Michael Gracey disappointed, especially because the songs were by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (fellow U-Mich grads!) who wrote lyrics for La La Land and music and lyrics for the Tony-winning Broadway hit, Dear Evan Hansen.

Talented Hugh Jackman (as Barnum) sells it, but there’s little “it” there. He apparently wanted to do Barnum’s story for some time, but couldn’t get backing. Although the film received three Golden Globe nominations (best musical or comedy, best actor in a musical or comedy for Jackman) and won for best song (Pasek and Paul), Oscar took a pass.

You may enjoy the movie’s spectacle aspects, but it will require you to pause your brain. Plot holes make it hard to stay interested in the story, which is in part Barnum’s highly fictionalized career and in part the love story between him and his wife (nicely played by Michelle Williams).

OK, it’s a musical, so it’s the musical numbers that should shine. The pop-music songs were just bearable until Barnum met The Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). She has an eye-roller of a pop number (lip-synced, by the way; the real singer is Loren Allred), so contrary to how an internationally famous singer in 1850 would have sounded that the artifice of the whole production collapses under its own absurdity. As San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle wrote, “It’s an awful mess, but it’s flashy,” calling it “The perfect realization of a really bad idea.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 55%; audiences: 89%.

The Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

(photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license)

Do whatever it takes to see the short documentary films nominated for Academy Awards this year! All five involve thought-provoking situations and introduce you to some remarkable Americans.

Traffic Stop (Kate Davis & David Heilbroner for HBO, 30 minutes)
The filmmakers gain access to police dashboard camera footage showing a white Austin, Texas, policeman aggressively subduing a black woman stopped for speeding. He loses it. She loses it. The woman, Breaion King, is an elementary schoolteacher, and we see her in the classroom and in her dance class, and learn what kind of person she is. I wish we had the same 360° picture of the officer. Even so, it’s complicated, with tons of subtext. (See it here.)

Edith + Eddie (Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights, 29 minutes)
This film should be marketed as a cure for low blood pressure (trailer). The filmmakers were recording a charming pair of 95-year-old Alexandria, Virginia, newlyweds just as their lives fell apart. A daughter living in Florida finagled a court-appointed guardianship for her mother, and the guardian—paid out of Edith’s estate—demanded that the elderly woman be flown to Florida against her will “for evaluation.” The guardian concluded without seeing Edith that she was not safe living in her own home with her husband. (More about this hair-raising issue here.)

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, 40 minutes)
In this extraordinary film portrait, artist Mindy Alper describes her struggles with mental illness and her commitment to pursue her art. Both through her art and in fascinating, surprisingly upbeat interviews, she communicates in a unique way. She has had a succession of gifted teachers to support her artistic development, and the film shows preparations for a gallery show of her work. One piece, a large papier-mâché portrait of her therapist, brought tears to my eyes for the compassion and love it shows. (See the documentary here.)

Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon for Neflix and the Center for Investigative Reporting, 39 minutes)
Huntington, West Virginia, is the epicenter of U.S. heroin drug deaths, and this film (find the trailer here; view the film on Netflix) shows three heroic women fighting for the community. Jan Rader, a nurse and EMT, attends five or six overdose cases almost daily. Thanks to Narcan, not all are fatal. The city’s drug court is presided over by judge Patricia Keller, both compassionate and no-nonsense. Her goal is to get people back on track, whatever way she can. Necia Freeman started her “brown bag ministry” to help women selling their bodies for drugs. All three are amazing rays of hope in a devastating situation. (More about West Virginia’s epidemic here.)

Edwin's, restaurantKnife Skills (Thomas Lennon, 40 minutes)
The Cleveland restaurant, Edwin’s, and its culinary training school were started by Brandon Chrostowski (see the documentary here). He had early brushes with the law and used a judge’s second chance to turn his life around. Edwin’s hires former prison inmates and trains them for jobs in the kitchen and front-of-house. It trains about 100 ex-prisoners a year, who are taught the fine points of haut cuisine and learn about wines and cheeses. This kitchen is not three guys with a microwave, it’s chopping  and deboning and saucing and plating, and the workers mostly love it. So do Cleveland diners. Oh, and recidivism rates among Edwin’s trainees? Extremely low.

American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.

The Band’s Visit

The Band's VisitIf you saw the award-winning 2007 Israeli movie The Band’s Visit, you’ll recall what a charming story lies behind this new musical, directed by David Cromer, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (video clip).

The eight-man Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Alexandria, Egypt, is invited to Israel to play at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva. Due to a language mix-up, the band members end up in the desolate, nothing-happening-here desert town of Beit Hatikva.

There is no hotel, only a tiny restaurant, and no transportation to their correct destination until for another day. With varying degrees of wariness and acceptance, the townspeople take them in and, suffice it to say, everyone learns something. The leading roles are played by Tony Shalhoub as the band leader and Karina Lenk as the bored restaurant owner, with a large and accomplished supporting cast of actors and actor-musicians.

As it’s a musical, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses, there are the requisite singing numbers, as well as numerous opportunities for one or two or three of the band members to play in background, often a folk-derived tune. Those are especially nice.

The production is receiving much positive attention and already considered a shoo-in for several Tony awards, perhaps partly because of its heartwarming message, as well as some endearing performances. The movie was funnier, though, and at times the background music overpowered the singing, so I couldn’t catch the lyrics. Lenk sits awkwardly and undulates a little too much a little too often in some scenes (is she feeling the music?). The contrast between her sensuality and the stiffly upright band leader is evident without that.

This is one of the new 90-minute, no intermission entertainments that are increasingly popular and a good-hearted, pleasing hour and half it is. But you say you’re not in New York? Watch for the touring production already booked in major cities around the country, starting next year.

Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”

House-of-Cards

Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

From the Department of Free Association . . .

. . . and so we have this recent Atlantic article about how continued exposure to the perfidies of the current administration is causing ‘outrage fatigue.’ Say it isn’t so.

 

The Rouge: Industrial Architecture Icon

The Rouge, Michael Kenna

photo used wall-size to open the exhibit – © Michael Kenna

The Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit of evocative photos of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, remains on display through February 11. British photographer Michael Kenna became enamored of the Rouge in the early 1990s—past the time when auto manufacturing there was at its peak. At that time and before automation, the plant employed some 100,000 workers a day—including my grandfather, his neighbors, and several of my uncles.

Kenna especially liked to photograph the Rouge at night and in frigid weather, when the temperature turns the heat and steam into clouds whose buoyancy contrasts with the solidity of the structures. The museum has a large collection of these photographs, which, in documenting this famous landmark by industrial architect Albert Kahn (“the architect of Detroit”), shows today’s Rouge and its “complicated status as a symbol of industrial decay and endurance.”

The Rouge was a mile long and took in raw materials from massive Great Lakes freighters at one end, and finished automobiles rolled out the other. It had its own steel- and glass-making plants, and its eight-towered Powerhouse produced enough electricity to serve a city of a million residents. My grandfather walked to work at the Rouge every day, and my father and his sibs swam in the Rouge River (not recommended).

As Kenna photographed, “Parts of the Rouge were active and quite dangerous with moving cranes, trains, and enormous containers of molten steel and slag. Other parts were disused and quiet, rusting and decaying, with vegetation growing in and around long-abandoned machinery.” Some of the vegetation is purposeful. Land around the Rouge has been turned into sunflower fields, with the flower-heads harvested to make oil that is used in today’s manufacturing processes.

It isn’t a huge exhibit, but the photos are so powerful, you can almost smell hot metal and hear the hissing steam and clanking machinery.