When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

20th Century Women & The Sense of an Ending

20th Century Women

20th Century Women

Zumann, Gerwig, Bening, Fanning, l to r

Pity the poor teenage boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in this film written and directed by Mike Mills and set in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s (trailer). He not only has a protective, chain-smoking single mother, Dorothea (played by Annette Bening), but she recruits his girl friend, one word, not two (Elle Fanning) and her boarder (Greta Gerwig) to help look out for him, to teach him “how to be a good man.”

Three moms could be a bit much, and is, but he is graceful under pressure, even when Gerwig inducts him into feminist thinking with Our Bodies, Our Selves. The resident handyman (Billy Crudup) could be a decent masculine role model, but he and Jamie just don’t connect.

The movie has a lot of cultural references to the 70s that may make you laugh or shake your head. A group of Dorothea’s friends sit around to listen to Jimmy Carter’s preachy bummer of a speech about the “crisis of confidence” among Americans and the need to get past rampant consumerism. This impolitic speech was reviled at the time (one of the characters says, “He is so f—–”)—and now sounds distressingly prescient.

The acting is A+, and “What is so special about Dorothea (and every character in the film) is that they aren’t ‘quirky’ in an annoying, independent film way,” says Sheila O’Malley for Rogerebert.com. They’re real people.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 88%; audiences: 75%.

The Sense of an Ending

Sense of an Ending

Rampling, Broadbent

Scriptwriter Nick Payne transformed Julian Barnes’s prize-winning novel into this movie (trailer) directed by Ritesh Batra about a self-absorbed Londoner and his growing obsession with a woman from his distant past. It appears he’d much rather be living there, with the frisson of youth and the sixties—than in his current divorced, not especially accomplished, late-middle-age state.

Tony Webster (played superbly by James Broadbent) becomes a voyeuristic observer of the life that might have been. He receives an unexpected letter from his former girlfriend’s mother telling him she’s bequeathed him the diary of his youthful best friend—the best friend who stole the girlfriend from him.

It’s an odd thing, but he becomes determined to get that diary, while the ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) is determined he not have it. The conflict sparks many nostalgic reminiscences about those days. It transpires that events were shatteringly different from how he has understood them all along.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife (Harriet Walter, who is in everything lately) is onto him, and his daughter (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary) is about to yank him back into the present by producing a grandchild.

Again, the cast is terrific, even if Webster himself is annoyingly oblivious, and the source material is strong. I have not read the book, but apparently Julian Barnes told the filmmakers not to be constrained by his text: “Throw the book against the wall,” he said. The critics seem to think they followed that advice rather too well.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 70%; audiences: 59%.

****My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend, dolls

photo: SherryRose, creative commons license

By Elena Ferrante – Innate stubbornness perhaps delayed my reading of this smash literary hit, Book One of Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan novels,” and I read it now only because my book club selected it. I couldn’t get past the cover, where The New York Times Book Review is quoted saying “One of the great novelists of our time” and The Sunday Times says, “Elena Ferrante has established herself as the foremost modern writer in Italy—and in the world.” So much hype must surely propel expectations to unreachable heights.

A lot to live up to.

I’ve read it now, and it is lovely. Not four books’ worth of lovely, perhaps, but I am glad I read this first one. (My book group members who have read on have mixed views about the experience.) It is the story of two young girls, Lila and Elena, up to and mostly through their adolescence. The writing, in translation from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is vivid and perceptive. An example:

“Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Papa, this is the day, this the night.”

The book’s most memorable feature for me is the strong sense of time and place—a claustrophobic neighborhood outside Naples shortly after World War II. The intermingled families that live there demanded a list of characters, and the one in the front of my copy is well-thumbed. How this community weathered, survived, and felt about the war never featured prominently, perhaps because of the child’s sensibility expressed in the quote above. Yet, it’s hard to believe the war experience wasn’t an almost-physical presence in the characters’ lives.

There are other holes in my understanding as well. Because Elena is the book’s narrator, the reader has less access to Lila’s quirky—and likely more interesting—consciousness, and her character never came into sharp focus for me.

Ferrante has been coy about her true identity, and speculation about who actually writes her books is rife. Given that “Elena Ferrante” is a made-up name, why did she assign her narrator, a would-be writer, the same name? Are we to believe this is quasi-memoir? That decision seemed unnecessarily obfuscating and mildly annoying.

Bottom line: Well worth reading at least this first book. After that . . . ?

Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express - Corduner

Allan Corduner as Hercule Poirot in McCarter Theatre Center’s Murder on the Orient Express; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Here’s a play for people who like fun! Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express, has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. This world premiere opened March 17 and is on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 2, directed by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann. Already the buzz about the show is at a high pitch, and it is reportedly on track to sell the most tickets in McCarter history. The popularity of the theater’s earlier foray into Christie-land, last year’s The Mousetrap, required an extended run.

Starting from the opening scene in an elegant Istanbul restaurant, the production design transports you to the menacing—and in Ludwig’s adaptation, humor-laced—world of the story. Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt has created a stunning representation of the ill-fated train, the luxe Orient Express, for the cast to play on. Beautifully surmounting the technical difficulties of staging a play whose action mostly occurs on a train, the cars move, the snow falls, the whistle blows, and you are off on a theatrical adventure.

In true Christie (and cozy mystery) style, the violence is minimal, clues are everywhere, red herrings and all, and the ensemble cast is peopled with quirky characters, confined in a setting where every interaction is significant. All gather for the final dramatic reveal, led by Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Allan Corduner), in the train’s dining car.

The cast includes an exiled Russian princess (Veanne Cox), a Parisian conductor (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a showtune-singing, multiply-married, Minneapolis mahjongg-player (Julie Halston), a dewey nanny (Susannah Hoffman), a glamorous Hungarian countess (Alexandra Silber), an English manservant/secretary (Juha Sorola), an African missionary (Samantha Steinmetz), a military veteran and the murder victim (Max von Essen), and the manager of the Wagon-Lits company, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes).

In order to preserve his company’s reputation, Monsieur Bouc is determined to enlist Poirot in solving the murder of an American gangster stabbed in his sleeping car. Poirot finds himself presented with too many clues, and it’s delightful to see Carduner and the cast sort through the information and disinformation presented. Each of the actors brings verve and sharp definition to their performances, especially noting Corduner, Halston, and Silber.

In attendance on opening night was Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Dame Agatha and in charge of her estate. In pre-opening conversations, Pritchard said his grandmother had a great appreciation and love of live theater. How effectively her work transitions to this medium testifies to that sensibility. He commissioned Ludwig to choose one of her stories for a stage adaptation, and Orient was Ludwig’s first choice. Not only is it a story not previously presented on stage, the unusual setting, the striking characters, and dramatic plot create the “sense of occasion” Ludwig strives for.

In addition to Boritt’s glamorous set, the production enjoys wonderful costumes by six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long.

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

Land of Mine (Under Sandet)

Land of Mine, DenmarkThis multiply-honored Danish-German movie from Martin Zandvliet (trailer) also could have been titled Land of Mines, since it is based on Denmark’s real post-World War II program that used POWs to clear the mines the Germans laid up and down the Danes’ western seacoast. Apparently, someone in Hitler’s command believed the Allied invasion might take place there, and when the war was over, the mines had to go.

In real life, we’re told, some 2,000 prisoners were given the task of clearing the beaches of 1.5 million mines—a task New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott terms “intuitively fair and obviously cruel.” About half of these former soldiers, many of whom were mere teenagers, died or were seriously injured in the process.

This movie, which has subtitles, is about 14 such prisoners and not easy to watch. Lacking the Hollywood cues that typically signal when disaster’s coming and who will be next to die, every moment of training, every defusing of a mine, every run on the beach is tension-filled. Hardass Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (played by Roland Møller) doesn’t think these prisoners should get by with a thing, and he works them hard. The story, then, is about how he gradually comes to see them as the young boys they are.

The Danes are justly praised for saving the vast majority of their Jews in World War II, despite the country’s occupation by the German army, but this almost forgotten episode shows a darker side. Not everyone is capable of compassion or of easy forgiveness. And where should the Sergeant’s loyalties lie? With his countrymen (and the rest of humanity) who have suffered at the hands of the Nazis or with the boys now under his absolute command?

The boys condemned to this excruciating duty, with its meager diet and the receding possibility they will ever return home, are portrayed by a fourteen young actors—including a pair of twins—who are utterly believable. Is their deadly task necessity or punishment? How much bravery is required just to persevere?

A recent Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Land of Mine was shot on location on the Danish coast. A real mine—one missed by the young searchers more than 70 years ago—was discovered during filming.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics rating 89%; audiences 89%.

****The Accusation

North Korea, flags

photo: (stephan), creative commons license

By Bandi – Dubbed “the Solzhenitsyn of Pyongyang,” Bandi is the pseudonym of a dissident North Korean author, and these are the first published stories written by a person still living under that repressive regime.

The seven stories in this collection were written between 1989 and 1995, a particularly bleak period at the start of a severe five-year famine, when Great Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father ruled the country. Like the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, the stories share commonalities both in the psychological challenges their protagonists face and in the external environment they must negotiate. These common themes create an indelible impression of Bandi’s world.

Paranoia is prominent. A person who deviates from expectations in any way or complains about anything, significant or trivial, risks being observed, reported, and denounced. The actor in the story “On Stage” titles Act One of his satirical—and dangerous—skit: “It Hurts, Hahaha,” and Act Two: “It Tickles, Boohoo!”—to underscore how people must act according to expectations and contrary to their true feelings. This stunt, predictably, ends in disgrace.

Denunciation can lead to banishment from the city to a life of extreme privation in the country, even death. But death does not end a family’s downfall. A father’s error curtails the educational and occupational prospects for his children and grandchildren, as described in the collection’s first story, “Record of a Defection,” in which a family risks everything to try to escape this collective fate.

Winters are bitter, food is never plentiful, and loudspeakers harangue the population. Their constantly blaring messages from the government are full of “alternative facts.”

The stories were translated by Deborah Smith, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Bandi’s writing style is markedly different from that of Western fiction, with little description and with character development mainly through action and dialog. This bracing style fits material with so much implicit drama and heartache. (For a more immersive approach, you might read the richly plotted Pulitzer Prize-winning Adam Johnson novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which also puts North Korea’s absurdities and ironies on full display.)

Do Bandi’s stories give the impression that the North Korean people recognize the peculiar nature of their system and its injustices? Absolutely. And if the people are called upon to fulfill some outrageous government edict, will they break their backs trying to do so? Absolutely.

The story of how the book came to be smuggled out of the country and ultimately found its way into print is an exciting tale in itself, included as an afterword. For that heroic effort alone, the book is worthy of attention. It also can’t hurt to foster greater understanding of the suffering that ensues when totalitarian leadership proceeds to its natural end-state. The North Korea Bandi describes is one Westerners may have difficulty comprehending, yet the fact that in 2017 it exists at all proves it is not impossible.

A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom

Rosamund Pike & David Oyelowo

“Whither thou goest, I will go; and whither thou lodgest I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” So said Ruth in the Old Testament and English clerical worker Ruth Williams lived them, when her beloved asked her to marry him. This beautifully done film about conflicting loyalties in the midst of implacable racism and power politics (trailer) was directed by Amma Assante and written by Guy Hibbert, based on the true story of Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Bechuanaland.

It takes place just after World War II, and the marriage was complicated. He was an African prince, and though she would become Queen of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), they were the only people who believed in the strength and staying power of their love. Botswana is the gentle landlocked nation north of South Africa, made vividly famous by Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. But when Ruth and Seretse traveled there from England, where he’d been studying, tensions were high. Some—notably his uncle and regent—opposed his marrying a white woman. Some—notably the British overseers of the protectorate—feared a reaction by the emergent apartheid government to the South. Opposition by those racist leaders would threaten the U.K.’s revenues from the South African diamond and gold mines. Promises were broken, but not Seretse and Ruth’s promises to each other.

The intransigence and overweening self-interest of colonial governments is all too predictable, yet there are voices in favor of Bechuanaland’s right to self-determination. Will they be loud enough? Will the Africans ever accept an English queen? Can Seretse secure his people’s future? My ignorance of African politics over a half-century ago meant the movie held surprises, even though the plot hews closely to real events.

David Oyelowo stars as Seretse Khama and helped produce the film, with Rosamund Pike as Ruth—quite a change from her portrayal as Gone Girl’s manipulative Amy. She can convey so much with just a slight quivering of the chin. Laura Carmichael is her loving sister, and Jack Davenport, their principal British antagonist.

This is quite a lovely film, with top-notch acting and beautiful scenery, bound up by ties of love between people and peoples.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 82%.

From the Netflix Movie Vault

Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Postcards from the EdgeThese two interesting movies couldn’t be more different, though both are based on best-selling books and turn on the unlikely matter of insurance. The more fun was Postcards from the Edge (1990), which, through a horrible coincidence, arrived just after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. Postcards is based very loosely on Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the obvious question is whether Reynolds was “really like that.”  Fisher said not and, suffice it to say, when Reynolds wanted to play the mother in the movie, director Mike Nichols told her she wasn’t right for it. (Nice Vanity Fair story here about the real mother-daughter relationship.)

I was apprehensive about sitting through another Hollywood druggie movie, even one billed as a comedy-drama (trailer), but in the first moments Meryl Streep walks into the frame, and I knew I’d be in good hands. Not only her performance as Suzanne Vale (Fisher), but Shirley MacLaine’s as Suzanne’s wine-drinking, self-absorbed, hyper-critical mother make the film worth seeing. Small roles for Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid are fun too. The strength of the performances means the movie holds up, nearly 30 years after it was made.

After a disastrous overdose, a stint in rehab helps Suzanne get her act together, but the only way anyone will give her another role is if she lives “supervised”—that is, with Mom. Otherwise, the studio will never be able get insurance for her. Returning to Mom ain’t easy. While you can see she totally adores her mother, she fears being “sucked into her massive orbit,” as Hunter Harris said in Vulture. Despite Suzanne’s shaky grip on herself, Streep plays it so you can’t help rooting for her, and you know she’ll come out all right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences 66%. (Interesting split there.)

In-The-Heart-Of-The-SeaBy contrast, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea (trailer) is pretty darn depressing, if less emotionally engaging. It’s a seafaring adventure film about the 1819, real-life voyage of the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While hunting whales in the South Pacific, the hunters enrage an enormous white sperm whale—virtually as long as the Essex itself—that takes its revenge on the ship, its whaleboats, and the crew. The Essex sinks, and the three remaining whaleboats struggle toward the coast of South America. Eventually, only eight crewmen make it back to Nantucket. Sound familiar?

The framing device of the story is that young author Herman Melville has an all-night interview with Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy and last surviving crew member. For decades, he has been keeping the secret of what actually occurred on the voyage and the desperate return trip. The ship owners, rather than have the world think whaling is too dangerous to invest in or insure (!) maintain the ship was lost when it ran aground.

But Melville is following rumors there’s more to the story, and by the time he leaves Nickerson’s company is determined to write what becomes The Great American Novel, Moby Dick (1851). In real life, both Nickerson and the first mate, Owen Chase, published accounts of the ill-fated trip, and these did inspire Melville’s book.

The film has exciting special effects—storms at sea, overhead views of the ship and the whales. Whale-killing is an unsavory business, and viewers can only be glad smellovision has not been invented. Good performances from Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aging sailor. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the Essex’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) very compelling, and I don’t know whether that was because of wooden performances or a bad script. Director Ron Howard clearly aspired for more here. As a fan of seagoing adventures, I wish he’d achieved it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 42%; audiences 53%.

Lion

Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

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.