Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance, Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance as the King

What a treat to see Mark Rylance in this new play, written by his wife Claire Van Kampen, playing at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre. Rylance is one of those superb actors who can communicate a galaxy of information with a raised eyebrow or a stutter. (Rylance was unforgettable as Thomas Cromwell in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall and as the preternaturally calm Soviet spy in the movie Bridge of Spies).

This play is based on the maladies of Spain’s French King Philippe V (Rylance), who lived from 1683 to 1746. He stayed in power for nearly 50 years, despite crippling depression and delusions, and his psychic demons could be tamed only by the soothing sounds of music—specifically, the angelic, ethereal, and genderless voice of castrato singer Farinelli (Sam Crane)—a sound, thankfully, now lost to us. In the play, Farinelli is lured to the court by the king’s Italian wife Isabella (Melody Grove—now there’s an appropriate name!). His courtiers, not surprisingly, would far rather he abdicate. But he does not.

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

Iestyn Davis & Sam Crane as Farinelli

The actual singing is performed by countertenor Iestyn Davis (read more here), in New York after a season at the Met. He appears behind or alongside Crane in an identical costume, as a sort of corporeal alter ego, a device that works fine. It is theater, after all.

In addition to Rylance, Grove, and Crane, we enjoyed seeing Simon Jones again, a blustery Col. Pickering in McCarter Theatre Center’s My Fair Lady a few seasons back.

The play opens with the king fishing for a goldfish in a bowl. No wonder his ministers have their doubts! Isabella is devoted to him, but her devotion is constantly tested and found to have limits. The preoccupations and imaginings of the king are sometimes brilliantly on point, sometimes hilarious, sometimes clear only to himself. He seems genuinely to want to do right, but has lost the capacity to know how.

This sad and antic drama plays out in a rich setting, filled with period music. Adding to the intimate feel, a number of audience members have on-stage box seats, and the players interact a bit with audience members in the aisles. The audience plays its own part too, as the audience for a Farinelli concert. In addition to the play itself and the music, the beauty of the staging, the costumes, and the exquisite set design, with candles!, all contribute to a truly “theatrical” experience.

Lady Bird & I, Tonya

Both these movies have garnered impressive award nominations, but if you have “mommy issues,” you may want to make a different pick.

Saoirse Ronan & Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig (trailer), Lady Bird is beautifully portrayed by Saoirse Ronan (Golden Globe winner) as teenage Lady Bird and painfully so by Laurie Metcalf (Golden Globe nominee) as her mother. The mother, apparently a psychiatric nurse, has a remarkably limited array of skills in dealing with her adolescent daughter. She certainly knows how to criticize and brow-beat, though, even as she hates the words coming out of her mouth.

Tracy Letts is a huggable, mostly ineffectual father, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet are Lady Bird’s early, disastrous loves, and Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush are sometime high school besties at opposite ends of the cool-kids spectrum.

Attending a Catholic girls school and desperate to escape Sacramento, Lady Bird’s determination to fly to more receptive, less suffocating surroundings will resonate with many (especially female) viewers. For economic and so many other reasons, her mother is determined she stay. The importance of this quest must have touched a chord with critics and with audiences, as it won the Golden Globe for best comedy, and Gerwig was nominated for the screenplay.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: a whopping 99%; audiences: 82%.

I, Tonya

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

Director Craig Gillespie’s Golden Globe-nominated biopic about national figure-skating champion Tonya Harding—who never fit the little princess image of the figure skater, nor wanted to—takes the mommy problem to another level (trailer).

Tonya (Margot Robbie, Golden Globe nomination) is raised by a chain-smoking mother (Allison Janney, Golden Globe winner) who never gave an inch and wasn’t above hitting Tonya when her words didn’t cut deep enough. Tonya’s eventual “escape” was into a violent marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

This movie is also billed as a comedy, oddly, though Gillooly’s inept friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), who’s convinced himself he’s an international terrorism expert, and the media personality played by Bobby Cannavale are hilarious. The plans to mess with Tonya’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan go wildly awry—but would be funny only to people who don’t understand the many sacrifices and tremendous effort necessary to skate at her level.

The script written by Steven Rogers is compassionate toward Tonya and based on lengthy current-day interviews with the principals—do you wonder, has she changed?—who promise to reveal what “really” happened in Tonya’s life. Their conflicting stories are, of course, riddled with self-justification, leaving you to decide whom to believe. It’s not much of a spoiler to say you won’t believe the mother.

If you remember the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan at the national figure-skating championships in Detroit (I was there!), orchestrated by Gillooly, the movie may make you think differently about that incident. Tonya was never loveable; now we know why.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, MissouriOn a drive through the American South some years ago, British writer-director Martin McDonagh saw a set of billboards that challenged the authorities similar to the way the sheriff of Ebbing, Missouri, is challenged in this film (trailer). The rage they embodied stayed with him, and although this film is billed as a black comedy, don’t go looking for belly laughs. Its true subject is heartbreak.

With an intelligent script that’s perhaps a few minutes too long, McDonagh’s characters’ actions impinge on others like billiard balls knocking about on the table. Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand—a genius at portraying tough, uncompromising women) intends for her actions to affect others when she pays for three billboards to be pasted up on a remote stretch of road outside town, blood red and anger-filled: “Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Sheriff Willoughby?” Guilt and anger are written just as clearly on her unsmiling face.

The sheriff’s deputies, accustomed to have their way in all local matters, great and small, are offended. They want her to take them down. Of course she won’t. One of them, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is an overgrown boy, prey to his every violent whim and McDonagh gives him a complex character arc.

Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has other troubles on his mind and, while it’s true he hasn’t made progress in solving Angela Hayes’s murder, it isn’t true that he hasn’t tried. Although his place in their world is the slipperiest, he has the best sense of what that place is.

Several supporting roles are equally powerful (I especially liked Mildred’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend), and there are some laughs—people being their natural selves can be hilarious, usually without realizing it. Though a broken heart manifests itself differently in all three main characters, it’s Sheriff Willoughby who points the way to healing. Already the film has received numerous awards and nominations, including the Golden Globe for best motion picture drama, with Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Martin McDonagh (screenplay) winners too. Well worth the time.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 87%.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Last year, McCarter Theatre Center’s revamped its annual production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the first time in almost two decades. This season is the second with the update, and the new version is really coming into its own. Director Adam Immerwahr has achieved a solid Victorian England vibe for this sparkling production, which runs through December 31.

Immerwahr’s intent is to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.” He has filled it with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era.” Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play.”

The show manages to be both different with fresh sets and staging and familiar, retaining the adaptation by award-winning  playwright David Thompson. Ebenezer Scrooge (played to perfection by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider) never more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, never more lively. Dickens’s work is stuffed with memorable characters, giving special mention of Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jin Song), Solicitor David/Mr. Fezziwig (Thom Sesma), Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford), and Mrs. Fezziwig/Lady Char/Laundress (Anne L. Nathan). Though many parts amount to a cameo, all were quite up to snuff.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there, how the Ghost of Christmas Past (Adeline Edwards) reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi B. Francis) shows him how others, especially the Cratchits live now; and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Christopher Livingston, who also plays young Marley) lays out a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Michael Genet) has my favorite line from the story, the sententious “I wear the chains I forged in life.” The dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a new man.

The cast is augmented by a 36-member community and youth ensemble, whose members greet theater-goers, sing carols, ring bells, and dance exuberantly! The entire audience becomes involved, with the singing of a carol at the beginning and end of the performance.

Production credits to Daniel Ostling (set design); Michael Friedman (composer); Charles Sundquist (musical direction); Darron L. West (sound design); Lorin Latarro (choreography); Linda Cho (costumes); Lap Chi Chu (lighting); Jeremy Chernick (special effects); and Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach).

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

The Craftsman

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665

The world premiere of Bruce Graham’s play The Craftsman, held over until December 17 at the Lantern Theater Company in Center City Philadelphia, explores a thought-provoking dilemma from the fine art world.

You may remember the post-World War II scandal created by an exceedingly minor Dutch artist (Han van Meegeren) charged with high treason for stealing his country’s cultural heritage. He’d sold hitherto undiscovered paintings by Johannes Vermeer out of the country, one of them to German Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The crime was the more heinous because of the very small number of Vermeer’s works. Only 34 of his confirmed paintings survive.

At his trial, Van Meegeren mounted an unexpected and now-famous defense that shook the art worlds in The Netherlands and beyond. He claimed he painted the “Vermeers” he sold himself. The critics who’d authenticated the works wouldn’t back down, making the trial a legendary showdown.

The Craftsman, directed by M. Craig Getting, covers the arrest of van Meegeren (played expertly by Anthony Lawton) by former Dutch Resistance officer, Joseph Pillel (Ian Merrill Peakes), flashbacks of the scathing criticism of van Meegeren’s own work by noted art critic Abraham Bredius (Paul L. Nolan), and the trial.

In this small theater, a clever L-shaped set, designed by Meghan Jones, effectively works as van Meegeren’s cell, Pillel’s office, and the courtroom. Janelle Kauffman designed projections of Vermeer’s paintings and the disputed works that turn the walls into an art gallery, enabling the audience to consider for itself the controversies the case raises.

If you saw the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, you will recall that Vermeer’s characteristic style, as the “master of light,” has engendered admiration for hundreds of years, and special exhibitions of Vermeer’s paintings draw record crowds.

By exploring the van Meegeren episode, The Craftsman asks a series of interesting questions: “what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?”; what are the limits of connoisseurship (a timely question, given the recent $450 million sale of a painting that may or may not be by Leonardo da Vinci); and, for that matter, how is the value of any creative work established?

Can’t Get to Philly?

The Art of Forgery, by Noah Charney, profiles van Meegeren’s escapade, and many other famous forgeries throughout history, reviewed here.

Tim’s Vermeer, an entertaining documentary about how a non-artist used a camera obscura in an attempt to duplicate Johannes Vermeer’s technique, reviewed here.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel, by Tracy Chevalier, a romance about Vermeer’s most famous painting; made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson.

It’s a Wonderful Life

It's A Wonderful Life

John Keabler & Elizabeth Colwell. Photo: Jerry Dalia

For many Americans, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a repeat viewing of the Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. You can also see this heart-warmer, on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Opening night was December 9, and the production directed by Doug West, will be playing through December 31.

In Joe Landry’s 1997 adaptation presented here, the story is staged as a live 1940s radio play, and the audience is, well, the studio audience. (In real life, the film was adapted for radio several times.) This stage version offers the opportunity for cast members to interact, not just as the radio-play’s characters, but also as actors in a radio studio. Other delightful touches include the “Applause” light that flashes above the stage manager’s glass booth, the advertisements for hair tonic and soap presented Andrews Sisters style, the presence on stage of the sound effects man (foley artist Warren Pace), whose activities are endlessly entertaining (and effective!), and the live piano playing of cast members, especially Russell Sperberg, who plays hero George Bailey’s younger brother and wrote original music for the production.

Lest you fear all this peripheral activity detracts from the story of George Bailey’s (played by John Keabler) discovery of the importance of his life, it does not. The actors, placed mostly in front of standing mikes, create believable relationships, and the one between George and his wife Mary (Susan Maris) is especially strong. Angel Clarence Oddbody (Andy Paterson) watches over the unfolding story, just as expected. All secondary actors play multiple parts, with vocal changes that, if you closed your eyes, would work perfectly for radio.

There’s one set (the studio) and one basic costume, embellished with hats and vests and aprons to distinguish among the characters. These quick-change artists include John Ahlin (who plays evil Mr. Potter and others), Elizabeth Colwell (Violet, as well as George’s daughter Zuzu), Leavell Javon Johnson (the announcer, Horace, and others), James Michael Reilly (Billy Bailey and others), the aforementioned Russell Sperberg (Harry Bailey and others), and Tina Stafford (George’s mother and others). All the acting is totally up to this fast-paced production. My only reservation is that Keabler’s portrayal of George relies less on his own individual characterization and a bit too much on Jimmy Stewart’s, while I suspect Keabler is well capable of developing George in his own way.

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!

*****Beneath the Mountain

Bletterbach, mountain, the Dolomites, gorge

The Bletterbach – photo: Esther Westerveld

By Luca D’Andrea, translated by Howard Curtis – When a debut thriller appears that sold to thirty countries within a month, became a bestseller in the author’s home country of Italy and in Germany, and was greeted with breathless praise like “can be compared (with no fear of hyperbole) to Stephen King and Jo Nesbø,” you know you’re in for quite a ride.

D’Andrea delivers. Beneath the Mountain is set in the northern Italian province of South Tyrol, in the village of Siebenhoch, whose Italian residents speak German. Siebenhoch is near the end of the eight-kilometer Bletterbach gorge in the jagged Dolomite mountains. Hikers are warned they enter the steep terrain “at their own risk,” because of rockfalls, mudslides, freezing water, and flash floods. The geological characteristics and history of the gorge are essential to D’Andrea’s story, anchoring it to a reality that could not have existed anywhere else.

Thirty years before the novel begins, three experienced hikers—Kurt, Evi, and Marcus—trekked deep into the gorge and were set upon first by an unusually powerful storm, then by one or more unknown assailants who hacked their bodies into pieces. By the time a four-man rescue team arrived, any forensic evidence was washed away or lost in the mud.

The deaths of these three young people reverberated through the community, affecting, disastrously, not only the men who found them but also their families. One time or another suspicion has fallen on a disappeared paleontologist with some bizarre theories that Evi thoroughly discredited, on a wealthy developer who built a visitor center on land her analyses had shown was unstable, on various members of the insular community, even on the rescuers themselves.

Now, American screenwriter Jeremiah Salinger, his wife Annelise, and their five-year-old daughter Clara have relocated to Siebenhoch. The fresh location inspires a new television series about the work of Dolomite Mountain Rescue. As its name implies, the rescue service comes to the aid of stranded tourists, injured hikers, and others in distress among the precipitous peaks. Jeremiah is party to a disastrous helicopter crash that kills four rescuers and a tourist, but his physical injuries are nothing compared to a serious case of PTSD, compounded by guilt and fear, that impairs his judgment. The booze doesn’t help. To distract himself, he starts investigating the 1985 Bletterbach murders, a deeper, more dangerous rabbit hole than the one he’s already in.

D’Andrea frequently introduces new information through the device of a community member offering to tell Jeremiah a story, which is a powerful enticement for the reader as well. Especially engaging is Jeremiah’s relationship with daughter Clara. Their word game—she loves to spell—is a theme throughout, which becomes ironic when, despite his obvious devotion to her, he puts his off-the-books investigation before even her.

Legends of the Undead are . . . Undead

Cemetery, gravestones

photo: John W. Schulze, creative commons license

In Chicago recently, we took a nine-year-old to a theatrical version of Dracula (playing at the Mercury Theater through November 5). “Weren’t you scared?” several audience members asked him after the show, as he was the show’s youngest audience member by many decades. “No.” This was said with deadpan aplomb. And possibly an eye-roll.

Perhaps some of the edge was off Bram Stoker’s classic because of all the much more horrifying real-life shenanigans filling the daily news, or perhaps it was because this production veered occasionally—and entertainingly—close to camp. While it wasn’t terrifying, it had good acting and nice touches. Notably, the production credits include acknowledgment of the show’s “violence and blood/gore designer.” Which gives an inkling.

When the Stoker’s tale first appeared 120 years ago, The Manchester Guardian dismissed it with almost the same nonchalance as our young theater companion. “Most of the delightful old superstitions of the past have an unhappy way of appearing limp and sickly in the glare of the later day,” the reviewer said. “Man is no longer in dread of the monstrous and the unnatural, and . . . the effect is more often grotesque than terrible.” Tell that to Ann Rice and Stephenie Meyer and the legions of other authors who continue to resurrect “the ancient legends of the were-wolf and the vampire”!

Columbus

“A lot of today’s Hollywood films don’t have a lot of patience. They sort of expect the audience to get bored really quickly, so they’re like, ‘We’ve got to have an explosion every 10 minutes.’” That was said about the dystopian science-fiction sequel Blade Runner 2049. It’s hard then to imagine how a film like Columbus, the debut film of writer/director Kogonada,  got made at all or that American audiences would sit through it (trailer). I liked it.

Set in Columbus, Indiana, home to an astonishing collection of modernist architecture, the buildings speak to a young city resident, Casey (played by Haley Lu Richardson). She’s been offered a chance to go to Boston to work and study with a prominent woman architect, but has decided to stay where she is, shelving books in the local library. She lives with her mother, recently recovered from a bad meth habit, and is afraid to leave her. They treat each other like thin-shelled eggs that require constant vigilance. She has an admirer at the library (Rory Culkin), who, like her mother, urges her to go.

This stasis changes when she meets Jin (John Cho), the New York-based son of a prominent Korean architecture scholar who suffered a stroke while visiting the town. He’s in the hospital and may never recover consciousness. He and Jin have had a distant relationship and Jin feels little connection now. He wants to get back to his life. The father is probably closer to his long-time assistant (Parker Posey), who, like Casey, has given up her individuality to play a supporting role.

Richardson and Cho bring great depth to their parts, and it’s a pleasure to watch them—indeed, the entire cast—work. There’s not a lot of yelling or acting out. And not one explosion.

The example of Casey, denying herself so much to protect her mother, weighs on Jin, just as his encouragement to follow her dream inspires her. This sounds simple, but the movie never drifts into the banal. The healing power of architecture is often referenced and the Columbus buildings, lit from inside at night or seen from odd angles, are stunningly beautiful. They loom over the characters studying them like benign watchmen. Arty, and satisfying—as Sean P. Means said in the Salt Lake Tribune, “a tender, beautiful gem that should not be overlooked.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 84%.

*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.