On Stage: The Merchant of Venice

Merchant of Venice

Rachel Towne as Nerissa (left) & Melissa Miller as Portia; photo: Jerry Dalia.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2017 season with Shakespeare’s dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice, about, as the theater describes it “A money-obsessed, patriarchal, dysfunctional society where wealth bestows power; one in which women cannot determine their own fate, and one marked by religious and racial prejudice.” Hmm. This production, which opened Saturday night, May 20, runs through June 4, and is directed by award-winning actor Robert Cuccioli.

Perhaps this play is not often performed because modern playgoers (and producers) are uncomfortable with its blatant anti-Semitism. Such views persisted in England, of course, through the eras of Dickens, Disraeli, Holocaust denial, and may even be again on the rise. It’s talking about them that’s so uncomfortable. Cuccioli, the cast, and the theater deserve praise for not soft-pedaling the ugliness of racial hatred. Shylock (Andrew Weems) is as intransigent in his demands as his foes expect him to be.

The gist of the story, you may recall, is that prominent Venetian merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), loans his friend Bassanio (John Keabler) money so he can woo the estimable Portia (Melissa Miller). Convinced several of his ships will soon arrive and refill his coffers, Antonio borrows the needed sum from his old adversary, Shylock, and agrees to the whimsical idea that, if he cannot repay the debt, he’ll let the Jew take a pound of his flesh.

When Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock invokes that clause. Portia, disguised as a learned young judge, argues the case to save Antonio (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”) , aided by her maidservant Nerissa (Rachel Towne), her pretended law clerk.

That part of the story has all the makings of tragedy, certainly high drama. The comedy comes from the suitors for Portia’s hand, made to choose among caskets of gold, silver, and lead, only one of which holds her portrait and her promise to marry. With great shows of manly confidence, they uniformly guess wrong, until Bassanio . . . you can guess the rest. Portia and Nerissa tease their men mercilessly, but not so frivolously as to form too great a contrast with the blacker heart of the play, the downfall of Shylock.

Weems, Harris, and Miller give especially strong and moving performances. However, the entire cast does an admirable job keeping the action going and creating interesting, compelling characters. They’re believably outraged at Shylock and charmed by Portia and Nerissa. In addition to those named, the cast includes Ademide Akintilo, Amaia Arana, Jeffrey M. Bender (his Prince of Arragon is priceless), Byron Clohessy, Ian Gould, Robert S. Gregory, Jay Leibowitz, Anthony Michael Martinez, Joe Penczak,  and Tug Rice.

Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (excellent set design); Käri B. Bentson (sound), Michael Giannitti (lighting); Candida Nichols (lovely 1900-ish costumes); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).

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!

***The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

market, Myanmar

photo: Eustaqulo Santimano, creative commons license

By Jan-Philipp Sendker, translated from the German by Kevin Wiliarty – I guess this “international best seller” was just not to my taste. While the premise was intriguing, as was the exotic Burmese setting, the author never went deep enough to engage me.

One day Julia Win’s father leaves his wife and grown children and disappears out of his life as a prominent Manhattan attorney. The authorities lose his trail in Bangkok. A new lawyer herself, after a few years, Julia determines to find him and is drawn to a remote village in Burma named Kalaw, based on the only clue she has, an unmailed love-letter addressed to a villager named Mi Mi.

With more than a little trepidation, Julia travels there to find out who Mi Mi is and whether she can tell her where her father has gone.

Before even settling in, she’s approached by an “old man” who seems to know who she is and who her father is. “You must be asking yourself how on earth I know your name when we have never met before, and this is your first visit to our country.” It seems she’s followed the correct path, all right, but the man, whose name is U Ba, won’t reveal more about her father’s whereabouts until she listens to his story, which makes up most of the rest of the book.

That set-up strongly reminds me of the beginning of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi. Just as Martel’s narrator meets an elderly man who says his story will “make you believe in God,” U Ba at the outset asks Julia, “Do you believe in love?” It’s clear that Sendker’s tale is intended to make sure that she—and the reader—do.

If you’re looking for a sweet read, one that skates across the surface of relationships and emotions, perhaps something for the beach this summer, you can order it through the affiliate link below.

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%.

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%.

****The Piano Teacher


photo: Ovi Gherman, creative commons license

By Janice Y. K. Lee – Set in Hong Kong in two time periods—1952 and leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1941—this lovely debut  novel is part romance, part mystery, and part sociological study of the behavior of an expat community in good times and very very bad ones.

The 1952 story begins with newly arrived Claire Pendleton, wife of a water engineer who’s mostly away and mostly ignores her. Claire’s a bit bored and lets it be known she’s offering piano lessons. She’s hired by a prominent Chinese family, Melody and Victor Chen to teach their ten-year-old daughter Locket. With the Chens, she comes to know temptation.

On the street and at practically every social event she attends, she runs into a long-time Hong Kong resident, the emotionally elusive Englishman Will Truesdale. He has an odd limp and an confident manner, and he pursues Claire with determination. Over time, she learns his history and the preoccupations that haunt him.

In 1941, Truesdale was the Hong Kong newcomer. Almost immediately he meets and falls for Eurasian beauty Trudy Liang, a fixture in the social scene and cousin of Melody Chen. Will and Trudy’s love affair changes them both. Then the Japanese overwhelm the colony, bringing their detention camps, their bombs, their random, brutal murders, and deep, starvation-level privation. Choices were made, and those long-ago choices shape Claire’s world too.

Having shown the glitter of Hong Kong, Lee now exposes the grime. She reveals the aspects of character that allow individuals to survive changed circumstances, or not. The ones who come out the other side, like Claire, who needed to believe there was more to life, learn who they truly are.

The plot is strong and the prose elegant. Lee carries you along so easily that before you know it, you are plunged into difficulty all around. Her vivid description of the city of Hong Kong and the life there is like a prolonged, unforgettable visit to an exotic hothouse world.

***Médicis Daughter

The young Margaret of Valois, by François Clouet

The young Margaret of Valois, by François Clouet

By Sophie Perinot – This romantic adventure covers the strife-riven period of French history from 1564 to 1572, near the end of the Valois lineage and the rise of the Bourbons. The central character is Princess Marguerite (Margot), whose father is dead and whose brother Charles is now king of France. Only three years older than she, Charles, like everyone else in the household, is guided and ruled by their mother, Queen Catherine de Médicis (yes, those infamous Médicis of Florence).

Ignored by her mother through most of her childhood, Margot is anxious to join her court and gain her favor. When she finally does arrive at court, around age eleven, she finds it a dangerous stew of plots and jealousies, revenge and murder. An uneasy peace between the country’s Catholic majority, to which the aristocracy belongs, and the Protestant Huguenots threatens to dissolve.

Margot falls in love with the handsome young Duc de Guise, but her family is determined she have a royal marriage. She is little more than a pawn on the political chessboard of Europe, but if she refuses to play, it could cost her her life and that of the Duc. The outbreak of war with the Huguenots tosses the fate of her family and her love into the air, and it lands in a most unexpected place. By the time her family finally finds her a suitable and willing marriage partner, it’s clear that political considerations, not love, are uppermost. Age nineteen, and with a reviled husband, she displays considerable (and rather suddenly acquired) political acumen.

Marguerite de Valois is a historical character well known in France for an eventful, sometimes scandalous life, much of which takes place after this book’s conclusion. Margot matures during novel, but none of the other characters much change, despite additional years, challenges, and demands on them. They remain rather two-dimensional in Perinot’s treatment, and I would especially like to have seen more probing of the character of Queen Catherine, for example.

Authors of historical fiction often must go beyond surface events and motives to explore their characters’ actions. Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels—turned into memorable theatricals—about Thomas Cromwell are a perfect example, as is this treatment of Catherine of Aragon. Occasionally Perinot’s dialog seems too modern, but despite these quibbles (and a few startling grammatical errors—where was the editor?), it is an exciting read about a period I knew too little of. Margot was the subject of a famous novel by Alexandre Dumas, pere, on which a 1994 French movie (La Reine Margot) was based.

The reader would have been well served if the book included a family tree of the Valois clan and their cousins who appear in this story, a list of the principal characters (having three main characters named Henri didn’t make it easy to follow, though Perinot handled this reasonably well), and perhaps a map.


Longwood, Christmas, poinsettias

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

By Margaret Bradham Thornton – There’s something about a man who’s “too perfect.” The feeling that something will go wrong hangs over your head as you turn the pages, waiting . . .

In this debut novel, Eliza Poinsett is the daughter of an old Charleston family. (Supposedly, she’s a descendant of  diplomat Joel Roberts Poinsett, a Charlestonian who introduced the flower that became the ubiquitous Christmas plant.) Educated at Princeton and Columbia, Eliza decamped to England after the love of her life, Henry Heyward, told her he was marrying someone else. His wife-to-be Issie was pregnant, and the marriage lasted not much longer than it took for her to produce young Lawton. Henry sued for custody and got it, and Issie departed for less socially correct climes.

At the start of the book, Eliza has established herself in England with a job, a pending fellowship, and Jamie, her proper English boyfriend. Then she runs into Henry at a wedding. He’s available, Jamie doesn’t really move her, and she’s on the verge of her first return trip to Charleston in years, to attend her step-sister’s coming out party.

She waffles about going, but of course she does, straight into the snares Henry quite cheerfully admits he’s setting for her. At one point, she tells now nine-year-old Lawton that she prefers tennis to sailing, because “I could never figure out which way the wind was blowing.” Ah, but the reader can.

Nevertheless, Eliza dithers half-heartedly, weighing the pain of missed opportunities in England against the hope of second chances. Since the book is written from Eliza’s point of view, it would have been helpful to explore more deeply what underlies her ambivalence.

The author does a wonderful job of evoking Charleston—its geography, weather, history, architecture, and most of all, culture. That part of the book I enjoyed a lot. In other areas, the text signals “research!” or some obvious error plants a seed of doubt about the whole enterprise. For example, she refers to a pastel portrait as a “painting” or to a watercolor “canvas.” Those are slip-ups a good editor should have helped her avoid and they would have mattered less if Eliza weren’t an art historian, supposedly up on such basics.

For my taste, the book is too much of a soap opera romance, moving at a soap opera pace, with only its admirable atmospherics to sustain it. The ending, which I won’t reveal, shouldn’t burst out of the blue as it does; it needed some careful foreshadowing. Again, an editor should have helped with that.

I was puzzled about the naming of the principal characters Henry H. and Eliza, since the parallel with the more famous duo stops with the names. The explanation is in an author interview with Adam Parker in The (Charleston) Post and Courier. Thornton said,

“When we restored our house, we found on the original paint layer of a door jamb the names and heights of the Heyward children who had lived in the house in the 1830s. I liked the idea of taking the name of one of the children for one of the main characters. In Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion,’ Henry Higgins brings Eliza Doolittle into the mannered world of aristocratic London. In ‘Charleston,’ Henry goes in the opposite direction and brings Eliza into the untamed world of Lowcountry swamps.”

OK, but without that explanation, and perhaps with it, it’s a confusing choice.

I wish there were perfect men like Henry in the world waiting to sweep us gals off our feet, but, meanwhile, we have the fascinating city of Charleston. As New York Times reviewer Meghan Daum says, in this book, “the real femme fatale is the city itself, a place where the breeze in the laurel oak sounds ‘like a slow kind of applause.’” The story takes place around 1991, and I wonder how much Charleston—whose ways and mores here seem set in amber—has changed in the interim.

Maggie’s Plan

Ethan Hawke, Greta Gerwig, Maggie's Plan

Ethan Hawke & Greta Gerwig in Maggie’s Plan

Tons of history and your mom tell you falling for a married man is a chancy way to find happiness and a father for your baby. In this romantic comedy by writer-director Rebecca Miller (trailer), the unlikely happens and aspiring novelist John Harding (played by Ethan Hawke) actually divorces his self-absorbed, chilly wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) and marries the girl. They have a lovely baby. A couple of years on, though, the marriage is just not working.

That’s when Maggie (Greta Gerwig) develops her plan. She’ll try to get John and Georgette back together.

There are some nice moments and some funny moments, though the comedy is never quite as screwball as it might have been. As a tale of female manipulation, Maggie’s efforts don’t reach the delicious complexity of Lady Susan Vernon  in Love & Friendship, also in theaters now.  Lady Susan plows ahead like an ocean liner, let the devil take the hindmost, and that creates a more comic effect than the rather more realistic angsty New Yorkers in Maggie’s web.

Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are a prickly married couple, long-time friends of Maggie, stuck to each other like burrs. Mina Sundwall is John And Georgette’s teenage daughter, a perfect adolescent cynic.

Gerwig gives an engaging performance, Hawke is always interesting, and Julianne Moore shines as the ambitious academic—with a Danish accent, no less. There’s a real New York feel to the film, too. Says Christy Lemire in RogerEbert.com, director Miller “truly gets the city’s rhythms and idiosyncracies, and her dialogue frequently sparkles.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 59%.

Love & Friendship

Lady Susan, Kate BeckinsaleIn this brilliantly funny movie (trailer), writer-director Whit Stillman takes on a lesser-known early Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan. It’s a a gem of female manipulation cut and polished on male cluelessness, and Lady Susan Vernon is the lapidarist in chief.

In this early epistolary novel (probably written when Austen was only 23), the author’s disdain for the treatment of women is evident, and her character gets her revenge, deliciously. Though it’s still the cake underneath  her better-known novels, there it’s masked by a thicker romantic frosting (see this recent post about the dark subtext of Austen’s novels).

Near-penniless, Lady Susan must find a husband for herself and her daughter, and Kate Beckinsale is a powerful Susan, “the most accomplished flirt in all England.” The cast is strong, with Chloë Sevigny as the American Alicia Johnson, Susan’s co-conspirator, eager to avoid being returned to Connecticut, Susan’s perceptive sister-in-law Catherine (played by Emma Greenwell), and long-suffering daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Jemma Redgrave, playing Catherine’s mother, immediately reveals herself as an heir to the British acting family through her strong physical resemblance to auntie Vanessa.

The men are cheerfully dim-witted, none more so than Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). With £10,000 a year, he’s as rich as Darcy. But he’s also “a bit of a rattle”—“Regency slang for blithering idiot,” A.O. Scott reminds us in The New York Times. “How jolly! Tiny green balls. What are they called?” Sir James asks, pushing them around his dinner plate. “Peas.” Catherine’s brother Reginald (Xavier Samuel) is not dim, but even he is no match for Susan’s calculated charm offensive and her “uncanny understanding of men’s natures.”

Quite apropos of the current political season, friends Susan and Alicia blithely justify their most outrageous behavior, putting themselves always on the high ground. At one point, when confronted with her own irrefutable error, Susan snaps, “Facts are horrid things.” Clearly, a woman for this season.

Above and beyond the satisfying plot, delicious characters, and irresistible pull toward respectable matrimony, the charming countryside (filmed in Ireland) and gorgeous costumes are worth the price of admission. Over the story, widow Susan’s costumes go from all-black deep mourning, to light mourning (grey and lavender), to none at all. When she dons that scarlet dress, look out! “It all ends up pretty much as expected,” Scott says, “and yet also manages to take you by surprise.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 74% (I’m betting audiences find it “talky.” But in the talk, there’s wit.)

Sing Street

Sing Street

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo & Lucy Boynton in Sing Street

A charming movie from Ireland about a half-dozen Dublin boys at the Synge Street Christian Brothers School who start a band (trailer). We sort of know this story. We’ve sort of seen it before. But the freshness of the acting make it fun all over again. Conor Lalor (brilliantly played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a new student at the school and the adolescent boys there plan to make his life miserable. Life at home is bad, too, with his parents fighting and splitting.

A real place, the Synge Street CBS has a long history, and this movie takes place in a time of pupil loss and relatively low achievement (a line in the credits mentions that the school is “not the same place” it was in the 1980s, when the film is set). The first scene of Conor in his new classroom shows the elderly priest who is their teacher, hearing aid dangling, writing on the blackboard with his back to the pupils who are creating holy hell. The principal steps inside and the students stand to attention. The principal glances at the board and points out to the teacher that in this class he is to teach French, not Latin. Teacher: “French. How modern.”

The school’s Latin motto “Viriliter Age” (“Act Manly”), is translated by Conor’s older brother as “Rape your students.” In short, the school is chaos. Conor channels his creativity toward writing songs and creating the band, Sing Street.

These musical ambitions have a lofty goal: impressing the older teen girl, Raphina, who stands near the school every day and claims to be a model. If she is a model, and if he has a band, she can star in his music videos! Simple. The fact that he mostly carries it off is wondrous, resulting in a feel-good movie about a collection of near-misfits who make music work for them.

The band’s songs are by Gary Clark, lead of the 1980s British band Danny Wilson, and it’s good. We don’t know how Conor hears it, but what he sees in terms of music video potential is the pole star he’s determined to follow—and take Raphina with him.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating, 97%; audiences, 96%.