Category Archives: Performance Review

The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy (Julius Cesar, Henry IV, Tempest)

[3.5 stars]

The Donmar project Shakespeare trilogy is a fascinating piece of all-female repertory theatre inspired by work with female prison inmates. The prisoners selected three unrelated plays whose themes and action spoke to them (power/abuse, addiction/family, justice/responsibility) and Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mama Mia!) created a trilogy of them by wrapping each in a shared conceit as an envelope to hold them together.  While this approach initially feels forced and not quite comfortable, it ultimately paints an additional layer of meeting over the whole and binds them together in a bigger theme. While I’ll call out specific performances, it is one hell of an ensemble generally.

Julius Cesar

The first of the three plays focused on the need for action to battle unjust rule and tyranny. Think domestic abuse. Though that is not at all injected into the show directly it has knock-on effects for the characters. For instance, Harriet Walter’s Brutus is oddly weak and emotional, very much feeling beaten down and with a need to make the world right. To Walter’s praise, she manages this while still maintaining an amazing stage presence.

Cesar, played by Clare Dunne, is charismatic and strong. Clearly a swaggering ass who knows how to play the crowd and those around him. Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony, likewise is manipulator, using words to destroy while holding back all of his ire till the final, physical battle. Anouka is one of the bright spots in this trilogy, and a reason to see them all, which will become obvious.

The direction is engaging and surprising, and even occasionally funny. But it is the ending where it takes your head and spins it round as the envelope takes over and forces new meaning upon it.

Henry IV

Henry survives or fails on the quality of the Falsataff, Hal, and Hotspur. The casting here is astoundingly good. Sophie Stanton (Una) as Falstaff is compelling and entertaining, if not entirely endearing. Clare Dunne’s Hal delivers but doesn’t quite sell the entire journey from reprobate to king (this covers parts I and II of the play). However Jade Anouka as Hotspur is riveting and wonderfully acted and directed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hotspur that lived up both to the name and the ability to lead a rebellion.

I do wish the addiction theme was heightened a little more throughout the piece to help pull it all together, but it was still an interesting flavor to add.

The Tempest

Of the three plays, this one is the most on point and, frankly, the best conceived. Of course, Tempest is tailor made to discuss justice and responsibility; even Joyce Carol Oats took advantage of it in Hagseed.

The play is carried by Harriet Walter as Prospero with a deep and wounded approach. Jade Anouka (I told you she was one to watch) takes on Ariel and is paired with Sophie Stanton now as Calaban. Along with Sheila Atim (Harlots) as Ferdinand and Leah Harvey (Uncle) as Miranda, the story clips along engagingly and with a sense of real sweetness and possibility while still showing the harsher edge of gender roles and life.

Lloyd’s direction of this piece captures the magic and the longing, the humor and the anger. It is one of the best distillations of the play I think I’ve seen, or perhaps it was simply the framing of the story and the even larger framing of the trilogy. Whatever the reason, it is inventive, gripping, and fascinating to watch with plenty of wry winks and fist slams. If you choose only one of the three to watch, choose this one, though some of the bigger messages will not resonate as much without the previous two.

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

Product Details

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

Oh, Hello

[2 stars]

When you are the target audience for a bit of satirical comedy and it leaves you nonplussed, it isn’t a great sign.  Oh, Hello is an ironic poison pen letter to New York theatre. Or, if not poison pen, certainly with more than a little bit of ire and frustration. And I do say this as their target audience, based on the subject matter (NYC living and the theater/entertainment world).

Honestly, I just found it mean-spirited and relatively uninspired in its message. With the exception of a couple cameos, it wasn’t even all that funny. Nick Kroll (Sing) and John Mulaney (Documentary Now!) are only marginally decent at playing older men, not that they are intended to be realistic. But the script is just, well, boring. It takes a half hour for the setup to complete so that the jokes can start paying off. But they don’t continue. There are side stories and sophomoric silliness and absurdities and a ton of inside jokes that would leave most people scratching their heads.

I’m sure there is an audience for this; it isn’t entirely unenjoyable. As part of my Netflix subscription it was favorably priced for its value, but I am glad I didn’t spend Broadway prices (or anything in addition) to see it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night

Vanya on 42nd Street

If you’re even the least bit interested in this film, it helps if you love live performance, Anton Chekov plays, and/or Louis Malle. This final film of Malle’s captures André Gregory’s (My Dinner with André) run at directing Uncle Vanya with the definitive idea of it being about the human condition. Not about plot, or characters, but solely about the “meaning of life” for lack of a better phrase; basically a discourse with character.

Certainly, I’d agree that Chekov reflects on life. However, where I think this Vanya misses is that Chekov is also funny. Dark funny, but funny. The performance is based on David Mamet’s (Redbelt) adaptation of Chekov’s play. Gregory further adapted it for this screen version. The resulting script is beautifully written and full of wonderful moments and monologues. But even the script seems to have missed some of the poking of fun at the characters and the audience. How much of that is Mamet and how much Gregory’s surgery, I can’t say as I don’t have the source material to compare.

The challenge of filming a play is that the heightened aspect of the script almost always feels forced. In addition, this film captures only one version of the play. It had been work-shopped for 5 years and performed privately only 12 times prior to capturing it on film. Each of these performances was done with the audience very much as the onlookers are in the film itself. And each performance was reportedly markedly different, by design.

Louis Malle chose to tackle this tale and capture it for posterity after seeing several of the very limited live performances that Gregory’s group put together. His direction is practically invisible, allowing us to live in the play/rehearsal the way it was conceived to be performed live, inches from the actors. By the end of the production, it feels real, nearly natural.

The cast are all equally powerful, starting with Wallace Shawn (A Master Builder) in the title role. Along with him, Julianne Moore (Freeheld), Brooke Smith (Bates Motel), and Larry Pine (House of Cards) really drive the bulk of the story.

This isn’t really a play, nor is it a film. It is a hybrid of sorts. The “making of” documentary on the disc can explain that better than I in this short space. It certainly provided some confirmations for me about the interpretations as well. You don’t get to see performances like this often, which makes this a great experience. Whether the play and message will resonate I imagine will depend on many things for each individual watching.

Vanya on 42nd Street

Hunky Dory

star2star2star2

Less Hamlet 2 (which everyone should see) and more The Details in structure, this movie has a lot of good moments that come together, but not as you expect. The key to this film is the first few minutes. Pay attention, they tell you exactly what they’re going to do… and then they pay it off just after the fade out at the end. I really didn’t listen as I took it as more an introduction than a classic first frame set-up. Bad me after all my complaints on this with other directors. Hunky Dory does this purposefully, though I would argue not clearly enough and, as such, most people will miss the intention.

As a view of the mid-70’s and into growing up, period, the film is a fairly standard story set amid some non-standard situations. The story won’t surprise as much as endear itself to you. Along with Driver (Barney’s Version, Grosse Pointe Blank), Barnard (The White Queen) and Harries carry the story forward with many supporting players, both established and unknown, not to mention a full orchestra.  But the story as a whole is more collage than a single thought. This makes the finale a tad less satisfying, and yet via the music, director Evans manages to raise your emotions in a positive way.

Do be warned that the heavy accents are a challenge. My ear is pretty good, but I missed a good percentage of the specific dialogue that drowned in the Welsh influence, though rarely the intention.

I have to say that the production of The Tempest that serves as the backbone of the film is possibly one of the more interesting versions of it never made and, sadly, we don’t even get to see it all. If you don’t know the text of the play, some of the changes and references will be missed, but the music (a wonderful collection of 70’s classics) will get the point across, even if the subtler aspects get past.  Even given Taymor’s recent adaptation, I think this production could have been more compelling. It also brought to mind Were the World Mine in many ways in its open enthusiasm for life… or perhaps just because it was a high school musical format.

Barrymore

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There is no question that Plummer delivers a masterful performance as Barrymore in this film.

And there’s the rub: it also feels like a performance. But I don’t blame Plummer for that. He is magnetic, entertaining, moving, incredible facile in his emotions, and unforgettable.

The intention, and where this went wrong as a movie, was to attempt to capture the play that was mounted to great success in 1997 so that others could experience it. But, instead, the filmmakers ended up somewhere between doing a play and filming a movie. They would have better served their intent by just setting up the camera and allowing the performance to drive the story. Using cinematic tricks and angles really only highlighted the stage energy and approach of the performance, which, of course, was so very wrong for film.

In truth, closing your eyes and just listening to Plummer’s mellifluous voice is more than enough to allow this film to work. Sure, you miss some visual clues and subtleties, but the story is still beautifully imparted. The chance to see Plummer do an essentially one-man show is worth your time. Just know you’re stepping into the theatre, and leave your movie eyes at the door.

Oscars (2013)

There are always two aspects to the Oscars that will be picked apart ad nauseum the next day and weeks: the show itself and the list of winners/losers. I feel obligated to add my 2 cents, cause, well, I spend a ton of time watching movies and these are “my people,” as it were. But I’ll try to keep it blessedly short and to the point as others get paid to wax eloquent and I’d rather move on to the new stuff now.

The host and the show

MacFarlane was neither fish nor fowl as the host. I blame the producers for this. After casting potentially one of the most inappropriate comedians in the role (only South Park’s Parker and Stone could have been more dangerous), they then leashed him. The show ended up providing neither the drama of boundaries crossed nor the gravitas of a more established star. In other words, no one really got enough of what they would have liked. Sure, he can sing and the production numbers (that I watched, some just bored me) were entertaining, but it was a pretty ho-hum show minus one or two zingers and good speeches. MacFarlane is just a little too old-Hollywood polished looking without the exuberance that Harris brought to the stage the last couple years… nor does he have NPH’s chops.

The winners and losers

With the exception of Argo as Best Pic and Daniel Day Lewis as Best Actor, the field was wide open for surprises last night. That was kind of fun for a change. I am not entirely sanguine with all the winners, but neither was I overly disappointed (except for Brave, which was great tech, but a disappointing movie; ParaNorman should have won). It was a solid collection of nominees, even accepting that there were people overlooked. Best speech went to Lewis. Worst to Tarantino. Most painful presentation was a toss-up between Rudd/McCarthy or Stewart/Radcliffe. At least in my opinion.

The overlooked

The greatest controversy this year was the lack of Best Director nomination for Affleck. I just looked at it as the Clooney curse: you just aren’t allowed to be that pretty and that talented. But as there always are, there were some smaller films that were utterly missed. The Perks of Being a Wallflower this year reminded me of the miss of Easy-A in its year. In an industry that needs the new generation to get excited by what they do, I don’t understand overlooking gems like these. But they weren’t big studio films, so got easily side-lined by the system. Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present was a glaring miss in the documentary listings. The script for Looper in original script, another. The Intouchables as well disappeared after huge response (relatively) on the theater circuit. But there will always be missed films, I suppose, and particularly in the foreign category they feel compelled to be broadly representative and Amour likely pushed it out.

So now on to the 2013 field, and they are already positioning and handicapping a new bumper-crop.