Wednesday, December 21, 2011

FILM: War Horse

[Note: War Horse releases in theaters on 12/25. It's the perfect holiday film, notwithstanding the graphic war-scenes, so you might consider buying your tickets now, especially if you liked the stage version, which this one-ups in just about every way possible.]

I felt as if I was one of the few people to find the Lincoln Center production of War Horse to be overhyped: never able to forget that I was watching elegant and impressive puppets, even at the moments of greatest drama, the constant thought racing through my mind was, "This would make a mighty impressive movie." I feel vindicated now, having caught a screening of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of War Horse: there's a scope in the war scenes (comparable to those of Saving Private Ryan, although there's nary a splotch of blood in this PG-13 family film) and a tenderness in the close-up focus on the reflection of a little girl in a horse's eye that the play cannot achieve.

At the same time, however, the novel (which was originally in the first-person perspective of the horse) is less well-adapted by screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall than by playwright Nick Stafford. For one, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, Joey, now seem more star-crossed than ever: the film opens with lush, long shots of the green Devon landscape (which will later be contrasted with the tight, muddy grey ones of a war-torn France), as Albert watches the miracle of life: Joey's birth. When Albert's father, Ted (Peter Mullan), picks him up at auction, however, it's because his landlord (David Thewlis) is bidding for him, a rivalry that makes far less sense than the play's choice to make this his successful brother, the one who chose not to fight in the Boer War that has turned Ted into such a bitter drunk, love of his wife Rose (Emily Watson) aside. Likewise, when Joey's sold off to the British military at the start of World War I, it's not as much of a betrayal from father to son as it is a necessity of repaying a mortgage.

These changes make the opening "act" less tight, just as the scenes in France sometimes wander too aimlessly over the bizarre chances in which both Joey and his "friend," the black stallion Charcoal (inexplicably renamed from Topthorn in the book and play), dodge disaster time and again. It's nice to see the variety of people affected by war -- the dashing British commanders who are out-thought by their "crude" German rivals, the German brothers who desert in order to fulfill an oath to their family, the fragile French girl and her doting grandfather who are glad to have a moment of brightness in their occupied life -- but this isn't the film for it. The focus is best left on Albert, Joey, and the horrendous things that happen around them: Spielberg is too happy to trot about the scenery, though he's best at a brisker pace.

Just look at those "brisk" and agonizingly terrific final forty minutes. They're full of holiday miracles and tear-jerking presents in which Joey drags artillery, faces down a tank, and deals with barbed wire, while Albert -- who, in a smart although obvious edit from the screenwriters, has enlisted since we last saw him four years ago -- finds himself facing the other end of that artillery, the dangerous trenches, and the deadly gas warfare. It's more visceral than the theatrical production, and the stakes are higher, and yet the emotions are the same, which speaks well to the humanizing effects from the play's Handspring Puppet Company. Still, it's Spielberg's production that wins out: some horrors are impossible to imagine, and the realism of the film's war scenes -- fields scattered with the corpses of horses and their riders, bones shattering under the stress of such constant toil -- makes it unnecessary to imagine, only difficult to watch.

I don't imagine it will be possible to overhype this production of War Horse, a shoo-in for Academy nominations in all categories except those for acting (and that's no offense to Irvine, Mullan, the excellent Watson, and spot-on villain Thewlis, but this isn't really about them). Striking both visually and emotionally, and with only a few issues with pacing along the way, it's a great achievement (especially for an adaptation) for Spielberg, whose inclusive scope even manages to find a comic place for a belligerent duck.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

THEATER: Bonnie & Clyde

Photo/Nathan Johnson
In 1934, after a two-year crime spree that painted the star-crossed bandits as revolutionary heroes in a depressed America, Bonnie and Clyde are violently gunned down in their "death car." That's the legend; but that's not Bonnie & Clyde, the new musical from Frank Wildhorn (music), Don Black (lyrics), and Ivan Menchell (book). Sure, their deaths, in a flash of strobe lights, are a part of the show, but they're up at the front, pushed out of the way in favor for a poetic look at the Americana behind the myth. It's a little funny that the first number, "Picture Show," set in 1920, is all about Bonnie's desire to be like Clara Bow and Clyde's affection for Billy the Kid, given that the musical is far from the glamour both of films of that era, and of the 1967 classic, Bonnie and Clyde, and yet it's not surprising: born into lean times, with absent or hardscrabble parents, is it any wonder that escapism was on their mind? (Act II's opening will suggest the same, with the folk-like "Made In America.")

The musical is full of winning contrasts, particularly in the musical's tendency for unlikely duets that are sung by rivals, often across great distances, and yet about similar themes. Outlaw Clyde (Jeremy Jordan) and heroic cop Ted (Louis Hobson) both pine for Bonnie (Laura Osnes), and so they sing "You Can Do Better Than Him." Blanche (a terrifically wry and religious Melissa Van Der Schyff), is set up to be Bonnie's opposite -- in an early comic number, "You're Goin' Back to Jail," she convinces her husband (and Clyde's brother) Buck (Claybourne Elder) to turn himself in, whereas Bonnie ends up breaking Clyde out -- and yet both she and Bonnie sing from the heart that "You Love Who You Love." There's no shortage of tortuous solos, either, with Clyde, sexually abused in prison and abandoned by the carefree guards, turning to murder in the wailing song "Raise A Little Hell": if that's his only option ("I sure won't get to heaven"), and it sure seems to be, then why not? ("Freedom's something I gotta steal" is his mantra.)

These contrasts are further enhanced by Jeff Calhoun's wonderful direction, which handles some rather graphic and gritty violence -- these were murderers, after all, whether they intended to be or not -- in imaginative ways. At the moment of greatest chaos, a bloody shoot-out, the action literally freezes, with Clyde turning to his younger self (Talon Ackerman) to warn him about the way things'll be, before brutally jumping back into the fray as he murders a sheriff. Watch, too, the echoes in the reprisals: "God's Arms Are Always Open" plays with a baptism the first time around, and with a burial the second, both staged in similar ways; although "Picture Show" is still sung by the young versions of our "heroes" when it repeats, it manages to carry the weight of their grown-up reality; and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" is a killer number both times -- at first, it's just Osnos singing through tears, but then she's joined by Jordan as the two ride off to their final destination, a sweet moment between lovers who can at least know that they've had some good time together.

Now, the play does have some flaws: the writing is all-around a little too literal for Calhoun's visual flair, Bonnie's prided poetry, and Clyde's basic skills with the guitar. The music is so heavy on up-beat pop/country that it sometimes doesn't match the mood, as in "Too Late To Turn Back Now." And some of the work just feels slight: "How 'Bout a Dance" is flirty and nothing more, and "When I Drive" is an unnecessary reminder of how boyish the Barrow brothers are. I sometimes wished the musical were a little more wild -- that the slap Bonnie and Clyde give one another didn't seem so staged, that the live projections on the wall weren't so on-the-nose about the "accuracy" of the musical. At the same time, however, I found myself wanting their ride to continue, hoping that they'd find some way to pull through: perhaps Bonnie & Clyde, in these days of the 99%, will.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

THEATER: Maple and Vine

Nostalgia can be a crippling thing, which sends people who are afraid of the future hurdling back into the safety and comfort of the past. But it's served the young and talented Jordan Harrison well, for he writes of times that he never knew, pulling lessons out of the '60s (Doris to Darlene), '40's (Amazons and Their Men), and '20s (Act a Lady) to help inform the present, to give a context to where we are. Even Futura, which was set in a dystopic future, centered around those brave few souls who remembered the days of paper. His latest, Maple and Vine, walks that same ground, as an unhappy Katha (Marin Ireland) convinces her husband, Ryu (Peter Kim), to move to the SDO (Society of Dynamic Obsolescence), a gated community in which every day re-enacts the values, attitudes, and lifestyles of 1955 America. If the slow food movement is about limiting one's ecological footprint, then this is slow mood movement, which aims to give one freedom in the bustling world by limiting their choices and reverting to a simpler time.

Of course, the 50's weren't a simpler time: they were simply more repressed. This works for Dean (Trent Dawson), a gay man who gets off on his guilt, the sort to sharply fill out a suit, patter glibly, and rendezvous with his boyfriend, Roger (Pedro Pascal), for some rough and secret sex. It's an interesting dynamic, the idea that the freedom to be gay might actually be difficult for a select few, and it allows Harrison to fully explore the dimensions of his '50s paradise, particularly in the "mixed marriage" of Katha and Ryu (only a decade after the internment camps and reparations) and the character of Ellen (Jeanine Serralles), whose prim attitude wasn't serving her in the real world, but who is built manipulate with the hidden powers of her apron strings and talent for gossip. Harrison suggests that there's a place, a role, or a character for all of us -- just not necessarily in a global culture as all-inclusive as today's. After all, if everything is permitted, is anything true?

Anne Kauffman, who has handled realist, surrealist, and surreal realist plays (The Thugs, God's Ear, Sixty Miles to Silver Lake), is a perfect fit for Harrison's material: she's visually distinct enough for the short scenes, quick cuts, and montages, and knows exactly how to stage dream sequences, in which Katha's new paradise is haunted by echoes from her old publishing job. If there's a flaw, it's that Alexander Dodge's scenic design doesn't better distinguish between the present and past -- sets from both times are wheeled about  (or elevated in) in little dioramic frames (good for cubicles, bad for the "freedom" of the '50s), and a steel-rimmed modernity hangs both above the set (a triangle that represents the roof) and in a long staircase off the stage-right wing.

In terms of decor and tone, however, Maple and Vine does a fabulous job, and there's genuine growth from the hesitant and skeptical views of this society (a major faux pas comes not from aggressively playing charades, but from accidentally pouring Grey Goose) to the actual happiness shown within. Katha, depressed over the miscarriage of her child, finds herself embracing pregnancy again, and even goes so far as to suggest (at the local "authenticity meetings") that her neighbors actually be a little less accepting (and more suspicious) of her and her foreign husband. A little controlled adversity can help a relationship grow; you'd also be surprised at the fulfillment Ryu, a plastic surgeon, gets in his new job as a box maker.

I can't speak to life in the '50s, but given how many electronic distractions there are, Harrison makes a valid argument toward people being more present in the past. It's a clear and potent argument, thanks to the extremely present cast -- some of whom get rather close to those of us in the aisles. There are some real standouts, too, like Ireland (who plays instability better than anyone else), Serralles (steely, but not inflexibly or unemotionally so), and Pascal, who flickers not only between tough-guy floor manager and tortured gay lover but also doubles as Katha's comically Queer Eye-like coworker in the "modern" world. Maple and Vine illustrates a "simpler" time without sacrificing complexity, reminds us that we're all "playing" characters of some sort or another, and succeeds in proving that less can absolutely be more.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

metaDRAMA: Computers Killing Critics?

I had the recent opportunity to speak with a director regarding the clash between the poor critical reception of the show and what appeared to be much warmer responses from the audience. I understood the director's frustration -- that's why I started blogging, freelancing, and aggregating for StageGrade: so as to help widen a discussion about theater that is often dominated, sometimes unfortunately so, by the so-called 1% (it's actually far, far, less) of critics who get paid on a regular basis to weigh in on the merits of a show.

Like this director, I actively disagree with some of the major critics out there, particularly when I feel they've misinterpreted a show (like Milk Like Sugar) because they come from a different background and don't "get" or aren't able to "engage" with the work, or when they fill up an allotted number of words speaking about things tangential to the production, like the book or film that preceded it, the previous work of the actors or playwright, etc. (Not that this information is necessarily bad; I just feel it shouldn't dominate and skew the conversation.) However, unlike this perhaps righteously wounded director, I also think that criticism is important, and that this director's dream of direct-response, in which audiences might reductively give each show a "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" that would help to inform other paying theatergoers -- in other words, People Just Like Them (the 99%, to continue that popular metaphor) -- what the real story was. I'm assuming here that the implication is that critics often get things wrong, and that even when they praise a show that the audience isn't investing in (like Journey's End, the early closing of which pains me to this day), they should shut up and let the market do its dirty work.

The biggest problem with this, for the record, is that people in a theater are not Just Like Them -- particularly on Broadway. For a 40-seat theater that produces risque work, it might help to know how the immediate audience felt: they know what they're getting into. But the larger the house, the more varied the audience, and the more difficult it is to quantify the results of stripping their thoughts into an American Idol-style vote (and it should be noted that American Idol was originally watched, in part, for its critics -- particularly the foul-mouthed ones). "Thumbs up" and "thumbs down" doesn't actually tell you what people liked about the show, so as to help you with the next production you work on, nor does it help to recognize actors (which might help them to get work in the future), and might lead to bad plays being produced more frequently, as there'd be no way to direct that "thumbs up" at the star, or the director, or the costumes, etc. On the flip side, a good play that's poorly mounted in its debut, or which finds the wrong audience might be doomed forever. Now, I'm not saying that a critic is going to be more accurate -- but they're going to be more descriptive, and that critic is going to have a body of work behind them that allows the various producers, directors, and audiences to decide how much of their review seems trustworthy.

Another problem is that this would lead even faster to the proliferation of "easy" shows, "light" entertainment in the theater, and work that's more "simply" marketed. There's already a ton of tourist-friendly pap flung up on the boards each year ("holiday" shows, I'm looking at you), and critics are already largely ignored when it comes to certain mega-spectacles (Spider-Man); while it may be more profitable, would it be healthier for the theater if everybody suddenly shied away from the harder sells, knowing that they'd no longer be able to lure people in on the merits of the work? (Ironically, this director spoke about how nobody working on a show was in it for the money, while simultaneously pushing for a way to make more money.) In the same sense that sports can be heightened by an understanding and appreciation of rivalries, histories, and statistics, so too can theater be strengthened by a fuller, livelier debate of the ideas expressed within.

The final, largest problem, is that simply looking at percentages of likes and dislikes doesn't help you to find the sort of show you're interested in. Do you buy a ticket to a show simply because it's 100% rated? No more than you buy things on Amazon simply because they're closest to five-stars: you go because something about the production speaks to you. Hopefully, in a good review (and there are some stinkers out there, I'm guilty of some myself) the critic's description helps to describe it to you, or can be purposed to work like the Netflix algorithm, in which how closely you agree with past reviews helps to recommend new shows. Direct democracy doesn't seem to have been all that great for California -- do we really want that in theaters? (Also, not to be skeptical or anything, but such a system would no doubt feature a lot of ballot stuffing, right? Assuming you could even get apathetic audiences to talk back?)

Ultimately, I was glad for this discussion with the director, however seriously intended it was (raw emotions and hard alcohol sometimes lead to faulty conclusions). I'm not the hugest fan of the system we have, but I'm convinced that doing away with it entirely is not the right solution. To me, the real trick would be in getting audiences to more actively speak out in dialogue with the critics, and making sure that there's a way to aggregate those thoughts right along with the reviews. (Again, I'm biased here, but StageGrade is the only thing that even comes close to doing this.) One voice is too tyrannical, every voice is too anarchic. I've written before about the wisdom of crowds, but it's a wisdom that comes only through moderation. Let's find the best way to talk about theater; after all, as you can see, my own voice alone is more a rant than a solution.

Monday, December 05, 2011

THEATER: The Cherry Orchard

If you're a profound optimist like Pischik (Ken Cheeseman), the sort of man who rests so easy in the knowledge that everything will somehow work itself out that he's practically a narcoleptic, you'll likely find Classic Stage Company's latest revival of The Cherry Orchard to be, in his uninformed words, "Amazing, amazing." Look at the pretty, star-studded cast! Hear the clean, accessible translation of John Christopher Jones! There's little room, however, for optimism in Chekhov, and while Pischik manages to stumble into a quiet sort of success, Andrei Belgrader (who similarly under-directed Endgame several years ago at BAM, also with John Turturro and Alvin Epstein) simply stumbles, time and time again.

For a drama that's so much about the characters -- the plot revolves around a single action, the upcoming sale of the family's debt-ridden estate -- Belgrader largely ignores them, leaving them to their own devices, and in the case of Turturro, their own bad habits. Instead, he puts up a showy veil around the three-sided stage; has Santo Loquasto wash out the circular set in eye-straining white that belies the manor's former opulence (and looks particularly bad in the "outdoor" second act); and, in an act of token minimalism, leaves only the furniture directly mentioned in the script -- a dresser here, a trunk and a mirror there. These scenic choices clash thematically with the object-centered theme of the play, but for real evidence that Belgrader doesn't really know what he's doing, one need only watch as Charlotta (Roberta Maxwell) cheerily breaks the fourth wall, chatting up and dancing with members of the audience -- and not just in the third act's party scene, which features a variety of divertissments intended to heighten the tension felt by Ranevskaya (Dianne Wiest), as she awaits the results of the auction of her family home -- but during the relatively private second act, too.

The production's clumsier than Epikhodov, which is ironic, since the cast is by and large the one good thing here. I suspect it's largely to do with the experience of these stage and screen veterans, who know how to infuse their characters with more than the seemingly scant directions of Belgrader. In the particular example of Epikhodov, Michael Urie comes in already having mastered pratfalls, so he's able to concentrate on the otherwise undeveloped nuances of his scenes with the self-defined "fragile flower" Dunyasha (Elisabeth Waterston), and his new bad-boy rival, the boorish footman Yasha (Slate Holmgren). The same can be said, however, of Josh Hamliton, who makes the "perpetual student" Trofimov feel like more than Chekhov's intellectual interjection, particularly in the half-witted romantic effect he has on Ranevskaya's naive daughter, Anya (Katherine Waterston).

This is clearest most of all, however, with Ms. Wiest, who plays more than a variation on her usual type. At the play's opening, she is giddier and younger than anyone else, spinning through her old nursery with the sort of delusion that comes from a bad case of nostalgia; by the middle of the play, her mercurial nature comes across more as an informed fatalism -- the sort of woman who knows her charity and lack of money-sense is destructive, but cannot stop; and by the end, she's stooped over with the age and weight of her poor decisions. It's the polar opposite of the over-the-top incredulity that John Turturro brings to the other central role, that of Lopakhin, the hard-working former servant who has now earned enough so as to purchase the very cherry orchard where his parents were once slaves. In some sense, this is fine: Lopakhin is not a subtle man. On the other, Turturro reduces him -- particularly during his big third-act monologue -- to a man of all-business, with the conflicting notes of humility, relief, sorrow wrapped up entirely by one of his booming, over-the-top rants. At the start of the show, Turturro notes that "I've got money, but if you look at me, I'm still a peasant," but hints of the secret shame he feels at this -- one of the key reasons for Trofimov to be in this play, as a means of cultured contrast -- are never visible.

This is, again, where Belgrader's direction -- or lack thereof -- shows; he's too content to let the actors do their thing, with little regard for how those elements all fit together. He may be blessed with talented actors like Daniel Davis, but he doesn't go the extra mile with them: he settles for Davis's wistful and nuanced portrayal of Ranevskaya's brother, Gaev, without pushing for the sublime horror that can be shown by this semi-senile character. The same can be said for Fiers: here's a servant so old and stalwart that he is literally forgotten about at the end of the play, but while Alvin Epstein plays him well, he's used mainly for comic relief, which makes his final lines sit poorly with the rest of the production.

Ultimately, this Cherry Orchard suffers from the same abundance of riches as the orchard within the show: bright and once-majestic, these talents ultimately go to pot, mismanaged as they are.