29 January 2012

Jennifer Van Dyck in ‘The Picture Box’

A girl I used to know: With Arthur French,
in Charles Weldon’s production for the Negro Ensemble Company.

The last time I went to the stage door of the Beckett Theatre to congratulate an actress, she was Billie Whitelaw and her dressing-room had just been burgled. Greeting Jennifer Van Dyck at the stage door last week turned out to be a happier affair, I think.

Jennifer had just finished a performance of Cate Ryan’s The Picture Box, with the Negro Ensemble Company. (The show closed today.) Seeing her in the small and simple confines of a Theatre Row house — not so unlike Brown’s Production Workshop at Faunce House in its proportions — seeing her in a T-shirt and jeans — pretty much what she wore in college — seeing her in a play — it was as if nothing had changed, and she’d tricked time, somehow.

She is aging awfully well. Actually, I’m not sure it’s accurate to call it “aging” at all: she’s really just existing progressively. And she’s also doing some lovely acting, centered and honest and graceful, alongside fine co-stars in an earnest if imperfect little play.

The Picture Box gives us Mackie (Arthur French) and Josephine (Elain Graham), an older couple who worked for the mother, now deceased, of Carrie (Jennifer), first on Long Island and then in some sort of Floridian paradise. Carrie’s got to sell her mother’s house — to a white couple who are far more boorish than dramatic purposes really require them to be. So one last time, Carrie, Mackie, and Jo sit and reminisce.

It quickly becomes apparent that the bonds here are far deeper than those among employer and employees, and the characters describe each other as “my oldest friend” and “like family.” Having just lost Bessie, I understand the truth of those feelings, even as they’ve made me uncomfortable sometimes: Bessie was my family, yes, but was I ever part of hers? Do I truly know her family, or her opinions? Did I know before reading her obituary that her kin called her “Beth”?

Ryan’s play was a somewhat slender vehicle for such musings, it must be said. Sensitively directed by Charles Weldon, artistic director of the NEC, the script nevertheless bore signs of its author’s inexperience. The picture box of the title, for example, turns out to be a gimmick so that the characters could look at old photos and tell each other stories they already knew, for the sole purpose of informing the audience things we didn’t know. And the plot drives toward a moment — signing some papers — that left many of us confused about the procedures of selling a house. (We talked about it, generally, as we left the theater.)

Still, the playful interaction between Mackie and Jo elicited a warm response from the audience at the performance I attended, and the principal trio of actors was marvelous. Together they created something delicate and true, in quietly assured strokes. Even the frankly impossible roles of the intrusive bigots got a boost from Marisa Redanty and Malachy Cleary’s skilled performances. (Redanty was especially good at suggesting the possibility of humane good intentions behind her offensiveness.)

To be honest, I have every reason to believe I’d enjoy watching Jennifer act in almost anything; since she was a girl, she’s been one of the most reliably entertaining talents I’ve encountered. It’s unnerving, really. And yet, as I say, it does my heart good to see her still working at something she seems so surely meant to do. That’s a great gift indeed.

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27 January 2012

Interview: Janice Hall Would Rather Be Doing This

Kicking up her heels in Grand Illusions

Just when soprano Janice Hall’s brilliance was starting to seem almost routine (“Oh, of course she’s going to be sublime in that new opera, portraying 37 different characters and singing the Grand Inquisitor’s aria backwards”), she found a new way to dazzle us all, turning to cabaret. Most sopranos would fall flat in such a setting, let’s be honest, but few of Janice’s colleagues can rival her expressive musicianship — to say nothing of her impeccable diction, without which any cabaret number is just a plate of cold mashed potatoes.

Grand Illusions, her first complete cabaret show, proved a revelation, not only of this new dimension to Janice’s art but also of the personal need for reinvention. Dietrich evolved constantly, and so, too, is Janice evolving.

Her newest act, of which we got a preview of sorts at Urban Stages in December, finds Janice ever more assured, offering up a fascinating mix of numbers from Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim. Directed once again by Peter Napolitano, with music director Matthew Martin Ward, I’d Rather Be Doing This opens at New York’s Metropolitan Room on Sunday, February 12, for the first of three performances over the coming months. Reached by phone in Savannah, Janice was kind enough to talk with me about the show.

WVM: The subject of your first show was an icon, Marlene Dietrich. The subject of your new show is also a legendary diva — yourself. It’s not as if you were hiding behind Dietrich before, but this change in focus really bespeaks a growth in confidence in what is still a new art form for you. How did you arrive at the point where you felt so comfortable in cabaret performance?

JANICE HALL: It’s odd – that kind of happened by itself. I decided after Marlene, I had lots and lots of concept ideas, but that was such an exhausting, intense process, immersing myself in the world of Marlene, that I decided to give myself a little bit of a breather and give myself a program of songs that I liked.

In the process, I discovered that it was kind of about me, though that wasn’t my intention. People who saw the first performance commented on that a lot, and even then I wasn’t aware of it until I watched the DVD and said to myself, “Yes this is very different.”

WVM: Do you feel comfortable now?

JH: I do, and when I go back now and look at the Marlene footage, I see — I think I tend to be overcritical of me — but I find it to be much more formal, let’s put it that way. And I was more removed from it. So I guess just by doing, I’m becoming more comfortable and more confident, as you say, about what it is that I’m doing.

WVM: It’s not that you were uneasy before, but there’s a different kind of ease now.

JH: Marlene was a little bit more studied. I wanted it to be perfect, so I was going for that, so it was scripted in a more formal way. I think it had to be, because if you’re trying to give the story of another person, there are certain facts you have to include. This one I was just on my own, and at first it was strange because I had such a form with Marlene, you’re kind of restricted in terms of what you say and how you say it. This was free-form, and at first I thought it would be simpler, and in a way it was not. Eventually a pattern began to emerge.

WVM: Was the process this time more like programming a recital?

JH: You know, I rarely ever did recitals. The answer to that is probably yes, but I can’t necessarily tell you that from my own experience. One of the reasons I never really wanted to do recitals as a Classical singer is that it really scared me to be out there and be me, without a character to hide behind. For some reason, with cabaret music, I became very comfortable with just that very thing. If I were to go back and program a Classical recital, with what I know about putting together a cabaret evening, I would find it easier. And in fact I’m thinking of doing that.

I also want to add about the structure of the show, that was one of the ways that my director, Peter Napolitano, was very helpful in looking at the overall picture and saying, “Yes, this works,” or “No, this has to go.” If anybody ever wonders why you need a director for a cabaret show, that’s one reason why.

“Lana Turner Has Collapsed,” from Madame X.
(Also known as the act I haven’t seen yet.)
Pygmalion Theatre Company, Salt Lake City, UT, May, 2011

WVM: I’m always struck by a kind of seamlessness in your vocal production when you sing cabaret, and that’s also an asset in opera, of course. Where does your Classical training help you in cabaret, and what’s been the biggest technical adjustment you’ve needed to make?

JH: I do get that comment, and it makes me very happy, because it doesn’t necessarily feel seamless to me. It’s becoming more and more so, but the biggest challenge I’ve had in transferring over has been not trying to go into what I call opera voice. You do have to go into your head voice at some point: I’m not a belter, I’m never going to be a belter.

I’m learning how to mix my voice in new ways, but I’m also sort of relaxing and letting my soprano voice come through, but I don’t want to do it in an operatic way. So that’s been the biggest challenge, moving smoothly from my chest voice to my head voice.

Now, in terms of how it helps me, my background, I think the discipline aspect of being a Classical singer is a natural advantage to me, in terms of doing this music. It isn’t something I think about: it’s just the way I’ve been trained, it influences the way I learn music.

Frankly, I don’t know how people who don’t have that training learn music, and I’m constantly amazed at people who don’t read music at all and yet they learn just fine. I don’t understand how that happens, because my process is very different. But for me, the discipline of having to be a Classical singer is very valuable for me in this.

WVM: The title of the act turns out to be a very funny song [by Napolitano and Ward], but it also suggests or advertises that you’re performing songs that are personal favorites. People are often surprised to discover that Classical musicians like pop songs, so can you tell us how you first discovered one or two of these numbers, and how you came to understand they might be right not just to listen to, but also to sing yourself?

JH: When I was a teenager, I was listening to all kinds of different music. I’m sure that a lot of people think that my incorporation of Piaf songs or Kurt Weill songs came from my years of being in Europe, but in fact, they came from my teenage years, when I discovered Lotte Lenya and Edith Piaf and all these strange European singers. They achieved a certain iconic stature later, but at that particular point they were pretty obscure. I just found this music and listened to it. I listened to the pop music of my generation, and I’ve always been a very eclectic music listener.

So some of these songs have been things I’ve had in my ears for years. In a couple of cases, they were songs I didn’t feel ready to tackle until now. One of them is “Pirate Jenny,” of course. It’s such a difficult song because people have certain expectations. And yet those expectations have become almost stereotypical, so to find something that’s original with the song or unique to your interpretation yet remaining true to the integrity of the song is a real challenge.

Fort Worth Favorite: Janice, with David Adam Moore,
in Eötvös’ Angels in America, 2009.

WVM: Darren Keith Woods will kill us both if we don’t mention that you’re still an opera singer — performing in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers at the Fort Worth Opera Festival in the spring. What can you tell us about how you’re getting ready for that show?

JH: Actually, that process is going to start in full, as soon as I get back from Savannah. I’m going to throw myself into that. So far, I’ve read the libretto, I’ve listened to the recording, I’ve had my costume fittings now — we did a whole wonderful afternoon of costume fittings on Sunday. That is also going to inform me a lot, in how I go about this.

But the biggest challenge for me now is simply cabaret voice and opera voice. If I’m working a lot in cabaret voice, it’s like if you’re an Olympic athlete and you’re not quite working at that level for a while, you have to get back up to that level. Just singing in my daily voice, I’ve got to get back up to that point. Because you lose stamina if you’re not at that level.

So that’s the challenge, but it’s a fabulous character to be playing, and I’m very excited about that aspect of it — as well as the musical aspect!

Janice Hall in I’d Rather Be Doing This
Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd St.

Sunday, February 12, 4:00PM
Monday, March 5, 7:00PM
Wednesday, April 18, 9:30PM

Heggie’s Three Decembers
Fort Worth Opera Festival

May 13, 18, 20, 26, 31; June 2, 2012

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26 January 2012

Orsino’s Dream

The author as Orsino, with Tom Diggs as Feste.
Production Workshop, Brown University, 1982
Staging by Robin Saex Garbose.

You have been cast as Count Orsino, Duke of Illyria, twice-titled ruler of William Shakespeare’s boffo rom-com, Twelfth Night. You have rehearsed for weeks, until the Bard’s language is your own, and you speak each speech trippingly on the tongue. You do not saw the air too much with your hand, but use all gently. Discretion has been your tutor, and you suit the action to the word, the word to the action.

You take your part seriously. For you are conscious that to act Shakespeare is a gift, offered to few — and seldom if ever again offered to you. This is your big chance. Yours is the privilege to start Twelfth Night in action, and to do so with the play’s most famous line:

“If music be the food of love, play on!”

And so on opening night, you stand in the wings while a musician (a lutenist, ideally, but possibly a guitarist instead) serenades you with the only cue you will get. Bedecked in your ducal finery, you stride toward your mark, and hit it, radiant in the spotlight. You can sense the perfumed Illyrian breeze; you are “in the moment”: majestic, rare and fine.

And then you speak.

“If food — ”

You wake screaming.

Christina Haag as Viola, WVM as Orsino

Orsino is a deceptively difficult role, because in only a few scenes, the actor playing him has to establish a character who’s worthy of Viola’s love. Otherwise, the audience will lose sympathy for her.

Granted, he does almost nothing to warrant sympathy for himself: he’s in love with an idea of love, and he spends all his time mooning over a woman who a) doesn’t like him, and b) isn’t Viola. The principal difference between Orsino and a stalker is that he sends out Viola in his stead to stalk Lady Olivia. Clearly, there were no restraining orders in 17th-century Illyria.

What’s more, virtually all your interaction is with Viola, a character whom you’re not treating all that nicely, and who is actually a girl, though you don’t even notice this. Nevertheless, once your audience starts thinking, “What on earth does Viola see in him? Malvolio is much more fun,” then there is no point in pursuing the play any further. She’s the heroine, after all.

Thus Orsino a part that should be offered only to skilled — or extremely handsome — actors. For some reason, Robin Saex cast me anyway.

Since that experience, I have surveyed (informally) dozens of other actors who have played Orsino. Without a single exception, all of us suffered the same nightmare, which is to start off the play with that most famous line — backwards. Exactly as I have described it to you.

Plenty of actors have nightmares that they haven’t learned their lines, or put on the wrong costume, or showed up in the wrong scene, or met John Simon at a party. But Orsino’s dream is specific, a nightmare unto itself.

When you’re Orsino, you have no build-up, no real cue, and no way out. Say the line wrong — the one line everyone knows — and you’ll be screwed. Hopelessly. Because there’s no way to recover, short of starting the play over.

No matter how often you tell yourself, “Don’t f*** this up,” the possibility is always there, swimming beside you, ready to attack.

And so, the next time you see Twelfth Night, I ask you to show a little mercy to the actor who plays the Duke: he’s had a rough time already, even before he got started.

NOTE: There’s a line in the play about Orsino’s beard, which Robin took quite literally (with Christina egging her on). Trouble is, even now, I can’t grow more than sparse whiskers; my cheeks in my youth were barely peaches. What you see in the pictures is the result of two weeks’ praying and straining and swearing — and a copious amount of eyebrow pencil.

Also, please note that Robin and the costume designer, Jamie Scott, found codpieces “distracting,” so I wasn’t given one to wear. I was, however, given a dance belt.

Years later, I think we can all agree that it is

not at all distracting

that my Orsino looks like a Ken doll here.

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23 January 2012

Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’

Leila Hatami (Simin) and Peyman Moaadi (Nader)

After seeing Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, I joked to a friend that the movie is so good, I can’t believe it’s not French. While it’s true that the picture represents something the French often try — it’s an intimate psychological portrait of a family, with just a few, very good actors — A Separation succeeds on its own terms, too. I’m not the only one who enjoyed it: it’s received excellent reviews and appears poised to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. There’s not a lot I can add, except to say that you really owe it to yourself to see it.

One reason is the film’s portrayal of daily life in contemporary Tehran. Many of us (and I do include myself in that number) have limited exposure to anything Iranian other than news reports about nuclear programs Ahmadinejad’s provocations, followed by emotional/political diatribes about military responses. Our notions are limited, therefore, of what it’s like for rank-and-file Iranian citizens to live in the mullahs’ thrall.

Based on the evidence in A Separation, for Iranians like the central couple in this film, creature comforts are plentiful (microwave ovens! shiny cars!), and even for such secular, educated, even Westernized Iranians, it’s sometimes possible to go about one’s business without running afoul of the system. But there are hidden costs in such arrangements, and when Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) embark on their eponymous separation, every one of the major characters — rich and poor, young and old, devout and secular — is sucked into a maelstrom of moral compromise.

Sareh Bayat (Razieh)

A teacher, Simin is chafing already under the regime, dyeing her hair and wearing her headscarf almost casually, more like a fashion accessory than a legal requirement. Her reason for wanting divorce isn’t that Nader is a bad man, she explains, but that he’s preventing her from leaving the country with their daughter. She feels that young Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) can’t live up to her potential in Iran, but she punts when the off-camera judge asks her why, and she never says where she wants to move. (My guess is France, since Termeh is seen practicing her French.)

Likewise, Farhadi stops short of directly criticizing the regime, but his film contains many scenes that depict the Iranian legal system unflatteringly. Even the magistrate (Babak Karimi) seems frustrated by the restrictive structure and the endless wrangling. While much of the difficulty arises from the individual personalities involved, how can there be justice when everyone is somehow corrupted?

Sarina Farhadi (Termeh)

They’re also sympathetic, which in turn makes the film sometimes quite uncomfortable: we’re watching a car wreck in slow motion, and we’re also watching ourselves, or people with whom we can identify easily. The actors are attractive, and the naturalness of their art (as well as the fact that we in America are unlikely to have seen any of them much if ever) keeps drawing you in as if you were witnessing real lives in real conflict.

Ultimately, Farhadi’s reliance on a very jittery hand-held camera becomes a commentary in itself: nothing here is truly stable. The audience never really gets a long view, the visual equivalent of the broader perspective that the characters need and don’t get, either.

I’ve held back on plot details, because very little in A Separation plays out as you expect it to do, and that is one of its strengths. Suffice to say that Farhadi’s film will tell you something about modern Iran, but more than that, it will make you think: about politics, about morality, about people you know, and how they treat one another.

Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat)

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22 January 2012

The Met’s ‘The Enchanted Island’ at the Multiplex

Joyce DiDonato, as Sycorax,
looking the way she makes me feel.

She will probably spend the rest of her life trying to get rid of that gold leaf.

The Metropolitan Opera presented its new Baroque pastiche, The Enchanted Island, as a high-definition simulcast yesterday; I saw it at a high-rise multiplex in Times Square, where a disaster movie of some sort was playing downstairs. Periodically our little theater would rumble with distant explosions — including the point when Joyce DiDonato sang about “thunder underground.” So we got the benefit of extra special effects in a show that has plenty already.

Watching the screen, I was able to see bountiful details that escaped me at the final dress rehearsal, in December. For example, Joyce’s Into the Woods–style transformation from old crone to golden queen is more extensive than I’d realized: when we first see her, she’s got bushy eyebrows that appear to have been inherited from the late Andy Rooney. In the next scene, as her power grows, she loses the eyebrows. And by the time Sycorax emerges in full splendor at the end of the opera, Joyce really is golden, with bits of gold leaf pasted to her face and neck. Glamorous, indeed.

Luca Pisaroni (center) in Caliban’s dream sequence:
One of the finest acting performances I’ve seen at the Met.
Really, Pisaroni could play Caliban in Shakespeare’s “version” of this story, too.

Two acting performances that impressed me very favorably already proved even more exciting in closeup: Luca Pisaroni’s Caliban is one of the sweetest, funniest, and angriest imaginable, and his comedic teamwork with Layla Claire, as Helena, is simply beautiful to watch. Elizabeth DeShong has been the talk of New York since Enchanted Island opened, yet somehow I didn’t see her greatness until yesterday. This is a major voice, rich and creamy and powerful, and her account of Hermia’s “Where are you now?” (based on “Where shall I fly?” from Handel’s Hercules) is stunning. I sat there dreaming up a list of other roles I’d like to hear her sing.

Plácido Domingo’s first scene is pretty much a manifestation of the way opera lovers feel about him. Of course he’s a god, and of course he should make an entrance like this one, attended by flying mermaids! Seen in close-up, however, he looks like the fellow who got called at the last minute to play Santa Claus at a kids’ Christmas party. He doesn't really know what he's doing as an actor, but hey, people like it when he sings, so okay, why not?

Somehow, this slight awkwardness makes the scene even more fun, and his fans must have loved it when they heard him speak (during his intermission interview with hostess Deborah Voigt) with perfect confidence of his intentions to sing Neptune again when Enchanted Island is revived in a couple of seasons. Yesterday was his birthday: he’s 71 years old. Yet there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever sound anything less than brilliant.

A marvel of color and agility, Joyce got the first round of applause from us, and probably the most, too. (Though Domingo gave her a run for the money.) I refuse to be blasé about this: my friend is up there on a movie screen, in an opera tailor-made for her by the Metropolitan, and a roomful of jaded New Yorkers is cheering her even though she can't hear us because she's at Lincoln Center.

Darling, it’s hotter under the water!
Domingo as Neptune

That’s why I mean to go back to the Met to hear Enchanted Island one more time — even though Jeremy Sams’ libretto continues to drive me crazy, and of course watching the simulcast from the front row of the movie theater, I had no choice but to read the damnable words all afternoon.

In huge letters. In my native tongue. Right in front of my face.

The horror, the horror!

But all in all, I’m enjoying my Island cruise tremendously, and I was pleased yesterday to see so many young people, not only sitting with me in the movie theater but also on the screen in the Met audience. Enchanted Island is long, and even I get squirmy. (I have identified two ideal places where Act I ought to break, and yet the thing keeps charging right past them.) Yet the show is fun, with all kinds of staging tricks and magic. Joyce’s scary witch isn’t too scary, and Pisaroni’s monster is rather dear, as I say; Danielle de Niese’s charming Ariel likewise suggests that this might be a really good opera for kids, maybe even a first opera.

You’ve got a few more chances to see The Enchanted Island at the Met this season, and a DVD of yesterday’s simulcast will surely be released in coming months.

Not just HD, but 4-D (DiDonato, Domingo, and Daniels)

Note: I’m looking forward to another bout of Mezzo-Madness, beginning with Joyce’s next appearance in Enchanted Island and followed by performances at Carnegie Hall by Susan Graham (February 1, with Malcolm Martineau on piano) and Vivica Genaux (February 2, with Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante).

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20 January 2012

Liz Dribben’s Jahrzeit

It’s so tough to say tootle-loo.

When Liz Dribben passed away last year, I resorted to photographs of Michelle Pfeiffer to illustrate my reminiscences. That would have pleased Liz tremendously, as I said at the time, because she’d always hoped that “Miss Pfeiffer” would play her in the movie adaptation of her life story. Even so, I promised to update my essay with photographs of the real Liz Dribben, who was very much the star of her own life, and a glamorous blonde at that.

I had one gorgeous picture of Liz already at hand — or so I thought. Yes, she’d given it to me while I was helping her to sort through her myriad collections, files, cases, and hordes of hoards, just before she left for the nursing home. Meanwhile, however, the photograph, a bona fide 8 x 10 print, slipped off to the warehouse with all my other belongings. By the time I’d unpacked it again and managed to scan it, Liz’s Jahrzeit, the first anniversary of her death, was upon me.

So here is the picture, and here is the anniversary. Miss Pfeiffer will remain in place, and Liz’s own portrait will get its own special frame. Together now we can look at the pioneering Buffalo TV journalist, along with her co-anchor. I don’t know whether this is the fellow who was getting paid more than Liz for doing the same work, but I do know that, when she asked for equal pay, she was fired. That’s how she wound up in New York, where I met her two decades later.

I’ve had a year to get used to Liz’s absence, to the phone that doesn’t ring and the e-mail that doesn’t ping. But how can I get used to hours not spent talking with her every week when I’m in New York! Not receiving her chatty notes and the news articles she forwarded so avidly! And not being on the receiving end of her endless advice!

Now that I reflect on it, her advice was seldom entirely practical, and there was always a catch to it: yes, it would be terrific if I did on-the-scene reporting from a bathysphere off the eastern coast of Madagascar, especially if Mr. Sondheim came with me, and especially if I got one of those broadcast-quality digital telephones she’d heard about (and craved), and I’d have to admit she was right, even as I tallied up the reasons her scheme would never work.

Say what you will, she was always looking out for me, thinking about me, wishing me well. A resilient optimist, too, she forever insisted, “You never know” what good might come of my efforts, if only I’d dare.

I miss that.

I miss Liz.

The concept of “Jahrzeit” means that we grieve for a year, and then we move on. It’s going to take me a while longer.

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19 January 2012

We Bought a Zooey

Who wouldn’t want to see a quirky, heartwarming
independent comedy about the white slave trade?

It’s awards season, and that means I’m busily trying to come up with movie projects of my own, so I won’t be left out next year. Because I look pretty good in formal wear, if I do say so.

Here are some of my latest concepts. They’re completely unoriginal and therefore totally safe, which is how I know you’ll want to greenlight them into development now. Or however you say that. Look, just have your people call my people.


The Ironic Lady
Meryl Streep is Alanis Morissette, dontcha think? Yeah, I really do think.

(Suggestion: Hire Phyllida Lloyd to “direct.”)


The Fartist
Hollywood smells an Oscar when Jean Dujardin returns to his low-comedy roots, starring as Joseph Pujol, “le Pétomane,” a popular real-life French music-hall performer. Isn’t it time to relive the glory days of moviemaking — the golden age of Odorama?


Jodie Foster goes on a promotional tour for her new movie, but a persistent entertainment reporter (Kristen Wiig) keeps asking her about a movie she made when she was a teenager. “What was it like to work with Gary Busey? No, really, what was it really like?”


In My Week with Marilyn Horne, a young Englishman learns the hidden truths of a glamorous American superstar.


We Need to See We Need to Talk about Kevin, Kevin
A young couple argues about which movie to see on a Saturday night. Harrowing.


Re-booting the franchise based on a comic strip that hasn’t been done lately. (Not since 1961, in fact.)


Mission Impossible: Ghost Proctologist
The aging Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) undergoes an unusually suspenseful, top-secret prostate exam. You’ll be on the edge of your seat! And so will Tom!


Sure, those biceps look good now, but wait ’til you see the powerful psychological drama, Shape. Michael Fassbender stars as a gym instructor who suffers from exercise addiction.


Midnight in Paris, Arkansas
Woody Allen has definitely left New York City behind!


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spike
A black filmmaker becomes involved in a major espionage caper.


Bridesmaids Revisited
A middle-class Englishwoman’s life is upended when she agrees to be maid of honor for her noble-born best friend from Oxford. British Catholicism has never been funnier! Look out for the already notorious bangers-and-mash scene.


Dondi. Seriously.

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18 January 2012

‘Costa Concordia’ Captain Says He Had No Choice but to Abandon Ship

ROME -- A profound sense of duty compelled Francesco Schettino to abandon his sinking cruise liner, the Costa Concordia, the ship’s captain told Italian authorities this morning, and his actions saved countless tiny, almost completely invisible lives.

Schettino has been criticized for allegedly fleeing the accident, last Friday, long before many passengers and other crew members. It is also alleged that he refused to return to the ship after being ordered to do so by the Italian coast guard; according to some sources, he either did not participate at all in the rescue effort or else hampered efforts by others.

“It was my duty as captain to oversee the evacuation and rescue of the most vulnerable passengers on board the Costa Concordia,” Schettino is said to have told investigators. “The Puffi are a tiny people who would have been crushed by others in the rush for the lifeboats. What is more, only I have the ability to see them. Had I abandoned them, they surely would have died, and casualties from this regrettable accident would have been much, much higher.”

Schettino “refuses to be the Gargamella in this case.”

Aboard the ship, the Puffi, tiny blue people who wear white stockings and caps, were mostly elderly (Grande Puffo), women (Puffetta), children (Puffo Bambino), or so incredibly brainy or handy that Schettino dared not leave them behind (Puffo Quattrocchi, Puffo Inventore). “Survivors of the wreck would need the Puffi skills these Puffi could provide,” Schettino reportedly said.

“You cannot imagine how difficult it was,” Schettino told Italian authorities, describing what he called a “Puffi’s Choice” as to “who would escape and who would stay to fight for their Puffi lives. But it was my duty as captain to act as I did.”

Among the disaster’s unreported casualties, Schettino said, were Puffo Goloso, Puffo Maldestro, and Puffo Brontolone, all of whom are missing and believed smurfed.

“I can understand that, since nobody else could see the lives I was saving, it may have appeared that I was a foolish coward, thinking only of myself. This is simply not the case.”

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Hamilton’s ‘Anthony Burns’

The book’s cover features an illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon, whose work enhanced Hamilton’s The People Could Fly
so eloquently.

Continuing my exploration of the work of the late author Virginia Hamilton, and doing so in the most haphazard way, I have stumbled across a lovely book, from 1988, that is a compendium of many of the best qualities that made her such a compelling writer. Not the least of these is, it’s a helluva good story, excitingly told.

Aimed I think at high-school kids and those junior-high students who are strong readers, Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave reads like historical fiction: with its Boston setting, roiling political background, and its hero with a crippled hand, it may even recall that landmark of the genre, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain. But it’s all true, as Hamilton makes clear with a thoughtful afterword and an extensive bibliography.

Hamilton shows us Burns, a young man who finds himself the center of a riot in 1854. As is sometimes the case with such figures, Burns is de facto a passive figure during the most dramatic event of his life, since he’s being held prisoner (in shackles and under heavy guard) at the very moment he’s a cause célèbre. But creating passive heroes is not what Hamilton is about.

And so she shows us Burns’ inner thoughts, active even as he’s confined and facing the prospect of forcible return to his master in Virginia: Anthony retreats within himself, reliving his past in vivid flashback sequences, making of the narrative a counterpane of past and present. This technique makes absolute sense, chiming as it does with what we know about survivors of prison camps and other such ordeals. (Hamilton doesn’t say whether any of the real-life Burns’ writings or statements corroborated her narrative approach, but I wouldn’t be surprised.)

The book is full of smart psychology, and Hamilton shows us, for example, what a mixed blessing is Anthony’s as a very young boy, because he’s the special favorite of John Suttle, the man who owns him (and who cannot stop himself from repeating that Anthony is his property). Yes, Anthony gets somewhat better treatment than the other slaves, but this in turn exposes him to rumors and resentment from whites and blacks alike on the plantation. Anthony is still a slave, and even John Suttle’s affection can’t be relied on: he takes Anthony on pony rides, yes, but then knocks him off the saddle to the ground. The boy cannot — must not — complain.

Hamilton doesn’t need to spell out her message: there was no such thing as comfortable or “nice” slavery, nor any way to make the condition tolerable, and we understand why young Anthony feels the need to escape. Sure, some of his jobs are cushier than others; he never works in the fields, though he does plenty of manual labor, including in a sawmill, where a white man’s negligence leads to the accident that cripples 13-year-old Anthony’s hand. Other slaves have it worse, but that doesn’t make his situation better.

And so, as a man, Anthony retreats to his memories not out of sentimentality but out of pride: his memories are his own, and no one can take them from him: that is what makes them a source of comfort.

You see what an astute observer of psychology — of the human spirit — Virginia Hamilton could be. The rest of the book is full of comparable insights and intriguing characterizations. And if Anthony isn’t the most active participant in the courtroom drama, he remains the heart of the story.

Drawing on memoirs and testimony, Hamilton makes those trial scenes very suspenseful (what a great movie this story would make!), and it’s another mark of her method that she doesn’t condescend: legal terms are used, with the apparent presumption that her readers are smart enough to look ’em up if they don’t know ’em already.

Along similar lines, you don’t have to read the appended historical texts (including not only the works in that bibliography but also excerpts from the Fugitive Slave Act, nightmarish), but you can: as with The People Could Fly, Hamilton isn’t merely telling (or spoon-feeding) stories, she’s giving her readers the tools they need to learn and to make the stories their own. Fascinating.

She does keep you guessing, though. Two of the scenes that you expect to play on a grand scale are kept brief, remarkably non-violent, and really rather understated: the sawmill accident and the riot itself. It’s clever strategy, because you wind up paying closer attention to other, subtler or more obscure points in the plot: in a way, Hamilton knows that your imagination has filled in the big scenes, so she doesn’t have to.

And so it’s not only for the stories — which she has uncovered with such thoughtful care — that I’m returning to Virginia Hamilton’s books. It’s for the way she goes about her business, and for the sense she gives me that I know her now, though I never met her. With each book, she’s shared a bit of her soul with me.

Virginia Hamilton’s page at Amazon.com can be found here.

Virginia Hamilton’s page at Scholastic Books can be found here.

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17 January 2012

Streep’s ‘The Iron Lady’

Another Oscar would go so nicely
next to the Golden Globes on the mantel.

Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, an unconventional biopic about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played by Meryl Streep), is about the qualities of leadership, and is aimed at those audiences who buy books on “Leadership” and who quote Winston Churchill at parties… no, start over.

The Iron Lady is an unconventional love story that proves that behind every great woman, there is a great man (Harry Lloyd as the younger Denis Thatcher, Jim Broadbent as the older)… no, start over.

The Iron Lady is a Joan Crawford movie in modern dress, about the personal costs of a woman’s career, as Thatcher neglects her children and her husband recedes into the background, leaving her alone….

Maybe The Iron Lady is about the importance of upholding principle… no, not really.

No matter how this picture looks when it is cropped, these gentlemen are not giving Margaret Thatcher a Nazi salute.

The Iron Lady is a disease-of-the-week movie about senile dementia, which brings low even the mightiest…. The Iron Lady is a dreamplay about memory, which holds even the departed close to heart….

Well, to tell the truth, I had no idea what The Iron Lady was about, after sitting through a 104-minute movie that seems much longer than it is. Director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan stubbornly, almost courageously refuse to take a point of view about anything in the picture.

At least The Iron Lady is absolutely and categorically not about politics. And this is why it may have been perfectly all right for me to see it on Martin Luther King Day, though the subjects of movie and holiday almost surely would have clashed in life. (Can you imagine the protest marches Dr. King might’ve led against Thatcher’s treatment of the coal miners?)

Be patient, keep a stiff upper lip, and the real subject of the picture will come to me, I assure you.
But perhaps you’d better pour yourself a cup of tea while you wait.

Ultimately, The Iron Lady is about Meryl Streep, who portrays Margaret Thatcher in middle and old age and who is the whole excuse for the exercise. She gives a remarkable performance, a celebration of a powerful woman who is either Margaret Thatcher or Meryl Streep herself, and it really doesn’t matter which.

Watching her, Americans will regret that we cannot confer knighthoods upon our actors, as the English do. Perhaps there are others who could be made to look and sound more like Margaret Thatcher (in Britain she’s usually mimicked by men), and surely there are plenty of actresses who are more British. But when the question of authority comes up at one point in the film, you think, “Aha! That’s it — that’s why Dame Meryl is the only actress today who could give this performance — she has authority.”

Because then The Iron Lady is a movie about Dame Meryl Streep, the filmmakers are keenly interested in humanizing Margaret Thatcher, because, no matter how evil you think Thatcher is (and some people do hold strong opinions), Dame Meryl does not play inhuman characters: even Miranda Priestley turned out to have an inner life.

Behind every great woman: Jim Broadbent plays Denis Thatcher as an older man, and also as a deceased man.

Here, humanizing Margaret Thatcher is done primarily through scenes depicting her with husband Denis, both before and after his death, and he turns out to be an entirely adorable fellow indeed, a gentle clown, as patient with Margaret as he is proud of her.

Just in case this wasn’t enough humanity for you, Phyllida Lloyd has cast Jim Broadbent as Denis. Not only is Broadbent very good at such roles, having played a lot of them, but he has also been amassing quite a reserve of audience affection for himself personally, so that we’re inclined to think he’s sweet no matter what he’s doing. Harry Lloyd, as the young Denis, is even more charming and probably too good-looking ever to turn into Jim Broadbent, but we don’t mind.

A great deal of work is crammed into very few scenes for Alexandra Roach, who plays young Margaret. It’s up to her to convey Thatcher’s pain at being snubbed by male chauvinists and upper-class twits; it’s also up to her to convey Thatcher’s worship of her father and terror that she’ll turn out like her own Mum.

The sweetest scene in the picture: Young Denis (Harry Lloyd) proposes to Young Margaret (Alexandra Roach).

And yet, in a curious reflection of the scenes in which Thatcher is carefully trained and groomed for higher office, it’s hard to take this movie’s Thatcher seriously until she turns into Meryl Streep. Roach isn’t supposed to have authority, of course, but because she doesn’t, we’re just biding our time until Dame Meryl returns.

In the realm of politics, everyone else gets short shrift with the possible exception of Geoffrey Howe (played by Anthony Head), who has a lot of screen time if not many lines. Richard E. Grant is instantly recognizable as Richard E. Grant, not so much as the politician he plays, but it doesn’t matter because he vanishes almost immediately. As for the actor who plays John Major — well, you assume he’s John Major, because the resemblance is uncanny, but in truth he never opens his mouth, and really you’re just guessing.

For a long time, Dame Meryl was the prime contender for the film of Evita. Watching this picture, I saw definite clues as to how she would have played Señora Perón.
I also wished Iron Lady were a musical.

Did Thatcher save Britain? Was her idea of Britain worth the suffering she inflicted? The movie does in fact raise these questions, but never gets around to answering them.

Does Dame Meryl save the picture? Yes. Does Phyllida Lloyd inflict too much suffering, with her meandering moviemaking? Yes. (And dear Heaven, Lloyd already made Mamma Mia! You don’t get many more free passes after a crime like that.)

You will not really learn much about Margaret Thatcher’s life, and still less about your own, from watching The Iron Lady. But you will see a very fine actress in a very challenging role, one that is almost certain to win her another Oscar.

If that’s your idea of a good time, don’t let me stop you.
Frankly, next time I might prefer to see her play Batman.

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15 January 2012

Please Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington

Christina Haag as Viola, with Adrian Hernandez as the Sea Captain.
Twelfth Night, Production Workshop, Brown University, 1982.
Directed by Robin Saex Garbose.

Actors aren’t like other people; they’re always acting. So goes the conventional wisdom, anyway, and to some it’s quite handy.

So you broke up with your girlfriend? Blame it on her acting talent! “Oh, you know, she’s an actress,” you can say; “She was always changing, never herself, so artificial, constantly pretending. I never knew where I stood with her, and I couldn’t tell what she was really thinking.”

Nobody will call you on this — nobody will dare to suggest that maybe you didn’t understand her because you’re not terribly perceptive, or that you’re certainly not as well connected to your emotions as any decent actress really must be to hers (even to the point of excess). And rest assured that nobody will tell you that you didn’t deserve a girl like her in the first place. So long as you speak in truisms universally accepted, you can delude yourself forever.

Ann Harada as Christmas Eve

Returning to New York and reuniting with friends who just happen to be actresses, I have found reassurance in the very unchangeable nature of their changing art. This isn’t to say that they aren’t better actresses now than when I knew them in college, but that — contrary to what people say — they are less changed in spirit, and perhaps more authentic, than many other women of my acquaintance.

Where is the girl I used to know? She’s right here, doing what she has always done. And that makes everything seem somehow right.

Jennifer Van Dyck, with Charles Busch in The Divine Sister

Christina Haag has been getting so much attention as a writer — not least for Come to the Edge, her tender account of her love affair with John F. Kennedy, Jr., which has just been released in paperback. Indeed, the fact that she writes so beautifully came as something of a revelation to me, and if she ever turns to fiction, I intend to become jealous and quite unpleasant about it.

But I knew Christina first as an actress, and so it was a providential gift to find her onstage again, a few months ago in New York, in Sharyn Rothstein’s drama, The Invested. She portrayed a driven financier with such natural grace that she had me believing that she might have succeeded on Wall Street, too, in real life. (Christina quickly but gently disabused me of that notion after the show.)

Christina Haag in Sharyn Rothstein’s The Invested
New York, 2011

Before The Invested, I hadn’t seen Christina in something like 20 years. She’s a grownup now, and yet she’s still the poised, almost ethereally beautiful girl I used to know. When our friend Robin Saex Garbose directed Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Brown, I was Christina’s Orsino, and playing opposite her really raised my game. Looking into her eyes, I wanted to be the Orsino she imagined.

She’s the last girl I ever kissed onstage: I guess it’s just as well that I quit while I was ahead.

Christina as Viola, with WVM as Orsino.

There’s a lot to be said for the fulfillment of a promise, and in seeing a woman do what she was meant to do, your own destiny may seem more secure. Just last night, I missed hearing Ann Harada performing the songs of William Finn in Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series, darn it, but I’ve had the joyful experience of seeing Ann a few times elsewhere recently, including her annual tour-de-force, Christmas Eve with Christmas Eve.

For the moment, let me emphasize that Ann throws her Christmas Eve revues together in only a few weeks, with minimal rehearsal. Her instincts, her training and experience, her talent and her prowess as a performer are such that she can pull off such feats of skill and daring, where any mortal woman might fail. What’s more, her heart (the shows benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS) makes the effort necessary to her. But even as a girl, in musical comedies at Faunce House, Ann was signaling already that some day she’d be capable of exactly this magic.

Art isn’t easy: Ann Harada with WVM,
following December’s annual Christmas Eve extravaganza.
She pours herself into these performances, as you can see.
Photo by Anne Balcer©

I barely suspected that I’d see Jennifer Van Dyck when I went to Charles Busch’s farce, The Divine Sister, in 2010 — but there she was. Even though she was playing (alternately) a little boy and an older woman, she, too, was entirely the girl I remembered: lovely and funny and smart. In conversation, I always had the feeling that she was three or four lines ahead of me in the dialogue, as if she had privileged access to the full script, whereas I was just reading sides. Her mind works that quickly — and her wit shines through when she’s onstage, just as it always did.

Now Jennifer is appearing in a new play, Cate Ryan’s The Picture Box, with the Negro Ensemble Company, at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row through January 29. Promising the story of a black couple’s relationship with the daughter of the white family they work for, the play is evoking memories of my own relationship with Bessie Pullam, even before I see the show. I’m looking forward to it. (For more information, click here.)

Jennifer Van Dyck

I’m conscious of context here. It’s possible, for example, that actresses without the brains and accomplishment to get into Brown aren’t as estimable as these three women. It’s possible — indeed, probable — that Christina, Ann, and Jennifer would be just as extraordinary if they’d studied molecular biology or worked in real estate. And yet the combination of circumstances here strikes me as resistant to debate — and worthy of celebration.

In a too-changing world, these women are not merely stage stars but pole stars, and we’d be fools not to be guided by them. The next time you meet an actress, consider yourself lucky.

Christina as Viola, with Andrew Weems as Malvolio.

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14 January 2012

Kennst du das Buch?

An illustration from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister:
She’s been singing while the old guy plays the harp and the young guy listens, and that’s about as much as I can tell you about the story, for now.

To say that I’m excited about Susan Graham’s recital tour (now underway and arriving at New York’s Carnegie Hall on February 1, with the heroic Malcolm Martineau at the piano) would be an understatement of a sort to which I am not prone when Susan is the subject. By far the bulk of the program is given over to material Susan hadn’t sung before opening night (in Québec), including the first number in Russian she has ever performed in public — because if there’s one thing Susan is bad at, it’s coasting.

Perhaps most intriguing is a set of five songs, by five composers, inspired by the character Mignon, from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjare (usually translated as “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”). An appealing character, apparently, Mignon herself sings in the novel, and she inspired several 19th-century composers, notably with “Kennst du das Land?” (“Do you know the country?”), which everybody from Franz Schubert to our dear contemporary, Mark Adamo, has set. Ambroise Thomas wrote an entire opera on Wilhelm Meister, and named it after Mignon.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I’ve never read Wilhelm Meister. I daresay that Susan could sing the tax code in Chinese and still manage to connect with me on a spiritual level — but why not read the book? I had no answer to that question, and so I’ve loaded it onto my Kindle.

Susan Graham in recital, Québec, January 6, 2012

I’ll update you on my progress, and I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with Goethe, of whose work I know only two other monuments: Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther. (Those books inspired two of Susan’s most distinguished stage roles, Marguerite in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust and Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther.)

With a view primarily to impressing the admissions officers of Harvard College, I read Faust in a dual-language edition; the stunt didn’t work, and while I remember the framework, I don’t remember the brushstrokes, as it were: neither German nor English text stuck in my head.

Werther I read in English, but at a time when an ex-girlfriend was about to marry. I was homeless at the time, sleeping on a friend’s sofa, and I dreamt — surely as Werther himself must have done, when Lotte married Albert — that I could hear the happy couple making love in the night. Let’s just say that I understand why Goethe’s novel provoked a rash of sympathetic suicides when it was first published.

Susan as Massenet’s Charlotte, with Rolando Villazón as Werther.
I was lucky enough to see them in this production
in Paris a few years ago.

Will Wilhelm Meister enhance my appreciation of Susan’s performance? There’s only one way to find out. But as I move forward, I’m reminded of something Beverly Sills said during my first-ever interview, backstage in her dressing-room in Dallas. “You have to do your homework,” she said about opera-going.

In those days, she was especially right. We had no projected titles in those days, children, and so we had to read the libretto before we went to the theater, or else risk getting hopelessly lost in the flow of foreign languages. At the very least, we had to read a plot synopsis, so that we understood that Alfredo was Violetta’s boyfriend, and not her dad or some guy she picked up on the street.

Nowadays it’s easier, and even I sometimes go to a show without having studied up on it. But in “winging it,” I’ve lost something, I know. By doing my “homework” for the opera, I wound up learning a lot — and not least that there existed a great wide world beyond the horizons I could see from where I stood.

Susan herself has spoken eloquently about listening to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons and dreaming of that wider world. Now it’s she who points out new horizons to the people who are lucky enough to hear her. I am one among them, and I am glad of it.

Okay. Back to my homework.

Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau

January 14, 2012:
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall at Univesity of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA

January 18, 2012:
CSU Northridge, Valley Performing
Arts Center
, Northridge, CA

January 22, 2012:
Spivey Hall, Morrow, GA

January 28, 2012: Koerner Hall at Telus Centre, Toronto, ON

February 1, 2012: Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

February 4, 2012: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC

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