Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Giving in to marketing ploys

I feel a little silly doing this, but I love personality quizzes and The Golden Compass so it was probably inevitable: On the movie's official website you can take a quiz and get assigned a daemon that matches your personality, so...

Say hello to Callum the Lion!



Evidently I have about two weeks before my daemon "settles" into its final form, so if you know me in real life, you have the option of answering a few questions about my personality to bring my daemon more in line with how you perceive me.

"Modest, solitary, spontaneous, shy, fickle" is a weird combination of adjectives, but at least Callum is a very noble-looking beast to accompany them!

Book-to-Movie Anticipation, Part 1: The Golden Compass

Now that it's almost November, the prestige movie season is heating up. This year is special for me in that two movies are going to come out based on books that I, at one point or another, have called my Favorite Book of All Time. They'll even be released on the same day, December 7 (a date that will live in infamy?). The books/movies? The Golden Compass and Atonement.

From about the ages of eight to twelve, I was a fantasy-book junkie. But I now realize that much of my fantasy-book addiction was a quest to recapture the rush I felt when I first read The Golden Compass. I read a lot of kiddie-fantasy trash in those days, most of which I have forgotten. But I could never forget The Golden Compass--it, and its sequels, are just extraordinary works of literature.

My aunt gave me The Golden Compass for my ninth birthday, but when my mom saw on the book jacket that the plot involved "horrible experiments performed on children," she decided my dad had better read it first to make sure it wouldn't scare me to death. (The previous Christmas, this same aunt had given me A Wrinkle in Time, which my parents also took away immediately on the pretext it would scare me, until I wised up and checked the book out of the school library instead.) After four or five months, Dad handed it over--I don't know what took him so long, because once I started the book, I could not stop reading. I had always loved to read, but had also always been too dutiful a daughter to turn my lamp back on after lights-out and keep reading when I should have been asleep. The Golden Compass changed all that. I simply had to find out what was going to happen to Lyra and Pantalaimon. I had to immerse myself in that universe that, despite its lack of fairytale/Tolkein trappings like gnomes and swords and medievalesque society, was still so magical and fantastical. I was hooked!

Scared that my parents would catch on to my late-night reading sessions, the next day I would reread the section I had read the previous night, so as not to look like I was finishing the book too fast. (I don't know why I was so worried--that same year, I read all 1100 pages of Gone with the Wind in three days flat. Why have my speed-reading skills deserted me in college?!) Still, I didn't mind. I knew, even then, that The Golden Compass can withstand many rereadings. And now, if I want to feel old, I remind myself that I have loved this book for over half my life, and the Tenth Anniversary Edition came out last year!

Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Marisa Coulter and Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. Photo from movies.yahoo.com

Now, finally, a movie is coming out, written and directed by Chris Weitz. The initial screenwriter was Tom Stoppard--you can surely imagine how excited I was about that!--but Weitz ultimately rejected his draft. I have very high hopes for Nicole Kidman's portrayal of Mrs. Coulter--a character I'm rather attached to, villainous as she is, because she's the only Marisa or Marissa I've ever encountered in a great novel. Kidman is good at playing icy glamor-queens, and though the book describes Mrs. Coulter as having a Louise Brooks-type bob, I always found it easier to picture her as a blonde. Daniel Craig also looks like he will be a good Lord Asriel. And I'm not sure we need another child actress named "Dakota," but Miss Richards rather looks the part of Lyra. (At nine years old I dreamed of playing Lyra because I too have dark blonde hair, but I was never a scrawny little savage like her.)

I know that to appease American audiences, a lot of the anti-organized-religion messages in the books will be toned down for the movies. I can definitely see this becoming a problem when they film The Subtle Knife, but those themes are not as explicit in The Golden Compass, so the story should still make sense. I'm more worried at the recent news that the last three chapters of The Golden Compass are going to be part of the next movie, instead.

*SPOILERS* This means that the film will end with Iorek Byrnison's victory, and that just feels wrong. Too triumphant, too happy. One of the things I love most about His Dark Materials is that each book has a progressively more poignant ending: Book 1 is wrenching enough, Book 2 breaks your heart, and Book 3, well... And now the filmmakers will disrupt that wonderful pattern. *END SPOILERS*

Another concern: In all of the 19 production stills available on the IMDB, why does not a single one show a human being with their daemon? After all, the plot requires establishing the fact that in Lyra's world, humans can never travel very far from their daemons!

Part 2 of this post, on Atonement, will be up shortly. In the meantime, have you been more often happy or disappointed when your all-time favorite books are turned into movies? Share in the comments!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Passion Play" at the Goodman

Jesus (Joaquín Torres) learns his lines. Photo from goodmantheatre.org

Chicago's reputation as a theater town made it imperative for me to see a show when I visited last week. I'd first thought I'd look somewhere other than the big regional theatre, the Goodman--maybe Steppenwolf or Lookingglass? But, ironically, Steppenwolf was doing The Crucible, that regional-theatre staple...and the Goodman was doing the big, new, exciting show: Passion Play: a cycle by Chicago native Sarah Ruhl.

According to Ruhl's playbill essay, she "started writing this play ten years ago after rereading a childhood book which includes an account of Oberammergau in the early 1900s." I'm pretty sure I know what book she means--Betsy and the Great World, part of the classic Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace--because it made an impression on me, too. When Betsy goes to see the famous German passion play, everyone in the book knows exactly what "Oberammergau" signifies, and treats the play as a great and holy effort--meanwhile, I'd never heard of it, and I was shocked to learn that the actor who played Jesus would willingly be crucified, onstage, for fifteen minutes!

Ruhl saw potential in this for writing a play that would explore religion and politics, art and life; big subjects, which she handles adroitly. The "cycle" has three acts, each set in a different time and place: Elizabethan England, where the Queen is cracking down on Catholic rituals like passion plays; 1934 Oberammergau, when the Nazis have just seized power; and South Dakota during the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

The play is a backstage drama (like many theatre folk, I've got a soft spot for this genre) where in three different eras, three different sets of relationships are affected by current events and by the play that all the characters are working to perform. This multilayered set-up provides a real challenge for actors. For instance, the same actress (Kristen Bush) plays the Virgin Mary, as well as the woman portraying the Virgin Mary in the passion play, in all three acts. But her relationships to the other characters shift from act to act. In a sense, then, she's playing six different roles--two in each act, onstage and offstage! However, all of the actors at the Goodman were very good: I especially liked how Brian Sgambello (Pilate) and Joaquín Torres (Jesus) slightly altered their physicalities from act to act. Also, because the anti-hero is usually more interesting than the straightforward hero, Passion Play's sympathies lie with the Pilates of this world, not the Jesuses.

If that sounded confusing, don't worry: this concept is much more complicated to explain than to watch. At the Goodman, the play was smoothly directed by Mark Wing-Davey: the set seemed plain at first but interesting elements popped out of it as needed, and the large cast (11 speaking actors plus 5 silent supernumeraries) moved as a fluid ensemble.

The Elizabethan first act of Passion Play is terrific--funny, intelligent, moving, with characters that you care about and Ruhl's trademark poetic dialogue. In fact, I'd even call it a perfect 55-minute play. And those are hard to write: I can think of perfect 15-minute plays and perfect 2-hour plays, but not another perfect hourlong play. In 55 minutes, this act covers a lot of ground, and ends before the themes become redundant.

The second segment of the play (Nazi Germany) is much weaker, and that's a pity, because it probably has the richest material to explore. Should it have been a full-length instead? Here, the actor who plays Pilate is a German soldier, and the actor who plays Jesus is his lover. Provocative stuff, but I don't think Ruhl made palpable the experience of being a gay man in Hitler's army, or even a gay man in the '30s. The study guide mentions that the "Night of the Long Knives"--when Hitler purged the Nazi ranks of all "threats," including homosexuals like Ernst Röhm--occurred in 1934, but this important information is not worked into the play. Another storyline, in which the actress playing the Virgin Mary gets hit on by a Nazi officer, doesn't go anywhere. If it's an attempted comment on the role of women in the Third Reich, much more could have been done with this theme.

Pilate (Brian Sgambati) proposes marriage to the Virgin Mary (Kristen Bush), while Queen Elizabeth (T. Ryder Smith) blesses them.

Thankfully, Act 3 is a lot better. Spanning several years in the 1970s and 1980s, it feels like a bit of a departure for Sarah Ruhl: more contemporary and with plainer dialogue than she usually writes. (The Clean House is ostensibly contemporary, but set in a "metaphysical Connecticut." Passion Play creates an all-too-real South Dakota.) Usually Ruhl's dialogue gets noted for its lyricism and quirky turns of phrase, but when that gets stripped away, as in the South Dakota scenes, you realize that she is a very strong dramatic writer. For instance, I loved an exchange where one character accuses another of belittling him by saying "actually" all the time--it got me to see things differently, since now I'm hyper-aware of when I say "actually"! And I'm glad to discover for myself that there's more to Sarah Ruhl than her vivid and whimsical imagination--she's got a damn solid technique too.

A minor irritant: in a scene set in 1984, a character we know is 14 years old (we know she was born in 1970) says she's in "sixth grade"--but most kids are 11 or 12 in sixth grade. She even talks rather babyishly for an 11-year-old. Would it have been that hard for the girl to say, instead, that she was in "eighth grade" and have slightly more mature dialogue?

A bigger problem: Though, as I said, Passion Play is less whimsical than other Ruhl plays (no one turns into an almond or dies of laughter here), at the end she brings out the old whimsy. I can tell it's supposed to be lyrical, spectacular, and literally "uplifting," but it just seems to come out of nowhere. The earlier parts of the script do not seem to lead to this conclusion, and it feels like a pasted-on happy ending. Actually.

Friday, October 19, 2007

How is a cricket bat like a play?

When I was writing yesterday's post about Tom Stoppard I checked out his Wikipedia page, which, among other things, informed me that he is a participant in the One Million Masterpiece project. This is a charity effort that aims to be "the world's largest collaborative arts project," asking each person who signs up to create a square-shaped painting using a computer graphics program. This is Stoppard's artwork:

The One Million Masterpiece Arts Project

Simple, but effective graphic of a cricket bat and ball. I laughed out loud, though, when I saw it. You see, it's not just that Stoppard is a cricket fan. Instead, I'm almost certain that he's alluding to his famous "cricket bat" monologue from The Real Thing. In it, Henry, a playwright, uses a cricket bat as a metaphor to explain just why an amateurish play by a young political prisoner is so awful.
HENRY: This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly... (He clucks his tongue to make the noise) What we're trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might...travel... (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script) Now, what we've got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting "Ouch!" with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicates the cricket bat) This isn't better because someone says it's better, or because there's a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It's better because it's better. You don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this (the script) and see how you get on.
Yay for craftsmanship and uncompromising high standards! Yay for playwrights!

The Ultimate Vassar-Girl Novel

The class of 1934 (one year after Mary McCarthy) at Vassar. Poet Elizabeth Bishop was in this class. Photo from aavc.vassar.edu

Getting in touch with my Vassar roots and the 1930s setting of my new play, and countering Terry Teachout's recent statement that "no one without tenure now reads Mary McCarthy's novels," I just finished her most famous work, The Group. While researching my play on Hallie Flanagan, I discovered an interview where McCarthy talks about her disdain for Hallie's students: "They always had paint in their hair. They wore blue jeans when others didn't. They had a kind of mindless enthusiasm. I describe one of them in The Group, as 'Kay.' Hallie was a cult figure, but I don't think that was her fault." So I added The Group to my reading list--and was excited to see Hallie's name mentioned on page 3.

The novel covers the years 1933 to 1940 and hops between the lives of eight members of the Vassar class of '33, each girl getting a chapter or two devoted to her. In rough order of appearance, they are:
  • Kay, energetic, enterprising, but ultimately defeated
  • Dottie, a proper Bostonian with a hidden sensuality
  • Helena, a wry observer, cynical about love
  • Pokey, jolly, lazy, and extremely rich
  • Libby, a gossip with literary pretensions
  • Priss, a serious-minded young mother
  • Polly, kind-hearted but impoverished by the Depression
  • Lakey, beautiful, haughty, and aristocratic
There is also Norine, who is not a Group member but stands as a contrast to it: slovenly in her habits and radical in her politics. By depicting scenes from the life of each girl (with flashbacks to their years at Vassar), McCarthy compares and contrasts their attitudes toward love, sex, politics, money, and other issues. For instance, she shows us Dottie's, Helena's, Pokey's, and their respective mothers' different reactions to the news that Kay's husband has been arrested for inciting a strike.

When it was first published in 1963, The Group became a bestseller largely due to its reputation as a "sexy book." (One of the characters in Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others even says "The first I ever learned about sex or diaphragms was from reading The Group.") From a 21st-century perspective, it fares differently: it may be a book about sex, but it is not a sexy book. The whole novel is resolutely anti-romantic and anti-erotic, with the male characters coming off very badly. If a man seems perfect at first, he'll try to rape you when you don't succumb to his advances. If a man is good in bed, he'll turn out to be a weak-willed womanizer. Polly and Dottie, the sweetest and most sympathetic girls, get burned the worst by love. Makes me glad I don't live back then!

Like Tess Slesinger in The Unpossessed, McCarthy satirizes her characters and their foibles. However, because she is writing in the 1960s about the 1930s, The Group has an extra satirical bite derived from hindsight. For instance, Kay has absorbed her doctor father's attitudes: "Birth control...was for those who knew how to use it and value it--the educated classes" (79) while "criminals and the unfit" should be sterilized (72). In sentences like these, you can hear McCarthy's mocking 1960s voice intrude to comment on the stupidity of these 1930s girls.

The Group is a fairly quick read, though dense at times because McCarthy rarely begins a new paragraph when someone else speaks. Her attention to detail means that it helps to know something about the trends and ideas of the 1930s (and of course, you'll get even more out of the book if you went to Vassar). These details successfully characterize each Group member: I especially appreciated how McCarthy slightly alters her writing style to reflect the voice of the girl whose life she is describing. For instance, Libby's chapters are loaded with words like "spiffy," "nifty," "splendiferous," and other breezy slang.

I am now intrigued by Mary McCarthy, as well. Like me, she was a Vassar girl from the Pacific Northwest. But she was ambitious and iconoclastic and not afraid to be satirical or contrarian...that's her reputation, anyway. Now I want to see for myself; as always, finishing one good book makes me add five more to my ever-growing reading list...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A rolling stone in Arcadia

Tom Stoppard has an article in the latest Vanity Fair that touches on his new play, Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, and his writing process. You can tell from The Real Thing, and from the fact that his latest play is titled Rock 'n' Roll, that Stoppard is a big pop-music fan, but I really enjoyed this anecdote about just how music influences him:
With each play, I tend to become fixated on one particular track and live with it for months, during the writing—my drug of choice, just to get my brain sorted. [...] With Arcadia, the drug was the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and since that play ends with a couple waltzing to music from an offstage party, I wrote the song into the ending and stayed high on that idea till I'd finished. It was inspiring. When, in rehearsals, it was pointed out to me that "You Can't Always Get What You Want" isn't a waltz and that, therefore, my couple would have to waltz to something else, I was astonished, uncomprehending, and resentful.
Sorry, Tom, that you "couldn't get what you want" regarding the ending of Arcadia, though that makes a good ironic twist. (One of the fun things about being a playwright--or perhaps any kind of writer--is putting in-jokes and references to personal favorite songs, etc., in your plays.) I wonder what song the director ended up using--not many rock songs are in 3/4 time!

Still, I have always considered both Arcadia and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" brilliant, brilliant expressions of human creativity. And now, in my mind, they'll always be connected. The ending of Arcadia never fails to move me and this might make it even more poignant.

Evidently, too, "the sartorially elegant Tom modeled himself on Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, only to become a close friend of the rock singer" (citation) and there is a similarity to their facial features as well (big lips)...though I think Tom has definitely aged better, despite being 6 years older!













Sir Mick (photo from i.realone.com) vs. Sir Tom (photo from broadwayworld.com)




But Mick in 1969, singing and hip-swiveling and looking a lot like Stoppard--wow!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Wending my way to the Windy City

That's it from me for a few days...it's October break here at Vassar (where did the semester go?) and I am off to Chicago. I've never been there before and I have tickets to Sarah Ruhl's epic Passion Play at the Goodman Theater, so I am quite excited! (And I'll be sure to tell you all about it.)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Scottish Tragedy

"The Bride of Lammermoor" by John Everett Millais. Photo from bridgemanartondemand.com.

By the way, it seems that my posts on Macbeth and Natalie "Lucia di Lammermoor" Dessay have made this Scottish Tragedy Day on my blog. I see that this season, the Met is presenting a new production of Verdi's Macbeth in addition to their new Lucia... I wonder if the connection is intentional?

After all, it's not just that both works are tragedies... but both feature an innocent man being stabbed to death in his bed, an event that takes place offstage, upstairs. And a murderous woman who gets covered in blood and has a really famous mad scene. Still, it's probably not such a bizarre coincidence--I'd wager that Sir Walter Scott was just heavily influenced by Shakespeare as he wrote The Bride of Lammermoor. Plenty of writers have tried, and failed, to get out of Shakespeare's shadow.

Soprano on a mission

My new favorite opera singer got interviewed on Charlie Rose the other night, and I think it makes interesting viewing for anyone who cares about opera's relevance to the modern world. It also includes some breathtaking clips of Lucia's Mad Scene (near the beginning, near minute 17, and at the end, if you want to skip right to them.)



Dessay is articulate about her artistic goals and deals well with Charlie, who treats some of what she says with incredulity. Also, she's fun to watch--even when she's not playing a role, she has a very expressive face with huge eyes. The Lucia advertisements all over NYC--Dessay looking distraught, her mascara running, alongside the quasi-clever slogan YOU'D BE MAD TO MISS IT--are quite arresting. (Dessay to Rose: "I own the buses in this city!") A lot of the women I met in France--especially my two host mothers--could be described as "intense," and Natalie Dessay seems like another of these intense French women.

Indeed, the interview shows her as ambitious, perfectionistic, determined--I apologize for the semi-snarky "maybe it's her press agent" comment in my earlier post. No, it's clear that Dessay sees herself as carrying a heavy responsibility on her slender shoulders: making opera fresh and relevant and above all, theatrical. It's like she's read Peter Brook: "My dream would be an empty stage. Empty. One chair. And, bodies. The bodies of the singers, but, singers able to act and to play as actors."

For more proof that Dessay really knows what she's talking about, she provides a concise and accurate definition of what you need to be good at comedy: Energy, rhythm, and taking everything seriously (that is, it never works if you try to "be funny"). Couldn't have said it better myself.

Dessay names Maria Callas as her greatest inspiration in her quest to bring theater to opera, and says that if she could play any role in a movie, she'd tackle Sophie's Choice ("I love so much Meryl Streep, it's my favorite actress"). Oddly enough, I've mentioned both Callas and Streep here in the past week. Natalie, are you a covert reader of marissabidilla?

Macbeth: Good, Bad, and Ugly

I have been fortunate to see excellent productions of many Shakespeare plays, but up until a week ago, I hadn't seen a Macbeth that I thought was any good at all.

My first experience with Macbeth came at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in spring 2002: the show opened the New Theater. And it was a big disappointment--most of all in the actor playing Macbeth. At Ashland, he excels in funny roles like Falstaff or Trinculo--but carried his mugging mannerisms into the role of Macbeth. Whenever a prophecy came true or he otherwise had to show fear, he'd bug his eyes out of his head like a cartoon character. The nadir came at "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," some of the most mannered acting I've ever witnessed. The actor shouted the first TOMORROW!, then delivered the second two "tomorrow"s in an ominous, low monotone. It made no emotional sense and disrupted Shakespeare's rhythm.

Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy, but Ashland made it even shorter and more headlong, even cutting the Witches' "Double, double, toil and trouble." Also, there were just six actors: Macbeth, Lady M, Banquo, and three actresses who played all the other roles. There was too much switching back-and-forth of roles for most audience members to understand, especially because Macbeth is full of minor thanes, etc., who come on for a scene and then leave. The only doubling that was really interesting involved having the same woman play both Macduff and Lady Macduff.

The entire production was kind of dark and gloomy, on a bare stage with a pool of stage blood in the center (so the fights consisted of people flinging blood at one another). But the pacing was too fast, and I never succumbed to the magic of the theater. Really, I got nothing out of this version.

Even worse, however, was the production of Macbeth at my high school the next autumn. I got to witness the debacle firsthand because I appeared in it as an extra. The director didn't do any gender-blind casting, which annoyed me, because I, a junior, had no lines, while a bunch of freshman guys with no acting experience got roles like Ross, Banquo, and Lennox.

Mostly, this production suffered from the "Wouldn't it be cool if..." school of directing. Wouldn't it be cool if the witches ran around with a video camera and there were TV monitors in the set to project what they were filming? Wouldn't it be cool if the guys wore modern clothes but carried giant broadswords? Wouldn't it be cool if Lady Macbeth was over-the-top sexy? But none of these ideas has anything to do with the other, or worse, with Shakespeare's text.

To make matters worse, the guy we cast as Macbeth was very good in contemporary plays, but had no sense of Shakespeare's language and was notoriously bad at memorizing lines. The only emotion he displayed in "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" was wishing the damn speech would be over.

The only way to make up for this mess was to stage an awesome sword fight at the end (swords purchased for $40 at BargainBlades.com--I kid you not), and it was pretty great, except for the fact that each night Macbeth and Macduff got more aggressive, and sloppier. On the last night the handle of Macbeth's sword got knocked askew from the blade--if we'd run another weekend, there would've been some major injuries. (This, by the way, is the reason behind the "Curse of the Scottish Play": people think they can perform Macbeth without much rehearsal, but there are too many scenes with the potential to cause accidents!)

Twice burned, four times shy... so I was a little uncertain what I'd think of Vassar's Macbeth, which ran last weekend. Still, I had reason to be hopeful: Vassar is usually good at straight-up, respect-the-text Shakespeare, and eight senior girls (that is, a ton of my friends) had all the major roles. Yes, it was an all-female Macbeth!

I doubt that Macbeth will ever be one of my favorite Shakespeare plays--it doesn't seem to have the depth of Hamlet or Lear--but of course there's great stuff in it. Besides the passages that everyone mentions, I believe that Act 4, Scene 3, where Macduff learns of the murder of his family, must be some of the most emotionally moving writing that Shakespeare ever did:
ROSS Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound

That ever yet they heard.
MACDUFF Hum! I guess at it.

ROSS
Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
Savagely slaughter'd: to relate the manner,

Were, on the quarry of these murder'd deer,

To add the death of you.
MALCOLM Merciful heaven!
What, man! ne'er pull your hat upon your brows;

Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak

Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.
MACDUFF My children too?
ROSS Wife, children, servants, all
That could be found.
MACDUFF And I must be from thence!
My wife kill'd too?
ROSS I have said.
MALCOLM Be comforted:
Let's make us medicines of our great revenge,

To cure this deadly grief.
MACDUFF He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?

What, all my pretty chickens and their dam

At one fell swoop?
MALCOLM Dispute it like a man.
MACDUFF I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man:
I cannot but remember such things were,
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now!
My friend who played Macduff was perfectly cast--her greatest skill as an actress is to combine vulnerability and deep inner strength. I cast her in a staged reading of one of my plays because of this, and it's also what Macduff needs.

The passage I quoted also gets at a theme of Macbeth that this production highlighted: what it means to be a man. ("Dispute it like a man." "I shall do so/But I must also feel it as a man.") With women in all the roles, you paid more attention when the characters talked about being men, or when Lady Macbeth cried "Unsex me here" and suggested that Macbeth was a sissy if he wouldn't kill Duncan. Not that this part of the play was over-emphasized--but it gave you something to think about after it was done.

The theatre was set up in the round, with very few props; still, there were some amazing stage pictures. The gigantic doors at one end of the theatre (wide enough to drive a car through) were used to great effect in the Porter scene, and also for the parade of Banquo's kingly descendants. (This scene did not appear in the other two Macbeth productions I've seen, but was chilling here.) The witches' cauldron was a trap door that glowed with unearthly light. There is also a spiral staircase in one corner of the theatre leading to an elaborate system of catwalks above, which meant that Macbeth could do "If 'twere done when 'tis done" hanging spotlit from a ladder, Macduff could come clattering down the staircase after discovering Duncan's murder, and Lady Macbeth could appear as a haunting white-clad figure on the catwalks for her sleepwalking scene. (However, I wished I didn't have to crane my neck so much, and could see her facial expressions better!)

The battle scenes, with short swords and heavy shields, were awesome--every actress participated, and at the cast party they wore their bruises, and newfound muscles, with pride.

My friend who played Macbeth has been impressing everyone since freshman year. Two years ago, she was a magnificent Juliet: she has an instinct for Shakespeare, a melting and lyrical voice, and carries herself beautifully. So in one sense, she's a counterintuitive choice for the role of Macbeth, but on the other hand, she's the only girl in our year who could've done it. And she's the first Macbeth I've seen treat the play as a tragedy. Her "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" (obviously, my litmus test for Macbeths) was full of aching sorrow and regret...though maybe a little too delicate to be "ideal" for this warrior-king.

I still have a few issues with Macbeth, though more with the script than this generally thoughtful and well-acted production. There are just so many thanes running around, delivering exposition or filling out the crowd, but not developing character. Say "Rosencrantz," "Osric," "Fortinbras," and you get a clear mental image of the character's personality. Say "Ross," "Lennox," even "Malcolm," and you can identify the scenes in which they appear, but not what kind of person they are.

Still, congrats to all the Macbeth ladies--you've left me, finally, with a pleasant memory of this play!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Voila La Chanson Mignonne

I've had a lot of homework this week, and in my spare time (that is, the time I ought to be doing homework), I've been watching opera videos on YouTube. Hey, at least I'm learning something! Can't explain why I've been bitten by the opera bug just now, but I'm letting it take its course.

I took voice lessons during high school (and am kind of regretting giving them up) but still don't know enough about the nuances of opera singing to play favorites based on vocal quality. These are world-class singers--they all sound pretty great to me! So, especially when I can watch videorecordings of singers, I find myself preferring the ones with the best acting skills. Here are some of my discoveries.

The great Maria Callas's fame derives in large part from her acting. It's generally agreed that she may not have had the most perfect voice, but in performance she was a wholly captivating actress. I couldn't find too many Callas videos on YouTube, but this, her version of "Una voce poco fa" from The Barber of Seville, shows how she got her reputation. She makes a great Rosina: feisty but warm, with great comic timing.



One of my housemates is learning the beautiful "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Rusalka for her voice lessons. This is Renée Fleming's signature aria and this video shows why: when she performs it, every note and gesture is filled with the palpable yearning that the song requires.



But my favorite discovery, so far, has been the French soprano Natalie Dessay, who just opened the Metropolitan Opera season as Lucia di Lammermoor. Dessay (or her press agent) has made a niche for herself as "the coloratura who acts." The roles she plays have traditionally required nothing more than an agile and pure high soprano voice, but she adds psychological complexity that justifies every note she sings. Originally trained as an actress, she is known for her humor and her highly physical interpretations. And she has a truly gorgeous coloratura voice--I am in awe of her ability to sing high notes pianissimo!

To get a sense of her acting ability, compare these two performances in the role of Olympia, the mechanical singing doll from The Tales of Hoffmann. In the first, she is cute and funny and seems about 8 years old, moving just as you'd expect a little-girl doll to move. She even takes her bows in character! As well as coping with a blustery night and gigantic puppets:



In the second version, Dessay hits even more impressive notes and cadenzas, despite the tempo being a whole lot slower (and thus more difficult). Moreover, she portrays Olympia as a much more tragic, human figure--a fragile and nearly catatonic young woman, not a wind-up doll.



I don't even know of many stage actors who, playing the same role in two separate productions, would give two such different but equally committed and honest interpretations. Natalie Dessay is a truly modern and fearless performer--a rare thing in opera! If these videos have piqued your interest, there are plenty more where they came from--you won't be disappointed!

Jane Morris or Jane Russell?

As soon as I saw this photo of actress Jane Russell on the great if charlie parker was a gunslinger... blog:

I immediately thought of the painting Persephone by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an idealized portrait of Jane Morris:

Photo from bigcitylit.com

Strange to think of Hollywood sex symbol Russell as a pre-Raphaelite goddess...but don't you think that Rossetti would have loved to use her as a model?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Pet Peeves

A few things that irk me:
  • Movies that show somebody reading a book, but don't allow you to see the book's title. But the kind of books people read tell you so much about their personalities--they're a valuable tool for characterization! Besides, I'm always looking for recommendations, especially when I think the character might have similar tastes as me.
  • Movies that feature a newborn baby, but don't reveal what the parents named the baby (recent offender: Knocked Up). I'm a bit obsessed with naming things--maybe it's part of being a writer--and always want to know what names other people choose. If you're like this too, you'll enjoy the Baby Name Wizard Blog, which discusses name trends throughout the decades.
  • People who use the word "unbelievable" to mean "unbelievably or astoundingly good." As in, "Meryl Streep gave an unbelievable performance in Sophie's Choice!" No, she gave a completely believable performance, which is what makes it so praiseworthy. I suppose the word "incredible" is almost as bad, considering its etymology, but at least it seems to have been used in this context for longer than "unbelievable" has. But you know what? There are plenty of synonyms for "unbelievable" and "incredible," so from now on, I promise to try to avoid those words in my writing. Let's try these on for size: amazing, astonishing, sensational... See? Easy.