Wednesday, June 27, 2007

IMDB Identities...

So, as you saw in the last post, I write up my thoughts on movies and post them on the IMDB when I have a chance. I've been doing this for about a year and a half, and I've learned a lot about criticism, and a lot about movies. If you want to see a full list of my reviews, they're here. I used to have a different user name, but I just changed it to marissabidilla to consolidate my online identity.

And there's still a lot of things I don't know about IMDB reviewing. I can write a review that I am really proud of only to have everyone say it wasn't "useful." And don't ask me why, as of today, I have the "most useful" review of "The Family Stone," a movie I barely even remember and whose review is not one of my most inspired ones. It's a mysterious place, the internet.

And neurotic that I am, I agonize about how many "stars" to give to every movie, and why I hardly ever give any grade lower than 5 stars, and whether I ought to reformulate my system, or explain it in more detail... But for now, I'll go with Roger Ebert says. Whenever anyone asks him "How come you give so many movies 3 or more stars?" or "Why did you give this many stars to this movie?" he responds, "My reviews are for those who are stronger in literature than in math."

I agree. Look at my writing, don't just look at the stars. And like Ebert, I feel fortunate to see so many classic/foreign/indie/quality films at this time in my life, so that I DO tend to like a majority of what I see.

German Culture

Germany, these days, is unpopular. You won't make a million bucks publishing a book about your year in an adorable little German village, the way you can about France or Italy. German-Americans are the largest ethnic group in the United States (I myself am about half German) but they don't make their presence known like the Italians or the Irish. There are a few kitschy German restaurants like Gustav's but otherwise German cuisine is not haute or hot.

Modern-day Germany has bounced back from its Nazi/Communist past, becoming an economic powerhouse and the most populous nation in the E.U. And I think, these days, Germans have a reputation for being smart, efficient, great engineers and businesspeople--but also cold, humorless, not artistic or passionate. Lately, though, I've noticed how much German culture is around us, unacknowledged.

"German comedy" sounds like a misnomer, but two very funny men, Tom Stoppard and Steve Martin, have seen fit to adapt old German comedies for a modern audience, resulting in "On the Razzle" and 'The Underpants." And let's not forget the Tony-winning musical "Spring Awakening," which has 19th-century German teens with previously-uncool names like Melchior, Moritz and Wendla singing rock music and captivating American theatergoers. Doug Wright's play "I Am My Own Wife" delves into Germany's fascinating recent history, winning lots of awards in the process. And what about Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret," in which Germany seems sexy, decadent, falling-apart and rising in power, all at once?

"Cabaret" brings us to another German artistic powerhouse: music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Wagner, Johann and Richard Strauss...Germany has a virtual monopoly on great classical composers. Lately I have also been getting interested in Kurt Weill. Check out this great video of Teresa Stratas singing "Surabaya Johnny."

During the Weill/Cabaret era (the 1920s), the world's best films were being made in Germany: directors like Murnau and Lang pushed German silent films to artistic heights. More recently, "The Lives of Others" is the best new movie I've seen in a LONG time (see my imdb review) and "Run Lola Run" is also pretty awesome (my review).

Many of the minds that shaped the world we know today originally spoke in German: Marx, Freud, Nietzsche. And though I don't know too much about philosophy, some of its greatest names are also German, like Kant and Hegel. The Russian intellectuals of "The Coast of Utopia" are certainly obsessed with German thinkers!

It's interesting that Russia, which has just as checkered a recent history as Germany does, still retains a romantic appeal: it's a mystical land of onion domes, snowy steppes and lovely fur hats. Germany has no such romantic reputation. Yet, at one time, Germany was the cradle of Romanticism itself. People KILLED themselves in order to imitate the suicidal young heroes of Goethe's novels! It was the land of "Sturm und Drang"--storm and stress--not efficient businessmen and engineers.

Some German artists do fit the stereotype of coldness or lack of emotion. Brecht's dramas are didactic, and Bach, for every transcendent "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" or Organ Toccata, has two very intricate but over-academic studies in fugue-making. Still, Germany's fascinating heritage and history is deeper than we often give it credit for.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Back in the Day: "The Light in the Piazza" at Lincoln Center

Since I wrote about Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins below, I thought I'd post my thoughts on his The Light in the Piazza, which I saw at Lincoln Center just after it opened, in April 2005. (Taken from a very enthusiastic e-mail I wrote immediately after.)

I loved this musical! It's not quite perfect, but nearly so--and things don't have to be perfect to inspire love, do they? As soon as the overture's shimmering harp strings started up, I knew I was in good hands--they reminded me so much of Sunday in the Park with George, which is probably my all-time favorite score.

The plot: In 1953, Southerners Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara are visiting Florence. Clara and Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Italian man, fall instantly in love, and his family encourages a marriage, but Margaret opposes it. Eventually we learn why: Clara had a severe head injury at the age of 10, and doctors say she will never mature mentally and emotionally beyond that age. Yet, as the show progresses, Margaret has a change of heart (this is why she, not Clara, is the protagonist, and why it's such a complex role)--she realizes the lovelessness of her own marriage, and that Clara and Fabrizio have what she and her husband never had, and that Clara is not as immature as she had thought, and lets her daughter go. (Though she still doesn't tell the Naccarellis about Clara's condition. Clara herself doesn't know that anything is wrong with her.) The ending leaves many questions about what the future holds, but is also touching and emotional.

The sets and lighting were beautiful; how could they not be? A show called The Light in the Piazza just cries out for gorgeous scenery, doesn't it? The costumes, too--all those full 1950s cotton skirts and stylish pumps. (I wanted Franca's wardrobe!)

They took great advantage of the enormous thrust stage at the Beaumont. Though I sat on the side, I feel like I saw everything. A small, non-singing ensemble provided local color--even riding a bicycle across the stage! Building fronts, columns, and other units effectively defined the Florentine and Roman streetscapes, and there was a brilliant scene where Clara wanders around late at night, gets lost, and the buildings shift behind her to reflect her disorientation.

The only flaws I found (the reviews found them, too) were with the book, e.g. having Margaret interrupt the show and talk to the audience at various points. It wasn't too annoying because Victoria Clark was so good, and in musical theatre you have to suspend disbelief anyway; but still, the playwright in me thinks they could have found a better solution. Also, some scenes could have been better dramatized. Act I ends brilliantly: Fabrizio sneaks into Clara's hotel room and they are kissing passionately when Margaret walks in on them--and BLACKOUT. At the beginning of Act II, we discover that Margaret has whisked Clara off to Rome, away from Fabrizio. But I wanted to see what happened in the interim! What did Margaret say immediately after that blackout?

One thing I liked about the book is that it knew when to be funny, and when to retreat into the background and let emotion and music take over. There were some good laughs in Act I, and to relieve tension in Act II. Though every review said "This is a SERIOUS MUSICAL," I never felt beaten down by seriousness. Poignant romance, maybe, but that's different.

And the reviews are right: Victoria Clark is great. It's a difficult, daring performance in the way that it grows on you: the first scenes portray Margaret as a gauche American tourist, an overprotective, pushy mother, and rather silly to boot, and Clark gamely plays up these unflattering qualities. But halfway through the act she sings her first solo after a tense phone call to her husband, who is distant in more ways than one, and you realize that she's a human being, you understand that she acts gauche and pushy and like a dithering Southern belle because those are the only weapons she has, and you're amazed that you ever saw her any other way. I'm still thinking about where Margaret fits into the canon of Great Female Roles. She has interesting parallels with Amanda in The Glass Menagerie--both Southern ladies with crippled twenty-something daughters, who act frivolous on the surface but have fierce and wounded souls within, torturing themselves with memories of the glory days when they still had love in their lives, and meddling with their daughters' lives instead. Though obviously, Amanda is trying to live vicariously through Laura and marry her off, whereas Margaret wants to protect Clara forever and stop the marriage.

Clark's singing voice is beautiful in tone and she knows how to act with it--how to control it, when to belt and when to switch back to soprano. Her acting in the book scenes was no less good. There's a moment where Margaret is on the verge of telling Signor Naccarelli about Clara's disability, but loses her nerve and stammers, "Clara is...a very special child!" Clark was facing me for this scene and her expressions were wonderful. And then there are her fraught phone calls to her husband, and the song in which she has a change of heart and decides to let Clara go ahead with the marriage, and the scene in which she bribes Signor Naccarelli to permit the marriage after he calls it off, and the walk the two of them take where walking is a way of trying to forget that they are attracted to one another (and this attraction is all conveyed subtextually), and then her final, tour de force, devastating song about love, plain and simple--the place love should have in life.

I realized that since this is a good show (lovely music and workable book), I'll have the chance to see other productions of it. It could become a staple of regional theatres and light opera houses. And then I thought, "But I don't want to see another actress as Margaret!" That's how I knew I'd seen something extraordinary.

The role of Clara is almost as difficult: it requires the actress to behave as though she had a mental age of 10, yet make sense of this "10-year-old"'s passionate romantic love for Fabrizio. The writers establish Clara's naïveté in the very first song, when she runs around singing "We're on vacation!" She follows this with a beautiful "I Want" solo. (IMO, Piazza errs in not giving Margaret, the real protagonist, an I Want song until too late, but Clara's I Want song is undeniably lovely, and fits the moment.) Kelli O'Hara, who plays Clara, also has a lovely voice--all the women in the show do, and they are all sopranos, which is so unusual these days. Her performance gets at appropriate childish qualities: not just sweetness and naïveté, but stubbornness, frankness, emotional volatility, etc.

The actors playing the Naccarelli family are passionate Italians but without too much stereotyping. I enjoyed trying to understand what they were saying in Italian, but their gestures and expressions always make the gist of the scene clear. Sometimes their accents didn't sound right (and Clark and O'Hara sometimes slipped out of their Southern accent while singing), but that's minor. I'd seen Michael Berresse, who played Fabrizio's philandering brother, as Bill in Kiss Me Kate. He looked very different here, his hair slicked down, the archetypal cocky Italian guy. As such, he made a good foil to the curly-haired, innocent Fabrizio. Meanwhile, I'd heard Matthew Morrison (Fabrizio) sing '60s pop on the Hairspray album, but I was bowled away by his singing of Guettel's lyrical ballads--one entirely in Italian!

And so the score, Guettel's score. Lovely stuff, not the "walk out humming" kind but the kind that will bear repeated listenings. I still want to tease out some of the complexities of the score; for instance, the final number was stirringly moving in melody and powerfully acted, but the lyrics went by too fast for me to catch everything. I did not find the wordless "oohing" and "aahing" in other numbers as annoying as Ben Brantley found it. And I want to learn Clara's first song!

I'm so glad I went to see this. One absolutely terrific performance--although I had no real problems with anyone else's acting!--the music beautiful, the book OK, the overall effect supremely emotional and moving. This is still kind of a new experience for me--seeing a new musical and have it make this kind of impact on me. This show may have had the greatest cumulative effect of any I have ever seen.

Back to 2007:
2 years later, Piazza is still my favorite new Broadway score in a LONG time. I still listen to the cast album, most memorably when I brought my iPod to Florence and listened to it in a shabby hostel room, swooning along. "Say it Somehow" and "Fable" still get to me, and they are both brilliant ways to end an act. I will admit, however, the way Victoria Clark sings the "o" vowel with a British accent gets on my nerves...

Photos by Joan Marcus.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

"Floyd Collins" at Stumptown Stages

I adore Adam Guettel's score for The Light in the Piazza, so I was very excited to see Floyd Collins, his only other full musical, I believe.

You can definitely tell the two shows are buy the same guy. The music shows the same love of the human voice (especially the soprano register, which seems quite unpopular nowadays), of rich harmonies, of long held notes, and of abandoning words when emotion gets too overwhelming. In Floyd Collins, set in 1925 Kentucky, they yodel; there's even a fantastic yodel-echo-fugue when Floyd explores a cave and hears his own voice bounce back at him.

Guettel also can write a nifty comic song when he wants to: the highlight of the show is a jazzy number for a trio of sleazy journalists, in three-part-harmony with accompanying dance. Other good numbers: the energetic country song "Tween a Rock an' a Hard Place," the folky "Ballad of Floyd Collins," the "Riddle Song" that displays the love between Floyd and his brother Homer (and appeared on Sondheim's list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written") and the finale "How Glory Goes." I was really impressed by the sincerity of this last number: in it, a dying man sings to God, accepting his own mortality and wondering about Heaven. It's truly refreshing, in an era when atheism is trendy and irony is rampant, to hear a song that really engages with spirituality.

Despite all these good songs, I still prefer Piazza. The rest of the numbers in Floyd Collins are not very memorable, maybe because the musical has a weaker story. One of the things that I loved about Piazza was that you never knew what the characters would do next. Floyd Collins, on the other hand, has the plotline: Caver gets trapped. Other people try to save him. They fail.

The struggles between the other characters about how best to rescue Floyd are often perfunctory--his father, a mining-company engineer, and the aforementioned sleazy journalists are all one-dimensional bad guys. And the idea that Floyd's sister Nellie, who has spent time in a mental institution, is really wise and spiritual instead of insane, strikes me as offensive. One thing I liked is that the first journalist on the scene, Skeets Miller, isn't the sleazy guy you'd expect. (Pop culture posits that all journalists from the 1920s were fast-talking, greedy wiseguys.) Instead, he comes to love Floyd, and feels guilty that he provoked a media circus.

The Stumptown Stages production made good use of a few simple props--ladders and benches--to evoke Floyd's cave and the other setting. Kirk Mouser's baritone and Todd Tschida's tenor blended beautifully on the "Riddle Song"--in fact all the cast members did well with this difficult score. I feel that Floyd Collins might be better as a song cycle than a book musical, but I applaud Guettel and Landau for writing, and Stumptown for producing, a serious, sincere musical about a man in extremity.

P.S.: Evidently Floyd was exploring caves as part of the "Kentucky Cave Wars." I wish a little more of this background had made it into the show.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

OSF '07

Last week I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, seeing 4 plays in 3 days. This was one of my favorite seasons ever: no duds and lots to think about!

The Taming of the Shrew: Obviously, a difficult play to present these days, but I really liked director Kate Buckley's approach. (How cool is it to have "Shrew" directed by a woman named Kate?) She did not burden the play with too much comic shtick or anachronism, and she took a psychological approach to the characters. You might not agree with what they did, but you understood why they did it. This way, the play became thought-provoking rather than just offensive. It also helped that they established that Kate is instantly attracted to Petruchio--the first man who isn't afraid of her--but she's too proud to admit it, and too afraid of love. So she keeps acting shrewish, and you agree that Petruchio needs to jolt her out of it. And when subjected to Petruchio's ill-treatment, this Kate was never timid or cringing. Her final speech is still a little hard to hear...but I got the sense that she is proudly enjoying her new reputation as "most obedient" where before she was "most curst." And she gets to chastise her sister again--in a civilized way.

In this day and age, though, it's also hard to like Lucentio, who falls in love with a girl simply because she is beautiful and docile. Isn't that anti-feminist too?

The production was fairly traditional, with an extra passionate-Mediterranean flavor by a literal emphasis on the Italian setting. The actors playing Petruchio and Kate (Michael Elich and Vilma Silva) were perfect for their roles and I also really liked the wily-servant character, Tranio (Jeff Cummings). And "The Taming of the Shrew" is not a completely hidebound, conservative work. Any play with so many servants impersonating masters, and vice versa, gives some hope for overturning old hierarchies.

Photo of Kate and Petruchio by T. Charles Erickson.

The Cherry Orchard: Libby Appel's swan song as artistic director, a play about the sad end of old ways and the need to go on. The audience was really terrific and focused. What I love is that this play has so much truth to it, different audience members react to different emotional moments or lines of dialogue. But every moment of the play--in the writing and the acting--resonates deeply with multiple people. How many works of art can you say that for?

A theme I noticed for the first time was insiders vs. outsiders. The relations between the 12 characters constantly shift, so you wonder, Who belongs in the inner circle? Why do the outsiders not find common ground in their isolation? Or, is everyone an outsider? Many characters express admiration for "hard work," but very few of them actually want to work, and they can't see how this unites them. They all have deep and visible flaws, except for Anya, but can't recognize their own failings. (Is Anya meant to symbolize hope for the younger generation? Wouldn't that be too obvious for Chekhov?) Yet no one is a villain.

Libby Appel chose a great cast of OSF veterans who brought out the humor and idiosyncrasies and flaws and, again, truth of each character. I stayed for the talkback with actor Gregory Linington, who played Trofimov--he's getting typecast as shy, uncomfortable nebbishes, since last year I saw him as Mr. Marx in "Intimate Apparel." (And the actor who played Esther in "Intimate Apparel" played Varya here--another hard-working, emotionally closed-off woman.) Seeing this play, I also thought that the character of Trofimov must have influenced Tom Stoppard when he wrote the role of Belinsky in "The Coast of Utopia." Billy Crudup's portrayal of Belinsky ranks as one of the best performances I've ever seen; while no individual cast member of "The Cherry Orchard" gets on my "best performances ever" list, together they make up one of the best ensembles I've seen.

Photo of Lopakhin, Firs and Ranevskaya by David Cooper.

On the Razzle: I adore Stoppard, but this is one of his lesser efforts. The old Austrian play that he adapted has a sturdy farce structure, and he added lots of his trademark wit and ridiculous puns, the lies and misunderstandings pile up, the ridiculous stereotypes and silly costumes get trotted out... It's all very fast and entertaining, and OSF performed it well, but I wanted more. I'd rather laugh at something because it's true and recognizable (as I did in "Cherry Orchard" and "Shrew") than because it involves a crazy pun or wacky physicality. Any attempts to give "On the Razzle" a deeper message, like Weinberl's speech on the value of the merchant class, feel shoehorned in. File this one with Steve Martin's "The Underpants" under "Adaptations of old German-language sex farces that have lots of surface wit but no social value or empathy."

Photo of Christopher and Weinberl by Jenny Graham.

Rabbit Hole This is a powerful, moving play: I would say that it, too, feels truthful, but there are many scenes I know I cannot truly understand until I am married or have a child. I was gripped and wrenched, even, but did not sniffle along with the rest of the audience. Robin Goodrin Nordli, who played Becca, can do no wrong, in my book. Izzy (Tyler Layton) was charismatic and funny, Howie (Bill Geisslinger) and Nat (Dee Maaske) also splendid. However, I thought the actor playing Jason (Jeris Schaefer) was one-note and forced.

As a play, "Rabbit Hole" is almost great, but is ultimately too easily plumbed to be a masterpiece. I don't get why Shakespeare and Chekhov made the choices they did in the same way that I get David Lindsay-Abaire's play construction. He's following the modern playwriting rules, and I can see the skeleton a little too obviously. "OK, this is a play about a grieving mother, sympathetic, sober, upper-middle-class--so to provide conflict, contrast, and comic relief, let's give her an irresponsible sister who gets pregnant! Also, let's give the sisters an older brother who died, to underline the theme of losing a child..." As a comparison, it feels right, and mysterious, and not over-explained, for Ranevskaya in "Cherry Orchard" to have lost a son...for his absence to gently haunt the play. But it feels too transparent, in "Rabbit Hole," that Becca and her mother Nat have both lost children.

Photo of Izzy and Becca by David Cooper.

Friday, June 22, 2007

French Politics

I had no energy and no motivation when I woke up this morning. The thing that reinvigorated me? Reading the fascinating news that France's Socialist power couple, Ségolène Royal and François Hollande, are calling it quits after almost 30 years. I first saw the news in Judith Warner's column in the NYTimes, though you can also find more info in this article and at the blog frenchpolitique.

Being in France during the presidential election cycle turned me into a shameless French-politics junkie. I keep up with American politics too, of course, but often they just depress me. French politics are more entertaining because they affect me less. Also, I do not always agree with new president Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right positions, but I don't detest him like I do American conservatives. He opposes the war in Iraq, supports ecology and civil unions, and never says "Bible" or "abortion"! Really, he's like the French Rudy Giuliani, not the French Dubya.

Mostly, though, I just like the personalities and gossip! "Ségo," the first woman to get to the 2nd round of a French presidential election, grew up with a misogynistic father. Determined not to marry young and be a housewife, she went to the prestigious "grad school" for potential civil servants. There, she met François Hollande and while they never married, they had 4 children together. François rose to become the head of the Socialist Party. Ségo kept a lower profile, but had important jobs like government minister and Regional President.

François Hollande and the other old-guard "elephants" of the Socialist Party assumed that one of them would get to run for president in 2007. But the media and the French people preferred Ségolène, the photogenic fresh face. She won her party's nomination, though not without some grumbling, and eventually lost to Sarkozy, 47-53. I saw her concession speech. She put on her lovely trademark white jacket and a glowing, serene expression, doing everything she could to impress. She even waved to her supporters from a balcony, looking for all the world like Evita: "Don't cry for me, Socialist Voters!" And the next day, she made a speech saying "Yes, we can defeat Sarkozy in five years...but only if we choose our candidate RIGHT AWAY!" In short, she's tasted power, and wants to hold onto it--to get designated candidate 5 years in advance.

You can imagine, of course, how François Hollande must've felt about all of this. And everyone in France seemed to know that the honeymoon couldn't last. Rumors swirled that the two had already broken up and were just maintaining a public façade--Ségo denied this. Thing is, in France, the press can't report on political figures' private lives: the libel laws are much stricter and there is just a tradition of being discreet. It's like Hollywood in the '30s or '40s: celebrities can do scandalous things, and the press keeps it hushed up. Which makes for a much more deliciously exciting atmosphere than the full-disclosure culture here in America.

So Ségo broke the news herself on Sunday, right after the legislative elections. As soon as the Socialists no longer needed to put up a united front, she announced that she had told François to move out, hinting he'd been cheating on her. Again, she's using this announcement to strengthen her position. She did it before François could (according to Warner, he wasn't even sure that the separation was final) and played the strong-woman card: "I told him to go his own way."

Like I said, we all knew this was coming. I should write to some of my French friends to see what they think of it, but I bet Ségolène's ambition provokes major distaste among Socialist party members, if it hasn't already. IMO, she's a flawed but fascinating woman. I would love to write a play about her! Or at least about a similar situation: a power couple where the woman starts becoming more successful and admired than the man, playing the game better than he does, until something's gotta give.

And that's not even getting into Nicolas Sarkozy's own personal situation...his wife Cécilia ran away with another man for a few months last year and has now reluctantly returned to "Sarko". She's barely been seen during the campaign or its aftermath, and didn't even vote on Election Day!

I'm sorry, but Bill and Hillary have got nothing on the French political couples.

Images: Election posters in Paris, the day after Ségo's defeat. Note also the poster of a much younger Jacques Chirac (from 1981!) that some prankster slapped up on the wall.

Willkommen, bienvenue...

Willkommen, bienvenue, bienvenidos…welcome to my blog!

If you look up my name, Marissa, in a Spanish dictionary, the closest thing you’ll find is “marisabidilla”—slang for “know-it-all girl.” It’s derived from Maria (generic term for a woman) + saber (“to know”) + illa (diminutive ending) and many people would say that it’s a singularly appropriate word for me. At a young age I got used to being “the smart one” and I crafted much of my identity around that. Sometimes I embrace the label, sometimes I rebel against it. Currently I’m embracing it again.

I am not Hispanic, though I took 4 years of Spanish in high school. Right now, my second language of choice is French. If you write to me in Spanish, I will have to puzzle it out and then reply in laboriously written Spanish that is guaranteed to have about 10% French words mixed in. You’ve been warned! I do want to go back and re-learn all the Spanish I’ve forgotten…but am too busy at the moment.

So maybe I’m not really a “know-it-all,” if I can learn tons of Spanish vocab in high school and then forget it after three years. And I have moments where I feel like I don’t know anything about how the world really works, even if I have a bunch of trivia stuffed into my head. Good thing, then, that I live in the Age of Irony. When I’m confident, assured, sparkling, witty, “Marissabidilla” can be taken seriously. And the rest of the time, I can say “Oh, I was just being ironic.”

Check back for thoughts on books, theater, movies, culture, politics, and the occasional anecdote from my life. I’m not going to be completely neutral and impersonal here, but this is not an angst-blog or an excuse to share all the details of my personal life with strangers. At least, that’s the plan as it stands now. Thanks for stopping by!