Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi": A Thriller of a Play

So, one of the reasons I was so eager to share with you that I am on the Cutting Ball Literary Committee is because it affects the way I discuss Cutting Ball productions on this blog. Now that I am somewhat affiliated with this institution, I can't write objectively about it, and it's fair for you to know that.

And that's important because on Saturday night I went to see the latest Cutting Ball production, the world premiere of ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, by Marcus Gardley. Here's my attempt to discuss some elements of the production while honoring my new association with this theater company.

I came to love Cutting Ball through their productions of three plays with minimalist plots and production values: Thom Pain, Krapp's Last Tape, and The Bald Soprano. Jesus Moonwalks is kind of a departure from that; it features 12 actors and a more elaborate physical production. Cutting Ball has built a stage out of stained wooden boards, with constellations of colored buttons on the back wall--it looks wonderfully Southern and folk-arty. Miss Ssippi (the river herself, played by Nicole C. Julien) wears a beautiful blue gown with an 1860s silhouette. She and the three members of the female Chorus sing many spirituals in beautiful four-part harmony. (Anyone else think that they should have a sing-off with the three middle-aged African-American guys who are always out in front of A.C.T. singing "Down By the Riverside"?) And the incorporation of these powerful old songs into the script makes Jesus Moonwalks a communal, cathartic experience.

Furthermore, while the language of Jesus Moonwalks is highly lyrical and metaphorical, the play also has a plot in the traditional sense (something that Thom Pain, Krapp's Last Tape, and Bald Soprano lack). Actually, make that a plot and several subplots. The main story is that of the slave Damascus (Aldo Billingslea), who is traveling through the Civil-War-torn South trying to find his daughter, Po'em. Though Damascus is lynched by Confederate soldiers, Miss Ssippi resurrects him and transforms him into a woman: Demeter. The play thus refers to the myth of Persephone (and it made me wonder: why are there so many plays that treat the Orpheus and Eurydice theme, and comparitively few about Demeter and Persephone?).

I actually met Billingslea seven years ago when he was one of the actor-instructors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Summer Seminar for high school students. We kids thought he was the coolest guy ever--I still remember a chant that he taught us! He does a great job in the role of Damascus/Demeter, playing a woman with intelligence and without any condescension.

Eventually Demeter winds up in Louisiana on the Verse family plantation, home to several colorful characters. The plantation mistress, Cadence Verse (Jeanette Harrison) is like some kind of twisted Tennessee Williams figure--a delusional, dipsomaniacal Southern belle with some nasty secrets. Then there are two young girls underfoot: Blanche (Sarah Mitchell), a white tomboy; and Free (Erika A. McCrary), who doesn't know she's black.

Jesus Moonwalks is an ambitious play and could potentially use one more revision to work out some of the kinks. In the first part of the play, Jesus is mostly a comic figure (lots of humor arises because only one of the other characters can see and hear him, and the moment when he moonwalks is pretty amusing) but the denouement requires you to take Jesus seriously and believe that this is the almighty son of God. I thought that the shift in tone could be smoothed out. Also, the time frame of the play is a little confusing, though the elaborate program notes try their best to explain it: evidently it starts in 1863 at the Siege of Vicksburg then jumps forward two years to the very end of the Civil War, but that doesn't quite register in the script.

Still, I recommend ...and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi for its lyricism, its spirituals, its ability to put the Mississippi River on the stage of a small S.F. theater, its unique take on American history and heritage. It's just been extended at Cutting Ball till April 25. And I would love for the play to have a future life--some theater in the South ought to pick it up!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

If I may be allowed to brag...

...a couple of months ago, I was invited to join the Literary Committee of the Cutting Ball Theater, and I am eagerly looking forward to attending my first committee meeting!

The Cutting Ball is one of my favorite theaters in town; you might have read my blog posts where I raved about their productions of Thom Pain, Krapp's Last Tape, and The Bald Soprano. So I really consider it an honor to be asked to get involved with this organization doing what I love best (apart from playwriting): reading plays and deciding if they would be suitable for staged readings or productions!

Oh, and the week after I agreed to join the Literary Committee? Cutting Ball was profiled in American Theater magazine. Pretty sweet, no?

The other thing that amazes me is the way I got invited to join the committee. I had attended the first-ever San Francisco Theater Pub--Euripides' Cyclops, newly translated by my friend Ben Fisher--and, while socializing after the show, I kept bumping into a young woman. About the third time this happened, we decided we should just introduce ourselves. She said she was Meg O'Connor, Literary Manager of Cutting Ball, whereupon I immediately started gushing about how much I love the work at that theater.

Then she asked me, "And are you involved with theater at all?"

"Yes," I said, "I'm a playwright--I'm a friend of Ben's."

No sooner had I said this than Meg said, "Oh, then perhaps you'd like to join the Cutting Ball Literary Committee!"

Would I ever! Still, I can't get over the easiness, the friendliness of the encounter. At the time this happened, I was reading Outrageous Fortune, which, as you may know, amid all its doom-and-gloom, singles out the Bay Area as a region where the theater is actually thriving; it says that the community here is exceptionally supportive and hospitable. This event--a chance encounter at a pub night leading to my joining the literary committee at one of my favorite theaters--is San Francisco theater at its finest. And this sort of thing would never happen in New York. There, I imagine, the competition to be on the literary committee of a theater as good as Cutting Ball would be cutthroat--requiring some kind of elaborate application process, dozens of hungry young playwrights all jockeying for one slot. Here, there were no hoops to jump through.

As I said, I haven't yet been to my first literary committee meeting, but I believe our main responsibility is to find overlooked plays from thousands of years of theater history, to present in the Hidden Classics Reading Series. (This winter, I attended both Medea vs. Medea and Women Beware Women when Cutting Ball presented them as Hidden Classics.) So not only am I looking forward to the opportunity to share some of my favorite classic plays with the wider public, I also know that the other committee members will expose me to plays I've never even heard of, and I hope that this will make my own writing stronger as well...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West": A 37th View?

This is a post in which I potentially shoot myself in the foot. So, if your name is Naomi Iizuka, and the year is 2014 or so, and you discovered my blog because I sent a grad-school application to the playwriting program at UCSD, which you lead, and you googled my name... I'd prefer it if you didn't read this!

Also, if you don't want to read spoilers for Iizuka's new play
Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, or her older play 36 Views, you might also want to look away.

The Variety and San Jose Mercury-News reviews of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, now in its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, hinted at this, but I'm just going to come out and say it: it plays like a rehashed version of Naomi Iizuka's earlier hit, 36 Views.

It's not just that the plays explore similar themes: Japanese identity, exoticism, sexuality, authenticity versus artifice in art. It's that they use the same plot twist to illuminate these themes. 36 Views takes place among contemporary art collectors who discover a rare medieval Japanese pillow book (noblewoman's intimate diary) that turns out to be a modern forgery. Part of Concerning Strange Devices takes place in Meiji-era (late 1800s) Japan, but it also features a modern storyline set in the art world--about a man who buys forged Meiji-era photographs!

Not only that, the plays have a similar rhythm. Each of the 36 scenes of 36 Views ends with a sharp noise, made by the Japanese musical instrument that consists of two sticks being struck together. Each scene of Concerning Strange Devices ends with a blinding flash of light, like a camera flash, as all of the light bulbs onstage are illuminated for a split second. One is a sound cue and one is a light cue, but they both have the same effect, of ending each scene with a BANG!, an exclamation mark.

Now, I guess it's good that Iizuka has found her voice, her style, the themes that she most enjoys exploring. But anyone who has seen both 36 Views and Concerning Strange Devices must ask, where is the line between "exploring the same themes in multiple works" and "repeating oneself"?

After the show, I was discussing this with my theatergoing companion, who brought up Wendy Wasserstein as an example of a playwright who consistently explored the same themes, but did not "repeat herself" the way that Iizuka did here. All of Wasserstein's plays are set in the same milieu and explore the upper-middle-class female experience in the late 20th century; but each one of them looks at it from a slightly different angle and together they give a well-rounded perspective. It's a very cohesive body of work, but none of the plays are copies of one another. (Perhaps it also helps that Wasserstein's plays are less "plotty" than Iizuka's--so she couldn't reuse the same plot twists.) Whereas Strange Devices literally feels like a copy of 36 Views, because of the plot similarities. Very interesting in light of Iizuka's fascination with forgery and authenticity and all of that stuff!

Also, it's been 6 years since I saw 36 Views (at Portland Center Stage, in 2004) so my memory of it is hazy, but I recall it being a more engaging play than Strange Devices. Strange Devices features a lot of direct-address monologues in which Iizuka self-consciously outlines the themes that she is exploring and the messages that she wants to convey; I would have found the play much more interesting if more of it was achieved through active dialogue. After all, it's partly a mystery about two young con artists who outwit a guy by selling him forged photos--so shouldn't it be more exciting, less oblique and ruminative, than it is?

The Meiji-era plotline also suffers from monologue overload. At the end of the play, Iizuka's character Mrs. Hewlett informs the audience that she left her husband and went to live with a sexy tattooed Japanese rickshaw driver. But it bugs me that we just have to take this on faith: I mean, I'd find it much more interesting to see a scene of Mrs. Hewlett and the rickshaw driver negotiating their relationship (and all of the barriers of language and race and class that lie between them) than to hear her tell us "I shacked up with him and the sex was amazing." And if Iizuka wants to write a monologue-heavy play, why doesn't the rickshaw driver get a speech of his own? As it is, he doesn't have a word to say in the script; doesn't this further objectify and exoticize him, rather than giving him a voice?

It feels like after last year's In the Next Room, Berkeley Rep is making a specialty of plays about bustle-clad American women from the 1880s whose sexual frustration comes to a head when they are confronted with a new technology (vibrators, cameras). And, though both plays are presumably written with the best of intentions, they both feature racially problematic treatments of some of their nonwhite characters--the Japanese rickshaw driver in Iizuka's play and the black wet-nurse in Ruhl's.

Top photo: Bruce McKenzie and Teresa Avia Lim in the modern-day story. Bottom photo: Kate Eastwood Norris, Bruce McKenzie and Johnny Wu in the Meiji-era story. Both photos by Kevin Berne, Berkeley Rep.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Stephen Sondheim

So yesterday was Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday (and Andrew Lloyd Webber's 62nd) but I was too busy hanging out with the wonderful people who attend the San Francisco Theater Pub to write a blog post in his honor. At one point in the evening, about 11 PM, someone pointed out that the day ought to be an official holiday for theater lovers, and we drunkenly sang "Happy Birthday, Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber!" I may also have broken into a tipsy version of "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Two years ago I went to see Sondheim and Frank Rich's lecture tour when it came to Portland. (It was a few days before he turned 78 and the audience sang "Happy Birthday" to him then, too.) Here are a couple of posts I wrote at the time:

Now, for years, I had wanted to write a letter to Sondheim; not only is he a genius whose songs touch my soul, but he also, in 1980, started Young Playwrights Inc., whose national playwriting contest I won in 2006. I wanted to thank him for that (and I knew that I could ask Young Playwrights to deliver my letter to him directly). Seeing him in Portland was what finally pushed me to write that letter that I'd been planning for years.

And I got a response back!--I still remember the excitement I felt when I opened my mailbox at college to discover the envelope. Sondheim still uses a typewriter for his correspondence, and fine Crane letter-paper. I'm not going to reveal what the letter said... but it is one of my most treasured possessions.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that not only is Sondheim a brilliant composer and lyricist, he also seems like a truly good man--because he is so indebted to the great artists, like Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored him when he was young, he gets the importance of nurturing future generations of writers and composers. I admire the way that he refuses to publicly comment on the works of living composers (including his co-birthdayist's) because he realizes that people in the American musical theater tend to take everything he says as though it was the word of God, and he wants to use his power in a positive way. Yes, he's famed for writing songs about ambivalence and negativity. But he doesn't come across as a grouchy old man! At his appearance in Portland, he was engaging and enthusiastic and emotionally open (crying when telling a touching story about Hammerstein).

Still, though, for those of us who can't get enough of the "word of God," it is wonderful news that Sondheim has a book coming out in October: Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. I know what I want for Christmas!

And now for a few of Sondheim's many dazzling compositions. First, Bernadette Peters will rip your heart into pieces singing "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along:

And here is Peters, with Mandy Patinkin, in the original production of Sunday in the Park with George, singing "Move On." This is one of those songs that I can always, always, return to and find a deeper wisdom in it. The struggle of my life is a struggle to live out the message of this song.

This just barely scratches the surface of what Sondheim has done, though, so I really enjoyed reading this Playbill feature in which younger composers and lyricists select their favorite Sondheim songs. It is easy to concur with just about every one of their choices!

Thank you for everything, Mr. Sondheim.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"The Caucasian Chalk Circle" at ACT: Would Brecht Have Loved It?

A week ago I went to see the John Doyle-directed production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle at ACT. (By the way, this is how you know the American theater has come down with a crippling case of "premier-itis": the posters for this show advertised it as a "world premiere!" Yes, it's a new translation/adaptation... but it's still Brecht!) The play, in true epic theater style, requires a huge cast of characters--many of them playing very short parts--but, due to the budget constraints of the modern theater, this staging used just 9 actors.

I am not sure how well this worked, and how much it related to some of the problems I had with the production. On the one hand, I never wished for there to be more bodies onstage filling out the scenes, and I thought the actors who played multiple roles did a good job of distinguishing their different characters from one another. Brecht was all about storytelling and breaking the fourth wall and drawing attention to theatrical artifice, so, while modern productions of many older plays trim down the cast size and require extensive doubling, this works especially well for Brecht's plays.

On the other hand, I thought the play was sometimes confusing--though the central characters' predicaments were always clear, the play takes place in the middle of a war somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains, and I was confused throughout about who was supposed to be fighting whom. (One could perhaps read this as a deliberate choice, a comment about the futility of all wars. But mostly it bugged me that I was sure Brecht had written a play that made sense, but nobody in the production seemed concerned with making everything clear to the audience!) And I wonder, maybe I would have been less confused if there'd been less doubling--particularly in the first few scenes, as I struggled to get my bearings on the story?

Also, though I said that the actors did a good job of distinguishing their characters from one another, they sometimes needed to do this by means of accents, wacky physicality, etc. For instance, when René Augesen played the governor's wife, she spoke with a déclassé New Jersey accent; and in her scene as a noblewoman fleeing the city, she used a languid Southern accent. My theatergoing companions found this very distracting--"hammy," they said, and also reinforcing unfortunate stereotypes about New Jerseyans, Southerners, etc. I argued that this was a necessary consequence of having only 9 actors--if ACT had been able to afford a bigger cast, such external tricks to differentiate the characters would have been less needed. (Which raises the question: in theaters' ongoing quest to save money by producing small-cast shows that require extensive doubling, are they shooting themselves in the foot? Are they turning off audiences, when people see hammy acting from actors who have to play multiple roles?)

Then I remembered that Brecht hated "realistic" acting! His whole idea was to make clear to the audience that the actors are not "becoming" a character, they are "demonstrating" that character. All the terms I had learned in college came flooding back: "alienation effect," "gestus." Weren't the Caucasian Chalk Circle actors doing that, to some extent? Mightn't Brecht have loved Augesen's use of a New Jersey accent as shorthand for "this character is trashy and nouveau-riche"? (Or, because I'm not an expert on Brechtian acting techniques, would he have preferred that Augesen had found some other way to convey the governor's wife's essential qualities of being callous, self-centered, frivolous? A way that didn't rely on stereotypes about regional accents?)

And my theatergoing companions and me: had we simply seen some bad, hammy acting? Or had we seen a perfect example of epic-theater acting, exactly the kind of thing that Brecht would have wanted--and the fact that we didn't like it just proves that we are too hopelessly bourgeois to ever appreciate the Epic Theater?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Mirrors in Every Corner": Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

San Francisco folks: You have one week left to see Mirrors in Every Corner at Intersection for the Arts, and I strongly recommend that you do. Let me put it this way: it is the best play I have ever seen by someone of my generation (people born in the mid-1980s)--the play that made me realize that my generation is going to make some awesome theater in the coming years, and we've only just started to have our voices heard.

Mirrors in Every Corner was written by 25-year-old Chinaka Hodge, a poet and playwright from Oakland. It tells the story of what happens when a white girl (strawberry blonde, green-eyed) is mysteriously born into an African-American family that's already got problems of its own. So it's deeply, deeply about racial identity and cultural identity. The cleverness of the idea didn't even hit me till after the show, when I remembered learning in college about an archetype in American literature called the "tragic mulatta." A mixed-race woman who can "pass" for white, she meets a sad end, because she is caught between the black and white social spheres with no place for her in either one. Hodge's brilliance is to update this to a modern context by making it a magical-realist fable (white child born into black family) rather than a literal-minded exploration of the trope (mixed-race girl is mixed-up). In the old "tragic mulatta" works, usually the heroine falls in love with a white man, but cannot be with him because she is black. In Hodge's play, the heroine gets crushes on the black boys at school, but her brother tells her that this is dangerous and she should try to date white boys instead, because society still has a problem seeing black men together with white women! A brilliant twist. And obviously my hat goes off to anybody who can write about race in such a bold and perceptive way while still so young--especially because it still scares me to think about writing about race.

But Mirrors in Every Corner is also an exploration of social history--my generation's social history, from Iran-Contra to the Iraq War. And it is just wonderful to see this onstage, and realize that my peers and I are adults now, and we've lived through some interesting stuff, and we have stories to tell, and we're going to be telling them, more and more, in this new decade of ours! This is smart, fresh, truly inspiring theater. (And I haven't even gone into Chinaka Hodge's use of language and structure and the other more "crafty" elements of playwriting, but trust me, it's all at a very high level.) Get your tickets now!

photo of the cast by Pak Han

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"The Secret History": Seductive but pernicious

It should be obvious from reading my blog that I spend a lot of time thinking about art and beauty. But this can be a dangerous pastime. I am easily susceptible to beauty, easily enthralled by art. Witnessing something truly magnificent can affect me for days--can almost ruin me for the real world. I become indolent and obsessive, seeking only to live inside a cocoon of aesthetic perfection, and anguished by the thought that such a great deal of any human life is devoted to dull, mundane, trivial activities. I hunger always for more--more splendor, more thrills, more "peak experiences."

Then I hate myself for my lazy decadence, and I overreact to it, going too far in the other direction. I become puritanical, almost Calvinist. I despise the illusory nature of art, and the way that loving art so much can impede me from loving my real everyday life. The phrase "seductive but pernicious" tends to run through my head in moments like these.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, while going through a fairly bad case of the above, I wandered into a bookstore, and decided that I was in the market for a really good, absorbing novel. One of the books that has been on my "I want to read this" list for several years is The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. I picked up the bookstore's copy and read the first few pages.

The Secret History begins with a brief prologue, in which the narrator describes how he and a few of his friends committed a murder--pushing a young man named Bunny over the side of a ravine to his death. This is intriguing, and certainly makes you want to keep turning the pages. But it was the first paragraph of the novel proper that convinced me that I had to buy it and read it, immediately:
Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.
"A morbid longing for the picturesque" as a fatal flaw--was that not similar to my whole "seductive but pernicious" thing? In other words, The Secret History wouldn't merely be the page-turning story of a college kid who becomes an accomplice to murder. It would be the story of someone who gets caught up in events, who becomes a murderer for reasons that I could possibly sympathize with--and, with a chill, I would recognize that I might've made the same bad decisions that he does, because I too possess that same fatal flaw. And thus the book would go on to prove that often what is most seductive is most pernicious.

And I was right! I loved The Secret History and was completely absorbed by it. The fatally-flawed narrator is Richard, a working-class young man from California, who ends up at a New England liberal arts college studying Greek with an exclusive group of five other students. This clique--Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, and the doomed Bunny--appears dazzlingly wealthy and sophisticated to Richard's provincial eyes. The group's ringleader, Henry, realizes that Richard's awed eagerness to please will make him a loyal ally--and thus enlists him in the plan to bump off Bunny (for reasons too complicated to explain here... basically, Bunny knows a secret about the other students and is blackmailing them). After the murder takes place, the second half of the book deals with the aftermath and the consequences. Though Richard handles the stress and the guilt better than some of his friends do, he is nevertheless forever scarred by the experience. At the end, he is left cursing his weakness for confusing aesthetics with morality, his "own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good."

Marisha Pessl's novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics (my review) got a lot of comparisons to The Secret History when it came out--both were hyped-up debuts by photogenic twenty-something women, and Pessl seemed to have stolen a lot from Tartt. Indeed, for the first 100 pages or so of The Secret History, I couldn't stop thinking of Calamity Physics: both books are narrated by an awkward outsider who falls in with a clique of five cool and attractive students led by a charismatic professor; both have a murder that takes place in the woods. Ultimately, I think that such a comparison elevates Tartt and diminishes Pessl. Not only did Tartt do it first, her writing style is more elegant, less hepped-up and overtly showy. There was an ostentatious metaphor on every page of Calamity Physics, but very few in The Secret History (instead, much of it is told through dialogue). And Richard, with his guilt and flaws and regrets, is a more compelling narrator, psychologically speaking, than Pessl's hyper-loquacious but more shallowly drawn heroine, Blue Van Meer. You can tell from my Calamity Physics post that I maybe related to Blue's brain; but I related to Richard's soul, and that is more valuable.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Une victoire pour une pirate

This is the video for "Comme des enfants," which just won Best Song at the Victoires de la musique (i.e. the French Grammy Awards).

It is written and performed by Coeur de Pirate, a 20-year-old Québecoise whose real name is Béatrice Martin--and lists Sartre, Kundera, and Debussy as "influences" on her myspace page. That's why I love the francophones--you'd never catch Taylor Swift doing something like that, would you?

Not that this song is weighed down with pretentiousness or existentialism, though--it's a charming pop confection. I really like it and am off to download Coeur de Pirate's album!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Big Pre-Oscars Post

Before the Academy Awards tonight, a list of what I'm rooting for in my favorite categories...

Best Picture

Rooting for: The Hurt Locker or Inglourious Basterds. These two war movies are like polar opposites, and I love them both, for different reasons. Basterds is messier, but I tend to like slightly messy movies with great dialogue and a lot of weird, memorable characters. It's heartening to know that such a nutty, auteurist movie can still be produced in this country, and find such success. But The Hurt Locker is also a wonderful achievement: it's full of suspenseful action sequences, yet it feels so real, told with utter fidelity to the characters and to the situation in Iraq. I guess Hurt Locker probably deserves the Oscar more, even if personally I have more affection for Basterds... does that make sense?

If Avatar wins... Eh, I don't want it to win, but I'm not going to get pissed off if it does. It would make it the the second year in a row that Best Picture goes to a movie that has very compelling visuals/direction/editing but an undistinguished plot, screenplay, and acting. Actually, it was almost more annoying last year, because Slumdog Millionaire won awards for its writing, and I didn't think it deserved them. At least everyone acknowledges that Avatar has a terrible screenplay! And at least I can get behind the message of Avatar (imperialist-capitalism is bad) more than that of Slumdog Millionaire (everything is predestined).

Thoughts on the other nominees: Up is a wonderful piece of Pixar, probably my third favorite among the nominees.
An Education was a delightful dramedy except for its last 10 minutes, which were a bit weak; Up in the Air was marred by a kind of inconsistent tone and confusion about what type of movie it wanted to be--it had some great scenes, but didn't work as a whole.

I have not seen Precious, District 9, The Blind Side, or A Serious Man.

Should've been nominated: Fantastic Mr. Fox--half the length of Avatar and twice as delightful; Bright Star, a gorgeous mood piece that makes you want to fall in love and commune with nature on Earth, not on a computer-generated jungle moon.

Best Director

Rooting for: Kathryn Bigelow. And not just because I like the whole "she'll be the first woman to win, and she'll defeat her ex-husband" thing. Parts of The Hurt Locker had me literally biting my knuckles in suspense, and I can't remember the last time I did that in a movie theater. And she guided her actors to rich and believable characterizations.

The "biting my knuckles" thing is also the reason I'm rooting for Hurt Locker to win Best Editing--Avatar didn't get me so worked up!

Best Original Screenplay

Rooting for
: Quentin Tarantino. I love his dialogue, I love what he does with it, I love how much faith he has in the ability of dialogue to carry a scene. Speaking of people who do amazing things with dialogue, I'd have loved to see Tony Gilroy get more attention for Duplicity.

Best Adapted Screenplay

I have seen only An Education and Up in the Air. Despite its flaws, An Education would be my pick: compared to Up in the Air, it has more believable characters (including a lot of very well-written female roles) and more consistent tone/point of view.

Best Costumes

Rooting for: Bright Star. The costumes are a major plot point because the heroine, Fanny, is the 1820s equivalent of a fashionista, who finds fulfillment in designing and sewing her wardrobe. They are not just "pretty dresses," they help to tell the story. Also, I noticed that in one scene, Fanny's little sister wears a dress made from the same fabric that Fanny wears in another scene. This is a brilliant touch because it's attuned to the economic realities of an era when people made their own clothes. But I can't recall seeing this in any other movie. Bravo!

Best Supporting Actress

I haven't seen the performance that's going to win (Mo'Nique in Precious), but I do think that the nominations could be improved upon. Anna Kendrick's crying scene in Up in the Air rang totally false to me, so let's take her out and replace her with Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds, who does a great job switching between the two sides of her character (from charming and glamorous movie star to brave and tough-minded secret agent). And I wish that, of the Nine ladies, Marion Cotillard had been nominated instead of Penélope Cruz; while Cruz was fun, Cotillard was the heart and soul of the movie.

Best Supporting Actor

Christoph Waltz is the only one of these I've seen; he was great, he's going to win, good for him, ja wohl! (I'm not even very interested in seeing any of the other supporting actor nominees; is this a weak year for this category? Or are they just in movies that don't appeal to me?)

Best Actress

The only one of the nominated performances I've seen is Carey Mulligan's, so I am not qualified to pontificate on this category or the big "will it be Meryl or Sandra" thing. I do think Abbie Cornish should've gotten more attention for her performance in Bright Star (and Anna Kendrick should watch it to learn the right way to do a crying scene!).

Best Actor

Of the nominees, I have seen George Clooney and Jeremy Renner. Which is really like comparing apples to oranges, considering how different their roles/movies/personas are! (charismatic leading man in a slick dramedy vs. indie-film actor in a gritty war film.) And they both excel at what they do, though it seems like Renner's job is more difficult... anyway, enough of this blather, since neither of them are going to win.

Best Animated Film

Rooting for: Ooh, I'm conflicted now. I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox
when I saw it in the cinema last November, but I watched my roommate's DVD of Up last night, and was won over, and now I can't decide which would be a more deserving winner. I think I'm going to stick with cheering for Mr. Fox, just because I don't think it deserved to flop the way it did--if it's as good as Up, it should be an Up-sized hit! I think I'd give Best Score to Up, though, for what it's worth.

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Red Shoes" on a Thursday

OK, I am mainly writing this blog post because I wanted an excuse to use this punning title. (And if you don't get the pun... see here.) But yeah, yesterday was Thursday, and I went to see a restored print of the classic movie The Red Shoes at the Castro Theater. I'd never seen it before, and, since it's been called one of the most beautiful Technicolor movies of all time, the big screen was the place to do it!

The organist primed us for the movie by playing songs like "Once Upon a Dream" and a really thrilling "I Could Have Danced All Night." And we were a knowledgeable, appreciative audience: there was scattered applause when Powell and Pressburger's names appeared in the opening credits, and again after the "Red Shoes Ballet." Speaking of which, I had no idea that the ballet was going to be so trippy, full of trick photography and nightmarish elements. I mean, there are dream ballets in movies like Oklahoma or An American in Paris, but this was closer to expressionism or Fellini or something like that--absolutely mind-boggling!

I also think that seeing this movie with a Castro audience meant that I was with people who'd appreciate its campy, theatrical side. Take, for instance, the scene where Moira Shearer learns that she will dance the leading role in the new ballet. She's wearing an evening gown with a huge net petticoat, a billowy satin cloak with a long train, and scores of jewels including a tiara, while ascending the crumbling stone steps of the impresario's villa. On the one hand, this image resonates like something out of a fairy tale--the young princess entering the enchanted castle. On the other hand, it is the height of camp.

And a lot of The Red Shoes is like that--it is simultaneously a hard-headed look at the sacrifices that art requires, and a florid melodrama, or fairy tale, or allegory. The plot is familiar from other backstage dramas, but the tone is indescribable--I'd probably need to see it again to get a handle on it. The movie has been credited with inspiring thousands of little girls to become ballet dancers, but I know that if I'd seen it as a four-year-old ballerina wannabe, it would have frightened me! It is still frightening in its implications: that art is a godlike, implacable force that demands everything of its devotees, including their lives.

I've said before that I tend to go through phases where I get obsessed with one art form at the expense of others--I feel now that I may be beginning an obsession with dance, physical expressiveness, the way that really talented performers can infuse choreographic gestures with emotion. It started with the figure skaters at the Olympics, and now, with The Red Shoes...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"No man is feliz till he's six feet under": Oedipus El Rey

Blind, a modern-day adaptation of Oedipus Rex by Craig Wright, just opened in New York to bad reviews. But, perversely, I almost wish that I could see it for myself... because I recently saw another new adaptation of the Oedipus legend--Oedipus El Rey, by Luis Alfaro--and it was really amazing. So I'd be curious to see this other play to learn why Wright gets it wrong (ha!) and Alfaro gets it right.

It sounds like Wright's play, like Sophocles' original, focuses on the ninety minutes it takes King Oedipus to discover that he has killed his father and married his mother--a single scene, played out in real-time. But Alfaro's play dramatizes the backstory: he shows the young Jocasta giving birth to Oedipus, and how exactly Oedipus killed Laius and fell in love with Jocasta. It is vivid, it is fluid, and it covers a broad emotional palette. In ninety minutes, there's a tender love scene accompanied by a haunting a capella rendition of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," a rousing party celebrating Oedipus and Jocasta's wedding, a dream sequence where Oedipus converses with prophetic owls, and a truly shocking and gruesome ending. There were only six actors--Oedipus, Jocasta, and a four-man chorus who take on other roles as needed--and minimal scenery, enabling the play to cover so much ground so swiftly.

Sophocles' play is a detective story with a cathartic punch at the end, but the detective-story parts of the plot are glossed over in Alfaro's version. It's much more of a human drama, all the way through. He streamlines the original myth: Oedipus learns the truth shortly after marrying Jocasta, rather than after they have four children together. Also, in his version, Oedipus's foster-father is Tirésias, the blind prophet, not some random king of a neighboring city--which is such an amazing way to reinforce the theme of blindness that runs through the play, and makes Oedipus' decision to gouge his eyes out that much more resonant.

The Los Angeles Chicano setting of Alfaro's adaptation also lends it interest--I particularly liked the Chorus's translation of Sophocles into a contemporary Hispanic idiom, especially the final moral: "No man is feliz 'til he's six feet under." But I came out of Oedipus El Rey thinking less about how it was a "Hispanic play," and more about how it rewrote a familiar myth in a compelling and moving way, with a great storytelling instinct.

Oh, one more thing: I loved how Alfaro made the Greek concept of "hubris" intelligible to contemporary audiences by writing Oedipus as a very young, very cocky man. So not only the will of the gods, but Oedipus' youthful arrogance is to blame for what happens--he's sure that Laius deserved to die and that Jocasta will go to bed with him. And Joshua Torrez, who according to his playbill bio is only just out of college, did a great job in the role.

Oedipus El Rey has been a critical and commercial hit for the Magic Theatre and has been extended to March 14.