“Making a playlist is a delicate art. It’s like writing a love letter, but better, in a way. You get to say what you wanna say without actually saying it. You get to use someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. And then there are the rules: It’s gotta be entertaining. You gotta tell a story. You can’t be too obvious, but you can’t be too obscure, either. Anyway, a good compilation, like all things in life, is hard to do.”
As stated above, any good playlist has to be able to tell a story — and just like a good playlist, High Fidelity (based upon the eponymously-titled novel and film, both written and adapted by author Nick Hornby), is one story that steadily and satisfyingly builds over time. While the series continues to cover the familiar rom-com territory its earlier iterations were built upon (it does display “fidelity” in its title, after all), it also works to further expand and update the mid-90s, early-2000s worlds of its source material with references to our post-Millennial present — all while told mainly through the point-of-view of record shop proprietor Robyn “Rob” Brooks, now in the form of a woman on the cusp of her thirties (Zoë Kravitz).
Still nursing a broken heart after having split from her former fiancé, Russell “Mac” McCormack (Kingsley Ben-Adir) just the year before, Rob soothes her sorrows the only way she knows how: through flashbacks and awkward reunions over the course of ten half-hour episodes, she takes us down the list of her Desert Island Top Five Heartbreaks. Her personal “tracklist” becomes the embodiment of music’s inextricable link with one’s memory: the way it could take you back to a time and place when a song or mixtape seemed to define a moment or alter the course of your life. A great example of this is a bottle episode — and mid-season highlight — in which Rob’s former-lover, current-best-friend Simon (David H. Holmes) rehashes his own Desert Island Top Five.
Bumping up the nostalgia factor in Fidelity is its production value — shot in a dreamy, hazy Brooklyn replete with neon-lit old-timey hipster dive bars and specialty shops clash with the sterile, Millennial-Pink we associate with Crown Heights these days. The show’s own tracklist, which ranges from vintage bonafides like Prince and Blondie to modern indie favorites such as Hot Chip and TV on the Radio, proves just as satisfyingly genre-bending and nostalgia-inducing as the show itself — resultant of the collaborative efforts of music supervisors Manish Raval, Tom Wolfe, and Alison Rosenfeld; as well as executive producer Kravitz and special consultant Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. (Yes, that Questlove).
Fidelity‘s famously signature thesis (that it’s not what we are like, but what we like, that ultimately matters) is put to the test throughout the season. As Rob says at one point: “Half of the neighborhood thinks we’re washed-up relics. The other half think we’re nostalgic hipsters. They’re both kind of right.” Championship Vinyl is, after all, the very embodiment of all things once culturally cherished, the last bastion of a time when things were good — where the influencers were the people standing on the other side of the register. Indeed, in one telling scene features Championship employee — and Rob’s other bestie — Cherise (scene-stealer Da’Vine Joy Randolph) confronts a customer mindlessly Shazaam-ing a song playing in the store, while completely ignoring the fact that she’s standing right in front of him.
It’s this very confrontation of our current latte-guzzling, Instagram-Selfie culture that makes High Fidelity an interesting remix of the original — one you’ll want to replay over and over again.
Images courtesy of Phillip Caruso/Hulu. High Fidelity is now streaming on Hulu.
There are star-making turns, and then there are star-making turns. And as much as I loved Lady Gaga in that other movie, nothing beats Jessie Buckley’s unforgettable, BAFTA Scotland-winning performance as Rose-Lynn Harlan in the Tom Harper-helmed Wild Rose (2018). A decade into a post-Millennial boom in movie-musicals (one which arguably started with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and peaked with John Carney’s Once in 2007, both Oscar-winners), the 2010s saw a more varied approach to merging music with film.
(Moulin Rouge! has since been adapted for the stage and is now enjoying a Broadway run in New York; while a staged production of Carney’s heart-warming 2016 film Sing Street, is currently seeing an off-Broadway run of at the New York Theatre Workshop and heading to Broadway this coming spring.*)
A new wave of movie-musicals from the UK and elsewhere have since popped onto the scene, and most notably dancing (and singing) to the beat of their own drum are those hailing from Scotland, such as the offbeat God Help the Girl (2014) and Anna and the Apocalypse (2017). While perhaps not as lushly produced as a Luhrmann extravaganza, nor as unabashedly romantic as a Carney piece, Harper’s film still very much earns its place in the wider canon of movie-musicals. In comparison, Wild Rose achieves a storytelling aesthetic that falls somewhere down the middle, though the film itself is anything but middle-of-the-road.
One might even venture to call it a rare flower among films of the genre, in that—much like the main character herself—it unapologetically delights in its own rags-to-riches tropes. This might have something to do with the film’s excellent country-inflected soundtrack (featuring the likes of Wynonna Judd, Emmylou Harris, Chris Stapleton, Patty Griffin, and the late John Prine; as well as original songs co-written by actress Mary Steenburgen), which not only helps buoy Rose-Lynn’s story throughout without the use of the usual sung-through elements of a traditional musical but also keeps it grounded in the working-class roots of its own musical traditions.
With additional standout performances by the always excellent Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo (in supporting roles as Rose-Lynn’s mother and employer, respectively), this is one Rose everyone should stop and pay attention to.
Images courtesy of Neon.
*Portions of this review were written before the shutdown of Broadway as a result of COVID-19/Coronavirus measures. The shutdown of all Broadway shows has since been extended to early June.
For nearly the past twenty years or so, movie-musicals have seen a resurgence in the public consciousness. One such film that has done so, and with as much fanfare (or perhaps even more so), is none other than Damien Chazelle’s own ambitious take, La La Land (2016). Chazelle’s second attempt at a musical (after his debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench ) and the third in an informal trilogy centered around jazz (along with Guy and Madeline and the Oscar-winning Whiplash ), La La Land is perhaps best known for its controversial and precedent-setting tie for Best Picture with fellow nominee Moonlight at the 2017 Oscars (the honor would eventually go to the latter film). Despite this, the film garnered a record-tying fourteen nominations (alongside classics Titanic and All About Eve) and five Oscar wins that year, and seemed universally hailed as the ode to the grand movie-musical productions of yesteryear.
La La Land follows two young Angelenos as they struggle to follow their respective dreams: Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who, between auditions, makes ends meet as a barista at a café in the Warner Bros. lot; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz purist musician who moonlights as both a jukebox pianist at a restaurant and as part of an eighties tribute band (the latter much to his chagrin). After they meet not-so-cutely at a traffic jam (that most quintessential of Quintessential Los Angeles Locales), Mia encounters Seb again at the restaurant, and yet again at a party Seb’s band plays at. Over the course of the first act, they start to get to know another, each sharing their individual hopes and dreams. Snippets of their brief but heady summer romance are heightened through sweeping instrumental sequences and montages (this one taking place at the Griffith Observatory is particularly breathtaking), and when they — spoiler alert! — eventually part ways, we as the audience are heartbroken. Boy-meets-Girl, Boy-falls-in-love-with-Girl, Boy-eventually-loses-Girl.
Admittedly, the film lives up to (some) of its hype. As the title suggests, La La Land is as dreamy a confection as could possibly be whipped up onscreen: a dizzying whirl of large-scale chorus numbers packed with nostalgic old-school romance (and even old-schoolier, if problematic, notions of jazz). Just in case you didn’t get the hint already, the film shows you the first of many cinematic vestiges it’ll pay homage to over the next two hours: that of a widescreen title card touting the old Cinemascope logo, setting the tone for what’s to come. From then on, it’s a flurry of visual allusions to the cinema of olde, with nods to Hollywood’s Golden Age of musicals on film: An American in Paris(1951), Funny Face(1957), A Star is Born (1954), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), West Side Story(1961), Sound of Music(1965), and Cabaret (1972)all get their due here; not to mention the offbeat musicals of the French New Wave, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est Un Femme/A Woman is a Woman (1961), and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and The Young Girls of Rochefort(1967).
Of these, it is perhaps Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (along with Vincente Minelli’s An American in Paris), which proves to be the strongest influence on La La Land; not only in its storyline but in its music, as well. Most of the cues taken from Umbrellas are, obviously, the influences of jazz within an operatic structure: Demy’s film (the score for which was composed by the late, great Michel Legrand) is entirely sung-through, punctuated by throaty brass riffs and off-kilter drum beats during moments of high emotion. It’s this juxtaposition between the old and the new which Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz (previous collaborators on both Guy and Madeline and Whiplash) clearly try to replicate in La La Land, if in a much different way.
Traditionally, musical theatre utilizes music either as a tool to help push the story along, or to propel the fullest expression of a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings, when mere action simply cannot. There are a couple of pieces that do follow this important tenet, as in the case of ‘A Lovely Night’, a flirty tune that hearkens back to the old “I-Like-Ya-But-I-Ain’t-Tellin’-Ya” musical theatre trope. However, if we’re talking about expression through song, none get us there quite like the film’s excellent eleven o’clock number, ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’. Featuring wonderfully-penned lyrics by Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman hitmakers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it is La La Land’s most character-driven piece, calling to mind Cabaret’s own passionate, eponymously-titled closer, and undeniably its best song, despite ‘City of Stars’ lamentably chosen as the film’s Best Song nominee.
Other musical moments worthy of mention in La La Land (and which duly pay further homage to the movie-musical traditions it pulls from) include: ‘Summer Montage/Madeline’, which bears hints of the ‘A Basal Metabolism’ scene in Funny Face; as well as ‘Epilogue’, a hazy dream sequence which not only makes further blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual references to Funny Face, but also wonderfully evokes the famous dream sequences from both An American in Paris and A Star is Born,‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘Born in a Trunk’, respectively.
Mostly, the music in La La Land works to softly underscore the overall feeling of romance blossoming between the two lovers. Many of its instrumental pieces, performed by Hurwitz on the piano, do so to great effect. In particular, ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’, an elliptical, beautifully lilting piece which memorably accompanies the characters’ journey in following their dreams and, hopefully, each other. Its melody, just like their relationship, seems it might go on forever — that is, until it doesn’t. Just as with the instrumentals, songs like ‘City of Stars’ — a melancholy duet between Mia and Seb about the heartbreak of ambition in Los Angeles — attempt at some reflective moments, while other songs seem to merely be there to help to establish a time and place or to convey a mood, as in the case of opener ‘Another Day of Sun’.
The John Legend-led track ‘Start a Fire’ is a straggler, both in terms of its obvious “jazz-pop-fusion” style and in its ability to highlight the characters’ evolving relationship, if deceptively so. By this point in the film, Seb has accepted an offer by his old friend Keith (played by Legend) to join his band on tour as keyboardist, if a bit reluctantly. Not only does he have the defense of his purist principles to think about (to which Keith says: “Jazz is about the future”), but there’s also the question of Mia, with whom Seb has now progressed into a live-in relationship. Still, with Mia’s encouragement, he takes the gig, and it is when the band are back in town that our scene takes place. In the song’s chorus, Keith proclaims:
We can start a fire
Come on, let it burn, baby
We can start a fire
Let the tables turn, baby
We can start a fire
It is as typical a pop chorus as any like it: repetitive lyrics rife with trite metaphorical content. But as pointed out in an episode of the Switched on Pop podcast, the above lyrics — despite the upbeat rhythm with which they are presented — provide the perfect foreshadowing for the following scene in the film, wherein Mia and Seb have an argument. Home for the first time in months, Seb surprises Mia with dinner at the apartment they share. They catch up over dinner, and all is well — or so it seems. When Seb nonchalantly mentions he’ll have to go back on tour again soon, now beholden to the album cycle of contemporary mainstream artists, Mia counters with the question of Seb’s own satisfaction with his work, asking him if he even likes the music he’s playing. As the argument reaches its apex, the food Seb is still cooking in the oven burns. Let the tables turn. Let it burn.
A pretty straightforward reading of a not-so-straightforward song, to be sure, but it marks a turning point in the film’s main thematic arc — and gets to the heart of what makes this movie musical slightly different than its canonic predecessors. By all appearances, Mia and Seb’s relationship seem poised to follow the fate of the Star-crossed-Lovers trope found in practically every love story since time immemorial. That they do — however, what makes this story interesting for today’s audience is that the conflict over which the relationship ultimately deteriorates is not that of love for someone else, but rather the love of something else.
The real tension in “La La Land” is between ambition and love, and perhaps the most up-to-date thing about it is the way it explores that ancient conflict. A cynical but not inaccurate way to put this would be to describe it as a careerist movie about careerism. But that would be to slight Mr. Chazelle’s real and uncomfortable insight, which is that the drive for professional success is, for young people at the present time, both more realistic and more romantic than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after. Love is contingent. Art is commitment.”
In this regard, as pointed out by Genevieve Koski in an episode of her podcast The Next Picture Show, the film perhaps more closely owes its debt to American in Paris, wherein the titular American Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) finds himself having to choose between a life of literal security with patron with would-be paramour Milo (Nina Foch) — or go back to his old bohemian lifestyle in order to be with his true love, Lise (Leslie Caron). And unlike this past year’s hit remake, the Bradley Cooper- and Lady Gaga-led A Star is Born (wherein the two main characters choose both Love and Ambition, to ultimately tragic consequences), La La Land’s characters ultimately choose not each other, but their individual dreams.
This, for all its unabashed affection for the long-lost romanticism of Hollywood’s golden age, is how La La Land sets out to place itself among the 21st-century canon. Wherever its merits as a movie-musical stand, it is this emotional juxtaposition which at the very least has made much of the film’s surrounding attention just this side of justifiable. Call it, perhaps, the most Millenial movie-musical of the decade thus far (with the possible exception of Jason Robert Brown’s cult 2001 hit, The Last Five Years, adapted to film in 2014): where the hopes of today’s youth dwell in dreams more down-to-earth, rather than up high in the starry-eyed rapture of true love.
Longtime followers of mine will know how long I’ve been a fan of Marina & the Diamonds, and perhaps it’s no wonder. Like the neon garden world of her last outing, fittingly titled Froot, Diamandis has managed to grow into her own as an artist. As a fellow fan phrased it: “You’re lucky to be on the same shelf as Marina.” Indeed, with each album, Diamandis has tackled a myriad of complex subjects, as both social commentary and a result of pure artistic expression. From ruminations of fame (“Hollywood”), consumerism (“Oh No!”), body image (“Girls”), and self-confidence (“I Am Not A Robot”) in 2010’s The Family Jewels; to the breaking down of female archetypes in popular culture, such as the “Primadonna” and “Homewrecker”, in 2012’s Elektra Heart; to reflections on societal ills (“Savages”), relationships (“I’m a Ruin”, “Weeds”), mortality (“Immortal”), and everything in-between on her abovementioned 2015 effort.
This trifecta of eras up to now has felt like the perfect musical reflection of each stage of life — hers, and somehow mine, as well. With that in mind, I’m excited to hear what this next chapter will blossom into.
Some of you already know how much I love my movie-musicals — and recently, I’ve become very much obsessed with one in particular that I’ve been meaning to see for a while now:God Help the Girl (2014). The brainchild of Belle & Sebastian musician Stuart Murdoch, the film also happens to be the offshoot of an eponymous side project, also created by Murdoch. Over the years, as Murdoch began to write songs which were more suited for female voices and therefore didn’t quite have a place within the B&S ouevre, the idea of a concept album and accompanying film began to form.
It was then that he took out an ad for female singers (as captured in the four-part documentary, Girl Singer Needed) — after which vocalists Catherine Ireton, Celia Garcia, Alexandra Klobouk, Brittany Stallings and Dina Bankole, among others. What resulted then was a string of beautifully composed retro, girl group-style songs spanning a variety of genres — all illustrating an abstract story surrounding a girl named Eve, the ‘Girl’ of the project’s title.
A few years after the album came out in 2009, a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter helped to finally, er, kickstart the film idea into motion. It was released in 2014, and centers around Eve, an Australian girl suffering from anorexia nervosa, who escapes the psychiatric ward and absconds to the city of Glasgow to pursue her love of music and songwriting. Along the way, she meets musician-slash-lifeguard James and his music student Cassie. The three, each at a different crossroads in their life, begin a friendship around a shared love of music and decide to form a pop group.
What results is a delightful flurry of quirky whimsy and bittersweet melancholy — with a huge dose of ear candy thrown in for good measure, of course. Every second on the screen seems filled to the brim with aesthetically pleasing cinematography, along with the equally pleasant (and surprisingly so) vocal stylings of the film’s three ineffably charming leads. As the titular character, Emily Browning embodies Eve with a depth of emotion evident in both her acting and her wispy lilt of a singing voice; while Olly Alexander (already a known musical talent in his own right with his band Years & Years) is perfectly awkward as James. Reprising yet another role onscreen as a girl named Cassie, Hannah Murray continues to extend the same kooky-yet-ethereal quality in this film as she did with her similarly-named character in the television drama Skins.
Serving as perfect accompaniment to its homage to mid-century pop, the film playfully nods to iconic images of the past — particularly that of films of the era. The most obvious of these is Browning herself, who is practically a modern-day dead ringer for Anna Karina— famed wife and muse to French New Wave director-auteur Jean-Luc Godard. (Other visual references at play refer to Jacques Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort and the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night.) Murdoch not only turns one’s eye toward the beauty of his characters but also his native Glasgow. While one might not immediately associate the city with particularly picturesque landscapes, the first-time director achieves just that with his portrayal of rivers, grassy hillsides, and moody city life. In the end, it is a film which portrays a Scotland that is just as beautiful and multi-dimensional as not only the characters inhabiting it, but also the music which underscores it.
The prospect of seeing a solo performance often, admittedly, triggers a silent panic in one whose job it is to dole out an objective opinion about it. As that they are often based upon a performer’s life experiences, one-man (or, in this case, one-woman) shows often carry with them the possibility of turning out to either be really, really good — or really, really, really bad. There is the addtitional worry of what one might say should it result in the latter: can one dismiss the truth of someone’s experience if it isn’t performed in a certain way, or simply not to one’s liking? What then? It hardly seems fair — or kind, at that. This is a challenge not only performers must face in sharing their stories onstage, but one critics must also face, in witnessing them.
In the case of screen siren and performance artist Heather Litteer, she finds a way — much like the title of the particular show in question — to turn some possibly sour lemons into some sweet, delightfully-raunchy Lemonade. This metaphor holds well in representing her current onstage life, as well as the onscreen life around which Lemonade is structured. She opens the show as Heather Poetess, uttering a line that eventually becomes an eerie refrain throughout the evening: “I’m not a hooker…but I play one on TV.”
For roughly the past twenty years, Ms. Litteer has made a career out of playing hookers, junkies and strippers in both film and television. “I’m arrested by pigs, I’m ripped from brothels,” she continues to say in that same opening scene. “I’m whipped and I’m wrapped in chains…does anyone make love anymore?” She describes her roles with gusto, each new one prefaced by a one-sided phone call with her agent. Her comedic descriptions of each role is peppered with dark, twisted humor, suggestive of her own observations on the ways women are exploited on film. Whether playing a blowsy Russian girl named Nadia, one-half of a pair of lesbian junkies, or simply billed as Bored Hooker #1, each role and its accompanying scenario is made increasingly more ridiculous than the last, serving as further evidence of the indeed perverse business of sex (and women) as commodity.
In stark contrast to the flamboyant roles for which she would become known, Litteer’s own beginnings as a young girl growing up in Georgia were, considerably, much humbler and innocent by comparison. The actress’ early childhood largely involve her “Steel Magnolia” of a mother Nancy, whom she affectionately calls a “walking, talking Tennessee Williams character.” Here, Litteer goes on to describe a younger Heather already showing signs of what is to come, painting for us a picture of a childhood filled with Halloweens dressed up in her mother’s suits as the “Advertising and Marketing director of Vogue Magazine.” Many of these anecdotes of Litteer’s past self are juxtaposed beautifully against the struggles of her present self, and exemplifies the actress’ ability to successfully mix the bitter with the sweet. This becomes especially true as Present Heather attempts to balance her professional pratfalls in New York with news of her mother’s own slow decline into disease back home.
The precarious act of balancing such a fine line involves just stirring in the right amount of gravitas to counteract the awkwardness of being the sole performer onstage. This takes a certain kind of physical stamina to accomplish, one which has been achieved in different ways in other solo performances: 2014’s Forgetting the Details (previously reviewed here, for the New York International Fringe Festival) saw Nicole Maxali took on the varied mannerisms of her family members; while that same year, Daliya Karnofsky had the assistance of backup dancers for …And She Bakes, Live (also reviewed here).
For her part, Litteer falls somewhere between these two, which is not to say that the end result isn’t as effective. In fact, her slightly less-refined performance makes her Lemonade all the more raw and real in its portrayal. Here, she instead adopts a thick, Southern-Belle accent (one that would, surely, make even Rhett Butler melt), along with some charming, old-world Nancy-isms in order to bring her mother to life. Her performance never ceases to command the stage with striking, unabashed self-awareness, eventually culminating in a daring striptease at play’s end — proving that while baring it all for an audience isn’t always easy, doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun along the way.
Just as a certain wildly popular celebrity departed from New York to commence production on a certain wildly popular television show based on a certain wildly popular, old-timey-but-updated sleuth, another iteration made its way back to the city. Over at the Queens Theatre, Aquila Theatre Company presented an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Aquila, the Professional company-in-residence at New York University’s Center for Ancient Studies, is another in a recent line of companies at the theatre whose mission is to provide the public with accessible interpretations of classic works.
As stated above, everyone’s favorite snarky sociopath has seen many a proliferation find its way into the pop culture canon over the years, namely: Guy Ritchie’s films with Robert Downey, Jr.; CBS’ Elementary; and the BBC/Masterpiece hit co-production Sherlock. Books such as The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes — along with Conan Doyle’s original collection of works, of course — have lined bookstore shelves, further heightening the Holmesian craze. If one were to actually apply these books’ methods, one would probably, and very logically, conclude that it would be only a matter of time until a stage adaptation crept upon us.
In which case, that would be correct.
However, unlike that wildly popular celebrity (y’know, the one whose name sounds a bit like Beryllium Cucumber), the Sherlock of Desiree Sanchez’s imagining is much less the tall, cherub-faced specimen of a man we’ve come to know and love onscreen, and instead takes his form in that of a tall, lithe-limbed…woman onstage.
Yes, that’s right, Sherlock Holmes is a female — at least for our purposes here.
Admittedly, it was this exact promise of a “female Sherlock” which led this writer to this particular production in the first place; not only because the prospect of a woman grasping the chance at playing such a character was too interesting and “hmm”-worthy to pass up, but also because the idea of girls in cloaks kicking ass arse was always a personal point-of-interest. This Sherlock’s female-ness is certainly mentioned within the dialogue of the play, but done so in an almost flippant manner, as if seeing a woman don trousers (along with signature cape and deerstalker hat) in Victorian England instead of a corset and skirts were a natural occurence. It would seem that this unusual piece of casting was not a device to highlight any political undertones in the text, as with the case of TITAN’s Othello last year; nor was it a way to subvert expectations, just as The Queen’s Company’s production of Sir Patient Fancy did two years ago..
This is not to say that Jackie Schram, the actress embodying the role, did not succeed in exceeding those expectations. On the contrary, Ms. Schram brings into her Sherlock one that is just as quick-witted, observant and resourceful as the original canon’s, managing all the while to inject some physical humor along the way. In fact, physicality played a major role in providing much of the levity in the play — aided most wonderfully by Ms. Schram’s delightful Watson to her Holmes, Peter Groom, who does everything from clacking away frantically at a typewriter to scuttering frightfully away from a creaking door. The rest of the cast is rounded out with Kirsten Foster, Michael Rivers and Hemi Yeroham, all of whom gamely join in on the fun, as well; most notably, in a scene from Sherlock’s first case (‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’), wherein they are chased by a bloodthirsty dog — albeit, an invisible one.
The play, much like its characters in ‘Copper Beeches,’ fumbles along at first, trying to find its footing, tonally. Many of the jokes only manage to garner a few laughs in many of the early scenes, but eventually hits its stride by the second case, ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face,’ the conclusion of which is not revealed until the beginning of the play’s second act, providing some fun tension. By the time we delve into one of the most famous of Holmesian cases, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ the entire theatre attention is held rapt, as our female Sherlock comes face-to-face with Irene Adler, later dubbed by the detective as “The Woman.” Again, despite many possibilities for an interesting, modern interpretation of this case (i.e., homo-erotic overtones), ‘Scandal’ was played rather straightforwardly, and disappointingly so. Still, the ensemble’s strong and energetic performance more than made up for these missed opportunities, making for an enjoyable evening in the theater.
Images courtesy of Richard Termine. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ran from April 1-23, 2016 at The Queens Theatre (14 United Nations Avenue) and the GK ArtsCenter (29 Jay Street).
TITAN Theatre Company has seen the future — and the future is bleak. The political climate gains momentum, with public opinion ruled by sweeping promises of Rhetoric, rather than the practicality of Reason. This could refer to the mud-slinging rat race currently going on in our country, referring instead to one which occurred hundreds of years ago. The Queens-based theatre collective continues in their mission to breathe new life into classic works with a sleek, provocative take on William Shakespeare’s politically-centered historical historical drama. The production marks the end of TITAN’s third full season as company-in-residence at the Queens Theatre, this time with Jack Young at the helm.
In a lot of ways, Caesar stays true to many elements that have become part-and-parcel to a quintessentially TITAN production: a modern setting against which the company’s consistently strong ensemble of actors (along mostly intact Shakespearean dialogue) are juxtaposed. However, while these elements are certainly carried over into Caesar, giving it that particular air of TITAN-esque familiarity, this production is also a departure from the company’s other works, leaning even more bravely toward the avant-garde. This fearlessness is perhaps due not just to TITAN’s ensemble of actors (resident company members and visiting artists alike) and its artistic director, Lenny Banovez, but also to the production’s own design team.
Sarah Pearline’s scenic design truly sets the stage for Caesar‘s bleak dystopia. Just like classic novels of the genre — particularly, George Orwell’s 1984 — the set, despite its stark minimalism, cloaks itself deep in complex symbolism. Instead of the traditional Roman columns one might expect from the world of Caesar, Pearline punctuates TITAN’s futuristic Rome with the criss-crossing, ray-like beams across the back wall of the set, conjuring images of both the steel frames of corporate buildings and bars of a prison cell. Either way, the people of Rome are certainly trapped in a less-than-idyllic system — a totalitarian regime, in fact, ruled by the titular tyrant Julius Caesar (Jonathan Smoots) himself.
Early on in the first act, Cassius (Banovez) utters the famous lines: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our Selves, that we are underlings.” Not everything is as fated as we think it is, and if it is Rome that is in a state of complete tyranny, then it is because the people were complicit in their own subjugation. This is made clear just as the ensemble enters the stage and we can see, etched across its floor, criss-crossing geometrical lines dotted at various points — remarkably similar to constellations in the sky. At first, the group of Romans, decked out in black slacks and crisp white shirts by costumer Lorraine Smyth, step out individually into a strange assembly of movements. These movements at first seem random until Caesar himself enters, standing at the center of the stage where all points of the “constellation” on the ground meet, and at the motion of his staff, they fall into a synchronized dance of sorts. The choreography, abstract and yet specific in its thoroughly modern, Graham- and Cunningham-esque movements, most enhances the production’s aforementioned departures into bolder artistic territory.
However, it doesn’t just stop with just the design elements and choreography. As they did in last year’s Othello, TITAN rounds up some of the best stage actors found on both coasts and in-between; and as always, it seems almost blasphemous to single any one actor out. From the aforementioned “grand entrance” in the beginning to the inevitable assassination scene and its dramatic, consequential end the ensemble move as one, egos thrown aside for the sake of better serving the story. That said, TITAN also utilizes double-casting in Caesar (something seen before in their previous productions –particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream), which also allows for each actor in all of their varied, respective roles, to shine equally.
Unlike the dystopian doom they depict onstage, TITAN once again proves that unity as a group can positively serve the public at large, and that to progress in theater is not only to challenge its boundaries, but also compel one to think critically.
Images courtesy of Michael Dekker. Julius Caesar ran from March 25 – April 10, 2016 at the Queens Theatre (14 United Nations Avenue).
There are things in life that are hard to explain merely with words. Sometimes, the best way to transcend obstacles is simply to revel in the ineffable intricacy of emotions we are dealt with. What is left when one not only runs out of memories, but the words to describe them? Such are the trials and tribulations of young, twenty-something etymologist Icarus (Adrian Burke) and beautiful French ex-pat Esme (Charlotte Arnoux), the young couple at the center of Word Play, Ran Xia’s latest effort.
Just as the title suggests, words are all over this play. Its own inception is even inspired by a post on pop culture aggregate Buzzfeed, which featured a list of “untranslatable” foreign words, some of which eventually working their way into the fabric of the play, with each word prompting each of the eleven scenes. Indeed, even as the audience enters the small black-box space of The Theatre Building’s Jewel Box Theater, they are inundated with words: on the floor, on the walls, and even literally hung on the line — a clothesline, that is.
And hang on the line, they do.
Under director Florence Le Bas, we follow the young couple along as their story traverses time and space, across varying states and planes — both literally and figuratively. Icarus (or Iggy, as he prefers to be called) is diagnosed with a debilitating disease (a brain tumor, it is implied), which starts to affect his memory. Upon news that it may not be much longer until the disease fully takes hold of his mental faculties, Iggy scrambles to commit his favorite words to memory, writing them down everywhere in a frenetic, Memento-like fashion. Similarly, he urges Esmé (Essie, he calls her) to go away with him on a road trip across the country, declaring that he wants to live life while he still can.
This newfound urgency is reflected as scenes from their relationship jump-cut between lived-in and dreamt-up moments. We see them go through phases as a couple, from awkward, heart-thumping beginning to its inevitable, heartbreaking end. Iggy’s own decaying memory begins parallels these phases, with elements of his personality changing from one to the other as his mind further riddles with disease. “This is how memories fade,” Icarus says to Esmé, “Perfectly constructed sentences, reduced to scattered words and eventually, meaningless combinations of letters. Promise me one thing, Essie. Don’t ever let me forget you.”
But forget her, he does. As his illness worsens, the scenes visibly become shorter and shorter, and by the time they get to see that last sunset, his memory of Esmé all but fades away, descending rapidly into darkness. The fourth full-length production in an ever-growing output of thought-provoking pieces over the last year and a half, Word Play sees Ms. Xia at perhaps her most heartfelt and earnest to date. Just as her Icarus decorates his life with words, much of the author’s signatory imprint can be found within Word Play: scenes of roadside Americana; characters out-of-time, with poetic dialogue between them overlapping one another; and — of course — memory. At its core, it is an exploration into the immediacy of language, the slow fade of memory and the mysteries of human connection. It is a beautiful piece of theater, and one certainly deserving of a wider audience.
One of the many reasons I write about drama — or write at all, period — is not just because of the films and Broadway shows that I was lucky enough to be exposed to as a young girl living in New York. Yes, I live for costume dramas and shows with spectacle, but it’s always been more than that: it was always, above all else, about the storytelling behind the smoke and mirrors. In many ways, stories are what drive us; they connect us to those long gone, bridging the gap between generations past and present. Nowhere in modern film, apart from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), has that idea been so strongly represented on celluloid than in Klugman-Sternthal’s collaborative effort, The Words (2012).
The film — which boasts an ensemble of stars such as Dennis Quaid (CBS’s Vegas), Olivia Wilde (Her) Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Zoe Saldana (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeremy Irons (Showtime’s The Borgias), to name a few — is told in three different timelines, each one being told by the other. At the film’s opening, we see author Clay Hammond (Quaid) giving a reading of his novel, The Words. He tells the story of Rory Jansen, an aspiring novelist played by Cooper, who struggles to get his work published. While he struggles, living on whatever loans his working class father (J.K. Simmons, in a surprise cameo) could willingly provide. Eventually, after many tireless attempts at courting various publishers, Rory and his wife Dora (Saldana) fall into a daily routine as live-in lovers before marrying and subsequently honeymooning in that city of cities for writers: Paris, of course.
It is in Paris where, after visiting his literary hero Ernest Hemingway’s plaque on the Rue de Cardinal-Lemoine, Dora finds an old briefcase in an antique shop and buys it as a present for her new husband, not knowing the secret he’ll eventually discover in it. The secret, as it turns out, is an aged manuscript that seems to have been tucked away in the back pocket of the briefcase for years. Upon finishing it, Rory is simultaneously in awe and intimidated at the words he’d just read on the page. Before we know it, he is sitting at his desk, re-typing the words from the manuscript onto his computer because, as our narrator Hammond describes it, he “needed to feel what it was like to touch it.” With no intentions of doing anything with it, he comes homes to find Dora in tears, having read the manuscript herself on his laptop and — ignorant of its true source — insists that Rory take it to his publishers at once.
The story – which Rory titles The Window Tears – is published and welcomed to great fanfare as the newest literary darling, winning a plethora of awards. It is at one of these awards ceremonies that another character in the story reveals himself: an Old Man lurking in the shadows (played by the inimitable Irons himself). That next day, he sits down on a park bench next to Rory and starts conversation with him, feigning the role of just another fan of the young man’s work. However, behind the Old Man’s affability seems to belie a different motive and sensing this, Rory starts to make his leave. That is, until the Old Man starts to tell him a story “about a man who wrote a book and then lost it — and the pissant kid who found it.”
This grabs Rory’s attention long enough to stop in his tracks, and the film heads into its third act, with the old-timer describing in detail the story from which the words in Jansen’s supposed novel are derived. Like layers of an onion, the years fall back in time to Paris in 1944, at the tail-end of the Second World War. The Old Man is now 18 years-old, and though sent abroad as a young soldier, he never saw battle. During this time in Paris, he not only falls in love with books and words, but also with a French woman named Celia. What transpires afterwards is a heartbreaking series of events which finally inspires the man to finally write.
Upon hearing the true story behind the words he’d paraded as his own, Rory is simultaneously awed and guilt-ridden. After finally confessing to both Dora and his agent, Rory goes back to the man and offers him payment in kind — which the old-timer adamantly refuses. He advises Rory to just walk away, stating, “We all make choices in life. The hard thing is to live with them.” The Old Man walks away, his last statement ringing in his younger counterpart’s ears like the bell on a typewriter, signalling finality.
Only, it doesn’t quite end there.
When we return to the world of author Clay Hammond, his audience — grad student Daniella (Wilde) — is left bereft at the ambiguity of the story. At one point, Hammond states: “That’s it, the end. No moral, no comeuppance, no incredible gain of knowledge other than the belief that, after making a terrible mistake in life, that one can continue to live and perhaps even live well.” Daniella is convinced that there’s more truth to the fiction than the author lets on. Perhaps he has been able to forget and write and “fool a few people,” she challenges. Or perhaps, she further ventures, “when he’s alone late at night, he can’t sleep, because when he closes his eyes he still sees the face of that old man.”
It is through this exchange with Daniella that we realize that Hammond himself may be the troubled young author portrayed in his own story. Suddenly, that “mask of confidence” the woman before him alluded to fades, only to reveal a tired, worn face — perhaps one tired of hiding from the truth. As the film finally draws to a close, he tells Daniella: “Sometimes you have to choose between life and fiction — the two are very, very close but never actually touch.”
As previously mentioned, this film features a cast of familiar faces, and in that regard — as far as acting is concerned — it does not disappoint. Cooper delivers a compelling performance reminiscent to that of his turn in 2011’s Limitless, wherein he also portrays a writer desperate for a break. Other standouts include: Quaid, in his best Creepy Lit Professor impression; and Irons, as the spurned Old Man struggling to live with past traumas. But perhaps the most notable performance are the two actors, Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia trilogy) and newcomer Nora Arnezeder (Paris 36), who portray the lovers Young Man and Celine, respectively, during the Paris sequence. Their portion of the film was heartbreaking and encompassed for me a bulk of my emotional investment in the story; this is no doubt owed much to their chemistry, as well as their commitment to their roles.
The Words, just as its title implies, is a visual ode to the written word. All obvious Hemingway references aside — lots of obvious and not-so-obvious easter eggs abound throughout, including an actual copy of The Sun Also Rises featured in close-up at one point — it is a provocative portrait of the fine line between reality and fiction, and how sometimes the two collide more often than we realize. It’s a daring premise that sometimes the lengths artists will go to in order to tell a story…may not have any moral tied to it, after all.
Because ultimately, it’s the stories — not us — that go on living forever.