National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses

liaisons

I am so glad this is a text format and I don’t have to try to pronounce this title for you.

NT Live always does an amazing job, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is no exception. The play by Christopher Hampton is based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and I came in with little prior knowledge of either play or novel: I did see a certain 1999 Hollywood movie based on the same plot, which I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but that’s the background I had coming in. And actually, the feel of the thing was recognizable, although the sumptuous costuming of NT Live’s period-appropriate version was a decided improvement.

In brief: this is a very sexual and sexy play. I find the Pickford‘s plot summary too perfect not to simply repost here.

Former lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont now compete in games of seduction and revenge. Merteuil incites Valmont to corrupt the innocent Cecile de Volanges before her wedding night but Valmont has targeted the peerlessly virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel. While these merciless aristocrats toy with others’ hearts and reputations, their own may prove more fragile than they supposed.

It is a story of sex, power, gender politics, revenge and spite. I have said before that the NT Live screenings sometimes come with too much exposition – that is, speechifying before the play and during intermission – but in this case I enjoyed and benefited from the background. Playwright Hampton makes some interesting points about the original being a feminist novel; I saw this interpretation in his strong female star, who may not be always likeable but certainly knows her own mind, and works with great awareness against the confines of her society.

This is more than a simple soap opera of who slept with whom and who was angry about it. Although I think it works, and titillates, on that level, I found it rather more political than shallow. And visually gorgeous, and emotive, and affecting; and as always with NT Live, the acting was outstanding and the cinematography perfect. Sorry, I’m raving again. But again, catch some NT Live if you can!


Rating: 8 letters.

iDiOM Theatre presents The Love of the Nightingale

nightingaleAnother perfectly lovely, intimate performance from iDiOM. (See an earlier one here.)

The Love of the Nightingale is a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on the Greek myth of Philomele. The iDiOM describes it as “a tale of sisterhood, betrayal, and revenge, in a poetic, beautiful, funny and modern retelling.” I’m not so sure about the modern part – it seems the play was written so that it could have been staged with or without modern dressings, but this version was fairly stripped down. There were a few moments of commentary on modern times by comparison to the tragedies of Philomele’s story. Essentially, it felt very Greek to me: deeply tragic, gory, inexorability revolving around a fatal flaw; willing and inevitable murdering of immediate family members. Wonderful stuff, if you’re in the mindset for a really dark storyline.

The acting was as wonderful as ever. These are extraordinary players, and I feel lucky to see them. Not that there weren’t a few faults: when the chorus speaks in unison (particularly the male chorus), they are not quite in unison, so their words are garbled; and the set’s steps and platforms, constructed of wood, squeaked and creaked loudly enough to obscure some of the actors’ speech. (Also, we found use of a ventriloquist-style dummy for the young child an odd choice. I think it would have been less distracting to just have an adult actor take the part.) As I’ve said before, though, these small imperfections just remind me that we are part of a small community watching incredibly talented but basically amateur performers do what they love.


Rating: 7 questions.

National Theatre Live presents As You Like It

Back to the Pickford for a very fine production of As You Like It, a romantic comedy by Shakespeare which showcases his playfulness with gender reversals. This play introduces the line, “all the world’s a stage.”

photo credit: Mads Perch

photo credit: Mads Perch


I did not remember this one until we met Celia and Rosalind, and then I knew it. The plot, very briefly: Orlando is a frustrated younger son. Celia is the daughter of the new duke; her cousin Rosalind is the daughter of the banished duke. Thus they are both friends, and the respective daughters of rival brothers. Orlando makes a brave and foolhardy challenge, which he wins, but which puts him out of favor with several powers that be; he exchanges meaningful eye contact with Rosalind; the duke sends Rosalind away, and loyal Celia decides to go with her. Orlando and companion escape into the forest. Celia, Rosalind and their companion the court fool Touchstone likewise escape into the forest, in search of Rosalind’s father, the banished duke. Rosalind dresses up as a boy to help protect their little group. When she next encounters Orlando, then, he meets her as a boy named Ganymede. Ganymede convinces Orlando to court Rosalind with “him”self – Ganymede – as stand-in. In Shakespeare’s time these parts would all have been played by boys. So this is a boy actor playing a girl disguised as a boy pretending to be a girl. The play ends in the forest with a quadruple-wedding and a fascinating epilogue.

Shakespeare is a treasure, and this production was great fun. It begins modernized by an office setting, which I didn’t love but which was amusing in its own ways; but once we get into the forest it feels purely Shakespeare again, which is not to say dated so much as timeless. (National Theatre Live as usual gave us some expository narrative, which can get tiresome. But in this case I have to say: everyone who repeated over and over that Shakespeare is timeless and ever-relevant was perhaps not original, but absolutely correct.) The acting was great. Celia was played by Patsy Ferran, who starred so beautifully as Jim in NT Live’s Treasure Island. Celia is an interesting character, and Ferran is a joy to watch: she has a wonderfully expressive face. Rosalie Craig was outstanding as Rosalind/Ganymede, perhaps equally attractive in both roles.

But Orlando was my favorite, played by Joe Bannister who was too adorable as well as passionate, expressive, silly and dreamy. It’s a deep cast, both of great characters (Touchstone, Jacques, the Duke, Phoebe and Silvius – wonderful! – Audrey, on and on) and of fine acting. The singing Amiens was handsome and talented.

I like to study the plots of these plays before I see them. I think of that as being the right preparation for fully appreciating all the nuance. This time, I just fell down, and went in nearly blind: I had read this play before but it had been many years. But it cost me nothing. Shakespeare’s themes, emotions, passions and politics always feel fresh, and his work with language – well, he helped make English as we know it.* He coined or popularized many figures of speech we all take for granted today; and the dialog in his works, which sounds awkward to the modern ear for the first ten minutes, lapses into a very easily absorbed dialect in the next ten. He is still so funny – laugh out loud funny, which we don’t see all that often. (Mark Benton as Touchstone contributes significantly to that, too.)

A National Theatre Live review wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning, again, the cinematography. The more of these productions I see, the more I feel glad that I am sitting in a movie theatre, getting all the benefits of close-up shots and artistic angles, rather than the (considerably more expensive) single-angle view of the live audience. I’m not saying I wouldn’t attend live: I would love to. But I really appreciate the affordability as well as the high quality of this hybrid form. Oh, and set design: the transition from modern office to spooky forest is surprising, arty and intriguing, and surprisingly effective. I won’t ruin it for you.

Shakespeare and NT Live continue to make a winning combination. Don’t hesitate.


Rating: 8 necklaces.

*If you haven’t already, check out Bernard Levin’s “You Are Quoting Shakespeare” (text here; performed by Christopher Gaze here). There is also the perspective of this grumpy guy, who points out that Shakespeare was not the originator of every one of these phrases. I still think it matters to us that Shakespeare gave them to the world. For example: The Telegraph acknowledges the concept.

Mount Baker Theatre presents: Flashdance the Musical

I went with my parents to a local theatre to see this musical version of Flashdance. First I shall confess: I have never seen the movie. But now it’s on the list.

flashdanceThe musical started on Broadway, but I’m a little vague on its route to us. This local performance employed a New York-based company, but not the same folks who performed on Broadway, and the Broadway-associated website states the last show took place almost a year ago. It was impassioned and fun, but not perfect: the sound was surprisingly poor for a theatre that specializes in musical performances, tinny and muffled. The voice casting was probably imperfect as well; several actors were much better in some parts of their range than others. Overall, the sound quality was poor enough to effect our understanding of the songs & story, which is really unfortunate.

But when the singers hit their areas of confidence and belted it out, they were generally stellar. The dancing was great fun. (Pops reports that he remembers more street-style dancing from the movie, where he found more burlesque here, for what that’s worth.) It’s a cute story. Musical theatre necessarily involves some cheesiness, so the audience is required to make some allowances there, but I’m on board. And I really like the premise, that our protagonist is a welder by day and exotic dancer by night: I love the juxtaposition and the acknowledgment that shit, we’re all complicated beings. This one is based on a true story, you know.

Not perfect, but good enough for me. Movie next, please.


Rating: 7 high kicks.

Branagh Theatre Live at Garrick Theatre presents The Winter’s Tale

winter's theatreBased on my love of the productions I’ve seen from National Theatre Live, I was interested to check out what the new Branagh Theatre Live is doing – especially since I read The Winter’s Tale within the last year, preparatory to reading The Gap of Time, an excellent retelling. Recall that these “theatre live” performances happen elsewhere – this one in London – and are live-taped for broadcast all over. I went with my parents to a local movie theatre for this showing.

I’m afraid the worst thing about this production came right up front: Kenneth Branagh gave a criminally long-winded lecture about the upcoming season of Branagh Theatre Live; about the plays they’ll be producing; and about this play. Bless his heart, he’s an actor, and it’s unsurprising that he loves the sound of his own voice. But his co-director Rob Ashford should have helped out by directing this speech: too much talking, Kenneth. It wasn’t just my annoyed mother and me: the audience was audibly frustrated with the intro. Those of you headed out to see later showings, feel free to go a little late.

And you should still go, because it’s a wonderful play, I think. It’s growing on me with familiarity: I’m glad I had some experience with the text, and recommend that. I found the opening dialog a little hard to follow, even with previous knowledge. Also, it starts out very dour; you have to stick around to see the mood lift a little, and it might help to have that assurance. But it settles out. I think the casting was solid, the acting quite good – Pops felt that Branagh overplayed the part of Leontes, but I thought he was fine here; Leontes is just crazy. Judi Dench was phenomenal, and challenged Branagh for the spotlight overall. The two that played the young couple, Jessie Buckley as Perdita and Tom Bateman as Florizel, were attractive, fun and powerful. I think Autolycus was a stronger character on the page than on the stage, somehow. And the Shepherd and Clown were as loveable as ever.

In conclusion, I think this was a perfectly good production of an underappreciated play. For those who love theatre, absolutely a good time. Maybe not the best introductory experience for newbies, though.


Rating: 7 ballads (looking charitably past Branagh’s opening lecture).

NBC’s The Wiz Live!

I missed round one, but got to see NBC’s encore showing of the remake of The Wiz, a 1974 retelling in turn of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set in an urban and African-American cultural context. It has been much talked about and enjoyed, and I’d heard a little bit about Shanice Williams, who plays Dorothy: she’s just 19 and has never been involved in anything this big before, which is its own underdog story. And who doesn’t love that story?

wiz

First, let me admit that I am unfamiliar with the 1974 show (though pretty familiar with the 1900 original), so I can make no comparisons there. I approached this as a happily enjoyable, entertaining remake on a well-loved classic, with a twist, and with a young new star. It was all of those things. There were some changes made for the stage – like, Toto is only present in the opening and closing scenes, in Kansas, and doesn’t make it to Oz. I guess it was too hard to get a dog’s cooperation for the whole. The journey from the house-dropping scene in Munchkinland to the Emerald City was much compressed, and I was sorry about that. The magical slippers are returned to silver, which is how L. Frank Baum wrote them, rather than Hollywood’s red. There was a new mini-storyline, wherein Dorothy is actually from Omaha, only recently living with Aunt Em after her parents’ deaths. Thus, in her searching for home she has to parse which of these places really is home, which I thought was a nice addition for depth, and which I identified with personally, too. The original story is very much about a concept of home, but even more complexly so in this rendition. I approve. Oh, and of course: the Wiz is a woman this time around! “His” false public character is still male, but the ballooned-in accident from Omaha is female. I found this a welcome twist.

Overall it was far from a flawed performance, though. There were some rough spots: imperfect synchronization of effects, the Wiz tripping on “his” robe. Though star-studded, the acting was a little uneven. I thought the Tin Man (Ne-Yo) was genius; the Lion (David Allen Grier) was a little underplayed, a little blank. The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) actually became a little unlikeable to me, as a character, for the first time ever. Queen Latifah as the Wiz was a great casting idea, but fell a little short: it felt like the songs she had to sing were a little below her usual register, and she didn’t get to belt out like we know she can do so well. Once she stepped out of her Wiz costume, though, and became the woman behind the mask, she hit just the right notes – in portraying her character, that is. I did appreciate Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em – and also appreciated the nod to her role as the original Dorothy in 1974. Shanice Williams herself is beyond complaint, though. I found her engaging and heartfelt, fully committed to song, dance and acting.

As a filmed stage production, I found The Wiz thoroughly disappointing, but that’s because National Theatre Live has got me so spoiled. The work NT Live does is unparalleled excellence: I actually remember myself as being at those shows, rather than in a movie theatre. The camera angle changes: it shows the whole stage (including the front edge, so we can see it’s a stage), different parts in medium-close-up, and close-up angles on individual characters. We see all the set changes (no commercials), so we get the feeling for a real, live stage show. The Wiz clearly took a very different approach. We saw no stage settings (commercial breaks!), and the angle never cut so widely as to give a feeling for the stage itself. For that matter, NT Live shows shots of the audience before and after the show and during intermission, so that I feel like I’m with that crowd in London (or wherever). It remains unclear to me whether there was an audience present for The Wiz. And if not, what a shame for the players. Filming of a stage show is clearly not NBC’s strong suit here.

Uneven performances (but some of them were stellar!), some very fine singing and a classically loveable story make for a pleasing experience, if you didn’t expect too much coming in.


Rating: 7 winged warriors.

National Theatre Live at the Lincoln presents Jane Eyre (an Old Vic production)

Pops suggested this stage production of Jane Eyre to me, and I confess that I was at first hesitant. Jane Eyre is not among my favorite novels. Perhaps in juxtaposition to Wuthering Heights, I at some point developed some rather negative feelings about it. (Recall my discussion with Erin Blakemore, here.) But it was an intriguing concept, this adaptation to the stage; and I have been nothing but impressed with past National Theatre Live performances (Treasure Island; A View From the Bridge). So we went.

The Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon (a town about 30 minutes south of where I live now) is always a treat, and we found a tiny hole-in-the-wall Thai place beforehand that was worthwhile, too. And I had rearranged my mindset by the time we got there. It has been years since I read Jane Eyre. And I love the stage. This will be great, I thought. Of course it was!

JaneEyre

As we have seen at past NT Live shows, the set design was innovative and well done: so extraordinarily simple, just a few platforms and levels of planking, with lots of stairs and ladders throughout, so that the players create the impression of distance covered by sort of doing laps. And because there was no decor, any space could be anyplace at all. Same with the actors: I believe it was a crew of about six who played every character in the story, by simple costume changes and adjustments in accent and attitude; we never had trouble following along. Another less-is-more approach, which is always a clear winner with me. I think I’m done with elaborate costuming and set design. (She says, until the next beautifully elaborate production comes along.)

I was taken with the way they put together this adaptation, too. The company did it cooperatively, through improvisation: they all read the book, got up and freestyled. There’s a great clip, Devising Jane Eyre – and you get a glimpse of some of the actors there. (Then check out the trailer.) It’s a stripped-down version this way, purified if you will. This is not the Jane Eyre I remember. I remember Jane Eyre being a rational, thinking woman’s novel, almost austere, where Wuthering Heights was all passion; but this play was steeped in passion, as well as that groundbreaking feminist thought that we recall Jane for. She still makes (the same) choices of self-deprivation, but they are made with passion. I loved this woman. This company made of Bronte’s work something different – and, for me, better. (I can hear the novel’s fans gasping. They’re just personal reactions, folks.)

The acting was magnificent, and I will say that this version of Rochester was a heartthrob (also something I do not recall from the novel). But all the acting was magnificent. The woman who played Jane’s friend from boarding school, and later played the pastor Rivers who proposes, was perfect in every role; and the woman who played Jane’s mother, then the maid, then Rochester’s girlfriend, was stunning. Even Rochester’s dog, Pilot, is a joy to watch, played by a man (great fun). The communication of Jane’s inner thoughts – always a problem in adapting books to screenplays or stage plays – is solved with pure genius: a group of (I think) 4 actors gather round her, all talking at once, like a Greek chorus inside her head. She dialogues with them. Pops and I were both mesmerized by this inventive and entertaining solution.

Another unique angle we observed was gender- and race-bending (if you will). There were two black actors who fit right into the story without comment or need for explanation; we both liked that introduction, a modernization if you will, since historically Jane Eyre’s mother was decidedly not black; but we were happy to see it fit right in. And during Jane’s stay as a student at Lowood Institution, a boarding school for girls, all the same actors played her classmates – including two men, one of them bearded. But we understood: in this scene, these are all little girls. I think we were both tickled by these new angles, and happy to play along.

The cues used to switch us from Jane as newborn baby, to Jane as young girl, to teacher, to governess, to bride, etc. were simple but effective. She never left the stage, I don’t think, in the whole performance; she made tiny costume changes onstage, not hidden but as part of the action. Her Greek chorus helped her changed into her wedding dress and then back again into the costume of her lower social standing, and this was a symbolic and important part of the story. I liked this new way of signalling changes in time, place and action. Again, minimalist but effective.

The stark simplicity of stage and costuming, and even in the number of actors involved, and the distillation of the novel to its most powerful, moving, and passionate elements, was supremely successful. I regret my hesitation: I will see anything produced by National Theatre Live. And on that note, let me point out that all those fine folks in the Bristol audience paid a lot more money than I did to see this play in person; but I got close-up shots and all the right angles. The invisible element to the National Theatre Live format is cinematography. They claim, and it is true, that each of us at the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon, Washington had the best seat in the house. What a deal.

And now the question of whether to reread. When I try a beer again after years, that I used to love, and I no longer like it: have my tastes changed, or my very taste buds; or have they changed the recipe on the beer? When your professionally-fit bicycle no longer feels right, has the bike changed? No, your body has aged. I wonder if I would appreciate the novel more today because of my age, maturity, life experience then I did when I was… I think I read this as a teen and again in my early twenties. Or is it just this production that worked so well for me? What do you think?

Not in question is my rating of this theatre experience. Go find yourself some NT Live: it’s worth it.


Rating: 10 fires burning brightly.
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