Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mamma Mia! on screen

Seeing middle-aged women frolicking mindlessly on screen might not seem like much of a feminist achievement, but I’m pleased to consider Mamma Mia! part of the improving landscape for older women in popular entertainments. If summer is traditionally when action films like Hancock and The Dark Knight and Iron Man open, trolling for dollars from the pockets of the young and the male, then Mamma MIa! breaks the mold in a refreshing and pleasurable way.

The film continues in the tradition of the stage play on which it’s based, a string of ABBA songs never meant for the theatre that are stuck along a plot no more than a millimeter thick. A young girl, Sophie, about to marry her young boyfriend, Sky, is desperate to meet the father she’s never known before she begins her adult life. Her mother, Donna, was a free-spirited American who stayed on an idyllic Greek island after a summer vacation, pregnant with a daughter who could belong to any one of three men. The determined Sophie somehow finds these now 20-years-older men, invites them back to the fantasy isle for her wedding, and lo and behold, unknown to her astonished mother, they come.

Plot contrivances make sure Sophie and the audience never find out for sure which man is the father, but the cast winds up dancing and we wind up toe-tapping in our seats if we’ve let ourselves enjoy the fanciful fun and silliness of the slight enterprise. The musical was never meant as high art, but as a campy romp that uses ABBA’s songs to explain the paper thin depths of character psychology and motivation across a story that strains credulity, and the film follows suit. As more than one critic has remarked, those ABBA songs really are difficult to resist. Even glancing at a print advertisement for the film can lodge one of the tunes in my head for hours (and who needs to hum “Dancing Queen” while trying to work?).

Part of the film’s fun comes from watching Meryl Streep sing (not too badly) and dance (terribly, although not much is required of her) and, as one critic described, mug her way through the throw-away role of the counter-cultural mother, Donna. With her blond hair long, scraggly, and wind-blown, Streep magnanimously gives in to the proceedings’ campiness. Donna’s once-upon-a-time suitors, all of whom remember her fondly enough to traipse halfway around the world to see her again, are played by unlikely men, all three clearly surprised to find themselves in a musical: Pierce Brosnan plays Sam, the most serious of her former lovers, who’s saddled with the plot’s biggest leap of faith as (spoiler alert) he actually proposes to Donna, after no contact for 20 years, at the film’s end. The poor actor can’t sing a note, but watching Brosnan, and Colin Firth as Harry and Stellan Skarsgard as Bill, Donna’s other long-ago mates, warble their way through a verse or two makes you feel kindly toward guys who would so gamely essay something at which they’re really not very good.

In fact, only Christine Baranski, as Tanya, one of Donna’s two old friends who come to the wedding, has any experience with Broadway musical theatre, which makes Mamma Mia! more like a sing-along than a full-out movie musical. None of the leads are expected to really be able to dance—what passes for choreography looks more like the moves set on high school students eager to do The Music Man with no song or dance training. All the gestures key literally to the lyrics, and overly obvious visual puns and jokes ensure that they’re fun to watch, if not artistically innovative.

As a result, the music seems to heighten the lives of the characters, but in a highly quotidian, rather accessible way. Supernumeraries who otherwise serve as cooks or bellmen or handymen at the small hotel that Donna runs, suddenly become (of course!) the Greek chorus when they hear the tinkling intro to the next ABBA tune, dropping their tasks to face the camera and rock out as Streep’s back-up singers. That they return to their jobs without a thought after they’ve held each song’s last note just seems a matter of fact in Mamma Mia!’s alternative universe.

In one of the movie’s best scenes, Streep becomes a pied piper, the head point on a phalanx of women of all ages who leave their work at the hotel and their laundry lines in town to join Donna in singing and marching purposefully nowhere to “Dancing Queen” (if I’m remembering correctly), which they transform into an anthem of self-assertion about collectively washing their men right out of their hair. The film’s joke is that no one is meant to take these shenanigans seriously, but only to enjoy them with a big dollop of great good fun.

Streep, Baranski, and Julie Waters, as Rosie, the third of the adult female trio, appear to have their own hugely pleasurable time camping it up together. They all play women in their mid-50s or so, with tenuous connections to conventionality. Baranski’s Tanya is a sardonic, much-married sophisticate who clearly enjoys her husbands’ money as much if not more than she’s pleased by their companionship, and luxuriates in her mutual seduction with one of the hotel’s barkeeps. Waters’ Rosie rejects the idea of settling down, happily chasing after Bill for some good clean dirty fun. Their spirit of anti-establishment female hell-raising becomes infectious. And though they act silly and campy, the film (helmed by Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the stage version), never makes fun of them. Instead, we’re encouraged to be entertained by the good time they seem to be having, which is a rather neat trick for a mass market summer film when middle-aged women are involved.

The only unfortunate plot choice is that the film sticks to the original musical’s ending, which (spoiler alert, again, if anyone would rather try to be surprised by the story) requires Sam to propose marriage to Donna at the 11th hour. Somehow, daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), whom Donna has tried to dissuade from her own wedding to the handsome but dunderheaded Sky, is finally convinced—at the altar no less--that she should travel the world instead of getting hitched. This is clearly a happy outcome for a girl so desperately young and obviously naive (signaled by how and what she sings and how shrilly she shrieks with her girlfriends, a trio not at all as compelling as Donna and her friends).

But god forbid a good wedding should go to waste. Sam comes to the rescue with his knees bent and his hat in his hand, asking Donna to forgive him for leaving her the first time and now, 20 years later, to give him another try and marry him while she’s at it. The rules of romance on film require her to accept, which Streep performs with watering eyes and tremulous lips in unnecessary close-ups, throwing over in a ludicrous moment Donna’s own adulthood of more sober, unconventional, interesting choices and perfectly competent hotel management. Apparently, Donna wasn’t even aware of the torch she’d been holding for Sam, and her eyes widen with surprise when it turns out to be burning her backside.

And so, of course, the priest is happy because he gets to say his vows, and the guests are happy, because they’ve schlepped up a very high and narrow, precariously winding mountainside stairway to get to the church for the ceremony. The movie’s setting, too, is a fairy tale—how could even a Greek island be that picturesque and dazzling, the hotel Donna runs so charmingly dissolute, and even the sailboat on which the three once-and-future suitors arrive together so vividly seaworthy? The whole enterprise resembles a karaoke performance of a Disney-like film: a lot of fun if you’ve drunk enough really sweet cocktails not to be bothered by performers who can’t sing and a lot of mass-manufactured by-the-numbers ideology about love.

But I was happy to watch those middle-age leading women throw their arms around each other and laugh, cavorting merrily, even if by the film’s end, I was so exhausted from all the forced gaiety and frivolity I needed a cocktail myself.

Dancing queens indeed,
The Feminist Spectator

Friday, July 18, 2008

Back East, Back to Blogging: A Personal Summer Update

I knew that my recent move from Austin, TX, to Princeton, NJ, would disrupt my writing, but I’m chagrined that my last post was May 28, 2008. Since I hadn’t moved in nearly nine years, I’d forgotten how time consuming and energy sapping it is to pack, unpack, and reestablish your home and your habits in a new place.

I’ll start teaching at Princeton University this fall, as a professor in English and the Program in Theatre and Dance. With easier access to New York and other theatre centers on the eastern seaboard, and with resources to see theatre and performance around the country, I hope to expand The Feminist Spectator from a bi-monthly blog to one with more frequent installments.

Although it might take me a moment or two to get up to speed on an increased schedule, I’m hoping to be able to write about a wider palette of performance, and perhaps expand into posting relevant interviews and features. Feel free to email me personally with any suggestions you might have for coverage, anywhere, any time, at

Despite the distractions of traveling across the country and finding my way around a new home and town, I’ve managed to see some things worth a few words here. So, to get back into the habit of feminist spectatorship and reportage, here’s a round-up of my viewing over the last six or so weeks. In this installment, I give you my thoughts on a few performances. In the next, some films at the theatre and on DVD.

Miss America, LaMama, NYC, June 26, 2008

Influential lesbian and feminist performers Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver work together sporadically now, but happily, for their fans, collaborated on this beautiful, simple two-hander at LaMama in June. Full of Sid Caesar- and Imogene Coco-inspired set pieces and meditations on the state of the country and the world, “Miss America” works simultaneously as a noun and a verb. Weaver subtly deconstructs beauty contest conventions, and Shaw expresses longing for an America that no longer exists. Their long years of performing together are apparent in the synchronicity of Shaw and Weaver’s comic and physical timing, in their easy rapport on stage, and in their seamless delivery.

The show is tinged with the melancholy and ambivalence that’s pervaded their work together for the last five or so years, perhaps prompted by time passing, love aging and changing, and bodies that can’t be relied on in quite the same way. Also, as they admit at one point here, it’s hard to make comedy out of America these days.

Stage pictures repeat profitably, especially Shaw’s tendency to fall to the floor in the same outstretched pose, on her side, arms above her head, her feet sticking out of her too-short pants, shoes off, leaving her palpably vulnerable and confused. The set includes an overturned refrigerator and an old, discarded stove, domestic detritus no longer used to create a nurturing home, but handy for dancing on.

These discarded appliances and a few additional chairs become semiotically rich through each routine, even if they never accumulate permanent meaning. The kitchen antiques here resemble the 1960s pick-up truck Shaw employs to such poignant effect in her solo piece, To My Chagrin, her early 2000’s meditation on her progeny and her own aging.

In Miss America, Shaw and Weaver use the hallway behind the stage’s back wall to extend their playing space, creating a beautiful depth of field that underlines how they engage with proximity and distance, visually and metaphorically. In the duo’s hands, an empty chair acquires affecting meaning; their presence provides a rich aura that imbues a simple piece of furniture with portent.

The pastiche-like script is comprised of various bits and routines that add up to a series of impressions rather than a coherent story, including a fake tap-dance number that sees both performers appearing to dance rhythmically across the refrigerator, stove, and the rest of the stage. The taps are pre-recorded; the performers only imitate the moves required to produce them, but they do so with virtuosity and abandon.

Weaver told me later that this was a Caesar-Coco routine, as was, perhaps, the other sweetly comic routine of the evening, in which the couple stages a discussion of adultery across cultures in different accents and nationally-inflected postures (which they identify ahead of time as American, French, and British, admitting that the accents they create are rather indistinguishable).

The intimate LaMama space and the audience’s clear familiarity with Shaw and Weaver lent the evening a casual, knowing tone. Weaver makes her first entrance through the audience, wearing a thick black fur coat and toting a camera with which she takes pictures that she invites spectators to pose in for her. The business is fun, and the awkwardness of making space for Weaver as she climbs down the seats in the middle of the audience lets spectators see one another as we interact with her.

At the evening’s end, the portraits Weaver took play in a slide show we all watch together, recognizing ourselves and each other, marking the brief but somehow poignant passing of the time we’ve spent together.

I’m always buoyed by seeing Peggy and Lois perform, moved by their creativity, touched by their perspective on the world. I’ve known them for decades now, and sometimes wonder what spectators who’ve never before seen their work would make of their style, and looseness of their script and its compelling way of accruing meaning, rather than staking their claim to some final coherence.

Judging by the audience when I saw Miss America, the insiders seem to bring the outsiders along, so that by the end, we’re all in it together, in the theatre and in an America that desperately needs more of the kind of generosity of spirit and acuteness of vision that Weaver and Shaw consistently display.

Bus Stop, Princeton Summer Players, Princeton, NJ, July 4, 2008

Since we’ll be teaching theatre at Princeton beginning this fall, my partner Stacy and I decided to see what the students are up to in the summer. We bought discount tickets for the holiday performance, unsure who else might forgo fireworks to come to the theatre. To our surprise and delight, the house in Murray Dodge Hall on campus was filled with spectators, eagerly supporting what’s apparently a long-standing summer theatre-going ritual on campus.

The student players and especially the adept, pace-conscious director produced a solid production of Inge’s 1950s-era dramedy. The set evoked the simple pleasures of a warm diner on a snowy night, providing a cozy backdrop for stock characters: The big-hearted, tough-talking diner manager, a competent woman complacent in her sometimes affair with the bus driver who often passes through; the innocent young girl in training as a waitress and as a woman, who catches the attention of a passing pedophile but never suffers his unwanted affections; the protective, watchful local sheriff, who keeps a steady hand on the reins and reminds the characters and the audience of the play’s deeply moral center, even when its homoerotic subtext threatens to seep out of the events like the filling in a warm piece of pie.

The disruptive influence blows in with the wind of a stormy winter’s night that strands a long-haul bus at the diner. Disembarking passengers include a flouncy, Marilyn Monroe-type soubrette (Monroe in fact played the role in the film version), who insists she’s been kidnapped by a naïve but forceful young cowboy. The dumb but finally sweet boy-man thinks he’s doing the right thing by taking her home to his ranch to marry her after they have sex (his first). While she initially resists his affections, she’s eventually persuaded that he’s her true love, and off they ride to the ranch. This plot twist is pretty much all that serves as action in the otherwise staid and talky play.

The Princeton student production served the text well, but I couldn’t help thinking why young people in 2008 would want to revive this particular Inge play. If their mission is to produce titles from the American canon, lots of others come to mind that retain some bite and relevance, while they also offer good roles and simple scenery. Bus Stop’s gender and sexuality anachronisms render it toothless now, and this production chose not to mine what could be its more interesting gay subtext.

Damn Yankees, City Center, Encores!, July 15, 2008

While it’s not the most substantive or even entertaining American musical ever written (as my partner, the expert, concurs), Damn Yankees offers lots of good music from the nation’s popular songbook—including “Heart” (as in “You gotta have . . .” and “Near to You,” and even “Whatever Lola Wants”—all of which get their due in this by-the-book production. Last year’s summer Encores! showcase was the powerhouse Gypsy, which moved to Broadway and won Tonys for its stars Patti Lupone, Boyd Gaines, and Laura Benanti. This year’s summer Encores! gimmick casts television stars Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) and Jane Krakowski (30 Rock, Ally McBeal) as the demonic Applegate and his side-kick, Lola, and saves the romantic lead for Cheyenne Jackson (now starring on Broadway in Xanadu).

The casting choices undermine director John Rando’s (Urinetown) otherwise quickly paced and entertaining production, mostly because Hayes and Krakowski don’t project personality or charisma into the large City Center house. Watched through binoculars, their faces are captivating enough, but their stage personalities don’t fill out roles that require a largess of physical comedy and a slickness of seduction played broadly enough to resonate on a wide proscenium.

Krakowski, who won a 2003 Tony for her work in Nine, and always scored with her theatre-inspired breakout numbers on Ally McBeal, should know better. She doesn’t do justice to Fosse’s original choreography, recreated here by Mary MacLeod, and seems uninspired by the part. Her performance improves just a little when she moves from body to soul, deciding she loves Joe, instead of just trying to seduce him. Krakowski oddly seems more persuasive as the girl next door than as the temptress from hell.

Hayes works best as a walking compendium of queer subtext. Known for his refusal to name his sexual preference during his years as the flamboyant gay man on Will and Grace, Hayes here wears the red accents—amusing socks, neckties, and other accessories—of the devil, but the costume flounces are also reminiscent of the Nance, the gay prototype who used a red necktie to signal his closeted affections in early 20th century America (according to the sexologist Havelock Ellis).

The amusing use of the devilish color here provokes a lot of queer fun. Rando pushes the Applegate-as-gay presumption even further by staging Hayes’ tour-de-force “Those were the Good Old Days” as a Liberace-style piano number, with a white grand graced by a towering candelabra, and Hayes mimicking Liberace’s campy, mincing style. Hayes, who tickles the keys with a wonderful flourish, makes his most successful connection with the audience here, finally letting out the stops on his performance.

Knowing that Cheyenne Jackson, as the transformed Joe Hardy, is an out gay performer also enhances the queer subtext, even though Jackson’s beautiful face and gorgeous body make him a perfectly convincing (and conventional) heterosexual male lead. Some of Jackson’s scenes with Hayes become even more amusing as the two trade what seem to be wry, insider jokes just underneath the surface of their lines.

Without a queer subtext to enjoy, the production would be utterly run-of-the-mill.

Happy to be back,
The Feminist Spectator