Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s quiet, devastating film is a character study with social resonance that requires very few words to deliver its story and its critique. Little dialogue intrudes as the Reichardt, who directed and edited, notes the most prosaic moments of an ordinary life and somehow turns them into a sad comment on what it means to be poor and female and trying to live with very few choices available to make it all work.

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) sleeps in her car with her dog, Lucy. She’s traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Ketchikan, Alaska, to look for work at the Northwestern Fisheries cannery that she’s heard pays well and comes with room and board. Wendy is deliberate, calm, and careful. She traces out her route on her wrinkled map with a yellow highlighter and writes down each of her expenses as she accounts for her rapidly diminishing financial reserves. Wendy is also young; flowery doodles illustrate her record-keeping in her spiral notebook.

But the young woman’s admirable resourcefulness is clear. When she encounters groups of other people traveling together, she’s wary and watchful, gleaning information but revealing nothing. She’s steeled herself for this trip, wearing a money belt Velcro-ed around her waist and carrying her belongings in the trunk of her car.

When her old car breaks down, Wendy’s fortunes begin to down shift even further. A gentle, middle-aged night watchman guarding the empty Walgreen’s lot where Wendy parks overnight in a small town in Oregon wakes her to force her to move the car. When she turns the ignition, it won’t start, so she and the guard push it to the curb, where Wendy waits for daylight and for the garage across the street to open.

She finds the last crumbs of dog food stashed in the trunk for Lucy, who laps them up gratefully but clearly wants more. In fact, Wendy’s sense of responsibility for her dog propels her through the film even more than her desire to get where she can find work that will let them both survive. Lucy is her only companion; Wendy’s love for her sustains them both. The mixed-breed dog is valiant and faithful, thrilled to chase the sticks Wendy throws and patient as Wendy goes about her human tasks.

Her determination to care for Lucy gets Wendy into the jam that slowly unravels her precarious mobile stability. As she waits for her car to be fixed, Wendy trolls the aisles at a local market, carefully shoplifting. She pockets a bread roll for herself and later, when she’s busted on her way out of the store by Andy (John Robinson), a sanctimonious young grocery clerk, he pulls two cans of Iams dog food from her bag. Her choice of premium canned food makes the risk she’s taken that much more touching, and her capture that much more pathetic.

When Andy presents Wendy’s theft to his boss, Reichardt stages a scene that demonstrates the sticky complications of being poor and the levels of righteousness that distinguish people’s places on the economic ladder. Andy—who’s young enough to be picked up after work by his station wagon-driving mother—implores his reluctant boss to follow procedure and call the police. Andy insists that anyone who can’t afford dog food shouldn’t own a dog, emphasizing that if they make an exception for Wendy, their shoplifting prohibition is meaningless.

The boss, looking small behind his desk, wavers. He’s clearly embarrassed by the situation but lets Andy bully him into calling the police. As she’s driven off, Wendy explains that her dog is tied up outside the store. The cop doesn’t care. Through the rear-view window, Reichardt frames Lucy waiting on her leash, looking into the grocery store as Wendy is taken away and booked.

Williams’ performance as Wendy is so understated and true that she barely lets her irritation register on her face, even as she withstands the ineptitude of the young officer who books her and has to consult the manual to work the station’s computerized fingerprinting machine. You can see from the clench of Williams’ jaw and her surreptitious glances at the police station clock that she’s anxious to return to Lucy, but Wendy is a woman practiced at hiding her needs and her feelings.

The young white officer and the older African American woman who process her aren’t particularly nasty. Reichardt clarifies in simple strokes that no one individual is responsible for how the law or the economy binds and controls and constrains each of them differently. None of them band together to change anything, but they each suffer how things are from within their own proscribed roles, adhering to the rules of a game none of them have devised. No animosity flows between people in Wendy and Lucy, just a general resignation with the fact that everyone’s doing the best they can.

Only the security guard (Walter Dalton) breaks through proscription to reach out to Wendy. His job requires him to make her leave the Walgreen’s lot, but the guard can’t help but talk to her and try to help her out. He tells her about a nice, clean hotel not far from the store and describes the way to the pound when Lucy is lost. He clearly comes to care about her, even though they know nothing about one another.

In one of the film’s many small, finely wrought and poignant moments, the security guard comes to find Wendy in the lot on his day off, and passes her some money on the quiet, as the woman waiting for him in his car fixes her make-up. “I don’t want her to know about it,” the security guard explains, insisting Wendy not refuse his gift. When he drives away, Wendy looks down at the cash in her hand and counts out a five dollar bill and a few singles. The man has little more than Wendy, but he’s rich with humanity.

After she’s arrested for shoplifting, pays a $50 fine for her misdemeanor that she can’t afford, and is released, Wendy runs back to the grocery store. Lucy isn’t there, and no one knows where the dog has gone. The security guard suggests the pound and Wendy trudges off to look there for Lucy. The clerk at the animal shelter is kind, but Wendy’s sad tour through the kennels doesn’t turn up her dog. Instead, the camera tracks Wendy walking past other caged and desperate creatures, some barking hopefully at the bars of their cages, others retreated into the inner chambers of their small spaces, peering out warily and without hope.

The parallel is clear—at least the dogs get food, water, and a roof over their heads as they wait out their fates, some with hope and determination, and others with sorrowful acceptance. Wendy stays one step ahead of homelessness. She washes herself in a gas station restroom, trying to maintain her dignity in the face of her increasing deprivation. But losing Lucy means doing without her lifeline. Wendy’s car, which proves much more expensive to fix than she can afford, is easier to abandon. But life without her dog is too lonely to bear.

Wendy and Lucy’s script—based on the short story “Train Choir” by Jon Raymond—is never predictable and never sentimental. The film doesn’t ask the spectator to pity the characters, but to see them instead as human beings struggling with whatever limited means they can muster, each in his or her own way. The world Wendy and Lucy paints isn’t easy or kind—it’s lonely, hard, and sad, with little to remediate the economic blight and emotional benightedness the film depicts unremittingly.

But the elegant photography and eloquent editing—and Williams’ impressive, powerful acting—tell a sympathetic story about the people it depicts, not as a mess of psychological trouble and relational woe, but as individuals grinding out the only lives they can, given the poverty of their class and the paucity of possibility provided by the shopworn American dream.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Les Éphémères

The densely packed circular "chariots" of sets in Les Emphemeres.

Les Éphémères, created collectively by Ariane Mnouchkine’s fabled company Le Théatre du Soleil and performed at the Park Avenue Armory for the Lincoln Center Festival 2009, exemplifies theatre’s importance and its pleasures. Legendary French director Mnouchkine conceived the stunning, two-part, seven-hour long event, and transplanted it to the US with many of the company’s trademark devices intact.

Théatre du Soleil makes its home at the Cartoucherie, a large old factory just outside Paris, where arriving audiences typically watch the actors preparing for their performances, and join them at impromptu meals at intermission and after the show. The communal atmosphere, and the company’s willingness to reveal the apparatus of performance that conventional theatre so insistently hides, immediately invites spectators to participate not just in the play’s reception, but in the production of its ambiance—that is, its warmth and its demonstrations of human connections over time, space, and history.

At the Armory in New York, the cast’s dressing area lined one end of the large hall into which the theatre auditorium was built. With floor-length curtains tied back to frame the buzz of the cast’s pre-show preparations, spectators could observe the actors sitting together at long tables, peering into mirrors lit with bare bulbs, or putting on their make-up, or arranging their props or costumes. Children ran between the tables, although since many of them, too, performed in the production, they were as busy as their adult counterparts (some of whom are their parents; this is a company for whom the public overlaps and intertwines with the private).

Climbing the steps up to the theatre built within the armory, spectators look down onto a playing floor arranged between two banks of steeply raked seating. Each long row of benches was built with a half-wall that butted up against spectators’ knees, onto which some people leaned in to watch the action. Little pen lights dot these walls, so that when you look across the stage into the seats opposite, if the stage lights are dark enough, the other side of the house looks like a night sky specked with unusually orderly stars. That image represents just a smidgen of the magic the company conjured at the Armory.

Mnouchkine watches a rehearsal from the banks of seats that line both sides of the playing area.

Les Éphémères offers a deceptively simple but sumptuously rich day of theatre. The numerous stories told by the large cast of actors, many of whom play several roles, range from brief vignettes that sketch a particularly clarifying moment in otherwise ordinary lives, to longer, interlocking stories that draw on personal memory and national history. The play’s longest tale winds in and out of the present, finally finding its meaning in a family history haunted by the Holocaust and by personal acts of supreme courage and kindness or of the basest cowardice and fear.

Whether or not the stories tie together neatly, they all touch each other with some basic fact about humanity: that people can be good or evil; that love is triumphant until it fails; that the past shadows people; that simple pleasures can be taken without being bought; and that the present is a thin filament of time inexorably linked to the past and the future.

Written and delivered in French (with supertitles projected on either side of the theatre for easy viewing), Les Éphémères’ dialogue is short and simple. No one monologues; their speech clips out, functional and sometimes expressive, but composed of quotidian, idiomatic expressions that sound comfortably familiar. The play underlines how easily people understand one another by juxtaposing times when the characters don’t, or when they withhold information to try to control the present or the future.

For example, in a memory piece that turns out to be surprisingly central to the play toward the end of Part II, Aline, a young French child whose Jewish parents have been deported during the war, is left in the care of Nora, a sympathetic Catholic woman who teaches her the Lord’s Prayer and winds up saving her life. When an oily German officer happens upon Aline playing on a beach, his cajoling, manipulative words aren’t translated, so that the audience (if they can’t understand German) hears him just as Aline does. The pompous, vaguely sinister officer reduces himself to gesturing to make himself understood.

The actor clarifies the difficulty of communicating across languages and yet at the same time, how much can be understood without knowing another vocabulary. The German officer’s intentions are horrifyingly clear—he’s testing Aline’s ethnicity, mistrusting the cross that hangs around her neck, probing her for evidence of Jewishness. Thanks to Nora’s prescient instruction, when the officer insists she say a prayer, Aline rattles off the one she’s been taught, instead of the Jewish brucha she learned as growing up.

Les Éphémères addresses the costs of erasing identity and piecing it back together over time. Although Aline’s story threads through the play most prominently, other vignettes share a similar theme. Gaelle, a young woman proprietor of a café, holds herself just out of reach of those she so generously serves, casting her glance through the café window and seeing her personal history play out just beyond reach of the present. As the scenery of her past is rolled into the playing space, we watch Gaelle as a child, helplessly observing her father beat her mother and then try to apologize.

Later scenes show that eventually, Gaelle’s father kills her mother in a car accident, in which Gaelle is also hurt but survives. Her story connects subtly with another of the play’s vignettes, in which a lonely girl whose mother and sister have also been killed in a car accident forms a friendship with the ostracized transgendered person who lives in her building. The girl’s father bottles up his grief, which poisons their domestic space enough that she wants to stay away from their apartment. Before long , the father, too, visits the transgendered woman, breaking down emotionally as she looks on with quiet compassion.

The domestic violence Les Éphémères depicts is as horrifying as the Nazi’s state violence and just as indelible for those who suffer it. And yet, the production suggests, people soldier on, resisting, reaffirming, triumphing over personal and political trauma in their own quotidian ways. Their prosaic lives prove their victory over forces that would destroy them, be it the ravages of Nazi ideology or the devastation of mercurial, abusive patriarchal power.

Mnouchkine and her cast embody these themes in gorgeous, moving theatrical metaphors. In Les Éphémères’ opening image, the house lights go down and a circular wooden disc perhaps twelve feet across, which the company calls a "chariot," is rolled out from behind a nearly sheer gray curtain at one end of the playing space. Several people busy themselves around the platform, carefully building a set while spectators watch. Someone holds a pen light in their teeth to light their work; someone else drills a half-wall into the chariot’s floor. Others carry on a sofa, a coffee table, a small cabinet; others dress the set with magazines, books, papers, photos, and dozens of other little objects that make a room a place where someone lives.

The spectators watch as these people fill the small set, then laugh as they roll the finished playing space off through a matching curtain at the other end of the space, as though all this meticulous work has been for nothing. But it soon becomes clear that this careful dressing of a small set represents the work the company will do throughout the richly textured and evocative afternoon and evening; they carefully embellish the outlines of lives that other productions draw only faintly. At the end of Part I, the company just as precisely dismantles another set, then rebuilds yet another at the start of Part II. The mirrored tasks speak volumes about what we’ve seen in between.

It turns out that those we might at first think are stagehands are actually part of the cast, as each performer shares the labor of literally moving the production from moment to moment and place to place. The chariots, like the wagons of a pageant play, are rolled through the long, narrow playing area by actors who push them along and around with their arms, their legs extending out behind them to give the sets momentum. Their movements look like dance; some of them drag their toes across the floor with graceful flourishes, and each of them exudes as much electrifying presence as the actors performing on the platforms they control.

The actors moving the chariots watch the actors “on stage” with great empathy and affection. They aren’t performing, per se, but they watch with a heightened sense of presence, creating a bridge between the characters created just above them and the spectators lining either side of the space. One of the day’s many pleasures is seeing people who’ve performed wrenching, touching, or comic moments later dressed in dark, unobtrusive clothing and helping move other scenes along. The cast doesn’t hide its dual roles, but uses them to empathize with both the actors in the scenes and the spectators, as we all experience these vital slices of life.

The chariots each contain their own working world. When the characters wash their dishes, they dip them into water in real sinks. When they cook, the frying pans smoke as the stoves heat the eggs or boil the pasta water. When they sit down to eat, they consume the food they’ve just made. When they watch television, spectators, too, can see the movies or images they refer to on the small screens on the set.

Although the cast creates each scene with ultra-realistic detail, the production revels in its obvious theatricality. The acting style lies somewhere beyond Stanislavsky, closer to post-modern performance art, as the performers venerate the simple tasks of daily life while they play the complexity of emotions that drive them: making tea, cooking pasta, signing papers, putting children to bed, getting dressed, combing the sand on a beach, lighting a fire, giving an ultrasound, eating dinner.

In some of the scenes, the characters never reveal more of themselves than their actions. For instance, in “The Farm Next Door or Deliverance,” a man and woman sit at a table together in silence, eating a meal we’ve seen her prepare. He wears work clothes and she wears an apron; they seem to be from an earlier moment in history, their home rural and isolated.

Suddenly, he stiffens and his body folds at the waist, his weight falling on the table. She watches, startled, and then resumes her meal, suffused with a very subtle sense of relief. Then the moment ends and the chariot that’s encapsulated this small moment of two obliquely drawn lives rolls off. Exposition isn’t necessary to communicate the fraught sadness and gladness of the moment, or to debate who exactly has been delivered by the man’s sudden death. We derive what we need to speculate from how the couple looks away from one another, from how they cut their food, from how they hold their bodies at the table, from how they chew. The text lies in their actions, in the daily movements of everyday life that speak volumes.

If the emotional detail of Les Éphémères comes from a combination of heightened theatricality and very subtle, task-based actions, the chariots on which these stories play out provide their own momentum. The actors moving the wheeled circular platforms push and pull them through the alley-like space, so that the spectators’ perspective changes continually. The characters move as their places are pulled around the stage; the effect is of lives always in motion, whether or not they’re going anywhere.

A long, narrow, two-sided viewing situation that could be frustrating for spectators instead becomes an exhilarating experience of multiple views of the same scene, as the playing areas roll this way and that, on and off, toward and away from each other, as doors join rooms, as living rooms give way to bedrooms and bathrooms and then move back to front doors.

The cumulative effect suggests the continuity of these lives, a fluid, always changing connection between those small, sliced platforms, rather than the static isolation proscenium arches often frame. The production exemplifies Brecht’s materialist view of history, of the present as a moment in a string of time that can affect the future in unpredictable ways, just by looking at the same scene from a different angle.

At the end of Part I, as if to underline the operation of memory and to jog your own, the actors parade the chariots with sets we’ve seen so far in Les Éphémères across the stage, as if to remind us of the lives that have played out before us for the last three hours.

The spoken text does justice to the texture and loveliness of the production’s visuals. Little conflict propels each vignette. Often, a phone will ring that delivers news or information that informs the scene’s emotional tone, sets its narrative in motion, or punctuates its action. And the musical score (by Jean-Jacques Lemetre) that accompanies the play underscores its emotional ambiance with poignant sounds and effects. Lemetre’s music apparently inspired the play’s initial construction and continues to inform its performances.

Throughout the play, he sits on a platform above one end of the playing area, watching the action below. He plays a series of unusual-looking instruments—an angular cello and various stringed instruments that look, to my untrained eye, like modifications of the more typical configurations, somewhat like those in Laurie Anderson's repertoire. An assistant clad in black hands him various instruments as he needs them, while he sits watching the action and adjusting the sound effects. He hovers above the stage, his presence quiet, benevolent, and motivating.

Les Éphémères’ stories begin with a scene called “The Marvelous Garden” (all the scenes are titled in the program), which concerns Jeanne Clément (Delphine Cottu), who’s grieving her mother’s recent death and putting the woman’s effects in order so that she can sell her house. When a man whose wife has just had a baby sees her freshly placed “For Sale” sign hanging on the gate, he enters the house and immediately decides to buy it. The juxtaposition of her sorrow with his joy sets up the play’s emotional fluctuations, as well as how subtly modulated those extremes will appear.

The play’s pieces come together in surprising ways that reveal themselves only gradually over the seven-hour production. In several sweet scenes, for instance, a divorced woman playfully entertains her young daughter with costumes and masks, their pleasure only interrupted by regular calls from a man who we come to realize is the girl’s father. When the father finally enters their home, coming to collect the girl in a scene called “Every Other Saturday,” it’s suddenly clear that the irritating man on the phone in these scenes has been the joyous new father from the play’s opening.

This example of how Les Éphémères moves through time in unexpected but moving ways is repeated in other stories throughout the play. At the beginning of Part II, Jeanne visits an archive with a letter she’s found in her mother’s effects, and learns that her mother’s parents were deported from Paris to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Jeanne, who didn’t even know her mother was born Jewish, is stunned to learn her history, which subsequent scenes describe in stories that subtly interlock. Jeanne sees her mother’s history pass in front of her eyes, as more circular platforms roll on to encapsulate her secret history. The cast enacts moments of courage and cruelty that cross time, from one woman’s refusal to hide her Jewish friends during the Nazi occupation, to Nora’s fearlessness in the face of a mortal threat.

The connections among characters in the present and the past appear like images developing in liquid in a darkroom. The script never points underlines them obviously. Sometimes, a name hints at a common thread. The doctor/radiologist in one story shares a surname with Nora, the heroine of the World War II drama that grounds Jeanne’s family history.

That one actor—the sublime Juliana Carneiro da Cunha—plays both Dr. Altunian da Silva in the present and Nora Altunian in the past emphasizes these connections across time and across emotional coordinates. The exact relationship between the doctor and Nora is never spelled out. But the connection itself matters most, and the kindness and altruism that informs both characters’ choices.

Dr. Altunian plays out her story in several scenes with Perle (Shaghayegh Beheshti), an ancient, addled woman who arrives for an ultrasound in filthy clothing, her teeth blackened from neglect, with a dirty white cloth flower pinned in her matted gray hair. Dr. Altunian has been warned about Perle’s eccentricities; the woman is difficult, querulous, opinionated, and strong. That Perle comes to trust the doctor, and that Dr. Altunian comes to grow fond of the old woman, tracks one of the play’s most moving trajectories.

Beheshti is marvelous as the curious Perle. The actor is probably in her 30s; the woman she plays is easily on the far side of 80. She twists her body to portray Perle’s arthritic limbs, her fingers wracked with pain, her back bowed, her stomach pained by something she mistakenly believes to be pregnancy, her eyes twitching with suspicion and later, mischief, her mouth opening and closing spasmodically over decayed teeth. Age make-up is obviously drawn on Beheshti’s face—gray lines are penciled over pancake make-up with no attempt to make the effect look realistic.

But knowing that a young actor plays Perle makes her portrayal that much more affecting, since what you observe in the performance is the actor’s love and respect for the character’s humanity, rather than the virtuosity of Beheshti’s acting (although it is that). What could be a caricature instead becomes an eloquently choreographed dance of the indignities of age, the sharpness of character, and the persistent need for human connection as time passes and the body betrays its frailties. Da Cunha’s and Beheshti’s scenes together are lovely, heartbreaking instances of warmth and compassion.

The actors all play multiple roles, especially the principals—da Cunha, Cottu, Serge Nicolai (who plays Alain, the happy then angry father), and Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini (who plays various key supporting roles). They transform themselves with obvious, fake-looking wigs, make-up, and costumes, but mostly by embodying the physical characteristics of people whose lives are particularized by their circumstances, by what they do, in the present, more than how they got there and what it means.

The effects of each character linger, so that when the same actor embodies each part, you can see the violence of the wife-beater reappear in the upper-class father and the dying sharecropper. The actors become their own inter-texts, layering proximity and touching intimacy simply by relating the last character they played and to the present one. Each person stamps his or her role with an indelible trace of something very real, something recognizable and true even without the back-stories of exposition.

I saw Les Éphémères on one of the Saturdays in its run (7/18/09) when you could see Part I at the matinee and Part II in the evening. The pleasure of consuming the play in one delicious gulp was enhanced that day by other spectators, who happened to include Anne Bogart, Tony Kushner, Wally Shawn, and Suzan-Lori Parks. But even those among us who weren’t theatre luminaries became important to one another. I spoke with the man sitting next to me in Part I and the woman beside me in Part II differently than I typically talk to my fellow spectators. We talked about what we were seeing and what we saw, and how it made us feel.

The long play was a feat of endurance, however pleasurable (and the seating was, frankly, uncomfortable), that also made us turn to one another for support and a kind of care we don’t usually need from strangers. Eating the cookies the cast served and drinking the water we could pour together from the long table the cast rolled out at intermission also brought us that much closer; no one (or perhaps fewer people) ran out to smoke or check their cell phones. The audience walked down to the stage to collect our refreshments, and hung around talking instead of dispersing.

But something else circulated among us that day, something I like to call a “utopian performative,” when the fact of an audience’s being together creates a current of what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas, or belonging among strangers, that lets us feel elevated together. In those heightened moments, I think we get a sense of what utopia might feel like. Watching Les Éphémères, I felt lucky to be among this particular group of people, those I knew and especially those I didn’t, watching a play that reminded me of theatre’s magic and the affecting beauty of experiencing it with an audience who feels it, too.

The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Wiz

Ashanti, Nigel the dog, LaChanze

City Center’s Encores! series has recently extended its season of staged readings of rarely revived musicals into the summer, outside of its typical three-show run in the spring. Two years ago, a summer remount of Gypsy triumphed with Patti LuPone in the lead, in a production directed by Arthur Laurents that went on to garner multiple Tony Awards during its subsequent Broadway run.

Hopefully, their latest summer production, a revival of The Wiz, will have the pleasure of a similar fate, despite Charles Isherwood’s less than charitable review in the Times. Directed by the talented Thomas Kail, who also directed In the Heights, musical directed by Alex Lacamoire (who also did In the Heights), and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (currently represented on Broadway by 9 to 5), the production teems with talent and energy, offering a dazzling evening of great fun from a talented, infectiously delighted cast.

Even though the show was first produced in the 1975, this production didn’t smell a whiff out of date. Some of the language, on closer scrutiny, might seem anachronistic. A few bon mots suspiciously close to “here comes the Judge” are rattled off by an earnest cast that’s fully behind them, never pausing for a moment to be suspicious or snobby about the phrasing’s provenance (this despite the fact that many of the cast probably weren’t alive in the 70s).

Kail, himself a young Wesleyan University graduate, puts his shoulder behind the music and the dialogue, creating a fast-paced romp from Kansas to Oz in a musical retelling of the classic story with an African American spin that stamps the music with an erstwhile Motown idiom.

Perhaps because it was first produced in the 70s, when feminism was very much in the air, women dominate the musical. Ashanti, the Grammy Award-winning pop singer, plays Dorothy, and LaChanze matches her fame in the double role of Auntie Em and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. The show’s best numbers are sung by these two and the supporting women. Dawnn Lewis plays Addaperle, the Good Witch of the North, the first to meet Dorothy in Oz. She enters decked out in denim dotted with colorful patchwork quilt accents, wearing tall hats stacked on top of each other and horizontal striped stockings that somehow elongate legs that already tower on platform shoes.

Addaperle’s number, “He’s the Wizard,” promises that Dorothy will find her way home with his assistance, which begins her quest. But since we know the story, it’s the song’s delivery, and Lewis’s interpretation of Addaperle as sweet, well-meant, but addled that makes the number such fun. (Like a failed student at Hogworth’s, she can’t get her wand to work.)

Paul Tazewell’s imaginative, campy costume design—along with the hair and wig design by Charles G. Lapointe and makeup design by Cookie Jordan—distinguishes all the characters in this production, and provides much of the evening’s fun.

Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Tichina Arnold) also sings a show-stopping number, for which she dons the fabulously red, richly textured and layered outfit of a modern-day devil, wearing a tight-fitting body suit in a red and black paisley print, over which she pulls a hoop skirt, half covered with a fringey dress, topped by a red and black wig styled in long curly dreads. The whole campy effect gives her a devil-may-care-if-I’m-a-devil attitude that Arnold delivers with energetic panache. Her song, “No Bad News,” forbids anyone in her court to tell her anything she doesn’t want to hear, which eventually means the flunky who announces Dorothy’s arrival meets a comically bad end.

LaChanze has the pleasure of the first and the penultimate number in The Wiz, first as Auntie Em, singing a maternal ode to her niece as she hangs laundry on the clothesline while that foreboding wind kicks up. Even wearing Auntie Em’s shapeless housedress, LaChanze is a riveting presence with the best voice in the cast. When she returns as Glinda, wearing a diaphanous sky-blue gown with a silken turban wrapped around her head, LaChanze is luminous, glowing with the promise that if Dorothy believes in herself (as Glinda’s song goes), she’ll get home to Kansas and control her own destiny. LaChanze puts over the anthem to 1970s-style self-actualization like she’s announcing the one true religion. How can Dorothy not get back to Kansas, given LaChanze’s faith-full notes?

Ashanti is the production’s weakest link, but then, Dorothy isn’t the most interesting character in The Wiz. After she’s displaced by the tornado—which happily, Kail doesn’t try to reconceptualize by referring to Hurricane Katrina or any other available current event—Dorothy arrives in Oz, where she mostly reacts with either wonder or dismay at its marvels. The role is one long reaction, and Ashanti’s expressions shift—or not—accordingly. But her responses seem practiced, rather than spontaneous; her face looks stiff and too carefully arranged.

She’s cute and earnest but bland, and lacks that glowing musical theatre-person presence that her co-stars exude. Ashanti acts like the pop singer she is, a girl who’s accustomed to being technologically mediated and much more amped up than she is here. Ashanti’s voice, though, is gorgeous, and she gets her songs’ tone and spirit just right. She’s also a very game; for some reason, she doesn’t dance, but she’s happily led around the stage by chorus boys and girls, and vamps in place with the other characters.

Ashanti is also the lightest skinned person on stage, whatever that might mean to the politics of race, which this production downplays. Since no white characters appear in The Wiz, the African American characters and cast create a world in which their race is the norm and goes without comment. Ashanti stands out in this context, although perhaps her exceptionalism makes sense for Dorothy, who is indeed different in Oz.

Ashanti never gets in the way, but she never stands up to the sparkle and shine of the other performers. She’s upstaged by each new character Dorothy meets. The Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Lion each get their own tour-de-force number, which they put over with skillful aplomb. Christian Dante White is all floppy limbs as the Scarecrow, in a wonderfully physical and relaxed performance. Joshua Henry, as the Tinman, taps his heart out for his “Slide Some Oil to Me” solo. James Monroe Iglehart, as the Lion, is a big teddy bear of a performer, who inhabits his furry suit with the appropriate aw-shucks charm. Iglehart manages to wrangle a bit of heart from Ashanti, who seems to enjoy his company. Warmth radiates between them that doesn’t spark between the lead and her other co-stars.

Orlando Jones, as the Wiz himself, is intermittently effective, handsome in his bedazzled emerald coat and fantasy make-up when the wizard deploys shock and awe, and later, unapologetically matter-of-fact about his fall from power. He’s charming at the end as he goes about solving everyone’s problems, making each of the principles happy but Dorothy, whom he leaves on the ground as his hot air balloon takes off (or here, is blown sideways offstage) without her.

Dorothy doesn’t return to Kansas at the end of The Wiz to reveal the real-life identities of all her Oz friends. Instead, she sings “Home,” gesturing toward a happy end to her journey, and the curtain rings down. Perhaps because Ashanti can’t quite fill the moment emotionally, the ending feels a bit inconclusive.

But these minor defects don’t mar what’s otherwise an entertaining evening. Blankenbuehler’s terrific choreography evokes the story’s high drama. The black-clad dancers embody the tornado in a stunning coup-de-theatre. They fly about t he stage, putting their arms through the shirts hanging on Auntie Em’s line and wreaking havoc with her house. The set, designed by David Korins, comes apart creatively; the dancers create the damage of gusting winds by uprooting each piece of the house and planting them in odd parts of the stage, as if the weather explodes Dorothy’s home into its constituent parts.

The dancers’ choreography accomplishes many of the set changes. They create the yellow-brick road by appearing with small suitcases painted in a brick-like pattern that they put together like blocks, passing them under the feet of the actors as they “ease on down the road” to Oz. Dancers comprise the dangerous poppy field, twirling around the principles in form-fitting green sheaths and wearing bright red fright wigs.

As the munchkins, they sit on rolling chairs that halve their height, and wear hoop-skirt costumes that cover their bodies from chin to toe, while extravagant Koosh-ball shower caps adorn their heads. The flying monkeys, who get a kind of Michael Jackson Thriller treatment, threaten the company with their sinister moves.

And Toto, of course, is adorable.

The audience loved the high energy production the night I attended (a preview performance on 6/13/09). In the Bush years, the failed wizard might have been reminiscent of W., with his empty insistence on missions accomplished, and the sham promises of a few last left-over miracles that never transpire. But by this production’s end, the Wiz sounds more like Obama as he delivers his gentle, yes-you-can moral, the everything-you-need-is-within-yourself boosterism on which The Wiz, like The Wizard of Oz before it, stakes its happy ever after claim.

In a production like this one, though, watching the talented ensemble tell the old story, the moral feels a lot more like yes-WE-can. That works for me.

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, July 17, 2009

Twelfth Night, Central Park

Audra McDonald and Anne Hathaway (photo Jane Marcus)

Seeing theatre in Central Park is magical under most circumstances. The Delacorte is an intimate space; its horseshoe-shaped house brings the audience in toward the stage, which is small enough that the actors appear close. Behind the set, you can see trees sway in the breeze, and with the best designs, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the scenery leaves off and nature begins.

The Public Theatre takes advantage of the idyllic location and offers a production of Twelfth Night that doesn’t reinterpret the comedy in radical ways, but fulfills its potential with a lovely, funny, sweet evening in which actors and spectators alike seem to revel in one another’s presence under the stars (and the planes flying in and out of Laguardia that hum regularly overhead, their lights like far flung Leikos or Fresnels shining down to help the actors’ way).

Director Dan Sullivan sets the play in a vaguely Edwardian moment, which allows the elevated language to make sense without making the costumes (subtly wrought by Jane Greenwood) intrusively “period.”

John Lee Beatty’s set literalizes the pastoral theme. Instead of furniture, the floor is built up into small hills of various sizes, some planted with trees and some gleefully bare, which allow the actors to slide down or bounce against the faux-grassy surfaces. Given the high camp physicality of the production, those actions are often in evidence. Setting the play in an outdoor world mirrors the outdoor theatre, making its effect even more whimsical and midsummer-esque.

Anne Hathaway and Raul Esparza (photo by Jane Marcus)

The Public’s is the third production of Twelfth Night I’ve seen this year. In London, a Donmar Warehouse production that moved to the West End set the story in what looked like the belly of a great ship, with huge wooden slats extending the height of the stage. The actors nearly cowered under the arching dark wood, which gave the production a more foreboding tone. Derek Jacobi’s presence as the ridiculous but wronged Malvolio lent the play a peculiarly sad air, despite the antics of Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek.

In the McCarter Theatre Center production I saw last March, Twelfth Night played out against a wide and high white scrim that swept down into a parabolic wooden stage floor that looked like an elegant version of a roller derby rink. The set design featured blood red roses, hung in two dimensional photorealist images and later concretized by hundreds of three-dimensional flowers that fell from the flies and remained on stage for the actors to walk among until the play’s end. The design emblematized the relief and revelry of spring and of love.

But the Public’s outdoor setting and outdoor-inspired scenery did the most to enhance the play’s merriment and melancholy, framing its movement from one emotion to the next as a kind of picaresque, as the characters traveled the set’s green byways. The black stage apron concealed Malvolio’s prison in the second act, and in the first, its imposing steel grate rose up to expel the shipwrecked Viola onto the shores of Illyria in a puff of fog, smoke, and damp. But for the most part, the dark forestage was overshadowed by the set’s calm and playful green and its tall, leafing trees that blended seamlessly with the real arbor the set incorporated.

Emphasizing the comic over the melancholic focused the production squarely on Viola and her turn as Cesario, courting the mourning Olivia for Cesario’s employer, the Duke Orsino. In the McCarter production, Veanna Cox turned in a sublimely funny performance as an awkward, pratfall-prone Olivia, which made her attraction to Cesario—so easily transferred to the properly heterosexual love object Sebastian, when he makes his appearance—less serious, closer to the comic subplot of mischief that Toby, Aguecheek, and Maria play out.

In the Public production, Audra McDonald, though beautiful and wistful as Olivia, plays the character as more conventionally moonstruck over Cesario, whose presence pulls her out of her extended mourning for her brother, as she’s gradually brought back to life by her attraction for Orsino’s young messenger. MacDonald performs a few deft double-takes later in the play, as she begins to sort out the double-vision of Viola and Sebastian. But she’s a rather wan presence against Anne Hathaway’s vitality as Cesario/Viola.

The Public often casts high profile film actors in its summer shows in the park. Hathaway makes a wonderful Viola. Her performance is full of life and energy, but carefully modulated to accommodate Viola’s wistful longing for Orsino. I heard lines in the play that never sounded so pertinent before, thanks to her heartfelt, meaningful delivery. Instead of struggling to project personality and to command a physical presence, as do many transplanted film actors (Hathaway was nominated for an Oscar for her devastating performance last year in Rachel Getting Married), Hathaway seemed a natural.

Hathaway’s star power brings the production buoyant liveliness, she connects warmly with the rest of the cast. Her relationship with Orsino, played by a slightly campy, appropriately pouty Raul Esparza, develops quickly into easy camaraderie and the attraction that surprises them both, with her consternated that her true sex is hidden, and he distracted by erotic longing for a person he thinks is a boy. The casting winks at itself—Esparza has been out as bisexual for some time—which makes the gendered confusion of his attraction to Cesario that much more fun (and the moment at the end when he reaches for Sebastian’s hand by accident that much more sweet). He and Hathaway seem to share genuine affection; it’s clear that they’re having great fun together onstage.

But then, so is the rest of the cast. McDonald flings herself into her flirtation with Cesario, exuberantly kissing him on the mouth in her desperation to have him. Hathaway reacts with dismay at Olivia’s demonstrativeness, but somehow manages to avoid the homophobia implicit in that reaction. Instead, when the misunderstanding is revealed, she and Olivia/McDonald instantly translate their affections for one another into sisterhood. Olivia gets to have her soul mate as both a man and a woman. The production revels in this abundance of erotics and affection.

In fact, a kind of queerness tinges the whole event, especially in the antics of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek. Jay Saunders, who’s typically cast in films and television crime dramas as the sober sidekick (he most recently played the lovelorn neighbor lusting after Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road), pulls out all the stops to play the red-faced, alcohol-sodden Toby, a barrel-chested, grizzled companion to the slight, very fey and befuddled Hamish Linklater as Aguecheek.

Anne Hathaway and Hamish Linklater (foreground) (photo by Jane Marcus)

Linklater performs the most captivating, hilarious version of the hapless suitor of any of the productions I saw this year. In London, Aguecheek’s comedy came mostly from his height—he was a long string bean of an actor who towered over Belch and the others. In the McCarter production, he was played as slightly fey, as well as ridiculous. But here, Linklater perfectly embodies both the character’s physical timidity (despite his sometimes blustery words) and his emotional and intellectual inadequacies, nearly bringing down the house with his delivery and his physical comedy. Just watching him too carefully hook his lank blond hair over his ears provoked laughter, so nicely calibrated and comic were his gestures.

Julie White, as Maria, brought the proceedings a 21st century comic perspective, as each of her line readings and actions seemed of the moment, which only amplified the comedy in the Belch/Aguecheek scenes. Michael Cumpsty dignified the dour Malvolio with his resonant voice and pompous posturing. He affected an appropriately wounded exit after his imprisonment, but his anger didn’t dint the good humor of this production.

This Twelfth Night boasted enough music and lyrics to be a quasi-musical, which the cast sang beautifully. Audra MacDonald’s voice was wasted as Olivia, but Hathaway, who proved her mettle in the impromptu/staged improv with Hugh Jackman at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, showed off a lovely soprano, and seemed as comfortable singing as she was acting. Esparza offered her a stalwart duet partner.

David Pittu, playing a very wry, quick witted, rather understated Feste (which I appreciated, since the character, pushed too far, as he was in the McCarter production, can be tiresome), produced a commanding tenor for his many solos. A band of violin, guitar, Irish Flutes, smallpipes, whistles, and percussion, played by period-costumed musicians who gamely acted as part of the show, accompanied the actors with music composed for the production.

The final song is an ode to performance itself, regardless of what the elements bring. The lyrics about the wind and the rain prompted laughter from the audience, as it drizzled throughout the show on the night I attended (7/11/09). While the real thunderstorms came later that evening, and didn’t delay the production, the actors and the audience commiserated in our mutual dampness. As she ran offstage after the rousing and enthusiastic curtain call, Hathaway flung her arms into the air with the rest of the cast, all of them hooting and hollering, weather be damned, as irrepressible at the end as they were throughout this wonderful production.

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nurse Jackie

Merritt Wever, Janie Kelly, Edie Falco

This new Showtime series stars Edie Falco as a wry, knowing, harried emergency room nurse. The show offers a terrific vehicle for the versatile actor, as a well-written, smart and funny situation-based character study that takes advantage of Falco’s intelligent, restrained emotional presence and her quirky humor. Unlike network doctor dramas like ER, women characters propel Nurse Jackie’s narratives. Jackie begins each episode with a brief voice-over remark, and then the story continues from her perspective.

Jackie’s best friend at work is Dr. Eleanor O’Hara (Eve Best), an elegant Brit whose arrogance is matched by her intelligence and wit. The upstairs/downstairs aspect of their friendship provides lots of comic fuel—O’Hara often refers casually to how much she spent on various items of clothing, from her $1,200 scarf to her almost as expensive silk stockings. Jackie and her bar-owning husband clearly pinch pennies to make it through their week. Jackie rolls her eyes at her friend’s profligacy, but her indulgence of O’Hara’s class idiosyncrasies emphasizes their bond as women in a professional environment skewed to favor men.

Pompous and powerful male doctors are represented here by Dr. “Coop” Cooper (Peter Facinelli), an Ivy League grad who struts into the ER with a blimp-size ego that Jackie promptly deflates when Coop’s misdiagnosis—against Jackie’s instincts—causes a young patient’s death. After the first few episodes, Jackie’s frequent corrections seem to be bringing Coop into line; he’s cultivating his human side and considering his patients’ emotional needs. In a recent episode he lavished rather sweet attention on an elderly woman on one of her regular trips to the ER from a nursing home. Coop adjusts her wig and compliments her vanity while writing her scrips, even though when she soon expires, he’s out by the nurses’ station boasting of how skillfully he handled his first gunshot wound patient a few curtains down.

Facinelli plays Coop with a dollop of humility and lots of magnanimity, although even he seems uncomfortable with the character’s odd, unconscious tendency to grab women’s breasts when he’s anxious (a completely gratuitous quirk that says more about the producers’ anxiety about the women characters’ strength than Coop’s). This week’s episode revealed that Coop is the son of lesbian parents (deliciously played by Swoozie Kurtz and Blythe Danner), a plot twist that also particularizes and humanizes a character who could be a too stereotypically thoughtless and self-involved heel. O’Hara, in fact, looks at Coop differently once she realizes he has two mothers; the information makes him more than a run-of-the-mill, ambitious male doc.

Nurse Jackie draws all of Jackie’s relationships with men in refreshing, slightly off-beat ways. She’s married to a sweet guy who cares for their two young daughters while he runs the bar they own in Queens. But at work, Jackie removes her wedding band, closets her family life, and carries on a regular sexual liaison with the hospital’s pharmacist, Eddie (Paul Schulze). He not only services her physically (with Jackie always literally on top) but keeps her stocked in the painkillers that make long days of walking hard floors possible. Jackie’s back seems seriously compromised, but the painkillers come with an addiction problem. She snorts Percocet and other opiates in doses small enough to let her function, but regularly enough that her drug use has to become an issue down the narrative line.

Jackie’s secrets, though, keep the character complicated. She never slides into the self-abnegating golden-hearted-but-gruff nurse stereotype that lurks just around the corner of this story. So far, the show avoids that pitfall, gilding Jackie’s essential goodness with enough sardonic cynicism to keep her from being a simple saint. Her first-year student nurse, Zoey (Merritt Wever), offers her a useful foil, as Zoey delivers the platitudes about wanting to help people that drives some idealistic young women and men into nursing in the first place.

Put up against Jackie’s unsentimental pragmatism, Zoey’s enthusiasm plays as funny but not quite ridiculous. The character could easily be the butt of facile jokes—Zoey is a bit chunky, not conventionally beautiful, and too open and cuddly for what proves the ER’s more cut-throat environment. But instead, she gets her own sharp edges. Wever’s loose physicality gives Zoey embodied, character-driven humor; for instance, when O’Hara blithely walks off with Zoey’s new stethoscope, the young nurse’s attempts to retrieve it provide Wever with moments of stuttering explanation and stealthy borrowings that show off Zoey’s agency and nascent power, instead of belittling her as inept.

Mo-Mo (Haaz Sleiman), Jackie’s nursing colleague, unfortunately bears the burden of race and sexuality in the narrative, a load too heavy for any one actor to carry easily. Sleiman’s features are ethnically ambiguous (his character’s full name is Mohammed de la Cruz), allowing him fill the “colored” slot in the character list, and his slightly fey, gentle presence and willingness to give Zoey fashion advice betray his gayness. Although his easy relationship with Jackie gives Sleiman and Falco some nice moments, so far, Mo-Mo represents still another gay person of color serving the development of the far more centralized white characters, a narrative strategy we could by now all do without.

On the other hand, Anna Deveare Smith makes regular appearances as Mrs. Akalitus, a nurse-turned-hospital administrator now charged with guarding the bottom line. The character is a hard-assed factotum, but Smith brings her, too, subtle off-beat humor. When she borrows what she thinks is a packet of Jackie’s sugar, and unknowingly gets high on the painkillers Jackie has ground up and put into the packet instead, Smith’s performance as the suddenly high and goofy administrator is priceless.

In another episode, Akalitus finds a taser gun lying in the corridor. After she shouts with anger to no one in particular about how irresponsible it is to leave such things lying around, she gets on an elevator and prompting stuns herself with the gun. Her electrified pratfall is hilarious. Watching Smith, who usually plays the steely, powerful, alpha female roles in films and television shows, play a comic character role makes me admire her acting even more.

Many terrific New York-based actors play the ER’s patients and visitors, offering keenly observed turns as the sick and dying and their families. The situations into which they’re written, however, are often predictable and run to stereotypes. For example, in Episode #3, Lynn Cohen is on hand as an elderly Jewish woman who tends to her dying husband’s heart disease with chicken soup. Their scenes are saccharine and lachrymose, their Jewish accents wearying echoes of vaudeville sketches about Jews and their magic ministrations that should be put to rest soon.

Likewise, the Latina mother whose son’s lung collapsed in a playground accident speaks with a thick accent, and her other son is excessively emotionally expressive; the elderly white woman who’s regularly delivered to the ER from her nursing home is vain about her appearance; the tourists from the Mid-West are white, middle-class, and heterosexual, and apologize for everything (even though the woman turns out to be an opium addict, offering a neat mirror for Jackie’s developing habit); and an international diplomat savagely murders a prostitute but can’t be touched, thanks to his legislated immunity. Jackie navigates these characters and their issues deftly, always looking out for the well-deserving underdog and wreaking what vengeance she can on the powerful and evil. But they still remain vehicles in which to drive her character, rather than truly interesting people of their own.

Nurse Jackie swivels from wistful and wry to parodic and satirical fairly quickly. For instance, when Jackie and her husband Kevin attend a meeting at their daughter Grace’s school, the teacher, the school psychologist, and the school nurse are played in high farce and shot from camera angles that make them appear large and confrontational to the prosaic, confused Jackie and Kevin. But the small family’s scenes at home are wistfully realist, as the girls cuddle with Kevin on their parents’ bed watching television while they wait for Jackie to come home at night. The combination of exaggerated and earnest works, as Nurse Jackie’s sharp humor oscillates between its poignant observations about the proximity of death to life and its insights about how we navigate all those moments in between.

The Feminist Spectator