Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sam Mendes & the Transatlantic Style

Why did Sam Mendes choose The Cherry Orchard to debut his transatlantic theater company? Maybe I'm being too literal-minded, but I think he should've contrasted Shakespeare with an American playwright. The mission of “The Bridge Project” (a title that lacks poetry and wit) was born out of Mendes wish “for artists, collaborators, and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to experience one another's work, talent, and artistry…”

So why program a Russian drama – it's neutral ground?
That doesn't seem likely. For one thing, Mendes partners the greatest Russian dramatist with the greatest English one, running The Cherry Orchard in repertory with Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. For another, this Cherry Orchard has British candences, care of adaptor Tom Stoppard. Also, the project was inspired by Mendes' double-bill of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night at BAM back in '02; his program note admits that he's trying to recreate that experience. And probably Mendes picked The Cherry Orchard just because he wanted to direct it.

Okay, the two shows are well-matched. Both are plays of life's middle age, in which an aging generation hopes that their failures can be repaired by the vivacity of the one that's coming of age.* They've got several substantial roles for a sizable company of British thesps and American actors. But you could argue the same about Angels in America, which echoes The Winter's Tale by bringing a statue to life (Central Park's Bethesda Fountain).

I love the idea of “The Bridge Project,” which is why I'm so frustrated. London, New York, and LA have cross-pollinated performers to such an extent that there's not much difference between American and British styles of acting. It would be great to have a high-profile, high-calibre company that explores the ramifications of a hybrid style together for a season or three. American actors, directors, writers, designers working with their British counterparts to discover an Atlantic Style. That's what Mendes claims he wants to do. But he's really just created a company of actors that'll put on whatever work he wants to direct.

* I'll note here that Mendes Cherry Orchard fails on many levels, one of which is casting 48-year-old Simon Russell Beale as the youngish hustler Trofimov. Together they give him a crush on Ranevskaya (60-year-old Sinead Cusack), against the script, where he shyly adores Varya (25-year-old Rebecca Hall).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dollhouse: 1.1

Lady Hotspur (AKA Nicole) & I finally watched the pilot of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. I found it a mixed bag but with some potentially compelling ideas (she didn't like it; generally, she's more critical than me). The basic scenario -- Echo (Eliza Dushku) is a blank slate who can be hired & imprinted with specific skills -- offers Whedon & company a lot of opportunities to tell done-in-one episodes while exploring themes of identity, experience, and memory in the long-term.

Whedon is probably my favorite TV creator, mainly due to a sympathy of dramaturgy and temperament. He's an intelligent, liberal artist who tackles social and political issues in a dramatic (rather than discursive) fashion. He's interested in how characters change and what they change into. He's unearths the flaws to narrative conclusions, building momentum and complexity. Among his strengths of craft: he writes character-driven dialogue, he elicites good performances, he creatively mingles disparate genres.

So I'm dismayed to note how bad the craft of the Dollhouse pilot was. The dialogue sounded like posturing badinage rather than warm speech; the actors look underprepped and a little confused about their roles; the tone looks and sounds terribly serious despite being pretty silly sci-fi. It's generally unfair to evaluate a show based on the pilot: the writers need time to find the characters' voices, build the world and develop themes, and generally warm up.

But it doesn't auger well that the pilot episode runs into an obvious pitfall: if the episode's standalone story doesn't hook your interest, you'll be stuck waiting for a scene involving the super-scenario (or you shut the TV off). In Episode 1.1 (AKA “Ghost”), Echo gets hired out as a negotiator (a la Jodie Foster's fixer in Inside Man) who botches a hostage/ransom exchange. Whedon gives it a melodramatic twist: Echo's imprinted personality recognizes one of the kidnappers, and believes he'd molested her as a child. This raises the stakes in a hysterical fashion (though after all, we're watching Fox) and involves a ludicrous coincidence. It's lurid and it distracts from the strange corporate conspiracy that exploits Echo.

And really, that's where my interest lies. The setting (essentially a corporate conspiracy) offers potential for the fleshing out of dynamic power relationships as they butt against moral quandaries. This episode hinges on Echo's handler (Harry Lennox) arguing altruism against the corporate mission. Lennox brings gravity to a pretty silly episode, and I expect he'll ground the show when Echo's a blank slate.

Which leads us to the concept's biggest hazard: If Echo has a different personality and situation every week (except when she has no personality at all), she'll be a hard protagonist to invest in on any level except an abstract one. Her larger role is a victim of her circumstances; it's hard to see how she'll change without the concept changing radically as well. I'm also not sure that Dushku can pull off the range that Whedon and the other writers will require of her on a weekly basis.

I reiterate my warning about evaluating a show based on its pilot. None of Whedon's pilots were especially strong, and all three shows needed time to find their voices (Angel took a leisurely half-season just to get started). I'm patient and, with BSG winding down, I've got no other shows to follow. And I'm apparently faithful to Whedon to a fault. I'll stick with Dollhouse and report back to you.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mourning Becomes Electra

I caught the New Group's production of Mourning Becomes Electra last night, & I'll have a review up on Metromix tomorrow. For now, you can read my review of CSC's Uncle Vanya. You'll read me focusing on Maggie Gyllenhaal & her partner Peter Sarsgaard. Well, that's what gets the page-hits. And tomorrow's review of Mourning will also be frothier than I'd like. So here's a few thoughts about Eugene O'Neill's play.

One thing I enjoy about O'Neill is that he defined American drama as intrinsically experimental. Okay, the man's final works (esp. the great Long Day's Journey… & Iceman Cometh) are dramatically conservative. And arguably a lot of his experiments fail (see the '28 Pulitzer-winner Strange Interlude – or rather, don't). But he was always testing new dramatic forms and ideas. He gives me the impression of a man on a quest: “How can I make a truly American tragedy?” Even if he doesn't meet that goal in Mourning (first performed in 1931), what he does succeed at is thrilling.

This may be a great play because of its failures as well as despite them. In Mourning, O'Neill cribs from Greek tragedy, setting Aeschylus's Oresteia in Reconstruction-era New England. An adulterous matriarch murders her husband; in turn she's driven to suicide by her children Orin (who's plagued by a guilty conscience) and Lavinia (who isn't). O'Neill fills that Greek plot out with then-fashionable Freudianism. So when the play sees Orin expressing his desire to fuck Lavinia, it's painfully broad but so heady and fun!

Still, I admire what O'Neill's doing: appropriating Freud's theories to bring his characters as fully to life as he possibly can. I can almost see him striving to make these characters as deep, complex, and contradictory as real humans are. And to his credit, he eventually does. The first 150 minutes are exposition, exploration, and experiment. But slowly, the siblings break away from O'Neill and become autonomous. Not coincidentally, it's around the same time that the action frees itself from the Greek plot (there's no deus ex machina to protect this Orestes).

By the final part (Mourning is a three-part drama of five acts each!), Lavinia is a gorgon, driving first her mother then her brother to suicide, and beginning to corrupt her fiance too. She's a great role, due to this strange power. At her core is an ambiguous experience she has after their parents' deaths. Visiting a South Sea island with Orin, she witnessed an aboriginal ceremony. She later offers a few versions of what happened, including a claim, immediately disavowed, that she screwed one of the natives. She says that the event, whatever it was, emancipated her psyche, a statement that Orin (and, I think, O'Neill) believes and is horrified by. Whatever the actress makes of that moment is the key to her character.

Lavinia is O'Neill's major artistic success in Mourning Becomes Electra. Orin also has his moments though. He's a febrile worm at the mercy of his mother and sister, a bit of reductive Freudianism. But when Orin gets talking about his military service, sounding like a shell-shocked WW1 doughboy, he ironically comes to life. Over his father's bier, he describes his nightmare on the battlefield:

There was a thick mist and it was so still you could hear the fog seeping into the ground. I met a Reb crawling toward our lines. His face drifted out of the mist toward mine. I shortened my sword and let him have the point under the ear. He stared at me with an idiotic look as if he'd sat on a tack--and his eyes dimmed and went out … Before I'd gotten back I had to kill another in the same way. It was like murdering the same man twice. I had a queer feeling that war meant murdering the same man over and over, and that in the end I would discover the man was myself! Their faces keep coming back in dreams—and they change to Father's face—or to mine.

There's more neurosis in that speech than any of the Freudian schema that O'Neill grafts onto Greek tragedy.

But as I said, Mourning Becomes Electra is a failure as a tragedy. O'Neill is too pessimistic to find transcendence through suffering. To him, suffering, like death, is a curse. Lavinia and her mother are villains who deserve their fates; Orin and his father are their victims. And when you see the universe as rigidly moral like that, you're writing a melodrama. That's no knock on O'Neill though: it's great melodrama.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

007: Diamonds are Forever

Either Fleming is stuck in a rut or I am. Diamonds are Forever, The fourth novel in the 007 series, hews to the dull formula that the third (Moonraker) avoided. Bond scouts out his mission, flashes back to his interview with M, infiltrates the villain's organization, meets the girl, etc. As with Live & Let Die, the job is a treasure hunt (diamond smugglers) rather than actual espionage. But the targets aren't Russian spies, they're the American mafia. Why MI6 would infiltrate the Cosa Nostra is never quite justified.

Nor does Fleming bother to give these villains depth. These are yeggs right out of central casting, grimacing goombas in loud suits. I get the sense that Fleming spoke with a contact in the FBI, but that he only used what confirmed his stereotypes. The previous 007 books had memorable baddies, but this one has no flair (despite his taste for Nudie suits).

Then there's Bond himself: he is a terrible, terrible spy. He can't keep a low profile, palling around with a known Pinkerton agent (recurring character Felix Leiter). And, bored after a week on the case, he stirs up trouble that gets a G-man killed, himself tortured, & the girl raped. Oof. And then there's the girl, a streetwise American named "Tiffany Case". She's frigid until Bond melts her with his tough, forceful love. I haven't even mentioned the pair of homosexual hit men. My god, this is conservative writing!

And yet, it's not bad writing. It barrels along like a train. Bond, despite it all, is somehow compelling. Partly he's such a cad & partly he's authentically smart (except when he isn't). And Fleming's getting better as a writer: previous novels have had one or two nice set-pieces that kindle the imagination (gambling scenes, usually). Here, there are several good ones, most notably an apocalyptic climax that has Bond derailing a steam locomotive in the desert.

There's pleasure in Fleming's series -- in its tight, confident style and, yes, in the reactionary satisfaction of righteous violence -- but it diminishes with each return. And while I'm enjoying 007, I find the racism, the sexism, & most of all, the sadism kind of disgusting. But my greatest disappointment is that 007 isn't actually a spy. I'm crossing my fingers that From Russia with Love has bona fide espionage. I've already got that novel, so I'll read one last insane, violent, thuggish adventure. Then I'll stick with the kineticism of the flicks.

Diamonds are Forever
date: 1956
writer: Ian Fleming

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Personal update

I've got a lot to write about, but unfortunately, my computer's in the shop for repairs. It's frustrating, cuz I'm up around p. 300 in Infinite Jest, but my blogging languishes back around p. 100. Isaac has yet another superb overview on Parabasis, while Infinite Aaron #1 continues to post close-ups on the novel.

I'm also cooking a post on flicks I've seen in the last month, many of which are up for Oscars (some more deserving of attention than others). I want to write a quick entry on The Savage Detectives, which I also just finished. And to get my nerd on, I've got thoughts on Battlestar: Galactica & a few crime comics I just started (Scalped and Criminal).

But most importantly, my journalism continues at Metromix NY, where I cover theater. This week,
an interview with Lili Taylor & Jena Malone, the stars of Mourning Becomes Electra. I've also started posting drama news on their blog, which keeps me out of trouble.

But till my computer returns home, all that'll have to wait. Till then, have fun without me!