Friday, December 2, 2016

Theater Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus,’ Presented by the Red Bull Theater Co.

Coriolanus is not one of the more extensively performed tragedies of William Shakespeare. Not only is its hero highly problematic, but his blunt speech is nothing like the poetic, philosophizing tone of Richard II or Hamlet. There isn’t even a mesmerizing villain like Iago in Othello.

Nevertheless, the Red Bull Theater Co.., if it hasn’t presented here a play for all ages and places, has certainly found one with resonance for 21st century. Its production of Coriolanus, which closed a week and a half ago at the Off-Broadway Barrow Street Theater, offers, in the Roman Republic, a scenario that has sounded awfully familiar this past year: income inequality, civil disorder, charges of treason, and a neophyte political candidate with abundant ill-advised words and precious little self-awareness.

Attending a performance only a week and a half after the Presidential election, as rumblings (and not a few mumblings) occurred about the Electoral College, I confess to being almost jolted out of my seat by the following passage from the Roman tribune Sicinius Velutus: “Let them assemble,/And on a safer judgment all revoke/Your ignorant election.”

But, just in case the audience still didn’t notice the contemporary application of all of this, director Michael Sexton uses present-day props: a ballot box that is smashed, and a candidate for high office who wears a red hat.

That candidate is Caius Martius, a Roman general who, after his victory over his country’s longtime foes, the Volscians, is given a new honorific—Coriolanus—and the assurance that he will have the inside track on the republic’s highest title: consul.

Dion Johnstone exudes, in equal measure, the vigor that leads men to follow him anywhere in battle and the contempt that leaves him hopelessly unmoored when he is persuaded to try to transfer that charisma to a political environment marked by pandering and manipulation. This soldier is as out of his element in a civilian atmosphere as another one of Shakespeare’s commanders: Othello.

Stephen Spinella and Merritt Janson imbued Sicinius and fellow tribune Junius Brutus with cunning and cowardice. (Their fear was something to behold when Coriolanus, turned on by the citizens that once hailed him, goes over to the once-loathed Volscians in an attempt to destroy the republic.) As one of their adversaries in the Roman Senate, Patrick Page deftly handled the role of Menenius, an old political hand who watches the rabble he once steered now overturn hi work of a lifetime.

Though Coriolanus is set in the testosterone-fueled worlds of politics and the military, actresses appear to particular good advantage in this production—not only because the casting is as often gender- as well as race-neutral, but also the female cast members bring to the surface the enormous dignity of their characters. Chief among them are Rebecca S’Manga Frank as Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia (a grave), and Lisa Harrow as his mother, Volumnia, who precipitates her son’s tragic death by reaching a deep reserve of mercy that only a parent can touch.

Over the past several years, I’ve come to rely on the Red Bull troupe for throwing a searchlight on the contemporary world with its productions of Jacobean theater. (See my reviews of Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling.) In those plays, such subjects as greed and sexual power relationships came in for sharp treatments that did not stint on the plays’ complications. Now, with the Bard, it took on something of unexpected relevance in this election year: a caustic would-be plutocratic leader interacting with the lower classes.

Joke of the Day (Lewis Black, on Why the 21st Century is ‘Not What It Was Cracked Up To Be’)

 “[The 21st century is] just not what it was cracked up to be. I would have liked to see us control the weather as opposed to being able to make a phone call without having a cord.” —Comedian Lewis Black quoted in Alex V. Cipolle, “Behold Old Yeller,” Eugene (Ore.) Weekly, October 23, 2014

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Quote of the Day (John Gregory Dunne, on the Screenwriter-Director Pecking Order)

“Once you accept the idea that says because you get paid $200,000 to write a script and the director gets $500,000 to direct it, he's $300,000 smarter than you are, then Hollywood becomes a very amusing place to work.”— Hollywood screenwriter/novelist John Gregory Dunne (1932-2003), “Tinsel,” in Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne (2006)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

This Day in Film History (Natalie Wood in Drowning Death)

Nov. 30, 1981— After a frantic search, the body of actress Natalie Wood was found early in the morning, near Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, hours after a night of drinking and quarreling with husband Robert Wagner aboard his yacht.

That much is known and admitted, not only by Wagner but by the subject of his quarrel with his wife, Christopher Walken, her co-star in Brainstorm. A subsequent investigation determined that, after the fight, she had attempted to board the boat’s dinghy. What has become a bone of contention in the years since is how and why Wood came to be there when she had a lifelong fear of deep water.

Coroner Thomas Noguchi issued a report labeling Wood’s death an accident, with Wagner not held responsible. Three years ago, however, after recent news reports raised questions about how much the couple had fought and the nature of Wood’s injuries, the cause of death was changed to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” citing bruises that occurred before Wood entered the water.

Why has this tragedy continued to resonate over the years? It’s not just the elements of scandal—the rumored infidelity and murder—that cling to the event. Nor is it because of a promising career gone before it had barely begun, as with James Dean, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger.

I think Wood continues to fascinate people because she represented touchstones for people’s lives. Millions had watched her as a little girl in Miracle on 34th Street. They had seen her as a teen in Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass, sharing the struggles of adolescence with the boy she loved. They had witnessed her negotiate the terms of lifelong commitment to another human being in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. In short, they had watched her grow up, passing through the stages of life as they had done.

What they didn’t realize was that, like many of them, she was passing through another stage of life as well: being regarded as obsolescent—old—by the industry for which she worked. From all appearances, Wood remained as vibrant and glamorous as ever, as attested to by the photo accompanying this post, a still from Brainstorm. But Hollywood, even more back then than now, was cruel to aging actresses.

The last significant role Wood had played—adulterous soldier’s wife Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity—had been two years before. As Nancy Collins noted in a Newsweek article five years ago, Wood had turned 43 in the same month that she had lost a role she desperately desired: the lead in Sophie’s Choice. It could not have escaped her notice that the actress who won the coveted (and ultimately Oscar-winning) part, Meryl Streep, was a full decade younger.

Wood, then, was at her most vulnerable when she began to act with Walken, caught up in the excitement of interacting with a Method-trained actor. Wagner admitted in his memoir Pieces of My Heart to suspicions that his wife might be carrying on “an emotional affair.” He was hardly delighted, then, when Wood invited the younger Walken aboard their boat. While Walken prudently walked away to avoid becoming caught up in the couple's fight, Wood and Wagner continued to argue until just before midnight, when she was reported to have gone up to the captain's cabin to sleep. Wagner reported her missing about an hour and a half later.

Last weekend, I saw Wagner appear on TCM with stepdaughter Natasha in a daylong tribute to Wood. He talked easily and happily about his wife's pride in making Inside Daisy Clover and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Then he mentioned the film that would conclude the tribute: Brainstorm.

With Brainstorm on well after midnight, I wasn’t able to see how Wagner dealt with this awkward topic. Beyond mentioning that it was her last film, how could he have freely discussed why she had died during filming? How could he say that her death caused such a mess, involving the studio and the insurance company, that it would be two years before it was released? How could he tell viewers that the fight that occurred during filming had left young Natasha without her mother?

The name of the couple's luxury yacht, Splendour, referred, of course, to one of Wood's signature roles. But given the circumstances surrounding her death and how much it has haunted those who knew her, it might more aptly have been called the Misery.

Quote of the Day (Penelope Fitzgerald, on ‘Wishing for What Can’t Be’)

“Time given for wishing for what can’t be is not only spent, but wasted, and for all that waste we shall be accountable.” —British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), The Blue Flower (1997)