Seen at the Movies:

Perhaps for some, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ provides a profound spiritual experience, as it painstakingly details the agony Jesus went through in the final 12 hours of his life. Gibson seems to feel, as do a number of viewers, that by concentrating on the physical effects of scourging, limb dislocation, and nails piercing flesh, that the sacrifice at the root of Christianity is made palpable, made unforgettably visceral. I was initially compelled by the use of subtitled Aramaic and (ahistorical) Latin, and my Baptist Sunday school upbringing always gives me a measure of curiosity about how this familiar story will be played out. But I found the experience of watching the film to be progressively numbing, so that by the end I felt completely abstracted from the spectacle of torture. Any sort of emotional reaction was unthinkable, except a desire to get outside for some fresh air.

I won’t weigh in on the controversy over Passion’s purported anti-Semitism; that discussion is more knowledgeably conducted elsewhere. I will say, however, that Gibson’s failure or refusal to supply a historical context to the squabbling between the Romans and the Jewish high priests over Jesus’ fate can lead you to draw any conclusions you may wish. That old 60s chestnut King of Kings provided far more in the way of political background. Above all, I think, Gibson, who co-wrote the script with Benedict Fitzgerald and entirely funded the $30 million film out of his own pocket, is making a horror film, filled with borderline-trashy satanic apparitions, slow-motion violence, rattling percussion, and such non-Biblical touches as a raven plucking an eye from one of the crucified thieves flanking Jesus on Golgotha. DP Caleb Deschanel certainly proves himself a master of light and shadow in the movie, but the cited visual inspiration of Caravaggio seems a bit lofty—Caravaggio by way of Hammer, perhaps.

The Passion of the Christ. Photo: Phillippe Antonello/Icon Distribution Inc.

Production designer Francesco Frigeri recreated ancient Jerusalem on the Cinecitta backlot in Rome, and at the rocky, 2,000-year-old nearby town of Matera. The sets, which are rarely revealed in much scope (Gibson prefers to keep the camera focused on close-in shots of wounds and dripping blood), seem a bit generic, but not distractingly so. Maurizio Millenotti’s costumes for Caiaphas and the other priests have the rough, somewhat ragged look of authentic fabrics, although the soldiers who arrest Jesus in Gethsemane at the beginning of the film appear to have gotten their wardrobe from an opera touring production. The utmost care was apparently lavished on the makeup effects, credited to Keith VanderLaan and Greg Cannom. VanderLaan reportedly did quite a bit of research into the anatomy of crucifixion, but the most baroque effects are saved for Jesus’ lashing by the Romans with spiked cat-o-nine-tails whips. What a role for lead actor Jim Caviezel! A few lines of dialogue in Aramaic, a few brief flashbacks to pre-martyrdom days, and the rest of the time serving as a canvas for the reduction of a human being to hamburger. The Passion of the Christ may or may not damage Gibson’s career, but it sure as hell won’t do much for Caviezel’s.--John Calhoun

Seen in Brooklyn: Pericles is not one of William Shakespeare’s most often-performed plays, but it was recently seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a rather interesting production. Directed by Bartlett Sher, Pericles marked the BAM debut of Theatre for a New Audience, an itinerant theatre company based in New York City. The production was what I call modern-classicism, that is to say the overall feeling is of a “ period” that is not exactly the present, yet not bogged down in heavy, historical accuracy. All the more interesting, with touches of Peter Brook and Ariane Mnouchkine – but not too derivative. The scenery and lighting by Christopher Akerlind had to work hard to help indicate the numerous Mediterranean and Asian locales, as well as moments on land and at sea, as Pericles is thrown from shore to shore. The pre-set featured an open stage with a blue floor, and a bright blue band of neon running horizontally along the upstage wall (representing the horizon?) with a solo cellist in a pool of light, and low-intensity blue light from the overhead rig. Other musical instruments were set in the side boxes. As the action begins and the young prince Pericles hopes to win the hand of a beautiful young princess, a pipe flies in with death masks of those who had failed to solve the riddle her father demanded be solved to win her in marriage. A pair of long curtains in a pale green move in various configurations throughout as the scenes change and each new location is indicated by furniture and props. Large bamboo poles serve as masts when Pericles and his men take to the high seas. The costumes were designed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, with the men in long coats (some reversible as the actors play multiple roles) worn over trousers and shirts. The color palette ranges from princely gold and white to dark blues and black. Thaisa, the beautiful princess that wins Pericles’ heart (played by Linda Powell, Colin Powell’s daughter) appears in a striking red gown. Four knights who joust to win her love are dressed as jesters with brightly colored costumes and funny pointed caps. And actress Brenda Wehle, who very convincingly alternates between the aged male narrator and a nurse to Pericles’ daughter, wears a long blue robe and skullcap. The sound design and musical score, by Peter John Sill added to underscored the narrative. Many of the audience members (myself included) admitted to never having seen Pericles performed before. This production was a perfect “first” with a clarity in the design and direction that helped make a difficult play all the easier to enjoy. —Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Pericles at BAM. Photo: Richard Termine

Seen in Manhattan: Playwright Charles Mee might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the recent production of his play, Wintertime was designed and directed in an attempt to create a comedy, well okay, a black comedy. Produced by Manhattan’s Second Stage Theatre in a transfer from The McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, where it was seen on their main stage last fall, Wintertime lives up to the coldness of its title. Yet the Act One set by Andrew Liberman is truly hilarious. To begin with it is totally white with the outdoor landscape of faux snow covering the indoor landscape of a country house. The entire set is encased in three walls of faux fur — white of course — and the furniture is all white. It’s like being inside a snow globe of a ski house with white birch trees on the lawn. Tiny white footlights illuminate the snowflakes. The actors arrive through the snow, on foot, on snowshoes, through traps in the set, popping up in a rapid succession of “what are you doing here” as a mother, father, and son, with their various lovers, all arrive for New Year’s Eve, assuming the house will be empty. Costume designer David Zinn started with the basics: underwear that is, as everyone eventually strips to a wild assortment of boxer shorts, briefs, bustiers, and brassieres. Kevin Adams designed the lighting, which has some special moments of its own, including shifts in color and intensity when the action shifts from the skewed reality of the play to operatic numbers that underscore the emotions of the actors at that moment. The light also shifts to pink as one actor (Micheal Ceveris, who steals the show as a French lover) performs a rather odd striptease wearing a women’s pink, fur-trimmed peignoir. Don’t ask. Unfortunately, things take a more serious turn in Act Two that is performed in front of black curtains that mask the white winter wonderland, and the actors sit stiffly on a row of silver chairs. Once the punch line of the play is revealed, Mee attempts to return to the gaiety of the first act, but it is too late. The audience has stopped laughing in the realization that underneath this black humor is a rather serious look at friendship, freedom, and fidelity, not to mention love and jealousy. A tall order for a somewhat slight play. —ELG

Charles Mee's Wintertime

Seen On Broadway: The souvenir shops that hawk theatre memorabilia should consider printing up T-shirts reading “I Survived Drowning Crow.” Reports of audience members streaming out of the Biltmore Theatre at intermission are, I can attest, quite true. I stayed largely out of sympathy for the actors, stuck in a dreary-bad, rather than a fun-bad, flop till April; from the stage, the theatre, pockmarked with numerous empty seats, must look like a largely devoured corn cob with just a few stray kernels left.

The bedraggled Drowning Crow, which relocates The Seagull to the Gullah Islands off the coast of contemporary South Carolina, begins with Constantine Trip, a tormented performance artist, rising from a chalk outline drawn on a raised platform. No such luck, however, for much else about playwright Regina Taylor’s pillaging of Chekhov, though the fumbled evening is likely to remind viewers of a crime scene. As the other characters, with their romantic and spiritual ills, are messily introduced—a synopsis is provided to help the terminally baffled—C-Trip (Anthony Mackie) tries, haltingly, to get a hip-hop play off the ground.

Why do we know that C-Trip is a nakedly honest, angry young man of the theatre? Because he tells us so, over and over and over again, exhibiting a disease of repetition that is the one thing he has in common with his rival, esteemed writer Robert Alexander Trigor (Peter Francis James), who’s lost in the gilded ghetto of the UPN network. [Their only other commonality, as you may have guessed, is their awkward rap-generation names]. For good measure C-Trip also savages the state of the contemporary theater, represented by his loved and hated mother, the preening actress Josephine Nicholas Ark (Alfre Woodard, in an ill-fitting dramatic debut on Broadway). This is an unwise move on Taylor’s part, as a) no ticket holder wants to be lectured to, and b) well-intentioned but maddeningly inane plays like Drowning Crow are the problem and not the solution. The bare outline of Chekhov’s plot can be discerned as Drowning Crow wanders off into long and pointless sequences where the characters sing “Mona Lisa” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” while stomping and shimmying, interspersed with confused romances and, yes, more speechifying (unleavened by wit, save for a few stray howlers like “I’m gonna tear out this love…tear it out by its nappy roots.”). When the soul-searching of Trigorin—whoops, Trigor—reached a hurricane level of chatter, you could hear the Playbills thudding to the floor as weary audience members slumped over in their chairs, comatose or, quite possibly, dead.

“Those words; they’re turds,” Josephine says of C-Trip’s half-baked play-within-the-play, which alas encapsulates the whole of Drowning Crow. That said, director Marion McClinton fares better with the design of the piece than with its concepts. C-Trip’s fevered imaginings occasionally spill out into spectacularly vivid video segments designed by Wendall K. Harrington, a relief from the surrounding tedium. These play across spare, Chekhovian setpieces created by David Gallo, given texture by the adroit lighting of Ken Billington. The costumes by Paul Tazewell address the gulf of generations: Rapper attire for C-Trip and his friends, more classically southern wear for the Gullah group, and bosom-hugging ensembles for Woodard, vain and vampy for a change but constrained by the dialogue and situations.

Drowning Crow at the Biltmore. Photo: Joan Marcus

The designers are constantly bailing out the play from its limp ideas. Take the typically silly scene where C-Trip, having failed to commit suicide with a bullet to his head, is willed back into consciousness by the local gospel-singing shaman, Jackie (Ebony Jo-Ann). This reads unpromisingly. But it takes place behind a scrim, on which Harrington’s oceanic projections ripple and cascade. C-Trip, bathed in blood-red light, slowly revives, as a thunderous Dan Moses Schreier soundscape swells. This one moving moment in the play belongs to the designers, though they’re still prey to the overall incoherence. Toward the play’s end Gallo unveils a stunning plantation house set for the increasingly unbalanced C-Trip, entirely painted black (even the books and the fireplace) and covered in stark white graffiti. Like the video segments it’s a better representation of his fragile psyche than any of Taylor’s verbiage…but why would his friends and family gather in such a haunted, despairing place for an evening of Bingo? An even greater mystery: Why has the Manhattan Theatre Club restored the Biltmore to its present loveliness for tenants as unworthy as The Violet Hour and Drowning Crow? — Robert Cashill