Seen in Brooklyn:

Okay folks, this is it! The definitive Medea of our generation. I never need to see another actress in this tragic Greek role: Fiona Shaw has said it all. Directed by Deborah Warner, with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Jacqueline Durran, lighting by Michael Gunning, sound by David Meschter, and a soundscape by Mel Mercier, this production hails from The Abbey Theatre in Dublin by way of The Queen's Theatre in London's West End. It has now filled Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre in a hair-raising, goose-bump kind of evening. Performed on an open set punctuated with piles of cinder blocks and a square pool of water in the center of the stage, this Medea is stripped back to basics.

"There are no legs or borders, no traditional theatre masking," explains Chris Buckley, production manager for Medea. The back wall is masonry, 32' high and up to 72' feet wide, with a glass wall in front, and a double set of doors. The glass is 1/2" tempered storefront glass, with 11 panels each weighing 400 lbs. The wall is also self-supporting, with massive floor fittings that came over from England, although the glass was bought in the States. "Luckily it all fit together," says Buckley. "Once holes are drilled in glass like this, that's it." There are also frosted insets and windows. Metal grating around the pool is lit from a trap below, and a staircase downstage left is also lit from below, as if the hellishness of Medea's murderous mind lurks there. The lighting relies heavily on sidelight, with several Strand 5kW fresnels adding strong backlight and light over the pool, which has to be emptied every night after the bloody plot sullies the waters. The costumes indicate the contemporary period of the action; by pulling the play into modern times, I think it frees the actors from the trappings of the past and allows them to give Euripides a freshness. This Medea is certainly not the kind of woman to stand by her man, especially when betrayal is in the air. Needless to say, Shaw earns a standing ovation for her performance, and BAM should also be applauded for bringing this kind of championship theatre across the pond.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen at Lincoln Center: The winding down of the New York Film Festival. It closes Sunday with Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her, a distinctly inferior offering from the Spanish director that seems to be mostly about necrophilia. Midway through, there is an extended, very skilled simulation of a black and white silent film titled "Shrinking Lover." DP Javier Aguirresarobe pulls out the stops here, shooting strictly with a tripod, with framing and lighting that follows the rules circa 1924 as closely as possible. Kudos also to production designer Antxon Gomez and the special effects team, who come up with an unmentionable setpiece.

Last weekend's Festival Centerpiece, the bizarre Paul Thomas Anderson confection Punch-Drunk Love, is definitely a matter of taste, but I like its sweet and bitter flavoring. The off-center romantic comedy, which opens in select theatres today and expands next week, stars Adam Sandler as a borderline-unstable young man who is plagued by the meddling of seven sisters and the vengefulness of a phone-sex worker. He finds solace in the frequent-flyer opportunities offered by pudding purchases, and in the arms of lovely Emily Watson.

Anderson says that this unclassifiable film is inspired by Hollywood musicals ranging from the Astaire-Rogers Carefree to the Technicolored MGM extravaganzas of the 1940s and 50s. Punch-Drunk Love is not a musical, but it is graced by the director's virtuoso camera moves, his contrapuntal editing rhythms, and a surreally stylized color palette. Following Anderson's lead, the work of DP Robert Elswit, production designer William Arnold, and costume designer Mark Bridges harmonizes beautifully. Sandler, whose persona has never seemed more appealing (or disturbing) than here, wears a bright-blue suit throughout, while Watson is dressed in nicely contrasting warm colors. The widescreen frame finds something magical in the mundane San Fernando locations—most notably, a brightly lit supermarket whose multihued products seem to have been arranged by a Pop Artist. When the action shifts to Oahu, the movie and its imagery shift into high-romantic mode. For some viewers, the most problematic aspect of the movie will be Jon Brion's harshly percussive score, which sometimes drowns out the dialogue in blasts of John Cage-style noise. And then, just when you think the soundtrack can't get any weirder, up pops Shelley Duvall's rendition of "He Needs Me" from the movie Popeye to provide the oddly perfect accompaniment to the central love story.

Among other festival entries, Tian Zhuangzhuang's Springtime in a Small Town--a remake of a 1940s Chinese classic—plays as standard melodrama given a classy patina by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing and production/costume designer Tim Yip Kam-tim, both of whom won Oscars for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon…Abderrahmane Sissako's Waiting for Happiness chronicles the uneventful life in a Mauritanian seaside village; it may try some viewers' patience, but I adjusted to the film's pace and impressionistic style. Jacques Besse's cinematography is vibrant…A single talking head is all there is to Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer's documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary, but it's enough. For 90 minutes, the remorseful title figure, who has died since filming, remembers her former boss, describes the final days in the bunker, and marvels at the workings of fate and ignorance that landed her in a position she has lived to regret. Fascinating.--John Calhoun


Springtime in a Small Town

Seen on Other Screens: White Oleander, Peter Kosminsky's starry movie version of the Oprah-endorsed Janet Fitch novel, strikes me as a fairly pointless feel-bad affair. But the acting is spectacular: newcomer Alison Lohman, a 23-year-old playing a decade younger, is the quietly impressive center around which such raging and self-destructing luminaries as Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Zellweger, and Robin Wright Penn turn. You've never seen Pfeiffer, playing a monster mom, put her blue-eyed luminosity to such terrifying use. Elliot Davis' cinematography and Donald Graham Burt's production design are both top-notch, and costume designer Susie De Santo does a good job charting Lohman's search for identity.--JC

Seen Off Broadway: The Exonerated, now playing at 45 Bleecker, is the latest example of a reader’s theatre format applied to a current issue. Just as Anne Nelson’s The Guys deals with the events of September 11th, this production is taken from the testimonies of six convicted murderers, all of whom were later acquitted. This is a riveting piece of documentary theatre that presents a most disturbing view of our justice system, with coercion, suppressed evidence, and botched executions as the main exhibits. Some of the characters are victims of race and class but by no means all—you leave the theatre convinced that these horrors could happen to anyone. The entire cast, including Richard Dreyfuss, is first-rate, but Jill Clayburgh is riveting as a woman who spent 16 years on death row yet never gave in to bitterness or hate. The only notable design aspect is David Robbins’ sound, which is a mixture of amplification and effects (gun shots, jail cells closing shut), and is very well done indeed.

The World Over, at Playwrights Horizons, is something rare Off Broadway—a full-blown fantasy, set in a universe of imaginary worlds. The protagonist, Adam, is a castaway who searches for the lost kingdom where, he believes, he is a prince. Along the way, he grapples with incestuous sultans, infanticidal gryphons, beauteous maidens, floods, wars, plagues, madmen, and warring royalty. Author Keith Bunin has apparently been subsisting on a diet of Candide, The Merchant of Venice, Turandot, Bulfinch’s Golden Age of Myth and Legend, and the complete works of Joseph Campbell, and this is result—an endless winding tangle of plot that never seems to make any apprehensible point. Two hours in, you may very well feel that you’ve wandered the world over. The production is first-class: Mark Wendland’s two-level box is filled with wonders, including ships, wagons, buildings, maps, wings, and other magical props. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes comprise a tour-de-force of styles and periods, ranging from gorgeous Orientalia to caveman drag to Elizabethan finery. Michael Chybowski’s crystalline, tastefully colored lighting, and David Van Tieghem’s haunting music and sound effects are also major plus factors. The cast is exceptionally game as well (at my performance, leading man Justin Kirk was replaced by understudy Brian Sgambati, who gave a remarkably confident performance). Nevertheless, The World Over never seems to be anything more than a bedtime story for children who can’t sleep, a wandering trail of narrative that never comes to a satisfying end.


The World Over

Little Ham is now famous as the victim of New York Times critic Bruce Weber’s fickle judgments. Weber saw this musical, based on a Langston Hughes play, last year in an Off Off Broadway production, and loved it, comparing it to Guys and Dolls. When it opened two weeks ago in a commercial production at the John Houseman Theatre, his enthusiasm had cooled. It’s hard to see what excited him originally. Aside from Judd Woldin’s bouncy jazz score, this tale, about a Harlem numbers runner who turns the tables on his bosses, is a long night of amateur theatrics. Standing out among the show’s many problems are its meandering, unfunny book, desperately high-pitched direction, and often shrill performances. On the design side, only Bernard Grenier’s costumes are worth noting—they’re a sassy, Technicolor collection of early 1930s outfits, and are amazingly detailed right down to the last button and bow. Grenier’s outfits for Brenda Braxton’s character, Sugar Lou Bird (a kind of diva-in-training) are particularly riotous; picking up on the character’s last name, he dresses her in an outrageous procession of feathers and furs.--David Barbour

Heard in London: Mark Major, principal of the architectural lighting firm Speirs and Major (the London branch of the UK Lighting Architects Group) reports that his company has moved to new offices at: 11-15 Emerald Street, London, WC1N 3QL, England UK. New telephone: +44 (0)20 7067 4700. New fax: +44 (0)20 7067 4701. Email: sm@lightarch.com. Hats off to Lighting Architects Group for their recent sweep of the UK's 2002 national Lighting Design Awards (they took home three out of six awards), including best bridge lighting for the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, best workplace lighting for the IBM E-Business Center in London, and best lighting in the retail and leisure category for the Magna Science Adventure Center in South Yorkshire, England. The awards ceremony was held at the Park Lane Hotel in London, where Major and partner Jonathan Speirs expressed delight at their "hat trick."--ELG

Seen on TV: I have to admit that catching up with this season's new shows has not been a top priority, though I've waded (and occasionally fast-forwarded) through a few. On Fox Fridays, Joss Whedon's Firefly (see ED October) is a cheeky space opera with a refreshingly grungy design by Carey Meyer, handsome cinematography courtesy David Boyd, and not-too-cheesy effects supervised by Loni Peristere. The episode I saw didn't exactly captivate one's attention, however…NBC's highly touted American Dreams, airing Sunday nights, has the clever gimmick of intercutting circa-1963 American Bandstand footage with recreations. The period design (uncredited in the reviews and on the website, though DP Brian Reynolds' name is prominently featured) is pretty good for TV, but the storyline is hackneyed the-times-they-are-a-changin' stuff…Two back-to-back ABC sitcoms, Life with Bonnie and Less Than Perfect, are supposed to be bright spots on the fall schedule, but the latter in particular struck me as laughlessly lame.

The CBS movie Gleason, starring Everybody Loves Raymond's Brad Garrett as the Great One, has an interesting design angle. Because Garrett is 6'8" (and Jackie Gleason was a mere 5'11"), doorways on the set were built more than a foot taller than usual, and the other actors wore 7" heels. The Montreal-based production was designed by Jean-Baptiste Tard and photographed by Neil Roach. It airs Sunday, Oct. 13 at 9pm EST.--JC

Medea photo: courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music

Punch-Drunk Love photo 1: Bruce Birmelin/Columbia Pictures

Punch-Drunk Love photo 2: Peter Sorel/Columbia Pictures

Springtime in a Small Town photo: courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center

The World Over photo: Joan Marcus