Seen on Broadway: Dance of Death
. The world has not been clamoring for a revival of August Strindberg's bilious marital drama, but it has been revived as a vehicle for Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. Director Sean Mathias clearly sees the play as a kind of 19th-century version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he directs his cast to play for laughs which aren't there. The result is a rather lengthy, wearying evening, although, at the performance I attended, there were plenty of bravos from the stars' many fans.
The physical production is one for the books: Santo Loquasto has come up with a scary lighthouse that teeters over a rocky island landscape. Everything on stage is atilt, creating a sense of dread and upheaval. His approach is more than matched by Natasha Katz's Expressionist lighting design, which uses burst of saturated color and creepy sidelight to underline the intensity of many scenes. Dan Moses Schreier's parade of sound effects, including music, foghorns, and the sinister clatter of a telegraph, is used to add to the mood of dread. (Loquasto also designed the costumes, which are quite good). It's an approach that has been criticized by many reviewers who thought the play's intimacy was somewhat compromised. Still, Mathias clearly sees the play as a kind of opera without music and has asked for a grandly scaled production. Thanks to a very favorable review by Ben Brantley in The New York Times, August Strindberg is a hit on Broadway, for probably the first time ever.
Seen at BAM: Chunky Move. Perhaps an odd name for a dance company, but this energetic group from Australia was an entry in BAM’s Next Wave Down Under series this fall. They presented two pieces, Crumpled and Corrupted 2. In Crumpled, the action took place behind and in front of the curtain, with a dance floor on the stage looking much like a boxing ring. I found the fact that the curtain kept going up and down both frustrating and intriguing: did the highly physical action continue behind the curtain? The lighting by Margie Medlin primarily used one large source, an Altman 4kW HMI fresnel, as backlight on the mat, as well as small footlights to light the dancers in front of the curtain when it fell.
More interesting design-wise was the second piece, Corrupted 2, with lighting by Damien Cooper. “The intent is all about digital media breaking down and pixilated,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s also about how the body breaks, falls, and rolls.” The piece opens with a very visual solo; one female dancer dressed in a pair of bikini bottoms only, with video bathing her body with images, changing the color and texture of her skin. The action then shifts to a large video screen, spinning onstage like a large kite. Cooper’s harsh lighting used the 4kW HMI. “We fired the lamp to create an effect,” he says. “It warms up across the dancers to create an intense three-quarter backlight.”
In creating almost monochromatic black-and-white images (with the break-up video and static on the soundtrack, one felt almost trapped inside an old black-and-white TV with a bad picture tube), Cooper used Lee 200, 201, 202, and open white as a very narrow color range. “These are basic, or 'natural' colors that create a daylight tinge,” he explains. “I use them as extremes.” The footlights are a warmer light, with 500W QI lamps (garden floods) in open white. “There are only 40 lights in the rig,” Cooper adds, indicating the division into warm front, medium-cool side, and cooler back, with the cold HMI slicing through. The video screen is lit with 1kW fresnels without lenses. “They create a large shadow of the screen on the stage,” he notes. “These are simple, durable concepts. I see it in black and white, like an old time movie and think we get pretty close to that.”
Cooper lit The Theft of Sita, a puppet drama also on the BAM menu, as well. (See the LD story on this at www.lighting dimensions.com.) Here he uses homemade fixtures he calls Sauce One and Sauce One-H (a nod to the Source Four) that are hand-held sauce pans with 250W projector lamps. The Sauce One-H lights are held by the puppeteers as personal followspots for the puppets. Cooper is currently touring with the Sita production, with London and Belfast next on the agenda. Coming up on his schedule are a new piece for the Sydney Dance Company and a new Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet.
Seen Off Broadway: Metamorphoses. Second Stage Theatre kicked off its 23rd season with the New York premiere of Metamorphoses, and it is a play that should not be missed. Written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, who brought the production from the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, where it was originally produced in 1998, Metamorphoses is based on the myths of Ovid, and the title says it all: it is about change and the transforming power of love, themes especially timely given the state of the nation. Zimmerman’s play has many deft touches of humor that makes the myths very accessible with love and loss, redemption and rebirth, myths that inform our modern life. Most importantly, to our readers anyway, this is a show where all of the collaborators were in the same room at the same time; the production team did any excellent job of integrating the scenic, lighting, costumes, and sound elements into one seamless environment. This team has worked with Zimmerman before and since, and it shows in the rich production values on view here.
The scenic design by Daniel Ostling is reminiscent of paintings by Magritte and the dream state they evoke. The dominant feature of the set is a 27' wide pool of varying depths with a walkway on all four sides. The action takes place in and around the pool (more often in.) It was used to great effect, not only to evoke a very ethereal location for the myths to inhabit, but also to represent elements of the stories, ranging from the sea, to a pool, to food, to a passionate bed. The front row of seats at Second Stage had towels folded neatly over them before the performance; I think ponchos may have been better suited, and definitely for the first four rows.
Another well-incorporated scenic element was literally a "patch" of clouds and sky that gave lighting designer TJ Gerckens the ability to move time throughout the piece. The lighting, which was quite beautiful and worked well in interaction with the water as well as the actors, never failed to help shape the space while maintaining the flowing and ever-shifting locations. The costumes by Mara Blumenfeld ranged from ancient to modern and helped to define the characters. The richness of the fabrics and the style worked well, since more often than not they were soaking wet. The crew must be given credit, since many of the actors make what seem like fast changes and need to come back on again dry. The sound design by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, in combination with Will Schwarz’s score, melded with the lighting, costumes, and scenery in shaping the ethereal world of Metamorphoses. The sound underscored the stories and myths, helping to define the transitions and settings. Overall the outstanding production values, along with Mary Zimmerman’s vision, helped to give the audience an enthralling and unique theatrical experience.
Seen at the Movies: The Clang of the Ripper. There's graphic gore, some really good squalor, and an unsatisfying Masonic conspiracy plot twist in From Hell, the Hughes Brothers' latest movie. This one's about Jack the Ripper and stars Johnny Depp, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, and the impossibly dewy and luscious Heather Graham.
Martin Childs' production design is, well, killer (see John Calhoun's story about it in Entertainment Design October, available at www.entertainmentdesignmag.com). The notorious Whitechapel neighborhood, where the Ripper stalked his prostitute victims in 1888, was recreated in a Czech field; the opulent homes and offices of the upper-class characters (including Queen Victoria) were recreated in six Czech castles, as was the police morgue. Director of photography Peter Deming says he watched Once Upon a Time in America, Oliver!, and Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula for creative inspiration, adding that he liked Dracula's mix of hard and soft lighting. The look of From Hell occasionally echoes shots in Dracula, especially the drug-addled scenes where Depp's character chases the dragon and has visions.
Millennium Effects of London provided the makeup effects; a team of 12 artists and craftsmen, headed by makeup effects supervisor Steve Painter, created prosthetic dummies for each of the victims. Silicon body casts of the actresses were measured and molded in Millennium's shop, then designed and dressed; the team worked for nine weeks applying hair, teeth, eyes, and the required wounds to the dummies. Costume designer Kym Barrett researched clothing of the period, including the rarely seen garb of working-class Londoners. The prostitutes only own one dress each, accessorized with hats and jewelry. Barrett and her staff made duplicates of the victims' costumes because they are so violently victimized in the film.
While the movie was enjoyable in parts and certainly kept my interest (despite the implausible beauty and cleanliness of purported street ragamuffin prostie Heather Graham) I wanted to hunt down the entire sound crew and kill them--loudly. The effects are bombastically loud; absolutely nobody in the film makes a quiet entrance, even when stealthily tailing a victim or creeping down an alleyway. The splooshing of guts and blood and thwack-thwack of a lobotomist's hammer are beyond grotesque. I found the volume level of the effects and the jarring music excessive and unnecessary. Take earplugs to the theatre.
Seen on Other Screens: The decline and fall of cinema as we know it. Not really—it's just another ho-hum week for movie releases. The Last Castle mixes prison-picture formula with flag-waving militarism and comes up with something thoroughly routine, despite the powerhouse cast (Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Delroy Lindo). Shelly Johnson's camerawork and Kirk M. Petruccelli's production design get the job done, and little more…In Riding in Cars With Boys, Drew Barrymore ages none too convincingly from 15 to 36, while director Penny Marshall's struggles with ambitious material suggest a cook who throws too many things in a pot, slams on the cover, and hopes for the best. Cynthia Flynt and Bill Groom are responsible for the rather fussy period costumes and production design, and DP Miroslav Ondricek works in his customary gloomy range: nothing sparkles in the film, which may be an appropriate choice. The movie is still worth seeing for the bravura performance of Steve Zahn, who plays Drew's well meaning but ill-suited husband…The oddest release of the week has to be Focus, based on a little-known Arthur Miller novel from the 1940s. In this directorial debut by noted photographer Neal Slavin, William H. Macy and Laura Dern play two New York Gentiles who are mistaken for Jews, with potentially dire results. Cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia lends this dark fable an effectively noirish look, though production designer Vlasta Svoboda only semi-successfully faces the all-too-familiar challenge of subbing New York locations in Toronto.
But if you really want to see a worthwhile film, look for the documentary The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition at a theatre near you. This tale of failure and survival against the odds has been told often, but director George Butler had the inspiration to retrace the British explorer's 1914 route, and combine the expedition photographer Franke Hurley's silent black-and-white footage with thrilling new images of the same places, courtesy DP Sandi Sissel. Liam Neeson narrates.
Heard from the Left Coast: A hundred million miracles. For many musical theatre fans, Flower Drum Song has long been one of the great guilty pleasures, with a beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein score tied to a rather outdated (if thoroughly professional) book. (Sample joke: A character on the phone to the grocery says, "Send over some 1,000-year-old eggs--and make sure they're fresh.") For some, the lavish, nutty film version is a perpetual must-see, every time AMC runs it yet again. But because the show's book about some romantic mix-ups and generational misunderstandings in a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco is so creaky, Flower Drum Song has rarely been revived. Now, a new version, with an entirely new book by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) has opened at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, to reviews that range from good to sensational. Hwang has apparently done the impossible, wrapping a whole new story around an existing score. (Two songs, "The Other Generation" and "Sunday," have been dropped and two obscure R&H numbers have been added.) As Mike Phillips wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the show is "a raffishly entertaining response to the 1958 original." The design team includes Robin Wagner (scenery), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Brian Nason (lighting), and Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen (sound). Expect further engagements and a Broadway production in the fall of 2002…Big news from the American Society of Cinematographers: the 83-year-old organization has announced plans to build a museum, screening room, and conference area in a campus-like setting in Hollywood, on the current site of the ASC Clubhouse. New offices for the ASC staff and American Cinematographer Magazine will be part of the complex, which is being designed by the Malibu architectural firm Goldman and Firth. The project's $8 million cost, which includes a new endowment fund for young filmmakers, has already been partly covered by donations from Eastman Kodak Company, Panavision, and Technicolor. Current membership of the ASC numbers 235 cinematographers; Victor J. Kemper is president of the organization.