Seen in London:
What a week! It started Tuesday, June 18, with The People Are Friendly, a rare comedy at The Royal Court, in its delightfully renovated downstairs theatre. Written by Michael Wynne, the play examines the problems encountered in an English family when one of the daughters (who has become quite posh in London) moves back to her hometown. The action takes place in a large living room where the walls have been stripped of their old wallpaper but haven’t yet been repainted. The set, designed by John Stephenson, provides an interesting canvas for Peter Mumford’s lighting, which “paints” the walls with sun, afternoon shadows, and the rosy glow of sunset.
Wednesday was the start of a three-night musical marathon, led off by Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium. Based on the film of the same name, which was in turn adapted from the Ian Fleming novel, this tons-o'-fun musical is directed by Adrian Noble, with quite whimsical sets and costumes by Anthony Ward, invigorating sound design by Autograph Sound's Andrew Bruce (the recent recipient of the ABTT Lifetime Achievement Award), and lighting by Mark Henderson. But the real star of the show is the flying car, and I’ll be darned if the thing doesn’t actually seem to fly, thanks to the work of Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd., Dellstar, and Stage Technologies. It’s a magical piece of stagecraft and high-tech design worth seeing!
Thursday was Bombay Dreams, the new eye-catching production based on the dreams of a young actor who becomes a star in the Bollywood film industry. Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and directed by Steven Pimlott, with sets and costumes by Mark Thompson, sound by Mick Potter, and Technicolor lighting by Hugh Vanstone, this mega-musical is pulling in new audiences from the East Indian community of London. With songs like “Shakalaka Baby,” which the reviewers say have chart-topping possibilities, how can you go wrong?
Friday was the day of We Will Rock You, and I assure you the audience didn’t know when to scream the loudest. First, there are 30 hits by the rock band Queen (co-creators of this futurist musical written by Ben Elton that takes place in a world where live music has been banned, and it takes the dreams of rebel bohemians to bring it back). The innovative production design, lighting, and video are by Mark Fisher and Willie Williams (in true rock-and-roll style with video like you’ve never seen before), loud but clear sound design by Bobby Aitken, and quite wild costumes by Tim Goodchild. When a replica of the Tottenham Court Road Underground Station (which in reality is somewhere under the theatre) rises on stage, the SRO crowd goes wild. If Hair was the tribal rock musical for 1967, We Will Rock You fits that bill for 2002.
Saturday was a double bill of plays at the Royal National Theatre: in the afternoon, Vincent in Brixton; in the evening, A Prayer for Owen Meany, adapted from the novel of the same name by John Irving. Vincent has sets by the ever-talented Tim Hatley, and lighting once again by Peter Mumford; several New York producers were spotted in the audience, so it may be crossing the pond sometime soon. Owen Meany is a bit long, and at times bogs down in the text, but the staging by director Mick Gordon is very interesting and almost avant-garde in style; production designer Dick Bird and sound designer Neil Alexander give the play a contemporary veneer. The lighting by Neil Austin (an up-and-coming talent on the London scene) is quite beautiful, with large squares of color covering the stage like lawns and carpets, or isolated pools of light for the narrator. From intimate family dramas to ear-splitting rock songs, this was certainly the week that was!—Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Seen Off Broadway: Rash statement: Rosemary Harris may be the best living stage actress. Exhibit A: her current appearance at the Roundabout Theatre in Edward Albee’s All Over. As a bonus, Michael Learned matches Harris every step of the way. The ladies are cast as the wife (Harris) and mistress (Learned) of a wealthy, dying man; others at the deathwatch include his daughter and son, business partner, and family physician and nurse. It’s a prime Albee situation, as these scarred but eminently well-spoken creatures ruminate, reminisce, and lacerate each other with enviable precision. The way Harris and Learned circle around each other, totally polite and brutally honest, is something to see. A Broadway flop in 1971, All Over is prime Albee—cool, elegant, fascinating. The rest of the cast is equally fine, except for Myra Carter, whose bizarre line readings as the Nurse are jarringly out of place. Thomas Lynch’s townhouse setting is superbly appointed—Lynch has become the man to get when you want a ritzy, tasteful New York interior. Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costumes and Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting are both understated yet revealing of character and mood. All Over, like much of Albee, may be a matter of taste, but if you like your drama slightly bitter and very adult, it is highly recommended.
Endpapers, at the Variety Arts Theatre, is about a war of succession in a small independent book publishing house. The author, Thomas McCormack, is a former CEO at St. Martin’s Press and an admirer of old-fashioned virtues (honesty, kindness, good literature) in the face of rampant, money-grubbing capitalism. Unfortunately, he's also an admirer of old-fashioned dramaturgy, as practiced in the early 20th century. The first, exposition-loaded act, lays out the basic situation--the house’s owner is dying, and a new leader must be appointed. Will it be the literary-minded editor, brimming with integrity, or the huckster with an M.A. in literature who turns out tomes like picture books of theatre stars, with commentary by Meryl Streep? (It’s a measure of McCormack’s naiveté that this latter project is meant to represent a) a sure-fire best seller, and b) the depths of commercial degradation.) Things get worse in the second act, with the addition to the plot of a black-clad, sunglasses-sporting, narcissistic movie star (what a new idea!) and a temperamental novelist who swishes like Truman Capote. It’s all talk all the time, and none of it very fresh. The actors look awkward and I don’t blame them. Anyway, there’s a clever scenic/lighting concept. Neil Patel has designed an entire floor of the publishing house, sans walls, with Rui Rita’s lighting precisely carving out each playing area. Amela Baksic’s costumes lean a little too far in the direction of caricature. Ken Travis’ sound design is limited to pleasant incidental music. But I would have rather been at home—with a good book.—David Barbour
Seen at the Movies: Mr. Deeds is this week's highest profile film release, but being equally allergic to Adam Sandler vehicles and Frank Capra remakes, I'm avoiding it. Instead, I'd recommend two new American independent films: John Sayles' Sunshine State, and Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing. Neither is particularly notable from a design or cinematography point of view, but both offer the pleasures of performance and thematic complexity.
I've never been a big fan of Sayles as a director, and Sunshine State, a panoramic survey of twin, racially divided Florida beach communities, provides evidence of his shortcomings. There are several groupings of characters, black and white, and of various social classes, but there is little interaction between them; further, the individual stories aren't woven together in a shapely fashion, but just presented in a plodding, one-scene-after-another manner. The film's crowded canvas isn't arranged with the supple hand of Altman at his best. Yet it's stimulating to witness the unfolding of a movie that attempts to cover—rather like a Frederick Wiseman documentary—the broad spectrum of its subject. And the cast, particularly on the female side, is possibly the best to ever grace a Sayles movie. Jane Alexander and Mary Alice are contrastingly scattered and commanding matriarchal figures, and Mary Steenburgen is comically touching as the commissioner's wife, who is flummoxed in her attempts to work up enthusiasm for local "Buccaneer Days." Angela Bassett gives a customarily strong performance as Mary Alice's prodigal daughter, and the divine Edie Falco adopts Florida speech patterns and casual wardrobe, and makes you forget all about Carmela Soprano. The cinematography, by Patrick Cady, is serviceable enough to convey the nearly oppressive feel of Florida sunshine; Mark Ricker's production design makes good use of the Amelia Island locations.
Lovely and Amazing is even more dominated by its female characters, who comprise a family of recognizably messed up Los Angelenos. Brenda Blethyn plays the mother, a well off matron whose liposuction surgery, and ensuing complications, provides the backdrop and catalyst for crises in the lives of eldest daughter Catherine Keener, miserable over her dulled-out marriage and lack of direction; younger daughter Emily Mortimer, a painfully insecure actress; and adopted daughter Raven Goodwin, an African-American eight-year-old struggling with a weight problem and feelings of difference. Though ostensibly a comedy, Lovely and Amazing takes a fairly brutal look at issues of body image, professional anxiety, and race; it's a much darker work than Holofcener's 1996 Walking and Talking, which also starred the incomparably brittle Keener. It's shot by Harlan Bosmajian in 24fps high-definition, a format that seems perfectly suited to the filmmaker's clear-eyed approach.—John Calhoun
Seen at the movies: Took a trip on the way-back machine to see Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, featuring that entertainment chameleon David Bowie in concert circa 1973 at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. The movie has been digitally remastered for better sound; that’s as good an excuse as any to rerelease this D.A. Pennebaker classic. Add to that the fact that the original album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars celebrated its 30th anniversary June 6—yes, I’m afraid it has been that long—and Bowie’s climbing the charts again with his new release Heathen, AND the Museum of Television and Radio is running a retrospective of Bowie’s work at both its New York and LA branches.
There’s something innocent and charming about the concert now, though my companion recalled how daring and outré Bowie’s outfits and alter ego seemed at the time The concert lighting, by London’s See Factor, was laughably basic and minimal, sticking almost exclusively to red and magenta (and white). The guitar god grimaces of Mick Ronson and impeccable makeup and costumes of consummate show-androgyne Bowie still impressed. It was hard not to sing along or clap after each song, and I left the theatre convinced that director Todd Haynes had examined every frame of Ziggy as research for his 1998 glam rock film Velvet Goldmine.—Liz French