Seen at the Movies:

Under the Tuscan Sun

, filmmaker Audrey Wells’ re-imagining of Frances Mayes’ best-selling memoir, has a lot of things going for it, including the naturally beautiful Tuscan locations and the equally natural beauty of star Diane Lane. But all in all, it’s a pretty dopey movie. The book is a relatively undramatic tale of Mayes and her husband taking over a dilapidated Tuscan villa and refurbishing it—not exactly the stuff of eventful Hollywood cinema. Wells, who wrote as well as directed, had the perfectly legitimate notion of making the Frances character a heartbroken recent divorcee whose sojourn in Tuscany serves as a revival. The problem is that the particulars of this new scenario are so familiar, from the dreamy Italian lover (Raoul Bova) who doesn’t live up to his romantic promise, to the free-spirited older British expatriate (Lindsay Duncan) who poses, fully clothed, in the local fountain à la La Dolce Vita. Throw in some kooky Polish workmen and Frances’ eventual TV-made revelation that friends and community are all the family you need, and Under the Tuscan Sun’s squandering of two hours of your time (however scenically) is complete.

Diane Lane looks for love in Under the Tuscan Sun
Photo: Franco Biciocchi/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Though the film is sluggishly paced and overlong, it does boast a handsome production. DP Geoffrey Simpson catches the Tuscan light artfully, and production designer Stephen McCabe makes excellent use of the villa location, conveying both the challenge and the eventual fulfillment of promise it provides for Frances. Costume designer Nicoletta Ercole dresses Lane in a couple of knockout outfits towards the end, a simple Grace Kelly-ish belted white dress, and a beautiful moiré fabric in a similar cut. Lane’s emotional transparency and unadorned attractiveness are what kept me watching the movie, and in her scenes with Vincent Riotta, playing the realtor who helps Frances secure the house, something of substance seems to be going on. But the mood passes.

The elegant Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun
Photo: Franco Biciocchi/Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

I’m not making an original observation when I say that Canadian director Émile Gaudreault’s Mambo Italiano could be retitled My Big Fat Italian Gay Wedding. Luke Kirby plays the shy, closeted son of boisterous Italian immigrants Paul Sorvino and Claudia Ferri, and Peter Miller is the hunky, even more closeted boyfriend. Lots of shouting and tears and ethnic jokes ensue. It’s based on a play, a fact that the director and DP Serge Ladouceur do little to disguise.--John Calhoun

Seen in Manhattan: The Phantom Project at The Kitchen, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, was an evening full of ghosts and memories. Bill T. Jones served as narrator for a slice of his own life, talking about the early years when he and his then partner, Arnie Zane, started their company, moved to New York City from Binghamton, and over the years became a major force on the dance scene. Zane, who passed away from AIDS in 1988, was part of the performance thanks to early videos of their collaborations. The early dances were performed by Jones and the fabulous dancers of the company, with Zane's memory a poignant reminder of the past.

Catherine Cabeen in Floating The Tongue
Photo courtesy of The Kitchen

The decor by Bjorn G. Amelan included a red stage with a white dance floor and a white wall that served as a projection screen for the films. At times, a yellow wall appeared behind the white one, adding depth, color, and another geometric plane to the set. The chairs at The Kitchen were also covered in white fabric, creating a soft environment. Costumes by Liz Prince consisted primarily of navy blue leotards, tights, and tops, while the lighting by Robert Wierzel moved from a monochrome environment in keeping with the black-and-white movies to total shifts of color as the back wall and floor were bathed in an ethereal green, then yellow, and blue during a solo piece, Floating The Tongue performed by Catherine Cabeen. Jones opened the evening by showing some slides in a magic lantern that sat on a stool at the edge of the stage. The evening I was there began with a TV dinner upstairs at The Kitchen with a panel discussion and more old videos, setting the stage and creating a perfect segue into the performance.--Ellen Lampert Gréaux

New York City Opera opened this fall's season with a new production of Handel's Alcina. Directed by Francesco Zambello, with sets by Neil Patel, making his NYCO debut, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and lighting by Mark McCullough, this production adds a modern feel to an opera that premiered in 1735. Set on an island ruled by the ruthless Alcina, who turns her spurned lovers into rocks, trees, and beasts, the opera tells the story of Bradamante, who comes looking for her lover, Ruggiero, who has left her for Alcina. Of course, it's opera--so Bradamante is a woman disguised as a man, looking for Ruggiero, who is a man, but sung by a woman in a trouser role.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

The sets have scrims and walls of light stone or brick that break apart to reveal the jungle where the beasts are held prisoner. Alcina's rooms are elegant, with a metallic wall and silver sofa embraced by a transparent archway with classical columns inside. At one point, the top of the arch fills with smoke (the smoke machines cleverly hidden in the columns, one assumes) and red light. There is also a stream running across the front edge of the stage. The look is period-cum-postmodern. The costumes are also based in the period but are not heavily authentic. Bradamante wears a handsome brown brocade coat and boots when dressed as a man, yet appears in a simple, long yellow dress when she comes back as herself (well, they are about to trample through the forest toward a waiting ship, so she wouldn't want to be too overdressed).

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Alcina's prisoners are dancers dressed as trees with shaggy leggings, bodices, and an assortment of branch-like gloves they shed when they are freed. McCullough's lighting adds layers of colors to the production, from purple light bathing the dancers to a cold blue for Alcina. The Handel canon has been very successful for NYCO and this production is another hit in the series. --ELG

Seen Off Broadway: The Signature Theatre, which devotes an entire season to the work of a single artist, has this year chosen the clown Bill Irwin, which means we can look forward to many nights of laughter between now and May. The season opener, The Harlequin Studies, begins as a lecture on the history of this archetypal clown figure, with Irwin and his longtime colleague Doug Skinner offering a riotously deadpan parody of academic fatuity. The lecture morphs into a series of brief sketches involving Harlequin, topped by a 45-minute playlet in which Harlequin (Irwin) tries to steal a young woman away from his superannuated employer. The fiftysomething Irwin has said that this season is his farewell to clowning, but, to my eyes, his skills are gloriously intact — including the legs that spin like helicopter rotors and the face that can move in two directions at once. If anything, he has refined his style, earning laughs with the simplest of gestures. Whether he’s vanishing into a trunk, delicately romancing a coat rack, or whipping up a glass of wine at a moment’s notice, he’s a pure delight.

The delightful Bill Irwin as Harlequin in The Harlequin Studies
Photo: Carol Rosegg.

For this outing, he has found some amusing playmates, including Paxton Whitehead, putting his plummy, mid-Atlantic vowels and supercilious manner to good use as Harlequin’s elderly, lecherous master; Rocco Sisto, whose sinister profile and melodramatic delivery make him an ideal villain, and Marin Ireland as the spunky heroine, who has no intention of being sold into marriage (she is also exceptionally game about being repeatedly stuffed into a suitcase). The design is simple, yet elegant, including Douglas Stein’s arrangement of structural beams and curtains and Catherine Zuber’s flamboyantly rendered costumes. James Vermeulen’s lighting is distinguished by its sunny clarity. (Brett Jarvis is listed as sound designer, although, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what he did; the production doesn’t appear to be amplified, and any sound effects are, I believe, created by one of the production’s musicians). The real news, however, is that Bill Irwin is back; even at a short 75 minutes, The Harlequin Studies is a pleasure.

Cellophane, the dictionary tell us, consists of “regenerated cellulose in thin transparent sheets.” There’s nothing transparent, however, about Mac Wellman’s Cellophane, now at the Flea Theatre. For 90 minutes, a battery of skilled young actors pop up out of the audience and speak in a disjointed theatrical language that puts the English language to thoroughly opaque use (“Brang dog to what is to who. Now for instance can you see the whichway likemost?” goes one crystalline passage). The notes by director Jim Simpson claim that the text “captures emotional terrain unfamiliar to typical theatrical geography.” I can certainly vouch that I felt lost, without a map, completely off the grid. Still, you have to admire the verve, commitment, and sheer tonal variety that the Flea’s resident acting company, The Bats, brings to this syntactic goulash. Anyway, Kyle Chepulis’ setting scatters the audience around the Flea’s downstairs space, which gives the piece an easy informality. He’s also provided as a set piece one of those light-up waterfall paintings that you can find in some of the seedier Times Square tourist shops—although, if you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you why. His lighting also deftly shifts the focus from speaker to speaker. This is a relatively early Wellman piece (it was his first collaboration with Simpson and Chepulis back in the 80s), and it may be that his fans will more easily admire its shapely yet indefinite contours; I found it less like cellophane and more like polished stone—smooth, yet impenetrable.--David Barbour

Seen in LA: The Los Angeles Opera’s premiere of Nicholas and Alexandra received generally poor reviews, and it is easy to see why. Deborah Drattell’s score is at times almost monotonously gloomy. Nicholas von Hoffman’s episodic libretto, tracing the marriage of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the fall of Imperial Russia, includes an absolute bust of an orgy scene, in which a bunch of aroused Moscow matrons gather around the lascivious monk Rasputin in a manner suggesting a pre-Revolutionary Tupperware party. Anne Bogart’s mannered staging seems devoted to seeing how many performers can stand at 45-degree angles for minutes at a time. Still, there are many gripping scenes and Drattell’s music, rooted in the melancholy chords of Russian liturgical music, can be very powerful. Furthermore, the production benefits from three supercharged star performances: Rodney Gilfrey brings tremendous dignity and anguish to the role of the doomed tsar, while Nancy Gustafson turns the empress Alexandra into a compelling figure of suffering. The production is nearly stolen, however, by Placido Domingo, who tears into the juicy role of Rasputin with almost unholy glee; when one or more of these three stars are occupying the stage, Nicholas and Alexandra is a very gripping opera indeed.

Nicholas and Alexandra
Photo: R. Millard

I’m of two minds about the production’s design. Robert Israel’s setting places the action in a palace hallway of green-gray marble, with a chorus of peasants occasionally visible through the windows; additional walls are brought into suggest different locations. The low-rise setting almost entirely exposes Christopher Akerlind’s light plot, which tends towards harsh white HMI beams from side angles. While the design allows for quick transitions, it seems a little small on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and I was sometimes distracted by the sight of the lighting units. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are unquestionably sumptuous, exaggerating the details of Edwardian dresses for theatrical effect, although the red gowns worn by Rasputin’s feminine fan club are pretty silly-looking. Still, for every thing that goes wrong in this production, something goes right. Given the generally hostile reception given to new opera productions in this county, it’s hard to believe that Nicholas and Alexandra won’t sound better when it gets an inevitable second hearing.--DB

Seen in London: Yes, I too was in London for the PLASA show and went on many theatre jaunts with Ellen Lampert-Gréaux, especially to the National Theatre, which is in the middle of a dynamite season. I have to concur with her assessments of Michael Frayn’s very good Democracy and John Guare’s His Girl Friday, adapted from the The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the Columbia Pictures film. In addition to the framing device of filming the production, Guare moved the production up to 1939 and refers to heroine Hildy Johnson becoming a war correspondent to cover Hitler and the war. Maybe Guare can adapt Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent with the amazing Zoe Wanamaker in the role of Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock. I will await the royalty checks.

One show which Ellen and I split over was Jerry Springer--The Opera. She did not like it, while I laughed long and hard. It may be, as many have pointed out, that this is another attempt by the British to have a laugh at America’s expense. (The Brits are also a bit touchy about the US entertainment industries aping--or ripping off--their TV and movies. I watched some TV while in Britain, and it is not all Masterpiece Theatre. They have knocked off many of our TV shows, especially in the talk show format. They feature are quite a few toothless, soccer hooligans from the Midlands and their cousins , so lets just put the chairs down and back away slowly.)

Michael Brandon as a dead ringer for Jerry Springer with members of the company of Jerry Springer – The Opera
Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Jerry Springer – The Opera may not play in America (although it could easily play in rep with Urinetown, another show that started at a fringe festival) but I think it's a stitch and the production is top-notch. Director Stewart Lee, who also wrote the book with Richard Thomas who composed the music, leads a merry band of pranksters. (The production meetings must have been inspired lunacy--"Next, we need a dozen Ku Klux Klan costumes, a burning cross, and oh yeah, God flies in the second act singing 'It Ain’t Easy Being Me.’") Julian Crouch’s set design is spot-on as a carbon copy of the Jerry Springer TV set. (Crouch also served as associate director and handled the animation.) In the first act, the show takes place during a typical Jerry Springer show and ends with Jerry being shot. Act II is the Jerry Springer Show in Hell, with the set appropriately singed and Hell-like. Leah Archer’s costumes are very good, from standard street wear for Jerry and the TV staff down to the common (and uncommon) guests. They really enter into fantasyland in Act II however, where there is really no top to go over, since it just keeps on building. Rick Fisher’s lighting is understated and works well for the show. He uses a number of intelligent lights to a subtle and good effect.

David Bedella as Satan in Jerry Springer – The Opera
Photo: Catherine Ashmore

At the interval, some in the audience heard our accents and wanted to know if we thought that it would play in America. Ellen thought that the Wednesday-matinee crowd probably walk out in the middle, while I think that it will play, even with language that would make David Mamet blush. Nicholas Hytner is quoted in the program as saying, “Why shouldn’t Jerry’s guests sing opera? Why aren’t their passions and furies worthy subjects for the lyric stage.” Talk to the hand.--Michael S. Eddy