Seen at the Movies: German director Oliver Hirshbiegel’s Downfall, which is said to be neck in neck with The Sea Inside to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this Sunday, is a long, grueling account of Hitler’s last days in the bunker. This is not an unfamiliar story; I remember seeing a television film starring Anthony Hopkins that covered much the same ground as Downfall, including Magda Goebbels’ poisoning of her children and the desperate party mood Eva Braun attempted to keep going as Berlin went to ruin outside. I suppose it’s notable, on the other hand, that the new film is a full German accounting of the Third Reich’s collapse. The great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz is certainly impressive as Hitler, depicting him as physically weakened and often sentimental, but with his monstrous qualities vitally intact. Following in the wake of (and even injecting footage from) the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, Downfall makes an observant character of young secretary Traudl Junge, but nothing much comes of this strategy. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling of Nazi fatigue while viewing this film—for 155 minutes, fresh insight fails to comes forth.
The movie’s physical production is detailed and exemplary. Production designer Bernd Lepel had a replica of the bunker built on a soundstage at Bavaria Studios, where another claustrophobic film, Das Boot, was also shot. Lepel is quoted as saying he wanted the audience to feel the "fetid" atmosphere of bunker, and, helped along by DP Rainer Klausmann’s unappetizing gray-green palette, indeed we do. Exterior scenes of the fall of Berlin were shot in St. Petersburg, where 700 Russian extras were dressed in Nazi uniforms. (Claudia Bobsin is the film’s costume designer.) Makeup artists Waldemar Pokromski and Margrit Neufink probably deserve some credit for helping transform Ganz into the gorgon-like Hitler.--John Calhoun
Seen Off-Broadway: Richard Foreman, the quintessential avant-garde playwright/director/designer announced that he was giving up the small, chamber plays that he is known for and concentrating on film and video. That statement has been interpreted by some to mean that his current offering, The Gods Are Pounding My Head (AKA Lumberjack Messiah) at the Ontological-Histeric Theatre in St Mark's Church in the East Village, would be his last production. Perhaps the last of its genre as he explores new territory. But in the meantime this piece is a feast for the eyes even if it's hard to see the forest for the trees in terms of what the play is really all about, lumberjacks and all. Designed by Foreman, the set is lined with black and red plaid fabric, like a lumberjack shirt, and filled with a small train engine that moves back and forth on a track, as well as a sliding board, black and white panels with numbers (random or not we don't know), a curtained doorway that moves back and forth in front of another curtained doorway, and a black and white floor, as well as an incredible collection of props by Sarah Krainin that include faux doves, acrobatic rings hanging from the ceiling, mushrooms, skulls, and Plexiglas circles with lightbulbs, to name a few of the numerous objects on stage (and those who have seen many of Foreman's works swear that this one is less crowded than others in the past).
The costumes, designed by Oana Botez-Ban mix and match lumberjack shirts with pearls and leather gloves laced up to the elbow, as well as far-eastern looking outfits for a chorus of silent gnome-looking characters with round sunglasses and hats with small crosses on the top. Daniel Allen Nelson created the soundscape that mixes Foreman's original music with taped thoughts from the lumberjack's mind, including the word "tendency" that repeats throughout. Foreman also has credits for the lights, which range from harsh, cold white fixtures to clusters of light bulbs, that go on and off, as if a light bulb in the lumberjack's mind goes on when he thinks of something important. All in all, it's an interesting show, especially visually, for anyone who likes non-narrative theatre.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Also Off-Broadway, at the Ohio Theatre, is Boozy. The Life, Death, and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly Robert Moses. Quite a mouthful for an evening's entertainment about the power wielded by Robert Moses, a former NYC park's commissioner who seemingly followed the single-use zoning concepts espoused by the Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier. The set by David Evans Morris is cleverly constructed as if wrapped in architectural blueprint paper, with various slogans and formulae, including a diagram of bunny rabbits geometrically multiplying, like the population of New York perhaps. The rabbit theme is repeated with at least four live bunnies in the production, a large white one in a cage on a tech table stage left, and the other three in the "ground floor apartments" of clear towers that support an acting platform. Other performance areas stage right and stage left help support the numerous locations of the action.
The most interesting visual element is the video by Jake Pinholster which includes interviews, maps, and even a live segment filmed slightly offstage and shown on the large screen (as The Wooster Group has often done). The mix of video and live action is effective, especially when the bunnies are dressed as historical figures and seen in a filmed interview. Lighting is by Juliet Chai, sound by Bart Fasbender, and costumes by Jenny Mannis that range from house dresses and aprons to business suits to some rather fictionalized outrageous outfits for a stylized version of former NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The concept is clever and the execution cleverly produced by a theatre company called Les Freres Corbusier. In fact, their has been quite a bit of buzz about Boozy, including a panel discussion organized by The Architect’s Newspaper after a performance last week. The play echoes some of the same struggles architects are facing today with the rebuilding of lower Manhattan a political hot potato.--ELG
There's a lot of buzz surrounding The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and I'm happy to say it is very much deserved. While the idea of adults playing youngsters can be a bit agonizing, the winning cast pulls it off splendidly without being precious or cloying. Played more of a homage than satire, James Lapine's deft direction keeps the action moving along nicely and owes a debt of gratitude to Christopher Guest's films Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. Although the music by William Finn is pleasant enough, it is not particularly memorable. Luckily the songs allow the pitch— and spelling-perfect cast to shine even more. Rachel Sheinkin's book is so strong that theoretically the show could stand on its own, which it did in its original incarnation. Belly laughs abound in a show about the most awkward of kids participating in the geekiest of activities.
The cast is so strong and the parts are so equally distributed that it is hard to pick a standout. Lisa Howard seemed to be channeling Will & Grace's Megan Mulally as former bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti who is now one of the emcees. Her line delivery was flawless and she could induce laughter with a simple glance to the student at the mike or to the audience (four of whom participate as additional spellers). As for the students, Jesse Tyler Ferguson's Leaf Coneybear, a second-generation flower child, seemed to ooze awkwardness— and weirdness— from every pore of his carrot-topped being. Jose Llana, currently in the movie Hitch--and who, two seasons ago, played the romantic lead in the Flower Drum Song revival, is a standout as last year's spelling bee champ, Chip Tolentino, who thinks he’s a shoe-in to win this year’s bee. Llana also gets the best song of the night entitled "My Unfortunate Erection" that you'll have to see to believe. Llana's portrayal is at once fidgety and arrogant and borders on scene stealing simply by his nervous and annoyed reactions to his co-spellers.
The set by Beowulf Boritt is an abstract high school gymnasium with basketball hoops, climbing ropes, bleachers, and hard wood floor that was a definite trip down memory lane. Natasha Katz's lighting was perfectly subtle, using followspots only when needed and her use of color transformed the heavy upstage curtain from blue to red to purple almost magically. The heavy-duty, gym-styled fixtures were a nice touch as well. The sound by Dan Moses Schreier ably filled the Second Stage Theatre space with enough reverb that you felt like you were in the gym with the kids. Jennifer Caprio's costume designs were on the money, especially the freaky cape, helmet, and homemade ensemble of Leaf's hippy kid. But who finally wins The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee? Last year's champ? Foot magician Will Barfee? Uber overachiever Marcy Park? I'm not telling, but if the crowd I saw the show with is any indication, the real winner will be Broadway itself if the show makes a likely transfer in a few months so even more people can see this gem of a show. A pluses all around!----Mark A. Newman