Seen Off Broadway: Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s tough-minded account of regime change, couldn’t be more welcome in its current revival by Theatre for a New Audience at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Karen Coonrod’s production is as spare and sharp as one of the knives used to assassinate the title character. The emphasis here is on language and a clear narrative line, illuminating the fates of the Roman conspirators who eliminate a tyrant only to reap a whirlwind of destruction. Several lead roles are taken by fine performers typically seen in supporting assignments: Thomas M. Hammond's good looks and commanding speaking voice are a natural fit for aristocratic, conscience-wracked Brutus. Graham Winton displays a carefully controlled rage as Marc Antony. Daniel Oreskes is a well-honed mixture of formality and contempt as Cassius, the plot’s prime mover. The entire cast is fine, however, including Earl Hindman in the title role, Hope Chernov as Calpurnia, and Kristin Flanders as Portia. The design is elegant, including Douglas Stein's industrial concrete setting, surrounded by a blood-filled trough; Catherine Zuber’s collection of black suits and dresses; David Weiner's angular, muscular lighting, and the score by sound designer Mark Bennett. Theatre for a New Audience routinely provides the best Shakespeare productions in New York; this Julius Caesar is one of their best.


Julius Caesar photo: Gerry Goodstein

The Irish Repertory Theatre, that home of quaint country comedies and folkoric poetry and music fests, has come up with a real shocker in bedbound. Enda Walsh’s new play (he also directed) is a torrential rant delivered by two characters, a father and daughter, who are confined to the same bed. He is a Dublin furniture magnate whose unchecked ambition proves his downfall. She is his daughter, paralyzed and apparently mad. To say more would be to spoil the season’s most gripping horror story. The performances by Brían F. O’Byrne and Jenna Lamia are astonishing in their intensity and detail. It’s unsettling how his rage-filled stories can suddenly stop dead for moments of blind panic. Even more unsettling are her birdlike gestures and the pathetic way she mimics her father’s words. Klara Zieglerova’s claustrophobic, furniture-crammed setting is a creepy triumph (not until late in the play do we learn exactly where it is). Kirk Bookman’s lighting adds depth and dramatic focus to the stage picture. The opening cacophony of voices and sound effects, by Zachary Williamson, aptly sets the tone for what is to come. "What was the point?" asked my bemused companion, after it was all over. I’m not totally sure but, clearly, bedbound is an original and Enda Walsh has made a most provocative debut.


bedbound photo: Carol Rosegg

Cookin' at the Cookery, produced by the Melting Pot Theatre Company, is a musical tribute to Alberta Hunter, the blues singer who enjoyed a late-in-life renaissance at the (now-defunct) nightclub of the title. Tony-winner Ann Dusquesnay plays the older Hunter, with Debra Walton as her younger self; both ladies take on other roles as well. I'm not a big fan of this dead-star genre of pseudo-musicals, and there’s nothing special about writer-director Marion J. Caffey's treatment of his material. Hunter was a unique character, a lesbian blues-shouter who lived with her mother, then abandoned an international career in her 50s to become a nurse, returning to the stage only after her forced retirement at the age of 82. Surely she deserves more than the once-over-lightly portrait she gets here. Still, the ladies are good company and the music is hot. Dusquesnay is much younger and has far more voice than the older Hunter, but she offers up a zesty rendition of the salacious growl that made the star so beloved. Her rendition of the remarkably lewd "My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More" tells you all you need to know about Hunter's appeal (I am reliably informed that Dusquesnay also faithfully recreates Hunter's stage presence). Walton has far less of interest to do, but she is a skilled mimic who ably portrays several men; her wicked impression of Louis Armstrong is a riot. Working with the unforgiving Theatre Three space, Dale Jordan has provided a rather dowdy unit set, but his lighting is rather good, working up a real nightclub atmosphere with warm, saturated colors. Marilyn Wall’s costumes are perfectly okay, but Josh Navarro's sound design needs work; the dialogue scenes don't require miking in this tiny space--for that matter, I'm not sure the musical numbers do, either. The four-man band, directed by George Caldwell, sounds fine. Cookin’ at the Cookery is a likely candidate for a commercial Off Broadway transfer; even as is, it’s going to make a lot of people very happy. --David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Following the release of Roman Polanski’s extraordinary The Pianist, we are suddenly faced with a flurry of films examining Nazi Germany, from its roots to its aftermath. Menno Meyjes’ Max is in some ways the most audacious. Set in war-scarred 1918 Munich, it imagines Hitler as a young, starving artist (Noah Taylor) being taken under wing by fictional Jewish art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack).


Max

The film, shot primarily in Budapest, has a very impressive physical production. Production designer Ben Van Os captures a confluence of bomb-ravaged Old World elegance and vital 20th-century stirrings in his sets, which include a dank, decommissioned factory turned by Rothman into an art gallery, and the dealer’s strikingly modern apartment, with its high glass walls and geometric patterns. DP Lajos Koltai gives the movie a handsome, burnished patina. Yet Max, which is well acted by Cusack and especially Taylor, is ultimately a specious piece of work. Its conceit--that if only Hitler had become a successful artist, the world might have been spared the horrors that followed--is pointlessly fanciful.


Max photos: Lions Gate Films

Costa-Gavras’ Amen, adapted from Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, also combines actual and imagined or composite characters. Its protagonist, chemist and SS officer Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), who launched an underground campaign against the Final Solution after discovering what the Zyklon B pellets he had developed were being used for, is a real person. The Jesuit priest (Mathieu Kassovitz) he turns to as a conduit to the Vatican is, according to the production notes, "a fictional character created to represent all priests who fought against Nazi persecution of Jews." Be that as it may, the film is scathingly critical of the Catholic Church’s general inaction. Like all of Costa-Gavras’ films, Amen is a worthy, politically charged enterprise; like many of the English-language ones, it is also clunky and unconvincing, with the Vatican sequences particularly inauthentic-seeming. There are a few moments of power--Gerstein watching through a gas chamber peephole what his work has wrought is unforgettable--and DP Patrick Blossier does a fine job, while production designer Ari Hantke credibly represents wartime Berlin in Bucharest.

Neither Amen nor Max can match the power of Andre Heller and Othmar Schiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. The 90-minute film mostly comprises the talking head of Traudl Junge, who indeed served for years as the dictator’s personal secretary, talking about her experience. She died soon after filming the interview, and on camera she projects the clear-eyed accounting of someone offering a final confession. In The New York Times, critic Elvis Mitchell complained that Blind Spot was devoid of technique; he doesn’t seem to realize that the film’s close focus on one old woman talking is an artistic choice, and the right one for this fascinating documentary. --John Calhoun

Heard on the Awards Front: Both the American Society of Cinematographers and the Costume Designers Guild announced their 2002 award nominations this week. Leading the ASC’s list is the recently deceased Conrad L. Hall, nominated for his final film, Road to Perdition. His competitors are Michael Ballhaus, Gangs of New York; Pawel Edelman, The Pianist; Ed Lachman, Far from Heaven; and Rodrigo Prieto, Frida. Awards will be presented in a ceremony February 16.

Like the Art Directors Guild, the Costume Designers Guild gives out feature film awards in two categories. For period/fantasy design, the nominees are Colleen Atwood, Chicago; Julie Weiss, Frida; Ngila Dickson, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; and Albert Wolsky, Road to Perdition. Designers nominated for contemporary films are Joanna Johnston, About a Boy; Wendy Chuck, About Schmidt; Sarah Edwards, Igby Goes Down; Ellen Mirojnick, Unfaithful; and Susie DeSanto, White Oleander.--JC