Seen in Brooklyn: The Next Wave Festival at BAM continues to jog along at a rapid pace. This week there were two very different events on the menu and for my money what is wrong with one is exactly what’s right with the other. First I saw Faust/How I Rose, directed by Martin Acosta as part of NYC’s ongoing Mexico Now Festival. With text, set and video design by John Jeserun, Faust has some very snappy design that seems to overpower the text. The stage is a raised playing area on the normally flat floor at the BAM Harvery Theatre. It is covered in white and echoed by a large projection screen hanging over the stage and angled with the top toward the audience. The actors are quite frequently swimming in a sea of images, often with the same image projected onto the stage and the screen, or with a live video camera superimposing a close up of an actor on a projected image. The images are largely black and white, with some abstract images that could be the sea and the sky, punctuated by brighter images of a pink flower, green trees blowing in the breeze, and the interior of a hotel lobby. There is a nice minimalism to the stage design, with corridors of light (the lighting was designed by Matias Gorlero) on each end of the stage, or stylized effects to enhance the action, as well as large single sources for side light to help pick out the actors from such a heavily projected environment. There are also Robert Wilsonesque shapes of light round props, such as a small metal stand that is used to support various props, from a red telephone to a glass of water, and chairs are simply titled back to imply airplane seats. The costumes by Martin Lopez are contemporary and hip, as if the actors came from places like the East Village and East Germany. The sound design was by Joaquin "Chas" Lopez. Jeserun’s text, a deconstruction of the Faust myth, is interspersed with lyrics from popular songs ("help me Rhonda," and "can I get a witness" for example). The problem is that Jeserun, and by extension his actors, seem to take the whole thing a little too seriously. If they would loosen up and enjoy it more, I bet the audience would too. As it is, Jeserun gets an A for design effort.
On the other hand, Next Wave veteran Pina Baush has returned this year, marking the 20th anniversary of her first performances at BAM. Her new piece, Für die Kinder von gestern, heute und morgan (For the Children of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) might well be subtitled "Pina Lite." Gone are the days when her dancers chopped onions until they cried and lit matches between each others toes. Gone are the stages covered with dead leaves, walls of bricks, or pools where a hippo wallows. This time the set, designed by Baush’s longtime collaborator Peter Pabst is a large room with bright white walls, as if a living room or perhaps a nursery in a mansion. The upstage wall has a window at first, but the bottom sections of the wall are rolled away leaving a large doorway with sliding glass panels that come in and out for various scenes. This wall also slides forward (or is pushed by stagehands, but smoothly...) and the side walls, each of which also has a doorway, move toward the center of the room. But the stage is generally clear and in its fully open position with the company of dancers playing games and telling stories as if they were children in grown-ups clothing. The costumes are by Marion Cito, another long-term Baush colleague, and range from loose fitting pants and shirts for the men, to a series of evening gowns for the women. One of the oldest members of the company, Dominique Mercy (pictured here) wears both a tuxedo for certain scenes, and an oversized fluffy white tutu as he walks about the stage with a watering can. There is more dance, and less theatre (as well as angst) in this current Bausch opus, and the audience meet it with a standing ovation. The dancers are not taking themselves too seriously. They seem to be having a great time, and sweeping us along into their childlike exuberance. Humor and charm are not necessarily adjectives one associated with Bausch, but in this piece, she has sprinkled in a fair share of both!---Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Seen at the Movies: The Polar Express is an overextended, $175 million bedtime anecdote of a movie, but see it in its IMAX 3D presentation if you must. The huge three-dimensional screen exploits the spectacular elements of the film’s weird digital animation style to their utmost. Vistas of the title train crossing snowfields and ice lakes, breathtaking point-of-view shots of it descending steep grades in roller-coaster fashion, the whimsical path taken by a runaway ticket (a sequence somewhat reminiscent of the windblown leaf in director Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump)—these and other moments have both a spectral beauty and a visceral charge. I’m not completely sure I understand the details of their participation (much less costume designer Joanna Johnston’s), but whatever directors of photography Don Burgess and Robert Presley and production designers Rick Carter and Doug Chiang did to contribute to the most felicitous images in The Polar Express, they did well. I’m not sure what to make of the film’s conception of the North Pole as a bastion of commerce presided over by a charismatic cult-style Santa, but the execution is certainly impressive.
On the other hand, I spent substantial portions of the movie recoiling from the screen. The motion capture technology employed by Zemeckis and visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston at Sony Pictures Imageworks to convey human movement, gestures, and expressions is woefully inadequate to the task. Unfortunately, the story, which is adapted from Chris Van Allburg’s children’s book, is heavily reliant on such features. It tells the tale of a boy who has begun doubting the existence of Santa Claus, and is therefore spirited to the North Pole on Christmas Eve by the Polar Express. On board, he meets a gruff but kindly conductor (Tom Hanks, who voiced and/or provided motion for several characters, including Santa), a ghostly hobo (Hanks again), and other children with their own issues involving Christmas. None of these figures seem more than department-store window simulacra of human beings. The film has a generous helping of close-ups, and really, it’s horrible being confronted by jutting waxen faces, reptilian eyes, and gummy mouths full of Chiclet teeth over and over again for 90 minutes. (This is one problem IMAX 3D obviously exacerbates.) An African-American girl the young hero befriends is particularly creepy looking. Polar Express looks poised to lose a ton of money for Warner Bros., and this inability to engage on the most basic human level has to be at least partly to blame.--John Calhoun
Seen on Broadway: ’night, Mother, now in revival at the Royale, is theater laid bare. Marsha Norman, a Tony nominee and Pulitzer Prize winner for the original 1983 production, has contrived an agonizing situation that its two characters, a mother and daughter, pick clean in real time. Endlessly disappointed with her life, Jessie Cates (Edie Falco) digs out her deceased father’s gun from the attic and calmly informs her mother, Thelma (Brenda Blethyn), that she plans to commit suicide later in the evening. Thelma’s initial disbelief fades as Jessie—who all the while maintains the façade of a typical humdrum evening between the two, complete with hot chocolate and a promised manicure for mom—explains what set her on this course. Jessie’s clear-eyed, even peppy, defeatism is contrasted with Thelma’s evasive, desperate optimism as an onstage clock inexorably chips away at the 90-minute running time.
A problem with seeing plays early in their run, even after the reviews have come out, is that the performers may have settled into their roles without quite inhabiting them yet. That may be the case with ’night, Mother. The indispensable Falco and Blethyn, whose outsized, actorish personality works more effectively on the stage than the screen, currently suggest an aunt and a niece rather than the essential primal relationship, but given time and practice (and a greater confidence in their red-state accents) that crucial dimension may emerge. The director, Michael Mayer, smoothly negotiates a midpoint lull in the production (the performers need to lock into the family dynamic to mine more of Norman’s absurd comedy from the situation) to bring it to its unsparing conclusion. ’night, Mother is pure, bleeding theater (the 1986 film version is almost unwatchably stagy) that a further accumulation of grit can only help in this retelling.
The 1983 production took place in what the stage directions noted as "a relatively new house built way out on a country road." Scenic designer Neil Patel has seemingly revisited this house 20 years on; it’s clean, but the now-dull and unimaginative kitchen, wallpaper, and furnishings are Seventies-style, stuck in the same fraught past that Thelma and Jessie can’t erase. Technically, there’s no reason for Brian MacDevitt’s lights to dim slowly as the play takes its darker turns; emotionally, however, it makes perfect sense (while also reducing the harsh shadows cast by the performers early on). Michael Krass’ costumes are plain wrap; castoff ripped jeans and a drab and shapeless top for Jessie, who is beyond dress sense, and a greater effort for Thelma, who is perpetually keeping up appearances, and wears a curled and friendly Paul Huntley wig. [I guess Huntley is ordering Falco not to wash her hair on performance nights, to maintain the uselessness of Jessie’s famished, stringy tresses]. As for sound designer Dan Moses Schreier, I’ll end by saying he has one outstanding task to perform, and he does it shatteringly well.--Robert Cashill