: Lincoln Center’s summer festival opened with The Angel Project, directed by Deborah Warner (director of last season’s award-winning Medea). With installation design by Tom Pye, and costume design by John Bright, The Angel Project is intended as a solo journey of discovery and imagination. Warner takes her audience where angels might fear to tread, including abandoned buildings around Times Square, and a seedy Peep-O-Rama on 42nd Street. The journey begins at the far tip of Roosevelt Island (if you become one of Deborah’s angels, take the tramway to get there. The bird’s-eye view from above the East River is spectacular). Angel watchers are given a little guidebook and a $4 metro card, while told to turn off all cell phones and pagers for a journey meant to be taken alone and in silence.
The antithesis of a communal theatrical experience, The Angel Project is a series of theatrical tableaux in places one would not go on one’s own. They include empty rooms with fallen angels on the floor, a large room filled with gray gym lockers inscribed with the names of angels, and surrounded by piles of soft, white feathers--were the angels were shorn of their wings? On Roosevelt Island, there’s a scene of two fishermen: an old man sitting in a lawn chair, his fishing pole posed against the fence, while a younger man sits in a small wooden fishing boat mending a net. Neither speaks as you approach, nor do they answer if you speak to them, but there is something haunting about the scene. Are they ghosts from the past come back to their island? The older man is wearing a suit jacket and a tie with a fish design, while the younger man wears a relaxed t-shirt and trousers; both seem to come from another era. The highpoint of the evening, for me, was a visit to the dusty old remains of The Liberty Theater, hidden behind a food court on 42nd Street. Here a fallen angel sleeps on the floor, while a doorman slumbers in a chair on the stage. Two angels with large black wings (angels of death in a dead theater?) ascend toward heaven on ladders in the balcony,and a ghostly audience member sits on a chair where the seats once were. Again, I felt transported to the past, but here, rather than the sense of despair you feel in the empty rooms and peep show parlors, I closed my eyes and could feel the theatre come to life around me, almost like a scene from Follies. Perhaps Warner can find a theatrical angel to help give The Liberty Theatre a new lease on life, and she can bring more of her theatrical journeys to New York City.--Ellen Lampert-Greaux
Seen at the Movies: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was plagued by production troubles reportedly stemming from star Sean Connery’s disdain for director Stephen Norrington. And the movie, shot in Prague, is indeed a mess—clumsily constructed, with some of the tackiest effects I can recall seeing since the dawn of the digital age. Yet I found the premise charming enough to carry me over the rough patches. Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, League gathers together a motley crew of fictional characters, circa a century or more ago, to fight “The Fantom,” a mysterious evildoer who wants to dominate the world with (for then) high-tech weaponry. Connery plays H. Rider Haggard's adventurer Allan Quatermain, who joins forces with Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo (Naseerudin Shah), Oscar Wilde’s ageless Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), the vampiric Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) of Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) and his raging alter-ego Mr. Hyde, H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man (Tony Curran), and even Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (Shane West), now a secret service agent.
Some of these characters come off better than others—a purring, slashing Peta Wilson is like a latter-day Diana Rigg as Mina Harker, and Townsend’s Dorian Gray is a perfect portrait of self-satisfied decadence. On the other hand, no one has figured out how to satisfyingly integrate Nemo or the Invisible Man into the action, and Mr. Hyde, in the rendering here, comes off as a ludicrous sub-Hulk effect. The film’s production design, by Carol Spier, is often luxurious, though Nemo’s Nautilus seems too big and sparkling a vessel for even a science-fiction 1899. Jacqueline West does a splendid job with the costumes, particularly the somber Victorian duds worn by Harker and Gray, and DP Dan Laustsen does what he can to capture the frequently incomprehensible action. Even in this age of multiple effects houses working on a film, I can’t remember seeing such a surfeit of closing credits—the entire staff of what seems like a dozen houses runs by, but all of the movie’s effects have a hurried, slapped-together feel. The matte work is (perhaps intentionally?) flat, and the fanciful action scenes often have the unreal look of digital effects on TV.
These things are, of course, all a matter of taste. I keep reading how much fun Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is, but I took one look at those crossbones and went to sleep. This is just not my genre—I haven’t enjoyed a swashbuckler since the 1938 Robin Hood, and I can’t recall ever meeting a pirate that didn’t make me want to take a snooze. That said, a dreadlocked and kohl-eyed Johnny Depp, who has been hilariously costumed (by Penny Rose) and made up (by, among others, Ve Neill), is so outré in the role of one Jack Sparrow that I periodically woke with a start. The movie, directed by Gore Verbinski, is based on the Disney theme ride, and incorporates several comic elements from it. But it finds enough plot—involving the ship of the subtitle, manned by Geoffrey Rush and a lot of skeletons—to keep going for 143 minutes, which is a longer nap than I really wanted to take. DP Dariusz Wolski’s heavy, drab color palette didn’t help. The skeletons, which are only visible in the moonlight (otherwise, they look just like ordinary dirty pirates), are expertly concocted by ILM.
In all his androgynous glory, Johnny Depp could fit right in to the odd worlds of two other movies opening this week. Karim Aïnouz’s Brazilian film Madame Sata tells the based-in-fact story of the title character, a category-defying female impersonator/macho thug in 1930s Rio de Janeiro. Shot in ultra-high-contrast tones by Walter Carvalho, the film is an intense visual experience, heightened by the bleach bypass process the DP chose. Production designer Marcos Pedroso does a first-rate job conjuring a seedy period world out of locations—the movie has a tactile, almost olfactory quality. Although it’s hard to follow the story and identify a sustaining point to Madame Satã, Lázaro Ramos throws himself into the title role with such brio that he carries the viewer through.
Depp could play an angel alongside Daryl Hannah in Northfork, the strangest movie yet from the Polish brothers, who previously brought us Twin Falls Idaho and Jackpot. The film is set in 1955, in a Montana community about to be put under water by the construction of a dam. James Woods plays one of several federal agents charged with moving intractable residents, and Nick Nolte plays a preacher who attempts to assuage the spiritual ills brought on by the situation. Oh yeah, and there’s a family of angels, along with a Julie Taymor-style puppet dog (designed by Gary Tunicliffe), weaving in and out of the narrative. I don’t know quite what to make of Northfork--director Michael Polish is brilliant at setting an eerie, haunting mood, and something moving emerges from individual sequences in the film. But an air of art-consciousness hangs over the whole thing; the movie seems to be mostly interested in providing arresting images. And that it does. Cinematographer M. David Mullen creates a remarkable black-and-white-in-color look, through the use of filters, flashing, and bleach bypass. He’s assisted in this by production designers Del Polish and Ichelle Spitzig, costume designer Danny Glicker, and even the makeup department, who all worked within a ten-shade gray scale. Northfork will probably last about two weeks in theatres, but it certainly doesn’t fit a formula.--John Calhoun
Seen Off Broadway: The term “cult show,” generally applied to any moderately offbeat theatre piece, has never been more appropriate in the case of Kiki and Herb: Coup de Theatre, now at the Cherry Lane Theatre. If Ingmar Bergman ever staged a cabaret act, this would be it. As impersonated by Justin Bond, Kiki is the epitome of every hard-drinking, hard-luck chanteuse who ever poured out her heart and soul in a darkened nightclub; Herb (Kenny Mellman) is her pianist, gay confidante, and alcoholic enabler. Their act is a sizzling psychodrama, with a back story made up of comically grotesque tragedies: We hear how Kiki and Herb met in an orphanage, where they were marked as retarded; how Herb was raped as a teenager; the duo’s heyday in Monaco (including Kiki’s friendship with an drunken, depressed Princess Grace); the tragic death of Kiki’s daughter, Coco (who fell off of Aristotle Onassis’ yacht); and her tormented relationships with her surviving children. Gallons of Canadian Club are consumed onstage, as Kiki tears through a repertoire that includes “Make Yourself Comfortable” and “Cherish”, while offering bitter commentary on everything from the death of JonBenet Ramsey to what she calls “The Concubine High School” massacre. (I particularly loved her repeated references to that famous writer “June Didion.”). In its scorched-earth approach to show-business clichés, the show can be shockingly hilarious. On the other hand, at nearly two hours, it's far too long, and the duo’s singing is often closer to caterwauling. Then again, I was surrounded by a audience of young gay men who loved every second. Anyway, Scott Elliot’s production is very nicely designed: Derek McLane’s setting, a shiny, black void backed by floor-to-ceiling rain curtains, is given a stark, neon-drenched glamour by Jason Lyons’ lighting. Marc Happel’s costumes are fine examples of tacky chic. Ken Travis’ sound design is ear-splitting at times, but I’m guessing it’s part of the overall plan to ride the audiences’ nerves to the breaking point. I’m still making my mind up about this one. It’s hard to believe that Kiki and Herb can break out beyond cult status. Then again, stranger things have happened…
Even theatregoers who think they’ve seen everything will be non-plussed by Getting Into Heaven, now playing at the Flea Theatre. Polly Draper’s drama about the sorrows of a rock star has enough trashy plot twists for a seasons’ worth of Lifetime Network mini-series. Draper stars as Cat Venita, a lesbian rocker who lives with Rose, her drummer (Gretchen Egolf). Cat and Rose are raising Danny, Rose’s child by their sound engineer, Jed, whose late brother, Cal, who was also involved with Rose, before he jumped from a moving car while under the influence. Danny is cared for by Rose’s mother Crystal, who is in love with a mysterious, silent telephone caller, whose identity will be revealed late in Act II. And that’s just the first 15 minutes: Danny falls out the window, Jed impregnates Cat, Rose goes back to Jed, Jed becomes a white rap star with a song about Danny’s death, and Cat, after an overdose, ends up in Heaven, where she gets to hang out with Cal and Danny. Draper’s plot grinds on, destroying any credibility or emotional involvement in the process. However, once again the Flea has come up with a slick, technically proficient production. Junghyun Georgia Lee’s setting features numerous video screens and a wall of lightbulbs; the latter is used ingeniously in sequences that “rewind” or “fast-forward” the action. Matthew Richard’s lighting smoothly integrates the use of moving lights into an intimate theatre production. Jenny Mannis’ costumes are thoroughly accurate; her colorful, hippy-dippy outfits for Crystal are a hoot. Fitz Patton’s sound makes great use of amplification in the performance scenes, and also provides a well-executed voiceover narration by Danny. The video sequences, by Topiary Productions/Nara Barber & Ben Wolf, are among the most elaborate I’ve ever seen in an Off Off Broadway theatre; their version of Jed’s music video is a deadly accurate spoof of Eminem and his ilk. Getting Into Heaven is a mess, but it’s a stylish one. --David Barbour