Seen at the Garden: Madonna

. New York critics were none too kind to Madonna’s Drowned World tour when it made its rather lengthy stop at Madison Square Garden late last month, whining about the indefatigable pop icon’s bad attitude and the lack of big hits on the playlist. But they seemed to have missed the point: the attitude seemed just right for the show I saw—Madonna as Rock Star—and as a result, the song selection seemed, um, immaterial.

An over-the-top Peter Morse lighting rig; a 4,900-sq.-ft. heavy metal stage designed by Bruce Rodgers and his team at Tribe, complete with lifts that rise from below the stage and lifts that rise from the stage into the heavens; a barrage of video monitors sporting the usual assemblage of images plucked from any number of MTV videos and drug-fueled raves; a mechanical riding bull; the Material Mom strumming no less than six guitars; “Fuck off, motherfuckers” and middle fingers to the audience—it all added up to the kind of rock and roll excess that was part and parcel of the self-indulgent concert touring world in the late 70s and 80s.

Of course, this being Madonna, the whole thing seems to have been done with quotes around it, another ironic pose from the woman who can still strike them better than anyone out there. And of course, this tour also features the usual assortment of crotch-grabbing dance moves, pop culture references (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gets a nod, natch) and over-the-top costumes (at one point she sports a kimono with a 52' wingspan) that have become de rigueur on every Madonna tour.

I, for one, dug all the rock star clichés. The design aspects were perfect for the show she was trying to do, though I personally found the various costumes (by various designers) to be maddeningly uneven. Still, I found it to be quite a lot of fun. There’s a moment near the end of the show, when La Ciccone (or is it now La Ritchie?) climbs onto a riser that takes her up to the rafters in a haze of fog. It was part Kiss, part Cats, and I found myself laughing out loud. I’m pretty sure that was the response she was going for. Of course, all the young fans around me just thought it was way cool.

Look for full coverage on all the design and technical aspects of the Madonna Drowned World Tour in the November issue of Entertainment Design.
David Johnson

Seen at the Theatre: I love August in the New York theatre. Almost everyone has gone off to Williamstown to do classy summer stock or to Los Angeles to shoot a TV pilot or two. Into this vacuum comes productions that aren’t so much bad as they are bizarre, inexplicable, unintentionally hilarious. Last summer, for example, we got High Infidelity, a sex comedy starring John Davidson and Morgan Fairchild as a US Senator and his frustrated wife seeking marital therapy in the 1970s. The production’s height of humor was reached when the two actors struggled to sit in beanbag chairs. (The silence in the theatre was deafening.) This was quickly followed by Imperfect Chemistry, a musical comedy about the search for a cure for male pattern baldness. The plot, if you want to call it that, ended with humanity being reduced to a Neanderthal state, except for the hero and heroine, who crashed their plane on a desert island and were left to restart the human race, like Adam and Eve.

Connoisseurs of such treats may be drawn to the Cort Theatre, where If You Ever Leave Me…I’m Going With You!, a scrapbook of scenes from the lives and plays of Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna, is playing. It’s a little peculiar to stage a retrospective of playwrights whose works, including Lovers and Other Strangers, It Had to Be You, and Bermuda Avenue Triangle, have been nothing but flops, but Taylor and Bologna are familiar from their TV work, hence this little bit of summer stock on Broadway. If you love jokes about Viagra, prostrate troubles, the Jews, the Italians, men who are afraid of fidelity, women who live to shop, and other such classical verities, this is the show for you. As for me, 90 minutes stretched out like an eternity.

The production has an almost inappropriately slick design, with an atmospheric backstage set by Kenneth Foy and typically gorgeous, star-flattering lighting by Ken Billington. Alvin Colt, a busy man these days, having just done Mr. President, has provided Taylor with an appropriately blowsy series of outfits. Jon Gottlieb’s sound design is rather thin and tinny—when the stars sing “It Had to Be You,” they sound like they’re on a click track. There are also many projections and video sequences by Lou Shapiro and Peter Fitzgerald, although you have to look way back in the program to see their names. These include priceless footage of the stars’ wedding reception, which was held on The Merv Griffin Show, as well as several of their periodic remarriage ceremonies (they retie the knot occasionally, each time in a different religion).

On a much different note, Glimmerglass Opera is presenting a new staging of Benjamin Britten’s little-seen opera The Rape of Lucretia. Written after World War II, this tale of a Roman matron’s fatal encounter with an Etruscan prince expresses Britten’s anxiety about England’s spiritual and moral exhaustion after the defeat of the Nazis. Paul Steinberg’s stunning production design relocates the action in a shabby-genteel England of faded wall décor and dumpy furniture, set against a massive curved wall. Heather Carson’s superb lighting uses different color temperatures to shape Steinberg’s space and underline the mounting emotional intensity of the action. This production is slated to transfer to the New York City Opera (virtually everything staged at Glimmerglass ends up there sooner or later); anyone interested in the work of Britten or first-rate design will want to check it out.
David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Fans of good thrillers, great performances, and atmosphere-drenched cinematography shouldn't miss Scott McGehee and David Siegel's The Deep End, which opens on a platform basis starting this week. The directors based their script on 1940s suspense writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall, which was made into a 1949 Max Ophuls film called The Reckless Moment.

In McGehee and Siegel's version of the story, Lake Tahoe housewife Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) finds the body of her son's male lover on their beachfront, and instinctively hides the corpse. When a man (ER's Goran Visnjic) shows up to threaten blackmail, the screws tighten, as they are wont to do in this genre. What's unusual here is the subtle layering of characterization, so that the film is both tense and rich with subtext. Swinton, a Scottish actress best known for playing the title role in Sally Potter's movie version of Virginia Woolf's Orlando delivers an understated tour-de-force performance that should earn her an Oscar nomination.

For his participation on The Deep End director of photography Giles Nuttgens won the Best Cinematography Award at last January's Sundance Film Festival. There seem to be two keys to Nuttgens' sensational work here: water, which is a constant presence, from the lake to aquariums to smashing water bottles; and the matching sea-green eyes of Swinton and Visnjic, which are held in frequent close-up. (The underwater photography is by Chris Moseley.) The production design, by Christopher Tandon and the co-director's sister Kelly McGehee, makes excellent use of the Lake Tahoe locations—the last time I can remember this beautiful if somehow forbidding area exploited on-screen was in The Godfather, Part II. The Hall house, while attractive, is not made to seem too idyllic or fancy; it's just an ordinary house in an extraordinary location.

August has turned out to be not such a bad month for moviegoing—especially when compared with the rest of the summer. The haunted-house thriller The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, is getting a lot of positive buzz, while Session 9, Brad Anderson's haunted-abandoned-mental-hospital thriller (see "HD, But Not TV" in LD August), is good for a few frights and tons of creepy atmosphere.

On a lighter note, Peter and Bobby Farrelly's uncharacteristically PG-rated Osmosis Jones is graced by Piet Kroon and Tom Sito's inventive and only mildly gross animation. The animated sequences in this comedy are really the whole show; the less said about the miserable look and staging of the Farrelly Bros.' live-action scenes, starring Bill Murray as an artery-clogged slob named Frank, the better.

Inside Murray's overweight, germ-ridden body, Kroon and Sito take over with a vengeance. Think Fantastic Voyage-meets-Looney Tunes (this is a Warner Bros. film). They imagine Frank's innards as a vast, goofy metropolis policed by white blood cells like the upstart title character (voiced by Chris Rock) and headed by one Mayor Phlegmming, a brain cell given the perfect pompous vocal tones by William Shatner. When deadly virus Thrax (Laurence Fishburne) enters through Frank's food particle- and tooth-decay-ridden mouth, Osmosis and his partner Drix, a 12-hour cold capsule voiced by David Hyde Pierce, have to work overtime to defeat him. To say the film is preoccupied with bodily functions—including mucus mud slides and toxic colonic spills—is to state the obvious, but the animators make it all part of a plausible, if alarmingly colorful, universe.
John Calhoun

Seen on the Street: This could just as easily have read, "Editors, Photographer, and Two Designers Killed by Crazed Parking Lot Attendant," or "Heat Fells Entire Staff of Entertainment Design, Young Designers." Which is to say, we went to great lengths to bring our readers the October cover shot.

Every October, for the ED-ucation issue of Entertainment Design, our staff selects five tyro designers--one each from the fields of set, lighting, costume, sound, and projection--to profile. This means a photo shoot in August. We selected a day and scheduled all five designers, a semi-amazing feat in itself. Costume designer Mimi O'Donnell, lighting designer D.M. Wood, and set designer Dipu Gupta all showed up on the dot; sound designer Jill DuBoff would be in a little later, and projection designer Michael Clark was MIA.

Our intrepid photographer, Andy French, wanted to revisit the location of last year's tyro shoot, the rooftop of the ED/Lighting Dimensions office building. But the weather wasn't cooperative; while last year had been a cool, cloudy kind of August, this year was a broiler. So Andy and his assistant Johanna scouted another location--a parking lot next to the ED/LD building that we have dubbed the Sopranos parking lot. D.M., Mimi, Andy, Johanna, ED intern Natalie Zmuda, and I trooped down to the lot for solo portraits. Dipu was to join us later, after being interviewed by editorial director David Barbour.

Andy was on the third or fourth roll of film, shooting Mimi and D.M. in front of a particularly colorful bit of graffiti, when Ali the parking lot attendant swung into action. Seems we'd been on his turf just a little too long and he wanted us to leave. So he hopped into one of the many identical SUVs on the lot and bore down on our little group, flashing the lights and honking the horn. He then executed a 16- or 17-point maneuver aimed at boxing us in, or maybe just running us over. We fled, after Andy's offer of a $20 "tip" was summarily rejected.

Dipu, David Barbour, and ED editor David Johnson arrived for Dipu's close-up, which Andy and co. shot on a nearby side street. Jill was on her way over (Andy shot her on a building scaffold later), but where was Michael? He had called the office to say he was experiencing a plumbing emergency and wouldn't be able to make it. So we had to reschedule the all-important group shot.

We now cut to August 9, 2001, only the hottest day of the year--so far. Michael's plumbing emergency had been resolved, all the designers could make it for the portrait, Andy was ready and willing, had a few ideas about where we could shoot them--and did I mention that it was HOT? Newark reported 105 degrees and sent its city workers home early. It was 102 in Central Park, with a heat index of 115. I'm convinced it was even hotter than that on 17th Street, where we set up. No indoor sittings for Andy, oh no. He was going for the gritty, urban, vertical look, which is perfect for ED's tabloid-size cover, and where better than the streets of New York? This time we only had to contend with a few disgruntled doormen and building supers, not to mention a lot of hot, angry pedestrians and deliverymen. No one tried to run us down, though, and no tipping was required. The tyros smiled bravely through the sweat and strain, with occasional dips into an air-conditioned doorway. When their sprits started to visibly sag, David Johnson danced and capered for their amusement. That and a well-deserved frosty libation at a nearby bar afterward seemed to soothe the fevered brow.

I know we'll look at ED's October cover someday and say, "Remember how hot it was that day?" and "I bet we really could've fried an egg on the sidewalk." In the meantime, when I walk to work from the subway, I no longer cut through Ali's parking lot. A person could get hurt.
Liz French