Seen Off Broadway:

In Blue/Orange, now at the Atlantic Theatre, playwright Joe Penhall stirs up a provocative debate about psychiatry, racism, and socialized medicine--but he does so at the expense of any plausible plot or character development. Harold Perrineau Jr. is the young black man detained in a London psychiatric hospital--among other things, he thinks oranges are blue and Idi Amin is his father. Glenn Fitzgerald is the young resident who thinks Perrineau should be institutionalized lest he slip into schizophrenia. Standing in the way is Zeljko Ivanek, his too-slick supervisor, who is dedicated to R.D. Laing’s theories of madness as a cultural condition and who is working on a theory of treatment designed to deal with apparently high rates of mental illness in the Afro-Caribbean community. The doctors debate their points of view vigorously--too vigorously, in fact; before long, things get personal, and Ivanek is scheming to have Fitzgerald removed from his job on grounds of racist behavior. Penhall has a lot to say, and much of it is interesting, but too much of the play is pure debate; when Fitzgerald produces a pamphlet from the World Health Organization and begins quoting figures about schizophrenia, you aren’t in least surprised. Meanwhile, there are plenty of plot holes: Would Ivanek’s character expound on his theories to Perrineau, who is, after all, a patient? Would Ivanek and Fitzgerald stage an angry debate in front of Perrineau? Would they badger him ruthlessly? Neil Pepe’s direction is no help; the actors play everything at the same feverish pitch, which is wearying, to say the least.

On the other hand, Robert Brill’s set, a white platform in a gray box, demonstrates once again his mastery of minimalist design. Brian MacDevitt’s clinical lighting is most notable in the second scene of Act I; the levels are quite dim, yet one can always see the actors’ faces; it’s a perfect combination of mood and theatrical utility. Laura Bauer’s costumes provide volumes of character information--compare Ivanek’s sleek suits with Fitzgerald’s dumpy slacks-and-sweater combinations. Scott Myers’ sound design is confined mostly to blasts of percussion between scenes. Blue/Orange was the most acclaimed play in London two seasons ago, proving once again that some cultural imports just don’t travel well.

Crowns is a new musical entertainment, adapted by Regina Taylor (who also directed) from Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s book of the same name, a volume of photos and essays celebrating black women and the elaborate hats they often wear to church services. The score consists mostly of traditional gospel songs. There is a vaguely articulated plot, about a troubled Brooklyn girl sent down south to live with her grandmother, where she learns much about church hats and other traditions of rural black life. Otherwise, this is an evening of music and testifying--sometimes sweet, sometimes funny, and, in at least one case, electrifying. Nevertheless, the show’s subject matter is stretched mighty thin, even at 90 minutes. The largely jubilant audience around me was mostly enthralled, but, to me, the overall effect was rather mild: The text’s humor is a little too commonplace, and its ideas are a bit too repetitive, for the production to have any strong impact. Nevertheless, Crowns benefits from a first-rate cast, led by the inimitable Lillias White, as sassy and devilish as ever; her rendition of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" stops the show so thoroughly that you wonder if they can ever get it started again. Ebony Jo-Ann is touching and funny as a lady whose collection of 200 hats seriously bemuses her husband. Lawrence Clayton, the only male performer, also makes a nice impression as variety of ministers, husbands, and brothers.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Like the show, the design has it strengths and weaknesses. Riccardo Hernandez’s setting is generally striking; its key features include a black wooden proscenium frame (bearing the words "Our crowns have been bought and paid for, and all we have to do is wear them"), two towering wooden walls on which the word "Crowns" is repeated over and over, and, at the rear of the stage, black masking that irises open to reveal various lighting effects. Emilio Sosa’s millinery work is fairly stunning, a seemingly endless procession of feathers, flowers, bows, trim, cones, sequins, stripes, veils, and furs. His costumes for the ladies, however, a series of what look like polyester wraparound dresses, are disappointing in comparison; they manage to be both busy and a little drab. Robert Perry’s lighting is generally proficient in the way that it reconfigures the stage on a moment-by-moment basis; still, some of his saturated color washes and patterns are, at times, a little too bold--they don’t always mesh well with the sets and costumes (His work on the current Boston Marriage is much more interesting). Darron L. West’s sound design starts out well, but the two-man musical combo occasionally drowns the ladies out. And why does actress Lynda Gravatt sport an enormous, intrusive face mic when nobody else does? Anyway, Crowns is, I suspect, going to be a very popular show. --David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Director Phillip Noyce, whose film The Quiet American was released just two weeks ago, just had another movie go into American release. Rabbit-Proof Fence is the true story of 14-year-old Aboriginal girl Molly Craig, who in 1931 led her younger sister and cousin 1,500 miles across the Australian outback on a mind-boggling journey home. The three girls were escaping from a government institution to which they had been forcibly taken for training as domestics, supposedly with the lofty goal of integrating them into white society. The title refers to a barrier that was erected to bisect the continent, north to south, and keep rabbits out of pasture land; the fence also becomes the girls’ guiding line back to their mothers.

I went to this movie expecting to get a harrowing dose of the ordeal Molly and her companions underwent, but Rabbit-Proof Fence seems designed as a children’s adventure story--even though the authorities are nipping at their heels the entire way, the girls’ trek looks largely trouble-free, and perhaps supernaturally blessed. Kenneth Branagh, cast as the chief exemplar of clueless white evildoing, has a whiff of the storybook villain about him, and the main characters, played by non-professional actors, are hardy yet somewhat lacking in human dimension. The result is a sweet, touching tale rather than something more profoundly moving. It must be said, however, that DP Christopher Doyle (who also shot The Quiet American) does a remarkable job of de-romanticizing the Australian landscape. With desaturation and slight overexposure he conveys the harshness of the outback--which after all, is a desert--to a degree not seen much previously. Roger Ford was responsible for the muted costume and production design. Most of the film was shot on locations in south Australia; enough long stretches of the fence remain than only pieces had to be built.

Photo: Miramax Films

This week’s major studio release is Analyze That, Harold Ramis’ sequel to the 1999 Analyze This, with Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal returning in their roles of a mobster and his shrink. Since the first film was released, a little thing called The Sopranos--which, of course, also features a mobster and his shrink--has landed its impact on popular culture: can this movie seem like anything but old news? Anyway, the movie is photographed by Ellen Kuras, whose name is more often associated with heavily styled Spike Lee movies and indie work like the recent Personal Velocity. Wynn Thomas and Aude Bronson-Howard, production and costume designer of Analyze This, do like duty here.--John Calhoun

Photo: Phillip V. Caruso/Warner Bros.

Heard on the Grapevine: Daredevil, the latest Marvel Comics character to get big-screen treatment, has been glimpsed on the streets of New York. It seems the Twentieth Century Fox movie, due out February 14, needed a little cover material from the actual Big Apple, since downtown L.A. subbed for the city during most of the shoot. Director of photography for the film, which stars Ben Affleck as the sight-impaired superhero, is Ericson Core. Visual effects supervisor is Rich Thorne, production designer is Barry Chusid, and costume designer is James Acheson--who, following Spider-Man, seems to have made superhero drag his specialty.--JC

Seen at the Garden and heard through earplugs: Axl Rose's Flying Circus, formally known as the new Guns N Roses. Whatever else you may say about the mercurial frontman, when the show actually does go on, he puts on a good one. On its current tour, in support of an as-yet-unreleased album (don't ask), the band, which includes former members of Primus and Nine Inch Nails plus an odd character named Buckethead (again, don't ask), fires on all cylinders and really gives its all to the crowd. The set design, by Roy Bennett, is an industrial, minimalist outline of an Asian pagoda made of curved and rusted-looking I-beam girders. Carrying on the theme of "Chinese Democracy" (the title of the aforementioned partially recorded and mixed album which may or may not be finished in the next several months), there is a backdrop of Chinese calligraphy that gets color washes. Over the bilevel stage (which includes video screens plus several ego ramps that get extensive use by all band members) is a collection of chandeliers with (I think) five LSD Icons on each and a pagoda-shaped peak on top. These raise and lower and tilt to create lots of different angles. A particularly evocative look is when they tilt toward the audience and the five points of light on each form a cross, giving the effect of a kind of Zen Gothic cathedral. Lighting designer Gary Westcott says Axl wanted a dark, minimalist, backlit show and that he doesn't like lights in his eyes, so that he can see the audience. Kudos to the MSG followspot staff who bravely carried on when Westcott's headset went down four times. Oh, and a number of songs get pyro treatment, including a curtain of falling sparks across the stage for the end of "November Rain," and each show ends with "Paradise City," which finishes with confetti cannons, spinning sparkler pinwheels across the top, and flame bursts from below. Rock on, Roses. --Amy L. Slingerland