Seen At BAM
When I heard that choreographer David Gordon and his dancer/actress wife, Valda Setterfield, were going to appear in Ionesco’s The Chairs in the Next Wave Festival, I must admit I was surprised. Isn’t this a piece for an older couple, I thought. But the program lets on that Grodon is 68 and Setterfield is 70, so I guess they are old enough (looks like the avant-garde is aging!). In any case I immediately thought of their Chair, Gordon’s earlier work with chairs, that now must be almost 30 years old. And actually the first part of The Chairs includes video clips from the former production. Not that one really has anything directly to do with the other, but they form an interesting pair of parentheses around Gordon’s career. Ionesco’s play was translated by Michael Feingold, who gave it a contemporary feel as well as transfused it with the kind of humor that Gordon feels comfortable with (a slightly Jewish shtick). Ionesco certainly did not refer to anyone’s native land as the Lower East Side. Feingold, or at least Gordon, does. The action is set on a bare stage that is covered then uncovered with the pages of the script that are then handed back to Gordon one by one. He reads his lines, then throws the pages back on the floor. Two large wooden doorways on wheels are moved about as several dozen black metal folding chairs are crowded into the imaginary room where the old couple welcome a crowd of imaginary guests. Two other dancers help move the chairs, and toward the end of the play, hold up a series of signs with phrases taken from Gordon’s life-defining monologue. Jennifer Tipton created spare yet effective lighting, without much use of color, and with sources both overhead and on the balcony rail, as well as low sidelight positions. Live music by Michael Gordon (no relation we are told) was played by cellist Wendy Sutter, providing a counterpoint to the text. Anyone expecting a straightforward production of The Chairs (is anything ever straightforward in the theatre of the absurd?), may have been surprised, but anyone who has seen David and Valda perform over the years will certainly be charmed by their wonderful performances as a couple as old as the hills who still call each other Pussycat and Cookie!–Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen At Lincoln Center
Belle Epoque, the current production by Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, is credited as a new work by Martha Clarke and Charles L. Mee, but the real collaboration is between Clarke and French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Clarke takes us into the seamy underside of Paris, into a Montmartre cafe peopled by prostitutes and dancers from the nearby Moulin Rouge. Toulouse-Lautrec (who was under five feet tall) is played by Mark Povinelli, an actor who stands under 4’ tall. He is quite convincing in his portrayal of the artist, who brushed aside his aristocratic family to live with those on the fringes of society, a milieu where he felt more accepted, although he sunk into drunken depressions and eventually died of syphilis. Clarke takes images from Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous paintings and brings them alive through song and dance, as well as costumes that recreate the originals closely. Set designer Robert Israel has created a perfectly seedy cafe atmosphere, where the words Absinthe and Vermouth are stenciled on the doors and two large gilt-framed mirrors line the upstage wall. Cafe tables, chairs and a spinet piano leave room for the dancers (who treat us to several few brief moments of the can-can) and a singer (played by Joyce Castle) whose songs, in French and English, have a note of nostalgia to them. The costumes, by Jane Greenwood evoke late 19th century Paris, including corsets and small bustles for the women, and tailcoats for some of the men. Christopher Akerlind added to the ambiance with soft, filtered light (as if coming in through dirty windows) that often became harsh as the emotions in the action heat up. The opening scene is of Toulouse-Lautrec, despondent in the cafe, alone, his head on the table, next to a bottle of his favorite poison, absinthe. The bottle, a glass, and a tray are singled out in a spot of light creating a dramatic entry into the piece, while the lighting in other scenes seems to echo the use of light and shadow in the paintings. The sound designer is Scott Stauffer who did a nice job with the clarity of the voices and piano. Clarke has always created strong visual moments on stage (who could ever forget Flora the elephant?), and with Toulouse-Lautrec as an artistic reference she has once again created a visual romp!–Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen At The Movies
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement is a typically ambitious and technically accomplished film for the director. At nearly $60 million, it’s also possibly the most expensive movie ever produced by France, though controversially on its home turf, much of the project was bankrolled by Warner Bros. The film, which is based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, tells the story of Mathilde (Amélie’s Audrey Tautou), a young woman who refuses to believe her fiancé was killed on a World War I battlefield, and goes in search of clues and other survivors who will lead her to him.

This is rather gritty, realistic material for the director of Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, and the aforementioned Amélie, but Jeunet’s approach here isn’t substantially different. During a press junket interview for the movie, he said, "Since Delicatessen, I like to use technology. We have something like 300 digital shots. For a historical film, it’s very useful, because you can erase jet streams from the sky, and you can invent something like a train station at the beginning of the century." The latter is one of the impressive period sets designed by Aline Bonetto, and extended by digital effects designer Alain Carsoux’s crew at Duboi. The use of a digital intermediate for postproduction timing gave Jeunet maximum flexibility to play with color. "The reference for my DP, Bruno Delbonnel, and me was The Godfather II," Jeunet said. "We worked in a sort of sepia with some [splashes of] color, because with the digital you can do masking. It was impossible to do that ten years ago."

The most elaborate sets Bonetto created were the battlefields, with the trenches that inevitably recall Paths of Glory. To help plan the scenes that would take place in these foxholes, Bonetto had a seven-meter long model created; when built, the real system of trenches and tunnels was about 200 meters in length. Referring to the model, Jeunet said, "We had to figure out the problem, because we could have gotten stuck, in the real sense of the word. But I love the technical problems, and the money problems. When you make a decision, and you do a hundred times per day, you have to think about money, technical, artistic, logistic, and narrative problems immediately."

A Very Long Engagement’s combination of stark wartime reality and whimsy can be tough to swallow, and Tautou relies way too much on her big brown eyes and adorable manner. When Jodie Foster turns up in a small, French-speaking role, you think, "right, here’s a real actress, and a real movie star." But the movie is an undeniably an example of first-rate craftsmanship, with costume designer Madeline Fontaine and sound editor Gérard Hardy (groovy whizzing bullets) also deserving mention.

UK director John Deery’s Conspiracy of Silence is a well meaning look at sexuality, the incidence of the HIV virus, and the cover-ups of such issues in the Catholic priesthood, but the movie is undone by its melodramatic plot and execution. The cast of mostly Irish actors, including Jonathan Forbes, Jason Barry, Brenda Fricker, Hugh Bonneville, and John Lynch, is very talented and capable, but too many are limited to two-dimensional villainy (the bishops and senior priests) or crusading goodness (a reporter and seminary student expelled for suspected homosexual behavior). Jason Lehel’s cinematography is atmospheric enough to substitute Cornwall for rural Ireland. Production designer John Ebden was charged with doubling the Vatican at Greenwich’s Royal Naval College. I would never have known the difference, but then I don’t know Greenwich.–John Calhoun

Seen On Broadway
Democracy is the latest erudite head-scratcher from playwright Michael Frayn, whose Copenhagen was one of the most bafflingly beautiful plays of recent seasons. Here Frayn substitutes physics for politics for a new fact-based tale about the inscrutability of human desire, and while I knew I would never quite grasp the Heisenberg principle the last time out I have to admit the intricacies of German coalition parties in the early 1970s, which I thought might be easier to absorb, were almost at daunting, at least at first. "Eleven separate democracies tied up in a federation like ferrets in a bag," is how West Germany is described early on, and Willy Brandt (James Naughton), elected chancellor in 1969, tries to unify the divided factions, and extend the power of the majority Social Democrats, while making overtures to East Germany.

It’s not an easy task, complicated by subtle power plays; Robert Prosky, cast as a party kingmaker, harrumphs like Sydney Greenstreet as he manipulates the political landscape. A further deterrent is Brandt’s own fractured nature; boldly statesmanlike in public, melancholy and indecisive in private, given to drink and womanizing, and possibly suicidal, as Naughton tiptoes to the very edge of the second level of Peter J. Davidson’s two-tiered set when the bleakness becomes unbearable. His loyal aide, Gunter Guillaume (Richard Thomas), keeps the red wine, the women, and the jokes coming, and emerges from the margins, "a hat stand in the corner," to a position of prominence, soon privy to state as well as personal secrets. But Guillaume is an East German spy, who reports to a controller (Michael Cumpsty) positioned to the side of the stage. The staging, by director Michael Blakemore (a frequent Frayn collaborator), is felicitous; Guillaume’s dispatches, often wryly humorous, help untangle with politics, the arena of the show but not its core.

There are several things going on here: A smartly acted comedy of manners among the wheeler-dealers, and a love story, as Guillaume, initially dismissed as a "greasy" operator, becomes completely infatuated with Brandt. In one key scene, I think a blending of Mark Henderson’s mathematically judged lighting (from PRG) suggests that Brandt, talking freely of the masks he wore and identities he assumed earlier in his life, returns the affection. A nice twist throughout is that the two men peer into each other’s souls but never comprehend the surfaces, whereas a typical story of this type goes in precisely the other direction. Whatever you think, Democracy is several notches above other Broadway fare this season, and is commendable simply for having more than one person onstage, talking more about issues and less about themselves.

One thing I really don’t know what to make of is Davidson’s set, supplied by Hudson Scenic Studio Co. I don’t think it’s the interior of Bonn’s Palais Schaumburg in the 1970s, unless it looked like a modernist shoe store in Soho, with creamy white walls and attractively, attentively color-coded files lining them, instead of designer footwear. The abstraction, which suited the more ethereal Copenhagen, wasn’t necessary this time around, and the use of one panel for sporadic projection effects is a mistake (a rainstorm, for example, is ably enough suggested by an umbrella and environmental sound; at the very least, the awfully noisy, dialogue-drowning machine that’s being used should be replaced with a quieter unit). Other concepts, like the use of cascading party ribbons in Act I to indicate triumph and its discontents, are more successful. Unlike the set, Sue Willmington’s conservative costuming (by Ajit Custom Taylor) is rooted in time and place, and is the stronger for it. [And, however it was achieved, there’s real stage magic at work, from Naughton and the designers, when the brooding Brandt perceptibly ages, without any showoffy gimmicks.] Most striking, however, is Neil Alexander’s sound design (equipment by Sound Associates), with ambient noises that pinpoint portions of the Brooks Atkinson, swells of handclaps and cheers (from the direction of the audience) when Brandt makes a speech, and a rising, deepening crescendo of hammers when Germany’s national identity crisis is resolved by the march of history.

Democratic principles closer to home get put to the test in Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose’s warhorse of a teleplay and a screenplay, now assuredly and surprisingly revivified by its first Broadway mounting. The straight-ahead direction of Scott Ellis is a real asset (there’s no dawdling whatsoever in its 95 tightly wound minutes) and so is a cast of rumpled New York stage veterans like Boyd Gaines, Philip Bosco, Tom Aldredge, and Larry Bryggman, all of whom look like they just walked over from Port Authority to the American Airlines Theatre to begin deliberations. The story of a lone juror, the holdout in what seems to be an open-and-shut death penalty case, and his gradual swaying of opinion in the face of fierce opposition, is a nail-biter even if you remember the film versions, or starred in one of the mongrel stage versions popular with high schools and small theater groups.

I think the reason why this version works so well, however, is that the environment is perfect, absolutely lifelike. The Lower Manhattan jury room I sat in five years ago is to the smallest detail replicated (like the musty overhead fluorescent lights, thick with decades of grime)—and that’s saying something, given that the play takes place in 1954 and nothing substantive has changed in jury room décor in 50 years. Set designer Allen Moyer really took me back to that experience. [One very minor quibble is the relative cleanliness of the adjoining bathroom, which makes a surprise appearance via Hyde Power Systems’ automated scenic control.] You can feel the staleness of the late summer light, seeping hotly though wanly through dirty windows, conjured by LD Paul Palazzo (with Fourth Phase units); smell the sweat and the cigarette smoke on Michael Krass’s character-defining costumes; and hear the groaning and whirring of the city, audio devised by Brian Ronanon Sound Associates equipment. It’s captivating work that further enriches an American classic, and one jury summons I was glad I received.–Robert Cashill

Mark A. Newman's Verdict: Twelve Angry Men has held up well since its initial television production on Playhouse 90 back in the Eisenhower administration. It is interesting to note how little has changed in the psyche of the typical American WHITE male since the advent of the cold war. The play could also work as a comment on the current turbulent times in the US; as in the play some people are analytical and thoughtful while others would just as soon send someone to die whose skin was darker than their own. Everything old is new again. Moyer’s set is the centerpiece of the show. It’s a jury room in a government building in New York City in the middle of the last century. Nothing fancy to be sure but it is certainly a lesson in modern architectural pitfalls. When the fluorescent lighting kicks in later in the show, you’re glad you’re not on this jury. Just looking at the set you can probably assume that the real version of this jury room was loaded with lead paint and asbestos. Who needs the death penalty? Palazzo’s lighting was masterful in its simplicity as well as for its perfect simulation of a fading summer day beyond the jury room windows. When a sudden thunderstorm erupts, you feel the sticky humidity that comes with it. And the aforementioned fluorescent lights bring a stark reality to the once lazy proceedings. Maybe it was the fluorescent tubes that ignited the tirades in the play’s latter half. Krass was as instrumental as Moyer in setting the scene. It would have been easier for the costumer had the revival updated the play to present day, but who wants to go to Macy’s when you can explore the recent past? The sound design created by Ronan was on par with the rest of the design team’s work, although I thought the sound of a screeching subway car was a bit gratuitous at the play’s outset; the jury room was at least on the second floor so subway noise would not be heard. Also, the train was only heard once in 100 minutes so commuters had a long wait if they missed the last one.

The Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures has got to be one of the most striking productions in recent history. Never a fan of Sondheim’s particular brand of discordant show tune, I approached the show with more than a fair amount of trepidation. Under the deft direction of Amon Miyamoto, I am happy to report that my expectations were exceeded, especially with respect to the performances and the show’s visual and aural elegance.

Pacific Overtures tells the tale of how America and the rest of the Western world attempted to establish contact with Japan in the middle of the 19th Century in order set up trade, use the island nation’s ports, etc. Throughout the show change occurs slowly and is represented by the Westernization of Kayama who goes from being a simple samurai to finally becoming governor, mainly to be the point person to deal with the damn, dirty Americans. In doing so, Kayama becomes immersed in Western customs—wine, bowler hats, eyeglasses, pants. His aide in dealing with the Americans is Manjiro, a fisherman who was rescued by Americans at age 14, raised and educated in New England, and has returned to Japan (leaving and returning to Japan were crimes punished by death in those days) to instruct his people on the best ways to deal with the new visitors.

As Kayama becomes more westernized, Manjiro becomes more entrenched in Japan’s traditions, eventually becoming a top samurai. The two men’s friendship is a centerpiece of the tale that begins with redemption and ends in tragedy. Paolo Montalban portrays Manjiro with complexity and dignity as a simple man who is torn between his Japanese roots and his Americanization, but ultimately finds solace in his birth country’s rich traditions. Anyone who has journeyed from their birthplace to a new land can certainly identify. However, the breakout performance of the evening belongs to Michael K. Lee who portrays Kayama, who transforms from a meek civil servant to a lapdog of foreign interests, all at his own government’s request. Lee’s emotional depth from semi-slapstick to deep loss and finally to acceptance and complacency is at once heartbreaking and compelling. I had never heard of Lee before Pacific Overtures but his performance will surely be the beginning of a long, successful career on Broadway and elsewhere. With a powerful voice that belies his timid appearance as Kayama, Lee will be a performer that we will see more of in the future.

Brian MacDevitt’s lighting successfully evoked the mystery of the land of the rising sun. Special effects were minimal, but that is the nature of the show. Whether illuminating the sea side or a temple, the lighting provided the perfect counterpart to the light-colored wood of the set. More importantly, the lighting did not detract from the gorgeous costumes by Junko Koshino. By outfitting the cast in traditional Japanese robes, I doubt there were many in Studio 54 who were not longing for such a comfortable garb. The costumes became even more striking when sharing the stage with the American sailors of Commodore Perry’s armada who were clad in dark blue coats fitted with golden buttons and epaulettes. As is the tradition in Japanese Noh theatre, masks were used to represent Westerners, and also because it was an all-Asian cast. Masks are traditionally used to represent five categories: gods, demons, men, women, and the elderly. Not surprisingly, the Westerners from America, England, France, Russia, and Holland were demonized. Beautifully capturing the nuances of typical Western musical instruments in concert with traditional Japanese musical instruments, Dan Moises Schreier’s sound design ably brought Far East sounds into Studio 54.

The sets by Rumi Matsui are constructed out of cypress and is surrounded on all sides (other than the backstage, I would imagine) by water to represent the island of Japan, a floating and calm holy land. By separating the stage from the audience with water, the auditorium of Studio 54 represents America and the rest of the world who–as told in the story–are trying their darnedest to establish trade with Japan. The set is striking in its simplicity and stark beauty. Even in the most harrowing scenes, the set gives off a feeling of serenity as the audience witnesses the history of Japan’s contact with the rest of the world in a fast-forwarded segment that includes the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At that point the great cypress beams tumble to the stage and stay there for the rest of the show indicating that yes, Japan has been changed, but it will only become stronger. Don’t believe me? What are you driving, watching, reading this article on, or listening to? –Mark A. Newman

Seen In San Francisco
The Magic Theatre’s production of The Opposite of Sex was a nicely packaged theatrical treat at the company’s facility in the refurbished Fort Mason Center. The Magic’s Sam Shepard Theatre was ideally suited to the intimate musical. If there is an off-Broadway future for the show, Dodger Stages new facility would be an ideal New York home for it. Based on the movie of the same name that starred Christina Ricci as a remorseless brat who wreaks havoc on her gay half-brother’s life, the musical flows surprisingly well and manages to keep the best aspects of the movie intact. Ricci’s character—Deedee—is hatefully played by Kerry Butler. Make no mistake: you do not leave the theatre rooting for Deedee to overcome adversity; you just hope she has the decency to stay out of her brother’s life once and for all.

The set design by Derek McLane (who’s billed as "scenic consultant") is ably minimalistic, which is an almost welcome sight in an age where so many shows where the set becomes a character. The most expansive part of the set is a typical bed that is used as, well, a typical bed. Even the characters comment on the scenic sparseness—when two folding chairs are pulled onstage by a character, Deedee tells the audience that it’s supposed to be a car.

The sound by Jonathan Deans who was billed as a consultant and Daryl Frame, the sound designer, was certainly top notch as were the costumes that went from white trash to preppy to slacker in the blink of an eye. Since Patricia Field was the costume consultant, how could you get anything less? No need for flash; these were just regular folks, some from the wrong side of the tracks while others hailed from right in the middle of them (and even one was stopped dead in his tracks!). Norm Schwab’s lighting design managed to convey the emotions and, more importantly, the scene changes from Louisiana to Indiana to Southern California. Schwab’s lighting was the driving scenic element in a show that proved to be a hit with audiences even though most in the audience would love to hit Deedee upside her stubborn, selfish little head.–Mark A. Newman