Seen at the Movies:
James Cameron returns to the Titanic for Ghosts of the Abyss, the director’s first feature film since the 1997 Oscar winner. This 59-minute IMAX 3D excursion to the ship’s wreckage more than two miles down is, of course, an amazing technological accomplishment. The basis for shooting the film was the Reality Camera System™, designed by Cameron and DP Vince Pace, in collaboration with Sony. The system uses two side-by-side Sony HD-950 cameras in which the core imaging electronics have been decoupled from the rest of the circuitry, placing the lenses roughly the same distance apart as a pair of human eyes. This is what the production notes tell us, anyway.
There is also a deep-ocean titanium camera housing designed by the director’s brother Mike Cameron; the housing keeps the camera system from imploding and killing the passengers (including actor and narrator Bill Paxton) inside the submersible vehicle on which it’s mounted. Lighting the wreckage is a deep-sea lighting platform called Medusa, which was custom-built by Phoenix Engineering in Virginia. It illuminates the Titanic's remains with 12,000W worth of diffused HMI light. Finally, there are two remotely operated vehicles that, tethered to the submersibles, roam the wreckage and send back images of staircases and cabins and other tight spaces. In a touch that almost seems scripted, one of these vehicles, nicknamed Elwood and Jake, is lost and has to be rescued.
Ghosts of the Abyss photos: Buena Vista Pictures
I’m not a big fan of 3D films in general; I like the clear parameters of a movie screen. Ghosts of the Abyss largely eschews the gimmickry--objects thrusting or being thrown towards the viewer, for example--that has typified much of the genre. In the final analysis, I’m not sure the picture gains anything through the process. The exploration of the 90-year-old rusticle-covered wreckage, and the chance to glimpse poignant details like a water glass undisturbed in its stateroom holder, is breathtaking enough. Not content to let such elements stand on their own, however, Cameron has taken the dubious approach of staging ghostly recreations. We’ll see a deck in the shipwreck, then we’ll see it morph into its original unruined self, with translucent period-clad extras moving about. None of this is taken from the 1997 film; Cameron went back to Fox Studios in Baja and staged a mini-version of his epic. This arguably has the unwanted effect of making you question everything you see. I mean, I do believe that Cameron and his crew visited and shot the actual Titanic, but psychologically, these recreations work against the requisite feeling of awe.
XX/XY photo: IFC Films
On a scale so much smaller as to make the film business seem surreal, another of today’s movie openings is Austin Chick’s XX/XY. This potent little film focuses on a man (Mark Ruffalo) and two women (Maya Stange and Kathleen Robertson) who engage in three-way sex the night that they meet, and deal with the emotional ramifications for years afterwards. The movie has an interesting production history, because it was planned as a DV feature until DP Uta Briesewitz managed to obtain a camera equipment grant from Panavision. Besides being strongly acted, XX/XY has an elegant visual design, courtesy of Briesewitz, production designer Judy Becker, and costume designer Sarah Beers. The first part is handheld and jittery, and shot under harsh fluorescent lights. The second half, which takes place 10 years later, relies on more muted tones and static compositions. It’s a modest independent film that’s well worth seeing. --John Calhoun
Seen Off Broadway: The Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street doubles as the Grand Ole Opry, at least for a few numbers in Hank Williams: Lost Highway, an earnest little musical with some great music. Jason Petty in the title role is excellent, thanks to his great voice and handsome presence. The other musicians in Hank’s band, the Drifting Cowboys, are excellent as well, providing some real hillbilly music to liven things up. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt did a great job as well, especially with some painted farmyard backdrops for the Grand Ole Opry numbers that are quite kitsch and great fun. The center stage, where the band plays, is flanked with a period (late 1940s) diner on stage left and the porch of a local country store stage right. Sitting on the porch throughout is Tee-Tot, a character based on a black street singer who taught Williams his first chops. Boritt added piles of period props to both the diner and the porch, with everything from a gas pump to old signs, a washboard, moonshine jug, and a diner sign with a clock and the words "Time to Eat." The costumes by Robert Blackman included period-style dresses for Williams’ wife and mother, and some handsome cowboy shirts for Hank and the boys. As Williams made it higher and higher on the country music ladder, his clothes followed suit, culminating with rhinestone-studded shirts and a white suit embroidered with black musical notes. LD Don Darnutzer was limited by the period; moving lights would have been out of place. Janet Kalas did a great job with the sound design; the voices and instruments were as clear as can be. Sadly, Williams had serious drinking and prescription drug abuse problems, and was dead by the age of 29. For his fans, it’s nice that Petty is keeping the legend alive. --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Brace Up! photo: Paula Court
Seen in Brooklyn: DUMBO (the neighborhood "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass") is the newest hotbed for downtown performance art, so it's perfectly fitting that the Wooster Group was recently seen at St. Ann’s Warehouse space on Water Street. Founded in 1975, the Wooster Group has long been on the cutting edge of experimental theatre, and its 2003 revival/reworking of the 1991 "classic" Brace Up simply confirms the consistency of its work. Brace Up is basically a deconstructed version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters (they don’t get to Moscow in this version either!). In a translation by the late Paul Schmidt (who originated the role of Doctor Chebutykin in Brace Up), the play has been dissected so that only key scenes are played out, with a narrator telling the audience what goes on in between the scenes. Several of the characters are seen on video at times, although they are actually seen upstage "on camera" as well as onstage "on monitors." The video elements are by Christopher Condek and J. Reid Farrington with live video images mixed with other images that bring a sense of the outside world into the house where, as in all Chekhov plays, an unhappy Russian family kvetches about its lot in life. The Wooster Group includes some wonderful actors, especially Kate Valk, who plays both Masha and the narrator, and (my favorite) Willem Dafoe, who now plays the role of Vershinin (Dafoe originated the role of Andrei, and has now replaced the late Ron Vawter as Vershinin). The action takes place on an open set, designed by Jim Clayburgh, covered with linoleum. TV sets and various chairs (some covered in fur lap rugs) and props are wheeled about, while upstage the actors drink vodka or are simply in conversation. The lighting by Jennifer Tipton includes some exposed light boxes stage right with fluorescent tubes that also serve as panels to mask actors offstage. Costumes are credited to The Wooster Group with Elizabeth Jenyon and Tara Webb, and are an eclectic collection of contemporary clothes with Russian overtones, such as printed fabrics and long tunics that evoke the Steppes. Over a decade ago, Brace Up was quite cutting-edge, and the new version seems just as fresh. Nothing old hat here. --ELG
Flavio photo: Carol Rosegg
Seen at Lincoln Center: New York City Opera really outdid itself design-wise with its new production of Handel’s charming 1723 opera, Flavio. The opera itself is a story of love, loyalty, and rollicking royalty, set in the court of the foppish King Flavio in the mythical kingdom of Lombardy, Italy. The plot is complicated but the sumptuous costumes by David Zinn are color-coded to help the audience follow the action. The king and his retinue are in shades of green, from shimmering lime to sparkling emerald, while the lovely young Teodata, her father Ugone, and her brother Guido (in an outstanding performance by countertenor Bejun Mehta) are in shades of red, from hot pink to ripe tomato. In contrast, Emilia and her father Lotario are in pale blue and white. Zinn is a master of visual coquetry, in both the costumes and the decor, both designed with a thoughtful playfulness. The action opens with two small houses onstage; one has a balcony for a love duet and the other opens to reveal a colorful interior with bright blue-and-yellow flowered wallpaper. The king’s court is a series of green patterned walls with a row of small lights as a frieze at the top, and tall green hedges sliding in and out for different scenes. Flower boxes also appear with hot pink flowers, and one yellow daisy that slips out of the king’s grasp. The floor is two-tone green, as if the gardener carefully cut variegated stripes into the royal lawn. Flavio’s throne is a French-style chair with large wings, and as he falls in love with Teodata, her pink palette invades his green world, from the flowers to a scarf he wears over his eyes while aiming an arrow toward a red target. The direction by Chas Rader-Shieber is as lively as the music, and Lenore Doxsee’s lighting includes a star curtain and wall of changing color upstage, adding depth and deeper tones to the set. Flavio marked the New York City Opera debut for Rader-Shieber, as well as Zinn and Doxsee. This is a director-designer troika definitely worth keeping an eye on. --ELG
Heard from the Road: Billy Corgan, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins, is currently out on the road with his new band, Zwan, for its first official US tour. The lighting designer is Lawrence Upton, who has worked with Corgan since 1993. Co-lighting designer and programmer is Brad Schiller, and the lighting crew chief is Adam Burton. The lighting system, supplied by VLPS, includes eight Vari*Lite® VL2000™ wash luminaires, 14 VL5B™ wash luminaires, 10 VL6C™ spot luminaires, four High End Systems Turbo Cyberlights®, 12 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, 10 Diversitronics 3kW strobes, one Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II console with expansion wings, two Cirro Stratta hazers, one High End F-100 fogger, 65' of 12" silver box truss, 80' of 20.5" silver box truss, nine half-ton motors, three 8'x11' custom bleached muslin cycs, two custom bleached muslin sails, and one custom white sharkstooth trapezoid scrim. "For Zwan, we used a different color palette than we have in the past. The album’s artwork is stylized in a 1960s style with many pastel colors," says Schiller. "Lawrence chose a custom set of colors for the VL6Cs and specifically selected the VL5Bs due to their great pastels. Then we set out to add more pastels to our color palette as well as make use of complementary contrasting colors within the cues." The overall design of the rig is very flexible, as it needs to be able to fit into many different-sized venues. The backdrop can range from one to three sections while still maintaining the conceptual look of the show, and also allows for future expansion. "If Zwan decides to continue on to theatres or arenas, the rig is ready to grow from this initial concept," says Upton. "I am thrilled that we can make our 40-fixture rig look as big as a 100-fixture rig. The combination of fixture placement and programming positions allow for some very big looks. Then, when we need to, we are able to accentuate the subtle elements of the music. Zwan is an awesome band that puts on an awesome show, and I try to match their energy and creativity every night." --ELG
The Women of Lockerbie photo: Carol Rosegg
Seen Off Broadway: In The Women of Lockerbie, Judith Ivey and Larry Pine play Madeline and Bill, an American couple who visit Lockerbie, Scotland, seven years after their son’s death in the terrorist-caused plane crash there. Madeline hasn’t accepted her son’s death; desperately, she roams the moors outside of town, searching for his never-to-be found remains. Bill, at wit’s end, searches for her; instead, he encounters a group of local women who are battling the US government for control of the victims’ luggage. The ladies want to wash the clothing and return it to the victims’ families, in a kind of healing gesture. And so the stage is set for a series of mawkish, tearful confrontations, in which everybody tries to outdo everyone else in expressing the magnitude of his or her grief. The Women of Lockerbie is unquestionably sincere, but that doesn’t save it from being offensive. Playwright Deborah Brevoort ignores any discussion of history or politics, concentrating on self-help clichés about the mourning process. In her simple-minded rendition, one good cry is all these sufferers really need. (I kept scanning the heights of Derek McLane’s tiered mountain-range set, looking for Oprah Winfrey to appear, microphone in hand). The Lockerbie ladies are a Greek chorus in tweeds (weirdly color-coordinated outfits by Mattie Ullrich), full of concern and platitudes. In fact, the entire play is modeled on Greek tragedy, with results that are stilted and off-putting. The actors are, to a person, highly professional, although they don’t get much help from Scott Elliott’s blocky staging. Jason Lyons’ lighting uses long, slow cues from overhead moving units (which remain stationary) to suggest a long night’s journey into day, with restrained sidelight to pick out the actors. It’s striking work, although, at times, I wanted to see the actors’ faces more. Ken Travis’ sound design consists of a few effects, well-rendered. Nevertheless, this is the latest in a series of disappointments for Ivey, who is one of the greatest stage actresses of her generation. According to her program bio, she just starred in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Alley Theatre. Can’t somebody bring that production here? --David Barbour