Seen in New York City: This was the week for theatre from, and about, India. First came the powerful play, Sakharam Binder, by Vijay Tendulkar, one of India’s leading writers. Produced by The Play Company, and seen at 59 E 59 in Manhattan, this production must be a leading contender for the definitive American version of this play. The cast, featuring Bernard White in the title role, and Sarita Choudhury (star of Mississippi Masala), pulls you quickly into the emotional roller coaster of the story.
Set in a small two-room house, the action revolves around Sakharam Binder, a bookbinder, who collects women who have been cast off by their husbands. When we meet him he has just brought "bird" number seven into his humble abode, where he explains in no uncertain terms how he will treat them, which is rather roughly wifely duties included. Until number seven is replaced by number eight, played by Choudhury, who is not as meek as the others, and the tables begin to turn. The set, designed by Antje Ellermann is hyper-realistic and could easily be a very poor house in a back street of an Indian city. The colors seem washed out by the sun, and the furnishings are meager, yet there is a certain simple charm. Much of the action takes place on the floor, both in the kitchen and living room. The real color in the play comes from the costumes, designed by Katherine Roth. There is a parade of saris for the two women, ranging from somber tones to quite bright ones, while the men wear more traditional white Indian dress with brown jackets or coats. The lighting by Nicole Pearce helps the action in its many transitions (some of the scenes are only a few lines long) and helps define the time of day as the action moves from sun-filled mornings to the darkness of lonely nights. The sound design by Bart Fasbender ranges from haunting Indian songs to the caw of a crow outside the window. His freedom is something the characters in the play should aspire to. Well written, well directed (by Maria Mileaf), and well performed, the play provides an unusual glimpse into the daily life of a certain caste of Indian society, from an Indian point of view.
Another, rather different, look at India came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival by way of England. The play is A Passage To India, performed by a UK company called Shared Experience and directed by Nancy Meckler, artistic director of the company. This is more of an epic, based on E.M. Forster’s classic novel of the same name and set in colonial India. The play underscores the conflicts between the colonial British, and their Indian subjects, for whom they seem to have a serious dislike. Enter a young British woman who has come to see her boyfriend at work as the town magistrate. Things heat up when she wants to actually meet Indians and see the real India. A young Indian doctor offers an excursion to some nearby caves and a supposed assault on the young woman results in his imprisonment. Relationships are strained as the personal relationships echo those of the British and Indians in general.
The action takes place on a rather minimal set, designed by Niki Turner with a large burnished metal wall that runs across the stage and a wide platform that is moved downstage for certain scenes, and opens to reveal a fountain and various drawers. The wall also opens to reveal a tiny jail cell. Turner also designed the costumes, which range from traditional Indian dress to typical British colonial fare, the primary color overall being white, with beige and khaki accents. Chris Davey designed the lighting, which reflects both the hot tropical sun as well as the darkness of caves, prisons, and isolated roads at night. The production is attractive, with the primness of the British is symbolized by collar studs and long skirts even in the stifling heat of India. This is the kind of play rarely produced by an American company and BAM gets kudos for continually bringing this kind of work to our shores.
Seen at the Movies: From its very first images of a man jogging through a snowy Central Park and then collapsing, Jonathan Glazer’s Birth establishes a mood uncommon to American movies. We soon discover that the jogger was husband to Anna (Nicole Kidman), a wealthy Upper East Sider who still secretly mourns him a decade after his death, even in the midst of wedding plans with her fiancée (Danny Huston). Anna’s grief is brought to the surface when a ten-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) shows up at her door, claiming to be the idealized dead husband’s reincarnation. This strange story never fully resolves itself as a tale of the supernatural or as a more logically explained thriller, and this elusiveness will probably help seal its commercial fate. Also going against the tide is Glazer’s daring use of extended takes, including a shot of Kidman’s face at the opera that seems to last for a few minutes. But as a meditation on romantic obsession and protracted mourning, Birth cast a spell for those willing to succumb.
Along with Alexandre Desplat’s hushed symphonic score, DP Harris Savides’ work, full of wintery tones and compositions that often seem to derive from Bright’s eye level, is key to this spell. The movie’s greenish-yellow interior light—pitched halfway between warmth and near-vampiric cool—is discomfiting, as is the mausoleum-like character of the apartment Anna shares with her mother (Lauren Bacall, who hurls out a few dry zingers that give a jolt to the somber atmosphere) and several other family members. Kevin Thompson’s production design gives us well-heeled settings that viewers are unlikely to covet. Costume designer John A. Dunn’s work for Kidman—whose short hair and makeup give her the appearance of a vaguely devilish pixie—stunningly emphasizes her height and curviness, particularly a diaphanous evening gown she wears in the opera scene.
Pixar’s new digitally animated feature The Incredibles is going to be a big, big hit, which should help compensate director Brad Bird for the commercial failure of his traditionally animated Iron Giant several years ago. The two works, both set in a Space Age-style 60s, bear similarities to each other, though the earlier film seems to me to be more heartfelt. But The Incredibles is certainly entertaining. The main characters are super-strong Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and super-pliable Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), former superheroes and loving spouses who have renounced their gifts and settled into a comfortable, boring suburban existence. But when their children are born with gifts of their own, and the world is imperiled by the likes of an ungifted and jealous nemesis (Jason Lee), the Incredibles are inevitably called back into action.
Centering on stylized human characters and based in flattened out real-world environments, The Incredibles has a very different look than something like Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc., which strove to lend dimension and reality to more fantastic worlds. Working with Bird, production designer Lou Romano has conceptualized a beautifully cohesive look which can accommodate both the Incredibles’ modest tract home and the brutalist modern mansion of superhero uniform designer Edna ‘E’ Mode (voiced by Bird). Directors of photography Janet Lucroy, Patrick Lin, and Andrew Jimenez help give the film a widescreen pop look, and Michael Giacchino’s score evokes both Bond and Jonny Quest. The movie, with its Nietzschean themes and hard-sell action, strikes me as something of a cold thing, but it’s not going to put anyone to sleep.--John Calhoun
Seen in Brooklyn On Sunday, October 24, 2004 the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) unveiled its newly restored facade. This "unveiling" marked the completion of a two-year restoration of the exterior on this handsome landmark building designed by architects Hert and Tallant, and built in 1908. The current $8.6 million project was spearheaded by architect Hugh Hardy of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture in New York City. Major work includes the restoration of the terra-cotta ornamentation and the reconstruction of a 15'-tall parapet and cornice that had been removed almost 50 years ago. In 2005, the final phase of the project will be the addition of a 130'-long undulating glass entry canopy. Hardy has worked with BAM on capital improvements over the past decade, and will collaborate with architect Frank Gehry on the design of a new 300-seat venue for Theatre for a New Audience, located across the street from BAM.