Wednesday, October 29, 2014

FILM REVIEW: FORCE MAJEURE

A scene from Force Majeure.
Accidents will dampen

By Ed Rampell

A French term literally translated as 'greater force,'" force majeure is a clause included in contracts to remove liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and restrict participants from fulfilling obligations.” A so-called “act of god” is a good example of this, and one such occurrence sets the stage for the plot and theme of Force Majeure, a stylish Swedish movie written and directed by Ruben Östlund that scored the Cannes Film Festival’s Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard.

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kunke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are a Swedish middle class couple vacationing in the French Alps with their young son and daughter. In a bit of clever casting, Vera and Harry are played by real life sister and brother, Clara and Vincent Wettergren. Some sly dialogue in passing fills us in on the fact that this ski holiday is a rarity, as Tomas is so busy with his career. These throwaway lines inform what happens next.

Your reviewer won’t tell you exactly what that is. Except to say that in this precarious world of climate change, war and the like, this morality play ponders what we’d do when faced with a force majure.

(Some reviewers, such as at least one of KPCC’s blabbermouths on FilmWeek, belong to “The Edward Snowden School of Movie Reviewing." willy-nilly revealing punchlines, plot points and the like, spoiling viewers’ own joy of discovery, because these WikiLeak-type bigmouths are probably trying to enhance their own reviews by misappropriating films’ best jokes, storylines, etc., to burnish their lackluster coverage.)

The perpetrator of the apparent misdeed is in denial over the course of action (uh, or lack of) when the titular force majeure happens, which rocks the marriage and parent-child relationships to the core. The film becomes an examination of gender roles, marital relations, parental responsibility and of this petit bourgeois couple and their children. Interaction with a janitor at the posh Alpine resort where the family is vacationing also cannily injects a class dimension into the story. As things come undone the perp seeks redemption.

As recently observed in a review of August Strindbergs The Dance of Death by L.A.’s A Noise Within theatre company, Force Majeure is also in a long line of “arts reflecting the Scandinavian psyche, including dramatists Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, painter Edvard Munch, filmmakers Victor Sjöström, Carl Theodor Dreyer and of course Ingmar Bergman... Even the marriage of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the fictionalized first female prime minister of Denmark in the stellar Danish TV series Borgen, falls apart -- not even her nation’s most powerful person can keep her marriage together.”

But for this me, Force Majeure is most in keeping with the theme of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. In any case, there is some stunning cinematography of ski and snow. Plus excellent use of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”  Also, the ending of this highly philosophical film reminded me of Luis Bunuel’s 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- but since loose lips sink ships, you can find out for yourself what is meant by that.  

 

 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

STAGE REVIEW: THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THOMAS JEFFERSON, CHARLES DICKENS AND COUNT LEO TOLSTOY: DISCORD

A scene from The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. Photo by Michael Lamont.
Word up

By Ed Rampell
 
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a play featuring three characters known for being writers -- and philosophical ones, at that -- is bound to be talky. As its rather longwinded title indicates, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord has many words. Scott Carter’s play’s premise is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, in that in the hereafter the three title characters are eternally confined to quarters with one another. But instead of, as Sartre’s cowardly character Joseph Garcin put it, “hell is other people," Hades is hearing self-important blowhards hold forth for all eternity.
 
Or, perhaps heaven, as we’re never entirely sure where our titular trio of chatterboxes wind up. (Albeit for only 85 straight minutes, not, thankfully, perpetuity -- although when they discuss Jesus it does begin to feel like time without end). Fortunately, the three thesps who bring the idealistic scribblers to life are all accomplished actors of stage and screen who often succeed in making Carter’s philosopho-palooza engaging, entertaining, and dare I say, at times enlightening.
 
David Melville, a Shakespearean actor of English origins, hams it up as his fellow countryman Charles Dickens. In fact, Melville’s scenery chewing and scene stealing kinetic kleptomania may have fans of the author of Oliver Twist shouting: “What the Dickens?” One wonders if Dickens acted so boorishly and buffoonishly. Melville’s comical performance reminded this spectator of the zany Alan Seus, on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. In any case, Melville’s hammy performance injects a needed note of hilarity into what could otherwise have been a very dull play. Indeed, Ralph Fiennes’ preternaturally boring 2013 film, The Invisible Woman, which trod some of the same territory as The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, was the stinkeroo of last year’s AFI filmfest. (Speaking of the afterlife, when this writer dies he’ll ask St. Peter to give him back the three hours he wasted at that screening the fiendish Fiennes was late for, by taking them away from Fiennes and returning the lost time to him in order to enjoy a few more hours on Earth.)
 
This Melvillean take on Dickens is in sharp contrast to Larry Cedar’s Jefferson (who appeared in 1776 -- although not as Jefferson -- and in HBO’s Deadwood series, as well as the one-man show Orwellian). Whereas Melville’s Dickens is daffy, Cedar is dour; Melville is wild, Cedar is wry. As Leo “Don’t Call Me Count!” Tolstoy Armin Shimerman shimmers as an over the top novelist (he portrayed Star Trek, Deep Space Nine’s Quark and appeared on Broadway in Three Penny Opera). Racing around the stage in his peasant getup, fright wig and stagey beard Shimerman seemed to this reviewer more like Rasputin than the author War and Peace, but what does your humble scribe know?
 
This production helmed by veteran director Matt August makes deft use of stagecraft and special effects to break up the characters’ interminable prattle, trying to figure out why they are thrown together and then pondering the meaning of life. This creative team includes lighting designer Luke Moyer, sound designer Cricket Myers, projection designer Jeffrey Elias Teeter and to a lesser extent scenic designer Takeshita, as the set per se is pretty minimal.
 
Since 1993, playwright Carter has been Bill Maher’s executive producer, from the comic’s Politically Incorrect days on Comedy Central and then ABC, to HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Carter tries to replicate Maher’s formula of mixing punditry, patter and pleasantries in Discord, hence Melville’s -- and to a lesser extent Shimerman’s -- comic relief. When the one-acter descends into dissertations on the New Testament it reminded this critic of Kevin Smith’s obscure, doctrinal asides on Catholicism in his film, Dogma, and is strictly snoresville for this secular humanist atheist (like Maher!) and non-Christian. Seriously dude, this ain’t a passion play and if this scribe wanted to listen to tedious New Testament dissertations, on Sundays he’d head for the nearest steeple -- where this biblical blather belongs -- not the stage, where it doesn’t (at least, not since the Dark Ages).
 
But when Jefferson and company muse upon other matters The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord comes alive and is philosophically engaging. In meditating out loud about why the three of them have been thrown together their flaws are discussed. Interestingly, their libidos have gotten the better of them (in terms of the patriarchal monogamy conventions of their eras). When it comes to sex, Tolstoy was a no account Count, Dickens a dickens of an adulterer and Jefferson the worst of all. Indeed, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord becomes most interesting when the author of The Declaration of Independence’s slave owning is questioned.
 
But the answer is really quite simple: It’s not just that Jefferson was a hypocrite of gargantuan proportions (which, of course, he was). In fact, he was very simply pursuing his own class interests. If pursuing his happiness meant getting rid of an English king or coercing Africans to do all his labor for him so he could drink fine wine, read rarified texts, invent do-hickeys and have sex with his late wife’s darker skinned half-sister, so be it. And you can be damned sure that to secure their rights, Jefferson and his fellow ruling class ilk instituted a Government that did not derive their unjust powers from the consent of the governed -- and enslaved. Jefferson and those other slave owning Founding Fathers were just pursuing their unalienable rights -- even if it came at the expense of denying hundreds of others their human rights and pursuit of happiness. And while we’re at it, how many Native Americans signed the Louisiana Purchase? So even the “Emperor of Liberty” wears no clothes. (Too bad Carter didn’t write a play featuring Nat Turner, John Brown and Geronimo instead. LOL!)
 
Be that as it may, theatergoers should not discard The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. This onstage rambling rumination is at its best when dramatizing and presenting these and related ideological issues. And that is what makes this philosophical theatrical treatise worth watching, along with a grand finale that is a well-staged, rapturous ode to the art of the written (not spoken!) word.
 
So to sum up, and to paraphrase Mssr. Dickens, perhaps ticket buyers can reach accord: The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discordis both “the best of times and the worst of times.”  
 
 
Discord runs through Nov. 23  at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, CA 90024. For tickets: 310-208-5454; for more info: www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.

 


 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

STAGE REVIEW: THE DANCE OF DEATH

Alice (Susan Angelo) in Dance of Death. Photo by Greg Schwartz.
Here comes Alice

By Ed Rampell

This A Noise Within production of the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1900 The Dance of Death is expertly acted and directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. The latter also co-stars as the former artillery captain Edgar, who is enmeshed in the most miserable marriage this side of Edward Albee’s George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, not to mention those suffering Scandinavian spouses in many films from Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

In The Dance of Death ANW Resident Artist Susan Angelo masterfully depicts has-been actress Alice, the other half of this unhappy marriage -- or perhaps I should say the other “third” of what becomes a triangle, once the couple’s old “friend” and Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Eric Curtis Johnson), enters the fray. In a way Angelo is playing an updated version of the character she also splendidly portrayed in last summer’s Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, wherein her Beatrice bickers and verbally jousts with Benedick, in an Elizabethan England version of the not-so-merry war between the sexes.

ANW’s The Dance of Death is a new version adapted by the noted Irish playwright Conor McPherson. What ANW presented on stage seems to be The Dance of Death I, not including the second part of the play, which Strindberg also wrote in 1900. McPherson’s adaptation stresses the gallows humor aspect of Strindberg’s work, and many in the nearly sold out opening night aud, laughed and smiled at the black comedy elements -- although many of the not-quite guffaws might stick in your throat.


The Dance of Death runs through Nov. 23 at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: 636-356-3100, ext. 1; www.anoisewithin.org.  

 

 

        

 

 

 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

FILM REVIEW: HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR (RESTORED RELEASE)


Man (Eiji Okada) and Woman (Emmanuelle Riva) in Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Somehow we drifted off too far...

By Ed Rampell

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a pivotal, heady, historic time for French cinema, as Nouvelle Vague or New Wave classics flowed onto the screen. Whereas Cahiers du Cinema critic and enfant terrible Francois Truffaut’s reviews excoriating the state of France’s motion picture industry had previously literally resulted in his being banned from the Cannes Film Festival, in 1959 filmmaker Truffaut triumphantly returned, winning Cannes’ Best Director and OCIC Awards (as well as an Oscar nom) for his masterpiece, The 400 Blows. In 1960 Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless was released.  Then there was Alain Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Resnais’ film -- which won the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes bestowed by international film critics -- long unavailable for theatrical screenings, has been restored and is being theatrically re-released in glorious black and white. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a groundbreaking work written with a novelist’s sensibility by Marguerite Duras (who, along with Resnais, scored Cannes’ Film Writers Award). Having been born and raised in Vietnam and Cambodia Duras also enhances this story about what Noel Coward would call a “brief encounter” between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva as Elle) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada plays Lui). Elle is making a pro-peace film on location in postwar Hiroshima and the A-bombed city forms a backdrop to their love affair.

(Riva appeared in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 concentration camp uprising drama, Kapo and, at age 85 co-starred with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s 2012, Amour.  Interestingly, Okada starred in a Japanese film called Hiroshima in 1953 and went on to act opposite Marlon Brando in his 1963 meditation on U.S. imperialism, The Ugly American, and in 1964’s Woman in the Dunes.)

As for Hiroshima Mon Amour’s politics, it was quite daring to make an anti-nuclear film at that time, especially vis-à-vis U.S. audiences. To this day many Americans have an unexamined assumption that nuking Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, was a vital -- hence justifiable -- factor in ending WWII, a rationale Elle gives voice to. But Resnais and Duras audaciously critique this rationalization (which Olive Stone blew to smithereens in his recent Untold History of the United States documentary series for Showtime) and present the human face of atomic disaster. Viewers should be aware that there are a few gruesome shots that caused this cineaste to avert his eyes from the screen -- but then again, nuclear war is no cotillion ball.

The nuclear nightmare has left its mark on Lui -- although he was away from Hiroshima, serving overseas as an Imperial soldier, when the Enola Gay dropped its fatal, fateful payload on its civilian target, which included Lui’s family. Just as Elle’s experiences in occupied France during WWII made an enduring, indelible impression upon her. As a teenager she had a doomed romance with a German soldier at Nevers.

The Frenchwoman therefore has sex with men who were both on the opposing side during WWII (as Duras well knew, Japan and France vied over Indochina).  Although not explicit by 2014 standards, the sexuality onscreen was bold in terms of 1959’s aesthetics -- at a time when professional virgin Doris Day held sway in Hollywood, it is clear that this interracial couple is engaging in and enjoying sexual intercourse in an artfully shot sensuous sequence.

In the existential mode, Hiroshima Mon Amour asks profound questions: Can love overcome the horrors of war? Sigmund Freud asked which is stronger: Eros (the life force) or Thanatos (the death instinct)? Or, as “Dr.” George Carlin, that consummate master of wordplay, put it: “The person who thought up the slogan, ‘Make Love, Not War’… his job was over that day. He could’ve retired at that moment. If it would’ve been me, I would’ve walked away. So long, I’m goin’ to the beach. You guys work it out.”

Speaking of Freud, Hiroshima Mon Amour is also about the persistence of memory, and how it can rule and even terrorize our lives, long after those traumatizing event s have taken place. Indeed, one could make the point that both characters, especially Elle, suffer from PTSD. The work’s film form, which deploys flashbacks and even flash forwards to a flashback, helps express these notions. Resnais continued to experiment with cinematic structure as late as his 2012 You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, made two years before his death in 2014 at the age of 91.

In 1959, the N.Y. Herald Tribune predicted Hiroshima Mon Amour “will still be important 50 years hence.” Well, today, as in 1959, this black and white, subtitled movie is not for everyone -- popcorn munchers thirsting for mindless entertainment might want to move on to the next theater in the multiplex. Some 2014 viewers may even find the acting, storyline, etc., to be pretentious, too arty, too intellectual, perhaps even laughable.

But 55 years hence, for serious cinema viewers interested in fine films and movie history, Alain Resnais’ masterpiece remains essential viewing. In 1961 Truffaut and Godard co-directed the whimsical short A Story of Water, a romance about the flooding of a French village, which in retrospect could be viewed as metaphorical foreshadowing for how the New Wave inundated world cinema. And Hiroshima Mon Amour remains an essential ripple in this marvelous movie movement. So as far as this cinefile and Resnais fan is concerned, he’s impatiently waiting for the restoration (assuming it needs it) and re-release (which it surely needs) of Resnais’ other early Nouvelle Vague Classic, 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad.

Editor's note: I would highly recommend people explore Ultravox's "Hiroshima Mon Amour" as well. It it is also a bonafide masterpiece.

 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

STAGE REVIEW: COCK


Blow job

By Ed Rampell

Ticket buyers who love their theater pure will be suckers for Cock. British playwright Mike Bartlett’s stellar one-acter is pared down to the theatrical essence of dialogue and acting -- no special effects, dance numbers or storyline derived from comic books, Hollywood blockbusters, other plays, etc. (although Bartlett did win a 2013 National Theatre Award for a work named Bull -- so one can honestly report that he’s written Cock and Bull stories). The cast is flawlessly directed by the award winning Cameron Watson, and the four actors hold forth in a cleverly designed space (per the dramatist’s intent) on a stage surrounded by seating at the Rogue Machine that suggests a cockpit (or cock ring), giving a whole new meaning to theater-in-the-round.
Be that as it may, there’s nothing square about this up-to-date drama with laughs that takes a, uh, cockeyed view of sexuality. In a series of rapid scenic transitions signaled by the lights, the story, such as it is, unfolds. As Cock opens John (Patrick Stafford) and M (Matthew Elkins) are mulling over their relationship.
As the tale evolves we see that the handsome, if slightly built John, has also become sexually involved with W (which stands for “Woman”?), a lonely 28-year-old who has fallen for him (Rebecca Mozo). So the play quickly unfolds into a not-so-classic triangle saga, with a tug of war ensuing for John’s affections and attention (and of course for the play’s titular member of the cast). (BTW, W’s witty term for the female equivalent of a “hard on” is almost worth the price of admission alone -- well wordplay-ed, Ms. Mozo and Mssr. Bartlett.)
John is the central character at the apex of Cock’s triangle and the nature of his sexuality is at the heart of the play’s theme. Is he gay, straight, bisexual? Or is his sexuality not predicated upon gender but on the individual he is involved with, no matter what his/her sex? Bartlett seems to be asking: If sexuality is a matter of pleasure and intimacy does the gender of one’s partner(s) really matter?
Of course, for some, there’s more to sex than that, such as playing power games of control, dominance and manipulation. Such seems to be the case for M, who is far bigger than John and in addition to being physically domineering, can be psychologically overbearing. M seems to be henpecking John, and some pro-gay rights advocates may read an anti-gay theme into Cock, in that M is coercing John to choose homosexuality over heterosexuality. Although repeatedly alluding to John’s job, it is never disclosed and he seems to be a confused man unsure of himself. On the other hand, M’s career is revealed, and of course he’s some sort of capitalist. Plus there’s no question re: M’s sexual preference. While this reviewer has no idea if it was the playwright’s intent to consciously or unconsciously insert an anti-gay POV into Cock, a reasonable viewer could assume that this is a point the play makes.
Not all love, of course, is sexual (Freud calls various platonic types of relationships “aim inhibited” because they don’t result in orgasm), and towards the end of Cock Bartlett tosses yet another ingredient into this roiling stew, which could be filed under the “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” heading: Enter M’s dad, who is called F -- perhaps for “Father”? -- played by Gregory Itzin.
F injects the whole parent-child, father-son nexus into an already complex relationship. F is commendable in that he stands by his son, no matter what his sexual preference. But as Itzin sort of indicated to this critic after the play, this “no matter what” stance can prove to be problematic. Because if love is completely unconditional, one is not constrained by disapproval and the like from loved ones for perpetrating bad behavior. Which can lead to acting with impunity, minus any fear of being held accountable for one’s actions -- you know, sort of like the way Attorney General Eric Holder hasn’t imprisoned a single Wall Street big shot, even after these banksters wrecked the economy (although Holder has no hesitation throwing the book at whistleblowers and low level offenders, but that’s another gruesome story).
The play is meant to take place in Britain and all of the thesps have what sounds to this Yank’s untutored ear authentic British accents, although none of the actors seem to actually be Brits. (Indeed, Mozo is a Jersey Girl -- and I don’t mean from the isle off Normandy’s coast but from the Garden State off of Manhattan’s west coast.) To tell you the truth, although the Oxford-born Bartlett who studied drama at the University of Leeds is British, this reviewer doesn’t know whether setting Cock’s action in not-so-merry olde England makes a difference compared to simply staging it in the not-so-good ol’ USA, but that’s beside the point.
Another thing about Cock’s British-ness -- most Yankees have preconceived ideas about the Brits as being Caucasian. But at some point during the 85-minute or so play it dawned upon your humble scribe that Mozo is not a stereotypical white Anglo Saxon, and indeed, it turns out that this gifted actress is half-Brazilian, half-American. This may be merely coincidental or just could be a bit of clever casting in that it further complicates and raises Cock’s main theme.
Like the current movie, Dear White People, Cock is largely about the notion of identity. Who am I? How do I identify? This is the quest that John is on, and his lack of knowing the answer is at the root of his lack of self-assuredness.
Although Cock is not for the squeamish it is yet another reason why L.A. theatergoers are going Rogue. Producer and artistic director John Perrin Flynn’s Rogue Machine remains one of L.A.’s best theaters, presenting topnotch, thought provoking, entertaining works of art on the live stage. Experiencing Stafford, Mozo, Elkins and Itzin have at it gave this critic the same sensation he has when watching a magic show: How do theydo it? From the accents to their intensity in character, how do these actors conjure up this spell that their dramatis personae are real? Of course, deft directing and superb scripting while keenly commenting upon the human condition help, but this is what great ensemble acting and theatre are all about. It’s enough to make Rogue Machine act, well, cocky.
 
Cock runs through Nov. 3 at Rogue Machine, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A., CA 90019. For info: 855-585-5185; Cock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

STAGE REVIEW: 1969

A scene from 1969.

 
Back in black

By Ed Rampell
 
One of the great things about the theater is that it can dramatize history, and the people who make it and shake it. Actual events can be given shape and form when expressed in the theatrical medium. Playwright Barbara White Morgan attempts to do this by taking on the heady late sixties, when revolution was in the year, with the Towne Street Theatre world premiere production of 1969.
 
In it, Ajamu (Jaimyon Parker) wears the era’s obligatory uniform of black leather jacket, shades (even indoors and at night) and Afro, which were de rigeur for the period’s black militants. His comrade, Lewis (Lamar Usher) also even dons a beret. Ajamu is the leader of the Afro-centric Blacks United group, which occupies a building that the city government, led by City Councilman Ernest Butler (Kenny Cooper), wants to redevelop and turn into a youth center. This sets the two -- both African American but from different sides of the ideological tracks -- on a collision course.
 
In doing so, this two-acter directed by Kim Harrington poses and dramatizes questions that were very much in the air circa 1969. How will the oppressed advance and attain liberation? By staying within the system or by straying outside of the prevailing established ways of doing things? In Morgan’s play, integration collides with black nationalism, nonviolence with militancy, civil rights with black power, the ballot with the bullet.
 
While Blacks United is a fictional group, it seems like a synthesis of, or suggested by, actual organizations, such as the Philadelphia-based MOVE and the Black Panthers (although they were actually Marxist Leninists, not what Huey Newton and Bobby Seale mocked as “pork chop nationalists”). Indeed, the staged standoff at the Blacks United headquarters calls to mind the similar impasse at MOVE’s HQ, which resulted in the U.S. government’s only domestic aerial firebombing of the 20th century. In any case, SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) is also alluded to, while Ajamu seems like a composite character composed of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey, etc.
 
The earnest Ernest believes in more incremental change through the electoral process, and seems emblematic of the wave of African-American politicians who attained office in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the Voting Rights Act, which saw the late sixties elections of Carl Stokes and Richard Hatcher as the black mayors of Cleveland and Gary. 1969 ponders whether these changes at the top will engender true black empowerment -- or the creation of a new African-American establishment. The fact that the drama’s city councilman’s last name is “Butler” -- long a stereotypical and subservient role for blacks -- may indicate where Morgan stands on that issue.
 
Megan Weaver is fetching as Ernest’s wife, Grace Butler; has the city councilman’s wife, with her Afro wigs and fur coat, gone bourgie? Grace’s (presumably) younger, less together sister Edna (Lina Green) is trying to pull herself together. As 1969 was rather famously also when Woodstock took place, no play about that year would be complete without a flower child, and Samantha Clay has some scene stealing fun as the stoned out hippie chick, Joyce, which displays her background with the Groundlings improve troupe. In a double role she also plays Mayor Evans’ (Jonathan Harrison) bourgeois wife Sylvia, who may well be the flip side of her countercultural alter ego. Another Caucasian thesp, Andy Ottenweller, portrays Dave Epstein, radical host of a talk show in, perhaps, the David Susskind mode (although Epstein’s Dave is hipper, younger and to the liberal Susskind’s left), who sympathizes with Ajamu and his cause.
 
All of the elements are here for a combustible concoction set against the background of the sizzling sixties. Alas, this Molotov cocktail never explodes. Although your reviewer was intellectually absorbed by 1969 it rarely became emotionally engaging, even when high stakes were being played. Perhaps this was due to the acting, directing or maybe the writing -- or perhaps all three? For one thing, the staging is a bit repetitious. The play’s credits do not list a set designer per se, and it shows, considering the very standard artwork that decorates the Butlers’ apartment (although it may be meant to cleverly reveal the couple’s being divided between their black sides and the bland middle class values they seem to aspire to). In any case, this is supposed to be live theatre, not a pamphlet or leaflet.
 
Having said that, Morgan’s plot does have some twists and turns which your reviewer did not see coming down the road, which is to the dramatist’s credit. As is the effort to render a play with characters who embody the social struggles of 1969, and a story that dramatizes that era’s almost revolution. (Alas, our side lost and we must soldier on.) Especially as the civil unrest unfolds in Missouri, showing that, beneath the surface, America remains a powder keg ready to blow. 1969 is presented by the Towne Street Theatre, which was created after the 1992 L.A. riots “to create, develop and produce original work that is reflective of the African-American experience and perspective…”
 
Perhaps next stop for TST’s 1969 is Ferguson? The fire next time!

 

 
1969 runs through Nov. 2 at the Stella Adler Theatre, Main Stage, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd Floor, Hollywood, California, 90028. For info: (213)712-6944; www.townestreetla.org. For online tickets go to: 1969.

 

Friday, October 10, 2014

FILM REVIEW: WHIPLASH

Andrew (Miles Teller) and Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) in Whiplash.

Beats
 
By Don Simpson
 
Inexplicably abandoned at an early age by his mother and raised by a father (Paul Reiser) who never achieved success as a writer, Andrew (Miles Teller) is riddled with an unquenchable drive to become famous. Though Whiplash does not make much of Andrew’s backstory, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) — the tyrannical band conductor at his elite music conservatory — makes good use of that information to emotionally destroy him.
 
Whiplash examines how Fletcher preys upon the emotional insecurities of a friendless first year college student who regularly goes to the local movie theater with his father. Fletcher plays with Andrew’s sense of self-worth by boosting him up only to knock him right back down again. Andrew is constantly unsure of his standing with Fletcher, leaving him in a constant state of fear. Knowing that Fletcher could be his ticket to success, Andrew is willing to do anything to impress — or even appease — Fletcher, who takes full advantage of Andrew’s naive desperation.
 
During one of Andrew’s high points, he musters up enough courage to finally ask out the girl (Melissa Benoist) who works at the movie theater concession stand. Though this fleeting relationship serves mostly as a distraction from the primary narrative, it does highlight Andrew’s somewhat futile attempts at controlling a less confident person. Their relationship also serves as an example of just how willing Andrew is to throw anything away in order to achieve his goals.
 
The story of Whiplash seems vaguely familiar, as if a similar narrative arc has been used to tell a story about a boxer with an emotionally abusive trainer. It seems as though elite music schools are successful because they have faculty like Fletcher who will relentlessly push the students beyond their natural abilities to see if they can reach a higher level of greatness. On Twitter, critics are jumping on the similarities between Whiplash and Full Metal Jacket, which is not all that far-fetched. Fletcher looks and screams like a drill sergeant, ruling his students with extreme levels of fear. One could argue that Fletcher’s motivations are more sincere, as Whiplash strives to form the conductor into a well-rounded individual, showing the extremes of his personality and allowing him to explain his actions.
 
Whiplash explores the pros and cons of Fletcher’s behavior, existing in a moral grayness that opts to not really take sides. A teacher saying that someone does a “good job” might turn out to be a curse, but where does one draw the line between motivation and psychological torture?

 

Monday, October 6, 2014

STAGE REVIEW: CHOIR BOY

(Michael Shepperd) in Choir Boy. Photo by Michael Lamont.

 
Hit that perfect beat boy
 
By Ed Rampell
 
Choir Boy’s setting -- Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys -- is, for this reviewer, the most interesting, unique aspect of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s gay-themed drama. Historically-black educational institutions have, on occasion, been featured in productions, such as Denzel Washington’s superb 2007 movie, The Great Debaters. But for your Caucasian critic this milieu is relatively untraveled terrain and of keen interest, especially as his father taught in Boys High High School, an all-black and Latino facility in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
 
But Drew is very different from Boys High, a public school that’s part of the New York City school system. In addition to being private, Drew is also a religious school. So, just as, say, New York is a character in Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan, Drew’s ambiance hovers over Choir Boy -- although institutionally, not so much geographically.
 
The title character is Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), who aspires to becoming the prestigious choir master of Drew, which seems largely dependent for its economic survival on an annual fundraiser featuring the all male singers. Pharus must chart a tricky, precarious path as a gay youth completely surrounded by boys and men (alas, no female characters trod the boards in this play). This includes not only in the classroom, but in his dormitory in general, dorm room in particular, locker room and showers. Scenic designer David Zinn’s understated sets go with the flow, morphing from one scene to another depending upon their location requirements.
 
The play focuses on five young men attending the school, Headmaster Marrow (Michael Shepperd) and Mr. Pendleton (Leonard Kelly-Young has the role which was played by Austin Pendleton at Choir Boy’s Broadway premiere last year). He is this one-acter’s token white character. Pendleton is one of those archetypal (or stereotypical -- take your pick), rumpled Caucasians who has picked up the proverbial “white man’s burden” and is dedicated to educating minorities and Civil Rights. When he’s introduced, Pendleton goes verbally overboard, trying to impress the lads by getting down with the homies (or at least trying to). But later, with an impassioned speech about the “N” word which the homophobic, diffident Bobby Marrow (Donovan Mitchell) insists on using in full, Pendleton reveals his true colors as a Civil Rights crusader who’d marched with Dr. King.
 
(BTW, according to urban mythology, the physician and researcher Charles R. Drew helped invent the process of blood transfusions and died, when the hospital he was taken to after a car accident supposedly refused to give him a blood transfusion because they only had plasma from white people on hand. In any case, Drew did resist racial segregation when it came to donating blood. About a dozen schools are named after this medical pioneer, including a prep school, but none seem to be named the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys.)
 
The playwright does a good job providing back stories for the five young men, especially through their long distance phone calls back home. These provide insights into their characters, what makes them tick and why these scholarship or full-tuition-paying students are attending this private prep school. For most, it is perceived as their ticket to advancing on to university and achieving in modern America.
 
Against this complicated background, Pharus is trying to come of age. As the eponymous choir boy strives to become a choir man, the effeminate Pharus must navigate his emerging sexuality and the strict code of conduct of the prep school, with its official school song of “Trust and Obey” --Presbyterian hymn. There is some full frontal (and back) nudity in Choir Boy, and McCraney takes on the stereotypes relating to the anatomy of black males. If you listen closely to the dialogue, he may be trying to debunk that myth, not simply reinforcing it. As the well-endowed AJ, Pharus’ roommate, Grantham Coleman strikes the right tone as a big brother figure watching out for the confused Pharus as he strives to make and find his way in the moral universe of the religious school and beyond its presumably ivy covered walls. (Both Coleman and Pope reprise the roles they previously played on Broadway.)
 
The play ran for almost two hours without an intermission. Its ensemble is well-directed by Trip Cullman, who also helmed Choir Boy on the Great White Way.
 
 
 
Choir Boy runs through Oct. 26 at the Gil Gates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, CA 90024. For tickets: 310208-5454; www.GeffenPlayhouse.com.

 

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.) Rampell and co-author Luis Reyes will be signing books at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 6 at the bookstore Distant Lands, 20 S. Raymond Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91105.  (See:Meet Ed..)