Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Forgiveness: Fatih Akin's Edge of Heaven

Cedric demanded that we go to Film Forum last night for the final showing of Fatih Akin's Edge of Heaven. I was of two minds, but it was my last chance to get together with Cedric before he goes to Istanbul next Sunday (I was there last October), and sell him my last 50 YTL note and my akbil (bus-tram-ferry token), and the movie, made by a German of Turkish parentage, is about the entwinement of the two nations in these times, which will work itself out still further this afternoon, I daresay, when they take each other on in the EuroCup - a game I hope to watch if I can find a pleasant restaurant showing it. (I watched Turkey beat Croatia last Friday, and Spain beat Italy, in the presence of los Reyes yet, on Sunday, both on penalty kicks - does anyone ever shoot a goal in this game?)

So we went to Edge of Heaven, and I have to say I found it touching, a gently rambling roundabout bit of storytelling about the conflict of generations, of lifestyles, of nationalities - and about reconciliation, and love that transcends these boundaries.

Romantic love, which is usually the metaphor in dramatic art for such reconciliation, would be the easy way out, but Akin does not take it. I give him points for that. The two sexual relationships among the six main characters are both unfortunate and lead to unnecessary and destructive violence. I gather that Akin's previous film, which concerned a "marriage of inconvenience," also did not take an easy, romantic way out, so that the love that did arise seemed more adult, had more important obstacles to conquer. I admire an artist who can make us understand love without using romance.

The film's tortuous, winding path takes us past many coincidences - a cute trick, but not an unrealistic one - and we do not learn, for instance, until the end that the first scene of the film (which is repeated) occurs chronologically after the rest. In the early part of the film, too, we see a character trying to teach a class on nationalism and revolution in a German college - ironically, he is a German-born Turk - and we see someone asleep in the classroom. When we see the image again, half the film later, we know a great deal more about both these characters (who never actually meet) and, among other ironies, we know the sleeper is an actual revolutionary. Akin, whatever his politics (and they clearly transcend nation and religion and other artificial boundaries in their sympathies), shows that the urge to political violence, however idealistic, can easily lead, as it does, to pointless violence: the gun that is one character's McGuffin accomplishes nothing useful and, indeed, slays her lover. But the Muslim fundamentalists who urge - no, COMMAND - a Turkish prostitute in Bremen to give up her immoral ways - are unsympathetic characters, though they do help the plot along. The segments of the movie are set apart by two scenes of a coffin being loaded on Turkish airlines - one a Turk being sent back to Turkey, the other a German being sent back to Germany. The murders are unintentional, but the culpability is general, as is the hideous remorse.

The climax for me comes when a Turk explains to a German the story of Bayram - the Muslim holiday that celebrates Ibrahim's attempt to follow God's will to sacrifice his son Ismail, and God's prevention of the sacrifice. This is the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, too, of course, and the German sees that, in wonderment. It forms a link between the two and a window between the cultures, and it also strengthens the resolve of both to love people they have been unable to forgive. The sacrifice of Isaac is not only a major theme for Jews (it recalls, perhaps, the moment when their forebears ceased to practice human, especially infant, sacrifice, which remained a custom among many of their Semitic relatives for centuries longer), it is also a major theme in Christian iconography (cf. the altar mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna, where the sacrifice of Isaac is on one wall and the crucifixion on the opposite wall), where the sacrifice by Abraham of his son is held to prefigure the sacrifice of Jesus by his father. (But Isaac is not, of course, Abraham's "only-begotten son," as reports often have it - Ishmael is the first, and there are six younger sons, per Genesis.) This is recalled also, gorgeously, in Britten's Canticle No. 2, where Isaac is sung by a boy soprano - though I have heard it sung by David Daniels who, with Anthony Griffey at Carnegie Hall, turned it into a magical ten-minute S&M opera.

Somehow I find art that feels, that makes us feel, forgiveness between enemies (or uncomprehending adversaries) more touching than almost any other, as in the two supreme moments in Figaro: In Act III, when Marzellina and Susanna, who have been close to pulling each other's hair out, rush to each other's arms, and at the end of Act IV when the Countess pardons her husband. (Anything that undercuts that moment is an enemy I shall be loath to forgive and cannot comprehend.)

But back to the film: enhanced by six splendid performances (notably Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder's muse, as a chilly German mother whose heart breaks and is renewed), the film is also radiant in its depiction of Bremen and Hamburg neighborhoods (hardly the best ones) and the sea and the steep, steep hills of the slums of Istanbul, and finally of Turkey's Black Sea coast. None of these shots are of places a Tourist Board would want you to notice, or think about when considering travel plans, but all of them are fresh, exciting, stimulating, wonderful hints of the countries beyond. And as in the movie Hamam, Istanbul becomes a symbol of renewal, of eternal rebirth, of acceptance, of the glorious mixture of different cultures.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hamlet in the Park

The Hamlet in Central Park has not opened yet, so it is fairly easy to get in. Helps, no doubt, that the cast is less glittery than sometimes in the Park - and glittery does not always mean the best acting. My last Hamlet in the Park (30 years ago?) was Stacy Keach (unaccountably omitted from the program on past Danes in the program), who was good but sometimes perverse in his line readings (in a rather charming way), and who furthermore was rained out. (There was lightning and thunder last Saturday, too, but not a drop of rain.)

The best part of that ancient performance was Barnard Hughes, the finest of all possible Poloniuses (Polonii?). Ah, how he read that letter! He was so funny I was almost glad to have to leave before he got skewered. This time I waited eagerly to see how Sam Waterston would do the letter - well, Sam is no Barnard, and that's a fact. He brought in Ophelia (Lauren Ambrose) and obliged this shy girl to read the letter herself. I can't imagine her doing this, and neither could Shakespeare. The point of doing it is that no one ever has done it this way; that it makes no sense matters not to Oskar Eustis. Mr. Eustis - like so many directors of classical plays and opera and other well-known pieces nowadays - seems to feel that he has not done his job unless he's done something utterly perverse that no one else has thought of. There is no point to this. This tendency (there are other instances of it) mars a generally fine production with some generally fine moments and perhaps the best Hamlet I've ever seen undertake the part.

This is Michael Stuhlbarg, who is 39 (the oldest NYSF Hamlet ever), and in many other ways does not seem ... typical casting. He is shorter (and used to be much stouter) than most of the cast (and nearly all the population of Denmark). He is a tenor Hamlet - his voice pipes high above the others - and we are used to baritones in the part (at least in Ambrose Thomas's opera). But as I noticed 18 years ago (was it?) when he played the nothing part of the Clown in A Winter's Tale and completely stole his scenes from every other character, Stuhlbarg knows how to speak Shakespearean verse, getting the laughs but also the intent of every word and play on words. Never once did a line of verse pass by as words, words, words - it was all pointed, all defined for us - he brought us along on his outrageous outing. I was not utterly convinced by his melancholy at the beginning of the play, though I was by his antic anger bursting out in the throneroom scene. Later, when he went mad, he was very good - for one thing, genuinely funny - in love with his wordplay and the games he wove (for us) over the heads of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius and Claudius. (Only Gertrude seemed to move him to make sense, though you can't say he was respectful about this.) Especially fine in these scenes was his costume - a demented combination of an old royal uniform and pants rolled to the knee above bare feet. This made sense of his carrying a sword in a kingdom obviously set in 2008.

The scenes where I thought he overdid it - overencouraged by Eustis, I fear - were the play scene, when he flirts lewdly with an uncomfortable Ophelia. He was more than casually rude to her - he ground her nose in it, waggling his crotch in her face. Unless he really was mad, or really hated her, this made no sense - he later claims to have loved her - there is no way he could inflict this public humiliation on the least malicious of his enemies (if she must be that) and really care for her. It seemed a gratuitous sexual pose.

Again, in the bedroom scene, when his threats to his mother (a gracious but not too distinctive Margaret Colin) led him to assault her, climbing up between her legs - Shakespeare has her fear murder, but rape seems far more likely, and it does not seem necessary - the point has been made, it need not be driven home. In any case it is interrupted by the entrance of the Ghost (Jay O. Sanders, also the excellent Player King and Gravedigger), not in armor (as before, and in other Hamlets) but in his pajamas, wearily, as Hamlet might be used to seeing him in this his parents' bed on other occasions when he may have been rough-housing with Mama.

That was a Eustis touch I liked. So was having Ophelia (gone punk, which was fine for Ambrose but not right for the play) re-enter, mad, with a cache of stones that she identifies as flowers, going about knocking people on the head with them. At first I liked the pent-up aggression of this Ophelia (who had been so waiflike before), but it doesn't fit with her flowery death that follows soon after. And if she cuts her hair short, how does it grow again by her funeral?

Another Hamlet touch I liked: like everyone, he can't tell Rosencrantz from Guildenstern (the usual laughs; they both wore bowlers), but he couldn't remember Francesco or Bernardo's name either, and had some trouble with Horatio's name. Message: He's not a politician! He's dwelling within too much. He's not doing all this to make FRIENDS.

Andre Braugher was a politician, but he is not an expansive Claudius (my first was Henry da Silva - in the Park, to the dreadful Hamlet of Alfred Ryder - you win some, you lose some); Braugher seems to keep his thoughts to himself, to create no persona to rule Denmark. He lacked a spark, a reason his subjects elected him over Hamlet in the first place.

It seems to me that Shakespeare has set up all the other likely fellows in the play so that we can compare them to Hamlet, see why the dopey world prefers to admire them, and understand why in fact none of them are fit to wipe his spittle. They are all decisive - and Hamlet is not. The message is: Decisive misses too much, is too hasty, rushes in where meditation would be better. Thus Horatio is a cipher (but not so bad he must be killed by Fortinbras upon usurping the throne - another Eustis touch - I object, because Horatio must live on to tell us Hamlet's story); Fortinbras is a warlike brute; Claudius a murderer; and Laertes a hothead and a hypocrite. Usually.

David Harbour seemed too burly, too physically much to be the gallivanting fencer who tries to keep his sister away from the prince. He wept too much (though Stuhlbarg made us hear the references to tears in the speeches that justified this). A role that always seems too much the playwright's convenience, seemed here too much the director's.

But Stuhlbarg speaks verse beautifully and (on one of those ghastly humid nights too!) was full of energy, dashing around the stage and bouncing through the part, delighting in every figure of speech, making them mean things, playing with those meanings, playing with the syllables, a feast of gorgeous language. He may or may not fear ghosts, the Devil, murderers, false friends, love - but he was absolutely unafraid of the longest and toughest role in English-speaking theater. Bravo.

Catch him!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Aristophanes is still dead

Old Comedy, recommended by New York’s most literate critic, Michael Feingold in the Voice(who seems to have loved it because it is full of esoteric references, all of which he got), is David Herskovits (and Target Margin Theater) and David Greenspan’s rework of Aristophanes’ Frogs.

I’ve seen many attempts to revive Aristophanes, and the only successful one was Al Carmines’s Peace 40 years ago, which kept the bare bones of the plot and made an Al Carmines musical of the rest. (Franz Schubert tried to do something like this with Lysistrata. But he lacked Al C's pissass pizzazz.)

Old Comedy was particularly bad. Like all attempts at Frogs, they had no idea what to do with the playwrights’ contest, so it was a mere bore, incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the playwrights of the fifth century B.C.E. I got all the esoteric jokes, every one of the mythological and dramaturgical references, all the Tartarean in-jabs that no one else seemed to know – but none of them, none of them, were funny. And I agreed with all the political humor, attacks on Bush, Cheney, Iraq, et al. – but none of them were new. (Several were as old as Aristophanes.) The scene with Charon was good, because he was portrayed by Tina Shepard, a good actress, but the rest, though farcical and knockabout and learned as all heck, didn’t draw a giggle or a smirk from those of us who stayed. (The actors bade a cheery farewell to the first walkers-out – in later scenes, they did not do so – it must be depressing.) So I’m annoyed with Michael F and shall tell him so. Keep your erudition to your salon conversation.

And it wasn't just the script, you know - there was so much cutting we had no chance to learn, from interaction, who the characters were - you knew or you didn't know - and it didn't make any difference which. If the show had been slower, and given us more shtick to let us meet Dionysus and his slave and Herakles to boot, we might have had time to find their shenanigans funny.

The one moment when the show came alive was the Frogs' Chorus and invocation of Iacchos (footnoted), when there was an energy present, a liveness painfully absent from everything else on stage.

Aristophanes on the modern stage is a dead letter, sure ruin where the tragedies can at least be funny. Pointed sketch humor does not travel through eons. Edith Hamilton compared Aristophanes's anarchic wit to Gilbert's, but Gilbert had Sullivan; Aristophanes needs one. Can we send someone down to the Underworld to bring back Al Carmines, perhaps? (In any case, neither Aristophanes nor anyone else has any use for David Greenspan.)

Playwrights Who Make Us Squirm

Just saw the revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Biltmore – the play that famously begins with a drunken dinner party (in 1982) for a “modern woman,” Marlene, whose six voluble guests, all of them legendary or anyway historical, include Pope Joan, patient Griselda, and an imperial concubine from 14th-century Japan. Only later, in the more naturalistic scenes (Marlene has just been promoted – over a man! – who has a heart attack in consequence – to a managerial position at a head-hunting firm), did I realize what Churchill was up to. Like me, she reads a great deal of history and spends a great deal of time chatting with folks long dead, especially when traveling in their former haunts. And as the play plays out, and you see what Marlene’s rise to the “top” has cost her, and why she has been willing to pay (and has tried to ignore the price), you understand why she chose those particular “top girls” for her celebratory dinner. (In real-time probably a solitary stinking-drunk-night.)

In fact Marlene has no friends she dares confide in, rely on, let go in front of – so she must bring them in from the past, dead (even imaginary) ladies who cannot betray her or rival her for the attention of any men present. (Men barely count at all in her world – they’re just work-mates or playmates.) By the conclusion, when melodramatic if predictable ancient secrets have been unearthed, you understand Marlene's life, the price she has had to pay for success that makes her unhappy, lonely, and drunk, and the ghastliness of the alternatives she would probably have faced had she made other choices.

This is a bit of a trial, I infer (from comments on the NYTimes review), for audiences expecting an ordinary drama – many of them left before the end last Tuesday. It’s also a tour de force for seven actresses (in 15 parts), which no doubt accounts for its popularity with producers and performers. I found the “employment interview” scenes uncomfortable to sit through – brought back the agonies of my own job-seeking when I did not want the jobs on offer, could not imagine what I did want.

Long live playwrights unafraid to make us squirm, eh?

And the acting was wonderful, most notably Elizabeth Marvel (Marlene), Mary Catherine Garrison (as an itchy kid and a chippie trying for a job), Mary Beth Hurt, Jennifer Ikeda as an employment "counselor" who accidentally talks too much of her own empty life, belying her delicious smile, Martha Plimpton as another itchy kid and as drunken Pope Joan, Ann Reeder as a cheerfully ruthless employment "counselor", and Marisa Tomei as Marlene's bitter sister - she was not good, however, with the improbably Scottish accent of a Victorian traveler, and in fact accents are a problem throughout, though aside from Tomei's Scot, they did not prevent me finding the machine fascinating.