There is something magical about seeing Shakespeare outdoors on a beautiful summer night.
A large and appreciative audience gathered at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Park Zoo Friday night to see the delightful Connecticut Free Shakespeare production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
The show started just as daylight was ending and it was wonderful to see the stage lights come up slowly as darkness descended on the park.
Director Ellen Lieberman has given the romantic comedy a very amusing — and provocative — twist by setting the action during the summer of 1973 when the full implications of President Nixon’s Watergate scandal began to emerge during congressional hearings.
In Lieberman’s version, Shakespeare’s free-thinking heroine, Beatrice (Katrina Foy), is part of the exploding feminist revolution of the early 1970s and the equally prickly and independent Benedick (Eric Nyquist) is just returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Thanks to a few revisions in the text, Lieberman deepens the play’s subtext and opens it up to some terrific period musical interludes (supervised by Nyquist who is musical director of “Much Ado” as well as its very appealing male lead).
The beauty and informality of the park setting — with the theatergoers enjoying picnic dinners before the performance — added to the powerfully direct connection between the company of actors and an obviously thrilled audience.
(“Much Ado About Nothing” will be presented this Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. at Beardsley Park and then will move on to the Guilford Green for performances Aug. 6 to 10 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit the company website at www.ctfreeshakespeare.org)
There is something magical about seeing Shakespeare outdoors on a beautiful summer night.
Have you ever seen “Heights”?
One of the dozens of American indies tossed into art houses in 2005, the picture sank without a trace, and even devoted movie buffs give a blank stare when the film is mentioned.
A few nights ago, I watched the picture again with a group of friends and was happy to be reminded of the high quality of Chris Terrio’s debut film. I saw “Heights” in 2005, and enjoyed it, but had forgotten what a sharp and well-acted portrait of Manhattan arts lifestyles Terrio had drawn.
The picture was made under the auspices of Merchant Ivory productions — famed for their genteel period pieces — and the young filmmaker clearly had enough funding to give the movie first-rate camera work and production design. But, Terrio also had a fine script (a collaboration with playwright Amy Fox) with which he was able to attract a strong ensemble of stars (Glenn Close), rising actors (Jesse Bradford, Elizabeth Banks), old-timers (George Segal) and real Manhattan artists (Rufus Wainright).
The movie is an episodic affair, centered on a New York stage and film star (Close) who is rehearsing a Broadway production of “Macbeth” while trying to convince her photographer daughter (Banks) to postpone — or even cancel — her forthcoming marriage to a handsome lawyer (James Marsden).
Other people enter the mix — a Brit journalist (John Light) in town to do a Vanity Fair story on a famous gay photographer who has slept with most of his models; an ex-lover of the Banks character (played by Matt Davis) who tries to lure her away from her fiance with a prestigious photo assignment in Eastern Europe; a young actor (Jesse Bradford,above) who is up for a role in a play that the famous actress plans to direct and who happens to live in the same apartment building as her daughter.
The drama and the fun in the movie derives from the unexpected collisions between these people and the surprising turns their lives take in one 24-hour period. “In this city there are only two degrees of separation,” the Close character says of the sometimes strangely small-town quality of life in Manhattan.
Most of the movie rings true and Close’s performance is one of her very best. “Heights” starts off with a real flourish, with the actress holding court at a master class at Juilliard, dressing down two ambitious students who decide to do a modern, “Sopranos”-style take on their Shakespeare scene.
The picture holds up well on television and should be added to your Netflix list if — like nearly everyone else — you missed it three years ago.
Benjamin Kunkel’s funny and scary piece in the new GQ — “World Without Oil, Amen” — is must reading.
The article follows Kunkel’s attempt to figure out what might happen after we reach the point known as “peak oil” — “(when) diminishing global oil production will cause gas prices — steep enough already, you might think — to go up and up as supplies go down, with far-reaching consequences for the only world we know.”
Kunkel wrote the wonderful 2005 novel “Indecision” and is one of the founding editors of the journal n + 1.
He’s a writer who loves to explore the contradictions in modern American life — our well-founded anxious thoughts about the future while we luxuriate in the consumer comforts all around us (for the moment).
“Start thinking about oil and it’s in everything you see, taste and hear,” Kunkel writes of a trip to cover an oil futurist’s conference. “It was oil in the form of a passenger jet that had brought me to Atlanta and oil in the form of chips and guacamole that I’d eaten in the hotel bar before wandering outside to take in a view of oil and more oil: sluggish streams of SUVs and dark sedans slipping past the theater marquee, the dialysis-center storefront, and the emptying parking lot…The sight was the same wherever I looked — 87 million gallons a day keeping the global economy afloat.”
Kunkel explores the debate over what happens when we reach the point of diminishing returns as far as the earth’s supply of oil goes. He travels from Atlanta to Houston to Colorado, keeping an open mind about the subject, but also envisioning a “worst-case scenario” straight out of “The Road Warrior” — “neo-barbarians” slaughtering each other over an ever-dwindling supply of bubbling crude.
The gap between what we think we should be doing and the way we actually live is illustrated in a hilarious encounter with Howard Kunstler —“perhaps America’s most prominent scourge of suburbia…a hair-raising pessimist.”
Kunkel assumes Kunstler will agree with him about the absurdity of the meat-locker air-conditioned temperature in the Houston hotel where the “peak oil” guru is scheduled to speak.
“Well that’s true,” Kunstler says. “But if you go outside, it’s like walking into a dog’s mouth!”
Call me a movie elitist, but I’ve never understood the press and public obsession with Hollywood box-office figures and production budgets.
For the past few days, everywhere you turn there are stories about the “record-breaking” grosses scored by “The Dark Knight” last weekend.
Warner Bros.did smash a three-day record set by “Spider-Man 3” last year, selling close to $160 million worth of tickets for the Batman sequel.
Those are impressive numbers for the rather tepid summer of 2008 — in three days, “The Dark Knight” earned almost as much as it’s taken “Sex & the City” to make in more than a month.
But why should I care what a movie grosses or what it cost to produce?
Warren Beatty once said a very wise thing when someone complained to him about the runaway costs associated with his notorious flop, “Ishtar” — i.e. that the ticket price is the same for a $100 million movie as it is for a $1 million indie.
Before the multiplex boom of the 1980s, films opened slowly around the country, filtering out from exclusive first-run engagements in urban centers to the second-run theaters in outlying territories. This process was spread out over several months, so it took quite a while for studios to gauge how much money a movie might earn. Because they had a much longer theatrical shelf life, movies had the time to pick up steam from good word of mouth — that’s how “Bonnie & Clyde” slowly became a sizeable hit in late 1967 and early 1968 after a very disappointing first-run debut.
When I came of age as a moviegoer in the ’60s and ’70s, me and my friends never had the foggiest notion of what the movies we loved were grossing on a week by week basis because that information wasn’t considered “news” outside of trade papers like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
We never knew that “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) was only a modest earner or that “Petulia” (1968) was a financial flop — movie buffs in those days focused on what was up on the screen, not the money that was flowing into a studio’s coffers.
If you had gone up to someone interested in movies in the summer of 1974 and mentioned that “The Parallax View” had lost a bundle for Paramount you would have gotten a blank stare.
Many of us who enjoy crime and espionage fiction are reluctant to pick up the latest installment of a series that has been up and running for several years.
Thinking we must start at the beginning of a detective or spy’s adventures, we put off adding another author to our reading list until we have time to go back to the first book and work our way through.
This is a good way to miss lots of fine new books each year.
Case in point — Daniel Silva’s just-published “Moscow Rules” (Putnam), the eighth installment in an increasingly popular series of novels about the Israeli intelligence officer (and art restorer) Gabriel Allon.
I had been hearing very good things about Silva’s books from friends for the past decade, but already had lots of my recreational reading time carved out each year for the latest Lisa Scottoline, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke etc. etc.
Well, providence came in the form of Silva kicking off his national book tour in Stamford and New Canaan this week and my having to read “Moscow Rules” for the author interview that ran in my Sunday “Book Beat” column.
It was clear from the first few chapters that I was being introduced to a character who has been through some pretty exciting adventures — casually referred to by Gabriel and his associates in the opening pages — but the novel stood alone as a thrilling account of the agent’s search for the killer (or killers) behind a series of assassinations directed against Russian journalists.
Silva takes us into the bizarre and dangerous world of post-communist Russia where designer goods boutiques have sprouted in the shadows of the Kremlin and dangerous criminal forces may be forming alliances with our terrorist enemies.
“Moscow Rules” suggests we have entered a new Cold War with Russia, one that might be even more complex and frightening than the one we waged against Soviet Russia for most of the 20th century.
Gabriel Allon is a wonderful character, a mix of aesthete and man of action. The man has no sooner married and settled into a relaxing honeymoon/art restoration job in Umbria, Italy, when he is called upon by his Israeli bosses to meet a Russian journalist who has come to Rome. The reporter wants to share information about some sort of vague terrorist threat against the West that is being fueled by one of the new Russian business moguls.
Silva is a journalist-turned-novelist and he delivers a mix of page-turning thrills, travelogue and contemporary political expose that most readers will devour in a few sittings.
Now, I want to go back to the beginning — the first Allon book is “The Kill Artist” — and read my way through what appears to be a great series.
(Daniel Silva will be talking about “Moscow Rules” tonight at 6 p.m. at the Stamford Town Center Barnes & Noble store and on Thursday at noon at the New Canaan Library.)
Nearly everyone involved with the new movie version of “Mamma Mia!” faces some sort of on-screen humiliation — even the wonderful Meryl Streep comes off badly in the starring role of a frenetic old hippie — but what director Phyllida Law does to Pierce Brosnan is unforgivable.
A non-singer (to say the least), Brosnan is generating shocked (and mocking) audience laughter for the sounds that come out of his mouth when he is called upon to sing in the role of Meryl’s old rocker boyfriend.
Say what you will about ABBA — whose 1970s pop hits make up the song score for the stage-show-turned-film — but their lushly produced ditties were always gorgeously sung and featured harmonies worthy of comparison with The Beach Boys and The Mamas and the Papas.
The Broadway production of “Mamma Mia!” opened in 2001 with a cast of strong singers that included musical theater powerhouse Judy Kaye, among other gifted performers .
The strong presentation of the music in the stage show overshadowed the rather ludicrous plot about a girl’s determination to find her real father just before she gets married on the Greek island where her one-time rocker mom runs a hotel. Mom slept around when she was a hippie singer and isn’t sure which of her three sexual partners that year fathered the girl.
The plot was ripped off from a long-forgotten 1968 Hollywood comedy called “Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell.” On stage, the songs keep coming so quickly and so cleverly that we ride right over the dumb (and rather offensive) plot.
The program for the theatrical version of “Mamma Mia!” doesn’t have an ordered song list, so part of the fun of the show is wondering how the heck they are going to work tunes like “Chiquitita” and “Take a Chance on Me” into the story and who will get to sing them.
The movie literalizes everything about the ridiculous storyline and sets the shenanigans in a real place, so the songs have to carry more dramatic weight than they do on stage, and the whole thing collapses.
Even the great actress and pretty good singer Meryl Streep looks unsure of herself as she is directed to hop and jump around her character’s hotel like a chorus girl on speed. The frenetic attempt to make her character seem “youthful” actually makes the beautiful Ms. Streep look older than her real age (59) — it’s like seeing one of those desperate suburban moms who decides to dress like her teen daughter.
When the action stops for Streep to sing an overwrought solo (“The Winner Takes It All”) she carries on as if she is singing the death scene in “La Traviata.”
But it is Brosnan who suffers the worst treatment in this poorly put together musical. When it became clear the actor can’t sing — but his star presence was needed for international box-office insurance — couldn’t his vocals have been discretely dubbed by an anonymous vocalist?
There was a time when audiences accepted the notion that movie stars sometimes needed help when they were asked to star in musicals. Marni Nixon made a nice career out singing for actresses such as Audrey Hepburn (“My Fair Lady”) and Natalie Wood (“West Side Story”) and doing it in the style of the performer’s speaking voice.
Surely, in this age of electronic wizardry, someone could have helped Brosnan out — it’s truly terrible to sit in a theater and hear an audience laughing at a good actor who got in over his head.
Most of the actresses under the age of 30 working in movies these days are girly girls like Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson — they’re great to look at but don’t have the emotional heft of a woman with real wit and personality.
It is a rather sad exercise to compare these Hollywood girls of the ’00s to the young female stars of earlier eras. Can you imagine Jessica Alba going toe to toe with Lauren Bacall or even Veronica Lake?
One of the exceptions to this rule is the 29-year-old Maggie Gyllenhaal who has the looks and charisma to hold a movie audience’s attention, but also has the acting chops to put some muscle behind her work on the screen.
If you missed Gyllenhaal’s Golden Globe-nominated performance in “Sherrybaby” (2006) — as a recovering alcoholic/drug user desperate to regain custody of her child — you missed a remarkable piece of work. Gyllenhaal’s willingness to explore the messiest (and most unsympathetic) aspects of the character reminded me of the raw performances Jane Fonda gave in “Klute” (1971) and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969)
Gyllenhaal is, of course, the female lead in “The Dark Knight” which opened today on a wave of hype (you can find my review on the entertainment page of this Web site). For my money, her performance is one of the best things in the movie — she gives an otherwise perversely dark and depressing comic-book movie a jolt of charm and sex appeal.
One of my problems with most comic-book movies is that they are aimed squarely at male adolescents so there is never much romance — let alone sex — in these action thrillers. Because the superheroes so often have to hide their “real” identities, Bruce Wayne in the Batman stories and Clark Kent in the Superman adventures lead painfully chaste lives when they are among “real” people. A romantic entanglement might, of course, compromise our comic-book protagonist’s secret identity.
Even as a kid, I always preferred the James Bond movies to the comic-book stuff because of those sensational ladies the spy met along the way — Honor Blackman, Ursula Andress, Diana Rigg, etc.
Gyllenhaal somehow manages to break through the macho surface of “The Dark Knight” and deliver a full-bodied female character in the midst of all the masculine hubris.
In this wonderful actress’ work, there are echoes of the great urban dames who populated movies in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Somewhere around the middle, I wished Gyllenhaal could hijack the picture and turn it into a 2008 version of “His Girl Friday.”
For a guy who seems to have a perpetual glass-half-empty philosophy, the New York singer-songwriter and actor Jay Brannan has been gaining a lot of ground recently.
Brannan takes self-deprecation to new depths (heights?). If you visit his Web site here’s how you will be greeted on the home page:
“hi. my name is jay brannan.
i’m a singer/songwriter living in new york city, and i’m as tragic as i look in the above photo (right).
i only own one pair of jeans and currently i hate them.
i maintain this website myself, which explains why it sucks. thank you for the offers, but for now i don’t really want it re-designed. i like it this ugly and under my own control.
i can’t imagine why you’d want to see/hear/know more, but just in case, you can find me in the following places online…”
Much to his own surprise, Brannan’s so-called career has been coming together beautifully lately.
Jay’s first “real” commercial recording, “Goddamned” (Great Depression Records), debuted on CD yesterday, following its digital release on July 1.
Tonight, Brannan is headlining a show at one of the best venues in Manhattan — the Highline Ballroom — and he will then be setting off on a national tour that will wind up in Chicago at the end of the month.
Thanks to the power of the Internet — especially Jay’s savvy use of YouTube and iTunes — the performer already has a sizeable international following and will be touring England later in the summer.
I first ran into Jay when he was promoting the John Cameron Mitchell film, “Shortbus,” two years ago. I did a story about him and the film which he was nice enough (or desperate enough) to post on his Web site.
Jay did a gig at the Ars Nova theater a few months later that was quite wonderful and then last summer I took some friends to see him at Joe’s Pub where — as they say in show biz — he killed.
Now that he finally scraped together enough of his own money to record and release a CD, I figured it was time for an update.
“It was so hard, to be completely honest,” Jay said of producing his own CD in a recent phone chat.
Jay put out a neat little homemade recording last year called “disasterpiece” that sold out on CD Baby within hours.
“That was just me in a studio, performing live — a total of 15 hours to do the whole thing — so it was definitely not the same,” he said of moving from DIY New York City recording to a Los Angeles studio where he worked with other musicians.
“The arrangements are pretty simple, but everything has to be metered, with a click track. I was never very good with a metronome because I always want to play to my own internal clock,” he said of the technical challenges behind his musical upgrade.
The CD features 11 tracks and demonstrates the fact that Brannan’s voice has gotten stronger with all of the touring and club dates he’s done over the past year.
The off-beat humor and charisma that Brannan can use in club settings to augment his performances don’t count for much in a merciless recording studio.
“I didn’t love that aspect…it’s a whole different skill you need to sing into a microphone,” Jay says of the cool, hard technology of professional recording.
“It’s weird. I know I have decent pitch…(but) when you listen to (the playback) it has to be exactly right for the whole song. People expect a lot from a recorded project. A club setting is forgiving for everybody,” he said.
Brannan got a big boost from “Shortbus” — which continues to find fans on DVD — but has been building an audience that knows him strictly for his music. Jay decided not to include “Soda Shop” on “Goddamned” since the song received so much attention on the film’s soundtrack CD and the Internet.
“I’m not trying to move past ‘Shortbus’ — it’s something I’m very proud of — but this is the next step,” he said of the CD and tour.
Brannan laughed when I asked him if he has been able to give up his day job as a proof-reader and move out of his tiny subsidized artist’s apartment in downtown Manhattan (he only got in by proving he made less than $29,800).
“No I’m talking to you from there,” he said of his 200-square foot apartment. “I hope to quit my day job and I probably could have if I lived somewhere like Phoenix where I might be able to have a real place to live on what I make.”
“I have made some money from my music, but I invested it in the album, so I could make it on my own terms,” Jay added. “I can’t say that tons of people are clammering for me, but I do have management now.”
“I found someone who was willing to be a trailblazer. He’s on board for that — ready to break some rules.”
(For more information on Jay’s music and tour, visit his Web site at www.jaybrannan.com.)