Flick-ing By

Time is flick-ering by without much movie watching going on.

I was watching movies while working out on the treadmill, but with better weather I haven’t used the treadmill much. More movie-watching in my future no doubt — bad weather will return.

The only movie I can remember watching since my last post (so long ago!) was Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — which is not a Great Movie. Well, it has a few flashes of not “great” perhaps but “pretty good”. It made me laugh at the silliness now and then. The abundance of crude language did not add anything to the movie.

I also haven’t done any theater for a while – the other subject of this blog. I got burned out last season with five back-to-back productions — and I missed pretty much the entire summer in rehearsals. This summer I’ve been out and around – keeping active. Need to keep active at my age. However, I am memorizing music for Longwood Opera’s Carmen in November: I’m part of the ensemble and playing the role of El Dancairo. I will report on this later.

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Being There – Bonnie and Clyde – Chinatown

Back on the “great movies” trail, I watched three movies I watched way back when they were first released again: Being There, Bonnie and Clyde, and Chinatown.

Being There is a visually gorgeous film – the locations are outstanding and the cinematography is excellent. Peter Sellers is brilliant as Chance. The character is simple-minded – but the characterization is amazingly deep and realistic. Scene after scene – the character is exactly “right” every time. Shirley MacLaine looked fantastic and played her part extremely well – very funny. It is sad that Sellers’ personal life was such a mess – he was seemingly capable of extreme control of his on-screen character, but not off-screen. Perhaps without a script he never knew quite how to deal with life.

Bonnie and Clyde in my memory was an extremely violent film, but after all these years and I guess being exposed to ultra-violent movies from Disney (animated – OK) to Tarantino, the movie seemed only mildly violent. It is a movie about two not-very-smart young people (three really), the ease with which they threw themselves into evil behavior, the Great Depression, and gorgeous cinematography. There’s not a lot of plot – Bonnie and Clyde know how it’s all going to end (as do we), and it ends exactly that way. But their wild trip to hell – seemingly taken out of boredom and laziness with a bit of economic desperation thrown in – provides a vehicle for showing us a slice of Great Depression life that almost always seems very true. And Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty looked great.

Chinatown had Faye Dunaway again looking great and doing a fine job plus Jack Nicholson. I’ve always enjoyed Nicholson’s intense characterizations, and I gather he is fairly intense off-screen as well. Perhaps those roles are not a big stretch for him! Chinatown has a lot of beautiful cinematography, and the story is interesting, although I would say the story-telling is not the film’s strongest point. The final scene is amazing cinema, but somehow it seemed to miss the target by just a bit in terms of bringing all the threads of the story together into a perfect, single, revelatory, cataclysmic moment. Still, well worth watching again, as all of these were.

I’m in a different place as a person from where I was when I first saw these, and I would say like any piece of true art, these movies seemed fresh – and revealed something new – as I the viewer viewed them from a new perspective.

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Now on Stage – now off stage for a bit

Since my last update I’ve been involved in more theater productions than I would have imagined – more than I should have, probably. A lot of things didn’t get done that I would have liked to do. I was in back-to-back productions – often rehearsals for one overlapping with performances of another – sometimes rehearsals for one overlapping with rehearsals for another.

  • Milton Players – The Unexpected Guest – Henry Angell
  • Longwood Opera – The Elixir of Love – Ensemble
  • Needham Players – Noises Off – Selsdon Mowbray
  • Sudbury Savoyards – The Fantasticks – Henry Albertson (The Aged Actor)
  • The Footlight Club – August: Osage County – Bill Fordham
  • Longwood Opera – The Magic Flute – Priest 2, Armored Man 2, Ensemble

I don’t review my own productions. There were some shining moments and some missed opportunities in all of these. I guess that would be true of theater at any level. A few brief thoughts on each show:

The Unexpected Guest was, I think, Agatha Christie’s first play and it is not well known any more – I think for good reason. Although there are some good characterizations, the plot is puzzling – puzzling not in the mystery way, but puzzling because there’s so little puzzle. The “who dunnit” part of the play seemed obvious until just near the end when Christie dumps a truckload of red herrings in the audience’s path. But it turns out that the obvious person, in fact, did it. And it wasn’t my character – the butler-ish person – who was one of the few people eliminated from the competition relatively early on.

The Elixir of Love is one of my favorite operas. It is so pleasant and easy-going – and has some fun and funny bits mixed with some truly touching moments. The orchestration is genius. The setting is a idealized Italian countryside filled with good-natured, naive peasants. This production didn’t have an orchestra, so it was interesting hearing the “bones” of the score as played on the piano. I see now how much the orchestration meant to my love of the music. And this production was set in the Wild West. I always felt that this opera was Italian in every way – the music, the characters, the plot – everything revolved around a certain Italian perspective on life. So, although I’ve seen it done in other settings before, the Wild West setting gave me a new perspective on the work.

Noises Off is a very hard play to put on, and the humor is very British, so it is probably no surprise that although this play was very successful, it isn’t done much in the Boston area. The set needs to rotate 180 degrees, the action is frantic (and highly choreographed), many of the jokes require knowledge of British culture. That said, the audience seemed to appreciate it, and Selsdon was a plum role – easy to do and very funny.

The Fantasticks is a show I knew almost nothing about. “Try to remember the kind of September / When life was slow and oh, so mellow.” Oooh, that show – pretty much was where I was when I was asked to substitute for Henry for Sudbury. This show really grew on me, and although it is dated in many ways, I can now call it one of the few musicals I enjoy listening to now and then. Henry was a great role in that it was easy and fun to develop the character and physical-humor aspects of the role. As the main source of “comic relief” in the show, it was great to get a lot of laughs.

August: Osage County was a show I was eager to be a part of, although the roles for men are all small – the show revolves around the women. I was eager to be a part of the show because it was at the Footlight Club, was Frank Moffett’s directorial debut there, and was sure to be a success since the play is well-known and the movie is coming out shortly. Summary: it was a very successful production and a challenge, but a challenge that was small enough not to completely eat up my summer. I was glad to be a part of the show. I also wished I could have squeezed in more time to do summer stuff. Strange coincidence: I was hiking in New Hampshire the weekend after the show closed and ran into one of the actresses in the show on the trail – Rae McCarey. It’s a small world sometimes.

The Magic Flute is perhaps my favorite opera, and I double-dipped in that I saw the Boston Lyric Opera “re-imagining” of the Magic Flute during rehearsals and then performed in it. I was not impressed by the changes in plot the BLO introduced to their production. They felt the need to dumb down the plot of the opera and by turning it into a play-within-a-play – and the main action being a hallucination – the point of the opera was completely lost. The Longwood Opera production was by the book plot-wise. Hearing the score played on a piano made me much more appreciative of the genius of the music in this opera. The music as played on the piano was brilliant – with orchestration the music is absolutely cosmic. Now I understand the “bones” of the opera to a greater extent, for which I’m grateful.

I’m tired. I haven’t quite reached “burt out”, but it is good to take a break. Time to do some things off stage for awhile. I need to get into better hiking shape over the next few months for a big hiking trip I’m hoping to take. And there’s all those chores around the house that need attending to.

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Fiorello and the Barber of Seville

I sang the role of Fiorello plus the Officer in the Longwood Opera production of The Barber of Seville in November 2012 (how time flies). The roles were edited a bit to account for the fact that there was no chorus, and Fiorello was given the recit that is “never performed” (as notated in the Schumer edition), with the words edited to the effect that Fiorello intends to join the police force. He then came out to break up the domestic squabble in an officer’s uniform.

The very clever and funny production was extremely well received. For the final performance, we had one of the top 5 largest audiences that Longwood Opera has had in their 30+ year history. The cast was wonderful, and the stage and music directors were, as usual, great to work for. Bravo Scott and Maestro Brody.

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BBC Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

I have been watching a number of the BBC Television’s Shakespeare series and just finished watching The Merchant of Venice.

My expectation coming into watching the play were that it would be very non-politically correct in regard to its treatment of the Jew, Shylock. I was aware of how Jews were thought of in Elizabethan England and I was expecting a harsh and one-sided depiction of Shylock – the character of the “one pound of flesh”. I didn’t know the play, but had absorbed a bit of the story from various sources over the years. I should have had more faith in Shakespeare. As usual, none of the main characters are simple and one-sided and there is a complexity to the Shylock character that belies any simple interpretation of his actions. He is treated harshly by the playwright, no doubt about that. But he is not a cardboard cutout bad guy either. It is impossible not to feel sorry for him at the loss of his daughter – even though he brought it onto himself to some degree – he didn’t need to banish her entirely from his life. On the other hand, the young male nobles seem more than a little cruel as they chortle over Shylock’s predicament. The play goes through several twists and turns in terms of concentrating on different characters – almost feels like a different play entirely near the end as Shakespeare seems to latch onto a different set of ideas to develop. As usual with Shakespeare, the result is a bit puzzling at times yet always fascinatingly “real”.

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My Jolly Old Acting Career – Fall 2012 Edition

I just finished a three-week run as Sebastian in Shakespeare’s The Tempest for The Footlight Club (TFC) in Jamaica Plain. It was my first role at TFC and overall a pleasant first-timer experience. TFC has a solid base of members that seem ready and willing to pitch in on all sorts of aspects of a production that are the responsibility of the actors at smaller community theaters. There was a work requirement, but, at least for this show, the set building and strike were relatively easy and aided by much work from members not appearing on stage in the production. The facilities at TFC are excellent – there are workshops, a good-size collection of costumes, large collection of props, plenty of lighting and sound equipment – working with a group that has its own facility really makes a difference for an actor in community theater – everything is easier.

The production itself was good, I’m told. I believe it made a bit of money for TFC – helping a bit, I hope, to pay for the repair of their building’s roof. There are bad sides to owning your own facility – especially one that was built in the 19th century.

At first I was a bit disappointed to be offered the role of Sebastian, but after exploring the part, I found much of interest in it. I eventually decided that Sebastian is to a fair extent the class clown surrounded by a bunch of royal straight men. This “discovery” made it easy to make Sebastian’s dialog work. He is one of the play’s “bad guys”, but not really evil at heart. He is weak, vain, and impatient – especially impatient of Gonzalo’s aged wisdom. Antonio leads him into evil easily enough, but when the tables turn against Antonio, he quickly finds joy in the happy ending wrought by Prospero.

From a more technical point of view, Sebastian is a good role because he appears in the play’s first and last scenes, and although most of his dialog is in the middle of the play, he does have lines sprinkled through some later scenes and even has one of the last lines in the play not spoken by Prospero. His character is revealed as being witty – if not overly intelligent. He shows anger, fear, irritation, joy, and amazement. All that, and the part is not really very long and so it was quickly memorized. This was another big advantage for me since I had a fairly active summer doing non-theatrical things during the rehearsal process. Not a bad way to spend the summer and a nice experience overall.

There was some stuff I did not like about the production, but I won’t carp about them. I’ll just say that there were some “missed opportunities” and leave it at that. I’ll take the greater good with the lesser evil, as Shakespeare probably said more or less in some play or other.

Next up: the role of Fiorello in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich, 1962)

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a film with some great pieces that don’t quite come together for me. There are a lot of good pieces really. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are both wonderful, although I wish Crawford had been given more to work with in terms of her character. The plot concept is great. The house that is the setting for most of the movie is creepy and very well done. A few of the supporting roles shine: the curious neighbor, the maid. It was in putting the pieces together that Aldrich left some potentialities unfulfilled.

Before I enter into spoiler land, let me summarize: This is a very good movie, if not “great”. I’m glad I watched it. If you like stylish, psychological thrillers, there are some good scary parts.

Spoilers follow.

The biggest overall failure in the movie for me was that Crawford’s character didn’t foreshadow the movie-ending reveal – that she had in fact crippled herself when she tried to kill her sister. So, the plot twist dropped out of the sky and fell completely flat. Crawford’s character was fairly one-dimensional – so pitiful and so helpless. Then we find out in the end that she has a streak of murderess in her – just seemed awfully unlikely.

The accompanist and his irritating mother were interesting in their own right as characters, but I thought they were a distraction at a point in the movie where tension was building. For a movie that seemed to want to be a Hitchcock flick, it was odd to see a big loose end flapping around like that – so unlike Hitchcock.

For most of the film we are cooped up in a spooky house, just like Crawford’s character – only getting an occasional glimpse of the outside world. This was very effective. The scenes outside the house seemed much less effective and mostly detracted from the claustrophobic feel of the movie when they could have added to it. The final setting at the beach seemed to cry out for more: finally free of the house we expect some profound change in the characters and their relationship that mirrors the setting. But, the beach scenes go on too long and don’t really mean much of anything at all – although they are interesting as stand-alone chunks of film “theater”. The just aren’t integrated into the overall thrust of the film in an interesting way.

So, I would disagree with this being a “Great Movie” – a very good movie with some very interesting pieces, but too many lost opportunities to be quite “great”. I’m very glad I saw it, though. I’ve always admired Bette Davis’s acting abilities and I feel like I know Jane Crawford as an actress much better now. I’ve seen a lot of Davis’s films – I’m now eager to see more Crawford.

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The Battle of Algiers – 1966

Watching The Battle of Algiers is almost like reading yesterday’s New York Times – Arabs coming to terms with Western culture, and coming to terms with their own need for freedom and self-determination. Not reaching a final destination – if that is even possible – but pushed, pulled, willed by something that the movie gives up trying to explain – toward some end that is impossible to see. It is certainly a sobering and sad and mystifying message, delivered by a movie that has production values that can probably never ever be duplicated. It is worth watching the movie just for that alone. Just a few years after the Algerians throw off the colonial power (France), the director essentially creates a theatrical (as opposed to strictly historical) re-enactment of the cataclysm, in the city of Algiers, using the citizens of Algiers as actors. What if someone proposed doing that in Iraq or Afghanistan or Egypt or Syria – it boggles the mind. Yet it was done, and done magnificently well.

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The Sweet Smell of Success – 1957

The Sweet Smell of Success features great performances by Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. I’ve seen both actors in so many movies over the years, it was a surprise to see such incredibly rich performances in this movie. The dialog sounds like a pulp novel – the written word – rather than realistic dialog, but for the most part it works, even when it is a bit over the top, which makes me admire the actors even more. Some of the dialog must have been extremely difficult to work with, and yet – not a wrong note anywhere. The cinematography is excellent – the look and feel of every scene so good, it is hard to imagine any way to improve it. All in all, this was a very pleasant surprise – an engaging story and a movie that was incredibly well crafted in every respect.

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Shakespeare in Love – Madden – 1998

Shakespeare in Love is a pretty neat movie. It evokes a slice of the life and times of Shakespeare without getting too niggly about the scholarly details. Something like how Shakespeare depicted the Roman Empire, that’s how we are fed Elizabethan England. But, there’s truth in the story and storytelling that the heart knows as truth, even if the brain isn’t entirely convinced. It’s a chick flick with a twist that guys can dig too. I’ve heard some academy or other liked it quite a bit. One of my favorite playwrights – Tom Stoppard – was involved, so I’m good with it.

Two households, both alike in dignity

Two households, both alike in dignity

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