Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tales Worth Retelling

A good story is one that begs to be told. Again and again and again and again and again.

Certain stories work their way into the popular consciousness because they have been handed down from generation to generation. Whether new life is breathed into their characters in books, onstage, on the silver screen, or in the simple act of one person reciting the story to another, certain tales take on a life of their own.

From Moses and Joan of Arc to Peter Rabbit and Tarzan; from Noah and Pocahontas to The Phantom of the Opera and The Little Engine That Could, characters from history and fiction continue to delight those who discover them for the very first time. Two of Britain's most popular folk heroes have recently returned to the Bay area -- decked out in new finery -- to entertain loyal audiences on stage and on screen.

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J.M. Barrie's legendary play, Peter Pan: or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (which had its world premiere on December 27, 1904) and his subsequent novelization of the story, Peter and Wendy, probably capture the spirit of eternal youth better than any other piece of fiction ever written. Filled with enough distractions to delight any child (pirates, Indians, poison, and a crocodile who swallowed a loudly-ticking clock), the story has inspired numerous children who have been taken to see Peter Pan -- in any of its dramatic, musical, or cinematic reincarnations -- to run to their bedrooms and try jumping off their beds in the hope that they, too, will be able to fly.

Statue of Peter Pan in London's Kensington Gardens

Peter Pan, however, is much more about make believe than making things happen in real time. The story of a young boy who fell out of his carriage and became certain that he never wanted to have a job, grow any pubic hair, or do anything that would transform him into a man, Peter Pan offers audiences the embodiment of youth everlasting. Whether performed using Barrie's original script -- or in the popular musical version by Jule Styne (with lyrics by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Moose Charlap, and Carolyn Leigh) made famous when it was televised nationally in 1955 with Mary Martin starring as Peter Pan and the great Cyril Ritchard as a most flamboyant Captain Hook -- Peter Pan never fails to entertain, inspire, and draw sentimental tears from its audience. Last year, both the Woodminster Summer Musicals and Berkeley Playhouse performed the Jule Styne musical version of Peter Pan for Bay area audiences.

Peter (Nate Fellows) and Wendy (Abby Ford)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

The image of Peter Pan has been used to inspire films like 2004's Finding Neverland, rides like Peter Pan's Flight (at The Walt Disney Company's various amusement parks), build a popular brand of peanut butter, and identify a possible cause of immature behavior in adult men (Peter Pan syndrome). Indeed, American audiences have gotten so used to having middle-aged women play the role of Peter Pan that the 2003 film starring Jeremy Sumpter offered a refreshing reminder that Peter is very much a young man.

A new production by threesixty which debuted in a 100-foot-tall tent down at Ferry Park may come as quite a shock to those who insist on seeing Peter as either a woman in drag or a prepubescent boy. While a beautifully designed museum display entitled "100 Years of Peter Pan" shows pictures of famous Peter Pans of previous generations (including Maude Adams, Elsa Lanchester, Jean Arthur, Mary Martin, Mia Farrow, Sandy Duncan, and Cathy Rigby), there is no question that the latest incarnation of Peter Pan is quite a masculine dude.

Nate Fellows as Peter Pan (Photo by: Paul Rider)

As Peter, Nate Fallows is a smooth-chested young man with bushy curls and an engaging smile. His Wendy (Abby Ford), John (Arthur Wilson), and Michael (David Poynor) are all noticeably larger and more mature than the actors usually seen by American audiences.

In this production, Tinker Bell (Itxaso Moreno) has been refashioned as a punk fairy with an attitude (T-shirts on sale bearing this logo will undoubtedly be popular in San Francisco). Princess Tiger Lily (Heidi Buehler) is an extremely seductive young Indian with strong sensual appeal and a surprisingly predatory sexual nature. Mrs. Darling (Shannon Wallace) does double duty as a Neverbird, while the family dog, Nana, appears as a giant puppet manipulated and voiced by Mohsen Nouri.

With a great sense of panache, Jonathan Hyde joins a long history of talented actors doubling as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. In addition to the usual supporting cast of bumbling pirates, two mermaids (Rain Anya and Sarah Bebe Holmes) perform an aerial ballet that is enhanced by CGI scripting that takes the audience down into the seductive waters of Neverland's beautiful, blue lagoon.

Jonathan Hyde as Captain Hook (Photo by: Graham Michael)

Adapted from Barrie's original script by Tanya Ronder (with choreography by Fleur Darkin and aerial sequences designed by Freedom Flying) the production has been directed by Ben Harrison. While there is much to admire (I especially liked the production's magnificently tricked out stage floor with its multiple trap doors), most of the audience's attention is focused on the flying and the CGI scripting that has given the show an entirely new feel.

It took 200 computers nearly four weeks to grind out 10 million pixels, resulting in 15,000 square feet of CGI images representing 400 square miles of virtual London. Ten gigantic screens (each measuring 456 x 33 feet) are the targets of 12 projectors. The production tent's cupola holds 10 tons of equipment (lighting, acrobatic platforms, rigging devices, etc). As designer Bill Dudley explains:
"We used a wide filled lens to shoot the model of London that we fly over. It is a scale model of 400 square miles. We took a vast slice of London to give a sense of space from any angle at all times. It is a complex technique that took nearly three weeks for a roomful of supercomputers to convert our instructions into finished images. The 360-degree lens is a recent technological development. We take the audience up in the air and give them the feeling that they're soaring through the sky with these very familiar characters.

This is still a theatre production, but what we have aimed for is a fusing of some very different theatrical styles. We have live actors to tell the story. We also have puppetry of a charming and surreal style, aerobatics, singing, and sword fighting. Imagine looking at a great painting and having that moment where you think 'I wish I could walk right into that right now.' Well, with 3D you can. It's not film, it's CGI -- so you can do anything you want with it."
Older members of the audience who have memorized Styne's songs may be disappointed with the large scale, Hollywood-style musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch (which could easily be used for a movie like E.T. the Extraterrestrial). Although Gregory Clarke's sound design works extremely well within the 1,350 seat tent, there were a surprising number of parents with terrified two year olds on opening night who had to escort their children from the theatre.

With Cirque du Soleil having come and gone, Teatro ZinZanni now in its tenth year in residence, and Wicked winding down its current engagement at the Orpheum Theater, Peter Pan's viability as another one of the theatrical economic engines in San Francisco's tourism industry remains to be seen. Since the tent is located within walking distance of the Embarcadero BART/MUNI station, it should draw heavily from suburban audiences as well as visiting tourists and conventioneers.

The irony of Peter Pan, of course, is how easily the play can be upstaged by a real live boy. During intermission, I couldn't help chuckling at the sight of two irrepressible five-year-olds who were ardently battling each other with the plastic crocodiles their parents had just purchased. Some theatregoers are so easily distracted!

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The other great legend under discussion is, of course, Robin Hood. Famous for redistributing England's wealth by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, this folk hero of medieval times (whose popularity initially spread through ballads sung by wandering minstrels) has been seen in so many films and television series that it would be difficult -- and artistically dangerous -- to try tampering with his brand.

Statue of Robin Hood in Nottingham

However, that hasn't prevented screenwriter Brian Helgeland from mauling the legend of Robin Hood in his horribly misguided attempt to create a superstar vehicle in which none of Robin's cohorts wear tights and -- instead of dying in the arms of his mother -- King Richard I of England dies in a French forest in an embarrassing prequel that holds together with the static tension of fresh vomit.

Originally planned as a story about the Sheriff of Nottingham, the script was extensively rewritten as a vehicle for Russell Crowe, whose increasingly bovine style of acting gives new meaning to the classic warning about what happens "when a man lies with dogs." Helgeland's attempt to insert the history of how the Magna Carta got signed into his pathetic script does little to enhance Scott's film which (other than showing how easily parchment can be burned) does absolutely nothing to heighten the audience's appreciation of why the Magna Carta is such an important legal document.

If you are willing to accept that Ridley Scott's tedious new version of Robin Hood is essentially a medieval Western (whose cowboys and Indians wear chain mail) in which some of the most compelling acting is done by a white horse, it will be much easier to survive 141 minutes of depressingly dull and often unintelligible gibberish that Helgeland would like you to believe is a screenplay. While Scott (who is usually very good at managing spectacle and moving crowds from one side of the screen to the other) is certainly helped by John Mathieson's cinematography -- particularly in the naval scenes -- Helgeland's screenplay is such a mess that it almost makes James Cameron's recent Avatar seem Shakespearean.

Russell Crowe as Robin Hood

This bloated, laborious, and monstrously boring waste of time -- which gives Robin Longstride a chance to mutter "The more the merrier" as a not-so-subtle hint about how Robin Hood came to refer to his band as "merry men" -- will no doubt satisfy the cinematic cravings of teenage boys whose fleshy joysticks spring to turgid attention at the first hint of violence and gore. However, it is extremely disheartening for mature filmgoers to realize that, despite this movie's excessive length, Scott has not managed to get his audience to care about a single character in his film.

Although the credits list five young actors as feral children (who can be seen romping through the woods near Nottingham), not even the devoted efforts of Cate Blanchett as Maid Marion Loxley, Max von Sydow as Sir Walter Loxley, and Eileen Atkins as Eleanor of Aquitaine can breathe life -- or any sense of credibility -- into this lead balloon. I think it's fair to say that, after audiences have dutifully managed to sit through this ludicrous attempt at historical revisionism, all the king's horses and all the king's men will never be able to put the legend of Robin Hood back together again.

Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) and Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett)

Laden with the most clichéd shots imaginable (watch carefully for Russell Crowe's impersonation of a wounded Godzilla rising from the water), the pounding musical score by Marc Streitenfeld demonstrates a firm grip on the sound mixer's volume controls despite a tragic lack of creativity. Even the CGI scripting of various bow-and-arrow stunts seems lame compared to Asian war epics that rely on armies of archers to conquer an enemy.

Of the supporting cast that tries to makes a difference, Oscar Isaac creates a dashingly handsome and woefully immature King John while Mark Strong's Sir Godfrey is the villain with an ugly facial scar. As Friar Tuck, Mark Addy puts his bees to good use while Douglas Hodge (now starring opposite Kelsey Grammar in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles) has a decent death scene as Sir Robert Loxley.

Other familiar roles are filled by Danny Houston as King Richard The Lionheart, Matthew Macfayden as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Kevin Durand as Little John. Two of the most thankless roles in Helgeland's clumsy script are filled by William Hurt as William Marshall, First Earl of Pembroke and Léa Seydoux as the petulant Isabella of Angouleme.

A huge amount of talent, money, and computer time went into the making of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. Whether or not this film (which will undoubtedly help frequent flyers to kill time during long international flights) is worth your time and money is quite another story. Here's the trailer:

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