Monday, April 11, 2011

Those Damned Exasperating Women

By the time it had finished its out-of-town tryout, the musical previously known as Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman had received a new name that would go down in history: Hello, Dolly! That did not mean, however, that all of the exasperating women in the world had been silenced.

Life has always included a subset of headstrong women who play by their own rules. Before the onset of the feminist movement they were often referred to as witches and hysterics. In her play entitled In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) -- which had its world premiere at Berkeley Rep in February of 2009 --  Sara Ruhl describes how vibrators were first used to help women achieve orgasm as a cure for the female hysteria with which they had been diagnosed by male physicians.

What has threatened many men for centuries is the simple fact that some women are far more intelligent than the men who imagine themselves to be the superior life form. Long after Cleopatra took matters into her own hands (asp her no questions and she'll tell you no lies), women continue to surprise people who assume they should be meek, timid, and stay in the kitchen.

If you don't believe me, watch the following video clip starting at the 3.53 mark, when Senator Barbara Mikulski takes over the microphone and quickly changes the mood of the moment from defensive to offensive. Mikulski may be short, but she shoots from the hip.

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Three headstrong women provide easy sources of inspiration for this column. One is fictional, another is based on an historical figure. Ironically, the most gripping portrait comes from an elderly woman being interviewed at home by her famous cousin.

Now nearing his 70th birthday, Lou Reed (best known for his work with the rock band, The Velvet Underground) is the driving force behind a poignant 28-minute film entitled Red Shirley that will be screened at the the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival. In the film, Reed interviews his cousin, Shirley Novick, on the eve of her 100th birthday.

As one watches the film, it's easy to understand why Reed adores his cousin. What becomes painfully obvious, however, is how rare it is to hear about historical events from the early part of the 20th century from someone who actually lived through them.  As Reed explains:
"I wanted to talk to her on camera, about things that only she could know: what it was like being in Poland through World War I and World War II, being smuggled out of Canada, or working as a seamstress in the union. What she had to say is remarkable."
Reed's cousin got her nickname (Red Shirley) due to her participation in the labor movement on behalf of women working in the garment trades. As we observe the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911 and see unions under fierce attack by conservatives, Shirley Novick's testimony becomes all the more riveting.  Here's a brief trailer:

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Few writers can match the skill with which Tennessee Williams created complex female characters whose repressed desires, emotional neediness, and aching hunger for a man transform them into manipulative and smothering mothers or simmering vipers. If one were to try diagramming the personalities of these, instead falling neatly into the outlines of a two-dimensional graph, the aches and pains that haunt and torture their souls would probably result in bumps and curves resembling some of architect Frank Gehry's most asymmetrical creations.

From the coyness of Amanda Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie) to the delusional Blanche du Bois (A Streetcar Named Desire), from the love-starved Serafina Delle Rose (The Rose Tattoo) and Maggie (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) to such curiosities as Hannah (The Night of the Iguana) and Alexandra del Lago (Sweet Bird of Youth), the women created by Williams have offered many an actress the chance to inhabit a grand dramatic tapestry.

As directed by Tom Ross, the Aurora Theatre Company is currently showcasing the trials and tribulations of a lesser-known Williams creation: Alma Winemiller (Beth Wilmurt). The protagonist of Eccentricities of a Nightingale (which premiered in Dallas in 1964 but did not receive its Broadway premiere until 1976), Miss Alma's eccentricities have been a constant source of frustration to her friends and family.

Beth Wilmurt and Thomas Gorrebeeck in Tennessee Williams's
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (Photo by: David Allen)

Alma's problem is that -- other than a few of the other "losers" in her small home town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi -- no one seems either willing or able to accept Alma as is. Her father, the Reverend Winemiller (Charles Dean), is embarrassed by the way people describe Alma's habit of wildly gesticulating with her hands when she gets excited. Her mother, Mrs. Winemiller (Amy Crumpacker), is a victim of senile dementia who firmly believes that her beloved Musée Mechanique is still burning down -- some 16 years after the actual event.

Even the friends in Alma's discussion group -- Rosemary (Beth Deitchman), Roger (Ryan Tasker), Vernon (Charles Dean), and Mrs. Bassett (Leanne Borghesi) -- find her behavior unpredictable and worrisome. And then there are the neighbors.

Alma has long harbored a crush on the handsome John Buchanan, Jr. (Thomas Gorrebeeck), a young doctor who has graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. Although his father (also a doctor) is in declining health, John's mother (Marcia Pizzo) is one of those frighteningly overprotective female monsters that Williams paints with such remarkable insight. With a voice that drips honey as she attempts to keep her son from hanging out with "the wrong people" -- and a lust for her son that she is barely able to contain -- Mrs. Buchanan is an aging Southern belle who wields her personal brand of etiquette as a formidable weapon.

Mrs. Buchanan (Marcia Pizzo) forbids her son John (Thomas Gorrebeeck)
from socializing with Alma Winemiller (Beth Wilmurt) in
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. (Photo by: David Allen)

As Williams frames Alma's desperate attempts to connect with John on a sexual level, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale glows with the poetic touch that accompanies so many of the playwright's tragic heroines.  Beth Wilmurt shines in the title role, with a stunning performance coming from Marcia Pizzo as the unctuous Mrs. Buchanan. Performances continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through May 8 (you can order tickets here).

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When people think of movies from the Civil War era, they often think of Union soldiers battling the Confederacy in testosterone-heavy military dramas. They rarely think of a mother refusing to give her son up to the authorities, even if he might have been complicit in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Robert Redford's new film, The Conspirator, may begin on the battlefield as Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) and his friend Nicholas Baker (Justin Long) await medical help, but the action soon moves to the nation's capital after the South has surrendered. As the audience watches a series of handsome young men involved in furtive meetings, the countdown begins to the moment when John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) shoots the President during a performance of Our American Cousin, leaps from the Presidential box onto the stage of Ford's Theatre and yells "Sic semper tyrannis" before disappearing into the night.

After Lincoln's death, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) is determined to bring the assassin and any accomplices to justice and bury the matter in history so that the country can move on. At the direction of Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), young Aiken (who has recently become an attorney) finds himself defending a most unlikely and uncooperative suspect.

Poster art for The Conspirator

Shortly after moving to the nation's capital, Mary Suratt Robin Wright) began to rent out the rooms in her boarding house to strangers. Her son, John(Johnny Simmons), had developed a close friendship with John Wilkes Booth. Her daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood), had become smitten with the handsome actor. What neither woman could have known was that the two men were plotting to kidnap the President.

Unable to locate John Suratt, the authorities name his mother as a conspirator in Lincoln's assassination. Unable to prove her innocence, Mary was subsequently hanged, becoming the first woman to be executed by the United States Government.

Mary Suratt (Robin Penn) is led to the gallows in The Conspirator

There is much to admire in Redford's film, in particular the extra attention given to lighting, sepia tints, and the slow fading of the film's atmosphere from a sense of robust color to the point where it starts to resemble some daguerrotype prints. As Redford explains:
"Because photography was relatively new at the time of the trial. I had it in mind while discussing the look of the film, the color, the lighting. We looked at the quality of color and light in Vermeer and Rembrandt and we discussed autochrome. Although not invented until the early 1900s, this early form of color photography evokes the period of the film with subtle color, wide tonal gradation, and quiet light.”
Much of The Conspirator was shot around Savannah, Georgia (including Fort Pulaski National Monument). Because the film was made on a very tight schedule, the producers were extremely grateful for help they received from an unexpected source. Costume supervisor Richard Schoen recalls that:
"About 50 Civil War re-enactors were happy to show up and offer their talents and services as extras. It was such a help to see them get out of their cars in the morning already dressed and ready to work in authentic uniforms with their own props (such as weapons, canteens, even bedrolls). They often had both uniforms and would play the Union soldier or the Confederate soldier.”
As one watches The Conspirator, it's impossible not to admire the attempts to achieve as much historical accuracy as possible. James D. Solomon's screenplay doesn't shy away from the extreme misogyny behind the drive to use Mary Suratt as a scapegoat. As Redford notes:

“History is a source of great stories that often seem to relate to where we are today. Even more interesting, once you immerse yourself in a bit of history, you find the accepted narrative isn’t always the real story. There is usually another story beneath the one you’ve been told or the one you think you know.”
There are times in Redford's film when the dialogue may seem to be moving at an extremely slow pace, but the overall feeling one has for this film is less dramatic than "painterly" (and I mean that as a compliment). Robin Penn, James McAvoy, and Kevin Kline all deliver fine performances. However, late in the proceedings, one of America's great actors -- the uncredited and undersung octogenarian, John Cullum -- nearly walks off with the film in a magnificent cameo. Here's the trailer:

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