Friday, February 5, 2010

Chewing The Scenery

Anyone who has watched James Lipton's interviews on Inside The Actors Studio understands that talented actors spend years learning their craft, honing their skills, and developing their body's responses so that, when offered a chance to create or inhabit a role they are up to the challenge. A performing artist's palette includes mastery of voice, movement, intuition, charisma, and the ability to pay keen attention to a situation.

A lot more goes into creating a character than merely reading a playwright or screenwriter's words. While a director can help an actor to ask probing questions and find new insights, at a certain point it's up to the actor to bring all of the tricks and tools at his disposal together in order to create a piece of art.

Some performers have trained their acting muscles so well that, when thrust onstage or before a camera, they can "turn it on" and deliver on a moment's notice. Others agonize over a character's back story and struggle to find motivations for each breath.

A precious subset are those actors who are confident enough in their craft that, when given a challenge, they deliver time and time again. Whether classically trained or blessed with great instinct, these are the artists a person would wisely pay good money to see even if the actor merely stood in front of a lectern and read from the telephone book.

Performers who easily fit into this category include opera singers like Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek, Josephine Barstow, and Marisa Galvany. Screen actors like Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem DaFoe, George Clooney, Ben Kingsley, and Tim Blake Nelson quickly come to mind.

Two new movies and two powerful stage productions by regional theater companies are offering audiences a rare chance to see what happens when someone can -- and does -- chew the scenery while doing justice to a script. Some of these performances seethe with an inner fire; others lash out in anguish. Some offer moments of quiet emotionality while others are downright brutal in their language and physicality. None of these dramas should be missed by anyone who loves good acting.

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After a night of insomnia, I was not in the best shape when I attended a screening of The Last Station. I also found Michael Hoffman's screenplay (based on Jay Parini's story about the last days of Leo Tolstoy and the efforts of his melodramatic wife Sofya to protect her children's inheritance) to be fairly slow and meandering. However, there was no question that Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti (as Tolstoy's trustee, Vladimir Chertkov), and the 80-year-old Christopher Plummer were having themselves a field day.

Valentin (James McAvoy) and Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer)

By contrast, the handsome James McAvoy (cast as a naive young man Chertkov employs to spy on Sofya), Kerry Condon as Masha (the young woman with whom he falls in love), and Anne-Marie Duff as Sasha (the daughter of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy) ended up eating the dust left behind by the veteran actors in the cast. Don't get me wrong, I have always thought that McAvoy is an extremely talented actor. His character, however, is essentially a pawn caught in the crossfire between two fierce adversaries.

Sofya (Helen Mirren) and Valentin (James McAvoy)

While Valentin often acts as an enabler for Sofya and Chertkov's shenanigans, the two younger women in the movie become almost inconsequential. Why should anyone be surprised? Sofya was, after all, married to Leo Tolstoy for 48 years and bore him 13 children (only eight of whom made it past childhood). She had been his devoted secretary for most of their marriage and actually copied the entire manuscript of War and Peace seven times.

Sofya knew her husband's literary works intimately and understood their potential financial value. But, late in her husband's life, she was challenged by his disciples (who wrestled to gain control of the literary rights to Tolstoy's writing).

The Last Station is essentially about the final eruption between the elderly couple which prompts Tolstoy, at the age of 81, to leave Sofya. When he dies 10 days later at a small train station in Astapovo in the company of Chertkov, Sasha, Valentin, and Tolstoy's personal physician, Duchan Makovicki, Sofya is forced to wait in a private railway car until it is time to say farewell to her husband.

As the distraught Sofya, Mirren tears up the screen in every possible mode of hysterical behavior. And yet, the most tender moments in the film are not to be found when Valentin and Masha are making love, but in the brief respite when Sofya and Leo Tolstoy get into bed and show what it is like to still share the rapture and joy of young love while encased in decrepit, aging bodies.

Sofya (Helen Mirren) comforts her daughter Sasha
(Anne-Marie Duff) as Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) looks on.

Michael Hoffman (who adapted Parini's novel for the screen and directed the film) writes:
"Truffaut once said that 'second rate books make first rate movies.' The problem with Jay Parini’s The Last Station is that it’s a first rate book. The challenge was to find a way to adapt Jay’s complex structure, which is built on six different points of view (the diaries each one of the central characters kept of these events). The screenplay had to find a window into the events for the audience. The sentimental education of Valentin provided a perfect vehicle to explore that conflict.

I don’t really believe in the traditional biopic. You choose to tell a story because it’s a wonderful story, not because it happens to be about a well-known person. I wanted to make a film that explores the existential dilemma that we all face in these great loves of ours, the loves that create us and destroy us and create us again. I wanted to explore it in all its pain and absurdity and madness and longing for a connection that we might never have on this earth but we never cease to hope for.

This film is about the conflicting claims of ideal love and love as it exists in the world. I could see clearly how to contrast the fresh young love of Valentin and Masha with the difficult and intricate relationship of the older couple. I loved the way those relationships resonated with each other. Then there was the tone. I wanted to make a tragic comedy about love and marriage. My wife refers to the movie as “art imitates wife.” The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was a good friend of Tolstoy’s and proved to be a very good friend of this project. It was in re-reading his great plays that I found a kind of comedy where the absurd and the sublime, the grand and the ridiculous, live very close together.

There’s an extraordinary amount of primary source material. Every one of these characters kept endlessly detailed diaries of the events. Tolstoy himself kept three diaries. The first he left around for public consumption to let people know what he thought of them and how they should behave. He kept a second diary that he pretended was secret, but allowed few people access to in order to put them off the scent of his third super secret diary (which he kept hidden in his boot). It’s intriguing to be confronted by so many conflicting truths, but very rich for creating drama because that’s what the essence of drama is.

The most exciting was the time I spent in Russia at Tolstoy’s ancestral home, Yasnaya Polyana, and at the train station where he died at Astapovo. It was remarkable to spend time in the rooms where these people lived. I could feel their ghosts, their pain, and their love. The Tolstoy family, particularly Maxime Mardoukhaev, Vladimir Tolstoy, and his daughter Anastasia, told me many stories about their grandparents -- the tales a family tells about the people they love. They also suggested to me a much more balanced view of the conflict between Leo and Sofya than most Tolstoy biographers had presented.

The great discovery was a treasure trove of archival footage, shot during the time the film was set, that we found at Yasnaya Polyana. Not only did it provide great visual source for how people looked, moved, dressed, and gestured, it also provided cinematic information about how these people interacted. I went to the archives at the University of Toronto and, through archival footage and photos, came to understand the intensity of war fought between Sofya and Leo.

Making their world unpolished, not too pristine, and accurate, was absolutely key for us -- feeling the age of the home, feeling the veneer, feeling that this was a place in which a family had lived. We were committed to finding a visual expression of the gap between Sofya and Leo and anchoring her firmly upstairs, and him downstairs. We surrounded her with the trappings of her aristocratic life and Leo in this monk cell in the basement, wealth stripped away."
Whether it was because I was tired or because The Last Station takes 112 minutes to tell a story that is essentially a downhill battle between Sofya and the world around her, I was less thrilled by the film than most people. As with many films about Russia, the trains are always wonderful. However, the long, slow death while Chertkov's vultures hover over the Tolstoy estate and Sofya stews on a side rail was less appealing. Here's the trailer:

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Several years ago, the creators of South Park went for broke in their spoof of a popular police show by clocking how many times viewers could hear the word shit in one episode. As the promotional blurb described it:
"The you-know-what hits the fan 162 times when the citizens of South Park hear the word "Sh*t" on the popular show, 'Cop Drama.' Boffo ratings have the executives at HBC plotting further use of the curse word as the nation is struck by a mysterious plague that unleashes the ancient Knights of Standards and Practices. Only Chef and the boys can save South Park and the world."
A stunning new British film written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (the same team that created Sexy Beast) is about to make David Mamet green with envy for their repetitive use of the word cunt. Featuring a close-knit gang of aging thugs with a limited vocabulary, 44 Inch Chest holds audiences in a near hypnotic state as bile flows freely from the mouths of these geriatrics. But as producer Richard Brown notes:
“I may have stolen this theory, but basically, if you use a certain word once in a sentence, it’s offensive. If you use it 10 times in a sentence, then it can become poetry. The thing is, it’s not bad language. It’s a language."
As I watched 44 Inch Chest, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't watching a play by Harold Pinter. Some critics have complained that sitting through this film felt as if they were attending a readthrough at the Actor's Workshop. What audiences are actually watching is a master class in how to hold a dramatic moment in your hand and breathe life into it -- how to make text take wing even in the midst of fierce physical brutality.

The film is, after all, basically about a hostage situation. According to Ray Winstone, who plays the aggrieved Colin Diamond (who has just been dumped by his wife of 21 years):
“When you get three pages of dialogue straight off and you are talking to someone who doesn’t talk back, as an actor, you look at it, and it can look all over the place. But with this script, there’s music in the way we speak, so once you’ve learnt it, it is so easy to say. It’s done for you. The strength of the language reflects the strength of the script. It’s one thing to write stories (anyone can write stories). But to write dialogue, I tell you, it’s the hardest thing.”
The story itself is quite simple. Shattered by his wife's infidelity, Colin gets his gangster friends to help him kidnap the hunky French waiter (Melvil Poupaud) who has stolen the heart of his sexy wife, Liz (Joanne Whalley). Referred to throughout the script as "Loverboy," the young man spends a good part of the film bound, gagged, and locked in an armoire in a deserted apartment. When Loverboy is dragged out of the armoire and put in a chair, he becomes the target of everyone's scorn.

Loverboy (Melvil Poupaud) and Colin (Ray Winstone)

A hearing child of profoundly deaf parents, director Malcolm Venville describes his youth and background as "a silent, visual world that helped me and informed the way I create images." Making a stunning directorial debut, he faced a particular set of challenges when approaching the script for 44 Inch Chest:
“For me, the palette was key. The biggest challenge was giving the film the right look and feel. I didn’t want just a series of photographs showing people talking. I wanted to make it look more complex than just a kitchen sink drama. I needed to find a certain depth. Wrangling with these amazing actors in such a small space was a challenge. But I just loved the script and had to make this film.

The influences are complex. Sexy Beast had a big impact on me. I loved the writers' use of dialogue and I think there are some similarities between the films. The writers are fantastic. There are these core values in the script. It’s Shakespearean, gritty, rich, and the look needs to reflect that. There are a lot of layers of reference to European and American cinema, to Hitchcock, and Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris."
If you're used to thinking of John Hurt as the embodiment of the effete Quentin Crisp (The Naked Civil Servant, An Englishman in New York) you're in for a major shock. As Old Man Peanut, Hurt delivers a a bitterly misogynist monologue that will blow your socks off.
Curiously enough, the most detached performances come from Joanne Whalley as Liz andIan McShane as Meredith (a vain and cynical gay gangster).

Liz (Joanne Whalley) and Meredith (Ian McShane)

Tom Wilkinson (Archie) and Stephen Dillane (Mal) round out the tightly-knit ensemble. Two key components which contribute to the success of 44 Inch Chest are the musical score by Angelo Badalamenti and the magnificent cinematography by Daniel Landin.

This is a film that anyone who cares about writing, acting, directing, and theatrical craft simply cannot afford to miss. Don't be put off by the constantly crude language that's used to create a series of jarringly dyspeptic arias for the film's bitter, hostile, and impotent senior citizens (whose "old school" ethics border on the Neanderthal). Just go see it. Here's the trailer:

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Since Doubt: A Parable (which received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) deals with the internal politics and hierarchical as well as heretical practices of the Catholic Church, I suppose I should make a confession. My initial experience with John Patrick Shanley's play was far from ideal.

I first had a chance to see the play (with Cherry Jones repeating her award-winning performance as Sister Aloysius) when the national tour plunked down at the Golden Gate Theatre, a huge venue that seats nearly 2,300 people. As I watched the drama unfold in a space that was as friendly an environment for Shanley's play as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, I was acutely aware that the Shorenstein-Nederlander organization had chosen the wrong theatre for this most intimate drama.

Doubt: A Parable had originally premiered in the Manhattan Theatre Club's 299-seat venue and then transferred to Broadway's 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre. At the Golden Gate Theatre, I found myself sitting in one of the orchestra section's acoustical dead spots (where it can be extremely difficult to hear what is being said onstage).

Andrew Nance as Father Flynn (Photo by: Lois Tema)

However, all those problems were rectified (rector-ified?) upon attending the opening night of the New Conservatory Theatre Center's production in its 65-seat Walker Theatre (where the immediacy of the actors intensified the drama with a laser-like precision). As NCTC's artistic director, Ed Decker, explains:
"The proximity of the audience to the events of the story makes it all the more personal. When we hear such close witness, the tension in the room is inescapable and the questions surrounding the truth become unavoidable. Doubt raises more questions than it answers. This is exactly what the playwright intended."
At NCTC, Shanley's drama unfolded in front of me like a piece of chamber music with only four players. Each had a distinct sound and set of motives:
  • Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Scarlett Hepworth) is an "old school" nun -- the kind who never met a ruler she didn't fancy for disciplinary purposes -- who runs the St. Nicholas Church School in The Bronx.
  • Sister James (Roselyn Hallett) is new to the habit and still brimming over with enthusiasm and love for her students. Easily deflated, manipulated, and confused by Sister Aloysius, she is totally unprepared for her upcoming loss of innocence.
Andrew Nance, Roselyn Hallett, and Scarlett Hepworth
(Photo by: Lois Tema)
  • Father Brendan Flynn (Andrew Nance) is a closeted gay priest who is eager to bring a sense of the modern world inside the walls of St. Nicholas and its school. Good at sports and kind to the young male students, he likes the idea of including secular music in the annual Christmas pageant. He has also taken a special interest in the school's only black student.
  • Mrs. Muller (Pamela Smith) is the mother of the boy who has caught Father Flynn's eye. Married to a homophobic brute who is none too happy about the fact that his son might be queer, Mrs. Muller placed her child in the St. Nicholas school in an effort to keep him alive long enough to graduate and move on to another school. Faced with the choice of letting her son be killed by his father (or the students at his previous school) or be sexually molested by a priest, she's willing to risk the latter to save her son's life.
Scarlett Hepworth and Pamela Smith (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Seeing Shanley's play in such close quarters drastically changed my perspective on several key moments in the play.
  • When confronted by Sister Aloysius, Father Flynn's emotional breakdown (beautifully acted by Andrew Nance) became far more believable.
  • The idealism and naivete of Sister James became far more touching, particularly when confronted by Scarlett Hepworth's portrayal of Sister Aloysius as an old crow who knew the territory far too well.
  • The final words spoken by Sister Aloysius -- "I have doubts. Many doubts." -- initially struck me as a sign that the old nun might have had a rare moment of introspection and doubt about her own behavior. On second viewing, it became obvious that, following Father Flynn's transfer to another parish and his promotion to the role of Pastor, Sister Aloysius was beginning to understand how the entire hierarchy of male priests within the Catholic Church protect each other.
Andrew Nance and Scarlett Hepworth (Photo by: Lois Tema)

New Conservatory Theatre Center's production offers theatergoers a rare experience: to be so physically close to actors who must communicate critical information to the audience without grandstanding or resorting to an actor's standard bag of tricks. This production gave me a much deeper appreciation for Shanley's script and for why the play has won so many awards. Doubt: A Parable continues at NCTC's Walker Theatre through February 28. You can order tickets here.

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Playwright Joel Drake Johnson is in the process of building a solid working relationship with Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company. The first playwright to have new works chosen in two consecutive Global Age Project series of readings, The First Grade received its world premiere last weekend followed by a reading of A Guide For The Perplexed.

As The First Grade begins, we meet an elementary school teacher whose students have begun bringing interesting words into the classroom: words like congeniality, pertinaceous, and solipsism. As she heads off for an appointment with a physical therapist, we see the plot begin to develop around:
  • Sydney (Julia Brothers), a first grade teacher and control freak who easily grates on people's nerves. Even though her ex-husband is living with her again (and her depressed daughter and grandson have set up camp under her roof), Sydney is a horribly lonely woman who, in her desperation to be needed, has trouble respecting other people's boundaries.
  • Nat (Warren David Keith) is Sydney's ex-husband who claims to be a functioning alcoholic. He occasionally wonders if he might have been happier had he been gay.
Warren David Keith and Julia Brothers (Photo by: David Allen)
  • Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer) is Sydney's unhappy daughter who has left her husband and moved back home with a young son who is taking Ritalin. Angie, who has good reason to resent her mother, has just discovered that she is pregnant with a child she doesn't want.
  • Mora (Tina Sanchez) is a young, Hispanic physical therapist who is having trouble keeping Sydney at a professional distance. She may also be involved in an abusive relationship with her husband.
Julia Brothers and Tina Sanchez (Photo by: David Allen)

Under Tom Ross's direction, Johnson's drama unfolds with plenty of laughs, but soon turns deadly serious. As Sydney and Nat start sniping at each other, it's easy to imagine what Edward Albee's notorious George and Martha (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) might have been like had Martha been sober. With bitterness filling every room in Sydney's house, the sudden late-night appearance of Mora in the midst of a marital crisis brings Johnson's play to the boiling point.

The First Grade offers an extremely meaty role for the actress playing Sydney. Julia Brothers did a fierce job portraying a woman who is caught between bouts of arthritic pain, the pressures of having her ex-husband back in her life (as well as her daughter and grandson), and her sudden involvement in Mora's domestic crisis.

Julia Brothers and Rebecca Schweitzer (Photo by: David Allen)

Whether challenging Sydney's authority, trying to get her to relax, or going after her hidden stash of homemade cookies, Tina Sanchez, Rebecca Schweitzer, and Warren David Keith proved to be solid sparring partners for Ms. Brothers. The late-night appearance of Adrian Anchondo as Mora's husband and Paul Santiago as her Spanish-speaking father-in-law took on a special level of poignancy in an outdoor confrontation facilitated by Nina Ball's fluid unit set.

The cast of The First Grade (Photo by: David Allen)

An unexpected crisis in the audience at the performance I attended forced the actors to stop midway through an intense scene and wait for an elderly patron to be escorted from the theatre. The skill with which the cast resumed the scene was one of the prime subjects of discussion during a post-show Q&A session led by the Aurora Theatre Company's Education Director, Michael Mansfield.

If you enjoy an intelligently crafted drama that exposes new twists and turns (as well as old family resentments and festering wounds), you'll find Johnson's drama like peeling away the layers of a slowly rotting onion. It's worth attending just to catch Julia Brothers' complex portrayal of Sydney.

The First Grade continues through February 28 at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley. You can order tickets here.

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