The King’s Speech

In theaters.

At first, the subject of The King’s Speech seems embarrassingly trivial. With World War II looming, soon to give rise to all manner of suffering and pain and death, this is a movie about a ludicrously privileged man fighting a speech impediment, a figurehead trying to become the very best figurehead he can be. Unchallenging, relentlessly pleasant, it screams “middlebrow.”

And yet, somehow, it finds its way to something meaningful. Colin Firth delivers a masterful performance as the ludicrously privileged king in question, revealing the vulnerable man underneath the stiff formality, but The King’s Speech accomplishes more than simple humanization. It directly confronts the fact that the king is a figurehead—powerless, seemingly pointless. Underneath the pleasantries, this is a movie about what it means to be a figurehead, what makes a good one, and why it might not be so trivial a position as cynical snobs like, oh, me might believe. The King’s Speech might not be edgy, but it’s more provocative than I first credited.

La Traviata

The Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday, January 12.

The thing that mystifies me about opera—or, more precisely, opera audiences—is how conservative it is. Theater companies routinely tweak Shakespeare plays—Romeo and Juliet in modern times, The Merchant of Venice in pre-war Germany, Hamlet in a bare black box, part doubling in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, gender reversals in The Tempest, an all-male cast for The Comedy of Errors, and on and on and on—and although those interpretations aren’t always popular, they’re not shocking either. Broad interpretation is an accepted component of theater.

By contrast, any opera production that isn’t a traditional, realist sort of affair seems to be branded “controversial” out of hand. Having heard the “controversial” label applied to Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata (which premiered in Salzburg in 2005 and made its Metropolitan debut this season), I expected something truly avant garde and alienating. Instead, the only shock was how elegantly constructed the production is and how beautifully it dramatizes its sad tale of repression and mortality. I simply can’t understand how such a sensitive, thoughtful, passionate Traviata could ever be controversial.

The Nutcracker

The American Ballet Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday, December 30.

The Nutcracker has never been one of my favorite ballets. The Act I party scenes are dull, the Act II ethnic character dances are discomfiting, and the girl-and-her-nutcracker plot is so bizarre that I’ve never been able to make much emotional sense of it.

Yet despite my mixed feelings about The Nutcracker, I’ve seen it more than any other ballet. (In fact, I’ve already written about it two times here on this blog, which might help account for my pitiful sluggishness in finishing this post.) It’s a holiday standard, of course, but that doesn’t mean much to me. (Case in point: I have never seen one of those ubiquitous Rankin/Bass holiday specials—not even Rudolph.) Perversely enough, those mixed feelings are probably the reason for my repeated attendance at The Nutcracker. It’s such an insanely weird ballet that I’m always fascinated to see what the choreographers do with it. I’m usually disappointed or mildly repulsed, at least to some degree, but for some reason, that doesn’t stop me.

Alexei Ratmansky’s new production for the American Ballet Theatre works better than most. Most notably, the choreographer doubles the child Clara and child Nutcracker with an adult couple, their imagined grown-up selves—a conceit that works beautifully. It allows him to provide the main characters with virtuosic choreography, obviously, but it also gives the ballet a stronger dramatic arc, making this Nutcracker sweeter and more intimate than most. I only wish Ratmansky had extended that same thoughtfulness to some of the ballet’s other icky elements, but I suppose it wouldn’t be The Nutcracker if something wasn’t make me mildly queasy. And now I have something to bitch about. Tradition!