The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday, October 23.
Maybe now that the election is over—and with such a satisfying conclusion!!—I can finally step away from my news feeds and focus long enough to complete this post.
Shakespeare's The Tempest is a great choice for an operatic adaptation. The drama—first love! old betrayals!—is big and grand. The supernatural elements are appropriately mysterious and intense, and the happy ending is somewhat cloudy and dark in a way that feels dramatically satisfying. In short, the play has depth and texture without getting bogged down in narrative complexity, which seems just about perfect for the broad but vivid strokes of opera.
Musically, Thomas Adès's opera lives up to that potential well, cultivating an eerie beauty and achieving a few moments of dazzling brilliance. Lyrically, playwright Meredith Oakes does the composer no favors with an abomination of a libretto, rewriting some of Shakespeare's most poetic, evocative lines into banal, rhymey-rhymey couplets. But the music, after all, is what matters most in opera, and there Adès's Tempest achieves something special: a contemporary opera that might actually enter the repertory.
Note: This review discusses the end of the movie because (A) it's based on a documented historical event, so fussing too much over "spoilers" seems silly and (B) this is what I want to write about, and it's my blog, so I can do what I want.
Argo definitely succeeds as a movie. The extraordinary premise—the escape from revolutionary Iran of American embassy workers disguised as Canadian filmmakers—captures the imagination immediately. The cast is almost completely composed of great character actors delivering spirited performances. The tonal shifts between tension and humor are odd, but somehow they work. The period touches—from the hilariously unattractive late-'70s fashions to the charmingly retro film work—are spot-on and compellingly immersive. It's a fun, exciting, inspiring movie.
Toward the end, though—when the Americans are almost made at the airport, and then the revolutionaries realize they've been tricked, and they shoot open the doors and race onto the runway to try to prevent the plane from taking off—I kind of wondered, wait, did this really happen too? And it turns out, no, it didn't. Numerous details have been fudged, both to simplify the escape (mainly by playing up the CIA's efforts and downplaying those of their Canadian counterparts, which is problematic in itself) and to make it more dramatic (all that running and shouting in the airport). Like many based-on-true-events stories, Argo has been moviefied.
Normally, I can't get too excited about this issue unless a film truly distorts a person's character or the import of an event—which I don't believe is the case here—but for some reason, with Argo, the distortions are what I keep coming back to when I try to write about the movie. Paradoxically, I'm more frustrated than I usually am with such cinematic misreporting and more inclined to forgive the elisions and narrative ruses. I am of two minds, and that's ultimately what I had to examine.
At the Allen Room, Jazz at Lincoln Center, on Saturday, October 6.
I think I enjoyed Brad Mehldau's show more than any other jazz set I've attended in New York. That's a tribute to Mehldau, who's amazing, but I suspect it's also because Mehldau is a pianist whose technique and style I recognize as a classically trained pianist myself. He seems to understand and appreciate the instrument in much the same way I do, and how could I not respond to that?
Time travel never makes much sense—ever—but Looper handles it much better than most. The trick, it turns out, is simply to acknowledge that it's crazy, that you'd need to diagram out the forking timelines if you truly wanted to keep track of it all, and even then the paradoxes would overwhelm you if you insisted on thinking about it too hard. Better not to, we're told a few times. Accept the rules that you're given, and go with it. So we do.
And it's worth it because Looper also nails the really crucial element of time-travel storytelling: the emotional logic. The actual mechanics might be nonsense, but the emotional connections between past and present and future ring true and resonate powerfully through all the explosions and gunshots of what is, besides, an exceptionally well made action movie—all the more exceptional for being able to finesse all that goofy time travel stuff.
Despite the whole robot-home-healthcare-worker premise, nothing about Robot & Frank feels particularly far-fetched or sci-fi. It's quite easy to imagine a sophisticated but narrowly focused robot like the unnamed one here. In fact, I'm quite certain that that kind of thing is already in development, in one form or another. Christopher Ford's gentle, domestic screenplay barely qualifies as speculative fiction.
And that, I think, is why it works. Robot & Frank isn't sci-fi (nothing against sci-fi, for the record). It's a thoughtful, playful look at how we relate to technology—and to one another—right now, not in the future. The human performances are delightfully expressive, and the robot honestly isn't, though that doesn't prevent us from growing fond of it, which is sort of the point. As an examination of how people map our own emotions onto other entities, Robot finds one of the shrewdest, most subtle takes I've ever seen.
Now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway.
Swamped by a deluge of freelance work plus a family visit (which was delightful, of course), it's taken me an embarrassingly long time to finish writing about this play. But honestly, there's probably more at work in my tardiness than that standard excuse of not enough time. The fact is that I've never known quite what to make of the whole Peter Pan myth, which Peter and the Starcatcher freely adapts, so how am I ever to write about it?
As far as I can tell, the Peter archetype is an indulgent romanticization of a particularly boys-will-be-boys sort of childhood, not innocent so much as amoral, selfish and bullying and callous and cliquish and arrogant. If that were the point, I guess I would admire how coolly the tales depicts just how cruelly narcissistic children can be, but instead, the Peter Pan stories typically take on a strangely nostalgic sheen, and I just don't get it. I don't. I often enjoy the world-building—the pirates and mermaids, Hook and Tiger Lily—but Peter himself never resonates with me. He leaves me cold.
So perhaps inevitably, Peter and the Starcatcher works much the same way. The production and stagecraft are charmingly imaginative. The many allusions to Barrie's work are fun and cheeky, and most of the performances are so spiritedly energetic as to be irresistible. But in the end, it all comes down to the irritating Peter and his dramatic arc, which is emotionally unfathomable to me. So what do I say but that I suspect the problem may be as much with me as anything else?
Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through October 21.
It never occurred to me to wonder about all the flowers Claude Monet painted, and in retrospect, that seems like a real failure of imagination. Surely the artist's affinity for florals was worth pondering. How could I have gazed at the massive Water Lilies triptych at the MoMA some six, seven, eight times and never once reflected on where an elderly turn-of-the-century Frenchman might have found a massive Japanese-style water garden to paint?
The explanation, as it turns out, is that Monet himself created his splendid gardens at Giverny—one in a traditional French style, the other inspired by Japanese water gardens—and used them not only as subjects for his paintings but also as creative media in their own right, experimenting with different color combinations and varieties to stunning effect. Much of what he wrote indicates that he thought of himself as a gardener as much of a painter and considered his gardens some of his greatest work.
The New York Botanical Garden's exhibit on Monet's gardens seeks to celebrate the eminent painter's perhaps underappreciated genius as a gardener, re-creating his "paint box" flowerbeds, his use of wildflowers alongside more cultivated species, his iconic Japanese footbridge, and, of course, his dramatic pools of water lilies. The result is tantalizing—no doubt an exceedingly poor substitute for Giverny itself but a lovely botanical experience even so.
Now playing at the Little Shubert Theatre off-Broadway.
More than a decade has passed since I saw The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but I remember the madcap play with great fondness. It's incredibly silly, of course—as any compression of several dozen works into a single production put on by just three actors on a bare-bones stage is bound to be—but it's also clever and inventive (Titus Andronicus as a cooking show—ha!), and it demonstrates real knowledge of and affection for Shakespeare's oeuvre. Complete might wear its learning lightly, but you're bound to get more out of it if you know how grotesque Titus really is, and how a Freudian reading of Hamlet works, and how the same elements really do pop up over and over again in the comedies.
Anyway, I thought of Complete when a visiting family member suggested we check out Potted Potter, which purports to cover all seven Harry Potter books in under seventy minutes. I guess I assumed it would be the same kind of thing: silly but entertaining for anyone who knows the books well (and yes, I know the books well—I'm the kind of person who happily absorbs every detail of that kind of world-building saga) and maybe even insightful on occasional. I didn't think that was too much to expect.
Sadly, it was—which still puzzles me. After all, Rowling's work is considerably more accessible than Shakespeare's, and its familiar conventions and goofy names and endearing foibles are ripe for parody (I say that with all affection). Yet unlike their more scholarly predecessors, Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner, the writer-performers of Potted Potter, don't seem to understand that parody can't be free-floating; it must be attached to something. The target matters. Simply mugging about and changing from one dumb costume to another might be mildly amusing if your audience is feeling generous, but it hardly rises to the level of satire. Perhaps I was foolish to have expected more, but I did, and I was sorely disappointed.
The story at the heart of The Imposter is one of those true stories that would never fly as fiction. It's too open-ended, too outrageous, too unbelievable. Watching the documentary, you have to keep reminding yourself that this really happened, that scoffing about how none of it makes any sense doesn't actually make sense under the circumstances. Director Bart Layton presents everything coolly and clearly, but human irrationally simply can't be rationalized in any satisfying way, making The Imposter an impressive but frustrating, bewildering experience.
Presented by the Public Theater in Central Park, on Thursday, August 2.
Into the Woods is often described as Stephen Sondheim's most accessible musical, and it probably is, but it absolutely is not as lightly pleasant and innocuous as that label might suggest. For starters, Sondheim's mash-up of familiar fairy tales—with a book by James Lapine—uses the dark Grimm accounts of the stories, not bright Disnified versions, so Cinderella's stepmother, for example, actually mutilates her daughters' feet to try to squeeze them into the slipper and Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother insists that they sew stones into the disemboweled wolf's belly to add to his torment. It's creepy.
But even beyond that, Sondheim and Lapine are more interested in the implications of the tales then the stories themselves—the passage from innocence to experience, the relationship between parent and child, the questionable good fortune of having a wish come true—and they probe those issues with good humor but absolutely no sentimentality. Into the Woods is clever and charming and funny, yes, but also disturbing and bloody and sad. The content is accessible, and perhaps some of the songs as well (though Sondheim's meandering, pattery tunes may be something of an acquired taste), but the themes are uncompromising—which is one of the things that makes Into the Woods such a great musical in the first place.
I honestly think director Timothy Sheader gets that. His elaborate production for Shakespeare(/Sondheim) in the Park is nothing if not ambitious, a genuine attempt to engage with the ideas in the text and find a new spin on them. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work, and the sheer busy-ness of the thing is a distraction, but it's interesting, and it features some very good performances. And ultimately, it's an opportunity to hear "I Know Things Now" and "Agony" and "Moments in the Wood" and "Last Midnight" and "Children Will Listen"—songs I adore, songs for which I know every lyric by heart—and for that, well, I can forgive a lot of awkwardness.