Potted Potter

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 Imposter

In theaters.

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.

Into the Woods

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.

The Dark Knight Rises

In theaters.

It's difficult to think sensibly about director Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Despite the sometime jumbled action sequences, they get under your skin in a truly unsettling way. The villains are charismatic, the setting is often unbearably bleak, the plots play on powerful contemporary fears, and the hero's vigilantism is genuinely disconcerting (and, indeed, acknowledged to be, even within the movies themselves). Furthermore, Batman BeginsThe Dark Knight, and now, closing out the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises all feature just enough intellectual provocation to capture the imagination and more than enough visceral triggers to send that imagination into overdrive. I certainly don't love the movies, but I'm sort of in awe of them. Rarely do you see a summer popcorn flick that delves quite so deeply and persistently into the unconscious.

Orpheus and Eurydice

The Paris Opera Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival on Saturday, July 21.

In Camus's The Plague, two characters attend a performance of Gluck's opera Orpheus and Eurydice during the height of the epidemic, and the singer playing Orpheus falls violently ill. Panicked, the audience stampedes for the exits—and the novel definitely seems a bit contemptuous of their dawning horror, suggesting that they were blinkered and weak in their escapism, that it was fitting that their fairy tales of snatching loved ones from death had been torn away.

I read The Plague years ago, but I remember being thoroughly annoyed with Camus for that scene. Didn't he realize that the myth of Orpheus is about the futility of trying to thwart death? Perhaps the people were drawn to the opera because it helped them accept mortality and find beauty in a finite life. How was that so wrong? Of course, after bitching self-righteously on these points, I learned that Camus had it right: Traditional myths be damned, Gluck's opera ends with Eurydice being to returned to life one last time, even after Orpheus turns back to look at her, so my indignation was entirely misdirected.

I hadn't thought about that rather embarrassing episode in my literary education for ages, but the late choreographer Pina Bausch's staging brought it back to me. Dark and eerie and grim from beginning to end, the production actually cuts half of the final act: After Orpheus's agonizing lamentation for the dead-again Eurydice, the musicians return to the Furies' themes from Act II, and not only does Eurydice stay dead but Orpheus himself dies also—no deus ex machina happy endings in sight. This, I thought, was an Orpheus even Camus would have to respect.

French Masters of the 20th Century

The Paris Opera Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival on Thursday, July 11.

Back in October 2008, when I attended a performance of the San Francisco Ballet, I ruefully wondered whether "the New York City Ballet has brainwashed me more than I realize." Nearly four years later, having just seen the Paris Opera Ballet perform, I'm sure of it—in part because I quarrel with the whole idea of brainwashing. Choreographer George Balanchine's crisp, coolly beautiful, exquisitely musical work—which comprises the bulk of the City Ballet repertory and influences much of the rest—is simply superior to most other choreography, is it not? I mean, I'm exaggerating a bit for effect there. Variety is a good thing, and I don't really want all ballet to follow his distinct brand of neoclassicism, but I have to admit that style has become my preference, even when I'm presented with one of the oldest, greatest ballet companies in the world performing masterful work of their own.

One Man, Two Guvnors

Now playing at the Music Box on Broadway.

A comic actor breaking character, or corpsing, by dissolving into laughter generally isn't considered particularly professional. That's one of the reasons that Jimmy Fallon's SNL career, while successful, often isn't afforded much respect: he was notorious for giggling through half his skits. But a flat condemnation of corpsing doesn't work either because, in moderation at least, audiences tend to enjoy moments when the actors themselves start to laugh. Some of my favorite segments of The Daily Show, for example, have been when Jon Stewart is talking with one of the correspondents, and the satire is so absurd that both are clearly on the verge of cracking, and first one does and then the other, and then they pull it together only to break again. Laughter is infectious, and watching that infection spread can be hilarious.

But those moments still constitute a break of sorts—or we're taught to think that way—so I was surprised at first when James Corden, the Tony-winning lead of One Man, Two Guvnors, started breaking into unabashed, out-of-character fits of laughter. It was funny and endearing, but so different from what I had expected that I was a bit taken aback. Eventually, I realized that the performance was even stranger than I'd first thought, for some moments that look like corpsing eventually reveal themselves to be part of the performance; they don't represent a loss of control but rather complete control—which startled me even more.

One Man, Two Guvnors is an adaptation of the eighteenth-century Italian Servant of Two Masters, a famous work of commedia dell'arte, so perhaps this kind of toying with the fourth wall (to use a more contemporary turn of phrase) is an element of that genre. (I confess my knowledge of classic Italian theater is pretty shallow.) Regardless, it contributes to the oddly disorienting nature of One Man, which, in its fervent embrace of commedia dell'arte, manages to be both gleefully frivolous and unmistakably academic. It's a lot of fun and very, very funny, but I never could quite settle on what to make of eccentric duality.