Saturday, January 26, 2008

Captain Macbeth

A really charming interview in the NYT with Patrick Stewart, whose Macbeth is coming to Brooklyn. It covers the odd transitions of his career from British classical actor to TV sci-fi star and now back, with just a tiny hint of melancholy that he'll never act the big young Shakespeare roles. For matter, his age is a notable focus of this production, with an aging man grasping at his last chance at promotion and a wife half his age. Wish I could see it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Water off a duck's back?

A few things revisited, combined with the constant jawing about Hillary and feminism, had me thinking about the origins of gender stereotypes. At a total loss for something to read on the treadmill, I got Piers Anthony's original Xanth novels, 3-in-1. I also did a little emergency babysitting and watched part of the movie the parents had thoughtfully set up for the kids, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Indy 1, in other words).

As it happens, I didn't encounter these when I was so very young. I didn't read Anthony until I was 12 or so and one of my friends was absolutely insane about his books. I didn't see Indiana Jones until the tail end of high school, when I also finally saw Star Wars in the theater in re-release. At that time, I remember being annoyed mostly by John Williams reusing his own scores, and I mildly enjoyed the Anthony, though not enough to read more than four or so of his novels. (There are many, many of them.)

This time around, however, I found them both unbelievably annoying. All of Anthony's women are either power-hungry or girlishly devoted to their men (or both), and never as magically or intellectually gifted. The books are loaded with what are supposed, I'm sure, to be funny pieces of stereotypical male thinking about women, on the level of: girls like pretty things, girls go to the bathroom really often, girls are warm and squishy. At best, the women support the men in their hour of need and enjoy the rewards as their sidekicks. Maybe his later novels have real primary female protagonists -- I don't really care to find out till the next time I'm absolutely desperate for gym reading.

As for Indy 1, every time a man brought out another dress for Marian to put on, I wanted to clap my hands over the eyes of the small girl next to me. I seem to recall that Marian is a paragon of feminist ideals compared to Kate Capshaw in Indy 2, which is sad considering that she's so constantly being dragged away screaming.

So how do little girls escape this bombardment? I can only tell you how I think I may have escaped, which is that for whatever reason I had absolutely no problem identifying with men. Like I said, I didn't watch Indy, but I did watch Robin Hood, and I can assure you that I didn't have any interest in Maid Marian. The women I looked up to were mostly athletes or thinkers, with the odd actress here or there. I preferred the Hardy Boys to Nancy Drew for a long time.

Funnily enough, my friend who liked Anthony actually wrote to him to complain about his sexism, particularly the character Chameleon, who changes with the menstrual cycle to be beautiful/dumb, plain/average, and hideous/brilliant. The hero does find her to be his ideal woman, but it is fairly hair-raising all the same. Piers Anthony actually wrote her back personally, saying that he had gotten two fan letters that day and they were both on the same thing. I can't remember exactly what he said, but I seem to recall that it was a denial or rebuttal. Which you'd expect, though I'd have a fair amount of respect for a man who said, "This is my ideal universe! Brainless nymphs galore!"

This doesn't mean that I think I escaped totally, of course. It's frightening to look back and see just how few books, films, etc. did offer strong heroines when I was young. I imagine little girls right now have it both easier with the availability of sheroes fiction and harder with, y'know, Britney. I'm starting to see the library as a kind of landmined field.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Birds of a Feather

Nothing clever about the title; that's my latest elliptical machine reading, a mystery by Jacqueline Winspear. The heroine, Maisie Dobbs (that's what the first novel of the series is called), somewhat impossibly has risen from tweeny maid to WWI nurse to a private investigator much loved by her original employers and assisted by a soldier she saved at the front. Nonetheless, pretty well written and engaging enough for a treadmill read, though not as good as (for example) Anne Perry. My gym reading has been a series of failures lately (I tried Mercedes Lackey again, like a bird flying into a glass window), so I thought it was worth noting.

Friday, January 18, 2008

When time loses meaning

That's what the end of John Adams' opera Doctor Atomic is supposed to describe. What it really describes is when minutes feel like hours.

With absolutely gorgeous staging, every moment worth a photo, wonderful singers, and interesting music, I don't even know why the second act so decidedly didn't work, while the first really did. I'm forced to blame the plot arc of the libretto. Yet such is my fondness for the wonderfully earnest and funny Peter Sellars, which stems from his great talk I attended, that I can't throw too many stones.

For an eloquent, complete review, skip over to John K's blog. (John is a prof in my department who I do not know very well, to my great sorrow.) I agree with John on everything except the dancing, which I found a little boring and unsuitable choreographically with all the skipping movements. I also think I loved the closing aria of Act I, "Batter my heart," more than John did, though I agree it was a little repetitive (so was the staging).

One last thought: my old acquaintance Jim Maddalena sang the heck out of his relatively small part as the meteorologist. I tried to wait at the stage door for him but had to run to catch my train before he came out, sadly. I should have left a note.

You can't go home again

A couple of months ago, I expressed a wish to read some Harold Pinter. Pinter, the 2006 Nobel Prize winner for literature, but better known to me as the very evil Sir Thomas Bertram of Patricia Rozema's film of Mansfield Park, is an actor, playwright, screenwriter, political activist, and Companion of Honor. His play The Homecoming recently had a revival in NYC, starring Raul Esparza, who I've never seen but who was supposed to win the Tony for Company and then lost to the adorable David Hyde Pierce in Curtains.

But back to Pinter. I read two plays and a short story, and I see why he said to Kenneth Branagh when rewriting the screenplay for Sleuth, "I don't do plot." I don't even know what to tell you about Pinter, except that it is bleak, powerful, and still ultra-contemporary; it has touches of Ibsen and Beckett and that angry British postwar sensibility. Everyday-seeming settings and people, portrayed with a lot of gallows humor. I'd love to see something of his onstage; it might make more 'sense' that way, though again, this is not the kind of play that has a resolution.

On the other hand, the short story I read, "Mac," was a sort of anecdotal portrait of a self-absorbed Shakespearean actor, and it reminded me of Maugham and Thurber -- dark but with real laugh-out-loud moments. I highly recommend it, especially for Shakespeare buffs.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


This Met at the Movies matinee was a totally new experience for me. I had never watched or I think listened to Verdi's Macbeth all the way through, though I was very familiar with MacDuff's aria. The production was of course brand new for this season, directed by famed Shakespearean director Adrian Noble, and it starred a number of singers I knew nothing of, like baritone Zeljko Lucic, who sang Macbeth, and Dimitri Pittas (MacDuff). Even the singers I knew of, I knew more by reputation than by actual listening, like soprano Maria Guleghina and barihunk John Relyea.

It was a wonderful production and a great performance, thoroughly rewarding. Guleghina started off wildly out of control and I feared for my ears if she lasted like that, but by the mad scene, the conviction and passion of her singing and acting had completely won me over. She'll never be known for her subtlety or her phrasing, but for a big dramatic performance I don't think she can be bettered today. Lucic was very pleasant, with a nice strong sound, though I was somehow not blown away. Relyea, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite. Such an odd sound, with a wide vibrato, but it catches your attention. Banquo is not much of a role, but he acted it well.

And finally, Noble. I have always thought of Noble as a very classicist director, beautiful but boring. His blocking is just unbelievable, and the costumes, lighting and so forth are always both pretty and consistent with the vision of the overall production. Yet with Macbeth, though there were no avant-garde surprises, I thought he put in some flashes of eerieness and creativity that really kept it interesting. Guleghina's mad scene, for example, featured her stepping blindly and cautiously onto chairs that were being moved by extras to create a path for her towards the front of the stage. It was set in the twentieth century, but decidedly in the past, say around WWII with a few bandannas and earrings thrown in -- no Blackberrys or anything.

I hope the Met will rotate this one more frequently now, even if it doesn't make it into repertory. Really great stuff -- I have to add a final compliment to James Levine and the orchestra, who were even better than usual.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Be thou bloody, bold, and resolute

Or, as the Met subtitled it, ferocious, determined, and bloody.

I went to see the digital broadcast today of Verdi's Macbeth. This is part of the Metropolitan Opera's opera-for-the-masses project, spearheaded by their new manager, Peter Gelb. He's hired famous movie directors to direct operas (something that the LA Opera is doing as well), hosted a red-carpet opening for the Anthony Minghella Madam Butterfly, broadcast live to Times Square and Lincoln Center, etc. etc. This Met at the Movies project has been a huge success; a series of matinees get broadcast LIVE to theaters around the U.S. and Europe. We were informed during intermission that they are even being piped free to select NYC public schools. Last season was so successful that they added a ton of theaters this season, something for which I am very grateful, as I did not have to trek down to River East. Tickets are around $22.

One of my friends, and I genuinely cannot remember who, asked me what I thought was an odd question: Why don't you just go to the opera here? The answer is: I do, and whaaa? That's like telling a sports fan to go to Soldier Field "instead" of watching football on the TV. Every game is different.

But then I realized that most non-opera fans don't realize the extent of the difference between the Met and the other houses of the U.S., even the biggest ones. The Lyric Opera of Chicago is unquestionably a world-class company that gets world-class casts and conductors. It has its own lovely opera house and usually puts on excellently staged productions. But it puts on six shows a year. The Met puts on... what, twenty? I don't even know. Regardless, how could I have missed today's Macbeth, with Adrian Noble's direction?

They did a wonderful job with the broadcast, too, using a lot of angles and closeups, and bringing a camera backstage to show them changing sets, etc. (I love that stuff, but some might find it distracting). They even interviewed James Levine before the start and the rather stressed-looking Macbeths during intermission, at which point bass-baritone John Relyea strolled past in his bloodied Banquo ghost clothes and flashed a peace sign at the camera.

I think that this Met at the Movies series is one of the most brilliant moves the Met has made in a long time. It's helped to create a real buzz and sense of shared excitement. I hope that the Met keeps expanding on this. I want to see it all: YouTube snippets, production blogs, artist blogs, e-newsletters. Lyric has tried jumping on this bandwagon with podcasts, which I'm sure are lovely but I haven't even downloaded.

I'll review the actual production tomorrow. But this project is worth a post of its own.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Lust for life

On a recent YouTube break, I ran across the wonderful tribute (a clip show) that the Kennedy Center Honors put together when they honored Mikhail Baryshnikov several years ago. Presented and narrated by the late great Greg Hines, it is a really moving piece of propaganda.

Because of course, that is what Baryshnikov and many of his fellow defectors were during the Cold War; proof that the West was better, freer, the true home of Great Art. American dancers resented them and their booming ticket sales, feeling that they were overlooked for the better story.

Bitterness aside or even not aside, Misha really was That Good. I, alas, never got to see him dance live, but luckily his videos are legion (and so are his Sex and the City reruns). I always think that you can tell a truly great dancer because there's that second at the top of their jump when they just seem to hover, if not magically float up a couple of extra inches. This is a little unfair to great dancers who are less great jumpers. Simon Ball at Boston Ballet actually has this quality, to my amateur eye, while Ethan Stiefel, often called the premier male ballet dancer of our time, does not. Regardless, Baryshikov has it all: jumps, footwork, facial expression, and partnering. Yes, although Gelsey Kirkland, his anorexic, plastic surgeried, cocaine-addicted partner of several years, would tell you no.

Reading a bio of his, inventively titled Misha (from St. Martin's Press, the same press that is printing the unauthorized Tom Cruise bio right now), I learned about the many downs of his career as well. It kind of made me cringe, from the crippling physical pain to the business woes to the suicide of Patrick Bissell, once one of his lead dancers. The price of genius is prohibitively high.

Things seem to have settled down for him in years past. Aside from being instantly recognizable as the man who almost got Carrie, he's in a series of Beckett shorts in NYC right now, and his Manhattan arts center recently signed with a resident theatre company. It will be very interesting to see how his career goes in the second half of his life, but he has already staked out his place as the greatest and most influential dancer of one or maybe two generations.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The thin line between love and hate

There are a few movies I'm looking forward to in 2008, but I've already started debating one of them in particular.

Should I go see Valkyrie?

If you don't remember, Valkyrie is the Tom Cruise flick about the German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler, and there was some reported flack about it being filmed in Germany because of Cruise's advocacy of Scientology. Germany does not acknowledge Scientology as a religion; they view it as a money-making cult. The flack was about the script, or Cruise, or... I don't even know. According to Branagh, it was nothing in particular.

Ah. You see, therein lies the dilemma. Kenneth Branagh is in this film, in what word has it is a particularly meaty supporting role. Do I love him enough to outweigh my vague distaste for Tom Cruise? (I could care less about Katie Holmes, but it's a combo of viewer fatigue and never having enjoyed any of his films all that much.) The array of accents is going to be annoying, too, though nothing tops the awfulness of DiCaprio, Malkovich, Depardieu, and Irons in Man in the Iron Mask.

You can take a look at the trailer and weigh in on this sometime in the next nine months.

Monday, January 7, 2008

My drug is back

Oh, how I love my late-night. (Or is that late-nite?)

It's back! Every last bit of it, as of tonight. Two have writers; David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, negotiated a separate deal with the WGA, which gives Letterman and his follow-up, Craig Ferguson, a full writing complement. Most do not -- Leno, Conan, Kimmel, Carson Daly, and they are joined now by Comedy Central's Stewart and Colbert.

Stewart and Colbert are the two most desperately missed right now because of their political commentary. I can't tell you how unspeakably disappointed I was that Letterman did not see this vacuum and jump on it with his writing staff, but he's been less and less political and less interested in putting any time and effort into his monologue for years now. (Exhibit A: The "Will It Float?" bit, in which he heaves something random into a tank of water to see if it will float. Honestly.)

Without writers, they couldn't do as much tonight, though I have to say that the level of preparedness and polish is going to bring the wrath of the WGA down on their heads as well as Leno's. Still, Jon Stewart's unholy glee at pointing out Chuck Norris behind Huckabee at his victory speech, and Colbert's sly clip show of all the Democrats suddenly saying the word 'change' were like water on a parched desert for me. (Can a desert be parched? I think I need writers.)

Beloved and truly needed as I think they are during an election, no A-list guests for them. Leno is having a hell of a time getting guests with the SAG supporting the WGA. I couldn't help watching tonight, but my WGA sympathies may stop me from looking in the future. I took a similar curious glance at Leno, who was quite awful without his writers. Happily, my favorite Craig Ferguson has his writers and I can watch him with no qualms. Ironically, he's always been the most improvisational of anyone on late-night, and would probably have done extremely well and made some waves without writers. Oh well.

Tom Hanks just pointed out that Dave Letterman getting his beard shaved off on the show is something a show without writers would do. Ha. True enough, but then again, so is "Will it float?" I must say, this strike has not shown Letterman in his best light. Icon though he is, I'll be quite happy if he turns his crown over to Stewart sometime in the next few years.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Not much to say

Obama. Huckabee.

Am I surprised about Obama? Yes. Yes, and also surprised by the percentages. Yet not. Clinton has failed to capitalize in a big way on any excitement about being a female candidate, which is partly because she's pretty rotten on the tomatometer. Would Al Sharpton seem fresh and exciting as an African American candidate? I ask you.

Am I surprised about Huckabee? No. If he goes on to win, will I think it's the end of the world? I'll get back to you on that one. Hey, any candidate who's willing to offer apologies to Pakistan for Bhutto's death is already staking out a whole new foreign policy.

Or he's just another big dunce who will make me hold my head in my hands for years to come.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Excited about...

Happy new year, all! J. M. Coetzee has a new book out, Diary of a Bad Year, which looks extremely interesting. So as soon as I can write my way out from under a mountain of work, that's the first "real" book I'll read in 2008.

I finished out 2007 with the treadmill book Frederica, a Regency-era novel by Georgette Heyer. Heyer was viewed as kind of an heir to Jane Austen, though she uses the exclamation points a bit too liberally.

Strange bookends, aren't they?