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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Get 'Sophisticated' as Soon as Possible

Sophisticated Ladies has been extended through June 27 which is great news for the Washington theater community. It's really a Broaday-quality production with the added benefit of taking place in a theater, the Lincoln, that has a history with the subject of the play, Duke Ellington. Normally, a play like this in Washington might be lacking the necessary star power. But with Maurice Hines at the helm - and the young and amazingly gifted Manzari brothers tapping up a storm in the seond act - this show has that "power." The songs - like It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing, Satin Doll and Don't Get Around Much Anymore (which I'm still humming) - give evidence to the grandness of the Duke. Go through Goldstar or Ticketplace for reduced price tickets.

Movie-wise, things have been pretty slow of late. Please Give is a very good movie, a nice comeback of sorts for Nicole Holofcener after the so-so Friends With Money. The bluntness in dialogue in her scenes for the older actresses are right on and very funny. And it's always good to see Rebecca Hall in something. (One good movie for your video rental list should be Starter for Ten.)  Academy Award winner The Secret in Their Eyes is still playing around. The Argentine film deserved its best foreign film award.  City Island has gotten a lot of good word of mouth and continues to flourish. It's a well-done movie about families that most everyone can relate to.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Shuffle Off to 'Buffalo'? Maybe After You've Seen "Pretty'

I found my old Playbill from around 1982 for American Buffalo at the Circle in The Square Downtown in New York. It starred Al Pacino as Teach. Almost 30 years later the Studio Theater has revived the tale of three small-time hoods as Joy Zinoman's departing directorial effort ad Studio chief. Playwright David Mamet has gone on to fame with plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, and films like Spanish Prisoner and State and Main (rent if you haven't seen). The play remains effective - the Waiting-for-Godot, Abbott-and-Costello rhythmic dialogue entertains in the first act - but the production doesn't really soar until the second.  And even then it's tense but not stirring. I'm not sure if it's the production or the play; I would guess that the play needs star power and Pacino brought it. Edward Gero makes a very effective Donny, but Peter Allas's Teach is hard to warm up to. It's a tough role - as the heavy but a sort-of likeable one. Having seen Glengarry Glen Ross a few years ago on Broadway with Liev Shreiber and Alan Alda, I would say that play sizzles a bit more. But the Mamet-ian dialogue, rapid, circular and beautifully paced, can be a treat to listen to.
If you haven't caught Reasons to Be Pretty at Studio, I would head there first. Fortunately it has been extended at least another couple weeks. An assistant at Studio told us that someone tried to figure out which play had more curse words. It was pretty close. 'Pretty's' first scene might win by itself. Its second act is still the best thing in Washington right now.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Some Very Buono Italian Films and the EuroAsiaShorts Is Back!

I've been seeing Italian movies lately - maybe looking to a summer trip this year - and fortunately, one is still around. Mid-August Lunch has a beautiful setup: Gianni has to take care of his Mom in an apartment where rent is due and other debts loom. So when a couple of his friends/collectors need a place to store their Moms and aunt, Gianni can't refuse. Then it's a wonderful 75-minute ride as Gianni cooks, the ladies cajole, talk, stew and laugh, and a terrific ending just happens quickly. You'll smile and come out hungry for macaroni casserole.  It's now playing at the Avalon - try to catch it!

Speaking of short films and Italy, the information is up for EAS2010, the EuroAsiaShorts Festival. Last year, this proved to be an amazing week of films, embassies and receptions. Like last year, the closing night is at the Italian Embassy with a reception.  My only problem is that it is the same night as an AMAZING concert at the Kennedy Center with Raul Midon and Henry Butler.  Everything is free, the shorts and the concert. What a cool city!

Caught Amarcord, a Fellini classic at AFI. Probably not my favorite of his, but you can see so many techniques that other directors borrowed from. The Fellini Festival winds down with Ginger and Fred, Intervista and Casanova this week. Intervista sounds very interesting with interviews with Fellini himself, and two his greatest stars.

Nanni Moretti has been one of my favorite actors, writers and directors since Caro Diario back in 1993, when he rode around Rome on a mini-bike running into all kinds of interesting people including Jennifer Beals, who was still big from Flashdance. In the film Aprile, he drove his pregnant wife crazy trying to come up with a name for their baby. Then amazingly, he switched to drama and won all kinds of awards for The Son's Room, about coping with the loss of a son.
The film Quiet Chaos has a little of both comedy and drama. His wife dies in an accident at the beach and he is left to care for his 10-year-old daughter. Moretti's character cannot let go of his daughter and after dropping her at school tells her he will wait for her there all day - taking off from his job in an advertising firm. In an American movie with this setup, the police would come to take him away or the daughter would run away. But here, it takes on a little of the personality of another wonderful film, Cedric Klapisch's When the Cat's Away - in that he discovers a new world while waiting outside her school: a pretty woman with a dog, the cafe staff nearby, other parents.  And knowing that he is accessible every day, colleagues come to talk with him about work and personal life and family vists like his slightly off sister-in-law - Valerie Golino from Rain Man!  Finally, before we can say that it's getting a little too weird, his daughter saves the day.  See if you can rent this film and others by Moretti (depending what you're in the mood for).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Folger's Hamlet Shows That To Be Great, Less Is Sometimes More

I never quite noticed just how amazing the language of Hamlet is before seeing the new Folger production. The reason is that director Joseph Haj has gone with an all-white stage, modern but not futuristic in any way. Just as in graphic design where the white background makes the "type" pop, this white background lets us focus on language. We are here to listen to this Hamlet. Characters take their time and it still clocks in at under three hours - probably due to some artful cutting. The speeches are beautifully delivered, foremost by Graham Michael Hamilton as a Hamlet who is pretty sure of himself and the mayhem he wants to create. 

What's interesting to me is that Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard - with whom the Folger had its biggest triumph last year with Arcadia - and Mamet - his classic American Buffalo will be on stage any minute at Studio - are the playwrights known for language.  Where meaning sometimes takes a backseat to sound and rhythm.  But here, at times, we also just listen for the rhythm, the poetry and the sheer sounds without thinking about meaning.  Although what this language-first version also acccomplishes is better comprehension. We can decipher the words a bit better when they're not rushed.  It's like when I once saw Ian McKellen break down Shakespeare in his brilliant one-man show: "Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow," he began with the start of Macbeth's great speech. "Is everyone with me so far?"

Probably the only shortfall of this type of production, where we are mesmerized by the actors and the words, is that the tension might be reduced a bit. When we do get to the last scene and the inevitable bloodshed, it feels a bit like an anticlimax - like how can anything top the amazing speeches that we've been treated to all night. But that's all right. The swordplay is carried out very dashingly, the characters die in pretty quick order and we look forward to Fortinbras coming on stage and sending us home reasonably happy. I think this is the perfect approach for a theater like the Folger and their amazing space. The audience is so close to the action, that it's a rare time when you can really concentrate.  The Folger has had a brilliant year, with a diverse and spirited Much Ado About Nothing, a playful and inventive Orestes, and now a smartly "plain" Hamlet with a terrific cast. (Lindsey Wochley will be heard from soon again in this area after her stirring Ophelia, and Stephen Patrick Martin lets Polonius deliver a solemn "To thine ownself be true" speech before letting everyone catch on to his bluster.)  Get thee to the Folger.