Category Archives: Film

STEPHEN SONDHEIM & JOHN WEIDMAN’S ‘ASSASSINS’ GATHERS A KILLER ROSTER OF PERFORMERS ·

(Charles McNulty’s article appeared in the LA Times, 4/16; via Pam Green.)

Members of three “Assassins” casts perform “Everybody’s Got the Right” during the Classic Stage Company’s filmed benefit.

(Classic Stage Company)

“Assassins” is a hard musical to love, but maybe even a harder one to forget.

This show by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman is built around a rogue’s gallery of infamous Americans who tried, in some cases successfully, to kill the president of the United States. As a description, “audacious” seems far too tame for a musical that searches for the pep in pathological and even makes treason tuneful.

Cognitive dissonance is built into a work that saves some of its prettiest melodies for the most murderous maniacs. Frank Rich, in his review of the 1991 off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, called it “an antimusical about antiheroes.” The show was a hit off-Broadway, but it took 13 years for this disturbing vaudeville to make it to Broadway.

A planned 2001 Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, was postponed because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With the country still smoldering, how could audiences be expected to turn out for a musical that includes one attempted assassin who wanted to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House?

If history always seems to be bumping into “Assassins,” it’s probably because the dark cultural currents that give rise to John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and their copycat kind are continually being replenished in a nation that enjoys dividing its citizens into winners and losers.

The tumultuous history of “Assassins” is recalled in “Tell the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s ‘Assassins,’” a vibrant recorded benefit for New York’s Classic Stage Company, conceived and directed by artistic director John Doyle, one of Sondheim’s most inventive contemporary interpreters.

Doyle was in rehearsal with “Assassins” last year when New York performance venues were forced to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The show will reopen the off-Broadway theater later this year, and this documentary (available till Monday) is both a salute to the musical and to the scrappy brilliance of theater artists, whose survival is being tested like never before.

How will the show play after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol? Possibly no longer as an exhibition of deranged, fame-seeking extremists but as a window into widespread American grievance. “Everybody’s Got the Right,” the musical’s opening (and closing) number, looks at what can happen when the government is blamed for standing in the way of a disaffected citizen’s pursuit of happiness.

In her preface to the documentary, Hillary Clinton calls attention to the dire situation of theaters, like CSC, which are struggling to resuscitate themselves after being dark for so long. If anyone has the right to be unsettled by “Assassins,” it’s the former secretary of State, senator and first lady, who, despite all the obstacles thrown in her path, came within a hair’s breadth of becoming our first woman president. But with the authority of someone who knows the dark underbelly of American politics, she makes the case for a musical that “dares its audience to see our country and assess our national myths through the eyes of our villains instead of our heroes.”

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‘SHAKESPEARE WALLAH’: MERCHANT IVORY’S BITTERSWEET TALE OF BOLLYWOOD AND THE BARD ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/30/2021; Photo: Shashi Kapoor and Felicity Kendal in Shakespeare Wallah, the second feature by Merchant Ivory Productions. Photograph: Allstar/Merchant Ivory Productions.)

The Kendal family of actors star in a story inspired by their travels around India, whose booming film industry upstages their theatrical troupe.

The actor Geoffrey Bragg was born in 1909 in the Lake District and later adopted the name of his birth town of Kendal but, at schools and theatres across India in the 1940s and 50s, he was recognised simply as the “Shakespeare Wallah”. The adventurous troupe of performers he led in productions of classic plays included his wife, Laura Liddell, daughter Jennifer and youngest daughter Felicity Kendal, who worked first as a stage hand then made her acting debut aged nine as Macduff’s son in Macbeth.

Geoffrey Kendal and his family star together in the film Shakespeare Wallah (1965), produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory as the second feature for their fledgling Merchant Ivory stable. In the film, the Kendals’ theatre ensemble, which was named Shakespeareana, morphs into a troupe called the Buckingham Players. In this motley company, Geoffrey and Laura play the parents, essaying the great tragic and comic roles on stage while keeping the books for their winding third-class travels around the subcontinent. Eighteen-year-old Felicity plays their daughter, Lizzie, giving her Desdemona and Ophelia by night while embarking on a romance with playboy Sanju (Shashi Kapoor). Jennifer Kendal, who was Kapoor’s offscreen wife, has a small supporting role and designed costumes for the film.

Shakespeare Wallah is set in a rapidly modernising India whose pop culture is eclipsing English traditions and rendering the Buckingham Players an anachronism. The booming homegrown film industry is represented by Bollywood star Manjula (played by actor turned chef Madhur Jaffrey) who also has a relationship with Sanju. Lizzie finds herself directly competing against a glamorous screen icon, just as the stage views cinema as a rival.

Although the film is rooted in a specific sociocultural moment for India, the threat posed to theatre by screen entertainment remains as universal now as it did then. In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor: “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognise that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades such as in Fellini’s Variety Lights (1950) or George Cukor’s Heller in Pink Tights (1960). But Shakespeare Wallah has a clear-eyed view of the company’s itinerant life as they veer from private performances in palaces to remote school audiences, the thrill of acting offset by umpteen card games and window gazing in between.

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‘AN ACTOR’S REVENGE’: KON ICHIKAWA’S PHENOMENAL KABUKI THRILLER ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/23; Photo: Kazuo Hasegawa as Yukinojo in An Actor’s Revenge. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy.)

In this stylish Japanese classic, a performer uses theatrical techniques to engineer the deaths of his enemies

We sometimes talk of scene-stealers in the theatre. What might acting and thieving have in common? Performers demand attention while pickpockets evade it, but to excel at both you need to closely study human behaviour. In his 1962 movie An Actor’s Revenge, the director Kon Ichikawa presents the worlds of a touring kabuki theatre company and a group of thieves side by side. His masterstroke is casting Kazuo Hasegawa – in his 300th film appearance – in a dual role as both the troupe’s lead actor and a Robin Hood-style robber. As the former, he coolly steals the heart of an admirer in the audience.

In the opening scene, criminals are operating in the auditorium. They pluck riches from the spectators, while arguing about whether to stay until the end of the show. “This play’s too slow for me,” moans one thief. You couldn’t level that criticism at Ichikawa’s movie, one of cinema’s finest studies of theatre. It is a remake of a 1935 film with the same name, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, in which Hasegawa (a kabuki actor turned box-office film star) had played the same roles.

Ichikawa’s version grips the audience immediately. In Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the kabuki company is presenting an elegant production in which snow falls on a stage lined with candles. Yukinojo (Hasegawa) is an acclaimed onnagata, a male actor who performs female roles. We hear the internal monologue of Yukinojo addressing his late father as, in the audience, he spies a magistrate and a merchant responsible for his parents’ death 20 years earlier. He has come to Edo for vengeance.

Yukinojo uses his performance, on-stage and off, to win the affection of the magistrate’s daughter (Ayako Wakao). He is mocked by others as weak and effeminate – both for being an actor and an onnagata – but uses this perception to his advantage in wreaking revenge. He also makes use of his vast knowledge of kabuki stagecraft, donning makeup and a fright wig to assume the guise of his father’s ghost when confronting one of the men. (The film’s Japanese title, Yukinojo Henge, describes him as a phantom and this captures something of its phantasmagorical style.) Later, he acts out his mother’s death as a shadow play to torment another of his enemies. One of the thieves mocks Yukinojo as being “neither man nor woman”; his features share a similarity with both parents, we are told, so it is as if he embodies each on their personal quests for retribution.

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WHERE IS HOLLYWOOD WHEN BROADWAY NEEDS IT? ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/10; via Pam Green. Illustration: Credit…Antoine Cossé.)

A critic writes a plea to the film and TV stars who got their starts in the theater and can do more to aid its rescue.

Dear Extremely Famous Friend of the American Theater,

You’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I realize the pandemic has turned life upside down, but you’ve gone so quiet that I’ve started to wonder if you ever truly meant it — if all the times you spoke of your love of the stage, if every time you reminisced in an interview about how profoundly it shaped you, you were just … what? Following a script? Trying to fit in with your cast mates while you briefly returned to the theater, this time as a star?

I’d rather not believe that. It was comforting to think of you, out there in the klieg-light glare of screen celebrity, as someone who loved the footlights with a kind of tenderness, the way we do the things we cherish most. And the theater — the people of the theater, the people who built their livelihoods telling us stories in the dark — could really, really use some public cherishing right now.

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‘STAGE FRIGHT’: HITCHCOCK THRILLER MAKES THEATRE A CRIME SCENE ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/16.)

A long-lost London playhouse and Rada’s headquarters feature in this 1950 caper starring a showstopping Marlene Dietrich

Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in his box at the theatre, and the killer’s bid to escape across the stage, is recreated in a whirlwind sequence in DW Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation. The killing of Lincoln, by the actor John Wilkes Booth, is the most famous murder in a theatre but several other films have since built mysteries around deadly crimes committed before a captive audience. Paul Leni’s dazzling The Last Warning (1928) concerns a Broadway actor’s on-stage death. In the British movie Murder at the Windmill (1949), directed by former stage actor Val Guest, a punter is killed during a burlesque show; his body is discovered along with a pipe, an umbrella and a pair of kippers when the theatre is being cleaned.

Murder at the Windmill was filmed in and around the eponymous revue in Soho. It was soon followed by Alfred Hitchcock’s London thriller Stage Fright (1950), partly shot on the other side of Oxford Street, in a playhouse called the Scala and also known as the Prince of Wales theatre but now demolished and not to be confused with either of those existing venues.

For his often comic tale of murder, intrigue and showbiz, based on a novel by Selwyn Jepson, Hitchcock takes full advantage of the location, showing off the Scala’s ornate, marble-pillared auditorium and exploring a warren of backstage corridors and hiding places. At the start of the film there is a close-up of a safety curtain (that name will prove grimly ironic) which lifts to reveal not the stage but a street scene with London landmarks.

Richard Todd as Jonathan, evading the police at Rada, in Stage Fright. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Speeding along in a car are two actors, Jonathan and Eve, fleeing from a crime. The husband of leading lady Charlotte Inwood has been murdered. Jonathan is obsessed with Charlotte, Eve loves him, and Charlotte is having an affair with her manager but ultimately admires herself as much as the crowds adore her. These love triangles, which become more like Venn diagrams, involve plenty of role play: Eve assumes the persona of first a reporter and then a maid to protect Jonathan; Charlotte takes on the part of a grieving widow in black (though she says she’d prefer a plunging neckline and something a little more colourful). Eve’s father endeavours to bring some order to these shenanigans as if he is a stage manager.

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‘SARAH PLAYS A WEREWOLF’: A BITING DRAMA ABOUT THEATRE AND TEENAGE TERROR ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/2; Photo: Controlling the gaze … Loane Balthasar in Sarah Plays a Werewolf. Photograph: Intermezzo Films.) 

Katharina Wyss’s film features a phenomenal debut from Loane Balthasar as an adolescent who uses theatre to both escape – and express – her demons

Sarah Plays a Werewolf is a film about a small-town high-school drama club. So you may expect a comedy and not just because of that eyebrow-raising title. There’s probably some pretentious posturing, melodramatic offstage shenanigans, a bit of fretting about the big performance and a heartwarming finale. Maybe a few songs, too? But Swiss director Katharina Wyss’s debut feature, which premiered at the Venice film festival in 2017, is supremely serious about theatre and teenage life, both so often jokily dismissed.

It starts with a discussion about fear and bravery but we haven’t got to the werewolf bit yet. Instead, the conversation revolves around how a group of young actors feel about devising a piece of theatre together. “Does our way of working disturb you?” asks the teacher, as one student admits she’d really rather be handed a script. Theatre is immediately established as a collaborative process, which contrasts with the painful isolation felt by 17-year-old Sarah, who desperately misses her older brother who has left home for college.

At school, she eye-rolls at the way her classmates dismiss Romeo and Juliet as saying nothing about modern-day love; she bunks off the next day, dresses as Juliet, unsheathes a dagger and acts out the suicide scene in front of her young sister, Esther. All of which is made more disturbing by Sarah’s revelation, a few scenes earlier, that her brother killed himself. But we begin to doubt this story and the film keeps us guessing about what is real and what is in Sarah’s imagination.

In her first film, Loane Balthasar is phenomenal in the lead role – somehow both distant yet open. Sarah is a muddle of anger, frustration and fear but full of creative energy. Theatre, it is suggested, is a safe space for her to explore her darkest emotions. So when she and her friend Alice act out a scene they have devised, about the torture of a martyr, they are devastated when the group dismisses its worth. The scene reflects on the abuse Sarah is suffering at home, so the negative reaction – which the teacher strives to steer towards constructive criticism – leaves Sarah feeling raw and exposed.

Like many films about theatre, there are plenty of cultural references here, including to Shakespeare, Georges Bataille and opera. But it is important that the work the young students are creating is given prominence, and treated with respect by Wyss. When the group goes on a day trip we see them, carefully choreographed on a hillside, sharing (inventing?) stories about their fathers. Ironically, for a film that includes so many scenes on stage, this outdoor episode feels closest to theatre.

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AFTER AUDITION: TAKASHI MIIKE’S REHEARSAL-ROOM SHOCKER OVER YOUR DEAD BODY ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the UK Guardian, 1/26. Photo:  Stage fright … Ebizô Ichikawa in the play within the film Over Your Dead Body. Photograph: OYDB Film Partners. )

Continuing our series on the best films about theatre, a 200-year-old Japanese ghost story takes centre stage in a movie merging reality and fantasy

The prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike is best known for his 1999 horror film Audition, in which a widower advertises a role in a fake movie production, intending to choose a wife from those who apply. The backdrop of the screen industry suggests that his casual misogyny is symptomatic of a wider social disease. Fifteen years later, Miike released Over Your Dead Body, a sort of companion piece, following a group of theatre actors in and out of rehearsals. Like Audition, the film – whose Japanese title is Kuime – explores deception and vengeance with slow-burning and increasingly grisly intensity. Amid its schlock and horror, it vividly retains a traditional theatricality that left me longing to see a proper production of the play at its centre.

That play is the ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan, about a ruthless samurai who is haunted by his rejected wife, Oiwa. The samurai is portrayed in the play by the cruel Kosuke who abandons his lover, the established stage performer Miyuki (who plays Oiwa in their production), and starts an affair with a younger actor.

When Yotsuya Kaidan was first staged, about 200 years ago, it was presented in a kabuki double bill with another play over two days: half of each play on the first day, the culminating halves on the next. Miike’s film itself entwines two narratives. We watch lengthy scenes of Yotsuya Kaidan in its dress rehearsals, using meticulously designed historical sets on a revolve stage. These are intercut with the actors’ dressing-room encounters and scenes in Miyuki’s sleek apartment. In most films about theatre, the offstage dramas are the real focus and we see only snippets of the show they are creating. In Over Your Dead Body, considerably more time is given to the play within the film.

There are some startling perspectives along the way – in one of the opening scenes, the camera looks out from inside a washing machine. Strikingly, the world of the play is presented as a linear, more straightforward narrative while the lives of the actors become increasingly surreal, merging reality and fantasy. In one disturbing sequence, Miyuki’s bedroom is dressed as if it was an outlandish set design, with blood pooling on plastic sheets covering the furniture.

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MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV: A DANCER WHOSE FLIGHT TO FREEDOM BROUGHT HIM CULT STATUS ·

(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 1/28; Photos:  Russia Beyond. )

Mikhail Baryshnikov is not one to go unnoticed. A true living legend of ballet, he is one of the greatest dancers in modern history.

Die-hard fans of classical Russian ballet praise Baryshnikov for his powerful leaps and a lifelong passion for freedom, while his younger admirers, who first came to know him as Aleksandr Petrovsky, Carry Bradshaw’s Russian boyfriend on ‘Sex and the City’, worship him for taking contemporary ballet to a whole new level.

It seems like Baryshnikov has been swimming against the tide since childhood. He chose his battles wisely, though, and proved to be a brilliant long-distance “swimmer”. Baryshnikov’s story is an exciting tale of self-actualization and personal growth.

A star is born

Like many Soviet families of the time, Mikhail’s father was a strict military man and a devoted communist, while his mother came from a peasant background. It was she who instilled a love for the arts in Mikhail. The family lived in Riga, capital of then Latvian SSR. Baryshnikov fell in love with ballet and enrolled in his first professional dance school on his own. He told his parents that he didn’t need their moral assistance. Misha (a common short form of the Russian name ‘Mikhail’) literally proved he could stand on his own feet when he was only 9. He passed the entrance exams and was accepted.

Two years later, Baryshnikov moved to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to train at the famous ballet school (now known as the Vaganova Academy). There, he was taught by none other than Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet’s namesake and teacher of another ballet legend, Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961. 

Years later, Baryshnikov himself would be recognized as one of the finest ballet virtuosos in the world, along with Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev.  

 

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OPENING NIGHT: JOHN CASSAVETES’ UNROMANTIC ODE TO THEATRE IS STUNNING ·

(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian 1/19/; Photo: Going on … Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. Photograph: Alamy.)

One of many tantalising theatre shows cancelled last year by the pandemic was The Second Woman, a 24-hour-long production at the Young Vic, London, in which Ruth Wilson was to repeatedly perform the same scene with a succession of 100 actors. This exploration of gender and power was inspired by John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, about a troubled star’s out-of-town tryouts for a Broadway-bound play called The Second Woman.

After months of watching stage productions on screen while venues are closed, from archive NT Lives to lockdown live streams, I returned to Opening Night to start a new series looking at the ways cinema has depicted the world of theatre. I’m avoiding some of the more obvious titles (Birdman, All About Eve, movies based on plays or musicals such as A Chorus Line) and will be including a range of international choices over the next few weeks to see how film-makers have depicted the theatrical experience.

Cassavetes is hailed for ushering in a new style of American independent movies with naturalistic classics including Shadows and Faces, but he was no stranger to ambitious theatre. Within a few years of Opening Night, he was staging a trilogy of plays in Los Angeles with the same lead actor, his wife Gena Rowlands.

When we first see Rowlands in Opening Night, she is waiting to go on stage, calming her nerves with a nip of booze and a last drag on a cigarette. Cassavetes captures the jittery energy behind the scenes as well as the intense sensation of simply being on stage: when the curtain goes up, we feel the glare, echo and volume of the experience, the sheer nowness of it all. This is immediately juxtaposed with a rather dreary perspective from the stalls, where a fixed camera shows the uninspiring drama in which Myrtle stars.

What Cassavetes does brilliantly is present brief moments that exist somewhere between the private and public as we see the actor, Myrtle Gordon (the superb Rowlands), entering and leaving the stage, switching in and out of character, waiting for cues while hidden from an audience who loom in the background. This is what I’d love to see captured in more streams of theatre productions: multiple cameras used not just to shoot the drama but also showing actors immediately before and after their scenes.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CARY GRANT ·

Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best

Nancy Nelson’s Evenings with Cary Grant, which uses the icon’s own words—and is enhanced with material from Grant’s personal papers—draws from the remembrances of Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Sophia Loren, Quincy Jones, Deborah Kerr, and George Burns (over one hundred and fifty voices in all). Together these friends, colleagues, and loved ones provide a sublime, truthful, and candid portrait—as close to a memoir as Grant ever got.

Foreword by Barbara and Jennifer Grant.  Available now.  

“Forget the other Grant books, this is it.  Superb.”–Kirkus Reviews.

“It’s a lovely, funny book about Cary.”–Katharine Hepburn.  

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