It has certainly made him the most recognizable desi musician in the West. His Bollywood film scores include the Oscar-nominated Lagaan, such hits as "Chaiyya Chaiyya" from Dil Se and Bombay Dreams (named ninth in the BBC World Service's top 10 songs of all time) and, of course, "Jai Ho," the Slumdog song that garnered Oscars, Grammys and a Golden Globe—as well as other international awards— and enshrined him as the ultimate crossover artist.
The life of a Bollywood composer can tax the artistic temperament, though. Because of the way the films are made, the composing process is complicated. "You can't just finish doing one song and then go on to the next one," he says. When asked if he is ever requested to change his music once a song is being filmed, he responds with a laugh. "Always." And inevitably, some of his pearls go to waste: Asked if he sometimes wishes that a song had been in a better movie, he again says, "Always. If a movie is a flop, nobody ever listens to the music."
A tireless performer, Rahman is an instrumentalist, singer, music director and composer. He's also a synthesizer of diverse Western and Indian classical and popular styles, having collaborated with Michael Jackson, the Finnish group Vrttin and Andrew Lloyd Webber (on Bombay Dreams, an experience that "really opened up my brain a lot, seeing the world beyond music"). He, along with Marvin Hamlisch, recently entertained President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House.
Rahman calls his current tour, called the Jai Ho Concert, a "vibrant musical journey" that fuses a kaleidoscope of musicians, dancers and acrobats in a theatrical extravaganza. This is the most elaborate live Bollywood show the area has ever seen. Tickets available at rbccenter.com.
Here’s a question for long-time theater buffs: What if Tom Wingfield, Tennessee Williams’ pseudonymous narrator in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, had gone on to be a filmmaker instead of a writer—one whose ghostly, black and white footage from his memories keeps shifting between a profound sense of intimacy and a much cooler reserve?
The answer awaits you—through this Sunday, Sept. 26—in one of the most amazing theatrical productions I’ve witnessed in the past few years.
It’s been a while since we’ve covered Triad Stage. The downtown Greensboro theater is about an hour west from the Triangle. But the trip and the ticket in this case are fully justified by what must be called a singularly remarkable new vision of one of the classics in the American theater.
This week, the American Theatre Wing, the founder of the Tony Awards, included Triad Stage in its top ten list of most promising theaters to have emerged in the United States in the last 15 years. With work like this joining previous company standouts including 2004's Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire and Master Harold...and the Boys over the following two years, I’m not terribly surprised.
Stage artists and audiences who have long wondered what a nearly perfect merging of theater and foreign film would look like, on the same stage at the same time, should immediately drop all other plans and get to Greensboro this weekend.
It’s rather odd how a retro-chic musical adapting a Roger Corman B-movie whose highlight is a giant man-eating plant puppet became a mainstay of musical theater. And yet, NC Theatre’s production Little Shop of Horrors proves the show remains as punchy and charming as ever, though “charming” is perhaps not the best phrase to describe a play where a key plot point involves dismemberment.
Lighter than the original 1960 film but darker than the 1986 adaptation with Rick Moranis (where the original, darker ending was completely cut along with $5 million of special effects you can find on YouTube), Shop still gets reliable laughs out of its tale of milquetoast flower shop assistant Seymour Krelborn (Raleigh native Noah Putterman), who enters into a Faustian relationship with the “strange and interesting” plant he’s named after his semi-requited crush, Audrey (Gina Milo).
Audrey II brings business to the shop, but only grows when it gets blood, which results in its developing a mind of its own, and a voice (Michael James Leslie, who recently voiced the plant on Broadway) that demands Seymour “feed me.”
Putterman and Milo are charming as the leads, and soar in the love duet “Suddenly Seymour,” but of course the real highlights are the various Audrey II puppets, manipulated by Parker Fitzgerald; they bring that combination of comedy and menace that defines the play.
In the rest of the cast, Rebecca Covington, Natalie Renee and Danielle K. Thomas are standouts of the Greek chorus of do-wop singers, while Broadway vet Stephen Berger doesn’t have enough to do as Mushnick and Evan Casey feels a little too cartoon-y in his roles as the sadistic dentist and everyone else (though he deserves credit for the elaborate rapid-fire costume changes he undergoes).
Little Shop of Horrors is a simple show whose catchy tunes and puppetry help what’s a pretty dark, depressing plot go down smoothly. Incidentally, the merchandise table at this production informs us that the Venus flytrap originates in Wilmington. You can buy one for your kids, too. Just be careful what you feed it.
The Escapism Film Festival, which begins tonight at the Carolina Theatre, features a wide variety of genre films in 35mm prints. Of the 12 films at the festival, five of them are being screened from the last or next-to-last known prints in North America.
“Every year, more and more 35-mm prints are lost,” says the Carolina Theatre’s General Manager Jim Carl, who programmed the festival. “In a lot of cases, the film stock has shrunken and become brittle to the point of being unwatchable. It’s possible that in a few years, many of the films at Escapism this year might join that list as well.”
There’s several well-known films in this year’s lineup, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Robocop and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, all of which had plenty of prints available. But other films, Carl says, weren’t as easy to come by.
Only one print was left of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, and there were only few more of Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, which also screens at the festival. There was only one print of Legend, Ridley Scott’s bizarre 1985 fantasy with Tom Cruise (and Tim Curry in his famous performance as the Lord of Darkness).
One print remained of the theatrical version of the pilot to the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and the 1984 SF movie The Last Starfighter; there were only a few more prints of 1986’s Enemy Mine with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. Perhaps most shocking is that there were only two or three prints available for The Muppet Movie.
The lineup is all the more impressive considering what films Carl couldn’t get. There were no prints of Superman II left, and none of Dragonslayer or Time after Time. The Rocketeer, which only came out in 1991, is not available on 35mm print. Escape to Witch Mountain was a big hit at the festival last year, but its sequel, Return From Witch Mountain, is gone along with most Disney films from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Carl’s favorite, The Devil and Max Devlin.
The only thing taller than the models were downtown’s towering buildings this past Friday at the fashionSPARK Fashion Show. Twenty local designers and five jewelry designers sent their creations down a brightly lit runway in the middle of an enthusiastic, standing-room crowd at the open-air City Plaza.
The designs ranged from comfortable hippie-wear reminiscent of a winter in Asheville (LLLavender) to post-apocalyptic war-zone knitwear (Gabrielle Duggan). Many of the designers opted for earth-friendly materials, including Payton-Alexis, who showed partially sustainable wedding dresses with striking silhouettes and muted colors and finished with a dress made entirely from used coffee filters.
Coffee filters weren’t the only unusual material. Another designer, Zac Schell, showed bikinis and chainmail, perhaps for your next S&M pool party.
One of the absolute crowd favorites, however, was the jaw-dropping work of Jess Pati. The pair of artists behind the line created elegant, unique cocktail dresses that beautifully straddled the line between haute couture and ready-to-wear. Their outfits ranged from high-necked embroidered frocks to ruffled skirts paired with tops embellished with sophisticated black knitting.
Of the jewelry designers, Good Girls Studio, Inc. stood out for the simple fact that the models were dressed simply enough to let the jewelry display itself. Each model wandered down the runway, martini glass full of pearls in hand, looking very much the demented socialite in long bauble necklaces and 1930s-esque swagger.
Whether the models were strutting to remixes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ upbeat “Heads Will Roll” or taking it down a notch to The Rat People’s “Shane Domino,” the crowd had enthusiasm for all of their favorite designs, showing support for the most beautiful and the most outrageous clothing alike.
Raleigh’s elite rubbed elbows with suburbanites, all bedecked in the latest fashions themselves, and the designers reciprocated: Each took a bow on the runway after his or her collection was exhibited. The fifth annual fashionSPARK was a rousing success, and no doubt many people left the show ready to come back for the city’s next showcase of local couture.
Talk about a spoiler! While the film is interesting enough on its merits, half the fun of watching it was discussing it afterward and trying to figure out Affleck and Phoenix’s intentions in making it, and to what extent it was “real.” After a press screening, Indy film critic Neil Morris, culture editor David Fellerath and I took up that discussion in the lobby and continued it in e-mail for several days afterward.
As Affleck told Michael Cieply of the Times (elaborated on in a blog post), he didn’t think anyone would mistake the film’s veracity: “‘…the question of real or not wasn’t something I thought would exist after the film was seen in its entirety, credits and all,’ he said. ‘It seems obvious’ that it is not.” The credits do provide clues that all is not as it seems, one of which was caught by Morris (see below). But Roger Ebert was taken in, much to his chagrin (“If this film turns out to still be part of an elaborate hoax, I'm going to be seriously pissed”—though not as pissed as he thought he would be), as was Dana Stevens of Slate.
Morris was skeptical from the beginning, as he relates in his review, which was published the day before Affleck’s Times interview. Here, for interested readers, are some of the results of our eyewitness and online sleuthing (travel with me now back in time, back to those carefree and innocent days when we could trust well-known actors not to fool audiences and critics into believing that filmed depictions of sordid, career-killing escapades were real… back to Sept. 10, 2010).
SPOILER ALERT—if Affleck hasn’t already spoiled the movie for you, these notes might:
* Toward the end of the film, there’s a scene in which Phoenix flies to Panama to meet with his father. In the closing credits, Morris noticed that the role of Joaquin Phoenix’s father was played by Tim Affleck, father of Casey and Ben. This was probably the clearest giveaway in the film, but you had to be paying fairly close attention to the credits to notice it. It slipped past Ebert, as well as Fellerath and me (we were already busy dissecting the case).
* The credits also said “Written and directed by JP and CA,” though as Variety reported on Sept. 6, Affleck claimed, at Venice Film Festival, that “he and Phoenix only took credit as the film's writers because of guild rules.”
* The film opens with what appears to be a home movie of a young boy (presumably Phoenix) standing hesitantly at the top of a waterfall while a man (presumably his father) watches to see if he’ll jump. The time code at the bottom reads “1982,” but the first consumer camcorders didn’t come out until 1983; as well, the stillness of the camera (using a tripod) and total lack of chatter make this suspiciously unlike your typical home movie. The scene is also remarkably similar to a scene from GERRY, a 2002 drama starring Affleck and Matt Damon, directed by Gus Van Sant, who’s thanked in the credits to I'm Still Here.
* And finally, the evidence that really clinched it for me: the appearance by a cleaned-up, beardless, cooperative-seeming Phoenix in a short PSA for a suicide-prevention nonprofit last January. This video reached 2 million views in short order, cluing in anyone following the story that Phoenix’s I'm Still Here persona hadn’t lasted.
Affleck says he felt the need to come clean because “the reviews were so angry,” adding, “I never intended to trick anybody.” Indeed, the level of hostility that’s been directed at Phoenix since his now infamous appearance on David Letterman’s show in 2009 has been mystifying. Comment boards online (which, to be sure, tend to invite comment from the most hateful among us) are filled with invective like “He was trash when he first started the act. All they did now as confirm that he's trash. Feel free to go away now, Joaquin. You're tired.”
The anger seems out of proportion to the sin of acting rudely toward a talk show host and misleading the public about his career choices. It seems he’s being punished for failing to conform to our expectations of how Hollywood celebrities should act. This brings up one of the more interesting aspects of I'm Still Here, which is what it actually does document, aside from all the business with the invented persona. Phoenix may be acting, but the mockery and ridicule directed at him are real. For growing his hair and beard, gaining weight, taking a break from acting, and making some (admittedly awkward) attempts at rapping, he was pilloried. Now that the gig is up, the public comes off looking much uglier than he does.
The gig being up, another question arises: is it worth buying a ticket to I'm Still Here? It’s still playing at the Carolina, Chelsea, Colony and Galaxy theaters (through Thursday, and then only the Galaxy). Though the chance to guess at its veracity is past, it's still a unique comment on celebrity. Phoenix's performance as a shambling, boorish version of himself is "compelling, always watchable, manages to be repulsive and charming, believable in all emotions, completely committed, incredibly brave," in the words of Affleck, his co-conspirator. Since it involved (or at least coincided with) sacrificing years from his successful career as an actor, it's more than just a stunt. It's heady, intricate performance art.
Phoenix will appear on The Late Show tonight, for the first time since the appearance documented in I'm Still Here. It's comforting to know that, unlike his brother River, whose celebrity destroyed him, he's still here; it's to his credit that we're still talking about him.
My significant other and I don’t disagree about much. Prairie Home Companion is a notable exception. She won’t even let me listen to it when we’re in the car together. And I understand! It’s cheesy and maudlin and antiquated—and I love it: Me, an ardent devotee of cerebral modernist music and postmodern literature.
But the very moment I heard that Prairie Home Companion was coming to Cary, on its non-broadcasted yet fully featured “Summer Love” tour, I e-mailed my editor to beg him to send me, even though it would mean missing the last night of Hopscotch in downtown Raleigh.
“I could only get you one ticket, so you can’t bring a date,” my editor apologized.
“Won’t be a problem,” I replied.
Months ago, when this show was announced, I bought a ticket and reserved a dinner table at Goodnight’s Comedy Club. It turned out to be a smart move—not only did it get me a front-row seat for one of the club’s biggest shows of the year, but reserving for Saturday meant I wasn’t one of those affected when Morgan had to shift his schedule for his 30 Rock taping.
Though his most recent films—Cop Out and the Death at a Funeral remake—weren’t worth the price of admission, Morgan is a comic genius with the right setting and material. His semi-autobiographical 30 Rock character, Tracy Jordan, is such a masterpiece of malapropisms that this website exists to record down everything the character says. And Morgan’s autobiography, I Am the New Black, features some surprisingly dark passages about his father’s battle with drugs and AIDS and his own fight with alcoholism.
As I sat there in the front row, Morgan shuffled on-stage for his second of three shows that night wearing jeans and a black shirt that wouldn’t be out of place at a club. He turns out to be even more imposing than I’d expected, with a doughy chest and a face filled out with puffy cheeks and large eyes. Although he says he hasn’t had a drink in more than year, there’s a slow, slurry quality to his words and movements—perhaps brought on by exhaustion (I was watching the second of three sets scheduled for the night).
My newfound appreciation for the work of Samuel Beckett dates from 7:45 p.m., Sept. 8, after Julie Fishell’s character Winnie had been speaking for just a few minutes in PRC2’s new production of Beckett’s Happy Days in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. My every previous encounter with Beckett on page or stage had resulted in boredom, irritation and somnolence, as my youthful, impatient romantic soul rebelled against the bleak Beckettian waiting, insufficiently relieved by slaps of dark humor. Tired and wiser now, the everlasting ongoingness of nothing, presented so precisely, makes sense at last.
What makes humans any different from other animals in their earthy dens and burrows? Here is a woman who makes clear the one or two essential differences. Buried up to her waist in a gigantic mound of earth—immobilized, de-sexed (though not de-gendered), capable of only the most limited actions and occupied with fruitless daily rituals filling time “between the bell for waking and the bell for sleeping,” Fishell’s Winnie makes us laugh, cry and, ultimately, admire her courageous, addled endurance and insistence on self-hood.
For Winnie, and for the rest of us, language is the essential coin of humanity, but as she tells us several times, talking to oneself is not enough. As much as she longs to see her hidden husband Willie (living in a burrow on the backside of Winnie’s mound), she needs even more to hear him—in order to know that he has heard her. The play is a two-act monologue for Winnie (with a few but necessary sentences and minimal appearances by Willie, intensely played here by fellow PlayMaker Ray Dooley), a tour de force of language structured like music. It is a huge, difficult role for the actor, demanding physically, emotionally and vocally.
Julie Fishell’s interpretation is tremendously moving. Directed with restraint and clarity by Rob Melrose (co-founder and artistic director of The Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco), her timing, her vocal expressiveness and her gestures are all superb. In the second act, Winnie has sunk into earth up to her neck: She is naught but a talking head in a cunning hat atop the mound, and must communicate all with voice and facial expression. Her eyesight is fading; memory mangles the “immortal lines” of poetry—but still, “classics help get you through the day.” Stripped of all agency but thought and word, yet she maintains the inexplicable faith that “this will be another happy day.”
This amazing season-opener for what promises to be a powerful year at Playmakers runs only through Sept. 12.
LETTER FROM ALGERIA
1 1/2 stars
“I want to believe!!”
It isn’t just a tag line from that classic sci-fi series, The X Files. It’s also the rallying cry of theater directors, audiences—and critics—alike.
Think of it as just another way of putting the ancient show biz secret that more than one director has passed on to a jittery beginner on an opening night. For the audience is always pulling for you when you’re putting on a show. Always. No one deliberately wastes their energy and what little free time they’ve got to see a production that they know is a flop.
Those folks spend money to buy tickets. They actually go out of their way in order to find you, and place themselves, quite literally, at your feet.
They very much want you to succeed. They want to believe.
And it’s our responsibility as theater artists to prepare something by opening night that lets them do that. When we don’t, we’ve haven’t done our job. Those are the terms of the contract. It’s the work we’ve signed on to do.