During the latter half of Skyfall, Judi Dench’s M, testifying before a bureaucratic inquest, declares that today’s true threats to safety and security are “individuals, not nations.”
Punctuated by a passage from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the expertly edited scene plays like a commentary on our post-Bin Laden world. However, the megalomaniac or terrorist-led organization was always the central villain throughout Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and the now-50 years of films they spawned, unlike most of Fleming’s Cold War spy novel counterparts.
It’s an allusion that’s likely intentional, for Skyfall is steeped in a nostalgia for cinema’s most enduring series. The indomitable iconography of the Bond films continues to make every new release an event. However, here it serves a more fundamental function. Whereas Casino Royale was a reboot of the Bond franchise, this represents its restoration.
Opening with a mistaken demise that harks back to You Only Live Twice, death and rebirth are the film’s overarching themes. Bond (Daniel Craig), a neurotic who word-associates “murder” with “employment” and “woman” with “provocatrix,” uses pills and drink to self-medicate demons dating back to some unresolved childhood trauma.
He’s also a relic in the age of cyberterrorism where, to quote his new quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), “I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.” Meanwhile, M is a lioness in winter, on the eve of forced retirement after a computer list of undercover NATO spies is stolen and slowly leaked online.
Frank Abagnale’s life story, vividly related in the jazzy Broadway musical Catch Me If You Can, beggars belief. A prodigy as an adolescent (albeit at check kiting and gaming various mechanisms in the American financial system), before age 18 he’d rung up well over $1 million dollars in multiple bank frauds. By 21, he'd established and lived under at least eight separate assumed identities, posing (and traveling across the world) as an airline pilot, teaching at Brigham Young University, managing interns as an ersatz doctor at a Georgia hospital, somehow passing the Louisiana bar exam and working in that state’s Attorney General’s office.
But that's not all. After his eventual capture and imprisonment, Abagnale started working for the FBI, instructing them on security vulnerabilities in the banking system. After his release, he set up his own consulting firm, advising banks and businesses on (what else?) fraud detection and avoidance. Some 40 years later, he’s a success and a millionaire several times over—legitimately, this time.
True, Abagnale and his chroniclers may have padded his felonious resume somewhat (in a manner at least potentially similar to his original modus operandi). Still, the 2002 Stephen Spielberg film with the same title, a Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks blockbuster which grossed over $350 million, proved that this was a life clearly meant for the silver screen. The musical stage adaptation of Catch Me ran six months on Broadway last season; if not a runaway smash, it still was a respectable showing, with a Tony and Drama Desk award for best leading performance. A national tour kicked off last month; its Raleigh stand this week is one of its earliest dates.
Out of the show's (literal) opening gate—somewhere at Miami International Airport, circa 1964—Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s propulsive score and Matthew Smedal’s sharp swing orchestra yank us onto the dance floor, through a series of original numbers reverently ripped from the school of jumping jive. Swing and jump blues aficionados have all the reasons they could possibly need to pony up for a ticket well before the end of the first act.
Also, not much happens. The first half of the program consists of the solo from Monk’s 1972 Education of the Girlchild. For perspective: Ms. magazine began publication in 1972. Title IX, ensuring equality in sports education for girls, passed in 1972. Women were not admitted as Harvard undergraduates until the following year. So when you watch the slow, constricted life-memory unfold, keeps those things in mind. Monk was 30 when she made this piece, imagining herself an old woman time-travelling, remembering and honoring the stages of her life.
Girlchild is meditative, not active; distant, not passionate. It may frustrate, anger or bore, and it will certainly demand your patient close attention. The movement language is not all that interesting—but the way in which the movements are carried out can be. At the very least, the piece has value has an historical marker. For me, the voice work overrides all other considerations. Even nearing 70, Monk’s voice thrills. Her range extends from unusually deep to high and light, and she makes many instruments sound from her throat and mouth.
The program’s second half, Shards, features sections from two 1971 projects, and three songs from Girlchild, performed by Monk and three other women. There is some dance, but these pieces are primarily musical, with much in common with Philip Glass. Both the electric organ and the voices (sounds, with words or phrases sometimes swimming to the surface) advance and repeat, repeat and advance, almost to the point of making you crazy before they come to a surprisingly well-resolved halt. Again, the voice work is far more compelling (from today’s perspective) than the staging or the movement.
The younger women’s voices and performances are fantastic, and they sound as Monk must have decades ago. Her voice, though, is the essential one, full of wisdom, full of joy. I’m glad I saw the Education of the Girlchild solo again, but the Shards make me happy. Inexplicably, wordlessly happy.
Meredith Monk performs the program again tonight at 8. Visit the Duke Performances website for information and tickets.
LEGALLY BLONDE—THE MUSICAL
* * * stars
@ Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
Through Oct. 14
Of the approximately nine billion theatrical films rebranded onto Broadway, Legally Blonde is a smoother translation than most—it's easy to envision Judy Holliday or Kristin Chenoweth in their younger years as Elle Woods, the smarter-than-she-looks sorority queen who brings her pink wardrobe to Harvard Law in pursuit of an ex-boyfriend. The show presented at NC Theatre's production of Legally Blonde: The Musical could have worked perfectly well as a from-scratch show with its witty lyrics and endless energy. However, the show is occasionally dragged down by the need to service its source material, namely the 2001 Robert Luketic-directed film that screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith adapted from a novel by Amanda Brown.
One might not expect to bring up Stephen Sondheim when discussing a musical based on a Reese Witherspoon movie, but the songs by Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy: The Musical) and Nell Benjamin embrace many of the personal rules Sondheim lays out in his lyrics collection Finishing the Hat. Chiefly, the lyrics succeed by relying on multiple and sometimes obscure rhymes to keep the energy high ("I won a Fulbright and a Rhodes/I write financial software codes").
The image has come to symbolize the chaos and carnage of war: A panic-stricken horse, impaled by a spear, whose death-dance dominates the center of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Man’s inhumanity to man is a fundamental trope in the discourse of war—and one we can grow all too quickly numb to. But evidence of the widespread suffering of animals—in World War I accounts of biological agent testing, or the massacre at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in 1943—provides a different, and necessary, kind of shock, and a reminder that the damage inflicted by war is not limited to humans.
The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of WAR HORSE valiantly attempts to make a wartime epic out of a 1982 children's novel of the same name, in which novelist Michael Morpungo sought to view the First World War through the eyes of a horse and those closest to him.
To do this, it embraces spectacle. And Christopher Shutt and John Owens' sudden sound effects, Paule Constable and Karen Spahn's piercing lights, Adrian Sutton's alarm-filled score and Rae Smith's affecting illustrations, animated by 59 Productions and projected along what appears to be a stage-long piece of torn manuscript above the actors, all effectively convey the horrors of the battlefield.
Meanwhile, the cunningly engineered and remarkably animated two- and three-person puppets devised by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company convey the strain and the terror of the title character, a hunter thoroughbred named Joey, and another horse named Topthorn, as they try to drag a field gun through a battlefield's mud.
But when this production focuses on humans, and not animals, the script's weaknesses start to show.
Those who complain about the proliferation of these types may consider themselves lucky that they never encountered 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson.
Chris, the alter ego of actor Chris Elliott, was the star of the late, great Fox sitcom Get a Life, which ran from 1990-92 and has finally been released in its entirety on DVD as Get a Life: The Complete Series from Shout! Factory (previously, only a few scattered episodes were available on now out-of-print discs due to music rights issues).
But instead of lying around a filthy apartment with a bong or coming up with slang terms for the female anatomy, Chris’ path was far more whimsical and destructive. Over the course of the 35 episodes of Get a Life, he nearly drowns in his shower after assembling a mini-sub he ordered from a comic as a child, violently crashes a fashion show, inadvertently drives his childhood friend away from his family and reverts to savagery after eating hallucinogenic berries on a camping trip.
By the end of the series’ run, he’s also engaged in mind-switching, temporarily developed psychic powers, encountered a pudding-spewing space alien, traveled through time with the help of self-mixed “Time Juice,” and won a series of international spelling bees with toxic waste-enhanced intelligence. Most of these adventures end with him shot, stabbed, poisoned or blown to pieces, but by the next episode, he’s up for more disasters.
Get a Life ran during the early days of Fox, where the network distinguished itself with such left-of-center comedies as Married… with Children, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, In Living Color and of course The Simpsons. It managed to somehow be stranger than any of those shows, shot like an old-fashioned sitcom with a laugh track, then twisting stock sitcom plots into surreal, sometimes disturbing pretzels. Viewers might have gotten a clue from the opening credits, set to R.E.M.’s “Stand,” where the innocent image of a paperboy on his route gave way to reveal Elliott’s flabby, bearded form hurling papers from his tiny bike.
Rather than the endless pop-cultural riffing and shock-oriented humor of such Seth MacFarlane series as Family Guy that have come to dominate Fox’s airwaves, Get a Life allowed its weirdness to speak for itself. Chris’ parents were played by Elliott’s real-life father Bob Elliott, who’d developed his own surreal comedy as part of the Bob and Ray comedy team, and Elinor Donahue from Father Knows Best, as deadpan, indifferent figures always seen in their bathrobes at the kitchen table.
By the second season, Chris moves out (his parents then fill his old room with concrete) and moves into the garage of a gruff ex-cop played by Brian Doyle-Murray, who introduces him to such vices as the lucrative world of corrupt health inspectors. According to series co-creator David Mirkin in a call from his office in Los Angeles, had a third season been produced, Chris would have become a homeless drifter, “and every week he would have touched someone else’s life, and made it a little bit worse”.
The abbreviated second season saw a writing staff that included Bob Odenkirk (later of Mr. Show and Breaking Bad) and future Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman (appropriately for the Being John Malkovich scribe, the real Malkovich was a Get a Life fan, according to Mirkin).
Their warped chops are apparent on their scripts (Kaufman wrote the “Time Juice” episode), but a rewatch of the episodes reveals the show’s dark, bizarre tone is present from the very beginning—it simply gets even darker and more bizarre as it goes on. By the end of the second episode, Chris’ deluded efforts to become a male model (don’t ask) have ended in him crashing a runway show, which he narrates in a rapturous voiceover while shoes are flung at his head and police cart him away. “To him, that’s a triumph,” Mirkin says. “We originally thought of him as an adult Dennis the Menace.”
From the show: Chris, as male model "Sparkles," is horribly exploited when he's expected to pose topless.
If strange be the tales that are invoked by strong drink, the National Theatre of Scotland has ginned up a production to match in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.
But if any expect the gravitas of Black Watch, the Iraqi War documentary drama which got our nod for five stars when the company performed here last February, they’re in for a shock. Instead, playwright David Grieg’s 2011 tall tale about a prim young scholar’s tryst with the Devil during a small-town academic conference is a whopper worth telling over drinks in a pub.
And that is exactly where Carolina Performing Arts endeavors to place it: They’ve rented out the Back Bar at Top of The Hill for the production, which runs through Thursday night. If the second-story bunker of chrome, concrete and brick lacks some of the soul required for the gig, that was provided, quickly enough, by the quintet of performers who constituted not only the show’s cast, but its band as well.
After Annie Grace’s chilling rendition of the folk song “The Twa Corbies (The Two Ravens)” establishes the tone, the crew indulges Grieg’s mischievous, rhyming discourse—appropriate enough for a title character who studies folk ballads only to find herself supernaturally stuck in one before the night’s through. A brief sample: After describing Prudencia’s father’s penchant for odd quests which would now qualify as autistic spectrum, we learn,
“Whatever he was — whatever his spectra —
Prudencia’s complex was Elektra.”
Melody Grove’s buttoned-down reading of Prudencia finds inevitable contrast with actor Andy Clark’s average-guy take on Colin Syme, her academic nemesis. Though most actors play multiple roles, it’s unclear why Wils Wilson directs a no-nonsense David McKay to split the lines of The Man Downstairs with Clark. The choice turns Clark into a demonic subordinate—and a separate character which never appears in Grieg’s script.
While karaoke night in a Kelso pub devolves into a boozy bacchanal for the rest of these Profs Gone Wild, Prudencia makes of Hell a sort-of heaven, before a crisis provokes intervention and the possibility of rescue. Yes, things get entirely too silly when audience participation is taken to a bit of an extreme; a hapless viewer who volunteered as a minor character is gifted with a lapdance in midshow. And a rewritten and, unfortunately, reiterated “Guantanamera” proves to be the one tune this group cannot sell the whole night long.
Still, this Strange Undoing remains a wild ride that occasionally rises to the poetic in its sensibilities as well as its verse. Well worth a round of drinks, or maybe two. Sláinte mhath!
We think of Homer as the first bard, the beginner of dramatic storytelling. But storytelling is as old as dirt: ancient, the collected dust of time that retains the human imprint. From dust to dust we go, and from the dust we live on as stories. Ray Dooley as The Narrator in the bleak ruins of An Iliad seems beyond time, even as he relates the story of Homer’s Iliad, the mighty battles just before the sack of Troy. Dooley drifts on to the stage, looking like any aging white guy who’s been on the road for a few hundred thousand years, his ragged clothes the colors of brush, dried mud and sweat. He stumbles around the dirt and debris onstage, mumbling in Greek, trying to remember what story he’s on for tonight.
The Narrator finally beckons to someone in the front row for a program and sighs upon reading it. He’s a tentative teller, doesn’t really want to go into all that again. Rage. Hubris. Blood. Warriors at war. Women on the ramparts, watching. The interference of the gods. Character in the face of inescapable destiny. Yet he is fated to tell that story yet again, and you know this fate will go on forever. He is at the mercy of the Muse.
The Narrator may be reluctant, but playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare are very eager. They want us to know the now of the story, as well as its everlastingness in the long litany of wars, and give The Narrator many contemporary examples to convey understanding of how big and how long this famous battle really was, and ways to understand on our own terms some of the emotions that drove it.
Dooley, working with guest director Jesse Berger, makes these explanatory interludes some of the most intimate and excoriating moments of the play. And, of course, these are the moments that make the production a play, rather than a storytelling session. It is hardly surprising that An Iliad won a special citation for this combination at the 2012 Obie Awards.
Ray Dooley is surely the most accomplished of the many fine actors working in this area, and this is a rare opportunity to see him working alone on the stage. He is superb in ensembles, but here he performs the special feat of maintaining his time-travelling Narrator and the nuances of The Narrator’s weary emotions, while simultaneously evoking the story’s protagonists and their dusty, blood-soaked world. Agamemnon and Priam, Hector and Patroclus and Achilles—and Achilles’ various armaments—vivify before us. Made only of words, they roar and dazzle and awe.
This short run of An Iliad that opens this PRC2 season follows the marvelous Penelope that closed last season’s run of new plays in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre. Playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin turned The Odyssey inside out in an innovative contemporization of the ancient story. She also maintained her modern Penelope’s character while evoking others, but she also added a breathtaking layer of complication by at times becoming the Chorus, singing lines she’d just spoken elsewhere on stage, to musical accompaniment. For An Iliad, there’s no live music, but several pieces of delicate and haunting sound by Ryan Rumery that re-sensitize one to the violent story. Seth Reiser’s well-considered lighting also helps keep us a little off-balance and emotionally available to its power, as The Narrator unfolds it in Marion Williams’ costume and set.
An Iliad is a very tight piece of theatrical work, and a powerful beginning for the fall theater season. It is most highly recommended. Maybe we will get really lucky and PRC will bring it back in rotation with Penelope, but don’t hold your breath. This show closes Sun., Sept. 9.
In this age of comedians getting raked over the coals for being comedians—the slightly-est offensive, work-in-progress joke getting laid out in a comedy-club setting only to be regurgitated (usually very badly) by some online prude, pitifully looking for other people to join along in the I-can’t-believe-he-said-that circus—a writer could feel conflicted while reviewing a stand-up comedy show.
Even if I do like the jokes the comics dispense, I still won’t do them a kindness reciting their material in print. For many comics, especially the trio of comics I saw at Kings Barcade last Friday night, you really have to be there to get their jokes. The two comics who were headlining, Todd Barry and Neil Hamburger, are certainly distinctive performers, but their humor is best experienced if you get it from them.
The breathy, lazy, low-maintenance riffs Barry (whose potbellied slothness works in his favor onstage) went on during his 45-minute set would seem almost impossible to recreate even if you were hanging out with your friends. Try explaining to your pals what was so funny about the effortless, extemporaneous run Barry did when he suggested, after admitting he’s been doing sound effects during his set, he should be in the next Police Academy movie. (“Police Academy Durham — whaddya say?” he asked the audience, before wondering why saying Durham didn’t get a louder response.) There were recitable moments where you could get why Barry had ‘em howling, like when he recalled seeing a homeless dude sing “American Pie” on a subway platform (“Jack be nimble/Jack be quick — Where is that faggot-ass train at?”) or—his big closer!—reading a copy of an Esquire article a woman wrote about what a man can do to make a woman feel good and adding his own commentary. (“’Smell like something all the time’—easy enough.”)
You could recite Hamburger’s material, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. A twisted creation more than anything else, Hamburger shuffled onstage in a barely dry-cleaned tux, a horrible combover and Peter Bogdanovich glasses, carrying under his right arm three glass tumblers of some concoction he kept spilling on his suit. His 38-minute set basically consisted of telling blatantly tasteless jokes, the kind of jokes you hear burnout kids tell each other to sound edgy. But since it’s coming from the mouth of a guy who looks like a Borscht Belt comic who’s knocking on death’s door (he incessantly cleared his throat, as though his insides were drowning in phlegm), you’re basically laughing more at what you’re witnessing than what he’s saying.
Whether he was doing a so-called award-winning “tribute to ice cream” that consisted of two off-color jokes about Ben and Jerry’s and Justin Bieber, or going off on Steven Tyler for five minutes that ended with him asking the audience why he had a 16-year-old girl sit on his lap during the American Idol auditions (Answer: “To hide the erection he’d get when the 13-year-old girls auditioned!”), or weirdly ending his set doing knock-knock jokes where he quasi-sincerely paid tribute to the late Whitney Houston, Hamburger is all about getting the audience to laugh until they’re eventually uncomfortable with the whole thing. A couple did get up to leave during Hamburger’s Tyler rant, prompting him to ask, “What are those—Tyler people walking out?”
As you could probably tell from the headlining comics and the venue where they performed, this was an evening for alternative comedy fans. (The audience smacked of hipster types I usually avoid at all costs. But at least this audience didn’t consist of assholes pulling out their iPhones, recording the comics or tweeting about how inappropriate the jokes were.) The tone of the night was established by opening comic Brendon Walsh's 21-minute set. Walking onstage without an intro, sporting a bearded, shaggy look that made him look like half the editors at the Indy, you’d swear Walsh was a stoner if he didn’t do a bit condemning stoners for their paranoid attitudes. He did do sensibly droll bits, like priding himself for not being the sort of guy who uses sex toys like the Fleshlight (Google it) or what he calls a “rubber ass-pussy combination.”
Ultimately, this was an enjoyable night of comedy. I know I probably didn’t do it justice in this review. But, trust me—you had to be there.
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: DRALION
* * * stars
Through Aug. 19
Cirque du Soleil is a global juggernaut, but it's still a surprisingly youthful institution. In contrast to, say, those 19th-century animal drivers Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, Cirque is a babe. Officially dating to 1984, the Montreal-based troupe exploded in the 1990s. In the middle of that decade, the troupe developed an Eastern-themed show called Dralion. The show focused on Chinese acrobatics and became a huge hit, running for about 13 years.
In 2010, the show was revived for arena tours, and that's what audiences see this week at PNC Arena. We caught the show Wednesday night at Raleigh's PNC Arena. We can report that the show is filled with dancers, singers, tumblers, trampoliners, aerialists and an impossibly ripped guy who does this thing with a "crossed wheel" routine. The latter comes early in the show, as Jonathan Morin tumbles onto the stage in his self-invented device of two steel circles, intersecting in the shape of an egg. Morin does a variety of spins, cartwheels and flips with the device. It's amazing, inventive stuff, the sort of thing people come to expect of Cirque du Soleil. However, the routine goes on for a couple minutes too long—and it's not the first time in the evening that we have that feeling.
You wouldn't know from watching the show, but Morin is playing a character called Kala, who is described thusly on the Cirque website: "Kala is the heart of the wheel that represents time and the infinite cycle. He is the internal propulsion of the wheel that makes time evolve. It is the ongoing circle of life."
There's a lot of this "ongoing circle of life" stuff in this production. A group of dancers and singers establish what seems to be a narrative framework, although we can't understand the invented language the trio of singers sing ("an invented language to which only Cirque du Soleil holds the key. Their mysterious accents echo down through time").
Nor do we know exactly what is meant by the character called The Little Buddha, who steps forward at the beginning of the show (after the clowns have warmed up the crowd) and meaningfully brandishes an oversized sand hourglass. Our lives are finite, I suppose. Time is running out in this circle of life. For those interested, the website helpfully tells us that the "Little Buddha is the chosen child. Although it possesses special powers that will allow it to eventually become an Âme-Force, it dreams of being just a regular child."
What's an Âme-Force? "L'Âme-Force symbolises ultimate harmony between the four elements."
OK, it's best not to peer too deeply into the story of Dralion, when it's really just a mostly solid evening of human tricks and stunts, topped off with some gorgeous, death-defying aerial dances over center ring, and a thrilling wall trampoline routine at the rear of the stage (the Wall Street Journal recently reported that many ex-Olympians, especially gymnasts, divers and synchronized swimmers, find work with Cirque du Soleil.)