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Archive for June, 2008

Our American Cousin, an Opera in Three Acts by Eric Sawyer, Librettist: John Shoptaw

A young man, having outsmarted a haughty woman seeking a wealthy husband for her daughter, crows in triumph: “I guess you found your hymnal page, you sock-dologizing ole man-trap!”Hard as it may be for us to imagine, this line brought the house down every time in Tom Taylor’s 1858 hit play Our American Cousin. And appropriately so: a “sockdologer” (a corruption of “doxology”), was in American slang a decisive or knockout blow. The line might be lost to all but theater historians were it not for the fact that Taylor’s play was performed at Ford’s Theatre the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and that John Wilkes Booth used the famous line as a cue for his own decisive blow.Eric Sawyer and John Shoptaw’s new opera, Our American Cousin, revisits that night and charts the intersection of real life and that of the theater.The opera offers us a play within an opera: a recreation of the performance Lincoln was attending at Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination.Taylor’s play was a popular and cleverly-made comedy/melodrama about a distant–and rich–relative from America who appears suddenly at the estate of his titled but financially troubled English relations.The plot and characters of this largely forgotten play turn out to matter in unexpected ways, and point towards the thematic heart of the work.

Edinburgh International Film Festival, 2008

Cinema is without doubt the most popular art of our modern world. Museums are visited primarily by duty-plagued tourists; popular music is but a clamourous ruckus; books are an entertainment sadly lost on many, and fine theatre is a luxury, which cannot be easily reached by the provincial. Film is entertaining, cheap, and easily accessed by folk of both urban and rural habitations. It is an art of swift movement which appeals to our poor attention spans. Most contemporary films are trivial and pointless, but others may contain great profundity and meaning. Both have their place, making cinema the pinnacle of modern popular culture.

Before the Rains

Directed by Santosh Sivan | Linus Roache – Henry Moores; Rahul Bose – T. K. Neelan; Nandita Das – Sajani; Jennifer Ehle – Laura Moores | India is among the most picturesque of countries, and Before the Rains is a film which makes full use of the beautiful landscapes it provides. It is shot […]

The Edge of Love

Lucas Miller reviews the Gala show of the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival, directed by John Maybury and starring Keira Knightley, Siena Miller and Matthew Rhys.

Eloquent Nude, a film: Edward Weston & Charis Wilson

When I was still quite young, my father gave me, along with the use of his old Leica, a copy of an illustrated history of photography. I was fascinated by the book, but above all by the chapter on Weston and the famous photograph of Charis lying on the sand dune, the simplest of them. I thought it the best photograph in the book and returned to it over and over again. I don’t remember the year exactly, but I was probably of an age when no hint of sex would have gone unnoticed. I remember distinctly that I saw no such associations in the image. It struck me as essentially chaste—an example of the formalism which I thought was the essence of great photography. I was inspired in this view, of course, by that very image, as well as the peppers, which seemed to me to be more overtly sensual than the nudes. It was only later that I learned that the subject was Weston’s wife, and still later that I learned something about what their relationship was like. I still think that the photograph is severe and formalistic to the point of the visionary. Weston’s work was one thing and his life another.

St. Petersburg String Quartet and Daniel Epstein at Music Mountain

Music Mountain has offered extraordinary chamber music since 1930, when it was founded as a summer home for the Gordon String Quartet. Audiences loyally drive up the winding country road to enjoy the beauty of the grounds and its surroundings, its long, narrow hall with its superb acoustics, and the major chamber groups who play there. Jazz is also a major component of the season, and there is also choral music. On the lawn which spreads out down the hillside from Gordon Hall, you will also find a tent with books for sale, a snack bar, wooden benches under the trees, as well as some rather funky abstract sculptures. There had been a violent storm the week before, which snapped the trunks of several large trees surrounding the lawn. The season, called “Borrowed Melody” this year, because works with themes borrowed from outside sources or the composer’s own works will be worked into most of the programs, got off to a strong start with a special benefit concert featuring the great St. Petersburg String Quartet. Charles Rosen was to have joined them for the Schumann Piano Quintet. He was unfortunately unable to play, but Daniel Epstein filled the gap with intelligence and sensitivity.

Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang

The Williamstown Theatre Festival got off to a comfortable start with quite an entertaining offering by WTF familiars. Playwright-Actor Christopher Durang has appeared in Williamstown in both capacities. Katie Finneran is beginning her second WTF season as Prudence. Director Alex Timbers and Matt McGrath are both in their fourth season, and Kate Burton, of course, is a fixture, now in her 18th season. Beyond that, there is also an element of nostalgia in Beyond Therapy, which was first produced off Broadway in 1981 and on Broadway in a revised version in 1982. Not everybody will realize what a different place the world was back then. Hence the program notes attempt to explain this through a comparison with Sex and the City, which is steeped in the values of the turn of the century, when it started. Even that is beginning to recede into the past. While the waywardness of psychological professionals is as fresh a topic as any (The Guardian reported just today that Britain’s most famous psychiatrist has been convicted of plagiarism and may lose his license.), Durang’s not-so-young man and woman, Bruce and Prudence, would be facing quite different problems today. They’d more likely be complaining about the latest switch in their medication and talking to their therapists and each other about their relationships with their animals, whether dog, cat, bird, or reptile. Beyond Therapytakes us back to the distant days before cell phones, personal computers, e-mail, and Facebook. This was the tail-end of the sexual revolution, just before people began to notice AIDS; the sixties were still in people’s memory, and the seventies weren’t quite over yet; Reagan’s transformation of American society, whatever that was, had not quite made itself felt yet. As for myself, I lived abroad between 1983 and 1985, and on a visit to New York sometime late in the fateful year 1984, I noticed that people were different. Clothes, assumptions, the way people walked on the street—that is, now looking down fixedly onto the pavement—had all changed.

Harold Pinter, The Caretaker, Berkshire Theater Company, Stockbridge

Harold Pinter is still very much alive, a potent and welcome presence in the world because of his political work, but when The Caretaker, or any other of the plays from the height of his fame in the theater, is produced, most of us take it as a classic from the past. After all Pinter’s announcement in 2005 of his retirement from the stage marked a significant break, and the world has changed significantly since the sixties. His powerful Nobel Prize lecture, Art, Truth, and Politics, meticulously prepared and taped by BBC 4, shows his current way of reaching his audience in a time when indifference, commercialism in the media, and unofficial censorship make it virtually impossible to get salutary and unpleasant messages across to anyone who is not already convinced. We deal with people who disagree with us by marginalizing them. When he wrote The Caretaker in 1959, his first commercial success, he established himself as the quintessential all-round man of the theater. He already had considerable experience as an actor and director, in addition to the plays he had already written, of which The Birthday Party and The Dumbwaiter are still performed often. From there he continued his threefold theatrical activity on mainstream stages and on the screen. His collaboration with the brilliant director Joseph Losey was perhaps the peak of his film work, as it was for Losey, but it was also characteristic of Pinter’s own theatrical style, which is also well documented in films of his plays, beginning with Clive Donner’s 1963 film of The Caretaker with two members of its original cast, Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance.