Dilettante's Diary

Feb 7/13

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: When the Ice Breaks (Play); Drawing 2013 (Art); Le Comte Ory  (Opera); Member/Guest (Short Story); Zero Dark Thirty (Movie); On The Road (Movie)

When the Ice Breaks (Theatre) written by Madeleine Donohue; directed by Aaron Willis; starring Nathan Carroll, Mary Krohnert, Carys Lewis, Clinton Walker; Down N’ Out Productions; Campbell House, Toronto; to February 7th.

For its Winterlicious event this year, Campbell House museum has come up with the brilliant idea of immersing its visitors in the era of the war of 1812. First, there’s a sociable gathering in one of the parlours of the historic house for cider or a punch made from a period recipe. Then comes dinner in the basement dining room, served "family style." The food, rather than being served on individual plates, is passed around the table on platters, as was the custom in those times. The evening concludes in the home’s historic kitchen with a production of When the Ice Breaks, a new play by Madeleine Donohue, that shows how the war might have impacted on the servants in a prosperous household in Muddy York (as Toronto was then known).

Given the authorship of the play, it could hardly be expected that I’d provide a review of it. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be mentioned on this website devoted to the cultural highlights of my life. The play’s four characters include: the bossy cook who rules the kitchen; the feisty young farm labourer who’s keen to get involved in the fighting; the wealthy family’s tutor who combines sycophantic respect for his "betters" with withering sarcasm; and a young woman refugee from Wilmington, Delaware, who has come to work in the kitchen. Back in the US, she worked a ladies’ maid but the house she worked in was burned down – and her mother killed – because it was thought the owner of the house had been sympathetic to the British. Being more educated than the other denizens of this kitchen, the new arrival is treated with circumspect caution.

All performances are excellent. Mary Krohnert, as the imperious cook, provides tremendous energy, functioning, in effect, as the dynamo that keeps the play moving briskly. Nathan Carroll exudes an ingenuous, boyish charm as the young labourer who dreams of a better life. In the role of the newcomer from Delaware, Carys Lewis conveys a suitably enigmatic and tentative quality. What surprised me about Clinton Walker’s performance as the tutor is that he could make such an unpleasant man so interesting.

Director and dramaturge Aaron Willis has used the setting very well. Audience members, crammed around the edges of the kitchen where the dough is being rolled out and the flour sifted, can truly believe that this is what it was like to be living in those stressful times. Ominous footsteps pounding in the rooms overhead and frantic clattering on the stairs help to drive home the sense of impending catastrophe.

The show’s short run at Campbell House is sold out, but there’s always the possibility of picking up tickets in the case of a cancellation. (Phone 416-597-0227 x 2) In the spring, the show will be touring other historical settings throughout Ontario, in venues ranging from Perth to London.

 

Drawing 2013 John B. Aird Gallery, Toronto; until Feb 1st

I wasn’t able to get to this show until its last day. Unfortunately, readers of this website won’t be able to run down to the gallery to get their own look at the work. For what it’s worth, however, here’s my take on some of the pieces that made the strongest impression on me. (Disclosure: Work of mine has appeared in this show in the past but my submissions this year were not accepted. You and I know, however, that that would not affect my judgement of the pieces in the show)

It’s always interesting to see how the definition of "drawing" is applied in these shows. At this point, I can only say that the genre/category of drawing, in the view of the curators, appears to include any sort of visual effect on paper or some other surface. That leaves the field open to some very non-traditional works.

Among the ones that I liked best there was Sarah Walterhouse’s "Things will never be the same": a large work in graphite on paper consisting of nothing but a few black blobs of different sizes emerging from a misty surround of spreading greyish haze. It may not sound like much if you’re tied to a definition of drawing in the classical Renaissance sense but I found the work to be very evocative in a dream-like way.In a series entitled "Things that go bump in the night"  Lilian Crum has shown intricate networks of fine black lines dangling against white backgrounds, something like fishnets falling apart. To me, there’s a looseness about the works that’s both carefree and slightly scary. Other works featuring black lines, but with a totally different effect, are Leena Raudvee’s two untitled pieces consisting of graphite lines smoothly flowing in horizontal waves that are interrupted at both ends in a dramatic way. James Gardner’s works look vaguely like the ruins of tall buildings emerging from rubble – which wouldn’t be exceptional – except that the images are built up from several layers of paper applied on top of each other, the edges torn and blackened. An ethereal but disturbing beauty is achieved in Lumir Hladick’s "Urworld" series: images that look something like angel wings on paper with large ragged holes, burned around the edges, through which the viewer looks into another layer of the drawing.

Of course, the show, as always, includes several excellent works in what might be considered the more conventional mode of drawing. There are the spontaneous, hasty but artful, sketches of city scenes by Nancy Oakes, whose works I’ve often admired on this website. The remarkable thing about Lauren Satok's cottages on Manitoulin Island is that, while the representation is fairly traditional, the artist has enlivened the scene with solid blocks of unusual colours: purple, orange, pink and yellow. In delicate silver and copper point, Cornelius Spek has rendered a studio space in exquisite, realistic detail, except for a slightly cubist twist to the scene. I liked Marlene Kates’ drawings of shoe lasts mainly because of the rough, vigorous application of colour. Kendra Gadzala’s portrait of a boy (graphite, acrylic and gel on mylar) has a slightly blurred effect that conveys an almost unbearably plaintive mood about her young subject.

In the even more realistic mode, Susan Avishai has offered two drawings in coloured pencil, one called "Dad’s Jacket" and the other "Roger’s Yellow Slacks." Apart from the fact that the works are perfectly executed with photographic accuracy, what makes them artistic statements is the fact that in each work, we see only a small portion of what could have been a much larger subject. In the one about the dad’s jacket, it’s just a man’s shoulder and neck that we see and in the one about the slacks, we see just a man’s mid-section, with his belt, a bit of shirt and the eponymous yellow slacks. That focusing on detail expresses the artist’s love and admiration for her subjects in a unique way. Susan Farquhar’s "Hunter" shows a man in an open space against a background of conifers, squatting and pointing to some animal tracks or scat. It’s a beautiful study of a person in a certain context but what makes it special is that it’s a wood relief carving. Not many drawing shows, as far as I know, include that medium.

Toni Hamel’s "Vanitas" could be considered a fairly traditional drawing except for the odd juxtaposition of certain elements. A stately peacock is pictured with his gorgeous tail flowing behind him but there are glittering gems imbedded in the tail, while four or five solemn women – looking like drawings from one of those Victorian advertisements for housewives, but tiny in comparison to the bird – are industriously bending over the bird’s tail as though they are embroidering it or adding the jewels. This kind of droll humour has a leavening effect – very welcome to me – on these shows.

 

Le Comte Ory (Opera) by Gioachino Rossini; conducted by Maurizio Benini; starring Juan Diego Flrez, Pretty Yende, Nathan Gunn, Karine Deshayes; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; CBC Radio Two's "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera"; Feb 2/13

This performance opened on an ominous note. The  Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, appeared before the curtain. That usually means there's bad news coming about a singer's indisposition. This time, however, Mr. Gelb assurred the audience that the cast was "intact." The reason for the pre-show announcement was that Mr. Gelb wanted to let us know that tenor Juan Diego Flrez would be singing the role of the Count, as promised, even though he had a bad chest cold. The popular star didn't want to disappoint his fans, we were told. Great sighs of relief all round.

But I often wonder whether such announcements are really necessary. Usually the singer in question sings perfectly well and there's no need for any apology. Maybe the point of the announcements is just to stir up a bit of audience sympathy which, in turn, has the effect of making a performer feel better and sing better. In any case, there was nothing wrong with Senor Flrez's performance. At first, his voice may have sounded a little rougher and darker in the lower passages but his high notes were as bright and secure as ever.  And that's what matterss. (My review of the HD Live broadcast of his performance from a couple of years ago can be found on the Dilettante's Diary page dated Apr 11/11.)

The more noteworthy and amazing aspect of this production was the appearance of Pretty Yende, a twenty-seven-year old soprano from South Africa, making her Met debut in the role of Countess Adele. Ms. Yende had been called in to replace Nino Machaidze just a month before the show opened and, reportedly, had only one week to learn the role. You'd never have known she was under any such pressure. Her singing was glorious, her coloratura bright, sparkling and accurate. We can look forward to hearing lots more from her.

 

Member/Guest (Short Story) by David Gilbert; The New Yorker, Nov 12/12

Here we have Beckett, the classic disenchanted teenage female, spending the day on the beach with her girlfriends at her parents' posh club.  In some ways, Beckett despises her girlfriends with their rivalries and their potty-mouthed attempts to impress each other with their sex knowledge. And yet she can't resist the tug of loyalty towards them. And there is, admittedly, some wicket wit in their bitching. Beckett also has a  clear, cool perception of her parents with their playfull bickering routines: "What was the illusion, Beckett wondered, the love or the hate?"

I can't think of anywhere in contemporary fiction where the mindset of a teenage female has been conveyed so convincingly. You feel this is the kid you've been listening to on the subway and in the coffee shop. Her voice is so authentic, in fact, that it surprised me on looking back at the author's name to find that the piece was written (apparently) by a man. What makes the story so remarkable is that Beckett befriends a forty-ish guy who's always sitting in a deck chair on the club's patio (it turns out that he's there to throw out non-members who try to intrude) and she spontaneously reveals to this stranger the depths of her spirit and her intelligence that show her to be the genuinely good person that nobody (including us readers) could see.

 

Zero Dark Thirty (Movie) written by Mark Boal; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Strong, James Gandolfini and many others.

One way of saying what this movie is would be to say what it isn't. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a drama or a thriller. It has elements of all those genres but it’s more like watching events unfold as they do in the real world.

Those events revolve around the CIA’s attempts, following the attacks of 9/11, to find and eliminate the al-Qaeda mastermind, Osama bin Laden. The blurb at the opening of the movie attests that it’s based on conversations with people involved in the events. I guess that’s meant to imply a certain historicity but also a sort of fluidity. In other words, a don’t-try-to-pin-us-down-on-any-details mentality. The movie jumps through nearly a decade of events following 9/11, with mounting exasperation on the part of the agents as further terrorists acts – the 2005 July bombings in London, for example – are perpetrated.

Regardless of what you may think of the politics involved – on the subject of torture and the killing of bin Laden – it’s a very well-told story. The key to the search was in tracking the messenger who acted as bin Laden’s courier to the outside world from his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And the way that was accomplished, after the courier’s name had been elicited from detainees, was by tracing his mother’s phone.

It’s not as if we’re ruining any suspense by mentioning these details, given that the facts are so well known now. What may not be so well known is the behind-the-scenes striving and scheming of the CIA agents. Here, we focus on an intrepid young agent known as Maya. (She’s apparently a composite character, based on real CIA agents.) Jessica Chastain is an inspired choice as Maya. Her porcelain beauty, like a Royal Dalton figurine, makes her gutsy strength, as it gradually becomes apparent, all the more striking. At the beginning, she’s clearly uneasy about the torture she’s forced to witness but we soon learn that she can be as tough as anybody when it comes to doing the necessary to home in on her target. That requires a lot of standing up to stuffy bureaucrats who doubt her quest. It could be said, then, that one of the themes of the movie is the plucky female against the male establishment. That’s hardly an original movie idea but it works by way of providing a kind of thread that keeps our attention through the somewhat unwiedly range of events, locations and incidents that the movie covers.

A scene with a rather different tenor to it – and therefore one of the most interesting in the movie is the one where Maya meets the Navy SEALs who are finally going to undertake the attempt on bin Laden. They’re joshing around, playing horseshoes, betting on their throws, showing off to each other, and she’s standing there on the sidelines, watching. Obviously, they’re skeptical about her credibility as the instigator of the mission they’re about to undertake. But they appear willing to give her a chance. And she’s guarded in her response to them. They’re not the educated, sophisticated guys she’s used to dealing with. But it’s clear that she respects them; after all her great hopes lie with them. There’s a kind of professional, arm’s-length attitude on both sides that doesn’t preclude a certain camaraderie.

The unusual ambiance of that scene may be the sort of thing that makes Kathryn Bigelow's take on this historical saga so remarkable. She doesn’t sex up the story with a love affair or with melodrama. Yes, there’s conflict between Maya and her CIA bosses and colleagues. But the problems aren’t pumped up the way they would be in a more theatrical piece. Most directors and writers would have beefed up the characters, the conflicts and the situations in the attempt to make it all more compelling. The fact that Ms. Bigelow doesn’t do any of that is what makes her movie so compelling. In other words, it’s the kind of art that achieves maximal effect by seeming artless.

Which is not, of course, to say that there isn’t any art involved. There’s tons of it, but it’s of an unexpected, unconventional kind. The movie opens, for instance, with a screen that remains black for about thirty seconds. We’re simply hearing a montage of frantic phone messages that crossed back and forth in the moments after the 9/11 attacks. How much more effective to listen to all that in the darkness than to have the terrible moments re-enacted on screen.

And when it does come to the visuals, Ms. Bigelow gives us camera angles and glimpses of scenes that don’t look like the typical move set-ups. Things are jumbled up as in real life, not on the stage. A lot of the time, you can’t tell what’s happening. Many characters come and go without your having any very clear idea of who they are. (Maybe it helps that, apart from Ms. Chastain, most of the actors aren’t big names.) One scene that completely baffled me had to do with a guy who was sent out with some sort of explosive (I think) taped to his leg, whereupon he was surrounded and threatened by men who turned out to have automatic weapons hidden under the burkas they were wearing.

As with that scene, it doesn’t matter whether or not you get every detail. The overall picture becomes very clear: the increasing Islamist terrorism and the frustration on the part of the Americans at not being able to stop it. You can’t expect to have every incident explained clearly because nobody has a clear overall picture. The director is not going to intervene in a god-like way to make sense of it all. Even our expectations of chronology aren’t always observed. At one point, we’re seeing an interview that Maya is conducting with a detainee and, as we continue to listen to the interview, we’re seeing Maya’s approach to the interview beforehand, her preparation for it and so on.

The sense of real life as opposed to staged drama prevails most forcefully in the final episode. Much of the time, we’re seeing the events through the night-vision goggles of the SEALs. Jiggling, hand-held cameras, dark figures looming and scurrying, doors being blasted open, walls crumbling: something of a melee – which must have been pretty much the way it went for the participants. It helps to make some sense of it all if you remember the news reports. There’s the crash of that first helicopter, for instance. If you didn’t know about that already, you might wonder what that debacle was all about.

In the mayhem, one of the things that touched me was the garb of the women in bin Laden’s compound. In their patterned flannel nightgowns and pyjamas, the frightened women looked much like our own mothers, wives and daughters. Not that any great emphasis was put on their bedclothes in order to make that point. It was the kind of detail that went by almost unnoticed but it sank into your memory and you found yourself re-playing it hours afterwards. As often happens with the best works of art.

Capsule comment: very good

 

On the Road (Movie) written by Jack Kerouac (book) and Jose Rivera (screenplay); directed by Walter Salles; starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Kirsten Dunst, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Viggo Mortensen.

I don’t generally like road movies. Usually, they’re too episodic. But a person had to give this one a chance, given that it’s based on one of the literary landmarks of all time.

Like the worst road trips, however, it hops all over the place without much sense or much shape to the proceedings. You never know what story arc you’re supposed to be following. Is it about Jack Kerouac’s attempt to find himself through his travels? (I’m using the names of the characters as we know them from real life, rather than the fictional names they’re given in the novel or the movie.) Is it about his enigmatic and amazing pal, Neal Cassady? Is it about some young rebels in 1950s America? About the birth of the "Beat" generation? In so far as it’s about all those things, it would appear to be, on the most obvious level, an attempt simply to bring the book to the screen. Hence, the tiresome voice-over narration. And the characters’ pretentious poeticizing that may not look too bad on the page but sounds phony in the movie. All of which tends to suggest that maybe some books would be better not brought to the screen.

On another level, the movie appears to be about Kerouac’s writing of the book. You often see him scribbling away in his notebook. The theme of typing seems almost to provide a visual motif connecting much of the movie. It ends with the (presumably) triumphant Kerouac churning out rolls and rolls of manuscript via his typewriter. But has there ever been a successful movie – other than Capote – about the writing of a book? Not this one.

Another of its problems being the casting. Sam Riley, as Kerouac, has a pretty face but he has none of the brooding, intense manliness that we associate with the author. Mr. Riley’s onscreen persona is insipid. (That sounds like a harsh thing to say about a person but actors are asking for it by putting themselves up there on screen.) He gives us a nice boy who is a little lost and bewildered but none of the self-destructive brilliance that we associate with Kerouac. It’s hard to care much about the travails or travels of this twerp.

Which could be why there isn’t much electricity in the all-important friendship between Kerouac and his pal Cassady. Not that Garrett Hedlund, as Cassady, doesn’t have a certain charisma and charm. It’s fun to watch him play the deviltry of this guy who was, sexually speaking, omnivourous. But Mr. Hedlund doesn’t have that elusive, enigmatic, mysterious quality of a Cassady. There’s nothing larger-than-life about Mr. Hedlund. For all his appeal, he seems pretty much like any of today’s wild and crazy kids. Maybe it’s too much to expect anybody to be able to bring such a mythic figure to life on the screen.

Much of the action in the movie involves to-ing and fro-ing between Cassady’s current girlfriend and his ex-wife, but there’s nothing very engaging about his superficial relationships with them. The only part of the movie that struck anything like an authentic note for me was the scene where the young Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) spoke about his feelings for Cassady. With a certain awe-struck satisfaction, the poet said that his relationship with Cassady was the first time that he’d ever experienced the combination of love and sex. Some further development of that theme would have been welcome. But no, the movie, just like guys it was portraying, had to move on restlessly to other things.

Some of which are incomprehensible, unless perhaps you’ve read the book recently. (The movie’s almost like highlights from the book.) In some scenes, you have no idea who the people are and what’s going on. That’s ok in a movie like Zero Dark Thirty (reviewed above) because it’s the overall thrust of things that’s important, not the individual characters. On the Road, however, is a work that’s about specific people; you’re supposed to know them and care about them. But you often can’t, because the narrative is so unclear. There’s a scene with Viggo Mortensen as some kind of a kooky paterfamilias (William S. Burroughs, as it happens) but you can’t tell why he’s there, except that he has some connection with a guy who had travelled with Kerouac for a while. But where that guy came from, you had no idea. He appeared to drop out of the sky.

One of the few genuine pleasures of the movie is the scenery. Appropriately enough, given the title, there are gorgeous landscapes in open, empty countryside, especially in winter. (I understand some of it was shot in Alberta.) The 1950s era is well-established with the floppy clothes, the jazz clubs, the smoking, the marijuana. But the mood of those times is shattered when Cassady describes an orgy with some black people. Whether there was a reference to that in the book, I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure the crude, explicit language that the scriptwriter dishes up wouldn’t have appeared in the book. Another place where the script betrays its contemporary bias is in the bit where a waitress slaps a dish down on the table in front of our boys and says: "Enjoy!" People didn’t start trotting out that clich until much more recently.

Capsule comment: by no means a satisfactory tribute to the book

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