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Theater Review: "Restoration"

Written by Claudia ShearClaudia Shear in Restoration [photo: Joan Marcus]
Directed by Christopher Ashley

Starring Tina Benko, Jonathan Cake, Alan Mandell, Natalija Nogulich, Claudia Shear


Would Italian art authorities really entrust the cleaning of Michelangelo’s David in honor of its 500th birthday to a hot-tempered, little-known art restorer from Brooklyn? Claudia Shear, who wrote and stars in Restoration, thinks so.


Shear, whose brashness is her best feature, plays Giulia, an Italian-American restorer whose career has hit the skids. Thanks to an old professor friend, who tells her she’s in the running for the position to clean the sculpture, Giulia travels to Florence, where her presentation impresses the board responsible for choosing the restorer, and soon she has the job.


Once she begins work on the statue, Giulia is beset with all manner of distractions. Daphne, the museum’s sexy spokesperson, is a tall, willowy blonde whose cell phone rarely leaves her ear, even while she’s stalking the gallery in high heels: needless to say, she and Giulia loathe each other at first sight. (Marciante, another board member, is less confrontational.) Cleaning women  and annoying tourists and locals also walk past; then there’s Max, the gorgeously dark and virile security guard who limps (wait until you discover why!) and carries on increasingly flirty conversations with Guilia about everything from art to sex to being American and Italian.


These diversionary tactics -- occasionally diverting, mostly labored -- are needed because Restoration is otherwise plotless, showing how Giulia, while cleaning David, is slowly restoring her personal life and professional reputation. Although the lesser characters make token appearances throughout, Giulia unsurprisingly becomes closest to Max, allowing Shear to script amusing flirtations between a hot Italian man and a dowdy American woman, apparently under the assumption that Italian men will screw anybody.


A few illuminating bits of dialogue about art or relationships (between men and women or a woman and the statue she’s cleaning) are heard, although Shear too often reaches for cheap jokes as Giulia cleans David’s private parts. The cast gets little chance to rise above the stock characters, except Jonathan Cake, whose Max is an appealing blowhard. Shear’s self-effacing put-downs and quick retorts constitute a performance that never convinces us that she’s a serious art restorer.


Director Christopher Ashley uses the whole of the New York Theater Workshop’s stage to savvily suggest the Galleria dell'Accademia come to life. Thanks to Scott Pask’s ingenious scenic design, Ashley fashions a suitable replica of the great Florentine museum; the decision to turn David into a Rubik’s cube (or Cubist painting) by jumbling the parts that Giulia works on is particularly inspired. 


Too bad Restoration can’t conjure up similar theatrical magic: By the time this lightweight 90-minute play ends, we’re no closer to figuring out why Shear wrote it.


April 30 - June 13, 2010
New York Theater Workshop
79 East 4th Street

New York, NY


Theater Review: "Gabriel"

GabrielWritten by Moira Buffini
Directed by David Esbjornson
Starring Patricia Conolly, Lisa Emery, Zach Grenier, Lee Aaron Rosen, Samantha Soule, Libby Woodbridge

Give props to playwright Moira Buffini for not following well-trod routes in where she sets her play Gabriel, ostensibly taking place during World War II. Instead of Nazi-occupied Paris or bombed-out London, she opts for Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands near the northern French coast which were British territories and peopled with British subjects. When the government decided they would prove impossible to protect, they were left to be occupied by the Nazis for the duration of the war.

Buffini uses that history as the starting point for a hollow allegory about survival amid war’s horrors. The Becquet family comprises Jeanne, an attractive middle-age mother who's learned to collaborate with the enemy; her 20ish daughter-in-law, Lilian, married to Jeanne's son, off fighting the war; and Estelle, her precocious 10-year-old daughter.
When Lilian finds a naked and handsome young man on the beach, she and Estelle bring him to the house; hidden in the attic, he's nursed back to health by the women. Conveniently, the man has amnesia: since he speaks German and English fluently, no one can tell whether he's a British or a Nazi soldier. Estelle christens him "Gabriel," but whether he's an angel or not will be tested by the appearance of Von Pfunz, head of the local German regiment, who -- despite his affection for Jeanne, which she reciprocates to a point -- is put off by Estelle's juvenile harassment (like urinating in his boots and swiping his diary) and thoroughly repelled by Lilian's Jewishness.
Gabriel contains the ingredients for a diverting if old-fashioned espionage melodrama, but its blandness is due to both Buffini’s limitations as a writer and David Esbjornson's skewed staging, embodied in Riccardo Hernandez's spare set that slopes for no good -- or even not so good -- reason, and the island’s imposing fortifications are heavy-handedly hinted at on the back wall. Contrarily, Scott Zielinski's artfully composed lighting and Martin Pakledinaz's evocative costumes are sensible in their sobriety.
Lisa Emery (Jeanne), Samantha Soule (Lilian) and Lee Aaron Rosen (Gabriel) all give straightforward performances that have scant shading, while two other actors mar the play. Zach Grenier's Von Pfunz is the clichéd Nazi from countless movies and plays, rotten to the core but hypocritically raging against Estelle's "uncivilized" behavior. Grenier also hisses and giggles with unsubtle menace: Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning portrayal in Inglourious Basterds proved that Nazi villains could be multidimensional monsters, but Grenier and Esbjornson revert back to the old days.
Libby Woodbridge, a 20-ish actress, is never believable as the 10-year-old Estelle. She's tall and thin, which makes her look 17 or 18, which is fatal for a play hinging on the young girl pitted against the big bad Nazi, even at one point brandishing a knife against him. Maybe a younger actress couldn't do all this plausibly, but neither does Woodbridge.
There’s a fascinating psychological case study inside Gabriel about a young man, his memory wiped clean, who might either re-learn his fascist tendencies or return to the side of the angels. Too bad Buffini never follows up on such a promising storyline, to Gabriel's -- and Gabriel's-- ultimate detriment.

Atlantic Theater Company

336 West 20th Street

New York, NY

April 23-June 6, 2010


Digital Week 23: Global Hits

Blu-ray of the Week
Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg won his second Best Director Oscar for this World War II epic, which alternates between hard-hitting, tautly exciting battle sequences and the usual Spielbergian sentimentality. With Janusz Kaminski's brilliantly desaturated color photography and Michael Kahn's usual razor-sharp editing, Spielberg concocts a brutal opening montage of the carnage that the Allied soldiers landing on Normandy's beaches on D-Day were subjected to by German fire. But after this much-lauded prologue — which has little to do with the movie’s plot — Saving Private Ryan hunkers down to become a standard-issue soldier's story. 

 Despite its conventionality—so many visuals are straight out of Full Metal Jacket that the probable reason Stanley Kubrick didn't raise an eyebrow was because he and Spielberg were friends and it was an homage — Saving Private Ryan is saved by its utter conviction that Mom and apple pie are American ideals worth fighting for. There have been many deserved accolades for Spielberg and star Tom Hanks popularizing the “Greatest Generation” moniker that culminated in a long-overdue WWII memorial in Washington, DC.

And now we have the Blu-ray release, in which the movie's documentary-style technique looks more realistic than ever, with perfect amounts of grain. Unfortunately, the disc’s initial release was marred by an audio defect: the corrected version has a yellow UPC label to distinguish it. Special features include a Spielberg introduction, several featurettes, and Shooting War, about combat photographers, hosted by Hanks. 

DVD of the Week
La Pasión según San Marcos


Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov has done what very few contemporary classical composers have been able to: he’s written a work that’s gotten the musical community excited, and looks to have a life beyond what most new works receive. La Pasion segun San Marcus / The Passion of Saint Mark has earned plaudits for encompassing classical music and Latin American and indigenous Cuban music, along with the unique sights, sounds and accents of Latin street life.


The DVD of Pasion, recorded in Holland in 2008, makes the best possible case for the work. Conducting is one of its biggest advocates, Robert Spano, who led the New York premiere in 2002; a stellar singing cast—both soloists and chorus members—and superb orchestral playing alleviate concerns about stylistic clashes throughout the work: this Pasion definitely stirs the soul. In addition to the DVD, two CDs of the entire work, played and recorded in the studio, are included, but the studio version lacks the live performance’s passionate intensity.


CD of the Week

The Essential Carole King



Singer-composer Carole King’s dazzling career is now five decades old, and this two-CD set is a nice overview, especially in light of her current “Troubador” tour with James Taylor (who appears on one of the tracks collected here, a wonderful duet from a 1971 Carnegie Hall concert, a medley of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow/Some Kind of Wonderful/Up on the Roof”).


Disc one, “The Singer,” begins with King’s first chart hit in 1962, “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” and ends with undistinguished duets with the likes of BabyfaceCeline and Dion. In between is the bread and butter of King’s career until now: four smashes from her classic 1971 album Tapestry, “I Feel the Earth Move,” “So Far Away,” “It's Too Late” and “You've Got a Friend.” Her early-70s streak continued with Top 10 hits “Sweet Seasons,” “Jazzman” and “Nightingale,” and if her popularity tailed off after that, there are arty compensations, like the two tracks from 1975’s Really Rosie co-written with children's author Maurice Sendak: “Really Rosie” and “Pierre.”


Disc two, “The Songwriter,” features hits she penned with partner Gerry Goffin, beginning with The Shirelles' number-one cover of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (1960). Other Number Ones followed: Bobby Vee's “Take Good Care of My Baby” (1961) and Little Eva's “The Locomotion” (1962; also became another number-one smash a decade later by Grand Funk Railroad). Then there are “One Fine Day” by the Chiffons, “Just Once in My Life” by the Righteous Brothers, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by the Monkees and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin. For good measure, a more recent cover of “Hey Girl” by Billy Joel is thrown in.

Opera Review: A Lulu of a "Lulu"

LuluMarlis Petersen

Composed by Alban Berg

Conducted by Fabio Luisi
Directed by John Dexter

Starring Marlis Petersen, Anne Sofie von Otter, Gary Lehman, Michael Schade, Bradley Garvin, James Morris 

She made a memorable Met debut in an otherwise middling Hamlet as Ophelia, but it’s in the title role of Alban Berg’s Lulu that German soprano Marlis Petersen shows that she belongs in opera’s big leagues, a true superstar in the making.


Berg's grim but glorious-sounding 12-tone opera is based on Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays about an amoral woman whose wiles entice men (and women) to their deaths, only to meet her demise at the hands of Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. Done infrequently at the Met, Lulu is one of the few “must-see” 20th century operas to be regularly performed, so seeing John Dexter’s elegant 30-year-old production is always a treat. Fabio Luisi’s supple conducting coaxes all of the varied musicality out of Berg’s rugged score, reaching its apogee in the brilliantly orchestrated interludes that nod toward the composer’s gorgeous Violin Concerto.


Although stars appear in pivotal supporting roles (Anne Sofie von Otter as Princess Geschwitz, James Morris as both Dr. Schön and, in the final scene, Lulu’s killer), it’s Petersen, traversing Berg’s sadistically difficult vocal writing with apparent ease, who makes this a lulu of a Lulu. A tall, handsome woman whose great legs become a pivotal point of this production—of course our Lulu must be irresistible!—Petersen also has impeccable singing and acting chops, letting the audience follow this atonal anti-heroine to the depths of hell in a tragically inevitable climax  to Berg’s musically and dramatically exhilarating four-hour journey. I’m sure most Lulu lovers would gladly follow Petersen again and again.



Metropolitan Opera

Lincoln Center

New York, NY

Performances on May 8, 12, 15, 2010

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