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Theater Review: "Posing"

Written by and starring Patrick Askin
Directed by Jack Hyman

In the autobiographical one-man show Posing at the Wild Project theater on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the charming and attractive Patrick Askin appears as an art class model, posing au naturel for most of the performance (naturally) while recounting his life experiences, from his childhood days of advising his older sister on her prom attire, to his mistreatment by the NYPD for the "crime" of crying on his Chelsea rooftop during a period of depression.

This 75-minute tour de force takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride from comic to tragic and back again, with the emphasis on the comic.  Askin's humor is of the self-deprecating variety, never mean-spirited or bitter, even when recounting career setbacks or relationships that ended badly.
Injected throughout the show on an upstage screen were several vintage black and white film clips, including the classic scene from 42nd Street when Ruby Keeler is told by Warner Baxter that "you are going out a chorus girl but you must come back a star!" These well-chosen clips, although not directly related to the narrative, helped to set a lighthearted, nostalgic mood.

The author/actor has been pursuing his craft since his graduation from the University of Virginia and, despite experiencing only limited commercial success (so far), is determined to continue in his chosen profession, regularly auditioning for both theatrical and film projects.

After several years of perfecting the production, Askin is now hoping to take Posing to an Off-Broadway theater for a limited run and is seeking investors. I feel Posing could be successful Off-Broadway as an inspirational vehicle which speaks to thousands of struggling New York actors, both working and wannabes.

Most one-person, autobiographical shows have starred celebrities, as did, most recently, Leslie Jordan's My Trip Down the Pink Carpet. Askin's production could be a breakthrough in the spirit of a then-unknown Nia Vardolos' My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which had its genesis as a one-woman show in Los Angeles. At the time Vardolos was an unknown actor who turned her stories of growing up in a Greek-American family.

Am I predicting the same kind of success for Mr. Askin's production? Not exactly. I don't make predictions. But what Posing has going for it is its universal subject matter told in a uniquely comic manner, and the irrestable charm of Mr. Askin portraying the character he was born to play.

Theater Review: "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"

Directed by Alex Timbers
Book by Alex Timbers; music & lyrics by Michael Friedman
Choreographed by Danny Mefford
Starring Benjamin Walker, Maria Elena Ramirez, Ben Steinfeld

Alex Timbers' play is a stunning satirical revisionist history of America's seventh president Andrew Jackson as a genocidal Indian killer. It's done in a rock idiom that takes the edge off and makes him seem almost a man of his time as well as/rather than a political murderer. But with some present day vernacular, it takes on immediacy. It's a commentary on the past and also on the present day politics of state killing that is rare in its gut-wrenching toughness.

Chandeliers are suspended over the audience and stage. Walls are hung with oils of the grandees of the time. Here comes Jackson (Benjamin Walker) and his crew chanting, "Populism, yeah yeah! Take a stand against the elite. They don't care anything for us!" They raise their fists. "Populism, yeah yeah." The cast is vibrant and full of energy. Timbers' text and  Michael Friedman's lyrics are truthful and outrageous.

Jackson's family was killed by Indians. We see the arrows flying. Andrew and his wife Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez) throw blood at each other. He declares, "I will make them all bleed." He says, "Rachel, I love you, but I've also got to kill the entire native population." What a history lesson! Walker might be as charismatic as Jackson was.

Jackson was elected president in 1828. We see Washington politicians John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and James Monroe in their white ruffled collars. They propose a corrupt deal. But Jackson is against the Washington insiders, the aristocracy. We give those Wall Streeters a chance, he says, and they'll destroy the nation.

So what was he proposing instead? His populist "direct democracy"? That turned out to be posturing to crowds. Calhoun and Van Buren were his vice presidents. But the play points out that he was also for shutting down the national bank, a private institution that had been made the depository of federal revenues from which some rich and powerful men earned generous profits.

However, the theme is Jackson's overriding failure on human rights. He owned slaves. In the play, his wife quips, "I always thought I'd live in a house with a dog and some kids and a few slaves."

He signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, forcing tribes east of the Mississippi to move to the west so whites could steal their lands. We see his deal with Blackhawk (Ben Steinfeld), who betrayed the Indians.

How come the Democratic Party is still holding Jackson Day dinners? How come it takes an inventive rock musical to bring the issue to the American public?

With Friedman's eclectic rock music and Danny Mefford's choreography (including a Nutcracker-style ballet and a rock dance with rifles) this production is a powerful and pulsating in-your-face denunciation of an American genocide.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street

New York, New York
Opened April 6, 2010; closes June 27, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photos: Joan Marcus

Bollywood Review: "Raajneeti"

Directed by Prakash Jha
Written by Anjum Rajabali, Prakash Jha
Starring Ajay Devgan, Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif,  Arjun Rampal, Manoj Bajpai, Sarah Thompson


After an abominable opening sequence, with a fast-talking narrator spewing a parade of so many names and interlocking relationships you need a scorecard, the sprawling Hindi political drama Raajneeti (literally, "Politics," contextually, "Affairs of State") squanders whatever high-minded notions it originally may have had and devolves into a pulpy potboiler -- parliament elections by way of The Godfather. Blatantly: One character awakens not with a bloody horse's head in his bed, but his bloody gay lover. The Michael Corleone character, complete with WASP girlfriend, tries to get out but gets pulled back in, and sees his heir-apparent brother killed at his car by the family's rivals. One character even paraphrases a signature line from The Godfather Part II, instructing, "This is politics. Here, keep your enemy close to you."

This might certainly play well in India, where the admittedly Godfather-inspired Sarkar (2005) was a critical and commercial hit. But the highly specific milieu of Indian parliamentary elections carries a resonance that's lost on mainstream U.S. audiences -- who, as well, hear the term "Bollywood" and expect musical sequences. Raajneeti being in no way a musical, the only big chorus-dance number, taking place naturalistically at a nightclub, gets as truncated as those expectations. The film is also a modern-day telling of the ancient epic poem Mahabharata, further cementing its Indian sensibilities and diminishing its American cinema viability.

To be fair, so does its wild potboiler of a story. A young woman (Nikhila Trikha), 27 years ago, had an out-of-wedlock baby with a leftist leader we hear no more about. The baby is put, Moses-like, into a basket on the river by the woman's brother, Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar), a political power-behind-the-throne in a region of the country that’s unclear here. The child grows up to be the charismatic Sooraj (action star Ajay Devgan, seen here in 2007's Cash and 2008's U Me aur Hum), who wants to run for election to represent the lower castes. Ah, it's our movie's hero! Whoops, no, just one of a tangled cast of characters whose story arcs virtually all end badly if they even make it to the end of the film.

As succinctly as possible: Political party leader Bhanu Pratap (Jehangir Khan) suffers a stroke and hands power to his younger brother, Chandra (Chetan Pandit), and Chandra's son, Prithvi (Arjun Rampal). This enrages Bhanu's scheming son, the villainously mustached Veerendra (Majoj Bajpai), who recruits Sooraj to help shore up his uncertain power base. Meanwhile, Prithvi's younger brother, visiting American Ph.D. candidate Samar (Ranbir Kapoor, star of 2009's terrific Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year) must stay in India after Veerendra's camp has Chandra killed. Rich party girl Irdu (Katrina Kaif) must marry Prithvi instead of Samar, whom she loves but who doesn't love her, and car bombs go off, and a crooked police chief get beaten to death with a baseball bat, and the three main women characters each get pregnant after having sex once …it all eventually becomes so ridiculous and over-the-top violent that there is nobody, nobody, to root for. By the end, you're almost rooting for the villainous Veerendra simply because all the nominal good guys turn out to be even worse.

Played too straight to enjoy as satire, too seriously to enjoy as campy fun and too insularly Indian to mean anything to Americans, Raajneeti at least has a historical distinction of having some of Bollywood's most graphic sex scenes -- which is to say, not very.

For more by Frank Lovece:

Kevin's Digital Week 26: Make Your Day

Blu-rays of the WeekAbsolute Power

New Clint Eastwood Blu-rays

Warners’ Clint Eastwood: 35 Films, 35 Years celebrates his many achievements as actor and (mainly) director, including two Oscars for helming Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. Included are films making their Blu-ray debuts. Neither The Enforcer (1976) nor Sudden Impact (1983)--two belated and inferior Dirty Harry sequels--have much to recommend them, except for the latter’s famous catch phrase, “Go ahead, make my day.”
The ill-humored Heartbreak Ridge (1986) seems a prequel to Clint’s Archie Bunker fantasy Gran Torino, as a hard-ass army vet whips a bunch of wimps into shape, just to in time for our historic invasion of Grenada. Absolute Power (1997), in which Clint is a reluctant witness to a murder in which the U.S. president is implicated, is an taut but forgettable thriller.

Eastwood completists will want to have all of these films: on Blu-ray, they look top-notch, even if the oldest entries have excessive grain and less sharpness. There are no extras; worth seeking out a bonus is The Eastwood Factor, a 90-minute documentary by former critic Richard Schickel that takes a loving look at the man and his career, narrated by Morgan Freeman.

DVDs of the Week
Word Is Out
(Milliarium Zero)
This landmark 1977 documentary explores the histories of 26 gay and lesbian Americans, who without embarrassment discuss their outed lives. The subjects’ openness remains heartbreakingly real today, showing the film’s continued unhappy relevance, considering the political climate of the country right now.
Still, one can only hope that this DVD release introduces Word Is Out to new and more open audiences, on whom its enlightened stance can continue to enlighten. Extras include a featurette about the subjects today, along with an appreciation for the leader of the filmmaking group, Peter Adair, who died from AIDS complications in 1996.

Youth in Revolt
Today’s teenage movies make John Hughes’ unsubtle comedies seem like Noel Coward elegance. Case in point is Youth in Revolt, in which high-school nerd Michael Cera assumes a suave alter ego to help him in his budding relationship with a willing young woman. This gimmick could be handled adequately in a five-minute sketch, but over the course of a 90-minute movie--which iincludes unnecessary animation--it’s quite interminable. Cera has been playing the same role since Juno and remains charming, but he’s going to the well once too often. The cast comprises others like Steve Buscemi, Zach Galifinakis, and Jean Smart who are neither amusing nor sympathetic; only Portia Doubleday scores as Cera’s love interest. Extras include deleted and extended scenes and animated sequences, along with audition tapes for those who like that sort of thing.

CDs of the Week
Anna Netrebko: In the Still of Night
(Deutsche Grammophon)
The dazzling Russian soprano Anna Netrebko teams with pianist Daniel Barenboim for an enticing recital of music by Netrebko’s countrymen, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Peter Tchaikovsky, in a performance recorded last summer at Austria’s Salzburg Festival. Although Netrebko, now a huge star, has greater demands to appear all over the world--which might cause her to simplify her repertoire--it’s heartening that she’s chosen obscure songs by composers better known for their symphonic and theatrical music. She’s also in lovely voice throughout, with supple tone and beautiful enunciation of her native Russian language. Barenboim, by contrast, is too much in evidence; instead of being an accompanist, he seems to be competing with Netrebko for attention, which detracts from--but never ruins--a sterling vocal showcase.

Dutilleux: Piano Works
France’s greatest living composer Henri Dutilleux is now 94, and although his best works are orchestral (his two symphonies are masterpieces), he’s also composed formidable chamber music, including brilliant solo piano pieces, all included on this scintillating, adventurous recital by pianist Robert Levin, who’s especially compelling and persuasive on the composer’s Sonata--a high point of post-WWII piano music--as well as the keyboard duet Figures de resonances, performed with the equally brilliant Ya-Fei Chuang
Interestingly, Dutilleux didn’t want Levin to perform his all-but-disowned early works--in a compromise, Levin put them at disc’s end after a pause, which separates them from the mature works but still lets us hear a living legend’s musical journey from youthful precocity to modern master.

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