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"The Hard Nut" Is a Great Twist on "The Nutcracker

Brandon Randolph, Mark Morris, John Heginbotham. Photo by Richard Termine

At the matinee on Saturday, December 22nd, as part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I at long last was able to see the marvelous The Hard Nut from 1991—an endlessly inventive reimagining by Mark Morris of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s immeasurably popular The Nutcracker, after the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann—which replaces the American Ballet Theater production of Alexei Ratmansky’s extraordinary adaptation of the same classic.
This is almost certainly the most delightful and charming opus by the choreographer that I have seen, inspired by the work of cartoonist Charles Burns, with wonderful Pop Art-influenced sets designed by Adrianne Lobel and colorful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. The music was thrillingly performed by the MMDG Music Ensemble and The Hard Nut Singers, admirably conducted by Colin Fowler.
The satirical spirits of Jerome Robbins and Paul Taylor would seem to be Morris’s likely precursors here, although he refreshingly violates the norms of classical ballet. Throughout he maintains a productive tension with the composer’s glorious score, the frequently intense Romanticism of which starkly contrasts with the choreographer’s burlesque. In the first act, Morris stays closer to the ballet’s original scenario, setting the framing story in a Christmas party in an American household of presumably more than forty years ago, while the second act departs into pure phantasmagoria.
I can scarcely do justice to the full panoply of terrific, often gender-bending dancers in this production, including amongst many others: Lauren Grant as Marie; June Omura as Fritz; Lesley Garrison, hilarious and sexy as Louise and Princess Pirlipat; John Heginbotham as Mrs. Stahlbaum and the Queen; Brandon Randolph as the Housekeeper and Nurse; Billy Smith as Drosselmeier; Aaron Loux as the Nutcracker and Young Drosselmeier; and Morris himself—who proves to be an adept comedian—as Dr. Stahlbaum and the King.
The Hard Nut should not be missed and one hopes that it, as well as Ratmansky’s brilliantly Nutcracker, will join George Balanchine’s deservedly celebrated production at New York City Ballet as a permanent Christmas feature locally. I eagerly await the choreographer’s forthcoming Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at BAM, premiering this spring.

December '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 



Belgian author Georges Simenon’s novels have been adapted for the cinema for decades, and Jacques Duvivier’s 1947 drama based on Simenon’s short novel Monsieur Hire's Engagement (later the basis for Patrice Leconte’s 1989 Monsieur Hire) was one of the first—and remains among the best.




Not only is it a cracklingly good drama with superior performances by Michel Simon and Viviane Romance, but it’s also a damning indictment of French WWII collaboration as townspeople are tricked into believing the innocent Hire is a murderer. Criterion’s Blu-ray looks exceptional in hi-def; extras are an interview with Simenon’s son Pierre, a look at subtitling and a discussion of the film’s merits by two French critics.


Dark of the Sun 

(Warner Archive)

When Jack Cardiff’s action-packed Congo adventure was released in 1968, it was excoriated for excessive violence, but 50 years later, its brutality will raise barely an eyebrow—but this story of corruption, mercenaries and vengeance is still hair-raising.




Rod Taylor and Jim Brown lead a capable cast in this exciting, ultimately disturbing drama, with Edward Scaife’s photography—the film was shot in Jamaica, of all places, for its jungle landscapes and extensive railroad tracks—looking appropriately gritty on Blu-ray.






Horror of Dracula 

(Warner Archive)

In this colorful 1957 showdown between two Hammer Studio adversaries—meeting for the first time—Christopher Lee (the dastardly Count) and Peter Cushing (his nemesis van Helsing), a spooky mansion in Transylvania is the setting for much fang-baring and stake-driving.




Director Terence Fischer’s programmer will do quite well for those with a Dracula fixation that needs sating; Lee and Cushing are always fun to watch going through their motions. There’s a solid hi-def transfer.


Jack Irish—Complete 2nd Season 


Guy Pearce is properly frazzled as Jack Irish, a former detective turned private eye still affected by his wife’s murder and whose personal and professional lives are in shambles—so he takes on the case of a dead messenger that draws him to the dangerous streets of Mumbai.




Despite implausibilities in the plotting—and that’s being generous—there’s sufficient local Melbourne color, vivid characterizations and a healthy dose of wry humor to assist Pearce in this entertaining six-part adaptation of Peter Temple’s books. The Blu-ray looks excellent; extras are interviews with cast and crew and on-set featurettes.








Craig William MacNeill’s straightforward revisiting of the legendary murders of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother in mid 19th century New England offers a lesbian relationship between spinster Lizzie and the Borden family’s new maid Bridget.




Strong performances by Chloe Sevigny (Lizzie) and Kristen Stewart (Bridget)—both performing the murder sequences in the altogether, a rarity for American actresses—make this diverting if ultimately not very memorable. The film looks quite good on Blu-ray; lone extra is a making-of featurette.


Die Schöpfung/The Creation 


For this singular 2017 staging of Joseph Haydn’s classic oratorio, the production teams of La Fura dels Baus and Carlus Padrissa joined forces in Ile Seguin, France, for a strangely intriguing perspective on a work usually not dramatized.




The garish costumes and lighting sometimes obscure Haydn’s music and the singers, but conductor Laurence Equilbey makes sure we never get sidetracked from the life-affirming work at the center. Both hi-def video and audio are fine; lone extra is a making-of featurette.






The Predator 


Another reboot, but this time, Hollywood gets it (mostly) right: co-writer Shane Black directs a rip-roaring action flick that has dark humor, great pacing, good actors, dazzling effects and bloody gore galore.




Some of the jarring tonal shifts don’t work completely successfully, but on the whole this updated Predator for a new generation is about as entertaining as can be hoped. The film looks great on Blu-ray; extras include deleted scenes and featurettes.


The Sea Hawk 

(Warner Archive)

This rousing 1940 adventure may be the best of the dozen films director Michael Curtiz made with swashbuckling Errol Flynn, who doesn’t disappoint as Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, 16th century privateer who does all he can for Queen Elizabeth I as England attempts to wrest control of the seas from the Spanish armada.




Flynn’s derring-do is only one part of this immensely entertaining historical spectacle: Curtiz directs with panache (even getting an amusing performance from a trained monkey) and Erich Korngold’s score is one of his best. The hi-def transfer is also spectacular, especially when it changes from B&W to sepia for a sequence set in the new world; extras include a vintage featurette and other Warner shorts. 






Viking Destiny 


Director-writer David L.G. Hughes’ Norse adventure works surprisingly effectively because it’s kept to a sensible 91 minutes and its cast includes the one and only Terence Stamp as the god Odin and the wonderful Anna Demetriou as the young princess who battles her way to her rightful destiny after being framed for the murder of her father, the king.




The astonishing beauty of the Northern Ireland landscapes, superbly photographed by Sara Deane, helps smooth over the choppy storyline. There’s a splendid hi-def transfer; extras include featurettes.




This staging of Alban Berg’s masterpiece of 12-tone, 20th century opera has a frighteningly primal performance by Christopher Maltman as the anti-hero and a brilliant turn by Eva-Maria Westbroek as his prostitute girlfriend Marie. Even if Krzysztof Warlikowski’s directorial choices are sometimes suspect, Wozzeck flirts with surrealism anyway, so there are no fatal mistakes.




Marc Albrecht conducts the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Chrous of the Dutch National Opera with an ear attuned to Berg’s uniquely dramatic musical language. Both audio and video are first-rate in hi-def.

Off-Broadway Review—Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem”

The Hard Problem

Written by Tom Stoppard; directed by Jack O’Brien

Performances through January 6, 2019


Adelaide Clemens (right) in Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem (photo: Paul Kolnik)

The problem for many with Tom Stoppard is that he’s too brainy, too witty, too clever—but he’s always been more than that. The obvious example is The Real Thing, but for every pyrotechnic intellectual exercise like Jumpers or Travesties, there are also plays like Arcadia, Indian Ink, Rock’n’Roll and The Coast of Utopia, each a miraculous balance of heady brain candy and emotional resonance. Hearteningly, his latest, The Hard Problem, can be added to that list.


Stoppard’s heroine, psychology student Hilary, begins working at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science to deal with the ostensible “hard problem” of the title: human consciousness. As always with Stoppard, there’s more that meets the eye, ear, brain and—of course—heart. Hilary’s life and work are colored by her having given up a baby for adoption when she was a teenager. Its consequences are shown in a parallel plotline about the head of Krohl, an ugly American who yells into his cell phone and at his cowering underlings; even if one guesses where these parallel plots will arrive ahead of time, it doesn’t detract from Stoppard’s ability to insightfully explore how Hilary’s complicated feelings over that incident have made her the inquiring, passionate young woman she is today.


Stoppard also allows Hilary to be, unapologetically, a believer. After sex, she kneels to pray at the side of the bed, and if these occasions are amusing (she’s “caught” by her lover despite wanting to stay unseen), they engender typically Stoppardian conversations about the flexibility of belief and the inflexibility of those who don’t believe, even when it comes to science. While the play doesn’t quite make compelling cases either way, thought-provoking ideas are put forth without condescension, as Stoppard effortlessly juggles several paradoxes as dilemmas for Hilary to experience if not fully resolve.


At 100 minutes, The Hard Problem—captivatingly staged by Jack O’Brien on David Rockwell’s sly, endlessly mobile sets—is the shortest Stoppard play I’ve seen since Hapgood, the extraordinarily convoluted spy drama starring Stockard Channing staged by Lincoln Center Theater nearly a quarter century ago. I would have preferred if Stoppard had fleshed out his secondary characters more, but that would have also taken the focus away from Hilary, who is played by Adelaide Clemens—the young Australian actress who was so persuasive and likably authentic in Kenneth Lonergan’s play Hold on to Me Darling at the Atlantic a few seasons back—with authority and a charming ordinariness. Her complex and varied performance is the heart of The Hard Problem.


The Hard Problem

Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

"The Hard Problem" Gets Addressed at Lincoln Center

One of the most exciting events of the current theatrical season is surely the New York premiere production of Tom Stoppard’s intriguing new play—his first since 2006’s Rock ‘N’ RollThe Hard Problem, at Lincoln Center Theater, which I saw on the evening of Friday, December 7th.
The author is arguably the greatest living playwright in the English-speaking world and in recent years there have been superb productions of several of his works including extraordinary local premieres such as the epic trilogy The Coast of Utopia and Rock ‘N’ Roll—both produced by Lincoln Center Theater—as well as wonderful revivals of Arcadia and Travesties. His newest opus has been eagerly anticipated—despite the unusually mixed reception of the National Theatre’s London production directed by the talented Nicholas Hytner—while Lincoln Center’s version is helmed by the gifted Jack O’Brien who has directed several Stoppard plays including the remarkable Coast of Utopia .Here he favors a more minimal approach—with set design by David Rockwell—eschewing the dazzling and elaborate stage machinery of Coast of Utopia and his recent production of Macbeth, also at Lincoln Center, but this lends The Hard Problem a more modest ethos, which is matched by its apparent substance—it seems less ambitious than the other works to which I’ve adverted.
The Hard Problem portrays a young, idealistic psychologist named Hilary—sensitively realized by Adelaide Clemens who has previously appeared in New York in a play by Kenneth Lonergan—with views that in the prevailing climate are decidedly heterodox, who is fortuitously hired by a research institute. Stoppard is widely noted for his tendency to use his plays to articulate complex, even technical concepts—such as chaos theory in Arcadia or Hegelian philosophy in the first play in Coast of Utopia, Voyage—and here he similarly focuses on the issues concerning consciousness, i.e., the relation of mind to brain, as well as such germane topics as evolutionary psychology, altruism, natural teleology, and other subjects current in materialist circles.
In highlighting the intractability of accounting for mentality, agency, and morality in scientific terms, Stoppard seems to favor a thesis of divine providence, shared by his female protagonist, perhaps alluding to the interesting theological argument from reason intimated by Thomas Nagel in his stimulating book, Mind and Cosmos. These themes intersect illuminatingly with the writer’s, to my mind, somewhat dubious politics—he voted for Margaret Thatcher—that has included, in Coast of Utopia, allegiance to Alexander Herzen in his rejection of historical laws as against Karl Marx. (It is this strand of thought which seems to explain his active anti-communism, or at the very least, anti-Stalinism.) However, it’s significant that Stoppard has admitted that although he aims to be “fair” to his characters—the inspired documentarian Frederick Wiseman has interestingly used the same language to describe his responsibility to the individuals in his films—he was nonetheless not “fair” to Marx in that play.
Although I hold no brief for philosophical naturalism, I wonder if The Hard Problem might not have been more powerful dramatically if the author had resisted taking sides and had given Hillary’s opponents more compelling rebuttals to her arguments for God, free will, moral realism, and so forth. But this is nonetheless an affecting—if especially elusive—play that clearly demands more than one viewing. Also, the creators are assisted by an able cast of mostly unknowns, including among others: Chris O’Shea as Hilary’s slightly caddish, cynical tutor and sometime lover; Jon Tenney as the millionaire founder of the institute; Karoline Xu as a fellow researcher that falls in love with Hilary; and Eshan Bajpay as Hilary’s fellow hiree and sometime rival.
One hopes that Stoppard’s eagerly awaited next play will arrive much sooner than has The Hard Problem.

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