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November '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

Animal Factory


Actor Steve Buscemi directed this gritty 2000 drama based on the exploits of convict Eddie Bunker (called Ron Decker in the film, and played by an intense Edward Furlong), who gets a 10-year sentence at San Quentin and finds himself under the watchful eye of veteran prisoner Earl Copen (a fine Willem Dafoe). 



Even if his film breaks no new ground in the prison genre, Buscemi has made a credible, even sympathetic look at what men behind bars will do to survive. The Blu-ray transfer is quite good; extras include a commentary and featurette on Bunker.


Battle Cry

Hell on Frisco Bay

(Warner Archive)

In 1955’s Battle Cry, young men are seen moving from boot camp to the Pacific WWII battlefield, and if Raoul Walsh’s war epic isn’t as disturbing or as honest as Full Metal Jacket, it does have indelible sequences and a cast that includes standouts Van Heflin, Aldo Ray, Mona Freeman and Nancy Olson (the latter two as the suffering women of soldiers). 



Also made in 1955, Hell on Frisco Bay pits former cop and ex-con Alan Ladd against crime boss Edward G. Robinson in an inevitable showdown after Ladd tracks down who really committed the murder he was framed for. Always photogenic San Francisco locations are the real star of Frank Tuttle’s tidy but colorful film noir. Both films have superior hi-def transfers.



La Bohème

(C Major)

New productions of the two most reliable warhorses in opera are distinguished by their leading ladies’ star-making performances. The title role in Carmen is played by the darkly smoldering French mezzo Gaelle Arquez, who burns up the outdoor Bregenz Festival stage whenever she’s front and center. 



In La Bohème, Irina Lungu plays the pitifully sickly Mimi with immense strength and sympathy. Both productions also have top-notch hi-def video and audio; Carmen extras are director and set designer interviews.



(Opus Arte)

This late Shakespeare romance is infrequently staged, so seeing Melly Still’s Royal Shakespeare Company production go off the rails is disheartening, since the cast is mostly effective, especially Bethan Cullinane’s powerful Innogen (Imogen for those who don’t think her name was misspelled in the first folio). 



The music and dance interludes seem less organic than tacked on, which drags down the rest into an unfortunate mess of dramatic and poetic stumbling. The hi-def images are excellent.



(BelAir Classiques)

The anti-heroine of Alban Berg’s unfinished opera has as its best and most prominent assayer German soprano Marlis Petersen, who gives Dmitri Tcherniakov’s tricked-out, fitfully pointed 2015 Munich staging its dramatic and musical allure. 



Petersen does no wrong, whether splayed half-naked on the floor or being ruthlessly abused before running into Jack the Ripper. Kirill Petrenko conducts the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra in an incisive reading of Berg’s masterly score. The hi-def video and audio are first-rate.


Night School

(Warner Archive)

This turgid 1981 thriller—coming on the heels of Halloween, Friday the 13th and Phantasm, among others—spends its originality at the beginning, with the hideous murder of a victim on a playground mercilessly teased by her attacker before beheading her. 



After that, the movie has two things going for it: a very pretty and poised Rachel Ward in her film debut, and the offhand unmasking of the killer. There’s a decent hi-def transfer.


The Nutcracker 


(Opus Arte)

The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday ballet, gets a lovely Royal Opera production in honor of choreographer Peter Wright’s 90th birthday, brilliantly danced by talented soloists and corps de ballet, and sparklingly played by the orchestra under conductor Boris Gruzin. 



The Royal Opera’s Anastasia, about the fabled Russian princess—and one of legendary choreographer Kenneth MacMillan’s most audacious works—scores superbly with the mesmerizing Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova in the lead, McMillan’s expressive movement, and the adroitly chosen music by Tchaikovsky and Martinů. Extras include interviews and featurettes.

Broadway Review—John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons”

Latin History for Morons

Written and performed by John Leguizamo; directed by Tony Taccone

Performances through February 25, 2018


John Leguizamo in Latin History for Morons (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Despite TV and movie success, John Leguizamo cut his teeth with solo shows that began in small downtown theaters and gradually moved uptown after he became a known commodity. 


His latest Broadway performance, Latin History for Morons, takes the form of a lecture to his audience about the mostly unknown (or forgotten) history of Latinos in America. It’s his usual combination of dead-on impressions, penetrating observations, juvenile humor and unabashed sentimentality.


When his 8th grade son came home from school one day and told him that he had a difficult history assignment—pick a Latin hero—Leguizamo realized that, in most textbooks, Latinos were basically written out of history. 


So he made it his business to discover someone heroic for his son, and that became the springboard for the show, as Leguizamo speaks informally but intelligently how Latino culture has been systematically erased, from the Aztecs and Incas to the present day.


With a chalkboard at center stage to visualize the teaching concept (Tony Taccone’s direction is happily haphazard), Leguizamo blends his one-of-a-kind riffing, caricature and vocal impersonation into an offbeat lecture to discuss a scaled-down timeline of history, from the destruction of the Aztec and Inca civilizations by colonizing Spaniards to unknown Latinos (and Latinas) who fought in the American Revolution and Civil War.


All the while, though, he keeps returning to his family, and that’s what makes the new show particularly satisfying. His funniest lines come from his interactions with his wife, daughter and son—he gets hilarious mileage out of telling his kids that, back in the day, if someone wanted to steal music, one had to actually go to a store and shoplift—as well as the most heart-on-the-sleeve moments, especially the ending, when his son reveals the hero he finally teased out of his father’s sometimes inept but always well-meaning attempts to teach his son his own history, which is anything but moronic.


Latin History for Morons

Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

"The Briefly Dead" Opines That We’re Not Necessarily Gone for Good

Photos by Mia Isabella/Brandon Saloy

Ibsen’s The Doll House isn’t the only classic to be continued. Lucas Hnath’s Doll House Part 2 begins 15 Years after Nora exited the Torvad household. The world premiere from Adjusted Realists of Stephen Kaliski’s The Briefly Dead
is a quirky mix of classic and contemporary meant as a sequel to EuripidesAlcestis. She was the fairest daughter of Pellas, king of Iolcus, and wife of King Admetos. In a bedazzled moment, to show her great love of him, when Death calls, she sacrifices herself in order for him to live. But Kaliski poses what happens when a Superman returns her from the Underworld?

The Briefly Dead is presented by Adjusted Realists (revival of Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls; Kaliski’s Glutten! at 59E59) specializes in stories set in slightly unhinged worlds. The play fits their mission perfectly.

Kaliski, resident director of Broadway’s overly-reworked musical adaptation of Brit author Roald Dahl’s 1964 children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who also helmed Gluten!, and wrote West Lethargy, published in Plays and Playwrights 2011. In addition, he’s a public speaking coach and has worked with Michael Grandage and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He’s come up with a clever premise we could all relish. However, it’s all in the execution. That is a bit of a roller coaster ride – between Greek tragedy drama and elements of camp and farce with none exquisitely demarcated. It’s also one that demands your very rapt attention.

If you like your Greek mythology spiked with spunk and modern twists such as talk of sushi and TV shows, boxed cereals, a pop rendition on guitar [instead of lyre] – not to mention dark, feminist poems of Sylvia Plath, this one’s for you. And there are some nice theatrical touches, such as the use of shadow puppets and wavy moves [choreography?] from a sort of Greek Chorus.

BriefDeadCheyenneDirector and puppet designer Elizabeth Ostler (creator, Communal Theater, whose mission is “cultivating a connection between audiences and performers”) knows how to place her cast around the tiny performance space. The most enjoyable Greek drama touch is a quartet akin to Greek Choruses of yore. They comment on the goings-on with song, dance, even biting comments. 

In the prologue, Mia Isabella Aguirre, a hip Amazon, even taller in platform shoes, is our Leader, Death – and she be not proud nor humble. She enters her “ransacked office,” with all manner of “stuff,” including bodies, strewn about. Admetos -- portrayed by the hunk a.k.a. Ben Kaufman (a Flea and Horse Trade Theatres regular), is told it's his time to enter the great beyond. He doesn't want to go. He suggests someone go in his place.

Heracles/Hercules, with Paul Hinkes, at 6’8” and quite well-fitted in Gap (maybe), aptly filling the role, sees how devastated Admetos is. He uses one of his labors to bring Alcestis back – thus,  voilà!, fulfilling the title. Thus, also, beginning the tale. But is getting your wife back really such a good thing –  especially if she’s a powerful and cunning heroine out to settle a score?

Aguirre is a really nice touch, and it would be fun to see more of her. Greek/American Jenna Zafiropoulos (lead, Paula Vogel’s Desdemona; Marie Curie, Kate Benson’s Radium Now), received her theater arts degree from Deree, the American College of Greece, and is steeped in the lore of Greek tragedy. As Alcestia, she’s outfitted in classic garb, her long hair in a regal braid. 

The fun element comes from the game quartet of petite dynamo Sofiya Cheyenne  as Phyllis (“a neighbor”), Kristin Fulton as Avra (Admetos’ assistant), Katie Proulx as Zena (Alcestis’s sister), and Sarah Wadsley as Kyra (best friend to Alcestis).
Since the play is in 59E59’s intimate C venue, you might think this is a trial run to see how it, well, plays before taking it further. The intimacy of having the actors virtually in your lap in a good number of seats is an asset. More than anything, The Briefly Dead benefits from an excellent cast. However, in spite of a lengthy rehearsal schedule and fast-paced direction by Ostler, it’s not always easy to make sense of what they’re up to.

Original music is by Steve Smith, with choreography by Proulx.

Director Simon Curtis Says Hello To “Goodbye Christopher Robin”


Director: Simon Curtis

Writers: Frank Cottrell Boyce, Simon Vaughan

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald

Everybody in the western world, and maybe beyond it, knows the lovable children’s character Winnie the Pooh — the gentlest of gentle creatures, the one who lets kids know that through it all, there’s one figure who always represents innocence and the light.

The Winnie the Pooh stories were inspired by father’s appreciation of his son as he grew up. The Dad in this case was noted playwright A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) who learns to connect with his son Christopher Robin at a time when men did little to connect with their offspring besides being the dominant provider. In Director Simon Curtis’ film “Goodbye Christopher Robin” he offers a glimpse into this relationship as the elder Milne transitions from shell-shocked writer-turn-war-veteran to country squire to loving father to celebrated children’s book author.

Along with mother Daphne (Margot Robbie) and nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), son Christopher Robin lives at first, an isolated life in their home near the countryside far from the hustle and bustle of London. Then, thanks to the success of dad’s stories of these imagined characters from based on his childhood toys, Christopher Robin becomes a high-profile celebrity as the magical world of Pooh becomes an international phenomenon

He and his family are swept up in the international success of the books; the enchanting tales provide hope and comfort to England after the crushing devastation of World War One but with all the attention focused on Christopher Robin, the cost on the family was profound as he became one of the world’s first media darlings. 

This film offers a set of balanced performances by this quartet of characters (with several actors playing Christopher Robin at various ages). Mother and child and father and nanny pirouette throughout the course of the story outlined here. The weight of this film rest on actor Domhnall Gleeson whose performance as Milne provided insight into a man who learned how to be a father while making his share of mistakes along the way.

Director Curtis has an uncanny way of finding the story beyond the narrative as he did in “My Week With Marilyn” where he drew out a subtle performance from Eddie Redmayne as well.  In fact, both films address the toxic effect fame can have on people not exactly equipped to handle it. Though this film seemed overshadowed by other films set in 20th Century England, this one shouldn’t be overlooked.

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