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Blu-rays of the Week
Unforgotten—Complete 2nd Season
In the second season of this compulsively watchable PBS Masterpiece series, investigators Cassie Stuart and Sunny Khan once again focus on an initially baffling cold case: the remains of a body found crammed in a suitcase, the deceased killed 27 years before, and (again) no shortage of suspects.
The twists and turns of the investigation are compelling throughout all five hours, thanks to smart writing and finely-shaded performances by Sanjeev Bhaskar and especially Nicola Walker as the detectives. It all looks supremely good on Blu.
The London Symphony Orchestra and music director Sir Simon Rattle tackle a pair of uncompromising works in this excellent 2016 performance: the imposing, epic Romanticism of Anton Bruckner’s hour-long Symphony No. 8, and the subtle shadings of Olivier Messiaen’s 25-minute Coleurs de la Cite Celeste/Colors of the Celestial City.
The playing, of course, is stupendous, particularly by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the exceptional soloist in the Messiaen work; hi-def video and audio are both fine.
Two Thousand Maniacs
In what was his finest moment of gory exploitation, Herschell Gordon Lewis directed this ridiculously silly 1964 splatter flick about clueless Northerners who stumble upon murderous Southerners and find themselves victims in a re-litigation of the Civil War.
It’s nuttily entertaining in its way (and based on the musical Brigadoon, of all things); an extra Lewis feature, Moonshine Mountain—also 1964—is less interesting foolishness. The films look decent in hi-def; extras include Lewis’s intros to both films and Maniacs commentary, video essays, interviews and an appreciation.
DVD of the Week
Jason Barker’s breezy 52-minute documentary, from 2011, filters the devastating effects of the then-recent financial collapse through a Karl Marx lens, offering the failures of capitalism as proof that it’s time to take a fresh look at Marx and see how relevant his ideas are in an era of even greater financial inequality.
Barker interviews several philosophers, including the famous Slovenian Slavoj Žižek, and includes a dated parody of The Matrix in its occasionally amusing animated segments. The lone extra, Marx for Beginners, is a diverting six-minute 1978 short.
CD/DVD of the Week
Messiaen—Catalogue d’Oiseaux/Catalogue of Birds
Olivier Messiaen’s compositions are drenched in birdsong, from his chamber and orchestral works to even his masterpiece, his lone opera Saint Francois d’Assise. But it’s his massive, multi-part Catalogue of Birds—seven books of thirteen pieces, each based on a bird from a specific region of France, and composed in 1956 to 1958—that’s the apotheosis of these works.
And who better than fellow French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard to do justice to this often treacherously demanding music, especially the 30-minute centerpiece, The Reed Warbler. On three CDs, Aimard purposefully traverses some of Messiaen’s greatest solo piano music; on DVD, the pianist introduces each of the pieces, along with discussing Messiaen’s technique and legacy.
A Brief History of Women
Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn
Performances through May 27, 2018
Laura Matthews in Alan Ayckbourn's A Brief History of Women (photo: Tony Bartholomew)
Something new from Alan Ayckbourn is always cause for rejoicing, even when it’s relatively minor like his 81st play, A Brief History of Women. (He’s already completed his 82nd.) Not quite farce or satire but pitched somewhere in between, this play in four parts lets silliness and bad behavior butt heads with the sympathy the playwright extends to even his most risible characters.
The protagonists are Anthony Spates and Kirkbridge Manor; the former appears first as a naïve 17-year-old footman to a rich family at the manor in 1925, then reappears in each of the play’s three following scenes, each taking place 20 years after the previous one. The manor house changes along with Spates—it’s a girls’ school in 1945 (Spates teaches there), an arts center in 1965 (Spates runs the place) and a hotel in 1985 (Spates is the retired manager)—leading one to ask if those changes are for the better.
That question isn’t answered, however, because although Spates and the house figure in all four scenes, they are mainly bystanders to the human comedy going on around them over a 60-year span. The teenage Spates gets his first real kiss from the lady of the house after her elderly husband has a heart attack, while the 37-year-old teacher looks on helplessly as his lover (still shattered by the death of her fiancée during World War II) fatally climbs on the rocket that climaxes the school fireworks display.
At age 57, the arts center’s head ends up as the back half of a cow, rehearsing with the actress who just discovered her director husband’s cheating on her, while the retired (and widowed—he married the cow’s front half) 77-year-old returns to the hotel, where he meets the original lady of the house, now well into her 90s.
The glory of Ayckbourn’s writing is that, even when it’s a minor work—at least when compared to the masterly The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, Intimate Exchanges, Comic Potential and Private Fears in Public Faces, to name just a handful—there’s always an especially felicitous observation or an empathetic moment that tears your heart out, like Women’s lovely and understated finale: an unforeseen reunion brings closure to Spates’s entire life…and that of the manor itself.
Director Ayckbourn treats writer Ayckbourn’s work nimbly, including the droll use of sound as the characters move from one room to another, the invisible opening and closing doors allowing conversations to rise or fall as rooms are left and entered. These and other adroit touches work handily on Kevin Jenkins’s spiffy set, which brings the ever-changing house to life over six decades, and his clever costumes visualizing the passing of the years.
Playing two dozen characters, the formidable cast of six—Anthony Eden as the delectably hangdog Spates, aging 60 years but remaining ageless, laugh-out-loud scene-stealer Russell Dixon, and the versatile and funny Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears, Frances Marshall and Louise Shuttleworth—keeps the play shuttling forward, even when Ayckbourn himself nearly sabotages it with a drawn-out third episode in the arts center concerning a “Jack and the Beanstalk” rehearsal that goes on far too long.
But even the occasional hiccup can’t erase another noteworthy Alan Ayckbourn stage event.
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
La Belle Noiseuse
(Cohen Film Collection)
French director Jacques Rivette’s overlong dramas are mainly self-indulgent exercises, but his four-hour 1991 film about the volatile relationship between a famous painter and his young muse is—along with his two-part 1993 biopic about Joan of Arc—his best work. Rivette’s technique is often like watching paint dry; add in the usually amateurish performances, and it’s downright painful. But here, the volatility between artist and muse is artfully presented and persuasively enacted by Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Beart, along with the intricacies of creating art that are shown in real time.
It all looks splendid on Blu; extras include vintage interviews with Rivette and with screenwriters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent, along with film historian Richard Suchenski’s commentary. Now let’s get a hi-def release of Divertimento, Rivette’s two-hour alternate cut of this material, composed of entirely new shots and sequences.
The Golden Cockerel
This is the second staging to be released on Blu-ray in the past year of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantastical final opera about an aging Tsar whose title bird warns him of danger.
If this version—staged in 2016 in Brussels by Laurent Pelly and conducted by Alain Altinoglu, leading the Le Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus—is less memorable than the smashing Mariinsky production, it’s a serviceable account of Rimsky’s colorful score. In the title role, soprano Sheva Tahovel and dancer Sarah Demarthe are very fine; hi-def audio and video are good.
One of Shakespeare’s most potent tragedies is given a compelling staging by director Angus Jackson at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The straightforward telling lucidly dramatizes the hubris and nobility of those involved. Strong acting by Andrew Woodall (Caesar), Alex Waldmann (Brutus), James Corrigan (Marc Antony) and Hannah Morrish, whose Portia who can hold her against these men, provide a laser focus. The hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras include Jackson’s commentary, actor interviews and historical featurette.
Sex, Lies and Butterflies
This newest documentary from PBS’s long-running Nature series focuses on those beautiful insects whose unique life-cycle—from cocoon to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly—is shown in the most extraordinarily intimate detail.
Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the 53-minute feature follows scientists analyzing the intricacies of these delicate creatures, including moths (obvious relatives of the butterflies); on Blu-ray, the stunning hi-def camerawork allows us to see, as it were, the very folds of these exquisite insects in all their glory.
DVDs of the Week
David Hockney at the Royal Academy of the Arts
(Seventh Art Productions)
For this latest Exhibition On Screen release, Britain’s most famous living painter presents two large exhibits of his recent work: in 2012, his colorful California landscapes, painted on an iPad, of all things; and his 2016 exhibition of 82 intimate portraits and a still life, each done in the course of three days.
Hockney is engaging and amusing during the discussions of his work; we get to see someone who has been painting for decades still reinvigorated by his art and still re-inventing himself.
Laugh-In—Complete 4th Season
This latest Laugh-In release comprises the entire 1970-71 season of the classic comedy-variety show, which was hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, pitch-perfect ringmasters for the series’ usual bizarre stew of corny jokes, goofy skits, musical interludes and political satire.
As usual, the stars are an always game crew of regulars (like Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Arte Johnson, Lily Tomlin) and a far-flung array of guest stars running the gamut from Rod Serling and Orson Welles to William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. Along with 26 full episodes, there are bonus interviews with Lily Tomlin and Arte Johnson.
CD of the Week
Jesus Christ Superstar—Live in Concert
NBC’s recent live version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s most popular rock musical was a high-energy affair, which helped cover up flaws in the staging, acting and singing. Still, for the most part, this gets by on adrenaline alone, which is why Alice Cooper’s Herod is transfixing in his big scene and why Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas scores so highly whenever he’s singing.
Conversely, John Legend’s Jesus has little charisma, and although she has a lovely voice, Sara Bareilles doesn’t do justice to Mary Magdalene’s standard “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Lacking the necessary visual component, this CD is an adequate record of the performance, which is highlighted by Norm Lewis absolutely killing it on “This Jesus Must Die."
Written by Bernard Shaw; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through June 10, 2018
Condola Rashad and Daniel Sunjata in Saint Joan (photo: Joan Marcus)
Joan of Arc has attracted artists for centuries, and Bernard Shaw was no exception. His 1923 classic Saint Joan dramatizes how the 15th century French teenager managed to convince military and royal leaders to give her an army against the English, which she did spectacularly and successfully until she was finally captured, tried and burned at the stake.
But in his play, Shaw decided to forego—except for the long, engrossing trial scene in which competing dogmas and ideologies are put to the test—showing the obvious “big” scenes: we never see Joan in battle, we never see her capture or her execution. As always, Shaw’s interest was in the psychology, politics and morality; with Saint Joan, he had a huge canvas on which to work out such themes, even finding room for a playful epilogue that might seem to belong to a more irreverent treatment.
What a director must do is keep Saint Joan fluid without degenerating into static scenes of exposition and dialogue. Daniel Sullivan partially solves that with some judicious if not entirely necessary cutting: Shaw’s words are so poetic and pregnant with meaning that even too many of them aren’t problematic. Sullivan’s sober atmosphere also helps his mainly absorbing production from tripping itself up.
Scott Pask’s uncluttered set is dominated by what appear to be organ pipes hanging from the ceiling, which also allow Shaw’s words to remain center stage. And the males surrounding Joan—the French and British military and religious leaders and the Dauphin, the French regent who later became King Charles VII—are enacted by several serious stage actors like Jack Davenport, Patrick Page, John Glover, Walter Bobbie and Daniel Sunjata, all of whom provide a perfect balance of gravity leavened with humor.
Only Adam Chanler-Berat falls prey to overacting, making the Dauphin more boyish and immature than Shaw calls for—inexperienced and foolish is one thing, but foppish and campy is quite another. Condola Rashad’s Joan is well-spoken and girlish—sometimes too much so, as when she looks out into the audience with wide eyes to show off her youthfulness—but rarely compellingly tragic: as technically accomplished as she is, Rashad only finds Joan’s soul in her fleeting final moments begging for mercy from her prosecutors.
Saint Joan—which has been accurately described as “a tragedy without villains”—is one of Shaw’s most complex works, and Rashad and Sullivan provide an intermittently challenging interpretation.
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY
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