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Film and the Arts

Broadway Review—Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman”

The Ferryman

Written by Jez Butterworth; directed by Sam Mendes

Performances through December 23, 2018

Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly and Paddy Considine in The Ferryman (photo: Joan Marcus)

As his last foray on Broadway, the bloated Jerusalem, can attest, no one would ever accuse Jez Butterworth of subtlety. So it’s not surprising that his new play The Ferryman is permeated by death, from the on-the-nose title to the risibly implausible bit of violence that climaxes its equally overlong three-plus hours. 

 

Set in late August, 1981, on the Carney farm in Northern Ireland on Harvest Day, The Ferryman traffics in nefarious IRA doings. The Carney family has been deeply affected by the disappearance Seamus—younger brother of Quinn, head of the household—years before, and now that his pickled body has been discovered in a bog, the questions arise: Why was he killed, and by whom? Seamus’ widow Cait lives in the sprawling Carney farmhouse with her teenage son, cooking and doing chores for Quinn, his frail wife Mary and their children: four girls and three boys (including a nine-month-old infant). Since Mary spends so much of her time indisposed, naturally a spark has arisen between sister- and brother-in-law.

 

Also on hand are two elderly aunts: Patricia, who buzzes around getting angry at the radio over Margaret Thatcher insulting the Irish; and Aunt Maggie Far Away, an invalid whose lucid moments are few and far between. Patricia’s husband, Uncle Patrick (they’re both Pat, get it?), who explains the play’s title in a superfluous scene, rounds out the family. 

 

Despite its trappings and author’s undeniably clever way with profane dialogue, The Ferryman is dramatically flimsy, so Butterworth relies heavily on obvious foreshadowing, heavy-handed symbolism and even the real sufferings of hunger strikers like Bobby Sands, who deserve better than to be dragged in to give weight to these entertaining but superficial goings-on.

 

The Ferryman reaches its nadir at the opening of the third act, when the Carney boys and their cousins discuss their own IRA memories (with the youngest improbably spitting out the most cutting quips), stopping the play dead in its tracks. It never really recovers: the climactic bloodletting and Aunt Maggie Far Away’s final ominous words (“They’re here!”) are more a dramatic shortcut than a genuinely satisfying ending.

 

Certainly the staging can’t be faulted. Director Sam Mendes paces The Ferryman so skillfully that there’s always an air of suspense hanging over the proceedings. Mendes makes Butterworth’s choppy writing seem seamless; there’s enough authentically casual interplay among the cast of 21 to make them a believably large family, something Butterworth only nods toward in his sprawling, ramshackle script. Mendes even makes assets of audience-baiting ploys: having an actual infant (four are in rotation) portray the Carney’s nine-month-old son and bringing a live goose and rabbit onstage oohs and aahs.

 

The flawless acting is an even greater asset. All of the youngsters—including the infant!—are at home in this household, with dialogue has salty as their elders’ (it’s the old Bad News Bears trope that adorable kids swearing make spectators swoon). Stuart Graham as malevolent IRA man Muldoon and Justin Edwards as simpleton Tom Kettle breathe coruscating life into stock characters: the scene between Tom and Cait (a heartbreaking Laura Donnelly), as he bumblingly and touchingly proposes, is the most effective in the entire play.

 

Vets Fionnula Flanagan (Aunt Maggie), Mark Lambert (Uncle Pat) and Dearbhla Molloy (Aunt Pat) give Butterworth’s words the perfect zesty snap. And, front and center, Paddy Considine is, amazingly, making his Broadway debut as Quinn, a decent but conflicted man juggling being a father, husband, brother-in-law, son, farmer, IRA sympathizer and survivor. Considine brings racy charm, abundant humor and seriously tragic dimensions to Quinn, something Butterworth doesn’t achieve on his own.

 

Even if The Ferryman isn’t a great play, watching this sparkling ensemble, estimably directed by Mendes, perform on Rob Howell’s extraordinary set (but what’s up with all those stairs?) is a richly theatrical experience.

 

The Ferryman

Bernard Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Theferrymanbroadway.com

November '18 Digital Week I

Boxed Set of the Week 

Robin Williams—Comic Genius 

(Time-Life)

When Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, the world was robbed of one of its greatest comedians, an endlessly inventive and original performer who was always “on” whenever in front of the camera. That he left so much topnotch material in his many stand-up routines, tours, appearances on various television shows, and his starring role in his breakout hit Mork and Mindy is underscored in this (mostly) terrific boxed set.

 

At 22 DVDs and more than 50 hours, the aptly-named Comic Genius collects the many facets of Williams: his five sidesplitting HBO specials; several episodes from Mork; many live appearances on Johnny Carson, Jimmy Kimmel, Oprah and SNL (too bad they weren’t able to get any of his uproarious Letterman appearances or anything at all from Comic Relief); this year’s touching HBO documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, from director Marina Zenovich; and his unique appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio. There’s a lot more—extras include interviews with Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Eric Idle, David Steinberg, Lewis Black and son Zak Williams, along with behind-the-scenes footage, featurettes, etc.—and it’s all housed with a 24-page book of archival photos, reminiscences from others and Williams’ own jottings. 

 

Blu-rays of the Week

Dracula A.D. 1972 

(Warner Archive)

In this relatively mild Hammer horror feature from (natch) 1972, Christopher Lee plays the resurrected Transylvanian Count who comes to swingin’ England to set his fangs on the comely daughter of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (played with stylish nonchalance by Peter Cushing).

 

 

 

The movie meanders about, with pseudo-hip scenes featuring bad live musical performances, and the anticipated showdown between Lee and Cushing is too muted. But completists—this is the penultimate Hammer Dracula flick with Lee—will enjoy it. The hi-def transfer is fine.

 

 

 

 

 

Mara 

(Lionsgate)

Clive Tonge’s paranormal horror flick has the courage of its convictions—at least until the usual inconsistencies that imperil the genre rear their heads like the sleep demon that terrorizes so many of its characters.

 

 

 

Lending elegance to what becomes a by-the-numbers screamfest is Olga Kurylenko, who gives credibility to this increasingly incredulous tale as a psychiatrist trying to understand why the creepy spirit appears. There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer; lone extra is a making-of featurette.

 

Poldark—Complete 4th Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

The smash-hit series’ fourth season keeps the rivalry going between our engaging eponymous hero Ross and his loathsome adversary George (inexplicably married to Ross’s former flame Elizabeth), with the added incentive for George that, since Ross has outsmarted him and is now a member of Parliament, George continues scheming to return to politics.

 

 

 

The superb cast is led by Aidan Turner (Ross), Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark’s wife Demelza), Heida Reed (Elizabeth) and Jack Farthing (George); the subplots, especially that of Reverend Ossie Whitworth and his unfortunate young wife Morwenna, are especially diverting, and the shocking—if not unexpected—death of one of the major characters (sob!) serves as a cliffhanger of sorts. The hi-def transfer is gorgeous; extras are short featurettes and interviews.

Mariinsky Orchestra Breathes Life into the Nutcracker

Photo by Chris Lee
 
A thus far exhilarating season at Carnegie Hall continued on the evening of Wednesday, October 31st, with the thrilling appearance of the superb musicians of the Mariinsky Orchestra under the brilliant direction of maestro Valery Gergiev, the first of two performances on consecutive nights. (Already there have been outstanding concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony, tenor Jonas Kaufmann with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, and the Czech Philharmonic.)
 
The program was devoted entirely to the complete score of the magnificent ballet,The Nutcracker,by the incomparable Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. While this ensemble has occasionally been under-rehearsed, on this occasion the artists were in absolute command of the material. Even though the enduringly popular Suite from the ballet that the composer prepared provides a more consistently ecstatic experience than the full score does, nonetheless this was a welcome opportunity to hear some of the wonderful music that is less familiar in recordings and in the concert hall—particularly from Act I—such as the turbulent “The Christmas Tree” section played immediately after the enchanting Overture and followed by the dazzling March, which was heard here at an unusually brisk tempo, a characteristic distinction of the conductor’s interpretation throughout the performance. Several less remembered passages ensued—throughout Gergiev emphasized the dramatic dimension of the music—before the act concluded with the magical Waltz of the Snowflakes (although omitting the wordless chorus), a genre of which Tchaikovsky was perhaps the supreme master.
 
The second act was even more glorious with most of it among the most famous music from the ballet. The most extraordinary part of the work is the collection of dances—each one a jewel—in the Divertissement, including some of the composer’s most original achievements such as the haunting “Coffee” (Arabian Dance), the delightful “Tea” (Chinese Dance), and the exquisite “Dance of the Mirlitons” closing with the transcendent Waltz of the Flowers.
 
The exalting Entrata from the Pas de deux that follows is probably the purest expression in the score of the composer’s intense romanticism, while another of his most astonishing creations is in this section, the ineffably charming second Variation, the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. The evening concluded with the gorgeous Final Waltz and Apotheosis, and the musicians deservedly received a rapturous ovation from an audience filled with a countless number of their countrymen. The following evening featured Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss and the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Johannes Brahms featuring the renowned Nelson Freire as soloist. One looks forward to the return of these great artists.

Hungarian State Opera at Lincoln Center with "Mario & the Magician", "Bluebeard’s Castle" & "The Queen of Sheba"

Queen of Sheba, photo by Peter Rakossy.
 
The exciting U.S. debut of the Hungarian State Opera continued strongly with their second and third New York appearances on the evenings of Thursday, November 1st, with a double-bill of János Vajda’s intriguing contemporary work, Mario and the Magician—adapted from the famous, eponymous novella by Thomas Mann and premiered in 1988—and Béla Bartók’s powerful, mysterious Bluebeard’s Castle, conceived here by director and set designer Péter Galambos as a diptych, and on the following night with Karl Goldmark’s magnificent, now seldom seen The Queen of Sheba. (Two nights previously, the company premiered their production of the great 19th-century Hungarian opera, Bánk Bán, which proved to be an extraordinary musical experience.)
 
With the first program, in both cases, the director modernized the settings—although to no obvious advantage—and in neither instance were the stagings visually effective or conceptually persuasive but the strength of the music alone—exceptionally performed by the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra and superbly conducted by Balázs Kocsár—sufficed to provide aesthetic satisfactions. I am not fully competent to judge a work composed in the advanced modernist idiom of Mario and the Magician but I nonetheless found it engaging, partly for its impressive orchestral writing. At least two of the singers were especially remarkable, András Palerdi in the lead role of Cipolla, the magician, and Orsolya Hajnalka Rőser as Signora Angiolieri.
 
More astonishing was the Bartók masterwork, one of the finest 20th-century operas, with a libretto by the important film theorist Béla Balázs, after the fairytale by Charles Perrault. Here, too, there was some marvelous singing from Palerdi in the title role of Bluebeard and, even more unforgettably, from Ildikó Komlósi as Judith.
 
The staging of The Queen of Sheba—an opera that deserves to return to the mainstream repertory—however, was much more satisfying, directed austerely but elegantly by Csaba Káel, with beautiful—if underexploited—Art Nouveau sets designed by Éva Szendrényi, attractive costumes by Anikó Németh, and inventive choreography by Marianna Venekei, executed by dancers from the Hungarian National Ballet. Musically, the presentation could scarcely have been bettered, with magisterial direction of the orchestra by János Kovács and thrilling assistance from the chorus.
 
The singers were first-rate with a mesmerizing performance by the sexy Erika Gál in the title role. Also wonderful were Boldizsár László as Assad, Eszter Sümegi as Sulamith, Zoltán Kelemen as King Solomon, Péter Fried as the High Priest, Eszter Zavaros as Astaroth, Lajos Geiger as Baal-Hanan, and Ferenc Cserhalmi as the Temple Watchman. The artists received an enthusiastic ovation. I hope this superior production will gain wider exposure.

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