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Off-Broadway Review—David Ives's “The Liar"

The Liar
Adapted by David Ives, based on Corneille’s Le Menteur
Directed by Michael Kahn
Performances through February 26, 2017
Ismenia Mendes and Amelia Pedlow in The Liar (photo: Richard Termine)
I cannot tell a lie: David Ives is the funniest playwright in America right now, as The Liar—his, as he calls it, “translaptation” of a 17th century comedy by Frenchman Pierre Corneille—demonstrates again and again for two madcap, and side-splitting, hours.
Ives tinkered with Corneille’s play about a man who cannot tell the truth, and the lies he spins become ever more elaborate until even he can’t tell what he has and hasn’t said. Eager knight Dorante (an amusing Christian Conn) appears in Paris one day and immediately hires Cliton (peerlessly funny Carson Elrod, a longtime Ives collaborator) as his servant—Cliton is the exact opposite of his new master in that he always tells the truth. 
Right after they agree to terms, two lovely ladies enter: both Clarice (adorable Ismenia Mendes) and Lucrece (headstrong Amelia Pedlow) turn Dorante’s head, even though he speaks only to Clarice, while Cliton talks with Lucrece’s flirty maid Isabelle…or is it her straight-laced twin sister—and Clarice’s maid—Sabine (both played with sass by Kelly Hutchinson)?
As usual with such silliness, Dorante’s lies pile up, Cliton’s truth-telling gets him slapped in the face (he mistakes Sabine for Isabelle on more than occasion), Dorante’s father Geronte (a doggedly goofy Adam Lefevre) plays matchmaker for his son and Lucrece, and Dorante’s swashbuckling friend Alcippe, betrothed to Clarice, challenges him to a duel. By the end of the play—no surprise—all is sorted out and three impending marriages are celebrated.
Ives’ always euphoric wordplay reaches even greater heights with its frothy rhymes and spirited iambic pentameter, all bouncing trippingly off the tongues of a smashing cast that’s been directed by Michael Kahn for maximum comic effect. It’s all frivolous, to be sure, but even in its innocuousness there’s more than a grain of truth to its implication that, for those in a position of power, lying is de rigeur. As Dorante himself admits to the audience:
Maybe Corneille will write me up a play.
Or maybe, with my gifts and disposition,
I’ll emigrate and be a politician.
But think, before you hit the subway booth,
How this was all a lie—and yet the truth.
Impossible? Don’t hurt your spinning head.
Just hie thee happily home and lie—in bed!
The Liar
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

Philip Glass Tribute & African Legends at Carnegie Hall

Dennis Russell Davies, Philip Glass, and Angelique Kidjo

On the evening of Tuesday, January 31st, at Carnegie Hall, the superb musicians of the Bruckner Orchester Linz gave a wonderful concert of new works by Philip Glass in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Glass, who was in the audience, is one of the finest living composers and the ensemble was beautifully led by one of his greatest champions, the conductor Dennis Russell Davies.

The program opened with what seemed to be its strongest work, the New York premiere of the gorgeous Days and Nights in Rocinha, a hypnotic, Brazilian-inflected theme and variations written in homage to a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.

The enormously appealing African world music star, Angélique Kidjo, then took the stage to perform the New York premiere of the enjoyable Ifè: Three Yorùbá Songs which was written expressly for her. The poems which are the basis of the piece record legends of Ifè, which Kidjo described as "the place where the Yorùbá people think the world was created." Despite many signature elements of the composer, this work had an unusual, unexpected sound. Kidjo received an enthusiastically warm ovation. 

The concert concluded with the world premiere of the pleasurable Symphony No. 11, composed last year and featuring a distinctive emphasis on percussion in the final of the three movements. Glass, Davies and the musicians received passionate applause, with the composer modestly bowing onstage. The program was a fitting tribute to a national treasure.

January '17 Digital Week V

Blu-rays of the Week 
Ballers—Complete 2nd Season
This comedy series about a former NFL player turned financial manager hit its stride in its second season, helped not only by more plausible (and funny) storylines but also the strides Dwayne Johnson has made in his acting, especially his comic chops.
There are also plentiful inside jokes about the pro football world and the always hilarious presence of the amazing Rob Corddry as Johnson’s desperate-to-be-hip partner. The ten episodes look fine on Blu; extras are featurettes on each episode.
Black Girl
Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène made his first feature in 1966, an immensely sympathetic portrait of a young Senegalese woman working for a heartless couple in France.
At a scant 59 minutes, Black Girl is a model of compression and illumination; Criterion’s gleaming hi-def transfer is complemented by several contextualizing extras, including a full-length 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema; Sembène’s 1963 debut short, Borom Sarret; scholar/actor interviews; a French TV segment about Sembène’s Cannes Festival win; and a deleted color sequence.
Black Society Trilogy 
He made his international name with the chilling 1999 vision of horror called Audition, but prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (90-plus films—and counting, at age 56) made earlier works displaying his wide-ranging talent, as this set comprising three of those features—Shinjuku Triad Society(1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999)—demonstrates.
The films are creepy and absorbing, with Miike’s stylish visuals leading the way. Arrow’s hi-def transfers are impressive; extras include new interviews with Miike and actor Show Aikawa and audio commentaries on all three films.
The Lair of the White Worm
In Ken Russell’s deliriously silly 1988 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel about an immortal priestess looking for a sacrifice for a snake god (!), Amanda Donahoe gives a giddily campy but erotic portrayal of a woman irresistible to everyone—to their ultimate (and usually fatal) detriment.
In her wake, solid actors like Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi end up as mere extras, while Russell’s visual bluster ends up looking diffuse, even if he rouses himself for a bravura—and willfully nonsensical—ending. The film has nicely filmic grain on Blu-ray; extras include a Russell commentary, his wife Lisi’s commentary, interviews with actress Sammi Davis and editor Peter Davies, and a featurette.
Is ten-year-old Michael really eating human remains which his mom and dad prepare for dinner, or is his hyperactive imagination simply in overdrive? This intriguing satirical concept became a heavy-handed 1989 black comedy by director Bob Balaban, who never balances the horror and humor.
The result is rather pointless and witless, which is too bad, for Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt (parents) and young Bryan Madorsky (Michael) are certainly game. The hi-def transfer is satisfying; extras include interviews with Hurt and cinematographer Robin Vidgeon, Balaban commentary and audio interview with composer Jonathan Elias.
(Disney Signature Collection)
One of Disney’s most beloved animated features—and its second, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—is this 1940 adaptation of an Italian children’s book about a wooden puppet who comes to life, his master Geppetto and his “conscience” Jiminy Cricket: its appearance on Blu-ray (in a good, not spectacular, hi-def transfer) should be a cause for celebration by audiences of all ages.
The movie remains an all-time classic, and Disney has not only ported over extras from earlier DVD editions but has also included brand-new bonus material, including featurettes.
DVDs of the Week 
The Battle of Chosin
In what may be the most engrossing episode yet in the celebrated American Experience series, one of the earliest major battles of the often-forgotten Korean War is explored in often harrowing detail.
Newsreels and archival footage, along with interviews with some of the battle’s participants, provide a gripping take on a pivotal time in America’s post-WWII battle against Communist aggression.
Danny Says
One of the most original characters to emerge from the rock’n’roll scene, Danny Fields—journalist, publicist, record executive—is the focus of Brendan Toller’s funny and irreverent documentary, which explores Fields’s proximity to seminal events in rock history, from John Lennon’s incendiary “Jesus Christ” quote to the discovery of the Ramones.
Fields himself is an often hilarious, always politically incorrect interview subject—even if he outlandishly claims the Beatles weren’t any good—and the archival footage of the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges and Patti Smith is priceless. Extras include a Fields post-screening Q&A, additional footage and Toller interview.
CD of the Week 
Renee Fleming—Distant Light

Still opera’s reigning soprano, Renee Fleming has always stretched her artistic and vocal wings through excursions into jazz, big-band, rock and pop, which she continues to do on this CD by combining a classic Samuel Barber work with music by contemporary Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and Icelandic diva Bjork.

The results are decidedly mixed: Fleming’s lustrous voice illuminates the gorgeous textures and yearning for the past of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and conductor Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra come to the forefront with the brittle sounds of Hillborg’s haunting The Strand Settings. However, neither Fleming’s impassioned vocals nor solid orchestral playing can rescue the three stillborn Bjork song arrangements.

Broadway Review: August Wilson's "Jitney"

Written by August Wilson; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Performances through March 12, 2017
The cast of Jitney (photo: Joan Marcus)
The magnificence of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle”—ten plays, each set during a different decade of the 20th century, mainly in Pittsburgh—is obvious to anyone familiar with even one of the plays (or movie adaptations, like Fences with Denzel Washington).
All these plays played Broadway except Jitney—until now. Wilson’s captivating drama, set in 1977 at a car service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, finally makes it to the Great White Way in a triumphant production that’s another feather in the cap of the great playwright (who died in 2005) and his dependable collaborators, who make his singing dialogue and brilliantly realized characters come to eloquent life.
Distinguishing Jitney—along with Wilson’s other plays—is its epic humanity, confident swagger and refusal to condescend to its characters. The three-dimensional people onstage are flawed and hopeful, contradictory and sympathetic, all allowed to speak as real people do: the poetic dialogue that often pours forth in torrents of emotion remains true to each individual but also part of a larger dramatic truth.
Populating the jitney office is a cross-section of the Pittsburgh working class: drivers Youngblood, a Vietnam vet hoping to buy a home for his girlfriend and child; Turnbo, a middle-aged loudmouth who butts into everyone else’s business; Fielding, a lush who tries hiding his drinking; and Doub, a level-headed Korean war vet. There’s also Philmore, a loyal jitney customer; Shealy, a numbers taker who uses the office’s phone for his business; and Becker, the place’s manager, a straight shooter whose son Booster is getting out of prison after serving a 20-year murder sentence.
These men are trying to keep their heads above water financially and personally, and even when an immovable object is thrown in their way—the city is shuttering the whole block and razing the neighborhood’s businesses—they still find the strength to keep going against the odds. 
That varies by man (and woman—Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena only appears in two scenes but shows a sturdiness and resolve as strong as the others), but even takes powerful form in Becker’s principled refusal to acknowledge Booster when he returns from jail in a shattering closing first-act scene: “You’re my son. I helped to bring you into this world. But from this moment on…I’m calling the deal off. You ain’t nothing to me boy. Just another n--- off the street.”
This scene and more is enacted with exceptional aliveness and humane truth by sensitive director (and Wilson vet) Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adroit cast of eight, particularly John Douglas Thompson (Becker), whose stentorian voice has sometimes overwhelmed his dialogue in other plays: but he and Wilson are perfectly matched here, so much so that it’s surprising I haven’t seen him previously perform in other Wilson plays. Maybe that will change.
Friedman Theatre,261 West 47th Street, New York NY

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