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Off-Broadway Review— Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Marys Seacole”

Marys Seacole

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury; directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Performances through April 7, 2019


Tyler Quincy Bernstine (center) and cast of Marys Seacole (photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Marys Seacole, based on the true story of a 19th century Jamaican woman whose behind the lines “British hotel” helped wounded soldiers convalesce during the Crimean War, is certainly an ambitious play. But Jackie Siubblies Drury has taken Seacole’s life and added on so much— including Mary’s fellow nurse Florence Nightingale’s own battlefield exploits to the selfless nurses and caregivers on a modern-day hospital ward—that the on-the-nose writing becomes suffocating, even eclipsing her own heroine as an exemplar of someone who values the well-being of others over her own survival.


Taking the outline of Mary’s eventful and worthy life (in 1991, she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit, and in 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton), Drury has thrown linear biography to the wind, instead reordering Mary’s life through a funhouse mirror of different eras, characters and events. There are several other female characters, all with the initial M—including Mary’s mother, Druppy Mary—who are embodied by skillful actresses, including the always incisive Ismenia Mendes. Mary herself is played by the endlessly resourceful Quincy Tyler Bernstine, a magisterial performer in whatever she does. (I still remember her cameo in Kenneth Lonergan’s masterly Manchester by the Sea.) 


Unfortunately, Drury’s writing and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s directing isn’t insightful or gripping enough to allow the many segments and tonal shifts to cohere in any meaningful way. The capable cast is encouraged to shout and scream much of its dialogue, making for much shrillness amid the cacophony of sights and sounds. Chaka Khan’s hit “I’m Every Woman” not only is sung by Mary as a showstopper midway through but returns at the end so no one misses the apostrophe-less title’s very obvious point, a point which is laboriously hammered to death over the play’s 90 minutes. 


Despite such waywardness, there’s a kernel of a good play here, and the best moments hit on the same points with humor and simplicity. Even more subtlety would have made for a far more penetrating play.  


Marys Seacole

LCT 3 @ Lincoln Center Theater, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

March '19 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 


(Warner Bros)

Aquaman is the latest superhero to get his due onscreen, and James Wan’s overstuffed but entertaining movie runs headlong into crazily convoluted plotting about underwater plotting among the people of Atlantis, led by our hero’s own half-brother, the ruler of the realm, who wants to make war on humans since they’ve recklessly polluted the oceans.




There’s such a surfeit of effects shots that it doesn’t matter that Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson and Willem Dafoe are basically cashing a check; and, of course, the ending paves the way for what will assuredly be more than one sequel. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras comprise several behind-the-scenes featurettes.




Uncompromising Mexican director Carlos Reygadas never skimps on what others might consider unshowable, and his 2002 feature debut—in which he features a sex scene between his middle-aged protagonist and the elderly woman who reawakens his manly desires—is no exception. However, although it’s beautifully shot in ultra-widescreen, this story of a profound spiritual crisis remains distant and fuzzy to hold our interest for well over two hours.




Criterion’s Blu-ray features a splendid hi-def transfer; extras include a new conversation between Reygadas and filmmaker Amat Escalante; actor Alejandro Ferretis’ on-set video diary; Maxhumain, Reygadas’ 1999 short film; and a deleted scene.






King of Thieves 


Based on an infamous 2015 incident in London, James Marsh’s crime caper follows several elderly ex-cons who get together for a brazen robbery: millions of pounds from the vault of a safe deposit company.




With familiar veterans in the leads—Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone, Michael Gambon—this plays as an engaging lark and déjà vu drama, like something we’ve seen before: at the end, Marsh even cuts to brief shots of the actors in earlier films (all in B&W). It’s offbeat but entertaining nonetheless. The film looks fine on Blu; lone extra is a making-of featurette.


Second Act 


This latest attempt to jump-start Jennifer Lopez’s movie career is another silly rom-com, as she stars as a big-box store assistant manager who gets a plum position at a top Manhattan advertising firm, until it almost comes crashing down when her real background is uncovered.




At least there’s a wisecracking Leah Remini as her sidekick (as she seems to be in real life) and the appealing Vanessa Hudgens as her antagonist at the agency—although the plot twist involving the pair is so ludicrous that it hangs over the proceedings all the way through. Early on, she was impressive in Jack, U-Turn and Out of Sight, but J. Lo has since sailed along on negligible pap. There’s a good hi-def transfer; extras are featurettes and interviews.






DVDs of the Week 

Monsieur and Madame Adelman 

(Distrib Films US/Icarus)

In this sprawling, too-clever look at the on-again-off-again 40-year relationship between an acclaimed author and his muse, director-writer-actor Nicolas Bedos and writer-actress Doria Tillier—a couple in real life—give marvelous performances, even managing to look and act believably as old-age makeup: Tillier especially is unforgettably complex in a difficult role.




It’s too bad that such a multi-layered character study, studded with moments of ringing insight and invention, is actually eclipsed by its own innovations, making for an increasingly wearying two hours. Still, there’s much to admire, and Tillier is definitely someone to look over for.


Out of Love


(Omnibus/Film Movement)

These films explore the psychological ramifications of relationships that border on obsession, sacrificing original insights for stereotypes helped by bravura acting. In 2016’s Out of Love, Dutch director Paloma Aguilera Valdebenito’s familiar scenario (couple meets cute and embarks on an intense affair bordering on masochism, leaving physical and mental scars) is propped up by intense performances by Daniil Vorobyov and fearless Naomi Velissariou.




Likewise, in 2013’s Ritual, Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi’s melodrama about a young woman and her dominating lover, Désirée Giorgetti gives an emotionally naked portrayal of a woman trying to escape the clutches of a man who repels and attracts her. 


Tracking Edith 

(First Run)

The Edith of the title of this arresting documentary is Edith Tudor-Hart, a noted British photographer who—unbeknownst to nearly everyone—was also part of a Soviet spy ring that recruited the famed turncoat Kim Philby, leading to some of the most damaging intelligence failures of the entire Cold War.




Director Peter Stephan Jungk (Edith’s great nephew) overturns every stone in his quest to discover what could have led his great aunt to become a traitor: his investigation leads him to Moscow where he’s stonewalled, but discovers enough to warrant this detailed 90-minute portrait of a woman whose wayward allegiance will forever eclipse her artistic talent.






CDs of the Week

The Romantic Piano Concerto 78—Clara Schumann, etc. 


Tasmin Little—Works by Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Amy Beach 


Clara Schumann will always stay in the shadow of her husband Robert, but her beguiling music still gets recorded, including two works on new discs. Her enticing piano concerto highlights the 78th (!) volume of the Romantic Piano Concerto series, with Howard Shelley the skillful soloist and conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Minor but attractive works by a trio of obscure Romantic-era composers round out the disc. 





On Chandos, violinist Tasmin Little performs works by Clara and two major composers, American Amy Beach and Briton Ethel Smyth, both of whose violin sonatas are substantial by any standard. Clara’s Three Romances for violin and piano are lovely miniatures, and Little gives them a spirited hearing, accompanied by her adept pianist John Lenehan.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Bring Life to Strauss, Liszt, & More

Andris Nelson, photo by Chris Lee
A terrific season at Carnegie Hall continued magnificently on the evenings of Tuesday and Wednesday, March 19th and 20th, with two concerts given by the superb musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The first program—under the outstanding direction of Andris Nelsons—was devoted to music by Richard Strauss, with the first half featuring music from his underrated final opera, Capriccio, beginning with the beautiful Sextet for Strings which serves as the work’s overture. The excellent players included Tamara Smirnova and Haldan Martinson on violins, Steven Ansell and Cathy Basrak on violas, and Blaise Déjardin and Adam Esbensen on cellos. The sumptuous texture here prefigures that of the even more lush Metamorphosen for string orchestra that the composer completed a few years later.
The fabulous soprano Renée Fleming, who looked especially glamorous, then took the stage for an extraordinary rendition of the lovely Moonlight Music and Closing Scene, sounding less underpowered than she has in several of her most recent appearances in New York. The singer is one of the finest Strauss interpreters and her performance in this work at the Metropolitan Opera just a few years ago made that modernized production one of the most satisfying I’ve ever seen. As a tribute to the eminent conductor, composer, and pianist, André Previn, who recently passed away, Fleming sang the lovely aria, “Sea Air,” from the composer’s opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, in which the soprano had performed the lead role at the work’s premiere. The evening closed with a glorious account of the amazing tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra.
The second program—under the brilliant direction of the celebrated composer, conductor, and pianist, Thomas Adès, the orchestra’s Deborah and Philip Edmundson Artistic Partner—opened exuberantly with an impressive version of Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which was inspired by Nikolaus Lenau’s Faust. The renowned virtuoso, Kirill Gerstein, then took the stage for the New York premiere of Ades’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. The soloist and the composer have collaborated several times before—Gerstein’s debut with this ensemble was a performance of Ades’s previous work for piano and orchestra, In Seven Days, in 2012, and last week at Carnegie Hall they gave a two-piano recital. Last month, in Gerstein’s recital at this same venue, he presented the world premiere of a Berceuse for solo piano from the composer’s 2017 opera, The Exterminating Angel. Although I am not fully competent to judge a work in this advanced idiom, the concerto was engaging and not without its pleasures, especially for its remarkable instrumental writing.
The evening concluded stupendously with a mesmerizing realization of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s masterly Symphony No. 4. The artists admirably conveyed the drama and intense Romanticism of the opening movement, while the ensuing Andantino reinforced the sense of longing, if enchantingly so. The ebullient Scherzo was immensely charming but most exhilarating of all was the thrilling finale, in which the conductor relied on unusually accelerated tempos. I eagerly look forward to the return of these splendid musicians!

Leon Botstein Interview—Martinů’s Opera “Julietta” at Carnegie Hall

American Symphony Orchestra: The Key of Dreams

Leon Botstein, music director

March 22, 2019


Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů

For decades, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have consistently put on the most innovative and exciting classical-music programming in New York. Usually thematic in nature—the ASO’s first concert this season in October, A Walt Whitman Sampler, featured a rare live performance of Vaughan Williams’ expansive A Sea Symphony—the annual slate also features an annual performance of an obscure opera, usually from the 20th century and often overdue to be heard by audiences.


Last season was Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza 1960, an unabashedly modernist and explicitly socialist work rarely presented in New York (or anywhere else, for that matter). On March 22 at Carnegie Hall, Botstein and the ASO present Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s Julietta, which many consider his operatic masterpiece. Botstein recently discussed Martinů, choosing operas to resurrect and what’s coming in a few months at his other job, running the annual Bard Music Festival, which looks at the musical world of a single composer each summer.


Kevin Filipski: With so many worthy but underheard 20th century composers from which to choose, how did you pick Martinů?

Leon Botstein: First of all, it’s the quality of the composer, the significance of the composer and the consistency of his music. Over the years, interest in Martinů has grown. There are the orchestral works, of course, and he was an avid opera composer. Two of his operas stand out: his last, The Greek Passion, and Julietta, which is considered his finest opera, a real masterpiece. The more you look into it, the more you see how unusual it is. I like to think of Julietta as a psychoanalytic opera, with extremely innovative use of speech and music, and melodrama and dialogue. It’s really a fantastic piece. I didn’t really know much of its performance history, and it’s never been done in the U.S.

Sara Jakubiak sings the title role of Julietta 
(photo: Ashley Plante)


KF: Julietta was originally done in French. Why perform it in Martinů’s original language, Czech?

LB: This is a long back-and-forth. If I remember correctly, I retranslated it from French into Czech. The original story and novel are French. A Martinů scholar has done a new critical edition for the Czech version. Given its performance history and Martinů’s own relationship to the Czech language, he was quite like Janáček, who believed that the actual sound of the language was a crucial element. In Martinů’s case, it’s his own revision of the original version: if you will, an analogy might be made between Beethoven’s Fidelio and LeonoreFidelio is what we play on the stage, but it’s Beethoven’s distillation of his complete work on this project. The Czech Julietta appears to have the same status. There’s a feeling that Czech is sonically more effective and that this version is the final statement by the composer.


KF: I know you have a list of many worthy operas you’d like to perform. Can you explain your process of choosing them?

LB: This opera was definitely on my list. There’s a whole fantastic repertoire of Czech opera, and two Smetana operas have always been on my list: Dalibor and Two Widows. In Martinů’s case, Julietta and The Greek Passion, as I said earlier, have been on the list of operas that need a fresh look and a fresh hearing. Julietta has been on my mind for awhile: in the 90s, I had the honor of working with Czech pianist Rudolf Firkusny, for whom Martinů wrote his piano concertos. He was a good friend of Martinů and lent me his own score of Martinů’s piano concertos and encouraged me to look into more of his music. For many of us, Martinů was a name but just in a general sense, not for any specific work. There was a tremendous output—he was tremendously prolific—but not anything that was so far in view that you could follow the trail, like Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, for example. When I was preparing for the Dvořák Bard Music Festival (1993), I stumbled on a whole bunch of names that I didn’t know anything about, including Suk and Martinů. Suddenly a whole Czech tradition opened up in the 19th and 20th century. My first encounter with Martinů was with the symphonic music: a few seasons ago I conducted his sixth symphony. 

Leon Botstein (photo: Ric Kallaher)


KF: Speaking of the Bard Music Festival, what’s on tap for this summer?

LB: This summer is Korngold, which will be fascinating, because he’s somebody who had 2-1/2 careers. He was an opera and chamber music composer before the mid-1930s, and he was also a phenomenal prodigy. Die Tote Stadt, which we’re doing a concert performance of, was one of the most highly performed operas in the early 1920s. He was a sensation, and his serious opera is Das Wunder der Heliane, which we will perform in a staged version. So we’ll look at Korngold’s career, and in the process, we’ll also hear how he was engaged in operetta along with his contemporaries. We’ll show how he took music he wrote for movies and turned it into concert music, because he really didn’t make a big distinction between them. And we’ll do a serious sampling of his orchestral and instrumental output. 


KF: In this fragmented culture, how does serious music stay relevant for audiences?

LB: There are essentially two pillars of our art forum that seem to do well. First, it’s the new: new work, new names on the scene and premieres; in that category I would put new artists like pianists, violinists and conductors. So in that sense it’s a new performer and new composer-based structure. Then there’s the standard repertory, what I would call a Ferris wheel, which goes around and around. We’ll see a lot of it in the Beethoven year (2020 is the 250th anniversary of his birth) and it changes almost not at all. What’s vanished completely is the third absolutely essential pillar, maintaining the vitality of the rich history of this art form, which is what we do with Bard and the ASO It’s the hardest thing to bring across. We’re in the business of engendering curiosity, not having an aesthetic war of, say, tonal vs. atonal. That kind of nonsense is no longer relevant. What is relevant is to get listeners to hear music with a sense of curiosity and not nervousness if they don’t recognize something. You have to build trust with the audience, which is what we are doing with Bard and the ASO.


American Symphony Orchestra: The Key of Dreams

Carnegie Hall

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