Saturday, June 27, 2009

Shakespeare in the Park

You know you have a good friend when... she'll stand in Central Park all day to get tickets for Shakespeare in the Park. Annette was a champ, arriving at 9:30am, to get tickets for Twelfth Night at the Delacorte. Was it worth the wait? Simply put, the show was fantastic. The play was vividly and energetically brought to life.

Most of the show's reviews start with a discussion of the show's headliner, Anne Hathaway. Charles Isherwood, who reviewed the play for The New York Times, certainly did. He spent the first half of his review gushing over her performance. It was mildly nauseating (which makes me wonder just how low his expectations were to fall all over himself like that). She was good, but as I was sitting there watching her be Anne-Hathaway-in-a-soldier's-uniform, I realized just why the Public Theater mounted Twelfth Night so quickly after it's last run of the play (in 2002, Julia Stiles was Viola): Viola may be the character the plot largely turns around, but she's not on stage all that much. This fact makes the play a fantastic vehicle for young, untried-on-stage, film ingenues. If they're good, so much the better. If they're not so good, it doesn't really matter because Viola's scenes are few and far between and it's an ensemble piece--the genius of Feste, the hilarity of Sir Andrew Aguecheeck, and the acerbic tongue of Maria can keep the audience engaged and chortling.

Director Daniel Sullivan hedged his bets, surrounding Hathaway with a superb supporting cast. Julie White was a pitch-perfect Maria. Hamish Linklater, who played the wayward knight Andrew Aguecheek, offered a sincere and hilarious interpretation, imbuing the character with an injured dignity rarely seen in the role. Raul Esperaza managed to portray Orsino's stalkerish and incessant chase of Maria as sympathetic, even noble. Michael Cumptsy, as Malvoli, and David Pittu, as Feste, stole the show. Their scene, in which Festes impersonate the rector Sir Topaz to taunt the imprisoned Malvolio, was squirm-in-your-seat masterful.

Part of the delight of the show was the set, designed by John Lee Beatty, and the way the actors used it. Beatty created a set that was a park within a park, with verdant, rolling hills of astroturf nestled under the night-dark treeline of Central Park. Plus, it just looked fun to be on. The back of the set was about eight feet high and formed a sort of wall, along which was a path lined with trees. A staircase carved out of the hillside allowed the actors to move from the top down to the bottom. At centerstage on the right and left sides were gentle hillocks, both liberally planted with trees. The characters his behind trees. They ran up and down the hills, slid down them, jumped off them, and generally employed the set as an aid to create great physical comedy. Beatty's set was the perfect example of a set designer and a director perfectly merging their talents to create something better than its constituent parts.

Shakespeare in the Park is a gift to the residents of the City and this production of Twelfth Night was well worth the wait in line. Annette, I got your back next time.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Model as Muse

I have a lowbrow proclivity to admit: I love “America’s Next Top Model.” I cannot get enough of Tyra Bank’s modeling competition. Last cycle, I even carefully orchestrated my Manhattan to Long Island commute to make certain I would be home by 7:45, settled down, and in place for the 8:00 start. I can’t even excuse this reality show viewing by likening it to watching a train wreck. I actually like seeing the clothes the girls model. I’m amused by the girls whining about how HARD modeling is and I even get a kick out of watching Tyra swan around the judging room.

Imagine my shock when my lowbrow indulgence actually informed my enjoyment of a highbrow exhibition, “Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion” at the Met. I had no idea that I had learned so much about iconic fashion images and the history of the fashion industry from a reality television show. See team, tv won’t always rot your brain.

Looking at an image from the 1950s of a model in profile, bent over with her arms akimbo, my date exclaimed “Ugh, why is she hunched over like that.” While I trilled at the exact same moment, “Look at those angles!” Nigel, one of the photographer-judges on the show, is adamant that the girls contort their limbs to create more visual interest in an image.

Walking by a wall of Sports Illustrated covers, I started looking for Tyra. As I helpfully informed my date, she had been the first African American model to grace the yearly bikini issue. Sure enough, the cover was there, although I suspect he would have appreciated it even without the historical context.

Strolling along another wall of covers from the late 1970s/early 1980s, I started looking for Janice Dickinson. Sure enough, she was there too. When I mentioned to my date that she was the first supermodel, he naturally asked, “How did she become the first?”

“Oh,” I replied. “She coined the phrase.” I didn’t mention that Janice’s status as the first supermodel was an oft mentioned fact on ANTM, where she had been a judge for a few cycles.

“I see.” He said.

Then because I couldn’t stop myself, I added “She destroyed her face with too much plastic surgery.” I could see him start to wonder how exactly he had been induced to wonder through a fashion exhibition with a woman who could spew idiotic minutia like this. Still, he gamely carried on. Although, really, how hard is it to be a good sport when you get to ogle gorgeous women to your heart’s content?

Even without my hard-won knowledge from Top Model, I would have dug the exhibition. From the very first display—a recreation of Dovima wearing Christian Dior and posed with her arms outstretched next to two elephants—you could tell that the exhibition designer had a field day. The exhibition was exuberantly playful, occasionally reverent, often irreverent, coy, and accessible. The hallway leading into the main galleries were illuminated with photographer’s umbrella-ed lights. Each gallery represented a different decade and each gallery was decorated in the era’s aesthetic—the ‘90s gallery looked like a grunge club with glow-in the dark graffiti on the walls and black lights for illumination. My date and I spent almost as long just checking out the model graffiti on the walls.

Still, he must not have enjoyed himself as much as I thought. He hasn’t call since. I guess I better save geeking-out about model trivia for my girlfriends. Or not.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

In Between the Rain Drops

Living in New York lately has felt a lot like living on the planet in Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day"--the rain never stops. At five this morning, I awoke to the steady beat of rain and cursed the never-ending water. Happily, by lunchtime the sky had cleared. Like the children in Bradbury's short story, Patty, Katie, and I scurried out into the sunshine, afraid to miss a moment.

We decided to walk over to the Brooklyn Museum since Katie and I had never been. On our way, we discovered a street fair underway on 7th Ave. It went on for blocks and blocks and there were tons of people out and about. We gorged ourselves on Italian sausages and peppers, Thai spring rolls, and fruit smoothies on our walk. It's just the sort of sustenance once needs for a day of museum viewing. Besides, you can't go to a street fair without experiencing the street fare.

We got a little lost on the way to the Brooklyn Museum, but--happily--we discovered the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Inspired by the glimpses of the roses we had caught behind the wrought iron fences, we decided to scrap the Museum for verdant paths and gorgeous flowers.

Entering the Botanic Garden is like leaving the borough behind. Once you are within the gates, it is a wholly new place. Although the occasional high-rise apartment insinuates itself into the view, the vistas are largely uninterrupted green space. One of the loveliest parts of the Garden is the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. The calm lake with large koi, the hanging weeping willows, and the simple wooden bridge beguiled us. Beyond the bridge was a charming waterfall. In the pool at the bottom, turtles sunned themselves on a rock. They too were soaking up the sun time.

As we walked along the outer edge of the Garden, we spotted the Brooklyn Museum and decided to pop in for the rest of the afternoon. I must admit, I was slightly mystified by the museum's exterior. Who ruins a beaux art facade by slapping on some tiered-glass spaceship? I suppose it's meant to make the museum more inviting and to draw people in on the ground-level, but I still think it's aesthetically horrifying.

The Museum's facade, it turns out, foreshadowed the juxtapositions within. As nonplussed as I was by the outside of the museum, that's how enchanted I was with the installation of the "American Identities" gallery. In this gallery, decorative arts are juxtaposed with paintings (and sometimes the ceramics or furniture depicted in the painting have a one to one example in a case below the painting). English colonial paintings are displayed next to Spanish colonial paintings, showing the similar ways in which the upper class established their social position. A landscape of Niagra Falls was in dialogue with an abstract painting of water splatters. Both vibrated with the energy of thousands of tons of cascading water.

What I loved about "American Identities" was the sense of excitement. The galleries were painted in vibrant colors. Patty and Katie thought the colors were too saturated and took away from the art, but I thought the colored walls created a sense of dynamism. When I walked into the gallery, it was as if the walls said something is happening here. Then as I focused in on the paintings and decorative arts how they were presented, you could see that there were really exciting dialogues between the displayed objects.

That same dynamism was also on display in the Brooklyn Museum's Luce Center. Unlike the static one at the Met (parallel rows of case after case of furniture, silver, glass, and paintings), the Brooklyn Museum's drew the visitor further and further into it. A display of Tiffany glasses were lit up just inside the entrance. A display with a Murphy's folding chair contained a video screen showing technicians manipulating the chair into its 50 different iterations. Drawers with objects could be pulled in and out, creating a jewelry box sense of excitement. This was the first Luce Center I encountered that was playful.

It was an amazing day in Brooklyn and I'm looking forward to visiting the Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum many more times. It would take a year of Sundays to take it all in.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Our House

Patty and I just moved to Park Slope last weekend.
We’re still getting used to the amount of time it takes to get from place to place. We misjudged last night and missed the first ten minutes of “Our House” at Playwright’s Horizon.

When we arrived at the theater, the usher put us in a small holding pen at the top of the theater until the next cue when she could show us to seats in the theater.
The “holding pen” had plexiglass and it created the strange distancing effect of television as we started watching Merv, played by the daffily self-absorbed Jeremy Strong, and Alice, played by the self-righteously infuriated Katie Kreisler, argue about who was going to clean the kitchen. Ugh, I thought, why do we want to watch a scripted Big Brother. It’s bad enough idiots like this fill the air waves. It turns out, as a few more minutes of watching unfolded, that was the whole point of the play (you know, I really need to start reading synopses before I go to these things)

“Our House” is preciously meta.
A tv exec of the fictional SBS (an acryonym for Such BullShit, perhaps?) network decides that because the network’s ratings are too low; he’s going to shake things up by making Jennifer, pitch perfect Morena Baccarin, his star morning news anchor the host of the Big-Brother-style reality tv show “Our House.” Merv, who is obsessed with tv, watches it openmouthed as his own interpersonal relationships explode around him.

The script written by Theresa Rebeck was strong, with biting dialogue and trenchant observations on the dumbing down of network television, the role of news in America (the tv exec wants to do away with it totally and is shocked that the FCC requires he broadcast news to get the airwaves for free), and the refracted reality of reality television.
Strong theater takes situations far beyond reality, or rather, to a reality rarely achieved in life. In this case, Merv takes his roommates hostage after a particularly fraught house meeting. Rebeck made me squirm as she sent her vauntingly ambitious tv anchor into the fray and overlooked common human decency to get the story.

It’s a smart play and the acting is excellent—and no surprise, over half the cast was educated at Julliard.
And yet, I really disliked the play and the actors in it. Part of this might be director Michael Mayer’s fault, the acting too often devolved to outright shouting. Shouting certainly raises the stakes, but too much shouting loses impact and quickly becomes stagey. In real life, people can rarely afford to lose their tempers so often. In this case, the shouting was simply sloppily characterization too—used to communicate diva fits, put-upon martyrdom, and boorish self-centeredness. Towards the end I wanted to shout, “Just move out and spare us all!”

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