Archive | Theater Matters

The Tricks and Treats of ‘Cymbeline’

“Cymbeline” may be the red-headed stepchild of Shakespeare’s plays. Theoretically, it’s got it all: a scheming queen, beheadings, mistaken identities, battlefields, magic potions, a girl passing as a boy. But with a labyrinthine plot, unaccommodating verse, and oddbot allusions to the Bard’s earlier works, it defies categorization, let alone easy analysis. Who but a director like Michael Almereyda – best known for his modish, moody 2000 adaptation of “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke – would dare tackle such fare?

I’m glad he did. Shakespearean adaptations are a dime a dozen but most are “as inspired by the play by William Shakespeare” affairs like “10 Things I Hate About You” or Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (though the former is a solid 1990s Heath Ledger vehicle). Movies that really honor the playwright’s spirit are rarer birds, and with a languid playfulness, Almereyda has made exactly that. He also has shown us that “Cymbeline” is a play whose time has come again.

Like Almereyda’s “Hamlet,” this film is set in modern times but preserves an unusual amount of Shakespeare’s original speech. It is a study in sly casting, too. With his unhappily darting eyes and small shoulders squared in a leather jacket, Ed Harris is perfect as Cymbeline, the king of a motorcycle gang – as is Milla Jovovich as his second wife, a queen so cruelly beautiful that her tiara doesn’t even seem ironic. (More than any actress of her generation, Jovovich has always seemed born to play cruelly beautiful middle-aged women.) With saucer eyes and the smoothest of skin, Gossip Boy Penn Badgley plays the skate-boarding Posthumous, Cymbeline’s favorite disciple until he falls for Imogene (Dakota Johnson), the biker king’s daughter. Though lovely in a new-millennial-doll sort of way, she widens her eyes and mealy-mouths her dialogue as if nothing more could be required of a third-generation scion of Hollywood sirens (her mother is Melanie Griffith; her grandmother, the swoony Tippi Hedren). Such reacting rather than acting works here, though, as she mostly serves as the object around which all the real action rotates. Continue Reading →

The Meta Mea Culpa of ‘Venus in Fur’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film. 

Handily, “Venus in Fur,” which is adapted from David Ives’ Tony Award-winning play, which in turn is adapted from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, is about adaptation itself. As if that were not bald enough, it is also a two-person film about a woman and a man worrying over a script on a bare stage. Yet this is Roman Polanski’s finest work in decades. It hones in on elements of horror lurking in ordinary human dynamics with a lurid specificity that the director has not evinced since the drama of his personal life eclipsed his professional life more than thirty years ago.

True, “Venus” treads familiar terrain for Polanksi, who has not returned to the United States since he fled the country in 1977 after pleading guilty to charges of raping a thirteen-year-old girl. It stars Mathieu Amalric – who, with his puckish features and light dusting of facial hair, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Polish-French director himself – as writer-director Thomas auditioning Vanda, a floozy actress played by Polanski’s real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner, for his play about a sadomasochistic relationship. But Polanski seems to be tackling this familiar terrain from a new angle: “Venus” is a superbly crafted meta-mea culpa, a strange new cinema genre that may not be for the faint of heart (don’t try this at home, kids!) but nonetheless transfixes us for its entire ninety-six minutes. Continue Reading →

La Middle-Aged Vie Boheme

Lately I can’t stop listening to the soundtrack of Rent. I didn’t even like that musical when it first came out, arguably because I was living in the creative ghetto of Manhattan’s Lower East Side amongst a bunch of drug addicts and queens of all genders, and resented what felt like a Disney version of my life. Twenty years later, I adore its cocktail of pathos and joy, which just goes to show you that nostalgia can be generated for anything once it’s passed.

I’m especially moved that, with great heart, this production puts its “Today 4 U” money where its mouth is. Written in the midst of the AIDS crisis, it is based upon many characters who did not survive to see the 21st century, and was written by a young man who, because of a genetic syndrome, knew that he would not. Now that I’m of an age when my peers and I daily live with mortality as a reality rather than a fantasy, I appreciate Rent’s carpe-doomsday aesthetic, even if it does come with jazz hands. I sing selections from its soundtrack all the time. “Light My Candle” as I clean; “Life Support” as I drive; “Seasons of Love” as I cook; “Will I” as I pay bills; “Santa Fe” as I walk block after NYC block; “Take Me or Leave Me” as I paint. Often I weep as I sing, but it’s not unhappy weeping. It’s that my-joy-and-sorrow-connects-me-to-the-universe sort of weeping. It’s weeping along the lines of that Stella Adler quote: Life beats down the soul and art reminds you that you have one.

At the same time I’ve become a ’90s musical enthusiast, I can’t stop painting and wallpapering things. This began when I commenced my home rehab last fall. I’d always feigned the vapors when anything had to be fixed around my rent-stabilized apartment, either Tom Sawyering an innocent bystander or, more than often than not, ignoring the problem entirely until it toppled on my head. (That really happened once; a badly installed ceiling lamp fell on my bed just as I was going to town on a long-lashed lover.) I think I assumed–feminism be damned!–that eventually I’d be married or moneyed, and so would be able to permanently fob off those handyman tasks or just move somewhere grander. But after last fall’s final break from a man I deeply love, I accepted my life might always be white steed-free. So I rolled up my sleeves and commenced to finally fix up this fix-it-upper—to divest and plaster and sand and paint and forage. You know, that Marge Piercy quote: Bless whatever you can with eyes and hands and tongue. If you can’t bless it, get ready to make it new. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy