Thursday, August 6, 2015

#ScreenReview: Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal's THE WORDS (2012)

Stranger Than Fiction
Director-Auteurs Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal pay tribute to the written word by weaving their own tale of intrigue and ambition 

One of the many reasons I write about drama -- or write at all, period -- is not just because of the films and Broadway shows that I was lucky enough to be exposed to as a young girl living in New York.  Yes, I live for costume dramas and shows with spectacle, but it's always been more than that: it was always, above all else, about the storytelling behind the smoke and mirrors.  In many ways, stories are what drive us; they connect us to those long gone, bridging the gap between generations past and present.  Nowhere in modern film, apart from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (2011), has that idea been so strongly represented on celluloid than in Klugman-Sternthal's collaborative effort, The Words (2012).

The film -- which boasts an ensemble of stars such as Dennis Quaid (CBS's Vegas), Olivia Wilde (HerBradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Zoe Saldana (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeremy Irons (Showtime's The Borgias), to name a few -- is told in three different timelines, each one being told by the other.  At the film's opening, we see author Clay Hammond (Quaid) giving a reading of his novel, The Words.  He tells the story of Rory Jansen, an aspiring novelist played by Cooper, who struggles to get his work published.  While he struggles, living on whatever loans his working class father (J.K. Simmons, in a surprise cameo) could willingly provide.  Eventually, after many tireless attempts at courting various publishers, Rory and his wife Dora (Saldana) fall into a daily routine as live-in lovers before marrying and subsequently honeymooning in that city of cities for writers: Paris, of course.

Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana as Rory and Dora in 2012's The Words.
(Photo source unknown.)
It is in Paris where, after visiting his literary hero Ernest Hemingway's plaque on the Rue de Cardinal-Lemoine, Dora finds an old briefcase in an antique shop and buys it as a present for her new husband, not knowing the secret he'll eventually discover in it.  The secret, as it turns out, is an aged manuscript that seems to have been tucked away in the back pocket of the briefcase for years.    Upon finishing it, Rory is simultaneously in awe and intimidated at the words he'd just read on the page.  Before we know it, he is sitting at his desk, re-typing the words from the manuscript onto his computer because, as our narrator Hammond describes it, he "needed to feel what it was like to touch it."  With no intentions of doing anything with it, he comes homes to find Dora in tears, having read the manuscript herself on his laptop and -- ignorant of its true source -- insists that Rory take it to his publishers at once.

The story – which Rory titles The Window Tears – is published and welcomed to great fanfare as the newest literary darling, winning a plethora of awards.  It is at one of these awards ceremonies that another character in the story reveals himself: an Old Man lurking in the shadows (played by the inimitable Irons himself).  That next day, he sits down on a park bench next to Rory and starts conversation with him, feigning the role of just another fan of the young man's work.  However, behind the Old Man's affability seems to belie a different motive and sensing this, Rory starts to make his leave.  That is, until the Old Man starts to tell him a story "about a man who wrote a book and then lost it -- and the pissant kid who found it."

This grabs Rory's attention long enough to stop in his tracks, and the film heads into its third act, with the old-timer describing in detail the story from which the words in Jansen's supposed novel are derived.  Like layers of an onion, the years fall back in time to Paris in 1944, at the tail-end of the Second World War.  The Old Man is now 18 years-old, and though sent abroad as a young soldier, he never saw battle.  During this time in Paris, he not only falls in love with books and words, but also with a French woman named Celia.  What transpires afterwards is a heartbreaking series of events which finally inspires the man to finally write.

Jeremy Irons and Bradley Cooper as the Old Man and Rory Jansen.
(Photo source unknown)

Upon hearing the true story behind the words he'd paraded as his own, Rory is simultaneously awed and guilt-ridden.  After finally confessing to both Dora and his agent, Rory goes back to the man and offers him payment in kind -- which the old-timer adamantly refuses.    He advises Rory to just walk away, stating, "We all make choices in life.  The hard thing is to live with them."  The Old Man walks away, his last statement ringing in his younger counterpart's ears like the bell on a typewriter, signalling finality.

Only, it doesn't quite end there.

When we return to the world of author Clay Hammond, his audience -- grad student Daniella (Wilde) -- is left bereft at the ambiguity of the story. At one point, Hammond states: "That's it, the end.  No moral, no comeuppance, no incredible gain of knowledge other than the belief that, after making a terrible mistake in life, that one can continue to live and perhaps even live well."  Daniella is convinced that there's more truth to the fiction than the author lets on.  Perhaps he has been able to forget and write and "fool a few people," she challenges.  Or perhaps, she further ventures, "when he's alone late at night, he can't sleep, because when he closes his eyes he still sees the face of that old man."

It is through this exchange with Daniella that we realize that Hammond himself may be the troubled young author portrayed in his own story.  Suddenly, that "mask of confidence" the woman before him alluded to fades, only to reveal a tired, worn face -- perhaps one tired of hiding from the truth.  As the film finally draws to a close, he tells Daniella: "Sometimes you have to choose between life and fiction -- the two are very, very close but never actually touch."

 Nora Arnazeder and Ben Barnes as Celia and the Young Man.
(Photo via IndieWire)
As previously mentioned, this film features a cast of familiar faces, and in that regard -- as far as acting is concerned -- it does not disappoint.   Cooper delivers a compelling performance reminiscent to that of his turn in 2011's Limitless, wherein he also portrays a writer desperate for a break.  Other standouts include: Quaid, in his best Creepy Lit Professor impression; and Irons, as the spurned Old Man struggling to live with past traumas.  But perhaps the most notable performance are the two actors, Ben Barnes (The Chronicles of Narnia trilogy) and newcomer Nora Arnezeder (Paris 36), who portray the lovers Young Man and Celine, respectively, during the Paris sequence.  Their portion of the film was heartbreaking and encompassed for me a bulk of my emotional investment in the story; this is no doubt owed much to their chemistry, as well as their commitment to their roles.

The Words, just as its title implies, is a visual ode to the written word.  All obvious Hemingway references aside -- lots of obvious and not-so-obvious easter eggs abound throughout, including an actual copy of The Sun Also Rises featured in close-up at one point -- it is a provocative portrait of the fine line between reality and fiction, and how sometimes the two collide more often than we realize.  It's a daring premise that sometimes the lengths artists will go to in order to tell a story...may not have any moral tied to it, after all.

Because ultimately, it's the stories -- not us -- that go on living forever.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

#Randomosities: The "Oh, Those Summer Ni-ii-ights!" Edition (High Falsetto Singing Abilities Not Included)

(via funnyordie)

The thing about taking a "hiatus" during the summer is that a lot of interesting things start happening, even when you've already hit that sweet spot on your couch (and/or bed), laptop perfectly perched ever-so-comfortably atop your stomach, season 3 of Girls poised to be marathon'd.

Ahhhh, yes.  Summertime.

Normally, this is the point where I would go into what I've previously been calling #LINKLOVE, but what will henceforth be known as #RANDOMOSITIES.  Basically, for those unfamiliar with the blog, some bits and bobs of links pertaining to places, people and things that have piqued my interest lately.  Without further ado, here are this week's randomz:

That's it for today.  'Til then, stay cool guys (literally).


(p.s., I [finally!] posted my review of TITAN Theatre Company's ALL-FEMALE production of Othello!  Check it outttttt.)

Monday, June 1, 2015

#QuoteOfTheMoment: Haruki Murakami

"People change," Sara said. 

"True enough," Tsukuru said. "People do change. And no matter how close we once were, and how much we opened up to each other, maybe neither of us knew anything substantial about the other."

- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,
Haruki Murakami

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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Oh, that Sweet Refrain, or: I'm Not a Playa, I Just Crush a Lot.

I've been thinking about repetitions a lot, lately.  In fact, so much so that when I read this post by fellow writer/blogger (and unabashed wielder of feminist badassery) Christina, I was all, "YES!  SOMEBODY ELSE WHO GETS IT!"

For those who were too lazy to click on that link above, here's a little TL;DR for you.  Basically, Christina wrote about something called an anaphora poem, which she defined as:

“...the repetition of a word or expression several times within a clause or within a paragraph”. In poetry the repetition of the phrase can be just at the beginning of each line, setting the tone as a meditation or a mantra, or it can be utilized more subtlety within the poem. The poem can be free verse or prose style.”

This whole anaphora-mantra thing struck me mainly because I'd recently been trying to write a poem around the word refrain, which can mean one of two things: a) a phrase or verse that is repeated regularly in poem or song, and b), to stop yourself from doing what you want to do.  Refrain.  In response to the actual post, I told Christina:

“..anaphora sounds a bit like a prompt I’ve been toying with lately: refrain. Been trying to connect the idea of something you hear repeated in a song that moves you, with the idea of something (or someONE) you keep coming back to."

...Yeahhhhhh.  It's that kind of prompt, that thing that you need to really sink into -- even though it's already found its way to sink under your skin.  And the other day, as reality did not live up to expectations (as it is often wont to do), I finally sunk down into the music of that repetition.  Having Karen O's Crush Songs filling my ears all the while certainly did help, too.

Here, the results of the last few days.  Not sure if I'm completely happy with it, and I know it'll go through even more changes than it already has, but for now, it'll do.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

On Inspiration, Artistry, & Other Personal Musings

I've been wondering lately whether or not I should keep this blog going.  I seem to always wonder this, though -- and there have been times when I actually have stopped -- but I suppose this is a common, cyclical thing for me.  I guess it's only natural to have to step back and re-evaluate where I am creatively, as I hope other creatives must do from time to time.

Those who've been reading since the beginning know how much passion I have towards the arts, and most particularly, theatre.  That has not dwindled, this much I know.  I love the pure joy and escapism of musical theatre, as well as the complexity of plays; how one can de-construct them in a variety of ways and never come up with the same answer every time.  I delight in it and in the fact that this never gets old for me.  Yet, while I love everything I've been doing on this blog and elsewhere, I've come to the realization that writing about theatre is not only a solitary occupation (and boy, is it ever!), but also quite a passive one at that.  I don't create anything, and if I've been missing anything these past couple years or so, it's the creative process.

So, if I've been seeming more M.I.A. than usual, it's because I have been working on other personal writing projects and trying to get those creative juices flowing again.  In the meantime, I turn to some choice words of wisdom from Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, which I have been re-reading these past few months:

This above all -- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?  Delve into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple "I must," then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.  Then draw near to Nature.  Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Rilke, the German poet maintained a steady correspondence with a young poet seeking advice on love and life, their letters chronicled from 1903-1908.  In the letter from which the above is taken (dated February 17th, 1903), the young poet had written to him, discouraged at the rejection of his verses by a magazine.  Rilke responds with the above, and then goes on to write:

Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.  Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it.  Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist.  Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.  For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.

It's funny that I should re-read Rilke's Letters now, when just a few weeks prior I came upon a letter of my own -- an email I'd received circa 2006 from a theater actor I had admired myself.  If you are lucky enough to have been around to read the very earliest iteration of this blog, than you will certainly remember that those first few awkward entries had nothing to do with theater reviews, but with my own personal grapplings with the all-too-familiar conflict of Reason versus Passion.  That is, my family's insistence on my application to nursing schools rather than art school, as I'd originally planned.

Those entries have since been deleted and now long gone, so I'll re-hash some of the advice which was dispensed to me here:

[...] What I've learned is that we essentially make that choice every day.  I can't decide if the artistic temperament is an instinct or an endowment (like being smart or naturally strong, etc.) -- but it doesn't run itself.  It has to be activated, defended, exercised, shared...or it atrophies and dies.  

And of course, he was right.  Nearly ten years later, the dilemma remains the same: Should I keep doing what I've been doing?  Can I really cut a career in the arts, or should I give in to more practical, money-making ventures?  Or is there a balance that can be struck?  I'm still trying to figure this out, and where this blog ranks under all of it.

I'm not sure myself if art truly is a calling (though it certainly has felt so to me, at times), but I do agree with the above; art, whatever it is, is a muscle which needs to constantly be exercised and attended to.  

And attend to it, I will.   Hopefully I'll see you on the other side.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

#Spotlight: TITAN Theatre Company

A Conversation with Lenny Banovez and Laura Frye 
of TITAN Theatre Company

Over the past year and a half I've spent writing for OffOffOnline, I've had the pleasure of reviewing some of the best (and worst) that off- and off-off-Broadway theatre has had to offer.  From the thrilling to just plain disappointing, it's safe to say the future of theatre pretty much runs the gamut.  Fortunately, there's been more good than bad, and of the two categories, I'm glad to say that the people at TITAN Theatre Company certainly fall under the former.  I first came across TITAN when I covered their first mounting of A Midsummer Night's Dream back in October of 2013 -- the review of which, in fact, was my inaugural one for the online publication.  Since then, every trip back to TITAN has been like stepping into a dream itself; for to venture into a TITAN production is to step into a world where classic literary characters are played by a different actor each night, brandishing guns and perhaps even donning Doc Martens or the occasional power suit (as Shakespearean characters are often wont to do, natch).

The Queens, New York-based collective got their humble start in 2009 when, in the basement of a Tex-Mex restaurant, co-founders (and spouses) Lenny Banovez and Laura Frye  -- along with producer Kevin Beebee -- decided to put on a few Shakespeare productions with their friends.  What resulted was an idea for a theatre company which would breathe new life into classic works, as well as an unintentional signature for "modernizing" Shakespearean plays.

In anticipation for their upcoming, entirely female-led production of Othello (insert gratuitous amounts of exclamation points here), I had the pleasure of sitting down with both Banovez and Frye last month at Long Island City eatery LIC Market, talking about all things TITAN, from The Bard to The Moor, and everything in between.  Here's how it went down.

The Resident Artist [RA]: So yeah, let's get to Othello...!

Lenny Banovez [LB], TITAN artistic director and co-founder: Oh, we're so excited.  [Laughs]  So excited.

RA: When you guys said "all-female," I was like, "I'm so gonna be there!"  It's funny because Othello is the Shakespeare [play] I'm least familiar with, so let me just ask you what spurred on the idea of wanting to do an all-female production?  It's sort of known for its masculinity and all of that; is it the dichotomy between the masculine and feminine, is it the themes of gender equality and how females can be just as fallible and agent as men?
LB: Well, the fun thing about it, before we get into how a girl would approach a male role... it's really interesting -- and everybody always expects what I call the "artsy" response -- the reason I really wanted to do it, and you kind of answered it, was for two reasons.  The first one, and the main reason, is that we have so many talented women.  Like, we have a surplus of talented women.  And we do Shakespeare.  I mean, we were known for adding women to male roles, like she's [motions to Frye next to him] played Tybalt, and we've had--

RA: And in Midsummer.
LB: Yeah, we've had people cross, you know -- flipping [roles] and all that.  But I've always felt since we've started -- and our first show, we did Macbeth, we had a girl play Lenox, and we called her Lady Lenox.

RA: Oh, wow.
LB: Yeah.  So, from the very beginning, it was because we had so many talented women.  And then Mark Rylance, who I love, did the all-male Twelfth Night, and I remember my first initial reaction to it was, "That's just what we all need, is more all-male," you know?  Doing two great plays that had all these great female characters and it's great, the shows were great --  we saw both and it was great.  But the main reason we did it was we had so many talented actresses and we wanted to show them off.  Then the by-product of that is all the things you were talking about.  It's an extremely masculine play.  So, that's another reason we chose Othello.  I mean, this is by no means a new idea.  You know?  They just did an all-female Julius Caesar last year in Brooklyn, but we see that a lot, a lot of female Caesars going around because of the political aspect.

RA: Right.
LB: But this one: jealousy, lust, betrayal...all these great things that are thought "masculine," we're now gonna throw the female level on top of it.  And you'll get all those by-product things, you know?  All we're doing is just changing the pronouns, so they aren't "women playing men," they're just playing.  So, those are all amazing by-products of that one idea.  Everybody always goes, "Oh, so you're doing an all-female Othello?" and I go, "No, I'm doing Othello with an all-female cast."  And they're like, "So you're doing an all-female Othello."  I go, "No.  I'm doing Othello with an all-female cast."  It's like [what we did] with Midsummer -- no matter what kind of wrapping paper you want to put on it, you have to do a no-holds-barred Othello.  We have to deliver a play, otherwise, it's like, "What are you doing?"  But it's gonna be interesting.  And that's why I'm directing.  They go, "Well, why don't you find a female director?"  I go, "No."  It's a masculine play.  Talking to the fight director, he goes, "So what, you wanna do catfights and all that?"  And I'm like, "No!"  [Laughs]  You know what I mean?

RA: Yeah.  I mean, it could turn out to be comical.
LB: And I go, "Brutal.  I want it to be brutal."  And he did the fight choreography for Lear, so I was like, "Take Lear and multiply it times ten."  And they're gonna want to try to find something wrong with it, so go all the way and go as far as you can.

Laura Frye in TITAN's production of Midsummer, in its original run
at The Secret Theatre back in 2013.
(Photo by Chasi Annexy)
RA: So, from an acting perspective, I guess I should turn to you, Laura...

Laura Frye [LF], TITAN resident actor and co-founder: Well, I've had the fortune of playing male roles primarily played by men: the chorus in Henry V, which is usually played by a man; and Tybalt, obviously.  We had a school group and one of the girls asked, "I'm playing a man in our school's Midsummer.  How do you figure out how to find the mannerisms?"  And I said, "I don't really look at it from that point of view."  Take the character and strip away the man or's still a human that's acting this way.  So, I don't come at it from, like, "All right, all these men have played Iago before, Iago's a man."  In this particular production, Iago's a woman.  But I look at it as somebody who feels wronged, feels jealous, feels rage.  Anyone can feel those things, man or woman, child or adult.  The great thing about playing villains is, you can't go into it hating the character you're playing.  I have to go into it and truly believe that every action he's taking comes from his own truth.  It's so easy to judge the characters you're playing, but then that'll screw you up completely.

RA:  But I'm sure that's the same for every role?                    
LF:  Oh, for sure, absolutely.  Yeah.  And I wasn't that familiar with Othello either, and I think a lot of women in the arts are not that familiar with Othello because of all the plays, that one's so masculine.  It's such a large, male-dominated piece.  There's only three women -- Bianca, Desdemona and Emilia.  So unless you're right for those characters, you're not really searching Othello for monologue pieces.  So I didn't familiarize myself with it.  I knew of it, but didn't know it.  And I have been so amazed at how fantastic this play is.  I'm like, this has to be one of his best plays he ever wrote.

The wording he uses, it's so applicable to everybody 'cause we've all been there.  People who come in and say they would never do what Iago did, I'm like, "You have to have thought of some of that before."  And in a day and age where people use social media as a way to shield their bullying-- people are this mean and this conniving on social media.  I see it all the time.  I mean, there are YouTube comments that you would read and you're like, "I can't believe you would say that!"

RA: But even not on social media, just in general, you find people who are manipulative.
LF:  Exactly.  And what I think what is really interesting is that females tend to really have some of these qualities.  It's like, it's a masculine play with all these different themes, but in the female world -- and in the acting world, too -- these are things you see throughout.  Competitiveness and jealousy... and you know, the backstabbing.  It's such an amazing play.

RA: I'm sure there are a lot of layers you can play around with there.
LF: Yeah.  And what I love is that the women that are involved in this show, you know, I'm excited to see them play the roles they're playing in this show because I think for a lot of them it's going to push them out of their comfort zone into this new world, so I'm excited to see where they take these characters and how they create them anew.

LB: Well, we have this unique thing where we live together, so you can already see it pushing her out of her comfort zone.  It's gonna be really fun to see.  We have three company members already in it -- we have Laura, Emily Trask, and Leah Gabriel.  So Goneril from Lear and Emily is the redhead from Midsummer One.  It's gonna be really fun for our audience to see three people that they know do something completely different, and also really fun to introduce ten new people who we've never really hit the stage with before.  Except for Kate Gunther, who's playing Bianca and who's done shows with us before.  But [we have] all these new people, and all these powerful women that I cannot wait to see stand up and say these words and have everyone see this play in a new light.  That's gonna be really cool.  Another really exciting thing about it is, coming off from Christmas Carol, with the spectacle and the costumes and big set -- there's nothing.  We're doing it all with just ten chairs.

RA: Oh, really?  So everything's kind of minimal.
LB:  [Nods affirmatively]  Minimalistic.  And that was another thing.  Since we were doing this really strong choice, we didn't want to hide it behind anything.  You've seen our stuff, they're minimalistic to begin with.  It's Shakespeare, we don't need anything grand.  But we wanted to take all the polish off, take all the drapes down.  So, it's exposed walls, ten chairs, a white sheet, and platforms for them to sit on and step in.  So it's raw and exposed.   It's thirteen of the best actors we've ever met and we're just gonna let 'em loose.  And people are gonna walk in and go, "This is it?"

RA: And all the concentration will just be on the text and actors.
LB:  [Nods] ...And what they can do.  Exactly.

 Frye as Iago and Leah Gabriel as Roderigo in TITAN's Othello.
Photo by Lloyd Mulvey.
RA:  So what was the casting process like?
LB:  Well, what we do first is, we have a resident company and we look at the company and see who could fill these roles.  So Laura, she hadn't played a major character-- she'd been playing supporting characters, so it was time to get her a lead role.  And Emily and Leah Gabriel playing Desdemona and Rodrigo, they just kind of fit perfectly.  So then after that, we had a lot of roles to fill.  What was exciting was that we've had a lot of interest from people with a lot of big credits because the project was exciting.

So, we saw our casting pool grow dramatically.  [We have] Carol Linnea Johnson, who's done 5 Broadway shows, in the cast;  Deanna Gibson, who is an amazing New York actress, is playing Emilia.  Leah Dutchin, playing Othello, is an L.A. actor we've brought in.  So, you start to look around, and when you put the casting notice out saying you're looking for females to play Othello and Iago and Rodrigo, they go, "Oh!"  So we've brought her in, and this is a fun fact about Leah [Dutchin]: her heritage would be in the area where Othello is actually from.

RA:  So she'll definitely have something interesting to put into that [role].
LB:  Yeah.  It's exactly where Othello would have been from.  Because Othello is traditionally portrayed as an African-American.  But he's [referred to as] a Moor.

RA:  Right.  So that like, sort of Middle-Eastern...
LB:  Right, and she's light-skinned, so that adds another interesting layer, because now they start to put this prejudice on her, and they're seeing something that isn't there.

RA:  It's not just the "racist" thing.
LB:  [Nods] It's everything.  It's power.  And what's interesting, the main reason, if you think about it-- race isn't even the number one on Iago's reasons for hating Othello.  It's that he was overlooked for Cassio.

LF:  But just to add to that: what else is interesting is that yes, being overlooked is one of his reasons, but then as the play progresses he never talks about that again.  He starts talking about all these other reasons for hating Othello so much.  And you're like, "Oh my god, he's all over the place."  It's internal.  He talks about that in the beginning, about Cassio, and then he starts to morph into these other things, this roller-coaster ride and it's like, this guy's a sociopath.  A sociopath that eventually turns into a psychopath.  Everything starts to get away from him and he can't catch up to what he started.    

LB:  One of the things we've been discovering and sort of what we've been talking about is that everyone thinks he's this master of manipulation.

LF:  Yeah, he's a great improviser.

LB:  The ball gets rolling and he says numerous times, you know, "Tonight's the night, I'm gonna have to make this work or I'm done.  Or it's the end of me."  You know?

RA:  He has to make sure no one talks to each other.
LF:  As I was thinking about it, we're doing it in a small space, there is nothing.  It's bare, bare, bare.  And I think it's so appropriate for this play, 'cause if Iago, especially, has to raise his voice too loud, somebody will hear whoever he is trying to manipulate.  So I think it's so great in that small space, the audience has to do this [leans forward in seat], because everything is, "So now I'm talking to you, but I can't let anyone hear, or else I'm gonna be found out."

LB:  And they're all sitting onstage! [Laughs]

RA: So no one goes offstage?      
LB:  Once they're up there, they don't leave.

RA: Oh, interesting!
LF:  Yeah.  And I think he does that with every character.  Everything is so close.  He's like, "I have your back," and there's always this, you know, "Come and let me whisper in your ear and tell you how we're gonna get away with this."  And I think he uses the audience that way, too, by making them have to come in a little closer.  'Cause that's how he gets to everybody.

RA: And then it ups the intimacy level.
LF:  Exactly.

Leah Dutchin and Frye in their respective roles as Othello and Iago in TITAN's Othello.  Photo by Lloyd Mulvey.

LB:  You want the audience sitting on the edge of their seat.  It's what Mark Rylance succeeded so well in Richard III, was making us go, "Okay, you're talking to us, now what are you thinking?"  'Cause Iago's so good in public -- you know, the Public Iago and the Private Iago.  You would never know.  He's got them all so good.  And he's charming, and funny, and hilarious.

LF:  He's everybody's best friend.  If you think about it, Othello made the smartest choice by going with Cassio and leaving Iago in the position he was in, because Iago is everybody's friend, he builds a community amongst the soldiers, everybody loves him.  He's the good-time guy, y'know.  That scene in particular, where he's getting Cassio drunk, he's able to do that because he's the kind of the guy who goes, "Let's have fun, let's celebrate."  Of course, Iago doesn't see it that way, he doesn't see it from that angle.  The way everything fell out, yeah, Cassio was the better choice.  Iago should've stayed where he was.

LB:  You see that in the military a lot, especially at the sergeant level, which is where Iago is.  Sergeants, they're still fighting on the front lines, they're the ones that are most active.  When you become Lieutenant, you become the in-between for the upper echelon, so there's a lot of being away from the men.  And Iago is so good with the men, it seems to be the right place for him.  And it's fun to have that be the sort of dramaturgical thing that's really hard to play, but it's a great way to go.

Othello, he's a smart general.  You gotta have an Othello that's smart, sexy, all these things, but is a good guy, in that so you can see him crumble.  You don't wanna see the crass in him.  They have put this label on him because of his skin color, because of his heritage.  However, he has overcome that in a time when that just didn't happen.  Shakespeare wrote this minority character leading the way -- he's a leader that is charismatic and just and true, and is trusted by the Senate.

And then through Iago's dealings, he's a tragic human.  You just see him just crumble to nothing and make these horrible, horrible choices, and in the end he redeems himself and ends his own life.  He's been driven to the brink of madness.  He's been manipulated by the master manipulator.  And Iago has crushed an angel, pretty much.  Which brings them, that whole thing at the end, you're just like, "You are insane.  You are a bad man."  And if we do it right -- and I think we will, we have the actors to do it -- we start to like him, like Richard III, really charming.  But then all of a sudden, it goes too far, and he breaks someone that's great, and you're left with this terrible human that's destroyed everyone's life.                  

LF:  Well, as an audience member, you watch these people and you are with them, and you're with them, and then there is a moment in which they cross the line, that as an audience you're like, "No, no, no -- I'm not with you anymore, I'm not with you anymore!"  That happened to us when we were watching Mark Rylance do Richard III, and the audience is cheering him on and then everybody starts to go, "What am I doing?!"

LB:  And you're like, "I was rooting for him before!"

RA:  And that's a great thing to do, is play with the audience.
LB:  That is perfection when it comes to that.  And you always try to achieve that.  Iago can't come out curling the mustache.  We have to feel he's justified.  He has to feel justified.  We have to see his point, and then we have to see him make all the wrong choices.

RA:  I feel like that's always the best way to portray-- like, the best villains in theatre and film are always the one you end up rooting for, that you come to an understanding with.
LB:  That's why we worked so hard with Tristan as Edmund [in Lear]; Dad's kind of mean to him, and he should feel wronged.  But just because you feel wronged doesn't mean you ruin your brother's life and go around murdering people.  So there has to be that glimmer of, "Man, he's got it rough," but then, the choices are all the wrong ones.  And that's what's completely interesting.

LF: It's funny, because all these characters are so strong -- they're so strong -- and [yet] they're so easily manipulated by the right words of this one person.  So I always say things like, "Wow, I hope that people watch this play and say to themselves, 'Oh my god, I know someone in my life that does that and I better be on my guard!"

RA: Make them think twice.
LF: We all have those people in our lives, yeah.  And when Othello goes down that path and the bug has been placed in his ear, I think, I would've reacted the same way.  I wouldn't have gone as far as he went, but that rage and hatred he feels towards Cassio, I'm like, I would've felt that rage too if someone had put that in my ear.  And what I love about this play is that it's all about what you don't see.  So all these things are being said and done and manipulated but nobody is actually seeing this true proof of it.  We've got this handkerchief, but we didn't see Desdemona.  We hear tell through Iago that Desdemona went in and gave Cassio this beloved handkerchief that Othello gave her.  We don't see her do that, it's all hearsay but everyone really starts to believe that.

LB:  Even Desdemona makes a flaw --  she lies to him.  She says, "I just don't have it with me."  And she also says, "I can't find it.  I don't know where it is, it's lost."

LF:  But isn't that always the case, though?  If you had just told the truth, this wouldn't have happened.

RA: That's what makes Shakespeare [plays] human; he really taps into those-- what everyone does.  
LF:  Yeah.  It's gonna be really fun.  I'm so in love with Iago because I know people like that in my life.  But I really love -- and Lenny hears me say this every day, but I'm so in love with Rodrigo.

LB: He's the butt of everything, he's so tragic.

LF: He's so tragic!

Emily Trask as Desdemona in TITAN's Othello.  
Photo by Lloyd Mulvey.
LB:  I talk with Leah Gabriel a lot about how we want to approach him/her, because he's either the clown or he's angry and he's the one that really-- he's not as smart as Othello, but because he's so in love with someone, he's so madly in love with Desdemona, and Iago uses him like a dog, and it's so sad.  And you should feel so sad for him and yet you should laugh at him a little bit because he is a bit of a bumbling fool, and yet he just loves her and wants to be with her and this monster keeps using him.

LF: And again, if he would just say to Desdemona, "These are my feelings towards you," and then Desdemona goes, "I know you feel that way, but I don't feel that way back, but I still think you're this great person," you know?  It's like, communication, communication, communication -- where the entire play is about communication!  Iago is the great communicator of spewing out all this information, and yet nothing is ever communicated.  I just think it's one of his best.

And Desdemona, another extremely strong character.  When I was studying her in grad school, I would always cast off as like, "Oh, how could she ever let this happen?"  But the Desdemona/Othello love affair is so pure.  They love each other.

LB: Which is why he falls so hard.

RA: I was gonna get to that, the whole contrast in Iago's doggedness, trying to get this thing planted into Othello's brain, and Othello's being so innocent about love.
LF: She just loves him so purely too, and it's not even about skin color, it's what's inside.

LB: He has that speech that says, "We just talked.  I told her stories, and from that came love."  He's polite to Dad, when Dad's like, "This can't happen, he's a monster, blah blah blah."  And Othello goes, "call her, and if she says she loves me, I get to have her.  And if she doesn't, no tricks, I won't say a word.  I'll stand back and let her share her true feelings." He's respectful and he does everything right.

RA: Right, and that's great for his arc, because then he does a total 360.  
LB:  He goes from doing every little thing right to this one little flea in the ear, and it just-- you could see he fights it.  He goes, "No, she wouldn't do that" and later tells Iago, "Why didn't you tell me it was better if I didn't know?"  He gets mad at Iago, which is part of Iago's plan.  It's brilliantly structured.

LF:  We're actors, so we're obviously going to create things in our heads and make the justifications for ourselves and it never has to be told to the audience, it's just our own little processing work that we do.  But I know people are coming into these plays that are really scholarly in their knowledge of Shakespeare or are coming in seeing new things, and something that I think is really interesting for those people coming into the shows and they're really listening to the themes and the words and the history, is the fact that -- it is no lie and you can read it really clearly -- is that Iago hates women.  He's misogynistic towards women, he constantly talks about how they're whores, basically, he can't trust every single one of them, even his own wife.  So I can't wait for that one person to come in and say, "How interesting, Iago is such a woman hating character, in a play with all women."

RA: So that's gonna add another layer for sure.

LB: Since they're all women, it separates soldiers from women.   It's this unique power.  It's so interesting, it's like tissue paper, layer it on top and it still works.  Our dramaturg, Emily, who's also playing Desdemona, she's like, "This is a great commentary, let's keep this in."  It's gonna be interesting how it turns out.  We don't know, and that's what's so exciting, to sit here and say, we don't know.  We see how it could work and how it lands.  And that's an exciting thing to do, is to hear people say, "You're doing what?" At the end of the day, if the gimmick gets them in the door, and they end up seeing a great play, then that's great.  And that was the Midsummer thing: gimmick, gimmick, gimmick -- but also then go, "Wow, this is really good."

LF:  I was gonna say, with Midsummer -- and I think it's true with this play, as well -- when we had females playing male characters, we never commented on the fact that we were a male character, so that we never walked around [lowers voice] like this--

LB: Or had the males be really effeminate and talk in high voices--

RA: Though, some kind of went for it...
LB: You're right, some did go for it.  [Laughs]

LF:  You're just playing someone who's feeling all these feelings...

RA: It's less about the physicality.
LF: Exactly.  'Cause people will buy into it.  This one, in particular, because we had changed the pronouns, so it is girls.  It's a world of women.

RA: Have you changed the names?
LB: No.  There was no way we were gonna have people sit through "Iaga" all night long.  So, everything's the same.  They say, "Sir" in the military, so we didn't change that.  It was tricky sometimes, when you take the "he's" and "she's" out it's hard to distinguish we're talking about so we added a lot of the names back in whenever there was a pronoun.  So we now go, "Cassio was here and said this, and Desdmona..." you know, so we can clarify who we're talking about.

LF:  As long as the action and the thought process behind the line is clear, it doesn't matter.  You know, those kind of things, to me, it's very much the way -- I love this analogy, because I love her so much -- when Battlestar Gallactica first came out, Starbuck was a man.   Battlestar Gallactica 2.0, it was a girl, and nobody was like, "What, she's a woman now?!"  She was in a man's world, and she was a total badass!  She was like, "I'm a military girl, what do you want?" I mean, girls are in the military, this is how we roll.

And I hope that the people in this business that make choices on what shows are big come to see this too, they see an all-female production of a Shakespeare play, and say, "You know what, this really works.  There should be more shows like this."  And I think it's great and it's sad at the same time that the women we brought together got so excited whenever we put that ad up.  It's exciting they want to be a part of it so much, but it's also sad at the same time.

RA: Kind of a commentary on how often it occurs.
LF: And you know why?  Because it never occurs.  And that is really a shame.  I'm happy that -- we loved the Mark Rylance production, but I think that all-female productions of any show can be just as successful.  I mean, you think about some of these women that we know that are some of the greatest theatrical actresses in America.  If you could get all those women --

RA: Just pool all that talent.
LB: I mean, we've seen Helen Mirren play Prospero [in Julie Taymor's The Tempest] -- we've seen it.  But to do an entire female cast, it's not a new idea, but it's a darkened one.

LF: And it should be done more often.

LB: [Turns to Frye] When did I say I wanted to do this?  Like, five years ago?  We've just been waiting for the right moment.  Just like with Lear.  Our producer said, "I think it's time for that all-female Othello."  It's an exciting time -- for the company and for the show.  It sounds so corny, but it's like, "The play's the thing."  Everything else will follow.


TITAN Theatre Company's Othello is currently running 
at the Queens Theatre until May 2nd.
For tickets, click here.  
For information about this production 
and others like it, click here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

#StageReview: TITAN Theatre Company & The Queens Theatre presents A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Kevin Loomis as Scrooge in TITAN Theatre Company/Queen's Theater's production of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  Photo Credit: 

Around this time last year, I had the pleasure of attending my first staged performance of Charles Dickens' seminal classic, A Christmas Carol, at the Theatre at St. Clement's (read my review here).  Over the decades since its publication in 1843, Carol has since seen various iterations onstage, onscreen and just about everywhere in between.

As a proud 90s kid, yours truly can recall more than a few versions which had particular influence (or, is in the case of the VHI TV film, simply pure entertainment) in the retelling of the timeless tale: an 26-minute animated short by Disney (Mickey's Christmas Carol), which featured Scrooge McDuck as the infamous main character; as well as another with the Muppets (The Muppet Christmas Carol), featuring Kermit in full-out Dickensian costume.  There was that totally campy, glittery and positively lol-worthy adaptation on VH1 (A Diva's Christmas Carol) starring Vanessa Williams as a Scrooge-like pop star (minus the top hat, spectacles and grey beard, of course), and let's not forget the fairly recent computer-animated version to which Jim Carey lent his vocal stylings.

These days, not much about the story -- or its young audience -- has changed.  The times, however, have -- and in this tech-obsessed world we're living in now, it is refreshing to see the next generation engage in something other than what is on a screen in front of them.  There is nothing like sitting in a theater filled with kids hanging onto the edge of their seats -- and onto every word being performed onstage.  The performance in question was not the latest pop star (sorry, Taylor Swift), but TITAN Theatre Company's production of A Christmas Carol at the Queens Theatre.
TITAN Company member Michael Selkirk as the Ghost of Christmas Present.

The story itself should be a familiar one by now: we are introduced -- and given expository background -- to Ebenezer Scrooge (Kevin Loomis) by various nameless characters, who describe the old man's descent into bitterness following the death of his business partner Jacob Marley (Andy Baldeschwiler) 7 years prior to the play's start.  We see evidence of Scrooge's cold heart through his mistreatment of those around him: namely, his nephew, Fred (Dylan Wittrock), who attempts to invite his uncle to partake in Christmas Eve festivities; as well as his office clerk, Bob Cratchit (John Taylor Phillips), to whom the old miser has refused an increase in what is already a meager salary.

Then, of course, as he makes his way home and into his bed, he is suddenly visited by an apparition of Marley's Ghost, who ominously announces that Scrooge shall be visited by the ghosts of Christmases Past (TITAN company member  Laura Frye), Present (fellow company member Michael Selkirk) and Future (also played by Baldeschwiler).  Over the course of the night, these three ghosts literally lead Scrooge on a journey backwards, forwards -- and even sideways -- in time, getting to the root of how the old miser became who he was.

In re-enacting these classic scenes to the next generation, TITAN's talented round of cast members surely do Dickens justice.  The return of company regulars Frye and Selkirk prove once again to be a winning combination, along with fellow standouts Wittrock and the production's own Scrooge, Loomis himself.  The inclusion of child actors also help in not only help fully round out the cast, but also provide the younger members of the audience with another element to the story with which to relate to.  As both Tiny Tim and the "present-day" grandson in the opening scene,  Moore Theobald gamely holds his own with his elder counterparts, as does his brother Quinn in the roles of Peter and a much younger Scrooge.

As you can see, Dickens' Carol has been a cultural mainstay, always seeming to find a way to remain relevant in our modern society.   From the beginning of TITAN's production, which opens with Loomis as a present-day grandfather reading it to his grandson, we are reminded once again of the timelessness of Dicken's tale.   While their interpretation of the material is less a "modernized" one, period clothing and language remaining largely intact, what seems to make this story modern is in the fact that its themes are still ones we grasp with today -- mainly, how greed can corrupt even the most purest of heart, and how ultimately, forgiveness can be the best gift of all.

Combined with an elegant production design, with sets by Jasmine Nicole and costumes by Becky Willet, TITAN proves once more that everything old can be new again.