Tuesday, September 10, 2019

SPY vs SPY


As irony would have it, this week marks the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. This was the pretext the George W. Bush administration claimed for launching the U.S. war on Iraq — a pretext that soon proved to be completely erroneous.

The dogged US insistence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that put lives at risk, globally, was the only tenuous thread by which the invasion of Iraq might be legitimized on the world stage. Of course, no WMDs were ever discovered, but by then, one of the most devastating and entirely illegal wars in which U.S. troops (among many others) have ever bled and died was well underway.

All of which provides background for Official Secrets. There's nothing slick or flashy about Gavin Hood's tightly constructed and efficient suspense drama. Less a conventional thriller than what you might call an investigative procedural, it zeroes in on a few intrepid individuals facing tough moral choices when they begin to uncover the campaign of misinformation and manipulation the U.S. is using to sell the war.



Smith as reporter Martin Bright: back when the truth mattered
The movie tells the true story of Katharine Gun, an unassuming translator with Britain's information-gathering GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), whose decision to leak a sensitive memo to the press got her hauled up on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act in September, 2003.

Katharine is played with stoic determination by Keira Knightley. Although fearful of the consequences, she's so outraged at how the public is being misled in the rush to war, she stands by her actions and her principles all the way to the Queen's Bench.


Ralph Fiennes is terrific, as usual, as Katharine's lawyer, Ben Emmerson, an expert in human rights and international law. Other familiar faces doing a stand-up job are Matt Smith as Martin Bright, the reporter for The Observer who broke the story, Conleth Hill (Lord Varys from Game Of Thrones), unrecognizable as Bright’s  feisty, foul-mouthed newspaper editor, and Jack Farthing (the odious villain in Poldark) as Katharine's chipper cubicle-mate at GCHQ.



In a way, the movie almost makes one nostalgic for the Bush era, when the revelation of such bald-faced lying and corruption still had the power to incite outrage and moral courage.

Those were the days.
(Read more in this week's Good Times)

Sunday, September 1, 2019

UP UP AND AWAY

You don’t see an A-List steampunk movie too often. (And sometimes you shouldn’t: The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, anyone?)

But check this out: The Aeronauts, with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as mid-Victorian hot air balloonists!

He’s a meteorologist, she’s a balloon expert, and they boldly go where few have gone before (mainly up) with a cargo of gadgets to study the weather.

Maybe not room for a lot of action or plot twists in such confined quarters, but hey, that’s what I thought going into Gravity! This one looks like great, clockwork fun to me!

Here’s the caveat: When the promo says “Inspired by a True Adventure,” (don’t they all?), in this case it means everything IS true — this expedition actually occurred — except for the woman aeronaut played by Jones. She’s as imaginary a character as Harvey.

Redmayne’s meteorologist is a historical figure, but his real-life partner in this enterprise was pioneering male aeronaut Henry Coxwell, who saved the day, the craft, and their lives when things took a dire turn.

Revisionist or not, all could be forgiven if the movie proves to be as ripping a yarn as this trailer suggests. Director Tom Harper’s last movie, Wild Rose, had its moments.

We’ll find out in December! Stay tuned . . .

Friday, August 16, 2019

FINDING FITZ

She had me at “Fitz fixes feist’s fits. Fat suffices.”

It seems like whenever I visit a fantasy site, I find euphoric readers rhapsodizing about Fitz and Fool. And since I just finished Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy and loved it so much, I felt the time was ripe to plunge into this, Hobb’s first book, Volume One of her Farseer Trilogy, in which the mismatched duo is introduced — and whose unlikely bond begins with that cryptic bit of doggerel mentioned above.

This is more Fitz’s story, FitzChivalry Farseer, that is, bastard son of an elder royal prince. Young Fitz is taken into the castle keep as a 6-year-old stable boy, and basically raised with the hounds, to protect him from becoming a pawn in the subtle but dangerous game of royal succession.

Adept at caring for hawks, hounds, and horses while struggling to learn courtly manners, he’s trained in secret in the delicate art of poisons by the court assassin, and discovers within himself the Farseer ability to link minds with animals, and, at times, other people.

Fool (kept to amuse Fitz’s grandfather, the king) is more of a supporting character here. But his natterings often contain the seeds of truth, as well as prophecy — if Fitz can decode them. More importantly, as the child Fitz matures into a robust youth, he and the mysterious, pale, “colorless” Fool become friends — which both will need as the series and the courtly intrigues continue, I have no doubt!

Imagine the luxury of developing a storyline through three volumes! (Says I, the writer whose first manuscript ran to 900 pages — typed! Sternly edited before publication of course, when cooler heads prevailed!)

Hobb is able to take her own sweet time developing characters, setting, culture, and the intricacies of her plots. Each of her massive trilogies takes place in a separate region of the world she has built (and continues to build). Yet four-and-a-half volumes into her ouvre, I'm only just beginning to realize all the clever ways her separate stories and regions overlap and influence each other.

Talk about a Big Picture! That's why her books, while technically stand-alone (telling one complete story) never seem to end, exactly; they simply reach a plateau so the reader can draw breath before plunging into the next adventure!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

WINTER IN SUMMER

Santa Cruz Shakespeare takes a chance with its third repertoire production of the summer, The Winter’s Tale.

It may be one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, but the SCS production values are typically impeccable, the players act up a storm, and costumes by Ulises Alcala segue from the glamorous ’40s into the early ’60s over the play’s 16-year time span.

(Further proof that the ’60s are all the rage this summer, from Beehive to Yesterday. And, yes, it’s weird when your childhood inspires nostalgia for the distant past!)

But it’s easy to see why The Winter’s Tale is sometimes considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Written late in his career, it’s neither comedy nor tragedy, exactly, dabbling in a kind of tentative magic realism that will only reach full bloom in the fantastical enchantments of his masterful final play, The Tempest.

The main problem in the more somber first act is the raging suspicion of King Leontes (Ian Michael Peakes) of Sicilia that his pregnant wife, Hermione (Karen Peakes) has been unfaithful with his best friend, King Polixenes (Lindsay Smiling), visiting from his kingdom of Bohemia.

Even though Hermione is innocent, Leontes is at full boil from almost he very first scene — it’s as if the entire plot of Othello has already happened offstage, plunging us into the conflict with no backstory whatsoever.


And this time there’s no malignant Iago pouring poison into the king’s ear for political gain. Leontes’ delusion of his wife’s infidelity is entirely self-inflicted. The seething, choking fury of Peakes’ Leontes is electrifying, but the audience remains flummoxed.

Chavez Ravine smolders with outrage as court lady, Paulina, the only one with the backbone to stand up to the king’s madness.

Fortunately, the action shifts to Bohemia for the more lighthearted Act II, where the SCS production unleashes its secret weapon: Allen Gilmore.

As the rogue, Autolycus, peddler, thief and mischief-maker, Gilmore comes onstage lustily singing the vintage honky-tonk ditty, “Snatch And Grab It,” in addition to the introductory song that Shakespeare actually wrote for him. The parallel songs mesh deliciously in Gilmore’s adroitly funky delivery.

In Bohemia, we find the comic banter of a humble Shepherd (the always-reliable TommyGomez) and his wide-eyed son, Clown (Adrian Zamora). We also get the romance of winsome foundling, Perdita (Allie Pratt), raised by the shepherds, and stalwart young Florizel (an appealing Uche Elueze), the son of Polixenes.

A gentle fantasy element comes into play as the play’s two halves are resolved in the name of love and redemption.

Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges makes inventive use of the character, Time. Traditionally, the character functions as a chorus at the beginning of Act II to explain the passage of 16 years.

But here, as personified by Patty Gallagher in full Elizabethan dress, she flits in and out of the action throughout the play, in (mostly) silent observation — except at the very end of Act I.

When the action revolves around a newborn infant in a basket, Gallagher is onstage to provide the most impressive range of cooing, crying, gurgling baby noises you will ever hear outside of an actual baby!

(The Winter's Tale plays through September 1 at the Audrey Stanley Grove in Delaveage Park.)

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT

He's just past the expiration date to qualify as a hipster. At 54, rumpled, technology-challenged Mel has seen his rock dreams fade away in New York City, only to wind up, improbably, running a low-rent pawn shop in Birmingham, Alabama.


Although he's not especially political, he has reason to be very afraid when he's thrust into the dark heart of extreme Southern yahoo culture in Lynn Shelton's very funny comedy Sword Of Trust. 

Mel is played by Marc Maron, better known as a stand-up comedy performer and podcaster.


Filmmaker Shelton conceived the part of Mel as a showcase for Maron's dry wit and scruffy sarcasm beneath a facade of rational cool — all on full display here, since so much of the movie's dialogue was improvised.

And Maron is up to the task, funny on a dime, yet just as persuasive in the character's more serious and revealing moments. He provides the grounding for the rest of the excellent cast to build on.

When a Civil War-era sword is brought into the shop one day, Mel and his cohorts are drawn into an entire subculture of "provers." Convinced that the truth about the South actually winning the war has been "buried by the Deep State," these folks are dedicated to collecting evidence that "proves" otherwise — and ready to pay big bucks for it.

Into the woods: Will irony be enough?

A fellow called Hog Jaws escorts Mel and his uneasy cohorts out to meet “the boss.” On a long journey into the woods, shut up in a van without windows, but an entirely carpeted interior, they realize they're entering into "the brain" of redneck craziness. "Apparently, it's carpeted."

Irony won't be much of a weapon if things get dire, but it's all they've got.

The twisty little surprises of the plot are delicious to discover along the way, and the sharp, funny conversations had me laughing out loud. It's a well-crafted movie of many small pleasures that add up to big fun.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

WISH FULFILLMENT

Don't believe in fairy tales? You may change your mind when you see Into The Woods, the second production of the summer season at Cabrillo Stage.

While the show itself takes a somewhat sardonic view of the flip side of "happily ever after," and cautions us to be careful what we wish for, the Cabrillo production is so teeming with the magic of live theater, it'll make a believer out of anyone.

The blockbuster musical from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is a fairy tale mashup that examines the tropes of the genre — true love, quests of honor, virtue rewarded — before and after the tales' traditional happily-ever-after conclusions.

It's a gift of a show, but also a challenge, from Sondheim's fiendishly clever and intricate (but often tongue-twisting) lyrics to creating the necessary magical mood by means of stagecraft alone. Fortunately, director and choreographer Janie Scott and her intrepid team are up to the task in this beautifully sung, wonderfully atmospheric production.

"Once upon a time . . . ." intones the onstage Narrator to start things off. Andrew Ceglio is a formidable presence throughout in the role, observing the action with cool aplomb — until he's sucked into it much later. (He also plays the Mysterious Man running loose in the woods with unhinged glee.)


Against a gorgeous, eerie, cleverly functional forest backdrop from scenic designer Skip Epperson, the principal characters are introduced.

Young Jack (played with eager innocence by Jackson Brivic) lives with his exasperated mother (Alice Christine Hughes) and his best friend, their cow, Milky White.

(Okay, it's a guy in a cow suit, but Isai Centeno brings humor and a touch of genuine pathos to the pantomime role.) They wish they weren't so poor they have to sell the cow.

Cinderella (Ashley Rae Little) rakes ashes out of the grate for her mean, social-climbing stepmother (Melanie Olivia Camras) and vain, twittery step-sisters (the fractious comedy duet of Kassandra Escamilla and Ryann Liljenstolpe) and wishes she could go to the Prince's festival.

Little captures Cinderella's feisty fortitude, and possesses perhaps the loveliest, most ethereal voice in a cast of strong singers.

The hard-working village Baker (Ian Leonard) and the loyal Baker's Wife (Melissa Harrison) wish more than anything for a child. But they can't produce one, because the Witch next door (Kristen Hermosillo) once visited a curse on the Baker's long-gone father.

This salt-of-the-earth couple grounds the more fantastical elements in the show, with Harrison an especially strong presence in what may be the most demanding and pivotal role.

But the curse may be lifted if they obtain for the conniving Witch some magical objects, which quest sets the rest of the plot in motion. Into their orbit skips gluttonous, reckless Red (a very funny Brittney Mignano) with her basket of goodies for Granny. Rapunzel (Amy Young) is imprisoned in her tower by the doting Witch, who longs to be her surrogate mother.

The Prince who discovers her (Michael Stahl), and the smitten Prince who doggedly pursues Cinderella after the festival (David Jackson) turn out to be brothers, equally fickle in their romantic attachments. ("I was raised to be charming, not sincere," explains Cinderella's Prince.)

The Princes' ironic duet, "Agony," is a highlight of the show.

So is the dueling wordplay of Cinderella's Prince and the Baker's Wife in "Any Moment," deep in the woods.


Jackson is also great fun as the slinky wolf with designs on Red.

Maria Crush's costumes are storybook-perfect. Kyle Grant's lighting design is effective throughout, from the way the treetops overhanging the stage are lit to create depth, to the sudden blackout inside Granny's cottage when things get too gruesome.

Scott has imaginative staging solutions for tricky elements, like the arrival of a Giant (well, part of her), or a carriage full of revelers, complete with prancing horse.

When it's time for Cinderella to ride off with her Prince, they glide offstage together on an ornate carousel pony.

Scott conjures a winsome, witty production out of this tale of bittersweet enchantment. It's everything an audience could wish for.

Just for fun, I thought I'd post this image I found this on the Cabrillo Stage Instagram account. It's a photo of the working 3-D model for Epperson's set design. Pretty cool, huh? Just add color and volume to grow it into a stage full of theatre magic!


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

AUSTEN POWERS

Shakespeare meets Austen in Santa Cruz Shakespeare buoyant season opener, Pride And Prejudice


The 2019 Santa Cruz Shakespeare season arrived this week with bells on — literally. The bell-ringing motif (as in for whom the bell tolls) recurs throughout the season-opening production of Pride and Prejudice, in which a man and woman who should be perfectly matched find their twin aversions to marriage and each other challenged when the bells of attraction begin to toll for them.

Astute playgoers will notice that Pride and Prejudice was not actually written by Will Shakespeare. But contemporary playwright Kate Hamill's 2017 stage adaptation of the beloved Jane Austen novel is the perfect vehicle for launching the company's summer season on a note of crowd-pleasing goodwill — everybody knows the story, there's none of that pesky Elizabethan dialogue to contend with, and a mood of buoyant fun persists throughout.

Three Sisters: Pullins, Peakes, and Pratt
In Hamill's version, there are only four Bennett sisters, only three of them anatomically correct. (The show's running gag has the eight-person cast scurrying around to cover all 14 roles, whether or not  the genders match up — which fits right in with the SCS commitment to non-traditional casting.)

The eldest, prettiest, and most compliant sister is Jane (Karen Peakes). Lizzy (the excellent Allie Pratt), the surrogate for author Austen's more trenchant social commentary, is the clever observer who pokes fun at human folly, especially the matrimonial maneuverings of the girls' dizzy mother, Mrs. Bennett (Carol Halstead), who is determined to pair up her daughters with suitably wealthy husbands. While Mama relentlessly herds her daughters into the paths of incoming bachelors, Lizzy declares that matrimony is a game she doesn't want to win.

Lizzy's ally in common sense is her patient, irascible father, Mr. Bennett (the always wonderful Allen Gilmore), who tries to steer clear of his wife's schemes. Gilmore also manages a neat about-face as Charlotte, Lizzy's cheerfully gossipy, yet practical-minded best friend.

Gilmore, Pratt and Smiling: No social butterflies
Lydia, the youngest and most wayward sister, is played with bratty exuberance by Madison Pulllins, who switches gears later to play imperious dowager Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (With Peakes hilariously incomprehensible as her veiled spinster daughter.)

As the bookish sister, Mary, who's not so integral to the plot, Landon Hawkins isn't asked to do much but look surly and elicit cries (or shrieks) of alarm every time anyone else in the cast turns to face him. But he's perfectly cast as the male ingenue, fresh-faced Mr. Bingley, who comes courting Jane.

With his tremendous presence and noble bearing, Lindsay Smiling is terrific in the pivotal role of Mr. Darcy, Bingley's friend. A serious, honorable man with absolutely no gift for small talk or silliness, we can see his discomfort whenever he's beset by social butterflies — like the Bennett females — which Lizzy mistakes for arrogance.

Ian Merrill Peakes: Deliciously gauche and creaky
Of course, they're a perfect match for each other in wit and ironic temperament, if only they could figure it out. Smiling makes the war between Darcy's head and heart so palpable, and Pratt's Lizzy is so wryly caustic beneath her chipper demeanor that we wish playwright Hamill had written an extra scene or two for just the two of them, prowling around each other in their lively, eccentric mating dance.

The show's most tireless chameleon is Ian Merrill Peakes, who plays Mr. Bingley's snobbish, tippling sister, as well as the dashing officer and scoundrel, Wickham. But it's in his supporting role as the deliciously gauche and creaky pastor, Mr. Collins, that Peakes steals the show, with his twisted, laborious gait and riotously funny vocal inflections.

Director Paul Mullins, who made such a frantic, hilarious, knockabout farce out of The 39 Steps a couple of seasons ago, works in a more subtle hue here, although the laughs are set up and delivered with the same precision. Dipu Gupta's uncluttered set grouping vintage chairs around a piano, with a suggestion of Doric columns, and B. Modern's simple yet versatile gowns and tweedy gentlemen's outfits beautifully evoke Austen's late-Georgian era.

(Pride And Prejudice plays in repertory with upcoming Santa Cruz Shakespeare productions of A Comedy Of Errors and The Winter's Tale through August 31 in the Audrey Stanley Grove at Delaveaga Park.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

MISSING JAMES

Winds of Change, by James Aschbacher
How do I miss thee?

How do I not?

You pop up in the strangest, most mundane places. There you lurk every time I grab the red tube of Chapstick in the bathroom cabinet. Every Christmas morning, one of the little  packages wrapped up in a scrap of old holiday paper and tucked into my stocking held 3 or 4 tubes of Chapstick, Scotch-taped together. Enough to last me all year!

Now, I have to buy my own, not to mention that Santa doesn’t come to fill my stocking anymore. (Ditto the Easter Bunny, the Valentine’s Day Bunny, or the Birthday Bunny, who used to pile up an assortment of Ferrell’s Doughnuts on my breakfast plate!)

Vitamin time. You used to set out my daily dosage on the counter above the kitchen sink at breakfast time — in a little aluminum dish that once held a tea light. The empty dish sits there still, neglected, because by the time I remember to take the vitamins, I just pour them out of the bottle into my hand and gulp them down. Another domestic ceremony lost. Another little nick out of my quality of life.

The quiet. When I come downstairs mid-morning, there’s no longer the clinking of your paint brush’s metal collar against the water glass, the distinctive sound of my Art Boy so industriously painting away. “Pee time?” you’d ask, as I came galumphing down on my usual routine. “Or tea time?”


(Not that I have time for a second cup of tea, most days. I’m too busy dragging myself off to the store, to the movies, to yoga, or texting for rides for all of the above — all things I so blithely used to let you do for me, without even thinking about it.)

Plum season. Lucky enough to have bought a house on a property full of fruit trees, we often had to give away excess pears, figs and limes by the basket if we couldn’t eat them fast enough. But not plums. Sweet, juicy, wine-red Santa Rosa plums were your favorite fruit!

It was an event every summer when you found the first ripe one that had fallen to the grass; after that. you haunted the tree like Marley’s Ghost every morning, picking the ripest ones for breakfast. And you never wanted me to “waste” them in a tart, which is where most of the extra pears ended up. Plums went directly into your face!

The 25th of every month: it only reminds me that another 30 days have passed in the ever-widening gap that now separates us.


Friday, July 5, 2019

HIVE MIND

Women of '60s rock celebrated in Cabrillo Stage's Beehive

The '60s are having a moment right now, at least, the music of the '60. Besides the just-opened, Beatles-themed movie Yesterday  and the ironic use of some choice '60s anthems on the soundtrack of The Last Black Man In San Francisco, along comes the Cabrillo Stage season opener, Beehive.

Subtitled "The 60s Musical," the name suggests an homage to the girl groups of that era, which is certainly a major part of the show, especially in its first half. But Beehive also aspires to celebrate a diverse slate of women rockers, from Connie Francis to the Supremes to Aretha to Janis Joplin.

The show was created in 1985 by Larry Gallagher as a nightclub revue, which explains why it's a bit short on book. When the performers talk onstage, it's usually in brief snippets of narration setting up the context in which the playlist unspools.

More than 30 tunes are performed with gusto by the six-woman cast: Kiana Hamzehi, Jennifer Taylor Daniels, Lindsey Chester, Jessica Pierini, Sadie Rose, and Catarina Contini.

Lindsey Chester delivers a knockout set of Janis Joplin tunes
Director Gary John La Rosa also did the choreography — from demure girl-group syncopation to the butt-shaking gymnastics of Tina Turner. Skip Epperson's single, functional set consists of vinyl-inspired discs in all colors hanging down from the rafters, and a large, round record-shaped portal draped in shiny fringe through which the performers enter and exit.

A six-piece combo appears on a balcony upstage, led by Musical Director Jon Nordgren. The effect is like a giant, sparkly juke box with live performers providing your hit parade — no quarters necessary.

At times, the costumes and wigs don’t correctly match the era of the song being performed. (The opening number references girl groups of the early ’60s, but the women are dressed in Swinging London outfits from mid-decade.)  

But all these performers can sing up a storm. Should you feel compelled to join in (and believe me, you will), audience participation is strongly encouraged!
(Read more)

Photos by Jana Marcus

Thursday, July 4, 2019

DELETE THE BEATLES

Band erased from history in sly, audacious Yesterday

Imagine if The Beatles had never existed. It was devastating enough for me as a teenager when the band broke up. How could life as we know it go on? If there had never been any Beatles, I rationalized grimly, at least we wouldn't know what we'd missed.

In his antic and audacious new movie, Yesterday, director Danny Boyle poses an even gnarlier idea: suppose The Beatles had existed, and enjoyed their incredible nine yeas of productivity together — but then suddenly disappeared from the collective memory of basically everyone on Earth?

Everyone but one guy.

Imagine the potential for comedy (not to mention plunder and exploitation) if that guy were a struggling singer-songwriter who could take his pick from the entire song catalog of the Fab Four, certain that no one in the audience had ever heard of John, Paul, George, or Ringo.

Scripted by veteran Richard Curtis (Four Weddings And A Funeral; Love Actually), for the ever genre-bouncing Boyle, Yesterday is a sly, persuasive morality play about the wages and nature of success dressed up as a pop-cultural comedy.

It's also as entertaining as hell, especially for those of us who do remember The Beatles, thank you very much, and will appreciate every in-joke, downbeat, and visual and audio cue Boyle employs with such shameless glee throughout his tall tale.
(Read more)