Tuesday, March 29, 2011

FRANKENSTEIN at the National Theatre

Last week I went to see Danny Boyle's production of Nick Dear's sold-out new play, Frankenstein, from the National Theatre in London -- as a matter of fact I went twice in one week, and I didn't even have to cross the Atlantic. The National Theatre continues to present HD broadcasts of some of their most popular presentations. They did it a couple of years ago for the first time when they presented Helen Mirren in Phèdre by Jean Racine, and they are doing it again with this riveting adaptation of Mary Shelley's groundbreaking novel.

It's the kind of theatrical experience that has buzz written all over it. First there is director Danny Boyle, returning to the stage after spending the last two decades making a name for himself in the movies with Trainspotting, and winning Hollywood Oscar gold with Slumdog Millionaire, and winning critical acclaim with last year's 127 Hours. Then there is the cast, in particular the actors playing Doctor Frankenstein and his creature creation. In a bit of casting genius the two actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller swap roles nightly. This is the kind of casting that makes theatergoers drool, and forces them to see the show more than once to savor how each actor approaches each character. This is what I did by attending two of the HD presentations, and I am convinced that this is the only way to fully appreciate this production.

Actor Benedict Cumbernatch, little known in America but a household name in the UK, is riding the wave of newly-found fame these days, and is clearly the chief drawing card for this production. He was the name on everybody's lips when the Doctor Who franchise went looking to replace the irreplaceable David Tennant as he finished his tenure as the Tenth Doctor. Cumberbatch's pale skin and chiseled David Bowie-like alien features would have made an ideal Eleventh Doctor. Instead, Cumberbatch remained near the Time Lord's orbit by being cast in the title role of Sherlock, a 21st century retelling of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle master sleuth by Steven Moffat, Doctor Who's current head writer.

Playwright Nick Dear turns Mary Shelley's gothic story into a Samuel Beckett-like existential confrontation between creator and creation. Danny Boyle's cinematic staging wonderfully supports this adaptation, which also includes idiosyncratic background music reminiscent of his latest films. The scene when the two characters meet at the summit of a mountain and the creature berates his maker and demands that he build him a mate is alone worth the price of admission.

If you manage to see this production twice I am sure that one of the evenings will stand out in your mind more than the other. Personally, I enjoyed the show a lot more when Johnny Lee Miller played the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch played Frankenstein. Why? Well, I enjoyed Miller's child-like creation over Cumberbatch's stroke victim monster. On the other hand, I marveled at Cumberbatch's Byronic, elegant and mysterious Frankenstein. Frankly, I did not care for Miller's huff and puff Frankenstein. On the other hand, watching Cumberbatch bring to life the Creature at the moment of his birth is one of the highlights of this theater season.

The bottom line is this: see the play twice, and watch two great actors at work!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Calixto Bieito's PARSIFAL in Stuttgart

Calixto Bieito's controversial 2010 staging of Richard Wagner's Parsifal is back at the Staatsoper in Stuttgart, Germany. This staging, by the notorious Spanish director, brings to mind Mel Gibson's apocalyptic Mad Max films, but it is actually inspired by another greater apocalyptic work: Cormac McCarthy's memorable novel The Road.

The remaining performances of this production at the Staatsoper this year are on March 26th, and April 3rd. Below is a short documentary which shows plenty of scenes from the production, as well as commentary from director Calixto Beito. It definitely gives you an idea of what this unique staging is all about.

And here is a nine minute video with extended scenes from this production:

Does anybody know if this production has been filmed for DVD and Blu-Ray release in Europe and/or America?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tom Stoppard's ARCADIA back on Broadway

Ever since artist Nicolas Poussin painted his famous picture "Et in Arcadia Ego," which shows a group of pastoral shepherds (pardon the redundancy!) discovering a tomb with this inscription, scholars have argued about the meaning of this Latin text. So, whether you interpret it as "I, who am now dead, also lived once in Arcadia," or the more popular "I, Death, exist even in Arcadia," please do me a favor: before you die, make sure that once in your life you experience Tom Stoppard's masterful play Arcadia.

I've seen the play three times thus far. Twice in London, and once here in New York, last night, in its new Broadway revival that opened last week. My first encounter with Stoppard's play was during its initial West End run back in 1994. That landmark production, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Joanne Pearce and the incomparable Roger Allam convinced many theatergoers that Stoppard might have written the crowning masterwork in a career that up to that time also included, among others Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound, and Travesties. In the summer of 2009 I was lucky enough to see Arcadia again, this time at the Duke of York's Theatre with a cast that featured Ed Stoppard, the playwright's son, in the role of Valentine. It is this production, directed by David Leveaux, with sets by Hildegard Bechtler that opened last Thursday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

This current production, with its mixed cast of American and British performers turns out to be, as expected with this casting choice, a bit of a mixed evening. The English actors, among them Bel Powley (Thomasina Coverly) and Tom Riley (Septimus Hodge), and especially Lia Williams (Hannah Jarvis) perform Stoppard's language with the facility that can only come from those born and raised in Blighty. The American stars of this production, Raúl Esparza (Valentine Coverly) and Billy Crudup (Bernard Nightingale) struggle at times with their accents, although in all honesty, they do an admirable job overall maintaining the illusion of britishness.

Mr. Crudup's Bernard Nightingale is arguably the character that casts the longest shadow in this play. The other, of course is Lord Byron himself, a character who like Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Agamemnon in Richard Strauss's opera Elektra never appears. Bernard is an opportunistic don who dreams of striking it rich in the academic world unearthing a little-known episode of Byron's life. Basing himself mostly on speculation, and a few letters he's unearthed, the biographical details that he pieces together do not altogether complete the puzzle. The beauty of the play is that, as in the film Citizen Kane, we the audience end up finding out more about the true events of the past than the characters in the present will ever be able to decipher. Bernard needs that last impossible-to-find "Rosebud" piece that will complete his hypothetical puzzle.

But the play's the thing, and Arcadia remains as fresh and as fascinating today as when I first saw it. Along with its themes of Classicism versus Romanticism, the geometry of English gardens, Newtonian physics versus chaos theory, the lost years in the life of Lord Byron, and the publish-or-perish mentality of the college don, Arcadia celebrates the unquenchable thirst of man in its quest towards intellectual discovery.