Posts Tagged ‘rachel chavkin’

Culture Vulture: the year in review

December 30, 2015

Top Theater of 2015:


  1. A View from the Bridge – Ivo van Hove’s intense Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s, staged within Jan Verseweyveld’s evocative stark set and lighting, an excellent cast headed by Mark Strong, Michael Gould, and Nicola Walker
  2. Between Riverside and Crazy – I’m thankful that Second Stage brought back the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Stephen Adly Giurgis’s deep, dark well-deserved Pulitzer recipient, full of amazing performances (Stephen McKinley Henderson and Liza Colon-Zayas – pictured below — with Ron Cephas Jones and Victor Almanzar) directed by Austin Pendleton.


  1. An Octoroon – the kind of big, messy, important, risk-taking production that keeps me engaged with theater. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins had key collaborators in director Sarah Benson, eight brave actors, smart producers (Theatre for a New Audience extended the life of the show that began at Soho Rep), and a design team at the top of their game (especially Mimi Lien, who certainly deserves the MacArthur Foundation fellowship she won this year).
  2. John (Signature Theatre) – Annie Baker’s long astonishing play staged by Sam Gold on Mimi Lien’s hyperrealistic set with four terrific performances: Georgia Engel, Lois Smith, Christopher Abbott, and Hong Chau.

    GhostQuartet3(Ryan Jensen)

  3. Ghost Quartet – a sweet and haunting chamber piece from Dave Malloy (above, plaid shirt), composer of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, performed in the cozy setting of the bar at the McKittrick Hotel.
  4. And That’s How The Rent Gets Paid – Jeff Weiss (below) and Ricardo Martinez’s East Village epic revived at the Kitchen featuring a cast of veteran and emerging downtown stars under director Brooke O’Harra’s fine-tuned cat-herding.
    7-14 jeff weiss
  5. iOW@ (Playwrights Horizons) — playwright Jenny Schwartz gave herself an amazing amount of freedom with this piece, one of the most aggressively odd-shaped plays I’ve ever seen in how information is delivered, how characters are introduced, how the story advances, the use of music (gorgeous and scrupulously unpredictable score by Todd Almond), etc. Kudos to director Ken Rus Schmoll and a super-game cast.
  6. Composition…Master-Pieces…Identity (Target Margin Theater) – I don’t know how he does it but David Greenspan again inhabited Gertrude Stein’s prose with effortless genius.
  7. Gloria (Vineyard Theatre) – another fine example of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ gift for merging social commentary, shrewd humor, and extraordinary performance opportunities; Evan Cabnet directed the fantastic six-member cast, among whom Jennifer Kim and Ryan Spahn stood out for me.
  8. Hamilton (Public Theatre) – I had my reservations about the most acclaimed musical of the year (the hiphop score is monotonous, the staging is theatrically square, and author Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance struck me as charmless) but there’s no denying that this retelling of early American history by black and Latino performers is smart, conceptually ambitious, and fiendishly well-written.
  9. Steve (New Group) – Mark Gerrard’s smart, hilarious gay comedy about sad stuff, impeccably directed by Cynthia Nixon with a fine cast and a seriously great performance by Matt McGrath.

Honorable Mentions:

Eclipsed (Public Theatre)– Danai Gurira’s original play about the experience of women during Liberia’s civil war with an exceptional all-female ensemble directed by Liesl Tommy

Ada/Ava (3Legged Dog) – unusual, inventive, emotionally absorbing shadow puppet play created by the Chicago-based Manual Cinema

Spring Awakening – DeafWest Theatre’s revelatory revival of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s play with a cast full of impressive Broadway newcomers directed by Michael Arden, noteworthy set by Dane Laffrey.

Grounded (Public Theater) – Julie Taymor brought her theatrical magic to this small honest play starring Anne Hathaway (below) as a disillusioned and war-damaged drone pilot


Preludes (LCT3) – another exceptional eccentric musical event from the team of composer Dave Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin starring Gabriel Ebert (below, with flowers) on another dazzling Mimi Lien set.


Disgraced – Ayad Akhtar’s play superbly directed on Broadway by Kimberly Senior.

Living Here (Foundry Theatre) — Gideon Irving’s one-man musical performed in living rooms all over NYC (including mine)

Raul Esparza in Cymbeline in Central Park

1-8 keith abronsKeith Hennessy’s bear/SKIN in the Abrons Arts Center’s American Realness Festival

Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes and Robert Fairchild’s performance in An American in Paris

Daniel Oreskes, Cameron Scoggins, and Tom Phelan in Taylor Mac’s Hir at Playwrights Horizons with a set by David Zinn that screamed “toxic America”

Other Culture Vulture High Points:

South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s show Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum

Anna Teresa de Keersmaker’s Partita in the White Light Festival

The new Whitney Museum

Habeas Corpus, Laurie Anderson’s collaboration with Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammed el Gharani at the Park Avenue Armory

Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s harrowing, arty, moving, thrilling biopic of Brian Wilson with an incredible performance by Paul Dano – my favorite film of the year


July 18, 2015

Extraordinary week of theater.

Saturday July 11: I’m a huge fan of Dave Malloy and Rachel Chavkin, the writer-composer/director team who created Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Ghost Quartet, and now Preludes, the spectacular production at Lincoln Center Theater’s tiny black-box space called The Claire Tow. The show, which Malloy and Chavkin developed together, was inspired by the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff and takes place, the program says, in Moscow 1900/the hypnotized mind of the composer. Apparently after early success starting at age 19 with his “Prelude in C# Minor, op. 3, no. 2,” Rachmaninoff experienced a major setback when his “Symphony No. 1 in D. minor, op. 13” premiered in St. Petersburg with a drunk conductor and an underrehearsed orchestra. The viciously negative critical reaction sent the 24-year-old composer into a three-year depression that stopped him in his tracks and ended with the help of a hypnotherapist named Nikolai Dahl summoned by his wife. Mimi Lien’s dreamscape of a set, Paloma Young’s costumes and the fine six-member cast fleetly and wittily straddle the historical time period and casual contemporary references. As the central character, named Rach, tall handsome Gabriel Ebert gives a performance that is impressive without being overly showy; I’ve seen him before but not in Matilda so I was bowled over by how nimbly he displayed his musical, physical, and acting chops – brooding artist who’s part dancer, part clown. He plays piano half-decently, though the show’s spritely musical director Or Matias mostly inhabits Rachmaninoff at the keyboard.

Nikki M. James is lovely as Rach’s piano-teacher wife Natalya (though she has to fake it when she sits down to play), and Eisa Davis brings the strong, confident, brainy presence we’ve seen before in Passing Strange and her own Angela’s Mixtape to the role of Dahl. (I loved Chavkin’s casting choices. Along with everything that’s impressive about Hamilton, I can’t help noting that the hip multiracial casting coexists with a square attitude when it comes to gender.) The score mashes up Rachmaninoff pieces – some well-known, some rare and exquisite — with Malloy’s original songs, many of them “suggested by” the composer’s work, with the occasional snatch of Beethoven or Mussorgsky. A short gorgeous section from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (which moved Andy, an a cappella aficionado, to tears) was only one of numerous moments where the show took an unexpected turn. In the middle of the show, a trippy number called “Loop” suddenly transports us to a rave in Goa. And the climax of the show is a long (possibly too long) demonstration of Dahl’s work with Rachmaninoff, “Hypnosis.” Stories about blocked artists dangerously court all kinds of clichés, and afterwards I had some nits to pick about the story and the script. But while I was watching it, I was completely absorbed in the ingenious, frequently surprising unfolding of Chavkin’s staging.

Sunday July 12: The Chicago-based performance collective Manual Cinema has evolved its own fascinating funky original form of theater combining shadow puppets, live music, sound and visual design, and performance-art presence. Their first piece, Ada/Ava, was performed in a first-floor apartment window in Chicago in 2010. Since then it’s been performed at various festivals (including the Tehran International Festival of Puppet Theater, the first Americans to play there) as well as opening the show for a Bonnie “Prince” Billy concert. The company’s five founders – Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter – came to NYC to perform Ada/Ava at 3-Legged Dog in the Financial District as part of The Tank’s Flint & Timber series. Presumably inspired by tech-savvy ensembles like the Wooster Group and Mabou Mines, Manual Cinema favors low-tech materials (overhead projectors, black construction paper, homemade masks) deployed with tremendous ingenuity and sophistication. The show tells the story of two elderly twin sisters, inseparable all their lives until one collapses dead at the chessboard, and how the survivor experiences her grief, depicted via crazy dreams, ghostly hauntings, and mysterious visits to a carnival sideshow’s hall of mirrors.

7-12 ada ava upper screen7-12 ada ava supplies
The eerie and poignant Hitchcockian hour-long wordless shadow play appears on a screen hung from the ceiling, and everything that the performers do to create their simple theatrical effects is fully visible to the audience. The performers operate four projectors while two musicians (Kauffman and Vegter) play a delicate, Daniel Lanois-like original score on guitar and keyboards and Maren Celest mixes in sound effects from a laptop.

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Drew Dir explains how the overlapping projections work to simulate animation.

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Sarah Fornace demonstrated the that prop that created the old-lady silhouette for both Ada and Ava.

Afterwards, the company invites the audience to stay, hang out, ask questions, manipulate the puppets, and take pictures, which turned out to be as charming and fascinating as the shadow play. The show has been extended twice (largely thanks to a deserving rave review in the New York Times) and plays now through July 26.

Tuesday July 14: The big event of the week was the three-night revival at the Kitchen of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, the notorious/legendary extravaganza created by masterful performer Jeff Weiss and his partner Richard C. Martinez that ran off and on for many years at various downtown venues (mostly the Performing Garage and P.S. 122), morphing into a show called Hot Keys and eventually Come Clean. Weiss and Martinez started out doing this and other shows at their storefront theater on East 10th Street. Some years ago (maybe 15?), Martinez started showing signs of Parkinson’s disease, Weiss suspended his acting career (he’d started getting gigs uptown, on Broadway and at Lincoln Center) to care for him, and the couple moved back to Weiss’s home town, Allentown, PA.

jeff and carlos
This revival of And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid was masterminded by director Brooke O’Harra, best-known for co-creating her own long-running lesbian comic soap opera Room for Cream with the Dyke Division at La Mama. For this occasion, O’Harra pulled together many of the performers who appeared in How the Rent/Hot Keys over the years (including the invaluable singer/actor/musical director/impresario/right-hand-man Nicky Paraiso, musical director emeritus Mark Bennett, Brenda Cummings, Dorothy Cantwell, Sturgis Warner, Christine Donnelly, Keith McDermott, Mary Shultz, and Kate Valk), invited other actors from the extended downtown theater world to join the cast (the likes of Greg Mehrten, Jim Fletcher, Jennifer Miller, Moe Angelos, and Tanya Selvaratnam), and rounded out the roster with a bunch of the next generation of cutting-edge/gender-queer hotshots (notably Becca Blackwell and Jess Barbagallo) and kids right out of college new to the scene. Each of the three nights featured more than a dozen scenes, most of them two-handers, none of them repeated. Between scenes, the Glee Club (a volunteer chorus of 20-odd singers) performed all kinds of music: Weiss-Martinez originals for chorus, some solos, and a few standards, including “the traditional opening number,” “Where or When,” and the closing number, “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World),” which believe me, in this context, did not sound like either Herman’s Hermits or the Carpenters.

jeff weiss curtain call

Jeff Weiss…And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid…Hot Keys…it’s hard to convey what these cultural phenomena mean and meant to anybody who wasn’t in New York in the 1980s and ‘90s. Jeff Weiss was a gay theater pioneer going all the way back to the early days of Caffe Cino and La Mama ETC. This show (Rent/Keys) has always been an outrageous live comic book/soap opera, really dirty, really gay, really un-PC. The basic story concerns Conrad (Connie) Burkhardt, a closeted married husband and father who cruises the streets in the persona of Bjorn, a Finnish gymnast, who lures guys into sex and then sometimes kills them. He is pursued with Javert-like avidity by detective Tom Persky, who’s always keeping tabs on Connie/Bjorn but can never quite pin anything on him. The action travels backwards and forwards through time, from gay bars and bathhouses in Manhattan to the Jersey shore home of jewelry merchants Sol and Vicki Sheisskopf. A lot like John Jesurun’s (somewhat more highbrow) Pyramid Club serial Chang in a Void Moon, the shambolic non-linear scenes were mostly a showcase for terrific, wild vaudevillean comic turns by downtown performers. The first time I saw And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, at the Performing Garage in 1980 or ’81, Weiss played all the roles himself and Martinez ran the lights and sound and everything else. The next time I saw it, the original Wooster Group all-stars and extended fellow travelers played all the parts (alongside Weiss and Paraiso). I saw Hot Keys several times at P.S. 122. The shows were always long (three to four hours, sometimes more), sometimes tedious, sometimes amateurish, sometimes incoherent, and yet often riveting and surprisingly poignant, with unbelievably good performances. As I wrote in a 1996 review,

The unabashedly queer sitcom sketches Weiss writes are perverse, filthy, and played for laughs… Eros rules in this universe. Every human action turns out to be driven by some sexual fetish, some humiliating desire, some outrageous passion. And yet the tone of the show stays unswervingly sweet, like an East Village version of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, complete with tall tales and special guests.

When I showed up for the first night at the Kitchen (the whole run sold out as soon as tickets went on sale — thank you, Nicky, for organizing the tickets for me), I wasn’t expecting Jeff Weiss to be on hand, but there he was, in a comic crown, meeting and greeting. “I know you!” he said, hugging me (and every other familiar face in the crowd). It was not only an all-star cast, it was an all-star audience: I saw John Jesurun, Everett Quinton, Alisa Solomon, Robert Blacker, Jim Leverett, Neil Greenberg, Linda Chapman and Lola Pashalinski with Jim Nicola (the New York Theater Workshop crew), Cynthia Hedstrom…it was a kind of great, exhilarating reunion of a certain tribe from downtown theater. It was super-exciting, fun to be there with Andy (who had no file on Jeff Weiss whatsoever), great to see old friends…and yet I found myself unexpectedly emotional, sad, close to tears on and off throughout the evening. A lot of ghosts flying around. (To name just a few: Ron Vawter, Paul Schmidt, Charles Ludlam, Harry Kondoleon, John Bernd…)

7-14 jeff weiss
Before the show began, Jeff (above) made it a point to introduce the oldest living lesbian drama teacher, a mentor of his from back home in her nineties, attending with the woman who was about to become her fourth wife. Jeff asked them if they had any questions for him. The “child bride” piped up: “Do you believe in God?” Jeff turned away, paused for a long moment, turned around and very evenly said, “Yes. He gives good plague.” His devastating, flip response hit the nail right on the head for me. This was a roomful of people who had lived through the horrible years of the AIDS epidemic that swept mercilessly through our community. For all the fun and festivity that this evening at the Kitchen would bring, for many of us it was also a gathering of grieving survivors whose experience of massive losses (not just from AIDS, but mostly from AIDS) we will never recover from. Ever.

Let me describe some high points from the show. It opened with an extremely provocative scene father-and-son sex scene with (very brave) Jim Fletcher as dad and Danny Ryan as his son, his drawers stuffed with an insanely huge Tom of Finland dick. When he came in his pants and dad demanded to see, Ryan called out, “Props!” and someone came running to empty two canisters of whipped cream into his underpants. Dad wanted a taste, then Jeff Weiss wanted a taste, and then the three of them went through the house offering anyone who wanted a taste of the boy-cream. In the Hot Keys tradition, every scene ends with an actor calling “Blackout!” After that first scene, a stream of audience members (all women) headed for the door, clearly not prepared for what this comic extravaganza had in store. What else? In scene 2, an actor described auditioning for a show called I Helped My Mother Die – the Musical. One of the early between-scene songs was sweet Brenda Cummings strumming her ukulele and singing the Petula Clark classic “Downtown.” Kate Valk commanded the stage playing Tom Persky (a role originally played at the Performing Garage by her Wooster Group colleague, the late great Ron Vawter) with lines like “Connie showed me the naked ass of evil.”

nicky and mark
There were three and a half musical directors on hand to play piano and conduct the Glee Club: in addition to Paraiso and Bennett (above), there was a one-night-only appearance by Michael Roth, an old chum of Weiss and Martinez who now works mostly in theater and film in LA but flew in for the occasion, and a young protégé of Paraiso’s, Dane Terry, who performed a long intriguing spoken-word/song from a show he’ll perform at La Mama next season. Tanya Selvaratnam was an amazing Vicki Sheisskopf.

Weiss would introduce many scenes with reminiscences that sometimes wandered quite far into the weeds. He loves nothing more than jokes about sex, bodies, and poop. He announced, “My sphincter is a mess,” rummaged around in his pants for evidence of his frequent involuntary flatulence, and offered a sniff of his fingers to people in the front row. But then he suddenly launched into a rendition of “Just a Gigolo” that was both stylized Brechtian and scary desperate. Certain scenes between Connie and his mother and his sister pretty clearly lean into autobiographical material. The scene where Connie (played by the amazing  Becca Blackwell) visits his sister in the state hospital pulled an astonishingly deep and emotional performance out of Dorothy Cantwell; during it, Weiss slowly circled the stage until he was standing against the back wall, and as Blackwell-as-Connie started reassuring Annie by singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Weiss started singing along – who knows if that was rehearsed, but it was a stunning example of upstaging as coup de theatre.

The likes of this show will not be seen again. And now I can’t get out of my head the lilting strains of the “love theme” from Hot Keys, “Please, Let Love Pass Me By.”

Culture Vulture: PIPPIN, NATASHA, MACBETH, ANN, FRANCES HA, and Amy Winehouse

May 27, 2013


5.22.13 My dear friend Misha Berson, a dedicated theater scholar who reviews theater for the Seattle Times, visits New York twice a year and always takes me as her guest to a couple of shows. I got lucky this time – both shows we saw together were terrific. Pippin is not a musical I harbor any great love for. I saw and reviewed the post-Broadway national tour when it arrived in Boston in 1979, but it left no impression on me one way or the other. The current revival has gotten pretty sensational reviews and word-of-mouth. Still, I kept my expectations low and it turned out to be much better than I would have thought possible. I’ve not loved Diane Paulus’s productions of The Donkey Show, Hair, or Porgy and Bess (though I did admire her Laura Nyro jukebox musical, Eli’s Comin’ at the Vineyard Theater) but I thought she did an excellent job staging Pippin. Her central good idea was to hire a Canadian circus company, Les 7 doigts de la main, to create an entirely new and different form of “Magic To Do” than the passel of sexy dancers with which Bob Fosse dressed up the original Broadway production.

The circus performers are fantastic, as are Scott Pask’s circus tent set and Kenneth Posner’s lighting. And the leads are surprising, quirky, and satisfying. At first I thought Matthew James Thomas (whom I liked in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark) was too bland in the title role until I realized that the journey of the play is one of a callow young man moving toward maturity and individuation. Patina Miller (who made a splash in Sister Act) is an intriguing, spiky Narrator – Misha found her “scary,” and indeed at the end when she’s cleared the stage of everyone but Pippin, his wife, and their child, I thought she looked like she was going to eat them. Again, not an unreasonable interpretation of the role. Charlotte D’Amboise and Terrence Mann (married in real life) inhabit their vaudevillean roles like the troupers they are. But the performance that has put this production on the map is Andrea Martin as Pippin’s grandmother. In all my years of theatergoing, I have never seen a performer get a standing ovation in the middle of the first act – Martin does, and she deserves it and the Tony Award that she will undoubtedly walk away with on June 9.

5.24.13 From the glowing reviews it received for its initial limited run last fall, I suspected that I would dig Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 – but then I thought that about Murder Ballad, which left me cold. (Misha, on the other hand, liked Murder Ballad much more than I did, almost certainly because she sat in conventional seating rather than having to wheel around in her onstage cabaret seat all night long, as I did.) Natasha, Pierre is another immersive theatrical experience – the audience sits at cabaret tables and is served dinner and free vodka shots while the show takes place all around them – performed at a special pop-up temporary space you enter on West 13th Street directly under the High Line. It’s cleverly conceived, designed, and staged on the caliber of Sleep No More (and as expensive), and its ambitions are not modest – it’s an adaptation of a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace with an expertly devised text, luscious score, superbly contemporary orchestrations, and leading performance (as Pierre) by Dave Malloy.

Julliard-training Philippa Soo, as Natasha (above), torn between two lovers, is sensationally good – a real star-in-the-making along the lines of Kelli O’Hara and Lea Michele. It’s a rich, intellectually demanding, quietly profound theatrical event – so much so that the eating and drinking distracted me a lot. High praises to director Rachel Chavkin – she and Malloy deservedly took home Obie Awards for their work – as well as to Paloma Young’s luxurious costumes and Matt Hubbs’s engulfing sound design. This show apparently can only run in this space through September 1, and tickets are going to be gone soon. Worth the investment – you’ll remember it long after you’ve forgotten even good Broadway musicals conventionally staged.

5.25.13 Weeks ago, perhaps high on seeing Alan Cumming dazzle Town Hall in concert with Liza Minnelli, I talked Andy and his college buddy Terry into buying tickets to see Cumming’s conceptual one-man performance of Macbeth. Some good omens: it was staged by John Tiffany, whose stagings of Once and The Black Watch were impeccable; and theater-savvy friends who saw early previews found it compelling to hear the text of The Scottish Play spoken by An Actual Scotsman. After the fact, I remembered that I didn’t care much for Cumming and Tiffany’s previous collaboration on The Bacchae, seen at the Lincoln Center Festival a few years ago.

cumming macbeth
This show takes place in a mental institution – it opens with Cumming’s character being examined and relieved of his personal belongings by a crisp, kind female doctor and a kind, burly male nurse. As the other two start to leave the room, Cumming says, “When shall we three meet again…?” and then proceeds to enact a truncated version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, playing all the roles. Nothing new is churned up from doing the play this way, nor do we understand something coherent about the character of the mental patient. All we’re left with, really, is a different way of doing one of Shakespeare’s most (over)familiar plays. And a show in which we witness Cumming’s considerable physical agility without his tremendous comic ability is a bit of a waste. The show felt of a piece with Fiona Shaw’s antic, arid performance art rendition of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary.

5.26.13 I felt very torn about seeing Ann, the living portrait of former Texas governor Ann Richards written and performed by Holland Taylor at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. I didn’t think the play would be very good; I’m allergic to one-person bio-dramas. Yet several people I trust liked it very much (although I think my friend Dave’s experience of the show got skewed somewhat by sitting behind Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were with Meryl Streep and Gabby Giffords and her astronaut husband). It was on TDF, and my friends Tom and Melissa were game for going, so what the hell, we went, and I found that I liked it much more than I expected I would.

It’s a beguiling performance eerily true to a remarkable woman whose forthrightness and willingness to speak bluntly and truthfully to power made her a hero to many people, including me. (And my mother, who transferred her voter registration from Colorado to Texas just to vote for Richards for governor. Another family connection – Richards grew up in Lakeview, the pitiful lake-free suburb of Waco where we spent five years living in a trailer park while my father was stationed at nearby James Connolly Air Force Base.) The show goes on too long and insists on covering every scrap and tittle of Richards’s life, before and after her one-term governorship. But the middle section is a bravura set piece to match the second act of Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Richards is sitting at her desk signing a pile of documents while fielding a relentless succession of phone calls – employees she yells at, reporters she coos to, children she cajoles – and calling out instructions to her offstage secretary. It’s a pretty good stylized condensation of a day in the life of a charismatic high-powered elected official.


On a break from theatergoing, Mr. David Zinn and I took in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, the new black and white film by the maker of The Squid and the Whale, co-written with Greta Gerwig (his girlfriend), who plays the title role. The film is quirky – always an admirable trait in my book – telling its story in tiny fleet snippets frequently chopped off in such a way as to subvert conventional pleasures. And the story itself undertakes an unreliable-narrator gambit familiar in fiction but hard to pull off in a movie.

frances ha
The narrative revolves around Frances’s friendship with high school chum Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting) but by the end you can’t really tell whether the friendship has grown distant and sour or whether it was a figment of Frances’ imagination all along. Gerwig plays an impetuous, bumbly underachieving twentysomething surrounded by rich kids with more social savvy. Her performance is not meant to be charming, and it’s not – it’s lumpy and awkward. The inevitable comparison, to Lena Dunham’s Girls, does not favor Frances Ha. It’s like a movie centered on the listless house cleaner Aimee Mann plays on Portlandia. Only in beautiful and admirably dark black and white. With Adam Driver in a key role.


For my birthday, someone gave me a copy of the wonderful two-disc Amy Winehouse at the BBC. Disc 1 is a CD containing previously unreleased live recordings of songs from her first two albums; disc 2 is a DVD of a film called The Day She Came to Dingle, documenting Winehouse’s appearance at Other Voices, a festival held in a tiny hall in seaside Ireland. It’s an incredible document – thrilling, shocking, heartbreaking. She performs six songs from Back to Black, which hadn’t yet been released, backed only by a guitar and electric bass – in other words, without the sensational sonic environment and classic horn-heavy R&B arrangements by Mark Ronson.

amy winehouse
In a backstage interview, Winehouse talks about the evolution of her musical taste: from Kylie and Madonna, to hip-hop (Salt ‘n’ Pepa) and jazz (Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk), and only recently to gospel (Mahalia Jackson) and early ‘60s girl groups (the Shangri-Las). The film interpolates archival footage of the people she mentions (including some British acts I’d never heard of – Carleen Anderson and Soweto Kinch). It’s naked and as riveting as any live performance video you’ve ever seen. It was shot five years before she died. She was 22.

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