Thursday, January 16, 2020

Praxis Stage Presents Shakespeare’s "King John"

   Actor Michael Underhill and Director Kimberly Gaughan

Boston’s culture aficionados are in for a rare treat this winter with Praxis Stage’s production of King John, Shakespeare’s obscurest play about the medieval king’s embattled succession to the English throne. Today, King John is remembered as the tyrannical king in Robin Hood tales, though he also signed the Magna Carta.
In Shakespeare’s King John (the poet’s “most explicitly political play”), Praxis’s director Kimberly Gaughan seeks something different for her focus. Her eye for truth about human behavior draws out the deeper John, the fully present John, so that audiences can feel a connection to him, a personal identification to his moods, his decisions, his strengths and weaknesses, and even his cruelty—for the bottom line is, he’s human, just like the rest of us. Political mayhem may indeed dominate the play’s twists and turns, but the Praxis production focuses on John, the man, the human being, and Gaughan brings her love and understanding for this character to his new incarnation.
To realize her vision of John, Gaughan asked native Bostonian actor, Michael Underhill, to play the role. The two had worked together on Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Stage2’s production of Romeo and Juliet last spring. Gaughan, the show’s assistant director, had been taken with Underhill’s sensitive portrayal of Tybalt—in fact, he was the best Tybalt she’d ever seen.
King John is now in rehearsal and opens January 30 at the Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, for a two-week run. At a recent rehearsal at the Cottage House in Dorchester, Gaughan and Underhill talked about their experience, or their “journey,” delving ever deeper into this “whacky, weird play,” as Gaughan says, or as Underhill quips, “how does all of this happen in the same play?”

GS: Kim, how did you feel taking on a play with such a richness of timeless themes, but at the same time of such magnitude that your audience might grope for understanding?

KGActually, when I read the play, I was entranced and enamored with parts of it and not the whole. It seems like Shakespeare was starting and stopping, like he was writing scenes without continuity—he was all over the place. So, I was interested in that challenge—stitching together this series of vignettes. And I was worried about the history aspect, because in Shakespeare’s time, the audience understood the family trees and that whole world of the play, but here, today, we just don’t have that knowledge, we don’t have that understanding of “Plantagenets.” I knew that we needed to do very clear things that would make that background available to audiences, and we’re using some theatrical elements to tell the story—we’re telling it physically as much as with text, and trying to connect it to how humans relate to one another.
What I realized when I was working with the play and getting into the rehearsals, was that there was no sense in trying to rail on the play’s historicity. We had to make it about the actual humans who were involved. So, finding those parallels—and Shakespeare’s so timeless—finding those moments that seem so contemporary despite the language. That’s really what I focus on in breaking this down. And of course, I’ve cut a lot, I’ve streamlined a lot, to make it more cohesive. That being said, it’s still a jumble, but it’s really resonating as we work through it in rehearsals. There are all kinds of interpersonal connections and relationships that you can identify in any family. In many ways, it feels like a family drama and I want to explore that as much as possible. As for the play’s political parallels to today, the text itself is political enough and the parallels are there. I’ve never been one to beat down on a topic. I think subtlety is more incendiary in the long run.

GS: What’s been your process for directing the play?

KG: Well, there’s been a lot of reflection, of course. And this is my first time directing on my own. In the past, I’ve assisted, and in those situations, I was working on something that I had already worked on in some capacity, or seen many times. For instance, I was the assistant director on Romeo and Juliet, which Michael was in—that’s how we met—and that was a play I have a lot of opinions about and feel really close to, and if I were to do it, I already have a vision of it in my head. With King John, I didn’t have anything in place, and this is actually freeing, even though it’s also a bit overwhelming because there are so many possibilities. Even though the play might feel chaotic when you first encounter it, there’s actually a beautiful simplicity to it. It has a lot of complexity and moving parts, but within that there’s a thread running through it. The emotional journey these characters go on is complex, and no one in the play is “black or white,” but rather living in a gray area throughout the course of the show. We’re handling these characters with the sympathy and kindness that the productions I’ve looked at haven’t, and for me, the through line is that people are complicated. You can’t cast them aside for one thing or the other that they’ve done. We have to take everyone as they are.
So, back to my process, I read the play. I watched what versions were available to me. I read it again. I traveled a lot this summer on trains, which gave me time to sit and storyboard a few things, ideas that were then thrown out. I spent time thinking about who these people were. All of the productions I had seen were traditionally Shakespearean—very old guys talking in crisp voices about politics. I wasn’t connecting to them, I felt there was more in the play, an underbelly. I knew that John was going to be my focus. He’s my favorite character. I felt there’s always been an unsympathetic approach to him—such as his portrayal in Robin Hood—and even the Arden edition’s commentary—it’s quite snarky about John. I knew I needed someone who could give him a vulnerability and a sensitivity despite all the things that happen in the play. I was working with Michael on Romeo and Juliet when the King John project came up. He was playing Tybalt, and Michael’s Tybalt was the best Tybalt I’ve ever seen. And he didn’t have a lot of text; we didn’t focus on that story arc in the play. He brought such a sensitivity to his role—a care to it. I thought: he’d be a perfect King John. So, a lot of my process was finding John and what his world would be like. 

GS: How did you discover your passion for directing and do you enjoy it more than acting?

KG: I really enjoy acting when it’s a part I’m excited about, which doesn’t happen much anymore. There are some roles I would jump at, but I find that directing is more satisfying. I’m a bit of a control freak, and as an actor, I’ve often been on the sidelines thinking, “Oh, I know what this scene needs! So, I finally got to explore that side of myself, and it’s been really fulfilling. I also had become a little disheartened, because I’d been in a lot of situations where I felt like the process of the play got away from the art, and that the people were more interested in the power dynamics of the project than the art. So, I was interested in creating an environment of kindness where people could explore their creativity.

GS: How are you bringing your personal vision to the play?

KG: The play’s contemporary, but it also has many influences going into it. Everyone’s bringing something to the table. Each actor brings something different, artistically, which changes and shifts everything. And from my perspective, I’m really interested in theater as a medium—how it’s different from film, how it’s different from television, and how we’re doing something that’s extremely theatrical that can remind people we’re in a communal space together. We’re sharing a moment—audience and actor—and there’s not the pretense of a fourth wall up between us. I’m really interested in how we can create a shared energy together. And so, my directing is not necessarily “how can we set this in 2020 and make it picture perfect with our contemporary times,” but instead, how can we evoke atmosphere, mood, and feeling that audiences can tie into with the willing suspension of disbelief. We want to create a cognitive experience where we set out to do one thing with a scene, but audience members see it and are reminded of something from their own lives—like a past experience of loss or grief. We have to remember that audiences are smart and the things that we do trigger ideas in them, so I’m interested in that creative sharing.

GS: What’s it like to direct Shakespeare in comparison to other playwrights?

KG: I think Shakespeare is, in many ways, easier for me because I’ve spent so much of my acting career doing it. I feel I have a very strong base—I’m confident doing Shakespeare. But I also feel with Shakespeare that we have so many notions, preconceived ideas about what it should be or what it needs to be, and these are very elevated. But I find many things in the plays that aren’t highbrow, that are just economical and simple, even though there’s all of the language, the poetry. So, resisting the urge to succumb to that, to what we think it is, is difficult. Directing any play is hard. You read it, you make an idea about it, and you think “this is what it is.” Then you get in the rehearsal room, and you have five bodies all talking, all contributing, and it’s totally different. So, it’s always hard.

GS: What’s it been like to work with your actors?

KG: It’s been a dream. We really put together an incredible group of people. I’ve worked with Michael before, so I knew that was going to go well, and I’m working again with David Picariello (he plays several roles in King John), with whom I had just been in Trayf this past fall with the New Repertory Theatre. Then, Daniel Boudreau and I quickly established a positive working relationship. So out of the eight were three I already knew and felt good about. I cast the others based on their auditions, and we really picked the most creative bunch of people I could’ve hoped for. Everybody jumps in all the time with wonderful ideas, and they’re so game to try new things. We have a really wonderful group.

GS: Michael, what’s it like to be an actor in the play, and the title role?

MU: I think a really challenging aspect of directing is the balance between having a strong artistic vision while also providing freedom and flexibility to the other artistic collaborators in the room, and that is the strength of this process with Kim. Everyone does have a voice, and we all know what field we’re playing on. Kim has set that vision for us. It’s a rarity to have that. I feel we have a really strong ensemble for this play, and there’s really no “lead role” in our production, partly because we have such a small cast and everyone shares the load equally. Everyone gets their moments to carry the play. One of the best characters in the play doesn’t even have a name—he’s “the citizen.” This sharing has been a delight for me, as it’s a lot to take on a title role. Yet it’s also been a blessing to jump into a process where I have more to do, where I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of larger theaters in town, in more ensemble type roles, with the opportunity to learn from a lot of artists I consider role models. To be able to take that learning and put it into practice is liberating. It’s been so great to work with King John, and with Kim’s guidance and blessing to really find the human being in him.
In some of my first broad strokes, my first-draft versions of John, he was unsympathetic—not someone that you’d want to spend two hours with. And now, I really do want to spend two hours with him, and I want to be sure audiences do too, and really take this journey with him and confront the same challenging situations and decisions he has to make throughout the play, whether the audience agrees with him or not. And that’s been a really fun challenge for me to play.
I also came to the play with no preconceived notion of King John, including his negative portrayal in Robin Hood. It’s really thrilling to do that, to come to a character without preconceived ideas. There’s something that you’re playing against with characters that have been done a million times. I definitely empathize with John. I think he embodies things that a lot of us deal with, such as the imposter syndrome, where you’re constantly seeking validation for what you’re doing, for the choices or decisions you’re making—wanting to know you’re worthy of your place and your time. We can all relate to that and empathize with John. That’s my job—to find the human in him, figure out why he makes certain decisions, not just whatthose decisions end up being.

GS: Could you share a bit about your acting career?

MU: Sure, I’ve been acting since I was fourteen. I grew up in Norwood and went to Northeastern University, graduating in 2010, and have been really fortunate to be working continuously in the area for the last decade. Lately I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to do a lot of Shakespeare, and it’s something I’ve really developed a strong attachment to, a kinship to, a relationship to the language and to the plays, and also bringing it to audiences. Two shows before King John that have been highlights for me were Cymbeline and Richard III for “Shakespeare on the Common,” for 5,000 people each night—an experience you won’t get anywhere else. Everyone has his or her own journey as an artist, as an actor, as whatever you’re pursuing, and it’s something that feels like home—when you’re in the rehearsal room or in the theater—that’s what you’re doing it all for—finding your way home. This is how I’ve approached my fifteen years of acting.

GS: What do you hope is the audience’s take-away watching this play?

MU: Well, King John is a play that not many in the audience have read of seen, or come to with any preconceived notions. I hope they come with curiosity and learn something about this play and the characters in it. I hope they have opinions about the characters and develop relationships with them—that they’re going on this journey with us, because there are so many things that happen in the play, so many surprises, so many left turns out of nowhere, and so many surprising decisions that the characters make. I just hope the audience is able to experience the same thing that we all experienced the first time we read through it and the first time we went through it in rehearsal and thought, “Oh my god, how does all of this happen in the same play?”

GS: Kim, what about you, do you have a special take-away for the audience?

KG: My biggest question when we started this was, does King John work as a play? A few months ago, I was with another theater artist before we started rehearsals, and I mentioned I would be directing John in the winter. He said, “That play doesn’t have an ending!” He was right, and so, I was dealing with those sorts of concerns. So, my big thing is, does King John work? I’m interested to hear what audiences think. Is it a play that’s worth doing? I feel it is. It’s a weird, whacky journey, but at the same time, it so simply confronts and explores humanity’s desire to connect. I want audiences to experience theater. I want it to be worth it for somebody to come to the theater and say, “That was a night well spent!” It should be different from sitting at home and watching a movie on TV. I want people to feel like it was a worthwhile endeavor, because they got something that they’re not going to get anywhere else. 

Tickets and Information
(617) 933-8600

Praxis Stage
Praxis Stage seeks to link theater with activism and produce plays that enter the current cultural and political conversations. The company cultivates a core of artists who burn to tell stories that both address injustice and imagine a more equitable and truly democratic society, while also pulling in new artists to enrich the programs. Praxis pays particular attention to productions with a diversity of identity and that showcase Boston’s born-and-raised talent. Its artists create enthralling theater that affects, moves, challenges, troubles, delights, and ultimately inspires audiences.



















Monday, December 23, 2019

Marriage Story


Marriage Story, written and directed by Noah Baumbach, stirs a lot of thoughts for audiences. It gives a realistic depiction of a youngish couple with a child going through divorce. Adam Driver plays the husband Charlie, a rising-star, theater director in New York, and Scarlett Johansson plays his wife Nicole, a talented actress in his plays. Laura Dern plays Nicole’s tough L.A. divorce lawyer. Released by Netflix, the movie is billed as a drama/comedy, but there is no comedy in this film’s sad, realistic portrayal of two decent persons’ drifting apart, with one of them deciding to leave. After the separation, horrendous acrimony slowly builds until a final, emotional blow-up shatters everyone—the couple and the audience.
Whose point of view tells this story? The man’s or the woman’s? Or, was the take-away for a man watching this film different from the take-away for a woman? Having thoroughly experienced the couple’s feelings, I, a woman, left the theater wondering if a man had experienced the characters’ heartbreak differently from me. I felt it must be so, for the film’s point of view lacked clarity.
I called a friend, a male and a millennial psychologist, and indeed his take-away was wholly different from mine. I identified and sympathized with Nicole’s stunted potential in a marriage where she served her rising-star husband, who loved her and their family life, but had no true interest in her “being,” who she was, as his passion and focus were totally on himself and his work and ambition. Everything else was rote for him and done according to the book of what was right and currently “enlightened,” such as how to be a good father, a considerate household partner, and a good, fair, and beloved director to his troupe.
When, as happens in long marriages, Nicole lost interest in sex, Charlie found sex with the stage manager of his company. No, he didn’t love her, he just needed that kind of intimacy and ego-gratification. He is god in his world. But the affair isn’t why Nicole leaves. She leaves because at age 40ish, she realizes she isn’t fulfilling her own life, her own gifts, her own passion, and she will never be able to if she stays with Charlie to serve his life and his success, which includes receiving a MacArthur grant for $600,000 to further advance his talent. Moreover, his new play is going to Broadway. His power and recognition are only going to keep growing while she stays as she is—his dependable wife, his actress in second place, his competent family partner, his solace and safety when home in the nest she provides.
As in all marriages that begin in the mid-twenties, the partners evolve with time and their risk of not evolving together is high. Charlie and Nicole clearly love and care about each other, but the marriage is over for Nicole if she wants to live, if she wants an authentic, fulfilling life. She returns to her mother’s home in L.A. when a pilot TV series offers her a role. She takes their son Henry along. It’s not certain the show will take-off, so the trip is presented as short-term to see what happens. Once there, however, life feels so good to Nicole—her true identity is able to emerge, not only as an actress free from the shadow of her husband’s greatness, but also as a future director herself, which is her dream. Henry also loves living in L.A. with Nicole’s active, extended family life that includes cousins. The only problem is, Charlie’s life is in New York, so that his career and ambition become bombed by Nicole’s decision to remain in L.A. when the pilot succeeds. But it’s not just the pilot that makes her stay. It’s her good feelings about herself, about having a meaningful life, her right just as much as his. In L.A., she’s not Charlie’s appendage anymore, which was fine in her twenties when she worshiped him and came under his wing, but it’s not fine now in her maturity. She has her own developed talent, equal to his when freed from its cage.
My male friend’s take-away was different. He saw Charlie as the victim of Nicole’s manipulations. She left New York knowing her L.A. stint was going to be permanent. She tricked him, and now has the child legally in L.A. causing a custody suit. Her character was shallow while his was deep. Not only that, but Adam Driver was a far better actor than Scarlett Johansson. And Nora, the aggressive L.A. lawyer, was creepy, hideous—he shuddered just remembering her.
I want to pause here and say that Nora, portrayed as L.A.’s toughest, man-gouging divorce lawyer for women, also affected me as a female viewer. She’s groomed pejoratively: slinky, skin-revealing clothes (like a gross sex object), long blond hair incongruous with her aging face, and a fake way of communicating with her new client, all saccharine in order to win her business. Why was Nora presented this way? Perhaps to mock L.A./Hollywood culture when it comes to divorce, for Charlie’s L.A. male lawyer is even worse. These characters are driven by money and how much you can get from your future ex-spouse; no concern for damage done to children and the parents in such an antagonistic, bitter, and volatile tug of war. It’s crass and tragic.
But there’s more to consider. Everything that spouts from Nora’s smart, fighter lips about the double standard is true. Who is listening to her? Perhaps some members of the female audience. I heard her and as a result, overlooked her unappealing traits because she spoke the truth about male-female relationships and how society condones men and condemns women in the same situation. My male friend couldn’t tolerate her, and because of her money-grasping and exterior traits, he felt even more that Nicole was a conniving manipulator and Charlie a victim. Again, the film’s point of view comes up. Was everything Nicole said to Charlie about her deepest feelings and why she was leaving, and Nora’s pronouncements about the double standard, part of the script for the truth they told or part of the script to mock women in favor of Charlie the battered hero?
It would be interesting to set up a poll to compare the male and female responses to this movie—and I welcome hearing from you. The film ends nicely, because Nicole and Charlie are able to go back to their original, honest and caring roots and dump the lawyers in their divorce. And Charlie accepts the reality that Nicole is not coming back and figures out a way to make fruitful changes in his professional life in order to be near his son. But what is the film’s point of view about that, about Charlie making changes to accommodate the divorce? My point of view is: good solution. My friend’s point of view might be: she forced him to wreck his career, give up his New York life and passion. Nora the lawyer might say: This film perpetuates the way society has always viewed women as demons; it upholds the superior integrity and value of men. And the film? We don’t leave the theater knowing the film’s point of view, but my closest guess is: Charlie’s beleaguered treatment deserves our support. Hopefully it’s a wrong guess.

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Cranes Are Flying


Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov (Russia,1957)
December 15, 2019, 3:00 pm, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Cranes Are Flying takes place in Soviet Moscow during World War II, when the Russians declare war on Germany. Shot in black-and-white, in possibly the best cinematography in that medium, the film cries, bleeds, with feeling, most of it portrayed through the central character’s facial expressions. She is young, vivacious, Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), whose heart skips and soars with love for twenty-five-year-old Boris (Aleksey Batalov), a factory engineer and son of a prominent doctor. Handsome, concert-pianist Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) also lives with Boris’s family and is in love with Veronica, but she adamantly rejects him in favor of Boris, whom she plans to marry.


The movie opens with the lovers traipsing along the embankment of the Moscow River. They’re as carefree and exuberant as children, for such is the feeling of being in love. Suddenly, Veronica stops and watches a formation of cranes flying overhead. Her face shows total awe and the camera focuses on her feeling. From then on, throughout the movie, life’s deepest feelings are shown through the characters’ faces, especially Veronica’s, for it’s her story. The camera work connects us, the audience, to those same innermost feelings that words can never convey.



Intentionally or not, the cranes in formation have a flip side and portend the coming war and fighter jets on their way to bomb cities and humanity; the miracle of nature juxtaposes the villainy of humanity. The cranes in flight bookend the movie—appearing just before and just after the war. Another bookend also frames the story: Veronica fighting her way through throngs of cheering Muscovites as they send their soldiers off to war, and then, when they greet them home again. In these crowd-scene bookends, Veronica is first trying to find Boris to say farewell, and then, trying to find him among the returning soldiers. When the cranes fly overhead in this last scene, they convey through Veronica’s facial expression the inexplicable coexistence of “wondrous life” and “imperfect humanity,” for she has learned Boris is dead. She has no choice but to carry on after war’s death, destruction, and grief—such is life.

The story is like a fairy tale, a parable, or a morality play. The characters are stock: young lovers, family patriarch, dishonest cousin, judgmental sister, wise grandmother. We don’t need unique personalities or witty dialogues for this story to deliver its breathtaking magic. Nor does its dated morality impinge on its art. What the film delivers in camera work by Sergey Urusevsky attains a peak of visual art, and of course depends somewhat on Samoilova’s talent for expressing her character’s inner states through only physical and facial movements. The camera’s “subjective style” takes us into her unconscious mind’s image-experience of traumatic events, such as her rape by Mark, her panic in the mob, her discovery of her parents’ bombing death, and her final reawakening to hope, humanity, and love. As one Russian critic wrote when the film came out, “You don’t know whether the image of Veronica owes her charm to Samoilova’s talent and sincerity or to Urusevsky’s art, able to catch in the turn of a head, a momentary pose, the blink of eyelashes, the helplessness and obstinacy, the tenderness and pride of this particular woman’s character.”

Urusevsky achieves this same powerful hold on us when Boris, fighting on the swampy front, is hit by a bullet. We die with him, we experience his last, unconscious mind’s images, not his thoughts, before he keels over backward into the sloshing mud. The camera twirls and swirls and collides with images we feel, we relate to, that are beyond verbal communication. On a side note, one marvels at the terrifying risk Samoilova (or her double) takes during the first mob scene when she runs blindly through rolling army tanks looking for Boris as the Soviet forces leave Moscow for the front.



Our values, our way of living, our morality, and our artistic renderings have changed since The Cranes Are Flying was made. We no longer portray new love in an idealized, ultra-sentimental way, even if we actually feel that way when newly in love. Our Western society has become open and conscious of gender and minority equalities. The shame and ostracism placed on Veronica because she marries Mark after he violently rapes and mentally crushes her wouldn’t happen today. The movie’s attitude toward war has also changed. When the German invasion occurs, Boris and his friends automatically rush to sign up: fighting for the homeland is their responsibility. One thing has not changed about the movie: what it achieved in 1957 with its cinematic portrayal of our innermost feelings remains. For film art lovers, Cranes is a must see.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Announcement (Turkey/Bulgaria, 2018)



Art house film lovers can sit back and thoroughly savor every nuance of this meticulously executed movie that doesnt fit into a single genre but draws from several. It opens with film noirs suspense and mystery but soon fleshes out to theater of the absurdexistentialism, satire, and at times, the sense of dystopiaThis mixed offering works seamlessly and ingeniously from start to finish, coming from the hand of an obvious master, Mahmut Fazil Coşkun.
There is much nighttime driving in this movie, much standing and sitting around waiting, much silence and guarded watching, while the clock ticks and the central characters—military officers—cogitate on the time running out for their attempted coup in a fictionalized Turkey in 1963. The period props are marvelous—cars, phones, offices, radio equipment, and a hospital. It’s 1963, but we’re in some retro world that’s so long gone, so technologically archaic, that we can’t remember having lived in such a world ourselves.
The middle-aged characters carrying out the coup—Reha (Ali Seçkiner Alici) Şinasi (Tarhan Karagöz, Kemal (Murat Kiliç), and Rifat (Şencan Güleryüz)—are stuck in an unending nightmare. They go from one dead end to the next, in their effort to announce from Istanbul Radio that their coup has been a success and the country is now in better, safer hands. This single night of one detour after another in the officers’ mission never alters their deadpan faces, while outlandish or absurd incidents keep occurring, such as two cold-blooded killings and finding an unexpected use for the latest Frigidaire model that one of the officers is hoping to market on the side. The audience is kept in suspense despite the deliberately humdrum pace of the story. Other details and scenes have acute humor, such as the blasé attitude of the local citizens toward the coup. When called upon to help the perpetrators in their thwarted mission, the locals comply willingly, indifferent to who or what they’re helping. Coups are just an everyday event in their lives with no personally threatening impact. The citizens just want to be helpful.
As things escalate in their low-key, non-happening way, Radio Ankara begins to make broadcasts, while the coup plotters drive around in a bakery van trying to resolve their technical problems with Radio Istanbul. The officers maintain their same deadpan faces as they listen to their mission beginning to fail from the Ankara position. Nothing can faze these guys. Are the people in this movie inured to the political superstructure overarching their lives but never really affecting them? This viewpoint is another of the movie’s ironies, and possibly a statement on contemporary Turkey. 
The Announcement comes full circle by the end of the film, with an image of the uniformed protagonists, back to ordinary life, as if their grand plan was nothing in particular—just a bit of hopeful excitement for a change, a perk for their deadened egos—but now regular, mundane existence resumes.

Watch for screenings of The Announcement at 2019–2020 film festivals and in art house theaters.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Boston Jewish Film Festival '19



Fig Tree (2018)
Dir. Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian

Director Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian drops you right into daily life in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa during the long Ethiopian Civil War. The year is 1989, and American audiences plunge into a completely new culture with the backdrop of a chaotic war, where teenage boys are “kidnapped” to supply the government’s army.
The protagonist Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), 16, is Jewish and lives with her grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew) and her brother Rata (19), who has lost his arm in the war. A Christian woman and her son, Eli (Yohanes Muse), also live with the family. Mina grew up with Eli, and now, in adolescence, they are in love. The family goes to great lengths to hide Eli from the constant army raids to round up boys. When her chores are done, Mina steals away to meet Eli at their trysting spot, a giant fig tree.
A wheeling-dealing government official arranges papers and transportation for Jewish citizens to immigrate to Israel, and Mina’s grandmother has been working with the woman to arrange the family’s escape. Mina’s mother is already in Israel. But Mina’s distraught—how can they leave Eli and his mother behind?
The film captures “first love”—its childlike innocence awakening to sexual desire. These beautiful scenes between Mina and Eli, more than anything else in the movie, bring us into the family circle and the terrible ordeals the members endure. We experience what it really feels like to witness a son or your love being snatched by the enemy—being captive and abused to face what horrible fate?
Because we dive straight into the lives of Mina's family without any back story or exposition, we have to work fast to learn the characters’ names, their customs, the war situation, and the plot. This full-immersion method of storytelling is the most effective way for an audience to experience a foreign world and crisis situation as if in it themselves.
In Fig Tree, women play a strong role. They absorb all the tragedies occurring around them; they keep life going for everyone else. They’re the bulwark and the source of wisdom for children and men to depend on.
The movie’s cinematography also tells the story (and won Israel's equivalent of an Oscar). Even though we’re in a tense, scary, unpredictable war zone, the film is quiet, told more through the actors’ faces and the scenery than through their dialogue. We become familiar with this setting and its culture; we become part of the community. Mina’s family could be ours; we know the members that well, We easily identify with one character’s anguished words, “I can’t deal with all their evil anymore!”
Fig Tree is a beautiful, honest look at our world and the violence and cruelty that pervades it.


My Polish Honeymoon (Lune de Miel, 2019)
Dir. Élise Otzenberger


Élise Otzenberger’s film My Polish Honeymoon offers audiences an enjoyable time-out for its quirky characters, honest realism, humor, and poignant moments. The structure is a road trip. The film opens with thirty-year-old Anna (Judith Chemla) in a high-anxiety state just before her departure for Poland with her husband Adam (Arthur Igual). They are Parisians, but Poland’s the homeland of both their grandparents who were Jews during the Holocaust. Anna’s grandmother survived and settled in Paris, but Adam’s grandfather was among those in Zgierz, north of Łódź, where not one Jew remained after the war. The trip centers on a commemorative ceremony for the murdered families of Zgierz.
Anna’s parents arrive to babysit six-month-old Simon, while Anna and Adam take a postponed “honeymoon” to Poland. Both the film’s title and the honeymoon idea have several connotations to ponder.
In the opening scenes, as the couple tries to get out of their apartment for the airport, Anna’s high-voltage personality that controls everyone and everything sets the stage for striking realism in the story. Her behavior is somewhat off-putting at first—she barks orders and rudenesses to her loved ones—but actually, this style of family communication is what goes on inside most people’s homes. Ultimately, Anna’s histrionic behavior, her swings from exuberance to total collapse, warm us to her, for she also comes across as authentic, likeable, sincere, deep, and human. In this way, the film imparts truth about how individuals love and care for each other despite daily annoyances, grievances, and friction. The most intense scene between Anna and Adam—a shattering, pain-inflicting argument—is a universal with couples and an achievement of the film for capturing it.
Another achievement is the movie’s funny moments. They, too, are so real. While the film is dealing with an overall heavy subject—close relatives who have or have not survived genocide and what that means for their descendants—it simultaneously lets us enjoy present-day, hilarious moments. My favorite scene is when Anna arrives in Krakow, overflowing with excitement for discovering her family’s homeland and culture. It’s cold outside. She goes into a shop to buy socks from a pretty Polish woman her own age. Immediately they hit it off, babbling away in their own languages—French and Polish—with lots of hand motions and laughter. The Polish woman “understands perfectly” what Anna wants (socks) and brings out a samovar. They go on talking and agreeing on everything with the aid of their exuberant sign language—“Yes, of course, exactly, I know just what you mean!” They hug goodbye with effusive appreciation for their encounter. This is a marvelous “real moment” in the movie, capturing how people can communicate their warmth and innate humanity without understanding each other’s language. Adam witnesses the scene with a baffled face: “Is this for real?” Yes, Adam, it happens.
The movie’s central theme is remembrance. A survivor of the concentration camps gives a talk to adolescents in a plundered Jewish cemetery. She shows them a photograph of herself as a child imprisoned in Bergen-Bergen. She says, “I bear witness. Look at me in this photograph and don’t believe anyone who tells you the Holocaust didn’t happen.” Remember.
Adam sees a jolly-looking tour bus for Auschwitz, along with souvenir kiosks. He says it’s like Disney—offensive commercialization of the Holocaust. He has a point. And yet, to get multitudes to the site and its horrors, so that they remember, and honor remembrance, buses might be needed, and perhaps the souvenirs touch the heart and memory long after the visit. It would help if the buses’ sides weren’t blazoned with “Auschwitz” and “Schindler,” turning the Holocaust a money-making industry.
The movie doesn’t exonerate present-day Poland. It judges it, or allows its characters to judge the place, the people, the past. Anna’s grandmother’s house in Kazimierz is gone. Its place in a line of other houses is an empty, overgrown lot, as if her house alone was swiped from the landscape—her past, her aberrant Jewishness eradicated. Why is the lot still empty? Almost a century has passed. It’s like a symbol of the erasure, in a bad way, not a memorializing way. We’re told that once she settled in Paris, she was “over being Polish, over being Jewish. She was now a good French woman, a Parisian.”
Although Anna had brought her son’s foreskin to Poland, thinking she might bury it in the homeland, she instead takes it back to Paris, where Adam buries it in one of their potted plants on the apartment’s window ledge. They are Parisians. They are Jewish-Parisians. Paris, not Poland, is home.
The movie’s soundtrack by David Sztanke (pianist, singer, arranger, composer, and performer) is notable. Lots of Chopin (Szopen was a Pole), and all of the music expertly matched to the mood of each scene. When soft and tender, when touching loss and grief, the music never slips into sentimentality; it always hits the accurate feeling.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Hamlet, outdoor summer theater


 A tour de force from Boston's Praxis Stage


A rare and wonderful Hamlet for our times is playing in two Cambridge parks, Thursdays thru Sundays, and note that the Sunday performance is at 4:00, and all others at 7:00 pm. Seating is on the grass, take beach chairs or a blanket. For more information visit Praxis Stage on Facebook or https://www.praxisstage.com/.
    Talent infuses Praxis Stage’s production of Shake-speare’s famous tragedy. Each character lives and breathes right in front of us; it never occurs that we’re watching a performance. We’re immersed in pummeling reality—Hamlet’s. That is, until we turn on our minds for just a second and think: How can Eric McGowan be manic right before our eyes when he’s actually acting? In retrospect, he’s like Kevin Kline, Johnny Depp, or any of those greats who are born to become, wholly, another person for our benefit as viewers.
     Why does this particular Hamlet reach us so poignantly in the depths of our souls? It feels like a story from our own times—we’re watching the people we know from our own lives. And yet, the lines are the Bard’s from 1600. And, miraculously, or because of the players’ passion and talent, the lines in this production are clearly, purely heard and understood.
     Praxis’s artistic director, Daniel Boudreau, says that the company formed the day after Trump’s election, and that it “seeks to link theater with activism” by producing works that reflect current political issues and cultural conversations. “We are artists who burn to tell stories that address injustice and that imagine a more equitable and truly democratic society. We pay particular attention to forging productions with a richness in diversity and, particularly, with Boston-born and raised talent gracing our stages.”
Eric McGowan has us in his grip as Hamlet, a Hamlet  for today.  
    
Praxis Stage performs throughout the year, offering one Shakespeare play every summer. “We want to keep that immortal genius in our mouths, in your ears, and on as many minds as possible, as one route to the betterment of this world,” says Boudreau.
     Why the name Praxis? “It’s a philosophical concept we embrace,” says Boudreau. “Praxis embodies cultural, intellectual, and artistic reflection and action directed at the oppressive structures that must be transformed, if we are to live in a liberated society. Through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition and transform the world.”
     That is why this Hamlet—the play and the man—are utterly real to us seated on the lawn. We watch in horror and disbelief as Hamlet's life descends into the hell of our own real lives—chaos, tyranny, crime, greed, corruption, evil, and grief. Hamlet's not insane, he's beside himself with the irremediable condition of our world and humanity.
 
    

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Fortunate Man, directed by Bille August


Award-winning Danish director Bille August’s A Fortunate Man, based on Henrik Pontoppidan’s Nobel Prize–winning novel, Lucky Per (1898–1904), is a feast for the eyes and mind. Whatever the camera focuses on in this richly conceived drama about young, ambitious, and fiery-tempered Peter Andreas Sidenius (Esben Smed), captivates our eyes, from the opening scene of a windswept heath overlooking Jutland’s blue sea to the next scene of Copenhagen’s cobblestone streets in the late 19th-century. One of the loveliest settings is the wealthy Salomons’ home with its soft refinement. Every detail has been considered and captured by the camera—costumes, period furnishings, lifestyles, mores, and the actors’ faces. The film is a visual, atmospheric emporium, and Peter’s life story a saga of epic, psychological proportions, this latter aspect most compelling.
Beginning with the film’s opening scenes in a backward region of Denmark, we witness Peter’s dire need to escape his authoritarian father who’s the local vicar. Peter’s nineteen and receives an acceptance letter to the university in Copenhagen—his ticket to freedom. Penniless, hungry, but full of ambition for his hydroelectric power inventions that have the potential to transform Denmark’s standing in the world, Peter grasps any opportunity for an entrée into the city’s echelons of power. This means he uses people to advance his progress. But don’t we all in our career choices? Still, judgment creeps into our audience view of Peter, particularly when his manipulations involve women, first a soft-hearted waitress who feeds him, then Jakobe Salomon (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), because she’s a rich heiress, albeit with an enlightened mind that he also admires. But it’s her financial position in the family that first catches his attention.
Peter’s extremely good-looking, with an ingenuous side that contrasts favorably to Copenhagen’s sophistication and class divisions. His freshness and enthusiasm for his groundbreaking ideas amplify his appeal. His dark side also surfaces—his deep-seated anger for his father and his severe religious upbringing. His inner rage plays a role in his fate. As his story moves along, gaining successful steps toward the realization of his dreams, his intolerance for others’ unfair, unjust, or superior behavior thwart his achievement. His character flaw is his stubborn adherence to truth. But is that a character flaw? Should jealous, condescending people from the elite class who control jobs and infrastructure, also control his path to success? Peter is ripped apart by his success or defeat being controlled by vindictive types. These concerns of his have far more importance to him than his closest relationships.
The movie, which is long because it’s a saga, keeps up tension from the beginning, when Ivan Salomon—Peter’s Jewish peer and entrée into the monied world he needs for his inventions—says to Peter, “You’re a fortunate man!” We are instantly braced for the demise of that fortunate man. All goes brilliantly for a while. Ivan takes Peter home to meet the Salomon family, which includes his two beautiful sisters, Jakobe and Nanny. The Salomons’ luxurious lifestyle intoxicates Peter, so does the free-flowing wine. The dignified elders who control the family’s investments welcome hearing Peter’s ideas and treat him graciously, despite his obvious difference in social etiquette. At one point, Uncle Delft says to Peter, “Fortune favors fools.” And toward the end of the movie, when Peter’s arc has played out from a manic climb to success to a descent into loss and despair, Uncle Delft again states a proverb to him: “Pride goes before a fall.” These three sayings match the arc points in Peter’s story: a fortunate man, fortune favors fools, pride before a fall.
Peter’s mental torment that began in childhood under a ruthless father grows with age and disappointment. His story reminds us of how so many young people with creative plans for their lives, soon find doors closed to them because of the guarded power of the rich and connected. Peter experiences a universal: Lost dreams cause the slow sadness, bitterness, and depression we see on late-middle-aged faces; life often delves out more sadness than joy. Peter also grapples with more than the average seeker. He’s a genius-inventor barred from the only social stratum that can bring his contributions to fruition.
Despite his defeat, Peter’s mind won’t, or can’t, stop its pursuits. He returns to Jutland, marries, and has children, but these most important relationships mean less to him than his mind’s unstoppable quest. He’s unable to assume financial responsibilities for the family because of his innate drive to invent.
           One day, at the family dinner table, he awakens to his reality—his authentic self—and abruptly leaves the table. The film then cuts to a decade later, with Peter living like a hermit in a rustic cottage on the heath near the sea. He’s bearded, physically neglected, but working with his same total absorption on his inventions. Whether from his childhood trauma or his genius genes, or a combination of both, he’s constructed to live a solitary life with his creativity, and he accepts it. Witnessing his humble surrender to his true self evokes our audience compassion in the deepest way. His last, emotional conversation with ever-faithful Jakobe transcends melodrama. It’s one of the most beautiful endings to a tormented life story because of its heartbreaking honesty.