Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Favorites of 2015

Clockwise from top right: Mad Max: Fury Road, South Park, Pericles,
Mr. Burns, Gotham, and Bluebeard's Castle

Not a comprehensive best-of list; just my personal favorites from all sorts of media in 2015.


The sun comes out after a good book.

Billie by Anna Gavalda: It rained all the first day of a family vacation, but I didn't mind, because I'd brought this book. This little gem of a novel (translated from the French) chronicles the relationship between two childhood friends determined to break away from their white-trashy town and make it in Paris. The two stick together through classroom awkwardness, homophobic violence, and a potentially fatal hiking accident - the immediate aftermath of which finds Billie telling their story to a star. Gavalda's skill shines in her use of Billie, an inarticulate girl who's bold but lacking in confidence, as narrator. Like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami last year, this was just the right book at the right time for me.

Horse Medicine by Doug Anderson: I'm a sucker for dead horse poems. Although that's what first drew me to this book, the collection encompasses Anderson's reflections on not just horses, but religion, war, and aging. My favorite lines come from "What the Angel Said": "Who are you to think/ you will not have to/ live history/ out all the way/ to the consequences/ and beyond?"

Paper-Doll Fetus by Cynthia Marie Hoffman: In this poetry collection, a rock falls in love with a goat placenta, and it makes sense. With fearlessness and compassion, Hoffman dives into the female reproductive system, exploring miscarriages, stillbirths, phantom pregnancies, and the traumas and joys of childbirth. There are poems told not only from the point of view of the aforementioned rock and the titular doomed fetus, but from a strap used to inhumanely restrain laboring women and a lamb who dies shortly after being born. Periods still suck, but I appreciate them a little bit more having read this book.

The Good, the Bad, and the Furry by Tom Cox: Yes, Cox writes cat books about a famous twitter handle, @MYSADCAT, but his books transcend cat books and twitter books. They're thoughtful and funny reflections of the English countryside, parents, nature, music, and yes, cats.

Favorite Old Books I Read or Re-read

King John's Prince Arthur and Hubert in Laslett John Pott's engraving.

Dangerous Liaisons/Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos: I finally read this French epistolary novel, and despite this being a cliche...yes, something written in 1782 can still be scandalous in 2015. Bored aristocrats the Marquise de Merteuil (a wealthy widow) and her best friend and former lover the Vicomte de Valmont (a bachelor and libertine) manipulate others sexually for fun and revenge. But what starts as a quotidian (for them) ruining of others' lives slowly turns into a battle of wills. Of particular interest are Merteuil's ruminations on the strict gender roles of the time and how she's gotten around them.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: I do a lot of my reading on the bus, and re-reading for the first time since high school this epic about an extended family who needs to get the mix of incest just right in order to heal always made me sad to reach my stop. It's too bad E. Brontë gets accused of romanticizing bad male behavior, because that's not really what's happening. Heathcliff and Cathy are weirdos who need to do their Heathcliff and Cathy thing, not a template for all heterosexual relationships. After reading, I watched three different adaptations (what Wuthering Heights really needs is a mini series that shows all generations at the correct ages) and listened to Kate Bush's song about the novel about a million times.

 King John by Shakespeare: I read this lesser known drama as just another stop on my way to reading all of Shakespeare's plays, for better or worse...but I really liked it and don't see why it isn't performed more. It's basically a less powerful Richard III, but I can see how it would be entertaining on stage. It has a central character audiences are somewhat familiar with (John is the mama's boy lion in Disney's animated Robin Hood), a great comic relief character in Richard the Lionheart's bastard son, a crazy mom meltdown, and a kid talking his way out of a hot poker to the eyes. How is this not a hit?


Patricia Velasquez leads Liz in September's cast.

Mad Max: Fury Road: This thrilling action movie had style, substance, and heart.

Liz in September: This beautiful tearjerker from Venezuela is the country's first lesbian romance movie.

Tom at the Farm: This tense, arty Quebecois rural noir finally got a limited run in the US.

Cartel Land: The drug cartels of Mexico have been a subject of fascination and horror for years. While 2015 saw fictional characters in Sicario tackle the US's involvement in the violence, Matthew Heineman went on the ground in this documentary about local efforts to quell the reign of terror. The film is an absolute gut-punch, although not in the way you'd necessarily expect: one grassroots group of courageous locals starts out as the lovable underdogs peacefully standing up to the cartels; later, Heineman pans his camera around the now-powerful group's new headquarters as individuals they've detained wait to be tortured. It's a crushing statement on moral corruption and the complexity of fighting evil.

One disputed artistic decision Heineman made was to include scenes of a self-appointed anti-cartel group in the US - basically gun aficionados in camo parading consequence-free around the border. Some critics felt like Heineman was giving this group legitimacy and supporting their cause, but I read the inclusion as ironic. The American group's belief that they're brave soldiers fighting a battle is shown to be a delusion of grandeur when juxtaposed with the citizens of Mexico who are actually dealing with the deadly reality of the cartels.


Nadine Sierra and Brian Mulligan in Lucia di Lammermoor.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play - A.C.T.: Anne Washburn's Simpsons-inspired meditation on storytelling and human resolve is one of the most polarizing plays I've seen. Full write-up here.

Swimmer - San Francisco Ballet: Yuri Possokhov, SF Ballet's choreographer in residence, based this ballet on a John Cheever short story. The loose plot is that a philandering businessman swims through neighbors' pools, glimpsing others' lives. But when he returns to his own suburban home, he finds his nuclear family is gone. The piece is a celebration and examination of the American mid-century modern aesthetic, and is visually stunning. However, while the video projections sometimes added a lot, they weren't always necessary (example: in the final scene, it was clear from the dancer's pantomime that he was flailing in the water; the added video footage of a man flailing in water was superfluous).

Pericles - Oregon Shakespeare Festival: I'm so glad I got a second chance to see the play that made Pericles good!

Lucia di Lammermoor - San Francisco Opera: I was lucky to share in a friend's complimentary tickets to this opera with rising star Nadine Sierra (excellent as Musetta in last year's La Boheme at SF Opera). The set for Enrico's office was breathtaking and properly imposing, and the famous "mad scene" was especially visceral.

Other theater favorites this year: Dan Clegg unexpectly stole the show as Edmund in California Shakespeare Theatre's King Lear; Berkeley Rep scored one of the top Eponines, Samantha Barks, for Amelie; and I finally got to see The Book of Mormon!


Mikhail Petrenko and Nadja Michael in Bluebeard's Castle

Great Performances at the Met: Bluebeard's Castle: I caught the second part of this PBS double feature by chance. I turned on the TV, intending to veg out to the hot twins show on HGTV or something else other than a two-person Hungarian opera, but the channel was set to PBS, and the very first frame arrested me. By the end of the day, I had watched several other versions of the opera on YouTube* and added the music to my iPod.

At its most literal, Bluebeard's Castle (by Béla Bartók and Béla Balázs) is about a woman gradually realizing, and finally admitting out loud, that her new husband is a serial killer. But it's also about what we keep hidden within ourselves and the competing desires to deny or investigate in the face of unpleasantness. Mikhail Petrenko's and Nadja Michael's performances; the Met's minimalist yet dramatic staging in black, gray, white, blue, and red; and the skillful cinematography of this stage performance make for an hour that is almost unbearably tense, but too captivating to turn from. 

*Sadly, it looks like there's no DVD of the Met's production available yet. Other productions available on YouTube include Michael Powell's 1963 moviethis modern, noirish version; and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra's performance (in English).

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy Schmidt joined the heroines of Mad Max: Fury Road and Room by also escaping her Bluebeard in 2015. While Fury Road told the tale as an action movie and Room used stark realism, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt did a risky take - humor - and succeeded.

Better Call Saul: The prequel is off to a good start with this concise first season. While it shares characters and the gorgeous New Mexico setting with Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is developing its own brand of dark humor and character drama, and has its own breakout stars in Rhea Seehorn and Michael Mando. A highlight of the season was finally learning what happened with ex-cop Mike in Philadelphia in an episode that ended with a bravura monologue by Jonathan Banks. I'm hoping a future season will reveal the similarly hinted at dark past in Chile of Giancarlo Esposito's Gus.

South Park: South Park continues its high note as it nears drinking age. The satire in season nineteen was topical and withering without over-the-top seething. Targets included both politically correct ideology and reactionary conservatism, online advertising, gentrification (most notably in a stomach-churningly accurate condo commerical), and America's gun lust. And there was a nice break from the heaviness of real-world problems in a meta episode acknowledging one of the curiosities of the fandom: certain fans' obsession with the imagined romance between minor characters Tweek and Craig. The hilarious episode included musical montages set to fanart submitted by viewers.

Gotham: The pre-Batman Batman show hit its stride in the second season, leading with stellar performances by Cameron Monaghan (I will be so mad if Jerome's not in Indian Hill!), James Frain, Erin Richards, and the rest of  the regular cast. The intertwining of Gotham society's underbelly became more insidious than ever: Jim Gordon's relationship with Penguin's criminal enterprise became even deeper steeped in blood, Ed (the future Riddler) and Penguin became murder-buddies and roommates, and Wayne Enterprises was revealed to be working with Arkham Asylum on a series of inhumane medical experiments.

Besides the Jerome thing, my main complaints are the premature end of Sarah Essen and the unremarked upon absence of Renee Montoya. I hope Montoya's back in the second half of season two, which will feature the great BD Wong as Hugo Strange.


A Robert Dighton work from Luminous Worlds

Janet Delaney: South of Market at the de Young: SOMA is probably the best example of San Francisco's gentrification and housing bubble, so 2015 was the perfect year to look at Delaney's photos of the neighborhood as it was in the 70s and 80s.

Luminous Worlds: British Works on Paper at the Legion of Honor: Tucked away in one of the farthest corners of my favorite museum, this exhibition of physically delicate works by Turner, Beardsley, Blake, and more was truly luminous.

Time|less: Kappy Wells, The San Francisco Gallery: Working with sheetrock and charcoal, Wells captured the magnificence of the glaciers we are losing to global warming. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Pericles and Macbeth: Actors and Character

Pericles's wife dies in childbirth (or does she???)

On Friday, December 4, I saw the Justin Kurzel film of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's most popular tragedies. On Saturday, December 12, I saw the Joseph Haj stage play of Pericles, one of Shakespeare's most unknown works to modern audiences (and probably containing early scenes added by another author). Both are visually beautiful, but they also both highlight in contrasting ways the importance of heart and character when turning words into performance.

The new Macbeth film has breathtaking cinematography of a wild, foggy, muddy, bitterly cold Scotland that will make you want to huddle under a blanket. It's a beautiful and bleak stage for the story. But while it makes sense to have the setting be relentlessly grim, the tone and performances are similarly unchanging.

Hey, lil mama lemme whisper in ya ear.

Let's start with an addition that a few reviews have mentioned: the movie starts with a silent scene of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at the funeral of their toddler daughter. The loss of a child is obliquely alluded to in the text of Macbeth, and the Macbeths-as-grieving-parents angle adds some weight to later scenes (Macbeth's pain as Banquo greets his own son, Lady Macbeth's regret as Macduff's children are killed).

But I think showing the Macbeths as deadened by grief was also a hindrance - we see almost nothing of how they "are" as a couple. In his letter to his wife telling her of the Weird Sisters' prophecy, Macbeth calls her his "dearest partner of greatness," no small thing given the gender roles of the time, but when they are reunited, we see almost no connection between them. There are so many ways actors can portray this marriage: co-dependent, love-hate, emotionally abusive, passionate, etc. It can be a marriage of convenience or the union of two devious soul mates. But there's a flatness to the performances here. I mean, just to put it all out there: there is a scene where Michael Fassbender fingerbangs Marion Cotillard while discussing murder, and it is boring.

The staging is also confusing and the monologues are cut up in a mix of performance and narration in an experiment that doesn't quite pay off.

Despite her famous obsession, Mr. Macbeth is clearly the one with dirty hands.

Now to leap to a production that seems the opposite of this in every way: Joseph Haj's Pericles.

This production was part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2015 season. I've gone to Ashland the two years previous to this, but didn't this year. But the news that someone, somehow had made Pericles good trickled through Shakespeare media, and I had a pang of regret every time I saw a glowing review. So when I saw that the play's success meant it got a run at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC, I had to take that second chance.

If you've never heard of Pericles, you're in good company. It's, well... It's silly and a little weird. This is a play where the opening includes a horrifying incestuous abuse revelation, where deus ex machina comes in the form of cartoonish pirates, and where a girl sold into sexual slavery is so good at preaching that her would-be johns dutifully run off to church instead. It is as far from Macbeth's gravitas as you can get.

Haj and his OSF cast embrace the silliness with open eyes but without derision. There's music and dancing. The narrator, John Gower (a contemporary of Chaucer and the author of the source material), is brought to life by a folksy, amiable Armando Duran, and with his charm and Haj's direction the pirate scene becomes a moment celebrating the fun of storytelling.

The entire cast bring this passion and energy to their performances. Characters who were lightly sketched in the text become people we care about on stage. Wayne T. Carr is compelling as brave, sensible, and caring Pericles, whose fortunes change drastically throughout the play. Brooke Parks is supremely lovable as Pericles' wife Thaisa and unrecognizably ice-cold as evil queen Dionyza. Jennie Greenberry and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend make their characters' sudden engagement believable. The supporting cast fill their multiple roles well, especially Cedric Lamar, Scott Ripley, Michael J. Hume, Barzin Akhavan, and U. Jonathan Toppo.

As texts, Pericles might not have the depth or skilled composition that Macbeth has, but this lovely production offers its audience humanity and joy. It runs through December 20 at the Folger Theatre in DC, and will run January 16 - February 21 at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

A happy moment before tragedy in Pericles

Side note: the Stratford Festival in Canada also had a well received Pericles this year, as Shakespeare cartoonist Mya Gosling reports. The popularity of individual Shakespeare plays tend to wax and wane through the years/decades/centuries...maybe Pericles is having a resurgence? I vote for King John to be next!

Image info:
Pericles production photos by Teresa Wood from Folger Shakespeare Library
Macbeth photos from the official Facebook page