At The Irish Repertory Theatre tonight for Michael Evan Haney’s new production of Around the World in 80 Days, presented in association with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Previews began on July 11, 2008 for a limited engagement that was originally scheduled to end on September 7, but has since been extended through September 28.
I was last at this theater on West 22nd Street for George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple in December, so knew that the company was well used to accomplishing much with minimal resources – cast and space-wise. Still, the story, based faithfully on the 1873 novel by Jules Verne, stretched the limits over the ensuing two hours of action: 5 actors, playing 39 characters, and one simple set, representing 24,000 miles of rugged land and high seas.
Mark Brown adapted the adventure of unflappable English gentleman Phileas Fogg (Daniel Stewart), who makes a £20,000 wager that he can circumnavigate the globe in the titular 80 days. The journey, made with his French manservant Passepartout, takes Fogg from London to Suez to Bombay to Calcutta to Hong Kong to Yokohama to San Francisco to New York to Liverpool and back to London. Mistaken identities, skirmishes with local officials, weather delays, a lady in distress and sheer bad luck all seem to conspire against Fogg meeting his deadline, but we all know how things turn out in the end, don’t we?
The 19th century source material veered at times into political incorrectness in its characterization — or rather: caricaturization — of foreign cultures, and that bias unfortunately also colors this production. Passepartout (Evan Zes)’s Pepé Le Pew accent, while good for a few early chuckles, wore thin after a while. Overall, though, this was a pleasant enough romp that received middling to good reviews in the press.
Most fun to watch was how the indispensable pair of on-stage foley artists kept flawless pace with the action when called upon to suggest swaying steamers, chugging trains, a lumbering elephant, a raging typhoon, a sledge through a snowstorm and gunplay with Apaches. (Contrary to popular impression, however: no hot air balloon.) In an age of ever more elaborate special effects, their work was a refreshing return to basics.
Incidentally, Fogg’s £19,000 in travel fees would have been the equivalent of nearly £1.5M today, adjusted for inflation. It now costs considerably less to make the same trip, even when accounting for fuel surcharges and airline baggage fees.
Tonight: Shotgun Stories, the critically–admired debut feature by writer-director Jeff Nichols. The film is a take on a classic feud story, pitting two sets of half brothers against each other over the languid backdrop of rural Arkansas. Years of resentments erupt following a confrontation at their father’s funeral, setting off an escalating series of vengeful acts that can leave no winner. (Nichols is said to have been inspired by the current political climate.)
Michael Shannon stars as Son Hayes, who along with younger brothers Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), shares the hard memories of being abandoned as children by a violent drunk of a dad, who reforms and remarries, eventually becoming a loving father to four more sons. The older Hayes boys are formed of a certain Southern stereotype, which until the eye-opening trip last summer, I would have assumed to be some a kind of gross exaggeration: one lives in a pup tent pitched in his brother’s yard; the other, literally, in a van down by the river. The intensity of the young men’s bitterness burns deep, sharpened by their lives of constant struggle, all sparingly presented with minimal dialogue and improbably beautiful landscapes. (Credit to Adam Stone for the cinematography.)
A laid-back Shannon was tonight’s guest, fresh off a Public Theater rehearsal for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Little Flower of East Orange, in which he plays Ellyn Burstyn’s junkie son; The Times called Shannon’s performance “undeniably commanding, if at times exhausting.”
That seems to be a recurring theme throughout the little of Shannon’s oeuvre I’ve seen; I still recall his creepy, but memorable turn as a devout ex-marine in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.
The part of the seminar I most enjoy is hearing the backstory of how these independent films get made. In this case: Arkansas-native Nichols, while a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts, had watched some scenes Shannon filmed with his professor Gary Hawkins at the Sundance Labs. Nichols was so taken with the brooding actor that he wrote an entire screenplay with Shannon in mind, eventually contacting him through Hawkins about starring in his film. And in a turn of events sure to frustrate aspiring screenwriters everywhere, Shannon read Nichols’s script, was likewise impressed with the student’s work, and agreed. Just like that.
The way Shannon described it this evening, the entire shoot was a labor of love. Nichols’s whole family was involved in aspects of the film’s production: his parents and assorted family friends hosted much of the cast and crew in their homes, his mother was put on craft services duty, cooking dinner for 30 every night. Nichols’s brother wrote the film’s music while his father was a driver on set and an all-important funder. (David Gordon Green, director of All the Real Girls, the 2003 romance starring Zooey Deschanel, has official producing credit.)
Shannon was an engaging, if not particularly chatty, presence… slightly less scary in person than on screen. He did more than once say he wished that Nichols could have been at Town Hall tonight himself to explain the film better. Nichols, however, was unavailable, due to attending his own wedding the day before. Good excuse.
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater tonight for Rupert Goold’s justly celebrated production of Macbeth. The show makes its way to New York City for a (sold-out) five week run from England’s Chichester Festival Theatre and a sold-out West End run that earned Evening Standard Theatre Awards for the director and lead actor Patrick Stewart.
Anticipation has been high for the stateside transfer after the lavish praised heaped upon this production by the usually reticent British critics: The Evening Standard‘s Nicholas de Jongh pronounced it the “Macbeth of a lifetime“; The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer called it the “best Macbeth” he had ever seen – this from a man who presumably has seen a lot of Shakespeare.
What could I possibly add to all the rave reviews? Anthony Ward’s stark, grey-washed set generates a fitting level of eerie foreboding throughout as it multi-purposes as war hospital, a kitchen and a morgue. The visual projections on the back walls ranged from documentary footage of Stalin’s marching armies to dark, dripping blood, adding to the unsettling atmosphere. There were so many moments and performances to admire: Kate Fleetwood’s fiercely sexy take on Lady Macbeth… the innovative staging of Act III’s banquet scene: first as viewed through the guilt-crazed eyes of Macbeth, and then replayed after intermission from the perspective of his guests… the “weyard sisters” making their first appearance as preternatural field nurses, rap-chanting their “Double, double toil and trouble” spell amid zapping lights and booms of thunder (well, that may have been a little gimmicky)… the unbearably drawn-out, horror-stricken silence that follows when exiled future king Macduff (Michael Feast) is told the news of his butchered wife and children…
And of course, it hardly needs to be said that Stewart was sublime as Macbeth, making even the simple act of making and eating a sandwich completely menacing. And yet, for all his unchecked ambition and grand, brutal scheming, when he delivers the famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy in Act V, it is with the world-weariness of a soldier ready to head home.
This production deserves a wide audience, which it may get if speculation of a Broadway transfer proves true. If that happens, I would make but one suggestion: pipe in Alexander Courage‘s Star Trek fight theme music during the final Macduff-Macbeth showdown. Hey, it worked brilliantly in The Cable Guy.
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