Tag Archives: Julie Taymor

Spiderman and Sister Act

After all the press brouhaha about Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark for these many years, and the vituperative reviews from most of the mainstream critics, I was surprised to find the show so benign when I finally saw it.  Thanks to Jenny Slattery, who’s a stalwart assistant stage manager onSpiderman, I wrangled house seats and a backstage tour on which Jenny generously took me and FS2 after a recent Sunday matinee.  We had seats on the aisle, which meant that Spidy landed by us on one of his several second act flying feats, and sat close enough to be able to watch the actors work while still taking in the scenery, which is perhaps the show’s most breathtaking accomplishment.

But watching Spiderman and, a few weeks later, a Wednesday matinee of the musical adaptationSister Act prompted me to think again about the differences between film and theatre, since both shows adapt their stories from cinematic (and, of course, for Spiderman, comic book) source material.  Spiderman goes to great lengths and historic expense to recreate the CGI magic of the movies for a theatre audience.  But inevitably, all the cash spent on all those effects only manages to provide a few moments of theatrical exhilaration.

The flying sequences offer a joyous kind of fun, especially in the climactic battle between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, who fly above and beneath and around one another in a fast, dizzying, carefully choreographed scene of high-flying almost-interaction.  Jenny told us that in addition to the physical prowess required to pull off the moments, the performer playing the flying Spiderman had to demonstrate that he’s having fun in the air.  And it shows.  In an otherwise earthbound production, the flying scenes literally soar, and meet the promise of all the advanced hype.

What exactly is it that’s so much fun about those scenes?  Without green-screen technology to erase the fly lines, what we’re watching is a too human man hooked to a complicated harness.  The apparatus propels him above the audience and lets him land up on the balcony and then fly back to the stage, where he perches on platforms that lead him off into the wings.  Hiding the fly lines is impossible; in fact, it’s what the audience has come to see.

We’re not enticed by the magic of pretending—although in a way, I suppose we are.  We’re more attracted, I think, to the notion that no matter how fleshy our bodies, imagination and stage technology can still make them seem to fly.  Perhaps we’re there to practice the sometimes archaic suspension of disbelief that movies have made too easy for us.  Perhaps we’re there to see something as old-fashioned as an actor flying through an actual theatre to remind ourselves that live performance still relies on a delightfully quotidian sleight of hand to make its claims on our joy.

The rest of Spiderman, however, is mired in an unimaginative, predictable story about power gone awry and the young innocent whose ethics are sullied in his quest to right wrongs.  Since the audience is given little to think about—the dialogue is wooden and the songs, as reported, unmemorable—we just watch instead.  The inventive costumes and the cinematically styled set provide enough eye candy to entertain for the show’s short while.

But until those flying sequences, underneath all that comic book armature, it’s difficult for the actors to engage enough to project any charisma or spark.  Even the inventive, compelling masks designed by Julie Taymor (the show’s original director) don’t integrate into the story well enough to give their wearers anything to act.

That’s what makes the flying so much fun.  The actor might be tethered to those wires, but he looks so free, it’s impossible not to be breathless with pleasure while we watch him.  The flying sequences tease out the limits of theatre while putting them to the test.  After all, we’re not watching Spiderman chase the Green Goblin against a Gotham night sky, but against the backdrop of the Foxwoods Theatre in Manhattan.  And however it’s been retrofitted to seat as many people as possible, and to provide the scaffolding for those acrobatics, it’s still a mundane Broadway theatre.

As we turned our heads to watch Spiderman fly, we could also see our fellow spectators registering their delight.  In our 360 degree views, what we mostly saw was one another, faces lit with expectation and pleasure and a little frisson of fear, half expecting the stunts to stop in mid-stream or mid-air, as they’ve been reported to do so frequently on Spiderman.  At our matinee, the flying worked without a problem.

But the comparison of those few moments with the rest of the show seemed almost sad, as though compared to all that soaring about in the house, what actually happened on stage could only seem clunky and even faker than it already admits to being.  In such a context, even the wig-tape hugging the hair and microphones to the actors’ foreheads seemed quaint and kind of melancholic, the modern-day greasepaint that reminds everyone that the wizard really is just a man, and that some stories are best told in the form in which we’ve grown up loving them.

Likewise, in Sister Act, the only thing flying is the occasional musical note, not because the songs are inspiring, but because the performances sometimes rise above their melodies.  The cast of this movie-cum-musical is terrific, making much ado about nothing, really, except a pale, three-dimensional but rickety adaptation of an already dated 1992 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle.  In fact, Sister Act takes great care with its lead, Patina Miller (who won a 2011 Tony Award for her performance), to steer her physically and emotionally away from Goldberg’s down-to-earth, rather hapless if happily sarcastic impersonation of the nightclub singer, Deloris Van Cartier.

Miller is everything Goldberg isn’t in the original movie.  She’s tall and willowy, and possibly beautiful, although it’s hard to tell underneath the 1970s-style Afro wigs and the impossibly long fake eye lashes that made her look vaguely cross-eyed from where I was sitting.  This production, like Spiderman, seems all about the wig-tape, which for those in the orchestra proves a constant and distracting reminder that the 70s were then and the 2010s are now.

All of which begs the question—why adapt this film to the stage?  And why, as the famed theatre historian Oscar Brockett always asked of any production, why now?  And why set it in the 1970s, except, perhaps to lend credence to its barely nascent sense of race rights?

Sister Act admits to its own anachronisms, with its disco balls and its short skirts and purple suede lace-up boots and gaudy chunky jewelry.  But despite a visual motif that wants to keep the show locked in a comfortable historical remove, the performances—particularly by Miller and Victoria Clark as the world-weary Mother Superior (in the film’s droll Maggie Smith role)—bring a pleasant but jarring up-to-the-momentness to the production.  And that knowingness about the strange historical simultaneity of the project cuts the production down at the knees, as especially Clark seems to be winking at its patented absurdity.

The production begins promisingly, with a cast of mostly African American gangsters and cabaret singers gathering in a local mob-controlled dive bar for Deloris Van Cartier (like the jewelry, as she reminds everyone to whom she’s introduced by wiggling her fingers and her wrist) to sing her audition for her boyfriend/cabaret owner Curtis.  But Curtis refuses to hire her, and belittles her by re-gifting to her one of his wife’s old fur coats.  When she storms into the bar to confront him, Deloris inadvertently witnesses Curtis kill someone.  She goes to the police, where a sweet if sweaty young Black cop named Eddie Souther protects her by housing her in a near-by convent in an economically failing church.  And so begins the plot that’s been a popular culture staple since time immemorial—the fish out of water who makes the locals swim like she does and enjoy it.

In this case, though, there’s something unsettling about watching Deloris leave what seemed an African American community to go underground in a resolutely white nun’s enclave. Although eventually, two of the “choir nuns” are performed by the African American actors who first served as Deloris’s back-up singers, the convent’s whiteness is stark and Deloris’s racial difference not at all funny.

The audience at our Wednesday matinee was mostly women, probably half of them African American. I couldn’t help but wonder what they must be thinking, seeing Deloris become the butt of the joke for the white nuns. Because even though their sad, off-tune, uninspired singing and their innocence in the ways of the world is supposed to provide fodder for Deloris’s worldly ambitions and know-how, the power of dominance twists the image so that Deloris’s exceptionalism becomes uncomfortably tokenized and disempowered.

Whoopi Goldberg, in Sister Act and much of her film work, became a master at a kind of subtly resistant racial commentary, usurping whatever interpretation might have been meant by her casting and using it to her own advantage to call out how her body and face were singular in the scenes in which she appeared. But although Miller’s voice is powerful, her face is surprisingly immobile on stage, which makes the trademark Goldberg double-takes and wry asides, which delivered her resistance, fall flat in Miller’s performance.

Instead, Clark, as Mother Superior, gets all the best facial expressions, and uses them well to raise herself slightly above the proceedings at hand. She conveys fatigue at the ways of the world as well as the ways of her church in “Haven’t Got a Prayer.” And she rolls her eyes not just at Deloris and her un-worshipful behavior, but at the absurdity of the whole shebang. And in the process, she nearly steals the show.

Deloris of course transforms the choir from a bunch of dullards into a glitter-clad, disco-balled, A Chorus Line-inspired bunch of Village People, which brightens the production and makes it irresistibly fun. And the speed with which this adaptation moves means that it takes Deloris very little time to improve the nuns’ performance and to transmute them into a crowd-pleasing, money-raising spectacle.

Sister Act’s jokes are predictable but still amusing, as is the nuns’ newly invigorated singing. Peppered throughout are amusing gay and Jewish jokes (Yiddish, one of the nuns explains to another, is the language of performers; and the couple trying to buy the church are two gay men who decide to save the order when they fall in love with the singing).  Sister Act is a lot like Shrek (the film and the production); it works on two levels at once, offering a different set of laughs for the queer and Jewish cognoscenti (and we knew who we were by who was heard hooting when).

The show’s penultimate number is a female duet to “Sister Act,” sung by Deloris and Mother Superior, which makes it seem slightly queer.  Ultimately, they’re the couple who reconciles by the musical’s end, instead of the straight opposites whom musicals more typically bring together (as Stacy Wolf—FS2—argues so persuasively in Changed for Good:  A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical).

Likewise, Sister Act’s representations of masculinity are savvier than the tired plot and retread film story would lead you to expect.  As Eddie Souther, Chester Gregory plays the self-effacing, aw-shucks Daniel Breaker role (Gregory even looks a bit like Breaker).  Souther, who knew Deloris in high school, always broke out into a sweat around her (hence his “Sweaty Eddie” moniker). Gregory gets some laughs from drenched arm pit sight gags, but his performance is sweet as he both comes to Deloris’s rescue and manages to be rather hapless about his own authority.

Even the erstwhile villain, Curtis (Kingsley Leggs), is defanged by Deloris’s proud resistance to his intimidation.  Only Demond Green, as TJ, does a weird, rather retrograde turn as Curtis’s stupid-but-good-hearted nephew.  Green plays the character as a Tracy Morgan knock-off; given Morgan’s recent homophobic remarks, the performance seems less benign than it’s meant to be.

Sister Act aims to be a crowd-pleaser, and that it did.  Everyone around us was delighted as they stood for the curtain call.  (“I haven’t seen anything this good since Jersey Boys,” one woman told us happily.)  But still, like SpidermanSister Act on stage can only point to its own lumbering liveness.  The triumphal song and dance numbers are great fun, but the production is filled with furniture and things that move on and off with the revolve center stage.  They only serve to remind the audience of how time-inefficient and laden with stuff theatre like this can be.

On the other hand, in one of the show’s best moments, Eddie, in his number “I Could be That Guy,” imagines himself transformed from the schleppy police officer he is into an African American John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, replete with white suit, high pointed finger, and cocky canted leg.  Walking through a sort of Skid Row, Eddie is surrounded by “bums” who, at the appropriate moment, rip off his police uniform to reveal a version of Tony Manaro’s dancing outfit.  And then as the dream ends, the bums rip off that layer to reveal his old police getup underneath.  His transformations happen so deftly, they really do look like magic.

The exhilarating, old-fashioned kind of stage magic, that is.  The kind that’s the best.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to orignal post on Blogspot.

The Tony Awards, 2011

The Tony Awards season confirms what anyone concerned about the status of women in the arts has long come to expect: plays by women are excluded from the nominations once again. When will entertainment power brokers realize that until work by women is produced and recognized, Americans will continue to hear only one side of the stories of our lives?

Women’s unheard stories represent a gold-mine of narrative intrigue and revelation. But of the four plays nominated as the best of Broadway this year, none are written by women and three are almost exclusively about men: Nick Stafford’s War Horse (a gloriously theatrical British import that tells a basic boy-meets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-finds-horse tale); Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem(another British import about a character the Variety review calls a “wild man,” a “once noble animal gone to seed”); and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat, whose macho title can’t even be fully printed in most newspapers.

Only Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People is even about a woman, the salty, working-class Margie from South Boston, played with sharp dignity and empathy by Frances McDormand. (I posted a blog on the production on 4-25-11.)

Margie’s life story as fashioned by Lindsay-Abaire in fact hasn’t been heard regularly on Broadway.How often do we see smart and insightful leading female characters struggling to make ends meet?Margie’s childhood friend Mike escapes the economic constraints of his background through a scholarship and a medical school education. He lands in the luxurious comfort of Chestnut Hill with his African American lawyer wife, far from his poor, racist past.

Margie and Mike’s sharply contrasting stories tell us something about how gender, as well as class and race, influence our aspirations and organize our fates.

But it’s not a coincidence that Margie’s story is delivered by male playwright. Lindsay-Abaire grew up in South Boston; I’m not discounting his insights into a life like Margie’s. But how would her story be told differently if it were written by, for instance, Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose work has never been produced on Broadway?

Maureen Dowd reported this week in the Times that Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing, is now at work on a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.Screenwriter Mark Boal, with whom she collaborated on The Hurt Locker—which nabbed Bigelow her Oscar—told Dowd that since their film suddenly has an ending, once wary financiers are approaching them eagerly.

No one I know misses the irony that Bigelow won the Oscar for directing a film exclusively about men and war. Wouldn’t the story of Bin Laden’s capture be fascinating if she and Boal focused their film on Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada, Bin Laden’s 29-year-old Yemeni wife, who was so determined to be martyred beside her husband that she was shot in the leg attacking the Navy Seals who came to capture him? If Bigelow told Ahmed al-Sada’s story, and Bin Laden’s from his fifth wife’s perspective, that’s a movie I’d be eager to see.

Dowd jokes that someone is probably now pitching Bravo on “The Real Housewives of Abbottabad.”While we think we might know all about the real housewives of New Jersey, let alone the fabricated ones of Wisteria Lane, I, for one, would like to hear much more about Bin Laden’s wives. The stories of women in the Middle East aren’t often told in Hollywood movies, certainly not with Bigelow’s keen eye for dramatic tension and telling detail. What would we learn about Bin Laden if women told his story?

Instead, Bigelow will tell another male-centered military story for Hollywood while Lindsay-Abaire tells a working-class woman’s story on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Julie Taymor, one of the first women to ever win a Tony for Best Director (for The Lion King in 1997), was fired from Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark for reasons that look to me like gender trouble. Taymor’s desire to balance the comic book hero’s righteous quest with a chorus of women and a villainess based on the Arachne myth was considered tangential to the real (read “male”) story of the musical.

I’m not suggesting that only women should tell women’s stories (men have of course told men’s stories for millennia). Lindsay-Abaire’s Margie is a welcome addition to the canon of American drama. And Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a powerful, empathetic story of men’s valor and arrogance.

But Taymor tried to tell the story of a male superhero against the backdrop of female mythology. And now, she’s out of a job.

Since 2000, of the 48 titles nominated for Best Play, only six have been written by women, and only one has won—God of Carnage, by Yasmina Reza, in 2009. In other words, no American woman playwright has won Best Play since the turn of the 21st century and only 12% of those nominated have been written by women.

What stories might we hear if women playwrights and filmmakers were produced in the same numbers as men? What new things might we learn about both men and women? What possibilities might be opened for how we imagine our lives—past, present, and future—if the boy in War Horsewere a girl who decides to pass as a boy so that she could fight in World War I and find her beloved horse? (History is full of women passing as men to join war efforts.) What if the wild animal gone to seed in Jerusalem were a middle-aged woman instead of the character Mark Rylance plays so well? What if the motherfucker with the hat were a woman?

Those are stories I, for one, would love to hear. They describe a world of possibility in which we learn something about ourselves we don’t already know.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.