Our subjects in the Critical Eye range widely, largely shaped by what is happening in the arts, especially in Western New York, but also around the world.
Often we pass up subjects dealing with the film industry, because there are thousands of articles about films, available through the wire service, so that we don't have to give over our weekly space to say something more about them.
Recently, however, several films with close ties to our area have been released, and last week, we wrote about films for home viewing, especially "Private Romeo," which featured leading performances by two recent members of the Chautauqua Theater Company's conservatory actors: Seth Numrich and Hale Appleman.
This week, in an associated aside, we want to call to your attention a four-page feature story in this week's New York Magazine, about actor Jessica Chastain, who was a member of the Chautauqua company, about a decade or more ago. Chastain was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film "The Help," and is recently opening on Broadway in the title role of "The Heiress."
Further, speaking of ties to our area, also featured in the cast of "The Heiress" is Judith Ivey, sister of SUNY Fredonia professor James Ivey. Isn't it great to have connections?
Meanwhile, the film version of "The Tempest" has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, of Shakespeare's play "The Tempest," which is based upon a stage production from the 2010 season of the Stratford Shakespeare Company, nearby in Stratford, Ontario.
This week, let me tell you about this chance to see the fine Shakespearean production from Stratford.
During the past three years, films have been made of three of the many productions in a Stratford season. The first was "Caesar and Cleopatra," based upon a play of surprising origins, since it was the creation of Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw - indeed the patron of the Shaw Festival, not the Stratford Festival. "The Tempest" was filmed later, and the most recent, to date, is "Twelfth Night," with its famous rock 'n roll score, which has not yet been released for home audience, but which plays in Canadian movie theaters, usually as a one-day special event from time to time.
Five years ago, Stratford experimented with having a trio of artistic directors. The experiment failed before the first play chosen by the three had seen its first audiences, so one of the three, Des McAnuff, became the sole director.
McAnuff has a reputation for big, spectacular productions, the most noteworthy being "Jersey Boys," about the rise and career of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons. He brought those same tastes and his same love for rock music to Stratford, when he became the festival's director. His final season as artistic director is ending while we think about it, as the festival's final performances in the 2012 season are scheduled for this weekend.
Along for his taste for contemporary music and big-budget, large-cast productions, McAnuff invited a number of well-known film, stage and television stars to the Stratford stages. Probably the best-known of these was Christopher Plummer. Now well into his 80s, Plummer has had a long and distinguished career as both a classical actor and as a glamorous movie star.
He is undoubtedly best-known for playing Captain Von Trapp opposite Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music."
Plummer stars in two of the Stratford films, "Caesar," and "The Tempest." While there are many actors on the Stratford roster who are capable of giving a comparable performance in those roles, none of the others would draw the public as effectively as he has.
Like nearly everything else he does, McAnuff's making of films at Stratford has been controversial. "More people can afford to go to their local movie theater - or video store - to see these films than can afford to drive to Stratford, eat at restaurants and stay overnight, and pay the cost of live theater," goes one argument. "Let the films show people how wonderful the plays are at Stratford, and more of them will willingly make the sacrifices to see it all in person."
The counter argument has been, "Once people come to realize that they can see our productions in a movie theater, or on their home televisions, fewer and fewer people will come to Stratford, preferring to wait for the movie version."
No doubt there are elements of truth in both arguments. Now that McAnuff has submitted his resignation, it will be interesting to note whether attendance figures will continue to climb, and films will continue to be made, or whether the ability to see festival productions with vastly less cost and effort will reduce the number of fans on the spot.
In a similar vein, it will be interesting to see whether actors such as Plummer and Brian Keith will abandon the small town on the Canadian prairies, when the hit-making director makes his departure.
"The Tempest" was one of the last plays to come from the pen of the Bard of Avon. Many believe it was his last solo effort, as the few later plays show signs of having been partially the work of co-authors.
The play is the story of Prospero. Before the play begins, Prospero was the Duke of the prosperous Italian city of Milan. The plot tells us that Prospero has become so caught up in studying from his books that his younger brother has stolen his dukedom. Prospero and his only child, a daughter named Miranda, were placed into a leaky boat and set adrift during a storm at sea, with the hope that they would be killed by the storm, and eliminate any rivalry for the new duke without his incurring the guilt of directly killing his brother.
Instead of dying in the storm, Prospero and Miranda have drifted completely across the Atlantic to an isolated island of Bermuda. Using the magic he has learned from his books, Prospero has taken over the island, enslaving in the process two spirits: Ariel is a creature of the air, a doer of white magic. Caliban, whose name is a near anagram of "Cannibal," does dirty, hard work, like dragging in firewood for the new royalty's fires and the like. He is often related to black magic.
As the actual plot of "The Tempest" begins, Prospero has used his magic to whip up another great storm at sea. This one overwhelms a ship, carrying the king of Naples, his son and members of his court, including Prospero's own treacherous brother. The ship is brought to the shore of Prospero's island and various groups from its passengers land there, each thinking they are the only survivors.
Using his magic, Prospero brings the king's son directly to his own cave and causes him to fall in love with Miranda. In among this, he teaches the king and his own brother the dangers and the impact of treachery, and he teaches Caliban the value of not rebelling against his own rule. Because of excellent service in doing all this, Ariel is given freedom. Soon, all return to Naples, where Prospero renounces his magical arts, and is given back his dukedom, while Miranda and the king's son are married and eventually become king and queen. All return except Caliban, that is.
Because Prospero is a creative older man and he renounces his creative arts, many critics have believed, throughout the centuries, that Shakespeare identified the character of Prospero with himself. Not long after the play was first performed, Shakespeare stopped writing and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon, in England, which was his birthplace, and became a landlord and a businessman.
The contrasts of the beautiful, airy Ariel and the hideous, earthy Caliban has fascinated critics through the centuries as well. They've identified that pair as everything from the creative part of a human, who writes music and devises the correct way to bring about what the person needs, while each human still needs to haul water and firewood and perform the needs of the flesh, through a wide range of interpretations, to the currently trendy school who see Ariel as the music, the stained glass, and the poetry of the Catholic faith, versus the dark, grim, and comparatively colorless Caliban, as the spirit of the protestant one.
As always, Shakespeare's writing is so rich, it can bear endless interpretations and still stand successfully on its own.
Virtually nothing in the arts is as good as sitting in the beautiful Festival Theatre at Stratford, summoned away from gorgeous gardens and a beautiful summer's day by the silver trumpets and rolling drums which introduce every performance there, where one can breathe the very same air as the actors.
One can see their chests heave with the energy of doing their stage business, and having the freedom to look anywhere, taking in the actors who are not the focus of the scene, watching them prepare to enter and watching them interact with one another, in person, catching the small extra smile for someone who has become a closer friend or notice the infinitely small cringe from a comrade who has displeased someone.
However, if you don't have the transportation, or you don't have the money to buy a ticket, or you can't get the time off from work, or you simply have already missed the opportunity to see this thrilling performance, watching this film is a whole lot better than nothing.
Producer Barry Avrich has filmed two separate performances of the production, using 10 cameras, scattered around the theater each time. Some cameras have been assigned to film close-ups of the actors' faces, some to film the view from the left side of the audience, some to film the view from above, and so on. When Avrich and McAnuff sat down to edit the film, they had 20 views of every scene in the play to choose from. They also had two different recordings of the same speeches.
I've seen the live performance, and I've seen the home video. Both are excellent. Each has advantages. Live is, of course, better.
Still, if you choose it to be so, the filmed performance puts you in greater physical comfort: in an easy chair or lying on a couch, instead of sitting up in a theater seat. It allows you to stop and use the rest room or get a sandwich, and to play back as many times as needed, anything you didn't understand. It gives you a view of some of the actors' faces, which is closer and easier to read than a similar view, even from the front row if one were present in person.
Best of all, you can purchase the film for the suggested selling price of a bit over $20, although I've seen it on computer film-selling sites for as much as 25 percent off.
On the other hand, you can only watch what the editors have decided to allow you to see. Just as one example, if the camera has moved in for a close-up of beautiful Trish Lindstrom's face, for example, as she portrays Miranda, you will never have the opportunity to see the fatherly pride on display from Plummer's character. It's something like watching a play through the hole in a large piece of cardboard. You can only see what's in the hole and nothing else.
In general, the sound quality of Stratford productions is very good, although it is possible to go on the rare evening when the wire has pulled out of the back of one of the microphones, for example. With the exception of the very first scene of the play, the film is easy to hear and understand, even despite the Elizabethan English of the script.
One of the problems which the opening of the play causes for every director is that it begins at the height of the great storm, with winds howling and waves crashing against the King of Naples' ship. Actors need to fall to the floor or to be overbalanced to the left or the right, as they would be on the deck of a rolling ship, so their words often get drowned out or swallowed by the sound effects or by their efforts.
Unless you've read and studied the play in advance, you need the opening words to know who these people are and what is happening to them, yet you lose their words both live and on film.
Once everyone was off the ship, and had his feet on the ground, though, the sound quality of both film and live production were excellent.
Plummer's performance is as good as expected. There were none of the memory lapses or miscues which marred the previous production of the play at Stratford, when the late, brilliant actor William Hutt played Prospero, probably a year or two after he should have stopped doing so.
Trish Lindstrom is perhaps a bit sturdy and feisty as Miranda, whom Shakespeare describes as a naif, having never seen another human than herself and her magical father until she meets the crowd from the storm. But she is lovely, and believable.
An interesting casting choice for Ariel, who is often performed by a pale, slender young man, was the casting of a woman of Asian heritage. Julyanna Soelistyo is tiny, and with her hair very short and her skin, wherever it showed, and her hair painted bright blue with cloud-like white patches, it was possible to believe that she was a creature of the air. Her voice was very clear and easy to understand, even when she was suspended from wires, supposedly flying.
The comparison of Soelistyo with Dion Johnstone, who is heavily muscled, and dark, playing Caliban, gave every physical support to the contrast of the two characters. Johnstone's speed and lizard-like grace was miles ahead of the Homer Simpson-like portrayals which reduce the character to a stereotype.
I've greatly enjoyed the comparisons of live and filmed versions of the production, which I've read, while preparing for the writing of this column, but the most important thing is that the live performance is over and gone, while you can borrow or buy the film and enjoy it now and for many years to come.
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Buffalo's Irish Classical Theatre Company has recently opened a production of the play "A Couple of Blaguards," by brothers Frank and Malachy McCourt.
The play is an often-hilarious and often-emotional journey through the lives of the brothers who became known to the entire world through Frank's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Angela's Ashes." There is some rowdy Irish singing and dancing along with the storytelling.
Tickets range in price from $34 to $42. Students pay only $15. Performances continue through Nov. 18, and curtain times vary, so be sure to confirm the start time of the performance you wish to purchase a ticket to see. The afternoon performance at 3 p.m. today is "pay what you can."
The production is performed at the Andrews Theatre, at 625 Main St., in the downtown Buffalo Theater District.
The professional touring company of the Broadway Musical Show "Jeckyll & Hyde" will be performing at Shea's Performing Arts Center, in Buffalo. Performances begin Tuesday and continue through Nov. 4.
Leading the cast in both the title roles will be Constantine Maroulis, who is an alumnus of "American Idol," and headed the cast of the show "Rock of Ages," for its entire Broadway run.
Tickets range in price from $30 to $76, depending on where you sit and which day of the week you choose to attend. Curtain times vary, so be certain you know the right time before you purchase.
Purchase tickets in person at Shea's Box Office, which is located at 650 Main St., in the Downtown Buffalo Theater District, immediately adjacent to the theater. Purchase by phone at 800-745-3000, on your computer at www.ticketmaster.com, or in person at any Ticketmaster Outlet. Tickets purchased through Ticketmaster are subject to a service charge.