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Film and the Arts

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Performs at Carnegie Hall

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, photo by Todd Rosenberg

At Carnegie Hall on the evening of Thursday, October 5th, I had the enormous privilege to attend a magnificent concert—the second of two on consecutive nights and a brilliant inauguration of the new season at this venue—of music with an Italian theme, presented by the stellar artists of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the magisterial direction of Riccardo Muti, probably the most revered living conductor.

The program began beautifully with an impeccable account of Philip Glass’s remarkableThe Triumph of the Octagon, commissioned by this ensemble and here receiving its New York premiere; below I quote in its entirety the note on it by the composer (who was in attendance and stood to receive the audience’s acclaim):

In February 2022, I traveled to Chicago for performances of my Symphony No. 11. It was a thrill to hear this great orchestra and conductor in the hall where I would visit as a student in the early 1950s. After those performances, we began conversations about writing a new piece specifically for this orchestra with the initial idea to create an “Adagio for Muti.” The final title of the work came from a suggestion from Maestro Riccardo Muti about Castel del Monte, a 13th-century castle in southeastern Italy.

The mystery of this ancient place and the uniqueness of its geometric proportions, specifically its eight octagonal towers, was an interesting catalyst; while I have written music about people, places, events, and cultures, I cannot recall ever composing a piece about a building. What became clear was that I was not writing a piece about Castel del Monte per se, but rather about one’s imagination when we consider such a place.

I dedicate this work to Maestro Muti, in honor of his many successes as conductor of the CSO and important contributions to the world of music.

Even more impressive was a sterling rendition—indeed the finest I have ever encountered—of Felix Mendelssohn’s marvelous “Italian” Symphony. The initial Allegro vivace movement was fittingly effervescent and sparkling but not without depths of feeling and even quasi-mystical passages. (One could discern Schubertian echoes here and elsewhere in the work.) The ensuing Andante con moto sustained a kind of spiritual solemnity while the third movement—marked Con moto moderato—has a stately quality despite a certain levity and even more so in the weightier Trio section. The engaging Saltarello finale was turbulent and dynamic.

The second half of the event was comparably memorable with its stunning realization of Richard Strauss’s early, extraordinaryAus Italien.The opening movement—entitled “In the Country”—was evocative and both grand and lyrical and, like the piece as a whole, is more full-blown in its Romanticism than the classicizing Mendelssohn symphony is. The following movement—“Amid the Ruins of Rome”—was more intense and dramatic; the enchanting “On the Shores of Sorrento,” surprisingly has a pastoral character and the concluding “Neapolitan Folk Life” was ebullient. Enthusiastic applause was rewarded with a delightful encore: Giuseppe Verdi’s splendid Overture to his early opera,Giovanna d'Arco.

Broadway Play Review—Ossie Davis’ “Purlie Victorious” with Leslie Odom Jr.

Purlie Victorious—A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch
Written by Ossie Davis; directed by Kenny Leon
Performances scheduled through February 4, 2024
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, NYC
Leslie Odom Jr. (center) in Purlie Victorious (photo: Marc J. Franklin)

Debuting on Broadway in 1961, Ossie Davis’ play Purlie Victorious is an overstuffed but angry comic riposte to the entrenched racism in the South as well as the rest of the country. Even Martin Luther King famously attended a performance of the original production at the Cort (now James Earl Jones) Theatre.
It’s 62 years later, but not much has changed—we’ve even gone backward in some ways. The still relevant play, set in “the Old South of the Recent Past,” is about Purlie, an itinerant preacher-con man, whose latest ploy is to fund his reclaiming of the local church by getting the $500 willed to their dead Cousin Bee that’s being held by Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, the racist landowner for whom the preacher’s family works as sharecroppers. Purlie brings along a naive young woman who worships him, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, to impersonate Bee. 
Davis obviously knows this plot is ridiculous—witness his winking subtitle, A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch. And if the play has too many easy laughs, it also has some horrifyingly funny observations about Black and whites that obtain today. After Purlie and Lutiebelle arrive, he speaks with his no-nonsense sister-in-law Missy about Purlie’s brother Gitlow, who might be an obstacle to their getting the money:
MISSY He ain’t as easy to stop as he used to be. Especially now Ol’ Cap’n’s made him Deputy-For-The-Colored.
PURLIE Deputy-For-The-Colored? What the devil is that?
MISSY Who knows? All I know is Gitlow’s changed his mind.
PURLIE But Gitlow can't change his mind!
MISSY Oh, it’s easy enough when you ain’t got much to start with.
As this exchange shows, there’s a lot of rat-a-tat-tat dialogue in Purlie Victorious. Franticness is built right into the play, and director Kenny Leon pushes the cast to accentuate it in both the physical comedy and the cutting words for an animated 100 minutes. Leon also gets great assists from Derek McLane’s elastic set, Emilio Sosa’s lively costumes, Adam Honore’s snazzy lighting, Peter Fitzgerald’s impeccable sound design and Guy Davis’ apposite music. 
The rich performances gleefully play with and tweak racial stereotypes. Gitlow is given comic gravitas and a mournful musicality by Billy Eugene Jones and his outstanding song interludes. The redoubtable Jay O. Sanders (he of the stentorian voiceover of many PBS documentaries) is a screamingly hilarious Cap’n, intentionally—and perfectly—overdone. 
Noah Robbins, as Cap’n’s son Charlie, who’s hoping to distance himself from his dad’s racism, and Vanessa Bell Calloway as Idella, Cap’n’s housekeeper who raised Charlie like her own son, provide solid laughs. Heather Alicia Simms’ Missy gives as good as she gets with vicious comebacks to Gitlow or Purlie. Kara Young—already earmarked for Broadway greatness with recent appearances in Clyde and Cost of Living—gives a master class in physical comedy as Lutiebelle, expertly using her body like a contortionist, along with minutely changeable facial expressions that bring to mind masters of TV’s golden age including Milton Berle and Lucille Ball.
Then there’s Leslie Odom Jr.’s Purlie, a delicious star turn that plays to the audience at every turn. His innate charm and formidable stage presence make us riveted to whatever he does, whether it’s confronting Cap’n or giving a stirring speech in church. Odom grabs Davis’ satisfying satire and makes it even more urgent—and entertaining.

Off-Broadway Play Review—Theresa Rebeck’s “Dig”

Written and directed by Theresa Rebeck
Performances through October 22, 2023
Primary Stages @ 59 E 59Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, NYC
Jeffrey Bean and Andrea Syglowski in Dig (photo: James Leynse)
The always clever Theresa Rebeck’s play Dig awkwardly traverses psychological terrain without much plausibility. Set in a small-town plant shop, Dig follows its owner, Roger, a loner who's always run the place by himself but who hires a local pothead, Everett, to make deliveries. One day Roger’s longtime friend, Lou, who acts as his accountant of sorts, brings his wayward daughter Megan into the shop—she has just served time for a horrific crime and is also a recovering alcoholic. Roger and Megan make a reluctant connection, and she begins working at Dig, mostly of her own accord because Roger is unable to say she can’t.
From this contrived setup, Rebeck’s characters move around the beautifully appointed, if overstuffed, set by Christopher and Justin Swader like chess pieces manipulated by their author—there’s rarely any logic to their actions or their conversations. Roger and Megan’s budding relationship (unconsummated, according to her) never makes any psychological, dramatic or even comic sense, while a later attempted date rape by Everett after he and Megan go out drinking is quickly forgotten. When Megan’s ex-husband Adam, the actual perpetrator of the crime she took the fall for, confronts her before he marries someone else, nothing they say has any sting or depth. Rebeck piles up the obstacles for these people, particularly the shattered Megan, but they feel like mere contrivances for two hours.
Rebeck writes engaging dialogue but, in Dig at least (some of her earlier plays, like Seared and Seminar, were funny and perceptive), there’s little that’s insightful or piercing, especially since Rebeck directs without much distinction. When there’s a complaint about the shop’s name (which apparently might be confusing to perspective customers), it’s a bemusing moment, since anyone can look through the shop window, see the dozens of plants on display and figure it out.
Dig uses horticulture as an obvious metaphor for fixing psyches that, like the plants that Roger nurses back to health, may have been damaged beyond repair. But Rebeck never moves beyond the metaphorical to elucidate these individuals deserving of closer examination; it’s up to the game cast to, occasionally, make Dig both amusing and less trite than the material offers. 
Greg Keller is always entertaining even if Everett is a mere plot device. Triney Sandoval as Lou and Mary Bacon as Molly, a repeat customer who becomes important in Megan’s life, and David Mason as Adam do what they can with considerably little. Jeffrey Bean, an assertive presence, nearly makes Roger into a comprehendible character. 
That goes double for Andrea Syglowski who, in a nearly impossible role, invests so much of herself histrionically to clarify the contradictory Megan that she makes us sympathize with and even, almost, shed a tear for her. What Syglowski can’t do is dig Dig out of the hole the writer-director herself has buried it in.

October '23 Digital Week I

New York Film Festival Spotlight 
Kidnapped (Rapito) 
(Cohen Media)
The latest film by the world’s greatest living director, 83-year-old Italian master Marco Bellocchio, is yet another of his gripping and operatic dissections of historical subjects that touch on politics and religion—this time he tells the horrific but true story of a six-year-old Jewish boy torn from his parents’ grasp because a former housekeeper said she baptized him when she thought he was dying six years earlier. With his usual sweeping flair and acute observation, Bellocchio fills the screen with indelible images that not only cast a wide net on anti-Semitic mid-18th century Italian (read: Catholic) society but also the excruciating pain and loss felt by the Mortara family as their beloved son and brother remains forever out of their reach.
Bellocchio builds his film on two towering performances—by Barbara Ronchi as the boy’s mother and by Enea Sala as the six-year-old Edgardo, as strong a child performance I’ve ever seen. There’s also supremely well-chosen music by Rachmaninoff and Pärt to complement a superb original score by Fabio Massimo Capogrosso. Then there’s that haunting but gorgeous final shot of mother and son, as unforgettable as the rest of this masterpiece.
Kidnapped screens at the New York Film Festival on October 8 (; Cohen Media will release the film later this year or in 2024. 
In-Theater/Streaming Releases of the Week
The Royal Hotel 
As she does in the Netflix series Ozark, Julia Garner acts the hell out of her role as Hannah, one of two young American women who take a backpacking tour of Australia, where they become bartenders in a rundown Outback pub named the Royal Hotel—where they soon discover that the drinking culture down under is not as innocuous as it first seems.
Although Jessica Henwick matches Garner scene for scene as her friend Liv, Kitty Green’s thickly atmospheric drama is plenty short on plausible characterization or psychological coherence. When in doubt, blow something up—and Green follows that maxim, ending her film with a fiery inferno that’s a cheap way to satisfy her protagonists—and viewers. 
(Cinema Epoch)
Charli and Zee’s fraught friendship that hangs on other men and—mostly—Charlie’s drug problem, exacerbated by her mental instability, is chronicled by writer-director Rich Mallery in a mainly exploitive manner: it seems as if most of the movie is an excuse to get several young actresses to undress in front of the camera.
It’s too bad, for Mallery’s heavy-handed approach hampers whatever credibility the otherwise interesting performers Kate Lý Johnston (Charli) and Kylee Michael (Zee) can invest in their roles. 
Deliver Us 
In a rural convent, a young nun is about to give birth to twins (she claims it’s by immaculate conception), one of whom will be the Messiah and the other the Antichrist, at least according to an old prophecy.
This alternately risible and effective slice of horror by directors Lee Roy Kunz and Cru Ennis has the dark, dank, relentlessly dour atmosphere down pat, but much of the rest is too pat—from the too-clever pun of the title and the wooden acting to silly contrivances like bludgeoning viewers from the start with beheadings and flayings that are too stylishly presented.
Joan Baez—I Am a Noise 
Folk legend Joan Baez receives an honest appraisal by directors Miri Navasky, Karen O'Connor and Maeve O'Boyle, who were given access to a storage unit’s worth of material that Baez’ mother had saved for decades, and which the singer herself didn’t even know was so voluminous. Baez tells her own story thanks to diaries she kept and letters she wrote since she was young, and there’s much archival footage (both commercial and home-movie) of Baez with her family and as one of the most celebrated singers and activists of our time.
Amid her commentary about everything from her ex Bob Dylan to her role in the civil rights movement, it’s her revelation that she and her late sister Mimi were abused by their father that will unsettle most viewers. 
How the misperception of non-profits’ spending has caused untold damage to their ability to help those in need is chronicled by Stephen Gyllenhaal in an angry documentary that hopes to correct the unfair media coverage that led to congressional investigations and a massive loss of donations from a skeptical public.
Based on the eponymous book by Don Pollatta, who discusses how his own nonprofit became the target of scrutiny due to supposedly too-high salaries and overhead, the film also presents other nonprofit leaders who have felt the sting of public and governmental rebuke that hurt the people these charities try to help. It’s an eye-opening look at how cancel culture can hurt the very ones helping those who need it the most.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Creepy Crawly 
(Well Go USA)
The perfect adjective for this bloody Thai horror flick is the first word of its title—creepy is the only way to describe the plot, which concerns an ancient, centipede-like monster inhabiting its guests at a hotel where they are quarantining during a pandemic. The creature burrows into its victims and takes over their bodies to gorily spectacular effect.
Writers-directors Chalit Krileadmongkon and Pakphum Wongjinda push the envelope with an unblinking emphasis on more blood and guts, and the game cast goes along with it, right up to the finale. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer.
Ruby Gillman—Teenage Kraken 
In Dreamworks’ latest animated feature, young Ruby has difficulty fitting in among her fellow teens at school once she learns that she’s a sea kraken—and that her best friend is actually a mermaid, the mortal enemy of the kraken.
There’s plenty of amusement and sentiment in Ruby’s plight, and it comes with a colorful visual palette overseen by director Kirk DeMicco and codirector Faryn Pearl, along with sparkling voice performances by Lana Condor (Ruby), Toni Collette (her mom) and the redoubtable Jane Fonda (kraken matriarch Grandmamah). It looks eye-poppingly pleasing on Blu; extras include an audio commentary, deleted scenes with Pearl’s intro, interviews and featurettes.
Schreker—Der Schatzgraber/The Treasure Hunter 
Austrian composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934) wrote many operas, and although none has gained a foothold in the repertory, this convoluted drama concerning magic jewels, murder and redemptive love is about as close as he came to a popular work—at least until his exquisite music was banned by the Nazis.
Director Christof Loy’s 2019 Berlin staging leans into the forceful melodrama that Schreker builds through his provocative plot and luminous score as well as the juicy roles for the leads; Daniel Johanson and Michael Laurenz are excellent as the male leads, but it’s Elisabet Strid’s portrayal of the heroine that makes this so tragically memorable. Marc Albrecht persuasively conducts the Berlin Opera Orchestra.
DVD Release of the Week
Slava Ukraini 
(Cohen Media)
French philosopher Jacques Henri-Levy went to Ukraine right after the Russian invasion and spent months visiting several regions affected by Putin’s unprovoked belligerence, speaking with both civilians and soldiers defending their homeland against the onslaught.
Henri-Levy’s interactions provide affecting and personal responses and reactions from a population that, even under heavy bombardment, won’t surrender, and the film is a window into and map of how the Ukrainian people are coping with and even returning fire to Putin’s murderous thugs. Lone extra is a post-screening Q&A with Henri-Levy.

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