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March 2007 Archives

March 4, 2007

Frankie and Johnny and Black Snake Moan

Within a period of several days, the Dresser saw two works dealing with the hurt and balm of love relationships: the Arena Stage production of the two-character play Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune by Terrence McNally and the newly released Craig Brewer film Black Snake Moan.

HOOKING UP IN THE LIGHT OF THE MOON

In Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, two ordinary people, a short-order cook and a waitress, hook up on a night with a full moon. They have exuberant sex, made all that much more intense by their advancing ages. After they are spent, Frankie wants Johnny to go home, but Johnny, who keeps Shakespeare and a dictionary in his work locker, is deeply smitten with Frankie and rolls out the words and quotations he has learned to persuade her that they are meant for each other. In a conversation about their respective, no-good mothers and the men they ran around with, Johnny says, "What people see in one another! It's a total mystery. Shakespeare said it best: 'There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.'"

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Vito D'Ambrosio (Johnny) and Kate Buddeke (Frankie)

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman

What kicks this love story over the top is that Frankie’s radio accidentally gets tuned into a classical music station that plays music that touches Frankie so much that Johnny calls the station to find out what the composition was and then goes on to tell his story to the radio host. Johnny says, "My name is Johnny. My friend and I were making love and in the afterglow, which I sometimes think is the most beatiful part of making love, she noticed that you were playing some really beautiful music, piano. She was right. I don't know much about quality music, which I could gather that was, so I would like to know the name of that particular piece and the artist performing it so I can buy the record and present it to my lady love, whose name is Frankie and is that a beautiful coincidence or is it not?" Then Johnny asks for a selection of beautiful music dedicated to them. Although the radioman doesn’t believe they are really named Frankie and Johnny and that Johnny was probably pulling his leg, he breaks his rules about requests and dedicates Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” to them.

Arena Stage under the direction of David Muse has mounted a thoroughly engaging production of one of McNally’s earliest works that garnered public attention as an off-Broadway play in 1987 originally starring film actors Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh. The original play went on to Broadway and then to Hollywood in an adapted film called Frankie and Johnny starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. In the Arena Stage production, Muse has cast well in choosing Kate Buddeke and Vito D’Ambrosio. These actors, who first met in college, create credible flesh-and-blood interactions that include naked body contact and raw emotional reactions. Neil Patel’s revolving set works well to make a suspenseful opening scene of naked lovemaking. If there is anything wrong with the play, it might be that by the end of act I, the Dresser was left wondering what could be said in act II that wasn’t already delivered so satisfyingly in the first act? However, act II deepens the relationship between the lovers so we know more certainly this is not a one-night stand and that the playwright is a master of dialogue and of dramatic and comic action.

CHAINED TO HIS HEATER

In Black Snake Moan, an ageing bluesman turned farmer whose much younger wife leaves him for his brother finds a battered party girl left for dead in the roadway near his farm. He is black; she is white. In body language alone the viewer knows Lazarus (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is putting himself at risk by attending to this barely clad girl. When he rolls the girl over to see if she is alive, the cough from her bloody mouth seems like a scene from William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist. After he picks her up and puts on her on his couch, he goes to town to get her medicine for the cough (and, interestingly, not medicine for her facial wounds) and to find out who she is. From the local pimp and drug runner, he learns Rae is possessed by demons that make her hornier than any Jezebel a bluesman could have ever known.

Because Rae runs a high fever, Lazarus puts her in his tub filled with ice. Later when he finds her freaking out in his corn field, he chains her to his radiator, the very heater that serves as a symbol of what has gone wrong with his marriage to his wife Rose. When Rae wakes up from her fever and the recreational drugs that partially got her into the situation that landed her on Lazarus’s road, she is horrified and angry to find herself chained by a man intent on fixing her. For a person as tiny in stature and body mass as Rae (played by Christina Ricci) is, the fury and venom are astounding. Filmmaker Craig Brewster, in tandem with these two fine actors, has made a preposterous situation that borders on reverse racism and misogyny credible both through his story (he wrote the script) and the way he has filmed the characters interacting.

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March 9, 2007

Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird

When the Dresser goes to the theater, she likes to experience something wildly new and tasty. Like a child in the old penny candy stores (she remembers the strips of paper with dots of sugar candies stuck to them or, G-d forbid, the candy cigarettes—some in a white minted form with a red tip and others in milk chocolate), the Dresser wants to partake of all the sweet confections being handed out at the theater. Something like this seemed to be promised at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center of Maryland in Director Leslie Felbain’s production of Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird with a new translation by Federica Brunori Deigan.

SALAMI AND CHEESE

When the Dresser arrived at the Kay Theater March 6 with her translator friend Myong-Hee Kim who also loves experimental theater, the actors from The Green Bird were socializing with the audience. One actor was handing out faux rounds of cheese while he chomped down on a fragrant loaf of salami. Just as well, the Dresser eschews processed meats and most dairy. The costumes however, particularly that of the evil queen mother Tartagliona with her dangerously pointed breasts, served as the eye-candy the Dresser craves.

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Foreground, Rachel Menyuk as twin Barbarina and background (L to R): John Barkmeyer as Brighella, Dior Brown as Queen Mother Tartagliona, Sam McMenamin as King Tartaglia
Photo Credit: Stan Barouh

The costume designer Ana Marie A. Salamat clearly had fun making sexual statements with many of the characters—King Tartaglia, the son of Tartagliona, had an overly prominent set of genitals protruding from his tights and the sausage-maker’s wife Smeraldina had a set of crocheted breasts that hung like soft sausages on the bodice of her dress.

The sexual costuming reminded the Dresser of what went on in Mark Adamo’s opera Lysistrata or The Nude Goddess, but, of course, that was all based on the 411 BC farce by Aristophanes. Therefore sexual dressing isn’t new but it always excites. The Dresser, taking the outside seat, tucked her friend Myong-Hee inside the aisle to avoid any hi-jinks that the cast might visit on her shy seatmate. The Dresser was thinking that The Green Bird might be like 500 Clown Macbeth where physical contact with the audience was part of the show. As the lights went down, that voice who tells you to quell all your noisemakers—cells, pagers, watches—taunted that if you had to take a leak, you were now in trouble because there would be no intermission as promised in the printed program.

TRIAL BY QUEST

The Green Bird like Robert Wilson’s intermission-less I La Galigo has protagonist twins, pageantry, and trial by quest, but despite The Bird’s moralizing, this theater piece has nothing substantive to offer a modern adult audience and because of the blatant sexual antics, it’s also not appropriate for small children. Briefly, the story is about an evil queen mother who throws her daughter-in-law down a castle drain, orders her twin grandchildren killed but the girl and boy twins are spared by the queen's emmisaries and come to be raised by a sausage-maker and his wife. The racy part of the story is that the king returns from his wars, laments the loss of his wife and then falls in love with his teenage daughter.

Gozzi, who also wrote the stories of Turandot and The Love of Three Oranges both turned into popular operas by Giacomo Puccini and Sergei Prokofiev respectively, was a fabulist. He invented fables that were populated with stock characters from the Commedia dell'arte. Commedia dell'arte, an improvisational form of theater, derives from Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, which are themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the fourth century BC. The Dresser believes that comedy can achieve a higher level of art than tragedy and drama because superb comedy combines both the tragic and the comic.

What was particularly good about this show were the costumes and the revolving set. The acting by university students was acceptable, however, the show needed actors who are particularly gifted in improv and a director focused on helping the actors connect with the audience. And there were modern day references to such incidences as the gun mishap by Vice President Dick Cheney, but nothing that woke up the audience and doubled us over with gut-wrenching laughter. The Dresser says if the director cannot wow the audience like Julie Taymor does with masks, puppets and other design elements (and Taymor did The Green Bird in this way on Broadway from April 18 – June 4, 2000), then the players, despite the lack of poetry and philosophy in the script, must set fire to themselves in order to energize the people watching. The Dresser wonders if the director thought that the players would build this energy if she cut out the intermission?

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March 23, 2007

Under the Horns of Brünnhilde

The Dresser has always been curious about the opera that features the much-maligned Brünnhilde, who in many productions wears a crown of horns over her blond braids. Is she the fat lady from the expression, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings?” Controversy continues to erupt over this identification.

WHO IS BRÜNNHILDE?

On March 8, 2007, the Dresser got a front row seat at a Washington National Opera press conference held at the Goethe-Institut where she heard Linda Watson speak about her role as Brünnhilde with director Francesca Zambello and with other cast members of Wagner’s Die Walküre including Alan Held (Wotan, Brünnhilde’s father) and Gidon Saks (husband of Brünnhilde’s half sister Sieglinde). Die Walküre is the second of four operas by Richard Wagner from his Ring cycle, known as Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Watson, a soprano with a commanding voice, is often cast in the role of Brünnhilde.

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Photo credit: Russell Hirshon

Last year, she played Brünnhilde in the 2006 Bayreuth Festival, which she said was a hard experience because the cast did not have any directorial guidance. (Bayreuth Festspielhouse is the opera house Wagner built to showcase The Ring which had its first complete performance in the summer of 1876.) What Watson loves about the WNO production is working with Zambello who is an intelligent and generous director. And this is the second time Watson has done this role under Zambello in Washington, DC. In 2003 in a very different production of Die Walküre by Zambello, Watson sung Brünnhilde at the D.A.R. Constitution Hall. This was the production from which Zambello persuaded WNO General Director Plácido Domingo to allow her to do an American Ring. Zambello’s vision for this Ring casts an American slant to these stories drawn from Norse and Greek mythologies.

According to an essay by Natasha Walter published in the WNO Spring 2007 Season Book, Brünnhilde is the true heroine of the Ring and it is her rebellious streak that sets her apart from the other women in the Ring.

THE DRESSER’S VERSION OF DIE WALKÜRE

Die Walküre (also known as The Valkyrie), the most popular opera of the Ring and the one from which most people recognize some portion of the music, concerns the children of Wotan, the leader of the gods. The story is racy. Wotan’s son Siegmund, escaping his enemies, takes shelter by chance in the home of his twin sister Sieglinde whom he does not know. In a forced marriage to Hunding who is a relative of Siegmund’s enemies, Sieglinde realizes Siegmund is her twin and leads him to a sword only he has the power to pull from the tree in which the blade is lodged. Once he recovers this sword promised to him by his father, he declares Sieglinde his bride and they flee Hunding’s house. The Dresser pauses here to emphasize the overt symbolism of the sword in this story of scandalous sexual engagement.

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About March 2007

This page contains all entries posted to The Dressing in March 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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