Event Roundup: Picnic on Broadway, A Special Screening of The Heiress, and the Harry Potter Exhibition
One of the things I love about living in New York City is the sheer number of special events happening in the city. Although my schedule doesn’t allow me to go to everything I would like, I try to go to certain arts and media related events at least a couple times a month. Here are some brief thoughts on a few I’ve attended the past month. I may make this a semiregular feature depending on how often I’m actually able to get myself to events worth writing about.
Picnic on Broadway
My only exposure to William Inge’s Picnic before had been the 1955 film starring William Holden and Kim Novak. This revival from Roundabout Theatre ups the ante on some of the elements that the Hays Code prevented the film from including. Regardless of the story elements, however, Picnic’s strength is its cast. It has acting veterans Ellen Burstyn (as Mrs. Potts) and Mare Winningham (as Mrs. Owens), alongside up-and-comers Maggie Grace (as Madge), Sebastian Stan (as Hal), and Ben Rappaport (as Alan).
During the years that Lost was on the air, I thought that Grace was a better actress than a lot of the material they gave her showed, and I’ve been a fan of Stan’s since he was on NBC’s short-lived (but brilliant) series Kings. Some critics have argued that these two leads have zero chemistry in Picnic, but I found myself moved by their performances.
The performance I attended had a post-show discussion with Winningham, Stan, Rappaport, and Madeline Martin (who played Millie). It helped to learn some background on Inge and the genesis of the play, as well as some of the cast’s thoughts on the ending.
Spoilers about the ending coming!
I had been looking forward to this fall’s Broadway revival of The Heiress even before I knew if I would be able to see it. When I found out about the production, I didn’t know I would be living in New York for graduate school, but I knew that even if I didn’t get into the New York program I wanted, I would want to go to the city to see the play. Every tidbit I heard about it (Jessica Chastain! Dan Stevens! David Strathairn!) made me even more excited about the prospect of seeing it.
As I’ve mentioned before, seeing the 1949 film of The Heiress was the catalyst for my classic film fandom. The story is very special to me, and the prospect of seeing it live (and on Broadway, no less) was something I would not want to pass up.
When the day to see The Heiress rolled around, my friend and I scored excellent seats in the orchestra from rush (I credit this to seeing the show while it was still in previews). Since we were sitting so close, I could see the expressions on the actors’ faces perfectly clearly. The Heiress is an intimate story, one that makes a telling through the medium of theatre an ideal method. Seeing it that close made it even better.
Let me just say this: Jessica Chastain is perfection in the role. Though her enunciation sounded a bit too stilted to me in the beginning, I slowly got used to it as I realized that there’s subtle brilliance in it. Catherine is never really herself; she’s constantly on her guard, especially around her father, which means that she’s always choosing her words carefully.
But Chastain’s performance is just so good on so many other levels. Her Catherine is appropriately awkward and icy at all the right times. Once Catherine’s emotional spiral begins, Chastain brings all the goods. In one of the confrontations between Catherine and her father, Chastain didn’t just look as though she were crying; she really was crying. My friend who went with me – and who’d never experienced The Heiress – was moved to tears by Catherine’s tears.
Everything else about the production was equally superb. Dan Stevens mastered an American accent and the devil-may-care attitude of Morris Townsend. David Strathairn played a much more sympathetic Dr. Sloper than I’d ever considered, which added new layers to the story for me. And Judith Ivey’s comic relief was a breath of fresh air among all the psychological mess. While everything about the show – especially the costumes and sets – was flawless, it is these four performers who make it ultimately noteworthy.
After the show ended, my friend and I hung around the stage door, hoping to meet the cast members. Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens both came; they signed autographs and posed for photos with everyone who waited. Chastain could not have been more gracious with the fans; when I was telling her how highly I thought of her performance, she made me feel as though I had her complete attention. Dan Stevens was perfectly charming amid all the enthusiastic Downton Abbey fans who had been in the audience. I wanted to be different, so I elected to tell him that he was brilliant in the production of Arcadia in which I saw him in London in 2009, which seemed to surprise him.
Armed with my photos with Chastain and Stevens and my signed playbill, I left the Walter Kerr Theatre that day all smiles. I’ll definitely be trying to make the time to see the show once more before it closes in February.
The Discovery: Like a lot of people, I’ve known about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for seemingly forever, but I had never read it. When I was an undergrad, I decided to take a course that explored the works of Samuel Beckett because I thought it would be an opportunity to learn about a writer about whom I knew so little. Though the journey may have been frustrating, I’m glad I went ahead with it because Beckett’s work is like very little I’ve ever read before.
Thoughts on the Body of Work: There seems to be some debate among the literary community as to whether Beckett’s works are indeed “existentialist.” Beckett himself apparently didn’t think so. However, when I first read Waiting for Godot, I couldn’t help but compare it to one of the few existentialist works I had read, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit in English). From Waiting for Godot, I discovered that Beckett’s work could be applied to anything you could think of. This is the amazing and frustrating thing about the works, for in order to be about anything, they sort of have to be about nothing. And, indeed, critic Vivian Mercier called Waiting for Godot a play in which “nothing happens, twice.” I can’t say I really enjoyed Waiting for Godot, and I enjoyed Beckett’s other long-form play, Endgame, far less. What I was discovering was that Beckett’s work isn’t really meant to be read – it’s meant to be seen, live, on stage.
That said, I found that Beckett’s shorter plays were infinitely easier to read. Little happens in any of them, but what does happen is usually odd and/or philosophical. Some (Rough for Theatre I) almost resemble Waiting for Godot and Endgame with few characters interacting in a desolate area. Some (Not I, Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe) focus on a single, troubled person. Others (Come and Go, Footfalls) deal primarily with women. One (Play) recounts the story of an affair in monotone. And then there are the later, more political works (Catastrophe, What Where). Beckett even wrote works for specifically for radio, television (Eh Joe), and film.
1. Play: I didn’t like Play when I read it. It opens with three people in urns, and they go on to recount their intertwined love affairs. At the end (and no, this isn’t a spoiler), they are to repeat everything. My perception of Play changed when I watched the 2001 Beckett on Film short film starring Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Juliet Stevenson. If you want to experience Play, watch it.
2. Come and Go: Not much is said in Come and Go, but it’s a fun exercise to try to piece the story together from what does happen. If you want a short play that will make you read between the lines, this is it.
3. What Where: What Where is a puzzle. Like many of Beckett’s works, there’s an eerie, sinister vibe in the play, and the power is in what is not said, but this is one of the few instances in which it didn’t bother me. Dialogue about torture only adds to the tension.
Will I continue the discovery? I have no desire to read any more of Beckett’s work, but I do hope to one day see one of his plays performed live.
What Beckett plays have you read? Have you had the opportunity to see any of them performed live?
I realize that I haven’t updated in more than a week. I am actually abroad now, and when I’m traveling, since there’s less time to read and watch movies/TV, I get out of my media “mode.” As such, I’ve found it difficult to write about media – or even edit pieces that I’ve already written. But once I get back home, I’ll go back to posting more regularly.
This week, I thought I’d begin to list my Top 5 favorite books, plays, movies, and TV shows and briefly explain why they’re favorites of mine. These are works I’ve probably already talked about and will no doubt discuss further. Today, I present Part I of the list: books and plays.
BOOKS: I am unapologetic about my list of favorite books. I know that only two or three of these five could be considered so-called “great” literature, but despite that, all of these books have gripped me completely, and I’m still thinking about them long after reading them.
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling: Rather than put the whole series as one, I chose my favorite Harry Potter book to top the list. The series has meant so much to me over the last 13 years – has it really been that long since I picked up Sorcerer’s Stone? – that there’s no way I couldn’t put one of the books at the top. Deathly Hallows in particular is the most emotionally intense and well-crafted of the books. And yes, I like the camping scenes and the epilogue.
2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: I’m not a complete mystery aficionado, but I doubt there exists a mystery book as utterly shocking as this one. Its genius ending completely floored me when I first read it. But in addition to this, its exploration of justice poses a number of moral questions to complement the roller coaster of a plot.
3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: So much has been said about The Lord of the Rings that I hardly know what to add. Suffice to say that I love its scope, its characters, its language, its setting – its everything. It’s a mammoth book, and Tolkien’s attention to detail – which first tired me – makes for a completely immersive reading experience.
4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck: It’s hard to put a book like East of Eden into words; on paper, the saga of two families filled with Biblical references may not sound like the most exciting of books, but East of Eden pulled me in immediately. At times moving, at other times disturbing, East of Eden is all that a book could be.
5. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway: This book sucked me in and, quite simply, never let go. I must pinpoint Hemingway’s stark prose as the most compelling element of this book. It fits hand-in-hand with the somewhat morose story, which just pulls at my heartstrings. Reading A Farewell to Arms was an emotional ride – one of the earmarks of a great book for me.
PLAYS: Unlike my favorite books, curiously, my favorite plays generally deal with academic subjects that interest me, but all are nevertheless well-crafted and, of course, entertaining.
1. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard: It’s hard to think of a subject not brought up in Arcadia; there’s Romantic poetry and English garden history alongside the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the competing theories of chaos and determinism. I studied this play during AP English Literature in high school and have since had the pleasure of seeing two different productions of it. No work makes me laugh and think equally and so much. Arcadia is intellectual entertainment at its finest.
2. Macbeth by William Shakespeare: I’m not sure if my love of Scotland biased me towards Macbeth, but no other Shakespeare play has entertained me as much as this one has. I must say that what draws me most to Macbeth is the complicated relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, whom I consider two of the most fascinating characters ever put on paper.
3. Proof by David Auburn: Proof (which I’ve already discussed alongside Arcadia in this post) is a simple play – it has two acts and only four characters – but it is deceptively so. Among the many questions it explores are the nature of genius and madness, of the relationships between fathers and daughters, and truth itself.
4. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw: My undergraduate degree is actually in linguistics, and I must say that the sociolinguistic questions raised in Pygmalion are precisely what got me interested in the field in the first place. I love its exploration of how accent determines social class. I also admire the character of Eliza Doolittle for her optimism – and Henry Higgins is just delightful to watch. I’m just glad that he wasn’t my phonetics professor!
5. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen: I read A Doll’s House in one sitting. It’s a play that defied my expectations and completely turned the tables on me as I read. My perceptions of all the characters and events fluctuated as I read, and I came to see the lead, Nora, as a truly groundbreaking female character. To date, I haven’t yet seen a production – live or filmed – of A Doll’s House, and it’s high on my list of plays to see.
Today, classic film network TCM is showing eight movies based on the Robin Hood legend. Among them is the legendary 1938 Errol Flynn version, The Adventures of Robin Hood, jumbled alongside films like Red River Robin Hood (1943), The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936), and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), which sound as though they have nothing to do with Sherwood Forest.
It seems that one cannot make a Robin Hood movie or television series without reimagining part of it. Even adaptations that have kept the medieval setting have branched away from idea of an outlaw stealing from the rich to help the poor, focusing on other aspects of the story. In the 1976, there was Robin and Marian, which showed the couple in the later years of their life. The 2010 film Robin Hood with Russell Crowe is an origin story. There’s even a TV movie called Princess of Thieves, which follows Robin’s daughter. Even the basic story of Robin Hood has undergone transformations. Maid Marian wasn’t introduced until the fourteenth century, and then by the 2010 film, she actually disguises herself and rides off into battle. Similarly, it has now become customary to include some kind of Turkish character, which 2006 BBC Robin Hood series even made a woman.
The story of Robin Hood has been around for so long and has become embedded in people’s minds that it only makes sense for revisionist interpretations to exist. Fairly tales have also been given the same treatment – just look at ABC’s Once Upon a Time and NBC’s Grimm, not to mention this year’s rival Snow White movies Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman.
But even relatively newer stories, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have undergone similar treatment. The span of months between late 2009 and early 2010 saw two markedly different versions of the story: the Syfy’s television miniseries Alice and Tim Burton’s blockbuster film Alice in Wonderland. In Alice, a wholly liberal adaptation, the heroine is not an innocent blonde seven-year-old, but a brunette twenty-something martial arts instructor. When she falls into Wonderland (or Underland, as it is now known), people ask if she’s the “Alice of legend.” Tim Burton’s adaptation also sets the story in the future, but this time, Alice is the same Alice – and for whatever reason, she can’t remember ever having gone to Wonderland. The aforementioned Once Upon a Time even transports the Mad Hatter to the same fairy tale land that houses Snow White and Rumpelstilskin.
While not as extreme as what has been happening to other works, the plays of Shakespeare, when they’re not inspiring countless other stories, seem to never keep their proper settings nowadays, as a current trend performs the Bard’s plays using modern costumes and sets. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) famously updated the play to the modern world. I’ve seen live or televised Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra all done like so. The version of Hamlet was so modern-looking that Hamlet himself was sporting a muscle t-shirt at one point. And the whole action of Macbeth was transplanted to something resembling Soviet Russia.
With all of these stories, there exists a “been there, done that” feel. Everyone knows that Robin Hood steals from the rich, gives to the poor, and falls in love with Maid Marian along the way. Similarly, everyone is familiar with Alice, the Queen of Hearts, Snow White, and Romeo and Juliet. No one wants to compete with the image of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood or the Alice of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. And Shakespeare’s plays have been performed countless times. So instead of staid adaptations, we have all of these revisionist interpretations. I admit that I enjoy the creativity of what Once Upon a Time does with fairy tales and what the Alice miniseries did to Carroll’s stories. But with Shakespeare, I just want to see his works performed as they were written. Is it too much to ask to see a Macbeth that takes place in eleventh century Scotland?
How to you feel about updating classic stories? Is there a point where you draw the line?