Tuesday, July 29, 2008

High-flying Birdie

The "Kids!" of Bye Bye Birdie network on their land lines.

Positive buzz had built around Bye Bye Birdie at the North Shore Music Theatre, so I checked out the show last weekend. And the good news is Birdie's buzz, as is usually the case with buzz, was right on target: the North Shore has a hit on its hands - this sly, sweet update boasts a dazzling cast (including many local teens), a smart set that smoothly turns its arena stage into a metaphor for the show itself, and a series of clever gambits and bright, antic dances. Indeed, the whole first half of the show plays like a nostalgic dream; and if its second act wobbles a bit by comparison, perhaps part of the problem is the original's meandering book. Still, even at cruising altitude, this Birdie remains an amusing, lively flight back to the days of sock hops and soda shops.

Of course way back in 1960, when the show premiered in a famous staging by Gower Champion (and featured Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, and Paul Lynde) Birdie boasted a fresher edge than it has at the North Shore. Its central premise, a satire of Elvis Presley's 1958 induction into the Army, was both affectionate and pointed (Elvis returned to civilian life, and his pubescent public, just before Birdie's premiere): the show mocked the singer's white-trash manners and the naive hysteria of his fans, but also cast a skeptical eye on the paranoia his pelvis incited among heartland conservatives. This double take on mass culture per se marked something new in the Broadway musical, and the knowing tone of Bye Bye Birdie would slowly spread through the sitcoms and movies of the 60s.

And of course the same cultural cross-currents still ripple through American life today, but the North Shore focuses not on any contemporary echoes in the material, but on its period detail - a strategy which for the most part works winningly. Howard C. Jones's witty set, a spinning turntable just waiting for a giant 45, cleverly grounds us in the musical's metaphoric landscape, while giant "console" TVs overhead beam in corny 1950s imagery (such as the low-rent acts that often actually filled "The Ed Sullivan Show," on which "Conrad Birdie," the show's Elvis factotum, visits "Sweet Apple, Ohio" to say good-bye to the girls of America). And director/choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, in his debut at the North Shore, conjures all sorts of witty gambits for his staging - including a beautifully detailed slow-mo knock-out on "Ed Sullivan" - while simultaneously delivering some inspired, lightly-crazed dance numbers (in which local teens drafted from the North Shore's theatre academy easily keep up with the professionals).

Conrad Birdie seduces Sweet Apple, Ohio.

I think it has to be said, though, that neither Lichtefeld nor his talented cast can quite triumph over Birdie's book, which begins to wander in the second half (even if the score, which includes the classics "Put on a Happy Face" and "Lot of Livin' to Do," remains sturdy). The show has two show-stopping performers in Bianca Marroquin as Rosie, the Latina love interest of Birdie's songwriter/manager, Albert, and Eric Ulloa, as the hot-but-slobby Conrad Birdie himself. But after its first-act curtain on "Ed Sullivan," the show doesn't really know what to do with Birdie (it hints that he could corrupt the local teens but doesn't really follow through), and Rosie's conflict (Albert, her man, can't cut the apron strings in order to marry her) is a little too trite and a little too drawn out, and doesn't really reinforce the Birdie plot.

Still, both performers keep us engaged (even when hoofing their way through obvious filler like Rosie's gambol with the Shriners, during which Marroquin - at left - demonstrates that yes, she's in Rivera's league). And as Albert's monstrous mother, Mary-Pat Green turns her long-suffering schtick into an amusingly controlled tease. As Albert himself, James Patterson proves a looker and a brilliant hoofer, as well as a capable comedian, but he doesn't quite convey either Albert's inner conflict or his genuine love for Rosie (which would go a long way toward explaining why this spitfire wants to settle down in the suburbs). And even though the cast is strong across the board (with nice turns from Robert Saoud and Madeleine Doherty as Birdie's put-upon hosts), somehow the snide self-awareness of the original goes missing; the essential falseness of Sweet Apple (which of course is what made the sneer of Conrad Birdie - and Elvis - so appealing) is lost in the show's nostalgic glow, as is the slightly effeminate sheen of its vision of suburban manhood (after all, the original featured Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly).

Meanwhile the show's racial politics remain intriguing. "Conrad Birdie" has been cleansed of any sense of the "race record" crossover that, in part, made Elvis Presley so electric in the Eisenhower era; in fact, we're asked to believe that Birdie's songs could derive not from African-American blues but from some nice little white guy in New York. At the same time, said nice little white guy, oddly enough, has a Latina girlfriend - an amusing way to slip "race" back into the equation, if at a remove less likely to ruffle white feathers. Even this, of course, was too much for Hollywood, which in the film version deracinated the role and gave it to Janet Leigh (and then cast sex kitten Ann-Margret as the sweet, squeaky-clean Kim, who swoons for Birdie!). The North Shore, perhaps wisely, doesn't really do much with these lingering undertones (the dislike of Albert's mom for Rosie is given more a Freudian than a racist spin); indeed, it's hard to imagine what could be done with this material without alienating somebody. In its day, Birdie could soft-pedal its assimilationist message, while still insinuating it; today's attitudes, of course, while utterly committed to diversity on the surface, are actually far more complicated and recondite than the simple polarizations of 1960. Making Birdie truly soar might require, however, finding a key to that particular puzzle. Still, in the meantime I'm grateful for this smart, spritely revival - and I hope to see director Michael Lichtefeld listed again soon on the North Shore's marquee.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The unhappy fascism of The Dark Knight

Down we go with The Dark Knight.

Jeez. I knew the Bush administration had shredded the Constitution, let our greatest enemy go free, left a great American city underwater, embroiled us in an endless, pointless foreign conflict, and led us like libertarian lemmings to the brink of financial catastrophe.

But I never thought they'd ruin the movies, too.

And yet they have - how else to read the stunning success of The Dark Knight, the viciously discombobulated Batman sequel that seems to want to ponder the moral consequences of Bush-like vigilantism, all while secretly feeding it?

Ah, I can already feel the fanboy wrath rising out of the blogosphere like some unseen cyber-tsunami. But before you begin firing off the "eat-shit-and-die" e-mails, my rabid batlings, just ponder for a moment that I'm as surprised to be writing this assessment as you probably are to be reading it. I went to the picture pretty sure I was going to enjoy it - I admired its predecessor, Batman Begins, quite a bit, as just about everybody else did, and I have a special place in my heart for the reversed narrative logic of Memento, the movie that put the director of both Bat epics, Christopher Nolan, on the map. Indeed, my only real beef with the new Bat series was that it had diverted (as our franchises generally do) one of our most interesting directorial talents - and some of our best actors, too - into what was inevitably an artistic dead end.

Now, of course, everyone else is doing their best to pretend - given the grosses - that somehow The Dark Knight is actually an artistic breakthrough. Meanwhile I'm seriously reconsidering that "most interesting directorial talent" assessment, because, just in case no other adult has clued you in, the movie is really bad. As in numbingly, do-math-problems-in-your-head-to-stay-awake bad. Bad as in "Makes Iron Man look like genius" bad. And almost all the problems with it can be laid at Nolan's door, beginning - but hardly ending - with the godawful script (which he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan). You can tell, somehow, that the Nolans think they've styled an awesomely innovative Memento-like narrative structure for The Dark Knight, where like nothing is linear, dude. To which I can only reply: sure, nothing's linear - but awesome? Hardly.

The hopelessly enjambed "plot" (from which key points often seem to be missing) is designed as a series of puzzle boxes which open into each other: however elaborate the chase, however sophisticated the caper, it's always revealed as just another step in a larger game in which the villain - i.e. Heath Ledger's Joker - is one step ahead, anticipating everything, and somehow, without any apparent resources or skills, engineering truly staggering feats of mayhem. This is because, we're told baldly, he's the spirit of chaos, a kind of evil entropy eating away at everything and everyone. Only somehow at the same time this anarchist brings off feats of logistics that would put the best meeting planners to shame - he manages the abduction of the D.A. and his girlfriend from prison, then overnight wires an entire hospital to explode, followed by two passenger ferries. If you can sense from this contradiction that the Nolans' windy dialectic feels like a tour of Dick Cheney's brain pasted over a nasty amplification of comic book convention, then you're definitely on the right track to decoding The Dark Knight.

Which isn't to say that Heath Ledger (above) isn't brilliant as the Joker. It's true - he is, and weirdly, his tragic death somehow feels like an outgrowth of the film's morbidity, as if his overdose were just one last setpiece from the movie. I have no idea whether the actor's conception of the role came from him, his acting coach, or the Nolans, but whoever thought it up, it was a masterstroke - this Joker is the antithesis of every megalomaniac we've seen in every caped crusader epic till now. He's utterly un-grandiose - he has no secret lair, no hollowed-out mountain, no superpowers, no brilliant mind in a bald head, no doomed romantic charisma, no nothing. In fact, he's utterly repellent: sleazy, scarred, encrusted with sad-clown make-up (which should itself win an Oscar), obsessively licking his scarred lips as he shambles about in a broken-marionette palsy. He's a loser, literally a greaseball, and he knows it; but he's got a nose for sniffing out the flaws and faults in those above him, and in bringing them down - making them scarred losers, too - he finds his triumph.

The trouble with this conception, though, is that its potent child psychology is at odds with the political apparatus the Nolans keep trying to foist on it. Ledger's Joker is a pop Freudian horror, but the movie forces him to perform as a philosopher-terrorist factotum. And the fit's not an easy one. The Joker opens the movie by stating he wants Batman dead - but soon he's fascinated by his doppelgänger ("You complete me," he whispers in one memorable scene). This is all fine and good - only the Joker doesn't attempt to bring Batman down to his own level, or seduce him to the dark side; instead he tries to disprove his theses. I'm not making that up. Elaborately sadistic sequences follow which are designed as demonstrations of this or that jaundiced take on human nature. The whole thing's just weird - it's like watching Saw rewritten by Bertrand Russell - and makes no sense as either action or drama; by the finish, the Nolans are staging the prisoner's dilemma on Lake Michigan, with two passenger ferries wired to blow (one's actually full of prisoners; get the pun?) - but we're merely wondering who these people are, how they got there, and why we're supposed to care about them. That the sequence disses the democratic process and instead enshrines - yes - vigilante action only comes off as one last dumb insult to our sensibility. And another major gambit - the transformation of Batman's rival, a "white knight" D.A., into the hideous Two-Face - feels both intellectually cheap and dramatically strained: indeed, it's so underwritten that even the charismatic Aaron Eckhart can't make it work.

Hmmm. Did I leave the iron on? Christian Bale entertains some deep thoughts.

Elsewhere, however, Eckhart holds his own - even against Ledger - while old pros Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman coast home on canny underplaying (true, Oldman does more than that, although he's undone by the final scenes). But then there's Christian Bale - and, I hate to say it, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Both are excruciatingly out of their league; Gyllenhaal tries to be smart, not just "spunky," but she comes off as a judgmental wet blanket who never connects with her batfriend, her boyfriend, or, worse, the audience: I suppose at this point it's giving away no secrets to say that her character is burned alive midway through the movie, and that no one in the audience sheds a tear - or even gives her incineration a passing thought. As for Bale, he's as hammily zen as ever, all recessed pretension and second-guessed gestures, Robert DeNiro by way of Tom Cruise. He (almost) carried Batman Begins through his looks and physique, although he did look a little silly in that mask - here, however, the mask is his friend, as it saves him from direct comparison with Ledger; all he has to do in their encounters is cock a bug-eyed stare and whisper. Elsewhere he just seems lost, as if the word problems the Nolans were posing were too hard for him. Rarely has a tortured soul looked quite so dull.

And just to stick a final fork in this dark bird, I do want to point out, once and for all, that Christopher Nolan can't stage action - the cardinal sin in any superhero franchise, IMHO. Comparisons between The Dark Knight and far more stylish (if equally pretentious) baubles like Heat go way beyond mere critical malfeasance and probably qualify as outright lies. Much of the violence in The Dark Knight is literally undecipherable -as in, Nolan has invested himself so heavily in his dark, chaotic vision that you can't even see what's going on. (And that really isn't an artistic statement. If you want to experience moral and physical chaos, revisit the brightly-lit opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.) There are, it's true, a few thrillingly vertiginous plunges from skyscrapers in Chicago and Hong Kong - in which all seems lost until Batman spreads his black wings, a neat little metaphor for the sensation you guess the movie is groping for generally. And indeed, you could make the case that the Hong Kong vignette, which contributes little to the movie as a whole, still stands as a pretty good action sequence. There's also a neat trick where a semi goes vertical before slamming into the pavement. But these moments are overwhelmed by the sheer incoherent welter of the rest of the picture's supposed showstoppers.

Ah, and a postscript - can we please stop pretending this movie is any kind of honest meditation on our national situation post-9/11? True, pop always deflects political concerns to one remove; but it shouldn't actually distort its correspondences, should it? Yet Ledger's (and Nolan's) Joker has little to do with Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda, or really anything but the hermetically sealed world of adolescent angst. The terrorists America faces are not in love with "chaos" per se - they are trying to harm us for rather obvious political reasons. You may think those reasons are illegitimate, and that the murder of innocent civilians is evil - and you may feel at the same time that we have the perfect right to prop up some dictatorships in the Middle East, while overturning others; fine. 

 But you can't pretend our terrorists appeared from nowhere, like the Joker, with no back story or history, and no formal grievances, and are simply maniacally bent on destroying "our way of life." Or, for that matter, that responding to terrorism forces any sort of moral dilemma on us. We're not being led to "the dark side" by anything other than our own propensity to go there, and the vigilantism of "Batman" has nothing to do, really, with Guantánamo, or our timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, or anything else. The whole muddled metaphor the Nolans are conjuring here, with its many renditions and interrogations, is idiotic; their pop Götterdämmerung is preposterously dumb. And while the Nolans seem to see the public sphere as utterly compromised, they give the corporate sphere practically a free walk - after all, what is Bruce Wayne but a capitalist avatar, swooping down from his penthouse to circumvent the law and restore economic order to a land he rules via technology? Come to think of it, there probably is a way to explore 9/11 via the superhero matrix - but Hollywood probably wouldn't risk $150 million on it, and the paranoid Nolans wouldn't be the right men for the job, and shame on everyone for pretending they are. What they've rather cynically manipulated instead is something quite different - at the screenings I attended, the kids had already learned Heath Ledger's hysterical little laugh by heart, and would cackle it back happily at the screen whenever he appeared. It was like listening to one psychopathology call to another. There was certainly no question who their hero was.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Central Square Theater opens soon

At left is the entrance of the brand new Central Square Theater, home of The Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater, located at 450 Massachusetts Ave, in the heart of, yes, Central Square. Underground Railway Theater will inaugurate the space on July 24 with QED: An Evening with Richard Feynman, by Peter Parnell, featuring Keith Jochim as the eccentric physicist. In August, the theatre will host the Norton Award-winning Coming Up for Air – an AutoJAZZography, conceived and performed by Stan Strickland, and What the Hell are You Doing in the Waiting Room for Heaven?, a one-woman show from Deborah Henson-Conant, Boston's popular "hip harpist." In September, the Nora will make its first bow in the space with Dario Fo's all-too-timely We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay!. For more information, check out the theater's website, here.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Today's poem

Let America be America Again

by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!