17 May 2015

Wolf Hall


Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) and Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) in Wolf Hall. Photo: Photo: Johan Persson

“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” So goes the rhyme that lists the fate (in order) of the six wives of Henry VIII. Based on the number of books and films that have been made about them and the rest of the family, it appears that we (including myself) just can’t get enough of those crazy Tudors. And so this history nerd found herself last month at the opening night of a Broadway play that once again tells the story of King Henry and the tragic story of his first two wives.

Wolf Hall: Parts I and II (it’s so long the play is broken into two parts) is based on Hilary Mantel’s books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (as is the recent PBS series). It differs from other accounts of this oft-told tale by making the focus of the play neither king nor queen but a bureaucrat—Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief adviser. This commoner, a “butcher boy from Putney,” rose to power in Henry’s court by orchestrating two of the most important events in his King’s life—the divorce from his first wife and the beheading of his second.

The action takes place on a bare, darkened stage with a concrete back wall embedded with a large cross. Fire sometimes rises from the floor. Occasionally a piece of furniture will appear. Part I opens with the Royal Shakespeare Company cast on stage performing a dance. Among them are Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) and Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) along with their friends and enemies.

Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) with members of his court in Wolf Hall. Photo: Johan Persson

We soon meet Cromwell and Cardinal Woolsey (Paul Jesson), and learn of Cromwell’s high regard for the older man who is not only a mentor but also a father figure to him. We watch as Cromwell’s position and power at court rises until he’s the only man that the king can trust. Unhappy with Catherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers), a wife who cannot bear him a son, Henry wants to get rid of her so he can marry a younger woman, Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard). Can’t Cromwell help his King?

Cromwell sets out to accommodate his ruler’s wishes. Soon Henry is breaking from the church and getting a divorce. Catherine is banished to the countryside and replaced by the dark haired Anne. All too soon Anne, who has a sharp tongue and opinions about everything, turns out to be a disappointment when she gives birth to a girl (the future Elizabeth I). Part I ends with a young blonde woman (Leah Brotherhead) on stage stating, “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour.” A portent of things to come in Part II.

Death is all around Cromwell in Wolf Hall starting with the sudden loss of his wife and daughters from the sweating sickness and the death of Woolsey, hastened by his fall from grace with the King. And then there is the execution of Cromwell’s frenemy, Thomas More, the man who in real life achieved sainthood by refusing to denounce the church, is depicted here in a very unsaintlike manner and Cromwell, in a reversal of the normal, is the hero.

In Part II, the death toll increases and so do the ghosts who come and go throughout the play. Cromwell’s beloved wife drifts by a few times but Woolsey’s ghost sticks around and has conversations with Cromwell. Even the King gets a visit from the ghost of his dead brother. Death, it would seem, does not mean seeing the last of some people.

Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) in Wolf Hall. Photo: Johan Persson

If Part I is a bit crowded with information and setting the stage for what’s to come, Part II runs at a rapid pace, with Cromwell finally getting his revenge. The man who has mastered the art of fading into the shadows, who has stood quietly by, watching and listening, puts his plans into action when the King, grown weary of Anne, claims that she bewitched him and that she must go. Cromwell is only too happy to oblige. In the process of getting rid of Anne, Cromwell eliminates his enemies as well, setting up the men who lampooned Woolsey after his death with charges of treason. Cromwell, it seems, never forgets. Anne and the men are beheaded, leading the way for the King to wed the mousy Jane Seymour. Cromwell has succeeded but at what cost?

Ben Miles does a fine job as Cromwell, winning the audience's sympathy and getting some laughs (there’s actually a surprising amount of humour in the play) before he turns menacing and starts settling scores. Nathaniel Parker, who I’ve always been fond of, is an excellent Henry, with the presence and stature of a king while also showing Henry at times to be nothing more than a spoiled child. Paul Jesson as Woolsey is a standout, often stealing scenes from his fellow actors. If there is a disappointment it's that I found Lydia Leonard as Anne to be a bit too shrill, often shrieking her lines although she redeems herself at the end.

Wolf Hall is long, almost six hours if you see both parts on the same day (as I did), but it’s well worth it. These are some familiar characters that you won't mind spending time with.

Wolf Hall is at the Winter Garden Theatre. For more information, visit here.

07 May 2015

Burt Glinn Retrospective


Contact sheet images of a bikini-clad Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Suddenly Last Summer (1959) cover the windows at Milk Gallery. Compelling to look at, they are the work of Burt Glinn.

“Burt Glinn: Retrospective” is a sampling of images taken by the noted photographer. From American high school students and British aristocrats to Fidel Castro and Robert Kennedy to the Beats and the Rat Pack, Glinn captured some of the defining people and moments of his day.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1925, he received his first camera—a Kodak Monitor folding camera—from his aunt on his 12th birthday. From then on photography became his passion. He served as an artilleryman in the US Army during World War II and studied at Harvard where he shot photos for the Harvard Crimson. After graduation Glinn worked as an assistant at Life Magazine before he, Eve Arnold, and Dennis Stock were asked to join Magnum Photos in 1951, the first Americans to be invited. Three years later he became a full member and would later serve twice as Magnum’s president. During his half-century long career, Glinn's work took him around the globe and earned him high praise including the Mathew Brady Award for Magazine Photographer of the Year in 1959 for his colour series of the South Seas. The man who once said, “The most important thing that a photographer like me can have is luck” passed away in 2008.

The photos in the exhibit are striking and leave you wanting more (I’d especially like to see some of Glinn’s colour work). While I enjoyed the images of famous people—Jack Kerouac flirting at a party, an exquisite portrait of Twiggy—my favourite may have been this image above, “Delinquents run from a cop, Snoqualmie, WA.” The shadowy figures seem like something out of Peter Pan, two lost boys being chased by Captain Hook (look at the cop’s right hand). And you can almost hear the scream coming from the one boy's open mouth. It’s just wonderful and a perfect example of why Glinn was such a great photographer.

“Burt Glinn: Retrospective” is at Milk Gallery through May 10. For more info, visit here.

28 April 2015

Mark Morris' Spring


The Mark Morris Dance Group performing Spring, Spring, Spring (2013). Photo: Peg Skorpinski

Sunday I spent the afternoon doing one of my favourite things—watching the Mark Morris Dance Group perform. I am an unabashed fan of Morris and his company and love any opportunity to see them. This time it was a program at BAM that included two works I’d seen before—Crosswalk and Jenn and Spencer—and one that was making its New York premiere—Spring, Spring, Spring.

The first part of the program opened with Crosswalk. Set to Carl Maria von Weber’s 1816 Grand Duo Concertant for clarinet and piano, Op. 48, Crosswalk is a whimsical piece in which the dancers perform myriad movements from joyful leaps to somersaults to flapping their arms. One dancer even gets repeatedly knocked down. Towards the end, one of the women makes a running jump and is caught by the men who toss her up in the air and then carry off stage. It’s seamless and utterly delightful.

Jenn and Spencer (named for the two original dancers of the piece) is a duet set to Suite for Violin and Piano by Henry Cowell (1925). The two dancers (Jenn Weddel and Brandon Randolph) alternately grab for one another and push away, as if torn between desire and anger. It is the story of a relationship that ends with Jenn running off, leaving Spencer alone on the stage. Darkly beautiful, it's a perfect counterpoint to Crosswalk.

The second part of the program was the New York premiere of Spring, Spring, Spring, Morris’ version of The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky originally created for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. When it was first performed in Paris in 1913 it was considered scandalous and caused fights to break out in the audience (allegedly objects were thrown at the performers as well).

While no fights broke out this time round, Morris did make a major departure from the original music by presenting a jazz interpretation performed live by the trio The Bad Plus (Morris’ works almost always includes live musical accompaniment). Spring, Spring, Spring begins with a darkened stage and the playing of a recording of the overture. The crashing sounds of a piano announce The Bad Plus and the arrival of the dancers.

The 15 dancers are dressed like idealized versions of flower children—the women in short, Grecian dresses with flowers in their hair and the bare-chested men in colourful pants and wreaths of vines on their heads. Together they weave in and out, sometimes holding hands and dancing in circles, reminiscent of folk dances. They break into groups and the women twirl like little girls at play. The men meanwhile leap like spirited woodland creatures, a nod perhaps to the original ballet.

The Rite of Spring is a story of a pagan ritual in which a virgin sacrifices herself by dancing to death. In Spring, Spring, Spring no one dies making it the ultimate reinterpretation. This is yet another work that I'm happy to see added to the Morris canon. 

One note about the venue, the Howard Gillman Opera House at BAM is gorgeous (it was designed in the teens by Herts and Tallant who created the New Amsterdam Theatre) but I caution anyone with a fear of heights about sitting in the balcony. I had a seat in the front and the steep incline had me thinking I was going to have an attack of vertigo while I walked down to my row. So if you're not good with heights, opt for a seat lower in the house when you go.

27 April 2015

The Answer

Washington Square Park. Photo by Michele.

Some days you wonder why you live in New York. The high costs, the crowds, the stress, the smells, the studio the size of a closet that you call home can cause you to question your life decisions. And then one sunny day you find yourself sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park listening to a man play Beethoven on a piano and you know the answer.

21 April 2015

Technical Difficulties

Apologies for the recent radio silence around here; it was due to technical difficulties—my laptop decided to stop working. I'm happy to announce though that one replaced logic board later, everything is back up and running. So stay tuned for some new posts coming soon.

05 April 2015

Happy Easter

Mary Pickford. Photo from here

Happy Easter! While I didn't go to the Easter Parade this year like I have in the past, I did head over to Brooklyn and Prospect Park Zoo where I spent the afternoon with my friend and her twins watching the sea lions and feeding the barn animals. Hope everyone had a lovely day.

03 April 2015

Happy Birthday, Doris Day!

The incredible Doris Day turns 93 today. Born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff on April 3, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio, she began her career as a big band singer, scoring her first hit, Sentimental Journey, in 1945. She successfully transitioned to film and became one of the biggest stars of the 1950s and 60s, starring in a string of classic musicals, dramas, and comedies opposite the likes of Cary Grant, James Stewart, James Cagney, Rock Hudson, and James Garner (to name a few). 

After her television show, The Doris Day Show, finished its five-year run in 1973, Day retired from acting and devoted her time to helping animals. Her two charities—the Doris Day Animal Foundation and Doris Day Animal League (now part of the Humane Society of the United States)—have helped save and improve the lives of thousands of animals.

Day has always been a personal favourite. As a young girl I watched By the Light of the Silvery Moon, On Moonlight Bay, and That Touch of Mink dozens of times. Yet my all time favourite film of hers is Calamity Jane (1953), which I've talked about before on the blog. To this day, I still know each song by heart and never tire of watching her antics in glorious technicolour. So Happy Birthday, Doris Day! 

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