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Sunday
Mar242019

ISABELLE HUPPERT IS 'THE MOTHER'

Isabelle Huppert
HENRY EDWARDS - New York - March 24, 20019    
 

Chelsea residents: If you think you have spotted Isabelle Huppert on the street, you have not been hallucinating. The indisputable queen of French cinema has arrived in Chelsea. She’s here to make a rare English-speaking stage appearance at the Atlantic Theater Company. She portrays the title role in French playwright Florian Zeller’s 2010 “tragic farce” titled “The Mother,”

Tickets to the 199-seat Linda Gross Theatre are virtually non-existent.

And no wonder.

Huppert, an actress for 47 of her 66 years, has earned the admiration of the international film-going public, having delivered fearless performances as incendiary yet despairing women in 120 movies.  Perversion, murder, self-mutilation, prostitution, adultery, transgressive behavior – you name it, she’s suffered through it.

Huppert’s potent 2016 Academy Award nominated performance in Paul Verhoeven’s button pushing “Elle” is a recent example.  She portrays a woman who seeks out her rapist for further encounters and then makes sure he gets what’s coming to him.

Her role in “The Mother” fits her like a glove.

It is the first of three unrelated plays in playwright Zeller’s so-called “Family Trilogy.” A second dark farce, the 2012 “The Father,” and this season’s “The Son” complete the series.  

Both “The Mother” and “The Father” received Molière Awards (the French Tony)

The 39-year-old writer has achieved conspicuous success in his home country and overseas and hailed as “the most exciting new theatre writer of our time.”

After seeing his work in Paris, Academy Award- winning British playwright, screenwriter and translator Christopher Hampton was inspired to introduce the French playwright to the English-speaking public.

Hampton’s translations for the theatre include spark ling versions of the plays of Yasmina Reza, the previous Parisian playwright to make it big in Britain Jean-Paul Sartre preceded Reza many years before in the 1940s.

In 2015, Hampton’s translation of “The Father” played in London's West End to widespread critical acclaim. The following year, Manhattan Theater Club mounted the play in New York in a production directed by Doug Hughes.

Frank Langella, then 76, portrayed the title character, an 80-year-old man named Andre who was in the late stages of dementia.

Rather than observing Andre, the audience was placed in the position of seeing the world from the old man’s point of view.

A series of repeated scenes rewritten slightly differently force Andre to question everything he once thought was real, and observers share in his terror as his dementia advances and he struggles desperately to retain focus.

Langella’s harrowing performance earned the distinguished actor his fourth Tony award.

 “The Father” was extremely clever, but the cleverness tended to make the play feel somewhat like a stunt.  Underneath the dazzle of the tricks, Zeller’s self-conscious script lacked empathy and depth.

The dramatist attributes Harold Pinter as a major influence and the British Nobel laureate and he have much in common.

They share a lean, bare-bones aesthetic, utilize disjointed timelines, repetitions and alternative narratives, play with time and perspective, and enjoy dismantling an architype from multiple perspectives.

When I arrived at “The Mother,” Huppert was already onstage.

She sat on an impossibly long, white leather couch comprised of sectionals that spanned the width of the stage.

The actress radiated enormous stillness as she occasionally looked down at the book she was reading.

The program lists Huppert as “The Wife” (the character’s name is Anne); Chris Noth as “The Man” (Anne’s husband, David); Justice Smith as ”The Son” (whose character name is Nicolas); and Odessa Young as “The Girl” (in reality of all the ”girls” – how sexist is that?- who taunt Anne’s mind: Nicholas’s girlfriend, Emily; David’s girlfriend who might also be Emily; “unsympathetic” daughter Sara who flees her mother; and even the memory of Anne’s younger, “naive” self.)

I could not resist wondering if the 85-minute play was meant to be an allegory.

After a dramatic visual cue set the play in motion (Ben Stanton is the lighting designer) ,Chris Noth’s David rushed in and declared he was off to a seminar.

But his wife stops him in his tracks.

A projection on a screen in front of the Atlantic’s exposed upstage brick wall announces “UN,” the first “act” of the play. (Lucy Mackinnon is the projections designer.)

Mark Wendland’s sleek, minimalist set design – a Venetian glass chandelier, the protracted couch and not much else – tells us virtually nothing about the characters.

And alas neither will the playwright.  

Having stewed before us for so long waiting for David to arrive home from the office, Anne appropriates a sunny tone to complain - about her day and then her adult son Nicholas. He has stopped telephoning her with regularity fails to respond to her countless messages – proof that he has abandoned her.

She badgers David about whether he had a nice day, repeating the same question again and again with repeated intensity each time. Her surreal behavior drives her husband almost to the breaking point.

Anne infers she knows he is cheating on her. The businessman neither confirms nor denies her suspicion.

If he attempts to respond, she ignores him, tells him he is crazy or repeats her catalog of woes.

She also lets him know she purchased a little red dress to wear to his funeral.

The projection of “UN” reappears and the first act starts all over again, featuring three variations of the dialogue and changeable emotional temperature of the married couple.  

In the style of “The Father,” the disparities provide evidence of the confusion in Anne’s mind and her unsettled emotional state.

They also suggest that knowing what is real may be beyond us.

The ensuing “acts” also come in three versions apiece, each with two versions.

 Isabelle Huppert and Chris Noth

After walking out on his girlfriend, Emily, Nicolas returned home in the middle of the night, and to his mother’s great surprise, her son turns up in the morning with his shirt open to the waist.

In the 2016 British import, “Yen,” the gifted actor, Justice Smith, delivered a memorably outrageous performance as a writhing, shrieking, mentally damaged 13-year-old; in “The Mother,” he experiences the surprise of his – or any son’s life – when he has to cope with a mother in Jocasta – or perhaps - Phèdre mode.

After listening to her son’s explanation for his presence, Anne cannot bring herself to say Emily’s name; only gagging sounds emerge from her throat.

She reviles her sons’ uncouth and ugly live-in girlfriend, accuses her of numerous sexual indiscretions and of cheating on her son.

Even worse for Nicholas, his mother simply cannot keep her hands off him, pawing him aggressively.

Later, she urges him to go out on the town with her as his date, insisting that people would probably mistake them for lovers. Mom strips down to a slip and garters and wiggles into the scarlet red mini-dress meant her husband’s funeral.

Anne then becomes so out of control, she mounts her son and Nicholas has to fight her off.

Current psychological theory holds that people living in close domestic proximity during the early years of life are desensitized to sexual attraction later in life. So it’s probably best to treat Anne’s smothering mother-love as part and parcel of a descent into madness.

Nor is she an allegorical figure unless you believe that in common with Anne, every mother in enormous emotional pressure turns to incest.

In the acts and variations that follow, a disoriented, slowed-down Anne, popping sleeping pills and slurping white wine, crashes even further.

She leads a static life that has lost all meaning, experiencing a present that drags on and on and absolutely nothing happens.

But the thing that really pushes her over the edge is the arrival of Emily. Nicholas’s girlfriend is beautiful and young, wears exactly the same daring outfit as the much older woman (it makes Anne her look even older) and flaunts her delectable body in front of the jealous and miserable matron.

Anne’s jealousy strikes me as a relic from a B movie of yore. Mental illness is a terrible thing, but I find hard to accept the notion that empty-nest syndrome ultimately has the potential to lead to insanity.

Nor do any of the one-dimensional characters inspire the slightest empathy.

And the bafflement wears thin and becomes exhausting.

Zeller dismisses anything that really is too much to handle, including a murder, as a “dream sequence.”

Is Peter really having an affair? Does Nicholas actually turn up at the family homestead? Did Emily really visit? And who is she?

We will never know – or care.

Trip Cullman is an uneven director (a terrific “Choir Boy”; an awful “Six Degrees of Separation”). Here he does everything he can to create a highly theatrical, distorted, collage-like and surreal air of unreality.

What is wonderful is the opportunity to see a highly energized, Huppert deliver a ferocious, all-stops-out star turn.

She’s great, but “The Mother” is as pretentious as it is inscrutable.

I’m thrilled Isabelle Huppert came to Chelsea.

Huppert

 

 

 

 

Sunday
Mar242019

'KISS ME, KATE' - A RAPTUROUS REVIVAL OF COLE PORTER'S CLASSIC

Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase
HENRY EDWARDS - New York - March 24, 2019

There is no overture and the house curtain flies up to reveal the bare stage of Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre on a steamy late summer afternoon. The opening night of the pre-Broadway tryout of a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew” is scheduled to take place on that stage in a few hours and the cast and crew are caught up in last minute preparations.

Hattie (Adrienne Walker, confident, convivial and in great voice) steps through the stage door, positions herself center stage and launches into "Another Op'nin', Another Show."

If you love musicals, you don’t have to be told the opening number of Cole Porter’s landmark 1949 musical, “Kiss Me, Kate,” is one of Broadway’s three great show-business anthems. ("That's Entertainment!” and "There's No Business Like Show Business" are the other two.)

A combination of trepidation and elation permeates the air as the opening night closes in. Hopefully, this show will be the show that “will make your future forget your past.” But the only thing you can do now is to “cross your fingers and hold your heart.”

The vintage song launches an ingenious, witty and often quite silly theatrical touchstone that also happens to be a genuine American classic.

No matter how progressive we think we are, we need to rub against shows like this one now and again.

But in this particular case, it hasn’t been easy.

The 1949 Tony award winner (Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book) has only been revived twice. That’s why the mere existence of Roundabout Theatre Company’s current production at Studio 54 is reason to cheer.

But let’s not stop there.

After directing pitch-perfect productions of “On the Twentieth Century” and “She Loves Me” for Roundabout, Scott Ellis has provided a sublime staging of “Kate.”

Nor ought we to think the director’s skills are limited to brilliant resurrections of old musicals.  Ellis also happens to be the director of Broadway’s newest musical smash hit, “Tootsie.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Freed Unit” consisted of a trusted group of actors and crew members that were used repeatedly to create the longest string of movie musical blockbusters in history. (The 1953 film adaptation of “Kiss Me, Kate” filmed in 3D was one of them).

In the same vein, Ellis’s “unit,” including choreographer Warren Carlyle and design team members, David Rockwell (scenery), Jeff Mahshie (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting), is once again on board and each is in peak condition and it shows.

Best of all, the production returns Kelli O’Hara, who is in particularly ravishing  voice, to the New York stage for the first time since her 2015 Tony award performance as Anna Leonowens in “The King and I.”

Cole Porter was a 24-year-old Yale graduate when wrote his first Broadway score in 1916.   “See America First,” which featured a cast that included Clifton Webb, and closed after 15 performances. When Porter called it quits 42 years later, he was a world-famous composer who had written the scores for over 30 shows and movies and had 1,200 songs to his credit.

The so-called “Porter song” set standards of sophistication and wit seldom matched in the popular musical theater - then or now.

But every success story has its bumps.

During the 1930s, Porter managed to keep alive some of the feverish smartness and cynicism, freedom in sex attitudes, lack of inhibitions, and outright iconoclasm of the "roaring Twenties." But after World War II, his songs lost their dash and impudence and he experienced two successive failures, "Seven Lively Arts"(1944) and "Around the World in 80 Days" (1946).  No longer was he the wonder boy of the 1930s, and Porter found himself out of favor.

Veteran husband-and wife writing team Sam and Bella Spewack (she invented the Girl Scout cookie. True!) had collaborated with Porter on the 1938 musical hit, “Leave It to Me,” in which Mary Martin’s rendition of the sardonic, disingenuous “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” turned the performer into a star.

In 1948, although in the midst of a turbulent marriage, the Spewacks approached Porter with “Kiss Me, Kate,” a thoroughly organized musical play based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Porter had never written an “integrated” musical that required him to write songs that expressed characters in definite situations. But neither had Irving Berlin who accomplished the feat with the score for the 1946 hit, “Annie Get Your Gun.” Porter had no other option but to accept the challenge.   

For “Kate,” the Spewacks utilized the old ''putting on a show'' genre; in this case the show is a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare’s comedy about the courtship of Petruchio and headstrong, obstinate Katherine.

In their musical, Fred Graham (Will Chase), the director of “Shrew,” has cast himself as Petruchio and Fred’s former wife, movie star Lilli Vanessi (O’Hara), is making her return to the theatre in the title role of Katherine.

Fred is chasing after charismatic, charming, quintessential airhead ingénue Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles making a smashing Broadway debut). Lois portrays Bianca in the musical. She’s also in love with her on-stage Lucentio, hardcore gambler Bill Calhoun (Corbin Bleu).

Bill has just lost big to a gangster and signed an IOU in Fred Graham’s name.

Two henchmen (John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams) turn up demanding money and end up onstage in Shakespearean costume in order to keep a mutinous Lilli from abandoning the show at gunpoint.

The action shifts back and forth between the backstage complications and the ongoing performance of the musical-comedy version of “Shrew.”

As the show flip-flops wittily between the on-stage Shakespearean scenes and the cavalcade of backstage dramas, it’s as if the fractious Fred and Lilli are seeing Kate and Petruchio – and themselves – in a funhouse mirror.

“Kate,” one of the greatest backstage musicals, is very much a musical about the alternating artificiality and genuineness of the theatre.

 The feast of high comedy and low comedy, high romance and low down carrying on turned out to be Porter's masterpiece and the biggest artistic and commercial success of his career, triumphantly re-establishing him as one of the greatest of American songwriters.

In his determination to make 'Kate'' his masterpiece, he wrote a big score -- 18 separate vocal numbers where most musical comedies accommodated a dozen. In fact, he really wrote two scores, quasi-operatic period spoofs for the ''Shrew'' scenes and saucy contemporary songs and softer romantic songs for the backstage scenes.

Never before, or since, has the composer been so rich and varied in his invention, and at turns, he is satiric, witty, nostalgic and sensual.

The blending of the idioms of both Porter and Shakespeare makes for a very special theatrical experience.

Petruchio’s solos, sung with full bodied splendor by Will Price, include “Where Is the Life That Late I Led,” which manages to rhyme “puberty” with “Shuberty,” alluding to the Broadway theatre owner, while offering a catalogue of the hero’s Italian conquests famously including Lisa “who gave new meaning to the leaning tower of Pisa”; "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua," and the kind of grammatical challenge that Porter relished, a song written entirely in the subjunctive, the ravishing "Were Thine That Special Face.”

In Kate’s solo, "I Hate Men," O’Hara takes a deliciously contemporary tone, sharing her observations about the male sex with the audience with a flash of satisfied delight.

Amanda Green’s slight revisions have removed the 1940s cartoon shrewishness from O’Hara’s character, allowing the show to emerge as a genuine love story about a couple that did not get along, divorced and have had the unexpected pleasure of rediscovering each other in a new light.

O’Hara is perfection in this rethought battle of the sexes now calibrated as a fair fight. And you can’t believe how glorious she sounds on the Porter standard, ''So in Love,'' with its erotic (and perhaps sexist) lyric “taunt me and hurt me, deceive me, desert me.''

The composer’s irreverent treatment of sex has lost practically none of its post-Freudian edge and anti-puritanical bite and Stephanie Styles’s spirited rendition of Bianca’s playfully raunchy “Tom, Dick, or Harry” about her triple suitors – Tom, Dick or Harry – offered definitive proof.

The number starts with a madrigal-like purity and ends with Bianca’s obvious, reiterated delight in Dick.

Corbin Bleu, Will Burton and Rick Faugno dance up a storm Bianca’s desperate potential lovers and their gyrations delightedly leave almost nothing to the imagination.

Stephanie Styles and Suitors

The first of the backstage numbers, Lilli and Fred’s waltz duet “Wunderbar,” allows them to recall performing the song long ago when they were chorus kids in a Viennese operetta. In a brilliant touch, filtered through their shared memory, the artificial world created by this musical idiom gives them permission to declare their love in the present as well as the past tense.

 

The concluding eleven o’clock number, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” goes to the star struck gangsters. In a blizzard of forced rhymes, they explain how to use the Bard’s plays to impress women. The song includes the immortal Porter couplet: “If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the Coriolanus.”

A musical pushes things ahead, always keeping its eye on the story, surging like a locomotive toward its narrative destination. And it stops things dead in their tracks, creating scenes so mesmerizing that the audience happily loses sight of why the scene exists: all that matters is the sheer sensation of the moment.

So when the second act of “Kate” begins with the long backstage sizzle of “Too Darn Hot,” a swelteringly energetic mating dance to the impossibility of mating on a hot and humid day, not a lot of people are wondering where the play is going with this. In fact, “Too Darn Hot” doesn’t have much of anything at all to do with the plot.

But it has a great deal to do with the feel of the show. It’s a teasing, lusty evocation of the erotic undercurrent that sparks the characters and energizes their love-battles.

James T. Lane leads the company in a steamy dance that refuses to stop until it escalates into the most thrilling production number of the season.

“Kiss Me, Kate” is delectable, delicious, delimit, deluxe, delovely——and inimitable——and it’s running now.    

    

James T. Lane and Ensemble

 

Kiss Me, Kate has been extended through June 30.  For Tickets: Roundabout Theatre Company