Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Wooster Group's Hamlet

This version of Hamlet, performed by the Wooster Group at lofty St. Ann’s in DUMBO, isn’t for the faint of heart (or brain). Rather, it’s for people interested in exploring the play’s textuality. The play’s the thing, sure, but the play’s also the most culturally significant play in English, which makes staging a novel performance something of a challenge.

Just about everybody knows Hamlet to some degree, so instead of competing with these pre-concieved versions running through the collective mind of the audience, The Wooster Group directly incorporates a few previously staged versions into its particular re-staging. In other words, the group makes concrete a process which tends to occur both individually and subconsciously. When we watch a play like Hamlet, we don’t just watch the actors on stage, but we also think about all the ways Hamlet has seeped into our culture and/or consider the other versions we’ve seen. The Wooster Group simply wants to do some of this work for us, even as it also wants to entertain.

Let me explain: In 1964, Richard Burton was filmed performing the title role during a dress rehearsal in front of a live audience on Broadway. The result was then simultaneously broadcast into theaters around the country over a period of one week—an experiment known as Theatrofilm.

Forty-three years later, the Wooster Group has decided to use Burton’s movie as the centerpiece of its version of Hamlet. The group’s play is performed on the same minimal stage as in the movie, which plays on a large screen behind the actors. The catch? The actors in the movie have been digitally distorted or erased to make way for the actors on the stage to perform. As a result, the live actors mimic exactly the actors in the movie, moving fast when the movie moves fast (Claudius is especially good at fast-forwarding himself), slowing down when the movie slows down, etc. To indicate close ups, the actors rush to the front of the stage, dragging the furniture with them. To speed up the movie, they shout at the sound guys to fast forward. When the live actors perform a scene that wasn’t in the movie, the word “unrendered” appears on the screen.

But these aren’t the only ways Wooster’s Hamlet tries to build upon centuries of past performances. A creepy Charlton Heston plays the Player on screen, taken not from Burton’s version but from Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet. The television monitors watched by the live actors echo Ethan Hawke’s futuristic Hamlet (2000). Sometimes Laertes sings ballads while other characters hold lighters aloft, which stresses the malleability of Shakespeare’s words: give it a little thought, and the seventeenth-century verse can be performed any way you want it to be. And I like the way The Wooster Group thinks.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Jeff Wall at MoMA

Seeing his mid-career retrospective at MoMA made me realize just how large Wall’s debt to advertising really is. He claims that an ad spied from a bus in Spain in 1977 dramatically shifted his career from art critic to photoconceptualist. His standard format—large, backlit photo boxes in metal frames—emphasizes the theatricality of his work. It’s all staged, most of it in his studio. Seeing the photos at close range shows how even the ostensibly pointed at-and-shot documentary views of landscapes have been somehow altered. Like an ad, Wall’s work has been carefully manipulated to produce effects in its viewers.

But that’s art, particularly contemporary art---and that’s the point. Once we realize that the tense racial scene depicted in “Mimic” (a white man holds the hand of his trashy girlfriend in one outsized paw and flips off an Asian man with the other) isn’t really happening, we can let down our guard and start to enjoy ourselves. Most of the photos are designed to produce this arc of tension, then release in their viewers.

Another example: “Dead Troops Talk.” Up close, the fakery is clear, as some of the wounded soldiers laughingly hump and tease one another. In one corner, candy spills from a bag; in another, guts spill between the splayed fingers of a clutching hand. Talk about macabre.

And after the release comes a flood of pleasant observations, such as the way the light-box format illuminates the multiplicity of grays in the Pacific Northwest skies (“Overpass”), or the jokey dialogue between “Some Beans” (a photo of two tables, one with some beans) and “An Octopus” (another photo of the two tables, but this time one has an octopus upon it). Things don’t have to be violent to be creepy, of course, but in Wall’s world the creepiness of objects seems to heighten their aesthetic appeal and potential for emotional manipulation.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Earrings of Madame De . . .

On Anthony Lane's recommendation (via The New Yorker), we went to see The Earrings of Madame De . . . at Film Forum. Right now New York critics are having a well-deserved love affair with this tragic tale of love and loss set in early 1900s Paris, made in 1953 and featuring Max Ophul's signature tracking shots ( which Kubrick apparently borrowed for The Shining).

As the movie opens, a countess sells off a pair of earrings given to her by her husband on their wedding night. He winds up buying the earrings back, then gives them to his lover as she departs for Constantinople. Eventually the earrings are returned to the countess, a gift from her lover, played to handsome effect by Vittorio De Sica.

It's sad and gloomy and heartbreaking---emotional effects emphaszied by candelight interiors and low-note scores. Even as we loathe the countess for her vanity and materialism, it's impossible not to hope that things might work out between her and her lover, or even between her and her husband, who has the two best lines in the movie: "We're only superficially superficial," and "Unhappiness is our own invention. At times I'm sad I lack the imagination for it."

Friday, March 23, 2007

NYC Photobloggers

What’s not to like about this group on Flickr? It’s got 800+ members posting 22,000+ candid shots of the city.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


After Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke broke the urban barbecue barrier (and there was one---it had to do with the amount of smoke true barbecue creates and strict environmental regulations), several BBQ joints opened up, including Rib, Dinosaur, Bone Lick, and RUB.

As a vegetarian, I can’t eat too much on the menu. Still, as someone who subsisted on hushpuppies for most of her first year of college, I’m always happy to just chomp on those perfect spheres of fried cornbread. And they are quite perfect here: bite-sized, spiced with pepper, even better dunked in spicy barbecue or ketchup (sacrilege in some southern circles, I know).

RUB stands for “Righteous Urban Barbecue.” Awkward name. Delicious hushpuppies.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

The temperature yesterday---a balmy 47 degrees---made it perfect for the first ice cream of 2007. We meandered our way through fruit sellers and fish mongers to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, one of the area's oldest businesses (according to the free brochure at the counter). The fat dragon is the store's logo.

As tempting as the red bean, Zen butter (peanut butter with sesame seeds), durian, wasabi, and lychee sorbet flavors were, I had to go with my old standby, coconut. I wasn't disappointed. Creamy, full of bits of coconut, gooey without being gelato-ish. We'll be there again before long, I'm sure.

Friday, March 09, 2007

National Book Critics Circle Awards

Last night was the 33rd National Books Critical Circle Awards. As the name would imply, winners in six categories are selected by professional book review editors and reviewers---the only awards bestowed by practicing critics.

John Leonard, accepting an award for lifetime achievement, gave a rousing speech about criticism past and present. He reads an astonishing five books a week, figuring that when he reaches a grand total of 13,000, his life will be over. Looking into the crowd of NBCC members, publicists, authors, editors, and agents, Leonard mused, “It’s so nice to be in a room full of people who know nothing about the profit margin.”

And the other winners were:

Criticism: Lawrence Weschler, “Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences” (McSweeney's). This book was described as “1 part literary juke box, 2 parts art history”

Poetry: Troy Jollimore, “Tom Thomson in Purgatory” (Margie/Intuit House). This was the surprise of the evening. When his name was called, someone---editor, friend, agent?---let out a huge whoop. At the podium, Jollimore said, “I’m stunned . . . and I may not be the only one.”

Non-Fiction: Simon Schama, “Rough Crossings: Britain, Slaves, and the American Revolution” (Ecco). Schama referred to himself in the third person throughout his acceptance speech. Enough said.

Biography: Julie Phillips, “James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” (St. Martin's Press). This book was ten years in the making. Phillips even teared up as she thanked “Ali.”

Autobiography: Daniel Mendelsohn, THE LOST (HarperCollins). Mendelsohn said he’d be quick giving his speech, because he’d “had to go to the bathroom since poetry.” He went on to say how nice it was to receive recognition from people who “actually know what they’re talking about,” a dig at everyday bloggers. While everyone thanked their agents and editors, only Mendelsohn talked about the truly wonderful relationship he has with his, so great in fact, after their first meeting, Mendelsohn wondered, “Why don’t my dates go this way?”

Fiction: Kiran Desai, THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS (Atlantic Monthly Press). She read a quotation from Borges and thanked her mom.

President John Freeman, who looks like a literary Nick Lachey, concluded the ceremony by telling us to go have a drink with the authors whom we’ve kept “in our laps” all year long.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Union Square Magazine Shop

For being the only newsstand within a two-mile radius to have copies of The Washington Post.

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