Friday, March 21, 2008

Arlington Signature Theater: Kiss of the Spider Woman (review)

Good Friday, March 21 2008, I made my first visit to the new Signature Theater, above the new Shirlington Library in Arlington, Va., to see a production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman." It is based on a novel by Manuel Puig, book by Terrence McNally (Corpus Christi), lyrics by Fed Ebb, music by John Kanderm directed by Eric Schaeffer. This is based on the version that won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1993. It had also been produced on London’s West End in 1992.

First, about the facility. It is the typical stadium seats on scaffolds with individual cushioned chairs, with an immense wide stage. On each side of the stage the prison ladders, ironworks and cages, appropriately rusty, filled your peripheral vision, for with the action in the prison cell in the center, and another stage behind for the Spider Woman fantasy. The effect was very much like that of a 3-D movie, very much a full 2.35 to 1. The new facility is much larger than an earlier one in the Four Mile Run area.

In fact, this show did become a movie in 1985, with William Hurt and Raul Julia, directed by Hector Babenco and distributed by Strand Releasing. The movie was 1.85:1.

In the story, Molina (Hunter Foster) fills out his eight year prison sentence in am Argentine prison with fantasies about the Spider Woman Aurora (Nataschia Diaz). The gay man and fashion desigber, somewhat “stereotyped” in the production, had been sentenced for involvement with a minor, in a bricks-and-mortar-world (pre-Internet) sting; he maintains (in a brief narrative in the play) that he thought the person was an adult. (Of course, the production of the musical seems “timely” now, given the controversial NBC Datelines TCAP series, but the material dates back many years, before the problem was perceived with such extreme hostility. Likewise, “Peter Grimes”, previous entry, was written at a time when there was less of a sense of public panic over these issues.) A political prisoner Valentin (Will Chase) arrives. The police want to get information about his communist activities, and in some scenes use rendition torture such as waterboarding. The two men sharing the cell are opposites, and in time Valentin grows fond of Molina. But the police decide that can “use” Molina to get even more information. An important element of Molina’s fantasies concern the movie (he mentions “Technicolor”), and the last song (of 24) is titled “Only at the Movies.” Another aspect is his desire to be reunited with his ailing Mother (Channez McQuay), which seems a bit quaint and even depressing.

This stage production places enormous demands on the actors when played almost daily, because of the "forced intimacy", and because of the physical strength and agility required in some of the prison interrogation scenes. There is an ample supporting cast of "prisoners" who do a lot of song and dance.

The music is lively, with a little bit of a Lloyd Webber feel at times (Kander, however, is American, from the Midwest). In the second act, there is a curious quote of a playful passage from the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (G Major) and, I believe, a little Shostakovich, as if to convey the element of political operetta.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes (opera)

Today (March 15 2008) the Metropolitan Opera presented Benjamin Britten ‘s most famous opera, Peter Grimes (1945). It was broadcast to various theaters around the country. I missed that because of a film event at the Archives (movie blog), but I had rented the DVD of the 1981 performance by Colin Davis with the London Royal Opera House and John Vickers as Peter Grimes. The “film” from Kultur and Warner Brothers is directed by John Vernon. The source material comes from a poem by George Crabbe and a libretto by Montagu Slater. I also saw this opera in Dallas at Fair Park around 1985.

Most opera lovers know the story. In the early 1800s one of Peter’s young fisherman apprentices has died. The court lets him off, but then he hires another one, who also dies in an accident. The townspeople are in a vigilante mood, and the opera moves toward a tragic end at sea.

The original source material presented the relationship between Peter and the apprentices as likely to be pederastic and legally and morally criminal and inappropriate. In the stage and film versions of the opera, this element is not made conspicuous, and the problem of oppression of those who seem “different” and the idea that such individuals will be suspected of giving in to “temptation” is explored. We all know the controversies in the media about this. The tendency toward “mob justice” or vigilantism becomes a major theme.

The music contains a lot of polytonality, a lot of motives in ascending and descending half steps, and sounds original, eclectic, and English. It does not sound as much like very late Mahler as does the later opera Billy Budd (reviewed in February), or even the War Requiem, which I think is Britten’s idea of the requiem mass that Mahler would have eventually composed had Mahler lived long enough. The “Sea Interludes” and Passacaglia are often performed in concert, and are most effective. Britten’s last opera, “Death in Venice,” based on Mann’s novella, comes across as a meditation on AIDS (by metaphor) now (it may have helped inspire Tony Kushner’s Angels in America) ; but I saw it in the 1970s in New York at the Met (and remember Tadzio hanging from the ceiling in the dream scenes). The orchestral suite, available on Chandos, sounds like late Mahler, the mood of the Mahler Ninth first movement (“where modern music begins”). Was Britten "the English Mahler"? Or does that honor go to Havergal Brian (with the "Gothic" Symphony)? Despite the choruses of the latter and the apocalypse at the end, the short first movement is absolutely crushing.

I wanted to mention that I also attended the Shostakovich 13th Symphony in Dallas at the Hall of State in 1987 with the Turtle Creek Chorale as the male chorus. The text (Yevtushenko) has the quote (translated): “A certain scientist, Galileo’s contemporary, was no more stupid than Galileo. He knew that the earth revolves, but he had a family. And when he got into a carriage with his wife, after accomplishing his betrayal, he reckoned he was advancing his career, but in fact he’d wrecked it.”

Ever notice?: the musical trademark for New Line Cinema closely resembles a major motive in Peter Grimes.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Nguyet Anh Duong speaks at DC church, with short film (escaped from Vietnam in 1975, major military engineer)

On Sunday March 2, 2008, Nguyet Anh Duong spoke to the potluck brunch after the services at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC.

Nguyet Anh Duong is a Vietnam-born scientist who helped lead the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s (link) development of the thermobaric weapon that was used in “Operation Enduring Freedom” in rooting out the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. The weapon is credited with saving the lives of many Army personnel in Afghanistan. The weapon is probably also used in some cases in Iraq.

Her speech, ending with some emotion, followed a ten-minute short film distributed by Vietnamese-American Television showing her receiving the Service to America award for her work in civilian DOD employment, as well as a brief biography. She has two similar videos on YouTube in Vietnamese, 1 and 2.

Her life story is important it tends to challenge much of our “conventional understanding” of the War in Vietnam, a story many younger Americans barely understand today. She and her family made a harrowing escape from Saigon when it fell in April 1975. She and her family members had to make several dangerous boat and helicopter transfers to get out of the country, at one point having to make a dangerous jump over water to a boat, timed with the swell of waves.

The Church helped her and her family over a number of years. She got degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland, and started a career with the Navy as a civilian engineer. She regards her service as an expression to American for her freedom.

The remarks at the brunch event were careful to note that there is wide political disagreement in the public with respect to the current administration’s military policy in the Middle East (mainly Iraq), and that there was widespread objection to the War in Vietnam. That does not detract from the importance of her accomplishments.

In fact, the fall of Saigon did lead to a communist, one-party state in Vietnam, which was restructured in 1992. Nevertheless, the other “dominos” in the region did not fall, as had been first expected according to the ideas of Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara (especially) and Richard Nixon, all documented in the Sony documentary film “The Fog of War.” Vietnam has a better economy than had been expected, and helped drive the Khmer Rouge out of Cambodia, and had a brief conflict with China that might have increased Soviet influence in the region had the Soviets not stumbled themselves with the invasion of Afghanistan. Even so, I recall the debates during the 1960s about American involvement in Vietnam. The conflict was sometimes discussed at Church retreats (I attended there as I grew up and came of age) in the 1960s. Sometimes the point was made that civilian refugees were streaming south from North Vietnam.

There is a film Journey from the Fall (2006, ImaginAsian, dir. Ham Tran, 135 min, R, VietNam/Thailand). Also important are films about Cambodia and the “legacy” of Pol Pot (often a subject of ABC Nightlines in the late 70s): S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2002, INA, France/Cambodia, 101 min, dir. Rithy Panh) and, of course, and, of course, Roland Jaffe’s The Killing Fields (1984)..