Archive for December, 2009

Opera Review: The Barber of Seville at the Bleecker Street Opera

Monday, December 28th, 2009

New York music fans loudly lamented the passing of the long-running Amato Opera earlier this year. Despite a reputation for uneven quality, the little family-run "opera house that could" had been an East Village institution since 1948, presenting stripped-down productions of operatic standards and charging low ticket prices while giving rising singers an opportunity to hone their craft.

Amato veterans have wasted no time rising from the ashes. Not one but two companies have emerged to wear the Amato's mantle. One, the Bleecker Street Opera, has found a home at the relatively spacious downstairs theater at 45 Bleecker Street, and I attended the second performance of its second production, Rossini's Barber of Seville, last night. The staff seemed unprepared for the full house. Everything was a little disorganized, and the show started late. The Rosina (Malena Dayen) was recovering from bronchitis. The Bartolo was a last-minute substitute who needed line cues from conductor/music director David Rosenmeyer. Mr. Rosenmeyer himself had been a late addition to the team after the unexpected departure of Paul Haas. And with all that, what did we get? Not technical perfection, it's true, but a thoroughly enjoyable and in some respects exceptional production, thanks to the cast of superb singers, the hardworking Mr. Rosenmeyer and his mini-orchestra, and a talented production team led by stage director Teresa K. Pond.

William Browning was a simply glorious Figaro, with a suave and powerful baritone, a solid yet agile stage presence, and a constant twinkle in his eye; his tremendous, antic "Largo al factotum" set a high bar. Anthony Daino brought a droll, Depardieu-esque assurance to Count Almaviva, with a sweet, sunny tenor. And Ms. Dayen, who like Mr. Rosenmeyer hails from Argentina, imbued Rosina with a fluid, coquettish energy, making her more than an equal to the scheming but good-hearted Count and the brash barber. No delicate flower was this Rosina, and I could detect little if any evidence of any lingering illness in Ms. Dayen's wonderful singing; if anything she seemed to strengthen as the evening wore on.

In a larger setting, the quality of acting in an opera like this – while important – can take a back seat. Not so in an intimate space, but the acting in this production was exceptional, as was the singers' diction. Whatever few words of Italian you may know – even if they don't go beyond "presto" and "piano" and "stanza" – you'll hear every one of them clearly.

The orchestra, though only about fifteen pieces, is a considerable step up from the tiny combos that accompanied Amato productions, and the musicians acquitted themselves very well, playing with verve and skill; the winds sparkled, and even the strings sounded generally in tune despite being so few in number.

Best of all, with a small house like this, there are virtually no bad seats, and everyone gets to feel up close and personal. It's quite different from somewhere like the Met, where everything is so fancy and grand. This is gritty opera, just the basics, but what crowd-pleasing basics they are.

The Barber of Seville plays Saturdays at 3 PM and Sundays at 7 PM through January 17. Click here for ticket information or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.

Opera Review: Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

From Seven in One Blow to Snow White and now Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers Grimm have defined my December. Grandest and "Grimmest" of all is the last, presented by the Metropolitan Opera in a gorgeous English-language production by Richard Jones that originated at the Welsh National Opera and first ran at the Met in 2007.

With glorious voices, delightful acting, and Fabio Luisi conducting a fired-up Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the production boasts John Macfarlane's beautiful if somewhat modest (for the Met) sets, which carry through the central motif (food!) – from the family's humble kitchen, all in off-white, to the dark green dreamlike woods, and finally to the Witch's gingerbread house, looking like a fantasyland test kitchen.

As the title characters, Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson sing in lovely colors, leading a strong cast all of whom seem to be having a wonderful time. Tenor Philip Langridge made a splash as the Witch two years ago and has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm, giving her a depth of character that easily survives the table-dancing, the funny and slightly campy costume, and the clouds of cocoa powder and face full of cake. Dwayne Croft's sturdy voice and capacity for boisterous humor make him ideal for the role of the father, and Rosalind Plowright does wonderfully sympathetic work in Act I as the harried mother, who gets impatient with her children only because she can't feed them.

Engelbert Humperdinck's score has been justly celebrated for over a century,  and Mr. Luisi strikes just the right balance of Wagnerian sublimity (Humperdinck was a Wagner protégé) and the warm angelic brilliance the tale inspired in the composer. That warmth is most pronounced in the gorgeous "Fourteen Angels" song with which the lost Hansel and Gretel sing themselves to sleep in the dark woods. The chef-angels dream sequence that follows is a scene of exquisite, wordless beauty.

Once the Witch has been roasted, the family reunited, and the Witch's gingerbread victims restored to humanity, the opera concludes with a lovely chorale proclaiming "When in need or dark despair, God will surely hear our prayer." But the religious patina is purely a matter of faith; the children have survived their ordeal solely because of their own quick thinking, Gretel's in particular. It's a fairy story, after all, a crusty old folk tale gathered by the Grimms from ancient sources, and the Christian God is a latecomer to this musical feast; perhaps he'll be seated during intermission, but only at the discretion of the management. There's much more primal business to attend to, summed up in the final image: as all celebrate their safety and momentary bounty, a leering Hansel raises a roasted Witch-limb to his mouth as the house goes dark.

Rounding out the cast, Jennifer Johnson is the Sandman and Erin Morley his sunrise counterpart the Dew Fairy.  These two fine singers in cameo roles prove that the Met can summon an embarrassment of riches even for its smallest and most family-friendly offerings. Not that anything at the Metropolitan Opera can really be called small, though; this Hansel and Gretel is serious opera, if by "serious" we mean a story with depth, world-class performances, and glorious music. A joy for all ages, it would make a fine introduction for any opera neophyte, child or adult. Hansel and Gretel runs in repertory through Jan. 2 at the Met.

Dance Review: Snow White by Company XIV

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Company XIV's latest dance dazzler may be aimed at kids, but it's a captivating show for all ages.

Taking the tale of Snow White straight from the Brothers Grimm, and borrowing a few costuming themes from Disney's classic animated version of the popular but creepy fairy tale, choreographer Austin McCormick and his multi-talented group conjure an extravagant feast for the eye and ear.

At the performance I attended, a large number of children, some quite small, remained rapt for over an hour. As it was hard to look away from the cavalcade of gorgeous dances, costumes, sets and props, I had to remind myself to glance over at the kids every few minutes to gauge their reactions.

Here, as in the troupe's adult-themed shows, McCormick uses baroque dance, ballet, and modern dance variously as the spirit calls.  A rather straightforward ballet defines Snow White herself at the start. An elegant baroque dance captivates (literally) our lovely but obtuse heroine a bit later, as the disguised Wicked Queen gussies poor Snow up in a fancy white wig bearing the lethal comb. Jerky modernistic movements jack up the monstrous creatures representing the third and final temptation of Snow White: the poisoned apple. Shadow puppets play the Dwarves to humorous effect.

Company XIV always casts a wide net to find lively and appropriate music. Here the recorded selections range from Carnival of the Animals to "Rumania Rumania," and from Tchaikovsky to Ella Fitzgerald. Making this show extra special is the presence of a baroque opera trio knows as Charites, consisting of three women who sing live numbers and play the sweetly musical Mirror, a screened entity that must be seen and heard to be appreciated.

My only complaint: the recorded music was a little too loud during the first couple of numbers, drowning out the narration. Either my ears or the sound engineer adjusted after a short while and all was well for the remainder.

It's been a great privilege to be able to experience the arc of all three recent Company XIV productions.  Le Serpent Rouge and The Judgment of Paris are in revival through mid-January, alternating performances with Snow White. Indulge yourself and see them all, or if you're taking the kids, experience this Snow White – it's a fairy story to remember.

Presented by Company XIV at 303 Bond St., Brooklyn, N.Y. Dec. 12–Jan. 17. Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (No performance Sun., Dec. 13, and Sat., Dec. 26.) (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com. More information at the Company XIV website.

Photo by Daniel Perez.

Theater Review: Fault Lines by Rebecca Louise Miller

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

It's nice, for a change, to go to a cramped little New York City theater and see a play that's not about cramped little twenty-somethings living in a cramped little New York City apartment. Not that our grungy behemoth of a hive-town isn't a cauldron of fuel for creativity – it sure as hell is. But, loath as we can be to admit it, there's life outside the city, a lot of it. And that life can be very similar to our own – indeed recognizably human in surprisingly many ways!

Fault Lines, inspired by the true story of the Polly Klaas kidnapping, takes us to the Northern California home of Bethany, a 32-year-old mother of twins receiving a visit from two childhood friends. Though nervous and hyper, chatty Bethany is also a distinctly West Coast type: new-agey without being self-consciously fashionable about it. Over a compact and fast-paced hour, what seems at first an innocent get-together of old girlfriends is revealed, bit by bit, to be something far more significant. As girls, the three – along with a now-absent fourth – shared a trauma that has bonded them for life.

Homey Bethany, played with acute sensitivity by the excellent Jenna Doolittle, is joined first by bitter, angry Kat (Anaïs Alexandra, who is a skilled actress but could stand to tone her performance down a tad to suit the tiny size of the theater). Then Jessica (the playwright Rebecca Louise Miller) arrives, a jet-setting activist the course of whose life and work has been set by the nationally famous crime the girls witnessed twenty years earlier. She's tailed by a dogged but sensitive TV reporter (Tobin Ludwig) seeking interviews with the women.

Layers of story lurking beneath the obvious methodically come to light: Jessica's political activism has had an unwanted effect on Kat's family; Bethany, in a kind of religious fervor, has been seeing ghosts and consorting with the enemy. It all cascades towards a satisfying, thought-provoking finish.

The pleasures of this production are several. The enjoyable performances and David Epstein's moody, appropriately ambient direction solidly support Ms. Miller's skillful storytelling and realistic, witty, and pointed dialog. The set, sound, and lighting create suitably sombre moods, though the vivid personalities of the characters and the sparkling dialogue never let the seriousness of the story sink to the maudlin.

Fault Lines runs through Dec. 19 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Complex (312 West 36 St.). Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101 or online.

Theater Review: Race by David Mamet

Monday, December 14th, 2009

The proximity of the recent Oleanna revival just two blocks away makes David Mamet's new play feel just a smidgen formulaic. In both, an angry young woman betrays her mentor because of a grievance for which he is culpable only in an abstract, class-informed way. The thing is, Mamet is so good at provocative audience-baiting dialogue, and Race's major characters so acutely finessed by his cast (he also directed), that it doesn't much matter that we've pretty much heard this story before.

Susan, a pretty young black law associate, spends a chunk of the first act hovering silently over the action as the two partners at her firm, white Jack and black Hank, discuss whether to take a racially charged case that another law firm has just given up on. Charles Strickland, a well-known, wealthy burgher, stands accused of raping a young black woman. He claims the sex was consensual and eventually convinces Jack and Hank of his innocence, but otherwise he's the client from hell, poetically guilt-wracked over societal and psychological injustices.

 


Richard Thomas is excellent in the role, though I found myself wishing he had a bit more to do. The main action is in the play of ideas, where James Spader's Jack and David Alan Grier's Hank own the show. These two intellectual heavyweights on the cynical circuit thrust and parry using Susan (a slightly wooden Kerry Washington) as their shiny sabre. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the playwright's famous contrariness, it's Jack, the white partner, who eventually displays the soft underbelly, trusting where he shouldn't have.

On the other hand, it's hard to blame Jack for not knowing he's in a David Mamet play. Hank, for his part, is a little more clear-headed; both black characters, in fact, have a more complete sense of the human predilection for playing every card in one's hand, however charged with danger it may be, and however deep-rooted Jack's own lawyerly cynicism seems at first.

It's nice to know we don't live in Mamet's world. Prejudice and even hate may indeed, as the play suggests, remain endemic in our culture, even in each one of us. But these ills do not entirely define us. Showing compassion, whether guardedly like Jack or openly, doesn't always bring punishment on the sympathizer.

The superb Spader's character gets the fullest development (and many of the best lines) but Grier's Hank is a small, hard marvel, thoughtful yet morally weightless.

I wonder what Thomas, who in my experience seems incapable of turning in a poor performance, might have done with the larger role of Jack. But Spader, whose entire career has till now essentially been on the screen, displays such stageworthy solidity that one imagines he could have been treading the boards for the past 20 years instead. Projecting for a live crowd does take away his trademark basso, but there's plenty of depth in the rough grey matter of Mamet's ever-treacherous landscapes to satisfy most eggheads.

Backstage at the Metropolitan Opera

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera, founded in 1883, moved into its snazzy Lincoln Center quarters in 1966. The Met opera facility is one of the largest in the world, seating nearly 4,000.

Designed by architect Wallace Harrison, who was also responsible for Rockefeller Center and the United Nations complex, the Met's Lincoln Center theater is one of New York City's grandest spaces, with 32 Swarovski crystal chandeliers; beautiful wood paneling, all from one titanic rosewood tree; a gold-leaf ceiling; maroon, maroon everywhere; and, for the best acoustics, no right angles anywhere. The proscenium stage measures 54 feet by 54 feet and is fully 110 feet high, allowing for larger sets than nearly anywhere else.

Not only that, multiple sets can be slid onto and off the stage for quick changes between acts and productions, while the huge space belowdecks has room to store five or six other complete productions. (Additional productions are stashed in New Jersey warehouses, ready to be called back into action when the company wishes to restage an old favorite.)

That quick-change ability makes the Met's long and busy season possible. The 2009-2010 campaign features an amazing 28 productions, including eight new ones. Unlike in regular theater, the big opera companies keep successful productions in repertory for years, sometimes decades. This year's La Bohème is the Franco Zeffirelli staging that dates back to 1981, for example. On the other hand, the much-discussed production of Janá?ek's From the House of the Dead is brand new at the Met this year. It's the new productions that make news, naturally. But it's often the old ones that bring the biggest crowds for the longest periods of time.

Like Broadway and museums, opera is recognizing the importance of the blogosphere in promoting culture and the arts. The Met took a group of web writers on a backstage tour last night, giving us a rare chance to see the nuts and bolts of the opera house, including the workshop, where sets are built and repaired. The crispy person and the chefs pictured, who are in the shop for some touch-ups, come from Hansel and Gretel, while parts and relics of productions past are everywhere, such as the Nixon in China portal leg and the unidentified heads, also pictured.

The Met, like other opera companies, knows that it must not only present operas but help create the next generation of opera fans through education and outreach if the art is to survive the 21st century. To this end they are going far beyond merely inviting bloggers backstage and mounting family-friendly productions like Hansel. The Met's HD Live in Schools programs transmits live performances directly to schools all across the country, while its Live in HD simulcasts have been drawing crowds (close to a million people in 2007) to movie theaters, where you can now also see live performances from the Gran Teatre del Liceu from Barcelona and La Scala from Milan.

Theater/Cabaret Review: ‘Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

I don't know about you-all, but I started my holiday season off just right with a trip to Don't Tell Mama for Vickie and Nickie's holiday show.

I hadn't been to the legendary cabaret spot for years and was glad to find the place still going strong. A full house turned up for real-life sisters Lisa and Lori Brigantino, who play Vickie and Nickie, two busy Midwestern moms who take to the stage to delight and entertain with humorous banter (abundant), multi-instrumental musical talents (considerable), and big ol' personalities (wickedly twisted, if all in good family-friendly fun).

Straight from "the prison circuit" and the land of lutefisk – Garrison Keillor fans will know what that is – the pair poke good-natured fun at middle-of-the-road American culture while revving up the crowd with perfectly executed vocal harmonies and musicianship (keyboards, guitar, uke, sax…). In this edition they got the balance between spoof and sincerity just right, heavy on the former, belting out Christmas favorites ranging from straight-up takes on "Feliz Navidad" and "Blue Christmas" to Springsteen and Streisand versions of classic carols, supplemented by a couple of punchy original Vickie and Nickie numbers. Amidst the holiday cheer they also worked in hilariously non-jokey versions of "Under Pressure" and that new camp classic, Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which got the audience shouting along in delight. They've discovered, and nailed, the big secret: playing things more or less straight can get more laughs than a lot of horsing around.

Undercurrents of anger and competitiveness make Vickie and Nickie both campier and realer than they'd otherwise seem, while the Brigantino sisters' high-end musical skills allow them to make the act, with its unflagging energy and common-denominator humor, look easy.

'Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie had two performances last week at Don't Tell Mama. Visit their website for news of upcoming shows, or just hang around the local women's prison till they show up, bewigged and besparkled, spreading good old-fashioned cheer whatever the time of year.

Theater Review: Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Based on the Grimm fairy tale, this colorful kids' show with music is a decent hour-long holiday amusement for the little ones.

It could have been more. Like much children's theater, it suffers from over-sweetification rooted in an assumption that anything potentially disturbing or even strange must be excised, like a suspicious freckle, from entertainment designed for children. In this case, though, the result is not so much simplification as scattering; the production is all over the place.

Some of this is for the good, from a theatrical standpoint. The story has been changed in a number of ways, including the addition of a framing device, and given some modern cultural twists having to do with identity.  There's no slaying of monsters or beasties in this version, which is nice, especially for the holiday season. And a number of new characters provide amusing scenery-chewing opportunities for some good actors.

The most random-seeming addition is the Scarlet Pimpernel, shoehorned in from a completely different story but played with pleasingly foppish vanity by Brian Barnhart. A threatening Ogre turns out to be more Shrek-like than dangerous, a witch proves far less scary than that Wicked One of the West, and another feared monster turns out to be something quite smaller and meeker.

In the Grimm (and grimmer) original, a little tailor kills seven flies with one strike, and as a result comes to fancy himself a great hero. Stitching himself a belt bearing the motto "Seven in One Blow," he goes off to seek his fortune. It's a great kids' story because it's all about imagination. Folks all around, including the royal family and some mean giants, believing the motto refers to seven men, honor and elevate the tailor for his battle prowess, but still betray him at every possible opportunity. Like any good kids' hero, he's both brave and clever, defeating powerful enemies by outwitting them. (He also gets the girl.)

In this play the tailor is, reasonably enough, turned into an actual kid, and rather than killing the baddies, as in a traditional quest saga like the Twelve Labors of Hercules or The Wizard of Oz, this hero wins their respect and turns them into allies. It's a questionable plot change, as a) the real world does contain real baddies, and b) sometimes one does have to live by one's wits. But it's a nice excuse for songs, bright costumes, and amusing mugging.

All in all this is a diverting show for kids up to about eight years old. (The nine-year-old I brought gave it the equivalent of one thumb up.)

Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid runs weekends through Dec. 13 at the Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square, just off Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village, New York City. The Dec. 11 performance is a benefit for St. Jude Children's Hospital.

Theater Review: She Like Girls by Chisa Hutchinson

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

This smartly observed play about inner-city kids focuses on the sexual awakening of one in particular. Unlike some "ghetto kid" dramatizations, it avoids the sin of trying too hard. In language that's spicy and realistic, playwright Chisa Hutchinson crafts believable characters who are vividly realized by an excellent cast of mostly newbies. The one thing Ms. Hutchinson can't seem to do is think of an ending. But until that disconcerting, disappointing five seconds, the neatly plotted She Like Girls is an entertaining and affecting journey through the troubled life and psyche of Kia (Karen Eilbacher).


Karen Eilbacher as "Kia" and Karen Sours as "Marisol" in the Working Man's Clothes production of She Like Girls. Photo credit: Julie Rossman

A sullen, sensitive teen, Kia befriends an ebullient, outgoing cheerleader, Marisol (Karen Sours), who has discovered a lump in her breast. The relationship develops through a series of concise, well-played scenes. With the help of a kindly teacher (Adam Belvo) and no help at all from her macho old friend Andre (Paul Notice II), Kia finds some ground to stand on. Though plagued by nightmares – including one brilliant scene in which Marisol brings her in for a show-and-tell session that turns into a gay-bashing horror show – Kia discovers first ideals (it shouldn't matter what you're called, just who you are) and then the insane cruelty of the real world when Marisol is beaten and and thrown out of her house by her homophobic mother.

Wisely, Ms. Hutchinson keeps things earthy, leaving the poetic language to the poet Adrienne Rich, who is quoted and invoked as a lesbian icon and guiding spirit – and who actually materializes, because why not?

This isn't a "gay play." It's more or less a traditional (and often quite funny) story about growing up, finding first love, and experiencing the pain and despair of young adulthood. That there's no ultimate redemption isn't what's wrong with the ending; redemption is only one possible conclusion for the human condition.  What's wrong is that the play just stops abruptly, with a violent act that feels neither shocking nor truly sad, just baffling, which snaps off the till-now well-crafted story arc.

Ms. Eilbacher and Ms. Sours give fine, heartbreaking performances, backed by a strong supporting cast. Lavita Shaurice is brilliant as Alia, an alienated straight friend with awesome comic timing. Amelia Fowler scores as Kia's sarcastic but generous mother, bathed in her own complexities, and Mr. Notice is sympathetic and solid in the tough role of Andre. With no weak links in the cast, efficient direction by Jared Culverhouse, an effectively garish graffiti-drenched set (by Kelly Syring and a cast of artists), well-chosen music and sound (Ryan Dorin), and a bit of energetic choreography (Sabrina Jacob), there is, as I said, only one thing missing:

She Like Girls plays through Dec. 30 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St., New York. Tickets at Theatermania.

Theater Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM Starring Cate Blanchett, Directed by Liv Ullman

Friday, December 4th, 2009

No one does women like Tennessee Williams. It's widely accepted that some of his flamboyantly faded female characters stand in for the playwright himself; perhaps that has something to do with their vividness. Whatever the case, any of these roles provide a field day for a fearless actress.

Few present-day movie stars show such consistent bravery in their performances and their choice of roles as Cate Blanchett. Unlike some transformational actors, Ms. Blanchett has the option, when in a role in which she doesn't have to do much (such as Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings cycle), of seeming to relax and taking over the screen by simply glowing. But there's little call for mere radiance on the stage; there wasn't in the 2006 Hedda Gabler, another Sydney Theatre Company production starring Ms. Blanchett that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, nor is their any holding back in the company's current production of A Streetcar Named Desire.


Ms. Blanchett's Blanche DuBois is certainly a lovely creature – sparkly-eyed, regally erect, monster-sexy – but thoroughly convincing as the insecure, childish, flirtatious, ungracefully aging southern belle who, having "lost" her family's country estate under mysterious circumstances, comes to live with her pregnant sister Stella (a superb Robin McLeavy) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (a seismic Joel Edgerton) in their humble New Orleans apartment.

Its two rooms separated only by a flimsy curtain, the apartment stands before us in its entirety. Ralph Myers' set, evocatively lit by Nick Schlieper in garish electric yellows and spooky Cajun blues, snugly suggests the Kowalskis' limited working-class horizons. At first startled by the humble surroundings, Blanche adapts handily, if passive-aggressively, and soon takes up with Stanley's friend, the highly moral Mitch (an excellent Tim Richards), who, charmed by Blanche's nighttime glamour, has a rude awakening in store when details of her past emerge.

Streetcar is a somewhat schizophrenic work. The first half plays as an expertly constructed ensemble piece. Unlike most of his zillions of imitators, Williams can do a prodigal-relation-arrives-to-shake-things-up plot without any sense of strain or cliche. His magical ability to fuse consummate craft with utter sincerity reached an apex in a handful of plays, Streetcar being one of them.

But the second half turns into Blanche's show, and while Blanche may be a faded flower, Ms. Blanchett is no shrinking violet, giving us a spectacular, galvanic Blanche. During scene changes, her silhouette can be made out prancing across the stage fully in character. Coming out with the cast for the five curtain calls the audience demanded last night, she looked like a sailing ship that's been dashed against the rocks a few times and is still bobbling upright only through some sort of miracle.

Mr. Edgerton as Stanley, another great Williams role, matches Blanche note for harsh note in their scenes together, trying his damnedest to take her down, using his magnetic masculinity as fervently as she wields her feminine charms. Equally strong is Ms. McLeavy as Stella, embodying sexiness and earth-motherhood in equal measure, holding down the emotional and moral center, often tearful but never weak. Despite no physical resemblance, the two actresses convince as sisters, long-separated but knowing each other all too well.

Is Cate Blanchett's a Blanche for the ages? Hard to say, this soon, but it's powerful and memorable, and this triumphant production is a highlight of the season. From all the way on the other side of the world, the Sydney Theatre Company, run by Ms. Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, bravely brings this most American of plays back to America in its full faded glory. The New Orleans accents may be a touch touch-and-go, with lines occasionally hard to make out and Ms. Blanchett's southern drawl marked by a curious semi-lisp (not that these accents are much easier for American actors to master). But the three-plus hours of this nearly flawless production – helmed in inspired, fluid fashion by Liv Ullman (firmly established in a second career as a director) – dash by, leaving us both shaken and stirred.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through Dec. 20 at BAM.

Tim Burton at the Museum of Modern Art

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Art museum tie-ins to popular culture can come off strained or contrived. But Tim Burton is not Star Wars, he's an individual artist with a unique and fascinating aesthetic whose work happens to also be popular. And the Museum of Modern Art has a long history of presenting cinematic art, from D. W. Griffith to Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen to Pixar.

It's a good combination.

With Tim Burton, the Museum has unearthed an embarrassment of riches, and the curators have taken pains to place Burton's films in the context of his large body of work rather than vice versa. The show works because of Burton's artistic talent and encompassing imagination.

From materials ranging from childhood notebooks (apparently his mother kept everything) and a winning poster design for a sanitation campaign in Burton's home town of Burbank, CA, to props from movies (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Beetlejuice) and new sculptures created for this exhibit, the MoMA curators have assembled a vast, almost overwhelming selection of items. While a few (e.g. cowls from Batman) merely represent a design aesthetic, and others (like drawing exercises) are included only to fill in a gap or demonstrate a point (e.g. that Burton was a trained artist), the majority of the items merit classification as artworks.

These include hundreds of sketches and drawings, a number of accomplished paintings and sculptures, and of course film and video selections.

Through several rooms one can trace Burton's evolution: imaginative kid, fledgling filmmaker, unhappy Disney animator and concept artist, Polaroid snapshot artist, cartoon provocateur, lover of the eccentric and macabre, and of course, ever since PeeWee's Big Adventure (1985), auteur of note. The exhibit itself doesn't provide much context for Burton's artistic vision as a filmmaker, aside from depicting his own development as a visual artist (and sometimes writer). I didn't feel this lack, however, until I'd had a day or so to digest what I'd seen; the sprawling exhibit is a satisfying multi-couse meal for even the casual fan of the films. And, fortunately, Curatorial Assistant Jenny He has also put together a screening series of seminal works that influenced Burton. (There are also showings of all fourteen of Burton's feature films.) MoMA's commitment to film as an art form is clearly as strong as ever, but this exhibit is not just for cinephiles.

Photos: Tim Burton at MoMA; entryway; Blue Girl with Wine;
Untitled (Last of Its Kind); Untitled (Trick or Treat)

The exhibition continues through April 26, 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Untitled (Last of Its Kind); Untitled (Trick or Treat)

The exhibition continues through April 26, 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art.