October 8th, 2007

"The Banquet"

We only got to one film of the Milwaukee International Film Festival this year, but it was a good one, "The Banquet" ("Ye Yan") by director Xiaogang Feng, stars Zhang Ziyi in a fascinating variation on Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (frequently noted as crossed with "Macbeth"--.)

The year is 907 AD, the beginning of a turbulent time in Chinese history, referred to as "The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms." Evidently, this time has given rise to a lot of literature and movies, since "Curse of the Golden Flower," previously reviewed in this journal, is set at the same time, and has many of the same elements.

The movie opens with much the same set up as "Hamlet": the Emperor has been found dead, supposedly stung by a scorpion; his brother (Li, played by You Ge)has assumed the throne while the crown prince (Wu Luan, Daniel Wu) is away studying. What makes a critical difference is that Empress Wan (Ziyi) is not Wu Luan/Hamlet's mother, but in fact had been his intended spouse before being claimed by his father, the now-deceased Emperor. Wan/Gertrude still has feelings for Wu Luan, but agrees to become Li's Empress in part to protect Wu Luan from Li's assassination attempts but also because Li turns out to be a far better lover than her prior husband ever was--. It is this attention to her own interests that causes parallels to be drawn between her character and Lady Macbeth, plus, when she utimately chooses the Kingdom and Wu Luan over Li, it is she, and not Li, who touches off the carnage that climaxes the film. The body count is almost--but critically not quite--the same as Shakespeare, and the film ends with a startling twist that I shall not reveal.

The film is beautifully photographed and mounted, which seems to be the standard for Chinese epics that make it over here. "The Banquet" shows us a more rustic, less regimented, and ultimately less cruel Imperial palace than "Curse of the the Golden Flower," and the toxic family dynamics seem less shocking, perhaps because we are somewhat familiar with the setup.

Very fine acting by Ziyi in the starring role, well supported by Daniel Wu, You Ge, and the rest of the cast. Well worth seeing if nothing else for the interesting variation on the "Hamlet" theme.

A word of warning for those who don't like blood: the first extended sequence deals with Li's assassins, a unit of the Royal Guards, who massacre the members of Wu Luan's theatre school when they do not surrender him. There is LOTS of blood in this scene, artistically sprayed about in the Asian cinema fashion. While there are some bloody moments later in the film, this is by far the most intense scene and things are more decorous after that.

"Cyrano De Bergerac," Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

"Cyrano De Bergerac" is one of our favorite plays, so when we saw that the Milwaukee Rep was doing it this season, we had to go. An addtional incentive was Lee E. Ernst in the title role. We had seen Ernst do the show before, in a very strong production mounted by American Players Theater some years ago, and he was excellent.

We were overall very impressed by this production. The Rep went all out on costumes and used a very clever set which made the opening act at the Hotel de Burgoyne particularly attractive, and worked well for subsequent scenes as well. I was less well pleased with the adaptation. Since Rostand's orginal is in French, there have been a number of translations, some of which preserve the verse form (which I prefer) and some distressingly pedestrian. This translation by Brian Hooker, falls somewhere in between, but is acceptable. "Cyrano" as written is a long play with five acts, so there is a tendency to cut it to make it acceptable to modern audiences. This adaptation did one thing I have seen before, which is to combine the second and third acts into one, which works acceptably, although in this case, Cyrano's poetic introduction of the "Cadets" was cut, which I missed. More surprising was the radical cutting of the fourth act, the seige of Arras, which was pared down to the bare minimum, excluding the sequence in which De Guiche redeems himself by electing to remain on the ramparts with the Gascons. Consequently, he was also cut from the fifth scene, so we do not see that at that time he is a Marshal of France and Roxann considers him a friend.

Ernst delivered a very strong, affecting, and essentially flawless performance as Cyrano. (One thing I would change: I think in the final scene Cyrano should have his sword and not just his cane, but that may have been a directorial decision--). Erin Partin, new to the company, was picture-perfect and wonderful as Roxann (and props to whomever settled on her period-appropriate hair style). Andre Martin was handsome and stalwart, but not too pretty as Christian, and showed real anguish in the seige scene when Roxann reveals that it is his soul (i.e., Cyrano's words) she loves and not his looks alone any longer. They were ably supported by Rep stalwarts Jonathan Gillard Daly as Le Bret, Steven Hauck as De Guiche, and lively and exciting company. Highly reccommended!

"Rehersal for Murder," West Allis Players

"Rehearsal for Murder" opened last weekend, and played to the small but enthusiastic houses we tend to get for straight plays. (Musicals do draw somewhat better--.) West Allis is the local theatre company I've been working with since I came to Milwaukee with a few exceptions, and I'm woking in this show with a director, stage manager and some cast members I've worked with before, so I have a good comfort level here.

"Rehearsal" was adapted for the stage from a made-for-TV movie that won an Edgar award in 1983, and starred Robert Preston and Lynn Redgrave. The plot revolves around the death of an actress ("Monica Wells") who is found dead on the pavement below her apartment balcony, the night after her first Broadway play opened to mixed reviews. The morning after she was to have been married to the playwrite ("Alex Dennison") who cannot accept that she killed herself, and puts himself on the track of her killer. The plot is a very clever one, and I'm surprised I haven't run accross it or a variation before.

The West Allis Players do a very good job of it, if I do say so, and I think veteran member David Jirik as Alex, and Sharon Nieman-Koebert (who is new to West allis but cutting a wide swath through local theatre groups)as Monica are both very good in the starring roles, and are well supported by the cast of likely suspects, among which I number.

And no, I'm not telling "who done it." The play repeats this Friday and Saturday, October 12th and 13th, 7:30PM, West Allis Central High School.