February 7th, 2011

Milwaukee Rep: The 39 Steps

If you took Alfred Hitchcock's screen adaptation of John Buchan's spy novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, and put it on stage as done by Monty Python, with a substantial dollop of Mel Brooks, and a dash of The Pink Panther, you might have an idea what the Milwaukee Rep's production of "The 39 Steps" is like.

The play was adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, who has made a career out of condensing huge movies. His other works include "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "Zulu!", "Wagner's Ring Cycle," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told," among others. "The 39 Steps" is written for a cast of four, one playing the protagonist, Richard Hannay, one playing three women's roles, and two utility players who, among them, manage roughly one hundred supporting roles. This kind of production has had a certain vogue in Milwaukee in the last couple of years, beginning with "Around the World in Eighty Days," and continuing with "Scrooge in Rouge," which is bidding fair to become a holiday perennial.

The play follows the general arc of Hitchcock's movie. Richard Hannay (Reese Madigan) plays the man back in England from South Africa, who's bored with his life until he meets the counter-spy Arabella Schmidt, (played by Helen Anker, with accent heavily influenced by Lili von Shtupp from "Blazing Saddles"). Schmidt's death in his apartment puts Hannay on the run. On the way to resolving the problem of the plot, he encounters police, train conductors, newsboys, spies, innkeepers, farmers, and politicians, all of them played by Gerald Nugent and John Pribyl with considerable flair.

Besides being a lot of fun to watch, the play is a real marathon for the actors, with Madigan as Hannay being on stage almost all the time, and Nugent and Pribyl not only making seemingly continuous costume changes but also shifting most of the scenery and props, often to good comic effect as with the business with the lamppost in the first act. The show is also a tour de force for the stage direction, tech direction, lighting and sound, creating effects such as the classic suspense movie bit of the chase along the top of a moving train. These and others are both clever and unabashedly low-tech,which adds to the charm. Admittedly, a lot of them are visual gags as well, such as assembling an automobile out of four chairs and a lectern, much as children playing "car" would do, but it's fun enough to not bog down the action. Another amusement for the audience is catching the Hitchcock references--we caught allusions to "Rear Window," "North by Northwest," "The Birds," and "Psycho," plus the obligatory Hitchcock cameo. There may have been a "Vertigo" reference as well, but I don't know that movie well enough to be sure.

Very nice work by Madigan as Hannay, Helen Anker as Schmidt; a Scottish farm wife; and the upper-class girl who ends up helping him solve the mystery.  Neugent and Pribyl managed a fair array of British and Scots accents and voices in their many roles, notably Neugent as the notorious Professor, and Pribyl as "Mr. Memory."

Great fun, not to be taken seriously. Come for the sheer audacity of it.
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The King's Speech

On Saturday the 5th, we went to see "The King's Speech," and found it to be as good as the Oscar buzz made out.

The film really belongs to Colin Firth, as Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, who becomes George VI, King of England, Scotland, Ireland, Emperor of India, and titular head of the British Commonwealth, after the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII. The sheer amount of discipline required for Firth to present a painful stammer, meanwhile pitching his voice slightly up to mimic the King's, and to add a barely noticable "wubble-yu" pronunciation, must have been truly heroic. Firth's character, somewhat subdued by his frequent public embarassment and shyness, would almost be overshadowed by Geoffrey Rush's expressive and warm character as speech therapist Lionel Logue, were it not for the prince's occasional outbursts of rage and frustration.

The film is a wonderfully intimate portrait of what may be the world's most famous and influential dysfunctional family. The causes underlying "Bertie's" stammer are teased out, one by one: fear of his father, King George V (Micheal Gambon), the family tyrant, who was quoted as having said "I was afraid of my father, and by god my sons will be afraid of me," and who can't understand that shouting "Relax!" at a nervous man doesn't help; abuse by his childhood nurse; and merciless teasing by his elder brother (Guy Pearce), who is shown up as an egotistical spoiled brat. It must be noted that the dysfunction is widespread. When David/Edward breaks down weeping (mostly for himself) at the death of his father, and throws himself on his mother's breast, Queen Mary (Claire Bloom) can't bring herself to hug him, but just stands in shock as though she'd been grabbed by a stranger. For them all, the constitutional crisis is first and foremost a family and personal crisis, and the film brings that out with great clarity. Nor does the film spare the future king's dignity. The amusing "training montage" shows him rolling around on the floor under Logue's tutelage, and demonstrating that he can curse with great fluency.

Rush's Logue is a fascinating character as well. A frustrated Shakeperean actor, he found a calling in rehabilitating soldiers shattered in the First World War, and essentially invented his own thereaputic processes.

Firth is well supported by Helena Bonham-Carter as the prince's wife (as was "Bertie" by Elizabeth in real life--). Bonham-Carter plays the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon with grace, determination, and the historically appropriate amount of contempt for Mrs. Simpson (Eve Best), although Georgie felt she could have shown a bit more inner steel. The cast of course includes many other real-life historical characters, including Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. All were excellent.

I've always had a certain distant fondness for George V, based on his conduct in World War II, by staying in London despite bombing; sharing rationing; and forestalling his agressive Prime Minister, Churchill, from riding along with the first wave of the Normandy Invasion by saying that, if it were the Prime Minister's duty to oversee the invasion, then it was his duty, as King, to personally lead his troops into battle. That aside, the King worked closely with Churchill during the war, and did all he could to maintain the morale of  his troops and people. There was also the story that, while the king and family were relaxing in the gardens at Buckingham Palace one day, they heard an unexpected tour group approaching. Rather than expose the tourists to the embarassment of having surprised the King in his shirtsleeves, the King lead his family, including the Queen, and then Princess Elizabeth, in hiding behind a hedge and sneaking away. Thus, I was both interested and pleased to learn a bit more about this interesting and complex man.

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Fie on Reagan!

I'm frankly disgusted by the current canonization of Ronald Reagan, a President whose regime, in my considered belief, did enormous harm to the country that we are still suffering from today.

Remember "Reaganomics" and the "trickle-down theory"? These included the ideas that reducing government regulation would stimulate business, and that reducing taxes for the wealthier would result in general economic improvement for all.

Reagan's policies were accompanied by economic growth, but also by huge growth in the federal deficit. The fetish for deregulation gave us the savings and loan crisis in the 1980's, the Enron debacle in the 1990's, the financial crash of the 2000's we are still digging out of, and made it easier for market parasites like Micheal Milliken and outright criminals like Bernie Madoff to prosper. In each case, the greedy and vicious were enriched and empowered, and the poor and honest impoverished and disenfranchised.

As for trickle-down, the decades since Reagan have seen the poor get poorer, the working classes' wages remain essentially stagnant, and a concentration of wealth in the hands of the  richest few that is beyond the most avaricious dreams of any 19th century "robber baron." 

Nevertheless, these principles remain holy writ to Republicans and other conservatives despite their literal as well as moral and intellectual bankruptcy. They incessantly call for MORE tax cuts and MORE deregulation as those these things would be a panacea for national ills, instead of the bane they have been. I'm honestly unable to make up my mind as to how much of this is due to stupidity, and how much to pure corruption.

I expect nothing more from these people that they should seek to celebrate the man they have made a patron saint on the centenary of his birth; but seeing other people who should know better praise him makes me nauseous.

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