December 25th, 2012

Milwaukee Rep: Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility

Saturday night, December 15th, we went to the Powerhouse Theatre to see the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility adapted for the stage by Mark Healy. This is somewhat of a follow-on to the Rep’s very successful production of Pride and Prejudice (which was also reviewed in this journal) and share’s many of that production’s good points.

Among those good points is the preservation of Austen’s words. Like the prior play, a lot of the dialog is taken verbatim from the novel, which does much to preserve the Regency feel and tempo. The British Regency was a very different time, with a very different aesthetic and manner than the Victorian Era. Many authors incorrectly conflate the two. (Compare, for example, the speech and manners of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, with those of Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey. Hornblower is very much a Victorian, although he lives in the same Georgian period as Aubrey.) My previous exposure to the text was limited to Ang Lee’s film version, which, while excellent in its way, is still very abridged.

Kate Hurster was very good as Elinor Dashwood, the sensible one of the Dashwood daughters. We see and feel her hurts very keenly as she continually strives to do the right and decent things as she is betrayed and disappointed by those around her. The performance by Victoria Mack, as the sentimental daughter, Marianne, was not as successful at making us feel for her. She does appear a flibbertigibbet, which undercuts the aesthetic of Austen’s time, when honest sentiment was valued commodity. That it is not in these cynical times is admittedly an obstacle in presenting the character of Marianne to the modern audience.

Hurster, Mack, and Ben Jacoby as the faithless Willoughby, are the only players who get to concentrate on a single role. All the others are double- if not triple-cast. This isn’t always a good thing, although all the actors gave their best in every role. (One has to wonder what part of this decision had to do with artistic ideas, and how much with the fact that the Rep is simultaneously running its annual production of A Christmas Carol which needs a large cast.) In my opinion, veteran actress Laura Gordon is good enough to pull of the roles of Mrs. Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings as quite distinct characters. Jonathan Gillard Daly had three short roles in addition to that of Sir John Middleton, with minimal overlap, and had no trouble. Meaghan Sullivan was not as effective in the roles of Fanny Dashwood, Lady Middleton, and Lucy, due to her very distinctive features which were hard to disguise. Nick Gabriel didn’t even have the advantage of large hats or wigs to change his looks, so having him play both upright Edward Ferrars and his foppish brother Robert gave a distinct Jekyll-Hyde feeling to the proceedings.
Other than that, all of the actors did fine jobs with the roles they were given (Sullivan notably reptilian as the grasping Fanny Dashwood--), and put across Austen’s dialog with clarity and feeling.

The Rep provided a very pretty and clever set which portrayed but indoors and outdoors at numerous locations with minimal (and sometimes almost unnoticed) changes. One bit of stagecraft that was so striking as to be somewhat distracting was the rain effect. There are two rainstorms critical to the plot, and the Rep created rain on stage using real water! I think that my experience of the theatre made me more aware of how difficult and dangerous this effect was, and the average theatregoer might have just enjoyed the effect.

The costumes and hairstylings were subdued, but not inappropriate, and worked very well, adding to a very enjoyable evening at the theatre.

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Off the Wall Theatre, "GiGi"

On Friday night, December 21st, we went to see Off The Wall Theatre's production of "GiGi," the musical by Lerner and Loewe. This version added some dialog from the stage play, based on the story by Colette.

Set in approximately 1901, the plot revolves around two families. The first is that of Gaston Lachaille (Jeremy C. Welter), a wealthy, world-weary (and world-famous) playboy, and his uncle Honoré (Karl Miller), who is getting on in life but still enjoying the role of a boulevardier, and is alarmed by his nephew's jaded state. The second is that of GiGi (Liz Mistele), a girl just becoming a woman; her sadder but wiser grandmother, Mamita/Inez (Marilyn White), and "Aunt Alicia", Mamita's sister. GiGi's mother, a feckless character who does bit roles at the Opera Comique, is referred to but never seen. GiGi comes from a long line of "women who do not marry" (translation: courtesans), as exemplified by Aunt Alicia, whose career as a "grande horizontal" has garnered her a string of royal conquests and a box of really fine jewelry. Neither Mamita nor GiGi's mother have done as well, and Mamita hopes to spare GiGi the same sorts of disappointments. As we learn, Mamita's disappointments include a long-ago affair with Honoré, which floundered on his inability to commit.

Gaston is a family friend and welcome at Mamita's flat, where he is used to accepting GiGi as a child, being cheated at cards by her, and regaling her with sanitized versions of his amorous (mis)adventures, unaware that GiGi is an avid reader of the yellow press and fully advised on all his scandals. Gaston's boredom comes to a crisis when he ditches his current mistress Liane (Alicia Rice) and then has to pretend that he doesn't care when she "attempts suicide" over the breakup. It's explicitly explained that this is mere drama on her part, and not serious, but it's one of the more problematic points of the script when Honoré gloats over Gaston's "first suicide," implying it's one in a series of manly rites of passage.

Gaston takes a break from his tedious round of parties to go to the seashore, and decides to treat GiGi (who's never seen the sea) and Mamita to a weekend as his guests. It's there that he realizes how free and natural he feels with GiGi, and that he's actually having fun for the first time in years. Mamita realizes that Gaston may be falling for GiGi romantically, and is troubled by the realization.

As the second act starts, Gaston has returned from a trip, and discovers that GiGi has become a young woman: she has traded in her bloomer-style sailor suit for women's skirts, put her hair up, and touched her lips with just a hint of lipstick. Gaston is shocked and upset by the change and barges out. When he returns to apologize, there is further trouble: Mamita will not let Gaston take GiGi to tea, since being seen with him alone would compromise her reputation. Gaston is outraged by the implications of this assertion, and has a lengthy rant about the injustice of it all ("GiGi")until he realizes that he DOES have romantic feelings for GiGi.

So, he decides to do the right thing, which, in his family and hers, involves sending lawyers to negotiate a contract providing for GiGi's housing and support as his mistress. Aunt Alicia drives a hard bargain on her behalf, and everyone is confounded when GiGi refuses, citing, among other things, the pitless glare of the press on everything Gaston does. After considerable angst, GiGi decides that she would rather "be miserable with (him) than without", and accepts Gaston's offer. However, the first time Gaston takes GiGi to Maxim's and see how she is viewed by the other demi-monde, he can't go through with it either.

"GiGi" is a very entertaining show, full of beautiful and clever music. "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," and "I Remember It Well," are familiar show tunes. Nevertheless, it has an edge. Partly that lies in exposing the rampant sexism of the times--see, "first suicide", above, and the lengths women needed to go to, to gain power and economic freedom. When Aunt Alicia is haggling over GiGi's price, they aren't EXACTLY selling GiGi into prostitution, since everything is to go to her on her own behalf, but that's still what it feels like.

The other question is, how old is GiGi, really? An excellent question, given the possibly pedophilic implications of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," as sung by the grandfatherly Honoré, and when Gaston admits that he himself is old enough to be GiGi's father. Part of what troubled me may have been accidental. Off The Wall has a rather rag-tag costume budget, and the "sailor suit" given Liz Mistele to wear in the first act seems better suited to a ten- or twelve-year old than a sixteen-year old. (Mistele's youthful looks and mannerisms keep her supposed age ambiguous). Pictures, such as the one on the program cover ( or the cover of Colette's novel ( distinctly show a young woman.

That said, it was a fine show, with excellent acting and competent singing by the principals, who carry all the weight of the many songs. The small space doesn't lend itself to big dance numbers, but there was some really clever choreography and business, especially in the "She is Not Thinking of Me," number, where Liane is essentially flirting with everyone but Gaston at Maxim's, while dancing with Gaston.

The small set was divide up into a number of spaces, which, with hurried redressing, adequately represented Mamita's flat, the streets of Paris, Maxim's, or the beach at Normandy.

This was a fun show, very interesting and engaging, and unexpectedly complex.

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Milwaukee Public Museum: "Real Pirates"

On Saturday the 22nd, we went to the Milwaukee Public Museum to take in their current traveling exhibit, "Real Pirates". The exhibition, assembled by the National Geographic Society, centers on the brief but busy career of the pirate ship "Whydah," which ran aground, capsized, and sank in a storm off Cape Cod on April 26, 1717.

The exhibition imbeds the story of the Whydah in a history of piracy in general, in the Atlantic and Caribbean in particular, and in the history of the latter days of the Slave Trade.

The Slave Trade is significant, since the Whydah, commissioned in 1715, was purpose-built by a consortium of London merchants, as a slaver. She made one voyage from Africa to Cuba with a cargo of slaves, in early 1716. After selling that cargo at Cuba, the Whydah and her new cargo of precious metals, sugar, indigo, spices, rum, and "medicinal ingredients" was pursued and overtaken by pirate Sam Bellamy and his ships, the galley "Sultana" and sloop "Marianne". After a three-day chase and desultory exchange of gunfire, the Whydah surrendered, and was taken as a pirate vessel by Bellamy. (Slavers, which tended to be heavily armed, and whose "cargo space" could readily be converted into accommodation for large pirate crews, were prized as pirate ships.)

"Black Sam" Bellamy was an Englishman who had emigrated to the Cape Cod area, and who had "gone on the account" (i.e. become a pirate), according to legend, because he lacked money to be able to marry. In a bit more than a year, he went from being an apprentice pirate to commanding a small fleet, and capturing fifty prizes, which made him relatively, one of the most successful pirates ever. Unfortunately, he couldn't beat the North Atlantic in its rage, and he, 143 of his 145 crew, and all of his treasure went down with the Whydah.

In 1982, a diving crew led and funded by underwater explorer Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of the Whydah, one of the few authenticated pirate ships ever found. Since then, over 200,000 items have been recovered from the wreck site, including the ship's bell, many of her cannon, and chests full of silver and gold pieces.

The exhibit includes a representative sample of the artifacts from the Whydah, a partial reconstruction of the ship, the aforementioned historical material, and a section on the discovery of the wreckage and retrieval of the booty. The exhibit is enlivened by pirate-costumed docents who interact with the visitors in a variety of accents befitting the cosmopolitan makeup of pirate crews.

We found the exhibit very interesting, and fascinating to be able to see closely the remnants of this turbulent time. The exhibition continues at the Milwaukee Public Museum through May 27th, 2013.

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Rise of the Guardians

On Christmas Day, we went out to see the latest animated feature from Dreamworks, "Rise of the Guardians." I hadn't been interested in this based on the previews, mistaking it for another "saving Christmas" epic (yawn). However, the movie got a very strong recommendation from our friend Bob Seidl, and we are glad we took his advice to see it.

While the "squabbling good guys come together to beat the bad guy" plot isn't wonderfully original, it is wrapped in a design that is often utterly marvelous and witty. Santa Claus has a Russian accent, large "Naughty" and "Nice" tattoos on his burly forearms, and swings a pair of cutlasses like a Baltic Sea pirate. He has a fantastic headquarters/factory/world watch in ice mountains at the North Pole, where the toys are actually made by Yeti, and elves are a somewhat fondly tolerated form of vermin. His sleigh, with its boatlike body and folding wings smacks of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. The Tooth Fairy resembles a humanoid hummingbird, and her palace is likewise a marvel of design. The Easter Bunny is a big, tough, rabbit with an Australian (!) accent, and boomerangs to match. His domain, although more pastoral, is also wondrous and witty. (I was bemused by the animated giant stone egg heads, until Georgie noted that of course they were Easter (Island) heads--.) There's lots more, and we will be seeing it again to catch what we undoubtedly missed.

There is a good plot in the origin of "Jack Frost" (voice by Chris Pine) who, given his magical existence by the mystical and mysterious Man in the Moon, does not know where he comes from nor what his purpose is. He has lead a frustrated and aimless existence, unable to directly interact with human beings and getting along with the other entities with difficulty, if at all. (The Bunny doesn't appreciate snow on Easter and holds a grudge.) Things change when he is called upon to aid the Guardians (Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Sandman)against a resurgent Boogyman (Jude Law), who wants to replace children's belief in the wondrous with only belief in the fearsome.

The movie sets the current standard for computer-aided animation with very smooth and beautiful action, stylish character design, and the aforementioned gorgeous settings and backgrounds. The cast of voice actors is star-studded, and gives the quality of performances you would expect from Alec Baldwin as "North/Santa," and Hugh Jackman as "The Bunny." I wasn't familiar with Isla Fisher, the voice of "Tooth," but she has a lengthy resume and stands up to the boys perfectly well. The soundtrack is witty as well, crediting both Turlough O'Carolan and Dimitri Shostakovich, and borrowing from many others.

In sum, a very good story, and some of the most gorgeous and art I've seen on screen in a long time. Highly recommended.

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