November 16th, 2013

American Players Theater, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”

On Saturday, November 9th, we drove over to Spring Green to see APT’s production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” adapted for the stage by award-winner Christopher Hampton from the scandalous 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The novel was outrageous in its time, not only for its sexual content, but for its savage indictment of the lifestyles of France’s idle rich. Some critics credited it for adding fuel to the gathering fires that would break out into revolution.

We are both fans of the film, “Dangerous Liaisons,” adapted from Hampton’s play, and wanted to see what APT would do with it. (Georgie has plowed through the translation of the dense novel. I have not.) We were not disappointed.

The characterizations rendered by Tracy Michelle Arnold, as the Marquis de Merteuil, and James DeVita, as the Vicomte de Valmont, are quite different than the film characters as portrayed by Glenn Close and John Malkovich, but no less compelling. As the Marquise, Arnold makes good use of her expressive face, silently commenting on the action and letting us know that she is not only in on the jokes, but (she thinks) is in full command of the situation. DeVita’s Valmont is warmer and more naturally charming, but also more vulnerable. The combination is emotionally searing when they strike sparks from one another.

They are well supported by Melisa Pereya as Cécile Volange, the innocent Mertuil sics Valmont onto, and Luara Rook as Madame de Tourvel, the object of Valmont’s obscure desire. It is a measure of the depravity of high society at the time of the play that, when describing his plans toward her, the acts of an utter cad, Valmont says of seducing a woman “famous for her strict morals, religious fervor and the happiness of her marriage”—“What could be more prestigious?”

Sarah Day, who would have made a formidable Marquise when younger, plays Valmont’s loving but clear-eyed aunt with feeling that makes her well-meant but pessimistic advice to de Tourvel all the more bitter; “Do you still think men love the way we do? No... men enjoy the happiness they feel. We can only enjoy the happiness we give. They are not capable of devoting themselves exclusively to one person. So to hope to be made happy by love is a certain cause of grief.”

The play was beautifully but simply set, with a glistening marble-patterned floor that threw back the colors of the lights, a few pieces of period furniture, rearranged for different scenes, and handsome costumes by Rachel Anne Healy. Mertuil and Valmont are clothe in shades of gray, hers an ominous steely shade, his lighter. The Marquise’s bodice has a textured pattern that suggests an armor breastplate. Cécile wears a light petal pink, and Madame de Tourvel, although she is a married woman, is in virginal white.

The play’s ending is rather different than that of the film, but equally powerful in different ways. We were extremely glad to have seen this outstanding production, and would recommend it highly. The play continues through November 24th at APT’s Touchstone Theatre (the indoor facility—very nice and intimate--), with tickets available for upcoming shows.

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Florentine Opera, “La Traviata”

On Sunday, November 10th, we went to the Marcus Center for the Florentine Opera’s production of Giuseppi Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

We were very pleased by this production, which was solidly in the classic mold. The party scenes, Act One, and Act Two Scene Two, were attractively set and beautifully costumed. Act Two Scene One and Act Three were more minimalist, but this did not detract from the relative emotional intimacy of those scenes.

As the first act began, I was reminded how wonderfully tuneful this opera is, with the first act being particularly dense with beautiful music: the opening chorus, Alfredo’s drinking song, Libiamo ne' lieti calici, the love duet, Un dì, felice, eterea, and Violetta’s rebuttal, Sempre libera – "Always free".

We had very strong singing in all the principal roles, notably Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta, Rolando Sanz as Alfredo Germont, and Mark Walters as Georgio Germont, Alfredo’s father.

Caballero as the doomed Violetta sang wonderfully, but also acted well and with courage. In the third act, with her hair apparently sweat-bedraggled by fever, she looked and acted as ill as any Violetta I have ever seen. It’s hard to like Alfredo—the character is a self-absorbed fathead—but Sanz comes as close as anyone I recall. The typical curse of any “Traviata” production is to have an Alfredo who is weedy and whiny. Sanz, stocky, vigorous, and bearded, stands apart from the pack, projecting enough personality that it’s possible to accept Violetta falling in love with him.

Mark Walters was solidly good as the old Germont, although not the most impressive I have seen. However, his stage acting was excellent. The new set of supertitles for this production, in the libretto, make it clear that Georgio knows exactly the kind of sacrifice he is asking from Violetta—an ultimate lonely death—and Walters’ voice and action underscore his uncompromising requirement.

The supporting cast, chorus, and dancers all performed flawlessly. The orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Joseph Mechavich, got a bit loud in the first act, but soon settled down and gave an otherwise excellent reading of Verdi’s score.

All up, a very satisfying, beautiful, and enjoyable afternoon at the opera.

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“Ender’s Game”

On Monday evening, November 11th, we went to see “Ender’s Game,” the movie adaptation of the 1985 novel by Orson Scott Card. In my opinion, this was an excellent movie, some of the best science-fiction in cinema in years, and an excellent adaptation of the novel.

Asa Butterfield, as Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, puts in an Oscar-worthy performance as the driven protagonist, who’s known since birth that he was only brought into this world in order to fight the alien enemy. From the focus of a budding exceptional genius, he periodically crashes into the emotional fragility and dependence typical of any adolescent boy.

His focus is polished by the abrasive and haggard-looking Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), the training officer, whose utterly single-minded goal is to craft the best possible weapon to use against the alien enemy, with no mind to the cost in lives, minds, or souls.

Ben Kingsley, as Mazer Rackham, the man who became the great hero of the last war as much through luck as skill, and who tries to be the inscrutable master teacher, but does not entirely succeed at it.

The movie is set fifty years after the initial and devastating invasion of Earth by the Formics, insectoid aliens. After Rackham’s victory, they were driven off, and the forces of a united Earth have followed them into space, harrying them back to their homeworld. However, the mysterious aliens remain a formidable foe, and the Battle School training program, to which Ender aspires, exists to find the brightest and most flexible tactical minds among Earth’s youth, and prepare them to fight the next battles.

Contemporary CGI and other techniques combine to make the zero-G training room sequences—critical to the novel, a bit less so to the movie—believable and understandable. This is definitely one area where a three-dimensional visualization is an improvement over text alone. New imaginings of computer interfacings make the scenes of combat in space dynamic and dramatic, as well.

I found the emotional climax of the film for Ender to be satisfactory, for Graff, less so, although I believe that’s true of the novel also. I tend to have more sympathy for Graff, who’s lived with the war and fought a faceless and unhuman foe all his life, and who would understandably do anything to end it and make Earth safe.

As I said, fine, fine acting by Butterfield and by a talented and diverse cast of young people, plus the veterans. Good script adaptation, believable tech and effects and a generally good-looking film combine to make a very satisfying science fiction picture show.

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