Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving At The Jade Sphinx

Well, make no mistake about it – 2013 was a difficult year for us here at The Jade Sphinx.  A cluster of calamities sapped our attention, our energy and our peace of mind.  And yet …

Well, if you remember last year’s message, expect the mixture as before.  We here are happy to be alive, delighted in the time spent with those we love, and constantly amazed at the ways in which our lives play out.  I am convinced that those who are negative, or ironic, or simply jaded (a repellant attitude, if ever there was one), are missing a vital fact of life – that while it’s often harrowing, it’s always surprising and definitely worth living.

Though uniquely American, Thanksgiving has always been our holiday least associated with ideology or creed.  It is simply a day set aside to be thankful for the many good things in our lives.  And the celebratory meal represents the bounty that is our lives – the many courses, tastes and phases of a unique and sensual experience.  Though nonreligious, Thanksgiving is sacramental, best shared with people we love.

Thanksgiving has also always been the gateway to the holiday season, and I look forward to this year’s revelries with particular relish.  Christmastime is the best moment to stop and contemplate the quiet miracle of our lives, and that seems more imperative to us this year than ever.  Though we are assaulted daily by cultural and political noise, we continue to find grace notes and things of great beauty that make life meaningful.  I am frankly amazed at some of the magnificent novels I’ve read this year, the pictures that I’ve seen, the music that I’ve heard and the simple human kindnesses I’ve witnessed.  The fine arts provide succor and inspiration, validation and exploration, relief and insight, and the consolations of the arts have been something quite wonderful this year.  But all of this bounty means nothing without human connection.  The arts may enhance and help define these connections, but they can never supplant them.

Happy Thanksgiving – and onward to a warm, rewarding and nurturing holiday season.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder at the Walter Kerr Theatre

Well, here’s the perfect way to ring in the 2013 holidays: with the first feel-good serial killer musical of the season.  If it seems like an unlikely feat, simply trek to the Walter Kerr Theatre for the silly, sublime, delightful and irresistible A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

The show, written by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) is, of course, based on the 1907 novel The Autobiography of a Criminal, by Roy Horniman.  This also served as the source inspiration for the classic Alec Guinness film Kind Hearts and Coronets, and since that is one of my favorite comedies, I approached this show with some trepidation.  Could it be nearly as good as the film version?

Well… it’s better.  And for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that new musical version combines comedy both high and low with snappy period-flavor tunes, a fabulous cast and a sense of sexy irreverence missing from the Guinness film.

Bryce Pinkham stars as Monty Navarro, a handsome and hard up young Victorian gentleman who learns that he is the eighth in line to assume the titles and holdings of the Earl of Highhurst.  He is wonderfully matched by Jefferson Mays, who plays nine characters – eight of whom are murdered by Pinkham in what could only be described as Gilbert & Sullivan Go to Hell.  Freedman and Lutvak provide a showcase for Mays, who portrays a motely array of English (stereo)types, including a gay beekeeper, the expected fox hunter, a buck-toothed prelate, and a do-gooding dowager.  (It is this persona which perhaps best captures the show’s sense of fun.  About to go to darkest Africa to help a struggling tribe, she is sure to pick up the language quickly: Of words they have but six / And five of them are clicks / And all of them are different words for dung.)

Though Mays has the showier part(s), it is Pinkham who carries the show.  Handsome in an impish and insouciant way, he sings beautifully and manages to balance a sense of underhanded menace and boyish charm.  It is a star-making turn.  Fortunately, he is evenly matched by his two love interests, his adulterous lover (Lisa O’Hare) and his fiancée (Lauren Worsham), the sister of one of his murder victims.  The slapstick highlight of the show is when the trio sings I’ve Decided to Marry You, a girl-juggling, door-slamming showstopper that harkens back to Music Hall knockabout comedy.

If the show has a weakness, it is that the tunes are terrific only in context.  Though I enjoyed them immensely, none of them have stayed with me melodically.  There is one high-comic turn between Pinkham and Mays (as the gay beekeeper) with a homo-erotic number called Better With a Man, but other than the fact that it was filled with droll double entendre (it ends as both men hoist a tankard with “bottoms up”), I have no other recollection of it at all.  However, for knockoff Music Hall patter songs, they fit the bill.

Seven of the eight murders take place in the first act, leaving the second act to explore Monty’s love life and eventual downfall.  Like all well-made pieces, characters introduced briefly in Act One return later on with important bits of plot, and even the most off-hand comment or observation provides a payoff.  The show is tight, fiercely funny and precisely played.  Though it is little more than a bauble, I loved it.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is deftly directed by Darko Tresnjak, who has crafted a show alternately arch, brittle, funny and naughty.  Not something easily pulled off.  The set, by Alexander Dodge, is a wonderful embodiment of period theater, and the choreography by Peggy Hickey is smartly staged and flawlessly executed.  (No pun intended.)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is at the Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street, Manhattan, 212-239-6200.  If you want to start your holiday season on an irreverent note, you could not do better.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Egyptomania Hits the Dahesh

Yesterday the Dahesh Museum Gift Shop in Hudson Square played host to a capacity crowd for the debut of Bob Brier’s new book, Egyptomania.  Brier is, of course, the celebrated egyptologist who has written eight books, including The Murder of Tutankhamen, and was host of television’s The Great Egyptians and The Mummy Detective

Though an academic with multiple degrees (including actually getting a medical degree to better understand the underlying cause of death of the mummies he has examined), Brier brings to his field of expertise an infectious sense of fun and a true sense of wonder.  Rarely have I laughed so much at a lecture, nor can I remember having been regaled with stories by an expert who is as much entertainer as academic. 

Brier’s book chronicles our three thousand year obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs, and provides a wonderful juxtaposition between the learned (his chronicle of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, complete with a retinue of savants to provides what might be history’s first ethnographic study) and the commercial, cataloging “mummy” sheet music, Cleopatra cigarettes and mummy movies featuring everyone from Boris Karloff to Peter Cushing.

Brier argues that no ancient civilization compares to Egypt for its romantic hold on our imagination.  He thinks this is a mixture of our fascination with mummies (here – easily recognizable – are human beings who walked the earth thousands of years ago); the art of Egyptian hieroglyphics; and, of course, what he calls “the Indiana Jones effect.”  Egypt has inspired exotic adventure fiction from pens as diverse as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer and H. Rider Haggard – and this touch of exotica continues in the films of Steven Spielberg and Stephen Sommers.

Your correspondent had the pleasure of interviewing Brier at his home in the Bronx, which is crammed with enough Egyptian artifacts to gladden the heart of Indiana Jones.  That interview, along with a more detailed review of his book, will follow in a few weeks.

In other Dahesh news, the country’s premiere museum-without-walls, has taken the remarkable step of purchasing Frederic, Lord Leighton’s imposing Star of Bethlehem, to expand the scope of the current exhibition, Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection, on view until February 16, 2014 at the Museum of Biblical Art.  Curators and directors from each institution immediately agreed to add the painting to the current installation, as this presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Leighton alongside other like-themed treasures.  The exhibition traces the renewed interest in Biblical myths following the expansion of biblical archeology and the advent of photography, which produced travel books with pictures of the Holy Land.

Curator Alia Nour said last night, “We decided to remove two smaller paintings to make room for this very large one and started to work on a new label. We deemed it worthwhile to give visitors access to one of the most powerful biblical works Leighton produced during the 1860s.”

New Yorkers who have not yet seen the show now have added impetus, and those who have already seen it an added reason to see it once again.  The Museum of Biblical Art is at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street, and admission is free.  For more information, call 212.408.1500.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Twelfth Night, With Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry

Well… talk about a reversal!  As ham-fisted, flat-footed and ill-conceived was the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Richard III, its Twelfth Night is nimble, smart, funny and delightful.  It is, happily, simply the finest Shakespearean comedy that I have seen in decades.  Like its sister production performed on the same set, Twelfth Night strives for Elizabethan authenticity, with period instruments, authentic costumes and males playing female parts. 

Where to begin?  The direction by Tim Carroll is loose and light-on-its feet.  His staging of Richard was lumbering, but here the cast virtually dances through the play.  It never loses it sense of comic pacing, the rhythm and tempo underscoring the moments of farce and comedy both high and low.

Mark Rylance as Olivia – suddenly love-struck after mourning the death of her father and brother  – is a marvel.  All of the fusty business of his Richard is gone, and his natural gifts as a comedian shine.  In his skillful playing, he manages to convey both the tragedy of mourning and the giddy realization of both affection and sexual passion.  Olivia always straddles a difficult line: we are sympathetic to her love for Cesario (who is actually a woman, Viola, in disguise) but tickled at her transformation and seductive quest.  Rylance makes Olivia a profoundly moving comic figure.

Equally moving is the magisterial Stephen Fry as Malvolio.  This is Fry’s first Broadway appearance, and it would be difficult to think of a more challenging role for his debut.  Malvolio – a figure of steady courtesy, sobriety and decorum – is duped by the play’s comic figures into playing the lover to Olivia.  He is thrown into a sunless dungeon for this effrontery and Fry wonderfully embodies the straight-arrow, the foolish wooer and the injured party.  Like Olivia, it is an extremely tricky role – Twelfth Night is not Malvolio’s play, but his presence often resounds with the greatest resonance.  Fry carries both Malvolio’s gravitas and folly on his sizable shoulders in a performance that is not to be missed.

Equally excellent is Samuel Barnett as Viola/Cesario.  The heavy pancake makeup he wears in Richard III, strangely, works surprisingly well in a comedic setting.  Twelfth Night capitalizes on his amazing resemblance in makeup to Joseph Timms (as twin-brother Sebastian) to create an astounding end-of-play revelation.  This resemblance was a misstep in Richard III – but here, the payoff is nothing short of magical.

Equally deserving praise is Paul Chahidi as Maria – who is equal measures comic figure and villain.  He skillfully got laughs without ever losing sight of Maria’s inherent venom.  And Angus Wright, so windy and flat as Buckingham Richard III, delivers a deft comic performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek – and his near-duel with Cesairo/Viola is a riotous comic set piece.

Finally, special mention must be made of the beautifully spoken and sung performance of Peter Hamilton Dyer as the fool, Feste.  In a play of fools, it is a typical Shakespearean irony that the sanest, and perhaps sweetest, man wears motley.  His singing of the final song is deeply moving, and a fitting finale to the evening.

And moving is perhaps the note upon which to end.  Twelfth Night has always been, at least to your correspondent, a difficult play.  The overwhelming action of the plot revolves around various practical jokes, many of them committed with malice deep and damaging.  Because of the impersonation of Viola/Cesario and thanks to the japes and wheezes of Maria, Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch, one man is imprisoned to the point of nearly losing his sanity, two men come perilously close to killing each other in a duel, and a lonely woman becomes a figure of fun by falling in love with another woman disguised as a man.  We laugh at all of this, but I found myself saddened, as well.  Olivia’s love for Cesario (at one point, she grabs a halberd in his defense) is no less real for being comic, and Malvolio’s wrongful imprisonment is hard to laugh away. 

Twelfth Night is the last day of the Christmas holidays – and the festive season is never mentioned in the play.  Perhaps Shakespeare selected the title as an indication of the bitter-sweet quality we often feel at the end of our revels.  Or, perhaps he wished to create a light comedy for those who laugh, and a more subtle, darker farce for those who think.  It can be no mistake that the full title is Twelfth Night – Or What You Will.