I’ve attempted to update multiple times throughout the month of October, but my social schedule and work obligations gave me a wealth of excuses to keep setting it aside. That, and my overwhelming need to only post something when I feel I’ve given my thoughts justice. The perfectionist in me will never die! Mwahahaha!
Trust me, it was never my intention to neglect any of my fellow arts and culture fanatics for too long. This perpetually impoverished cultural sponge has spent the majority of the last 35 days attending book readings, taking dance classes, sitting in on lectures, absorbing genre fiction, enjoying a night at the movies followed by a brilliant Q&A with one of her favorite legendary entertainers, and taking in her first ever Broadway play. I desperately wanted to share the varied details of each of these events, but since today marks my 3-month anniversary in my new position here on the East Coast, “fatigue” was this busy bee’s middle name for much of the early fall.
But have no fear! I shan’t leave you hanging entirely. I offer a quick(ish) overview of the scariest month of the year before we continue our march into chillier, and perhaps, less socially active days. Well, except next week is the NY Documentary Film Festival, where I’m hoping to catch at least Class Divide or The Dying of the Light. Then, there’s another UCB-W show in Chelsea. And if I can find the energy, I might …. OK. Clearly I have a problem. But it’s the same problem I had in Los Angeles years ago. Too many wonderful things to do and not enough money and time to do them. Champagne problems, n’est-ce pas?
So here’s what I’ve been up to since last we shared more than a moment and a quote …
Breaking it down with Give Us The Ballot
It’s no surprise to anyone that NYC is brimming with guest lecturers and book signings to feed its massive bookworm population. And it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that someone who has met authors as varied as Ray Bradbury, Vanessa Garcia, Barbara Ehrenreich and Mick Foley would eagerly make note of every fall and winter NYPL-hosted discussion or lecture with a published author that catches her fancy. My tenacity is what makes me adorable. 😉
Because that’s exactly how I learned about Ari Berman’s lecture for his new book, Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle For Voting Rights in America. Held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem in early October, I made my way uptown to listen to Berman and host, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, discuss the new book and the implications of history repeating itself in yet another time of great race-based strife and sociopolitical distress. Throughout the discussion, Berman shared with us why he felt compelled to write the book, some disturbing revelations about the early days of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and what it was like on that special day in March 2015 when he participated in re-enacting the “Bloody Sunday” march with current President Barack Obama and Congressman John Lewis.
Overall, I thought the lecture and discussion certainly gave us food for thought (I even live-tweeted a few nuggets from the conversation), but I was also disappointed by the small turnout and Muhammad’s overwhelming need to re-direct the conversation to his interpretation of Obama’s belief in American exceptionalism. To be frank, it detracted from the crux of the discussion, but it kept the audience engaged, so perhaps that was the goal. By the end of the 90-minute event, I decided to buy Give Us The Ballot and ask for Berman to sign it. (My original plan was to borrow it from the library because nerd + poverty = library’s best friend.) But the history geek in me will only thank me later, while the culture aficionado happily celebrates the opportunity to support modern historians, community exploration, and the power of the written word.
Treading the boards with Thérèse Raquin
I wanted to write a proper review of the new Broadway adaptation of Thérèse Raquin, but every time I took to my keyboard to reflect on the play, I realized I couldn’t be entirely objective. Why? Well, because my primary motivation for seeing the production was its cast, namely Matt Ryan, who plays the charming, but bastard-ly (yes, you read that right!) character of Laurent. Yes, Keira Knightley is getting the majority of the press and Judith Light is a two-time Tony-award winning powerhouse, but it was the man who I would come to admire for his amazing portrayal of one of the comic book world’s most iconic characters that drew me to that beautiful building on 54th and 8th.
Having said that, I want to make it clear to anyone visiting my blog for the first time, I’m no stranger to the stage. Neither as a spectator nor as a contributor. I fell in love with the theater when I was 11 years old after picking up my first copy of The Merchant of Venice. And I’ve been hopelessly addicted ever since. So needless to say, I was a wee bit put off when Ryan intimated that fans of the “Constantine” series were moving outside their comfort zone when they ventured out to see his work in Thérèse Raquin. Perhaps that’s true for some, yet as the song goes “But Not For Me.”
Although, to be fair, my respect and adoration for Matt Ryan’s talent did mar my ability to objectively review the play as I’ve done in the past. So I apologize in advance if the following is too gushing or flattering. I’ll try to be more unbiased next time.
Thérèse Raquin is a wonderfully tragic piece that manages to be unabashedly entertaining and subconsciously disturbing all at once. Knightley plays a young provincial waif trapped in an uneventful life devoid of passion, adventure, and genuine love — sadly all three things she craves more than anything else. Early in the play, she’s married off to her cousin, Camille, a boorish, infirm man whose annoying behavior grates on her like sandpaper on marble. But without a proper escape route, she resigns to a life of absent-minded routine and timid affection. That is, until she meets her husband’s old friend, Laurent. And the sexual perversion and fiendish shenanigans come home to roost in Studio 54 once more.
Although I admit Ryan was my primary motivation for introducing myself to the Roundabout Theatre’s 50th season, I have no complaints about any of the cast. Poor Gabriel Ebert, who portrays the cuckolded groom to our blushing bride, has the hardest role in the play in my opinion. He — another Tony award-winner, thank you very much! — has to tread a very thin line between being a man who is understandably a disappointing prospect for a love-and-lust-filled marriage and a man who is ultimately sympathetic by Intermission. Not an easy job at all, but Ebert turns down the natural glowing charm I saw him radiate at the stage door, to become exactly what Émile Zola’s text needs to lead Laurent and Thérèse down a path of dark choices and even darker consequences.
The cast comes together beautifully to create this magnificent quartet of archetypes, then later melds effortlessly into a septet with the addition of David Patrick Kelly, Mary Wiseman, and Jeff Still as Superintendent Michaud, his niece Suzanne, and Monsieur Grivet, respectively. You couldn’t ask for a finer ensemble to bring this little known novel adaptation to life.
And lest I forget, Judith Light’s performance is simply the icing on the cake. With the weight of carrying most of the production’s dialogue and exposition in the first quarter of the play, you’re expertly led down a road of false expectations regarding what will become of this very simple family scenario and this very humble, but stern matron. I’m not ashamed to say that my admiration for Light has increased tenfold after seeing her performance in Thérèse Raquin. I don’t need to view her award-winning performances in 2012 and 2013 to believe that she must have earned every accolade and then some.
Thérèse Raquin officially opened on October 29th and will run through January 3rd. I highly recommend any fan of dramatic twists and turns, pitch perfect phrasing, and stomach-reeling tension take in a performance of this rare gem. You’ll find yourself move from laughter to shock to empathy to disgust to uncertainty all in one evening. (Note: I was a part of the preview audience who sat in stunned silence for 3 minutes after the play ended. After enjoying the emotional roller coaster ride, I think we simply weren’t ready for that finale.) No matter how you may react, this is one production not to be missed.
Laughing with a legend and a night of Blazing Saddles
I’m not one to idolize celebrities (or most people, in general), but I respect those who’ve lived a life that can stand as a testament to longevity, authenticity, and creativity. People like Chita Rivera and Ray Bradbury have earned a special place on my wall of reverence, not as heroes, but examples of those who kept to the path that spoke to them, no matter what life threw their way.
And last month, I got to sit in the audience of another such source of inspiration, Mel Brooks. In mid-October, the NJPAC hosted “A Hilarious Live Conversation with Mel Brooks,” where a few thousand strangers like myself gathered together in a magnificent theater/performance hall to watch the 1974 comedy classic Blazing Saddles on a 40-foot screen. Afterwards, we had a chance to ask this entertainment icon questions on his life, his career, and his approach to creating some of the most memorable moments of comedic (and dramatic) cinema in the last 50 years. It was a wonderful — and fun! — experience that I would recommend to anyone who’s a fan of Blazing Saddles or Mr. Brooks, should he come your way for a similar occasion.
I not only became a kid on Christmas morning — along with everyone else in the audience — as the film danced its way through our favorite lines (“Somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes!“), songs (“I’m Tired“), and sight gags (the only film on record to show a horse getting knocked out in one punch by a mountain of a man), I also appreciated the chance to hear stories about Brooks’ attitude toward finding work (and keeping it) in Hollywood. His stories alone are worth the price of admission.
But it was truly a joyous experience to recite dialogue in unison with the rest of the audience and applaud every classic entrance from Cleavon Little to Gene Wilder to Madeline Kahn to Slim Pickens. Brooks shared tales of the making of the film, but also tales about his work on some of his lesser known, but equally brilliant films like The Twelve Chairs with Dom Deluise and The Elephant Man with John Hurt and Anne Bancroft. He kept us in stitches, but also inspired us with details of a beautiful life well lived. The only disappointment during the entire evening was that it ended far too soon.