Friday, January 21, 2011

'Boeing Boeing' takes off

I love farce — in a weird kind of way. For me, it’s like a sustained anxiety attack punctuated by bursts of hyena laughter. I wait for the wrong babe to come out of the wrong door at the wrong time and sorta cover my face with my hands and fold up like a jackknife. Then, when the suspense is relieved, I howl. Perhaps this has something to do with early childhood traumas, I dunno. But I love the emotional roller coaster.

When it’s done right, of course.

The Asolo Rep’s current production of Boeing Boeing does it right. Greg Leaming directs and really gets the rhythms of the comic music down.

The play is from the swinging '60s — a French farce by Marc Camoletti the Brits translated and took to heart and Americans never got into. (A shitty Jerry Lewis movie may have had something to do with it. Not sure what the French thought about that.) Like Austin Powers, it’s been unfrozen and reheated and works just fine today.

The plot: there’s a cad of a Frenchman (Bernard, played by Bryan Torfeh) who’s simultaneously engaged to three stewardesses on different airlines and routes. Thanks to a long-suffering maid (Mercedes Herrero), a book of air flight schedules, a day planner and rotating photographs, Bernard romances them all in sequence in a juggling act of serial polygamy. They’re none the wiser; nothing could possibly go wrong. Yeah, right. The Boeing company invents a faster plane engine and his scheme is shot to hell. This happens when Robert (Jason Bradley) his naïve friend from Aix (don’t axe me how to pronounce it) shows up. Comedy ensues.

Bryan Torfeh is very funny. If a mad scientist mixed the DNA of John Cleese and Nathan Lane, he might be the result. His character starts out cool and smug and ends up a puddle of fear. Robert, his nerdy pal, starts out insecure and ends up confident — another great performance from Bradley. The stewardesses steal the show — all nicely individualized on page and stage, unapologetically, truly, deeply sexy. (Body language is, after all, a weapon. Bernard thinks he’s in charge, but he’s putty in their hands.) Kim Hausler is a hoot as the American stewardess — a Minnesota accent straight out of Prairie Home Companion but hardly a Lutheran attitude. She has a hilarious speech to the effect that American men are babies. Angela Sauer is drop-dead gorgeous as Gabriella, the Italian stewardess in an Op-Art dress (and stockings) you'd best put on sunglasses to look at. Fine comic timing. Kate Hampton plays the German stewardess — who quotes the Nibelungen and cracks the whip of dominance in a Lili Von Shtupp/Marlena Deitrich sense. (I suspect this reflects the deep trauma the French endured in W.W. II) Herrero is excellent as the maid — the eye at the center of the hurricane — the sane person holding all the insanity together and getting sick of it.

As said, I love farce. Perhaps it's the lack of judgment. Farce is ultimately forgiving. People are dirty rotten scoundrels. (Coincidentally, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels stole much of its tone from this play.) Farce laughs, but ultimately doesn’t want to see punishment. It just wants laughs. This production delivers.

Big fun.

Don’t miss the flight.

Boeing Boeing
Through April 23
An Asolo Rep production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Saturday, January 15, 2011

True Grit

Now this is a fun movie. It's the kind of movie that only filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen could do.

Ultimately, this is a movie about virtue. Virtue in the moral sense. Virtue also in the original sense — efficacy, courage, guts, true grit — virtu.

The Brothers Coen have always had a heart for the tough-minded cynicism of film noir — that and screwball comedy, along with their signature weird touches. This comes across as nihilism to some, but that's a misreading. Noir explores the war of good and evil. It's inherently moral, but it concentrates on what happens to folks who listen to the advice of the devil on their shoulder.

The Coens have looked unflinchingly at evil for years. There's not an ounce of sentimentality in them. They've earned the right to do a real Western that's not revisionist in any way. (The flick is a faithful treatment of Charles Portis' original novel that forgets the John Wayne adaptation ever existed.) They've earned the right to explore the hearts of good guys — and one very good girl.

Excellent cinematography and editing. No nervous jump cuts — a sense of pace (and an awareness of physical space) appropriate to the time. Great dialogue — but it's a Coen Brothers movie, what else could it be? Great acting, too.

Hailee Steinfeld hits it out of the park as Mattie Ross — a 14-year-old girl going on 49. She has a high IQ, a rigid moral code (hardass Protestanism), a clear-eyed view of the world, deep insight into human character, knows exactly what she wants, won't stop, won't back down from a fight. (She's the real star of the show.) Matt Damon (unfairly slammed in Team America: World Police) is excellent as a cocky Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef, like a slab of meat) who may be full of himself but isn't entirely full of crap. Jeff Bridges kicks as as Rooster Cogburn — who isn't really the Dude character at all, but a mean sumbitch. Both Rooster and the Ranger have their own code of honor. Tom Chaney, the sidewinder who shot Mattie's father, doesn't. Wickedly played by Josh Brolin.

The plot is as simple as the track of a bullet. Mattie wants to track down her father's killer and see him hanged in Arkansas — or kill him if he objects. A quest for justice, not revenge. She pays badass Rooster Cogburn $50 to track Chaney down, but insists on coming along. LaBoeuf is hunting the same guy. After a long hunt, justice is served. Mattie pays a price — the loss of an arm thanks to a snakebite. Rooster carries her for miles and saves her life. Years later, she honors him with a grave in her family plot.

The film takes the West seriously — the language, the religion, the hard life — it really gave me the feeling I was looking through a window in time. No anachronisms. All the little details seemed right. It ends with a heartfelt rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." That seemed right too.

Friday, January 7, 2011

“La Bête"

As George Carlin once said, every comedian has the same message: “Dig me.” The same applies to every comic playwright. David Hirson, for example. His comedy, “La Bête,” is a long exercise in showing off. Fine with me—if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Hirson’s got it. The whole thing’s done in rhymed couplets — and that’s just for starters.

The Asolo Rep is currently showing off Hirson’s brainy brainchild in a smart production directed by Michael Edwards.

The plot? In a nutshell, it’s a war of wits (or a war of a wit and a half-wit) in 17th-century France. Elomire (Bryan Torfeh), a playwright with standards, goes toe-to-toe with Valere (Danny Scheie), a crowd-pleasing street jester who’s a hack with no standards. For some reason, the Prince can’t get enough of the guy — and wants to shoehorn him into Elomire’s theater troupe. Kinda hard for Elomire to say no — because the Prince is bankrolling the whole operation. And you know, he’s got that whole Prince thing going for him.

We hear about the new jerk before we see him. Elmoire bitches about “the Beast” to his buddy Bejart (Douglas Jones). Bejart agrees that the guy is a jerk — but doesn’t want to piss off the patron. Elomire (an anagram for Moliere) screws his courage up, ready to throw his artistic life away rather than compromise his high standards.

Then the Beast himself bursts on stage—and into a 25-minute machinegun monologue. The theme: “Dig me.” But he ain’t got nothing to dig. He’s full of himself. But he’s an idiot and a bore. Hirson cleverly makes the boredom interesting – and Scheie puts in a killer performance. Act I is some of the best comic theater I’ve ever seen.

In Act II, the Prince (Jud Williford) makes the scene. Like Hamlet before him, Elomire stages a play as a mousetrap for his enemy. The troupe performs one of Valere's beastly plays — which turns out to be a vile exercise in special pleading about the sacrifice of a Christlike suffering artist with an implied insult to the king, the prince and the honor of France. It’s fart-in-your-face low farce with a bullshit high-minded message. The mousetrap backfires. The prince commends Valere’s fearless integrity; the troupe thinks the audience will eat this material up; Elmoire resigns. Another Christlike, suffering artist.

Good stuff. But after the high of the first act, it’s a letdown. To entertain us, Hirson is forced to make his bore interesting. This makes his Moliere stand-in seem preachy and boring. The point is made that good art is good and bad art is bad. Using Elomire as a mouthpiece, Hirson cleverly explains why — but it’s academic, anti-dramatic and anti-comic. The playwright is smart — he plays the games James Joyce once played. But he makes a few mistakes.

The play is an argument — but Hirson undercuts his argument by making his bore the most interesting character in the play. Valere's entertaining; Elmoire isn't. Why shouldn't Elomire collaborate?

The play’s a war of wits – but the enemies never really go to war. Valere and Elomire talk at each other — but never to each other. There’s no sparring, no direct confrontation. That’s what I wanted. Or a surprise. Elomire says, “To hell with it. Give the people what they want” and sells out. He doesn’t. But Elomire doesn’t show us what makes him great either. Elomire never says “Dig me.” He sacrifices himself for art. But one Jesus is enough.

If there’s a beast out there, you need to fight it.

Downer ending aside, the play’s a lot of fun. Great directing by Michael Edwards. Great acting all around – and Scheie puts in a gut-busting, once-in-a-lifetime performance. Dig me?

He’s got a right to say it.

La Bête
Through Feb. 20
An Asolo Rep production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Nitpicky analysis: