High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, March 04, 2006


As is traditional most Fridays, I moseyed on over to the Chicago Reader's web page to see if there was anything in the way of Music, Theatre, or Fillums that might tempt us to leave our swanky new couch. This week I hit the theatre listings first, and there wasn't anything in particular that tempted. Moving on to music, I shook my fist at the heavens that I'll miss the Dolly/Loretta tribute show next week. I also paused to say, "Chieftans? At Symphony Center? Really?" before moving on.

Samurai Cinema! That's right, ladies and gents, the Music Box Theatre started its week-long Samurai film fest tonight, and we not only took in the first two offerings, we've devised a plan to maximize our Samurai viewing over the next few days.

Tonight our first feature was Kobayahisi's Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu (Samurai Rebellion), which M admits to having enjoyed quite sincerely in the same breath that he admits it was a chyck flick. Set in 1725, made in 1967, this features a just-post-Kurosawa Toshiro Mifune as Isaburo, an aging samurai and nominal head of the family into which he's married. Having come of age in a time when samurai warfare has been replaced by backroom deals among the heads of clans, Isaburo has long been resigned to both his sinecure and his life as a hen-pecked husband.

However, when the local lord attempts to foist an unwanted, unruly concubine on his son, Isaburo is willing to risk position and power to save his son from a loveless marriage. Yogoro, feels the weight of his responsibilities as elder son, however, and agrees to the marriage for the good of the family. Happily for both Yogoro, his bride, and his father, though, the marriage turns out to be a love match. As Yogoro and Ichi fall in love, Isaburo's zest for life is restored.

When the local Lord's heir dies, the son whom Ichi was forced to leave behind becomes the heir. Realizing the ill-treatment of the mother of the heir is likely to come to light, the Lord and his cronies demand Ichi's return to the castle. Under pressure from their immediate family and more distant kinsmen, as well as her own natal family, Ichi stands by her identity as Yogoro's wife (and the mother of their infant daughter). When Yogoro falters and begs her to return as he thinks is his duty as the head of the family, Isaburo urges them both to stand by their love, no matter what.

It's such a complicated and emotional film. Despite having a good chuckle at having unwittingly tricked my spouse into a chyck flick, I stand by its merits as a wonderful love story. But it's no less a father and story with a beautifully developed plot. And just when it seems like it might stop at the same point as a much-better-than-average American film, there's another fulfilling subplot about a political system that pits what may be the last two men with any kind of honor or personal morality against one another.

And if you're a complete emotional stone, it's not as though Kobayashi doesn't bring The Art to the party. I need a lie down if I think too hard about the intracacies of shooting 11 different people kneeling around the perimeter of a 9x9 room with rice-paper walls. And the more public dealings at the border of the house that involve either shooting single takes or raking the rock gardens over and over and over again? It's a pretty movie and a touching movie and really fantastically acted movie.

The next feature was the perfect complement: Kiru (Kill). I'm still in denial that the star of this film was Tatsuya Nakadai, who happens also to have been Mifune's foil in Samurai Rebellion (and Hidetora Ichimonji in Ran, and, well, Kurosawa's post-Mifune Mifune). In Kiru, he's Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, and Tony Curtis (circa Some Like it Hot) all rolled into one.

The Reader's synposis notes that Kiru is the Kihachi Okamoto film that is most influenced by Westerns in general and Sergio Leone in particular. That's obvious in Nakadai's character (whom everyone keeps calling "the vagrant"), in the music, and in the near-Dickensian coincidences on which the rather ridiculous plot hinges.

All the same, Kiru is so much funnier (and so effortlessly so compared with Leone's westerns [though I admit that my view of Leone is colored by having had the first {and, as it turns out second worst} hangover of my life when seeing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for the first time]). But amidst all the slapstick, Kiru is as sophisticated a critique of shogunate-era corruption and the tunnel-vision aspirations of peasants who buy into the schemes of the rich and famous in the hopes of making it themselves.

Tomorrow's offerings are the same as today's, but Sunday and Monday, there's another Kobayashi-Okamoto double bill. Most likely on Monday, we'll be checking out Harakiri and Sword of Doom. On Wednesday, I'm hoping to meet the ball and chain after my classes for Yojimbo, but I won't get to see Hidden Fortress, alas, and on Thursday, we'll both miss Seven Samurai. Tuesday's up in the air. That's Samurai Saga and Three Outlaw Samurai.

More samurai festivals!

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

To Young Bob: Check the Box if You Like/Don't Like Balls

Would you believe this is an opera entry? For 'tis.

We had a special guest villain for Orfeo ed Euridice (which, I find upon delving into the Pompous Essay, should not be confused with Gluck's Orphee et Eurydice or Berlioz presents: Christoph Willibald [no, really, Willibald!] Gluck's Orphee + Eurydice), which meant that I got to sit closer to the front of the balcony and well away from the women immediately behind our usual seats who, I'm told, had some gender-related issues with our countertenor.

Our SGV, whose opera virginity appears to have been somewhat exaggerated, had done some serious prep work for what might or might not have been her first opera. (She doesn't remember what the other one was. We'll call that technical opera virginity and refrain from questioning her under oath.) She not only purchased a recording of the opera, but she was also required (by a family member, not us) to obtain a David Daniels CD.

The fact that she fell on the "Loved it, despite absence of flubber" end of the Countertenor Approval Rating spectrum is likely related to having been prepared to hear him sing. I admit my head exploded a little bit at his first "Euridice!" (and I think it was a special providence that made me leave my opera glasses at home, because it would've been a lotta bit o' head explosion if I could have seen his manliness more clearly). However, he had me by Act II (or, rather, Gluck had me by the end of "Gli sguardi trattiene") Although I accused L of "Not Enough Hooters" prejudice isn his CAR vote, he claims that a mezzo-soprano would not have improved things. He is simply not a fan of the range. The fact that he waxed rhapsodic about the boobies in Otello at our post-opera salon is purely coincidental. If anyone would like to know where C. Willibald Gluck falls on the CAR spectrum, I quote from the Pompous Essay: "Gluck is said to have instructed the celebrated alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni, the first Orfeo, to 'shout [it] as if you had suffered a real loss'."

But I'll come back to vocal performances and operatic identity later. I've just been delving further into the program containing the pompous essay, the synopsis, the singers' blurbs, etc., and color me not at all surprised that the designer of the starkest, most monochromatic set ever is German. That is not a criticism. That is in fact my "Congratulations on your commitment to the bit. Loved it, despite absence of revolve." I do admit that the starkness as the curtain rose had me in the fetal position in the throes of a Parsifal flashback. But unlike Parsifal, this production was 100% animal-pelvis free. And unlike that asstastic Don Giovanni set (no, I have no plans to stop bitching about that), the Brecht-adjacent set works here.

The entire stage appeared to be spread over with sand (which gave me another stage-manager's heart attack until I realized there were no footprints being left, thus intuiting that it was a clever gimmick). From my perspective at the far left of the house, the upstage cyc curved all the way around the wings, giving the whole set a lozenge shape. Light on the cyc (and fire, but I'm getting to that) provided the only color on the set and that only intermittently. This contributed to the convincing sand illusion and made the topography of the set almost impossible to gauge accurately. When the chorus began its slow trudge from upstage right to upstage left, then spiraled back across to downstage left, it was disorienting to realize that they were actually covering about 6 feet of verticality along the way. Similarly, the mound of dirt excavated from Euridice's waiting took some time to visually resolve for me, as did the starkly lit grave itself.

To complement the staging, all of the chorus members were dressed in black, '40s-era clothing. Plain suits with white shirts for the men, knee-length shirtwaist dresses for the women. Orfeo himself was dressed similarly with a bit of dishevellment to distinguish him, and Amor was explicitly dressed to mirror his appearance (thank you again, monsieur program for providing juicy details I might've missed without my opera glasses). Euridice in her shroud was the lone point of pure white. With the costuming, the drab grey light on the cyc, and the mud tones of the floor of the set, the orange of the flame borne by the last of the mourners was an explosion of color, and quite moving at that.

In Act II, the lozengy goodness of the overall shape of the stage (which mimicks the shape of Euridice's grave quite effectively) was further played up by the ring of mourner's flames placed around the furies. The effect was fabulous. Who could blame Orfeo for skittering along the boundary, afraid to approach the supine, white-shrouded figures? I once again must compare the staging to Parsifal and come out pro-O + E: The furies are good and creepy to begin with, and their transformation into scene 2's denizens of Elysium is achieved by them working their way out of their shrouds. After a brief, terrifying, synchronized, STOP! In the Name of Love! beginning, though, the progression out of the cocoon was highly individual. Some were sinuous and languid, some jerky and frantic. For the wrong way to do this, I refer you to the all!supremes!allthetime-synchronized-chitonous-shell-shedding of Parsifal's flower maidens.

Act III is more of the same as Act I setwise, with the exception of the cyc, which is lit with blood orange and blue to evoke the sun struggling to rise. In addition to the color shift, the sources of light multiply throughout the Act so that the entire set is suffused with it by the end. In contrast in Act I, everything seems to come from one light (or a small number of lights) concentrated at down left.

When Orfeo liberates Euridice from her shroud she also wears the generic uniform of the female chorus. Bayrakdarian's hair was left long and loose, with just a bit pinned up over her ears. I'm sure this made the wigmaster cry, because she's not OFFICIALLY a crazy woman, and only crazy women and whores get to wear their hair down in opera.

When Amor appears in Act III, she now appears to mirror Euridice, which I guess just goes to show that these two crazy, short-on-attention-span, frankly-kind-of-annoying lovers are the mirrors of one another's souls. Or something. They are definitely not icebergs, just the tips. And that, children, is the story of the Greek tragedy turned comedy that has had balls on and off for going on two and a half centuries.

And that's probably the biggest gripe I have with this---the story, complete with its 18th-century-fied happy ending---just isn't. There's no there there for even 90 minutes. The music is wonderful. I will probably buy a recording sooner rather than later, but this is one that I think I can be just as happy "in front of my CD" as pal M sayz.

Vocally, I really did grow to enjoy David Daniels, but I agree that a little in the countertenor range goes a long way. He was wonderfully expressive, though, quite convincingly moving through despair and joy as he processes his lover's death, the strange chance he's been given, and the childlike joy in Elysium. Bayrakdarian hits the ground running after lying around for an act and a half. The only thing to regret is that she didn't have much to do. And maybe I regretted that she just has too much native charm to pull off Euridice's neurosis in a completely convincing way. She also never gets her mad propz. The crowd went wild for Daniels (and certainly it's Orfeo's show), but the applause for her always seems more lukewarm than it ought to be. The chorus was magnificent. Nuff said.

In the "if you can't say something nice" school for wayward children, I'll just say I was not an especial fan of Ofelia Sla as Amor. A little too shrill, a little too vibrato dependent, and really just not up to being on the same stage with Daniels and Bayrakdarian. In the words of our SGV: "Yeah, I was always kinda happy when she stopped singing."

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