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Heard that Hoot Owl Singing.

The Roots on New Years’ Eve notwithstanding, I’ve been derelict about posting on live entertainment I’ve seen this year, like Louis CK in Baltimore, The Motherf**ker with the Hat at Studio Theater, The Last Five Years in Shirlington, Dean Fields in Arlington and The Postal Service at Merriweather Post.

All that being said, since there’s an especially clear precedent here — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 — I shouldn’t neglect to mention I caught my tenth Dylan show two weeks ago, as part of the Americana Music Festival (with Ryan Bingham, My Morning Jacket, and Wilco). Here’s the setlist:

Things Have Changed | Love Sick | High Water (For Charley Patton) | Soon After Midnight | Early Roman Kings | Tangled Up In Blue | Duquesne Whistle | She Belongs To Me | Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ | A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall | Blind Willie McTell | Simple Twist Of Fate | Thunder On The Mountain | All Along The Watchtower | Ballad Of A Thin Man

Perhaps it’s because the setlists are fluctuating less this tour, or he’s playing a shorter set, or he’s just inspired by the bands he’s touring with, but this was actually the best I’ve heard Bob sound in awhile. He seemed animated and his voice, while always gravelly these days, sounded more mellifluous than it’s been in many a moon. “Things Have Changed” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” are always favorites, but the highlight for me this time around was finally catching Blind Willie McTell live — You can see it as well above, thanks to Joanna’s Visions.

Also, due to the vagaries of having a job and all that — the festival started at 4:30pm over in Columbia, MD — we missed Ryan Bingham’s set and all but the last song of My Morning Jacket, but here was the evening for the Wilco-inclined (who were also very good):

Ashes of American Flags | Bull Black Nova | Blood of the Lamb | Christ for President | I Am Trying to Break Your Heart | Art of Almost | Jesus, Etc. | Can’t Stand It | Born Alone | Passenger Side | I Got You (At the End of the Century) | Heavy Metal Drummer | I’m the Man Who Loves You | Dawned on Me | A Shot in the Arm | The Lonely 1

Ghosts, Writers.

Much as the lousiness of Alice in Wonderland drove me right into Antoine Fuqua’s Brooklyn’s Finest last month, I quickly tried to wash out the bad taste of Clash of the Titans this past Sunday with a showing of Conor MacPherson’s moody Irish ghost story The Eclipse. And I’ll give it this — It’s a right strange little movie.

I haven’t seen any of McPherson’s previous films, although my sis and I did catch his play The Seafarer on Broadway a few years ago, about an Irishman (David Morse), his blind older brother (Joe Norton), and their friends (Conleth Hill, Sean Mahon) visited by the Devil (Ciaran Hinds) one gloomy Christmas eve in Dublin. This film — broader and better executed than that rather larky evening of theater, although also somewhat aggravatingly open-ended — carries over some of the same cast (Hinds, Norton), as well as the supernatural goings-on in the Old Country.

And like Seafarer (and, from what I’ve heard of McPherson’s other works, like The Weir), it’s a bit of a strange genre mishmash — part horror flick, part adult romance, part relationship thriller. I can’t say the movie successfully coalesces into anything more than the sum of its parts, but it has the benefit of some likable actors — not only Hinds and Norton but also Iben Hjejle of High Fidelity and Aidan Quinn — and it makes for a decently compelling character piece and Gaelic travelogue for a few hours. Its pleasures may be mostly ephemeral, sure, but I’ve sat through worse ghost stories in my day.

As the film begins, the year is 2008, and in the scenic Irish seaport of Cobh, the locals are preparing for their yearly writing festival, where authors come by to hobnob, do readings, and discuss their latest works. Among the volunteers hosting this event is one Michael Farr (Hinds) a recent widower, shop teacher, and father of two who, late one night, seems to encounter a ghostly intruder in his house. The trick is, the person he thinks he saw — his father-in-law Malachy (Norton) — is still among the living, although he’s definitely withering on the vine in a nearby rest home. Can you see the ghost of someone who isn’t even dead yet?

Before Michael can wrap his mind around this quandary, events at the festival start to consume his attention. Namely, the visit by two authors who happen to share a brief, awkward history: The popular but exceedingly abrasive American writer Nicholas Holden (Quinn), and a lovely but distracted writer of ghost stories, Lena Morelle (Hjejle). Despite his continued grieving for his lost wife — or perhaps because of it, given their mutual interest in apparitions — Michael finds himself drawn to Lena, causing much consternation for Holden, who’s nursing the volatile combination of a giant-sized ego, a drinking problem, and a broken heart. But, quite frankly, angry writers are the least of Michael’s worries — Did I mention this widower has a ghost problem? And they are not going gently into the good night.

To its credit, The Eclipse gets a lot of little things right. The burgeoning romance between Lena and Michael seems natural and unaffected. McPherson subtly underlines the themes of ghosts, memory, and loss by emphasizing empty rooms, empty chairs, and the timelessness of life in Cobh. (The staff at the hotel hosting the festival dress in nineteenth century garb, helping to convey the sense that the spirits of centuries past still inhabit these climes.) And Hinds in particular is compelling throughout, even when the story he’s a part of is not altogether believable.

All that being said, The Eclipse has some problems with tone. It’s not just the sudden lurches from haunted house malevolence to 2nd-chance-at-love-type-stuff back over to unabashed Raimi-esque horror that throw everything off, although they don’t really help that much. (They do keep you on your toes, tho’.) The other issue is Nicholas, who’s written far too broadly compared to everyone else on hand. Michael and Lena seems like real, multi-faceted , and plausible adults, while Nicholas — the best efforts of Aidan Quinn notwithstanding — is basically just an one-dimensional ambassador from the planet Douche, and the movie loses a step whenever it tries to get us to take him seriously.

I also have some quibbles with the ending of the movie, in that the initial haunting aspect is sorta just dropped without explanation. (But, then again, how can you explain ghosts anyway? Maybe this was the best way to go about it.) Still, for all its bizarre shifts in tone, The Eclipse at least has the virtue of originality in its quiver. The Sixth Sense meets Terms of Endearment meets Something Wild in coastal Ireland? I can’t say I’ve ever seen that before.

The Playwright and the Muse.

Eartha Kitt, 1927-2008…and Harold Pinter, 1930-2008.

A Man for All Seasons.

“Sir John Gielgud admired Mr. Scofield’s stillness and sense of mystery, describing him as ‘a sphinx with a secret.’ Peter Hall, who directed Mr. Scofield’s acclaimed Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ in London in 1979, said that as a young man Mr. Scofield brought ‘a sulfurous passion, an entirely new note’ to the stage, and that there was always a tremendous tension beneath the surface, ‘like a volcano erupting.‘” Paul Scofield, 1922-2008.

Frodo goes Gollum | O Beware, my Lords, of Jealousy.

Elijah Wood as Iggy Pop? Um, I’m not sure I see it. But, in more intriguing entertainment news, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan MacGregor will team up for Othello on the London stage, as Othello and Iago respectively. That’d be great to see.

Greenberg/Morgan.

“Morgan’s grasp of Nixon’s place in American culture is confirmed near the play’s end, when Reston endorses an opinion that one seldom hears in routine journalistic commentary but that I believe is undoubtedly true: Nixon was never rehabilitated. He never came back. Despite the pomp and fine words at his funeral, his name remained a synonym for presidential corruption and crime, and the ‘-gate’ suffix attached to scandals ever since certified Watergate’s cultural importance” Rutgers professor and author of Nixon’s Shadow David Greenberg reviews Frost/Nixon for Slate.

Pink Robots and Deathly Hallows.


Her name is Yoshimi, she’s got a black belt in karaoke…Two choice links via Webgoddess. I thought for sure this was a Slings and Arrows-type April Fool’s joke at first, but no: The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is coming to Broadway. “There’s the real world and then there’s this fantastical world. This girl, the Yoshimi character, is dying of something. And these two guys are battling to come visit her in the hospital. And as one of the boyfriends envisions trying to save the girl, he enters this other dimension where Yoshimi is this Japanese warrior and the pink robots are an incarnation of her disease. It’s almost like the disease has to win in order for her soul to survive. Or something like that.” And, weirder still, it’s apparently being written by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing and Sports Night.

And, also via Kris, my old site The Leaky Cauldron has posted the cover art for the final Potter installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which you can see at right. Clean, simple, I like it.

Going to the carnival.

So, my sister, her boyfriend, and I went to check out The Times They Are A-Changin’, the new Twyla Tharp-choreographed reimagining of famous Bob Dylan songs, last Thursday (with, as a star-gazing aside, some heavy-hitters in attendance: Annie Leibowitz sat directly in front of me, and Tharp herself sat directly behind. Yes, I’m a celebrity hound.) And the verdict? Well, first let me say, that — some early dabbling in community-theater notwithstanding — I’m really not much of a musical guy. I tend to find the American Idol-ish histrionics of Broadway singing really distracting, and particularly when the song in question is something like “Masters of War.” Nor have I seen Moving Out, Mamma Mia!, Ring of Fire, Almost Heaven or any of the other “Broadway Karaoke” shows that currently seem to be the rage, so I can’t really compare it to any of the others — I was really more interested to see some intriguing interpretations of Dylan than I was to partake in a group sing-a-long (which, thankfully, Times is not.) With all that said, I found Times to be…kinda hit-or-miss. While some of the visions here do their source material justice in memorable fashion, others fall flat or just seem ill-conceived. And, while the circus acrobatics on display are amazingly well-performed and at times mesmerizing, too many numbers slip into the same dark carnival-of-the-absurd pattern. The cast works hard, but surely, when you get down to it, there is more to Dylan’s oeuvre than just aggro carny folk.

To its credit, Times samples songs from across Dylan’s career, from the hoary (“The Times They-Are A Changin’,” “Blowing in the Wind“) to the obscure (“Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” “Please, Mrs. Henry“), through the lean years (“I Believe in You,” “Dignity“) and up to the recent critical revival (“Not Dark Yet,” “Summer Days.”) Set in a traveling circus run by the vicious, heavy-handed Captain Ahrab (Thom Sesma) — a character from one of Dylan’s great American fables,”Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” not included — the play basically centers around a love triangle among Ahrab, his son Coyote (Michael Arden), and the lady Cleo (Lisa Brescia), one of the circus performers. Through their story — and the larger tale of a power struggle over the circus — are refracted these thirty or so Dylan tunes, strung togther in haphazard but decently compelling fashion.

I’d like to say there’s a formula for when a song works and when it doesn’t, but it doesn’t go over like that. One of the two best numbers, “Simple Twist of Fate” (the only cut from Blood on the Tracks here), is played basically straight. Alone in spotlight, Ahrab sings wistfully in the foreground (as seen at left) while the younger couple cavorts behind him, a haunting memory. “He woke up, the room was bare. He didn’t see her anywhere. He told himself he didn’t care, pushed the window open wide. Felt an emptiness inside, to which he just could not relate.” The bleak, melancholic staging matches the song perfectly, and Ahrab/Sesma channels both its poetry and its pain.

But, in the other most successful number, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (a song I can usually take or leave), Tharp & co. have taken a tune that’s ostensibly about a drug deal and just ran with it. Now, it’s a gripping, Bergmanesque dance of death, with one of the sadder clowns (Charlie Neshyba-Hodges) holding center stage as the ensemble circles around him in black, recalling the doomed pilgrims of The Seventh Seal. Obviously, Tharp isn’t the first to read “Tambourine Man” as a disquisition on mortality. (“I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade…into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it.“) Nevertheless, the staging both feels innovative and cuts close to the bone of the song in surprising fashion.

There are other good moments scattered throughout the show, although few that hold their power over the course of an entire track: For example, a contortionist writhes horribly on a hospital bed during the “Dr. Filth” passage of “Desolation Row,” flashlights whirl and twirl (held by people brandishing them vaguely like tusken raiders) during “Knocking on Heaven’s Door“, the cast memorably get their drink on for “Please, Mrs. Henry,” and one clown reenacts Dylan’s “Subterranean” signage during the latter half of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

But, when a song’s off, it’s pretty off. The most obvious offenders are “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Blowing in the Wind,” and arguably “Lay, Lady, Lay,” all of which are performed in a deadly earnest Broadway patter that just stop the show dead. (This is particularly unfortunate in the case of the first one, since that’s how the show begins.) But, there are other problems. The bizarre welcome-to-the-carnival-of-beasties routine works well for “Desolation Row” (since, after all, “The circus is in town“) and maybe even for other rousing numbers such as “Like a Rolling Stone.” But, it’s overdone — in “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Everything is Broken,” “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — to the point that the musical numbers become indistinguishable. (“Masters of War” also falls somewhat into this pattern — I liked it better than most, but was reminded more of ABT’s splendid recent revival of “The Green Table,” which captured the same sentiment better.)

And, sometimes, in my humble opinion, the attempted interpretation falls flat on its face. I thought turning “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan’s gloomy but resigned rumination on death around the corner, into a rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light completely misses the point of the song, which is that he’s given up and given in to the coming darkness. (“I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies. I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes.“)

Most egregious in this regard is what’s been done to “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Perhaps because it remains such a personal song — a song about two people rather than a generation — I’d say it’s aged much better than almost all of the other hugely popular early-Dylan standards (“Blowing in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”) In fact, I might go so far as to say that “Don’t Think Twice” may just be the quintessential Dylan break-up song in a career full of them (although now that I write that…Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks…ok, never mind. That’s too bold a statement.) At any rate, here, all the complexity of competing emotions that drives the track — “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind, you could have done better but I don’t mind, you just kinda wasted my precious time” — is wasted, as it’s become, inexplicably, a number sung by a woman to her overly eager dog. (Although I will concede that the canine in question — I believe it was Jason McDole — was convincingly and creepily Berkeley-like.)

In sum, A Times They Are A-Changin’ is at times engaging, and may be worth catching if you have a hankering for the carnivalesque, if you’re a Dylan completist, or if you have a higher tolerance for showtune renditions than I do. But, as an exploration of Dylanalia, I found the show too narrowly circumscribed within its three-ring circus, and ultimately unsatisfying. (Then again, in the play’s defense, I didn’t think much of Masked and Anonymous either, so perhaps I’m just ornery about such things.)

Washington in Rome.

Why should his name be sounded more than yours? Write them, yours is as fair; Sound them, Yours doth become the tongue as well.” Why? Well, cause he’s a full-fledged movie star, that’s why. Still, despite having a bit of a muttering problem at times, Denzel acquits himself “honorably” as Brutus in Julius Caesar, which I saw last night at the Belasco Theatre. Set in a half-post-apocalyptic, half-Depression-era Rome that evokes anything from Masked & Anonymous to Black Hawk Down, this version of Shakespeare’s classic is innovatively staged and well-worth seeing, but, unfortunately, it also suffers from a stylistic dissonance that hinders the play at its most crucial moments.

The central problem with this production is the clash of acting methods. Many of the actors — and particularly Denzel — underplay their roles to the extreme. In fact, in delivery if not in diction, Denzel’s naturalistic Brutus is only a step or two from most of his other performances, be it Glory, Devil in a Blue Dress, or The Manchurian Candidate. That would be fine, if everyone else was on the same page, and a lot of the other actors are. Jack Willis (at left) deadpans Casca like Cypher from The Matrix, and Patrick Page steals his one major scene (in which he convinces Caesar to report to the Senate on the Ides of March) by portraying Decius Brutus as the worst kind of unctuous DC aide, complete with a leather executive folder in tow and a flatterer’s simper plastered on his face.

Unfortunately, some of the other actors didn’t get the memo. Bill Sadler’s Caesar is prone to acts of grandstanding, but that’s acceptable — he’s Caesar, after all, and bestrides the narrow world like a Colossus. No, the main offender is Colm Feore as Cassius, who plays the lean, hungry Machiavel in full “Master Thespian” mode — at times he’s hammier here than he was in Riddick. I’ll admit, I may be being a bit hard on Feore, as Cassius has always been one of my favorite Shakespearean characters (well, until he gets all weepy and high-maintenance in the second half of the play.) And Feore’s performance might be fine for a different cast of Caesar…but here, he’s just off. If this is Denzel’s Julius Caesar, as everything seems to suggest, Feore’s portrayal of Cassius should have mirrored Denzel’s low-key, understated Brutus. Instead, Feore is overplaying to the hilt, and the contrast is jarring in every scene the two central plotters share.

The Denzel-disconnect causes problems elsewhere, too, notably in the crucial Act III funeral speeches. Eamonn Walker makes a fine Mark Antony throughout, but he just doesn’t have the star wattage or natural charisma of Denzel Washington. As a result, Antony’s manipulative eulogy — the critical hinge moment of the play — seems slightly tepid and uninvolving compared to Brutus’ earlier rousing oratory. It’s possible that I’m just ruined by the James Mason-Marlon Brando version, as there does seem to be some precedent in the play for this take: “I am no orator, as Brutus is…I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech, to stir men’s blood.” Still, I think there’s a dramatic problem if Brutus’ oration is more of a showstopper than Antony’s. If anything, it seems here that their roles should have been reversed.

Still, despite these grievances, Julius Caesar is a satisfying production for the most part, with some particularly nice visual flourishes throughout. The Escape from New York, Berlin-bunker look of the set seems strange at first, but gains potency as the play darkens — in the “Cinna the poet” mob scene, for example. (Speaking of which, between this and Sith, it’s been a bad week for republics.) And I particularly liked the look of the Senate, even if it was somewhat reminiscent of Liev Schrieber’s EXCOMM war room in the Henry V revival two years ago. (With that in mind, the play gets off a great Homeland Security gag, as the various conspirators have to figure out a way around the Senate metal detector.)

The war scenes of the final acts are also surprisingly kinetic, with Roman forces garbed in guerilla green or black weaving through the hollowed-out set and spouting commands in verse. In fact, while I guess this shouldn’t be a shock given the subject matter, this production of Julius Caesar is also quite grisly — they don’t skimp on the blood and gore, and Sadler’s corpse is frozen in a horrifying Ring-like rictus scream during the Antony speech. (Strangely, this produced nary a shudder in the crowd, while the mere sight of Caesar’s bare posterior earlier on sent the audience into a paroxysm of shocked gasps — the MPAA has screwed up this country something fierce.)

So, in sum, Julius Caesar is a worthy production that makes for a good evening out, but it’s got some issues that keep it from being an all-time classic version of the play. The fault, dear readers, is not in its stars, but in its supporting cast, that they are underlings. In the end, a more balanced production, with either more or less star power, would have probably worked out better.

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