‘Winter’s Tale’ — Shakespeare’s Problem Play Nearly Solved by Loving Hands


Hannah Yelland as Hermione, Mark Harelik as Leontes, Sean Arbuckle as Polixenes in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

It’s a tragedy, and a comedy. It’s magical, like Midsummer Night’s Dream; pastoral, with hints of As You Like It; everything, save the death of a stray son, works out in the end. The first half risks sending you screaming into the night; the second half is so slight in places it might  blow away. And the denouement — well that’s from another planet altogether. Somehow, a dead wife — sculpted in stone and then brought to life — brings smiles and sighs, not hoots, at least in the stunning production currently on view at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Have you ever seen A Winter’s Tale? Forgive the plot summary but see if you can follow this hot mess. It’s the story of Leontes, insanely jealous King of Sicily, who sacrifices his family when he suspects, for no apparent reason, that his wife Hermione (the luminous Hannah Yelland) is bedding his boyhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia.

This isn’t the kind of jealousy nurtured by an evil courtier, as in Othello, but rather, it emerges toxic and full blown. It so dominates the first half of the play that it’s hard to stay seated and watch the cancerous emotions consume the king.

Mark Harelik, with a hooked nose that leads his face into trouble, is the irrational monarch. He banishes the baby he assumes to be his wife’s bastard (we haven’t mentioned that she is glowingly, ripely pregnant), induces the death by sadness of his young son, and causes his wife to “swoon” and die, completing a royal flush of his loved ones. The king’s trusted advisor Camillo flees with Polixenes back to Bohemia — and Leontes is left to mourn his misbegotten life. We know, although he does not, that his infant daughter, Perdita, has not been killed, but rather left in the forest to be rescued by an old shepherd, thanks to the mercy of the Sicilian noblewoman Paulina and her husband Antigonus.

After intermission, we’re in a forest sixteen years later. Perdita has grown up to be a beauty, and in an ironic twist, she and Florizel, the son of Polixenes, are sweethearts. The old shepherd is living well on the money he found along with the baby, and Camillo, who fled Leontes’ court with Polixenes, yearns to go home. We meet another new character in the forest, an unreconstructed scalawag named Autolycus — a drunk, who robs his way through the merry bunch there.

Aside from the couple of characters who cross between stories at this point – what could possibly connect these worlds? That’s where director Rebecca Taichman’s concept shines.

Let’s step back a moment – anyone producing this play has a number of options to make it into a satisfying whole. A familiar solution is to present it as a fairy tale — so that the outsized emotions of the characters and the not-quite-realistic events and the two mismatched settings all fit into that storybook framework. Another solution would be to wink at the audience, saying in effect — “we all agree that this isn’t quite real, but suspend your disbelief with us and we’ll take you someplace emotionally pleasing.” But Taichman goes still further — with a tactic I can’t know is completely her own, but which seems like a master stroke.

She has the actors double in the two halves of the story — so that the actor who plays Leontes also appears as the rascally Autolycus, alleviating our anger and disgust at the king’s actions; the dead son of Leontes becomes his lovely teenaged daughter, erasing the pain we felt at the boy’s death; the king’s loving friend Antigonus (who has been eaten by a bear as he fell victim to Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction) is played by the same actor who portrays the old shepherd… and on and on.

The two inconsistent, incompatible halves suddenly become one play, even before the two worlds meet back in the king’s court, where Leontes is introduced to the statue of his wife, which then comes incredibly to life (or perhaps she has been alive all along). Magical realism, or realistic magic, the play ends with the weddings, music and mirth of any Shakespearean comedy, but with the darkness of its awful first act not completely dispelled.

Director Rebecca Taichman has come a long way toward taming the untameable Winter’s Tale.

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Jackie Robinson Film Moves President, Inspires First Lady

42-jackie-robinson-movie-posterThe president, reported the First Lady, was “visibly, physically moved” yesterday after viewing a new film dramatizing the breakthrough career of Dodger legend Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball. One of the perks of being president is that you get to see movies before the rest of us. Simply called 42, the Robinson biopic opens on April 12, three days before the 66th anniversary of the historic day Robinson stepped onto the field and changed America.

“You can’t imagine the baseball league not being integrated. There are no more “Whites Only” signs posted anywhere in this country. Although it still happens, it is far less acceptable for someone to yell out a racial slur while you’re walking down the street,” Michelle Obama told a group of students at the White House, according to the Associated Press. “That kind of prejudice is simply just not something that can happen in the light of day today.”

The progress that resulted in Mrs. Obama and the president occupying the White House was clearly on her mind, as she sought to drive the lesson home to the students, some of whom were from the Jackie Robinson charter school in Los Angeles, and others who are Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars.

“It reminds you how much struggle is required to make real progress and change,” she said.

But just as the election of Barack Obama failed to usher in what some commentators were quick to call a “post-racial” era in America, and the second inauguration was a good time for others to revisit that optimistic prediction,  the film will certainly provide a chance for everyone to relive both Robinson’s courageous role in history, and the many changes that were still to come.

Fifty years ago this April, 16 years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, a coordinated movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King sought to change the system of segregation that dominated every facet of life in Birmingham, Ala. See the AARP slideshow 1963 Retrospective: The Struggle for Civil Rights: April

And even today, in an era where players are judged by their statistics (fodder for another argument perhaps) and players of every color and hue can earn tens of millions of dollars, Major League Baseball chooses to remember Robinson and the progress he represented with special events like a yearly Civil Rights game. That game will be played in Chicago this year, on Aug. 24th.


In a statement yesterday, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf explained why his team is eager to take part: “The majority of people in this country were probably not alive when [Dr. Martin Luther] King was killed, and certainly were not alive when Jackie Robinson came into the game. Just like the majority of people weren’t alive for the Holocaust. We just can’t have people forgetting what went on if we’re going to get to a country where we truly have an equal opportunity for everybody.”

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Martin Scorsese’s Favorite Film? You’ve Never Heard of It

Martin Scorsese gives NEH Jefferson Lecture.  Photo by Ruth David, courtesy of NEH

Martin Scorsese gives NEH Jefferson Lecture, April 2, 2013. Photo by Ruth David, courtesy of National Endowment for the Humanities

Since 1972, an unbroken line of authors, historians, professors, journalists and public intellectuals —from Erik Erikson to Saul Bellow to Toni Morrison — have delivered the Jefferson Lecture, described by the National Endowment for the Humanities as “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” Last night, Martin Scorsese, the director of Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver became the first filmmaker to receive the honor, and delivered a rousing talk to a sold-out crowd at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall.

Scorsese’s lecture, copiously illustrated with images and film clips, was a lightning dash through movie history, which he playfully started with cave drawings of bison, and followed through Thomas Edison’s short film featuring boxing cats

A place of honor was accorded the Lumière Brothers, whose early film of a train heading straight at the camera Scorsese appropriated in his latest film Hugo.

A dedicated film preservationist, Scorsese was saddened to announce the near extinction of celluloid during his lecture. Classical cinema, films shot and viewed on actual film, feel to him now like “the grand opera of Verdi and Puccini.” Tales of films boiled down for guitar picks and plastic heels brought him nearly to tears.

But film preservation also figured in the upbeat story of the director’s current favorite movie: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. This WW II English film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had a difficult birth. British censors told the filmmakers that it might never see the light of day, and the story, featuring a friendship between an Englishman and a German was seen as detrimental to the war effort.

Only through dogged detective work decades after the film was made and nearly lost, was Scorsese able to form a team of scholars and preservationists to reassemble it. It’s now available for home viewing, and Scorsese says it’s his current go-to movie when he needs inspiration or a model for what really works on screen. Without the care and concern of people devoted to the past of cinema, Life and Death would simply have disappeared.

Beyond film preservation, Scorsese’s passion today is teaching visual literacy to the next generation. His goal is helping young people learn “to distinguish between moving images that engage and those that sell.” And his unlikely models are films like the cult sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, which puts the language of film to work telling a nuanced and valuable set of lessons about the Cold War and 1950s America.

As he closed his lecture, Scorsese referred back to the 41 Jefferson lecturers before him, whose medium had been words, not film. Going forward, he pleaded, let us “treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress.”

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SXSW Roundup – Final Thoughts and Mini-Reviews

Here at Washcult I’ve written about Hey Bartender, The Other Shore, the many faces of Sarah Silverman and some of the other fun I had in Austin at SXSW this year. In my post for AARP I briefly mentioned This Ain’t No Mouse Music, Downloaded, Rewind This, and Much Ado About Nothing. But I didn’t want the month to end without writing capsule reviews of some of the other  films I saw in Texas, which will be coming to theaters and festivals in the coming months.

The cast of 'Before You Know It' with director PJ Rava.

The cast of ‘Before You Know It’ with director PJ Rava.

Before You Know It
This story focuses on three older gay men who are worlds apart, and insists we find common threads in their lives.

Gay men who grew up in the last century witnessed and benefited from the revolution that allowed them to finally be themselves.

But they also were shaped by the restrictions  and complications society imposed on them. And many of them lost many, or most, of their friends to AIDS.

Dennis Creamer (second from left) lived for years in a marriage with a woman, waiting for the moments when he could dress up in women’s clothing and feel more like himself. He’s now trying to find the next act in his life, perhaps at a gay-friendly senior residence across the country from where he currently lives. Robert Mainor (fourth from left) runs a gay club that became an institution in Galveston, Tex., and Ty Martin (far left), a New Yorker and an activist, is tantalized by the possibility of marriage. But will his beau propose?

In bringing us into the lives of these three seniors (and I’ll have to admit I watched with my AARP hat on), director PJ Raval also insisted we answer questions about how the lives of gay elders are different than those for whom society has made it easier to form families and longstanding attachments. “Most of us don’t have children, or grandchildren,” Ty Martin told me.

She was secretary for the Beatles

She was secretary for the Beatles

Good Ol’ Freda
Did you know that the secretary of the Beatles fan club has had a quiet and uneventful life, but played a key role in the ascendancy of the Fab Four back in the day? Well, meet Freda Kelly, who “tells her tale for the first time in 50 years.”

The tale is rather ordinary, which is what makes it poignant. Freda never sought fame or fortune. She resisted writing a “tell all” book despite scads of offers, and her most important and moving contribution to the band seems to have been making sure that all the fan mail got answered and that the boys’ families were taken care of amidst the growing madness around their fame.

“I was just another fan,” she says countless times through the documentary, and it’s clear she was. Although McCartney is not seen on screen, Ringo makes an appearance at the end, wishing her the best and thanking her for her service. Clearly she wouldn’t have wanted more fuss made over her than that.

William and the Windmill
This documentary won the judges’ award for its nuanced storytelling and appealing  central character. Malawian William Kamkwamba was just 15 when he put together a working windmill in his village, which generated electricity for his family, struggling to survive during a drought. The technology was easy to replicate with few tools and no complex materials.

Here William gives a “Ted Talk” about his windmills. He also wrote a popular book, and was adopted enthusiastically by Westerners as the face of young tech-savvy Africans who could change their continent.

What makes the documentary so compelling, though, is that it defeats all your expectations that William will be an uncomplicated hero, who fits our preconceptions. He’s not sure he wants to be different, or special. He’s not sure that being away from his family, or his home, and being held up to the world as a model of something is worth the personal price. And the movie is about how he wrestles with those concerns while still making his way forward in the world, enjoying but also wary of the good intentions of those who are keen to help him.

Sound City
Drummer Dave Grohl’s first documentary, this film is, in essence, a love letter to a mixing board. And it’s not just the Neve console that Grohl adores, but the days that records were recorded and mixed in all their analog messiness with tape recorders and other technology that’s gone the way of the rotary phone and 33 1/3 rpm record album.

Magic happened at Sound City, in the San Fernando Valley. It’s where Fleetwood Mac came together, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Nirvana recorded historic tracks, and where the sound of the drum was the key ingredient to making hits.

No, I wasn’t invited to the party where Grohl and his friends played music from the film’s soundtrack during SXSW. But I bet it was cool.

Some Girl(s)
Based on a play by Neil Labute, this film follows the journey of a writer, played by Adam Brody,  in the days before his marriage, as he visits and asks forgiveness of several former girlfriends around the country. Asked whether she ever thought about opening up the somewhat theatrical setting (all the meetings take place in hotel rooms, and those scenes comprise 95% of the film) director Daisy von Scherler Mayer said she considered the possibility and rejected it. The limitation suited the material just fine, she said.

Each scene has a particular mood, based on the personality and story of each woman and how she was wronged by the self-centered and oafish writer. Each sceme plays as a seduction. Will he sleep with any of the former girlfriends? Perhaps. Will they accept his apologies, and allow him to get on with his new life? Maybe. Most crucially, has he changed his consistently dickish behavior? Nah, never will. But the performances, especially those of Zoe Kazan and Emily Watson, make the film worth watching.

The film is clear from the beginning in its sympathies for the women, and reminds the audience that Labute was wrongly assessed as a misogynist when he first came into public view with his 1993 play (later made into a film) In The Company of Men .

Unhung-Hero-poster-SXSWUnhung Hero
Here’s the setup: Patrick Moote was in love. He was one of those guys who arranges to ask his girlfriend to marry him at a ballgame, with help from the kiss-cam and Jumbotron. Problem was, she said “no.” And to compound the insult, she told him that she didn’t want to spend her life with him because of his small “equipment.” It just wasn’t doing the trick for her.

If you’re a guy, and this happened to you, you may have had any number of reactions to this news — but the unlikeliest, probably, was that you’d make a full-length documentary about this concern and its solutions. Moote and director Brian Spitz travel the country and the world searching for cures. Pills, massage (jelqing), weights, operations. All are considered, many are tried. You’ll be rooting for Patrick, who seems like a sweet guy, and you may even be surprised at the ending.

I Am Divine
The American actor Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, Maryland in 1945 and came to prominence as an actor working with Baltimore’s own John Waters. Their collaboration in the film Pink Flamingo includes what some consider to this day the most tasteless moment ever memorialized on film.

But the reason this film is so wonderful is that is brings Divine to life as an actor who wanted to break out of the confines of drag, and be allowed to play any role he could win. At his death in 1988 he was just about to get a big break, the film reveals, which may have set him on the path he so wanted. And that sad, ironic end to a story of perseverance and grit makes the film a great American biography.

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SXSW 2013 – Picture gallery from Austin – Films, Interactive, Fun

SXSW slideshow. My favorite things… click any image and use arrows on your keyboard (or flick forward on your phone or tablet) to advance

Also – please read my post on SXSW 2013 at AARP – and comment if you’ve got a thought:


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Diana Nyad – ‘The Other Shore’ at SXSW 2013

What drives swimmer and journalist Diana Nyad? Molested by her father at age 11, and repeatedly raped by her swim coach at 14, Nyad reveals these truths which she recognizes as spurs to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat – swimming from Cuba to Florida (just over 100 miles) without stopping or sleeping and without the protection of a shark cage.


But these aren’t the only motivations for the world-record holding swimmer, who has failed at the challenge three times since turning 60, and once at age 28. So what drives her, and more to the point, how successful is The Other Shore, the documentary receiving its world premiere at SXSW, which reveals the story?

The best documentaries, after all, show growth, change, the overcoming of obstacles. Then there are films like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Les Blank’s related Burden of Dreams which show the uncomfortable and unsettling results of sheer obsession. It’s hard to like people who obsess – they ‘re different from most of us, and society isn’t really set up for their single-minded pursuits. On the other hand, they’re inspiring and without their energy and sometimes their grace and determination we would all be poorer.

As sheer storytelling Shore works to draw you in and keep your attention. At each milestone in the quest – the jellyfish stings, the drifting further and further off course, the “oh she couldn’t!,” moment before she makes her final try in a raging thunderstorm – you think, can’t she be reasonable? Won’t she quit? Please? But she perseveres.

Director Timothy Wheeler was present, seemingly, at every turn in the story, and even adds underwater photography to the visual mix. What’s lacking for me, oddly, in the midst of this stubborn life-and-death pursuit, is drama. Nyad’s fire in the belly erases any doubt each time the question of continuing or restarting the journey is broached. She will go on, even if it kills her. But in a perverse way, we come to wish she would just let go and move on.

Nyad led a walk during the festival and brought her inspirational message to an enthusiastic group of walkers, several of whom were from state offices of AARP. She talked about the next steps on her journey, and she told stories. And she was much more likable in person than onscreen.

Listen to an interview we did right before the walk…


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Dana Falconberry Show SXSW

Just wandered in off the street to hear the quirky angelic sound of Dana Falconberry and her group. The voice is a little fragile, the effect slightly lonely. And the group makes music with both instruments and noise.


If you haven’t heard her you will. Watch:

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Sarah Silverman – Her Many Faces – Slideshow

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Diana Nyad Swims From Cuba – SXSW 2013 – Slideshow

Swimmer Diana Nyad led a fitness walk in Austin this morning, Tuesday, March 12, in support of her film The Other Shore, which documents her attempted swims from Cuba to Florida.

I’m looking forward to seeing the film tomorrow. Nyad gave a shoutout to AARP after our conversation, describing herself as someone who, at 63, is constantly reinventing herself.

Click on any image to expand to full screen in cool lightbox effect…



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‘Hey Bartender’ – The Perfect Documentary at SXSW

RESIZED_Hey_Bartender_credit_Photo_Courtesy_of_4th_Row_FilmsNot the best or most affecting – and others here might be perfect as well. But as a fellow craftsman, here’s why I think Hey Bartender is the perfect doc. Douglas Tirola sets up his story on at least four intersecting levels. Each one build to a climax and feeds the next. Each of the levels is a familiar trope – but never seems hackneyed or trite.

1 – Young apprentice bartender Steve Schneider is willing to give everything to the craft, after an accident ends his career as a marine. His demanding boss, Dusan Zaric will decide whether Steve advances to professional bartender, or must start over. The action all takes place at New York’s hottest bar Employees Only.
2- The craft cocktail revolution has missed Westport, Conn. bar owner Steve Carpentieri. His once wildly popular nightspot is now facing failure. Will he adapt?
3 – The history of drinking in America, from the 1880s to today has heroes and mentors, with Prohibition being a notable low point, and today’s explosion of craft cocktails as a zenith. We meet all the players.
4 – The film reaches a climax as all four stories converge in an annual New Orlean event devoted to the cocktail – Tales of the Cocktail. Will Steve and Dusan’s bar be recognized as the best in the world? Will Steve Carpentieri get religion?

Keeping all these balls in the air, making you care about the stories, and bringing it all to a satisfying conclusion is a cinematic miracle. But even if this documentary is a textbook case of doing everything right, it wasn’t quite my favorite at SXSW. More to come on that…

Photo courtesy 4th Row Films

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