Sunday, November 11, 2012

WarHorse at the Kennedy Center

Since it's Veteran's Day today, I thought I would share my review of the National Tour of War Horse currently at the Kennedy Center. I have been wanting to see the play ever since I went to London in 2009 and it was the must see play.  It has been playing in NYC for the past year and a half however lack of funds for an overnight trip meant having to wait until the show came to D.C.  I'm sure most are familiar with the play based on a children's book about a boy whose father buys a horse at auction, then sells it to the British Army on the eve of WW1 and the story of how the boy Albert runs away to join the army and find his beloved horse, Joey. Steven Spielberg made it into a movie a few years ago and I confess after seeing the movie I was afraid the play would be as saccharin as the movie.

However, the producers of the play have managed to put on a play that is childlike in it's story-telling yet starker and more emotional than it's cinematic counterpart. Part of this is due to the stark, minimalist set design. Doors that are used to denote houses, beams that are used for stables and over the stage, a large swath of paper used to show drawings of the places and dates of the events:from Devon all the way to Switzerland. While the acting is competent, the characters are all a bit one-dimensional. Standouts include the British officer who buys Joey and Albert's sergeant in the Army.

However, as the title reflects the real reason to see this play is the magnificent horse puppets from Handspring. worked by 3 actors, one moving the head and two inside the animal, they are at once obvious and yet after seeing the lifelike workings, one begins to see the animal not the actors. From the breathing, to the ear twitches to the flick of a tail, not one action seemed out of place. In fact, these puppets become more human at the end then any of the real actors and I found myself caring for them the most. Also seeing the animals during the war pulling carts, dying from exhaustion and trapped in barbed wire, you see the horror and folly of the WWI and indeed of war itself.

I went into War Horse thinking it would be a quaint children's tale and found myself more emotional moved by a mere puppet than I had imagined.

If you get the chance do see it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Swedish Dreams-Netflix pick

In the past, when Scandinavia was mentioned to most English speaking people, the first things that came to mind were usually IKEA, good looking blonds,  and Swedish meatballs. Indeed, with national healthcare, state subsidies of working parents and welfare programs, the Nordic people are often ranked the happiest in the world. However, all that changed when Stieg Larsson's crime novel "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" hit bookstores. It seems the Swedish exercised their demons by writing crime fiction with world-weary police detectives investigating their cultural underbelly.  Then came a wave of Swedish and Danish TV crime dramas that eventually were exported and remade in the UK and US.

One of these crime dramas was Forbrydelsen, a 20 episode show about a Danish police investigation into a girls murder. See my post. It was made into a pale US imitation last year. The other export is Henning Mankell's Wallander, which has been made into two Swedish tv shows and a BBC show starring Kenneth Branaugh.  Having watched most of the British Wallander, a friend told me about Netflix streaming episodes of the Swedish Wallander series starring Krister Henricksson.  I must admit after watching the British version, I was afraid that the Swedish version would be just as dark and gloomy, the only difference being the language.

How wrong I was for Henning Mankel's Wallander has to be the best crime drama I've seen since Forbrydelsen. Henricksson's Kurt is taciturn, often stressed and sometimes withdrawn. Unlike the Branaugh version, he doesn't seem to be on the verge of a breakdown every episode, socializes with his work colleagues and has something of a relationship with the female public prosecutor of Ystad. In fact,  the actor slips effortlessly into Wallander's skin without missing a beat. Another positive is that over the 13 episode season, the viewer gets to know and care about the rest of the police team including two rookies. All the actors involved are so natural and understated. Which is probably the best overall description of this series. Each story is about murder, extortion, and/or arson yet retains a unique understated simplicity. It's rare to see any OTT fights or crazy car chases and yet the plots are coherent tense and satisfying in a way that the British series, with it's focus on style and Sir Kenneth's acting, is not. Put this series in your instant queue and hopefully Netflix will eventually stream the first season. Highly recommended for anyone who likes Masterpiece Mysteries, mystery stories or just good television that makes you think.

Just be careful how much you watch in a week or you'll end up having Swedish dreams like me.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review: Globe Tour of Hamlet

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the 8 person Globe Touring Company's performance of Hamlet at the Folger Library. Yes, 8 people performed a play with 25 character roles in 2.5 hours. Now if that sounds a bit manic and fast-paced, that's because the play is exactly that. But it infuses Hamlet with a liveliness and sense of fun that other more in-depth interpretations may lack.

The Folger Theater is small and seats only around 100, giving it more intimate feel than the Globe in London. My seat was along the wall, about two feet from the edge of the stage, and could see all the actors up close. The stage was bare save for a homemade curtain, some chairs and wood that was used as everything from ramparts to a grave.

The actors themselves were uniformly good with their multiple roles. Special mention going Dickon Tyrrell as a serious Claudius/Ghost and Player and Christopher Saul as the comedic foil and verbose Polonius. Michael Benz as Hamlet brought a youthfulness and rashness to the role but the speed of his soliloquies sometimes masked the words themselves and made for a less emotional journey.

One of the most interesting scenes was the play-within-the-play, were the curtain is used to give two POVs from both the play actors perspective and the perspective of the King and Queen and their guests. Music(played by the actors on stage) to punctuate actions of the players.

The one nitpick other than some of the speed of the actors' lines was that the comedy was played a bit too broadly in parts, almost pantomime, which took a little away from the tragic parts. Overall, this is a easy Hamlet to watch and to have fun with. If it comes to a theater near you, please do yourself a favor and see it. And if you're ever in London, do go to the Globe and see a play if for nothing more than the atmosphere.

Monday, August 6, 2012

What happens when you combine a Londonphile and a history geek?

So today when I came home, I had a surprise from Amazon waiting for me. Called The Epicure's Almanack(Eating and Drinking in Regency London), it was first published in 1815 by Ralph Rylance as a "good food guide" to London eating establishments..sort of the Zagat guide of it's day. Unfortunately it never sold many copies and two years later, unsold copies were destroyed. But the British Library has republished it, completed with commentary about the eating and drinking habits of the era.

From what I've read so far, Mr Rylance's criteria was nearly the same as today, the quality of the fare and the class of gentleman who dine there. Amazingly a few of the taverns are still to be found in London today. recommended for any Anglophiles and/or lovers of history!

For further informationEpicure's Almanack

Monday, July 30, 2012

Olympics...What Olympics?

Well, the Olympics are underway and and while I wish I could say I'm watching it, thanks to NBC I'm not. As I am only a lowly serf who has a basic antenna, NBC has deemed me unworthy to watch online-meaning I can't see anything live and have to wait 6 hours for the primetime feed. Yet, every media outlet in the world including NBC's own news department already has published the results so I was stuck knowing the results of the mens swimming competition then watching it 6 hours later with announcer trying to tell me that Michael Phelps had a chance of winning. Yeah right.

More disturbingly, even if one has cable and can get the online feed, the event is cut into by advertising every 5 minutes! Watching at my parents house, I counted no less then three ads for THE OLYMPICS each commercial break. I hate to break it to the corporation but the users are already watching the games. As those who know me already found out, my wrath began when the network needlessly chopped up the tape delayed Opening Ceremonies, brought in three commentators who liked to hear themselves talk rather than letting the audience watch the program, deleting some songs and not even showing the 7/7 tribute so Ryan Seacrest could interview a bored looking Phelps. First, if the BBC ever deleted a 9/11 tribute, we'd never hear the end of it from Americans. Secondly, what does Ryan Seacrest have to do with sports. Isn't he an entertainment/fluff presenter? But I've noticed many NBC Olympic commentators know only the basics of the sports they're presenting and not the specific workings of the sports.

As the hashtag on Twitter #NBCfail has shown, many people are frustrated and disappointed with the way the network has handled the games. Given as they have blocked their email account and not replied to the deluge of Facebook comments, nothing will change.

Rant over-In order to end my entry on a high note, I recently went to the Hirshorn Gallery in DC and took some photos of the temporary exhibition sculpture of Ai Weiwei called The Zodiac Heads. These sculptures were place around the outside fountain in the order of the Chinese Zodiac. I'm the year of the Boar so naturally I had to take it's picture

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Back again

After a long time away from the blog due to personal and professional reasons, I've decided to start writing again or as the mood hits.

Since Doctor Who and Sherlock have finished for the season, I've been quietly gearing up for the Olympics in London-like many other Anglophiles. To that end, I've been catching up on a mockumentary called Twenty Twelve a fictional look at the group that is preparing the Olympics. Written by the same people who wrote The Thick of It and People Like Us it's a mild comedy that is not Office-cringeworthy but gets it's laughs from the narration(a perfectly pitched David Tennant) and the situations the characters get themselves in. Cast is headed up Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville who shows his comedic straight-man chops and Spaced star Jessica Hynes who plays the most irritating catch phrase PR director ever, Siohban Sharpe. The real laugh is how close to life the story lines are to reality. The first episode was about the Olympic clock and whether it should be counting down from the Games backwards to the present or whether it should run forward to the Opening Ceremonies. The show got a burst of publicity when the real Olympic countdown clock stopped working the day it was unveiled.

The second episode dealt with the Olympic deliverance committee getting lost on a bus driving to the Olympic stadium, and this week, one of the first American athletes to arrive in Britain tweeted that the bus he was riding was lost for four hours! It is now airing on BBCAmerica or you can download it from iTunes. I highly recommend it.

Finally after a bad day, came home today to find on my doorstep, a wee Little Urn from Yorkshire Tea. After having seen the real one a few years ago when it came to DC, I knew I had to get the mini-me version. So cute. Pity it doesn't make a cuppa for me!