REVIEW: Shakespeare in the Park — Love’s Labour’s Lost

 

Well, that was the best play I’ve ever seen.

To be fair, I’m hardly a seasoned theater-goer, but I have gone to a few plays, including last year’s Shakespeare in the Park performance of “Into The Woods,” “West Side Story” on Broadway, an excellent off-Broadway production of “Our Town,” and 3 college plays of varying quality which were subsequently analyzed in my acting class. Ergo, I am an expert.

I’m basing my “best play I ever saw” declaration on the fact that out of all the plays I’ve seen, this one kept me the most consistently entertained.

I will freely admit that I am not a person with much patience for musicals. I find most musical numbers in plays to be too long and indulgent, and they often make me wish the play would just get on with the story. Also sometimes they could really use subtitles.

Not this one. The songs were so perfectly integrated into the story and necessary to the plot that I never found my patience being tested. There was also so much going on with the choreography and the costumes and performances that even if you spaced out a bit on the music or the lyrics, the hilarious visuals — a guy dressed in nothing but a fire-engine red speedo and cape, a singing tapdancer in only sequined sparkly short-shorts and vest, the four male leads spontaneously jumping into boy-band formation and serenading the girls with a 90’s pop ballad — would keep you engaged.

The utter ridiculousness of it actually made my British friends say, “This would never have been written in England. It is SO AMERICAN.”

I’m also not a big Shakespeare person. It takes a lot to make Shakespeare plays entertaining to me. Even Joss Whedon only succeeded in that sporadically for me with his “Much Ado About Nothing.”

This play kept me completely entertained. Most of the dialogue is the original Shakespeare, but it is interspersed with the songs, which are entirely colloquial, and there were occasional interjections of modern spoken dialogue as well, just enough to keep me from getting annoyed with the old-fashioned flowery stuff. (There are two uses of the F-bomb, just so you know.) The comic timing was great on all fronts, and like I said, the costuming and visual flair added so much.

I want to single out the performances of the male and female leads, Colin Donnell and Patti Murin, because they were fabulous. Murin’s “Princess” is like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde if Elle Woods were a Shakespearean princess with slightly more guile, and Donnell’s “Berowne” made me think of Hugh Jackman. He’s got a similar physique, similar facial structure, similar hair, similar voice — basically, he’s really really hot.

My only complaint is about the last five or so minutes of the play — it suddenly takes a turn for the Very Serious. I’ve been told by friends who know the original that that’s how Shakespeare wrote it, and I understand it on an intellectual level, but tonally it was extremely jarring to shift that suddenly from almost two hours of madcap, hilarious fun to five minutes of deathly seriousness, and it ends the play on a pretty flat note.

But, for the sake of not ending this review with a similar misstep, I’ll go back to one last major positive: the play is constantly snarking at itself, breaking the fourth wall, being incredibly meta about its playness. For example, in a song where one of the characters mocks rich people for being academic and snooty and privileged, there’s a line that goes something like, “Rich people pay for better plays that should be free!” (All of us enlightened citizens watching this free play hooted in appreciation.)

Those kinds of references and some other touches — like one of the actors pulling an audience member onto the set in the middle of a song without missing a beat — make me wonder if this play will ever be performed or filmed in any other venue aside from the Delacorte Theater for Shakespeare in the Park. I asked one of the actors, Bryce Pinkham (who played “Longaville”), outside the theater after the show, and he admitted he didn’t know, and that it did seem like a play designed for Shakespeare in the Park and nothing else.

Which would be too bad, because it’s the sort of play I’d pay full price to see again and that I’d love to show all my friends.

It’s only playing until August 18th. GO SEE IT.

Rating: 5/5

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REVIEW — Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

I’ve been working my way through all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine on Netflix on-and-off for the past 10 or so months. Because a girl’s gotta have goals, right? And guess what? I finished it this past weekend!

DS9 was my dad’s least-favorite Star Trek series. In practical terms, this means that we never had any old VHS tapes of recorded episodes (complete with commercials) lying around the house when I was growing up, whereas with every other Star Trek series, we had quite a few of those (although not necessarily of very good visual or story quality — I recall watching an incredibly grainy version of “The Lights of Zetar” once upon a time), plus a bunch of actual purchased VHSs and DVDs, not to mention the tie-in novels and other such goodies. But DS9, nope. I’d never seen an entire episode of it until I started watching it on Netflix lo those many months ago.

So I have to say, given how low my expectations were set, DS9 was a million times better than I thought it would be, though it did have some notable weaknesses. It also had some really wonderful strengths, mostly due to it being more serialized than other Trek series.

Strength #1: Character continuity and development.

This wasn’t necessarily taken as far as it could have been — there are certainly plenty of standalone episodes that are never referenced again and never have major consequences for the characters — but often I was very pleasantly surprised to see elements that I thought were one-off concepts return and be developed in interesting and relevant ways. I’m not going to give specifics because *spoilers* but there are quite a few, especially surrounding Dr. Julian Bashir.

And then there’s the fact that the characters themselves are given arcs and journeys that genuinely change them, bringing them to entirely new psychological territory between the beginning of the series and the end of it. The standouts to me in this area are the aforementioned Dr. Bashir, and Nog, the young Ferengi. Bashir starts out as a cocky, motor-mouthed, frankly annoying manchild, and evolves into a serious, idealistic, genuinely charming dude. (I’ll admit, by the end, I was quite fond of Julian Bashir.) Nog’s transformation is even more extreme — he starts as a stereotypical Ferengi: scheming, manipulative, irritating, an overall no-goodnik. He ends as the first Ferengi in Starfleet, a conscientious officer, even a war hero, and it all happens in a slow and natural progression that is convincing to watch.

Strength #2: Two words: Kira Nerys.

I have such a mad crush on this woman that I intend to write an entire post about her alone. Stay tuned.

Strength #3: Interesting, multidimensional villains.

This area could be especially spoilertastic, so I’m not going to go into much detail. Suffice it to say, very few villains do not switch sides in some way at least once, and sometimes the good guys can go bad, or at least go rogue. And not in the typical sci-fi, possessed-by-aliens way. Real, voluntary choices made under conflicting pressures. Good stuff.

There are of course many more strengths — if you’re a fan of serialized plotting with a huge big-picture arc that spans an entire series, you’ve definitely got a lot to sink your teeth into in DS9 — but those are my faves.

Now, the bad.

Weakness #1: Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko.

I hate to say it, but it was almost always painful to watch Brooks onscreen. Throughout the series, he is wooden, has very little range of expression with his face, he makes strangely deliberate-seeming choices with his movements and facial expressions that rarely feel organic, but worst of all is the way he has the character speak. He pauses in odd places, huffs out some of his words, emphasizes others unnecessarily, and just overall sounds like a bad, scripted actor who doesn’t know how to make the lines sound like something a real person would spontaneously say. It’s unbelievably distracting. The show is infinitely stronger when it focuses on characters other than Sisko, or on plots so strong that even his involvement can’t trip them up too much (“In the Pale Moonlight” is an ep that comes to mind in that department).

Weakness #2: Mysticism.

This section is pretty spoilery, so skip it if you don’t want any of that.

The show basically invents its own religion, practiced by the inhabitants of the planet Bajor, surrounding aliens that live in the wormhole right next to Bajor and the Deep Space Nine space station. The aliens are referred to by the Bajorans as “the Prophets” and the more we interact with them during the series, the more it seems that they are built on the God-concept of “powerful but limited beings with unfathomable motives and little concern or understanding of the average person’s day-to-day life, but with influence over the big picture.” I understand that this is certainly a God-concept in plenty of religions, but I find it hard to believe that the vast majority of Bajorans would be totally cool with this, and that the population is so united religiously. Then again, in Babylon 5, every alien race is portrayed as having one major religion, so maybe it’s just a sci-fi trope.

The bigger problem with this God-concept, though, is that the rules and limits regarding The Prophets are so vague that the writers can pretty much do whatever they want with them. Over and over and over again. It often feels like a cheat, and makes me wonder if a better story could have been told without the religious/mystical angle, because having it at their disposal means the writers can essentially use magic to solve their problems when they feel like it, instead of coming up with complex and satisfying solutions.

Weakness #3: Ferengi.

…Yeah, Ferengi can be really annoying, and there’s a lot of Ferengi stuff on DS9. Surprisingly it’s not bad all the time. DS9 actually made a few Ferengi-centric episodes that I found enjoyable. Quark is multi-layered character, thanks largely to Armin Shimerman’s nuanced performance, and the writers did give some character development to characters who initially seemed like they’d just be walking punchlines, like Rom and Nog. But yeah, sometimes Ferengi are just REALLY ANNOYING.

Those are my main pet peeves about the show. They can interfere with the enjoyment of quite a few episodes, unfortunately, and often the show seems to be great despite them, not because of them. But the show at its best is great, and at its worst is still pretty darn okay.

Rating: 4/5

REVIEW: RedLetterMedia’s Review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

 

(Warning: Video contains explicit language. NSFW.)

 

 

Deep question: What is the point of this column? Why do we have reviews of movies and TV? Why do we seek out reviews, read them, write them?

 

Answer #1: To get ideas for what to watch next. There is so much stuff out there, especially in these days of internet streaming, and sometimes you just need a push in a direction, any direction.

 

But then why do we — or at any rate, I — sometimes look up and read reviews or recaps of movies and TV episodes we’ve already seen? Sometimes we won’t even click on reviews of stuff we’ve never heard of, but we’ll read a recap of a TV episode that we saw just last night or last week . . . or maybe that’s just me.

 

Answer #2: Sometimes it’s for validation. I’ll admit it, sometimes if I like something, I want to know if the wider world embraced it as much as I did. If I look at the reviews it got, maybe I’ll learn that my tastes are too mainstream for me to maintain my hipster cred. Or maybe I’m one of the few who saw brilliance where most people missed it. Or maybe I just have really bad taste and didn’t realize it? (Totally hypothetical, fyi; my taste is impeccable.)

 

Answer #3: We loved some movie, or hated it, or felt indifferent to it, but for whatever reason, we can’t quite find the words to explain why, and there is something so satisfying about finding someone who can articulate your thoughts for you. Makes you feel stupid and smart at the same time.

 

Answer #4: Negative reviews have a tendency to be hilarious.

 

This column is old-school movie reviewing — i.e., it uses the written word. An increasingly popular alternative these days is the video-review, which pop up all over YouTube, because just as anyone with a keyboard can post a blog post movie review, anyone with a video camera can post a YouTube movie review.

 

And I am in fact reviewing a review. Because I think they’re worth discussing and also, I can.

 

Some of the most popular video reviews on YouTube, and some of my personal favorites, are RedLetterMedia’s reviews of the Star Wars prequels: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

 

They are preposterously long for movie reviews — The Phantom Menace review is in 7 parts of 10 minutes each (from back when YouTube videos maxed out at 10 minutes), for a total of 70 minutes for just the one review.

 

How the heck does this reviewer get away with that, and better yet, achieve viral popularity? Even the Kony video was only half an hour. What gives?

 

Well, it’s a combination of factors.

 

The key, I think, is that the reviewer anticipated the obvious initial reaction of most people to a 70-minute movie review. Naturally, most people would say, “Jeez, it’s just a movie. Who cares? You must be the biggest loser with no life and no friends.”

 

RedLetterMedia preemptively counters this in the most deliciously demented way possible: he invents an entire movie-reviewing persona for the videos, a persona that gleefully screams, in essence: “Yes, in fact I AM a complete and total loser with no friends! What’s more, I actually killed all my ex-wives and I hate my kids and my grandkids and I’m a compulsive gambler and I kidnap cheerleaders and prostitutes and tie them up in my basement!”

 

Not exaggerating. At all. The review’s opening line is: “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is the most disappointing thing since my son.” And later he actually takes the camera down to what he says is his basement and while he’s ranting about how much he hates the movie and its shameless merchandising, the camera just happens to pan over a hooker tied up in the corner. (She begs him to let her go, and he snaps, “Shut up, I’m making a review here!”)

 

It is simultaneously the most messed-up and unbelievably genius idea any movie reviewer has ever had.

 

The other major strength of these reviews is that they have genuinely insightful criticisms to offer. Couching them in the over-the-top absurdity gets people to actually listen to what the reviews are saying.

 

RedLetterMedia points out failures in the characters by asking people to describe Han Solo vs. Qui-Gon Jinn. (Han is a “dashing, cocksure, arrogant badboy with a heart of gold,” whereas the most anyone can come up with for Qui-Gon is “stoic” and “bearded.”) He demonstrates that there is no protagonist (which he hilariously mispronounces differently every time he says it), and as a result, the movie’s story is unfocused and lacks coherence. He intercuts footage from the movie and the behind the scenes featurettes to emphasize his points.

 

Without one or the other of these two key components — the legitimate critiques and the ridiculously profane and misanthropic persona — the reviews wouldn’t hold together. It may not sound like a winning formula, but it’s addictive, and will get you to watch all the way to the end, as evidenced by the almost 1.5 million views on Part 7 of the 7-part review.

 

 

Video Source: http://youtu.be/FxKtZmQgxrI

REVIEW: Louie — Season 2, Episode 1 — “Pregnant”

This episode was screened in class after we were told only the name of the show, the title of the episode, and the fact that it was written, produced, and strictly overseen by Louis CK in all creative departments.

My expectations were pretty simple. I have seen very little of Louis CK’s work, but I know his basic reputation via internet osmosis and eavesdropping on friends’ and strangers’ conversations. Because that’s what I do.

Like most standup comedians these days, Louis CK is extremely crude and often profane. But I’ve heard it said from various sources (that cannot be cited due to lack of documentation) that he also has a unique way of infusing his comedy with pathos that the crudity and frankness somehow enhance.

And after seeing the episode, I have to agree. It’s refreshing to see a gruff, pizza-munching man’s man talk openly about how much he passionately loves his kids, but with brutal honesty about the trials and tribulations of parenthood that keeps the show well clear of becoming what anyone could possibly consider saccharine or sentimental. The crudity throws the emotion into sharp relief. I’m a fan, though I could never show this to my mom, who won’t even watch The Simpsons.

My favorite thing about the episode, though, is the way Louie manages to mine pain for humor. Human Survival Rule #1 = you laugh or you die, and I’ve always had the most respect for comedians or writers or friends who can me laugh at my pain. Louis CK is like that awesome buddy you call up when you need some perspective on something awful that just happened, and he obliges by pointing out the absolute ridiculousness of life in general and your situation in particular until you’re laughing so hard you can’t hold the phone anymore.

The Huffington Post has called CK “a prophet for the age of lessness,” because he makes comedy out of being average, overweight, divorced, and unappreciated, “channel[ing] bummer zeitgeist.” Amen to that, brother. Splitsider discusses the pacing of the show and the way it isn’t full to bursting with snappy one-liners but rather builds “slow comedy.” I think it aligns better to real life that way, and allows viewers to more easily see themselves in the situations depicted.

Other critics, such as the Los Angeles Review of Books, have noted that some episodes of Louie depict preposterous and absurd situations that are meant to evoke “how the real world sometimes feels, not how it looks,” but there are also episodes like this one, in which everything from his daughter’s confession that she likes her mother better than she likes him, to the neighbors coming to help in a crisis, all could conceivably happen, and I have a feeling I’d prefer these episodes. But that remains to be seen.

 

Rating: 4/5 stars