Monthly Archives: March 2014
The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was a tragedy that we are still reeling from. The riverfront and Louisiana wetlands were forever changed. The area’s ecosystem has been seriously compromised and devalued; the fishing and shellfish industries are crippled. However, out of the public spotlight, it’s business as usual spurred on by “the corexit” which dispersed the oil to the sea floor and like magic, “all was out of sight, out of mind.” Only those who are part of the clean up process, the scientists, the researchers, those working with the EPA, those who live on or near the water and those in university settings who are familiar with the lasting damage of oil spills and the toxic impact of corexit understand the disastrous consequences that, like dominoes, are still toppling throughout the region. Those folks understand but their voices have not been heard above the din of other distractions. They understand, and the halt, maimed, blind animals (chemical mutations) and marine life understand. Daily, they have to experience the toxic “corexit correction,” and the complete alteration of their shelters, food supply and way of survival.
Dark Water by David Stallings, directed by Heather Cohn enjoying its premiere at The Theater at the 14th Street Y, takes us back to the initial spill and reexamines the event from the perspective of the animals and marine life. Through them we acknowledge their reactions, their attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, and their hopeful struggle to survive despite the creeping “dark water” which moves toward them in a massive, viscous wave of suffocating, burning death.
Mother turtle Barnacle (a determined Dianna Martin) faces a conundrum. She is with her son Weed, but she has left her babies, Weed’s sisters, on an island in the gulf to keep them safe from the spewing dark water. She has told her children she will come back for them to take them to a better place, but the dark water is consuming everything in its path and she is afraid she will be too late. Barnacle drops off Weed (Chester Poon) on another island that appears to be far from the danger, leaving him with Foam (Erica Lauren McLaughlin). Foam, who has been enslaved by Clam (Susan G. Bob) learns freedom as a result of a loving relationship with Weed. Weed convinces Foam to go with him to find and help Barnacle.
Before and during Barnacle’s and Weed’s travels, Barnacle has to protect her son while confronting predatory, conniving and dangerous enemies whose habitat is being threatened by the dark water. These birds of prey have grown cruelly rapacious and wanton. Gullet (the foreboding and noxious Brian Silliman) and Blue Heron (an excellent Kathleen O’Neill) connive with arrogance, tyranny and presumption. Barnacle remains strong. She endures and outsmarts these and others who plan to either eat her or Weed. Though some animals and marine life have been driven to desperation out of fear of the rapidly moving dark water destroying their food supply, there are others who remain noble and kind. There is the sweet dolphin, Daedalus (a beloved Antonio Minino), and the prophetic Sea Urchin (Emily Hartford) who gives wise counsel to Barnacle. The highpoints in the conflict create suspense. Will Daedalus who must swim through the entangling, engulfing thickness with Barnacle on his back be able to get to the island in time? Will Barnacle find Weed and will they rescue her daughters before they are all suffocated by the slimy, black ooze?
In Dark Water, Stalling’s message and themes are neither preachy nor easily dismissed. His anthropomorphic characters are like us. We are able to identify in his metaphor riot the best and the worst of human traits: maternal and filial love and sacrifice, rapacity, fear, desperation. On the other hand Stallings has found a unique way to differentiate his marine life characters from humans; they speak in verse. These other life forms express their desires, intents, hopes and fears in exacting rhymes. At times the verse is more rhythmic and poetic, at times not and there are no rhymes. His selection rises to necessity depending upon the unfolding action and events. His dialogue versification is interspersed with a few songs, a short dance and a choreographed fight sequence.
These clever devices are packed with meaning and enhance the themes of this parable which is simple, direct and powerful. Stallings infers that though there are similarities between marine life and man, essentially, these other beings which we deem “dumb brutes” who are as “disposable” as flotsam and jetsom, are to be appreciated as beautiful and poetic creatures integral to the loveliness of the natural realm. By having them speak in verse, Stallings’ impulse is to magnify their preciousness and sanctity. For do we not ultimately depend on them for our sustenance? Throughout the play Stallings’ threads the question, “Do we have any idea of what we are really doing when we risk allowing such a disaster?”
Stallings’ choices are stylistically daring and unusually effecting. By the end we realize we are watching in these characters’ struggles for survival something akin to a Greek tragedy and all the more so because they are innocent creatures and have had no hand in what we have done. However, unlike some Greek tragedy, there is no Deus ex Machina (a god coming to the rescue of the protagonist). How can there be when the human “gods” are the executioners? And what they are executing is their own eventual destruction by first harming the creatures that maintain the ecosystems of the planet.
The fundamental theme expressed by Stallings’ title and how the dark water impacts the marine life evokes the symbolism of a darkness that is all encompassing. By extension we understand that this is an amorphous evil represented by man’s primordial lust for profit at the expense of life itself. Stallings ultimately suggests that If we continue to allow such a tangibly felt wickedness to overtake our rationality and common sense, then surely we do not have to fear an apocalypse. It has already happened in the overtaking of the human heart. Unless it is ameliorated, we are dooming ourselves and the fabric of our own culture and environment for future generations.
Dark Water will be at The Theater at the 14th Street Y until March 29th.
Ensemble: Brian Silliman, Dianna Martin, Chester Poon, Antonio Minino, Susan G. Bob, Erica Lauren McLaughlin, Kathleen O’Neill, Lily Drexler, Stephen Conrad Moore, Emily Hartford
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
The Pig or Vaclav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig in NYC, Adaptation by Edward Einhorn, Directed by Henry Akona
For my review, of this entertaining, absurdist and wonderful avant garde production, look for it on Blogcritics or on All Along the NYC Skyline. It is in town until March 29 at the 3LD Art + Technology Center. The pre-show is 20 minutes, the show is 1 hour and the post-show is 25 minutes. This is a 3LD Art + Technology Center and Untitled Theater Company #61 production. And it is smashing.
3LD Art and Technology Center and Untitled Theater Company #61’s production of The Pig or Václav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig by Václav Havel and Vladimír Morávek is nothing short of a work of wry genius. Edward Einhorn who adapted the play into English was instrumental in re-imagining this work for an American audience.
Wonderfully directed by Henry Akona, the production incorporates multi-media, in heightened artistic expression. The innovative and interesting forms elevate and enrich the themes culminating in an empathetic celebration of freedom. To achieve this heightened aspect, all the arts are represented: the dance, live instrumental music, stylistic cabaret songs, tweaked rock songs (i.e. “I’m Waiting for the Man” by the Velvet Underground) light opera, graffiti art video projections, closed-circuit TV, and ironic, comedic structure with a deep underlying message. The musicians/dancers/actors/artists/technicians ingeniously employ their talents in these forms to create a unique and transformative experience for the audience. United psychically, the audience and players collaborate in the jubilee. It is as if they are participating in a necessary cultural revolution, creating their own inner moments of reform for our time in our country. The production massages all the senses, even the sense of taste and smell; there is pig in a delicious langos of pulled pork, (and a vegetarian langos for those empathizing with the pig), as well as beer and sweets for the finale…touché.
In a simplistic form the plot of this musical, dance, “dinner theatre” production is that Vaclav Havel searches for the right sized fresh, live pig sourced from the local farmers so that he can invite his friends for a roast and of course, conduct at artistic salon which emblazons and uplifts the cause of independence. The problem is that Havel cannot settle with a farmer on securing the right pig. The moment he thinls he has purchased it, either the price goes up or the pig is the wrong size or another factor squelches the deal. Running simultaneously with this plot line is the one for the operetta The Bartered Bride. The bride’s marriage is uncertain because all of the details cannot be worked out. Cohering events and plots is a journalist (Katherine Boynton) who interviews the bride-to-be (Moira Stone) and her groom-to-be (Terence Stone) and Havel (Robert Honeywell) about the process of the events and action. The symbolism of seeking something that becomes unattainable is present and the journalistic news reports with scrolls on the bottom of the closed circuit TV screens are sardonically in keeping with the absurd events and mishaps and convolutions of action which, of course, are accompanied by singers, musicians and dancers. For this is a jubilee, after all, and a superlative hint at the revolution which isn’t supposed to be happening, which of course is. Indeed, the very hunt for the pig and the ill conceived matrimonials are revolutionary.
Edward Einhorn is well acquainted with Václav Havel’s works. In his collaboration with the Untitled Theater Company #61, The Havel Collection, a five-volume set of new translations of Havel’s plays, has been published. Their intimate knowledge of Havel’s work was demonstrated during their 2006 Havel festival in NYC. As a result it was not surprising when in 2010 upon request of Václav Havel, Einhorn was flown to The Czech Republic to see the premiere of The Pig or Václav Havel‘s Hunt for a Pig that was the centerpiece of a June theater festival in Brno. What Einhorn experienced while watching the production at the Brno festival gave birth to Akons’ and Einhorn’s conceptualization which four years later is appearing at 3LD in this soul-lifting, interactive, multi-media English version.
This production has been effected like Havel effected The Velvet Revolution swirling into the independence manifested by The Czech Republic. Initially, Havel wrote a humorous dialogue about how he tried to get a pig for a roast to celebrate a feast with his friends. (Is the pig metaphoric?) The sketchy 1987 dialogue appeared in an “underground” magazine; during Communism it was surreptitious photocopies of photocopies. In 2010 Vladimír Morávek rediscovered the dialogue, staged it and the idea grew and developed a life of its own in an all encompassing production.
Morávek added more characters who were then seamlessly interwoven into sections of a Czech operetta, The Bartered Bride. The operetta is a nationalistic work from the 1860s written in the Czech language; it was a groundbreaking move toward independence in defiance of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s rule over them, for the Czech language was never the language spoken. The comedic action of Havel trying to buy a pig for his roast and the plot of the folk opera of a bride who may or may not get married and be at her wedding were beautifully fused together in the Havel/Morávek production. Czech past and present were affirmed with dry humor and celebration reaffirming that the independent spirit of the Czech people can never be contained.
What Einhorn witnessed in the 2010 Czech premiere of The Pig or Václav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig was an amazing tribute to Czech history and the uplifting of the Czech spirit over oppression. From the Austro-Hungarian Empire, through fascism, through communism, through The Velvet Revolution (the Czech overthrow of the old regime after the Berlin Wall fell), and the eventual emergence after Havel gained the presidency to the forming of The Czech Republic, freedom was ever present. In seeking a path to define their own way out from control, the Czech people had already defined themselves. It was only a matter of going.
Though communism brutally suppressed any outward show of freedom in 1968, the spirit was roiling underneath in the cultural currents. In a slap dash seemingly random style, Havel, an artist, and others moved on a path from which there was no turning back. Havel recognized that despite domination by others, independence was the only inner path the culture knew to truthfully follow toward the light. From their seeking of it in the 1860s to their gaining it after the Berlin Wall fell, their generational energy is transparent. Anyone looking closely at their culture and ethos would know the eventuality of this demonstration of the Czech spirit coming to pass. Independence and freedom could not and would not be stopped. What is interesting to comprehend in its greatness is that it was fomented via the arts. The 3LD Art & Technology Center and the Untitled Theater Company #61 production of Václav Havel’s Hunt for The Pig underscores how the arts are paramount in fomenting independence and freedom.
By adapting the play using all the forms of artistic expression in this production, Henry Akona, Edward Einhorn and the incredibly talented production team and ensemble are not only shouting out Václav Havel’s legacy, they are reminding us of our own. They are encouraging the expression of our inner drive toward independence and self-definition through the arts, innovation and interactive media. They are hearkening us to establish and maintain a cultural and political unity between and among enlightened artists, innovators, techies, writers, dancers, musicians, singers, cabaret stylists, indeed anyone who manifests his or her expression of independence and freedom through any medium, modality or tool. As this expression grows widespread, its currents flow globally. Other global artists are inspired and renewed by the uplifting spirit winds. Reform and transformation are rebirthed again and again, and there is a renaissance of interaction which reinforces the very deepest part of the human spirit to overthrow the most trenchant, nullifying and damaging impulses of materialism soaked oppression.
Václav Havel and the Czech Republic’s inspiring revolution led predominately by artists against the Philistines, is an example for all time. By revisiting it again and again, in such works as Václav Havel’s Hunt for a Pig, we are encouraged not to despair of the oppressive political vicissitudes of our time. In the play by Havel and Morávek and in this production Einhorn and Akona counsel us not to accept the lies and gross injustices of a ruling political oligarchy which prizes money and profits over people’s welfare. Our history has shown that like the Czechs, Americans have been driven to achieve freedom, equity and justice. Einhorn and Akona’s production strengthens us to continue the fight against similar types of power domination that the Czechs faced and overcame. As the struggle toward overthrowing lies and hatred transformed and rebirthed us, in the past, we, with innovators and artists must continue this work in unity so additional change is achieved in an ongoing process. Ultimately, the work is in freeing each human heart through vehicles of the arts. This is a work that is never finished.
Along the way there is the jubilee and a constant reminder of the distance traveled; there is the pig roast to which we call our friends in a celebration of the past that has morphed into and melded with the present. The feast encompasses historic and ongoing revolutionary action. It represents a lifting up after tearing down the walls of hypocrisy. Each transformation brings on the next wave of action, and that wave inspires and energizes us to continue ferreting out the lies. For where there are lies, there can be no good thing for anyone, least of all those who control with lies. As Havel believed, “truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.” Only truth and love benefit the cross-cultural whole.
This is a smashing must see jubilee for the joy, the revolution, the transformation, the brilliance. It is running at the 3LD Art + Technology Center until March 29th.
The review first appeared on Blogcritics.
The New York Premiere of The Jewish Cardinal (Le Metis de Dieu) screened three times at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival. As word of mouth spread, the second and third screenings were sold out and the wait list line on the last screening day was very long. Praise for the film and the director’s live Q & A sessions escalated the audience turn out. At the third screening, the film received hearty applause which demonstrated that it was one of the festival’s fan favorites.
Directed by Ilan Duran Cohen, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chantal Derudder, the film is a fascinating account of Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger (1981-2005). Lustiger was born Aaron Lustiger to Ashkenazi Jewish parents living in France. Lustiger at 13 converted to Catholicism over his father’s protests and attempts to rescind his baptism. He rose in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to become one of its most outspoken and prominent Cardinals, helping Pope John Paul II tackle vital issues of the day politically and globally. The film focuses on the period from Lustiger’s appointment as the Bishop of Orleans until he receives his appointment as Cardinal, The Archbishop of Paris, a position he held until he retired in 2005.
The filmmaker is careful with the memory of Jean-Marie Lustiger, attempting to round what is know of him, a man whose fascinating and surprising journey in life can only benefit our cultural understanding. A testament of Cohen’s brilliant care is evidenced by the enthusiasm with which the film was received at this festival, a combined effort by the Jewish Museum and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. The hope is that Cohen’s message, which is the same as Lustiger’s, will be shouted far and wide.
In his introduction to the screening, Cohen simply stated that the film is “about reconciliation.” Indeed, in Lustiger (wonderfully rendered by Laurent Lucas), there is the reconciliation of the two faiths, Judaism and Christianity, and there is revealed the hoped for reconciliation between himself and his father, who were in conflict. Charles Lustiger was devastated by Lustiger’s choice to convert. Nevertheless, Charles was very proud of his son’s independence, his integrity and his perseverance in attempting to show love and forgiveness without compromising his birthright as a Jew. Lustiger makes it clear to everyone that he has converted to Catholicism, but he will never renounce his Judaism. He is a Jew and he is a Catholic. It is his choice and the film intimates why it makes sense for him. During the film we learn that Lustiger is practicing and strengthening his Hebrew and attempting to understand Christianity’s growth and development out of Judaism with Christ as the lynchpin joining both faiths. The film is brilliant in revealing Lustiger’s struggle for reconciliation despite opposition and denunciations from Jews and Catholics. Cohen shows us Lustiger’s humanity and reveals the instances when either his temper or his cowardice overcame him and he nearly faltered in his drive toward uplifting Judaism and Christianity with love, understanding and integrity.
Rather than reveal Lustiger’s life chronology, Cohen elects to begin when he was vicar of Sainte-Jeanne-de-Chantal (1969-1979) in the wealthy 16th arrondissement of Paris with his parochial vicar Andre Vingt-Rois who later succeeded him as Archbishop of Paris when Lustiger retired. He is beloved of his parishioners who affectionately refer to him as “the bulldozer” because of his temper and at times his determined views. We learn later that these are a few of the reasons Pope John Paul II entrusted him with the position of Bishop Orleans. In addition his views are similar to the Pope’s and run counter to some of the French clergy with whom Cardinal Paolo Bertoli (he recommended Lustiger to the Pope) is on bad terms.
After 15 months and much consideration Jean-Paul II notifies Lustiger he will be the Bishop of Orleans. It is a magnificent gesture because Orleans is where Aaron Jean-Marie was baptized into the Christian faith. This act appears to be ordained by God, however, there is an overriding problem and the filmmaker reveals it immediately. Will Charles Lustiger (Henri Guybet) be present at his son’s appointment as Bishop of Orleans? The conflict is clearly revealed when Lustiger visits his father. There are old wounds between the two and there is a bitterness that the father holds for his son. There are emotional hurts Lustiger feels in his father’s non acceptance; he also feels the guilt of letting his father down. However, Cohen makes clear the obvious great love between them and the sacrifice that each is making to attempt to get along when estrangement would have been much easier for both, though it would have left father and son with regrets and sorrow. Lustiger’s female cousin Fanny (Audrey Dana) is a mitigating force and at times acts as the go-between behind the scenes to soften both men to be more supportive and understanding of each other.
Screenwriters have made excellent choices in keeping Jean-Marie’s past, his decision to convert, his mother’s move back to Paris during WWII to keep the business running, and his time in unoccupied France until 1945 in the shadows.
There are only a few flashbacks which coincide with emotional hurt or an eruption of feelings not yet dealt with in the present or a clarification of the time period. Instead, the dialogue between the father and son elucidates more of what happened in the past: Giselle Lustiger being deported to Auschwitz where she was killed; the father staying in safety with the children in unoccupied France. These moments are used sparely to reveal Jean-Marie’s relationship with his father. And gaps are left about Jean-Marie’s conversion; a spiritual experience is alluded to which is thought provoking. More important is Jean-Marie’s attempt to reconcile himself with his father before he dies and Jean-Marie’s developing relationship with the Pope which is fascinating.
Naturally, during his initial conversation with the Pope (a dynamic and believable Aurélien Recoing) he asks whether he was appointed because he was Jewish; he repeats he has made it known that he will not renounce his Judaism though he has chosen to convert to Catholicism. That Jean-Marie is a strong man of courage is made clear and Cohen’s and Derudder’s characterizations of Lustiger and the Pope set up the problems that are to come later in the film. Both must work together to solve the conflicts or there will be disastrous results between global Catholicism and Judaism. However, during this initial visit, we come to understand the brilliant Pope’s vision for France. With Lustiger who eventually will be moved up to the position of Archbishop of Paris, the Pope hopes to restore Catholic France and bring unity amongst believers. It is an uncanny appointment which has later repercussions and which eventually is crucial to facilitating the eventual fall of communism. The fall of communism is the most vital of goals in the Pope’s intentions for Poland and for religious believers globally.
Without Jean-Marie Lustiger’s presence as a reconciler upholding Judaism and Catholicism in the position of Archbishop of Paris, other events may have occurred which would have exacerbated animosity between Jews and Polish Catholics delaying the fall of communism and creating a cultural/religious backlash when cooperation was most needed. How Cohen reveals this is nothing short of revelatory. For those who follow Judaism or Christianity or both, they will most likely agree with Jean-Marie Lustiger that it was God’s will that he was appointed Bishop of Orleans and then Archbishop of Paris. Cohen’s true-to-life storytelling is uplifting. He reminds us of the possibilities for goodness if there is respect, love and forgiveness between and among cultures and those of faith.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
The New York Premiere of The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, starring award winning actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, and directed by Antonin Svoboda, received enthusiastic applause after its screening at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival. After the screening, Svoboda answered questions from the moderator and audience who were fascinated by the intriguing film. The movie uncovers aspects about Reich during the last years of his life. These are not widely known and they hint that a grave injustice was done to him by the government in its Red Scare period from 1947-1957.
Reich is considered one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. Whether you speak with conventional medical adherents or alternative medical scientists, doctors and researchers, Reich is a controversial figure. Certainly, the film begins to clarify the man and his work attempting to put aside some of the negative rhetoric about Reich and align the forward thinking and vital aspects of Reich’s accomplishments: he noted the damaging effects of radiation (1950s); he identified the validity of Eastern medicine’s use of Chi and applied its understanding to his orgone theories.
Audience members may have had a conceptualization of Reich’s life and work based on mainstream media’s coverage of the Austrian psychoanalyst, whose work initially was built upon Sigmund Freud’s as a member of the second generation of psychoanalysts. In 1947, a freelance journalist disgruntled with psychoanalysis wrote the article “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich”(the film’s title), which appeared in The New Republic.
Reich’s work and therapies using orgone energy were mischaracterized and discredited, and he was labeled a cultist that should be “dealt with.” The article drew negative press attention, and eventually an FDA investigation into his beneficial claims of orgone energy use, which led to his eventual arrest. Four years after Reich’s death, New York publisher Farrer, Giroux and Strauss republished Reich’s major works. Along with the publishing of his books, interested physicians and researchers organized study groups and an associate, Dr. Elsworth Baker (1903-1985), set up the bi-annual Journal of Orgonomy, which is still published today. In 1968 Baker founded the American College of Orgonomy in Princeton, New Jersey, to train physicians in orgonomic therapy.
Svoboda and Rebecca Blasband have written a screenplay that explicates Reich’s “strange case” by moving through important events in his life, though not in chronological order. The film begins with Reich in the Arizona desert using a “cloudbuster” he has developed to test its impact on climate change. We learn during the course of the film, he has used it successfully elsewhere and wants to gauge whether the success will be able to be duplicated under the more extreme desert conditions. From this initial introduction, we understand Reich is a researcher of great curiosity, openness and inventiveness.
The arc of the film cobbles together episodes from the past, switching to the present to allow us to piece together his story like a puzzle, which eventually becomes whole by the film’s end. The plot movement is revelatory, interesting. The intricacy is appropriate because human beings are supremely complex, especially ones who are controversial, forward thinking and perhaps brilliant. The filmmaker’s tone is one of fairness desiring to “give Reich his due” and this method of story telling is powerful, mysterious and moment to moment, trumping the linear chronology of the usual bio-pic for the unusual. It is somehow appropriate for this “strange” man who perhaps was not so strange after all.
After the initial scene in the desert, the film moves to a flashback of a young Reich speaking before an illustrious group of colleagues presenting his controversial findings; they groan and sigh loudly in response to his discussion. Thus, began the schism between himself and the psychoanalytic community with which he was once unified. With this brief presentation and his medical fellows’ negative responses, the filmmaker references that from the 1930s onward, Reich became an increasingly controversial researcher and psychoanalyst who was assiduous in not resorting to group think, inflexibility or slavish compromise. He was courageous in forging out on his own, finding like-minded individuals to work with.
Brandauer’s moderated, exceptional, understated yet dynamic performance reveals that Reich was not concerned about acceptance into the medical power structures that held sway in mainstream research medicine and mainstream psychiatry. The director/writer selected the events that reveal Reich detested playing politics and was his own man. Concerned with helping humanity and not puffing up his career institutionally, he believed that he had discovered a process that was more efficacious, beneficial and much less harmful than the current conventional medical practices being used. Outside of the hierarchy of conventional psychiatry, Reich assiduously continued with his research, enjoying wherever it led him which eventually was to Maine to found Orgonon (named after the town) where he built a laboratory, cottage and other buildings to study orgone energy. Today Orgonon comprises the Wilhelm Reich Museum, and cottages, one being the cottage Reich lived in with his family.
Predominately through episodes of flashback woven in with the present, the film focuses on the last years of Reich’s life in Maine, dissecting his arrest for contempt of court, the psychiatric evaluation, mainstream medical psychiatric practice in juxtaposition to Reich’s, the trial and the final outcomes.
The filmmaker devotes some attention to Reich’s orgone studies in Maine, his work with orgone boxes and their curative results on a farmer and his wife; these scenes are mingled with the scenes in the present. Other flashbacks include his reconciliation with his daughter Eva (Julia Jentsch) after years of estrangement, his relationship with his wife and partner, his loving relationship with his son.
We also see his relationship to his assistants, avid researchers and loyalists, except for the two who are spies for the government, one of whom was intimidated into providing information against Reich. These important episodes ground Reich in the reality that he is a man of observation and keen intelligence, a loving family man who is at peace with himself, that he is essentially trusting and is happy to engage others in his work. It is also made clear that because Reich is outside the mainstream of the medical establishment, he may be interpreted to be a danger and threat to it. Additionally, his observations about the effects of radiation testing and writings did not sit well with the Atomic Energy Commission during this time of McCarthyism and the Cold War’s overriding question: who would gain a supremacy of nuclear weapons, the US or the Soviet Union?
In an important segment of the film, the director has chosen to reveal the concurrent psychiatric practice employed by Dr. Cameron and others that Reich could have been involved in if he had elected to stay with the mainstream of “modern” psychiatry. These “therapies” included excessive electro shock treatment, drugs, lobotomies and other interventions, with no proven benefit to the patients and in some instances without their voluntary consent.
In a few scenes with one schizophrenic patient, we are brought to understand the calculating, Mengale-like, self-deification of Dr. Cameron. The power of his role gives Cameron the license to use experimental drugs, excessive electro shock and lobotomy to eradicate his subject’s memory and override his free will in the name of “finding a cure.” These scenes are terrifying. His therapies produce no admitted benefits and indeed they result in the patient’s suicide. However, as the President of the American, Canadian and World Psychiatric Associations, Dr. Cameron is considered a world class physician and researcher.
The scenes with Cameron (wonderful performance by Gary Lewis) and the schizophrenic-Thomas (Max Deacon) are dramatic. They portend the critical issues inherent in giving such power to individuals with no moral or ethical compunctions (in the film Cameron says morality and ethics don’t apply to the hippocratic oath). This is especially true when they, like Cameron, are not held accountable for their actions. Svoboda hones in on current themes: some power structures and people are “too big to fail.” Such happens when there is little regulation or accountability. If the doctors spurred on by drug companies used patients as guinea pigs, there was no one to stop them. Their legitimacy was upheld by group think and the fear of ostracism or worse.
Reich eschewed such practices referring to these psychiatrists as “idiots.” Meanwhile, his patients sat in his orgone boxes called accumulators. Anecdotal patient testimony was positive and patients reported being healed of various conditions (cancer among them) with no physical or mental harm or side effects. Without preaching or being didactic, just by revealing the incidents, the film raises important questions and by the end posits some answers. Why was Reich defamed in a press smear campaign in 1947 that made him appear crazy enough to warrant government investigation? Why was Dr. Cameron larded with honors and awarded prestige and presidencies though his horrific practices caused his patients untold harm even death? Why were government assets employed against Reich?
The film highlights the injustices that Reich suffered at the hands of government agents (CIA, FDA) and Dr. Cameron who controlled the medical power structure. Over the objections of the evaluating psychiatrist that Reich is not really fit to undergo a trial, Cameron overrides the report. We determine that he is motivated not by objective, clinical observation but by his own personal reasons. He makes sure that Reich goes to trial and loses, sealing Reich’s fate. With haughty arrogance, Dr. Cameron derides Reich to his face revealing that in the past he continually denied Reich’s applications to join various psychiatric associations. Reich is nonplussed; he understands who and what Cameron represents and he believes the man has no ultimate power over him. In this exchange, we further understand why Reich has been persecuted. He will not kowtow to such individuals.
In a shift back to the past, more of the mystery of Reich’s case is elucidated. The FDA and other agencies (CIA) used spies and subterfuge to characterize Reich’s orgone therapy as useless. In a particularly powerful scene, agents are questioning a Reich assistant who is a government spy.
The assistant tells agents what she has learned: that the orgone therapy will be ineffective if the patients are in the orgone boxes only for a brief period of time. The implication is that the government representatives have one purpose: close down Reich, regardless of the efficacy of his program, and perhaps because of it. It’s about power and who holds the reigns. It has little to do with beneficial results, healing efficacy or lack of harm to patients. The film makes this point clear: if the FDA was interested in testing any benefit from Reich’s orgone boxes, they would not have resorted to subterfuge or spying. The FDA would have sent out an official team of researchers and scientists. They didn’t; they created a spy network and adjusted their findings to their own needs.
Indeed, under scientific protocol there was no attempt to understand Eastern Medicine’s use of Chi (Reich’s claim for orgone energy) that had worked for thousands of years. Western medicine at the time didn’t “officially” accept anecdotal testimony or historical record that it couldn’t patent. So Reich’s ability to prove the benefits of orgone therapy using the empirical methods demanded by mainstream research and medicine was greatly limited. We see this at the trial; Reich’s attempts to discuss his research are fruitless. The DA who wants “hard proof.” The film intimates that mainstream medical research didn’t necessarily use perfect empirical research either. But by demanding “hard proof” the medical power structure could use that as a determination to judge and get rid of therapies, especially if researchers, like Reich, lacked resources and backing by prestigious associations.
These incidents and others indicate the government’s determination to deal with Reich by nullifying his work. The filmmaker suggests there are root explanations in the tensions of the Cold War. Whether Reich was a casualty of that war may be argued, but there is no mistaking the precarious justice that the FDA followed. Filmmakers show they went after Reich with a vengeance that is surprising in its malevolence. In a poignant scene beautifully rendered by Brandauer, agents force Reich to burn his life’s work, his orgone boxes and his tons of books. Brandauer is particularly brilliant in this scene holding the emotion in restraint as he sets the orgone boxes ablaze after he douses them with gasoline.
Forcing him to destroy his own work (often likened to digging one’s own grave and jumping in it before being shot) and burning his books has been labeled as the worst book banning in American History. Under the guise of protecting the American public from maniac Reich, it is a shaded throwback to book burnings under Nazi Germany fascism. The film’s final unspoken question remains, in the strange case of Wilhem Reich, from whom or what was the American public being protected?
SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the film, the information scrolls out the following facts
Dr. Cameron participated in the CIA’s MKULTRA mind control Program. The illegal program was carried out without informed consent on many unsuspecting victims in Canada and the U.S. Those who signed up voluntarily didn’t know what they were getting into. Whether they knew or they didn’t, in a number of instances the victims were injured permanently and some died.
Reich died in prison less than a month before he was up for parole. Reich was dressed (without his shoes on) and ready for the morning call for breakfast when he was found on his bunk dead. According to the prison physician, he died of a heart attack during the night. There was no autopsy performed.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
Opening Night of the 23rd annual New York Jewish Film Festival screened Friends from France (Les Interdits), written and directed by husband and wife team Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski. This was the U.S. premiere of the film which stars Soko, French singer and actress who most recently played the voice of Isabella in the film Her with Joaquin Phoenix. Weil and Kotlarski were present for a Q & A after the film. They clarified elements of characterization and choices they made with the film’s direction, discussing why they steered the film away from being solely political. They chose to make it more of a suspenseful, personal drama with political undertones as a backdrop for creating the film’s tense, thrilling atmosphere.
Friends from France is set at the height of the Cold War in 1979 Odessa when Soviet Jews were seeking asylum in Israel and America to escape the repression under the Brezhnev regime. The writers/directors achieve a chilling simulacrum of the oppressive environment the Jewish “refuseniks” and political asylum seekers confronted. With dark shadowy shots, washed out, grainy film, and hues of grey and bleeded out color, the predominantly nighttime action and cinematography reflects the impoverished settings, indicative of the lifestyle of the refuseniks who wanted to immigrate to Israel and were treated as enemies of the state. Filmmakers went to abandoned areas of East Germany to recreate the interior apartments and ramshackle dwellings as sets for the poor and rundown areas of Odessa where refuseniks lived in a world separate from the luxurious hotels, dachas, cafes, and restaurants enjoyed by those hooked into the communist party.
The film focuses on the relationship of nineteen-year-old idealist, Carole (Soko in a powerful performance) and Jérôme (Jérémie Lippmann) who are cousins on a mission that in their naiveté they don’t quite understand. As aides to an Israeli organization in France, they go undercover traveling to Soviet Russia to connect with Jewish refuseniks.
Posing as a couple on tour celebrating their recent engagement, they enter the country sneaking in banned books and other items at great peril to themselves. Carole is the political one who has been to Israel and she especially is working with others in Israel and France in the hope of eventually securing visas for refuseniks who are secretly in touch with an Israeli organization via “tourists” who visit from France. Jérôme is with her because he is attracted to Carol and this adventure; he enjoys being with her more than upholding the cause. The code words they use to connect with the refuseniks who are being closely surveilled are, “We are your friends from France.”
Jérôme and Carole must suppress their words and actions because there are “bugs” everywhere and the KGB is on hand to question and take away anyone who appears to be suspicious. The atmosphere the filmmakers create is truly frightening, especially when the young couple nearly get caught and when those they are helping are taken in and forcefully interrogated. During their time in Odessa, they learn the dark underbelly of the subterranean oppressed culture. They experience the harsh, seedy realities of totalitarianism, the potential exploitation of their youth by the Jewish organization, and the need for escapism through sex and drugs in the stultifying environment. And they befriend the refuseniks, especially Viktor (an excellent Vladimir Fridman) who entrusts Jérôme with a journal of his incredible survival story in the Gulag.
The journal is a subversive document. If it is found by the KGB it will result in imprisonment and torture of the one who possesses it and its author. To complicate matters Jérôme has fallen hopelessly in love with Carole and is devastated when she goes off with one of the “friends” from France. His jealously puts him in an emotional flux. The directors use his emotional state to heighten the suspense and further our anticipation that he is capable of taking unnecessary risks because of it.
Is Carole seeking love elsewhere to escape her love and desire for her cousin, Jérôme? In keeping his promise to Viktor, will Jérôme safely get the journal through customs? Or will he be caught, imperiling himself and jeopardizing the consummation of his love with Carole? The filmmakers are skillful in creating thrilling intrigue. The adventure culminates in an ironic surprise ending. Weill and Kotlarski successfully reinforce the themes which show the extent that love brings the cousins and friends together through sacrifice. It is a journey where only the finest can experience and fully understand the cost of political and personal freedom.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
Buying and selling Manhattan real estate! It’s all about being in the right place at the right time with the right clients. If the opportunity to sign a deal on a most fabulous place in Greenwich Village just dropped in your lap, you’d probably leap at it. What if it involved a smidgeon of shadiness and a soupcon of fraud?
The Tribute Artist by Charles Busch presents a hilarious scenario of three rather desperate, down on their luck characters, one attractive and potentially nefarious thief, and a $12 million dollar townhouse whose owner has recently died. From soup to nuts, this two act play is a cleverly written comedy that is beautifully acted by the ensemble cast and tightly directed by Carl Andress. Charles Busch, a Drama Desk Award winner for “Career Achievement as Playwright and Performer,” once again delights with his impeccable timing and comic genius in a play that skirts the edges of farce. The Tribute Artist’s trending humor, themes, and ironies are incisive and just shy of brilliant.
The play opens to the sumptuous living room of a Greenwich Village townhouse where we meet grand dame Adriana (the lively and funny Cynthia Harris), the homeowner. We appreciate Adriana’s sulfuric wit which she states, “is not nastiness, but my European sense of irony.” This “upper crust” lady is a former clothing designer and she is entertaining her down-to-earth and frenetic real estate broker, Rita (the excellent Julie Halston), who may or may not broker the townhouse sale. Jimmy (Charles Busch), a recently fired Las Vegas drag queen, who prefers to be called a “celebrity tribute artist,” is staying with Adriana for a while. When we are introduced to Rita and Jimmy, both are modeling Adriana’s designer clothing, and Jimmy is modeling one of her wigs. Rita and Jimmy have been long time friends. They enjoy Adriana’s hospitality as she fills in details from her past which, unbeknownst to them, are portentous to their future. When they all fall asleep from rather too much drink, the scene shifts to morning and the comedy and plot complications jolt into the most interesting of wonderful possibilities.
During the night, Adriana has passed; she did say she was dying, but Jimmy and Rita didn’t believe her. No one will inherit this lovely house and it will end up in the hands of the government since there are no inheritors and no will. The path appears to be clear that Adriana wants the house sold and is exerting her will that this should be exacted by those who are present. They are a perfect combination: a real estate broker and a female impersonator who just happens to have in his repertoire all the greats from Marilyn Monroe to Betty Davis. Impersonating “Adriana” will be easy. Jimmy and Rita talk themselves into the devilish plan (a hilarious segue), plotting that Jimmy will become Adriana for the time it takes Rita to sell the house. In the clear, they will split their “winnings” fifty/fifty. They even have the perfect resolution for how to deal with Adriana’s remains. Through their euphoria, they both agree that they may have forgotten something, only they aren’t sure what.
What they’ve forgotten shows up in the next scenes, creates havoc, and additional conundrums. The plot complications humorously involve the real heirs who will take the townhouse away from Rita and Jimmy. The inheritors are Adriana’s late husband’s loathsome relatives, niece Christina (a perfectly overwrought Mary Bacon) and grandniece Rachel Oliver (a fine Keira Keeley). An additional complication involves one of Adriana’s former lovers, the sexy Rodney (Jonathan Walker in a hysterical performance). Somehow Rita and Jimmy deal with these “interlopers” and Jimmy’s impersonation of Adriana goes swimmingly for a time until Rodney throws the switch that could overturn their peaceful coexistence. Once again the elements of farce are stepped up with the added suspense that Rodney may be up to something worse than the “silly little fraud” that Rita and Jimmy had hoped to commit.
While spinning these humorous events, the playwright carefully weaves in issues of class, gender, identity, and social injustice. He does this with wit and subtle undercurrents of poignancy in keeping with the comedic pacing. Added to the glee, Jimmy unleashes his repertoire of old-time celebrity actresses with snippets of dialogue from their most famous scenes. Rosalyn Russel, Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis, and others show up and aptly spout “wisdom” to heighten the madness. In his impersonations Busch is at the apex of his powers. His “Running Wild” is superb. If you don’t know which actress performed the song from which iconic film, then you’ll have to get yourself to 59E59 Theaters where the production is being performed. Rita will clue you in to the impersonations just in case you were born after 1990.
The playwright ties up all the complications and reveals the inner workings of each character reinforcing one of the main themes: one never knows how things will turn out in the end. In Busch’s iteration the phrasing is more poetic. The production will be running until March 16th. It is being presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, written and performed by Billy Hayes and currently at St. Luke’s Theatre, is a profound and illuminating theatrical experience that will leave you uplifted and inspired.
Directed by John Gould Rubin, the production is a reexamination of Hayes’s experiences in Turkey in the 1970s, when he was smuggling hashish, caught, and given a life sentence in a Turkish prison. Some of the gruesome aspects of the story were chronicled in the film Midnight Express.
Many were not. This Off Broadway production sheds a bright light on events the film left out, some harrowing and some magnificent. Though the film was based loosely on Hayes’s book Midnight Express, whole swaths of experience were eliminated and fabrications added. This show is Hayes’ revelation about the full truth of his past and how it influenced his journey into the present.
Since Hayes’s solo performance relates to the film, it is necessary to review why the impact of this one-man show is so vital by comparison. When it was released in 1978, Midnight Express received worldwide acclaim and garnered 16 awards including two for Best Writing (screenplay based on material from another medium) and Best Music (original score). It even received a Golden Globe for Best Picture in the category of Drama. If they didn’t read the book, people believed Oliver Stone’s screenplay. It portrayed Hayes’s rollicking jaunt to Turkey, his arrest, his unjust trial, and his ghoulish nightmare after being sentenced to a life in the abomination of desolation: the Turkish prison. The audience was kept in suspense and horror watching the character’s devolution in prison and his nullifying flirtation with insanity. When Hayes unbelievably escapes, easily walking out into freedom without being seen by anyone, the audience feels tremendous relief that the hell is over and Hayes is free.
In Hayes’s live performance we discover that this “walk-out” did not happen, and what did was far more frightening. Indeed, his real escape to freedom took much longer and was a desperate, gripping survival story. As Hayes relates it, we cannot help but be astounded by each miraculous event that, domino-style, brought him closer to freedom. The “walk-out” as presented by the filmmakers was sheer Hollywood gloss and actually a diminution of Hayes’s character, resourcefulness and inner strength.
What particularly makes his one-man show so engrossing and compelling is Hayes‘s natural spontaneity. With his fine acting talents (he is a writer, actor and director), he aptly conveys the full import of and real events relating to his capture, arrest, trial, prison time and incredible escape. What is equally edifying is the discussion of his life afterward and his personal growth as an individual, a social advocate and a culturally dynamic American.
As we watch Hayes deliver his unexpurgated account, we are able to receive it in the entirety of its depth and detail. Unencumbered by any restraints, Hayes finally has free reign. Through his vibrant descriptions and vivid language we understand his thoughts, his unique perspectives; we come to know the mind of Billy Hayes. His performance is one of unbounded clarity. Hayes expresses the soul of an age that is current and ongoing. To say the message is life-giving is an understatement.
As we receive the truth of his presence, the deep issues and themes of freedom, love, enlightenment and growth become more real and heartfelt than what the film ever could convey. Indeed, Hayes understands the essence of his life’s journey. We recognize its vitality and note that it has far-reaching implications for our culture and society today. With great courage Hayes bares his soul and our souls follow, opened to his immeasurable riches of spirit. The film was a mere shadow of what he effects and gives us in this performance over 35 years later.
Whether it was intentioned or not, the film was a cautionary tale that delivered lessons about the Muslim world and more specifically, Turkey. First, that Turkey was a brutal country and its prisons cesspits; one should not travel there as a lark to flout the laws. Second, that Turkish justice was no justice.
Considering U.S. politics in the 1970s, the film was a boon for American culture, and Billy Hayes was a hero. The film encouraged a feeling of patriotism (at a time when the culture needed this). Against Turkey and other Muslim countries, it spawned a host of travel warnings for Americans abroad. In its associative portrayal of hashish and marijuana, it was a negative advertisement. Though marijuana and hashish, its concentrated form, were plant-based drugs, un-patentable and used medicinally and recreationally across many cultures for millennia, Nixon’s “war on drugs” (related to Hayes’ prison sentence) sealed their doom. In the Q&A after his performance, Hayes’s commentary about the film’s impact (related to marijuana’s illegality, and many other issues) was fascinating.
Why filmmakers re-characterized Hayes’s experiences in prison, the Turkish court, and especially his escape is up for conjecture. In any case, the reality of what actually occurred as Hayes relates in his solo performance inspires hope, courage and peace. If that message was not politically or culturally efficacious for the time, so be it. But now a new generation of individuals will be exposed to the story. Its truth and its reckoning have finally come. This is a performance not to be missed.
Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes is being presented by Barbara Ligeti with Jeffrey Altshuler and Edmund Gaynes. Co-producers are Jonathan Chang, Jann Cobler, Exodus Broadway and Joseph Trent Siff. The production is running through March 23 at St. Luke’s Theatre on 308 West 46th Street.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
The fourth year of the Athena Film Festival, held at Barnard College February 6-9th, was an incredible experience for women and men. Foremost, the festival organizers and participants collaborated in their appreciation and recognition of those who have taken an active part in raising the banner of global film movements. Panel presenters, filmmakers, audience members, and sponsors gathered with the hope that as they express their dynamism in whatever talents and walks of life they embrace through film, they will continue to motivate women toward leadership, autonomy, creativity, and inspiration. Ultimately, doing so will only benefit culture and society as a whole.
Co-Founders Kathryn Kolbert (Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College) and Melissa Silverstein (Women and Hollywood) introduced many of the screenings and master classes. The films included a wide range of features, documentaries, shorts, and “works-in-progress” for critical review.. There were master classes for filmmakers, panels and special events: opening film after-party, luncheons and receptions and the Athena Film Festival Award Ceremony..
Festival highlights included the awards bestowed. On hand for the ceremony was Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, Regina K. Scully, CEO and Founder of Artemis Rising Foundation-the Athena Film Festival’s founding sponsor, Festival Co-Chairs, Co-Founders, illustrious recipients and others.
This year Sherry Lansing was the recipient of the Laura Ziskin Lifetime Achievement Award given to a women in the film industry whose leadership demonstrated vision and courage and set a standard for other women to follow. 2014 Awards went to Callie Khouri, Oscar-Winning writer and film and TV creator and director, Kasi Lemmons, gifted actress, director and writer and Keri Putnam, Executive Director of the Sundance Institute. Each of these women is responsible for their groundbreaking achievements assisting women in gaining voice and power to maintain leadership positions. They continue to make a tremendous impact for women in the media industry with current projects.
These women have helped other women begin to move among their male counterparts. However, the statistics the festival reported are not as encouraging as one would hope. Among the films shown at Sundance in 2013, 29% of filmmakers were women and 71% were men.
There is a lot that must be accomplished and with the gap in economies of scale and increasing difficulty in achieving funding, women will be challenged more than ever to be innovative, forward thinking, and ahead of the curve, finding partnerships with others who recognize the acute sensibilities and resonances women can contribute to touching a cultural wellspring of film audiences that are increasingly dominated by women.
This 4th Annual Athena Film Festival article first appeared on Blogcritics.