Friday, August 11, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine: The Iceman Filmeth

The kind of pity I feel now is after final results that will really save the poor guy, and make him contented with what he is, and quit battling himself, and find peace for the rest of his life. Oh, I know how you resent the way I have to show you up to yourself. I don't blame you. I know from my own experience it's bitter medicine, facing yourself in the mirror with the old false whiskers off. But you forget that, once you're cured.

A lengthy quote is no way to begin a movie review, especially when the movie in question is as trifling as Little Miss Sunshine. But in case you didn't recognize it, this one comes from Act II of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, in which hardware salesman Hickey tries to persuade a roomful of drunks to abandon the dreams that keep them alive and kicking. If that strikes you as a can't-miss comic premise, then you might be able to laugh at Little Miss Sunshine and still respect yourself in the morning. For my part, I don't think I can -- and I doubt most sane people who give this movie so much as a minute's thought will laugh much, either.

Little Miss Sunshine serves up that most venerable of American indie-film cliches, the "road movie." The plot, what there is of it, concerns a family which travels from Albuquerque to Orange County, California, in order to enter the seven-year-old daughter in a beauty pageant. (Actually, most of the film seems to have been shot in California, and it's pretty clear that neither screenwriter Michael Arndt nor co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris know much about the geography of the American West.) Since this is an independent film, the family must travel in the most inappropriate vehicle possible -- in this case, a canary-yellow VW bus. See, this film is called Little Miss Sunshine, so the yellow vehicle represents "sunshine." But the sunshine bus is also meant to be ironic since the family's last name is "Hoover," which symbolizes "suckiness." Little Miss Sunshine is packed to the gills with symbolism and irony, which I suspect are meant to pass for wit and insight.

Of course, on this particular road trip the destination doesn't matter, nor does the journey. It's all a device to get these characters in a vulnerable position, so that their ambitions will be that much easier to crush. And make no mistake, gentle reader: Crushing characters' ambitions is what Little Miss Sunshine is really about. The father (Greg Kinnear) wants to be a motivational speaker, but lacks sufficient name recognition; sullen son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence to become a fighter pilot. The grandfather (Alan Arkin, reprising his loudmouth shtick from Slums of Beverly Hills) wants sex; the daughter (Abigail Breslin) wants to be beautiful. It is the film's business to chasten them all, and our business to laugh at these monkeys. Only the mother -- played by Toni Collette, who in real life (and on stage) is strikingly beautiful, but who in the movies is always made to look frumpy and forbidding -- doesn't get her hopes dashed, in part because she has no hope to begin with. She has accepted her place as matriarch of a dysfunctional brood.

Also "pre-crushed," in his way, is manic-depressive homosexual Uncle Frank -- played by Steve Carell -- who has lost his cushy academic position and attempted suicide, all over an obsessive love affair. Terminally miserable and lonely, he is reduced to infantile dependency, and always seems one step away from a Children's Hour-style meltdown. And judging from the favorable response among the largely heterosexual preview audience with whom I saw this film, he's precisely the kind of homosexual that straight people like to see. This is the low man on the nuclear family's totem pole, unable to take care of himself. We know Uncle Frank will never discombobulate anyone by falling in love or having sex. His task in this movie is to make heterosexuals feel superior, both within the film and among the audience, and he succeeds marvelously. I find it interesting that the film's producers couldn't find a Gay actor to fill this role; I doubt many openly Gay actors would have consented to it.

Then again, anyone who feels compassion or sympathy for these characters is probably missing the point, which is that they're all petit-bourgeois chumps who deserve to be taken down but hard. Sadism and smugness practically ooze from the screen: One can sense Dayton's and Faris's delight as they wallow in the Hoovers' hideous wood paneling, the bleak decor of cheap, off-the-interstate motels, stark desert landscapes, the grimy interior of the VW bus, the unrelieved tackiness of the children's beauty pageant. The film's art design is deliberately, consistently ugly, making Little Miss Sunshine genuinely unpleasant to watch. What's more, the Hoovers meet a number of characters on their journey who seem to have as much fun abusing them as the audience has laughing at them. An eccentric indie-rock soundtrack from Devotchka tries to make the whole thing seem hip and funny, but at bottom it's pretty repugnant.

Still, Little Miss Sunshine is not altogether devoid of humanity, mostly owing to a few solid performances (Paul Dano's comic timing is especially sharp) and one standout turn from Abigail Breslin. As seven-year-old Olive Hoover, Breslin provides the film's only moment of genuine, full-throttle hilarity, ripping the veneer of civility from a children's beauty pageant (and from this condescending arthouse flick) with disarming innocence. In anyone else's hands, the film's climax would come across as the unbearably crass, borderline-obscene conceit that it truly is. Yet Breslin's charm and intelligence -- and more importantly, her complete lack of self-consciousness -- turn the filmmakers' leaden ideas into comic gold. She's a fascinating young actress, and I hope she finds better roles soon.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center: Have a Nice Apocalypse

When G.K. Chesterton first saw the glittering lights of Broadway, he reportedly exclaimed, "What a marvelous sight for those who cannot read!" Oliver Stone's World Trade Center would also be a marvelous sight -- admittedly of a very different sort -- for those who cannot speak English. If Stone were to take a cue from Mel Gibson and make his next film in Aramaic, ancient Urdu or even Pig Latin, I think most of us could understand and forgive the man. Much as I may loathe World Trade Center, I'll admit that Stone's capacity for powerful imagery is unsurpassed among American filmmakers. Language, however, is not his strong suit.

And yet the first half-hour of World Trade Center represents Stone's best work as a director, in part because he knows precisely what to show and what to leave unseen. He establishes the characters of his working-joe Port Authority policemen economically, evoking them with swift, deft brushstrokes even as he reminds us that most of these people will very shortly -- and tragically -- be dead. He offers only a fleeting glimpse of an airplane's shadow, flitting incongruously across the face of a Lower Manhattan high-rise, but the brevity and uncanniness of the image elicit involuntary gasps of horror. Stone follows his characters into a collapsing building, never allowing us to see more than they would see, and when the inevitable cataclysm occurs, it is conveyed as much through sound as sight.

The problem is that once the World Trade Center towers fall, the film doesn't know where to go or what to do. To a great extent America has had this problem as well: After nearly five years since the September 11 attacks, our nation seems as incapable of a coherent response as Stone is. Aside from a brief, successful campaign into Afghanistan, the much-vaunted "War on Terror" has been a long, demoralizing slog with no end in sight. And the natural epilogue to this tale -- a new World Trade Center rebuilt on the ashes of the old -- is missing, leaving a large crater in the Financial District where some sort of closure should be. We look to artists to find solutions to these problems, or at least to address them in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, the last ninety minutes of World Trade Center fail on both counts.

With no clear direction to his narrative, and with his two protagonists (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) trapped under tons of rubble, the director wanders aimlessly through the physical, social and cultural wreckage of 9/11. He focuses on policemen in Wisconsin, who travel to New York in order to serve bratwurst sandwiches to emergency responders; he brings in a former Marine who feels the call of duty and reenlists in the wake of these attacks. Mostly, though, he looks at the wives of the trapped policemen, and chronicles their journey through a purgatory of Port Authority bureaucrats, hospital emergency rooms. Stone presents these events without commentary, or for that matter a point of view. He offers a series of compelling images, not particularly dramatic in itself. When it works, it seems more like photojournalism than cinema.

But when it doesn't work, as is often the case, World Trade Center comes across as a mawkish, embarrassing exercise in bad taste. A vision of a Catholic-school Jesus, complete with sacred heart, holding a water bottle may well be in keeping with what Michael Pena's trapped policeman would experience beneath the rubble, but unless Stone wanted the audience to respond with sniggers and chortles, there was no reason to put it onscreen (let alone to show it twice). Nicolas Cage's imaginary conversations with his wife are maudlin, as are more naturalistic conversations between Cage and Pena on the merits of the Demi Moore film G.I. Jane. (Their conclusion, in case you're wondering, is that watching G.I. Jane is better than being buried under tons of concrete and steel, with an occasional fireball whizzing over one's head. I agree, though not by much.) Stone's defense of these excesses is in the film's opening frames: This film, he reminds us, is based on the accounts of actual participants. So if a guy tells Stone he saw Jesus with a water bottle, Jesus goes in the movie. This may be responsible reportage, but it's lazy art.

The film's attitude toward global terrorism is much more worrisome. If the 9/11 attacks taught America anything, it is that global terrorism must be confronted and stopped before it can claim innocent lives. We may dispute how best to go about ending terrorism, or whether the Bush administration's strategy is in any way effective, but after 9/11 we cannot argue that the threat of terrorism should remain unaddressed. Yet for the most part, terrorism does go unaddressed in World Trade Center: Viewers who fail to pay close attention may well think that two passenger jets flew themselves into those towers (and as Donald Rumsfeld has noted, stuff happens). Certainly the film itself does not mention that human beings caused this devastation, or that those human beings were radical followers of Islam. Nor does Stone feature the news footage, indelible to those who lived through this disaster, of Palestinians dancing in the streets for joy. One fleeting image of an Islamic cleric, presumably Middle Eastern, occurs during the obligatory montage of religious leaders praying for America. I don't doubt that some Muslim leaders did pray for us in the immediate aftermath of these attacks, but many others did not. Stone's implication that the Muslim world's denunciation of 9/11 was prompt and monolithic is dishonest at best.

Inasmuch as World Trade Center attempts to commemorate the 9/11 attacks without mentioning that human beings were responsible for the death and suffering, it must be seen as a colossal act of bad faith, on par with the black screen that opens Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore's "documentary" ("docu-ganda"?) employed a strategy of erasure: By avoiding all images of 9/11, yet presenting the carnage within Iraq and Afghanistan in intimate, bloody detail, Moore could claim that America's response to terrorism was out of proportion to any real threat. Stone takes a subtler and more effective tack, opting to minimize these attacks: In World Trade Center the collapse of the Twin Towers is simply a routine natural disaster, like a typhoon or an earthquake. No one is to blame, and in any case a little of it might actually be good for us. For as Nicolas Cage reassures us (in voiceover, no less), terrorism reveals the goodness and generosity of the American character.

World Trade Center wants to give us the happy side of terrorism, and luckily, Stone is such a talented filmmaker that we can almost swallow his "Capra-corn" while the celluloid unspools. This message, however, might be too Pollyanna-ish even for the director of It's a Wonderful Life. We never question that Nicolas Cage's wounded policeman will emerge from the rubble a more loving husband and father; nor can we doubt that his wife (an uncharacteristically bland Maria Bello) will be more sympathetic and supportive because of her ordeal. Stone wants to say that the horror of 9/11 was a mere test of character, nothing more; it made indidviduals better, families tighter, and the country stronger. He even concludes his picture with a heartwarming picnic, in an obvious reassurance that Life Will Go On -- as it undoubtedly has, save for millions of Americans for whom life will never go on as before, and some three thousand people for whom life did not go on at all.

Near the end of the film, one Marine (played by Michael Shannon) vows to "avenge" the 9/11 attacks. His resolve seems strangely misguided, out of step with the overall optimistic tone. By emphasizing the silver lining of terrorism, World Trade Center inadvertently suggests that, instead of destroying the extremists who menace us, we should give them our hearty thanks. After all, the terrorists of 9/11 must have rendered a valuable service, if they showed us that we're all good, decent people at heart. Still, if it takes a deadly act of global terrorism for us to know our true nature, we're probably better off ignorant.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Summer Theater Overview, Part 3: Disaster at Ash Lawn

(coming soon)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Summer Theater Overview, Part 2: LiveArts gets livelier

(Belated reviews of All My Sons, Urinetown, Psychopathia Sexualis, Mr. Marmalade, Anna Karenina, short plays)

If Heritage Rep, Four County Players, Ash Lawn Opera, and the various independent groups working in and around Charlottesville over the summer were suddenly to cease operations, we could still count ourselves blessed with a lively theatrical summer, thanks to LiveArts. With a worthy production of Arthur Miller's first major play, a stripped-to-the-bone Summer Theater Festival, and the best musical of the summer (if not the year), LiveArts ended its 2005-2006 season with one rousing success after another.

Since All My Sons played in early June, ending its run well before the summer solstice, it might be counted a spring production. But any way you look at it, LiveArts gave this play a lively go. Miller's script is simple-minded rubbish, as I noted last year, but as long as the audience accepts everything that happens more or less without question, it plays well enough. The secret to directing Miller, I suspect, is to pretend to be serious, and not give the audience enough time to realize how absurd it is. Certainly director William Rough kept the LiveArts production moving at a brisk clip, which is pretty much all one can ask given the material's shortcomings.

All My Sons is basically the first of Miller's "I Hate Daddy" plays, though his next work, Death of a Salesman, would represent his foremost achievement in the field. In All My Sons, as in Death, Daddy is detestable because he represents "the system" of capitalism, and capitalism kills people. But in Sons, Bad Daddy is more than a self-deluded suicide or a mere adulterer; he's a war profiteer and a murderer. As Joe Keller, whose surname is only one letter removed from "killer," Thomas Burke gave an appropriately anguished performance. Chris Estey's performance as his son, who discovers his father's war profiteering and renounces him, could have become terminally dour, had Estey not rescued the part with a healthy dose of personal charm. As Kate Keller (to whom Miller's script always refers as "Mother"), Linda Waller did as well as she could with a badly written, inconsistent part. Waller even delivered the classic clinker "Nobody in this house dast take her faith away!" with enough conviction to stifle the audience's natural giggle reflex. No mean feat, that.

In a subplot that I think is meant to parallel the main action, a local doctor is held back from his dream of low-paid lab research by a conniving wife who wants to retain the comforts of middle-class domesticity. As a writer, Miller was never stronger than when he exploited misogynistic stereotypes -- and that may be why wife-from-hell Sue Bayliss is the most vividly realized character in the play. She's a monster, pure and simple, and Nancy Chappell captured the part perfectly. Unfortunately, Bill LeSueur, an actor I usually admire, seemed rather colorless as the good doctor -- a man who could be so much better, Miller implies, if the evils of capitalism (i.e., his wife) weren't always in the way.

A libertarian friend of mine noted that this play, if considered closely, doesn't (or maybe dassn't) indict capitalism at all. It could just as easily prove that government contracts kill people, or for that matter, that soldiers die in wartime. But All My Sons takes place in Miller Land, where the rules of logic, plausibility and verisimilitude don't necessarily apply.

Capitalism-bashing at LiveArts continued apace with a near-flawless production of the Mark Hollmann/Greg Kotis musical Urinetown. Like All My Sons, Urinetown proclaims that capitalism is murder -- but unlike Miller, it finds that the brave new world of socialism is merely another slaughterhouse. This may be enough to convince a few gullible critics of potentially conservative intent, but what we really have is the nihilistic spectacle of left-wing liberalism devouring itself. Since Urinetown is a musical comedy, it drowns its inevitable loathing and despair in sarcasm and parody. Still, if the show's politics are as self-destructive as an average Democratic Convention, at least the show itself is fall-down funny.

Like Heritage Rep's Sunday, the tone of Urinetown changed drastically during its four-week run: On the first weekend, the performances were a bit too serious and Brechtian, though the production itself was nonetheless superb. But by the final curtain, the cast had lightened the tone and improved the show immensely. Director John Gibson deserves immense credit for adapting to changing conditions, and his own fondness for avant-garde theater seemed to serve this show especially well.

The plot concerns a town where private toilets have been outlawed, public toilets are heavily taxed, and people who can't hold their water or pay the necessary fees are shipped off to the eponymous Urinetown (which, as one character explains, might not be a place so much as "a metaphysical place"). Naturally, a revolution is in the making -- and as befits the title, the outcome isn't pretty. As revolutionary everyman Bobby Strong, Jonathan Green seemed a bit weak vocally, and failed to put over some of the show's best lines, yet his fresh-faced innocence suited the character well. Alice Reed gave a winning performance as Hope Cladwell, who falls in love with Strong basically because the plot requires it, but Dan Stern was much too over-the-top as her father, urinal magnate Caldwell B. Cladwell. (Stern never seemed to connect with the rest of the cast.) As "Little Sally," a Baby Snooks knockoff who comments on the show and points out every plot hole, Karie Miller was always on target; as Officer Lockstock, Michael Horan gave his lines a nicely smarmy, condescending edge.

Jeff Bushman's set design took full advantage of the LiveArts performance space (nicknamed "El Capitan" for its rather alarming height) with plenty of scaffolding, a movable tower, and even a yellow Art Deco logo. But the real star of Urinetown was choreographer Rob Petres, co-founder of Ground Zero Dance Company. Ground Zero is probably best known for Moment of Flight, an exhausting movement piece for non-dancers, who run up several near-vertical walls during the grand finale. I've never seen better work from Petres than what he did for Urinetown, sending up everything from Threepenny Opera to Busby Berkeley musicals in high style and even a touch of poetry. The crowning achievement, though, was his staging of "Cop Song," which turned a throwaway comic number into a three-ring circus, complete with death-defying actors swinging from rafters, an impromptu, bang-on-a-can percussion solo from Jared Kassebaum, and a sly spoof of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on the side. Petres's "Cop Song" was not only a show-stopping musical number, it was the best piece of performance art to hit Charlottesville this summer. One hopes that it, or something very much like it, will find its way into Ground Zero's permanent repertoire.

Running simultaneously with Urinetown was the annual LiveArts Summer Theater Festival, and like everything else at LiveArts this summer, it was uncommonly strong. This year's STF consisted of four small-scale offerings, all pretty solid: John Patrick Shanley's Psychopathia Sexualis, Noah Handle's Mr. Marmalade, Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Anna Karenina, and a brief program of original short plays from the LiveArts Playwrights' Lab. As always with the Summer Theater Festival, the shows are offbeat and production values are beyond minimalist ("bleak" might be the best word to describe them), but the directors and actors are usually so passionate about the material that the results almost always transcend any budgetary limitations.

I liked Edmundson's Anna Karenina best, an ingenious ninety-minute condensation of Tolstoy's novel that presents a basic outline of the story while commenting on its form and critiquing its implications. The play, which combines traditional drama, dance and "story theater," is no substitute for reading the book, but it stands quite well on its own. Edmundson constructs the play as a dialogue between the unhappy protagonist and the supporting character Meyer Levin, echoing the dialectic between Anna's unhappy romance and Levin's happy one. Although Anna and Levin meet only once, briefly, Edmundson suggests a profound connection between the two characters, and in doing so brings out Tolstoy's double standard of sexual morality.

As Anna, Cindy Leal contributed a rich, multi-layered performance that did justice to one of the great heroines of world literature. Ben Jamieson nearly matched her as Levin, and the two actors carried the play. Of the supporting cast, Nathan Beatty made the deepest impression, as Anna's cold, unforgiving husband. Director Sally Story should be commended for her ambition, but owing to insufficient rehearsal time, the cast tended to stumble through its first weekend of performances. By the second weekend, however, they had their lines and movements memorized, though they never seemed quite at ease with the material.

Before seeing Psychopathia Sexualis I had not thought of John Patrick Shanley as a ritualistic playwright, but the structure of this ninety-minute, two-act farce is so thoroughly overdetermined that it feels almost liturgical. Given that the play's subject involves personal and sexual dysfunction (especially as it pertains to upper-crust, male New Yorkers), the use of ritual would seem not altogether inappropriate, but whether it should be this particular ritual is open to debate. Psychopathia has the clean, clear lines of later dramas like Doubt and Defiance, but it's not nearly up to their caliber. It's a minor work, deeply flawed yet revealing, from a playwright who may prove a major contributor to American theater.

The plot involves a scheming psychiatrist who has stolen a patient's prized pair of argyle socks, and two other characters who attempt to retrieve the socks from the doctor's clutches. At stake is the patient's sexual potency -- a critical issue in light of his impending marriage -- and needless to say, what transpires is too symbolically overloaded for its own good. In the first act, the patient's best friend attempts to get the socks, and instead falls prey to the psychiatrist's wily machinations and to his own self-delusion. In the second, the fiancee gets involved and sets things right, as one would expect in a classical farce. This would all be rather dull if Shanley's dialogue didn't sparkle with wicked humor, or if the major characters were less compellingly drawn.

The five-person cast managed Shanley's twists and turns quite well, but two performances were conspicuously good. As the nefarious "Dr. Block," Mark Valahovic gave his scenes an unexpectedly sexy twist, making his character doubly dangerous. (Valahovic also directed.) But the star of the show was unquestionably Richelle Claiborne, an African-American actress/singer/celebrity who just might the Next Big Thing to come out of Charlottesville. As fiancee Lucille, a Texas transplant whose traditional values triumph over New Yorker neuroses, Claiborne is spicy hot, and delivers each zinger as if flashing a Ph.D. from the Royal Academy of "Yo' Mama" Smackdowns. Claiborne's performance was perhaps spicier than Shanley would have intended (a good thing), but as long as she held the stage, the energy never flagged and the bellylaughs never stopped.

Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade has been produced off-Broadway -- one could hardly imagine this play about incest, abuse, molestation and abandonment on Broadway -- and although I have serious problems with the material, I found it an intriguing work. Haidle has an excellent grasp of how a child's mind works, in particular how children use their imaginations to make sense of events they otherwise can't grasp, and he makes these imaginative workings grandly dramaric. What he doesn't convey so well is how a child speaks or relates to others in the real world. So despite all that Mr. Marmalade gets right, it feels less than convincing as a whole.

(more to come)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Summer Theater Overview, Part I: Heritage Rep keeps talking happy talk

(Belated reviews of South Pacific, Nunsense, Enchanted April, Don't Hug Me and Sunday in the Park with George.)

During the summer, especially the three-week period from mid-July onwards, the city of Charlottesville becomes something like a theater lover's paradise. So, gentle reader, if you were wondering where I was at over the past month, now you know: I was at the theater. For the most part, I enjoyed myself, too. But since the fifteen local productions are a bit much for a single post, I'll break the theater overview into four parts: One for the season at Heritage Repertory Theatre, one for LiveArts (which, against all odds, outshone Heritage Rep), one for this year's disastrous season at Ash Lawn Opera (the only shows still playing, alas), and a final post for the Charlottesville Wunderkammer, a performance-art festival that drew surprisingly large crowds.

The first part, of course, goes to UVA's own Heritage Rep, a summer-stock company that actually takes care of its mostly college-age actors. Heritage Rep advertised its 2006 season as if it were a passport to exotic lands -- the sorts of places no one can afford to visit, now that gasoline is topping three dollars a gallon. But for me, the most noteworthy aspect of this year's season was that Heritage Rep produced four musicals and only one "straight" play, Matthew Barber's adaptation of Enchanted April. In a way, the focus on musicals is a good business decision for the troupe: Heritage Rep's audience is comprised mainly of families and the elderly (with the emphasis, as they say, on the latter), and they usually stay away from non-musicals. But Heritage Rep has managed to stage some meaty, straight dramatic fare in the past -- including the regional premiere of David Auburn's Proof -- so I'd hate to think that this year might signal a trend away from that sort of thing.

The quality of the shows this year was wildly uneven: Pulitzer Prize winners like South Pacific and Sunday in the Park with George were placed beside mediocre fare like Nunsense and Enchanted April. The worst show in the bunch, however -- and with one exception, the worst thing I've seen this year in Charlottesville -- was the Paul Olson/Phil Olson musical Don't Hug Me. At one time, Heritage Rep claimed that its plays and musicals represented the best of America's theatrical heritage. Not anymore.

That said, the season began promisingly, with Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific, and ended fairly well with Sunday in the Park with George. Both shows were directed by Heritage Rep's artistic director Bob Chapel, and each one demonstrated the shortcomings I've come to expect from his work. Chapel works quickly, and his productions are seldom static, but they seldom have much snap to them, and characterization is not particularly deep. In the case of South Pacific, Chapel seems not to have understood how to pace the show -- though to be fair, I'm not sure I know how to pace it, either -- and the evening sagged.

Although South Pacific is the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical not to receive a major Broadway revival, I'm convinced it's a masterpiece. Hammerstein's writing flows seamlessly from prose to lyrics, and even Joshua Logan's requisite beefcake-soldier scenes seem less gratuitous and homoerotic than usual. Unfortunately, I've never seen a production of South Pacific that succeeded onstage. Part of the problem, I think, is that I can never get past the character of Bloody Mary, the island native who cheerfully sells shrunken heads, instructs us all to "keep talking happy talk," and punctuates every sentence with her insinuating "You like?" Well, no -- I don't like. In 1949, when South Pacific opened on Broadway, it was meant to indict racial prejudice; now, thanks mainly to Bloody Mary, the show seems more like a white-supremacist fantasy. As Heritage Rep's Bloody Mary, Marthe Rowen (who is not, to my knowledge, a Pacific Islander) failed to light much of a spark, though her acting was fair and her voice excellent.

Heritage regular Eugene Carr seemed too old to play Luther Billis; as Lieutenant Cable, Rob Marnell looked like he'd been conked on the head with a rubber mallet. (Marnell would more than redeem himself later in the season, breaking out of ingenue roles in high style with a spectacular performance as Georges Seurat.) To be fair, Cable is a difficult role, and director Chapel may not have helped matters by forcing Marnell to play love scenes against a barely pubescent Liat. The Broadway chestnut "Younger than Springtime" never sounded so creepy. As Ensign Nellie Forbush, Nancy Snow offered a passable Mary Martin impersonation, while T. Doyle Leverett made an engaging Emil De Becque (though he never seemed quite Continental enough for the role).

For a production of South Pacific to work onstage, it needs a brilliant director who can reinvent the show. With the right director, I suspect we might more easily understand characters' motives -- why Cable would show so much interest in a woman he's just met, for instance, or why Nellie Forbush would fall in love with a man old enough to be her grandfather, or why Bloody Mary would want to pawn her daughter off on a callow and none-too-wealthy American. I suspect these questions are answered at least implicitly in Hammerstein's book, but I've never seen them explained satisfactorily onstage. The other, more urgent problems with the show are its preachiness and hypocrisy: Hammerstein's message in favor of interracial dating has itself dated badly (though it might still resonate somewhat at Bob Jones University), and although it seems to encourage its characters to look beyond the color line in their pursuit of love, it always keeps the audience safely on the White side of life.

I have less to say about Dan Goggin's Nunsense, a piece of fluff that nonetheless offers a surprisingly high-spirited and sympathetic portrait of convent life. That said, author/composer Goggin also packs Nunsense with tasteless Gay innuendo and obscure musical-theater references, all of which compromise his characters (though not fatally). There's not much of a plot -- five nuns put on a benefit show to save their convent -- but it's a solid enough clothesline for hokey humor and second-rate songs. (The number "Growing Up Catholic" is the show's one standout.) At Heritage Rep, director Renee Dobson grasped the show's shtick but missed its heart, and although the cast was technically proficient, none of them seemed committed to their characters. Ultimately, the success of Nunsense depends on whether the five actresses in the cast can convince us that they're really nuns -- and in Heritage Rep's production, they didn't. Still, Tom Bloom's scenic design managed the unusual and none-too-easy task of fitting a proscenium show onto a thrust stage. The show is so good-natured that it can please an audience even when it doesn't work, which might explain why Goggin's little confection has become a staple of community theater for twenty years, inspiring six sequels (if you count the all-male version).

Matthew Barber's Enchanted April, the only straight play of the 2006 season, is a pleasant but inconsequential adaptation of Elizabeth Von Arnim's pleasant but inconsequential 1922 novel, in which four Englishwomen travel to Italy to find love and renewal. Echoes of Henry James, E.M. Forster and Norman Douglas abound in the novel, of course, but the play jettisons most of these introspective qualities (along with the characters' original names) in favor of broad, farcical humor -- including the usual complications of mistaken identity and the not-so-typical device of an exploding bathtub. There's another, structural peculiarity in Barber's adaptation: The dreary first act, set entirely in England, covers only the first four chapters of the novel, while his second act, set entirely in Italy, compresses the remaining eighteen chapters into less than ninety minutes. Although the concept is potentially interesting, it suffers in the execution: Barber's first act comes across as largely dispensible, and tonally out of keeping with the second-act shenanigans. Still, when the play is funny, it's very funny, if in a decidedly unsophisticated manner: At its best, Barber's Enchanted April comes closer to Fawlty Towers than A Room with a View. That's hardly a bad thing, to be sure, and Heritage Rep's eight-member cast made the most of the comedy. Standouts include Faith Noelle Hurley as a bored young aristocrat, Daria T. Okugawa as a prudish dowager, and Matt Fletcher as the world's most charming landlord.

The final two shows of the Heritage Rep season -- Sunday in the Park With George and Don't Hug Me -- were musicals, though in all other respects they were about as much alike as Cheez Whiz and brie. With a shoddy book and music so unbearable it makes one long for the glory that was Grease, not even a talented cast could salvage Paul and Phil Olsen's Don't Hug Me. This cut-rate "karaoke musical" takes place in a bar populated by five colorful Minnesotans who arrange themselves, conveniently enough, into a bickering, middle-aged married couple (in a show like this, is there any other kind?) and a more youthful eternal triangle (though without Ingrid Bergman as Hypotenuse). When a traveling salesman brings a malfunctioning karaoke machine into the bar during the coldest week of the year ... nothing much happens. I suspect these characters bear about as much resemblance to rural Minnesotans as the denizens of Dogpatch resemble Arkansans. A few emotionally involving scenes with the married couple merely demonstrate how phony everything else the show is. Don't Hug Me is dinner theater for bulimics -- so I suppose it's only fitting that the show has enjoyed considerable commercial success in Los Angeles (which is as renowned for its live theater as Koreans are for their lederhosen). Naturally, there's a sequel in the works called A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol. I wish to God I were joking, but Don't Hug Me could become a regional-theater franchise on the order of Nunsense. Let's just hope Heritage Rep passes on the Olsons in future.

The Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park With George ended the Heritage Rep season on something like a high note, though again the praise must be seriously qualified. On opening night the show was decidedly a mixed bag, with two solid if derivative lead performances and an excellent chamber orchestra conducted by Michael Slon, balanced against obvious (and largely uncorrected) technical difficulties, problematic lighting, set and sound design, and an unmistakable drop in energy during the second act. The good still outweighed the bad, but not by as much as one would hope. Part of the problem, again, may have been due to director Bob Chapel, who seemed determined to imitate the original Broadway production (directed by James Lapine) as slavishly as possible. Much as I admire Sunday, I'm not sure Lapine's staging presented the material to its best advantage, and the PBS video of that staging compounds its problems by concentrating on the show's leads -- Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters -- to the exclusion of the ensemble.

Yet, despite obvious shortcomings on opening night, the Heritage Rep production of Sunday improved substantially over its week-long run, until by closing night it had tightened its second act, found an emotional center, and even displayed a modicum of originality as the young actors quickly grew into their roles. The entire cast seemed to have fallen in love with the show during the run, and delivered each line as if saying goodbye to it. As it turned out, their end-of-the-run mentality could not have fit the show better: This most joyous and rueful of Broadway musicals seems to require its company to act as if each performance will be its last.

I had been waiting for Rob Marnell to break out of ingenue roles at Heritage Rep, and with this show he did it in high style. True, his boyish good looks mean that he'll play Dudley Do-Rights and Sergeant Malones for some time, but at least he's had a chance to show Charlottesville audiences what he can do when the gloves are off. As French pointillist painter Georges Seurat, Marnell's acting was as strong and clear as his singing -- no mean feat, considering that his vocal work far surpassed Daniel Evans on the recent London cast recording of Sunday and at least equalled Patinkin in the original cast. But as the contemporary artist "George" in Act II, Marnell managed to shine even brighter, by pushing his character to the verge of exhaustion, eschewing all vocal pyrotechnics, and giving each song an unexpected downbeat ending. It may be that by the final performance of Sunday he was exhausted himself, but regardless of how he arrived at his characterization, it was the best "George" I've seen. Matching Marnell at every step was Janine DiVita as Dot, Georges Seurat's love interest. Unlike Bernadette Peters, who seemed content to portray Dot as childlike, DiVita offered a more mature, sexually assertive interpretation. The difference paid off handsomely: Instead of merely "catching the light" (as Georges Seurat sings in Act I), DiVita's Dot gives off heat as well. Other standouts in the large ensemble cast included Ryan Clardy, as a suave artistic rival in Act I and a harried museum director in Act II; Perry Medlin, whose ability to disappear into a character proved truly uncanny in his dual roles of 19th-century chauffeur and 20th-century electrical engineer; and Lydia Horan, whose portrait of Seurat's unsupportive but secretly affectionate mother was dependably excellent, even on the show's troubled opening night.

Had it not been for that final performance of Sunday in the Park with George, I would have written off Heritage Rep's 2006 season as a mild loss. Certainly one doesn't expect adventurous theatrical fare from summer stock, though Sunday was as bold an offering as Heritage has ever presented. Still, some of the troupe's recent offerings seemed out of keeping with its mission to preserve the heritage of American theater. Nunsense and Enchanted April, though not awful, don't rise to the level of "heritage," while Don't Hug Me would be better off in the dustbin. It's all well and good to mix lightweight material with sturdier stuff, but this year Heritage Rep seemed to rely too much on fluff. That said, the company has a well-established reputation for finding talented young actors, actresses and technical personnel, which should bode well for next year.

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