Monday, October 11, 2010

Dear Followers....

In getting a jump on my future (and past) New Year's resolutions to simplify, I will be consolidating this blog with my Marie of Romania blog in the near future!

Follow me over there! It will be much appreciated.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Julius Caesar: The Dogs of War under Threatening Skies in Queens

The weather itself seemed to help "slip the dogs of war" at a recent performance of Julius Caesar in Long Island City, Queens at the Secret Theatre. The thunder and lightning that dramatically begins scene 3 of Act I resonated in real life beyond the fourth wall all night long, giving the whole evening a disturbed sky outside while inside the political tempest of Shakespeare's tragedy raged.

Under Richard Mazda's direction, the Queens Players present a different kind of Shakespeare even when the current trend is to update and outmaneuver the Bard. "Mark Antony, you're such a tool!," heard from the crowd during the warm-up to the famous eulogy, is not the usual Shakespeare line but not the most unusual feature of this production, the third installment in a "gangland" Shakespeare series. The dress and atmosphere is urban jungle with modern weapons (Mark Antony's "tool" is an ominous baseball bat) and Mad Max-type clothing.

As described by Richard Mazda, who also is the artistic director of the company, this Julius Caesar is offered in an "environmental theatre" format: a very real journey around various areas both inside and outside the Long Island City Performing Arts complex. Scene changes are precipitated by the Soothsayer who leads the audience to the next setting. Even if Caesar will not listen to the warnings of the prophet about the "Ides of March," the audience must follow her admonitions to join her outside in the marketplace or to "watch your head" while we travel down to the conspirators' meeting. After a recent spate of intermissionless hour-and-a-half plays lately, I found this a reinvigorating theatre experience.

To the director's credit, the production doesn't lean heavily on the many renowned quotations that come from this play. In fact, the play heads in the opposite direction—rushing past showstoppers like "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look," and "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." well, you know the rest.

Gil Ron as J.C. himself has all the gravitas and magnetism that the role demands, appearing as a cigar-chomping man of the world after the defeat of Pompey, a little like a gangland Patton. It was an interesting and eventually successful gambit to put Caesar in an archaic white robe amidst all that black leather. The white robe brought an image to mind, aside from being a good backdrop for all the murderous blood: white has an apostolate/sacrifice connotation signifying the rising power that Brutus and Cassius were ultimately helpless to stop. After all, Octavius Caesar (Jonathan Emerson) will succeed Julius Caesar, and the Republic of Rome will be in name only despite the power plays on behalf of representation.

There is a lot of storm and stress during the battles at the end of Julius Caesar, but the irony remains strong and standing: that the murder of Caesar only strengthens the dictatorship.

Julius Caesar is problematic in that the play easily becomes anti-climactic after Mark Antony's speech over Caesar's dead body. The true action of the play is in Mark Antony's ability to turn Rome against Brutus and Cassius, to honor Caesar through revenge. The subsequent battles become then a given. Here, the battle scenes have multi-media energy to combat the expected, but much of the dialogue is lost in the rush of war. The chaos may be realistic but doesn't always make for good theatre.

And while the thunder and lightning outside may have augmented the restless mood of hungry Cassius, the elevated train also drowned out important dialogue, making the outdoor scenes big on atmosphere but short on quotable quotes.

David J. Fink is a thuggishly menacing Mark Antony who doesn't seem capable of putting two words together, rather than one of the most famous examples of reverse psychology in the Western canon. When he urges the Roman crowd that he is only speaking at the funeral to "bury Caesar, not to praise him," his tough, stoic demeanor supports his assertion. Alex Cape is effective as a thinking, conscientious Brutus, his ambivalence apparent. The cast on the whole is both numerous and athletic, rushing headlong into Roman war with enthusiasm.

Additional cast: Kara Addington (Lucilius, Portia), Elizabeth Bernhardt (Metellus Cimber), Sarah Bonner (Portia), Jeffrey Coyne (Cinna the Poet), Jake Cullens (Decius Brutus), Amelia Gonzalez (The Carpenter), Lena Gora (Publius), Bethanne Haft (Varro), Tyrus Holden (Marullus), Kaitlyn McGuire Huczko (Soothsayer), Suzanne Lenz (Calpurnia), Anthony Martinez (Caius Cassius), Joe Mullen (Ligarius), Rachel Pfenninwerth (Casca), Michael Pichardo (3rd citizen), Michelle Pucci (Cinna), Ashley Denise Robinson (Artemdorus), Greer Samuels (Flavius), Tara Mary Schmitt (Stage Manager), Camilla Skoglie (The Cobbler), and Brian Walters (Lucius). Photo by Aaron Ray-Crichton

Originally published on

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Emmy Nominations for Treme

Sounding the Award Knell for Treme and Steve Earle who was nominated for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. The odds look good for Mr. Earle. The competition is underwhelming with various tunes from Family Guy, Monk, How I Met Your Mother, Rescue Me, and SNL.

The game is more closely contested in Treme's other nomination category: Outstanding Directing. Treme's premier episode, under the direction of Agnieszka Holland, was picked but is up against some formidable and quality dramatic rivals in Mad Men, Dexter, Breaking Bad. Oh, yes, Ms. Holland's work also goes up against the final episode of Lost.

It was a disappointment to see the women of Treme get passed over for Emmy nominations. I expected to see at least Khandi Alexander's name on that list. Kim Dickens and Melissa Leo (when she was allowed to do something other than Superlawyer heroics) also deserved to be nominated. Treme is certainly a women's world. But the Emmys are not of David Simon's so I suppose two nominations is a success.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Treme: A Sixty Second Chat with a Pine Leaf Boy

Caught the Grammy-nominated Pine Leaf Boys at Connelly's this 4th of July week-end. Despite common perception, there are people in NYC in July, and most of them were cajun jitterbugging at the Klub 45 room.

I asked Jon Bertrand, guitarist for the PLB pictured here on the left at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, what it was like filming Treme. "Even though we were on screen for a split-second, I get recognized on the street," he laughed. On a more serious note, he added: "Many musicians from NOLA and the Cajun part of the state DON'T have day jobs and the local people don't realize it."

A little dose of reality perhaps, but not yet. No work talk now; it's the holiday week-end. Happy Love and Rockets this Fourth of July.

Photo by cajunzydecophotos: The Pine Leaf Boys film a scene for the HBO Series "Treme" at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, April 30, 1010: shown are Jon Bertrand (guitar), Thomas David (bass), Wilson Savoy (accordion), Drew Simon (not show, drums and vocals), Lucia Micarelli as Annie (violin) and Courtney Granger (fiddle).

7/6/10: Thank you to Jon Bertrand for contacting me with a follow-up on the above quote. It needed correction. I do want to be the blog of record.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Big Thanks to Watching Treme

The blog Watching Treme, under the guidance of Venetian Blond (I wish I had thought of that moniker), passed on the Versatile Blogger Title to the humble Death Knell.

With the title comes much responsibility. I will begin to work on that in a moment, procrastination getting in the way of a good death knell always, but first I'd like to thank you, VB. See you in NOLA perhaps. It will be my first visit too.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Treme: I'll Fly Away...and Be Back Again Some Day

"Still here. One day after the next."

David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s first season of Treme was marked by high expectations - the expectations of devoted Wire fans, the expectations of New Orleanians anxious to see the recovery to Katrina’s heartbreaking devastation accurately portrayed, and the expectations of music lovers to see, finally, a television show successfully harmonize story and song. Glee notwithstanding.

I asked actor Sean Gormley about his own expectations in going to New Orleans and making what is now an iconic
Treme scene between outspoken NOLA resident Creighton Bernette and the BBC reporter. Looking back on the past ten episodes, it is this standoff that epitomizes the whole series so far, a situation that motivated New Orleans viewers of the season preview to stand up and cheer. The reporter challenges the frazzled Bernette as to what exactly is worth saving in rebuilding New Orleans, voicing many Americans opinions, from the outside looking in, about why poverty-stricken neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward should be rescued and rebuilt.

The scene is at the one minute mark of HBO's "Making Treme:"

Sean did not have many assumptions coming into the filming:

“I expected it not to be too big a deal, just me interviewing some local guy - a small scene that perhaps would not even make the final cut, and if it did, that I wouldn't be shown much. It was only during my costume fitting that I learned my scene partner was John Goodman.“

This was a return trip to New Orleans for the Dublin-born actor who first went there as part of "The Commitments" band. I asked him how New Orleans appeared post-Katrina:

“We shot our scene by a canal in the lower ninth ward. The drive from the hotel to the set was the real eye-opener for me as we drove past the area that was one of the worst hit by the storm. You could see the water marks high up on now-abandoned houses. As many of the drivers and crew were locals, I got first-hand accounts of what they had been through.” (more of the interview can be found here)

A dramatic first-hand account of recovery is what Simon and Overmyer undertook this first season of Treme which wrapped up last night with "I'll Fly Away," directed by Agnieszka Holland who also directed the first episode. The season is bookended by second line funeral parades, this time a tribute to Ladonna's brother Daymo, another casualty of Katrina, much like New Orleans itself. As for Daymo's death, as Creighton says, it wasn't the hurricane, "it was a man-made catastrophe."

Daymo, possibly a homicide victim, wasn't the only a man-made catastrophe. Creighton himself was one as well. Suicide is not painless when viewed through the family's eyes, and there was not a scene with Melissa Leo as Creighton's wife Toni that did not invoke an audience resentment toward the professor for his selfishness. He did quit. There may be lots of anecdotal evidence for this storyline, however it doesn't make his family's grief any easier to watch.

As Joe Strummer said in his upended version of "Stagger Lee" via The Rulers, an admonishment to Creighton's despair:

"you must start all over again-all over again
don't you know it is wrong
You got to play it, Billy, play,
don't you know it is wrong
you got to play it, Billy, play
And you will find it is the right 'em boyo"

So many Stagger Lees. So little time.

Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary developed nicely throughout the season from one-dimensional obnoxiousness to redeeming moments of charm, but, boy, did he recover quickly from Janette's departure despite all his best efforts to show Janette all the reasons why she shouldn't leave New Orleans. It was a day that began with John Boutte and ended in the Columns Hotel where Pretty Baby was filmed. I was convinced, but Janette ultimately wasn't.

On second thought, Davis' resiliency, his ability to shrug off such a setback, is his charm. Exit Janette. Enter Annie. It is a parallel and contrast to the immobility of Creighton: "you must start all over again." Davis starts all over again every day.

Lucia Micarelli as Annie evolved too: a parallel journey to where her character's music leads. From Sonny to Steve Earle is a fantastic voyage. Might we see Lucinda Williams next season?

The ending flashback to the onslaught of Katrina counterbalanced an episode that wildly veered from cliche to cliche: Antoine losing his gig money in a poker game to a woman no less; do-gooder Texan, Mr. Reyes, fixes Ladonna's roof forcing Reilly to do the right thing; Lt. Colson wants Sofia Bernette to be "able to believe" that Creighton's death was an accident. Thank goodness this scene was in the hands of David Morse. One of the highlights of the episode, of the series, was acting greats Melissa Leo and Morse at Creighton's abandoned car.

Sonny has voiced some surprising self-awareness in the last couple of episodes: "you're so much better than me, as a player, and now you're leaving me behind." As a musician, this is as painful a truth as could be faced. Sonny had one of the most effective, quiet codas of the night - watching a taxi go by, sitting on the darkened street - a motif for the loss of Annie. Like Toni learns: "the truth doesn't set you free, it's just another burden that you have to bear."

The St. Joseph's Day meeting of the Indian Chiefs was magnificent. Or at least I thought it might have been. Shot by flashlight, this scene was murky with glints of brilliance and sequin. The gangs worked so hard on their outfits; I wished we could have appreciated them more in full daylight. There was one positive, a cliche avoided: the punch-up between the Indians and the police.

Have to go, there's "always more to do to be most pretty." Until season two, here are some items up for discussion:

How vacuous was the "Hi, I'm Paige" scene? Even the "nice tats" comment did not redeem that mess. As an addendum, the season started with Steve Zahn's naked rear and ends with Michiel Huisman's. A backend bookend?

Wendell Pierce as Antoine was consistently splendid, holding his own with a myriad of musical meta-stars.

Love the flashback to Janette back in Huntsville, actress Kim Dickens' real birthplace: Janette looks so much like her actress mother. Janette and Delmond sat next to each, waiting for their plane, heading to New York, an appealing moment. Now if only Jacques had come and sat down between them. That would have made for a perfect scene: chef and sous chef. Together, into the sunset.

And speaking of New York, was Treme at all for us New Yorkers? or Chicagoans? Or any of the other of the U.S.'s great cities? Or its great open spaces? If we can't truly appreciate what New Orleans went through, can we still enjoy a television series devoted to and written for the Crescent City? Musical and cultural learning curves were steep! But I did recognize Trombone Shorty without a prompt, so I am getting there, thank you Mr. Simon.

How wrong was I about Creighton's demise? Didn't think it would really happen. But then again, I thought Omar wasn't really dead either. Creighton's suicide made my Spalding Gray analogy that much more, unfortunately, spot on. Maybe the Moviegoer did Creighton in.

Was post-Katrina New Orleans conveyed more starkly, more effectively in Spike Lee's devastating When the Levees Broke? Perhaps, but I would argue the two works are complementary. An introduction to the culture of the Indians was certainly an asset to Treme.

Season one: It was a great start with a beautiful, vérité ending. Season Two? You must start all over again.

One more thing: we do take naps in New York. Wake me up in time for dinner.

Originally published on

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Treme: Wish Someone Would Care

“Hi, my name is Davis. Will you come to my party?”

Dear writers of Sunday’s Treme episode, "Wish Someone Would Care," thanks to you, I had to dig up all my old college notes on Kate Chopin. After rereading and reflecting, I regret to inform that Ms. Chopin’s heroines are still coming to bitter ends despite what Professor Creighton Bernette proclaims. Now I’m late filing this review AND I’m depressed. Just like Creighton’s student.

David Simon and George Pelecanos finally put Creighton Bernette into an appropriate forum for his speechifying - at work in front of the classroom! Here, as a teacher, Creighton gets to listen to cliches (“will this be on the test?”) and spout them (“Edna’s journey...she’s looking for truth.”) It was a relief to see Creighton doing something constructive, but the relief was short-lived. He assigns his class The Awakening, Louisiana native Kate Chopin's most famous novel. Chopin's main character, the unhappy Edna Pontellier, hovers over the episode, an episode framed by water, a story darkened so only the lights of the Abita Beer sign illuminate.

Edna serves as temptation for Creighton to succumb to his depression. It is a wonderfully ironic moment for the professor to dismiss his student’s depressed reaction to The Awakening (a perfectly justified reaction, by the way) when he too is despondent over the fate of his beloved New Orleans.

Depression, or variations on its theme: post-traumatic stress syndrome and post-Mardi Gras disorder, is a poignant motif for Treme’s penultimate episode, the ninth in a ten episode season, exceptionally short even in the contemporary truncated television schedule. In a discussion on Chopin themes, I would also pile on earlier work, e.g. a short story which appeared in Vogue magazine, 1893, called "The Father of Desiree’s Baby" or now it is simply "Desiree’s Baby." No relation to Antoine's girlfriend, Desiree, (or is it?)

On its surface, the story is a potboiler with a nifty little twist at the end, but underneath, it deals succinctly and effectively with issues of feminism and race relations. The Awakening may speak to Creighton, to his students’ bewilderment (or was that simply boredom?), but "Desiree’s Baby" supports Toni’s reproof to Creighton about his tolerance for the pointy hoods of the Night Parade: “That’s because you’re not from here. When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” That meaning is what causes the tension between Big Chief Albert and Lt. Colson in later scenes.

Edna’s dash for freedom from her 19th century conventional marriage is also manifested in characters other than Creighton. Thankfully, Annie makes a break for it, (and to the writers' credit, simple and unlikable Sonny becomes suddenly human and likable - suddenly Sonny); like Edna, Annie does not have a full grasp of her societal boundaries. In Annie’s case, her society consists of musicians and their cultural codes. She innocently thinks that asking Sonny for a musical separation will have no impact on their romantic relationship. Sax-playing Aurora Nealand, who has a temporary sofa for Annie to sleep on, sets her straight: Sonny has a point; a stupid one, but it’s still a point. If Annie and Sonny don't play music together, they aren’t together.

Janette, too, thinks of finding some release: a release right out of the city. She finds herself once again at the mercy of severe weather, discovering there are limits to the guerilla chef gigs. Later, Davis argues for Janette to stay put: ("there are just so many beautiful moments...”) Janette walking away in the pouring rain, her Bacchanal gig ruined, is one of them. The camera shot is gorgeous in its stark misery. I wonder if the writers had a Chopinesque despair in mind as our heroine, Janette, walks away into the water.

It is a beautiful moment but it’s not a life, as Janette points out. Edna rejects her 19th century Louisiana life; Janette rejects her 21st century one. As an old English major, I’m a sucker for these motifs.

In other storylines, there is a gravitas showdown between Clarke Peters as Chief Albert and David Morse as Lt. Colson: a leader of one gang (the police) warns the leader of another gang (the Indians) to keep things cool. Imagine someone calling David Morse "son." We take Colson’s word for it that there has been tensions between the Indians and the police on St. Joseph’s Day. This is not common knowledge outside Louisiana, like so much on Treme, research, research, research is needed. For more on St. Joseph's night and especially the strain between the Indians and the NOPD, please check out this New Yorker article.

Ladonna, now that she has found her brother, struggles with what to do with his body. Toni argues for an autopsy. The family vault has been badly damaged by Katrina. Antoine offers to help financially, keeping that old romantic story strong.

Davis can’t hear someone knocking because he’s playing “I Hear You Knocking” too loudly. Davis can't hear anyone knocking at any time in any format.
The episode ends as it begins - on the water: Edna Pontellier’s watery grave. Is it Creighton’s too? “I believe I will fulfill my obligations for today,” he remarks to a student. For today, what about after today? I’ve avoided spoilers and trailers for the next episode, so I don’t know (but I doubt) if Creighton really throws himself off the ferry. As loving as his goodbyes were to his family and as fervently he argued for the positives in Edna’s suicide, Creighton may be back on Sunday for the season finale. So far this series has not been the “kill off the main character” sort.

The whole ferry scene was very difficult to watch, the most distressing event of the series so far (even if it is a non-event and Goodman returns) because it is so reminiscent of the Spalding Gray suicide. It’s not just in the manner of superficial resemblance; the brilliant monologuist threw himself off the Staten Island Ferry after years of depression, Creighton could possibly be viewing suicide as Gray may have, as Edna did: a work of art.

British journalist Gaby Wood, in a portrait of Spalding Gray, interviewed noted neurologist Oliver Sacks about his treatment of Gray’s depression. Wood theorizes: “It's possible that,

rather than simply having come to the end of what he had to say, Gray saw the taking of his own life as part of what he had to say. 'On several occasions he talked about what he called "a creative suicide",' Sacks tells me. 'On one occasion, when he was being interviewed, he thought that the interview might be culminated with a "dramatic and creative suicide." I was at pains to say that he would be much more creative alive than dead.'”

In other words, Creighton, you certainly can't finish that book if you're dead.

The thought of suicide as “dramatic and creative,” as an alternative to the book Creighton is working on or pretending to work on, is the real theme of "Wish Someone Would Care.” The trouble with that title, or actually the exquisite irony of the title, is that people do care, Toni and Sofia, Spalding Gray’s wife and children, and many, many fans, but the caring is not enough. I don’t know if this parallel was intentional by the writers, but if it was or wasn’t, it is still brilliant. Did I mention what Oliver Sacks is perhaps best known for? His book Awakenings.

I have to go, I have a four hour lunch to attend, but before I go, here are some other items up for discussion:

What are we to think of the Texan, coming back to fix Ladonna’s roof? Is his motivation just a matter of pride - to truly show that Texans have a work ethic where the native New Orleanians don’t? Speaking of Miss Ladonna, she has the best line of the evening, one I was tempted to open the review with, but it is not family friendly so I decided against it: “We’re in Lent now, the legs are closed.” Is that a Simon or a Pelecanos bon mot?

As much as I love the Treme title song, it can be jarring when the teaser is a serious one, in this case, Annie and Sonny announcing their separate ways. Actress Lucia Micarelli does sadness and confusion very well; hopefully the character gets to stretch to happiness and clarity next year. In a season where lots of fans expected her to die, isn't it a twist if she survives and Creighton throws himself out the airlock?

Dan Attias, director, is a veteran of David Simon and George Pelecanos-penned The Wire episodes as well as many other top television dramas, including The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, and Friday Night Lights. He directed my personal favorite Big Love episode - "Come, Ye Saints." So come all ye saints, see you at the season finale, "I'll Fly Away."

Originally published on blogcritics