Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Big River" Goes Through Rapids and Still Waters (Theatre Review)

In the middle of a dark, wet night, two men huddle on a raft in the Mississippi River.  One, a slave named Jim, curls a blanket around his shoulders, and a teenager named Huck sits, singing to himself, letting himself get drenched.

In the Hale Center Theater Orem's production of Big River, this image is brought to us uncluttered by choreography or overdramatic singing.  Not only that, it's enhanced by a silent, slouching Greek chorus on the sidelines--hat-wearing musicians strumming away at guitars, crooning on a violin, or making frog noises.

Director Christopher Clark has brought the piece to life in a way that remains fresh for its two hours traffic.  A small group of actors, all white except for two black characters, transform to fit Huck's episodic experiences. Sets and moods change as mutual efforts between the actors and the intimate space in the Hale Theatre--music, noises, and characters bloom out everywhere, like a swampy garden of strange-smelling flowers.

The cast consists almost completely of skilled multitaskers--musicians, character actors, singers, dancers, and creators of ambiance.  Under musical direction from Justin Bills (who clunks away with us at a disguised keyboard in a hat), the musicians seem (besides a few hiccups) to be completely in sync and in control.  Guitarist Kris Paries takes as many chances as he gets to shine, and Spencer Carter and Ben Parkes keep the show rolling with their consistent musicianship.  It's a bit of a gamble to try and have live instruments supporting microphoned singers, however, and at a few too many moments a certain inequality makes one party or the other seem overbloated, making a singer seem unsupported or a singing ensemble get swallowed up.

Great performances abound in this production.  The female ensemble gets less credit than it deserves, playing dogs, Western saloon girls, boys, and more, and giving some pretty specific life to every role they take on.  The men work hard as well, though it's clear that all their juggling of different roles has them a little confused at times (except for Spencer Carter, who creates four or five extremely specific characters who are so easy to distinguish that I breathed a sigh of relief when he appeared on stage.) Melanie McKay Cartwright sings beautifully as the underwritten Mary Jane.

Innovation runs through it

But the real star of the show is undoubtedly Jim, played by Conlon Bonner.  He first enters during the opener, setting up chairs and carrying umbrellas for Aunt Eller and the Widow Douglas, and though he doesn't say a word, he draws the eye more than anyone on stage.  Like a classic Disney character, his movement is specific, humorous, and energetic, and like great characters of any kind, there is a bloody, beating heart at the center of his performance.  Oh, and he's got a real pretty voice, too.

Andrew Robertson has just about a perfect look for Huckleberry, with a heroic face and the body of a boy ready for manhood but not quite there yet.  There's no overdoing it for Mr. Robertson, who narrates the play in a very understated manner, and whose singing is pleasant.

Sadly, his performance struggles from a problem that hangs over the whole production.  The Great American novel Huck Finn tells a pair of stories--one is about slavery and America, about injustice and pathos inside the heart of the simpleton slave Jim.  The other is about white people--lots of 'em.  Frontier folk making towns out of nothing, living in their own forms of abject poverty and stupidity.  But where Bonner's Jim is uneducated but soulful, the poor white folk on the shore of this big river are barely caricatures.  

This is thrown into even more contrast when some more real characters appear onstage.  In a violent, rowdy turn (did he say "bitches" on a Utah stage?) Daniel Fenton Anderson plays a mean Pap, who rails drunkenly at the government and then tries to kill his son with a shiv.  This whole sequence, however, seems pretty glossed over, and even if Pap is generally a despicable guy, he still seems to know that he's fallen far, saying "I hope you'll remember your father in a better time." The Duke and the King are rather vile men, but in moments where they audience should want to strangle them a lingering sense of comedy remains behind, and their full symbolic potential remains unlocked.

It seems that white people forget that privilege, middle-class-ness, and Christianity are not their birthright alone, and that brokenness, drunkenness, and self-justified evil are not the diseases of lesser peoples.  Huck's journey is not only a journey of shrugging off racism, it is one of understanding morality in general.  When Huck reaches up to the heavens and says "I have lived in the darkness for so long/I'm waiting for the light to shine", he's not thinking about slaves.  He's thinking about his own soul.  In a sense, this journey seemed never to surface, even though it really is the current that pushes the play along.

Perhaps another cousin of this weakness comes in the performance of the music.  It is impressive, without a doubt--the whole show is a darn masterful accomplishment for community theatre--but much of the music lacks energy.  The overture seems less like a river and more like an algae-ridden pond, beautiful, serene, and quiet.  The few pieces that really drive and lift the audience come from the black characters.  But looking into any sort of impoverished population, one finds how important music becomes as entertainment and sociality.  I ached for some foot-stomping, some rowdy shouting, and some passion in the score, but much of it involved some very serene-looking musicians standing quietly swaying in the corners.  (Thought it should be noted that I saw a Monday night performance.  Who knows what it looks like on Friday nights?) 

Still, these complaints are asking for perfection when all the reviewer saw was pretty excellent.  I commend the cast and crew of Big River on an enjoyable evening, and obviously one that made me think a lot.  And for those of you reading, go see it.  We can't expect our innovative theatre to thrive if we don't support it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"The LEGO Movie" Kinda A Dream Come True

The LEGO Movie is, at a one billion times scale, a bit like the movies I used to try to make as a kid with a stop-motion camera and a bunch of Legos.  From the first moment when a camera soars through a lava-filled chasm, the dreaming adults feel a tugging awe, and the film never lets go.

With a mix of real stop-motion animations and CG, every environment and character brings us into a layered world.  Even with a brief, trippy journey to the human world, the LEGO movie needs no introduction.  The characters live in their own universe.  The shiny cities, castled landscapes, and vast deserts live on their own, evocative and beautiful.

Still, signs of humanity still exist--a villain threatens a minion with the "Cloak of Band-A'yd", a relic we recognize immediately.  In a delicate touch, when the light hits the characters right one sees fingerprint marks on them, as if the game is being played for us to watch, in the detail children wish could happen.

The story follows Emmett (Chris Pratt), a totally normal, enthusiastic LEGO man.  His morning routine says everything about him.  Emmett follows all the instructions given by President Business (a well-coiffed Big Brother figure voiced by Will Ferrell) which tell him how to dress, how to act, and how to work.

The lifestyle of the LEGOS in Bricksburg, while exhilarating and fun to watch with its pop music, coffee, and colorful characters, is clearly degrading to Emmett.  But the prologue with the wizard Vetruvius and the Evil Lord Business has already told us what was gonna happen.

Emmett finds a mysterious relic designed to save the world from destruction at the hands of Lord Business, who wants to freeze everything in an aesthetically pleasing position forever, so that the world can conform to his way of seeing things.  (You seeing a theme here?)

So Emmett has to be rescued by the Master Builders, who have escaped Lord Business' fascism and live in the cracks of the Lego universe.  Even though he is a totally uncreative goof, they join in an epic quest to take down Lord Business and allow everyone in the world to do what they want: build cool stuff without following directions.

Great performances abound.  Chris Pratt can do little wrong with the silly, improvising Emmett.  Elizabeth Banks gives sass and emotion to a pretty underwritten love interest.  Will Arnett makes fun of everything he can as Batman.  Liam Neeson kicks butt as Bad Cop.

Still, no set piece or amazing lego set or fight scene can hold a candle to Morgan Freeman as Vetruvius.  As a pastiched Gandalf figure, the white-haired wizard consistently delivers the films most unexpected, hilarious quips.  Morgan Freeman can jump from delivering deep thematic wisdom in his chocolatey voice to making silly ghost noises or saying something like "I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it's true" without a sense of embarrasment or missing a beat.  It seriously, no joke, I mean I really mean it (but for reals), is my favorite performance he has ever given.

The film has already been praised for its non-conformist, anti-business message.  When WildStyle, one of Emmett's rescuers, learns that he listens to popular music, she is plunged into deep disappointment.  How could he be such a conformist?  The next message, surely, is how to show Emmett what good music and culture are.  But she never does, and when Batman shows Emmett some of his "real music," it turns out to be just as stupid as Lord Business' heavily-produced stuff.

And the non-conformist characters are often portrayed as being just as silly as Emmett.  A Uni-Kitty from Cloud Cuckooland shows Emmett her kingdom of rainbows and candy, warning that there is no sadness, no negativity, no bad in her land.  WildStyle points out astutely that Uni-Kitty's mantra is full of the word "no".  And when Emmett suggests his one original idea, Vetruvius states firmly that "that idea...is just the worst." According to the LEGO movie, bad ideas are bad ideas.  Period.  Praising non-conformity for its own sake has no value.

Of course, in the end, the film praises originality: do the best that you can do, and it will be good enough.  Nowhere is this more awesome than with Benny, the 1980's space guy, who after trying to make a spaceship the whole movie, finally makes one and flies around ecstatic, shouting "spaceship" for like two minutes.

And this is basically the right message for the Lego movie.  We all know the conflicts that come up playing with Legos.  Someone wants to make a spaceship.  Someone wants to just follow the directions.  Someone wants to work only in black (and very very dark grey).  Someone wants to make a rainbow kingdom, and someone just makes dumb stuff.  The point is that it's better to do things together, play together.  The great victory of the characters of the LEGO movie is not when they fight Lord Business, but when they all work together and make somethings--by common consent.

Let's admit it.  This is a commercial, but it's trying to point out the best things about LEGOS.  Not that they're retro, or cool, or non-conformist, but that they're fun, and even cooler when you're part of a team.