Thursday, April 24, 2014



We had a full dress run through of my new theatrical project, Mother Teresa: The Musical last night for an invited audience. I had wanted the Shrine Auditorium, or at the very least the Pantages to properly showcase the piece and its full theatrical flair but they were both booked. We had to settle for the theater at the Motion Picture and Television Fund home, which was available at a suitable price, provided we set aside a certain number of tickets for the residents. As some of my colleagues from my early ingénue days are now resident there, I thought it might be old home week although I'm finding it harder and harder to explain how they've become these frail elderly types while I remain an ever youthful thirty-nine.

The stage proved too small to install the full three turntable set so we had to scale back some of the production numbers, substituting some dramatic readings of well chosen narrative (provided by yours truly) to cover the gaps. We were, however, able to fully execute the pyrotechnics sequence that finishes Act I, where Mother Teresa visits hell accompanied by Virgil's ghost. Hardly anything went wrong, except for one of the flashpots being aimed a little too closely to the audience. I'm told there were no serious injuries and that the walkers and four point canes that were melted can be easily replaced. Several of the costumes on the chorus boys did catch fire briefly but the flames were soon doused and the patrons spontaneously rose to their feet at that moment. There must have been a great need for the restroom at intermission as there was a general race for the lobby as the final notes were played. All those aging bladders I suppose.

After such a magnificent performance, I was just exhausted this morning and slept in far later than I should have. When I did awaken, it was to a fresh mimosa brought in by Norman/Tommy who proceeded to polish off the rest of the pitcher. How nice to have old patterns back. I was so lazy, all I could do was head for the home theater to channel surf in hopes of finding a film that would be as subtle and meaningful as my current production. I found this in Roger Michell's 1995 film adaptation of Jane Austen's final novel, Persuasion starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

Austen, the keen observer of the intricate dance of social custom of the early 19th century, underwent a period of revival in the 1990s with film adaptations of most of her major works appearing including Emma, Sense and Sensibility and a major television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. This was only rivaled by the rediscovery of E. M. Forester, the keen observer of the intricate dance of social custom of the early 20th century, in films such as A Room With A ViewHoward's End and A Passage to India. Our society, with its fast pace and rootlessness, was looking to the past to try and understand the nuances of interaction that make up the basic affairs of private life: family relations, courtship, and social position. Some of these films were major studio productions, some were filmed on a shoestring as labors of love. Persuasion is very much in this latter category.

Screenwriter Nick Dear and director Roger Michell faithfully adapted Austen's novel of suppressed romance and missed opportunity. As the story opens, Sir Walter Elliott (Corin Redgrave) and his daughter Elizabeth (Phoebe Nicholls), both insufferable snobs, decide to lease the ancestral home for a great sum of money so they can live in Bath and enjoy the stultifying delights of Regency society. Younger daughter Ann (Amanda Root), removes to live with her other sister Mary (Sophie Thompson), married to the son of good country gentry of the neighborhood. Ann is in danger of becoming an old maid. Some years before, she was enamored of a young naval officer of little family and less fortune and was persuaded by old family friend Lady Russell (Susan Fleetwood) to forego the match. She now finds herself thrown back in with Captain Wentworth (Ciaran Hinds) as his sister is the tenant living in her family home. When the good Captain returns, and thinks that Ann's refusal of so many years ago was final, he starts to pay court to another girl. Will these two, older and wiser, be able to throw off the restraints of their carefully ordered society and find happiness in each other? Austen was not an incurable romantic but did firmly believe in uniting characters who would complement each other.

Persuasion, like most Austen, is not very long on plot. There are a great many characters interacting in the formal patterns prescribed by their society and convention but not a whole lot actually happens. There's an accident or two, letters are exchanged, and an occasional chance meeting on the street or at an evening party. The joys of the film, and of Austen, are in the finally nuanced interactions between characters which create a tapestry of a vanished society. The whole look of the film supports this. It was filmed on location, mainly with ambient light and the whole thing looks grittily real. The empire waist dresses are stained with mud after walks in the country. Objects and rooms look worn and used. There are many close ups of small movements, especially of hands, that tell more than pages of dialogue.

Amanda Root gives a delicate, but nervy performance in the central role of Ann. By plot and social circumstance, she must be a reactor rather than an actor and she effectively communicates her needs and emotions to the world around her, and by extension the audience, through listening, subtle shifts in body language and behavior, or a flicker of emotion behind the eyes. This is a very demanding job for an actress, who usually can resort to words or grand gestures as the music swells in the background. Miss Root rises gracefully to the occasion. She's helped by her look, neither pretty nor plain, just very real and honest. Ciaran Hinds, as her erstwhile suitor has an easier job. As a man in Regency society, he is allowed to act; however, he is still constrained by the myriad unwritten laws of courtship and family which permeated the society. Marriage was not just an act of love, but loaded with baggage regarding family obligation, economic interest, and class loyalty.

The supporting cast, mainly British journeymen actors from English stage and television work, bring Austen's world to life. Diction, carriage, and small gesture delineate everything from the snobbish world of the Pump Room at Bath to the joys of an after dinner dance at a country house. There isn't a weak one in the bunch with special kudos to Sophie Thompson (Emma's sister) as the hypochondriacal Mary and Samuel West as a cad who thinks an alliance with Ann might solve his money problems. I was also very taken with Alexandra Byrne's costume design which brings the illustrations of the period to intelligent life.

Those who wish to escape through explosions and smashed cars will doubtlessly be bored. Those who wish to escape into a completely realized other world where the universal questions of connectedness are pondered will be enchanted.

Furniture draping. Caged pig. Paper boats. Fall from tree. Fall from wall. Seaside diversion. Constancy discussions. Pianoforte playing. Ancient viscountess. Drinking of the waters. Hands of whist.

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