Dionysus in Stony Mountain: A Review

Religion, morality, and the corruption of help thematically haunted the 2 hours plus traffic of the Rachel Browne stage last week. The stoic apparitions, brought to life by Theatre Projects Manitoba in their season-ending play Dionysus in Stony Mountain, felt both literally and figuratively possessed by the ghost of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German moral philosopher obsessed with will.

The first act, which originally premiered as a Winnipeg Fringe Festival production in 2009, features what is essentially a one-man monologue by Stony Mountain inmate James (Ross McMillan). Weeks away from parole eligibility, James has chosen to go cold turkey on his Lithium, causing him to manically memorize and recite long Nietzsche passages, much to the dismay of his therapist Dr. Heidi Prober (Sarah Constible).

Dr. Prober, a Jewish therapist that shows particularity towards Ross and his considerable intellect, worries for his mental health and, perhaps more pressingly, the flawed nature of the Canadian correctional system. But much of Prober’s concerns in the first act play considerable backdrop to James’s troublingly giddy ramblings. It is within this first act that we may bear witness to McMillan’s extensive talents, mostly grounding the dizzyingly troubled James in steady, firm roots of sincerity and powerlessness against a corrupt, flawed system. Constible’s presence is felt, though she plays mostly scenery to the electric presence of McMillan.

This first act is too dense for my taste. I felt instantly transported back to a post-secondary philosophy lecture as this is essentially what the first act is: a lecture. McMillan does strong work in humanizing Nietzsche’s verbatim script of will and religion, but ultimately his off-the-rails musings felt too much like dictated pages of a first year Philosophy textbook.

The second act pulls more focus towards Prober, as her character has moved on from her job as a psychiatrist and has found troubling new practices of her own. Visited by her upper-crust Uncle Eric (McMillan again), Prober has lost all faith in the correctional system and has practically become a recluse, as she refurbishes her shabby  new home.

This second act is a welcome addition to the original piece, and it does better work in providing realistic, interesting dialogue than the Philosophy 101-centric first act. Constible’s character has a much greater presence here, and her character’s personal struggles against her philosophically fraught work resonated deeply.

McMillan is once again a strong force as Uncle Eric, bringing a few much needed chuckles and a good deal of ethos to what would otherwise be a very one-note play. His work in both characters is sincere and detailed, making each characterization different enough to be believable and dynamic.

Although Dionysus in Stony Mountain as a total package reads as crowded and emulsified, its fragmented pieces are increasingly thoughtful and important work. Although it feels as both acts are not totally cohesive, there are strong and layered questions posed and the actors do exciting, interesting efforts in posing them.

For more information on Theatre Projects Manitoba, click here.

Since You Been Gone

Like the elusive heart-shaped key held by the title character in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the anti-boy hero Oskar in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close holds a key and a mission all his own. Also like Hugo, Oskar’s key presents a link to his deceased father, one that he hopes will somehow connect the pair passed mortality and time. But the difference maker between Scorsese’s stunning narrative of broken machines and people, and Daldry’s post 9/11 world is the latter’s post-modern understanding that the “bad guy” isn’t so easily identified by his black dog and his scowl, and that the true evil is pervasive, faceless, and random.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, here. Look at me, jumping right into Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’s thematic heart like an iiidiot. Anyway, starting from the beginning . . .

Based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells the story of Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), an 11-year-old boy with social autism who lives in New York City. Abrupt, brutal, and eerily intelligent, Oskar is terrified of the busy, loud, chrome city around him and of most children his own age. His undisputed best friend is his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), a jewelry store owner who through his “expeditions” with his son tries to take Oskar out of his namesake “Schell”. His quiet, loving mother Linda Schell (Sandra Bullock) sits by admiring the bond, but is never fully invited off the sidelines.

But of course this is a paradise lost. We know immediately within the film’s opening sequence, as Oskar sits from a limousine at a gravesite, that his father has died in one of the towers during 9/11. Oskar, unable to cope with the unexplainable cruelty of his loss, or of his own unexplainable cruelty towards his mother, finds the aforementioned heart-shaped key in a vase, hidden in his father’s things and simply labeled “Black”. Oskar feels it is a clue left from his father and begins one final expedition, searching through thousands of Blacks in New York City to reach his father once more.

With films such as Billy Elliot and The Reader, director Stephen Daldry has shown somewhat of a knack for directing young, fresh talents. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is no exception. With former Jeopardy champion Thomas Horn, Daldry has parlayed the boy genius’ frantic, often erratic energy into a truly electrifying performance. Although the emotional scope of the film is jarringly vast, leading to an exhaustive pace, Daldry does well to choose and direct an actor who may keep up with the steady sprint of emotion.

But Horn is just one of a cast of many talented performances. As the mute character simply known as The Renter, Max von Sydow does more with his face, body, and silence than most actors do with an entire script of prose. As Abby Black, Viola Davis adds another stunning and simultaneously brief performance to her resume. She also got the snot going again. That broad just refuses to buy Kleenex.

If there is one criticism to be made, it is that much like Oskar himself, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is just far too aware of its own tragedy. It relishes in it, enjoys every tear and ache of its heart. It indulges in every 9/11 cliché out there, as if it has just seen the same stock 9/11 footage on loops: trying to put an identity to the faceless man falling from the 103rd floor, seeing bitterness and heartache in every “I (heart) NY” souvenir, and screaming at the top of ones lungs against the Western world’s post-empirical fate. Perhaps these are over-played tropes of 9/11 tragedy, or perhaps I am just personally tired of them. But either way, the intellectual and emotional wasteland of Daldry’s post 9/11 New York feels like previously marked territory. Its trajectory does little for this post traumatic shock narrative, and leaves its characters to succeed in spite of it. Most of the characters do in fact succeed, but their backdrop of faceless, cruel high rises does little to support their emotional originality.

As far as its Oscar future goes, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close got, shall we say, incredibly lucky to receive one of the nine Best Picture nominations. I doubt very much it can outshine or out-buzz early Oscar favorites The Artist or even The Descendants, but there is always the possibility of an eleventh hour upset. Max von Sydow, the recipient of the film’s only other nomination for Best Supporting Actor, will have to pick up some steam if he’s going to out-old fellow senior citizen nominee Christopher Plummer. But hey, where there’s a will, there’s a sweet old man trying to steal your Oscar. Put them dukes up, Max.

What did you think of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Did you read the book? Do you like old guys competing for awards? Share your thoughts with a comment or two.

The Sound And The Fury

Not since Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singing In The Rain has a film so daffily observed the introduction of sound, or “talkies”, into cinema. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist revisits this territory with new-found melancholy and touching heart.

The Artist tells the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), silent film superstar who appears to have a limitless range, channeling roles from pirate to Colonial adventurer, all with his trusty Jack Russell Terrier by his side and in every frame.

Through a chance encounter, George meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a fan who channels the press from her meeting with the screen star into extra work in George’s newest film. The pair have instant chemistry. But as George is an unhappily married man, the two part ways without so much as an extramarital transgression.

But a reversal in fortunes sees George fired from his film studio in order to make way for fresh, talking meat. Sound is being introduced into moving pictures and George’s big studio boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) wants new talent for the thunderous future of film. Peppy is able to capitalize on her charming, loud exuberance and becomes an overnight talking sensation.

George, clinging to his pride and the past, bankrolls his own silent film that quickly flops. Soon he is divorced, in the midst of financial ruin during the Great Depression, and out of work. His only companions in his dingy flat devoid of Valentin’s hallmark decadence are his loyal Jack Russell Terrier and his driver Clifton (James Cromwell). The latter will not leave Valentin’s side, even as the eclipsed star fails to pay him.

Although Peppy is part of the clamorous new age of cinema, she cannot get George out of her mind. Desperate to pull the fallen star out of his alcohol and nostalgia fuelled depression, Peppy searches for a way to help George find his voice.

Charming and jovial, The Artist is a deeply moving and entirely original picture. Glitzy, dazzling, and full of life, the French film is in black and white, and almost entirely in silence, (save for a few well-placed noises of innovation). The genius of Hazanavicius’s meta world lies in its contravention; the silence is a nostalgic progression and noise is old news. The result of introducing the smallest of sound, be it an exhale of breath or the clambering of a water glass on a table, feels as if cinema is reborn; it is an experience that is entirely reminiscent of the transition from black to technicolor  as Dorothy steps into Munchkinland in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz.

Cast perfectly as the two young stars are Dujardin and Bejo. The pair seem like 20s actors plucked out of dusty film spools and transported into a theatre from the wrong decade. Dujardin’s Valentin is a lothario infusion of Clark Gable and the aforementioned Gene Kelly. His natural charisma is only matched by his heart-wrenching depth in solace. Bejo is stunningly beautiful and altogether wacky. Each performance, though mugging and large to adhere to their silence, also contain subtle, gentle nuances that speak louder than words ever could.

The result of these performances, the glitzy, innovative throwback, and that Jack Russell Terrier is an entirely exhilarating rebirth of cinema. Like a refreshing glass of water, or a warm hug on a freezing day, The Artist is a welcomely cheery high-point to the routinely dreary awards season. Hazanivicius has crafted a picture of somewhat shallow depth that still manages to evoke a genuine swell of investment from an audience of new believers. With timeless themes come revisited invention. The result is a must-see film.

As far as its Oscar future goes, The Artist has quickly and surely become the one to beat at this year’s Academy Awards. Raking in some big wins at this year’s Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for Jean Dujardin, this little French film that could shows little signs of slowing down. Although I believe this film is bested by The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and Take Shelter, I am still pleased to see such an inventive and all-and-all charming film take some spotlight.

I predict a Best Picture nomination and subsequent win, along with a nod and win for Best Actor for Jean Dujardin. Michel Hazanivicius has stiff competition from Martin Scorsese for Hugo, a directorial performance that stole the Golden Globe. However, with the big bad Weinstein wolves blowing at the Academy’s twig doors, I can see a possible underdog win for the French director.

What did you think of The Artist? Was it all about Cosmo, the Jack Russell Terrier, or are you more of a Uggie from Beginners fan? Make it rain cats and dogs in the comments section, whydontchya?