Sunday, September 25, 2011

Two magnificent Henrys

Laurence Olivier as Henry V - "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!"
Recently, I experienced two examples of inspiring, exciting theater - outside the bounds of a conventional theater.

The first was the 1944 film of Shakespeare's Henry V, which I own because I love the play and because Laurence Olivier was one of the most thrilling actors of any generation. I screened it for myself and daughter Florence because we had tickets to a New York Philharmonic concert that was to feature the second example -- Henry V: A Musical Scenario after Shakespeare, in which arranger Christopher Palmer interspersed William Walton's music for the film and some of the speeches from the play. Christopher Plummer was to appear with the orchestra and I snapped up tickets a couple of months ago. In the last 15 years, I've seen Plummer onstage as John Barrymore in Barrymore, Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra and as King Lear, which ranks as one of the greats. I interviewed Plummer in Toronto around the time of Barrymore and it was a marvelous encounter.

What a joy is was to view Henry V again, to see how one man's vision and passion - Olivier is also credited as director and producer - could create such a satisfying achievement. From the brilliant opening at the Globe theater to the field at Agincourt, the film's visual style moved from realism to the style of the drawings in the Duc du Berry's Book of Hours. Olivier is first seen backstage at the Globe as the actor playing Henry, waiting to make his entrance. His face is all concentration, listening for his cue, but he gives just a little cough - slightly nervous? a little throat-clearing just to get the voice ready? - that makes the actor suddenly very human.

Before he appears, there are a bevy of highly competent British character actors playing the Chorus, the Archbishop of Canterbury, etc., with that ripe British rolling-r type of Shakespearean delivery. But God, Olivier's voice could cut glass. At the climaxes of the great speeches - "Saint Crispin's Daaay!" - there was a ring to his top notes like an operatic tenor's. I saw Olivier onstage twice in London, as Shylock and James Tyrone and from each of those performances, I can still hear his voice - as Shylock, a piercing cry of anguish at the end of The Merchant of Venice when he is forced to convert to Christianity and as James Tyrone, a world of regret as he recalls compromising his artistic ideals for monetary success and wonders, "What was it ... I wanted ... to buy?"

As we approached Lincoln Center, the program appeared to be sold out, since we saw people holding "need a ticket" signs. The Philharmonic and maestro Alan Gilbert opened its program with the Overture and Bacchanal from Tannhauser, then after intermission were joined by the American Boychoir and Manhattan School of Music Symphonic Chorus and Chamber Choir for the choral parts of Walton's score. Plummer, wearing a dapper burgundy-colored dinner jacket, entered to applause. He is 81 and on the first line - "O for a muse of fire!" - his voice was slightly throaty and I thought, "Oh no, he's old."

Christopher Plummer appearing with the New York Philharmonic

Old? OLD? For the next hour, that man of four score years roamed the stage of Avery Fisher Hall, using a wireless head mic, reciting all the speeches from memory. (I had thought he would be at a lectern.) His voice scaled stunning Olivieresque heights in the great rousing-the-troops speeches and Walton's stirring music created a thoroughly satisfying piece of theater.

What great theater we saw this weekend - on a movie screen and in a concert hall.        

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Real people, not cardboard "heroes"

On this significant weekend, marking the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Armonk Players in Armonk, N.Y., north of New York City, is presenting the play "The Guys."

It was written by journalist Anne Nelson, a faculty member at my alma mater, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I'd read about the play and the feature film that starred Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, but never seen it and finally caught up with it this weekend, of all weekends.

Written just a couple of months after the attacks, it is a work of drama and of journalism. Through a mutual acquaintance, Nelson was approached by a fire captain who had been asked to deliver eulogies and was literally at a loss for words to describe the men he lost.

In the play, the writer, Joan (played by Jeanne McCabe) interviews Nick (Dick Nagle) about Bill, Jimmy, Patrick and Barney, drawing out their unique qualities in order to help Nick tell their stories. The script makes a quiet comment on the overused word and concept of heroes. "All this hero stuff? That wasn't Bill," says Nick, who describes a quiet, dependable kind of guy. The fire captain is clearly under great stress, as he tells the journalist several times, "I just don't know where they went," referring to confusion over where exactly his men were killed.

Joan, in awe of the firehouse world and a culture she comes to know through Nick's recollections, tells him, "This is all I can do - words," but he assures her that is exactly what he needs. For my part, I was very affected by the play's illustration of the writer's place in the world - finding the right words to make sense of things.

The two actors were highly skilled, but I thought McCabe was just a little too low key and it was a little difficult to hear all the lines. Nagle actually is a retired New York City Fire Department lieutenant and brought a wonderful gentlemanly presence to Nick. The scene where he enlightens Joan about the difference between "engine" and "ladder" companies was delightful.

After the performance, there was a talkback with the audience and we heard more remarkable stories. One woman brought her elderly father, also retired from the fire department and spoke about the loss of her cousin in the twin towers - a woman who had served as her floor's fire warden. Another man, a current firefighter, related how he and some off-duty colleagues commandeered a mail truck ("and that's a federal offense") to get down to the burning trade center.

Florence came with me to the performance. She was just four years old in 2001 and on the drive home we talked of her memories of the event. I still have the drawing she made of a plane heading toward two rectangles. Because she was a little child, she drew faces at the windows of the plane, and they are smiling.

Tomorrow, I'll be in the soprano section of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and we will sing part of Faure's Requiem and we'll remember.