Presto, change-o

f05_05Assuming that all goes well, the blog that has occupied this space largely unaltered since 2003 will have undergone a radical change in appearance soon after or by the time you get around to reading these words. Doug McLennan of ArtsJournal, which hosts “About Last Night,” has moved the main site and all of its affiliated blogs to a new platform and in the process has optimized them for viewing on handheld computing devices. This necessitated a dramatic redesign, and when Doug pulls the switch at some point today, you’ll see what he’s wrought.

Even as I was ArtsJournal’s very first blogger, so am I the very last one to move to the new platform. I put it off for as long as I could, not wanting to have to stand on my head, technically speaking, while simultaneously finishing Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington and moving my first play to an off-Broadway theater. But the time has come, so here goes nothing.

I’ve taken this opportunity to scrap most of the various modules in the right-hand column, which I no longer update with any consistency and so decided had become superfluous. But all the other features of “About Last Night” remain intact. I hope you like what you see, and I hope you’ll continue to visit me regularly.

Needless to say, various things will undoubtedly go wrong along the way. Bear with me as I grope my way into a brave new world—and do not adjust your set.

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More magic to do

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I report on two important out-of-town productions, a staging by Teller (yes, that Teller) of The Tempest and a Chicago revival of M. Butterfly. Here’s an excerpt.

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Teller, Penn Jillette’s silent partner, has lately launched a parallel career as a theater director of considerable accomplishment and still greater promise. His 2008 “Macbeth,” staged in collaboration with Aaron Posner, was one of the most memorable Shakespeare productions of the past decade. Now the two men have teamed up again for “The Tempest,” to which Mr. Teller’s special skills are, if anything, even better suited, and the results are no less winning. Fanciful, mysterious and full of cheerily broad comedy, this is a “Tempest” that will give equal pleasure to seasoned playgoers and novices who quake in their boots at the mention of iambic pentameter. It is—in a word—magical.

TheTempest_ART_201405_Calibans_New_21The premise is obvious enough to have been tried before: Prospero (Tom Nelis) is a sorcerer, so why not turn “The Tempest” into a magic show? What makes this version stand out is the way in which it fuses the varied talents of its makers into a conceptually coherent whole. The staging is festive, the magic tricks breathtaking, the triple-tier set (designed by Daniel Conway) spectacular. Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan have written a musical score that is by turns rough-hewn and eerily shimmery. Matt Kent, the associate artistic director of Pilobolus Dance Theatre, has contributed all sorts of eye-catching stage movement, including the brilliant notion of having Caliban, Prospero’s monstrous servant-slave, be played by two actors (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) who speak in unison and move in the manner of conjoined twins….

“M. Butterfly,” David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Broadway hit about a French diplomat who slept with a Chinese opera star for 20 years without realizing that she was (A) a spy and (B) a man, hasn’t been seen in New York since the end of its 777-performance run. It continues to be mounted by regional theaters, though, and the Court Theatre’s commanding revival is more than good enough to withstand comparison to John Dexter’s original production. Not only has Charles Newell staged it with a persuasive blend of theatricality and thoughtfulness, but Sean Fortunato and Nathaniel Braga both put excitingly personal stamps on the starring roles created by John Lithgow and B.D. Wong. Mr. Fortunato, one of Chicago’s best actors, plays Rene Gallimard, the deceived diplomat, not as a haughty pseudo-gentleman with a transatlantic accent but as a painfully self-conscious ugly-American type (a characterization that gives his performance greater local immediacy) who wears his geekiness on his sleeve. As for the biracial Mr. Braga, he uses the fact that he doesn’t look especially feminine to subtly underline the point of “M. Butterfly,” which is that M. Gallimard is only too willing to believe in the racial and sexual stereotypes that inexorably bring about his final humiliation….

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Read the whole thing here.

To watch a scene from M. Butterfly as performed by John Lithgow, B.D. Wang, and members of the original Broadway cast on the 1988 Tony Awards telecast, go here.

To read a New York Times article about the real-life espionage case on which M. Butterfly was freely based, go here.

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High culture, movie-house style

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I take note of the coming to YouTube of British Pathé’s archival newsreel channel, and what it means for culture buffs. Here’s an excerpt.

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newsonthemarchUnless you’re a dues-paying member of the Greatest Generation, you might be momentarily confused by the second scene of “Citizen Kane,” which cuts abruptly from Charles Foster Kane’s shadow-shrouded deathbed to a stentorian screen obituary of the fictional newspaper magnate called “News on the March: Xanadu’s Landlord.” It’s a parody of “The March of Time,” a newsreel series shown in movie theaters in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And what, pray tell, was a newsreel? A film shown before the main feature that summarized the news of the preceding week. Such short subjects were hugely popular in pre-television days, especially during World War II. The London-based Pathé News, the first newsreel, was launched in 1910 and managed to hang on until 1970, when it was killed off at last by TV news and the demise of the double feature.

Now the entire 85,000-film collection of British Pathé, the producers of Pathé News, has been uploaded and is available for free viewing by anyone willing to go to YouTube, search for “British Pathe” and spend an idle hour panning for nuggets. You’ll need plenty of patience—many of the clips are poorly labeled—but if you know what you’re looking for, I guarantee a good time.

Pathé News, like its American competitors, pitched its wares to a mass audience of moviegoers, and so its newsreels rarely offered cultural fare. But when Pathé’s cameramen did cover high-culture events, they not infrequently brought back priceless souvenirs of the now-distant past….

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Read the whole thing here.

From a 1932 British Pathé newsreel, Flannery O’Connor (identified by the narrator as “Mary O’Connor of Savannah, Georgia”) shows off a chicken that she taught to walk backward. The sequence was filmed when O’Connor was five years old:

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