Arts In LA
Broadcast Review

The Audience

NT Live

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II

In a move that should be more widespread for the sake of our culture, the National Theater Live, through Fathom Events, broadcasts original-cast productions taped before live audiences, airing them in movie theaters around the world. Widening exposure to great performances for people who may never have the opportunity to see acting talents like Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Lee Miller, Helen Mirren, and James Corden in live theater, is a godsend. However, seeing a filmed play has its limitations, even an esteemed play like Peter Morgan’s The Audience starring Helen Mirren. A performance that may have dazzled theater audiences doesn’t always translate to the filmed medium.
   Expanding beyond the relationship between Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II explored in Morgan’s film The Queen, The Audience focuses on Queen Elizabeth‘s dealings with most of the other 11 prime ministers she worked with from 1953 (Winston Churchill) to 2016 (David Cameron). As a courtesy, once each week, the sovereign meets privately with the current PM to catch up on the week’s activities. Morgan’s play presupposes what conversations Queen Elizabeth partook with the 11 men and one woman who held the elected post and constitutionally outranked her. The Broadway version included a scene with Blair; however the original London production, filmed here, excludes him. Morgan’s play may be a feast for anglophiles; but, for those not up on all the machinations of 20th- and 21st-century UK history, scenes may confuse them. Because the movie audience do not receive playbills, chyrons on screen of dates and name of the prime minister in each scene would have been helpful. Though a keen observer will eventually catch on, viewers may overthink these details when they should be listening to the dialogue.
   Morgan intercuts the sequences between Elizabeth and her PMs with imagined conversations she has with three younger versions of herself. Because Elizabeth was once a scared girl, unprepared to be heir presumptive, these scenes are touching and draw the audience toward the protagonist. Because Morgan is fictionalizing unrecorded historical moments, the audience must have pure faith that his imagination fits the facts. Some of the dialogue and moments, like Elizabeth nodding off mid-conversation, do not ring true.

Shockingly, however, the biggest issue here is Mirren’s performance. Because she played the role for four months at the Gielgud Theatre in the West End before this particular performance was taped, her voice modulations and facial expressions were formed for those in the back rows. Her stage performance does not modulate for the camera zoomed up close. She repeatedly mugs for the camera. She also trips over her lines several times. Her Elizabeth appears inconsistent from scene to scene, not like a woman maturing but like multiple personalities. In one scene, she seems to be channeling Nancy Kulp’s butch Miss Jane Hathaway from The Beverly Hillbillies.
   The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly Richard McCabe, as her favored PM, Harold Wilson, whose small-town sensibilities and compassion make him a darling character. Though overshadowed by Meryl Streep’s definitive performance in Iron Lady, Haydn Gwynne is hilarious as the supercilious Margaret Thatcher, who treats the queen like a naughty little child. Maya Gerber, Bebe Cave, and Nell Williams are rambunctious but heartfelt as the younger versions of Mirren’s character.
   Because of the nature of filming, this broadcast lacks the spark of live theater felt between an actor and the audience. It’s also dangerous when the filming director chooses the angle and the specific character the audiences should focus on. For example, the play emphasizes the ingenuity of changing Mirren‘s costumes and aging or regressing her in plain sight. The broadcast even has a segment during the intermission spotlighting the magic of these changes. However, in one transition, before Elizabeth clashes with Thatcher, her costume change, though onstage, is not on camera.

Filmed performances—including The Audience and other NTLive programs Frankenstein, Hamlet, and One Man, Two Guvnors, are gateways to expose youth and other audiences to theater in its prime. Hopefully, after viewing one of the screenings, people will journey to their local theaters, or Broadway, or the West End, to witness that magic of the live stage. Though the NTLive shows are a great introduction, there is nothing more thrilling than the symbiotic relationship between an actor and its audience.

July 22, 2016

Ballet Review

American Ballet
Theatre’s All-
Ratmansky Program

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at The Music Center

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

The dancers of Serenade After Plato’s Symposium
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Alexei Ratmansky has been called the most gifted choreographer specializing in classical ballet today. The all-Ratmansky program of three of his works, danced by American Ballet Theatre this weekend at The Music Center, seemed to prove otherwise, except in one regard.
   Ratmansky is the artist-in-residence with ABT. Formerly, he held the directorship of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, so he comes with expectations of the best of training and talent in his male dancers. And that, perhaps, is how he is “gifted” here.
   ABT is stocked with a deep bench of male dancers, including members of the corps de ballet who would be principals in most other companies. But Ratmansky gives them the equivalent of awkward dialogue to speak. His vocabulary is more contemporary ballet than classical, creating movement that seems to have meaning. Then, distractingly, he pops in a recognizable classical-ballet turn, such as a pirouette or tour en l’air. Or, he’ll wedge in a Russian folk-dance step or insert a hand clap.
   At the Music Center, ABT’s men were shown to spectacular effect, particularly in the evening’s middle slot, the West Coast premiere of Serenade After Plato’s Symposium, danced to Leonard Bernstein’s violin concerto (conducted crisply by Ormsby Wilkins, featuring tender violin passages by Benjamin Bowman).

Symposium is a conversation, via dance, among seven men in ancient Greece, each getting a dazzling solo. The work starts with one dancer’s statement. Another dancer offers a supporting argument. A counterargument is presented. So far all is clear. The piece then moves into another plane, perhaps revealing man’s emotional states, perhaps revealing the issues he confronts in relating to others. The audience starts to think and feel. And then pretty dance steps start to crop up, culminating in another pirouette into a tour en l’air.
   But a series of bourees, steps traditionally done only by women, proves these men have the fluidity and fleetness of ballerinas in addition to the strength and stamina this piece demands.
   The program began with Symphony #9, to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. The men are playful, the women sassy in this mostly aerobic piece. Its style is free and loose-limbed, so the dancers, while not uniform, move in relaxed synchronization. Veronika Part and Alexandre Hammoudi danced the moderato movement, which juxtaposes humor with longing, Part infusing her beautiful technique with dramatic tension. Designer George Tsypin’s backdrop for the Largo movement seems to symbolize war and class, as do the dancers who seem to be waiting and then joining a political movement.

The evening’s last piece was Ratmansky’s overhaul of Firebird. He has retained the music of Igor Stravinsky and the basics of the Russian fairy tale about a magical bird and the man she helps in his search for true love.
   Other than that, there’s no spotting Mikhail Fokine’s original ballet in here. Indeed, it’s less the dreamy, airy ballet than something that could pass for Seussical the Musical. The Firebird (Isabella Boylston) shakes her tail feathers, literally, for a laugh. The enchanted maidens, held captive by Kaschei the sorcerer (Roman Zhurbin), move as if the evil guy smote them with a bad case of the sillies, at one point doing the Bunny Hop.
   Ivan (Hammoudi again) may be in search of love, but he can’t even find the door out of his room. Give Ratmansky this: At the top of the piece, he suggests all might be Ivan’s dream. When Ivan meets The Maiden (Cassandra Trenary), she’s far from ideal. But true love sees through the curse. The dancing is flawless, particularly by Trenary, who gives herself over to her character and dances with comedic and then romantic abandon.
   As do the other two works, this Firebird has a happy, Hollywood ending. Yet, somewhat troublingly, each of the “beautiful maidens” is a pale blonde. Fortunately, the beautiful ballerinas dancing the roles are a more representative mix of the races and national heritages that form the “American” in ABT.

July 11, 2016

Republished with kind permission of Los Angeles Daily News

Photo of Isabella Boylston as the Firebird by Rosalie O’Connor
Fitzmaurice Voicework
with Lisa Pelikan


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