Ibsen’s “Wild Duck” updated for screen, “Arsenic and Old Lace” in Fullerton

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Before “Arsenic and Old Lace” became known as the now-classic Frank Capra movie, it was a Broadway hit. It’s been a mainstay of high schools, dinner theaters and community playhouses for decades; the question is, does this old warhorse (running at Fullerton’s STAGEStheatre through Mar. 5) still work? The short answer is yes. Clueless elderly ladies poisoning lonely men with elderberry wine and burying them in their cellar is still non-stop hilarious.

The world has changed immeasurably since Joseph Kesselring’s play first opened in 1941, but there’s a timeless quality to this charming comic farce. Unlike many shows of its vintage, it has only gotten better with age. The jokes about theatre critics and the policeman who fancies himself a playwright are as funny as ever. The only gag lost to the ages is that the homicidal maniac who “looks like Boris Karloff” was originally played by Karloff himself in the Broadway production.

Glenda Wright and Cathryn O’Donnell are flawless as the aunties, Abby and Martha. Richard W. Burnes seems just right as their flustered nephew, Mortimer, and wisely underplays his part (Cary Grant hated his over-the-top performance in the Capra movie). Mark Bowen and Mark Tillman are fine as the murderous Jonathan and the nutsy Teddy; Paul Burt steals nearly every scene he’s in as Dr. Einstein. Jill Johnson handles the directorial reins smoothly.

People talking on cell phones and chatting via Skype, not to mention sexually adventurous teenagers and certain four-letter words, are nowhere to be found in Henrik Ibsen’s 1884 drama, “The Wild Duck.” Purists might have a fit with some of the choices Simon Stone has made in his potent film adaptation, “The Daughter,” but I think they’re faithful to the intent of the play and help make it work for modern audiences.

Where Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” is a masterpiece of construction, “Duck” isn’t one of his better conceived and executed plays; it’s too polite for much of its running time, a little too nuanced for its own good. While this was no doubt a deliberate choice given the dark secret festering under the surface, the film (shot on location in Australia and “inspired” by the play) does perhaps a better job of pulling us in and involving us in the web of deceit that’s being spun. It’s all about secrets and lies, and writer-director Stone hones in on the heart of the matter while keeping us in suspense.

Geoffrey Rush and Sam Neill are the marquee names in the ensemble cast, while Odessa Young has the more or less central role as Hedvig, a pink-haired teen who’s wise beyond her years; the character is more prominent in the movie, and the youthful actor turns in a memorable performance in the part. If you missed the film in its recent L.A. release, it’s already available online and should be on disc soon).

 

 

Chaplin in Fullerton and La Mirada, silent movie posters in Brea, Clara Bow on Blu-ray

Charlie Chaplin in “The Immigrant” (1917).
Charlie Chaplin in “The Immigrant” (1917).

What’s black and white and fun all over? Silent movie comedies, of course. Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy don’t show up that often on television these days, but they are en route to two family-friendly venues in So Cal. The comedians will be partnered live by two of today’s best piano accompanists and composers, Ben Model and Michael D. Mortilla.

Chaplin became the most famous man in the world within a year of his film debut in 1914; Laurel and Hardy were paired up in 1927 and remain the greatest of all comedy teams. If you think today’s kids wouldn’t appreciate the antics of these vintage funsters, you’re wrong—more then 700 schoolchildren laughed themselves silly last weekend at one of Model’s shows in Boise, Idaho.

Fullerton’s Muckenthaler Cultural Center is offering “A Charlie Chaplin Valentine” Feb. 16, including three Chaplin shorts,The Floorwalker” (1916), “The Immigrant” (1917), and “Behind the Screen” (1916). Music will be provided by Mortilla, the former touring pianist for the Martha Graham Dance Company who’s busy hopping between The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Turner Classic Movies, The Getty Center, and other venues these days.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts will present “Silent Slapstick” as part of their Programs for Young Audiences series on Mar. 26. Model, resident film accompanist at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress, who’s also heard on TCM, YouTube and his own indie DVD label Undercrank Productions, will improvise scores for three short comedies, including those of Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy.

Chaplin will also make an appearance at the City of Brea Art Gallery. The city will jumpstart their centennial celebrations with The Birth of Motion Pictures, a large exhibition of silent movie posters and memorabilia dating from 1910-1929. A red-carpet, black-tie reception Feb. 18 from 6-10 p.m. with cocktails, live music and silent film screenings kicks off the exhibit (running at the newly renovated gallery through Apr. 14). Posters from Academy Award-winning films and one of the few Oscars ever given to a silent film are among the items on loan from the private collection of Dwight Manley.

Another star of the silent era, Hollywood “It” girl Clara Bow, is newly on view in a sparkling 4k restoration of 1927’s “Children of Divorce”(available on Blu-ray/DVD from Flicker Alley). Bow gives a fine performance as a girl who rejects a poor man to marry a rich guy (Gary Cooper in his first starring role), who’s been turned down by her childhood friend (Esther Ralston). The first-rate documentary on Bow, “Discovering the It Girl,” is a bonus here; this release, in partnership with Blackhawk Films Collection, was among the last projects of silent film preservationist David Shepard, who died in January.

Yuja Wang in Costa Mesa, musical “Misadventure” in Anaheim

Yuja Wang, courtesy of yujawang.com
Yuja Wang, courtesy of yujawang.com

What would happen if Rex Harrison and Robert Preston met in a taxi on the way to the theatre one night in 1957 and ended up playing each other’s roles—Harrison in “The Music Man” and Preston in “My Fair Lady”?! That’s the clever premise behind “Rex and Bob’s Excellent Misadventure” by Bill Lewis (now in its world premiere at Anaheim’s Stage Door Repertory Theatre through Feb. 11).

Like most musicals this one is thinly plotted but long on song. In essence it’s a mash-up of the two evergreen classics, stuffed with parodies of the shows’ popular musical numbers. Most are highly entertaining, with few clunkers in the mix; the only real problem with “Misadventure” is that it simply goes on too long, especially Act I.

Andrew Ableson’s Harrison (or rather Harrington, as he’s called here) and Robert Standley’s Preston (or Prestone) are more than capable actors, pulling off their roles with aplomb under Bill Lewis’ smooth direction. Charlotte Carpenter Lewis is as charming as she is tuneful, as leading lady to both (alternating as Liza Whodiddle and Marian Laroo). Nick Santa Maria and Scott K. Ratner take turns stealing the show in a variety of supporting roles.

The Philharmonic Society of OC will present Pianist Yuja Wang Sunday Feb. 12 at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, with violinist Leonidas Kavakos. The 29-year old Beijing-born performer is beginning to attract as much attention for her musicianship as for her fashion sense, as well she should; the Los Angeles Times recently declared: “Hers is a nonchalant, brilliant keyboard virtuosity that would have made both Prokofiev (who was a great pianist) and even the fabled Horowitz jealous.”

Wang, who appeared in such storied venues as Salzburg, Wolftrap, and Tanglewood last year, is slated for a major solo European recital tour in March and April, with concerts in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Vienna and Berlin, among others. Kavakos, winner of the 2014 Gramophone Artist of the Year Award, has been praised by the New York Times for his “balance of pyrotechnics and lyricism.”

Sunday’s concert, part of the duo’s extensive tours of Europe and the U.S., will include the following selections: Janácek’s Sonata, Schubert: Fantasy in C major, Debussy’s Sonata in G minor, and Bartók’s Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor. Prior to the 7 p.m. concert Brian Lauritzen will present a pre-concert lecture at 6. The concert is part of the Henry T. Segerstrom Legacy Series.