“Doll’s House 2” on stage, Newport filmfest and “Quiet Passion” on screen, “Tharlo” on DVD

Shannon Cochran and Lynn Milgrim in “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at South Coast Rep. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.
Shannon Cochran and Lynn Milgrim in “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at South Coast Rep. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

What happens when Nora Helmer returns home for a visit, 15 years after she walked out at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”? Lucas Hnath has come up with a surprisingly satisfying answer in his sequel to the classic drama (at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through April 30). “A Doll’s House, Part 2” filters the characters through modern sensibilities, though the play is set in the same period as the original; Nora has become a successful author, penning an autobiographical albeit slightly fictionalized novel about a woman unhappy in her marriage.

Shelley Butler’s minimal direction works because the writing is compelling enough to stand on its own. Shannon Cochran is a tower of strength as Nora, a performance matched by Lynn Milgrim as her housekeeper, Anne Marie, and Virginia Vale as her now adult daughter. Bill Geisslinger is fine as Torvald; Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes make a strong impression.

The 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival, which offers more than 350 films from some 50 countries, continues through April 27. Screenings take place at the Big Newport, Islands, Triangle and Lido cinemas, as in previous years. New Italian, Swedish, French, and German films vie for attention in the European Spotlight tonight at the Triangle.

Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion” (which opened at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles last week) offers up a markedly different portrait of Emily Dickinson from William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst.” Writer-director Davies sets out to reveal the little known woman behind the familiar poems and largely succeeds, with Cynthia Nixon giving us a far more complex characterization than Julie Harris did so memorably in Luce’s beloved one-woman play.

“Passion” shows us where the poetry came from, and wanders into some dark corners in an attempt to humanize Dickinson. We see the young Emily growing up in an overtly religious household, with a strict no-nonsense father (a solid Keith Carradine), as well as the mature woman who rejects potential suitors as a matter of course, turning her back on love if she can’t have equality. Jennifer Ehle shines in support as Emily’s patient sister Vinnie.

A man who lives in the past is the heart and soul of a recent film by Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden. “Tharlo” (available on DVD from Icarus Films) tells the story of a sheepherder from rural Tibet who gets involved with an attractive hairdresser. The naturalistic acting draws the viewer in, but much of the film moves at a glacial pace. The original story by Tseden, included in a booklet, is itself a compelling read; curiously, one of the film’s best scenes, in which Tharlo sings a love song to the young lady in a karaoke bar, is only a single sentence in the story.



Reviving 1920s and ‘30s jazz in style, recalling Laurel and Hardy’s ‘50s music hall tour

Vince Giordano
Vince Giordano

What do Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Michael Feinstein know that most folks don’t? They’re all wild about, cannot do without Vince Giordano—when it comes to recreating the music of the 1920s and ‘30s and making it live for today, he’s “the top,” as Cole Porter would say. This guy eats and sleeps the sounds of the era, as vividly depicted in the new feature film documentary, “Vince Giordano: There’s a Future in the Past” (at Laemmle Theatres at L.A. through April 20).

Directed and produced by award-winning filmmakers Dave Davidson and Amber Edwards of Hudson West Productions, this is an outstanding portrait of the bandleader and bass player. The doc captures not only the glamour—the standing ovations, the delirious fans swing-dancing to the music—but the day-to-day grind of loading the instruments, booking the gigs, worrying about the sidemen that don’t show up.

Giordano grew up in the ‘50s listening to his grandparents’ record collection on their Victrola, until the music “became my calling and my religion.” It isn’t the money that drives the bandleader and his Nighthawks orchestra, it’s the passion, and that passion is abundantly clear in this film. By the way, if you’re in New York, you can hear them play their special brand of jazz live—as I’ve had the pleasure of doing—at Iguana NYC and elsewhere.

Laurel and Hardy on tour
Laurel and Hardy on tour

Michael Ehret would no doubt approve of the Nighthawks’ theme song (“The Moon and You”) since it was written for his favorite comedy team. The German jazz drummer has put together an extraordinary volume with Nico Cartenstadt of Belgium, “Spot On: An Audiovisual Account of Laurel and Hardy’s 1952 British Tour.” The book, crammed with previously unpublished color and black & white photographs, is obviously the work of devoted fans. Included are essays by Danny Bacher and Glenn Mitchell, plus copies of typescripts, programs, ship manifests, letters and more. Ever wonder what their wardrobe trunks looked like? Check out the full-page color photos here.

L&H fans might be forgiven for thinking the last thing they need is yet another book on the comedians. But this one is occasioned by the serendipitous find of a lost recording of the sketch “On the Spot!,” which the team performed live in music halls after their film career ended. The two-part, 20-minute sketch is included on a CD, along with a short interview Laurel gave to a French radio station circa 1950. The handsome hardcover book and CD are available in a limited edition from Michael Ehret Publishing.

Speaking of limited editions, Bonaventure Press tells me “Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies–The Ultimate Edition” by my pal Randy Skretvedt, is close to selling out its first and only hardcover printing. Little known details of their films, deleted scenes from the scripts, recollections of their collaborators, information about the locations and musical scores, tons of rare photographs—small wonder fans call it The Bible.



“The Siegel” and Playwrights Festival in Costa Mesa, “Stupid Bird” in Long Beach

Mamie Gummer and Ben Feldman in "The Siegel." Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.
Mamie Gummer and Ben Feldman in “The Siegel.” Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

What if? That’s the question we all ask ourselves in the wee hours of the night, is it not? And that’s the proposition Michael Mitnick makes in “The Siegel” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (playing through April 23). What if you could take a second shot at something, a situation where you royally messed up–how would it play out?

Ethan Siegel, a determined young man, proposes marriage to his girlfriend Alice–two years after he broke up with her. Never mind that she has a boyfriend at present. Mitnick begins with this amusing off-kilter premise and builds on it with sharp wit and original dialogue. That he has a BA from Harvard and an MFA from Yale School of Drama will surprise no one.

Director Casey Stangl makes the smart choices SCR audiences have come to expect from her (Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play” comes to mind). Ben Feldman (as Ethan) and Mamie Gummer (Alice) enhance the writing with exceptional performances that suggest we’ll be seeing more from them in the future; Matthew Arkin and Amy Aquino (Alice’s parents) and Dominique Worsley (her boyfriend Nelson) provide first-rate support, as does scenic designer Michael B. Raiford.

“The Siegel” is part of SCR’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, which includes world premiere productions of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath (which plays through April 30, and supposes 15 years have passed since Nora Helmer walked out on her family at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s classic 19th century drama) and “Yoga Play,” a comedy by Dipika Guha (April 19-30).

The festival–celebrating its 20th anniversary this year–also offers staged readings of four new plays, including Amy Freed’s “Shrew!” (April 21 at 1 p.m.) and Donald Margulies’ “Long Lost” (April 22 at 10:30 a.m.), directed by his longtime collaborator, Daniel Sullivan.

Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” to which “The Siegel” makes oblique reference, is also the inspiration for a “retelling” called “Stupid F**king Bird” by Aaron Posner at The Garage Theatre in Long Beach (playing through April 29). The show, in which “a  young theatre artist tries to create a new form of theatre, to revolt against his mother, her generation, and their old ideas of art,” is set in 21st century America and directed by Matthew Anderson.