Dark Places

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fragments-brook-beckett.gifAfter an underwhelming second production in the series, the surprisingly old-fashioned mounting of Shaw’s Saint Joan by the Shaw Festival of Canada, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre closes its important World Stage Series with the fantastic, esoteric theatre geek’s nirvana, Fragments.  Directed by legendary theatrical innovator Peter Brook, and starring three members of the acclaimed, movement-based, experimental theatre company Complicite, including one of its co-founders, the brilliant Marcello Magni, Fragments is an hour-long collection of five of Samuel Beckett‘s rarely-produced short plays.  Brook, Beckett, Complicite- wow, the euphoric rush this combination brings to the serious theatrelover is probably similar to the rush many sports fans felt last night during Superbowl XLII when the NY Giants pulled that stunning upset.  Well, ok, maybe not.  The short plays that comprise Fragments are sketches, short glimpses into the ironic, dark, lonely nature of lives that Beckett’s works illuminate- they’re definitely not the supremely evolved insights into the human condition of his full-length plays like Waiting for Godot or Happy Days- but they are still intellectually intriguing and beautifully theatrical.  Although all five are brilliantly written and staged, with flawless physical performances, I especially liked the first two immensely.  In “Rough for Theatre I”, Magni as a blind musician and Jos Houben, as a crippled old man, wonderfully explore the changing dynamics of any relationship, from forging a connection, to warm friendship, to co-dependence and helplessness, to fierce adversarial conflicts, driven by the many complicated facets of human nature that make us loving and generous one moment, and stubborn and self-involved the next.  In “Rockabye”, the glorious Kathryn Hunter, using a stunningly expressive and emotional voice, and carefully calibrated rocking in a rocking chair, paints a searing picture of the desolation and desperation of abandoned old-age.  Brook’s minimalist direction and the well-composed dramatic lighting allows Beckett’s text, and the dark places of life that it seeks to present, to be shown-off to its maximum impact.  This is sophisticated theatre that we in Chicago are very lucky to have access to (although the production has been acclaimed in the UK and Paris, we are the only North American stop in its international tour, which also includes stops in Spain, Italy, Austria, and Hong Kong).  I would normally be hectoring people to go and run to the Chicago Shakespeare and grab what few tickets are still left (I guess many of the performances are sold out) but I also realize that not a lot of people “get” Beckett.  For those of you who do, this is an unmissable, one-of-a-kind event.

Over the weekend, I also managed to catch Marion Cotillard’s performance as Edith Piaf in the biopic La Vie en Rose – I think arguably one of the best performances in recent film history. The film itself is a little blah, with irritating, pretentious, out-of-sequence, jumping around through incidents from Piaf’s life, but her riveting performance transcends the pedestrian nature of the movie and keeps you watching.  I was annoyed with the sloppy directing, writing and editing.  I mean, you don’t have to show a chronological narrative of her life, but someone needed to make sure the story is at least coherent.  This pretentious, arthouse approach unfortunately does not allow the audience to get drawn into the other characters, because many of them enter and exit Piaf’s life without any seeming reason or order.  But Cotillard is brilliant, and her Academy Award nomination is richly deserved.  It is quite the immersion in the role- she gets Piaf’s physical look, mannerisms, walk, and gravelly voice.  But more than the physical aspects, Marion delivers on the emotional ones, and really digs into the dark places of Piaf’s soul- her emotionally battered upbringing, her insecurities, her viciousness to those around her.  Ok, so sometimes she is shamelessly chewing the scenery like a sumo wrestler chowing down on a T-bone steak after a week-long fast, but for most of the 137 minute movie she is impressively honest.  I was left breathless at her much acclaimed seven minute, single-take breakdown scene, but I was especially impressed by the quieter moments of her performance – her shy first date with the boxer, her star-struck meeting with Marlene Dietrich, the very calm interview with the reporter on the beach.  It’s quite the performance of a lifetime…and readily erases any lingering impressions of Cotillard’s performance as Russell Crowe’s stereotypical French nymph of a girlfriend in A Good Year.

Fragments runs at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in Navy Pier, Upstairs Theatre, until February 9. La Vie en Rose is available on DVD and Comcast on Demand.

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