I’ve been very busy lately, staging a musical theatre production (AristoCats Kids) with 24 children ages 6-15. I also designed and make the costumes and props for this show. This is in addition to designing costumes for a show with three actresses whose lives are told over a ten year period (Vanities)…and whose clothes must change to reflect this. I love being this busy. Today, though, I took the morning off to read a book, and then watch a movie, both about the world of the theatre.
Ghost Light: A Memoir is written by former The New York Times Theatre Critic Frank Rich and tells his story of growing up, and growing into his love of theatre. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, a product of a “broken home” (as he puts it), Rich escapes time and time again to the Broadway Musicals his parents had brought home as records. His step-father, a pompous Washington D.C. lawyer, is an avid theatre-goer and relishes his role as provider of Rich’s favorite activity. Unfortunately, he also is a volatile man, given to farting, yelling, domineering, and beating his children, step-children, and wife. Ghost Light is absorbing and showcases Rich’s great writing. He ends his memoir sometime in college, leaving us with just a taste of his future. It’s amazing how much he was able to fit into his 17 years leading to his high-school graduation. I am envious of his memory of premier productions of such great shows as A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and so many others, all before actually embarking on his career! A great read, very worthwhile.
Synecdoche, New York (2008) is a brilliant movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as theatre director Caden Cotard whose life is more than a little out of whack. Living in Schenectady, New York (near where I grew up), his wife (Catherine Keener as Adele Lack) belittles him for not doing something “real”, hiding in his regional theatre rut, where casting young actors to play Willy Loman and his wife, Linda is considered avant garde. She, a painter whose miniature works must be seen with magnifying glasses, runs away to Berlin to show her work, taking their daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein).
Things have already been weird, now they get weirder. You will get lost, it’s okay, you’ll sort it out as the movie progresses…mostly. Time is fluid, with actors sometime aging, sometimes not, a single trip to the E.R. apparently happening over the course of several months. A second marriage to Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), who had played Linda Loman at the start of the movie, leads to the birth of a second child, another girl whom Cotard constantly confuses with Olive.
Things have already been weirder, now they get weirder yet. Cotard receives a MacArthur Genius Grant and feels pressure to create a new show, a grand master-work, a “real” play. Things are misheard, and misspoken. Cotard himself exhibits signs of Cotard’s syndrome, a delusional belief that one is dead. The play he is staging is like a giant experiment in psychological delusion. Cotard hires a man, who claims he’s been studying him to 20 years (Tom Noonan as Sammy) to act as Cotard in the play. The casting becomes more and more surreal as Cotard’s double is doubled by an actor of his own. Eventually, Cotard has doubles for all of the people in his real life, including his almost-mistress, Hazel (Samantha Morton), who is doubled by Tammy (Emily Watson) with whom Cotard consummates the aborted affair of twenty years before. Hazel has an affair with Sammy, ending her marriage to Derek (who is then written out of the script). She and Cotard eventually decide that who they really want is each other, after all. Sammy’s suicide leaves the role of Cotard’s double open, which Ellen (Dianne Wiest), who had been hired to play Adele’s housekeeper, convinces him she can play.
Is this all just a dream? A hallucination? A difficult story told by a woman who disguises herself as a man? What I love most about this movie is that it is undefined, but in the best way. The viewer isn’t left hanging in an unpleasant way. Instead, we are left with our own thoughts and our own ideas as to the real meaning of the movie, much like any great work of art. Highly recommend, be prepared to watch it more than once.