Sunday, October 28, 2007

How to navigate through the stars

Within a 24-hour period this weekend I saw on stage Cate Blanchett, Peter Sarsgaard, Natalie Portman, Elaine Stritch, Ellen Burstyn, Anita Ekberg, Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner. The latter two play the leads in Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway. I'll get back to that one, though I'll let you ponder the fact, dear readers, that Garner's character, Roxane, is described as "bookish" in the text. Jennifer Garner bookish: three words I never thought I'd ever see in the same sentence.

As for all the others, they were in Francesco Vezzoli's one-night-only happening at the Guggenheim on Saturday night, part of Performa07. You could describe it as a star-studded reading of Pirandello's 1917 play Right You Are (If You Say You Are), but it was both more and less than that. Less, because as a reading, it plain sucked; more because as a concept, it was inspired.

I tagged along with Time Out New York's dynamic duo, dance editor Gia Kourlas and theater writer Adam Feldman; I felt decidedly gray next to their sartorial flair—she in some deconstructed, Westwood-like kite frock, he in his now-trademark swest (a sweater and a vest). After a late start, which caused tempers to amusingly flare on the enormous line, we finally made it inside the Gugg, only to realize the only spots left were rather high up on the ramp; the VIPs, of course, were on the floor, where mikes and lecterns were positioned facing inwards on a round platform. On one side, Anita Ekberg (!) sat on a couch made to look like oversize lips. We peered down to the action, feeling frustration mount (by then it was way past 11pm)—and it got worse as soon as the actors began speaking, as we realized with dismay that the sound was so shittily amplified that it echoed into sheer unintelligibility. Within five minutes, we decided to bail on one of the hottest tickets of the season.

But as we started walking away from the museum, a publicist caught up with us and explained that we'd be better in the theater, "and that's where Cate Blanchett is too." As it turned out, the proceedings upstairs were videotaped and projected in the Gugg's basement theater—and those upstairs had no way of knowing this was happening downstairs. La Blanchett indeed was there, sitting with her back to the audience in some leathery Galliano get-up and a black veil, a vision of ghostly goth chic.

The split-screen action in the basement offered unsparing video closeups of the actors on the main floor, some of them waffling between awkward and downright clueless (most notably Natalie Portman in mustachioed male drag by Prada and Abigail "Little Miss Sunshine" Breslin). Unsurprisingly, the ones who were best at actually acting out their lines were the old pros: Dianne Wiest, Ellen Burstyn, David Strathairn. But it was clear that the feed was the event's real point: not live but on video, and with a focus not on acting (this was not theater) but on sheer presence. This could not have been done with stage actors, it worked only with movie stars. And with someone from the category above star: that of icon—Ekberg, looking bored on her lips, drinking a glass of wine, observed and pitied by a cannibalistic, self-satisfied crowd who would not be caught with a copy of Star yet attended only because there were names in the cast.

Another good moment: when one of the screens suddenly switched to a shot of some of the VIPs, unaware they were being filmed. A beefy man in a suit looked as bored as Ekberg, fidgeting, looking at his shoes.

It all culminated at the very end when Blanchett finally got up from her subterranean perch, walked right by us like a b&w hologram on the runway of the damned, went all the way to the top of the museum then majestically proceeded down the ramp, filmed and photographed by paparazzi-like handlers, to join the other actors and deliver her handful of lines. Ta-da!

Soundtrack for the post-Vezzoli come-down: Róisín Murphy "Movie Star" (from Overpowered, 2007).

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