All posts by Elizabeth Ward

About Elizabeth Ward

I am a candidate for a Master of Arts in Arts Management at American University. Originally from Kansas, via Texas, I have a background in the performing arts. I grew up with theatre, dance and music as my soul-enriching extra-curriculars, only to follow them more intently in college. I received my B.A. in Music and Communication from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas with an emphasis on arts journalism and arts marketing. While relatively new to the D.C. area, I have been pursuing the arts scene passionately. Working under Philippa Hughes for The Pink Line Project has allowed me access into the multi-faceted world of the arts and D.C. culture. I currently do event planning, graphic design, and arts writing for Pink Line's many arty happenings around town. I am currently working on my M.A. thesis, which centers around naturally- and corporately-created artistic communities and those residing in them. I would love your input on this exciting project!

Dancing its way to something special

By Elizabeth Ward
ArtsPost staff writer

Photo courtesy of Paul Emerson

Rarely do we experience artistic productions with historical weight, but CityDance Ensemble may have achieved such leaping heights at its “Catalyst” concert at the Lansburgh Theatre last week.

Still a teenager in age, CityDance has struggled with staying accessible and consistent in the D.C. arts landscape. Maybe this is because it is the one of the only modern dance companies in the District. Maybe they have had trouble establishing legitimacy. Maybe it is simply impossible to market modern dance. But after last week’s performance, CityDance may have found its foothold on the American modern dance stage.

“Catalyst” was the company’s final performance before its tour to Bahrain, where CityDance’s choreography and partnerships will serve as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy. Furthermore, the concert served as a catalyst for the careers of two powerhouse choreographers and for the preservation of a modern dance legend.

With Artistic Director Paul Gordon Emerson, it was about curating more detail-oriented experiences, providing small yet exquisite snapshots of style. This is somewhat of a breakthrough for Emerson. I have always appreciated his visual ideas but found that he rarely knew how to challenge, adopt, adapt and exude true artistic style. The first act opened with “Little Adorations,” Emerson’s three-person web of hip-hop pops and locks, as well of rounds of funky, intertwined movement to the freshness of Radiohead. It was the pre-dinner mint, full of quirky, thorough design. Surely this couldn’t be Emerson — so polished, so well rounded? Surely, it was.

Emerson also appended his politically poignant “Entangled” to the end of the first act in a last-minute decision. The original iteration of the piece was inspired by the controversies of Guantanamo Bay, but had since morphed into commercialized filler, leaving the bubbly, personable, beat-boxing stylings of D.C.’s Christylez Bacon un-highlighted. Despite this morph or even the last-minute feel of it, it was a delightful break for the overworked brain, letting us enjoy the charmingly casual love dance reminiscent of old-time Gene Kelly movies. Was it commercial? Yes. Was it accessible? Yes. Did it make the audience smile? Definitely.

Nestled between these two differing yet appreciated Emerson dances was the anchor of the first act — and possibly the anchor of the whole show: “+1/-1” by Choreographer-in-Residence Christopher K. Morgan.

Morgan is what you might call an epic choreographer. His works are usually long, drawn-out and completely over my head. They involve politics, poetry, props and costumes (that sometimes serve as props). He is a true creative, but he has yet to rein in his creativity to produce something everlastingly remarkable. However, Morgan’s “+1/-1” is a stunningly brilliant example of “less is more when you know what you already have,” especially when what you have are superb dancers. It is a piece inspired by relationships:

Dancing with and without a partner…a look at the challenges, beauty and inherent metaphors involved when adding or subtracting a dancer from movement. +1/-1 asks several questions: What happens when another person is added to a situation? What happens in the void left by an absent partner? How does one fill the void, or is it simply left empty?

“+1/-1” begins with claps of thunder, followed by a looming, chromatic cello. Kathryn Pilkington opens in a single spotlight, introducing the arachnid movement as well as the backless blue-black leotards that seem to add strength, length and agility to the dancers’ dance. Soon the entire company enters with these eerie moves, only adding more intrigue. It is the kind of crooked choreography where the simple quiver of fingertips is enough to spark goose bumps.

This style soon transforms into a balletic foundation, the crux of the piece. Alice Wylie and Maleek present us with the emptiness and completeness of the ballet partner, only to be followed by the exquisitely athletic pas de deux of Elizabeth Gahl and William Smith. These attitudes, jetés and pirouettes allow us to finally see the talents of the dancers. This was the first time every CityDance dancer pulled something challenging out of his or her technical hat in order to shine. I have never seen them so stylistically and physically strong.

Ballet began with structure, only to later abandon specificity and structure in the face of modern dance. In one way, Morgan’s choreography pays homage to ballet as a catalyst for his work. In another way, “+1/-1” serves as a mirrored catalyst into the future — placing the vastness and exhilaration of modern dance as an inspiration for future styles.

As one audience member said, “That will be performed for decades to come.” How fitting, then, that it premiered in the same production with Paul Taylor’s choreography: the revolutionary definition of modern dance.

Paul Taylor, 77, is a pioneer of avant-garde modern dance. His works are rarely performed outside of his own company, but he allowed CityDance to present two of his lesser-known classics, a never-seen-before occasion.

“Last Look” opened the second act with various mirrors and a colorful heap of bodies on the floor. The dancers suddenly trashed all of their technique in the name of uncanny modernism to “convulse,” “shake,” “flail” and “flop.” It is an apocalyptic world, where the characters are incapable of fully communicating with one another, using sexual, flimsy and awkward jabs. It is outwardly unattractive and strange, sometimes causing discomfort, confusion and pure emotional exhaustion.  But the significance of this piece is not so outward as it is intrinsic. The audience may have squirmed and scowled, especially at William Smith’s disturbing facial expressions, but this was how Paul Taylor meant for us to react. It still feels innovative so many years later, but the real question is if it translates to audiences today.

Based on the rave applause and cheers from the audience, I would say it does. More so, it explains why Emerson is so intent on preserving Paul Taylor’s works, especially the ones that have never been outsourced before.

This is also the case with “Images,” the starkly opposite, futuristically tribal number of the third act. It featured selections from various Claude Debussy piano works paired with stoic yet fluttering dance positions. The multicolored skirts and Egyptian-like poses elicit genuine smiles, while the simplicity and statuesque images are readily understandable. All eight vignettes made me thankful that this work exists and established Paul Taylor as a diversely moving, preservation-worthy entity in the history of modern dance.

This production was the beginning of something momentous. The concert may have had one too many pauses and intermissions; it may even have been 10 minutes too long; and it may not have presented works that directly relate to one another. Yet in its entirety, the program represented stellar choreographical muscle, making us excited for the future of CityDance and the further preservation of historical work. Audience education has never looked so good.

Another Valentine equation?

By Elizabeth Ward

ArtsPost staff writer

While I didn’t fall in love, I may have stepped in to it by accident.

Valentine’s Day is a Los Angeles-placed romp, following various characters and their relational happenings. In every aspect, it echoes the myriad relationship webs of Love Actually and He’s Just Not That Into You, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Within the entangled picture, we once again encounter a variety of stereotypical characters: the cynic player, the hopeless romantic, the workaholic, the mom, the long-lasting elderly couple, the high school sweethearts, and the cute little kids who remind us of the innocence of love.

Above all things, Valentine’s Day is a huge Hollywood excuse to put as many starlets into these stereotypical roles as possible. Of course, anyone going into theaters for this film knows this already.

The amusement comes from seeing this plethora of people try to spark up the screen. Case in point: Taylor Swift, America’s country and pop music girl next door, debuts as an annoyingly adorable teenager. While it is easy enough to say that Swift tries way too hard, there’s something a bit charming about her even trying.

Even more entertaining are the many allusions to other roles the actors have played. Patrick Dempsey plays “the best” heart doctor on the West Coast – a role akin to his McDreamy brain surgeon counterpart on the popular TV-drama Grey’s Anatomy. Taylor Lautner, Twilight series’ favorite werewolf, plays yet another physically able high schooler. Although this time around, Lautner jokes that he is uncomfortable taking off his shirt, which makes us Twilight followers laugh. (Jacob the werewolf never shies away from baring torso muscle!)

Even Jamie Foxx hints at his Ray Charles role and R&B music alter ego in a piano-playing karaoke session. And Jennifer Gardner brings out some of her old femme fatal Alias moves in an epic scene with a baseball bat and piñata. Even when we see Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper for the first time on a flight to L.A., the captain states, “…three days of rain.” While it is barely noticeable, it is a reference to the Broadway play Three Days of Rain, in which both of them starred.

The disappointment, as expected, exudes from the predictable plot and exaggerated neuroses of many other unnecessary characters. Jessica Biel is the perfect model for this, excelling once again at playing the type-casted hyperbole of the “I am married to my job and hate relationships” character, making her even more intolerable.

At the other spectrum is Shirley MacLain, whose small role is ever so charming. She exudes grace and even manages to play homage to herself, while still being delightful.

Yet these countless cameos seem to exist in order to distract us from the real problem: the lack of originality and ability to relate. One character cleverly summed this up in a line targeted at high schoolers: “Oo, I miss High School – full of promise, full of love, ignorant of reality.”

This movie is High School. We love the promise of these actors (at the time of its release, the cast had collectively been nominated for 16 Oscars, including four Oscar wins). We love movies saturated with themes of love (at least we chick-flick attendees do). More importantly, we value being able to relate to the characters we see on-screen, or we at least value being transported into that on-screen world so that we can better relate. In this way, Valentines Day fails.

It concentrates more on the quantity of characters rather than the quality of storytelling, depth of reality and relevant relationships.

This is especially substandard given its famed romantic comedy director, Garry Marshall, who has given us the enduring charm of Pretty Woman, Overboard, The Princess Diaries and Runaway Bride. In this case, it seems as if the cosmic conglomeration of love-rampant individuals overruled Marshall’s capacity to direct another classic.

As George Lopez’s character says in the movie, “It’s Valentine’s Day… You don’t think, you just do.” This seems to summarize Marshall’s mind frame going into the film’s production.

At the outset, Valentine’s Day feels more like repeated scenes of couples waking up in bed next to one another. Throughout the middle, it turns into the perfect movie to help with my 6-degrees-of-separation game I play with Hollywood actors. And in the end, it becomes an all-around package of a saw-that-coming romantic comedy, only differing in the many more faces to put with the many more inevitable conclusions.

Begrudgingly, I believe these types of movies hold a significant place in the Hollywood landscape. When done well – like its corresponding Love Actually and He’s Just Not That Into You – these intertwined romantic pictures mold into the movies we can watch over and over and over again without guilt.

But love won’t come until I can interact with it more casually – with a glass of wine, a slice of chocolate cake and a group of girlfriends who can stupidly laugh and excessively comment at it with me. Only then will I truly love the scorned lover scenes, the awkward teenage sex drives and the romantic acts of “love” void of character.

Boys not allowed.

Not just a flower painter: O’Keeffe’s Abstraction opens at the Phillips

by Elizabeth Ward

ArtsPost staff writer

"Poppy" by Georgia O'Keeffe. Fair Use image from Google Images.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is one of the most over-commodified yet most misunderstood artists of the modern era. Known as the painter of flowers and New Mexico landscapes, O’Keeffe was rarely allowed out of her feminine, representational, artistic box.

The Phillips Collection’s Abstraction frees O’Keeffe from this confinement and reintroduces O’Keeffe as one of the pioneers of abstractionism in the early 20th century – a title for which she is rarely acknowledged or showcased.

A curatorial conglomeration of muscle, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is a three-way alliance between D.C.’s own Phillips Collection, The Whitney in New York City and The Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. The traveling show will only showcase in these three venues throughout the 2009-2010 season.

It is fitting that the Phillips is one of the three presenting museum spaces, since Duncan Phillips was the first museum director to purchase works by O’Keeffe back in 1926. The breathtaking exhibit showcases more than 100 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculpture dating from 1915 to the late 1970s. It also includes 14 photographic portraits of O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (photographer, gallery owner, and O’Keeffe’s husband beginning in 1924), which are incredible reflections upon her methods of gestural painting and cropping.

O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wis., in 1887 and longed to be an artist from an early age. In 1916, after finishing her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University, Alfred Stieglitz featured her early charcoal work at his 291-gallery in New York. Within two years, Stieglitz convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York to pursue painting full time. Six years later, they were married and began one of the most fruitful and well-known collaborations of the modernist era.

The exhibit unfolds roughly chronologically, opening with a round of O’Keeffe’s revealing visceral charcoal abstractions from around 1915. These charcoals serve as motifs for the entire show – always returning to the expression of the intangible.

The exhibit then progresses into her watercolors, which marks her as a graphic imager willing to portray the rhythms of experience. One truly gets the feeling of “infinity” and “boundlessness” in the midst of her colorful abstractions. Favorites include Tent Door at Night (1916), Pink and Green Mountains (1917) and Music, Pink and Blue (1918).

The exhibit subsequently moves into O’Keeffe’s more well-known “erotic, symbolic, color work” and finally comes full circle with her late abstractions of flat, geometric, expansive planes of color. These mural-sized constructions of space reinvigorated her art in the mid-1940s and provided a precedent for a younger generation of abstract painters.

Yet even within a majority of her displayed abstractions, one can see how O’Keeffe was a misrepresented artist. For most of her career, she struggled with how others perceived her work, being a woman who insisted on expressing herself abstractly. Many have always interpreted her work as Freudian, psychological expressions of her sexuality. In reality, however, O’Keeffe was an expresser of intangible feelings, inspired not by objects but by the dynamic quality of the natural world. She never considered herself a feminist painter.

Aware of the public’s lack of sympathy and support for her abstraction and hoping to direct the critics away from sexualized readings of her work, O’Keeffe began to pull away from abstraction into the more representational, recognizable images she is so known for. Nevertheless, abstraction remained the guiding principle of her art, even at the most representational.

The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint. –Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976

One of the most enlightening examples of O’Keeffe’s brilliant artistic response to the public eye is captured in her Jack-in-Pulpit (1930) series. Five of the six pieces display repeated bulbous forms, taking a single flower and honing in on its many characters. Here, she plays a joke on the critics: She makes them question whether she really is just a “painter of flowers,” while also reminding them of the androgynous nature of flowers. The phallic and the feminine appear together as a tongue-and-cheek retort to the standards placed upon her as an artist and a woman.

At the very least, this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit is a refreshing reconnection with an artist that we, after all this time, never knew at all. The Phillips Collection is the perfect venue for this beneath-the-surface experience of O’Keeffe abstraction.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is on view at the Phillips from Feb. 6 to May 9, 2010. From here, it will by on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe from May 28 to Sept. 12, 2010.

Why We Love “Damages”

Blood, guns, suicide, sex, corruption, money fraud, billion-dollar busts. In a word, litigation.

The new season of Damages began on Jan. 25 with its third intense installment following the turbulent lives of Patty Hewes (Glenn Glose) and her ambitious young protégé, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne). The season commences with a James Bond-esque opening montage of all of the insanity and corruption from the past two seasons. This montage served more as a hell-raiser, keeping us wondering: How could they top the past two seasons?

While I was skeptical within the first half-hour, I was mystified and hooked by the beginning of episode two. Here are the top three reasons why this season can keep up with the rest and why you should tune in.

1. New, unlikely (but awesome) characters

For those new to the four-time Emmy award winning FX production, Damages surveys the high-stakes litigation world of New York’s premiere prosecuting attorney, Patty Hewes (Close). Each season captures one intense case within a six-month time frame. All of these cases have involved untouchable, corrupt billionaires and the shareholders they unrightfully rob out of their financial cuts.

In season one, we saw the haunting Ted Danson as the corrupt and broken CEO Arthur Frobisher. In season two, we witnessed Hewes embody her inner Erin Brokavich and attack corrupt billionaire Walter Kendrick (John Doman) and his environmentally destructive business, Ultima National Resources. This season, Hewes has been appointed by the U.S. government to recover billions of dollars in stolen assets from the largest investment fraud in history – a fraud perpetrated by financier Louis Tobin (Len Cariou), cable’s romanticized Bernie Madoff personality.

It’s a world where men’s lawyers are their best friends, their greatest confidants and stand-in family members. And such is the case for Leonard Winstone, the family’s attorney, fascinatingly portrayed by Martin Short. (Yes, the Martin Short.) This brilliant casting allows Short to introduce his classic one-liners while still maintaining this disturbing dark role of the corrupt alias.

In the fourth episode, there is a quintessential scene in which Martin Short stands purposefully in front of an electronics store. Maybe he is there to prove he isn’t about to murder someone; maybe he’s there to make a phone call. We don’t know. All we see is him walking past the store, only to slowly turn around and stare in the window. There he is – a corrupt lawyer staring into five other iterations of himself on flat screen televisions. He stands there, blankly looking into his soul. Then out of nowhere, he makes a perfect Martin Short blowfish face, leaving us with the Short we love embodying a demented, broken, old character willing to stoop to lows we have never known Short to stoop to – in any of his characters.

Finally, the brilliant Lily Tomlin guest stars as Louis Tobin’s scarred but protective wife, Marilyn Tobin. Damages has been known to introduce a strong female or two to counteract Patty Hewes, but they finally found her housewife parallel in Tomlin. As Hewes states to Ms. Tobin in the first episode, “Men have their secrets, but so do women – and I find that women are better at keeping them.”

Indeed, Hewes is so successful because she is just as dirty and corrupt as the people she prosecutes – which makes us hope that Ms. Tobin is up for the challenge.

But why is the wife’s role so important? Because the question of the season arises: is the Tobin family involved in the debacle? Thus Kesslers and Zelman introduce us to the new, complicated plot twist of season three: family.

2. The family dynamic

What lengths would family go to in order to protect one another? How do our mistakes affect and destroy those around us? While the media spotlight lingers on the Tobin family obliteration, Damages weaves in parallel family stories of its supporting characters. Hewes follows through with her divorce; the intelligently beautiful Ellen Parsons (Byrne) confronts a family member’s drug addiction; and the lovable Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) loses everything in a single bad investment call.

By the third episode, we realize that this season focuses more intently on the dynamics and fluctuations, controversies and secrets of family – all of which make for a much more vibrant fabric with which to drive the story.

This season is all about the familial meltdown, and it is juicy (and genius)!

3. A brooding, progressive plotline

For creators Glenn Kessler, Todd Kessler and Daniel Zelman, Damages is a magically severe game of puzzle pieces. Though relatively novice writers/directors/producers, these men seem to have struck small screen gold. Indeed, Kesslers and Zelman have more acting credits under their belts than producing nods. But it seems like the Kesslers’s short-lived involvement in The Sopranos (in 2000-2001) and the less-than-successful Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003) provided them with the resourceful insight to create a small yet significant masterpiece in Damages. (Of course, a brilliant industry savvy cast helps.)

With a sort of Law & Order lens, Kesslers and Zelman expose us to one or two pieces at a time, at either end of the chronological timeline, leaving us to insinuate all of the unimaginable holes on our own. But speculation does not stand a chance against the genius structure of Damages.

However, in a culture where we constantly look forward to bigger, better and more devastating plot twists, Damage’s season three opener is less than appalling. In the quintessential “6 MONTHS LATER” flash-forward tag, we are told what terrible forecast we can look forward to in the coming season. In the past, we’ve seen a bloody Ellen Parsons run out of a New York City high rise and vengefully shoot an unidentified person at close range. This season, someone hits Hewes’s car in a hit-and-run homicide attempt. We infer: someone is trying to kill Patty Hewes.

BIG surprise, LAME way of going about it. The disappointment sets in heavily: where is our bloody, psychological American Psycho thriller?

This is why I appreciate the writers of Damages. Nothing is as it seems. And instead of laying all of their cards on the table as they have in seasons past, they decide to lay them down carefully, one at a time, so as to create a progression of deeper, more powerful insight. Don’t misunderstand, it is all still shocking – but it builds in mastermind astonishment.

For those dedicated to Damages, be happy to know that the new threads in the litigation tapestry seem to fit accordingly. Yet so many things remain the same: Glenn Close dominates once again as Patty Hewes, assuring us that she is still willing to get her hands dirty and hit under the belt. And, as always, Damages will leave you astounded after every episode, constantly thinking, “What the…?”

Of course, we won’t actually find out what is really going on until April.

Damages was created by Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman, who also serve as executive producers/showrunners. The series is produced by KZK Productions, FX Productions and Sony Pictures Television.

Tune in to Damages Mondays at 10 p.m. EST on FX.

“Only Angels Have Wings”: a contemporary comparison and defense

Howard Hawks has gone down in history as one of the greatest underrated Hollywood storytellers in the past century. A visual stylist, Hawks rarely stuck to the same genre for long – capturing the versatility of romantic comedies, slapstick melodramas, westerns and serious dramas such as Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and El Dorado.

Of these Hawksian classics is Only Angels Have Wings, a 1939 film, which screened at the AFI Silver Theatre this past week as a part of a Jean Arthur retrospective

Starring the unmistakably timeless Cary Grant opposite the spunky Jean Arthur, Only Angels Have Wings is quintessentially old time Hollywood. It portrays a group of ‘Hemingway-esque’ jungle pilots working on a South American airstrip and the head honcho, Geoff Carter (Grant) as the conflicted, cynical protagonist. It blends action, adventure, comedy and pathos in a story about men determined to keep their free-flying livelihood.

Set in the exotic, make-believe Barranca seaport – a trade city for bananas – Hawks immediately transports us to the new, beautiful and different. At the outset, the film is a visually stunning romp, equipped with Havana music, palm trees and attractive, flirtatious people. Yet with a plot centered on the danger and dedication of piloting airplanes, Only Angels Have Wings is suddenly dark, deep and depressing. (Which is exactly how I would describe a number of this year’s Academy Award Best Picture nominees.)

This makes me wonder: how does this Hawks film compare to present-day Hollywood hits? Can we compare? Does it benefit our understanding and appreciation of the classic movie genre to do so?

While obviously not shot on location, the same attention to detail, in scene and costume, is apparent. Men don khaki, leather jackets, Havana hats, gun slings and accessorized cigarettes – adequately representing the era and locale. What differs from most contemporary movies is the capturing of this detail. We are so attuned to fast-paced camera angles and scene cuts, but where Hawks is a master is his ability to attend to scene composition and length. He lingers on frames, cutting only when absolutely necessary. In doing this, we are allowed to soak in minutiae and scenarios. We are the immovable bystander, not the omniscient ever-moving eye, a calmer perspective from the norm.

He is even able to successfully direct effects. For a film made 70 years, we witness spectacular aerial photography by the premiere trailblazing aerial photographer of the time, Joseph Walker. Here he is able to capture plane-side action shots, which are no less appealing than Avatar’s cliff flying Pandora scenes. Yes, we see a few strings holding up model planes and some entertainingly fake explosions – but this film was not meant to be the early Star Wars/Armageddom action/adventure epic tale.

It is almost like a skeleton of Ben Affleck’s Pearl Harbor – sans war and romantic fluff, but with more character. Above all, it is about brotherhood and less about love and passion. It follows the same formulas we find in many of Hawk’s films.

Plotline one: an outsider in the form of Bonnie Lee (Arthur) enters and destroys the equilibrium, so what must happen to restore this equilibrium? Plotline two: Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), the man with a disgraceful past, must endure the subsequent road to redemption alongside the strong, stoic leading man Geoff. These themes show up in many of Hawks’s films. Sure, we could also approach feminist critiques about the roles and attitudes of the Hawksian heroines in Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth, but we could make the same arguments for all women in today’s films – they accidentally fall in love and make plans. They are the starry eyed girls looking at a “screwy ideal of a man,” as Bonnie Lee would say.

On the other end of the spectrum are men like Geoff, who live for today. They fly planes without a safety net and “never ask anyone to do anything.” They’re irresistibly good guys for girls to stay away from. We’ve all known and seen these men depicted (think James Dean and Western cowboys), but nowadays we are accustomed to seeing these men change for the love of a woman. For Hawks, this is not the point of resolution. Rather, it is about brotherhood and honor. Men stay true to who they are, no matter how much women will them to change.

What we also do not experience today are the sort of strange story structures and dialogue with which Hawks composes his films. Only Angels Have Wings is seemingly split into three stories, almost like acts in a play. Act I: romantic introductions; Act II: a men’s melodrama; Act III: a drawn-out redemptive resolution. Within these acts are the delightful improvised breakouts into harmonized song, where a single scene has an entire musical group framed harmoniously as one.

However, toward the end of the film, we see four identical shots from the airplane with the characters stating, “Calling Barranca” into their radios. This sequence lasts 10 minutes or more before anything “exciting” happens. But is this poor storytelling? Not if it means taking realistic sequential steps to the ultimate conclusion… even if it results in impatience!

Indeed, parallelism runs rampant in this film. Multiple captured flights show almost identical take-off and landing footage. More important, the film successfully comes full circle with a concluding setting mimicking one of the opening scenes. A man has just died from a disastrous plane crash, as did a man at the onset of the film, but while the motions of the characters are aligned in both instances, the emotions and reaction are violently, affectedly disparate. This is the most poignant portrayal of these actors’ interpretive ability.

Grant has famously been criticized for being too “pretty” to carry powerhouse roles. If anything, Only Angels Have Wings will prove these criticisms are unsound. He’s our present-day Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt – it is not their fault they are beautiful, especially if they can act their parts. Grant not only acts this troubled role, but he picks up on the dialogue’s nuances, giving us just enough hints to get into the head of this broken man.

This differentiated method of acting is coupled and fed by the pointed dialogue. The move reads more like a stage play, with a few inner monologue asides and many vague references to unseen interactions. The dialogue is more honest and blunt, making it almost offensive yet balanced by its context and character. Today, we are impressed by restricted dialogue (Wall-E) and over-dynamic word vomit (Juno) – both of which grab our attention. But rarely do we find films that are direct but without full exposure. It is intelligent writing no longer used in contemporary filmmaking.

With films like Only Angels Have Wings, I soak in the difference in attitude, storytelling and content. It helps provide a point of departure for the films I love today, while reminding me that a good movie is a good movie, regardless of time.

‘Red and Brown’ mystifies Studio Theatre

By Elizabeth Ward
ArtsPost staff writer

Photo courtesy Studio Theatre

The chorus cries, “She wasn’t crazy… just sad.”

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water” tells the story of Oya, a girl wrapped in promise and love. Yet through a series of missed chances and unexpected choices, she takes on an accessory role to the characters molding her life path.

The play is the second installment of McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy being showcased in sequence at Washington’s Studio Theatre in the intimate Milton Theater. The bold theater-in-the-round setting offers director Serge Seiden the chance to tell the story in an abstract form, breaking down the fourth wall and encouraging our identification and connection with the characters.

McCraney uses incredibly impressive language — a unique and inventive attitude with one foot in the harsh reality of life and the other in a magical dreamland. It is a poignant, refreshing narrative that uses rhythm and music as the interweaving fabric.

The characters, named for Yoruban deities, speak their actions aloud as almost self-narrative statements of purpose.

“Oya smiles,” Oya states to the audience. Then Oya gleams at her mother.

At first, the self-narrating stage directions are surprising but offer pertinent introductions for which the audience is thankful. But as the play unfolds, this self-direction provides a rhythmic, emotional weight — adding comedy and omniscient honesty to the all-feeling characters.

“In the Red and Brown Water” is storytelling in its most authentic form. The tone is revelatory in this melding of poetry, rap, tragedy and drama as it speaks directly to human connectivity and emotions. This pulls from contemporary African American culture, as well as Yoruban gathering traditions and fire circles, African spirituals and dance, the Greek choral dramas and Shakespearean rhythms. This sampling from old traditions is echoed in the live DJ music during scene changes, and includes new takes on recognizable songs.

Continue reading ‘Red and Brown’ mystifies Studio Theatre

The name of the band is… COWBOY MOUTH!

By Elizabeth Ward
ArtsPost staff writer

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.

“This is no wine tasting. This is kick-ass southern Louisiana rock ‘n’ roll!” exclaims Cowboy Mouth’s front man, Fred LeBlanc.

If the audience wasn’t clued in to the impending pandemonium by the Mardi Gras-inspired set covered in yellow, purple and green paraphernalia, they were reassured of it as soon as Cowboy Mouth stormed onto the stage yelling, “Happy Mardi Gras, DC!”

With a New Orleans craze, a life-possessed front man, almost a dozen album releases, a grueling tour schedule, and a life-changing live concert that has gone unchanged for more than a decade, Cowboy Mouth still continues to electrify its audiences across the country.

The band ransacked the 9:30 Club on a recent Friday with yet another cultish crowd-raising clang. Opened by the laudable but shrilly uninspiring Cash-like Junior Brown, Cowboy Mouth proved anything but lackluster. Their goal of the night (as it is at every concert): Make you live in the moment.

Founded in the early 1990s, Cowboy Mouth entered the music scene back when M.C. Hammer and Sinead O’Connor were the hottest commodities on the charts and alternative rock was just breaking onto the scene. Playing around 200 concerts per year to audiences that rarely reach more than a thousand, Cowboy Mouth continues to wear its New Orleans heart on its sleeve, winning audiences over not by its disappointing albums, but by its live Mardi Gras energy.

Cowboy Mouth is an ever-changing physical conglomeration of characters. Lead vocalist, drummer and psychotic front man, Fred LeBlanc, is a shoeless Jack Black meets Meatloaf meets Yogi Bear persona. He is the justification for Cowboy Mouth’s existence, as he goofily takes front stage at his drumming throne. Lead guitarist and the only other founding member, John Thomas Griffith, is a Mraz vest and fedora hat exterior with a Jimmy Ray Vaughn talent – almost the yen to LeBlanc’s unedited yang.

Bassist of three years, Regina Zernay, is the band’s token anime character. She wildly shakes her red-colored hair in pigtails and rocks a black mini skirt with white patent leather boots, all while keeping the solid bass groove. Finally, rhythm guitarist Jonathan Pretus is the quiet sideliner in his unassuming jeans and characteristic New Orleans Saints “Who D@t” t-shirt. Different from the rest, Pretus seems to defer the spotlight to his alpha band mate characters as they “rip the living hell out of” classic Mardi Gras songs and Cowboy Mouth originals.

Yet somehow this improbable equation works – and rocks.

LeBlanc is the hamster keeping the wheels spinning as he literally feeds off the crowd’s enthusiasm and frenetic energy to make it through the show. Between almost every song, he chants, “Give me rhythm, give me rhythm, give me energy, give me rhythm,” for fear of an idle crowd.

Above all, he reminds us to continuously “scream out all the stuff that’s weighing us down” and to “jump up and down” like there’s no tomorrow. Songs like Glad to Be Alive and New Orleans are feel-good cues for our weary consciousness, while Voodoo Shoppe, Drummer Man and Joe Strummer keep us in a moshpit-like frenzy.

Yet while it is nearly impossible not to drink the juice of this participatory concert revolution, the blueprint of Cowboy Mouth’s music remains astonishingly derived and unoriginal. Even the songs that inspire movement, howls and Bourbon Street bead throwing necessitate New Orleans contexts to keep them cool.

The Hurricane Katrina response, “I Believe”, is a Billy Joel “River of Dreams” song with New Orleans reference. Crowd-favorite “Belly” is a long-lost ’80s anthem, and the only slow song of the night, “How Do You Tell Someone,” is Vertical Horizon mainstream drab. Cowboy Mouth is Barenaked Ladies with stage presence and New Orleans fervor.

Yet for some reason, I don’t really care – and neither do they.

Cowboy Mouth is already aware of its cliché. For the past 15 years, Cowboy Mouth has imparted an unusual survival system: put out albums people won’t buy, and put on concerts that people won’t deny. Essentially, create music that can’t survive — that has absolutely no character — without a Cowboy Mouth-sized live performance.

This explains why their music is so straightforward and their commentary is so desperately optimistic: crowds cannot help but sing and dance along and have an undeniably fun time. Every concert is uniquely the best night of their lives.

They are the spokespeople of what it means to be alive in happiness. Truly, there is something wrong with you if you can stand still during a Cowboy Mouth concert.

As a believer of good music — of unique voices, harmonic textures and profound lyrics, I can honestly say that I would unabashedly go back to a Cowboy Mouth concert in an instant.

Next time, though, I would bring a red spoon to throw on the stage during “Everybody Loves Jill,” practice my hairography to get it just like Regina’s, stand in front so I could hopefully catch one of LeBlanc’s flying drumsticks, and scream along to the much-anticipated 1997 headliner, “Jenny Says.” I would go for no other reason but to experience their life-giving fun.

At the very least, Cowboy Mouth made me a believer of the New Orleans’ Saints imminent Super Bowl victory. More important, they convinced me that a good band doesn’t necessarily need spectacular music — an unparalleled live set and an enraptured crowd can keep you around for decades.

I left that concert proud that I might have contributed to LeBlanc’s black apparel drenched in sweat, and too musically wired to call it a night.

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.