Insight Theatre Company kicks off its residence as part of the .Zack Arts Incubator with Next to Normal, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning show that takes a musical look at mental illness. The powerful show introduces us to Diana and Dan, a married couple with two children, Natalie and Gabe. The family is doing their best to maintain a sense of normalcy while dealing with Diana's increasingly persistent mental illness. The company and cast, under the direction of Edward Coffield, create a believable space in which the story unfolds, filled with fine acting and interpretation.

The show opens on just another morning in the family's kitchen, with everyone rushing around trying to get out the door on time. Diana's manic peanut-butter sandwich making is the first indication we get that everything is not quite as it appears. Multiple doctor visits and an arms' length list of prescriptions don't seem to help Diana, so a more radical treatment is suggested. All the while, son Gabe hovers over his mother, seemingly to protect and defend her and vying for his father's attention, while daughter Natalie retreats from the family dynamic and flirts with an addiction to purloined pills from her mother's abundant stash. 

Debbie Lennon commands the stage as Diana, her presence and voice passionate and in perfect pitch no matter her emotional state. Lennon finds all of Diana's moments: normalcy, uncertainty, panicked mania, and immobilizing depression. She and director Edward Coffield find levels in Diana, ensuring that the character has depth and her illness, though simplified, is never minimized. Spencer Davis Milford is by turns sympathetic, conniving, and dangerous and son Gabe. Imminently likable, he's easy to cheer for and his voice delightful to hear. John Flack is ever patient and loving as Dan, and makes the most of his more limited range, while Libby Jasper is a fabulous counter to them all as the questioning, slightly rebellious Natalie. Max Bahneman and Ryan Scott Foizey complete the ensemble and provide interesting counterpoints to the family. Bahneman is a dogged and loyal boyfriend to Natalie, perhaps a reflection of a younger Dan. Foizey is convincingly Dr. Dimento, Dr. Feelgood, and a doctor we'd recognize as competent and caring, depending on Diana's mental state.

The set design by Robbie Ashurst, lighting design by Charlotte Wester, and technical design by Matt Stuckel add considerably to the tone, atmosphere, and storytelling. The almost unnoticed transitions in the color of light streaming through the set windows is a deft touch that adds much to the story. Laura Hanson's costumes, Ron McGowan's musical direction, and relatively simply but effective choreography by Trace Turner complete the story while adding texture and occasionally levity. The pieces come together quite well, resulting in an engaging and entertaining show that may nonetheless leave you deep in thought.

Next to Normal is told primarily through song and action and moves at a satisfying pace, still I feel like there's a little something missing. This may have more to do with the script than the finely wrought performances, for the directing and interpretation feels solid and consistent. The cast imbues their characters with a heightened sense of reality that often feels present when dealing with mental health issues, but there are moments when the show feels too affected, the real tension not quite present. Some of the scenes simply resolve too easily and the causes of Diana's mental illness are too focused on a single, traumatic incident, but the resulting fall out resonates with painful realism. 

Mental illness is a difficult subject matter for a musical, its presence so pervasive as to feel like a character itself. With such subject matter and trajectory, it's hard to imagine the story moving anywhere positive. There are a number of scenes where hope seems completely lost, yet the story manages to maintain and end on an upbeat note. The performances are connected and delivered with clear and purposeful intention helping the audience wade through the rough waters, and the songs are at times quite moving and heartfelt. The beauty of Insight Theatre Company's Next to Normal, running through June 25, 2017, is succinctly conveyed through the title, and it's a place many of us may find familiar. 

 

 

They argue. They bicker. They fight and bare their claws. They are a young married couple with issues. Anna's a writer who feels like a failure because lesser writers she knows have solid careers. Ben feels maligned by life, and he leaves dirty, filthy, crusty dishes overflowing in their sink.

Not until midway through the short film is the true, underlying reason for their anger and unhappiness revealed -- kind of the way it is with new friends, who do not expose their soft underbellies until after the hors d'oeuvres are served at dinner. And then the whole story makes more sense -- not that you need to know why their marriage is dysfunctional to get their angst.

Anna gets stoned to go to a baby shower, but then she broaches Ben with an idea: these former bandmates should turn their fights into songs. They clean out the garage for this garage band, invite the weird neighbor to beat the drums, and they're off, singing a love song for the ages about sexual congress in the key of F. And, yes, that is Ben's slice of pizza held by his harmonica holder attached to his guitar.

It's that kind of comedy. It's also part tragedy. Director Zoe Lister-Jones is also writer Zoe Lister-Jones and star Zoe Lister-Jones. She performs well as Anna, accompanied by her good work in Life in Pieces on television. As a writer, she certainly understands this couple's pain, but she also understands the marital therapy they need. She puts those direct and comforting words into the mouth of Ben's mother, played very well by Susie Essman. 

Adam Pally, of Iron Man 3 and Happy Endings, well embodies Ben. The supporting cast includes Fred Armisen in a tired shtick, Ravi Patel, and Retta. Colin Hanks functions well as the Uber Douche.

Band Aid works well as an indie film, short and sharp with redeeming attributes.

 

Wendy Whelan is a legend, described as an American treasure, America's greatest contemporary ballerina, and "the best" by Mikhail Baryshnikov. She danced for thirty years with the prestigious New York City Ballet, as principal dancer since 1991. In 2013, at forty-seven, she confronts what all athletes face -- the certainty that the body yields to the changes time visits upon it. 

Whelan acknowledges, "I do feel the ticking clock." But as directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger's captivating documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan shows, Whelan is far from accepting defeat. In fact, because of her single-minded passion for dance, she has already triumphed over daunting challenges and will meet new ones. At twelve she was diagnosed with scoliosis, endured traction and a cast while still pushing her body to learn to bend gracefully. In the course of this film, Whelan will have orthoscopic surgery to repair a labral tear in her right hip and subsequent physical therapy. (Warning: though brief, the operation is graphically shown.)

Through all of this, her decision to dance one final new ballet before retiring from the New York City Ballet in 2014 drives her. As she says, "If I don't dance, I'd rather die." With the camera practically glued to Wendy, the film documents an array of events with her family, friends, choreographers, and other dancers. Whelan remains front and center, with footage (always too brief) from ballets by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, and Peter Martins, Ballet Master in Chief of the New York City Ballet. The directors could have left out some of the overhead ballet performance shots, but they have an uncanny ability to plant their camera well and choose revealing moments. Above all, their subject is wonderful to watch--accessible, honest, and full of life off stage and a marvel in practice and performance.

The title "Restless Creature" comes from Whelan's 2014 contemporary, touring dance project. The documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan speaks not only to fans of ballet and elite athletes, but also to everyone captivated by determination, self-awareness, and a commitment to pursuing what they love in life, despite serious setbacks. It is showing at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

 

From the Changed Mind Department: Rough Night is not just a female version of Hangover. Yes, there are vulgarities, but women talk dirty, too. Yes, there is bawdiness, but women are fully capable of being nasty. Most of all, Rough Night is about women's true and evolving friendships.

The film opens with a group of women acting stupid at college. Fast forward 10 years ahead, and Jessica is running for office while planning her wedding -- serious stuff. Her friend Alice has planned a party for her, a so-called "bachelorette" bash. Sidenote: was there ever a word that so proved that being a man is preferable to being female than "bachelorette"? Spinsters were important members of a community because they spun the wool, but being one was so dreaded that being the -ette version of a bachelor took precedence. Aaarrrgggh.

Joining the group on Miami are Blair, a gorgeous young thing, and Frankie, an activist with two strikes against her before being jailed. These four women find themselves with a corpse that needs hiding. In their efforts to hide the body of a hunk, they find true friendship after truths spill forth.

Also spilled forth is a pair of sunglasses that may be gross to some who laugh until they cry, but they work in the moment.

Scarlett Johansson, good since 1996' Manny and Lo, works well as the constrained candidate. Jillian Bell defines the needy Alice, Zoë Kravitz sustains her role, Kate McKinnon is weak as the Aussie friend, and Ilana Glazer brings off the activist. Among the men is Paul Downs, who co-wrote with director Lucia Aniello, who has worked with Glazer on Broad City.

Go for the broad humor of Rough Night; stay because that's what friends do. What you laugh at will say a lot about who you are. Such is life.

 

As profiled in Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, Tower defies easy characterization, a credit to this engrossing documentary. By any measure, Tower has led a fascinating, though often difficult, life. Beginning in the present, director Lydia Tenaglia immediately announces she will imaginatively integrate on-screen reenactments with contemporary interviews and archival, usually home movie style, footage. 

Blending poetic images with Tower's voiceover observations, direct to-the-camera comments by friends and notable food experts, the film opens with a montage that will be elaborated and explored throughout the next hour and forty minutes: Tower walking through Mexican ruins, an actor as Tower as a young boy on a beach, testimonials to Tower as a food legend, including from Martha Stewart calling him "a father of American cuisine." 

Dominating the entire chronology is the composed presence of Jeremiah Tower himself who says in his introductory comments, "I have to stay apart from human beings because somehow I am not one. Everything that is real for me is what is hallucination for others." Director Tenaglia approaches Tower with that in mind, showing Tower's appealing work ethic and likable friendliness combined with an inaccessible, elusive self. As Anthony Bourdain says, "There's a private, locked room inside Jeremiah Tower. I sure haven't been there."

It's no wonder given his dysfunctional parents' behavior forcing Tower to fend for himself and learn strategies to protect himself from boyhood on. And then in 1972, at 30, with a Masters in Architecture from Harvard but without money, Tower arrived at Chez Panisse. He put it on the map shifting its emphasis to local California food before walking out when owner and founder Alice Waters published a cookbook of his creations appropriated as her own. 

Tower started Stars in San Francisco where it soon became the place to be, but that didn't last. I won't spoil more astonishing details, but factor in involvement with New York's Tavern on the Green, the impact of the AIDS crisis, especially given Tower's gay status, and other culinary and non-culinary adventures. Food luminaries weigh in, along with Anthony Bourdain and Martha Stewart, including Samantha Talbott, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, and Wolfgang Puck. But Tower sums himself up best, "If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing in style and on my own terms."  Exclusively at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

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