And Everything Is Going Fine/Gray's Anatomy
The life and work and the late Spalding Gray forms the basis for these two DVDs. The former is Steven Soderbergh's 2008 documentary which examines the monologist's life using only a treasure trove of pre-existing footage, archival interviews, and rare video tapes, brilliantly edited together by Susan Littenberg. From his childhood to his rise in fame to the car accident that is widely believed to have led to his tragic presumed suicide a few years later, the documentary provides a full view of the performer's life, in the best way anyone knew how -- through a final monologue. (As a bonus, Criterion provides his earliest work, "Sex and Death to the Age 14," as videotaped in 1982.)
The latter is Soderbergh's compulsively watchable film adaptation of Gray's 1993 monologue about his experiences dealing with a macular pucker in his eye. The set also includes a video recording of Gray's terrific A Personal History of the American Theater, in which he recalls his experiences in a variety of plays, taped live at the Performing Garage in 1982. And for those particularly brave viewers, the release also contains 16 minutes of actual footage from Gray's eye surgery.
Henry IV Parts 1 & 2: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Roger Allam and Jamie Parker deliver delicious performances as Falstaff and Prince Hal, respectively, in Dominic Dromgoole's lively Elizabethan period-dress productions at Shakespeare's Globe. The whole ensemble is solid, but it's the swaggering, robust Allam (who won an Olivier for his work) and the rambunctious and calculating Parker that makes this four-disc, two-volume release (each sold separately) so captivating. More remarkable is how the pair transition into the more melancholy second play, especially the now-stern and cold King Henry V's rejection of Allam's now-shaking, cowering, and whimpering Falstaff, which is truly devastating.
Rick Miller's one-man adaptation of Shakespeare's so-called "Scottish Play," performed in the voices of 50 characters from television's The Simpsons, is primarily for fans of the long-running animated sitcom, but it will no doubt intrigue Bard buffs, as well. Some of his impressions are stronger than others -- his Homer (Macbeth) is just slightly off, for example, while his Marge (Lady Macbeth), Ned Flanders (Banquo), and Principal Skinner (Weird Sister) are uncanny -- and his ability to switch quickly among 50 characters, ranging from mainstays like Barney Gumble to one-off guest stars like Jon Lovitz's tyrannical theater director Llewellyn Sinclair, in a single second is dexterous. His adaptation of the text is also quite smart, paring the work down to 75-minutes and still managing to capture its essence.
Swan Lake: Matthew Bourne
This internationally acclaimed, Tony Award-winning production is no-less thrilling in your living room than it is on stage. The fiercely committed Dominic North and Richard Windsor dance the roles of the Prince and the Swan/The Stranger in this stunning, contemporary take on the Tchaikovsky ballet, taped in beautiful high definition at London's Sadler's Wells. Even those who aren't dance aficionados will be entranced by the visual storytelling, including Lez Brotherston's looming designs, Bourne's clear through-line and stunning choreography, and his expert dancers, including Nina Goldman as the Queen and the deliciously tactless Madelaine Brennan as the prince's girlfriend.
Nunset Boulevard: The Nunsense Hollywood Bowl Show
Dan Goggin's newest entry into his crowd-pleasing franchise finds the Little Sisters of Hoboken taking their show to the Hollywood Bowl, only to learn that it's really the Hollywood Bowl-A-Rama. The ever-resolute Sisters (Deborah Del Mastro, Bambi Jones, Bonnie Lee, Jeanne Tinker, and Stephanie Wahl) soldier on, singing and dancing their way through public address announcements and attempting to audition for an upcoming movie musical about the life of movie star-turned-nun Dolores Hart. Certain segments, such as a particularly hilarious audience participation quiz about famous Nuns in the movies, work better than others, but at 90 minutes, the gleefully hokey musical ends right before it overstays its welcome.
Brian Dennehy, Stephen Ouimette, and Cara Ricketts (as Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria) steal the show in Des McAnuff's musically influenced production of Shakespeare's classic comedy for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. While the work features a host of other good performances, including Sara Topham's Olivia and Ben Carlson's Feste, far too many barely register. Screen director Barry Avrich nicely captures the massive physical production, and McAnuff's staging has a host of deftly humorous touches, such as an after midnight pizza delivery to Olivia's house during an all-night party.
Vanya on 42nd Street (Criterion Collection)
Louis Malle's captivating final film, first released on the big screen in 1994, documents a workshop of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, featuring actors in plain clothes exploring the play through rehearsal at the then-abandoned New Amsterdam Theatre. For the performers, a group that included Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Lynn Cohen, Brooke Smith, and Larry Pine, the result was a better understanding of the text. For us, it's a better understanding of the collaborative, beautiful, and ephemeral nature of the theater.