A reason for the seasons was what I got when, in grade school, I was taught the myth of Demeter and Persephone; the idea that a spell could be cast to wither grass and leaves made a stronger impression than the myth’s true focus: a mother’s longing for a daughter she could only see six months out of the year.
But I am older now, and more acquainted with the sorrows of absent people and places than I’d like. As I stroll a Manhattan aflame with sparks of yellow and red I take consolation in that other autumnal explosion: a new incantatory season of dance, film and theater. This past weekend, Richard Move reminded me that Martha Graham was the queen of Greek Myth-obsession during New York Live Arts’ re-mounting of Martha@…the 1963 Interview, an at-times comic, often informative study of this dance doyenne’s ruminations on story-telling, the costs of dance-making and a lesson in drop-dead divadom. Evenings like this (a male performer channeling a famous female in all her arch glory) usually coast on camp, but Mr. Move’s artistry (abetted by Lisa Kron’s performance as critic Walter Terry, and the quicksilver dancers Catherine Cabeen and Katherine Crockett) made me focus on the wisdom being parlayed (Graham’s summation of the emotional lives of Medea and Clytemnestra were valid, on-the-money interpretations) rather than the inevitable laughs that erupt whenever a transvestite takes the stage. I appreciated there being more there there.
At home I beheld a young Meryl Streep as she capered through 1983’s Alice in Concert, a Broadway Theater Archive issue of Lewis Carroll’s fable produced by Joe Papp’s Public Theater. Then as now, you can’t take your eyes off her; her protean gifts are particularly evident in the way she handles Elizabeth Swados’ all-over-the-map approach to musical composition. Hear Meryl sing folk with an intonation to rival Judy Collins! Listen to Meryl scat or riff the blues! This is an acidhead’s dream, frenetically surprising and cast with other performers (the late Michael Jeter, Richard Cox, Mark Linn Baker and the always hilarious Deborah Rush) whose talents rival the great Streep. Rent it or check it out of the library, and experience the delights of watching an artist in early clover.
Something more than delight leaped from the screen during a showing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, an adaptation of the Brian Selznick novel that centers on a fatherless, mechanically precocious boy who lives in a post-war Paris train station. For a change, the use of 3D effects complement a tale in which everything from automatons to the gears in a windup toy take on new wonderment. The best filmmakers make the viewer see the commonplace anew; Scorsese imbues these traditional tropes—the lonely urchin, the disillusioned artist in hiding (here, the legendary silent film pioneer Georges Melies), mismatched (and middle-aged) love—with a patina of sentimentality yes, but also a genuine sorrow that makes Hugo a moving paean to loss. “Dream with me,” exhorts Ben Kingsley’s Melies, and in the film’s finale, an elegant reprise of film history, we do, and witness Scorsese’s true aim: a modern cinematic artist tips his hat to his ancestors, pioneers that expose the artlessness of today cinema without breaking a sweat.
Demeter would recognize the familial ties that bind, confound and ultimately liberate the characters that populate director Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. George Clooney’s absent father is forced to reconnect when his wife suffers a coma-inducing accident. His reckoning with the present (his wayward daughters, the revelation of his wife’s affair) coincides with one bound in history of place: Hawaii, the story’s setting, is the home of his ancestors and a bone of contention among heirs who are profit-obsessed (from the sale of oceanfront property owned by the family for generations). Payne modulates this tragicomedy with finesse—the tragedy resonates without wallowing, the comedy, rather than sitcom, is that rarest of things in film: human. The Descendants reveals the truth about how times, and our shifting compasses, challenge us in ways that would’ve stymied our forefathers. A wonder.
Speaking of miracles, you can see one unfurl eight times a week at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater for a limited engagement. An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin proves as rewarding an excavation of time and memory as anything by Proust, while confirming the protean (and as it happens, complementary) talents of two performers whose names are a kind of shorthand for the last quarter-century of Broadway. The show’s touchstone is Evita—a musical for which each won Tonys, and where they cemented their enduring friendship—but An Evening is actually an overview of Broadway history in total: Hammerstein II, Kern, Styne, Loesser, Kander and Ebb, and our modern master Sondheim are bountifully represented in an evening of songs, scenes and movement (by Ann Reinking) that rarely overstays its charm; though their voices war with the glory of their past recordings, these two retain their singular power to magnetize. Time is a healer: An Evening With‘s subtext of enduring devotion against the odds would’ve brought tears to Demeter’s eyes. It did mine.