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Playing Shakespeare (1982– )
10/10
Commercial release June 2, 2009
29 March 2009
After a long spell of unavailability this series will be released commercially in the US. Release date is set for 6/2/2009. The publisher is Acorn Media Group, Athena line. Retail vendors are lining up on Amazon. The selling price is about $80 US. It will also be available from Netflix. A check on Amazon UK yielded no results, but it is reasonable to expect a worldwide release.

This is an extraordinary instructional video. After its initial airing on the South Bank Show in the UK, which ended in 1984, the series was picked up by Films for the Humanities. Their intended American audience was high-end libraries who could afford the near-$1000 price for the eleven VHS tapes. One hopes that the sales provided a good revenue stream for the good folks at FFH and the artists at the RSC. Some pioneering American theater artists purchased sets as well, and their audiences were much the better for the performances they attended.
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Great Performances: The Gospel at Colonus (1985)
Season 14, Episode 2
10/10
Now available commercially!
12 March 2009
After 23 years this wonderful show is available for purchase. Check eBay and Amazon for vendors. Also, you can get it from Netflix! The video and sound quality are excellent. The performances continue to pack a wallop. Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's audacious theater piece has been staged all over North America to great acclaim, by choral and theatrical groups large and small. The tragic end of Oedipus' life brings the viewer feelings of horror and pity that the ancient Greeks called catharsis. The theme resonates with the African American Pentecostal experience in many ways, and there has been an ongoing conversation about how true a match the two traditions make. Lift him up!
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Alive from Off Center: As Seen on TV (1987)
Season Unknown, Episode Unknown
10/10
wonderful show
8 February 2007
This is a very funny and touching piece. Our hapless everyman eagerly goes to an audition in a New York office. Complications ensue. He accidentally crosses over into the video universe, with the 'help' of another performer's trained monkey. Every attempt to escape leads him further in the wrong direction. He hopes that by going along with the action, he will find the way out. He dances. He meets Muppets. He weaves in and out of video color bars.

Mr. Irwin's predicament encapsulates the complications of modern living. This theme has run throughout all of his work, and we are much the better for it.
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Othello (1965)
10/10
DVD available in Canada in PAL format.
29 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Olivier's performance is astounding. He runs the gamut from sweet and playful to bloody rage. Best of all is his spot-on clarity in conveying the seventeenth-century language. For this viewer, the Moorish makeup is honorable and character-appropriate. Throughout, one can see Othello's heroic disregard of the racist comments lobbed at him by the white Venitians.

The DVD is completely remastered by Warners. Learmedia, an arts-oriented DVD vendor in Canada has a PAL standard DVD for sale. See my comment in the Message Boards here for more about the DVD.

Some trivia: The Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli said of Olivier's stage version: "I was told that this was the last flourish of the romantic tradition of acting. It's nothing of the sort. It's an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the last 3 centuries. It's grand and majestic, but it's also modern and realistic. I would call it a lesson for us all." John Steinbeck said that Olivier's performance on-stage was the greatest he had ever seen. Other critics, particularly Bosley Caruthers in the New York Times, trashed the performance as rubbish both on-stage and screen, accusing Olivier of making the noble Moor into a racist caricature. Sammy Davis Jr.' claimed that Olivier had come to see him perform multiple times and copied some of his mannerisms in his Othello. Olivier said that the play belongs to Iago, who could make the Moor look a credulous idiot. When Kenneth Tynan told Olivier that Orson Welles had described Othello as "a natural baritone", Olivier, a natural tenor, took voice lessons for several weeks. At the first read through, his voice was an octave lower than any one had heard it before. It was said that his vocal range was so immense that by a single new inflexion he could point the way to a whole new interpretation. Tynan wrote in his book "Profiles" (Nick Hern Books, 1989): "In the opening exchanges with Iago, Olivier displays the public mask of Othello: a Negro sophisticated enough to conform to the white myth about Negroes, pretending to be simple and not above rolling the eyes, but in fact concealing (like any other aristocrat) a highly developed sense of racial superiority... Olivier's was not a noble, 'civilised' Othello but a triumphant black despot, aflame with unadmitted self-regard. So far from letting Iago manipulate him, he seemed to manipulate Iago."
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Uncle Vanya (1963)
9/10
commercial DVD available
28 June 2006
Chekhov's fascination with the inability to act makes him a spiritual ancestor of Samuel Beckett. I find the acting very satisfying, and what an all-star cast! Michael Redgrave is greatly moving in the title role, caught in the trap of upper-class ennui. And the women, particularly Rosemary Harris as Yelena are marvelous, each stuck in inescapable comfort. The modest scenery increases the oppressive claustrophobia of the atmosphere.

One definitely should see this production and immediately follow with Vanya on 42nd St.

A commercial DVD of this excellent production is available from a Canadian company called Learmedia.
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Walk the Line (2005)
3/10
Johnny Cash deserves a better film.
6 June 2006
The moment I looked at an exterior street setup with beautiful 1950s picture cars, each looking brand new without a speck of dust on it, I knew I was in for a poorly thought-out run of the mill biopic. From scenes of his all-string trio with a phantom drummer on the soundtrack to the dubious audience interaction at Folsom prison, the filmmakers aim low and mostly achieve their aim. The script takes needless liberties with the facts, presumably to "dummy down" a complex and interesting life story. For instance, Johnny Cash was a successful amateur musician long before he met Sam Phillips, not the unskilled beginner the film depicts. This is an insult to the audience. The second half devolves into an addiction story but deprives us of the "come to Jesus" moment that may have led to his recovery. And whatever became of his first wife and daughters? And so on.
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The Tempest (1986 Video)
10/10
Brilliant short adaptation
9 August 2004
WNET shoot of a live performance of Julie Taymor's small-cast abbreviated rendition of Shakespeare's timeless tale. An exquisite example of 'poor theatre'. Through metaphoric gesture and top-flight performances the tale of the aged master wizard laying down his staff is beautifully told. Living on a not-quite deserted island, Prospero invokes a storm to shipwreck his former enemies. His servants Ariel and the loathsome Caliban help him set things aright. In the course of events his daughter Miranda comes of age and falls in love, the spirit Ariel is set free and Caliban goes on a bender with the ship's cook. Prospero's great soliloquy "Our revels now have ended..." is regarded by admirers of the Bard as W.S.'s farewell to the stage. Shown on PBS, apparently not available. A fine 1979 version by Derek Jarman is available on DVD.
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