If Your Name Is Mud, Can Grunge Be Far Behind?

Matthew McConaughey is the personification of mud, physically and emotionally, which justifies his name, Mud, in the film that also bears that name.

Mud is the story of a lovelorn loser and the teenage boys who help him evade the avenging family of a man he’s killed.

It’s also a love story in which everyone loses. And a bittersweet coming of age story—for Mud as well as for the boys.

While the plot and the surroundings would lead one to assume that the film is going to be an emotional downer, it is actually a lively adventure story in which the viewer is completely caught up in the movements of a set of quirky but compelling characters.

Set in a bleak small town in Arkansas, the film is reminiscent of last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild in its remoteness and squalor. Like the father and daughter in Beasts, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his parents live on a ramshackle houseboat on a spur of the muddy Mississippi.

Ellis’ parents have reached that point in their marriage where they are fed up with each other, with poverty, and with the sense of defeat. After a lifetime on the houseboat (it was her father’s bequest to her), Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson) is ready to move on. His father (Ray McKinnon), torn between love and irascibility, is prepared to let her go.

But Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), have become involved in the life of Mud, who is taking temporary refuge on a forested island in the middle of the river while he waits for his long-time lover Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to run away with him.

Meanwhile, he is living in a small boat lodged in a tree, like a mobile tree house. But this house isn’t going anywhere. It’s in a sad state of disrepair. The implausible idea of a boat lodged in a tree by a passing tornado, however, becomes an authentic possibility when one sees the devastating effects of the recent tornado in Oklahoma.

The film, when you get right down to it, though, is about love. Parental love between Neckbone and the uncle (Michael Shannon) who takes care of him; between Mud and Tom, the man who brought him up (played by a stocky but still nimble Sam Shepard); and between Ellis and his parents.

There is also the hopeful love story of Mud and Juniper, and the first love of Ellis for an “older” girl at school.

Matthew McConaughey, known for repeatedly baring his torso, does it here as well, but he is so unshaven, uncombed and grimy as to personify every woman’s concept of the “bad boy” that she is drawn to at least once in her life. McConaughey gives an Oscar-worthy performance as this tacky, fantasizing, but altogether swashbuckling adventurer. And he is surrounded by a notably excellent cast, tightly directed by Jeff Nichols helming his third feature film. (His first was Shotgun Stories in 2007 and then Take Shelter in 2011.

Mud was entered for the Palme d’Or prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but lost to the French film “Amour.”

Mud is playing in movie houses around L.A., but locally at the Laemmle Monica 4.

A Love Story on Staten Island

For an older audience the memory of first love carries with it a soft nostalgia. That sweet lifting of the heart is the leitmotif of a delicate new play, Raise Me Up, now having its world premiere at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Playwright Lisa Phillips Visca has brought to the stage the love story of her mother and father and how those two prevailed over both sets of parents who didn’t want them to marry. The reason: he was Italian and she was Greek. It was the early 1950s. He, Louis (Michael Marinaccio, a Gene Kelly look-alike), had come back from the war and was about to marry a girl he suddenly had doubts about. She, Rosita (Serena Dolinsky), was a young aspiring model who, like him, lived on Staten Island. So the Staten Island ferry was their romantic meeting spot. (What’s more romantic than a sea

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voyage?) It was love at first sight. And proceeded in short order to dinner with his parents and then with hers. A disaster in both homes. His father, a soft-spoken, undershirt-at-the-dinner-table sort of man played by John Del Regno, is completely dominated by his screechy, booming wife, Lenora May, a table-smacking harridan with a dreadfully labored Italian accent. Her father, the always-marvelous Stuart Pankin, was a once-wealthy lawyer in Greece who isn’t able to practice in America. He is under pressure from a younger lawyer (Joey Shea) who will hire him only if Rosita will go out with him. Rosita’s classy mother (Evelyn Rudie) stands quietly by while Rosita weighs her love for Louis against the well-being of her father, who would have to return to Greece if he can’t secure a job in America. (It is Rudie’s husband, co-Artistic Director Chris DeCarlo, who directs this 10-person ensemble.) Since you already know that playwright Visca is telling the story of her parents and their lifelong love affair, there isn’t much mystery involved in this simple tale. But it will surely please those who have been in love for a long, long time. Raise Me Up will continue at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street, in Santa Monica Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 through June 23. Call 310-394-9779 for tickets. Photo: Lenora May and her two sons, Mitch Lerner and Michael Marinaccio Photo by I.C. Rapoport

The Royale: Not So Royal

In 1969 a play called The Great White Hope won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Written by Howard Sackler, it starred James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson, the “Galveston Giant” who became the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. Johnson held that title from 1908 to 1915, and during all those years in Jim Crow America the boxing world looked for a “great white hope” to take the title away from him. Now, a new play, The Royale, a fictional prequel to that historic interracial fight, is stomping the stage in its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Written by award-winning playwright Marco Ramirez, The Royale is set “sometime between

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1900 and 1920” on a stage that is a wooden ring without ropes. David St. Louis, a giant of a man, plays Jay Jackson, a prominent boxer in the “Negro league” who is eager to take on the reigning white champion—an outrageous suggestion at the time. James J. Jeffries, the real-life world champion then, was persuaded to come out of retirement with an outrageous suggestion of his own. He would fight the black boxer for 90 percent of the take. And Jackson/Johnson agreed. In this production, the staging is the thing. St. Louis fights with grace, never laying a hand on his preliminary opponent, (Desean Terry), but successfully miming knocking him out, dancing and pouncing while Terry twists and falls. The punches are simulated by a chorus that claps and stomps rhythmically while St. Louis smashes his foot on the floor. It’s a very effective and engaging way to stage a fight. As news of the upcoming championship fight circulates, many in the beleaguered African-America community betray their alarm. “There will be riots,” they caution the would-be champ, and they fear that his life will be forfeit if he goes ahead with the fight. Jackson remains adamant, however, and in several dignified speeches explains what the championship means to him. Another impassioned speech is given by Robert Gossett, who plays Jackson’s trainer, but in this case Gossett’s diction is so poor that the speech remains unintelligible. Jackson’s manager, Max, (Keith Szarabajka) doubles as the fight announcer and does a serviceable job, but Diarra Oni Kilpatrick, the only woman in the ensemble, is identified as Nina, but not explained. She claps and stomps on cue, but only has one rather superfluous speech: as his sister, she tries to convince him not to engage in the fight for fear he will be killed. Daniel Aukin has directed this production as well as can be expected for a play that is uneven at best and tedious at times. The staging of the fights by Ameenah Kaplan, the costume designs by Andrew Boyce, and the original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery are, unfortunately, the most successful elements of the play. The Royale will run Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 pm through June 2nd at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Call 213-628-2772 for tickets.

Auditions of a Lifetime

‘All of life is an audition,” according to actor/director/singer Teri Ralston. For Ralston, who started her career at 12 in a play called Ghost in the Green Gown at the old Laguna Playhouse, auditions have been the central focus of her life. That and her Maltese dog, Lizzie, who died recently at the age of 13. But when we met at an outdoor café the other day, she introduced me to Cali, her new Maltese who, ironically, was born the day Lizzie died. “I took that as a sign,” she said as she cuddled this adorable little ball of fluff. “I have to have a little dog because I fly a lot, and in her carrier she just fits under the seat.” Ralston, who lives in New York, has flown back to her old stomping grounds in Laguna to play Ouiser in the Playhouse’s production of Steel Magnolias. “Ouiser is a tough cookie, always angry,” she explains. Known as the town curmudgeon, Ouiser says things like “I’m not crazy; I’ve just been in a bad mood for 40 years,” and “Don’t try to get on my good side; I no longer have one.” Steel Magnolias is a true story written by playwright/actor/director Robert Harling and deals with the ups and downs of a group of six women who get together each week at a beauty salon in the fictional Chinquapin Parish, in northwest Louisiana, to share gossip, advice, humor, and friendship. First produced in New York in 1987, the comedy-drama deals with the death of the playwright’s sister and the relationships between the women over a three-year span of time. Women whom he depicts as “delicate as magnolias but as tough as steel.” The play was made into a movie in 1989 with an all-star cast that included Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hanna, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts. The current play, opening this week at the Laguna Playhouse, features in addition to Teri Ralston, Elyse Mirto, Alyson Lindsay, Joanna Strapp, Von Rae Wood, and Stephanie Zimbalist. The production is directed by Jenny Sullivan, best known locally for the Geffen Playhouse production of Love, Loss and What I Wore!, and Wiesenthal-Nazi Hunter at Theater 40, and for the Rubicon Theatre’s productions in Ventura of Our Town, The Mystery of Irma Vep, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Rainmaker, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and others. At the Rubicon Sullivan also directed Wood and Zimbalist in Steel Magnolias in 2011. Zimbalist also has a long history with Ralston, having appeared with her in A Little Night Music at the South Coast Rep, where “she played my daughter,” Ralston says with a rueful smile. She notes that her friend Bonnie Franklin played Ouiser in the Rubicon production and that she (Ralston) is honored to be playing it in Laguna and is dedicating the show to Franklin. Ralston was in the original cast of A Little Night Music,. She also created the role of Jenny, “the pot-smoking wife” in Company on Broadway in 1970, and again in 1993 in a reunion concert. She also appeared in the U.S. national tour in 1971 and in London’s West End in 1972. She also toured for eight months in Stephen Schwartz’ musical The Baker’s Wife, which, sadly, closed on the road. But she notes that Schwartz had written the song “Chanson” for her in her role as Denise, the cabaret owner. Her involvement with Stephen Sondheim and his music has also continued over the years as she has appeared in, or directed, Side by Side by Sondheim, Into the Woods, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Sunday in the Park with George. She also played Sally in Follies at the San Jose Civic Light Opera. As a musical actor and cabaret singer, she appears regularly in clubs and she is included in seven original cast albums. Her first CD was titled “I’ve Gotta

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Get Back to New York”, which she accomplished some six years ago. Nevertheless, she considers Laguna Beach, where she grew up and attended High School, her second home. “I’m thrilled to be back in Laguna,” she says, “it’s such a supportive community for the arts.” She credits her high school drama teacher, Joan Lee Woehler, for encouraging her to “follow her dreams,” and notes that Woehler “influenced lots of people in very personal ways.” Which may help to explain why Ralston became a teacher as well. Having graduated from San Francisco State (along with Jenny Sullivan and “all of the people at South Coast Rep,” she laughs), she finds teaching “as rewarding as performing.” She has taught musical theater and dramatic arts at UC Irvine and teaches voice privately now in New York in her apartment on the Upper East Side. “It keeps my voice in good shape,” she says, “and I really love it.” She also believes that “students have ‘that magical thing’“ and “the more you keep studying and growing, the better off you’ll be.” And flexibility is also important. She cites a production called Lunch that she played first in Beverly, Massachusetts, in a theater in the round, and then in Pittsburgh in a theater with a proscenium arch. “Everything was in a mess,” she says, “and we had no time for tech.” So when she came out for her “big 11 o’clock number” the moving set didn’t stop, but kept right on going, offstage right. Undeterred, she followed the scenery until it came to a stop and sang her number from there. She also tells of a set that was late in arriving and slammed into her on its way onstage, which resulted in her continuing her performance with two broken ribs. And then there was the performance of Company in Boston that was interrupted by a bomb scare. “The whole audience and the cast were herded out onto the street together,” she says, leaving the listener to imagine what that did for the “magic” of the play. As Ouiser, however, she delivers a cranky speech that couldn’t be more out of tune with her own sentiments about her profession. “I don’t see plays because I can nap at home for free,” she says. “I don’t see movies because they’re all trash and full of naked people. And I don’t read books because if they’re any good they’ll be made into a mini-series.” Having happily covered every aspect of show business in her long career, Teri Ralston could not disagree more vehemently with that statement. Steel Magnolias, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Opens May 4 at 7:30 pm. Tues.-Fri. 8 pm, Sat. 2 and 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. thru May 26. Additional performances Sun. May 5 and 12 at 7 pm and May 16 and 23 at 2. Tickets $35 -$65. 949.497-2787. www.lagunaplayhouse.com Photo: Teri Ralston and her Maltese, Cali Photo by Cynthia Citron Reprinted from the Los Angeles Stage Times, published May 3, 2013.

A Void in Tel Aviv

She has been rejected by the match her parents were trying to make. He is newly widowed. A perfect match to fill the void? Well, not quite. She is a dewy-eyed 18-year old. He is the 30-somehing (?) husband of her newly deceased sister.

Fill the Void is an Israeli film that delves into the lives of a community of Hasidic Jews in Tel Aviv: their customs, their obligations, their perceived mishigoss.

It’s a beautiful film, but rendered in its entirety without explanation or rationale. The lifestyle is loving, but the obligations are overwhelming. Shira, (Hadas Yaron) the bewildered young heroine, is being manipulated by her mother to marry Yochay (Yiftach Klein) so that he will not move to Belgium to marry the widow he has been “offered” there.

It’s not that he isn’t a good man, and a handsome one. He is both. But the mother’s motivation is the baby boy her older daughter had died giving birth to. If Yochay goes to Belgium, so will the baby, Mordechay.

Eventually Yochay is persuaded to woo Shira, which he does tentatively, noting that she is “not a little girl any longer” and that she is “quite pretty.” This is not a very passionate approach, and Shira, understandably, remains unconvinced.

In a heartbreaking scene she questions him about his love for her sister and the joy and wonder of experiencing love for the first time, adding, “You are depriving me of that.”

Rama Burshtein, who wrote and directed the film, makes very clear that marriages are never forced in the Orthodox community, but there can be not-very-subtle pressure on the young girl being “offered” for marriage. And on the young man as well. It appears that everyone has a say in the match.

Burshtein tells her story without prejudice or judgment. She obviously hopes that her audience will view it in the same way, but that’s extremely difficult to do, even though the principals are presented with sweetness and grace. Soft lighting, slow pacing, and elegant photography are also part of the mix, but nevertheless, this is a hard premise for an “emancipated” secular American to find acceptable.

Fill the Void was Israel’s official entry at the Toronto International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival in 2012, where Hadas Yaron won the Best Actress Award. The film is scheduled to open in America shortly.