Stranger in a Strange Land

Have you ever thought what it would be like to find yourself alone in a strange foreign city with no reference points, no human connections, no means of communication?

That’s the position Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) finds herself in in filmmaker Jem Cohen’s lyric poem of a film, Museum Hours. She has come to Vienna from Canada to sit by the hospital bedside of her dying cousin, to talk and sing to her in hopes of penetrating her coma. And when she is not at the hospital, how does she fill the rest of her unfocused days?

How she fills her days is how Cohen fills his film: he looks at the city in slow motion, through the eyes of a stranger, and records the facades of buildings, neighborhood shops, and people moving slowly through the dense gray mist of winter. He observes them all from the middle distance.

Eventually Anne makes her way to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a treasure house of classical art, where she finds Johann (Bobby Sommer), a guard who speaks English and instructs her on how to maneuver through the city. He also guides her through the museum’s magnificent collection of Dutch, Flemish, and German paintings.

If you had been a docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as I was for eleven years, you would find this tour of Vienna’s prime museum a thrilling experience. At one point (the high point for me) an Austrian docent (Ela Piplits) gives a mesmerizing account of a series of works by Brueghel, adding her own inspired interpretations to the discussion.

And here the process of looking at and truly seeing the works of art encourages the viewer to see the city and all its mundane dailiness in a richer and more profound context.

But all the art and the beauty of the city is really only the backdrop to the film’s major theme: friendship. As Johann and Anne continue to meet, he takes on the role of tour guide, escorting her through out-of-the-way corners of Vienna and talking with her for hours.

Johann is a lonely but contented man. As he tells us in voice-over, he enjoys his work, he loves the paintings, and he likes observing the people who come to the museum. In fact, we learn much more about him than we do about Anne. She remains an undiscovered island. We don’t know if she has ever been married, or what she does for a living, or anything about her emotional life. But she is a compelling personality nevertheless, and we like her for her warmth and her kindness and her spirit.

If this were a Hollywood movie, there would be s love story involved. But aside from the fact that Johann is gay, this is a loving friendship, not a sexual fantasy, between two ships that pass in the night.

This is a lovely, satisfying movie, but it comes with a warning: there Is very little action, conducted very slowly, and there are long gaps filled with extraneous blips that the film could well do without. So be prepared to physically disengage every once in a while.

This film is not for everyone.

Photo: Brueghel’s Tower of Babel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

A Kushner Kaffeeklatsch

It’s got singing and dancing and choreographed stomping by the ensemble, but it isn’t a musical. And it isn’t much of a play, either. It’s a new production of Tony Kushner’s 1985 polemic about the despotic politics of Russia and Germany in the early 1930s, A Bright Room Called Day.

Taking place at the end of the Weimar Republic and covering the years 1932 and 1933 (tediously, repetitively, and endlessly, in what feels like real time), the play follows seven friends as they toy with Socialism and Communism, and watch both movements get swept away by Fascism.

Based on Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 play The Private Life of the Master Race, Kushner’s original theatrical diatribe was aimed at the policies of Ronald Reagan (especially his indifference to the AIDS pandemic), but in this current update there is a not-so-subtle likeness implied between Germany in the ‘30s and the United States in the 2000s.

The friends are a motley crew, badly directed by Jeremy Lelliott, and none of them is a good enough actor to engender any empathy—or connection—with the audience. There is a Hungarian (Miles Warner), a gay man (Graham Kurtz), a couple of diehard Communists (Laura Crow and Mark Jacobson), and a wishy-washy leading lady, Agnes, (Teya Patt) who vacillates between perplexity and inertia. In other words, the stereotypical usual suspects.

There is also an eighth cast member: a lady in a black lace dress (Kim Reed), who flutters around speaking inscrutable monologues in an uneven German accent so forcefully as to be unintelligible. Her character is called Die Alte; I thought she was supposed to represent the spirit of Germany or something. My friend thought she represented death. Whatever.

According to the characters themselves, the setting is supposed to be Agnes’ home, but there are no furnishings except a backdrop of flashy propaganda posters from the competing political ideologies (e.g., head shots of Hitler and Lenin). A black screen periodically projects news alerts, time frames (May 2, 1932, Later that Night), and photos and films from historical archives. And of course there is the usual montage of photos from the Holocaust, jarring as ever.

All in all, Kushner’s two and a half hour message, however you interpret it, comes off as cold, emotionally sterile, and mystifying. And I didn’t understand the title, either.

A Bright Room Called Day, presented by the Coeurage Theatre Company, will continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7:30 through September 15th at The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave. in Los Angeles. Call 323-944-2165 for reservations.

Photo: Miles Warner, Teya Patt, and Graham Kurtz
By Kevin McShane

From Here to Eternity Via Arkansas

“I’m having a very bad apocalypse,” says Brandon (Marco Naggar) after a long, nightmarish trip to avoid The Rapture.

It all starts when he bursts in on Rebecca (Zibby Allen) and her boyfriend Dan (Micah Cohen, alternating with Ben Belack) to tell them “Christ is back!” and people are disappearing all over New York City, leaving their clothes behind and their cars driverless and crashing into other cars.

Thus begins Samuel Brett Williams’ new play, Revelation, now having its world premiere at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood.

Brandon, whom Rebecca identifies as the certified “Jesus freak” who lives next door, is frantically urging the couple to join him on his escape to Arkansas, where his father, a back-country preacher, had assured him that The New Jerusalem would arise at the time of The Rapture.

Dan is unconvinced and decides to take shelter in his father’s apartment, but he doesn’t make it once he leaves Rebecca’s.

Rebecca, abandoned, decides to throw in her lot with Brandon and make the trip with him to Arkansas.

From here the play, and the trip, becomes a modern-day Canterbury Tales, with all sorts of weird and horrifying characters turning up to bedevil them. And Brandon keeps track as they undergo each of the Bible’s “Seven Seals”, as described in the Book of Revelations. It’s a bit like the ten plagues visited upon the Pharaoh during Passover Week. Not at all like Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

This may sound like a heavy-duty production, but it’s actually a lot of fun. The two principals, Marco Naggar and Zibby Allen are both excellent and letter-perfect under the tight and efficient directing of Lindsay Allbaugh, and the sound and lighting by Peter Bayne and Matt Richter keep the drama moving along expeditiously.

There’s a bit of philosophy, a bit of pseudo-religion, a lot of skepticism, and some mordant commentary on the precepts of Christianity. Finally, there is an encounter with Michael, The Gatekeeper (Carolina Espiro) who has gorgeous white full-body feathered wings, a mouth full of chewing gum, and a New York accent. He/she invites Rebecca into Heaven to lose her individual identity and become part of The Glob that will spend Eternity loving God.

The encounter is jarring for Brandon and turns him from a “Jesus freak” into, like Pinocchio, a “real boy.”

Unless you are a Jesus freak yourself, you will find much to laugh at during the course of this fast-moving 90-minute black comedy

Revelation will continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 through August 25th at the Lillian Theatre at the Elephant Stages, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood. Call (855) 663-6743 or visit for reservations.

Photo: Ben Belack, Zibby Allen, and Marco Naggar
Photo by Joel Daavid

From Wife to Martyr

A distinguished looking man rises from the audience of well-wishers and friends to claim a prestigious award. It recognizes him for his exceptional contributions to surgery and to his country. The country is Israel and the man’s name is Amin Jaafari. In his deft acceptance speech he proudly mentions that in the more than 40 years that Israel has been awarding this coveted prize, this is the first time it has been awarded to an Arab. The next day he is back at work, responding to the needs of people killed and maimed in a terrorist attack by a suicide bomber. Later that night he is awakened by the police who inform him that his wife’s body has been recovered from the bombed restaurant where l7 people had died, including 11 children who were celebrating a birthday. What’s more, the police say, from the pattern of wounds left on her body they suspect that his wife was, in fact, the suicide bomber. This scenario comprises the first few minutes of the Arab-Israeli film The Attack, and from there the film rolls out to become a quiet film noir that would be a credit to Alfred Hitchcock. Nearly paralyzed by disbelief, Jaafari (convincingly played by Ali Suliman) sets out to prove his wife’s innocence by tracing her activities on the last day of her life. The pursuit takes him from his comfortable apartment in Tel Aviv to various sites around Israel, including the Arab village of Nablus where angry Palestinians congregate. He meets a Catholic priest who blandly berates him for not sharing his wife’s convictions—convictions that she felt so strongly about that they were enough to justify her martyrdom. Convictions that her husband was completely unaware of. He meets a Sheik who spits out a vitriolic diatribe against the Jews that hasn’t been voiced since the Third Reich. And Jaafari is left to ponder his own role in the past and future of this troubled country that has allowed him to flourish and prosper, and to confront the fact that there was a whole area of her life that his loving wife had not shared with him. Reymonde Amsellam plays Siham, the wife, with quiet sophistication and sexy charm, and the rest of the Israeli cast is intense and well directed by Ziad Doueiri from a book by Yasmine Khadra. Despite the potentially grim subject matter the story unfolds with dignity, and neither the Arabs nor the Israelis are

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characterized as villains. This appears to be confirmed by the fact that myriad companies and corporations throughout Europe and the Middle East have collaborated on sponsoring this slow-paced but compelling production. The Attack is currently showing at various Laemmle theaters around Los Angeles.