Saturday, September 30, 2006

The night I fell in love with Death

No, I'm not crumbling under the pressures of work, nor have I decided to end my miserable single life (hah, as if), but it has been proven to me (once again) that Death in popular culture is often a very enticing character. Whether it be the snarky gothgirl Death of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the ever so IMPOSING Death of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels or as in yesterday's case, the blonde charmer in the musical Elisabeth played in the city theatre here in Turku.

The musical had it's premiere a year ago and it's been performed to a full house ever since. It's been nearly impossible to get tickets, but mom had luck a few months ago. She bought a ticket as a birthday present to grandma (dad's side) and three to us, so we (me, mom, dad & grandma, that is) could all go together.

So, almost exactly a year after I met the stars of the show in the local Italian restaurant (while in the company of a relative of the empress Elisabeth - I think I blogged about it back then) I finally saw them on stage.

The story is, of course, the story of the empress Elisabeth of Austria (and later also the queen of Hungary), also known as Sissi. This portrait of her is one of my favorites - especially the Swarowski crystals in her hair... OMG.

She used her beauty to her advance - the hairdo alone took 3 hours to make and the dresses were sewn on her so they would fit perfectly!

Anyway, the musical is the story of her life, told by her murderer (an Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni) a hundred years after her death. He tells her story as a tragic love story between her and Death (emperor Franz Joseph is the third wheel of the story, naturally).

The story begins when Sissi is 12 years old. She's been raised a free spirit and one day she performs a circus trick to her relatives. She balances on a rope and falls. This is the first time she meets Death, who in this play is a handsome young man. He falls in love with her.

The events of her life then take her to be the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph's wife. It's a miserable life for her, being caged in by the rules and etiquette of the court. She's also always under the judging eyes of her mother-in-law, who was said to be the only man in Franz Joseph's court...

During her life she meets Death several times and each time he tries to woo her to his side. He wants to be the only love of her life. When he fails, he acts like a jealous lover and first takes Sissi's youngest daughter, then befriends her son, Rudolph, and takes him (the kiss of Death they share - oh shivers! says the little slasher in me!) and once even turns down Sissi's plea to join him. But when the assassin stabs Elisabeth, Death is there to take her finally into his arms and to give her a passionate last kiss.

I had heard in advance that Death was going to be impressive. And I had high expectations of Death's dancers, too. And I wasn't disappointed at all.

The actor playing Death (Mika Kujala) wasn't very tall or handsome in a traditional manner, but my goodness what a stage presence! He had blonde hair to his shoulders (yummy!) and wore long velvet coats (veeeery yummy!) and moved like a (excuse my choice of phrasing here) steamy dream. Compared to his seductive, stalking, energetic performance the lead actor playing emperor Franz Joseph (Tomi Metsäketo) looked like a log of long dead wood (not that his character really had many chances to move around in any way, being emperor and all. It'd be very improper for an emperor to behave like that.). And that's a lot to say, since I really think Metsäketo is very handsome and droolworthy. But he's first and foremost a singer, whereas Kujala is first an actor and then a singer. Which doesn't mean his singing was any worse, not at all. He had an edgier voice and also got some pretty rockish solos. But the movement, oh my god. I've got shivers down my spine even now.

And the dancers! When the two male "Death dancers" came on stage, I couldn't keep my eyes off them. (Only Death himself got my attention over those two, heh.) Imagine two excellent dancers (the other one was actually a international level ballroom dancer, wow!) in Lucius Malfoy -style blonde wigs, floor length burgundy velvet coats and postures to make anyone envious, and you'll understand why my brain went all wobbly in a flash. (Dear lord. What is it with men and blonde wigs? And why aren't those lovely coats fashionable anymore?)

What was disappointing though was that the weakest link of the musical was the music. Not the singing (the lead actress, Théresè Karlsson, had a voice like an angel, Tomi Metsäketo's singing is like soft, creamy chocolate, and Death - well... *grin*), but the music. A bland mix of rock and classical style music, songs that can't be remembered five minutes after the show's over. What a bummer. I wasn't expecting catchy tunes in the style of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but something more original for sure. One of the best performances (once again, excellent singing, even though the song wasn't outstanding) was a duet by Death and Elisabeth's son Rudolph. Death lures him into committing a suicide and before the shot is fired, they sing together. The two actors' voices complimented each other perfectly and finally, as I already mentioned, the quite literal kiss of Death was, umm, hotter than anything that was going on between the emperor and the empress during the play. (Yes, I do have a dark side to me, a slasher side... If you don't know what that means, I'm not going to elaborate now. Sorry.)

But if the music was somewhat bland, the staging sure wasn't. Rarely have I seen the stage technics being used so fully. I loved what they did with the screen backgrounds (images of the sea, of the sky etc.) and lighting. The sets were grand, and the grandest of them all was the set with Death's carriage, which I absolutely adored. A huge misshapen carriage, tilted, half sunk in the ground, pulled by two rearing horses - it was magnificent (albeit a tad difficult to describe) and fit Death's character perfectly.

I couldn't help but think that my students should all see this, just so that they could see how a theatre stage can be anything but dull. Especially the students who saw Shakespeare's Collected Works in a small local theatre last year should see it, just to compare the absolute minimalism used in the comical Shakespearean play(s) (only four actors playing all the parts, only one set used to stage all the plays) to the full capability of a bigger stage.

On the other hand, the changing of the sets seemed a little superfluous at times. A couple of sets seemed to be there just for the sake of showing that they could fit a Moulin Rouge -style cabaret/brothel set and an Italian tivoli set in a musical mostly set in the court of Austria. But since the sets were equally beautiful, it didn't bother me that much. I like eye candy.

In any case, this was the first time I ever saw the crew come to take a bow. There was a good dozen or so people who had been moving the sets around during the fast changes and they did deserve their thanks. Very smooth work indeed.

I noticed that the popular buzz surrounding the play had probably encouraged a few non-theatre-enthusiasts to come to see the musical, too. Two of them sat next to me during the first half of the show. During the intermission they had, however, left their seats for good. I cheered silently when I noticed it. The man who had sat right next to me hadn't showered since his last several drinks of something stronger than water and I had to lean towards mom in order to be able to breath through my nose at all.

I do think it's great that theatre interests all kinds of people, but fercrissakes, take a shower before you come! And wash your shirt. And brush your teeth or take a breath mint, if you think there's a possibility that you stink of old booze! But obviously the play wasn't what they had expected, so to my great relief the person sitting next to me for the rest of the play smelled better.

In short, I was entertained by the show, despite its flaws and I'm glad I saw it. I need to go to the theatre more often now that I could actually afford it, too.

Tomorrow it's time for the annual "Buy or not to buy" -debate inside my head. This is the Turku Book Fair weekend, and I'm going to be sitting behind the desk of our SF-booth (dressed properly in Harry Potter gear, this time meaning a Gryffindor tie and my version of a school uniform) in the morning and then - a quick but effective tour around the place, hoping I won't find too much to buy...

And in the evening it's time for some Bollywood fun. The movie Parineeta is being shown in a local movie theatre just this once and I'm going to go.

Somewhere in between I should prepare a social studies exam for the 9th graders for Monday... Yikes. I didn't get it done today, since I spent all my day cleaning up my place. Talking about trying to avoid one's duties, huh? But seriously, this apartment was beginning to look like a hurricane had landed on it, so I'm very happy I got the cleaning done. Now I can concentrate on work. Somewhere along the line, at least. There's a tiny pile of about 360 pages of text to be graded, for example. Yay for that. Uhh.

Gotta go now, it's getting really late and I've got an early wake up call tomorrow.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Remember, remember...

Lately I haven't been doing anything much except working. On an average weekday I go to work to start the first lesson at 8.50 a.m, get home around 4 p.m. and continue working till about 10 p.m. On some days I have nearly fallen asleep on my laptop or lessonplans.

Honestly, I know it's not going to be this difficult for long, because soon I have taught all the courses at least once, but at the moment I sometimes seriously doubt the reasoning behind my career choice. Like the other day, when I had a headache and a bit of temperature thanks to the flu I caught about two weeks into the semester and the students were bouncing off the walls when I tried to teach them whatever it was I had planned for the day. It was literally the first time ever the thought "I can't do this" has entered my mind during a class.

Sure, it was mostly thanks to the fact I wasn't feeling too good physically, but it's really not that nice to doubt one's abilities, not even for a while (and especially not in front of a class - I'm glad I got over it fast). But what it really emphasizes once again, is that I can't let myself become exhausted because of work. I know myself well enough to know that I have a tendency to feel really crappy when I'm really tired. In other words, I'm glad I've been able to get to bed early enough on weeknights and keep the weekends mostly clear of anything mandatory. Reloading batteries is very important.

And besides sleeping, reloading with quality entertainment is what I like to do. Last weekend my choice battery chargers were the movies The Libertine and V for Vendetta and the BBC series North and South.

I went to see The Libertine with mom on Friday evening, after a couple of hours of idle shopping and a pizza for dinner. I was interested in seeing Johnny Depp in yet another impressive role, this time in the role of the notorious Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot. His performance is, once again, admirable. He struts his stuff all over with gusto, making the Earl a character worth hating and loving.

I found the movie fairly good, although the acting was better than the story. I liked the way the movie was lit, all shadier and murkier than your average epoch film. It brought a touch of believability into the movie. For once candlelight looked like candlelight, not like an industrial heavy duty flashlight or something.

But the story itself, well, I thought it could've had something more to it. The life of John Wilmot was certainly a tragic story in itself and for example his last speech to the Parliament, bandages hiding his face, deformed by late stages of syphilis, is a touching one. And whereas the speech is touching, the play that the Earl wrote to the King earlier, is flat out outrageous. Or what do you think about commenting on the current reign (as filled with debauchery as it may have been) with a play that flaunts giant dildos and sexual organs on stage? Might be accepted nowadays, but I can easily imagine how it would've been frowned upon in the 17th century. I think I'd like to read some of the Earl's works some day... ;)

Even though I didn't think The Libertine was a great movie, I did think V for Vendetta was one. Absolutely blew me away. I had heard a lot of praise for it, and had wanted to see it for a while. Last weekend provided the perfect occasion - I wasn't feeling like watching some lighthearted comedy or a fluffy romantic chick flick and rented V instead.

I hadn't read the comic, so I had very little knowledge of the story, what to expect from it. Just a week earlier I was in Finncon and walked around Helsinki accompanied by a friend of mine dressed as V. His wife had painted the mask on his face and it looked great. He and his wife had also recently watched the film and had obviously liked it, too. They told me how the fifth of November is mentioned in the film - and I didn't ask any details, which then resulted in a heartfelt "duh!" when I finally understood what it was all about. And I was really glad I had just watched the miniseries Gunpowder Treason and Plot on tv this summer. I actually knew what the background story was about! How much easier it was to understand where V's ideology came from, knowing Guy Fawkes' story.

First of all, I'm in awe of the acting skills of Hugo Weaving (Natalie Portman was very good, too). It's really amazing how he brought the mask to life and made it very easy to feel for V. It's actually exactly the same as it is with Darth Vader. Despite the character having just one expression moulded on his face, the expressive power is there. Body language, tone of voice - wow. And V, I did fall in love with him a little, I admit it. (And naturally I cried in the end - so technically that makes V the second comicbook/graphic novel character that has made me cry. The first being the Sandman, of course.)

And the message of the movie then? Keeping the current events of the world in mind, the movie is downright scary in its accuracy and the image it paints of the future is chilling. And keeping the past events of the world in mind - I don't think I need to even go any further. I'm actually pretty sure I could use the movie as an educational film on several occasions in senior high. The discussions after seeing it would be interesting. And since most kids don't read books like The Animal Farm or 1984 anymore, maybe the power of the dystopian imagery of the movie would make them think. And most of all see a great example of how popular culture can be a powerful tool for social commentary.

And just as I would like to read some of John Wilmot's texts, I'd love to read the original V for Vendetta comics now. I'm pretty sure someone I know is bound to have the albums and I can borrow them. Right?

Ok, so after crying over V on Saturday evening, I radically changed topics for Sunday, but cried nontheless. The BBC drama series North and South was a wonderful story situated in the fairly newly industrialized England. A perfect Austenesque story of love first rejected and then accepted. Ahh. (And I could use bits of this series in class, too, btw. - See how I don't stop working at all?) Made me feel a bit lonely, though. But that's what romantic stuff does to me nowadays, can't help it. I need to get this series on DVD, too. (Just like the Forsyte Saga. I'm not allowing myself to buy it in September, however, since I already bought the Kingdom of Heaven DC today, whee!)

Oh dear, the time. I'd better get to bed now...