Judaism may be matrilineal, but that doesn’t mean that women are treated as equal to men, especially among sects espousing fundamentalist religious beliefs, although women are considered holier than men in Orthodox communities. In Emil Ben-Shimon’s absolutely wonderful debut feature, The Women’s Balcony, that all comes to a head when wives, mothers, girlfriends, and daughters, relegated to a balcony in the back of a small, local shul — as if on a pedestal, farther away from the Torah but closer to G-d — come crashing down when the structure breaks, suddenly putting them on the same level as the men. It’s no coincidence that this happens during an Orthodox bar mitzvah, when a boy becomes a man, which is much different from an orthodox bat mitzvah, when a girl becomes a woman. When a fundamentalist rabbi from a nearby congregation offers to help rebuild the Mizrahi synagogue, the place of women in the shul are far from his main concern, leading to a furious and delightful battle of the sexes. With the elderly Rabbi Menashe (Abraham Celektar) flustered because the accident has left his wife in a coma, Rabbi David (Avraham Aviv Alush) is only too happy to step in, demanding further separation between the men and the women, which causes problems for such couples as gabbai Aharon (Itzik Cohen) and Tikva (Orna Banai); mild-mannered Nissan (Herzi Tobey) and Margalit (Einat Sarouf); and warmhearted shopkeeper Zion (Igal Naor) and Etti (Evelin Hagoel), who have a terrific marriage and equal partnership until things start changing at the shul. Meanwhile, everyone is hoping that Yaffa (Yafit Asulin) finds the right man as she expands her dating search, until she and Rabbi David’s assistant (Assaf Ben Shimon) take an interest in each other, a potential Romeo and Juliet romance.
The Women’s Balcony was written by first-time screenwriter Shlomit Nehama, Ben-Shimon’s ex-wife, who was inspired by the religious extremism she saw in an Israeli neighborhood where she had once lived. The film evokes such sweet-natured favorites as Local Hero and Waking Ned Devine as well as Aristophanes’s Lysistrata as the women fight for their rights. Ben-Shimon (Mimon, Wild Horses) maintains an infectious pace throughout, as cinematographer Ziv Berkovich puts the audience right in the middle of the action, accompanied by Ahuva Ozeri and Shaul Besser’s playful, Jewish-flavored score. Naor and Hagoel are outstanding as Zion and Etti, the emotional center of the film, a lovely couple with a bright view of life, at least until exclusion and sexism get in the way. Asulin is excellent as Yaffa, the young woman who is part of the next generation of Judaism — and who is not extremely knowledgeable about her religion. But even when situations are at their most tense, Nehama and Ben-Shimon keep it all lighthearted; if only more religious (and marital) disputes could be handled with such grace and wit. Nominated for five Israeli Academy Awards, including Banai for Best Supporting Actress, Rona Doron for Best Costume Design, Vered Mevorach for Best Makeup, the late Ozeri (who passed away recently at the age of sixty-eight) and Besser for Best Score, and Alush for Best Supporting Actor, The Women’s Balcony opens May 26 at Lincoln Plaza and the Quad.
LIQUID SKY (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Saturday, May 27, and Sunday, May 28, 7:20 (both followed by Q&As)
“Everybody wants euphoria; what’s wrong with that?” a character declares in Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 sci-fi cult classic, Liquid Sky. First, a tiny alien spaceship lands above a rooftop apartment in the shadow of the Empire State Building. Margaret (Anne Carlisle), a Connecticut native who dresses in shocking makeup and clothing, lives there with Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), a performance artist and heroin dealer specializing in Liquid Sky. Their world is all about sex, drugs, and punk / new wave music. Later, at the club, they meet Vincent (Jack Adalist), who claims his father is a bigwig in the movies, and Paul (Stanley Knap), a middle-class junkie whose wife, Katherine (Elaine C. Grove), is trying to get him to kick the habit. Katherine’s brother, the androgynous, Bowie-esque Jimmy (also played by Carlisle), is a friend of Adrian and Margaret’s who is going to model with Margaret in what turns out to be a very strange fashion shoot for Midnight magazine with an oddball crew that includes a cool designer (Nina V. Kerova), an eager photographer (Alan Preston), and a snappy hair stylist (Christine Hatfull). Meanwhile, UFO hunter Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) is on the trail of the midtown alien ship and being wined and dined by the hot-to-trot Sylvia (Susan Doukas), whose window offers an excellent view of Adrian and Margaret’s apartment. The plot thickens when Margaret discovers that she seems to have a rather special power whenever a sexual partner (or rapist) has an orgasm with her.
Released in August 1982, Liquid Sky was ahead of its time in its treatment of gender identity and sexual orientation (and even bathroom usage); in fact, it’s already postgender. It also presages the AIDS crisis and the protest motto “Sex = Death.” And the special effects, which were created by Russian cinematographer Yuri Neyman and combine science with psychedelia, might look cheesy now but they were cutting edge (and still slyly funny) thirty-five years ago, as were the freaky costumes and production design by Marina Levikova. Marcel Fieve was responsible for the fab makeup and hair. Written by Soviet émigré Tsukerman (Stalin’s Wife, Perestroika), his wife, Kerova, and Carlisle, the film, inspired by Wendy Steiner’s The Scandal of Pleasure and Tsukerman’s own emigration, is an avant-garde look at the immigrant experience in America, whether coming from outer space, the Soviet Union, or Connecticut, as well as the Reagan-era counterculture. The Empire State Building rises tall in numerous shots, a large phallic symbol of personal freedom. There is also a brief shot of the Twin Towers, echoing Carlisle’s performance as both Margaret and Jimmy. The acting is mediocre at best and the plot doesn’t always make sense, but Liquid Sky is more than just a captured moment in time, as it explores issues that are still controversial today. The hypnotic, synth-heavy soundtrack is by Tsukerman, Clive Smith, and Brenda I. Hutchinson, but nothing can top Sheppard’s performance of “Me and My Rhythm Box.” Carlisle appeared in nine movies between 1981 and 1990, including Desperately Seeking Susan and Crocodile Dundee, but hasn’t made another one since, and Tsukerman has directed several nonfiction works but Liquid Sky is his only feature; however, they are collaborating on a documentary about the making of the movie (and perhaps a sequel as well). Among other things, the film is about death, and the original negative is decaying, so the Quad will be presenting the last-ever 35mm New York City screenings of Liquid Sky on May 27 and 28 at 7:20 as part of “Immigrant Songs,” with Tsukerman and Carlisle participating in Q&As after both shows. The series concludes May 26-29 with Brian De Palma’s Scarface and May 27-31 with Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth.
James Badge Dale is electrifying as a prisoner in 2019 telling his story to a historian in Robert Schenkkan’s gripping, of-the-moment Building the Wall, which opened last night at New World Stages. Dale is Rick, a white convict relegated to solitary confinement and facing possible execution. His lawyer advised him not to take the stand at trial, so he has now decided to share the details of his frightening tale with Gloria (Tamara Tunie), who is considering writing a book about him. Both in their forties, Rick and Gloria are in a small prison room, a table at the center separating them. (The claustrophobic set is by Antje Ellermann.) “Why are you here?” Rick asks. Gloria responds by remembering a racist incident from her childhood, on the Fourth of July when she was six and a white police officer said something deeply offensive to her. “Was he just a, a ‘man of his time,’ like the nose on his face, his racism so much a part of him that he wasn’t even aware of it anymore? Or did he know exactly what he was doing and there was a special thrill in taking this little black child’s racial innocence?” she says. It’s a microcosm of the questions surrounding Rick’s incarceration, as well as much of what is going on in America and around the world, particularly since WWII. Rick, a native Texan whose family moved around a lot because his abusive father was in the air force, wanted to be an architect, but he quit school early and eventually joined the army because of 9/11. As he describes the next events in his life, leading up to the horrific crimes he committed, he makes it clear that every step of the way he worked hard to avoid problems, never intending for things to go so wrong. “You had a situation that got out of control, obviously. Why?” he asks rhetorically in his defense. “Chaotic conditions resulted from a lack of infrastructure, absurd overcrowding, inadequate training, poor discipline, and confusion over mission goals. . . . [The brass] tossed a lotta little people into the trash and then congratulated themselves.” But Gloria refuses to let him get off so easy, making him confront the harsh realities of what he became involved in. “I’m just trying to understand, Rick, given what happened,” Gloria says, making him go over every detail. “I’m just a guy, all right, a regular guy in extraordinary circumstances trying to do the best he can with very limited resources,” Rick responds. But there’s no defense for what ultimately occurred.
Pulitzer and Tony winner Schenkkan (Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, The Kentucky Cycle), who has also been nominated for two Emmys (The Pacific) and an Oscar (Hacksaw Ridge), wrote Building the Wall in a weeklong “white hot fury” shortly before the 2016 presidential election. The play touches upon numerous hot-button issues, from race, religion, and education to the privatization of prisons, false flags, and illegal immigration, from NAFTA, NATO, and attorney general Jeff Sessions to Benghazi, Muslim terrorists, and border security. Schenkkan, whose previous play, All the Way, was about President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s efforts to pass civil rights legislation — much of which was recently gutted by a Republican Congress — does not hide that his tale is a warning of what could happen under the Trump administration if people don’t push back, but he and director Ari Edelson slowly unfurl the narrative to make it all wholly believable rather than the ranting of a liberal sore loser. “What does a writer who has often turned to history to illuminate present political crises do when he finds himself living through a turning point in history?” Schenkkan explains in the introduction to the published edition of the play. “To those who say that it could never happen here in this country, I reply, maybe not, but that of course will depend entirely on what you do.” (With that in mind, Schenkkan is widely licensing Building the Wall, realizing it has a limited shelf life and hoping it will be frequently performed all over America.) Dale (The Walk, The Pacific) is intense and affecting as Rick, a bundle of nervous energy who moves around the room like a lost soul; from the very beginning, Dale is able to elicit a critical amount of sympathy for a skinhead in an orange jumpsuit whose next stop appears to be death row. Obie winner Tunie (Familiar, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) cannot quite keep up with Dale, her delivery too static, unable to get past the expository nature of some of her dialogue, something that Dale pulls off in the meatier role. The play is reminiscent of Nicholas Wright’s similarly staged two-person A Human Being Died That Night, in which black psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviews convicted white torturer and assassin Eugene de Kock, who committed his crimes for South Africa’s apartheid government. The main difference, of course, is that Wright’s play is based on facts, involving real people and actual events; Schenkkan’s main goal in his latest political play is to ensure that his shocking story remains completely fictional.
IN PURSUIT OF BLACK JOY: KILL MOVE PARADISE
The National Black Theatre: Institute for Action Arts
2031 Fifth Ave. between 125th & 126th Sts. (National Black Theatre Way)
May 31 - June 2, $20; June 4-18, $35 ($25 with code RISE), June 18-25, $40
Award-winning actor and writer James Ijames (The Brothers Size, White) makes his New York City debut with the ripped-from-the-headlines Kill Move Paradise, about the plight of four black men after they have been killed by racist acts and are now in an otherworldly place. The world premiere closes Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre’s forty-eighth season, which is themed “In Pursuit of Black Joy” and featured such other works as Harrison David Rivers’s Sweet and Craig ‘muMs’ Grant’s A Sucker Emcee. Inspired by recent events, the play, which explores the “All Lives Matter” controversy, stars Ryan Swain (A Negro Writer, Black Nativity) in his New York City stage debut, Donnell E. Smith (Time: The Kalief Browder Story, Ugly Is a Hard Pill), Clinton Lowe (Bamboo in Bushwick, The Hustle), and Sidiki Fofana (Most Dangerous Man in America, Children of Killers) and is directed by Saheem Ali (Nollywood Dreams, The Erlkings). Maruti Evans is the scenic designer, with lighting by Alan Edwards, sound by Palmer Hefferan, and costumes by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene. “We wanted to flip the narrative surrounding the oppressive tropes that keep us feeling helpless and stuck as a community,” National Black Theatre theatre arts director Jonathan McCrory said in a statement. “With Kill Move Paradise, we are seeking to inspire our community to remember the power of joy as a tool of resistance, a mechanism forged as our sacred birthright to gain freedom in the midst of oppression.”
TICKET GIVEAWAY: Kill Move Paradise runs May 31 to June 25 at Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre, and twi-ny has three pairs of tickets to give away for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and favorite sociopolitical play or movie to email@example.com by Tuesday, May 30, at 3:00 pm to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; three winners will be selected at random.
RESTLESS CREATURE: WENDY WHELAN (Linda Saffire & Adam Schlesinger, 2016)
Film Forum, 209 West Houston St., 212-727-8110
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Francesca Beale Theater, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th St. between Eighth Ave. & Broadway
Opens Wednesday, May 24
“I’ve always been extremely devoted to what I do, and I love being a part of the New York City Ballet. But I do feel the ticking clock, and at times I’ve thought, if I don’t dance, I’d rather die. I’ve actually said that,” longtime New York City principal dancer Wendy Whelan says in the intimate and revealing documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan. Whelan gave directors and producers Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger remarkable access as she faces a turning point in her life and career. In 2013, she began to notice she wasn’t getting the parts she used to excel in and decided to get reconstructive hip surgery, hoping that she could return to dancing full-time, at top level. She allows Saffire and Schlesinger into the operating room as Dr. Marc J. Philippon performs the procedure on her torn right labrum. “Ballerinas are probably God’s best athletes,” Dr. Philippon, says. The film then documents her hard-fought battle to return to the stage, as it’s unclear that she will ever regain her skills — or if Peter Martins and the New York City Ballet will even want her back. “What the fuck is this gonna be like when I can’t do this anymore,” she wonders, later adding, “I need to get back in the game, because I don’t have a ton of time left at my game.” With an inspiring dedication, brave honesty, and self-deprecating sense of humor, Whelan, who turned fifty earlier this month, works with physical therapists Marika Molnar and James Gallegro and discusses options with her husband, choreographer and creative director David Michalek; her manager, Ilter Abramowitz; her mother, Kay; and friends Adam Barrett and Maria Scherer, holding nothing back about the choices she must make. Concerned that soon she will not physically be able to be at her best in ballet, she starts the “Restless Creature” contemporary dance project with choreographers Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo. But she still aches to return to her home of thirty years, the New York City Ballet, where decades of balletomanes, twi-ny included, have thrilled to her technical precision, insight, musicality, and breathtakingly beautiful line.
Saffire and Schlesinger, who previously collaborated on such documentaries as Smash His Camera and Sporting Dreams, combine home movies and photos with lovely clips of Whelan in pieces by Christopher Wheeldon, George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Jerome Robbins, and Alexei Ratmansky. They mix in scenes of her being interviewed by dance writers, partying with friends and colleagues, talking with former dancers Jock Soto and Philip Neal, and rehearsing with NYCB soloist Craig Hall and principal dancer Tyler Angle. Only once during the year-and-a-half shoot did Whelan ask for privacy; otherwise, her life is an open book, and it’s both exhilarating and heartbreaking to watch, as the film is about much more than just one artist’s struggle to remain relevant; it’s an inherently relatable story about the effects of age, how each of us might react to the inevitable decline of the body. Whelan expresses how hard it is to know that there are certain moves she will never be able to perform again, no matter how well her rehab goes, so there is an underlying sadness throughout the film even as we cheer her on to accomplish her lofty goals. But what really makes the film work is Whelan herself; all of the behind-the-scenes intrigue and personal reflections are fascinating, but Whelan proves to be an extraordinary human being. “You changed how people behave in this profession,” former principal dancer and current Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal tells her. Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan will likely make many viewers take a good look at their own future with new enthusiasm as they approach critical crossroads. The film opens May 24 at Film Forum and Lincoln Center; there will be Q&As with Whelan, Saffire, and Schlesinger (sometimes joined by executive producer Diana DiMenna) at the former on May 25 and May 26 at 7:00 and May 27 at 4:40 and at the latter on May 24 at 7:00, May 25 at 5:00, May 27 at 7:00, and May 28 at 1:00.
99 Margaret Corbin Dr., Fort Tryon Park
Saturday, May 27, and Sunday, May 28, free with museum admission of $12-$25 (children under twelve free with an adult), 12 noon - 4:00
The Met Cloisters is hosting a family festival this weekend, featuring workshops, a self-guided art hunt, craft projects, and more. Children will be able to make a medieval spice box or goblet in the Pontaut Chapter House, begin an art hunt in Cuxa Cloister, searching for food-related items in paintings and sculptures (with a certificate of achievement available for those who find all the items), and learn about many of the ingredients and utensils used in medieval cooking for feasts and special occasions — and see some of them in the Bonnefont Herb Garden. The events are recommended for children ages four to twelve and will not include any food tastings, although participants will be able to see, touch, and smell certain ingredients (and even take home a sprig of fresh herbs). Visitors are encouraged to come in medieval costume but it is not a requirement.
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 23, $39 - $147
It’s the most famous door slam in theatrical history and a symbolic touchstone of the women’s rights movement. At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play, A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer declares her freedom and walks out on her banker husband, Torvald, and their three young children, in order to figure out who she is and what she wants out of life. In his book From Ibsen’s Workshop: Notes, Scenarios, and Drafts of the Modern Plays, Ibsen wrote of A Doll’s House: “A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.” Playwright Lucas Hnath delves deeper into those rules of conduct between men and women in his audacious, decidedly contemporary follow-up, A Doll’s House, Part 2. It’s also extremely intelligent and very, very funny, more than worthy of its title. Hnath and director Sam Gold attack the story with relish, beginning with Miriam Beuther’s set, a large room with two high walls that meet at the back, while the front corner angles into the first few added rows; the feet of the audience members in the first row can actually reach under the stage. To the left is the door, big and brown and austere; a few chairs and a table are arranged around the room sparsely but neatly. A glowing yellow neon sign hangs from the ceiling, boldly announcing the name of the play, rising up and out of view shortly after the show starts, with a knock on the door; Nora (Laurie Metcalf) has returned. “Nora, I can’t believe it’s you!” proclaims an excited Ann Marie (Jane Houdyshell), the nanny who first raised Nora, then Nora’s children. “It’s good to see you,” Nora responds calmly, but she can’t wait to tell Ann Marie what she’s been up to these last fifteen years, during which she has had no contact whatsoever with anyone in the house. She proudly informs Ann Marie that she’s become a successful writer, using a pseudonym, publishing controversial books that argue against the institution of marriage and monogamy, which she calls “self-torture.” When Torvald (Chris Cooper) unexpectedly arrives, he doesn’t even recognize Nora. “Who’s your friend?” he asks Ann Marie before looking a little closer. “Are you . . . You aren’t . . . You are,” he says. “I am,” Nora responds. “I have to go to the bathroom,” Torvald declares, and leaves the room. It’s a scintillating exchange, 15 years in the making in the play itself, but 138 years since Ibsen first wrote Nora’s exit.
The reason why Nora has returned is brilliant; she has not come back to explain herself to Torvald or to see how her children are doing. Avoiding all sentimentality, Nora explains that Torvald never filed the divorce papers, so she desperately needs him to finally sign them, which will at last legally set her free of all attachments, allow her to sign contracts on her own behalf, and save her reputation as an anti-marriage crusader — all the dilemmas that ensue from women’s lack of the rights that men enjoy. “I think it’s to be expected that a person would think that after I left this house and my husband and my children that I’d have a very difficult time,” she tells Ann Marie, who says, “The world is a hard place.” Nora adds, “So we’re trained to think. I mean, I think there’s something in our time and place and culture that teaches us to expect and even want for women who leave their families to be punished.” It’s a statement that wittily comments on the audience’s own expectations, displaying how inequality remains very much in force today; Nora might be flaunting her independence and her career triumphs, but she has not yet broken free of society’s rules, many of which have continued into the twenty-first century. Over the course of the swiftly moving ninety-minute play, Nora goes one-on-one with each character, the next bout announced by a projection of that character’s name on the wall in huge sans-serif block letters by Peter Nigrini. The interactions are superbly staged, as Ann Marie gives Nora a piece of her mind, Torvald is not keen on granting her the divorce, and Emmy shows she has matured into a fine, albeit traditional, young woman. The dialogue in each scene is razor-sharp and unpredictable, as Hnath (Red Speedo, The Christians) explores the age-old battle of the sexes with surprisingly modern language. In researching the project, Hnath sought advice from numerous feminist scholars, including Carol Gilligan, Elaine Showalter, Toril Moi, Susan Brantly, and Caroline Light, resulting in a play that never is condescending or didactic and instead is illuminating and wholly believable.
The cast is divinely exquisite, all four earning Tony nods. Four-time Tony nominee Metcalf (The Other Place, Domesticated) is sensational as Nora, following in the door-slamming footsteps of Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Jane Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, and Joan Crawford. Wearing a gorgeous art nouveau shirtwaist and ladies’ suit by costume designer David Zinn, she’s utterly magnetic as she moves around the stage, completely unafraid to face the realities of Nora’s situation, many of which she did not expect. Oscar winner and Tony and Emmy nominee Cooper (My House in Umbria, Adaptation.), last seen on Broadway in the short-lived 1980 drama Of the Fields, Lately, is gentle and understated as Torvald, who is not sure how to react when he abruptly has to confront something he has tried to put past him. Three-time Tony nominee Rashad (The Trip to Bountiful, Stick Fly) is adorably charming as Emmy, a confident woman who holds no grudges and has an infectiously positive view of life. And Tony and Obie winner Houdyshell (The Humans, Follies), who played the nurse to Rashad’s Juliet in David Leveaux’s 2013 Broadway version of Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom, is, as always, a marvelous delight, holding nothing back as Ann Marie defends the choices she made and delivers the funniest, most direct, and totally un-Ibsen-like line of the play. Tony winner Gold (Fun Home, John) again proves he is one of the theater’s most inventive directors, allowing Hnath’s sparkling words to shine on a sparse but powerful set. One door closes; one door opens. Entrances and exits are the way of life, and the way of theater, and they come together beautifully in this electrifying and masterful production.