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Interview: Kathryn Hunter on The Valley of Astonishment and Acting Journey

The preternaturally talented Hunter practically defies credulity on stage.

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Kathryn Hunter

The preternaturally talented Kathryn Hunter practically defies credulity on stage. Last year, in Kafka’s Monkey, the diminutive performer, using her ultra-flexible limbs, throaty voice, and piercing intelligence, transformed herself into a sentient male chimpanzee who had been taught to speak and behave like a human. A few months later, she equally dazzled as an ageless, genderless, shape-shifting Puck in Julie Taymor’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Greek-American actress, who grew up in England and has worked mostly overseas, is currently back in New York, at Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in the aptly titled The Valley of Astonishment, a theater piece about the miracles of the mind co-written and directed by the renowned Peter Brook and his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. I caught up with Hunter recently to learn more about the new work and about her own remarkable journey as an actress.

How would you describe The Valley of Astonishment?

I would say it’s an exploration of what it is to be human. We meet a woman who has a prodigious memory, a young man who has synesthesia, which is a condition where the senses are mixed—a sound becomes a color, words have tastes and forms and shapes—and we meet another man who’s lost his sense of his body and is paralyzed, but who manages to walk again by controlling his limbs with his eyes. In the end it follows, most specifically, the story of the woman, Sammy, who becomes a performing mnemonist; she memorizes so many words and tables of numbers for these performances and then suffers from the inability to forget, and so she starts hallucinating. The piece has an unusual form, which I think people will find intriguing. As with the best storytelling, it changes narrative, changes tone; there’s humor and then it shifts to a more poetic level. Peter [Brook] is continuing his [previous] exploration of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which was based on the Oliver Sacks books. These neurological disorders, in fact, turn out to be quite wondrous. So at the end of the day, I think I would characterize the play as a celebration of the human being, a celebration of difference.

What is it like to play Sammy, this woman with extraordinary capabilities?

It’s an act of imagination, because she also has synesthesia and her senses are working overtime. So during the day I’ll be on the subway and I’ll imagine that people have colors, or their conversations have shapes, or the sound of the subway arriving has a particular form. I’m encouraging my brain to inhabit the right landscape; then when it comes to performing, I have to delete the fact that I’ve been a performer for a very long time, because it’s Sammy’s first time on the stage. She begins to find joy in performing; at first it goes very well and she’s a huge success. She employs what the modern mnemonists call the “memory palace” technique, where she turns words into objects and places them in streets. But then the streets become full and there’s no space to put anything anywhere. So her strategy fails her and she’s in despair—becoming almost mad with this overload. She also has an impending sense of loss because she has found a sense of identity in performing. I hope that other people without having to be mnemonistic performers can identify with that sense of going on a new journey. We’re always looking for strategies, always looking to find a way forward and somehow you have to find the courage to go on. So in that sense, Sammy is a very courageous woman.

As an actor, you’re pretty courageous yourself. You haven’t only transcended the boundaries of gender and species, but also overcame what would ordinarily be considered physical limitations as well. Could you talk about how your work spans both classical and physical theater despite a personal injury?

After Bristol University, where I studied French and drama, I went to RADA [Royal Academy of the Dramatic Art], which is a very classical school—like the Oxford of acting, which was very text-based. After that I met a company called Theater de Complicité whose orientation was physical. It was a great second training—a science of the space and physicality. There’s been this perception that you are forced to decide between physical theater and text-based theater, but I’ve always felt that they reside together.

In terms of my injury, in my early 20s I had a very bad accident, but I returned to drama school. It seemed like a terrible thing at the time—my legs weren’t working—but it was sort of a revelation and a gift, revealing the expressive possibilities of the upper torso. I had to come down this long staircase—I was in a musical—and I remember my mates looking at me thinking, “Is she going to make it?” And so I played with the upper torso and my arms and the voice and I realized that a limitation can be freeing. I don’t know if you followed the Paralympics recently in London. It was magnificent. More and more, I must admit that although it has been a long time now since my injury, it redoubled my feeling that a so-called disability, whether physical or otherwise, can with will power actually be a spur to releasing other possibilities.

You could say the same thing about the characters in The Valley of Astonishment

Exactly. There’s also a magician in the show, played by Marcello Magni, who’s based on a real Argentinean who lost his hand in an accident when he was eight years old. He’s now a consummate card player—you can buy DVDs about him and everything—and he even goes beyond that. Apart from the artistry of his card tricks, he also tells stories, he’s poetic, he has wit. It’s another testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.

Magni is the co-founder of Theater de Complicté, the company that introduced you to physical theater. He’s also your husband, and you’ve worked together for quite some time, haven’t you?

That’s right, which is very joyous. And we worked together with Peter for the first time on Fragments, five short plays by Samuel Beckett. So it’s wonderful to come together again with Peter, who has created a family, I think.

What’s it like working with Brook? The legendary figure of modern theater is still going strong at 89…

Some people call him a guru, but if he’s a guru, he’s a very lovable and fun-loving guru. Peter is very present in the sense that he’s so generous; he goes right to the heart of the human condition and at the same time he’s very direct. I wish us all at his age to be as smart, as playful, as perspicacious, and have as much energy. There’s something indomitable, but I think it’s based on a profound curiosity about life and people. He’s very playful in his spirit, and at the same time there’s the wisdom of advanced years. You feel that in the piece.

A source of inspiration for the work is the Sufi poem, “The Conference of the Birds.” This piece is kind of streaked with passages from that poem, which is a spiritual parable about a group of birds who go on a quest to find the truth. The text is very beautiful and suggests that our journey is a series of valleys. The title The Valley of Astonishment comes from the sixth valley in the book, which is full of pain and a journey of lamentation. But it’s very subtle with Peter; he never wants to advertise anything. There’s a sense in the poem that life is a constant quest to go forward, but it’s very lightly placed in the play. It is, I think, one of the qualities that one aspires to with Peter because he embodies it himself—a lightness in the playing, even though there are deeper truths underneath.

You keep challenging yourself in your work. Would you consider playing the title role in King Lear a pinnacle? Do you try keep astonishing yourself?

King Lear is very much in my heart. I directed a piece in London, which is being remounted, called My Perfect Mind, about an actor who had a stroke whilst he was rehearsing King Lear. So, yes, among other things, King Lear remains a great yearning in me; the play is in my heart and soul and I would love to do it again. And in terms of astonishing, it’s looking at life daily and realizing that it is astonishing if one opens oneself to it. Peter is always asking for openness to ourselves and to each other. I think that’s the journey.

The Valley of Astonishment runs at the Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center through October 5.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More

Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.

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The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes
Photo: Public Theater

Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.

Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.

Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)

This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

A scene from The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. © The Public

Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?

Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.

An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.

In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”

This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.

Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.

If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.

Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”

Not I

A scene from Not I. © James Lyndsay

Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.

The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.

Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.

After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.

The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.

Grey Rock

A scene from Grey Rock. © Carlos Cardona

Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.

It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.

Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.

Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.

Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.

Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.

I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.

Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.

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