Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review: The Best Film Ever Deconstructed

By Ed Malin

CasblancaBox is a riveting, immersive theatrical collage about the making of the classic film “Casablanca”.  Playwright Sara Farrington and Director Reid Farrington developed the piece over the last three years through HERE’s Artist Residency Program.  The large ensemble carries around translucent screens, onto which portions of the finished film are projected while, right behind the screens, live performers stage and voice the same scenes.  It is wonderfully disorienting to try to focus on any particular part of the stage (as the film camera would ask us to do) while so much else is going on.  There was a lot of drama happening off the set, as well, which this masterful production shows.
 It is 1942 on the set of Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz’s (Kevin R. Free) film, “Casablanca” at Warner Brothers Studios.  The United States had entered World War II only a few months prior, and this particular film, adapted from an earlier, unproduced stage play taking the side of the French against the Germans, had been rushed into production.  Curtiz, who has worked with Erroll Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and recreated enormous battle scenes in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which left hundreds of horses dead, would never have imagined the challenges of his current project.   The script is not finished.  A team of four writers argue with each other as they fight through several drafts of an ending.  Each new version is scrutinized by the censors, who scent infidelity both on and off the set. Peter Lorre (Rob Hille), the famous Austro-Hungarian actor, must hide in his dressing room to immerse himself in each new draft while dodging the ghosts afflicting his psyche.  Leading man Humphrey Bogart (Roger Casey) is occasionally visited by his intoxicated wife, the former actress Mayo Methot (Erin Treadway), who accuses her husband of having an affair. Bogart, who would not begin his affair with his next wife, Lauren Bacall, for several years, is nevertheless having trouble focusing on love scenes with co-star Ingrid Bergman (Catherine Gowl), and even laments to Curtiz that he may have done better with a different contemporary film star like Ronald Reagan. Curtiz takes this moment to teach Bogart how to kiss a woman onscreen: first, stare at her but focus on one of her eyes, then move closer, switching to her other eye.  Apocryphal or not, these stories are joyfully hilarious.
The production moves at high speed through many scenes of the film, showing us the disillusionment of some cast members. Gregory Gaye (Gabriel Diego Hern├índez), once a famous Austrian actor and now a refugee, is told to be happy playing a caricature of a Nazi in Hollywood.  Lukas (Matt McGloin), a German, assures Gaye that they are lucky to be “atmosphere” for the rest of a film, just like a lamp.  Adrianna (Annemarie Hagenaars),  a refugee from Poland, has a mind to attack Gaye for the crimes of the Third Reich, while he insists that as an Austrian he is not responsible.  Dooley Wilson as Sam the pianist (Toussaint Jeanlouis) has a few problems.  He is a drummer sent to this film to fulfill his studio contract; Curtiz learns mid-way through the shoot that Dooley’s famous playing of “As Time Goes By” and other songs is being done by another musician and dubbed into the final cut, although since both musicians are African-American, they can get away with paying them so little that the expense can be overlooked.  Ingrid Bergman longs for the stormy neo-realism of Italian cinema; her subsequent collaboration and romantic relationship with director Roberto Rossellini (Zac Hoogendyk) is summarized against the backdrop of an active volcano.  An airplane prop is built out of rationed cardboard and is so small that midget actors are hired to play mechanics and correct the scale.
And yes, what of the elusive ending?  Lenore Coffee (Lynn R. Guerra) is the only “dame” among the screenwriters.  Her colleagues, Howard Koch (Kyle Stockburger), Julius Epstein (Jon Swain) and Philip Epstein (Adam Patterson) fight with her constantly. Paul Henreid (Matt McGloin), who plays Resistance hero Victor Laszlo, demands that per his Warner Brothers contract he must get the girl.  The ending is rewritten and staged for us several times. We see the psychological brilliance which emerges from the struggle and eventual united front of the writers.  (The script of the original play is available online; it, too, has a very different ending.)  The outstanding ensemble show us a simple way to say everything that was contemplated in the previous drafts.  As an example, “Here’s looking at you, kid” replaced many sentences of florid dialogue.  We even get to witness the ecstasy of the scene where the residents of Casablanca under German occupation proudly sing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”.
Rejoice, fans of the film.  What may have been one of hundreds of movies to come out of the Hollywood studio system in 1942 is celebrated in this production as a classic, with just a little sardonic humor.  The plight of refugees trying to flee Europe and Northern Africa is again a reason to appreciate the story.  Hats off to the Farringtons for realizing this breakneck journey through the creation of “Casablanca”, which at 90 minutes packs so very much into a running time which is slightly shorter than that of the film. Laura Mroczkowski’s lighting is essential for the jumps between scenes and for the old-time film feel.  Roger Casey uses his style and fine-tuned voice to out-Bogart Bogart.  Kevin R. Free as Curtiz really knows how to turn on the charm and how to believably crack under pressure, as one does when there isn't even time to round up the usual suspects.  Zac Hoogendyk delightfully channels the jovially amoral French Captain Renault played by Claude Rains.