Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > Maia Maia: Lola Lola

Maia Maia: Lola Lola

25 Mar 2002

Life continues eventfully, but with less to narrate than has sometimes been the case. I went out Friday evening with about a dozen co-workers to the Fire Club, the same place I'd seen the Tetsuo films a few months back. Pretty lively on a Friday night, nice crowd, cheap drinks, smoky but not horribly so (they actually have remarkably good ventilation for a cheap basement bar with a young-ish crowd), but with muddy sound and not a lot of space to dance because there is nowhere that it's more than about 3 meters between the columns that hold up the building. Also, insofar as there is a dance floor, people seem to think nothing of standing there having a drink in the middle of it, which really brings down the energy level. Still, a pretty good time, stayed till 3am, danced quite a bit despite having whacked my foot against the outside of the bathtub two days earlier (nothing broken, but I can still sure as hell feel it).

It's been a bit rainy and cold here. much colder than early March, apparently following the weird Seattle pattern of "in like a lamb, out like a lion." Saturday and Sunday there were fireworks, the latter in pouring rain; I don't know the occasion.

Despite the weather, I wandered a bit. I went to the Botanical Garden, where the conservatory was nicely tropical. Really fine collection of cacti, palm trees, etc. Apparently they don't let visitors into the Amazon Basin room because they keep it so hot and humid that they can't even let it get the "draft" from the adjoining hot and humid rooms.

Also wandered some neighborhoods west of the center. Slightly crumbling villas that (from what I can tell) appear to be much better maintained inside than out; grape arbors over terraces; breezeways leading into alleyways full of tumbledown shacks; another good public market (near the Gara du Nord); a few stray Roman Catholics honoring Palm Sunday.

Sunday night I returned to the Odeon Theater, this time for a production of The Blue Angel (here, Îngerul Albastru) starring Maia Morgenstern as Lola Lola (the Dietrich role) and Florin Zamfirescu as Professor Rahat (the Emil Jannings role, the film's "Rath" and the novel's "Unrat"). Both were excellent, as was the rest of the cast. The production was an interesting one. Although the title was taken from the Sternberg/Dietrich film rather than from Heinrich Mann's underlying novel, the play did not slavishly follow the film. For one thing, the cast was very stripped down: the Professor, three of his students, and five members of the Blue Angel troupe (including a rather fey variant of the Strong Man). For another, although the story is ultimately a melodrama or even a tragedy, the production combined elements of cabaret performance, farce, and surrealism. Except for certain moments towards the end, the level of naturalism was about that of the Rocky Horror Show. But with better acting. (Please don't kill me, Rocky Horror fans external link.)

The eight or so cabaret songs used in the production were lip-synched to German originals, some of them by Dietrich, some by others. Normally, I don't like that approach, but here the cast were good enough to pull it off convincingly. Not having to sing freed them up to be more physical than much anyone could be while singing well. In several places Maia Morgenstern sang along with a Dietrich recording, making a very smooth transition as the recording ended.

I had already seen Maia Morgenstern in the State Jewish Theater's production of Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, where she really didn't have a chance to display her comic range, although she was brilliant in the one scene where she did. Some of you may have seen her in Ulysses Gaze, Angelopolous's occasionally brilliant but ultimately rather tedious film starring Harvey Keitel; she plays Keitel's wife. I looked her up on IMDB, which shows her with extensive film credits external link, lately mostly from Hungary. Nothing I've seen except Ulysses Gaze. She starred in the title role of The Seventh Chamber of Edith Stein, which I've heard praised but have never seen.

The Blue Angel requires her to handle the full Dietrich range from spangles to tuxedo and from sultry to world-weary to (briefly) content. She does a good job with it, especially in the cabaret bits and in the more farcical scenes: she is a very good comic actress, not the least ashamed to go over the top for a laugh, and with the timing of a Jack Benny (or, for that matter, Marilyn Monroe), the kind of performer whose sense of timing allows her to successfully deliver the same joke or do the same "bit" for the same audience dozens of times and vary the presentation just enough for the laughs to get bigger as she goes.

Somewhat like Dietrich, Morgenstern (who will turn 40 on May Day) is one of those women who manages to be very sexy almost by an act of will: her looks alone would leave her more on the "handsome/stately" side (here's the only picture external link I can find of her online), but she moves beautifully and can modulate convincingly from coquette to whirlwind in about a quarter of a second. She was at least as likely a Lola Lola as Dietrich herself. [March 2003: Here's another, less staid, picture of her external link, but it still doesn't quite capture her sexy side.]

Zamfirescu was also very good both as a classroom tyrant and as a buffoon; he's done some film work, too. Anyone ever seen him? Inevitably the "second" role in this story, but he filled it well.

Also saw The Royal Tannenbaums. I thought it was very worthwhile. The acting was uniformly good; for once, I even liked a performance by Gwinneth Paltrow. OK, so it's not Rushmore, but neither are most movies, y'know? I liked the storybook aspect of it, the fantasy NYC, the 375th Street Y, and all that. If you haven't seen it because you were afraid it was too cute, go. It really isn't.

Also, the wonderful Ginger Snaps showed up here on HBO, so I assume it is on HBO everywhere else, too. If you ever like horror films at all, and if you get a chance, see it. Definitely the surprise hit of last year's Seattle International Film Festival: an actually intelligent teen horror flick from Canada, using the werewolf thing as a metaphor for the changes ones body goes through at adolescence, but by no means reductive to that. The last 20 minutes go more into normal horror flick territory - hey, they had to give the primary audience what they want - but before that is the makings of the best teen film I've seen since Heathers.

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Originally written: March 25, 2002
Last modified: March 24, 2003

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