In Praise of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”

Note: This post contains spoilers for all ten seasons of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.”

There was a point in time when the “Law and Order” dominated NBC’s schedule like “CSI” did on CBS’ schedule. There were the main “Law and Order” shows–”Law and Order,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”–as well as “Law and Order: Trial by Jury,” “Law and Order: LA” and the spin-off “Conviction.” But now “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” is the only show that remains on NBC, while the occasional rerun of “Law and Order” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” on cable channels.

After picking up “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” on Netflix, I rediscovered how good this version of “Law and Order” was. Early this morning, I finished my journey through all of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” which essentially ends with Det. Robert Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Det. Alexandra Eames (Kathryn Erbe) basically riding off into the sunset to solve the next case for the Major Case Squad. (Okay, there was no sunset, but they did get into an SUV and drive down a street to go to their next case at the end of the series finale.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the show examines detectives of the Major Case Squad pursuing culprits while the audience also sees the lead-up to the crime as well as how the perpetrator or suspects act post-crime. The show initially focused on Goren and Eames, as well as Captain James Deakins (Jamey Sheridan) and ADA Ron Carver (Courtney B. Vance). Come season five, we’re reintroduced to Det. Mike Logan (Chris Noth), who was previously seen on “Law and Order,” as well as introduced to his partner, Det. Carolyn Barek (Annabella Sciorra). Logan and Barek episodes alternate with Goren and Eames, but otherwise it’s the same. Come season six, we have Captain Ross (Eric Bogosian, who will probably be best remembered for being on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” than being a really good writer) and Logan gets a new partner, Det. Megan Wheeler (Julianne Nicholson) while ADA Carver leaves. In season eight, Logan leaves and is replaced by Zack Nichols (Jeff Goldblum), but then in season nine, Goren and Eames leave while Ross is murdered. Ross is replaced by Zoe Callas (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Wheeler never returns, only to be replaced by Det. Serena Stevens (Saffron Burrows), and season nine generally isn’t enjoyable. Season 10 goes back to the original format with Goren and Eames back, but with Det. Joseph Hannah (Jay O. Sanders) and Goren finally going to therapy. (There are some other minor casting changes, but that pretty much covers all 10 season.)

Although the show had a shift in tone around season six as we got to know more about the personal lives of the characters, particularly Goren, the show remained an enjoyable crime show. Sure, it was predictable because of the format, but as the series went on you started to feel a connection with the characters and become interested in the adventures of Goren and Eames and other detectives. When Captain Ross was killed, I found myself a bit sad about the character’s departure because of how all of the characters interacted with him, as well as the fact that the FBI made it very difficult for the detectives to find the person responsible for the captain’s death.

What also made the show enjoyable was that it felt like a modern “Columbo.” In many cases, we knew who the perpetrator was and we got to see him try to wiggle out of the chase from Major Case. But there was also a bit of a Sherlock Holmes-esque characterization of the main duo. Goren was a fascinating, troubled and brilliant detective while Eames was his partner who was often as brilliant as her partner. The show also had captains who would routinely reel the detectives in when they overstepped their boundaries. There were moments where Goren was actually suspended for his behavior, not to mention that his reinstatement in season 10 did require him to see a therapist. Something that has always bothered me about “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” was how often Det. Stabler (Christopher Meloni) would rough up suspects in the interrogation room, but he was suspended for that in some episodes.

There was also a chemistry between Goren and Eames that was completely platonic, but made them a great duo to watch work a case. Although I’m sure there are probably fans out there who would have loved to have seen them get together romantically, the platonic working relationship between the two was terrific to watch and was one of the reasons why the show was such a joy to watch.

For being a show that wasn’t high art, “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” managed to be thoroughly enjoyable, not demanding of needing to catch every episode and often amusing because of the writing. It’s actually a bit of a shame that the show didn’t last longer, but it went out on a high note. At least there are still reruns and the entire series on Netflix, because I really recommend watching the show if you want something that’s a guilty pleasure. Meanwhile, I would love it if Dick Wolf gave the world a final “Law and Order” show, this time focusing on Doctor Elizabeth Rodgers (Leslie Hendrix), the medical examiner.

“The Black Cauldron” (1985)

In 1985, Disney would release an animated film based on Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydian. It would get the first PG rating to ever be given to a Walt Disney film and it would fail at the box office. The film was entitled The Black Cauldron and is generally regarded as the darkest and most frightening of Disney’s films.

In hindsight, The Black Cauldron seems like it might be Disney’s underrated film. Yes, it’s a dark children’s movie, but in terms of themes it somehow manages to feel less dark than The Hunchback of Notre Dame and manages to feel very cohesive with the tone and world due to be based off of a fantasy series.

The Black Cauldron follows Taran (Grant Bardsley), an assistant pig keeper, who learns from a vision from the pig Hen Wen that The Horned King (John Hurt) is searching for the Black Cauldron to raise an army of undead soldiers, the Cauldron-born. Taran is trusted with taking care of Hen Wen, but due to Taran’s day dreams of being a warrior, he loses track of the pig. While searching for Hen Wen, he meets a creature named Gurgi (John Byner). Taran’s searching leads him to the Horned King’s castle, where the pig is being held captive. The pig escapes and Taran is captured. While in the dungeon, he meets Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), who has also been captured, grabs an awesome magic sword and helps a bard named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) escape. The trio then decides to find Hen Wen and the Black Cauldron, the latter of which they intend to destroy.

This film, directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich–Rich went on to direct The Swan Princess and its sequels as well as The King and I–looks very much like a classic Disney film in terms of the character design. If someone isn’t looking closely, they could mistake Princess Eilonwy for Princess Aurora when she’s living in the forest. There’s also great coloring in this filming, such as shades of green that highlight areas of the Horned King’s castle as Taran approaches the building for the first time.

Although I can’t criticize the film in relation to its source material as I’ve never read that series, I can say that pretty much everything in the film works because it is set in a mystical fantasy world. From the presence of the adorable Fair Folk that are very fairy-like to vision-granting pigs to witches to the very presence of Gurgi, a talking creature that looks like a dog, but also like a small human, this all works because of the world of the film, which is easy to buy into and believe in this film.

Gurgi, meanwhile, serves as this film’s Cute Little Animal Sidekick. At first, Gurgi comes across as an annoying character thrown in to make the film cuter for kids, but as the film goes on, it becomes more clear that Gurgi is as important in this film as the Horned King or Taran. More importantly, Gurgi sacrifices himself to save the world, which is something that most Cute Little Animal Sidekicks would not do. And unlike most Cute Little Animal Sidekicks, Gurgi is not obnoxious or wisecracking, he’s simply a cute creature that talks in a muffled tone.

As for the violence, the violence in The Black Cauldron is no worse than what I’ve seen in some episodes of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which is rated TV-PG. That being said, if you’re a parent who won’t let your children watch Adventure Time, then it might be best to not let them watch The Black Cauldron for a while. On another note, while I’m all for allowing children to watch potentially scary movies, I remember being a bit bored by The Black Cauldron as a child. Perhaps as an adult the movie is easier to appreciate because it’s easier to follow the plot. It still remains that The Black Cauldron is an underrated Disney film that will probably never get its deserved recognition.

Review: “Proof” – Theatre Cedar Rapids

Disclosure: I do know one of the actors in the play and I did talk to him after the play.

Are genius and insanity connected? What is the line between the two? And how long does it take to get from the South Side of Chicago to Evanston? Those questions are brought up in David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Proof, which is currently being produced by Theatre Cedar Rapids.

Without the right cast and director, Auburn’s script can come across as a stage version of a very intelligent Lifetime movie. But under the direction of J. David Carey, the cast of this production brings out the emotion of this play and transforms it into a moving, thought-provoking work.

Auburn’s play focuses on Catherine (Rachel Howell), a brilliant young woman that has to deal with the death of her father, Robert (Demetrios Hadjis), a brilliant mathematician. Due to the mental instability of Robert, Catherine fears that she too is crazy. As her Chicago-loathing sister, Claire (Jessica Link), comes in for the funeral, the possibility of her insanity and genius is questioned more as one of her father’s former students, Hal (Rob Merritt), makes an important discovery.

While Auburn’s script has some inaccuracies—it does not take 30 minutes to get from the Hyde Park to Evanston—the play frequently stays on the topic of Catherine’s possible mental illness, with occasional moments of discussing a proof that Hal discovers and the romance between Hal and Catherine.

But Howell’s performance is the gripping emotional center of this play. She brings feistiness and sarcasm to the role that makes her seem defensive against Claire and Hal. Howell’s performance is easy to sympathize with; she put her father before herself and stopped her life for a few years.

Hadjis gives us a very sweet Robert, enabling us to see the connection that Catherine and her father shared. With that we can understand why Catherine took care of her father, why she gave up going to college. The relationship that the two characters share is often tragic as we see glimpses of his insanity, most evident in a scene where Catherine reads a proof that he is working on.

Although Claire frequently seems like a bitch, especially if you have lived in Chicago, Link brings depth and nuance to the character. Her actions don’t always come across as a perpetual need to control situations, but at one point seems as though it might be an atonement for her previous actions. Merritt gives a great performance as Hal, notably in a flashback scene where we see a Hal, Robert and Catherine interact four years previous to the action of the play, his performance in that scene brings us a younger, less certain Hal.

One of the most striking things about Carey’s production is that the ensemble works together as one, which makes the play resonate and strike at the heart.

Bret Gothe’s set shows us the age of the house, something frequently referenced in the script, by having worn shutters and dead ivy around the porch. Haddon Givens Kime’s music for this play works well with the dramatic action of the play and often provides more emphasis.

Although it has taken a while for the play to be performed at Theatre Cedar Rapids, there is a connection that the audience has with the actors and the story, creating a heartbreaking, engaging play.

“Proof” continues through April 18 at the Iowa Theatre Building (102 Third St SE, Cedar Rapids). Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. for Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances and 2 p.m. for Sunday performances. Tickets are $20-25, $15 for students, and $12 rush and can be purchased by visiting the Theatre Cedar Rapids box office, calling (319) 366-8591, or by going to TheatreCR.org.

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminates against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I did pay for my ticket for this play.

Review: “The Hobbit” — Black Hawk Children’s Theatre

Upon entering the Hope Martin Theatre for the Black Hawk Children’s Theatre’s production of The Hobbit, you instantly see Geoff Ehrendreich’s magnificently designed set, which features a hobbit hole, complete with round door, some mountains, some holes with bars for holding prisoners, and a backdrop that happens to be an detailed map of Middle Earth, complete with Elven runes. It manages to be stunning, realistic and efficient for this production; it works well.

That statement can’t be said about the rest of Anita Ross’s production, which has the main problem of having actors that really come off a bit too much as a bunch of kids running around on stage in fake beards. Never for once do we really believe that this is J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic tale coming alive before our eyes, which isn’t aided by the fact that Edward Mast’s script comes off as being a Middle Earth-themed episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood due to Bilbo’s (Zack Thune) asides and narration. It makes a lot of the play seem all warm and fuzzy and sweet. Except for Gollum (Whitney Molln).

What the play primarily suffers from is a lack of emotion in the actors’ performances, which leaves many of the performances unmemorable. But there are also some actors that simply speak too quickly, like Thune. Smaug is reduced to a unintimidating cartoon thanks to Linnea Nicol’s voiceover, which is unfortunate since Smaug is supposed to be a fearsome dragon. Wesley Word’s fight choreography is inconsistent due to some scenes seeming too fake. However, Molln’s performance as Gollum is delightfully creepy and pathetic, making it a performance that you wish would go on for longer. The scene also features a terrific lighting effect that makes it appear as though there is a stream reflecting on the cavern walls. (The lights are designed by Brad Brist.)

For young children with no previous exposure to The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, this might be the right introduction for them; there’s nothing too scary about this production. But for those that are fans of Tolkein’s book, this will be a disappointment.

“The Hobbit” continues through March 7 with performances at 2 p.m. at the Hope Martin Theatre in the Waterloo Center for the Arts (225 Commercial St., Waterloo). Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling (319) 291-4494.

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminates against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I did not pay for my ticket for this play. I received a press ticket.

Review: “The Producers” — Theatre Cedar Rapids

Theatre Cedar Rapids has it and they are flaunting it.

The award-winning Mel Brooks’ musical has come to the newly reopened Iowa Theatre Building in a knee-slapping and thoroughly exciting production directed by Leslie Charipar. To say it is a blast is an understatement; to say it is a superb production might come across as a cliché. It is simply a must-see production that is quite possibly the most fun I’ve had at the theater in quite some time. (And I’ve seen The Producers on Broadway.) It is the biggest and best way to reopen their home and Theatre Cedar Rapids has given it their all, with an end result on stage that pays off.

The musical, which is based off of the 1968 film of the same name, follows washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Scott Schulte) and timid accountant Leo Bloom (Trevor Debth) as they try to pull of a seemingly sure-fire scheme by producing the worst show ever written, Springtime for Hitler by Franz Liebkind (Jason Alberty), and raising more money than is needed. It is the sort of story that can only happen in the theater; a musical with a bit of an odd redemption tale and a happily ever after show business ending. And, like many of Brooks’ creations, the characters are cartoonish versions of stereotypes. In Charipar’s production, they are given heart by the actors portraying them.

Schulte and Debth play off of each other and have an incredible chemistry as the titular duo with magnificent solo performances. Both of them become the character, never seeming to try to imitate Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. They are clearly the driving force of the show and it never slows down.

Alberty, who possesses a beautiful singing voice, hams it up while being a bit charming as Liebkind, prancing around the stage in lederhosen. In costume, it is a delightful caricature of Germans but his performance does make the crazy character a bit more unique. Katie Knutsen manages to be sweet and a bit ditzy as as the sexy Swedish secretary Ulla, while Tim Boyle and Nathan Cooper are magnificently swishy as Roger DeBris and Carmen Ghia.

In addition to the main performances, this production features a strong ensemble and various cameos from local personalities ranging from Brucemore executive director Jim Kern to TCR veterans like Cherryl Moon Thomason. Charipar’s production is sprinkled with sight gags, such as a blind violinist wandering from the ensemble during the number “The King of Broadway.” Bret Gothe’s set is of a professional quality with a detailed exterior of the Schubert Theater that comes flying in to smaller pieces to represent the various locations.

The production is a visual feast because of the set and Joni Sackett’s 1950s costumes. TCR’s production is a reminder of the magic of life theater and the potential of community theater to do stunning, professional quality productions. It is certainly the best way to reopen the Iowa Theatre Building.

“The Producers” continues through March 14 at the Iowa Theater Building (102 Third St SE, Cedar Rapids). Tickets range from $20-$25, $15 for students, $12 rush and can be purchased by calling (319) 366-8591 or by visiting theatrecr.org.

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminates against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I paid for my own ticket for this play.

“August: Osage County” — National Tour at Cadillac Palace Theatre

It took me two-and-a-half years, but I finally saw August: Osage County last night and I can say that it was well worth the wait.

Tracy Letts’ three-and-a-half hour long play explores the relationships and dynamics of the dysfunctional Weston clan in a way that is at many times funny but resonates with familiarity because Letts’ has captured how a family behaves. Even though most of us don’t have families quite as dysfunctional or messed up as the Weston family, we have secrets, we fight, we judge and feign excitement at seeing relatives we haven’t seen in ages.

But at the head of this family that is worried about the missing patriarch, Beverly (Jon DeVries), is the acerbic, pill-popping Violet (Estelle Parsons). She tells it like it is and lets many of the secrets out. “Nobody slips anything by me,” she says. “I know what’s what.” Even though Violet is a damaged woman, she has this odd all-knowing, all-seeing quality to her that makes her seem dangerous as she verbally assaults many of her family members, mainly her adult daughters. As Violet, Parsons plays the role with venom while making the character seem realistic with her crying spells over the disappearance of Beverly. Parsons makes the character seem larger than life, which is how the play and Todd Rosenthal’s massive house feel in the large Cadillac Palace theater. Even in this venue, which is significantly larger than the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf, where it premiered, the show manages to get underneath your skin and feels inescapable.

In this play, the women in the family dominate the scene, but it’s the struggle between Barbara (Shannon Cochran) and Violet that is the fascinating part of this play. The showdown between the two of them at the end of the second act is completely exhilarating and filled me with adrenaline just watching. Cochran’s performance as a daughter that squares off with her mother while slowly turning into her is subtle and fascinating.

The entire 13-member ensemble of this play delivers terrific performances as they say Letts’ exquisitely written dialogue. The play works well in this space, and probably other large spaces, because of Anna D. Shapiro’s natural direction and work on the climactic end of the second act, which focuses on a funeral dinner that seems to not have gone that well, but would probably mirror a dinner shared with any dysfunctional family.

If you haven’t seen this masterful play, I urge you to see it before the national tour leaves the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Feb. 14. If you have seen it while it was at Steppenwolf or on Broadway, go see it again. It’s the best three-and-a-half hours you’ll spend in a theater.

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminates against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I did pay for my ticket.

Review: “The Year of Magical Thinking” – Court Theatre

“Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant,” Joan Didion (Mary Beth Fisher) says at one point in Didion’s one-woman play The Year of Magical Thinking, which is currently running at the Court Theatre.

Those two sentences summarize the key events at the center of Didion’s play, which is based off of her memoir about the loss of her husband and the baffling illness of her daughter. Didion’s script has a very casual feel to it as she veers off into telling of memories of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, Quintana, before catching herself and returning to telling us the primary story. These memories manage to be key in understanding events throughout the play and feel like branches on the main play.

Director Charles Newell stages this production to make it feel very conversational. Throughout the play, Fisher gets up, walks around, sits on the edge of the stage, sits back down at the chair behind the small table that’s onstage the solitary platform that has been designed by John Culbert to look like it’s been covered in parquet flooring. She occasionally sips from the cup of tea that sits on top of the table. It feels as though the audience is sitting in Didion’s apartment having a very interesting and personal discussion with her over a cup of tea.

Fisher’s performance is undeniably natural and human. Throughout the play, she speeds up when talking about an incident and then will pause, trying to digest the still jarring details and facts. The comedic moments in this very depressing play are delivered with a deadpan, matter-of-fact way by Fisher, making them feel unintentionally funny. But the sadness displayed on Fisher’s face makes the moments of insanity and magical thinking — the idea that bargaining will bring something back — something that can feel a bit confusing because of the agonizing emotional pain this woman is in.

Jennifer Tipton’s very simple lighting design works well on the lonely platform, occasionally changing the brightness or the hue of the lights. Mike Tutaj’s projections of smoke or waves on the stage are subtle enough to be mistaken for a really fancy lighting effect.

But nothing is overdone in this production. Instead, the simplicity makes it feel like a very intimate and heartbreaking evening with Joan and her thoughts. And it serves as a lesson on the pain of mourning. As she bluntly tells the audience at the beginning of the play, “It will happen to you.”

“The Year of Magical Thinking” continues through February 14 at the Court Theatre (5535 S. Ellis Ave). Tickets can be purchased by calling (773) 753-4472 or by visiting www.CourtTheatre.org

In keeping with the new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that unfairly discriminates against bloggers, who are now required by law to disclose when they have received anything of value they might write about, please note that I did not pay for my ticket for this play. I received a press ticket.