Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)

Let me announce at the beginning that some of my less than positive reaction to this show may be due to seeing the original Reduced Shakespeare production  years ago in London.  It is tough to compete with professional British actors whose credentials for sending up Shakespeare are impeccable.   

Last night we settled our lawn chairs into the new back patio of Galesburg's Prairie Players Civic Theatre  for an Americanized compendium of the 37 plays in 97 minutes. It was  pretty evidently created by a committee and brought to us by a quartet of  energetic but occasionally overwrought young actors. 

Parody and satire present difficult performance challenges and demand a certain amount of subtlety. The temptation is to distrust the material and compensate by adding a flurry of extra business, huge gestures, and high volume. The result last night was a bit too much frantic fuming for me.  I would have liked to see a firmer hand from director, Betsy Hippely.

The opening setup seemed way too long and I was much happier when the real satires began. The triple time coverage of the history plays was especially enjoyable. We bogged down again with a lame long winded segue into the intermission. The program listed a break and I'm not sure there was a need to create an elaborate and corny story to lead into it.  Even if it was written into the script,  I'd be tempted to "abridge" it.     

Act II was taken up by various length Hamlets and was quite solid  right up to the inconvenient rain shower that stopped the show and forced us all inside for the last few minutes. 

In sum the evening was pleasant and full of energy, but not quite as fulfilling as I would have liked it to be.  Recommendation: Trust the Bard a bit more and pull back a bit on the hokem and helter skelter.   

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Fools and Mortals Universal Attraction

Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell
If you enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, you will definitely find Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals up your alley. It is a lively theatre themed novel that is full of colorful historical detail and enough action, mystery, and romance to keep you turning the pages right to the end.
Cornwell postulates that Shakespeare had a younger brother named Richard who also runs away from Stratford to try his luck in the London theatre. Richard is a fiction, but there was a younger Shakespeare brother named Edmund who was baptized in Stratford in 1580, was an actor, and did die in London. From my London Theatre Walks book I can cite a 1607 Southwark Cathedral sexton’s account ledger that contains the following entry. “Edmund Shakespeare, a player, buried in the church with a forenoon knell of the great bell 20s.”  The critical thing here is the 20 shilling funeral. It cost only two shillings to be buried in Southwark’s churchyard and only one shilling for the tolling of the small bell. Most sources agree that successful playwright, brother William, would have to have been the purchaser of this quite costly funeral.
From these two tiny biographical tidbits, Cornwell builds an entire pageant. His fictional Richard Shakespeare is a part time hired man and small time thief who is trying to get his older brother to move him out of the category of young boy playing women’s roles into better paid and more substantial grown up male roles. As the Bard and his Chamberlain’s Men work frantically to prepare the inaugural production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, young Richard runs afoul of nasty puritans, is accused of stealing playscripts, and finds romance with a nobleman’s young maid servant. It all ends well of course, and while it is going on you can literally breathe in the atmosphere of 16th century London. You will trod the boards at The Theatre, look in on the building of the Swan, feel the threat of Puritan opposition to the players, and participate in the creation of the world’s funniest tragedy, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.    
You will want to put this book on your summer reading list.   

Monday, May 28, 2018

Having Our Say at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago

Aside from the nine hour train trip back from Chicago to Galesburg, our delightful sojourn with the Delaney sisters at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago Thursday afternoon was well worth the time spent. Director Chuck Smith proved once again he Is a master purveyor of the Black Experience. 

Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters First Hundred Years is a true story and was adapted from an interview and book in the nineties. The play by Emily Mann appeared on Broadway in 1995. Those inimitable sisters have now passed away, but their message remains both poignant and pertinent.   Their lives covered the minority experience all the way from their slave born father to the end of the 20th century. Each maiden sister had a singular personality and profession. Sadie was a school teacher and Bessie a Dentist.  As they share their lives, you cannot help but admire their intellectual capacity, fortitude, humor, and above all their essential goodness in the face of two centuries of oppression.

Ella Joyce (Bessie) and Marie Thomas (Sadie) are just plain superlative as they putter about their immaculate home preparing dinner (for us the audience). Director Smith has full control of each minute domestic chore and has devised an efficient way to share the sister’s family background. A few family photos on the set suggest many more and they are depicted by a series of golden frames that creep up a wall behind the household setting.  Several of the frames are used to show projections of African American history as drawn from a  family album that the sisters look at and refer to.  The empty frames also gave every audience member an  opportunity to fill in photos from their own past. 

The set itself is a tour de force of realism built upon a large turntable that moves the action smoothly from living room to dining room and kitchen.  The overall palette (both the set and the lighting) emphasizes restful blue and peach tones.  This is a calm, spotless, organized, and under control space that seems somehow isolated from the furor of  slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, protests, and all of the manifest horrors of the society’s struggle with racism.  It emphasizes that these extraordinary women  made lives anchored by civility, kindness, and gentle humor in spite of what was going on outside of their home.  The key turning point for the Delaney sisters was the securing of the vote for women in the 1920’s.  According to director Smith, this was one of his main reasons for remounting the show today.  He and they point to the ballot as the final arbiter.  If you do not use it you are selling out yourself and the cause.  

Having Our Say is not an enduring masterpiece for the ages though it may be more profound than it appears. As a reminder that two fellow humans can endure a century of oppression and still retain a sense of protest, civility, and humor the performance is definitely worth seeing.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Recent read: UNEASY STREET by Rachel Sherman

Uneasy Street by Rachel Sherman

Have you heard of or read Hillbilly Ellegy by J.D. Vance? Did you know there is a book about the other side of the coin?  Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street  gives you a chance to balance the lives of Vance’s  drug ridden coal miner community with the trials and tribulations facing a group of New York City Wall Street millionaires.

Sherman surveyed about fifty pairs of Gotham high flyers (stock brokers, hedge fund magnates, real estate moguls, etc.).  The group was leavened with a few gay couples and some people of color. Most were in their forties and had children.  They were all making ample six figure incomes and several had fortunes that were amplified by inherited wealth.  None were going to challenge Bill Gates, but they were definitely in the upper two per cent of incomes in the country.  According to Sherman, the high flyers were culturally aware, politically liberal, and not all that religious, which already positions them about as far from the denizens pictured in Vance’s book as they can get.

Not surprisingly none of Sherman’s sample admitted to making a budget much less having to live within one.  There was no worry about having enough at the end of the month to pay the nanny or tip the doorman at their fifth avenue abode.  Somewhat surprising though was that most of them reported worrying to some degree about money.  For instance several had tensions about making sure that they kept their costs reasonable for their situation in life.  Frequently their concerns centered on their efforts to be seen as average or normal rather than rich and privileged.  The group was pretty universally opposed to conspicuous consumption.  They felt that Kardashian style lives made hard working rich folks look bad and they had no taste for that.  

These  millionaire’s stated goal often, said Sherman, was to present themselves as morally worthy of their wealth.  In pursuing this worthiness most felt that it was better to have worked for at least some of your wealth rather than inheriting it. Most of the subjects with inherited fortunes did feel some guilt about how they got their money. That group were also among the subjects particularly ready to emphasize their interest in giving back to society through high profile charitable donations and volunteer work.

Sherman isolated two main reasons used by her interviewees to justify (or if you are cynical) to rationalize their entitled states. The moderately rich (say lower six figure salaries and assets below five million) seem to look back or down-class more.  They emphasize they have worked their way up and now can fairly characterize themselves as at the top of the middle class rather than at the bottom of the really rich class.  Interestingly, the really rich (upper six figure to million dollar salaries and ten plus million in assets) tend to look upward more often. They talk about the large numbers of people (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett who have lots more money than they do.  This helps them to position themselves again as more average within the middling rich rather than the rarified realm of the super-rich.  The problem is that both groups tend to overestimate the number of people in the classes above them and underestimate the number of people in the classes below them. 

Most of the surveyed group had children and they were very concerned with how to make their kids see themselves as generally good normal people and not privileged. As one person put it she didn’t want her kids developing “into assholes.”  Unfortunately this is a really tough sell as privilege defines almost every experience these children and their parents have. They live in bigger houses, reside in better neighborhoods, go to more prestigious schools, take more expensive vacations, and associate more with other wealthy parents and their children. It is nice that most of the parents do seem to realize that the best they can do is to teach their children a bit about how not to act entitled even though they are.  Their attitude seems to be that since you can’t erase the privilege you should at least try not to advertise it and make attempts to live with it positively.

In sum we must see that this group of wealthy New Yorkers, while they strive to locate themselves somewhere in the morally respectable and comfortable middle, are often managing to forget that they are still better off than 99% of their fellow citizens. They and their fellows fall victim to the fallacy of interpreting a structural problem as an individual or personal problem.  The data remains clear and demonstrable.  Unequal distribution of resources is a reality and the gap is increasing not closing.  Today’s millionaires are the beneficiaries of that structural reality not just a group of average lucky folks who struggled and managed to beat the system.