Saturday, November 09, 2019

Berlin in 1963--With the Wall just two years old

Thirty years ago today the West celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  The pictures on TV concentrated on images of wild celebration.  But some of you might be wondering what it was like to live in East Germany during the years of the Wall. In the summer of 1963 my wife and I took a train through East Germany and into the encircled enclave of  the city of Berlin. On the way through the East the train was locked down and no photos were allowed. Our passports were checked by coldly suspicious soldiers carrying machine guns. It was just two years after the wall was erected.  My photos have dimmed a bit over time, but they are good enough to make the point about a world that was and a world that could easily return if our society continues to tolerate approval or studied nonchalance when faced with open evidence of the stifling of dissent, corruption, racism, or  constant vituperation and  falsehoods.

Would you like to live here?  This is my favorite photo of the Berlin Wall  because it speaks visualy to the real nature of totolitarianism.  You are looking at the front of the Brandenburg Gate which was just inside the Eastern Zone.  It is in plain view and only a matter of a few paces from the Wall  yet unobtainable behind the barrier and the barbed wire.

This photo shows the gate from the side with the wall and an admonitory sign.

Here you can see a West German Street that was literally truncated at the wall,  which runs almost invisibly in the background.

Officially, as citizens of one of the four-power ruling coalition that controlled the city of Berlin (USA, France, England, and Russia), we were allowed to enter the East Zone through the historic Checkpoint Charlie. Below are pictures of the vehicle entrance and the pedestrian entrance as it looked in 1963.

Once in the East you were struck by an obvious change in general environment.  Streets were broad but fairly empty of both vehicles and people. 

Newer post-war buildings were somber, utilitarian, and unadorned.

This building was nearer to the wall and the roof  edge, though hard to see from this old slide, was covered with barbed wire.

Below was an East German play area that ended at the wall just visible in the background.

At first East German buildings abutted closely to the wall, but soon more of these structures were razed in order to form a so called dead zone through which escapees would have to traverse or tunnel under before they could reach the West. 

Back in the West the contrast was even more apparent. The streets and buildings were more open. modern, and inviting.  WWII damage and rebuilding was clearly moving more rapidly.

And that is my tribute to the tearing down of that Wall.  

Monday, September 30, 2019

Bernhardt/Hamlet Struggles at the Goodman Theatre

I really wish I could be more positive about Theresa Rebeck’s  Bernhardt/Hamlet which is currently running at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. I am a theatre historian and director by trade and anything about the nature of theatre and its practitioners is always an attraction for me.
Unfortunately Ms. Rebeck lost her way somewhere along the long gestation of this piece and has produced an occasionally amusing piece of backstage gossip that ends as a pastiche that might better be named Bernhardt/Rostand.
From a performance point of view Chicago’s own Larry Yando steals the acting honors while the rest of the cast including Terri McMahon as Bernhardt recedes into the bric-a-brac strewn all brown stage of Ms. Bernhardt’s theatre in Paris. It contains the detritus of all rehearsal spaces which here means racks of costumes, book shelves on wheels (Remember the recent Music Man), tables and chairs, walls hung with old props, etc. The scenic environment is dominated by two puzzling features I have yet to connect to the play. First there are two flying canted chandeliers that seem to have been pirated from the Phantom of the Opera. Why? Not sure--maybe the out of kilter world.  Also puzzling in the set are two stuffed deer heads that are given special spotlights so someone must want us to look at them. Again I am not sure what they are supposed to represent--perhaps they are two more of Sarah’s expired exotic pets.
Now on to the content. Act I gives us a strong and lusty actress who argues persuasively to several male friends, including her current lover Edmond Rostand, that she has every right to play Hamlet and not be kept to the lesser female roles in the play. We get this argumentative thrust along with snippets of rehearsal scenes for about fifty minutes before a rather quiet act ending. As the 2nd act opens Sarah’s affair with Edmond Rostand starts to take up more and more of the oxygen of the play. Rostand is trying to finish his Cyrano de Bergerac while trying to keep Madame Sarah from rewriting Hamlet into more understandable prose. Rostand’s long suffering wife, a strong Jennifer Latimore,  appears with the script of Cyrano in hand to plead that Sarah stop trying to usurp her husband’s time and let him finish his master work. This is followed by Larry Yando’s rather lengthy star turn in a scene from Cyrano itself. With three quarters of the 2nd act now devoted to juicy turns by actors other than the lead, we do need some more potent fireworks to return us to the central issue of gender switching. What we get is a smattering of sword play and finally Ms. Bernhard, rapier in hand, dancing upstage as the rear wall slides aside to reveal a strobe lit and smoke filled Valhalla. It is a clear intent to elevate Bernhardt to some kind of rock and roll stardom via a note that her Hamlet appearance was saved by a silent film clip, but I’m afraid it just came off as a bit hoky to me. The coronation just doesn’t seem earned by anything we have seen Sarah or Teri McMahon say or do in the play. Maybe if McMahon’s Sarah had more star oomph, it might have come together, but it didn’t and I left the theatre feeling as though an average dinner ended with a missing dessert.    

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Downton Abbey (the movie)

    My wife and I saw Downton Abbey—The Movie a week ago and as promised, my more detailed reactions are now available here. 

If you have seen the Downton television series, watching this film is like slipping into a pair of well broken in bedroom slippers or dipping into a bowl of strawberries and clotted cream. If you have not seen the TV series, the plot and the character’s relation to it may come at you rather too rapidly. The back stories from the series are numerous and critical so it does help that the  initiated know why Lady Mary and Lady Edith greet each other tentatively. They are already primed and ready to laugh at Maggie Smith’s every acerbic remark. They know without needing to ask about the crosscurrents circulating below stairs and it is no surprise when Mr. Carson returns to assist with the royal visit.

It is also not surprising that the eye candy Abbey and the incredible outfits worn by its inhabitants steal the pictorial show. Downton Abbey itself is imposing and timeless in glorious dawns, sunny days, and torch lit evenings. Never are there repair scaffolds to mar its enveloping and stalwart presence.

Sure we are watching the final gasps of a life style destined for discard and just waiting for the Depression, the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and the next Great War. Yet, while the party goes on, we can revel in all the characters and their soap opera conflicts. A royal visit must be prepared for; Buckingham Palace servants must arrive and put downstairs into a tizzy; and a mysterious Irishman must lurk in a dark pub with Tom to give us just the right amount of violent possibility. Just like the TV series,  the elements are tied up in a nice bow at the end leaving only a few threads hanging that could be used for new episodes should the prolific creator, Julian Fellows, wish to take us into the 1930’s.

In sum my wife and I loved the film. We loved the color, the pageantry, the costumes, the family disputes, and the class warfare.  We fully realize the world depicted is as much romance as King Arthur’s Camelot and we fully acknowledge that the lives of the servant class were far harsher than depicted.  Yet, we loved it still.  Chris Jones said in his positive Chicago Tribune review that “The only justification for privilege is service,” and The Downton family does seem to exemplify this in spite of their obscene wealth.

And let’s face it, when all is said and done, you just have to love slipping on a pair of well broken in bedroom slippers and eating berries covered with clotted cream.      

Monday, August 12, 2019

Come From Away is a musical even I can love

We saw Sanlof and Hein’s marvelous musical, Come From Away,  a week ago  Sunday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago.  We attended with old friends   Carolyn and Gordon Kirk and afterwards enjoyed a long discussion with them over drinks before hopping back on Amtrak to return home.  I have often been accused of not liking musicals yet my wife and I have seen four of them this summer and each one has been totally enjoyable.  Amateur  productions of Mary Poppins and Godspell were directed and/or designed by former Monmouth College Theatre students and that just added to our appreciation and pride.  On the professional side,  the Goodman Theatre’s production of The Music Man was a feast for the eyes and the ears and reminded us of the staying power of those rousing Midwestern tunes.

Seeing Come From Away on the day after another episode of insane gun violence in our country gave it a special sadness even though most of the show is joyous and uplifting.  In Chicago it was  a traveling Broadway in America production that ran to excellent reviews in New York last year and I now believe is running again.  It tells the story of the several thousand airline passengers whose journeys to the USA were abruptly terminated by the closing of American airspace during the 9/11 tragedy.  Some of the stranded were Americans returning home, some were foreigners on business or traveling to see relatives, and others were immigrants.  None of them knew what was happening that day.  All they were told was that American airspace had been closed and they had to land in the airport at Gander on the Canadian Island of Newfoundland. 
Older folks, like my wife and I,  do remember Gander.  It used to be a refueling stop for transatlantic flights in older planes that did not have the range to reach more western cities in the US as they made the journey from Europe.  Years ago we were on a flight from London to Chicago that made an unscheduled stop in Belfast to pick up over a hundred Northern Ireland teens who had been chosen to get away for a few weeks from what was called in those days “The Troubles.”  Irony already begins to intrude as those teens were being taken to American to free them for a few weeks from the violence on their hometown streets. In our long ago experience we were informed by the pilot shortly after our takeoff from Belfast that because of the extra stop,  we would not have quite enough fuel to make it to Chicago and would land at Gander for a top up.  As we came in for the landing all I remember is trees and more trees and no indication of anything that might remotely be called civilization.  It was a nice reminder for us when we saw that the set was hemmed in by large tree trunks. It is now important to note that we were a single plane  and knew why we were landing there. We taxied in, were unloaded promptly,  and taken to a big, empty, chilly terminal while the refueling took place.  I remember that they had some delicious ice cream available.   After a couple of hours we were on back on board and up and off.
The   9/11 passengers, over 6500 strong, came in on multiple flights  and some had to wait hours just to be unloaded.  Information was scarce and what was available implied that something extremely bad was going on. What they also didn’t  know was that they were going to be stranded in this tiny community that had no facilities to handle, house, or feed visitors in such numbers for five days.

You now have the background of this “remarkable true story”   Come From Away  was developed first as a National Canadian Musical Theatre Project and then refined further by the La Jolla Playhouse and the Seattle Repertory Theatre on the West Coast.  In more detail it tells the story of how the citizens of Gander reacted to this influx of strangers and how the stranded passengers survived.   The natives and the guests are played interchangeably and with totally committed energy by a dozen superlative actor/singer/dancers who migrate between their roles as either passengers or townspeople in fractions of seconds by the addition of a hat or jacket or prop.   This intermingling provides the dramatic illustration of the theme, which is wherever we come from,  wherever we live, whatever our culture we are all alike in human feeling.  We all bleed when pricked and we all have reservoirs of kindness ready to be drawn on when the chips are down. 

The Gander citizens  are represented by the mayor, a police chief, some city notables, and a number of just plain townsfolk.  For five days they open their homes,  donate clothes and diapers,  suspend a local  strike,  cook meals, and literally turn the city  hockey rink into a refrigerator for donated food.  The stranded souls include the air crews and a cocktail of people from around the world.  You have representatives of all faiths from Muslims and Orthodox Jews to Catholics and Christians. There are people who speak the King's English and people  who speak no English at all.  The  Chicago ensemble was so complete and unified that I hesitate to pick out singular stars in the firmament.  Only by virtue of their stories do some stand above others.  The vignettes are heart warming, heroic, wildly funny (especially in the kiss the cod musical number),  and tragic as we meet the mother whose son is a NYC fireman.  As she tries vainly to get news of his safety, she is befriended by a Newfoundlander whose own son is a firefighter.  Their bonding is one of the best moments in the show.  Also impressive is the booming base voice of James Earl Jones II.

The lighting moves us smoothly from scene to scene and (there must have been two hundred computer controlled instruments) provides the punch and color to accent the musical numbers.  Most impressive was the way the computer can now time the moves so precisely that it can blend the beat of the music, pinpoint a character just as he starts to speak,  or literally follow actors on a moving turntable.  The set, as noted before,  is simply a large open area, rimmed by trees, and backed up by a boarded slatted back drop that could be projected on as well as lit from multiple angles. On stage only a group of simple chairs and a table or two are rearranged in a twinkling by the cast to represent everything from spaces in town to the interior of planes.   

The music and dancing is derived from Irish folk traditions with the instrumentation featuring keyboard and electric guitars supplemented by accordion, whistle, drum,  and fiddle.  This fits the location to a tee as the two largest immigrant groups to settle Newfoundland were the English and Irish. 

All told Come from Away  combines  emotional impact with a joyous celebration of the human spirit in the face of tragedy and pain.  I shed a tear or two along the way and admit to rising spontaneously to my feet at the rousing  musical curtain call.  I’m sure this show is going to begin appearing in regional and college theatres  as soon as the rights become available.  Put in on your must see list.