Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Word Is Murder

I was browsing the new book shelf at our local library last week when I noticed on a cover jacket  that the author, Anthony Horowitz, had been the creator and main writer of the TV series Foyle’s War.  It was a favorite of mine so I took a flyer and checked the book out.  The Word is Murder takes place in London and I must admit that I can't pass up anything set in my favorite city in the whole world.  Often I’m disappointed, but this time I found a winner.  The London atmosphere is deep and accurate from a scene at the Old Brompton Cemetery (We used to live quite close to it.) to the corridors of RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).  There's also plenty of sly humor in the interplay between a number of the characters. The first person narrative is handled by an author who has reluctantly been drawn in to write a book about the detecting exploits of a Scotland Yard misfit named Hawthorne.  He is a true mystery man and a British eccentric of the first order.  

The case that binds this uneasy Holmes/Watson alliance together involves a wealthy widow who pre-plans and purchases her own funeral just a few hours before she is strangled in her own living room.
Needless to say what initially looks like a simple burglary gone wrong turns into a convoluted set of trips down the back alleys of the victim's past.  I enjoyed the interplay between the two lead characters and never did figure out who did it until the suspenseful conclusion.  It rates four stars from me and I will take a look for another of Horowitz's  thrillers titled  The Magpie Murders.  

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Almost Maine Shows Real Fusion at the Fusion

John Cariani’s Almost Maine play is a definite crowd pleaser and a quite perfect college level play. It balances gentle humor, heartbreak, and nostalgia quite evenly, while profiling in particular how easy it is to fall into and out of love and how easy it is to fail to send the cues about your feelings that will keep a relationship developing in a positive direction.   

This group directed production at Monmouth College’s Fusion theatre from Dr. Vanessa Campagna’s stage directing class was a totally enjoyable night at the theatre. Most impressive was the way in which the multiple student directors took their scenes and yet presented a seamless stylistic front in a situation that might easily have developed into a series of disjointed individual segments.

Let’s start with kudos for Patrick Weaver’s set and lighting design. Weaver’s rolling wagons did have a few movement difficulties, but they provided a smooth gliding transition between scenes.  The backlit cutouts of trees and the flickering pinpoints of light in the ceiling kept our eyes on the Maine woods of the setting and provided a constant reminder of the cold sparkle of a winter night. This was supplemented by good seques between the areas of the stage and nice use of juicy primary accents. The costumes also caught the Northwoods flavor nicely.

The show is perfect for young actors and the meaty roles are reachable by their developing talents. I loved seeing some new faces and was particularly enchanted with the winning freshness of Tori Chaffee as Ginette.  A special maturation congrat is also due for Will Best who has lost the stiffness of some of his earlier work and gave a remarkably deep performance in the “Where it Went” segment directed by Amanda Green.  All of the directors and their casts seemed sensitive to the use of pause and listening and reacting to clues from their partners.  Diction was as crisp and clear as the Northwoods night and there was no resorting to over dramatizing in the intimate Fusion space.

Thanks for a lovely show. Arizona will be calling this winter, but you can rest assured I’ll be back for Oliver in the spring.   

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Review of It's Only A Play

It’s Only A Play by Terrence McNally

This minor Terrence McNally script, from the late  80’s or early 90’s was performed by a Galesburg group called Sugar High Theatricals. They appear to have a close knit resident company and do mainly light comedies and various kinds of musical revues. The title places it squarely in a genre I would call “Theatre Process Comedy.“ These plays concentrate on the humorous  tribulations of theatre production. They focus on theatre people who are producing plays, writing plays, auditioning for plays, performing in plays, critiquing plays etc. The type can vary from darkly philosophical like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, to musicals like Chorus Line, and farces like Noises Off and Lend me a Tenor. Most depend, at least to some degree, on familiarity with the process, recognition of theatre lore, name dropping, and of course the delicious pleasure of seeing carefully orchestrated live events going horribly wrong.   
It’s Only a Play fits nicely into this category. A budding young playwright has just had his debut Broadway opening and the company has gathered at the opening night party to wait for the all important reviews. While the party proceeds downstairs, with all sorts of celebrities dropping in, the upstairs bedroom hosts visits from the key participants. Thus we have the playwright’s old best friend, the play’s producer, the director, the leading actress, a major critic, and finally the playwright himself. They are joined at times by a loony aspiring actress and an acerbic New York cabbie.
Of the major characters only Matt Newman, as the uncertain playwright, and to some degree the Critic and the cabbie, played by the sisters Agar, seemed to keep their performances under reasonable control. The rest of the cast, I am sorry to say, was over the top most of the time.  They shouted, wildly paced, and gesticulated too broadly for the tight audience configuration. Director Gary Mustain could have done a better job of tamping down the more extreme performances. I have to wonder if the seven or eight patrons sitting in front of us who voted with their feet at the act break were just worn out by being buffeted at close range.
The modern setting was simple and reasonably functional. It represented a bedroom in a New York City apartment and featured in addition to the beds a few tables to hold some telephones and  props. The screens off right supposedly contained the rest of the apartment and off left represented a bathroom whose sole function seemed to be as a holding pen for a barking dog that was used for a running gag. Unfortunately the beds that dominated the room seemed to push much of the action downstage into an even tighter proximity to the audience. 
McNally’s script does not help either. It shows its age with some less than politically correct characterizations about non New York audiences, Native Americans, and gays. The theatrical name dropping is from a bygone era and probably went over the head of many younger attendees. Walter Kerr and Bernie Jacobs, for instance, have not been household New York names for years.
I’ll close with a final comment on the performance space itself. With no permanent space to call home, I assume the company settled for the small ball room of the old Kensington Hotel. It is not a theatre in any sense of the word. I know that Peter Brook has called an empty space the ideal performance venue, but this one does present significant challenges for visibility, sight lines, lighting, and entrances. A few screens at the sides provided the wings, but actors still had to enter from the rear of the house to reach the screens. Three lighting instruments on a small tree were the only stage illumination. The seating chairs were placed on the floor without risers. The set proper was pretty much on the same flat floor. Thus, beyond the first row, the audience basically could see only the top half of the actors and by the time you reached the fourth row, where we were, it was constant craning to see much of anything. An arena arrangement might have helped visibility, but that would have required more lighting instruments and positions and may not have been within range for the company.
As my wife said, the show is basically kind of silly. I would add that the over the top acting did little to help out. Still credit is given to any group that sets out to do live theatre and the show did have some amusing moments. My basic recommendation is that the actors not try quite so hard to be funny. Slow down and use the face and eyes to dig out the laughs. Play a bit more deftly and reduce the use of the sledge hammer—especially when playing so close to an audience.  

Monday, November 05, 2018

Pitchfork Disney Scares the Hell Out of Us

The Pitchfork Disney by British playwright Phillip Ridley had a reprise at Monmouth College’s Wells Theatre for two performances last week. We missed the performances last year while we were in Arizona so jumped at the chance to take a look at the work of this new, at least to me, playwright.
The music was loud and bouncy as we crossed the lobby and treked through a floor littered with what appeared at first to be little rubber grasshoppers, but later turned out to represent cockroach carcasses. This was definitely going to be different. We passed through the auditorium and took our seats on the stage. The two walled set was positioned cornerwise and three rows of folding chairs surrounded it on two sides. There was now no doubt that we were going to get an up close, sweat gland experience of what was described by one London critic as “in-yer-face-theatre.” The two walls in front of the seats depicted a dirty dilapidated living area in an English city. There was one curtained door to other parts of the house and a battered entry door secured by locks, bolts, chains, and a bar that looked a lot like an old cricket bat. The furniture was sparse and unmatched--a table, some chairs, an old sideboard, and one easy chair. This was not upstairs or even downstairs at Downton Abbey. It reeked of poverty and decay.    
I’ll jump ahead now and say that we were emotionally exhausted at the end of the play. For me it was an often jumbled, but still prophetic, phantasmagoric jumble of dystopian eventualities.  Professor Doug Rankin’s director’s notes were accurate. He wrote that playwright Ridley has called his plays “tuning forks” and that they vibrated with what is going on at the time.
For me the signal emotion was “fear.” All of the swirling themes come back to that barred door. Whatever the problem, and there are multiple possibilities facing the sadly inadequate denizens of this room, brother and sister Presley and Hayley Stray are faced at every turn by an existential fear of attack by murderous  forces. They are clearly “strays” ripped out of the world of early Rock and Roll.
Although my tuning fork was vibrating on the current Trump attempt to jack up violence in his base by creating the threat of foreign invaders charging out of Mexico to rape and pillage, the fear could just as well be of a nuclear cataclysm. The characters often look out of the single window, positioned dead front, into a desolate and still smoldering cityscape. This is shades of Sameul Beckett’s Endgame.) That exterior view could also represent an environmental disaster that has finally killed off almost all living things. (Shades of Trump again.)
Whatever may be outside what is inside is the stoking of hatred  all Latinos, Blacks, Jews, and anyone other than aggressively straight white people. Intimacy seems only to be achieved by force rather than respect or sympathy.  A final straw is provided by the fear that more and more of the populace will face these new challenges by drugging themselves into a stupor. The powerful will encourage this because where there is no consciousness there is no resistance. All of these themes can be seen and felt in Pitchfork Disney.
Miles Rose as the caring brother (Elvis) Presley Stray gives an all out tour de force performance for a young actor. His eyes make him seem a docile puppy when he receives or remembers, however falsely, kindnesses from his parents or the threatening visitor. When he erupts it is into frenetic fits and writhing on the floor.  
Amelia Chavez plays (Bill and his Comets) Haley Stray, the often comatose sister. She has gotten lost at the zoo (think of Albee--indeed think of Fridley mining the whole of Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd from Pinter on.) Haley dominates Act I by literally exuding the fragility of the unprotected in society. Unfortunately this Laura has no menagerie--only pills and a “dummy.” (a British term for a baby pacifier.) Unfortunately she spends most of final act asleep under a blanket. I wish she were given a bit more to do other than be a symbol of victimhood on all levels.  
Cosmo Disney is the third character on the scene and seems to represent the evil intruding class. As played by Declan Crego, he is a friendly charmer one moment and a Pinteresque threat the next. To keep the popular music and entertainment idea afloat, he looks like a suitably androgynous young David Bowie. He enters in a funereal black coat that he soon sheds to reveal a devilish red sequined jacket. He says he makes a lot of money by eating cockroaches and other creatures at night clubs. Both he and Miles Rose execute superior pantomime when the bugs on the floor in the lobby creep into the action on stage. Even mimed, eating bugs is about as creepy as it can get. Cosmo, like Presley, alternates between strangely passive behavior and violent outbursts. He lulls Presley into believing that he will guard and protect the sister and sends him off with his henchman Pitchfork (Richard Eyre) to buy chocolate and medicine. Presley is barely out the door before Cosmo is raping the comatose Haley. Trust is dangerous and futile in dystopias. All that is Disney is turned on its head.  
The final character is labeled the Pitchfork Cavalier and played by Richard Eyre. He is Cosmo’s henchman and driver. He may be  the most frightening of all the characters. As an actor he is a ferocious hulking presence complete with a coal black Hannibal Lector mask. He is a blunt force killer absent all rational communication. A Cavalier is often seen as a dashing mounted soldier, but this scary hulk can only sing a few notes of a song after struggling to climb atop a chair. Tis very curious and bizarre to think here of another Absurdist, Eugene Ionesco, and his play The Bald Soprano, which disintegrates into gibberish at the end. Eyre's silence is somehow more moving and gut wrenching than all the others who spew torrents of words in endless monologues.
He is a pitchfork serial killer who stabs children and leaves behind a Mickey Mouse doll. In this world we are battered with a traumatic reversal of the Disney mythology. There are no gay songs, bright colors, or lovable blue birds here. The walls are gray, the violence is gruesome, and we are in the world of Grimm and Hansel and Gretel are being chucked into the oven.    
Kudos to the pasty green light that often accompanies looking out the window and to the steamy red that accentuates the rape scene. Also a congratulation to whoever managed the contrast between the black Lector mask and those soft white hands with black nail polish on Richard Eyre.
You cannot truly like this play. It portrays a world so dark that some might doubt there is any valid solution. Should our coming election put no check on the Trumpian dystopia, we may indeed have to consider trusting no one, barricading ourselves from the outside, and taking our pills. I must admit I would like to see a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. Act II goes on too long. Monologists are at heart too taken by their belief that audiences want to hear everything  they have to say.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

A Midsummer Night's Dream History Lesson

A lively production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream last night at Monmouth College's Fusion Theatre has led me to dream a bit about past Midsummer productions.

I was reminded initially that A Midsummer Night's Dream  is the most frequently produced of all of Shakespeare's plays. Then a quick look at a Monmouth production list determined that the college has produced it at least five times over the years.  This, I believe, makes it the single most produced play in MC history as well.

I cannot vouch for the total accuracy of the list I have consulted, but it shows that A Midsummer Night's Dream was first produced by the college  in June of 1906 at the Pattee Opera house in downtown Monmouth. It was directed by Gertrude Henderson and was listed as in honor of a
"Semi-Centennial" celebration. The aforementioned Ms. Henderson was definitely a Shakespeare buff because she also directed a production of As You Like It as the Senior Class Play in 1905.

It took until June, 1932 for the second "Midsummer" production to appear.  It was directed by Professor Ruth Williams, the founder of Crimson Masque and the person who secured the "old gym" for use as a theatre after the Waid Gym was constructed. The show was listed as the senior class play and was performed outdoors in "Valley Beautiful."  This bucolic spot  down the hill from Wallace Hall has long since been  filled  the student center, and parking lots.

Time does fly when you are having fun so we have to jump another thirty years before MC audiences could see another production of  A Midsummer Night's Dream.  It was May, 1966 and Dr. Jim De Young directed that production  in  the so called Red Barn or Little Theatre.   It was given a generally classical interpretation as you can see from the picture below..

Dr. De Young returned for a directing encore in Production #4  that came along in 1991 in the then new Wells Theatre. This time the show was set in the roaring 20's .  It had flapper music and a  Great Gatsby flavor.  It also had live dogs and  (see picture) and a student playing one of the fairies whose mother played the same role in the  1966 production.

Which brings us to production number five in October of 2018.  Professor Todd Quick, the director,  put the production on a 3/4  Shakespearian style stage and cut the script to to be performed in one act by an energetic small group of actors doubling in several of the roles. It was fun filled, fast paced, and laced with plenty of belly laughs.  You can still catch it Sunday afternoon  Oct. 28, 2018 at the Fusion Theatre in downtown Monmouth.

I end with a final quirky observation.  Monmouth College has produced A Midsummer Night's Dream five times since 1906 and each time it was done in a different venue--The Pattee Opera House,  Outdoors in  Valley Beautiful,  The Little Theatre, The Wells Theatre, and finally the Fusion Theatre.  This show gets around--even in Monmouth.   


Monday, October 08, 2018

A Visit to the Windy City and the Goodman Theatre

We spent a pleasant and busy day in Chicago on Broderick Crawford Day. That’s  October 4th or 
10-4 for those old enough to remember the TV show Highway Patrol. Our train was spot on time and a brisk walk from Union Station took us to the Art Institute. After a cup of tea in the member's lounge, we walked through the classic sculpture gallery and admired the life size figure carrying a nicely detailed theatre mask.

Then it was off to the American Collection.  We had not been in these galleries for some time and  were pleased with their reorganization. The furniture, especially the Arts and Crafts material, is graciously displayed and interspersed with some nice paintings including some iconic Winslow Homers. the most.  Another  (new to us) room displayed several pieces of American Western  painting and sculpture including this old favorite  cowboy masterpiece by Frederic Remington.

We lunched with old friends (the Kirk’s) at the Walnut Room in Marshall Fields (now Macy’s of course). The Jagerschitzel and red cabbage hit the appetite spot perfectly while the view out of the seventh floor window captured an early fall cityscape with glowing  if somewhat incongruous charm.

After lunch it was  only a short walk to the Goodman Theatre for a performance of a solo performance piece titled We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time. It was written and performed by David Cale.

The show, unfortunately was a bit like Chinese takeaway --enjoyable in the moment but not all that enduring in impact.  I had nothing but admiration for writer-actor-singer Cale, who managed to hold the stage and our attention for a full hour and a half without a break,  yet there was nothing in the sequence of autobiographical moments that seemed to require a performance without intermission. The positive side was that we were out by 3:30 and had ample time to dawdle over drinks before catching our train back to Galesburg. 

Mr. Cale is unquestionably an accomplished monologist and he narrates his often moving tale of growing up as a sensitive bird loving boy held down by his residence in a back water suburb of London with conviction.  A violent episode takes over and what had seemed like a  sad but generally  not out of the ordinary childhood veers off into  traumatic violence.  Cale shifts back and forth between his own persona and the members of his family while punctuating the stories with songs.  I must admit to being more  impressed with his vocal characterizations than his singing.  His movements were slow and appropriately subtle until he spread his arms and self-consciously tried to mirror  flying in an airplane. Early on some English  local color mentions  like Luton, the Kray Brothers,  and a reference to Joe Orton's plays appeared to be lost on the Chicago audience. Luckily they were kept to a minimum. 
Robert Falls proves again that he is as adept as a director of  one-handers as he is with large casts. He moves Cale around the capacious Goodman stage with subtlety and variety. All areas and  possible vertical positions were utilized. The lighting was subdued and followed the action with slow cross fades. Especially impressive was the way the musicians were pulled out of the coal black background like wispy apparitions.  The musical score mostly underscored the emotional tenor of the moment, though it did on occasion drown the actor out.     

All in all it was a worthy afternoon that reaffirmed the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of young people to survive and even prosper in spite of  enormous headwinds.  Yet I was not moved to leap to my feet and join some members of the audience in their standing ovation.      

Homeward bound in a newly refurbished car on the Illinois Zephyr. It was a smooth ride and we were back in Galesburg right on time.  We love our trips to Chicago. The city's  culture and ambiance overpowers at least some of the harsh underbelly of violence that also exists there. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Monmouth, IL Rotary Club celebrates its Centennial

The Monmouth, IL Rotary Club celebrated its 100th Anniversary last Saturday evening. Good food, good drink, and a fine message from a former Rotary International president. He reviewed the organization's remarkable progress on eradicating polio and ended with a quote from Helen Keller. When asked if there was anything worse than being blind, Ms. Keller said, "Yes, being able to see and having no vision." This is an organization I am proud to be a member of.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A CHORUS LINE revisited

In the past month I have had the opportunity to revisit the Broadway blockbuster musical A Chorus Line. I have seen it at least three times before—one of them in Chicago during its first post Broadway national tour. My most recent viewing was at a top notch community theatre. It was a fine evening in the theatre, full of energy as befits an amateur effort and  in spite of the occasionally uneven casting, pleased me and those around me. Yet as I left the theatre, I experienced some of the same misgivings I have had for a number of years about this show—and let me emphasize not the production of it but the show itself.
A Chorus Line is aptly titled to emphasize that this chorus represents all chorus lines. Broadway Musicals, by definition, have groups like this who labor in relative theatrical anonymity at minimal wages. One item that troubles me is the final image of the show. As the cast dons their identical golden costumes to become “the chorus” , there is a simultaneous feeling of exhilaration and depression. The finale seals the wannabes into the group,  but you can’t forget that those who were cut earlier will not really get to  don the golden regalia. They will have to start the same dehumanizing and demoralizing audition process all over again at the next call.

Watching A Chorus Line from the vantage point of 2018 also feels a bit like watching a live feed from a hurricane site just before it hits. The natural aura of self congratulation about how hard young hopefuls work for a nibble at the sugar cube of success now pales in our sad acknowledgement that the destructive and poisonous scourge of AIDS was just around the corner. That disease will shortly decimate the ranks of this show, Broadway, and the gay community in general and it unfortunately  can't rewrite history.  
In spite of the unrecognized specter on the horizon, I cannot deny the appeal of this award winning musical. Dreams of stardom are hard to kill and even local actors find it alluring to strut their duel singing and dancing chops.  Clearly the show will likely survive my doubts.  

However none of the above manages to change the reality of its shaky plot. A Broadway director is choosing the chorus for a show. The dancers are assigned to execute a few songs wedded to a series of standard jazz and tap routines. Zach, the director, seems to function more as a manipulative narrator than a real life director holding auditions for a show. You must remember that the final production will cost him personally if he casts it based on nepotism or sympathy.  For unexplained reasons Zach spends most of his time questioning the auditionees about their pasts in an effort to tease out their sad life stories. The only problem is this is a standard musical and it is looking for singer/dancers not Stanislavskian actors. The back stories of the performers have no real import on their selection; only their vocal and dance capabilities are up for measure.  I struggle with this point even though I do realize that plenty of shows have been quite successful in spite of a straw man plot device. 
There is also the simple fact of length.  Most productions of the show I have seen have gone on longer than they need to. Many of the single turns (especially Paul’s in Act II) could easily be trimmed without hurting their emotional punch. 

Finally there is the aura of self congratulation in the show that masks the essential cruelty and sexism that pervades it. The “T and A” song is not the only part of A Chorus Line that has not aged well in the age of Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves,  and the “Me too” movement. Too much of it remains mired in the pre-feminism 1970’s. I grant you this is a typical disease of fiction. There comes a time when history outruns content and what was cutting edge begins to look dated,  uninformed, and stupidly out of touch.  From my point of view A Chorus Line sits in that uneasy compartment now. I love a lot of it, but it makes me uncomfortable.  In a few more years it may earn the label of a classic (eg. Showboat) , but for now it might be wiser to give the show a rest.   


Sunday, September 02, 2018

Day in Chicago with Grandson

We had a visit from our grandson over the weekend. He is finishing up his certification as a Paramedic next semester.  He had not been to Chicago in a while and wanted to see the new dinosaur at the Field Museum.

So we hopped on our handy dandy Illinois Zephyr in Galesburg and right on time we were treated to the remarkable Chicago skyline.

Then is was a short cab ride to the Field Museum. and a walk up those impressive stairs.

The Main Hall was waiting

We meandered through the mummies and the tomb replica, then hit the Asian Galleries.for some peace and serenity.

It was then time for a trip through the evolution of the world.  That finished off with a peek at the re-assembly of the famous Sue dinosaur skeleton and  a final look at her even bigger replacement in the Main Hall. .

Our next stop was the Art Institute--which our grandson had never visited.  We thought the  Impressionism collection  would be a good introduction for him and he was particularly moved by  Monet's colorful garden pictures and his painting of London's Westminster Bridge.

It was a warm day so liquid refreshment was then taken in the cool confines of one of our favorite Chicago stops--Millers Pub.  From there it was a pleasant walk up Adams and back to Union Station in time for the train back to Galesburg. 

Even with some long signal delays, our journey was pleasant because of a group of Amish folks who were traveling to visit relatives in Missouri.  While we were sitting motionless  outside of Princeton conversations were struck up and  there was even some group singing.  One woman with striking red hair who was traveling to her sister's outside of Galesburg  said that had she known traveling on this train was so much fun she would ride it every week.  We all shared life experiences and leaned quite a bit about Amish life and customs.

It was after 10 pm before we got back to Monmouth. We were all tired but glad we went. 

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.


Monday, February 26, 2018

Chekhov Gets An Updating

The Illinois Theatre Association (ITA) continues on in Tucson, AZ.  Jan and I spent an invigorating afternoon at the U. of AZ directing studio where John Muszynski directed a new play by MFA student Fly Steffens.  Had a nice chat with[JDY1]  John after the show and also ITA stalwart Donna Burke who was visiting. We may want to set up an AZ alum chapter for ITA.

The play was a mind bending contemporary retelling of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.   In 95 intermissionless minutes it covers most of the Chekhov plot, but adds strange noises, recorded passages, interior monologues, multiple voices and a bear that erupts out of the birch forest with a primal sexual force that snares Masha and several other of the characters. Moscow is a myth and so is life in the burbs.  That may be why the author extends the title to:  Three Sisters, or: Insignificance is sickening and love means nothing at all;  all it is is the strength to keep going on no matter what.   No matter what, this was challenging stuff, excellently produced,  and with a young and exuberant cast.  Kudos all around.


Friday, February 23, 2018

Wrath Lacks Grit

It was serendipity that placed us at the Rogue Theatre in Tucson to see the Frank Galati adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath last month.  The serendipitous part was that it was also my father’s birthday. He would have been 112 years old on January 27th 2018.  As we watched the retelling of this iconic novel I kept thinking back to Dad’s own life. He was not an “Okie” and he had made it through the 1930’s without the kind of disruption that plagued the Joad family, but his early life in rural Wisconsin prior to and during the First World War did have a parallel that is hard to ignore. He came from a large family that had a peripatetic downward spiraling existence. Dad's grandfather owned a farm but his father had been reduced to a tenant by just  before WWI.  Then dad's father disappeared during WWI and left my grandmother with five children.  Total poverty was the controlling factor until after the war and it forced my dad and his older sister to withdraw from high school to help support the family.  Dad's dad and my grandfather did re-appear after the war, but the family never recovered economically.  I apologize for this too long preamble on the Rogue Theatre production, yet what I was thinking about as the production began does have a bearing on my reaction. 

The production just plain started out for me on the wrong foot. In the early moments  several characters appeared bare footed and as they displayed their clean, smooth,  lily white, unblemished extremities all I was conscious of was that these our actors were miles away from struggling hard scrabble farmers in the midst of walking to California.  I am sorry for the bad pun but thank heaven most were shod fairly quickly and remained so for the duration.  Yet the lack of grit and sweat of that early image continued to nag.  

The chosen minimalist semi-Brechtian production style was understandable given the reasonably small wing space and the demands made by a large cast and multiples scenes. The stage was bare and backed by a full width cyclorama. A manual turntable dominated stage right.   Benches tables, poles, and some cloth were piled up to be used to construct the truck and all other scene locations.

Musically the show continued the Rogue’s use of live instrumental accompaniment. A violin and guitar/banjo player provided pre-show music and this couple continued into the play to underscore and provide scene bridges.  

Prominent for acting accolades was Matt Bowden’s appropriately smoldering Tom Joad-- all dark browed and bearded.  I also liked the contrast of Cole Potwardowski’s Al Joad.  There was youthful confidence along with the devilish sexuality of his uncontrollable glands.  Cynthia Meier’s Ma, I am sorry to say, just never connected with me. Not always was I sure that she effectively played her own suffering aspect before she declared that keeping on keeping on is the only possible human choice. She told the story, but the challenge of the role is to also live it and at that point the Brechtian narration seemed to win out over the emotion of the character.

The company, even at 20 strong, was faced with constant doubling making it hard to accept the minor players as anything other than narrators and scene shifters.  All but the most essential props were mimed and this choice also exposed us to differences in pantomime competency.  The ensemble did attack their challenging role changes with vigor and it made no matter if they were in a character or manning the spokes to rotate the turntable.  I did, however, feel for the girl who had to hold up a  blanket in Act II. It seemed like an eternity and my seatmate commented on it as well.  

Lighting and sound moved us effectively from scene to scene with scrim silhouettes and campfire flicker effects deserving of notice.  The best technical kudo was saved for last and the combination of sound and lighting and actor sound and movement during the climatic storm proved to be a fitting highlight of the performance.

The costumes were clearly dust bowl and kept to a palette of umbers and blues, but many looked too clean and unstressed for folks who are making a long, hot, sweaty, physically debilitating journey.  This may have been part of director Joe McGrath’s commitment to commenting on rather than submerging us in the grunge of the journey, but it also accounted for my feeling that some grit was missing in the production.  Luckily, as noted just above, the ending met the challenge. The culminating image of Rose of Sharon striking a pieta pose combined with nourishing the starving man was worth the price of admission alone. Perhaps it was just the jarring start that kept me from involvement early on, but I can’t help feeling that in the early going the pace just seemed too relaxed and lacking focus. Act II provided redeeming action and dramatic tension, but it was not enough to turn a very good production into a great one.  



Friday, February 16, 2018

Rain Rain Don't Go Away

We've had over an inch of rain in Tucson over the last few days and our morning walk in Sabino Canyon had a whole different look about it.

For the past month and a half we have had daily sunshine and not a drop of moisture. Our views were pretty much like this.

Now all of a sudden there were puddles on the main trail toward the dam and Bear Canyon.

The clouds were hanging low and often the saguaros seemed to be isolated in the mist.

The valleys still retained the clouds.

We made our way up to the Picnic Overlook for a full look at the canyon valley and the high country.   

The lake is full and the creek pours over the dam.

As exciting as the long views are, the real harbinger of coming spring comes in the close-up's that reveal droplets of water clinging to the waiting branches.




Even the roadrunners approve.





Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book review of Chicago by Brian Doyle

Chicago by Brian Doyle

Just stumbled over this little book. The jacket noted it was a novel about a young man moving to Chicago to take his first job. It is his story of the five years he spent there before moving on with his life. He finds an apartment house and it is full of fascinating characters—each one a mystery waiting to be explored. He runs on the lake front bouncing his beloved basketball and explores the niches and alleys and rooftops of the city.

Why did this seem so appealing? I had spent a semester in Chicago some years ago as the faculty fellow for the ACM’s Chicago Arts program and it looked like the book would traverse a similar time and location. And sure enough it did make references to plenty of places I had visited from the Hancock Center to the Green Door.  There are lots of food stories, some grit, but a minimum on the nastiness, danger, or racism of the town.  That’s ok as this is a positive look at the city and his experiences like mine were positive overall.

Philosophically he opines that when you are a kid you think the big moments in your life would be full of fireworks and announced with mega fanfares. But the truth is it is not that way at all.  They just sort of sneak up on you and you amble through them much as you amble through all the rest of your days. Only  hindsight sees them for what they were—defining moments in your life.  You missed the significance then, but you see it now.

Doyle’s prose is full of humanity, gentle humor, and fantasy.  For instance there is a dog named Edward who talks to everyone and controls the world.  Yes,  Chicago is another coming of age story, but it resonates better for me than the recent Oscar nominated  film “Lady Bird.”  The narrator in this book seems much more in touch with his world. He sees hears and feels everything and everybody.  

Try it and you may feel in tune with this old Scottish song fragment that parallels the famous Irish blessing.

“May the hills lie low, may the sloughs fill up, may all evil sleep, (and) may the good awake in you (each day.