Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Book Review John Le Carre Agent Running in the Field

Le Carre. John.  Agent Running in the Field

John Le Carre’s latest work is typical for him. It avoids the violence and mad chases and escapes that stoke traditional spy thrillers.  Le Carre’s action is generally more internal than external and his main character, Nat,  simply seems to be looking back on his long and apparently successful career at “The Office” where he has faithfully addressed the continuing threats of hostility between the post World War II powers.   

As the book opens, Nat has  apparently retired from the service and returned to London where he  has been assigned to a make-work supervisory role for a moribund local station.

This works well until a man named Ed appears on the scene. Ed is, like Nat, a badminton lover and appears to want to test his mettle on the court with Nat. Nat, who currently holds his club’s singles championship, feels he must accept.  The matches are hard fought and both men retire to the bar for a replenishing pint after each competition. 

In the course of their apres-match conversations, Ed reveals strong opinions about Putin, Brexit, Donald Trump and the current politics of Germany, Russia, and the USA. Ned, the professional spook, somehow ignores the warning signals that would perhaps have been quite obvious to him if he were still in a foreign appointment. When a local operation exposes Ed’s non badminton intersections with Ned’s life and the intersections with the entirety of Her Majesty’s intelligence services you have a muddle that fuels the reminder of the book. Along the way Le Carre has a good go at explaining plenty of tradecraft and exposing the internecine squabbling within the upper echelons of the government. 

I felt the ending was a bit flat and abrupt.  It seemed more like a setup for the next novel than a tying up of this one .  What we do know at the end is that you can put an old pro out to seed, but he can still run an exfiltration with the best of them.   It’s a fine cerebral  read.



Friday, February 14, 2020

It's Heating Up in Sabino Canyon

It seems as though each day gives us a slightly different view of what is happening in nature all around us. The sunrise each morning always seems to have just a little different cast and it changes by the minute.  

As it gets higher the eastern sky clears and stronger rays find the northern  still cloudy peaks of the Santa Catalinas.

A definite first in the four years we have been looking out of our window each morning was a large  red tail hawk taking the early rays on the back condo fence.

We headed out to the canyon several times and caught a second sighting of our ground squirrel peeking out from his burrow.

 The rain early in the week left a lot of puddles on the trail.

They make for nice reflections of people

 and cactus

 The unusual water also attracted this white crowned sparrow for a drink and a bath.

As far as I could tell the Roadrunners stuck to the brush.

 And finally the most definite signs of a new year coming were with the tiny yellow flowers of the Fiddle-Neck. They are so new that they have not yet bent down to the curve that gives them their name. They are indeed small. the flower is around an eighth of an inch across. 

 Just a few more shots from the week past.  




Review THE WOLVES by Sarah Delappe

THE WOLVES by Sarah Delappe

The set features two mesh walls with a central exercise area and the audience arrayed on the other two sides.  Some productions have ringed the entire playing area with mesh or screens. I prefer this solution as it gives you a clear unimpeded view of the actors.

The Wolves by Sarah Delappe  is ostensibly a simple show with a simple set. Nine members of a girl’s club soccer team in an unnamed American city go through practice warmups and a string of personal conversations about everything from menstrual blood to the Khmer Rouge.  It has been one of the most produced plays of the past year and this production was by the U. of Arizona’s Repertory Theatre (ART) and features students in their School of Theatre.  

The girls in the cast prance in like prize polo ponies and start their pre-game warmups amid a vocal mashup of voices.  There is some Irony here as the last show I saw in the Tournabene Theatre was Top Girls and Caryl Churchill is probably the modern master of overlapping dialogue.

Luckily your ear soon becomes accustomed to this real and sophisticated form of natural speech.  That enables you to see how these adolescents are revealing their individuality and rank within the boundaries of the Pack (Remember the title is The Wolves.)  All the while each girl is also working on attaining or retaining their acceptance within the pack or team.   The metaphor is potent. The girls are also facing the universal trial of integrating into the world of adulthood, which is represented by the invisible coach, college scouts, their parents, the fans who watch the games, and the audience in the theatre.

The actors are identified only by their shirt numbers and in the group spirit of the show I will not highlight any of them. They are all game, talented, and well suited for their roles. It is only fair to keep them equal as they are all ultimately fighting the same fight.

But that does not stop me from putting together a profile of each of them by virtue of behavior and comments. I was particularly conscious of categorizing them to keep them apart while they were trying to do the same thing within their group. Here the work does begin to look a bit like a typical war movie. Common  types jump out. First there is the division by position (stryker, goalie, forward, etc,) then there are behavior types like leader, sidekick, bad girl, bright one, bulimic, and of course there must be a newcomer. In this show she has the additional difficulty of living in a yurt that the girls all call a “yogurt.”  It is intriguing, however, that when they do jog off in formation for the playing field they do submerge their individual trials for the team. They focus off stage not on each other and metamorphose into a machine that exists to play and win.   

As the team moves through the season, complications like an abortion, an anxiety attack, or a disabling injury arise.  A problem here is that these small crises don’t impact every team member at the same time or with the same intensity. The playwright finally does have to resort to an outside tragedy (a literal deus ex machina) in order to move us to the finish. In spite of this expected “let’s all pull this out” ending, the play still does put its fingers on the pulse of young girls growing up and trying to figure out who they are and how they going to deal with the world and its attitudes toward women. It remains an inventive and compelling evening for the audience and a challenging outing for a director and young actresses.  And now It’s time to go out and score some goals.

Jim De Young 2/2020

Monday, February 10, 2020

UFTA Here Comes the Norwegians

UFTA—Here comes the Norwegians!

Having spent parts of several years in Minneapolis working on a degree at the University of Minnesota, I have heard most of the jokes tossed around in the wild and wacky production of The Norwegians at the tiny Live Theatre Workshop in Tucson.  C. Denly-Swansen’s ninety minute intermissionless work moves rapidly, but ultimately succumbs to its origination as a ten minute play that has been extended beyond the capacity of its core idea.

The fun of the setup is all in the first forty minutes or so.  A woman from Texas (with none of the popular Texas attributes of old cowgirl, ranch life, hosses, six guns, blond tresses, etc.) travels all the way up I35 to hire two Minnie-Sotan Norweigian hit men to dispense with her ex-boyfriend.   While the dour northerners interview her before accepting the contract, the woman (Avis Judd as Olive) meets a sleek blond with a fowl mouth and a vicious twisted sneer in a bar.  It turns out that she also has put out a contract on her ex and as she is from Kentucky and has had a horse, she is ready and waiting to round off on the Norwegian punch lines. Her name is Betty; she is played with monstrous gusto by Samantha Courmier and she has a couple of roof raising monologues that skewer Minnee-soda winters, Norwegian foods, sex practices, and philosophy.  She is just plain delightfully over the top and scary at the same time. 

The two hit men make a kind of Martin and Lewis pair.  Steven Frankenfield’s Gus is the unsteady action guy who apparently wields the Twins baseball bat that has lines on it for the kills. He has had a previous unfaithful wife and now wants some real action, but doesn’t have much to offer personality wise (but then what Norwegian does?}  His partner is the philosopher king and manager.  His tag as he claims Norwegian invention of all philosophies and even baseball is “We’re Norwegians.”  They stand alone and imperious master of all things.  Keith Wick as Tor (named for the Norse God of Thunder)  has mastered the dialect with that first phrase or syllable emphasis and is pretty much hilarious every time he opens his mouth. 

As director Roberto Guajardo says in his brief playbill notes “You probably won’t come away from this production with any new insights,” but it should put a smile on your face. I agree there were smiles aplenty, yet there just didn’t seem to be an end.  The show just stopped as if the author had finally run out of ammunition.   In the final minutes there are a number of suspenseful blackouts and on about the third of them the lights came up and the actors started taking their bows. The guy sitting next to me said out loud “Is that it?”  I was as surprised as he was. 


Friday, February 07, 2020

Fifteen Years Blogging Anniversary

As I was finishing my comments on a play reading of Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney I noticed in my Blog history that I started writing on it in February of 2005. That makes this February my fifteen year anniversary as a blogger. Not a bad run.
It may also be noteworthy that the first entries were from a bitter cold day in Watertown, WI at the Ebenezer Moravian Church Cemetery where the funeral of my cousin Ronnie was taking place.
Both of my parents and a slew of my Kopp family relatives are buried there and one of the photos I took that day went on to win a prize in a later Buchanan Center of the Arts photography show. Here is that photo from 2005, titled "Vet Goes Home." It Is dedicated to Ronnie's wife Joyce and my cousin Pat who loved her brother and who I know still follows my facebook page. 

I think of these memories as I despair what Facebook and the blogosphere has often become in these times of vanity and vitriol. I for one would not object if they became once again the vehicle for sharing our lives with family and friends.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel (A staged reading at the Rogue Theatre 2-2-2020

Molly Sweeney  by Brian Friel (A staged reading at the Rogue Theatre 2-2-2020

With a big name production of Brian Friel’s  Molly Sweeney  scheduled to be directed by Robert Falls at the Goodman Theatre this spring,  we were eager to attend a staged reading of the play at Tucson’s Rogue Theatre a week ago.  Friel, who has often been called the Irish Chekhov, had a long and distinguished playwriting and literary career.  We remember fondly seeing his Dancing at Lughnasa some time ago.  

Molly Sweeney  is the story of a middle aged Irish woman, blind almost from birth, who is given minimal sight in an operation by a surgeon looking to rejuvenate his career. The original show features three players doing related independent monologues without interacting. They are Molly, of the title, Mr. Rice, the surgeon who does her eye operation, and Frank, a man with a thousand failed causes, who marries Molly and tackles the task of trying to re-educate her to the sighted world.

Director Holly Griffith did make a few changes in the casting for this staged reading.  She used a four actor cast and doubled Mr. Rice, Molly’s father and others with actor Joseph McGrath. Actor Two, played by Ryan Parker Knox took  on the over zealous Frank and others.  Actor Three, Carley Elizabeth Preston, read Molly Sweeney.  I assume, in order to add another female voice  to the mix, Griffith chose her fourth actor, Bryn Booth, to read a number of minor women’s voices. She also chose to add interaction and reaction between the players during the reading. This added a nice theatrical dimension to the proceedings.  

Reflecting now on the script,  I can see that it lays out a number of views of a significant shared event in the characters’ lives. The result is a kind of “Rashomon” effect that shows the event from each individual’s perspective.  

Molly descends into a psychiatric rabbit hole after her operation, and for her the central question becomes whether she is better off remaining in her dark but familiar existence or adopting the new. The surgeon and the husband start out with firm beliefs that restoring Molly’s sight is unquestionably the right and moral path.  They want to fix a deficit in her that they see as a return to normality because they and most of the rest of humanity have had a sighted existence all their lives.  

Frank, the husband, and do-gooder extraordinaire, whose enthusiasms run to importing Iranian goats to make cheese on off shore Irish islands, has failed at all his projects up to now and seems to take on Molly at the age of 40 as another of his socio-moral commitments.  Mr. Rice, the surgeon, his life put into shambles by his wife running away with a colleague, has retreated to an Irish backwater to lick his wounds. But, like most surgeons, he believes that operating is the right and proper thing to do. If it restarts his career along the way that is simply another good thing.  

Every teacher faces similar issues on a somewhat smaller canvas. Many of us feel that one of our responsibilities is to take students from darkness into light by moving them to some degree or other out of their comfort zones.  Is this an unselfish goal or are there ulterior motives?  Is it always best for the student?  In the play we see that for Molly the darkness was the norm and when it was changed the results were not positive.  Changing her way of seeing broke her world beyond repair instead of fixing it.  As my wife observed, an obsession on one person’s part, even though noble and moral, might not affect others in the same way. Given that “Obsession” was this year’s Rogue Theatre theme, this reading certainly supports the themes of some of their earlier productions-- especially the adaptation of Moby Dick which we saw last month.  

There were other interesting observations made during the discussion period after the conclusion of the reading. One man said that the story had a clear Icarus feeling. Getting too close to the sun can create a heated brilliance that destroys and melts your wings.

Another woman commented on the feminist implications in the play since it   depicted how men (Dr. Rice, Frank, and Molly’s father) continue to foist their sense of what is right and proper on a woman.

The critic, Michael Billington, in a Guardian review of an earlier production, also reiterated a general critical comment that most of Friel’s work centered on Irish attempts to escape from darkness. 

Ultimately what does Molly have to lose?   Maybe everything, say some.  Frank is less self aware in the sense that he simply reacts by setting off to Ethiopia on another probably hopeless adventure.  Dr. Rice seems to have a better perspective at the end by at least saying.  “I’m sorry, Molly.”


In conclusion this was a project well executed that also provided thought provoking comment about the text from the audience.  It is one good reason why the work that the Rogue Theatre does is so satisfying.  



Saturday, February 01, 2020

Master Harold and the Boys Play Review


My wife and I saw the Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys last week. The production was held at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art, which is a difficult facility at best.  Finding parking is a chore, there is no elevator to help even the marginally disabled to access the balcony, and interior creature comforts like bathrooms are woefully inadequate for an auditorium of this size.    

Master Harold and the Boys, written in the early 1980’s, is one of many seminal Fugard  works to deal with South African Apartheid and it has strong biographical underpinnings.  Fugard grew up with close relationships to his family servants and his mother did indeed own a tearoom like the one in which this play is set.  It was only accidental that our viewing was close to Holocaust Remembrance Day as the South African government did not go quite so far as mass extermination of the black population.  However, their subjugation of that population over a long period demonstrated  their wholehearted commitment to white superiority and that is the sad message that the play chronicles.     

Without a front curtain what you see on entering the theatre is a serviceable café or “tea room” dressed in basic earth tones.  A juke box anchors stage right and a counter and exit to the kitchen holds down stage left. The restaurant’s street entrance is up center on a couple of levels.  The text calls for falling rain throughout and you can see that nice effect clearly from the set shot I took prior to the curtain.  For further weather underscoring the production began with a thunderclap and lightning.  A comedy this was definitely not going to be.  

Master Harold is a three hander. At the opening Willie, a black man played by Odera Adimornah, is on his knees scrubbing the floor. He spends a great deal of time in that position during the show. Sam, another black man played by Ian Eaton, is arranging tables and getting the tea room ready to open for business. He is upright and moving most of the time and is clearly the dominant person of the pair. They are joined shortly by the third cast member. Hally is a young white high schooler and the Master Harold of the title.  He is the son of the female owner of the café.  We admittedly were in that uncomfortable balcony three rows from the back and we found that we had a hard time understanding the actors. They were loud enough, yet their diction and speed of delivery coupled with some unfamiliar idioms made a fair portion of the dialog unintelligible.

I must also admit to wishing that Oliver Proses’ Hally  had been played a few years younger and a bit more likable in the early going. Proses’ voice was unpleasantly  shrill  and already tinged with a sense of superciliousness.  Right from his first entrance he handed over his coat without even looking at Sam. He clearly had an expectation that someone would take it from him before it hit the floor. Signaling this character trait so early narrows his potential character progression and even constricts the development of the rest of the play.

Director Kent Gash was however quite successful in developing the vertical underpinnings of the work. Willie, the slower and more deliberate worker, spends most of the show on his knees scrubbing the floor. Hally arrives and takes a seat center and is served his meal by the always moving and upright Sam.  Hally is positioned like a royal presence and if given a scepter and crown would look like a king.   Sam, as noted, was standing and serving most of the time. He is also the one who is attempting to instruct Willie in the finer points of ballroom dancing much in the same way that he has been Hally’s mentor and substitute parent since he was a child. The critical story of Sam  flying the kite he made for Hally years ago remains a pivotal symbol in the play.  The irony is well pointed as we discover that young Hally watched the kite flying while sitting on a whites only bench that Sam could only stand beside.     

In spite of the slow development of the first hour, the show still strikes an overall sympathetic chord.  When the climactic break does occur and Sam attempts to keep Hally from blaming his father for the ills of his life, Hally strikes out against Sam rather than himself and in so doing finally severs the bond of his childhood. From now on he will be Master Harold to Sam. We see clearly how both  self hate and racial superiority  are insidiously and slowly  inculcated in a culture.  From Gone With the Wind to the recent film about Harriet Taubman we see a similar pattern. The  youthful bond between young whites and their black playmates or caregivers is eaten away as the children grow and slowly begin to adopt the ethos of the adult society around them. The poison seeps in like the lead in the water pipes of Flint, Michigan. The world “without collisions” that is alluded to in the ballroom dancing episodes remains like one of Langston Hughes’ “dreams deferred.”  The final image of Sam and Willie awkwardly dancing to the music on the juke box points sadly and clearly to their continuing plight and our own guilt in it.