A Vacation By Any Other Name

Oh.  Wait.  I *was* on vacation.  That *was* its name :-)

I spent last week in Ashland, Oregon, attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my husband, my college roommate, and her family.  We saw seven plays in four days — a matinee and evening show every day but one (when we just had an evening performance).  The plays are all performed in repertory, so we got to see many of the actors multiple times.  (We also saw two understudies who did amazing jobs!)  It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’ll try to sort the shows:

  1. THE GREAT SOCIETY:  This was the best play — a sequel to ALL THE WAY, which we were lucky enough to see in New York, with Brian Cranston *channeling* LBJ.  SOCIETY picks up immediately after the events in ALL THE WAY.  The actor who played LBJ, Jack Willis, was very different from Cranston — he wasn’t as tall (Cranston wore lifts), and he was heavier; he didn’t have the same physicality, and he didn’t present a caricature of the president.  Rather, he delivered his lines with emotion and skill, *acting* to resemble the former president.  The script was wonderful as well — over and over again, I was struck by how similar to a Shakespearean tragedy it was — LBJ could have been any king in the histories, seeking counsel from his advisors, receiving some good advice, some bad.
  2. INTO THE WOODS:  This was the best musical (see what I’m doing here?) — great performances with some difficult music, staged well with minimal sets and lots and lots of doubling of actors.  Many of the musicians were students, playing with the professionals; they sounded perfect to my ears.
  3. RICHARD III:  A very close second to best play.  Dan Donahue’s Richard was utterly unredeemed evil (per the script); he brought the audience in as co-conspirators, sharing his plans with us with wicked, conniving joy.  He was the most disabled RIII I’ve ever seen — he needed to use a leather strap around his neck to hold his contorted left hand, whenever he needed those fingers.  I didn’t remember the women’s roles being as prominent as they were.
  4. A WRINKLE IN TIME:  This was a world premiere adaptation, and it was an earnest attempt to make one of my favorite children’s books come alive.  Alas, it wasn’t entirely successful — mostly because the book is so *vivid* in my mind, with such wonderful otherworldly settings…  I was always aware that I was watching a play, instead of getting involved in the characters.
  5. THE TEMPEST:  I’ve never liked this play — it has a lot going for it (magic! books! enchanted isle!) but it never really manages to deliver, and the clown scenes go on for *way* too long.  That said, this production had some good things going for it — an otherworldly set, cool fairies that assisted Ariel and Prospero.  The best thing about the production, though, was the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand.  The actors who played those roles played the title roles in the best ROMEO AND JULIET I’ve ever seen, a couple of years ago — they have amazing chemistry, and they truly sold their scenes.  (Another high point — the music and dance number in the second act was kept short — sometimes, it turns into its own endless spectacle!)
  6. TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA:  This all-female production was confusing at first — it wasn’t clear whether the performers were supposed to be women playing women or women playing men.  (They were women playing men, it turned out.)  There was some odd doubling, with a very distinctive actor playing Launce (a clown) and Sylvia’s father.  The dog, Crabbe, was played by a wonderful Great Pyrenees who was very fun to watch :-)
  7. COMEDY OF ERRORS:  Another play that isn’t one of my favorites.  This highly edited performance (1.5 hours, no intermission) was set in Harlem in the 1920s.  The actors who doubled the leads did a good job of bouncing back and forth through their many fast costume changes, but the play itself is silly (and there’s no good way to stage the ending, when other actors need to come on to perform the final confrontation scene.)  Some of our group thought that this was one of the best plays, so it was obviously a matter of taste!

In between going to plays, we ate massive amounts of very good food.  We also spent a lot of time talking, reading, generally relaxing…  And I couldn’t pass up the yarn at Webspinners — I came home with two new projects.  (That yarn shop has the most different (textures, types, etc) yarn I’ve ever seen collected in one place!  I ended up with several small skeins of mercerized cotton for one shawl and some beautiful hand-dyed silk-and-camel for another shawl…)

And now I’m home, a bit shocked to realize that none of my to-do list got done while I was gone :-)

 

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The Best Sort of Theater

Make that “the best sort of ‘theatre’” because virtually every acting company in DC that has the-a-ter in its name uses the British spelling…

Friday evening, we headed downtown for Studio Theatre’s (see?) production of BELLEVILLE by Amy Herzog.  Why, yes, you might have noted we shifted our subscription to Saturday matinees.  Why, yes, you might have noted that a Friday night is not a Saturday matinee.  Why, yes, you might have noted that when the schedule arrived, we had a conflict for “our” Saturday — and for every other Saturday matinee the play was showing!

In any case, we headed downtown for the evening performance, and we hassled with parking, and with a less than stellar dinner, and with having extra time before the show, and, and, and…

And it was all worth it.

We saw another Herzog play last year — 4,000 MILES.  We knew that she could write realistic dialog spoken by people in crisis who are trying to conceal parts of their pasts to protect themselves in their presents.  But that didn’t prepare us for BELLEVILLE.

The play is set in Paris, in a neighborhood inhabited by many immigrants, including a young American couple who have moved their so that Zack can help children with AIDS.  His wife, Abby, has had trouble making the adjustment to her expat life.  The entire action of the play takes place over a 24-hour period, as the couple confronts each other about the problems in their relationship.

BELLEVILLE follows in a long line of “relationship” plays.  For me, it resonated most closely to WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY — Herzog’s play has the same vicious use of language, the same domineering thrusts and parries by people who aren’t afraid to fight with words.  About 15 minutes before the end of the play, I realized that I truly did not know how it was going to conclude — there were at least three very realistic, fully supported directions the play could have taken.

Despite my years as a litigator, I am not a Warrior of Words — I hate the type of brutal confrontation that takes front and center in BELLEVILLE.  But as a theater-goer, and a student of people, and a general admirer of beautiful words, I’m in awe of the play and its performance.

(One minor flaw — two supporting characters primarily speak French to each other in their dialog.  I understood what they said, but my theater-going companion felt that he missed almost all of a crucial late scene.)Perhaps my admiration for Herzog’s work is based, at least in part, on a scene in ALWAYS RIGHT — the first knock-down, drag out verbal fight I’ve ever truly written.  (Zingers, yeah, I’ve got those down.  But all out warfare?  That was a first for me…)Sigh…  Off to edit now!P.S. The rest of our weekend was relatively quiet, marked mostly by the death of the power of the baseball cap — the Nats finally lost a game while I wore it to the park.  Oh well.  Time to start a new streak!

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Take Me Out to the … Theater

Well, no one can accuse us of being one-track, here in Klaskyville!  Our weekend spliced together a bunch of our favorite things, including:

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  • On Friday, dinner at Rustico, a restaurant that is just a few blocks from the house.  We split appetizers (including the killer “Risotto Tots”, which are pretty much the perfect adult answer to Ore-Ida), I enjoyed the trout on a bed of farro, and then we split the S’more Cheesecake.  Splitting the dessert was probably a good idea, because I could have eaten about half a dozen of them.  I might never have walked again, but I would have rolled out of there a very happy woman.
  • On Saturday, a ball game at Nationals Park.  After a 1.25-hour rain delay, they finally took to the field.  Jordan Zimmermann gave up two runs in the top of first, and we settled in for a loooooong afternoon/evening, but the team came right back in the bottom of the first, and handily won the game.  My baseball cap’s record goes unsullied.
  • On Sunday, an incredible production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE at Studio Theater.  The tickets were expensive and parking was a pain when we got to the theater.  The ushers were oddly off-kilter (sending us to our seats by way of some unmarked back stairs, then nearly losing us in the pitch black of the theater as they didn’t quite lead us to our seats.)  Some of the audience members were … not used to theater (talking out loud for large parts of the show), and one guy in the back had a constant cough.  In other words, it should have been a disastrous day at the theater.  But it wasn’t.  It was magical.  The production was incredible, the performers were superb, and I found myself getting really emotional at the end of the second act (which is all about the cost of being an artist, of creating a foundation to support an artistic career, and of having the courage to change artistic directions.)  So, it was worth it — all the hassles.  And then some.

In between, there was reading, and knitting and televisioning and scritching kitties.  So, really a lovely weekend.  Which makes it just that much harder to settle down and write today.

But write, I must.  I’m drafting the penultimate chapter of ALWAYS RIGHT!  Onwards!

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On Live Rats and Dead Dogs

Back in college, I was very active in theater — I stage managed many plays, and I was house manager for the university’s Program of Theater and Dance.  I never got on stage myself (and for that, the community was very grateful!) but I supplemented my hands-on experience with a number of courses on theater, including a class on Shakespeare, one on modern drama (mostly, early 20th c), and one on contemporary drama (late 1960s and forward.)

One of my drama professors drilled home the point that when a playwright calls for something difficult in the staging of his plays (especially children and animals), he must truly think it’s important.  Therefore, the three identical sets of plants in Sam Shepard’s TRUE WEST (one set alive and well for the first act, one set dying for the middle act, one set dead for the third act) are an indication of the significance of those plants to the narrative.  (Personally, I think Shepard just hates stage managers — witness other requirements for his plays, including screen doors that are cut through, bottles that are shattered, etc.)

I was reminded of this theory, in spades, last night when we saw the National Theater telecast of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT.  The play *opens* with a very realistic dead dog, staked to the stage with a garden fork.  Throughout much of the play, the main character (an autistic 15-year-old) carries his live rat — through a variety of settings, including an imagined trip to outer space.  (There’s another challenging staging thing late in the play, but I won’t mention it, lest I spoil the story…)

By and large, I think it was worth the effort to “kill” the dog and keep the rat alive.  Both add great depth to the story.  When I first heard they were making a play out of this novel (told from the point of view of the 15-year-old, with many of his tics incorporated into the narration), I couldn’t imagine how they could stage it.  Not all of their efforts worked, but the show was very imaginative.  The parts of the story that were most difficult for Christopher were most difficult for the audience — the production uses sound and light and movement to represent the disorientation of the main character.

This production is also quite meta — the characters know that they’re in a play, and they comment occasionally on that fact.  At times, the entire thing felt *too* staged, too “created”, but there were genuine emotions evoked.  The characters were complex — none of the main characters is all good or all bad, and no one has an easy life.

This is only the second telecast I’ve seen, and I was impressed with the presentation.  The team uses multiple cameras, sometimes from angles that the theater audience can’t experience.  The close-ups give a much more intimate view of the actors (even if they take away a bit, showing the microphones, etc.)  I’ll definitely consider other performances in the future!

(I was reminded, as I watched the show, of Kazuo Ishiguro talking about his novel REMAINS OF THE DAY, which he said he wrote specifically to be not-filmable, as a form of art separate from the television and film that he loved growing up.  Of course, it was transformed into an incredible movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.  I suspect Mark Haddon never contemplated his slender novel turning into a play either!)

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When I’m 93…

… I want to be capable of practicing my life-long career.  You know.  Like Bob Wolff, a sportscaster who was recently recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for spending 75 years in his chosen profession!

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We attended a “Conversation” with Wolff on Monday night, down at the Smithsonian.  While we were waiting in line to get into the auditorium, Mark and I noted that we were the youngest audience members by a good twenty years.  There were two other women present, but I was willing to bet that I’m the only one who writes hot baseball romances :-)

All in all, it was an enjoyable evening — the interviewer, Phil Hochsberg, had prepared numerous clips of Wolff interviewing famous baseball players, and Wolff discussed the circumstances of those interviews.  My favorite was the early 1960s interview with four Senators players who kept house together, dividing up the cooking, housekeeping, etc.  The whole thing was so staged and goofy and completely out of keeping with today…  (The most poignant interview was with Jimmie Foxx, who was bankrupt within five years of ending his Hall of Fame career.  Foxx was trying to get a job teaching/coaching at a university but was told he could not be hired because he didn’t have a college degree; Wolff knew about the problem and structured the interview to discuss Foxx’s plight.)

I have to admit, though, my attention wandered a bit, because I’ve been fiddling with a plot point in FROM LEFT FIELD…  Probably not the type of thing 93-year-old Bob Wolff would have wanted to handle in the Question and Answer session!

 

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Here a Doc, There a Doc…

Here’s a paradox:  When I’m at my busiest, having the most fun, doing the most things it would be exciting to write about, I don’ t have time to write.  Yeah, life is tough sometimes.  A lot of the time.

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In any case – we spent a long weekend at AFIDocs, a documentary film festival here in town.  We first “discovered” AFIDocs two years ago, when it was called Silverdocs, and it had been going on for many years before that.  The festival has undergone many changes in the last two years, and we sort of miss the halcyon days of the first time we attended, but it’s still a pretty amazing way to spend time.  This year, we saw ten movies in three days.  Some were “small” films that aren’t likely to see wide distribution; others have already been picked up for national distribution.

The overarching theme for us this year turned out to be Personal Responsibility — responsibility to recognize injustice and to act upon it.  (We didn’t plan our movie choices that way; it just happened.)  Movies that fit into that theme included:

  • 1971 — about a group of protesters who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, intending to steal draft records but ultimately stealing documents that disclosed the existence of the FBI’s domestic counterintelligence program
  • Freedom Summer — about the summer of 1964 and the volunteers who went to Mississippi to register voters, teach students in summer “Freedom Schools”, and create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that tried to be seated as the legitimate Miss. delegation at the national Democratic convention
  • The Hand That Feeds — about a group of low-wage workers who organized a union at a New York fast food restaurant
  • The Internet’s Own Boy — about Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who committed suicide rather than face trial for downloading unlawful copies of journal articles through MIT’s computers

We also saw several movies that were portraits of people:

  • Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me — about the musician and his family and their decision to organize a final musical tour as he became increasingly incapacitated with Alzheimer’s
  • Life Itself — about Roger Ebert and his life as a journalist and film critic
  • Slingshot — about Dean Kamen and his quest to build and distribute a machine that will bring clean water to under-resourced regions of the world

And then there were a few “random” movies:

  • Misconception — about population control efforts, including mandatory family size limitation, lobbying efforts at the UN to fight all efforts to distribute health care to women, and Ghanaian orphans and abandoned children
  • The Search for General Tso — ostensibly about the origin of the dish General Tso’s Chicken, but mostly about Chinese immigration into the United States and the nature of cultural assimilation
  • When the Garden was Eden — about the championship New York Knicks teams of the late 60′s and early 70′s

My favorites ended up being Slingshot — Dean Kamen seems like a child-loving Willie Wonka, who creates gadgets instead of candy — and The Search for General Tso.  None of the movies was terrible (although the horribly uncomfortable seats in one of the auditoriums made some of the movies seem too long…)

All in all, a great way to spend a weekend.  And if you can see Slingshot, do.

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