Saturday, June 12, 2010

Atlas Puked

Glenn Beck tries his hand at writing a novel.

First, a quick summation of the plot, such as it is. The protagonist, Noah Gardner, works for an impossibly powerful public relations firm in Manhattan that has been the driving force behind pretty much every political and cultural movement of the 20th century. Their latest and grandest scheme is the culmination of a lengthy plot to change the United States into some sort of ill-defined progressive plutocracy, and the catalyst for this change is a nuclear explosion that will occur outside the home-state office of “the current U.S. Senate majority leader,” which happens to be at the same address as Harry Reid’s Las Vegas offices. The nuclear attack is to be blamed on the Founders Keepers, a Tea Party-like group — led by Noah’s love interest, Molly Ross — that is working to foil the plot.

It sounds like something dreamed up by Mickey Spillane and Ayn Rand after a night of eating bad pizza and doing tequila shooters:

“Suit yourself, lady. I’m telling you right now, you made the rules, but you’re playing with fire here. I’ve got some rules, too, and rule number one is, don’t tease the panther.”

Trust me, I don’t even want to be in the same room with “the panther.”

To quote the immortal Dorothy Parker: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird at 50

I think I saw the film first, but I remember reading To Kill A Mockingbird when in junior high school and I have never forgotten it.

Few novels have achieved both the mass popularity and the literary cachet of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book was originally published in 1960 by J. B. Lippincott and Company (now part of HarperCollins), won a Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since. It has sold nearly one million copies a year and in the past five years has been the second-best-selling backlist title in the country, beaten out only by the novel “The Kite Runner.”

Interest in the book intensified after the 2005 film “Capote,” in which Catherine Keener played Ms. Lee, and grew even stronger the next year, when Sandra Bullock played her in “Infamous.”

Sales of the book are especially robust in the South, including Kentucky, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Florida, and in the Midwest, particularly Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

I’ve read it many, many times, both for teaching it in Grade 8 English and just for the sheer pleasure of the simplicity and depth of the storytelling. I marvel at its gentle tone, even as it depicts the horrors and hatred that run through it; the genteel and loving portrayal of desperate people in a small town in Alabama in the 1930’s. The film version, masterfully done in black and white, has forever fixed Atticus Finch (who will forever be Gregory Peck) as a hero of both the law and humanity. But it is Scout, Jem, and Dill — said to be modeled on Ms. Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote — who give the story its wisdom as they observe the mysteries of adulthood and the peculiar rituals of both worlds.

I think I’ll read it again.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Pacific

The HBO series The Pacific concluded tonight. (You can catch it in an encore marathon on Memorial Day weekend.) All in all I enjoyed it. It was different than the previous World War II series Band of Brothers produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, but it wasn’t supposed to be the same. Band of Brothers was about a paratroop company (Easy Company of the 506 PIR) in Europe from D-Day to the end of the war in Europe. The Pacific told about three individuals — John Basilone, Eugene Sledge, and Robert Leckie — who did not have any connection other than they fought in the Pacific and saw some horrific battles.

What it came down to was they were two different wars; therefore two different stories. But I felt as if I knew these men and what the war did to them, and that was the point of both stories. And both did a fine service to them and history.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Support Your Local Theatre

If you’re in Miami, Pinecrest Repertory Theater is staging a production of David Mamet’s Oleanna at the Banyan Bowl in Pinecrest Gardens. Performances run weekends through June 6.

I attended the performance yesterday, and while Mamet is not my favorite playwright, the staging and performances were very good. Catch it if you can.

By the way, Pinecrest Gardens is what used to be Parrot Jungle before they relocated to Watson Island in Biscayne Bay. It’s really nice to see the local government put a treasured piece of property to good use for all of the citizens and make it a nice place for everyone.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Harmonic Convergence

I listen to both of Miami’s public radio stations; WLRN, which is the NPR outlet and broadcasts mostly news and chat during the day and jazz and an overnight program during the week called Sounds of the Caribbean, which is everything from calypso to reggae to ska and everything else (and is great to wake up to); and WKCP, which is the all-classical music station and is a repeater for Minnesota Public Radio’s classical channel. (The DJ’s try to make it sound like they’re local by inserting weather and events news, but occasionally the CD player with the pre-programmed material slips up and we get a station ID and weather forecast for the Twin Cities.)

Being public stations they naturally have to hold fund-raisers, and it turns out that both of them do them in March. WLRN started last week and is still going on, and WKCP started yesterday. So for at least two days, both stations are overlapping in their begging soliciting. That means I’m finding other sources of audio entertainment. At work I’m listening to CBC Radio 2‘s classical feed, which is basically Muzak; no intro, no outro, and once in while someone popping in to remind me that I’m tuned in to the CBC.

I support public broadcasting and donate what I can when I can. So that means on the first day of the fund-raiser I send it in and then switch them off. I hope both stations reach their goals and more, and I wish they would send out a notice when regular programming resumes and the guilt trip has come to a complete stop.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Up There

We saw Up in the Air last night, and while I thought the acting was good — George Clooney rarely hits a false note and this time he was very good — and the direction by Jason Reitman was excellent, I thought the plot was predictable (I figured out the end long before it happened) and I left the theatre wondering if it wasn’t all a little too neat and tidy. Order is restored, and the beat goes on. “Make no mistake, moving is living.”

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz about this film. Perhaps, but if there’s one thing that made the film a winner for me it was the nod, deliberate or not, to the cult classic (and now the subject of doctoral dissertations) The Big Lebowski. That said, if it’s a choice between the films this year that had “Up” in their title and dealt with frequent fliers, I’d just as soon go with this one.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Play on Words

Here’s a wrap-up of my weekend at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, some thoughts on the plays we saw, and what I learned about my own writing and the craft.

All plays are about words, but some more than others.

It was perhaps a coincidence that the four plays we saw — The Three Sisters, The Importance of Being Earnest, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Bartholomew Fair — are less about plot than they are about the characters and their verbal exchanges. The spoken — and the unspoken — dialogue matters as much if not more than the action, and the evolution of the characters is portrayed in what they say and how they say it. Indeed, the plot of Cyrano de Bergerac — a handsome but tongue-tied soldier employs the words of the eloquent but proboscis-challenged Cyrano to woe his love — is all tied up in how language works and the perception of what it means. And even in plays with twists and turns and convolutions of the storyline such as Bartholomew Fair where the names of the characters — Littlewit, Winwife, Quarlous — tell us what they are, their games of language and wordplay make the plot — Puritans and rogues meet up at a county fair and fun and thievery ensue — secondary to the fun and revelry. By the way, if you need an introduction to the language of the Elizabethan era and find Shakespeare daunting, Ben Jonson is a wonderful primer.

It goes without saying that Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is nothing without his words and wit. It’s not called a “verbal opera” for nothing. The plot revolves around words, the title is the lead-up to the last line of the play — it’s the only three-act shaggy dog story I know of — and the entire premise of Wilde’s mocking of society is built on the language and the fashioning of it. (He left it to his contemporary, George Bernard Shaw, to write a play, Pygmalion, about the difference between the classes as defined by the way people speak.)

I’ve never been a student of Russian literature, and I can neither speak it nor write it. But if my reading of Dostoevsky in high school and my attempt to get through War and Peace is any guide, it is a language that is heavy with history, story-telling, metaphors, and allegory. Chekhov’s plays are layered with meaning, and I imagine that translating his works to English is a daunting task. Lanford Wilson once undertook a translation of The Three Sisters and he said he used to come home from his Berlitz classes with pounding headaches at the complexities of the verb tenses and syntax, not to mention learning the Cyrillic alphabet. But it doesn’t make it impenetrable, and there is wit and grace in Chekhov’s dialogue, not just in the spoken word, but also what he leaves unsaid by his word choices, and the tiny little moments that convey great import without being ponderous. Chekhov remembered these little moments — in a letter to Olga Knipper in 1903 he wrote, “What torture it is to cut the nails on your right hand!” — and I can think of few playwrights who would think of such a thing and marvel at it. (Pinter tried, but I don’t think he succeeded as well.)

Words on a page are just that, though; it takes skill and craft to bring them up to the stage and deliver the message. Playwrights view the script the same way a composer sees a score or an architect sees a blueprint: two dimensional without the collaboration of others, and the trust that they give their child to go out into the world on its own is tenuous. The performances at Stratford rarely fail to meet or exceed the expectations, and I think that’s because they truly do honor the work of the playwright as much as they do the efforts of the rest of the company. The performances we saw this weekend were all exemplary, hardly a false note in the bunch, and they were tackling some hard works. As I noted previously, Chekhov and Wilde require the same deft touch; even a raucous comedy like Earnest can turn heavy and grotesque. There are those who would say that casting Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell pushes the limit, but he’s following in the footsteps of legend — William Hutt did it at Stratford in the 1970’s — but it is a role that is less about Lady Bracknell’s gender than it is about what she represents: “We live in a world of surfaces.” Colm Feore gave Cyrano de Bergerac the perfect touch; he played him as an unattractive man in both appearance and manner so that you had to listen to his worlds to realize what charm, delicacy, and “panache” was underneath the exterior.

The other night during The Three Sisters, my mother nudged me with her elbow and whispered, “Wake up!” That was because I had my eyes closed. But I wasn’t asleep; far from it. There was a point in the play where I could listen better with my eyes closed, and sometimes the words mean more when that’s all you have.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

High Society

“Never speak disrespectfully of Society. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” – The Importance of Being Earnest, Act III.

I doubt that Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde ever met, and if they had, I can imagine that the meeting would have been a study in contrasts; the analytical physician who explored the inner workings of relationships and went to intricate lengths to examine them, and the flamboyant Irish dandy who skewered London’s social mores with wit and sarcasm. Both playwrights made it their mission to mock the status quo, but both did it from opposite directions. In Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, it’s done with a surgeon’s skill, but also with a wistful affection. Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest goes in the other direction with just as much skill, except instead of using a scalpel, he uses a rapier.

The history of these two plays and their authors has some interesting parallels; both Chekhov and Wilde wrote at a time of change — the end of the 19th century — in their respective societies; Russia was beginning to see the fraying of the Czarist autocracy and upper class around the edges, and the Victorian age was coming to an end even as it reveled in its greatest excesses of fashion and class division. Both Chekhov and Wilde were outside observers; neither of them were born to the class they examined, and in both cases they provoked a backlash from their subjects. Wilde, never very shy about his bisexuality, rebelled against the hypocrisy of the straight-laced bluenoses who kept their marriages intact but also took off for long weekends in the country with their young boyfriends — “Bunburying” (notice the little play on words….). Chekhov took a more sympathetic view of his subjects, and while he presaged the decline of the aristocracy and the education of the lower and middle classes through the military, his point about the wistful dreams of the three women who feel trapped in their small-town lives, ever dreaming of getting to Moscow, is no less sharp. The difference between Chekhov and Wilde is that Chekhov is doing it through the subtext of the characters — the unspoken lines — whereas Wilde is doing it by being over the top and making fun of them. The methods are opposites, but the result is the same.

Both Chekhov and Wilde died in their mid-forties (Wilde in 1900, Chekhov in 1904), long before their time, and it would have been fascinating to see what theatre would have been like in London and Moscow had they had the chance to look at it and show us what they thought we were becoming.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Harry Potter Number 6

I think I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince right after I read the previous tome, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; I bought them together in 2005, and I remember reading them by flashlight when the power was out after Hurricane Katrina had hit. So when I went to see it this afternoon with Bob and the Old Professor, I had forgotten most of the story. That’s okay; I remembered enough of the backstory that I wasn’t completely lost.

(Continued below the fold. I reveal some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happens, stop here.)

The nice thing about this series is that they have managed to keep the look and feel of the films consistent, and they’ve been consistently good. And although one of the complaints about the series has been that the actors who are playing the parts are getting a bit mature to be playing high school kids — Harry, Ron, and Hermione all look like they’re old enough to be in college now — they didn’t look too out of place. As always, the supporting cast of Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, and especially Alan Rickman, who can express more with a raised eyebrow than the entire cast of Mama Mia!, gives the film a depth of character and nuance that action/adventure films sorely lack.

The plot is fairly straightforward; Harry must face incredible odds against the agents of the evil Lord Voldemort (who doesn’t even show up in this outing); he has to go through a series of tests and adventures that peel back more of the story and lead him to the inevitable final conflict with Voldemort (coming in the final installations, spread out over two more films), and a major character dies at the end. And then there’s the side-story of Harry and Ron and Hermione getting hormonal — after all, they’re teenagers and what would a movie aimed at teens be without good old full-tilt adolescent horniness, right down to the somewhat snort-inducing Quidditch match with the boys all grabbing their broomsticks between their legs?

The climactic confrontation in the tower between Snape and Dumbledore had a touch of Hitchcock (Vertigo), and it left me with the same feeling as that classic; a sense of finality without mawkishness. (The homage to Dumbledore by the students and faculty lighting their wands had a nice Journey concert touch.) As is necessary, the film leaves cliffhangers all over the place, but it also stood alone pretty well. I just hope that by the time they get around to releasing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the actors aren’t laughably too old to be believable. But I guess that’s what special effects are for.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

To Boldly Go…

It is always a risk to take something like a book or a character that has become an iconic part of culture and attempt to redefine it or take it in a new direction. Devotees of that icon will view any attempt to alter the universe with deep suspicion, and as flawed and tattered as it might be, there will be a very high bar set for anyone who tries to reshape — or “reboot” — the sacred world to prove that what they have wrought is truly an improvement on what came before. You can apply it to almost anything: architecture, literature, even a classic automobile (how many times did it take Ford to get the next generation of the Mustang right?). That certainly applies to the new film Star Trek; devoted Trekkers have been waiting for a long time to see what director J.J. Abrams would do with the world created by Gene Roddenberry nearly fifty years ago, and even those of us who have been Reform Trekkers — fans of the series but not so Orthodox as to build the bridge of the USS Enterprise in our garage or celebrate Klingon holidays — have been looking forward to seeing what would happen to it with modern technology, a large budget, and in the hands of a director who has a reputation for fast action films (Mission Impossible III) and who was three months old when the original series premiered on NBC in September 1966. I don’t think they will be disappointed. In fact, I think they will like it enough to accept the alternative universe of the 23rd century, Star Fleet, and the crew of the Enterprise and boldly go with it where no one has gone before.

(There are spoilers below the fold, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want key plot elements revealed, stop reading now.)

The film has been labeled as a “prequel,” but in the true meaning of the word, it really isn’t. Yes, we get the backstory on the major characters and setting. We meet James T. Kirk the minute he’s born and watch as he grows up in Iowa as a wild kid trashing his step-dad’s classic Corvette and later as a cocky teen who even in the middle of a bar fight is brash enough to smirk when he accidentally touches a woman’s breasts. (Now we know how turned into the always-horny Captain Kirk as played by William Shatner in the original series who always got the girl.) Of course all is forgiven because he’s really good at being a Star Fleet cadet with the skills to challenge authority and get away with it. This isn’t really a ground-breaking character, either; it’s Hippolytus, Icarus, Mercutio, and every role Tom Cruise played in the 1980’s from Top Gun to Days of Thunder, right down to the killer smile, buff bod, and bright blue eyes. We also see Spock growing up as a tormented youth on his home world of Vulcan; made to feel like an outsider by his own feelings and his bullying classmates. That’s not exactly a new plot line either; nerdy kids getting beat up is the stuff of classic farce. We are introduced to the rest of the crew — Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Simon Pegg) — in such ways that fill in the backstory of each of them — how Dr. McCoy came to be called “Bones” and what Uhura’s first name is — and giving us sense of comfort of being with these friends because you recognize them. But from there on we leave the past future behind, so calling it a “prequel” isn’t quite accurate.

The storyline takes a sharp turn away from the reality we came to know through the five TV series, the previous ten films, and countless other stories in books and fan fiction and creates its own time-line. Ironically, it uses one of the oldest plot devices in the Star Trek canon: time travel and the paradox of changing the past to correct the future. This time it is in the hands of a renegade Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) who travels back in time to seek revenge on Spock for failing to protect his world from destruction by a supernova. Nero therefore plans to destroy Vulcan. He succeeds in imploding the planet, and Kirk and his crew set out to destroy Nero, and they do. But contrary to the deux-ex-machina gimmick of time travel and temporal disruption often seen in the series (most notably the Star Trek Voyager twopart episode “Year in Hell”), the old timeline is not magically restored at the end of the movie: Vulcan has been destroyed, the Vulcans are, as Spock puts it, an “endangered species.” This opens up many unexplored world for subsequent films in this new universe while leaving the other intact. Open-minded Trekkers should welcome this. There are, as Spock once observed, always possibilities.

Alan Alda once noted that eighty percent of people who go to the movies are between the ages of 12 and 22 and they go to see three things: defiance of authority, destruction of property, and people taking off their clothes. This movie has all three of them, and I suspect, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman knew they had to fill that quotient; besides, that’s what people expect from an action-adventure movie with merchandising tie-ins to Burger King. (If it’s any guide, the trailer trash preceding the showing of the film was nothing but previews of forthcoming doom, destruction, and skin. The theatre knew their prospective audience.) But since this is Star Trek and you can’t really do it without a Message, it has that as well: the powerful relationship between fathers and and their offspring and how our past truly does foretell our future. Even with all the pyrotechnics and scenery chewing by the bad guy, it’s surprisingly well-done.

Spock is one of the most enigmatic and fascinating, so to speak, characters in contemporary drama. Whole books have been written about this distant yet compelling half-human/half-Vulcan (and not a few people, both male and female, find him irresistible in terms of physical attraction). Kirk may have all the right moves and be the well-muscled hottie (done with the just the right amount of bravado and testosterone by Chris Pine), but if he is the brash flyboy of the Tom Cruise genre, then Spock (played with subtle brilliance by Zachary Quinto) is the wise elder played by the likes of Paul Newman (The Color of Money) or even Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man). (Or, to jump to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, he is Obi-wan to young Luke Skywalker.) That makes him the central character in the story. In this film the writers have done more to add to the depth of his feelings (and giving at least a bow to Shakespeare) by providing him a scene reminiscent of Hamlet where he meets his future self (Leonard Nimoy) and calls him “Father.” In this case, the loss of his mother and home provides him with the soul-searching that permeates his every move and calls into question his very essence as a Vulcan. There may be phasers and warp cores, man-eating monsters and artificial singularities that suck up entire planets, but this film is essentially about Spock. In purely dramatic terms, he is the one on whom the plot depends, and his choices, both in the future and in the now, determine the outcome by dealing with the dilemma that the once and future Spock faces.

Star Trek is a fun and highly entertaining film, and it is respectful enough of the source material to use some of the lines — and even the type style for the title — from the original series, as well as Alexander Courage’s TV theme music for the closing credits. If this is the future of the Star Trek universe, then, to quote another captain of the Enterprise, make it so.

(Illustration by Quickhoney for Newsweek.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

“A Complex Evening”

Last night we had our first official William Inge Festival event: a production of six short plays by Inge that had never been staged or even published. Interlacing all of them was a play called “Love-Death,” which was a series of one-man scenes that mirrored Inge’s eventual suicide in 1973, and if you knew of Inge’s background and his professional history, the play was very prescient. It was, in a sense, a staged suicide note. At times funny, at times heartbreaking, it was probably his truest work, at least in terms of dialogue and character. As I watched it, I could imagine Inge’s niece and my dear friend, the late Jo Ann Kirchmaier, smiling sadly and saying, “Oh, Uncle Bill….”

The other plays were a mix of farce — a piece called “Bad Breath” was a string of sketches that mocked TV commercials from the 1960’s, skewering everyone from Mrs. Olsen shilling coffee to teenage angst about using the right soap in order to get laid — to one piece that seemed like a combination of Harold Pinter and Sam Shepherd. I never knew that Inge had this side to his writing, and while it wasn’t SNL, it was refreshing.

The last piece, “Morning at the Beach,” was more a collection of character studies for people who would populate his other plays, including Dr. Lyman from Bus Stop who has a penchant for underage girls, Mrs. Potts and Madge from Picnic, and, of course, this being Inge, a stage full of well-built men with their shirts off preening their maleness.

My only complaint was that the scripts could have used some judicious editing; I suppose that’s one reason they never saw the stage. But overall it was an insight — good or otherwise — into a man and his writing that we didn’t know about.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Nice Day for a Drive

Bob and I and some friends from a local car club took a drive down to the Keys today. After all, when you have a cool vintage sports car, it needs to be taken out for some exercise.

More below the fold.

So we headed down US-1 to Key Largo,

then on to Islamorada where we took in the sights…

Then to Snapper’s for lunch, where we were watched over by one of the locals.

Just another reason why I like living here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Geography Lesson

From Newsweek:

Seven months ago, as he drove me the lengthy route from Vero Beach to the airport in West Miami Beach: past abandoned citrus groves and overgrown, half-built housing developments, past billboards flogging vacation homes at a third or a quarter of their original prices—my driver, a heavyset white Vietnam vet originally from Buffalo, N.Y., with back trouble, two impressively successful grown sons and an adolescent stepdaughter, explained why he hoped Barack Obama would be the Democratic candidate, and why he would vote for the man if he were: “I don’t care if he’s black, white, orange or any other color,” he said. “He’s got two eyes, a nose and a mouth like anybody else. He’s smart. He talks well. And the guy is classy. I want to be a part of that.”

Interesting article, but there’s a little flaw in the first sentence. Ever the recovering teacher, I shot off a letter to the editor:

To the Editor:

Claire Messud’s article “Some Like It Cool” in your September 1, 2008 issue begins with the sentence, “Seven months ago, as he drove me the lengthy route from Vero Beach to the airport in West Miami Beach….” Huh? I live in the Miami area, and I can tell you that there is no such place as “West Miami Beach.” The only thing west of Miami Beach is Biscayne Bay — and there’s no airport there — and then Miami.

Perhaps Ms. Messud was referring to West Miami, which is in the general vicinity of Miami International Airport.

A little proof-reading (and checking of MapQuest) goes a long way.

Mustang Bobby

The Red Pen Avenger strikes again.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fuente Ovejuna

Unless you’re a theatre scholar — or you took Dr. Delmar Solem’s theatre history classes at the University of Miami — you probably never heard of the plays of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (1562-1635). But this contemporary of Shakespeare was probably the most prolific playwright in history, cranking out over 1,500 full-length plays, with about 450 still extant. Compared to Shakespeare — and Lope de Vega is often called the Spanish Shakespeare — the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon is a piker with his mere 37 plays.

The best-known work of Lope de Vega is Fuente Ovejuna. As Dr. Solem explained to me, the title translates literally as “The Sheep Well,” but the play is not about a hole in the ground where sheep drink. It is a small town in Spain, and Lope de Vega wrote this play relating an actual event that occurred there in 1476.

While under the command of the Order of Calatrava, a commander, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, mistreated the villagers, who banded together and killed him. When a magistrate sent by King Ferdinand II of Aragon arrived at the village to investigate, the villagers, even under the pain of torture, responded only by saying “Fuente Ovejuna did it.”

That sums up the plot neatly, but in the new translation by Lawrence Boswell, the play explores much more than just a village rising up against tyranny. It explores the people’s view of their status in Spanish society, the role of women in that time and their stature, and the intense feeling of community that brings these common folk together to stand up for themselves.

I must admit that when I first read the play, over thirty years ago in a translation that did its best to convey the language of the time, I didn’t find it any of those. But in this production at Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre (a converted curling rink) Mr. Boswell has done a masterful job of finding nuances in words and characters that surely must have been intended by the playwright. The villagers are as multidimensional as Shakespeare’s characters, and the plot, while complicated by the politics of the time, moves along smartly, never taking your eye off the real story, and that is how the people of this benighted village respond to their mistreatment at the hands of their government. There are powerful performances by James Blendick as the mayor of the village, Sara Topham as his daughter Laurencia, who is abused by the Commander (the wonderfully villainous Scott Wentworth), and Jonathan Goad as the peasant who initiates the confrontation by having the nerve to stand up to the Commander by protecting Laurencia’s virtue. Robert Persichini does a wonderful job as Mengo, the shepherd, who provides both comic relief and the brutal truth in the role of the classic clown.

This play, as the villagers state under threat of torture, is not about them as much as it is about the sense of community: “Fuente Ovejuna did it.” There is a populism to this drama, and where Shakespeare enlightens us and delves deeply into the human character, Lope de Vega shows us those human characters working together as one. (Shakespeare did not write a play with only the name of a town in the title and turn it into the main character, and no, “Hamlet” doesn’t count.) Fuene Ovejuna is the main character in this play, and yet we never forget that there people who live there.

Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape

Brian Dennehy is a force of nature. With just a look he can hold an audience breathless for as long as he wants, and for a big man, his subtle moves, his sly grin, his glaring eyes will tell you what he’s thinking.

Mr. Dennehy is appearing in two one-acts on a double bill here at Stratford; Hughie by Eugene O’Neill, and Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Both plays are unusual for each playwright; Hughie, set in the lobby of a 1920’s fleabag hotel in New York, is a short and succinct piece, which, for those of us with the sitzfleisch to make it through three-plus hours of Mr. O’Neill’s other works like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is a change of pace. But Mr. O’Neill gives us as full and compelling character in the person of Erie Smith, a down-on-his-luck gambler, as he does in any of the Tyrones, and watching Mr. Dennehy take him through the intricacies of his reminiscences of his late friend, Hughie, make you understand him in a word that would otherwise take a page or a scene.

Krapp’s Last Tape is an unusual play for Beckett; starkly real and harsh as compared to the absurdism and other-worldliness of End Game or Waiting for Godot, but with touches of humor and even slapstick, albeit given that minimalist treatment by the playwright who made Harold Pinter seem verbose. Again, it is Mr. Dennehy’s portrayal of Krapp that makes it work. In the opening moments of the play we see Krapp sitting at a table surrounded by his tapes and his tape recorder, but it’s the eyes…the haunted, terror-filled, angry, lost, and eventually pitiful look in them that holds you and doesn’t let up, even when his back is turned.

There’s a central theme to both plays, and that’s the sense of loss the main character feels and cannot overcome. And in both plays there is a listener that acts like a chorus. In Hughie it’s the Night Clerk who stands by passively and responds in a few words that cuts right through to the truth and reality, providing a counterpoint and a foundation to Erie Smith. In Krapp’s Last Tape it is the tape recorder, playing back Krapp’s words from thirty years ago and brutally reminding him of what he was, what he wanted to become, what he never achieved, and what he lost.

It’s Mr. Dennehy that makes these plays work so well, and once again Stratford has proved its ability to choose both the right plays and the right actors to make it work.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Casear and Cleopatra

George Bernard Shaw always has something to teach in his plays, whether it’s something as profound as Jack Tanner discovering the life force in Man and Superman or something as basic and class-defining as speaking properly in Pygmalion. Once again we have the teacher and the pupil in the form of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and once again we have the situation where the master becomes the pupil.

Christopher Plummer takes the stage here at Stratford like the consummate performer that he is, and regardless of how many other things you’ve seen him in, be it in film or on stage, you never think of him as Christopher Plummer, but as the character, and that is the true hallmark of a fine actor. You’re not seeing Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music or General Chang in Star Trek Six, as millions of movie goers think of him; you’re seeing Julius Caesar. And not the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare, either, but a man with a sense of humor, limits, and self-awareness that isn’t seen in any other portrayal of him. Shaw’s voice is very clear in this play, but it’s not so overwhelming that you forget that you are looking at a historical figure about whom everyone thinks they know and who’s famous utterance, “Et tu, Brute?” is so well-known it shows up in cross-word puzzles every week. Mr. Plummer handles the role with effortless grace and charm so that you care deeply about Caesar, regardless of his manifestation as a conqueror.

But he would have a lot rougher go at it if he didn’t have the amazing counterpoint of Nikki M. James as Cleopatra. She is both a girl and a woman, a petulant child and a powerful queen; endearing and frightening. Shaw knew how to write women of equality, and he does so here, but in the free-flowing and utterly devastating performance Ms. James gives, you feel as if Shaw’s vision of a 16-year-old girl taking on and holding her own against a much older and more experienced warrior was written with Ms. James in mind. She’s given the thankless job of taking a character who has been portrayed in so many ways and has become such an archetype that the mere mention of the name “Cleopatra” gives you visions of Elizabeth Taylor (and Tallulah Bankhead) that all you can think of are the really bad jokes about asps (i.e. “fangs for the mammary”). Not this time. Not only does Cleopatra become fully dimensional, Shaw even tweaks Shakespeare by giving us a prequel, as it were, for Antony and Cleopatra. In this case, take the Shaw.

The rest of the cast does a great job, including Diane D’Aquila as Ftatateeta and Steven Sutcliffe as Brittanus. The set, by Robert Brill, was simple yet powerful with towering sandstone pillars and portions of a sphinx. The Festival stage, which was the original three-quarter thrust designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, was the right venue for this play; Shaw does well in three dimensions, and director Des McAnuff knew how to make it work without making the actors look like they had to be constantly moving to be seen by the audience; a technique a lot of directors in thrust and round have yet to master.

Next up; tomorrow Christopher Plummer does a reading of Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, adapted from the classic childrens story by Mordecai Richler.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Trashing WALL-E

Think Progress reports that a right-wing contingent of movie critics are up in arms over WALL-E, the latest hit from Pixar.

The film portrays a lonely robot’s quest for love, as he is left to clean up a trashed earth. Meanwhile, the over-indulged humans wait it out aboard gigantic spaceships run by a monolithic corporation-turned-government that “resemble spas for the fat and lazy.”

Somehow, this touching love story has outraged the radical right.

Next week, they’re going to get upset about Bambi because of its anti-gun message and The Yearling because of the boy’s emotional attachment to the deer (paging Rick Santorum). Oh, and what’s up with Snow White shacking up with seven men?

To quote the immortal Jacques Brel, “If people like them had their way, they’d paint the world the color of goose shit.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Straight from the Horse’s Ass

From CNN:

Former White House counselor Dan Bartlett lashed out at Scott McClellan in a telephone interview Wednesday, saying the allegations that the media was soft on the White House are “total crap,” adding that advisers of President Bush are “bewildered and puzzled” by the allegations in McClellan’s new book.

Having Bush enabler Dan Bartlett call your book “total crap” is like getting a rave from the The New York Review of Books; when it comes to shoveling crap, no one’s a better expert than the Bush White House.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Real Arab World

I know very little about the Middle East and the Arab world. That’s not surprising; like a lot of people, all I know is what I hear on the news or read in the newspapers, and I have no ancestral connection to any of the people there. So when I was asked if I would like a copy of Live from Jordan by Benjamin Orbach, I was at first hesitant; I was expecting a dry recitation of the history of the region from biblical times and a rehash of talking points from the differing sides.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Ben’s year in the Middle East, told in a series of letters home, is a warm and person-to-person tale of the ordinary lives and trials that the people of Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Egypt go through every day just to make a living and a life. There are no talking points from emissaries or ambassadors here; just a grad student from Pittsburgh with a background in Middle East studies, learning Arabic as he goes (and teaching English to eager students), and finding that underneath all the many differences between the East and the West in so many different ways, we are really a lot more similar in the mundane ways that really matter: we want to live our lives in peace, with dignity and understanding, and we want others to respect our culture and not impose their lives on us. We as Americans expect that as a part of the American dream, and Ben shows us that it’s a universal dream as well.

For someone who knew very little about that world, I found a lot of common ground for understanding. For example, the plight of the Palestinians, people who are exiled from their homeland and are hoping against all hope to have their dreams of a place called Palestine — a place that never really existed — restored to them. In a lot of ways their stories remind me of the stories I hear from the older Cuban exiles here in Miami who have made every attempt they can to preserve what they brought with them when they left fifty years ago and who dream of going back to a place and a life that they left. The sad truth is that nothing is the way it was, and even if by some miracle they could have all they hoped for, there is no guarantee that it would be enough. It’s incredibly tragic and altogether human.

History provided the author with an interesting backdrop. Ben arrived in Jordan a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and he left six months after the invasion of Iraq by the United States. The tension and fear in the people in Jordan and Egypt is palpable, and the distrust and animosity towards America — but not Americans — is couched in every conversation. In one letter, he looks at the invasion of Iraq and, writing from 2003, shows remarkable foresight as to what will be the long-term result of our preemptive invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation. But in his tales, which are poignant, funny, and genuinely human, he shows us a world that is in so many ways like our own, with its foundations in religion and faith, distrust of authority, fascination with celebrity glitz, revulsion at material excess and immodesty, and through it all an understanding that we are all human and share far more values than either side is aware of.

If you want to really understand the Middle East, I suppose you can read a lot of history and analysis from think tanks who pay a lot of consultants to put them together. Or you can pick up this book written by an insightful and charming guy who saw the real Arab world from his tiny apartment balcony in Amman, the coffee shops and three-table eateries in Cairo, from the streets of the West Bank, and a barber’s chair in all three places.