Thursday, December 14, 2017

42nd Street Moon makes a “Garden” grow

"I Heard Someone Crying": Katie Maupin as Mary, Sharon Rietkirk as Lily,
Brian Watson as Archibald. Photo by Ben Krantz Studios.

42nd Street Moon has made a shrewd choice in selecting The Secret Garden, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel, as its holiday show. Like A Christmas Carol, it offers English charm, a story of redemption and rebirth, cute kids, and even a few ghosts—but isn’t so familiar to San Francisco audiences. Furthermore, The Secret Garden was the first Tony-winning musical to have an all-female writing team, but it often gets overlooked in conversations about women’s contributions to Broadway history. In a season when we’re all hearing a lot about the structural forces that make it hard for female artists to succeed, how nice of 42nd Street Moon to revive Norman and Simon’s work – under the guidance of a female director, music director, and choreographer to boot.

This version of The Secret Garden emphasizes the Gothic aspects of the source material – I never before realized how much Burnett lifted from the Brontë sisters. Mary Lennox, a British child raised in India, comes to Yorkshire to live with Archibald Craven, her uncle-by-marriage, after her parents die of cholera. But Archibald is haunted by the death of his wife Lily, and can hardly relate to Mary—or, worse, to his own son Colin. (In a kid-friendly version of Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” plotline, Colin is an invalid whose existence is kept secret from Mary until she stumbles upon his sickroom.) The first musical number that stands out is a trio for Mary, Archibald, and ghost-Lily, awake in the middle of the night in this mansion on the lonely moor.

Norman and Simon also emphasize Mary’s time in India, which can register as the kind of well-meaning early ‘90s “multiculturalism” that nowadays seems a little naïve. When Mary sings an incantation in an Indian language and does gestures from Indian classical dance, I found myself hoping that everyone involved in the production had done their research and was handling things with sensitivity. The Indian characters do seem to be played by actors of South Asian heritage (Michael Mohammed and Anjali Blacker), though it grates somewhat how much time they spend moving furniture and how little time the show actually focuses on them.

Lily is a tricky role: a beautiful, endlessly loving ghost who sings in a soprano as high and pure as the wind on the moors. Sharon Rietkirk—unamplified, like all the performers—is everything the part requires, but I was a little surprised to find this figure of Victorian “angel in the garden” purity in a female-authored musical.

Scott Hayes as Ben and Katie Maupin as Mary. Photo by Ben Krantz Studios.
Fortunately, not all the female characters are so one-dimensional. As played by 12-year-old Katie Maupin, with a clear voice and impressively thick pigtail braids, Mary is an entirely believable little girl. The wild tantrum she throws to avoid being sent away to school garnered spontaneous audience applause. But Maupin, and the writers, also capture Mary’s softer side, the way she gradually blossoms like one of the flowers in her garden. (As you might imagine, this show is big on horticultural metaphors.)

At first, the casting and costuming of the brothers Archibald and Neville Craven seems a bit odd: Archibald, the older brother, is played by a younger-looking actor, and although the script makes a big deal about Archibald’s hunchback, it is barely noticeable. But all doubts are removed when Brian Watson (as Archibald) and Edward Hightower (as Neville) begin to sing the famous duet “Lily’s Eyes”: Watson’s tenor and Hightower’s baritone blend beautifully.

I was less impressed with Keith Pinto as Dickon, who helps lead Mary to the secret garden and teaches her how to coax the plants back to life. His Yorkshire accent often sounds more like Southern American, and, especially in his first solo “Winter’s on the Wing,” his singing style is too contemporary and “pop” for Simon’s classically-influenced score.

Not so Heather Orth, who plays Dickon’s sister, Martha. Her Yorkshire accent is precise, she handles the charm song “A Fine White Horse” and the stirring ballad “Hold On” with ease, and, more than anyone else onstage, remembers that great acting is reacting.

The holidays are a time for connecting with family, for practicing kindness and generosity, for honoring the past while looking forward to the new year. The Secret Garden, with its fable-like story of a beautiful garden that redeems three lonely people, suits this mood and this time of year perfectly. It asks, what will you work to make blossom in your life come spring?

The Secret Garden, presented by 42nd Street Moon, runs through December 24 at the Gateway Theater in San Francisco. More info here.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Songs for Amazing Comet Girls

Behold, a photo of the raffle prize I brought to last week's staged reading of my newest play, Carmenta (themed raffle prizes being one of the charms of the San Francisco Olympians Festival).

Carmenta is a play about motherhood, rock music, and the turns a woman's life can take, so my prize was a book called Record Collecting for Girls and a handwritten playlist of songs that fit the play's mood. Female singers, jangly guitars, '90s nostalgia, empowering and/or mystical lyrics, and no love songs or breakup songs. I call it Songs for Amazing Comet Girls (after a line in the play) -- listen on Spotify or just reference the list of song titles below:
  1.  “Feed the Tree” - Belly
  2. “Can’t Be Sure” - The Sundays
  3. “Gepetto” - Belly
  4. “Running Up That Hill” - Kate Bush
  5.  “Dog Days Are Over” - Florence & the Machine
  6.  “Winter” - Tori Amos
  7.  “Dreams” - The Cranberries 
  8. “Not Too Soon” - Throwing Muses 
  9. “Wonder” - Natalie Merchant 
  10. “Ray of Light” - Madonna   
Admittedly, the playlist was also a means of sweetening the raffle-prize pot, because I bought the book mainly for its title and don't actually think it's a great read...

Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a TimeRecord Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a Time by Courtney E. Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Courtney E. Smith has definite music-nerd cred. She owns hundreds of records, she loves pop-music history, and she used to promote upcoming indie bands at MTV. Unfortunately, all that music cred doesn’t automatically make someone a good music writer. Yes, yes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—Smith even uses this quote in her book, crediting it to Elvis Costello, her all-time favorite musician. But clearly some people are better music-writers (or architecture-dancers) than others. Describing her love for Costello’s music, Smith resorts to banalities like “I found myself really getting into his clever lyrics. His songs are so easy to fall in love with.” Surely it’s possible to come up with livelier commentary than that.

I picked up Record Collecting for Girls because I’ve been thinking a lot about how women make and listen to music (my new play Carmenta touches on that theme, and I’ve been diving into NPR’s Turning the Tables project). As such, it’s kind of unfortunate how many of these essays are about men. Smith’s tone is somewhere between “cool big sister” and “one of the boys.” She obviously wants young women to explore their musical passions and to hold their own with other music nerds (who tend to be male). But I wish there was more in here about music-related experiences she has had on her own or with female friends, rather than with crushes or boyfriends.

And yes, I know this is intended as a light, fun memoir/essay collection, not a how-to book, a scholarly study of how women relate to pop music, or an in-depth work of music criticism. All the same, I feel like I read better pop-culture writing on the Internet every day. The online personal-essay boom produced lots of deep, funny, vulnerable writing, and Smith just can’t compete. For instance, one essay here is about how you should never date a guy who loves the Smiths. Isn’t there something amusingly Freudian about a woman named Smith who distrusts men who like The Smiths? But she never gets to that deeper level, she just keeps sniping about Morrissey.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jane Austen on the Haight-Noriega Bus

A friend sent me this cartoon a few months ago, saying "this woman IS you," and never have I felt so seen and so called-out.

 An Account of the Perturbations that may Befall a Young Lady 
who reads Classic Literature on a Public Conveyance

After the young lady had stood strap-hanging for far too long for comfort, a pair of seats on the omnibus became available when the conveyance made its arranged stop at the busy but unpropitious intersection of Haight-street and Stanyan. Fortunate chance! With alacrity she hurried to sit—making sure only to occupy one seat, the window-most, for to take up both would be most discourteous—though indeed she was burdened with possessions: a Handbag, and a Laptop-computer.

No sooner had she caught her breath than a young man sat down next to her: a shaggy-haired fellow, in wool trousers cut off at the knees and with the reek of something herbal about his person. He too was laden down; he bore several brown paper bags from Whole-foods, though in truth his appearance did little to suggest that he frequented this most costly of grocers.

The young man (for that I must call him, being most uncertain as to whether he was entitled to the rank of gentleman) apologized to the young lady for taking the vacant seat, saying “I have to sit here to make room.” The young lady merely nodded her acknowledgement. Indeed it is courteous and gentlemanlike to sit in a vacant seat rather than to stand in the aisle, yet it is not a gesture that needs verbal acknowledgement on the part of the lady, nor apology on the part of the gentleman. It is simply good manners, yet to boast of one’s good manners in the guise of a “humbly-bragging” apology is no manners at all.

The young lady continued to peruse her book, the delightful and instructive Emma. The young man retrieved a container of “boxed-water” from one of his shopping bags and proceeded to guzzle down many swigs of it directly from the carton.

After some time the young man attempted to gain the young lady’s attention. He peered intently at the back cover of her book (for this was the cover nearest to him) as well as at the bookmark she clutched between her fingers. The young lady readied herself to be addressed, and a slight hope rose in her breast that despite the man’s infelicitous appearance, he might prove a pleasant conversationalist on the subject of classic literature.

But she found herself perplexed at his opening salvo: “Will you trade that book in after you’re done with it?”

“No, thank you,” she said, with a slight frown.

“It’s because of that bookmark—it says Buy, Sell, Trade.”

“Ah,” said the young lady. Curt her response may have been, but his words led her thoughts on a series of sad reflections. “Great Overland Books—Buy, Sell, Trade!” How many delightful hours she had spent in that cluttered bookshop with its creaky stairs, its white-bearded proprietor who had once written letters to the great Samuel Beckett! And now the Great Overland was soon to shut its doors forever—the sign for its going-out-of-business sale was displayed in the window. She had not yet been able to work up the emotional fortitude to enter the bookshop for the final time and say goodbye.

As she engaged in these melancholy reflections, the young man persisted: “Did you trade something else for it?”


“Did you buy it new?”

Such interest in how she had chosen to outlay her money on this Penguin Classics paperback! “Yes. The bookmark is from something else—it did not come with the book—I had it lying around.”

The subject of how the young lady had bought the book being exhausted, and the subject of Miss Austen’s writing obviously not being to his interest, the young man attempted to redirect the conversation: “Have you ever read Crime and Punishment?”

“No,” said the young lady, with a slight chuckle to herself. Really, what was it with would-be suitors and Dostoevsky? The first young man who had courted her (who turned out a cad and a bounder, but no matter) had insisted that she ought to read The Brothers Karamazov. But despite the urgings of first love, over ten years had gone by and she had never read a word of this bleakest of Russian novelists.

“It’s a bit thicker than that one there,” the young man said boastfully. As though thickness were the ultimate measure of a book, and more valor accrued to he who reads Dostoevsky’s thick tale of a murderer than to she who reads Austen’s slimmer and more domestic volumes! With a slight irritation in her voice, the young lady replied, “Well, this isn’t the thickest book I’ve ever read, or anything.”

Satisfied in having gotten the last word, the young lady was also satisfied in being spared any further discourse: the young man reached his stop and descended with his bags, leaving behind only a sharp, herbal scent that irritated her nostrils as his conversation had irritated her mind.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Nothomb, Wilde, Frangione, Wright

An eclectic Script Reading Roundup today: a French-language play I found at a Little Free Library, an excellent edition of Oscar Wilde's best plays, a reread of a Canadian Christmas dramedy I originally blogged about in 2010, and an epic adaptation of my favorite children's fantasy trilogy.

Les CombustiblesLes Combustibles by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Les combustibles, the first and only play by popular French-language author Amélie Nothomb, is a fable about the role of literature in times of turmoil. It’s the second winter of a siege, and at the University, there is no fuel other than the books on the shelves. The cynical Professor, his assistant Daniel, and Daniel’s girlfriend Marina debate whether they should burn the books to keep warm, or whether that would be a pyrrhic victory for humanity.

I read Les combustibles in French after picking it up from my local Little Free Library, figuring that I’m probably the only person in the neighborhood who’d be interested in reading a French-language play. (An English translation exists under the title Human Rites, a somewhat irrelevant pun – a more accurate title might be Kindling.) The writing was elegant and easy to read, and I enjoyed following the characters’ arguments. At times, however, the intellectual combat is so tidy that it’s easy to forget that the characters are desperate and starving. Also, it can be hard to understand their anguish about burning the books. This isn’t Fahrenheit 451; presumably, other copies of these books still exist in other collections, in cities that are not currently under siege. As such, destroying the Professor’s library doesn’t mean irreparably destroying human knowledge. Maybe I’m heartless, but in that situation, I’d say, burn the books and save yourself!

It was also annoying that the only female character is a beautiful, waiflike 20-year-old whom the stage directions constantly compare to a child or an angel. Naturally, both of the male characters have sex with her, and neither of them seem to respect her. I’m used to this kind of stuff from male playwrights, but not necessarily from women.


Les combustibles, la première et seule pièce de théâtre par Amélie Nothomb, est une fable à propos du rôle de la littérature aux temps troublés. C’est le deuxième hiver d’un siège, et pour combustible, chez l’Université, il n’y a que les livres. Le Professeur cynique, son assistant Daniel, et Marina la petite-amie de Daniel, débattent s’ils doivent brûler les livres afin de réchauffer, ou si cela serait, pour l'humanité, une victoire à la Pyrrhus.

J’ai lu Les combustibles en français après l’avoir pris de la Petite Bibliothèque Gratuite du coin, en supposant que je sois la seule personne dans mon quartier qui s’intéresse à lire une pièce en français. (Il y a une traduction en anglais avec le titre Human Rites, un jeu de mots assez hors sujet – un titre plus exact serait peut-être Kindling.) L’écriture était élégante et facile à lire, et j’aimais suivre les arguments des personnages. Cependant, parfois, le combat intellectuel est tellement rangé qu’on oublie que les personnages sont désespérés et affamés. Aussi, c’est peut-être difficile de comprendre leur angoisse à propos de brûler les livres. Ceci n’est pas Fahrenheit 451; probablement, d’autres exemplaires de ces livres existent encore dans des autres collections, dans des villes qui ne sont pas assiégées. Alors, la destruction de la bibliothèque du Professeur ne signifie pas la destruction irréparable des connaissances humaines. Peut-être que je suis cruelle, mais dans cette situation, je dirais: brûlez les livres, sauvez vous-mêmes!

De plus, c’était ennuyeux que le seul personnage féminin est une jeune femme de 20 ans, belle et frêle, comparée avec une enfante ou un ange dans les indications scéniques. Naturellement, les deux personnages masculins font l’amour avec elle et ne semblent pas la respecter. J’ai l’habitude de voir ces bêtises chez les dramaturges masculins, mais pas forcement chez les femmes.

The Importance of Being Earnest and Other PlaysThe Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's easy to give Oscar Wilde's collected plays five stars just because he was so brilliant and The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most perfect comedies ever written, but where this Penguin Classics edition really excels is in Richard Allen Cave’s introduction and notes. Cave reminds us that these are not just collections of witty lines, they are plays, and Wilde was a man of the theater. The endnotes are full of information about the sets, costumes, and stage business of the original productions, and sometimes even include Cave's thoughts on moments that are particularly difficult to pull off in performance. Some people might find his opinions too obtrusive, but I loved this level of detail and think that all aspiring directors of Wilde plays should peruse this edition, since Cave has thought so much about how these plays work onstage.

The edition collects all of Wilde’s major, mature plays and even throws in his one-act Florentine Tragedy for good measure (though it's a rather weak play, requiring you to slog through a lot of sub-Shakespearean blank verse for the reward of a sword fight and a twist ending). There are his three Society Comedies (Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband), which blend melodrama, satire, social commentary, and aphorisms; his decadent and pageant-like Salome ; and the incomparable Earnest.

Reading all of these plays in a row, I realized that the scope of Wilde's characterization was wider than I'd given him credit for. For instance, though the three Society Comedies all feature an aristocratic dandy character, each dandy has a very different personality and function. Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan is an irresponsible romantic; Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is an unscrupulous cad; Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband is his play’s moral conscience. I was also impressed with the variety of female characters and the amount of stage time they receive. Young actresses love the Gwendolen-Cecily scene from Earnest, of course, and there are other all-female scenes in the Society Comedies that are even longer and more complex. Good roles for women aren't rare in classic drama, but it's quite unusual to see 6 distinctly characterized women talk for 12 pages without any men interrupting, as they do in Act Two of A Woman of No Importance!

Cariboo MagiCariboo Magi by Lucia Frangione
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Programming a holiday-season play can be really tough for theaters, especially small indie theaters that want to do something a little quirkier than A Christmas Carol. Where to find a play that is Christmassy but not overtly religious, cheerful but not cloying? Well, Lucia Frangione's Cariboo Magi feels like it was written to solve this problem. You could even interpret it as a meta-commentary on the challenges of staging a Christmas play: it's about a desperate, ragtag theater troupe that travels to the goldfields of British Columbia, circa Christmas 1870. Their final product--a mash-up of the Nativity story, Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, and The Last of the Mohicans--must be seen to be believed!

Frangione, an actress as well as a playwright, wrote herself a fab starring role as Madame Fanny Dubeau, the theater troupe's leader, whose "elegant veneer thinly hides a cunning, avaricious businesswoman." But the other characters are also vividly drawn: there's Joe Mackey, a Chinese-Canadian miner and lovelorn poet; Reverend William Teller, an alcoholic, self-pitying minister; and Marta Reddy, a hot-tempered German girl who is eight months pregnant. There are no villains here, just four misfits who act tough but are all lost or wounded in some way. Fittingly for a Christmas tale, in the end they are all healed and uplifted. But it's not Christianity or even "the Christmas spirit" that saves them--it's the power of theater.

His Dark MaterialsHis Dark Materials by Nicholas Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Golden Compass was my favorite book when I was 9 years old and I grew up to be a playwright, so I found it very rewarding to read and consider Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy. I enjoyed its self-assurance, its willingness to deviate from the novels in order to tell a story that makes sense onstage. Characters with similar functions are combined: Tony Makarios and Billy Costa; Serafina Pekkala and Mary Malone. Some plot-holes are filled: I really like how it rewrites Lord Boreal’s theft of the alethiometer so it doesn't involve Lyra’s foolish failure to recognize him. And at least one of the play’s innovations—having Lyra learn the truth of her parentage from Mrs. Coulter herself, rather than from the gyptians—is so emotionally compelling that the otherwise lackluster film version used it too.

I have to disagree with my friend Stuart, though, about whether the play seems less anti-religion than the books. On the contrary, I think the atheist themes are more explicit in the play version. But this means it feels better integrated. The books can feel like a bit of a bait-and-switch: the first book mostly reads like a thrilling fantasy-adventure where Dust is a MacGuffin, while the later books push an anti-religion, pro-Dust agenda. In the play, religion is depicted as sinister and oppressive from the start. The people in Lyra’s world are constantly praying to “the Authority,” and the role of Fra Pavel, a high Church official, is expanded into a real villain part.

Of course, in order to condense 1200 pages of fiction into a 2-part play, the action has to move insanely fast. (In the books, Lyra’s stay at Bolvangar covers nearly 70 pages; in the play, it covers 11 pages.) I do wonder how an audience who’s not familiar with the books would react to the play version, especially the relentless pace of the action. I also wonder if I’d find it too rushed, were I to see it staged. That’s unlikely to happen, however: this epic drama requires vast resources and I don’t think anyone besides the UK’s National Theatre has produced it. Still, I enjoyed reading it and thinking about dramatic structure, theatricality, and how an adapter can wield his subtle knife to show us new worlds.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Acting in ShortLived Finals, August 3-5

Andrew Chung as Borkul the Orc and me as Elanil the Elf. Photo courtesy PianoFight.
Hey, remember how in mid-June, I was performing in the first weekend of PianoFight's audience-judged short play competition, ShortLived?

Well, the play I'm in—"All the Worlds are Stages" by Ruben Grijalva—won that round handily, so we're competing again in the finals this weekend! The whole team from June is coming back with dreams of glory: director Alejandro Emmanuel Torres and actors Andrew Chung, Tony Cirimele, and Danielle Doyle.

The championship-round performances, which feature the winning plays from all six weekends plus two "wild cards," are selling out fast. If they haven't all gone, you can get tickets here. Shows are Thursday through Saturday at 7 PM, with an additional Friday show at 9:30.

ShortLived has been getting some nice press, too—some of which uses the above production photo of me and Andrew:

Monday, July 31, 2017

On s'est connus: Jeanne Moreau

I think of this as the iconic Moreau look. Bare face, cat eyes, unfussy hair, and the plainest little black dress.
Sometime in my teens (was it when I started studying French in college?), my mom decided we needed to watch Jules and Jim. Mom said she'd seen it years earlier but "the only thing I remember about it is that she sings a little song with a guitar."

"She" was Jeanne Moreau, of course, and the song was "Le Tourbillon," a perfect little grace note of suspended time in the middle of this perfect, daring, how-the-fuck-did-Truffaut-pull-this-off-before-he-was-thirty film.

I think of this as my introduction to Jeanne Moreau, though I guess technically I'd seen her as the old lady in the frame story of Ever After, her distinctive voice grown gravelly with time and lending a gravitas to the film's final lines that you don't often find in children's fairy-tale films.

But in the years to come, she became my favorite French actress. She was intense and sexy and had a piercing kind of intelligence. She was never an ingenue (the early-career glossy publicity photos where she tries to look like a '50s ingenue are kind of hilarious). She was always a fully grown, if petite, woman who needed the rougher edges of the French New Wave, handheld cameras and minimal makeup and intelligent scripts and complex characters. She did her best work after she was thirty. She had Resting Sad Face (like me). She had a tart little voice, like green apples, and even recorded some other jazz-pop songs besides "Le Tourbillon." The Lovers, a movie she made in 1958 that included a nude love scene, eventually prompted the famous U.S. Supreme Court case where Justice Potter Stewart ruled "That's not obscene, I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it." She was the first woman elected to the French Academy of Fine Arts. (Although, as praiseworthy as that is, it's also kind of shameful that it took until 2001 to break that glass ceiling.) She was Maggie the Cat in the French premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and can you even imagine?

I watch her movies and I want to take up smoking and wander around cities at night being intense and brooding and melancholy and restless and dissatisfied. One thing I think we don't talk about enough is how there are a lot of male stars who embody a disaffected, brooding quality, but among women, there's pretty much only Jeanne Moreau. Women, too, sometimes want to be romantic existentialists. Women, too, want film-star icons who were uncompromising and iconoclastic, lonely and proud.

I did feel a physical shock on reading the news that she died but, if I take a step back, I mean... she was 89. She worked with the best filmmakers of her era. She smoked like a chimney and made it to the end of her ninth decade on Earth. I sang "Le tourbillon" in the shower this morning. RIP et adieu, Mme Moreau.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Grandeur" at the Magic Theatre: a protean figure in a conventional play

Carl Lumbly is music legend Gil Scott-Heron and Rafael Jordan is journalist Steve Barron in Grandeur at the Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
The set for Grandeur, the new play by Han Ong at the Magic Theatre, doesn’t look particularly grand at first glance: it’s a hoarder’s apartment in Harlem, with stacks of books and videocassettes and shabby old ‘60s furniture. But when the show begins and its central character, Gil Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly) takes his seat in an old armchair, his face illuminated by a solitary lamp, there is no doubt that we are in the presence of majesty. In Lumbly’s portrayal, Scott-Heron is a wily old enchanter, a Prospero laying traps for the young and ingenuous. Later on, he plays with a Rubik’s cube as though it were a piece of spell-casting apparatus.

In Grandeur, the young person who must evade Scott-Heron’s traps is one Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), a freelance journalist on assignment for the New York Review of Books. (It’s a somewhat distracting coincidence that this character’s name is just one consonant away from “Steve Bannon.”) Steve is an earnest and preppy black man whose face is hardly visible behind his mop of hair—it’s like he knows he shouldn’t steal the spotlight from Gil, a much stronger personality with many more stories to tell.

We also meet Scott-Heron’s caretaker, Julie (Safiya Fredericks), who mixes abiding affection for the old man with exasperation at his shortcomings, not least of which is his addiction to crack cocaine. Julie is also on hand to inform Steve of his role in all of this: “You’re death. You know that right? I mean not death-death but […] like a herald.” This heavy-handed metaphor gets under Steve’s skin and causes him to have an unconvincing breakdown near the top of Act 2.

Much more compelling is Scott-Heron’s anti-capitalist political rant, revealing his ambivalence toward the rappers who came after him. They sample his records and call him the “Godfather of Rap,” but their materialistic values are far different from his own. There’s also an implied contrast between the way Scott-Heron plays with language in his jazzman-poet fashion and the way a reporter uses language to pin down facts with precision.

Grandeur is obviously an attempt to wrestle with Scott-Heron’s legacy and his contradictions. It takes place in the last year of the musician’s life, just after he has released his first album in 16 years. (While Steve Barron and his NYRB article are fictitious, The New Yorker published an excellent profile of Scott-Heron, written by Alec Wilkinson, around this time. I’ve read hundreds of New Yorker profiles but this one has stuck with me.) But although Scott-Heron was undoubtedly a dramatic personality—brilliant and flawed, irascible and damaged—Grandeur is not, itself, a very dramatic show. It’s too bad that a play about an innovative and charismatic musician should have such a well-worn structure and setup.

Grandeur, by Han Ong, directed by Loretta Greco, is playing at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco through June 25. More information here.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Acting in ShortLived round 1 at PianoFight, June 15-17

Last year, I participated in PianoFight's audience-judged theater competition ShortLived as a playwright... this year, for a change, I am acting in a ShortLived play!

For three performances, tonight through Saturday, I am playing a video-game elf in "All the Worlds are Stages" by Ruben Grijalva, directed by Alejandro Emmanuel Torres. The other actors in the show are Andrew Chung, Tony Cirimele, and Danielle Doyle. It is a very fun, fast-paced script with some nice twists to it, and for the first time ever, I have to do a bit of stage combat! (Credit to Kyle McReddie for teaching me and Andrew the fight choreography.)

Tickets for this weekend's edition of ShortLived are available here. (Note: show starts at 7 PM, so don't be late!) You'll see 6 new short plays and be asked to rank them. The top-ranked play from this week's batch will move on to compete in the grand-prize round in early August, with a shot at a $5000 prize.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's my lunch hour and I need to run out and get a green eyeliner pencil for my elf costume tonight.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Country House Books: Edward Gorey & Cécile David-Weill

Quick reviews of two books I read recently that take place at two very different kinds of country houses.

 The Dwindling PartyThe Dwindling Party by Edward Gorey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An Edward Gorey pop-up book means that you can almost move and play around inside his elegant but eerie world! And even though The Dwindling Party looks like a kids' book, Gorey doesn't tone down any of his trademark dark humor, in this story of a Victorian family who tours a country house and, one by one, gets eaten by monsters. The verse is a bit verbose and there's really only the one joke throughout, but this is still a fun and interactive distillation of Gorey's style.

The SuitorsThe Suitors by Cécile David-Weill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh la la, here’s a book that promises to reveal what French old-money high society is really like! Unlike some authors who write lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous novels but have no firsthand experience with the world they describe, Cécile David-Weill comes by it honestly: her father and grandfather were chairmen of the Lazard Frères bank. As such, The Suitors could function as a handbook for how to behave (and how not to behave) if you are invited to a house party hosted by a fancy French family. They will love you if you are polite, gracious, and quietly elegant; they will despise you if you are effusive or ostentatious or try-hard. It’s rather like old-money American WASP society with more of an emphasis on good food, art collecting, and philosophical conversation.

Unfortunately, while David-Weill knows a lot about high society and the people who frequent it, she hasn’t figured out how to embed this knowledge in a captivating story. Her set-up is a fine premise for a romantic comedy: two sisters in their early 30s, learning that their parents wish to sell the family’s summer villa on the Cap d’Antibes, make a half-serious attempt to find wealthy husbands so that the property can stay in the family. But The Suitors quickly becomes an endless list of descriptions of the family’s houseguests and servants, their foibles and faux pas. Some of the observations are keen, but there are just too many characters and too little narrative drive. Scenes that are intended as farce or as drama fall flat, get resolved within a page or two, and are quickly forgotten. Worst of all are the moments when David-Weill tries to convince us that her characters are paragons of wit, charm, and decorum: the jokes they make are at best unfunny and at worst truly distasteful (as when the narrator tells her sister that her “shorty pajama set” is “an invitation to rape”).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Like something out of Balzac or Colette

The happy couple: Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron. Photo: AFP/Getty.
It has come to my attention that not nearly enough Americans know that the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has a love life like something out of a Balzac novel. And because Macron won the first round of the presidential election today and it looks like (fingers crossed) he’ll defeat his Fascist opponent in the second round, I feel justified in being a total gossip and telling you this very French, very juicy story.

OK, so Emmanuel Macron is a fresh-faced 39-year-old who started his own, centrist/independent political party. The established parties in France imploded this year; Macron surged to the top of the polls despite having an unpopular economic-reform law named after him in 2015. I could say a lot more about the wacky French presidential race of 2017, but you didn’t come here for politics, you came here for gossip.

Well, Macron is married to a woman named Brigitte, who is 24 years older than him and has grown children of her own from a previous marriage. Already, this is pretty unusual, even if younger-man older-woman relationships have more of a place in European culture than in American. (In Colette’s novel Chéri, Chéri and Léa are also 24 years apart.) It’s also been pointed out that 24 years is the same age disparity between Donald and Melania Trump – we just think it’s strange when a woman is the one who’s older.

But Donald was never Melania’s high school teacher.

That’s right: Macron is married to his former high school literature and drama teacher.

Now do you see why I am obsessed with this story?

Both of the Macrons are coy about how, exactly, the romance progressed. Brigitte is quoted as saying “Nobody will ever know at what moment our story became a love story. That belongs to us. That is our secret.” (Of course, giving quotes like this to the media practically invites everyone to speculate about the details of this “secret love story” and the French are eating it up.)

But what’s known is this: they grew very close when Emmanuel was in 11th grade and worked with Brigitte to adapt The Art of Comedy by Eduardo di Filippo. Then, he transferred to a high school in Paris for his senior year—some accounts say his parents made him transfer to put a stop to the relationship, some say that Brigitte herself asked him to go away. But before leaving for the capital, the boy promised his teacher, “I will come back and I will marry you.”

So maybe this isn’t exactly like a classic French novel after all. In a novel, the boy would still make this rash romantic promise, but either he wouldn’t follow through with it, or circumstances would intervene to thwart the couple’s love. But that didn’t happen here: Brigitte eventually divorced her husband, joined Emmanuel in Paris, and married him in 2007. She has been quoted as saying “We rub and polish each other's brains,” which is pretty much the greatest innuendo I’ve ever heard and is my new #RelationshipGoals.

In short: everybody should hope that Macron wins the second round on May 7, not only so that the Fascists will be defeated, but also so that France can continue its grand tradition of having leaders with scandalous love lives.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Workshop Production of "You'll Not Feel the Drowning," April 13-22

My play You'll Not Feel the Drowning, an hourlong drama about life in an earthquake zone, the bleak beauty of the Oregon coast, and the giant squids that lurk in our hearts, has been in development with Custom Made Theatre's Undiscovered Works program for the last year. Custom Made is now granting it a 6-performance developmental workshop at the EXIT Theatre. I've been hard at work this month in a whirlwind rehearsal process, and we open tonight!

If you're in the Bay Area, I'd be honored if you can attend, especially as this script is still in development and we will be soliciting audience feedback. (There's a space for comments on the back of the playbill, and there'll be talk-backs after the Friday performances.) I'll be at all of the shows, too, so please feel free to say hello if you're there.

The details:
  • Directed by Gabriel A. Ross, dramaturgy by Allie Moss, tech by Linda Huang
  • Cast: Terry Bamberger as Susan, Maria Giere Marquis as Laura, and Jason W. Wong as Greg
  • 6 performances: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM, April 13-22
  • All performances at the EXIT Studio, 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco, near the Powell BART/MUNI station
  • Facebook event
  • Tickets 
Hope to see you there!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Sentimental Journey through France and Austria: "The Baltimore Waltz" at Magic Theatre

Anna (Lauren English) gets a diagnosis from The Third Man (Greg Jackson)
while her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone) looks on. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Last night, after I saw Magic Theatre’s production of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, I waited for a bus in a driving rainstorm and eavesdropped on two middle-aged women discussing Trump’s airstrike in Syria. “I’m just waiting for World War III to start,” said one. “Yeah, I look up and expect a nuclear bomb to fall on us any day now,” said the other. I’ve been having similar thoughts—how could I not? I’m about to turn 30 and I have serious doubts that I will make it to 40. And in response, I’ve thought a lot about chucking it all and going on a hedonistic spree—traveling and eating good food and hobnobbing with interesting people. Voraciousness in the face of death.

So I can relate to Anna, the heroine of The Baltimore Waltz, an American woman in her early 30s who receives a fatal diagnosis of Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD) and responds by taking a tour of the great cities of Europe and having a lot of sex. Lauren English’s performance as Anna shows a woman shaking off her good-girl inhibitions and letting her instincts drive her. Accompanying Anna on her European trip is her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone, precise and dapper in flannel pajamas, velvet slippers, and a suit jacket). Every other character in the show—doctors, waiters, European locals—is played by Greg Jackson, who seems to have made a specialty of quick-change comic versatility: his bio also lists credits for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and The 39 Steps.

Carl & Anna in the Parisian croissant-bed. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
There’s a strong sense of whimsy to The Baltimore Waltz, as Carl and Anna travel through a primary-colored, storybook version of Europe. (It’s probably significant that both characters work with children in their day jobs: he is a children’s librarian and she is a first-grade teacher.) In Paris, the headboard of the bed is decorated with croissants and the stagehands wear berets; in Amsterdam, the bed has a tulip-patterned coverlet and the stagehands wear Dutch bonnets.

Indeed, if The Baltimore Waltz were ever made into a movie, I think it should be directed by Wes Anderson, that most whimsical of filmmakers. It already features a lot of Anderson motifs: a caper-style plot, train journeys with stylish luggage, Central European bellhops who wear those funny little caps, characters who seem suspended between childhood and adulthood, allusions to classic cinema (The Third Man, in this case). This production reinforces the Anderson connection by having the actors take their bows to Joe Dassin’s song “Les Champs-Elysées,” which also plays at the end of The Darjeeling Limited. 

The trick with whimsy in theater or cinema, of course, is to employ it in service of a deeper emotion. Eventually, The Baltimore Waltz reveals that there is a heartbreaking reason for all of the kookiness and stereotypes of Carl and Anna’s European trip. Childlike escapist fantasies can be a defense mechanism against real, adult pain.

The Baltimore Waltz plays at Magic Theatre through April 16, 2017. I received a free ticket through the Magic Theatre’s press office.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Script Reading Roundup: Foote, Shakespeare, Goldman

In this month's edition of Script Reading Roundup (brief thoughts on plays that I've read): three plays about British Isles royalty and one play about a little old lady from Texas.

The Trip to BountifulThe Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I’ve waited a long time. Just to get to Bountiful. Twenty years I’ve been walkin’ the streets of the city, lost and grieving. And as I’ve grown older and my time approaches, I’ve made one promise to myself, to see my home again… before I die…”

Such is the premise of Horton Foote’s elegiac drama The Trip to Bountiful. Mrs. Carrie Watts lives in a cramped apartment in Houston with her kind but weak-willed son Ludie and her frivolous, overbearing daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. For years, she has been trying to sneak away to her East Texas hometown, Bountiful, and each time, her relatives catch her before she can leave Houston. But one day…

The Trip to Bountiful is largely a touching character study, but there is a surprising amount of suspense as we watch to see how Mrs. Watts will make her escape. I also liked how Mrs. Watts is kind of an opaque figure during Act One (which is dominated by Jessie Mae’s chattering) but comes into her own when she sets out on her journey.

Admittedly, it’s disconcerting to see that according to the stage directions, Mrs. Watts is only 60. She seems much older than the 60-year-old women I know nowadays; indeed, in recent productions, the role is often taken by a more elderly actress. (Cicely Tyson was 88 when she played Mrs. Watts on Broadway in 2013!) At any rate, it is a lovely role for an older lady who can project an unpretentious, middle-American dignity. It is not a “diva” role; quite the opposite.

Another Southern writer famously said “You can’t go home again.” The Trip to Bountiful complicates that statement: when Mrs. Watts returns to Bountiful, she finds it diminished, abandoned, a ghost town. But nonetheless, it is still home.

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All right, Shakespeare, you win: I don’t hate Macbeth. But it took me a long time to get to this point. As a teenager, I saw a terrible production of Macbeth and then acted in a terrible production of Macbeth; later, I saw a few more productions that didn’t do much to change my prejudiced mind, and wrote an essay about how Macbeth is the most over-produced Shakespeare play merely because every middle-aged white male actor thinks he should play the Thane of Cawdor. By that point, my hatred of Macbeth had hardened into a kind of shtick: I found it amusingly contrarian to say I hated this play that everyone else seems to adore, so I played up my dislike for it.

But I’m nearly 30 now, so the time has come to put away childish things and admit on the Internet that Macbeth is never going to be my favorite Shakespeare play, but I certainly don’t think it’s bad.

How did I get to this point? Seeing Sleep No More in New York City helped—it’s not every Shakespeare play that lends itself to transformation into a physical-theater gothic-noir haunted house. The introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition helped, or at least allowed me to forgive my high-school drama teachers for not doing any cross-gender casting (which resulted in me playing a non-speaking ensemble member while boys who couldn’t speak blank verse played all the thanes). The Pelican editor, Stephen Orgel, digs deep into how the play presents women as a disruptive or antagonistic force, and managed to convince me that putting female thanes in Macbeth might well make a hash of its themes. Reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human helped; one of my objections to Macbeth was always that the minor characters do not have much personality, but Bloom suggests that that’s intentional. If the “secondary males in the play” are “wrapped in a common grayness,” Bloom says, it is only so that we more readily identify with Macbeth and “journey inward to [his] heart of darkness.” Or, in other words: Marissa, stop thinking that you’ve found a flaw in Shakespeare; the man was a genius and he knew exactly what he was doing.

So, all right: assuming that competent actors play them, Macbeth and his Lady are fascinating characters. The play moves swiftly and its language obsessively focuses on a few major threads of imagery: blood, shipwrecks, birds, sleep, nighttime and darkness. That imagery, plus the supernatural elements, give Macbeth a unique atmosphere among Shakespeare’s plays, even though I hate it when productions focus on the supernatural bits at the expense of everything else. (A pitfall that has beset Macbeth almost from the start, it seems; the Hecate character is an interpolation by Thomas Middleton. Jacobean audiences couldn’t get enough of those witches!) The scene where Macduff learns the news of his family’s death will wreck me every time. And, even though we know Macbeth is a murderous tyrant who deserves what’s coming to him, Shakespeare somehow makes us sympathize with his paranoia, terror, and nihilism.

I still think Macbeth is not a great choice to produce in a high school or college setting. And I still think there are probably too many productions of it overall.

But no, I don’t hate it.

CymbelineCymbeline by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t recount the plot of Cymbeline out loud without bursting into giggles. Which is kind of odd: this play is not really considered a comedy in the same way as A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night are, yet I can describe the stories of those plays with a straight face. Cymbeline, though… when I try to explain the sequence of events that result in the heroine waking up next to a headless body and mistaking it for that of her husband, I can’t stop laughing.

As other people have said, this play feels like what would result if you fed all of Shakespeare’s other plays into an extremely intelligent super-computer and asked it to produce something “Shakespearean.” It’s easy to imagine that Shakespeare knew he was at the end of his career and decided to play around with his pet motifs, including some winks at the audience. I mean, the play begins with two unnamed lords saying, basically, “Remember when King Cymbeline’s two little boys vanished without a trace? I wonder what happened to them.” (Gee, do you think that’ll become important later on in the story?) And by the end, Shakespeare has thrown so many plotlines into the play that it takes a scene nearly 500 lines long to resolve everyone’s story.

Very little in Cymbeline is profound, but a lot of it is awfully fun. Princess Imogen is a delightful heroine, the role of the self-involved dolt Prince Cloten can be hilarious in the right hands, and there are many other nice opportunities for comedians and character actors. The most difficult role is probably that of Imogen’s husband Posthumus, because it’s very hard to feel sympathy for him after he makes a wager on his wife’s fidelity. (One possible solution, which I saw in a production in summer 2015: portray Posthumus as extremely drunk at the time he makes the wager.) Overall, I think Cymbeline can be a charming, amusing, and unexpected choice for summertime Shakespeare in the Park companies, or for high schools who don’t want to stage Twelfth Night or Midsummer for the umpteenth time. Because, trust me, it’s as funny as either of them.

The Lion in WinterThe Lion in Winter by James Goldman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where has The Lion in Winter been all my life? Why didn’t I read it when I was 16 years old and equally obsessed with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (It really reads like a cross between those two plays.) As a lover of eloquent dialogue, larger-than-life characters, handsome men and strong women, why did I wait so long to encounter this brilliance?

James Goldman’s play is based on real-life political intrigues involving King Henry II, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three ambitious sons, and the French royal family, though with dramatic license taken to make it juicier. Taking place over a period of less than 24 hours, the plot is a complex swirl of alliances, manipulations, and betrayals, with various territories, marriages, and thrones used as bargaining chips.

Goldman makes no attempt to write dialogue that sounds “medieval,” or to replicate the exact circumstances of court life in 1183. (The royal family decks the halls with Christmas holly themselves—there are no servants or minor courtiers to be seen.) But at the same time, he grants his characters their full measure of dignity and charisma. He humanizes them but he does not cut them down to size. They are wittier, more attractive, more passionate, more conniving than everyday people, and I love all of these glorious monsters.

In one of the play’s most famous lines, Eleanor shouts “Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is eleven eighty-three and we’re barbarians.” And indeed, the metaphor I keep thinking of to describe this play is a jeweled dagger. It is elegant and cutting, hard and glittering, extravagant and yet just right.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

After All, Miss, This is France: Historical Accuracy and the New "Beauty and the Beast"

I saw the new live-action Beauty and the Beast on Saturday and I've been overthinking it ever since. (This is what happens when a bookish Millennial girl with degrees in Drama and French sees a remake of a beloved childhood classic about a bookish French girl.) So I have a few things to say about the adaptation, the changes it makes, and its historical accuracy or lack thereof.

Are you reading Shakespeare there? (CGI) Dan Stevens as the Beast, Emma Watson as Belle.
I appreciated some of the changes to the new version: the filling in of plot holes, and the attempt to show more of how Belle and the Beast's relationship develops. To that end, the filmmakers have included scenes where the characters bond over Shakespeare. (Belle is pleased to be living with a fellow book-lover and reads to the Beast from Midsummer's "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" speech.) Cute, but also rather anachronistic. In France in the 1700s, it's just possible that the Beast might have translated versions of Shakespeare's plays in that vast library of his, but it's unlikely that both he and Belle would revere Shakespeare above all other authors. At that time, the French still saw Shakespeare as déclassé, an uncultured Englishman writing sprawling plays that did not respect the all-important Three Unities. Belle and the Beast would be much more likely to read and discuss literature from their own country: the plays of Racine and Corneille, or maybe the essays of Montaigne. It's fun to imagine them reading Corneille's The Illusion, a play that has themes about artifice and looking deeper, and features a magic mirror that can show you what your loved ones are doing! (Also, it's a delightful play that was far ahead of its time.)

Another change in the new version is the addition of a lot of unnecessary backstory about Belle's family. We learn that Belle and her father Maurice moved to their "provincial" village when she was a baby, after her mother died of the plague. At first, this sounds slightly odd: wasn't plague a medieval disease, and doesn't this movie take place in the 1700s? (Why not smallpox or tuberculosis?) However, there were scattered outbreaks of plague long after the medieval Black Death epidemic, including a really devastating one in Marseille in 1720 (the Great Plague of Marseille). And if we assume that that outbreak killed Belle's mother, and further assume that Belle is about 20 years old when the main action of Beauty and the Beast takes place, we can pinpoint the exact setting of the film as 1740 — which was the year the original French "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale was published! Brilliant!

The only problem with this theory is that the film makes clear that Belle and Maurice are from Paris, not Marseille, and as far as I can tell from Wikipedia, there were no Parisian plague outbreaks in the 1700s. I am left angrily shaking my fist at the screenwriters: "It would have been so easy to say they are from Marseille and not Paris and it would have been a great Easter egg for us history nerds!"

I suspect that both of these matters — having Belle and the Beast discuss Shakespeare, and saying that Belle and Maurice come from Paris — can be traced to a larger problem with movies made for mass audiences: the fear of including information that isn't 100% familiar to everyone. Belle and Maurice are Parisian, not Marseillais, because American audiences can be trusted to know where Paris is but may have never heard of Marseille. Belle and the Beast read Shakespeare, not Racine or Corneille, because those French authors are not part of Anglo-American culture. (I do like that they also show the Beast reading Arthurian romances; this strikes me as historically plausible, understandable to a modern American audience, and not quite as much of a lazy choice as Shakespeare.) Perhaps this is even why Belle's mother dies of the plague, rather than of something like tuberculosis. I suppose I shouldn't be looking to a nostalgia-flavored Disney remake to expose people to unfamiliar ideas, but it makes me sad when mass culture doesn't take the opportunity to try to tell a mass audience something they may not have heard before.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"The Bell" by Iris Murdoch is a perfect English novel

Last November, I joined a book club for the first time. There's about 6 of us, we meet once a month, we focus on literary fiction. I had worried about what it would mean to outsource a significant portion of my literary reading to the dictates of the club, but I've discovered some wonderful books and authors through it. Like Iris Murdoch!

 The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love stories in which people retreat from the world with noble intentions, only to find that sex gets in the way. I love English novels where attractive young men go bathing naked in the woods and then other characters run across them and nothing will ever be the same. I love novels that are purportedly “character-driven” and “philosophical,” yet have a climax in which a whole lot of crazy stuff happens, and it’s shocking and inevitable all at once. I love novels with a vein of black comedy running through them that is so subtle, and so dark, that no one else in my book club thought it was a comedy at all. I love it when an author can make me hate a minor character* so much that I write Bastard in the margin practically every time he appears. I love it when an author sees through to the heart of her characters, especially when she reveals their self-deceptions and mixed motivations. I love novels in which there are patterns and symbols galore, waiting to be deciphered, yet the characters and their predicaments feel real, not the product of an airless literary exercise.

All of this is to say that I loved The Bell and I definitely want to check out more of Iris Murdoch’s huge oeuvre. (I shouldn't really be surprised; one of my most-read authors is A.S. Byatt, who was Murdoch’s protégée.) As I noted above, Murdoch is skilled at both plotting and characterization; I was also really impressed by how she sets the scene. Most of The Bell takes place in a single location: an English country house and its surroundings, which include a moat-like lake, some outbuildings, and a convent of enclosed nuns. Murdoch describes this fictional setting so precisely that I could draw you a detailed map of it, or wander through it in my imagination. Of course, when I do that, I also can’t help picturing her characters, with all their contradictions and foibles, running around the landscape too.

*Paul Greenfield, in this instance

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Iambs and Anagrams and Anapests, Oh My

Some sentences from my reading that have jumped out at me lately.
[Leon had said] "I can't help but picture an armada of floating parties." But the men were serious and reserved and afraid of pirates.
—From Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
This stopped me in my tracks, and not in a good way. In my copy of Station Eleven, the word "pirates" is printed almost directly below the word "parties," and I got weirdly distracted when I realized they were anagrams. Was it intentional wordplay? Inadvertent? What did it mean? I'm inclined to think it was unintentional (I'm enjoying Station Eleven, but its prose is not flashy or full of wordplay) and that an editor should have noticed how distracting it is. Then again, it can take a few editing passes to spot something like this. I like to think I have a good ear, yet I nonetheless wrote a line of dialogue containing the words "tectonics" and "ironic" (yeowch! inadvertent rhyme!) in my latest script, and didn't notice it till an actor read it aloud.
There's some pocket of rot in the oak of their soul that can only be patched up by watches.
From the March 20 New Yorker article on watch collecting, by Gary Shteyngart.
No, wait, forget what I said above about wordplay being distracting and worthy of removal by an editor. This sentence, this I love. The metaphor! The assonance and slant rhymes! The anapests! All in a sentence that purportedly was not even composed by Shteyngart, but is a quote from a watch-collecting acquaintance of his! I read it while on MUNI and then wanted to run around the city chanting it. It reminded me of another New Yorker sentence that had a similar effect on me, from an April 2014 article on caving, by Burkhard Bilger: "Their digestif has come to grief against a fissure wall." Perfect iambic rhythm and a jaunty internal rhyme on "digestif" and "grief"!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

We'll Serve Anyone (Meaning Anyone) At All

I was rereading Macbeth this weekend and realized that the conceit of the Porter's first speech is basically the same as that of "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd -- making grimly satirical jokes about various British professions, that is, though in a context of damnation rather than cannibalism.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Feminist Defense of LA LA LAND

Mia (Emma Stone) strides ahead of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
La La Land is one of the most talked-about, most awarded, and most love-it-or-hate-it films of 2016. But in all the critical conversation, I feel like something’s been overlooked: if it wins Best Picture in six hours or so, it’ll be the first Best Picture winner in over a decade to feature a female protagonist.

Much of the La La Land criticism I’ve seen focuses on the male lead, a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and his “out-of-touch,” “white-savior” attitude toward jazz music. Comparatively little attention has been devoted to the female lead, a struggling actress named Mia (Emma Stone). Often, when that happens, it's because the female character is no more than an accessory or a prize for the man—something that still happens depressingly often in prestigious Hollywood movies.

But I want to argue that La La Land is really Mia’s story, and that the movie subtly but persistently centers her perspective. Partly, this is because Stone acts circles around Gosling (IMO). Partly, this is because of my personal connection to the character of Mia: she is a woman in her mid-twenties who self-produces an original play and dates a jazz musician, which were also the defining events of my mid-twenties. But mostly, I think, it’s due to the inherent structure of the film.

Literally and figuratively, La La Land is Mia's story before it is Sebastian's. Her character, her life, her ambitions are introduced to us first. Moreover, her introductory sequence shows her as sympathetic and relatable: she gets coffee spilled on her, gives a thoughtful performance at an audition only to be ignored, goes out to a party with her pals, and gets caught in a jam when her car is towed and her phone dies. Sebastian's introductory scenes make him out to be a far less sympathetic character: his sister calls him out for his jazz-snob pretensions, and he gets fired from a gig as a restaurant pianist because he sees the job as beneath him and can't resist going into jazz improvisations when he was hired to play Christmas tunes. I don’t agree with the charge that La La Land takes an un-critical view of Sebastian; I think the film is well aware of his character flaws. It wants us to think that his attitude to jazz is kind of arrogant, while still being happy for him when he finds professional success.

As the film continues, Mia's backstory is fleshed out more than Sebastian's is. She's the character who gets to sing a climactic solo song, "Audition (The Ones Who Dream)," whose lyrics sum up the movie's message. And I read the fantasy sequence at the end as her fantasy, a trip through her thoughts. (It resembles an old movie musical because Mia loves old movies.) Significantly, Mia gets a surname, “Dolan,” while Sebastian only gets a nickname, “Seb.”

I’ve seen the criticism that Mia succeeds only because of Sebastian: he's the person who suggests that she write and produce a show, and who convinces her to go to the audition that makes her a star. But, while Seb bucks her up when she doubts herself, it’s false to say that her success is entirely due to his influence. Take it from one who knows: self-producing a play is a huge task that requires a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice. And the film doesn’t indicate that Seb gives Mia any practical help with her show, just occasional words of encouragement. Her own talents and ambitions are what allow her to complete the project.

Furthermore, La La Land shows Sebastian benefiting from Mia's advice, too. His longtime dream is to open up a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick” on the site of a storied former jazz venue that is now a tapas bar. Mia tries to persuade him that “Chicken on a Stick” is a terrible name and that he should consider other locations, but Sebastian seems unmoved. At the end of the movie, though, we see that Sebastian has opened his club, it's in a different location, and it has the name that Mia suggested—“Seb's.” Sebastian's instincts were right when it came to Mia's career, but Mia's instincts were also right when it came to Sebastian's.

Sebastian and Mia look at the stars.
It’s even possible to read the middle of La La Land as a comment on the imbalance of emotional labor in heterosexual relationships. As Mia puts her one-woman show together and Sebastian goes on tour with a jazz-funk ensemble, their relationship becomes more distant and strained. To heal the breach, he suggests that she should join him for a leg of the tour. However, this implies a lack of respect for the work that she is making, which requires her to stay in Los Angeles. (She is self-producing a one-woman show that opens in two weeks and you expect her to fly off to freaking Idaho for you, Seb?) And, while Seb casually asks Mia to drop everything and go on tour with him, he isn't willing to drop out of a band photo shoot in order to see her show. It's not tit-for-tat; it's Sebastian asking Mia to make a sacrifice that he proves unwilling to make himself.

Indeed, La La Land captures the essential loneliness of being a jazzman’s girlfriend. The nights where he's up on stage playing music for swing dancers so you learn to swing dance, too, because otherwise you'd have nothing to do. The fear that he will always love his music more than you, that it will always come first. (My ex didn't like it if I phoned him before 10 PM because it might interrupt his practicing.) Seb thinks it’s disrespectful to talk over jazz music—my ex thought it was disrespectful if I read a book while he and his combo played jazz in a cocktail lounge.

The end of La La Land flashes forward to five years after Mia and Sebastian have gone their separate ways. Our overall impression is that Mia has moved on, while Sebastian hasn't. She has a husband, a baby, her face on billboards, and a room at the Chateau Marmont. Sebastian, it seems, is still single and living in the same apartment. But, when Mia unexpectedly encounters Sebastian at his jazz club, she allows herself to imagine the life they could have had together. Not only does this sequence allow us into Mia’s head in a way that we never are allowed inside Sebastian’s, but also, as this Vogue piece points out, it’s a fantasy of having it all. Mia imagines Sebastian accompanying her to her film shoot in Paris; she doesn’t imagine turning down a career opportunity in order to stay with him.

Admittedly, I wish La La Land gave us more information about what happened to Mia during those five years (and I wish Emma Stone did more to distinguish thirtysomething movie-star Mia from twentysomething struggling-actress Mia). What kinds of roles is Mia playing, how did she meet her husband, is she still writing? But that's because I came to love her character and therefore am hungry to know more about her. Her journey is longer than Seb's and takes her further. I don't feel particularly curious about Seb's life in those five years.

Decades of Hollywood movies have told women that love is the only thing worth having—a message that can be very damaging. Look at some other popular movie musicals that feature aspiring-actress protagonists. Funny Girl is the story of Fanny Brice’s abject, masochistic love for a no-good man. Moulin Rouge suggests that the upside of Satine’s tragic death is that it makes her boyfriend into a true artist. Never do we get the sense that La La Land’s Mia is just there to serve as her boyfriend's muse. And the overall message of the film is refreshingly modern and realistic: it says that love is wonderful and magical, but it’s not more important than your career. That the world needs dreamers, but you need to back up your dreams with hard work and patience.

I recognize that the feminism of La La Land isn't at all radical or intersectional: its female lead is young, white, straight, and beautiful. Nonetheless, I remain mystified as to why so many people are reading it as the story of a self-absorbed white-guy jazz pianist with a girlfriend who happens to be an actress. Why do people fail to recognize that Mia is the real protagonist, that her art matters as much as Sebastian’s does, and that his self-absorption is precisely why their relationship could never work long-term? Have we become so used to narratives that center the male perspective that we can't even recognize a female-centered story when it shows up before us, singing and dancing in Technicolor Cinerama?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

E. Gorey's Book of Practical Cats

It's Edward Gorey's birthday! The delightfully macabre writer and illustrator would have been 92 years old today. As a small token of appreciation, I'm posting my review of the edition of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats that features Gorey's artwork.

The Rum Tum Tugger and his long-suffering owner. Illustration by Edward Gorey.
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the musical Cats on Broadway at the age of 5, but I’d never sat down and read the T.S. Eliot poems that inspired the musical and constitute most of its lyrics. If you can banish the Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies from your head, many of the poems still make for amusing reading. Eliot is able to capture both the mischievousness and the dignity of housecats. The poems about aged cats “Old Deuteronomy” and “Gus the Theater Cat” are touching, and the characterization of “Macavity” as a cat version of Professor Moriarty is great fun.

I’d be wary of giving these poems to a 21st-century child, though: there is some racism against “foreign” animals (Siamese and Persian cats, and Pekingese dogs), and there is only one lady cat who gets a poem devoted to her (the “Old Gumbie Cat,” Jennyanydots).

The reason I bought this edition was its charming Edward Gorey illustrations: Gorey was a famed cat-lover, so this is a perfect match of illustrator and subject. (I particularly like the exasperated expressions on the faces of the Rum Tum Tugger’s owners, and the illustration of Macavity in an opium-den-like environment eating Beluga caviar.) Wouldn’t it be nice if the set and costume design of Cats had drawn inspiration from Gorey’s elegant, whimsical style, rather than going for that tacky ‘80s look?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Reading McCraney's Brother/Sister Plays

In honor of Black History Month and Tarell Alvin McCraney's Oscar nomination for the Moonlight screenplay, I decided to read his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, which had been sitting on my shelf for a while. These plays made a big impression on me when I saw them in the Bay Area in Fall 2010, but I hadn't revisited them since then. (Click my "Tarell Alvin McCraney" tag to see my earlier posts about this trilogy.) Interesting that, in many cases, my opinions about these plays have remained the same, even though it's 6+ years later and I was reading the scripts instead of seeing them produced!

The Brother/Sister PlaysThe Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(4 stars for In the Red & Brown Water; 5 stars for The Brothers Size; 3 stars for Marcus.)

It’s not every day that a twentysomething playwright writes an ambitious trilogy that blends spoken stage directions, free-verse poetry, Yoruba mythology, and contemporary slang to tell the stories of an African-American community in the Louisiana bayou. But that’s Tarell Alvin McCraney’s achievement in his Brother/Sister Plays.

In the Red & Brown Water is our introduction to this world, and to McCraney’s inimitable voice. However, while the play’s style is unexpected and powerful, the story is kind of clichéd. Oya, the heroine, is torn between two men—the boring but reliable Ogun and the seductive but fickle Shango—and spends most of the second act despondent over her inability to get pregnant. Points to McCraney for trying to write a female-centered play, but I’m not sure he understands women as well as he understands men.

Ogun returns as one of the title characters of The Brothers Size, the trilogy’s centerpiece and masterwork. It is a tightly focused, 3-character drama with an ending that I find almost unbearably moving. The play delves deep into Ogun’s relationship with his younger brother Oshoosi, a charming fuck-up who recently got out of the penitentiary. Toward the end, the brothers lip-synch to a song—the script does not specify what song to use, but when I saw The Brothers Size at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 2010, the production used Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” I can’t imagine a better song choice: this play is really all about the tenderness and vulnerability of black men, the love they have for one another, in a society that refuses to acknowledge that tenderness. (In this, The Brothers Size has some similarities with Moonlight, the acclaimed 2016 film that is based on a different McCraney play.)

Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet has a more lighthearted tone than the other two plays. It depicts the next generation of the community, centering on Marcus, a 16-year-old boy coming to terms with the fact that he is “sweet” (gay). While the play has many charming moments, I find it kind of imbalanced in terms of its structure. An important character shows up out of nowhere at the start of the second act, and the characters talk a lot about how a hurricane is about to hit, but the hurricane never arrives.