Friday, February 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day!

There's something special about an event that comes only once every four years--and February 29 is less hyped-up than the Olympics and less stressful than the presidential elections. Yes, it's Leap Day! And it always makes me recall Leap Day 2000, one of the more eventful days of my life up till then.

February 29, 2000, was opening night of our junior high school play, The Comedy of Errors. I played Doctor Pinch, a charlatan-conjurer trying to cure some people of their supposed madness. As our production took place in the Wild West, Dr. Pinch became an insane schoolmarm. (I designed the program to read "Dr. Pinch, an insane schoolmarm.")

I was a little annoyed to have such a small role (six lines, one scene) when I felt that I had paid my dues in other drama productions and planned to become a Great Actress when I grew up. Still, I got along very well with the other cast members, and made myself useful by helping people memorize their lines. Thus I became known as a very quick study, memorizing practically the entire play just by virtue of hearing it so often.

At least three of us actors were in the same first-period English (excuse me, Language Arts) class. On the morning of February 29, the two others stayed in the classroom while I went off to the library to work independently. (My teacher was happy for me to go off and do independent projects, which was good, because I couldn't stand her teaching style.) When I came back as class ended, my friend Hannah pulled me aside. "Natalie went home sick," she said.

"Yeah?" I said. "So?"

"No, listen, Natalie went home sick. Someone's going to have to take her part now, and it'll have to be you, because you're the only person who's not in the last scene, and we know you can memorize it."

I sprang into action. Suddenly I wanted the day to be over, all classes done, so I could swoop in and save the show from disaster! I have a bit of a hero complex, which was especially pronounced back when I was an arrogant 12-year-old. I found Natalie's role in my script--she was playing "Balthazar," a merchant, who has some short lines of dialogue and one 22-line speech. Later in the day my drama teacher gave me the go-ahead to take on the role of Balthazar, and for the next several hours I worked on drumming that 22-line speech into my head.

I don't remember how I got word that Natalie actually would be well enough to perform. Did someone phone me when I was at home after school? or did I merely find out when I got to the theater that night? Anyway, everyone thanked me for being so willing to help out; and, reduced once again to plain old Dr. Pinch, I got into costume and performed my one scene.

The cast went out for ice cream afterwards at Baskin Robbins, where we started gossiping, and one girl said that she had a crush on the guy who played Antipholus of Syracuse. When she said that, I suddenly realized that I had a crush on him too, which was perhaps an even more emotionally thrilling moment than what had happened earlier, when I thought I was going to "save the show"... a strange moment of perfect clarity, where I turned away from the rest of the group and something changed within me. One moment, I was sure I didn't have a crush on anyone; the next, I was sure I was madly in love with my fellow actor. Blame it on hormones, I guess? I'm never like that anymore: nowadays, when I have a crush, I second-guess and overanalyze everything. O for the innocent clarity I had at twelve years old!

The following night, another actress (playing the Courtesan) got sick, but I couldn't replace her this time, since the Courtesan and Dr. Pinch appear in the same scene. This disappointed me a little, but since I had gotten my "hero complex" out of my system the day before, plus I was newly in love and thus preoccupied, I can't remember being too angry about it.

Here is a photo of our Comedy of Errors cast, recently posted on Facebook by another person who was in the play. I am the girl wearing the gigantic straw hat.

And now it's eight years later, it's Leap Day again, and I am preparing for opening night of our Dynamo show, There Was No Time Before the War. Just as with Dr. Pinch, my role tonight has one scene and six lines--a nice connection to that eventful day eight years ago. But no one's gotten sick, I have absolutely no desire to "save the show" even if someone were to fall ill, I'm no longer great at memorizing lines, and I don't get those uncomplicated pre-teen crushes. The calendar keeps going on its accustomed yearly cycle, with this one wonky Leap Day thrown in every four years; but meanwhile, I've changed.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Voodoo Macbeth!

A quick addendum to my post on Macbeth just because I think it is so very cool: a clip of the infamous "Voodoo" Macbeth, directed by a 20-year-old Orson Welles for the Federal Theater Project. OK, the acting isn't terrific, but it is amazing to be able to see a bit of this legendary production. (Thanks to About Last Night for the link.)

John Houseman, in his book Entertainers and the Entertained, recalls "the selfless fervor that kept us going, night after night, through rehearsals of the Negro Macbeth, in the freezing, barren Harlem winter of 1935-36. There is no theatrical aphrodisiac more potent or satisfying than extreme collective penury." During the rehearsal process, many Harlemites "suspected [the play] of being a deliberate and cruel hoax calculated to ridicule the Negro in the eyes of the white world" but, according to Houseman, opening night was a "triumphal consecration."

People still talk about this production (the novel I'm currently reading, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, even alludes to it) so I am thrilled that a piece of it was preserved for us YouTube viewers of the future!

A Tyrant Bloody-Sceptered: Macbeth at BAM

It's official: the two Shakespeare plays I am most familiar with--the only two I have ever acted in, and the ones I have seen most often--are The Comedy of Errors and Macbeth. Neither are among my favorites, though I do think it's easier to make The Comedy of Errors actually work onstage (so does that make it a "better" play? I don't know). More on that play tomorrow. Anyway, one of my posts from last October rounds up my previous encounters with the Scottish Play, and now I can add to it, since last Sunday my Shakespeare class saw the Patrick Stewart production currently playing at BAM and soon to transfer to Broadway.

We all became skeptical when we read in the program that the performance would last three hours--"It's Shakespeare's shortest tragedy! How can you drag it out to three hours?" we asked each other. And indeed, at intermission we agreed that this was the "pause-iest" Macbeth we had ever seen. My classmates who know more about Shakespearean acting than I do--having studied in London and acted in Vassar's own Macbeth production last fall--pointed out that the acting style was very British, very cerebral, very refined, a lot of thought put into it, but also lots of extraneous pauses. At one point Macbeth says:
Ay, in the catalogue you go for men,
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept
All by the name of dogs.
In Patrick Stewart's rendition, this became "Hounds... and greyhounds... mongrels... spaniels... curs..." The same thing happened when Malcolm lists the "king-becoming graces" in Act 4 scene 3: he took them so slowly ("Justice... Verity... Temperance... Stableness...") that we wondered if he'd forgotten his lines. Later in that same scene, when Macduff learns that his family has been killed, there was a pause, I swear, a minute long, as he reacted to the news. I know that this is supposed to be very moving--it's usually one of my favorite parts of the play--but somehow I wanted to laugh, just because it confirmed what my friends and I had been saying at intermission, about the extreme pauses in this Macbeth. And maybe these long pauses work well in cinema, where you could watch the slightest emotions play over a close-up of Macduff's face, but this doesn't register high up in the balcony at BAM.

At the same time, I was glad that the production tried to give proper weight to this touching scene, and indeed, it got a lot of other things right, in terms of mood, atmosphere, and interpretation. When Duncan arrives at Macbeth's castle, he says "This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air / Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses." Most productions make a hash out of that line because they've designed Macbeth's castle to be the darkest, grimiest, spookiest building in Scotland. And maybe it should look that way late at night, during the scenes surrounding Duncan' s murder. But when he first arrives, it's late afternoon, and the Macbeths are doing everything to make him feel comfortable--to lure him into their trap. So I liked how the BAM production made this clear: the lights were warm and bright, and the three witches (who doubled as servants, nurses, etc.) stood around chopping vegetables. The audience realizes that the chopping knives and the witches are vaguely sinister, but poor Duncan is oblivious, and sees only the cheerful kitchen.

Another thing I always complain about with Macbeth, is that it is difficult to distinguish one thane from another. This is the first production I've ever seen that really made an effort to do this--well, most of the thanes were run-of-the-mill "warrior" types, but one, Ross, became a little rotund fellow with glasses and a briefcase. A political consultant, an "ideas guy"--not a warlord. This made him instantly recognizable and sympathetic: an awkward underdog, out of place in the fascistic world of the play. He even provided some comic relief (which the Porter did not do--being directed to go for scary rage instead of drunken humor).

About the fascistic, Stalinist gloss laid atop the play (including a mustache for Mr. Stewart): well, I do feel that Stalin is becoming a cliché second only to the Nazis in representing "contemporary evil," plus, as my class decided on Monday, setting the play in Russia in the 1950s kind of distances it from us, makes it seem less relevant than it could be. And I felt a cognitive dissonance seeing Cyrillic signs and Russian-language songs added to "the Scottish Play." Still, the text indicates that King Macbeth becomes what we would now call a fascist, and not enough productions of Macbeth emphasize his developing sadistic cruelty. More than just a murderer, he has his whole kingdom living in terror and famine (see Act 3, scene 6). This production found a brilliant way to illustrate this: usually the feast at which Banquo's ghost appears is staged as a jolly royal party, but here, you could tell that Macbeth's guests feared their host. He made threatening gestures toward Ross when Ross took a sip of wine before anyone else did. And that, for me, was more effective at showing Macbeth's tyranny than any allusion to Stalin could ever be.

The whole feast scene was, in fact, terrifically staged, with the intermission coming right in the middle of it, just as Banquo's bloody ghost appeared. After intermission, the actors repeated the first half of the scene in pantomime, but then the ghost did not come out, and we got to see what Macbeth's guests perceive: their king cringing in terror before the empty air. Other coups de théâtre included staging Banquo's murder on a crowded train (so atmospheric!), and the choice to begin the play with the Bloody Captain's report of battle conditions to Duncan, after which his three nurses transform into the three witches. I also liked how the end of the play didn't have a simplistic "Yay, Malcolm is king, everything is happy!" vibe, but emphasized the battle losses and the cycle of violence that begins and ends the play (with a blood-shiny prosthetic "Macbeth head" onstage for the entire last scene).

I liked Patrick Stewart's portrayal of Macbeth and physically he seems much younger than his 67 years, but he was not in good vocal health when I saw him--constantly sounding hoarse. Maybe he was getting over an illness? Using my "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" litmus test: he delivered it well even if, you know, he took a lot of pauses--here, pauses of frustration and rage. Perhaps he was not a tragic figure, but certainly the angriest and most tyrannical Macbeth I have experienced. In general, I was happy to see a production of Macbeth that focused more on the political than on the supernatural, something I think often gets ignored in stagings of this play.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Presenting the Dynamo Theater Lab

You might have noticed that I've been posting less frequently on my blog these days... and if you're really astute, you might have noticed several of my posts concerning my new play are tagged "The Rose of Youth." What's that about? Well, I am in the middle of a very exciting theater project, which has been in its planning stages since last fall, and now has finally begun in earnest!

Dynamo Theater Lab is an experiment in presenting vibrant productions of new plays without needing to invest months of time or heaps of money in them. We will perform three shows, one the play I wrote for my senior thesis, The Rose of Youth. We are a 15-member ensemble that does everything ourselves: casting, acting, designing, directing... whatever we need to do to get these plays on their feet!

I'm one of the "original" Dynamo members, the four senior drama majors who laid the groundwork for this last fall. The idea originated with my friend Rachel, who then got the rest of us on board. What's nice is that we all approach theater from a different perspective--Thane is an actor, Rachel is a producer/director, Molly is a designer, and I'm a playwright--so we complemented each other well. We also sought variety in our three shows:
  • Bastard Nation is a fast-paced satire about America, immigration, Wal-Mart, Christianity, and mad cow disease, by Hudson Valley playwright John Christian Plummer. (When the news came out on Monday about the ground beef recall and the fears of mad cow disease, this play suddenly felt prophetic!)
  • There Was No Time Before the War takes place in a dystopian factory--and what's really cool is that the scenes can be performed in any order you like. It's by Jason Platt, who graduated Vassar in 2006.
  • The Rose of Youth (my play) is a backstage drama with a huge cast, about Hallie Flanagan's production of Antony and Cleopatra in 1934.
The schedule of Dynamo is such that we just performed two shows of Bastard Nation yesterday and will begin rehearsals for There Was No Time Before the War tomorrow, and meanwhile, I'm putting the final revisions on The Rose of Youth so we can begin rehearsing it a week from tomorrow! So you'll understand if my blogging continues to be sparse over the following weeks.

Interested in learning more? You can get tickets to Dynamo, read about us in Vassar's student newspaper, and become a fan of us on Facebook!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Whither sophisticated lyrics?

Last week one of my friends asked me if I had ever considered writing musicals and not just plays. "I used to think that that was what I was going to do," I replied. "In high school I even tried writing a musical version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. But I don't know enough about writing music, or music I gave it up. I'd still be interested in writing lyrics though, if I could collaborate with someone else."

"I think you'd be good at it," said my friend, "especially coming up with sophisticated rhymes and allusions--you know, like Dorothy Fields."

This led us to discuss why the art of writing "sophisticated" lyrics peaked around the 1930s and has been in decline ever since. We thought of Fields' "Never Gonna Dance" (admittedly the lyrics are a bit odd, but the song as a whole works wonderfully):
Have I a heart that acts like a heart,
Or is it a crazy drum,
Beating the weird tattoos
Of the St. Louis Blues?
Have I two eyes to see your two eyes
Or see myself on my toes
Dancing to radios
Or Major Edward Bowes?
or her absolutely delightful "I Won't Dance":
When you dance, you're charming and you're gentle
'Specially when you do the Continental
But this feeling isn't purely mental
For heaven rest us,
I'm not asbestos

And that's why
I won't dance, why should I?
I won't dance, how could I?
I won't dance, merci beaucoup
I know that music leads the way to romance,
So if I hold you in my arms I won't dance
or any number of lyrics from Ira Gershwin (here, "They All Laughed")
They all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Now they're fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat
Hershey and his chocolate bar
Ford and his Lizzie
Kept the laughers busy
That's how people are
or Cole Porter (with "You're the Top" perhaps the all-time pinnacle of this kind of lyric writing):
You're the top
You're an Arrow collar
You're the top
You're a Coolidge dollar
You're the nimble tread
Of the feet of Fred Astaire
You're an O'Neill drama
You're Whistler's mama
You're Camembert
But this style of lyric seems to have become less and less frequent, perhaps to have died out entirely. Yes, Stephen Sondheim has written sophisticated, clever, perfectly rhymed lyrics long after Fields, Gershwin and Porter stopped, but his are sophisticated in a different way. Maybe "The Ladies Who Lunch" is Sondheim's version of a Cole Porter-ish urbane list song, but it originates out of Joanne's drunken self-loathing, rather than just being a witty showpiece like "You're the Top." In general, Sondheim's songs are too psychologically acute to be mistaken for these popular hits of the '30s.

My friend and I thought of several reasons why these kind of lyrics have died out. First, there are just fewer musical comedies being written; for a long time in the 1980s and 1990s, the most popular shows were Lloyd Webber-style pop operas. There are perhaps a few clever lyrics in those shows (we thought of Evita's "They need to adore me / So Christian Dior me") but in general they don't allow much humor.

The musical comedy was revived with The Producers, but it, and many shows that followed, are set in past decades, so they can't make contemporary allusions. I feel that Mel Brooks would write some gleefully vulgar lyrics incorporating names of current celebrities, if only The Producers wasn't set in the 1950s and Young Frankenstein in the 1930s. Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors find some clever rhymes in their early-1960s setting, but I'd love to hear what the lyricists of these shows could do with a story set in the 21st century. (Or could have done. RIP Howard Ashman.)

Third, the art of making rhymes about contemporary events, celebrities, and trends has been taken over by rappers. From Kanye West's "Jesus Walks": "The way school needs teachers / The way Kathie Lee needed Regis / That's the way I need Jesus." Now, that's not a perfect rhyme, but it's in the spirit of the 1930s lyricists and their clever allusions to current cultural phenomena.

In the end, the only modern musical-comedy song we could think of that sort of replicates the 1930s lyrical style is "Great Big Stuff" from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And it's a rap song--as if the only way to get away with these lyrics nowadays is to set them to rap music.
A house in the Bahamas
Paisley silk pajamas
Poker with Al Roker and our friend Lorenzo Lamas
Chillin' in the city
Sittin' pretty in the Caddy
With P. Daddy
Or Puff Diddy
Or whatever!
These lyrics require contemporary knowledge to get the joke (Mr. Sean Combs' ever-changing nom de rap) and shamelessly cite D-list celebrities just for the sake of a rhyme--not far off from what some '30s songwriters were doing. Indeed, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an interesting test case for how to write a musical comedy set in the present day. It takes place on the sophisticated French Riviera and blends skilled old-fashioned songwriting (sincere ballad "Love Sneaks In," peppy charm song "Here I Am") with modern-day vulgarity and pastiche (gross-out "All About Ruprecht," power-ballad parody "Love Is My Legs"). Perhaps even its plot--classy European Lawrence vs. crass American Freddy--reflects an insecurity about the form a modern musical comedy should take.

As a thoroughly modern girl*, it annoys me that so many musical comedies take place in the nostalgic past. It seems to bespeak a dissatisfaction with our own time: "Nothing these days is worth writing songs about, so let's all reminisce about an era when musical comedies were the pinnacle of taste!" But I firmly believe that the art we make helps construct the world we live in. So if we wish the 21st century was more sophisticated--well, why not write sophisticated songs and stories that take place in 2008, and hope that life imitates art?

Because, if you think about it, the 1930s wasn't all-sophisticated either--there was that nasty little event known as the Great Depression. But we remember it as sophisticated in large part because of the work of songwriters like Fields, Porter, and Gershwin. Songs like "You're the Top" help preserve 1930s ephemera that otherwise might have vanished. We need to preserve our own era in song. We need to create a second Golden Age instead of pining for the first one.

*How can Thoroughly Modern Millie be thoroughly modern when it is doubly nostalgic: a 21st-century musical based on a 1960s movie set in the 1920s?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Les folies d'amour

Isn't this a lovely picture? And perfect for Valentine's Day too, I think.

It's the cover of the latest CD from one of my favorite opera singers, Natalie Dessay. The repertoire is all bel canto and Verdi--six long scenes and arias:
  1. E strano! - Ah fors'e lui - Sempre libera (La Traviata)
  2. Elvira's Mad Scene (I Puritani)
  3. Oh nube che lieve - Nella pace del mesto riposo (Maria Stuarda)
  4. Caro nome (Rigoletto)
  5. Eccomi in lieta vesta - Oh quante volte (I Capuleti e i Montecchi)
  6. Lucia's Mad Scene (Lucia di Lammermoor)
I bought the album last week from iTunes and have only listened to it once, but so far am really enjoying it. Dessay puts a very personal touch on the Lucia scene, and her coloratura really does sound like crazy laughter when she sings Elvira's "Vien diletto." You also get a sense of how these arias function onstage, not just as showy recital pieces, because they have been produced with full orchestra, chorus, and other soloists as needed. I love in "Vien diletto" where the two baritone men sing "Il suo dolor, il suo dolor!" (Her sadness, her sadness!) while Dessay's voice soars above them. How diva-ish can one aria get?

Here is a promo video for this album, which bears the prosaic title Italian Opera Arias. This video gives some more enticing alternatives: Six portraits d'heroïnes legendaires (Six Portraits of Legendary Heroines) or my favorite, Natalie Dessay chante les folies de l'amour (Natalie Dessay Sings of Love's Madness).

Photo from

Monday, February 11, 2008

Un dîner théâtral

I just realized that today is the one-year anniversary of my Theatrical French Dinner Party--the one for which I dressed up as La Dame aux Camélias. The wonderful thing about this party is that not only did the guests have to dress as characters from French plays, all the foods made punning references to French drama. I had a great time helping plan, cook, and serve this menu, so I thought I'd share it with you all today.

This is a picture of our beautiful table right before the guests arrived. My host family had gone to the Comédie Française gift shop and bought all kinds of decorations, place cards, etc. Oh, and the little purple ribbon tying each napkin is actually a Ségolène Royal campaign bracelet. My hosts were pretty big Socialists (which is rare among people who live in the ritzy 16th Arrondissement)!


Hors d'oeuvre: Les Champignons farcis de Maître Pathelin (Maître Pathelin's Stuffed Mushrooms). Farci, meaning "stuffed," is related to the word "farce," the theatre genre. (So called because farcical plays are stuffed full of slapstick and jokes.) And La Farce de Maître Pathelin is one of the oldest French plays in existence. The mushrooms were stuffed with garlic and roasted. We also served radishes, olives and fruit punch with the hors d'oeuvres.

Salad: Les Carottes de Gogo et Didi (Gogo and Didi's Carrots). While Waiting for Godot, the two tramps eat a carrot--though this recipe is much nicer than hobo food. The original recipe flavored the carrots with cumin and orange, but I insisted on adding a pinch of tarragon to the mix, because Gogo's full name is "Estragon," which means "tarragon" in French! Served with frisée lettuce and good French bread.

Main course: Le Dindon de Feydeau (Feydeau's Turkey). The famous playwright Georges Feydeau wrote a farce called Le Dindon, which in this case means something like "the fool" or "the butt of the joke." But it also means "turkey"! This was a vapor-cooked turkey breast, served with sauce vierge (an uncooked sauce/garnish of chopped tomatoes, lemon juice, and herbs) as well as steamed zucchini.

Wine: A red Côtes de Bergerac--that is, from Cyrano's home region. I joked that his nose needed to be so big in order to fully smell all the delicious aromas of this wine.

Other beverages: Water, which we called l'eau d'Ondine (she is a water sprite in a Giraudoux play), as well as coffee and tea after dinner.

Dessert: La Tarte Amandine de Ragueneau (Ragueneau's Almond Tart). In Cyrano de Bergerac, Ragueneau is a pastry chef who dreams of being a poet, and he composes a doggerel verse about how to make almond tarts. We didn't follow Ragueneau's recipe, though--we made an even fancier version, consisting of a homemade crust, a thick layer of almond cream, a thin layer of dark chocolate, topped with poached pear slices. Yum! The hit of the evening.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

It's Only "Rock 'n' Roll," And I'm Ambivalent

Two weeks ago my housemate and I went to NYC to see Rock 'n' Roll on Broadway. I started drafting this review as soon as I got back, but my busy student life intervened, and I never got around to posting it. But I'm sick of it sitting in my Drafts folder, so here it is, though slightly less polished than I'd like.

Rufus Sewell as Jan. Photo by Joan Marcus from

Rock 'n' Roll, the new Tom Stoppard play about communism, Czechoslovakia, and the power of music, took a long time to grab me. The first act is long, and mostly consists of scenes of our hero Jan (Rufus Sewell) being politically confused and changing his mind repeatedly. But because these scenes take place in his Prague apartment, we never see the external events that make him change his mind, just hear about them. The play's rhythm feels jerky--static and talky scenes alternating with '60s-'70s rock music during the transitions. Stoppard attempts to add human interest by such actions as having Jan's lover leave him for his best friend. But because we don't care enough about the characters, nor see their relationships fully develop, it all feels very ho-hum.

In addition, I really didn't like Sewell's overdone performance as the young Jan. The play requires Jan to be naive, more concerned with his music collection than with political realities. But in Sewell's portrayal, Jan is more than naive--he is silly. He giggles and shrugs and mugs in a way that is meant to be boyishly charming but just comes off as immature. You can hardly believe that this clown is supposed to have two doctorates in Philosophy.

Stoppard finally proves that he still has great playwriting skill toward the end of Act One. First, there is a monologue that manages to be both touching and intellectual in that Stoppard way: Eleanor, wife of the hard-line Marxist professor Max, is dying of cancer, and rails against her disease and against her husband's belief that human beings are nothing more than their bodies. Actress Sinead Cusack is excellent here. Then, back in Czechoslovakia, Jan discovers that the police have broken into his apartment and destroyed his music collection. The only album he has left is Pet Sounds, because he had loaned it to a friend. "Ah well," Jan says in a choked-up voice, "it's only rock 'n' roll." And begins to pick up the shattered LPs while listening to "Wouldn't It Be Nice"--that song so heartbreaking in its innocent faith that life will be perfect in the future. End of Act One.

Another great song choice begins the second act: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2. One of the biggest hits of 1987, it establishes that the play has jumped forward 10 years, but also lets us know that the characters still feel unfulfilled. Later in that act, The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry" caps an emotional moment. Song choices like these, though, only make you wish that every song used in the play was as effective, as attuned to the characters' situation.

Rock 'n' Roll is an intellectual play, and I think I understand its big theme: human beings are not predictable machines, not cogs in the wheel of a system. Our bodies break down but our minds remain intact (represented by Eleanor); our minds break down but our bodies remain intact (represented by Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett); even the best of us do illogical things like voting for political parties that do not have our best interests at heart. And thus totalitarian systems are doomed to fail.

But the parts of the play that make you lean forward, the parts that you remember after it's done, aren't the long speeches arguing political positions nor the cute metaphors that Stoppard finds to explain the more difficult concepts. Instead, it's the human scenes. It's Jan reconnecting with Max and his daughter Esme after the Iron Curtain falls. Jan, no longer silly and boyish, made grey-haired and hesitant and afraid after years in Communist Czechoslovakia. It's the shattered record collection. It's Eleanor rage-raging against the dying of the light. It's the final moment, where the whole theater turns into the spectators at a Rolling Stones concert--a wonderful moment of communion between the audience and the actors. Communion, not communism. Plus good old-fashioned Western capitalism and rock 'n' roll.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Paris Memories--Old and New

A year ago at this time, I was in Paris...and I still faithfully read some Paris and French-centered blogs. Today, one of my favorites, Polly-Vous Français, linked to a website called Paris Avant, which posts old b&w photos of Paris side by side with recent pictures of the same location.

I clicked on the link and, by chance, today's photo brought back a flood of memories. It is of the Gare de Boulainvilliers, in the 16eme, which was really close to where I, if the photo had been taken from a slightly different position, you'd be able to see my building.

I can't post the image on my site, so you'll have to go to Paris Avant to see it. If there's a new photo up on the front page (they change at noon every day, Paris time), go here to see the Gare de Boulainvilliers.

The site is only available in French, but you can try to search by arrondissement or hunt around for major landmarks. Here is another photo of the 16eme: Rue de Passy, the main shopping street near where I lived. (The modern photo was taken last April...meaning I was still in Paris! I like to think I'm somewhere there, hovering just outside of camera range.)

And here is the bookstore Gibert Jeune on Place St-Michel, one of my old stomping grounds.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Grandma that Lighted My Life

I'm not trying to be morbid here, with two posts in a row that commemorate the deaths of women I've looked up to...but today is the fifth anniversary of the death of my beloved grandmother, and I can't let that pass unmarked.

I called my grandmother "Nonna" because she was of Italian descent--though born in Massachusetts in 1915. And if I had to sum her up in one phrase, it would be "she liked to make people lawf" (note Boston accent). I've often wondered if I inherited my love of theater from her.

She led a good long life with plenty of interesting stories, but my favorite was always the story about how, as a teenager, she and a friend put together a vaudeville act for a charity benefit show. They called themselves "Two Saps from Saugus," sang, danced, and did comedy. My grandma was pretty tall (as am I!) and her friend was short, so they wore costumes that accentuated this difference. Their first song was an original, by Nonna's friend's father--and seventy years later, these were the only lyrics she could remember:
Took a walk in the pa'k
Stole a kiss in the da'k
Like a doggy did ba'k
You're bananas
Bananas, they call me
Wherever I go
What is the reason?
I'd like to know
But, for their encore, they performed the popular hit song "The Spaniard that Blighted My Life." Nonna even banged a tambourine!

By the time I was a little girl, Nonna had forgotten most of "The Spaniard that Blighted My Life," but I was anxious to hear the rest of the song. I became convinced that the words were there somewhere, locked inside her head, and that they would come to her, sometime, when she was falling asleep or not thinking too hard about it...they'd come. Two days after I told her this, she burst into the room I was sharing with my mom, crowing that she'd remembered all the words. I transcribed them, and present them now:
List to me while I tell you
Of the Spaniard that blighted my life
List to me while I tell you
Of the man who said I'd be his wife

Twas at the bullfight I met him
I was watching his daring display
And while I went out for some peanuts and a program
The dirty dog beat it away, Oh!

If I catch Alfonso Spigoni, the Toreador
With a mighty swipe I'll dislocate his bally jaw
I'll find that fighter, I will, I will
The bounder, the blighter I'll kill, I'll kill
He shall die, he shall die
He shall dee-lee-i die-die-die die-die-die die
He shall die, he shall die
Or I'll plant a bunion
On his Spanish onion
If I catch him bending tonight!
Dee-lee-i die die die die, die-die!
Since then I've found the "real" "Spaniard That Blighted My Life" lyrics online, and this YouTube video of a little girl singing it, which gives a better idea of the tune (not all of it came across in my grandma's old-lady voice).

But I still sing the tune and the words I learned directly from Nonna, not the more "correct" version, because it's more personal. After her funeral, five years ago, we had a memorial luncheon, and I sang it there. And recently, I've discovered that it's a great way of making my housemates "lawf" when they are buried under the stress of too many papers. Maybe it would seem weird to an outsider, that I commemorate my grandma with raucous renditions of a vaudeville song about revenge on a cheating Spaniard (who seems to have an Italian name--really, Alfonso Spigoni?). But she would have loved it. Also she'd have loved that today is Mardi Gras--next to making people laugh, her favorite thing was to cook for them. So we're all eating our beignets and sweet things and thinking sweet thoughts about her.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Remembering Wendy Wasserstein

If you had told me in, say, 2004, that Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and Wendy Wasserstein would all die within a twelve-month period, I would have said you were crazy. Sure, Miller was almost 90 years old, but Wilson was in his late 50s and Wasserstein was five years younger than that. However, that sad prediction turned out to be the truth. Wilson never got the chance to show us what he would do after he completed his impressive Century Cycle. Wasserstein's death deprived baby-boomer women of the playwright most devoted to chronicling their stories.

Wasserstein belongs to my mother's generation, but because there still aren't a lot of successful American female playwrights, I looked up to her too. It seems that no one ever had a bad thing to say about her, and I imagined that if I became a playwright, I might get to meet her, thank her, chat with her... So her death really saddened me. I wrote a paper that spring on The Heidi Chronicles, as a homage.

I meant to post this entry on January 30, the second anniversary of Wasserstein's death, but was too busy polishing up a play of my own. Though that's appropriate, too. It's even an instance of my life coming full circle. I just discovered an e-mail I wrote to my adviser two years ago, expressing my sadness about Wasserstein and my excitement to start researching a new play. My adviser wrote back:
I was also shocked to learn of Wendy Wasserstein's death, although I did know that she was seriously ill. Wendy delivered an address in the chapel at Vassar at one point, and it was a huge success. She was very honest and very funny. Sometimes I think the two things go together. And she was also, I think, a significant playwright. She knew what life is about and how to dramatize it. You should write your paper on The Heidi Chronicles. More importantly, however, you should keep writing plays yourself. Show Wendy's spirit the stuff Marissa is made of. Get inside Hallie Flanagan. She will bounce you around a bit, both intellectually and emotionally.
Of course, this "new play" turned into my senior thesis play--the one about Hallie Flanagan and the 1930s. But I doubt any of us knew that it would take me exactly two years to find the structure for this play--two years since I started researching it, two years since Wendy's death.

I'll admit sometimes I'm a little annoyed at Wasserstein's plays for their lack of "theatricality"--they do not use the stage in innovative ways, and her most famous play, The Heidi Chronicles, is episodic. I wouldn't really call the events of her plays "gripping," and even her celebrated wit makes you chuckle, not guffaw; nor does she pierce you with black humor. There's a very interesting article in The Boston Globe that relates to this--whether it's OK to criticize Wasserstein's work for its style and narrowness of scope, in light of all the good she did for female playwrights. I agree with a lot of what this article says.

Despite the baby-boomer focus of her plays, I do relate to Wasserstein's characters. This year, I've thought a lot about Uncommon Women and Others, because it concerns a group of girls in their senior year of college. One of my housemates is a driven pre-law student, just like the character of Kate; another is a funny, self-deprecating Jewish girl, like Holly.

My high school almost produced Uncommon Women my senior year, at my suggestion. Originally, our theater teacher planned to produce the all-female play Vital Signs, which is a collection of about 30 short monologues. I read it and found it boring, so my teacher challenged me to come up with something better. The next morning, I invaded his homeroom and thrust Uncommon Women under his nose. He agreed to produce it, and for the next few weeks we thought about the play, watched the TV version repeatedly, discussed the pop-culture references, etc.

At the time, I wanted to play Kate, Rita, or Leilah--and I can still see aspects of those three characters within me. Kate is my driven, determined side--the part of me that knows I am going to be a playwright and will let nothing stand in my way. Rita is the part of me that likes to make people laugh--the part of me that enjoys crazy costume parties and oddball theories and acting like a loopy drama major. And Leilah is my insecurities and neurosis and feeling like an eternal runner-up.

We ended up not producing Uncommon Women, because most of the females who auditioned were high-school freshmen, and it wouldn't be right to see them discuss sex and orgasms and menstruation. It still remains one of my favorite Wasserstein plays, perhaps because her characters are youngest and I can relate to them best, perhaps because it's less tied to seminal baby-boomer events than The Heidi Chronicles is, perhaps because it's one of the few plays I know that celebrates female friendship above all other relationships.

Indeed, Wasserstein said, she wrote Uncommon Women because she wanted to see an all-female curtain call on the stage of the stodgy old Yale School of Drama. That's what I love about her. That's what still inspires me.