Saturday, January 28, 2012


Last week, I went to go see Seattle Shakespeare Company's production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. My good friend Tom Dewey was in the cast, and I was hesitant to even write about it because I find it hard to even pretend to be objective. But my MoM specifically requested a review, so here it is.

I really didn't know anything about Coriolanus going into the show, which is some ways is really interesting. I only knew what Tom had told me, pictures I'd seen on facebook, and some vague images from the new movie version of Coriolanus that came out recently. I have studied and seen a fair percentage of Shakespeare's plays, and its not often that I get to see a Shakespeare play I don't know. However, seeing a unfamiliar Shakespeare play turned into an unexpected boon. The language, the format, the words all seem familiar, but the story was totally fresh and new and undiscovered. While every time I see a Shakespeare play, I learn new things, this time I got to learn everything, and that was an unexpected pleasure.

Coriolanus is not often produced, and one of the best compliments I can give this production is that after watching it, I wondered why this play is not performed more often. While I know a lot of this is the hard work of this cast and crew, there is something compelling and timeless about the themes in the play that is very relateable. I also understand that this production cut the play down from a nearly four hour run time, to just around two and a half hours. I'm sure this goes a long way to making the play more enjoyable and less unwieldy.

Coriolanus is set in Rome in a time of transition. Food is scarce and the common people are rebelling against the senate. The protagonist, Caius Martius (later sur-named Coriolanus after a city he takes down in battle) is a soldier who joins the senate because of the ambition of his mother and his mentor. Coriolanus is an interesting and somewhat unusual focal character in a Shakespeare play. He is a soldier, not someone with a easy way with words. Coriolanus is no Hamlet, manipulating those around him through words. Instead he is a warrior. The excellent fight choreography and costuming present a Coriolanus most comfortable in his military uniform, with a sword in his hand. The actor playing Coriolanus, David Drummond, towered over most of the rest of the cast, and carried himself like a soldier throughout all of his scenes.

This production was set and costumed in a way that I perceived as a cross between ancient Rome, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The common people were wearing ragged coats and huddled up against the cold, while the politicians wore well cut gray suits, accented by red fabric draped in a roman style. I thought this added a very thought provoking element, while still staying grounded in something resembling our reality.

The supporting characters and actors were all excellent. This play boasts one of the fiercest women in Shakespeare, Coriolanus's mother, Volumina. the actress, Therese Diechans, hit all the right notes with this role. My friend Tom did a fantastic job, playing Titus Lartius, and a general on the other side of the war. Tom played both these characters with an ease that would suggest he could do some damage with the sword or spear he was constantly holding. Even in the scenes where he didn't speak, I could see his characters internal monologue, which was often the coiled awareness of a soldier ready to jump into action at any point. In the later part of the play, Titus Lartius was often the only character onstage in a military uniform during scenes involving the senate, and his presence added a gravity to the surroundings.

There is a tragedy at the root of the play Coriolanus that I find very compelling. I would argue that there is no true villain in this story, and Coriolanus as a man is pushed to make some very difficult moral decisions. Ultimately these decisions doom him, but its difficult to go back and pinpoint what he could have done differently. Instead, this very strong able man finds himself as a pawn in the machinations of others, and even when he tries to chart his own course he cannot escape this destiny.

While I have a lot of thoughts about this production, I'm having more trouble putting them into words than usual. Yet, even setting aside the feelings of a proud friend aside, this was the best Seattle Shakespeare Company production that I've seen and a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Lovely Night...

Last night, I went to see the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella" at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.

I have to admit that I had fairly low expectations for a number of reasons.
This version of Cinderella is a musical with an interesting history. It was written as a television musical event. It was literally written to be preformed live on television in 1957 with Julie Andrews (at her most luminous) as the star attraction. Since then it has been remade for television twice, and made the leap to the stage. This is all very unusual for a musical, and it sits in a category entirely its own.
The original television version of Cinderella clocked in at a crisp 90 minutes. To fill it out, subsequent versions added in songs from lesser known Rodgers and Heart musicals. While I don't usually love the act of changing shows 50 years later, the added songs help make the show much richer and full of depth. Whats more, the added songs were carefully selected and add to the feeling and shape of the show.

While I try to go into the theatre with an open mind, that is not always possible. I tend to look at shows like Cinderella as light weights. While I like Rodgers and Hammerstein enough, I don't like their candy coated musicals. I enjoy South Pacific for its difficult subject matter and social commentary. I applaud the stage version of the Sound of Music for its surprisingly complex look into human goodness, evil, and shades of gray. I'm not a huge fan of Oklahoma, I think Carousel is bizarre, and I didn't think that Cinderella held much of interest for me. RENT, Les Miserables, and Spring Awakenings rank among my favorite musicals. There are dramatic, sometimes gritty, and varying levels of tragic. Cinderella is none of these things. I expected this production of Cinderella to be enjoyable and forgettable.

However, I'm more than willing to admit that I seriously undersold Cinderella. it was one of the most enjoyable few hours I've recently spent in a theatre. Cinderella embraces the story we are all familiar with, but builds it in delightfully complex ways.

Cinderella's prince Charming not only has a name, Christopher, he has 10 middle names listed gleefully in song. But beyond that he is a young man with loving parents who are indeed anxious to see him married, but willing to let him do it for love. Our prince and our Cinderella share a sense of life missing something, expressed by both in the song "The Sweetest Sounds" (which apparently was a 1997 addition the show). They share a melancholy feeling, singing, "The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear, are still inside my head, the kindest words I'll ever know, are waiting to be said." They sing this together, unaware of the other, watching a happy couple do a sweet waltz in the middle of a crowded market. For this Cinderella and her prince, when they do meet, this is not a simple love at first sight. They are not children overcome by each others beauty, but two people finding someone looking for the same thing they are missing.

Just like her prince, this Cinderella shows surprising depth. Unlike Disney's Cinderella, this Cinderella has a sense of agency. She is not waiting on a fairy godmother, but instead is willing to mend her dead mothers ball gown, and hitch a ride to the ball. Then and only then does the her fairy godmother turns the pumpkin to a coach, and creates a sparkling gold dress.

In the Disney cartoon, the fairy godmother demands that Cinderella return at midnight, to avoid being caught in rags. Here, when Cinderella returns home in her scullery maid dress, her fairy godmother put her on the hook. If the prince loves her in a gold dress, why would he not love her as a scullery maid? Finally, a feminist in a fairy tale! This is a much better message to send little girls in a world that is increasingly obsessed with physical beauty. Love is love, and circumstances should not matter as much as what is in your heart.

While I don't usually like spectacle for spectacles sake, this productions gorgeous costumes, rich set pieces and occasional pyrotechnics (!) created a world of magic, and an enchanted kingdom. In fact, I'm still not sure how they pulled off the seemingly instantaneous the change into Cinderella's ballgown without using real magic. As soon as I saw this, I wanted to know how it worked, but my friend was happy with the magic of it all.

This production was really something special. It was sweet, achingly romantic, with a message emphasizing goodness and kindness over beauty, and wrapped up in a few shiny gold ribbons. Songs I previously thought were overly simple, came off as sweetly poignant. The whole thing was injected with some comedy in the form of some discretely cross-dressing stepsisters and a fairy godmother seemingly plucked out of a production of "Wicked."

Possibly most importantly, the whole thing was incredibly kid friendly. I walked out of the theatre wondering if I knew anyone who needed to take their kids to go see it. Or have me take their kids!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spring Awakening Revisited

While I'm not sure what the future of this blog is, I have a play to review! Last night I went to see the Broadway tour of "Spring Awakening." I saw Spring Awakening when I lived in DC, and was regularly reviewing plays for this blog. So I came here looking to see what I had to say about Spring Awakening a year and a half ago, and was disappointed to see I had not written about it. So while it would have been great to see what I thought then and now, I can only offer up my thoughts about last night, possibly stacked up against my memories of the last performance.

Spring Awakening is a really interesting musical. Its a rock musical about teenagers in the 1800's Germany. Its lively and racy, poignant and rowdy, with a spirited sense of humor. The music is catchy and stays with you. Its really unlike a typical musical. The musical I would compare it to most in spirit is RENT, but even that is only sort of in spirit. I haven't seen as many new musicals as I would like, and Spring Awakening premiered in 2006. However, Spring Awakening is really something special.

The subject matter is not easy, it deals with a number of issues that wouldn't seem out of place on any teen drama on TV today. And this my be one of the most appealing things about Spring Awakening, the themes are timeless. Even though the characters of the show are living in 1800's Germany their problems are not outdated, but sometimes almost painfully timely.

The show has a number of well formed teenage characters. Interestingly, the adult characters are all played by the same two characters. The main characters are Wendla, a sheltered young girl, Melchior, a young man at odds with stifling smallness of his world, and Moritz, who is at in crisis from essentially the first scene. The play centers around these three young people and their hopes, dreams, and heartbreaks.

All three of these actors were very good in this touring cast. The actor who plays Melchior really has to carry the show, and the young actor here was more than up to the challenge. It's not an easy role, he has a lot of music to sing and his acting has to cover a lot of emotional range. I would say that the show really rests on Melchiors shoulders. So I was happy to find that he had a really powerful, pleasant voice, and a lot of acting range.

Both touring productions of Spring Awakening I've seen were costumed identically, and staged and choreographed very similarly. While both were touring cast the production I saw at the Kennedy Center was there for several weeks, while this was the single night in Eugene of the tour. This translates into this set being simpler. The first touring set has a platform that raised up into the air at a crucial point in the story. This one simply did not. I don't think that this raising platform was necessary, but very effective. However, the show does not suffer for the lack of fancy moving set pieces.

These identical productions are interesting. I'm not sure how common it is in the theatre world, but both productions were almost identical, in terms of staging and choreography. I wonder if this homogeneity of production makes theatre more like film? The same show over and over with different actors going through the motions? I'm not sure how I feel about this. I enjoyed it both times. However I think one of the exciting things about theatre is the differences. Its wonderful to get to see the same material imagined different ways, breathing new life into the same production. Yet, what happens on stage for Spring Awakening clearly works, so why mess with a good thing? This way more and more people get to see the production with the original intent.

Spring Awakening is presented in one of my favorite ways: very presentationally. The set is evocative of things, rather than realistic. The characters all sing with hand held mics, although I suspect they are wearing body mics at all. The choreography is very stylized. One important scene takes place with two characters standing downstage, about ten feet apart, both singing out instead of to each other. One of my favorite songs, charmingly called "Totally F*cked" is a showpiece of some of the most exuberant, stylized dancing (and singing) I've ever seen on stage. This song got a round of applause so long it bordered on ridiculous.

Sometimes I end up being a cheerleader of sorts for musicals. I love them. I know a lot of people don't. They find people randomly breaking into song cheesy and schmaltzy. Or alternately, people think that musicals are not are powerful and theatrical as straight plays (anything without music). However, just as there is a huge variety in the strength and power of straight plays, musicals can be many different things. I think that Spring Awakening could be a strong play without the music. I think it might turn into something like "The History Boys," witty and poignant and very focused on the words. But it does have music. The songs in Spring Awakening are never a crutch, instead the music helps the characters express those feelings that are somehow inexplicable just through words. Spring Awakening is an amazing mixture of sauciness and sadness. It contains one of the most shocking sex scenes I've ever seen on stage, and I've seen some surprising things. Yet the show also has a number of songs that never fail to make me cry. And not because the show is manipulative, but because its full of such honest, real emotion. And this is really the beauty of Spring Awakening.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Othello: "I am not what I am"

Last night I went to see Othello at the Olympia Little Theatre. A few days ago I was wandering around in downtown Olympia with my fellow NODA intern and suite mate, Jamie, and we saw a poster for Othello. I asked if she wanted to go and she said yes, and I figured out the details. We decided a Thursday night might be fun.

So last night after work I plugged the theatre's address into my GPS and it took us into the middle of suburbia. In fact I was SURE I'd put in the wrong address (something I've only done once, shhhh) until we pulled in the theatre's parking lot. And yes it was a theatre in the middle of a suburban street, surrounded by houses. But one inside it was unquestionably a little theatre, but a very charming one.

The theatre itself was very small holding maybe 150 people in total. And including us, there were only about 15 people in the audience. In fact, the cast may have been bigger than the audience. And that's a shame. Because this was a wonderful production of Othello. This is the kind of production that proves you don't need a lot of money, or even a big fancy theatre to put on a show.

I've read Othello three times in my life, all for different classes during undergrad. I also saw a production of it when I was in London, at the Globe Theater. Sadly this might have been the worst Shakespeare show I saw while abroad. We had standing tickets for the "authentic experience," the show ran more than 4 hours. On top of that it was a preview performance and Iago had to keep calling for his lines. So by the time we got the final scene, I was ready for Othello to just kill Desdemona already so we could go home. Which is not the regular reaction to Othello, I think.

But happily this production was a huge improvement over that one. Which proves something important, good (and bad) theatre can happen anywhere. As soon as we walked in to the theatre, I knew I would be happy on at least one point: the set was very simple. It was literally a blank stage, with black rehearsal blocks in the middle, and the audience on 3/4ths and a brick wall and stairs leading off stage way upstage. But more importantly, they used the simple set and the whole stage well. I don't really have anything against elaborate sets, but think that you need a reason to have one.

I think fundamentally Othello is one of Shakespeare's most interesting plays. The character of Iago, (played well) is fascinating. Iago literally spends the play manipulating everyone for his own purposes. And while manipulators are hardly uncommon in Shakespeare (hello, Lady Macbeth)Iago schemes based on barely articulated, transient reasons. The two articulated reasons for his actions are that Iago is jealous that Othello has promoted Cassio above him and that he thinks Othello has slept with his wife, Emelia. Yet, in terms of his rhetoric, Iago never really tries to convince the audience that he believes either of these things. So then, why is Iago bent on ruining Othello's life? Its never clear, and it makes Iago all the more dangerous and sinister. Iago himself tells the audience in the first scene "I am not what I am." So what are we supposed to make of him? Why this deliberate subterfuge? I think part of the art of the play is this ambiguity. Untimely there is evil in the world, and evil that cannot be understood or evaluated is the scariest kind. Iago tells us straightly that he is not to be believed, and this paints the whole play in a sort of uncertainty.

Iago is a challenging role, and as I've seen before, not every actor is up to this challenge. And if your Iago is a bust, good luck getting any traction with any of the rest of the story. But all of the acting here was good from Othello to Iago, to their wives Emilia and Desdemona to Cassio. A Iago was especially good at playing to the audience, and kept making eye contact with me, to the point that I was distinctly uncomfortable at being brought into the confidence of this lunatic.

The language of Othello is not exactly subtle and about half way through, I caught myself wondering how many more way Shakespeare could possibly come up with to equate whiteness with virtue and blackness with evil. However, sadly this piece of Othello is still relevant. The production capitalized on this by setting their production in the US in the 1930's, where a mixed race marriage was hardly more accepted than it was back when Shakespeare wrote it. However, I think that sometimes this imagery, begun in the language, and then reflected back through the costumes and the set boarded on heavy handed. However, I think that a little bit of melodrama is not out of place in a Shakespearean tragedy. But I also thing that it can be scaled back when you are playing to a house of no more than 150, not the rafters in the Globe Theater.

I mentioned already that I liked the set, and this production took advantage of the brick wall and projected videos onto it before the start of the show and in between scenes. A lot of the footage was used to set the scene with images of race in America during this era. However, they also used footage of Martin Luther King Jr. at the beginning of the show, and Malcolm X at the end. I thought this was a very interesting choice, as it associated Othello with these two very different black leaders. The transition from the rhetoric of Dr. King to that of Malcolm X set up Othello's journey form a loving man, to a man so possessed by hate and anger that he thinks killing his wife is his only choice.

The ending of the show was when all the pieces came together. All of the actors had a very good understanding of how to speak verse, and it sounded natural. So natural, that in places I had to wonder "is that REALLY the line?" as sometimes Shakespeare can sound almost alarmingly modern. This is a good sign though, as you want verse to sound normal and accessible. Overall this was a great production and I really enjoyed it. I think that ultimately Othello as a show is thought provoking and tragic. I went home wishing that I had more than about an hour to think about it before I had to head for bed.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Abandoned but not forgotten

I know its been a LONG time since I've updated this. And I promise, its not because I have not been doing things, but instead because I have been doing A LOT. However, there are only so many interesting blog posts that could read "I went to the library and studied today" before it gets old. And by that I mean, none, because that is boring. But did I learn a lot (I hope) and had a good first year of grad school over all, of course with some bumps along the way.

I also think it boils down to this: being a grad student is hard work. And I'm glad it is, because we wouldn't want anyone just handing out masters degrees out like candy, but its hard. And time consuming. And sometimes its hard to even think intelligently about what I might blog, when I feel like if I'm writing at all, it should be for whatever paper is looming in my near future.

Yet this summer I'm free! Well sort of. I'm not taking any classes this summer, but I am doing a 3 month long summer NODA internship. So apparently my definition of freedom is working full time in the office of Campus Life at Saint Martins University. I've been here for over a month, and I'm loving it. I'm working on orientation, and the summer advising and registration sessions start next week, so things are about to kick into high gear around here, which is exciting.

Yet in a lot of ways it seems like a vacation, a break. I'm back in Washington, where both my license plates and drivers license can rest happily without any extra scrutiny. And I'm only 30 miles away from Tacoma and UPS which makes me really happy, although my actual ties there are getting more and more tenuous. But I am happy to be back in familiar territory, close to both friends and family.

I have no guarantees about the frequency of my blog entries this summer or in the future. I sometimes am unsure exactly what it is that I am sharing of value. At the very least though, I have a number of plays lined up to see, so I might be knocking out my thoughts about those.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Last "Sunday" journal

As it turns out this journaling project has been reasonably challenging for me. Observing students is difficult, when I don't have any real interaction with them. I see students at working out at Dixon, at Java II and in the MU. I see students walking around campus, in restaurants, at the movie theatre, at the grocery store. It is a college town, I can't really go anywhere without seeing students. Yet I feel like seeing students in these superficial situations doesn't give me any real chance to make meaningful observations. I do work with biology TA's for an hour every week. But they are grad students, and while observing them is valuable, it is only one part of a small of the college student experience.

One of the things I've keep coming back to in this journal is the idea that I still don?t feel like I understand what is going on with students at OSU. Yet a conversation during class last week showed me that I am not the only one who feels this way. Several others in my cohort including those who have a lot of student interaction feel the same way. This makes me look at this question differently. Maybe understanding the student experience is not really possible. Maybe its only something you can understand while you are an undergrad. Yet I'm sure the campus climate has changed a lot at my undergrad institution in the year and a half since I graduated. So do think it is important to try to understand student experience at your university, I'm just not at all sure its achievable.

This text term, I will be teaching a study skills class, as an internship opportunity. I'm really excited for the challenge teaching is going to provide, but I'm also excited to get to work with 20 students on a meaningful basis. I will be spending 2 hours a week with them, for 10 weeks. This will allow for a LOT of observation; it's a big chance to see some of the student issues unique to OSU.
I went to see the OSU main stage musical, "Pirates of Penzance" this week with two others from my cohort. I got there early and I sat on a bench waiting for my friends to arrive. I was sort of overwhelmed. The theatre holds about 400 people and the show was sold out. For some reason, there was actually rather long line to get into the theatre, for people who already had tickets. I felt a little displaced honestly. It is a college theatre, I felt as though I should have a sense or belonging. But its not my theatre, and I don't really think it ever will be, not the way the Norton Clapp theatre at UPS belongs to me. Or more accurately, I belong to it. So for some reason I felt small and disconnected watching people mill past me at the OSU theatre. I wonder how often students new to OSU feel this way. I would assume it's quite often.

Its been interesting to watch attitudes on campus change as the weather gets cold and dreary and the term draws to a close. Tension and anxiety are so palpable you could cut them with a knife. Last week, I looked around our Monday class, Theory, right before class started. I was surprised to see how tired and limp everyone look. We are generally a pretty happy rambunctious group, but there was zero energy in the room. I assume this is happening all over campus during week 8.

I know that adjusting to a term system was difficult for me after a semester school. I wonder how difficult the transition is if you are coming from high school? I bet the difference is pretty startling. I think in freshmen classes, the week 8, 9, and 10 tension must be off the charts. I wonder if it gets easier?

I know this has been all over the place, but I a trying to make sense of some of the things I have been feeling for the last 8 weeks. I know for the most part, there are no answers to these questions. It seems to me that for now, just asking the questions is enough.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Swimming: its just like riding a bike

A few weeks ago, I swam laps for the first time in about 6 years. I was on swim team for a few years in middle school, but other than splashing around a little bit now and then I haven’t really swam seriously since then. However, last week I was working out in the room in Dixon that looks out over the pool, and I felt a wave of longing. I remembered what gliding through the water felt like, and I knew I had to go for a swim. A few days and a trip to buy a pair of goggles later, I was in the pool.

The reason I’m talking about this is that getting in the water took me back. For that split second every time my head was under water, nothing else exited. I felt like I could be 15 years old or 23, there was no difference as I slipped through the water. For me, swimming is one of those skill sets I think I will never lose, I feel like it was yesterday, not 6 years ago that I last swam. So I started thinking about other things in my life that are automatic. What are the things I can do so well, that I never doubt them? Well my list is surprisingly small. I count swimming, singing, reading aloud, writing and acting among them. I think at different points in my life this list will change and grow. And its different now than it was at 18.

Not unlike taking a 30 minute walk, swimming was 30 minutes in the water alone with my thoughts. So while I was in the pool, I thought about the things I knew and didn’t know at the age of 18. When I decided to go to a private school I took out loans to do so. At the age of 18, I didn’t really understand what this meant. I got that I would have to pay them back. I understood money. I’d had a summer job for several years, and had a little money in the bank. But I did not understand the enormous consequences of taking out a total of 30 thousand dollars in loans. In fact, it was really not until this last year that I truly comprehended it. And I haven’t even had to make any payments yet.

Only this week I found out that I have a credit card associated with the bank account I opened my freshman year of college. I had no idea. I’m not sure how this slipped by me. I think that we need to be aware of this, that while they are on their way to being competent young adults, a lot of freshmen have absolutely no experience in a lot of real life matters. I’m not suggesting that they are babies, or that we should treat them that way, but instead that we simply need to be aware that many college students may need a little extra guidance.

I wonder how this happens at a big school. I have been fixating over the last few weeks about the differences between different types of schools, but in particular, large public school versus small liberal arts school. In Programs and Functions, we have had a number of guests from different school from around the area come to speak to us about their job and their school. Finally this week we had someone come from a small private school: Linfield. As he spoke about his college, I thought “this could literally be Puget Sound he is talking about.” And it was both affirming for me to hear it, and educational for the rest of my cohort to think about the differences. There are only three of us out of 20 from school like Puget Sound or Linfield. Those numbers are reasonably surprising to me.

I talked to my sister this week about this. She went to a small private school in Ohio, Wittenberg University. I really wasn’t aware of this until now, but Wittenberg is very similar in mission and demographic to Puget Sound right down to the size, just over 2000. It literally knocks me off balance every time that I remember that OSU is ten times as large. My sister I and talked about the pros and cons of little schools and big schools. Large schools may have more resources, but small school can pay more individual attention. Large schools offer more subjects, but at small schools you can get one on one interaction with professors in your classes. The list goes on and on. For me, I think it’s important to remember that just because a small school was right for me, doesn’t mean it is the right choice for everyone.

So now I will go back to my train of thought when I was in the swimming pool. What are the things that freshman know? What are the automatic things they know how to do? How far out of their comfort zone are they willing to go? What are the things that they don’t know? I think these things are different for every single person. Making choices in live is always a combination of doing what you are good at, and talking the plunge into something more difficult.

Once I got in the pool, the strokes came back to me, and I was immediately kicking up and down my lane (the “slow” lane). But getting back in the pool after so long was not an easy decision. I wondered if the skill would still be there. And this time it was.