Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Prairie Home Companion

On Friday night right after work, I trekked out to the Wolf Trap Theatre to see Garrison Keillor preform "A Prairie Home Companion." My friend Brian again organized this trip, and I do have to admit I would see much less theatre if I didn't have Brian organizing things. Also I have to admit, I haven't listened to "A Prairie Home Companion more than a dozen times ever. NPR is my entertainment of choice while I make jewelry in my dAd's shop. And then it gets interrupted for the belt sander, or the vacuum or any other loud noise one of us might make. But I know my dAd has a man crush on Garrison Keillor and I am the proud owner of a "POEM: Professional Organization of English Majors" t shirt after last Christmas. So I felt a need to represent the fam and go see Garrison Keillor in person. Carolyn says I failed by not wearing my POEM shirt to the concert, but to be fair, I did go straight from work.

We had tickets on the lawn, which means that we got to bring in any food or drink (even booze!) that we wanted. Apparently the only line is a KEG. I'd love to see the crowd that came for Prairie Home Companion bring a keg, actually. While we didn't try our luck on that, we did bring a cube of sangria, which was sufficient. I made pasta salad, for the first time ever, and it turned out quite delicious, although I made a ton of it and did just eat the last of it tonight, 4 days later. I was glad we had lawn seats, we had blankets and got to continue snacking on our lovely picnic well into the show itself.

While I knew Garrison Keillor was funny and entertaining, the show in person was amazing. Radio shows are a lost art. Even if we listen to them, we don't take the time to sit down and just listen, doing nothing else. Seeing it live forces you to do just that: listen. I laughed until I cried and just cried also, the show covered a lot of emotional ground. But also I watched. The actors acted with their faces and bodies. There was a set, and they even flew props in and out. It was well worth watching, simply looking at the performers.

The show covers a lot of ground, from serious to funny. New material, fantastic musical guests and visits to some of my favorites from the files of "A Prairie Home Companion", like Guy Nior: detective. I really enjoyed the Wolf Trap theatre itself. Garrison Keillor even got the audience to howl like wolves before intermission, not often you get to see (hear?) that. It was an excellent evening of food, friends, and entertainment.

For those of you keeping track(MoM), this was theatrical event 5 out of 6. That turned itself into 7 with the memorial day concert on Sunday. Stay turned for more theatrical rambling.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Love or Cruelty: Design for Living

Last Monday my housemate Rachel and I received a pair of last minute tickets to the opening of “Design for Living” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I had gone to two of their fantastic productions so far, “Twelfth Night” (which I blogged about) and “Ion” (which I loved, but didn’t write about). So while I knew absolutely nothing about this play or Noel Coward, the playwright, I went in with very high expectations.

The first moments of “Design for Living” had me thinking that it was going to be a very different play than what it turned out to be. The play follows three young "bohemians" Otto, Leo, and Gilda in the 1930's. The play opens with the young woman, Gilda living with Otto, but uninterested in marriage and having just slept with Leo, the third side of the love triangle. In the first 30 minutes of the play, I made a very wrong assumption. After a huge, honest, and enormously painful fight, Otto deserts Gilda spectacularly angry. And I thought it was going to continue to be a play about evisceration; characters ripping each others hearts out of their chests for sport.

I thought the protagonists were going to engage in a three way precursor to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof." In that play, a married couple, George and Martha, spend a whole (progressively drunker and drunker) evening ripping out each others internal organs, again figuratively. Although maybe something like zombies would make me like that play better, some literal evisceration. Unlike George and Martha, the lovers in "Design for Living" are not trying to destroy each other. The vitriol at the end of the first act never returns. Instead of trying to rip each others hearts out, they spend the rest of the play (and years of their lives) trying to rip down societal constructs and rebuild their lives in their own image. So while they may hurt each other, its never out of hatred, or callousness, but out of an honest desire to make it all work.

Each of the three acts tries another pairing. We begin with Gilda and Otto as a couple, move to Gilda and Leo, and finally to Leo and Otto. Each couple is happy together, yet none of these pairs quite work. And in the final scene, Leo and Otto come to reclaim Gilda, and enter in the final combination, all three of them. The play ends on this suggestion, but there is no act of the play devoted to it. And I guess I was left to feel that meant the final combination, the three of them, would work. Because nothing before it has and what is present here, is love. I never doubted that all three loved each other, and that through that love they could find happiness.

I didn't know anything about Noel Coward or this play before I saw it, so I had to read the program and do a little internet research to find some back ground. Noel Coward was a British playwright, however the content of “Design for Living” is very progressive, so much so that Coward premiered “Design for Living” in New York, not in London, where it would not have made it past the British censors. Although in the 80 intervening years, I think this has reversed itself, with productions in London now more progressive than those in the states. But in the 30’s Coward was actually in danger of being arrested for the content of this play. Which is interesting, considering that “Design for Living” still feels progressive now. And possibly this is why I’m so interested in it. How have we come so far, and not very far at all? I’m sure there were some people in the audience shocked by the earnest depiction of homosexuality, and love and just sexuality in general. However, I would need to get my hands on the script itself to be able to tell how much of progressive nature of this production is text based, and how much is stage direction, and interpretation. I think that this production clearly did pushed the envelope in those regards much more than it would have 80 years ago.

As I've sort of mentioned, the play follows a three act structure. Each act takes place in a different city. We begin in Paris in Otto and Gilda's apartment, take up two years later in London in Leo and Gilda's home, and end another two years later in New York with Gilda and her husband. The structure is very clever. The repetition of the themes is beautiful, not repetitive. Each time I thought I knew what was coming next, but I was never quite correct. This mix of predictability and surprise makes the play always interesting. I struggle to write about this, without giving the entire plot away, which I've sort of done anyway.

As the play takes place in three different cities, there were actually three totally different sets, one for each act and apartment. This meant that the show has two intermissions for set changes, and they actually closed the curtain to do this, something I almost never see in professional theatre. The sets were so detailed and beautiful that the third set actually got a round of applause, again something I've never seen. The lead actress even got a round of applause at her entrance in a very spectacular third act evening gown. While this was opening night and the sets and costumes were spectacular, I think this applause was more about the audience being completely in love with and invested in the story.

While I haven't talked about the humor at all, this production was hysterically funny. I think Noel Coward is primarily famous for writing comedies, although I think this play is more a very, very funny drama. The dialogue is terribly witty, and the audience is expected to keep up, with frequent call backs and pay offs to previous jokes. The supporting cast did an excellent job with a number of characters including a brilliantly funny maid, who would have stolen the show if the leads were not so darn mesmerizing. The play also included the best drunken sequence I've ever seen onstage, and some wonderfully intoxicated acting. Acting drunk onstage often goes wrong or off base or overboard, but the two leading men accomplished this perfectly. This scene also culminated in a kiss between the two men that has been building for the whole first two hours of the play and the tension was built perfectly in the 20 minute drunken scene. This moment ends the second act and sets up a final act that I hardly wait 10 minutes to see.

By the end of the play I was profoundly relived that I had been so wrong about it in the beginning. There was nothing bitter or mean spirited about this play. Instead it became a joyful and funny exploration about the relationships between people and the nature of art, and love. As I talked about in my last blog entry, I love relationship driven plays. The characters love for each other is what keeps me interested. The play ends on a slightly ambiguous, but hopeful note, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Oh and because it was opening night and opening night was fancy we got to get all dressed up. We also got to got a complimentary drinks things at a nearby swanky bar. Between the free tickets and the free wine, I feel like a real theatre critic. Does this mean I have to start being mean? And critical?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not a Love Story?

A few weeks ago, a member of the Westmoreland board had one extra ticket to Tom Stoppard's play Rock'n'Roll. He extended an invitation of all of us in the house, but because the performance fell on a night we were already planning to have a BBQ, I was the only one in the house interested in abandoning ship mid BBQ and going to the play.

Somehow, the timing of it combined with the fact that I'd been asking people to go to another Stoppard play, Arcadia, had my housemate Noah reasonably confused. A few days before I went to see it, Noah finally figured out that the play in question was indeed Rock'n'Roll and told me he'd seen it in London (the world premier run I think). So I asked if he liked it, and if he thought I'd enjoy it and he said, "I'm not sure you'll like it. Its not a love story." WHAT?!? To which I got rather riled up and informed him that I was a theatre major and do indeed have appreciation for things that are not "love stories." To Noah's credit, when given a chance to amend his rather offensive statement, this is what he said: "Rock'n'Roll is about communism and rock and roll music, neither of which you're really that interested in." Which was much more acceptable, also, true and true. I don't have any really strong opinions about rock and roll. I like it, but no strong emotions. And communism is something I'm clearly aware of but have never really studied or researched extensively.

So imagine my surprise when I was sitting in the Studio Theatre on Saturday night waiting for the play to begin and reading the dramaturg's notes and found this: "Despite a plot spanning decades and political movements, Rock'n'Roll is ultimately a love story." HAH. I am not making that up. Take that, Noah!

No, but really I tell this story because I think the dramaturg is right. Rock'n'Roll is an epic story bounding back and forth between Prague and Oxford and chronologically spanning 20 years. It is epic, has tons of characters a lot of scope. But ultimately it comes down to relationships, and love. Lots of different kinds of love, love between parents and children, husbands and wives, unrequited love, love between friends. Its the relationships between the characters that keep the play from being an oral dissertation on the history of communism, and turns it into a really thoughtful exploration of how standing up for your ideals shapes the path of your life.

From a strictly production standpoint, this production was fantastic. It was done in the Studio Theatre's smallest space which was somehow converted into theatre in the round. Apparently its usually a regular theatre, but since I've never been in that space before, I'm not really sure how. The stage had tracks that accommodated some very quick set changes, as they were able to send a large dining room table in and out on the tracks, among other things. The floor itself was inset with lights to look like expansive flooring a fancy hotel or art gallery might have. But during the blackouts a dull glow from the floor guided the actors and the scene changes. And it was so subtly done that it took me most of the play to realize that was part of the reason the changes were so expeditious. There were also a bewildering number of lights hanging from an unmasked theatre ceiling. But again they were used fantastically and the light was always organic and called for.

While Arcadia and Rock'n'Roll are being produced by two separate theaters in DC, they are an excellent study in opposites. Its like Tom Stoppard sat down and said, "I'm going to write a new play, and I'm going to do everything the exact OPPOSITE of Arcadia. Brilliant." Except it is brilliant. Every character's role in Arcadia is carefully laid out, with hardly a small or insignificant role to be found, and I as I discussed, some vary major players who never appear onstage. Rock'n'Roll is the opposite. The cast is HUGE and people come on for single scenes. One actor appears (memorably) for only about 1 minute of the entire play. Others have single scenes and few lines. However, it feels organic rather than wasteful or excessive.

Alternately, both plays have a central conceit. Arcadia is focused on the interconnectedness of the past and present and mathematics, and love. Rock'n'Roll is about communism and, yes, love. And when it comes right down to it, the relationships, the way the characters affect each others lives, that's what captivates me.

A Six Play May (say that three times fast)

Somehow a number of things have converged on me recently and its resulted in me going to see six theatrical events in the month of May alone. And this makes me totally happy. It also threatens to turn my blog entirely into a theatre review site. For now I'm going to give into that urge and continue to write about the shows I've seen. Because they've been amazing and more than worth my time to explore a little further.

The night after I saw "Arcadia" I went to see Richard Wright's "Native Son." A volunteer from Samaritan Ministry was in charge of props, so we got a group of staff together to go out to dinner and go see this play.

I had some trouble with this play. Not because it was a bad production, or because I didn't like it. It is very serious and I found the subject matter difficult. It brings up some very deep questions about race in our country. I think that my problem is that it hits a little too close to home. Not to my home, but to the home (or lack thereof) of my program participants. Right now, I'm working with people who have some very serious issues in their lives. And while I do my best, I don't have any magic tools and I can't make problems go away.

Native Son is the story of a young black man living in 1930's Chicago. He is the head of his family and has moved towards criminal activity to make the ends meet. His whole family is just one step away from starvation and homelessness. He gets a job with an affluent white family that seems to be a step in a better direction but it all goes wrong in the worst way possible in under 24 hours.

All of this was a little too much for me. I couldn't really enjoy it, even though when I take the pieces apart, the acting was good, the staging was good. It was in a black box theatre and it was in the round, which I completely love. The stage was almost totally empty and prop pieces were used effectively. However, I really couldn't get over the bleakness of it. The protagonist is not a sympathetic character. In fact, a sympathetic character is hard to find, which is completely intentional but not comfortable. So while I understand the reasons for this, I would have enjoyed this play much more last year from my comfortable college cocoon, far away form the reality of the lives I now interact with every morning.

After seeing this play, we discussed it at our staff meeting. Taking the time to break it down and discuss the themes and characters helped me some. However, connecting it even more directly to our program participants didn't help ease my unfeeling of discomfort. What is comes down to for me it that this play was very thought provoking and a little disturbing, which was probably Richard Wright's goal in the first place.

"Native Son" was play number 2 out of 6. Coming up in future blog entries, I have thoughts on a second Tom Stoppard play, "Rock and Roll", and a very last minute dash to go see "Design for Living." This Friday, I get to see Garrison Keillor doing "A Prairie Home Companion" and next Wednesday I see the official touring cast of "RENT". I'm beyond excited.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Et in Arcadia Ego"

Last week I saw the Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. I love this play. I've seen it before, and read it before. It was the main stage play at UPS when I was abroad and I always felt like I missed out on not getting to see it, or be involved with it.

So when I saw way back in the fall that it was a part of Folger's season I knew I had to go. I was even willing to go by myself. But I got my housemate, Rachel, and my coworker and partner in crime, Jalaine, to come with me. Because I orchestrated the trip, I felt a certain pressure for them to enjoy the play. I mean, clearly it wouldn't be my fault if the production wasn't good, or if they didn't enjoy it. But I found myself watching them a little during the first few scenes. Quickly it was clear they were both really enjoying it, so I could relax.

The Folger Theatre calls this part of their grounds "the Elizabethan Theatre," but I feel that its really a reconstruction of Shakespeare's theatre, the Globe. Our (very inexpensive) seats were on the balcony on the right side. At times I had to lean either forward or backward to see well, and there were a few times the action happened almost under us, but otherwise the view was very good. Our tickets were also very reasonably prices, and I should mention, that the play is still in previews. However, I saw very little that needs to improve, other than occasional and very slight stumbling over lines. But that can happen at any point really.

I think Arcadia is a fascinating show. First of all I really enjoy Tom Stoppard as a playwright. He gets dialog in a way all his own. His plays are incredibly pithy, wordy and intellectual. Yet he straddles the right side of pretentiousness through the warm and well developed characters who deliver his incredible dialog.

Arcadia is an amazing piece of theatre. It takes place in a beautiful English house, centered around the different generations of the same family, in 1809 and 1811, and in present time. Scenes alternate back and forth expeditiously and easily through the centuries. It is both a modern and a period play, which is not an easy tack. In fact, I cannot think of any other play that does that. This culminates in the most mind blowing and amazing theatrical trick ever. In the last scene the past and present are on stage simultaneously. This is accomplished through very clever staging, while both scenes unfold they are not aware of the others presence, like you you reach in and lift one scene out and the action would continue.

This works so well because it is not a trick. It is the play. The characters in the present become obsessed with discovering a particular event in the past. They grope blindly (but intelligently) toward the truth. And last night the brilliance of the play struck me when characters in the present kept exclaiming "I wasn't there." They can't know exactly what happened in the past, as much as they try. They rely on letters, and game books and logs of the garden to discover the past. However, we the audience ARE there. We get to see both. We know exactly what happens in past and get to feel like a reader of a mystery novel where we already know the ending. However, that analogy isn't completely apt. Its more like a puzzle where the audience hold some of the pieces separate. The characters spend the play looking for the answers and we get to find them just a few steps ahead.

This play is a great ensemble piece. There are a quite a few actors, but even more interestingly there are quite a few characters that are much discussed but never seen on stage. The husband in the past, the mother in the present and Lord Byron, are conspicuously absent from the actual stage to name a few. I think that this was a very interesting ad good decision. Especially a character like Lord Byron actually benefits from being larger than life, unable to grace us with his presence. It keeps him from taking over the play, although he is kept quite busy off stage.

To wrap this up, I have to say that I think that am a little notorious for being a overly gentle theater critic. In my theatre classes, I always had a kind word for every script I read, and every play we saw. Yet its not that I'm undiscerning, I'm just willing to let the small things go completely and enjoy the big picture. However, this play seems to have no small things. I enjoyed every second of it. The ending of Arcadia is one of my all time favorite theatrical moments. The play ends with two waltzes, one in the past and one in the present and ends the play with the perfect mix of melancholy and hope. That perfect feeling of the last moments of the play(I cried) stayed with me on my way home and lingered for the next few days. Which I think ultimately is what good theater does, it stays with you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"Hey, want to meet me in Bangladesh"?

On Saturday, I got a voice mail from my housemates that went like this, "Hey, so there is an Embassy open house today. Want to meet us in Bangladesh?" And clearly thats not the kind of offer you can turn down. So I hopped on a bus, went to Van Ness and arrived at the Bangladesh Embassy.

Apparently the embassy open houses are a big deal. They are ofen very crowded and lot so people turn out. Well we seemed to time it well, I didn't have to stand in line at all. My housemates were at the Bangladesh Embassy when I arrived. At the door, I got to shake hands with the Ambassador from Bangladesh, which is both random and very cool. Then I made it inside and found my housemates Rachel and Deanna, who had just got in line to get henna done on their hands. Well, I've never had henna before, and I thought, sure why not?

For those of you who don't know what henna is, it a a form of temporary body art. It is applied by a paste that is left to dry on the skin. When washed off it leaves a reddish brown "tattoo," that stays from days to apparently weeks. We had the option of having henna painted on the back of our hands. My design also goes down the back of my middle finger. The woman who applied it was very quick. We stood in line for about 15 minutes for about a minute of actual henna application. And then we had to move very carefully around the crowded embassy to avoid getting henna on anyone (or ourselves!) while it set.

However, while this was quite a bit of fun on Saturday afternoon, the moral of this story is that out of the three of us, none of us considered how a henna tattoo was going to go over with the populations we serve at work.

By Sunday night, with my tattoo showing no signs of fading, I broke out the camera and Deanna and I did the self picture thing. It was surprisingly difficult to take a picture of the back of your own right hand. And even harder to take a picture of the back of two right hands. I've included our adventures in picture taking.

So maybe I can rule out "hand model" as a possible career.

Its now Thursday, and while my henna has faded, it is still very visible. We have all gotten some great reactions. Rachel gives presentations for children, and they especially have trouble understanding, and they are very concerned when about her "tattoo" and whether its ok for her to even have a tattoo. My participants and Deanna's clients have also had some great reactions. One of my particularly boisterous participants is convinced that I am marrying an Indian man, as henna is often a part of wedding rituals. I have to admit I did not totally discourage that mistake belief, as #1, my personal life is not his business and #2, I found it really amusing. and just today, someone asked if I had a cooking accident! I did set one straight and explained it wasn't a burn.

All together, henna was a fun little adventure, but maybe I'll avoid my right hand if I get a second opportunity.