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July 20, 2014

If I were Shakespeare…

Well, here’s what I would do if I were Shakespeare & Co., a theatre company in Lenox, Massachusetts of which I am inordinately fond, as consistent readers of this blog know (hi, Mom!).

Yesterday my wife and I went to an open rehearsal of a scene from Henry IV, Part 2, Scene 2. For about an hour we watched Malcolm Ingram (Falstaff), Kevin Coleman (Shallow), Ariel Bock (Silence) and Michael F. Toomey (Bardolph) being directed by Jonathan Epstein, who has abridged and combined the two Henry IV’s. The rehearsal started out fascinating and got even better from there.

The actors in Shakespeare & Co. rehearse before they’ve learned their lines by being shadowed by someone who whispers their lines to them. That way (as Kevin Coleman explained) they can rehearse while looking at the person they’re talking to instead of looking down at a piece of paper. The result is an early rehearsal in which the actors can act together and experiment.

Jonny Epstein is an actor and a highly collaborative director. He interceded occasionally to punch up a reading, and always kept an eye on the audience’s interests: We need a gesture to understand what “bona-robas” are (high quality courtesans — literally “the good stuff”); Falstaff should turn to the left while pointing to the right so that both sides of the audience are involved, etc.

But as the scene came to a close, it took a turn towards the awesome.

It’s a short and humorous scene in which Justice Shallow is greeting his old friend Falstaff. There’s funny business about rounding up men for Falstaff, which in this abridged, small-cast version had the actors pointing into the audience. Very amusing.

The scene ends with Shallow inviting Falstaff to dinner. They’re about to wander off, in a convenient scene-closing way, when a memory from fifty-five years ago pops into Shallow’s mind. “O, Sir John, do you remember since we lay all night in the windmill in Saint George’s field?” This becomes a chat about old acquaintances who now are old or dead.

The first time through, the actors played it lightly: a bunch of old folks remembering their lusty youths. But Epstein then suggested that they stop their funny business. Just stand there and talk. Without further direction, the actors changed everything: posture, cadence, expression, diction, interaction. And it became a scene about age and youth that touched me deeply.

It was, in short, a moment of transcendence. I got yer magic of the theatre right here.

  


Shakespeare & Co. is a great company, but it rarely plays to full houses. If I were them, here’s what I would do:

1. Video every lecture they give and put it on the Web for free. In fact, do more lectures, at least one for every play they produce. These lectures have been consistently fascinating. I want people to get used to looking up the Shakespeare & Co. lecture before going to see a Shakespeare play performed by any group.

2. Video a performance of each play presented, and post it for free on the Web. Have some of the summer interns do it. No one who comes would have stayed at home if they could have watched a video of it, especially since the company doesn’t have the resources to do studio-quality video production.

3. Post a second version of these videoed performances with a director’s track. Have the director and some of the actors explaining both the play and their decisions about it. We want teachers to play these scenes when introducing students to Shakespeare, and we want people who just saw a performance to then see the thinking behind it.

Now, there may be Actors Equity rules that prevent this, which would be a shame because videos like these would help expose the actors’ talents more broadly. And I suspect that Shakespeare & Co. may have reservations about posting content that’s not of the highest professional quality. If so: get over it! It’s the Web! Trust comes from imperfection.

In any case, when you’re in the Berkshires, do come. And bring the kids.

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July 17, 2014

Julius Caesar in Lenox

We saw Shakespeare & Co.‘s Julius Caesar last night. What a rich production! And certainly not because of its production values: the performance was in the tiny Bernstein Theatre with a cast of just seven and an almost bare stage.

The acting was up to the company’s high standard. New to me was James Udom as Marc Antony. He gave the famous address — which stands out for its devious plainness amidst the torrent of language in which it is embedded — brilliantly. Eric Tucker made the noblest Roman, Brutus, human. I could listen to Jason Asprey all day long. (I embarrassed myself after the performance when he came out to the lobby.) Kristin Wold switched characters on stage instantaneously and before our eyes, nevertheless bringing us along.

It is a hard play. It never lets you settle. And it has perhaps the most despairing final words of any Shakespeare play. We may not be 100% sure that Caesar was so ambitious that he needed to be killed for Rome’s sake, but he at least had the good sense to mask his ambitions. When Octavius stands amidst the carnage and celebrates the “glories of this happy day,” we see what naked ambition truly looks like. It was a devastating moment last night.

The small audience consisted almost entirely of people over 60. Such a shame.

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July 12, 2014

Dylan’s triple pun

I finally got Bob Dylan’s triple pun.

Sure, everybody must get stoned because that’s the price of being a non-conformist. Or maybe we all fail to conform to someone’s idea of normal.

And, obviously we all should get stoned, high, baked, whatever. (Stay in school, kids. Don’t do drugs. — the Management)

But, as the last stanza says:

Well, they’ll stone you when you are all alone
They’ll stone you when you are walking home
They’ll stone you and then say they are brave
They’ll stone you when you’re sent down in your grave
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned

Bob Dylan: 'stoned

Bob Dylan: ‘stoned

D’oh?

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June 28, 2014

[AIF] Beau Willimon on “House of Cards”

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Michael Eisner is interviewing the creator of House of Cards, Beau Willimon. I’m not going to attempt to do comprehensive live-blogging.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The point at which SPOILERS begin is clearly marked below.

Beau’s initial artistic expression was in painting. He was good but just not good enough. He wanted to try something he would fail at, and chose playwriting. He wrote a terrible play called “The Goat Herd.” But it won a prize at Columbia U., where he was a student. He still feels like a fraud as a writer “because you’re always grasping and never quite reaching what you’re after.”

He went to Estonia for a year, the East Village for a year, worked on the Sen. Schumer campaign doing whatever he was asked, worked on the Howard Dean campaign where he was head of press advance in Iowa. He was at the Dean Scream and explains that it was actually inaudible in the room because of all the screaming by Dean’s supporters. The media picked up on it because it confirmed their narrative that “Dean was a loose cannon and unelectable.”

Six months later, he wrote the play that became the movie The Ides of March. Originally it was about Phillip Hoffman’s character, but then it became about Ryan Gosling’s character, which was based on Beau’s friend, Jay Carson. He says that he doesn’t care about whether his characters are likeable; he wants us to be attracted to them, “which is entirely different.” “I can’t write the characters if I think of them as good or evil.” He doesn’t want to judge them. “I put myself in their shoes” and no one thinks of themselves as evil.

Beau had no interest in writing another political movie, but David Fincher, the director called. He watched the British version of House of Cards, which he lauds and says was more tongue in cheek. They worked for a year in complete secrecy on the first episode, and signed up the two stars. They went to HBO and asked for a full season guarantee. Then Netflix said they wanted House of Cards to be the first show they did, and they wanted two full seasons.

SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.

Beau says that House of Cards is quite tame compared to the language and violence on TV today. ([SPOILER:] He says internally they call the threesome scene with Agent Meechum “the Treechum.”) Eisner (who did Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Love Boat, etc.) says back in his day, all that counted was likability. He then cites a highly unlikeable action by Francis in House of Cards, involving a subway. But because it was being produced by Netflix, there was no censorship. Eisner recounts an example in which Netflix pushed to include a joke Eisner didn’t like in one of his own productions; that is, Netflix supported the writers against Eisner.

The third season is now being filmed. Half of the scripts are written.

“House of Cards has nothing to do with politics,” he says. “It’s about power.”

HBO has to please its subscribers. Netflix and other producers don’t have to reach all of their subscribers with any single show.

He explains that the shooting schedule has them editing the early episodes even while they’re filming later examples. They’ll go back to fix or change earlier episodes in order to produce a better whole; you can’t do that when you’re shooting normal tv.

Q&A

Q: Was it hard to kill Zooey?

A: It was in the plan from the beginning. Beau had worked out the plot for the first two seasons. “It was important to stick to our guns on that because one of the themes of the show is how much Francis [Kevin Spacey] is capable of.” The prior murder of the Congressman had been opportunistic. So we said, “Ok, we’re going to do this. It could be a total huge mistake … but fuck it, let’s do it.” Similarly, they were warned not to kill the dog in the first episode, but they figured that if a viewer couldn’t handle that, this was not the show for them. (It was a fake dog, of course.)

Q: [missed it]

A: I do have ideas about how it will end. But you never know. E.g., Rachel started out as a minor character, but she was so good that her part was expanded.

Q: The show lets us empathize with the characters. By working through such complex characters, how has that affected your view of people in real life?

A: “When my friends turn to the empty air and start speaking, I get it.” [laughter] He says writing is narcissistic. He only wants to please himself. You hope to learn something about yourself. “I don’t presume to know anything more than others do.” “My life is just a wonderful and screwed up as anyone else’s. I don’t benefit from the investigation of the soul except that when my life is screwed up, I’m acutely aware of it.”

Q: Isn’t politics about power?

A: Politics can be used to achieve practical ends that have nothing to do with power. Everything is power, but not everything is about politics. Although I would say all works of art are about politics. My Fair Lday is political. Happy Days is political. But when you think of power, if you just think of it in terms of politics, you’re doing it a misservice. There are all sorts of power dynamics. Most have to do with our interppersonal relationships. … Unrequited love? Some of these moments are very small: if a little kid throws a snowball at your windsheld and it cracks, what do you do? Do you pull over and speak to the parents, throw a snowball back, keep driving? In that moment a power dynamic is formed. And how you react esbalishes who is in power. All of our relationships are transactional…When you mix that up with characters whose job is to have mastery over power dynamics, it makes for great drama. But I’m far more interested in the power dynamaics in Francis and Claire’s marriage than in Congress. What you remember are Frances and Claire sitting in the window smoking…”

Q: Francis talks so poetically. What motivated you?

A: Because I didn’t want it to suck? Kevin had done 9 months of touring Richard III. I stole the BBC’s version’s direct address, and they stole it from Shakespeare. Done poorly — and we’ve done it poorly at times — it takes you out of the drama. Done right, it makes you complicit with your protagonist. Sometimes it’s heightened. Sometimes it’s a Gafneyism that doesn’t even make sense: ‘Down South we say never slap a man while he’s cvhewin’ tobacco.’ What does that even mean?” By turning to the camera, he’s made us his pal and we’re able to root for him.

 


A few stray points:

1. Beau is intensely likable.

2. I like House of Cards, even though making Francis a murderer shook my faith in the show. Regardless, my main beef with it is that it portrays all of politics as endemically more corrupt than we even think real world politics are. What lends the series such great drama therefore also discourages civic engagement. And since I am highly partisan, I also think it’s inaccurate. But Beau didn’t think to ask my opinion before writing this amazingly well-written and acted series.

3. I now expect to see a scene in Season 3 in which a kid breaks Francis’ windshield with a snowball.

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Julie Taymor’s Midsummer film

I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival . It’s chockablock with interesting people and sessions, but because it’s the sort of event that expects you to take notes in a moleskin notebook, I won’t be doing a lot of liveblogging — there are fewer outlets than in a 1970s airport.

Last night I went to the very first screening of Julie Taymor‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a composite recording of four live performances in Brooklyn. (I suppose that makes this the first review of it!) According to this roundup of reviews of the stage version, the critical establishment was impressed by Taymor’s genius for staging — it’s astounding, stunning — but less impressed with the directing of the actors. But, because Taymor filmed it using the repertoire of movies — close-ups, controlled focus, etc. — we can see the acting through the spectacle. Taymor has made some bold choices.

Some of that boldness pays off. For example, Titania’s lasciviousness with the donkey-headed Bottom helps reveal her character and informs her loving relationship with Oberon. Kathryn Hunter brings an autonomy, mastery and a sense of completeness of character to Puck. The ensemble of young children who are the fairies (or “rude elementals” as they are listed in the cast) are believably otherworldly. But…

…I suppose it should also count as a bold choice to make every character a recognizable stereotype. The costume and makeup choices assert this, making it clear that it was intentional. Bottom is a NYC (maybe NJ) working class Italian, Oberon is a magisterial African warrior king, Demetrius is an up-tight crew-cut guy, Lysander is a long-haired romantic, etc. This works well for the comedy, but the play needs the characters to grow out of their types because otherwise this play is merely about a weird interruption. We want the interlude to have changed them, to help them become who they are. Indeed, some are changed, and those are the moments when the play moves from entertaining (and boy is it entertaining!) to moving. For example, when Hermia realizes that Demetrius loves her, the play breaks open. In that moment, love is raw and deep.

There’s a moment at the end that I thought was brilliantly directed, and that helps justify the shallowness exhibited by all four of the young lovers. The nobles react to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe like jerks. The mechanicals are giving it their all, and their all is hilarious. But the nobles make cruel fun of them. Yet we love the mechanicals. What are we to think?

So, Taymor does this brilliant thing. After Bottom has gone through his world-class over-acted death scene (always a highlight), his buddy playing his lover knocks her/his death scene out of the park. The moment when he takes off his wig is heart-stopping. And is comeuppance to the contemptuous snobs who have been mocking the show-within-a-show.

Taymor took questions after the screening, and I asked her about this. Does the fact that the nobles look like jerks during the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe mean that our culture’s presumptions have shifted since Shakespeare’s time? How are we supposed to make sense of it? Taymor answered at length. She said she’d struggled with this scene. She cut lines, put the most vicious ones in the mouth of a character we already disliked (Hermia’s father) and made him drunk to boot. She cited Theseus’ lines “I will hear that play; For never anything can be amiss, When simpleness and duty tender it” as Shakespeare’s guide for our attitude. She pointed to Shakespeare’s sympathy for all classes. She acknowledged the way Thisbe’s speech undercut the nobles’ jeering attitude. All I’d add is that the jeers of the nobles at the mechanicals’ embrace of culture can be seen as the last gasp of stereotypes: the audience has been laughing at the working class bumblers throughout, and now our own attitude has been subverted.

During the Q&A session, Taymor said she is trying to figure out the best way to release the film. I hope it gets distributed broadly. It is not the first Midsummer you should see — the staging is more astounding in comparison to prior performances — but it would be an excellent second. So, I hope she figures out how to make it available to everyone who is learning to love Shakespeare.

Ms. Taymor, you know about Creative Commons, right?

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June 26, 2014

“Oradell at Sea”

To begin with, I love the title of this novel. I’ve never heard the name “Oradell”, and the “at sea” is appropriately ambiguous.

What I actually should begin with is that Oradell at Sea is a novel by my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, an accomplished and recognized writer with a long list of publications.

Oradell is an elderly widow who, after a life that’s hard in the way many lives are, is living out her days on cruise ships. The confined space of a boat at sea throws her into social contact with other passengers and the crew, an intimacy she relishes and controls. The onboard narrative is intersected by scenes from the life that led her from a mining town in West Virginia through three husbands. The contrast between the spatial and temporal confinement of the boat story and the openness of the life story is aesthetically pleasing. Thematic unities emerge that I will not spoil.

This is a small novel in the sense that it quite deliberately limits its pallette. But it’s quietly about the big theme of what stays with us as we get to what we become. Very lovely.

Until July 31, you can get the e-version of Oradell for free. (It’s $2.99 at Smashwords without the secret code in the previous link.)

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May 30, 2014

Manifest Netiny

That title is supposed to be a very bad play on “Manifest Destiny,” the 19th century American assumption that of course European-Americans will master the entire stretch of the country, transforming it according to their cultural norms. What, we’d stop in Sheboygan? Pshaw!

We have the same narrative now with the Net. Of course the Net will continue until every region is hooked up. Of course it will go beyond humans until every conceivable device is chattering over the Net. Of course! What, we’d stop with the affluent or with the human? Pshaw!

I’m not say that this narrative is wrong, just as Manifest Destiny triumphed. I’m just pointing out that it’s a narrative, and not actually a destiny.

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May 10, 2014

Woman still receiving Civil War benefits

The Wall Streeet Journal has an amazing story, by Michael M. Phillips, but I take a different point from it. Here’s the lead:

WILKESBORO, N.C.—Each month, Irene Triplett collects $73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a pension payment for her father’s military service—in the Civil War.

… Pvt. Mose Triplett joined the rebels, deserted on the road to Gettysburg, defected to the Union and married so late in life to a woman so young that their daughter Irene is today 84 years old—and the last child of any Civil War veteran still on the VA benefits rolls.

That is mind-blowing. But perhaps because it’s the Wall Street Journal, its mind is blown by the financial side of the story:

Ms. Triplett’s pension, small as it is, stands as a reminder that war’s bills don’t stop coming when the guns fall silent. The VA is still paying benefits to 16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War.

For most of us, I’m going to guess the thing that causes our brains to twirl is that there’s a living daughter of someone who fought in the Civil War.

And if there is a daughter of a man who fought in the Civil War, then there could also be a daughter of slave still among us. (There is controversy over when the last American slave died.)

Michael Phillips, the author, does an excellent job recounting the life of the father, and notes that in 1938, 1,800 veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg showed up for a 75th anniversary commemoration. That means that some good percentage of them lived to open a newspaper one day and read about the first use of the atomic bomb.

It’s like their lives were time machines.

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May 6, 2014

Why the meaning of life is 42

Stephen Fry claims that Douglas Adams told him why he picked 42 as “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Fry says that the answer is “fascinating, extraordinary, and when you think hard about it, completely obvious.” He also said that he’ll never tell.

This spawned a Reddit thread yesterday. But I think the answer is not fascinating, sort of plebeian, and you don’t have to think hard about it. Here goes:

The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is four two…which is to say, that it’s for two. It’s all about the love!

I have no reason to think that that’s what Adams intended, and it’s the sort of sentimental answer he would mock, so I’m guessing I’m wrong. Still: The meaning of life is for two.

Or possibly it’s for tea, too. I’ll get back to you on that.

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April 20, 2014

Minor Beatles

This video was over at the NY Times Crossword blog (where I discovered that I’d missed the really clever part of the theme):

I know I’m old, children, but keep in mind that that’s a minor Beatles song. And yet there is so much right about it. More or less perfect. And not nearly the best of what they gave us.

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