Sunday, August 27, 2006


TODAY CHEZ PANISSE is thirty-five years old, and what do you see here but a photograph of... not Chez Panisse, but Jojo, a favorite restaurant of ours in Oakland.

At risk of political incorrectness, let's consider that most organisms, by the time they're 35, have begun to contemplate Continuation Of The Species. Jojo is just one of many "children" of Chez Panisse. Both Curt Clingman, who is facing the stove in this photo and so can't be seen, and Mary Jo Thoresen, who seems to be sighting across a glass of blood-orange juice, did time at Chez Panisse: he on the line upstairs, she as Lindsey's sous-pastry-chef.

They opened Jojo in 1999, right next to Bay Wolf, on Piedmont Avenue. It's a wonderfully inviting place, always comfortable, the food always dependably fresh and delicious. "Unpretentious" food, to use an adjective I loathe (why would food "pretend" to anything?): what I think of as Paris-bistro-cooking, things like mussels and paté and steak-frites. You should go there: you'll go back.

Any day now another Chez Panisse alum will open: Mary Canales's Ici, up in the Elmwood district, on College just north of Ashby in Berkeley. Mary's another pastry-kitchen alumna; she was co-pastry chef for many years after Lindsey's retirement, and I for one hated to see her leave Chez P. -- but it's an old story; many of the best inevitably feel the need to go on to their own things.

Last year someone interviewed Lindsey and asked, in the course of things, for a list of such people. We began it, but it seems to exhaust our resources; I mention Curt and Mary Jo and Mary only because they've been recent events -- we looked in on Ici last week, and ate at Jojo the week before. There are so many others that I'd best stop now -- but wait, I must mention Kees Elfring's Marius in Amsterdam! We'll be there in six weeks!

And now on down the road to Berkeley for a birthday feast...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

MOZART INHABITS A MIDDLE WORLD where beauty surges in and ebbs away, where everything is contingent and nothing pure, where, as Henry James’s Madame Merle says, an envelope of circumstances encloses every human life.

(That’s Alex Ross writing, in the July 24 (2006) issue of The New Yorker, which I read online.)

The quote’s been on my mind for a long time. I ran into it up in Ashland, three weeks ago, about the time I last blogged here. It describes perfectly the last few weeks, unusually social for us. First there was the week in Ashland with three other couples, friends with whom we do this for a week every summer, staying in a house a comfortable walk away from the three theaters, seeing nine plays in six days, four of them by Shakespeare.

Then there was a week in Portland with family, partly to see Grace before she went off to University — in a favorite city of mine, Middelburg, where she’s enrolled in a special campus of the University of Utrecht, and will soon add Dutch to her English, French, and Spanish. What an amazing world this has become!

And most recently we’re back from a long weekend up to the Sierra, as you see above, where we walked to the site of a friend’s husband’s ashes, thinking all the way of transition and such, as one tends to do on such occasions, particularly when accompanying a family group ranging from toddlers to old-timers like us.

(And particularly, I might as well say it, when contemplating one’s own seventy-first birthday.)

“Counterpoint and dissonance are the cables on which Mozart’s bridges to paradise hang,” Ross points out — I would be quick to add consonance to his mix.

Living intensively with three other friends, particularly other couples and families, is a practice of that contingent “middle world,” and getting together with them, especially annually and for occasions like these, is a reminder of that “envelope of circumstances [that] encloses every human life.”

Friday, August 04, 2006

Ashland: further theater notes

Robin Goodrin Nordli, Rex Young: Roxane and Christian

LAST TIME AROUND I wrote about the four Shakespeare plays we saw last week in Ashland; now let me report on the five other pieces.

Cyrano de Bergerac: pretty damn good, we thought. A first-rate Cyrano and a fine physical production, housed out-of-doors in the Festival Theater, easily offering a balcony for the famous scene in which Cyrano supplies romantic poetry to the tongue-tied young Christian who is wooing Roxane, a scene owing a great deal to Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto to Don Giovanni.

The stage was even better as the camp at the siege of Arras, in the bitter night and the violent battle that follows. Laird Williamson directed in fact a cinematic production of this romantic warhorse, alternating easily between public brawl and intimate conversation. Marco Barricelli was a magnificent Cyrano; Robin Goodrin Nordli a fine and affecting Roxane; Rex Young a sympathetic Christian; and the many other roles were well fleshed out, often in more senses than one.

The only slight cavil might be with the text. The translation, in Anthony Burgess’s rhyming meter, is not up to the familiar one by Brian Hooker, used in the 1950 Jose Ferrer movie. It works well enough in such ironic passages as Cyrano’s famous tribute to his grotesque nose, but in the romantic passages the need to rhyme often shoulders aside the better word.

Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: a revised earlier piece by the British playwright David Edgar, last represented in Ashland (and Berkeley) by his problematic diptych Continental Divide, this was effective and compelling and featured fine acting and production.

Based, of course, on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, the play is as much a commentary on the original, and the society in which it’s set, as it is a transferral to the three dimensions of the stage. Edgar adds important roles for women and for servants, because he wants to condemn the narrow Victorian male view of their roles in society.

Further, he identifies Mr. Hyde’s violent eccentricities (and by implication his evil amoral nature) as the accompaniment of Tourette’s syndrome, and implies that that condition was inherited from Dr. Jekyll’s father, both genetically and by childhood conditioning. This aspect, political and Freudian, seems to me utterly unnecessary to the play. If it was indisputably necessary to Edgar’s inspiration to stage Stevenson in the first place I grudgingly accept it, but I think the play would profit from some further re-writing to make these themes a little subtler.

Penny Metropulos was the director, finding smooth and very quick transitions and penetrating characterizations; William Bloodgood designed the striking set, whose quick turntable-enabled changes underlined the nervous alternations basic to Stevenson’s fable.

James Newcomb, last year’s amazingly powerful and evil Richard III, was both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Laura Morach was moving, intelligent, and convincing as the servant-girl Annie Loder; Vilma Silva was subtle and rich as Jekyll’s sister Katherine; Robert Sicular was a fine, sympathetic butler.

The Importance of Being Earnest did not draw the best production I’ve seen — stylish but a little flat, it lacked the brittle quality that makes Wilde just a bit menacing under the surface. This may have been partly the fault of the Angus Bowmer Theater, comfortable and resourceful but too wide, I think, for this most parlorish of plays.

Here, as in a number of other cases, color and lighting were major players in the production. At a noontime lecture the playwright of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde referred to his piece as the reverse of Earnest, and this was perhaps underlined by the choice of William Bloodgood as designer of each. (Come to think of it, it may be the reason for the soft-pedalling of that menace I mentioned: there was just too damned much of it in Jekyll and Hyde.)

Kevin Kenerly, as adaptable an actor as you’d ever want, was a fine, saucy Algernon; Jeff Cummings, often a clown in Shakesperian roles, was the soberer Jack Worthing. Heather Robison and Julie Oda were Gwendolen and Cecily; Judith-Marie Bergan an imposing Lady Bracknell; Dee Maaske a fey Miss Prism; Jonathan Haugen a willing but somewhat miscast Chasuble.

Bus Stop, William Inge’s sentimental play of the 1950s, drew one of the strongest productions of the year. Staged in the small New Theater, for this given a modified in-the-round configuration, the stage gave Libby Appel’s direction a chance to zoom in on each of the eight characters, individually and in their relationships to both other individuals and the ensemble.

Set in a small-town Kansas hash-house, the story concerns four passengers and a Greyhound bus driver waiting out a blizzard, intersecting with the wisecracking cafe proprietor, her adolescent waitress, and the sheriff. The atmosphere verges on claustrophobia as some of these come to grips with their urges and others sit laconically by. The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Sartre’s No Exit aren’t far from Inge’s writing-desk, but he marries those exotic sources to a home-town prairie sensibility that aches with nostalgia for anyone who, like me, spent time in Kansas in the 1940s.

Since I made the mistake earlier on of citing actors, let me just reproduce the cast list here:
Bo Decker: Danforth Comins; Cherie: Tyler Layton; Virgil Blessing: Mark Murphey; Grace: Shona Tucker; Dr. Gerald Lyman: Robert Sicular; Will Masters: Jeffrey King; Elma Duckworth: Nell Geisslinger; Carl: Tyrone Wilson
They were all beautifully matched, true to their parts, as persuasive when simply sitting by silently as when engaged in the drama and the pathos of their roles.

Finally, Intimate Apparel: another new play, this one by Lynn Nottage, about Esther Mills, a black seamstress from the South who settles in ragtime New York in a desparate attempt to make something of herself. She winds up working as a seamstress, to fancy whores and (white) society ladies; and embarks on a strange correspondence with a black laborer working on the canal then a-building in Panama.

The correspondence blossoms into a courtship, of course; the man comes to New York; the end of the first act finds them coming together as bride and groom in as achingly sweet and tender a theatrical passage as I’ve seen anywhere.

So far, so good: Nottage’s lecture on the inequalities and injustices of the early Modern period are subtler than those of David Edgar’s Jekyll and Hyde, because they are perfectly embedded in the developing story of his perfectly believable characters.

After the intermission things go awry, for Esther and for the play, apparently based on events in the lives of the playwright’s own antecedents. The plot begins to plod, and the surprise ending is curiously both abrupt and pat.

But the play is a success — both because you get the feeling it’s an early piece in what will turn out to be a distinguished career, and because the acting is superb. Gwendolyn Mulamba is amazingly deep yet accessibly sympathetic in the lead role; Erik LaRay is a perfect match as her pen-pal George; and the four supporting roles are precisely balanced.

IT’S HARD, THEN, to recommend two or three plays from the season at the expense of others. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have seen this King John, Winter’s Tale, and Bus Stop. I wouldn’t miss Cyrano or Jekyll and Hyde or Intimate Apparel. True, I have left three comedies out of this running: but if your schedule permits one of them, and no other play, then go ahead to it; only a prig or a pedant would really object.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Ashland: Theater notes

WE SAW NINE PLAYS last week, in our annual trip to Ashland with three other couples:

. King John
. Two Gentlemen of Verona
. The Winter’s Tale
. The Merry Wives of Windsor
. Cyrano de Bergerac
. Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
. The Importance of Being Earnest
. Bus Stop
. Intimate Apparel

So it was four Shakespeare plays, the first three in two days (for we often see matinees and evening performances on the same day); three classics; two new plays — rather a representative Ashland season.

(Two other plays, The Diary of Anne Frank and UP, had been given earlier in the year.)

Let’s take a look at the Shakespeare plays first, since this is, after all, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The Bard’s plays are the centerpiece of every season, and many of the productions are given out of doors in a theater meant to suggest the Elizabethan Globe.

Further, OSF gives Shakespeare’s history cycle in historical order (not the chronological order of their writing). This tends to mediate between two views of the cycle: as Shakespeare; as history. Since by now, well over four hundred years after his birth, Shakespeare himself (not to mention his plays) is history, these productions offer an absorbing contemplation of historicity, of what history is; and thereby of what our own time stands for in relation to history. Not, I’m afraid, a very pleasant contemplation, much of the time.

Shakespeare may well have written King John after his three Henry VI plays, but its subject is the earliest historical material he treated. OSF presented the play this year for the first time in twenty-one years, so it was a production not to be missed: if you’re seriously interested in Shakespeare, or theater, or Ashland’s festival, you’ll want to see this.

It’s housed in the small, technologically savvy New Theater, where the director, John Sipes, has set the production in the period of World War I, projecting film sequences from that war on the backdrop and even the floor to take the place of Shakespeare’s battle scenes; costuming the cast in the formal clothing of heads of state and diplomats of a century ago; and letting a generic 19th-Century-Monumental public building stand throughout the production as its backdrop.

A program note suggests this was done to make the substance of the play more relevant to our own time by bringing it closer in time. I’m not sure this was achieved: much of what goes on today seems closer to King John’s Dark Ages than it does to the beginnings of Modernism. In any case the play is relevant enough and then some, as seems always to be the case with Shakespeare; and the visual aspect of this production doesn’t hurt, for Shakespeare is resilient.

(This is itself an interesting point. I remember being discouraged twenty years ago by Patrice Chereau’s similar updatings of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Wagner’s theater is apparently more easily damaged by directorial fiddling. Why is this?)

The play is “about” three problems: succession to the throne; England’s resistance to the Pope; and the resistance of the English nobility to an autocratic King — all three still relevant, if you substitute our troubled electoral process for succession; the collision of national and global concerns for the struggle between London and the Vatican; and Congress (and for that matter the electorate) for nobility.

The cast seemed to me very even, quite up to both the subtleties and the stamina required by this intricate yet most direct drama.

We saw King John in the afternoon; that evening we saw Two Gentlemen of Verona. Here too was a period update, for the two gents were Amish, or something close to the mark, off from a country-bumpkin Verona to test their moral clarity on a rumspringa (a vacation free from all family and community restraints) to a rich and pleasure-loving Milan.

It’s an early play, probably his second comedy, and no more substantial than his first (Love’s Labours Lost, performed here last season, in a similarly fast-paced, “contemporized” version. Seen outdoors at the Festival Theater it worked quite well, with fine costumes and lighting, vocal clarity, and an engaging cast — quite upstaged by an utterly enchanting Jack Russell terrier named Terwilliger and his somewhat absent-minded master, Launce, ably played by David Kelly.

Next came The Winter’s Tale, set in its original period and place (unspecified mythical times, improbably fanciful Sicily), in a stark but beautiful production in the broad, capacious Angus Bowmer Theater. Three Shakespeare plays, three theaters, three views; History, Comedy, Problem Play.

I’ve seen the play before. OSF performed it fairly recently; and we’ve seen it elsewhere. But, whether because we’d heard its director discuss the play in a lecture earlier in the day, or because of fine performances from the cast, I’d never before felt the depth and complexity of the play so beautifully expressed. The Winter’s Tale was apparently written at about the same time as The Tempest, and only the neglected (and disputed) The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, neither of which I’ve ever seen, postdate them; and The Winter’s Tale plays, at least in this production, as a mirror twin to The Tempest .

And as a more interior twin. Where Prospero’s actions and preoccupations take place in the context of his family (I include Ariel and Caliban among them) and his court, Leontes’s precipitate and fatal jealousy, and his subsequent remorse, seem utterly un-understandable, completely private. The play centers on him, and he’s a powerful figure (as William Langan’s performance proves); but while he has our sympathy we see the play through the others in the cast. Shakespeare seems on the brink of a new geometry of his affects, finding a new role for his audiences to play in their response to his genius.

And yet another matter: this Winter’s Tale connected back to King John. Twenty years of play-writing seems to come full circle. History has become Myth, but continues to center on individuals and their private demons.

Our final Shakespeare play was The Merry Wives of Windsor: while the production and the performance were sound enough, the play is perhaps Shakespeare’s least. Elizabethan Englishmen have no business trying what French farce does so much better. I liked virtually every aspect of the production, and recommend it to anyone who likes the play; but it was, for me, the least of the nine plays we saw.

I’ll try to get to the remaining five plays here soon, but in case I don’t, here’s a concise discussion:

. Cyrano de Bergerac: pretty damn good, we thought. A first-rate Cyrano and a fine physical production; but the Burgess translation not up Brian Hooker’s, used in the 1950 Jose Ferrer movie.
. Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: effective and compelling and fine fine acting and production, though production a little busy, and play a little overworked. Relatively new, by David Edgar, based on Robert Louis Stevenson. Worth seeing.
. The Importance of Being Earnest: not the best production I’ve seen — stylish but a little flat, lacking the brittle quality that makes Wilde just a bit menacing under the surface.
. Bus Stop: a fine performance of William Inge’s sentimental play. One of the strongest productions of the year.
. Intimate Apparel: a new play, by Lynn Nottage: an interesting attempt; a charming first act, too politicized and ambitious a second act; couple of brilliant and moving performances in the lead roles.