Monday, April 27, 2009

Four plays in Ashland

Portland, April 27—

I'VE BEEN REMISS: I should have told you about the plays we saw last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. We've been coming here to see the plays for nine years now, and have settled into a two-stage annual visit in order to see the entire season, since some plays run only half the year, others run only during the "summer" season when the outdoor theater is open.

Last week we saw four plays, an interesting, even intriguing group: two concept plays, two tragedies. We saw them, I think, in the best possible order, quite by chance.

The first was a new play, Equivocqtion, by Bill Cain. The nut: William Shakespeare is asked to provide dialogue for a play written by the recently crowned King James on the subject of the Gunpowder Plot — a tricky thing to deal with. One can't lie; neither can one simply write the truth: the answer is to "equivocate" by answering, not the questions raised, but those behind the questions. Along the way we see Shakespeare and four other members of The King's Men work out scenes from plays currently under construction, notably Macbeth and Lear.

There's a lot here to delight seasoned OSF audiences, of course: but Cain goes beyond simple play-about-plays, I think, to write a drama that deals intelligently with the layers and ramifications of his subject. Too many, perhaps; the subplot hinging on Shakespeare's relationship with his daughter Judith is one complication too many, in my book. But the play's insightful and provocative, the direction's inventive and propulsive, and the acting's first-rate. I wouldn't mind seeing it again.

Macbeth, which we saw the following night, was simply one of the finest performances I've seen in a theater. Staged in modern dress but faithful to the script and generally unspecific as to time, the production remains tightly focussed on Shakespeare's language, the emotional power of his drama, and the psychology of his characters. Peter Macon was exceptional in the title role; Robin Goodrin Nordli his equal as Lady Macbeth, and Kevin Kenerly a resourceful, complex Macduff. The scenes with the witches, even the porter's scenes, stayed quite within the serious scope of the play. I can't imagine the play done better.

Then there was Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, written in 1975 — truly a great play, whose author detaches himself from his subject to allow a truly tragic circumstance to play itself through. It's easy to see the result as simply a culture clash between Yoruba spiritualism and British colonialism, but it's deeper and more universal than that. When we saw the play, last Thursday afternoon, Peter Macon, who'd played Macbeth stunningly the previous night, was pressed into service as the understudy to the lead role; though partly on book he was magnificent. The play was as detailed and timely as Equivocation and even more resonant, since addressed to a larger issue. In recent seasons OSF has been investigating the dramatic repertory beyond western Europe: this staging proves the vital importance of continuing to do this, as our understanding of both our own repertory and the universal human condition is thus enlarged.

Thursday night we ended this spring's visit to Ashland with, thankfully after three deep and serious plays, a divertissement: Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone. The play opens with a cell phone ringing insistently in a restaurant; its owner, having just died, does not answer; the one other person in the dining room does; and the play goes on from there. The first act made me think of Wallace Stevens's plays; the second act, of those of Michael McClure. (Incidentally, it's high time McClure's plays were revived, and OSF is a logical company to undertake them.)

I'll write no more about Dead Man's Cell Phone except to say that the physical production is often quite strikingly beautiful, that though addressing poignant aspects of human life it's generally very funny, and that the entire cast, but especially Sarah Agnew and Brett Hinkley, are utterly wonderful. I'd see this production again in a minute.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


GIOVANNA WRITES a nice blog (as she always does) about an idea new to me, 3/50. The idea is to help the local economy by determining to spend fifty dollars a month total at the three locally-owned shops you'd miss most if they were to close.

it's a nice idea; I plan to put it into effect as soon as I get home. I've already started, in a way; some while ago I solved to buy a book a month at my local bookstore, Levin and Company (306 Center St, Healdsburg, tel. 707-433-1118). Quiet, pleasant, well stocked for a small local store, and ready to order special items.

Two more shops aren't hard to settle on: The Cheese Shop, for sure, and, let's see, why not The Gardener? True, both have websites; both are perhaps "upscale" in terms of both clientele and wares. But I would miss them were they to disappear.

What's the right protocol, though, I wonder, when on the road? I've been to two Starbuck's, I regret to say, in the last two days. I would be writing this in a third, except that Starbuck's closed its outlet in this hotel.

(Illy moved in. Little consolation: Illy is the Starbuck's of Italy.)

We were saddened to see thee number of empty storefronts on Charlottesville's pedestrianized main street the other evening. This may be partly the result of the great amount of construction going on, of course. I hope it wouldn't discourage other such projects. How nice it would be to see pedestrian streets around the Healdsburg square!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Washington D.C.

Washington, DC, April 8 2009—

LINDSEY TOOK IT in mind to fly out here for a week of mostly sightseeing, and why not: It's cherry-blossom time. Springtime, except that it's colder than, well, your cliché's as good as mine.
The flight was bare-bones except for the first-rate in-flight entertainment, on Virgin America; made interesting only once, when about halfway across Kansas a somewhat blowzy-looking young woman asked the flight attendant how much longer to landing, and, when told it would be another two and a half hours, checked into one of the restrooms and lit up a cigarette.
Since we were sitting in the last row, we overheard a bit of the action, beginning with the attendant knocking on the door and telling the woman to put it out. Twice she asked where the cigarette was, and apparently got two different answers. She ordered the woman out, to no avail. Finally the attendant opened the door and ordered the woman back to her seat. Apparently the cigarette butt was found; we didn't have to make an unscheduled landing. Nor, far as I know, was the woman ever put in handcuffs, though they were mentioned.


At the bus stop, next morning, two women were conversing quietly. I asked, as much to make conversation as for the information, if the bus we were waiting for would indeed take us to the Metro station. The seated woman assured me it would. Vous êtes française, I asked. Non, mais je parle français, she answered, je suis égyptienne, tous les égyptiens parle très bien beaucoup des langages. Tous les égyptiens, de toutes classes, I asked, Ah oui mussieu, she said, Je vous assure.


The Metro runs fast, frequent, and deep. I walked up ninety-seven steps at the Bethesda Metro station, and eighty-eight steps back at our Wardman Woodley Park station, and in both cases I was walking up an escalator that was moving uphill itself, otherwise Sisyphus only knows how many steps I'd have climbed. That and the bracing cold and the long urban walks should keep me in shape.


Dinner last night, as noted yesterday at Eating Every Day, at Obelisk, a favorite restaurant of mine. I think it was fifteen or twenty years ago I first ate there, when in town on an NEA panel. I ate there twice that trip, and at least once each of the remaining two years of the panel. It's an Italian restaurant with, in those days, a three-course format with a choice from two alternative appetizers, main courses, and desserts. The price is now double — $70 — and an antipasto and a cheese course added; we were also presented with three alternatives for each course (except antipasto and cheese). An interesting wine list (all Italian) and good grappas and other liquore round out the offerings. You can converse in the comfortably furnished dining room, and the service is attentive and friendly without the least intrusion.

I used to say I had five favorite restaurants. Three of them are now history, but Obelisk and Chez Panisse remain.