Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Ashland, Oregon, March 31—
WHAT TO SAY about last night's production here of Hamlet? First, if you don't want to see it unprejudiced by my thoughts on the production, read no further.

I'd looked forward to it with some concern, because I'd heard that it was in modern dress, informed by an overriding production concept or two, and was directed by Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We'd seen his production of Romeo and Juliet a season or two ago and found it a failure, almost exclusively because of its "concept": the Romeo-Tybalt-Juliet generation in modern dress and devoted to contemporary pop culture; the generation of their parents in period dress. Would a similar approach ruin this Hamlet?

Quick answer: no: but only because the Polonius-Laertes-Ophelia subplot mattered so little in the context of an otherwise very powerful staging and performance, and because the play-within-the-play went by mercifully quickly.

Rauch's "concept" here is to accentuate communication as a keystone of Shakespeare's play, emphasizing the many failures of communication. So we get a Ghost who speaks in American Sign Language (Howie Seago, who plays the role very effectively, is in fact deaf.) We get prominently visible video cameras mounted on the castle walls. We get a body mike and transmitter on Ophelia in her interview-scene with Hamlet, Polonius and Claudius listening in via earphones from another room of the castle.

All this works effectively. At emotional high points in the scenes between Hamlet and Gertrude, for example, both punctuate their speech with ASL: apparently they'd habituated themselves to the language while Hamlet's father was yet alive.

I was distressed at the early depiction of Ophelia, an apparently vacuous twit of a teen-ager, and especially of Polonius, reduced to little more than a sententious clown. In retrospect, though, this emphasizes the youth of their generation and thereby one tragic aspect of the play (the loss of innocence, ultimately an entire national loss of youth and innocence).

I was a bit put off, too, by casting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on women; by the reshuffling of certain soliloquies (as I recall the play); and by the throwaway treatment of the traveling Players (they've become a touring hip-hop ensemble, not a very convincing one, and their lines are very hard to get).

But what remains is a tense, intense, powerful production, one I'd see again. Dan Donohue was a wonderful Hamlet, sallow, keen, meditative, impulsive. His alternation of apparent madness and utter sanity was brilliant. Madness is key to the play and this production, and Susannah Flood's mad scene was magnificentas was Bill Geisslinger's portrayal of the Gravedigger, whose black humor neatly resolves madness and sanity: I've never seen this scene so perfectly represent the center of the play.

Other supporting roles — Claudius, Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes — were similarly strong, both as individual performances and in ensemble. Only Richard Elmore's portrayal of Polonius sagged, in my opinion, and that was because of direction, not acting. The physical production is strong, the ensemble tight, the play — which is after all the thing — magnificently complex and provocative. You've got plenty of time to schedule a visit.
  • Hamlet, Bowmer Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Ashland, Oregon, in repertory to October 30.
  • Monday, March 29, 2010

    Cat and Elephant

    Ashland, Oregon, March 29—

    WE SAW TENNESSEE WILLIAMS's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here yesterday: a fine, complex, noble play; in a resourceful, efficient, moving production; set on an energetic, dedicated, gifted cast. We've seen a number of first-rate productions here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; this was one of the best.

    Christopher Liam Moore directed. He made his directing debut here last year, in Dead Man's Cell Phone (also an excellent outing). Christopher Acebo's design was striking: a drum of a set enclosed within an enormous white scrim-cloth curtain, bed and bar the most prominent furnishings. It turns the stage into an arena, and Stephanie Beatriz's Maggie-Cat immediately owned it, sultry, restless, rapacious, yet completely sympathetic. She rightly dominated the first act, then stepped back, often literally behind the scenes, to watch Williams's cunningly constructed play evolve; then she returns at the close with her coup de théâtre and a final glowing, tender, fulfilling speech.

    Moore uses the last of Williams's rewrites of the text, loosening language that had previously been confined by commercial prudishness but at the same time opening the play to a more ambivalent set of possibilities. And this was underlined by Danforth Comins's portrayal of Brick, Maggie's husband, the sensitive younger son of the family, until now unable to provide continuity to the family line. Among other things, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof portrays alcoholism — perhaps only Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano does it better — and Comins managed this aspect marvelously, slowly befogging himself throughout the Aristotelian time-unity of the play. But he is not merely weak; nor is he clearly gay: this production goes past the closet drama to get at the even more serious, more fundamental question our century always brings to an examination of true pure friendship among men.

    Drink; sex; family. To these add the even more overreaching subject: Death. Michael Winters Is the Big Daddy here, and he's a perfect match to Beatriz and Comins, completing the primary triangle. (The more you think about this play, especially after seeing so fine a production as this, the more you're struck by the geometrical perfection Williams makes of its construction.) Winters easily moves through a wide range of emotional expression: the proud bluster of the dynastic planter; the now tender, now bullying father; the paterfamilias shackled by the conventions of marriage; the exhilaration of a condemned man suddenly given back his life; the poignant awareness of a death all too close after all.

    The supporting cast was up to the leads, easily moving from comedy to drama. Only the opening music, too loud, for country fiddle, seemed to miss the mark in an otherwise keenly accurate, perfectly comprehensive, fully resolved production. I wouldn't mind seeing it a second time: alas, it closes before our next visit here in September.
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Bowmer Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Ashland, Oregon, in repertory to July 4.

  • GETTING READY for a trip in May to Sicily, I've been reading Vittorini — Elio Vittorini, born in Syracuse in 1908, dead too early, politically disillusioned, in Milan in 1966. I picked up a used copy of A Vittorini Omnibus, a New Directions paperback with a striking black-and-white photo of the author on the cover and a slightly goofy and condescending introduction by Ernest Hemingway. It's stood for years unread on a shelf, but has turned out in the last week to contain three remarkably moving, memorable novellas.

    The first, In Sicily (Conversazione in Sicilia, 1937) is haunting, laconic, cinematic; a Sicilian's return, after years working in the North, to the peasant reality of Sicilian poverty. The article in Italian-language Wikipedia calls it A romanzo onirico, an oneiric novel, to be read either as hallucination or as an allegorical attack on the Fascist government in power at the time of its writing. (Vittorini was expelled from the Fascist party in 1937 for having written in support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; he joined the Communist party surreptitiously in 1943, and took part in the Resistenza.)

    In Sicily is indeed a magical, poignant, evocative book, bringing to mind — to my mind anyway — the bleak urban landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, the ironic intellectualism of Luigi Pirandello, and — strangely — the allusive, not-quite-Surrealist writing in Gertrude Stein's abstract plays. Maybe there's something like Wallace Stevens here too: the elegance, the precision: but far from mandarin.

    The Twilight of the Elephant (Il Sempione strizza l'occhio al Frejus, 1947) takes the style of the earlier novella into an even more abstract place. An old man, once huge and powerful, a rock-blaster on the Frejus Tunnel project below the Simplon Pass in the old days, spends his time sitting stolid, silent, in the doorway. An Elephant, his daughter calls him, proudly but petulantly: she, her husband, their sons and daughters-in-law make do in abject poverty, half their income keeping the useless old man alive.

    Enter a messenger from the gods, in the form of another laborer, from the present day, also cashiered, also apparently at the end of his days. Vittorini spins a pre-Calvino narrative along for pages, mesmerizing the reader with his bare vocabulary, his bleak narrative; finally the only possible meaning in this apparent meaninglessness is revealed.

    Again, politically motivated critics find political allegory here: but is the Elephant the old peasant order, or the newly old petit-bourgeoise order, or the Party? All such readings seem to me off the mark, especially in the wake of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which forms an oddly satisfying counterpoint to Vittorini's novel.

    What they have in common is their reasoned, poetic, accepting view of Death, Death whose monumentality prevails no matter how mortals try to dodge or mask it, no matter how they flinch from it. To insist on a trivial life beyond its reasonable time is to defy the gods: better to realize and adjust to the cosmic justice of its inevitablity. I'd like to think Vittorini and Williams have the chance to congratulate one another on the power of their poetry, somewhere there in the Elysian Fields, even if only in the shape of things utterly submerged in the rich soil beneath.
  • A Vittorini Omnibus: The Twilight of the Elephant and other novels. In Sicily (tr. Wilfred David); The Twilight of the Elephant (tr. Cinina Brescia); La Garibaldina (tr. Francis Keene). New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1973
  • Friday, March 26, 2010

    Merce Cunningham

    Berkeley, March 26—
    Do not ask the following to be a true account of the facts concerning tonight's performance of Nearly Ninety, by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, at Zellerbach Hall, in Berkeley.

    [Next day: well, actually, it doesn't seem that inaccurate at all.)

    It begins on a bare stage, black back wall, loud electronic drone, then the octave, then a fifth, repeated, repeated. Dancers enter as they do in Merce Cunningham's choreography, purposefully, simply, with strength, mostly by ones. Skin tights, painted in whites and blacks. Strong graceful dancers.

    Ninety minutes of solos, duets, trios, double duets, quartets, quintets, octets. Absolutely no "expression," "narrative," "meaning." Motion and stillness. Repeated gestures, steps, "routines": the skipping onto the scene, occasional back-kicks with one foot. The one-foot poise, arms extended, slowly turning. The crawls. The jumps.

    Now and then, with great eloquence, two or three seated figures, looking at one another or not.

    The backdrop surprisingly rising a foot to display a strip of bright orange light at the floor, side to side. Or rising, slowly or not; the light teal, or grey, or orange, or straw-gold-yellow. Or going black again.

    Toward the end, recurring, a horizontal stripe, at the center a much brighter almost-square, on either side the stripe tending away in a dimmer light. I thought of Redon: this optical device was the eye of a god, or perhaps it was Merce watching his creation from beyond.

    The choreography always absorbing, graceful, strong, accurate, true. Now and then a grouping recalls a passage in a Franz Kline painting, or a soloist suddenly freezes in an attitude recalling a detail in a Tanguy painting. Merce's work is so intelligent, so informed, so generous, so non-manipulative, that one's free, or rather almost impelled, to read in whatever experiences of one's own come first to mind — as long as there's no one-dimensional emotion, or expression, or narrative.

    I watch this Nearly Ninety, and think of the previous big piece of his, Oceans. Same huge cosmic scale, again peopled, teeming, with detail and life. Oceans was perhaps meant to suggest the life-organisms that began in those teeming seas, then evolved to crawl out onto the mud, the sands, into the forests, into the air.

    Nearly Ninety, then, suggests the Cosmos; the life organisms moving, skipping, quietly turning, hastily rushing through it range from the Brownian motion of atoms to the insanely wheeling galaxies of the Cosmos. Merce was nearly ninety years old when he made it; it runs nearly ninety minutes long. It made me think of B**th*v*n's greatest last pieces, the Bagatelles Op. 126. It is sad he's gone [Cunningham I mean], but it is right; the work is here. Irving Kolodin, I think it was, in writing of the Bonn Symphonist, said the artist's role is to experience more intensely than we can, and express that experience more tellingly than we can, for our benefit. Merce Cunningham was a towering master, doing exactly that.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    cultiver le jardin…

    Excellenz von Schubert

    YES, VOLTAIRE. It's from the close of Candide — now where did I put that book? — describing the moment when the eponymous hero of the book, finally disillusioned, gives up his quest for philosophy, turns his back on his tedious mentor Pangloss and his tedium… but let Voltaire tell it:
    “Pangloss disait quelquefois à Candide: ‘Tous les événements sont enchaînés dans le meilleur des mondes possibles; car enfin, si vous n’aviez pas été chassé d’un beau château à grands coups de pied dans le derrière pour l’amour de Mlle Cunégonde, si vous n’aviez pas été mis à l’Inquisition, si vous n’aviez pas couru l’Amérique à pied, si vous n’aviez pas donné un bon coup d’épée au baron, si vous n’aviez pas perdu tous vos moutons du bon pays d’Eldorado, vous ne mangeriez pas ici des cédrats confits et des pistaches.’

    ‘Cela est bien dit,’ répondit Candide, ‘mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.’”

    Pangloss frequently told Candide: 'everything's connected in this best of all possible worlds; for finally, if you hadn't been chased from a beautiful chateau with considerable kicks on your behind for the love of Mlle Cunégonde, if you hadn't been sent to the Inquisition, if you hadn't run through America on foot, if you hadn't given a good sword-slap to the baron, if you hadn't lost all your sheep in that fine country of Eldorado, you wouldn't be here eating pistachios and candied citron.'

    'All very well said,' replied Candide, 'but we must cultivate our garden.'
    Voltaire wasn't talking about a garden of his own, whether in Switzerland or France. Wikipedia provides a pretty good take on the quote (I recommend the entire entry, and that on Voltaire):
    The conclusion of the novella, in which Candide finally dismisses his tutor's optimism, leaves unresolved what philosophy the protagonist is to accept in its stead. This element of Candide has been written about voluminously, perhaps above all others. The conclusion is enigmatic and its analysis is contentious.

    self-portrait, San José

    WE SPENT THE WEEKEND in the improbable city of San José, which is greatly changed in the last forty years. (The addition of the acute accent to its name is one of those changes.) With over a million inhabitants it is now California's third city (after Los Angeles and San Diego), and the heart of the city, where we spent most of our time, is an odd survival of the old architecture and street-grid in the midst — well, there is no "midst" here; the city reminds me of Houston, where empty office-skyscrapers thrust up from blocks of bungalows in a wide-spread scatter fully dependent on the automobile.

    We were there to attend the state finals in the mock trial competition organized by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Our grandson Henry was participating, his high school (Laytonville) having won the Mendocino county competition.

    We found the trials absorbing, Lindsey and I. We watched four of them, Laytonville arguing for the prosecution twice and the defense twice; and then a fifth one, in which Hillsdale High (San Mateo county) bested the San Francisco School of Performing Arts to win the state. (The national competition is set for May 6-8 in Philadelphia.)

    Each high school fields two teams, for defense and prosecution, enacting a single murder case, the details of which are scripted but the arguments of which are apparently left to the teams. A real judge presides; the "jury" comprises a number of legal professionals who score each team member as to effectiveness. (The judge's decision is immaterial to the final rating of the student legal teams.)

    There's a good deal of theater in all this, of course: the drama inherent in any courtroom scene, and that of the students as they learn, individually and as a team, from their mistakes and from their opponents; as they respond to completely different styles of questions from the judges; as they meet, best, or fail the crises developing from all these courtroom interactions.

    To me, though, the greatest dimension of this theater was the dialectic of Laytonville and San José. Laytonville is an unincorporated community of a thousand souls, an hour's drive from the county seat of Ukiah. Our son and his wife run the local feed store, help out with the rodeo, and interact with much of the community. "I'm comfortable there," he says, "because it's the only place I've seen that's like Berkeley" — the Berkeley of the 1960s and '70s, he means — "all kinds of people, all of them interesting, all of them respecting one another's privacy."

    Maybe that shouldn't be in attributive quotes; maybe I'm writing my own observation. Laytonville's citizens seem a deceptive lot, rustic and isolated but intelligent and quirky. The highschool kids are plugged into the world, of course, fiercely tap-tap-tapping at their cellphones, Facebooking and Tweeting. But the difference between their demeanor and that of their first opponents, from Marin county, seemed to speak a grand subject. Marin county per capita income is over $90,000; Mendocino's, and Laytonville's, is less than $20,000. The Marin kids, from Tamalpais High, came out strong, assertive, composed, confident; Laytonville, prosecuting a very weak case, struggled to find their footing.

    Affluence, security, confidence: these are no doubt wonderful things, but I'm not sure they necessarily make good citizens, particularly in the context of a society that seems to overvalue individualism and commodity. The Laytonville kids can garden and hunt, ride and build. They use and enjoy the Internet, but for them I think real community trumps virtual community. They're competent and helpful, and my money's on them in case of catastrophe; I'm not sure the complex global community of banking, law, and marketing can survive as well.

    RETURNED SUNDAY NIGHT to Eastside Road, we entertained eight or ten friends with white wine, Alsatian onion tarts, Lindsey's absolutely delicious Savarin, and sight-readings of two of Gertrude Stein's little plays: What Happened a Play and Ladies Voices. Stein's plays, as I've written elsewhere,
    …are famously overheard conversation, but they have an integrity, stylistically and theatrically, that comes from a single observer's point of view (far-reachingly intelligent though it be), filtered through a single writer's editorial and expressive technique.
    I've always imagined those overheard conversations took place among settings exactly like Sunday evening's, gatherings of old friends and new, pleasingly fed and judiciously lubricated, comfortably seated and sheltered; and it doesn't hurt that we're in the country; it's quiet outside; and you can see the stars.

    A gathering like this is something of a garden, I think. A courtroom is not; a courtroom is an arena. Stein writes somewhere that landscapes are useful settings for two purposes, battles and plays; but there are landscape plays and drawing-room plays, and I think her early short plays fall into the latter category. (Four Saints in Three Acts manages to contain drawing-room theater within a landscape play.) The comedy some of us first enjoy in Stein's theater comes from the apparent first-level non-consequence of these Cubistly juxtaposed overheard lines; the fascination some of us go on to enjoy, to contemplate and consider, comes from the resonance that arises from these lines and their very "meaninglessness," and that grows and enlarges, dissolving our linear and literal response to them in a greater, less specific, more timeless landscape of sound and society.

    The landscape of downtown San José hesitates between old and new, always cluttered with wires, signs, and lines; it's almost unvaryingly hardend by pavement, glass, concrete; and the flow of its visible energies is herky-jerky, responding to the tyranny of stoplights for the motors first, pedestrians only secondly. There are of course a number of vacant storefronts. Restaurants, bars, and cafés tend toward the cheap and easy. The Peet's we found did make a decent, individualized cappuccino and was playing Mozart, but it took an humble place away from the main streets where the corporate-scaled faux-village St•rb•cks prevail.

    There's a confusion in such a landscape, a disagreement of place and purpose, a disorder of clutter and irrelevance; a confusion that can't help but influence the sensibilities of its citizens. There's a lot of stuff there, but not that much There, as Stein might say. I think the natural, perhaps the normal mental response to such confusion is a shut-down, a turn-off, contrasting with the continual-onward, the opening-outward I feel on reading Stein, on conversing with friends, on hearing the birds and contemplating the stars and the garden.

    A PHONE CALL from the north, yesterday, got me to thinking about the instrumental extensions at the end of sung phrases of Homer. The singing of Homer is perhaps an arcane subject, but it fed right into the weekend's contemplations. Homer, and the Greek poets who followed him, composed his work; there seems to have been no distinction between "poetry" and music. Ancient Greek was an inflected language in more ways than one: melody — the contrasts and connections of pitches articulated the lines as much as did rhythm — those of the quantities, the lengths, of the syllables.

    As my Corvallis friend sings it, Homer's Greek is insinuating, mesmerizing, constantly forward-spinning. The mind can only deal with so much of this rich texture of voice, sound, language, meaning, narration. At the end of certain sections, then, the voice falls silent for a few moments, and the accompanying harp extends the line, giving the singer's voice and the listener's mind a bit of rest.

    At least that's what I think the purpose of this extension is. But what is the resulting effect? It lies in what's meant by the expression "letting something sink in," allowing time for external functions, outside the intentionality of the singer and the hearer, to make their own little adjustments to context; to configure — sounds, rhythms, meanings — within a kind of perceptible landscape.

    I believe that language, meaning, narration, and music were originally inseparable, like self and society. Homer's Iliad is tragic for its record of war, violence on both an individual and a societal level: but in that degree the tragedy's trivial, compared to that of its example of the devolution of thought and language from a position of prayer and praise toward one of argument and persuasion.

    Well: all this in my garden this sunny Tuesday. I think when Candide turns to his garden it's to give his mind time to settle. I think you gentle reader for letting me wander here in mine.

    (There's an interesting page about singing Homeric Greek here; on it is a link to a performance of Demodokos' song about Ares and Aphrodite. My Corvallis friend says it's pretty good; it sounds a little rushed to me.)

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010

    Distant deaths

    79877B07-9564-420E-A110-50DA115DB53C.jpgI read this morning of the death of Wanda Tomczykowska, whom I met briefly in the 1060s. At the time I was working as music director at radio KPFA in Berkeley. When I first began there, as a volunteer, I was tested by being asked to wind a 12-inch reel of spilled audiotape onto a reel; it took me quite a while. The tape turned out to be a song recital from Radio Poland, and in ended with an encore, Chopin's "The Maiden's Wish." When I took the job, and had a little authority, I changed the station's sign-off music from Stravinsky's early "Pastorale," which still strikes me as somehow wimpy, to the Chopin song.

    Perhaps it was for that reason that Wanda Tomska, as I knew her, invited me to tea in her Alameda home. I remember it was a sunny day, much like today; that she lived modestly, but offered tea and cakes from very nice service, and that the conversation was warm and very gracious.

    Distant deaths and seemingly random kindnesses and the memories they evoke.

    A while back a friend wrote to complain that
    One of the things I used to most look forward to on Eastside View was your occasional wise analysis of where America was going and what there was to salvage from the art of the past, particularly the avant-garde, that spoke loudly and relevantly to our present condition. Now that we’re on the verge of worldwide catastrophe, quite possibly within our own lifetimes, your attention seems to be going into your daily meals, with Eastside View devoted mostly to introspection and reminiscence.
    The comment touched me a bit; perhaps it even stalled my attention to this blog. If we're on the verge of catastrophe, though, perhaps it's forgivable to dwell now and then on the beauties of the world some fear we're about to lose. I thanked Nature, yesterday, for — quite unasked — wintering my chard and lettuce over, and I think Reminiscence that I know, a little, Wanda Tomska, and Chopin's lovely — there is no other word — song.

    I'm very much aware that the previous entry, "Sites," is incomplete. Those Sites are a category much like Distant Deaths, I suppose. I'm sorry it's been on hold: it's been a difficult month (don't ask). I'll get back to it soon, but just now
    il faut cultiver mon jardin