Friday, September 24, 2010

Theater in Ashland, 4: Twelfth Night; American Night

Ashland, Oregon—
WE FINISHED THIS SEASON of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last night with a satisfying production of Twelfth Night. It doesn't make a lot of sense to have a favorite Shakespeare play, but there it is, Twelfth Night, about as perfect a play as you can get. The familiar devices: three social classes (nobility, fools, young lovers); slapstick; girl-masked-as-boy; shipwreck; separated souls reunited: and all in perfect balance as well as symmetry. And some of Shakespeare's most lyrical and poetic lines, from the opening
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die…
to Viola's final
And all those sayings will I over swear,
And all those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbed continent the fire
That severs day from night.
and, of course, Feste's final song with its "hey ho, the wind and the rain."

Darko Tresnjak conceived this production with Mozart in mind. I've always lamented that Mozart and Da Ponte never got around to making an opera out of Twelfth Night; it would have been a natural for them — perhaps if Mozart had lived another ten years. Alas, the Mozart Tresnjak had in mind seemed to be Tom Hulce's version in the movie Amadeus: virtually all comic, hardly any serious. The comic level Shakespeare intends was nively done indeed; OSF excels at Shakespearian fools and clowns, and instead of naming them I'll just refer you to the online cast list. But Orsino and Olivia are, I think, serious and troubled characters; their situations and pains are real, unless profound emotions are too much a bother — or perhaps too private — to be taken seriously these days (as I fear may be the case). And Olivia is partly of their quality, but partly too magician, a profound representation of the playwright himself. Kenajuan Bentley, Miriam Laube, and Brooke Parks were often very satisfying in these roles (respectively), but they were directed to mug and clown too often, throwing off the play's delicate but effective mechanism. Still, the play ended on a note of quiet beauty: Michael Elich's wonderful singing of the final song
When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.
and the play wasdone, roundly and beautifully, as had been done The Merchant of Venice the previous evening, musically and transcendently.
The previous afternoon we saw American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, the first of a projected 37 plays OSF projects commissioning to recount the American historical experience. Scripted by Richard Montoya for development by the Los Angeles company Culture Clash, it was an intriguing, evocative, resourceful, entertaining ninety minutes of theater. Three big sections are based on three factual characters: Sacajawea, Harry Bridges, and Viola Pettus (look them up if you don't know them): they're met by the title character (René Millán) as he dreams in troubled sleep on the eve of a citizenship exam.

Another section, perhaps the most troubling and evocative of the show, concerns a zoot-suited Johnny (Daisuke Tsuji), a poetic, rebellious youth caught in the Manzanar "relocation camp" during World War II. Somehow Montoya manages to balance broad comedy, poignancy, and political outrage in a persuasively realistic character here. American Night seemed to me the closest approximation to the Shakespearian humanization of social and political history of any of the many such attempts we've seen in Ashland over the years.
Twelfth Night, through Oct. 8; American Night: the Ballad of Juan José (Montoya), through October 31; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Theater in Ashland, 3: The Merchant of Venice

Ashland, Oregon—
SO MUCH JUSTIFICATION for producing The Merchant of Venice was trotted out by the direction here at Oregon Shakespeare Festival that I was worried about what would be done to Shakespeare's marvelous, problematic comedy. It's directed by Bill Rauch, the company's creative director, who in this year's Hamlet uses hip-hop and technology to make Shakespeare "relevant" to a hoped-for younger audience. Of course one understands the company's nervousness in this epoch of political correctness: still, it's Shakespeare's play, written in his time, and reflecting (I say) an essentially evenhanded dissent from the complacent righteousness of both Christianity and Judaism: merely producing it today, faithfully to the text, shouldn't really offend any thinking playgoer.

And it turned out the production, on the outdoor "Elizabethan Stage," was pretty straightforward. Like the previous night's Henry IV, Merchant began with a little vignette snipped from the trial scene, spotlit and amplified, as if the audience needs to be put in the mood, or told what the nut of the play is: this is dispensable, but essentially harmless.

From there on it was an unremarkable production, unexceptionably cast for the most part, thoughtful, never strident, the currently fashionable latent-homosexuality theme nudged but not boldfaced, Shylock's hatred of the Christians clearly motivated.

I was troubled throughout by the diction. Some of Shakespeare's most poetic language is in this play; too often it was spoken as if it were doggerel. It's one thing to portray Portia's exotic suitors — the Princes of Morocco and "Arragon" — as clowns; it's another to make Gratiano out a fool. Far too much of the expository first three acts suffered from off-hand diction, often nearly inaudible even only ten rows from the stage.

The famous courtroom scene opening Act 4, though, brought the whole play to life. Anthony Heald's Shylock was ultimately outrageous in his demand, but never hateful. Jonathan Haugen's Antonio was dignified in his helpless resignation. And Vilma Silva, whose Portia seemed out of kilter in earlier scenes, was eloquent, her timing nicely calculated.

For me the proof of The Merchant of Venice is the opening of the last act. Even here the opening lines —
The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise…
were delivered as trivial singsong; Lorenzo and Jessica never had seemed aware of the magic of either their romance or the language expressing it. But when the irresistible continuation began to unfold —
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
but in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eye'd cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly closed it in, we cannot hear it…
Even here, Lorenzo punctuates "muddy vesture of decay" with a distracting mimed reference to physical love-making. But soon enough the musicians began to provide a soft, lyrical background; Roberta Burke (Fatima) singing softly to guitar and lute, Portia and Nerissa (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) quietly counterpointing their own lines in the distance house left. The effect was magical, even persuading Daniel Marmon's Lorenzo and Emily Knapp's Jessica. And me.

The Merchant of Venice, through Oct. 10; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Theater in Ashland, 2: Henry IV; questions of taste

Ashland, Oregon—
THE REPERTORY HERE leans heavily to Shakespeare: after all, this is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Every year we see at least three, sometimes five of his plays; if you return year after year, as we do, you'll see the entire cycle of history plays, presented not in order of their writing but in chronological order of their subjects.

And while the Comedies, "Problem" plays, and Tragedies are often presented in one or another of the indoor theaters, the Histories seem nearly always to be presented in the semi-outdoors theater built in homage to London's (and Shakespeare's) Globe Theater. Last night, then, we sat in the chill of night to watch Henry IV, Part One. Perhaps it was simply an off night, but the performance seemed to me inert, with only Kevin Kenerly's portrayal of Hotspur redeeming a production that veered between overly fussy (but often funny) scenes with Falstaff (David Kelly, effective) and pageant-like, unconvincing scenes with the rebels and the royalty.

Six of us had been discussing another play, Lynn Nottage's Ruined — two other couples had just seen it, and we'd seen it almost six months ago — and we'd agreed that while strong and well done in every way the play ultimately left us depressed and uninvolved: the human condition can be terrible, humans do horrible things to one another, but what's to be done about it? This Henry IV left me similarly uninvolved, though not sad or depressed. Young Prince Hal's sudden reversal of character wasn't persuasive; the Scottish and Welsh rebels seemed merely loutish; King Henry kept reminding me of a playing card. I have to note Judith-Marie Bergan's vivacious account of Mistress Quickly; her opening scene was marvelous. Otherwise, not an impressive account of a pivotal Shakespeare history.
I MENTIONED ABOVE our discussion of Ruined. This of course is one of the major pleasures of our annual week in Ashland with three other couples: conversations about agreement and disagreement of tastes. Eight of us sometimes seem to see eight different productions, all at the same time in the same theater. (Well, seven: one of us — and it ain't me — is rarely expressive of his views, unless directly asked.)

And it's not only the theater that brings out these interesting differences of taste: there's the daily discussion of Where To Eat. This town's not particularly an Eating Town; there are to my mind only two good restaurants — though one of those, New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, is world-class, as all of us seem to agree. Lindsey says that Ashland's restaurants have a captive clientele, so don't need to excel at their metier; perhaps she's right.

But among the available restaurants, as among the available theater, there's more than enough difference to provoke discussion, agreement, reservation, diffidence, disagreement. We're similar people, we eight; educated, well read, liberal, professional, experienced travelers. But apparently we come to our daily negotiations with daily decisions with different sets of experience-and-enthusiasms, and the result is different, um, postures toward arriving at those decisions — or, in the case of discussions of theater seen, conclusions.

Example: the stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice directed here by Libby Appel, which we saw and absolutely enjoyed last March, was roundly condemned by the other three couples in our house as long and talky. It's a novel, not a play, G. points out. But one of the things that intrigued and pleased me the most about that evening was the success of the adaptation, and the fidelity of its dialogue to Austen's book.

Perhaps the primary consideration in discussions of taste is engagement, the extent to which we're involved in a two-way relationship with the play we're seeing, the meal we're eating, the conversation we're joining, the decision we're approaching. God knows it can be difficult when eight individuals, equally strong-willed but variably willing to express those wills, negotiate toward a common activity. This seems to me to be precisely the subject of Austen's novel: pride and prejudice as motivating, expressing, ultimately confounding the successful outcome of negotiations between individual desires (or urges) and social context (or permission or repression).

One of us mentioned John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus earlier today. It represents a genre that must be somewhere in mind in all eight of us, though it hasn't been discussed directly (yet): the thrown-together-by-fate group of (usually) travelers whose differences somehow have to be dealt with in a moment of social crisis extremis. The only Ashland productions of this genre that come to mind just now are William Inge's Bus Stop, which we saw in 2006 (and in Glendale in 2002, I think), and Robert Sherwood's comedy Idiot's Delight, which most of us saw back in 2002.

(The classic representation of the genre in literature was for a long time Thornton Wilder's 1927 The Bridge of San Luis Rey, memorably parodied by Marc Brandel's 1945 novel Rain Before Seven, which I re-read every couple of years for decades and must take up again one of these days).

But I've been distracted: sorry. The subject was only one aspect of the transactions among strong individuals thrown together in social moments: taste, and what it is in our experiences that determines taste, or expresses itself as personal taste. Taste especially as it contributes to what we used to call discrimination, before that noun became inextricably (and wrongly) connected to "racial". (Discrimination has to do with specific choices, not categorical ones.) It's a matter for individual contemplation and social conversation, I think; and to the extent that it is missing as a subject, such contemplation and conversation is impoverished.

To be continued, I'm sure…

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Theater in Ashland, 1: She Loves Me; Throne of Blood

Ashland, Oregon—
WE'RE BACK AT the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for six more plays, having seen the other five of the season last March. (Eastside View discussed those plays — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hamlet, Lynn Natage's Ruined, and Lisa Kron's Well here, here, and here.) This installment opened with a study in contrasts: the nostalgic musical She Loves Me and the sober drama Throne of Blood.

The musical was a constant delight, marred only by the amplification of the very good, versatile seven-piece band placed out of sight upstage center, behind the impressive set. Joe Masteroff's book is based on the Miklos Laszlo play Illatszertar, whose fascinating history is laid out in a Wikipedia article tracing its various stage and screen treatments. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick provided music and lyrics, and if they occasionally rely heavily on Cole Porter, well, that's not a bad doorway to lean against.

The play was written in Hungarian in the late 1930s, apparently first produced around 1937 in Budapest, and is typical of the romantic comedy of the time: an aging shopkeeper who suspects his wife is involved in an affair with one of his clerks; the suspect is in fact so shy his only love-life is carried on anonymously in letters to a lonely-hearts agency; another clerk… well, you get the idea. Odds are you've seen at least one film adaptation: The Shop Around the Corner (Stewart, Morgan, Sullavan); In the Good Old Summertime (Garland, Van Johnson); and You've Got Mail (Hanks, Ryan). The musical appeared in 1963, when this kind of nostalgia was on its last legs for several decades: the post-1964 sexual revolution rendered it no more than merely quaint.

Now, though, it seems old enough to have developed some respectability. Nostalgia has its place, awakening us to the lack of romance in our own time, possibly enabling a return to grace and whimsy. Here at OSF Rebecca Taichman's direction seemed both detailed and light-footed; Scott Bradley's sets and Miranda Hoffman's costumes found the best of the slightly vague period in play; and Darcy Danielson's musical direction was spirited and idiosyncratic. (If only the band had been in a pit, and unamplified.)

Lisa McCormick was a knockout as Amalia Balash: a singing actress with a fine musical sense and a total command of physical comedy. Mark Bedard was complex and thoughtful as her foil Georg Nowack, and the rest of the cast were quite well matched to the principals. (Dan Donohue, who spends the rest of his time here as a magnificent Hamlet, takes on an athletic, acrobatic turn as a clumsy waiter.)
THRONE OF BLOOD is a very different adaptation also involving both theater and film: a stage play by Ping Chong adapted from the 1957 Akira Kurosawa film adaptation of Macbeth. It seemed to me a fine piece of theater on its own terms, constantly referring to the Shakespeare play through Kurosawa's visual imagery but without relying on a familiarity with the film.

Christopher Acebo's setting is stratified, with projections thrown against a stage-wide, narrow scrim at the top of the proscenium, distant and often silent action at rooftop level below that, and the main action beautifully centered on the stage level. All three sections balance well; the action is never distracting. (I thought, too, that this staging concept was quite reminiscent of that of last season's Macbeth.)

Stefani Mar's costumes were magnificent — tributes to the complex, handsome, sometimes surreal helmets and armor of the samurai period. And Todd Barton, apparently himself a player of the shakuhachi, turned in what seems to me his very best work in the music and sound design: this is a play for ears as much as for eyes.

Kevin Kenerly was marvelous as Washizu (the Macbeth), and Ako was every bit his match as Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth): they gave deep, complex, intense portrayals of these roles, a little outside the ensemble I suppose, but justifiably so. Cristofer Jean seemed just as beautifully cast as the Forest Spirit, Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's three weird sisters. The rest of the cast, however, seemed a step behind these leads, perhaps deliberately, as if to flatten out the drama behind the intensity of the major protagonists.

I found the piece absorbing yet oddly inert and formal — again, perhaps the intention. I suppose there were deliberate references to Noh and Kabuki theatrical traditions, as well as to Kurosawa's film: but I found myself often thinking of manga, too, the Japanese comic-strip style that flattens narrative behind the two dimensions of printed paper. I don't mean this negatively: Ping Chong's work is engaging as well as intelligent. It'll be interesting to see how it plays the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this November.
She Loves Me (Masteroff-Bock-Harnick), through Oct. 30;
Throne of Blood
(Ping Chong), through Oct. 31; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Social capitalism

WE DON'T TAKE that many magazines here; perhaps the only one I read more or less consistently is The Nation. Lindsey's father subscribed to it for years, after he gave up on The New Republic which had been his favorite into the 1960s. So we subscribe to it too, partly to keep his commitment to it alive. (I owe him so much, including the little political interest and liberal sentiment I have.)

I read The Nation irregularly, though, tending to catch up on a number of issues at a time (taking "a time" flexibly, of course). Just now I'm working my way through last May, when the newsmagazine continued to arrive weekly while we continued to move through Sicily weakly. And most recently I've found Steven Hill's fine article "Europe's Answer to Wall Street," published in the May 10 issue and republished online here.

Hill writes about "co-determination," briefly the involvment (not merely representation) of workers in the direction of the (necessarily capitalist) corporations for which they work. "In Germany," he writes,
fully half of the boards of directors of the largest corporations--Siemens, BMW, Daimler, Deutsche Telekom and others--are elected by workers. In Sweden, one-third of a company's directors are worker-elected. To understand the significance of this, imagine if Wal-Mart were legally required to allow its workers to elect a third to half of its board, who would then oversee the CEO. Imagine how much that would change Wal-Mart's behavior toward its workers and supply chain.
Americans are generally speaking parochial creatures, unaware of the currents of political and social beyond their borders. They — we — tend to think of Europe as broke and mired in the past, when in fact
Europe has the largest economy in the world, producing nearly a third of the world's GDP. Indeed, its economy is almost as large as those of the United States and China combined. Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China together, and Europe had a higher per capita growth rate from 1998 to 2008 than the United States. Long denigrated by US pundits as the land of high unemployment, the EU currently even has a slightly lower unemployment rate than the United States.

Hill describes the irony of the American influence on the development of co-determination in Europe:
The Allied powers encouraged this line of thinking, since it decentralized economic power, shifting it away from the German industrialists who had supported the Nazi war effort. In effect, US planners "punished" postwar Germany with economic democracy as a way of handicapping concentrated wealth and power, helping to birth the most democratic corporate governance structure the world had ever seen.
A major result of co-determination, of course, is its contribution to the well-being of workers, and thereby to the quality of daily life in society in general.
[T]he World Economic Forum in 2008-09 ranked Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands--all of which employ some degree of co-determination--among the top ten most competitive economies in the world. They are also ranked at or near the top of most lists for quality of life, healthcare and social benefits. That's not a coincidence, since co-determination allows for both economic vibrancy and more egalitarian social policy. And while the United States also ranks high in competitiveness, it is near the bottom among most-developed countries in healthcare, social benefits and quality of life.
Hill's argument has perhaps been veiled by two distractions in recent American media coverage of the European economy: the Euro crisis brought on by social-welfare bubbles in Greece (and, potentially, other Mediterranean nations); and the strikes and protests now going on in re. the proposed delays of retirement.

That last issue is an interesting one: in a period of considerable unemployment, early retirement, like shorter work hours, seems a logical social policy. It's too bad there seems no way of encouraging mass media in our country to present these discussions clearly (and prominently!) to their audiences.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Michael Milani: It Happens Every Morning

I'VE BEEN READING three books simultaneously: James Joyce's Ulysses, Victor Navasky's A Matter of Opinion, and Michael Milani's It Happens Every Morning. A modernist classic of fiction; a liberal journalist's memoir; a self-published account of the history and actors in the wholesale produce business in San Francisco.

Damned if there isn't a common theme: the bonhomie — is there an English term for it? — of convivial men (alas not too many women here) united in an overwhelming subculture. And each author's book finds in the theme a common narrative quality, however differently expressed: overridingly entertaining, comic exuberance out of a context of (and here the books diverge a bit) privation, or disillusion, or hard work.

As you might suspect, Milani's is the quickest read: 28 chapters and an epilogue in 325 pages of loose prose, not much edited, more enthusiastic than literary. Some of the pages may find your attention flagging; the accounts of the many produce-brokerage companies occasionally recall the Book of Numbers in their compulsion to include every begat, consequential or not. But there are so many practical jokes, drinking stories, funny asides, and improbable nicknames you don't dare skim over such passages.

More seriously, Milani describes the changing character of the business, from the late 19th century when produce was brought by horse-drawn wagons from San Mateo county to the city (only the lead wagoneer awake, the others dozing behind him, trusting their horses to follow the familiar route) to the days of shrinkwrap and standardization. He records the in-fighting resulting from city redevelopment's forced relocation of the business, meticulously examining motives and methods. And implicit in the book is the Italian-American theme of family, extended family, and business, with occasional appearances of goons and thugs.

Milani was born in 1937. In his teens he worked summers in his father's wholesale business, and it's easy to see why the camaraderie, coupled with a strong sense of family, led him into the business in his turn — after college, where he studied modern American literature, of all things. (I wonder if he read Pietro di Donato, or Frank Norris. Probably.) It Happens Every Morning — the title is no doubt intentionally a little risqué — certainly doesn't look like a Stanford literature student's writing: it's about as proletarian as you can get. But its portrayals of a century of change in a vital but largely invisible industry, and of the very human, smart, funny, fiercely competitive yet often surprisingly sentimental men who compose that industry, are truly memorable, in my opinion.

Of course I have a fondness for this sort of thing. This book will go next to The First Forty Years, Dieter Tede's account of his own San Francisco-based Marine Chartering Company, and The Flying Cloud and Her First Passengers, an account of the first voyage of the clipper ship The Flying Cloud around Cape Horn, written by Margaret Lyon and Flora Reynolds. Very small editions, completely uncommercial, these books preserve both small but significant slices of history while celebrating the humanity and intelligence of amateur writing in the best sense.
  • It Happens Every Morning and The First Forty Years can be found, in short supply, at; The Flying Cloud remains in print and is available from Center for the Book at Mills College.