Thursday, April 26, 2012

Road trip

Eastside Road, April 25, 2012—
AS THE PREVIOUS POST indicates, we were down in Pasadena over the weekend, seeing plays at A Noise Within. Much as we like the company, and (for the most part) their productions, I look forward to the trip itself almost more. As Gertrude Stein notes someplace, Plays and Landscape have an elective affinity. (Actually what she says, as I recall, is that a landscape has no purpose other than providing a site for landscape or for battle: but cut me a little slack here.)

If I am religious, my religion is Landscape. Chekhov explains this better than I can:
The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and It will sound as indifferently and motonously when we are all not more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings — the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky — Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.

—Chekhov: The Lady with the Dog, quoted in Janet Malcolm: Reading Chekhov
I found Malcolm's book interesting and useful. It combines, or better perhaps merges, literary criticism, travel, and first-person essay, all genres dear to my heart; and if she occasionally slips into a snippy mood she does not dwell there: with Chekhov at one's side, it's hard to remain scornful or overweening for more than a moment.

The quoted passage stands on the very first page of Reading Chekhov. Malcolm has gone to Yalta to visit Chekhov's home, and the seaside cottage that was his getaway; and what better way to set the scene than through the master's own words? She soon flashes back to earlier stages of her literary pilgrimage, visits to Petersburg and Moscow; and in those pages we're reminded that Janet Malcolm is a city-dweller; she doesn't take to the countryside as easily, I think, as Chekhov does. She writes about the stories more than the plays; she writes well about the letters (and quotes liberally from them, making me hunger to read them soon). She writes about Chekhov's rather surprising journey to Sakhalin, and the report he wrote on the lunatic asylum there.

I read Reading Chekhov quickly, in a borrowed copy no longer at hand — just as well, perhaps: I don't really want to write extensively about it here. Partly because of the speed, because it was read late at night in hotel rooms, and while seeing plays and driving through landscape, the book has gone into a vague and rather mysterious corner in the theater of my memory, taking on the quality of something W.G. Sebald might have written. I didn't take any notes while reading it, either: but I remember being particularly impressed with Chekhov's letter to his brother, urging him to put himself in order, and particularly to get some culture: to live well on this earth, among civil human society, one needs culture, which includes, Chekhov makes clear, discipline, kindness, modesty, and truthfulness.
You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitia. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent…
—Malcolm, Reading Chekhov, p. 97 (I find the passage on Google Books)
Malcolm traveled by air and rail: Chekhov crossed Siberia, she points out, for the most part, in horse-drawn conveyances, on rutted and muddy roads. For most of us, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, landscape is experienced through glass and at speed. What Stein knew is that landscape divulges its content and its meaning only at slower tempo. Among the many differences between live theater and film or television perhaps the least discussed is tempo: theater is slower, even when it is punctuated, as are battles, by moments of violence and the violence of haste. I've noted here before that Bruckner's music is best appreciated by those who are accustomed to long walks: like Schubert, like Sibelius, Bruckner was accustomed to them.

(Mozart was I think not much of a walker; his awareness of landscape was formed during his childhood from the view of it receding from a coach moving as swiftly as possible — perhaps not very swiftly — as he sat next to his valet-companion on the rear seat, making up stories of reverse-motion worlds. I think that may be why his music often seems to have been conceived from the final moment forward to the beginning, guaranteeing all threads to converge and resolve at the conclusion.)

Looking north from Mission San Juan Bautista

As we like to do, we drove to Los Angeles with a friend, stopping to see another friend in Ojai on the way down, and dawdling in search of wildflowers on the way back. We stopped at Missions, too: I have my favorite sites and don't like to miss a chance to revisit them. One is at the edge of the little rose garden at Mission San Juan Bautista, where you gaze out over a flat expanse of farmland toward the eastern scarp of the San Andreas Fault. Last Thursday that view was spoiled a little bit by the extensive sheets of plastic covering the soil, which was probably being fumigated — one doesn't like to think about such modern industrial compromises with the higher aims of our existence, but there it is; and since it is there, it's good to be reminded of it.

(Others will be similarly discouraged by the thought of the hundreds of bodies in unmarked graves, just inside the wall in the "Indian Cemetery." It's politically fashionable to insist that the Mission movement was nothing but evil, exploitive, even cynical. You'll perhaps not be surprised to hear I think that's a bit simplistic: not only autre temps, autre moeurs, but also other truths, I believe.)

Then there was Ojai. Its valley was an inspiration, I believe, for James Nordhoff's Shangri-la; the writer lived in the Ojai valley. It is one huge citrus grove — citrus and avocados — relieved from time to time by the rather palatial residences of the rich who live quietly at the foot of the east-west range protecting them from north winds.

Churchill Orchard, Ojai

Malcolm points out that Chekhov writes of a Nature quite inflected by human activity; the natural beauty he contemplates is not wilderness but horticulture; and on this road trip I come to realize once again that I agree. The reassurance of the everpresent beauty — justice, even, I would say — derives from an intersection of natural context and human occupation or use. An appropriate use, of course, at the natural tempo and scale deriving from the natural energies: wind, water, gravity, animal and manpower.

I can never drive through California's Central Valley near Williams without thinking of old photographs my grandfather had, of enormous steam tractors big as small houses, standing out in mown and threshed wheatfields: they took the place of huge teams of horses, but likely moved not much faster. They opened a door, though, with the straining pull of an insatiable demand for ever faster, cheaper energy; and the result has been a widening of the gap between rich and poor, and a terrible cost to the environment. Demand for cheap labor, always related to willingness to exploit others for one's own comfort, always seems to result in some form of slavery.

The question arises inevitably on visiting California's Missions. We stopped at Mission San Miguel on the way back, after crossing the magnificent Figueroa Mountain in search of wildflowers — the blue and gold of lupine and poppy against sandstone and serpentine, enhanced by eddies of Kurosawa mists on an early afternoon troubled by changeable weather. The San Miguel sanctuary was badly damaged by the San Simeon earthquake of a few years ago, but the community and its parish rallied and somehow raised the funds necessary for a fine restoration. The cloister — wrong word, I'm sure, for the interior courtyard, originally little more than a stockyard — is nicely and modestly gardened; the cells left pretty much in the dark, furnished with the rawhide beds and crude tables and chairs.

Clearly the local population was worked in the vineyards and orchards, at the presses and ovens; and one can only wonder what they thought as they sat on the adobe floor of the church listening to sermons in Spanish and masses in Latin. The mental effort must have matched the physical, and they must have known they lived in a time of utter change, plunged from a preliterate hunter-gatherer society into one organized through the printed word, monetary exchange, and travel across great distances. I think California's Missions provide a glimpse into the Russian feudalism still living memory but soon to change utterly in Chekhov's day. I think, too, that we are utterly misled by sentiment when we try to apply contemporary concepts of social justice, themselves often based greatly on suspect assumptions of material needs and available energies, to a world now perhaps hopelessly distant from our ken.
align="left" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="5">


Mission San Antonio

We drove from Bradley, on Highway 101, westerly through Lockwood to Mission San Antonio, one of the most isolated of the Missions. Much of the way we were driving through Fort Hunter Liggett, whose target ranges and airstrips are scattered discreetly among stately oaks in a broad, tranquil valley. The Mission itself is changed since I was last there, say twelve years ago. The Franciscans left, we were told; they'd pretty much let the place go to nature; Dominicans have taken over, the place is cleaned up, it's made available to groups for retreats, and Mass is again celebrated every Sunday for a local parish of three hundred souls or so.

The calla lilies were still standing in vases at the front of the sanctuary, their perfume mingling with that of candles and incense. God knows I am no Catholic, nor Christian either: but I respect the better instincts of those who are, and appreciate their places of gathering in devotion to the forces they think determine their nature and destiny. As I learned in my first week of college, in a required course on religion (I'd been sent to a Christian college in Los Angeles):
Religion is the serious and social attitude of individuals or communities toward the power or powers which they conceive as having ultimate control over their interests and destinies.
—James Bisset Pratt, The Religious Consciousness, page 2
From there we drove on to King City, where a county park features an interesting museum of local agriculture whose relics reminded me once again of my grandparents and great-grandparents; and then northeasterly to Highway 25, which runs north through the valley of the San Andreas Fault toward Hollister. This valley can not be photographed to any advantage; its physical impact on the visitor is spatial more than visual. The road runs between parallel ridges, the Pinnacles on the west, the mercury-bearing San Idria on the right. Apart from the asphalt the only human evidence is fencing and the occasional farmstead. The fields are grazed, of course; one wonders what the grasses would have been before cattle were introduced nearly two hundred years ago.

Lichen-encrusted oak off Highway 25
(photo: March 2011)

When we entered Cold Creek Tavern on the Cuesta pass outside Santa Barbara, at 11:30, we were the only customers; when we left the place was nearly full. Twenty minutes later, when we left Highway Highway 154 to drive along Armour Canyon Road toward Figueroa Mountain Road, we were blissfully alone. We saw one or two cars on the mountain road. We saw none on the road from Bradley to Mission San Antonio, except for one slow tank truck whose driver obligingly signalled us to overtake him. We saw none on Highway 25. It continues to amaze me that on leaving the busy highways one can be alone for hours on these California back roads, even today, even after all the publicity their pleasures have produced.

Many more photographs from this road trip can be found here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Three Plays at A Noise Within

Pasadena, April 22, 2012—
A WEEK LATER, and still thinking about Seagull. Two nights ago we saw Illusion, Tony Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 17th-century fantasy l'Illusion comique, and I couldn't help thinking of Chekhov afterward. Seagull opens with a play within the play: Konstantine Treblyev, one of Chekhov's main characters, an intelligent and artistic but unachieved young man apparently in his mid-twenties, has written a Symbolist drama set far in the future on a lifeless world; he quickly and impusively cancels its performance when his actress mother belittles it.

It's not hard to think Chekhov is writing partly about himself, and the relationship his own pathbreaking art bears to the popular literature of his day. Like Kostya, Chekhov writes for the future; some of the time, I think, deliberately attempting to shape that future.

Equally true of the 27-year-old Corneille, who drew on commedia dell''arte as well as classical genre to write l'Illusion. A prologue, three comedies, and a tragedy, he called it, bringing new vigor to old forms by playing them off one another. It's a postmodern idea; it's recursive; it's innovative. Of course today's audiences aren't as familiar with the classical sources as Corneille's audience would presumably have been: hence the advantage of a Kushner adaptation, which I must say respects the original surprisingly consistently.

Kushner retains the original rhymed metrics only occasionally, and then at heightened introspective moments. He omits one character, folding his lines into asides. He adds an inspired epilogue. But he retains the original's sense of wonder, hilarity, and romance, alternating and often combined, throwing the audience off guard as often as the pivotal character Pridamant (Nick Ullett, stolid and diverting), whose search for the errant son Calisto (Graham Hamilton, dimensioned and memorable) precipitates all these improbable events.

I don't know the extent to which Shakespeare's plays were already known in France in 1634, when l'Illusion was premiered. It's easy to see elements of The Tempest here: Pridamant consults the magician Alcandre (Deborah Strang, reliably effective) for news of his son, ten years after losing him, and in a series of scenes she presents him, his romances, his reversals, his eventual execution — this doesn't really qualify as a spoiler. Like Shakespeare, too, Corneille uses extant dramatic conventions (not to mention old plots and routines) to contain, or suggest, really profound contemplations of illusion and reality, convention and enterprise, imponderability and meaning.

This production brought a fair amount of new talent to the repertory company A Noise Within, whose plays we've attended for ten years or so. Strang's a company veteran and always a real pleasure to see, but Ullett and Hamilton are new to the company. So too are Casey Stangl, whose direction was swift and sure, and Keith Mitchell, whose scenic design was moody but compelling. The cast was remarkably consistent: Jeff Doba as the creepy servant Amanuensis, Alan Blumenfeld as a lunatic Matamore, Devon Sorvari as Calisto's beloved Melibea, and Abby Craden as the ingenue Elicia, Freddy Douglas as Calisto's rival Pleribo. Of these, Doba and Sorvari are also making welcome company debuts, and they're welcome. As is the play, which is really wonderful; it's such a pleasure that A Noise Within brings French repertory to its stage.

THEN LAST NIGHT we were plunged to the other end of the range of theatrical delight with an utterly misconceived production of Antony and Cleopatra, played apparently for laughs and spectacle at the cost of anything like romance or majesty or insight. Geoff Elliott bobbed his head and mouthed his lines in an incomprehensibly off-hand impersonation of the flawed Mark Antony; Susan Angelo lounged about as a nightclub Cleopatra; the direction, by company co-directors Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, settled for stylized violence and sketchy amorousness. Costumes seemed routine at best, otherwise distracting; stage design and lighting seemed merely serviceable. Robertson Dean was an effective, subtle, and sympathetic Enobarbus, which oddly made the character seem distracting in this company.

No doubt about it: It's a difficult play, for reader, audience, cast, and directors. All the more reason to give Shakespeare his due, which is thoughtful study and evocative, enterprising production. This doesn't happen in this production.

TONIGHT MADE IT TWO out of three, though: Molière's The Bungler (L'Étourdi), his first verse comedy, ably translated in rhyming couplets by Richard Wilbur, was a total delight, funny, well cast, imaginatively directed, with fine musical interludes (and the best theatrical overture I've heard in years). The extraordinarily gifted comic actor JD Cullum was a masterly Mascarille, the servant whose feckless master Lelie (Michael Newcomer, also gifted) needs help releasing his beloved Celie (Emily Kosloski) from various complications.

Here's another play with recursive elements: Mascarille devises plots, presses his master and bystanders into service carrying them out, revises things as his boss inevitably bungles them; you can be sure Mascarille is Molière himself. The rest of the cast was quite up to Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's detailed and zany direction; Angela Calin's costumes were on the mark, David O's musical score was resourceful (and featured a magnificent tuba player). I would happily see this production every third Friday evening for the rest of my life.

A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena; 626.356.3100; plays continue in repertory through May (see website for schedule).

The Critic

I know a critic — tedious man —
Who'll tell you everything he can.
He knows of course "why Henry Moores
Are always full of apertures"*,
Why Beckett's novels are absurd
And Feldman's music seldom heard.

He speaks of Twyla, Pina, Merce,
Of music bad as Berg's, or worse.
He knows about the Isle of Man,
The Fall of Angels, and he can
Recite poems by Gertrude Stein,
Enough to make a poodle whine.

Why Rauschenberg paints with stuffed goats,
And women read Joyce Carol Oates,
Why Jasper Johns's flags and cans
Draw much applause but never bans.
He'll tell you all these things, and then
He'll tell you all these things again;

Now if you want to make him stop
Don't bother looking for a cop:
Just smile sweetly, and nod your head,
And murmur, Gee, you're sure well-read;
I once read The New Yorker too,
It almost made me talk like you.

I bored my friends, sent them away —
And now I'm going, too. Good day.

*I think I read this couplet once,
But don't know where. I'm such a dunce.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Snake and Seagull

The two short-season plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this spring are Chekhov's Seagull and Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake, both of which we saw last Saturday. (We return to Ashland in late July to see the rest of the eleven-play cycle.)

Not that much need be said here about Seagull, adapted and directed by Libby Appel in a production designed minimally but effectively by Christopher Acebo in the New Theater. We saw this "adaptation" a little over a year ago, when it ran in Mill Valley at Marin Theater in a different production. I set the word in quotes: at the time Appel's new version, based on Allison Horsley's literal translation of Chekhov's text, seemed to me more a restoration than an adaptation, redirecting the audience's response from the picturesqueness of an exotic, long-ago society to the social and philosophical questions at the heart of Chekhov's play, always relevant, now perhaps more than fifty years ago.

I wrote about that production here.The current production is less physically detailed than Marin's, narrowing the focus onto the text, the dialogue. Since so much of Chekhov's dialogue is always interior and unspoken, revealed by inference through the otherwise apparently irrelevant comments of characters who don't really attend to one another, this can be hard on the audience.
It has its value, though, rightly extending the effectiveness of the play beyond the evening of its performance. It's as if Kostya's avant-garde play, quickly shut down by its anguished young author at the beginning of Chekhov's play, begins to continue in one's mind after the abrupt yet laconic conclusion of Seagull. " Conclusion": what an inconclusive ending this is, for all but poor Kostya himself: the contemplation remains, will remain among Chekhov's characters, remains for those of us fortunate to have seen this fine production.

The White Snake is also an "adaptation", this time of an ancient Chinese story, and also a restoration os sorts, in that it returns its audience to the blend of entertainment and instruction, goofy comedy and poetic contemplation — there's that word again — that propels Chinese opera. (And commedia dell'arte, and Mozart-da Ponte, and…)

Story: Snake studies philosophy, yearns to learn human experience, disguises self as beautiful woman, seduces innocent tradesman, is exposed by Buddhist monk, returns to her mountain.

Zimmerman's script, developed from the plot sketch during the course of rehearsals, contains the vivacity of commedia improvisation within the voice of a thoughtful and studious playwright. There is one element I found jarring: the ensemble in the pit — flute, cello, and percussion — relied heavily on foursquare structures and conventional Western tonal harmony for the collectively generated musical chinoiserie that helps articulate the entertainment's progress. Where Zimmerman's direction and script adapt Chinese opera to the American stage, the musicians, I thought, seek to imitate it, constantly distracting my attention.

Still, there's a lot to like here. There is real poetry, pathos, and philosophy in Snake's predicament, ably and beautifully projected by Amy Kim Waschke (new to OSF), and poignancy in the role of Xu Xian, nicely taken by Christopher Livingston; and Tanya McBride and Jack Willis find just the right amount of brashness in the comic-relief roles of Green Snake and Fa Hai, the villainous monk.

Zimmerman's White Snake often made me think of Michael McClure's wonderful Gargoyle Cartoons of forty and fifty years ago. It's sad that neglect of the breakthroughs of that period has occasioned so much ignorance and the occasional re-invention, but it's reassuring, I suppose, that artistic truth will now and then, as here, bring a historically imperative notion back to contemporary life and relevance. Something else for that superbly enlightened serpent to contemplate, back on the eternal mountain she shares, I'm sure, with Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov.