Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 in Books

Before I put the past year (and this blog) to bed, time to do one more year-in-reading round-up.

As usual, this is split into two lists, one for plays/screenplays and one for everything else. I count plays only if they are published and available for general consumption. Works that were rereads for me this year are marked with an asterisk. Works that I read for my book club are marked with a dagger.

  1.  † The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton
  2.  Lunch Poems, by Frank O'Hara
  3.  * The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West -- some thoughts in this post from 2010
  4.  Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, by Judith Mackrell
  5.  † Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson
  6.  Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, by T.S. Eliot, illustrated by Edward Gorey -- my thoughts
  7.  † The Bell, by Iris Murdoch -- my thoughts
  8.  Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  9.  * Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
  10.  The Painted Gun, by Bradley Spinelli
  11.  † Chéri, by Colette
  12.  † The Last of Chéri, by Colette
  13.  The Dwindling Party, by Edward Gorey -- my thoughts
  14.  * Complete Short Fiction, by Oscar Wilde
  15.  The Suitors, by Cécile David-Weill -- my thoughts
  16.  † Selected Stories, by Lu Xun
  17.  * A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor -- my thoughts
  18.  Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor -- my thoughts
  19.  Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, by Jan Morris
  20.  * Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays, by David Ball
  21.  † How to be both, by Ali Smith
  22.  The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  23.  * The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman -- in 2007 I wrote about what this book means to me
  24.  † Howards End, by E.M. Forster
  25.  * The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
  26.  Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper
  27.  † On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
  28.  * The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
  29.  † * Love in a Cold Climate, by Nancy Mitford
  30.  * The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford
  31.  * Emma, by Jane Austen -- here's something funny I wrote inspired by rereading Emma while on the bus
  32.  Record Collecting for Girls, by Courtney E. Smith -- my thoughts
  33.  The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman
  34.  † Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray
  35.  * Act One, by Moss Hart -- when I read this in 2014, I wrote a little something about it for the SF Theater Pub blog
  36.  Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation, by Daisy Hay
  37.  † The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
  38.  * The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  39.  * A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
  40.  * A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  41.  * Lyra's Oxford, by Philip Pullman
  42.  The Power of Style, by Annette Tapert and Diana Edkins 
These books, by the numbers:
  • 26 British, 9 American, 3 French, 2 Canadian, 1 Irish, 1 Chinese
  • 22 books by 16 different men, 20 books by 17 different women
  • 26 new reads, 16 rereads
  • 20 adult fiction, 11 nonfiction, 7 kids' fiction, 2 adult poetry, 2 kids' poetry
  • This is a 25% increase over last year in volume of books read -- I'm proud that joining a book club has seemingly made me read more, and introduced me to some terrific books that I might not have read otherwise. (especially The Bell, On Beauty, and The Man Who Was Thursday.)
  1.  Honor Bright, by Lue Morgan Douthit -- my thoughts
  2.  Speech & Debate, by Stephen Karam -- my thoughts
  3.  Reckless, by Craig Lucas -- my thoughts
  4.  Small Tragedy, by Craig Lucas -- my thoughts
  5.  In the Red & Brown Water, by Tarell Alvin McCraney
  6.  The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney 
  7.  Marcus, or The Secret of Sweet, by Tarell Alvin McCraney -- my thoughts on McCraney's trilogy
  8.  * Macbeth, by William Shakespeare -- my thoughts
  9.  The Trip to Bountiful, by Horton Foote -- my thoughts
  10.  Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen
  11.  The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman -- my thoughts
  12.  Les combustibles, by Amélie Nothomb -- my thoughts
  13.  * Lady Windermere’s Fan, by Oscar Wilde
  14.  * Salomé, by Oscar Wilde
  15.  A Woman of No Importance, by Oscar Wilde
  16.  * An Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde 
  17.  A Florentine Tragedy, by Oscar Wilde
  18.  * The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde -- my thoughts on the Penguin edition of Wilde's plays
  19.  * Assemblywomen, by Aristophanes
  20.  * Cariboo Magi, by Lucia Frangione -- my thoughts
  21.  His Dark Materials, adapted by Nicholas Wright -- my thoughts
  22.  Kiss, by Guillermo Calderón
  23.  Ironbound, by Martyna Majok -- my thoughts
  24.  Rhinoceros, by Eugene Ionesco
  25.  The Leader, by Eugene Ionesco 
  26.  The Future is in Eggs, by Eugene Ionesco -- my thoughts on these 3 Ionesco plays
  27.  * Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw
  28.  * Candida, by George Bernard Shaw
  29.  The Man of Destiny, by George Bernard Shaw
  30.  You Never Can Tell, by George Bernard Shaw 
  31.  Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Emma Thompson (book also included her production diaries)
These plays and screenplays, by the numbers:
  • 11 American, 10 Irish, 3 British, 3 French-Romanian, 1 Belgian, 1 Greek, 1 Canadian, 1 Chilean
  • 26 plays by 13 different men, 5 plays by 5 different women
  • 22 new reads, 9 rereads
  • This is a 50% increase over last year in volume of plays read, and, while the male:female ratio is still pretty terrible, at least it's 5:1 instead of 19:1! 
    Previous Years in Reading lists: 2016, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007

    Theatergoing 2017

    In 2017, I saw 39 fully staged theater productions; here they are all in chronological order:
    1. Six Eleven, by E. Hunter Spreen, produced by San Francisco University High School 
    2. Belleville, by Amy Herzog, at Custom Made 
    3. Fun Home, by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, at the Curran (my review)
    4. Sunday in the Park with George, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, on Broadway 
    5. Sleep No More, by Punchdrunk, at the McKittrick Hotel 
    6. Where All Good Rabbits Go, by Karina Cochran, at Faultline 
    7. Isaac’s Eye, by Lucas Hnath, at Custom Made 
    8. Eclipsed, by Danai Gurira, at the Curran 
    9. Kilgallen/Jones, by Allison Page, at the EXIT 
    10. Putas Asesinas, adapted by Carlos Barrera from Roberto Bolaño, at Third Cloud from the Left
    11. Pint-Sized Plays (March 2017 edition), by various authors, at PianoFight 
    12. The House of Yes, by Wendy MacLeod, at Custom Made 
    13. The Baltimore Waltz, by Paula Vogel, at Magic Theatre (my review)
    14. You’ll Not Feel the Drowning, by Marissa Skudlarek, at Custom Made 
    15. John, by Annie Baker, at ACT 
    16. Breeders, by Dan Giles, at Faultline 
    17. Spell Eternity, by Alandra Hileman, at Quantum Dragon Theater 
    18. Twins, by Stuart Bousel, at PianoFight 
    19. The Events, by David Grieg, at Shotgun Players 
    20. Grandeur, by Han Ong, at Magic Theatre (my review)
    21. ShortLived 2017 (Round 1), by various authors, at PianoFight 
    22. Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, on tour 
    23. Mother Night, adapted by Brian Katz from Kurt Vonnegut, at Custom Made 
    24. A Life on the Ocean Wave, by Carson Beker et al, at the EXIT 
    25. Shortlived 2017 (Finals), at PianoFight 
    26. MacBitch, adapted by Oren Stevens from Shakespeare, at the Breadbox 
    27. The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence, by Madeleine George, at Shotgun 
    28. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, Part 1, by Taylor Mac, at the Curran
    29. Myth Mouth, by Dandy Darkly, at the Fringe 
    30. Clickshare, by Lucas Kavner, at ACT’s MFA program 
    31. How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel, at Custom Made 
    32. Hamlet, by Shakespeare, at ACT 
    33. The Mineola Twins, by Paula Vogel, at Cutting Ball 
    34. Junk, by Ayad Akhtar, at Lincoln Center Theater 
    35. The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman, at Custom Made 
    36. Bag of Dickens, by various authors, at Killing My Lobster 
    37. Ageless, by Bridgette Dutta Portman, at Quantum Dragon Theater 
    38. Small Mouth Sounds, by Bess Wohl, at ACT 
    39. The Secret Garden, by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, at 42nd Street Moon (my review)
    This is slightly fewer shows than I saw in 2016, but the exciting news is that I saw slightly more plays by women than by men! (The grand total is 17 plays by female writers or all-female teams, 16 by male writers or all-male teams, and 6 mixed-gender collaborations or anthologies. Okay, if my own play hadn't had a workshop in April, it would have been a 16-16 male-female tie.) While this did take some conscious effort on my part, it was by no means difficult to achieve this ratio. Without even intending to, I started 2017 with a streak of 3 plays (plus 1 staged reading) by women; I finished the year with another streak of 3 plays by women, too.

    My advice to anyone who wants to undertake this experiment is that it's not only about seeking out plays by women that you may have overlooked; it's about not going to see plays by men if you think they sound mediocre or boring. Having started the year with an all-female streak, I decided that when I broke the streak, it'd have to be for something really special. The penultimate Broadway preview of Sunday in the Park with George starring Jake Gyllenhaal definitely qualified -- especially because I got the tickets after taking a red-eye flight to New York and getting in line for rush seats at 7 AM! But I might not have broken the streak for a less exciting show.

    I also saw a baker's dozen of staged readings (5 by solo women, 2 by solo men, 1 by a nonbinary playwright, 5 anthologies):
    1. Las Pajaritas, by Jordan Ramirez Puckett, at Custom Made New Works 
    2. The Mourner, by Bridgette Dutta Portman, at Custom Made New Works 
    3. Siesta Key, by Jonathan Spector, at Custom Made New Works
    4. Erinyes/Eumenides, by Rebecca Longworth, at Custom Made New Works 
    5. River Protectors/Desert Dwellers, by various authors, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
    6. The Sorrows, by Carson Beker, at Custom Made New Works 
    7. Abzu by Megan Cohen and Tiamat by Stuart Bousel, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
    8. Ishtar in Syria, by Barry Eitel, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
    9. Shamash / Enlil / Hadad / Nanna-Sin, by various authors, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
    10. Attendants of Grove and Field, by various authors, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival 
    11. Queens of Temple and Hall, by various authors, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival 
    12. You’ll Not Feel the Drowning, by Marissa Skudlarek, at Custom Made's NYC reading series
    13. Token, by Lisa Marie Rollins, at Crowded Fire’s Matchbox series 
    And five broadcasts or streams of theater productions that took place elsewhere:
    1. The Encounter, by Simon McBurney, produced by Theatre de Complicité
    2. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, by Tony Kushner, National Theatre 
    3. Angels in America: Perestroika, by Tony Kushner, National Theatre 
    4. Present Laughter by Noel Coward, Broadway 
    5. Indecent, by Paula Vogel, Broadway 
    (one of the best things about 2017 for me is that it was a Quadruple Vogel Year, what with 3 very good productions of her work here in SF and the broadcast of Indecent)

    Finally, I also saw 2 live operas, 1 streamed opera, 1 live ballet, and 1 "immersive live art event". Appropriately enough, this includes the first opera I've ever seen by a female composer:
    1. Laughing and Crying, by Repulsive Women, at Z Space
    2. La Circe, by Pietro Andrea Ziani, at Ars Minerva
    3. Manon, by Massenet, at San Francisco Opera
    4. The Nutcracker, by Tchaikovsky, at Cardinal Ballet
    5. Cinderella, by Alma Deutscher, at San Jose Opera (streamed)
    Previous year-end theatergoing reports: 2016, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010

    Saturday, December 23, 2017

    I wear black on the outside 'cause I'm in mourning for my life

    Okay, am I seriously the first person on the Internet to propose that the Smiths' "Unloveable" is inspired by Chekhov's The Seagull?

    Consider: the song does not have a lot of lyrics, yet two, possibly three, of its phrases echo memorable lines in The Seagull.

    "I don't have much in my life, but take it, it's yours" = "If you ever need my life, come and take it" (Nina's message for Trigorin)

    "I wear black on the outside 'cause black is how I feel on the inside" = "Why do you always wear black? / I'm in mourning for my life." (first lines, Medvedenko & Masha)

    "And if I seem a little strange, well, that's because I am" (possibly) = "I really liked your play, Konstantin Gavrilovich. Oh, it's a little strange, and I didn't hear the end, but even so it made a deep impression on me." (Dr. Dorn to Konstantin. This one is more of a stretch than the other two, but credit to my friend Alan C. for suggesting it!)

    And it is well-known that Morrissey quotes from plays in some of his other songs -- I don't envy anyone who gets cast in A Taste of Honey these days, now that so many of its lines are more familiar as Smiths lyrics.

    C'mon. I googled "the smiths unloveable seagull" and nothing like this post came up, but I can't be the only sensitive soul who appreciates both 1890s Russian drama and 1980s jangle pop and is equipped to notice this lyrical connection...

    Thursday, December 14, 2017

    42nd Street Moon makes a “Garden” grow

    "I Heard Someone Crying": Katie Maupin as Mary, Sharon Rietkirk as Lily,
    Brian Watson as Archibald. Photo by Ben Krantz Studios.

    42nd Street Moon has made a shrewd choice in selecting The Secret Garden, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel, as its holiday show. Like A Christmas Carol, it offers English charm, a story of redemption and rebirth, cute kids, and even a few ghosts—but isn’t so familiar to San Francisco audiences. Furthermore, The Secret Garden was the first Tony-winning musical to have an all-female writing team, but it often gets overlooked in conversations about women’s contributions to Broadway history. In a season when we’re all hearing a lot about the structural forces that make it hard for female artists to succeed, how nice of 42nd Street Moon to revive Norman and Simon’s work – under the guidance of a female director, music director, and choreographer to boot.

    This version of The Secret Garden emphasizes the Gothic aspects of the source material – I never before realized how much Burnett lifted from the Brontë sisters. Mary Lennox, a British child raised in India, comes to Yorkshire to live with Archibald Craven, her uncle-by-marriage, after her parents die of cholera. But Archibald is haunted by the death of his wife Lily, and can hardly relate to Mary—or, worse, to his own son Colin. (In a kid-friendly version of Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” plotline, Colin is an invalid whose existence is kept secret from Mary until she stumbles upon his sickroom.) The first musical number that stands out is a trio for Mary, Archibald, and ghost-Lily, awake in the middle of the night in this mansion on the lonely moor.

    Norman and Simon also emphasize Mary’s time in India, which can register as the kind of well-meaning early ‘90s “multiculturalism” that nowadays seems a little naïve. When Mary sings an incantation in an Indian language and does gestures from Indian classical dance, I found myself hoping that everyone involved in the production had done their research and was handling things with sensitivity. The Indian characters do seem to be played by actors of South Asian heritage (Michael Mohammed and Anjali Blacker), though it grates somewhat how much time they spend moving furniture and how little time the show actually focuses on them.

    Lily is a tricky role: a beautiful, endlessly loving ghost who sings in a soprano as high and pure as the wind on the moors. Sharon Rietkirk—unamplified, like all the performers—is everything the part requires, but I was a little surprised to find this figure of Victorian “angel in the garden” purity in a female-authored musical.

    Scott Hayes as Ben and Katie Maupin as Mary. Photo by Ben Krantz Studios.
    Fortunately, not all the female characters are so one-dimensional. As played by 12-year-old Katie Maupin, with a clear voice and impressively thick pigtail braids, Mary is an entirely believable little girl. The wild tantrum she throws to avoid being sent away to school garnered spontaneous audience applause. But Maupin, and the writers, also capture Mary’s softer side, the way she gradually blossoms like one of the flowers in her garden. (As you might imagine, this show is big on horticultural metaphors.)

    At first, the casting and costuming of the brothers Archibald and Neville Craven seems a bit odd: Archibald, the older brother, is played by a younger-looking actor, and although the script makes a big deal about Archibald’s hunchback, it is barely noticeable. But all doubts are removed when Brian Watson (as Archibald) and Edward Hightower (as Neville) begin to sing the famous duet “Lily’s Eyes”: Watson’s tenor and Hightower’s baritone blend beautifully.

    I was less impressed with Keith Pinto as Dickon, who helps lead Mary to the secret garden and teaches her how to coax the plants back to life. His Yorkshire accent often sounds more like Southern American, and, especially in his first solo “Winter’s on the Wing,” his singing style is too contemporary and “pop” for Simon’s classically-influenced score.

    Not so Heather Orth, who plays Dickon’s sister, Martha. Her Yorkshire accent is precise, she handles the charm song “A Fine White Horse” and the stirring ballad “Hold On” with ease, and, more than anyone else onstage, remembers that great acting is reacting.

    The holidays are a time for connecting with family, for practicing kindness and generosity, for honoring the past while looking forward to the new year. The Secret Garden, with its fable-like story of a beautiful garden that redeems three lonely people, suits this mood and this time of year perfectly. It asks, what will you work to make blossom in your life come spring?

    The Secret Garden, presented by 42nd Street Moon, runs through December 24 at the Gateway Theater in San Francisco. More info here.

    Friday, October 27, 2017

    Songs for Amazing Comet Girls

    Behold, a photo of the raffle prize I brought to last week's staged reading of my newest play, Carmenta (themed raffle prizes being one of the charms of the San Francisco Olympians Festival).

    Carmenta is a play about motherhood, rock music, and the turns a woman's life can take, so my prize was a book called Record Collecting for Girls and a handwritten playlist of songs that fit the play's mood. Female singers, jangly guitars, '90s nostalgia, empowering and/or mystical lyrics, and no love songs or breakup songs. I call it Songs for Amazing Comet Girls (after a line in the play) -- listen on Spotify or just reference the list of song titles below:
    1.  “Feed the Tree” - Belly
    2. “Can’t Be Sure” - The Sundays
    3. “Gepetto” - Belly
    4. “Running Up That Hill” - Kate Bush
    5.  “Dog Days Are Over” - Florence & the Machine
    6.  “Winter” - Tori Amos
    7.  “Dreams” - The Cranberries 
    8. “Not Too Soon” - Throwing Muses 
    9. “Wonder” - Natalie Merchant 
    10. “Ray of Light” - Madonna   
    Admittedly, the playlist was also a means of sweetening the raffle-prize pot, because I bought the book mainly for its title and don't actually think it's a great read...

    Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a TimeRecord Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a Time by Courtney E. Smith
    My rating: 2 of 5 stars

    Courtney E. Smith has definite music-nerd cred. She owns hundreds of records, she loves pop-music history, and she used to promote upcoming indie bands at MTV. Unfortunately, all that music cred doesn’t automatically make someone a good music writer. Yes, yes, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—Smith even uses this quote in her book, crediting it to Elvis Costello, her all-time favorite musician. But clearly some people are better music-writers (or architecture-dancers) than others. Describing her love for Costello’s music, Smith resorts to banalities like “I found myself really getting into his clever lyrics. His songs are so easy to fall in love with.” Surely it’s possible to come up with livelier commentary than that.

    I picked up Record Collecting for Girls because I’ve been thinking a lot about how women make and listen to music (my new play Carmenta touches on that theme, and I’ve been diving into NPR’s Turning the Tables project). As such, it’s kind of unfortunate how many of these essays are about men. Smith’s tone is somewhere between “cool big sister” and “one of the boys.” She obviously wants young women to explore their musical passions and to hold their own with other music nerds (who tend to be male). But I wish there was more in here about music-related experiences she has had on her own or with female friends, rather than with crushes or boyfriends.

    And yes, I know this is intended as a light, fun memoir/essay collection, not a how-to book, a scholarly study of how women relate to pop music, or an in-depth work of music criticism. All the same, I feel like I read better pop-culture writing on the Internet every day. The online personal-essay boom produced lots of deep, funny, vulnerable writing, and Smith just can’t compete. For instance, one essay here is about how you should never date a guy who loves the Smiths. Isn’t there something amusingly Freudian about a woman named Smith who distrusts men who like The Smiths? But she never gets to that deeper level, she just keeps sniping about Morrissey.

    Sunday, October 8, 2017

    Script Reading Roundup: Majok and Ionesco

    Today's Script Reading Roundup: two talented playwrights of Eastern European heritage with very different styles, approaches, and places in the canon.

    by Martyna Majok
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    The Ironbound is a neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, but it's also an appropriate metaphorical title for this play about a Polish immigrant woman struggling to make the best of a bad set of options. Martyna Majok dramatizes pivotal moments in the life of Darja over the course of more than 20 years, creating a bravura role for an actress in the process. Although the title of the play makes it sound very grim, it has moments of humor and tenderness, and the three male roles reveal unexpected depths. Admittedly, some plot developments at the end failed to convince me: the main difficulty with this kind of character-study, slice-of-life play is wrapping it up in a satisfying way, and I'm not sure Ironbound pulls it off. Still, this is an absorbing and heartfelt drama about the crumbling American dream and the choices Darja makes to cling to it.

    Rhinoceros and Other PlaysRhinoceros and Other Plays by Eugène Ionesco
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Just after the 2016 U.S. election, Teju Cole published an essay on what Rhinoceros can tell us about the dangers of “minimiz[ing] evil or describ[ing] it as something else.” And it really is uncanny how the dialogue in this play anticipates arguments that I am currently reading online and in newspapers… even though Ionesco's characters are discussing an invasion of terrifying, mindless, destructive animals, and we nowadays are discussing the Trump administration. (Oh, wait.)

    Admittedly, Rhinoceros is one of those plays that was groundbreaking when it was first produced but now feels more familiar. Just as R.U.R. set the pattern for subsequent “robot uprising” stories, Rhinoceros often feels like a prototype for zombie movies. I mean, obviously it’s about people turning into rhinos, not zombies, but it uses a lot of the same tropes: the mysterious outbreak that advances with terrifying speed, the confusion and angst of the dwindling band of survivors, the understanding that this supernatural horror is really a metaphor for something else.

    Though Ionesco’s message about the lure of fascist conformity is pretty grim, there is enough absurdist humor here to keep it an entertaining read (I particularly liked the stage direction “the rhinoceros replies with a violent but tender trumpeting”). It’s also comforting to think that maybe the misfits of the world are the ones best equipped to resist mass hysteria. The protagonist, Berenger, is a bit of an outsider in his small provincial town: he’s melancholic, alcoholic, dissatisfied with life. But he is able to resist the rhinoceros plague after the more outwardly successful citizens succumb.

    I was less impressed with the other two, shorter plays in this volume. While Rhinoceros deals with “normal” people reacting to an absurd situation and involves some degree of psychological realism, the characters in the other plays are shrill, absurdist caricatures. Also, it’s annoying that the The Future is in Eggs is listed as “a kind of sequel to Jacques, or Obedience,” but Jacques isn’t included in this volume (you have to get Grove Press’s other Ionesco compilation, The Bald Soprano and Other Plays , for that).

    Tuesday, October 3, 2017

    Jane Austen on the Haight-Noriega Bus

    A friend sent me this cartoon a few months ago, saying "this woman IS you," and never have I felt so seen and so called-out.

     An Account of the Perturbations that may Befall a Young Lady 
    who reads Classic Literature on a Public Conveyance

    After the young lady had stood strap-hanging for far too long for comfort, a pair of seats on the omnibus became available when the conveyance made its arranged stop at the busy but unpropitious intersection of Haight-street and Stanyan. Fortunate chance! With alacrity she hurried to sit—making sure only to occupy one seat, the window-most, for to take up both would be most discourteous—though indeed she was burdened with possessions: a Handbag, and a Laptop-computer.

    No sooner had she caught her breath than a young man sat down next to her: a shaggy-haired fellow, in wool trousers cut off at the knees and with the reek of something herbal about his person. He too was laden down; he bore several brown paper bags from Whole-foods, though in truth his appearance did little to suggest that he frequented this most costly of grocers.

    The young man (for that I must call him, being most uncertain as to whether he was entitled to the rank of gentleman) apologized to the young lady for taking the vacant seat, saying “I have to sit here to make room.” The young lady merely nodded her acknowledgement. Indeed it is courteous and gentlemanlike to sit in a vacant seat rather than to stand in the aisle, yet it is not a gesture that needs verbal acknowledgement on the part of the lady, nor apology on the part of the gentleman. It is simply good manners, yet to boast of one’s good manners in the guise of a “humbly-bragging” apology is no manners at all.

    The young lady continued to peruse her book, the delightful and instructive Emma. The young man retrieved a container of “boxed-water” from one of his shopping bags and proceeded to guzzle down many swigs of it directly from the carton.

    After some time the young man attempted to gain the young lady’s attention. He peered intently at the back cover of her book (for this was the cover nearest to him) as well as at the bookmark she clutched between her fingers. The young lady readied herself to be addressed, and a slight hope rose in her breast that despite the man’s infelicitous appearance, he might prove a pleasant conversationalist on the subject of classic literature.

    But she found herself perplexed at his opening salvo: “Will you trade that book in after you’re done with it?”

    “No, thank you,” she said, with a slight frown.

    “It’s because of that bookmark—it says Buy, Sell, Trade.”

    “Ah,” said the young lady. Curt her response may have been, but his words led her thoughts on a series of sad reflections. “Great Overland Books—Buy, Sell, Trade!” How many delightful hours she had spent in that cluttered bookshop with its creaky stairs, its white-bearded proprietor who had once written letters to the great Samuel Beckett! And now the Great Overland was soon to shut its doors forever—the sign for its going-out-of-business sale was displayed in the window. She had not yet been able to work up the emotional fortitude to enter the bookshop for the final time and say goodbye.

    As she engaged in these melancholy reflections, the young man persisted: “Did you trade something else for it?”


    “Did you buy it new?”

    Such interest in how she had chosen to outlay her money on this Penguin Classics paperback! “Yes. The bookmark is from something else—it did not come with the book—I had it lying around.”

    The subject of how the young lady had bought the book being exhausted, and the subject of Miss Austen’s writing obviously not being to his interest, the young man attempted to redirect the conversation: “Have you ever read Crime and Punishment?”

    “No,” said the young lady, with a slight chuckle to herself. Really, what was it with would-be suitors and Dostoevsky? The first young man who had courted her (who turned out a cad and a bounder, but no matter) had insisted that she ought to read The Brothers Karamazov. But despite the urgings of first love, over ten years had gone by and she had never read a word of this bleakest of Russian novelists.

    “It’s a bit thicker than that one there,” the young man said boastfully. As though thickness were the ultimate measure of a book, and more valor accrued to he who reads Dostoevsky’s thick tale of a murderer than to she who reads Austen’s slimmer and more domestic volumes! With a slight irritation in her voice, the young lady replied, “Well, this isn’t the thickest book I’ve ever read, or anything.”

    Satisfied in having gotten the last word, the young lady was also satisfied in being spared any further discourse: the young man reached his stop and descended with his bags, leaving behind only a sharp, herbal scent that irritated her nostrils as his conversation had irritated her mind.

    Saturday, September 2, 2017

    Europe, under a Patrick Leigh Fermor hangover

    This spring, I fell in love with Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel writing, and this summer, I took a trip to Europe (Trieste and Vienna) under a distinctly Fermorian hangover. While in Vienna, I even made a point of taking the U-Bahn outside the city center to see the real Danube, the river that Leigh Fermor had spent so many months following on foot (the "Danube" in the city center of Vienna is just a canal).

    Panorama of the Danube near Donaumarina station, Vienna, sunset, July 9, 2017
    I meant to wait to post this until I had also written up my thoughts on the third book in Leigh Fermor's trilogy (The Broken Road) and the biography of him that I read (Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper), but for now, please have my thoughts on the first two books of the trilogy.

      A Time of GiftsA Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    A Time of Gifts is an embarrassment of riches. No one else could have written it; its very existence seems a miracle. Starting in December 1933, the 18-year-old Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor decided to walk across Europe, following the Rhine and Danube rivers. He knew no one in Central Europe and spoke none of its languages. His budget was a pound a week (roughly $85 in today’s money). He was only vaguely aware of the rise of Nazism and other troubling political developments. Of course, he had no idea that the whole region he walked across would be war-torn and irrevocably altered within a decade. He had a vague notion to write a book about his travels, but he didn’t publish A Time of Gifts till the 1970s. (And it isn’t even the whole story! It covers only the first third of the journey: Holland, the Rhineland, Bavaria, Austria, Prague, and Slovakia. There are sequels.) If any one of a hundred things had been different—if Leigh Fermor had had a less impressionable memory or a less telling eye for detail or a less generous heart; if he had been killed on one of the daring missions he undertook in World War II—this book would not exist.

    And what a book it is! Through Leigh Fermor’s eyes, everything is a marvel; everything is romantic. He is hungry for knowledge and beauty and rapture. He portrays his youthful self as always jaunty and adventurous, but there’s a bittersweet undertone that comes from the older man looking back on his long-gone youth in a vanished world. The travelogue also includes extensive meditations on history and art, and some great set-piece narrative scenes. My favorite might be the interlude where two German girls his own age put him up in Stuttgart: it feels like something from a 1930s Lubitsch film, playful eroticism bubbling just under the surface.

    Leigh Fermor’s writing is florid and perhaps even ripe for parody; I had to keep looking up arcane vocabulary words and references to obscure historical figures. (Here’s an extreme example: “Watching his lavoltas and corantos, expert hidalgos from Castille with rowels the size of Michaelmas daisies would make the sign of the cross and cry ‘Miraculo!’”) There are times when it’s a bit too much—the Prague chapter is nearly impenetrable. But then he’ll bring you back around with a good-humored aside, or a vivid character sketch, or an exquisite word choice.

    In the introduction to this edition, Jan Morris notes that the exact center of the book is Leigh Fermor’s visit to Melk Abbey, in Austria. There, his prose becomes as baroque as the architecture it describes, and some of his sentences could serve as metaphors for the book as a whole: “The faded quicksilver, diffusing a submarine dusk, momentarily touches the invention and the delight of this looking-glass world with a hint of unplanned sadness.” Afterward, the young monk who’s showing Patrick around Melk asks him if all the aesthetic splendor has left him feeling “un peu gris” (a bit tipsy). He admits, in retrospect, that “gris was too mild a word.” It is, Paddy. It is.

    Between the Woods and the WaterBetween the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    If technology ever reaches the point where great books get adapted into virtual reality environments rather than movies or TV shows, I’ll be the first to sign up for the Patrick Leigh Fermor VR experience. Just think: you’d get lots of exercise (Leigh Fermor walked thousands of miles across Europe), you’d learn languages (he taught himself German from scratch), and you’d bear witness to endless scenes of natural and man-made beauty. To spend a long summer night in a Hungarian aristocrat’s country house drinking cocktails and dancing to Gershwin records, while the raucous sound of folk songs at a peasant wedding drifts in on the breeze from outside… well, that sounds like my idea of heaven.

    I didn’t love Between the Woods and the Water quite as much as A Time of Giftswhich is probably because I was slightly less interested in Leigh Fermor’s itinerary. In the first book, he visits notable cities like Munich, Vienna, and Prague; in this book, after he leaves Budapest at the end of Chapter 2, the places he travels are not places I’d ever heard of or thought much about. (The book principally deals with Hungary and Romania.) He is fascinated by all the different waves of migration that swept through the Hungarian basin and made this region of the world what it is, but this history, told in non-chronological order, can get confusing. It also gets hard to distinguish one country house and charmingly eccentric minor aristocrat from another. Leigh Fermor was lucky to meet with such kindness and make great friends on his journey, but I finished the book a bit over a week ago and I can’t remember the difference between Count Lajos and Count Jenö.

    All the same, these are minor quibbles. This is a book to get lost in, a book about the joys of getting lost, an evocation of a lost world that very nearly brings it back to life in all its glory.

    Sunday, August 13, 2017

    Script Reading Roundup: Nothomb, Wilde, Frangione, Wright

    An eclectic Script Reading Roundup today: a French-language play I found at a Little Free Library, an excellent edition of Oscar Wilde's best plays, a reread of a Canadian Christmas dramedy I originally blogged about in 2010, and an epic adaptation of my favorite children's fantasy trilogy.

    Les CombustiblesLes Combustibles by Amélie Nothomb
    My rating: 2 of 5 stars

    Les combustibles, the first and only play by popular French-language author Amélie Nothomb, is a fable about the role of literature in times of turmoil. It’s the second winter of a siege, and at the University, there is no fuel other than the books on the shelves. The cynical Professor, his assistant Daniel, and Daniel’s girlfriend Marina debate whether they should burn the books to keep warm, or whether that would be a pyrrhic victory for humanity.

    I read Les combustibles in French after picking it up from my local Little Free Library, figuring that I’m probably the only person in the neighborhood who’d be interested in reading a French-language play. (An English translation exists under the title Human Rites, a somewhat irrelevant pun – a more accurate title might be Kindling.) The writing was elegant and easy to read, and I enjoyed following the characters’ arguments. At times, however, the intellectual combat is so tidy that it’s easy to forget that the characters are desperate and starving. Also, it can be hard to understand their anguish about burning the books. This isn’t Fahrenheit 451; presumably, other copies of these books still exist in other collections, in cities that are not currently under siege. As such, destroying the Professor’s library doesn’t mean irreparably destroying human knowledge. Maybe I’m heartless, but in that situation, I’d say, burn the books and save yourself!

    It was also annoying that the only female character is a beautiful, waiflike 20-year-old whom the stage directions constantly compare to a child or an angel. Naturally, both of the male characters have sex with her, and neither of them seem to respect her. I’m used to this kind of stuff from male playwrights, but not necessarily from women.


    Les combustibles, la première et seule pièce de théâtre par Amélie Nothomb, est une fable à propos du rôle de la littérature aux temps troublés. C’est le deuxième hiver d’un siège, et pour combustible, chez l’Université, il n’y a que les livres. Le Professeur cynique, son assistant Daniel, et Marina la petite-amie de Daniel, débattent s’ils doivent brûler les livres afin de réchauffer, ou si cela serait, pour l'humanité, une victoire à la Pyrrhus.

    J’ai lu Les combustibles en français après l’avoir pris de la Petite Bibliothèque Gratuite du coin, en supposant que je sois la seule personne dans mon quartier qui s’intéresse à lire une pièce en français. (Il y a une traduction en anglais avec le titre Human Rites, un jeu de mots assez hors sujet – un titre plus exact serait peut-être Kindling.) L’écriture était élégante et facile à lire, et j’aimais suivre les arguments des personnages. Cependant, parfois, le combat intellectuel est tellement rangé qu’on oublie que les personnages sont désespérés et affamés. Aussi, c’est peut-être difficile de comprendre leur angoisse à propos de brûler les livres. Ceci n’est pas Fahrenheit 451; probablement, d’autres exemplaires de ces livres existent encore dans des autres collections, dans des villes qui ne sont pas assiégées. Alors, la destruction de la bibliothèque du Professeur ne signifie pas la destruction irréparable des connaissances humaines. Peut-être que je suis cruelle, mais dans cette situation, je dirais: brûlez les livres, sauvez vous-mêmes!

    De plus, c’était ennuyeux que le seul personnage féminin est une jeune femme de 20 ans, belle et frêle, comparée avec une enfante ou un ange dans les indications scéniques. Naturellement, les deux personnages masculins font l’amour avec elle et ne semblent pas la respecter. J’ai l’habitude de voir ces bêtises chez les dramaturges masculins, mais pas forcement chez les femmes.

    The Importance of Being Earnest and Other PlaysThe Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays by Oscar Wilde
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    It's easy to give Oscar Wilde's collected plays five stars just because he was so brilliant and The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most perfect comedies ever written, but where this Penguin Classics edition really excels is in Richard Allen Cave’s introduction and notes. Cave reminds us that these are not just collections of witty lines, they are plays, and Wilde was a man of the theater. The endnotes are full of information about the sets, costumes, and stage business of the original productions, and sometimes even include Cave's thoughts on moments that are particularly difficult to pull off in performance. Some people might find his opinions too obtrusive, but I loved this level of detail and think that all aspiring directors of Wilde plays should peruse this edition, since Cave has thought so much about how these plays work onstage.

    The edition collects all of Wilde’s major, mature plays and even throws in his one-act Florentine Tragedy for good measure (though it's a rather weak play, requiring you to slog through a lot of sub-Shakespearean blank verse for the reward of a sword fight and a twist ending). There are his three Society Comedies (Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband), which blend melodrama, satire, social commentary, and aphorisms; his decadent and pageant-like Salome ; and the incomparable Earnest.

    Reading all of these plays in a row, I realized that the scope of Wilde's characterization was wider than I'd given him credit for. For instance, though the three Society Comedies all feature an aristocratic dandy character, each dandy has a very different personality and function. Lord Darlington in Lady Windermere’s Fan is an irresponsible romantic; Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is an unscrupulous cad; Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband is his play’s moral conscience. I was also impressed with the variety of female characters and the amount of stage time they receive. Young actresses love the Gwendolen-Cecily scene from Earnest, of course, and there are other all-female scenes in the Society Comedies that are even longer and more complex. Good roles for women aren't rare in classic drama, but it's quite unusual to see 6 distinctly characterized women talk for 12 pages without any men interrupting, as they do in Act Two of A Woman of No Importance!

    Cariboo MagiCariboo Magi by Lucia Frangione
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Programming a holiday-season play can be really tough for theaters, especially small indie theaters that want to do something a little quirkier than A Christmas Carol. Where to find a play that is Christmassy but not overtly religious, cheerful but not cloying? Well, Lucia Frangione's Cariboo Magi feels like it was written to solve this problem. You could even interpret it as a meta-commentary on the challenges of staging a Christmas play: it's about a desperate, ragtag theater troupe that travels to the goldfields of British Columbia, circa Christmas 1870. Their final product--a mash-up of the Nativity story, Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, and The Last of the Mohicans--must be seen to be believed!

    Frangione, an actress as well as a playwright, wrote herself a fab starring role as Madame Fanny Dubeau, the theater troupe's leader, whose "elegant veneer thinly hides a cunning, avaricious businesswoman." But the other characters are also vividly drawn: there's Joe Mackey, a Chinese-Canadian miner and lovelorn poet; Reverend William Teller, an alcoholic, self-pitying minister; and Marta Reddy, a hot-tempered German girl who is eight months pregnant. There are no villains here, just four misfits who act tough but are all lost or wounded in some way. Fittingly for a Christmas tale, in the end they are all healed and uplifted. But it's not Christianity or even "the Christmas spirit" that saves them--it's the power of theater.

    His Dark MaterialsHis Dark Materials by Nicholas Wright
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    The Golden Compass was my favorite book when I was 9 years old and I grew up to be a playwright, so I found it very rewarding to read and consider Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy. I enjoyed its self-assurance, its willingness to deviate from the novels in order to tell a story that makes sense onstage. Characters with similar functions are combined: Tony Makarios and Billy Costa; Serafina Pekkala and Mary Malone. Some plot-holes are filled: I really like how it rewrites Lord Boreal’s theft of the alethiometer so it doesn't involve Lyra’s foolish failure to recognize him. And at least one of the play’s innovations—having Lyra learn the truth of her parentage from Mrs. Coulter herself, rather than from the gyptians—is so emotionally compelling that the otherwise lackluster film version used it too.

    I have to disagree with my friend Stuart, though, about whether the play seems less anti-religion than the books. On the contrary, I think the atheist themes are more explicit in the play version. But this means it feels better integrated. The books can feel like a bit of a bait-and-switch: the first book mostly reads like a thrilling fantasy-adventure where Dust is a MacGuffin, while the later books push an anti-religion, pro-Dust agenda. In the play, religion is depicted as sinister and oppressive from the start. The people in Lyra’s world are constantly praying to “the Authority,” and the role of Fra Pavel, a high Church official, is expanded into a real villain part.

    Of course, in order to condense 1200 pages of fiction into a 2-part play, the action has to move insanely fast. (In the books, Lyra’s stay at Bolvangar covers nearly 70 pages; in the play, it covers 11 pages.) I do wonder how an audience who’s not familiar with the books would react to the play version, especially the relentless pace of the action. I also wonder if I’d find it too rushed, were I to see it staged. That’s unlikely to happen, however: this epic drama requires vast resources and I don’t think anyone besides the UK’s National Theatre has produced it. Still, I enjoyed reading it and thinking about dramatic structure, theatricality, and how an adapter can wield his subtle knife to show us new worlds.

    Wednesday, August 2, 2017

    Acting in ShortLived Finals, August 3-5

    Andrew Chung as Borkul the Orc and me as Elanil the Elf. Photo courtesy PianoFight.
    Hey, remember how in mid-June, I was performing in the first weekend of PianoFight's audience-judged short play competition, ShortLived?

    Well, the play I'm in—"All the Worlds are Stages" by Ruben Grijalva—won that round handily, so we're competing again in the finals this weekend! The whole team from June is coming back with dreams of glory: director Alejandro Emmanuel Torres and actors Andrew Chung, Tony Cirimele, and Danielle Doyle.

    The championship-round performances, which feature the winning plays from all six weekends plus two "wild cards," are selling out fast. If they haven't all gone, you can get tickets here. Shows are Thursday through Saturday at 7 PM, with an additional Friday show at 9:30.

    ShortLived has been getting some nice press, too—some of which uses the above production photo of me and Andrew:

    Monday, July 31, 2017

    On s'est connus: Jeanne Moreau

    I think of this as the iconic Moreau look. Bare face, cat eyes, unfussy hair, and the plainest little black dress.
    Sometime in my teens (was it when I started studying French in college?), my mom decided we needed to watch Jules and Jim. Mom said she'd seen it years earlier but "the only thing I remember about it is that she sings a little song with a guitar."

    "She" was Jeanne Moreau, of course, and the song was "Le Tourbillon," a perfect little grace note of suspended time in the middle of this perfect, daring, how-the-fuck-did-Truffaut-pull-this-off-before-he-was-thirty film.

    I think of this as my introduction to Jeanne Moreau, though I guess technically I'd seen her as the old lady in the frame story of Ever After, her distinctive voice grown gravelly with time and lending a gravitas to the film's final lines that you don't often find in children's fairy-tale films.

    But in the years to come, she became my favorite French actress. She was intense and sexy and had a piercing kind of intelligence. She was never an ingenue (the early-career glossy publicity photos where she tries to look like a '50s ingenue are kind of hilarious). She was always a fully grown, if petite, woman who needed the rougher edges of the French New Wave, handheld cameras and minimal makeup and intelligent scripts and complex characters. She did her best work after she was thirty. She had Resting Sad Face (like me). She had a tart little voice, like green apples, and even recorded some other jazz-pop songs besides "Le Tourbillon." The Lovers, a movie she made in 1958 that included a nude love scene, eventually prompted the famous U.S. Supreme Court case where Justice Potter Stewart ruled "That's not obscene, I can't define pornography but I know it when I see it." She was the first woman elected to the French Academy of Fine Arts. (Although, as praiseworthy as that is, it's also kind of shameful that it took until 2001 to break that glass ceiling.) She was Maggie the Cat in the French premiere of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and can you even imagine?

    I watch her movies and I want to take up smoking and wander around cities at night being intense and brooding and melancholy and restless and dissatisfied. One thing I think we don't talk about enough is how there are a lot of male stars who embody a disaffected, brooding quality, but among women, there's pretty much only Jeanne Moreau. Women, too, sometimes want to be romantic existentialists. Women, too, want film-star icons who were uncompromising and iconoclastic, lonely and proud.

    I did feel a physical shock on reading the news that she died but, if I take a step back, I mean... she was 89. She worked with the best filmmakers of her era. She smoked like a chimney and made it to the end of her ninth decade on Earth. I sang "Le tourbillon" in the shower this morning. RIP et adieu, Mme Moreau.

    Saturday, June 17, 2017

    "Grandeur" at the Magic Theatre: a protean figure in a conventional play

    Carl Lumbly is music legend Gil Scott-Heron and Rafael Jordan is journalist Steve Barron in Grandeur at the Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
    The set for Grandeur, the new play by Han Ong at the Magic Theatre, doesn’t look particularly grand at first glance: it’s a hoarder’s apartment in Harlem, with stacks of books and videocassettes and shabby old ‘60s furniture. But when the show begins and its central character, Gil Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly) takes his seat in an old armchair, his face illuminated by a solitary lamp, there is no doubt that we are in the presence of majesty. In Lumbly’s portrayal, Scott-Heron is a wily old enchanter, a Prospero laying traps for the young and ingenuous. Later on, he plays with a Rubik’s cube as though it were a piece of spell-casting apparatus.

    In Grandeur, the young person who must evade Scott-Heron’s traps is one Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan), a freelance journalist on assignment for the New York Review of Books. (It’s a somewhat distracting coincidence that this character’s name is just one consonant away from “Steve Bannon.”) Steve is an earnest and preppy black man whose face is hardly visible behind his mop of hair—it’s like he knows he shouldn’t steal the spotlight from Gil, a much stronger personality with many more stories to tell.

    We also meet Scott-Heron’s caretaker, Julie (Safiya Fredericks), who mixes abiding affection for the old man with exasperation at his shortcomings, not least of which is his addiction to crack cocaine. Julie is also on hand to inform Steve of his role in all of this: “You’re death. You know that right? I mean not death-death but […] like a herald.” This heavy-handed metaphor gets under Steve’s skin and causes him to have an unconvincing breakdown near the top of Act 2.

    Much more compelling is Scott-Heron’s anti-capitalist political rant, revealing his ambivalence toward the rappers who came after him. They sample his records and call him the “Godfather of Rap,” but their materialistic values are far different from his own. There’s also an implied contrast between the way Scott-Heron plays with language in his jazzman-poet fashion and the way a reporter uses language to pin down facts with precision.

    Grandeur is obviously an attempt to wrestle with Scott-Heron’s legacy and his contradictions. It takes place in the last year of the musician’s life, just after he has released his first album in 16 years. (While Steve Barron and his NYRB article are fictitious, The New Yorker published an excellent profile of Scott-Heron, written by Alec Wilkinson, around this time. I’ve read hundreds of New Yorker profiles but this one has stuck with me.) But although Scott-Heron was undoubtedly a dramatic personality—brilliant and flawed, irascible and damaged—Grandeur is not, itself, a very dramatic show. It’s too bad that a play about an innovative and charismatic musician should have such a well-worn structure and setup.

    Grandeur, by Han Ong, directed by Loretta Greco, is playing at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco through June 25. More information here.

    Thursday, June 15, 2017

    Acting in ShortLived round 1 at PianoFight, June 15-17

    Last year, I participated in PianoFight's audience-judged theater competition ShortLived as a playwright... this year, for a change, I am acting in a ShortLived play!

    For three performances, tonight through Saturday, I am playing a video-game elf in "All the Worlds are Stages" by Ruben Grijalva, directed by Alejandro Emmanuel Torres. The other actors in the show are Andrew Chung, Tony Cirimele, and Danielle Doyle. It is a very fun, fast-paced script with some nice twists to it, and for the first time ever, I have to do a bit of stage combat! (Credit to Kyle McReddie for teaching me and Andrew the fight choreography.)

    Tickets for this weekend's edition of ShortLived are available here. (Note: show starts at 7 PM, so don't be late!) You'll see 6 new short plays and be asked to rank them. The top-ranked play from this week's batch will move on to compete in the grand-prize round in early August, with a shot at a $5000 prize.

    Now if you'll excuse me, it's my lunch hour and I need to run out and get a green eyeliner pencil for my elf costume tonight.

    Wednesday, May 10, 2017

    Country House Books: Edward Gorey & Cécile David-Weill

    Quick reviews of two books I read recently that take place at two very different kinds of country houses.

     The Dwindling PartyThe Dwindling Party by Edward Gorey
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    An Edward Gorey pop-up book means that you can almost move and play around inside his elegant but eerie world! And even though The Dwindling Party looks like a kids' book, Gorey doesn't tone down any of his trademark dark humor, in this story of a Victorian family who tours a country house and, one by one, gets eaten by monsters. The verse is a bit verbose and there's really only the one joke throughout, but this is still a fun and interactive distillation of Gorey's style.

    The SuitorsThe Suitors by Cécile David-Weill
    My rating: 2 of 5 stars

    Oh la la, here’s a book that promises to reveal what French old-money high society is really like! Unlike some authors who write lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous novels but have no firsthand experience with the world they describe, Cécile David-Weill comes by it honestly: her father and grandfather were chairmen of the Lazard Frères bank. As such, The Suitors could function as a handbook for how to behave (and how not to behave) if you are invited to a house party hosted by a fancy French family. They will love you if you are polite, gracious, and quietly elegant; they will despise you if you are effusive or ostentatious or try-hard. It’s rather like old-money American WASP society with more of an emphasis on good food, art collecting, and philosophical conversation.

    Unfortunately, while David-Weill knows a lot about high society and the people who frequent it, she hasn’t figured out how to embed this knowledge in a captivating story. Her set-up is a fine premise for a romantic comedy: two sisters in their early 30s, learning that their parents wish to sell the family’s summer villa on the Cap d’Antibes, make a half-serious attempt to find wealthy husbands so that the property can stay in the family. But The Suitors quickly becomes an endless list of descriptions of the family’s houseguests and servants, their foibles and faux pas. Some of the observations are keen, but there are just too many characters and too little narrative drive. Scenes that are intended as farce or as drama fall flat, get resolved within a page or two, and are quickly forgotten. Worst of all are the moments when David-Weill tries to convince us that her characters are paragons of wit, charm, and decorum: the jokes they make are at best unfunny and at worst truly distasteful (as when the narrator tells her sister that her “shorty pajama set” is “an invitation to rape”).

    Sunday, April 23, 2017

    Like something out of Balzac or Colette

    The happy couple: Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron. Photo: AFP/Getty.
    It has come to my attention that not nearly enough Americans know that the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has a love life like something out of a Balzac novel. And because Macron won the first round of the presidential election today and it looks like (fingers crossed) he’ll defeat his Fascist opponent in the second round, I feel justified in being a total gossip and telling you this very French, very juicy story.

    OK, so Emmanuel Macron is a fresh-faced 39-year-old who started his own, centrist/independent political party. The established parties in France imploded this year; Macron surged to the top of the polls despite having an unpopular economic-reform law named after him in 2015. I could say a lot more about the wacky French presidential race of 2017, but you didn’t come here for politics, you came here for gossip.

    Well, Macron is married to a woman named Brigitte, who is 24 years older than him and has grown children of her own from a previous marriage. Already, this is pretty unusual, even if younger-man older-woman relationships have more of a place in European culture than in American. (In Colette’s novel Chéri, Chéri and Léa are also 24 years apart.) It’s also been pointed out that 24 years is the same age disparity between Donald and Melania Trump – we just think it’s strange when a woman is the one who’s older.

    But Donald was never Melania’s high school teacher.

    That’s right: Macron is married to his former high school literature and drama teacher.

    Now do you see why I am obsessed with this story?

    Both of the Macrons are coy about how, exactly, the romance progressed. Brigitte is quoted as saying “Nobody will ever know at what moment our story became a love story. That belongs to us. That is our secret.” (Of course, giving quotes like this to the media practically invites everyone to speculate about the details of this “secret love story” and the French are eating it up.)

    But what’s known is this: they grew very close when Emmanuel was in 11th grade and worked with Brigitte to adapt The Art of Comedy by Eduardo di Filippo. Then, he transferred to a high school in Paris for his senior year—some accounts say his parents made him transfer to put a stop to the relationship, some say that Brigitte herself asked him to go away. But before leaving for the capital, the boy promised his teacher, “I will come back and I will marry you.”

    So maybe this isn’t exactly like a classic French novel after all. In a novel, the boy would still make this rash romantic promise, but either he wouldn’t follow through with it, or circumstances would intervene to thwart the couple’s love. But that didn’t happen here: Brigitte eventually divorced her husband, joined Emmanuel in Paris, and married him in 2007. She has been quoted as saying “We rub and polish each other's brains,” which is pretty much the greatest innuendo I’ve ever heard and is my new #RelationshipGoals.

    In short: everybody should hope that Macron wins the second round on May 7, not only so that the Fascists will be defeated, but also so that France can continue its grand tradition of having leaders with scandalous love lives.

    Thursday, April 13, 2017

    Workshop Production of "You'll Not Feel the Drowning," April 13-22

    My play You'll Not Feel the Drowning, an hourlong drama about life in an earthquake zone, the bleak beauty of the Oregon coast, and the giant squids that lurk in our hearts, has been in development with Custom Made Theatre's Undiscovered Works program for the last year. Custom Made is now granting it a 6-performance developmental workshop at the EXIT Theatre. I've been hard at work this month in a whirlwind rehearsal process, and we open tonight!

    If you're in the Bay Area, I'd be honored if you can attend, especially as this script is still in development and we will be soliciting audience feedback. (There's a space for comments on the back of the playbill, and there'll be talk-backs after the Friday performances.) I'll be at all of the shows, too, so please feel free to say hello if you're there.

    The details:
    • Directed by Gabriel A. Ross, dramaturgy by Allie Moss, tech by Linda Huang
    • Cast: Terry Bamberger as Susan, Maria Giere Marquis as Laura, and Jason W. Wong as Greg
    • 6 performances: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 PM, April 13-22
    • All performances at the EXIT Studio, 156 Eddy Street in San Francisco, near the Powell BART/MUNI station
    • Facebook event
    • Tickets 
    Hope to see you there!

    Saturday, April 8, 2017

    A Sentimental Journey through France and Austria: "The Baltimore Waltz" at Magic Theatre

    Anna (Lauren English) gets a diagnosis from The Third Man (Greg Jackson)
    while her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone) looks on. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
    Last night, after I saw Magic Theatre’s production of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, I waited for a bus in a driving rainstorm and eavesdropped on two middle-aged women discussing Trump’s airstrike in Syria. “I’m just waiting for World War III to start,” said one. “Yeah, I look up and expect a nuclear bomb to fall on us any day now,” said the other. I’ve been having similar thoughts—how could I not? I’m about to turn 30 and I have serious doubts that I will make it to 40. And in response, I’ve thought a lot about chucking it all and going on a hedonistic spree—traveling and eating good food and hobnobbing with interesting people. Voraciousness in the face of death.

    So I can relate to Anna, the heroine of The Baltimore Waltz, an American woman in her early 30s who receives a fatal diagnosis of Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD) and responds by taking a tour of the great cities of Europe and having a lot of sex. Lauren English’s performance as Anna shows a woman shaking off her good-girl inhibitions and letting her instincts drive her. Accompanying Anna on her European trip is her brother Carl (Patrick Alparone, precise and dapper in flannel pajamas, velvet slippers, and a suit jacket). Every other character in the show—doctors, waiters, European locals—is played by Greg Jackson, who seems to have made a specialty of quick-change comic versatility: his bio also lists credits for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and The 39 Steps.

    Carl & Anna in the Parisian croissant-bed. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
    There’s a strong sense of whimsy to The Baltimore Waltz, as Carl and Anna travel through a primary-colored, storybook version of Europe. (It’s probably significant that both characters work with children in their day jobs: he is a children’s librarian and she is a first-grade teacher.) In Paris, the headboard of the bed is decorated with croissants and the stagehands wear berets; in Amsterdam, the bed has a tulip-patterned coverlet and the stagehands wear Dutch bonnets.

    Indeed, if The Baltimore Waltz were ever made into a movie, I think it should be directed by Wes Anderson, that most whimsical of filmmakers. It already features a lot of Anderson motifs: a caper-style plot, train journeys with stylish luggage, Central European bellhops who wear those funny little caps, characters who seem suspended between childhood and adulthood, allusions to classic cinema (The Third Man, in this case). This production reinforces the Anderson connection by having the actors take their bows to Joe Dassin’s song “Les Champs-Elysées,” which also plays at the end of The Darjeeling Limited. 

    The trick with whimsy in theater or cinema, of course, is to employ it in service of a deeper emotion. Eventually, The Baltimore Waltz reveals that there is a heartbreaking reason for all of the kookiness and stereotypes of Carl and Anna’s European trip. Childlike escapist fantasies can be a defense mechanism against real, adult pain.

    The Baltimore Waltz plays at Magic Theatre through April 16, 2017. I received a free ticket through the Magic Theatre’s press office.

    Friday, April 7, 2017

    Script Reading Roundup: Foote, Shakespeare, Goldman

    In this month's edition of Script Reading Roundup (brief thoughts on plays that I've read): three plays about British Isles royalty and one play about a little old lady from Texas.

    The Trip to BountifulThe Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    “I’ve waited a long time. Just to get to Bountiful. Twenty years I’ve been walkin’ the streets of the city, lost and grieving. And as I’ve grown older and my time approaches, I’ve made one promise to myself, to see my home again… before I die…”

    Such is the premise of Horton Foote’s elegiac drama The Trip to Bountiful. Mrs. Carrie Watts lives in a cramped apartment in Houston with her kind but weak-willed son Ludie and her frivolous, overbearing daughter-in-law Jessie Mae. For years, she has been trying to sneak away to her East Texas hometown, Bountiful, and each time, her relatives catch her before she can leave Houston. But one day…

    The Trip to Bountiful is largely a touching character study, but there is a surprising amount of suspense as we watch to see how Mrs. Watts will make her escape. I also liked how Mrs. Watts is kind of an opaque figure during Act One (which is dominated by Jessie Mae’s chattering) but comes into her own when she sets out on her journey.

    Admittedly, it’s disconcerting to see that according to the stage directions, Mrs. Watts is only 60. She seems much older than the 60-year-old women I know nowadays; indeed, in recent productions, the role is often taken by a more elderly actress. (Cicely Tyson was 88 when she played Mrs. Watts on Broadway in 2013!) At any rate, it is a lovely role for an older lady who can project an unpretentious, middle-American dignity. It is not a “diva” role; quite the opposite.

    Another Southern writer famously said “You can’t go home again.” The Trip to Bountiful complicates that statement: when Mrs. Watts returns to Bountiful, she finds it diminished, abandoned, a ghost town. But nonetheless, it is still home.

    MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    All right, Shakespeare, you win: I don’t hate Macbeth. But it took me a long time to get to this point. As a teenager, I saw a terrible production of Macbeth and then acted in a terrible production of Macbeth; later, I saw a few more productions that didn’t do much to change my prejudiced mind, and wrote an essay about how Macbeth is the most over-produced Shakespeare play merely because every middle-aged white male actor thinks he should play the Thane of Cawdor. By that point, my hatred of Macbeth had hardened into a kind of shtick: I found it amusingly contrarian to say I hated this play that everyone else seems to adore, so I played up my dislike for it.

    But I’m nearly 30 now, so the time has come to put away childish things and admit on the Internet that Macbeth is never going to be my favorite Shakespeare play, but I certainly don’t think it’s bad.

    How did I get to this point? Seeing Sleep No More in New York City helped—it’s not every Shakespeare play that lends itself to transformation into a physical-theater gothic-noir haunted house. The introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition helped, or at least allowed me to forgive my high-school drama teachers for not doing any cross-gender casting (which resulted in me playing a non-speaking ensemble member while boys who couldn’t speak blank verse played all the thanes). The Pelican editor, Stephen Orgel, digs deep into how the play presents women as a disruptive or antagonistic force, and managed to convince me that putting female thanes in Macbeth might well make a hash of its themes. Reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human helped; one of my objections to Macbeth was always that the minor characters do not have much personality, but Bloom suggests that that’s intentional. If the “secondary males in the play” are “wrapped in a common grayness,” Bloom says, it is only so that we more readily identify with Macbeth and “journey inward to [his] heart of darkness.” Or, in other words: Marissa, stop thinking that you’ve found a flaw in Shakespeare; the man was a genius and he knew exactly what he was doing.

    So, all right: assuming that competent actors play them, Macbeth and his Lady are fascinating characters. The play moves swiftly and its language obsessively focuses on a few major threads of imagery: blood, shipwrecks, birds, sleep, nighttime and darkness. That imagery, plus the supernatural elements, give Macbeth a unique atmosphere among Shakespeare’s plays, even though I hate it when productions focus on the supernatural bits at the expense of everything else. (A pitfall that has beset Macbeth almost from the start, it seems; the Hecate character is an interpolation by Thomas Middleton. Jacobean audiences couldn’t get enough of those witches!) The scene where Macduff learns the news of his family’s death will wreck me every time. And, even though we know Macbeth is a murderous tyrant who deserves what’s coming to him, Shakespeare somehow makes us sympathize with his paranoia, terror, and nihilism.

    I still think Macbeth is not a great choice to produce in a high school or college setting. And I still think there are probably too many productions of it overall.

    But no, I don’t hate it.

    CymbelineCymbeline by William Shakespeare
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    I can’t recount the plot of Cymbeline out loud without bursting into giggles. Which is kind of odd: this play is not really considered a comedy in the same way as A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night are, yet I can describe the stories of those plays with a straight face. Cymbeline, though… when I try to explain the sequence of events that result in the heroine waking up next to a headless body and mistaking it for that of her husband, I can’t stop laughing.

    As other people have said, this play feels like what would result if you fed all of Shakespeare’s other plays into an extremely intelligent super-computer and asked it to produce something “Shakespearean.” It’s easy to imagine that Shakespeare knew he was at the end of his career and decided to play around with his pet motifs, including some winks at the audience. I mean, the play begins with two unnamed lords saying, basically, “Remember when King Cymbeline’s two little boys vanished without a trace? I wonder what happened to them.” (Gee, do you think that’ll become important later on in the story?) And by the end, Shakespeare has thrown so many plotlines into the play that it takes a scene nearly 500 lines long to resolve everyone’s story.

    Very little in Cymbeline is profound, but a lot of it is awfully fun. Princess Imogen is a delightful heroine, the role of the self-involved dolt Prince Cloten can be hilarious in the right hands, and there are many other nice opportunities for comedians and character actors. The most difficult role is probably that of Imogen’s husband Posthumus, because it’s very hard to feel sympathy for him after he makes a wager on his wife’s fidelity. (One possible solution, which I saw in a production in summer 2015: portray Posthumus as extremely drunk at the time he makes the wager.) Overall, I think Cymbeline can be a charming, amusing, and unexpected choice for summertime Shakespeare in the Park companies, or for high schools who don’t want to stage Twelfth Night or Midsummer for the umpteenth time. Because, trust me, it’s as funny as either of them.

    The Lion in WinterThe Lion in Winter by James Goldman
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Where has The Lion in Winter been all my life? Why didn’t I read it when I was 16 years old and equally obsessed with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (It really reads like a cross between those two plays.) As a lover of eloquent dialogue, larger-than-life characters, handsome men and strong women, why did I wait so long to encounter this brilliance?

    James Goldman’s play is based on real-life political intrigues involving King Henry II, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three ambitious sons, and the French royal family, though with dramatic license taken to make it juicier. Taking place over a period of less than 24 hours, the plot is a complex swirl of alliances, manipulations, and betrayals, with various territories, marriages, and thrones used as bargaining chips.

    Goldman makes no attempt to write dialogue that sounds “medieval,” or to replicate the exact circumstances of court life in 1183. (The royal family decks the halls with Christmas holly themselves—there are no servants or minor courtiers to be seen.) But at the same time, he grants his characters their full measure of dignity and charisma. He humanizes them but he does not cut them down to size. They are wittier, more attractive, more passionate, more conniving than everyday people, and I love all of these glorious monsters.

    In one of the play’s most famous lines, Eleanor shouts “Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is eleven eighty-three and we’re barbarians.” And indeed, the metaphor I keep thinking of to describe this play is a jeweled dagger. It is elegant and cutting, hard and glittering, extravagant and yet just right.