Posts Tagged ‘Rush Rehm’

Another Look book club spotlights Joseph Conrad’s Shadow-Line on May 10

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
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Joseph Conrad (foreground) on board the special service ship Ready in 1916. He wrote The Shadow-Line on his return from the voyage. (Image credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The author Joseph Conrad insisted his work The Shadow-Line: A Confession was not a book about the supernatural. But sometimes the real can be spookier than the imagined, and what we observe outpaces our worst nightmares. So it is with Conrad’s late novella.

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness,” Conrad said a few years before World War I. Certainly the rest of the century bore out his conclusions.

The Another Look book club will discuss Conrad’s 1917 novella and the Polish author at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, in the Bechtel Conference Room of Encina Hall. The Shadow-Line is available at Stanford Bookstore, Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

The panel will be moderated by Another Look director Robert Pogue Harrison, an acclaimed author and professor of Italian literature. Harrison is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Booksand the host for the popular radio talk show Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by drama Professor Rush Rehm, artistic director of the Stanford Repertory Theater, and Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures and of comparative literature.

The event is free and open to the public.

“I chose this short novel because of its exquisite prose and quintessentially Conradian drama,” Harrison said. “It probes the enigma of fate by putting circumstance, landscape and depth psychology into play all at the same time.”

He added, “Conrad is a master when it comes to putting his characters through trials. The Shadow-Line is one of the most intense of Conradian trials of character. It is not one of his best known novels and is certainly deserving of another look.”

Conrad’s short masterpiece describes the “green sickness” of late youth, when a young man desires to “flee from the menace of emptiness.” The unnamed narrator’s flight ends when he is captain of a merchant ship in Southeast Asia; the terrors of sickness and the sea bring him to grief, maturity and wisdom.

In a two-page author’s note, Conrad denies the supernatural has anything to do with his story. We are meant, then, not to draw a line between the mate’s superstitious and feverish fear of his former captain, buried at sea, and the destruction of the ship to weather, wind and contagious fever. The mate says the ship will not have luck until it passes the spot where the reckless and demented captain was put overboard.

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(Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

The Shadow-Line can also be read as a psychological study of the disintegration of an entire ship’s crew. That would be in keeping with Conrad’s worldview; he once called life a “mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of inextinguishable regrets.”

The year The Shadow-Line was published, The Argus praised the novel: “It holds the reader under a spell so strong that the book must be finished at one sitting, and even when it is laid aside it keeps its grip on the memory, and the impression left remains with a curious persistence.”

The Sunday Times wrote, in 1917, “Mr. Conrad is an expert in the business of suggesting mystery and the action of malevolent agencies and the endurance of a man under the buffets of fate. Not even Coleridge has held passers-by more spellbound under a tale of horrors on the ocean than does Mr. Conrad in this work.”

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski – Joseph Conrad – was born in 1857 in a largely Jewish village in territory that is now Ukraine; it had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Respublica before partition, and at the time of his birth was part of the Russian Empire. His father was a Polish patriot and man of letters, and the family had a migratory existence. Conrad began a seafaring career as a teenager, and eventually joined the British merchant marine and became an English citizen.

He was one of the very few writers to establish his literary reputation in a foreign tongue. (Vladimir Nabokov comes to mind as well, but the author of Pale Fire and Lolita was reared in an aristocratic Russian family; however, he later claimed English was the first language he learned in his trilingual household.)

World War I was much on Conrad’s mind as he wrote Shadow-Land, and the book is dedicated to his son Borys, a soldier. By the time it was published, Borys had returned from the front, shell-shocked and gassed in the new technology of warfare. The war’s end would change forever the face of the Europe Conrad remembered.

Shortly after the war, a visitor to the Conrad household observed: “Conrad spoke fluently, but his accent, his manner of expression were such as I observed among the inhabitants of the south-eastern Polish borderlands. One felt clearly that when he thought of Poland, it was of a Poland of half-a-century ago. When I listened to him, I could not evade the impression that I am being carried back in time and talk to one of the people of long ago.”

 Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books selected are short masterpieces you may not have read before. This article is republished from my Stanford Report piece here.

Stanford Repertory Theater performs Noël Coward’s Hay Fever – but who was the real Judith Bliss?

Monday, July 20th, 2015
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The Bliss Family: David (Bruce Carlton), Judith (Courtney Walsh), Sorel (Kiki Bagger) and Simon (Austin Caldwell).

Playwright and songwriter Noël Coward spent a single weekend in the home of actress Laurette Taylor and her husband, the playwright J. Hartley Manners. The visit was such that he later, in three feverish days, wrote the play for which he is arguably best known, Hay Fever. Taylor made a big target: her larger-than-life personality was renowned, along with her theatrical moods and eccentricities. She was the sort of person who, we would say today, sucked all the oxygen out of the room. The play was a hit from the moment it opened in 1925. There were casualties, however. To put it mildly, Hay Fever strained the friendship.

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Ungrateful guest.

The Stanford Summer Repertory production, which opened last weekend, continues through August 9, with Courtney Walsh as Judith Bliss, Kiki Bagger as Sorel Bliss, Richard Carlton as David Bliss, Rush Rehm as Richard Greatham, Catherine Luedtke as Clara, Austen Caldwell as so-so novelist Simon Bliss, all under the direction of Lynne Soffer – tickets and info hereYou can’t really call a family dysfunctional when they’re so pleased with themselves, can you? The Bliss family likes itself, even if no one else does.

The play has been described as a cross between outright farce and comedy of manners. Stanford weighs in for the former, sometimes to its detriment. I could have used a slower pacing in the opening scenes, to hear the dialogue more clearly and get a feel for the characters before the comedy builds its own momentum. Sometimes the performers don’t seem to be actually listening to each other, or minding the cigarettes they light up and stub out every few minutes.

Judith Bliss is not just living in her past but the past, a different era of theater altogether. Perhaps a modern audience wouldn’t have understood the distinction, but it’s part of the fun of the play. The central character, matriarch Judith Bliss, is an actress who is past her heyday, hungering for a smashing comeback and longing for the return of melodrama with its clichéd gestures and formulaic plots. That era had given way with an excited crash to the brazen sexuality of the jazz baby. (Remember 1925 was the magic year of both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Great Gatsby.)

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She really did make a comeback.

This production builds heat as it moves, trust me (and kudos to costume designer Connie Strayer). Two characters to watch in this production: Berkeley Rep veteran Deborah Fink excels as vamp flapper Myra Arundel. She’s sleek, smug, and self-contained as a cat, and doesn’t begin to unravel until the very last scenes. Another scene stealer: Kathleen Kelso as ingenue flapper Jackie Coryton. She’s making her Stanford Repertory Theater debut. The tall, willowy blonde sways uncertainly like a tall narrow tree in a high wind. The face under the cloche hat is constantly on the verge of crumpling into tears. She’s already unraveled, the moment she steps into the country house.

The original Judith Bliss, Laurette Taylor, was an actress from a previous era, more of the generation of Mary Pickford than Anita Loos or Clara Bow. Was Laurette Taylor the has-been that Noël Coward immortalized? Not quite. She finally did make her comeback in 1946, but not in the revival of a cheesy melodrama. She was the original Amanda Wingfield in an unforgettable performance of The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams’s “sad, delicate drama of a struggling family in extremis was greeted with modified rapture by most of the critics as a new voice, a potential turning point for a tired commercial theatre,” according to Robert Gottlieb in The New Yorker (here):

But the true rapture was reserved for the play’s star, Laurette Taylor, reappearing after a difficult interlude of alcoholism, but still a revered name in the theatre. Her biggest success, decades earlier, had been in the comedy Peg O’ My Heart, which she performed for years both in New York and around the country, and in a movie adaptation. Now, as Amanda Wingfield, first in Chicago and then on Broadway, she emerged as an actress without peer, her performance referred to again and again as the greatest ever by an American actor. When I saw her, I knew it was the finest acting I had ever seen, and, more than sixty-five years later, I still feel that way. But why? What did she do that made her acting so unforgettable?

She simply didn’t act. Or so it appeared. She wasn’t an actress; she was a tired, silly, irritating, touching, fraught, aging woman with no self-awareness, no censor for her ceaseless flow of words, no sense of the effect she was having on her children—or the audience. It was as if you were listening in on the stream of her consciousness. Her self-pitying yet valiant voice, reflecting both the desperation of her situation and the faded remnants of her Southern-belle charm, was maddening, yet somehow endearing. You wanted to hug her, to swat her, to run from her—in other words, you reacted to her just the way her son, Tom, did.

 Actress Patricia Neal called it “the greatest performance I have ever seen in all my life.” Sometimes there really are happy endings. Even for drama queens.

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Dysfunctional family? Maybe not. Richard Carlton, Courtney Walsh, and Kiki Bagger in “Hay Fever.”

A rare chance to see Orson Welles’ Moby Dick – Rehearsed. Take it.

Thursday, July 31st, 2014
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The madness of Ahab. (Photo: Frank Chen)

 “The soul is a sort of fifth wheel to a wagon.”

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The protagonist, of course, is the sea – murderous, obsessive, monotonous, devourer of lives, sanity, and time, time, time. The sea is the pervasive, melancholy backdrop for the Stanford Repertory Theater‘s compelling production of Orson WellesMoby Dick – Rehearsed, mercifully without intermission, which would only have diluted the oceanic severity of Welles’s wonder of a script.  The “watery part of the world” is countebalanced by a quieter antagonist, the human soul itself, that “fifth wheel to a wagon,” as the mad prophetic sailor Elijah says early in the play. Welles whittled Herman Melville‘s 700-page metaphysical novel into a relentless and lyrical 90-minute show – it’s a daring choice for the artistic director Rush Rehm, and a rare opportunity. (The production continues through August 10 – tickets here.)

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Call him Ishmael. (Photo: Stefanie Okuda)

The hard heart of the inventive production is Rod Gnapp, a Bay Area veteran of ACT, Berkeley Rep, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and others, who turns in a stellar performance as one-legged Captain Ahab. The captain is misguidedly bent on killing the whale who maimed him, his twisted face locked in a grim and grizzled rictus of resentment.  His short exchanges with the upright Quaker first mate Starbuck (played by Peter Ruocco), who finally cries, “I disobey my God, obeying him!” are among the highpoints in a drama that has many of them. Here’s another:  thanks to composer/sound designer Michael Keck and music director Weston Gaylord, the haunting, a cappella hymns and sailors’ songs are a delicious descant to the drama – in the end, a haunting lament for those who have given their lives for the sea.

The script itself has an interesting history. The original production took place at the the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, with a cast that included Director Welles, Gordon Jackson, Patrick McGoohan, and Joan Plowright. Welles eventually filmed about 75 minutes with the original cast, then abandoned the venture when he was disappointed with the results. Others, including McGoohan, thought the short film was impressive. We’ll never know. The film was lost when a drunken Robert Shaw was smoking in bed at Welles’s Madrid home. The house burned down, along with the only copy of the film. The Munich Film Museum owns a shorter film of excerpts from the play, filmed by Welles in 1971.

Moby Dick – Rehearsed is commonly said to be blank verse, which obviously isn’t true. At best, it’s broken iambics and prose – it falls off the metrical horse too often to be anything more.  Just fine for theater, since the ear isn’t counting off metrical feet, and the irregular rhythms throw the emphasis on a hypnotic tale about a monstrous obsession. It’s a lyrical, meditative script, with lines like this one from the narrator, from the young, inexperienced sailor Ishmael (played by Louis McWilliams):

“Our souls were so possessed that Ahab’s hate
was almost ours, and the white whale
our foe as much as his…”

Or from the spiritual insightful Starbuck:

“a vulture feeds upon his heart forever: –
that vulture the very creature he creates.”

Or from hell-bent Ahab:

“…How d’ye know that some
entire, living, thinking thing
may not invisibly be standing
there, where you are standing?
In your most solitary hours, then
don’t you ever fear the feel of eavesdroppers?”

I have some quibbles. Welles’ show-within-a-show convention was already shopworn when Welles’s wrote it, and adding a few lines about deconstruction and cellphones (already a bit stale themselves), add little comedy or humor. I’d rather cut to the chase. Also, the mad characters should dial it back a bit: they’re often loud and hard to follow, which is too bad, because the delivery muffs some of the most moving and poetic lines in the play. Besides, I’ve seen insane, and that’s not all of it. Insanity is scariest when it whispers, calm and confident as a megalomaniac in a boardroom. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” announces the captain. Ahab is insane.

Interesting production video below. It doesn’t quite capture the power and desolation of this drama – how could it, really? See the real thing for yourself.

Moby Dick onstage with Stanford Repertory Theater

Sunday, July 27th, 2014
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It’s been a busy weekend, too soon over and too little accomplished, but I did get an opportunity to see Orson Welles‘s Moby Dick – Rehearsed, Stanford Repertory Theater‘s current production, which opened this weekend. I’ll have more to say in the coming days about Welles’s little-known and little-performed masterpiece – meanwhile, I highly recommend that you get tickets while you can here. It’s a magnificent and moving show, under the direction of Rush Rehmand I very much doubt you’ll find much else to top it in the Bay Area this summer. With Herman Melville and Orson Welles as your starter kit – how could you possibly go wrong? The play runs July 17 to August 10, Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 pm, Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium, on the Stanford campus. Stay tuned in the coming days for more …

Stanford performs Priestley’s play about the 1%. That’s us.

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014
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Weston Gaylord. Ethan Gotlieb Wilcox. and Kiki Bagger

It all comes together: Weston Gaylord and Jim Carpenter in “An Inspector Calls”

When I heard that Stanford Repertory Theater was about to present a new production of J.B. Priestley‘s “An Inspector Calls” (beginning May 15 and continuing to May 24), I rifled through several rooms of books to see if I could find my beat-up Penguin edition of the 1945 play. I vaguely remember having loaned the volume to … someone.  I would feel more moral indignation if a few of other people’s volumes hadn’t drifted into my own library. And that is precisely to the point. More on that later.

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Come back. I miss you.

According to Director Rush Rehm, this particular play is “an ideal way to confront our community with the responsibilities of privilege, and to expose how wealth and privilege breed an abiding complacency. For all the so-called ‘liberal guilt,’ many of us refuse as a matter of course to admit the role we play in the injustice and suffering of others. Priestley’s play explores individual guilt, to be sure, but his most devastating critique lies in the systematic way privilege builds a wall with the wider world, and the consequences of our privilege on others.”

“I hope audiences are intrigued, surprised, moved, and ultimately motivated to think harder about the ethics of wealth and privilege. The play works a kind of magic built on mystery, and as we’re discovering in rehearsal, it explores real human behavior. The characters are anything but cardboard, and in their strategies of self-defense and denial, we see ourselves at work. It’s so timely, and so now, and (although set in England 100 years ago), it is so about us. Silicon Valley, Stanford, most of us will recognize a version of ourselves on stage.”

I was intrigued by the play when I first read it decades ago, but for another reason.  It’s one of Priestley’s “Time Plays,” influenced by writer P.D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) and the Irish aeronautical engineer J.W. Dunne (1875–1949), who (according to Wikipedia) “proposed that our experience of time as linear was an illusion brought about by human consciousness. He argued that past, present and future were continuous in a higher-dimensional reality and only experienced sequentially because of our mental perception of them. He went further, proposing an infinite regress of higher time dimensions inhabited by the conscious observer, which he called ‘serial time.'” The others plays in the Penguin edition that had Priestley’s portrait on the cover (see above left) were “Time and the Conways,” “I Have Been Here Before,” and “The Linden Tree.” There were others – “A Dangerous Corner,” “The Long Mirror,” “Johnson Over Jordan.”  In these plays, time suspends or reverses itself, repeats itself endlessly in a Nietzschean eternal recurrence, or else it stays forever in deep-sixed treasure chests that can be retrieved at will, or not. (If you have seen Groundhog Day, you get the general idea.)

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It’s all still here. Now.

“My theory, partly, is that I consider him a religious man,” his son Tom Priestley told the Cambridge News, “although he wasn’t party to any particular faith. He believed there was another side to life beyond getting up, going to work and doing the shopping. And at a time when science was very much coming to the fore I think he find the theories about time gave him, let’s say, a new look at life.

“It suddenly seemed a different way of explaining things. And again, I think bearing in mind the horror of his experiences during the First World War, and his affection for the Edwardian time, if you believe that time is not just a straight line that passes, then the good times are still there.” That, anyway, is part of the idea behind Time and the Conways.

Priestley considered himself a socialist and a man of the people, and I suspect he might have gone for an interpretation of  An Inspector Calls that focuses on privilege and deep pockets. But I think wealth merely serves as an avenue to agency – a sort of magnifying glass for everything in you already. People with more agency generally have more power to do good or evil. That’s why Shakespeare usually wrote about kings and not about shoemakers or chicken-pluckers. The “evils” committed by the Edwardian North Midlands family in this play include a furtive affair, the unfair dismissal of a worker, a nasty snub, snapping at a sales clerk – can any of us claim to be wholly innocent of any permutation of these?  Not, from what I’ve seen at Stanford – or anywhere else. It’s so easy to project these human failings onto the evil “Other.”

sammiesI have the same reservations with the well-heeled protesters of the Occupy Movement. The real question is not what the “Other” should be doing to help, however just that might be, but what have I, personally, done to relieve human suffering? Not by making angry posts on Facebook or indulging in coffee-break rants – but with my own handy-pandies?  And that is something Rush Rehm and I had a memorable conversation about, oh, about 7 years ago. (I remember reading once that rock star Michelle Philips made sammies for the homeless in Los Angeles. Now that’s a mensch.) We could all afford to walk a bit more humbly in the world … and speaking for myself, I have a lot to be humble about.

It’s not a matter of letting heartless zillionaires off any hook, but rather the simple recognition that I have a much greater control over my own choices than I do over the choices of other people – and that my heart could use a little work, too. And focusing one’s rage and, frankly, hatred on the “Other” can so often be a self-righteous mask for that 4-letter word I’ve written about before: envy. I find that the rich resent the über-rich more than the poor do. I live in a city where houses sell for between $1 and $2 million, where 20- and 30-something Silicon Valley billionaires ride $20,000 bikes. And yet the anger towards the über-rich seems more passionate here than in the Latino districts of nearby Redwood City. Someone wrote on a friend’s Facebook thread yesterday, “Once the technology has been perfected and everything can be accomplished by robots and the resources are in their grubby hands, the 1% will leave us all high and dry.” Well, here we are. This is the place where that technology comes from.

globalrichlistIn these “time plays,” Priestley offers us a little foray into time. Let me offer one into space. Check out where you own income puts you on the worldwide scale – here.  Shocker: you’re probably in the top 1%.

For Beckett, this is what a “happy” play looks like…

Saturday, August 24th, 2013
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Courtney Walsh as Winnie … I’d go into a tunnel, too.

After Samuel Beckett wrote his play KrappMaureen Cusack, wife of the leading actor Cyril Cusack, suggested that he “write a  happy play.”  Happy Days is the Irish playwright’s idea of a happy play.  “But what is the play about?” Stanford Summer Theater Artistic Director Rush Rehm asks.  “A marriage?  The onslaught of old age and physical limitation? The strength of a female psyche in the face of the inevitable?  The humor (and hell) of habit?”

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“Krapp” … definitely not a happy play

Come to the Nitery for the final performance tomorrow afternoon.  Or rather don’t come, because the tickets are gone.  Or rather do come, and take your chances – doors shut promptly at 2 p.m., and no latecomers are seated, so that provides a few unexpected opportunities.  There were a few empty seats around me today.

In any case, here’s the story, in Rush’s words: “Winnie finds herself buried to her waist in a mound of earth, but she carries on with irrepressible energy, winning zest, and that ‘deriding smile’ for which Beckett is famous.”  Spoiler:  By Act II, she’s up to her neck. Her husband Willie grunts, hacks, harrumphs, and eventually emerges (in Act II) from behind the mound of sand.  Not much to go on, yes?  Here’s what Beckett thought it was about, as related by Brenda Bruce, the first Winnie in 1962:

He said: “Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’s be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life.” He was referring to the life of the modern woman. Then he said: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”

When the play was performed in 1962, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that it was “a metaphor extended beyond its capacity” – then urged his readers to buy tickets.

Courtney Walsh‘s 80-minute uninterrupted monologue – uninterrupted except for a few brief interruptions from Don DeMico’s “Willie” – is a tour-de-force, a restless, chirpy show of indefatigable brightness that would drive just about any thoughtful, introspective soul into a tunnel.  Rush rightly calls it “the Mt. Everest of female roles,” so it’s perhaps the most impressive achievement of her long association with Stanford Summer Theater.

UPDATE:  For the official wait list go here.

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Maureen’s hubby

UPDATE on 4/2/2014:  Sometimes an error produces interesting mail.  We received this email from Paul Cusack:

Firstly, I suspect that S. Beckett would have been amused by the mis-conjugation, my mother was not his wife! My father Cyril was my mother’s wife. I was there, in Paris in 1960, aged 14, when my father played Krapp at the Theatre des Nations and won Critics Award Best Actor. I was not allowed to see it. It was then, that my mum said, ‘Sam, would you ever write a happy play?’.

I am told, that around about the same time, Sam asked my father what he thought of Krapp, and he said, ‘I think it is a load of Protestant guilt’, to which (I imagine after a ‘significant’ pause) Sam responded, ‘I think you’re probably right!’

Thanks for the correction.

Need to lift your spirits? Try this summer’s Importance of Being Earnest

Friday, July 19th, 2013
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A love-hate relationship. Here, the hate phase. (Ruth Marks, Don DeMico, Jessica Waldman)

It’s been a dispiriting week of news, with tragedies, disasters, outrages, crime.  In that sense, I suppose, it’s not so different from any other week.  Can anything lift our spirits nowadays?

Try showing up at the Piggott Theater sometime between now and August 11 for the Stanford Summer Theaters production of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest.  Under the clever and skilful direction of Lynne Soffer, the production sparkles and snaps.  I think it may be the all-round best show I’ve seen by the summer repertory yet – for ensemble performance, for set design, for costumes, and more.

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He’s watching.

I have to admit I approached the theater with trepidation.  I’ve seen the 1952 classic performance with Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, and Joan Greenwood, Michael Redgrave, Dorothy Tutin, Michael Denison, and Margaret Rutherford, so my standards are unreasonably high.  The timing for Wilde’s wonder piece must be perfect – otherwise it’s like a soufflé left in the oven for a minute too long.

Of course, not all the performances were perfectly spot-on, but the esprit of the cast who clearly enjoyed working with one another made up for any minor flaws, and the euphoria carried into the opening-night reception afterwards.

Here’s what the Stanford Summer Theater’s founder and artistic director, Rush Rehm, wrote in the evening’s program:

As Wilde famously wrote, “The comic spirit is a necessity in life, a purge to all human vanity.” We need that spirit more than ever, as we face the daunting challenges that lie ahead. If I listed them all here, you’d just have to laugh … or give up the ghost.  …

I have been passionately in love with this play since I first ran into it as an undergrad quite a while ago. I found its wit and brilliance of language a perfect fit with the hollowness of the world it attempts to expose, and that truth resounds to this day.

Wilde, himself, believed in “living as an art” and has filled this play with characters who share that love to the nth degree.  While they are all richly “extended characters,” we trust that bringing them alive truthfully and radiantly is all that Mr. Wilde would wish of us. As my old acting teacher, Bill Hickey, used to say, “There is no size to truth.”

Get tickets quickly here. It’s likely to sell out fast.

As a warm-up, watch Dame Edith Evans grill Michael Redgrave in the clip below:

“Artistry in the everyday”: Ann Carlson’s The Symphonic Body – tonight!

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
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“A kind of post-modernism that allows chance and randomness to play a part.”

The theory is that choreographer Ann Carlson‘s The Symphonic Body, which will be performed tonight at 8 p.m. in the Bing Concert Hall, is entirely self-explanatory.  You should be able to walk in cold and appreciate what you see onstage.

I don’t buy it, at least not entirely.  But then, I’m not a “hang loose in the moment” kind of guy.  I like to have a little background about the artist’s intentions.  So consider this a public service for others, like me, who are high-information art-lovers.

Here’s a start, from the Stanford website:

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Carlson

The Symphonic Body is a performance made entirely from gestures. It is a movement based orchestral work performed by people from across the Stanford University campus. Instead of instruments, individuals in this orchestra perform gestural portraits based on the motions of their workday.  These portraits are individual dances, custom made for each person, choreographed from the movements they already do. The particular choreographed gestures themselves become part of a larger movement tapestry within each performer and within the piece as a whole.  By engaging with this performance practice members of the Stanford community come together in concert to expand, renew and re-experience the artistry embedded in the everyday.

A visit to the Bing Concert Hall rehearsal yesterday brought its surprises.  Scattered among the 50 or 60 performers were some very familiar faces: Debra Satz, associate dean for the humanities and arts; dancer Aleta Hayes, a lecturer in the Drama Department; Charlie Junkerman, dean of Continuing Studies, and  Philippe Cohen, executive director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.

According to Peggy Phelan, professor in the arts:

The body that Ann has orchestrated in tonight’s performance is composed of students, researchers, staff, faculty, deans. Some are athletes; some are musicians; some are tree cutters; one is a Classicist; some are administrators, some are continuing education students. Some are seasoned performers; some have never been to a symphony or performed in one before. All of them rehearsed and entered into an act of collective creation. They are unlikely to have met before this occasion and they are unlikely to work together again. They created this body through a network of recom- mendations. They were named as people others found inspiring. Ann approached them and invited them to join. The members of this symphony are united by the gesture of saying Yes, the most vital word in Stanford’s vocabulary. To be the auditors of this Yes requires patience, attention, and relaxation. Strum your fingers, tap your toes and hear those everyday sounds as your own symphony. Use their music as a way to enter your own. Carlson’s makes Yes the chorus of an expanded soundscape; watch closely and you’re sure to hear it.

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Ann Carlson conducts

Ann’s visit coincides with Anne Carsons residency at Stanford, where she is a Mohr Visiting Poet – the two Annes are friends.  Unfortunately both visits occurred during a very busy month for me. The whole shebang would have blown by me entirely, had it not been for Florentina Mocanu-Schendels persistent beseeching, telling me that both Annes are people I absolutely must meet. Florentina, assistant director for The Symphonic Body,  was, as always, right.

I went cold into the rehearsal and meeting with Ann, at the Bing Concert Hall.  She was small, bright, energetic, wearing incongruous, brand-new sneakers – at least they looked brand new – and carrying a heavy-looking bag. I look forward to meeting the second Anne tonight, at the performance.

The poet Anne’s credentials are stunning: she’s received the Lannan Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Griffin Trust Award for Excellence in Poetry, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the MacArthur “Genius” Award.

This from the Poetry Foundation website:

carson3

Poet

Anne Carson is a professor of Classics as well as a poet, essayist and translator. “In the small world of people who keep up with contemporary poetry,” wrote Daphne Merkin in theNew York Times Book Review, “Anne Carson, a Canadian professor of classics, has been cutting a large swath, inciting both envy and admiration.”Carson has gained both critical accolades and a wide readership over the course of her “unclassifiable” publishing career. In addition to her many highly-regarded translations of classical writers such as Sappho and Euripides, and her triptych rendering of An Oresteia (2009), Carson has published poems, essays, libretti, prose criticism and verse novels that often cross genres. Known for her supreme erudition—Merkin called her “one of the great pasticheurs”—Carson’s poetry can also be heart-breaking and she regularly writes on love, desire, sexual longing and despair. Always an ambitious poet whatever her topic or genre, Merkin wrote of Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, “I don’t think there has been a book since Robert LowellLife Studies that has advanced the art of poetry quite as radically as Anne Carson is in the process of doing.”

Sudden fame. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

As for performance artist Ann, she’s been keeping the 50 or 60 Stanford students, faculty, and staff on its feet. What’s in it for the performers?  “It’s fun, there are no lines to learn, some one else is directing/conducting, all I have to do is sit there and follow the program, no pressure, and it looks like it’s cool to watch,” said drama professor Rush Rehm.  “Art with little effort, using personal gestures and movement, and shaping the ‘commonplace’ by playing with time, groupings.  Sound like he’s taking it easy?  Give him a break.  He’s been rehearsing Beckett’s Happy Days, “which is the just about most demanding, meticulous play ever written, diabolical in its specificity.

“The Symphonic Body is like recess for me!” he said.  “It’s part of a kind of post-modernism that allows chance and randomness to play a part.”

During the rehearsal, one of performers, Matthew Tiews, Executive Director of Arts Programs, obeyed the impromptu spirit of the moment and handed me a live mic to address the performers with a question. I was caught offguard.  “What do you get out of this experience?” I asked.

Mary Nolan, Stanford grounds supervisor, responded in a beat: “Notoriety.”

Robert Harrison, Atlantis, Athens, and us: “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire”

Friday, April 15th, 2011
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Robert Harrison, DJ for radio show "Entitled Opinions" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Before I attended the Workcenter’s I Am America the other night, I stopped by Cubberley Auditorium, where Robert Harrison was speaking about the communication between the living and the dead.  How could one resist such an intriguing topic?

T.S. Eliot said that “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” But the program was tamer: “the most ancient vocation of poetry – whether lyric or epic – is to keep open the channels of communication between the past and the present.”

Alas, because of the 8 p.m. curtain on the other side of campus, I didn’t get much farther than Rush Rehm‘s introduction (he called Robert “the most valuable humanist at the university”) before I had to dash.  But Robert kindly left me an intriguing scrap of what he’d said, inspired by Plato‘s Timaeus.

It begins with Critias telling Socrates an “old world story” that he had heard from his grandfather, who was over 90. The grandfather had heard it from his father, who had heard it from Solon the sage, who had heard it from an old priest during his visit to the Egyptian city of Sais.

...and Socrates told it to him.

“Athens, he declares, is even more ancient in its founding than the city of Sais, but the Greeks have no memory of its origins, due to the annihilations of its former civilizations.  These annihilations, brought on by periodic ‘declinations’ of the heavenly bodies, unleash ‘a great conflagration of things upon the earth.’ It was one of these conflagrations that destroyed Atlantis, an ancient civilization of which Solon’s Greek’s have no memory, even though it was their forefathers who thwarted the transoceanic Atlantean conquest of Europe.”

The old man concluded: “and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves.”

Then Harrison continued:  “Today we have the privilege of seeing this volcanic process at work up close, in technicolor, as it were, as the entire Christian-humanist civilization that slowly consolidated itself in the wake of Rome’s collapse unravels before our eyes.  It was said of President James Garfield that in moments of boredom or to amuse his friends he would take a pencil in each hand and compose sentences in Greek and Latin at the same time.

Ambidextrous

“If one considers that, as a student, Thomas Jefferson used to translate the Greek Bible into Latin, and vice versa, one realizes to what extent the ‘heavenly declinations’ have unleashed their fury upon the American presidency.

“It was not so long ago that a university professor in the classroom would typically leave Greek and Latin quotes untranslated. Then he began to provide a translation for the Greek but not for the Latin. Nowadays he must tell his students that there was once such a thing as the Greek and Latin tongues, that there was once a place called Athens, and so forth. Shortly the professor won’t know even that much. Oh he’ll know it, in a way, but he will not know what to make of it, and when you don’t know what to make of something you eventually forget about it.”

Oprah Winfrey, cheese, Mother Teresa, and the homeless of Haight Street

Sunday, December 26th, 2010
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Too easy a target

I was shocked, shocked during the holiday season when a friend told me he had never read Charles Dickens.  So, motivated by, of all things, Oprah Winfrey, I made sure  A Tale of Two Cities was among his Christmas presents.  No, no, not Oprah’s cheesy edition, but the annotated Penguin one.

Cheesy edition… that’s just it, isn’t it?  Many of Oprah’s endeavors justly inspire ridicule.  She is too easy a target.  So The New Republic’s lambasting her for choosing Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities as her December Book Club selection was, well, a bit cheesy in itself.  Hillary Kelly explodes:

“On December 2, as Oprah Winfrey stood on the stage of her TV show, tightly clutching her newest Book Club selection to her chest so that no one could see its title, she proclaimed in her singular, scale-climbing voice, ‘Dickeeeens for the hooolidaaaays!’ Oprah declared that she has ‘always wanted to read Dickens over the holidays,’ and ‘now [she] can.’ Never mind that she could have read Dickens whenever she wanted, seeing as his books have been popular for more than a century. Never mind that Oprah hadn’t chosen A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, or any of Dickens’s other Christmas tales. Never mind that neither Great Expectations nor A Tale of Two Cities, the books she did choose, have anything to do with the holidays. Our shepherd has spoken, and we must blindly follow.

Kelly is concerned that Oprah Winfrey’s “sentimentalized pitch” will result in “a frightening number of purchases.”  Winfrey, you see, admits she has never actually read Dickens.  Kelly continues:

“She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth century—prose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to ‘live your best life’ is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence—she is quite clearly a woman of savvy—but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.”

She’s not done:

“Even more confusingly, Oprah’s comments about Dickens making for cozy reading in front of a winter fire misinterprets the large-scale social realism of his work. It stands to reason that her sentimentalized view of Dickens might stem from A Christmas Carol—probably his most family-friendly read and one of his most frequently recounted tales. But her quaint view of Victoriana, as she’s expressed it, belies an ignorance of Dickens’s authorial intentions. Indeed, both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are dark and disturbing, with elaborate ventures into the seedy underbelly of London and the bloody streets of Paris. How can we trust a literary guide who, ignorant of the terrain ahead, promises us it will be light and easy?”

I am glad I did not have Kelly around in my own adolescence.  As a girl of about 10 or 11, I picked up (you guessed it) Tale of Two Cities. Undaunted by its “complicated syntax,” I read it straight through to the scaffold. And I expect from the little I know of Winfrey’s background, she might have a better grasp of a work that is “dark and disturbing” than Kelly herself.

I was gratified to see the readership of the New Republic nailed the implicit elitism of Kelly’s remarks:

“Wow. ‘Cadres of women from around the globe’ will discover that Dickens can be tough sledding. I imagine that more than a few, however, will muddle through on their own and actually get something more out of it than a cup of hot cocoa. And it’s really this, I suspect, that you find so ‘appalling.'”

Dickens at the podium

Another writes:

“This article strikes me as deeply wrongheaded. So what if Oprah has a silly, narcissistic view of literature? If she gets her fans in their thousands and millions to go out and buy books, some of them authentically great literature, I say more power to her in this age of illiteracy! And by what right does Ms. Kelly sneeringly dismiss all those book-buying fans as dunderheads who could not possibly understand a “great book” unless it is spoon-fed to them by a Certified Literature Professor? Surely some of them are capable of reading and thinking for themselves, and possibly even having insights that have never occurred to Hillary Kelly! If the Western canon is to have any claim to universality, it must be that it is potentially accessible to everyone–that is the great lesson I took away from my immersion in the University of Chicago’s Robert Hutchins-inspired “core curriculum” in the humanities. Or are we to lock the gates of the Temple of Literature to all who do not have a Ph.D. in literary theory? That, surely, would be a far worse catastrophe for the human spirit than Oprah telling people to have a cup of hot chocolate while reading Charles Dickens!”

And I’m not sure today’s world is so very far from the one Dickens describes.  A couple years back, Rush Rehm and I were discussing people’s general reluctance to engage in volunteer work.  I had recently tried to help out at the Stanford Hospital, and been given forms to fill out and asked to sign on to a training schedule — impossible then, and even less possible now.  Rush extolled the organization of Mother Teresa and her nuns.  He told me that if you show up on the doorstep, her nuns will stick a broom or mop in your hands, no questions asked, no names taken.  It’s not grandiose stuff.  Washing a few dishes at the AIDS hospice in Pacifica may not be making the world safe for democracy, but I think Dickens would approve.  They use you while you are there, and welcome you back whenever you return.  That might be one of the most remarkable features of the whole outfit.

So, on a very rainy Christmas morning, I made my occasional trek to the Golden Gate Park, where they feed the homeless, with several bundles of new socks for the dispossessed.  They go through them so quickly living in the San Francisco chill.  I never found the nuns yesterday, but I did notice that the homeless seem to be everywhere this Christmas — not only in the park, but up and down Haight Street, and Oak Avenue, and everywhere hunkered under makeshift cardboard, broken umbrellas, and stolen shopping carts.

A quick stop in Pacifica delivered the socks, and the nuns greeted their wet and slightly manic visitor with their usual unruffled and unhurried calm and friendliness.

I also delivered my Christmas greetings to the gray and magnificent Pacific, my touchstone — and returned to my modest Palo Alto life that is, by any world standard, and particularly the by the standard on Haight Street, unquestionably luxurious.