18 March 2006

wild Oscar

I only see movies on DVD, for reasons that are all too familiar (basically, other people; oh, and add in inconvenient start times and commercials, and I'll stick with my big-screen TV), so I haven't yet seen any of the Best Picture nominees (a few of them have come out on DVD by now, but to be accurate I should say I see movies on DVD -- eventually). So I have no opinion on the big surprise victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain, except to say -- and I should have posted this earlier, I know -- I wasn't surprised. In case I get credit for Monday-morning quarterbacking, here's my e-mail to V:

No dis on Crash, which I've heard is very good (like all the nominated films) [see below for backlash], but it's a much safer choice. Rewarding a film that supports racial harmony is much less likely to alienate the audience than the gay cowboy film. It's all about the box office -- well, it's mostly about the box office, but it's also about controlling perceptions of Hollywood's morals and realizing there are large "Christian" [please note the ironic quotation marks, since fundamentalists aren't really Christians] and black audiences that have been ignored.
Also, our Intranet poll at work last week was on the best picture nominees and to my surprise after an initial lead by Brokeback Mountain Crash soon surpassed it and every other film, and this in a (notoriously) gay-friendly environment [San Francisco].
The runner-up to Crash in the poll was not Brokeback Mountain (third) but "Was this the best they could do?" which also surprised me, since the nominations are exactly the type of film that people who say things like that claim they want, proving once again that people just say things for effect without thinking them through.
As for the presenter who said, "And I can guarantee that none of these nominees ever finished a scene and wondered, 'How will that look on the DVD?'"; I can guarantee that every single one of them has not only thought that but been consoled for the loss of a scene with assurances that it will be on the DVD, or has filmed stuff that is meant strictly for the DVD special edition.
And the guy who went on about the magical effect of being in a movie theater, as opposed to watching a DVD -- what theater is he going to? Large screen? Most multiplexes these days have screens the size of televisions. Surrounded by sound? Yeah, but not from the movie -- from cell phones, crinkly wrappers, crying babies, chewing, the movie next door, and stupid, stupid comments. And don't forget sitting through the commercials! [OK, I guess I did go into the reasons. I can't help it; I'm a ranter.]
Selma Hayek is a total babe but why is it every time she appears on these things her breasts get larger and her English gets worse?

I've noted quite a backlash against Crash since its victory, most unfortunately from Annie Proulx, who wrote a childish ("Trash I mean Crash") and condescending (oh, those shallow Hollywood types -- what would writers do without them?) piece for the Manchester Guardian. (I've also heard from people who genuinely hated the movie.) I think given the general hopelessness and misery generated by the Bush presidency, there was desperation for some sort of hopeful sign of social progress, which Crash isn't going to fulfill because there pretty much already is a consensus that racial harmony would be a good thing.

But here's why the Academy shouldn't have been so timid, in the form of another e-mail to V from the week before the Academy awards:
Ace Young of American Idol is pictured prominently on the front upper flap of USA Today today. The story (and this is probably the entire thing) is that tonight "the boys" are on stage. I find this terminology odd since several of the contestants are married and have children. Anyway Ace is there to represent the boys, because as contestant Patrick [since booted off] noted, he's the prettiest. [He's serving the same function on the cover of this week's People, even though he was almost booted off last week.] And in the middle of the paper is a big picture of Heath and Jake in their Brokeback pose (I don't know what the story is -- I'm guessing some Oscar thing). So I've concluded that America is just a totally gay country and our inept foreign policy and huge Hummers are just compensation.

(As a postscript, I should note I have no opinion on American Idol. It's not really my kind of music.)

Good Old Reliable Nathan

From June 2005: I went to the first two performances of Cosi at San Francisco Opera. I had seen the production last fall but had to go again when Nathan Gunn joined the cast. I really liked this production. It's set at the onset of World War I, so it captures the last gasp of an orderly European society, one in which people could talk casually of war, before it slides into 20th century chaos. The reminders of the war went from the obvious (the women are in Red Cross nurses's uniforms when they take care of the "poisoned" sailors) to the subtle (one of the flower vases was filled with red poppies of the sort they used to sell on Veteran's Day). At the end, the men are with their original women, then they switch off, and then they are actually called off to war. Some reviewers objected to the call to war, but I thought it was appropriate -- after all, it just hurries up the risk of death, which is inevitable, and it makes suddenly real what had been a jape. I also loved Frederica von Stade as a more experienced, worldly wise Despina -- so much more satisfying dramatically than the overly cute soubrette we usually get. By the way, total props to Gunn and Katherine Rohrer (Dorabella) for maintaining their composure the first night when a lounge chair collapsed beneath them. Here are Gunn-centric excerpts from a couple of the local reviews, which for once I agree with. It's interesting that both agree on Gunn, since the first reviewer blasted the conductor (Anne Manson) for her "sluggish tempos and lax ensemble" and the second one praised her highly, singling out her ensembles. What different people hear at the same performance is one of the enduring fascinations of the theater. Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle: "The other new face in the cast was baritone Nathan Gunn, succeeding Hanno Muller-Brachman as Gugliemo. His performance was marked by his trademark amiability and charisma, though the sunny strains grew more glowering in time for the Act 2 aria 'Donne mie la fate a tanti.'" Now Robert Commanday, from the e-mail newsletter SF Classical Voice: "Secondly, the youth who played Guglielmo cluelessly in the fall was replaced by a man, Nathan Gunn, admired here for his Figaro (Rossini) in 2004 and his Billy Budd last fall. His intense manner and presence made Guglielmo a keen opposite to the Ferrando of Paul Groves. This Guglielmo had the confident, swaggering bearing that's called for and sets up his comeuppance. Towards the end of the opera, when he has to swallow his anger and jealousy and face the consequences of the game he has been playing, the climax is splendid."
The day after the second performance I heard Gunn sing the Bernstein Arias & Barcarolles with the SF Symphony, as part of their festival celebrating the Jewish influence on American music and theater. Candide is one of my favorite musicals but other than that I tend to have mixed feelings about Bernstein. I can see the appeal of this cycle, since it deals with a broad range of experiences in a man's life and a married couple's life that maybe don't get that much coverage in the song literature, but I have to say it's hard for something like that to stand up after you've just seen Cosi twice, though of course that's not Bernstein's fault. I did enjoy the performance and enjoyed Gunn acting out some of the songs.
I also saw The Pearl Fishers at SF Opera. It was a more opulent production than the one I saw in May 2004 in Philadelphia (it was designed by British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes -- I loved the colors but found some of the sets too cartoony for my taste). No offense to the guy here who sang Zurga, since he was fine, but he just wasn't Nathan Gunn. I guess what it comes down to is that in Philadelphia the opera to me was about Zurga's emotional dilemma: betray his friend or take revenge for his rejected love? Whereas in SF it was more about the two lovers finding each other and escaping. Still satisfying, but it didn't have quite the emotional impact on me. I don't know if it's Gunn's greater skill as an actor (I remember clearly specific looks and gestures in his performance) or just charisma, but he just brings an extra dimension to these roles.

American Tragedy

In December I was at the world premiere of Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera. This is an adaptation of what I wrote to someone who sort of liked it but thought that, accomplished as Nathan Gunn was in the lead role, he didn't project anguish:
Thanks for the interesting thoughts. I'm afraid I have to disagree with you on Gunn's ability to project anguish. In thinking over the roles I've seen him in, I think he did that amazingly as Zurga in the Pearl Fishers, and I also felt his anguish as Clyde at the very end of the opera. Before that I don't think Clyde, as presented in the opera, is anguished, but more of a restlessly yearning, craving young man. After all, he's doing pretty well until Roberta is pregnant -- he's getting better jobs, he has two beautiful women in love with him, he's on the way up. He seems like someone whose life is guided by wishful thinking, and when reality in the form of pregnancy intrudes, he's unmoored enough to think of elimination as the best result. What Gunn wasn't, in my opinion, was the more hollow, passive character of the book, though this may have been a change in the character due to the more dramatic nature of the stage.
What I found fascinating, and risky, about the opera, is that the center of it is Clyde, and he's an enigma. I go back and forth about him, as I did in the book (this to me is why A Place in the Sun is different from the opera and the novel, since it's set up as a doomed romance; in the other two the women are much more evenly balanced). To me the most amazing thing about Gunn's performance is that he manages to maintain audience sympathy at all, especially given the power of Racette's performance. When he comes bounding on stage in his singlet-style swimsuit right after Roberta's heart-breaking letter it's hard not to want to kill him. (Hmm, I guess that's the Clyde in me coming out. . . .).
I also had some reservations about the end. I thought Gene Scheer (the librettist) on the whole did an amazing job compressing and dramatizing a complex set of incidents, but removing Orville Mason's class hatred for Clyde (a slightly misplaced hatred, since he assumed Clyde was rich) and making him a political client of the family removes Mason's motivation for his extreme hostility to Clyde (shoving him while arresting him, repeatedly referring to him as "boy"). And though Dolora Zajick was powerful as the mother, I felt that in the final scene (I felt this especially the second time I saw it) her acting was a little too much the generalized anguished mother (she had one final gesture with an outstretched arm that was beautifully DW Griffith, but perhaps not the more restrained gesture of a woman whose strong Christian faith had rendered her more stoic when faced with the evils of the world). That's another interesting difference I felt the opera had from the novel: in the opera there was no reason to see the mother's Christian faith as shabby or fanatical or narrow-minded. It seemed like a powerful and possible alternative to the gospel of prosperity preached by the rest of the Gilbert clan. So I had different reactions to the end each time I saw it. The first time I felt, with the appearance of the hymn-singing boy, that Clyde had achieved some sort of inner peace. The second time, his anguish seemed greater, and I read it as Clyde experiencing utter despair, since even turning back to the faith of his childhood hadn't saved him. I have to say I sort of preferred the second reading. I had no moral or aesthetic objections to the first; it's just a matter of personal preference. I preferred the novel's slow fade into obscurity to the movie's more glam conclusion. (The novel, by the way, I found sensitive, powerful, and moving; I had avoided Dreiser for years, thinking he would be clumsy and overly earnest; his prose is clumsy but his insights are not.)
I keep thinking of this opera in relation to several others: Billy Budd, because both deal with inadvertent killers and bring up profound issues of justice and society; Dead Man Walking, because of the struggle towards redemption and death; and Madama Butterfly, because so much of it is like Butterfly told from Pinkerton's point of view. (These associations were jogged by the artists, of course, since Gunn is a celebrated Billy, Graham created the role of Sister Helen, and I'm hearing Racette as Butterfly in June.) To me the emotional specificity of music tends to come with repeated viewings/hearings, so this new opera faces the same problem as other new works: it's competing with moments seared into my consciousness. I would happily see it again, which is not something I can say of some other operas (for instance, Dr. Atomic, and I have to say I'm annoyed at some of the reviews of An American Tragedy which cite Dr. Atomic as a more daring work -- it has more obvious avant-garde credentials, but dramatically it not only is largely unsuccessful in my opinion but it offers no structural innovations for anyone who has heard Messiah or the Bach Passions and few musical surprises; though I liked the music, during most scenes I thought, well, it's X type of scene, so Adams is writing X type of music. To me making the ambiguous figure of Clyde the center of the work represents a subtler challenge to conventional dramaturgy than anything in Dr Atomic).

Margaret Garner

Last spring I went to Detroit, land of (some of) my ancestors, for the world premiere of Margaret Garner (music by Richard Danielpour, libretto by Toni Morrison). Detroit is an interesting city, as in, I've never been to a major city where I could walk three miles down a main road on a Friday afternoon and come across maybe five people. At the end of that road was the Detroit Institute of Art, which is outstanding but was also being renovated while I was there, so I only got to see collection highlights. Their fabulously baroque baseball stadium is possibly my favorite, though I'd have to give a slight edge to the SF Giants based on location (I mean on the water, not just not in Detroit). I also went to the Detroit Symphony, which is in a beautiful old hall, to hear a program called "Three Fourths": the fourth symphonies of Mozart, Tippett, and Brahms, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth. The symphony is very good but the audience is depressing in its Philistine refusal to accept anything that isn't already familiar. I thought Neeme Jarvi had shaken them up a bit but Tippet's fourth symphony, which is about 35 years old, and though recognizably modern also recognizably in the symphonic tradition) was just too much for the audience. Ironically that meant they were more quiet, due to sleep, than during the Brahms Fourth, which was greeted with tuneless humming and much rustling through programs and many whispers of relief. I had the depressing feeling that the audience applauded the familiarity and not the beauty of Brahms, but that wasn't as depressing as the stale jokes I had to hear during intermission about the Tippett: oh, those crazy contemporary composers! Giving us stuff we don't know already! How can we listen to this?
On to Margaret Garner. I was there for the second-to-last performance. I think all the performances had been selling out, which is nice; apparently they usually have half-empty houses, but I was told that by a woman behind me who was running Detroit down at every opportunity, so I don't know how reliable she is. (She also thought that Toni Morrison had her own line of Hallmark cards, which I found an amusing notion, but of course she was confusing her with Maya Angelou.) It's very different from Beloved in that the novel is mostly about what happened after the killing and there's the richly ambiguous character of Beloved herself. Margaret Garner is a more linear narrative about events leading up to the murder, and then the trial and execution of Garner. Danielpour was in the audience the night I was there. I was tempted to ask him to sign the libretto I bought but I rarely quite have the nerve to approach such people and then he pulled out his cellphone (this was before the performance, obviously) so I didn't interrupt. I'm sure he would be gratified to know I flew in from California to hear the opera but perhaps less gratified to know that I thought of it as the Toni Morrison opera.
I thought the libretto was very well done, especially for a first effort from someone who's not a playwright but is used to the expansive subtlety of the novel. We're at a difficult historical stage for stories about slavery, since for most of us (never too sure about those hamlets in the South) there's no moral ambiguity: here are the good people and here are the bad people, which lends a certain lack of drama to the story, since what people accepted then as inevitable and just is too far wrong for us. But we're still dealing with the effects of slavery. People go to see operas about Russian serfs and Italian peasants; why not African-American slaves? Morrison did a good job in trying to present the ambiguities of the situation (the owner's concern for his social position and his relations with his radical daughter; the racial assumptions people made, and so forth), which is why I thought they ended the story at the logical place, which is not after the murder of the children but after the trial (for destruction of property, not murder) and Margaret's decision to end her life and refuse the last-minute clemency.
The opera ended up reminding me of Britten's Billy Budd because both deal with a basically good protagonist who is pushed into murder by a corrupt world; each has a jail-cell solo in which they move beyond the worldly view of their actions and into a strange place of almost supernatural power; and each chooses death. There were some choruses of the "How long, O Lord?" type that maybe could have been shortened, because to us it's too clear that the slaves are right -- we end up feeling smug about how we're sure we would have behaved differently, rather than reflecting on how we do similar things today.
I liked the music as well, though there were parts where it sounded sort of anachronistically jazzy -- I had heard and read some comparisons to Porgy & Bess, and I thought maybe they had just drawn on similar source material (or people just assumed all black operas would sound similar), but when I heard the opera I knew which passages they were talking about. It's hard to discuss the musicof new operas, since you learn melody by repetition and I've only heard this once, and in my head I have the greatest operatic hits of the last three centuries playing over and over from different recordings by great artists -- it's hard to stand up to that sort of thing.
Detroit went all out with the staging and especially the cast, which was outstanding (though poor Rod Gilfrey was still suffering from a bad cold; I had seen him about a month earlier in DC as a wonderful Papageno -- the guy has range). Gregg Baker and Denyce Graves have new signature roles, I think.

13 March 2006

All for Love

About a year ago I went up to Seattle to hear Florencia en el Amazonas. I had been up to Seattle twice before, both times for the Ring Cycle; this time I just went for the weekend, drawn by the casting of the redoubtable Nathan Gunn. I saw the first two performances. Nothing was on at the theaters that I wanted to see and it was too early for baseball, so then I came home. The opera (Florencia en el Amazonas by Daniel Catan, a contemporary Mexican composer) is sort of "inspired by" Marquez rather than "based on". Apparently he generally opposes putting his stories into other media (such as film or the stage) but he allowed them to borrow characters and situations as a starting point and the librettist is a pupil of his and was recommended by him (though since I saw Florencia I have heard an opera based directly on The Autumn of the Patriarch, so go figure -- maybe Marquez changed his mind; he's entitled to). The basic story is that a famous singer travels up the Amazon to sing at an opera house in her native place but also to find a butterfly hunter she had loved years before. It turns out he has died in the meantime but she realizes at the end that she is still singing to him and she mystically turns into a butterfly. This is right after a cholera epidemic is announced, so I think it's up to individual interpretation whether she lives and has had a spiritual moment, or dies and is reunited with her love, or even actually turns into a butterfly of the rare type he had been searching for. There's also a young couple (the captain's nephew and a woman writing a biography of the singer though she doesn't realize until late in the voyage that she has been traveling with the diva all along) who end up falling in love with each other and a quarrelsome middle-aged couple (to my amusement, the audience at both performances I heard clearly related best to them) that ends up rediscovering their love after he is swept overboard -- the wife realizes she did love him and the river returns him. And there's also a sailor, Riolobo, on board ship (Nathan Gunn), who functions as sort of a combination of Figaro (always arranging and commenting) and Ariel (a spirit connected to larger elements of Nature). He does get a kick-ass entry and exit during the storm that ends the first act, when he descends from the skies as a river god (dressed in a sort of Aztec loincloth and wings -- Gunn is very goodlooking and gets asked to strip a lot, something Pavarotti never had to do -- wow, I'm just trying to picture Luciano descending from the air -- that would be some harness -- talk about Supersize Me!), sings his aria, and then flies (literally) off stage. Pretty spectacular. But as beautiful and even moving as the work is, I can't help feeling the libretto has a major weakness: it's all about Love and how it affects the characters' lives, but Love is only presented as a positive force. The love affairs are happy, the quarrelsome get a second chance, even death can't divide lovers as they unite mystically. There's no one there who is destroyed or hurt or ignored by Love. This is where magical realism turns into wish fulfillment and becomes kind of a prettiness -- look! pink rain! and everyone's in love! The diva has a mystical reunion with her love, of whom she has only happy memories; the young lovers decide they will fall in love after all (as if they had a choice!); the quarrelsome middle-aged couple realizes in the face of death and separation that they really love each other -- and then death and separation are annihilated and they're reunited happily and magically. Everyone is happily united at the end except Riolobo, who's the best-looking guy anyway and also gets to be a river god. Where are the people destroyed by love? or even just ignored? What are probably my two favorite operas, Tristan and Nozze di Figaro, are both all about love also but it's very clear there's a price to pay. And you may feel it's worth paying, but you do pay. And even though characters like King Mark and Marzellina may enlarge their spirits by forgiving those in love who have betrayed or ignored them, it's clear Love hasn't given them what they wanted. So I couldn't help feeling that Florencia, beautiful and truly moving as it is, ends up avoiding the darker aspects of its subject. It's as if Das Rheingold ended just with the gods marching into Valhalla -- it would be beautiful and stirring, but when you also hear the cries of the Rhine Daughters and see Fasolt's dead body, it gives you a more complex view of the gods' triumph. But I would certainly be happy to hear Florencia again, which is not true of all other operas. The music is very attractive, but unfortunately it is the sort that gets described as "accessible," which is code for "no dissonance or other unseemly innovations will shock your 19th century ears." But I liked it anyway.

12 March 2006

Sell When You Can, You Are Not for All Markets

I'm thinking of writing a sassy, "in-your-face" guide to relationships called "You Just Aren't Good Enough: 30 Reasons Why You Should Settle,and Fast!"

I'm hoping it will get me on Oprah.

What led you to write your controversial new guide to relationships? Was it a desire to help others?"

"Well, Oprah, to tell you the truth, it wasn't. I just wanted to meet you."

Why ask for the sun, when I've given you the stars?

To prove my point about Ibsen, here's my review of the Berkeley Rep's Ghosts from a year or so ago (the years, how they jumble together. . . .): I found the evening a mixed bag. There are some powerful performances and moments, but a lot of weak ones as well. I think they needed to think a little more deeply about how to present Ibsen to a Berkeley audience. Pastor Manders (James Carpenter -- OK -- I just realized he's the guy who was so outstanding in The Master Builder -- so as I surmised it was the direction of him in Ghosts that was at fault), the voice of social convention, was pretty much a foolish, dried-up prig, and that's a traditional interpretation that was well performed, but it just doesn't work for a contemporary audience. When a clergyman starts talking about duty (especially wifely duty) and what others will think, a Berkeley audience is just going to laugh at him. If there's no sense of power or reason behind what he says, where's the drama? We're just patting ourselves on the back for laughing at him and wondering why Mrs. Alving listens to him. He should at least be goodlooking enough and unconsciously seductive enough (which is how successful preachers are) for us to understand why Mrs. Alving ever found him so attractive. If they had thought of him as an aging hippy, I think that would have conveyed the right blend of idealism, foolishness, and sanctimony. They could have adjusted the translation so that instead of talking about duty (a cue for laughter) he talked about "social responsibility" -- it's another way of saying the same thing that would have given Manders's point of view a little more credibility with a contemporary audience. The man playing Jakob Engstrand (Brian Keith Russell) was pretty much a complete failure at conveying the man's greedy calculations and his whining manipulation and his menacing presence. He just seemed like a fairly nice guy who was trying to watch out for number one. You don't really get that this is someone who's trying to prostitute his daughter (well, stepdaughter, but still) and who burns down the orphanage to blackmail the Pastor (and again, a contemporary audience is only going to be pleased to see the Pastor hoodwinked). I also am not sure the audience really got the nature of the sailor's home he's trying to set up (even though they kept referring to it as a "seamen's home"; I guess they hoped the pun would make it all clear). The daughter Regina (Emily Ackermann) was fine but they (especially the son) keep describing her as a robust and vital and shapely young woman, and though she has an offbeat kind of goodlooks she just isn't that type. The last time I saw Ghosts Cherry Jones was in that role and she's more the type -- a big strapping healthy girl. Mrs. Alving (Ellen McLaughlin) was powerful and gave a ferocious and compelling performance, but I wasn't entirely convinced by some of her choices -- especially at the end, where she's throwing herself around and hurling the morphine -- she just comes off as too strong for us to understand why she would go back to her husband, why she would cover up her husband's real life, and why she would be torn about her son's demand for euthanasia. I've always pictured her at the end as physically constricted and almost bound, not throwing herself on the floor writhing. The son (Davis Duffield) was fine, though for some reason he played the entire second half shirtless (though he keeps talking about the cold -- is this meant to convey a high fever?) and I kept wondering what weird vanity or lack of vanity (he's not buff, which he shouldn't be for the part) was at play here and why he didn't shave the hairy patches on his back. The staging of his scenes with Regina was too physical and almost absurdly overdone, and there wasn't enough irony in his confrontation with the pastor about the immoral lives of the artists -- he already knows he has syphilis, he should be a lot more tentative with Regina and should be trying to convince himself as well as the pastor of the purity of the artists' lives. Again this argument is a stacked deck for us, so you need to play the scene for something other than the social views presented. The initial set, some large bare walls and a few basic pieces of furniture, was pretty ineffective; there's no sense of suffocation or tradition because it's too large and too bare. Put a looming picture of the Captain on the wall or something! After the orphanage burns they lift the walls and the rest is played against the large back wall with a flame-like and semi-abstract painting of bodies in reds, pinks, and oranges -- it tied in Oswald's painting and the fire and the syphilis very well. The music was mostly absurdly melodramatic (with lighting to match) though at the end they played a conventionally effective but weirdly anachronistic sort of alt rock song. It kind of worked but was more distracting than persuasive. Look, if someone gives you a ticket, go -- it's a fairly solid though conventional production of Ibsen, so if you're thirsting for Ibsen it's worth it.

My Master Builder!

I saw Ibsen's The Master Builder on March 1, at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley. This was only the second time I'd been there; I was there last year for an excellent production of Aeschylus's The Persians, a play that unfortunately is newly relevant (arrogant empire comes to sorrow in the middle east. . . .). It's a small theater, with an open stage in the middle surrounded by four rows of seats. So your view is sometimes blocked by the actors, but to make up for it you can see everything close up. It sounds dismissive to say this was a really solid production, but I mean that as high praise. It was one of the most consistently cast and performed works I've seen recently. James Carpenter as the Master Builder was the right combination of attractive and reptilian; Lauren Grace as the odd, troll-like young woman who enters his life was strange enough to be unsettling but not so strange as to be off-putting. So much was conveyed with glances, suppressed smiles, little movements. . . .
It was actually pretty amazing. I think Ibsen, much as I love him, is very difficult to stage these days. His symbolism can seem too obvious. And the social issues that once got him banned are too close to us to be merely historical but different enough so that he's not really talking about the same thing -- this is particularly true of the "women's issues." Despite the oppression fantasies of most of the Bay Area population, the life of a middle-class woman in the Bay Area is a very, very different thing from that of a comparable woman in 19th century Norway.


Several weeks ago I saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Post Theater in SF. It's a really enjoyable show -- cleverly staged, poignant, funny; just far enough into caricature to be comical but quick to switch storylines before they get to be too much. So go see it and buy the cast album. I'm going to kvetch the rest of this post. I never get tired of theater but I frequently get tired of theater-going, and I was reminded of many reasons why when I was at this show.
Why does everything start at 8:00? Even in the middle of the week? Hours to kill beforehand, lengthy wait for the train afterwards, no arrival home till somewhere around midnight . . . only to have to be at work by 8:00 a.m. the next morning. Even half an hour earlier would make a difference.
What's with the tiny seats? Why people who are smaller than I am seem to take up more room, so that we spend hours watching elbows and knees?
Why are all musicals amplified? The Post is a tiny, tiny theater. I understand it has bad acoustics, but even so -- if your voice can't fill that theater, you should maybe reconsider a life on stage. It wouldn't hurt people to have to pay attention in order to hear.
Most egregious of all, what's with the talking in the audience? In decades of theater-going I have never heard anything remotely clever or interesting said by an audience member. For example, the guy behing me at this show, who kept telling his wife that he "knew how to spell that word." That's swell, but she can't hear you anyway -- she's busy unwrapping cellophane wrappers v e r y v e r y slowly, on the theory that if your prolong the noise it somehow lessens it.
This is just so I don't have to keep reviewing the audiences, which are almost always terrible. Later, I'll explain why I only watch movies on DVD. . . .
To end on a positive note (such is my wont): Being at the Post reminded me of June, the last time I was there, to see Bebe Neuwirth in Here Lies Jenny, which is a short musical made up of Kurt Weill songs, arranged to tell the story of a woman's life. I understand that some audiences didn't like it, expecting either Lilith from Cheers or, for the more theatrically sophisticated, a Chicago-style razzle-dazzler. It's neither, and I have to say the audience the night I was there was very attentive and responsive. I found the show very moving, but it's difficult to describe. It's the story of a woman who comes to grips with her difficult life experiences and emerges stronger and wiser. If you had told me beforehand that's what it was I would have said, No, thank you -- empowerment equals fakery. (Instead I was told, "You get to hear her sing 'Surabaya Johnny'!" which was enough for me.) But that's really what it's like, and it's very good. Go figure.