30 September 2009

Haiku 273

On a cool clear day:
Last bright flowers of summer;
Warm blanket breezes

*******

Ostentatiously
They laugh, those two women there.
Why are they laughing?

29 September 2009

28 September 2009

thanks but no thanks

Ever since I stayed there a few years ago when I went to hear The Tristan Project, the Wilshire Grand in Los Angeles has sent me occasional e-mails. Today's offered a special hotel package for August: Osage County at the Ahmanson Theater. Uh, thanks for thinking of me, but I think I'll pass. But you set up a package for Die Gezeichneten and then we can talk!

Haiku 271

Passing clouds paint walls
A light switching on and off,
Scrims dropped and then raised

27 September 2009

fun stuff I may or may not get to: October

Support your local arts organizations by buying tickets to events that look interesting!

The San Francisco Symphony concludes its Mahler Festival with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Scelsi’s Hymnos and the Mahler 5.

San Francisco Opera presents Il Trittico, The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Salome. Trittico has been getting raves and has an outstanding cast, from rising stars like Brandon Jovanovich to the semi-legendary Ewa Podles; Patricia Racette sings all three soprano roles (click here for Lisa’s interview with her over at San Francisco Classical Voice). Unfortunately most of the performances of this three-and-a-half hour work started at the idiotic time of 8:00 on a work night, so I’m not seeing it until Saturday October 3, the final performance.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players begin their season on Monday October 5 with the music of Steve Reich, Edmund Campion (the contemporary composer, not the Elizabethan martyr), Charles Wuorinen, Morton Feldman, and John Harbison, with Harbison and Campion (again, not the martyr; it’s not that close to Halloween) giving a pre-concert talk at 7:15.

The touring company of South Pacific is in San Francisco, with Rod Gilfry as Emil de Becque.

Magnificat and the Carter Family Marionettes present La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini (based on the same episode of the Orlando Furioso that inspired Handel’s Alcina). Baroque opera! Ariosto! Puppets! My God, catch me; I’m swooning!

The San Francisco Jazz Festival opens. I was really tempted by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, but decided Davies Hall was not really the best venue for a ukulele recital. I’m at Salome that night anyway. But there’s lots of other good stuff on their schedule.

As a long-time theater-goer I should probably be slightly embarrassed that I’ve never seen anything by Tony Kushner. Berkeley Rep is offering Tiny Kushner, a night of one acts, so I have to decide if that’s the place to start.

Volti has a 30th-anniversary concert and CD-release party on October 18.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus presents music by Betinis, Holst, and Tavener based on prophetic words and mystic visions from Hafez, Mohammed, and the Rig-Veda.

Cutting Ball Theater officially opens its season with The Bald Soprano. Their previous Ionesco production, last season’s Victims of Duty, was outstanding.

Thick House presents The Creature by Trevor Allen, a re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky has a new opera: Halloween in the Castro, A Horror Opera. This sounds much more fun and interesting than the actual thing. Art so often does!

Haiku 270

"What sad dreams you have" --
How sweetly you acknowledged
Dwellers in sad dreams

26 September 2009

Haiku 269

baseball enters the last week of the regular season

Wins may mean nothing
But the diamond still beckons
You still slide to home

gypsies, tramps, & thieves

Last Tuesday was my first visit to the San Francisco Opera this season, for a mostly wonderful Il Trovatore, though I think I love that opera too much to be completely happy with any production. This performance was also my first experience with Sondra Radvanovsky, who as Leonora amazingly managed to live up to all the praise heaped on her the past few years. As with Swenson’s Lucia a few seasons back, it was just a voice that rang thrillingly in the War Memorial Opera House, like a huge sheet of water falling, pure and clear and strong.

Stephanie Blythe also has a powerful, beautiful voice, but I had wondered how she would be as Azucena, since the obsessive gypsy doesn’t seem simpatico with Blythe’s persona; some singers are beloved because they’re crazy, and some because they’re down-to-earth and sane, and Blythe is one of the latter. She’s not the possessed woman Dolora Zajick was, but she makes her normality work for her – you feel that Azucena would have led a relatively happy, regular life if she hadn’t been hit with the tragic, absurd deaths of her mother and baby. I did have the feeling she’s still working her way into the emotional rather than musical aspects of the character.

I had heard that Dmitri Hvorostovsky was having a somewhat rough time earlier in this run, but he seemed to be recovering from whatever it was he had; he sang powerfully throughout, though Il Balen was a bit leathery and he was breathing very audibly before each phrase. He gave a very convincing performance, showing the Count di Luna slipping inexorably from unrequited love into bitterness and sadism in a clearer way than I have ever seen.

I’m guessing this is Hvorostovsky’s take on the character, since the direction by David McVicar (or possibly the revival director, Walter Sutcliffe) didn’t help him much; for every lovely touch (di Luna intentionally cutting himself with his sword right after Il balen; Manrico gently covering Leonora with his large coat, which di Luna takes off of her and throws aside once he thinks she is giving herself to him; the poisoned Leonora’s fingers inching up Manrico’s shoulder to his neck and then sliding down as death takes hold of her) there was one of those “was that really necessary” moments: overacting whores and their generic bawdiness during the soldiers’ chorus; di Luna manhandling Leonora during the first scene (even if you believe a Spanish aristocrat would treat the woman he loves that way – and this is before he realizes he has no chance with her – it’s implausible that he would do it in front of Manrico without the troubadour defending the woman, and putting his hand on his sword hilt and trying to glare don’t count); di Luna gratuitously pushing a nun onto the ground – again, I can believe a Spanish aristocrat would abduct a woman from the convent before she’s taken vows, but shoving an old nun so that she goes flying – sorry, even if you think this is plausible, it’s an unnecessary piece of stage villainy, like kicking a puppy. I get it, he’s a bad guy, but il balen shows us some of his tormented interior; he’s not a bully or a coward. It’s his destiny as an operatic baritone to be unlucky in love, but you should be able to see that his character is not all that dissimilar from (spoiler alert!) his brother the tenor.

I guess that brings me to Marco Berti as Manrico. I feel a little bad saying this about someone who’s working hard, and who wasn’t exactly bad in the role, but I found him completely generic, and he doesn’t bring much dash or stage presence to the part (certainly nothing to compare with the silver-haired Siberian; this is not the first time the realities of casting have undercut the requirements of the storyline).

Nicola Luisotti conducted his first performance as music director; I had heard reports of eccentric tempi in earlier performances (again with the earlier reports! that's the problem with talking about operas; no one sees the same performance), but I didn’t hear any. I did notice lots of beautiful orchestral details in the fourth act of an opera I’ve heard plenty of times, and there seemed to be some interpolated notes in the traditional nineteenth-century style and he seemed attentive to the singers. To me it seems like a compliment to Luisotti that I have to remind myself to describe his contribution; that means nothing obviously failed or was willfully eccentric.

The staging is quite smooth, with good use made of a rotating set (Charles Edwards is the set designer), though as I’ve mentioned there was too much action of the sort that’s only supposed to fool you into thinking something is happening besides singers standing there belting it out. It’s a very solid production, but it’s the singers (mostly the women) who have made it the talk of the town. Personally, I liked the last production SF Opera did; I thought the weird bursts of flame and the suspended horse heads and the shiny creepy walls like black tar captured something of the opera’s surreal and absurdist cast. At least it looks as if the conventional wisdom is slowly moving away from considering Trovatore’s brilliant libretto the height of absurdity; my feeling towards that is why do people assume it’s not meant to be absurd? Absurd like Waiting for Godot or Oedipus the King.

The gentleman next to me didn’t seem to have gotten that particular message, since he chuckled at every plot twist, flipped through his program for entire scenes, and chatted with his egregiously silly wife not only between each scene but increasingly during scenes until I leaned in and told them to shut up. I’m surprised Luisotti didn’t say it himself; we were close enough. I didn’t hear a sound from a single other person in the section. Why are these people always right next to me? During the intermission he angrily informed me that “there’s a nice way to say things.”

Well, thank goodness someone is standing up for civilized values. I love it when inconsiderate people froth indignantly when they’re called on their rudeness. He clearly considered himself a cultured, even refined person, pausing his program-flipping to applaud each aria loudly, announcing “Well done Andrew” to show he knew Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack was singing Ruiz (yes, I agree: well done, Andrew! he’s been good in everything I’ve heard him in), yet he wasn’t even aware of the boorishness of his behavior.

We had a brief exchange during which I considered telling him that “shut up” is, in fact, my nice way of expressing that particular sentiment. Instead I pointed out that the rudeness was his first in talking during a performance so maybe we could call it a draw. That seemed to mollify him, but I knew full well that after intermission he was going to force me to engage in chat about the production to demonstrate that he was gracious enough to overlook my crudity and sheer uppityness in demanding silence during a performance for which I had shelled out a substantial pile of cash (well, credit – future cash – but you see my point). Those people on stage carry on, but sweet Jesus on Sunday morning, if you ask me I’m really the one who’s suffering for art.

25 September 2009

24 September 2009

23 September 2009

Haiku 266

Bright unsleeping night
Lights on sleepless streets of night
Turned-inside-out day

22 September 2009

21 September 2009

20 September 2009

On Motifs of Mark Morris

Mark Morris brought two west coast premieres to Berkeley this week, along with a revival of V. I was at the Saturday performance. Visitation is set to Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No. 1; after a pause we saw Empire Garden, set to the Ives Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, S 86. After an intermission comes V, set to the Schumann Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat major, Op. 44. The excellent live music was provided by Michi Wiancko and Cordelia Hagmann on violin, Jessica Troy on viola, Wolfram Koessel on cello, and Colin Fowler on piano. There was much excitement halfway through V when the cellist announced that he had broken a string and we had to pause. The dancers were lined up in the dark and after a moment went back to the wings. By the time someone made an official announcement explaining the pause, we were ready to go again; the dancers ran back out to their diagonal line and the audience fortunately quieted down fairly quickly.

The applause was more vociferous for V; some of that might be increasing familiarity, since it’s been here before, and some might be because it’s in the familiar Morris style: lyrical yet earthy, with witty touches. Both Visitation and Empire Garden are more somber pieces. Even the lighting (by Nicole Pearce for these two pieces) is more subdued. Visitation’s costumes (Elizabeth Kurtzman for both these pieces) are in subtle shades of gray and maroon and dark green. For a while I thought Visitation didn’t have any lifts or leaps; then I realized that it did, but in a smaller-scale way. It’s a piece that’s more psychological than spectacular, and I think would only get more interesting on repeated viewing. Because of the smaller-scale movements, it has a tremendous effect when a dancer goes up on the front part of the foot, like going on tippy-toes. There were some interestingly odd boxing/martial arts sort of moves, but again enacted as if the dancer were suppressing them.

It seemed like a very inward piece, as if it were about the complicated emotional relationships among the specific group of people dancing. It would be interesting to see it with different dancers in the roles. I realized several years ago that I’ve been watching the Mark Morris Dance Group long enough so that I recognize the dancers and the different qualities they bring, though I’m definitely not at that stage with any ballet companies (hearing from someone who does have that familiarity with the San Francisco Ballet is one of the pleasures of reading Saturday Matinee).

Empire Garden seemed inward in a different way, as if it were about a community rather than a group of individuals, a politically contained community. At several points two of the dancers are next to each other and bend forward so that a third dancer can climb on their backs and kneel forward towards the other dancers, mouth open in a big “O” as if they were political orators, or gargoyles (or both). The marches and traditional tunes Ives uses also contributed to the political air, as did the costumes: martial tunics, most with broad horizontal or vertical stripes. The tunics were brightly colored but the effect was not cheerful or bright. I particularly liked the busy second movement, with its mélange of people marching and moving and even doing what I think is called the pony.

I wonder if we’re seeing the beginnings of a different style for Morris (I almost said a late style, but I hope there’s much more to come, so I’ll just say different), a more somber, inward, and reflective style. Watching Romeo and Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare last year, I wondered if it was a turning point or a detour. I went to three performances, and did not regret it, though the reactions of others generally seemed more subdued. I think people were hoping for a masterpiece to set beside L’Allegro ed il Penseroso, or The Hard Nut.

Romeo and Juliet frequently reminded me of The Hard Nut, since both works basically deal with adolescents coming to grips with their sexuality. There was one lovely moment for Lady Capulet and Juliet, when the mother, remembering her own young life, mirrors the movements of her daughter; it reminded me of my favorite moment in The Hard Nut, when Drosselmeyer starts by mirroring the movements of the Nutcracker Prince, then dances with him, and then urges him toward Marie, his future partner.

But the Hard Nut has a fragmentary story, and Romeo and Juliet is more like a traditional story ballet than anything else Morris has done. That means there’s a lot more pantomime. And while people remember the intense passion and poetry of Romeo and Juliet, I think they tend to forget the plot mechanics: the plotting Friar, and the starving apothecary, and the poison that mimics death, and Count Paris’s marriage proposal, and Rosaline, Romeo’s first beloved, and so on. It’s not just passionate pas de deux; there’s a lot of plot to get through. And in the great tradition of ballets that grind to a halt in the third act so all the main characters can gather and watch the minor characters have their moment to shine, we get some delightful but totally extraneous dances from the Capulet servants while Juliet, feigning acceptance of Paris’s proposal, sinks into her poison-induced coma. (The poison takes effect long before the dances are over.)

The subject wasn’t chosen by Morris, and he doesn’t usually deal with the passions of first love, which is fine with me, since it’s not a subject I’m particularly drawn to either. No doubt he was intrigued by the challenge, since you have not only one of the archetypal love stories but a series of interlocking communities. I loved the way the dances in private homes (as in the Capulet ball) are aggressive and martial, while the public square is frequently filled with the sort of light-hearted dancing you might expect at a ball.

Much was made of the so-called “happy ending” to this work, as if it came from Morris or some general American resistance to tragedy. But it was Prokofiev and the happy-think art commissars of Soviet Russia that wanted the lovers united. And people have been sticking happy endings onto Shakespeare since the Restoration (check out the hilarious production of Romeo and Juliet at the end of Part One of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby). Even the recent Baz Luhrmann film insisted on letting the lovers revive at the same time so that they could die together (in Shakespeare, Romeo is already dead when Juliet revives). And the thing is: I’m not convinced that what Morris gave us was exactly a “happy ending.”

The lovers have run off together. With ironic abruptness, the feuding families declare peace and Count Paris takes a new bride. The last scene shows the two lovers dancing together in the dark blue as the candle-lights turn to stars. The light fades out as they circle each other round and round, and crucially, it seems to me, not quite touching. Wherever they are, it’s pretty clear they’re not coming back to town, and you don’t get the sense there will be any grandkids. In effect, they’re dead. And life is going on without them.

Irony, separation, distance: maybe these struck me in the new works as well as Romeo and Juliet because Morris is a genius at conveying convincing joy, which I think is a fairly rare quality. I’m not talking about the exhilaration of watching skilled dancers, I’m talking about joy as a quality expressed by dancers as the meaning of their dance. Bodies are inherently tragic, sagging broken back to the earth; even when you admire the youth and beauty of the dancers, it’s inescapable, and part of the poignant appeal of dance, that those qualities will not last long. That may be why I loved Morris’s version of 4 Saints in 3 Acts so much: like a painting by Fra Angelico, what might seem insipid and saccharine is instead strong and lifts up the heart into realms of rose and sapphire and gold.

Haiku 263

Red rose petals drift
Over yellow nasturtiums
Blue sky and green grass

19 September 2009

Haiku 262

Poised on the woodpile
Pleased and self-possessed bluebird
Berry in his beak

18 September 2009

Titanic

I went to the Symphony on Thursday night excited about the Ruckert Lieder, but it was the Mahler 1 that thrilled me. As they say, that’s why they play the games.

Not that there was anything particularly wrong with Susan Graham’s performance; her voice was lovely, soft and gleaming. But to me she sounded underpowered (and she was completely drowned by the orchestra at the end of the final song, Um Mitternacht); she had conviction but not force. We were asked to be especially quiet, since the songs were being recorded. I thought this was a reasonable request, but it brought out the rebel in some around me. Being asked to be considerate of others can do that. I’d say they should just grow up but if these people were any older – well, they’d be dead. There was chatter between each song (“That was lovely!”), much rustling and creaking, and even thumb-twiddling by the woman next to me.

Things weren’t helped by the Symphony’s decision to print the text of the five songs on three pages, and then to change the order in which they would be sung, which led to much audible page-flipping and pointing back and forth. Once again I'm baffled that the Symphony doesn’t use surtitles and tell people to put the programs away, especially if they’re going to record.

I ended up fleeing to an empty seat a few rows back during the intermission, which didn't make a whole lot of difference, thanks to an old woman a few seats away from me who flipped through her program restlessly and relentlessly and wanted to illuminate the evening for the rest of us with her keen insights (“This is some symphony!”). When Mahler said that the symphony should encompass the world, I wonder if he was including the annoying noises of symphony patrons.

But the irritations didn’t matter too much, because though I tend to run hot and cold on Michael Tilson Thomas, this was definitely a hot evening. The symphony flowed beautifully and clearly in its varied moods; I sometimes think he can make pieces pound too much, but this time I really felt that I had walked through the woods and mountains of Austria because I’d heard this music performed this way. He looked quite happy, smiling and bobbing up and down as he led the bucolic first movement.

I particularly liked the third movement, the funeral march based on Frere Jacques. It reminded me of a segment in Kurosawa’s late film Dreams, in which a wanderer stumbles onto a fox-spirit funeral procession (I just checked my memory at IMDB – it’s a wedding procession, not a funeral; I retain my original error instead of silently correcting it as a tribute to the Vienna of Mahler and Freud). The line of well-dressed fox-spirits is in midshot, walking slowly and ceremoniously, and they all turn their faces simultaneously to the observer when they sense his presence. This performance of the funeral march had that same touch of the otherworldly and grotesque under a strange and moving solemnity, ending in quiet splashes of sound (perhaps the cymbal?) before we switched to the awesome trumpet blasts of the finale.

So that was pretty delightful – at least, the musical portion of the evening. I had gone to the Asian Art Museum beforehand, and came across an announcement in the lobby that from October through January the museum would no longer hold late Thursday hours. So much for having something fun and interesting to do while I'm killing time before the inevitable 8:00 p.m. curtain. No reason was given for the change. I think this is a real shame, as it eliminates the best time for office workers to go to the museum. Now I guess we get to trek back in to San Francisco on weekends, when the museum is sure to be crowded. If the closure is for financial reasons, I wish they had considered closing an extra day during the week, which would probably save them more anyway.

And then starting this very week BART reversed one of the few things it’s done in recent years that have helped riders: non-rush hour trains are now back to arriving twenty minutes apart, instead of fifteen. I know that may not sound like much, but it actually makes a tremendous difference in the timing of the trip home, particularly when you have to work the next day. They needed to cut costs so that they could continue to give grossly inflated salaries and benefits to their worthless, lazy employees. Of course I arrived at the station about a minute after the train had left. To make matters worse, they run short trains (only four cars, out of a potential ten) at that hour, so they're already packed and noisy by the time they reach Civic Center. I guess in a way I have to salute BART’s total dedication to making each expensive ride as lousy as possible.

Haiku 261

L'Shanah Tovah, especially to Shushu

So far the ram's horn
Blast has searched my heart: repent,
Renew, and rejoice

17 September 2009

16 September 2009

you know you've been reading too much Greek tragedy when. . .

I had been re-reading some of the Grene/Lattimore translations of Greek tragedy, and I was just a couple of days in (seriously!) when someone came up to me with one of those "Figaro qua, Figaro la, Figaro su, Figaro giu" tasks that take up most of my hours, some silly thing that no one knows what to do with so they give it to me, and to which my usual response is (outwardly) a slight smile and "I'll take care of that for you," and inwardly, well, you probably don't need to know exactly what I usually think inwardly except that it involves a string of colorful cursewords but this time out of my lamenting-chorus-heavy mind like Athena from the head of Zeus sprang the thought, "Strange is the tale you tell me / And strange the terror that seizes my heart."

Haiku 259

Chatting and laughing
Last night in a dream you came --
A stranger, and dead

15 September 2009

14 September 2009

Haiku 257

Tea-stained coffee mug,
E-mail printouts, dried-up pens:
Office nature morte

13 September 2009

Haiku 256

Light might be changing
Above the daylong gray clouds
But how can I tell?

*******

And quick summer rains
Will splash on your naked skin
For the sun to dry

12 September 2009

Haiku 255

Dime-sized drops of rain
Splash on unsheltered sidewalks
Momentary storm

11 September 2009

10 September 2009

Haiku 253

Behind me, chatting,
A woman peels an orange:
Tangy citrus burst!

*******

Without turning I
Know the woman behind me
Has peeled an orange

09 September 2009

Haiku 252

Pale fluorescent light
Gray carpet taupe walls: we talk
honey bees and figs

08 September 2009

07 September 2009

fun stuff I may or may not get to: September

Things I'm either seeing or wish I could see this month:

Coming right up on September 9, check out the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco. I really loved Dubowsky’s Eisenhower Address, which I heard last year. This should be fun.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opens its season September 10-13 with pieces by Bach and Mussorgsky.

The San Francisco Symphony opens with a Mahler Festival; Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Mahler 1 and Susan Graham sings the Ruckert Lieder.

San Francisco Opera opens with Il Trovatore, conducted by new music director Nicola Luisotti and starring a promising cast: Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sandra Radvanovsky, Stephanie Blythe, and Marco Berti.

I ended up not subscribing or donating to Cal Performances this year, mostly because I got tired of giving them more money each year and each year receiving fewer of the seats I wanted. But this is probably the most exciting month they have this season: the Mark Morris Dance Group in Empire Garden and Visitation, both west coast premieres; A House in Bali, a new “dance-opera” with music by Evan Ziporyn; and a recital by Christine Brewer.

San Francisco Performances, on the other hand, is currently very high on my good-will list, partly as a carry-over from last season's Elliott Carter centennial weekend and the Philip Glass Music in 12 Parts, but also because I thought they were one of the few local groups that was offering an exciting and adventurous upcoming season. Definitely check out their offerings. Most of what I’m seeing is in 2010, but this month I am going to Thomas Hampson's recital.

Cutting Ball Theater opens its Hidden Classics reading series with The Knights by Aristophanes on September 27. Rare as it is to see Greek tragedy, it’s even rarer to see Greek comedy.

again with the shirtless baritones

I obviously should have added Rod Gilfry to the list of baritones of whom I did not have "shirtless/naked" pics, because just days after that entry, I received a search for "Rodney Gilfry shirtless St Francois." Since I have watched the DVD in question, I can tell the searcher that not only is Gilfry clothed throughout the long opera, even when he receives the stigmata, but his Franciscan robes are not particularly form-fitting. Perhaps one day a director will be inspired by either baroque art or the box office and strip the saint down, but until then let me recommend this DVD, a terrific production of Messiaen's wonderful opera. I'm really just posting this to recommend that people buy the set. One link is for MDT and the other for Amazon; MDT has a lower price, but since they're in England you'll need to pay shipping, which you wouldn't need to do for Amazon, so the cost might even out.

Haiku 250

As long as I have
Tomato-vines' scent, I have
My childhood summers

06 September 2009

05 September 2009

the booze, the pills, the heat, the dust

There are spoilers a-plenty in here, so proceed at your own risk.

I was pretty pleased to get a third-row seat for August: Osage County, the highly decorated play by Tracy Letts that is now on its national tour. When I got to the Curran Theater last Thursday, however, I realized that my seat was on the far right of the auditorium and a bank of speakers blocked a considerable portion of the stage. (I’m not sure why they needed speakers there at all; sometimes the actors did sound amplified, but that might just have been their peculiar placement on stage and the bad acoustics, along with all the shouting.)

There was no warning when I bought the ticket that this was an obstructed-view seat, and there was certainly no discount: what with face value of the ticket, and processing fees, and “convenience” charges, the gangsters at Ticketmaster and Shorenstein-Hayes-Nederlander charged me almost $80 for my seat. Add in the need to buy myself dinner, even a cheap one, and the evening was pushing $100. That’s a pretty big pile of cash for what was basically three-and-a-half hours of people screaming “fuck!” at each other. I can get that from the voices in my head for free.

In case you’re thinking it doesn’t matter if the far edges of the stage are invisible, let me point out that this is possibly the most ineptly blocked play (direction by Anna D. Shapiro) I have ever seen. Large portions of the action take place at the extreme right or left of the stage, so though I could hear the actors I couldn’t always tell who was speaking or even who was there, and neither could a large number of those around me, judging from the constant whispers of “who’s talking?” and “I can’t see!”

And when the action was on the other side of the stage from me (for example, the big funeral dinner) the actors were seated so that not only were their backs to most of the audience, but they blocked those who were facing the audience. And even the occasional scene on the second level of the underutilized set was staged so that you couldn’t get a good view of the actors or their faces. Surprisingly little of the play takes place center stage, possibly because it is so dominated by a clunky, pointlessly “realistic” three-story house (scenic design by Todd Rosenthal).

Bad sightlines seemed to be a problem throughout the house. The women in front of me finally abandoned their seats, and when I saw a group of high-school drama students, dressed up for their evening out, prepare to sit there for the third act, I warned them that they wouldn’t be able to see a lot of the stage. They said they had been warned already, but they could see even less from their previous seats in the balcony.

So it wasn’t until the end of the lengthy opening monologue that I saw who Beverly Weston (Jon deVries) was talking to – it turned out to be Johnna Monevata (DeLanna Studi), a young Cheyenne woman who is desperate enough for work to take a job as housekeeper there. Beverly is a hard-drinking, crusty literary man (one highly praised book of poems in the 1960s, and then silence), of a type that is instantly all-too-familiar even if you’ve never encountered the type before. I was pretty relieved when his disappearance turned out to be suicide, since that meant I wouldn’t have to listen to any more of his wry, crusty takes on life. His disappearance prompts the family to converge.

Estelle Parsons plays Beverly’s wife Violet, a pill-popping harpy. So far we have a major alcoholic and a prescription-drug addict, and here’s my problem with dramas about addiction: they’re not dramatic. There is a choice to be made, so this isn’t a story like that of Oedipus, just living his life (traveling, killing, marrying) only to discover fate has trapped him cruelly. And though it sounds like the essence of drama to have a choice to make, the addict has already made it: addicts always choose their addiction. That's what addiction means. So despite the sham-glamour of its nostalgie de la boue quality, addiction has a pre-determined and overly predictable arc, one that is less about fate than about some bad choices that have already been made. So stories of addiction have to be about how the addiction affects those around the addict.

And there just isn’t enough variety in how this family reacts, given the length of time we spend with them. Mostly they scream obscenity-laden accusations and insults at each other. It’s sort of like those socially conscious Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s, only not as well acted and written (some of the zingers are considerably less zingy than others), bloated to unsustainable lengths, and filled with such a Tourette’s-like number of obscenities that David Mamet would be reaching for his blue pencil to eliminate the deadening excess. I myself have the bad habit of swearing like a drunken sailor’s drunken parrot, but I found the effect stultifying (and less than entirely convincing in a woman-centered family with academic pretensions and connections).

No one in the family seems to have thought about addiction and its effects in any serious way. No one seems to have thought about it in a superficial way, either. There’s quite a bit of television watching going on, but no one seems to have run across a single episode of Oprah, or even Jerry Springer, that might spark a few thoughts about their family, its cruelty, and the role played therein by various drugs. Late in the third act, Barbara Fordham (Shannon Cochran), the eldest of the three daughters, casually bums a cigarette off the sheriff (Marcus Nelson, one of the more convincing performers) she’s flirting with, even though she has already said she gave up smoking years before. So here’s an addict who’s managed to kick her addiction, whose life has been warped by her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s dependency on pills, and who is trying (ineffectually) to keep her fourteen-year-old daughter from smoking – and her mother, by the way, also has cancer of the mouth, no doubt brought about by her smoking – and she just resumes the habit as lightly as if she were reaching for a second little cookie when she knows she should probably lose a couple of pounds.

Where have these people been, that there is such blithe unawareness of family patterns of addiction? The light-hearted approach to drugs we no longer take quite so lightly is not the only thing that makes the whole play seem as if it really should be set in the 1940s (or, perhaps, as if it was actually written then). On the day of Beverly’s funeral, movie-buff Jean (the fourteen-year-old daughter, played by Emily Kinney), wants to watch the silent version of Phantom of the Opera on TV instead of whatever family activity she’s supposed to be attending. I know this sounds crazy, but why not just tell the kid (who, after all, barely knew her grandfather) that you can record the show for her? Or even – I know this sounds even crazier, but hear me out – maybe there’s some way of actually acquiring or even renting such films oneself, and watching them at one’s leisure! Instead Barbara reacts as she always does, with ineffectual and obscenity-larded bluster. (Barbara spends a lot of time screaming, often about how selfish people are for not thinking of her.) There are solutions, thoughts, and possibilities that are obvious to our time, but seem not to occur to any of these people. The play is set in our time, but seems weirdly not of it.

Hey, have I mentioned that this thing is three-and-a-half hours long? Length is a peculiar quality in art. Sometimes length, and surrendering the amount of time needed, is an important part of the experience (yes, I’m a Wagnerite – but I will tell you Meistersinger is too long). I’ve seen one-hour performances that dragged and three-hour performances that flew by. I try to avoid saying things like “it’s too long” or “it gets boring,” because those are uselessly subjective reactions; it’s better to try to figure out why exactly something strikes you as too long – for instance, the material isn’t varied or interesting enough to sustain the length, or the length gives you too much time to dwell on inconsistencies in the plotting and psychology.

So about August: Osage County, let me just say on the subject of its length that the material here isn’t varied or interesting enough to sustain the length. And you’re given too much time to dwell on inconsistencies in plotting and psychology.

There are lots of big moments that fall apart even as they’re taking place; for example, the endings of the first two acts. The first act ends with everyone wondering where Beverly is, what it means that they found his boat but not him, and so forth. Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (Jeff Still) is trying to comfort her, and she bursts out, “Bill, Daddy’s dead!” The stage goes black and the house lights come up. So her blanket declaration raises lots of interesting questions. But in the beginning of the second act, instead of having them answered, we see Barbara collapse in shocked sobs when the sheriff comes by to say they’ve found the body. Bill never asks her what she meant by her earlier declaration, or why she’s so surprised when it turns out to be right. Is she just someone who likes to make sweeping statements for effect? And no one in this ruthless family calls her on it?

Then at the end of the second act, when she’s had enough of her mother’s jabs, she decides they’re going to make Violet go clean. She orders the family to search the usual hiding places for Violet’s pills (they’ve all done this before). Violet resists, which leads to an unconvincing and poorly staged fight between the two women. Barbara screams, “Don’t you get it? I’m in charge now!” Maybe I would have found the moment more effective if Barbara hadn’t already been screaming most of her lines. But even so it’s unconvincing on the face of it. This is a woman who can’t even keep her own fourteen-year-old daughter from smoking (both tobacco and marijuana). And she’s supposed to control a wily old woman who once went into rehab with pills hidden in her vagina (Barbara knows she did this – she’s the one who tells her sisters)? Why is everyone, even those who were just fighting with Barbara, obeying her without question? Why are they even thinking this is an effective method of handling addiction?

It’s all too clear where some of the storylines are going. When Karen, the youngest daughter (Amy Warren) shows up from her home in Miami babbling about the bad luck she’s had and her romantic troubles but now she’s found someone who’s really a good man, you know before he even shows up that Steve (Laurence Lau) is going to be slick, shady, and unfaithful. Sure enough, he’s soon trying to seduce Jean. His defense when he’s caught and Barbara angrily screams that Jean is fourteen is that “she said she was fifteen!” OK, I’ll give credit where it’s due – that line made me laugh a lot, and was probably my favorite moment in the play.

Then at other times things come up that, given the nature of those involved, should most likely already have come up, if not for the dramatic necessity of saving them for us. Uncle Charlie (Paul Vincent O’Connor) tells his wife (Violet’s sister) Mattie Fae that if she doesn’t stop her relentless belittlement of their son Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key) he will kick her ass to the side of the road (this is said in a dignified and less threatening way than the words might make you think), and though he is grateful for their 37 years of marriage, he’s not sure there’s going to be a 38th if she doesn’t change her ways. Judging by the applause, I wasn’t the only one happy that someone finally had the decency to talk sense to one of these shrill harridans, but it’s pretty clear that this is Mattie Fae’s life-long pattern. It’s dramatically effective to have Charlie stand up to her, but you wonder why a basically thoughtful man like Charlie waited so long.

I realize that you have to accept certain things for plays to go, but you need to keep things moving along fast enough so that you don’t start questioning the dramatic conventions. So if you tell me that two sets of identical twins, master and servant, were separated in childhood and now are suddenly reunited in the same town where no one can tell them apart, yeah, I’m in. Tell me that identical twins, boy and girl, are separated in a storm and the girl dresses like a boy and then the boy comes to town and people mistake them, sure, I’ll play. But then things have to move fast enough and interestingly enough so that you don’t question too much why the people on stage aren’t noticing certain things.

If I’m giving over three and a half hours, I need something a bit better than just a little fun with my dysfunctional. These big sprawling family dramas are dependent on certain conventions: for instance, that the more shocking dark secrets will only be revealed at dramatically opportune moments, even when those involved are unscrupulous and drug-addled, or that certain confrontations will take place years after they realistically would have, and, most of all, that you are inexorably, deeply, inescapably connected to your family, no matter how viciously destructive they are. Maybe that’s why this play seems to be happening in an earlier time, one with tighter social structures and a different sense of obligation than our own.

There’s a pretense that these things are not dramatic conventions, but instead deep emotional and psychological truths. I’m not buying it. The Weston daughters are all middle-aged women with the usual varieties of life experience. If you’re that age and still playing along, you need to realize that you’ve decided to be part of the problem. A pill-popping old woman starts insulting everyone and announces that she’s going to tell them a few home truths, and no one even giggles or rolls her eyes? I’m thinking that’s not the first time they’ve heard that particular speech. You’d think they’d have more effective, or at least more entertaining, responses than baffled hurt or outraged obscenity.

It's always a bad sign when I check not only the ticket stub but also the credit card slip to see how much I've spent on a performance. To add to the irritations of the evening, BART for whatever unannounced reason was not running the 11:20 train, so I ended up waiting almost half an hour for a train home. It was almost 1:00 in the morning by the time I got to bed, and of course I had to be at work at my usual hour the next day, so I felt like a zombie, a zombie whose last memory was a waste of time and money.

Haiku 248

Noble vegetables,
That gave up their rooty lives
That I might have soup

04 September 2009

03 September 2009

Haiku 246

Unexpected yet
Longed for, like a cool breeze on
A night like last night

02 September 2009

01 September 2009

Haiku 244

Dreaming of deserts:
Slowly undulating sands,
Clear and endless skies

(a variation for Shushu)

Dreaming of desserts:
Heaped truffles, fruited ice creams,
Whipped cream swirled like clouds