Tag Archives: Theatre

Be Stone No More – Tabletop Shakespeare

I love when I serendipitously come across links like this one.  If I still taught high school English — if I somehow could have sustained myself (mentally, financially) in that profession past my 20’s — I would definitely use one of these to describe a Shakespeare play.   While the play is always much more than the plot and the language is what adds so much to the beauty, I think these are wonderful for making a play accessible.  If you know what is going on, it is so much easier to listen and pay attention to the language.

I haven’t had time to watch all of these in their entirety, but have seen snippets.  The video describing the project is interesting too.

Using household objects to represent the characters seemed a bit strange at first.  Yet, I know when I’ve tried to explain a complicated story to someone, I’ve often reached for simple objects to represent.   It works!

I love how in the retelling of Romeo & Juliet, Sam Taylor refers to each member with the surname of the house he belongs to.   It isn’t enough to know Juliet is a Capulet and Romeo a Montague, but to know which house each of the other characters belong to.

What a horse!

I wrote previously how I loved the stage production of War Horse. My husband had wanted to go see it last April, and, after he described it to me — young boy goes into the battlefield looking for his horse, which is portrayed on stage with puppets — I thought I was quite clever in my one-word response: Neigh!. But, T really wanted to see it, so, in advance of another trip to the Big Apple, without telling me, he purchased tickets. “It won the Tony!” he explained. “You shouldn’t prejudge it.”

So, reluctantly, I went. At dinner beforehand and during our walk to Lincoln Center, I tried out every horsey joke I could think of. When they failed, I suggested that if one wanted puppets, we could probably still get tickets for that evening’s performance of Avenue Q, which we knew was funny. After all, who couldn’t use a little bit of bawdy Muppets? A horse in war? That was a different story — one that didn’t sound either entertaining or thought-provoking. It was a beautiful evening in August and there were bunches of happy people around Lincoln Center. I considered for a moment if I could just sit outside for a few hours while T and our friend saw the play, but sometimes choices like that don’t aid in the mood of a trip.

At intermission, as we stepped into the lobby to get a drink, T asked if someone had a gun to put down that horse and put us out of our misery. “What?” I exclaimed. “How can you not like this? It’s wonderful!” And so it goes sometimes when we have expectations and they are shattered. I found the play to be emotional, the music and the use of images projected behind the stage to be evocative, and the themes of war and loyalty to be engaging. My husband saw none of that; he thought it was simply a love story about a boy and his pet horse. And he hated the puppetry. While the puppetry at first was a bit jarring — I didn’t think that I could get around the fact that there were four men operating a huge skeletal frame reminiscent of a horse — I quickly lost my interest in the mechanics of the puppet and saw it as a character in the play.

Since our enjoyment of the play was so different, War Horse became for a while a household joke. Even before I knew that there was to be a movie made of the play (which was based on a book), I joked at the occurrence of minor wrongdoings, that recompense could only be made by sitting through a movie version of War Horse. I was watching movie trailers in September when I saw the first promotion. I had a fit of giggles at how sappy it was and had a difficult time quieting down when the feature began. Later, I tried to explain to my friends what was so funny. The trailer, however, had already been forgotten.

Was the play really sappy and sentimental as my husband thought it was? Two months later, I still found that the idea of how the nature of war changed when barbed wire, tanks, and automated weapons quickly made the cavalry and their swords obsolete resonated with me. Earlier in the summer, in an antique shop, I had come across a book of photographs from a pictorial magazine about the war, published just a few months after the Treaty of Versailles had been signed. While that book did not go into much detail about this dawn of a mechanized, sophisticated and modern warfare, looking back nearly 90 years later, it is evident in the pages.

I remained eager to see the Steven Spielberg movie adaptation of War Horse even though I was skeptical from the treacly trailer. Without saying which movie, I asked my son who is still home on his holiday visit, if he wanted to go see a movie. He eagerly said “sure” before I told him that there was only one movie I had in mind. He knew he had been tricked, but I told him that if it was really bad, he could tease me mercilessly for dragging him along. “I’ll go,” he said, “but you’re buying the tickets!”

I laughed from nearly the first frame. In the play, there is a goose puppet that represents the farm life of Albert and his family. In the movie, the goose is there too, but it is an irritant and played for laughs. I really didn’t understand its purpose, although the audience seemed to respond to it. The goose was a pain, but he didn’t like the dastardly landlord either. “It’s going to be a long movie,” I thought and was glad that I hadn’t worn my watch. But, soon the action was underway. Albert loves his horse and his mother, he struggles to train the horse to help save the farm … yada yada yada… fill in the blanks in any story you’ve already heard a thousand times about a poor family on a hard scrap English farm.

Eventually the action shifts to the war, and the horse is sold against the boys wishes. The farm is saved, but Joey the horse is lost. Except there was another 1:45 left. You can fill in the blanks in this part too; I don’t need to give any spoilers.

Some of the action is different from the play. I don’t think that it either adds to or detracts from the movie. Spielberg is good at filming scenery that, despite the beautiful cinematic effects, leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that War is Hell. Those scenes don’t disappoint. Unlike the movie, the play shows officers on both sides who were at odds with killing and who were afraid to die. The characters are a bit more stereotypic in the movie, although it doesn’t stoop so low as to portray “the evil Hun”. Instead, it is a difference between the infantry and the leaders on both sides. Regardless of which side of enemy lines the horse is — and our horse Joey is befriended and used by English, French and Germans — the horse is recognized as a beautiful horse and all of his caretakers fall in love with him. The anthropomorphizing of the horses is a bit overdone. Joey doesn’t want to leave his mother, Albert, a horse he friends and, as the storyline suggests, whose life he saves. Joey nuzzles his caretakers, protects his charges, sits beside a dying companion (horse, not man). I try not to be too jaded, but while the rest of the theatre audience was sniffling, I was suppressing giggles.

The idea of barbed wire and the obsolescence of the horse cavalry is still present in the movie, but it is a faint echo of the major theme of the play. In the play, because it is the stage, the representational quality of the drama, told in episodic tales, works to present a whole while underscoring the themes of loyalty, family, and the evil of war. In a movie, because of its more realistic nature, those episodes seem choppy, contrived, and overdone. How many things can happen to one damn lucky horse that nobody is betting on?

Still, for a movie that is intended as a family event for parents, kids and grandma, War Horse is not a bad choice. At 2 hr 24 minutes, it is a bit long. The battle scenes are well done and there is violence, but nothing graphic and gory. Bottom line: beautiful cinematography; overdone plot, just long enough to make some bored and fidgety.

The biggest surprise of my trip to the movie this afternoon? As the credits were rolling, my son said: “Much better than I expected. I actually liked it!”. So maybe you don’t want to go by my opinion, at all!

POTD (Picture of the Day)

Fiery Morning Horizon

Nothing to do with the movie. I’m sure that I could do much more with this picture in post processing, but that isn’t happening tonight! I like this photo for two reasons: the colors (captured exactly as I saw them this morning!) and because the sunrise so obscures the horizon line that it looks like it is rising over a large body of water. Alas, it is only over pavement and a small tree-lined creek. Pretty, but no sea.

Year’s End – All the cool kids do a wrap up

There are traditions during the last week of the year that are just as certain to occur as those pre-Christmas traditions we’re all familiar with. The calendar turns to 12/26 and you can expect enormous crowds at the mall, long waits if you order a pizza delivery for dinner, kids starting to get restless with nothing to do, parents counting down the days until Winter Break is over. And, everybody seems to do some sort of year-in-review or “best of” list.

The Best of Lists are something that pull me in every year, even though I often claim that they are ridiculous exercises. Best movie? Best play? Best book? Best Travel Destination? Top News Story? Best Restaurant? Best Politician — oh, wait: that would be too short of a list!

Yet, I often find these same lists fascinating because the only criteria for judgement is the calendar. One could just as easily look at the “best of” anything for the last week, or month, or decade, although I would have a hard time remembering much of some categories if I were going back over 10 years. Only the very best would withstand that test of time. And maybe that is both the point, and the foolishness of such lists. Would I only include some items on my “best books” because I read them recently? Is it the last one that always seem the best? If my time period were longer, would I decide that the book I read in October or the play I saw in April were not really that excellent after all?

And how do you winnow such lists when there may be no common characteristics between two works other than the fact that you engaged with both of them over a 12 month period? My husband asked me recently which of two plays that we saw this year was the best. We actually saw more than a dozen plays, so I wondered why he narrowed it to the two. But, I couldn’t decide between those two plays — a revival of Arcadia and Jerusalem. We saw several operas as well — I wouldn’t have been able to narrow that list either. Same goes for movies and books. If I remember them, it is because I either really liked them, or I hated them. It’s like picking one’s favorite child: can’t be done.

That said, here are some of the art/literature/theatre things that I experienced this year. I’d recommend any of these, although some of the theatre performances have long since closed.

Patti Smith’s Just Kids — a wonderful memoir that reminds you, no matter how different your life is from Smith’s that we were all once “just kids” trying to make our way in the world, figuring out our lives and loves. Smith seems to have maintained some of that innocence, without being smarmy. After all, she is Patti Smith.

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I got lost in this novel, and even though the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I thought it could have been, I still cried at the end. I thought that Patchett could have delved into other questions about women extending fertility than she did. I just finished reading this, so it would be interesting see what I think about this next December.

Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. One of those books that could be characterized as a ‘sweeping epic’, covering the lives of twins from birth til death, across countries, continents, love and revolution. There are still scenes from the book that come back to me in entirety seven months after having finished it. This will certainly be a book that I re-read.

Coriolanus — I saw a special screening of this in October & Ralph Fiennes spoke afterwards. (Ralph Fiennes = Squeee!) It’s rough, it’s violent, it’s Shakespeare in a modern setting — things that might put me off. Don’t let it. It IS relevant in it’s modern setting, right down to the occupy-like crowds of protestors. (I saw this two weeks after OWS started, and on the day when I wandered down to Zucotti Park to see what the Occupy movement was about. The irony was not lost on me.) Go see it when it opens in a theatre near you.

Midnight in Paris Made me fall in love with Woody Allen all over again and pushed Hannah and her Sisters from its long-held perch of best Woody Allen film ever.

Moneyball. I don’t like baseball and don’t care much for Brad Pitt. Loved it anyway!

Bill Cunningham, New York. Every time I’m in NYC and anywhere near 57th & 5th, I am always a bit hopeful that I might see Mr. Cunningham riding his bicycle and taking photographs of interesting people. I rarely miss one of his photo essays in the New York Times. The tagline in the movie trailer: “Photographer. Perfectionist. Loner. Maverick. Visionary.” One of the best documentaries I have ever seen. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to go see it again, immediately after I saw it. It’s now playing on NetFlix. Cunningham may be all about fashion, but the movie is about so much more: it is about one man’s passion that has been his whole life.

The Ring Cycle. The first of the Ring Cycle was aired by the Metropolitan Opera Fall, 2010, but Operas 2 & 3 of the cycle were this year. I swore to my husband when he first coerced me into going to the opera that I would never sit through the entire Ring Cycle. What I would have missed if I had not. Still not sure how happy I would be after attending four long operas in a week’s time, though I’m willing to try. (I have tickets for next Spring at the Met, though it is unlikely now that I can work out the logistics of going — want to buy the tickets? Email me.)

While Wagner’s Ring Cycle is not a freshman outing for the novice, if you are unsure about opera, attending one of the Met’s Live in HD series is a great introduction. And you can have popcorn, too!

Aradia I went home and stayed up all night reading the script. I’ve read it twice since seeing the play during the last week of its run last April. I adore Tom Stoppard. I can’t think of anyone else who could write an amazing play with characters in two different centuries about English gardens, pomposity, infidelity, mathematics, quantum physics, love, obsession, insanity and rice pudding. And, rice pudding is integral to the plot. You can’t stir out the jam!

Jerusalem This play made me think for weeks. Mark Rylance plays a modern-day pied piper living in a trailer at the edge of a forest, giving drugs and booze and a safe haven to disaffected youth. I also saw this during the last week of its run. The entire cast headed back to London to reprise the play there. There are parts of the play that I think are lost on Americans, but it was still something that I’ve thought about and discussed many times since I saw it in August. I still debate whether Rooster was hearing giants or bulldozers at the end.

War Horse I said Neigh! when T first described this play to me. I was wrong. From what I’ve read of the movie, I don’t think that it is at all like the play. I was fascinated not so much by the story of the boy’s devotion to his horse, but the idea of a ‘modern’ war changing how war was waged and how tanks and barbed wire made the cavalry obsolete before the end of the war. The puppets were great, not cheesy as I pictured them beforehand.

Royal Shakespeare Company/Lincoln Center Festival (Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It, Julius Ceaser, The Winter’s Tale) It’s a HUGE committment to see 5 plays in 3 days. I gave my ticket to King Lear to my cousin who gave my husband and I a place to stay for the weekend, and although I would have liked to have seen Lear, I needed a break! I loved every one of the 4 plays that I saw. I don’t think that the RSC has a monopoly on doing Shakespeare, but this ensemble, who has been working together for three years, gave fantastic performances. It’s a toss-up between whether I enjoyed Romeo better than As You Like It, but I don’t have to decide: they were both favorites! I will always remember Jonjo O’Neill as the sexist, most manic Mercutio I’ve ever seen.

More Dance than Theater (if that even makes sense!)

Sleep No More (Finally, something that is still open.) If you’re in NYC, go experience this! Imagine a theatrical dance performed throughout a six-story warehouse, which requires you to walk — no, run! — after the characters as they perform scenes in an order that has no continuity with a plot. You may wander into an apothecary, through a maze, into a graveyard where Macbeth pleads with the stars to hide their fire before a rendezvous in Lady Macbeth’s bedroom, or find yourself at a witches’ rave, or see Macbeth murder Duncan. And then there is the whole other thing happening concurrently: a nod to Hitchcock vibe with a secondary story reminiscent of Rebecca. Part do-it-yourself adventure, part film noir, part dance, part haunted house: all a lot of fun and a memorable experience. This isn’t a “play”, but it is theatre that will immerse all of your senses. I’ve “seen” it twice and would go again if I could. Wear running shoes and contacts instead of glasses; the audience must wear masks.

Who is really the performer if the audience wears a mask?

Septimus and Clarissa Part dance, part play, this was an innovative adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway. Fascinating theatre.

Its got a good beat & you can dance to it

Scene: Dick Clark, any day, the mid-60’s through the mid-70’s. You could have found me watching American Bandstand. I would sit in front of the TV, watching teens dance, observing their actions, studying their clothes, listening to the music, hoping to imbibe whatever it was that made one “cool”, something so unobtainable to me that I didn’t even know how to describe it. I suppose it is still that way: like jazz or pornography, you know it when you see it. But I can’t define it.

Rate-a-record was my favorite part of Bandstand. Two selected kids would listen to a record and then rate it. It was the part I was afraid to leave the room during commercial for fear that I would not return in time.

“Its got a good beat and you can dance to it”.

Yet, Rate-A-Record always disappointed on some level because I did not understand the opinions. In seeking “coolness”, I wanted to have the clues so that I too could rate records and know whether they were good or not, if they were worthy of some unknown-to-me, yet still subscribed to, teenage rating system. “It has a beat….”

I never learned to dance.

Sometimes, I think I feel the same way about performances that I attend. Last night, husband and I went to a chamber music concert. T knows far more about music than I would ever care to know. Yet, I enjoy going to hear music performed. After the first piece, he asked me whether I liked it. He went on to comment about how unusual a portion of the piece was for that type of music — let’s just say it was an adagio, or something like that, because it would have made as much sense if he used the word fettucini. My response could only be some equivalent of “It had a beat and …” I nodded my head and shrugged my shoulders.

At intermission, we stopped to talk to a professor I have known since I was 19. Frequently, we see him at this particular concert series, and we often exchange stories of what musical or theatrical events we have seen recently. Since this was the first concert of the season, it was the first time we had seen Bill since we went to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances in NYC last summer. “What did you think about the plays?” he asked. “I loved them” was my husband’s exuberant reply. But he quickly followed up with this: “But what do I know? I’m not a critic.”

In many ways, his response was much like mine was to him earlier regarding the violinist. But, whereas I simply said that I couldn’t discuss the music using his critical tools, it seemed to me, in retrospect, that he may have been apologizing for not having the equivalent theatrical and literary tools with which to assess. I could be wrong — we did not discuss it afterwards — but today I’m thinking about how often, as an audience member, it is easy to fall into a trap where we either only give the unsupported “I liked it” or we don’t comment at all because our experience seems less meaningful than that of a “real” critic.

How do you rate something if not on some internal continuum ranging from “Hate it” to “Love it”? I’m not talking about critical analysis but rather viewer — or listener — analysis. How do you talk about books, or theatre, or music, or art if it isn’t on how you respond to it?

I had intended to write about the plays I saw in New York last summer, but each time that I began to write, I felt that I couldn’t describe the experience in appropriate terms. I think what was stopping me was that I felt that I needed to do a critique of the performances. And I lacked the vocabulary and the expertise to do that. Besides, of the seven plays I saw, only two of them were not in their closing weeks. What was the point? It wasn’t as if I would be recommending these to someone who might choose to attend.

But maybe the point should be something else. It isn’t like the critics always review things in ways that are meaningful to me as an audience participant. Before we went to the RSC plays, we read several of the reviews. One that stands out was that King Lear was described as being a pretty good Lear for someone who hadn’t seen it before. What does that mean? Would I expect something different if I had seen Lear three or four times? Lear was the one play in the series I didn’t see. I knew when he returned from the theatre, because we had joked about the review, T would say that it was pretty good…for a beginner. The reality was that he still didn’t know what that reviewer had meant, but he did enjoy the performance. Likewise, I enjoyed the four RSC plays that I saw (Romeo & Juliet, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Ceasar), and although I can tell you which was my least favorite was Julius Ceasar and that Romeo was my favorite — even though as a play I like As You Like It better — I don’t know that I can tell you why in any sort of way that isn’t outside of my experience. Maybe I can tell you something more that “Its got a good beat…” but, like any theatrical performance, it would be up to each person who sees it to know whether she can dance to it.