Posts Tagged ‘Capitol Fringe’

Poster for Happy Few The Winter’s Tale

Dear friends and readers,

I went for a third year to a We Happy Few production: 3 years ago they managed to present a remarkable take on Hamlet in 90 minutes; last year a sophisticated modern-feeling Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. I can’t say that this year’s The Winter’s Tale is memorable for a uniquely perceptive view of the play. The play’s two parts (as cut), joyfully lightly transgressive comedy (Act 4 in Shakespeare) sandwiched between wild (Acts 1 & 2) tragedy and redemptive (Act 5) fairy tale does not leave a lot of room for psychological nuance (see Morgan Halvorsen’s review). Hannah Todd’s director’s notes in the pamphlet that serves a ticket and program showed she only came up with the idea this play is faery tale material we are supposed to believe in. An opportunity lost.

Still, they held the audience’s attention — it was a small area, they were very close to us, and they cleverly handed people sitting in the first seats props to make us all part of play. I held a tambourine for a while. The actors all had strong moments, but Nathan Bennett as Leontes, Raven Bonniwell as Hermione, Katy Carkuff as Paulina, Kerry McGee as Autolyclus (trying hard to be amoral but since she was also Perdita, not quite distinguishing the role clearly), and Kiernan McGowen Antigonus, with William Vaughn as Clown and Florizel provided the most effective ones.

MGowan as Antigonus having brought the baby in a basket to a far away seashore feels the coming tempest and hears the hungry bear

What was most striking was how six people jumped in and out of at least 18 different roles, but while in each maintained strongly projected full-blooded acting. They also had such minimal costumes, the same scarves and capes were whisked about doing duty for several garments in tandem. Laughter came easier, and the actors played for laughs where they could; it therefore seemed more spontaneous than pity, which we were not given much time for. If you were listening to what Leontes and Polixenes threatened to do to others at the turn of a coin, and remembered that monarchs could torture, kill, starve, and make a life excruciating if they pleased and sometimes did so in Shakespeare’s period, there was more to the content than manipulative metamorphorsis. There is real terror in Shakespeare’s words, real anguish and now and again this came out, especially I think from Raven Bonniwell as Hermione.

Bonnwell as Juliet in the final moments of Happy Few’s Romeo and Juliet (I could not find any photos of her in this Winter’s Tale; she doubled as Camillo and there were none of her as Camillo either)

Since I’ve been reading and listening to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I was again struck by the parallels between Henry and Leontes and Hermione and both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, especially his sexual anxiety and distrust towards the latter precisely because she held him off (humiliatingly) and then showed she knew sexual acts that he could not believe a virgin would figure out herself. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is a bold portrait of the tyrant Tudor in old age and nowadays I’m thinking that instead of placing WT with the dramatic romances from Greek stories, chronicles, and poetry (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest), we ought to see it done as a pair with Henry VIII the second half. Have the same actor play Leontes and Henry, the same Hermione and Catherine.

Nathaniel Bennett in one of Leontes’s wild murderous moods

Unfortunately, there is only one performance left but (sadly) unlike the previous two years, it seemed half the seats were empty. In the previous years, there was not one empty seat both times. I felt the actors felt this lack of people, especially given how hard they were working to make too few props and costumes go very far. So if you read this tonight and live in the DC area, consider this one. Unlike too many of this year’s events, it is located in a place in the city close to a Metro stop so you really can get there by public transportation and on foot! There was no hope of my reaching Gallaudet College I now know. I would have seen the Guillotine Theater do an adaptation of Middleton’s Second Maiden’s Tragedy as Cold as Death, but (like It’s What We Do A Play about the Occupation), it appears to have been under-rehearsed.

The move of the festival to real fringe areas of DC, with venues where there is no nearby Metro stop or frequent bus, and more scattered hurts the festival feel that a center with people selling tickets, socializing, late night cabarets gives. Maybe for those going to the cabarets and musical events on Florida Avenue (in the Brookland area of DC) the experience is as good

Fringe Preview Party at the Baldacchino Tent 6/28/2013 Capital Fringe Festival 2013
Two years ago (2013) on a preview party was held in Baldacchino Tent on H Street

Two of the plays I went to and a third and fourth I couldn’t manage but was told about as awkwardly performed by a friend (Shakespeare’s The Life of King John, done as goofy comedy) seemed more minimally staged and costumed than previous years. In early years the venues were in condemned spaces with no air-conditioning; I hope I am wrong but this year has seemed more strapped for funds than the previous couple.

So for me ends my second year of going to the Fringe Festival on my own. I enjoyed this play and Ellouise Schoettler’s The Hello Girls.


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Steve Beall (old man Tiresias), Melissa Marie Hmelinick (Tiresias as woman and his mother) and Christ Stinson (Oedipus, the boy, the king) in Stephen Spotswood’s We Tiresias

Jung Weil as Esther Parkr, Kenny Littlejohn as Chad Rollins & Hilary Kacser as Annie Tripper in adaptation of Sartre’s Huis Clos

Dear friends and readers,

We felt very good coming home from our last play (or event) of 14. We participated in this summer season as we had for the 10 months of HD operas at the Met in our local movie house. We’d again had a good time, though one of a different kind: there’d been the people in the tent, talk with other audience members who seemed to us to be very much people of our own spirit (we even met people of our own age who belonged or could belong to the Princeton club), with the people who made up the crews (mostly young). We’d gone nightly to and fro on the Metro (I bought several Smart Cards’ worth), walking about the DC Times Square area all around Gallery Place. We’d eaten out twice (I drank nearly 12 proseccos — what I couldn’t finish Jim knocked back), and of the many entertainments, all that we had seen were done with intense idealisms, on no-cost budgets (basically empty of scenery, often in condemned buildings), a testament to the human spirit and a DC community.

These last four I mean to write briefly about cannot be said to reflect our American culture just now the way the five I treated of (including Castleton representing the 1%) in my previous blog. Three were older or adaptations of classics, 2 British in origin, 1 French; and the fourth a modern re-telling of the Tiresias story which stuck close to the outline of Sophocles’s Oedipus story and the conventional view of Tiresias as a hermaphrodite.

Mitzi’s Abortion and The Outcasts of Poker Flat remain my two best, but I admit The Infinite Jest’s (actually the WSC people) produced an absorbingly effective Rosencrantz and Guildensterne were Dead, and Stephen Spotswood’s We Tiresias was brilliantly acted, probably directed and at a couple of moments personally moving for me. This No Exit needed to be more threatening, more uncanny, more chilling, and the 1960s Alice in Wonderland, has dated badly, to the point it seemed emptily whimsical (tedious), too much aimed at children except perhaps the Humpty Dumpty scene.


The real obstacle to praising R&G as much as I’d like to is it was cut down and we lost much of the player’s longer speeches, the actors he led were turned into mimes and acrobats (funny, highly theatrical) and we lost just about all Hamlet’s speeches and I did remember the splendid film version (with Oldman, Roth & Dreyfuss). They had so few props, and the supporting cast (so to speak), meaning Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia (Shakespeare’s central personages) were weak or flaccid, melodramatic at moments, wooden (the Hamlet) at others.

Nevertheless, keeping in mind these are not characters much on stage and they were further cut, within the range of the abridgement, the principals, R & G, and the player king were a marvel.

Mundy Spears as Rosencrantz & Bill Gordon as Guildenstern

Jeffrey S. Clevenger’s attractive player king (as Jennifer Georgia was perhaps more effective than the two principals). I can’t find a photo of him in costume so offer this of him as Shylock in a previous Shakespeare production:

The abridger chose to keep all the lines about death, and so the play emerged as a kind of “no exit” except through death, which is nothing, an absence, a gap, terrifying. The experience was carried by the speeches and interactions of Mundy Spears as Rosencrantz & Bill Gordon as Guildenstern. They voiced the lines with great clarity and I listened absorbed. I got a great kick out of the player king’s burlesque mockeries and reinforcements, done with panache.


The problem with No Exit, which I suggest emerged from the juxtaposition as a kind of companion piece, was the adapter and director were too concerned to persuade us we were watching dead people. The players, Hilary Kacser as Annie Tripper, Kendawg Littlejohn as Chad Rollins, and Jung Weil (also the adapter) as Esther Park were too quiet, too sombre, not theatrical enough — though I admit the photos I found remind me that there was a good deal of physical interaction (perhaps they were chosen for this.

Rehearsing with the director

In the 1990s Jim and I saw a WSC production of No Exit and I still recall Nanna Ingvarsson as Annie Tripper as smoking neurotically, never sitting still, an electrifying outpouring of virtuoso words. I think this production wase trying for the creepy, with Thomas McGrath, as the Valet as a gothic half-zombie in a suit who never blinks his eyes. The character’s memories of the evil deeds they did, the people they miss and who are missing them, the world outside the walls was seen on a movie screen through black-and-white images. We were in a world of sad and exacerbated ghosts whose torture was what they had in their minds, rather than one another.


A matching still to the one above: each of the actors dominates in turn

We Tiresias was the one that spoke personally to me. Perhaps I identified with the aging male actor, Steve Beall, who stole the show with his wry asides to the audiences, and who I’ve seen from time to time here in Washington repertoire productions (recently Marat/Sade at the Forum). He spoke of how he gets no respect, & so did I none from the female shit running the English comp department last summer (she has treated me continually with great implicit disrespect). But I also found myself entering into the case of Oedipus’s mother holding his hand as they walked about, sexually available to Oedipus as Jocasta and yes for a time Tiresias as female. I’d never seen the Tiresias story made the focus of a play; always it was on the margins, usually with John Gielgud in the role (joke alert).

It had a flaw. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern lives on because its language has content; the wit is in service of examining beliefs, norms, acting, life. We Tiresias had not enough insight through words — plays are dependent on words for their core meaning. We were supposed to enter into the emotionalism of a given character and not led to think about what was happening. The language was just not distinguished enough either — though better than the demotic supermarket interchanges of The Children of the Mist, and spoken eloquently by the players.

We can though feel for the old man left lying on the floor, the anguished stages of a woman’s life, and an Oedipus forced to admit the truth of his experiences.


The revival of the 1960s Andre Gregory’s production of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, directed and produced by Betsy Marks Delaney was disappointing and boring — I couldn’t keep my mind on it. Though I enjoy the Disney film and think it a masterpiece of a cartoon, it is meant for children, and much of what was dramatized by Delaney came from the first volume of Carroll’s book (like the Disney film). Children fear getting too big, being too small to defend themselves; the caterpillar sequence is about being bullied as a child. Though a Looking Glass is different in mood and feel; yet even there the playwright seems to me to have thrown away characters as simply eccentric. For example, the white queen. The most effective moments were Humpty Dumpty’s, his anxieties, and his sad ending.

A friend remembered that we had seen Meryl Streep play the part of Alice in this version in the 1970s. She had been so slender that she was literally carried by relays of people across the stage. Jim remembered we saw an Alice in the 1970s aimed at burlesquing this one as pretentious and silly. That’s probably not fair to this one, but honestly I couldn’t find any discernible plot-design or character development.

As the festival came to a close, I thought about how this time it seemed the plays had less money than ever for props and costumes. Many of the venues were still condemned buildings, though this time nearly all were air-conditioned — the heat there this summer is burning. The actors were eager and self-effacing. Most all had day jobs. As a society we need them, to bring us together, to show us ourselves. The people running this festival perform a large miracle each year and are insufficiently supported.


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Promotional image for Mitzi’s Abortion

Dear friends and readers,

I was saving up a few events from Capitol Fringe to make a third omnibus blog treating of four shows (See Midsummer … In Full Swing and Midsummer … Pinky Swear … Hamlet), but find that I now insensibly have somehow gone to five, never wrote about the final gala afternoon at Castleton and have another evening coming up, this time Alice in Wonderland “as conceived by the Manhattan Project under the direction of Andre Gregory.” Jim bought us what’s called bulk tickets (you get a discount this way) and we added on another, so when the 3 weekends are over, we will have seen 14! Thus I had better hurry up and write reviews thus far.

I’ve discovered the question people ask genially, concisely, is, Which are your two best? Of the five we’ve seen since I last wrote, we’ve seen a small dramatic masterpiece, a play done with hardly any props or costumes, just the actors acting their hearts and bodies out: Elizabeth Heffron’s Mitzi’s Abortion. It’s this play that prompts me to write this blog as I hope it will eventually gain a place in the American repertoire. If I include the previous 5 Capitol Fringe events, the second finest original work I’ve seen was Andrew Simpson’s Outcasts of Poker Flat. The finest adaptation of a classic, Hannah Todd’s Hamlet. A great cabaret group (without trying to compare to others): Pinky Swear.


The Young couple

Mitzi’s Abortion takes the over-wrought attitude towards abortion that has taken over the public media: the young woman who finds herself pregnant, Mitzi (brilliantly acted by Natalie Cutcher) begins by quietly doubting whether she wants to go through with this pregnancy, as it is truly inconvenient in every way: the father, Chuck (also done expertly by Christian Campbell, who alternates as an expert at a podium lecturing to us on supposed phases women go through when they are pregnant) is about to be deployed to an American war abroad somewhere; they have little money, are not married, don’t live together, the list goes on. By the end of the play, when she’s had a late term abortion (which is presented as if it’s done on a 16th century birthing stool when it’s not) of a fetus which developed in a deformed manner so it is an anancephalic non-viable entity – that is, the baby if it could survive, would be without a brain; but of course it could not as it lacks a vital organ to run a human body, when she’s had a late term abortion, I say, she saves what we are told are its bones, has these cremated and is determined to hold a funeral. She sits over this box weeping hysterically.

I half-think or would like to think that we are not simply to identify with what this girl has gone through, now feels and thinks and has become. It’s obvious she’ll never get pregnant again. She breaks up with the father — on very good grounds. In contrast, when told she is pregnant, he begins with absolute joy at this proof of his masculine prowess, a sign of just how powerful his penis is and how effective his sperm, with no doubt “they” should go through this pregnancy. (I’ve seen this use of the third person plural pronoun before — my view is the pragmatic real one: he’s not pregnant, she is.) He moves to horror at the news of what these technological tests have to say, to saying how he doesn’t blame her at all and she’ll do better next time, and maybe she needed to take better care, to demanding she carry this dead entity to term. There are other contrasting voices. Towards the end Mitzi’s father (John Kevin Boggs) is overheard telling older male friends how years ago these were women’s issues, men didn’t get involved, and he just overheard his mother going off for her “fix” (abortion) and coming back and nothing was said. She went for two such fixes, didn’t die and the family was spared all this. It’s implied that she did suffer but was also freed of nature’s cruelties and injustices. Mitzi’s mother (Elizabeth Richards Bailey) is humoring her daughter at the funeral; “whatever” you want, I’ll do to help you through this — as she did the abortion, bringing magazines, sitting with or near her daughter the whole time, no matter what berating talk the daughter aimed at her.

But I half-think not since the play dwells so insistently on this idea there’s a baby inside this girl and she begins to take on an attitude that its fate is more important than hers and her grief is treated with such dignity and serious gravity. As I watched her with that little box, I remembered (as perhaps some other women in the audience did if they have had such experiences and miscarriages are very common), my miscarriage which turned into an abortion to save my life (I was bleeding to death in a small Kendal hospital), and how I asked what caused the miscarriage and what had been done with the fetus. I was told by a British nurse that often these miscarriages are “nature’s way” of “washing away” something that was not developing right and not to worry about the fetus; it had been disssolved in the blood and was gone. I remember feeling sad but also relieved. When I was under the terrific pain of the miscarriage, I had one thought: get rid of this pain, make it stop, and they did or had.

The play included a scene with an insurance agent (Louise Schlegel) who tells the doctor the insurance people will not pay for a termination as that is not allowed. No abortions. But they will pay for care of the anancephalic baby as it lies dying, which it must. She says she hates these rules, but there they are. She suggests to Mitzi that had she not been attached to a machine to test the fetus, Mitzi would not have known anything was drastically wrong (except she had stopped gaining weight as she should have been), had the nearly stillborn baby and then it would have died. So go ahead and do that as the cheapest easiest thing.

Easiest? walk around for 3 months with a dying or dead thing in you; just then it was continually kicking as a frog would.

Mitzi’s mother goes to her church (improbable place to go, but for her to defend her daughter against this group’s prejudices was part of the point) to beg for $10,000 to cover the termination. The doctor finds a way around the rule by redefining what he’s doing (this may have been improbable) and they go through with this termination.

The play has much doubling. Louise Schlegel also plays a 16th century midwife who just turns up on the stage — a dream figure. Her arms are covered with blood scars. It seems she was burned at the stake as a witch. She did in her time try to help women abort children too. Barbara Ehrenreich has written a historical pamphlet, persuasive, arguing that huge numbers of the witch trials were ordeals inflicted on women who worked as health professionals in effect, sometimes midwives. They were blamed and by the 17th century a ferocious attempt was made to stifle them and replace them with men and institutional control of women.

John Kevin Boggs also plays Aquinas who gives us the church’s positions over the ages, contradictory. His soliloquys were filled with ironies and very funny.

What we are shown is a deeply morbid self-destructive culture. Everyone who is not a professional dresses in rather poor clothes. Entertainment is Esperanto meetings, going to fast good joints; they shop in supermarkets whose array of food choices (and magazines) is depressingly meager. Their choices are limited by their range of understanding. Chuck argues that Mitzi has no right to try to spare herself since he cannot spare himself in whatever country he is deployed in. Killing or being killed is clearly not what he would have chosen as his life’s work to have a salary and place.

I fear many leaving that theater would simply have identified with Mitzi and not realized that she was driven to bring this on herself by all the cultural artefacts, economic and social pressures, deluded norms that shape her every thought. Heffron’s play is really also a portrait of contemporary US life.


Sean Pflueger as the father with his son

Not the worse done, but the worst show I’ve seen thus far was the horror opera Jim and I saw Saturday afternoon, Sean Ffleuger’s Children in the Mist, an adaptation of a short story by the best-selling gothic-horror writer, Stephen King . We were told it was an abridgement even though it took 2 hours and was at times tedious and repetitive. Jim said the music was “uninteresting,” and when I reminded him that to me Philip Glass’s music seems endlessly repetitive, he said it wasn’t, but subtly nuanced and continually stimulating. I know Pflueger’s music felt dull and didn’t arouse me to nervousness and distress the way Glass can. It reminded me of other contemporary American operas we’ve seen in that the centers were were not individual soliloquies, but rather everyone singing apparently meditatively, a huge folk ensemble, only it did go on making me restless (while I feel I could never tire of listening to Copeland’s music). The language was demotic, very short kinds of sentences one might hear in a supermarket or drug store. The only general statements were about God and how one must live for one’s children.

It was not the music or even lack of intelligent utterance that made the opera pernicious. Rather it was the story and characters and meaning. If (as I think she meant to), Elizabeth Heffron exposed the wretchedness and delusions fostered by our cryingly (egregiously) unjust social and economic arrangements, rules, reinforced by the way we use our machines, this one made that sickness into reality that we as people cannot escape, one engineered against us by mysterious forces we can call God. It was a sick experience. I turned to ask Jim what he thought. He came out with the word “sick” first.

We probably should have left, but I was curious to see if the play had anything intelligent or redeeming about it. I had read with my students this term 3 chapters of Bob Dixon’s Catching Them Young. One of these is an analysis of popular fantasy and supernatural stories given to children: he shows these are 20th century versions of the worst aspects of religious allegories, starting with Pilgrim’s Progress. Evil is a mysterious force; people are bad, sinful and deserve to be punished; the way they can atone for what they are is passivity and obedience to their authorities, especially the Godhead. Then when they die, they are rewarded partly by escaping a violent hell. He only included authors like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien (yes), Ursula Le Guin, Madeline L’Engel and the syndicate creations like Star Trek, so I never thought about books for adults. Now I know something of why Stephen King appeals.

I could say that poor Mitzi and her family would certainly have found copies of Stephen King at their local Safeway. As Dixon says, how can such a book teach you anything helpful in getting through life with some fulfillment? There was no sense in this opera anywhere that the explanation for the evil mist enveloping the town and killing people as if they were being painfully electrocuted could be anything but God. Half the people stuck in a supermarket cling to a woman who rants over her Bible, but the other half have no argument against this half when they refuse to succumb to hysterical praying. They just look irritated and try to flee the religious fanatics; this is the best Pflueger can come up with.

The opera’s climax includes the most violent and stubborn of the religious fanatics trying to kill those seeking to flee the situation. Many die, four escape. The four get into a station wagon that is soon out of gas, so our chief hero turns around and shots them dead with a gun. (Of course everyone has guns.) He is not left standing, oh no, a military soldier suddenly runs in and tells him, all is under control and he can return to his apartment now. We are to take this as a kind of relief. All clear go the sirens.

It put me in mind of the way Muslims pray five times a day. The stoges who work for and in the American theocracy were before me. The composer had the chief role in the cast. I noticed a few people left at intermission and the applause was not strong. However, in the audience near me were some “big” people in the festival who put on plays and act in them and they appeared very proud. The auditorium was pretty full.

Best and worst? One could say Pflueger is contemporary. Two days before we saw Children of the Mist, there had been this huge circus at an Aurora cinema where thousands gathered at midnight, taking their small children, to see another supernatural fantasy about good and evil with lots of killing, only to be interrupted by someone with real powerful weaponry (intended for wars) who massacred as many people near him as he could. Children in the Mist is the weak pablum sold to the minds of the people who go to such movies, those of them who do read.


What else have we gone to at the Fringe? In the Company of de Sade, written and directed by Timothy R. King. This was actually very preachy — as is Sade. The cliched story of a group of people trying to put on a play was the core of the plot-design, and the players came out individually to tell us their sad histories of unemployment, despair, or high dreams of an acting career. There was especially at the opening obligatory transgressive sex not so much enacted but suggested symbolically. The basic text was Sade’s Philosophy of the Boudoir, and what we really saw was people bickering with one another over their discomfort with the roles they were expected to play, the conditions of employment and some of their own dreams of self-esteem, who they are.

The play is interrupted by a “Christian” woman with a gun (she had only this one pathetic gun and yet it was formidable as it could kill or wound others quickly) who loathes “free sex” and our atheistic society. Bit of black humor here. She rants and raves and finally the actors jump her and she is killed by accident. But at least silenced. Everyone is discouraged and the rehearsal ends for the evening, leaving on stage only one actor who appears to have read Sade, be sympathetic with his libertarian and anarchist ideals and the actress who has befriended him. They are left alone and lonely by this body. Curtain falls.

Had the actors not been directed to try to entertain us by becoming so loudly argumentative or amuse us by self-denigrating jokes about sexuality in general or their own, it would not have been bad. I suppose in the context of the two plays I’ve gone over in this blog the characters on the stage were at least not self-destructive, tried to keep calm and through Sade’s story and words presented complicated political ideas and the quirks of human nature driven by need, vulnerability, self-delusion. I think the play could use more work.


Maazel owns a huge swathe of land in Rappahannock

Two musical shows and one — what shall I call it — dud. I enjoyed both musical events. Jim and I discovered that when we went this past Sunday to what looked like a long program of “bleeding hunks” (Jim’s terms for this), famous arias, scenes, moments from famous operas, we had stumbled on (or least I had for I didn’t realize this is what we were going to) the graduation recital of the whole summer school. Every single young adult aspiring singer and all the young adult musicians were there, and, under the direction of their many teachers, in the lovely festival theater Loren Mazeel’s money built, they put on a smashing show.

Number after number of some of the most moving, witty, subversive, and traditional single arias, duets, trios, several singer-scenes, and two powerful monologues took about 3 hours of performing time. They began small with lighter pieces (“Cinque … dieci” from Le Nozze di Figaro), the transition was one of Jim’s favorites, Rossini’s Duetto buffo di due gatti, two young women singing miaow and hissing and making cat yowl sounds to invigorating music, and we ended with final scenes from Don Giovanni (Jim predicted the powerful baritone young man singing Leporello would indeed have a career as his voice has unique feel and range, was memorable), Eugene Onegin, Der Rosencavalier. I realized it was a graduate recital (like Isabel had only she was the only one to sing for two hours) when I realized most of the audience were parents and relatives and the young people were going home this afternoon or tomorrow.

I have increasingly ambivalent feelings about Castleton. In-between the acts, we walked onto his terrace and looked out at his 600 acres. Nearby the most picturesque of gardens, a place to boat, a fountain, all sorts of employees everywhere. We are invited to come partake of this man who is indeed representative of the 1%. He is filthy rich. He does good things with his money but because he and others have so much, the people of Mitzi’s Abortion and Children in the Mist have so little. The tickets are not cheap to Castleton and I often have the feeling of invading a particular’s man’s house. Each year the arrangements for refreshments and snacks are different; not everything is announced to everyone (games of exclusion and inclusion played). He decrees what he wants to share and what he doesn’t. Jim mentioned that Mazeel was wrong not to have subtitles or surtitles for the gala. He has the system in place. He has more money coming out of his ears than he knows what to do with. He has rebuilt the theater in the tent three times. Was it that he or his employees just couldn’t be bothered? It would have been a lot more enjoyable to me had I known what the words for in each scene. I was not there as a “proud” family member.

I rejoice for the strong heathly excellently fed dog I saw trotting along side Mrs Maazel (well fed herself, much much younger than her husband, an ex-actress) but the rest of us are called upon to take positions just to eat and have shelter whose central purpose is to protect this place, this man’s wealthy, it’s asked that we give up our lives doing bad, corrupt or just foolish things to keep this establishment going.

Pam Ward singing Somewhere over the Rainbow

Izzy came with us to this summer’s contribution by Carla Huber’s In-series folks: an evening of song by Arlen and Berlin. Jim didn’t chose the events we went to because they were in keeping with one another and would enable me to write a coherent blog, but it does turn out this way. Whoever chose the songs stuck with depression era cheer. While at first it was indeed spirit-uplifting to listen to songs like “Let’s have another cup of coffee” (another piece of pie), to be asked to smile, smile, smile did become enervating. There was not enough plangency and when the evening ended with the singers holding up signs saying that they still believed in the American dream, to a chorus of “God Bless America” this was too much.

Tellingly, it was tamely done. We needed more “The Man that Got Away” and less “I love a parade.” Fine poignant moments were the irresistible (nostalgic) “Over the rainbow” and “Last night when we were young.

Well, what was the dud? If gentle reader, you are still reading and remember my references? the one-woman show we saw last night on a (foolish) impulse it turns out: Monique Holt called her far more than one hour performance Men don’t Listen to Naked Women. She did sign that line but it had no thematic shaping. We found ourselves in a show meant for deaf people; Holt signed everything and a man spoke the language for the sign-impaired. It seemed to me she was taking advantage of the enjoyment deaf people seemed to be having of a performance done in sheer signs. She didn’t need to have a real program (so to speak). It was slapstick, with occasionally superficially innuendoes; she made comedy out of people who smell. I noticed the couple of times she even came near something controversial (like the banks being bailed out to the tune of billions and not yielding an inch to stop foreclosures), she punted; she hesitated and seemed to sign how she wasn’t really angry at what had happened. It was a contentless hour. Did she think her audience doesn’t have any information?

My two worst (another version of this question people ask one another under the Baldachinno tent), if I take the previous 5 we went to into account, was this Men Don’t and Madame (the lame musical about Helena Rubenstein at least had a reasonable story, was trying to show something of the woman’s life and character). Men don’t show cost us more than usual as we didn’t buy it as part of our bulk.

What happened was we did miscalculate time intervals. After Mitzi’s Abortion we had a lovely yummy meal in a Chinese restaurant on Chinese restaurant row, which is near the center of the Fringe where the ticket booth and the baldacchino tent are, and the two shows we had bought for. We had egg rolls, a single eggplant claypot we shared, beer for him and white Riesling wine for me. But there were more than two hours in-between and we thought we might get bored sitting in the tent and I can’t walk that much and it was not that cool anyway. Turned out we would have done better to sit said tent which was at the time right next to a repeat performance of Pinky Swear. We could have heard it clearly and drunk more Prosecco together.

Next time we’ll know better and stick with our planned choices. Four more to go.


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Karen Lange reading entries aloud (Pinky Swear)

Dear friends and readers,

We’ve seen four more productions, and, as might be expected, since we are going to twice as many this year as we went to last (Izzy is going with us but 3 times and last time she went to nearly all), we did at last find ourselves at a real dud. But we’ve also had two memorable, so alive, stirring, and very contemporary experiences.

Pinky Swear is an all girls’ band, raunchy, angry, sexy; they are “in your face” in the way they apparently break all sexual taboos. They don’t quite break all, but they break several: dildos abound; they get into quarrels, they insult one another, are sarky, their songs range from a desire to fuck or be fucked, to grating irritation with the nature of life, to (sometimes) romantic longing and muted heartbreak. Masturbation is the way to go as you can do it anytime. If you can’t have the one you love, love the one you’re with was this year’s theme.

All four: Karen in the back, next to her Allyson Harkey the guitarist Christina Frank, and with the black tambourine Toni Rae Brotons

Last night (Thursday), there were three young men with them as support band, and sometimes they played music from the 60s and 70s; while I enjoyed these (they were written before the performers were born), I thought the electrifying moments came from the contemporary music, the stances the girls took.

The witty and wry Karen Lange who read aloud slips of paper on which members of the audience were asked to write the “weirdest place they had sex.” The weird experiences were not that transgressive, or odd or wild. One read loud: “We had sex under a bush in Central Park. The gravel underneath was a problem.” That prompted jokes about what positions the gravel would make most uncomfortable. Then there was a second on having sex in Central Park, and Karen remarked Central Park must be a busy place at night. The singers said they were going to put some of these on face-book, but I could not find any. An informative pdf. They were in the large (but un-air-conditioned) Baldacchino Gypsy Tent next to one of the central bars and meeting places of the Fringe.

Since the tent is across the street from the (famed) restaurant, poets-reading and performing theater space, Busboys and Poets, Jim and I went there for our dinner afterward. I had a pizza, scotch and ginger ale, and Jim had beer and burger and fries. The night was hot, but there was a breeze, and we sat outside under an awning near a working fan and were happy.


Tonight (Friday) we saw a spectacularly well-acted Hamlet. Powerful, fast-moving sizzling performances, especially by 1) Christ Genebach who was Hamlet and his father’s ghost, and the player king: he was just magnificent; his face and gestures reminded me again and again of Ralph Fiennes; and 2) Sandy Gainum as Gertrude and the Gravedigger, she probably was directed to be this sentimental and shocked Gertrude when Hamlet comes to her in her bed to tell her not to go to bed with Claudius, but otherwise she was sharp, gesturing and face just right, ever on the move. Raven Bonniwell did another unlikely doubling of Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Osric and was particularly good in the first two. As Laertes Billy Finn was violent emotionally as well as physically. The final duel is not with swords, but fists and the two men murder one another with blunt knives.

Directed by Hannah Todd, it was said to be much shorter than the original, abridged. And it ran only 1 hour and 40 minutes, but that is not just one hour (as most of the events are) and a lot was included. Horatio was the only major character cut; they chose to sweat lines rather than cut whole soliloquies. The director’s notes said she saw the play as a violent one, an outcropping of Hamlet’s feverish imagination, trapped by his own fantasies. The play began with Hamlet half-dreaming on the floor and ended with him dead in the same posture. He and all the players were driven people. I felt we really experienced the play. There was no intermission and that helped sustain the move.

Chris Genebach as Hamlet

Everyone clapped hard, and people stood for the performers whose lines had come so swiftly and naturally (it seemed) off their tongues. The company calls themselves the Flashpoint theater and their specialty is similarly abridged classics. Lauren Katz also thought it one of the strongest productions of Hamlet she’d seen in a while.


You can’t win ’em all. Wednesday night we went to a musical based on the life of Helena Rubinstein in America, Madame it was called. The performers had worked very hard, the costumes were lovely, the choreography was well-worked out; the problem was the content of the lyrics and “book” and story line. Excruciatingly lame, sentimental where they should have been prosaic, including even a love duet which belonged to Carousel, and a major male role going to an actor who was wooden and couldn’t sing.

Apparently the management of the whole festival is aware of which shows are not likely to please or lure an audience, as this one was held in small basement room of a church, there were few chairs, and even these were not filled up. To be fair, here’s a reviewer who saw some good things in the show and tries to like it

Two of the actor-singers rehearsing


Not as tedious (we stayed at Madame because we felt we’d hurt the actors-singers’ feelings), but their musical rock show nowhere as good as last year (Finn McCool) and last year not as good as the spectacular brilliance of the year before (Oreisteia), Dizzy Miss Lizzy Doing the Brontes was something of a disappointment. The idea of each rock show has been the same: interweave some story or intense anguish or misery with the upbeat of hard rock. This time it was the Brontes and I’ll give it to them, they didn’t pollyanna the story of these four finally unlucky geniuses. The frustrated outcast Branwell became an alcoholic; Anne died so young; Emily unable to integrate at all into any social life and dying fairly young; and Charlotte left alone, also unable to build a life of fulfillment with people gifted like herself, also dying, of a miscarriage; their isolated lives as children on the moors.

Narrator, Branwell and accompaniment

Izzy came with us and I can’t better her commentary.

It’s true that Jim and I probably didn’t get all the jokes because we didn’t recognize some of the pop references. It’s hard for me to believe I was the only person in that tent besides the performers who had heard of Anne Bronte — does no one watch PBS movies? there was a splendid Tenant of Wildfell Hall, with real stars in the leading roles, and on most of the listservs I’ve been on, admittedly literary ones, people have read this and/or Agnes Grey (a governess story). I was the only person to clap and call Yay! when “Anne Bronte” came forward and told us the titles of her novels. A woman sitting next to me told me she had never heard of Branwell Bronte, so I recommended Daphne DuMaurier’s powerfully passionate The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte, which reprints what is left of his poetry. Considering the lamentable state of ignorance then about the Brontes, I suppose it’s picky of me to complain Dizzy Miss Lizzy did not seem to know that Emily was a great poet, but still I wish they had known it. Some of her verses set to rock might have stirred the audience.


Redbreast, early in the morning
Dank and cold and cloudy grey,
Wildly tender is thy music
Chasing angry thoughts away.

My heart is not enraptured now,
My eyes are full of tears,
And constant sorrow on my brow
Has done the work of years.

It was not hope that wrecked at once
The spirit’s calm in storm
But a long life of solitude,
Hopes quenched and rising thoughts subdued,
A bleak November’s calm.

What woke it then? A little child
Strayed from its father’s cottage door,
And in the hour of moonlight wild
Laid lonely on the desert moor.

I heart it then, you heard it too,
And seraph sweet it sang to you;
But like a shriek of misery
That wild, wild music wailed to me.

I go out to plays, to operas, see movies, look at pictures, listen to music, even walk in landscapes for the same causes I read. These experiences are meaningful to me, speak to me at some level that counts, help me endure. Funnily of these four, the one I came away with repeating an idea the artists had voiced was Pinky Swear. Karen had a song whose refrain was you end where you start out, find yourself what you were. That’s my case. Soon I shall be driven to retire (they are beginning to harass me at GMU because they want me to turn my English humanities into a business computer-based course and I cannot) and I find I end where I began.

Just being me, living alongside Jim, and the real irony is what I love after the few human beings who I am attached to and whom I hope are attached to me are books precisely those I started out with (Austen among them) and a set of 18th century historical romances, whose hero and heroine were norms for me in my conscious teenagehood: the Poldark series.

It’s not that Hamlet does not have much to say. But I’ve read and seen the play so many times it’s hard to have a fresh reaction. Maybe I did tonight. When Hamlet took Yorick’s skull, and said to his imaginary lady, to this you will come, I identified. I’ve few teeth, bad feet, my lower back hurts, my hair grey, my handwriting is terrible (when I go to make a letter it’s hard to make it come out clearly and often I will write another letter or number than the one I consciously intend), I’ve forgotten multiplication tables (and never could do percentages, fractions, long division), I can’t read late into the night or watch movies without napping, when I get on the Metro people actually immediately get up to give me a seat. Yes to that I am coming.

Do people know Sylvia Plath also drew? yes, lovely touching drawings of everyday things, houses, street scenes. Here’s a pair of shoes I can no longer wear except for a few minutes at a time unless the miracle of really soft leather is achieved.

Sylvia Plath, Large Size Shoes (maybe she thought she had “big feet”)


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Pandora (Madeline Whiting) — one of the Impressionable Players

Dear friends and readers,

The Capital Fringe Festival — 3 weeks of plays, concerts, events of all cultural sorts — has begun, and we went to the first of six events we’ve chosen for ourselves. It was truly delightful and I recommend even hurrying out to see Pandora written by Shawn and Ann Fraistat, directed by Ann Fraistat and inimitably — with panache, intensity and much body language — performed by the Impressionable Players. As the happy ending was thoroughly announced, I felt myself feeling better about life than I have in quite a while. As the players insisted, there is some good to enjoyed, some hopes will probably be enacted.

The story is super-complicated because they combined the Pandora myth with two vexed romances (these influenced by Shakespearean to witty romantic comedy), a comic power-mad couple, a chorus and did not omit an appearance of a numinous hieratic (and unreasonable) god. Mostly things were frantic, perplexing to the characters and going downhill while most of them meant intensely well. An important source of laughter and pleasure was the language or style of the play: done in modern popular lilting phrases that echoed rhythms of sentences and stances we hear all around us. An ingenious use of minimal props made for more wild semi-realistic (in the classic play sense) fun. I suppose the modern genre the piece belongs to is farce.

Important were the continual allusions to today’s pop culture, sometimes by references — like zombies — but often by what was literally done or said or felt. Jim’s favorite joke was the final one from Chorus: he’s going to open a restaurant. Which gets me to what at the core made for the odd delight and suspense: in various ways what was happening and said was continuously slightly wacky. We were ever slightly off-base, all the characters oddly lunatic in a modern turn kind of style. Poor Eris (Katie Jeffries), the girl in love with Nikodemos (Jayma Bell, a virtuoso performer, he also did the gods) was terribly upset that her lifelong devotion to Niko was going for nothing as he suddenly preferred to marry Pandora (the group naif). The way Eris talked about her life and need for this marriage reminded me of Bridget Jones, except (alas) at the end she underwent a kind of comic ritual humiliation (yes ladies and gentleman that was not skipped) where she almost drowned. Saved by the non-macho very dumb but ever-so-sweet hero, Megas (Matt Sparacino) who kept bumping into furniture, Megas seemed to me a fugitive from Four Guys and a Wedding in state of confusion. And so it went. I can’t quite say what angle it was that was making fun of all our norms but I sensed it was continually there while the norm not really overthrown.

On her blog, Russian Roulette, Izzy brought out precisely how this play deviated from the old misogynistic pattern and how it remained a black comedy while insisting that life has some good and hope in it.

From their site online, I could see the group of young adult doing this play are themselves very hopeful and work so hard to make this succeed. How long will such idealism last? What kind of lives will they have individually at last?

Studio theater where the play played is fiercely air-conditioned, so you will be comfortable. Today in Washington DC the air felt hot as one walked, burning on your skin. It was the kind of day where even at 4:30 pm as we walked to the theater I felt were I bread, I would’ve risen. I cannot understand the insistent hypocrisy of people who say how beautiful such a day it is. They know it’s not because they say it while sweating and diving into just such a cooled building. I mention this because last year we saw a few plays in places not just not air-conditioned, but without fans or adequate ventilation. The fringe is done on the cheap.

The walk from where we parked our car (about 3 blocks away) showed us how gentrified this area has become. It was once dangerous and uncomfortably sordid to walk through. Now it is so orderly, clean, filled with circling roads around tiny parks (with monuments and a few benches), and variously picturesque and pompous houses, it becomes too denuded of people. Not Studio theater (I should add): the auditorium for Pandora was chock-full and lots of people were in the lobby talking and drinking. Nor the restaurants all around: they too filled with people.

The atmosphere uptown (so to speak) contrasted with another festival downtown Izzy and I had been to earlier in the day about 2 hours: folk-like along the mall just behind the Smithsonian museum. It was more than a matter of class and ethnicity and taste: it was modern world uptown (with its downsides) and older world downtown (with its).

We met with a group of online friends and were taken around by a curator (very nice) to the three parts of this huge fair: one was made up of little exhibits of what seemed village life in Columbia (South American), one of huge tents of people making very noisy rock and rhythms and blues music (filled with chairs and aisles to dance in), and one which seemed a huge ad for the peace corps which was presented as an idealistic enterprise (one young woman showed us how she made walls with thrown-away plastic bottles) though nowadays to get into it you must have elite connections, spend huge sums, and through patronage take what place you can get even if your education is being thrown away. Izzy told me that Peace Corps women are not protected from sexual harassment or rape. It probably is true that the culture really created by the Peace Corps is an internal one of its own that the people within it experience.

There was also a certain phoniness about the stance as native life is poor, native people exploited (so the crowd if asked individually and were honest might not admire what they see), the objects craft-like matter, but the curator made a good case for respecting the underlying principles of particular exhibits. One on Shea soap was showing us how hitherto once exploited women now run their own factory. But I wondered how many actually do this and how many are still employed at peon’s wages, work in poor conditions and so on.

I grant it’s not easy to come up with visuals in small booths and there were numerous museum type people on hand to explain what we were supposed to understand from what we were seeing. In two years the curator said she and her museum directors are going somehow to embody the struggle of linguists to rescue languages becoming extinct and with them whole cultures. They’ll have to have movies as well as lectures and people in some tents telling inspirational stories.

Worst and best: Izzy and I found the music way too loud and I for one thought the lyrics in the worst possible taste: one man was shouting at us to get a life and there seemed not many options on offer to do this. The place had crowds milling about and all the Metro stations nearby were filled with people. A horse standing in the sun in a kind of sandbox. Best: here and there the process by which some product we use daily was shown us. Here and there some lovely object — like carved small guitars. The apparent idealism of some of the people.

I did understand why Izzy felt depressed as we got onto the station. It was on the whole disillusioning. These festivals began in the 1960s (Kennedy’s presidency) around the time the Peace Corps was invented. The festival is probably intended to foster pride in DC communities, respect for other cultures than the middle class capitalistic white. From the aspect of US foreign and domestic policy it doesn’t succeed. What should have been done was massive aid genuinely directed at the individual peoples of the world, a stop to the ugly repressive militarism, and within the US genuine spread of socialist reforms. There were a few during Johnson’s presidency: the civil rights act, medicare and medicaid. (Probably a pittance had gone into setting up this festival.) We see today the pests who run congress doing all they can to destroy whatever does genuine good for wide groups of people in order to make a tiny minority super-rich and powerful. (Imagine a country where a group of loud-mouthed nasty pests get in charge of the center of power and proceed to do all they can to destroy the prosperity and liberty of over 90% of the citizens and you have the US today and its Republican congress. Why do the majority of the citizens not put them in jail? Jim’s response was many countries have pests in charge. Pest was Thomas More’s term [he of the Utopia] for soldiers in the Renaissance; he said the type personality who goes in for this are among the evils of human nature that ruin life for everyone else.)

So, an active day where I was glad to met up with a couple of familiar faces, experienced some reality checks, and was rejuvenated by remarkably intelligent well-done art, but also had a salutary reminder why I value my quiet peaceful home and life and (whether anyone would agree with me or not) feel I’m doing constructive meaningful work. We drove home, brought in Chinese food, and sat with wine and had good talk, mostly about the Pandora and other Greek myths afterward.


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One of the puppets: the muslim abductor of Melisendra (also represented a puppet, a lovely romance lady in a medieval-like pink dress), from Master Pedro’s Puppet Show (at Castleton festival)

Lonny Smith, Maris Wicker, Love Noir: the music of Lenny, Kurt and Harold (cabaret at Capitol Fringe)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve got five summer music occasions to record. All were marvelous in themselves — if made somewhat difficult to enjoy by the excessive heat we had to endure this year.

We returned twice to Castleton Festival. You may remember we went there three time last summer: for Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Rape of Lucretia, and The Beggar’s Opera. The fabulously rich Loren Maazel (remember our tax rates) has a kind of home which seems to come out of film adaptations, complete with beautiful gardens and a manor house at the center. High minded, generous, he’s built an opera house, concert hall, open plaza for music making and with some philanthropic organizations, supports a month and one half effort to bring together students, teachers, professionals to make music and present their efforts to the public.

The first time was early in July: for Puccini’s Il trittico: brilliant, entertaining and long (over 5 and one half hours) production of 3 one-act operas; Il Tabarro, Gianni Schicci, and Suor Angelica.

I had never seen any of these three operas before; I was told that often only 2 of the 3 are done. Not only did they do all three, but the production design was ambitious and the presentation of the operas effective: singing, acting, thematic projections, all wonderful.

Puccini has now gone up some more in my estimation. I’ve loved Boheme, and think Madame Butterfly used to be underrated — not any more since it’s post-colonial (the word was not in use but is appropriate) expose of the cruelty of the upper class whites, and strong emotional support for the heroine coerced to giving up her baby son relevant to us today. His music in these thrills me and I usually cry.

Now I see he can have political content. I’ll describe the operas, last first and first last.

The rigorous cruelty of Suor Angelica’s family to her, the nunnery’s complicit reinforcement, all drive the nun mad by the end, she kills herself but not before she has this delusionary vision. It makes Diderot’s Nun into a book about cheerful kind people — only that of course Diderot’s critique is explicit, unmistakable and Puccini’s only implicit. It’s was there though and felt in this production.

Gianni Schicci was done in modern Suburban dresses, New Jersey circa 1950 (or maybe a TV image) and became an overt funny satire on modern bougeois hypocrisies and greed.

I did not know the famous beautiful song (O mio babbino caro — sung by Kiri Te Kanawa in the Merchant-Ivory Jhabvala Room with a View) not only comes from this opera, but is made fun of in it. The whole context is ironic even if the heroine sincerely buys into this romantic love.

And I liked that the central character is found in Dante and Puccini makes it explicit he rejects Dante’s rejection of this fixer.

Puccini’s Gianni Schicci (Castleton Festival)

Jim tells me that the central story actually occurred: there really was a rich dying man whose relatives were desperate because they weren’t sure he made his will out in their favor, and they paid Gianni Schicci to pretend to be him and produce a fake will. I think he gave himself the fortune — or the relative who hired him, and Dante puts him in the 30th circle of hell, way down where it’s freezing, as a forger.

Il Tabarro is verismo, with the husband murdering the lover of his erring wife, very well done here, particularly the man who sung the husband and acted the part of a jealous desperate man powerfully.

The three operas were linked by this production: all swirling about death: including horror at death (the scream of the wife in La Tabarro when she sees the corpse of her love is memorable for a while afterwards); death offering peace in death, oblivion (the nun), or terror at hell and mad suicidal impulses (the nun again); and not-that-comic exploitation out of greed and cheating (wills), and how we react to corpses too (once we get over it, we are not all that fussy as seen in the way the old man’s body is treated in Gianni Schicci).

Today we went to a double bill: Igor Stravinsky’s dark dance piece, A Soldier’s Tale (about an hour and ten minutes long) and the very amusing operatic dramatization of an incident from Don Quixote by Manuel De Falla, Master Pedro’s Puppet Show

The opera theater at Castleton

The Soldier (from another production, Castleton is very stingy about releasing pictures)

A Soldier’s Tale is a dark anti-war, anti-capital, anti-modern anonymous world fable. A soldier tries to return to his village, and on the way is tricked, hounded, harassed, and repeatedly bullied and intimidated into going through soldier-like routines. There was no singing, rather shouting orders, much percussion, electric lights, props which look like the silver tables you see people on in hospitals. This part went on too long, and began to feel like revelling in one-on-one violence.

The high point was a dance: in the first part one of the harassers is said to be the devil; in the second the soldier returns to his village and there meets a sleeping princess, who he awakens from what seems an abject neurotic disturbed trance, and they dance a modern dance. It seems like they will become lovers and know some happiness, but at the last moment, he disappears and she turns back to become curled up on her table again, like a fetus.

The idea seemed to be that one does not get over such traumatic wounds as the world inflicts on people. It was vigorous, and people applauded the hard work of the four people on stage, but in comparison with the strong applause, clapping, laughter and sounds of delight at Master Pedro’s Puppet Show one could see the audience was respectful, edified, but put off by the Stravinsky’s angular austerity.

Picasso, Don Quixote (again I was only able to find but one photo of one puppet online and that not the most important)

What was remarkable was for once Don Quixote was not presented as a noble idealist seeking a profound dream, but a destructive madman. At the same time he was not presented reductively, as a silly despised figure: the man playing Don Quixote himself thinks he is behaving with stern uprightness, is passionate, well-meaning, if crazy. In other words, the production was faithful to the tone and spirit of Cervantes’ text.

The audience first sees two Spanish looking men sit down to watch a puppet show and gradually it’s revealed one of them is taking a romance lady girl puppet dreadfully seriously. When she runs away with her puppet husband from the puppet abductor, the madman gets so excited he destroys the theater, many of the puppets, and Master Pedro’s livelihood. Tyler Nelson (tenor) as Master Pedro sung and acted effectively as did Paul LaRosa (baritone) as Quixote, Richard Pittsinger as the young boy as the narrator of the show.

The fun was probably in watching the set get torn down. Seeing the actors wreak havoc on the puppets and puppeteers, a kind of primitive reveling in breaking down the illusion so at the end the flimsy shell is gone and we see through to all the workings supporting the puppets. The Dulcinea puppet was protected by a turned-over table.

Other Puppets from the Puppet Kitchen

We did come in time for part of the pre-performance talk: it was by the puppeteers who call themselves The Puppet Kitchen, in which they talked of why people respond to puppets. We laugh at their limitations, and enjoy the imitation. It’s primitive: put eyes on the face and to us it comes alive. In fiction and films we enjoy and will endow non-animate objects with human qualities. It goes deeper than this: I’ve seen a withdrawn child brought out by a psychologist who the child would not interact with or talk to, suddenly bring out a hand puppet, and the child gradually talk to, play with, even become animate with the puppet. The puppet seems harmless, rather like a small animal the child (by virtue of size too) can feel safe with.

They would not tell anything of the plot first so that hampered their talk. The usual stupidities about “spoiling” our enjoyment masked a desire to say as little as possible of their trade. This instinct for secresy may be thought to protect their property; in fact few are anxious to become puppeteers; it’s a hard way to make a living. The lack of pictures of their work just prevents them from becoming known. (Cutting off their noses to spite their faces.)

We stayed this evening to hear the final all Beethoven concert. This enabled us to eat out in Griffin Tavern, excellent restaurant in Flint Hill specializing in British food, lovely meal, effective wine, yummy desert. We also got to talk to more people by staying, fellow Alexandrians and others. The concert was probably excellent but I was tired. As it was the last evening of the festival, I thought to end on Beethoven’s heroica for the summer was right. Lorin Maazel got rounds and rounds of strong applause and he looked happy. He wants this festival to continue and be part of his legacy.

The other two good times were had at the Capitol Fringe. On Friday night we went to a moving as well as deft, ironic, wry Cabaret of “Love Noir” sungs drawn from American musicals mostly by Lonny Smith and Maris Wicker:

the songbooks of Leonard Bernstein (best known for writing the music for the classic Broadway shows West Side Story, On the Town and Wonderful Town), Kurt Weill (composer of “Mack the Knife” and “Sing Low”), and Harold Arlen (composer of the score for The Wizard of Oz including the classic American standard “Over the Rainbow”). The songs chosen for this 60-minute show range from beloved classics such as “If I Only Had a Heart” from Wizard of Oz and “Something’s Coming” and “Cool” from West Side Story to lesser known selections including “Dissertations on the State of Bliss

It should have been unqualifiedly wonderful as the two people sang beautifully, I usually come near tears for “Over the Rainbow” and love the saturnine ironies of “Mack the Knife” and subversive plays on real love in some of the other songs. Bernstein is exhilarating.

Alas, the small brick inside room of a old condemned building was not air-conditioned for real; the two machines were pushing cool air in streams which quickly dissipated and I (and others) were bathed in sweat by the end. The Festival really has to put all its shows in large airy or air-conditioned places.

You might say we wished we were having a good time, and honored the two singers the more for carrying on gallantly in such conditions. It feels ungrateful to criticize them for awkwardnesses or lack of eye contact and the occasional off-note.

The fifth musical performance (sixth opera) was another 20th century opera, Thomas Passatieri’s Padrevia performed by Opera Alterna. This was a powerful one hour production of a Boccaccio story.

It’s the story of a young woman, Gismondo (Daniele Lorio) who is kept in the house and not allowed to socialize or see anyone by her father, Tancred (Tad Czyzewski) who secretly nourishes an incestuous passion for her. She meets (as the only half-eligible male around) the gardener (Siddhartha Misra), they gradually become lovers. The father suspects, then catches them in the act, has the gardener killed, and his heart cut out and brought to his daughter. She bathes herself in the blood, drinks it and a vile poison; Tancred comes and finds her, and lays his body over hers in an anguished agon of sexual desire and despair.

As I watched her keening over that horrifying heart, I realized I had seen one just like it earlier in the festival: in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Annabella’s heart is carved out and placed before her brutal husband (remember it’s called a “woman’s tragedy” and the accent was on sister, daughter, wife and female servant abuse). The Renaissance was as brutal as our era, and lacking guns and exquisite technologically precise weapons, they resorted to direct savage cruelty. The torn-out heart, beheaded head, gouged eyes are motifs found in Renaissance plays. Shakespeare both uses (Lear) and makes fun (Cymbeline) of them.

The set was simple, singing superb, theatrics effective, and the story and archetypal characters carried it

Daniele Lorio (a promotional photo)

At this performance we met an old friend, an older man with a long white beard I’ve seen repeatedly at the Washington Shakespeare Theater and other plays (Stage Door) Jim and I go to. An intelligent man he told us of his adventures this time and for years back. We shared experiences. He had bought a season ticket for $300 and on some days saw 4 productions. He thought that perhaps 40% were superior, and told us about the Washington Shakespeare new theater in Arlington and we may just go as their line-up of older and new classics is really pleasing.

We are not yet done with our summer music: in less than two weeks we go to Wolf Trap for a picnic outdoors and inside the theater, Britten’s dark fantasy Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The use of extreme states of mind, high violence, primal archetypes, and wild generic fantastical modes makes modern operas astonishing experiences. Consider how few go to these, how people instead may be found in huge numbers in front of banal tediously repetitive programs on TV.

A small note of pleasure: on the porch or portico outside the opera theater in Castleton amid the lush greenery, oneiric lake, and picturesque staged levels of Maazel’s Pemberley-like grounds were a number of tiny kittens, some sleeping, others eating the food and water left in scatted places, and still others coming up to people to nudge and be petted.

Latest photos of Clarissa-Marianne and Ian aka Little Snuffy, our full-grown cat-friends whom we return home to each day and night


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Medea (Melissa Fenton), Euripides’s Medea, Englished

Annabella (Jessica Shearer Wilson), ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Dear Friends and Readers,

We know it’s summer. Weeks of 90 plus degree heat, many days “feeling like” over 100 (because of high humidity), a glaring sun that burns my skin if I am so foolish as to get into my non-air-conditioned car between 11 and 4, sweat trickling down from my breasts to my waist under my ever-so-thin or halter-like tops. So we didn’t need the Capitol Fringe to make it official; nonetheless, its revival for a sixth year marks the season as high summer.

This year we bought for 7 events and have thus far gone to 5. Two have been outstanding. John Ford’s <‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was acted with intense bravura and the terrific energy needed to carry this wild tragedy into half-hysterical farce, the mode of many a Jacobean play. I’ve taught 3 not Shakespearean ones, Middleton’s Women Beware Women and The Changeling (there’s a film! with Hugh Grant before he was type-cast as comic), Webster’s Duchess of Malfi; and seen (in NY) Women Beware Women (with Patti Lapone in the frighteningly evil woman’s role, now featuring Harriet Walter in London), Tourner’s Revenger’s Tragedy (by our own local Washington Shakespeare Company at Clarke theater) and gone to dramatic readings (Webster’s White Devil) and watched others on TV. So I have some knowledge and a comparative basis.

What distinguished this one was some strong acting (top performances by Wilson as Annabella, Evan Crump as Giovanni, Terence Ashelford as Vasques and Prairie Griffith as the Nurse):

Nurse and Vasques

As Annabella’s nurse, Griffiths really spoke the lines naturally and she was very very funny; as the man ready at the drop of a coin to kill anyone especially for his boss (a typical Jacobean type), Ashelford combined cynicism and loyalty in the right amounts.

Also high brutal savagery with short swords, clever symbolic costumes & stage business.

Here’s the story. And the point: this is the one play in the whole of the utter transgressive, taboo-breaking corpus that makes incest central. It’s there in a number of plays: Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy where a brother sells his sister’s sexual services to the king and then goes mad with jealousy; in The Duchess of Malfi where a brother cannot bear for his sister to marry; in Hamlet, but Laurence Olivier has been unusual in stressing that. It opens with atheism, carries on with adulterous betrayals between male friends.

What made this one unexpected was how it dwelt on the abuse of Annabella. She is really drawn in by Giovanni, then subject to a coerced marriage, then beat up continually and ferociously by her husband, it feels far in excess of his jealous rage over her pregnancy. It became a study in wife, daughter, sister abuse. The nurse too: when she hears her eyes are to be gouged out after she has faithfully meant to help her mistress by telling some truths, she gets a Lear-like look. It’s the immediate betrayal in the scene that gets you.

They also seemed to realize Giovanni was a sort of Hamlet figure breaking through oppression if half-crazed, not caring enough for his sister, only his sexual appetite:

Ere I’d endure this sight, to see my love
Clipped by another[marriage], I would dare confusion,
And stand by the horror of ten thousand deaths.

Giovanni with Annabella

They got Annabella’s guilt right:

Brother, dear brother, know what I have been,
And know that now ther’s but a dining-time
‘Twixt us and our confusion . . .

[Remember the atheistic doubt as this line longs for death]

Perhaps they might have gone a little slower and allowed us to savour Annabella’s final soliloquy:

Pleasures, farewell, and all ye thriftless minutes Wherein false joys have spun a weary life!
To these my fortunes now 1 take my leave.
Thou, precious Time, that swiftly rid’st in post
Over the world, to finish up the race
Of my last fate, here stay thy restless course,
And bear to ages that are yet unborn
A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy.

The other woman’s tragedy we saw was one whose central story everyone knows some version of, Euripides’ Medea (in an uncredited English translation). I really thought Michael Burke’s production (he did lights, staging, directing) near perfect.

Again I have some knowledge: I’ve taught the play several times in Paul Roche’s excellent translation, read enough on Euripides to understand what a radical and woman-sympathizer he can be, and recently on WWTTA we read and discussed Liz Lochhead’s translation, from a production of which this photo of Fiona Shaw as Medea and Jonathan Cake as Jason comes:

One of the “interpretations” by Burke of the Euripides play was to put the accent on tenderness (yes) and love. Medea loves her children passionately and kills them out of madness and a desire to protect them and keep them to herself as much as revenge. In the original she also wants to strike hard at Jason and (the line in Euripides runs) and in Paul Roche’s translation (which I’ve taught three times) it is Englished: “now you’ll take me seriously.”

It’s hard to get people to take things seriously. In this production the line is “now you’ll not mock me.” Not as good I think :).

Jason was also played as a man still in love with Medea, at least wanting to go to bed with her. There’s a scene where they come close to kissing and that would be a prelude to love-making but both suddenly draw back. I’ve never seen it done that way before. If you will look at our groupsite page, you will see that there is something of this in Shaw’s posture.

It’s a kind of motif I’m seeing in films recently: the crashingly arguing couple get close and nearly fall to love-making (Joe Wright’s 2002 P&P does it for the famous rejected proposal between Darcy and Elizabeth, in this one in the rain).

In Burke’s production, Jason was also doing this marriage as the socially networking thing to do for him and her, if she’d only see it this way. At one point (funny) she says to him, so you’re saying you can now give me references. I laughed aloud at that one. The play became contemporary; I could see Jason nagging her to get her interview act together, find “headhunter” and smooch and crony away.

He was despicable, contemptible and the final scene of her maddened with grief, and him enraged at her, full of pity for himself was just right. The feathers are the blood she’s spilt for him:

The chorus was dressed terrifically: like nightmare comedia d’art figures, also in crazy feathers. They wore details suggestive of animals, of weird madness in asylums, of kupie dolls:

Izzy felt it became too noisy at points and missed hearing some of the lines. She had some justice there, but the use of colorful electricity and wild lights had an electrifying effect when the noises (musical effects on a tape) became savage:

I wish I could speak as highly about the other 3 events we’ve seen. The audience for Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s Roadside Review was large (crowded in), testimony to how good they were last year.

The problem is it’s very hard to come up with a brilliant new show inside a year, especially when you are working for money or going to school elsewhere and underfunded. For me and some of the people around me they worked hard but they were mostly noise and antics signifying not much. The applause was very mild.

On the other hand, maybe my lack of responsiveness came from my being older, and not getting the references. Have a look at what Izzy wrote

. . . it was still loads of fun, even if I had to explain to mom afterwards that the druidess had been reciting a Beatles song-which pretty much sums of the spirit of the show right there. In the end, the hero even triumphed through the Power of Rock, combined with a healthy dose of the Power . . . actually, on second though, I won’t give it away. We were even invited the sing along with the group number. I recognized several of the performers from the previous year, especially Felicia Curry, who, armed with the sad number, really brought the tent down this time. They’ll be doing another one of their revues in the Signature, but sadly I’ll be in New York by then.

Likewise, Lysistrata: The Musical had all the actors working so hard, meaning so well, and there the politics were just so humane meaning (ultimately), but to me it was crude (constant shouting about penises, vaginas) and filled with humiliations for the men by leeringly Amazonian women. Jim said what I wasn’t liking was Aristophanes: his play is in bad taste. Several of the scenes, one where a wife jumps on top of her husband, he frantic to have sex, and she keeps stopping to add a pillow or blanket is straight from Aristophanes. The audience seemed to like the performance though — they laughed and cheered at different stunts. To me what they were doing to one another on the stage enacted the same norms as the war they were all decrying.

I do want to put in a good word for the one-woman Dorothy Parker evening at Bus Boys and Poets Corner (a large lively restaurant with a large room where poetry readings often take place). Abrams chose her material from Dorothy Parker’s life as well as works. It should have been much better, it was meant to be much better. Abrams was led astray by sticking too closely to the outward (conventionalized) biography and chose her passages to exemplify that. It’s understandable; she wanted the audience to follow the trains of thought.

Alas, that meant she didn’t chose the very best; maybe it was that she didn’t choose her passages bravely enough: no “Big Blonde” for example – Parker’s one undisputed prose fiction mastepiece. By the end of the hour she was posturing energetic grief over what seemed to have been not such a bad life. On the other hand, I know how brave it is for an older woman to get up in front of a crowd and perform. Abrams is at least 50, and until the show started she stood at the back of the large room, a fairly dumpy woman in a dark-colored cocktail dress, mid-height pumps, choker-pearl necklace. She was keeping the fuller memory of Parker alive.

Parker’s poems show a disillusion and weariness Abrams meant to project, as in this one:

A Certain Lady

Oh, I can smile for you, and tilt my head,
And drink your rushing words with eager lips,
I’d paint my mouth for you a fragrant red,
And trace your brows with tutored finger-tips.
When you rehearse your list of loves to me,
Oh, I can laugh and marvel, rapturous-eyed.
And you laugh back, nor can you ever see
The thousand little deaths my heart has died.
And you believe, so well I know my part,
That I am gay as morning, light as snow,
And all the straining things within my heart
You’ll never know.

Oh, I can laugh and listen, when we meet,
And you bring tales of fresh adventurings
Of ladies delicately indiscreet,
Of lingering hands, and gently whispered things.
And you are pleased with me, and strive anew
To sing me sagas of your late delights.
Thus do you want me — marveling, gay, and true —
Nor do you see my staring eyes of nights.
And when, in search of novelty, you stray,
Oh, I can kiss you blithely as you go …
And what goes on, my love, while you’re away,
You’ll never know.

I like Parker’s self-mocking ones. She wants to write epigrams (in the Martial tradition):

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying —
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

I wanted to hear more of the lesser known axioms. “Constant Weader fwowed up” is great. But “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force” needs to be heard too. And which novel or what kind of novel it was.

I do not want to cavil. This is a chance scattered choice of 7 out of so many. Apparently we should have gone to the H.M.S. Pinafore or Gilbert and Sullivan this year. Each year there seems to be one Gilbert and Sullivan. One year we saw one done by junior high school students.

It’s wonderful to see a great deal of fine talent, intelligently-meant art, and groups of people just getting together to enjoy themselves in DC over the course of 3 weeks and to join in. I’m told the NYC Fringe has become commercialized: a place for try-outs for commercial groups. In DC we do have our repertoire companies contributing and trying to widen their audience. There was nothing from what we could see in the lineup as original as last year’s Fifth Musketeer But then a couple of festivals ago, we saw a truly great Marat/Sade.

It’s all to the good. The people doing these plays have to resort to condemned buildings, run-down warehouses. We traipse up long stone narrow stairwells and since the air-conditioning isn’t adequate, there are fan going strong placed strategically (and it’s hoped not intrusively) about.

One night Jim, I, and Izzy went out to a good Chinese restaurant near the old warehouse theater where ‘Tis Pity was done. Another night he and I splurged and ate out in a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, elegant, fine-cooked food, wines (free champagne to get us to spend more) where we were treated with respect and consideration.

If only the people I see at these events, doing them, running them, volunteering were running our society, I know it’d be a better place for us all. They have provided Jim, I and Izzy with nights out we can participate in at a price we can afford.

And when we get home we sometimes have great and enthusiastic talk, exhilarating. We did over Dorothy Parker, Medea and somehow or other got into Catullus and Robert Graves on myths over our spaghetti dinners with wine when we get home too.


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