A Messed Up Play Masterfully Performed


Title: The Winter’s Tale

Rating: 4 Stars

I’d written about how completely amazing Hamlet and Twelfth Night were this year. This was kind of to be expected, although I was still shocked at how great they were.

I was interested to see how they were going to handle the third play in my itinerary, The Winter’s Tale. I’d written about this play some weeks back (click here to view).  It’s a weird one. The first three acts is a straight on Othello-like fit of mad jealousy as a king (Leontes) hounds his wife (Hermione) to her death. The last two acts is a pastoral comedy in which everything gets wrapped up nicely and everyone goes off singing and dancing.  Well, except for the boy prince that dies of grief/shame because of his father’s (the king) treatment of his mother (the queen) and the guy that gets eaten by the bear.

How were they going to deal with this hot mess? I was a little suspicious because last year I watched Antony and Cleopatra at OSF. This is also a messy play because, first of all, there are just so many scene changes taking place across multiple continents that it’s hard to feel continuity, and secondly, you have to buy into the tragic deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, who spend most of the play carousing and making foolish choices. Honestly, of all the plays that I’ve seen at Ashland, Antony and Cleopatra was the weakest. It was well executed, but I did not leave transported.

For The Winter’s Tale, the OSF did quite well. They can’t resolve all of the issues with the play, so it doesn’t get the highest possible rating, but I think that they did the absolute best job that they could, given the play itself.

Since I’ve already talked about the play, I really don’t want to revisit the plot.  Therefore, I’m just going to discuss the impressions that I got from the play as performed.

The main change that they made was to the setting. The kingdom of Sicilia was located in the Far East while the kingdom of Bohemia was located in the American West. This gave some additional context to the rigid hierarchical setting of Sicilia (the first three acts) vs the more relaxed setting of Bohemia (the fourth act).

As I mentioned in the earlier post, this play is about the madness of kings and the danger of such madness in a time when they yield unlimited power. There is no one to stop Leontes, the King of Sicilia, from his rash actions. When he orders his newborn daughter killed and his wife condemned despite all evidence of her innocence, there really is no one that can judge him or reason with him. Similarly, when Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, discovers that his son (Florizel) is carrying on with what appears to be a lowly shepherdess, he similarly loses his shit and pretty much starts ordering random people to be executed. Once again, there is no one that can overrule him.

Hermione’s faithful friend, Paulina was a powerful role. She serves as a Fury raging against Leontes. She is the only character, even while acknowledging his absolute power, that is resolute in standing up to him and condemning him. She is fearless in standing up to him and is ruthlessly harsh in judging him as he understands his folly. For the next sixteen years, in his mourning, she is constantly by his side reminding him of his errors. I missed the power of her character in my reading of the play. This was excellently performed.

Florizel really is kind of a dick. He is pretending to be a simple shepherd’s boy to woo Perdita. Sure, he’s legitimately in love with Perdita, but you have to figure that the wooing has been taking place over a period of time and he doesn’t think once to tell his true love, um yeah, I’m actually the crown prince? When Polixenes discovers that Florizel is pursing forbidden love, he not unnaturally comes to the decision that the shepherd family must be trying to entrap his son, so orders Perdita’s adopted brother and father executed.  Florizel runs off with Perdita, but pretty much leaves her family to the wolves.  Dick move, dude.

Speaking of which, between act three and act four, sixteen years have passed, so they have to do something to the characters that span those acts to show that they’ve aged. Amusingly enough, for Perdita’s adopted father, the shepherd, they apparently made the decision to kind of make him look like the Dennis Hopper character from Waterworld. Bold choice!

This play is most famous for the absurd stage direction, Exit pursed by bear. How do you do this? Do you bring a trained bear on tranquilizers on stage and drag him around? Do you put a man in a bear suit? Keep in mind that quite literally a man, a real character with real lines that just gave an affecting speech to the abandoned new born Perdita and is the husband to Paulina, is going to be eaten by this bear, so it really doesn’t seem right to make a joke out of it.

In this case, they made the bear in the form of a Chinese dragon. This is actually a wise choice. It serves the purpose without being ridiculous. You can also make the argument that this in service to the fact that part of the play is taking place in the Far East. Alas, the scene actually takes place in Bohemia, which is actually the American West in this play, so it doesn’t completely hold water, but it served the purpose well.

Finally, WTF is going on with Hermione’s statue? As a recap, sixteen years later, after the two kings are buddy chums again and Perdita has been recognized as the daughter of Leontes, and therefore Florizel and Perdita can be married without worrying about any of that pesky shepherd blood getting mixed in, there is one more reveal.

Paulina wheels out a status that is the absolute likeness of Hermione (even aged sixteen years). All present ooh and ahh over it and can’t get over how lifelike it is. Paulina orders it to come to life, and lo, and behold, it does. It embraces Perdita as her daughter and Leontes as her husband. Everyone lives happily ever after (again, except for the boy prince and the dude that got eaten by the bear).

So, what just happened? Has Paulina been hiding away the queen for sixteen years just waiting for the moment where it would be really cool to show her off to the king? Or was it really a statue that Paulina, using some magic powers, somehow brought to life? And if so, how did Hermione not end up slightly fucked up like that that dude’s wife from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary?

Obviously, hiding of the queen is the more likely answer, but I have to say, Paulina did a pretty convincing David Copperfield (magician, not Dicken’s urchin) act in the unveil. She definitely sold it as a statue coming to life. If she was really doing a mind fuck, then for what purpose? Granted, Leontes is now a Buddha of restraint now, but if I was a king and knew that someone was hiding the queen from me for sixteen years, I might have felt the need to go Tarantino on her.

Bottom line, this is still a weird play. However, the OSF did a masterful job presenting it.

That was the theme of this year’s trip to Ashland. I had concerns with all three plays: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale. In each case, my concerns were evaporated and each play was truly an amazing transcendent performance, never to be forgotten.

And this is why I go, year after year.



Shakespeare Screwball Style


Title: Twelfth Night

Rating: 5 Stars

This is why I love going to the OSF. I see two plays in 24 hours, and they are two of the best plays that I’ve ever seen. Beyond that, they are about as completely different as can be.

As with Hamlet last night, I had the same set of trepidations. I’d previously seen Twelfth Night at the OSF and it was magnificent. Also, this was located on the set of a 1930’s screwball comedy. It seemed like a director conceit of the highest order.

However, as with Hamlet last night, it completely worked. It truly is amazing how malleable the work of Shakespeare is, that text from 400 years ago can be re-purposed and yet still retain the magic. It’s also a testimony to the talent and the genius of the OSF company that they can pull it off. I’m sure that it probably would have been silly in other less capable hands.

The stars of the play were, without question, Maria, Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek, and Festes. The antics / interplay of the first three in particular left me literally wiping away tears of laughter. Their antics when Malvolio was reading the alleged love note from Olivia and the duel between  the equally incompetent and cowardly Aguecheek and Viola were just perfect examples of screwball comedy that it makes  you wonder why this play isn’t always played this way.

Of special note is the character who played Aguecheek. He was played by Danforth Comins. As played, he’s the epitome of the drunk, fopish, silly, knight-errant. If you were to watch it, you’d think that he’s a comedic genius playing the role that he was born to play. And then you realize that just the night before, not even 24 hours previously, he was playing fucking Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet. Two completely different characters and he completely inhabited both. To say the least, I am gobsmacked at his brilliance and range.

Viola was also strong. Previously, I’d seen a male actor play Sebastian and a female actor played Viola. In this case, the same actor played both. She was certainly a feminine looking / acting man. However, since gender identity is obviously a huge aspect of the play, this was not inappropriate.  In fact, she kind of reminded me of an 18 YO Justin Bieber, so maybe the times have caught up with Shakespeare on this score.

Malvolio was also a highlight. The actor played the role of the arrogant, egotistical, self-important servant to the hilt. The scene where he reads Olivia’s supposed love note, which imposes upon him the desire to smile, was a treasure. Clearly, he has not smiled for many years. The contortions that he goes to, finally ending up with the pasted on smile of a Las Vegas dancer, was a perfect way to bring the audience to the intermission on a high note.

The later, pretty much torture of Malvolio is the main sour note. No matter how priggish his behavior was, he does not deserve this, and the awkward reaction of Maria to this is an acknowledgment of the difficulty that this scene brings to 21st century audiences.

Another advantage of the 1930’s style was that it made the songs seem more natural. One of the things that I think that have had trouble translating to current times is the slightly odd tuneless Elizabethan songs interspersed in his plays. Since the setting was a 1930’s movie, impromptu song and dance seems to just fit in more than other conventional stagings. In fact, the last song was a full song and dance with taps and umbrellas utilizing most of the cast. It leads me to wonder, several of the actors did tap dance; how much of a call can there be for that skill nowadays?

At the end of the play, there is the great reveal where Sebastian and Viola are discovered to be twins that have lost each other. Since, in this case, the actor is really the same person, I was interested in how they would pull this off. They did so through the introduction of a film screen, which truly wasn’t that effective. It was clever, but probably too clever. There’s a reason that there is usually two actors for these roles.

Finally, usually the play ends with the four (Olivia, Orsini, Sebastian, and Viola) main characters paired off as two couples. However, this time, there were only three actors. Therefore, the play ended up with the three of them walking off hand in hand. Again, I’m guessing that this is a statement about the fallacy of binary gender identity.

So far at Ashland, I am 2 for 2. The two plays that I’ve seen thus far have been the best plays that I’ve ever seen. It just amazes me that this little town in basically nowhere Oregon can produce such world class plays.

Tomorrow will, however, be a challenge. Tomorrow is The Winter’s Tale, which is a pretty bizarre play. It’ll be really interesting if they can pull off some magic on this play as well.

Heavy Metal Shakespeare Rocks


Title: Hamlet

Rating: 5 Stars

I saw Hamlet at the OSF five years ago, I think. It was one of the best plays that I’ve seen in my life. I approached the play this year with trepidation. After such a good experience last time, how could it ever meet expectations? No matter how good, won’t I be disappointed?

I then read the playbill and I became even more concerned. In the balcony was several guitars and a drum set. I read that the director had heard some local heavy metal musician and was going to incorporate that into the play. Sure enough, when the play started, a full bearded man with a heavy set of tattoos, looking like a roadie from Metallica, took his place in the balcony. How could this possibly work?

The fact is that it worked magnificently. This version of Hamlet could even be better than the last version. I’m not sure how the OSF can so consistently put on world class plays, but they certainly did so again.

The mood is this version is very dark, so the foreboding growls from the electric guitar helped set the mood. When during particularly dramatic moments, as Hamlet was being chased around the stage, the beating of the drums increased the level of excitement. Ophelia’s singing, while mad, is always such an odd scene to interpret. Set to a heavy music score, heavily miked up, it set the exact right mood for her madness.

The costumes were striking. This was on the Elizabethan stage, so most of the characters were so adorned. They were all set in shades of grey, except for Hamlet, who was basically wearing some kind of white undershirt and black leather pants. That decision made Hamlet seem even more of an outcast (of a heavy-metal flavor) in comparison to the rest of the court.

This Hamlet was a much tougher Hamlets than I’ve seen in the past. With his muscular physique and short cropped hair, he reminded me of a young Henry Rollins. There was none of the nearly fey, weak, indecisiveness of an Olivier, or even the theatricality of a Branagh. He was a young, strong, man out to avenge his father, come what may. I started out wondering if this was the right choice for a Hamlet but by the end I was completely convinced.

I do find it interesting that OSF does celebrate its actors’ diversity with non-traditional role choices. Horatio was played by a black woman and was stellar. She played the role of Hamlet’s rock solid friend perfectly. She was one of the highlights of the play.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father was quite strong. This was a weakness of the previous version that I saw. Here, it was a straight up fearsome ghost. In fact, there were several actors made up as the ghost, which produced the illusion of appearing multiple places simultaneously, to great effect. The swearing on the sword scene was especially harrowing.

Interesting, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were basically played as clowns. Even their attire made them appear clown-like. This was probably an unfortunate choice because this made them appear even weaker foes to Hamlet, which makes his decision to send them unknowingly to their death even more questionable.

Polonius started off a little shaky, but recovered later to become the silly, useless, irksome counselor that he really is. He also projected true paternal anger and possessiveness to Ophelia, which was effective in explaining Ophelia’s motivation in turning away from Hamlet.

The Claudius from the last time was stronger than here. Claudius picked up his game later in the play, but especially in the beginning, he projected weakness. The Claudius from the previous version seemed to have the hunger / appetite to achieve greatness, so it seemed more likely that he would murder his brother. This Claudius didn’t really seem as if he had the stones to do so.

The other main weakness was the gravedigger. This was played by the aforementioned heavy metal musician, in clearly a case of stunt casting. This would not normally be a big deal, but the gravedigger is, as one of the very few in the play to get the better of Hamlet, an important character. The musician was not bad, it’s just that he’s clearly not a trained Shakespearean actor, and it showed.

All in all, these were minor complaints. This was a masterful, creative production. I’m now going to have to think back one the previous version and see if I can really pick out a winner.


Edge of Tomorrow – The High Brow Version


Title: Life After Life

Rating: 4 Stars

The novel has an interesting concept. The main character is Ursula Todd.  She has many lives. First, the doctor gets delayed in a snow storm and she dies while being born. Then, in the next section, the doctor arrives in the nick of time to save her. Later, she gets swept out to sea and is drowned. Even later, someone sees her struggling in the water and goes out to save her.

This goes through multiple iterations. She dies several different times because the family maid, Bridget, goes out to celebrate the WWI armistice, and while there contracts Spanish Influenza, comes home, and infects her.

Over time, she gets some distant consciousness of these previous lives and tries to alter her course.  For instance, during the armistice celebration, she tries several schemes, only vaguely aware that she’s doing it, to stop Bridget from attending. She finally resorts to pushing Bridget down a flight of stairs, breaking her arm, to break the cycle.

She’s looked upon as a troubled child (for understandable reasons) and is sent off to counseling. Her mother explains that Ursula is constantly experiencing deja vu. The doctor, a student of Eastern thought, introduces Ursula to the concept of reincarnation and multiple life experiences.

She later grows to adulthood. In one particular brutal life, she is raped, is abused, and ultimately marries a man who beats her to death.

In other lives, she makes it to WWII, where she directly experiences the London Blitz, dying in multiple lives. In one life, she ends up in Germany and commits suicide (along with her young daughter) as the Soviets are coming.

Ultimately, she decides to sacrifice herself to kill Hitler before he rises to power.

All of this is interesting reading. In particular, Atkinson’s telling of the London Blitz is harrowing and makes you wonder once again what lengths of pain and suffering humanity is willing to inflict upon one another and how much a person can stand.

It also brings up interesting questions. A key question is nature vs nurture. How much of our personality is core to ourselves vs formed by our experiences? In the life where she is murdered by her husband, she’s a mousey little thing that hates herself and does not stand up for herself. In another life, she’s a rock when she’s part of the London defense, launching herself heroically to save people buried under rubble and is almost callous as she gets inured to death and suffering.

However, some characters do not fundamentally change at all regardless of the path that her life takes. Her mother, Sylvie, is always detached and bitter. Her sister, Pamela, is always warm and loving. Her aunt, Izzie, is always flamboyant, careless, yet supportive in times of crisis. Does this imply that these characters do not fundamentally change or that there is nothing that Ursula can do to affect them?

Even as she begins to develop a realization of her previous lives, she still does not have complete agency. Fate always plays a role. There is a trampish looking character that rapes and kills a couple of young girls. She just narrowly escapes him a couple of times; she thwarts him a couple of times, but he always exists and is never caught.

In a similar vein, some things seem fated to always occur (things that are truly outside of her control). For example, the apartment where she lives is always bombed. Sometimes she manages to escape it, sometimes she doesn’t live there but still inadvertently arrives there and gets killed, and sometimes she sees it after the bombing, but the building is always bombed. This goes again to the argument that she does not have complete agency.

The one exception is this is the life where she kills Hitler. We do not know what happens then because she is immediately killed. Is WWII avoided? Does this avoid the Cold War?

What’s not clear is if she ever escapes her loop. From hints dropped in the book, it appears that she has had many more lives than the ones that are listed in the novel. In the last version, WWII has still occurred but her brother Teddy, who has died in every other version, is alive. Does that mean that she is done? Is that what counts as a happy ending (ignoring the 50 million other people who died? Is that the last life? Is that the most personally satisfying life? Is she doomed to relive her life over and over again?

If so, are we as well, and we just don’t know it?


Seattle Pride


Last weekend I went to the Fremont Solstice parade. This week was the Seattle Pride parade. These are both long running civic institutions. This was the first time that I went to see both of them in the same year.

The Solstice is a lot more anarchic. It has a whole seat of the pants feel of a parade put on by local community organizers. The Seattle Pride is a thing. It is huge. There was an order of magnitude more people watching (I saw an estimate of half a million).

The Solstice parade bans motorized vehicles, anything with letters, and starts with a bunch of naked bicyclists. The Seattle Pride has massive corporate sponsorship, there were several companies, unions, political leaders, public services, and Native American tribes proudly proclaiming who they were and their support of the gay community.

Instead of naked bike riders, the Pride parade starts with Dykes on Bikes, several hundred mostly women cruising in loops on motorcycles. Most of them rode Harleys and they were making full use of the Harley’s throaty roar. If you’re looking for a clear example of the power of the gay movement, look nothing further than a couple of hundred Harleys proudly gunning up and down at the head of the parade being watched and cheered by a half a million people.

After the Dykes on Bikes, a gay couple just married (by Seattle’s gay mayor at the start of the parade) drove by poised on a large wedding cake float. They were in turn followed by a group of Boy Scouts. They were in turn followed by the drag queens of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They were in turned followed by a huge T-Mobile corporate group.

I’ve finally gotten to the point in my life where I can tell old fogey stories. When I see something what I’ve just described and then think back to my childhood, words kind of fail me to describe the changes that I’ve witnessed in my life. Obviously, it’s an ongoing process and there are so many things to work on, but every now and then it’s kind of crazy to take a look back and think how things once were.

The level of corporate participation is pretty amazing. It’s pretty clear that corporations recognize that getting on the right side of this issue is very good for their bottom line. Gay people spend money (obviously!) and, at least in Seattle, being seen as a progressive corporation has a real impact on their image.

For example, Delta Airlines not only had a huge contingent, but there were several flamboyant drag queens dressed up as flight attendants. In fact, many of the corporate entrants featured drag. I’m guessing that the drag queen community was fully employed today. The BECU float featured a band playing disco songs with the lead singer in scanty leather and chains.

Several of the software companies were represented. Instagram had a tiny contingent that looked like they just pulled random people who might have been working today. Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Expedia had huge groups wearing color coordinated outfits. The company that might have had the largest stretch with trying to line their corporate image up with the parade was Tableau, who is known for business analytics software. Their slogan today was “Data Pride”.

Sports were also represented. Although there was a group with the Seattle Reign, I saw no players. Perhaps they are on the road today. There was a group from the Seattle Quake Rugby Football Club, which I had never heard of but is a predominantly gay men rugby team. There was a group of women from the Seattle Majestics football team. This was another team that I had not heard of. Apparently there is a Northwest league of 11 on 11 women’s tackle football. Before you think of mocking, they were throwing the football around as they were walking / driving on the parade route. I’m guessing at least 90% of the men on the route could only hope to throw and catch as well as they were.

Even now, after all of these years, there are still a couple of slightly edgy groups still maintaining their place in the parade. There were the Seattle Men of Leather, Women of Leather, and Girls of Leather. I think these are fairly descriptive terms. There were dominants leading their submissives on leashes. There was a guy with a leather whip cracking it at the audience. There were many men wearing leather masks and in some cases, little else. There were a number of furries dressed in their favorite animal costume.

I saw two parade balloons. One was an Alaska Airlines plane. The other was a Chipotle Burrito. When you order a real burrito with extra meat, it looks about that big.

The mayor was there. The governor was there. Several politicians and judges running for office were there. There was a massive contingent walking for Bernie. Apparently Seattle has not given up on the Bern yet.

My favorite thing about the Pride parade is that it is such a basically joyous occasion. Quite literally everyone (well except maybe the guy carrying the Jesus Saves sign) just seems happy. It is such a warm, inviting event. I can’t help but to leave it feeling that there is hope in our future. It’s the main reason that I try to make a point of attending.


Adam Smith Meets Sid Vicious

Today I went to the Punk Rock Flea Market. This takes place a couple of times of year. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. A bunch of people with tattoos, chains, and leather get together, set up card tables, and for the most part, sell shit that they apparently found lying around in their apartment.

There was some controversy this year because they were trying to hold it in the old Lusty Lady, a Seattle strip club institution that closed down several years ago. Apparently, they did not leave it in very good shape because the fire marshal closed it down the weekend before it was to go live. Instead, they moved it up to Capitol Hill at the recently closed Value Village. This apparently passed muster because that’s where it took place.

I think from a vibe point of view that this worked really well. Capitol Hill is generally a better venue for fringe-y popular events like this. This was the weekend of Gay Pride, so Capitol Hill was already booming. Also, Gay Pride brings out the alternative in apparently everyone, so that crossed with the Punk Rock mentality really made for an interesting crowd scene.

It was great fun. The entry fee is a grand total of one dollar. You walk in and there’s probably well over a hundred vendors jammed together. You navigate carefully through very narrow paths through the vendor tables.

If anything, this year might have been even more punk rock. In previous years, there were a lot more apparent working artists. You’d see silk screens, paintings, and hand crafted items. There were people like that here, but it was way more just a bunch of random items strewn on a table. For example, I could get a book named Yiddish with George and Barbara (as in Bush). I could get soaps in shapes of a penis, vagina, or anus. How could I choose? There were square tiles that usually have positive affirmations. Here they said fuck, shit, and cunt.

However punk rock it is, it was noticeably a capitalist enterprise. Most merchants accepted credit cards. When you think about it, the Square credit card reader truly is a revolutionary leveling force in frictionless capitalism. Most of the merchants carefully kept a ledger of purchases, even if hand-written in a snarky Hello Kitty notebook.

There was a bar serving beer from donated kegs. There was a DJ playing 45’s on a retro player.

It was packed and it looked like everyone was having a great time.

How did Karl Marx ever think that he could topple this?

Something Wonderful in the State of Denmark

Next week I’m going back to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’ve gone several times. This year I’m somewhat unreasonably excited to go. It’s kind of been all Shakespeare all the time around my place the last couple of weeks.

This year they’re playing Hamlet. I saw it at the OSF several years ago and was so excited that I wrote a hyper over-thought entry on a blog that I had back then.

Here it is again, resurrected from many years ago, since that blog is long since dead and gone:

Over the summer, I went and saw Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival.  This was directed by Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the OSF, starring Dan Donohue as Hamlet.  I’ve read Hamlet many times and have seen it performed.  This is the version that completely blew me away.

The play starts off with a combination funeral and wedding celebration.  As the merry-makers toast the newly married Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet sits off disconsolately in the background.

At first, it’s somewhat off putting, admittedly for visual reasons.  Donohue is a relatively young man with red hair.  With his style of dress and slouch, I started off thinking that he was channeling David Caruso.  Erica, who attended with me, was somewhat amused initially because she was reminded of Conan O’Brien, which left an even harsher discordant note than David Caruso.  Coco playing Hamlet??

However, after getting used to him physically, Donohue drew us in.  He seemed to play Hamlet much as Harold Bloom described him in The Invention of the Human.  Bloom had the provocative idea that Shakespeare literally changed humanity through his plays.  It’s the classic discussion of how much does art reflect life versus define life.

His main thesis (at least as I understand it) was that before Shakespeare, the idea of the introspective human capable of changing his behavior as a result of this introspection did not exist.  It certainly doesn’t exist in previous literature.  With characters such as Iago, Falstaff, and yes, Hamlet, Shakespeare invented a new kind of character.  All of these characters could look within, understand themselves, understand their motivations, and in turn based upon that understanding change their path.  It’s a level of self awareness previously unknown.  From these characters, humanity began to do likewise.

Like I said, a provocative idea.  I’m not sure if I buy it, but I have to confess that I have a weakness for big theories, even if not true, because they in turn provoke much thought for myself.

Be that as it may, Donohue plays him in this way.  Clearly, his Hamlet is the smartest person in any scene (with the possible exception of the gravedigger, who, much to Hamlet’s amusement, clearly gets the best of him; how interesting is it that Shakespeare chose, among all of the Kings, Queens, and courtiers in the play, the lowly gravedigger to give Hamlet his comeuppance).  He toys with Claudius and ties him up in knots, he reads through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in about five minutes, proceeds to make fools of them both, and ultimately sends them to their death without a second thought.

It is not so much that Hamlet is indecisive (as Olivier pretty clearly plays him) as much as he is reacting and adjusting to an increasingly fluid situation.

An interesting quirk that Donohue employed was his voice.  As the play progresses, he makes increasing use of his vocal range.  As he speaks to various characters, his voice rises and then falls, in what can only be described as a series of vocal quirks.

Again, at first it was off-putting and seemed artificial, if not actually somewhat cloying.  As time went on, I came up with a theory that is probably half insane and completely off the mark, but it works for me.

To me, it appeared that he was making a reference to the Heath Ledger Joker character. Stick with me here, please.  I know that it’s weird.

Heath Ledger’s Joker was possibly one of the best acting performances that I’ve ever seen.  Think about it.  The Dark Knight starred Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Aaron Eckhart.  None of them are exactly slouches, but when I watched it the first time, sitting pretty much the entire time on the edge of my seat, I was just counting the seconds until Ledger appeared again.  Jack Nicholson’s, again not exactly talentless, Joker looked like a complete hack in comparison.

Again, to put a Bloom perspective on it, Ledger’s Joker is at least equal and possibly surpassing Iago.  He is clearly many steps ahead of everyone else in the movie.  He is always the smartest person in the room.  Many plans are laid, he foils all of them, almost effortlessly.

At times, Ledger clearly projects the absolute exhaustion that the Joker feels in his futile quest to find meaning in his life (most expressive line from the movie:  “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”).  It’s a tragedy that Ledger died, but you have to admit, there are worse ways to die than at the absolute top of your game.

Saying all of that, just like the Joker (yes, I know, I’m making the comparison in the wrong direction, so sue me), Hamlet is a destroyer of plans.  He destroys Claudius’ plans to have a happy life with Gertrude; he upends Guildenstern’s and Rosencrantz’s plan to have him killed by the King of England and instead they wind up dead instead;  Polonius plans he casts aside almost without a thought.  He ruins (partially, at least) Laertes plans to kill him with a poisoned rapier and Laertes dies as a result.  All of Denmark appears to be scheming against him, and almost effortlessly, he ruins all of their plans.

Hamlet is the The Joker and The Joker is Hamlet.  Q.E.D.

So, any play that has me making these weird connections is, at least in my mind, by definition a wonderful play.  The actor playing Claudius did an outstanding job.  Of the Hamlet’s that I’ve seen, only this production gives Claudius the strength and vitality that such a character must have had.  The actor playing Polonius did a wonderful job portraying him as the useless, old, barely tolerated counselor that in my opinion accurately reflects the character as written. I was shaky on Ophelia at first, but ultimately her close yet conflicting relationships with Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet are very well portrayed.

There were some disappointments.  Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were basically nonentities that did not bring much to their respective characters.  In a similar manner, Gertrude did not leave much impression.  The conceit of having Hamlet’s father played by a deaf actor employing sign language was to me distracting.  The hip-hop performers were a poor substitute for the players, and also Hamlet trying to dance hip hop was the single discordant note in Donohue’s performance.

All in all, though, this was the finest play that I’ve ever seen.  In fact, I was left with a little Hamlet obsession.  I re-read Bloom’s treatment of Hamlet, re-read the play again (I think now for the fifth or sixth time), and I watched not one but two movie versions.

I was somewhat surprised by the Olivier version.  There is a line from Hamlet itself mocking actors who wave their arms around and overact.  This appears to be what Olivier himself does.  Also, the subtle incest moments present in the play between Hamlet and Gertrude seems artificial to an almost jarring degree.  Finally, he plays him (and explicitly says this in his own written prologue to the movie) as being indecisive, which in my mind does not do justice to the complexity to the character of Hamlet.

I also watched (only part of it, admittedly) Kevin Kline’s version as well.  I have to admit that in the first thirty minutes or so seeing Hamlet shed tears three or four times seemed at best maudlin. I have watched some years back but now plan on watching again Kenneth Branagh’s version.

I have not quite gotten so desperate as to watch Mel Gibson’s version.  We’ll see if this fever breaks before then.

Not Geek Enough


Title: Luke Skywalker Can’t Read

Rating: 2 Stars

I’ve just taken a look at my Goodreads account and it appears that 3 of my last 4 reviews have been 2 stars. Either I’m on a bad stretch or I’m officially a cranky old man. Time will tell.

First of all, a couple of words about my rating system. I always grade tough. Since I’m not a reviewer, I choose which books I read. Therefore, there will always be a selection bias built in. In all likelihood, I’m not going to choose a book that I’m going to hate. Therefore, I grade accordingly. A 5 star review is something that absolutely blows me away. I’m guessing that barely 10 percent of my reviews are 5 star. A 1 star review means that I was barely able to finish it. Again, since I chose, there should be very few of those. In fact, I can only think of two or three.

Finally, I hate giving a book 3 stars. I started all of this because I’ve read enough books now that if I don’t have some kind of a log I will forget it quickly. The purpose is that I can go back at any time and read enough of a review to give me an idea of how I felt about it. A 3 star review essentially tells me nothing. So, a 3 star review truly is a meh. If I think the book is a 2.9, then I roll it down to 2. If I think the book is a 3.1, then I increase it to 3. That gives me a clue, years later, which way I was leaning as I was actually reading the book.

On to Luke Skywalker.

Britt is pretty clearly trying to occupy the same space as Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is such an interesting writer to me. He writes clever and humorous essays about popular culture. I like clever. I like humor. I like essays. I like popular culture. This should be a slam dunk for me. In fact, I’ve ready several of his books.

He just doesn’t do it for me. I’m not really sure why. I know that I’m comparing apples to oranges, but when I think critical analysis of culture, I think David Foster Wallace. I know that it’s hugely unfair of me to put Klosterman and Wallace in the same ring, but I just can’t seem to help it. Wallace does a brilliant job of deconstructing his subject and presenting it in a way that I’ve never visualized it before. In many stories, he injects his own personal experience into the piece and in so doing, makes it all that much more richer.

In contrast, Klosterman seems hamfisted and amateurish. His personal stories obscure instead of enlighten his points.

I’m afraid Britt is in the same boat. He writes about such subjects as Star Wars, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Back to The Future, and Dracula. All of these subjects are subjects that I either have a basic or a fairly robust knowledge of.

He clearly loves his subject matter, has thought a great deal about it, and writes about it in an engaging way.

It’s just that the conclusions that he draws simply don’t have a lot of depth. Which in a way is a little bit of ironic, because in a lot of these essays they’re attempting to make the argument that there is actually an interesting level of depth in popular culture. It’s hard to make that argument when the argument itself is pretty shallow.

Maybe I just need to set fire to my Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing that I’ll Never Do Again books and just realize that Wallace was a circus freak of a writer, never of which will I see the likes of again.

Hopefully, I’m not just getting cranky.

A Banal Hustle


Title: The Noble Hustle

Rating: 2 Stars

I usually enjoy reading participatory journalism. I was just never able to get into the quest here.

Whitehead is an amateur poker player. Grantland (RIP) seeds his entry fee to the World Series of Poker and he agrees to write an article about it that ultimately turns into this book.

This book covers his exhaustion from having just finished his previous book on an impossible deadline.  Just wanting to relax but now energized by his task, he pulls himself together enough to start heading regularly to Atlantic City to join some games to up his poker chops.

He also deals with someone that teaches him yoga poses to get through the long stretches of just sitting. He finds a mentor, a professional poker player, who teaches him some of the more subtle intricacies.

His friends, according to their whim, either mock or encourage him on his journey.

At the tournament itself, he acquits himself reasonably well. Clearly he does not make it to the final table or anything like that, but he does at least survive the first day.

And that’s about it. I just did not find it compelling. I used to watch tournament poker, so I do understand the basics of the game, so it’s not as if I wasn’t inclined to find the subject engaging, but he really didn’t even go into the details of poker much.

It was mostly him, a sad schlep of a guy, trying to do just enough work to prevent himself from being an embarrassment at the tournament. Mission Accomplished!

I really didn’t even find his humor all that humorous. I don’t know; maybe I was just cranky when I read it.  It wasn’t a bad book and I don’t regret reading it, but it’s a book that I’ll probably forget about within a week.

Fremont Wins!


In the past month or so, I attended three venerable institutions of revelry in Seattle: the University District Street Fair, the Northwest Folklife Festival, and the Fremont Solstice.

The University District Street Fair is where hippies go to sell shit. The other events do as well, but this is just on a huge scale.  There are hundreds of booths spanning multiple blocks.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, all told, over a dozen city blocks are taken over by the fair.

It was a beautiful day, so it was absolutely packed.  Not all that unsurprisingly, clothing was the majority of the booths.  If you want funky hats, tie-dyed clothes, and leather goods, this was the place for you. There were many kettlecorn booths and apparently, jerky is making a big comeback because there were several of those as well. I was also surprised at the number of caricaturists. I half expected them to starting  fighting amongst themselves over customers.

There were also a surprising number of religious booths, which is unusual in that Seattle is a pretty liberal (ie secular) city. Being Seattle, they weren’t exactly Southern Baptist snake handlers preaching Armageddon. There was a Jews for Jesus kind of a booth and I also noticed a Bikers for Jesus booth, complete with large bald men wearing biker jean jackets just looking for someone to give them crap about their beliefs.  I abstained.

All in all, a nice walk but since I’m not exactly a huge consumer, not a huge event for me.

The FolkLife also had a large number of hippies selling shit. What differentiates it from the street fair is that there are a large number of musicians, located seemingly about every ten feet, busking for change. There were a number of accordion players. There was a red headed Scottish guy playing bagpipes. There was not one, but two white guys playing the didgeridoo (simultaneously but in different locations), which seems an uncomfortable act of cultural appropriation. On a lighter note, there was a group labeled two angsty teenage girls playing for pizza money, which from their looks and attitude, seemed highly accurate.

At previous FolkLife’s, there was always a couple of ole-timey bands, but now they have pretty much taken over. There were many groups featuring jugs, spoons, wash boards, and banjos. Some groups have upped their game by having some young woman with very long straight brown hair wearing a peasant dress dance hypnotically in front of the band to the music (some people have watched too much Woodstock). Why do I think that next year they all will be doing this as a way to express their artistic nonconformity?

Finally, there’s the Solstice. This was by far my favorite. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a ton of hippies selling shit.  It is a street fair that largely takes over the small downtown Fremont district. First of all, this just feels more like an adhoc festival. One of the first things that I see when I arrive is a naked woman riding a bike in full body paint dressed as a silver unicorn.

The others just seem to have a more machine like precision as well as way more corporate booths / sponsorships in general. I didn’t see anyone trying to see life insurance here.

And, of course, there’s the parade. Believe it or not, despite being a life long resident, I don’t remember ever seeing the parade before.

So, I expected nudity. I was not disappointed. The parade was started by well over a thousand bikers, skaters, other wheeled devices, runners, and walkers, all in various stages of nudity.

Nearly all were in body paint, that depending upon their specific goal, either concealed or highlighted body parts that are normally not seen in public. Superheroes were a popular theme. There were various forms of Ironman, Batman, and The Incredible Hulk. There were blue men and red women. I’ve already mentioned the aforementioned silver unicorn. There was a naked guy on a long board with his bulldog riding calmly along with him.

Just as a quick cultural observation, I’d guess that over 90 percent of the men were nude. I’d guess that maybe, at best, 50 percent of the women were. The rest were almost all topless but with some kind of undergarment on. Modesty among naked bike riders? There were several women who used this as a vehicle to assert their right over their bodies, including a couple of women calmly walking the parade route, absolutely naked, with no body paint. The message of freedom and control was pretty clear.

It was also interesting to me from a historical perspective. I’ve lived in Seattle my entire life, and the naked bike riding has been a thing for pretty much as long as I can remember. It must be a tradition well over 20 years old now. It first started as a complete rebellious act. It would be a small number of bikers and they were strictly prohibited. In fact, it would take some planning to somehow interject themselves somewhere on the route and then have an escape plan defined beforehand. The police, on their side, would seriously try to crack down and arrest them. Many of the city folk expressed outrage at the naked bikers, claiming that they’re ruining a family outing like a parade.

My how time changes things. Ten years ago, gay marriage was unthinkable and it was pretty much suicidal for even a Democrat politician to advocate it in most places. Now, it seems retrogressive to even think of rolling it back. So it has become with naked bike riders. The police were front and center in directing it to keep the bike riders safe. Little kids lined the streets holding out their hands so that a naked bike rider could high five them as they rode by.

The parade itself was maybe 90 minutes, of which the first half of it was exclusively the naked bike riders riding up and down the parade route.

The parade itself was pretty amazing. Being Fremont, the organizers do not allow written words or motorized vehicles by any of the entrants. So, the floats were necessarily modest in size and pushed by people. One entrant was devoted to the homeless, with people pushing shopping carts and carrying large paper mache heads mocking Ed Murray and basically accusing him of being a fascist.. Yes, that is our gay, liberal mayor being accused of being a totalitarian despot.

There was a fun anarchic quality to the parade. At the Solstice, there was also a brass band festival going on. Apparently randomly, a brass band would just be casually walking along the side of the parade, busting out some song or another.

My favorite was the tribute to the inflatable beach ball. It was a group of people bouncing around, yes, a bunch of beach balls. They had one beach ball that much have been at least eight feet in diameter. They would grab random people from the crowd, line them up laying down on the street, and then pass the ball over the line, with the people using their arms and legs to move the ball along.

What a great way to start a summer!