Oscar Wilde Would Have Ruled Twitter

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Title: The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Rating: 3 Stars

An artist, Basil Hallward, is infatuated with a young man named Dorian Gray. To Basil, Dorian represents  beauty and a pure innocence. Basil paints Dorian’s portrait. Basil channels his deeply repressed love of Dorian into the art and produces a masterpiece that captures the essece of Dorian’s soul. As he’s wrapping up the painting, Basil and Howard meet Lord Henry Wotton, a witty hedonistic cynic. Henry’s cleverness captivates Dorian.

At the unveiling of the painting, both Dorian and Henry acknowledge the genius of the portrait. In fact, it is so lifelike that Dorian is upset. He realizes that, as he ages, he will lose his beauty while the painting will always retain it. Falling on his knees, Dorian implores that the painting age instead of himself.

His wish is granted. Over the ensuing years of hedonistic debauchery that ultimately descends to murder, Dorian does not change a bit, but the figure in the painting becomes a monster. Finally understanding that the painting is itself a portrait of his guilt, Dorian takes a knife to destroy it. In the morning, his servants find Dorian dead, stabbed in the heart, his face and body horribly disfigured by age and dissipation, and the picture restored to its original beauty.

Most people already know this story, if nothing else by a long ago Far Side Cartoon:

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In the play, the “love that shall not speak its name” is much more obvious. Basil effectively confesses his love to Dorian. It’s clear that Basil is a gay man that has not and will not come to terms with this. Given the tenor of the time and the fact that Oscar Wilde, subject himself to many gay rumors and was to find himself in prison for “gross indecency to men” within five years, this was one of the most, for the time, controversial aspects of the work.

Oscar Wilde was a great proponent of the artistic idea of aestheticism. This is the idea that the beauty or sensuousness of the art is more important than any social or political meaning that can be derived from it.

Knowing that, it seems amusing to me that aestheticism gets a pretty good beating here. Aestheticism, if not regulated, leads pretty quickly to hedonism or empty cynicism. You see that here in many ways. First of all, Dorian falls in love with the actress Sibyl. Sibyl falls helplessly in love with Dorian, and in so doing, she loses her motivation to act. When Dorian sees her lackadaisical poor acting, he promptly falls out of love with her and renounces her, ultimately leading to her suicide. It is Dorian’s pursuit of  meaningless sensuousness that, more than time itself, leads to the degradation of his portrait.

Henry, for his part, by the end of the play, after a lifetime of seeking only shallow surface beauty, is old, embittered, and lonely, a shell of his previous effervescent self.

Slightly off subject, but I find it interesting when an artist, through his art, actually makes the opposite point of his own personal beliefs. As I just said, with this play, Oscar Wilde does not actually put aestheticism in a good light. Similarly, Fyodor Dostoevsky was a political conservative, but in novels like Brothers Karamazov, his conservative characters actually come off poorly. It probably says something about an artistic genius that he/she can take a point of view that they don’t agree with but can express it in a compelling manner.

It is interesting to contemplate how Oscar Wilde sees himself in this work. When asked, he said that he saw parts of himself in all three main characters. His quote:

Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps

Some interesting things were done in terms of this specific staging. There was a chorus consisting of Victorian men and women. They would occasionally interject the inner thoughts of characters. Sometimes the characters themselves spoke out loud their own internal monologues, often coming out in the form of almost stage direction.

The stage was nearly always in a state of fog. I’d imagine that this was to show Victorian London as well as to make visible the hidden gay subtexts of the play.

One of the challenges for staging a play based upon this novel is the epigrammatical method in which Oscar Wilde wrote. One of the reasons for his still enduring fame is that he was the master of the one-liner (eg I can resist everything but temptation). Throughout the play, especially with Henry’s lines, these bon mots are interspersed throughout the dialog. However, what seems clever when reading becomes jarring when staged. It’s almost like you’re talking face to face with someone who communicates only in tweets. There’s an artifice to it.

This was probably one of the reasons why the play left me somewhat cold to it. While watching a play, I like to have a suspension of belief but, whether it was the play itself or the choices that the actors made, I just couldn’t get over the feeling that there were just people on a stage reciting lines. I didn’t feel any true connection to the characters.

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Na Na Na Na Na Na…Hamlet

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Title: Bat-Hamlet

Rating: 5 Stars

I was randomly looking for things to do and I came across this play that re-imagines Hamlet if the protagonist was Batman. This I had to see.

It’s playing at the Slate Theater, which I’d never even heard of. It’s at an awkward location kind of between the International District and the Stadium District. It’s housed in a large building that previously was the immigration building for Seattle. It’s now known as INScape Arts, a rental space for artists.

To give you an idea of how small budget this theater is, the person that collected my ticket later turned out to be the founder of the company, the director of the play, and played Hamlet. The theater had maybe 40 seats or so, and was probably a little bit more than halfway full. The entire cast was I think around eight people.

Here’s the setting. The last King, Police Commissioner Gordrick, has recently died mysteriously. He was a father figure to Hamlet. Quickly upon that, the Jester has married Hamlet’s sister, Barbara.

Hamlet is left desolate and is moping around the Castle Gothic. However, the ghost of Gordrick has now been recently seen wandering the halls. Hamlet’s good friend Horatio convinces Hamlet to talk to the ghost. The apparition tells Hamlet that he’s been murdered and needs to be avenged.

Hamlet quickly zeroes in on The Jester as a suspect and swears vengeance. Hamlet tries to trick The Jester into showing his guilt by holding a play within a play. Hamlet misses several opportunities to kill The Jester for various reasons. Hamlet does a soliloquy while holding a skull. Hamlet engages in a fencing contest. Everyone but Horatio dies. Fortinbras comes in, takes a look around, and says thank you very much, it looks like I’m in charge now.

Does any of this sound familiar? It is definitely the play Hamlet.

Now imagine that Hamlet is an idiot. He decides that he needs to put on a disguise to solve this mystery. The disguise is a Halloween bat mask. Everyone recognizes him and his disguise is not helped by the fact that he calls himself Bat-Hamlet (his first name choice was Rabies Man). He makes Horatio put on a disguise too and names her (it is a woman playing the role) Songbird Boy.

The Jester’s elder foolish councilor (otherwise possibly known as Polonius) is a bird like quacking man named The Puffin. Another of her advisers is named Lord Riddles.

Ophelia, Hamlet’s love, is vacuous and loves cats. When she goes mad (as she does in the real play), she becomes O-Feline and comes riding in on a wheeled cat scratch post. Her brother, Laertes, who swears to revenge on Hamlet for the death of his father and sister, is actually Green Laertes.

And, oh yeah, Hamlet’s sister, Barbara, later is revealed to be Bat-Hamlet Girl. At various points Mr Freeze, Harlequin, Poison Ivy, and Scarecrow all make appearances.

The play is silly and slapstick but is just a tremendous amount of fun. The audience is directly on the floor with the players, and the players do interact in various minimal ways with the audience. There were many laugh out loud moments.

It makes fun of Christopher Nolan’s Batman (Bat-Hamlet starts off speaking in a deep guttural voice even though everyone knows it’s Hamlet). It makes fun of the 1960’s television Batman (cliffhangers, references to old chum, the silly fights, and the campy villains). It makes fun of Hamlet (why does it take so long for Hamlet to kill Claudius?). The scene where Bat-Hamlet kills The Puffin (ie Polonius) behind the curtain is hilarious as the corpse refuses to stay hidden.

It was an absolutely great time. I have no idea what the budget was for this show, but I’d imagine that, not counting the players, it was possibly a couple of hundred dollars. This shows the power of theater and committed actors. The costumes were simple. The props looked like they came from the dollar store.

This reminds me of a version of Titus Andronicus that I saw many years ago. It was a similarly small obscure theater. When the Roman centurions came marching out, they were wearing football helmets spray painted gray. I’m like, what am I getting myself into? It turned out to be one of my favorite play experiences. Like here, they made their simplicity a strength.

When I go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the production is usually out of this world. I saw a version of Macbeth that re-created WWII battle scenes, complete with intense action and loud explosions.  They are a world class organization and it shows.

The thing is, I get a great deal out of enjoyment out of both. I like the shock and awe spectacle of world class scenery, directing, and acting of the OSF. However, I also like the immediacy of a simple production where magic is made out of nothing and I’m sitting less than five feet from the action.

Goes Straight Into the Bin

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Event: The Bugle Live

The Bugle is my favorite podcast. I first started listening to it around five years ago or so. At the time, it starred John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman.

For obvious reasons, I started listening to it for John Oliver, who was probably still on The Daily Show at that time. The two of them started the podcast back in 2007. By the time that I started listening, John was in the US, but was still pretty diligent about participating in the weekly broadcast.

It was interesting to hear topical humor from a British perspective.  I still remember how upset the two of them would get about the shenanigans of FIFA and they were positively apoplectic when David Cameron won reelection.

Once John got his HBO show, the frequency of The Bugle began to taper off, until finally, there was an episode in which John basically came on to announce that he just couldn’t do it anymore. I thought that that was the death of The Bugle, but I was premature.

Andy resurrected it with a rotating cast of co-hosts. He’s had several, but the most regular ones are Nish Kumar, a British comedian, Hari Kondabolu, an American comedian, Anuvab Pal, an Indian comedian, Alice Fraser, an Australian comedian, and Helen Zaltzman, Andy’s sister and herself a podcaster.

Even if you don’t recognize the names, it should be obvious that it’s a pretty diverse crew, which adds a lot to the podcast. For instance, when India banned large denominations of its currency, the humor of the resulting chaos was directly reported by Anuvab Pal. Nish Kumar regularly talks about the perils of being a brown skilled Englishman in these terrorist suspicious times. Alice Fraser, with a rapier wit, is a strong feminist presence whenever she appears.

So, even though the star of the podcast is gone, it still continues on, and even though certainly different, it is still a strong podcast that makes me laugh.

Given that, I was excited to see that Andy Zaltzman was doing a very quick West Coast tour (San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, in case there was any doubts at all what the politics of the show are).

It’s an interesting concept. A podcast by its nature is an aural medium, so going to see it live seemed to be a questionable choice. Andy apparently, quite recently, has become somewhat proficient at Powerpoint, so he did have a presentation to go along with the materials, but still, everyone pretty much had a script (or at least extensive notes). They didn’t follow it exactly, but there was certainly structure to the show.

The Bugle’s co-hosts were his sister Helen, who was with Andy in Seattle, and Alice, who was live back in England in Andy’s studio. Being brother and sister, Helen and Andy do have an interesting dynamic, but of the regulars, she’s probably my least favorite co-host (I’m guessing that I have a preference for comedians). Alice, who is usually laser fast on the draw, was somewhat slowed by her virtual presence. I probably would have enjoyed it much more if either Nish or Alice had been there in person.

As usual, there were a collection of very topical subjects. At the time of this writing, the woman that took a dump at a Tim Hortons and then flung it at the employees was going viral, so they had fun with that. The wedding of Harry and Meghan was fodder. Andy has an obsession with sports, much to Helen’s and Alice’s disgust, so there was considerable joking about English football and cricket. Andy is infamous for making series of incredibly painful puns. He concluded the show with a pun run of Northwest mountain peaks.

It was amusing, even if not quite up to the par of a more typical Bugle. I can only hope that if he comes around again, that he’ll bring along Nish and/or Alice.

The Tragedy Of A Celebrity Posse

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Play: Timon of Athens

Rating: 3 Stars

Timon of Athens is the deepest of deep cuts in the plays of Shakespeare. Some Shakespearean companies make a point of completing the entire cycle of his plays (37 plays in total). This can take decades. The OSF in Ashland has been around for some 80 years or so and I believe that they’ve only completed the cycle four times or so.

When completing the cycle, Timon of Athens is always pretty much the last holdout. At OSF, a play like Hamlet will play nine months out of the year. When they stage Timon of Athens, it’ll be lucky to have a three month run.

I’m not aware that Seattle Shakespeare Theater has any great plans to complete the cycle. A couple of years ago, they did do Titus Andronicus, which is another relative Shakespearean obscurity. I wrote about it in this blog previously. They took a Tarantino-esque spin on it, which actually placed it in a harrowing light. It was a pretty brilliant approach for a relatively small theater to take.

In the nearly thirty years of its existence, the company had never put on Timon before. If you need further evidence, that should again tell you about it’s relative obscurity. Considering the innovative spin that they put on Titus, I was interested in what they’d do with Timon. Not to mention the fact that there are so few opportunities to see Timon live that I thought that I should see it now while I could.

There’s some question regarding its authorship. There’s pretty much an academic consensus that Bill did not write all of it himself.  There is evidence that some of it was authored by another playwright named Thomas Middleton. It’s not clear if they collaborated or the play was incomplete and one of them finished it or one of them was serving as a script doctor or whatever.

Let’s start with a couple of words about the play. Timon is a very wealthy Athenian who enjoys nothing more than indulging all of his friends and is a patron to many artists. He spends his money wantonly and ends up deeply in debt. Confidently, he reaches out to his friends in his time of need. His friends, without exception, turn their back on him. Enraged, he quits Athens and lives his remaining days as a misanthropic hermit.

Usually multiple cooks does not improve a play, and it proves true here. The first three acts are actually pretty conventional. The last two acts just kind of fall off the rails a bit. It devolves into a number of semi-random people visiting Timon in his hermit state and Timon railing at them and driving them off. The plot doesn’t really progress. There is a side plot where Alcibiades, another of Timon’s friends, has been exiled from Athens and is now raising an army to conquer it. The Athenian leaders meet with Alcibiades and basically say, can’t we all just get along? Alcibiades says fine and all shake hands. It is then announced that Timon has died (he dies off-stage, ala Cormac McCarthy’s treatment of Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men).

So, really very little plot and resolution in Acts IV and V. It barely qualifies as a tragedy. In Shakespeare’s typical tragedies, the stage is usually littered with dead bodies by the end. Here you have a guy, that by this point is not very sympathetic anyway, dying off stage.

Timon does have some lineage to King Lear and to Titus. In all of the cases, you have a powerful man knocked off his perch and he then becomes mad as a result. In the case of Timon, it seems like tragedy light.

With Titus, his remaining sons are executed or exiled, and in revenge he murders his enemy’s children and serves them to her in a pie. With Lear, you have his actual daughters turn on him and treat him with contempt. He ends up raging mad in a storm blasted heath.

In the case of Timon, his friends treat him poorly and he ends up cranky and living in a cave. It just doesn’t have even close to the same tragic scale as the others.

Having said all of that, the play is not without merit and, if anything, resonates to our modern world.

The whole profligacy of Timon and the way that he has hangers-on that basically exist just to leach off of him reminds me of today’s celebrity society. You have the celebrity who comes out of nothing, becomes insanely rich, and then surround themselves with friends / groupies that serve to build him up but also leads the celebrity to financial ruin. Think about Allen Iverson blowing through an estimate $200 million. Think about the following lyrics from Kanye’s Monster:

All I get is these vampires and blood-suckers

All I see is these niggas I made millionaires

Milling about, spilling they feelings in the air

All I see is these fake fucks with no fangs

Trying to draw blood from my ice-cold veins

Timon’s profligacy is reminiscent of our world. His generosity isn’t really based on altruism as much as on grandiosity. He likes showing off how much money he has. In fact, he shows off by giving away money that he doesn’t have. You can’t say that he was fooled by his advisers. His faithful steward, Flavius, beseeches him to moderate his spending, to no avail. He is the essence of conspicuous consumption. Haven’t we all had that friend that always insists on paying? That is not a mark of generosity but a demonstration of power.

How about a precursor to fears of sexual disease epidemics (be it Herpes, AIDS, or antibiotic resistant gonorrhea)? After Timon exiles himself to his cave, he finds a box of gold. Instead of re-burying it or using it to pay off his debts, he proceeds to give it away for a variety of dubious causes. He gives some of the gold to two ‘harlots’ and makes them promise not to give up their practice but to continue it even more, specifically to spread sexual diseases to as many men in Athens as possible.

On a lighter note, once he exiles himself, he resolves to live only on roots. Is Timon the first practitioner of the Paleo diet?

For the play staging itself, it was fine. From a woman’s point of view, this play is problematic because literally the only two women named in the play are the harlots. This staging rectified that by making Timon and Alcibiades women. The first three acts moved along briskly, but as expected, the fourth and fifth acts went sideways at best.

Without actually dramatically changing the play, this was probably the best outcome that could of have been hoped for.

Instant Theater

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Title: 14/48

Rating: 3 Stars

The idea behind this is:

  • The night before the festival, a keg is tapped
  • All participants fill out a proposed theme
  • One answer is randomly chosen
  • Seven playwrights then write a 10 minute play based upon the theme; they must finish by 8:00 AM the next morning
  • The next morning seven directors randomly draw which of the freshly authored plays they will direct
  • The directors then randomly draw the actors that will be the players
  • The directors and actors have the day to prepare
  • There is one band and one group of set designers; they spend the day figuring out the music / sound and the set design
  • Each play gets to have one 20 minute rehearsal
  • The play is then performed in front of a live audience
  • That night, they repeat the process, for a total of 14 plays in 48 hours

As you can imagine, this is probably a pretty adrenaline filled 48 hour period for all participants.

All in all, they did a good job. There were no major disasters, and most of the plays had a structure and a message, that if you squinted hard enough, fit the theme chosen, which was “Whose Side Are You On?”.

One challenge that had to be surmounted was that a couple of actors came down with the flu this weekend, so were not able to participate. They had to dragoon in a couple of volunteers who were allowed to read from a script onstage.

The only true rule bending that I saw was that the last two plays were clearly a part I and a part II of basically the same play. Clearly, the two playwrights collaborated in their writing to basically create one 20 minute play, which kind of seemed to be cheating.

Since they were 10 minute plays authored in a 12 hour period, necessarily they were not going to be too complex. Waiting for Godot this was not going to be.

Some of the plays were more effective than others. The first one, about sea life trying to adjust to global warming, was very well done. It managed to include moments of character humor, the innocent cluelessness of environmental tourism, the bathos of death, and some inside theater humor (equating Starlight Express with global warming).

Another fun entry was about the misdirection of love. A woman is in love with a twitter handle, another woman is in love with her, a man is in love with the second woman, and a dog is in love with the man. It’s not quite “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”, but still it was a light and amusing tale of love.

Another play imagined the Republican congress as basically a glee club for Trump. They were dressed in matching colors and led cheers glorifying Trump. The fact that one of the members had angst because he heard Trump use the word shithole (which literally happened the day before the play was premiered) shows how timely a play written on short notice actually can be.

They weren’t all winners. One play, about a post apocalyptic journey, probably needed a couple of more minutes. It just seemed to end rather abruptly.

None of the plays will be making it to Broadway any time soon. It was a fun experiment. Both the cast and the audience relished the risks that were taken and enjoyed the experience.

Buttcracker III

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Title: Buttcracker III

Rating: 4 Stars

I usually try to come up with some kind of ironic / humorous title for my posts, but since the event was actually called Buttcracker, I figured that I probably couldn’t top that. Plus, you have to love the fact that it’s III. Apparently one Buttcracker was not enough.

It’s basically a holiday show with interpretive dance. However, instead of Tchaikovsky, you have Ozzie Osbourne, Bon Jovi, and Ratt. Yes, it’s a hair metal interpretive dance holiday show.

There were probably about fifteen interpretive dances.

My favorite was entitled Happy Birthday. The setting was a traditional nativity scene. There is Joseph and Mary and a cradle. There are three wise man. There is an angel holding a trumpet. There is someone dressed as a cow.

Sweet Child of Mine starts playing. The characters start dancing. Jesus emerges from the cradle. Instead of an infant, it’s an adult, obviously female, but wearing an equally obvious fake beard. In the back of the scene is a full size movie screen. Projected onto it is God (old, white, long hair and beard). He is dancing and lip syncing to the Guns N’ Roses song.

Now, depending upon your level of sanctity, having God channel Axl Rose might be slightly disturbing. I found it to be quite amusing. In the same setting, they put a birthday hat on Jesus’ head, and gave him a birthday cake. Instead of blowing out the candles, he used it to light a joint. This then segues into AC/DC’s Problem Child.

I think you get the picture.

Even though they’re one of my least favorite bands, they also did a dance around Don’t Stop Believing, by Journey. First emerges Santa, who starts dancing. Next emerges a unicorn, followed by a leprechaun. Finally, the last person to emerge is Jesus. This is either an interesting statement about faith or it’s equating Jesus to a unicorn. I’ll let the reader decide.

They did AC/DC’s Hells Bells. It started as a bell choir being conducted by a nun in a wolf’s mask. From that initial start, the three dancers stripped down to classic Angus Young attire (think school boy) and ended in a frenzied dance. It was a good tribute to AC/DC and a nice interpretation of the song.

The Styx song Grand Illusion was also performed. Amusingly, as the dancers performed, a little six inch tree was lowered from the ceiling and once it landed, someone turned on the lights and it became the focal point of the song. It was very reminiscent of the Stonehenge scene from This Is Spinal Tap.

There were some homages to the actual Nutcracker. For instance, it started off by recreating the mice scene from the ballet. However, instead of mice, they were rats and they did Round and Round, by the band Ratt.

The crowd was very much into it. It was by far the rowdiest dance recital that I’ve been to. In fact, one guy (in his late 40’s if not 50’s) in the front row wearing a Viagra NASCAR jacket got so loud and belligerent that two large men came over and physically bum rushed him outside in an impressive display of bouncing.

When you’re pulling music from 1980s heavy metal bands, you’re talking my demographic. Sure enough, as far as I can tell, there was literally not a single minority in the audience. Seattle is pretty white, but I don’t know when the last time that I was in a crowd that size without at least one non-white person. Also, there were a lot of bald spots on the men.

…Sigh…my people, I guess….

You Are Now Entering…

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Title: The Twilight Zone

Rating: 4 Stars

Theater Schmeater annually does a live reenactment of several Twilight Zone episodes. This was the first year that I checked it out.

I was interested to see if they would try to do a modern take of the episodes. For those of you old enough to remember, back in 1998 Gus Van Sant did a scene by scene faithful remake of the Hitchcock classic Psycho. What was interesting is that it was, in many ways, a different movie than the Hitchcock classic. For one thing, the acting was different. Thirty-five years of method acting has created a generation of actors that avoid the stylized acting more common in the earlier films.  Also, even though the scenes were nearly identical, both the actors and Van Sant made different enough choices that I found the film interesting to watch.

In this case, I watched some scenes from the original Twilight series and they seemed to be pretty faithful recreations. The only really big difference that I saw was the Rod Serling character himself. In a live setting, having the writer come in and comment upon his work like some kind of one man Greek chorus is at best a jarring experience. Knowing that, the actor playing Serling came in with a nonchalance and a gleam in his eye that signaled that he understood the ridiculousness of it.

Four episodes were shown. They were:

The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine

This was a pretty straightforward retelling of  Sunset Boulevard. An actress, once famous, now long forgotten, spends her time in a room in her mansion watching her old films. Her friends try to draw her out and even potentially get her a part in a new movie, but since the part is not the romantic lead, she refuses to even entertain the notion.

In another bid to draw her back into reality, her friends bring to her one of her former romantic leads. Initially she’s excited but then becomes horrified at how poorly he has aged.

Finally, through sheer determination and some Twilight Zone magic, she manages to somehow will herself back into the actual movies that she is screening. Her friends look on in horror as she calls out to them from the movie screen.

This clearly is about the fleeting nature of fame and how difficult it must be to live your life once your time has passed you by.

The After Hours

A woman comes to a department store to procure a gift. Mysteriously, she is sent up to the 9th floor, which only contains the one item that she’s looking to procure. Even more mysteriously, it turns out that there is no 9th floor at the store.

She ends up trapped in the store after hours. It’s there that the mannequins come to life and it’s there that she discovers that she’s also a mannequin. Apparently, mannequins are given one month off a year where they are allowed to live human lives.

She is late coming back and the other mannequins are upset with her. Eventually, she apologizes and obediently changes form back to a mannequin.

Originally aired in 1960, this is an interesting statement upon the unsettling effect that the rise of modern corporations have had. People were feeling (and still are) trapped in 9 to 5 jobs that were not physically challenging or dangerous but left them feeling unsatisfied and vaguely without purpose. Here, the mannequin only experiences life during the month that she’s not at work. At work, she is literally a piece of furniture.

Five Characters In Search Of An Exit

In a cylindrical prison awakes an army major. Trapped with him (although they’ve been there apparently much longer) is a clown, a ballerina, a hobo, and a bagpiper.

The major is desperate to escape, but it seems impossible. The other characters have all attempted the same things that the major is attempting but have become long since resigned to their fates and are actually annoyed with the major’s persistence.

They know that they are not alone because periodically a gong sounds which nearly deafens them.

Finally, the major does concoct a plan which does allow him to successfully escape.

In the next scene, a person picks up an army doll who hands it to the person who is collecting toy donations. The person throws it back into the donation barrel and comments upon the fact that so far, only five toys have been collected. He then continues to ring his donation bell.

This obviously prefigures Toy Story by about fifty years. It touches upon the ideas that toys only experience joy if they are loved, and once discarded, are left desolate and without meaning.

From the theme as well as from the title, it’s clear that Serling was inspired by Satre. Existentialism posits that our lives are void without meaning, just like the toys portrayed here.

The Midnight Sun

Here it’s been reported that the Earth has changed its orbit and is now heading closer to the sun. As a result, the planet is getting unbearably hot. People are fleeing North, even though there really is no hope even there. Finally, there are two women left in sweltering New York. They have to fight off an intruder who just wants water. One woman collapses and the other then explodes in grief at the thought of being left alone.

Cut to the next scene. The woman in hysterics is actually suffering from a fever. In fact, Earth has changed its orbit, but it actually is moving further from the sun, dooming its inhabitants to a freezing death.

As the woman, still recovering from her fevered dream, remarks how refreshing it feels to be cool, the other woman, shivering uncontrollably, can barely respond.

Aired even before the climate debate change really started, this is a precursor to the changes that the planet will be going through over the next looming period of years. It’s also a statement on how the human mind, when faced with the most horrific circumstances, still tries to find an escape to peace.

All in all, it was a fun night out. I can only imagine fifty years from now, there will be another theater company somewhere re-staging Black Mirror episodes. It’ll be interesting how the British Prime Minister fucking a pig scene will be staged.

 

Those Madcap Russians!

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Title: The Government Inspector

Rating: 3 Stars

The Government Inspector is an adaptation of a play by Gogol.

A completely corrupt mayor receives a note that a government inspector is coming to his town to visit. In a panic, all of his cronies gather to determine what to do. There is the judge that takes bribes for convictions. There is the hospital director that has overseen the construction of a useless hospital. There is the school principal who has built a number of gymnasiums but very few classrooms. And there is the postmaster, who thinks nothing of opening everyone’s mail.

As they discuss how to best present themselves to the inspector, two men (Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky), apparently twins (but not really), burst in to tell them that the inspector is already in town. The mayor and all of his cronies immediately set out to meet the inspector and try to conceal their corruption from him.

It’s a case of mistaken identity. In fact, the man (Khlestakov) that is mistaken for the government inspector is actually an unscrupulous conman that has lost all of his money and is preparing to kill himself.

When the officials burst in on Khlestakov, there is confusion on both sides. The officials are trying to determine if Khlestakov is susceptible to bribes while Khlestakov is trying to determine if they are there to arrest him for crimes that he’s committed.

Ultimately, much to Khlestakov’s relief, before he confesses he understands that they are trying to bribe him. From then on, he leads the officials on a merry journey of bribery, drunkenness, and seduction. The mayor’s wife, desperately lonely, throws herself at Khlestakov while the mayor, thinking that Khlestakov is a great match, is setting him up with his daughter.

It’s all a merry madcap of tomfoolery and confusion. By the end of the play, Khlestakov has taken off with all of their money and the officials now have to deal with the real government inspector, who had been infiltrated with them all along.

This play is reminiscent of Scapin and Comedy of Errors. It’s fascinating to me the universal nature of comedy. You have the 19th century Russian, the 17th century Frenchman, and the 16th century Englishman all writing plays that could easily have served as Beverly Hillbillies plots.

This is interesting to me because I’m re-reading Nesteroff’s history of comedians. One of his theses is that comedy does have a shelf life. Comedians funny to one generation are lost to the next. This is true of even the greats. Even though his show is still in syndication and he’s an acknowledged greatly skilled comedian, no one goes to Jerry Seinfeld for new comedy. He still tours and still does new material, but even so the people that attend do so primarily for nostalgic reasons. Plays seem to have a different shelf life than the more immediate art of the comedian.

In the world of plays, there seem to be plays / themes in the comedic world that are timeless. For instance, the Government Inspector hits on several themes that are not out of place even now:

  • Corrupt venal politicians
  • Mistaken identity
  • The smart employee getting the better of her employer
  • The rustic provincial

Speaking of Seinfeld, one tenet of his show was that would be no hugs, no tears, and no learning. His characters go through life, getting caught up in all kinds of situations, and it leaves them fundamentally unchanged. The same is here in this play. There is no true love romantic plot. There is no moral lesson. There are no sympathetic characters. There is not even a protagonist. It is a pure satire.

This is also a play that probably would not be a successful movie. The characters are too thin and predictable. It is as if you need to have live actors selling the action to a live audience to really make it work. If I wasn’t watching this with an audience rollicking with laughter, I wouldn’t have had nearly the same amount of enjoyment.

As with all such madcap, frenetic hi-jinks, the play starts off on fire but eventually runs out of steam. The pace of such a play can only be sustained for so long. There are a couple of hallucinogenic sequences that were completely over the top and altered the mood of the play for the worse.

I did enjoy the fact that as we walked out, they were playing a Gogol Bordello song.

Thou Shouldst Not Been Wise Till Thou Hadst Been Worldly

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Title: Julius Caesar

Rating: 4 Stars

My apologies for the pretentious title. That’s a paraphrase from King Lear. In King Lear, the great, respected and wise king decides that it’s a good idea to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughter upon the condition that they each verbally declare their love for him. This, in typical Shakespearean tragedy fashion, leads to pretty much everyone dying. Lear’s fool, in exasperation at the stubborn foolishness of the old king, pleads with him not to embark upon this destructive path by telling him, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

Similarly, in this play you have Brutus. Brutus is recognized as one of the wisest leaders in Rome. The conspirators to assassinate Caesar need to have Brutus in their camp to lend it legitimacy.

First of all, they fool him by leaving anonymous notes for him to find that beseeches him to rise up against Caesar. Apparently random notes are enough to convince this wise man to a path of assassination.

Then, when planning the assassination, the conspirators decide that they should also murder Antony, since it’s known how loyal Antony is to Caesar. Brutus says no, it’s better to shed only a minimal amount of blood. It sends a better message to the Roman people that the conspirators are not bloodthirsty.

Antony is clearly grief stricken by Caesar’s death and asks to give the funeral oration. Cassius, the main conspirator, thinks it’s crazy to let Antony speak to the people over the body of Caesar. Brutus says no, it’ll look better because the conspirators will look magnanimous letting Antony speak and anyway, he (ie Brutus), a great orator himself, will speak first and will pacify the people. What could go wrong?

Of course, immediately Antony gives a speech that turns all of Rome against them. They have to flee and a civil war commences.

Finally, on the field of battle, Brutus’ forces are nicely arrayed in fine defensive position waiting for Antony’s / Octavius’ forces to attack. Cassius advises Brutus, since they are in such fine defensive position, to let the battle come to them. Brutus says no, we are at the pinnacle of our strength right now, so we should leave our fortifications and attack them at Phillipi.

Multiple suicides later, both Brutus and Cassius are dead and Antony and Octavius reign supreme.

Brutus is the classic example of someone with great wisdom, judgement, and respect but just absolutely horrible gut instincts.

Cassius, who is portrayed here more of a sneaky character, does not have Brutus’ gravitas but clearly knows how to get the best of a situation. Unfortunately, his respect for Brutus is so great that he always yields against his own judgment.

This actually reminds me of…Night of the Living Dead. Now, bear with me. For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s a group of people trapped in a house as zombies are trying to break in and get to them. The two main sources of conflict are between Ben and Harry.  Ben is the conventional heroic type (a young black man in a very early effort at actually representing minorities non stereo-typically) and Harry, who’s kind of a sniveling coward.

Ben is all about trying to figure out to fight the zombies and get out of the situation. Harry just wants to go into the cellar, barricade it, and wait for the authorities. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all went down into the cellar and then spent the night playing pinochle or whatever, so Ben inspires them all to fight the zombies. Of course (yes, spoiler alert for a 50 year old movie), they all die except for Ben. Ben himself dies when he is shot by the authorities who mistake him for a zombie (and well, probably also because he’s black).

The point here is that, although Ben is a indisputably a brave and wise man, Harry was actually right. The zombies weren’t all that strong, the cellar door was solid, and the authorities were coming. If they’d just spent the night in the cellar they’d probably have been perfectly fine.

That connection was also probably triggered because in the play, Brutus was played in a wise, brave, heroic manner by a black actor and Cassius was played by a kind of middle management snivelly white actor. There’s probably a message here that leaders can’t be completely driven by some abstract concept of morality and sometimes have to do things that others might perceive as cowardly and weak. I could connect this even more to events in the 100 years war, but I’m going to stop now because it’s already getting too long.

I’m always a little suspicious of Shakespearean plays that place themselves in the current day, but here Julius Caesar really does seem weirdly relevant, which is bizarre for a 400 year old play. It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s genius and maybe to some common notes of humanity that stretch across centuries.

Here you have, in the background, 24 hour news channels continuously blasting events as they occur (including spot on imitations of how somber news channels get upon the death of a popular leader / celebrity). Here you also have leaders overtly manipulating the masses for their own political ends. Here you have the war hero Caesar, all ego and bluster, pretending not to want the crown while obviously secretly aching for it (every military dictator ever). Here you have the unthinking masses, all fired up in anger, literally tearing to pieces an innocent person in a case of bad timing and mistaken identity.

Also, I like the race / sex neutral casting of the play. Brutus is a black man. Antony is a black man. The Roman senators, Casca and Cinna, are a black woman and an Asian woman, respectively. They all were effective. I have no idea if there are Shakespearean canonical purists out there anywhere that raises a ruckus about this (considering the fact that there was a somewhat defensive note about it in the program, there must be), but if so, they need to get over it, or would you prefer that we go all the way back to the original and have prepubescent boys in drags for all of the female characters?

So, why not five stars? It’s not the players’ fault. The first three acts is where all of the interesting things occur, in my opinion. Acts IV and V have plenty of military action, but the moral questions have been answered, decisions have been made, and the final two acts is just the play heading towards its foregone conclusion. Everything after the intermission just seemed anticlimactic, even if well done.

Miss Congeniality – Indian Song And Dance Style

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Title: Chitrangada

A person that I work with is appearing in a play being put on by The ACT Theatre. This is kind of a big deal. It’s a musical / dance play written by an Indian playwright way back in the 1890’s. I went primarily to support a friend / co-worker, but was curious to watch an Indian play.

It pretty much surpassed all of my expectations. It was engaging, entertaining, and somewhat surprisingly for a musical, a bit thought provoking.

Chitrandaga is an Indian princess. Her father, the ruler of Manipur, decided that, instead of bringing her up in feminine ways, that he will raise a great warrior. Therefore, she is brought up learning how to lead and to fight. She grows up to be a strong young woman that her subjects respect for her fighting ways.

One day in the forest, she meets Arjuna, a warrior monk. She instantly falls in love with him but he is on some kind of penance and has taken a vow of chastity. He declines her affections.

Thoroughly smitten, she does not give up. She prays to the god Madan to turn her into a beautiful woman. He does so and she once again ventures into the forest. She meets Arjuna, who this time promptly falls in love with the beautiful woman in front of him and they end up together.

Over time, Arjuna becomes discontented. He feels languid. He’s losing his warrior ways. He hears of a great battle fought of invaders attempting to raid Manipur. The warriors of Manipur fight off the invaders. Arjuna asks them who their leader is, and they describe this great female warrior.

Arjuna longs to meet such a strong woman. Chitrandaga, also wanting to be herself again, begs Madan to change her back. He does so and she meets Arjuna as herself.

As expected, Arjuna and Chitrandaga are still in love and they live happily ever after.

A couple of things.

First of all, I found the strong Indian female protagonist interesting. You hear about the gender imbalance in India as a result of sex selected abortions. You hear about the violent crimes against women that take place there. You hear of the old tradition of Sati, where a wife would throw herself upon the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

Yet here is a strong story of a woman. Sure, there is the interlude where she thinks that the trick to getting a man is by being beautiful, but ultimately she realizes that the only way that love can last is by exposing her true nature. Without a doubt she is a strong leader and a fierce warrior to her people. She comes out of the play as a strong woman.

Although I do have to admit that I was a little amused at the idea of a strong woman feeling the need to fem it up to catch herself a man. I felt like I was watching possibly weird grand step-uncle or something like to Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality.

Arjuna does not fare so well. He’s this great warrior monk doing penance, but hey, a beautiful woman comes along, and fuck that! He throws aside his warrior nature and whatever religious penance he was practicing and promptly takes up with her. Ultimately, he gets bored with the dull life of actually being with a woman and longs for his life again. He hears about Chitrandaga and promptly starts obsessing over her. When she does appear (and remember, she looks totally different than the woman that he supposedly instantly fell in love with), he falls in love again. Sure, it’s the same woman, but to him, it’s a completely different woman. Maybe at the end of the day, Arjuna is expressing men’s not so secret desire to be able to cheat on their loved one in a manner that is not cheating?

But…now that he’s with Chitrandaga, will he at some point start longing again for the beautiful woman that first stole his heart? Will Chitrandaga recognize that, and with heavy heart still have to make occasional supplications to the god Madan to change her back to that beautiful woman? Or will Arjuna end up bored with both women and will she have to assume yet a third (or more) identities? If you look close enough, the play starts developing Lynchian overtones.

I found the fight scenes quite amusing. There is nothing like trying to re-enact a battle in dance. This was the best fight action scene expressed in dance since Michael Jackson’s Beat It.

The play was well acted and well danced. Arjuna, with his bright eyes and happy countenance, makes for a perfectly feckless hero. The girl that played the child Chitrandaga was actually an amazing dancer.

My friend, who had multiple roles, danced outstandingly well. I had no idea of his talents.

What other secrets lurk in the hearts, minds, and bodies of my fellow co-workers?