Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Libraries

I’ve often felt that my library explained who I was, gave me a shifting self that transformed itself constantly throughout the years.  And yet, in spite of this, my relationship to libraries has always been an odd one.  I love the space of a library.  I love the public buildings that stand like emblems of the identity a society chooses for itself, imposing or unobtrusive, intimidating or familiar.  I love the endless rows of books whose titles I try to make out in the vertical script that has to be read (I’ve never discovered why) from top to bottom in English and Italian, and from bottom to top in German and Spanish.  I love the muffled sounds, the pensive silence, the hushed glow of the lamps (especially if they are made of green glass), the desks polished by the elbows of generations of readers, the smell of dust and paper and leather, or the newer ones of plasticized desktops and caramel-scented cleaning products.  I love the all-seeing eye of the information desk and the sibylline solicitude of the librarians.  I love the catalogues, especially the old card drawers (wherever they survive) with their typed or scribbled offerings.  When I’m in a library, any library, I have the sense of being translated into a purely verbal dimension by a conjuring trick I’ve never quite understood.  I know that my full, true story is there, somewhere on the shelves, and all I need is time and the chance to find it.  I never do.
      - Alberto Manuel, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions (2018) 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Seattle Opera: Rigoletto

I saw a fantastic production of Verdi's Rigoletto at the Seattle Opera on Saturday.  Dark, brutal, completely engrossing. 

Director Lindy Hume has updated the action from 15th-century Italy to modern Italy, or, to be more precise, to what appears to be Silvio Berlusconi's Italy.  The Duke's palace is lush and stylish; TV screens adorn the walls, the doors are gold-plated, the seats are red velvet, the walls themselves are shiny dark marble.  The Duke's courtiers wear business suits.  Verdi’s 1851 tale of political corruption and sexual violence doesn’t feel dated in the least bit.

And at the heart of it all is the brooding, tormented figure of Rigoletto - a hunchback, an object of derision, and a jester in the court of the Duke of Mantua.  As for the Duke, he's a slimebag, a tyrant, gladly using his position to seduce/rape as many girls as he can.  And if a father complains about a violated daughter, as one does at the beginning of the opera, the Duke simply has him put to death on trumped up charges.  His courtiers, all male, encourage and applaud the Duke's behavior.  


Lester Lynch (Photo: Philip Newton)
But the nastiest SOB in the Duke's retinue is Rigoletto.  His cruel wit and viscousness, solidly buffered by self-loathing, have earned him the hate of all the couriers.  As the play opens, the courtiers have discovered that Rigoletto has a mistress - and a young and beautiful one, too.  True to form, they decide to kidnap her.  But she's not his mistress.  She’s his daughter, the innocent and sheltered Gilda.  Gilda is the joy of her father's life.  Yet she, too, has her own secret.  She's being courted by a handsome youth she met in church.  She loves him.  We know, though, that the lad is actually the predatory Duke in disguise.

And so the stage is set for operatic mayhem, though the carnage will fall almost entirely on the sweet and innocent Gilda.  The evil-doers - all men - will get away with everything while our defenseless heroine will be kidnapped and then raped.  After that, of course, the only way for her to set things right - according to the demented attitude of 19th-century theatergoers towards women - is for her to sacrifice herself out of love for her rapist and be brutally murdered.  And so she is.  Yes, it's all very fucked up.  By comparison the 18th-century was a paragon of sanity.  After all, at the end of Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787) it's the philandering Don who is dragged into Hell, not his victims.  And in Cosí Fan Tutte (1790) sexual infidelity is treated as simply the way of the world; no one is thrown into a sack and stabbed to death over it. 

Liparit Avetisyant (Photo: Sunny Martini)

Press coverage of this production has mostly emphasized its political aspects.  It's "a surefire argument starter" The Seattle Times writes.  (I could argue with that but I won’t.)  The misogyny on display in Rigoletto will endure, according to The Stranger, "so long as we continue to uphold longstanding social and political norms around consent, harassment, and male power."  All very true.  But don't let the political chatter deter you from seeing this production.  Hume keeps her focus on the human drama at the center of this opera.  From the moment the curtain rises and we see a lone Rigoletto sitting in a darkened room while the stark and brooding prelude plays (Carlo Montanaro is the conductor), it’s obvious that we’re in the hands of a director of intelligence.  Even the sets tell a story.  The Duke's palace fills the whole stage, but the other locations - a bar, a bus stop, Rigoletto's home - are small.  They only take up a few feet on a stage consumed in darkness.  Outstanding work on the part of Production Designer Richard Roberts and Lighting Designer Jason Morphett.      

Madison Leonard (Photo: Sunny Martini)

The singing in Rigoletto is magnificent.  Lester Lynch is riveting in the title role.  He is as good an actor as he is a singer.  Dressed in ill-fitting clothes, he walks and lumbers about the stage clumsily, painfully.  Does he have chilblains?  Flat feet?  One cannot tell.  But Lynch conveys to us that Rigoletto’s deformity is more than merely a hump on his back.  Physical shame and psychological angst are his lot.  Gilda is such an idealized figure that it’s hard to find her believable, yet Madison Leonard does just that.  Hers is a thoughtful performance, full of restraint and depth.  The Act I duets between her and Lynch, played out in their dingy kitchen, are heartfelt and gripping.  These two have chemistry together.  They feel like a real family, never more so than when struck with tragedy.  Liparit Avetisyant, making his Seattle Opera debut as the Duke, was also noteworthy.  He looked as natural in a three-piece suit surrounded by cronies as he does when disguised as a student to win over Gilda.  In fact, just clip a name tag to his sweater when he’s in the latter role and he could pass as a some fresh-faced new college grad working at a tech company.  And finally, kudos are also due to the chorus of male courtiers who surround the Duke.  Whether tormenting Rigoletto, sexually harassing any available female, or sleeping off last night's orgy butt-naked on the sofa, they are a macho and detestable lot.  We even find some generals and clergymen in their midst (and no doubt PJ and Squee are in there somewhere, too). How one would like to see them all in handcuffs at The Hague.  If only.


Rigoletto will play at McCaw Hall until August 28th.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

History


History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now.  It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.
     
       - Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending 
         (2011)

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Seattle Center Murals

I was at the Seattle Center earlier today and saw a bunch of murals on the wood barrier outside of Key Arena.  I thought they were pretty cool, so I took some pictures.  And here they are...

















Thursday, July 04, 2019

The American Businessman

In 1963 German journalist Hans Habe met Arizona’s Republican Senator Barry Goldwater.  This was his takeaway:  
Hans Habe
Here, I thought, stood an American businessman who, when he goes to sleep at night, does not dream of the Knights of Camelot or of Thomas Jefferson or even of Napoleon Bonaparte.  The hero of his dreams, in color TV, is the self-made man of America’s pioneering era.  Is such a man a conservative?  Perish the thought!  Conservatism implies the strict rule of law, respect for the existing order to the point of snobbery.  The American businessman, on the other hand, admittedly no snob, dreams of the Golden Age of disorder in which a man like H.L. Hunt, the richest man in America...could win his first oil well at a poker game.  He dreams of plain lawlessness to which, according to him, America owes her greatness, he dreams of...a form of government without taxes and without central direction.  Since we Europeans are accustomed to identify fascism with uniforms, the goose step and discipline of every kind, we find it very difficult to understand the fascism of the American businessman, who would only impose that minimum of discipline required to protect the economic chaos which he favors.  
      - Hans Habe, The Wounded Land: Journey Through a Divided America (1964)

Monday, July 01, 2019

Arts West: The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion

Went to see The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion, a new musical, at Arts West yesterday.  Bad.  Really bad.  It’s about Lee, a Seattle college student who discovers that she’s part octopus, or, rather, some kind of human-octopus hybrid.  See, back in 2000 Lee’s mom, a martial arts enthusiast, took part in Seattle’s octopus wrestling competition.  This was a real thing.  Local divers would go into Puget Sound and bring up the largest octopus they could find.  It was then weighed and returned to the water.  How this sport died out, I’ll never know.  Anyway, Lee’s mom was its champion, but on her last outing things went horribly wrong and….well, it gets a little convoluted and I don’t want to ruin it for you.  The Last World Octopus Wresting Champion is part myth, part folklore, part local history, part fantasy.  And part love story as well (spoilers ahead).  Lee notices her cephalopod abilities when she falls in love with Nia, a fellow college student.  Nia soon notices that she, too, is able to transform into an octopus.  

With book, music, and lyrics by Justin Huertas (who got some help from Steven Tran), the main problem with The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion is its overall mediocrity.  The story isn't told well.  The characters are stage caricatures, they never approximate real people.  And the music, with the the exception of the song "Sleep Well, Love", is largely unremarkable and unmemorable.  An air of amateurishness hovers over this play and never leaves.  It need re-writes.  It feels like a work-in-progress.  Even the title is off; shouldn't it be called The Last Octopus Wrestling World Champion?  If this were a high-school production one would say "Wow, these people certainly have promise".  But it's not a high school production.  One expects more - but doesn't get it.

The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion will play at Arts West to July 28th. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Arriving in Vietnam

On the morning of the fourth day the dawn light daubed our faces as we came down the skies of Cochin-China*.  The passengers were squirming in their seats, not sleeping and not waking, and the air-hostess’s trained smile came stiffly.  With engines throttled back the plane dropped from sur-Alpine heights in a tremorless glide, settling in the new, morning air of the plains like a dragonfly on the surface of a calm lake.  As the first rays of the sun burst through the magenta mists that lay among the horizon, the empty sketching of the child’s painting book open beneath us received a wash of green.  Now lines were ruled lightly across it.  A yellow penciling of roads and blue of canals.
A colonel of the Foreign Legion awoke uneasily, struggling with numbed, set facial muscles to regain that easy expression of good-fellowship of a man devoted to the service of violence...
      - Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China (1951)

* Vietnam

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Dignity


Most people go through life using up half their energy trying to protect a dignity they never had.
   - Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953)

Friday, June 07, 2019

Seattle Rep: Tiny Beautiful Things

I recently saw Tiny Beautiful Things at the Seattle Repertory.  It was awful, just terrible.  Between 2010 and 2012 author Cheryl Strayed worked as an advice columnist for the website The Rumpus; her nom de plume there was Sugar.  She was very good at this job and soon developed a big following.  In 2012 she published a collection of her advice-column correspondence under the name Tiny Beautiful Things.  That book is the source for this adaptation by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

The play is set in Sugar's apartment, where she reads the letters which pop-up on her laptop.  Three people on stage act as the letter writers; they go in and out of various characters.  Sugar is a winning confidant.  When people present her with their life problems - adultery, depression, miscarriages, etc. - she usually responds with a story or confession of her own.  Her advice is exactly what one would expect - upbeat, affirmational, heart-felt, etc.  

If you are (or were) a fan of those confessional daytime TV shows - Jerry Springer, Maury Pauvich, Sally Jesse Raphael, etc. - then this play is for you.  It has the same earnest banality.  Someone tells Sugar their problem.  Then she relates an anecdote from her own life and delivers advice of TED-talk-esque depth - believe in yourself, you have more strength than you know, you inspire me, etc.  Then on to the next letter - and so on for an hour and forty minutes.  It's all very easy, neat, simple to digest.  But the more I thought about this play, the more I disliked it.  In no other art has the human condition been put forward more starkly than in theater, yet this play is little more than a parade of pat and facile answers to the difficulties of life.  And if you believe that theater has something important to say about being human (and I do) then there's something off-putting, even offensive, about Sugar's ultimately shallow responses in the face of suffering.  No doubt if we dropped her into the end of King Lear she'd tell the old duffer that his courage under his misfortunes is an inspiration to her, that his love is greater than his grief, etc.  If she popped in at the end of The Iceman Cometh she'd let everyone in the saloon know that the resilience they'd shown over the past few days fills her hope and optimism, and that, deep down, all of them, especially Hickey, need to learn to forgive themselves.  And I'm sure she'd have some uplifting words for Oedipus: "Don't be so hard on yourself.  So you have a thing for MILFs..."

Julie Briskman, Charles Leggett, Chantal DeGroat, and Justin Huertas (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

Sugar is very candid and open about her own life but I'm not sure that serves her well.  At one point she admits that her grandfather sexually abused her.  Apparently he made her give him handjobs when she was between the ages of two and five.  This obviously fucked her up.  Years later, she dealt with this trauma in an unusual, and for me a very questionable, way.  One day when she was outside she came across a newly hatched bird that had fallen out of its nest and onto the ground.  She picked it up (which she knew automatically meant that its mother wouldn't acknowledge or care for it).  Then she put the little birdling in a paper bag and smothered it to death.  The writhing of the struggling creature against her hands somehow recalled grampy's flaccid penis.  Eventually the bird stopped moving.  This experience was cathartic for Sugar (though, one imagines, less so for the bird).  Although at this point, if I, too, may be candid, I had to ask myself "Is this really someone I should be taking advice from?"

The most powerful letter is one from a man whose 22-year-old son was killed in a car accident.  It’s a missive of pain, grief, and anger.  Effectively it constitutes a long confessional monologue, and it’s a genuine tour de force for the actor performing it.  Charles Leggett plays it in this production and, like a dog with a bone, once he gets hold of it he ain't letting go.  He stammers, hems and haws, pauses very pregnantly.  He's very good - and I do mean that seriously.  As the letter goes on, he starts blubbering.  Then everyone in the audience starts blubbering too.  How could we not?  Sugar starts to give him her advice, and soon there's more waterworks in the audience. It’s so sad.  And yet - thinking about it later - there was something cheap about the whole thing.  Cheap and sordid.  Like when they shot Old Yeller in the movie just to get a roomful of kids to cry.  Ultimately, it felt very manipulative.

Charles Leggett and Julie Briskman (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

So, with the writers I find fault, but I don't find any with with the actual production itself.  The actors are all very good.  It would be hard to imagine a better Sugar than Julie Briskman.  The moment she walked onstage the entire audience warmed to her.  I've already praised Charles Leggett as one of the letter readers; the other two - Chantal DeGroat and Justin Huertas - are equally good, even if the don't have quite the show-stopper that he has.  The set design by L.B. Morse wonderfully captures the ordinariness in which most of us live our lives (no matter how messy), and the lighting by Robert Aguilar manages to sculpt the action and provide a sense of variety to what is essentially a very static play.  Despite this play's shortcomings director Courtney Sale did a commendable job.

Tiny Beautiful Things will play at the Seattle Repertory Theatre until June 23rd.