Monday, January 29, 2018


Saw the Strawberry Theater Workshop production of Frost/Nixon at 12th Ave. Arts on Friday.  Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Greg Carter, it tells the background story of David Frost’s famous interviews with Richard Nixon in 1977.  This production puts a twist on the tale, though, by featuring an all female cast.  This is very trendy.  Even during the few short months of this blog it has already becoming something of a cliché (and verging on becoming a tiresome one, too).  Nonetheless, I like to keep an open mind.  Could they pull it off?  Is it good theater? No.  

The re-gendering of this play just doesn’t work.  It’s an obstacle, a distraction.  There’s rarely a time when the viewer is not painfully aware that these women are imitating men rather than, for lack of a better phrase, being their characters.  Try as one might, no suspension of disbelief is forthcoming.  In a sense the attempt was doomed to fail.  It might have been more convincing had they completely reconfigured the play - as did a superb recent production of Coriolanus - and set it in an all female world; a female Nixon, a female Frost, change all the pronouns, etc.  But Morgan’s play is overtly historical, even educational.  Characters directly address the audience to give background information and to draw conclusions at the end.  The play’s ambitions to be an accurate docudrama of events would obviously be thwarted if the setting was transferred to an all female world.  And to drop all those pedagogical moments would be to radically transform Morgan’s play and possibly invite the intervention of his lawyers.  Thus the current mess.

Also, one of the main culprits of the gender-fail may be nothing more than the shoddy costuming by KD Schill, especially of the two leads.  As Nixon and Frost, respectively, Amy Thone and Alexandra Tavares are in suits and ties for much of the play, but the suits don’t fit right.  They’re too large, making each women look shrunken and ill at ease in her clothes.  Now a certain bagginess in the suit would be appropriate for Nixon but they were much too loose on the ultra-slim Thone.  I think you could have comfortably fit a grapefruit between her neck and her shirt collar.  And there were more than a few times that the tail end of Tavares’s suit jacket would jut out, duck-style.  

Gender-wise, the worst moment in the play was the scene in which Frost hits on Catherine Cushing during an airplane flight.  Catherine is played by Anastasia Higham.  She is a woman.  The character is a woman.  The effect of a woman playing a woman surrounded by women pretending to be men was off-putting and served merely to underline the artificiality and awkwardness of this conceit.  It had the same effect as seeing Elvis surrounded by Elvis impersonators.   

Unfortunately, the performances of the two leads were not good enough to save this production.  The role of David Frost requires glitter, flash, charm.  He was a TV star and jet-setting playboy.  In other words, it should be hard, if not impossible, to take him seriously.  He should seem like a light-weight.  Yet despite her best efforts, Alexandra Tavares can’t help but come across as a serious, thoughtful person.  Facile is simply not in her toolbox.  I’d believe her in any other role, but not this one.  

Thone’s performance of Nixon, on the other hand, rarely rises above mere imitation.  The soul of Nixon - the dark, moist, brooding, resentful, crepuscular soul - eludes her.  The performance is all surface.  I remember watching Nixon’s farewell speech live when I was young.  It was one of the most painful and disturbing speeches in American history.  Clearly this was a man exhausted, humiliated, destroyed, at a point in his life where many other men would have either given their life to Jesus or put the barrel of a shotgun in their mouth (or both).  Yet Nixon was beyond such options.  He wasn’t staring into the abyss; he was the abyss.  And when he drifted off into the “My mother was a saint” part of the speech you began to wonder if the President of the United States was going to have a complete, total, hysterical pants-shitting breakdown on live TV.  Yet when Thone delivers a portion of it in the play it is devoid of depth.  She has down Nixon's voice and walk and mannerisms, but that's all.

So, in conclusion, an all around unsatisfying production.  

Frost/Nixon will play at 12th Ave. Arts until February 17.  

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Shadow and Light

...the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadow, heavy shadows against light shadows - it has nothing else.  Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament.  Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows.  Out beyond the sitting room, which the rays of the sun can at best but barely reach, we extend the eaves or build on a veranda, putting the sunlight at still greater a remove.  The light from the gardens steals in but dimly through paper-paneled doors, and it is precisely this indirect light that makes for us the charm of a room.  We do our walls in neutral colors so that the sad, fragile, dying rays can sink into absolute repose.  The storehouse, kitchen, hallways, and such may have a glossy finish, but the walls of the sitting room will almost always be of clay textured with fine sand.  A luster here would destroy the soft fragile beauty of the feeble light.  We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them.  We never tire of the sight, for to us this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament.
 - Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (1933)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Seattle Opera: Così Fan Tutte

Saw Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte at the Seattle Opera on Sunday.  The singing was wonderful, the production so-so, the opera itself not so good.

Here’s the story.  Two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are convinced of the virtuousness of their fiancées, respectively, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, but the cynical Don Alfonso laughs at their naiveté and wagers that he can prove that the women are fickle and faithless.  The only condition to the wager is that the young men must do anything he tells them.  They agree.  Soon the lads are called off to their army unit (it’s just a ruse of Don Alfonso’s) and bid farewell to their sweethearts.  Once they're gone, two friends of Don Alfonso’s show up from Albania.  They are, of course, Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, and soon they are laying siege to each other’s beloved.  Over the course of the opera they both score.  The sisters can’t resist their manly charms.  And, besides, as the victorious Don Alfonso sings in the finale “Così fan tutte!”, which in Italian means literally “Thus do all” although it’s normally translated as “Women are like that.”  In view of the misogyny and rampant male sexual anxiety which runs through this opera I think the translation “Bitches be hos” would also fit.  

Mozart wrote this opera in a rush and it shows.  Much of the music is second-rate and the characters are poorly developed.  It’s hard to tell the lovers apart.  At one point even Mozart himself seems to lose interest in the score and starts to steal from his earlier works.  This opera is also very long.  Subtract the  twenty-five minute intermission from this production and the evening takes up about three hours of your life. 

What is an opera company to do with such a piece?  Easy.  Modernize it.  Ever since Peter Sellars’s 1986 production of Così, which was set in a diner, directors have availed themselves of this approach to deal with the fact that this opera is simply not that good on stage.

And thus it is with this production, which takes the added step of moving the action to the Pacific Northwest.  The women live in Seattle, people take lots of selfies and drink Starbucks, there are references to Uncle Ike’s pot shop.  And instead of becoming Albanians the two young men are transformed into 90s-era grunge dudes from Portland.  Ugh...  But OK, I understand the limitations of this piece.  But then the production descends into that embarrassing amateurishness which so often characterizes the Seattle Opera.  No sooner are the Portland dudes onstage than they start thrusting their crotches at the women.  This action (out of character but good for cheap and reliable laughs) continues for much, if not all, of the first act.  One of them even pretends to masturbate using a pillow.  Why?  Are these artists so unsure of their talent, so petrified of losing the audience's attention that they're willing to indulge in the kind of stage antics that would barely pass muster in a High School production?  They should concentrate on serving the work, not on catering to taste of the most bored and imbecilic spectator in the hall. 

But enough of that.  You go to an opera to hear good singing and this production has plenty of that.  (Please keep in mind that there are two different sets of lead singers in this production; I'm reviewing only one of them.)  Ben Bliss and Michael Adams were fine as Ferrando and Guglielmo.  Kevin Burdette, looking very dapper in a suit, brought an urbane nonchalance to the role of Don Alfonso; if someone ever writes an opera about Cole Porter or Cary Grant he's the man to cast in the lead for it.  Despina, the sisters' maid and the Don's accomplice, was sung beautifully by Laura Tatulescu.  But the show belonged to the two lead females.  As, respectively, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, Hanna Hipp and Marjukka Tepponen have voices which are solid and commanding, majestic yet warm.  Tepponen, in particular, has a voice made for opera seria.  I would love to hear her sing Handel.  At one point during her performance of Act II's Per pietà ben mio, perdona (which was the highlight of the show, by the way) she dropped down to a pianissimo so swift, soft, and beautiful that I got goose bumps.  You could hear gasps in the audience at the perfection of it.  It made everything else worth it.  

Così Fan Tutte plays at McCaw Hall until January 27th.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Books and Life

The other day an interviewer asked me, as many do, which book has had the greatest influence on my life.  If, over the course of my entire life, just one book had influenced me more than any other, I’d be an idiot.  There are books that were crucial in my twenties and others that defined my thirties, and I impatiently await the book that will sweep me away when I reach a hundred.
 - Umberto Eco, Chronicles of a Liquid Society (2017)

Monday, January 15, 2018


Peter M. Jogo, Paisley Mac
Went to the International Mezzotint Invitational show at the Davidson Gallery in Pioneer Square this weekend.  I loved it.  I loved it so much that I don’t know that I have anything interesting or insightful to say about it.  It was that kind of a show.  I just stared at the pictures and lost myself in their dark and luxurious beauty.  One could, of course, check out this exhibition at the Davidson Gallery’s website (and after January 27th that will be the only way to view them), but these prints should be seen in person to appreciate their power. 

Judith Rothchild, Araignée
The mezzotint process itself goes back to the 17th-century but fell out of favor with the advent of photography.  Nonetheless over the past few decades it has undergone something of a renaissance.  This show features works of forty different contemporary artists from thirty different countries and has a wide variety of styles and subjects.  There are portraits of people and animals, cityscapes, abstract images, landscapes, etc.  But the still lifes are my favorites.  The larger, more complex and photographic prints are testaments to the artists’ skill, true, but I find that the simpler ones are richer and more powerful.  There's a haunting quality to the mezzotint images; they are often precise, highly detailed, the gaze of the artist intense, the object (such as the apple in Peter M. Jogo’s Paisley Mac above) viewed with an almost hallucinatory vividness.  Judith Rothchild’s Araignée is another good example of this quality.  At first glance it seems like a plate pulled from a 19th-century science book on sea shells.  Every crevice is drawn with meticulous care and anatomical precision; but the more one examines the shells, the eerier they become.  The sweeping ridges of the top shell are forceful and muscular, as if there were bone underneath, as if the shell itself were some strange sea creature.  Unavoidably, the work of H.R. Giger comes to mind.  In Nan Mulder's Metamophoses (below) the leaves seem as mobile and alive as the caterpillars surrounding them.  

It helps to understand the appeal of mezzotints if you know how they are made.  You take a copper plate and grade it multiple times using a device called a rocker; this creates thousands of little pits in the plate.  If you were to ink and print the plate at this point it would be pitch black.  To create the image you use a series of metal tools to scrape away the pits on the plate.  Or you can press down the pitted areas entirely using a burnisher.  The burnished areas will appear white when printed; the other scraped areas will be in between the white and the black.  Hence the name “mezzotint”, which is Italian for “halftone”.  This is a painstaking method; a large plate may take dozens of hours just to grade and once you start scraping and burnishing there’s no room for error.  I don't think it's a surprise that mezzotints bring out the strange and surreal in the artist.  They spend hours and hours creating utter darkness, then they etch light into it.  There is something primal about the process.

Nan Mulder, Metamorphoses

Of course not everything in the show is weird and surreal and looks like something from a David Lynch movie or a Nine Inch Nails video.  My favorite pieces in the whole exhibit are Seiichi Hiroshima's Always Hungry series, which are simply drawings of fish.  In Always Hungry I (bottom) we see a fish (sorry, I don't know the species) swimming in a sea of darkness.  The creature's eye is what impressed me; it makes the fish seem alert, keenly intelligent even, and yet at the same time it has the cold and alien quality of a fish eye.  

Seiichi Hiroshima, Always Hungry I

Thursday, January 11, 2018


The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.  When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people - not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul, as evidenced by the innumerable strident words of abuse, hatred and contempt, mistrust, and scorn that forever grate upon our ears as the manswarm passes us in the streets - we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing.  The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.
 - Thomas Wolfe, The Hills Beyond (1941)

Monday, January 08, 2018

My Secret Book

Finally finished My Secret Book by Francesco Petrarch.  It’s a slim volume - about 120 pages - but reading it was a hard and brutal slog.  It’s a record of what Petrarch calls “the private conflicts of my soul,” and it has now been translated by Nicholas Mann as part of Harvard’s I Tatti Renaissance Library.  It turns out that Petrarch had a rather dull soul.  Or, to be more accurate, he couldn’t write about himself without suffocating his personality (which was large) under the stodgy and stultifying conventions of medieval literature (which were larger).  

One day, in a dark mood, Petrarch has a waking vision of a radiant woman approaching him.  She is the personification of Truth.  Sensing his anguish she summons up the spirit of St. Augustine.  For the next three days Petrarch and Augustine engage in a scholastic disputation over the author’s misery, replete with homilies, intellectual jousting (with concessions politely granted to an opponent’s logical agility), gentle rebukes, calls to piety, and incessant citation of Latin authors.  Truth sits by and says nothing, though I imagine she too had to stifle many a yawn.  

Composed between the mid-1340s and 50s and never published during the author’s lifetime, this book was written too soon.  It’s nothing like the great Renaissance autobiographies that would follow; works such as Girolamo Cardano’s The Book of My Life (1576), or Cellini’s Autobiography (1563), or Montaigne’s Essays (1570-92).  In those books the personality of the author, his struggles, failures, quirks, victories, daily habits, et al. appear before us simply and directly.  There is no need to resort to medieval allegory.  Some time between the mid 14th-century and the mid 16th-century people learned how to express themselves as individuals, how to tell the story of their own lives, how to put forth their own opinions and thoughts.  But Petrarch was too early for this change, and this disappointing book makes that painfully clear. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

What It Is One Sees

…one important reason for making drawings, I imagine, is not to draw a likeness of what one sees but to find out what it is one sees.
 - James Schuyler, letter to John Button, May 4, 1956

Monday, January 01, 2018

Start the Year Right

I spent much of my free time this week listening to Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, which I've never heard before.  It’s magnificent.  Breathtaking.  Exhilarating.  All those big words.  Every now and then I come across a piece of music - usually by Beethoven - which reminds me that all the other music I’ve ever heard in my life is total crap.  This is such a piece.  Give it a listen.  It will set you right with the world.  (If you’re pressed for time, go to minute 15:00 in the video below for the choral section.)