Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A bitter voter in Kenmore

In the hills of Kenmore, a bitter voter proudly displays his bitterness along side his McCain/Palin sign. He'd rather the rich continue to get richer than vote for our best hope to solve the hideous problems that face our communities, country and the world.

McCain/Palin solve nothing. Their supporters still cling to ideologies from a fast receding century. We've watched as the "free market" was revealed to be the "greed market." We've all been trained to consume mindlessly and endlessly, but the diet of cheap plastic goods from China is turning out to be not very healthy.

Top executives, lawyers, bankers, financial market manipulators, medical specialists, college presidents and so on get pay increases at alarming rates. Meanwhile I'm lumbering along on my teacher salary, living in a house that I bought for 46k in 1999. It's probably worth about 50 cents now, and I don't even want to think about my pension. I am planning on working until I die unless we get some major changes in the way things are organized in this country. Sign me up for some wealth redistribution, please!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ray Davies' Come Dancing

The Storyteller writes one for the stage.

Ray Davies and the Kinks released Come Dancing on State of Confusion in 1983. A wonderful video soon followed, complete with period characters and costuming, and it was shot at the Ilford Palais, the dance hall lovingly brought to life in the song's lyrics. Ray's been talking about writing a musical based on that song for years.

This is not one of those "grab a bunch of a pop group's hit songs and try to write a story around them" types of musicals now popping up all over Broadway and the West End. Come Dancing is is authentic in content and presentation, without any excess. It is all heart and full of truths both hard and tender. As fellow Kinks fan Rupert advised me outside the theatre -- you will need a hankie to get you through it. Rupert and his aunt had seen the matinee and were lingering outside the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Rupert had managed to snag an autograph from Ray when he dashed out for something to eat between shows.

I stood in front of the theatre, in awe of its storied past. It was Joan Littlewood's home for many years, the place where she produced theatre with a social conscience and used techniques that were innovative for her time. And oh yes, she was a total rarity -- a woman directing and producing in an era that was singularly devoid of women in creative control of what appeared on a professional stage. Her work was born of commedia mixed with agitprop. "Oh What a Lovely War" first appeared here, along with "A Taste of Honey" and "Fings Ain't What They Used to Be." The theatre has maintained its mission of service to the community, a community that features 160 different spoken languages brought there by immigrants from around the world.

Littlewood described theatre as a living breathing process: "Good theatre draws the energies out of the place where it is and gives it back as joie de vivre." Come Dancing lives up to Littlewood's expectations of good theatre. It was the perfect venue for this musical tale of a working class family living in post-war Britain in the years just before birth of rock and roll.

The big bands played jazzy dance music on a Saturday night at the Ilford Palais. The stage setting was simple and inclusive of the audience, spilling over and blurring the line between audience and performer. The Palai's dance floor was bordered by cafe chairs and tables on the side and back, while on the other side a functioning bar served both actors and audience during the pre-show and at the interval. The five piece band was perched up above the band leader's microphone at the rear of the stage. Front and center, a revolving circle provided dancing and acting spaces. Actors flowed in and out of audience areas, and on stage local couples danced through time back to the 1950s

There were no glitzy set changes. Pools of light served to define places other than the dance hall. We always knew where we were: on a rooftop, in the family home, out in the street -- even though there were no furnishings. The acting was impeccable, each character vibrant and all too human. Based on Ray's memories of observing his older sisters' preparations for a Saturday night dance, the plot involves the love of a young white girl for a black musician from Jamaica. The impossibility of such a connection is juxtaposed with the moment in time when black music began to stir the souls of young white teenagers. Indeed, three young men form a rock band as the the Big Band era winds down. The new beat underscores the changing rhythms of life in Great Britain. Old ways are broken up as entire neighborhoods are torn down, families relocated and given elocution lessons to cover cockney origins.

The musical confronts the harsh reality of a white culture that could not bring itself to talk to, let alone shake the hand of, a black person. It also reminds us of our working class roots and how socio-economic forces and family culture shaped our outcomes.

There are twenty new songs in Come Dancing. They are not typical musical theatre by any means. They are not written to stop the show with excessive glitter and an endless chorusline, but simply to tell the story. Their changing musical influences chart the progress of a young man's musical education. Ray has stated that music in this show is a tribute to the first music he listened to -- his older sisters' records. I'm probably not the only one looking forward to an original cast recording of Come Dancing. Fans are hoping for a move to the West End, and then on to NYC.

The dancing is wonderful, the singing glorious, and the story is one not to be forgotten. My only nagging concern about this musical is will it be allowed to stand on its own without the presence of creator/narrator Ray Douglas Davies? Yes, it is his story, but it is a story that should eventually be released for others to perform for audiences scattered here and there. As pleased as I was to be leaning over the royal circle balcony for a fantastic view of Ray telling his tale, I could not help but think that "Tired of Waiting" at the beginning was not necessary. I did note that the family name in the musical is not that of "Davies." I tried to imagine some other actor telling the tale as if it were his own. I'm quite sure that it would work, which pleases the director within me.

Here is a list of the songs, as given by Kinks-fan-beyond-measure Olga in the Kinks Preservation Society Digest:

Tired of Waiting (Ray)
Come Dancing - part (Ray)
My Big Sister (Ray)
Putting on the Face (Ray, the Sisters)
Gonna Change the World (Rita)
Saturday Night (Tosher, Sid and Basil)
When the Band Begins to Play (Frankie, Company)
A Penny for your Thoughts (Frankie)
Because I'm Yours (Frankie, Annie)
The New Towns are Coming (Rose and Arthur)
I Got Me a Knife (Tosher)
Rock Till You Drop (Tosher, Basil and Sid)
Believe in Yourself (Rita)
There's Gonna Be Something Better (Julie, plus Rita)
We Might Never Be This Way Again (Company)
Do It! (Rita)
Why I Love You (Frankie) If I remember correctly, this is a pastiche of
a very bad love song and is only a snatch
Wherever You Go (Julie)
Truly Beautiful (Company)
The World Won't Keep Us Apart (Julie, Hamilton)
In Heaven (Company)
A Better Thing (Ray, Hamilton, Frankie)
and Come Dancing as an all cast finale

In an interview, Davies stated that the story is timeless, that youth, violence, family conflict and class are all intertwined and continually played from generation to the next. The only thing that changes, he said, are the clothes. See for yourself in the show extracts released to YouTube by the theatre:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

London notes

Four days in London wasn't nearly enough, but it was all that could be spared at this time of the always busy school year. I didn't have time to download my photos from the trip until yesterday, and no time at all for blogging.

I saw three shows in London: John Webster's The White Devil (a Jacobean revenge play chock full of back-stabbing, poison and other forms of bloodletting); Chekhov's first play, Ivanov (Kenneth Branagh in the title role with an ensemble of perfectly etched rural Russian characters of various social and economic standings); and of course Ray Davies' new musical Come Dancing (the central reason for my trip to the UK).

You can read reviews of Ivanov here and here. It's definitely a five star production. I arrived at the theatre not having read a single word about it. I admit that Chekhov is not one of my main theatrical interests. I was never forced to read Ivanov (The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Three Sisters were all required reading at one point or another) so all I really knew about this play was that the script was newly adapted by Tom Stoppard and I'd get a chance to see Branagh live on stage before my very eyes! Both reviewers commented on the most amazing physical response ever give on stage to a wad of money:

The great moment in Branagh's performance comes when Kevin R McNally's kindly Lebedev, dominated by his penny-pinching wife, covertly offers to lend Ivanov the money he owes them. McNally puts the eleven hundred roubles on the table with a nervous gesture. In one of the longest theatrical silences I've ever encountered, Branagh simply stares at the money before sliding to the floor in a wrecked, dishevelled heap. Branagh here touches the soul in a way I've not seen him do before; and what he shows is how his friend's pity is Ivanov's final undoing. [UK Guardian
And this insightful line from the Independent:
Branagh reacts to the wad of notes on the table with the stillness of infinite, clear-eyed sorrow, as though it were the accusing embodiment of his rock-bottom shame and then collapses in a stricken, silently sobbing foetal heap.
I had to see The White Devil because the opportunity for seeing it in the US has eluded me for my entire adult theatre-going life. The only other Webster play I have seen is The Duchess of Malfi, and that was also on a trip to the UK. Most notable aspect of this production was the space (an old chocolate factory turned into restaurant, art galleries and a black box theatre) and staging choices made by the director.

The stage was a long narrow raised strip stretched horizontally between two audience areas, so we were facing another audience on the far side of the action. Blood red curtains closed on both sides of the raised platform stage at the interval. Costuming was modern Godfather-style infused with overtones of Jacobean styling. The Independent loved it. The Guardian not so much.

As for Come Dancing, well that deserves a whole other post. I hope to get to it later today.

Other London notes: Where's the recycling? I didn't see any recycling bins put out for the causal consumer of plastic or glass bottles. I did see one small bin of separated paper put out for the trash. If any Londoners are reading, would appreciate your comments on recyling efforts in your town.

I also found the London air to be full of grime. Blow your nose, and you'll find a decided dark grey coloring. It also gets all over your face, whatever it is. Is there a lot of coal burning in London? Or is it from industrial smoke stacks?

On the positive side, I saw not one bit of vinyl siding in my UK travels. Stone, brick, flint, wood, and steel are the most prevalent building materials. For me, England remains a visual delight. The charm, the care and maintenance of centuries old structures -- all make for views that are much more than pleasant. Coming back to my home town, I am struck how tawdry the views are. From cheap and oh so convenient vinyl siding to haphazard residential and shopping sprawls littering the landscapes -- there's far more ugly around here than charming, that's for sure.

Another joy of British life is the availability of public transportation. British rail is a joy to use as are the undergrounds and buses. Out in the country, watching my aunt negotiate roads and bridges so narrow that drivers must take turns passing in opposite directions, I was struck how the very set up of Great Britain makes good manners essential in order to live peaceably. Everything is smaller, and so one's path through life must necessarily accommodate all the physical restrictions of living on an island.

A prime example let me contrast my hotel room in a three star hotel near Paddington with the hotels I've been staying at lately in Cincinnati and Chicago for various professional weekends. I could have fit my London room inside the bathrooms of the major US hotel chains. In Cincinnati, my hotel bed was larger than the entire room of my London hotel. My London bed was narrow, hard and right next to wall heater that had no apparent temperature controls. I could go on and on, but the main theme is one of US luxury and comfort versus London's almost Dickensian utilitarian offerings. No doubt, I could have found something luxurious somewhere in London, but the price would have been far beyond my means.

I soon got over my initial shock at how small my room was and how hard the bed, because I wasn't really planning on spending much time there other than to crash and store the numerous books I found myself purchasing along the way. I did find the National Theatre's book shop with a huge section just on educational theatre. And then there were the outdoor book stalls under Waterloo bridge.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mind Over Chatter and other things on my mind

Tonight is one of those I don't have time to blog nights -- there's been a lot of that around here lately, sorry! It's the busy fall production season along with a bunch of other looming deadlines as well as wonderful travel opportunities.

I hope to be blogging to you from the UK this weekend as Ray Davies must trump DEVO. No offense DEVOtees -- I'm plenty pissed that concert was scheduled for the one weekend of the past 15 years I will happen to be in England! I'm quite sure that the Civic will be THE place to be in Akron, Friday night. I'll be jealous of you all on Friday, if you promise to drool with envy over my front seat ticket to see Come Dancing on Saturday!

But I vowed to see "Come Dancing" when I first heard Ray was writing it over a dozen years ago. And so I'm off Thursday night and back Monday night. Going to see as much theatre as I can possibly fit into the extended weekend including a John Webster play, The White Devil. From Wikipedia: "The play itself explores the differences between the reality of people and the way they depict themselves as a good, "white" or pure." It sounds so topical.

But the reason I opened up Blogger tonight really has nothing to do with anything I've just written. I was motivated by Rachel Maddow, who has fast become my favorite commenting TV head. She had Connie Schultz on tonight (go here for Connie's take on Sarah Palin and be sure to read this one.) -- and that made me wonder why Connie's opinions haven't been sought out more often? It was totally refreshing to see her on screen chatting one-on-one with Rachel, who doesn't go for the bunch of voices chattering in opposition shtick. She prefers to go face to face with one guest at a time, engaging them with insightful questions that draw the discussion to deeper levels rather than the shows that prefer to have people shouting over each other.

She had Barbara Boxer on and asked her about will the Democrats do something about the abuses of power and spying on citizens that went on during Bush's years of expanded presidential super powers. Boxer said yes, but they have to do it in the right way -- so that it will never happen again. She also commented that the Democrats are going to have huge urgent tasks ahead of them so it might not be the first item on the list.

I say this to Senator Boxer, whom I admire greatly, look -- you have all those standing committees in the senate with the power to convene, investigate and take testimony. Surely one of them is available for examining domestic spying procedures. If you get that big old fool proof majority this time, put FISA back under judicial oversight. All the schlepping around the globe with terrorists and torturing them in secret foreign locations -- that needs to stop too.

Rachel had a guest later on, a lemon-sucking Enterprise Institute upper class twit who attempted to make the point that the tone of Rachel's show was equivalent to the threats and derogatory remarks coming from the McPalin rallies. The guest smirked and sneered as he derided the first 41 minutes of her show, which as I mentioned, featured two very distinguished American women who engaged quite civilly with Rachel from unabashedly progressive viewpoints.

Yeah -- I'm digging the Maddow show and hope you are too. Here's a fine example. Rachel Maddow on Sarah Palin's lies:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

When times get tough -- go to the theatre!

Back in the days of FDR, the government initiated all kinds of programs to pull the country out of depression. The Federal Theatre Project was one such initiative. From the FTP web site:
At one point in its life, the Federal Theatre Project employed around 12,700 people. More than nine out of every ten of these workers came from the relief rolls. Ninety percent of the FTP appropriation had to be spent on wages. About fifty per cent of FTP personnel were actors. Others were writers, designers, theater musicians, dancers, stage hands, box office staff, ushers, maintenance workers, and the accounting and secretarial force necessary to carry out any enterprise operated under procedures required by the Government of the United States. These workers were employed in theater companies operating in at least forty cities in twenty-two states.
Sadly, the FTP came to an end in 1939. Congress wasn't too happy with the left-leaning content found in much of the FTP's work. In particular, the Living Newspaper project, although attracting large audiences, focused on progressive solutions to the problems facing folks struggling to get through the depression. Living Newspaper took articles from the newspapers and built scripts around them. You can read more about this form of theatre here. It was a brilliant concept, but one that was doomed in that it would inevitably challenge the powers in charge. Most importantly, it recognized the significance of theatre as essential entertainment in bad times as well as good.

As we head into this new era of economic uncertainty, I can only wonder if the theatre will once again need rescuing. Who will be able to afford those hefty Broadway ticket prices? The average B'way ticket price is around $75 per seat, with many shows demanding far higher prices for dress circle seats. Touring productions that come through Ohio are not cheap either and even many community theatres have seen their ticket prices rise to above $20 per seat.

Fortunately, there is at least one theatre locally that has held down the cost of tickets while maintaining consistently high standards. The Magical Theatre Company in Barberton provides affordable theatre for the family. I went to see their current production yesterday. The show is Holes, which began its life as a juvenile novel by Louis Sachar and then became a Disney movie.
Sachar also wrote the stage adaptation, which is presented by Magical Theatre with public performances running through October through October 19. (School performances continue through October 24th.)

One thing I always love about Magical Theatre productions are the set and lighting designs, which are always imaginative and never pedestrian. For Holes, the set up is a large rectangular center raked area, painted sand yellow with round holes of various sizes in which the boys do their digging. At stage right and left are two small acting areas backed by projection screens. It is here that the intertwining back stories of Sydney's forbears and the Kissing Bandit are played. During those stories, the boys are often seen in frozen action positions -- which must be held for long lengths of time. Very effective and demanding great discipline from the young actors.

Speaking of the actors, I must confess that four of the young men featured in this production are either former students or present students of mine, and thus my review may be considered a wee bit biased. However, I can honestly say that if this production weren't worth seeing, it wouldn't be worth writing about. I will simply say that all of the boys in the cast do a great job and inhabit their characters with zest and maintain consistent physicality in their interpretations.

As usual in a Magical Theatre production, the acting across the board is crisp and satisfying. Among the adults, Dennis Sullivan as the Sheriff is particularly menacing as he spits his sunflower seeds as punctuation for his sharp words. Holly Barkdoll as the Warden is just as sharp and venomous as her character's rattlesnake nail polish, while director Dennis O'Connell plays two dynamically different characters, the sympathetic ancestor Elya Yelnats and the evil Charles "Trout" Walker, the owner of Green Lake and killer of Kate Barlowe. Adam Hoffman provides excellent comic relief in his role as camp counselor. Another comic delight would be Kristin Larsen as the Attorney General, a minor role that stands out due to the actor's vocal and physical transformative abilities.

Holes is a many layered story that mixes comedic and dramatic elements into an engaging story for children 9 and above. It is the kind of play that would have fit right into the Federal Theatre Project's mandate to provide outstanding theatre at an affordable price. It delivers much to think about and provides us with all kinds of post-show topics for discussion: Greed, racism, coercive punishment, and individual responsibility versus just plain bad luck are some of the themes in Holes. And at only $8 per ticket, this production is a steal of a deal! If you live within a reasonable driving distance of Barberton, put this show on your calendar for next weekend.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Donate for Change in the Senate

Joe Biden emailed me today -- wanted me to send money for the Obama-Biden campaign, but Chuck Schumer needed some of my money to help build a senate majority. I had to go with Chuck this evening. I've sent a few bucks to Obama since he won the primary. (Still waiting for that incentive campaign starter kit complete with yard sign, stickers and buttons.) But now I'm thinking that my puny amounts of money are best sent to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They are competing in eleven states. The goal is to "elect a gridlock free senate majority."

I know I shouldn't get over confident four weeks out from the election, but damn -- last night's debate felt good! Obama looks good as president to be. McCain continues to embarrass himself. The old maverick role no longer fits his tired body, mind and emotional state. He has to face the fact that the only role he seems capable of playing these days is that of the cranky old man next door. And even in that role, he needs to do a whole lot of work to convince me of his so called "populist" campaign offerings. I can't picture him living next to me. The houses on my street are worth maybe $29,000, more or less. No condos in sight. Just a bunch of old houses in a neglected neighborhood near a toxic lake.

The senate has been the sticking point, the place where Democratic initiatives have been turned aside or stalled indefinitely. According to UPI, this election could give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority. Can't think of a nicer White House warming present for the Obama presidency than that. And it warms my heart to think of Al Franken giving speeches in the US Senate! A senate devoid of Ted Stevens and Liddy Dole -- imagine it! Then reach into your pocket and help transform the senate into Obama's engine for change.

Remember this Franken footage from the 2004 Democratic Convention?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Town Hall Meeting

Every time the candidates talk of earmarks, I think of earwigs, those ugly bugs that look so evil but are no serious threat to human life or our homes and gardens.

I switched over to CNN in order to watch the response graph of uncommitted voters. Obama is scoring huge on the health care discussion. Both candidates brought up support for nuclear power during the energy questions -- and I was very pleased to see precipitous drops in the response lines on the graph at the very mention of nuclear power. Nuclear power is so last century. We don't need more nuclear plants creating more dangerous piles of spent fuel that must be guarded for thousands fo years from terrorists and prevented from poisoning our air, land and water supplies.

McCain is promising some wild things tonight -- paying off mortgages and doubling the amount of tax emptions. Maybe I'm nuts, but I'd think that in terms of planetary health, we'd do much better to tax people for bringing more than two children into the world. Over consumption is the problem, so less consumers would be a good thing.

Maybe the economic crisis will lead to the death of capitalism, or at least the so called "free" market type. Free to be greedy is what it really turned out to be. Let's not stop at socializing the banking industry. Universal health care, anyone?

The format tonight is as tedious as the moderator. I am not a Brokaw fan. The constant nagging about time limits reminds us that the media is not so keen on letting candidates go into issues on any deeper significant level..

McCain's response line would bring the EMT technicians running with the paddles. Is there a heart beating in there? Thank dog it is finally over.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Freak Show

The question is -- have the American public had their fill of fake "jest plain folks" type candidates for the highest office in the land? Why the fear of voting for someone with actual intelligence? The need to elect someone you'd like to have a beer with or go wolf-hunting from a helicopter?

As in any debate, the winner will always be selected in terms of style over substance. Palin managed to lose on both accounts tonight. From the perspective of this acting teacher, she displayed an inability to hide the coaching. Her technique was showing, as they say in the business. You could see her mentally counting to three before turning to the camera and going into her memorized folksy inanities.

The format worked for her tactic, which was to not actually answer the questions but instead turn to the camera to deliver set speeches that had been pre-tested and carefully wrought by her handlers. Meanwhile, the Republican spinners promised that we would see Sarah let loose to be herself!

I shudder at the very thought of her ensconced in the Oval Office setting policy and making decisions that affect all of us.

Biden was not the main event tonight. All eyes were on the governor of Alaska. He didn't mess up, he didn't promise to expand the powers of the vice presidency. And thank dog for that.