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October 10, 2007

The Word Begins: A Rush of Images on War, Love, Race, Relationships

Sometimes life comes at you as fast as a battering ram breaking down the door that has shielded your little piggy toes from the big bad wolf and more. On October 7, 2007, the Dresser attended a performance of The Word Begins, a spoken word poetry play written and performed by Steve Connell and Sekou (Tha Misfit) and directed by Robert Egan at Signature Theatre of Arlington, Virginia.
smSteve_Sekou-Word.jpgPhoto by Scott Suchman
Dealing with war, race relations, religion, sexuality, and love, this non-linear drama performed by two actors—one white and one black—un-gated a flood of images for the Dresser.

How so?

THE WORD BEGINS: GOD, THE BUS DRIVER

For example, the performers weave in and out of various character roles. In one scene, Connell plays God. God, now driving a Greyhound bus, is a rejected author—the Bible isn’t selling so well on the street.

The Dresser’s Recent Life Dramas: Rescued Race Dogs

The Dresser, escaping for a couple of days from her new urban digs which are horrendously noisy given a major renovation project in front of her apartment house involving jackhammers, traveled to Rehoboth Beach, Maryland, where rescued greyhounds were being paraded in the thousands.
Greyhounds.jpgPhoto by Karren L. Alenier
The Dresser, who will now and forever see a Greyhound bus and instantly think about the Rehoboth greyhound convention and the possibility that the bus driver could be God, imagines that the owners of these retired race dogs, which are serenely quiet, need all the support they can get from other more experienced greyhound owners. Why? For starters, these rescue owners participate in a deus ex machina operation that gives them a dog that sees every door as a starting gate and once the barrier opens, the dog races away at 45 miles per hour not knowing, in the world outside a racetrack, that vehicular traffic is something that will kill them.

THE WORD BEGINS: SHARKS IN THE CARPET

What kills plays a big role in The Word Begins. The writer-actors are dealing with a non-sequential time line of killing fields: the Nazi Holocaust that exterminated Anne Frank, the current war in Iraq killing and maiming young Americans soldiers and Iraqis of all ages—solders and civilians alike, the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre by the mentally unbalanced young man who came from South Korean to America at age eight, the Martin-Luther-King/John-F-Kennedy assassinations, the Ku Klux Klan lynchings of southern blacks, the anti-gay hate-crime murder of student Matthew Shepard. How killing and danger are framed comes by way of Connell assuming his boyhood identity when he believed in Superman and Santa Claus. “Watch out for the sharks in the carpet,” he warns Sekou.
smSteve_Sekou-1.jpgPhoto by Scott Suchman

What works really well in delivering this blitz of information is the use of nine video screens that are easy to see at one glance from any seat in Signature’s ARK Theatre. Director Robert Egan has enlisted the impressively credentialed Michael Clark as the projection designer. Clark, who has worked with Broadway, Off-Broadway, Washington National Opera, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre, and numerous Signature Theatre shows, knows how to pace and repeat his projections. In fact the other artistic designers— Myung Hee Cho (set and costumes), Chris Lee (lighting), and Adam Phalen (sound)—have all made their contributions using the same measured strategy that supports the performers without overwhelming the performance.

The Dresser’s Recent Life Dramas: Getting Back Your Arm

Currently as part of her ongoing research on the American writer Jane Auer Bowles, the Dresser is reading the apocalyptic novel Journey to the End of Night, written by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. (On a transatlantic ship, Céline discovered the teenage Jane Bowles intently reading his novel just after it was published in 1934.) Like The Word Begins, Journey to the End of Night is an in-your-face exposé that steps on a lot of toes about man’s inhumanity to man related to the subject of war (Journey begins with World War I), love, religion, politics, and race. One line that really sticks in the head of the Dresser is: “In all this solid blackness, which you felt would never give you back your arm, if you stuck it out in front of your face, … was … that the desire to kill was lurking within it, vast and multiform.”

The gloom is thick in Céline’s semi-autobiographic novel, but there is also something giddily comic about how Céline presents it. And yes, Céline is the white medical doctor-author labeled an anti-Semite who also used the N word frequently in Journey to the End of Night. However, the Dresser thinks Céline speaks the language of our teenage Goths and that Journey to the End of Night should be read by anyone showing any inclination for volunteering for military service. The book makes the reader think, while she or he is entertained or affronted. Same for The Word Begins.

THE WORD BEGINS: TALK SHOW WITH LICK NASTY

Although The Word Begins does not actively campaign against youth joining the military, it lobs rotten eggs at our politicians, equating George Bush to Osama bin Laden, calling both terrorists. In a set of kitchen sink maneuvers that include talk, minstrel, and boxing shows, the poets explore stereotypes that feed sexism and racism. Connell and Sekou explore denigration of women with two obnoxious talk show characters, one called Lick Nasty who sees women’s “boobies” as crystal balls (this is where Nasty sees his future). A Shit-Happens memorial for blacks leads into the question of how do we get rid of anger and hate.

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October 14, 2007

Tan Dun Brings The Stone Man to the Concert Hall

The Dresser had the good fortune to be invited by a long-time season ticket holding friend to the October 13 performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Tan Dun conducting. The program entitled “The Map of Asia” was a set of folk music inspired works rooted in Asia—Dmitri Shostakovich’s "Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Folk Themes" (Kirghizstan borders on westernmost China), Alexander Borodin’s "Polovtsian Dances" from Prince Igor (Borodin’s unfinished opera centers around Russian Prince Igor’s campaign against the Asian tribe of Polovtsi), and Tan’s The Map: Concerto for Violoncello, Video, and Orchestra.

SLEEP VERSUS EDGE OF SEAT

While the romantically pitched music of the Russian composers lulled the Dresser into deep reverie, the blended East-West experimentation of Chinese born Tan Dun brought the Dresser to the edge of her seat in alert excitement. The Dresser has to admit that she is a fan of Tan Dun whom she happened by chance to run into in the lobby of Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. This moment with the composer gave her an opportunity to tell him she experienced his opera The First Emperor and express her eagerness to hear this concert. The Map concerto turns out to be the logical entry for Tan’s work.

THE STONE MAN

TanDun.gifPhoto by James Salzano

In 1981 while Tan was a student at Beijing’s Central Conservatory, he went back to his home province of Hunan to collect ideas from folk musicians. He met a regionally renown, shamanistic stone man who made music by drumming on stones as told to him from conversations with such objects in nature as stones, water, and tree leaves. Tan told this folk artistic he would come back, if the man agreed, and record his music. Life intervened for Tan and when he returned, the man had died. The Map concerto done in nine movements is Tan’s tribute to the stone man and the lost art of stone drumming.

What is exciting about The Map concerto is the blending of sounds from nature with the formality of a classical concert. BSO musicians used stones to tap out intricate rhythms and kazoos to echo the leaf-blowing concert performed by young Chinese women seen in a colorful video projected above the orchestra. The BSO musicians made their instruments talk the language of a Hunan ghost dance and cry singing. Unless you see the video that Tan made and managed with a camera crew in 1991 and 2001, you would not get a full understanding of what the movement titles of The Map concerto mean. So yes, the native artists seen in Tan’s video sit with each other and cry as a way of making music. The native singers also produce music with agilely quick tongues (tongue-singing) and unusual instruments, such as a large pipe horn Tan calls a mouth organ. Tan pays tribute to his origins by ratcheting up his musical invention to include elements of these folk sounds with classical and jazz music.

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October 21, 2007

No Exit

As a critic, it’s an odd occasion to attend the last performance of a production that has been running for over one month, but that is what the Dresser did on October 21, 2007, when she saw Scena Theatre’s No Exit. NoExitMen.jpgPhoto by Ian C. Armstrong

It’s no secret that director Robert McNamara has produced an outstanding offering to open Scena’s 20th anniversary season that he is calling Nouvelle Vague 2007 (New Wave 2007). In fact McNamara offered this production of No Exit in 2005 to sell-out audiences and the critics liked it again in 2007.

The Dresser who studied French literature in college had not seen this play since she was a student at the University of Maryland. In College Park, this play was performed in a black box theater set up as theater in the round. It felt appropriately claustrophobic. Seeing McNamara’s production, she now remembers how acutely Jean-Paul Sartre’s play affected her. 1161_1019053397.jpg
After seeing the U MD production of Huis Clos (No Exit), she believed that to be, one must do and that one is the sum of her/his actions. In short, existentialism made sense and the Dresser has continued in that way of thinking. What the Dresser did not know until recently is that the popular English translation of Sartre’s seminal play was written by Paul Bowles. The Dresser, who met Bowles in 1982 and spent three weeks in Tangier, Morocco, working on her poems about Gertrude Stein with this expatriate writer/composer, is now working on a book of poems about Bowles and his wife Jane. That Paul Bowles translated Sartre makes absolute sense given Bowles bleak view of humankind.

This one-act play concerns one man and two women who are escorted by a bellboy to a windowless, mirror-free room and then locked in. This is hell without the physical accoutrements of torture but also there is no toothpaste. Why? Because “Hell is other people.”

In the English version, the man is named Vincent Cradeau (in the original French, he is Garcin) and Cradeau, dead now, was a collaborator during World War II and paid for his crime by being executed. Regen Wilson put out the energy needed to show he was both a sniveling coward and a raging, sexist-pig journalist.

The first woman to enter the room is Inez, the Lesbian who lured a married woman from her husband. The husband later meets a tragic end. The distraught widow turns on the gas and kills herself and Inez. Elle Wilhite ratchets up the heat inside the room with her compelling performance of a woman who fears nothing and seems to be at peace with her bad behavior. Wilhite makes Inez a very scary character.

Maura Stadem, a real looker with a great dress (costumes by Anne Paulus), plays the socialite Estelle who married an old man as a way to improve her financial status. Estelle has an affair with a man she doesn’t love, gets pregnant, takes an extended vacation with him to have the baby and then throws the child off their hotel balcony. Her lover kills himself. NoExitGals.jpgPhoto by Ian C. Armstrong

The bellboy (Chris Moss) dressed in pants that are too short is a geeky monster (think Lurch from The Addams Family) who later comes back wearing dark glasses and something looking like a motorcycle jacket. McNamara did a great job casting everyone and, oddly enough, making this production fun to see. The actors are good at modulated their laughing into hysteria.

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October 25, 2007

The Spelling Bee

With the hysterical laughing of Scena Theatre’s production of No Exit still echoing in her ears, the Dresser, who tries not to be a snob about musicals, ventured out to see the road show of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Washington, DC’s National Theatre on October 23, 2007. Bee, originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, is a charming and comical show about six egg-headed kids wearing odd numbers (1, 7, 11, 13, 17, 21) and competing to win a long-standing spelling bee.

NOW, HOW TO SPELL COW

What makes this musical different from most Broadway musicals is the element of improvisation. A quick aside here—the origin of this show was a non-musical play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E by the New York City comedic improv group The Farm. The late playwright Wendy Wasserstein saw the work because her nanny was in it and Wasserstein recommended to William Finn that he consider musicalizing the work. Although the Dresser is not entirely convinced that there is enough improv in the resulting Bee, the technique is visible with employment of several audience members selected just before the doors open on each performance. As show time arrives, the Bee’s mistress of ceremony Rona Lisa Peretti (played by Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran Sally Wilfert) strolls through the audience carrying an oversized trophy and talking to audience members. For example, Peretti asked the Dresser if she was really going to take notes. After the cast of contestants is introduced, Peretti invites the volunteer contestants to join the cast members. What distinguishes the non-actors from the actors is this: the actors are adults dressed as children and the non-actors are adults dressed in what they wore to the theater. And yes, the contestants—actor and non—are all suppose to be children.

When Peretti introduces the non-actors, she makes funny comments about what they are wearing and how that reflects on their personalities. Before the show begins, the non-actors are told when they are called to the mic to spell a word, they may ask for a definition of their word and for the word to be used in a sentence. That’s it. No other instructions.

Initially the word meister (he is also the milquetoast sexual predator), Vice Principal Douglas Panch (played by James Kall), gives the non-actors ridiculously easy words like cow. However, one plucky non-actor gets one of those words no one has ever heard of and much to the amazed hilarity of Mr. Panch, who has begun to make up odd sentences for odd words, the non-actor spells the word correctly. After the show, the Dresser approached this man who caused the sour Mr. Panch to laugh and asked him about his role in the show. The man works as a systems administrator in real life and he said he just guessed how to spell the word, foiling the attempt to eliminate him at that moment. The audience loved him and gave him lots of applause.

STOP THE CAMERAS

The Dresser doesn’t want to be a spoiler but the word in question is catterjoons or catterjunes, which if Googled reveals: (1) it is not a real word and (2) it is always given to the last audience contestant left standing on the Bee’s stage. You, dear reader, can take it from there. What the Dresser is revealing makes the situation no less funny. James Kall delivers the surprised reaction that any audience can believe. Moreover, what the creators of the Bee have effected is a great study in what makes an audience engage with the theatrical performance.

PRESENTING THE MOSTLY PRIME NUMBERS

What’s delightful about the cast playing the kids is how well distinguished each kid is from the other and what technique each uses to impart the letters of the word assigned. For example, kid number 13 known as William Barfee (pronounced bar-fay—he has a running battle with Mr. Panch about saying his name correctly) uses his “magic foot” to spell out each word he is assigned. SpellingBeeTour176sm.jpg

Photo by Joan Marcus

The magic foot provides inspiration for one of the best song and dance numbers in the show. Barfee (played outstandingly by theater newcomer Eric Roediger) is a nerdy fat boy in glasses who by the end of the show has won the heart of contestant 11 Olive Ostrovsky (Vanessa Ray) whose mother is in India seeking spiritual guidance while her father is a no-show. The Dresser adores this character whose best friend is her dictionary and, of course, Olive, who whispers into her hand first in her spelling moments, should be the winner but defers to Barfee.

Then there is kid number 17 named Leaf Coneybear (played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger) who each time he gets a word suddenly wakes up his inner genius. Keenan-Bolger is fascinating to watch as his eyes and mouth open wide when he is spelling. Otherwise, he is the family screw-up and possibly the idiot savant in the game of spelling bees. Talking about screw-ups, last year’s Bee winner Chip Tolentino (number 21) falls in love with Leaf’s sister whereupon Chip’s hormones kick in for one of those embarrassing male events. Distracted, Chip (played by Justin Keyes) misspells and tries to correct himself. He is ordered out of the contest, but not without help from the Bee’s bouncer Mitch Mahoney (Kevin Smith Kirkwood) who is a street tough guy wearing dreadlocks and whose job it is to “comfort” the losers with tiny juice boxes.

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October 31, 2007

Don Giovanni at Halloween

What are the chances that Washington National Opera serendipitously scheduled director John Pascoe’s new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni around Halloween? Given the masked revelers early in the opera and the later graveyard scene where a statute of the man Don G has killed declares it will get revenge, the Dresser believes that WNO General Director Plácido Domingo (he is also the conductor for this production) was making another attempt to attract a younger audience while also trying to sustain the support of opera elders. After all, this is Mozart’s music with fantastic arias, duets and ensemble singing that plucks the muffs off a classical music lover’s sensitive ears!

PASCOE’S DON G AT-A-GLANCE

Before the elders misread the Dresser’s intention, she’ll say she generally enjoyed the show seen October 29, 2007. Without reservations, the singing abilities of those cast in the lead roles do justice to this WNO production. The Dresser does have a few nits such as Erin Wall’s portrayal of Donna Anna lamenting over her dead father seemed to start late and without the appropriate emotional load one would expect. The complaint here is not about her singing, but more about musical direction and acting. Also the Dresser felt impatient with the overly long and maybe too serious aria Donna Anna sings to her fiancé whom she keeps putting off. (As in: I-can’t-marry-you-yet-I’m-grieving-but-what-you-don’t-know-is-the-grief-is-about-losing-the-attention-of-Don-Giovanni-the-cad-who-killed-my-daddy.) Yes, here the Dresser is complaining about Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Amanda Squitieri as Zerlina was notably skillful in her seduction scenes of the jealous Masetto (Trevor Scheunemann). Another Pascoe touch that the Dresser liked was the processional movement of various players including the young delectable women surrounding Don G and the religious groups of nuns and deacons. The Pascoe sets were inventive and interesting to look at but the Dresser did wonder about the set early in Act II that looked like hanging laundry, a touch one would expect in Naples but not Venice where the opera seems to be set.

SLUT AND MASTER

Now turning back to the conjunction of this Don G production and its relation to Halloween, the Dresser will diverge here slightly. According to the Washington Post on October 30, 2007, the Baby Boomers have appropriated the celebration of Halloween to the degree that costume fashion has turned to racy outfits. This has filtered down to little girls begging their parents to allow them to wear bustiers, net stockings and other sluttish attire. Enter John Pascoe as costume designer for Don Giovanni. Pascoe has ratcheted up the sexuality in this story about a ruthless womanizer. Erwin Schrott as Don G in various scenes sports costumes that suggest an S & M master. Schrott is a handsome man and he exudes the necessary sexuality in his bare-chested getups.
wno_dongiov.jpgPhoto by Karin Cooper

His number one slave is Donna Elvira (played by Anja Kampe). Elvira wears a leather bustier, skin-tight pants, and an floor-length coat that flows like a mantle around her. How could any man resist her allure?
Elvira.jpg
Photo by Karin Cooper

Well, Pascoe presents her in the opening and closing scene with an infant in her arms and in the company of nuns.

Some of the other players such as Donna Anna (daughter of the murdered man) and Don Ottavio (Anna’s fiancé) for the most part seem to be dressed in Victorian dresses and Napoleonic military uniforms. DonG.jpgPhoto by Karin Cooper

The dress of the peasant girl Zerlina seems less clear and has almost a 1930s look, especially the dress Don G gives to her to wear as he tries to convince her to marry him instead of groom Masetto. The Dresser pauses here to wonder aloud what time frame does the director/costume designer assign these costumes? Oops and then there are the young girls in petticoats with something like bridal veils thrown over them head to toe. They could easily be transported to the stage of Isadora Duncan.

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About October 2007

This page contains all entries posted to The Dressing in October 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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