July 8, 2018

A First-World Strip Show: Andromeda Breaks from Capital Fringe

Capital Fringe 2018 opened July 7 in Washington, DC and among the offerings was a one-hour world premiere drama entitled Andromeda Breaks mounted at the upscale Cradle of Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre. Stephen Spotswood's play features two characters--Andromeda Jackson (Billie Krishawn) and Detective Sargent Percy (Jeremy Keith Hunter)--in a police interrogation room. The detective accuses her of murder but what he wants is the goods on her parents and she immediately demands her family lawyer, except the lawyer won't talk to her. She soon finds out her parents are "hanging her out...[to dry]." We also hear that the police have killed her cousin Minnie, who turns out to be the feminine version of the monster known as the Minotaur.


Here the Dresser suggests we back up and review the Greek myths suggested by the characters' names.

AndromedaMyth.jpgIn the myth, Andromeda is literally hung out to dry on a rock overlooking the sea after her mother Cassiopeia insults the sea god Poseidon by boasting that Andromeda is more beautiful than Poseidon's daughters known as the Nereids. Poseidon dispatches the sea monster Cetus to terrorize the coast of Aethiopia, which is the kingdom of Andromeda's father Cepheus. Cepheus consults the Oracle of Apollo who says the king must sacrifice his daughter to stop the monster. Meanwhile, the ultimate monster-slaying hero Perseus wanders by having just killed the Gorgon, Medusa. Perseus is still wearing the magic helmet which makes him invisible. So presto, he kills Cetus, unchains Andromeda, and marries her despite her father having promised his daughter to his brother Phineus. So Phineus gets mad and fights Perseus but Perseus pulls out the horrifying head of Medusa and turns Phineus and his followers into stone.

While there are plenty of monsters in the myth of Andromeda, the Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man, plays no role. In the Greek myth, the Minotaur lives at the center of the Labyrinth built by the architect Daedalus and his son Icarus as commissioned by Minos, King of Crete. Because Minos was suffering competition for the throne from his brothers, he prayed to Poseidon (here is the only connection to the Andromeda myth) to send him a snow-white bull as sign of support. Poseidon complied but expected Minos to offer the white bull to him as sacrificial thanks. Minos thought the bull beautiful and decided to sacrifice an ordinary bull. As punishment, Poseidon made Mino's wife fall in love with the white bull which mates with her and produces the Minotaur. minotaur.jpg

What Stephen Spotswood has done is taken several characters of Greek myth into the 21st Century which allows him as a white author to talk about police corruption and brutality in the context of racism. While the outstanding actors chosen for this play are African Americans and Billie Krishawn opens the play by singing a blues song a cappella, these roles could be played by actors of any ethnicity since the words they speak do not indicate Black slang. The character who is "other" is the unseen cousin Minnie who dies in a shootout with the police. Minnie has told Andromeda that she would murder for Andromeda's parents but burn the world to cinders for her. Andromeda reveals that she and Minnie were planning to run away together to escape Andromeda's murderous father. Is Spotswood suggesting that these cousins had a same sex relationship? Does it matter? Perhaps only in the context of those who are categorized as other and different from everyone else. As Andromeda comes clean, detailing where all the bodies are buried, she finds out that Detective Percy has been complicit in her father's crimes. Suddenly the table turns and they trade places as she exonerates herself from crime and he digs his metaphoric grave. In this way, Spotswood offers a feminist restructuring of Andromeda's story.

The play is done on a bare stage set with table and two chairs. Sound effects include the sound of the sea against the shore and fire crackling. The compelling theater magic is created entirely by the actors. Bravo to Krishawn and Hunter.

"Death Tonight," a poem by Jazra Khaleed as translated by Peter Constantine, provides a modern-day landscape of horror with its machine guns, checkpoints, and Apache [helicopter] searchlights that complements Andromeda Jackson's mass graves of those murdered by her family. Andromeda is the child sacrificed by her parents as the warring power brokers--her family and the police--struggle for control.


Tonight death will turn widower
Machine guns still lusting in heat
Soldiers return to their countries
No longer to shoot
No longer to rape
Death sticks to their fingers like resin
Their deaths
The days stop at a checkpoint
The days are Muslim mothers
They don't have papers, they are deported
Tonight death will turn widower
I saw peace pluck her eyebrows
Just before she stepped on stage
Chewing popcorn
The masses on the square
Applaud the bombing of innocents
Murders of immigrants
The victory of civilization
The triumph of democracy
A first-world strip show
Tonight death will turn widower
Shrieks of dishonored women deafen my ears
Cluster bombs burrow into my stomach
I rule the moon
I assign all ebb and flow
The cops try to imprison gravity
Yet another undeclared war
The children's eyes shine black in the Apache's searchlights
Filled with ashes
Filled with hatred
Oblivion is selling one more genocide on eBay
Tomorrow is already a word without future
Death tonight

by Jazra Khaleed as translated by Peter Constantine
from Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry
(first publication in Modern Poetry in Translation (UK, 2009))

May 19, 2018

Bernstein's Candide--Seeing Past the Candy-coated Best of All Possible Worlds

Perhaps this review isn't without prejudice, because the Dresser has always adored Leonard Bernstein's Candide, a music theater piece cum opera. She first saw it at Washington, DC's Arena Stage in 1996 before the libretto was significantly revised in 1999 by John Caird for the Royal National Theatre. What she loved about it then and now is the energetic music and the clever words which are often funny, endearingly nonsensical, and wise. So, seeing Washington National Opera and Director Francesca Zambello's production of Candide (are you ready, Dear Reader, for how many minds made this work?) with Book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler in a new version by John Caird, lyrics by (poet) Richard Wilbur with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein on May 18, 2018, was bliss. In this time of post truth where the moral compass of America has been demagnetized, this story of a young man's journey through hell and back is restorative.

Soprano Emily Pogorelc (Cunegonde) and Tenor Alek Shrader (Candide) in WNO's production of Candide_credit Scott Suchman.JPGCandide is the story of boy unclaimed by his parents but living comfortably with a wealthy titled family of Westphalia until he expresses his desire to marry the daughter Cunegonde and then is kicked out. Voltaire (as a character in the opera) narrates Candide's life which has been largely influenced by Dr. Pangloss whose extreme philosophy of optimism seems to carry the boy's spirit through the worst possible encounters with war, the Inquisition, poverty, disease, famine, and treachery. When he wanders into El Dorado, Candide realizes he can't stay in this Utopian place because he is incomplete without his beloved Cunegonde. Eventually, he finds her, is shocked by what she has become, and admits he has been a fool. However, he has matured and asks her to marry him and settle into a pastoral life where they can make their garden grow.
Soprano Emily Pogorelc (Cunegonde), Mezzo-Soprano Denyce Graves (The Old Lady) and Tenor Alek Shrader (Candide) in WNO's production of Candide_credit Scott Suchman.JPG
Maestro Nicole Paiement's enthusiastic conducting sparked the Dresser's latent ambition to lead a symphony orchestra. Perhaps Paiement's initial energy was driven by Bernstein's joyful overture which begins with what sounds like circus music. Zambello's cast pleased in all regards--tenor Alek Shrader as the naïve and earnest Candide, coloratura soprano Emily Pogoreic as Candide's beloved Cunegonde, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as The Old Lady (the wise and witty attendant to Cunegonde), and baritone Wynn Harmon doubling as Voltaire and professor Dr. Pangloss. A stand out minor character was bass-baritone Matthew Scollin as the street sweeper Martin.

The sets by James Noone and costume designs by Jennifer Moeller in combination with the movement of cast and chorus make for a lively moving story. One particularly notable scene is of El Dorado where the inhabitants carry large fans as if they were show girls at the Brazilian Carnevale.
Tenors Alek Shrader (Candide) and Frederick Ballentine (Cacambo) visit Eldorado in WNO's production of Candide_credit Scott Suchman.JPG
Annik Adey-Babinski's poem "Squalor" creates the impossible landscape of Dr. Pangloss' "best of all possible worlds," which is squalid and sugar-coated. However, Candide is a life lesson in how to survive. While the Dresser would be tempted to grimace, put up her hands, and shout, "ooo, no. I won't have this," the constant Panglossian philosophy lessons in combination with Bernstein's music puts a deceptive, but necessary, candy-coating on what is unbearable. At the end, the Dresser filled up with tears, that Candide had awakened to a plan for a steady, good life.


Most of
us learned to live like a bootleg,
in the open corners, our presence overpowered

shadows from the
purple smell

of kerosene. It was the colors of
our kitchens--forest collards,
pumpkin soup & pink catfish--

that kept their attention &
taught us that everything could be candied--
counter tops, kisses, sinks & yams.

by Annik Adey-Babinski
from Okay Cool No Smoking Love Pony

Photo Credits: Scott Suchman

April 22, 2018

2018 Split This Rock Report #5

What follows is a final Split this Rock Poetry Festival report. STR took place from April 19 through April 21, 2018 in Washington, DC. This year's biennial festival celebrated its tenth year and its sixth conference. It is the last year that founding director Sarah Browning will lead the conference. Unlike the AWP writers conference, this festival focuses exclusively on poetry, draws a smaller audience, and presents a holistic set of activities that nourishes not only the mind and emotional state of being but also the body.

Beyond the talking heads of panels and assorted intellectual workshops were such events as:

• "Louder than a Gun: Poem for Our Lives," a rally in Lafayette Park where participants were invited to bring a line of poetry that "demands an end to violence and celebrates lives free from the threat posed by guns." This rally joined with high school students in front the White House to write a group poem demanding that gun violence stop.

• "Walking Tour: The Rise of DC's Black Intelligentsia (The Dunbars in LeDroit Park," an opportunity to follow Kim Roberts, local poet historian to learn about African-American writers Paul Laurence Dunbar and his wife Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

• "Resiliency in Daunting Times: A Workshop in Yoga & Writing," a workshop led by Yael Flusberg that combined the practice of yoga and spontaneous writing.

While the Dresser did not participate in the three events mentioned above, she had attended similar events in past STR festivals and was glad to see this kind of putting the physical body into motion was still being valued and retained as part of the program offerings. It also goes to what the Dresser said in STR Report #1 https://www.scene4.com/karrenlalondealenier/2018/04/2018_split_this_rock_report_1.html that it was so hard to decide what event to attend because there were so many wonderful opportunities.
To follow up on STR Report #4, the Dresser offers a brief look at "#RedStateWritersResist: Strategies for Writing and Living in a Red State," a panel that addressed the extreme loneliness and peril of living and working in a state where the majority are conservative voters supporting the Republican Party and specifically the current president of the United States who does not support the tenets of the US constitution. Panel members Jennie Case, Meg Day, Miguel Morales, Wendy Oleson, and Maria Vasquez Boyd said their coping mechanisms include everything from channeling anger into positive action, lots of time with friends online, to nightly crying.

Here's a poem that gives the flavor of this upsetting topic of conversation:


Maybe it's easier, having been named
..........after someone: nobody
expects that you'll rule the underworld
..........or judge the dead, but
they call you Pluto anyway. Planet, too.
..........I know a girl like you
who used to be a thing she isn't anymore
..........but hasn't changed at all.
Whose orbit didn't circle straight--whose
..........size & distance never quite
seemed right--but no one cared til now.
..........I was a woman once:
rounded by my own gravity, cat-called
..........into hades by men who
could not see this gem of a hard rock
..........was not made magnetic
for the likes of them. Hey little mama--
..........don't take it so hard.
So we are frigid. So we stay relegated
..........out here with our kin.
I'll wear my fade tight & my tie loose

by Meg Day

Copyright © 2017 by Meg Day

For the Dresser, the last day of the conference offered poetic performances and book fair activities. She heard Cornelius Eady recite and sing poems from his new Kattywompus Press chapbook All the American Poets Have Titled Their New Books "The End." Eady sounds like Bob Dillon but with a better singing voice. Here's the title poem from the new collection:


How many books now have the word Last
In their title? Or worry, or some dangling variation
Of mistake? Or empire burning, or
The fools have fucked it up?

Who the hell listens? They roar and
Wriggle, up and down the page,
They screen-print what's coming next -- pinups
Of blocked streets and stone faces.

How many books sling the word doom,
Or mimic spotlights or air raid sirens,
Regurgitate the Romans, the Kick Down the
Door Guys, our genius with the fiery furnace?

The quivers, the shakes, the iambic dread,
The anger, the insomnia, the slow tic
Of the wait, the wail, the transcribed too late,
In the manner of those who have gone before us,
Geiger counters, clacking the rising damp.

by Cornelius Eady

Copyright © 2018 by Cornelius Eady

From the session "The Living Text: Bodies on the Line," the Dresser captured images from Roger Sedarat's performance which concerned the funeral of a nightingale. The nightingale is a large symbol in Iranian literature. Sedarat is the author of Haji as Puppet: An Orientalist Burlesque, winner of The Word Works Tenth Gate Prize. Recently Sedarat was awarded a large grant to do performance work from this book, a gesture in promoting better understanding between the literature of Iran and American. It's also a book steeped in edgy politics.


The STR book fair was an opportunity to trade books, sell a few and by all means network.

The Festival was a glorious marathon of poetry readings, panels, workshops, performance, political action, physical and mental exercise. Vive Split This Rock Poetry Festival!


April 20, 2018

2018 Split This Rock Report #4

IMG_3918.JPGAt the Split this Rock Poetry Festival on April 20, 2018, the Dresser attended two sessions that were upsetting in different ways. This report will focus on "No F*cks to Give: Women Poets and Dark Humor" addressed issues women have been dealing with that are barely acknowledged and brushed off as trivial. These matters include such things as shaming young mothers for pumping breast milk or hounding attractive women with catcalls and salacious name calling. While there were occasional short bursts of laughter, the Dresser would say most of the content of this panel was dead serious. Participants in this reading studded with thought-provoking commentary were: Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Kendra DeColo, Shara McCallum, Erika Meitner, and Tyler Mills. Here are two poems from Shara McCallum, offspring of a Black Jamaican father and white Venezuelan mother that shows the complexity of problems women face:


You are the original incognito.
Transparent so all things shine through you.
She's the whitest black girl you ever saw,
lighter than "flesh" in the Crayola box.
But, man, look at that ass and look at her shake it
were just words, not sticks nor stones, flung
when dresses were the proof that clung like skin,
when lipstick stained brighter than any blood.
Girl, who is it now you'd want to see you?
And what would that mean: to be seen?
Why not make a blessing of what
all these years you've thought a curse?--
you are so everywhere, so nowhere,
in plain sight you walk through walls.


I-woman go turn all a Babylon to stone.
I-woman is the Deliverer and the Truth.
Look pon I and feel yu inside calcify.
Look pon I and witness the chasm,
the abyss of yuself rupture. Look pon I
and know what bring destruction.
Yu say I-woman is monstrosity
but is yu gravalicous ways
what mek I come the way I come.
Is yu belief everyone exist fi satisfy
yu wanton wantonness.
Yu think, all these years gone,
and I-woman a come here fi revenge?
But yu wrong. Again is so yu wrong.
I-woman is the Reckoning and Judgment Day.
This face, etch with wretchedness,
these dreads, writhing and hissing
misery, is the mirror of yu shame.
I-woman not the Terror.
I-woman is what birth from Terror.

Copyright © 2015 by Shara McCallum, all rights reserved.

Kendra DeColo read "I Pump Milk like a Boss," a lengthy poem in couplets (think mother and child, a mother's two breasts, or the woman and man in the act of procreation) that leaves no detail out.

Erika Meitner read "Miracle Blanket" a long poem with short lines that deals with motherhood that is funny as long as you aren't the parents dealing with a colicky baby who cries all night.

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram read "Facts about Deer" which addresses the expectations put on women and her lack of patience for those lodestones.

Tyler Mills read two poems that caught the Dresser's attention--one concerned the first atom bomb which had the image of pinup girl Rita Hayworth on it and the other was called "Ho at work." (Sorry, neither seem to be online.)

And may the Dresser add that the Sharon Olds reading about her Odes to various female body parts seemed like an apt precursor to this session. Stay tuned for a report on #RedStateWritersResist.


2018 Split This Rock Report #3

KateYoung.JPGAt the Split this Rock Poetry Festival on April 19, 2018, the Dresser attended the panel on "Translators as Activists, Curators, and Cultural Interpreter" with Francisco Aragon, Ilya Kaminsky, Aviya Kushner, Olga Livshin, and panel moderator Katherine Young. The big question posed was--how to support poets who are marginalized in their own culture? Also what about poets who were political prisoners or who had to hide their gender identity. What about poets who are unable to get published within their own country because, for example, they don't meet expectations for who a poet can be, such as a poet whose economic class shuts them out. Other questions raised during the panel were: why are women translated far less than men? Also what do you do with poetry coming from wars no one wants to hear about or acknowledge?


Francisco Aragon provided a handout of three versions of a poem credited to Ruben Dario--Dario's original in Spanish "De invierno," a literal translation "Of Winter" focused on a woman named Caroline (in the Spanish version Carolina), and Aragon's interpretation based on new information that Dario was gay changing Carolina to an unidentified male pronoun he or him.

Olga Livshin had a similar story about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova who was unable to fully express her gender identity, her bisexuality. While "Annas at the Stove," an interpretative poem written by Livshin and published by the Kenyon Review was not provided in the panel, it speaks to what Livshin said.

Aviya Kushner presented poems from Yudit Shahar, an Israeli woman coming from the economic lower class--she worked as a house cleaner and a seller of vegetables, occupations not meeting Israeli expectations of who writers can be and who would be worthy of paying attention to.

By Yudit Shahar as translated by Aviya Kushner

Fuck poetry fuck
to strip,
to daintify skin
to display in cold light
the pitifulness.

To sell tomatoes
in tony Tel Aviv,
to shine them one by one
in a white shirt
in the light,
to sell to the wealthy--
what do they care for poetry?
What do they care about a tomato,
a rotten one?
Fuck the tomato

Ilya Kaminsky provided much food for thought. He described poems in English that readers declared were better than the original Russian poems. He asked at what point does a reader wake up because the poem is not what you expect, because the poem challenges you.

Katherine Young was passionate about Iya Kiva, a Ukrainian poet writing about the war no one in America is interested in. The online journal Asymptote published this poem April 19 just in time for Kate's reading of it. Here the Dresser offer this portion from A Little Further from Heaven by Iya Kiva as translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young:

is there hot war in the tap
is there cold war in the tap
how is it that there's absolutely no war
it was promised for after lunch
we saw the announcement with our own eyes
"war will arrive at fourteen hundred hours"

and it's already three hours without war
six hours without war
what if there's no war by the time night falls
we can't do laundry without war
can't make dinner
can't drink tea plain without war

and it's already eight days without war
we smell bad
our wives don't want to lie in bed with us
the children have forgotten to smile and complain
why did we always think we'd never run out of war

let's start, yes, let's start visiting neighbors to borrow war
on the other side of our green park
start fearing to spill war in the road
start considering life without war a temporary hardship

in these parts it's considered unnatural
if war doesn't course through the pipes
into every house
into every throat

The Dresser thinks that any poet would be very fortunate to have with Francisco Aragon, Ilya Kaminsky, Aviya Kushner, Olga Livshin, or Katherine Young as their translation ambassador.

April 19, 2018

2018 Split This Rock Report #2

IMG_3890.JPGAt the Split this Rock Poetry Festival on April 19, 2018, the Dresser attended the Arabic/English Poetry Game Workshop. The Poetry Game was invented by Zahara Heckscher. Zahara died in February this year so the workshop began with a memorial to her. The Dresser walked away with this quote from her: "The lying poems tell the most truth."

Three of Zahara's friends--Johnna Schmidt, Yael Flusberg, and Zein El-Amine led the group of 19 in a two-part writing workshop.
As an introduction to poetry gaming, Zein told a story about how his Muslim family based in Lebanon played an oral poetry game from the Zajal poetic tradition. Zein recounted that this game predated television in his home. The idea was to memorize poems or to be quick-witted enough to compose a poem on the fly. The next person up had to use the last word of the previous poem. Eventually his family got t.v. and then they heard about such a poetry game being played on t.v. but the difference was that these contestants were consuming alcoholic drinks. One of his uncles was a cleric and Zein thought that at any moment the t.v. would be turned off. But no, his uncle the cleric remained glued to the t.v. and then he said, "the more they drank the better they got."

Zahara's game involves two sets of playing cards--one set containing words in Arabic or another language and the other set providing instructions. The audience was divided into small groups of 4-6 people. In the first game, everyone in the group was allowed to choose one card from only one of the sets. Then everyone in the group used the same words and same instructions for his or her poem. Here is what the Dresser wrote. The underlined words show both the words selected and the instructions (phrases that were open ended).

At Mihrajan--I say Carnevale--
My happy friends they all witnessed
Fajir the prayer to open the day
Salam alaikum we bow
our sleepy heads this was
a song about peace
after a night of reveling

What everyone enjoyed about this exercise was how everyone approached the use of these words and phrases in his or her own way.
The second exercise was a more private affair. Everyone selected three words and two instructions. The Dresser's words were two in Yiddish--mentsh (an exemplary man) and mishegas (craziness) and one in Arabic--Kowkab (planet or world). Her instructions were (1) use one word to start a line five times and (2) use a word in a question. Here is what the Dresser wrote:


Kowkab number 1: Where is the mentsh when you need him? Has he gone to another planet? This one has too much mishegas.

Kowkab number 2: The end of the world sees a desert without a single mentsh. Oh, bring back the do-gooders please.

Kowkab number 3: In the Amazon we find a clan of balabustas--the women equal to the mentsh. Here we find his perfect children. Thank you, Mom.

Kowkab number 4: Did I mention mentshes tell the truth? What a great planet we live on.

Kowkab number 5: In a land with no reality t.v., we find mentshes and balabustas. A world with no mishegas.

What the Dresser liked about these exercises is that she was picked up and moved to another place, another writing space, and therefore wrote two compositions very different from what she usually does. She felt guidance from activist Zahara Heckscher urging her to think of marrying party-going and prayer and worlds where Arabic and Yiddish co-exist peacefully.

2018 Split This Rock Report #1

Split This Rock Poetry Festival is back in Washington, DC with a line up of gotta-be-there panels and must-hear featured readers. The Festival happens every two years.

The Dresser must admit when she went to this year's AWP writers conference in Tampa, Florida that her eyes glazed over when she read the panel descriptions. She only found one she wanted to attend.

The Split This Rock panels this season make the Dresser groan with pleasure because it is hard to decide which ones to attend.

For example, this afternoon April 19 at the 1:30 session, she has to decide between "Arabic/English Poetry Game Workshop," "Seniors for Social Justice," or "WordPlay: Poetry a self-advocacy for Youth with Autism." This is not to mention the panel on the Warrior Writers and two book oriented sessions--one on the letters of Audre Lorde and the other Eco-Justice poetry.
The Dresser ran into Conference founder Sarah Brown at registration and she said her favorite part of the conference this time is who is reading. Tonight the program features: Camille Dungy, Sharon Olds, and Javier Zamora.

Be there or miss your opportunity to salve your soul.

April 11, 2018

The Facts and Fantasies of Florida, a Jazz Opera

In 2002 at New York City Opera's extraordinary showcase of new opera called Vox, the Dresser caught a glimpse of composer Randall Eng's and librettist Donna Di Novelli's Florida, then a jazz song cycle with strong music theater leanings. Finally, sixteen years later on April 7, 2018, the jazz opera achieved its notable world premiere by UrbanArias at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC, under the stage direction of Kevin Newbury. Florida runs 100 minutes not including one fifteen intermission.

Like music theater, this work, done in two acts, is organized by musical numbers, which in Act I are distinct song titles like "Blue and Wild" and in Act II are usually functional descriptions like "Autopsy No. 1." Seventeen members make up the orchestra as conducted by the enthusiastic and passionate Robert Wood who directed the singers by camera since the orchestra was behind the stage set. The orchestra includes a seven-person string section (including a harp), a five-person woodwind section (including saxophone), a three-person brass section (horn in F, trumpet in Bb and trombone), one percussionist, and one pianist. While the music with its distinct jazz inflection calls for this variety of instruments, sometimes the large orchestra covered the singers, especially when the brass section was playing.


The story, populated with nosy neighbors and a boy on the prowl for the new girl in town, concerns a 16-year-old girl who is accused unjustly of murdering her mother.

Donna Di Novelli's libretto reminds the Dresser of The Juniper Tree by Philip Glass--both have a dead character that haunts the second half of the work. While Florida is not drawn from fairytale like The Juniper Tree, Florida has a set of oddly named surreal characters, starting with the protagonist: Florida Fandango. The word florida comes from the Spanish florido which means full of flowers. In the song "My First Champagne," Florida explains her name at a party to various guests:

No, I wasn't named after a state.
The translation is flowered.
You know, as in de-flowered.

My mother was thinking of how to deliver
the sound of hibiscus in one name.
The breath of gardenia,
the lilt of a tulip,
a floral effusion I'd grow up to claim.

She started with vowels,
the movement of hips,
the sounds made by F--
Fff. Fff.
Two letters that bite on your lips.

Florida says her last name is a mistake. Her mother meant flamenco, the dance of "drumming defiance with every tap" but picked fandango, "a slave dance [where] the ankles are bound, ...don't leave the ground [and] keep you circling around." The name suggests the girl's fate--she flowers and then becomes slave to her sexuality which is the basis of her murder rap.


Except for Marc, the boyfriend who actually confesses to killing Florida's mother, all the other main characters are known by descriptive labels. Florida's mother is identified in the cast list as "One Dead Mother." The family who lives next door to Florida and her mother are known as Redwood Male, Redwood Female, Redwood Son, and Redwood Daughter. Metaphorically, they are associated with their redwood deck from where they spy on the mother and daughter. In the Urban Dictionary of slang, the name Mark or Marc is either a target for someone else's trickery or the kindest and most handsome of men. Clearly Di Novelli has created a surreal set of characters where what happens does not seem to matter. This is what literary peeps would say is a character-driven composition. Once the audience understands the absurdity built into these characters, one should not worry about every word or finding the story. Overall it is better to absorb the sophisticated and accessible jazz.

The living cast of singers are all impressive performers. They have great enunciation and expression. Sharin Apostelou as Florida stands out, especially in her solos "There's a Scream Inside of me" and "Madly in Love."

In general, the Dresser enjoyed the second act better than the first because Act I confused her--it starts where Act II ends. Simply put, when this opera begins, Florida is looking back on what had happened to her. A program note might have been useful in orienting the viewer. Now that the Dresser has seen the entire work, she thinks Florida would be worth seeing and hearing again. The music is the draw. The dark comedy is secondary as the framework.

In Moira Egan's poem "Maurice Utrillo, sa grand-mère et son chien," the poet points out many aspects of what is missing from Suzanne Valadon's family portrait -- grand-mère's wild daughter (Utrillo's mother, the wild daughter, is Suzanne Valadon), Utrillo's unknown father, and certainly grand-mère's missing smile (she wears a continuous frown). In Florida, we are made aware of the many possibilities of who could have been the teenage girl's father but we are never told how or why the girl's mother was murdered. While Valadon delivers her rich conception in paint, Randall Eng gives his audience everything they need to know in the tonal colors and polyrhythms of jazz.



He's learned to look into his mother's eyes
and gazes straight with equal parts chagrin
and love, the drunken nights no more surprise

to her. He holds his left hand angled, strong and fine;
his face is pale, his beard Mephistophelian.
(What deal's been struck with whom, and at what price?)

Grandmother, meanwhile, looks off to the side
and downward, face etched, permafrost, the frown
she nearly always wears (despite their life

if not of luxury, at least of pride).
Her life's work, too, shows clearly in her hands.
She managed to escape the village gibes

and get to Paris. Why then can't she smile?
Her daughter, lovely, could've had any man
she wanted (and she did). The boy's profile--

one has one's theories. Yes, the girl was wild.
But family is family: mother, son,
grandmother--even some love set aside

to lavish on the dog, with gentle eyes
and paw outstretched beside Grandmother's hand.

by Moira Egan
from Synaesthesium

March 23, 2018

In a Time of Winter Comes a New Winter's Tale

The Dresser would like to say that the Folger Theatre's offering The Winter's Tale, a late hard-to-categorize play by William Shakespeare, belongs successfully to Director Aaron Posner for his pleasing re-imagining that brings a cast of musician-actors, puppetry, and beautiful well-crafted costumes on stage. However, Posner's directorial notes thanks everyone, including the audience, for coming together to make this dark story of a king gone mad who ruins his family a joyful turnabout. Posner says this production of The Winter's Tale is a collaboration that thoroughly focuses on how an audience "might respond to this or that moment... if this or that ancient or archaic word will be understandable and, often, how the show will all add up for you at the end."


On March 22, 2018, the Dresser arrived at the Folger having skimmed the unfamiliar five-act play which she had never seen in live production. Before she had completely settled into her seat with her bulky parka (yeah, Washington, DC, is experiencing a prolonged winter), unexpected music began playing from house left. Were they practicing? What music was this? And who were these musicians dressed in costumes not usual for a music ensemble? As it turns out, this production has original music composed and written by Liz Filios (Cleomenes, Mopsa and others) in collaboration with Eric Hissom (Storyteller, Camillo, Antigonus and others), Emily Kaye Lynn (Dion, Dorcas and others), Daven Ralston (Mamillius, Perdita and others), Joshua Thomas (Archidamus, Young Shepherd and others) and the cast of The Winter's Tale. Furthermore, these actors are versatile musicians playing keyboard, cello, guitar, banjo, dulcimer, ukulele, squeezebox, drums and probably something else the Dresser missed.

Was the music entertaining? Yes and apropos, it drew lines like "Love makes beggars of us all" from the text of the play. Instead of a Greek chorus named Time, this production features a song about time where the entire cast joins in. As music director, Liz Filios does a great job transitioning into musical numbers. As Storyteller, Eric Hissom plays a part created specifically for this production.

Written in five acts and divided into two parts by a 15-minute intermission, this two-and-half-hour production presents the story of Sicilian King Leontes (Michael Tisdale) causing the deaths of his young son Mamillius and then his wife Hermione (Katie deBuys) while having banished his infant daughter to a distant country. This happens because Leontes urges Hermione to persuade his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to extend his stay in Sicilia at the court of Leontes. When she does this, Leontes flips and accuses them of adultery. He orders his pregnant wife imprisoned. Polixenes (Aldo Billingslea) is warned by Camillo (Eric Hissom), a counsellor of Leontes, to flee. In prison, Hermione gives birth and Paulina (Grace Gonglewski), an influential and outspoken lady of the court brings the infant to Leontes to show the king that the baby looks like her father even down to same dimple. Gonglewski's performance is a tour de force. Leontes rages that the child is not his and orders it brutally killed. His couriers beg him to reconsider and thus he orders Paulina's husband Antigonus (Eric Hissom) to take the child to some desert place and abandon it.

Relenting, Leontes calls for a judgment from the Oracle of Delphi. Hermione is brought into the court to hear the verdict. The Oracle exonerates everyone except Leontes and he erupts, tearing up the written pronouncement. Thunder cracks and a nursemaid rushes into court to say the King's son is dead, his gentle soul worn down by the separation from his mother. Cleverly, Mamillius has been cast as a child-sized puppet, expertly handled by Daven Ralston. Costume designer Kelsey Hunt dresses Ralston and the puppet in the same eye-catching royal blue suits with cranberry red caps. Hearing that her son is dead, Hermione swoons in a dead faint.

Puppet Son.jpg

In the final scene before intermission, Antigonus who has been haunted by visions abandons the baby whom he has named Perdita. To reinforce his visions, a white scrim is hung for shadow puppetry that includes Hermione speaking to Antigonus and a sighting of the bear who will kill and eat him.

The remaining two acts take place 16 years later when Perdita (Daven Ralston) has come of age as the daughter of a shepherd. Florizell, the Prince of Bohemia (Drew Drake) has fallen in love with Perdita but not with his father's blessing. Drake gives a charming contemporary nod to his character allowing Florizell to utter current day slang "my bad." Camillo, who has spent the life time of Perdito in Polixenes' court after saving this king from the other king's jealous wrath, sees an opportunity to return home to Sicilia and he offers to help the young couple escape from Florizell's father. Except for a few hiccups, order and happiness are restored to both kings as Perdita is established as Leontes lost daughter. The magical surprise is that Hermione lives.


Everything about this production of The Winter's Tale is worthy of one's time and attention, even down to the way the Storyteller's plaid pants were buttoned in a snug cuff above his shoes. And so, this excellent production passes from Winter to Spring, a good metaphoric exit.

Kurt Olsson's poem "How Many Angels" while holding close the angelic son King Leones lost, reverberates with the joy that returns to the court of Sicilia when both his banished daughter and his wife return to him.


And afterwards where do they go
spilling from the pin's head like wildflowers
dried and forgotten in an unread book?

And what happens to their music?
Does it stop or do the notes still jig and echo
like tin horns in the cities of the damned?

What comes of the slippers and the tambours,
pan flutes and lyres, all the instruments
of their useless dancing?

And what of the angel,
last numbered, one metaphysical foot lifted
for his first and forever final dance step?

by Kurt Olsson
from Burning Down Disneyland

Photo Credits: Teresa Wood

December 15, 2017

An American in Paris: Love with Wings

In this time of upsetting world and national events, Washington, DC's Kennedy Center Opera House is blessed to be running performances of the multi-award-winning ballet musical An American in Paris. The Dresser saw the December 14, 2017 performance and declares with gusto that every element of this two-and-a-half-hour show with music by brothers George and Ira Gershwin and book by Craig Lucas is smartly uplifting and without gratuitous schmaltz.


This story set in post-WWII Paris features an American soldier who lingers in Paris to pursue his art career and is swept off his feet by a French girl who is hiding something about her past. Quickly a wealthy American woman with a lot of money latches on to him romantically and brings his friends and this girl together in a ballet she bankrolls.


The dancing, particularly by McGee Maddox (in the role of Jerry Mulligan) and Allison Walsh (in the role of Lise Dassin) is winged with exuberance and seemingly effortless skill. Many of the numbers, particularly those with the impressive projections (projection designer: 59 Productions) along a walkway on the Seine River, capture what we film aficionados adore about the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This musical, inspired by the film of the same name, won three Fred and Adele Astaire Awards as well as four Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards and many other honors.

The accomplished team of performers are flawless in their ability to act, sing, and dance. The creative team includes Tony Award-winners Bob Crowley (set and costume designer) and Natasha Katz (lighting designer). The Dresser cannot say enough about the combined elements of set components with projections--they are rich and worth the price of admission on their own. The Gershwin music, such as "I Got Rhythm" and "But Not for Me" soar under the baton of David Andrews Rogers who at intermission was talking to audience members peering into the orchestra pit to see if the show was making them happy.


While all the numbers were deeply satisfying perhaps the most unique was the dancing with chairs to "Fidgety Feet" in the second and final act. Hats off to Sam Davis and his dance arrangements and Dontee Kiehn associate director and associate choreographer.

In Mike White's poem "Love," a love-struck person is literally so much up in the air that he/she sees the beloved from outer space. Still this person is not unaware of the darkness that surrounds us here on earth. An American in Paris also acknowledges the darkness and we see in opening scenes a Nazi banner turning into the French flag as a group of onlookers out a woman deemed a collaborator. This is the landscape of the love story with thorns.


You mean the world to me, meaning
the only way to see you
is from outer space.
As you know
I have little aptitude
for space travel.
Like the monkey
they launched into orbit
I tend to push buttons at random
and eat too much people food.
Where am I going with this thing? I know
the dark is all around us, love.
I'm out here waving to you, only to you
round and green and blue.

by Mike White
from https://waywiser-press.com/mike-white-2">Addendum to a Miracle

Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy


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