February 10, 2019

A First Woman on Stage: Nell Gwynn

Based on seeing the February 7, 2019 performance of Jessica Swale's Restoration comedy Nell Gwynn under the direction of Robert Richmond, who also directed Davenant's Macbeth, the Dresser highly recommends immediate purchase of tickets before they sell out to this exceptionally fine play running until March 10th at Washington, DC's intimate Folger Theatre.

The 37-year-old British playwright Jessica Swale, who showed her chops on her first play Blue Stockings (2013), won for Nell Gwynn the 2016 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Like Blue Stockings, Nell Gwynn (2015) premiered at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and in 2016 moved to the historic West End Apollo Theatre.


Nell Gwynn features the story of one of the first women on the English stage. Prior to 1660, only men were allowed to act and women were portrayed by such men as Edward Kynaston, a real-life character in Swale's play. In 1660 when Charles II was restored to the English throne, the king licensed two acting companies and legalized the acting profession for women. Gwynn (1650-1687), a child of an unmarried working-class mom--a madam, was discovered by a prominent Restoration actor named Charles Hart. In the play, Nell becomes his lover but later is pursued by Charles II (1630-1685) who eventually wins her heart and she becomes his mistress who not only bears him two sons but also lives in his palace.

The cast, especially Alison Luff as Nell Gwynn, is exceptional in acting talents. Luff is in the same class of electrifying performance as Julie Andrews who, in 1956, created the onstage musical theater role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. While Nell Gwynn is not a musical, composer Kim Sherman, in the tradition of modern Shakespearean theater, has written pleasing original music matched to the period for this production and the players sing and dance ably to this music. Mariah Anzaldo Hale's costumes are eye-catching in color and design. Tony Cisek's sets and props slide smoothly and often energetically into and out of view.
What the Dresser was particularly fascinated by was the metaplay that persists throughout this play. Thomas Killigrew (Nigel Gore), the theater manager of the King's Company, the acting company of which he and Hart are members, tries to persuade their house playwright John Dryden (Michael Glenn portrays the famous poet known by modern day students of English literature) that the playwright would benefit with range of character if their company had a real-life woman. The fit-to-be-tied woman-impersonating Edward Kynaston, as portrayed by Christopher Dinolfo, strenuously argues against adding a woman.

...she wouldn't just be convincing. She would be real. Dryden, think! You could write any sort of woman you want--not just the passive lover, the fragile beauty. If you're writing for real women, they won't need to be so feminine anymore.

No, no, no, no, no! You miss the point entirely. Theatre is artifice. It's make believe. Pretend. The blood is not real blood. Othello's not a real Moor. People come to the playhouse to engage with the imaginary. For a short break from their wretched, drivel-filled lives they can escape. Who'd go to the theatre to see real people saying real things about real life? That would be preposterous! We trade in magic. And we are trained to do it. Honed, groomed, athletes of the imagination. And these women-- what training have they had, eh?

Of course the irony is that the audience in the Folger Theatre, a replica of the Globe Theatre, has come to a play populated by historically real English people who for the most part are speaking the historically accurate story of a woman who was taught to be an actor at a time when that had been forbidden. Kynaston's fan scene is not only instructive about the Restoration language of a woman's fan but comic. What's more, Jessica Swale is showing the contemporary audience the process by which Nell became an "actor-ess," which also adds another layer of interest to her play--Swale is teaching the audience what Nell needed to learn to join the King's Company. And here the Dresser laughs in her sleeve because what Nell learned was how she joined personally in the King's company and became his favored mistress for the rest of his and her lives.

Lest contemporary audience be confused about when Nell Gwynn was written, Swale throws in some contemporary language like having Nancy (Catherine Flye), Nell's dresser, say "wait for it" when Killigrew arrives to announce that their rival acting company has put a woman on stage. Catherine Flye, who also plays Nell's unrefined mother, is a master at comic timing.

For the Dresser, Robert Richmond's production of Nell Gwynn had not one dull moment in it and that's saying a lot for a two-hour-and-thirty-minute play with one 15-minute intermission.

Given that Swale's Nell Gwynn includes poet playwright John Dryden, the Dresser feels doubly sure that the last words belong to a contemporary poet, such as Susan Lewis. In Lewis' prose poem "Today the leaves," a woman of power--Madame President--presents. Like Nell Gwynn, Madame President is disparaged with such words as "precious, messy, & inconsequent" not to mention her "floozy hope" and "her closest uncloseted kin." In Nell's case, not only does she have her unruly mother but also her sister Rose (Caitlin Cisco) who acts like Nell's conscience.


jostle for the sun's brandished meal. A minor chord
day, compressing the worms in their tight & silent
world. Reluctant seeds gaping to a care-worn
future, scattered cosmos unimpressed. What's
that you say, Madame President? Emoticons
embellishing perception via harbingers of swoon.
Elsewise processing the inputs, despite an
endless weary trap seasoned with too much not
enough. A standard deviation from deviation
thrown at any problem like onions, gold nuggets,
skyscrapers, & severed heads abloom like silken
hares. Who might not be precious, messy, &
inconsequent? Roped by this tinsel glint of agency,
that floozy hope, or her closest uncloseted kin.

by Susan Lewis
from Zoom

Photo Credits: Brittany Diliberto

January 14, 2019

WNO New Operas--Snakes, Dogs, Drugs, Unwanted Babies

Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative Festival in a three-day program--January 11-13, 2019--presented four short world premieres: the hour-long Taking up Serpents by composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye and the three twenty-minute operas: 75 Miles by Matt Boehler and Laura Barati, Relapse by Molly Joyce and James Kennedy, and Pepito by Nicholas Lell Benavides and Marella Martin Koch. Partnering with these Washington National Opera commissioned works is the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program which features exceptional young opera singers who are given the opportunity and challenge to sing often difficult musical scores while also creating the roles of characters in these new operas.

The introduction to the January 12 performance included these tips from 2019 mentor Jake Heggie:

--Don't just set words, write music.
--Allow singers to use their instruments.
--Every note matters in the context of the storytelling.

Generally speaking, the Dresser felt that Heggie's exceptionally good advice was the measure against which these composers were working. Given the most working time, composer Kamala Sankaram in Taking up Serpents was able to create subtly textured orchestral music that included guitar and evoked the mystery of the Pentecostal story whose preachers handle poisonous snakes.

Serpents2.jpgJerre Dye's libretto focuses on the daughter of a man who goes from drunk to Pentecostal preacher. When the opera opens, Kayla stands on New Year's Eve in the parking lot of the Save Mart where she works, waiting to see the holiday fireworks. What the audience doesn't know until later is that her father had his Christian awakening in a parking lot where he and the ten-year-old Kayla were setting off firecrackers. Kayla has fled her father's extremism, but she calls out to God for a sign:

I thought somehow that leavin' home would give me wings,
break the hold you got on me.
I'm so damn tired-a circlin'.
This longin' is undoin' me.

Kayla looks up at the sky.
Give me a sign, Lord.

On cue, Kayla's irritated boss Reba appears:

Reba- Who the hell you talkin' to?
Kayla- (embarrassed) No one.
Reba- Out here like a crazy person talkin' at the air.
Break is over. Trash is full. Kayla? KA-YLA?(Claps her hands to get Kayla's
attention) Trash. (indicating she should take care of it.)

So Kayla gets back to work still longing for more than the life to which she has fled. Reba comes back to her. This time with her portable phone and a surprise call from Kayla's mother Nelda. Nelda tells Kayla that her father "got bit in the neck" by a timber rattler during the "Sunday past service."

Here's where the libretto rips open with emotion as Kayla goes to the hospital to confront her parents. Sankaram gives soprano Alexandria Shiner as Kayla and mezzo-soprano Eliza Boner as Nelda full opportunity to use their vocal instruments in expressing their complete frustration for how their lives have unspooled with Daddy (bass baritone Timothy J. Bruno). By the end of the opera, Kayla has come to terms with herself and her father in front of his church alter while simultaneous Nelda has put Daddy out of their collective misery by smothering him.

The Dresser thinks that this opera has a well-put-together libretto but there was a disturbing imbalance in being able to follow the details that bear on Daddy's emotional impact to the daughter and mother. At first the Dresser was thinking this opera might be better in a much smaller space than the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in order to more fully experience the raw emotional load of these characters but only if the volume of sound could be dialed down. Alexandria Shiner, for example, has a powerful voice suited for singing in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The other thought, which might be more suitable, is a different staging which brings Nelda in the hospital smothering Daddy side by side with Kayla taking over the church service to find her own light.

Of the three twenty-minute operas, the Dresser's favorite was the comic opera Pepito about a somewhat mismatched couple who shows up last minute at an animal shelter wanting to adopt a dog, preferably a puppy. The dog Pepito is sung by bass baritone Samuel Weiser who at all times is a man dressed in a dog suit. Weiser makes the part charming (e.g., he tells the interested woman he loves her and soon dips her as if she were a dance partner), and more so because the dog speaks Spanish and everything need translating, especially to the husband. The music, especially the duet about "the right dog" that is between Camila (soprano Alexandra Nowakowski) and Pepito, lingers in memory.


75 Miles concerns a 16-year-old girl who tells her mom she needs an abortion. They are poor with one car which the father needs to get to his job so the clinic at 75 miles away is too far. The daughter Avery (soprano Alexandra Nowakowski) doesn't want her father to know. She is an only child and the apple of his eye. She tells him as her mother nearly spills the beans that a friend of hers is pregnant and wants an abortion. Earnestly, baritone Joshua Blue as the father suggests keeping the child and then tells her how much her birth meant to them and still does. During the course of the 20 minutes, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Christoforakis as the mother runs the emotional gamut from mad at her daughter, scared of her husband to determined Avery will abort this unwanted child. The libretto is straight forward, and the music has touches of American folk music.

A timely look at a young woman who nearly dies of a drug overdose, Relapse deals with those who enable and the doctor who can only do so much to help. It's a big subject for just 20 minutes. However, the music has interesting texture, such as touches of bowed vibraphone and piano strings played by mallets.

The Dresser doesn't see any of the these three 20-minute works being more fully developed but applauds Washington National Opera for allowing these newcomers to work with seasoned artists and to practice the discipline. Taking up Serpents could be further developed or stand as a chamber work.

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman

September 16, 2018

Restoration Macbeth and the Clanking Cell Doors



In our political climate, productions of Shakespeare's Macbeth can take on new currency. Macbeth is a story about distorted information, unbridled ambition, and what happens to a leader who gained his office illegally.


The Dresser has seen unusual interpretations of Macbeth--500 Clown Macbeth (2008), Synetic Theater's wordless Macbeth (2011) and the music theater/opera The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth (20050. However, no other production until the 2018 Davenant's restoration of Macbeth as the product of current day work by Shakespeare scholars and performing artists and as re-imagined by stage director Robert Richmond and the Folger Consort music director Robert Eisenstein can match the impact of what has been achieved. Richmond re-conceived the setting of Macbeth as a play within a play such that inmates of the British insane asylum Bedlam, in 1666 (two weeks after the Great Fire of London), have been put on stage outside their locked cells to perform Macbeth as a fundraiser for the damaged hospital.

If Crazytown (as described in Bob Woodward's new book Fear: Trump in the White House) has a model--the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has been involved in years of research with international funding (a $250,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom and Queen's University Belfast), is unknowingly providing it in the Restoration-era adaptation of Macbeth.

On September 14, 2018, the Dresser partook of Macbeth and sat on the edge of her seat for the entire performance, which runs just under three hours including one 15-minute intermission. There was no slack moment. The actions of the Bedlam warden who pounds his staff on the floor and opens creaky cell doors and then slams them shut as he pulls out the next inmate who has lines to deliver, penetrate deeply into viewer consciousness. Also, some of the soundscape produced by the Folger Consort--dissonant noise--adds to the scariness of these strange actors. Louis Butelli effectively plays the warden and Duncan, the king Macbeth murders.


Most handily, the Folger Library website, which sponsors both the Folger Theatre and the Folger Consort, provides side-by-side scripts of the familiar Macbeth play and its restoration offshoot. Without seeing the scripts, anyone familiar with Shakespeare's Macbeth will notice that the roles for the three witches has been expanded and some of it set to wonderful baroque music. Those more intimately familiar with the original script will notice extra scenes for Macduff and his wife and for Macbeth and his wife as well as some omissions and jarring changes in the text.

Take a look at the Restoration text versus the original text.


Restoration text:

To Morrow, and to Morrow, and to Morrow,
Creeps in a stealing pace from Day to Day,
To the last Minute of Recorded Time;
And all our Yesterdays have lighted Fools
To their Eternal [night]. Out, out, [short] Candle!
Life's but a Walking Shaddow, a poor Player,
That Struts and Frets his Hour upon the Stage,
And then is Heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an Ideot, full of Sound and Fury,
Signifying Nothing.

Original text:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare's original text is the more poetic work but this production as it is framed by the Bedlam inmates seems to allow for choppier and less poetic language.


Both Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth and Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth are convincing in their crazy scenes. One delicious aside is Ian Merrill Peakes is joined in this production by his wife Karen Peakes as Lady Macduff and his ten-year-old son Owen Peakes as Fleance (son of Banquo). Owen is memorable in his scene with the witches as a large-winged bird.


Since there was no complete musical score for the Restoration Macbeth, Eisenstein used music from a variety of composers. Music from John Eccles, who had provided music for later Restoration productions of Macbeth, is used for the witches. Other music comes from Matthew Locke and Henry Purcell as well as from 17th century English and Scottish country dances, some of which includes the bagpipe. The music worked organically with the flow of the play.


The witches, known as the Weird Sister, are played by Emily Noël, Rachael Montgomery, and Ethan Watermeier. Watermeier looks like a man in drag and adds to the trio being called the Weird Sisters. Making one of the Weird sister a man was also a good musical decision and gives their musical performances more depth. Noël has an engaging solo singing number, which she delivers with feeling and acumen (after all she is also one of the crazy Bedlamites only play acting the part of a witch).

The Folger Shakespeare Library's theater is a replica of an Elizabethan theater--it is small and intimate. Folger Theatre (company) always does interesting stage sets. For the Restoration Macbeth, the six musicians of the musical ensemble sat on the balcony above the stage. Scene changes were aided by the players pulling an opaque scrim across the stage. For variety, Richmond used quite a lot of shadow puppetry, especially for violent scenes.Banquo-Murder.jpg

This production of Macbeth is a timely work come to stage in Crazytown, USA.

Photo Credit: Brittany Diliberto

August 19, 2018

On the Road of Greek Theater

The Dresser tried to talk her sister Lisa into going to Greece. Come on, Sistah, this is going to be a family affair, but Lisa said she didn't have a passport and the trip would cost too much. When the Dresser returned from Greece at the end of July, she couldn't stop reading about things Greek and one of her San Francisco friends, knowing her taste in literature, sent her The Road to Epidauros by Jeanne Fuchs. And there she was--Jeanne Fuchs, her sister in travel.

The-Road-to-Epidauros.jpgThe Road to Epidauros is first a travel diary that chronicles July 10 to 31, 1990, as an exceptional three-week trip to Greece. The Greek director Andreas Voutsinas invited Jeanne Fuchs to witness the lead up and premiere of his production of Medea which would culminate in Epidauros where the best-preserved theater of the ancient world still operates.

The work is also observations of an astute veteran of theater and the artistic world, a how-to navigate Greek life, an exuberant Greek culinary tour, and various psychological profiles.

Since the Dresser spent time visiting ancient classical theaters at the Acropolis and Delphi, her curiosity was piqued about Epidauros. Epidauros is less than 40 minutes from Athens. During the summer months from June 1 through August 18, an annual arts program called the Athens & Epidaurus Festival runs. Epidaurus, featuring its exemplary acoustics, is where the classicist Sophocles premiered.

On the one hand, Fuchs offers her up-close and personal stories of famous people like Jane Fonda and Melina Mercouri. Fonda, who was being coached by Voutsinas, appeared in a mink coat in her apartment house where people including Fuchs were waiting to go to Fonda's audition to become a member of Actors Studio. Her scene was from Butterfield 8 where Gloria (the character made famous by Elizabeth Taylor) wore only a slip and a mink coat. Fonda and Fuchs shared a moment where they giggled over the approving reactions of the male elevator operator and the doorman--the men thought she should always dress like this--and then Fonda hits up Fuchs for a loan of $10 so she can pay for cab fare to the Studio. Fuchs reports that Mercouri, who once played Medea at Epidauros, made her way to the dressing room of the young woman named Lydia who Voutsinas selected to be his Medea. (Fuchs doesn't always provide last names, which probably means she couldn't get permission to do so.) Mercouri hugs and kisses Lydia saying she was the best Medea she had ever seen. Here Fuchs says that from a distance, "[Mercouri] looks as I remembered her from the movies: flawless bone structure and flashing eyes" but "up close, Mercouri looks old and gaunt. She has big teeth that dominate her face and her skin seemed sallow."

On the other hand, Fuchs is a master of the everyday details that has the reader climbing into bed with her as she reads Lawrence Durrell. Fuchs is funny, saying she went to bed with Durrell. (Meanwhile, the Dresser was going to bed with Lawrence's brother Gerald, reading his laugh-outloud memoire My Family and Other Animals.) Fuchs had already explained how she and Voutsinas, a bisexual, were never lovers and she also detailed how she fended off various Greek men during this trip. The world of love and attraction is more varied in Greece. As Fuchs noted about a young woman who gives Fuchs her address. Fuchs wondered if the woman was a lesbian and comments, "...but maybe everyone is. It's Greece." On the 2018 night of the total eclipse of the Blood Moon when the moon turned red, could be seen by even the Dresser's weak naked eye in contrast to Mars--the red planet, she was standing in the road near the port of Amorgos when a woman came at her on a scooter. She was clearly flirting. "Oh," the Dresser said a little worried the woman would run over her, "I'm waiting for my friends." She was but only to send them off to a concert up in the hills. Was the flirting just a bit of natural "lunacy" or just an everyday scanning of new possibilities? As Fuchs wrote, It's Greece. No need to overthink this kind of interaction.

What the Dresser particularly appreciated is how Fuchs dropped in details about Greek life that were mysteries to a first-time visitor to Greece. For example, every night she seemed to eat dinner at an extremely late hour. This happens because everyone disappears in the afternoon for a long nap during the searing heat of the day, not to mention theater people always eat late because who can eat before performing? Because the Dresser was traveling with her friend Catherine, a Greek-American whose family members in Greece asked her to bring a huge quantity of the antacid Tums, Fuchs' aside: "It'll be a minor miracle if I don't die of indigestion before I leave" was all the more sadly comic. The Dresser had one of those moments at a church panegyri in the hills of Amorgos where everyone was served a late-night bowl of stew made with goat and potatoes. For this meal that should only be eaten on the coldest day of winter, the Dresser had to order up what she calls a drink of Drano--a can of Coca Cola.


Before Voutsinas' Medea is mounted on the stage of Epidauros, the company worked on the production in the northern city of Thessaloniki. Early in Fuchs' diary, she described this after-rehearsal, midnight dinner: "squash pancakes with skordalia (a garlic and potato spread), lamb kebabs, keftedes (Greek meatballs--maybe made with mint or ouzo, recipes vary), Greek salad (usually tomato, cucumber, purple onion, feta, olives), and white wine. Fuchs is into reporting what she put into her mouth, including how on the Lufthansa plane she was served a bottle of Rosebacher, "Urqelle Stilles Mineralwasser." The Dresser, 28 years later, was also given Rosebacher and documented that by taking a photo of it. The Dresser thought It's unusual because it contains a significant amount of calcium.

Euripides play Medea is a painful play about family relations. Medea's husband Jason tells her he is leaving the marriage for another woman. So, Medea murders Jason's new wife and worse she kills the children she had with Jason. One of the quiet dramas in The Road to Epidauros is Andreas Voutsinas' inability to love and appreciate his son Marios because Voutsinas had such disdain for his former wife, Marios' mother. However, Fuchs' multidimensional story has an August 2010 Postscript in which some of the people who had been involved in the Medea production get together to spread Voutsinas' remains in the theater, this action being the last wish of his. Voutsinas' son Marios, who now looks very much like his father--gray beard too, attends and tells Fuchs that before his father's death, they had reconciled. It's a moving end note to the slights the father had exacted on the son.marios-voutsinas.jpg

Alexandra Kostoulas' poem "Home. Not Home" puts a concise cap on The Road to Epidauros by Jeanne Fuchs. The home, made by the mythologists (mirologoi) in our time (as noted by mention of the iPad), is complete with a special Greek desert wine (mavrodaphne) and chocolates while the living honor the dead and speak of their lives to come. Life is always about family rooted in the ancestral village, now abandoned by the poet who lives in America. As the Dresser told her sister Lisa, the trip would be about family, the Greek families that took her into their hearts as she did the same. Night one in 2018, the Dresser met nine family members of Catherine's for a large seafood feast at Port Rafina. Four nights later, the Dresser saw the shocking images of fire and destruction on TV. She worried about these family members since some of them lived in the community struck by the huge fire that killed 74 people. The gods were with these family members and all of them were fine. The Dresser could continue in this vein with more blessed encounters of these loving Greeks who made her holiday a homecoming, but she will let the curtain fall and invite you, Dear Reader, to read between the lines. With gratitude to my friend Donnali Fifield for sending the Dresser The Road to Epidauros and to Jeanne Fuchs for writing it.


I cried as the red moon rose.
We listened to mirologoi that
randomly came on my iPad.
We drank mavrodaphne and ate chocolate.
We spoke of the dead
and of our regrets and our hopes.
In my dad's village--
where I belong
and where I don't.

by Alexandra Kostoulas

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.


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