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August 16, 2010

Complementing the Genius of A Midsummer's Night Dream

While critics over the centuries have noted that Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream--written around 1594-1596--was an early work (meaning not as fully developed as, say, his late comedy The Tempest--written 1610-1611), it was nonetheless filled with the genius of its author. Likewise another genius, Benjamin Britten had his fun with this play and turned it into a full-scale opera, which premiered in 1960 at the Aldeburgh Festival. On August 15, 2010, at the Barns of Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, the Dresser caught Britten's opera under the stage direction of Patrick Diamond and baton of Steven Osgood.


Theseus-HippolytaSM.jpgShakespeare's comedy is a complicated story that weaves together the pending wedding of immortals Duke Theseus of Athens and the Amazonian Queen, Hippolyta with the parent-defying teenage hormones-gone-wild love chase of mortals Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius. Further complicating the story is a fight between Oberon, king of the fairies, and his queen Titania who refuses to allow an Indian changeling to be given over to her husband as his henchman. The madcap extra is a group of tradesmen who prepare a play for the wedding entertainment of Theseus and Hippolyta, but accidentally get mixed up with the mischief Oberon has his man Puck exact on Titania.oberon-pucksm.jpg

Britten's opera, which he adapted from Shakespeare with the help of his life partner tenor Peter Pears, cuts out most of Shakespeare's first act. The opera jumps immediately into the fight between Oberon and Titania. The consequence is that an unschooled viewer (meaning someone unfamiliar with the Shakespearean source) has lost the anchoring details of the Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding celebration from which the entire set of complications derives. Therefore when the audience gets to the end of Patrick Diamond's production, one has to either access one's internal file of Shakespeare's summaries to figure out how fine base-baritone Michael Sumuel playing Theseus and able mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti playing Hippolyta got on stage so late in the opera or merely throw up one's hands and mutter, "Who are they?"


If one chooses to spend all the time and money it takes to put an opera on stage, it's incumbent, particularly on the director, to bring his or her own genius to the production and not only creatively fill in the gaps for the audience but enhance the work of the original creative team--the composer and librettist. Certainly Britten's overture with its sweeping strum from the harps and odd sliding sound from the violins gives the musical space to do this. How so? Maybe something as simple as a quick dumb show that allows Theseus and Hippolyta to be seen at the beginning of the opera.

There are many aspects of the production that reach toward the collaborative genius of which the Dresser speaks. The inspired but minimal set by Erhard Rom with lighting by Robert H. Grimes includes a steeply raked stage (better for the untiered seating on the first floor of the Barns of Wolf Trap) a light in the shape of smiling crescent moon, twinkling high-intensity stars, a circular staircase where Oberon makes his dramatic entrances and exits, and gauzy curtains that open and close on a circular ceiling rod, a circular space defining Titania's bedroom.

Photo by Carol Pratt

TitaniaSM.jpgCamille Assaf costume design and Elsen Associates hair and makeup design for the collective set of fairies are both whimsical and artful. All the fairies except Oberon have red hair. Everyone in the magical community is dressed in green. Outfitted in pajamas, the children fairies--in real life they are part of the Arlington Children's Chorus--have untamed topknots that make them look like they get their hair combed once a month, if that. The named fairies--Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth are dressed as estate maids (short green dresses with frilly white aprons) and use feather dusters. While Oberon wears pajamas, he also wears a silky robe that closes only with a sash. Titania wears a sparking gown that makes her look like a mermaid. Could it be that the costume designer padded--here the Dresser drops in the softer British word--her bum?MortalsFightSM.jpg Other characters, mortal and immortal, wear contemporary clothing including Bottom, who, as leader of the entertainment for the royal bridle pair, sports a Batman outfit.

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August 30, 2010

Photos of the Beat Poet, Allen Ginsberg

Ever since the Dresser attended Anne Waldman's tribute reading of Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," she has had it on her list to see the National Gallery of Art's exhibition "Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg." The show closes September 16, 2010. On August 28, 2010, the Dresser made her way to the exhibition through throngs of Tea Party folks who were leaving the "nonpolitical" event at the Lincoln Memorial where the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered his "I Had a Dream" speech 47 years on this day. The Dresser feels sure the spirit of Allen Ginsberg was hovering just outside the NGA to witness white men and women, some of them carrying "Don't Tread on Me" flags and dressed in Tea Party t-shirts and occasionally National Rifle Association ball caps, high on the religious rhetoric of conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck and the veiled political comments of presidential hopeful Sarah Palin.


The exhibition of 79 works displayed in three rooms is comprised of black-and-white photographs. These photos are portraits of Ginsberg and the people he knew, including such notorious literary characters as William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso. The show also included photos of his family members like his paternal grandmother whom he called Buba--Buba who had come to America, learned English, and had written a patriotic essay in her broken English entitled "God Blast America."

3107-025AGRooftop.jpgDare the Dresser say that the young Ginsberg in those 1950s style glasses with black frames (he often handed over his camera to friends like Bill Burroughs to have shots of himself taken) looked a lot like some of her own family members? Besides the fascination with his poems "Kaddish" and "Howl" and the weekend she spent in 1980 at a small conference in California, Pennsylvania with Ginsberg himself, the Dresser suddenly realizes the bearded poet (this was always the visage she knew) always seemed more familiar to her than just some celebrity poet--familiar, family, these words both come from a Middle English root meaning "of a household." Nonetheless, Ginsberg was not self-centered. He also captured family members of his friends. Still, these photos of people he only came in contact with because of his friends seemed to validate his own family situation, that is, ordinary people who, like his mother (she was institutionalized with mental problems), wore life on their faces like an open book.


Despite the predominance of male portraits, what impressed the Dresser was the humanity threaded by the running commentary of Ginsberg. In surprisingly legible handwriting, the controversial poet wrote the back-stories of each photograph. For example, a 1990 photo of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan shot in New York City explained how moments after the photo was taken a group of homeless men chased Dylan and Ginsberg out of the small city park because they believed the pair were shooting photos of them.

Clearly some of the plain portraits benefit from the back-story inscriptions. For example, the 1964 shot of an old Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg says this photo made Kerouac look like the late senior Kerouac. And again note how Ginsberg had his eye to his friend's family.

There are also images that speak a world by themselves but clearly benefit from Ginsberg's text. The 1953 drawing room shot of Burroughs and Kerouac shows the Naked Lunch author, eyes closed with hand out to the younger man. Without reading Ginsberg's words, one knows Burroughs is instructing Kerouac with some impassioned counsel. 3107-028BB-JK.jpgGinsberg wrote these words which also serve as the title of the photo, "Now Jack as I warned you far back as 1945..." According to Ginsberg, Burroughs was telling the On the Road author (On the Road was written in 1951 but not published until 1957) he needed to sever the strangling ties to his mother. Kerouac, who called his mother Memère (which means granny or grandma in French), said his mother was the only woman he ever loved.

One funky photo shot in Tangier serves as a symbolic still life of the Beat Generation that includes Burroughs, composer-novelist Paul Bowles (he holds a camera), and Gregory Corso. In the background are two teenage boys crouching behind these men as if they were eager to catch their fire. However, Ginsberg's text calls the boys shades and said they died young.

Relationships clearly were a theme of importance to Ginsberg who notes on a portrait of Lucien Carr that this was the man who introduced Ginsberg to Kerouac. Further Internet research also informed the Dresser that Carr, who stabbed a man to death--the man had been stalking Carr for years, also introduced Burroughs to Kerouac. (Dear Reader, you might know that Burroughs accidentally killed his wife when he was trying to shoot an apple off her head with an arrow.) Kerouac was nabbed as a material witness in the murder Carr committed and to extricate himself from jail after his father refused to help him, Kerouac married his girl friend Edie Parker (that marriage was annulled after one year). One of the Ginsberg photo shows Jack and Edie on a bed with their feet pointing to an open window. She is sitting up and he is lying down. They look like friends hanging out on a dark day with nothing to do. Nothing to do except let Ginsberg shoot a photo of them.

Overall, Ginsberg had some unusual friends--there are photos of Carl Solomon (the man Ginsberg met during a stay in a mental institution and who figures into the poem "Howl") and Wavy Gravy (a Vietnam antiwar demonstrator and the chief of security at Woodstock). Clearly many of Ginsberg's friends were outside ordinary social boundaries, but so was he.

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About August 2010

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