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October 2010 Archives

October 4, 2010

Opera in a Pocket

Pocket opera? Scaled down opera--light on duration, singers, musical instruments, set, and props.

On October 1, 2010, the Dresser saw at Washington, DC's Source Theater what the InSeries called "Pocket Opera on 14th Street": Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and William Bolcom's Casino Paradise with libretto by Arnold Weinstein.

It's interesting how titles set up expectations--"Pocket Opera on 14th Street"--little operas in an urban space. Yes, the Source Theatre is clearly an urban space and the works were short in duration and other aspects.

Also the composers' names evoke certain expectations. Yes, Trouble in Tahiti (premiered in 1952) is listed, along with Candide (1956) and A Quiet Place (1963), as opera but one thinks of Bernstein's musical West Side Story (1957) as his most prominent piece for theater. Quite frankly, Trouble in Tahiti sits in that gray area between opera and musical, something the Dresser wearing another hat has looked at with deep interest. On the other hand, what the Dresser expected from Casino Paradise (premiered in 1990) was more along the innovative musical lines of A View from the Bridge, a full-scale opera by the same creative team of Bolcom and Weinstein. In fact, Casino Paradise, called by Bolcom a musical theater opera, is a musical with rather unremarkable music.

tahiti.cast.jpgNonetheless, these two musical plays seem to work side by side. Both deal with failing family communication. In Trouble in Tahiti, the strife between a 1950s couple named Sam (baritone Will Heim) and Dinah (mezzo-soprano Grace Gori) is offset by a jazzy trio that stands in for a Greek chorus in exactly the way one would imagine nosey neighbors of that era would behave. The chorus, acted and sung with remarkable flair by tenor Brendan Sliger, mezzo-soprano Tara McCredie, and tenor Jase Parker, provides a kind of upbeat Father Knows Best psychobabble.

Too much money seems to be at the heart of Sam and Grace's problems in Trouble in Tahiti. Sam is angry that Grace is spending too much seeing a shrink. She tells the shrink her dreams about not being able to escape a garden overgrown with weeds. Grace is angry with Sam because she thinks he is playing around with his secretary and he puts his competitive sports participation above their son's school activities. In the end, neither parent attends the son's school event. Sam goes to a handball tournament that he wins. Grace goes to see a grade B musical called Trouble in Tahiti. When the unhappy pair rushes home, he suggests that they go see Trouble in Tahiti and she says OK without telling him she just saw it. It's a sad story with no hope for resolution, but Director Nick Olcott created a satisfying production that was complete with authentic 1950s furniture and costumes.

CasinoCast.jpgAlthough the full version of Casino Paradise calls for thirteen singers and seven instrumentalists and the cabaret version suggests three or four singers with two keyboard players, Director Olcott opted for nine singers and a pianist. The story features a shady tycoon named JJ Fergeson (bass baritone Scott Sedar), his rebellious son Stanley (Jase Parker) and his got-to-have-a-man-at-any-price daughter Cis (Tara McCredie). The tycoon makes himself known to the local mom-and-pop business owners in some unnamed beached town between Galveston, Texas and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Over his son's protestations, JJ says he is going to make everyone rich with a new casino but none of this comes to fruition because JJ has a stroke and some unknown nurse (Grace Gori) seems to have taken over his affairs.

Casino Paradise seems particularly current given recent news that the casino business in Las Vegas and Reno has taken a deep plunge. While the Dresser generally admired the libretto for Casino Paradise, she thinks that in the end the libretto coupled with the unsurprising music neither inspired the director nor the performers. Jas Parker as Stanley gave a strong opening performance of "A Great Man's Child" but then his energy petered out. It seemed he had no other strong performer to play off of.CasinoConfront.jpg

In Henry Israeli's poem "The Close of the Silver Age," an ambitious man not unlike Sam and Grace, or JJ, Stanley, and Cis, struggles to overcome his plight. However Israeli seems to indicate in the title of the poem with the phrase "Silver Age," as opposed to "Golden Age," that there is something second rate or ordinary about this man's decline. In the two pocket operas, we have neither kings nor queens.


In the aftermath of his father's dementia
came the daughter, the rebirth. In the aftermath
of the rebirth came his wife's affair. In the aftermath
of the affair came the separation.
In the aftermath of the separation came
the reconstructed self--but he's getting ahead
of himself now, isn't he? He fears growing old,
how the embroidered wildflowers of overlapping
dendrites could entangle the whole garden.
The garden? He's confusing things again.
The garden has always existed "elsewhere"--
wasn't that the point of the expulsion?
Or was it the explosion? He throws another
volume into the fireplace. Whoosh goes
a decade in a diamond flash, in a clash
of babble, syllabic cacophony.

by Henry Israeli
From Praying to the Black Cat

Copyright © 2010 Henry Israeli

October 8, 2010

A Feast of Luminaries: Poet Laureates at the Library of Congress

CIMG1177light.jpgHow many poet laureates does it take... The Dresser is sure you can complete the joke without her help. Former Poet Laureate of the United States Billy Collins (2001-2003) quipped that he and the other Laureates--Rita Dove (1993-1995), Daniel Hoffman (1973-1974), Maxine Kumin (1981-1982), Kay Ryan (2008-2010), Charles Simic (2007-2008) and Mark Strand (1990-1991), who were waiting back stage of the packed Coolidge Auditorium, could certainly handle the job of changing that problematic light bulb. The Dresser thought to herself, the stage looked awfully bare with only one poet luminary on stage at a time, though certainly each was a beacon in his or her own way.


The purpose of the evening was to launch The Poets Laureate Anthology, a new collection featuring all 43 poets who rose to national attention from 1937 to the current day as either Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress or Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Archibald MacLeish, a poet himself, created the Consultant in Poetry position when he was Librarian of Congress. Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, a former poetry editor at the New York Times Book Review and a professor American literature at Sarah Lawrence College, is the editor of this collection, which is a co-publication of the Library of Congress and W. W. Norton. Billy Collins wrote the foreword.CIMG1170Collins.jpg

What was telling about the evening which was sponsored by the LOC, Norton and Poetry Society of American, was that James Billington, the current Librarian of Congress, and Carolyn T. Brown, Director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, wanted the audience to have fun and invest in their 762-page book featuring some of America's finest poets. Lucky for the Library, the first Laureate of the alphabet for this program was Billy Collins, a popular poet with a flair for showmanship. He immediately said that one of his role models for humor was Howard Nemerov, a poet who served as Consultant in Poetry twice (1963-1964 and 1988-1990). Collins read Nemerov's poem, "Money: An Introductory Lecture." Here is how this poem opens.


This morning we shall spend a few minutes
Upon the study of symbolism, which is basic
To the nature of money. I show you this nickel.
Icons and cryptograms are written all over
The nickel: one side shows a hunchbacked bison
Bending his head and curling his tail to accommodate
The circular nature of money. Over him arches
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and, squinched in
Between that and his rump, E PLURIBUS UNUM,
A Roman reminiscence that appears to mean
An indeterminately large number of things
All of which are the same. ...

The poem goes on to say that the nickel will buy you nothing and how the symbolism of the nickel includes endangered species both animal and human. Nemerov poked fun at what the American government could have possibly been thinking in creating these symbols for this nearly valueless coin. Certainly the Dresser wondered whether Collins was offering a subliminal message relative to the commerce that would take place after the last laureate read and everyone was invited to the Great Hall of the glorious Jefferson Building where books would be sold and signed at individual tables on the balcony.

However, the next poem by Collins threw a whimsical smoke screen over those thoughts.

PORTRAIT OF THE READER WITH CEREAL "A poet . . . never speaks directly, as to someone at the breakfast table." Yeats

This morning I sit across from you

at the same small table,

the sun italicizing

the breakfast things,

the side of a blue-and-white pitcher,

a dish of berries.

As usual I haven't a word to say,

so we sit here in a pool of silence,

beneath the roof and the bright sky,

me wearing a sweatshirt or robe,

you invisible. ...

The Dresser has heard Collins read many times and his habit is to deconstruct what has been set in stone as he does by starting with the epigraph by Yeats. The audience provided a thunder of clapping after each of his offerings that continued throughout the evening for each of the other laureates. There is no better warm up act for poetry than Billy Collins.


CIMG1168Dove.jpgThe light bulb was then passed to Rita Dove who warmed up by reading a Medusa poem by Louise Bogan (1945-1946) and Robert Hayden's (1976-1978) "Omage to the Empress of the Blues." She followed with two of her own poems: "This Life," which celebrates, through the voice of her grandmother, books and libraries and "The Bridgetower," a tribute to the biracial pianist George Polgreen Bridgetower who was a valued friend of Ludwig van Beethoven.

From the "great doorstopper of a book," Daniel Hoffman read "A World Below the Window" by William J. Smith (1968-1970) followed by six short of his own poems. Here is the first couplet of "The Seals in Penobscot Bay"


hadn't heard of the atom bomb,
so I shouted a warning to them


The Dresser is not entirely sure but she thinks Daniel Hoffman, out of the seven poets, was the only one she had never heard give a reading. She did not know about his studies of violence--he also read his poems "Power" and "Violence."


Maxine Kumin countered the darkness of Hoffman by opening with "Gentle Reader" by Josephine Jacobsen. It's a poem that cranked up the audience's clapping volume. Here are excerpts.


Late in the night when I should be asleep

under the city stars in a small room

I read a poet. A poet: not a versifier.

A poet, dangerous and steep.

O God, it peels me, juices me like a press;

until my juices feed a savage sight

that runs along the lines, bright

as beasts' eyes. The rubble splays to dust: 

city, book, bed, leaving my ear's lust

saying like Molly, yes, yes, yes O yes.

Continue reading "A Feast of Luminaries: Poet Laureates at the Library of Congress" »

October 25, 2010

When Maybelline Left Chuck Berry

"Maybelline, why can't you be true?
Oh Maybelline, why can't you be true?
You've started back doin' the things you used to do" Chuck Berry

The Washington, DC area must be the best place in the world for an appreciative audience. The Dresser has noted on other occasions that DC audiences stand up for whatever and whomever they like--let's not get into the difference between like and love--and probably the act of standing causes a wave reaction when exuberant audience members block the view of those sitting. On October 22, 2010, she realized a long time wish to see and hear Chuck Berry perhaps similarly to people assembled at North Bethesda, Maryland's Music Center at Strathmore. In any case, this audience jumped to its feet as soon as Berry, dressed in bell-bottom trousers, a flaming orange shirt, and a white captain's hat, stepped on stage. The added bonus was the Dresser's favorite blues and boogie woogie keyboardist Daryl Davis was also on the bill. No matter how many times the Dresser has seen and heard Davis play "Caldonia," she still marvels about how fast and agile his fingers are. Let it be known that Davis, who limited his opening performance to piano, keyboard, and singing, and his band: the stick-flipping Adolph Wright drums, the passionate Del Puschert on sax, Mark Neary on guitar, and Cha Cha Mundo on bass also got a well-deserved standing ovation.


In the case of Chuck Berry, the audience was clearly paying deference to the legendary songwriter and performer who established the model for how rock and roll would distinguish itself from rhythm and blues. Individuals called out happy birthday, knowing that Berry celebrated his 84th on October 18th. People were kind as Berry noted his various slips that he chalked up to age. He also said he was thankful that no one booed. Those who came to hear the house rock out--his back-up band was quite able: Daryl Davis on piano/keyboard, Adolph Wright on drums, and Jimmy Marsala on base--got barely one verse of his most famous hits like "Maybelline" and "Little Queenie." "Nadine" was not only lacking its lyrics but it was off key and geriatric in tempo.

duckwalkingtwo.jpgGranted an octogenarian should not be expected to duck walk--remarkably Berry still does a modified version of his famous squat hops on a mostly straight leg, but not to remember his block-busting jukebox hits? On the other hand, Berry recited several stanzas of a long poem until his nose started running and broke his concentration. This "not remembering" defies recent neurolinguistic wisdom in which educators set grammar rules to old folk tunes to help elementary school children learn grammar, medical students learn herpes facts sung to the tune of "Sound of Silence," and creative therapists organize senior citizens for extended vocal performances to keep them sharp and active.


OK, so Berry was improvising lyrics ("one little kiss for an old time used-to-be" or "Oh, baby, what's wrong with you?") and filling in with jokes and anecdotes. However, everyone, including his band members, tried to make sense of what he was buying time with. For the last number, "Johnny B. Good," he invited eight women on stage and probably much to his disappointment none of them were teenage queenies. And just to be fair, the mic-ing for voice for both Berry's and Davis' performances was unacceptably fuzzy.

Continue reading "When Maybelline Left Chuck Berry" »

October 27, 2010

Young Jean Lee's Broken World

What would make you as a theatergoer more uncomfortable--watching a video of a woman well up with tears as some unseen hand slaps her repeatedly? listening to three women wearing overly large smiles and Korean traditional dress (it makes them look pregnant) speak in Korean and Thai with no translation provided? witnessing a fourth Korean woman wearing jeans and jersey get punched and stomped by the three women in Korean dress? worrying that you might be suddenly yanked from your chair and ushered on stage? being insulted because the play you have paid your money to see indicates that everyone, especially the white person, is racist? Experiencing Young Jean Lee's play Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven as the Dresser did at Studio Theatre on October 24, 2010, brought up these kind of questions. Oh, one more question. Is this the stuff of comedy?


Lee's play is very disorienting in the purist way that Antonin Artaud meant for his manifesto of theater of cruelty to affect an audience. The very able actors--whether it is Young Jean Lee being slapped repeatedly in the Hitting Video or Jiehae Park, as the character Korean American, telling the audience her parents are like "retarded monkeys" tangled up in the demands of conformity and status--are charged by the playwright to shatter reality. And true to this shakeup of theater reality, Songs of the Dragons has no story line and the characters do not have names. songs_1_web.jpg

The play is a crazy quilt of videos, image, dance, song, mime, a shadow puppet play, and a child's game (scissor, paper, stone). In the intermissionless 90 minutes, a lot happens and much of it seems disjoint and overly long. However, the Dresser has discovered a trail of clues as to what threads together the Korean American's invective against her parents, traditional Korean culture versus the white culture in which she is a minority, overall racism on both sides, and the white couple known only as White Person 1 (played by Rachel Holt) and White Person 2 (played by Brandon McCoy) whose relationship is on the skids and whose interaction ends Songs of the Dragons with what seems to be a total disconnect.


The Dresser found the first and most important clue in a credit for the nine-minute "Hitting Video." (Be patient, the first five minutes one sees black screen while a practice session of hitting occurs.)

A male voice singing in Korean provides music background. His song in the pansori style (a narrative song sung to the beating of a drum) is about Chunhyang, a young Korean woman who marries in secret above her class and then has to suffer a horrible beating when the new governor of her province wants her as his mistress and she says no. To many Korean women, Chunhyang, who is a martyr to love, represents the first feminist, a woman who stands up for herself.

As for most modern day single women, their parents, particularly mothers, hound them about when they are going to get married. In Songs of the Dragons, that conversation is disguised in this way. Korean American's grandmother asks the granddaughter why she made "the video." (Presumably the video Grandmother refers to is the Hitting Video.) The granddaughter says she was trying to be political. Grandmother says "Jesus will help you, my dying wish." Grandmother makes the girl promise to embrace Jesus as her helpmate. In the Dresser's mind, the Jesus commitment is just a stand-in for the marriage commitment.

What happens next is Korean American declares "All is vanity. [Ecclesiastes 1:2] Everything is fucked up." (Use of the F-word is significant for its male orientation.)Then she proceeds to conduct a reverse Bible study class, but this transitions through a short scene in which the white couple bickers, followed by Korean American coming back on stage in chima jeogori, the traditional two-piece Korean dress. In quick succession, Korean American and the three Korean women strip themselves of their chima jeogoris revealing white full-length slips while a modern-day Christmas song plays in the background. The four women each commit a bloody suicide aided by lighting designer Joyce Liao's effective splashes of red light. All that is left is the white couple. The white woman says, "It's awesome being white." Then the couple talk about getting couples therapy if they can get health insurance to cover it.


The Dresser admits that the Chunhyang story does not create a one for one correspondence, but it made the Dresser see Songs of the Dragons as a rather strange love story and it was the only way for the Dresser to make sense of the white couple ending the play. Why Korean-American commits suicide by knife is to save her honor since she can't commit to Jesus or any other man. Why Korean 1, 2, and 3 (played by Patricia Penn, Sue Jin Song, Youngsun Cho) commit suicide is to participate in Korean American's ritual of death--Lee is making another provocative statement about conformity in the Asian community.

Continue reading "Young Jean Lee's Broken World" »

About October 2010

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in October 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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