" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

From EnCompass Magazine: I write about swing dancing in Denver

Lovely! Thanks so much to the kind folks at EnCompass for commissioning and running this feature story from me on the swing-dance revival scene in Denver -- in their Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

12 Daze: One dozen despicable Xmas entertainments (Part 3)

Now you're saying: "OK, smartass. Is there ANY Christmas-themed cultural event that doesn't work your last nerve?"

Yes. There are three. Not surprisingly, all three are funny. The humor not only lets in the welcome contrast of cynicism in, it leavens the deadly-serious sentiments encoded in their holiday DNA. You can play these over and over and over -- I will never tire of them! They are "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (the original animated TV feature, NOT the horrible feature-film adaptation) and "A Christmas Story."

Now, on to the quartet of unbearability, a homiletic hoedown of Brobdingnagian proportions.

4. The living Nativity scene

When I was twelve, I enthusiastically volunteered for duty at our church's living Nativity scene. I was a shepherd. I found a nice staff, and I made my mother sew a patch over the embroidered "W" on my dad's blue bathrobe (always the drive for authenticity -- I did not find any mentions of monogrammed clothing in the New Testament).

Little did I suspect that one of the coldest, snowiest Christmases in Colorado was in the offing. That special night, we assembled outside the front of the sanctuary. In the name of realism, none of us wore coats. Or gloves. Or hats. Or long underwear. Boots were a hard-won concession from the pastor.

Out in the raging blizzard we stood for hours, as cars drove by and honked, and delighted people walked up and took photos. We knelt or leaned in, centered in shivering adoration of the plastic baby doll in the manger (no one was willing to give up a real infant for the cause).

Ever since then I've just had a thing about that kind of event. A shudder of sympathy overwhelms me. Brrr. Friends don't let friends do living Nativity scenes. Outside. At night. In a blizzard.



3. Any and all Rankin/Bass animated Christmas specials

I raged about this mind-bending phenomenon a few years ago -- it's still a well-visited post here, so I'll just put the link right here. Enjoy my bile-spewing rundown of the Animagic roster!

2. "A Christmas Carol"

Historians now agree that Charles Dickens invented Christmas. His 1843 classic reignited what we now think of as the classic Western Christmas traditions. His story of redemption and personal transfiguration is great, regardless of the seasonal theme, and profoundly written.

But -- madre de dios! Hundreds of adaptations of the 1843 classic litter the stage, screen, television, radio and bookshelves. There are Western versions, contemporary versions, zombie Carols, a Batman carol, a -- Klingon -- Carol. The story's adaptability to any and all genres and audiences makes it the corner streetwalker of Christmas stories. It will hop in your car and do you, for any fee.

1. The Nutcracker

First of all, I hate Tchaikovsky. He's so damn melodic.

Second, hate ballet, dance and/or movement, save that needed to get from one place to another.

Third, hate that creepy Nutcracker story. True, it was written by one of my sentimental favorites, the crazy syphilitic drunken E.T.A. Hoffman, but the psychosexual overtones of one-eyed godfather Drosselmeyer giving little innocent Clara a wooden soldier are just too disturbing to go into in any detail. Evil mice, followed by a procession of cloying solos performed by candy? Stop. IT's diabetes in a tutu.

The best diagnosis of this "sugarplum overdose" comes from Sarah Kaufman, the Pulitzer-winning dance critic for the Washington Post, who sees the prevalence of this sickening ritual as stifling creativity and draining resources from more inventive and adventurous fare.

Standing O, Sarah! Thanks. You nailed it, babe. I call for a five-year ban on productions, or at least a boycott. Occupy Christmas, people. Together we can change the zeitgeist!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

12 Daze: A dozen or so despicable Xmas entertainments (Part 2)


And our countdown continues . . . as we move into the heart of darkness. You know, it's not that I don't value love, kindness, faith, and redemption. I treasure them. But when you fetishize any values and work them and work them and work them, they ossify. They sour. They become shorthand for real feelings. Then they take their place entirely. That's when they become despicable.

8. "The Gift of the Magi"

O. Henry (in reality, William Sydney [originally Sidney] Porter) was a formerly celebrated, now largely ignored early 20th century American writer. You used to find his work on every home bookshelf in the country, alongside the excruciatingly sentimental poetry of Edgar A. Guest ("It takes a heap o'livin'/In a house t' make a home").

Among other activities during his life, Henry was an embezzler, a drunk and a jailbird. He was a master of the "twist" ironic ending, which he stole from Maugham, who stole it from de Maupassant. Keeping the tradition alive, Rod Serling stole it from Henry -- now it is known as the "Twilight Zone" twist.

"The Gift of the Magi" is his most irritating work. At Christmastime, an impoverished couple tries to find a way to get each other a gift. She sells her HAIR to buy her husband a platinum watch fob (n.b. a chain or ribbon which attaches a pocket watch to a waistcoat) . . . and he sells his watch to buy her some hair brushes. GAAAK! They hug, as somewhere a dark figure laughs hollowly.

I can't think of a contemporary version of this. She sells their baby to buy him some beer; he sells his kidney to buy her a bassinet? Och. It's the thought that counts.


The Gift of the Magi - watch more funny videos     

7. "Miracle on 34th Street"

What hath Valentine Davies wrought? A simple little story became an award-winning film -- which spawned four remakes and a stage adaptation and a musical adaptation. And a puppet show. No, really.

The plot hinges on two impossible events -- first, the American legal system errs on the side of compassion; second, the Post Office delivers something desperately needed just in the nick of time. It takes far more faith in these entities than it does in Santa Claus to make this shaky story work.

Additionally, watching the conversion of a skeptical little secular humanist into a goggle-eyed Santaphile is just too sad. And I'm talking about Maureen O'Hara, who plays the mom! Although I am happy for John Payne's character -- without her spiritual conversion, he wouldn't have had a hope in hell of getting into her pants. P.S. I don't believe Natalie Wood for a New York minute. She just wants that damn house Kris promised her.

It's odd, too, that we coo and chuckle over cute little old crazy-as-a-bedbug Kris Kringle, but would cringe, shout and flee if anyone tried that on us in real life. Oh, and by the way, Kris -- Daniel D. Tompkins was NOT John Quincy Adams' Vice President. John C. Calhoun was. Get it together.




6. "It's a Wonderful Life"

The most terrifying ever made, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a fever dream of redemption in the mind of a dying suicide. George Bailey actually lives in Pottersville, and desperately dreams of an alternative, wonderful life as he drowns. A fruitless life spent sacrificing for others leads to a snowy bridge and a watery grave. Waah.

Put Gordon Gecko in George Bailey's place -- THEN you have a film.

At least, that's how I like to think of it. Merry Christmas, everybody! If you prefer to keep faith ith Frank Capra's twisted view, you can punch in to the amusing synopsis below, courtesy the 30-Second Bunnies:

http://www.angryalien.com/1204/wonderful_lifebuns.asp

5. "A Visit from St. Nicholas" aka "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"


A glance at the illustration above is enough to send any self-respecting parent into paroxysms or protectiveness. Look at what's happening in this home-invasion poem! Disturbing the peace. Airspace violations. Trespassing. Breaking and entering. Animal-rights violations ("he was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot"). Second-hand smoke. Disturbing behavior. Dumping. Levitation.

Make it stop, mommy. Make it stop. Don't let the bad man in the house!



TOMORROW: The Final Four -- shivering in the cold, traumatized by puppets, a mean old man and weirdos in tights

Friday, December 23, 2011

12 Daze: a (baker's) dozen despicable Xmas entertainments (Part 1)

More traumatizing events happen during the Yuletide season than any other. In my family it’s referred to warily as the Holiday of Guilt and Shame.

Still, the crushing rush of Christmas is so culturally pervasive that you can’t escape the traditional holiday entertainments that dragoon your children, force your attendance or attention, make your teeth grind and exhaust all remaining reserves of comfort and joy.

And this is the money time of year for artists and entertainers. Whether we are scraping away at a cello down at the mall, doing a puppet show for angry institution-bound seniors, or cavorting in tights in the bright light of the concert hall, we work work work it, from mid-December through New Year’s.

The resentment steams from the audience. The holiday season seemingly compels us to get dressed up and exposure ourselves to culture, like an unwelcome form of radiation therapy. We go see the old chestnuts because mom/grandma/Aunt Martha insists we do (guys would be happy on the couch, as God intended) – and just pray that there’s a cash bar.

This time of year, you can’t throw a brick without hitting a holiday well-wisher. Believe me, I’ve tried. Here, in ascending order of potential awfulness, is a baker’s dozen of doubtful entertainments. Bah.

13. “White Christmas”

No, not the song. Love the song. I’m talking about the stage adaptation of the 1954 version of the 1942 original, “Holiday Inn.”

“Holiday Inn” is a great, fun movie starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, based on an idea by Irving Berlin to make a movie that would showcase a number of his holiday-themed songs. The conceit, a hotel that is only open on public holidays, works well, and the script is a hoot.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by a blackface number about Lincoln’s Birthday, “Abraham.” America’s institutionalized racism was on its way out, but still going strong at the time. You will not likely see the film unless you purchase it or see it with the offending sequence lopped off.

The VistaVision color remake is a complete rewrite, and substitutes Danny Kaye for Astaire. It sucks, save for the catchy little “Sisters” turn. The stage adaptation has only been around since 1994, so it hasn’t had time to engrain itself into the national consciousness. Just you wait.
Gag.

12. Carolers and wassailing

The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that more than 80,000 deaths a year result from caroling.

You are a talented singer, in charge of a magnificent voice. Now take it outside in sub-zero temperatures and howl close-harmony doggerel while staggering through deep snowdrifts. What are you, Alferd Packer?

I have participated in these door-to-door sonic assaults. They are not yet illegal.

And I’m confused. There’s something Halloweenish about this whole affair. Shouldn’t you ask us in? Can we have something warm to drink? A cookie? Can we just grab a memento from your mantelpiece?

And what in the hell is wassail? Isn’t it a flaming bowl of something? Something English? I know we ask for it in some convoluted 18th-century way, as in: “Good husbandman, come bring/With tidings glad this/Hot steaming burn-ed drink/Hol-tol fiddle-rol tee dol downy-doo.” No thanks. I’ll stick with Scotch.


11. The Messiah

No, not THE Messiah. I mean Handel’s “Messiah.” A lovely oratorio, including catchy numbers such as the state song of Wyoming – “All we like sheep”!

However, it does go on. And on. And on. And actually, you know, it’s an EASTER oratorio, so the second half is full of smiting and chastising and rods of i-ron that sort of thing. Plus, we’re supposed to stand up during the Hallelujah Chorus! Like it’s the seventh-inning stretch! This is a tradition based on the mistaken belief that George II did it during the first performance, which is a big fat lie.

So, if you’re stuck listening to this, and everyone stands up suddenly, stay seated (unless the venue is on fire) and explain loudly about the vile calumny that forces people to their feet. You’ll be glad you did.

This disdain for the "Messiah" encompasses all modern, alternative variants, including the rock Messiah, the jazz Messiah, the blues Messiah, the R & B Messiah, the gospel Messiah, the rap Messiah, the punk Messiah, the ambient dub Messiah, the mbalax Messiah, and all other "more accessible" corruptions thereof.

10. “Amahl and that Night Visitors”

The first opera written for television, this one-act piece of schmaltz went out over the airwaves from NBC studio 8H (where “Saturday Night Live” now reigns) on December 24, 1951. Although Gian Carlo Menotti was a darn good opera composer (try “The Consul” and “The Medium” sometime), this was not one of his best efforts, in my humble etcetera.

Still, this tearjerker is a cash cow. Poor, crippled shepherd boy + single mom + baby Jesus = boffo box office.

And who can forget the great "This is my box" aria?

9. “The Littlest Angel”

Less an immediate danger to mass consciousness -- more a traumatizing flashback for me. Like “Amahl,” this was a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. It featured Johnny Whitaker (the curly-headed freckle-face from “Family Affair”) as a little 8-year-old  shepherd boy (sound familiar?) who ACCIDENTALLY RUNS OFF THE EDGE OF A CLIFF and dies . . . or rather, finds himself in heaven.

In a plot development stolen from “Our Town,” “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “A Guy Named Joe” and other he wanders around, not really able to figure out that he’s DEAD, why he’s DEAD, and how to feel about it. With an all-star cast that includes Freed Gwynne, Cab Calloway, Tony Randall, George Rose, CONNIE STEVENS? JAMES COCO? And E.G. Marshall as -- God. Yep.

And it’s a musical. A musical. It was broadcast on Dec. 6, 1969, and it traumatized me for life. 
You know how if you see something vastly inappropriate on TV and the kids are in the room, you leap for the remote to turn it off? I want you to do this if “The Littlest Angel” EVER makes an appearance. It makes “Poltergeist” look like an episode of Bob the Builder.

TOMORROW: O. Henry, Jimmy Stewart, Santa on trial, and that horrible poem

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Great opera villains, Part Two

Edouard de Reszke as Mephistopheles in Gounod's "Faust" -- the Devil gets all the good tunes.
With the chill in the air, opera season is here, and I’ve been looking at the juicy parts the typical operatic villain gets to sing.

While it’s perceived as a pastime for the rich, most of its history saw opera as an opiate of the people. Yep, common folk would flock to see these larger-than-life stories, enjoying the extremes of acting, production values and musical embellishment just as we get off on 3-D IMAX films today.

As we will see in this installment, the gorier the fates, the more florid the emotions and the more special effects that could be piled on, the happier the hoi polloi was. In the first part of this story, I talked about my top three: Scarpia in “Tosca,” Don Pizzaro in “Fidelio,” and Claggart in “Billy Budd.” Here are some second-tier nasties and a catalog of the mayhem they wreak. Enjoy!


1.    Iago, “Otello” -- Verdi

Position: Junior officer in the Venetian army

Iago just misses out being in the top three by virtue of Verdi’s chief virtue – the fact that he couldn’t write a poorly-rounded character to save his life. Like Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy, Verdi gives every one of his parts a soul, and the inherent balance in this approach keeps Iago from dominating the proceedings.

When I first read “Othello” as a kid, I didn’t get it -- I wondered why it wasn’t just called “Iago.” With the passage of time and the revelation of some top-notch performances, it’s become apparent that Othello is the author of his and Desdemona’s destruction, even if Iago is holding the poison pen.

What’s his problem?: Basically, Iago would much rather have civil service procedures and seniority determine promotion. Otello preferred Cassio to him, therefore, he seeks vengeance against the Moorish general. (In Shakespeare’s source play, he also refers to the fact that O fooled around with his wife.) Iago aka “Honest John” proves how smart he is by concocting a brilliant series of implied statements that drive Otello to suspect his own wife’s fidelity and eventually to strangle her to death.

M.O.: Iago would have made a great lawyer. Using only half-hinted assertions and a bit of circumstantial evidence, he propels the murderous plot.

Good tunes?: Plenty! It’s Verdi, after all. From his baldly cynical “Credo” through to the Act II and III finales, Iago is a great part to sing and to play. My favorite Iago, Sherrill Milnes, sings here.



Payback: Well, he kind of dashes offstage when the jig is up at the end of Act IV. We are told that the cops are in hot pursuit, and certainly he can never show his face in Venice again, but his ultimate capture and disposition of the case are never explicated. Maybe he talked his way out of it – if anyone could have, it was him.






2.    Alberich/Fafner/Hunding/Hagen, “Der Ring des Niebelungen” -- Wagner

Position: Dwarf, Giant/dragon, angry husband, sneaky warrior

What’s their problem?: Alberich starts the whole thing by renouncing love and grabbing The Ring, to gain complete magic power over everything. Wotan tricks him out of it, but then Wotan has to hand it over to the twin giants Fasolt and Fafner for getting his Valhalla palace complex built. Then Fafner kills Fasolt and turns into a dragon. Hunding is a lout who just happens to have the bad luck to have married the twin sister of Siegmund, Sieglinde. The brother and sister run away and “get married” (knocked up) and Hunding kills Siegmund. Way later, Hagen son of Alberich schemes to get the Ring back from Siegmund and Sieglinde’s kid, the hero Siegfried. He stabs him in the back to do so.

M.O.: Stealing, oppressing other dwarves, bullying, murder, transforming into dragons, uncouthness, treachery, backstabbing.

Good tunes?: I don’t know . . . do you like Wagner? Then yes. There are lots of good bits and lots and lots of slower parts where everybody kind of goes over everything that’s come before just to catch us up and keep us all in the loop. If you like the idea of 15 straight hours of one epic story spread over four different operas, this is your baby.




Payback: Alberich is always in background, cursing folks and plotting for control, but ultimately foiled as the cycle begins again. Fafner gets offed by Siegfried. Hunding makes Wotan so mad by killing Siegmund that Wotan just waves his magic spear at him and he dies. Hagen drowns trying to grab the Ring. It’s so Tarentino.




3.    Count di Luna, “Il Trovatore” -- Verdi

Position: Nobleman

What’s his problem?: He loves Leonora, but she loves Manrico, the troubadour of the title. Actually, he is one of the more sympathetic villains in opera – his feelings for the heroine are real, his jealousy is not unfounded. He just has to be the bad guy.

M.O.: He has a squad of guards that are about as effective as the Keystone Kops. Time and again, Manrico and Leonora slip away from him. He duels Manrico, who beats him but refrains from killing him due to the fact that subconsciously he realizes that they are really brothers . . . I think. It’s not until he captures Manrico’s mother, the crazy gypsy lady Azucena, who is NOT really Manrico’s mother, that he gets the edge on Manrico.

Good tunes?: Pull “Il balen del suo sorriso” out of its Act II, Scene 2 context, and raise the register a bit, and it will do the trick for any tenor-ish lovesick hero.



Payback: He doesn’t get Leonora, who does the right thing and kills herself. He then executes Manrico. It is a truly horrifying final moment for the Count. Azucena tells him he has killed his brother, and the Count screams, “And I must live on!” CURTAIN. But . . . wait a second. He’s going to take the word of a crazy gypsy lady? Not too convincing.


4.    Don Giovanni, “Don Giovanni” -- Mozart

Position: Nobleman

What’s his problem?: Sex addict. He will sleep with anything that moves, providing it’s female. He’s a player. He doesn’t care what lies he must tell, who he has to step on, and does not scruple to murder.

M.O.: Swordplay (both kinds) and sweet talk.

Good tunes?: Hey, he’s the (anti)hero.



Payback: Dead-guy statue drags him to hell. For the audience, this is a perfect case of vicarious hypocrisy – they get to watch Donny G. have his way with all of womanhood, and then suffer his just desserts. It’s a win-win . . . except for the title character, of course.


5.    Rigoletto, “Rigoletto” -- Verdi

Position: Jester, single parent

What’s his problem?: Another one of Verdi’s patented antiheroes. He a 16th-century standup comic, but he doesn’t know when to stop being “on,” bringing down a curse (“la maledizione!”) on himself.

M.O.: Barbed words, and underworld connections (he hires a hit man, Sparafucile).

Good tunes?: Oh so many, but especially his pitiful “Cortigiani, vil razza damnata” in Act II –



Payback: He dooms his secret daughter to seduction and deflowerment by his boss, the callous but charming Duke of Mantua (another famous villain who gets off scott-free). Due to a severe case of Opera Logic, his revenge plan goes awry and he ends up getting his own beloved deflowered daughter killed by the aforementioned Sparafucile. “LA MALEDIZIONE!” CURTAIN.


6.    Mephistopheles/Mefistofele/Nick Shadow, “Faust”/”Mefistofele”/”The Rake’s Progress” – Gounod, Boito, Stravinsky

Position: Unholy adversary.

What’s his problem?: This is an immensely complex theological matter that would take volumes to weigh properly. You might say he doesn’t really have a problem – just a sinister mission. As the old joke says, the Devil said to the preacher: “If it wasn’t for me, you’d be out of a job!”

M.O.: He pretty much has all the dark power of the universe behind him. The only effective countermove is the grace of God, usually employed conveniently at the last second.

Good tunes?: As the great Brazilian writer Machado de Assis put it in his analogy of the world as an opera stage, “God is the librettist. The music is Satan’s.”





Payback: Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. There are always more souls to wager over with the Deity.


7.    Enrico Ashton, “Lucia di Lammermoor” -- Donizetti

Position: Lord of Ravenswood (impoverished)

What’s his problem?: He’s got to marry off his kid sister to Lord Bucklaw in order to get his hands on some ready cash. Too bad she’s in love with Edgardo, who also happens to be the rightful heir of Ravenswood.

M.O.: Murder (he killed Edgardo’s pappy), psychological torment and threats.

Good tunes?: He gets to rave on about his schemes to set up the action, exposition-style, in Act I, Scene 1. Often overlooked is his vigorous confrontation with Edgardo in Act II, Scene 1, in which he informs the poor lad that Lucia is e’en at that time dancing the horizontal mambo with Bucklaw, and they challenge each other to a duel.




Payback: Newlywed Lucia kills Bucklaw, then goes nuts and falls down dead. So much for paying off the mortgage. Unless there’s some kind of prenup that lets Enrico grab the loot. It’s worth checking with the local solicitor.


8.    Barnaba, “La Gioconda” – Ponichelli

Position: Spy for the Inquisition

What’s his problem? This horny little snitch lusts for the lady of the title role. When she spurns him, he threatens her poor old blind mother -- and just about anyone else who crosses his path.

M.O.: Denouncing people, and making dirty deals, all to try to get into La G’s pants.

Good tunes?: Well, just one – “O monumento!”, in Act I. Ponichelli is really Verdi Jr., and you can hear a lot of “Rigoletto” in “Gioconda.” Barnaba is a classic bureaucrat – he not only identifies his self-interest with that of the state, but he is quite happy to feel smug and virtuous about it, even as he plots the most evil schemes. Here’s Mateo Manuguerra --



Payback: None whatsoever. True, he doesn’t get to bounce on the midnight trampoline with La G, but his last line is truly disgusting – to her corpse, he announces that he drowned her mother the night before. What a jerk.

NEXT TIME: Don’t mess with the Gesler, and others

Monday, November 14, 2011

The sky’s the limit: new book offers penetrating look at air safety

Why Planes Crash: An Accident Investigator’s Fight for Safe Skies
By David Soucie with Ozzie Cheek
221 pgs., Skyhorse Publishing

Straight out, I need to make an admission – I went to high school with the author. No pressure, right?

I have been reviewing books, and a vast variety of work in other media, for two decades now. When I found out that a former classmate had written a book, I requested a copy from him, without his prior solicitation. I was insatiably curious.

My nervousness about the possibility of reading something awful, and having to pan the work of a nice guy, was groundless. “Why Planes Crash” stands on its own merits, a thoroughly enjoyable a thought-provoking read.

It succeeds on many levels. First, it’s an engaging autobiography, outlining the author’s personal and professional progress and pitfalls as he moves from aircraft mechanic to maintenance director to FAA inspector and beyond. The number of alternately hilarious, horrifying and moving moments he has experienced in his career alone makes fascinating reading.

A key factor in this level of satisfaction is the tone of the book. It’s an old cliché that you should write as you speak, with a directness and sense of comfort that draws in the reader. It’s also absolutely true, and damnably difficult to pull off. Years of artifice, bad habits and self-consciousness usually have to be stripped away before a writer’s voice can truly be heard. Fortunately, with the aid of Ozzie Cheek, Soucie accomplishes this. In fact, it’s a special treat to read this book from my unique perspective as, having known him for 30-odd (or 30 odd) years, I can attest that it sounds like Dave is talking directly to me.

It doesn't hurt that the pervasive crusading thrust of the narrative is often punctuated by a number of acknowledgments of his own shortcomings -- his workaholic nature, his headstrong tendencies, and a shattering admission of his valuing the bottom line over life that he feels led to the death of a coworker.

Second, it offers a no-holds-barred look at the real-life practices behind airline safety – a system that, despite the presence of many good people and positive practices, is frighteningly prey to the same problems and lapses any other line of work is. Bureaucratic inertia, political infighting, personal vendettas, corporate collusion and governmental red tape all seem to stand in the way of a very basic public obligation – to make sure that people don’t get killed in the course of a flight. It’s easy to agree with Soucie’s assertion that he was edged out of the FAA due to his impertinent insistence on honoring this responsibility.

Thirdly and most importantly, he describes an evolution in his thinking that, articulated and spread properly, can prove of great value and application in all walks of life. His sense of integrity does not allow him to accept half-measures, and he eloquently gathers together strands of realization along the way, weaving them into a theory of prognosis and information sharing that can be used to prevent disasters, rather than merely the passive application of blame – and new rules -- after the fact.

I have seen the need for this kind of thinking, time and again, in every organization I have been a part of, and at the heart of many of the problems and tragedies I have reported on in my career as a journalist. Soucie traces each step, from literal nuts-and-bolt practicalities to philosophical stance, with elegant clarity.

In the end, what raises “Why Planes Crash” above the level of the as-told-to and tell-all piece of non-fiction is the soul behind it. Soucie comes from a place of caring. He has principles, and he manifests them in a real-world, high-stakes area of concern to all. "Why Planes Crash" offers new ideas and insights in the context of solid storytelling. Thanks, Dave.

P.S.: At the end of his book, he threatens to write a follow-up that will articulate his concepts more thoroughly. Get cracking, mister.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Canon fire: the passions of Pauline Kael


The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
Edited by Sanford Schwartz
828 pgs., Library of America

Pauline Kael makes me so mad. Yes, in the present tense. The brilliant, renegade film critic still pisses me off, 20 years after she stopped writing and 10 years after death. I grew up reading her, frequently flinging my copy of The New Yorker across the room . . . then retrieving it and pressing on, teeth grinding. The Library of America’s refreshing compendium of her work, “The Age of Movies,” brings all that back to me, but it also makes me realize what a great writer she was and how strongly she influenced my own film criticism.

She’s just so damn sure of herself. She hates “West Side Story,” “A Clockwork Orange,” Dirty Harry films, “Network.” She loves Brian DePalma? Hates Cassavetes? You see what I mean. She was mean – a compulsive iconoclast, snob, loner, egomaniac, infighter. For the first two decades of her writing career, she dined on dissatisfaction. She was compulsive – adding up the bulk of her 13 books -- most with blithely suggestive titles such as "I Lost It at the Movies" -- reveals a total of 6,791 pages. That “Age of Movies” editor Sanford Schwartz was able to make his way through this torrent of words and pare them down to an essential and readable 10 percent of the total puts him in my mind in line for sainthood.

The first piece in the collection, “Movies, the Desperate Art,” sets the tone for everything that follows. She is whip-smart, fully articulate, like an angry newborn looking to punch out the obstetrician. “The film critic in the United States is in a curious position: the greater his interest in the film medium, the more enraged and negative he is likely to sound.” She also seems to blithely excoriate her own approach, later in the same paragraph: “A few writers . . . have taken a rather fancy way out: they turn films into Rorschach tests . . . The deficiency of this technique is that the writers reveal a great deal about themselves but very little about films.”

She contradicts herself constantly throughout her career. She calls Brando’s career dead, then hails his resurrection in “Last Tango in Paris.” She loves Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” then stomps him to death in her review of “Raging Bull.” When she loves a film or filmmaker, she waxes embarrassingly rhapsodic. She was perhaps the greatest put-down artist in history of criticism, and seemed to enjoy every second of it. She was Joan of Arc with a typewriter.

But these mad capers were always intelligent, entertaining, compelling, and in the service of the higher good, as she defined it. “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising,” she wrote. She was right.

She let genius in. Many of the movies we now consider to be the highlights of the American New Wave (from “Bonnie and Clyde” until “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” basically) – works by Altman, Coppola, Scorsese and the like – were not as well-recognized at the time as we seem to remember now. Kael was there to praise them and lead us through them, and her articulate analysis (minus the hosannas) really made their virtues concrete for us. Here and there, she made us see with her eyes, and she had glorious visions of what movies could be when they were honest, efficient and rich in content.

In the end, she was right about much more than she wasn’t. She yearned to be ahead of the game, able to foresee the future, to be the smartest person in the room. She frequently was all three at once. It’s surprising, too, how sustained the quality of her writing is, despite its volume (volume both in terms of length and tone). She tosses off aphorisms and bon mots by the thousands, like sparks from a steel mill.

And no one is safe. To understand her real achievement, you must look back at what film criticism was before she came along. With the exception of thoughtful, stylish analysts such as James Agee and Manny Farber, most film critics were for decades really just publicists in disguise, a state of things we have reverted back to in our times. Those who weren’t were vilified as moralistic curmudgeons.

Bosley Crowther and Dwight Macdonald were anathemized as such by Kael, Andrew Sarris and Richard Schickel when they grew to prominence in the 1960s, although each of these men had championed significant and innovative films in their time. The angry young critics themselves split apart, particularly over Sarris’ adoption and promotion of Francois Truffaut theory of auteurism, the claim that directors exercise a creative control over any sequence of films they helm.

Kael would not subscribe to any critical theory or method of classification. She responded with her gut, claiming never to see a film more than once and then rendering its salient points in stupefying detail. (This could be so; I have the uncanny ability to remember almost every movie, play or work of art I’ve seen, and every bit of music I’ve ever heard – meanwhile, my children must still wear nametags at home.) She was constantly, obsessively watching film and adding each to her stockpile of knowledge and experience, weaving ever-more intricate meditations out of each screening.

This for me is where she really becomes heroic. She does not write as a woman, or disguise or mute her keen cross-disciplinary knowledge. Unlike the gentlemanly reviewers of the past, or the scholarly or programmatic critics of her time (Molly Haskell is a feminist film critic; Kael is a critic plain and simple and if you don’t like then to hell with you), Kael commits completely to her impressions – she follows her chains of thought to their remorseless ends – she is all in, all the time, fully present, unafraid of being wrong, unable to admit to ever being wrong, because she isn’t ever wrong – her thinking and prose evolves just as she does. She has the integrity of the lone cinematic cowpoke who follows his own cryptic code of honor.
 She hates artistic pretense and loves enthusiastic crap. She is ready to throw aside any statement of faith she has ever made in honor of a new, vital film experience. This is a liberation unlike any other. Most criticism seeks to contain, define; her writing is always exploding, blowing outward. At her most narrow-minded, she inspired me to respond, first mentally and then with my own writing.

Was she a bitch? Was she trailed everywhere by a band of acolytes? Did she trade favors for influence? Who cares, really. I have read a few of the other reviews of this work that have come along; some seem to want to nail her down and others want to nail her to the wall. In that way, not much changes in the back-biting world of journalism and criticism . . . at least, in the tattered remnants of those two professions. What she has to say endures, and that’s the only thing that matters now.

After Kael, critics could not write in a rote manner and expect to be taken seriously. She gave us permission to ramble, a bit, examine things from a multitude of perspectives, to have the balls to be enthusiastically wrong, to bring all of ourselves to whatever we wrote. What a wonderful gift. (Plus, she loved movies like “The Killer Elite,” “Used Cars” and “Melvin and Howard,” which makes me feel pretty pleased with myself, I must say.)

Now that I’ve made my way through “The Age of Movies,” I feel invigorated. And traumatized. I’ll have to read it again, in 20 years or so. Thanks, Pauline.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Badass bass/baritones: the lure of the great opera villains, Part One

Tito Gobbi as Rigoletto: a jester with an agenda.

I love to sing. Ask around; a lot of bystanders have been injured in the process.

There’s something thrilling about carrying a tune, whether or not you’re particularly good at it. After high-school choir and a little musical theater, though, I was done as a singer.

I still love to listen, though – especially opera. Why? Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a magnificent mash-up of music, theater, dance, and art. Maybe it’s that the operatic world can contain so much. Opera is a crazy, emotional, illogical, overblown, splendid world in which concepts and people lurch about in enormous and ornate settings, bellowing beautifully out into the darkness.

But I rapidly began to identify with the bad guys. Although opera has changed and grown in the past 100 years, its core repertoire is, depending on your orientation, numbingly or comfortingly familiar. The heroes and heroines sing high; the villains, weirdoes and comic relief sing low.

I wonder why. Maybe it’s a reptile-brain association – higher, lighter voices belong to the young and innocent, and deep growls come from the aged and jaded, the predators.

But the tenors are so damn irritating . . . they get the best arias, they get the girl, they get the big applause, and they are so, well, whiny. They do not so much act as they are acted upon. They are tormented by love, fate, adversity, and it’s a fair bet that they could whip up a poignant aria about the difficulty of tying their shoelaces if pressed.

The villains are so much more fun to play. No villain? No plot! Ask any actor – a hero must be played with a kind of blankness about him that allows the audience to slip in its identification with him. But a bad guy – oh what cackling fun! And in opera, there is nothing subtle about being a scoundrel. One gets to boom forth, gnash the teeth, leer, gesticulate until one is stabbed, shot, struck, drowned, poisoned, arrested or otherwise molested. (And sometimes the opera villain gets off scott-free!)

So here’s a purely personal list of my favorite bass/baritone baddies, with a palate-clearing addendum of not-so-nasty lower-range roles as well.





  1. Scarpia, “Tosca” – Puccini

Position:
Chief of police and royalist, Rome

What’s his problem?:
He wants to ravish the heroine and kill her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, who is a revolutionary sympathizer.

M.O.: An army of spies, firing squad, and torture, physical and psychological. He puts Cavaradossi to the rack, and then tells Tosca that he’ll let him go if she does the nasty with him.

Good tunes?:
Absolutely. Scarpia knows how evil is is, and has no remorse about it whatsoever. Listen to him revel in his dastardliness at the end of Act I, performed by Cornell Macneill, the ultimate Scarpia:

Payback:
Stabbed to death by Tosca with a butter knife (ouch!) at the end of Act II. However, he’s such a rotter that he ends up killing both the lovers after he’s dead. THAT’S follow-through.





  1. Don Pizzaro, “Fidelio” – Beethoven

Position:
Prison governor

What’s his problem?:
He just hates that Don Florestan, husband of the heroine Leonore, whom he has unjustly imprisoned for trying to expose Pizzaro’s evil deeds. Leonore disguises herself as a dude in order to spring Florestan from jail (opera is complicated). Pizzaro plans to have Florestan killed and buried before the king’s minister stops by to check on how things are going down there in the pokey.

M.O.:
Deliberate starvation of prisoners, denial of exercise-yard privileges, intent to kill by stabbing.

Good tunes?:
Meh. Mostly, he serves as a plot point, but boy is he scary! He has a nice Act I kill-the-wabbit moment. Here’s Walter Berry:

Payback:
Pizzaro makes the classic bad-guy mistake of bringing a knife to a gunfight. He is overcome and foiled and ends up a prisoner in his own jail.





  1. John Claggart, “Billy Budd” – Britten
Position:
Master-at-arms, the HMS Indomitable

What’s his problem?
He hates Billy Budd, 'foretopman, the gentle hero of the tale. He vows, for no other reason than the existential hatred of evil for good, that he will destroy him utterly.

M.O.:
Flogging, harassment, spies, perjury.

Good tunes?: His aria “Handsomely done, my lad” in Act II is one of the most chilling delineations of evil in any medium. Here’s James Morris:

Payback: Claggart accuses Billy of mutiny in front of Captain Vere. Billy strikes Claggart in the head, killing him instantly. Vere, in turn, if forced by military code to hang Billy, though he knows Claggart’s charges were false and that Billy is a saintly figure.

NEXT TIME: Barnaba, Iago and a bunch of other jerks

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: Alan Arkin’s “An Improvised Life”

 An Improvised Life
Alan Arkin
Da Capo Press, 2011

This is not a critical review. This is not analysis. It’s excessive gushing followed by extensive quoting. Hope that works for you.

I’ve idolized Alan Arkin all my life. First, he made me laugh until I hurt in “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!” Then he scared the crap out of me in “Wait Until Dark.” Then he made me cry in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Then he did all three in “Little Murders.” And on it’s gone, to my delight, for decades since.

When I found out he got started, along with many of my other performing heroes, in improv, I was determined to do the same. I spent 15 years on stage making things up, and loved it. Except for that time I got a concussion. Or the time I ate the cigarettes. Or when I challenged 150 people to a fistfight. Those are other stories for other days.

So, when I saw his memoir on the shelf, I grabbed it. I can happily say that it’s one of the most readable reminiscences I’ve encountered in a long time – especially because it’s not really that. I’ll explain.

Most autobios retail anecdotes – I did this, then I did that, I slept with her, him, them, I got this award, that honor, I was great. Arkin serves his readers by focusing specifically on the art of improvisation and its transformative power. Reading “An Improvised Life” is a rewarding experience for those who know the craft, those who are curious, and those who became, like me, burned out and dead-ended in the discipline. Arkin’s book will remind the latter why this calling is so intoxicating, fruitful and worth the struggle.

Arkin wisely provides us with just enough of his life story to set the stage for his thoughts on performance. Indeed, watching the writer get out of his own way is in itself a treat. His professional ups and downs, marriages, and relationships with his offspring are subordinate to his discussion of the use of the form to promote self-understanding and growth. He is more interested in being a genuinely good person than a star.

He sees performance as a revelatory (but not self-indulgent) process, instead of as an act of commodification. He writes:

“We live in a culture where everything is selling. I watch TV and I don’t see events, I see people selling me events. The newscasters are not reporting the news, they are dramatizing it, selling it, selling themselves as good reporters. They’re making the news “interesting” . . . actors are selling products they have no feeling for; the political forums are all jazzed up and contain endless faked fights . . . We’re so imbued with the onslaught of selling, selling ,selling – products and personalities – so bombarded with hype and false excitement that I think we forget what a real experience feels like . . . we begin to believe that since we are expected to have an experience that we are actually having one.”

I’ve often referred to this as “the Broadway experience.” If you shell out big bucks for a concert, play, movie or activity, it’s very difficult to admit disappointment or even dislike. Along with the rest of the audience, you are on your feet at the end, applauding. Why? Well, because you feel like a dupe if you don’t. Early in my career as a critic, I was often unduly harsh in reaction to the complacency I perceived. (Needless to say, my snarky comments didn’t bring the revolution.)

Arkin, like me, is a big fan of Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” and advocates throwing away stale behaviors and perceptions onstage and off, getting fresh eyes. The second half of Arkin’s book deals almost exclusively with his work directing improvisational seminars, and it’s his demand that people stop looking for the punch line, to STOP ACTING, that I find so exciting.

The roots of improvisation are spontaneously play; when harnessed to the exigencies of appearing on a comedy stage, they turn into predictable setups. The standup comic traditionally likes to get a laugh in his or her routine with a frequency of between 15 and 20 seconds. That need caused me and others, countless times, to cut to the gag in an improvised instead of trying a more difficult, less payoff-certain path. Eventually, improv games became routinized, from development to payoff to blackout line. I was bored out of my skull, but didn’t have the wit or ability to push against the compulsion.

Arkin reduces the onstage impulse to intention and the emotional context stemming from same. He reframes the motivating spring between people onstage from “conflict” to “objective,” sidestepping the often fatal flaw of creating opposition in a scene gratuitously. He sees his function in leading a workshop as, one, providing support and a lack of judgment and two, “to help people get out of their heads. Their clever place.” He describes the results as “deeper, more spontaneous and more connected.” I believe it.

Making room for honest feeling and reaction allows players to invest the work with meaning. They don’t have to “buy into” anything, because they are being real, even in a willfully imagined context.

Arkin’s later workshops seem to involve people from all walks of life, not dedicated performers. As someone who has done many of these seminars, and who always felt guilty about taking money for them, I wondered frequently if people really got anything out of the experience, took something home with them that they could use in their “real” lives.

Arkin provides an answer: “If something is to come out of the experience it will come out of devotion to what is taking place right now. I believe this fervently, both in life and in a workshop: that if this present moment is lived whole-heartedly and meticulously, the future will take care of itself.”

That’s quite a punch to the gut, especially for someone as approval- and accomplishment-oriented as I still am. What? I don’t have to prove anything? I can just be? How does that work?

“In the final analysis, it’s all improvisation,” Arkin concludes. “We’re all tap dancing on a rubber raft. We like to think otherwise, so we plan our lives, we plot, we figure, we find careers that will guarantee us early retirement, we look for relationships that are permanent, we fill out forms, we do scientific experiments, we write rules – all in an attempt to solidify, concretize and control this universe of ours that refuses to be pigeon-holed, to be understood, pinned down, categorize, or even named . . . It’s all the nagging, the complaining, the plotting, the fears, the endless need to keep the universe in all its majestic chaos at bay – that with a little more thought and effort we can figure it all out, control it all, the universe, our destiny. This is what kills us, robs us of our spontaneity, our ability to improvise . . . “

Inspiring is an overused term, but appropriate in this case. For those who want to reach a place of authenticity and immediacy, the outline is right here. “An Improvised Life” asserts that there is a significant spiritual dimension to life, and that process trumps both end and means. It redeems much for me. Thanks, Mr. Arkin. Thank you very much!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Life imitates comedy: Murdoch and ‘Pravda’

“It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”

     -- John Steinbeck, “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”

People love to paint their judgments of others in primary colors. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is currently decked out in ebony.

Murdoch, now seemingly brought low due to the criminal activities of his journalistic employees, is being grilled by Parliament even as I write this. All and sundry are gloating over his downfall.

The powerful press lord, creator of the Fox Broadcasting Company and recent purchaser of the Wall Street Journal, is a legendary monster in the business – perceived and portrayed as ruthless, right-wing, opportunistic, with an editorial mission to cheapen the minds of readers with sex, scandal and celebrity obsession, with a healthy dollop of abuse and persecution of political targets in the pages of his publications.

Yet, as much as he is despised, he is feared. And admired. Undeniably, he gets things done, he makes things happen. According to the customs of unrestrained capitalist practice, he is not particularly out of line. Is he a hero or a villain?

In 1985, British playwrights Howard Brenton and David Hare saw the staging of their “Pravda,” a brilliant satire of the media with a thinly disguised Murdoch clone at its center. (It was one of Anthony Hopkins’ last star stage turns before his rise to international prominence with his performance as Hannibal Lecter in the film “The Silence of the Lambs.”) Nearly 30 years before today’s events, they summarized the dilemma the journalism business – can you have success and influence and still fulfill the ideals of the profession?
In the play, the Australian Murdoch becomes the South African Lambert Le Roux, who mercilessly consolidates and dumbs down his media holdings, making countless enemies who nonetheless are unable to band together and bring him down.

“I provided the formula,” Le Roux states in Act Two. “ . . . Page One, a nice picture of the Prime Minister. Page two, something about actors. Page three, gossip . . . a rail crash if you’re lucky. Four, high technology. Five, sex, sex crimes, court cases. . . . Then six pages of sport. Back page, a lot of weather and something nasty about the Opposition. There you are.”

Is Le Roux a monster, or simply an astute businessman? “Good papers are no good,” he continues “There’s no point in them. All that writing. Why go to the trouble of producing good ones, when bad ones are so much easier? And they sell better too.”

In the end, Brenton and Hare do not indict Le Roux. They indict his victims. “Journalists are not noted for standing up for each other. It is not in their nature,” Le Roux comments. And indeed, a publication’s discomfort with some truths is laid at the feet of editor Andrew May in the first act. May, who later becomes Le Roux’s puppet, is seen dealing with a woman who comes to his provincial paper seeking a retraction of a damaging falsehood.

“We don’t publish corrections. Because we don’t like them. I’ll be honest. They don’t look good on the page. If every time we got something wrong, we published a correction, then a newspaper would just be a footnote to yesterday’s newspaper. . . . if we apologize and correct, how can the readers know what is true and what is not? To print corrections is a kind of betrayal. Of a trust. It’s a matter – finally – of journalistic ethics.”

May’s corkscrew logic explains much about the temptations of the business. Is a newspaper a repository of facts, or not? This problem can be found at the smallest local rag. Agendas are pushed, perspectives are omitted, mistakes are made and glossed over, false conclusions are promoted. Access is traded for influence. Above all, the popular prejudices of the readership are reinforced.

As Andrew’s first boss ruefully states at the beginning, “As a young man I forged new copy. I hammered at words. I wrenched them. Until it was kindly pointed out to me that what people wanted was something that was every day the same. The illusion of timelessness, that’s what we sell. . . . Anything else and you’d stimulate people. Never do that. It can only compound their unhappiness.”

The shallow and manipulative route is remarkably and speedily successful. It works. I’ve seen editors make room for more and more crap, promising themselves that the extra “eyeballs” they generate will give them the leverage to assign more serious, in-depth work. I haven’t yet seen that happen. Laziness and deference to the lowest common denominator drives out the kind of journalism we all claim to want, but so few seem to read.

“Delusions.” says Le Roux at the play’s end. “Does nobody see? What on earth is all this stuff about the truth? Truth? Why, when everywhere you go people tell lies. In pubs. To each other. To their husbands. To their wives. To the children. . . . Why single out newspapers? Why there? ‘Oh! A special standard!’ Everyone can tell lies except newspapers. They’re the universal scapegoat for everybody else’s evasions and inadequacies. It is a totally unworkable view of the world!”

A publication can be many things. It can be a revenue stream, a beacon of light, a delivery system of consumer to product, a bludgeon, a pleasant waste of time. Who really wants the truth?

In this time, it’s easier than ever before for a journalist to wrestle with his or her conscience. The destruction of the profession’s economic viability, and the freedom to publish independently, means that “good” journalism is now a hobby.

Go for something thoughtful, complex, of social value, or flog the latest fad, promote the newest advertiser, rewrite the shortest press release? Get in bed with the government, bribe the police, tap people’s phones? All these things are simply logical extensions of what are generally considered to be sharp business practices. And it made Murdoch a billionaire.

Brenton and Hare saw it and named it and nailed it, decades ago. Perhaps Murdoch inspires such disdain because his choices are ours, writ large.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kicks and grins: CSF’s raucous ‘Comedy of Errors’


Tom Coiner and Gary Wright as the Dromio twins from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Comedy of Errors." [Photo by Glenn Asakawa/CU Communications]
Dying is easy, comedy is hard. I’ve seen some of the most unlikely actors climb up on the boards and get away with a passable swipe at tragedy. Furrow your brow, deliver your lines in sonorous, halting tones, and you’re a genius.

In comedy, there is one imperative criterion – the audience needs to laugh. They can’t fake it, so you better deliver the yuks.

And, among all bad comedies, nothing is worse than a bad Shakespeare comedy. In them, people prance about, make faces and talk some crazy jargon, and the crowd claps uncomfortably at the end, thinking that it was their fault, that they were too dumb to get the jokes. (We’re talkin’ Shakespeare, after all!)

Bull. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Comedy of Errors” is flat-out funny, as the theatre gods intended. Thanks to inventive direction and an enthusiastic and skilled ensemble, the laughs come early and often, leaving the audience (gasp!) pleasantly entertained.

The CSF is keeping the overall tone light this year, a smart move in light of these hard conditions as this time is like to lay upon us. “Comedy” is a challenge in several ways. It’s a farfetched farce stolen directly from Roman playwright Plautus’ “The Menaechmi” – two sets of master/servant twins, etc., etc. The mechanics and timing of the thing have to run like clockwork. Fortunately, co-directors Carolyn Howarth and Daniel Stein are in sync and have drilled their performers with precision.

Of the central pairs of twins: Stephen Weitz gets the more enjoyable role of Antipholus of Ephesus, since that character is a bit of a scoundrel. Josh Robinson, as Antipholus of Syracuse, gets the most thankless role in the show – he’s a nice guy, the Zeppo to all the zany Marxses up there.

Tom Coiner and Gary Wright get to have as much fun as they please as the servant Dromios of Ephesus and Syracuse, respectively. Each actor on stage, no matter how brief his or her role, has a defined character and each gets his or her comic moment in the course of things.

Karen Slack steals the show as the beleaguered wife of Antipholus E., Adriana. Her range is wonderful, and here she suffers, simmers, and double-takes like an Elizabethan Alice Kramden. She find worthy support and foils in Amy Handra’s bespectacled Luciana and Leslie O’Carroll’s samurai abbess, Emilia.

It’s also a heck of a complicated story to relate – but the ensemble keeps things clear and straightforward throughout. Andrea Bechert’s standing set has been wisely designed to do double duty for both “Comedy” and “Romeo and Juliet,” which alternates on the outdoor stage this summer.

OK, a couple of caveats. There’s lots of slapstick going on, and much of it is conveyed remotely through the use of . . . well, fish. You have to see it. I am down for Stooge-level pokings and gougings on stage any time, so it was kind of a letdown. You get used to it as the shows goes on.

Six of the ensemble appear as elemental beings who act as stagehands, special-effects artists and crowd members, and one wishes – well – what the hell are they? Their lack of definition, especially in contrast with the sharply defined characters of all with speaking parts, was a bit disconcerting.

But hey, I'm nit-picking. It’s a good time, and you really can’t give much higher of a recommendation than that.
 
“The Comedy of Errors” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 11 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

From Russia with laughs: ‘Inspector General’ shines at CSF

Khlestakov (Stephen Wright) accepts a "loan" from the Mayor (Gary Alan Wright) in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Inspector General." [Photo by Patrick Campbell/CU Communications]
Greed! Corruption! Lust! Lies! Stupidity!

No, it’s not a new reality show. It’s an OLD reality show, and it’s still true to life. Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comic play, “The Inspector General,” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival with hilarious, absurd verve – by far the most adventurous and successful of all four productions at the Festival this summer.

The production is presented with the aid of a cultural-exchange team from Vladivostok, Russia. Staff from the Maxim Gorky Theater in Vladivostok, including “General” director, Efim Zvenyatsky, are old comrades-in-arms of the CSF’s artistic director, Philip Sneed.

The bright idea to bring them over and have them work with the Festival pays off. A completely different style comes into play, a raucous circus approach that dynamites the fourth wall, lets all kinds of on- and off-topic gags in, and gives us a humbling picture of humanity as well.

“General” gives us a look-see into the would-be movers and shakers of a small provincial town in Russia. The Mayor (Gary Alan Wright), the Postmaster (Geoff Kent), the Judge (Sam Sandoe), the Health Commissioner (Erik Sandvold) and the Superintendent of Schools (Mark Rubald) are a cynical, corrupt, pompous bunch that serve themselves and not the citizenry.

Word comes that a powerful high official, the Inspector General, who can examine all government functions and punish wrongdoers, is coming, and is traveling incognito. The mayor and his cronies misidentify that man as Khlestakov (Stephen Weitz), a no-account petty official who is stuck in town after gambling away all his money.

As we usually say in these circumstances, complications ensue. Not only is Khlestakov happy to use the mistake to lord it over all and “borrow” huge sums from his frightened hosts, but he puts the make on both the mayor’s wife (Lanna Joffrey) and daughter (Jamie Ann Romero). As time wears on, Khlestakov’s lies about his importance and accomplishments swell to zeppelin proportions – by the end he fancies himself a near-divine being – and, indeed, to these bowers and scrapers he is.

Gogol’s genius is in letting the characters condemn themselves out of their own mouths. What makes the play a classic is that these issues are universal – at least whenever society fractures into haves and have-nots. Zvenyatsky’s burlesque approach, complete with silly sound effects, slapstick and other buffoonery, opens the play out and lets in the audience, instead on trying to impose a naturalistic model on the action.

It's really a play in the sense of having fun. The actors are much more like sketch comics here because they don't have to portray characters as much as they need just to be efficient joke delivery systems. It's a much more technical exercise, which fortunately everyone onstage has down pat. It's a ballet of bellylaughs.

Vladimir Koltunov’s set and costume design reinforces the sense of eras colliding and commingling, and sets us in an exploded, cartoony landscape. Everyone in the play is an ass – and it’s only a matter of perceived power that determines whether they get theirs kissed or not.

Who wins? Who loses? Go see and figure it out for yourself, as you comb the confetti out of your hair.

“The Inspector General” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 13 in the University Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wish upon a star: CSF’s ‘Little Prince’


Tom Coiner as the Aviator and Alastair Hennessy as the title character in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Little Prince." [Photo by Glenn Asakawa/CU Communications]
A good theater critic acknowledges his or her prejudices. A good theater critic is more concerned with stimulating the discussion and provoking interest than in making judgments. A good theater critic is smart enough to know that each production experienced must be evaluated on the basis of what it is trying to achieve, not on the basis of what the critic thinks that achievement should be.

Why all the prescriptions? Well, I’m not in love with the material and some aspects of the production. However, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival adaptation of Antoine de Saint Exupery’s “The Little Prince” does what it sets out to do – it presents a modern fable in pleasing visual terms. In my opinion, if you love the book you will love the show. It succeeds in sharing a message about seeing with your heart, a valuable lesson for anyone. It’s great for families and younger kids.

The original author’s writing is, for me, gratingly saccharine – faux-naif, flatly philosophical, sappy and sentimental in the tradition of others such as Richard Bach and Kahlil Gibran. Then again, I used to love Cat Stevens and still can’t tear myself away from a screening of “Harold and Maude” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” My bad. Same feeling, different flavors. So, if you are of a cynical bent, this show is not for you.

Philip Sneed’s direction is intensely visual and succeeds completely on that level. He incorporates the Aviator’s drawings in process by throwing the drawing process up onto a screen behind the players, even as the lost and life-threatened Aviator scribbles away on his notepad. This neat technique gives life to Saint Exupery’s exuberant sketches and pushes the action of the play along very agreeably.

Clare Henkel’s costumes are spot-on in terms of illustrating archetypes. The flat cutouts of Trefoni Rizzi’s set accentuate the childlike perspective expressed in the play, and much work is done by Rizzi’s lighting plot – it moves the characters around and across the stage, and sets mood instantly.

Timothy Orr and Rudy Garcia’s sound design is apt as well – twining African and French melodies together in a shifting plot of contrasting sensibilities.

The ensemble, playing fairy-tale characters, doesn’t have much with which to work. Jake Walker gets to provide a string of funny snapshot roles as the wrong-headed inhabitants of various planets the Little Prince visits on his curious journey.

The Little Prince is played in turn by child actors Orion Pilger and Alastair Hennessy (I saw Hennessy at the opening). The Aviator is played by Tom Coiner, who does his best to overcome a French accent throughout the play.

Why Coiner, and Emme Watkins as the Rose, are saddled with this choice is pretty much beyond me. It’s difficult enough to take this material seriously without the Pepe Le Pew/Inspector Clouseau verbal garnish. It pushes the show over the edge into a cartoonish feeling.

I know there are serious and profound undertones in this tale, but I missed them. Maybe I should read “Chicken Soup for the Soul-less.” In the meanwhile, those who have the gift of seeing with their hearts, or know someone who needs to learn that lesson, should go and judge for themselves.

“The Little Prince” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 14 in the University Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.