Tuesday, June 30, 2015

'Our carnal stings' -- thoughts on Colorado Shakespeare Festival's 'Othello'

Geoffrey Kent as Iago and Peter Macon as Othello in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "Othello." [Photo by Jennifer Koskinen/Courtesy Colorado Shakespeare Festival]
 We were forced to read “Othello” in high school. Despite this, it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Scrape away the preconceptions, and memories of bad productions seen, and there’s a great river of vital stuff surging through it – race, sex, politics, loyalty, truth, possession, pride, and trust. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production works due to its strong central performance and a no-nonsense directorial approach by Lisa Wolpe that focuses on telling the story clearly rather than trying to score points for cleverness. It's an excellent introduction to this key work.

“Othello” is often thought to be a play out of balance, one in which its manipulative villain Iago dominates, reducing the title character to a pawn. But, done properly, the play is not misnamed. The web of circumstantial evidence Iago weaves to make Othello think his new, young wife Desdemona is cheating on him is insubstantial. Why doesn’t Othello sweep it away?

Precisely because Othello is an experienced warrior, a commander. Bluff, emotional, and open-hearted, his martial virtues are his undoing in a civilian society where ambiguity, innuendo, politicking, and deceit dominate. Played properly, as it is here, Iago merely triggers the explosion of a magnificent hero.

Peter Macon brings previous experience to the role as Othello, along with a presence that commands attention and a deep, resonant voice. Many times Othello has been played with an overdose of gravitas, but Macon gives the audience at the outset an exuberant, playful, charismatic, three-dimensional man, which makes his mental collapse and fragmentation all the more moving and fascinating to watch as the night progresses.

Adept at battle, Othello’s lost in love, or what he considers love to be. In the end, it seems to be only a reflection of his self-regard, and the perceived loss of it makes it necessary for him to slay the object of his affections. Macon’s Othello is incapable of plucking suspicion from his mind, and seems like someone who might have wound in the same dismal ending even without Iago’s goading.

Othello is adrift in a culture of sexual paranoia. Women are defined by their chastity; men are defined by ability to overcome that chastity. A woman not completely innocent or faithful is a worthless whore; a man whose woman is unfaithful is no man at all. (So things haven’t changed that much in 400 years.) To sleep with another man’s women is to shame and gain power over him.

Iago, long-time aide to Othello, thinks that Othello has cuckolded him – that and Othello’s preferment of another as his lieutenant spurs his stream of lies that lead to murder. The actor playing Iago has to be careful. The role has been played by and large as either transparently evil or, worse, incredibly bitchy. Exceptional interpreters of the role such as Ian McKellen and Frank Finlay work against the stereotype, underplaying so deftly that we are hoodwinked by the character’s feigned honesty as well, even though we know better.

Geoffrey Kent takes the latter course quite successfully as Iago. Kent has a very sunny disposition as an actor that helps him sell his manipulations, and a deference that really lets Macon take the lead in many scenes, which works well.

Desdemona is another frustratingly difficult role. As written, she’s cloyingly sweet and altruistic, so much so that sometimes at the end of a production her death comes as quite refreshing turn of events. The role has largely been played that way, sometimes branching into a standard variation in which she is just so damn sexy, so naturally attractive and sensual, that it seems inevitable that she will die for it.

Laura Baranik’s Desdemona seems in the beginning like a spoiled and oblivious young thing, and the chemistry between her and Macon was not substantial on opening night. But, as the evening progresses and Desdemona is ever more wronged, Baranik works the anger, shame, frustration, and hurt of the character well, giving us a woman struggling to understand her doom.

More notes – good old CSF regular Sam Gregory is here as Desdemona’s father Brabantio, and is a kick in the pants to watch. Often Brabantio is played as a quivering, ineffective dodderer, but Gregory is vital and vindictive as the deceived parent. Kudos to Rodney Lizcano, too, for getting the most out of the role of comic-relief Roderigo, Iago’s ally and dupe. Vanessa Morosco is a fine Emilia, Iago’s wife, one of the most outspoken, honest, and observant female characters in Shakespeare. She speaks truth to power and suffers the consequences.

Caitlin Ayer’s versatile, symmetrical set (it doubles as CSF’s “Much Ado About Nothing”’s) lets the traffic flow smoothly, essential in a long work like this – the show dragged a bit on opening night, but it can only get tighter. And Hugh Hanson’s costumes are splendid.

Quibbles? I love Anne Sandoe, but replacing the Doge of Venice with a Duchess really doesn’t fly. Plus, I miss the crazy, emblematic melted-Hershey’s-kiss-shaped hat a doge usually wears! Why do I know this? Why is it even important? I don't know. I don’t get out much.

“Othello” continues at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

'Drew Friedman's Heroes of the Comics' tells American pop-culture history in portraits

Drew Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics

Drew Friedman
Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Drew Friedman has always disturbed the hell out of me. His photorealist-seeming grotesques, studies of minor and marginal celebrities in dark and turgid circumstances, were for me like a flamethrower blast from a terrifying alternate universe – one that lurked beneath our all-too-thin floorboards. In mags like Heavy Metal, MAD, National Lampoon, and RAW he fought for – and won away – my attention from such trifles as big-breasted space maidens.

His new book is a gallery of 83 American comic-book greats that combines the virtues of a portrait gallery and a collection of life stories. These individual portraits in words and pictures, when read together, form an entertaining and neatly comprehensible history of the comics in America.

In rough chronological order, Friedman takes us from Maxwell Gaines, the visionary but short-lived progenitor of EC, through list of the usual Golden and Silver Age suspects such as Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Eisner and the lot. But he also lavishes attention on the obscure but well-deserved – Mac Raboy, Gardner Fox, Ramona Fraden – all names for the enthusiast to scribble down and add to his or her research list. (Hell, he even throws in Frederic Wertham, whose infamous “Seduction of the Innocent” witch hunt against comics in the 1950s killed a lot of publications and careers).

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. From Friedman's 'Heroes of the Comics.'
Friedman had the enormous good fortune to have a father (writer Bruce Jay Friedman) who kept him awash in comics through his childhood, and who knew seemingly everyone in the New York comics scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Friedman’s child’s-eye glimpse of the mechanics and business of the industry gives him unparalleled insights – and some great anecdotes – about this lost world, all to be found in his entertaining introduction.

Fantagraphics’ respect for the image gives Friedman’s work a large format, printed on high-quality paper stock. The artists, writers, and publishers are shown in humble situ – posed at drawing desks, cradling cigarettes, in photo-based illustrations. As Friedman puts it, these pictures are “ . . . neither idealized nor romanticized, but depicting the years of dedication etched into their faces.”

This book succeeds as a reference work, an aesthetic object in itself, and a good time – a trifecta that all good non-fiction storytellers would do well to shoot for. “Drew Friedman’s Heroes of the Comics” is an essential tool for understanding how comics became what they are.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Born to laugh at tornadoes: a personal history

[Photo by Harald Richter/NOAA Photo Library]

On May 22, 1962, I was a one-and-a-half-year-old playing on the front porch of our house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa when the tornado hit. It boiled up so quickly, my mother said, the warning sirens never went off. As she ran from the back of the house to snatch me up, she watched through the windows on that side of the house as the unattached garage next to us wrenched out of the ground and leaped into the air.

I was watching it, too, tracking it as it sailed over our house and dropped neatly onto the house next to us, causing considerable damage.

According to Mom, I was laughing.

What’s so funny about tornadoes? Nothing and everything. Someday I mean to ask Don and/or Dave Was why they named their 1983 pop album “Born to Laugh at Tornadoes” (check it out, it’s weirdly brilliant)(1), but of course the title resonates with me. The first seven years of my life, my family and I lived, voluntarily mind you, smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest, in the crosshairs of Tornado Alley.

Now, of things in life that are inherently funny, violently rotating columns of air that destroy life and property are not high up on the list. Culturally, it doesn’t seem like we’ve ever really integrated this phenomenon into our collective psyche. In our books and movies, tornadoes serve as plot points, agents of drastic change. In the era of digital effects, they serve as ends in themselves – spectacles of termination, the putative death-wishes that we seem so fond of in our disaster films.

My pump was primed. The first time we watched “The Wizard of Oz” in its then yearly showing on network TV, the twister made its appearance and I was done for the night, bawling and blubbering. Even on our crude little black-and-white model, it looked uncannily like the real thing. (It’s amazing what they could do with a 35-foot-long muslin stocking.) With lots of emotional support in place I made it through the next annual screening – but never without a twinge of dread.

“Oz” didn’t give me nightmares – my dreams were regularly interrupted by sirens every summer. Almost worse were the sudden interruptions on the TV or radio – the high-pitched C-note tone, the slow crawl of information, the scratchy-voiced cut-in of some Weather Service guy’s voice, flatland accent burring the r’s, outlining the danger area. We were well-rehearsed in emergency measures. Many comics have made hay out of the fact that the warnings usually include these little nuggets of info: “Seek a low-lying area such as a ditch,” and immediately after, “Beware of flash flooding.” Hmmmmm.

We spent all summer every summer on Grandpa Ralph’s immense (to us) Missouri Valley farm, which sat splendidly on the highest point of the ridge overlooking Underwood, Iowa, from the west. The passage of decades’ worth of tornadic activity had led to indifference from the old folks, who were as unperturbed by rushing, thundering storms as we were sent to furthest extent of frantic.

My other set of grandparents, across the river in Nebraska, were much the same. I remember standing with them at their kitchen window at night, them sipping coffee and eating cake while watching the honey locust rive in twain from a lightning bolt. “Whew, that was close,” my grandma murmured casually, lighting another Pall Mall.

(During one tornado, my dad insisted it wasn’t that bad and drove us home 20 miles from his parents’ house, madness in itself. They secretly tailed us in their car all the way back, “to make sure we got home OK,” then went home again – all while the storm howled around them. We were too dumb to live, too tough to die.)

There were many exciting tornado stories, which we pleaded for from grandparents, uncles, and aunts. We also learned a slew of exciting and entertaining misconceptions. We learned that if you shut all the doors and windows of your house before the twister hits, it will, due to the sudden drop in air pressure surrounding the dwelling, explode! COOL! Not true. That a tornado will drive a straw through a telephone pole. A pretty thought, but unsubstantiated by a rigorous scientific study. Cows turned inside out? The mind boggles.

Now, a couple of these old wives’ tales have some truth in them. First, I don’t care what they say, I’ve never met a twister that didn’t like a trailer park. They are referred to at our house as tornado magnets.

Second, the green sky before a tornado. I’ve seen it. You’d think that an atmosphere full of debris would be gray or brown. I guess, though, that the sheer mass of torn-up vegetable matter suspended in the wind torrents gives the air a greenish cast. On one afternoon before a dash to the basement, I watched the slow drift of grass and twigs past a window. The dim cloud-filtered light gave sunlight with no shadow, a green teeming like a neglected aquarium illuminated from within.

The closest call is a bit harder to pin down, sometime in the late 1960s, late, late at night on the farm. The usual  array of warnings hadn’t deterred us from hitting in hay in our usual beds.

Something kept blowing the door open, I remember. Over and over again. Then it blew open and stayed there, the doorknob punching through the plaster. My mom was up, moving swiftly, grabbing first myself and my younger sister off of the couch we shared.

“Go,” she said. A calm voice, but one that riveted my attention with its absolute earnestness. We moved through the living room, met halfway across the kitchen my her mother, similarly bent. All four of us sped for the screen porch, the access to the basement.

I looked out. It was the dead of night. All the power was out. No lights, no stars. But I saw something out there, something close, something moving, something darker than the darkness. I heard it moan – just like the rumble of a train across a trestle, I thought while being half-dragged across the floor in my pajamas. It took such a long, long time to cross that kitchen floor.

We made it to the cellar door – exactly like the “Oz” one, flat with a ringbolt set into it. We heaved it up, fastened the heavy slab of wood, and padded down the concrete stairs into the musty depths. A pile of coal in the corner. The ancient washtub. This and that, dusty. We settled down on a pile of blankets. “Sleep,” said our mother. We slept.

In the morning, we surveyed the damage. Here an immense tree had been uprooted, then lifted in the air and thrust down inextricably between two other giants. Wagons, implements, scattered around the landscape. Shingles like fallen leaves on the grass. Huge rents and furrows in the yard, branches stabbed into the hillside.

We couldn’t see the town, which sat in the valley below us. We sat in the kitchen nook and waited for the light to come up. Finally, we could see. It looked like the town had made it.

No wonder strong winds unsettle me, and I follow severe weather with the avidity of a religious acolyte. I have been caught in various storms since then – an uneasy night at a motel in Ogallala, and a whopper of a storm in the middle of Texas in 1994, undoubtedly made more frightening by my friend and I’s brilliant decision to split a tab of acid to keep us awake on the non-stop drive from New Orleans to Denver.

In 1967, my family moved to Denver, a climatological refuge. Rare floods, no earthquakes, fires only in the foothills, and snow that melts almost as soon as it falls.

Except recently. Climate change means much more rain than I can recall in 45 years; and tornadoes pop up closer to the mountains every year. The insulation from severe weather is rubbing thin here.

I won’t be happy to clamber down into my crawl space if one plows through my neighborhood, but I am grateful for the previous exposure. It calms me down. It doesn’t hurt that I can tweet and post my obsessional life away during a storm, alerting all and sundry. You’re welcome.

And I’ve grown more indifferent as well, just like my ancestors. Still alive after all these years, I’m not so impressed with a faceful of disaster. Tornadoes are just as unfortunate and random as many of the other calamities we deal with and, sometimes, the best thing to do is hunker down and wait for them to blow over. And laugh defiantly.

1. One of those albums that wound up getting engraved on my brain, such as the original cast album of "Jesus Christ Superstar," 10cc's "The Original Soundtrack," "Another Monty Python Record," and "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," that I can recite/sing/chant word-for-word with other fanatics at parties until I go on for so long that it gets rather embarrassing and we have to leave.

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 Modesto High School Band 1930 This is one I don’t have a lot of information on, and only a small ...