From the Bookshelf: The Hermits of Big Sur, by Paula Huston

Here in the States (USA), we like to observe milestones: 50, 100, 150, 200 year on. The recorded history of European settlement is a relatively short period compared to the development of cultures in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, which span millennia. So when something connected to the USA can date is origins 1000 years, we are doing pretty well.

Now, I’m not talking about the Indigenous Cultures, which seek their origins in oral histories and maybe archeological dating guesses. Their methods of thought start with different view points other than data like dates. Such view points constructed a different type of history, unless you are a hermit. But, hermits and mystics have been setting themselves apart from Greco-Roman-European ways of experiencing the world throughout history.

1023-2023. One thousand years. Imagine that.

One thousand years ago, next year, in the Italian mountains of Tuscany, Sacro Eremo, a hermitage was founded. Big deal, you say? Big Sur, I say.

My origins of being a hermit, of sorts, dates back to my eighth birthday, by which circumstances, l learned that I was born on the same date as Buddha. 1/365 chance, you say. 364/365 chance not, I say. Circumstances allowed me to be in Japan at a time of childhood awareness.

I happened to grow up in California, not too far from Big Sur, though I do not recall traveling through that coastal highway until my mother’s 80th birthday when that was her wish to re-live memories. In college, my classmates deemed the most likely to be a monk in a past life. Not bad when popularity, sports, and material gain where more on most people’s aspirations.

Then a few months ago, while reading a devotional passage, I recalled how much I enjoyed coming across the author, Paula Huston. Her notes mentioned a recent book, The Hermits of Big Sur. I had planned a month of convalescence at home with my mother in May, so I ordered a copy for the trip. I did not expect that I would be able to make the 4 hours trek to Big Sur this time, but I could at least travel vicariously, to a hermitage no less.

I anticipated a whimsical set of short stories about eccentrics hermits living in the coast mountains. What I began to read was a detailed history of monastic life and Catholic church history spanning that thousand year period. As I did not know the difference between a hermitage and a monastery, nor much about the various orders beyond their names, Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits, et al, I was in for an education. And, if I expected lots of purity and unity, this book would erase such notions. The body of Christ is made up of many parts, not all of which agree with their attachments nor functions. This is a book about social and personal development.

Society and individuals are not static. We are not cogs in machines, strings on an instrument, nor implements in a tool shed. The Hermits of Big Sur is about how organizations form and transform. It is about how the individuals who sought out this setting come with various levels of commitment and understand, to be transformed through the grace of which Paul writes. Some will be writers, others musicians, gardeners, scientists, mechanics, cooks, followers and leaders. While they may have sought out the solitary life, they will not be completely detached from vocation nor community.

This brings up one of the points of learning for me. Monastic life may be solitary at times and communal at times. In the history of the original Sacro Eremo setting, these two branches developed. In 1072 the solitary hermitage of Camaldolese was approved by the church. In 1212, the affiliated communal St. Michale of Murano Monastery was founded. While their sites were separated, the members could flow between them as they felt inspired. When they needed a time of isolated contemplation, they could petition to move to the hermitage. When they needed a time of connection, they would petition to move to the monastery.

Human history is constantly changing, possibly progressing, possibly regressing, depending on one’s view point. Ms Huston outlines many changes in the development of Camaldolese, it’s daughter hermitages and monastic communities, including the New Camaldoli in Big Sur. While our modernist perspective and high-tech obsessions with designed obsolescence may skew our sense of time, prior to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, changes seemed slower. The political struggles of the 19th and 20th centuries seemed to accelerate the conflicts, and poor decisions of leadership (such as the co-opting of the Catholic church by Musollini and Hitler in a exchange of righteousness and state power).

This was the context of the late 1950’s when a delegation of hermits traveled to the USA to seek a location for a new site, and the church began to seek reforms that manifested themselves in the Vatican II documents, to the praise of some and protest of others.

The 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s only seemed to accelerate the changes in society, the church and the hermitage. Again, Ms. Huston outlines these, identifying the conflicts and resolutions, and gives faces to the men, and eventually women on retreat, who populate the Big Sur hermitage of New Camaldoli. In these individual’s life accounts, some of those eccentric stories, which I expected when I hit the purchase button on my computer, show up. As with any history, the personal accounts which we can identify must be placed in the larger context of the past.

Life is not static. The hermit’s life is not escape, but grounding in that solitude and contemplation. With this solidly in place, one inclined to flee the distractions and attachments of social life can return in various fashions to apply their talents, their gifts. One can teach though their vocation the simple life of retreat to those who come from that communal world.

When you are ready, pick up a copy of The Hermits of Big Sur, find a quite place, read, contemplate, then return to your community refreshed to use your talents, your gifts, with less distraction and attachment. For me, hours of solitude are easy. But, I think that I shall join with the neighbors and friends to fix some pot holes along our HOA’s roads, pull some weeds in the garden, and converse around the fire pit.

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From the Bookshelf: Resurrection Hope, by Kelly Brown Douglas

I am in awe of cathedrals. May that be on an architectural level, entering a building that has existed for hundreds if not a thousand years. May that be on an artistic level, to stroll through the chapels and nave to view to stained glass windows, frescos, and other ornamentation. May that be on a spiritual level, to follow the lines of the columns up to the vaulted ceiling, or listen to the sustained reverberation for seconds after the organ or choir has reached the resolving chord. May that be to contemplative level, considering the hundreds of craftsmen and laborers who set the foundation, erected the walls, and created the spaces for the architecture, art, and divine connections.

When I approach a cathedral, in addition to these images, I ponder those craftsmen and laborers who started and worked on something which they probably never lived long enough to see. Such buildings take decades, if not centuries, to plan and construct. In our ephemeral culture, how few things last decades, let alone centuries or millennium?

For all the cathedrals which I have visited around the world, one which I frequently have on my visit list is our (USA) National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Services, concerts, photo tours, and garden festivals are all reasons to visit. And, believing in supporting such social institutions, we donate to the cathedral society’s foundation. And, that leads to newsletters about various activities and projects at the cathedral. And that is where I read about The Reverend Canon Kelly Brown Douglas’ book, Resurrection Hope, the Future Where Black Lives Matter.

Cathedrals are more than museums to traditions of architecture, art, and spiritual rituals. They are churches, which are the people, not the building. As such, the ministers of those cathedrals must address the context in which their worship and community services exist.

While the title, and write-up, of the book highlights the recent and current issues about race relations in the USA, the origins of these struggles go back in our history. But, how far back? Civil Rights era? Jim Crow or Reconstruction? Civil War? Slave holding and Colonial past? European class structures?

Rev. Brown Douglas takes us back to the Greek and Roman philosophers to begin her chronology of bias against peoples from ”extreme climates” (too hot or cold). She traces these ideas through the early Christian writers with imagery of ”light/white/pure” versus ”darkness/blackness/evil”. These images become literary symbols by the age of Shakespeare (Othello and Titus Andronicus), and carry on through the Enlightenment philosophers (Locke, Kant, Hume) to our Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Mason, Madison). But, in this process an environmental idea (e.g. good actions happen during the day and sinful actions happen at night) transforms into skin color (Caucasians versus People of Color) and inherent personality traits (righteous versus sinful).

With more than two thousand years of imagery embedded as assumptions in various histories, stories, philosophical and religious texts, she has little difficulty demonstrating how this contributes to ”white gaze”. This is the phenomenon in which viewing a situation from the white person’s perspective is considered normal. All other perspectives are considered suspect and resisted. The results of such view points on events is what has become systematic racism.

But, Rev. Brown Douglas goes further to label this the white supremacy view. I would add that she views White Supremacists, with capital letters, as an extreme position, but white supremacy, with lower case letters, as much more dominant and detrimental to society. Certainly, White Supremacists with body armor, weapons, and militant organizational structure pose a threat, but usually on an event scale, such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, or the January 6, 2020 attach of the US Capitol Building. But, she views the assumption that the white gaze view as correct to be much more oppositional to progress in society. Why should one change, when one’s view point is normal?

Now many of these ideas can be found in many texts over the past few years, with the Black Lives Matter movement. What I found compelling about Rev. Brown Douglas’ essays was her ability to personalize this for us (white readers). First, she establishes the conversation from a series of texts which she has had with her young adult son, as they navigate the day to day obstacles of living as black people in a white society. Second, she address the white gaze that she encounters daily at the National Cathedral. She is forgiving, for she recognizes that when one’s view points is their normal, they do not see this building and this congregation from someone else’s view point.

She illustrate her points with Cathedral documents, from sermons to text messages from the past 100 plus years. She acknowledges that the white leadership has had social justice on his agenda for decades. But, this is social justice with the white gaze. Offenses, such as President Trump using force to clear BLM protesters from in front of a church so that he can make a photo-op in which he co-opts the (Episcopal) church in the background, are an affront to the church. But, where was the challenge when the affront was to black people in the congregation, whose ancestral home are called ”shit-holes” by the same leadership?

Of keen interest is her discussion of the two stained glass windows of Confederate Generals, positioned over a memorial to a specific President. She outlines when and how these were commissioned, funded, and selected. She provided documents to demonstrate that this was not merely honoring two leaders, but tacitly giving the church’s approval to the Lost Cause* agenda of pro-Confederacy advocates nearly a hundred years after the Civil War ended. She shows how someone whose ancestry is not white sees these as affirmations of the righteous of these two generals, their ”Christian” identity, and therefore the correctness of their defense of the USA’s prior institutions of enslaving groups of people whom they viewed as property and beast of burden.

But, Rev. Brown Douglas is not intent on tearing down the pillars of the cathedral. She is intent on reforming the church, as so many prior voices in the wilderness have called on us to repent and change. To this effect, she outlines suggestions of how her church (that cathedral congregation, as well as Christian churches in general) can facilitate reform. This is her resurrection hope.

And, at the end, she reminds us that movements, like cathedrals (my metaphor), are often built by those who will never see the end results. But, if no one ever designs the church and the movements, sets the foundation, or erects the walls, the structure will never be built. Hope is not what we have, but what we can imagine. Rev. Brown Douglas hopes that we can begin to build a society which will be a place of grand design, beauty and spiritual renewal for generation which we can only imagine today

*The Lost Cause movement began several decades after the end of the Civil War. Up to that time, the key point of the war was to eliminate the institution of enslavement from individual states. Those who set up memorials for dead Confederate soldiers, mostly hunted out battlefield grave yards to place headstones, grave markers, and regiment memorials at those locations. However as the Black Code laws became Jim Crow laws the rhetoric changed from identifying and honoring those who fought for the Confederacy to claiming that the war was about State Rights instead (of which slavery laws should be left up to each state). Thus, today we see homes, businesses, and trucks across our nation flying the Confederate Battleflag, and states enacting laws to challenge everything from voting methods to privacy, individually to marriages, all claiming that those states have the right to do so to protect the righteousness of its citizens (is the current maneuvering on limiting abortion via a potential Supreme Court ruling really about saving babies, or about asserting that the state has the right to tell people that they control them?). The Civil War is neither ended, nor civil, in my opinion, but I degrees from the book which I reviewed above.

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Dept. of Alternative Facts: Relativity

Relativity (n): Einstein’s law that had something to do with time, the equation of which I would have to look up on Wikipedia, but I’m too busy to bother doing and I could not interpret it anyway

We have recently retired.

As we approached this milestone of life, we of course informed family, friends, colleagues and client’s. The news of this seemed of relevance to those parties, especially as this would effect some of their lives, such as the family members whom we would be traveling to see for more than a few days, and our clients whom we would cease seeing beyond that last day of work.

A question that many folks asked was, ”What will you do (with all those hours you will not be working) when you retire?”

Beyond the face value question of, ”What activities will you substitute for work”, I heard their equivocation of, ”What would I (i.e. they) do with their time if they stopped working?”

I had a ready answer, that we would spend the next couple of months visiting with family in various regions of the country, as we had tickets to fly to the west coast the day after we signed off from our last pay period. But, that just kicked the can down the road to the summer months.

As a few days have passed, I do not feel much different from being on an extended vacation with family. I doubt that I will sense the reality of being retired until we are home from our travels. I will not be thinking on the flight home, ”I wonder which client’s I will be seeing…”, ”I wonder whether I have someone scheduled at 8:30 Monday…”

I suspect that those first days home, when we do not need to set the alarm, and we can get up and have our cups of coffee and sort through the mail at a leisurely pace, and eat breakfast when we get hungry… then I will start to ”feel” retired.

But, I have already started to feel the sense of relativity of time. I start with the thought, ”What day of the week it is”. I look at the newspaper (thankfully, the family whom we initially visited actually receive a physical newspaper folded neatly with a rubber band around it) to check the date and day.

But, I am finding a different time of retirement relativity. Rather than sequential days, ”Monday, Tuesday…” or dates ”23, 24, 25…”, I am finding the activity of the day becomes a referent point, ”Hiking, big band concert, baseball game, dinner with…”

Ironically, I think that I may need to consult a calendar more often, not for the day or date, but the activity of the day (no, this is not a retired occupational therapist talking!)

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Theatre Review: Things I Know to Be True

For years, I have pitched the idea that knowledge and beliefs are two different thought processes. The former deals with facts and data. The later with assumptions. Each leads to a different type of truth. Knowledge is about truths that can be verified, within one’s own experiences, and across the experience of other people. Beliefs are about truths which give one a sense of meaning and purpose. Facts and data without meaning are merely interesting points for conversation and crossword puzzle clues. Assumptions without evidence are merely wishful thinking.

Things I know to be true? Is this about the truth of knowledge or beliefs, or the convergence of both.

Thinks I Know to Be True, by Andrew Bovell, is about the process of a family developing and recognizing all the things they believe to be true. Then, they challenge those beliefs through lived experiences in the process of the children becoming adults and the parents letting them become themselves.

Do not expect a Cosby Show sit-com setting, in realistic stage setting, household business, and naturalistic dialogue over a cup of coffee before the adult children and Mom head off to work, and Dad goes out to tend to the garden in his retirement. No, this is somewhat of an Aussie (it is set in a working town region of Australia) mash up of Bertolt Brecht monologues and Martha Graham movements, intersperse with Harold Pinter family drams scenes. “Oh-no”, you say? “Fabulous”, I say.

As to the staging, we walk into and through a garden to get to our seats, of which there are about 50. This is an intimate family drama with us being three walls or shrubs, I’m not sure which, of the suburban garden. The floor, our seats, and the ceiling are in dark hues, with the far wall of the garden supporting roses on unseens canes, or trellises. The roses are illuminated by floor recessed LED lights which can change their hue from pinks to reds to purples. The roses ascend the wall as if suspended so delicately that we cannot see the structure which supports this garden (hint: symbolism).

With the opening scene black-out, Bob (Timothy Cummings), and his four children Pip (Betsy Norton), Mark (Andrew Calvert), Ben (Jake Stanely), and Rosie (Coco Lane Rigbye) enter and the dance begins. We hear a phone ring as the children recite lines about the dreaded phone-call-in-the-middle-of-the-night, as they move toward Bob, eventually supporting him on four sides, as he retreats from, then reaches out to answer the phone. We, as they, are left wondering, who is calling at such a time. And, at this time of the play, one character, Fran (Karen McKeney) is not on stage. We will not learn about that phone call for another two hours. Get those tissues out (yes, that is plural, truly).

But, the next hour and twenty minutes will be a series of scenes in which each child presents their developmental milestone toward adulthood. Love, lust, materialism, friendships and rejections, striving for acceptance into a different social and economic class, moral and legal decisions, being authentic to one’s identity, becoming one’s parents, rejecting one’s parent’s life decisions. But, don’t worry this is not an undergraduate level Family Dynamics and Development, three-credit course at the university. The cast under the guidance of director’s Ann-Marie Pereth and Joseph D. Kucan, demonstrate each concept in a fluid and flowing sequence of movements, poetic introspections, and interactions between mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons (yes, those are all plural, as in universal truths).

And, so we spend an afternoon (in our case) or evening, identifying what we know to be true, then testing our facts and data, and questioning our assumptions. In the end, we, along with Rosie, are tearing out all of those pages in our diary on which we wrote down those truths. Our siblings float in, as if in our dreams which clarify our experiences, adding their pages. And, we put them all together to tear them up. But, what does this action mean? (If nothing else, you will have used up many of those tissues, which I recommended you bring, and will be tossing out that snotty face-mask which you have been blubbering into for the past hour or so)

The process of theatre has been debated and deliberated for thousands of years. Is this the Greek concept of catharsis? Is this the Roman tradition of comic family-drama poking fun at our foibles? It is an Elizabethan string of penis-jokes and bear-bating? Is it romantic era sublimation of sexual desires into heart-throb heroes and heroines? Is it early twentieth century tragi-comedy, or theatre of the absurd? Is it late twentieth century block-buster, feel-good, sell-out the theatre cash-cows? Is it marvelous comic book superheroes…oh, wait, those are like Greek and Roman gods, so we have circled back two thousand years…

For generations, the audience arrived; the performers performed; the audience left; and, maybe they discussed their experience on the drive home, or went out for coffee, drinks, or a meal. Their reflections remained within their circle. But, live theatre is changing, finding a new place in society. Part of this process, we have noticed is that more of the theatres which we attend are hosting pre-show lectures and post-show discussions, as ways of engaging audiences and making their experience more meaningful.

A Publicfit Theatre Company, in Las Vegas, NV, which produced Things I Know to Be True, has embraced this concept fully. After each show, they set up a row of chairs for the cast and crew who are available (some do have day-jobs to run off to) to talk with those audience members who will stay for another half hour or so. “The BUZZ” the call it. Joseph Kucan hosted our forum, posing questions to the cast and crew and bringing in audience questions for discussion. The event ran somewhat like a talk-show, and somewhat like a therapy session (maybe that is my bias, having just retired from running such events for the past 35 years).

But, this time, rather than being the facilitaror-therapist, I was a participant without leadership responsibility. However, in my work-life, I have been asking clients, “What do we know to be true?”; “How does that guide our decisions in our lives?”; ”Do we have more than just facts and data? Do we have more than wishful thinking”. If Things I Know To Be True comes to a theatre near you, I recommend getting a ticket, and taking lots of tissues, maybe even a note book to write down your ideas. At the end, you will be tearing up those pages, and will have to figure out why.

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Dept. of Alternative Facts: Retired

retire (v): to put at rest; to stop working; (adv): a state of non-productive activity; to be in leisure

Many of my readers know, or have figured out, that we recently retired from work. Thirty-five years on my part; forty-one years on the Mrs’ time card. Enough care for other people’s mothers, fathers, and siblings. Time to care for our own.

Retiring is an interesting process in our society, which is so invested in managing our time with work tasks, and establishing our identifies on our careers.

When we meet someone new, a standard small-talk question is “What do you do” While open to many responses, if I said, ”I write theatre reviews” they would think that I am in the journalism field. If I said, ”Grow food” they would think that I ran a farm market. If I said, ”Fill pot holes” they would think that I ran heavy equipment or did excavating work. If I said, ”Read history and religious texts” they would think that I was a professor or minister. If I said, ”Occupational therapy” they would say, ”What’s the difference between physical and occupational therapy?” at which I point I would be wonder whether I am defining myself by what I am (occupational therapist) versus what I am not (physical therapist).

If I reply, ”A retiree”, they might wonder whether I plan to move to The Villages, to which I would quip something about Dante…

Retire. Rest. I do not do ”rest” well, at least the idea of being still. For me, rest is action of my discretion in my time frame. A flow experience, which I can decide to stop too. If I want write about attending a play… or haul a couple of truck loads of wood… or fill pot holes… or weed the garden… or read… or write… or run the laundry… Rest. No obligation.

Retire. Engage in non-productive tasks. This sounds like frivolous activity to me. All of those activities listed above are productive in some manner. Writing about a performance analyzes the play and communicates to my readers. Winters will be warming when the wood is stacked. The road will drive more smoothly if the potholes are addressed when they are small. The garden will grow more food when weeds are kept in check. I will have more ideas in my head when I finish that book. I will have more ideas out of my head when I write them down (tag, your turn to read what I write). We will have clean clothes when we wash them…

Part of the phenomenon of retiring is that the function of the tasks I chose to enact shifts. What I might have defined a productive before becomes leisure, or what I considered leisure becomes productive. I no longer have the concern about monetizing the task, nor collecting a paycheck for having exchanged my time to a company to do that task.

Maybe that is what retirement is about. Freedom. Freedom to, and freedom from. No deadlines. Another load of wood awaits another day; another series of pot holes, row of vegetables, books, blogs, and lights or darks can wait. What day of the week is it? I’ll contemplate that later.

I think that when someone asks me about being retired, I shall reply, ”I don’t feel retired. I feel retread.”

retread (v): to add more tread to a used tire; (adv): to be something that has new life added to it

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Theatre Review: She Loves Me

Here we go again. A revival of a musical (She Loves Me, 1963) predated by two movies (Shop Around the Corner, 1939 and The Good Old Summer Time, 1949) and followed by another movie (You’ve Got Mail, 1998). With so many iterations, are we in trouble for too many permutations on a plot line of boy-meets-girl and girl-meets-boy but both are in love with their imagination of whom they believe the other to be but can’t stand each other when they work with each other day to day? Oh, did I mentioned that all this was based on the 1937 Hungarian playwright’s, Nicholaus Leitner Laszio, play Illatszertnar (Parfumerie), set in a perfume shop, later changed to a habardashery then to a music store then to a children’s book store.

But, I will admit that we watch Shop around the Corner, with Margaret Sullivan and Jimmy Stewart, most Christmas-movie seasons. We have developed a romanic attachment to it’s Budpest. But, we did not know about Judy Garland and Van Johnson, Chicago music shop setting In the Good Old Summertime. Did I mentioned Judy Garland… of course, she needs to have a vehicle for some song and dance numbers. What fun. And, we were just into our single 30’s years when Nora Ephron took the new medium of e-mail for You’ve Got Mail to bring together two book store competitors to find love and lots of romantic spots in Manhattan. We watched both of those movies the week before attending Signature Theatre’s production to get into the mood.

All of that is to say that we did not know, nor have seen, She Loves Me, until now.

One issue with stories is that we have heard them all, and each time a storyteller picks up a plot, they need to make it their own, but not diverge too much. The Romans took the Greek stories which came from Persian, Egyptian, Hebrew stories. Shakespeare picked up all of these. The 19th century writers of three volume novels transferred them on to the 20th century, and we re-use them today. The perfume store to haberdashery to music store to book store sequence works, as each gives a slightly different setting in which the characters can struggle and discover. She Loves Me puts the story back into a perfume shop.

While the core characters, boy and girl, older shop owner, side-kick companion, were essentially the same in each production, secondary characters, the unfaithful secondary lovers/exploiters, errand boy, customers shifted slightly to fit each of the formats. In Signature Theatre’s production this gave some opportunities for supporting roles to shine. Maria Rizzo (playing the cashier, Ilona Ritter) swings right onto and around the stage with the boldest lipstick whether she is smiling, pursing or puckering depending on which man is around her. Emmanuel Elliot Key (playing the delivery boy, Arpad Laszio) brings some clever physical comedy which is discrete enough to not upstage the primary characters (on a side note, we saw him in Howard Unversity’s production of Flyin’ West a few years back, so we are pleased to see that group moving into their professional lives). I would have to fill too many lines to give appreciation for other cast members.

That brings us back to the develop of the love-interest relationship between George Nowack (Deven Kolluri) and Amalia Balash (Ali Ewoldt). Mr. Nowack is the lead salesman in the store and Miss Balash comes into looking for work. Deven walks and talks with an air of superiority, while hiding his romantic side, and pretending to not be emotionally involved with the drama going on in the store. Ali comes off as sweat and cunning. She could appear to have her head spinning, but at the right moment she turns you around to do her bidding. Any wonder that I fell for Miss Balash and the Mrs fell for Mr. Nowack?

She Loves Me, in its 1963 book (Joe Masteroff), music (Jerry Bock), and lyrics (Sheldon Harnick), succeeds in staying close enough to the original intent, but suffers from being from… 1963. It came at the tail-end of the Great American Musical era, but before moderns style musicals of Sondheim and Lloyd-Weber. It is trying too hard to fit into the former genre, but society was moving on to more complicated relationship styles.

This brings up my main criticism of this production. It lacked the subtle, gentle moments that make the eventual revelation that Mr. Nowack is the writer of the Dear Friend letters, and the innocent acceptance of Miss Balash to his embrace and kiss. Rather, this production went for the big gestures, mugging, and slap-stick routines (which really got going in the restaurant dance number ”A Romantic Atmosphere” where Miss Balash’s heart is crushed when Mr. Nowack shows up rather than her anticipated love interest).

As fun as the big number tunes are, this is a sweet story, not a brash story. As fun as the prat-falls and strutting one’s style are, this is a gentle story, not a your-so-vain story. But, with the format of the 1963 script, any company would have difficulty building the subtly of relationship which would make the eventual union of these two love interests believable in their triumphant embrace. Otherwise, this couple is in for a lot of hot, passionate fighting after the house lights come up.

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Theatre Review: Romeo and Juliet

A couple of decades ago, we travelled to Straford-Upoin-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. We purchased tickets to all the shows playing at the theatre there. One production was Romeo and Juliet. I recall that the local controversy was the age of the actors playing the lead roles. Of concern to the landlord of our lodging was Juliet’s b…., well she was just too…. big… there… for the role of a tween girl in Verona. This was about Romeo and Juliet, you know, not Juliet and Her Girls. Obviously, the local audience was distracted.

So, when we read the cast list for the re-opening of the American Shakespeare Center’s current production of Romeo and Juliet, with Bandon Carter and Meg Rodgers in the lead roles, we both wondered…. hmmmm… no not The Girls issue, but they are both in their 30’s. They are both fabulous performers… but could they bring something about teenage passion to the stage.

Beyond this question, Romeo and Juliet is not my favorite play to begin with. The whole teen double-suicide thing, and then the family-gang-violence thing. Back in the day, swords, fists, knives (i.e. West Side Story) were lethal enough. Now, we have teens killed with AR-15s in school hallways and classrooms. We have states resisting legislating Red Flag rules (someone charged with domestic violence or suicidal gestures can have the police confiscate guns from their homes) in the name of A2 rights, thus leaving lethal arms at arms reach at the wrong moment. No, this is not the solution that I want to consider for teen passion, confusion, and impulse.

So, we head off to the Blackfriar Theatre for an ambivalent viewing of a classic tale.

Before the play begins, as is tradition with the American Shakespeare Center, the cast perform several songs, all of which were well chosen, though unfamiliar to me, and one member welcomes the audience, setting out some guidelines for the performance. These days that includes silencing cell phone, and informing new audience members that their style of performance includes using general lighting, so that the experience is communal. In addition to those instructions, Gregory Jon Phelps (who will play Friar Lawrence and various ensemble characters, and whom the Mrs. has had a crush on for the past decade), also addresses our concern directly.

In the lobby is a display and representative from a local mental health organization willing to discuss depression, anxiety, and teen suicide at intermission and after the show to provide resources. From our reading of the transformation of the company over the past couple of start-and-stops, they are seeing themselves as not just performers, enjoy our show, go home pondering, but a medium to connect the community with resources for issues brought up in their plays. The fourth-wall of the stage is expanding out from the auditorium.

With that stated, the Prince of Verona (Tevin Davis) steps forward to deliver the prologue about the warring families. And, we are off to follow this group’s rendition of insults, insinuations, and instigations.

Back to the basic question, can two mature actors carry off playing tweens in love? There is the obvious, and effective: dress them in tweeny clothes, which are either a little to little (Brandon’s) or a little two big (Meg’s) to make them look like their have just had a growth spurt, or are trying to fill out a fashion for which their bodies are not quite grown into.

But, what their maturity as performers gives them is the ability to wear the complexity of emotion on those not quite fitting sleeves. This is what being a tween is all about (and why I would not go back to the 8th grade if at all possible). Brandon and Meg show us the internal conflicts of tween bodies mixed with adult moods. A nuance of a doubting eye-brow. The elated fold of the skin at the corners of the eyes. The change in lips from pouty to passionate. The not quiet touching hands that feels the magnetic attraction and repulsion from the north and south poles of their other family’s hand reach out to caress (yes, in the masked dance scene, then they meet, Juliet reaches out to Romeo’s arm and hand, leaving about half an inch between her palm an his forearm, never quiet touching something that she finds appealing and repulsing. Such emotion energy).

Of course, we know that this is all downhill from the start. No matter how much we desire that they bond and the families accept them, we know they will die in the crypt eventually, bungled plans being bungled. And, we will be left with, ”Why! Why! Why!”

Fortunately, in editing the script, the production team has gone with a rendition that cuts out much of the crypt scenes so we are not burdened with Romeo encountering, evading, or killing character after character (really, the crypt ends up being like the frozen pizza section of Walmart on a Saturday afternoon, when you just want to pick up a pizza, but you meet four friends, three acquaintances, and an enemy between the cheese and pepperoni pizzas, and end up with a sausage pizza instead…). All we need to see, which they did, was bring in Juliet, in her unknown state of stupor, Romeo coming in being stupid and drinking his poison, Juliet reviving with Romeo collapsed on her, then she stabbing herself with his dagger.

And, thus the Prince returns to rebuke the families for setting up this mess with their rivalry. And, this raises the question: Is Romeo and Juliet really about overly-emotion, impulse tweens, or rigid, vengeful families? Are tweens at fault for the tribes which reared them to hate each other? Are we missing the message here?

I am reminded of my own coming-of-age period, the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I did not know much about the ”sexual-revolution” nor the ”gay pride” origins, but as a young health care worker, I started my career in NYC watching a generation of (mostly) gay-men die of AIDS. Was this just the men’s fault for bad sexual (and drug use) behavior? Or, might the factions on the issue have played a part. Were those who labeled AIDS ”The Gay Plague” and damned them to death at fault for blocking research and medical-mental health-social treatments at fault? Or, the homosexual-rights groups who told them that they could have as much sex with as partners as they wanted while high on drugs at fault?

And, which youths are we killing off today? Christian-Rights teens who have higher levels of teen pregnancy who slip off to other states to get abortions knowing that their parents and churches would reject them, as much as that bunch of adults tell them to bear the babies, keep them or adopt them out? Or, the trans-questioning-confused teens whom they are telling the don’t exist? Their rates of suicide are through the roof. Was there any hint of trans issues in this play? Well, Juliet’s mask at the ball was a deer with horns… female deers to do not have horns. Just sayin’.

Maybe Romeo are Juliet are victims of this play. Not just actors.

Ouch.

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Theatre Review: Catch Me If You Can

My regular readers know that I’m usually a bit skeptical about transferring a story from one medium, such as a novel or movie, to the stage. In the past, I did my research by reading the novel or watching the movie, only to be frustrated at the decisions that the playwright made to condense several hundred pages into 90 to 120 minutes of stage time. Worse, yet, is when the production team add contemporary issues that were not in the original work to update the characters or plots to conform to our current interets.

My regular readers know that I am usually a bit skeptical about the Disneyfacation of theatre through Disney’s encroachment on Broadway. While I have not actually attended any Broadway play or musical produced by Disney, I have a seen a few productions in regional theatres. Disney just seems to be saying ”Hey, look we have gobs of money for special effects and one more blockbluster song and dance numbers which has little to do with the plot, but boy do we pack in the audiences (of folks who would not usually go to the theatre except they really liked Disney World)”

Must be careful, least I start to sound like Abe in The Marvelous Miss Mazel when he writes theatre reviews for the Village Voice… or, maybe I’s like to sound like Abe… Not making many friends that way.

So, when we purchased our season tickets to Arena Stage for 2021-22 and saw that they would be producing Disney’s ”Catch Me If You Can” based on a 2002 movie, based on a 1980 memoir by Frank Abagnale, Jr. I thought, ”Oh, no! A musical based on a movie and developed by Disney”. Double curse.

On the other hand, I recall when I was in high school, and everyone was striving to be #1, best you can be, give it your all, your special, I responded to a friend ”I prefer to start with low expectations, because then I’m usually pleasantly surprised that the results are much better than I dreaded.”

The day started with a pleasant surprise, as we headed to our secret, block of free parking in D.C. (not telling you where), we noticed that it was Cherry Blossom Festival around the Tidal Basin and the trees were in bloom. We scrapped our plans to spend an hour or so before lunch in a museum, and did the promenade past the Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. memorials on our way to Hank’s Oyster Bar across the street from Arena Stage. Nothing like a stroll and lunch to put someone in a good mood for a musical.

Our seats were in the center of the fist row, in the Fitchlander Stage, which is in the round, thus having four front rows. The performers would be as close as four feet and no more than 40 feet from us all afternoon. Better not let that Guiness with my fish and chips get me dozy.

From the opening number, “Live In Living Color”, I was wide awake and would have no time to worry about napping for the next two hours. The musical starts with Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Christian Thompson) being arrested at the airport by FBI agent, Carl Hanratty (Nehal Joshi). Frank asks for a moment to tell his story. With the FBI guns drawn, and the other patrons at the airport hiding behind their luggage, the stage suddenly shift from a frozen moment to a going-to-a-go-go dance number, with the patrons dropping their coats to reveal Piet Mondrian style shirts and dressing in big blocks of red, yellow, blue, and white shoes and boots. That is where being four feet away from two couples dancing in tight moves gets the blood flowing. Those customs were just outdone with each subsequent ensemble dance number. Sooooooo ’60s! Sooooooo hip!

And, the numbers came, tumbling one after another, with just enough time to say ”Oooooh! Ahhhhhh!” to another delightful pairing of his-and-hers outfits to match each scene (the best were the dollar-bill jackets and flared dresses for the second number ”Fifty Checks”, which gives the basis for Frank, Jr’s two-year spending spree as he figures out how to pass bad checks into the million’s in debt, which is why the FBI starts to follow him). Costume designer, Alejo Vietti, gives us the eye-candy that has more substance than just a treat. He has matched each outfit to the events which unfold to tell this story.

In a more subtle style, Alexander Dodge’s set, seems to be a minimalist background for the action, until the cast begins to move about what appears to be a blank slate. The stage opens with just a floor, decorated in game-show red and yellow patterns, with the usual four entrances at the corners of the stage, plus two stair wells descending at the side of the stage, an opening for the music director/conductor (Laura Berquist) to follow what is on stage and guide the orchestra below the stage. But, at key moments, lights embedded into the floor, and in marquee style rings overhead flash as if something from Las Vegas’ Neon Boneyard had suddenly come to life. Then up form the middle of the floor, an lift raises up a setting, maybe the family living room, a posh restaurant, and hotel room, to give us a setting for a bit of action and plot development.

Beyond the visuals, this show is all about building on the Great American Musical style standards through the 1950’s-60’s crooner style numbers Marc Shaiman has created (lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, book by Terrance McNally). If you like big-band to The Rat-Pack, you will be tapping your toes. And, the selection of music is where director, Molly Smith, has diverged from the 2009 Broadway production.

Backing up, in a conversation with a theatre friend, we had more skeptical premonitions of the show. “We saw a traveling production some years ago… Can’t remember a thing about it… He slept through it”. Hmmmm. Not sounding good. So what happened between that iteration and Arena Stage’s production, which I’m obvious gushing about?

In Molly Smith’s artistic director notes in the program, she explains her process for deciding which version of the musical to produce. The saying goes, movies are made on the cutting room floor. When filming a movie, say the 2002 version of Catch Me if You Can, the director shoots a lot more scenes than will fit into the allotted frame. This is why DVD’s and streaming service can give you four hour long “Director’s Cut’s” and ”Extended Version”. We can put those on pause to go to the bathroom. In parallel, when a stage play or musical is being developed, the creative team often generates more scenes and numbers than an audience can sit through. During pre-runs of the show, they try out different combinations until they believe they have a product that works and sells.

Molly Smith went back to read through various sequences of the musical, and actually selected an earlier version than the one which eventually opened and broadway, went on the road, and our friend’s spouse slept through. Arena Stage’s version included three numbers that were cut form the Broadway version. Given our enjoyment of this production, I could not select three routines to cut out without losing the momentum which this show needs to keep Frank, Jr. and detective Hanratty on the run.

I’m not giving away more of the plot. Let’s just say that it is between a coming-of-age, what-happens-to-the-son of self-absorbed parents who are more concerned with their positions and lifestyle than rearing a child, or a prodigal-son variation with the reunion of the son not being with his father, but a man who cares about him more than his father.

Don’t get too heavy, though. This is a musical.

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Theatre Review: The Odd Couple

Kids are cruel. Especially boys. At least, when I was growing up in the 1960’s. An easy taunt was to discover someone’s middle name, usually something perceived at quirky, and call the boy by that name. ”Oscar” is actually my mild name, which I did not start using until my college years, but that is a different story. In the late 1960’s ”Oscar” was either ”Oscar the Grouch” from Sesame Street or ”Oscar Madison” from Neil Simon’s play (movie/sit com) ”The Odd Couple”

Slur: you live in a trash can, or you’re a crude, slob.

I did not like, nor do I agree, with the moto ”Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me”. I new a name, with the above connotation, could hurt.

Especially, when you are more inclined to be a ”Felix” than an “Oscar”.

Over the years, the duel identity conflict of being named and ”Oscar” but living ”Felix” has come to my attention. Just recently, I thought ”I have never seen the stage version of ’The Odd Couple’. I wonder if anyone else remembers the story or if any theatre performs it.” It seems that revivals of classic American theatre is usually musicals or drama/tragedies. I am more likely to find ”Guy and Dolls” or “Death of a Salesman” somewhere (and if so, love to see them), than I am a classic comedy.

So, last weekend, some friends mentioned that they had gone to see a production of… ”The Odd Couple”… at a small town theatre in Berkeley Springs, WV. Well, that’s within driving distance of where we live, sort of (don’t follow you GPS on the shortest route from here to there unless you like some McAdam’s back roads). And, we did not have set plans for Saturday evening. Off we were in Lake Effect snow flurries for another night of local theatre.

The production was part of the Morgan Arts Council Ice House Theatre Project, which has repurposed an old ice house (many of these exist in this area, for the production, storage and sale of blocks of ice for refrigeration before electricity was a big thing in rural areas; they are basically 3 to 4 story brick/block structures which would be filled with ice to keep the ice frozen; and, now they make for multipurpose community building for performance arts, yoga/dance studies, and artist workshops). The theatre is on the lower level, nestled between the two-foot square support posts and beams.

As is typical in local theatre companies, a core group puts up the production, performing, rehearsing, building sets, sewing costumes and finding prop’s (and if you like what you see, one of the cast members can help you find it at her store down the street). Skimming the program, I see linked family names in multiple roles. Great to have such passion in a community.

Given that the performance space is confined by a square of cider blocks walls and support posts, the tech crews designed Oscar Madison’s apartment with two sides presenting several doors for the apartment entrance, kitchen, two bedrooms and bathroom, and the other walls being two seating area for about 50 audience members each. No one is very far away from sitting in the living room.

Have lived in NYC some yeas back, I have visited friends who lived in similar apartments, which were actually quiet spacious, rather than our vision of tiny studio apartments. Thus, when Oscar makes reference to giving Felix the ”back door” keys, so that he can come and go without intruding on Oscar’s lifestyle, I also know that this was a reference to coming in through the servant’s elevator, which usually brought the hired-help into their live-in bedroom behind the kitchen. The set designers captured this ambiance with precision. And, lets give a hand to the prop’s crew who had the place strewn with chip-bags, beer cans, and poker chips for the first act, then righty-tidy all-cleaned-up for the second act, after Felix came and imposed his sense of order on Oscar.

For those who have forgotten, or never watched ”The Odd Couple” the basic premise is that Oscar Madison (Paul Salinas) lives alone in his 8-room apartment on the 12th floor in NYC, after his wife divorced him for his slovenly ways, and moved to California with his children. He lives a life envied by his married friends, Speed (Fred Herrmann), Murry (Tom Brooks), Roy (Paul M. Williams), and Vinnie (Jim Chittock), who get to be away from home and family on Friday nights in order to play poker at Oscar’s place. Their sixth poker-hand friend is Felix (Chuck Walker), who has not shown up for the game at the beginning of the play. Once Felix arrives, they confirm that his wife has thrown him out for his compulsive neatness.

Thus, the odd couple is the excessively loose Oscar and the excessively controlling Felix. Of course, Oscar takes Felix in, as he has spare rooms. Felix takes over the cleaning and cooking. The rest of the play is their constant conflicts over how they spend their time at the apartment. In the last scene of the second act, Oscar arranges for a double-date with sisters, Gwendolyn Pigeon (Lauren Proffit) and Cecily Pigeon (Jenna Hansroth), who live upstairs in the apartment building. They are all giggles and tears, depending on whether they are flirting with Oscar or comforting Felix.

There is nothing subtle in Neil Simon’s script about how this conflict with play out. What the cast excels at is adding the subtlety to the physical comedy inherent in each of their characters. Felix is a master as facial expressions and controlled, of course, swoons on the couch, as his emotions are the only thing that he can tidy up. Oscar is full of big gestures, usually tossing cards, chips, or cigaret butts around the apartment, by circumstance or with intent to irritate Felix. His kindness is only tempered by his irritated rage. Their poker buddies project their lines with their eyes, slouched postures, betting poker chips, and showing their hands to fold or win the round. Someone even shook up the warm can of beer right on time so that it would spray all over the game table when Oscar cracked it open. This is a frothy production.

I hate to say that you will not get to see this play, as with many local productions, the run was only two weekends. But, hopefully, some theatre near you is resuming live performances. Don your mask, take your vaccination cards, and fill those seats. After a really odd two years of being trapped in our homes and quirky personalities, it good to see characters who are trapped in a 12th floor apartment try to figure out how to be themselves and tolerate each other. Make sure you have a couple of Pigeon Sisters upstairs for a safe escape.

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Theatre Review: Daphne’s Dive

Do we speak aloud our history? Or, do we remain silent? Do we acknowledge our traumas? Or, do we avoid our ACE’s (adverse childhood experiences)? Do we challenge our evil? Or, do we avoid confrontation? Do we confine ourselves to our birth and culture? Or, do we chose our family and create an new society? And, where do we find our voice or discretion?

Let’s pour a drink, serve up a meal, while we deliberate these points. If so, we must be present. We must go out. We must meet each other. What better place to do all this than Daphne’s Dive.

After two years of sputtering stops and stops of live theatre, we again venture out to the D.C. area for a weekend of theatre. Our first stop, after the Thai restaurant in Shirlington, VA (aka a neighborhood in Arlington, VA across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.) was Signature Theatre. The show was Daphne’s Dive, by Quiara Alegria Hudes.

Daphne (Rayanne Gonzoles) is a Puerto Rican immigrant to an neighborhood in Philadelphia, PA. To support herself, she owns and runs a neighborhood bar, her ”dive”. For the show, it is populated by a range of seemingly random patrons for the various ethnicities and economic backgrounds in the neighborhood.

Pablo (Johnathan Atkinson) is an artist who collects and inspects trash as a source of inspiration about the beauty in the ugliness of what people ”throw out”. Rey (Jefferson A Russell) is a biker who can build anything but wants to be paid and spend cash every day with only evidence of his existence being the creations he made that day. Jen (Quynh-My Luu) is an activist who does performance art to protest complacency of people to injustice, advocating peace, freedom, equity, and democracy (as in participating in the political process). Inez (Yesenia Inglesia) is Daphne’s older sister, wiser, more ambitious. Acosta (James Whalen) is one of Daphne’s patrons who marries Inez in a romance of opposites-attract. He is rebuilding the neighborhood, literally creating businesses, jobs, and housing. He will morph into the society building of politics. Ruby (Jyline Carranza) is a girl in the neighborhood whom Daphne will adopt and rear from age 11.

Age and time are key themes of this play. The themes are ageless. The time is the 1980’s to 2000’s. While each character ages, the transformation is most evident in Ruby. The playwright accentuates this by having Ruby spotlit at the beginning of each scene, announcing ”I am 11”, ”I am 15” up to ”I am 29” Of course, in our society that takes her from the tweens through adolescence and into adulthood. She survives, with the help of this family-of-choice-not-blood, her high school years. And, as often happens with immigrant societies, she is the first-generation to go to college. Her choice of studies and careers is one in which she attempts to right the wrongs of her ACE’s. By the end of the play, she is practicing her social-work behind the bar at Daphne’s and Rube’s Dive.

With all this drama, and related emotion upheavals, joyous and painful, do we speak, or do we watch? Does Pablo’s art of trash allow us to see what we discard from our lives, like Rube literally being tossed out by her parents? Does Ray’s live-for-today risk-taking inspire us to do more than accumulate stuff? Does Jen’s stripped down protests do more than amuse and embarrass us, or prompt us to truly be free-willed actors, like Daphne taking in Ruby at age 11? Does Inez’s insistence that naming those sins that victimize us, confession we might say, frees us from the chains of silence? Does Acosta’s advancement of ambitions allow him to make his neighborhood a better place, rather than force him into compromises that his financial backers press on him? Does Ruby’s acceptance of the burden of rearing someone else’s child make up for her own emotional, physical, and family trauma?

Life, like a play, happens in real time in a real place. That reality can be scripted, but what happens in the time and place, often we cannot predict.

As we walked into the theatre, up the aisle (you entered the seating area by waling ”through” the bar, great design effect to bring us ”into” the play), to take our seats, the couple in the row in front of us called out ”Is that Lind and Oscar!” To our surprise it turned out to be a former co-worker whom we have exchanged Christmas cards with, but not seen for 20 year. What a time and place. Great to have re-connected. Next time we’ll all meet at the Thai restaurant before the show.

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