Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Veil of Forgetfulness

Everything in New York City costs more than it used to, particularly attending the performing arts. There’s an interview with Peter Gelb in last week’s New Yorker where he’s quoted as saying without individual, corporate and foundation contributions, a ticket to the Met would cost $400!

So I am pleased to tell you about the world premiere of a new opera with $20 tickets. “The Veil of Forgetfulness” is by Susan Stoderl (libretto, music and lyrics). Set in a medieval abbey, the opera explores the theme of how challenges to one’s faith often deepens it. “The Veil of Forgetfulness” features eight singers, pipe organ and a chamber ensemble, with art projections by Sarah Olson.

Performances are Sunday, November 11 at 4 and Tuesday, November 13 at 8 at the Church of the Holy Trinity, 316 East 88th Street (between First and Second Avenues). For more information or a list of the rest of Music at Holy Trinity’s 2007-2008 season, click on the Music at Holy Trinity link above. The artistic director of music at Holy Trinity is Dr. Stephen Hamilton. (Full disclosure: I am a member of Holy Trinity and sing it its choir. And my friend Elizabeth Munn, devoted reader of this blog, is in the cast.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Shrunken Heads on the Deuce

A few weeks ago, I made my first trip to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium on West 42nd Street to celebrate my birthday. With me were my parents and my boyfriend. When we were young, my brothers and I went through a period where we spent time pouring over Ripley’s books, and the Guinness Book of World Records. I remember being very taken with the photo of the Indian man who had the world’s longest fingernails. I’m also intrigued by anything having to do with circuses, and as my father pointed out Ripley’s is as close to the freak shows he saw in his childhood as you can find these days.

I assumed that the Odditorium would have a fairly high cheese factor, which it did. Out front there is an animated mannequin dressed as a bearded lady singing a song about herself. There was a photo display about Robert Wadlow, the Alton Giant; film footage of Johnny Eck, the legless acrobat; a taxidermied chicken that lived for 17 days without a head; a model of a giant, prehistoric crocodile (which wouldn’t have been that out of place at the Natural History Museum) and a stuffed two-headed calf. At the same time, there were some beautiful things. Ripley collected Asian art and artifacts, and there are some beautiful jade pieces. There is a Spanish Armada built entirely of toothpicks. In the historical section, there’s John Wilkes Booth’s derringer (a wee bit of a firearm); a genuine Iron Maiden and other instruments of torture; and a lock of Napoleon’s hair. There’s also a video loop playing in a small theatre which features among other things, a family that suffers from “werewolf disease” (abundant hair growth on one’s face and upper body), and a skateboarding dog.

It’s not a cheap ticket (approximately $30) to get in to Ripley’s. But the exhibits were double the size I expected, and the big finish is some of Ripley’s shrunken head collection. We were there on a Saturday night around 7, and it was a very busy place: families, college kids, tourists. It wasn’t until I got home and started reading my souvenir guidebook that I found out how big this Ripley empire is. There are thirty Ripley museums, all over the world in Canada, Malaysia, England, Denmark, Mexico, Thailand, the U.S. and Australia. Ripley certainly made the most of his travels and information-gathering when he was alive: there were his newspaper cartoons, and radio shows (there’s streaming radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s on the website above). But the man died in 1949. Other than marketing, what has kept the whole operation going for the last 58 years? Is it the freakish aspect? The wish to be scared and/or grossed-out? The romantic image of Ripley the world traveler, bringing these exotic treasures back to our world, for us to marvel at? Or a combination of all three?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

One More Season!

The Associated Press reported today that Astroland at Coney Island has gotten a one-year reprieve. Link above.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Could Ben Brantley Be Wrong?

I saw a matinee of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” ten days ago. Then I read Ben Brantley’s review of the same production in the New York Times on Friday.

I am not a little dubious about Mr. Brantley as a theatre reviewer. I often think that having to choose between clarity in a review and the ability to show off how clever he is, he will invariably choose the latter. To be fair, he can be very funny. The review he wrote of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” a few years ago included the funniest line I have ever read in the paper of record. I read it standing in line to check my bag for a flight from San Juan, and even in that noisy a setting I laughed so hard that people stared at me. He wrote (if this isn’t exact, it’s pretty damn close), “Sitting through ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ is like being kicked to death by circus ponies.” The image was so clear in my mind, I could see the blue spanglies on the ponies’ backs, which is why it was funny.

But to get back to Mr. Shaw. I spent a chunk of time in college studying Shaw, and since then I have read much of and seen many productions of Shaw. I don’t think David Grindley’s production is off-base. I find it difficult to believe that he couldn’t find a better actress than Claire Danes to play Eliza, but I suspect she may not have been his first choice. Grindley keeps the play moving. This is inherently difficult, because Shavian characters love to talk. A lot.

There are five acts in “Pygmalion,” taking place in three different settings, and those set changes had better be lightning fast because contemporary audiences don’t have the patience for anything slower than that. He and Jonathan Fensom solve that problem admirably. Grindley likes to stage scenes don front and center, as Brantley points out (and my brother reminded me that “Journey’s End” was staged the same way). However, the interior sets aren’t that deep to begin with, so there are inherent staging limitations in the design.

Finally, the acting. I enjoyed Boyd Gaines, Jay O. Sanders (who I initially had TV actor prejudice against which he completely overcame), and Helen Carey. I had heard nothing good about Clarie Danes’ performance before I saw the play. She was adequate once she dropped her Cockney accent; before she did, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through five acts of her shrieking. She showed none of Eliza’s (for lack of a better word) charm, as Wendy Hiller does so well in the movie. I thought that Jefferson Mays gave the performance of a lifetime. It had brave choices in it, used the text beautifully and was mesmerizing to watch. He wasn’t a cuddly Higgins by any means, but he was a charismatic one. How great would it be to see him play Shotover in “Heartbreak House” in twenty years?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Castel Sant’Angelo

The last day we were in Rome, we went to the Castel Sant’Angelo. It was built as Emperor Hadrian’s tomb, but has served many purposes since then as a papal residence, a prison, and the setting of Act Three of “Tosca.” The photo here (by Tom Bovo) is of a statue of an archangel- I like those wings!

So we walked up all these steps, and reached the mausoleum, though Hadrian’s remains are long gone. A few levels more, and there was a museum of Italian weapons, armor, and uniforms, some of them quite old. When you reach the very top, there are panoramic views of the hills beyond Rome, the Vatican and the city itself. But on a floor in between there was an extensive exhibition on Italian playwright Giuseppe Giacosa, 1842-1906. He wrote plays which Eleanora Duse performed; he wrote “La Dame de Challant” for Sarah Bernhardt. He wrote a book about the U.S. that he researched when he came over to see Bernhardt in “La Dame de Challant.” (No, I didn’t recognize his name, either.) Many of his plays were set in his native Piedmont.

But near the end of his life, he teamed up with another writer, Luigi Illica, and it was what grew out of this partnership that put Giacosa in the Castel Sant’Angelo. Together they wrote the libretti for “La Boheme” (1896), “Tosca” (1899) and “Madame Butterfly” (1904). I’m always harping on the fact that librettists are the forgotten ones in the theatre process, and here I’d done it myself. It’s not like I’m going to forget Puccini. On the other hand, Scarpia and Tosca and Cavaradossi are infinitely more real to me than Emperor Hadrian could ever be. The exhibit (all in Italian, alas) had costumes from the operas, photographs of productions, Duse, Bernhardt, etc. Seeing it was oddly comforting to me. It was like “oh, yeah, theatre. Music. Making up stories. This is what this Giacosa guy did. It’s what I do, too.”

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The English Theatre of Rome

Last year, when my boyfriend took me to Rome, I had tried to arrange a meeting with the artistic director of the English Theatre of Rome, former New Yorker Gaby Ford. The theatre is now in its 12th season, and they do new plays, not just by the usual suspects. I’d emailed her before we left New York, but by the time I finally reached her in Rome, it was too late.

This year, we did better, and saw a production. The play was an interesting take on Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” (which I haven’t read since college so it isn’t that fresh in my mind) called “The Moths,” directed by Dustin Wills of Austin, Texas. “A wickedly wacky and purgatory journey through mythological Greece and the mind of Virginia Woolf,” to quote the press release. It was performed by five talented, non-union actors, including Gaby herself as Omphale; Luke Charles as Herakles; and Lorenza Damiani as Caeneas (the Orlando character, and a moth). It was one of those difficult pieces built in rehearsal by the actors and the director. That can be a very exciting way to work, but is fraught with the perils of everything that can go wrong putting it together. “The Moths” was a truly valiant effort. Most of it worked beautifully; the problem to me was the ending, which seemed more a matter of “well, we have to end it somehow, so let’s do this.” But up to that, it worked very well. The set was largely paperback book, or pages from paperback books, so that by the end of it the stage was so awash in paper I half-thought it could devour the actors.

Equally impressive (I haven’t been about to stop thinking about it) was the space. The Teatro L’arciliuto (www.arciliuto.it) is in the neighborhood of the Piazza Navona, on the Piazza Montevecchio. The building dates back to the late 14th century and has a concert hall and a lounge. They have a full schedule of spoken word and music performances. The space where “The Moths” was performed is in the basement, which is the remains of a second century villa. It’s basically square, with seating on two adjoining sides, and the playing space the other two sides. The seating is tiers covered with carpeting, just like some of the classroom building at my alma mater. The stage includes the ruins of the villa- two walls, two doorways, and a beautiful Roman arch window. So cool!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Many Happy Returns!

A Dramahound shout-out (Shout OUT!!!) to the Strand Bookstore on its 80th birthday.

I think I first became aware of the Strand when I moved to New York and lived on Alphabet City. Then I moved to East 13th Street, behind the old Palladium, and was dangerously close by (though it did make it easier to sell back the books I’d bought and read). These days I’m still there, almost weekly, and my boyfriend and I have been known to start our Friday nights with a good hour looking through the Strand. It’s also handy, if you’re in a hurry, to use their website and have the book waiting for you when you walk in the door.

Long may the 18 miles of books rule Broadway and Twelfth Street (and the Fulton Street store, too)!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Dramahound Time Travels

My boyfriend and I got back from Rome last night, jet-lagged but well-fed, well-watered, well-traveled. There were things that we had planned to do but were unable to. The Baths of Diocletian’s hours were simply impossible; we never got inside, though we managed to walk around the building twice. And the Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House) was equally inaccessible. Last Friday morning, it took us three hours, including our hotel manager making two phone calls, being on hold for nearly half an hour and finally the human being he reached hung up on him; taking the #3 bus ten stops; and standing there at the Domus Aurea’s gate with 15 or so other tourists, completely ignored by the staff for half an hour. Though all of the tour bus people had no problem getting in. All told, three hours to Not see the Domus Aurea. Not our best Roman memory.

However, after that we walked over to the Aventino neighborhood, which at one time had a cattle and a vegetable market in it. We went to Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which has the Mouth of Truth on one of its outside walls. I stuck my hand in and it did not bite me (it’s supposed to bite you if you’re a liar; there’s a moment in “Roman Holiday” when Audrey Hepburn sticks her hand in it). On the inside of the church were some really great relics of St. Valentine: I didn’t think he was a saint anymore, but you’d never guess it to look at the bones and the votive candles lit in front of them. See photo by Tom Bovo above.

We wandered across the Piazza Bocca della Verità to the Via Teatro di Marcello, and saw as much of the ruins of the theatre as we could. I read somewhere that to give verisimilitude to some plays’ death scenes, criminals would actually be killed in front of the crowd. Makes off-off Broadway seem tame, doesn’t it? There are lucky present day Romans (though I doubt there’s an elevator) who have apartments on the top floor of the theatre, where the cheap seats would have been.

Then we stopped at a church that wasn’t on any of our maps (and we must have ten maps because none of them has all the streets). We had not read about it on any websites or in tourist guidebooks. It is the Basilica of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was from Myra, in Turkey. Lovely old church which had been closed for decades, and reopened four years ago. We went in. My boyfriend was looking at the side altars, and I went over to a bulletin board to read about the basilica's history. A young woman volunteer approached me and asked if I spoke Italian. I said no, English. She then proceeded to give us a free private tour not only of the church, but of the ruins of the three Republican temples underneath it. The temples were dedicated to Hope, Janus, and Juno, and dated back to the Second Punic War (approximately 205-200 B.C.E.). The temples’ interiors were only for the use of the priests associated with those gods, and the Temple of Janus was only open during times of war, because he’s associated with war. The guide explained why the temples been built so close together: to makes the temples’ treasuries easier to guard, there were two very narrow alleys for access between the temples. She showed us how pieces of the temples had been incorporated into the construction of the basilica, both the interior and the exterior.

My definition of really old is George Washington’s pew at St. Paul’s Chapel down in the financial district. But 200 B.C.E. is before Julius Caesar was even a glimmer in his father’s eye. That’s really old!