Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bodies- The Exhibition

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I went to see Bodies- The Exhibition downtown. We'd been talking about going for literally years; I hesitated because I felt uncomfortable about supporting something that consisted of many bodies, with no idea of where they came from, or if there was any consent by the dead people or their relatives. There's a disclaimer sign at the front of the line saying the bodies had all passed through the Chinese police at some time, and could be dead prisoners, the tone of which was basically "it's not our fault!"
There are eight of these exhibitions in the US and Canada. It would take a lot of bodies to make them possible. The presenter, Premier Exhibitions, also runs the "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" which is in the old Times building between 43rd and 44th Street. That truly strikes me as grave-robbing, and I will not see it.
Bodies is a lot of bodies. A souped-up version of those plastic models you had in biology class, that goes through the nervous system, circulatory system, skeletal and muscular systems, etc. Many bodies are sliced into pieces, and shot through with various colors of dye. There is, as Tom pointed out, a freak show element to all of this, particularly as two of the exhibits near the end are conjoined twins (with reference to Chang and Eng), and the biggest human thumb you've ever seen. The one exhibit that freaked me out was something I'd read about but never seen, a teratoma. It is a human cancerous growth that includes things that do not belong in it, namely hair and teeth. Now, granted, I looked at it three times (the third time was to write the name down), but, oh, man, that's just not right!

Our Gang

As I child, I watched many Our Gang comedy shorts on television. I've been watching them again on DVD over the past few months. There are horrible things about them, particularly the racism. But there are also wonderful moments that are funny and true about family, siblings, class and the way little kids think and play with one another.
There's one that's been stuck in my mind for years- Alfalfa sings "I'm the Barber of Seville," over and over again. It turns out that this is from the "Our Gang Follies of 1938." Alfalfa abandons his "low-art" origins, determined to become an opera singer. The bulk of the short is an elaborate dream sequence, years later, set at Club Spanky. Spanky has become an impresario, complete with top hat, cape and cane. Darla is the featured ingenue in the floor show. There is a big production number with Buckwheat. All the white children are paired off in couples and look swanky. All the African-American children are paired off in couples and are shoeshine boys and maids. I cringed. It's amazing to me what I did not remember of this short.

The Canterbury Tales

I have been thinking about The Canterbury Tales a lot lately. First, I saw "A Canterbury Tale" a few weeks ago, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's updated (ca. 1944) take on some wartime Canterbury pilgrims. There's a few soldiers, people who live in the town and a Land Girl, all thrown together by circumstance. It's beautifully shot, but pretty sentimental.
Over Christmas, I read Joan Acocella's All England: 'The Canterbury Tales' Retold in the December 21 and 28 issue of The New Yorker. I'm not sure I've looked at it much since high school (we had to memorize the prologue). It did teach me more than I knew about Chaucer; like the fact that he's buried in Westminster Abbey has nothing to do with his art, but the fact that he was an administrator there (a sad commentary)! Acocella's description of Peter Ackroyd's version (The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling) made want to skip it, but she makes Vincent Hopper's pony of it sound great.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know

I really wanted to love this book. And I'm sorry to say that I didn't. Alexandra Horowitz has plenty of interesting things to say, but her style is so uneven as to be distracting. She teaches psychology at Columbia University. The most fluid parts of the book are her direct observations of her own, late dog, Pumpernickel, but the narrative sections that string them together are all over the place.
The best thing Horowitz says is to let you dog be a dog. Let them sniff to their heart's content; get a little smelly in their doggie-way. In the Sniff chapter, she compares human noses that have 6,000,000 sensory receptors, with beagle noses, that have 300,000,000 (this could explain why our dog can find a discarded chicken bone under a foot of snow). Dogs also have part of a bone in their nose called a vomeronasal organ, that also exists in reptiles, which detects and processes information from pheromones. She also includes a section on dogs trained to detect cancer. The results are pretty amazing; in one study, a group of dogs trained for this tried 1,272 times to detect cancerous cells and were only wrong 14 times.

This I Believe

I'd always assumed that the original Edward R. Murrow "This I Believe" was some sort of Christianity-lite radio show, way back in the 1950s. (It's said that the title was inverted in that way in reference to Murrow's Quaker mother.) Then I started listening to the podcasts of the new "This I Believe," which featured some of the old ones (William O. Douglas talking about the evils of greed and American imperialism being un-Christian is pretty great) and many new. One of my neighbors left out books last week, and I snagged a copy of the 2007 paperback, which also mixes up "essays" old and new.
The new essay I particularly enjoyed was Harold Taw's about feeding monkeys. At his birth in Burma, a monk instructed his parents to have him feed monkeys on his birthday. That way, they would always prosper. Easy enough, while they were in or near the Burmese jungle. But after the family immigrated to the US, monkeys are not always so easy to come by. The tone is weighty, but at the same time you know that Taw can see the humor in it, too.
There are old two essays that I liked. One is by Thomas Mann, about the transitory nature of life (it's not clear to me whether this was just before or just after he immigrated to Switzerland). He certainly knew about that. The other is by Martha Graham (she was such a good writer) about how being a dancer is being "an athlete of God," and how much work, discipline and time that requires.

The Lures of Barnes & Noble

I was really early for rehearsal on Sunday (I left early because of the snow), so I stopped in at the new (ish) Barnes and Noble on 86th Street. In my book selection, I narrowed it down to the new Terry Teachout biography of Louis Armstrong and Joseph Epstein's Fred Astaire. The Epstein book was more portable and cheaper, so I went with that.
What a frustrating read! If I hadn't read anything else about Fred Astaire or seen his films, I would assume that he was a clotheshorse who was only capable of achieving his full potential as a dancer when partnered with Ginger Rogers. I don't think that's true. There's also something in Epstein's tone (smugness? snarkiness? something along those lines) that grates more the more you read. Which is strange because he's not really a theatre, film or dance writer (nor does he address any of those aspects of Astaire in the way one might expect). This book is part of a series by Yale University Press (full disclosure: I used to freelance for them) on Icons of America.
I did enjoy Nureyev's opinion of Astaire ("the greatest dancer in American history"), and a few lines from Cholly Atkins almost redeems the rest of the book: "He's a descriptive dancer who works painstakingly with his musical accompaniment; he was the first to dance to programme music, describing every note in the dance." I'd never thought about it that way before, but, exactly.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Buccaneer

My friend and favorite actor (wish I could work with him all the time) Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum has a play of his own running at The Tank this week- The Buccaneer (link above). I saw an earlier incarnation in the back yard at Rudy's a few summers ago. The Buccaneer is an inspired, funny, fight-heavy (dare I say "fight-tastic"?) serial melodrama set in Queen Isabella's Spain. The Buccaneer has been parted from his true love, Rosalia, by Spanish politics. There are lots of swords, and even the women get to fence- yea! The website tells me it is inspired by swashbucklers and telenovelas, but at the same time it has a goofy, almost Monty Python sensibility. Jacob himself appears as a Thug and A Sinister Figure.
All of the actors are good, but I particularly enjoyed Tom Evans as the British Ambassador, Ethan James Halifax III, Lord Westmoreland, and Rebecca White as the blood-thirsty, lisping Queen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Fallen Idol

I recently watched "The Fallen Idol" again. I'd seen it years ago, and I used to have the paperback of Graham Greene's The Fallen Idol (originally entitled "The Basement Room" and "The Third Man" (basically, the movie treatment). I remembered that I liked it, but I'd forgotten how good it is. Greene and Reed was a wonderful combination. This film is driven by Ralph Richardson's performance, aided by Bobby Henry as the little boy, Philippe. It takes place over two days, and Richardson is accused of his wife's murder. All of Greene's guilt-though-nominally innocent work is in full form. It also features a young Jack Hawkins as Detective Ames. As a child, I had nightmares about being trapped in the movie of "Kidnapped," with Jack Hawkins after me. There is one egregiously racist moment, in which Richardson is telling the child about killing a black man in Africa. But thinking about it, I'm not sure that isn't Greene making a stab at the evils of the Empire.
I'd been talking to my dad about Reed a few weeks ago, and we both wondered after those three fantastic movies in the 19 40s ("The Third Man", "The Fallen Idol", and "Odd Mann Out") why he'd made movies for another 20 years, but the later films never reached the level of those three. The documentary accompanying "The Fallen Idol" suggests that the partnership with Alexander Korda gave Reed a basis to take a range of projects and run with them. But after Korda's death, Reed continued to work on a range of projects but not with the same effect. It also talks briefly about Reed's childhood, and how he used to watch his father, Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, in rehearsal (his father was the pre-eminent Victorian actor-manager).


I had read Heinrich von Kleist's short story "Michael Kohlhaas", and E.L. Doctorow's novel and seen the 1981 Milos Forman movie. My friend Cheryl and I wondered if Jimmy Cagney (he plays the Police Commissioner- it was his last movie appearance) remembered the times the story is set in. I even had the orginal cast CD with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' haunting songs. But I had not seen it, until the matinee yesterday.
I just loved it. All the actors acted and sang beautifully (not always true in musicals, I'm afraid). Marcia Milgrom's Dodge's direction was clear (pretty key in show this big) and affecting. Terence McNally's book is brisk and informative, but you never feel weighed down by too much information. Donald Holder's lighting was as wonderful as ever. In particular, I enjoyed Christiane Noll. She was utterly believable as Mother, as was the way she grew from a doting Westchester wife and mother into her own person.
One of the things that surprised me the most was the set. Derek McLane designed, who I worked with a million years ago (I was Cathy Zuber's assistant at the Yale Summer Cabaret when he was the resident set designer there; they were both still in the Drama School). I saw the set when I curtain rose and thought, "Oh, my God, he's channeled Eugene Lee!" But as the show went on, I realized that McLane had done something very difficult. He built a structure that was able to transform into a ship dock, a train station, an Atlantic City pavilion and finally the Morgan Library. Now maybe you can fudge how the Morgan Library looks if you've never been there, but I've been there many times. And McLean's structure is just enough of how it really looks to give it verisimilitude.
Several other playwrights had told me that they find the show (now and ten years ago) "cold." I didn't feel that at all, though that may be true in less skillful directorial hands.

Our Dog

It was a year ago yesterday that my boyfriend and I rescued our dog from New York City's Animal Control. I think (and I extracted his agreement last night) that it is the best collective decision that we've ever made. Augustus is not a perfect dog- sometimes he can be quite infuriating. But he is fun and funny and sweet, and has quite a personality. We have both gotten more joy from Augie than any other single thing. I can't recommend adopting more highly!
Photo by Tom Bovo, of Augie at the Owl's Head dog run.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Innocent

I first read Ian McEwan's "The Innocent" a few years ago, after I'd read "Atonement" and "Black Dogs." "Black Dogs" is one of the creepiest post-war novels set in Western Europe that I know of.
Over the past few days, I read "The Innocent" again, because I'm researching a new play. I am so careless with saving novels these days (and as if to prove that, one of my neighbors left a general cache in the front hall this morning), I had to buy a new copy. My rule is if it's fiction and in the public domain or I'm not totally in love with it, it goes out.
I had half of the novel to finish and take notes on today, and for a 40 minute chunk of it this afternoon, the radio was playing Beethoven's Eroica. I always associate Beethoven with Berlin; maybe because of the Philharmonic? Between McEwan's words and the music, I was somewhere very far away from this decade and New York City.
There's a quote from Jonathan Carroll of the Washington Post on the back cover, suggesting that this novel does for Berlin what Graham Greene's screenplay (well, actually he doesn't mention Greene, but he Should have) and Carol Reed's direction does for "The Third Man." I definitely think he's onto something. And McEwan is so good at reeling in the reader. Though the bulk of the novel is set before the Wall went up, I was completely convinced that I was there, though in reality I never made it to Berlin until a few years after the Wall came down. Doing research when the text is this good (I finished Guenter Grass' "My Century" yesterday, so that's two in a row) always makes me feel like a bit of a slacker. But it sure goes a lot faster.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Stack

I have been whittling away at my stack of books and magazines. I'm afraid that I'm turning into my parents- there are entirely too many magazines. In the past week (this includes two long plane trips and yesterday's subway commute) I have polished off a book of short stories by Raymond Chandler (well, I was about 15 pp. into it already, and I know I read in it high school); two copies of American Theatre; two copies of The Dramatist; three New Yorkers; and a novel.
The September/October issue of The Dramatist is I think the best ever. It is the Master Class issue, and if you have any interest in writing plays or musicals ever in your life, contact the Guild now to get a copy (www.dramatistsguild.com). Out of twelve essays, eight were really exceptional. The other four playwrights don't write plays that are my cup of tea, so I didn't expect much from their essays. But the eight great ones are surely worth the $8 cost.
In that same issue, there is an article on discrimination against women playwrights by Sheri Wilner and that good Julia Jordan, who organized the women playwrights meetings in New York. In the November issue of American Theatre, there is a terrific distillation of both the recent Princeton study and the NYSCA study of seven years ago by Marsha Norman. She puts both studies in the context of her experiences as a woman playwright since the 1970s. And she is quite blunt: "Either women can't write, or there is some serious resistance to producing the work of women on the American stage." Now, you might say that is not news to you (nor is it to me, God knows); but it is certainly refreshing to hear that from a woman who has had multiple plays and musicals on Broadway and co-runs the Juilliard playwriting program. I don't know a woman playwright who doesn't feel that way- not a single one. And up until last fall, it really didn't get spoken of that much. Grumbling, of course, and a whine once in awhile. My feeling always was I couldn't possibly turn the tide of opinion against women playwrights, and my only option was to keep writing and hope for change. Maybe it will come now.
My last new read was a novel by Jonathan Rabb called Shadow and Light. It is set in Berlin in 1927. Much of it takes place in and around UFA, the great film studio, and Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre and (briefly) Max Reinhardt are characters. Rabb never overdoes it with historical facts and famous people, so you never feel like there's too much coincidence. The characters are recognizably human (not always true in historical novels), and in the case of Lang, you sense that this is indeed a man who would make a movie like M.