Millman’s Shakesblog

The Stratford 2012 Season

Below is a complete list of my write-ups of this year’s season at Stratford. This last trip, I was privileged to see again a number of productions that I had seen in June or July, and in general my original opinions were confirmed. With respect to, more specifically:

Pirates of Penzance. The show has clearly gotten tighter, and Sean Arbuckle’s performance as the Pirate King in particular was much stronger this time around than it was on opening night (and C. David Johnson’s performance as Major General Stanley advanced from woeful to perfectly adequate). But my feeling about the production didn’t really change. Director Ethan McSweeny had a number of interesting conceits – the backstage opening, the steampunk pirates, the maids as adventurous Victorian reformers – but these aren’t followed up on effectively (indeed, are often abandoned altogether) and there was a general feeling that he didn’t trust the audience to understand the material without underlining.

42nd Street. As with Pirates, I felt that Arbuckle’s performance sharpened from opening week, and if anything the show charmed me more than second time around than the first. Just delightful.

Henry V. I was seated much closer the second time around, so I don’t know if it was a different vantage or a different performance, but it was even clearer to me on re-viewing that the problem with this production – and there is a problem – has little to do with Aaron Krohn’s performance. His was a thoroughly convincing portrait of the King as “shallow Hal” – the problem is that the production doesn’t provide a proper framework for understanding the performance that he delivers. I had some fascinating conversations with some veteran actors and directors about the play while I was up there, and hopefully will get a chance to go into our discussions at another time. As a production, this was my least-favorite Shakespeare of the season.

Cymbeline. There’s a theme to these re-viewings – performances that I was ambivalent about the first time around sold me the second. Cara Ricketts’s Innogen struck me as rather juvenile the first time around; second time around, she was a woman, and a powerful one. I found myself wondering whether I’d been paying attention the first time I saw it. She fully holds her own with both Graham Abbey and Tom McCamus, who I felt were the standouts originally. On the other hand, I remain unreconciled to director Antoni Cimolino’s attempts to center the play on the figure of Cymbeline, and for all that Geraint Wyn Davies plays the king with both force and gravity, I still didn’t understand who he was, or what the play ultimately was about if it’s supposed to be about him.

Much Ado About Nothing. This was my favorite of the three Shakespeares the first time around, and it’s still my favorite, which puts me a bit off-market compared to the other critics. (Cymbeline seems to be the critics’ choice this year, and it’s certainly worthy of acclaim.) Indeed, I got into heated (but friendly) discussions with other patrons who couldn’t warm to Carlson’s Benedick, but the bitter quality that is so often present in his work seemed to me to suit Benedick’s character perfectly – indeed, to harmonize better with Beatrice, and with the mood generated by the young lovers’ plot, than the more-typical caddish Benedick generally does. I can understand complaints some have about the staging – that big staircase plays hell with sight lines – but this is very much a production worth seeing, if you can.

That’s it. And now here’s a rundown of my write-ups for this year’s season:

At the Festival Theatre:

42nd Street
Henry V
The Matchmaker
Much Ado About Nothing

At the Avon Theatre:

The Pirates of Penzance
A Word Or Two
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

At the Patterson Theatre:


At the Studio Theatre:

The Best Brothers
The War Of 1812

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An Aged Man, A-Standing On A Stage – Christopher Plummer’s A Word Or Two At Stratford

The final show we took in on our most recent trip to Canada was Christopher Plummer’s one-man show, A Word or Two. I’m not entirely sure what to say about this – even how to describe what it is. It isn’t a play. It isn’t a memoir. It is probably best analogized to a cabaret, a performer doing his favorite “bits” for an audience familiar with his work and eager just to see him go through his changes.

Plummer, on a stage dominated by a spiral staircase composed of books, recites bits of poetry and prose that have meant an especially great deal to him over the years. The show is structured around the notion that these texts ornament his life, and progress as he does. We start with A.A. Milne and Lewis Carroll, progress through Auden and Wilde, Shakespeare and Shaw (a surprising amount of Shaw), hang around with literary lions Plummer himself knew, principally Dylan Thomas and Archibald MacLeish, and end with Plummer meditating, through a range of authors we’ve already encountered, on his own inevitable (and, at nearly 83, unavoidably sensible) demise. Plummer’s protean performances are, at their worst, engaging, and at their best they are powerful indeed – highlights for me were the Song of Songs (Plummer’s teenage encounter with the Bible’s dirty bits), Othello’s death speech, a speech by Shaw’s Satan to Don Juan from Man and Superman, and Auden’s Herod complaining about the birth of Jesus in For The Time Being.

That last, one of my favorite bits from the show, is probably a good entry point for the questions that nagged at me, through it and afterward. Plummer does Auden in dark glasses and a queen-y Southern accent, all of which goes marvelously with lines like these:

Why should he dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I’ve read all the official documents without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month.  I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy.

But he ends his recitation not be explaining what the poem meant to him, but by saying, “why am I doing this in a Southern accent?” – as if this choice were mere whimsy. It’s a charming move, and warms the audience to him (as if it needed to be warmer); we think, “how modest and casual he’s being with us – he’s just having fun!” But it also pulls us away from the very text Plummer claims to want us to to be deeply engaged with – and, more so, pulls us away from him, and his investment in that text.

And this is what nagged at me all through the production. Plummer talks of love, and of lust, but we never learn his feelings, in any specificity, towards any particular person, or even in any particular experience. The evening isn’t structured as autobiography – he wants the texts to speak for themselves – but they need to hang on something. A snippet of The Song of Songs is just a snippet. If it’s not hanging in the work itself, and it’s not hanging on a life, Plummer’s life, that we can discern the contours of, then it just hangs in the air, like the circular window that overlooks the book staircase in this production.

I assume the reluctance to create a full-fledged “Christopher Plummer” character for this production was driven by a desire to avoid making this a memoir show, to make it a show about the words, and not the speaker. But I, personally, couldn’t avoid noticing it was Christopher Plummer up there, apparently talking to me, and that this Christopher Plummer seemed to be avoiding telling me anything important and specific about himself. Childhood boredom in church, the carbonated hormones of adolescence, and the terror of age and death – these are universals, but we approach them through specific instances that resonate with us, and Plummer denied us those instances.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that the angel of this show, the text that hovers over it from beginning to end, is Lewis Carroll’s parody of Wordsworth, sung by the White Knight to Alice, the poem the name of which is called “Haddock’s Eyes,” but the name of which is “The Aged, Aged Man,” and which itself is called “Ways and Means,” but which really is, “A-Sitting On a Gate.”

At the start of the show, we get the opening of the poem:

I’ll tell thee everything I can;
There’s little to relate.
I saw an aged aged man,
A-sitting on a gate.
‘Who are you, aged man?’ I said.
‘And how is it you live?’
And his answer trickled through my head
Like water through a sieve.

And at the end, we return to –

that old man I used to know-

Whose look was mild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe,
Who rocked his body to and fro,
And muttered mumblingly and low,
As if his mouth were full of dough,
Who snorted like a buffalo-
That summer evening long ago

A-sitting on a gate.

In between, in the poem itself, the young man, who is desperate to learn from the aged man how he lives, is continually distracted from the lesson the old man teaches by absurd fancies of his own invention – how to dye one’s whiskers green, how to live on batter, and so forth – and therefore fails to the aged man’s equally absurd secrets to life. In the original Wordsworth poem that Carroll is parodying, the young poet, encountering a leech collector, is distracted not by his own schemes but by the man himself, the figure he presents of age and toil, and how this reminds him of his own fears of age and death:


The old Man still stood talking by my side;
But now his voice to me was like a stream
Scarce heard; nor word from word could I divide;
And the whole body of the Man did seem
Like one whom I had met with in a dream;
Or like a man from some far region sent,
To give me human strength, by apt admonishment.


My former thoughts returned: the fear that kills;
And hope that is unwilling to be fed;
Cold, pain, and labour, and all fleshly ills;
And mighty Poets in their misery dead.
–Perplexed, and longing to be comforted,
My question eagerly did I renew,
“How is it that you live, and what is it you do?”

Plummer starts off his life feeling like the young man of Carroll, avoiding the aged man’s absurd lessons by pursuing his own absurdities, and in his age feels he has become the aged man, muttering as if his mouth were full of dough and snorting like a buffalo, but failing to communicate his secrets to the rising generation of theatre-goers, distracted as they are by Twitter and whatnot. But I, in the audience, felt a bit like Wordsworth’s young poet, wanting to hear from Plummer how he lived, and found myself distracted, as he demonstrated precisely how to me – going through his theatrical changes before my eyes – by his person, a person I could not get an adequate fix on. And so his words, which are all he wanted me to focus on, too often trickled through my own head, like water through a sieve.

But for all that, they are glorious words.

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A Dog Is A “Best” Man’s Friend: The Best Brothers at Stratford

One of the hallmarks of Des McAnuff’s tenure as Artistic Director has been his admirable commitment to plays by living Canadian playwrights, from one-man shows like this year’s Hirsch or last year’s revival of Shakespeare’s Will, to full-fledged musicals like this year’s Wanderlust or 2010’s King of Thieves. The critical sweet spot has often been somewhere in between these extremes, with last year’s The Little Years and 2010’s For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again garnering the top critical laurels in the category.

This year, that middle zone is occupied by The Best Brothersa two-hander written by and starring Daniel MacIvor, receiving its world premier at Stratford’s Studio Theatre. It bears comparison to both For The Pleasure and The Little Years. Like the former, the play is about a son losing his mother – in this case, two brothers, surnamed “Best,” whose mother, “Bunny” has, at the opening of the play, just been crushed by an obese drag queen who fell off her float in a gay pride parade. And both are structured as memory plays, the dead mother conjured up by the living son(s). Like the latter, a key character never appears onstage – not the dead mother; she shows up plenty, played by each of the sons in (drag) turn, but her dog, Enzo, late love of her life and, we learn about halfway through, responsible for her death (the drag queen lost her balance waving at Enzo). And both are about the pain of the less-favored child – Hamilton Best (MacIvor), though the older and more accomplished of the brothers, nurses a lifelong resentment at what he sees as blatant favoritism by his mother toward his younger brother, Kyle (John Beale). But The Best Brothers lacks the scope and profundity of those other plays, in large part because it is so simultaneously condescending towards and gentle with its protagonist.

The story is a simple one. Bunny having died, tragicomically, her sons need to arrange a funeral on the one hand and for the disposition of her dog on the other. The funeral turns into a farce, with Hamilton first upstaged and then enraged by his brother’s intrusions into the decorous send-off he had orchestrated. Enzo wreaks similar havoc in Hamilton’s personal life, first tearing up his brand-new $200,000 kitchen, which precipitates the termination of his marriage. When he has suffered enough from his attempts to maintain some semblance of order in the wake of his mother’s humiliating death, we get a drip-drip of revelations from his apparently hapless brother: their mother was already dying (of cancer) and so was really spared suffering by her sudden death rather than having been cut off before her time (this explains Kyle’s rather blase attitude toward her death when he first learns of it); she withheld this information from Hamilton because she feared he couldn’t handle it; and it was her idea that Hamilton inherit Enzo. By the end of the play, Hamilton has made his peace with his true position in the family: far from being the omnicompetent one, it’s Kyle who has his stuff together, practically and emotionally, and Hamilton who needs to learn – from Enzo, agent of chaos – how to love without controlling.

All of which is fine, and an unobjectionable if somewhat anodyne message. But somebody once said: if you want to send a message, go to Western Union. I have a problem with plays that single out one character to “learn” something, and arrange the rest of the characters to be his teachers. And that’s very much what happens here. Kyle not only doesn’t have an arc, he doesn’t really participate in the drama at all. Nothing Hamilton says can get to him, and whatever he feels about the passing of his mother, he goes through it offstage and never really lets us in on what it is. That’s plausible, of course, but it makes him a less-interesting character, good only for one-liners and to provoke emotional reactions in his brother.

Ditto in spades for Bunny, who speaks to us from beyond the grave through her sons, telling the story of how she came to acquire Enzo. Except that she never really lets us in, never gives us a glimpse of true interiority. Her loneliness and need for something to love is asserted, not demonstrated; most surprisingly, she says next to nothing about her relationship with her two sons, and does nothing to provide an additional perspective on them beyond what we get from their own scenes. Instead, she performs, and unfortunately she isn’t as charming a performer as she thinks.

The only character to show any depth of feeling – much of it expressed as hostility, yes, but at least it is feeling – is Hamilton. The whole play, he’s been surrounded by people who withhold affection from him – he complains about this characteristic in his mother, but it’s equally evident from his brother, and his off-stage wife leaves their marriage on a note of exceptional coldness. And I’m supposed to believe that he’s the one who needs to learn how to love, and that these people, and their psychotic pooch, are the ones to teach him.

Color me skeptical. What they call love looks an awful lot to me like detachment – amused detachment, yes, but detachment nonetheless. And from where I sit, a love so limited shouldn’t happen to a dog.

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Riveting If Not Complex: Sophocles’s Elektra At Stratford

Sophocles has long been my least-favorite of the major Greek tragedians, and Antigone and Elektra are two major reasons why. I have never been able to get close to these sexless worshippers of the dead father.

Part of the difficulty I have with Elektra specifically is that the family tragedy at the heart feels too familiar. We don’t, these days, go around sacrificing our daughters to gain a favorable wind, or butchering our husbands when they return from ten years waging war across the sea. But our families do tear themselves asunder, leaving children as partisans in the post-divorce war of recriminations. I can’t help but read a tragedy like Elektra’s in these terms, and so can’t help but want to shake her and say: there’s no honor in winning vindication for the father you see as more truly wronged, in defeating the mother you see as his murderess. Just get out of her house!

It follows that I have never been able to reconcile myself to the playwright’s apparent identification of Elektra’s (and Antigone’s) absolute demands with some abstract conception of justice. I understand, of course, that Sophoclean tragedy stems from the opposition of two principles that hold themselves out as absolute – like justice and authority. That’s his great insight, that good things, even absolutely good things, not only don’t always go together but stand unalterably opposed to one another, and it’s an insight we still have a great deal of difficulty accepting, in drama and in life. But I prefer a Sophocles infused with a Euripidean spirit. I yearn for some kind of resolution, even if farcical. The greatest lineal descendent of Elektra on the English-language stage is Isabella, from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and if you look at her extraordinary and, in many ways, absurd journey back to life and love, you get some idea of what I yearn for when I meet her Sophoclean forebear.

So I went to the Patterson theatre last night in a state both of excitement and of trepidation. Stratford’s current production of Elektra (the Germanic spelling is their choice), directed by Thomas Moschopoulos, was rumored to be an exceptionally faithful updating of the tragedy – faithful to Sophocles’s own conception of the theatre, that is, updated in order to bring that conception home to a modern audience rather than to conform to our own prejudices. Could such an approach win me over to a playwright, and a character, I often find myself avoiding?

It just about did.

Before the show begins, the chorus roams the audience, chatting with the patrons, filling them in on the background of the tragedy. The stage is dominated by a table covered with a diaphanous sheet. Then, the play begins, the sheet is pulled off, to reveal that the table is in three parts, each section dominated by a dismembered hunk of a statue of Apollo, and curled up fetally against the god’s broken torso, infantile in white underwear, is Orestes (Ian Lake).

It’s an arresting image of the birth of vengeance, and, as his companion, Pylades (E.B. Smith), lifts him from his stony bed, his tutor (Peter Hutt) announces that very theme: he was reared to avenge is father’ death, and now the time has come. Orestes swoons, and Pylades bears him up – the two do a kind of dance around the stage as the tutor intones his obligations. Finally, Orestes comes to himself, and makes a plan (one that Pylades looks skeptical of): he will counterfeit his death, to lull any possible suspicions on the part of his mother or her husband, and then he will come and kill them stealthily. It’s not the most honorable way to kill, perhaps, but the honor, Orestes explains, is in the action itself, the righting of an ancient wrong; the how is secondary to the why. Orestes is already the synthesis of opposites, marrying cunning to high principle, marrying words (the province of his tutor) to action (the mute physicality of Pylades).

Hearing Elektra coming, Orestes leaves, rather than be discovered – but the way this is presented is to have Orestes seize the face from the statue of Apollo’s head, use it for a mask, and bury himself in dirt in a box at the foot of the stage. It’s a marvelous moment, merging so many meanings. The statue of the god is also his broken father, who, it appears, gave him birth, like Zeus, without requiring a woman’s assistance; assuming the mask is assuming his father’s face; his burial is a further identification, as well as a signifier of his apparent death.

This opening sets the tone for the rest of the play. Ritualized, highly symbolic actions and behaviors, are married to a text that is exceptionally direct, even brutal, and written in an accessibly modern idiom. But that text itself is delivered in a fashion that accentuates the ritual quality of speech. Sophocles specified that certain speeches were to be accompanied by music; Moschopoulos has his actors chant these, accompanied by the thumping of hands on tables, or on the actors’ chests, or the drumming of staves on the floor. The chant is at its most effective when the tutor recounts the death of Orestes in a chariot race – the audience is on the edge of its seat, the first time, in my experience, that the Greek convention of reciting action that has taken place off-stage has actually worked, successfully conjured up the scene retold. (The irony being, of course, that the scene is entirely fabricated – a critique of drama itself, that.) But the chant works wonderfully throughout the play, making the un-chanted speeches seem all the more conversational and, as a consequence, persuasively real.

So we are given a theatrical context in which to understand the character of Elektra (Yanna McIntosh). This highly ritualized space is precisely the world she is comfortable in, conforms to her notion of absolute justice. But the order of her world is broken, and all she can do is call attention, over and over, to that brokenness. McIntosh comes onstage, her beauty smothered in a baggy, moth-eaten black sweater, black Frankenstein boots and square glasses. She would make herself a weapon, against the falseness of beauty, and having done with remaking herself she has set to work on the rest of the world, defacing it furiously with a black sharpie. The chorus of women who follow her are acutely sensitive to the harm she’s done herself in pursuing her monomania, but she scoffs at their comforts. What do they want her to do, become like her weak and cowardly sister, Chrysothemis (Laura Condlln)?

Condlln provides McIntosh with her first antagonist, and it’s a decidedly unequal match. Condlln plays Chrysothemis as very much the woman Elektra imagines her to be – shallow, vain, and most of all, cowardly. She says that she’s only being sensible, making the best of a bad situation and bowing to an authority too powerful to oppose, but Elektra cuts through this easily, using her own words against her (reading them off the table where she scrawled them moments before – a fine working of the otherwise ritualized sharpie into the action of the drama). If Chrysothemis hates her murderous mother and stepfather as much as she claims to, then her “sensible” behavior is built on shame, on belying those very feelings, being false to herself. How can she find comfort in comforts bought at the price of sacrificing her own truest feelings, unless she is as shallow as Elektra thinks she is? To this, Chrysothemis has no real answer, and she is won, provisionally, to Elektra’s cause.

Her next, and principal antagonist, is a far greater opponent. Clytemestra (Seana McKenna – again, the spelling is the one Stratford chose) emerges from between the massive double doors at the top of the long Patterson runway like Madonna in her maturity: blonde coiffe, dark glasses, head scarf, born aloft by two long-haired hunks in what look like giant aprons. McKenna has excelled in the Greeks over the years – I recall in particular her Andromache from four years ago and her Medea from years before that – and the moving case she makes for the righteousness of her execution of her husband initially wins the audience (and the table-thumping chorus) to her side. This, indeed, is the original Aeschylean perspective on the tragedy – that Agamemnon got what he deserved, and then his murdering wife got what she deserved in turn, and now her murdering son is pursued by the Furies and how are we going to break the cycle of vengeance? But that’s not where Sophocles is coming from. Clytemestra’s confrontation with her daughter is interrupted by the arrival of Orestes’s tutor in disguise, bearing his gripping tale of Orestes’s death. The news poleaxes Elektra, who rolls under the table moaning her new and final grief, but Clytemestra’s reaction is more complex. Initially, she, too, expresses grief. Yes, Orestes was her sworn enemy – but she was still his mother, she can’t hear of his death with gladness. But she quickly gets over this feeling, and rejoices that her daughter will now no longer pose any threat, and she dances off stage with her hunky helpers singing, “now things are different.”

For me, this was the first false note in the play. I completely believe that Clytemestra would exult that her daughter had been so thoroughly defeated. But that dance was simply a bridge too far, and belied that moment of lingering maternal affection that initially greeted Orestes’s death. I can’t say that the choice is false to Sophocles’s vision, because Sophocles wants us to see Elektra as wholly righteous, precisely so that we see how ugly we can be made by utter righteousness, by the exclusion of other values, and to bring that point home Clytemestra must be irredeemably evil. But it’s one moment where I have trouble accepting Sophocles’s vision, precisely because of its abstraction and inhumanity, too close to Elektra’s own. I prefer the spirit of that moment at the end of “The Grifters” when Anjelica Huston first seduces and then (accidentally) kills her son so as to assure her own survival. Huston’s sobbing as she gathers up the money over her son’s dying body struck me as true to the character of a mother who would kill her child to save herself – the sorrow remains real even if it fails to deter. But that’s a Euripidean, not a Sophoclean, bit of cinema.

The remainder of the play concerns the return of Orestes, and the great recognition scene between brother and sister. McIntosh and Moschopoulos opt against playing up the incestuous overtones of the brother-sister relationship, which is in keeping with this production more generally and therefore a good choice. We are left with Orestes’s pure pity for the wreck of his sister, and Pylades’s mute exasperation that Orestes would let that pity potentially undermine their entire enterprise. Clytemestra’s death off-stage is unfortunately rendered less-visceral by her amplified voice, but we quickly forget this when her blood-drenched body is brought onstage by Orestes to confront her husband, Aigisthos (played with exquisite smarminess by Graham Abbey). Aigisthos is dragged bodily offstage to meet his own doom, and the final image is Elektra, alone with the fruit of her long labor, the corpse of her mother.

It’s an enormously powerful production, and true, as I say, to Sophocles’s vision. So why do I say it “nearly” won me over? Because I don’t know, in the end, what Elektra is thinking in those final moments. In the end, she is still closed to me, which no doubt is just how she would wish it.

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Comedy Is Hard: Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman’s Bullet for Adolf

Suppose I told you about a new off-broadway comedy that featured dinner party hosted by a bona-fide Nazi for his Buddhist daughter, with guests that include her stoner ex-boyfriend who enjoys pedophile humor, her probably-gay new boyfriend, their black felon roommate from Harlem, the beautiful buppie the roommate lusts after, and the buppie’s black-power spouting friend – and that the main course would consist of the Nazi’s daughter’s placenta, what would you think?

You would probably think, “wow, Sarah Silverman and Dave Chappelle are collaborating on an off-broadway show? This I gotta see.” Or, if your disposition is more timid, at least check out on Youtube once the clips begin appearing.

But unfortunately, the above is a description of the least-successful scene in Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman’s limp comedy, Bullet for Adolf, currently running at New World Stages in Manhattan.

The play is about . . . well, that’s the problem: the play isn’t about anything. Nominally, it’s about who stole a pistol that might have been part of an assassination plot against Hitler. But the theft doesn’t happen until the end of the first act, and there is nothing important actually riding on its resolution. It’s set in mid-80s Houston, among a group of stoner friends who work together at a construction site (working for said Nazi, a bricklayer), and is supposedly a nostalgia piece about that period in history (endless video montages of the events of that time beat that point home) but doesn’t actually have anything to say about history, and is actually about that time in life when you drift, out of school and not yet pursuing a career, with no particular responsibilities or commitments to hold you down.

Including any responsibilities to the audience. To, for example, have a story. Or, failing that, a theme. Or even a topic.

Instead, what we have are a variety of plausible caricatures – ably embodied by a talented cast – slinging one-liners at one another. Some of the one-liners are pretty good. But they never rise beyond the level of sitcom humor, and more to the point, they never connect to anything larger than the moment itself. They don’t build. They don’t make a play.

And the problem with the Nazi, and the pedophile humor, and the daughter’s gay boyfriend, and the black-power-spouting lust-object, and the placenta, is that, in the absence of any meaningful satiric context, they aren’t funny. They’re just desperate lunges for something beyond the sitcom. They don’t shock – they aren’t real enough to be shocking. They just embarrass.

I won’t pretend there’s no pleasure in the show – as I said, the average quality of the one-liners is pretty high, and the actors are all good at what they do. But this play is a perfect illustration of the writing-class cliche that you and your friends hanging around being funny together do not constitute a comedy.

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Hard Reads

James Joyce | uggboy / Flickr

Now this is the kind of game I like to play.

Hard books I enjoyed? Well, what makes a book hard? There are a variety of dimensions across which a book may be difficult.

It may be lucidly written, but treating ideas that you are not entirely equipped to absorb. I felt that way about Roger Penrose’s book, The Emperor’s New Mind, which I read a long time ago and greatly enjoyed but was never sure I understood — not because it was ever unclear, but because I just wasn’t sure I had enough background in the science to really know what he meant. But in these cases, it’s probably not correct to say that the book is difficult, as opposed to the subject. (On the other hand, I had no trouble making my way through Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, which takes the other side of some of the same questions, and no trouble identifying where I thought I saw holes in Dennett’s argument. So Dennett’s argument struck me as clear but unconvincing, while Penrose’s argument struck me as more convincing, but I wasn’t entirely sure I understood it. I wonder what that says about me — probably more than it says about Dennett and Penrose.)

Then there are the books that are written in a kind of technical language. I greatly enjoyed a series of essays by Northrop Frye, On Shakespeare, which is written in a breezy, even chatty style – it’s a marvelous book. Having enjoyed that book so much, I set out and bought The Great Code and Anatomy of Criticism. Not quite the same breezy, chatty style. Not quite. I got through the first of these, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Then — these are interesting ones — there are the books that you think you understand completely — until you try to recall them or, worse, explain them to somebody. I had the misfortune in college to read Hegel for a class — I read Philosophy of Right, loved it, and in a fit of madness went out and bought — and tried to read – Phenomenology of Spirit all on my lonesome. Well, I thought I was having a grand old time reading that – it seemed like I could feel my mind physically expanding. Lord knows what I thought it meant.

I had a similar experience reading William Empson’s 7 Types of Ambiguity, which I was also foolish enough to read on my own (and much more recently — we grow older, but we don’t grow any wiser; we still think we can read anything). I was enraptured while reading it — I kept thinking “oh, now I understand such-and-such” or “oh, that finally makes sense to me of so-and-so” — but I have no recollection, now, what such-and-such or so-and-so might be, and if you asked me what Empson’s book was about, I’d say, “well, it’s about, well, he distinguishes between seven different types of ambiguity in literature — well, not precisely seven; he’s a bit ambiguous on that point as well, and it’s not always clear how those types are distinguished, but … well, it’s a great read, I can tell you that.”

Fiction presents different challenges. Some books are written in language that deliberately interfere with our ability to follow a narrative, or even to understand what is being described. I’ve never tacked Finnegan’s Wake, but Ulysses has that quality in parts, and it’s one of my favorite books. The thing about Ulysses, though, is that buried under the various experiments in prose style is a good old-fashioned relationship story, and the story is told through characters that are eminently approachable. And so if you just relax, and don’t sweat stuff you don’t understand, let the music of this chapter or that roll over you when you can’t figure out what’s going on — and a lot of that music is just plain hilarious, so you’ve always got that to fall back on — you’ll catch the thread again in the subsequent chapter, and you’ll be fine. It took me three tries to get through the book, but it was unquestionably worth it — truly, a heart-breaking work of staggering genius.

Another book that presented this kind of problem but that I greatly loved was John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy — though here the experimental sections are shorter, and break up portions of the book that are written in a much more accessible narrative style, and the tricky thing is that the structure of the larger narrative doesn’t follow that of a traditional drama, with rising action leading to a climax and resolution. (Then again, neither does War and Peace, which I’m in the middle of now.) Dos Passos himself compared the book to a mural, a great panoramic view of the world, and if you think of America itself as the protagonist then suddenly the book does have a kind of traditional tragic arc, but you don’t necessarily feel that while you’re reading it. In any event, the book is a masterpiece.

And if we’re talking about tough books I liked, Donald Barthelme’s collection, Sixty Stories has to be on the list. There’s a dated quality to some of the games he plays, but really, how can you not love a book that sounds like:

Jane! I heard via an International Distress Coupon that you were beaten up by a dwarf in a bar on Tenerife. That doesn’t sound like you, Jane. Mostly you kick the dwarf in his little dwarf groin before he can get his teeth into your tasty and nice-looking leg, don’t you, Jane?

I mean, really.

But there’s another category of novel that presents different difficulties. In these, its not that the language is deliberately obscure. Rather, these books are hard because they are long and relatively static. Oh, one thing or another may happen — sometimes lots of things happen — but in terms of narrative, the unfolding of character through action, not so much. But that isn’t the point of these books. The point, rather, is to submerge you in a particular world, a particular consciousness (these books tend to get you very close to a particular consciousness) and see what it does to you to live so close to that mind for so long. Ulysses does this as well, of course, but Ulysses does just about everything, and it’s playing so many games with language and style that I put it in the other category.

Examples of the kind of thing I mean include: The Magic MountainThe UnconsoledMoby DickInfinite Jest. Some of these books have something resembling a conventional plot, while others do not. But the plot isn’t really the point of these books. And neither is “character” in the sense we usually mean that term. These books are hard because they are long, but not primarily for that reason (A Suitable Boy is longer than any pair of them, and it’s a breeze to read, because it’s a traditional narrative). Nor are they hard because the language is difficult, because you literally don’t know, from reading a page, what you are reading about. That never happens in Infinite Jest, or Moby Dick – you always know what is literally being described. They are hard because they deny the reader the traditional pleasures of narrative, because they trap you in their strange worlds and won’t let you see the path out.

That’s a dangerous thing for a novelist to do, to trap the reader like that, because the reader always has one way out: close the book. But every now and again, somebody writes a book so compelling, you want to stay trapped, even though these worlds tend to be awful. All four of the examples I mentioned led me into worlds where I was happy to stay trapped, until the last page.

Back to you, Rod.

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No Mere Porcelain Beauty

This blog is primarily devoted to the theatre, but I do occasionally wander off into other halls in the mansion of the arts, and today I want to talk about the Rachael Kneebone show currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum.

Kneebone is a British sculptor who works primarily in porcelain. She self-identifies as a feminist, and both her primary subject matter – the female body – and her chosen medium speak to that commitment. But the show wasn’t really about her ideological orientation, but her orientation within the Western sculptural tradition, and specifically her relationship with Rodin. Kneebone’s work was shown alongside a variety of pieces by Rodin (the Brooklyn Museum has a pretty sweet Rodin collection), a sculptor that both the artist and curator saw as an essential precursor.

The juxtaposition was highly persuasive. In Rodin’s work, half-finished women and men emerge from undifferentiated blobs of matter like Adam in the hands of his Creator; when they find each other, embrace and kiss, they melt into one another as if love undid the sculptor’s work of differentiation; and individual body parts lie about, not severed and dead, but like pieces of some unfinished creation in Vincent Pryce’s laboratory awaiting animation. The debt Kneebone owes to Rodin was obvious, and both ennobled her work and threw interesting light on how we might see Rodin’s, and how we might see it differently from the way it was seen at the time. Kneebone’s recent sculpture, The Paradise of Despair, looks to me like Rodin’s Gates of Hell crossed with a wedding cake – which I rather think was her point.

Another piece, a more over-the-top variation on the wedding cake theme, brought to my mind a different precursor within the Western canon.

My point, though, is that, whatever you think of Kneebone’s work (and I thought the best pieces were both aesthetically and emotionally powerful), the museum presented it not as a critique of the Western artistic tradition, but as a participant in that tradition. And that stance doesn’t just make the contemporary artist’s work more interesting, it increases the potency of whatever the critique the artist is making. The Italian futurists declared their desire to burn down the museums that cluttered their native land like so many cemeteries; the obvious riposte, quickly made, was that they just couldn’t take the competition. Claim the past as a resource that you will mine for your own purposes and, if what you create is strong enough, it will change the past, make us see it not as we once did, but as you do.

These thoughts bring me around to Elias Crim’s excellent review of Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World. Artists will, inevitably, have political and even ideological commitments. This is not something to be avoided or fought. Nor can we avoid seeing art through the lens of our own commitments. But we can, as artists, as critics, and as ordinary people, see art not as a war but as a conversation. That conversation can get heated at times, but the goal of a conversation is never the destruction of an antagonist. And I want to applaud the Brooklyn Museum for so persuasively presenting this artist’s work in precisely that spirit.

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Some Hallways Where Love’s Never Been

Last night, I finally got around to seeing the new Sarah Polley film, “Take This Waltz,” so I can now respond to Scott McConnell’s very flattering post of a month ago, asking me what I made of it.

First of all, I went into the film predisposed to like it. I was very impressed by Polley’s debut feature; I think Michelle Williams is probably the most impressive American screen actress of her generation;

I’m of the opinion that Seth Rogen is better playin
g a funny person than he is in straight comedy; and the film is stocked with

Canadian actors I know from my favorite television show and/or my favorite theatre festival.

The movie has some structural problems – mostly, that it’s so slow in the middle – but on the whole it didn’t disappoint. Williams and Rogen do excellent work. Luke Kirby does a very convincing job as the third corner of the triangle. And the film is beautiful, visually; Toronto really shines playing itself for a change.

I agree with McConnell that it’s not “Blue Valentine” – it’s not nearly as tight, for one thing. But it’s also not really trying to be the same kind of movie. “Take This Waltz” stays very close to the Williams character’s consciousness, where “Blue Valentine” was much more objective. “Take This Waltz” has really no interest at all in the economic realities of its characters’ lives – there is no way any of these characters could remotely afford to live like they do – whereas “Blue Valentine” was acutely attentive to those realities. Even the relationship of the characters to alcohol is different.

But the biggest difference is that the two Michelle Williams characters are very nearly opposites. Michelle Williams’s character in “Blue Valentine” is not especially likable, but (as I tried to argue in my post on that film) she’s the grownup. While Gosling’s character is on the surface more likable, he’s childish in fundamental ways that make it impossible for Williams to remain in love with him. She married him out of gratitude, really, and that’s no firm foundation for love – and then even that curdled as she realized she hadn’t found someone who would protect her and her child, but another child she had to mother.

In “Take This Waltz,” Williams is the character who hasn’t grown up. Her work amounts to treading water; she doesn’t care about it, and appears to barely engage in it. Her conversations with her husband consist largely of baby talk. Her flirting with Kirby is also dominated by childlike behaviors – they blow a string back and forth between them in a taxicab; they go on a tilt-a-whirl-like ride at an amusement park. Rather than actually start an affair, she’s playing at the idea of adultery. When she finally gives in to her desires, and runs after the Kirby character, we see a montage of wild, ecstatic sex giving way, over months, to tranquil domesticity painstakingly reminiscent of her life with the Rogen character. And how does the montage end? She leans on Kirby’s shoulder and says, “I wuv you.” In the same baby-talk voice she used to use with Rogen.

This baby stuff took its toll on her first marriage, because, among other things, it isn’t very sexy. There’s a moment when Williams and Rogen are wrestling on the floor, and they’re doing their usual baby thing, and Rogen suddenly kisses her. And she flinches, and says: don’t do the baby talk thing and kiss me. One or the other, but not both. Sexy and baby don’t mix. And he, frustrated – as anybody, man or woman, would be at having their foreplay directed like that (and nastily, too) – gets up and goes back to the stove, where he’s more comfortable. This is the only way they can talk, and now that talk has killed their sex life.

It also gets in the way of what McConnell sees rightly as the logical next step for this couple, namely to have children. He sees the Rogen character’s lack of interest in children as odd, out of character. I disagree: it makes perfect sense, indeed, ties much of the movie together. Williams is his child. He doesn’t have room for another. Yeah, he’d be a fine Dad. But he is aware, whether he knows it or not, that Williams would be a terrible mother. He’s not uninterested in children – he cuts the conversation off abruptly, uncomfortable, saying, “can we not talk about this?”

I have a friend who is very much like the Rogen character, now happily married and with a child, whose first marriage ended in part because he didn’t want to have kids. Or so he said. He didn’t want to admit to himself that it wasn’t that he didn’t want kids as such – but that he didn’t want them with the woman to whom he was married. He knew something was wrong there, and that’s what made him hold back. So, too, with the Rogen character. He knows something is wrong, in his marriage, and with his wife. That something wrong is why he doesn’t want kids – with her. But he loves her. He isn’t going to leave her. He’s going to stay – and stay with everything bottled up inside, getting less and less able to actually connect with her, to even have a conversation with her.

And there’s some real rage bottled up there. Think about that recurring game Williams and Rogen play. The one where they describe how they would kill and mutilate each other. Polley didn’t give them that game by accident. He can’t have a casual conversation with her at a restaurant, but he can talk casually about raping her with scissors. As part of a recurring game. Which he’s been winning more lately, because, he guesses, now he loves her more. Yeah.

None of this is really what the movie is about. This is a movie with a moral, and the moral of the story is articulated by Sarah Silverman in the shower, repeating what an older woman in the shower has said: “new things get old.” Relationships get old. People get old. Finding something new is no solution because nothing is a solution; decay isn’t just a lousy idea – it’s the law (the Second Law of Thermodynamics, to be precise). It’s the kind of insight that might drive one to drink and – funny! – Sarah Silverman’s character is an alcoholic. But she’s not wrong. The common thread between Polley’s two feature films is the dreadful inescapability of decay, and that’s a theme that you could spend a lifetime exploring. But she tied that theme to a portrait of a particular foolish woman, and I found that portrait to be quite acutely drawn, a tribute both to Polley and to Williams.

(Postscript: McConnell also asks about the Jewish/gentile element in the story. I don’t think there would be any value to making Rogen’s family more ethnic – in fact, I think it would be a distraction. What struck me, rather, was that the Williams character has no family. None. Nor any friends. She ends her marriage and never has a conversation with anybody  about it. That profound isolation is the least-plausible thing about the movie, but it’s also necessary – because if she had told anybody, anybody that she was planning to run off with a rickshaw driver, that somebody would have slapped her upside the head. Now, I don’t know if you want to draw any conclusions about that isolation from an ethnic perspective, but at a minimum it’s probably slightly more plausible for the Williams character to have no “people” if she’s a generic white girl rather than coming from a distinct ethnic background, whether Jewish or Irish or what-have-you.)

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Thirteen Ways of Blogging About a Poem

Don’t generally cross-post with my regular blog, but wasn’t sure where this belonged. Anyway, enjoy!


Among twenty glowing iPads,
The only moving things
Were the hands of the bloggers.


I was of three minds,
Like a post
On which there are three comments.


The blogger fisked in righteous rage.
It was a small part of the blogosphere.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and their blogroll
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of invective
Or the beauty of innuendo,
A blogpost by Malkin
Or on Kausfiles.


Bicycles filled the parking lot
With emission-free carbon.
The blog-confab attendees
Crossed it for a smoke.
The mood
Traced by the bloggers
An indecipherable cause.


O pale men of Starbucks,
Why do you imagine Pulitzers?
Do you not see how your blog posts
Walked off with the readership
Of the main-stream media?


I wrote novels, stories,
A screenplay, even once a libretto;
But I know, too,
That my blogging has eclipsed
All else I wrote.


When the blogger turned off his cell,
He felt teh suck
To be off-line all evening.


At the sight of bloggers
Typing in the green room,
Even the head of CNN
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over to Capitol Hill
In a black limo.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
An email from his girlfriend
For commentspam.


The cafe has wifi.
The patrons must be blogging.


It was nighttime at half-past noon.
He was blogging
And he was going to blog.
The blogger sat
In his comfy chair.

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At Your Service: Wanderlust at the Stratford Festival

You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown isn’t the only musical currently being mounted at Stratford to be based on the work of an enormously popular writer. Over at the Tom Patterson theatre, Morris Panych has directed his original musical, Wanderlust, based on the poetry of Robert Service.

Now, I wasn’t familiar with Service’s work prior to the show, and I’ll be honest, when I went into the theatre for the opening I had entirely forgotten what I had heard about the show beforehand. So I went in, as they say, cold.

And my initial response was delight. Tom Rooney, who plays Service, a poet toiling away in obscurity in a turn-of-the-century British Columbia bank, plays him as a charming young smart-alec, quick with the quip and the comeback, and yearning to be more than he is. In short order, we learn that he’s in love with Louise Montgomery (Robin Hutton), the fiancee of his senior colleague, Dan McGrew (Dan Chameroy), and that he yearns for adventure in the frozen north of the Yukon, a yearning that his boss, Mr. McGee (Randy Hughson) tries to quash. Louise appears to love him back, and avers that she doesn’t love McGrew, but won’t commit to run away with Service, and he debates whether he will leave without her or stay and try to win her, all the while dreaming of his Yukon adventures and putting his dreams into verse – verses about a woman named Lou, and the shooting of Dan McGrew, and (most affectingly), the cremation of Sam McGee.

It’s a perfectly good setup. But halfway through the first act, I noticed: we were still in the setup. Nothing was happening. Service dreamed. Lou refused to commit herself. McGee urged him to stop dreaming and focus on his work. Dan McGrew alternated between mocking and threatening. And then, when we’d gone through that cycle, it would repeat. What, I wondered, was this play about?

So I turned to the program at intermission and discovered that Robert Service was this immensely popular Canadian poet, the only poet in history, I think, to ever have gotten wealthy off his verse, whose work has been memorized by decades of Canadian schoolchildren, and whose tales of adventure in the frozen north still thrill campfire sitters.

Okay, I thought: so this is going to be a story about how Service became Service. The irony is that this man who wanted to be an artist wound up being enormously popular, writing the sort of poetry that the bankers who mocked him would wind up preferring to the kind of writing preferred by the mandarins of academia; that this man who dreamed of being an adventurer wound up selling his imaginary adventures, peopled with magnified versions of the ordinary folk of his humdrum life, to a nation that presumably shared his longing for a fading pioneer spirit. That could be the basis of a pretty cool show.

But that’s not the show Panych wrote. Instead, Panych tries to make this the story of a love triangle – Service-Lou-McGrew. The plot, such as it is, builds to Service’s declaration of love, and his willingness to embezzle funds from the bank to provide himself and Lou with the means to run away in style, at which point he realizes that she was just scamming him for the money, and he reveals that, in fact, he didn’t steal the money in the first place, because . . . well, because he’s not the kind of guy to steal a lot of money.

This is a problem. First of all, there’s no more irony. We don’t know whether he succeeds as a poet, so we don’t know whether there’s any significance at all to his dreams – and those dreams are, really, all the play’s about, and are the only reason anybody knows who the real Service was. Second, Lou has no character, so who cares whether he gets her or not? Hutton left me cold for most of the show, coming to life only in her “it’s my turn” solo, but that song comes from nowhere and has nothing to do with the character we’ve seen to that point – it felt, in fact, like a song patched in precisely to provide her with a character, but you can’t do that with a single song. And the entire embezzlement plot comes out of nowhere, has nothing to do with what Service (the character, not the real man) actually cares about – and he doesn’t actually steal the money! Nothing, in fact, happens in this play, apart from Service learning that Lou cares more about money than she does about love, which is something he knew at the beginning of the play (when she says she’s going to marry Dan even though she doesn’t love him). So what have we been watching all this time, and why?

Other critics have complained that the music is at best serviceable, and that the choreography seemed cramped in the Paterson’s stage. I didn’t find either to be a problem. Service’s poetry has a sing-song quality that calls for merely tuneful music – you feel it was meant to be recited around a campfire, and a complicated melody would only get in the way. And I thought many of the numbers were engagingly staged. And the cast as a whole does an excellent job. Dan Chameroy knows how to play a swaggering bully; Randy Hughson how to play a crusty and cynical bank boss; Ken James Stewart how to play an insufferable corporate climber. Hutton, as I said, is rather opaque as Lou, but this may not be her fault – the character itself is opaque. Similarly, I found Lucy Peacock’s landlady-cum-madame to be absurdly over-the-top, but again, that’s not necessarily her fault, because all there is to the character is that absurdity.

The problem is not the direction. The problem is the story. The romantic triangle plot feels patched on as a substitute for the missing story, because it doesn’t spring from the central well that should animate this piece, namely: the relationship between writing and living. Service made a fortune writing about adventures he’d never had in awesome places he’d never been, selling his dreams to a people who bought them to experience a vicarious authenticity. That’s an interesting irony. If Lou fell in love with the writing without connecting with the man, then your love triangle would connect to that central theme, and Service would become Walter Mitty crossed with Cyrano. Now you’ve got a story, and once you’ve got that, what now feels like business – much of it good business, but still just business – turns magically into drama.

And if you want to discuss further, Morris, I’m at your service.

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