Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lear's Shadow

I saw the first public performance of the Public’s King Lear in Central Park last Tuesday, and the best I can say for it is that, like its lead actor, it has all the notes, but not the tune.  Only time will tell if that changes for the better, and the various parts become a whole here.  As of that first performance, what I saw reminded me of the old joke about how you could always rely on Shakespeare In The Park to give you 25 actors in 26 plays—the extra one being whatever the director intended to do, and didn’t.

This isn’t THAT bad.  Like I say, it’s just a reminder.  And I’m bending over backwards to factor in the first-audience-ever thing, even while I’m also reminded that I saw Much Ado on its fourth public performance, and it played like it had been running for months. 
So here are some thoughts on what worked, what didn’t work, and what needs to get better.
THE LENGTH.  It was advertised on the waiting line as two hours fifty, and by the ushers before the show as three hours fifteen.  It ended up being three hours twenty, with one intermission.  This is just painful. I can only assume that two hours fifty is the goal, and that running the show will speed things up.
One actor who really needs to straddle a Vespa and get to where he’s going is Chukwudi Iwuji , who plays Edgar and Mad Tom.  His Edgar was serviceable, but his Mad Tom was a scene hog.  Seriously: I felt like I had never heard so many of Mad Tom's lines before, because in all the other productions, the actor races through them, y'know, like a crazy person; as opposed to this production, where Iwuji took center and, knowing that nobody else could speak until he finished, took his sweet bloody time getting all the foul fiends and the Sah-sah-sah's out.  Listening to everyone else, and then listening to him, was like tooling along at the speed limit only to get stuck behind some alter-kocker in the slow lane. 
THE ACTING.  Jay O Sanders as Kent was the anchor of the show. His scenes with Lithgow were the best part of the play.  And Lithgow was in possession of the part, but not in command of it.  He will only get better at it as he does it.  The one thing he did that I hope doesn’t change is something that I really appreciated—he modulated his anger and rage throughout the play so that there was an actual rise to the storm scene.  So often a Lear will hit ten in the opening scene, which means that when he has to top it with his rage at Goneril, and then top that with the storm scene, he has nowhere to go and we don’t care.  Lithgow went somewhere and I cared.
As for the three sisters (heh), Jessica Collins’ Cordelia was as breathless as someone who had just run the Corporate Challenge, Jessica Hecht’s Regan was getting laughs by deliberately displaying the chasms between her casualness and callowness, and Annette Bening’s Goneril ran the gamut of A to B, from anger to outrage.
Bening was obviously still working on the lines, and did a professional’s job of making her pauses work for the character.  This will get better in time.  But she needs to loosen up (she totally blew Goneril’s best line:  “Oh, the difference of man and man!”) and she really really needs to stop roaming around the stage like someone looking for her camera marks.  This happened throughout the show, and because of it she was in serious danger of getting herself skewered during the final duel.  I swear that when Edmund moved over to her before the fight started and put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, he was ad-libbing it so he could direct her to the stairs down to the pit, where she’d be safe.
(That duel was fabulous, by the way.  The two fighters go through a succession of swords, pikes, shields, maces, you name it, before it ends.)
General cast note: everyone was way too weepy.  Rule Number One About Tears: if an actor cries, an audience doesn’t.  Somebody needs to post that backstage.
What else?  This version of the script sticks mostly to the Quarto over the Folio (no to the Merlin speech, yes to the mock trial, no to Kent talking about Cordelia to the Gentleman, and Albany gives the final lines).  The Fool’s disappearance at the end of III, 6 is given a visual explanation.  And the intermission, for some reason, takes place before the storm scene, if I remember correctly, which makes the second half of the evening just as long as the first half.  This is my fourth Lear so far this year, and probably my (twelfth? fifteenth? twentieth?) Lear overall, and if that memory is correct, then it’s the only time I’ve ever seen an intermission occur so early in the flow of the play.
There's a part of me that's more than a little interested in checking the show out later in its run, just to see if it’s speeded up a little, never mind changed for the better.  There's another part of me that wants to see it again, just so I can write a valid review about a show that is giving a performance as opposed to the quasi-run-through that I saw.  But there's a way bigger part of me which says that life is short, and Lears are long.  So if you have seen this in the last week, or see it later in its run, let me know what you think, and how different it is (or isn’t) from what I’ve just described.
Me, I’ll just be finalizing my notes for an even longer post about all the Lears I’ve seen so far in 2014, taken both as a unit and as individual productions.  And ponder whether I want to take the plunge and see the Globe production which will be playing Skirball Center in September.  (Who am I kidding?  I am so there.) (And I am laying a ton of money that this one will come in at two hours fifteen with intermission.)


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

62: The Birthday Sonnet

I look behind me and I see a trail
   That winds from love to love and loss to loss,
Where “I succeed” is so close to “I fail”
   The distance can be bridged by a coin toss.
And up ahead: the trail I’ve yet to blaze,
   A tangled wild from which I hope to make,
In the full time of my remaining days,
   A path between miracle and mistake.
I will die walking it, this incomplete
   Track that will be completed by my death.
So I sit here a while to rest my feet.
   I take a look around.  I take a breath.
      And slowly, slowly, count to sixty-two;
      And only then, start walking somewhere new. 


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells


Monday, July 28, 2014

Rodeo Bar

People are hardwired to forget they’ll die.
  When we remember it, the day to day
Acts like a drug that tells us death’s a lie
  And wipes our silly mortal fears away.
And we extend that immortality
  To our surroundings—buildings, landmarks, stores—
Thinking they’ll be around eternally
  Until one day we see their locked barred doors.
Places have lives like people do—they’re born,
  They live, they die, and then they get erased;
And we who used to go there feel forlorn,
  Forgetting that we, too, will be replaced
      By strangers—none of whom will ever know
      The songs we heard down at the Rodeo.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells



Monday, July 21, 2014

Byron and Shelley and the Missolonghi Angelos

When Byron was working part-time as a reporter for the Missolonghi Angelos, he would invariably report on events that occurred in other countries by sifting through over a dozen reports from foreign news agencies (AP, UPI, Bloomberg, Dow Jones, and others) and combining them into a weekly column entitled News The Rest Of The World Thinks Is Important.  It was a masterpiece of summation, written with that charming air of wit and derision for which Byron was so well-renowned.

It so happened that, after appearing in the first week of February, the column was absent from the Angelos for the next three weeks, by the end of which time the Angelos editors were inundated by outraged subscribers demanding to know why the column had been discontinued.

“But it has not been discontinued,” Byron confessed to Shelley one night at the beginning of March.  “The plain truth is that I can no longer compose it.  I put pen to paper and the words do not come.”

“But how is that possible,” Shelley asked, “when you have such a Gift for impromptu Cleverness?” 

“Alas,” Byron replied, “my gift is of a conversational nature.  Put me in a room with a crowd of strangers and I am the verbal light that shines on all of ‘em.  Force me to speak one-on-one with a single soul and my wit dries up till I am dim.”

“And what does that have to do with your Column?” Shelley asked.

“The Angelos has been feeling the financial pinch of late,” Byron explained, “so it has not only cut back on its staff and production, it has additionally cancelled all but one of its subscriptions to foreign news agencies.  Where once I had over a dozen voices to summarize, I now have only one, originating from England of all places, and try as I might, the words will not come when I attempt to compose an article based on its contents.”

“You mean?” Shelley asked.
“Yes,” said Byron sadly.  “I have Reuters block.”

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

If you believe that God says it’s okay
That true believers should not have to pay
For what they think God might believe is wrong,
The Supreme Court is now playing your song.
They just declared that there is no restriction
On companies whose deeply-held conviction
Holds that some healthcare is a blasphemy
When it contributes to the infamy
Of birth control, effectual or shoddy,
As it pertains to any woman’s body.
Though SCOTUS must quote laws and precedents,
Companies have their faith as evidence,
Saying the source of all their legal grief
Is their unsourced but deeply-held belief
That if they do X, God will hold them liable,
Even if they can’t find it in the Bible.
As long as they declare they must obey
Whatever they say that their God will say,
Their wounded conscience can remain aloof
From anything resembling valid proof.
So if, for instance, I should make the claim
That the Creator (hallowed be His name)
Says every time girls fill a cavity
It also puts a stop to pregnancy,
My company can legally prevent your
Repayment for a filling, crown or denture—
And like a fervent Christian Scientist
I can be a medical atheist—
And righteously equate Hell’s deepest pit
With paying out a healthcare benefit
For anything with symptoms clear or vague—
The flu, the measles, chicken pox, the plague—
And say (while trying to suppress a grin)
“That’s why God put the sin in medicine.”
If this decision was religion-free,
And had no God in it, what would we see?
A legally illegal double-cross
That guarantees the right of some male boss
But not the rights of those that he oppresses—
Especially if they’re all wearing dresses.
The law, it seems, will always take offence
By women who exhibit common sense—
Who of their bodies claim sole ownership,
Declare their independence hip to hip,
And vow not to surrender their self-worth
But choose by whom and when they will give birth.
These simple choices still smack of sedition
To all the father figures of tradition—
They see their fragile social icecap breaking
When ovens want to take control of baking.
And since they can’t make women shake with awe,
They’ll make their bodies subject to the law.
If there’s a chance blondes, redheads or brunettes’ll,
Get pregnant, logic emulates a pretzel
And says that what their wombs will generate
Is a compelling interest of the state
And supercedes the owner of the womb
The way a silk dress supercedes the loom.

Forgive me if I hear these arguments
And think that their original intent’s
To limit women’s voices to lip-syncing.
Forgive me too for actually thinking
Male justices will never regulate
The male propensity to propagate
As long as all the female fields they’re seeding
Are never less than ripe for legal breeding.
It may not be sexual prejudice
But even if it ain’t, I bet you this:
Those kings who rule from their judicial palace,
They sure won’t pass a law against Cialis. 

The only thing supreme about these guys
Is their blind ignorance of all that lies
Beyond the bubble of their vanity—
What normal people call reality
And they call, with their voices full of terror,
Some pompous Latin synonym for error.
Their view of life’s as lifeless as that tongue:
It sees the coal but scoffs at the black lung.
The law to them’s no spirit and all letter,
And they’re so positive that they know better.
But what they know has sweet fuck all to do
With how this world’s lived in by me and you.
Their world’s a dictum written by a hack, 
Where real life’s just a footnote in the back.
Divorced from everything but the ideal,
They judge the menu but don’t taste the meal
And wash their hands of anything they sense
Might involve real hands-on experience.
There’s something frightened in them, I suspect,
That yearns to use the law to resurrect
That mythic era of the human race
When everyone shut up and kept their place.
It’s sad and yet kinda hilarious:
There’s nothing that defines cantankerous
Like five old coots yelling from dusk to dawn
“Get off my corporate-owned men-only lawn!” 

And when these judges talk abut the state
And how its interests must preponderate
All other interests and their rights curtail,
It’s clear the state is just another male
Who always wants to have it his own way;
And while he might let critics have their say,
He’ll never let a woman have a voice,
Never mind that odd thing she calls a choice,
Because to guarantee his own survival,
He must make sure that there’s a new arrival
Of citizens-to-be in great amount.
Thus giving birth is clearly paramount
And must supplant all rights social and sole
With one consummate governmental goal.
Which leads to this gigantic lunacy
Of twisted legal logic—QED:
A woman who lets no man impregnate her
Is worse than any terrorist or traitor.
That’s why the state always find feminism
A threat to sexual capitalism:
Since new consumers are compulsatory,
The state wants women pregnant.  End of story. 

What is it about women that scares men?
Why does testosterone fear estrogen?
Do some males think females were put on earth
To give them head while waiting to give birth?
To them, if you’ve been in a nail salon,
You’re secretly the Whore of Babylon.
I bet each time they father a girl child
They wish they could expose it in the wild
Instead of sharing money, name and home
With offspring who lack God’s Y chromosome.
And maybe that’s it—the whole male God thing—
That being male not only makes you king
But gets you droit du seigneur every day
On any pretty girl you want to lay. 

We’ve circled back to pure belief again—
This time beliefs particular to men,
Like “God made mankind with this one remit:
The female is what must and should submit.”
A major premise that unlocks the door
Which holds the answer that I’m looking for:
Like preachers fear the unrepented sin,
Like macho fears all things unmasculine,
Like misers fear the loss of all their dough,
What men fear most is women who say no. 

So now they’re passing law after dumb law
(Designed to stick in every female craw)
Which never take an axe, but only whittle
The tree of liberty, little by little,
Until they find the toothpick underneath
With which they’ll pick their smug paternal teeth.
It’s sad and galling and self-evident
People like this will never be content
Till women are just walking ovaries
Who cannot  legally do what they please.
This case, and cases like it, are the start
Of their Ahabian stab at the heart
Of all that’s threat’ning to the Great White Male
So all these Moby Dickheads can prevail
Against the foe of our great polity:
The devil of female equality. 

Yes, women are the devil—and this vision
Informs the whole Hobby Lobby decision.
If I say God says X will cause abortions,
The law now goes through hoops, if not contortions,
To make sure, if I chant a holy song,
My corporate civil rights are never wrong.
Or not as wrong as any woman’s are—
Their rights are like a fishless sushi bar:
So wrong they’re nonenexistent.  So you see,
If I’m a male, then SCOTUS favors me,
And will support me, when I say my soul
Can't stand the sacrilege of birth control,
And any law that puts The Pill in play
Is one that I do not have to obey—
Thus letting me commit a perfect crime
Which can be summed up by this simple rhyme: 

My right to say “God thinks this law’s insane!”
Trumps women’s rights the way penis trumps brain.


Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells