Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’ in D.C.: The Magic of Theater

The TempestThe Tempest is thought to be the last play Shakespeare wrote without collaborators. Commentators often describe Prospero, the exiled prince and lord of the enchanted isle where the action takes place, as a stand-in for the playwright. Creating a storm onstage, tormenting characters with magic, making others fall in love, that’s the work of a magician … or a writer.

But the play is not successful if the metaphor overwhelms the action. Catharsis comes from the heart and not the head. Director Ethan McSweeny doesn’t belabor the theatrical overlay, but deploys it just enough to create a splendid evening of theater.

As the play begins, lightning flashes and thunder booms, the eponymous storm attacks a ship carrying Alonso, the King of Naples and Antonio, Prospero’s treacherous and usurping brother, along with several other lords. The noisy storm illuminates a decaying proscenium arch, which showcases what we’ll soon see as a sandy island. Frames within frames.

The TempestProspero tells his daughter Miranda that the men on board will be safe as he guides them to the island. Soon he will begin scheming to arrange a match between her and Ferdinand, the king’s handsome young son. Prospero’s minions include Ariel, a flying sprite, and Caliban, a chained slave. Both are bound to him, but the ropes which pull her heavenward and the chains and rocks which bind him to the earth suggest that Shakespeare is aiming to create parallels in their fantastical servitude.

As Prospero, Geraint Wyn Davies owns the stage whenever he’s on it, and makes us miss him in the long stretches when he’s not. Although all the actors have an ease with Shakespeare’s language, Davies uniquely seems to own it as a mother tongue.

The TempestAs Caliban, Clifton Duncan sometimes seems to wrestle with an accent vaguely of the Caribbean as well as the task of showing Shakespeare’s idea of a “savage.” That we end up touched by his plight supplants any of this unease. As Ariel, pulled ever upward by a sturdy rope, rather than a gossamer string, Sofia Jean Gomez shines as the spirit who embodies the island’s magic.

And that magic comes to full fruit in the delightful second act, aided by the spectacular puppet designs of James Ortiz. By the time Prospero strips off his magical garments, returning to mere royalty — his daughter safely married and his Dukedom restored — he is, then, paradoxically free to step out of character, and become an actor, begging for our applause as the curtain falls (“release me from my bands/With the help of your good hands.”).

After a night of magic, the audience I sat with rose to its feet at this, and you may, too.

The Tempest continues at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. through January 11, 2015

Photos: Avery Glymph as Ferdinand, Rachel Mewbron as Miranda, Geraint Wyn Davies as Prospero, Sofia Jean Gomez as Ariel in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Scott Suchman.


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‘5 Guys Named Moe’ and One Who’s Not

Louis Jordan isn’t a household name, though by rights he should be. Plausibly considered the father of rhythm and blues, rock ‘n roll and even rap, Jordan sits as a forebear in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He performed as a vocalist and saxophonist creating hit after hit in the 1940s, until his style of jazzy rhythm and blues ran into the buzz saw of rock in the 1950s. Here, Jordan and the band perform “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.”

Jordan died in 1975, and as one biography has it, “profess[ed] some bitterness about the career setback that rock and roll had dealt him.” A man before his time.

clarke-petersJordan’s music provides the raw material for Five Guys Named Moe, a jukebox music that was a Broadway hit in 1992 after opening in London’s West End two years earlier. The book is by the much too talented Clarke Peters (left), best known for his starring roles in HBO’s The Wire and Treme. Peters’ laughter could be heard in the theater opening night, and, along with the rest of the audience, he seemed to be having a ball.

What’s the setup? Nomax, a victim of drink, woman trouble and money trouble, is listening to an old radio playing scratchy jazz at center stage. The radio announcer seems to talk back to him magically, and suddenly he finds himself in the middle of a musical review featuring five dynamic performers. The songs of Louis Jordan, generally upbeat and often familiar swinging standards like “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” “Caldonia” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry” are going to help him come to better terms with life and love.

Five Guys Named Moe

Whether or not they help Nomax, they certainly help us. The singing, dancing and harmonizing create a small nightclub of the mind in the intimate Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, and the interior aspects of the concept are emphasized by set designer Clint Ramos. The five guys are Moe, the set is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of Moe (seen above in its red mood) and lights, costumes and sound all exist to emphasize the idea that the Moes may indeed be five fragments of Nomax’s imagination — equivalent to good and bad angels sitting on his shoulder.

Five Guys Named Moe

Director Robert O’Hara didn’t want the show stuck in amber. His concept: update everything from the music to the costumes, consider the Moes a “modern day boy band” that sings in the “old grooves.” With go-go beats cascading from Mark Carson’s drum set, the rhythms connect Jordan’s jazz, early rock, D.C.’s own unique sounds and today’s chart topping hits to make a convincing case that Louis Jordan is at home in any era.

Five Guys Named Moe continues at Arena Stage through December 28.

Photos by C. Stanley Photography (just above, (L to R) Clinton Roane as Little Moe, Paris Nix as Eat Moe, Travis Porchia as Four-Eyed Moe, Sheldon Henry as Big Moe and Jobari Parker-Namdar as No Moe); Clarke Peters photo: HBO/Treme

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‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Takes Washington

Fiddler on the Roof“Do you love me?” It’s a question that long married couples sometimes ask each other, but never with quite the verve that lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock summon at the start of Fiddler on the Roof’s second act. “Do you love me?” Tevye, the dairyman repeats. “Do I love you?” his wife Golde answers. Ah, Jews, always answering a question with a question.

Molly Smith has staged this pivotal scene in Fiddler with such delicacy and power, with the couple starting their dialogue on opposite sides of Arena’s round stage. By the time the question is answered — and you don’t have to be clairvoyant to know where the conversation is headed — they walk off stage, casually, together, as they’ve been for 25 years and will be until death do them part.

Fiddler on the RoofIt’s a signature moment in the show, and speaks to Smith’s clean, clear staging and her ability to stitch together these moments into a vivid and compelling story. And in this effort, she’s aided by a sweet, understated performance from her leading man, Jonathan Hadary, who carries the show on his small back.

Of course, the first Tevye was neither sweet, nor small, nor understated. And every Tevye since has labored in the shadow of the larger than life Zero Mostel. So Smith and Hadary don’t try to make their hero big or blustery. He exercises his authority over his wife and five daughters through “Tradition!” of course, and through the force of his quiet and persuasive personality.

It’s no surprise that this Tevye yields to his daughters as they flout his wishes and seek their own way, but it’s no less heartbreaking when he takes a stand against his third eligible daughter when she decides to fall in love with a gentile. Will Tevye relent? Of course he will.

The other moment that stays with me is the climactic Act One dream sequence, a trick concocted by Tevye to convince his wife they must break their word to butcher Lazar Wolf and instead give their oldest daughter — unmarried and all of 20! — to the tailor she loves. For this comic and seismically energetic scene, Smith brings to life a Chagall mural’s worth of creatures and characters, led by an apparition that rises from Tevye and Golde’s bed, and brings down the house.

Golde is convinced she’s been visited by spirits and allows her daughter’s marriage to a pauper, and the story’s direction is set. That nothing else in the show quite rises to this level of zaniness is only to say the scene is perfect.

But zany is not the only thread here. Like Cabaret, which would follow only two years later, Fiddler would have called to mind  the Holocaust, which was a vivid memory in 1964, less than two decades after the close of WW II. And the Russian pogroms that figure prominently in Fiddler and send the family fleeing from their beloved Anatevka, would have connected personally to the lives of many in the contemporary audience.

You can waste a lot of time going to Washington theater and wishing shows were perfect. In Fiddler on the Roof, for example: if only the accents weren’t coming from every corner of a turn of the century Europe that never was; if only a few of the voices were stronger.

But perfection is hardly the point when you go to the theater. You go to be moved, to be reminded you’re human, to be transformed. Fiddler does all that, and more. And when Molly Smith introduced lyricist Sheldon Harnick (seeming hale and hearty at 90) Wednesday night to an adoring crowd, we gave him a rousing cheer of thanks.

Modest, understated, like Hadary’s Tevye, Harnick simply said he was sorry he couldn’t share the night’s joy with his collaborators, all of whom he has outlived.

Fiddler on the Roof continues at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. through January 4, 2015.

Images: Alex Alferov as the Fiddler, Jonathan Hadary as Tevye. Photos by Margot Schulman

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Falstaff Is King in D.C. — Stacy Keach in Henry IV, Part 1 and 2

Young Hal has daddy issues. His father, King Henry, is stern, distant and preoccupied with the rebellion fracturing England. The father figure he’s chosen, the fat and lecherous Falstaff, is a thief and a coward, but that’s just fine with the prince on most days. And before the two parts of Henry IV are done, there will be at least one more man for Hal to model himself on and look up to, the Lord Chief Justice, who stands for all that is moral and right, a man who couldn’t be more different from the greasy whoremonger Jack Falstaff.

HENRYIVPT1-232-keach-falstaffThe posters around town advertising Henry IV, Part 1 and 2 at the Shakespeare Theatre mostly feature Stacy Keach as Falstaff, well hidden in the fat suit and whiskers. Often during the play, he wears this ridiculous armor. He is “Sir” John, after all, a “knight.”

Many in the audience are coming to see the actor in this role, which he first tried in his late twenties. Whether playing Hamlet or Richard III, Keach is that rare American performer who has kept up his classical chops while becoming a popular star on TV (Mike Hammer) and in movies like the recent Bruce Dern vehicle Nebraska.

When last we saw Keach in D.C., he was at the center of the Shakespeare Theatre’s red hot, Balkan production of King Lear. His portrayal, and the production, were highlights of my 25 years of theater going in Washington. I’d looked forward to Falstaff as a benchmark to see how far the actor can stretch, and his achievement is impressive, even though I’m nagged by quibbles.

HENRYIVPT2-236-HenryIV-VFirst, back to the plays… Before the two parts of Henry IV are done, Young Prince Hal will cast off childish things, including Falstaff, and ascend to the throne. To do that, he must come to terms with his dad, and overcome the fiery Hotspur, a rival. Matthew Amendt’s performance as Hal is nuanced and full, and his unformed features, already softened by too many good times, will grow into the visage of a king during the course of the two plays.

What is wonderful about Amendt’s Hal is that it lies squarely in the tradition of director Michael Kahn’s lifetime of Shakespeare work. No matter how Kahn propels the actors through time and space, in the beginning is the word. Painting with words, Amendt draws his maturing soon-to-be king.

For me, Keach falls short as Falstaff because he fails to completely trust Shakespeare’s language. He’s nailed the fat man’s shuffle, and he deploys a symphony of bleats and harrumphs to comic effect, but there were many times, especially in Part 2, when I was left wondering exactly what Falstaff had said. By extension, it felt at those moments that the portrayal was  approximate and a little vague.

What does come through in Keach’s Falstaff is intelligence, wit and enjoyment of life. He’s a sentimental codger, and Kahn has left no doubt that when Hal throws him overboard, it breaks the old man’s heart.

Near the end of Henry IV, Part 2, Kahn has created a stage tableau, one among many he assembles in the two shows. Falstaff has positioned himself along the red carpet the newly crowned king will pass, and Sir John expects not only to harvest the rewards of his years of friendship with Hal, but he’s promised his buddies that they, too, will receive the king’s largesse. Rejected, and soon to be arrested, Falstaff is crushed, and if the air could go out of his giant frame, it would.

Like every big moment in the two plays, Kahn has directed this one to within an inch of its life. The picture is unforgettable, yet it feels like a moment in grand opera, slightly too big for the space. Perhaps that’s my deeper problem with this set of two Henrys. These big moments seem italicized, rather than lived.

Credit: Stacy Keach as Falstaff, Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal and Edward Gero as King Henry IV in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 1 amd Part 2. Photos by Scott Suchman.


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‘Brief Encounter’: A Movie Brought to Vivid Life Onstage

The love that dare not speak its name? Perhaps it’s the love between two people who can never consummate their passion, never live happily ever after. The love between Alec and Laura is such a love.

They’ve met quite by accident, you see. It’s 1938. Circumstances bring her to town on Thursdays for shopping. As the express train blows past, she gets a cinder in her eye. He sees her in distress, and removes the speck with skill, since he’s a doctor. He comes to town on Thursdays, too, to work in the local hospital. That meeting, and a couple of others that follow, leave them both helplessly smitten. And soon they’re looking forward to their stolen Thursdays.

But they’re married to others. They’ve got lives, kids they can’t leave. Their brief encounter will never be more than that.

BE_104I came to Brief Encounter backwards. Having never seen the classic film with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, my first experience of the story was the brilliant theatrical adaptation and alchemical enhancement now on view at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. Brought to town by the Kneehigh Theatre Company, the show visited Broadway in 2010 where Ben Brantley called it “surely the most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie.”

Over two nights of seeing the play and then catching up with the classic 1945 movie it’s based on, I’m sold on Noel Coward’s simple story, which started out as a one act play. The two modes of telling — live, and on film — both work to make visceral connections. And what’s more, the live performance mixes in generous helpings of film, while the old movie is boldly theatrical. They’re a perfectly matched set.

The play has the loose-limbed “let’s put on a show” approach that begins as you enter the auditorium. The cast, all in railroad uniforms, starts to play music all around the house. Soon they’ll be taking on the various characters that put our tragic couple into perspective, from the proper proprietor of the rail station tea shop, to her energetic young assistant, to Laura’s stalwart husband. But the music never stops, using some Coward classics and some music hall favorites, plus an array of original sounds. It comments on the action, here underscoring it, there hurling it forward. There are also musical echoes of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto, No. 2, which is a dominant feature of the film of Brief Encounter.

At a few magical moments characters will disappear into a movie screen that’s part of the stage show’s backdrop and reappear in a film of their lives, a la Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a stunning coup de theatre that emphasizes the show’s inspiration and starting point in David Lean’s film, and, paradoxically, its uniqueness as live theater.

brief-encounter-2But if this was merely the stage “version” of the film, it wouldn’t seem so new, bold and creative. Instead it’s a re-imagining, an homage, a love letter to a movie that Brits, at least, have sometimes voted the most romantic cinematic work of all time.

alec-lauraOne of the things that’s so wonderful about the show is that while this couple is clearly on a collision course with misery, life goes on around them in quite routine ways. Couples who are free to follow their hearts literally chase each other across the stage. Alec and Laura, on the other hand, will never be able to love each other freely, which strangles their emotions while making their scenes together almost unbearably intense.

The two main performances — by Hannah Yelland as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Dr. Alec Harvey — are acting lessons in the best sense of the phrase. Winning a Tony nomination when she played the part on Broadway, Yelland is so believable, so vulnerable, so human that we know immediately why the doctor would almost be willing to throw away his entire life to be forever in her presence. And of course we know why he can’t insist on continuing their relationship, since destroying her connection to her children and husband would also destroy her.

So the play and the movie both end as a busybody neighbor of Laura’s frustrates the couple’s chance for a simple goodbye. Dr. Harvey goes off to Africa, and Laura, one hopes, will tap the self worth she may have found as the object of Alec’s fierce love, and find a way to go on.

Brief Encounter, adapted and directed by Emma Rice continues at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington through April 13.

Photos of Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of Brief Encounter by Jim Cox.

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Loveland: Grief, Loss and Storytelling at 35,000 Feet

We first meet Frannie Potts as she settles into her seat getting ready  to take off from L.A. Her seatmate, a businessman, wants the shade drawn so he can work his spreadsheets. Frannie refuses and we imagine Mr. Spreadsheet wonders whether he’ll be able to stand the trip ahead.

We wonder the same thing. Who is this annoying woman, and what is her story?  How will it feel to spend an hour with her?

Ann Randolph. Photo Teresa Summers

Ann Randolph. Photo by Teresa Summers

But Frannie grows on us, as she takes over the plane with her demands: pushing the button to summon the flight attendant, dancing in the aisles, initiating imaginary trysts with the pilot. Commanding the window seat, which gives her a bird’s eye view of her beloved America, she shares her secrets and fears with us.

Who is Frannie? She’s a woman from Ohio, who finds love, or at least secret orgasms, in the Whole Foods in L.A. where she has moved with some nebulous ambitions. She’s led a life entwined with her overbearing mother, whose decline and death are the main markers in Frannie’s recent life. With mom’s ashes stowed precariously in the overhead bin, Frannie is on a mission to find them a final resting place.

We finally come to terms, as she does, with this incalculable loss. At the show’s ridiculous but appropriate climax, the ashes are set loose in the cabin, and we feel coated, as she is, in her mom’s ashes and her overwhelming grief. But Frannie is a survivor. And we have been energized and cleansed by spending an hour or so in her company.

Frannie is played by Ann Randolph, as are all the characters she interacts with on her journey. It’s no accident that Frannie includes “Ann,” who tells the audience at the close of the show that these performances are a way for her to explore and come to closure about recent life events.

And we have a chance to join in after the show, too. Randolph leads a workshop after each performance at Washington’s Arena Stage where audience members can write and share their own stories of grief and loss. It’s the kind of work she does all over the country, in addition to her writing and acting.

So back to the transformation we go through as an audience — meeting, rejecting, understanding, empathizing with and finally coming completely under the spell of Frannie, as she reveals, layer by layer, her humanity and individuality. She is and is not Ann Randolph. And we have no trouble imagining ourselves in her skin on that eastbound plane.

Loveland preview:

Loveland, directed by Joshua Townshend-Zellner runs from March 18 through April 13 at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

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‘The Importance of Being Earnest’: Bright, but Shallow

There’s nothing wrong with The Importance of Being Earnest, on view, and already extended, at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. It’s funny, gorgeous, and seems to capture Oscar Wilde’s satirical take on upper crust British mores just perfectly.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Vanessa Morosco as Gwendolen and Gregory Wooddell as Jack in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

So it seems ungrateful to complain about the show’s one flaw: The people in it never seem to talk to each other, or care about each other, and the production lacks a beating heart.

I’m always eager and ready to blame myself for not catching the drift, or getting in the mood, especially when an audience, like the one at Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theater, seems to eat a production up. But I’ll stick to my guns. There are, after all, two couples who could be getting hot for each other, and one of the most sharply drawn biddies in theater history — that’s Lady Bracknell, played by the well-traveled British actress Siân Phillips — to amuse and entertain us.

And the wit and verbal pyrotechnics (“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness!”) do carry us through three brisk acts, with two intermissions. But I refuse to believe that a dose of true connection between any two of the characters would have derailed director Keith Baxter’s well-oiled train. For me, it would have made all the difference between something that seems to skim the surface, and something that might dig a little deeper.

If you’re not familiar with the play, read it. Then go see it. You’ll meet Jack Worthing, and his friend Algernon Moncrieff, who find themselves wooing Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, using whatever tricks they can muster. For the women, the only hitch is that the men aren’t named Ernest. Nor are they earnest. A mid-life christening can solve the former problem, but can their character flaws also be corrected?

A handbag, a manuscript and a forgetful nanny shake up the story in the end, clearing the way for the couples to unite and receive Lady Bracknell’s blessing. For all her pretensions, she’s been unmasked as a greedy poseur, but one whose company we’re willing to put up with because she makes us laugh, and because there’s a smidgeon of wisdom hidden in her haughty exterior.

As always, Floyd King is priceless. Here, he’s Dr. Chasuble, an old vicar whose slow burn double takes are worth the price of admission.

Presenting The Importance of Being Earnest, a director might claim that the show’s shiny surface is, in fact, its heart, and that the witty banter, the gleaming characters and their crises and calamities are what the play is made of. The Shakespeare Theatre has brought us too many satisfying evenings of comedy drawn from a deeper well for that argument to be accepted.


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Baryshnikov and Chekhov, Together in Washington

Multimedia is a term that covers a lot of sins; it’s so broad as to be nearly meaningless. But artists who can magically combine dance, music, theater and video in the service of storytelling can scramble our brainwaves and keep us off guard. The best work of this kind finds unexpected ways to connect with our intellect and our emotions.

That Man in a Case, a multimedia theater work starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, doesn’t ultimately prove deeply moving doesn’t mean it’s not successful, just that the Brechtian distance it creates keeps us from full-on emotional engagement.

But let’s start with the evening’s star — since it’s not every day you can spend an hour or so in the company of a “dancer, choreographer, and actor, often cited alongside Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history.” (Thanks, Wikipedia) Mikhail Baryshnikov is in town, and you should see him, even if he was reading the proverbial phone book.

(To view Gallery of photos from Man in a Case full screen, select any picture. To navigate, use arrows right and left. To close, click X in upper left:)

The show, which premiered at the Hartford Stage Company and has toured to small venues around the country, tells a pair of love stories, or as they’re sometimes described, “anti-love stories.” Each concerns a man who is unable to love, thwarted by his own limitations, or by societal conventions.

The stories themselves are mordantly funny, emphasizing the hemmed in quality that keeps us from truly experiencing our emotions. The “man in the case,” for example, is almost literally encased by his few possessions, and by conventions. His life is fully realized only when, after his death, a coffin enfolds him.

With every movement, Baryshnikov indicates how the world can press in and limit a man’s world. No matter what he does on stage, he never lets us forget that he’s a dancer.

Annie B-Parson and Paul  Lazar of Big Dance Theater construct a compact evening from these two tales, wrapping them in a further frame of storytelling that echoes Chekhov’s original, but seems completely modern.

While love is impossible, art itself can rescue us, the production hints — and that makes the endeavor life-affirming rather than merely depressing.

Man in a Case was on view in Washington, D.C. at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, December 5-22, 2013.

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Your West Coast Correspondent

OK – I’ve found my calling. I’d like to be Your West Coast Correspondent. Of course, I still live in Washington DC/Takoma Park, and I only get out to the Coast every year-and-a-half or so. Gotta fix that.

Just got back from Oakland on the red-eye last night. I loved seeing all my friends, and being introduced to what’s new, what they love to show their visitors and what’s bugging them. I know that’s different from being a native, or even a resident, but it’s what I’ve got these days.

Casino-FloorLet’s start north of the Bay, in Sonoma County.

Rohnert Park has a big new Indian casino. If you asked me, I’d have said that a casino would be all wrong for the area — sucking water from the land, sucking money from people who don’t know better.

That was the opinion of the folks who ran what must have been a failed effort at Still — I don’t know enough about the casino to be against it. Its economic impact remains to be measured, but in a slow economy, for those who aren’t growing grapes or buds, a job is a job.

And the casino has just about the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted, locally sourced of course.

Speaking of buds: It’s clear that medical (and other) marijuana has become a key factor in the Sonoma County economy. In my years in California (I lived there from 1973 to ’83), I never would have imagined a marijuana fair and contest out in public at the county fairgrounds. But that’s what was going on last weekend …

Blogger David Downs:

“More than five thousand people appeared to have attended the once-underground pot contest which has traditionally been held hundreds of miles further north in Humboldt County. Event organizer Tim Blake and Samantha Mikelojewski moved the event south to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds this year to better access Bay Area crowds…”

I missed the fair, though, since I was hanging out with friends. Two of my closest buddies in the Bay Area are looking for new horizons.

Victor is a policy wonk with the heart of a poet. He’s worried about the new Oakland. Appreciating its suddenly fashionable neighborhoods, he says the place still suffers from the poverty and inequality that have always been its primary challenges. I trust his point of view — I don’t know anyone else who has spent his whole life trying to solve those problems.

microphoneVictor would like to talk about this in a podcast, and I don’t blame him. Podcasts are a cool way to communicate.

Imagine a microphone facing you. You say the things you want to say. Then you put them out into the aether and people hear your thoughts and respond. It becomes a dialogue. Somehow money comes if you need it. Attention comes.

Another friend, Loralee, doesn’t care if she communicates via podcasting, but she’d be a sort of town crier — channeling what’s important in her community. For example, she took me to the spot near her home where a 13-year-old kid was gunned down by a cop. Here’s the lede:

“A Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy fired eight shots within 10 seconds at 13-year-old Andy Lopez Cruz, who was carrying what turned out to be a replica of an AK-47 rifle southwest of Santa Rosa Tuesday afternoon, a Santa Rosa police lieutenant said today. (San Jose Mercury News)”

Loralee might talk about things like that, or what it means to lose someone, or find them. She knows it’s hard to figure out what to say and how to say it. But she senses that it starts with having a story to tell.

One of her goals: She wants to reclaim the phrase “authentic conversations” from the business gurus who have stolen its meaning.

But back to podcasting. I want to be a podcaster, too, and a producer and writer. And I want to do it in California. So help me figure out how to become Your West Coast Correspondent.


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Miss Julie/Mies Julie – Strindberg’s Classic Brought to Vivid Life

Hilda Cronje, Bongile Mantsai. Photo by Rodger Bosch

Hilda Cronje, Bongile Mantsai. Photo by Rodger Bosch

I’ll admit it. I didn’t get Strindberg. Introduced to the talky, stagey play The Pelican in college — I had a bit part — I thought he was one of those playwrights that made sense long ago, but was no longer relevant. Like many impressions from my shallow youth, this one was all wrong.

Mies Julie, a production of the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town is a reinvention of Strindberg’s classic set in South Africa. It’s now on view at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.

This production is vital, feral, ablaze from the moments before the play starts — as the stage fills with smoke and ominous sound — to the final, inevitable end.

Maybe you’ve read or seen the play? If not, you can catch up in just a second. John, a servant, is polishing master’s boots. Julie, the daughter of the estate’s owner, is drunk, and dancing provocatively at a midsummer party for the estate’s workers. (At least in the Swedish original it’s midsummer; in South Africa it’s always hot, so no season needs to be specified).

In both versions, John and Julie grew up together, separated by class, looking across the gulf at each other. On this night, they pledge their love to each other, but measuring that gulf, they ultimately find it uncrossable.

Tellingly, Strindberg had complicated John’s life with a third character, Christine, who is his peer and fiancée. In Yael Farber’s African retelling, Christine is instead John’s mother. A fourth character — a musician, dancer, witch, and very solid white-faced black ghost — joins her as an ancestor. The two women embody spirits who will never rest until many more generations work out the class and racial catastrophe that is the South Africa’s history.

John and Julie are almost never off the stage for Farber’s intermission-less 90 minutes, and if there’s one small complaint I have about this powerful production it is the unrelenting pitch of Hilda Cronje’s performance in the title role. She begins in a fever, and never wavers or varies the intensity of her performance. From seduction to sorrow to self-injury, she throws off so many sparks that you wonder why and how John can even catch her for the moment it takes for them to consummate their union.

She’s crazy in some deep significant way, and that should allow her some freedom to be sweet and sexy, or girlish, just to give us a break for a moment.

Bongile Mantsai is John, and the power of his performance comes from the fact that he never forgets his “place” as a servant — until he gives in for just a moment to his fantasy. Willing to use his attractiveness and power as a ticket out of the prison he’s trapped in, he finally realizes that the power will always lie with his masters, no matter what he does.

The complication of race, in a play that was first staged in apartheid South Africa, is never out of sight. We understand that John can be killed for his transgression, whether or not Julie carries through on her threat to cry “rape.” And yet, without that complication, Strindberg has provided the foundation of the story and its churning engine of sex and class, privilege and want.

And so, this South African adaptation is not a twisting or improvement of Strindberg’s original, only a version. And that’s why I’m going to start paying a little more attention to his work when I find it in the future. Like I said, it sometimes takes me a while to catch on.

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