Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Macbeth, Again

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

After seeing last night’s Berkeley Rep performance of Macbeth (with Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, yo!), it was fun to cycle back to my blog entry of 6.5 years ago, after we’d seen the show at OSF. I was reminded of how electrified I was by the OSF performance, which was useful in light of—well, of feeling not a whole lot of anything after the Rep production. (Sorry, Berkeley Rep! The run is either entirely or very nearly sold out, so . . . I doubt this review [reaching, as it will, multiple tens of people] will decrease sales.)

I think the problem was the direction, which made me notice everything that’s weird about the play, especially the pacing. For instance, why is the annoying scene between Malcolm and Macduff, where Malcolm pretends to be abjectly sinful to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland, so freaking interminable? Do most directors just cut it from the play? I was also surprised by how brief Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene is (though: nicely done, Frances McDormand) as well as Macbeth’s “tomorrow” speech. And then there’s the fact that so many very important things happen in a flash and offstage—the killing of Duncan, the death of Lady Macbeth—whereas the slaying of Macduff’s wife and children, which is admittedly horrifying and important but which you would not expect to see, given the above, is dramatized.

During the Rep production I was struck by how unjustified Lady Macbeth’s murderous ambition is. I mean, maybe this is the sort of thing where Shakespeare is writing for King James, so he can’t imply that a man who became King of Scotland (apparently for 10 years!) would have murdered his predecessors, but wasn’t that just part of Scottish history? (I suppose kings aren’t exactly known for their ability to tolerate reality.) Either way, the play gives the initial impetus to kill Duncan to Lady Macbeth, and . . . I just wasn’t buying it this time around. She gets the letter from Macbeth about the witches’ prophesy, and that’s enough to convince her to plot the murder of a beloved king?

Funnily enough, I think costuming was at issue here. In the OSF production, Lady Macbeth was dressed in a velvet crimson gown (the only spot of color in an otherwise black/gray set and costume-scape); it was as though she was already bathed in blood, and she was instantly identifiable as a site of power. The Rep chose to go full-on period piece (i.e., 1040ish), with costumes in layers of drab cotton and linen, which left Frances McDormand in an Eileen Fisher-style getup (no makeup or hair, either) that broadcast vulnerability, not power. The raw unadornment of this look also siphoned impact away from the sleepwalking scene, in which Lady Macbeth is supposed to be shockingly unraveled and exposed; in the Rep production, she looked exactly the same.

Another costuming issue: With actors playing multiple parts, the costuming should have been different enough to avoid confusion. It wasn’t—to the point where it looked as though Macduff were in the forest with the murderers when they ambushed Banquo and Fleance. Turns out it was just the Third Murderer, looking exactly (literally exactly) like Macduff.

There was some silly staging, too, where characters ran in place, toward the audience, while video of a receding forest was projected on a screen behind them. The audience had to stifle laughter. Oh, and so many cawing crows! I joked to John that Macbeth was most certainly the Thane of CAWdor.

On the other hand, great banquet scene. I’d never seen it played both for horror and for laughs, and while I was a bit worried that the director intended otherwise (i.e., just horror, no laughs), John convinced me that it was a good thing either way.

An addendum to my 2009 question re: witches: Last night I learned from a sign hanging in the bathroom that King James was obsessed with witches, to the tune of writing a book called Demonology and advocating for witch hunts. (That’s . . . not great.) So, now I have a basic answer to “Why witches?”, although it doesn’t explain their aesthetic or thematic purpose in the play.

Bottom line: I wish the director had made a host of different choices. I’d also really like to see a production that isn’t done with such obvious genre tropes but is still horrifying. Like, what if everything were extremely stylish and minimal? Maybe a Calvin Klein version?

I’m Not Technically Here, But . . .

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

I’ve decreed April as my (much-delayed and long-awaited) sabbatical*, so I’m trying to avoid le computer wherever possible. However, I wanted to slap a few recent recs up here before I abandon ye all until May.

(Lovely woman we met at the hot springs: “One month is a vacation. Six months is a sabbatical.” CORRECT. But I’ll take what I can get.)


1) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson. I love Ronson for so many reasons—hilarity, humility, neurotics (neuroticism, heh)—but most of all for his vulnerability. In this book, he’s everything that’s great about himself, and the topic is riveting. And important. And sad. Highly recommended.

2) I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV, Maz Jobrani. Similar type of rec here—i.e., a smart, funny guy doing his smart, funny thing—although this is lighter fare, a comedic memoir by a very lovable comedian.

3) No Land’s Man, Aasif Mandvi. A light, quick tour through some of Mandvi’s stepping stones to Daily Show stardom. Fun, basically.


1) Am I the last one to the party re: Garfunkel and Oates? Probably. Anyway, they’re fresh and funny and surprising and adorable.

2) And the very most highly recommended of all . . . Season 4 of Louie, now available on Netflix. I’ve never been so tempted to write a fan letter, because this stuff is pure, gobsmacking genius. In fact, I’d say that it’s movie-making auteurship at its finest. There are three separate plot lines that run multiple episodes, and they’re all very, very great, but my most favorite is the 64-minute Into the Woods, in which C.K. juxtaposes present events with flashbacks in an unbelievably potent and breathtaking way. And the flashbacks! Are gorgeous and excruciating and meticulously directed and marvelously acted! Which is all the more astonishing because the actors are very young—twelve or thirteen, I think? JEZOO, this stuff. I mean. I am in awe. And I am struck by C.K.’s generosity, that he’s spending this genius on a TV show and not making movies out of it. Maybe it’s just easier, because it’s already in place—the funding, the crew, etc.? I dunno. Somebody should give him a heap-ton of money to make a movie.


New show at the Berkeley Rep! Immensely powerful and alive. First thing I’ve seen by the young uberstar Tarell Alvin McCraney, and I am most definitively on board.


You know how I’ve been brushing up on languages via iPad app? Welp, I recently discovered that when I successfully complete each level, I earn “lingots,” i.e., in-app currency to purchase more lessons. Initially, this was an excellent discovery, and I spent my lingots on a lesson about idioms. But very quickly, I began to focus on amassing as many lingots as possible without spending them. Because I am like that. And . . . oy.

A few points for clarification. First, this entire app is free. I am receiving great benefit without paying for a single thing. There isn’t even advertising! Second, these lingots are not viable currency anywhere but within the app. Saving them up does me no actual good. If the apocalypse comes, I will not be rewarded by having saved them; I will not suddenly be able to purchase more zombie-fighting technology (or sun screen, whatever) for having them. The only thing I can buy is more language lessons.

Nevertheless, I am ever so acutely aware that if and when I spend my lingots, I will have no more lingots. (Unless I earn more. Which takes a long time. But which I will probably end up doing merely by virtue of continuing to use the app.)

Recent interaction between me and John:

Me: [Sigh.] I wish I lived in a world where lingots didn’t matter.

J: [Silence, thinking.]

Me: Don’t say I already do.

J: [Silence, sweet grin.]

Me: Next topic!

Happy April, everyone!

Happy 450th, Shakespeare!

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

It’s (probably) William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday today, so I thought I’d take a moment to be grateful to him—for writing, you know, some of the most brilliant and messy and human and humane stuff to come out of the Western world, like, ever. And also to think about all of the ways in which his work has intersected with my personal world over the years—since what’s a blog for, if not blathering on narcissistically about the minuscule junctions between The World’s Big Deals and one’s own, puny life?

1) 5th grade production of Macbeth! I was MacDuff and, briefly, the replacement for Lady Macbeth, when she couldn’t get the lines. Best part: knickers and sword fight: Turn, hellhound, turn! Worst part: The lecture visited upon the girl who played Macbeth when she and Murderers #1 and #2 devolved into giggles during one performance. Come on, teachers. We’re 10.

2) 9th grade reading of Romeo and Juliet. I thought I knew what it was. I didn’t know what it was—except, you know, TRUE LOVE.

3) 10th grade reading of Twelfth Night. I fared a little better there, in terms of taking it in, although I won’t claim that I had much to say about it. In our small-group performance in class, I played Malvolio—a not-entirely-unfitting role, given my tight-assitude about things like grammar and, oh, morality. Plus: yellow stockings and cross garters!

4) And here’s where things really got rolling for me: 12th grade fellowship to the Shakespeare Folger Library in DC, where I toiled with 13 other budding intellectuals under the tutelage of actual Shakespeare scholars. Many, many highlights here, including seeing (and touching!) some of the first folios and getting my grubbies on a first edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince. That’s not happening every day, folks. Plus, we saw plenty o’ performances, at the Folger and elsewhere, and watched movies, and wrote papers. Not easy, but a fantastic education, and it’s where Shakespeare started to make sense to me. It’s also where I fell in love with two of the plays that are still my favorites: Antony and Cleopatra and Measure for Measure. Morality, you say? STRAIGHT. UP.

5) College. I took most of the Shakespeare classes that were to be taken, I think, including Harold Bloom’s Tragedies and Romances. Which I liked, although sometimes I thought he was making insane claims just to be original. Scariest moment: There was only a single paper for that class—just one assignment—which determined our entire grade. And I was a sophomore. Oh, the confidence/arrogance of youth! (Because I certainly wasn’t sophisticated enough not to care about the grade.)

6) Early adulthood. Almost immediately after finishing graduate school (merely an MFA in fiction, folks: I managed to wrench myself out of the current that was carrying me toward a PhD in literature and choose a more inspiring-to-me path), I got to review Bloom’s Shakespeare book for the San Francisco Chronicle. 764 pages. A week to read it and write the review. While working full-time. (FEEL my pain!)

7) Seeing the plays as an adult, in Berkeley and San Francisco, at Shotgun and Impact and elsewhere. The feeling of seeing an old friend.

8) And then, finally, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where ye olde husband and I go every couple of years to take in the marvelously lush work that’s happening up there. This year, we’ll be seeing Richard III for the first time on stage. (I’ve seen the movies.) And that’s pretty thrilling indeed.

I won’t lie: There are times when the work it takes to get inside Shakespeare’s language feels arduous to me, and when I wish I could kick back a little and let the play deliver itself, rather than having to pay such constant attention. But, and I imagine that this goes without saying, it always, always pays off.

One more thing: I love the notion that I have anything at all to say about Shakespeare—that, wondrously, a guy who wrote 425 years ago has managed to stay so vital and important in our culture, enough so that his work came into my life when I was 10 and still hasn’t left. I love the idea that I’m just one random woman in California, sitting at her computer, writing about her personal connection with plays that are so very old. And I wish Shakespeare could see us all now, keeping his work alive, seeing it, thinking about it, loving it. He’d be pretty chuffed, wouldn’t he?

Of Late

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Breezing into the new week with a rapid-fire culture round-up:

  1. Sleepwalk with Me: The movie, not the TAL Moth excerpt, full-length one-man show, or the book (each of which I have heard/seen/read). I think the movie is the best manifestation of the story yet, in large part because it makes the relationship between Mike (Matt, in the movie) and Abby so real and heart-breaking. (And oh my God Lauren Ambrose’s wardrobe! Is gorgeous! Even to me! And I’m not that into clothes!) Everything feels more important and less joke-y, but it’s still hilarious. Very much worth seeing.
  2. Robot and Frank. Eh. A clever concept and an excellent performance by Frank Langella, but the script is flawed, particularly in its auxiliary characters (i.e., the children). And there’s a central logical mistake, too. Still, that robot is awfully sweet. Or “sweet.” Naturally, [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER] John cried when they wiped his memory. I loves me my tender, lovin’ man.
  3. Precious Little. The current Shotgun Players production. Like Sleepwalk, also very much worth seeing, and it closes on Sunday, so hurry on over. The tightly written script is very satisfying to untangle post-show. Prepare to deconstruct!
  4. Darkness Visible, by William Styron. Just beautiful. So compassionate and humane.
  5. Top Chef: Masters. Oh, how I love Top Chef in all of its iterations—well, except for Just Desserts, which is surprisingly uninspired. But anyway, I adore this franchise. And it’s the only television show that John-the-freakish-outlier will watch with me, which makes it especially delightful. Ask me about my Friday night! When John and I ate dinner in bed! While watching multiple episodes! And pausing every few minutes to discuss and predict! (Short version: Heaven.)

That’s it for Monday, folks.

The Wild Bride

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

The Berkeley Rep’s new show—not technically a Berkeley Rep show but a Kneehigh Theater production—is some serious myth-making magnificence.

Dark, creepy, gorgeous, violent, sad, and weird, it’s a tangle of fairy tale, Robert Johnson, Eastern European folk song, and expressionist dance.

Highly recommend, but not if you’re feeling fragile. The content can be hard to take.

Today in Theater

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

The Berkeley Rep’s new show is fantastic.

Here and there on this blog I’ve made mention of Bill Cain, writer of Equivocation, one of my all-time favorite plays.

Welp, fervid fans, he’s done it again, with a very personal play about his mother’s final 9 months of life, during which he cared for her. It’s deep and warm and wise and hilarious, and the actors are rocket-blasting it out of the park.

That’s a night at the theater.

Bill Cain, you are my hero.

Family drama, I can never get enough of you.

Everybody, I’m feeling massive amounts of love all up in here.

The OSF: So Many Things to Love

Monday, September 12th, 2011

We’re back from Ashland. It was our fourth visit in 7 years, and well worth it as per usual. In particular, during this trip I felt very keenly the joy of establishing a relationship with an event—or, really, with the entire festival—and of returning to see it grow and change (and, in lovely ways, remain the same) over the years.

Here are some things I love about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

1) It is a very tight ship. With three theaters + outdoor performance space, 12 plays, and 4-7 performances a day, including rotating sets within one theater, it’d be fair to expect a certain amount of chaos.

Nope. In fact, every single play starts on time, with the officious choreography of synchronized shutting doors. The very ritual of that makes me shiver with pleasure.

2) Overlapping actors. When you see more than one play at the OSF (and we saw five*), you inevitably encounter actors you’ve seen in other performances. Which underscores the fact that they’re, you know, acting.

In other words, when the brash, money-grubbing wife of Argan in The Imaginary Invalid shows up as the cringing, broken Ivy in August: Osage County, you begin to see the range of what actress Terri McMahon can do. And that is immensely satisfying.

*Yes, we squoze in an extra, as John would say.

3) They are not afraid to take liberties. Not only will they set Shakespeare in, say, drab and generic 1970’s municipal government buildings (see this year’s mind-blowing production of Measure for Measure), but they’ll transform a Molière script into a 1960’s Parisian fantasia, maintaining only the essential nugget of the original. Which, if you’ve already seen/read your share of Molière and feel a bit sheepishly that every play he wrote was exactly the same, is just the right medicine.

4) The performances are excellent. Once in a while, an actor isn’t hitting his/her mark, and that happened a couple of times this year—more than it ever has, actually. But for the most part, the direction is fiercely smart, the acting is impeccable, and the experience as an audience member is richly rewarding. The actors are just throwing it down, throwing it down, throwing it down. Even with a script that doesn’t quite work, which is how we felt about this, the actors are giving so generously that you find yourself on the receiving end.

5) They rent costumes! 27,000 of them! Which I didn’t know until just now. Halloween in Ashland must kick some serious ass.

And now, I have to return to Measure for Measure, which was unforgettable. I’ve always loved that play, I suppose mainly because it’s about morality, which is a favorite topic of mine. I’ve also always chafed at the ending, which seems bizarre and tacked-on, a kind of throw-up-my-hands-to-the-conventions-of-comedy on the part of Shakespeare. (But why, Shakespeare, why? Didn’t you, like, invent modern theater in the West?)

Director Bill Rauch cleared all of that up for me, by, a) giving Mariana a personality, so that we understand why she wants to marry Angelo, even after all of his treachery comes to light; b) deepening Isabel’s character, so that we see why a public life might appeal to her, even after she has seemed so committed to a cloistered one; and c) eliminating the final couplet and ending the play with a choice on Isabel’s part, not an understanding that she’ll marry the duke. BREATHTAKING. Literally: The audience gasped as the lights went down.

Kudos to Stephanie Beatriz, too. Her Isabel was gorgeously sympathetic, when I’ve only ever seen that part played as prim.

All in all, a good week in Oregon, friends. We’ll be back.

Theater Week

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Last night we saw this. It was the first preview, and the show’s still getting its legs, but: a solid good time. Thank you, Rita Moreno, for your fabulosity.

Also, were you aware that Rita, Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and Irene Kara are all alumni of The Electric Company? I see YouTube clips in my future. (Or, now, my very recent past.)

On Monday we’re headed to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which we love mightily. Here’s what we’re seeing:

Measure for Measure. One of my favorites. And while I’ve caught a couple of movie versions, I’ve never seen it performed on the stage. THRILLING!

Pirates of Penzance. I’ve never seen this, either, believe it or not. FUN.

August: Osage County. Twisted family drama. My three favorite words afterpink nubbin tailio.”

The African Company Presents Richard III. This is one of those about Shakespeare plays that likely comes with very juicy reverberations about all manner of topics, although here, I suspect, primarily race. (See also Equivocation, one of the best plays we’ve ever attended at OSF, and maybe anywhere.)

With a day of driving on either side, that’s 6 days away and a play a day while there. Catch you on the other side!

Movie, Book, TV, Play

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Yes, folks. I was able to get all four into a single weekend—avec parental visit! Here’s how it went:

The movie: Beginners. Far lovelier than it’s been given credit for in the reviews I’ve read. A wistful, lugubrious mood-movie about grief, intimacy, and the difficulty of both. I found it mainly very charming, with an excellent and piercing ending, and also just a smidge too Miranda-July-twee for my tastes. Mike Mills appears to have married her between Thumbsucker and this film, and boy, is her influence apparent. Still, I will see The Future, because supposedly it has things to say.

The book: The Finkler Question. My experience of reading this book was initially polluted by a guy (the proprietor?) at Walden Pond Books in Oakland, who tried to prevent me from buying it. He kept saying “It’s British Woody Allen” (nope) and “You either love it or you hate it” (again, nope), while redirecting my attention to this book, in which I have no current interest. (As I said to my friend C, I don’t like historical fiction. The only thing I care about is relationships. Or at least feelings.)

Don’t try to dissuade people from buying books, Walden Pond guy!

ANYway, I’m now halfway through Finkler, and it’s mostly an amusing thought-puzzle. I’d like for it to go somewhere, but I don’t think it will.

The TV: Pilot of Big Love. And . . . no. I think I could have stomached the premise if the pilot had taken its time in developing the characters and hadn’t rushed to telegraph who they are. I’d also have preferred to have been kept from the melodrama at the original family compound until later episodes (or to have avoided it entirely). As it is, I can’t stomach it. Also, did anyone else notice the almost creepy similarity between the structure/premise of Big Love and that of The Riches, the FX show which had a mostly fantastic first season? (I couldn’t watch the second due to shark-jumping.)

The play: Shaw’s Candida at Cal Shakes. Not my favorite Shaw play, but well acted and amusingly directed. And boy, can you not beat the environs. If you want to give your parents an echt-NorCal experience, I recommend a picnic and then a play in those lush hills. We had two of our three sets of parents there, to excellent effect.

That’s it, folks. Back to Monday!


Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Last night, thanks to an invitation from C and J (hearts!), we did this.

I had heard an excerpt from a Mortified show on This American Life, and while it was funny, I worried that the piece was an exception and that the in-person franchise would be haphazard and hit-or-miss.


The show was extremely well culled, edited, and produced. Every piece was hilarious. The delivery was perfect.

And in a stroke of genius, there was an improv hip-hop band to instantly recast every reading in song. I loved that, both because the songs gave us more time to be with the material and because they did so in a compassionate way. They felt like a gift to the readers, in return for their generous vulnerability.

(And it made me want to be a part of the show, to see what the band would do with my high-school material.)

What I loved most about the evening was the spirit of comradeship and compassion. We were there to love, even as we howled. What I learned years ago when doing the Rosen Method felt very much alive in the space, and that is this: When people are vulnerable, they are lovable. Everybody. Period.