"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"America's True National Theater" - Hamlet at the OSF

Regarding the title of this post, that was just too good a quote to pass up! I'm always ready for a  rave about this year's fabulous Hamlet:
America's true National Theater resides right now at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under the leadership of Artistic Director Bill Rauch. Go now to see his extraordinary production of Hamlet. It’s as vivid, immediate, powerful, and emotional a production of Shakespeare as you are ever likely to experience—and it’s only running through October. - R. J. Cutler, of "The Buzz Board: Smart People Recommend" feature at Internet's The Daily Beast

This statement makes me very happy since I spent so many years a loyal follower of Arena Stage when I lived in DC and VA, and that has a special history and legacy too as American regional theatre. That's years ago though, and in fairness there's no comparison between the two theater companies. Arena put on several plays a year in succession; OSF runs even more plays in continual rotation! For me, theatre's happening right here now.

So this is national theater, he says. Whatever it is, every play is worth seeing, something special, to say the least, while this year's Hamlet is a Hamlet for a lifetime. It's that elusive "great theatre" that I've only experienced a few times in my life.

Above, the stunning opening of the play. Staging! Below, Hamlet getting at the truth with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern - wonderfully cast as girl buddies.

 OSF's  Hamlet: Last time I wrote about it I determined to see it again; now I've seen it again--and again, I'm so dazzled that it's hard to get the critical machinery cranked up even to explain why. So I think I'll try to get at least one more performance in and then maybe I'll be able to summon up the necessary distance to write about it critically. Sounds like a good reason to see it again, to me! Right now I'm too  much in love. Clue: Dan Donohue IS Hamlet. I'm now a confirmed fan of this extraordinary actor. I'd like to see another great OSF play this year, She Loves Me, again just to see his hilarious cameo as the waiter, but tickets are very hard to get. Deservedly so. Of course the production of Hamlet is far more than its lead actor and the rest of it is as good as he is. Shocking, contemporary, clear, with depths of wit that I've never seen before in a lifetime of Hamlets...

For example, here's a good blog post about the use of deaf actor Howie Seago (above, as the Ghost). I've seen him in a couple of plays this year and the way OSF does it, his deafness and sign language always make it seem as if that's exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. Everything in these OSF plays is clear and highly focused, bringing out the structures of the plays. As a bonus, the post referenced here also includes a vid of the Ghost scene from Kozintsev's "Soviet  Hamlet" - which was, up until this year, my favorite Hamlet ever.

I wonder if these stills really convey much about the production to someone who hasn't seen it yet. For me, of course, they have full fan value! Wish me luck in getting another ticket. So far I've seen it from far left, middle and from far left, front row; I've been trying to get a ticket from a different part of the theatre - but don't want to sit too far back. I did love seeing the faces up close, for this one. (Update - I did just snag two more, at member discount price, that look like very good seats, and neither where I've sat before!)

Ha - just saw this. I've heard legends of people seeing this production of Hamlet many times (a neighbor will have seen it five times; I just bought two more tickets and will see it four times). My physical therapist claims to know someone who's seen it something like 50 times. Left, From a Medford review: "Twelve-year-old Alex Ainsworth holds 97 ticket stubs from Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of “Hamlet,” which she’s accumulated this year alone in her trips to see the Bard’s play." She plans to see it 116 times by the time the run ends. I thought I was bad! I would be badder if I were richer. This is a girl after my own heart. I attended OSF at  her age and went on to be an English major and love the bard the rest of my life. The way she's going, she'll be the world's greatest authority on Hamlet at my age.

Dan Donohue, who has played many years at OSF, isn't being cast in one of next year's plays. I hope he doesn't stay away too long. What I wouldn't give to time-travel back to see him as Prince Hal here (and the full trilogy!) in the OSF of years past.

[2011 UPDATE with good news! Blackstone Audio is producing an audio version of the play with the cast from the 2010 production.] Further update: you can hear a good portion from Act I online. It sold me and I picked up a copy the other day. It's too bad that they couldn't catch the wonderful scenes with Howie Seago as the Ghost, because it was sheer magic the way Hamlet's interpretation of the Ghost's signing the lines added a whole other dimension to the nature of the ghost and Hamlet's relationship to him. However the good news is that in the audio version, Anthony Heald plays the Ghost, and so it's apples and oranges, can't really compare the two, but they're all good!

Friday, September 3, 2010

In honor of Labor Day: some novels, movies, and a song

For American Labor Day, here are some novels on American themes, showing people at work: journalist, farmer, academic, symbologist... symbologist? And where is the Labor Movement in this? Where indeed? After the book reviews stick around for the rally, and then bring the spirit back to your community!


Siddons, Anne Rivers. Downtown (1994). This engaging novel captures the spirit of a pivotal and extraordinary moment.  In1966 the Civil Rights Movement has opened the door to change, and the very old-South city of Atlanta, Georgia is on the cusp of transformation into the nation’s poster child of a modern, racially integrated, economically vibrant South.

In this context, individuals--writers, lawyers, activists--are challenged as well, and their lives are transformed according to the choices they make. Some, just entering adulthood, must find their maturity in the midst of all this turmoil and promise (baby boomer readers who came of age at that time might remember what that was like) and the young journalists at Downtown, Atlanta’s “city magazine,” serve as the lens through which the reader views, and understands, the special Atlanta situation. The novel has two protagonists, really--Smokey, a newly-minted young writer, and the city itself.

So much has changed since then that it seems right, now, to revisit that time, and reconsider this view of the South in a more hopeful period of social and economic progress. It wasn’t really that long ago, but it feels like a long-gone era to me right now.


Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres (1991). Though the time it covers is contemporaneous, more or less, with the time it was written, this reads like a historical novel as well, capturing the American Midwest in a similarly challenging period of transition. But here, the arc is from prosperity to devastation as traditional farming culture is overtaken by corporate agribusiness and individual farmers are lured into economic ruin by pressures to take out loans they ultimately cannot repay. (Those who've seen The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a fine documentary film, will be reminded of that farmer’s life, here.)

The title refers to the family patriarch’s dream of increasing his landholdings into what he envisions as a dynasty--an ambition defeated by his growing madness, by the uncooperative independence of his three daughters, and of course by an increasingly unstable economic climate. Though the parallels and references here to King Lear are obvious, I can't help feeling Lear aspect was overemphasized by critics. I read this as an “anti-Lear” in which the daughters are the main characters, and the story is not limited by the reference to Shakespeare; that is, you don't need to know anything about his Lear to read this as a complete work in itself. But certainly, Lear provides a dramatic context and much psychological and cultural resonance, as the author searches the soul of this country in the late twentieth century.

For me, in A Thousand Acres Smiley achieved that holy grail of American novelists, the Great American Novel. Beautifully written, with earthy humor, subtle insight into complex issues, and great empathy for its resilient characters, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992.


Smiley, Jane. Moo (1995) Smiley is such a fine writer and all her books are so different from one another that she kind of amazes me. Moo takes as its starting point the classic “academic” or “campus” novel, a genre that’s usually too self-referential and claustrophobic for my taste--but here, Smiley takes a tired convention and expands it into something more universal and surprisingly original. In this story of a third-rate Midwestern university with origins as an agricultural college (hence its popular name, “Moo U”), she uses the campus as a microcosm of society and it’s a very dark comedy indeed -- delicious, satiric, witty, and far-reaching. “Moo U” provides a provocative education.


Brown, Dan. The Lost Symbol (2009). In honor of Labor Day, we’ve looked so far at novels of journalism, farming and academics. But what would fiction be without an imaginary occupation? Enter Robert Langdon, a world famous Symbologist. This is a fun job that ought to exist but doesn’t, at least not in the way that Langdon works it, and through this device, Dan Brown clearly signals to the reader at the outset that his fiction should not be read as fact, even if some of it is true (and intentionally provocative).

The author of The DaVinci Code, and a slew of similar novels, found a mother lode of material for his fiction in the rich world of obscure scholarship and minor popular arcana that lurks just beyond the consensual reality of mainstream culture. Then, with the razzle-dazzle that has become his trademark, he mashes it all up, in rather sensationalistic style, into a genre of suspense novels set in famous places.

I include this story here because it takes place in Washington, DC, and anyone familiar with our nation’s capital can appreciate the puzzle box Brown makes out of that wonderfully quirky city: it's just made for chase scenes. Here, the heroes race (for hundreds of pages at breakneck speed) through DC’s unique landmarks and historical lore in search of the secret to enlightenment (or something--it scarcely matters what), in a comprehensive if questionable tour of the (not really) “hidden” history of the city and its founders’ (purported) real intentions. As I said, it’s not factual (indeed it's larded - I suspect intentionally - with anti-facts among the true ones) but it’s a fun trip and perhaps a good choice for the last of the summer reading.

Actually, for Labor Day, I'm stumping my brain for novels I've really liked that deal with the actual labor movement. I can think of songs and movies and poems and art - but novels? Anybody?

Meanwhile, here's one of my all-time favorite lyricists, Malvina Reynolds, singing her classic "The Little Red Hen"... (with Pete Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliot enjoying the song):