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Haunting the Library

May 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Improv Everywhere posted their latest mission at their website this morning. You can watch the video above. It’s enjoyable enough, but not one of my favorites, perhaps because I was never much of a fan of Ghostbusters.

The video presentation of the mission shouldn’t be watched in isolation. Read also the description of the mission that follows the video at the mission webpage. Of particular interest is the fact that the mission originated through a request by the New York Public Library to host a mission as a means of publicizing their current financial difficulties.

Watching the three ghosts enter the library’s reading room, I found myself thinking of an on-line discussion at Andrew Sullivan’s blog last week regarding the wearing of burqas and niqabs. The discussion’s starting point was a piece by Christopher Hitchens at Slate on the issue of banning the wearing of burqas in France. Hitchens notes, as part of his discussion, that “[o]n the door of my bank in Washington, D.C., is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn’t bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning: A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt. This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official.”

Sullivan made reference to Hitchens’ article here, then continued the thread with several more posts sharing reader reactions. Of particular interest in the context of the New York Public Library mission is this reader’s comment:

I work in a public library in a very large American city and have encountered several women in a burqa at the reference desk. Immediately I am struck by how our culture is not set up for a woman to be almost completely covered like that. I am a woman, and have found myself several times by myself at the reference desk trying to converse with another woman, who happens to be veiled. The veil made it difficult to hear these women since it covered their mouths. It occurred to me this burqa is not designed for a free society where women are allowed and actually expected to speak for themselves. Body language communication was impossible to read from these veiled women which is such a huge part of conversing, almost as big as the words actually said.

Watch the video again. See the guard question the first ghost. Notice the reactions of the patrons when ghosts sit next to them. There’s no religious context here, just the oddity of sharing space with someone whose only visible facial features are his, or her, eyes.

Categories: Humor, Movies, Theater

Ford’s Theater

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In my last two posts on our trip to Washington, D.C., and Civil War battlefields, I discussed our return to Washington from Gettysburg and subsequent visit to the National Museum of American History, then our dinner that evening at Café du Parc. In this post, I’ll move on to our visit of Ford’s Theater the next morning (a week ago today)..

I had decided after we visited the battlefield in Gettysburg that the theater would be a perfect place to conclude our Civil War travels, and so it was. We had started our journey on Saturday at Harpers Ferry, where John Brown‘s raid of the federal armory in 1859 played a key role in the build-up to war, and whose takeover by Confederate troops in September 1862 was the lead-in to the battle a couple of days later at Antietam, site of the greatest number of casualties in a single day in US military history. Antietam National Battlefield was, in fact, our next stop, that afternoon. That night we arrived in Gettysburg, whose Gettysburg National Military Park we visited over the next two days. This was the scene of the worst battle of the Civil War, from July 1 to July 3, 1863. After driving to DC on Monday afternoon, we reviewed more Civil War history at the National Museum of American History, and had a look at the furniture used by Generals Lee and Grant to sign documents after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Now, Tuesday morning, we were to visit Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated just five days later.

The theater sits on 10th Street, between E and F Streets. Our hotel was also between E and F, just west of 14th Street. Thus the theater was a short walk away. We had 10:00 reservations, or so I thought. It turns out that I had screwed up in my effort to secure reservations through Ticketmaster two nights earlier, a screw-up I actually blame on Ticketmaster, but it won’t do any good now. There are several options for visiting, depending on what time one chooses and what else is happening at the theater (which is a working theater, with on-going productions). One can visit the museum in the basement, under the theater itself. Or one can combine a museum visit with a ranger talk. Or one can combine the museum visit with the viewing of a short play, One Destiny. I tried to choose the third option. It seems I had selected the second. I was aware of the ambiguity at the Ticketmaster website and so re-started the process several times in order to try to resolve the ambiguity correctly, but Ticketmaster defeated me. When I got to the box office at 9:45 to pick up our tickets, I learned that we were too late — the ranger talk started at 9:30. But I didn’t want the ranger talk. Well, tickets were still available for the 10:00 entry with museum and play, at a charge of $5.00 apiece. This was odd, since Ticketmaster said everything was free, except for fees, which I had already paid for nothing. No matter. No point arguing. We were there for the play. We could see the play. We just had to kiss goodbye the $6.00 I had already invested for nothing through Ticketmaster and pay another $10.00, then get on line, where Gail was already standing, behind a gigantic school group.

At 10:00, we were let in and directed to the museum in the basement. The structure of our visit was now clear. We would be allowed to look at the exhibits until a little before 10:45, when we would be sent back upstairs for the play, and then (I suspected) we would be kicked out; that is, we would be denied further access to the museum, unless we wanted to get tickets for later entry. This is indeed what happened, to Gail’s immense frustration, since we hadn’t had time to see all the exhibits before the play and she wanted to go back downstairs afterwards. It isn’t easy to see everything, by the way, when a group of some 60 kids is wandering around, chatting, texting, etc. I don’t blame them. I wonder how well prepared they were for the visit. They weren’t loud or boisterous. Just distracted. And there was also a group of ten or so bigwigs getting a private tour by a young woman, the quality of whose comments seemed distinctly lower than the text of the displays. This group tended to be more of a problem than the kids, since the group would stand in front of exhibits for minutes at a time while being spoken to.

Anyway, there was lots to see. including the centerpiece: the derringer that John Wilkes Booth used to shoot Lincoln. Around 10:40, we headed upstairs behind the massive school group and took our seats for the play. It was unexpectedly effective. There are two actors, playing the roles of Harry Ford, eponymous co-owner of the Theater, and Harry Hawk, the comedic actor who was on stage in mid-performance when Booth shot Lincoln and jumped down. They review the events of the day, taking on the roles of others in the theater that day as well as themselves while discussing what happened and what might have been. The production lasted about 35 minutes, after which the two actors (Stephen F. Schmidt and Michael Bunce) stayed onstage to answer audience questions for about 20 minutes. They were every bit as good at this as they were at acting. Very impressive. About halfway through the Q&A, the school group got up to leave. Odd. Perhaps they had a plane to catch. They were quiet, under the circumstances, but it was a distraction. The actors wrapped it up, we left, and were required to exit the theater onto the sidewalk. No going back down to the museum.

Our museum tickets also entitled us to a visit of Petersen House across the street, where Lincoln was taken and tended to after the shooting, and where he died early the next morning. One climbs a stairway from the street to reach the front door, then goes into the front room, where Mary Lincoln waited, then the back room, where Lincoln lay and died. Space is tight, only a handful of people are let in at a time, and only 3 or 4 can stand in the back room, from which a door leads down stairs and around a corner to an alley that returns to the street.

I will never forget how powerful the experience was of coming to the end of David Herbert Donald’s 1995 biography Lincoln and reading the concluding death scene. I felt I was there, as I described in a post I wrote a year ago, on the occasion of Donald’s own death. We were fortunate to visit Ford’s Theater and Petersen House a year after I read the biography, and fortunate to return.

I’ll close with the final paragraph of Donald’s book, his description of the moments after Lincoln died:

In the small, crowded back room there was silence until [Secretary of War] Stanton asked Dr. Gurley to offer a prayer. Robert gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, leaning on Sumner for comfort. Standing at the foot of the bed, his face covered with tears, Stanton paid tribute to his fallen chief: with a slow and measured movement, his right arm fully extended as if in a salute, he raised his hat and placed it for an instant on his head and then in the same deliberate manner removed it. “Now,” he said, “he belongs to the ages.”

Categories: History, Theater, Travel

Sondheim Celebration

March 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, singing at the Sondheim celebration

[Sara Krulwich/The New York Times]

Did you read Stephen Holden’s review in today’s NYT of the concert at Avery Fisher Hall two nights ago in honor of Stephen Sondheim’s upcoming 80th birthday? It sounds glorious. My friend Tina was there, and she wrote a short report about it on her Facebook page last night. (Tina is a talented singer-songwriter who over the last decade has turned to writing/composing songs for musicals. Formerly based in greater Seattle and on Whidbey Island, she now lives in New York.) She called the event “the highest point in my 55 years of show-going. … I kept thinking ‘These are all show-stopping moments. What the hell are they going to do for the finale?’ And then the finale came. Hundreds of performers from shows currently on Broadway streamed down the aisles (all dressed in black), singing the finale from Sunday in the Park with George, they were in every aisle, and even all the boxes, 2, 3 levels up. It was the most beautiful, emotional moment I’ve ever personally experienced in a theatre. Wish everyone who loves Sondheim could have been there.”

I’m in the class of Sondheim lovers, and I sure wish I could have been there. Gail and I especially love Sunday in the Park with George, which we saw on Broadway in August 1985, near the tail end of our honeymoon. You might say it’s our musical. We didn’t see the original cast — Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters were long gone — but it was magical nonetheless.

(Looking over the data at this handy site, I see that Sunday in the Park ran from May 2, 1984 to October 13, 1985, so we would have seen it near the end of its run. Patinkin’s successors were Robert Westenberg and Harry Groener; Peter’s were Betsy Joslyn and Maryann Plunkett. Perhaps, then, we saw Groener and Plunkett. I don’t remember. There was a workshop version in July 1983 that included, in smaller roles, Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski.)

A slide show accompanies the NYT review. Have a look. I’ll close with one quote from Holden’s review:

It remained for Ms. Stritch to deliver the evening’s showstopper, “I’m Still Here.” This great trouper, now 85, used her increasing physical fragility to maximum dramatic effect, building the anthem of show business survival from a dismissive casualness to a peak that was not the usual triumphal assertion of ego. Instead, it became a struggle for the character to break through her own fatigue in little bursts. The final phrases of this daring interpretation ended on a note of ambivalence, as if to say, “I may still be here, but at this point, what does it really matter?” The performance received a standing ovation.

Categories: Music, Theater

Who Knew?

November 19, 2009 Leave a comment

We spent 23 days in France, Italy, New York, and Chicago, and now I discover that if I was looking for great theater, I could have stayed here. The weekly Escapes section in tomorrow’s NYT has an article praising Seattle theater. As one example, Brian Colburn, the new managing director of the Intiman Theater, says, “One of the reasons I came to Seattle was because there’s a theater scene here unlike most other cities. There’s probably as much theater here as in the city of Los Angeles, but the population is one-sixth the size. You can walk from theater to theater here, meet friends or colleagues at a cafe.”

It seems we have good art, music, and food too, all in a beautiful setting. Maybe we should try being tourists here for a week or two.

Categories: Theater, Today's News

Misbehaving Audiences

June 18, 2009 Leave a comment
Tovah Feldshuh in Irena’s Vow

Tovah Feldshuh in Irena’s Vow

I was going through a pile of Wall Street Journals last night before recycling them when I came across the front page feature article from two Saturdays ago. I’m glad I caught it. It has the clever title Are Misbehavin’: No Tonys for These Performances, and in it, Ellen Gamerman writes about some astonishing examples of audience misbehavior these days. For example:

The litany of misdemeanors is long. During a Saturday matinee of the Holocaust drama “Irena’s Vow,” a man walked in late and called up to actress Tovah Feldshuh to halt her monologue until he got settled. “He shouted, ‘Can you please wait a second?’ and then continued on toward his seat,” recalls Nick Ahlers, a science teacher from Newark, N.J., who was in the audience. He says the actress complied.

Ms. Feldshuh says she typically pauses when she’s interrupted. She doesn’t recall the incident, which she says may be evidence of the Zen attitude she’s cultivated onstage. “I have no negative energy about it to even remember,” she says.

Gamerman makes the useful observation that unruly behavior isn’t new: “Rowdy audiences have been around as long as stages. William Shakespeare’s plays were performed outdoors while prostitutes and drunk spectators milled about eating fruit and nuts, talking back to the actors and throwing things at them.”

Maybe this is as it should be. The article ends on a cheery note:

Some shows are beginning to experiment with new etiquette rules. “Hair” director Diane Paulus is exploring ways to make the theater atmosphere more relaxed, less traditional. In order to keep up with the times, she plans to allow cell phones this summer at a theater space at the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Mass., where she is the artistic director.

“I’ll tell you, it’s radical,” she says. “I don’t think there’s a theater in America that tells you to turn your phone on.”

Categories: Theater

Surprise Wedding Reception

June 7, 2009 Leave a comment

The video above (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) is the latest production from Improv Everywhere. I knew about their annual no pants subway rides in New York City, but I hadn’t realized that they have many different types of missions. After watching the video above, I went to their website (linked above) and discovered how much more they do. Some great stuff. I’ve added their feed to my news aggregator, so from now on I’ll be able to see their reports and learn about each new mission as it gets posted.

Plus, when you go to the website, you see photos and read more about each of the missions. For example, the wedding webpage describes how they were lucky to get the tents for the reception because another group was finished using them and they were able to pay extra to extend the rental time.

Below is the video from their Welcome Back mission last November. In this mission, a group of people went out to JFK, where they would find a driver with a name sign waiting for an arriving passenger. They’d tell the driver that they know that person and will wait with him. Then, since they now knew the passenger’s name from the driver’s sign, they would quickly prepare more signs greeting the arrivee. The video shows some of the surprised passengers as they are warmly greeted by a group of total strangers.

Have a look. And go to the Improv Everywhere website to see many more videos, along with photos and mission reports.

Categories: Culture, Theater

Sunday in the Park

May 10, 2009 1 comment

grandejatte

On Friday night, we saw Sunday in the Park with George at the 5th Avenue Theater in downtown Seattle. I guess you could say it’s our musical. We don’t have a song. But we have a musical. We saw it on Broadway near the end of our extended honeymoon, in the summer of 1985.
Read more…

Categories: Theater