Sunday, March 29, 2009

Oy vey

As I mentioned, I saw Irena's Vow this week. The play is based on the true story of Irene Opdyke, a Polish Catholic woman who saved the lives of several Jews during the Shoah, making it an obvious topic of interest for Commonweal! You'll have to wait for my take to appear in the magazine, but in the meantime I'd like to call your attention to the interview with Tovah Feldshuh in today's New York Times. There's a lot to love about this article, but I was especially taken with the last two paragraphs:
[Feldshuh's] only impediment with “Irena’s Vow,” she said, was trying to understand the Catholic belief in Jesus as God incarnate.

“In my tradition,” she said, “it’s forbidden to engage in idol worship, and I wondered how I would approach Irena’s idea of Christ, and that he is the son of God. In her modesty she believed she had help, she felt surrounded by the Christ. I tend to think more along the scientific terms of a universal energy force.”
Sometimes it's interesting to learn all about how actors approach their character work. And's better not to know.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Inner City Pressure

Seen on the uptown 1 train last week: Greg! "Grig" Greg, from the New Zealand Consulate on The Flight of the Conchords! Pretty exciting. I was going to link to the show's website, but it's dismayingly lame. (Two words -- well, two abbreviated words: Fan vids.) So I won't. You might enjoy the MySpace page, though. And speaking of obsessive fans with too much time on their hands: did you know Mel has a blog?

Oh, and, uh, "Grig" is really Tony Award winner Frank Wood (Best Featured Actor, Side Man, 1999). So that's pretty cool also.

Things the ladies sitting behind me at last night's performance of Irena's Vow said out loud while the show was in progress

[When Tovah Feldshuh entered] "There she is."

[In the middle of a scene] "You know who she reminds me of?" [lengthy exchange about which actress on which TV show Feldshuh reminds this lady of. Finally:] "The girl from Another World, that's it."

"I knew he was gonna say that."

"Ohhhh, she can't keep the baby."

"He loves her."

[After a character onstage says, "On one condition..." and pauses meaningfully] "...Marry me." [A bad guess, by the way.]

"You get the gist." [?]

"Oh no, he's not gonna kill himself!"

All of these come directly from my notes on the show. Since the four ladies behind me were speaking as loudly as any of the actors in front of me, I figured I might as well write down their contributions to the script. (Which don't accurately reflect its content, by the way--no spoilers here.) I have not included the many, many exchanges that went like this: "What?" "[Someone else repeats whatever was just said onstage]" "Oh." And there were also several moments when something very mildly interesting happened in the play, and the women behind me reacted with a loud "Hm" or "Oh" -- but all four of them would do this in succession, so that I and everyone around me heard, "Oh. OH. Oh. Ohhhh."

Instead of telling people to turn off their phones -- which never works anyway (someone's phone rang during this show and they didn't even try to turn it off! It rang six or seven times!) -- I think preshow announcements should say, "If you should have a thought during tonight's performance, please remember that it's OK not to vocalize everything that comes into your head. In fact, when you're in a theatre watching a live performance, you're encouraged to keep your thoughts to yourself." Spread the word! Tell your friends!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

You can talk at home for free

Why did the woman in the row behind us feel the need to narrate everything that was happening onstage to her teenage son? He could see and hear. He seemed to be of average intelligence. And it's not like In the Heights is all that hard to follow. Sure, there's a lot of Spanish, but this woman didn't seem to know any Spanish (thank God). She was describing the most obvious things, and doing so out loud. And I mean loud -- not even in a normal conversational tone, but louder, since she was trying to make herself heard over the show that was happening onstage. For me, the final straw came during "Benny's Dispatch," when Benny made reference to the "GWB" and I heard this woman shout, "...THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE." I was like, Lady, I'm sure you're very proud of yourself for knowing the lingo, but it's not crucial to the plot, so maybe you could refrain from showing off to your child until the show is over.

Of course, when I say that was "the final straw," all I mean is that's when I decided not to feel bad about turning around and giving these people a dirty look. But as you might have guessed, they weren't the type to notice or respond to dirty looks (and they were getting a bunch from the people sitting much closer than I was). Quite frankly, I'm not sure this lady realized there were other people present. So the patter kept up, all through the show. And I kept thanking God that In the Heights is such a loud show. Although, once I thought about it, I realized I'm not sure where to draw the line between cause and effect: was it the volume of the show (and the actors' mics in particular) that made this woman feel like it was OK to yell whatever came into her head? If she'd been doing that in a quieter theatre, the whole audience would have been shushing her after the first ninety seconds. On the other hand, maybe consistently noisy audiences are the reason the show's volume is turned up so high. This possibility occurred to me as we settled in for the second act, and I could hear a woman across the aisle open a bag of chips (why in the world would a theatre sell people chips?!) and start munching loudly. Then her cell phone rang, and she had to rummage through her bag to turn it off, making the bag of chips go crinkle, crinkle. Then back to eating. And then the phone rang AGAIN. I was just about ready to throw my program at her when the orchestra really kicked in... and after that I couldn't hear her anymore.

Speaking of obnoxious behavior at musicals, The Onion has a truly harrowing account of a situation I think we can all relate to: Oh No, Performers Coming Into Audience. Shudder.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Cursing the darkness

I had read about the custom many times before: when a theatre luminary dies, the lights of all the Broadway theatres are dimmed, briefly and simultaneously, in a show of respect. I am accustomed to seeing the announcements on Playbill Online, but until last night I had never actually seen the dimming in person. Last night I had tickets to see In the Heights (again -- I'm reviewing it for Commonweal along with the new West Side Story), and because the Richard Rodgers Theatre has a less-than-accomodating lobby, the husband and I were still outside, standing in a very long line waiting to enter, at 8:00, when the lights on the theatre marquee, and the one across the street, went dark. I was grateful I was there to see it, and happy that I knew what it signified. Requiescat in pace.

The person being honored in this case was Natasha Richardson. I will say nothing more on that topic except this: I heard she had died on Thursday morning, while I was watching NY1. As Pat Kiernan explained that she had been removed from a ventilator the previous night, they cut to a shot of her husband and children arriving at their apartment and stepping out of their car into a barrage of flashbulbs. Liam Neeson gave a sad little wave as he headed inside. A few minutes later, during "In the Papers," Kiernan held up that day's edition of the New York Post (or was it the New York Daily News?). On the cover was a still shot from that same moment -- Neeson, ambushed outside his home -- and the headline "LIAM'S GRIEF." I can't quite describe how disgusted I felt -- and still feel -- looking at all that, and being implicated in it. It reminded me of the scene toward the end of A Star Is Born where one of Vicki Lester's "fans" rips off her mourning veil as she is leaving Norman's funeral.

I know that a lot of celebrities rail against "the media" and bemoan their lack of privacy even as their publicists are sending out press releases every time they go to the grocery store. When those celebs get hounded by the press, they're quite literally asking for it. But Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson were never like that, and to me that makes the intrusion on their lives in this case much more shameless. I'm not usually inclined to jeremiads against Our Corrupt Culture, and it's not like it makes a difference where I think this particular handbasket is headed. But if we honestly believe the public's right to see the look on a famous actor's face shortly after he has watched his wife die is more important than his right to privacy in that moment, then God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Best. Party. Ever.

As you know if you read my many, increasingly stressed-out posts on the topic, my wedding, in January 2008, was the culmination of nearly a year of planning and fretting. Our goal was to have a liturgy that captured the significance of the sacrament, followed by a party that expressed the joy we felt. And since we both come from big Irish families, and since the reception would be attended by a number of kids (cousins, nieces and nephews), we tried to make that family spirit a part of everything we did. In my not-so-humble opinion, all that planning paid off, and the day was a big success. But you don't have to take my word for it: just ask my niece!

That inscription, in case you don't speak kindergarten, says "I went to my aunt's wedding" (or "I wat to my auts wading." Aren't you impressed with how she broke the word at the end of the line?). The best celebration she's attended in all her six-and-a-half years. I'm very proud of that distinction. I think the cake had a lot to do with it -- it was banana flavored, and it turned out to be a very big hit. "I don't even like bananas," Celia's brother Regan told me the next morning, "but I do like banana cake!" Imagine!

By the way, you might assume, as I did, that Celia's drawing depicts Mr. O'Reilly and me in our finery. But my brother told me he's pretty sure she actually drew herself and either Regan or her fellow then-five-year-old cousin. (Obviously.) Not to worry: the kids are central to our own memories of the day, and our professional wedding-reception photos include a lot of shots of the kids having fun on the dance floor, just as we'd hoped. They'd been looking forward to the big day for months, and they could not wait to break in their dancing shoes. Here's a shot of what the reception looked like within the first 10 minutes (click to enlarge; Celia is in the group on the left, wearing black tights):

Regan was right about the cake, by the way. It rocked. We didn't expect to have leftovers, but the staff at the hotel thoughtfully boxed up the top layer and sent it up to our suite, so we dutifully wrapped it and froze it as tradition dictates. A year later, on our first anniversary, we defrosted it and dug in, with some trepidation.

The icing tasted a bit too much like the Ziploc bag it had been in, but the cake itself was surprisingly fresh and banana-y. Here's to many more years of sweet memories, and family celebrations!

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Bridge Project reviewed

I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing The Bridge Project's double bill of The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale at BAM, but as you may have noticed, I never came back with a review. That's because I was saving it for Commonweal. But now it's in print, and online, so I can share it with you! Here's a taste:
Presented in repertory, these classic plays resonate in unexpected ways. Both have a lengthy pastoral scene at their center, bringing much needed sunlight into the gloom. And both plays are haunted by the memory of a dead son. Mendes looks for ways to emphasize these echoes, such as setting the opening of The Winter’s Tale in a nursery (just as Chekhov directs for The Cherry Orchard). But he also overinterprets some things better left ambiguous: he stages a tableau in The Winter’s Tale that makes Leontes’s baseless suspicions seem reasonable, and he leans too hard on the historical context of Chekhov’s domestic drama. Arresting visuals and consummate performances make both productions compelling, but The Cherry Orchard is less uneven and more authoritative.

The transatlantic cast is particularly strong on the British side: Simon Russell Beale brings heartbreaking depth to Lopakhin and Leontes, and Rebecca Hall’s intellectual gravity is perfectly suited to Chekhov’s Varya and the wronged queen Hermione. SinĂ©ad Cusack is endearing as the hapless landowner Ranevskaya and bracing as the righteous Paulina, defender of Hermione. The finest of the American actors is Richard Easton, humorous and affecting as The Cherry Orchard’s Firs and The Winter’s Tale’s kindly Shepherd.
The rest is mainly concerned with how the two plays resonate together. I hope you'll check it out.

If you're fortunate enough to have a hard copy, I also recommend the feature article on The Vagina Monologues and their performance on Catholic college campuses ("Be Not Afraid," by Cathleen Kaveny). I think it's a very sensible analysis of a neuralgic issue, one consistently blown out of proportion partly because both sides in the debate believe they stand to gain from the hype. That piece, like so many of our treasures, is subscriber-only online -- which means there's never been a better time to subscribe, if you ask me!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Grounds for impeachment

A few weeks back I crossed a major item off my to-do list: I backed up my computer, including my mp3s, on an external hard drive. My previous laptop died pretty suddenly, taking with it all sorts of files I don't need but was sorry to lose. And that was before I'd started using iTunes. So, as the present one reaches middle-age, I decided it was high time I prepared for the worst.

In the process I also expanded my music collection a bit, because registering the hard drive with the manufacturer scored me some free Emusic downloads. Sweet! The deal included one audiobook. Now, I've never been an audiobook person -- I like my books on paper. (Although I can imagine I'd adapt if I spent a lot of time in a car.) But this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out something I've wanted to read but haven't been motivated enough to buy: Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father. During the election I was so busy trying to tune out all the nonsense about how Obama was a foreign-born secret Muslim that I didn't really learn many actual, true details about his background. I had heard, though, that this book was good, and furthermore that he actually wrote it himself, so I was curious. It seemed like a good audiobook choice, because I wasn't expecting it to be such a literary masterpiece that it would be diminished in the transition from written to spoken word. And because, by the same token, I probably wouldn't mind that it was "abridged." And finally, and maybe most important, because it was read by Obama himself. With most politicians that would be a liability, but Obama -- what can I say? The man has a very nice voice.

One of the reasons I like books-on-paper is that you can find out when they were published, what edition you're reading, etc. Since I didn't have a copyright page, or even a box, to consult, I had no idea when exactly this book was written or when the audio version (read by Obama himself) was recorded. I just jumped in, and when I hit "play," the first track turned out to be a preface, for an updated edition, explaining the circumstances under which Obama wrote the book. In his signature syncopated rhythm, Obama explains that he was receiving a lot of media attention, because "I was the first African-American president..." He paused just long enough for me to do a double-take: When did he have time to record this?! -- before he finished the thought: "...of the Harvard Law Review." Oh.

As it turns out, he wrote the book just after graduating from law school, and recorded the audio version while he was a senator. It's obvious he didn't spend a lot of time preparing for his recording session: he reads with his usual bumpy rhythms, but often he begins a sentence without seeming to know where it will end. It's hard to explain in writing, but you probably know what I mean -- regular churchgoers will be familiar with this phenomenon as demonstrated by the lector-who-hasn't-prepared. (It's particularly noticeable when someone is struggling through a cold read of one of St. Paul's epic sentences.) Sometimes, as I listen, I get distracted thinking about how writing-for-reading differs from writing-for-speaking, and how inflection can be used to indicate punctuation when you're reading from a book. That's another problem with audiobooks, at least for me: my mind wanders and I forget I'm supposed to pay attention. With real books you can at least go back to the top of the page without too much hassle!

As I've noted, Mr. Obama is a particularly visible president, at least compared to his predecessor. He's always giving a speech about something -- and in these worrisome times, people are actually interested enough to listen. So we're all getting used to hearing his voice every time we turn on the television or radio. And it's a little surreal for me to hear that same voice in my ear when I'm cooking, or riding a bus down Riverside Drive... Except, instead of delivering a frank but confident assessment of the economy or foreign policy, he's telling me about his boyhood in Indonesia and his pet monkey.

I hadn't yet gotten to Obama's high-school years, and his friendship with "Ray," when the Boston Phoenix posted these audio snippets from Dreams from My Father (which I learned about via Wonkette). In context (as I learned when I finally listened long enough), the conversations between "Barry" and "Ray" lead to a sensitive, candid and truly edifying discussion of how experiences of racism and questions about racial identity figured into Obama's adolescence. But out of context, the Ray dialogue generates some hilarious soundbites. Which brings us to the Phoenix's brilliant idea to edit and post some clips. The framing device is kind of lame. The audio editing is sometimes sloppy (which makes the clips less funny). But, in the end, what you have is a downloadable mp3 of the 44th president saying, for example, "Sure you can have my number, baby." (Not to mention other hilarious, less family-friendly things.) And that's something I think we can all appreciate.