Monday, April 27, 2009

In memoriam

In memory of Bea Arthur, I would like to remind you of this excellent NBC 60th Anniversary celebration clip, which I posted almost 2 years ago. The clip has since been removed from YouTube (NBC won't let us have any fun!), but maybe you can recall what it was like to watch Nell Carter, Alfonso Ribeiro, Charlotte Rae, Soleil Moon Frye, et al. sing "Family" from Dreamgirls. Nobody came closer to making it work than Bea did. You see her enter, set down her bag of "groceries," turn to the camera and sing, "We are a family, like a giant tree..." and you think, wow, Bea Arthur could do just about anything with dignity and flair. What a treasure. RIP.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Caryl Churchill's "Play for Gaza"

[Cross-posted from dotCommonweal.]

I'm a week late in issuing this recommendation, but I encourage you to read the cover story from the April 13 issue of The Nation, "Tell Her the Truth" by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon. Kushner is a major American playwright (he won the Pulitzer for his two-part drama Angels in America), and Solomon is a perceptive theatre critic and the coeditor, with Kushner, of Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Paliestinian Conflict. Their article in The Nation is a careful study of British playwright Caryl Churchill's controversial work Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza.

Churchill is unquestionably a political provocateur. But it would be a serious mistake to leave it at that, for she is also a towering talent. Her plays (among them Cloud Nine, Top Girls, and A Number) fearlessly take on politically sensitive issues in all their uncomfortable ambiguity. At the same time, they tend to push boldly against established theatrical conventions. In recent years Churchill's plays have been especially spare and unsparing. I saw Far Away, a darkly fanciful meditation on the devastating effects of war, in London in 2001. The performance was 45 minutes long, but I have never seen a play whose impact was so direct and lasting. I get chills even now when I think of it.

Kushner and Solomon's article is valuable, I think, for several reasons: first, it directly confronts, and attempts to move past, the neuralgia that surrounds, and interferes with, any discussion of the situation in Israel and Palestine. Second, it clearly and carefully explains how a work of art, and especially a work of theater, can contribute to such a discussion, if it is permitted to function as art and not as a political tract. In this I think the article shares some ground with Cathleen Kaveny's recent piece for Commonweal about The Vagina Monologues and how Catholics might fruitfully respond to the popularity of that play on college campuses. A major difference, of course, is that (at least in the judgments of Kaveny and Kushner and Solomon), Churchill's work, unlike Ensler's, is an artistic achievement worthy of high esteem. This gives way to the third good reason to read the piece from The Nation: Kushner and Solomon's insightful reading of Seven Jewish Children as a dramatic text.
Though you'd never guess from the descriptions offered by its detractors, the play is dense, beautiful, elusive and intentionally indeterminate. This is not to say that the play isn't also direct and incendiary. It is. It's disturbing, it's provocative, but appropriately so, given the magnitude of the calamity it enfolds in its pages. Any play about the crisis in the Middle East that doesn't arouse anger and distress has missed the point.
Of course, the distress aroused by Seven Jewish Children has been, in many cases, completely detached from the actual content of the play. And reporting on the controversy tends to depend on unhelpfully rigid viewpoints (for example, a recent headline from the New York Times: "Readings and Talks for Pro-Gaza Playlet"). From Kushner and Solomon's article:
The now-rote hysteria with which non-Israeli criticism of Israel is met--most recently dismayingly effective in quashing Chas Freeman as President Obama's nominee to chair the National Intelligence Council--has a considerable and ignoble record of stifling opinion and preventing unintimidated, meaningful discussion, in the cultural sphere as well as in the political. The power of art to open us to the subjectivities of others is especially threatening to those who insist on a single narrative.
One of the remarkable features of Caryl Churchill's recent plays is the scarcity of stage directions -- what Kushner and Solomon refer to as Churchill's "relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control." In this case, she has left everything but the words to the discretion of the artists who produce and perform the play.
The play consists of seven sequences, each composed of approximately twenty simple sentences, almost all of which begin with the words "Tell her" or "Don't tell her." There is no place-and-time setting specified for the sequences, and the lines are not assigned to specific characters. In fact, there isn't a character list or even a suggested number of performers, and the text looks less like a play than the poem it also is.
Churchill has been accused of writing a one-sided political tract, but in fact she has placed a great deal of faith in the insight and interpretive powers of directors, actors, and audiences.
Any director and company approaching the play will have to decide whether and how the audience will be made aware of the radical degree to which the written text has insisted, through its lack of character identification or stage action, on collaboration. Surely it's essential to understanding Seven Jewish Children that against the specifics of the script, the playwright, relinquishing nearly all traditional authorial control, engineers a far-greater-than-usual slippage among text and performance and audience reception, producing an unusually large amount of room for variant readings.
If that sounds intriguing, you can download the play (in .pdf form, from the Royal Court Theatre website) and read it for yourself. It is brief -- only eight printed pages -- but there is much more to it than the controversy over its performance would suggest.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Also, torture

This morning I wrote a dotCommonweal post recommending Mark Danner's New York Review of Books article "The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means." It's not a cheerful read, but I do think it's essential to understanding the situation we're in as a country, how we got here, and what's riding on the choices we make going forward.

Andrew Sullivan has been another valuable source and aggregator of information on this topic, especially since yesterday, when Obama released the "torture memos." So I've been checking in today to read Sullivan's roundups of reactions around the Web, and was quite surprised to find that the most recent one includes me! I assumed I'd have to provoke another fight with a New Yorker staff writer before I'd get the attention of the Dish again. I'm certainly no expert on law or foreign policy, but the Danner article (and his previous one, which I linked to at dotComm) helps to fill in a lot of necessary background.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What's your NPR name?

Steve Inskeep... Kai Rysdal... Dina Temple-Raston... There's a hypnotic, even totemic quality to the names of National Public Radio personalities. What about you? If you reported in the field for Morning Edition, how would you sign off? Your boring old actual name probably can't compete. But thanks to the efforts of Lianablog (linked from the NPR culture blog Monkey See), there's an easy way for you to build your very own NPR-worthy name.
Here’s how it works: You take your middle initial and insert it somewhere into your first name. Then you add on the smallest foreign town you’ve ever visited.
Genius! From New York, this is Molelie Ross-on-Wye. Back to you...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Come on, come on, push!

For me, this video captures something of the joy of Easter -- and the arrival of spring. (Make sure you have your sound turned on.)

Little D Hatching Out of the Egg from Class 1-208 on Vimeo.

Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

You keep using that word...

Does anyone else remember hearing that The Office was going to have a spinoff series? I think this was announced after last season ended. At the time they said the new series would premiere following the Super Bowl... Is this ringing a bell for you?

At first I worried about what this new show would do to the original. Specifically, I worried that this "spinoff" would follow the further adventures of Ryan. It became plain sometime last season that the show's writers (or at least B.J. Novak) believed Ryan, the onetime temp, was a much, much more interesting character than he actually was. On the other hand, I thought, Oh well, a spinoff starring Ryan is a show I don't have to watch, so that's a plus. But then I heard nothing more, and I forgot all about it... Until I started seeing ads, while watching The Office, for Parks and Recreation, the new documentary-style sitcom that premieres tonight. And I thought, wait a minute, is this that "spinoff" they were talking about? If so, I thought, it seems pretty plain to me that they made that announcement before they had any real idea of what they planned to write. Because this show is obviously not a spinoff. For one thing, Rashida Jones -- aka Karen from the Stamford branch of Dunder Mifflin -- appears in Parks & Recreation playing an entirely different character. That's against spinoff rules (Law & Order notwithstanding). In fact, it's a direct contradiction of the third definition of "spinoff" in the American Heritage Dictionary: "Something derived from an earlier work, such as a television show starring a character who had a popular minor role in another show."

I bring all this up because I just read Alessandra Stanley's review of Parks & Recreation in today's New York Times. Here's how it begins:
The czar had a winter palace and a summer palace, city mouse visited country mouse, and “Green Acres” was the rustic reversal of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Spinoffs, like second homes, can be refreshing, and some have been quite popular even when they are not based on a geographic move like “Frasier” but a shift to the opposite sex, as in “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.” Above all, it’s important to remember that NBC’s “Office” is itself a spinoff of sorts, an American adaptation of Ricky Gervais’s original British series.
Is it just me, or does Stanley seem not to understand what a "spinoff" is? I know she has a reputation for getting things wrong. But still: she writes about television for a living, and yet she seems to believe that Green Acres was a spinoff of The Beverly Hillbillies, which it wasn't. Unless she's applying the second AHD definition: "Something, such as a product, that is derived from something larger and more or less unrelated; a byproduct." But a television review should probably be sticking to the industry's particular meaning of the word, no? (In fact, Green Acres was related to Hillbillies in much the same way that The Office and Parks are related -- more on that later -- but it was a spinoff in the technical sense of another show, Petticoat Junction -- or so Wikipedia says.) The "second homes" comparison is a pretty classic example of the NYT's tendency to forget that not everyone summers in the Hamptons (do you ever get the feeling they're doing it on purpose, just to toy with us?). But: city mouse and country mouse? What the... They're two different characters in the same story, for heaven's sake. Allow me to help out: Mork and Mindy. Joanie Loves Chachi. Lou Grant; Rhoda; Phyllis. Those are spinoffs. Your examples -- with the exception of Frasier -- are not spinoffs. And neither is Parks and Recreation.

Stanley was apparently trying to set up an "indoor/outdoor" theme so that she could go on to write this:
So there is really nothing shameful about an outdoor version of an indoor comedy. NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” which begins on Thursday, is charming and funny in its own right and in its own way, even though it relies on the exact same mock-documentary format and deadpan parody as “The Office.”
First of all, I am of the opinion that a professional writer should never employ the phrase "the exact same." But perhaps the copy editor who should have fixed it was busy trying to figure out what "the czar" has to do with anything. Anyway, if you're wondering whether the review ever clarifies the relationship between The Office and Parks, I'll spare you the suspense: it doesn't. (For the record, that relationship seems to be some shared creative personnel and proximity in the NBC schedule.) The rest of the review is a slightly painful exercise in free association about women in sitcoms (and in politics, for some reason) -- an attempt to articulate why Amy Poehler's appearance in this one is groundbreaking. The longer you read, the less you're convinced that it's saying anything coherent. I don't recommend it.

I must have missed the customary flattering arts-section article about the show (by Dave Itzkoff) that ran a couple weeks ago. It clarifies things a little -- especially in its (intentionally sarcastic?) headline, "It's Not 'The Office.' The Boss Is a Woman."
Ask almost anyone at “Parks and Recreation” what the new series is about, and the answer, first and foremost, is that it’s not a spinoff of “The Office.” But the similarities are pervasive. Like Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, on “The Office,” Ms. Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a clueless if well-intentioned middle manager who undermines her own ambitions and misuses street slang. And a glance at the “Parks” creative roster — from its producers, who helped create the American version of “The Office”; to the writers who were hired from their “Office” spec scripts; to the actor, the director and the editor who were all recruited from that show — will tell you that “The Office” is an undeniable part of the new show’s DNA.
Fair enough. But maybe the article ought to note that the "spinoff" misperception likely stems from the fact that NBC announced, a while back, that they were planning to roll out a spinoff of The Office. You know?

In fact, as Itzkoff tells it, what they were really planning could more accurately have been described as "to replicate The Office's success."
While [The Office's U.S. adapter Greg] Daniels and [The Office producer Michael] Schur spent months batting around ideas, they were also lining up cast members, including Rashida Jones, an alumna of “The Office,” and Aziz Ansari, of the sketch show “The Human Giant,” who were given few details about the project. “They were like, ‘It’s either going to be a spinoff of ‘The Office’ or a totally separate thing,’ ” Mr. Ansari said. “It could have been like, ‘Yeah, so it’s about you and Vin Diesel running a day care center together, and then at night you’re vigilantes, and you fight crime.’”
For what it's worth, I'm not really planning to watch Parks (even when I'm home, which I won't be tonight -- Holy Thursday and all). The commercials are a bit too "like The Office, but not as funny" for my tastes. But I expected The Office to be terrible, so who knows? As long as it's not about Ryan the Former Temp, I might give it a shot.