When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

The CIA: A Commitment to Illusion

lipstick, makeup

photo: Maria Morri, creative commons license

This week The Cipher Brief offered an inside look at one of the more arcane activities of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) through an interview with Jonna Mendez, who worked as the OTS Chief of Disguise, retiring in 1993.

Although she began as a secretary with the Agency, when she took some photography lessons from the OTS, a new career was born. At that time, she was the only woman on the technical side at the Agency, and her first role was as a clandestine photographer. “I had cameras in lipsticks. I had them in key fobs. I’d put a camera in just about anything,” she said. When she started in the OTS, it was creating much of its hardware, like hidden cameras, but today it can buy a lot of what it needs off-the-shelf and upgrade from there.

Mendez later worked in the disguise unit, with the goal of enabling officers “to instantly change the way they looked.” Initially, the staff learned the art and tricks of making masks from the experts in Hollywood and, again, adapted them to CIA requirements. They also worked with Hollywood magicians to deconstruct the sleight-of-hand and distraction methods they use “to consistently and successfully deceive you.” (Read several startlingly entertaining anecdotes about the power of these illusion and distraction tools here.)

The office created a mask for Mendez, in which she “became about 15 years younger, much prettier, with a fabulous hairdo.” Wearing the mask, she met President George H.W. Bush and a group of high administration officials in the Oval Office. The mask was so realistic, no one realized she was wearing one, and she said they were shocked when she took it off.

When agents were given a mask or a disguise, they might initially be reluctant to wear it—“You don’t meet many men who want to put on a wig”—but they’d send them out into the community where they’d learn no one noticed, and they’d seat them near their colleagues in the cafeteria where they’d see no one recognized them. That usually convinced them, Mendez said.

Of course, being in a foreign environment and blending involves more than appearance. She’d teach agents the characteristic behavior of people in the places where they would be operating and what behavior to watch for and mimic.

Jonna is married to Tony Mendez, the CIA’s exfiltration expert who masterminded the escape of six American diplomats from Tehran in 1980, portrayed by Ben Affleck in the movie Argo. Their 2003 books about espionage in the waning days of the Cold War is Spy Dust. Tony’s book about his experiences, The Master of Disguise, contains the episode turned into Argo. You can order them with the affiliate links below.

Thriller Writer Exposes U.S. Security Gaps

railway tanker carsReading up on how the nation’s security apparatus actually works would have spared the Trump Administration and several of its appointees some embarrassment in their first weeks in office. However, a failure of security imagination has a much darker and more dangerous side.

You may recall how, after 9/11, the Bush Administration’s CIA brought in Hollywood scriptwriters—professional speculators—to help them imagine terrorist scenarios. Using airplanes-as-bombs was not a new idea, not even an “unthinkable” one to thriller writers.

Right after 9/11 the momentum for developing anti-terrorism technologies was strong, some money was wasted, and some real improvements were achieved. (Here’s an excellent Atlantic article summarizing our post-9/11 security gains and gaps.) But that momentum has largely faded.

Along comes Matthew Quirk, author of the thrillers The 500, Cold Barrel Zero, and the recent Dead Man Switch, who thinks about our vulnerabilities a lot. He says, “We should spend our time and money addressing the obvious risks, not the hypothetical or concocted ones.” And he cites plenty of these risks. “I like to think my books are pretty tense, but they have nothing on reality,” he wrote recently in the Washington Post. “More than 15 years after 9/11, we have failed to take basic steps to address glaring threats that have already cost American lives.”

One example he cites are the risks from manufacturing, storing, and transporting deadly chemicals. The security of these facilities, he says, is simply “not adequately covered by the current mishmash of loophole-filled rules.” Rules facing potential rollback, it should be noted.

True security for our nation involves not just reducing our vulnerability to terrorism, of course, but also prevention and response preparation in the case of system breakdowns, emergence of new diseases, and, of course, severe droughts, flooding, wildfires, and other disruptions resulting from, oh, climate change.

The number and variety of these threats is huge, but for most Americans the most visible national security effort boils down to seizing manicure scissors from grandma during an airport screening. However, even the TSA faces significant cuts in the proposed Trump budget, with the “savings” diverted to building the wall at our southern border. The wall will neither improve security nor prevent illegal immigration. It’s a costly symbolic gesture that diverts attention and resources from real security risks.

Kedi

Kedi, cat, IstanbulWorried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)

At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.

A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.

The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..

In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 87%.

Related Reading

Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).

Come from Away

ComeFromAwayLogoThe affirming new Broadway musical Come from Away is lively and warm-hearted, with a special tug at the heart for every American remembering 9/11. On that terrible September morning, dozens of planes carrying thousands of passengers were en route to the United States when the country closed its airspace. Those planes had to land somewhere else, and 38 of them landed in Gander, Newfoundland, the rock in the sea.

Suddenly, Gander’s population nearly doubled. The nearly 7,000 passengers and crew were from all over the world. They had all sorts of issues. They—and the 19 animals with them—needed food, places to sleep, their medications, phones, and . . . someone to talk to. Come from Away tells how the people of Newfoundland rose to this unprecedented occasion with amazing generosity.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music, and lyrics based on hundreds of  interviews with the people of Newfoundland, as well as many of the stranded passengers. A cast of twelve plays multiple parts—both townspeople and passengers—and most have been with the ensemble continuously since its first production at the LaJolla Playhouse in 2015. The cast is uniformly strong, with good singing voices, good energy, and a well-honed ability to switch from one role to another so there’s never any confusion.

Although the production has many characters, there are definite stories and relationships. One is the experience of an American Airlines pilot. She wanted to fly since childhood, because when she flew, “nothing was between me and the sky.” She gets a job flying corpses at first, then corporate jets, and ultimately became the airline’s first female pilot. Now, to think her beloved airplanes were used as bombs, “something’s come between me and the sky.”

The music is provided by an eight-person band, split on either side of the stage and featuring instruments you might associate with Irish music—pipes, and the Bodhran (flat drum)—as well as guitars, a violin, and percussion. Occasionally, the musicians join in the dancing, and most of the songs are sung by the whole cast, with only brief solos. This creative choice emphasizes the show’s theme of community pulling together.

Christopher Ashley directed the 100-minute show, which is performed with no intermission. Ian Eisendrath is the musical supervisor and Kelly Devine, the choreographer. The simple and versatile set is by Beowulf Boritt, with costumes by Toni-Leslie James.

Come from Away has been performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, and, the program says, the hockey rink in Gander, Newfoundland. It’s now at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.”

20th Century Women & The Sense of an Ending

20th Century Women

20th Century Women

Zumann, Gerwig, Bening, Fanning, l to r

Pity the poor teenage boy Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in this film written and directed by Mike Mills and set in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s (trailer). He not only has a protective, chain-smoking single mother, Dorothea (played by Annette Bening), but she recruits his girl friend, one word, not two (Elle Fanning) and her boarder (Greta Gerwig) to help look out for him, to teach him “how to be a good man.”

Three moms could be a bit much, and is, but he is graceful under pressure, even when Gerwig inducts him into feminist thinking with Our Bodies, Our Selves. The resident handyman (Billy Crudup) could be a decent masculine role model, but he and Jamie just don’t connect.

The movie has a lot of cultural references to the 70s that may make you laugh or shake your head. A group of Dorothea’s friends sit around to listen to Jimmy Carter’s preachy bummer of a speech about the “crisis of confidence” among Americans and the need to get past rampant consumerism. This impolitic speech was reviled at the time (one of the characters says, “He is so f—–”)—and now sounds distressingly prescient.

The acting is A+, and “What is so special about Dorothea (and every character in the film) is that they aren’t ‘quirky’ in an annoying, independent film way,” says Sheila O’Malley for Rogerebert.com. They’re real people.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 88%; audiences: 75%.

The Sense of an Ending

Sense of an Ending

Rampling, Broadbent

Scriptwriter Nick Payne transformed Julian Barnes’s prize-winning novel into this movie (trailer) directed by Ritesh Batra about a self-absorbed Londoner and his growing obsession with a woman from his distant past. It appears he’d much rather be living there, with the frisson of youth and the sixties—than in his current divorced, not especially accomplished, late-middle-age state.

Tony Webster (played superbly by James Broadbent) becomes a voyeuristic observer of the life that might have been. He receives an unexpected letter from his former girlfriend’s mother telling him she’s bequeathed him the diary of his youthful best friend—the best friend who stole the girlfriend from him.

It’s an odd thing, but he becomes determined to get that diary, while the ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) is determined he not have it. The conflict sparks many nostalgic reminiscences about those days. It transpires that events were shatteringly different from how he has understood them all along.

Meanwhile, his ex-wife (Harriet Walter, who is in everything lately) is onto him, and his daughter (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary) is about to yank him back into the present by producing a grandchild.

Again, the cast is terrific, even if Webster himself is annoyingly oblivious, and the source material is strong. I have not read the book, but apparently Julian Barnes told the filmmakers not to be constrained by his text: “Throw the book against the wall,” he said. The critics seem to think they followed that advice rather too well.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 70%; audiences: 59%.

A Failure of Imagination about Climate Change

India, dawn, village

photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

Will future generations look back on the people of the 21st century and think we were deranged? According to revered Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, that may be the only way future generations can explain humanity’s feeble collective action in the face of climate change, global warming, and the violence of their likely consequences: drought, fire, famine, extreme storms, rising sea levels, extinction.

In a recent Princeton lecture, Ghosh said climate change is not just a problem of politicians, business leaders, and scientists, it is also a crisis of culture and thus of the imagination. His new book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, makes the case that literary novelists, with a few exceptions, are failing to recognize and address the coming cataclysm, the most profound challenge of our day, in their work. Thinking about such a future is left to the margins of the literary world—science fiction, fantasy, and other genre fiction. Here’s an example. Even the Venice-based novels of Donna Leon have picked up the cause, in a subgenre dubbed “eco-detective” fiction.

Fundamental to the carbon economy—in fact, so fundamental we don’t even notice it—is that it is a manifestation of power. Not electrical power, the “might makes right” kind. Ironically, while some U.S. military leaders are more candid than our politicians with regard to the security risks posed by climate change, the military is a huge energy consumer. While the generals and admirals may talk about the risks of climate change, they contribute mightily to it, as, he says, the U.S. military consumes more energy than Bangladesh, a country of some 157 million people. Changes in the international power dynamic may be some of the most disruptive and far-reaching.

By framing climate change questions as economic ones, he says, we mask the reality that they are an exercise of power. Economic frameworks emphasize personal choices and desires, just as discussions of climate justice boil down to “how much are you willing to sacrifice?”As long as people in developing nations want to live as Americans (especially) do, a desire fueled by consumerist media, their leaders can’t and won’t suggest these sacrifices come from them. “Why should we cut back? You’ve had your turn. Now it’s ours.” Yet the changes needed go beyond recalibrating the desires of individual citizens of any nation.

Ghosh says only Pope Francis is willing to talk about breaking this cycle of desire and the impact it has on the poor. This should be a matter of significant interest, if Ghosh is correct that “People living at the margins of society will be the first to experience the future.” It’s one very different from that depicted by our politicians and literary leaders.

His was a dense lecture with many innovative and compelling arguments. Only a reading of the book can give you an adequate understanding of his vital points!

Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

White America’s Fears Have Deep Roots

Jane McCrea, Indians

The Death of Jane McCrea, by John Vanderlyn (1804)

Corrosive racial fears got a strong start in early American history, according to historian Robert G. Parkinson in a recent talk at the David Library of the American Revolution. While today we may think abstract concepts like “liberty” and “patriotism” motivated colonists to go to war with Britain, Parkinson suggested something quite different in his new book: The Common Cause.

The founding fathers faced two almost insurmountable tasks: uniting the colonists and persuading them the British were a deadly enemy. Many fault lines weakened the prospects for union: North versus South, Tories versus colonials, religious differences, city dwellers versus frontiersmen. Almost half of colonials themselves were English or Welsh. The redcoats were their soldiers, George III was their king. Getting them to unite and take up arms would require a powerful threat.

The Set-Up

The war planners set about inventing one: savage Indians and rebellious slaves. While most students of the Declaration of Independence focus on Jefferson’s stirring opening paragraphs and skip to the end, the Declaration also lays out a long list of grievances against the King, ending with:

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

Only a strong union, with people working in common cause, could protect against these supposed dangers. Parkinson’s research in colonial newspapers reveals a deliberate and ongoing campaign to exaggerate Indian atrocities, publicize the risk of slave rebellion, and paint the British as ruthlessly allying with these “uncivilized” forces.

He points for example to coverage of the murder of Jane McCrea, murdered by Indians in Upstate New York. McCrea’s death was reported in lurid, if not always accurate, detail in every single colonial newspaper (and was one of the inspirations for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans). Only two other news stories—the announcement of the Declaration of Independence and “the shot heard ʼround the world” opening the Revolutionary War—were so universally covered; even the victory at Yorktown, which ended the war, received less media attention, said Parkinson.

A Lasting Legacy of Fear

So deep was the colonials’ fear of the Indians that thirty-five years later, in the War of 1812, outnumbered British troops could still make American forces retreat in disarray by mimicking Indian war cries. The legacy from this dark side of the American Revolution—the fear of white citizens’ order becoming unraveled as Chris Hayes describes it in his new book—continues to plague our country today, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement on one hand and anti-immigration sentiment on the other.

If you’re not familiar with the David Library, it’s a gem, located on the fringes of Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a boon to my genealogy club, and the host for many prestigious scholars speaking about the Colonial era, the Revolutionary War, and U.S. history 1750 to 1800.

More Arizona Travel Tips

Next time you saddle up for Scottsdale or Sedona, these tips are for you!

Western Spirit: Museum of the West

Scottsdale, Southwest, purse

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Scottsdale’s two-year-old Museum of the West houses a changing array of artwork, artifacts and memorabilia related to the history and culture of the Southwest. Only two exhibits are permanent: a recreated town street, with the kinds of stuff people needed in the Old West (guns and gambling equipment) and a display of remarkable Indian pottery, in the works.

The special exhibits when I visited included paintings by the Taos Society of Artists and a fantastic collection of fancy saddles, spurs, and other cowboy paraphernalia.

The museum has an enclosed sculpture courtyard, whose walls evoke basket-weaving and the state’s copper-mining history and a nice shop where I bought this handbag.

The museum is in Old Town Scottsdale (3830 North Marshall Way), close to everybody’s favorite 1950s pink palace for desserts, The Sugar Bowl.

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park

Got the kids? Just a mile or two up Scottsdale Road, this Railroad Park may be the perfect  blowing-off-steam spot after a museum visit and sugar high. The 30-acre park includes playgrounds, a mini-trainride around the property, classic carousel, and loads of fun exhibits. You can tour the actual Presidential Pullman cars used by Presidents Hoover, FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower, which are nothing at all like Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor accommodations, believe me. The museum also boasts a 10,000-square-foot model train exhibit. There’s lots of room to run around, picnic facilities, summer concerts, and snacks too.

Scottsdale Railroad Park

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Especially noteworthy is the train car emblazoned with coats-of-arms of regions of France. After World War II, the United States sent France a 250-car train packed with donated relief supplies. The following year, the French people reciprocated with the “thank you” (“Merci”) train, which had 49 railway cars like this one. The French people had nothing to spare, yet “generously gave what was most dear to their hearts”—toys, war medals, wedding dresses, musical instruments, handmade lace, and much, much more.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument, Sedona, Indian

photo: Alan English CPA, creative commons license

The National Park Service pairs this set of ruins, located north of Phoenix near Sedona, with Montezuma’s Castle. The two make an interesting contrast. The Castle (not visited) is a Sinaguan dwelling nestled in a high cliff, whereas Tuzigoot pueblo is located atop a hill with a fantastic 360-degree view of the Verde Valley.

At one time, Tuzigoot was a settlement of some two hundred people near the tree-lined Verde River. (There’s a nice walk along the river from Cottonwood, as well). It was an ideal situation, strategically, though the idea of having to get everything (like water) up that hill is daunting! Today, you can drive it, and will want to do so before the sun gets too hot.

Also near Sedona: Clarkdale’s eye-popping Copper Art Museum

Southwest Reading Adventures

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – Reading McCarthy’s bracing prose is a test of nerves, and unforgettable
The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott – one of the best thrillers I read last year, set in west Texas Big Bend Country
The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson – picked up on the recommendation of the crime fiction mavens at The Poisoned Pen (your local bookstore, no matter where you live!)