Creating a Character: Theater Magic

Into the Woods
Into the Woods

My “how to watch a play” class recently watched a London production of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim fairy tales mashup. It was an excellent lead-in to that week’s discussion on creating a character, because the show is stuffed with them.

Course leader Adam Immerwahr, artistic director at Washington DC’s Theater J, described the process of creating a character as a collaboration between actor and director. You see this collaborative process in action in the comedy Noises Off, about a play-in-rehearsal that goes terribly wrong. In the excellent film version, Christopher Reeve plays the part of Gary Lejeune, who badgers his director (Michael Caine) about his character’s motivation. The more banal the action, the more puzzled Gary is (see one of those scenes here).

Character creation starts with casting. Directors are looking for talent, sure, but also for certain personal and physical qualities. They take into account some or all of the actor’s race-gender-age-body type to the extent those matter for specific roles. If they’re casting a musical, singing and dancing ability may outweigh acting chops.

Some productions may need an actor with name recognition (to boost ticket sales) or with specific skills. Juggling. A little soft-shoe. Productions of Top Dog/Underdog require an actor to do a compelling demonstration of three-card-monte. Not just the moves, but also the confidence in handling the cards.

A stage adaptation of the novel Midwives I saw last year included a jarring change from the original book. Black actors played a clergyman and his wife newly relocated to rural Vermont. For me, this casting raised a lot of questions external to the story. How had a couple from the Deep South been received in 99% white Vermont? What propelled them to make such a dramatic change in their environment? Did they choose a home birth because they felt unwelcome in the local health system? Such implications kept taking me out of the drama and made their characters seem opaque.

By contrast, my class was surprised that, in the production of Into the Woods we watched, the cast was all-white. If ever a play lends itself to diversity, that would seem to be it. We did enjoy the actor who played Little Red—plus-sized and a few years older than the usual choice. This Little Red actually lines up better with the script. When the wolf compliments her plump flesh, well . . .

In a great many roles, the race or even the gender of a particular character is irrelevant, and non-traditional casting not only works, it’s refreshing (think Hamilton). No longer do theaters and audiences assume the default race is white. You may recall the flap when the Vietnamese engineer in Miss Saigon was played by Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce.

They say ninety percent of directing is casting, and certainly, it’s the first step in bringing characters to life.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Seeing Through a Character’s Eyes

subway station

In my novel about Manhattan-based architect Archer Landis, he travels from New York to Brussels to visit the site of a major design project about to break ground. His firm, Landis + Porter, has the commission to design the reconstruction of a major station in the city’s rail and subway system. The station I chose for his firm to work on was Schuman station, located in the heart of the European Union district. Aside from strictly architectural considerations, it faces two major challenges.

Foremost, Landis is worried about terrorism, and he wants to be sure there’s nothing about his firm’s design that makes it more vulnerable. Would a glass canopy make terrorists think access is simple, or that they are too easily scrutinized?

I selected Schuman station some years ago when I began working on this book and so was shocked when, in the morning of March 22, 2016, suicide bombers attacked Maalbeek metro station, one stop east of Schuman. This attack was coordinated with two others at the Brussels airport. In all, 35 people were killed and more than 300 injured.

The second concern arises from protests at the site, because it will involve the destruction of a building regarded as “Belgium’s Stonewall,” where a young gay activist was killed some years earlier. The protests seem manageable, and Landis doesn’t immediately realize the danger associated with them.

Eventually, of course, as a matter of business and despite the personal issues he’s facing, he must deal with both of these dilemmas.

To write about Brussels, a city where I’ve never been, I used several detailed maps of the city center and the EU district, and walked the streets with the little guy in Google maps. I studied the websites of hotels near Schuman station, restaurant menus, and news outlets, as well as the station itself, which at that time (2011) was undergoing a major renovation, thoroughly described and dissected online. The availability of that information to me, to you, and to anyone, led to a major epiphany for my fictional architect.

Photo: labwebmaster for Pixabay.

The Woman Is a Spy

Three women who’ve made outstanding careers for themselves in the intelligence community were featured in a Cipher Brief webinar last Friday, moderated by the organization’s founder, Suzanne Kelly, former CNN Intelligence Correspondent. As a writer interested in that world, I was eager to hear the women’s perspectives.

The women were:

Over the course of these women’s careers, the attitude toward women working in intelligence has evolved, just as it has throughout American society. When they started out in the early 80s or so, the intelligence community was an old boys’ club, and most women were relegated to support staff and administrative positions. The diversity of job opportunities for women is much greater now—after all, CIA Director Gina Haspell is a woman—but vestiges of old attitudes remain.

Thus, the era in which a story is set makes a great deal of difference as to how female characters would be treated. Perhaps engineering backgrounds gave two of these women added insight or practice in breaching institutional gender barriers.

The panelists had all worked in a variety of settings—for both government and the private sector. They change jobs and vacuum up new knowledge and skills. So, if your character needs a particular expertise, it certainly would be realistic to create a previous position where she could have gained it, inside government or not. Or, even in her own security services company.

Savvy women in the intelligence community work hard to develop a network of women in their and other intelligence agencies for all the familiar advice-seeking, moral-support reasons we know. From the perspective of these women, a more diverse workforce—in terms of gender, cultural background, type of education, analytic style, and where people have lived —produces better intelligence outcomes, as intelligence community employers have come to appreciate.

Suggested reading:
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Bloodmoney by David Ignatius
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynn Olson

Reading in the Time of Covid

chalk outline, body

A new approach to book reviews: In the past, I’ve reviewed almost every book I’ve read. My thought was that even a so-so review could be helpful to you. The aspects that bothered me might not be issues for you. And, if they are, then a lackluster review might save you the time and trouble of delving into a book you probably won’t like. Going forward from September 2020, I’m abandoning that approach. If you see a book here, it’s because I do recommend it.

Since my last book review post on April Fool’s Day, I’ve read at least 40 books and listened to a dozen more. Many of them were crime fiction, and full reviews on CrimeFictionLover.com are linked below. Click the book title for my Amazon affiliate link. Here’s the first three among the very best, in print. Audio on Thursday.

Rules for Perfect Murders

In this entertaining novel, Peter Swanson has concocted the perfect plot for lovers of classic mysteries. Malcolm Kershaw, the widowed part-owner of Boston’s Old Devils Bookstore wrote a blog post some years ago that described what he considered the best depictions of ‘the perfect murder.’

Now, it seems, someone has taken up his challenge and is recreating those scenarios. Or are they? Is he a suspect or the next potential victim? Desperate for answers, he launches his own investigation and, as the pages fly by, you’ll find there’s more to this bibliophile than you may have assumed. Read my full review here.

Little Altar Boy

John Guzlowski’s riveting new police procedural takes you back to the time before sustained pressure on the Catholic Church brought to light its widespread and systemic problem of child sexual abuse. It’s the late 1960s, in the post-Christmas dark night of winter, and Chicago police detective Hank Purcell is at home, waiting for his 19-year-old daughter Margaret. She has new friends, new habits, and new attitudes, none of which make him happy.

Hank and his partner are trying to resolve not one, but two compelling dilemmas: they’re clearly outraged by the evidence of child abuse among the clergy, but, while they’re trying to save the world’s altar boys, what about Hank’s own child, beset by a whole different class of predator? Hank’s wife Hazel is a useful foil for the two detectives, pressing for handling Margaret’s situation differently. But it seems there are no right answers; each course of action threatens consequences more chilling than the wind blasting off Lake Michigan. Full review here.

Nine Tenths of the Law

This literary crime thriller by Claudia Hagadus Long is part treasure hunt, part family story, part romance, part tragic history woven together in a complicated plot through the strong voice of the story’s sympathetic narrator, Zara Persil-Pendleton. At a Manhattan museum show, Zara and her sister Lilly spot a menorah the Nazis stole from their family many years before. Lilly wants it back.

The women embark on an ill-conceived plot to obtain it, which leads them into some sticky situations. At first these are awkward and funny, but gradually, they become potentially dangerous. Zara, with all her on-point observations and clever asides will keep you amused and interested. Long strikes a nice balance between describing Zara’s inner conflicts and maintaining the action of the story. My Crime Fiction Lover review is here.

Falsettos

Princeton Summer Theater begins its 2019 season with an ambitious production of the Tony award-winning musical Falsettos, book by James Lapine and William Finn, who also wrote the music and lyrics. Directed by PST artistic director Daniel Krane, the production opened June 20 and runs Thursdays through Sunday until June 30. The show’s nonstop music is provided by a “tiny little band,” of four musicians led by Amber Lin.

Falsettos is a story about all kinds of love—gay, straight, marital, parental, between friends. Its nonstop songs work hard to capture the evanescence of feeling, perhaps best in a moving song near the end: “Who would I be if I had not loved you? How would I know what love is?”

In the story, Marvin (played by Michael Rosas) leaves his wife Trina (Bridget McNiff) for the carefree young man, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein). Trina, left with their 10-year-old son Jason (Hannah Chomiczewski) is bitter about this, and baffled by Marvin’s insistence that what he wants is “A Tight-Knit Family” involving them all.

Marvin suggests Trina straighten herself out by seeing his psychiatrist, Mendel (Justin Ramos), who immediately falls for her. Complications ensue, and Trina’s state of mind is perfectly—hilariously—reflected in her star turn, “I’m Breaking Down.”

This first act of Falsettos, which is set in 1979, is based on a one-act play, March of the Falsettos that premiered in 1981. The second act is based on another one-act, Falsettoland, set in 1981, which premiered in 1990. The two were merged to create Falsettos in 1992. A lot changed for gay men in that intervening decade. The authors had to acknowledge AIDS (actually barely a blip in 1981), highlighted by Dr. Charlotte’s (Chamari White-Mink) prophetic song, “Something Bad is Happening.” And, in act two, the play takes a sharp turn.

The growing realization of the seriousness of Whizzer’s illness is a painful backdrop to disagreements between Trina and Marvin about Jason’s impending bar mitzvah, to be catered by Cordelia (Michelle Navis) who specializes in Jewish nouvelle cuisine. The comedy is still there, but it’s bittersweet. One of the show’s most beautifully rendered numbers is the quartet, “Unlikely Lovers,” sung around Whizzer’s hospital bed.

The cast (and crew) for PST’s college summer stock productions are primarily Princeton students and recent graduates. For the principal roles, as played by Rosas, McNiff, Edelstein, and Ramos, this constraint was inconsequential, but a bit of a handicap in casting the role of Jason. The set was well designed (Jeffrey Van Velsor) to be adaptable and interesting.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

****The Paris Diversion

cafe

By Chris Pavone – The Paris Diversion is the followup to Chris Pavone’s popular and award-winning debut thriller from 2013, The Expats. In the new book, former CIA agent Kate Moore is living in Paris with her husband Dexter when the ghosts from that earlier story come in search of her. A lot of action and a great many characters are packed into the twelve-hour period this novel covers. Along the way, you’re treated to a granular depiction of Paris—not just monuments and streets, but the way of life.

Kate doesn’t know whether she still works for the CIA. She’s a one-woman operation, head of something called the Paris Substation, and has ample money to hire all the help she needs to carry out assignments, though who and where do these orders come from? Dexter works from home, day-trading, and scheming to find a get-rich-quick idea. He thinks he’s found one.

In a recent panel discussion, author Pavone said he was drawn to writing thrillers because the characters lie so much. He’s brought that tendency to a high art in this novel with Kate and Dexter’s innumerable secrets and reflexive avoidance of the truth.

Dexter plans to sell short a large hunk of shares in a company called 4Syte. It will make him a massive profit as long as those shares drop in price as insider information predicts. 4Syte’s president, Hunter Forsyth, is an arrogant high-flyer, who Dexter believes was “born on third base, believing he hit a triple”—such a perfect description I laughed out loud. Forsyth is so convinced of his invincibility he doesn’t realize he’s been kidnapped.

The ominous sound of sirens pervades the book’s early chapters. Several bombs have been found in strategic spots around the city, and a Muslim man wearing a suicide vest has taken up a position in the plaza outside the Louvre. Rooftop snipers have him in their sights, though shooting him may merely precipitate the catastrophe. The petty arguing among the various police departments regarding whether to shoot sounded exactly right, with the ironic touch that the sniper is Muslim too.

Pavone’s secondary characters are strong, especially Forsyth’s assistant, Colette. Coolly French, married, she’s the object of Hunter’s lustful imaginings. The suicide bomber is another good character, knowing he will die, but not when, and with unexpected reasons for strapping on the vest.

You may want to stop reading this fast-paced novel occasionally to ask yourself, “What just happened?” as layers of the complex plot come into focus. A few aspects of the story—especially the idea that there are multiple off-the-books spy agencies operating around the world—may stretch credulity, but you probably will be turning pages too fast to worry about such things.

Photo: Dan Novac from Pixabay.

Genes and Genealogy

An unexpected delight of my stumbling genealogy researches has been discovering and re-discovering my cousins. Most of my father’s family lived geographically close to me when I was growing up, but as far as getting to know them–they might as well have been a thousand miles away.

My dad was the son of Hungarian immigrants who came separately to the United States in the early 1900s, met, married, lived in Michigan where my grandfather was a farmer and an autoworker. They had 15 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. They didn’t talk about their immigration experience. At all.

Online research added to the picture. The naturalization record for my grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi (with the last name spelled six different ways on two government forms), provided the date of his arrival and name of the ship he came on (the S.S. Chicago). He applied for naturalization after being in America for some years, and it listed children’s names, leaving no doubt this record was for my family.

From the ship manifest I found his father’s name—Ferencz, or Frank, the same as his—and the village he came from. Wow! My great-grandfather’s name and a definite place, Kondorfa. Still today Kondorfa has only a few more than 600 residents. It’s in far western Hungary, closer to Vienna and Bratislava than Budapest, in a German-Hungarian area called the Burgenland. Short of learning to speak Magyar and traveling there, my researches seemed to be bumping up against the proverbial brick wall.

One additional clue from the ship manifest was that Ferencz’s destination was South Bethlehem, Pa. Probably he planned to work at Bethlehem Steel, following in the footsteps of his older brother. I found a 1923 death certificate for 38-year-old Peter Hegyi from Kondorfa who died after being struck in the chest by a bar of steel. The certificate listed his parents’ names, Ferencz Hegyi and Julianna Fabian. Now I had my great-grandmother’s name too. But there my research string ran out.

In Your Genes

People ask me whether having a genetic profile helps with genealogy, and I always say yes! I spit into a cup for 23andMe many years ago. A couple of distant cousins on my mother’s side have contacted me, all having useful connections and information. Then, a few months ago, the surprise. A woman living near Bethlehem contacted me after noting our slight genetic match and the Hegyi name, which is found frequently in the area her family came from.

This distant cousin has website Jane’s Genes (very useful general/tips, too), and some careful research on Jane’s part revealed she’s my fifth cousin, once removed. Our common ancestors are my great-great-great-great grandparents Janos Herczeg (b 1747) and Rozalia Horvath (b 1755).

Jane has put me in touch with other cousins in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. I learned one of my grandfather’s younger sisters immigrated to South Bethlehem as well, and I’ve connected with her granddaughter. Our Midwest cousin is another genius at deciphering the spidery handwriting in the old Hungarian and Church records. Thanks to her diligence, I can now trace my grandfather’s family back six generations, to ancestors born in the early 1700s.

I’ve shared my written history of the Hegyi family, sparse though it is, with about a dozen first cousins—children of my father’s generation—and now regularly visit several of them in Indiana and Michigan. I didn’t have addresses for them all, though, and again 23andMe came through. The granddaughter of my Uncle Bill got in touch and, through her, I’ve communicated with her mother, my first cousin.

When I started working on family history, what I expected to explore was “history”; now I’ve learned it’s about “family” too.

Don’t forget to watch “Finding Our Roots” on PBS Tuesdays, 8 p.m., hosted by Henry Louis Gates. Every family has a story!

Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing

In The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger talks about nations’ pervasive and growing uses of spyware and malware to achieve their ends. According to Paul Pillar’s review in the Times, Sanger’s book is “an encyclopedic account of policy-relevant happenings in the cyberworld (that) stays firmly grounded in real events.”

It’s not a question of keeping the stuff out of our electric grid, the controls of our nuclear plants, our military establishment, our government. It’s already here. And a piece of spyware in our systems—watching, waiting—can turn instantly destructive on command.

While U.S. companies, utilities, and some government agencies would like to reveal how much they know about these intrusions—“hey, we’re looking at you, too, so watch it!”—the clandestine services argue against it, because they don’t want others to know that we know and what our detection capabilities are, much less guess our offensive capacity. If you were suspicious of that improbable string of fizzling North Korean missiles last year and wondered “could it really be . . ?” you were right.

Sanger’s riveting journalism covers the woes Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, especially its power grid, a seeming test-bed for attacks on the West; it reviews the Stuxnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israel, which exceeded its mission of damaging Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to emerge in the wild; he covers the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations; and he describes more recent threats. Across at least three Administrations in Washington, the responses to the size and potential scope of this threat have been paltry. “The clock cannot be turned back,” he says, and it’s up to all of us to hear the ticking.

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Jon Barker, Erin Partin, and John Keabler; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers a powerful new production of The Winter’s Tale, a play that mixes darkness and light, the tragic and the playful. Directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, it premiered December 8 and runs through December 30.

A cast of 20 is called upon to present Shakespeare’s story of how jealousy can overcome loyalty, friendship, judgment, how destructive it is to stick stubbornly to a belief despite all evidence to the contrary, and how, in the long run, the only redemption may be through love. Director Monte says this complex play is “part allegory, part searing drama, part pastoral comedy and part uplifting and moving romance.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia (played by Jon Barker), and his pregnant wife, Hermione (Erin Partin), are entertaining Leontes’s longtime friend from Bohemia, Polixines (John Keabler), when Leontes gets it in his head like a worm in an apple that Hermione and Polixines are more to each other than they ought to be. Learning the king means to do him harm, Polixines and Leontes’s courtier Camillo (Patrick Toon) flee Sicily, which only confirms Leontes of the couple’s guilt.

Leontes imprisons his distraught wife, who gives birth to a daughter that the wise woman Paulina (Marion Adler) begs him to see and claim, but he will not. He insists that his general Antigonus (Raphael Nash Thompson) take the baby away and leave it in some desolate place that it survive or die as the fates decree. Reluctantly, Antigonus complies.

Leontes puts his wife on trial, a proceeding interrupted by a message from the oracle of Apollo, who declares Hermione’s innocence. The message also says his son will die and Leontes will have no heir until he is reunited with his lost daughter. The death of the boy convinces him of the oracle’s truth, but the death of her son is too much for Hermione, and she too is struck dead.

Antigonus leaves the babe in a Bohemian wood and, in theater’s most famous stage direction, “exits, chased by a bear.” The infant is discovered by kindly shepherds.

Sixteen years pass, the character Time tells us, and the beautiful girl-child Perdita (Courtney McGowan) has fallen in love with Florizel (Ryan Woods), son of Polixines, though she does not know he’s a prince. The play moves into broad comedy with the country folk, but eventually the plan is made to go to Sicily, where sadness still reigns.There, everyone reunites and theater magic happens, and what was dark is made light again.

The entire cast is strong, with special mention needed for Jon Barker, who can convey every drop of meaning in Shakespeare’s lines through his delivery and unerring body language. Erin Partin and Marion Adler (who received applause for one particularly fiery speech) were also noteworthy. Seamus Mulcahy (Charley’s Aunt in the theater’s most recent production) shows his genius for physical comedy in the secondary role of shepherd. Raphael Nash Thompson and Patrick Toon provided restrained dignity in contrast to Barker’s erraticism.

A simple set is needed to accommodate two countries and numerous scenes, and Brittany Vasta has produced gorgeous, chilly white backgrounds that radiate winter and allow the beautiful costumes of Nikki Delhomme to provide the color. Other production credits to Tony Galaska (lighting), Danielle Liccardo (dance consultant), and Denise Cardarelli (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable rom NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Hooray for Hollywood! – Travel Tips

Walk of Stars

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A Los Angeles vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hollywood! We shunned the swarms of shills for “homes of the stars” bus tours and instead took a prearranged walking tour along the few compact blocks of Sunset Boulevard where the movie studios, the radio and television networks, and the recording industry all got their starts. Amazing, really.

Our guide, Philip Mershon, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and will cheerfully answer any questions once the tour is over. Maybe he’s like the Aztec messengers who memorized their speeches and had to begin from the beginning again if interrupted. He’s personable, and he did a great job. (Philip Mershon’s Felix in Hollywood).

On Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, we trod portions of the “Walk of Fame,” the 2500-some plaques representing leading lights of radio, television, movies, and theater. You can’t help exclaiming over the names you recognize and wondering, who are all these other guys?

Grauman’s Theatres

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

photo: wikimedia, creative commons license

Sid Grauman was an early Hollywood theatrical entrepreneur, and his “Chinese Theatre” is justly famous for its over-the-top orientalist décor. It’s a bit of a mob-scene. Amusingly, it’s a popular stop among Chinese tour groups, though there isn’t a thing authentically Chinese about it. Hey, that’s Hollywood. Many celebrities have left their hand or footprints—or both—in the cement of the forecourt—including Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, under a scrawl of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and local (Paterson and Asbury Park, N.J.) talents Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.

A quieter spot was Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre down the block (I admit never having heard of it), which was the site of Hollywood movie premieres for many years. Its décor turned out to be timely, as the theater opened in 1922, just days before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, a public relations coup even Grauman couldn’t have engineered.

Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The lobby was designed to be small, with the illuminati instead gathering outside in the spacious forecourt, packed with starstruck admirers on both sides of a central aisle. The theater underwent numerous infelicitous renovations over the years, but since the late 1990s, American Cinematheque largely restored the original appearance and brought its technology up-to-date.

Behind-the-scenes tours of the Egyptian are offered only once a month, but it’s worth checking out what is playing there (and at the companion Aero theater in Santa Monica), because actors and directors often participate in these screenings. We missed this, but in November, the two theaters had scheduled in-person visits from Dick Van Dyke, Patrick Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Judi Dench, and many others, along with screenings of their films past and present.

Why Starve Yourself?

We had lunch next door at the historic Pig ’n Whistle, where Judy Garland had her fifteenth (?) birthday party. The richly decorated eatery was an early favorite of Hollywood stars and tourists alike.

Books to Toss into Your Suitcase:
The Day of the Locust, the classic by Nathanael West
A Better Goodbye by John Schulian, gritty noir about Hollywood’s sex trade (here’s my review)