I'll go with thee to the lane's end... I am a kind of burr, I shall stick. Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

I write not to teach but to learn. Rebecca West

drew's writing:

  • "Always Forever Now," Ideomancer volume 13, issue 2
  • "Black Sun," Black Static # 32
  • "Bread or Cake" and "Pride/Shame,"2nd Annual Philadelphia One-Minute Play Festival
  • "Copper Heart," Polluto Magazine issue 5, A Steampunk Orange
  • "The Accomplished Birder's Guide to Overcoming Rejection," Last Drink Bird Head, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
  • "Another Night With the Henriksens," Player's Theater Halloween One-Act Festival NYC 2008
  • "Hating the Lovers," and "Pipe Down!" Geez Magazine: Thirty Sermons You Would Never Hear in Church
  • "Beth/slash/Nathan," Paper Fruit Blogiversary Contest

Thursday, January 27, 2011

the rest of the best theater 2010

I promised here I would finish my post on the best (mostly Philly) theater we saw in `10, and I'm a man of my word. This covers mainly queer-themed theater; I didn't plan to segregate, it just turned out that way--making this a kind of civil-union-y, seperate-but-nearly-equal post.

Philly's Mauckingbird Theater Company does new plays with queer themes, and queers--or excavates the essential queerness of--classic plays. Midsummer Night's Dream is a play I ordinarily avoid: Lysander, Helena, Hermia, and Demetrius are the meanest, dullest, and whiniest of Shakespeare's lovers.
But Mauckingbird's production overcame this to a large extent in making the loving pairs same-sex--I was able to sympathize more with them when the marriages they were being forced into contradicted their fundamental natures. That Mauckingbird cast actual (Temple) college students as the lovers helped also, as they looked so young their callowness was more understandable. I wished I could have watched this production with a copy of the text before me, as there were many lines which, in a queer context, became funnier, or more poignant, or offered commentary on our current civil rights struggle that seemed not forced, but somehow natural and inevitable. This play was a good choice, but all of Shakespeare is game for queering; his passages of same-sex desire are scattered on the surface of the plays like garnets in our city parks, you don't have to excavate for them. (Think of the awkward tenderness of Hamlet's "too much of this" scene with Horatio, or Iago's unconsciously revealing fiction about Cassio's sleep-talking:

And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry, “O sweet creature!” and then kiss me hard, As if he pluck'd up kisses by the roots,
That grew upon my lips; then laid his legOver my thigh, and sigh'd and kiss'd; and thenCried, “Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!”

But, too much of this.)

Though Shakespeare queers easily, I also approve of queering plays that seem heterosexual to the core as a way of addressing our scarcity as characters in literary history. You can't change the past, but it's noble to try.

The mechanicals in
Mauckingbird's Dream stole the show, as they often do. It's unfair to the other characters that Shakespeare gives the mechanicals all the funniest lines, and somehow makes their desire to put on a good show for the Duke's wedding seem the most truly heartfelt goal of any character in the play. Danielle Pinnock as Nick Bottom was unbelievably funny, and I was impressed that, as insane, eccentric, and outsized as her performance was, it was never hammy. We adored her, and the other mechanicals were the most innocent, goofy, and appealingly queer ensemble I could imagine in these roles.

That was Mauckingbird's first Shakespeare; the company also went in a new direction with two one-actor shows about great queer writers: we missed the one about Capote but saw The Threshing Floor, about James Baldwin. I tend to doubt one-person shows, I wonder if they are theater and suspect them of being an awkward hybrid of a play and an informative lecture. When I find myself worrying about the physical and emotional strains this way of working must place on the lone actor it's a sure sign that the play itself has not engaged me. However, James Ijames's script and performance in
Threshing Floor gave a satisfyingly rounded picture of Baldwin's life, and his evocation of other characters was terrific--giving the illusion of a full cast of personalities around Baldwin. The device of beginning the play as the journey of a graduate student going to see Baldwin was a great way to defuse the weirdness of being asked to believe that I am seeing Emily Dickinson! or PT Barnum! or Mark Twain! when the curtain goes up. If I've ever seen a one-person show that felt like a play and did ample justice to its subject, this was it--I hope there are further productions of The Threshing Floor.
The last great queer show we saw was Sanctuary, by Brian Sanders' JUNK. We don't normally see dance, but had heard great things about this company. Actually, when people talk about
Brian Sanders' JUNK they get a look in their eyes like they're about to have a seizure, or a UFO has just landed behind where you're standing. So we figured we should go.


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Sure enough, we were glad we went. Our favorite part was a male pas de deux choreographed to Duran Duran's The Chauffeur, performed in the two-dimensional space limned by a long, narrow trough of water. The two men alternately lifted, and were lifted by the other, their movements so fluid I could never tell when one transitioned from carrying to being carried. For me the dance embodied the way that same-sex relationships can be profoundly equal--you immediately escape any expectation of hierarchical roles, do not feel the need to ironically subvert paradigms of
hierarchical roles, and are cut off from the burden of the history of hierarchical roles. Virginia Woolf's phrase for female relationships, the love of friends, and Walt Whitman's phrase for male relationships, the love of comrades, express the innately democratic nature of same-sex relationships--an idea developed at length in Richard D. Mohr's Gay Ideas (though his focus is almost exclusively on male pairs). Have I ever seen a performance as authentically, essentially queer, as Sanctuary? Either I'm having a seizure or there's a UFO hovering behind you.

I guess Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Philadelphia Theatre Company counts as queer, since Ma has a girlfriend. We thought the whole cast was perfect--even when August Wilson gave them reams of exposition, they made it work. I have a strong bias for smaller theater companies who have no fixed home, finding that
the bigger the theater, the worse the show--but Ma Rainey's at PTC disproved my bias.

One last show, and not an (especially) queer one: We ended the year, literally, by seeing the Berserker Residents' Very Merry Xmas Carol Holiday Adventure Show at Theater Horizon on New Year's Eve. The show was very funny, and we got to throw snowballs at the villain, and I won a T-shirt! so it was worth the trip to Norristown--even though the train on the way back was packed with antiseptic yuppie clones who had actually dressed up for New Year's Eve. (We recovered by going to our favorite pub and seeing in 2011 with our friend the tango instructor).
I'm going to toss out the prediction that Very Merry Xmas Carol Holiday Adventure Show will become a classic. We love the Berserker Residents! (Annihilation Point is the funniest show I've ever seen).

In the corners of the internet I frequent I overhear complaints about the lack of queer characters in movies, the lack of out-actors portraying LGBT characters in movies, and the frequently stereotyped or tragic roles when we are represented in movies. This is terrible, and it should change. It's as natural to complain about the state of cinema as it is heroic to advocate and work for change. But it's also eminently sensible and satisfying to support the inspired work of your local theater companies.

Friday, January 21, 2011

second hike of 2011: parvin state park, or, where donald lost his boot

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My scout troop went camping every month regardless of the weather: I still think "Be Prepared" is a great motto to face life with. For our second hike of 2011 (our goal is to hike all fifty hikes in Best Hikes around Philadelphia) my camerado and I went to NJ's Parvin State Park, a spot I have fond memories of from scouting days.

My most significant Parvin memory is the beach that ate Donald's boot: I ran into one of my fellow scouts recently and he thought the beach had eaten both boots; clearly, this event is burned into both of our minds, even if details differ. Donald was a quiet, popular kid who looked like Mario Lanza. His entrapment in quicksand was hilarious to us, and he bore our efforts to free him with good humor till the adults caught up and sprang into action, shaming our equanimity, and terrifying Donald--I can still see Donald's panicked face as the adults wrenched him from the hungry sand. Afterward, I became determined to retrieve Donald's boot and was baffled that the adults were so willing to sacrifice it to the lake bed's appetite.

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This time, we stayed off the sand and kept our boots. The glories of the hike were:
  • Streams weaving through snow-burdened hollies.
  • The greenest, greenest duckweed! (No pictures, it came out looking like pond scum). Duckweed is endearing for being the smallest flowering plant and also one of the most nutritious. I'm not singular in being pleased by Lemnaceae, there's a website called The charms of duckweed.
  • The strange music of trees resting their weight on each other, and sounding like cricket wings, but several octaves lower. This is something you hear every now and then on a hike, but for some reason these woods were full of overly chummy trees making eerie tree-music together
  • The branch with which I started this post, which arched our path and hosted a forest of fungus so vivid, varied, and intricate it puts James Cameron's "Pandora" to shame:

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The only frustration of this hike was the book, which said to go left from the office, though the arrow on the map in the book points right. We went left and I became frustrated that the trails did not follow the route laid out in the book (my amigo, to his credit, faced it like a buddha). We shortened our exploration of the wilder side of the park because the book and the terrain were in such disagreement we were afraid we might get lost. Later we caught the discrepancy between the text and the map and realized we probably should have trusted the map. Next time we'll pick up an independent map at the office or on the internet... and I need to see if there's a working compass in the house...

"Be Prepared" may be a vanishing point for me--a place to aim for whether or not it can truly be reached, or even exists.

We dined here, the Kountry Kitchen:

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On Sunday nights you can still bring a pot to the Kountry Kitchen and have it filled it with chicken dumplings for take-out. You could do this in Mullica Hill, NJ, at one time, but I think that place is gone--so this may be a dying custom, which seems a shame (but nice for the chickens). We overheard one woman coming in for her dumplings and saying, in response to something said to her, Oh no, I'm no women's libber! but we did not hear the context. 

My camerado had the dumplings, which he said were great. The rice pudding I had tasted almost exactly like my dear old Granny made.

Friday, January 14, 2011

first hike of 2011: the poetic Wissahickon

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Before 2011 is over, we plan to hike all fifty hikes in a book of Best Hikes around Philadelphia, which my camerado got for his birthday in October. He sees this as preparation for us hiking the Appalachian Trail. Each week he solemnly cuts the pages of the hike we've chosen from the book and slides them into the waterproof trail bags he got from the same cool friends who gave him the book.

Check out this intrepid January insect who came up from the creek to bless our venture:

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We chose the Wissahickon creek for our first hike because it is the sacred spine of romantic Philadelphia outdoorsiness, beloved by centuries of writers, and particularly significant to the Philadelphia Gothic tradition--and also so we could meet our friend the Duchess for breakfast at Cafette in nearby Chestnut Hill. Reader, that Cafette breakfast powered me through a five hour hike, and I only had to break out the dark chocolate toward the end.

(The Duchess had some funny family stories to tell from the holidays.)

Highlights of the hike were:
  • Groves of beech trees--these guys hold their leaves through the winter (seen above) to protect new leaf buds. The color is indescribable.
  • Getting off Forbidden Drive and up onto the slopes above the creek. (Normally we would just stick to Forbidden Drive, which hugs the creek, and is plenty beautiful, but well-traveled, and less of an adventure).
  • Seeing this guy up close:

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This chief is looking westward, where the Lenape (except for the ones who went underground) were forcibly relocated, by intimidation and fraud. I'm used to seeing him from the bottom of the gorge. Not sure if interesting is the best word, but it's interesting how romantic nostalgia for the local Indians followed so fast on the extirpation of the local Indians.

Lowlights of the hike were:
  • A grove of rare Umbrella Magnolias the book promised, which sounded fabulously exotic and Dr. Suess-y, but were in the end, merely rare and looking somewhat stranded in the understory.
  • Running out of daylight: Future winter hikes will be shorter, and certain people who get carried away with the photo-snapping (me) will have to martial their time better.
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Exhausted, and, er, dehydrated... because we didn't bring water... we finished our adventure at Earth Bread Brewery in Mt. Airy, and had the white pizza, and rocher for a much-deserved dessert, and my amigo thought the house draft was outstanding.

UPDATE 4-17-11: See that picture I ended this post with? We thought the winged bark was so cool, and wondered what this shrub was--we learned it's burning bush--an invasive that's crowding out native understory plants.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

best live performances 2010, music and theater

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For live music, the 2010 highlights were Sufjan Stevens, of course, and Richard Thompson at the Philly Folk Fest. I wished Richard Thompson had played twice as long. It was also a thrill to see the Cowboy Junkies at the Scottish Rite auditorium (that's the ceiling above). I've been a Junkies fan for a long time--I always liked their bassist, so it was magical to watch him live, and no one can quite do what Margo Timmons does with a song. I caught Roseanne Cash at the Folk Fest one year and wasn't moved, but thought the recent "List" album was great, so we saw her too.

It was an OK year for concerts, though not as good as 2009.

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As for theater, we saw stunning stuff. New York's Elevator Repair Company and our own Philadelphia Artists' Collective were my favorites.

Elevator Repair Company did an adaptation of Hemingway's Sun Also Rises called The Select, using all or most of the text from the novel. We saw this as part of the Philly Fringe. The production was exhilarating and I felt as though Elevator Repair Company had put not just all of the novel but all of life on the stage in three hours. Lucy Taylor's performance as the ur-flapper Brett Ashley was uncanny. She didn't look exactly like I would picture this character, and her wardrobe was random thrift shop gleanings, but relying on her voice and movement she made a character that was unfailingly convincing. Is she a jazz-age party girl in real life? The evocation of Carnival was also viscerally convincing--I was overwhelmed by the sudden violence of the entire company jumping up in the middle of a scene, possessed by dance. The bravura of Elevator Repair Company is impressive; they make some left-field choices on a slight budget and pull it off. This kind of confidence and vision makes the theater of huge casts and large mechanical sets look antediluvian, or just unnecessary. I could see these guys doing a Les Miserables in a phone booth that would rival the one you saw with your mom.

Philadelphia Theater Collective is a new company I caught on to this year. Their Life is a Dream was my other favorite production of 2010 and it wasn't even a production, but a reading that took place in the haunted spaces of an old church that now houses the Broad Street Ministry. This was also part of the Philly Fringe. PTC knows how to host an evening. The reading was accompanied by period music by Piffaro. After the first act we all got pomegranate juice with fresh mint (or flower petals? I can't remember). The actors led us to a different space in the church for a candlelit second act that closed with a monologue brilliantly delivered by Sean Lally, sans book. When the play ended, two of PTC's cofounders carried out a table spread with a feast--for the audience! But I was too overwhelmed by the piece to stay and mingle much. Even now I don't know that I can do justice to my feelings about hearing Calderon's play for the first time, except to say that I'm grateful that my first meeting with it was a reading done with smarts, soul, and humor. Life is a Dream expresses everything that I might say about this mortal coil were I, say, a genius dramatist of the Spanish Golden Age.

Edward_Burne-Jones_-_The_Wheel_of_Fortune

I also saw the PAC reading of Troilus and Cressida at the Constitution Center in the spring. This was a great opportunity to hear some of our favorite actors give an intelligent and lively reading to a rarely-performed Shakespeare play (that I hadn't read). Thematically I thought Troilus was darker than any of the major tragedies, even Lear. Focusing on a world more than on individual characters, it was like a thoroughly curdled Measure for Measure. In Troilus Shakespeare presents two armies of talky, charismatic bastards who can be commended only for wit and drive. Evil, depressing fun.

After hearing two terrific PAC readings I was a fan, and was pleased and lucky to get the last available seat for the last night of their first full production, Duchess of Malfi. But I was reminded that I dislike John Webster's play, in which we watch the titular Duchess suffer, and suffer, and suffer, and die (though she gets a beautiful scene where she haunts her widower in the form of an echo). Still, as is always the case with this company, the cast was great--I particularly liked the actor who played Bosola, the philosophical but unrepentant and ultimately unredeemed hitman. Damon Bonetti as the chief villain, Ferdinand, provided my favorite theatrical moment of the year during one of his mad scenes, when he accuses his brother, a cardinal, of lechery. Blazing with mania, Bonetti's look was a dissonant chord, mingling contempt, horror, and prurience. Thinking of this moment, I understand why mad scenes were so compelling for Renaissance audiences, and am reminded of how rare it is for a filmed performance to get into your marrow in this way.

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It's a measure of how much great theater we saw this year that I am too sleepy to finish this post! So the great queer theater we saw in 2010 will have to wait--I was saving it for last but will have to make it a post of its own.

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