Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Measure of a Man

 Kurt Rhoads as The Duke and Cameron Folmar as Lucio in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of 'Measure for Measure', directed by Jonathan Munby. Photo by Scott Suchman.

William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is one of the author's stranger plays. Although the play is full of comedic characters and funny lines, many aspects of the plot are deeply disturbing. The play is currently being performed on the Lansburgh stage of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.

The Duke of Vienna plans to leave his city because he feels that he has become powerless to correct wrongdoing since he has not enforced the laws in such a long time. He goes on to tell us that he has put Angelo, a strict and religious man, in charge of the city. Angelo is a man who believes that justice is a fixed, unbendable concept. The Duke believes his replacement will be able to frighten the people into following the law without damaging his own reputation.

After the Duke has left town, Angelo begins to enforce the ancient laws of the city, including a law that prohibits begetting a child out of wedlock. According to the citizens of Vienna, this law has been nearly obsolete for some time. Claudio, the “son of a noble gentleman,” is immediately arrested, to the dismay of Claudio’s engaged fiancĂ©, friends, and the other judges before whom cases are tried. They appeal to Angelo’s own experience of passion and desire to try to convince him of the universality of Claudio’s crime. Angelo says that he has never felt such feelings.

Later in the play, Angelo succumbs to his own lust and almost rapes Claudio’s sister, a novice nun named Isabella. He insists to her that the only way she can save Claudio is to yield her body to him. The Duke, wearing a disguise in order to watch Angelo, overhears a conversation in the prison between Isabella and Claudio and offers to help them. The Duke then brings the play to a conclusion by subterfuge, taking the reins of power from Angelo and revealing his true identity.

Miriam Silverman as Isabella in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of 'Measure for Measure', directed by Jonathan Munby. Photo by Scott Suchman.

STC’s production is set, like the original play, in Vienna. However, the Vienna that Shakespeare thought he was writing about may not be the same one we think about today. According to some scholars, people in Elizabethan England may have imagined Vienna to be a city in Italy. Given the profusion of Italian names in Measure for Measure (Angelo, Claudio, Isabella, and Lucio) it seems likely that Shakespeare really did believe he was writing about Italy. The Shakespeare Theatre production sets the play firmly in Austria. In fact, in an inventive and appropriate decision, director Jonathan Munby chooses to use Fascist-era Austria as a backdrop to this play about authority.

At the beginning of the show, the set (designed by Alexander Dodge) establishes a bar or lounge. The center of the stage is filled with a raggedy curtain and a wooden platform stage. Tables line the exterior where a man built like a bouncer serves drinks. The “bawd’s house” of the original Shakespeare is replaced with a racy cabaret of pre-war Austria.

Cameron Folmar as Lucio and ensemble members Gracie Terzian, S. Lewis Feemster, Jacqui Jarrold and Amber Mayberry in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of 'Measure for Measure', directed by Jonathan Munby. Photo by Scott Suchman.

In the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of the play, the Duke’s opening scene shows him at the cabaret, drinking heavily, and flirting heavily with a young man--until the Duke erupts in sudden rage. Here, the Duke's concern about his ability to enforce the laws of the land seems directly related to his "deviant" desires. Sexuality (including homosexuality) is a significant theme throughout the play.

While the STC’s production features red banners and military crests referencing the fascist leaders of the era surrounding World War II, there is an interesting comparison in the production with an event in recent Austrian politics. Jorg (sometimes spelled Joerg) Haider was an Austrian politician and long-time leader of the “Freedom Party” in Austria, raised by parents active in the Nazi Party and continuing to espouse fascist beliefs throughout his political career. Haider died in 2008, driving away from a gay bar, extremely drunk and supposedly in a rage.

Occasionally, STC’s Measure for Measure seemed disjointed or awkward. For instance, at the very end of the play a mysterious figure is seen standing on the back balcony of the stage. After the curtain came down, the audience began to wonder who the figure was and what he was meant to represent. No conclusions were made, and few plausible ideas were even suggested. The actors did not always form a strong ensemble. The Duke, played by Kurt Rhoads, had many beautiful lines, most of which he delivered excellently. But some of his lines felt dragged down by the complexity of the plot. Even during comedic scenes, actors seemed bogged down in the weightiness of the play.

While I did not find this production of Measure for Measure fully compelling, it had an inventive conceit. In addition, the play itself is full of many beautiful lines.

Monday, August 26, 2013

From One to Eight Hands

This past weekend I went to a music festival in Staunton, Virginia to see a "Piano Extravaganza": a performance of eight different pieces by a mix of four pianists.

The first piece was “Prelude for the Left Hand” by Scriabin. Just as its title suggests, the pianist played it with only his left hand. The next piece, “Duet in G from Klavierbung III” by Bach, was written for two hands.  The piece was performed by two musicians, each using one hand. Next was a work for three hands, then four, working all the way up to eight hands--still with all the players sitting at the same piano. The different pieces spanned many genres and eras of music from Bach to Scriabin, German baroque to American Jazz.

My favorite piece to watch was “Piano Roll Blues” by David Liptak. Even though the piece requires seven hands, only three pianists sat on the bench. The fourth sat behind them, sometimes moving his hand in very dramatic ways to the music and at other times coming up behind the musicians to play notes over their shoulders.

The pianists not only used great technical skill to play the pieces, but also incorporated physical humor into the performances. Each work was filled with crazy hand motions, shoves, and careful attempts to gain more room on the bench. They even made the classical music funny. I loved to watch how the different pianists’ hands flew back and forth, often over the top of other players’ hands, in order to get to the next notes.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

John Cage's 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence

My father loves to sing along with this piece:

I don't usually listen to Metal, but I do like this cover of Cage's piece--even though he really pushes the tempo:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Head in the Clouds

For this envelope and postcard, I tried to explore the overlap between my dreams and my memories of the past. Many of my dreams feel like memories. I wake up fully believing I have had conversations and adventures that happened only in my dreams. Sometimes I also forget that favorite moments of my life have actually happened and believe they were merely dreams.

The psychedelic brain on the cover of the envelope reminds me of my subconscious. It emanates the waves of thoughts that make up both my everyday world and the altered world of my dreams. I found the picture in a newspaper article about hallucinations. Could a dream be considered a hallucination of memory?

The back of the envelope is cut out of a long-exposed photograph of the night sky. Night reminds me of sleep and dreams, but also of the time where I first got my interest in the sky, looking through a telescope in Pennsylvania. Around the edges of the cut-out photograph, I continued the design of the photograph with colored pencils.

The inside flap is a rubbing of the brain and sky. I like how they both became clouds (or perhaps thought bubbles) when the images were transferred through the paper.

The postcard inside is composed of three main images. The squirrel can be a symbol of home. Many of my earliest memories are of my home, the only home I have ever lived in. The squirrel could also be the small, energetic me of my youngest childhood. The central figure might be the more contemplative me. The music is an intentional reference to two things: how music triggers memory, and how it is one of the things that I remember best.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Arp Notes

After looking at Jean Arp’s "automatism" or "chance" work, I began to think about the randomness of different actions and what meaning is constructed out of random results. As a musician, I was interested in experimenting with the randomization of music. I thought about how musical improvisation is really a kind of composition on the fly. So what if I just threw notes onto a sheet of music paper?

I scattered each of my cut-out notes and other musical symbols randomly onto the music paper. While I did adjust the notes’ orientation, I tried to retain the essential randomness of the process. Because my goal was to create art rather than music, I used large blue notes.

Unfortunately, the result was just like that of trying to play totally random music. It is close to impossible to play random music; the musician’s instinct takes over and corrects for the “mistakes”. In the process of making my art, I experienced the same thing: it was very hard to put the blue notes down without thinking about the aesthetics of the result.

The result of fully random music isn’t typically audibly appealing (even though it may be an interesting concept). The same is true with a sheet of essentially random notes. While I like the idea of my artwork, I don’t enjoy the visual result.

The process of putting the notes on the page imbues the artwork with a sense of time. The visually static marks become organized in time when they are seen as notes placed on linear music paper. A page of sheet music is read left to right to create a dimension of time. This kind of artwork challenges the viewer to look at it as both a static picture and a developing piece of art through time.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Visiting the Hirshorn

Today I took my grandparents to one of my favorite museums, the Hirshorn in downtown DC. While I love their permanent exhibits, I really enjoyed the current showings as well.

One of the best parts:

Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto

I think Venus's closet was raided by this artist, whose installation made out of coat hangers is displayed on the same floor:

Hirshhorn_Coat hanger sculpture
Sculpture by Dan Steinhilber (and photo by Lia)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Winter's Tale...in the summer

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is hard to classify. In the first half of the play, everything is bleak and cold. As one young character says, “A sad tale’s best for winter.” The king of Sicilia suspects his wife is unfaithful, precipitating tragedies including the loss of both his children and his wife. He is cut off from his family by his intense jealousy and fear that others are deceiving him.

Hannah Yelland as Hermione, Mark Harelik as Leontes and Sean Arbuckle as Polixenes in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'The Winter’s Tale', directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Following intermission, the tone of the play changes dramatically. The setting is now summer in Bohemia, a colorful and crowded land full of fluttering butterflies, drunken shepherds, and young lovers. During these scenes, the play becomes a comedy darkened only by conman Autolycus who lies and cheats the residents of Bohemia. At the end of the play, the characters reunite in Sicilia. The tone is neither clearly tragic nor clearly comic. Shakespeare scholars often classify this play as a romance.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production has a cast of only nine actors, quite a feat for a play with many more characters. Six of the actors play two characters apiece, one in the Sicilian court and one in the Bohemian countryside. By choosing to cast actors like this, director Rebecca Taichman emphasized the similarities and differences between the doubled characters.

The transitions between doubled characters were sometimes shown deliberately rather than being concealed behind the curtain. Actor Mark Harelik, for example, changes out of the tattered remnants that clothe Autolycus into the formal black suit of the mourning king, while never leaving the stage. He slicks back his hair with his hand and steps into the character of the king. The transformation allows the audience to connect the deceitful rogue (whose lies hurt all around him) to the jealous king (whose lies to himself do the same).

Alongside the actors are three musicians who play their parts beautifully. Composer Nico Muhly’s compositions contrast Sicilia and Bohemia with both echoes of the same musical themes and dramatic shifts in mood. The final scene is enhanced by the magical music, the outstanding acting of Hannah Yelland (who plays Hermione), and the set design of Christine Jones.

Hannah Yelland as Hermione in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'The Winter’s Tale', directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Winter’s Tale is a play about transformations, magical and otherwise, as well as love reunited. This production brings out depth and meaning carefully. The most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare (“Exit, pursued by a bear”) is safe in the hands of these actors.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Homer's Different Heroes

Homer’s epics present two conflicting images of the hero. In the Iliad and the Odyssey we see two different heroes with two different goals. Achilles in the Iliad chooses death and glory over a long happy life, whereas Odysseus chooses life instead and makes his way back home through all the perils of his odyssey.

In the Iliad, Achilles believes that without a glorious death, he will not be remembered in the far-off future.

In contrast, Odysseus lives through the war, not dying for glory, but living to (finally) make it back home. In the final two books of the Odyssey, he begins to regain his role as king and husband. He sleeps in his own bed with his wife, he reunites with his father, and he purges his house of all traces of the suitors. He begins to live the life that Achilles might have led, if he had not chosen to die for everlasting glory.

Odysseus does get fame and glory, if perhaps of a different sort. At the beginning of book 24, we see some of the dead heroes of the Trojan War, stranded in the afterlife. They are not happy; all they can do is stand in the mire of the Asphodel fields reciting their deaths to each other. After Apollo leads the suitors down to the underworld, they tell of Odysseus’s reclamation of his throne in Ithaca. Without dying, his actions are known even in the Meadow of Asphodel where his deeds are even praised by Agamemnon. Without dying in battle, Odysseus tricked the Fates and wove his own everlasting glory.

In book 11, Odysseus summons the dead and hears Achilles state he wishes that he had not chosen to die. In book 24, we hear this theme restated (which is also hinted at in other parts of the Odyssey) and expanded as we hear that Odysseus has gained the glory that Achilles sought.

Book 24 seems essential in Homer’s explanation of how glory can be achieved in a way other than death. And this theme seems essential to the Odyssey. Instead of dying a heroic death, Odysseus lives a heroic life.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Romeo and Juliet: A Teenage Romance

In this classic play, Shakespeare gives us two immortal characters: Romeo and Juliet. Although Romeo Montague at the beginning of the play is obsessed with one girl, he suddenly forgets her when he sees Juliet Capulet. She falls in love with him just as quickly. They are rash and their minds are quickly swayed by passion. They decide in a day to get married, and everything falls apart. Although the two main characters from 16th century Italy, they have all the flaws of present-day teens. I should know: I am a teenager. And so are the actors performing Romeo and Juliet on stage.

Each year, the Shakespeare Theatre Company takes sixteen young actors through the process of putting on a 90-minute Shakespeare production. These students work four days each week with STC’s teaching staff studying Shakespeare’s texts, refining their acting skills, and learning stage combat. In the second semester of the school year, the Young Company stages their play in the Forum, a large wood-floored room downstairs at Sidney Harman Hall.

The stage was in the center of the room with rows of chairs on each of its long sides. The set was kept very simple. Each of the few set pieces was adapted by the actors to serve multiple purposes. For example, two metal gates served as Juliet’s garden wall, but also as city gates, and even a tomb. The simplicity in the set left more room for creativity on the part of the actors, and more space for imagination for the audience.

The costumes looked like neither 16-century Italy nor Shakespeare’s London. The elder Montagues and Capulets dressed up in formal wear. The younger characters wore hoodies, chopped-up black jeans, and worn-out Converse emphasizing their desire to be different from their parents. While not at all Shakespearian, the costumes appealed to the sense of teen-ness that is so important to Romeo and Juliet.

The members of the Young Company each portrayed their characters well. Many of the actors inhabited their characters with great ease and gave the impression that they were not actors standing on the stage but were instead

Shakespeare’s characters themselves. One time when this was particularly apparent was in Act 3, when Mercutio dies. All the actors together communicated the emotion of his death to the audience. Romeo’s sadness and anger became almost tangible and Benvolio’s fright and loss stood out in the dark theatre. Throughout the rest of the play the actors worked cleanly as a group. While not always seamless, they still conveyed the sense of an ensemble completing each scene together. The Young Company may not have the same depth of emotion they will after ten more years acting, but they still pulled subtlety out of a play taught so often that it sometimes feels like a clichĂ©.

This performance of a Shakespeare play about teenagers highlights teenage actors wearing teenager-y clothes. And I, a teenage reviewer, think they did a fantastic job. I look forward to reviewing the actors of the Young Company again in the coming years if I become a professional reviewer (as I might) and these actors continue into the next level of acting (as they certainly can).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Practice Plan: 8 May 2013

This is Metronome Week!  Play absolutely everything with the metronome.


Bach A minor:

1st movement

James complimented my vibrato.  He also pointed out that my tempo is too fast. So, use the metronome. Continue the tape-recorder routine with the metronome. Bad news: metronome work often takes away expressiveness, so make sure to overdo the dynamics and melodic line. In other words, try going over the top to balance out what's lost. Between each couple of rehearsal letters, point out the two most out-of-tune notes, then play them to plus-three. This will help bring everything into focus. Think about why the note was out of tune. Was it flat or sharp. Why? Also: this is a concerto, so play it like a soloist, not a chamber musician.

2nd movement

Keep playing it slowly, with the metronome.

3rd movement

The tricky part is much better. Some days, start the chords at the beginning, sometimes at the end, or even in the middle. Don't let any of them get shortchanged. Relax the arm and focus on tone at the same time. Listen to the recording! Tricky part number two: play first with sticky separate bows, then sticky slurs, then full slurs.

Chamber music

Bach D minor:

Have all movements ready for Thursday.   Listen to the recording.

Polish dance by Severn.

This is the number one priority for next week.   Clean up memory issues.  Play everything closer to the frog.  They aren't grace notes, but full sixteenth notes.   Play them as such!  Keep bow speed absolutely steady during harmonics.   Count out the slow sections.   Have Mum help by counting anything longer that a half note.  Work on the fourth chords to plus-seven.  In measure 237-240, have Mum help by playing the C's on the piano. E sharps as well.  Play more with music than without. Find the CD and listen! The whole piece can be played with a more aggressive sound, except for those bits that aren't. Work on wrong notes. Play harmonics as 4 in a row. Work on keeping a good bowhold even while doing pizzicato. Metronome!

Fiddle when I can, especially Morris.

Sunday, May 5, 2013



Getting ready to run the Takoma Park 5K Challenge
(to benefit Safe Routes to School)


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Practice Plan: 1 May 2013


Country Dance by von Weber. (Performance piece.)  My goal is to play this book five piece at a book 7/8 level.  I especially want to focus on bow control and expressiveness, being more conscious of dynamic contrast, and building intensity throughout the piece.   I also need to remember to be relaxed and playful with the piece, adding my own flair and emotions to it.   Keep the bouncing low on the bow.  Work on shifting, using a loose hand, and watching my fingers.

Bach A minor:

1st movement  Work to keep tempo very even.   Bring out the melody and emphasize dynamics!  Continue recording, then reviewing audio with the sheet music.

2nd movement  Slow down the whole piece.  Work especially on bow control, like I'm pulling the bow through taffy.  Keep using a lot of bow, but hold back, and don't necessarily use all of the bow. Closer to the frog.   Start memorizing for next week.

3rd movement  Start up-bow.  Practice double stops with as little vibrato as possible.   Both chords and rolls.  Loosen the hand for shifts.   Not too slow.

Chamber music

Bach D minor:

3rd movement  Watch rhythm from rehearsal letter G through H.  Take care of little flubs so I can work more on how it fits with violin 2 part.

2nd movement  Keep counting.  Practice with the metronome.

1st movement  Review for the chamber music party.

Polish dance by Severn.  Closer to the frog, and not too graceful.  It's a dance; make it sound like one!  Polish Polish dance.  (Or is it the other way round?)  Raise E sharp into tune.  Work out flubs in memory.  Rhythm!



Prepare for performance at the TP Farmers' Market on the Sunday after next. Pay special attention to Shostakovitch's Praeludium and Gavotte to practice in master class next week.


Play Danse Macabre each day with the metronome, counting each of the rests.  Alternate between Rondo and Agincourt.



Become more comfortable with all of the tunes. Play each while loud random music plays over speakers--making sure to keep perfectly steady, no matter what the distraction. Listen to the recording several times.

Other fiddle

Continue to prep tunes for busking.  Run through session tunes frequently.   Fill in gaps from the Hedge book if there is time and interest. Possibly work on Bog tunes?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

DNA: Sweet!

Photos by Mark Lorch

DNA Model constructed of Jelly Bellies and licorice.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


The Shakespeare Theatre Company is trying out an idea that was common on Shakespeare’s stage: performing plays together in repertory. STC is calling this pairing the Hero/Traitor rep, referring to the main conflict of both plays. A single group of actors is putting on both Coriolanus and Wallenstein, alternating plays on different nights.

Patrick Page as Coriolanus and the cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'Coriolanus', directed by David Muse. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Coriolanus focuses on the successful Roman general Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus (played by Patrick Page). The play follows his rise up to the height of power in Rome and his fall down to a traitor, fighting for the other side. Even as he abandons his country, he remains loyal to his own flawed ideals. There are two conflicts in the play: the conflict between Rome and a neighboring state as well as an internal clash between the commoners and the elites (the Plebeians and the Patricians). Coriolanus thinks of the Plebeians merely as votes, or “voices,” and for that they revile him.

Steve Pickering as Wallenstein in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of 'Wallenstein', directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Wallenstein also centers around one man, a charismatic general of the Thirty Years’ War. Wallenstein as played by Steve Pickering is a funny character. Unlike Coriolanus, Wallenstein appeals to the other characters’ (and to the audience’s) senses of humor and uses this fact to gain their trust. Most of all, Wallenstein seeks public recognition and fame. In this he is like Achilles, the Greek hero who chooses everlasting fame over a long and healthy life.

Wallenstein was originally written in German by Friedrich Schiller and translated (or rather “freely adapted”) for STC by the poet Robert Pinsky. His text feels modern and fresh. Each line flows smoothly into the next, incorporating curses and dialogue as well as rhyme. Something about the whole production felt new. Maybe that was because this play is performed so rarely, but I think it was more that I was unfamiliar with the style. When I see Shakespeare performed, I frequently recognize standard plot devices (separated twins, ship wrecks, girl dressing up as a boy) and the lines (even if I’ve never seen the play), but in Wallenstein I recognized nothing!

Wallenstein’s ghost narrates much of the play from the lowest plain of Hell. (Interestingly enough, Robert Pinsky also translated Dante’s Inferno with its extensive dialogue in Hell.) From Hell, Wallenstein compares the events in the play to America’s current politics. He cracks jokes and tells the story of his exploits from his own point of view.

When I walked into Sidney Harman Hall to see Coriolanus, I was immediately struck by the overwhelming grandness of the set (designed by Blythe R.D. Quinlan). It looked like concrete and had an almost postmodern feel to it. At various points in the play, the set moved automatically--rotating, sliding, and shifting silently to make way for the actors. Even though the transitions were smooth, the movement distracted me, and I found myself wishing for a simpler set. However, all the more portable set pieces are brought in by the working class characters, the plebs. They bring in chairs, the staircases, and carpets, all while continuing the dialogue of the play. This helped bring the world of the stage and the world of the play closer together.

The lighting and drums were of such intensity that I felt immersed in the emotion of the battles and the fear of the soldiers, as if I too were trapped on the stage. While this greatly helped me understand Coriolanus’s character (understanding the bravery it must take to charge into battle and how crazy he must be to enjoy it), the humor that followed always felt strained. Could that have been the intended reaction? Maybe David Muse (the director of Coriolanus) intended the production to show the effects of war on everyday life and to all those near the combat (like Coriolanus’s haunting son).

Hunter Zane as Young Martius and Diane D’Aquila as Volumnia in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'Coriolanus', directed by David Muse. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Because these plays are performed in repertory, both productions use the same stage. But in Wallenstein, the way the set moves does not seem to connect the themes of the play. There is no clear explanation for the arrival of set pieces: they either rise from the floor or appear in the darkness. I found this style less effective in communicating the theme of the play than was the style used in Coriolanus. Nevertheless, some of the set pieces in Wallenstein were themselves interesting to look at. My favorite was a giant steampunk astrological clock with planets and stars all rotating on bronze gears.

Coriolanus leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The details of the action and plot and even costume changes each might contain a message, yet they often felt like accidents, not at all like hidden symbolism. Wallenstein himself talks very directly about the search for recognition and greatness and how that search leads the hero’s downfall. Neither performance’s style felt fully satisfactory to me. Coriolanus felt vague and too open-ended. I was left feeling unsure of the intended interpretation of the hero-traitor theme. Wallenstein, on the other hand, sometimes seemed to present its moral on a platter. It required far less thinking from the audience.

In short, I found both productions interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. When put together, however, they yielded a whole much greater than the parts. The two plays addressed the theme of the hero-traitor in different ways. By seeing both plays, an audience member gets a fascinating opportunity for comparison.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Teller of Tales

Richard Schiff as Erie Smith and Randall Newsome as Night Clerk in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of 'Hughie', directed by Doug Hughes. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If you go to the Shakespeare Theatre looking for excitement, stage combat, or pratfalls, Hughie might not be the right show for you. The play, written by Eugene O’Neill and directed by Doug Hughes, is close to an hour long and has only two speaking characters. It’s set in a run-down motel somewhere in New York City. The play is all dialogue and no action--unless pacing, smoking cigarettes, and rolling dice can count as action.

Despite the lack of significant dramatic movement, Richard Schiff (playing, according to the handbill, “Erie Smith, a teller of tales”) still managed to take up the whole stage with his persona. Even in the face of Erie’s charisma, the Night Clerk at the hotel (expressively acted by Randall Newsome) quickly is distracted, listening to garbage collectors and the e-trains, or so the omniscient narrator tells us.

The Night Clerk is not the only one in the theater who loses interest. Given all of the sighs, snores, and rustling, I’m pretty sure that at times most of the audience (me included) had their attention stolen away from the plot of the play. But I don’t think that the production was intended to hold the audience’s attention. As my attention drifted, so did the Night Clerk’s. I began to feel that he was being compared to me. Occasionally my mind drifted off and I missed what Erie was talking about. Every so often, the narrator informed us that the Night Clerk was also feeling guilty about losing focus on Erie’s story. Just as the Night Clerk is distracted by the world of the hotel, we sometimes drift away from what we are watching on stage.

The distractions felt by the Night Clerk and by the audience are enhanced by the many distractions on the stage. Every corner seems to be filled with strange and magical doors, windows, paintings, and a clock. Also supporting the central theme of the play are Catherine Zuber’s costumes which fit the characters perfectly in more than one way. The Night Clerk was dressed in a trim but worn tuxedo which looked well cared for, even with the fraying collar and cuffs. His care of his cloths mirrored his feeling of responsibility for his job. The audience didn’t even need the characters to engage in dialogue before we understood their personalities. The lighting, designed by Ben Stanton, was both straightforward and expressive. Lights followed Erie’s pacing and dimmed gently every time the Night Clerk’s thoughts wandered.

All in all, the production is seamless. Without action or excessive humor but with a significant depth of ideas, the play left me thinking for hours. The play has a strange quality to it and is perhaps best acknowledged by the sound of the name of the play’s main speaker: eerie.

Most of all, the play was open. What is its meaning? Does it come from Erie’s story? Is it from the way he tells his story? Does it come from the response by the clerk and by us? Or is there even a meaning at all?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Making Books

Every few weeks, the National Gallery of Art hosts a “Teen Studio.”  At each session, students explore an exhibit, then do a related project.  The topics vary widely, from oil painting in Flemish art to pre-Photoshop altered photography. I've been lucky enough to go several times in this last semester.

My favorite session so far explored two seemingly different topics; hand bookmaking and the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting. Nathalie Ryan, who works in the education department at the National Gallery, began by giving a talk about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Brotherhood tried to return to an earlier style of painting, before the influence of Raphael. They tried very hard to focus on reality even while depicting allegorical or fictional subjects. They also cared a great deal about color and light, using strong bright primary colors rather than the lighter softer pigment preferred by the more Raphaelite Royal Academy of Arts. Here is an example of one of the paintings we looked at while in the gallery:

As a lover of poetry, I especially embraced the idea of making painting more like romantic poetry. The member of the brotherhood who pioneered this idea was William Michael Rossetti, brother of the poet Christina Rossetti.  (Families, interestingly, were important to the Pre-Raphaelites.  Because of their status as a secret society, all of the models for the brotherhood were family and friends of the five or six artists.)

After the introduction, we took a tour of the new gallery exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design.” We saw a lot of wonderful art, but also spent a lot of time talking about it and asking questions. The art wasn’t only painting. The paintings mimicked the view of the human eye just enough to make me think about the paintings as, if not truth, things that the artists had thought about enough to achieve that level of depth. There was also statue, tapestry, furniture and books. I loved how things that I’m used to thinking about as fiction were depicted with such a level of reality.

One of my favorite parts of the studio experience is the opportunity to have lunch with other like-minded teens.  Each time I've been the food has been great and the company has been excellent.

After lunch, we returned to the studio room where we started, and began to make our own books!  Making the books was a lot of fun and also very challenging. The end result was terrific.  I look forward to drawing in my book, and making more books in the future.

Thursday, February 14, 2013