The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

veronaI had a pleasant reread of this early Shakespeare comedy in preparation for the Houston Shakespeare Festival this summer. Of course you saw my post the other day about what a special copy of the book this is…

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an earlier and a lesser-known Shakespeare play, but I think it’s still excellent in all the usual ways: clever wordplay, mild bawdiness, romantic wafflings or confusions that may threaten our modern sensibilities just a touch, but overall, with the potential to be wildly entertaining in the right hands. I remember the performance I saw as a youngster being accessible (having read the play beforehand helps, of course).

The two gentlemen are Valentine and Proteus, and they are best friends. Valentine is prepared to leave Verona to seek his fortune in Milan; Proteus stays behind because he is in love with Julia, and determined to win her. Valentine finds his love in Sylvia, daughter to the Duke of Milan; and Proteus’s father is convinced to send his son away, separating him from Julia just as they declare their love for each other. Proteus is sent to join his friend Valentine, which should be a happy reunion; but fickle Proteus falls for his friend’s betrothed, betraying both his friend Valentine and his own love, Julia. Determined to win Sylvia away, Proteus reveals Valentine and Sylvia’s elopement plan. The Duke has Valentine banished; and the action of the play moves to the woods.

In what might be seen as a vague early shadow of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woods are host to a banished Valentine and his servant Speed – who are taken in by a host of bandits – and who are pursued by a grieving Sylvia and her faithful servant – who are pursued by a love-stricken Proteus, her father the Duke, and the Duke’s intended son-in-law Thurio – who are accompanied by Julia, serving as a page (in male drag of course) to Proteus, thereby in pursuit of her love. If you had trouble following that, all is as it should be.

You might recognize a few lines:

What light is light, if Sylvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Sylvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.

Or:

It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

Speed, servant to Valentine, and Launce, servant to Proteus, have their share of buffoonery, great scenes with wordplay and witticisms that are typical of Shakespearean comedy. All ends well (although we sniff at the treatment of certain female characters, and the slurs upon Jews. Time-typical Shakespeare, again); and the play is, indeed, funny.

I look forward to seeing this summer’s live performance.


Rating: 7 gift-dogs.

Alley Theatre presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

vanya

Husband was kind enough to accompany me to the theatre again, our second play at the Alley this year. (See Fool from a few months back.)

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike references Chekhov; but no familiarity with his work is required to enjoy this one. Vanya and Sonia are aging siblings – she’s adopted, they will remind you a few times – still living together in the family home, mostly bickering with one another and dissatisfied with their lives (particularly Sonia, who is casually mentioned as being bi-polar). Their sister Masha is a successful actor – less so on the stage, more so in the movies, particularly sexy slasher flicks; but she is aging, too, and feeling less secure about her sex appeal and professional future. When Masha comes to visit this time, she brings Spike: a much younger aspiring actor and a hot piece of male flesh inclined towards taking his clothes off. This habit is the source of some laughs, as everyone onstage is entranced by his beauty (Vanya as well as his sisters is attracted to men); but as Nina points out late in the play (I paraphrase): Spike is beautiful; it’s a shame about his personality.

Oh yes, Nina. The cast of six is rounded out by a beautiful young neighbor girl, Nina, also an aspiring actor and a huge fan of Masha’s; and the housekeeper, Cassandra. Cassandra is a real hit: like her Greek namesake, she is cursed to make predictions that are… often right, more or less; but that are disregarded. She is a strong personality and a great stage presence, and provides still more comic relief. The play is not short on laughs, in fact, despite some heavy subject matter: depression and late-life regrets; family dynamics; climate change and politics; a rapidly changing and-not-always-for-the-better world. I was struck by a line (again I paraphrase) about how there are now 900 (or some such number) television channels available, and you can always find a news channel that tells you what you already believe. Late in the final act we are treated to that classic, the play-within-a-play, written by Vanya and performed by Nina, which takes place in the post-climate-change-apocalypse, when humans are extinct.

It got a little long-winded here and there, I confess; I think Husband appreciated the fart jokes and lighter, always-accessible humor of Fool better than this one. There were some tangents. But I appreciated every one! I highly recommend this mashup of serious topics, comic relief, and plentiful references to literature and the arts. The actors were strong, too. I heard a few missed lines – just a few, just barely – but was still very impressed by the personalities. Cassandra and Sonia were real standouts; I was especially struck by the arc achieved by Sonia, from dumpy house-bound depressive through an exhilarating costume party to actually making plans to go out on a date. I cheered her on. And Spike’s portrayal in the near-nude was both hilarious and, yes, attractive.


Rating: 8 molecules.

Alley Theatre presents Fool

Husband and I attended the opening “preview” night of Fool at the Alley Theatre last week. I love the theatre (don’t go nearly often enough), while Husband is… forbearing. So I try to take him to plays that he will enjoy. (The Lieutenant of Inishmore was a big hit.) For this season, he chose Fool and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (the latter coming up).

I borrow a plot synopsis from the Alley’s website, since it’s rather perfect, and it’s what convinced Husband to be my date:

In Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy, Fool, two kings get together and place a wager on their fools – a jester competition, and the funniest one gets to keep his head. Two evil minions have a lot to say about this, but not as much as the kitchen wench. And what’s the queen been up to all night? A dramatical comical farcical tragical play about power, love and laughter, set in a medieval kitchen.

What you don’t get from this is playwright Rebeck’s reason for concocting this plot. According to the playbill, these silly, heartfelt jesters; the competitive pseudo-camaraderie of the servant class; the evil kings & their evil underlords; and the conniving queen, are all based on her experience in a very nasty corporate world. For me, this added a layer of interest to the story.

This was a highly enjoyable dramatic presentation. The jesters, and all the players, were freaking hilarious. We literally laughed out loud through a lot of it, which is not the norm even in comedic theatre, in my experience. It was also rather intelligent and heartfelt; I really enjoyed the characters and their conflicts. On top of it all, there was some very Shakespearean cross-dressing gender confusion, and while gender confusions may be comedic low-hanging fruit, they are also funny. And served well here.

I love the Alley because it is smallish, intimate, and not so formal that us informal people feel uncomfortable. Husband and I were on the front row (although way off to one side), so we were very close to the actors. It was a near-flawless performance – a stagehand walked onstage handling props when we think the lights should have been off, ah well – and the actors were in top form. We had a great time and left together laughing. More of the same, please.


Rating: 8 farts.

Ring for Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

ringforjeevesI would like to begin this review-of-sorts by noting the front-cover blurb by Christopher Hitchens:

P.G. Wodehouse is the gold standard of English wit.

Next, note the back-cover blurb by Stephen Fry:

You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.

And thirdly, my A.Word.A.Day email the other day included the following “thought for the day,” by Susan Sontag:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

The collected wisdom of these three statements is that P.G. Wodehouse is awesome and hilarious; and to further beleaguer the point or try to parse it would be a waste of time, possibly a disservice. In that spirit, and because I’ve reviewed several Wodehouses already, I’m not going to say much more.

Wodehouse is still light-heartedly hilarious and well worth a lazy afternoon. This is, if anything, one of the better ones I’ve read.

If you care for a plot synopsis, I’ll continue to be brief: Bertie Wooster is not present in this story; Jeeves is on loan to a similarly foolish young man. There is confusion about which dame he’s most devoted to. A decrepit English manor is on sale. A bumbling “white hunter” from Africa lusts after a wealthy American widow. Hilarity ensues and all ends well. There are no aunts in this story. The end.


Rating: 7 damp spots.

movie: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Another classic for you that I found on the airplane: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell! I had never seen either in a movie before (isn’t that shameful?). And aren’t they both fabulous. I confess, though, I came in rooting for Jane, as the title made her the underdog from the start. [Full disclosure: I was born a blonde and am gradually darkening towards brunette as I age. Does that make me neutral?]

I almost don’t want to bother with a plot synopsis here, as I felt the plot really wasn’t the point, but okay. Jane & Marilyn (I have lost track of their characters’ names) are showgirls. Marilyn is quite a ditzy blonde, and concerned with marrying a man with lots and lots of money. Jane likes to have a good time and wants a man who wants the same, money be damned. Marilyn has a fiancé who is requisitely wealthy, and they intend to marry in France, but his father prevents him from sailing, because he objects to the gold-digging Marilyn; thus Marilyn & Jane sail together. The action of the movie takes place on the ship, where Jane meets a man she might be able to settle down with, and Marilyn meets the owner of a diamond mine and goes bonkers over that possibility. (Enter the song, “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” I am rather offended.) From there on it’s all spoilers. But again, the plot isn’t important.


There is mischief and chicanery. This is a comedy, as it turns out, not only an exhibition of the fabulous Jane and the fabulous Marilyn – who do rock every scene in classic, visual splendor. The high-jinks are fun and the slapstick is quite charming. And it’s a musical as well, although there is far less singing than there might be. I was surprised and pleased to note that there is some objectification of the men – how progressive! And they are some nice looking men, too.

I found this film to be more of a fun visual spectacle with great slapstick than such a great story. But there’s no question it was enjoyable – and classic.


Rating: 6 glittery diamonds (naturally).

My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (audio)


As recently noted, I am saddened to have to move on past Jonathan Cecil’s narration of the Jeeves audiobooks. Here I give Simon Prebble’s voice a go, with the very first published Jeeves book. This is a short story collection – not a format I’m a fan of generally, but I finally got around to starting at the beginning. Most of the stories here included had been published before, and only about half feature Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves. The other half star Reggie Pepper, a character I had not encountered before. Wikipedia claims he was an early prototype for Bertie, but I didn’t taste that flavor at all. I found Pepper much cleverer than Bertie (although he doesn’t always feel that way himself). And while Reggie’s stories were diverting in the usual Wodehouse way, they did begin to feel a little much like the usual Wodehouse: I started recognizing formulaic phrases and the like. It felt a little bit repetitive. I liked the Bertie Wooster stories much more. Were they less formulaic? Or am I just more forgiving of my old friend Bertie? Hard to say. But the ordering of the stories, which goes Jeeves-Jeeves-Jeeves-Pepper-Pepper-Pepper-Pepper-Jeeves, had me a little sad faced until that final Bertie and Jeeves story popped up. My preferences are clear.

These stories really do feel like early Wodehouse. I think he got better with time. And to be fair, there is something formulaic about his writing, and that’s not all bad, if you hit upon a successful formula. Funny and fun (and easily taken in chunks, of course, being short stories), but not the very best of Wodehouse that I’ve discovered.

And the narrator? Maybe he would have pleased me if he had been my introduction to Wodehouse, but having fallen for Johnathan Cecil’s voice, I cannot be persuaded of any other. This may be a problem independent of the specific narrators in question, however, so, grain of salt.

Enjoyable, but fewer belly laughs than I’ve come to expect.


Rating: 4 trouser creases.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson (audio)

I was already a fan of The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson’s blog-alias. And her local connection (she’s Texas, with some time logged in a Houston suburb) didn’t hurt, either. Well, now having listened to her book as an audio read by the lovely Jenny herself, I can even more wholeheartedly recommend her to you.

Jenny has a quirky, crass sense of humor: she is fond of the word “vagina” and curses a fair amount. These things do not bother me, but fair warning. She combines that style, however, with an occasional earnestness that is endearing and captivating. This is her “mostly true memoir” (which I think is a great way to speak of memoir, in general! my impression is this one is as “true” as most), and therefore it’s the story of her childhood, growing up, marriage, and family life with husband Victor and daughter Hailey, including moving around the state. One emphasis is the crazy upbringing she experienced in a tiny tiny Texas town with an eccentric taxidermist father (whose idea of a loving welcome is tossing a baby bobcat at her new boyfriend) and long-suffering mother. Another is the mental illness Jenny suffers from, including generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress. (Disclaimer: I have no print version of this book at hand and am going by memory. But I am fairly confident in my memory.)

Her handling of these subjects is on the one hand hilarious, outlandish, and obscene, and on the other, as mentioned earlier, serious and thoughtful. For someone who suffers fairly debilitating bouts of depression and mental illness, Jenny is surprisingly positive in her interpretation of her own experiences. Presumably her feelings in the moment are often much less cheery; but in the format of this book, where she got to think it through and get it right, her philosophies are refreshing, graceful, helpful, optimistic. She comes across in the end as damaged, yes, but also hopeful, wise, and fun. I want to be her friend. In other words, I give Jenny, her book, and her website my ringing endorsement! Oh, and do check out the audio version if you can. She reads it herself (and sings all the chapter titles), there’s a blooper reel at the end (really just a bunch of off-color ramblings), and I always like to get things in the author’s own voice if possible – in a memoir most of all. In fact, I will pay her the compliment of putting Let’s Pretend This Never Happened up next to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, also read by the author and also hilarious. Go check out Jenny Lawson because she is unique and bizarre in the best possible way.


Rating: 8 self-reflections.
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