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.

habits passed along

As I’ve done in summers past, I was looking forward this summer to seeing some Shakespeare dramatized at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where we can sit outside under the stars and bring dogs & food & drink along, and all the performances are free. This is a summer activity I grew up with and still enjoy. Part of my tradition also involves reading or rereading the plays ahead of time so I’ll be ready to fully enjoy what I see. Therefore, I started checking the website for information on the Houston Shakespeare Festival early this summer, to see what plays they’d be putting on (there is always one comedy and one tragedy or history), with the intention of getting my hands on a copy of each if I didn’t already own them.

This year’s history is Henry IV, 1, which I requested from my local public library. The comedy is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I was pretty sure I owned a copy, since I saw it as a child with my grandparents in southern California. I went home to check, and sure enough, my 1964 “general readers” edition from the Folger Library was there on the shelf. I pulled it out and put it in the stack.

I was not prepared for the surprise I got when I opened it up, though. This note is taped into the inside cover:

photo 2 (1)
From my grandmother:

Dear Julie,

We’re planning to take you to this play while you’re with us (it’s an outdoor theater) and since it was written 400 years ago (+/-) the language is real strange to our ears and we thought you (and your parents?) might have fun reading it during your trip! It’s a lot more fun to see it ’cause there are no stage directions in the script so it’s hard to imagine all the action. It is a comedy – really kinda silly, I suppose. But I know you’ll enjoy it more if you’re a bit acquainted with the story…

Have a wonderful time & please give our love to all those nice sisters & cousins & all.

Can’t wait for your visit to us!

Love, Grammy & Pop

P.S. Please bring the book with you!

Can you just believe! This is the very copy provided by Grammy & Pop for me to read before seeing what I’m sure was my first Shakespeare performance ever; and I’ve still got it, and here I am however many years later, going back to see the same play and preparing for it in the same way, by rereading this very copy. It got me thinking about where I got these habits. Grammy puts it in this note in almost the exact way I put it to my friends: “this play will be a lot more enjoyable if you know a little bit about the story ahead of time.” I think I can see who I have to thank for my playgoing practices!

I’m wondering about the year, of course. You can see Grammy dated it with day, month and date – no year, but the day-to-date question, combined with her mention of our other travels that summer, put me at just past my 10th birthday for this event. I also found tucked away a ticket to an Astros game (at the Astrodome! against Philadelphia) from the following summer. And my father’s and grandmother’s memories put it around the same time, so I think we’ll call this my ten-year-old introduction to live performances of Shakespeare. (I might have read some before.)

astro
Finding this note inside this book was a real treat for several reasons. For one thing, it’s always nice to hear from my Grammy, who still sends me newspaper clippings with appended notes like this one! And I am looking forward all the more to seeing The Two Gentlemen of Verona performed this summer, because I’ll be thinking back to that summer more than 20 years ago. But most of all, I think it’s charming to consider where we get our habits from. I guess I’ve just always been a person who enjoyed theatre, and enjoyed reading the written drama beforehand; but of course nothing happens in a vacuum, so it’s really fun to see this clear indication of where I come from. Thanks, Grammy.

San Diego Opera presents The Masked Ball

A few weeks ago, I was happy to be able to fly out to southern California to visit my Grammy and be her guest at the San Diego Opera for their production of The Masked Ball, a Verdi opera that I was unfamiliar with. (This is not surprising; I’m not a big opera fan.) It goes without saying that I was there to see my Grammy more than to see the opera, but the opera was rather good, too. First, Grammy had clipped a review for me by the local (San Diego) arts critic James Chute. Anyone could read this piece and see that it is a glowing review; but Grammy informs me that apparently Chute is a spectacularly tough critic, ripping apart even the good shows, so that context adds considerably to the power of his positive remarks.

Therefore, I went into the performance with a little less trepidation than I might have had. Recall that I have had difficulty appreciating opera in the past and had in fact mostly sworn off it. Well, I found the plot fairly strong and interesting, and rather tragic a la Shakespeare, as in: if only these people had talked to each other first! Or turned around and looked behind them! Ah well. The costumes were sumptuous and appropriate; the sets were fine (more on that in a moment). The singing was absolutely glorious – not my style, perhaps, but if I step back to gain a little perspective, there’s no question that what these folks can do with their voices is astounding and impressive. There was a small Korean-American woman who played a young man and sang such outrageous soprano, a very fun staccato part, that I was charmed. Indeed all the singing was very very good.

The acting is, again, not in my favorite style because it is so dramatic; but I believe that’s the operatic style, and I think it was well done. My biggest beef with the whole experience was its pacing and length; to be quite honest I found it painful right toward the end and wished I were elsewhere. This was a three-hour event with two intermissions, so three equal parts of pretty precisely an hour apiece. I could handle much more than that if it were anything but opera; but in this case I found it trying. As I keep repeating, this is an issue of my personal taste rather than how well the whole show was done. In fact, I can’t find anything to complain about from an objective standpoint. I’m just (still) not an opera person.

Where I am a philistine, though, my Grammy is a very experienced and worthy judge of the opera; she has held season tickets for gosh knows how many seasons in how many cities, and has attended overseas as well; she has a music degree and makes a fine critic. She judged this to be a near-perfect performance, with her one small concern being that the stage sets were not imaginative; she says she’s seen them done better (can’t recall if she saw this opera performed in an earlier San Diego rendition, or in Houston). It seems true to me, too, that this opera was traditional, in its sets, costumes, and performance; but traditions are not always bad.


Ratings:

To my personal tastes, this opera might earn a scant 3 or 4 herbs from the gallows – but that would be high for an opera, wouldn’t it! From a more objective view, though, I think it deserves at least 8. You be the judge.

My visit with Grammy? Absolutely ten old photographs, every time.

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that's me)

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that’s me)

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.

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents The Taming of the Shrew

Petruchio and Kate

I saw this production on 8/7 with Husband and another couple. (And I reviewed the written play recently, here.) It was a good time! For one thing, I remembered my spectacles this time, so I could see the stage. Also, we all stayed awake through the whole thing. As I said about Othello, the pacing might have been a bit slow, especially for a performance that was past my bedtime… in the dark… viewed from a blanket on a hill with a glass (or two) of wine (or beer).

I thought this performance was outstanding. The bawdy humor came through loud and clear; even Husband followed the whole thing (with some quick briefing beforehand). Some of the modern costume choices were cute and clever, too, and Husband got a kick out of the scene in which Hortensio, in disguise as an appropriate music instructor, tutors Bianca. He’s sort of wild metal guy, and that was fun.

So we had a lovely evening outside, even in Houston – the key being to wait until after dark to be out there. The Houston Shakespeare Festival, in its 37th year, has done it again. This performance was professional, clearly presented, understandable to regular folk, and funny! The humor of The Taming of the Shrew came through. I really think that, when performing Shakespeare, your job is to just let the bard speak, and they did.

As to the misogyny question, I don’t think they took a stance, but just presented the text, with its underlying bawdiness, and let us draw our own conclusions. I will continue to optimistically believe that Shakespeare didn’t mean for us to take him too literally. Really, Kate’s submission at the end is too ludicrous to be intended seriously – right? What do you think?

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents Othello

I saw this production on July 31st with my old BFF, Gerber. We were sad that my mother couldn’t join us at the last minute. But it was a good time, nevertheless.

I was very glad that I had reread this play before going to see it. I strongly believe that there’s no substitute for this strategy, at least with something like Shakespeare where the language of the play may be a bit foreign. To me, the beauty of a theatre company that really does its Shakespeare properly is that they speak the old English very naturally; but the companion quality, necessary to enjoy it, is the ability to hear it naturally. Having recently read the play, I was able to let the language flow through my head and get all the jokes. (To familiarize yourself, go back and read my review – or, better, go read the whole play!)

I thought the Houston Shakespeare Festival folks did a fine job. Othello was powerful. Iago was odious. Emilia was heroic, more so than in the written play, I felt. Desdemona was more powerful than in print, too: when I read the play she felt like a cowering, simpering, weakly woman, but onstage she came across as a woman with conviction. Granted, her conviction was of love and obedience to her husband, which is not so empowering as one might wish, but still, she spoke with commitment to her values.

I thought the production was wonderful. I was moved. I was also tired, which is a shame, and which I don’t mean as a criticism of the performance at all. But it was past my bedtime, and I drank some wine, and it was dark… Barrett, I guess you’re adding points to my senior card again. Sigh. I wish they could give these plays earlier in the day for us sleepy people, but then it would be too HOT.

The pace of the play was probably a bit slow for me. Maybe that’s my modern-day attention span, although I don’t consider myself to be entirely 21st-century-media-bytes-ADHD. (Can’t stand the Twitter.) Actually, the pacing bothered me a bit in print, too. Maybe it’s knowing what’s going to happen. “C’mon! Strangle her! Tell him how Cassio got the handkerchief! TELL HIM!” At any rate, I had a nice time, although I was out later than usual. And it’s a lovely, deeply tragic play, both on the page and on the stage.

Broadway presents Chicago

Mom and I went to see the Broadway production of Chicago play here in Houston a few weeks ago. She had seen it before, in London, and we had each seen the movie; I have the soundtrack and love it. It was neat to see a show that was so very familiar to me. I think this was a unique experience for me in a Broadway show; I guess seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream is comparable (in my familiarity), but not much else. Certainly, if I were to see RENT again… This had me tempted to sing along, but I refrained for the good of those seated nearby. :) These performers are too great for me to, ahem, help them out.

John O'Hurley as Billy Flynn

Do you know the story? Roxie Hart has been cheating on her boring husband Amos in 1920′s Chicago, when her boyfriend threatens to leave her. Not able to take this final rejection, after years of trying to make it in vaudeville, she shoots him in her rage. While imprisoned, she meets the famed vaudeville star Velma Kelly, awaiting trial for killing her sister (and partner on the stage) and her husband when she caught the two of them together. Popular culture, entertainment and stardom are mixed up with criminal infamy in Jazz-Age Chicago, and Roxie wants to be just like Velma. Step one is securing the same top-shelf lawyer, Billy Flynn, who makes a name for Roxie while getting her off on the murder rap.

But like most Broadway musical theatre, the story is secondary. This is a great story, a strong plot with hilarious characters – one of the better stories you’ll find – but still, the song and dance is the main point. I was so thrilled to see live performances of my favorite numbers, like the Cell Block Tango, When You’re Good to Mama, Mister Cellophane, and Razzle Dazzle.

Tracy Shayne as Roxie Hart

This is a great show, and I have to agree with all the promotional hype that says if you’re going to see just one, or your first, Broadway show, this is an excellent choice.

I will also say, though, that I loved the movie. For me, Roxie Hart IS Renee Zellwegger; Billy Flynn is Richard Gere, Velma Kelly is Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Mama is most definitely Queen Latifah. The woman who played Mama in Houston has an amazing voice, but Queen Latifah gave her more sass.

It was a great time all the same, and I recommend Chicago in any and all its forms – however you can get it. Thanks Pops for another great time!

Houston Grand Opera presents Ariadne auf Naxos

On Tuesday, April 26, I took my mother to see Ariadne auf Naxos, produced by the Houston Grand Opera at the Wortham Theatre downtown. I did just a little bit of reading beforehand about the plot, and loved the concept. It’s an opera-within-an-opera, so a riff on the play-within-a-play form that I’m familiar with. And the opera that is within the opera has some ties to Greek mythology which drew my interest, too.

It’s a comedy in which a young and passionate composer expects to present his opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, to a rich Venetian’s dinner party; this is a very serious opera, he feels, an artistic masterpiece, deserving of serious contemplation. He finds out immediately before that his opera is to be followed by a comedic song-and-dance piece, which he finds offensive; and the comic star, Zerbinetta, is equally offended at having to follow a “dreary” opera. Everyone is still more upset when they hear of the Venetian’s last-minute whim to have the two pieces performed, not back to back, but simultaneously!

Zerbinetta, standing, with Ariadne

I thought this sounded like great fun and rather classic comic theatre. The first act contains the above behind-the-scenes angst; the second act is the opera-cum-comedy itself. The back story is not really present in the opera but I’ll give it to you anyway: Ariadne is sister to the dreaded Minotaur, and she helps Theseus to kill him and escape from the labyrinth, thinking that they will live happily ever after together. But Theseus tires of her and leaves her on a desert island, where we meet her first, languishing in despair over her unrequited love. Zerbinetta’s comedy involves four lovers and her eventual selection of her favorite. Meanwhile, she coaches Ariadne, who desires death, that she can love and be happy again in another man’s arms. Zerbinetta chooses her man; Bacchus presents himself to Ariadne, who mistakes him for Hermes and thinks he has come to take her away in death. He finally manages to convince her he does not hold her demise, but rather, that he loves her and wants her for himself. Happily ever after.

The plot comes out a little thin in production, but this show is not about plot, as I’ve observed before of Cats and Cirque du Soleil. The plot is not the point. In this case, the point is the outrageous tricks these performers can do with their voices. This is, as usual, something I have to accustom myself to. In the case of Cats or Cirque, I give myself up to the acrobatics, the music, the dance. In this case, it’s the operatic singing and the orchestral music. It takes a little effort or at least a little awareness for me to slow down and appreciate these things. As an amateur to the opera, I begin by watching the subtitles screen in order to follow the story; but each sentence takes 60 seconds (or more) to sing onstage, and I quickly get impatient. Move on already! This is the wrong way to watch an opera. The right way, I think, is to stay loosely or vaguely aware of the plot or the words being sung, and to lose myself in the incredible vocal acrobatics.

My experience with this full-length opera was not entirely a success, but I’ll take the blame for not being practiced at appreciating opera. It seemed well-done, but perhaps is somewhat an acquired taste, and definitely requires a leisurely pace in its enjoyment. I don’t think of myself as a terribly impatient person but it felt slow to me. I think if this almost three-hour production was presented as three one-hour serial episodes I would enjoy it very much. And also, to be fair, if it didn’t go past my bedtime.

So, I don’t give it an outstanding review, but I take most of the responsibility myself. It was certainly an interesting experiment.

Broadway presents Cats!

Cats! What fun. Courtesy, again, of my Pops. Thanks Pops.

I got to take one of my oldest, best friends, and we started off with sushi and drinks – thanks Barrett! It was an excellent evening of quality time on top of the theatre.

And, the show was one of the best I’ve seen this year, along with West Side Story. I spoke with some ladies at intermission who were concerned about following the “plot” – but I think this is a show, almost as much as Cirque du Soleil, that asks that we release the plot restrictions. It’s an exhibition of various talents and arts, mostly song and dance, but also acrobatics and displays of flexibility, again in Cirque style. As Barrett put it, Cats is a little bit a series of character studies, of a variety of different cat personalities. The fat, lazy cat; the mischievous, trouble-making cat; the lecherous cat; the old tired warrior cat; the sick and tattered cat; the magician cat. It’s a celebration of cats – what could make more sense? But mostly it’s song and dance and Theatre, people!

And oh man, the costumes! Serious stuff, and many of them spandex and very revealing – you know, this is a very popular musical to take your children to, but I must say, some of the gyrations were pretty… to the point. I’m not real squeamish – and I’m not saying I was bothered by what I saw – but it’s quite a sensual production. Certain things are not much left to the imagination! I wasn’t bothered, but I was surprised. I’m not saying your children aren’t safe, and my hypothetical policy of parenthood (which is vague since I’m not a parent) would certainly allow children to see this play; they might not “get” what I got, anyway. But I could see some parents being a little surprised, too.

I had a fabulous time; this was a dazzling show with lights and acrobatics and feats of movement and action and magic. Everything was professionally produced to perfection. Again, along with West Side Story, the best show I’ve seen this year.

Houston Grand Opera presents The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro is being produced by the Houston Grand Opera, and thanks to the Husband I got to attend a dress rehearsal with our neighbors on Tuesday, April 12. (The Husband begged off: he got us tickets and bowed out. Fair enough.) Now, I had not attended an opera since, what was it, high school? or middle school? And I remember not liking it much. I’m not sure what it was, in fact; I want to say it was Shakespeare but I could be crazy. Do they make opera out of Shakespeare? This is very much not my area of expertise, but it being a) free and b) a dress rehearsal, this sounded like a fine time to give it another go.

Well, it turned out to be a snafu in various ways, and I got in late and left early, both due to circumstances beyond my control. So, call it an incomplete experiment. But I have some observations to share all the same.

Please be patient with me, opera aficionados, for I am entirely new to this. So first, the music is very beautiful – the orchestral music, I mean – I’m not a symphony-goer, either, but it would have been lovely on its own. The operatic singing is unlike anything else, so being so new to it, it’s a bit hard to fit into my world, if you will; it might be a bit of an acquired taste, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I think I did; it’s just different. And very impressive. It is of course in Italian, but even in English I’m not sure I could entirely understand them. There’s a little screen way up above the stage rolling subtitles; it’s a little rough looking down at the actors and up at the screen, but it allows me to follow the action. There’s something a bit disjointed about the fact that every 10 words on the screen take 90 syllables onstage (they repeat almost every line, for one line) but I was able to adjust to the rhythm. So I guess my theme here is, this is a unique art form and one that must be gotten accustomed to.

The plot of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (which I read online before attending – did my homework – I find that I enjoy theatre better when I’m a bit familiar ahead of time) was surprisingly Shakespearean. Lots of mistaken identity, disguises, romantic quadrangles, lovers or suspected lovers hiding under couches when the next one enters the room. A bit slapstick. Very fun! I’m not sure I realized opera could be so fun. (Please forgive my prejudice.) And I’m not sure I’d realized that really, it’s just musical theatre – except that they sing in a distinctive style, in a foreign language, and constantly – all the words are sung – unlike standard musicals which are plays in which the actors spontaneously burst into choreographed song and dance. (Very realistic. :)) Oh, and that reminds me, there was almost no dancing – at least during the parts of this production that I got to see. That’s a bit disappointing; but perhaps with such, erm, athletic (?) singing, it would be too much to dance, too.

My overall review is incomplete because I saw only part of the show, but: I like this. It deserves more of my time and attention to become better acquainted with this format, and I’m ready to give it. Luckily I get another chance: I have tickets to another dress rehearsal in a few weeks, of Ariadne auf Naxos, and I’m taking my mother, and I’m looking forward to it!

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