Stratford Festival on Film presents King Lear (2015); and my weekly update

I tried to watch NT Live’s Antony and Cleopatra. I’m far more enamored of Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies, and this tragedy/history (with lots of battles and allegiances that I do not find compelling), with which I’m not previously familiar, just didn’t work for me. If you expect a different outcome, by all means give it a look here. I’m sure it’s a fine performance, and Ralph Fiennes looks to be a passionate Antony (who incongruously drinks St. Pauli Girl), and Sophie Okonedo is a powerful Cleopatra. But I couldn’t get into it, and sometimes it works out that way. I’m pretty excited about the next few shows, though! Check those out here.

Antony and Cleopatra: certainly gorgeous.

Happily, my father had just passed on some additional Shakespeare opportunities via Bard on the Beach – truly a wealth of options. I had planned on the Stratford (Ontario) Festival’s production of King Lear until a friend of mine posted up the access to the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of same – starring James Earl Jones! It’s a strange, Shakespeare-rich pandemic we are living through. I was a little tempted to try to watch both, sort of side-by-side, a few minutes at a time, but questioned whether I had five and a half hours of Lear in me.

Stratford’s Lear and Cordelia

Well, I just couldn’t choose, and so I began with the first half-hour of New York and then the first half hour of Stratford. After that sampling, my judgment was: James Earl Jones is an excellent Lear; Colm Feore was an equally excellent Lear, but the rest of the cast at Stratford won by a landslide. (The latter’s 2015 production date, compared with 1974 in New York, didn’t hurt – the more modern was understandably much more slick and visually appealing, and the sound quality much superior.) I settled in to watch the Stratford production. But I couldn’t leave Jones, either, and so every time Lear had a compelling scene I switched over to see Jones’s version of it. I ended up watching about four and a half hours of Lear after all.

New York’s Lear and Cordelia

…Which puts the lie to my statement that I find Shakespeare’s tragedies less appealing. This is really an outstanding play, and one I hadn’t revisited in many years. It seems questionable, but I remember studying this one in middle school, and watching a film version? I don’t know. I love that this play has it all: comedy, treachery the wise fool, and truly a quintessential tragedy of hubris and temporary blindness (as well as literal blindness). The father/child relationship is explored in several different plotlines, which I found a pleasing but not overdone parallel. It’s also the play that yields such famous Shakespeare lines as

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!

That way madness lies

I am a man more sinned against than sinning

‘Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.

As well as the quotable

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

I was deeply pleased with the play itself. But also the acting – I was thoroughly absorbed in Feore’s Lear, the compelling Goneril and Regan, and the scheming Edmund. Even Cordelia, who can be a bit prim, was played feelingly by Sara Farb. Albany, Cornwell, and Kent – all memorable roles. The fool was masterful. By contrast, I found the New York company a bit under-dramatic; maybe it was the theatrical fashion of 1974 to downplay the drama. (The Stratford cast was much more white, and I appreciated the diversity in New York’s, but my feeling about the acting remains.) I except Jones from that criticism, of course; he was passionate and resounding, as he is at his best. The two Lears were quite different but both lovely; I loved being able to see them side-by-side. I do recommend this way of immersing yourself in the play, if you’ve the time and inclination! And hey, as usual your mileage may vary as to the relative strengths of each show. Try ’em both. I’m very pleased with how I spent my Saturday night.

In other news, Pops sent me this essay from Orion: “Losers Keepers” by Robert Michael Pyle. I love Bob Pyle, and I love an objects focus (as you may have noticed). This is a beautiful short meditation on objects, loss, and the temporary nature of people and things; he explores the sort of materialism that causes us to love our old and battered possessions even if we maybe don’t entirely fit the standard definitions of materialism. I found the final line spellbinding, and I really enjoyed what felt like revisiting an old friend with this quick read. Thanks, Pops.

Also this week, I attended a Patterson Hood concert on the evening before my birthday (thank you, thank you), livestreamed from his attic. It was very special – he read an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, and played some deep cuts, and said we should all #runwithMaud, and generally treated us to what felt like a really intimate, personal evening. I loved being able to see this show in my PJs with my dog in my lap, as a special birthday treat.

Patterson Hood in my living room

In other news I’ve been painting and making some solar prints, reading a lot and sort of bouncing off the walls – after a week of up-and-down weather it snowed for two days this weekend, just in case this wasn’t already an exceptionally weird time to be alive. Hops and I will be looking for some good hikes once things clear up again. I’m getting to know my Kindle well. I poked into a few new television series but rejected each of them. I really wish there were more of The Wire. Let’s see… I worked two jigsaw puzzles and I won’t be doing any more of those; I’m too obsessive. In the absence of gym or lap pool, I’ve been doing exercise videos when the weather turns crappy, and Hops gives me the most withering, disgusted looks – I should document his reaction to my workouts for you all! Okay, back to books on Wednesday (and back to NT Live this weekend!). Thanks for bearing with me, all.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Frankenstein (2011); and my weekly update

Last week’s NT Live release was 2011’s Frankenstein, which is viewable here until this Thursday night, when we get a chance to see Antony and Cleopatra.

Well, it had to happen: there had to be an NT Live production I was less taken by. I found less to revel in here than usual. I’m sure the acting was very fine, but it felt a little indulgent, in terms of theatricality. Opening scenes in which the Creature discovers himself and the world around him went on a little long for my patience. The pacing in general felt a bit draggy, and the themes of trying-to-be-god and man-is-monster not terribly uplifting… which might have been my feelings about the novel, too, actually. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate playing the two lead roles, Victor Frankenstein and the Creature; this film version offers Cumberbatch as the Creature. Again, very good acting I’m sure, but I often felt a little impatient; I didn’t buy into the drama as I usually do. This production also included just a few musical sequences and the odd spot of comedy, both of which felt a bit out of place in a story that’s otherwise, well, quite serious. If you love Frankenstein, do check this out, of course, and I’d be interested in your take. This one was not so much for me. Ah, well. This week will be better.

In other news, since around the beginning of shelter-in-place orders, I’ve been having weekly literature talks (by phone) with the 8th-grade daughter of some friends of mine. We are heading into our seventh week together. L has mostly read short stories that I’ve also taught to my Short Fiction class (semester wrap-up coming later this week!), and our discussion follows what I’ve done in class; I’ve found her to be at least as ready as my college students (freshmen through seniors) to handle the elements of fiction and the real-world implications of the themes of these stories. It’s been an absolute pleasure – and now that my own semester has ended but my chats with L continue, I’m still more grateful for this small-scale opportunity for a little teaching, a little talking, a little contact with a lovely, clever young woman. Last week I asked her to assign me a reading, based on our recent discussion of dystopian fiction (following stories by Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, and Lidia Yuknavitch), so we discussed chapter 3 of The Hunger Games. And now I’m going to be reading that book. Good job, L.

In other news, I have been sorry to learn that my book review gig with Shelf Awareness will be moving to a digital reading format due to the pandemic and resulting difficulties with printing galleys and ARCs… it all makes perfect sense and there are far bigger issues to be sad about, but still I was sad to realize that all my reading-for-review will be moving away from hard-copy. My first e-reader arrived in the mail last week, and I’ve been loading my e-galleys and DRCs (that’s digital review copies, previously advanced review copies which were printed) onto it and doing my first reading. The Kindle Paperwhite is much smaller than I’d expected. But it’s pretty easy to use, once I got it set up, and the small, lightweight physicality of it is nice, I admit. I guess I’m torn between feeling grumpy about this new development, and committing myself to liking this, since it’s going to happen regardless. I’m trying hard to commit myself to liking it. And to be fair, nothing about the reading experience is hateful so far – although I definitely miss the feel of pages and the ability to take my notes on a bookmark and even underline passages on real paper. (I’m aware that the e-reader has highlighting & note-taking functions. It’s not the same; and it’s not nearly as easy.) Well, we’ll see, but I’m trying to get happily on board.

In other news, let’s see… I’ve enjoyed a few TV series online in the last two months (already!) of work-and-everything-else-from-home. I fell in love with Luther and then even more in love with The Wire – I may very well turn around and watch the latter again. I ripped through season six of Bosch, and was glad to see that my enjoyment of that series has not suffered from my recent disappointment with a Connelly novel on audiobook (that review to come).

Spring is off-and-on here in central West Virginia, and when it’s on, Hops and I walk miles and I ride my bike on the local trails, which have been mucky for weeks and weeks but are super fun nonetheless; I’ve also put in some trailbuilding & maintenance with my new friends here. Oh, that’s right: I’ve begun a new little project via a new Instagram account, wvwildlifewanderer, where I document the plants and animals (mostly plants, much easier to observe and photograph) that I see around here. I’m trying to learn how to recognize trees and flowers, which does not come easily to me, but it’s been a rewarding process so far.

What have you seen, onscreen or in the world, that intrigued you lately?

National Theatre Live at Home presents Twelfth Night (2017); and my weekly internet roundup

This week on NT Live at Home: Twelfth Night, viewable for free here until this Thursday night, when we lose Twelfth Night and gain Frankenstein (with Benedict Cumberbatch). Lucky us!

And you’ll be shocked to hear it’s another excellent one. This is a great play, and I love the casting and the acting here. Viola/Cesario and Sebastian are Black; Malvolio, Fabian and Feste the fool are women (Malvolia, Fabia and… I think just Fool); and the whole thing has been recast in, what, 1930s-ish trappings? There’s no modernization of the dialog, thankfully, just the visual effects. I love the gender play, and what could make more sense in a play where a woman dresses up as a man to woo another woman on behalf of another man, than to mess about with gender roles a bit more? Malvolia is as ridiculous as ever; the lesbian twist on her desire for her boss is only natural. I think this may be the best Malvolio I’ve seen (although he was memorable in that movie version). I think the best chemistry of the whole production was that between Viola/Cesario and Duke Orsino. Sebastian is hot, and I loved the moment with Orsino gets confused one more time at the end and kisses the wrong twin; but the Viola + Orsino scenes have something going on that no other prospective couple achieves.

This one also features another creative set design, circular and moveable-changeable. While not all reviewers loved the drag/fetish club scene, I thought it was great fun. Again they had me guffawing out loud and startling a sleeping old dog (sorry, Hops). I was all-around entertained. I think Twelfth Night might be one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays to follow, and there is fun here for anyone, promise. I’d watch it again in a heartbeat and heartily recommend it all around, as usual for everything NT Live offers.


Rating: 8 hot tubs.

Continuing my new pandemic tradition of reviewing other cool stuff on the web: I was so pleased with this astonishing performance (via a link from Mark Doty, so thank you for that, sir) that I’ve watched it several times now. It’s tableaux vivants of Caravaggio paintings, performed to Mozart; but beyond the classical tableau vivant which is a stationary performance, these are shown in setup and takedown as a whole moving theatre. The addition of movement helps me to appreciate the physical strength of the players, making it athletic as well as dramatic as well as a visual art form – plus the music – really a revelation.

A couple of nights ago I “attended” a 50th anniversary show for KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica public radio station, and got to see performances by nearly three dozen artists with ties to my hometown, including a couple of old favorites and a few I didn’t know but was really drawn to. Hayes Carll made me cry unexpectedly. Other highlights included BettySoo, Ruthie Foster, Shinyribs, and Lisa Morales. I don’t think this is available anywhere now, but it was a real treat for me, and since then I’ve been spending some time on Carolyn Wonderland’s YouTube page.

Finally, and while we’re thinking about Shakespeare, I dug this Guardian article about the question of reading drama versus watching it performed onstage. I guess I’ve always assumed that theatre performances were the highest actualization of any piece of written drama – why write a play but to have it performed? But there are some good points here. I’ve certainly enjoyed reading drama, and while there’s a special place in my heart for the stage, it’s nice to be reminded that we can all bring Shakespeare (and others) home with us as well. The timely article is about bringing him home now when we can’t get out to the theatre, but of course, thank dog for NT Live! Yes, you can have it all!

I watched a great movie the other night too but that one gets its own review, of course. I think this is the week that pagesofjulia will have to return to thrice-weekly posts… so much goodness in the world, in terms of art and entertainment. Plenty of bad, too, but so much good.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Treasure Island (2015), and the other stuff I’m watching online

This week’s edition of NT Live at Home is another repeat for me, but one I was glad to be able to revisit. Treasure Island can be viewed here until Thursday, when we’ll get access to Twelfth Night. I’m looking forward to it!

This was the first NT Live show I ever saw, with my father, in Bellingham, WA at their outstanding Pickford Theatre. It’s as delightful as I remember. The talented Patsy Ferran plays Jim, who’s a girl in this version – I love a little gender-twist to a classic, and the empowerment that comes with it in a case like this. While it’s not such a big deal as to steal the show, she gets in a few lines about how girls can have adventures too. (Likewise, a few female crew members and pirates draw the odd remark – acknowledged, but not earth-shaking.) Ferran’s Jim is expressive and fun. Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is perfect: charming, and terrifying. I love the scene where his one-leggedness is revealed. And I like how they managed the one-leggedness onstage. I see in my original review that I was bothered by certain aspects of the adaptation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel; I am unbothered on this go-round, by more distance from reading the novel, for one thing, but also by appreciation for the theatre. Still impressed by the modular set! This is a great show.

Otherwise, this weekend I’ve been catching up on some of NPR’s excellent Tiny Desk Concerts: Bob Weir and Wolf Bros., Chika, Megan Thee Stallion, Rising Appalachia, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, Café Tacvba… and the odd Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, like one from Tank (from Tank and the Bangas). There are so many great ones to dig into.

I am also reading my way right through nearly 1,200 pages of The Stand and grading hundreds of pages of student essays.

Put NT Live on your schedule, if you haven’t already!

National Theatre Live at Home presents Jane Eyre (2015), and other online events

Week two of NT Live at Home! This was a repeat viewing for me – I saw Jane Eyre when it was a new production, and loved it. I was perfectly happy and grateful to see it again. And again, to remind you: this production is viewable for free but for a limited time, until the next show goes up on Thursday, so do go see it here asap. This week’s release will be Treasure Island, another outstanding production. Put it on your calendar!

So, Jane Eyre as repeat: still outstanding. I think I loved it even more this time around, although I see I originally rated it a 10, so I can’t do better than that! I am impressed all over again with the set – so simple, and yet used to convey so much movement and so many different sets; the movement of people, including the lovely, clever form of travel in a carriage left to the imagination but fully communicated by the actors; the use of actors as set (as a doorknob, for example) and (I still love this) the actor who plays a dog. And the bird. Each actor, excepting Jane herself, plays multiple roles, with few but meaningful costume changes, and yet they’re not a bit hard to keep straight. Minimalism is the thing all around: set, costuming, cast (in numbers only) are spare. But the acting is superb.

I had forgotten the musical numbers entirely! And while they contribute something (and are stunningly performed), they are not the most important element. What I remembered best about this play – minimalism and extraordinarily great acting – are still the best parts. I didn’t remember it being so passionate – I don’t remember Jane being so passionate, even when she was a child. As my mother would say, this character has an overdeveloped sense of justice. (I won’t say whom my mother has said that about!) That’s interesting, because in my interview with author Erin Blakemore, I recall she and I agreeing that Wuthering Heights is the novel of passion where Jane Eyre is the novel of reason – but this is surely a story of passion! at least in the stage version. Another new observation: on this go-round I badly want to reread the novel, which I haven’t read since high school. Maybe I can straighten all that out.

I was really stunned and deeply impressed with this re-viewing. Don’t miss it. My previous rating, 10 fires burning brightly, stands.

In other news, and continuing my feeling of overwhelm at all the lovely art & culture available online these days, I’ve seen some additional great stuff the last few days, including a Drive-By Truckers concert (from Pickathon 2017), a Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires jam session and fireside chat, and an author reading by Paul Lisicky and Carter Sickels at the Blue Stoop in Philly. (This was an event I’d originally planned to see in person – I had a dogsitter lined up and everything. But instead I got to attend with a whiskey in hand and dog in lap.)

This was the third time I’ve gotten to hear Paul’s voice in recent months. I interviewed him about his recent Later (that interview will be here on Friday), and I attended (online) another recent reading. He’s made me cry all three times; I don’t know what to tell you about that, but it’s a moving book and I’m a fan. Actually, Carter’s reading made me cry as well; they were both lovely, beautiful readings as well as beautiful books. (I haven’t read Carter’s, but I’ve since preordered it through Taylor Books.) There was some question of how new releases are reading, now, in the pandemic – because the books that are being released now of course date from before COVID ruled our lives. And while some have not profited by the change, sounding frivolous or tone-deaf in the new landscape, both of these books have aged well, if you will. Both are about sickness, which of course is creepy in its own way, but both have intelligent things to say about contagion, isolation, and how illness and death are in some ways confirmations of life.

having a whiskey with Paul Lisicky

Just last night I reveled in this Tank and the Bangas concert. There are concerts and plays coming out fast and thick – and I’m also reading three books at once and teaching a couple of college courses! Whatever else may be true in social isolation, bored I am not. I’ll say it again: the pandemic is a terrible thing. But there are some bright points of light in this darkness: art.

television: Agatha Christie’s Poirot

I have been thinking, again, about some wonderful memories that have helped to shape me. For starters, please go revisit this post, as I think about what a precious gift my Grammy gave me when she took me to see my first live Shakespeare production at a beautiful theatre in San Diego when I was ten. And just now, I’ve been remembering watching Poirot, perhaps Agatha Christie’s best-known detective, when I was a little girl with my mother. I recall vividly the art-deco entry sequence. I loved this show.

In my memory, this was an old show, but I see now that it began in 1987, when I was five years old. So by the time I was watching it it was not new releases, but still pretty recent. Well, I’ve just rediscovered the series thanks to a few different channels on Amazon Prime. There are now thirteen seasons, and thank goodness, because I can’t get enough.

The early seasons are what I remember from childhood. The tone is fairly lighthearted; the audience is invited to laugh gently at Poirot, who takes himself too seriously, and who is accompanied by the variously comic Miss Lemon (with her ridiculous hairstyle and her lovable passion for filing), Captain Hastings (“I say!”), and Scotland Yard’s over-serious Inspector Japp. This is the cast of characters I loved so much as a child, and I find them as remembered, but with more depth and nuance now that I’m a few years older. (Or maybe my memory just got vague.) It goes without saying that Poirot himself is played by David Suchet, my first Poirot and the only one I recognize; I have since encountered other iterations and they are all offensively wrong for the role in my eyes. What can I say; I’m loyal to my first experience? but I really think he is the portrayer. I am not alone. “Agatha Christie never saw David Suchet in the role but her grandson Mathew has commented: ‘Personally, I regret very much that she never saw David Suchet. I think that visually he is much the most convincing and perhaps he manages to convey to the viewer just enough of the irritation that we always associate with the perfectionist, to be convincing!'” (source)

note the twinkle in the eye and the little smile

I am sorry to say that after season eight, Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp mysteriously disappear on us. Poirot is rather more alone from here, although he does gain (in season ten) a new butler, George, and a new friend, Ariadne Oliver, an irreverent mystery novelist who is always, always eating an apple. While Mrs. Oliver is good for a laugh or two, George does not provide much comic relief; neither of them replaces the original trio. The overall tone of the show has gotten less light, too. It feels a little bit, to me, as if the show has taken a step toward taking Poirot as seriously as he takes himself. I think the loss of tongue-in-cheek humor hurts. I love a good dark, grim, gritty mystery as much as anyone does, but having loved a slightly ridiculous Poirot I am less enamored of the darkly serious one. It is also somewhere in here that his Catholicism begins to play a role. I may misremember, but I feel like he used to be cynical about religion; now he is devout, always whispering over his beads. It’s not bad, but it’s different, and if my love for Poirot is much about nostalgia, I don’t like having my original version messed with.

we are getting more serious now

I’m very glad it keeps going, though. By the time I got to Murder on the Orient Express, near the end of season twelve, I was marveling at what wonderful storytelling Christie’s original was, for one thing, and at how glad I am to have this cinematic telling. The Catholicism is big in this one, and the darkness. Atmosphere, and the snowed-in backdrop, are very effectively done. It’s a grand story that I feel I’ve seen and read and heard in several formats by now, and this version does the whole thing justice. I’m so glad this production exists in the world; I feel lucky.

I am impressed to read that Suchet has played the entire Poirot canon by now! and “only slightly short of the target he had set himself of completing the entire canon before his 65th birthday.” (I’m using Wikipedia as a source; original interview here.) But I have the usual feeling of impending loss, as I finish season twelve and face the approaching end. Thank goodness there are so many stories in the world, yes? I hear Bosch is returning for a sixth season this spring…


Rating: 8 little gray cells, obviously.

I guess I rate television shows now too. What the heck.

guest review: Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando (2019), from Pops

From Pops, from Bellingham’s Sylvia Center (formerly the iDiOM).

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando, by Sarah Ruhl in 2003 and directed by WWU professor Rich Brown, with five players on a spare stage. Woolf and the story are still mostly inscrutable to me, but the players and staging are wonderful, with multiple vignettes easily adequate to carry the story and action. This production is creatively played with humor and energy as the narrative speeds through centuries, while centered on Orlando personally.

It is a very physical interpretation with much movement, often choreographed like dance; passage of time is depicted by the actors furtively running in circles or helter-skelter in the small stage area. They may use each other for props like tables and chairs; small props emerge on cue from pockets or capes. Some minor wardrobe changes occur in the flow of staging. Ship voyages are inventively evoked by actors’ bodies locked together and swaying with the waves.

Karlee Foster as the androgynous Orlando is perfect, physically as well as in body language and expression. She is ruffled, wild and spirited, but also ruminates over social conventions; all of which is belied by a tranquil and well-groomed promotional studio photo. The 3-man chorus is excellent, and not mere backdrop; they serve as continuous narrators but each also plays at least one woman’s part. The fifth player is an exotic Sasha, Orlando’s lifelong icon of youthful love. Her ‘Romanian’ accent is nearly overdone and perplexing, but her irresistible effect on Orlando is intently, comically obvious.

Suiting the tale, Orlando passionately kisses each of many characters (and all players) at least once – or more! Other, intimate couplings are openly implied with inventive, chaste staging devices, like backlit silhouettes or covering capes. And, always fun, there is a Shakespearean play-within-a-play – of Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar! (the murder of Cassius) It was delightful, lively entertainment; kudos to the venue, the company and the small arts community that continues to display actors of such craft and energy.

What fun this sounds like! I remain unsure of Woolf, and remember Orlando as daunting (I believe from the 1992 film) (then again, I was 10 in 1992, what do you expect). But this stage performance sounds delightful. Maybe that’s just my feeling about (well-produced) theatre in general. I am jealous; I’m not seeing more theatre these days…

Thanks, Pops!

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