Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

While visiting my parents in Bellingham, we picked up this sweet, raucous outdoor play: Marian retells the Robin Hood story from a differently-gendered perspective. It was great fun. The evening was perfect, quickly cooling as the sun went down (not quite in our eyes) until we were all wearing our fleece jackets. We sat on concrete stadium-style benches in Marine Heritage Park, a downtown park with a sizable homeless/loitering population that, I think, events like this hope to reclaim in some way, or, they hope to help renovate the park’s reputation. (It was fine.) The set was simple – the troupe lugged it there, up and down a hill, by hand – but perfect. As I’ve written before, the set shouldn’t carry a play’s weight; elaborate sets and costumes can be great, but the acting and the play itself should do the heavy lifting.

The story opens in the usual spot, at an archery contest with grumpy Prince John presiding and Robin Hood in disguise. Except that Robin Hood is Maid Marian, already in disguise: that’s right, Marian is Robin Hood, yielding lots of costume/disguise changes and two-people-never-seen-in-the-same-place stuff. Marian/Robin should be our protagonist, but that role is shared by a character named Alanna, a lady-in-waiting, who does a certain amount of audience-facing narration, and (slight spoiler) ends up joining the Merry Men early in the play. Few of the Merry Men, in fact, are men at all.

Gender-bending is a theme, and while gender-bending is as old as gender conceptions (and absolutely Shakespearean), there were some modern twists here, including one of the Merry Men requesting they/them pronouns and a change to the group’s title to ‘Merry Men and Much.’ (All well-received.) Also, the script was an interesting mix of an older, more formal diction and a modern slangy one, which I think is always a good tool: once you’ve primed your audience to expect that period-style talk, the modern usages become totally hilarious in context. There was lots of physical humor as well, and no small amount of romance. We the audience were in stitches.

This production was more amateur than some: a few actors stumbled over a few lines, and the sound system (or the microphones? during costume changes?) cut in and out a bit. No problem. As I’ve written more than once, I love to see passionately produced and talented amateur theatre, even if there are a few glitches as here; and there is no question that this play was produced with passion and talent. I had a fabulous time; I was super disappointed when the play ended and wanted it to go on for hours.

Thanks, Sylvia Center folks, for romance and hilarity and poignancy. Hooray for Marian and her Merry People.


Rating: 9 arrows for joy.

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents Comedy of Errors

I went home a few weeks ago to see a favorite Shakespeare play as part of a favorite annual event. I’ve been attending the Houston Shakespeare Festival and other events at Miller Outdoor Theatre since I was a small child, and I’ve always loved seeing productions of Shakespeare, as I’ve written about before.

This year’s comedy was Comedy of Errors, a classic. This is Shakespeare’s first comedy, or among his first, and one that establishes several Shakespearean tropes: mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, love triangles (squares, hexagons…). Two sets of twins have been separated, forming two sets of master-and-servant in two rival cities. One set has a father; one set lives near their mother, but doesn’t know it. When the four younger men come into the same setting, hilarity ensues: wives mistake the wrong twins for husbands; goods are delivered to one twin, payment denied by the other. Classically, though, it all comes out right in the end.

my feet before the show

It was lovely being back on the hill at Miller in Hermann Park, with a blanket and a date and a bottle of wine. The setting was so much of it: with people all around me of all ages, skin tones, and configurations; families and couples and groups of friends and solos; picnics ranging from boxes of fast-food fried chicken through elaborate cheese-and-charcuterie spreads. I have to say, though, that this was not the best production I’ve seen the Festival put on. The Houston Press‘s review saw a show in which sound issues had been resolved, but the show I saw had some difficulties; the sound effects to match the slapstick comedic blows were often off, and there were some issues with the actors’ microphones. This was a shame, because the acting was overall very good. A few actors fumbled a few lines, giving a more amateur impression than I remember from years past. But I’m patient with artists doing their best. I was both puzzled and amused by the “exit, pursued by a bear” joke, which comes from The Winter’s Tale and not Comedy of Errors at all, but okay. There were some modernizations, including references to sports and the use of a group of (I’m guessing) elementary school-aged kids. I’m not sure what this contributed, other than to give young actors a chance at the stage, which is a thing I generally support and so I’m amiable about it, but again, puzzling as an inclusion here.

The thing that troubled me most was use of a stereotyped AAVE by the characters played by black actors. A prologue-style opening involved a rap performed by two actors, one black and one white, offering two rather different effects; this made me uncomfortable from the first moments, and every time a black actor stepped onstage, it continued. I don’t see how this contributed to any positive feature of the play. It seems to me that Shakespeare can be produced in two ways. First, it can be done “straight,” that is, played as Shakespeare wrote it, by actors of all races and appearances, without their race making any difference to the characters they play. Or, it can be modernized, and race (along with other constructs, social issues, identity politics) can be brought into the play. But this was neither. This was like straight Shakespeare but with black bodies played for laughs. Ouch. I’m quite surprised that other reviewers didn’t mention this aspect, because it bothered me considerably.

When I can look past this problem with the play–which is on the one hand a huge problem, but on the other hand present for rather few minutes of the evening overall, because the black actors were few–I’m glad to see Shakespeare in the park, for free and produced for the love of it. My date found this, his first Shakespeare play, funny and accessible and fun, for which I’m grateful. I’m glad to see the crowds gather to take in a classic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing further endeavors. But this one, not the finest effort of a long-lived institution. I hope they do better next year.


Rating: 5 chains.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

In preparation for Devon McNamara’s seminar at the recent residency, I reread Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in the copy I bought for an undergraduate class some 15 years ago. Some things don’t change. I still love Shakespeare’s comedy, and he remains relevant.

So many Shakespearean tropes here. The shipwreck, the twins, the gender-bending, the misplaced affections. Stranded in Illyria, separated from her brother who she presumes dead, Viola dresses up as a young man to serve the duke Orsino. He assigns her to court, on his behalf, the grieving countess Olivia. Orsino loves Olivia; as a boy “Cesario” Viola courts Olivia for Orsino’s sake; Viola loves Orsino; Olivia promptly falls for Cesario. Meanwhile, Viola’s brother Sebastian presumes her dead, even as Olivia mistakes him for Viola/Cesario. Confused yet? That’s natural. So are the characters of this lively play, but it all ends well* with a double-wedding, of course. Extra comedy is provided by Sir Toby Belch (great name) and his friend Sir Andrew, and Olivia’s Fool, and their fun at the expense of her self-important servant Malvolio (another great name). And wouldn’t you know it, this play is being produced at this summer’s Shakespeare Festival in my hometown, which I hate to miss.

*Not all ends well, though. Even as the heroes dance away to wed, Malvolio is embarrassed and offended, and even though we’ve enjoyed seeing him made fun of we feel badly to see this ill treatment. And Sebastian marries to the disappointment of one Antonio who has loved him throughout. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to include some comedy; and his comedies do generally allow that all do not live happily ever after.

No major insights here, but Shakespeare is always worth your time, and this one is a good representative choice.


Rating: 8 banks of violets.

For the insight: Devon McNamara’s statement (paraphrased from my notes) that Shakespeare’s major concern was always the relationship between parents and children, upon which all other relationships depend. That is something to ponder, for those of us writing about our parents.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (audio)

third policemanThis will win the Pagesofjulia Perplexing and Peculiar Award of 2016, which I have just invented.

Flann O’Brien is one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan (he also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, or Myles na Gopaleen; Brother Barnabas; etc.). This novel came to me first from this list by the Guardian, and then from my friend Barrett, who bought me O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds when we were traveling in Ireland together several years ago. (I still have not read that one.)

The Third Policeman is not so strictly about bicycles or cycling as the Guardian list had led me to believe; I was quite confused for the first, oh, third or so of the book. Our unnamed narrator is an odd one. He was orphaned, lost a leg, and then returned home from college to find his parents’ pub managed by a man named Divney, who is clearly embezzling from the business. Narrator is quite obsessed with a (fictional) scientist-philosopher named de Selby, about whom he writes a definitive work that he cannot afford to have published. This financial need is set up as his motivation to join in a plot with Divney to rob and murder a neighbor, the wealthy Mathers. After the murder, Divney hides the money, inspiring Narrator to follow him around closely, finally sleeping in the same bed to prevent Divney’s sneaking off to recover the funds alone. Very strange, right? It gets stranger. Narrator meets a figure who is, apparently, the ghost of Mathers; Narrator’s soul speaks up quite suddenly, is named Joe, and becomes an occasional participant in dialog; Narrator hikes off to find a certain police station where he wants to report the theft of a nonexistent watch, thereby seeking clues as to Mathers’s missing money; etc. When we meet the policemen (only two of them, the titular third being absent), we get into the bicycle-related part of the book, but nothing makes any more sense than before. Remember de Selby, Narrator’s obsession? Footnotes throughout discuss his life and work (gradually revealing that he was perhaps less the genius than Narrator would have us think), and, digressively, the lives and petty conflicts of de Selby’s other biographers. WHEW.

The policemen, in turn, are obsessed with bicycles. (Recall this teaser.) Apparently in their world, those who spend too much time on their bicycles become bicycles. You know I loved this part.

This plot, if I may call it that, is every bit as twisted and weird and disconnected as it sounds. Despite all that, it is entertaining, stylish in its own way, and yes, smart. Narrator has a strong voice and personality, strange though he be. The policemen have interesting theories and skills, metaphysical and philosophic. And I have by no means hinted at the central questions of the book yet; there is a final big reveal that makes you think. No spoilers here! and you should avoid them elsewhere to keep The Third Policeman‘s full effect intact.

As far as I can tell, O’Brien gets credit with coining a usage of the word ‘pancake’ for ‘puzzle.’ His policemen use it repeatedly:

It is one of the most compressed and intricate pancakes that I have ever known.

…nearly an insoluble pancake…

A very unnatural pancake. A contrary pancake surely…

And thus my rating: this book is a contrary pancake surely.

The real live narrator, who reads this audiobook for us, is Jim Norton, and he does a splendid job. I felt pulled into a surreal world that I enjoyed and giggled at and was occasionally disturbed by. I’m sure I missed two-thirds at least of the opportunities to interpret this work as a piece of philosophy, itself, but I was utterly entertained. The audio format worked well for letting the zaniness just wash over me. It would not be ideal for close reading, of course – never is – but I really appreciated the experience of this audio introduction to Flann O’Brien, or whatever he calls himself, and I will read more. Don’t be too intimidated – just, don’t expect to understand everything you hear. I’m sure O’Brien has been the subject of a few dissertations, and is probably ripe for another, if you’re feeling ambitious.


Rating: 7 pancakes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This is an exceptionally strange one, friends. I got a little confused. This was recommended as one of The Ten Best Books About Cycling. But early pages (hours) were devoted to an odd friendship, an odder murder and reanimation, and the main character’s obsessive devotion to and criticism of a fictional philosopher.

third policeman The plot remains weird, which I have come to accept is partly the point; and now we have got around to bicycles.

“I do not want to be insidious,” he said, “but would you inform me about your arrival in the parish? Surely you had a three-speed gear for the hills?”

“I had no three-speed gear,” I responded rather sharply, “and no two-speed gear and it is also true that I had no bicycle and little or no pump and if I had a lamp itself it would not be necessary if I had no bicycle and there would be no bracket to hang it on.”

“That may be,” said MacCruiskeen, “but likely you were laughed at on the tricycle?”

“I had neither bicycle nor tricycle and I am not a dentist,” I said with severe categorical thoroughness, “and I do not believe in the penny-farthing or the scooter, the velocipede or the tandem-tourer.”

MacCruiskeen got white and shaky and gripped my arm and looked at me intensely.

“In my natural puff,” he said at last, in a strained voice, “I have never encountered a more fantastic epilogue or a queerer story. Surely you are a far-fetched man. To my dying night I will not forget this today morning.”

I am totally tickled, naturally. Stick around, and I will try to illuminate the weirdness for you in my final review. For now: worthwhile.

Selected Shorts: Pets! (audio)

I just said I wasn’t going to do any more audiobooks any time soon; but this different format (and a road trip) convinced me.

petsThis collection includes six short stories, read by six different narrators, around a theme. The interpretation of “pets” varies, from cats and dogs through a mostly-wild parrot and a few mythical (or horrific) creatures. My feelings about the stories vary a little, too, but overall it was great fun.

In my opinion, we start off less than strongly with T. C. Boyle’s “Heart of a Champion,” read by Isaiah Sheffer, which parodies Lassie’s superdog perfection and the perfect haplessness of little Timmy, before winding up with a different and slightly sinister twist. Mom & I (on the road together from Fort Worth to Houston) agreed that this one was less engaging than the others, and didn’t exhibit the taut packaging of the very finest of short stories. Robertson Davies’ “The Cat That Went to Trinity,” read by Charles Keating, was delightful: a gothic story of academic rivalry, in which a professor at Massey College laments that institution’s inability to keep a college cat. They all go to Trinity. In homage to a certain gothic novel our professor (a specialist) is teaching, a questionable project is attempted. The tone of this story is intense parody of that gothic genre, and is completely hilarious. I enjoyed it very much.

Molly Giles’ “Pie Dance,” read by Kate Burton, presents a change of pace. An woman narrates a visit from her ex-husband’s new wife, and the story that unfolds is complicated, multi-layered, and thought-provoking; a person could listen to (or read) this story several time looking for the little clues. It is a real piece of artistry, and very funny to boot, behaving like a fun and entertaining piece and only creeping up as a more complex one. This story is certainly one of the strongest points of this collection. On the other hand, Ana Menendez’s “Story of a Parrot,” read by Jacqueline Kim, is a different kind of literary undertaking, featuring a Cuban couple relocated to Florida, where they do not get along as the wife dreams of a missed stage career. It is dreamy and gauzy, and though intriguing in many ways, it didn’t come together perfectly for me.

Max Steele’s “The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers,” read by Paul Hecht, was another fun one, told by a former student of Miss Effie’s kindergarten, which is very much a nontraditional classroom. It has its moments of poignancy and the opportunity for serious points, but overall is easily appreciated for its tongue-in-cheek humor.

But the best by far was the story that brought me to this collection in the first place: Gail Godwin’s “St. George,” read in fine form by Jane Curtin. A lonely and socially awkward medieval scholar cracks an egg to discover a tiny but very real dragon. Her attempts to raise it up are a comedy of errors, fanciful and hilarious and perfectly portrayed (of course) by Curtin. This story was riotous and smart, and offered a surprising final solution; it also exemplifies the way a short story can be a nicely encapsulated literary experience in miniature, where structure is so important. I’m glad I sought out “St. George” and will have to keep my eyes open for Godwin.

Each of these stories ran 20-30 minutes, a great format for short listening opportunities and one I’ll look for again. Every one was not equally outstanding, but I am pleased.


Rating: 8 pearls.

(Collections are hard. “St. George” would have gone 8 or 9, and the Lassie story maybe a 6. But it was good fun all around.)

iDiOM Theater presents Clown Bar

I had a romping and hilarious good time seeing the iDiOM Theater’s production of Clown Bar with my Husband and parents. This was my first time at the iDiOM Theater, a tiny, intimate place with just three rows of seats in my section, which allows or necessitates that the players use the audience as part of their stage: awesome.

photo from the Herald

photo from the Herald: click to enlarge

Clown Bar is a work of clown noir, in which a man named Happy – who retired from the funny business to go straight and become a cop – is forced to go back down into the seedy clown underworld to search for his brother’s killer. The play takes place in Clown Bar, a business run by the sinister BoBo. Other literally colorful characters include Petunia (who sidelines as a sex worker), Shotgun (whose name references two meanings of the word), helpful Twinkles, straight-faced Giggles, the terrifying Popo, and of course the unforgettable Blinky Fatale. Also the unfortunately unfunny character Timmy (actually very funny as played), the murdered brother, who we meet in flashback scenes. This is not a play for the whole family: drugs, violence, sexual content including a thoroughly effective burlesque scene (wow!) make for adult entertainment, thank you very much.

I thought this was wonderful stuff. The story is engaging, and I love how it was played: the characters mostly face the audience, making eye contact and interacting with us in lively fashion even as they address one another. They really used the intimate setting. The clown frame was explored not just in fun costumes – although absolutely those – but with mannerisms and theme music. (The music was central, and because this is a small town, we recognized our electrician’s assistant playing the bass.) I jumped off my seat a few times in alarm during this dark and murderous show; but more often I laughed out loud at the antics. Husband and I discussed our favorite characters: I listed pretty much all of them, though, so that is unhelpful.

I commented to Grammy just the other week, when we saw In Your Arms in San Diego, that living in a smaller town means seeing events that are often less polished, less professional Broadway-level work than you see in Houston (or San Diego). And I confess that it was impressive to see In Your Arms, one of those top-level professionally produced plays. But the fact is I really enjoy community-level theatre a great deal, too. Even without the tiny theatre that lets you actually touch the actors, it feels more intimate to see your talented neighbors engaged in a passion that is so entertaining to watch. And I want to be clear: this was not messy amateur work; this was absolutely talented acting, in every role in this play. The fact that it was born closer to home just made it all the more enjoyable to me.

iDiOM Theater has got the goods. I’ll be back. And Clown Bar is worth the time if you can track it down.


Rating: 8 mixed drinks.
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