National Theatre Live at Home presents A Streetcar Named Desire (2014), and other stuff I’ve taken in this week

This week’s release from NT Live is A Streetcar Named Desire, available here til this Thursday, when we’ll get This House. In classic Tennessee Williams style, this play (certainly one of his best-known) is bleak as hell, and frankly it was a little hard to watch, and a little overwrought, possibly even draggy (at three hours long); but I think all of that is as written, and certainly very well produced. Perhaps not to be taken on in the darkest of moods.

This Young Vic production stars Gillian Anderson (yes, of the X-Files) as Blanche, with a hunky Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski; in my opinion he delivered that mix of sexy, smoldering, and threatening that Brando so beautifully performed in the 1951 film (and presumably in the 1947 Broadway original). I think it’s always an accomplishment when an actor (author, whomever) can convince me that someone is simultaneously detestable and desirable. Vanessa Kirby as Stella rounds out a perfect cast.

The other notable detail is in the set: the entire thing rotates slowly, from the time Blanche takes her first giant slug of whiskey. I dug the way NT Live filmed it, to offer us an experience something like what the live audience would have had: sometimes the actors are obscured; they and we are kept a bit off-balance. It emphasizes the fact that Blanche’s world is tilting and insecure, and she’s not always sure where she stands.

That Blanche is a decidedly unlikeable character. More than I remember. It’s been years since I saw the film, but I feel like Brando’s Stanley was less sympathetic than Foster’s. Blanche grates; but the fact that she grates on Stanley is a big part of the story, isn’t it, so it only makes us more involved if we feel that way, too. It’s agonizing. I took a break partway through, because I was frustrated with Blanche and, to be honest, the play felt a bit long. (Live audiences got an intermission, so it’s fair.) It’s a hell of a professionally produced, totally convincing spectacle, and I admire Tennessee Williams so much, but he doesn’t exactly go easy on his audience. I do recommend this production.


Rating: 7 foxes.

In other news, I’ve become addicted to a show called Shameless, which is silly and quite compelling. (I’m watching the American version, but I’ll hit the British one, too.) This week there was no Patterson Hood concert but there was a Mike Cooley one – I missed his first and was so sorry when I heard he’d done “Daddy’s Cup,” a song I feel strongly about. Oh, man, it was an excellent set on Friday night. Cooley at his best is all beauty and soul and songwriting talent, and sass. These versions of “English Oceans” and “Love Like This” were better than the recorded ones, in my opinion, and I loved his finishing with “Space City.” There is an intimacy to these home concerts – music delivered from the artist’s home to my own, where I seem to sit just a few feet away from him. It makes me feel close to people I’ve felt close to for years, in different ways.

Cooley crooning

This past week, Jason Isbell’s new album Reunions dropped (you can buy it here), and he is one of the bright stars in the sky I see. It’s another good one, with no duds and several real gems. On my first few listens, the tracks that especially speak to me are “Dreamsicle,” “Only Children,” and “Be Afraid.” But they’re all special. A friend asked me the other day what Isbell album she should start with, and boy, that was a hard question. There are now seven studio albums plus his work with the Truckers, and there’s not a one that I’d want my friend to pass up. I ended up recommending “Here We Rest,” because it has several of the songs on it that are most important to me. But it hurt me to choose just one. So, another Isbell album is more to love… I’m still building in my mind the Isbell-related project I need to work on.

That’s it for this past week, folks. Thank goodness for the arts.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Barber Shop Chronicles (2018), and weekly internet round-up

This week’s release by National Theatre Live at Home was the London Roundhouse 2018 production of Barber Shop Chronicles, viewable here until this Thursday when they’ll give us A Streetcar Named Desire, which I am definitely looking forward to.

I went into this play (by Inua Ellams) knowing nothing, and it was delightful. It took some time to grow on me, though. Initially it felt like a series of distinct vignettes from this barbershop and then this one and then this one, which was a little hard to get into. But over time I saw the connections form, and it got increasingly satisfying. Also, there are a number of accents and dialects and pidgin forms of English – I definitely recommend subtitles. This probably made it a little more difficult at first, too, but it ended up added to the richness of the final product. There is definitely musicality and character in the sounds of speech. I counsel patience – it will be rewarded.

In six barber shops in six cities – Lagos, London, Accra, Haware, Johannesburg, and Kampala – men grouse and argue and joke and talk shit, and get a little hair cut. Five African cities, then, and the London shop is rooted in African culture as well; this is an all-Black, all-male cast, with several actors playing multiple roles. It’s very much about the African diaspora in some ways. (There is one Jamaican character, who is careful to distinguish himself from “you crazy Africans.”) The play runs the course of just one day, beginning at 6 a.m. when the Lagos barber is awakened by a man begging for a special early morning job, and finishing at 9 p.m. in London when a barber agrees to stay late for a customer with a similar request. Conversations range widely but coalesce around themes of family, especially relationships between fathers and sons; government and nations, with some hint that Mandela and Mugabe were symbolic fathers (for better or for worse) to their countries; and with a hint of football (no, the global kind – soccer) running through, as Chelsea plays Barcelona on the day in question. The football thread isn’t overdone, but it’s a nice note of continuity. I won’t say too much about it, but again, look for connections to tie it all together and make meaning (sum greater than its parts).

Between scenes, there is popular music and some dance as the men rearrange barber chairs to indicate a new set. It’s a vibrant, lively play throughout, full of life, whether cruelty or love, gravity or jest. There’s advice to be had on women, sex, parenting, race and racism, the job market, politics, academics, and philosophy. “In dark times, the barbershop is a lighthouse.” It’s truly lovely. By the end, I was beaming, and sorry to see these guys go.

Another fine offering from NT Live; can’t wait for the next one.


Rating: 8 posters.

In other things that have pleased me online this week… I have come across several of these, but here’s the latest: famous works of art recreated in quarantine. Some are astonishing in their faithfulness to the original, some in their creativity; some are delightfully absurd, some are lovely works of art in their own right. (And then there’s the ridiculous comment on Saturn by Rubens that set everybody off, if you’re into hilariously dumb comments). I enjoyed paging through them and will click on such compilations every time.

Likewise the rate my Skype room Twitter account. I was over the moon about this, spent way too much time (be warned) and laughed out loud. I should have been taking notes for if/when I have to do more online teaching in the future (eek). If you have to Skype/Zoom/etc., pay attention.

I attended another Patterson Hood concert (from his attic to my living room) on Wednesday, and I do love this man. The way he slaps his acoustic guitar to add percussion. The way he whoops and hollers – it must be hard to keep that live-show energy playing to the internet in your attic. The way he counsels us on current events and speaks to my heart. It’s like an embrace from an old friend, and those are in short supply these days. He dedicated an emotional performance of “What It Means” to Ahmaud Arbery and made me cry. Next week we’re promised a family-mythology-themed show, and I’ll be there.

Patterson Hood

Weather’s getting warmer and I’ve been outside a lot in the last week; hoping for more of that, for sure. And I am reading like crazy. Stay tuned!

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 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, CafĂ© 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.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I was motivated to read A Visit From the Goon Squad because someone suggested it might be a good choice for the Short Fiction class I’m teaching next semester. Billed as a novel (and not particularly short at a little over 300 pages), it can however be read as a collection of linked stories, which is an interesting structure to consider.

Each chapter of this novel is told from a different point of view, so that we recognize again characters introduced glancingly several chapters earlier, and are given a different stage of the story from their eyes. There are never two perspectives given on the same events, but rather, as the character of focus shifts, so does the timeline. So we first see through the eyes of Sasha, who used to work as assistant to Bennie Salazar, founder of Sow’s Ear Records. Several chapters later, we will get Bennie’s view of the world, when Sasha is still his assistant. Later still, we ride along with Rhea, a teenaged girl whose friend group includes fellow teenager and budding musician Bennie.

These POVs are sometimes first-person but more frequently a close third person. Bennie and Sasha feel like the poles around which this story turns, although I think it could be argued in a couple of different configurations; that’s the beauty and mystery of this format, where the central character shifts. Sometimes we’re reintroduced to someone we met in a very different time of life and several chapters ago, so that we (or at least I) have to pause and think about who they hell they are. It’s disorienting, but in a pleasing way. I’m very interested in how it all works.

This shifting center is certainly the most unusual and intriguing facet of this book, I think – although it’s also the one I came looking for, so your mileage may vary. The content subject matter was interesting for me, too. The music industry is both stylish and sort of icky and corrupt; Bennie’s evolution from young punk rocker to record executive gives us plenty to think about. Couples hook up and split up, and often we see these things out of order, so that perhaps we are not as taken in by the romance as we might have been. Because of the ever-shifting character focus, it can be a little hard to connect with one character as deeply as might be satisfying – at least, that’s the experience we expect from novels, I think. I feel more like I’m peeking in here and there, as voyeur, and less like I’m getting to know someone. Amazon reviewers spoke of an intellectual rather than an emotional connection, and range from “aimless and meandering” to “best read in twenty years,” so there you go. Opinions. This book also won a Pulitzer, so it’s certainly working for some.

I am intrigued by the challenge of this format. It took me maybe two chapters before I was really hooked in, and then I didn’t want to stop reading. But what I feel is less I-love-this-book and more fascination with what is different about it.

I can’t miss mentioning the chapter that is told entirely in Powerpoint slides: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” by Alison Blake, Sasha’s teenage daughter. The title refers to, yes, pauses in classic rock songs – a topic that Alison’s brother Lincoln is obsessed with. Alison is trying to explain and characterize her whole family, with maximum exasperation for her mother, a certain sympathy for her father, and a special soft spot for her brother. There is an insinuation that he is on the autism spectrum; rock and roll pauses are his way of trying to communicate. It’s a good example of the strangeness and sweetness of the whole novel. For a little of that flavor, you can watch a video of the Powerpoint here (sound on, please).

“Time is a goon,” says one aging rocker, and perhaps that’s what this novel is most about: time. I tell my students not to ignore titles, that they can give us hints as to how to read a text. This one’s a bit circuitous and opaque; you have to read well into the book to find that brief mention of time as a goon. But that’s another job a title can perform: it can tell us where to pay attention. By page 127, our ears are perked for this explanation of the title. It returns at page 332, so that just these two mentions drive the title home for the attentive reader, which now serves as a key to the whole. Time. And where does time matter more than in a 3-minute song that hopes to make millions, or change lives? Where more than in the cruel entertainment industry, where last year’s star is this year’s wash-up?

I am on the fence about teaching this book next semester, but it sure would make an adventure, wouldn’t it?

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a smart, subtle, fascinating exploration of the ways in which stories work and the ways in which music affects us. I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 seconds.

movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.
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