guest review: the Orpheum Theatre presents Hamilton (2019), from Pops

Some months ago now, my parents went to see Hamilton in San Francisco (lucky them!), and I am now sharing with you Pops’s remarks – because the next post you see here will be my own response to another Hamilton production, 2300 miles away. Briefly, then, here’s Pops.

The audience was surprisingly white; guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the price and the world-class tourist destination of San Francisco.

I was impressed there were so many teens with families, young people, and couples; there is a cross-generational attraction.

It was like a rock concert: excitement building just waiting; with the first chord of music, they cheered and hooted like these were rock idols; the conductor was obviously pacing the opening song to allow for applause and cheering, so we didn’t miss too many opening lyrics.

The stage set was huge, simple, stationary and visually rich to my eye, smacking of heavy-timbered construction, shades of dark brown; it was open, no curtains, enticing the awaiting crowd; the show began with Aaron Burr simply striding out on stage and letting loose!

The talent on stage was overpowering; wonderful, top to bottom; the audio system was good, and the powerful music will move you; but the rapid fire lyrics were still sometimes lost to individual diction or presentation; good to be familiar!

It strikes me that the ‘politics’ of this production are largely in the ‘meta’ of presentation, not so much the content of lyrics: i.e. diversity of skin color, musical style, physical character portrayal, etc.

The cast presented a broad palette of skin color; very few racial or ethnic stereotypes appropriate here; it was wonderful how that quickly faded to background as each character established their identity with other features.

The acting adds so much to the songs! Characters were sometimes surprising as fleshed out by actors, with body language and expression adding so much; good seats up front paid off; so many of these ‘familiar’ historical ‘founding fathers’ were so different as portrayed, Jefferson especially (as a buffoon!); George Washington retained the most tradition I thought, with great gravitas; I thought our Aaron Burr was by far the powerful character, as portrayed by a handsome man who I thought to be a doppelganger for Van Jones, if you know him.

There is great dancing too! Again, totally missed listening to only audio; it’s fun how the ensemble women also play male or ambiguous gender roles in other scenes.

We saw the relatively inexperienced #2 Hamilton actor, and he was great; I suppose the #1 is saved for weekends – he has a much longer and showier background including a Broadway tour. One wonders about different interpretations…

Act 1 is all upbeat, high energy, uplifting; the shorter Act 2 brings the steady decline to denouement, like a Shakespearean tragedy; it’s a sad ending – no attempt to sugar-coat history.

I’ll be responding to these thoughts in my own review. It was so fun to get this email and whet my own considerable appetite for the same show…

“A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry

In preparation for an upcoming visit to Kentucky, and because he appears everywhere around me and I have not devoted the time yet: Wendell Berry.

More than a year ago, my father bought me a copy of the new collection, The World-Ending Fire, selected and with an introduction by Paul Kingsnorth (who I do appreciate). I regret that I have not made time for it yet; and it’s currently boxed up in a storage unit (along with so many other excellent books) and unavailable to me. But Pops still set me up with some reading, beginning with an email explaining his selections, and outlining some of Berry’s major themes: sense of place; tragedies of American history; the urban-rural divide; humility; soil; honest work; naturalism; spirituality. Then he had me read Kingsnorth’s introduction to the new collection, and one noteworthy Berry essay: “A Native Hill.”

As an overall, obviously I appreciate Wendell Berry. All the right ingredients are there: strong attachment to place, defense of the land, argument against larger society, thoughtful, lovely prose. I had always assumed I would appreciate Berry. Also, I’ve heard that he can be difficult, and dated. Kingsnorth notes in his introduction that Berry’s writing technology of choice is, firmly, the pencil: I have no problem with tried and true technologies (recall Boyle). But I am a bit pricklier about gender and race, for example. Berry (like so many) uses “man” to stand for all humanity. And he is still using “Negro” in this essay, which admittedly was published in 1968. But one notices these things, in 2019.

This reading didn’t surprise me much, then. I found a few things to quibble with, which I will lay out below. But overall, I’m going to keep reading and appreciating this man, while reserving the right to quibble.

Here are a series of quotations I marked as I read, which I’m going to let stand as my review.

Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or the use of such love?

Way to jump right in and steal my heart. Why, indeed? You, faithful blog reader (thank goodness for you), know how much place matters to me as a reader and as a writer. It consumes my thoughts and dreams.

About the truism that “you can’t go home again”:

But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home–the place, the countryside–was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was not a reason in the world I could not go back to it if I wanted to.

Well lucky you, Berry, but you do realize not everyone has the luxury of this experience? The places that are left untouched from our childhoods are fewer and fewer. Mine is not still there pretty much as I left it, at all. Dog help us, they tore down Fitzgerald’s.

What… made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.

Again, lucky you. And hey, I am lucky that my parents will almost certainly leave me some piece of land, but it’s not square miles, and it’s not something I was born to; it’s something they bought later in their lives and that I admire but do not feel especially close to; it’s not where I grew up. (Not for lack of effort, on my part or theirs, to make this place feel like home.) Some of these ideals are easy to live when you’re born with the right set of circumstances, hmm? And what would you say to someone whose inheritance, birth, and intimacy lay with the heart of New York City?

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.

and

In this awakening there has been a good deal of pain. When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history.

These I feel, too, with regards to Texas.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.

Because of the quotation directly above: no place we love will ever be perfect. Kentucky and Texas have their share of sins, but if one of you lives in a place that never did harm, throw your stones now.

A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity.

By contrast, a road:

Its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge.

I appreciated his medium-deep dive here into paths, trails, roads, bridges, what they mean physically and metaphorically. Trails matter to me; and they make an excellent metaphor.

The pristine America that the first white men saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea.

I worry about this, as another form of deifying the past, or in this case the Native Americans. Were they really doing this world no harm? I admit to the same prejudice Berry shows here, thinking that no, they did no harm. But now I wonder if that’s true? It reeks of romanticizing what we don’t understand.

It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.

A lovely line; I think we all know what it is to walk knee-deep in an absence of some kind; also, I’m almost certain this line was referenced by Matt Ferrence, which endears it to me again.

Near its end, this essay reminds me of Scott Russell Sanders, specifically the hawk that closes “Buckeye.” The final section of Berry’s essay offers a series of short, nearly prose-poetry segments. Third from last of these is an event that proves, for Berry, that nature knows not only peace by joy. It stars a great blue heron (parallel to Sanders’s red-tailed hawk), a bird that is important to me personally: it’s probably the first bird I learned to identify on my own, an easy one, since it’s both large and distinctive; and they have been present in many of the places I’ve traveled in this country, remote and far-flung, as well as in the urban setting of my hometown of Houston, where I used to see them fishing in the early mornings along the bayou in the Texas Medical Center as I walked from car or train station to work. This bird Berry describes as measured, deliberate, stately, “like a dignitary,” stately again – I agree on all counts – and then he sees it turn a loop-the-loop in the air, exultant, “a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me.” This transcendent moment – and Berry’s powerful prose – affected me deeply.

And then, one evening a year later, I saw it again.

Wow.

I do recommend this essay by Berry, and I will be reading more of him – though I may have to dig through that storage unit to do so.

I could not close without referring you, as Pops referred me, to “The Peace of Wild Things”. I had encountered this poem before, but Pops points out that it’s published the same year as “A Native Hill,” and condenses and distills much of the essay’s feeling. It’s worth another look, no matter how familiar you are.


Rating: 8 threads of light and sound.

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!

guest review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean, from Pops

Recommended for me from my father, with this nice write-up.

If you know a librarian, or you appreciate libraries, or you love books, this is a book for you; that’s what the title is telling us. There are thousands of books touching on this subject; Susan Orlean provides a compelling and approachable addition with this one.

In 31 short or long chapters, Orlean ranges widely with library history and librarian profiles; library trivia and book burning history; eccentric characters and stories stranger than fiction; and more, thus satisfying many interests without attempting to be an ‘all about…’ tome.

While this approach may still occasionally have the interest of a particular reader momentarily flagging, it would be only brief. The narrative thread woven throughout describes the Los Angeles Public Library; the disastrous Central Library fire of 1986; the mystery of its cause; and the many colorful, intertwining characters.

Along the way, we learn of libraries’ triumph over the ‘tech revolution’; the magical mix of personalities that make librarians and staff special, and the fire’s traumatic impact on them; the amazing and broadening social role of libraries, globally; historical library anecdotes spanning three centuries; L.A. Central Library architecture and rebuilding; book restoration; Fahrenheit 451 (and its author); the disturbing flaws in arson investigation; how AIDS touches this narrative; and more.

We get glimpses of the influential 1960s and 1970s through a library filter. And in brief interludes spend a ‘day in the life’ of the Children’s section, or the Music section, or the ‘InfoNow department.’ We peer into the possible future of libraries, and are reassured.

Yet this is also an openly personal story of a seasoned journalist seeking answers to mysteries – both public and private – while allowing her inner-researcher’s curiosity to wander down various rabbit trails that appear unexpectedly. This book, as with many, in part wrote itself. A veteran author, resolved to never again invest her life in creating a book, is compelled to write.

Her first-person voice is often present in describing interviews or other source material, but never distracts. While lending her journalist’s keen eye to details, she attempts little objective critique; she is a library booster.

We learn of her personal commitment to the subject in only a few brief episodes, doled out modestly, where endearing prose explains her devotion to the book’s purpose. Her library passion is rooted in early life experience nurtured by her mother; this becomes a touchstone rediscovered late in life, passed on to her son and brought to fruition in these pages. The book’s final two pages are lovely conclusion, returning to this personal story.


Postscript: an essay about a book about books, and about books from libraries, would be remiss without mentioning the physical book. This first-edition library binding is a bright orange, without jacket; the front and back cover text is imprinted into the nicely textured cover material. The orange leaps out boldly on the bookshelf. The front is bold text in bright shiny yellow, like polished gold against the orange. The back includes the usual blurbs (notably Erik Larson, among others) in white and yellow text.

Inside, both sides of the front endpaper display the summary typically appearing on a book jacket, here with a traditional-looking design.

The endpaper flyleaf has the usual author photo and brief bio; but the endpaper itself is special: an image of an old yellowed library lending-card sleeve, with a lending card that becomes personal dedication, connected to her personal story. The card shows four handwritten entries, for: Ray Bradbury, Orlean’s mother, Orlean herself, and her son. The image is so lifelike that a reader instinctively reaches to pull the card. I have tested this on others old enough to know; one cannot resist.

The volume is attractive to the eye and hand, with a pleasant heft. It’s a nice book; check it out from your local library!

That yellowed library card is a design feature in several places these days; lovely!

Thanks for sharing.

guest review: Bellingham Theatre Guild presents Silent Sky (2019), from Pops

From Pops, and from the Bellingham Theatre Guild, which I miss.

In its 90th year, the Guild does a great job with Silent Sky, a 2015 play by Lauren Gunderson in San Francisco, “an Arts meets Activism writer… currently recognized as America’s most produced living playwright”; she has written many about unappreciated women in history.

It was very well done here by a cast of five; great dialogue well-played, and engaging characters to tell this story of Henrietta Leavitt, who worked as a menial-labor type ‘computer’ for a famous astronomer before making the groundbreaking discovery of ‘Leavitt’s Law’ (circa 1910) that provided “a way to accurately measure distances on an inter-galactic scale” and ultimately allowed Hubble to describe an expanding universe.

It’s hard to tell if they are getting better and better, or we are just appreciating them more. It seems to me that good play-selection is a key thing.

Play selection is a huge deal, I’m sure. You also just seem to have very fine actors (and presumably directors and other behind-the-scenes decision makers), though. My failed attempt at enjoying community theatre in Asheville recently showed me what well-meaning but just poor acting can do for a play: not much good. As Egan said at that event, Bellingham attracts artists, right? Count yourself lucky! I would have enjoyed this one, I think.

writers in video (audio)

A few links for you today that came from my parents.

My mother sent this recording of a Bellingham local Whatcom Reads program, in which Timothy Egan discusses his book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (and, in Q&A, a few more – remember Mom reviewed The Worst Hard Time for us). I really enjoyed listening to this one (thanks Mom for the tip that the visual part was not entirely necessary), and I am reminded that I need to try some Egan one day – he sounds in the vein of Jon Krakauer and Erik Larson, who were among the first writers I recognized as creative nonfiction and as something I loved. While I really enjoyed it, I also took exception a few times to some of Egan’s comments: his chauvinism about geography, for example, and his statement that “Indians all have creation narratives,” as if to imply that his/our own culture doesn’t have creation narratives. (I guess it’s only a creation narrative if somebody else believes it, and what *I* believe is just truth?) (Also, any time you say “all the [ethnic group] do such-and-such” you’re probably on thin ice.) These quibbles were not fatal for my appreciation, and if anything indicate that I was engaging. One of these days I will read some Egan…

And, my father sent this episode of Oregon State University’s About Words, featuring Ben Goldfarb about his book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. Pops appreciates beavers; we have a mutual friend (and friend to Goldfarb, apparently) named Rob Rich who is a beaver fan and advocate, and writer; and I have been seeing a lot of beavers these last few weeks on my travels. But this short video (very short, after an hour-plus with Tim Egan) is less about the beavers and more about the imperative to write, among other things.

So, a little extra to add to your listening cue! [That’s a tip: although YouTube videos, I did not watch but only listened to both clips, which was fine (visuals were just background). I signed up for a free 30-day trial of YouTube Premium, which allowed me to download these videos for offline viewing/listening.]

Thanks, Mom and Pops!

Scott Russell Sanders in recent Orion, Brian Doyle, and considering death

A synchronicity: my father sent me a recently published essay by Scott Russell Sanders that coincides with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately.

The essay occurred in the Autumn 2018 issue of Orion, which you can purchase here, but cannot read without purchasing – sorry. It’s called “At the Gates of Deep Darkness,” and it is about the dire cancer diagnosis of Sanders’s son, Jesse, who is 40 and has young children. In it, Sanders tries to navigate grief, and the intersection of his religious upbringing with his devotion to science, his love for this world and his sadness & anger at Jesse’s coming end.

It’s an essay I appreciate in many ways: for its language, its attention to detail, its careful plotting of divergent beliefs and feelings, and its place within Sanders’s body of work. I enjoyed his listing of “great pioneers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson, as well as accomplished contemporaries such as Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Chet Raymo, John Elder, Kathleen Dean Moore, Pattiann Rogers, and David James Duncan” – what a list! – with whom he has some things in common. I really do recommend it.

But, separately, what is interesting about this as synchronicity is my recent reading of Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyous Voladoras,” which you can read here. It was assigned by Matt Ferrence* for his seminar, and when Matt and I got a chance to talk more later, he told me it’s an excerpt (?) or vastly shortened version (?) of Doyle’s book The Wet Engine, which I have not read but of course want to. It’s about the heart – the hummingbird heart, and Doyle’s own. The book makes it clear, though, that this interest in the heart was inspired by his very young son’s need for open heart surgery.

His son survived, and is now an adult, and Doyle has since died (in 2017). When my father sent me the Sanders essay, he said it “presents us, like Doyle does, with a thoughtful writer wrestling with faith in real time in public.” Pops means Doyle wrestling with his own mortality, as he did while dying very quickly of brain cancer. But fresh off “Joyous Voladoras,” I thought of the even closer parallel, of worrying for one’s child.

Grief, obviously, is one of those universal topics. Sanders acknowledges, “In sharing this personal story, I do not mean to impose my grief on readers, for we all have more than enough griefs to bear, both public and private.” Even grief for a child is common enough. But for artists such as Sanders or Doyle, there is still something to offer. Sanders continues, “I tell of Jesse’s cancer because it has made clear to me the persistence of those questions, intuitions, fears, and longings that inspired my early devotion to church-going and Bible-reading. I still puzzle over the sources of suffering; I still experience wonder and terror and awe; I still yearn for a sense of meaning; I still seek to understand the all-encompassing wholeness to which I belong.” And onward. This is why we read, and this is why we write.

Among the lines that I marked in Sanders’s essay:

My calling of Jesse’s name is timed to the rhythm of my footsteps, my breath, my heartbeat. A mother’s heartbeat is the first sound we hear. Once outside the womb, we respond to that rhythm in the beating of drums, in the bass notes of music, in the iambic pentameter of poetry.

The heartbeat, again, took me back to Doyle and the hummingbird heart, which comes to be everyone’s heart. The unique and the universal.

Do go read Doyle – it will take only minutes, and you’ll feel so much. And consider that issue of Orion, which I imagine contains other gems than this one. Consider too the full-length Doyle book, which I’ve added to my to-do list (Dog help me). Thanks for following me on this winding path today and always.



*Matt Ferrence was a guest faculty member at this most recent residency at my MFA program, at West Virginia Wesleyan College. We really hit it off and had several good conversations; I’m glad to know him and although I haven’t read it yet, I’m confident that I can recommend his book Appalachia North, forthcoming on February 1! (There will be a review here, eventually.)

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