Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tarragon - The Circle

I'm just back from The Circle by Geoffrey Brown at Tarragon.  This was preview week, so it is possible they will get even more amped up throughout the run, but this was pretty intense.  It's somewhat interesting that while I sometimes don't mind reading about delinquents (juvenile or otherwise) -- and characters from Madison Smartt Bell's first few novels definitely come to mind -- I am a lot less willing to see them up close and personal as with theatre.  I just remember in high school actively avoiding the kinds of people that populate this play, so it wasn't all that fun getting dragged into their lives now.  And beyond just being delinquents, these characters are truly trouble magnets.  I'd say there were echoes of Bogosian's subUrbia, but this was even a bit darker.

The set was pretty cool -- all set in a garage in suburban Calgary.  I still had a bit of trouble believing that the parent who let her daughter's boyfriend live in the garage (mostly because he paid rent) wouldn't draw the line at his bong collection.  (One big blue bong was named Trudeau!)  Rock and grunge music played in the background for much of the show, since the play was about a get-together that became a sort of party.

Overall this wasn't quite my cup of tea but I liked three things about the play.  First, I knew something bad would happen, but what it was truly caught me off guard, though in retrospect it was adequately foreshadowed.  So props...  Second, I liked how the rest of the play explained the opening scene, but Brown didn't feel compelled to repeat the opening scene, as if to say "remember this?"  The audience had to make the connection on their own.  If this was a movie or especially a TV movie, the edit would almost certainly have repeated the opening scene, at best from a different angle.  Third, though this is a bit of inside baseball, there is an inconvenient in-coming cell phone call that impacts the plot.  One of the more amusing moments in David Henry Hwang's Chinglish is when a cell phone goes off in the main character's pants.  Here the sound effect is similar, though the outcome is quite different.  I'd be very surprised if Brown had seen Chinglish, since it hasn't even been produced in Canada as far as I know, and its Broadway run was quite short.  It's more of the spirit of the times.  Maybe the single strangest thing about this production is that the Millennial characters (actually shading into Gen Z) aren't always texting other people on their phones (and one of the characters is studiously ignoring calls coming on his phone), but that may simply be yet another marker of how much they are all outsiders.

In some ways, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be completely sold on this production, since this is focused on such a narrow slice of today's youth.  Even in the piece I wrote about teens hanging out outside the 7-11 (and I really ought to dust that off and submit to Toronto Cold Reads) they weren't quite such no-hopers.  But I was interested in seeing the dramatic possibilities of a bunch of kids in one room (here the garage).  I think I will push on and write about a bunch of academically talented kids with a very different set of problems all gathered in one kid's basement.  But I'll have to make sure that there really is enough dramatic interest in this set-up.  It might just be too flat, which is definitely an issue with a number of my plays.  I don't like having completely improbable things happen, and I definitely don't like terrible things happening to my characters, which can be seen as too limiting, at least to some theatre-goers.  Anyway, food for thought...

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

NYC books

This is one of those posts that could completely spiral out of control.  It happens that I've read 3 books on New York City in a relatively short space of time (Tim Murphy's Christodora, Madison Smartt Bell's Waiting for the End of the World and then the non-fictional Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh).  Also, I recently learned that Ben Katchor's Cheap Novelties is being reprinted (and supposedly with some old strips not previously published in book form).  Katchor's vision of New York/Brooklyn definitely a special case of deep nostalgia for things that may never quite have existed.  Anyway, all this reading has inspired me to think a bit more about all the other books I've read about NYC, and there are certainly many.  While I can't go into great detail (there are dozens of dissertations written on these topics), there are huge differences in the books that were written in each era -- the pre-Giuliani era and those written after 9/11, for example.

To prevent this post from getting too out of hand, I will first link to two long lists of books about NYC.  One is from Wikipedia and includes a handful of non-fiction works, while the other is a list of 100 novels.

This post will then restrict itself to doing two things: highlight the books off each list that I can recommend and pull together a list of books that I will try to read in the (indeterminate) future.  I may move a book from the TBR pile to the recommended pile, but I don't feel overly compelled to do so. 

The lists will be ordered by year of publication.  There are a few on my list to read that I probably should have gotten to by this point, but, as I've learned, you just can't read everything...

Recommended NYC books:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (1933)
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (1934)
The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger (1934)
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1947)
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow (1956)
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. (1964)
The Bag by Sol Yurick (1968)
Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow (1970)
The Tenants by Bernard Malamud (1971) (The Bag through The Tenants all are grounded in a New York City rife with racial tension and a near complete breakdown of social services -- interesting but dark)
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1984)
Waiting for the End of the World by Madison Smartt Bell (1985)
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1985-86)
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos (1990)
Marisol by José Rivera (1992)
Angels in America by Tony Kushner (1992-94)
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (1999)
Jeremy Thrane by Kate Christensen (2001)
The Zero by Jess Walter (2006) (One of the few post 9/11 novels that actually worked for me)
The Empanada Brotherhood by John Nichols (2007) (kind of a minor piece exploring Nichols' life before he became a hit author)
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (2009) (One of few books to delve into Bloomberg's New York)
Open City by Teju Cole (2012) (I enjoyed Open City, but somehow it doesn't feel that specific to NYC)
Christodora by Tim Murphy (2016) (seemed a bit too focused on artists and/or drug dealers, but had some interesting moments)

NYC books still to read:
Washington Square by Henry James (1880)
A Hazard of New Fortunes by William Dean Howells (1889)
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan (1917)
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)
Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos (1925)
Jews Without Money by Michael Gold (1930)
A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell (1942)
The Locusts Have No King by Dawn Powell (1948)
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin  (1953)
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud (1957)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
Another Country by James Baldwin (1962)
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell (1938-64)
Enemies by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1972)
Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo (1973)
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)
A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham (1990)
Moon Palace by Paul Auster (1990)
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez (1991)
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998)
Of Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin (1998)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
The Good People of New York by Thisbe Nissen (2001)
The Fortress Of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (2003)
Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo (2003)
The Island of Bicycle Dancers by Jiro Adachi (2004)
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (2008)
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (2013)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Shanley Season

While he is reasonably prolific, I really haven't been that familiar with John Patrick Shanley's work.  It was almost at random that last year I went and saw A Woman is a Secret with the masterclass with Shanley himself afterwards (it really was more of an extended Q & A session).  At any rate, I found he was a bit of a rare breed -- a craftsman at writing plays, which to me seems fairly rare these days.

I've known for a while that the Toronto Irish Players are putting on Outside Mullingar this season.  I have to say doesn't sound all that compelling to me (basically a version of Moonstruck in rural Ireland), but I'll probably go.  It runs from Oct 20 (opening this week in fact) to Nov. 5.  Tickets can be booked here.

What is a bit more exciting to me is that Wolf Manor has decided to put on Danny and the Deep Blue Sea from Dec. 1 to Dec. 18.  I imagine this is a fairly tough play to watch, but I definitely intend to go.

I vaguely remember that I had the chance to see The Dreamer Examines His Pillow but passed (this must have been in Chicago).  I might still make the same decision today.

I cannot remember if I had the chance to see Savage in Limbo, but I don't think so.  Now that I know a bit more about Shanley, I'll try to catch this one of these days.  In my mind it is somewhat linked up with Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead (both being kind of focused on down and out types in seedy bars), but the difference is I still don't want to see Balm in Gilead (and I've passed on it a couple of times) but Savage in Limbo seems a bit more compelling.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Master Harold and some Double Acts

I made it up to North York for Athol Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys.  I found it very powerful production, though knowing the ending I had more trouble laughing during the various amusing set scenes early on in the play.  It is also quite difficult hearing how Willie really has no problem beating his dance partner, though he does promise at the end to not do that any more.  I think Fugard is sort of lulling the audience into a bit of false complacency with the humor, though Harold is a bit snippy throughout and certainly the phone calls from his Mum signal that there is trouble ahead.  Generally the audience isn't very happy with plays that start out one way and end another.  (David Henry Hwang's Family Devotions is another one that sort of confounds expectations.)  I think in this case, the fact that the play is relatively compact (about 80 minutes) and that there is some signalling of the emotional turmoil in Harold's heart has generally led audiences to accept these shifts.

A bigger question is whether the play is still relevant over 20 years since the end of apartheid.  In a general sense, there is still a huge amount of privilege floating about in the world (more economic than racial, though the racial elements have not withered away completely).  I think the play does help people think about how power/privilege is perpetuated and in that way it is still relevant.  I'm not sure there have been that many plays about it, but there are certainly writers (particularly Faulkner and Eudora Welty) that looked at how Southern men could grow up loving their Black nannies more than their own mothers but who still would fight to maintain slavery.  So it isn't really a surprise that Harold, steeped in white privilege, has no problem ordering around Willie and Sam and, when the chips are down, doesn't see them as equals.  Fugard is making a point that racism hurts whites as well as Blacks, and makes it effectively, but there are certainly quite a few people that feel sympathy for Harold is misguided.  He is ultimately the beneficiary of the system, and, while it is somewhat possible that he will think hard about his position and come around to treating Sam as an equal (maybe as early as the next clear day), that seems unlikely.  Sam is, to my mind, just a bit too much like a stand-in for Jesus, always turning the other cheek and trying too hard to save the "soul" of a fairly callow school boy.

Of course, in our relentlessly shallow world, there is a hashtag devoted to #nowhitetears (referenced by this review), which to me trivializes the question of whether this kind of art makes a positive difference by forcing those with privilege to own up to it, or whether it would be better just to focus on the Black South African experience.  (I believe I already mentioned that Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a far more satisfying production, since it doesn't dwell on the damage that racists have done to themselves and is mostly about how Blacks could survive within a racist system.)  I happen to think there is space for both types of plays, and that this kind of art that does feature whites behaving badly is going to be more effective (as far as it goes) than glib hashtags about checking one's privilege, not that either by themselves would have brought down the apartheid system.  As an aside, I was sitting right in front of two people who knew nothing about the play and thought they were in for a comedy!  I did try to warn them, though they were chuckling heavily throughout the early going.  As I was leaving, I saw that the young man had been crying heavily by the end of the show.  One cannot read what is another's heart, but I would guess the fraught relationship Harold has with his father might have been more moving than reflecting on the insidiousness of racism.  I had a good relationship with my parents, and thus this aspect of the play has always been far more academic to me.

Anyway, I would still recommend seeing the play (as does the Slotkin Letter), but just realize that it isn't really the best play to take a date...  I believe there is one week left in the run.

Next weekend will be a bit of an experiment.  At the Theatre Centre, there is a two-act mime show where you book the tickets for free and then decide on the way out what you want to pay.  I wasn't entirely sure I was going to go, and then I found out that the first act is about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich waiting to find out if Stalin was going to have him arrested or worse.  As an extra bonus, Shostakovich's music plays during the scene.  This review suggests that both acts are fairly interesting, so I suppose I should make sure to bring a reasonable amount of dosh to leave in the tip jar.

I haven't entirely decided on the next double act, which is Quiver and Mouthpiece by Nightwood.  This was a bit off my radar, but I just saw a subway ad for the show(s) and decided to follow up.  The two shows are actually playing at Buddies in Bad Times for three weeks or so (details here).  It's very hard to describe in a few words, but Mouthpiece seems to be two actors representing the different voices in one woman's head after her mother's death.  Quiver is one woman playing 3 characters using a vocal processor and a laptop.  I am torn between going during the preview (though this might be a case where the first show or two features technical difficulties) and the last week of the run.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Dylan the poet?

I know I should just let this go, but I am still very annoyed at the ludicrousness of giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.  Not sure there is a poll on it or not, but of the people that seem to actually care (or even know about award winners), it seems to be breaking 75% in favor of Dylan with a small disgruntled group left out in the cold.  I am strongly in this rump group, which basically means I am an unremitting snob to those (mostly Boomers) who are falling over themselves to justify the award.  I don't care what Rushdie thinks or others argue, I will never agree that the balladry of song lyrics puts them in the same category as poetry.  And even if they did count as "literature," I am just not convinced that Dylan's lyrics are actually better than Joni Mitchell's or Leonard Cohen's, and in terms of storytelling, I generally find Paul Simon to be superior to Dylan.

I would have still been upset had Leonard Cohen gotten the award, but I could probably have accepted it eventually, considering the breadth of his writing.  I think more than anything, I do feel that the Nobel is supposed to go to writers (not musicians of any stripe) -- and generally to somewhat under-recognized writers* (though this in itself is contentious and certainly Alfred Nobel didn't set that out in his instructions).  Nonetheless, I think giving the award to Dylan, who has been awarded prodigiously throughout his career, is taking it away from a far more deserving novelist, poet or playwright.  Cohen himself has a somewhat different take, that Dylan is so far above us and so hard to categorize that it is "like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain."  Pithy, though I don't really agree that in the end that Dylan is so great that he actually honors the awards committee.  (A lot of times I just don't understand all this Dylan worship.)

After the announcement, I went back and listened to a whole slew of Dylan, and honestly I found myself liking the material less and less.  I clearly am so bothered by the injustice of the award that I am taking it out on Dylan (again, not that one dog peeing on a mountain will really matter to the mountain).  So I am going to take a long break from Dylan until all this fuss dies down, since at this particular moment I don't like his music at all.

* Given that I do think the Nobel prize ought to celebrate semi-obscure writers (again not an actual requirement), I would probably give it almost exclusively to poet and playwrights.  It's too late to give it to Adrienne Rich, but Marge Piercy would be an excellent choice, who wrote a number of solid novels in addition to a long career in poetry.  (I like Sharon Olds's work, but feel she is a bit one-dimensional for the Nobel.  On the other hand, Patrick Modiano (a very poor man's Proust) got one for a series of books all about the fragmentary nature of memory.  After reading a bit of his work, I frankly think Modiano was another poor choice on the part of the committee.)  I also think Charles Simic should be in the running for the award.  In terms of playwrights, both Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner are legitimate contenders, though it's not like either is particularly obscure. For an obscure playwright, who nonetheless has a solid body of work, you would probably have to turn to George F. Walker, who actually would not be a bad choice, though I'd personally still give the nod to Stoppard.

McMichael in the Fall

I have to admit, the trip to the McMichael was more exhausting and stressful than I expected or remembered.  Also, it really started to go downhill on the return trip, so it sort of spoiled the day.  I am getting closer and closer to just not going and doing anything that I have to drive to (which probably precludes going to the zoo, though that at least might have an express bus that goes there).  However, I don't want the post to be a downer, so I'll talk in general terms about the return trip but then end with some of the beautiful fall foliage we saw on the way and then a bit about what is at the McMichael at the moment.

Probably the best that can be said for the trip back was that no one got car sick.  I had planned to go into Kleinberg after visiting the McMichael, but it actually isn't marked as well on the way out and the turn-off just didn't look correct, so we shot past it.  Then trying to approach Kleinberg from the other end, I got quite hopelessly lost.  Eventually I ended up on Highway 50, which is pretty far west of Kleinberg.  I pulled over and got some directions, though they weren't terribly helpful, since the cross-streets were labelled with signs that you just could not see in time to make the move to get into the left-turn lane.  I decided to bail on Kleinberg (much to the chagrin of the children, who had been promised old fashioned ice cream).  I eventually made it to the 427 and at least knew where I was.  It was a tough call to try the 401 or go all the way down to the Gardiner.  In hindsight, maybe I should have taken the 401.  In any case, we were making slow progress on the Gardiner (after we finally got there) but at least traffic wasn't completely stalled.  At that point, one of the children had to make an emergency rest stop, but there were so few options (and in this particular stretch of the Gardiner there are few off-ramps).  We made it to Exhibition Place only to find that basically all the buildings have been shut up and even the bathrooms near one of the playgrounds have been locked.  So ridiculous.  Fortunately, one of the staff at Medieval Times took pity on us and let us use the bathroom.  Then I was stuck on Lakeshore and it really was stop and go traffic, and the clock was ticking.  In the end, I dropped the car off with 2 minutes to spare, and was so frazzled that I didn't even make it over to the mall before it closed.  So I'll have to deal with a few things over there tomorrow once it opens.

So that was the bad side to the trip.  I'll focus more on the positives, which is how I do hope to remember the trip in another day or so.  The trip north on the Don Valley Parkway was pretty, and we started seeing a fair number of trees turning colour by the time we hit Eglinton.


Traffic was heavy until just after the 401 junction.  As usual, the east-west traffic was even worse than the north-south traffic.  We did make a stop at a Spirit in Richmond Hill to get some Halloween costumes and then kept going.

The McMichael was all aglow in its fall colours, and we ran into 3 or even 4 wedding parties shooting pictures on the grounds.

I'm not sure when the McMichael changed its photo policy, but now you can take photos on a gallery by galley basis.  Most of the photos I took (that turned out at any rate) are of Lawren Harris paintings, and I've gone a little Harris-crazy over the past few months, so I'll just post two that I thought were particularly nice (and were appropriately autumnal).

Lawren Harris, Northern Lake, ca. 1923

Lawren Harris,  Early Houses, ca. 1913

Here are two other paintings from the permanent collection that I thought were quite nice.

J.E.H. MacDonald, Northern Lights, 1915-16

David Milne, Black, 1914

I was a little surprised that they had given up two galleries usually reserved for the permanent collection for a second exhibition on Colleen Heslin.  (Jack Bush was actually the main exhibition, and I have to admit, that he generally does not do all that much for me.  I had come fairly close to travelling up to Ottawa for a Bush exhibit at the National Gallery, but I'm glad that I didn't go in the end.)  I was a bit disappointed that the Varley ferry painting was not on view (I discuss it a bit in this post), but I have seen it a couple of times before.

The Heslin exhibit was interesting in the sense that she doesn't seem to actually paint, but pieces together dyed linen.  Here are a couple of examples.

Colleen Heslin, Monochrome, 2016

Colleen Heslin, Latchkey, 2016

So the gallery was nice, though we really did not spend a lot of time there, considering the time we spent travelling there and back.  I'm guessing at this point I am going to go less often to the McMichael, and it will have to be a particularly impressive exhibit to bring me back (unless they decide to start running a shuttle bus from downtown Toronto -- then I'd certainly go with more frequency).

A Modest Proposal for Realignment

While it is looking more and more likely that Hillary will romp over Trump (though it is far too early to get complacent -- I have done my part by getting my ballot dropped off at the embassy already).  Still, it is increasingly clear that the polarization is reaching fairly extreme levels.  Now most urban areas pull for Democrats regardless of how blue or red their state is, but increasingly I think the U.S. would be better off if split into smaller units so that we didn't have to live with each other.  I just personally feel that two parties and their adherents are now at a point where they are basically a broken marriage where they are staying together "for the sake of the kids," but in reality everyone would be better off if they divorced.

I drew up a couple of possible maps of my recommendations for the split.  The U.S. would actually become three countries, since the whole two countries split with another country between them just hasn't worked out that well (see Pakistan and Bangladesh, for a classic example).  At one point, I had thought it would be best to go state by state, and in some ways that would be simpler, but really quite a few states ought to be split -- both Illinois and Indiana need to be split, and Morgantown, WV ought to be appended to the Pittsburgh agglomeration, but the rest of WV really needs to go with the rest of the red states.  I've heard that both Oregon and Washington State are quite different when looking at the eastern and western parts of the state.

I haven't quite thought much about about what these three countries would be called, though Pacificanda has a nice ring to it for California, western Oregon and western Washington (plus Las Vegas and Reno).  I think they would offer Vancouver the opportunity to join in, and it might well break away from B.C. to join.  (Alternatively, this region could just be called The Rim, and the citizens would then be Rimmers.)  This would be a country that focuses on strengthening ties to Asia but also being a global leader on environmental issues.  I assume that San Fransisco would become the capital.  I had briefly thought about Phoenix, but it turns out that Phoenix is in the heart of Maricopa County, which is extremely conservative, and it just wouldn't fit.

While it is extremely tempting to call the red states Trumpistan, that is just an artifact of a particularly bitter election season.  I think it does represent traditional values for better and worse, and maybe it would just be called The Heartland.  Dallas would be a logical capital and would help keep Texas from breaking away on its own.  I don't quite know how Alaska would fit in, but it would probably be a colony of sorts.

The third country would be comprised of the Northeastern corridor extended down to at least the Research Triangle in NC and then most of the midwestern cities, though Cincinnati and Indianapolis are excluded on purpose.  Coming up with a name is particularly difficult, though given that most of the 13 colonies would be incorporated, it might just be called Old America.  While New York would dearly love to be the capital, it might be best to migrate the capital back north (from D.C.) to Philadelphia as a kind of compromise.  Or even Pittsburgh for that matter, as it would be more central.  (Alternatively, Toronto might be willing to join this new country if it was named capital...)

The main differences between the maps are just how to draw the line between The Heartland and Old America.  The second map is a bit more expansive and includes Charleston, as well as the Quad Cities.  Maybe Fargo really belongs in The Heartland, though this list suggests Fargo would fit within Old America.

No question there are still difficult questions to resolve, especially what about Colorado, specifically Denver, Boulder and Aspen.  Could they be treated a bit like West Berlin back in the day?  Austin would also stick out like a sore thumb under this realignment.  Notice that I am not nearly as concerned about Florida, as most of the liberal-leaning cities there will be under water in 50 years (or less).

Aside from the difficulty in redrawing maps and property swaps between the new countries, as well as the excitement of each country getting to establish a new Constitution, it would be interesting if there would have to be a resettlement program.  It would just be far too painful to be in a liberal or semi-liberal enclave (such as Oxford, Mississippi) and know that you would never in your lifetime have even a liberal President (let alone Senator) and vice versa for conservatives in Pacificanda or Old America.

In any case, feel free to comment about cities that seem to be in the wrong place and need to be moved from one country to another.  Note that I am going to be fairly strict about keeping the countries contiguous.  If another arrangement, such as four or five countries, makes even more sense, do let me know.