Friday, September 30, 2016

Ripped Tideline

For anyone who was inspired to see Wajdi Mouawad's Tideline at Hart House due to my urging, I am sorry for the plug.  A friend from out of town decided to join me, and I apologized to her for inadvertently dragging her out to this the minute that the lights went up.  I simply cannot believe this is the same playwright who wrote the brilliant Scorched.  This was saggy and so repetitive.  (Slotkin sort of touches on this, but really needed to be more blunt about what an exhausting and self-indulgent play this is.)  Why have 2 orphans telling their stories about a war-torn land, when you can have 5!  And how long do we need to hear the corpse go on about how he wants to be buried on the land, not at sea, and then sort of declaims poetry about something or other?  It was like the extended, extended edition of Lord of the Rings where it just would not end.  I guess it ran about 2 hours 40 minutes, but it felt like 3.5 hours or more.

And it is a shame, since there is maybe 10-15 minutes of interesting material in the beginning, but after meeting the coroner and seeing the corpse, and then having the uncle reveal the big secret about his father, that is all we need to launch into the much superior second act.  (Everything about the knight that appears in dreams should be cut, and basically any reference to Wilfred's night of passion on the evening he got a phone call telling him his father was dead.  It was not well-written the first time we heard about it, and it was repeated about 10 times throughout the play.  The show started off as a kind of metaphoric wankfest and never truly recovered.)  But even the second act needs to be tightened drastically with 2 and probably 3 characters cut.  Basically I thought this was a flabby mess of a play, and it would be hard, though not impossible, to redeem it.  More than anything, I guess I will use it as a reminder for myself that really the audience knows when a play is too long, and extra padding is only of interest to the playwright and occasionally scene-chewing actors.  I'll have to have friends be ruthless and tell me when my writing is getting boring.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Looking back (to August)

I really have not gotten as far as I wanted on several posts, some of which have been left as draft for a few weeks.  The ones that are more general or that are reviews, it doesn't matter so much.  However, for posts that are tied to what I did and especially to travel, then it gets to the point where I just don't feel up to filling in the gaps.  I think I will go ahead and write just a bit about what I was up to in August, though I will certainly post fewer pictures and try to be a lot more concise.

In this post, I'll write just a bit about my Stratford trip and then lay out 3 upcoming posts, covering my trip to New York and Chicago at the tail end of August.  I'm going to have one post cover the New York leg, but then a special breakout post on the Stuart Davis exhibit at the Whitney (which was largely the reason for the trip in the first place) and wrap up with a post on Chicago.

Apparently, the Stuart Davis exhibit closed this past weekend (though it was scheduled to be there until mid October), and I am sorry to not have gotten into more detail about it, though I know I mentioned it a couple of times.  The exhibit moves to the National Gallery in DC right before Thanksgiving and will be on view through March.  I'm hoping I will make it in January, but only if I have a paper accepted to a major transportation conference.  The Moholy-Nagy: Future Present exhibit at the Guggenheim has also closed, though it will be moving to the Art Institute of Chicago this weekend and running to early January.  It was an interesting exhibit, though not one I feel I need to see twice.  And in what is a recurring theme, the Kerry James Marshall exhibit has closed at the MCA (Chicago) but will be moving soon to the Met Breuer (NYC), and then to MOCA in Los Angeles in the spring of 2017.  This is definitely worth checking out, and it gave me a better appreciation of his work to see so much in one place.

Anyway, this year I only saw one play at Stratford (in 2017 I might go as high as 4, but it will most likely just be 2).  I wanted to see Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman.

The trip down on the bus was fine.  I've started taking more photos of the parts of town away from the theatre for a project that I am considering tackling.

I was a little surprised that the 2nd Thai place was closed on Sundays (More Thai above), but I went to the original Thai place.

I had a bit of time to wander around and took a look at the art fair and the swans of course.  It helped that the weather was really nice that day.


While the acting was quite good, I have to admit that the play was a bit of a stinker.  I agree with this review, which made it clear that the stakes just never felt particularly high, and beyond that the audience just couldn't relate to Borkman or his wife or his sister-in-law.  The son was pretty callow and not a particularly interesting character.  I was a bit more interested in the older widow he was pursuing, but she had almost no lines.  There were several times that Borkman would say something outrageous (like he impartially tried himself and found himself innocent) that made the audience laugh, but not really in a good way.  I don't think Ibsen really wanted the audience to dismiss Borkman as a deluded meglomaniac, but that is how he came across.  I did have slightly more sympathy (certainly than the reviewer) for Borkman's companion, Vilhalm (who has deluded himself that he is a great writer).  Vilhalm is so willing to see the good in any situation that he seems perfectly content to have nearly been run over by a sleigh, since it contains his daughter who is escaping to continental Europe for musical training and a better life than he could offer her.  I don't regret going, since you almost never have the opportunity to see this play, but it is not one that resonates particularly well today.  That basically wraps up my Stratford trip.  The play was so short that I went over to the Shoppers and did a bit of shopping while waiting for the return bus.  I'll try to get to the other posts soon.

Edit (10/8): I forgot that I had specifically gone looking to see if they had any DVDs of Brian Bedford.  Apparently, they really do not, which is a shame, and I suppose if they do have anything recorded they didn't clear the rights.  I did pick up a spoken word CD that Bedford did a few years back (recorded at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto in fact) with various monologues from Shakespeare.  I saw a somewhat interesting DVD of Christopher Plummer in the Tempest (which the library has) and Elizabeth Rex, though that was a bit disappointing.

10th Canadian Challenge - 6th Review - Coke Machine Glow

This relatively slim book of poems (Coke Machine Glow) is by Gordon Downie, who is of course the lyricist and lead singer for The Tragically Hip.  In 2001, he published this collection of poems, and simultaneously he put out a CD with 16 of the poems turned into songs.  (And at least in the first year or so, anyone who bought the CD got the poems as well.)  On a few songs, he had his regular band members help out on the tracks, but this was clearly not supposed a Tragically Hip CD, though 2 of the songs (Vancouver Divorce and Canadian Geese) might have fit on a Tragically Hip CD.  One of the strangest aspects of this effort is that the poem "Coke Machine Glow" wasn't turned into a song, though it definitely seems a bit more like a song lyric than a poem.  Here's a review of the CD.

It's sort of difficult to actually categorize this.  Downie writes quite complex lyrics for a rock singer, but much of this doesn't quite rise to the level of solid poetry.  It's hard to see this getting published without Downie's name attached to it, though I wouldn't say it is quite a vanity project.

I think Starpainters (one of the poems also on the CD) may be inspired by Earle Birney's "On the Night Jet," though I suppose plenty of poets have started writing about viewing the landscape from a plane.  While Downie has sort of pledged his allegiance to Al Purdy (who actually comes up in "L. vs. Al"), I suspect he was at least aware of Earle Birney's work.

I also suspect that the Jim Carroll referred to "The Goalie Who Lives Across the Street" is the poet (and talented basketball player).  However,  there was a Jim Carroll that played hockey as well, though it appeared he never made it beyond his college team (Michigan Tech). 

There is no question this is a more mellow outing than Now For Plan A (where his wife's breast cancer hangs over the record) and of course Man Machine Poem.

The second section might be of particular interest to fans, since it sort of gives Downie's impressionistic views of various cities where the band was touring.  The poem "Coke Machine Glow" is found in this section: "Here we are on the highway / Here we are on the road / Here we are in the parking lot's / pink Coke machine glow."  (As I said, it's hard to believe he didn't actually record this.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that most of the Canadian references are reserved for the poems in the 4th section of the book, where Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and the Yukon are all name-checked.  Indeed, in "Global Warming" a boy falls in love with a girl from the Yukon and decides to move on up there to get ahead of the crowds that will follow "in a hundred years / {when} it's gonna be like the South of France". 

I don't think I would recommend the book to anyone who had no idea of who Gordon Downie is or who had never heard of The Tragically Hip, though that is certainly a fairly small percentage of the Canadian population.  The book is really aimed at existing fans, and should be quite satisfying for them.  I would also suggest that the book ought to be read in conjunction with listening to the CD (probably easier said than done for anyone outside of Canada).  At least some of the poems in Coke Machine Glow (the book) were turned into a second CD (Battle of the Nudes) which is even harder to find (in the library at least).

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Longer-term trips

We actually don't go on that many true vacations, though last year we did manage to see New York and Boston, and we do go to Chicago with some frequency.  For me, however, family vacations are really about packing up the car and driving.  We don't do that for a number of reasons, including we have to rent a car, since we don't own one.

The trip to Hamilton yesterday went fairly well, and I think in mid-October we'll try to drive out to the McMichael Collection, which we did two years ago.  I'd still like to get to Windsor and Detroit, though I haven't decided if it is worth trying to do that by train.  In 2017, we might look into Ottawa or Montreal by train, though I want to make sure to combine it with something worth seeing, such as the upcoming Chagall exhibit in Montreal. There is an exhibit on Sudjek and his special brand of photography at the National Gallery, though I am not entirely sure I would venture up to Ottawa just for that.

While this is all extremely tentative, I am thinking that over spring break in 2017, we may go to D.C. and North Carolina (or D.C. and Philadelphia, which I would prefer, mostly because the travel there and back would be considerably easier).  Maybe next summer it is worth investigating renting a cabin for a weekend or even a cottage for several days (a week might be too much...).

I am thinking perhaps the following summer it might be worth trying to get to Calgary and going to Drumheller (while the kids are still somewhat interested in dinosaurs), seeing a bit of Calgary and then driving into the Rockies to see Banff and ideally go up to the glacier park north of Banff.

Beyond that is very unclear.  My daughter really, really wants to see England and there are certainly a number of places in Europe I would love to visit again, but there is no point in trying to map out something quite that far in advance.

Hamilton Landscapes (& street party)

Yesterday was a busy but fun day.  It might not have turned out well, for any number of reasons, but it all came together.  As it happened, I had taken out my ZipCar card and used it in a prop for a talk, and then couldn't track it down.  So I did a bit of scrambling Friday evening, and it finally turned up.

We don't really drive often at all, but the drive down to Hamilton was fairly smooth.  We got there and ate at the Farmer's Market inside this mall across the street from the Art Gallery of Hamilton.  Then we went over to the gallery.  Since they had closed down one of the special exhibits, they weren't charging for the landscape exhibit (and the upstairs galleries are always free).  I think that was a little odd.  We did donate upon leaving, though I didn't have nearly enough cash on me.  I'll try to make up for that on my next trip.  (That may be a little while as the upcoming exhibits aren't all that interesting to me.)

The exhibit runs through today and will be closing.  It is drawn heavily on landscape paintings from the Vancouver Art Gallery. It's worth seeing if you happen to be in the area.  It was 5 rooms or so, though I mostly focused on the last two rooms, which were mostly Group of 7, Emily Carr and a handful of David Milne paintings.  I had definitely see the Carrs before and I believe all of the Harris paintings, since VAG had done a Harris show (fairly heavy on his late career abstractions).  Many of the others seemed new to me.

Here are a few that I particularly liked.

Tom Thomson, Opulent October, 1915-16

Lawren Harris, First Snow, North Shore of Lake Superior, 1923

A.J. Casson, Thunderstorm, 1933

The Casson sort of mixes Harris early paintings of houses (in the realist tradition) with his softer, wavy lines in the clouds and the bending trees (or are they telegraph poles).

We went through the rest of the gallery fairly quickly, in part because my daughter was getting a bit restless, and I was starting to worry about the drive back (and dropping off the car in time).  We did get snarled in fairly heavy traffic basically a few km west of the 427 junction all the way to the Spadina exit on the Gardiner, at which point the traffic basically melted away.  I was starting to stress and thought we would drop off the car 10-15 minutes late, and we actually tried to sign on and extend the time but were unable to do so.  In the end, we made it with 5 minutes to spare.

After this, we had a big street party.  I had felt bad about missing the first 90 minutes, but really these things don't get going for a while.  It was almost perfect weather, especially compared to last year's, which was cold and damp.


I was signed up to watch over the bouncy castle for a half hour and the slide for a half hour.  Things were generally mellow, though there are always a few pushy kids, and particularly the youngest who haven't quite learned what queuing means.  At a certain point things tend to break down and there are too many kids on the ladder going up.  Still, no one got hurt on my shift, and that's really the most you can expect...

The street party featured quite a few games with one of the more entertaining being the donut eating contest, where you have to eat the donut off the string with your hands behind your back.  I had expected to take more photos of this, but got suckered into holding up the string.

All good things come to an end though, and around 7 pm, the crew showed up to take away the inflatables and even the dunk tank.

The music and conversation continued for a bit longer, but I was fairly exhausted so retired a bit early for the evening.  So quite an eventful day.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Quantum leaps

I logged on this evening and saw that I had 350 views yesterday and the last 20 or so posts all jumped by 20 views.  That's pretty odd, but welcome...

I've been meaning to post about this cool talk at the library Tuesday evening, and I've finally gotten to it. It was Pedro Goldman speaking on quantum physics. The title of his talk was Music and Schrödinger's Cat: The Weirdness of Reality in Physics.  It was very entertaining, and the turnout was astounding.  They put down more chairs and there still ended up being some people standing in the back.  The professor kept things quite light and only occasionally introduced equations.  Mostly he wanted to talk about some of the really weird aspects of quantum mechanics, such as Schrödinger's Cat and quantum entanglement, but then interestingly he tied the ratios of the electron states to Pythagoras's golden ratio (something that I learned about in Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land many years ago) and how that tied together with music.  He encouraged questions, though it was probably just as well that not too many people asked them, though some were actually pretty good questions.

One person referenced this Bizarro cartoon, which I must admit is quite droll.

The talk went 10 minutes long, but no one seemed to mind.  The professor was really enthusiastic and conveyed some very difficult material well.

I didn't learn a lot that was truly new to me, since as a teenager I had read up on a lot of the issues.  But I had forgotten some of it.  A very small amount of this is in Hawking's A Brief History of Time, but really he is more interested in the Big Bang, cosmology, black holes (obviously) and string theory and spent relatively little time talking about quantum physics.

One thing that I had forgotten is that the fact that electrons cannot inhabit the space between their quantum states seems to be explained by the fact that they are bound by the properties of waves and waves can only have crests that can be counted as discrete units (i.e. integers).  I don't really remember how easy it is to move an electron between these various states (i.e just how much energy does it take), but it probably happens all the time.  I guess the main reason that an electron cannot lose energy and drop below its lowest orbit, is because of the positive charge of the protons in the nucleus.  Can an electron be infused with so much energy that it really can escape its atom as is keeps going out further from the nucleus?  I think probably not -- even when the atoms are split the electrons are supposed to match up to the protons, but that would definitely be something to delve into a bit more.

I actually think a lot about energy transfer and energy levels, since I have to put so much (stored) potential energy into biking home, and even more when biking up to the library.  But that's classical mechanics and doesn't involve quantum physics.  Still, it would be pretty neat to suddenly jump up a level the way an electron basically moves between levels, though I suspect my body wouldn't survive the transition.

The professor talked about quantum entanglement as being one of the spookiest aspects of quantum mechanics.  He mentioned that Einstein actually wrote a paper on the topic, though he mostly wanted to use it to discredit the theory, and in fact some of the wilder aspects were confirmed.  What the professor didn't mention, and what probably was at the heart of Einstein's objections, was that when the particle's position or spin is measured and the superposition collapses, then the entangled particle instantly changes no matter how far apart.  And this appears to mean that information can be transferred at faster than light speeds.  I do wish he had gone a bit more into this, especially if anyone truly believes that this means a universe forks off at each decision point when superposition collapses.*  I would find that essentially impossible to believe.

I think the real issue is whether any of this makes sense above the atomic scale, or even if it is limited to atomic-level reactions, can this be harnessed.  I would probably have been fairly skeptical, but some physicists have been hard at work trying to actual harness quantum entanglement (the phenomenon is still taking place at the atomic level but they are figuring out how to harness this for real-world applications.  Here is a recent piece that describes in somewhat sketchy detail how they are making progress (certainly more than I would have expected).  Amazing!  And now there is more evidence that quantum entanglement is more than just a theoretical construct.  I suppose that this should be a reminder to be a bit more humble about fields that I am sort of skating by on information that I gleaned several decades ago...

The professor sort of joked that you could emulate quantum superposition by knowing that he (the professor) was either inside the room or outside the room in the hallway, but that until you (the observed came down the stairs) it was just the same as if he was in both places at once.  Of course, no one thinks that superposition or even the Heisenberg uncertainty principle apply above the atomic scale, though I suppose I did practice them in my own way.  I ended up giving away cats twice in my life to different friends, and as they (the cats) aged, it was always a curious moment at the end of each call where I could choose to ask about their health.  Before asking, I could picture them alive and in fairly good health, but once I asked I would find out that they had lost more teeth for example or were having to keep going to the vet.  And of course, in all cases, there was a day when the cat had been alive in my imagination (even if I suspected they might be dead), but after asking, I knew that the cat had died.

Anyway, it was a very inspiring talk, though one I might not have appreciated fully had I not been reading up on physics at least a bit over the past few months.

On the way back, I was really trying to make up for lost time (those 10 minutes!) and maybe was stressed about thinking about work that I should have done.  Anyway, I was sort of breaking a bit too hard, and then I hit a kind of pothole on Parliament Street and my left hand reflexively clamped down on the brake, which is a big no-no in cycling .  The back tire started lifting off the ground and it looked like I was going to go over the handlebars.  Somehow I managed to release the brake and steer through a really awkward half-slide/stop.  I pulled over and sort of caught my breath.  Given that there was a car following behind me (fortunately not speeding) it could have been really bad had I suddenly tumbled off my bike right in front of the car.  I sort of imagined a fork in the universes where I had lost control (and been hit by the car) and the one (that did unfold) where I managed to wrestle control back, and after a shake of the head and a reflection on how fortunate I was, I biked the rest of the way home without incident.  I'm certainly glad that I am in this universe and am still able to "observe" it, so it didn't wink out (at least from my perspective) upon my demise.** 

* There is quite a bit of dissension on whether entanglement and other concepts can be adequately explained for a lay audience.  One reviewer suggests Louisa Gilder's "Age of Entanglement" and Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos," so I'll at least consider tackling them at some point.

** That's a bit of a weak joke about the strong formulation of the anthropic principle -- that the universe requires some intelligence to observe it or it couldn't exist in the first place, and thus the various settings of the speed of light and gravitational force were "designed" in a way to at some point support life.  I was actually surprised at how much Hawking discussed the anthropic principle in his book, since it feels far more like philosophy than physics to me. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 5th Review - Voices in Time

I might have to go into a bit more background as to why I chose this particular novel than I generally do.  I have already noted that I am trying to go fairly deep into Canadian lit. during this challenge and am focusing on some of the most respected authors, which would certainly include Hugh MacLennan.  I had basically thought I would just reread The Watch That Ends the Night and that would be it for the near term.  But then I got interested in finding out about his later novels.  In the late 1960s, he wrote The Return of the Sphinx in which he basically revisited Two Solitudes but with a much more pessimistic outlook where Quebec separatism destroys any chance of Canada becoming a great country.  It sounds a bit like he was channeling Mordecai Richler.  I just ordered a copy of this, but I probably won't read it for a couple of years.

His final novel, Voices in Time, published in 1980, is a bit of a departure, where apparently some kind of nuclear holocaust has knocked out civilization.  As it is being rebuilt, the government of the time decides to eradicate all references to Nazi Germany.  I haven't quite gotten to their reasons for this, or the way that the past refuses to stay buried.

While this basically refers to the fairly recent past being obscured, there is a tradition in speculative fiction discussing what future archeologists would make of 20th Century society if all records had been lost.  Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub sort of starts along these lines, though this is really only a bit of a gloss around the main tale of a Kafkaesque, paranoid bureaucracy (it's actually a lot closer to Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum).  I actually read the Lem first and decided to pair it with MacLennan, which is a bit more grounded in the speculative fiction genre.  I think the Lem book might have worked better if there was more integration between the framing device that all paper began disintegrating, leading to the downfall of society, and the actual story, which is a recruit to the spy service housed in the Building running around, trying to find out what his actual mission is.  However, the two seemed completely unrelated, and frankly I got bored with the main story.  There is just so much discussion about double-, triple- and quadruple-agents that I can take.  We get it that no one can be trusted and everything is in a kind of code and that nothing is actually what it seems (even dead bodies).  Aside from an interesting suggestion towards the end that there exists a Building and an anti-Building, and that each agency has completely replaced the other's staff with double agents (thus leading to no change in the status quo), this got stale.  I'm starting to find that I like Lem's ideas and writing more in the abstract than in the execution...

A better example of this can be found in David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries, which is basically about a future archeologist discovering a motel room and mistaking it for a sacred tomb, much like a pharaoh's tomb.  (I actually thought there would be more like this in Lem's novel, but the framing device disappears almost immediately.)  Motel of the Mysteries was condensed into a Reader's Digest version, which is how I encountered it, all the way back in middle school.  While I am glad that Westfahl has blogged about it, allowing me to recover this from the recesses of my memory, he does seem to miss the point that it was a fairly gentle satire of the King Tut tourist craze -- and it was aimed at children in grades 6-10 (which is why I ordered a copy of the unabridged version for my children).

Having finished the Voices in Time, I can report back that the back cover got it a bit wrong.  The government of the time isn't specifically trying to abolish the history of the Nazis but really all history before the Third Bureaucracy.  And they apparently were even more worried about erasing novels than history books, since novels really allow one to try to step back into the past and imagine another life.  Voices in Time opens with an old man, a former teacher who was basically forced to lie to his students about what happened before the nuclear holocaust and suppress the historic truth, who gets a phone call out of the blue.  An archeologist digging around some buildings in what turns out to be Montreal has uncovered several boxes with papers belonging to the older man's mother.  These turn out to be a journal of sorts kept by his older cousin, Timothy Wellfleet, as well as a journal and letters from his mother's husband (and his stepfather), Conrad Dehmel.  After some urging, the man agrees to go through the boxes and try to construct a coherent narrative of these two lives, as well as to write a sort of glossary to explain all the many historical events of which the new generation was unaware.  These turn out to be the voices in time of the title.

At this point, the book essentially becomes a double Columbo episode, where we have a pretty good idea what happened in the end, but not the detailed links in the chain.

I'll let you decide if you want to read on, but beware that I will be unraveling the episode to some degree, so the standard SPOILER warning applies.

SPOILERS in time

It isn't until the end of the novel that MacLennan really tries to build up the chain of events that lead to the nuclear holocaust.  As far as I can tell, first there is a wave of Great Fear that destabilizes quite a few governments.  It is almost like a miasma that descends upon a society.  In this case, the narrator (and probably MacLennan) feels it is a reaction to the unlimited freedom and lack of serious purpose inherent in Western society at that time.  I don't know about the root causes, but the book would have been written in the late 1970s when things did seem to be spiraling out of control.  While there is much less inflation in our era, there is more than a little hopelessness going around these days...)  This unsettled some governments and led to the first Bureaucracy (it isn't clear if this is specific to Quebec or Canada or all of North America).  Then a group of radicals, inspired largely by the FLQ terror campaign of 1970 (but with vastly more scientific knowledge) threaten to set off atomic bombs in central cities unless huge ransoms are paid.  (In reality, it would have been more likely to be a dirty bomb, but that's just nit-picking.)  Most governments pay up, but one does not, so 500,000+ people are killed, and the government that tried to hang tough is turfed, leading to the Second Bureaucracy, and things get even worse.  Then somehow the computer systems that govern the nuclear missiles go haywire and an attack is launched from one country and an automatic counter-strike is launched, and before you know it almost everyone that lived in an urban center is dead and the power grid rapidly fails.  The main survivors are rural and religious (the older man happened to be off vacationing in the country), and they impose the Third Bureaucracy and reject the previous civil society and basically suppress information about what came before them.

I found this causal chain pretty weak, even for speculative fiction, though I did think there was a pretty decent chance a nuclear holocaust would happen in my late teens, so there was something in the air at that time and MacLennan is picking up on that.  What's perhaps the bigger problem is that MacLennan seems to be elevating the relative minor disruptive force of the FLQ and its influence upon Montreal, and linking it up with much more malign and powerful forces, such as the rise of the Nazis.  He does seem to recognize that the FLQ never had the same widespread support that the Nazis ultimately did, which is why it is a small cabal of conspirators that accidentally bring down Western society.  On the other hand, one can say that the FLQ was the turning point at which Anglophone society in Montreal started declining and Toronto, which had been derided as a sleepy, boring burg, surpassed Montreal, not only in terms of being the financial center of Canada but ultimately its cultural capital (for Anglophones).  MacLennan and Mordecai Richler never really forgave the Quebecois for this self-imposed wound, and yet both stuck around and both died in Montreal, even though they were fairly unhappy with these post 1970 changes.  Richler even has various people ask Barney Panofsky why he doesn't just move to Toronto since he is so unhappy in Montreal, and he basically answers that he isn't about to let the Quebecois push him out, which just isn't an attitude I find particularly admirable.  I don't find being so stubborn that you end up with self-inflicted wounds to be a winning attribute, yet I also tend to be more footloose than the general population, and I also think that moving until you arrive at a land that "fits" makes far more sense than fighting to preserve your home when it is changing inexorably in ways that you don't like.

Anyway, the core of the novel really focuses on the life stories of Timothy Wellfleet, a television personality, and Conrad Dehmel, a professor of German ancestry that eventually settled in Canada after WWII.  Wellfleet's television show is sort of a showcase for cranks and radicals, where he can expose the hypocrisy of society.  Dehmel agrees to come on the show to spread his warnings that French Canadian society (and perhaps Western civilization more generally) is starting to go down the same path that led to the rise of the Nazis.  This seems quite a stretch for me, though I have to say I would totally accept this argument if the main part of the book was set in 2016!  Wellfleet has something else in mind, however, and he launches an attack on Dehmel, saying that he has secret documents proving that Dehmel was a Nazi.  Dehmel, in a moment practically lifted from Joseph Welsh during the McCarthy hearings, walks out on the interview.  While Wellfleet might have survived this, the FLQ attacks have gotten worse. Wellfleet is considered to have encouraged them, so he loses his show.

I think MacLennan was just trying far too hard to make these parallels, and thus Timothy Wellfleet's story is really unduly prominent.  I just didn't think he was that interesting to read about, and I would have been quite happy for his section of the novel to be cut in half or even 2/3rds.  I also thought this was where MacLennan hewed too closely to Proust and his tendency to write extensively on events that the Narrator would have had no way of experiencing.  Wellfleet seems such an intense egoist that I find it completely implausible that he would have spent more than a page or two in his diary discussing the new make-up artist who he tries to chat up.  He certainly would not have recorded their dialog back and forth.  I also thought that structurally MacLennan just tried too hard in making both characters fall in love with Jewish women who loved them back, in varying degrees, but refused to marry them.

For several reasons, I think the novel would have worked better if the focus had been exclusively on Conrad Dehmel, which was quite a compelling story.  He was an intellectual who came from a military family, but one that didn't fall under the sway of the Nazis.  They wanted to serve Germany and make it great again, but pretty much loathed the Nazis, though not to the point of resigning their commissions.  Conrad was warned not to return to Germany, by Hanna, his love interest, but he does anyway and becomes trapped in a web of deceit.  He is absolutely astounded and appalled by the transformations made by the Nazis in only a few years (he had been completing his degree in England during their rise to power).  However, Conrad isn't the only stubborn one who makes bad decisions.  Hanna also returns to Germany, posing as a nurse from the Red Cross, to try to save her father.  Conrad makes a number of major sacrifices, including joining the S.S., to try to save the two of them.  So in that sense, Timothy is technically correct, Conrad did briefly become a Nazi, but not for any personal gain or because he shared in their ideology.  And to the end of his days, Conrad agonized over not only this decision but what he saw during his training sessions.

It's hard to rate this novel.  I think the sections where Conrad is the main voice are the best and certainly the most interesting.  It is sort of like reading a Gunther Grass novel where the main character is less a refusnik and more of an unwilling participant, but a participant nonetheless.  I wish there had been more of that and much less about Timothy Wellfleet.  I wasn't particularly convinced by the overall framing device, and I certainly thought that MacLennan was overreaching at several points in trying to connect the FLQ and Quebecois separatism in general to the rise of the Nazis.  However, if you like novels that explore the bitter ironies of life and/or people caught up in events beyond their control, then this might be to your taste.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Aunt Dan and (Sour) Lemon

While I sort of skimmed this review, I did not take it seriously enough.  I basically thought that, yes Wallace Shawn writes challenging plays, but I've seen The Designated Mourner and Fever and found them rewarding.  However, this is a deeply flawed play, and while the acting is generally solid (with the exception of one actor not up to snuff), I didn't enjoy it -- or rather find it worthy of my time.  There was one short bit that I did like where Aunt Dan explained realpolitik and the Vietnam War using several stuffed animals -- Mickey Mouse for the US, a small tiger for North Vietnam and of course a panda (China) and a red teddy bear (U.S.S.R.)  That certainly does not justify going, however, and I would not recommend going to see the play.  It's really too bad, since with some strategic cuts and reshaping of the Aunt Dan character, it actually would get across its points much better and would have been a play that I could recommend.

I'm not really sure this play can be SPOILED, but I will be talking about a few key plot points, so just in case...


Actually, I am going to detour and talk briefly about Alfred Hitchcock's Rope.  I know a lot of people rate this movie really highly, since it was all done in 10 long takes or something like that.  However, I detest the movie, since I think it is a completely dishonest intellectual exercise.  If you recall, Jimmy Stewart's character is this unconventional prep-school headmaster who promoted Nietzschean ideas.  He is asked several times by others if he really means what he said about how some people are superior to others and to them nothing is forbidden (I'm paraphrasing a bit).  Nonetheless, Stewart sticks to his guns and says he meant it, then finds out of course that he is horrified when his two former students actually took him seriously.  He may be "crushed" inside, but he still gets to be the "hero" of the film by bringing the police in.  I just find this appalling at every level.  Now if Stewart had promoted some kind of elite ideology (supporting racial segregation or even promoting a birth control-based eugenics program based on IQ or something) but always stayed just behind the line of promoting murder, then it would be ok for him to be appalled that his students took the next logical step, even if he did shoulder part of the responsibility.  However, he frequently talked up de Quincey's "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts" in a non-ironic way, so he really has no moral high ground whatsoever to stand upon.  Maybe some day I will give Rope another chance, but probably not.

The play Aunt Dan and Lemon has a different structural problem.  Shawn wants to sort of prod and unsettle the liberal intellectual audience, or at least that was what I thought he wanted to do.  It's quite possible that there were so many tough-minded realists running around New York who were railing against the soft liberals that the realists became his actual target, though frankly a too easy one.  Anyway, for the play to really work, Aunt Dan would have to promote a certain kind of neo-liberalism and be an admirer of Kissinger (fine) but to still respect certain limits.  Then when her protégée went all the way and started admiring the Nazis, she would be properly horrified at how her ideas had led in this direction.  Instead, Aunt Dan seems as amoral as a tomcat and probably would merely advise Lemon to keep her ideas a bit more private but wouldn't be particularly horrified by her.  (As an aside, my understanding is that Oxbridge tutors would have had almost no job security at that time, as opposed to lecturers, and Aunt Dan seems to have been a person whose cannot keep her opinions to herself, so it does seem odd that someone, particularly an American, firmly in favor of escalating the Vietnam War would have still kept her job in England.)  I don't see enough distance between the two, and in what may be the play's most glaring structural problem, Lemon never tells Aunt Dan that she has become fascinated by Nazi ideology, so there is no moment of recognition or self-reflection on Aunt Dan's part (not that I was particularly convinced by Jimmy Stewart's character's transformation).  Beyond all this, if Shawn's goal was really to tweak the noses of the NY intellectual establishment, I think he completely failed, since Aunt Dan is not-so-secretly a monster, which is what liberals already believe about those that stick up for realpolitik.  Thus, it became incredibly easy to dismiss Aunt Dan's hard truths about what governments do to protect their interests, which can't have been what Shawn really wanted.

Maybe Shawn did intend for Lemon to be an inferior version of Aunt Dan, far less intellectually adept and less persuasive.  She tries to draw us all into her perspective and get us to admit something (that we can't really know what compassion means) and then logically go from there to say that the Nazis weren't really all bad, just misguided.  This is the kind of rhetorical move that I resisted in Akhtar's Disgraced, but it was more effective in that play than here where it completely falls flat.  You only have to think for a minute or two that, sorry Lemon, I can think of many cases where compassion and caring for other humans actually matters.  Ok, if we were all stranded in Donner Pass, then maybe things would get a bit dicey, but just because moral philosophy breaks down in extreme cases doesn't mean that compassion between people is false.  Once that building block of her argument is easily dismantled, the entire edifice comes down and she is just another nutter who happens to admire killing and thinks everyone else secretly does too.  (I don't think that was Shawn's intention, but it is hard to say.)  I wasn't drawn in for a moment and thus really was bored rather than challenged by the ending of the play.

It wouldn't take all that much to improve the play.  You could still have Aunt Dan overshare with an 11 year old (just the bit about her affair with a great thinker), and she could still have an adolescent crush on Kissinger (very reminiscent of Amy Poehler's character on Parks and Rec and her admiration of Hillary Clinton, who is in her own way a bit closer to Kissinger than to Madeleine Albright, for example).  I think she was very good in being persuasive about how society expects government to do its dirty work for it, and that probably goes double for the citizens of Canada and the EU that are largely free riders on the defense spending of the United States.  I also liked how Lemon's mother still stood up to Aunt Dan's bluster and said (with a quaver in her voice) that surely Kissinger sometimes made the wrong choice.  (This is basically my view.  I do understand the world is a dangerous place, and that I wouldn't want to make the difficult decisions that Presidents and Secretaries of State face.  But in more cases than not, the neocon approach has actually made the world less safe.  In most cases, active intervention on the part of the West has only made things worse.)

However, everything about Aunt Dan being a voyeur and a sexual swinger should be cut.  The entire subplot about Mindy and her killing someone for hire should have been cut.  Aunt Dan just sort of laughed it all off as some kind of hi-jinks.  First of all, this would have shaved 20 minutes off a play that was far too long, and second, having her essentially approve of the murder completely undermined Aunt Dan's position as a teller of hard truths, as I already mentioned above. When it comes right down to it, the only person we actually see Aunt Dan convert with her brilliance is an 11 year old child, so it isn't like this play is even an effective warning about the seductiveness of evil.  I find it really hard to understand that Shawn wouldn't have seen this as a major structural problem.  In any case, this is a quite unpleasant play that left a very bad taste in my mouth and isn't worth sitting through.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

College productions -- 2016/17

This probably should be titled (and other odds and ends), since I'll use it to capture a few more things I didn't cover already.

It finally stopped raining, though it will probably be a grey day the rest of the day.  I wonder if that would make it even more appropriate to try to catch Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon (playing at Theatre Passe Muraille), or would it just make it even more depressing to the point I despair about life itself.  I don't have tickets, but I don't think this will sell out, since it is definitely not an uplifting play...  In any case, it runs this weekend and next week.

I looked over the rest of the Theatre Passe Muraille's season, and it does not interest me at all.  I would say the same thing about Canadian Stage.  In both cases, the companies that come in and use their space are far more aligned with my interests and tastes than the main companies.  But this season, I am quite satisfied with Tarragon.

I see from the Samuel French site, that Convergence Theatre has reapplied for the rights to Beckett's Play from Oct. 13-23.  I guess that means they are repeating their Fringe site-specific show.  I think that's pretty cool, though I don't feel compelled to see it a second time.  But if you didn't manage to catch it during Fringe this summer (and wanted to), you should definitely go.  Maybe Facebook is the best way to find out what they are actually up to.

Given all the uncertainty around Unit 102 and where they will land, it looks like I'll have to keep an eye out on their Facebook page as well.  They had a fairly ambitious season laid out...

I already mentioned that Posner's Stupid F***ing Bird should be playing here in March 2017, but I have no idea who is actually putting it on.  I'll fill in with more details if it becomes an actual production and not just a phantom one.  Actually I just read up on Storefront Theatre's season, and they are doing it, which is super cool (and it also dramatically increases the odds that they will put it on compared to some of the smaller indy theatres).  Unfortunately, I seem to be diverging from Storefront, and don't think I'll see anything else they are doing this season. Given that I am going to swing through Chicago soon and see Posner's Life Sucks, I'll be well up on his work.  Now if only that phantom production of Annie Baker's The Aliens lands here soon.

I had known about this -- Master Harold and the Boys is coming to Toronto this Oct. -- but it just got a bit of a write-up in the Now Fall preview.  I've seen a good college production, but I might go again, given that that was so long ago.  The tickets are reasonable, though it is up in North York, and I am not usually thrilled about heading up that way, but I guess it isn't so bad on the weekend.  This appears to be the transfer of the Shaw production, and that certainly got solid to very good reviews, so I ought to go, so as not be a hypocrite when I say that it is mostly the drive that is keeping me from going to the Shaw Festival.

Finally, someone is doing David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole all the way in Oct. 2017 (next year), but this is a play that would upset me too much, and I am not going.  Oh, and apparently Soulpepper will be doing Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden as one of the first productions of their 2017-18 season.  I hope at some point they restage The Normal Conquests trilogy, which I missed by about two months, but this is a reasonable substitute.

Ok, now to the actual college productions.  Hart House is technically not student theatre, though I believe quite a few students get cast in the shows.  I'm quite excited about Mouawad's Tideline this season, and I'll probably see Morris Panych's 7 Stories.  I think I'll pass on Much Ado About Nothing, as I've seen it twice in the past two seasons.

Here is a cool poster advertising all the different plays that the U of T colleges will be putting on.

UC Follies is putting on Mouawad's Scorched, and that is coming up very soon.  This is a blistering play, and it would be great to see it in conjunction with Tideline.  In my case, I saw a Silk Road's unbelievably good production in Chicago, and I just can't risk letting that blur, so I won't see this production, but I would recommend it to others.  Albee is represented by two plays this season -- The Goat or Who is Sylvia and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I'm not sure I will go see anything else on the list, though possibly Sondheim's Assassins.  If I'm in the right mood that week, I might go see The Maltese Bodkin, which is a mashup of Shakespeare and the hard-boiled detective genre.

I briefly forgot about the UT School of Music, which has quite a few interesting events throughout the year.  I think the must-see date for me is April 1 when they are partnering with TorQ Percussion Quartet to do Wijeratne's Invisible Cities, but I also thought the concerts on Oct. 1, Nov. 28 and Jan 28 look worthy of investigation.  The April 1 concert is listed here and you can then navigate through the rest of the calendar.

After two quite interesting seasons, I am definitely less inspired by George Brown's 2016-17 season.  While Atwood's The Penelopiad is quite an interesting play, I have already seen it in Vancouver.  A Flea in Her Ear might be amusing.  I think it really hinges on whether I decide to see Noel Coward's Cavalcade.  From the description, it sounds like another Ragtime, though set in London.  That just doesn't grip me.  I suppose if they have a four play subscription -- and I can double up on As You Like It (so as to bring my son) -- I might subscribe.  The Penelopiad is probably worth seeing a second time.

Edward Albee RIP

So many, many deaths of people I admired in 2016.  I've kind of stopped tracking them here, though I was quite sad to hear that the jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson died back in August, as well as Rudy Van Gelder, who was so central to the Blue Note label.  At least I had the opportunity to see Hutcherson twice -- at the Iridium in New York and in Chicago on the SF Jazz Collective tour.

Like these deaths, Albee's death was not totally unexpected, and he had a long life (88) and career.  Here is the standard AP obit, and here is an extended obit in the NY Times.  While I would probably have considered Tony Kushner the preeminent living U.S. playwright, Albee was certainly very close.

Albee and Harold Pinter (who passed away in 2008) wrote some of the most challenging works of the 20th Century.*  Sometimes it didn't work -- I hated The Goat or Who is Sylvia, and I thought The Play About the Baby was a weak retread of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (Actually, I must admit that I rejected The Play About the Baby without watching it.  The discussion about it made it so clear that it took one of the most intriguing aspects of Virginia Woolf (that is revealed only at the end of the long, terrible evening of "games") and put it front and center as a fairly shallow exercise.  I realize this isn't entirely fair, and if the "baby play" comes to Toronto and someone like Coal Mine or Storefront does it, I'll probably go.)

While Albee certainly was a true intellectual working in the field, and I think his desire for intellectually challenging plays was admirable, he may also have gone too far in privileging the playwright over the audience.  Here is Albee telling off critics and indirectly his audience:
“It is not enough for a critic to tell his audience how well a play succeeds in its intention,” he said; “he must also judge that intention by the absolute standards of the theater as an art form.” He added that when critics perform only the first function, they leave the impression that less ambitious plays are better ones because they come closer to achieving their ambitions.
“Well, perhaps they are better plays to their audience,” he said, “but they are not better plays for their audience. And since the critic fashions the audience taste, whether he intends to or not, he succeeds each season in merely lowering it.” (from the NY times obit)

It's hard to get more elitist than that, saying that the playwright writes plays that are good for the audience and that their enjoyment (or even understanding of what is going on) is irrelevant. This is an example of why I do not always defer to the playwright; I do think the audience matters and believing that playwright always knows best is foolish.

Also, Albee may not been the best judge of his own work.  All the critics that I respect feel that his reworking of The Zoo Story (into At Home at the Zoo where the back story of Peter is explored) weakens The Zoo Story.  Again the feeling is not unanimous, but it is among the critics I follow, so I don't plan on seeing the two act version.

I won't go into all the reasons why I didn't like The Goat of Who is Sylvia, but basically it wasn't the idea of bestiality or the other "immoral" behavior, but that I found the characters' actions implausible at every level.  For those of you who are interested, there will be a college production (Victoria College Drama Society) from Oct 26-28.

I think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is probably Albee's best play.  I saw a scorching version done at Storefront Theatre, which really was what cemented them into my mind as a company to watch.  For those that didn't see it then and do want to see the play, Trinity College Dramatic Society is doing the play in early January.

Those are the only upcoming local Toronto productions of Albee's plays, though perhaps in the next season or two, we'll see more.

In terms of which Albee plays I would still like to see.  I'd probably see Three Tall Women again, even though I saw this in Chicago in 2011.  I'm reasonably interested in seeing A Delicate Balance (curiously the rights are held by Samuel French, whereas almost everything else goes through DPS).  I'd see the one-act play Counting the Ways (particularly if it is paired with Listening).  Seascape sounds sort of intriguing, though a little unusual.  I'll try to get it out of the library.  I'd probably go see The Marriage Play, though I wouldn't travel anywhere to see it, and if it comes to Toronto (and isn't absurdly expensive) I'd probably see The Play About the Baby this time around (I've skipped it at least once).

* In general, audiences don't react all that well to uncertainty about what actually is happening during the course of the play, since they value closure quite a bit (whether they have actually been "taught" to value closure by critics seems a moot point to me).  I haven't seen anything by him (yet), but a glance over Christopher Shinn's work suggests he might be working in this challenging territory.  I'll see if any of his plays are at the library, and also add a few of his plays to my list of plays I'm trying to see in person.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Limited run - The Plough and the Stars

It has been a long, long day.  Actually, it has been a long week, since I worked pretty much through the night Monday night, and then I've been dealing with a number of academic things for the past 24 hours or so.  I had to complete several TRB reviews and upload my final TAC presentation all on the 15th.  I managed to cross the last obligation off my list at 11:58 pm.  I debated between taking the subway home and biking.  I ultimately biked home, but found that the cabbies were far more out of control than normal, and in fact one barely stopped for me at a stop sign, only about 4 blocks from home.  That would have been terribly ironic after I managed to get out of the downtown safely.

Because it is so late, I will just encourage interested parties to go see The Plough and the Stars this weekend at Canadian Stage.  It is actually being performed by Abbey Theatre Company for one week only.  There are still some tickets left for Friday and Sunday.

I had been kind of wavering, but I'm glad I went (even though I had to bring my laptop and work on a Powerpoint presentation during the intermission!).  It was a really strong production, and Abbey Theatre Company almost never comes to Toronto (this is first time in 26 years).  I probably caught 80-90% of the dialogue, since the accents were thick at times and I was sitting towards the back of the theatre, but the action was always clear.  While it was still clearly about the events of 1916, there were several changes that essentially made 2016 and 1916 blur together, particularly when during Act II, the barman kept putting on the telly, so that people could watch all the nationalist speeches being made.  I think of all the scenes, Act II was my favorite, since it had this Fluther character at his most Falstaffian (and I liked the barman character as well, though it was a bit role).  My third favorite character was this pint-sized Marxist provocateur, but many of the roles were stand-out roles.

Many people consider The Plough and the Stars to be O'Casey's masterpiece, and this was certainly an electrifying production.  It felt to me that he was drawing very heavily on the example of Shakespeare's Henry IV (particularly Fluther as a kind of Falstaff) but there were two critical changes.  First, there really were no kings and dukes involved; this was very much a play about the lower classes of Dublin.  (The play was set first in a tenement building and later right outside, and Act II took place in a nearby pub.)  Second, he really drives home the point that there is no honor and certainly no glory in war, which may be in the subtext of Shakespeare's history plays, but Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V do glorify war on the surface.  These reviews (here and here) give a fairly good idea of The Plough and the Stars.

It was quite strange overhearing some youngster seemingly saying that he just didn't see the point of putting on the play (or perhaps he was defending the modern production, though certainly my impression was that he thought this play was too ancient to resonate today).  All I can say is that there are still so many civil wars being fought on narrow nationalist grounds, and this play really does speak to the need to strip the glory away from these conflicts so that perhaps fewer people would continue to carry on these wars.  But even if it wasn't actually so relevant, I would still want companies to put on the classics.  His desire for the new (and shortsighted dismissal of the past) just reminded me of the same people that stuck up for the ill-conceived inversions of The Glass Menagerie because it felt more "modern" to them.  (Not that I always automatically side with the traditionalists: I did think John Gabriel Borkman at Stratford was a play that didn't make much sense for today's audience.)  I'm too tired to get much deeper into these debates or to say much more about the production, aside from repeating that it was a very strong production and I'm glad I was able to see it.  I think it says something about how immersive it was that I didn't find myself nodding off even for a moment (often a problem for me during concerts), despite being quite sleep deprived.

Now that I have gotten a bit of rest, I've had a bit more time to think about the production.  It definitely is a postmodern production in terms of the set and the costumes, but the core of the play is very much intact.  I generally think of it as the modern era sort of imposing itself on the 1916 uprising (sort of a palimpsest across the generations).  But it wasn't as if Nora now thinks that the rebellion is a good idea -- that would be an unforgivable revision of the play.  Basically, that is how I would distinguish this production (respectful to the core ideas of the play but updated in some ways) versus The Glass Menagerie, where the updating of the play really undermines what Williams was going for; though I suppose it is a fine line and on the surface they both look like the director going a bit too far.  I may also be just a bit more forgiving, since Abbey Theatre puts on The Plough and the Stars every few years, and the 2012 production was apparently quite traditional.

While the local reviewers have been quite positive, it is possible to find reviewers (and certainly the general public!) who wish that it had been done as a period piece and that any attempt to link the Easter Rebellion of 1916 to more modern uprisings is a major mistake.  This reviewer had mixed feelings, but ultimately gave it a fairly positive review.  Interestingly, he really didn't like one of the more comic moments, when the pint-sized Marxist is looting a full-size drier and is carrying it on his back.  I thought this was great.  I am now curious what the text says at this point, so I have put in a request to get it from the library.  Here's the Guardian review and one from the Irish Times (where the director says he never saw the play before!).  I am also particularly interested in seeing if O'Casey actually has all the speeches in the text (probably so).  In most productions you hear them through the pub window, but here they are all on the pub television.

I can understand why people felt O'Casey was making fun of the nationalists, but I think it is more about the fact that their leaders were quite appalling, saying things like blood had to be sacrificed and that the Irish should welcome martyrdom.  Any leader who deliberately sets out to spill blood is a meglomaniac who should be shunned.  I am not really up on my Irish revolutionary leaders, but it does appear that Parnell never glorified war the way the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion apparently did. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Unit 102 - Old Times

I kind of snuck into this at the last minute (without reservations even).  I hadn't even realized that Unit 102 was doing a play until I saw the listing in Now.  There is a bit of an interesting story here in that their main space was sold out from under them and they had to scramble to find a new place at 101 Niagara.  (It is fairly difficult to find, especially as several of the Niagara street signs themselves have been torn down.  Once inside, it is a veritable warren of small studio spaces and artist spaces.  I know of several places like this hanging on in Chicago's Wicker Park, but it is kind of neat running across this in contemporary Toronto.  It does kind of bring me back to my previous stint here in the early 90s.)

The space is really more a rehearsal space than a full blown theatre, which means that there isn't much room for the audience.  There are three rows of chairs with maximum seating around 30.  This makes for very intimate theatre.  (Also, it may mean there will be a run on tickets towards the end of the run, though Tuesdays and Wednesdays have good availability.)  I personally would recommend sitting in the front row, but the second row is fine.  It is true that they smoke a lot of herbal cigarettes throughout the show.  If this bothers you a little, then try the second row.  If it is going to bother you a lot, then you probably should pass.

This is a complex and frankly baffling play.  It's actually my second time through (I saw it in 2011 in Chicago), and I still wouldn't say I really understand what happened.  The different versions of reality are massively in conflict with each other.  To some degree, it is like Albee's The Play About the Baby, though if the final "story" that is told is "true" (which is my usual take on the play), then why would this dialogue be performed in this way?  Why would the events be discussed the way they are?  Alternatively, if it is all in one person's head (another intriguing possibility that I hadn't considered, which is raised here in Slotkin's review), then there are an awful lot of mental gymnastics to explain away.

I think Slotkin's review and this review are fair and balanced.  The accents do slip a bit.  Deeley is a bit too drunk and too shouty.  The Chicago production was a bit more restrained and it worked better in some ways, though the mysterious Anna may be a bit better here (maybe just because I was so close that I could really see all her reactions).  What is quite interesting (to me) is that I think the Chicago crew was slightly older than this set of actors, and that feels more right to me.  (Pinter does say that they are all pushing 40,* though I would guess most of these actors are only pushing 30.)  Nonetheless, it is a bit strange to me that Pinter says most of the past events were 15 years ago, whereas I tend to think of deep nostalgia surrounding events of 20 or even 25 years ago.  Another thing that seems a bit odd is that Pinter certainly suggests that the past (of 15 years ago) was London in the Swinging 60s, but Deeley and Anna spend a lot of time singing songs from the 1930s and 1940s (particularly Gershwin tunes).  While there was a fair bit of carry over (Frank Sinatra and even Bing Crosby would have kept these songs in circulation), it is still a bit strange that they would be singing songs of their parents' generation.  This led me to search up the movie (Odd Man Out) that is referenced throughout, and it was released in 1947!  So that basically puts them living in the early 1960s and remembering the 1940s, though the stage directions request that the set use "modern furniture," which only further undermines any essential truth or grounding of the play.

I would encourage people to see this play, particularly if they are interested in power/persuasion, shifting alliances inherent in small groups, in the way memory works (and how two or more people with a shared past may not remember things at all in the same way) and for plays that challenge the viewer.  I would not recommend the play to theatre goers who prefer neat and tidy endings.**  I'm certainly glad that Unit 102 is taking on challenging plays, and I'll see what they are up to next wherever they land.

* Oh, interesting.  The line is that Anna is "about 40," not pushing 40, which I'm quite sure I heard. (Or am I?  Memory is such a treacherous thing...)  The text of the play then says these events were 20 years ago, but I'm quite sure they changed it to 15.  In this case, I am pretty confident, since it was a bit jarring and I noted it down as soon as I got home.  I would agree with Pinter that 20 year old memories are in some ways more disturbing that 15 year memories, since anything that you still recall from 20 years ago is both part of your core and yet can be maddening elusive.  Some of the work I am doing (when I write at all) is about 20 or even 25 years ago, and I have to rely on newspaper articles and research to check if my memory is accurate.  Fortunately, I kept fairly detailed journals from that time, and I definitely don't remember many of the events that I recorded.  That in itself would be an interesting idea to explore (not that Beckett didn't basically cover this in a way already in Krapp's Last Tape).

** One such person is the Now reviewer.  I'm not even going to dignify this ridiculous review with a link.

While I will write about it in a separate post, Edward Albee has just passed away.  I find he and Pinter share an affinity for writing challenging plays where power between the characters shifts in unpredictable ways and the audience really never knows quite what happened.  This sort of play only appeals to a limited audience, and thus we probably will not see many playwrights like Pinter and Albee again. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Closing of the North (Harris at AGO)

This is the last week to catch the Lawren Harris exhibit at the AGO.  It officially closes the 18th.  It could be crazy this weekend, or it may not be too bad, since everyone that wanted to see it has seen the exhibit.  In addition, there may be just a bit less pressure, since most of the paintings (in the core exhibit curated by Steve Martin and the additional early career paintings that the AGO added) are found in local museums -- mostly the AGO, but also the McMichael and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

I don't think I will go back -- I've swung through 4 times or so, plus seeing the show in Boston! And while I do appreciate the austere nature of these paintings, I actually prefer the urban paintings he did earlier.

Anyway, I've already written a bit about the earlier paintings, so I thought I would close out by discussing which of the arctic paintings I liked the best.  I should begin with a bit of a mea culpa.  It turns out that Grounded Icebergs was added to the Steve Martin show.  I honestly can't tell if it wasn't there the first time around (and they added it after a bit of pressure) or (much more likely) I didn't recognize it in the new context (sometimes changing the wall color behind a painting can make a big difference).  Well, I'm glad more people got to see it and maybe they'll rotate it in with the Canadian paintings on the 2nd floor (the ones that are not part of the Thomson Collection).

I thought these three in particular stood out -- one from each of the nearby galleries.

Lawren Harris, Icebergs, Davis Straight, 1930 (@ McMichael)

Lawren Harris, Lake Superior, ca. 1923 (@ AGO)
Lawren Harris, Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior, 1923 (@ Art Gallery of Hamilton)

Perhaps it is fitting that for another two weeks, there are a handful of Harris paintings from the Vancouver Art Gallery (which I've probably seen at one point or other) at the Art Gallery of Hamilton as part of the Embracing Canada exhibit.  Ideally I would go out there, but the timing just isn't great, especially as I am watching the kids while my wife is volunteering at TIFF.  I don't think I can make it work for a variety of reasons.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

No Menagerie

I mentioned in the previous post how an extremely detailed and negative review of The Glass Menagerie has pushed me entirely into the camp of not wanting to see this production.  There is an interesting back and forth in the comments about how open one should be to experiments and rethinking of the classics, and the response that this only works when the core of a play has been left intact.  The Globe and Mail reviewer, who I also generally trust, was quite lukewarm.  The new Star reviewer, who I don't trust, was more positive. It got a very positive blurb in Mooney's, but I only use Mooney's to tell me what is playing, since I hardly ever agree with their reviewers.

It's not that I have completely ignored experimental theatre over my long "career" of attending plays, but I really am a traditionalist when it comes to the classics.  I would much prefer someone call something The Glass Manger (inspired by Williams) rather than calling it The Glass Menagerie and inverting the play.  It is really the director who is using the Williams name as a brand to entice people to come (and so far it has sold out most nights) but then being extremely disrespectful to the main concepts of the play.  (Maybe I would feel differently if these plays were put on every year or so, but it can be 5 or even 10 years between productions of plays by someone other than Shakespeare, so most people are coming at it for the first time.  Is it really fair for that (fairly large) slice of the audience to radically reinterpret the play without at least slapping on a warning label?)

Here we have a woman who is not really a damaged flower (or Southern belle-in-waiting).  She creates all the glass figurines rather than collecting them as a way of avoiding dealing with the world.  She doesn't limp, and she pleasures herself on stage.  What does she need a gentleman caller for anyway?  Slotkin also points out that no matter how louche or self-centered a young man is, the idea that he would show up at a friend's house to eat a family dinner and wouldn't at least button up his shirt is pretty unthinkable.  Unless Millennials are even more self-centered and lacking in social graces than I have been led to believe...  Actually it sounds as if this production of the play is set in the  early 1990s (if it even is set in a specific time), and that would make the younger characters Gen Xers, and we knew to dress up a bit for dinner.  Finally, it really seems as if Slotkin is onto something when she says these characters don't seem to love each other at all, and Tom is pointlessly cruel in several scenes, which again is a gutting of the play.

I was going to write a more extended piece here, but I will just sum up that when it comes to choosing between staying true to the original concept as outlined by the playwright and a brash concept by an up-and-coming director, I will virtually always side with the playwright.  I find most directors that impose a radical new concept onto a play are basically egomaniacs, who don't have a fraction of the creative spirit of the playwright.  I basically find my sympathies go to the playwright, the audience, the actors and the director, in that order.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

End of summer blues

I must say today did not go at all as planned.  I knew it was going to rain in the evening, but I have been feeling kind of sluggish and not exercising enough.  Thus, I rode my bike to work, expecting to leave it in the storage area until Friday.  Then I would take the Queen streetcar out to the Theatre Centre to watch The Glass Menagerie.

It was a fairly hectic day, trying to get some presentations ready and responding to a document that came across the desk towards the end of the day.  I looked up the ticket situation, and the play was sold out again!  Seriously, who goes to see a 2.5 hour play on a Wednesday?  There were a few tickets left for Thurs. and then reasonable availability Friday.  However, the timing is generally not that convenient for me, so I delved a bit deeper into the reviews to see if I really wanted to make the effort to go.  I think I'll save this for another post, but one of the reviews was both highly critical and very specific, and I am generally on the same wave length as this reviewer, so I can tell I would also be unsympathetic to the director's choices.  So not only did I not go see the play tonight, but I've decided to skip it entirely.

It looked like the rain would hold off for another 30 minutes or so, so I jumped on my bike and pedaled madly for home.  I got to Logan and was caught in a sudden downpour.  I think I only needed another 7-8 minutes.  Oh well.  It is probably going to rain on and off most of today and tomorrow.

The kids are back in school, which is great.  They seem to be adjusting reasonably well, and they both had a bit of homework on the second day.

It's probably worth taking stock of the summer.  I managed to get the deck done, which was a bigger undertaking than I imagined.  I ended up giving up the equivalent of 3 or even 4 weekends to this project.  I hope I feel it is worth it in the end.  I only enjoyed the deck sporadically, though I was sitting outside reading and heard a humming.  I looked up and saw a hummingbird right overhead, poking about in the large, flowery bush that hangs over the deck.  Very cool.  I think that is the first time I've seen one live.  The humming sound reminds me that they are now saying this will be one of the biggest cicada invasions in years, so perhaps I'll actually see some.  I didn't see any last summer/fall.

I had our stairs fixed inside, and I may have gotten the raccoons to move to another yard, though it is a bit early to tell.  I read a fair bit, though in some cases I mostly felt that I had persevered and I hadn't necessarily enjoyed the reading.  That's certainly the case with James Clifford's Routes and Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, neither of which I would recommend.  While there were some genuine moments of pleasure reading Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, in general it was a fairly long slog.  I was pleased that I managed to read Hawking's A Brief History of Time, which is actually at the top of the list of books started but not completed.  Probably the most compelling read was Hill's The Book of Negroes, though if I go all the way back to mid June, then I also liked Munro's The Moons of Jupiter quite a bit.  I did not listen to Finnegan's Wake (and sort of follow along), as I thought I might do, but perhaps that will be an undertaking for the fall.

I saw quite a lot of good theatre, and I got in my annual trip to Stratford.  I saw a few concerts I enjoyed.  I did not, however, get particularly far with my own writing, though I guess I am about 1/3 of the way complete with "Final Exam."

I generally was able to ride my bike to work 3 days a week, never getting much above or below that.  I did not integrate swimming into the mix, though now that I have checked out the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, I'll try to go at least for a few months, before it gets too cold.  I did not do much work in the yard, and the plants have more or less all died, except the ferns in the back.  It was not a pleasant summer for plant life...

Perhaps the single most rewarding activity was the canoeing on the Humber, just since I was taking a risk that the kids would enjoy it, never having done it before.  Maybe next summer we will do just a bit of camping, though probably in a cabin, so I'll investigate that, though I'd like to stay fairly close to the city, since long drives are generally not a good idea.  It wasn't a bad summer (aside from the extreme heat), though it wasn't a particularly productive one either.  I guess that is kind of par for the course.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tearing up the basement

I have to say that yesterday was a very trying and tiring day, and I come out of it only half fulfilled.  I needed to track down two receipts from the moving company, and I found one (towards the very end of the evening).  I am kind of wracking my brains where the other one could be, since it should have been quite close to the other one.  Before I completely give up, there is one box that I can flip through a second time.

It wasn't a total loss.  I found a few more papers affirming my BC residence.  I threw out a lot of old papers (nowhere near enough, however).  I managed to consolidate 6 boxes down into 3, so it looks somewhat neater downstairs.

I think the next time I go through the boxes, I'll throw out everything related to my field work at the Chicago Youth Hostel.  I am never, ever going to write anything related to that experience.  I really ought to throw out all the newspaper clippings related to Chicago transportation, since the important ones were already cited in my dissertation, and I am quite unlikely to publish more in that area either.  Maybe I can give myself another 6 months and then really start to purge.

I also turned up a handful of CDs, though there are still a few cases with missing CDs.  These are the trickiest, since it is likely the missing CDs are mixed in with a bunch of data CDs (and I must have literally over a thousand downstairs!).  And I found all the parts to my son's bike lock, which reminds me that I was very remiss in not having him practice biking this summer.  The problem is we are in a neighborhood surrounded by busy streets, which are not too bad for walking but biking is a real challenge, and I don't feel comfortable yet having him navigate so much traffic.  Next summer perhaps...

Probably the single best find was a small orange notebook which contains the science fiction story "No More Robinsons," as well as just a few pages of "Final Exam."  I had it in the back of my mind that I had started this, but couldn't track it down, so I actually started from scratch while on vacation a couple of weeks ago.  Now I can compare the two and see which was the better start.

There are a few things that I still can't find, in some cases I have been looking since we moved.  The most baffling is that I can't find the hair clippers, which is in a fairly large black case.  I also can't find the cassette player that allows me to convert cassettes to mp3s, though I admit I wasn't really looking for it until the very end of the day.  I have a small bag of refrigerator magnets I hope to track down.  I'm also missing a couple of USB flash drives, but those went missing recently, so they can't be buried downstairs, just somewhere on the main floor or at work.*

Obviously, this isn't the last time I will have to spend a day down in the basement sorting through papers and other random junk.

* One of the USB drives turned up, and hopefully the other one will soon.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Long Weekend, Labour Day 2016

I am certainly glad that I have one more day off.  (I already went ahead and turned off the alarm on my phone, though I may not ultimately go back to bed.)

I already went into some detail on how Sat. was almost entirely dedicated to getting down the first coat of stain on the lower deck, as well as the second coat on the stairs and railing.

Sunday I had to go off and do the grocery shopping, which included trying to figure out what the kids wanted for school lunches.  Then I finished putting down the second coat on the main part of the deck, running out of stain at the end.  I took my son swimming in Greenwood Park.  As we were leaving, the attendant said that it was the last hour of the last day that the pool would be open.  Summer is really over, I thought.  I don't know why I find that a bit upsetting.  It was a brutally hot summer, and one that basically killed all the plants in the front yard, particularly the new ones I tried to add this spring.  I guess this is something we will have to adjust to.  Perhaps I shall plant cacti.

There is no question, we are a bit relieved that the kids will be back in school and not quite so underfoot all the time... I did just a bit more shopping at the mall for school supplies. I spend a bit of time on times tables with my daughter.  They are probably as ready as they are ever going to be.

At 6:30, I set out for the Theatre Centre.  It did take slightly over an hour to get down there, and it turned out The Glass Menagerie was in fact sold out.  I was number 4 on the waiting list, and it appears that only one person actually came off it.  I guess they can do what they want, but it seems to me their oversold policy is foolish.  There were clearly quite a few seats left, but they won't release them before the show like most theatres do.  Instead, they hold them indefinitely, since patrons can even enter at intermission.  I waited until 8:01 and split.  It seems like next weekend may also be sold out, though having the two matinees will help, but I can't go next weekend due to various obligations.  I'll ponder today if I want to go Wed. or Thurs. after work, since I am fairly likely to be taking transit anyway, as there is rain in the forecast.  I will admit, I am somewhat less interested than I was before, mostly because this evening ended up costing me two tokens.  (Though I'm still not as mad as I was when Ryerson didn't honor my reservation and wouldn't get me in to see their show.  Never again will I cross their door.)

Today I would like to get some rest, though the single highest priority is to track down two receipts associated with our move to Toronto.  I know they got stuffed into a folder, but which one???  If I find that relatively quickly, I'll probably spend most of the rest of the day writing and doing some reading.  And maybe a nap thrown in for good measure.