Thursday, May 30, 2013

Over The Hill

As I travel through my 50's occasionally questions of age appropriateness come to the fore. Answers to these questions can be difficult to come by. What is proper behavior or a proper standard of dress. How is one who has experienced over half a century of life supposed to behave. Certainly my life and health at 55 is different than my parents at that age. To my grandparents, 55 today would be almost unrecognizable.

Man lives longer today, mankind moves faster. In the middle ages I would either have died by this time or would be considered extremely old. Although one may have, in that era, lived through several different rulers or regimes, the world at large, the basic experience of living, would not change greatly. For much of man's existence on earth change has come slowly.

Today technology speeds forward at a dizzying pace. What was new a decade ago is hopelessly outmoded today. Capitalism has always contained, as one of it's traits to ensure self perpetuation, planned obsolescence. Today this obsolescence is attained in months, not years. The latest technical innovation, no matter how trivial or inconsequential, has people lining up around the block desperate to own it.

I mark time in days, weeks, months, years and, in some cases, decades. I do not understand the fascination with things being accomplished a nano second faster. Seconds do not concern me. While I feel life is too precious and short to waste time, I have been known to put down a book of leave a theatrical or musical performance before it's end when I feel my time is being wasted, spending time can be one of life's great pleasures. Spending time with ones we care about, spending time on a particular project, spending quiet time with ones own thoughts or merely reveling in the glory of a beautiful sunlit day.

I have spent time wandering the streets of new cities, exploring the less traveled, sometimes almost hidden, corners of museums and sitting on a bus or train enjoying the scenery outside as it rolls by. I have learned, over the past half century, to relish the experience of life. I do not shut myself off from it by staring at my phone or putting pods in my ears. I am constantly entranced by the sights and sounds which surround me.

I have occasionally been described as "old school". It is a title I wear with pride. For instance, I hand write and hand edit my blog posts before committing them to cyberspace. When new technology will add to my life I embrace it. When it does not I eschew it.

I find myself confronted with what look is appropriate. I  have always veered toward a classic style. In my younger days I had a fondness for vintage. An appreciation of the timeless silhouette and excellent workmanship of bygone eras. Even though these days vintage fashion is extremely difficult to find and often too fragile to be worn I still own a few cherished pieces. I have maintained the sense and sensibility of that classic silhouette. The skinny suit and skinny jeans popular today are not appropriate for a man of my age and physique.

My desire is not to cling to my youth but to learn from it and move forward. At this age I do not consider myself to be over the hill but still ascending it, eagerly anticipating what I will discover further up the trail.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Measure for Measure - Dateline Chicago - St Patrick's Day 2013

When Chicago's Goodman Theatre, for which I hold a season ticket, released it's lineup for the 2012/2103 season it named 4 plays and another "to be announced". I pondered; are they attempting to obtain the rights to something? Perhaps they're pursuing a particular actor for a particular role. When they declared that Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" was the 5th production I thought, "Well it wasn't a problem with getting the rights."

The director had decided to set the play in New York City during the 1970's. Rather than anything that said "New York" the set presented a non specific, garbage strewn, graffiti scarred, sex club laden urban landscape. This was a fortunate design choice as more than once in the early scenes the locale is identified as Vienna. It is difficult to present this play without sexual references as the entire play is centered around the sexual activities of the principal characters. This production contained an opening vignette depicting various sexual acts culminating in a veritable orgy on one side of the stage, setting the mood for the events that follow. It has been called one of Shakespeare's "problem plays", although comedic, it is also dark, at times cruelly so.

One issue with many Shakespeare productions is the actor's tendency to feel that, in order to do justice to the majestic and masterful words of the bard, they must rant and rave and rail their way through the play. What struck me in this production was the naturalism lent to the work by the actors. They make complex plot of the play is understandable by, while remaining true to the text, delivering the lines like everyday dialogue. The grand speeches presented in a non grand, at times almost understated manner.

As with most Goodman productions the visual aspects of the show were above average. Set pieces moved in and out and up and down. The dozen or so speaking roles are augmented by another dozen or so non speaking actors. These non speaking actors, used primarily as background, added to the rich texture of the production. One in particular caught my attention, a handsome, muscular fellow clad in tight jeans, a vest and sleeveless tee shirt, but that's another story, never mind.

Years ago I worked with a woman with an almost sacred respect for Shakespeare. She related to us how she felt his work remains timeless because of his keen observation of the human animal. Times, technology and fashions may change but the basics of the human condition do not. This is why, after 500 years, Shakespeare's work remains vital and relevant.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Measure for Measure - Dateline - San Francisco Circa 1984

As I have mentioned before in these posts, for a period of several months, close to the end of my San Francisco tenure, I worked with a small, semi professional theater group. We performed in Golden Gate Park and later at a San Francisco community college auditorium getting paid an amount which ranged from minuscule to nothing at all. In this company were two actors who were also working on a small black box production of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure". The production, which was mounted with a budget of approximately $1.98, featured an all male cast, as Elizabethan productions would have had, and, it being San Francisco in the 1980's, homoerotic undertones.

Produced and directed by a gay man, with a largely gay cast, I found it somewhat ironic that of the 3 friends of mine in the show, 2 were straight. One of these played Claudio, one of the young male leads. He was a good actor with solid training and only one flaw, on occasion he would forget his lines. In a contemporary play, provided the other actors were reasonably adept and familiar enough with the script, this forgetfulness could be taken care of with relative ease. In the case of Shakespeare taking care of a problem of this sort becomes, well, problematic.

During my experiences with him on stage this "forgetfulness" of his occurred on 2 memorable occasions. We were performing "Alice in Wonderland". I portrayed the King of Hearts and he the Mad Hatter. As we moved into the theatre after our run in the park the actor playing the March Hare was unexpectedly called home to Tennessee and had to drop out of the production. Familiar with the role and the lines having heard them numerous times during rehearsal and our park performances, I was called upon to play the March Hare as well as the King. This required a lightning fast costume and makeup change accomplished by myself and a crew of three other cast members. I always arrived at my seat at the tea table slightly out of breath , microseconds prior to the lights coming on and the platform the Tea Party set was on being rolled downstage.

During one performance we had a minor prop malfunction which caused a major meltdown. I, the Hatter and Alice all realized we had no idea where we were in the script. Having only run through the scene 2 or 3 times and playing it in front of an audience a similar number of times I was neither adept or familiar enough to get us back on track. We jumped forward in the script, we moved backward in the script, we moved sideways in the script. Eventually we pulled ourselves out of our theatrical train wreck and the play went forward. Wisely, the preteen girl playing the Dormouse feigned sleep during the entire ordeal, which is essentially what her character did anyway., While we realized that it was the Mat Hatter's tea party scene and that noone would realize what a mess we had created I, for one, was never so glad to have a scene over with in my entire life...until...

In our subsequent production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" the "forgetfull one" was playing Touchstone, in his defense, a demanding role. One evening, in the plays final scene, it once again became apparent he had "lost his way". He was in the middle of a long and complex speech describing a "laundry list" of items regarding human behavior it was obvious he could not recall. My character had the next line, asking him to state, "in order", the list of behaviors. There followed a second lengthy speech reciting the behaviors previously mentioned ticked off in a particular order. My mind raced trying to come up with an alternative to my character's scripted request. I came up empty. As my character asked him to recite in order a list of behaviors he obviously couldn't recall even out of order I felt I should have prefaced my line with "I'm terribly sorry to ask you this but"...This was the performance we were videotaping for prosperity. Although we all thought we were disguising our alarm at the quickly deteriorating situation, there was a glance between myself and another cast member which seemed to say "How is he gonna' get himself out of this one?" Gamely, he made up something on the fly. It being Shakespeare I doubt anyone noticed. No less a thespian than Lawrence Olivier confessed to forgetting his lines in a Shakespeare play. He related how he spouted Elizabethan gibberish for 10 minutes throwing thees and thous about with reckless abandon. He too, assumed that noone noticed.

But back to "Measure for Measure". The production was a heavily edited version of the play. It's running time had been cut by the director/producer, one person held both titles, by over an hour. Still the gist of the play remained. It was the period of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. A number of notable figures in the city's gay community had already succumbed. As the years wore on many more were to follow. The opening scene was a discussion regarding a plague which was affecting a town outside Vienna, the play's setting. The decision was made to portray the plague as AIDS. An actor portraying the representative of the town was made up to appear afflicted with Kaposi's Sarcoma, a rare form of skin cancer prevalent, at the time, among people with AIDS. This was done in a rather subtle manner. Had I not been told about it beforehand it might have even been missed by me, and I was well aware and educated about AIDS at the time.

Other parts of the production carried gay, sometimes somewhat erotic, tones that were much easier to identify. A tall, rather campy drag queen portrayed one of the female roles. There were two thickly muscled alpha males who played the guards clad in tight black pants, even tighter black sleeveless shirts, allowing the audience tantalizing views of their powerful, rippling tattooed arms and Doc Martens. They had no lines and served no purpose other than to stand at attention and hold characters down during interrogation. They were essentially set dressing. I for one, had no complaints nor did I ever hear any about their seemingly superfluous stature. There was also a servant to the Executioner, played in a slightly but not overly fey manner by another of my three friends who were in the show, the one gay one. The character was dressed in black leather overall shorts, tee shirt and combat boots and possessed an overly prurient interest in his master.

The Executioner was played by the same actor that played Claudio. This was accomplished by the Executioner wearing a hood, appearing in no scenes with Claudio and by cutting all of the Executioner's lines. A musclesuit was planned to bulk him out and further differentiate the two characters. In one scene the executioner accidentally hangs himself.  This entailed him being hoisted up by a harness. The harness was borrowed from the owner of one of the era's most notorious leather bars. As my friend described the harness to me, "It's greasy and it smells!" When the director gave it to him he informed him "I didn't have time to make the musclesuit so just wear a lot of clothes under it." Holding the foul thing at arm's length by his fingertips he replied "Not to worry!" He began to construct a list of clothing he could wear under it that he would later be able to boil.

Then there was the extended sequence in which an actor, a handsome blond possessing an almost impossibly chiseled physique displayed in the skimpiest of loincloths, flogs his genitals with a Cat of NineTails. Believe it or not this does make some sense within the context of the play. This chiseled actor professed to be straight however took full advantage of any chance which came around to flaunt his eye candy body in front of gay men.

I have always felt that the theatre, when it is at it's finest, is magic. In this production the actor who played Isabella, the female lead, created magic with every movement he made onstage. He was small in stature and dressed as a nun, which perhaps helped the illusion. I found myself forgetting that there was a man underneath the habit. He had a soliloquy at the beginning of the second act that was mesmerizing. It was one of those moments in which I was completely drawn in by an actor, unable to tear my eyes away from the stage.

Theatre can be brave. It can be imaginative and creative. It can have an emotional effect on those who experience it. Sometimes this effect is experienced in a grand house full of history. Other times it is experienced in a black box watching a production that has a budget of $1.98.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Has Spring Sprung?

Spring in the Midwest is a teasing, playful creature. Lake a coquette it appears full of beauty and promise. She flutters her fan, bats her eyes and then departs as mysteriously as she arrives. One day can be damp, cold and rainy. Even as late as April feeble snowflakes can be seen in the cool, wet morning air. The next day the sun is out, the temperature soars and cabin fevered locals emerge, their eyes blinking, attempting to accustom themselves to the light and warmth. The next day can dawn colder and wetter that the one 2 days earlier. New Easter clothes are buried beneath down coats that one can't chance putting away just yet. Then, almost overnight, the long wished for moment happens. The coquette puts down her fan and actually speaks to you.

The days noticeably lengthen. The warmth of the sun becomes a more constant companion. Early budding trees sprout diminutive new leaves. Grass transitions from brown to verdant green. Bright yellow daffodils and jonquils and the Easter egg hues of hyacinths appear in carefully cultivated patches. Planters, window boxes and balconies begin to fill with blooms purchased at the neighborhood garden center. Birds perform elaborate mating rituals and tiny bits of color peeking out from the tightly wrapped buds of tulips hint at what is still to come as spring tightens it once tenuous grasp. People fill the streets and parks. Heavy winter coats are traded in for light jackets. Later even these are eschewed as the sun climbs in the sky. It is tee shirt weather. Winter white limbs are exposed to the warmth. Once brows, furrowed from the frustration of winters tedium, smooth. Shoulders, hunched for months against the winter cold, relax.

We know it not quite over. There will still be cool nights, perhaps another drenching spring rain. However, at this time, in this place, we are gifted with this sunlit moment to treasure and enjoy.