Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Having some Company

Colleague Jeff and I went to see the vaunted production of "Company" over at Playhouse in the Park this evening. We agreed, as did the elderly lady next to me, that it was not the most engaging of plays, although the staging was very impressive. It's sort of a proto-Bridget Jones story, with a male Singleton surrounded by Smug Marrieds. The Smug Marrieds spend most of the show sniping at each other, which became tedious to me almost immediately. The dialogue is "Everybody Loves Raymond" style, delivered with the annoying flourishes of theater: "It was THREE blocks, dahLING!" OK! Shut up! I don't care! By the end of Act I, Jeff and I were both holding up our programs to the light, trying to angle them so we could see how much longer until intermission. I went straight to the bar and downed a dry martini. This made Act II more enjoyable.

Part of the problem, we both agreed, is that the entire premise feels laughably dated to us. Who cares if a 35-year-old is uninterested in marriage? Why would this necessarily upset his three girlfriends? Who has people over for terrace parties anymore? The song "Ladies Who Lunch" is particularly anachronistic; I don't know of anyone our age who "lunches," and certainly none of us wear hats, so Sondheim's little jokey line about nobody wearing hats anymore just drew blanks from us. Maybe as a period piece this would be more effective, although I cherished the chic black-and-white costumes, particularly Marta's shredded fishnet stockings.

The staging was hugely impressive, anyway. Having the actors play the instruments is such a gamble, and they pulled it off seamlessly. I laughed out loud when one actor left his keyboard and another picked up his riff without a pause. We both enjoyed a party scene early in Act II, when the full cast marched around singing and playing. One actress calmly wheeled an upright bass around a crowded stage into place, kicking its stand into position with a high-heeled shoe before starting to play. She didn't miss a beat. Their instruments really were extensions of their bodies. They could've been extensions of their characters, too, if Sondheim had written them any. I know Stephen Sondheim is quite accomplished and beloved, and I love "Send In the Clowns" too, but his stories are nasty vicious little things, full of bitter jokes and leaving you nowhere. Tonight's performers deserved better material.

The wind doth taste of bittersweet...

Like jasper wine and sugar;
I bet it’s blown through others’ feet
Like those of Caspar Weinberger.

--Berke Breathed

RIP to a great name, if not perhaps the most admirable of defense secretaries.

Monday, March 20, 2006

A pox on this snow

I am not pleased about tonight's snow forecast or about the low temperatures in general. All weekend I have been trotting my carnivorous plants out during the day (to harden off) and back inside at night when the temperatures drop to freezing-ish. In North Carolina, where the carnivores are from, it is not this cold. I realize this desolate Northern country cannot be the fair South, but please... let us have some spring.

Today's book: "Bloodline" by someone called Kate Cary. I obtained a free copy of this young-adult vampire novel and read it in the bathrub recently. It was a pleasant surprise. The story traces the second generation after Dracula, merrily killing off Jonathan Harker and sending Mina back to Transylvania for lots of vampirish sex with Dracula's son, Count Tepes. Her kids and various vampire hunters' kids must cope with their heritage. It's all amazingly teenage-angst friendly; we can all relate to the Nice but Boring Alive Guy versus the Hot Vampire Guy struggle. I'm still reading "Tristram Shandy" but have not got much to say about it at this point.

Friday, March 17, 2006

The spirits of the Irish cannot be dampened on St. Patrick's Day

The following is a brief excerpt from an essay by James Thurber entitled "Take Her Up Tenderly." I have it in a book called "Thurber Country" which was copyrighted in 1953.

I have a bone to pick with the singing Andrews Sisters, known to their many friends as the Girls. A few years ago, with the assistance of a man named Hughie Prince, they made up their own version of "Sweet Molly Malone" and had it copyrighted. In this arrangement, Molly does not die or even get sick. The old ballad was public domain, and anybody can do what he wants with Molly, and almost everybody has.

As every barroom quartet knows, the authentic Molly Malone died of a fever, or "faver," and no one could save her, and that was the end of Sweet Molly Malone. It is a well-known fact in Dublin's fair city, and everywhere else, that her ghost wheels her barrow through street wide and narrow, crying "Cockles and mussels alive, alive, O!" The Girls didn't want to sing it that way. I have it on the authority of someone close to them that they don't like anything to be sad or anybody to die. Their song ends like this: "So they both wheel a barrow, through streets wide and narrow, the man that she wed and Sweet Molly Malone." It depressed me terribly when I heard the Girls sing it that way over the air one windy evening in 1950.
The day I heard the Andrews Sisters sing their sanguine version of the old ballad was March seventeenth, and I had thought for a while that the Girls kept Molly alive so as not to dampen the spirits of the Irish on St. Patrick's Day. I took this up with my friend John Aloysius McNulty, who said simply, "The spirits of the Irish cannot be dampened on St. Patrick's Day." I should have known that.

Erin go argh!

Happy St. Patrick's Day, my little leprechauns! Watch out for Warwick Davis.

I started out the day by drinking until 2:30 a.m. and am looking forward to drinking some more. Of course, many days are like that for me. I'm often irked by this holiday because it involves people in annoying green Mardi Gras beads, but at least it's a good opportunity to crank up the Enya and upset the neighbors.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

O, Dougray Scott, where art thou?

I appear to be the only person who saw both "Ever After" and "Mission: Impossible 2," and so I am the only known fan of actor Dougray Scott. This means I'm the only person who's going to be upset by these pictures, from some TV show called "Heist." Dear God! What has happened to this pretty boy? He has suddenly aged ten years, and poorly, a la Judd Nelson. His fetching pout has become a slack jaw. His soft complexion is suddenly pitted. His hair is inexplicably standing straight up. What has happened? Dougray, do you want to talk about it? You can post a comment if you wish. I'll listen.

Monday, March 13, 2006

There's always plenty to see and do in Bulgaria!

If a mysterious, yellowed volume holding only a single woodcut sounds intrinsically exciting, “The Historian” is the novel for you. Vampire tales have always been fetishistic, from Bela Lugosi’s cape to the garlic-’n’-crucifix on back to Vlad the Impaler’s wooden stake. Now Elizabeth Kostova sets the undead to hankering after old books. Vampires spread terror by leaving volumes in library carrels, and her characters uncover Dracula’s trail in dusty old museums and monasteries. Our heroes thrill to the discovery of a couple of letters from a fifteenth-century monk about his wagon trip through Wallachia. They sneak across borders, minutely examine frescoes, and chat up fellow vampire hunters in colorful Turkish cafes, surrounded by exotic sights and smells. Action, mostly, takes a back seat to travelogue. This is Dracula for the “Da Vinci Code” set.

Once you’ve got that figured out, it’s actually a pretty engaging story. Our unnamed main character (a gimmick that always distracts me) is reading her father's records of his hunt for his mentor, who left him his own records of his hunt for Dracula. She's got her own quest, but it unfolds in snippets between old letters and diary pages. It sounds choppy, but Kostova manages to sustain the main narrative thread through all the "source material."

She's a hell of a travel writer, too. Through the generations, the various characters travel to Istanbul, Oxford, Amsterdam, Venice, Budapest, the Pyrenees and the wilds of Bulgaria. Kostova's settings are full of lyrical passages:
"…Morning light hadn’t yet reached the chasm below. Something hung and glinted in the air beneath us, and I realized even before my father pointed to it what it was: a bird of prey, hunting slowly along the pinnacle walls, suspended like a drifting flake of copper."

Kostova's characters are a bit wooden, but so was Jonathan Harker. She wants all her heroes to be perfect world citizens, so they’re very respectful of other cultures – not like that nasty Turk-slayer they’re after. And although they’re well versed in history (though not all of them are actually historians - they're always asking each other things like "How does an anthropologist know so much about medieval lore?"), they constantly express dismay at the atrocities they read about. When Paul learns some of the physical details of impalement, he has to close his book for a second. The modern reader can only think: Sissy.

Kostova’s point, however, is that to these people, the past is immediate. History is being made all around us, and the modern era knows monstrosities as savage as any that’s ever been. The vampire becomes a neat metaphor for the past: it never dies - at least, not until we make ourselves confront it.

Next up: "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," by Laurence Sterne. I gots to read like the wind before the Steve Coogan movie opens here. My friends have accused me of attempting to improve myself with books, so let me just add that I plan to wash Tristram down (ew) with plenty of beer this week.

Today's plant: Hot crocus action in the back yard. They are purple and gold, and doomed. (This hill will be rubble by next spring; I'll try to dig them up but surely won't get them all.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A little early, no?

This morning I was driving through Hyde Park from my doctor's office (ear infection; not serious) to the McDonald's when a gentleman in a red pickup truck decided I wasn't going fast enough. It was interesting. I had stopped for a left turn when he came up hard behind me, so fast I didn't think he was going to stop and pulled forward a bit. After we had both turned, he started leaning on his horn. I pulled over to let him pass and noticed he was an elderly gentleman with a large dog in the front seat. The truck was covered with rust spots and faded bumper stickers saying things like "Law Enforcement For Bush." He went veering off down a side street. I'm pretty sure he was drunk. So here's a hearty good morning to him. I hope he thinks to drink some water before passing out.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

This time, Starbuck is a girl. So is Edward James Olmos! Just kidding.

Just a few words of praise for the new "Battlestar Galactica" - okay, I've only seen the pilot so far, and I'm very late on this. But wow! What a smart show. It's got great action, witty mythological references, sweeping destruction and searing ethical dilemmas - all the best elements of my favorite sci-fi (Star Trek, Greg Bear novels, even Starship Troopers). Yes, I get excited about ethical dilemmas. God, I'm a geek. I love this show. No cable TV in this household, but we do have an uplink to Netflix.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

It's time to start a new life under the sea

Went to Alchemize for the WOXY fundraiser last night. It was quite lovely. I was impressed with the prom decorations (the lobsters were especially darling) and the gorgeous alterna-prom outfits ... everyone looked like an old "Sassy" prom fashion spread. A lot of guys were dressed up: good for you, guys! I have been accused of loving all things prom, and sadly this is probably true. Mostly though I just like events that involve costumes. *pauses to moon over unrealistic wish to attend far-away Edwardian Ball in San Francisco.* Probably the Southern girl in me.

The club was nice - I hadn't been there since it became Alchemize. I'm not sure what the big scare about going downtown is. Parking and walking there was fine, although the block had to be circled a couple times before a good spot revealed itself. The streets were well-lit and fairly well-populated; sure, we got panhandled, but that happens in the business district in broad daylight too. Not everyplace can be the Kenwood Towne Centre, people.

I'll add links when I get home to my nice PC and away from this evil Mac (sorry, gentleman-caller), which won't let me modify type in any way.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


Today's book has been impossible to list for a while. I keep switching around. Here's a summary:

Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser - I've been reading on this for way too long, but it's really three long essays gathered into a book. I'm taking breaks between parts but am on the last one now. It's about obscenity and the lucrative porn trade, and alludes to such local luminaries as Charles H. Keating. This drove me to...

The Story of O by Pauline Reage, classic erotica purchased from the wonderful mail-order catalogue Good Vibrations. The combination of free speech and love slaves is always irresistible. I've only read the first 40 pages or so of "O" but it's very charming... everyone's so French and blase about everything. She has more fun describing the rooms and outfits (down to the exact thickness of the leather collars) than anything else, which is very quaint. I find all the flogging a little unsettling, but chacun a son gout.

As it happens, there's sexual flogging in Julius Caesar; in Act I Antony is instructed to take a whack at Calphurnia during his Lupercal run. Sadly, politics soon take center stage. Still, I enjoyed this reading much more than previous ones. The play is beautifully structured, with the assassination almost exactly in the center of the play, so the entire first half is buildup & the second is fallout. I had forgotten about all the ghosts and lions whelping in the streets of Rome. Great, creepy stuff.

There are also creepy things lurking in Under the Pyramids, a short story ghostwritten by H.P. Lovecraft for Harry Houdini. It's fun to read a Lovecraft story in which the protagonist is not clearly a bookish stand-in for him; he writes convincingly about the awkwardness of being recognized on a train & being made to sign autographs. I wish he'd stepped out of character more under his own name. Spoiler: The ending, in which a giant five-headed monster proves to be nothing more than the monster's merest fore-paw, is hilarious.

More creepiness lies ahead in the vaunted first novel by Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian, which has been loaned to me by two colleagues who both found it long and dull. I am against it going in because they've reissued Dracula with a matching cover, and that just irritates the hell out of me. Dracula is a classic in its own right and does not need to be cutesily matched up with a current bestseller. We shall see.