Advertisements

Company

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 1.31.43 PMI had no idea when I went to Northwestern’s production of Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, that the story was famous. I actually thought that the musical would be about corporate America. I wasn’t adverse to different subject matter though.

The performers were remarkable, which is usually the case at Northwestern. They got the songs pitch perfect and every step of each dance was on the money.

However, the story itself seemed dated. I couldn’t put my finger on which decade the story was from, but I guessed the 80’s. (I was just off by a decade it was the 70s). Company is about Bobby, a man, who’s just turned 35 and he’s still single, while all his friends are married. These couples are devoted to Bobby and inviting him to their homes seems to be the peak of their social lives. I couldn’t get over how much they cared about Bobby and how much they worried that he was still single. At a certain point, I’d expect people to move on. It wasn’t like Bobby had cancer or a family tragedy that meant people should focus on him so much.

Bobby wasn’t an especially interesting person. He didn’t have an interesting job. In fact we didn’t know what work he did. He wasn’t hilariously funny, or especially generous or active. He had no special expertise. He was just a guy. He had three girls whom he dated, but he didn’t have a particular interest in one. He didn’t criticize these women, but he was lukewarm about them, just as he was lukewarm about every other facet of life.

The friends follow what I call the “Little Women” characterization model. Each person has their own talent, problem or outlook that defines them. One woman’s neurotically afraid of getting married to her live in boyfriend. That boyfriend is very patient. One woman controls her husband’s drinking and does judo. That husband has been caught driving drunk. We don’t know much of anything about these stereotypical characters. I suppose that’s the case with musicals and often opera, little or no character complexity or change, but great music.

I have a hard time with plays or books where the hero is indecisive start to finish, where he or she is wishy washy or noncommittal. I realize that’s a very modern attitude, but I don’t need to spend two hours putting my life on hold and watching someone who’s a wet noodle.

The ending was particularly disappointing. It’s hard to fathom how this play won seven Tony Awards, except that it came out in the 1970s and then it might have been innovative. Now, even with updates like cell phone use, it’s ho hum. Marriage, while on the decrease, is still a big part of life and debates on its merits are nothing new.

So I can’t recommend this show, which plays through Nov. 19th.

Advertisements

Rigoletto

Quinn-Kelsey_RIGOLETTO_95_c.Andrew-Cioffi-1024x683

I was lucky to get $20 Lyric Opera tickets, on the main floor no less, to see Verdi’s Rigoletto. The Lyric Opera Chicago hosts College Nights upping their game from the previous years, which offered $20 tickets but no extras. For College Night undergrads and graduate students were invited for sandwiches and soft drinks at 5:30 followed by a talk by the Technical Director.

The Technical Director’s talk was fascinating. We learned how the shows are selected a couple years in advance. After that the set designers design a model of the sets, which are then finished the summer before the opera season. In the summer, all the sets for the season are set up and the lighting is arranged and saved in a computer.

Since opera singing is so exhausting performers can’t sing day after day. So different shows are shown in repertory. This means the sets have to be changed every day. One day Rigoletto, the next Die Walküre, the next The Pearl Fishers. The space at Lyric is able to store the other days’ sets in space above the current set and it takes 4 hours, on a good day, to set up the day’s set. We also learned about the special certification needed to oversee open flames, when that’s needed for an opera. The certification is the same as needed to oversee an oil rig.

After this talk there was the usual pre-opera talk in the theater. This was outstanding as usual. We learned about how the story for Rigoletti came from Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, a play that was censored and closed after one performance, because it showed a licentious king. Verdi changed the king to a duke to be safe. Northern Italy was governed by Austria and they didn’t mind seeing an Italian duke made a fool of. While writing the opera, Verdi was quite secretive. He realized that the most familiar song from the opera, X would be a success. He wouldn’t allow the singer who was to sing it to take the music home with him.

As you’d expect the singing was divine. The story is about a court jester, Rigoletto, who gets in trouble for mocking the nobles and duke, which is his job. To get revenge, the nobles mistakenly kidnap his daughter who’s fallen in love with the philandering duke whom she met at church. She thinks he’s a penniless student, not a womanizing duke. The end is harsh and hinges on mistaken identity. I’ll write my thoughts below in the more section so there’s no spoilers.

The only criticism I have for this production is the set. Rigoletto’s home looks like a prison on the inside. Floor to ceiling, the rooms are concrete blocks with a concrete slab as the only furnishing. The stairs have metal handbags and are prison-like. Now Gilda is captive there so maybe the prison look was intentional. I thought it was just ugly. It’s a minor complaint.

More

The Collection

I gave Masterpiece’s The Collection a try when it premiered on Sunday. It didn’t take long for me to grow tired of a program where the characters all seemed dark, greedy and selfish. I confess after 10 minutes or so I changed the channel.

The show is about a struggling fashion house in Paris after WWII. The man in the center of the video’s first frame is the jaded, selfish owner of a fashion house is asked by a government official to help France’s fashion industry rise again to its former zenith.  To his left is his reprobate brother who’s a talented designer who’s got substance abuse problems.

I’d much rather PBS brought back The Paradise, where the characters were flawed and faced obstacles, but the heroine was good, though not at all boring. Dark characters like those in House of Cards or The Collection aren’t necessarily fascinating.

If I got the show wrong, and should give it a chance by catching up online, let me know.

The Who Café

I’d seen 3D latte art in Taipei on Instagram so when I visited I asked my hotel to suggest where I could find a café that offers it and they came up with The Who Café which is a couple blocks from the Taipei 101 MRT station, exit 2. It’s hard to find as it’s on the second floor and the stairs are between a garage and a cake shop.

IMG_20170622_152025

When I went there, I passed it the first time I went up the street. I did find it, but didn’t know they didn’t open till 11:00 am so my plan for breakfast there was out. (I wound up going back up the street to a Starbucks.)

Later in the day I returned and got the cat latte above. I got the brown sugar latte which was sweet but not too sweet. The Who Café is best to visit when you’re not in a hurry because the artful lattes do take time and it also seemed like the staff wasn’t all that organized. So though I had to leave in a rush, I would go back and was happy with my drink.

Weekend in Tianjin

I had a lovely weekend in Tianjin, though I wouldn’t call the city a “must-see.” It offers a few fine sights so a weekend is certainly enough, but I really went because it’s the one place close by that I haven’t been to.

We arrived Friday night around quarter to nine. It was eas enough to find the taxi queue but finding an honest driver was another story. Since there’s a queue you get whom you get. Our driver first tried to get us to pay 200 rmb and forego the meter, but we have been around enough to know for whose advantage that would be. We had to go from Tianjin South station to right by the Tianjin Eye, the world’s largest Ferris wheel sitting on a bridge. It is quite a distance, but not a 160 rmb drive. On return it cost 60 rmb. (Even if there’s a night surcharge it’s not that high.)

Our first day we went to the Tianhao Temple, which is located in a nice Chinese Ancient Street with Qing dynasty architecture and lots of crafts and food stalls. If I worked for some Chinese tourism board here, I would launch a campaign to get higher quality, more unique offerings for prospective shoppers. That’s lacking in these venues which are pretty much the same from town to town.

We decided to walk to the Wudadao district where the French and British concession were in the 19th century. The walk took a few hours, but the day was nice and the conversation pleasant. If we wanted we could have hopped on the subway or a bus.

Along the way we saw the China House, which is known for the shards of pottery embedded in the concrete gates and walls. It’s gloriously tacky. Since the Lonely Planet said the interior wasn’t worth seeing, we decided not to spend the $10 or so going inside.

In Wudadao we found the new plaza, which is actually just a small shopping center encircling the track that Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, designed. We later found the site of his home, but weren’t impressed with the new building they’ve erected there.

On Sunday I chose to go up in the Tianjin Eye, the world’s fourth tallest Ferris Wheel with two of my friends. Had I known the wait would be two and a half hours, I probably would have gone with the others to explore the city more. Anyway, eventually we got through the line and the view was breathtaking. We lucked out on getting a clear day. I wouldn’t bother going on a day with the usual pollution.

We stayed at the Tianjin Riverside Holiday Inn, which was a fine choice. The rooms are modern and well equipped. We had a few hiccups though they were all worked out. There were five of us, three women and a married couple. I booked the room for the three women with IHG Rewards points. The room was large enough for three according to the website. Our first night the third person was delayed due to work, but I confirmed with reception that we would be three and we’d need a third bed the next night. No problem.

Radio Lab: Parasites and More

If you like to learn, even if you’re not particularly scientific, give Radio Lab from NPR a try. Today, like any that I listen, I learned heaps about a topic I’d never even think of. This time that topic was — parasites.

Yes, parasites. Not something we hear about on the daily news or in school or in conversation.

Listening to Radio Lab today, I came to respect, yes, respect parasites and the scientists who study them.

Here’s a bit that I learned that parasites like hookworm caused lethargy in the 19th Century South, which is said to explain in large measure economic slow down, that blood flukes can live in your system for 40+ years and eventually make you sick, and they’re monogamous. And that a parasite that thrives in cats can brainwash a rat it might have wound up in driving rats to fall in love with cats and as a result most likely wind up eaten so that the parasite is back at home in a cat. These parasites can also get in people and cause havoc. Some think there’s a relationship between schizophrenia and cats because after people started keeping cats as pets, schizophrenia became more common.

Parasites can be good. Good parasites are getting wiped out, and new diseases like Crohn’s disease have become common as sanitation has wiped out both good and bad parasites.

I’m not making this up. I came away thinking that nature is just astounding.

You can try Radio Lab here and choose a podcast on such topics as: color, synchronicity, time, God and many more. The tone, music and narrative used in these programs makes it fascinating.

A Night to Remember

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

A Night to Remember (1958) is a disaster film with dignity. It lacks the sentimental love story, which was central to Titanic, but that’s why it’s a better film. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the film shows the swells enjoying the high life and the boisterous fun below in steerage mixed in with the misplaced wire messages about the iceberg and the frustrating refusal of nearby ship called the California to believe the Titanic’s distress messages.

The film shows people of all sorts, some willing to help their fellow passengers and others who’ll kick and claw their way into a lifeboat. The film weaves the facts in so you don’t feel like it’s a history lecture. You root for the characters all the while knowing most won’t make it. When the boat starts tilting so much that it’s at a 45° angle, you feel dreadful. Still the film is rather emotionally restrained, much more so than the more recent film with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Criterion Collection offers a good essay on the film here.

Lyric’s Bel Canto

BEL-CANTO_IMG_4344_c.Andrew-Cioffi-1-980x600

Chicago’s Lyric Opera is now showing Bel Canto, a new opera based on Ann Patchett’s novel about the hostage situation in Peru in the 199o’s. Patchett added to the real event by creating a cast of characters, adding some romance and cross-cultural lessons.

Bel Canto takes place in Peru when the Vice President has throws a party for an important Japanese business man who’s a big opera lover. Soprano Roxane Cox, Mr. Hosokawa’s favourite singer, will perform. Thus the opera opens with the excited arrival of guests to a once in a lifetime event.

Yet early on the mood is transformed when guerrilla soldiers storm the mansion and take everyone inside hostage. Like the real event, the guests are held hostage for 4 months. During that time, romances blossom, cultural barriers crack and crumble.

Except for the very end, the opera follows the plot of the novel. I thought the music was wonderful, but some lyrics were too mundane such as a the piece between a rebel woman and a translator who’re in love. When they’re in the kitchen for some private space, they sing of pots and pans and saltshaker and amor. It didn’t work for me. All in all, Bel Canto is an accessible opera that fans of the novel will enjoy, especially if the composer goes back and makes some of the lyrics more poetic rather than mundane.

Also, the audience doesn’t get as intimate a sense of the characters as we did with the book. Now, of course, opera is a different art form, but great operas masterfully communicate the desires and thoughts, Bel Canto can too.

Readers, PBS’ Great Performances taped the opera when I was there so you don’t have to spend $50-289 to see it. Even though there were some rough spots, it’s well worth watching on TV.

More reviews

Safe & Sound blog
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Wall St. Journal

 

 

CSI: Cyber Crime, Review

This image was downloaded from Serienjunkies.de

I caught this new CBS show when I was in Beijing. The plot was cookie-cutter and predictable. The character’s emotions were flat and simplistic. There was really little suspense and I pitied the actors in this franchise. Were they promised better writing?

In this episode the FBI Cyber team discovers that an evil computer genius has tampered with the airport outlets where people can charge their electronic devices. It’s called juice jacking, when the devices not only get charged but all the data is copied and sent to the criminal. In this story, starring Patricia Arquette, shortly after their data’s stolen, victims received a message instructing them to send $200 to an account or all their data would be put on the internet.

It’s a nefarious crime. I suppose each week, viewers learn about the multitude of ways they can be victimized via cyber criminals. There’s definite potential for drama, but the flat-footed characters would be hard to watch each week.

Chronicle of a Summer

chronicle-of-a-summer

I’d heard the term “cinema verite” and like many wrongly thought that referred to a film that’s extremely realistic. It turns out that’s not exactly right. For my classic movie resolution, I watched Chronicle of a Summer by the inventors of cinema verite, two French sociologists. Cinema verite is a sociological film that forces people to come to the truth. Released in 1961, captured on black and white film, which adds a filter of reality that color couldn’t strangely enough, Chronicle of a Summer sets out to prompt real people to come in contact with truth through interviews and discussions that begin with the simple question: Are you happy? The directors behind the film are Jean Rouch, an engineer turned ethnological filmmaker who mainly worked in Africa and Edgar Morin, a sociologist based in Paris.

With two directors, the film does have two distinct moods. Viewers can feel when the somber, analytical Morin is in charge or when the more playful Rouch has the reins. The film begins with a woman agreeing to interview people on the street asking subjects whether they’re happy. It turns out that in Paris in 1960 few were. Still the film gets under your skin. Though neither director has gone to film school, the creative shots grabbed me and did feel very real. At times the film just shows people, working in a factory, eating lunch, walking down a street. They’re shown in their individualism in a way that’s compelling and fresh. I liked some of the subjects more than others. For the most part, the subjects came off as sincere and they presented a snapshot of life in 1960. I found the ending simple and powerful. Rouch and Morin gather their subjects for a screening of the film followed by a discussion. We hear their reactions whether they thought some people were exhibitionists or authentic, whether the whole endeavor was true to life or indecent. People were honest and through this scene were elevated beyond just being “performers” or “subjects” to being co-creators. Chronicle of a Summer is a Criterion Collection film and as usual features some worthwhile bonuses. The best was an insightful interview with Faye Ginsberg, who worked with Jean Rouch after he made this film.

Previous Older Entries

Disclaimer

Dear Fellows, The State Department has requested that any Fellows who maintain their own blog or website please post the following disclaimer on your site: "This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State." We appreciate your cooperation. Site Meter
%d bloggers like this: