Red Velvet

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Dion Johnstone as Ira Aldridge, CST

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented an excellent production of Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. The story of the first African American to play Othello on the London state in 1833, the story explores racism. As we know, abolition was a hot issue in the mid-1800s. In England there were protests against the slave trade.

When Ian Keen, who starred as Othello, fell ill the manager of the Covent Garden Theater chose Ira Aldridge, a black actor from America to play Othello. Some in the cast were excited and supportive, but Ian’s son and another actor were strongly opposed.

Aldridge was a fine, thoughtful actor, whose goal was to work in London. He takes his art seriously and gives a passionate performance the first night. However, the critics were shocked to see an actor of African heritage on stage and their reviews were venomous. The manager, Pierre LaPorte is a good friend of Aldridge and he counsels the actor to tone down his performance. Yet we can see that Aldridge can’t rein in his perfectionism. His desire to bring Othello to life as he reads the play leads to disaster. A consummate professional, Aldridge pushes the edges of his performance.

The performances were all pitch perfect and the play was compelling as it showed a chapter of theater history, I wasn’t aware of. The play has been produced in London and New York. If it comes to your hometown, I highly recommend you check it out.

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Virgin Atlantic

From the creative safety video to the actually yummy food, Virgin Atlantic was a joy to fly. I don’t know how I’ll manage with lesser airlines. The crew was genuinely polite and at the end of the flight they thanked us for letting them take care of us.

Amazing. I’ve never felt that American crews enjoyed that. I’ve felt that they put up with the passengers and I cringe when they sharply direct non-English speakers to “Stow your bags!” They don’t seem to realize the problem might be that they use uncommon words like “stow.”

The entertainment selection was vast and there was something for everyone to enjoy. The food, especially the mini strawberry popsicles were tasty.

I definitely aim to be a regular on Virgin.

Grand Concourse

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The Steppenwolf’s Grand Concourse was so promising. Set in a soup kitchen, the play opens with Shelley, a middle=aged nun, who’s been doling out soup probably for decades gives Emma, a 19 year old volunteer, a run down on survival techniques: never give any of the guests money, don’t let the guests — especially Frog — into the kitchen, wash your hands a million times and remember anyone out there in the dining hall could snap at any time. Little does she know that Emma’s the one she should be warning people about. Despite her fragile looks, Emma’s the one who’s more disturbed and more in need than anyone at the soup kitchen. She’s the one not worthy of trust. That’s a lesson, Shelley, Frog and Oscar, a down-to-earth employee take too long to learn. Frog’s looniness is quirky and appealing. Oscar’s dependability and reactions to the other characters make him easy to connect with.

The acting, dialog and set design were top notch, I liked all the characters except Emma, who turns out to be psychotic midway through the show. However. the plot, especially the ending had problems. The young playwright doesn’t seem to understand how people generally change with age so the way Shelley reacts are more in keeping with a 30-something than someone who’s in her 50s. At the end of the play the plot jumps ahead several months, some characters have made big changes in their lives, but it was hard to buy that they really would have changed as they did.

I came away thinking that the writer knew a little about the world of soup kitchens and Catholics, but not all that much. If she’d spent more time investigating these realms, we’d have a better play, a play I could recommend people flock to.

New Restaurant

Perhaps you remember that one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, The Red Door Restaurant, was demolished a year ago. It was sad to watch it get knocked down day by day.

I’d hoped that they’d build a new restaurant, a bigger one on that spot, but alas they didn’t. The neighborhood got a cheap love hotel instead.

Well, last week I was walking home and bumped into the woman who seemed to manage The Red Door. Through pantomime I got her to write down her new place’s address and phone number. I got someone in our Foreign Affairs office to find its location on the Internet. On Saturday I convinced three Australian teachers to give the place a try.

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I’d been told that the place was about a 20 minute walk and I only had a vague idea of where it was so I thought taking a taxi there wo uld be best. Good luck finding one. We waited by school and then by Di Kou Lu and after an hour were still waiting. (It’s always been hard to get a cab at dinner time.) We wound up walking. We zigzagged through the neighborhood right to the west of school, where parts are rather squalid. One friend kept asking whether I knew where I was going. She wasn’t used to the drab, old, concrete buildings in the little hutongs.

We eventually found the new restaurant, with the help of some Chinese people who lived in its neighborhood and had yet to try it.

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We got the famed feng wei qiezi, a dish I’d hoped was spicy chicken with bread pockets, a spicy tofu dish my friends like and broccoli with garlic. The chicken was the only disappointment. I hope I just ordered wrong. My favorite version had pieces of cut chicken without bones. This not only had lots of little bones to be careful of there were chicken feet in it too. Everything else was as good as I remembered.

The familiar employees weren’t on duty that night, but someone must have called the owners because the woman and her not-so-little-anymore girl came to say hello. I’m sure this was the first time foreigners had crossed the threshold of this out of the way eatery.

I had my camera, but forgot to use it till midway through the meal. I do have to go back and see whether I can get the ‘right’ chicken with bread pockets and a few other old favorites. The street is far, but they seem to have a few good restaurants that might be worth a walk.

Review: Westin Miyako

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Zen Garden at Westin

One of the best choices for this trip was to stay for a couple days at the Westin Miyako Hotel in Kyoto in one of their traditional Japanese rooms. Now not everyone wold want to take this step, but I’ve slept on Japanese futons before and know what to expect from a Japanese bathroom.

Staying at the Westin was so convenient. They have a shuttle two blocks from where the airport shuttle stops. I did have to ask the Kyoto Station information desk exactly where the Westin shuttle came, but they spoke very good English and knew that it was close to their office. Since I like to walk, I found the hotel location great as I could walk to several temples, shrines and museums from the hotel.

My room had a genkan, or entry way where people remove their shoes. Inside thDSCN9236

Here was a room with the closet and mini bar, a main room which had a low table and chairs and an alcove (tokonoma) with an ink painting and simple floral arrangement which was changed daily. The floor had tatami mats which smell wonderful and are the reason for “no shoes.” There was a little desk, modern TV, and wifi.

The bathroom was typical for Japan. In one part is the toilet which was heated and had bidet functions. It was chilly in the room in the morning and night as Most Japanese buildings don’t have insulation. The heater was in the main room so it didn’t do much for the bathroom. Then there was the area with the sink, which seemed like it was two feet high. That I could see changing. On the right was the bathroom, which had a wooden tub so small I couldn’t sit “Indian style” let alone stretch out my feet. The main part of the bathroom is for showering. You’ve got a little stool you can sit on, a faucet and shower head. The main rule is NO SOAP in the tub! In Japan you clean yourself outside the tub and by clean yourself, I mean, so that every particle of dirt is off you. A good rule of thumb is that a non-Japanese person should scrub twice as long as they normally would. Then you get in the tub just to soak, to get some serenity.

At night the maids come and set up your futons and pillows. I found the futon comparable to a mattress, not the new fangled Western beads that have toppers and are extra comfy, a mattress that’s a bit old school. It was just fine.

The wing with the traditional room, is by the bird-watching trail and fox shrine so in the morning I woke up to the sounds of birds singing each morning. Also, it’s got a zen garden out front and the trail is a nice short hike.

On Sunday I had their high tea. Great food, great tea. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, but are at a temple in the afternoon, stop by for great pastries, a scone or quiche, and little sandwiches.

The concierges and staff were so efficient.  I got good help with figuring out why my emails to a Japanese friend I had dinner plans with kept bouncing and with figuring out what to do on a rainy day. I’d never have discovered the Chishakuin Temple, which has remarkable paintings in one of its halls.

When I return to Kyoto, I’d definitely stay at the Westin again and I’d book a traditional room for two nights and a regular room for a third night to take a Western style bath.

Hotel Nikko, Review

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I arrived in Japan tonight! My vacation has begun. For my first night I decided to stay by the airport at the Hotel Nikko. The service was so efficient at check in (and through the customs process) that I was in my room 45 minutes after the plane touched down.

While the room isn’t decorated with much flair, it’s nice and modern enough. I just wanted to spend a quiet night and be able to grab a decent meal rather than traveling for almost two hours and then scrounging for food.

After China, where there are no baths, only showers, in bathrooms unless you get a suite, taking a bath was a luxury. I was slightly disappointed, as I always am that there are no little toiletries to take away. They’ve got nice shampoo and body soap, but they’re in big bottles to stay in the room.

I’m happy that I get to watch Dateline London and other BBC news, but that’s the only English language channel. That’s an area where Japanese hotels lag behind.

Peninsula Hotel, Beijing

I know I have more photos . . .

I know I have more photos . . .

For years, since it opened actually, I’ve wanted to stay at the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing. This five star hotel group is outside my price range in the US, Europe or Hong Kong. I’ve considered booking a room in the past, but the rate was usually around $300 and that was just too rich for my blood.

Through Hotels.com I noticed a discount rate of $147 and that I could manage. I stayed there a couple weeks ago. I stayed in the “Deluxe” room for $158 thinking for a little more I could get even more luxury.

Fitness Center

Fitness Center

The room was fine, on par with a Sheraton or Intercontinental hotel. I was satisfied, but also glad I hadn’t paid $300. The decor is sleek and you get cable and a DVD player. There’s free wifi and a good fitness room. The Peninsula offers turn down service though I’m old fashioned and longed for a mint or some sweet on the pillow. The staff was courteous and I had no problems at check in or checking out.

I walked around the hotel and hoped to find a bakery so I could get some scones since the Peninsula Hong Kong’s scones are the best I’ve ever had. They didn’t have such a shop.

I ordered room service, duck confit and key lime pie. The duck disappointed as it was rather salty and dry. The pie was good and all the food was well presented. I guess other duck in China has been much better.