Sunday, October 29, 2006
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Vote Democratic or the Republicans Will Kill Michael J. Fox
In case you live under a rock in a cave on the Moon, here's a recap: Michael J. Fox, exhibiting extreme side-effects from Parkinson's disease, has appeared in a political ad for Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill that is making the rounds on YouTube. The core message: Fox shares McCaskill's "hope for cures," as opposed to Republican Jim Talent, who "opposes stem cell research." (Bad Jim Talent! Bad!) According to Fox, that unconscionable bastard Talent even "wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope." The ad has inspired international debate, much of it focusing on the fact that Rush Limbaugh had the gall to challenge the facts of the ad as well as the extremity of Fox's apparent symptoms.
Two facts need to be stated right here and now.
One: Limbaugh apologized on-air less than five minutes after suggesting that Fox might be exaggerating his symptoms. (I dare you to find me a news outlet that's reporting that.) He apologized again the next day after Fox clarified that his uncontrollable movements were a result of dyskinesia, a common side-effect of Parkinson's medication. (Try to find that on CNN.com.) He also devoted much of the rest of the week to learning about Parkinson's disease and passing the information on to his listeners.
Two: Fox has admitted in his book and on television with Diane Sawyer that he has, in the past, intentionally over- or under-medicated himself to increase his symptoms for theatrical effect. He most famously did this in 1999 before--surprise surprise--testifying before the U.S. Senate on the subject of embryonic stem cell research. So perhaps Limbaugh needn't have apologized for suggesting that Fox may have done something that he has a track record of actually doing.
This may be the single most repugnant moment in decades of American politics, and it's exactly what Ann Coulter got in so much trouble for attacking a few months ago. The strategy of using ultra-sympathetic figures such as Michael J. Fox, 9/11 widows, and Cindy Sheehan to place a party's issues above criticism is disingenuous at best and diabolical at worst. Hey there, Claire: Are your ideas so bankrupt that you have to trot out a sick celebrity to shill for you? After all, no one gets to tell a vulnerable, sick man that he's wrong; that would be cruel and insensitive. No one gets to accuse Marty McFly of being a liar, right? Only a monstrously evil conservative would do such a thing. This isn't as new as it seems; John Edwards assured voters that if John Kerry was elected President Christopher Reeve would walk again. I wish I was joking.
I love Michael J. Fox. I love his work as an actor; Back to the Future and Family Ties were big parts of my young life. And I greatly respect the progress his foundation has made. But I am completely disgusted by his appearance in this ad, and I can't imagine spending money on his films any time soon.
So let's put the manipulative emotional appeal aside and look at the facts for a minute. First of all, there is no evidence that embryonic stem cell research holds the key to curing Parkinson's or paralysis, only speculation. Secondly, other approaches, such as adult stem cell research, have yielded very promising results. In fact, Fox's foundation has spent $1.9 million pioneering a new gene therapy treatment at a Chicago hospital that may reduce Parkinson's symptoms by as much as 40%. Thirdly, the science that Jim Talent wants to "criminalize" is not stem cell research at all: it's human cloning, which is illegal almost everywhere in the world.
But that's not the message of the ad. The message of the ad is this: Only Democrats care about disease. Only Democrats care about Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and spinal paralysis. Republicans don't care if you get hurt or sick or die. Talent isn't just against hope, he's against even "a chance for hope." Only Democrats offer you hope. A vote for the left is a vote for hope!
"Disingenuous" is too small a word. "Reprehensible" is getting warmer. "Completely and utterly disgusting" is four words, but it will have to do.
Isn't disease something we can all agree that everybody is against? Are we so convinced that the American people are a race of drooling couch potatoes that we don't even TRY to win elections based on the value of our plans and ideas any more? Do we not see that the more we cater to the lowest common denominator in this most crucial of social interactions, the more the bar descends? Television isn't rotting this country's mind away, our duly elected leaders are.
There's another way to look at the real message of this ad: by following the money trail. A wealthy husband and wife have provided 97% of the funds supporting the stem cell research proposal in Missouri. James and Virginia Stowers, both cancer survivors, have contributed $25.5 million to the cause. Their Stowers Institute for Medical Research is a Kansas City non-profit organization seeking to prevent and cure diseases through gene research. An admirable goal. However, it should be noted that the $25.5 million they have spent on this political campaign is $1.5 million more than Great Britain has spent on Parkinson's disease research since 2004. I have to say, using $25.5 million that could have been spent on research grants to get a Constitutional amendment passed sounds far more like a political or financial stake than medical research to me.
This is not about legalizing or criminalizing embryonic stem cell research, which is legal and ongoing. It's about assigning Federal funding to lines of research that private investors won't touch because they would rather put their money in other areas which have shown promise and verifiable results. In other words, the private sector, responsible for almost every significant medical advance of the past century, isn't terribly interested in embryonic stem cell research because they have very little reason to believe it will yield any results.
Capping it all is Fox's insistence this week that he thinks the issue of research funding should be "bipartisan." He said, "You know what? I don't really care about politics." REALLY? Then why are you only coming out making commercials in an election year, and only for Democrats? If you're going to lie to me, Mr. Fox, at least come up with something remotely plausible.
And finally: Here in Virginia, we have the choice of all choices: Vote for Republican George "Macaca" Allen, who may or may not have used the N-word thirty years ago, or Democrat James Webb, who wrote novels including sexually explicit material involving under-aged sex, talented strippers (if you don't already know, you don't want to), and a father placing his son's member in his mouth, as well as suggesting in writing several years ago that women entered the Naval Academy to have easy access to multiple male sex partners.
What shall we do? Vote for the racist or the sexist?
Wait, you mean there's more to the election than that? These guys have stances on actual issues that could affect my life?
You could have fooled me.
Friday, October 20, 2006
My Big Giant Head
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
"Style Weekly" Reviews "Julius Caesar!"
"[T]he exceptional performances of key cast members raise this 'Julius Caesar' into the realm of notable Richmond Shakespeare productions of the past."
It's a generally very positive review from David Timberline, especially considering the above concluding sentence. But the descriptive words in the title ("Slightly Shaky Caesar") imply much more negative content than the body of the review contains. It's as if I titled my Life Short Call Now review "Cockburn Finally Does Something New."
And dang, my head is huge in that picture.
Monday, October 16, 2006
Album Review: Bruce Cockburn - "Life Short Call Now"
So imagine my complete and utter surprise upon listening to Life Short Call Now, an album that manages to show us several new levels of innovation and creativity from Cockburn while remaining reminiscent of the tenderness of distant memories Further Adventures Of and Humans. Gone is the stridency and harshness of You've Never Seen Everything (an album that I find very difficult to enjoy, despite its containing two of my favorite Cockburn songs ever, "Open" and "Put It In Your Heart"). In its place is some of Bruce's most gentle, understated, and soulful songwriting ever, backed by horns and a 27-piece string section, creating--dare I say it?--a music we have never heard from Cockburn before.
The whole darn album is beautiful, a delight and a surprise coming so soon on the heels of YNSE's hard-eyed self-righteousness. After the languid, strolling journey of the title track, Ani DiFranco adds a luscious, airy flavor to the backup vocals of the more urgent "See You Tomorrow." The album takes a big left turn into the campfire song "Mystery," a simple folk tune that builds vocally and instrumentally into archetypal bliss, completely predictable and delightful all at once. "Slow Down Fast" is the album's pulse-racer, appropriately titled and more than a little reminiscent of "Trickle Down" from YNSE. "Different When It Comes to You" surprises me every time I listen to it; it's perhaps the most typical Cockburn song of the bunch, a mish-mash of "More Not More," "How I Spent My Fall Vacation," and "Someone I Used to Love," but it makes me smile every time anyway. Coming only a year on the heels of the instrumental compilation Speechless, it's no surprise to find Life Short home to three excellent and varied instrumentals, the cheery "Peace March," the haunting "Jerusalem Poker," and the creepy-silly bossa nova that ends the album, "Nude Descending a Staircase."
But it's the album's long, slow drinks of music that have made it my favorite Cockburn song cycle in years. "Beautiful Creatures," "This Is Baghdad," and "To Fit In My Heart" are instantly and easily three of the most affecting songs in Cockburn's catalog.
It's long been a pop cliche that when you can't make the music sound big with your songwriting, you hire the string section to fill in the blanks. The obligatory string wash, especially in contemporary Christian music, usually makes me want to bang my head against the floor just to jar the cheese out of my ears. In this case, though, Cockburn employs the strings expertly, adding deeper emotional levels and counter-melodies, rather than using the strings as an expensive Mellotron. Already-beautiful songs such as "This Is Baghdad" and the achingly gorgeous "Beautiful Creatures" are elevated to transcendence by the 27-piece section.
"Beautiful Creatures" may be the most beautiful song Cockburn has written since "All the Diamonds in the World," and it is made all the more vulnerable by his slightly uncertain falsetto vocals. "To Fit In My Heart" and "Beautiful Creatures" have melody structures and intervals I don't think we've ever heard from Bruce, which would be nothing special if they weren't so hypnotic. "To Fit" lingers on the first note in each phrase well after you think it should have moved on, filling a very slow, monotonous song with tension and drama.
Of course, the signature Cockburn guitar loops are there, deceptively complex little patterns of jazzy chords that sound simple on the record, but prove maddeningly difficult when you try to learn them yourself. But the album lacks his other most singular signature; there are no songs with talking in the verses. Usually Bruce is good for two or three talking songs and one or two instrumentals, but I can only assume that after Speechless his mind is on melody. And of course the musicians he surrounds himself with put in masterful performances, Gary Craig's drums, David Piltch's basses, and keyboards of all kinds from Julie Wolf and John Goldsmith never detracting and always contributing to Cockburn's guitars and vocals. Goldsmith also takes on production duties, a welcome change from the last couple albums, where co-producers Cockburn and Colin Linden squashed the life out of even the good songs. Goldsmith's soundscapes are lush without ever seeming remote, even the string and horn sections sounding as intimate as the acoustic guitars and gently-brushed snare.
Lyrically, Cockburn is still Cockburn, the most gracefully blunt poet-songwriter I have ever come across. He illuminates darkness and expresses the inexpressible; he looks in the mirror, doesn't always like what he sees, and forgives himself (and all of us) with a shrug and a prayer. He continues to address everyday experiences with mercy and tenderness, contrasted with rage for oppressive governments and seething over Iraq. There has never been any doubt where Cockburn's political passions lie, and it can make his music hard to listen to if you're remotely conservative or even centrist. But the sociopolitical content on Life Short Call Now doesn't come across as grating or condescending, unlike You've Never Seen Everything, which I find preachy and alienating. This is an artist's passion for what he believes to be truth, and no one can begrudge it him, especially when he expresses it with such brutal beauty. Even explicitly anti-Bush rants such as the (consecutive) "Slow Down Fast," "Tell the Universe," and "This Is Baghdad" should be at least tolerable to the Hannity fan who likes good songwriting.
So go buy this album. Seriously, go get it. Life Short Call Now may be Cockburn's most magnificent achievement since Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, and it certainly stands strong with the songwriter's best work.
(Mike got it first, by the way.)
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Yet Again With the Audience Behavior
Five minutes. Ten. At fifteen we got into places and gave the house manager leave to bring them in whenever they arrived. This is a little difficult in Second Presbyterian's chapel, because the audience and actors share the same doors for entrances and exits, so the arrival of eight spectators had to be timed for a moment when no actors needed the door.
A full ten minutes into the show, twenty-five after the advertised start time, the group arrived and was let in. Rick and I were alone onstage, my Cassius telling stories of Caesar's human weakness and godlike arrogance. Very slowly, one by one, a stream of high-school-aged young men came into the space, the first two actually beginning to cross the stage we were playing on to get to the other side of seating. One of their older chaperons grabbed them in time to keep them from walking within three feet of actors in the middle of a scene. One by one, each boy noisily found a seat, talking amongst themselves and switching chairs, sometimes two or three times, before settling down.
Perhaps "settling down" isn't the right term. Several of the boys talked incessantly as we performed, un-shushed by the older men with them. Ten or fifteen minutes after their arrival, one of the boys apparently decided he'd had enough. He stood, walked out, and sat sulkily in the hall, eventually followed by three or four companions. One of their chaperons came out to join them, and thankfully led them away from the hall where actors were making quick changes and entrances from. By intermission, a group of about ten had only four members in the theatre, the remaining half dozen sulking impatiently near the door to the building. By the beginning of act two, the entire group had left.
Let me quote Foster Solomon here:
WE. ARE. NOT. TELEVISION. Emphasis mine.
You can see me, I can see you. You can hear me, I can hear you. What I do on stage affects you, and what you do in the audience affects me. When your behavior disrupts the show, it disrupts the other members of the audience, and it sure as hell disrupts the performers. I didn't drop any lines or miss any cues, but I sure came close, and my focus was completely crocused for most of the first act.
So I am torn here. I am glad, especially after yesterday's post, for any audience to come to see me, and for any audience to come to see Shakespeare. I want everyone to come see this show, I really do. We pride ourselves in being a "populist" Shakespeare company, far more interested in bringing the Bard to the people than in exploring the lofty heights of its literary whatever (though of course we endeavor to do something of both). But these boys came in with looks on their faces as if seeing this show was equivalent to raking the yard. Sitting through Julius Caesar was a chore, they had decided, and they made darn sure their friends knew they thought it was stupid. And their chaperons apparently decided that sitting in the theatre with them was the end of their involvement (though I'm very thankful for the gentleman who kept an eye on the boys in the hall).
If I had been told ahead of time that this audience would arrive late, enter disruptively, talk through the show, exit disruptively, wander the halls, and then leave at intermission, would I have made the rest of the audience wait a quarter hour for the start of the show? Or, if I want to be truly honest with myself, would I have even wanted these kids to come to the show at all?
The remainder of the audience was very appreciative, and many stuck around afterward to chat with the cast. Among these was a group of teenage girls, younger than the boys, who were model audience members, giving and taking the energy of the show at every moment. I'm glad they didn't have their night as badly marred as I did.
Friday, October 13, 2006
Richmond.com Reviews "Julius Caesar."
"By breaking the "fourth wall" of their theatrical world, the Richmond Shakespeare players provide an interesting connection between patron and performer where it is not uncommon to feel as though you are in the play itself. "
"[Terry] Gau's ability to jump from one character to the next within varying emotional levels truly helps to carry the play throughout many of its impulsive pushes and pulls with ease and passionate intrigue."
"[Rick] Blunt's approach to his characters, the strongest being his role as Brutus, succeeds due to his subtle approach to the emotional world of each persona.... Blunt is good at bringing intensity to the important contemplative moments throughout the play through his softer side. "
If an Actor Plays Alone in the Forest, Is It Still Theatre?
So you want to be a theatre star? Well listen now to what I say. Just get yourself an exciting script and find a stage and learn how to play.
The highs are sky-high and the lows are Marianas-Trench-low right now, folks, so bear with me as I revel and vent.
Julius Caesar opened a week ago, the first review was very complimentary, and I personally think it may be the best work Richmond Shakespeare has ever done on a tragedy. Rick Blunt’s Brutus is transparently honest and noble, and continues to trust and love Cassius even as he is led to destruction. Thomas Nowlin’s Caesar contrasts dignity and arrogance with telling moments of human weakness. Jeff Schmidt’s Antony is a master manipulator, the embodiment of the cult of personality. Terry Menefee Gau’s three women (Portia, Calpurnia, and Casca) give the play depths of sadness, sensuality, and genuine romance than I thought the script could contain. (I hear that Hamm guy is okay, too.)
I hadn’t read Julius Caesar since high school, and my memory of the play was that I had really liked it, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember why. My first read-through to prepare for auditions reminded me of much of it, but never in a million years would I have thought that a production of Julius Caesar could be dynamic and sexy. This show is both, in spades. Three cheers for our fearless leader, Master of Play James Alexander Bond. Holla!
However, the audiences for the downtown season continue to be depressingly small. Granted, they’re bigger than last year’s, but not by as much as I was hoping. Eleven very enthusiastic people, none of whom I knew, gave us a standing ovation on Saturday evening, and four stuck around afterward to applaud each individual actor as they exited the dressing room. I’ve never seen anything like it. Now I don’t do the shows for curtain calls and applause; I actually loathe curtain calls, find them awkward and embarrassing, and would abolish them if I could. But the audience is half of the theatrical paradigm, and when they wish to give something back after receiving from the actors all evening, the least I can do is receive their gift graciously. And one of these four gave me one of the best gifts I’ve ever received as an actor. He said, “I’m ashamed for this city that there aren’t more people here to see this show.”
While that’s one heck of a compliment, I can’t help but feel somewhat distressed by it. Case in point: the Training Department I have been giving blood sweat and tears for since July. September’s workshop in Character Voices had a fairly strong showing of seven participants despite a pretty small amount of promotion. October’s workshop in Stage Combat, a very popular topic, was lucky to scrape together three students despite being listed on RAPT’s website, ComedySportz’s website, and the Virginia Actor’s Forum. It was included in emails to every high school English and Theatre teacher in the area. It was even referenced in “On the Aisle” in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday. All that and three students.
The next evening, Wednesday, was to have been the first night of a six-week acting class for which I had six students reserved. Six is a great size; three pairs for each project, and lots of time for one-on-one work. Three showed up. Everything I had designed for the class was going to take a minimum of four students to work, so I sent them home. I’m trying to re-arrange things to accommodate three, but once again, this was listed in all of the above locations, all for three students.
It’s depressing enough that this affects my livelihood and my dreams, blah blah blah. But what’s really killing me is this: Is this all the interest this town has? Is three students and eleven audience members all Richmond can muster?
I don’t stay in Richmond as an artist and teacher because I couldn’t make it in bigger towns, I stay in Richmond because I feel a sense of mission. New York doesn’t need excellent, dedicated artists; it has plenty, I assure you. It’s communities like Richmond that are in the most desperate need of artists committed to excellence in art and education; it’s the smaller ponds that need bigger, better fish. The more institutions like Theatre IV, Barksdale, and the Firehouse, the more artists like Scott Wichmann, Erin Thomas, and Ford Flannagan, the better. But it doesn’t amount to very damn much if no one in town is coming out.
I just want to run into the streets and cry out, Darn it, Richmond! You have a living, breathing theatrical community in your town and you’re at home watching “Project: Runway!” Just Tivo the darn TV shows and come out for dinner and a play! Good night, Richmond Ensemble. Curtains down, Theatre Virginia. What’s playing tonight at Regal Short Pump?
I miss Susan Sanford and Foster Solomon, but I can not find it in my heart to condemn them for leaving town. Richmond, make sure you enjoy the excellent artists who are creating theatre in your town, because the way things are going, they’ll be leaving for New York and LA soon.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
First Review of "Julius Caesar" Is In!
Susan Habenstock says:
Small but mighty - that's the cast of Richmond Shakespeare's production of "Julius Caesar," which opens the company's second winter season at Second Presbyterian Church downtown.
In its accustomed style, Richmond Shakespeare is playing the great tragedy with just five actors, and they are five excellent ones.
Returning after his fine Othello last winter is Thomas Nowlin as Caesar (and in eight other roles as well). Like his castmates under Master of Verse Grant Mudge, Nowlin speaks beautifully, and his quiet power in the title role is striking.
The experienced Shakespearean Rick Blunt plays five roles, most important that of Brutus, to which he brings great feeling. We can truly see his nobility, his inner conflicts and his morality.
The wonderful Terry Menefee Gau plays Calpurnia and Portia and nine other roles, the most stunning of which is Casca. Though Casca is a man in history as well as in the drama, Gau's Casca is decidedly a woman, and in fact a wild temptress.
Master of Play (director) James Alexander Bond stages her scene with Cassius as an outright seduction, and it works amazingly well.
As Cassius, Andrew Hamm turns in another strong, sharp performance. In his six other roles he is clownish or mild, as the situation calls for. But as Cassius he makes physical the "lean and hungry look," thrusting his head forward and seemingly sharpening all his features, his hands all angles. Vocally he is a master, pelting us with rapid-fire dialogue and perfect diction.
The real revelation here, though, is Jeff Schmidt, in his first role (well, his first eight roles) with the company.
His Antony starts out quietly, but by the time he delivers Caesar's funeral oration he has mastered the audience, using his voice as a weapon against Brutus, raising and lowering its volume and power with precision.
This performance makes the events that follow seem all the more inevitable, as Antony overpowers and defeats the forces of Brutus and Cassius.
Bond physically stages the action laterally in a lovely long, rectangular Tudor room. This enhances movement and action and creates opportunities for riveting eye contact between actors and audience. But the speech echoes a bit, making some passages difficult to hear.
Rebecca Cairns' costumes are atmospheric, not of the period, and most effective. The men are dressed mainly in a contemporary paramilitary style, and Gau has multiple quick-change elements that vary her attire.
Bond employs the costumes creatively; when he has them stand in for slain Romans, the stagecraft is magical.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
"Julius Caesar" October 5-28
The show is directed by James Alexander Bond and features Rick Blunt, Terry Menefee Gau, Andrew Hamm, Thomas Nowlin, and Jeff Schmidt.
Shows are Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 with an additional 2:00 matinee on Saturdays. Our theatre is in the chapel at Second Presbyterian Church, in downtown Richmond at 5 N. 5th Street. Free parking in our adjoining garage.
Go to www.richmondshakespeare.com for details and ticket information.
Election year's a killer.
Come Play with Richmond Shakespeare in October!
Basics of Stage Combat!
with Rick Blunt
Tuesday, October 10, 2006, 7:00-9:30 PM
Second Presbyterian Church (5 North 5th Street)
The Master Class series continues with certified actor/combatant Rick Blunt’s crash course in unarmed stage combat. Participants will learn and practice essential elements of unarmed stage combat: punches, slaps, kicks, falls, chokes, and grabs. Wear clothes and shoes you can move in, bring drinking water, and warm your body up.
Instructor Rick Blunt is a certified actor/combatant and veteran Shakespearean performer. He recently received his Masters Degree and MFA in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance this past May from Mary Baldwin College. Rick has appeared as as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, The Duke of York in a conflation of the Henry VI plays, Pistol / Exeter in Henry V, and Hubert / Essex in King John, Antiochus / Boult in Pericles, as well as participating in understudy work for The Resident Troupe for the American Shakespeare Center. Rick is currently playing Brutus in the Richmond Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, running October 5-28.
15 participants maximum. Age 16+. Younger students (14-15) may be permitted with teacher recommendation. The cost is a mere $10.00!
Participants must send in or bring a completed Student Registration Form, available on our website. If you have participated in a previous workshop or class, we will have a registration form on file, and a new one is not required.
with Andrew Hamm
Wednesdays from October 11-November 15, 2006, 7:00-9:30 PM
at Second Presbyterian Church (5 North 5th Street)
Richmond Shakespeare’s new Training Department kicks off the new school year with the company’s inaugural course of intensive weekly acting classes. Essentials of Stage Acting will incorporate elements of modern acting techniques adapted and evolved from Konstantin Stanislavski’s revolutionary ideas. A great course for interested beginners, the class is also designed to work as a refresher for more experienced actors who wish to go back and remind themselves of the basics. Also great for teachers working with young actors. Working with open scenes, monologues, and scenes from plays, students will learn to use warm-ups, focus exercises, scene missions, scoring of actions and text analysis to create three-dimensional characters and vibrant scenes.
Instructor Andrew Hamm, Richmond Shakespeare’s Director of Training, is a veteran actor, teacher, and playwright with experience Off-Off-Broadway, on tour, and regionally. His background runs the gamut from Shakespeare to musicals to contemporary plays to ensemble-generated work to concert performances. He received his BFA in Acting from VCU in 1996, returning to earn an MFA in Theatre Pedagogy in 2005. Andrew is currently playing Cassius in the Richmond Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, running October 5-28.
12 participants maximum. Age 16+. The cost is $125.00 for the six-week course.
Participants must send in or bring a completed Student Registration Form, available on our website. If you have participated in a previous workshop or class, we will have a registration form on file, and a new one is not required.
Go to www.richmondshakespeare.com for more details and registration forms!