Monday, May 12, 2008

A theater review, some liberated daffodils, and much digression

Thursday was one of those days which kinda-sorta evoked a feeling of culture and sophistication, because our evening should have been filled with it. We didn't get a full-on filling of sophistication and culture, but we did get a good hearty dose, at least. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I do enjoy the whole culture and sophistication thing from time to time, but somehow, I am simply unable to pull it off correctly, or prolong it with any level of credibility. Whenever I have plans that involve culture, I feel like The Great Pretender, the little girl on Halloween, playing dress-up.

And, really, it's for the best. My life is overrun by cats; I read a lot, but recently, have been (contentedly) stuck in the autobiographic "graphic novel" genre (not "graphic" in the sense of "pornographic," but rather [autobiographical] novels that are written in comic book format). Here's one of my favorites. And here's another recent favorite. I love a wide array of music, even plenty of "cultured," stuff, but these days, some of my favorite musicians are the wild-eyed, borderline sociopathic, fully nerdy, yet superbly-skilled piano players who often punctuate the end of a musical phrase with some sort of wrestling move that involves an elbow and the forearm, and perhaps a foot, and approximately 44 keys of the piano, while sustaining the f-word, sincerely, and loudly, and on pitch, for upward of 60 seconds (depending on whether it's a live or studio performance) and it doesn't offend my sensibilities (maybe because I have so few); a fine example of this sort of music is here, and I fully recommend viewing it at full volume (warning: some cussin', though most of it is bleeped, in case you're at work). At home, we often eat dinner without proper attire, and on occasion, in front of the television; and speaking of dinner, my favorite food — despite the fact I love most anything as long as it does not involve mayonnaise or large hunks of mammal flesh (small bits of mammal are fine) — is grilled cheese. Served with a good pickle and some potato chips. Ideally, afterward, cookies (preferably chocolate chip) will be available. Yum!

So, Thursday. We were invited to help a neighbor do some gardening — cultured, right? — and afterward, Glen and I would be headed over to the Mill Hill Playhouse for the Passage Theatre Company's production of Cecilia's Last Tea Party. VERY cultured! I was excited! We made the plans several days prior, and I never checked to see what the show was about. It was irrelevant to me, since an evening at the theater is a treat in my world. But Glen was curious, so before we headed over to the neighbor's yard for a bit of gardening, Glen found a plot summary online, and I'm sorry to say, he nearly blew a gasket. "Did you know we're going to see an f-ing puppet show?" he bellowed? "AN F-ING PUPPET SHOW!! No one likes puppet shows. How the F did we get roped into this?" And then, like one of my favorite musicians, he sustained the f-word at a loud volume for a long duration. Glen has a talent in that regard, truly.

As much as I admire Glen's passion for the arts, and his ability to convey an emotion so well with just one word, time was getting away from us, and we had to get to L's house, to help out in her garden, so I encouraged him to shut up about the show, and focus on our task at hand. I'm very practical like that. Now, some back story: our little gardening adventure across the street is not the stuff of art and color and heady, perfume-laden flowerlust. L has been asking us for more than a year to dig up her daffodils, and our task was akin to a prison camp liberation, rather than any kind of shared moment with beautiful nature. The cheery, yellow, early spring harbingers of hope apparently were the bane of L's existence, and she thought about their removal and/or demise very, very often, for many, many months. When she asked us last year to dig up her bulbs, I suggested we wait a few more weeks until the flowers die (they were in delightful bloom when she asked us to take them), and then wait still, for the green stalks die back too, so the bulbs had the best chance to get as much nourishment as possible. She agreed. But we all got busy, and I guess, time took its toll on the pesky daffodil flowers, and a bit later, the pesky foliage, and they died back. L was able to look out at her little patch of urban lawn and have an uninterrupted view of grass, and all was okay in the world. Until spring happened this year, that is.

As soon as the daffodils began to emerge, she called us weekly to ask us to dig them up; she pleaded; she reminded us nearly every other day that her daffodils needed to be gone, and soon. So by last Thursday, we could wait no more. She literally came out of her back door with a spray bottle labeled "weed killer" in her own writing, as we arrived in her yard with our gloves and tools. "Oh, perfect timing!" she said, "I was just gonna use this on those daffodils, but now that you're here, I'll spray it on something else instead." She said she preferred a more natural approach to killing flora — like vinegar or boiling water — but she hated to see her poison go to waste. Understandable, of course. I should mention that I didn't notice any weeds in her meticulous — if small — lawn; just four bearded irises, about to explode in breathtaking bloom, which I had given her two summers ago after my mother had dug up and divided her own beds of irises.

L sprayed the contents of the bottle around the yard nonetheless, while Glen first used a shovel to try to work out the very established, naturalized daffodil clumps, many of which were up against a foot-high concrete abutment of sorts at the edge of the property. The concrete posed a challenge with our tools, so he had to sit on his bum, and work out the bulbs with his hands, and these daffodils must have known the constant danger they were in and had wiggled themselves into the chunks of rock and cement at the abutment. Glen's mood was already questionable because of our plans to see the "f-ing puppet show," and only grew more sour as he loosened the soil around the bulbs, gave the greens a good, solid pull, and came up, time and time again with no bulb attached.

L continued to spray, at the "weeds" near Glen, and at one point, a shovel conked Glen in the head, and an up-and-coming knuckhead* allowed his female pit bull to lunge at Glen through L's chain link fence, none of which helped Glen's mood, but he was able to devise a system involving a pitchfork, dandelion remover, and his own hands to salvage most of the very frightened bulbs, all the while he was leveraging himself against L's newly chemically-enhanced lawn.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm picking on L for her need to destroy/remove her daffodils, even if I don't quite understand that urge. We're grateful for the near 5 gallon bucket of daffodil bulbs, and even if they're too traumatized to bloom next year, we suspect they'll be as good as ever by 2010 (hopefully to herald in a new political age for Trenton).

So Glen showered, and I prepared dinner: grilled cheese, pickles, and potato chips, but in my defense, I used some fantastic fromage Québécois, which Glen brought home from Montreal when he was up in April. Oh, the French Canadians are very nearly intolerable (and sometimes smelly), but they make some right-dicky awesome cheese.

When he appeared at the table, he was wearing a clean, but wrinkled Aqua Teen Hunger Force t-shirt, and while I'm certainly not the fashion police, I asked him to explain why, when we were going to the theater. "We're going to see an f-ing PUPPET SHOW!" he said, exasperated. "I'm not wearing a tuck-in, button-up shirt for THAT."

I suggested that he keep an open mind. Plus, we knew that a reviewer was supposed to be at this show, and it would be nice to show the outside world that Trenton residents support their arts, even if, by and large, most Trenton residents are too busy selling drugs to white suburban soccer moms, or playing dice, or riding around on illegal dirtbikes to support the arts. We needed to represent the good guys.

"FINE!" he said, irritated. "But I bet I could put on a better puppet show right out in the back yard, in that window of the garage."

I'd hate for you to think I'm not supportive of Glen's endeavors, but even prior to seeing Cecilia's Last Tea Party, I knew that there was no way that Glen's puppet show would be better. First, his disdain for puppets has given him zero experience with them, and that, in and of itself, is a recipe for disaster. Plus, who would do the marketing for Glen's puppet show? So I said, "No one would come to your puppet show, Glen."


I had no response, and I was conflicted, because on one hand, he's right: no one likes puppet shows; and also because I have been trying, with some serious effort, to detach-and-observe (my new motto) when Glen gets into a state like this, or, on occasion, just stand by my man, after I learned the joys of relationship solidarity earlier this year while shopping with Glen when he gets into a state. I wanted to stand by him, even though, at times, like right then, moments before we were heading out to the theater, he was completely insane, which was not unlike the time he gave the finger to the Tombstone Pizzas in the supermarket freezer case, and to the Sports Authority store down in Mt. Laurel, even though he had intended it for Dick's Sporting Goods instead. The thing of it is, food prices ARE high, and I worked for a food distribution company, so I know the mark-up is significant. It's easy to extend your finger when average people get screwed over every day for their dough. And, maybe I shouldn't admit to this, but what the heck: I do feel that most sports are evil, most physical activity just does not fit into my world, so while it may never occur to me to give the finger to a sporting good store, I don't feel badly about it either. But I can't offer the same support to Glen when he's railing about the arts, the local arts, in particular. It's just different. Even if no one likes puppet shows, we, as polite members of society, must happily endure from time to time.

So we ate our grilled fromages, and he guzzled down a beer, to take of the edge off his puppet hatred; and he changed out of the wrinkled ATHF shirt into a different, not-as-wrinkled ATHF shirt. Or maybe it was a Chuck Norris t-shirt, I can't remember. And we headed off to the theater.

I'm just gonna say this up front: Cecilia's Last Tea Party was good. Very good. So much better than we both expected, given that we expected a puppet show. It wasn't a puppet show at all, so Glen got all frenzied for nothing, though there were two main stuffed animals in the show, and they were funny and adorable. The show, I think, could have easily been enjoyed by children, though the European colonization of Asia was central to the story, giving the show a bit of political backbone, and credibility with adults. Little Cecilia is the daughter of a local princess and a European explorer, and her parents are taken away by rebels. She remains at their estate, with her care provider, "Aunt" Tambora, and, in her loneliness, Cecilia retreats into a fantasy world with her toy pelican and toy Bengal tiger. Coming around to check on them regularly is Colonel Billy Krakatoa, a deliciously complicated villain; he's obviously let power go to his head, after witnessing his European oppressors do the same, and at the same time, he seems fascinated with and tender toward little Cecilia. It's hard to judge his intentions, though. He promises to come back for tea, with his own toy creature, a two-headed frog; and has a mysterious ticket in his pocket to show her when he returns. Cecilia and her creatures are none too pleased about Billy at tea, with a two-headed frog, though they're very curious about ticket in his pocket.

Billy creates a further layer of tension, because we don't know what he really wants, when everyone is already on edge because the fate of Cecilia's parents, and Cecilia and Tambora's own future, is unknown; and to boot, Cecilia's stuffed animals have been misbehaving (think Calvin and Hobbes). The acting was really good, convincing (even the stuffed animals), and things come to a head when Billy returns the following day, as promised, with his toy frog, and sits down for tea: big, indelicate, and imposing, in his military garb, and proceeds — seemingly out of the blue — to channel his little two-headed frog's voice, and makes the frog sing and dance. The audience loved Billy's frog song, and we roared with laughter, but the actors didn't miss a beat. A short time later, Cecilia's creatures sneak up on Billy's frog, and attack it under the table, and Billy's violence is unleashed. He rips the heads off of Cecilia's pelican and tiger, and grabs Cecilia by her neck. The theater is very intimate, holding only 120 people, so his anger was alarming and believable to the audience. And when Billy grabbed the little girl, a woman in the audience — truly, just member of the audience — cried out, "NO, BILLY, DON'T!!!!"

This was the company's first performance with an audience, but who would have known, based on superb abilities of the actors. I could imagine the actors, in rehearsal, figuring this moment in the show would have gone so very differently, since it was so palpably tense, but when the woman – just a few feet away from us, just a few feet away from the stage — cried, "NO, BILLY, DON'T!!!!" the audience again burst into laughter. Credit to Robert Wu (Billy), Nitya Vidyasagar (Cecilia), and Indika Senanayake (the "Dark Shadow," who played the part of both of Cecilia's toys, as well as the adult Cecilia, and Cecilia's mother) for not slipping out of character while the entire audience gave what I suspect was the wrong reaction to that moment.

The show wrapped up, and, ultimately, I think Glen liked it, though it must have been difficult for him to shake off his preconceptions. I liked it, and judging the other reactions I saw, many people in the audience (it was a full house) felt the same.

Cecilia's Last Tea Party runs until June 1, and you should go see it. In fact, if you live in the area, you should go see as many shows at the Mill Hill Playhouse** as possible.

* We hear a lot "Don't hate the playa, hate the game," which is maybe some kind of corruption of Ghandi's, "Hate the sin and love the sinner," but I'm sorry, I hate a lot of the playas in my neighborhood. THEY KNOW BETTER. Including this kid who allowed his pit bull to lunge at Glen, even if there was a fence between.

**We saw a couple of shows in the fall, too, notably, David White's Urban Central, which was also fantastic. Sad and moving, and speaks volumes about our mess today. The show was inspired by true stories from Trenton Central High graduates, and centered on the race riots of 1967-1968, and I had hoped to offer up a review in my blog, but the holidays got in the way, and then, some real life strife with the high school happened, and even though the details are different, we — Trenton, that is (and maybe all of humanity) — have not learned from the past. At least right then, for me, it was too depressing for words. In David White's show, we see how people in that era struggled for equality, struggled to be seen as legitimate, struggled to find their way. And even though the race riots in Trenton (and elsewhere) were an ugly period in our history, such anguish and despair can often bring forth a rebirth of sorts. And now, 40 years later, it's clear that hasn't happened. The struggles are a bit different today, and are far more complicated, and the answers seem less clear than ever. The present-day condition of the high school needs to be addressed, and in my opinion, the building should not be discarded (allowing the building to rot is not green, and Trenton supposedly is; but also, our history and humanity is part of that building, and people should work toward preservation); but I'm more convinced that the current school board and city administration, and in fact, much of today's society, is not concerned enough with the students, the human beings who actually spend time in that building, even though the powers-that-be claim to be concerned only with the welfare of the children, and not the building itself. They are hollow words, as evidenced by the reality of the school system. I don't have the answers, but I know it goes above and beyond bricks and mortar (which need protection too). We're still doing things wrong, and wow, that sucks. Great job to David White, and the excellent actors (many of whom were Trenton students), for their work on Urban Central, even if my kudos are a bit late. David heads up The State Street Project, an educational outreach effort aimed at Trenton's young people, and pairs them up with professional artist-mentors in playwriting, performance, and theater classes. The Project's focus now includes the Anti-Violence Arts Initiative, which explores the causes and potential solution to violence in the Trenton community. Keep an eye out for these shows, and go see them. For more information, click here.

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