Theater Review: Columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli

Columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli. Directed by Ben Kaye. Dramaturgy by Patricia Hersch. Conceived by PJ Paparelli. Presented by the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland Campus. November 28th through December 7th, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., High School Matinee, Tuesday December 4th at 10 a.m. For tickets: 412-624-7529 or www.play.pitt.edu.

Reviewed by Dylan Jesse

As a play that roots itself in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, Columbinus looks beyond the facts exhaustively covered in the news to give us the—arguably truer—story of how adolescents can find themselves propelled into becoming the agents of such unfathomable violence. I’d like to tell you that you know how this story ends, except we all know that it hasn’t ended yet. The Columbine massacre was not without precedent, nor was it the most recent (or even most deadly) school shooting in the United States. Fifteen human lives were lost at Columbine, a total that was more than doubled in the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. We see this story repeated over and over, and every time it plays out we ask each other the same questions: How could someone do such a terrible thing? How could this have been prevented? Is there a lax gun law or some anti-depressant medication that might also be to blame? The same story, the same irreversible loss of human life, the same questions. No answers. The easy thing to do in the absence of answers is call the whole thing evil. The harder thing—the necessary thing—is to stare into the ultimately human face of that evil and try to understand it. Karam and Paparelli’s Columbinus attempts to do precisely that.

The University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre’s presentation of Columbinus exceeds the limitations of the text and delivers a number of robust and haunting performances. The play clocks in at a little over two hours, with a single intermission providing the division between the fictionalized first act and the grittier, more true-to-life second. The cast of nine opens the performance with a note that the characters were developed out of interviews and conversations with high schoolers from across the country. The characters that make it to the stage feel more like prototypes for a Breakfast Club rip-off: there is the jock, the prep, the popular girl, the bookworm, the rebel girl, the religious good girl, the loner, and the misfit. The first act passes without any of the characters actually having a name. Instead, each has a token object to secure their designation in the stratigraphy of high school social standings: for the jock, a Columbine-history-appropriate white ball cap; for the rebel girl, a pack a cigarettes; for the bookworm, glasses; and so on. The loner and the misfit are the only ones to receive any significant character development in the first act and are not solidified as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine infamy until the second act.

The first act comes across as an attempt to establish that adolescents of all cliques and quirks feel alone, unheard, and unappreciated, suffering in their own rights. The raw vibrancy of the actors’ portrayals and the inventiveness of the staging and set lighting make up for the shortcomings of the writing. With most of the cast being only a few years out of high school themselves, the texture of adolescent frustrations carries well through their performances. Each has their own moment to highlight their particular brand of personal struggle or dysfunction (be it anger at feeling disrespected by school authority figures, a hidden nascent homosexuality, or unplanned pregnancy) that is set outside of the narrative by precise and visually gripping changes in the set lighting. Through visual cues we are taken out of time in the first act’s narrative and pulled directly into the inner thoughts and fears of the characters through a cavalcade of soliloquies. The naked honesty revealed through those surreal shifts in and out of the characters’ own private thoughts is simply exhilarating. It is clear from the players’ intricate and measured movements through those frozen-in-time scenes that director Ben Kaye knows how to take advantage of moments of interiority.

Where Columbinus becomes disturbing is the second act. The listless narrative of the first act is dropped in favor of a close look at Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the run-up to their rampage. The second act opens with actual photos of Harris and Klebold projected above the stage as the actors who are taking up their mantle stand in opposite corners, nearly naked, glancing at the projected faces as they dress themselves in black combat boots and trench coats. Between them, a table of homemade explosives, guns, and ammunition. Most of the rest of Columbinus was written out of Harris and Klebold’s own journals and videotapes that they left behind, detailing their plans, their motivations, their anger and hate. It goes so far as to incorporate a lengthy recording of an actual 911 call placed by a teacher named Peggy who was in the library where most of the killing occurred. From there, Columbinus stages a dark and abstract recounting of Harris and Klebold’s killing spree in the school’s library. This is when the play becomes supremely troubling. With no new insights into those moments, no real advancement of our collective understanding of the nature of such violence, the entire library scene—precisely and fiery as it was performed—feels more like an exercise in voyeurism than a revelation into the human side of such evil. However, the legacy of the violence at Columbine is the necessary gravity that Columbinus needs to bring the questions we never seem to answer back into public discussion so that we can ask them before another tragedy rather than after.

The male leads, Rocky Paterra (as Eric Harris) and Mark Tumblin (as Dylan Klebold), play off of each other with an effortless intensity that elevates the tragic trajectory of their story into a theatrical experience that dissolves the artifice of the stage and the long years since Columbine first made the news. Adolescent suffering is more nuanced and mercurial than how we often see it portrayed in popular media. Paterra’s Harris is genuinely captivating as he develops a terrifying sense of purpose after stopping his anti-depressant regimen, and Tumblin’s Klebold gives some of the strongest deliveries of the show as he slips further and further under the spell of Eric Harris’ hypnotic sense of outrage.

Not to be missed are the performances by the three women of the cast, Lucy Clabby, Chelsea Faber, and Jacqueline Saporito as they both draw out some of the more painfully awkward and angsty characteristics of the soon-to-be-gunmen as well as deliver solid performances of their own in the first act. They and the rest of the cast (Billy Bourgoiun, Bryant Edwards, and Max Pavel) come together in the second act for an unavoidably heartbreaking retelling of the destructive rampage that ended with 15 human lives lost on that auspicious day more than 13 years ago. As an ensemble, this cast brings an earnestness and an honesty to the stage that a chilling story like columbinus demands. In the capable hands of director Ben Kaye and the Pitt Rep cast, Columbinus gets the sincere and affecting delivery its message deserves.
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Public Library

By Songyi Zhang

Last month I attended an annual literary festival co-sponsored by the county public library. The event lasted a week, offering face-to-face meetings between the authors and the readers. As a reader and writer, I benefit a great deal from free events like this. Since I came to America two years ago I have become an avid English reader. Partly because of my Master’s program, partly—and I would say mainly—because of the conveniences the local library provides to the residents.

While I was frustrated about the limited collection in my university’s library, my senior classmate suggested to me that I should apply for a library card at the public library. “There you’ll find the titles you want without any trouble,” she told me. I thanked her for introducing me to the public library in America. I was amazed at the fast speed of the circulation system and the simple procedure of the user application. Above all, it was free.

Compared with the public library in my home city in China., America’s system is wonderful. In China, I have to pay a membership fee or deposit for a library card. If I want access to the rare book sections or specialized collections, I have to prove who I am in relation to my education and working background. All the red tape turned me off from entering the library, let alone borrowing books from there.

Taking advantage of the easy library access here, I’ve read more books than at any time in my life. Americans are lucky to have a good public library system. In Guangzhou, China, with a population of 10 million people, there are only two major public libraries. Both of them are downtown, close to one another. But in Fairfax County, Va., where I am living now, with a population of 1.1 million people, there are more than a dozen public libraries in the same network, not to mention residents in Fairfax County can also access the e-libraries in the neighboring counties and in Washington D.C. after obtaining their library cards.

What a huge contrast!

No wonder Chinese readers have tended to be book collectors – there’s no easy access to books like there is here. But with the help of various forms of e-readers, Chinese readers now can also access their favorite novels through the Internet, usually for little or no cost.

I now understand why some elderly Americans say they have grown up and grown old with their public libraries.

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Good Golly, Miss Molly

by Michael Simms

I’m a seventh generation Texan, and I’d like to offer an apology to the people of the United States for all the crooks and nitwits we’ve sent to Washington. On the other hand, we also gave you Molly Ivins who famously said, “I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.”

So much of Molly’s wit depended on context and timing. I remember watching the Republican Convention on television twelve years ago when Molly was a commentator beside Jim Lehrer. After Pat Buchanan finished his speech attacking immigrants, minorities, unions, teachers, and intellectuals, Molly waited a beat, then said in her flat Texas twang, “It was better in the original German.” Lehrer nearly fell out of his chair trying not to laugh….

We miss you, Miss Molly.

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Dance Review: Drenched by Luke Murphy

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

“There is something about when you are soaked by a heavy rain. You give in…realize that sunshine is not coming. There is an empowerment that comes with it. I think of passion that way,” says dancer and choreographer, Luke Murphy.

The Ireland native and Point Park graduate brought his latest duet, Drenched, to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater this past weekend, for its US premiere. Murphy showed snippets of the piece as part of the East Liberty Live Series over the summer, leaving audience members intrigued and excited for the full length version.

The hour-long finished product did not disappoint. Murphy and his dancing partner, Carlye Eckert, brought their quiet passion to the stage in an exploration of romance. The aim of the piece was to deconstruct idealistic notions of romantic relationships portrayed by the media, arts and literature.

Sometimes humorous and other times beautifully realistic, Murphy and Eckert revealed how passion can, indeed, feel like being “drenched” by a downpour.

The piece opened with a more conventional image of a romantic partnership, an embrace. The two dancers swayed slowly center stage as the lights rose gently, then fell not long after.

A solo by Eckert led into a very funny section where Murphy wrote love letters to a woman named Agnes, as Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You blared over the speakers. What began as amorous affection, ended in name calling and beer drinking when Murphy realized that Agnes didn’t feel the same way.

Another hilarious part came later in the evening when popular movie scenes were projected onto a large screen. When Rose and Jack, main characters from Titanic, moved into the famous “flying” scene, Murphy and Eckert acted the parts while a robotic voice gave them stage directions – Take two steps forward; close eyes; tilt head; hands on waist. The section used incredible wit to expose the insincerity of the scene.

To break up the moments of dry humor, the dancers used effortless partnering, and impressive movement phrases to convey the more genuine aspects of a relationship. Two of those sections stood out.

The first came after a scene from Gone with the Wind, when Clark Gable spoke the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Murphy and Eckert moved through a mostly disconnected duet, as rose petals fell from the rafters over their bodies. An honest sense of letting go came to mind.

The second was near the end of the show, when the dancers performed a more intense section, representative of an argument. Devoid of melodrama, the two pushed and pulled against each other, using quick and bound energy to depict an emotional struggle. The effect was authentic, and quite moving.

To close, Murphy cleverly brought back the image from the opening, this time with a more realistic version of what it means to be in a partnership. In what appeared to be a balancing act, the two leaned against one another, working to stay afloat despite the water that had soaked them.

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Book Review: The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010

Edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser
Introduction by Toni Morrison

BOA Editions, 2012
ISBN: 978-1934414903

reviewed by Mike Walker

More often than not, when BOA Editions sends me a book for review it comes in a modest package as it is commonly a small book—a single monograph of new poetry by either one of the established or younger poets BOA publishes. Recently though, a monster of a package came via post from BOA. At first I thought it was my new toaster from amazon.com but in fact it was a single book—a very, very, large book. And well it should have been so large because even nearly eight hundred pages seem too few to confine the entire span of the career of one of the most-American, most-essential of our contemporary poets, Lucille Clifton.

Looking at this book as I removed it from its packaging, it was clear that BOA pulled out all the stops on this one, producing a beautiful volume that even has the now-rare bookmark ribbon one used to encounter more often in high-quality books, especially those on some sort of mission. The mission here, of course, is to introduce the reader to Clifton’s poetry or, for one who already knows her well, provide a single-volume overview of her work. This book in an instant made me want to sit down and start reading from it, but it also made me quite happy for BOA: as a book reviewer, you become fond of publishers to an extent, knowing that they make their every dollar off our industry whereas most of us as reviewers also teach, write other journalism, or have another vocation. The publishers are, even more than most authors they represent, right in the thick of the very difficult book business. BOA’s offerings are always exacting, pithy, and urgent books of poetry and short fiction but to see them publish the life’s work of a major poet I felt moved them into another sphere where they fully deserve to be: you’d expect to see this title come off of Farrar, Straus and Giroux or one of the other very-old, very-established, very-literary publishing houses in New York City. Yet BOA deserves to be in such company and this book perhaps more than any other should put the press on the lips of the literati.

Even more importantly, Lucille Clifton is an American writer who deserves to be in the highest circle of our poets and she has, alas, often been neglected from those reaches. This book should change that, providing a hefty anthology complete with an introduction but one of our greatest living writers, Toni Morrison. Friends who are graduate students in our local university’s English department who saw the Clifton book on my desk remarked at once “oh wow, yeah I read something by her but I didn’t know she wrote THAT much!”. The book’s size and the Morrison contribution make it immediately portend itself as serious business, and let’s not fool ourselves, this is how authors ascend in the modern canon. A recently-departed poet needs a book like this if she didn’t quite get as much scholarly attention as she should have during her life, because now the matter of such is made easier for the scholar, the critic, and the everyday reader alike. It’s a book that needed to be published, to be out there; my first thought in fact was that it would make a fine Christmas present for many of my friends . . . until I realized my friends are all over the States and Europe and the shipping alone on this tome could put me in the poor house. I hope though they’ll read this and other reviews and buy it themselves. Sometimes, amazon has free shipping—even on toasters. Perhaps that will help.

Lucille Clifton’s career spanned decades and saw a great deal of transformations happen in American society—transformations especially in civil rights and women’s rights that were essential to an African-American woman writer like Clifton. However, it also saw alongside positive, much-needed, changes a way of life slip away. As she was from the North, from New York state, Clifton was of a first generation of African-American women for whom college was a viable option and for whom the post-war years offered opportunities that would have seemed impossible mere decades prior to their mothers or certainly their grandmothers. Yet Clifton also saw the strife of the civil rights era and how little in some regards many vestiges of racism had changed over the years. One of her most-known quotes speaks to that, and to the position an educated Black woman aware of the world was in during the dynamic years she came into her own as a writer:

they ask me to remember

but they want me to remember

their memories

and I keep on remembering mine

These lines appear all over the Internet and even on a plaque on the outside of the New York Public Library. These lines, I would not say sum up Clifton—that would be a grave mistake—but they do provide a great place to start in learning who Lucille Clifton was and how she wrote. What motivated her to write. How a clerk and philosophy professor’s wife wrote of the world she came from and the world she saw growing around her. Clifton was always very smart—keenly smart and intellectually curious—but also was a poor student while at Howard University, which she attended on an earned scholarship yet dropped out of due to a lack of continued interest. She was not a rebel, either, though but instead a young woman who was on the cusp of change and was in the full process of learning about the world around her.

The “memories” she was requested to “remember”—I must presume at Howard, too—were not the same as her own nor were the stories she knew she must tell the world. Clifton was born in a time when Black women—most women, period—were not college-educated yet she also was born in the same year that Dawn Powell’s masterful novel Turn, Magic Wheel was first published. The New York literary world Powell wrote of in that book was a world that was becoming more and more the world of Lucille Clifton, too, and the sheer excitement of the evolving, spinning, globe Clifton knew she was a vested part of is clear in her poems from this period.

Clear as well, though, is Clifton’s sense of history. The position of family, faith, food and traditions that we might today call “Black American culture” but at Clifton’s time were just simply her own experience come across plainly and powerfully in her poems. It’s no wonder that Toni Morrison so admired Clifton: much of the core material we find as mature and complete themes in Morrison’s own novels can be found well-defined in Clifton’s often short but always-engaging poems.

hey music and
me
only white,
hair a flutter of
fall leaves
circling my perfect
line of a nose,
no lips,
no behind, hey
white me
and i’m wearing
white history
but there’s no future
in those clothes
so i take them off and
wake up
dancing.

This poem, “My Dream About Being White”, is a perfect example of both Clifton’s approach as a poet—her understandable concerns with race and gender—but also her sense of voice and structure, her debt to the Harlem Renaissance, and her interest in writing about the female body—a theme that becomes crucial to her work.

Hélène Cixous, who is to me one of the most-important literary critics (as well as writers of fiction and drama) of the past century and our contemporary era, has made it an especial focus of her career to discern the ways women write of being outsiders and also how they write of being women, period—how they tell of female time, female bodies. Lucille Clifton was walking the very same path, yet while Cixous was an outsider in Paris—an Algerian Jew of all things beyond being a woman in man’s Paris, in man’s world of letters—I suspect Clifton had a less glam and more gritty experience of it, really. She was hearing jazz fly out the windows of rent parties, pianos played lovingly but drunkenly, giddily, by rough but talented hands. For Clifton—and her poetry tells us this much—Paris and what Cixous experienced there may well have been the grand dream but for Cixous, who was by only a year Clifton’s junior, I highly suspect that Clifton’s torrid New York and the Harlem of Hughes were just as much a dream. What Clifton touches upon with a deft and brave pen time and again in her poems is the sense of a woman’s body, and at that, a black body that doesn’t conform to the strictures and expectations of white beauty. A body that turns her verily into someone other than just a woman, though being a woman alone was enough of a disadvantage and yet did not alone make one a lady. While being a writer was not one of the obvious nor approved vocations for a woman—lady or otherwise, it was one that women like Dawn Powell were starting to make not only in fashion but powerful.

The juxtaposition of themes in Clifton’s work is at times astounding even when the constant motifs of gender, race, and a society slowly coming into a more clear and bright period are easy enough to identify. Where Clifton often shines though is when she approaches other topics including things as simple as a meal shared with family. The backbone of her writing, the nails and teeth of her concern for progress, make it possible for her to write so lovingly of things traditional without seeming coy or as if she is sticking too close to a very old song-book. Clifton is also at points at her best when writing about sickness, disease, and allopathy—when she writes about her experience as a patient or simply in visiting a hospital. Her writing here is not at all limited to her emphasis on racial or engendered experience but is about more general social experience. I feel this is one of the most crucial points to take away from Clifton’s poetry and a point well made by having an anthology as comprehensive as this one, where it is possible to examine the depth and scope of such a long career in poetry. Too often, female African-American poets are expected to speak of their experiences as Black women alone, as if one enters the arena of poetry simply to build a whole career around one’s origins. Certainly, the agency afforded to any minority via writing to express their voices which have for so long been mitigated is essential, but it’s a huge mistake to presume anyone of minority status or origins does not have more universal concerns in writing; obviously, a Black woman could write about the same very basal, central, issues as any poet from Frost to Eliot to Jorie Graham. Clifton escapes the trap of being considered “a Black poet” or a “woman poet” via the scope and merit of her work, but she also provides us with some of the deepest, most nuanced, writing regarding race we’ve obtained yet in America.

At her best, Clifton flawlessly addresses multiple topics at once in a poem and also can hit the difficult mark between natural, pastoral, concerns and empire of mankind as industry has affected the landscape with its devices and designs. A fine example is her poem “Blessing the Boats”:

(at St. Mary’s)
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

When Clifton was writing—between 1965 and the last decade prior to our current one—the world and especially America saw vast changes in society but also leveling out of an industrial culture that came into its own fully after the second world war. The advent of the computer alone changed the face of work, how women especially were employed as secretaries and clerks and how office work was done. Other technological changes had serious weight in industries like shipping and agriculture. We think of the period from the 1960s until our present time as one of mainly sociopolitical change and perhaps, at least in literature, overlook the other changes involved in our fabric of life. Clifton is keen on getting the everyday effects of such advances down, even when she places these between the lines. She is able to see where the novel wrinkles and veins of society mimic those of the human body and is able to truncate the extra, the non-essential, and break down the very complex mess of social construction into a few lines of poetry. When we think of the human body, the female body, it too is there, but so are all the waterways, the Interstates, the airports, the wing and wheel, the circuital, the impulse of business—the thrust of industry. Much of the tenor of all that shaped America in the post-war years can be located in Clifton’s writing, yet it’s often not what the reader first seeks. It’s worth looking for, however.

Clifton’s writing on nature, such as in her poem “Light”, takes on a nearly gospel-style approach of wonder and reflection—in the aforementioned poem using mainly a simple list of works for the topic to explore that topic. Her work in this way is masterful though often very subtle. She uses not only an economy of words, but of actual page-space, too. Dreams, also, are constant subjects of Clifton’s poetry:

a woman unlike myself is running
down the long hall of a lifeless house
with too many windows which open on
a world she has no language for,
running and running until she reaches
at last the one and only door
which she pulls open to find each wall
is faced with clocks and as she watches
all of the clocks strike
NO

This is Clifton’s “My Dream About Time” and sums up a lot of the motifs we encounter time and again in her work, but the shortness of the poem, its ability to express so very much with so little is what makes it remarkable. Also, where other—mostly male—poets might use pastoral images Clifton applies household ones and not only in this poem but in many. While she still can master both the pastoral and the man-intervened environment as in the poem above about the blessing of ships at St. Mary’s, she often places female protagonists in households, reflecting on the scope of domestic duties most women of her time and class encountered.

As the poems above should make clear, Lucille Clifton is an important—one of the most important—poets of her period and one who very much deserves a readership today and one in the future. Her output over the years has been vast but prior to the present collection, it has not been easy to obtain a good selection of her work from around 1965 onward in one place. Due to this situation, and due to the fact many younger readers may not have encountered her early works aside from where these have been reprinted in anthologies of American or African-American poetry, the new BOA Editions collected works is essential. Indeed, beyond providing a mechanism for interested readers to come to Clifton’s work, this wonderful new book should be the very catalyst for many to take her up in the first place. BOA is to be congratulated for its publication of this much-needed and beautiful work.

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Lengthy Waits

By Songyi Zhang

A few weeks ago after pressing the doctor to give him eye surgery, my husband could finally mark his calendar for a specific date, which is in three months. When we returned to the doctor’s office recently for a pre-operation meeting, we suggested the doctor operate on my husband’s other eye three weeks after his first surgery. But the doctor said, “I’m fully booked the first three months next year.” I was shocked. It was only late September. How many patients did the doctor give eye surgery on? If a cataract surgery was as simple as he said, wouldn’t the queuing for his care go quicker?

Situations like this happen to my other American family members. If they are lucky, they will see the doctor within three weeks. In most cases, it takes longer to get a surgery or an examination with the specified medical equipment, such as MRI and colonoscopy. It seems to me a patient has to wait a minimum of two months. Gosh! Who knows what will happen to a disease-ridden patient after two months? If lucky, the symptoms may have gone away by then.

I remember a couple of times the doctor had to change the appointment with my American family a few days prior to the appointment. His reasons always sounded legitimate because of emergency or unexpected circumstances. It was so easy for him to change the date but it was never easy for the patients. Besides biting lips from the agony, they had to put aside their to-do list on that particular day solely for this appointment. As a Cantonese idiom says, it’s such a long wait that our necks have gotten longer for it (because we need to crane our necks to look around for our turns).

The options for my American family were not good either. If the patient could not reschedule the appointment, he could switch to another doctor recommended by his doctor on the same day. I asked him how long he would have to wait for the rescheduled appointment. Another three weeks, he said.

I don’t understand why a doctor’s appointment takes so long in America. While many Chinese are looking up to America’s high quality life, waiting weeks and months for a doctor’s appointment certainly is not a model for the developing world to follow. Oftentimes, I don’t need a doctor’s appointment to see a doctor in Guangzhou, China. If I am ill, I go to the hospital. I may need to wait for hours there but at the end of the day, I’ll see the doctor.

I’m not sure if long waiting is a chronic problem in the U.S.. But I do notice there are a few walk-in medical clinics near where I live in America, which are often jammed with patients in need of all sorts of basic care, from a cold to a knee injury. Drug stores and supermarkets like Walgreens and Wal-Mart also provide medical assistance. Perhaps Americans are fed up with lengthy waits for basic healthcare.
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Theater Review: Compleat Female Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher

Compleat Female Beauty. By Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Dave Bisaha. A production of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, University of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. November 8-18.

Reviewed by Dylan Jesse

“Change your life, Neddy, change what you do. What we do is what we are.”

So we hear from the half-naked Duke of Buckingham mid-steam bath as he addresses the great actor Edward “Ned” Kynaston, his once-upon-a-time paramour. It is the Restoration, the great cultural rejection of the eighteen years of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth of England, . For eighteen years public theater performances were forbidden: no actor could take the stage, no lord or lady or common citizen could escape the drudgery of common life with an evening of song and drama. But with the return of the Stuart dynasty, with Charles II returned from France—and we all know how, shall we say, liberal France had been with its attitudes towards what was permitted upon the stage—England was ready to welcome theatre back into the cities. Of course, Charles II returned with decidedly French notions regarding theatrical performances, and soon after his instatement to the throne, London saw its first female actors on the stage. And for actors like Edward Kynaston, who specialized in female roles like Shakespeare’s Juliet and, most emphatically, Desdemona, and whom Samuel Pepys once called “the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life,” it meant the end of both an era and of his career.

The play Compleat Female Stage Beauty , written by Jeffrey Hatcher and debuted in 1999, wrestles with themes as immense as cultural mores, gender and sexual identity, society’s tolerance of the “deviant,” and the institutional restrictions that we all run into at different times and to varying degrees. Most importantly, and most challengingly, it shows us how a figure as beautiful and as troubled as Edward Kynaston confronts those forces, how he tries and fails and sometimes succeeds in dealing with them. As a period piece, this play is by no means dated, and the entirety of the Pitt Repertory Theatre troupe was, to borrow a British-ism, bang-on with their performances. From the period-appropriate sparsely decorated stage to the detailed costuming to the delightfully fey and foppish Samuel Pepys and Sir Charles Sedley, respectively, Compleat Female Stage Beauty is more uproariously funny and more heartbreaking than you might expect.

As wonderfully crafted as the play itself is, it is impossible to not be taken with the veracity and sincerity with which the players bring these historical figures—our cultural fore-bearers, in many ways—to the intimate setting of the Henry Heymann Theatre. Staged as a full-thrust (i.e. audience seating on three sides of the stage), the performance treats the stage as both the myriad physical locales within the play itself as well as the historical stages upon which Kynaston, his fellow actor Thomas Betterton (Othello to Kynaston’s Desdemona), and the newly-legal-to-act-on-stage Margaret Hughes live and bleed and die. But the real thrill comes with how those boundaries are broken: the trick, you see, is that some among you are part of the show. More than once the play becomes a play within a play (which should be of no surprise to either fans of Shakespeare or Inception) when Kynaston becomes either the Bard’s Desdemona or Jonson’s Epicœne. More than once at those moments there are players in the back rows, off to the sides, who heckle and abuse, and you, the audience member, are now complicit in the scene, no matter how horrific it becomes (and there is much to feel horrified about).

In reviewing this performance, I wanted so much to quibble over little details of historicity with language and the series of events. There are a number of liberties taken with recorded history and with the presumed sexuality of Kynaston, but I was left so pleased and sated that all I care to remember are the brilliant performances. Dylan Meyers as Edward Kynaston was nothing short of screen and West End ready, as were Mike Magliocca (as Thomas Betterton), Mallory Fuccella (as Margaret Hughes), Aric Hudson (as the Duke of Buckingham), and Mike Zolovich (as the Ur-Fop Sir Charles Sedley). The performance from Laura Gray as the theatre seamstress cum actress Maria was gripping. Unfortunately, Maria is given far too brief a role, but she commands every moment she is given. Perhaps the most tensely erotic and personally riveting moment comes when Maria and Kynaston (now banished by a new law from performing as a woman on stage and reduced to singing bawdy songs at the Cockpit-in-Court) engage in a series of clothes-on sexual positions, each punctuated with the pertinent question “Who am I now?” The interplay of personal sexual identity and interpersonal power through sexual expression come to such a peak at that moment that you cannot help but forget about the historical setting. We see this in our own lives still. Who is each of us? How do we find ourselves? What do we do when neither of those are easy answers?

And that is what we want from a good show, is it not? To be taken somewhere we never knew we wanted to find ourselves. If the troupe was not up to the challenge of the nuanced characters and the fragile balance between historical fact and historical truth this performance would have flopped. Thankfully, director Dave Bisaha and the whole of the cast are up to those challenges. What you find on (and around, it turns out) that stage is revivifying. True, it claims a hefty run-time of two hours, twenty minutes, with a single intermission, but the power of the performances across the board will keep you in your seat, still wanting more when the last of the house lights come up.

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Race and the Progressive Agenda

By Michael Simms

It’s unfortunate that Fox News framed the recent presidential election as a referendum on race, and it’s equally unfortunate that NPR is continuing that narrative by running stories on drunken frat boys at the University of Mississippi shouting racial epithets about the president. Mainstream media prefer simple stories that can be captured with a few dramatic sound-bites. The larger, more important narrative about the election is that millions of people of diverse backgrounds, including many white southerners like myself, came together to elect a moderate progressive to the most powerful position on the planet. I volunteered for Obama’s campaign – knocking on doors, calling strangers, donating a small amount of money — not because he’s African-American, but because he is what this country needs now. I don’t agree with him on every issue – the assassination of foreign nationals, the continued imprisonment of “terrorists” without due process, and the endless, pointless wars in southern Asia really scare me – however, he’s a highly intelligent, thoughtful man, an excellent orator, and a centrist and conciliator by nature. Most of all, he’s proven he’s willing to work with his opponents to reach decisions which move the country in the right direction.

I’m bothered by all the rah-rah on the left proclaiming that Obama’s re-election is a sign of the decline of the “white power structure”. Perhaps it is, but since I’ve never felt a part of the white power structure, I don’t have a dog in that fight. What bothers me is the narrowness of that narrative. If we see Obama’s re-election in strictly racial terms, then how strong is our commitment to other issues? The Republican convention showed that the GOP is completely out of touch with mainstream America. Clint Eastwood’s embarrassing improvisation with the now-famous Empty Chair created the perfect emblem of a party led by doddering old men with a sense of entitlement. If the Republicans accept the lessons which should be obvious to them by now – that their positions are too far to the right for most Americans – and they wise up and run more women and minorities for office, and their male candidates learn to keep their mouths shut about rape — will the Republicans take back the White House? The Republicans have a number of energetic young people, including many women and minorities, waiting their turn to take leadership. If the Republicans run a Latino candidate for president, which now seems likely with Marco Rubio chomping at the bit, will Obama supporters who saw his election as a referendum on race abandon the progressive agenda?

When I went back to Llano, Texas for my sister’s funeral a few years ago, I was surprised that the Baptist church was full of Latinos. But then I realized that two of my brothers had married Latinas, and these courteous and loving people were my extended family. When I was growing up, we were supposed to hate Mexicans, and now we are Mexican. I’d like to think that the nation is getting past narrowly defined racial issues and starting to realize that we’re all in this together. As the oceans rise and we man the lifeboats, we’re all going to have to take our turn at the oars.
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The Good News about Public Schools

by Publius

The school district asked us to propose a slogan for its letterhead. I emailed —

The Metropolitan Public Schools

Standardizing The Future One Test At A Time

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Smart Touch

By Karen Zhang

A few days ago I found a pair of gloves labeled “Smart Touch” in the store. Out of curiosity, I tried them on and showed to my husband who sat at a corner patiently waiting while I shopped.

“What do you think?” I asked, raising my gloved hand. On the tip of my thumb and index finger were small, yellow, anti-skid patches.

“Not bad,” my husband said appreciatively.

“Do you know what are these patches for?” I asked, wiggling my fingers.

“To pick your nose?”

We both burst into laughter.

“No—” I said patiently. I knew my technology-inert husband would have a wild guess but didn’t expect his imagination would have gone that far.

“There’re for the smartphone users,” I said matter-of-factly.

“How do you use them?”

“You can tap and swipe the iPhone screen without taking off the gloves like this,” I said, demonstrating on my three-month old iPhone 4S.

The mystery is solved. I didn’t plan to buy these gloves but at the end of the day, the techno-gizmo on clothing had convinced me to take them home. Simply because I am one of millions of Apple fans around the world.

“Smart Touch”, what a name for a pair of gloves! The addition of anti-skid patches on the finger tips has increased value and sensation to an ordinary daily item. I admire the manufacturer’s mind! (Are they made in China? Yes.) It is a bit hackneyed to say technology is changing our life. But indeed, I am feeling my post-iPhone life is changing. Before I owned a smart phone, my life was much simpler. Now I’m addicted to the virtual world. I care more about the up-to-the-minute online news, social network or emails. My private life is richer yet has less quiet moments.

Because of my new iPhone, I have to learn a whole new Macintosh operating system and spend more money on data usage and phone accessories. iPhone users are particularly keen on accessories. It’s predicted that the global smartphone accessories market will be $20.8 billion in 2012, including iPhone accessories of $6 billion.
Well, one thing I am sure of is the new pair of “Smart Touch” gloves cost twice as much as a pair of no-frills gloves.
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Travels: Empty Places in the Heart

By Eva-Maria Simms

A few years ago I walked with a group of older neighbors through the inner city neighborhood of the Hill District in Pittsburgh. The Hill was once a thriving African American quarter, but has fallen on hard times since a large section was razed during “Urban Renewal” in the late 50’s and destroyed during the riots after the murder of Martin Luther King in 1968. Today there are empty lots and dilapidated buildings and streets that once led downtown but end now at a large parking lot built for a sports arena. As we walked the sidewalks past the empty lots, the neighbors began to talk about what was once there. In their minds, they saw small tailor or cobbler shops, places where the bookies did their business, jazz clubs and restaurants, doctor’s offices and grocery stores, porches where everyone used to sit and watch street life unfold or listen to the “Inner Sanctum” radio show. The barbershops and the jitney station are still visible, but hanging on by a thread.

Like gaps between teeth, the empty lots have become commonplace, and usually the neighbors walk past them without notice. But on that day they began to speak about the city of memory which overlays the physical space like a double exposed negative. Together they tried to recreate descriptions about the houses and narratives about the people who once lived there, but after the excited creation of the remembered events there was always a moment of shock: the vivid virtual space of memory stood in such stark contrast to the rubble and weeds that were before us. Where did it all go? Solid structures built out of brick should not vanish like that. And when it goes, what does our memory have to hang on to?

The rift between reality and memory ordinarily creates a sense of nostalgia, particularly if the change in the landscape has not been sudden and radical. We fondly remember the places of our childhood and speak of them with attachment and wonder. But the Hill changed so quickly and thoroughly that it has left the inhabitants breathless. Deeper than nostalgia is the loss of faith in the solidity of places, in the reliability of the earth under our feet, which happens when the devastation is too great. Then the weave of memory has nothing to hold on to, and the heart creates memories that hang in tatters from certain places in the landscape.

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Tomyko

By Publius

My kids are so tired of taking standardized tests. Tomyko, a kid in my Advanced Placement class, devised a strategy to entertain himself.

Tomyko noticed that, on this computerized test, every time he answered a question right, the next question was harder. And the reverse if he got the question wrong. He did excellently the first time he took it. But he was bored.

Yesterday, Tomyko had to take the newest version of the same boring test. He thought he’d entertain himself, and see if he could reduce the test to asking him three word questions. But he felt himself a failure, because he could only get down to four word questions, like “Are you still breathing?”

The problem is that the results came back today. I am instructed to take this kid out of Advanced Placement, and send him to a special ed. class. The results of Tomyko’s test, if taken seriously, indicate that the school is responsible for little more that watering him once a week, and making sure he gets plenty of sunlight. And the school is taking the score seriously.

I’ve advised Tomyko to go to the test giver guru, confess to his smart-ass-ness, and throw himself upon the mercy of the school district.

In the meantime, the vice-principal has called “an emergency meeting” of the English Department. We’re to discuss all the kids who didn’t take the literature part of the state test last year. The meeting comes equipped with hand-outs. We’re each given a list with almost 900 names on it, plus some numbers and some blanks Just names and numbers and blanks. We’ve got to make sure the untested kids get tested. I presume the blanks are the untested, but nobody can really tell. The vice-principal, who is running the meeting, forgot the key. So she goes on for an hour about how important it is for us to get everyone tested. And we just stare at names and numbers and blanks. Finally Milford, who is sitting right next to her, notices that she has the key in her notebook. Long story short, I have three students total — three! — who have not taken the test. Two are immigrants, who, at test time last year, were dodging snipers in Baghdad.

The other is Tomyko. How he dodged the test, who knows? But my respect for this kid is growing exponentially.

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