Highet’s Law and a Pirate of the Caribbean

by Arlene Weiner

When I was an undergraduate at Barnard College, we were allowed to take graduate courses at Columbia University. I took a class in, I think, “The Classical Tradition,” with Gilbert Highet. Highet was quite well known. He was on the board of the Book of the Month Club, had written a book called The Art of Teaching, and had written a great doorstop of a softbound book with the same title as the course. Since I was a callow undergraduate, and accustomed to extremely intense classes, I thought his class was not very rigorous. I didn’t yet appreciate that graduate education could take the British form of meetings with a mentor, with the initiative and rigor supplied by the learner/scholar. I do remember that when I had a conference with Highet, he asked if I’d like tea and gave me a cup.

I still have Highet’s enormous book, a very useful reference for centuries of influence of Greek and Roman civilization. And I recall “Highet’s Law:” “First-rate results can have third-rate causes.” He enunciated that law, as I recall, with respect to Shakespeare (first-rate) and Ovid (third-, or perhaps second-). He may specifically have been speaking of Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, which he regarded as a spoof in which Ovid pretended to be taking seriously a subject that was beneath seriousness, the seduction of easy women.

Which is how I get to pirates. It has struck me how many excellent authors, in recounting how they fell in love with writing, say that they read and imitated Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. I took Captain Blood to be an example, of genre fiction, of good story telling, of “low” culture in general. A third-rate cause with first-rate effects. But having just read a Wikipedia article about Captain Blood I think it may be better than I thought: probably swashbuckling but historically accurate and complex, a tale (or, originally, a suite of tales) about Peter Blood, who’s unjustly judged a traitor to King James II, is enslaved and transported, and who becomes a successful buccaneer. And I think I’d better read it.

(My apologies to readers who know all about Captain Blood. I wouldn’t be surprised if that included nearly all the men who read Coal Hill Review and some of the women. Let us know.)

Still—Highet’s Law holds. Poetry nowadays is the resultant of many influences, including pop music, advertisements, comic books, video games. Maybe not only third-rate causes, but many beneath seriousness. How wonderful when it is Shakespearean and transmutes the third-rate and low-rent into the first-rate.

Theater Review: The Zero Hour

The Zero Hour. By Madeleine George. Directed by Robyne Parrish. Off the Wall Productions, Main Street, Carnegie, PA. October 25–November 9.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

At Off the Wall Theater currently, Erika Cuenca and Daina Michelle Griffith are giving virtuoso performances as multiple characters. Their principal roles are the enmeshed lovers Rebecca (Cuenca) and O (Griffith). Cuenca’s Rebecca is the barely controlled Felix of the pair, gainfully employed writing school textbooks, riding the New York subway to work, seeing a therapist. Griffith is O, unpredictable, funny, impossible. She’s a Wild Thing, but one who doesn’t leave their one-room, leaky-ceilinged squat. They squabble comically like old married people. Both assume other roles. Griffith in particular becomes a dizzying variety of people Rebecca meets, from Rebecca’s therapist to a subway-riding Nazi with hypnotic blue eyes. Cuenca becomes O’s mother, then Rebecca’s.

I find it exhilarating to see theater whose artifice is transparent, as here. A row of chairs and a horizontal pole represent the subway, always in sight. (The Number 7 train is practically a co-star.) Quick costume changes take place on stage. The same person plays many roles. It’s a stunt, in a way, like watching the Cirque de Soleil of acting. But the level of acting here goes beyond virtuosity. Cuenca and Griffith inhabit their roles, make them human—and, not incidentally, sympathetic. We care about Rebecca and O. And they’re sexy. And comic.

At a poetry workshop recently I said that I generally feel that poetry that links the Holocaust with some personal emotional travail is disproportionate. Narcissistic. The Zero Hour comes perilously close to this but tactfully avoids it. Here, Rebecca is writing a text about the Holocaust for seventh-graders. O wants her to include material on Nazi persecution of gays, impossible in the bland, offend-nobody textbook world. The political is the personal: O wants Rebecca to come out, to her mother and the world. Rebecca doesn’t want to think about her sexual identity. She becomes more and more preoccupied, finally obsessed, with the Holocaust, until she’s seeing Nazis everywhere, including the train.

John Steffenauer is effective in a small role. I’d call him the deus ex machina that enables Rebecca’s climactic recognition, but the role’s no deus, more like a dork. No, sorry, Steffenauer, not a dork. A decent guy, maybe. The direction and technical team deserve a lot of credit. (Those costumes had to be engineered for quick changes.)

Theater Review: Oklahoma!

Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Directed by Patrick Cassidy. Point Park Conservatory Theater. October 18-27.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

It was morning in America on the stage at Point Park’s Rockwell Theater. I wasn’t eager to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, set in Indian territory on the verge of becoming the Sooner State. I almost said “evergreen” musical—can it really be evergreen? It’s actually 70 years old. Post-Sondheim, post-Chorus Line, post- the attacks on America and drone warfare, wouldn’t the corn be too high?

Reader—remember how good corn tastes? This production was sweet and fresh. It was done without irony, thank goodness, and was exceptionally lavish yet tactful. I wondered whether even the original Broadway production had such a large cast of cowboys, farmers, and calico-clad gals. [Evidently, according to the Internet Broadway Database, it had.] The student cast was absolutely equal to their roles, and the direction as well as the actors must get credit for the perfection of such details as the comic timing of Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. There was also a clarity about the production—the cowboys and farmers distinguishable, the dance sequences part of the drama. Projections of what appeared to be period photographs during the overture and musical interludes supplied historical context and, for me, didn’t tip over into intrusiveness, as audiovisual enhancements frequently do.

The dancing was spectacular. It was new, choreographed by Zeva Barzell, but the cowboys’ dancing had the flavor of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo choreography. Repeated gestural elements, as when Laurie and the girls sang “Many a New Day,” read very clearly. I expected the ballet sequence, Laurie’s dream, to be too long, awkward and dated, but the excellent young dancers, supported by the background projections and music, made it suspenseful, built real tension. Also building tension, and real menace, was the Jud Fry, both in the dream and in “real life.”

If I recall correctly, Leonard Bernstein made an extended comparison between the genres of musical and operetta, using Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella as examples. In addition to their formal differences, musicals, he said, came out of the milieu familiar to the New York audience and authors, like Guys and Dolls; operettas were set in a faraway exotic place—The Most Happy Fella in the Napa Valley of California. (Was this before South Pacific?)

It may not seem obvious now, when it plays all over the country and its title song is Oklahoma’s unofficial state song, but Oklahoma! would have been exotic to the Broadway audience. And recall the date: 1943. This sunny all-American musical opened during World War II, when the real-life boys were in uniform and the real-life girls might be wearing snoods and slacks for war work.

I have two regrets about this Oklahoma!: like most musicals I’ve seen lately, it was miked; and I didn’t see it early enough to recommend it to everybody I know.

Two Theater Reviews: Scarcity by Lucy Thurber and Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes by Sean Graney

Scarcity. By Lucy Thurber. Directed by Justin Zeno. Organic Theater Pittsburgh http://www.organictheaterpgh.org/ in the Studio Theater at the University of Pittsburgh. With Matt Bonacci, Bridget Carey, Hanna. Hannah McGee, Michael Moats, Meagen Reagle, Jaime Slavinsky, and Michael Young. August 8-18th.

Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes. No Name Players, http://nonameplayers.org at Off the Wall Theater, Carnegie, Penna. A world premiere performance of an adaptation from classic Greek dramas by Sean Graney. Directed by Steven Wilson. With Cameron Knight, Ricardo Vila-Roger, Colleen Pulawski, John Garet Stoker, Todd Betker, Patrick Cannon, and Tressa Glover. Music by Ryan McMasters. August 2-17.
Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Lucy Thurber is currently getting the unusual recognition of having five of her plays produced simultaneously in New York City, in off-Broadway theaters. These are “The Hilltown Cycle.”[http://www.playbill.com/news/article/181079-Lucy-Thurber-Five-Play-Cycle-The-Hilltown-Plays-Begins-Off-Broadway-Run-Aug-14] This isn’t a hail-and-farewell to a playwright long past her prime—Thurber is in her 40s. Pittsburghers can have a taste of her quality (20 percent of those productions) at Organic Theater’s Scarcity.

There’s a long history in American theater, extending back at least to the early 20th century, of entertaining the classes with the economic troubles and sexual low- and hi-jinks of the masses, particularly the rural masses, which were exotic to the New York audience. Tobacco Road, which I imagine played as a tale of hillbilly degradation, ran for years. Then on a different plane there’s Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Desire Under the Elms.

Organic’s Scarcity falls on a prurience-to-profundity scale between Tobacco Road and Orpheus Descending. There’s a hint of mystery and fate, in a child’s reading of a Tarot pack and her claim to “see,” but I think that’s a red herring. Mostly it’s a realistic (there IS a kitchen sink) melodrama of people who are hard up and pretty hard to take. There’s considerable sexual heat and tension in the play, much to the credit of the main actors and the directors. The gorgeous Jaime Slavinsky (though she’s in jeans, not in the Daisy Mae shorts featured on the poster) and the almost equally gorgeous Matt Bonacci are the fussing, fighting, and fecking parents of two children, a high school student (Michael Young) and the considerably younger Rachel, the talented Hannah McGee. Michael Moats and Meagan Reagle separately visit this family, drawn in by their separate sexual hungers. The role of Moats’ wife (Bridget Carey), when she shows up, seems written for a sit-com.

What’s new about this play? Perhaps that it’s presented from the point of view of the blue-collar people rather than the idealistic but un-self-knowing school teacher (Meagan Reagle) who’s the stranger who comes to town to set the action in motion. Her mouth, expressing distaste, is something to behold. Her stiffness and clumsy condescension make her a cartoon until…Until she turns into Miss Julie. Michael Young, playing the student in whom she takes an interest, is wonderful in both his eagerness and his contempt. Hannah McGee plays Rachel, one of those preternatural children wiser than anyone around her. When she dealt the Tarot for herself, I feared for her life. Jaime Slavinsky makes Martha sympathetic despite her flaws. The father of the family is not.

There’s a whiff of incest.

And the f-bombs fly.

When I saw the set before the beginning of Scarcity, I thought, uh-oh. Is this supposed to be rural degradation? The Jukes and the Kallikaks? Because they don’t have a k-cup coffee brewer and granite countertops? It looks homey. I didn’t think that when I saw the set of Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes. We seemed to be in a hospital that has gone to the dogs. An IV hangs from a pole. A cupboard is open, revealing packages of bandages. The whole playing area is littered with crumpled papers. An unanswered monitor alarm keeps up an irritating beep.

Finally (the beep goes on) the actors file in, face the audience, sing Stephen Foster’s lovely and melancholy “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and exit. That is all that remains of the Greek chorus lamenting the plague that has struck Thebes. For this play—and play is a good word for it—is a mashup of five ancient plays dealing with the cursed family of Thebes and Sean Graney aims to tell the story by any means necessary: to strip away some elements, like the chorus, and the necessity of having messengers narrate offstage action, and to reimagine it as a mixture of tragedy and farce. (Some exposition is handled simply and frankly by one of the actors in a blue spotlight to speak it.)

Once again we have a dysfunctional family, but these people are much better dressed. Beautifully, in fact, in modern dress, with purple for the royals, including a tailored lilac-colored suit for Creon. And beautifully played. I’ve mentioned Cameron Knight before. He has the resonant voice and presence—and the arrogance—to play King Oedipus and is a hoot as a Muhammed-Ali-like Theban champion. Ricardo Vila-Roger is excellent as the cheesy Creon (literally cheesy—he noshes a bag of Cheetos, called “cheese curds” in the script, through most of the play) and Todd Betker as Polynices. Tressa Glover plays multiple roles well. Colleen Pulawski is astonishing as Jocasta and Antigone: beautiful bearing, expressive eyes, fine line readings. John Garret Stoker is fine in two small roles, and Patrick Cannon’s small turn as Eteokles matches Polynices’ inanity.

A couple of years ago I saw a production that married Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida with Thomas Heywood’s The Iron Age to tell the whole story of the Trojan War. Bad idea, though it had some striking moments. It didn’t last ten years, but it lasted too long. I feared that this play would do the same—not only incorporating all three plays of Sophocles’ Theban cycle (many literature majors will remember Oedipus and Antigone, not so many will remember Oedipus at Colonnus) but also adding material from Aeschylus and Euripides. I was wrong. It’s not quite The Reduced Shakespeare Company, but it dispatches Jocasta and Oedipus’ eyes quite rapidly and moves on to Oedipus and Antigone in exile. And holds our interest for the rest of the evening. (Geekily, I read Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes the morning after I saw it and I can report that Graney’s adaptation is very free—and cunning—indeed.)

Oedipus’ arrogance and Creon’s truckling are established by Oedipus’ repeating “I solved the riddle of the Hellbitch” [the Sphinx] and Creon’s invariably and quickly responding, “And that was terrific”—or “splendid.” That’s farcical. As is Haemon’s, “What is it with this family?” Though it isn’t the Reduced Shakespeare Company, it has in common with RSC that it loves the plays and it nudges them in the ribs from time to time as only a lover can do.

(A shout-out to Don DiGiulio, scenic design, Kate Mitchell, costume design, and Eve Bandi, lighting design.)


Theater Review: The Tempest by Unseam’d Shakespeare

The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle. By William Shakespeare, John Dryden, and William Davenant, adapted by Scott Palmer. Directed by Michael Hood. With Ron Siebert, Colleen Pulawski, Claire Chapelli, Nicholas Browne, Nick Benninger, Thomas Constantine Moore, Jennifer Tober, Kevin Donohue, Brett Sullivan Santry, Charles Beikert, Michael Perrotta, Marc Epstein, Connor McCanlus, Andrew Miller. Unseam’d Shakespeare Co. June 13 through 29. Studio Theater, University of Pittsburgh (basement of Cathedral of Learning).

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Even before the lights dimmed for Unseam’d Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle, the scenery prepared us for a charming and tongue-in-cheek performance: A gaily painted faux proscenium and footlights, rows of curling waves, flats representing tropical palms and horrid caves.“This is not Shakespeare’s play,” director Michael Hood warned us in the program.

Shakespeare Improved was the title of a 1920s collection of Shakespearean plays presented in Restoration times. How improved? Change the ending, add rhyme, sentimentalize, do whatever you care to. The Restoration era in England was the return of the repressed, with a vengeance. The Puritan Parliament had closed the theaters in 1642, had executed King Charles, and had ruled for more than a decade. When, after civil war, the Stuart king Charles II came to the throne, the atmosphere was libertine and frothy, and the restored stage was too. Why, women’s roles were taken by women!

Unseam’d Shakespeare previously presented John Dryden’s All for Love, a classicized tragedy imitating Antony and Cleopatra. (Disclosure: For a time I was on Unseam’d Shakespeare’s board.) Dryden “reformed” Shakespeare’s play by concentrating the action in time and place—Dryden knew Aristotle’s rules. But that came later. This Tempest is another kettle of fish. It may remind you of Gilbert and Sullivan. The adaptors and the director are out to maximize the fun and farce, and they wink and nod and camp it up from the moment that Ron Siebert as Prospero steps over the cardboard waves and pretends not to know his lines. Which is not to say that they throw Shakespeare into the trash. No, you will hear Shakespeare’s glorious language, particularly the songs (with contemporary music composed by David Martynuik), sung by a graceful, campy Ariel (Kevin Donohue). You will see the comedy of the low characters, wonderfully funny in the performance. It’s just that Davenant et al. admired Shakespeare’s conceptions so much that they couldn’t get enough of them. Did Shakespeare’s Tempest have an innocent young woman who has never seen a young man? Well, then, let’s have TWO such young women. And let’s have a young man who has never seen a woman. (Why not? He’s been imprisoned in a rock for his whole life.) Do you like Caliban, the morally and physically repugnant half-human in Shakespeare’s Tempest? Let’s give him an equally lecherous (and nearly nude) sister! And let’s make the most of the opportunities these new characters give us for smutty pursuits!

The large cast (three of whom are Equity actors) and the technical crew are excellent. Unseam’d Shakespeare’s Tempest was an entertaining evening.

Theater Review: Radio Golf by August Wilson

Radio Golf. By August Wilson. June 8-June 29, 2013. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. 937 Liberty Avenue. [http://www.pghplaywrights.com/] Directed by Eileen J. Morris. With Chrystal Bates, Kevin Brown, Wali Jamal, Mark Clayton Southers, and Art Terry.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

August Wilson undertook the ambitious project of writing a play reflecting African-American life for each decade of the twentieth century. Shortly before he died at 60 he finished the last and latest play: Radio Golf, set in 1995. Inspired by Wilson, Mark Clayton Southers undertook the project of producing all of the plays. Southers’ Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre’s current production of Radio Golf is the capstone of both projects, and, like nine of the plays, is set firmly in Pittsburgh.

What could be more boring than golf on the radio? I once ate in a place where the TV was tuned to a golf tournament. For the entire time I ate lunch, I’m sure, the cameras followed one of the contenders beating grass in the rough looking for his ball. Now imagine that without visual interest. And certainly Wilson wasn’t any more interested in golf on the radio than I, which is a measure of his distance from the character who is. (Behind that “certainly”—at a talkback, Chris Rawson, a scholar of Wilson, said that Wilson had frantically to rewrite Radio Golf to change the golf references, since he didn’t know anything about golf.)

I’d seen Radio Golf before, and thought then that it was less interesting than other of Wilson’s plays. But this production, in PPT’s intimate and somewhat hard-to-find space, is tense and moving. It redeems the play for me. The ensemble acting is excellent, and credit to Eileen J. Morris for creating dynamism among the players. Mark Southers’ Harmond Wilks, stolid at first, contrasts well with Chrystal Bates’ seductive warmth and Kevin Brown’s antic jiving. In Art Terry’s performance, Roosevelt Hicks’ exuberance allows us to have empathy with a character who might be merely a villain in lesser hands and with a lesser playwright. For one of Wilson’s strengths is that he doesn’t stack the deck, at least not completely. In earlier plays, his hard businessmen—West, Caesar Wilks—aren’t lovable, but they may just be right in turning away from sentimentality. The immersive nature of the intimate space with audience on three sides is amplified because most of the characters enter through a door from the audience’s side.

Who has said that all the persons of the dream are the dreamer? The power of the conflicts in Wilson’s plays must be that they externalize conflicts within him. Surely he had to shut the door on distractions and importunings in order to make his work, the monumental Pittsburgh Cycle.

I haven’t mentioned the language, the humor, the wonderful language of the man who started as a poet, the humor of signifying characters.

Pittsburgh people, and people near Pittsburgh, catch this production while you can.


Not Asking for It

by Arlene Weiner

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a Steelers offensive tackle was slashed on the South Side of Pittsburgh on a recent weekend. The police report and the man’s account tell the following story: Mike Adams gave the keys to his truck to a valet for a South Side restaurant on a Saturday night. The restaurant closed for the night and he still hadn’t picked up his keys. He left another restaurant at about 3 a.m. Three men approached him. One of the men said his black F-150 Raptor was a nice truck and another of them said, “Gimme your car.” Recall that Mike Adams is an NFL player. He was reported to be 6’7″ and weigh upwards of 300 pounds.

Adams said, “You ain’t gonna shoot me on the street in front of people” and, according to the police complaint, one of the men said he would shoot him in the face “in front of everyone.” Then one of the men punched Adams and another of the men slashed him in the abdomen.

Without prejudice, I bet nobody is saying or asking any of the following about Adams: What was he doing there at 3 in the morning? Why did he have an atttractive truck? Was he drinking?

Let’s agree that, based on this story, HE WASN’T ASKING FOR IT. Just as a woman alone on East Carson Street, and maybe a little drunk, who was beset by a man, or three men, wouldn’t have been asking for it.


Theater Review: Looking for the Pony

Looking for the Pony by Andrea Lepcio. Off the Wall Theater, 25 West Main Street, Carnegie, PA. Directed by Robyne Parrish. With Daina Michelle Griffith, Karen Baum, Theo Allyn, and Cameron Knight. Music by EMay. March 1–2, 7–9, 14–16 at 8:00 p.m. March 3 & 10 at 3:00 p.m.
Before the performance of Looking for the Pony begins at Off the Wall’s theater, you notice Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s set. In the center of the stage area is a large platform with two circular tiers. On the floor, a compass rose, the arrows pointing to all directions, radiates from its center. Behind this platform, against the rear wall, is an elevated desk. A fair portion of the wall is covered with chalkboard. Oh, there’s a seesaw, too, and a lectern.

Why the compass directions? Probably to express the physical distance between the two main characters, Ouisie and Lauren, but perhaps also reflecting an expression I’ve heard quite a bit recently: a “cancer journey.” One of these two women, friends from childhood, sisters by need rather than by blood, will be diagnosed with breast cancer early in the play and will endure a merry-go-round—it might almost be a roller coaster—of hope, fear, tests, doctor-shopping, filling out forms, contradictory diagnoses, insurance hassles, and the whole nine yards of “courageously battling” cancer, as too many obituaries have it.

If you’ve experienced cancer up close, you might hesitate to see this play. Don’t. It’s not a Disease of the Month tearjerker, though you might want a couple of tissues. It’s more about Ouisie’s dis-ease. Ouisie, who’s a few years younger than Lauren, is torn between getting on with her late vocation as a writer and “being there” for Lauren, who lives far away from her. Ouisie considers deferring her admission to graduate school, and the chance to study with a Big Writer, to stay with Lauren; but Lauren insists that she leave and take up this big chance. And Lauren continues to insist that Ouisie choose her writing over Lauren’s needs whenever a conflict arises.

Time is fractured. We jump forward a few months or a year, back twenty-five years, forward again. (OTW’s plays recent productions The Other Place and Gruesome Playground Injuries had this structure, too.) One minute the “sisters” are children on that seesaw, the next they are speaking on the telephone about Lauren’s children and Ouisie’s writing seminar. It’s to the credit of the director and the actors that this isn’t confusing. And that circular platform turns out to rotate, expressing the dizzying instability of dealing with cancer’s life-and-death doubt, while dealing with ongoing life.

The four local Equity actors are excellent. Karen Baum and Daina Michelle Griffith make the main characters touching and often funny. Theo Allyn and Cameron Knight play a zillion supporting roles each and range from moving to hilarious. There’s a Marx-brothers-like struggle between Allyn, as an insurance company representative, and Knight, as a lawyer trying to get her to approve payment for an expensive procedure. It’s a physical chase, wrestling match, mixed martial arts event.

I’ve seen the three women in many local productions, but Knight is new to me. Hats off to his infinite variety. He creates credible characters in a few minutes each. As a hair stylist and a vain celebrity doctor he’s exaggerated and funny; as the elderly client of Lauren, a social worker, he’s touching. And hurrah, the writing guru isn’t caricatured. Hurrah, too, that an African American actor is playing roles that don’t necessarily specify an African American.

Local Colors II

by Arlene Weiner

My travels for the past few years have been bipolar. I’ve gone north for happiness, to see my young grandchildren, and south for sad duty, to see my cousin, who has had heart problems and was diagnosed a little more than two years ago with ovarian cancer. My cousin lives south of Roanoke, Virginia in a town, once a railroad hub, with roads that snake up and down over hills. New streets with developers’ names, like Scenic River Road, branch off roads with no-nonsense, industrial-era names: Tanyard Road, Power Dam Road.

My cousin’s resting. The large-screen TV set is playing. I don’t want to turn it off because I might mishandle the two remote controls and black out her service. As it is, it seems she can find only one channel. When I walked into the living room just now, I was astonished to see and hear a woman who might have been Dorothy Collins on “Your Hit Parade” in the 1950s—bouffant hairdo, big smile, sweetly singing “Till There Was You.” A little later I realized, this actually was the Lawrence Welk show, a staple in olden days. A time capsule. The chanteuse. A Negro (as he would have been called then) tap-dancer in a suit, working hard and smiling hard. A pair of ballroom dancers, she in a full-length gown with sparkly bodice, he in a business suit—all in powder blue—dancing a polka to a song from The King and I. All the cast around them in powder blue, surrounding Welk, who is playing the accordion and wears red. And this on the public broadcasting channel!

And now, on the same channel, Song of the Mountains. I’m enchanted by a large bluegrass group, ETSU Old Time Pride Band, young people from East Tennessee State University. One guy in a fedora and blue shirt on bass; another fedora on fiddle; a vest and bowtie on guitar; a Lennonesque guy with a red beard in a yellow newsboy cap; a black girl in a ‘frohawk, tulle skirt, black boots, feather earrings on guitar; a girl in a fancy black dress and pearl earrings who might be in Sex and the City on autoharp. A small, vigorously fiddling brunette in a dress with a shiny silver overlay and fringed hem. They are working hard and seem to be having a good time. As one steps to a mike, two other step back to make room, smoothly. On “Pretty Polly,” the Black girl takes the lead. “I’ve researched this song,” she says, sings a version in which Willy gets his comeuppance in the last verses. It’s rousing.

Shots of the audience show a lot of people wearing red, a lot of people smiling, applauding, including a man in a turban. As John Balaban has written, “Moments like that, you can love this country.”


Theater Review: The Other Place

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

The Other Place. By Sharr White. Off the Wall Theater, 26 Main Street, Carnegie, PA. October 12 -27, 2012. Directed by: Melissa Hill Grande. With Erika Cuenca, Virginia Wall Gruenert, Mark Conway Thompson, Ricardo Vila Roger.

Off the Wall Theater’s production of The Other Place is a double Pittsburgh premiere: a play we haven’t seen, and a brand-new theater. A theater sentimentalist, I like to reminiscence about the quirks and hardships of remembered venues, where good things sometimes came in ugly packages. I recall The Pit, the University of Pittsburgh’s small theater with its vacant-warehouse vibe, where theatergoers had to peer around two posts planted right in front of the first row; and the Odd Chair Playhouse, with its museum of reclaimed chairs, somewhere south of the Monongahela; and the Upstairs on Penn Avenue in Garfield, which wasn’t upstairs. And will anyone who attended it forget the funky Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater venue on the second level of a downtown garage, and its second space, the Couch Theater, with, yes, couches on risers for seats?

Among these spaces, Off the Wall’s former theater in Washington, PA was as funky as any. First: It was in Washington. Then: It had a parking lot canted at a 30 degree angle, or so it seemed when it poured rain, as it so often seemed to when we ventured there. Up many steep steps, the theater space, which seemed to be a decommissioned church, was divided by a wide middle aisle, so that most of the seats felt off center no matter how good they were. And yet, we traveled from the East End of Pittsburgh to Washington many times for Off the Wall’s offerings, which most times were, as France’s Michelin Guide would say, “vaut le voyage”—worth the trip.

Well, huzzah. Off the Wall now has a sleek and worthy new theater in Carnegie, PA. Sorry, Washington. Across the street (Carnegie’s Main Street), a level public parking lot that’s free in the evenings; the theater handicap-accessible; very good coffee served in the lobby. As before, community-minded Off the Wall provides a showcase for artists. And there are nearby restaurants that look promising, including some that give sponsorship to the new theater.

But what, you ask, of the play? It’s taut and moving. The Other Place is a play centered on a confident, even arrogant, woman who specializes in introducing and promoting a new drug to conferences of physicians in luxurious resorts. Under Melissa Hill Grande’s direction, the play unfolds mysteries, present and past, in Juliana’s life, work, and relationships. She is a researcher whose breakthrough produced this drug, it seems. Seems, the operative word, because in brief scenes the play presents a kaleidoscope of views of Juliana, her husband Ian, their daughter, another physician, and other characters. Is Ian philandering? Is their daughter seeking a reunion with them? Why does Ian refuse to talk to Juliana about certain topics? What is the “episode,” or “thingy,” that causes Juliana to stop mid-stream in her practiced spiel? It happens “out of the blue,” and the setting takes its cue from this—the minimal, fluid set is all sky blue, with the backdrop abstracting windows and doors of “the other place” where she intermittently longs to be. Slides projected on the background illustrate Juliana’s sales spiel. In the second half of the play, parts of the set unfold to surprise with a more conventional and cosier setting—very appropriately.

Virginia Wall Gruenert, in the role of Juliana, is equal to the challenge of being onstage nearly every moment, shifting time, place, and tone, dominating the play. Mark Conway Thompson as her husband is convincing even at times when, I think, the script may use him as a convenience. Ricardo Vila Roger is effective in the smallest role. Erika Cuenca very capably undertakes several roles, switching back and forth easily but making the characters distinct, and in particular brings emotional warmth to the play’s resolution, which might be unconvincing in lesser hands. Finally, Juliana has a touching speech as simple as Lear’s self-recognition.

[Warning: the web site talks. http://www.insideoffthewall.com/ 1-888-71-TICKETS]


Local Color(s)

by Arlene Weiner

I’ve been spending time in the Old North End of a northern town, near the intersection of North Avenue and North Street. Really, literally. It’s Burlington, Vermont, near the shore of Lake Champlain. Depot Street runs steeply down to the lakeshore, once a busy port, now an attractive park with a bike trail, swinging benches, a boardwalk, a shack that sells cremees (the localism for soft-serve ice cream), and a dock. The old warehouse, an eight-story hulk, slightly mars the pleasure center. Ferries leave for towns in New York State. Sailboats and kayaks skim the lake.

Straight, wide, and treeless, North Avenue. The buildings along it aren’t the white-clapboard and green-shuttered charmers of imagined New England greens. Nor are they elaborated Victorians and Queen Annes, like some houses nearer the university. Many are two- and three-story boxes, flat-roofed, without shutter, porch, or lintel. Utilitarian, I’d say, though in this climate, where people shovel accumulated snow off porch roofs in winter to avoid their collapsing, a flat roof seems an impractical idea.

North Avenue is now a focus for recent immigrants. And it shows. It seems that the various national groups like to display their colors. Next to a Himalayan grocery a house—this one does have a porch, paneled doors, turned posts—is painted red, blue, and yellow, colors as bright as a kindergarten’s poster paint. Half a block down from it a newly re-sided three-story box is painted the same colors. A food store/convenience store called “Cool Runnings,” after a movie based on a Jamaican luge team, has a large grill painted equally bright yellow, black, and green. Round the corner is a house in those colors.

A halal grocery seems an exception. Shouldn’t it be painted green, the color of Islam? But it’s white with a blue star. Then I notice that the side wall IS painted green, a little faded. And it turns out that the flag of Somalia is blue with a white five-pointed star. There is indeed a Somali community. I enjoy seeing the women in long, brightly printed dresses. Today I saw one carrying a bundle on her head, with a poise I’ve always envied.

I’ve been having an e-mail discussion with some of my family about, roughly, the Other. It began with one man’s disgust with intolerant religious fanatics and was countered by another that religion wasn’t the problem, tribalism was. And that people would divide into tribes on any basis. I recalled that I’d visited Quebec just after Canada’s voters had rejected a proposal that Canada become bilingual, the official languages to be French and English. Naturally French-speaking Quebecois wished the referendum to pass.

I’d noticed that many houses in the countryside were painted white with contrasting bright trim. Quite pretty. Eventually I realized that the houses with blue trim were expressing allegiance to French and those with red trim were expressing allegiance to English. Tribes, and a good deal of hostility behind the flying colors. But at least they weren’t slaughtering each other.


Theatre Review: A Blonde Gets on a Train, Another Gets Off a Bus. Trouble Ensues.

by Arlene Weiner

Dutchman. By LeRoi Jones. Directed by Mark Clayton Southers. Starring Jonathan Berry and Tami Dixon. Bricolage Theater, 937 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh. Through May 12. http://www.bricolagepgh.org/

Bus Stop. By William Inge. Directed by Gregory Lehane. Philip Chosky Thearer, Purnell Center for the Arts. Carnegie Mellon University. Through May 5. http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=21675&schedule=list

At times I feel the phrase “embarrassment of riches” applies to Pittsburgh, and especially to Pittsburgh theater. In New York or London or San Francisco you might never even conceive the ambition to see all the plays that are offered, to say nothing of concerts and exhibits. Pittsburgh, though, is manageable in so many ways—as I once realized when I drove from the East End to the North Side through downtown at 1 pm, when office workers were teeming on the streets. Piece of cake.

Getting to all the plays? Not a piece of cake. A Viennese dessert cart, or one of those gut-busting Sunday buffets. My partner and I try to get to the productions of many of the small professional theaters and the college theaters. Put differently, we’re maniacs for theater. It is our great good luck, or burden, that as well as the two major professional companies and several minor ones there are ambitious community theaters, theaters within an hour’s drive of the city, and the universities’ drama departments. Two of the universities, Point Park and Carnegie-Mellon, have conservatory programs that prepare students for professional theater. So all together there are opportunities to see new or new-ish plays, demanding rarities, and even never-before-produced plays.

I think we’ll have seen six plays in two weeks, seven in three. We saw two plays now running almost back to back, and they make an interesting comparison: Bricolage’s Dutchman, by LeRoi Jones, directed by Mark Clayton Southers, and Carnegie-Mellon’s Bus Stop, by William Inge, directed by Gregory Lehane. Both are revivals of mid-twentieth-century plays: Bus Stop dates to 1955, Dutchman to 1964.

Dutchman, essentially a two-character play, is intense, claustrophobic, brief, and still has the power to shock. Bus Stop has eight characters and several meandering story lines. It was a three-act play, traditional at the time, but Lehane has wisely eliminated the intermissions, and his collaborator has cut the script down. Bus Stop was claustrophobic, too, the characters snowbound in a Kansas diner, but Lehane has “opened it up,” moving the diner setting outside a derelict bus with bleached winter grasses and wafflelike clouds above. In a talkback he explained that the team conceived the production as populated by ghosts, types that probably don’t exist any more. (For me and most people my age Bus Stop is also haunted by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe as the singer Cherie—Annie Heise is given a resemblance to the Blonde.)

The characters do indeed seem types (the cowboy, the professor, the no-better-than-she-should be lounge singer) more than characters, as if Inge was performing Kansas for his New York audience. While I watched Bus Stop I almost expected a character to break out into song, and I wonder why it never became a musical. (There is a song, interrupted, late in the play.) Maybe Oklahoma! had pre-empted the center of the country. The actors are winning, even winsome, Jessie Ryan as a naïve high school student especially so. Sometimes Carnegie Mellon student actors, as good as they are, are too young for their roles; Lexi Soha as the more-than-once-around-the-block Grace overcomes that. The technical values, set, costume, and lighting, are excellent.

The characters in Dutchman, too, are types, or even archetypes, and they call each other’s attention to that fact.: a striver, an African American man (or to use the mid-century word, Negro) and an aggressive, sexual, teasing, apple-proffering white woman. It’s summer on a subway car that isn’t air-conditioned. She comes on to him, he resists, then melts a little. Mark Southers not only keeps the claustrophic realistic setting, but also arranges the audience along both sides of the car, looking down on it as if at a bullring, appropriately enough. The acting and direction are superb. Highly recommended.

Bus Stop seems to want to please the audience, too much to seem true. Dutchman, a specimen of the theater of cruelty, wants to shake the audience. And it does.

[A further note: two more claustrophobic plays are currently being performed in the area. The first, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terrible, about the dangerous games played by a brother and sister in their Room, in the Helen Wayne Rauh Theater at Carnegie Mellon, defines perverse. What a brilliant and (pardon me) seminal figure Cocteau was! You may think the production, with its contemporary references and paraphernalia and the deafening music drowning out the words, is itself inappropriately, or appropriately, perverse. Directed by Joshua Gelb.

The second play, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, at Off the Wall Theater in Washington, PA, concerns a woman who was a political prisoner, tortured by a sadistic doctor. Years later she and her husband live in an isolated house. When a motorist comes to their home after a car breakdown she believes she recognizes his voice as her torturer’s. I have not seen it yet but I have a high regard for the actors. Through May 12. http://www.insideoffthewall.com/]


The American Brand

by Arlene Weiner

My talented and savvy cousin Bob says I ought to think about my brand. He’s an artist and artisan, and part of his business (Fahrenheit.com) is rebranding companies. He suggests “That New York poet.”

It’s too hard to think about defining myself, performing myself, so instead I start thinking about women with instantly recognizable brands: Lady Gaga, Madonna. Condoleeza Rice? What about poets? Sharon Olds? Jorie Graham? How about Billy Collins? He’s one of the most popular poets in the U.S. What is his brand?

I slip into thinking about art in general, and then the American brand in the arts. Historically some American artists have had a huge influence in the world. I think of Walt Whitman, of Isadora Duncan, of Jackson Pollack. Of the beats. Walt Whitman: the broad-brimmed hat, the open road, the oracular free verse, the inclusiveness. Isadora Duncan: the bare feet and flowing garments. Jackson Pollack, the poured paint. Collectively, the brand is Liberty. Liberation from meter and respectability, from shoes and corsets, from brushes and perspective. No coincidence that the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, broken chains at her feet, is our enduring logo.

The literary and social critic Philip Rahv looked at American writers and defined them as either palefaces or redskins, according to how they dealt with experience. Emily Dickinson, Henry James, T.S. Eliot: palefaces. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman: redskins. The American brand abroad is definitely redskin.

(A complexity is that both abroad and at home, African-Americans are a specific vector and creator of the American brand: banana dance, jazz in the 20s, Roll Over Beethoven and Good Golly Miss Molly, moonwalk. In art they are seen as quintessentially “nature” and “freedom” (what a paradox!)—raw versus cooked. This is a stereotype, of course—even in the fields they are most stereotypically known for, dance and music, African- American step dancers, dance moves, bands, may swing but can be choreographed and performed with astounding discipline and precision.)

It must be that President Obama wants to refresh the American brand, renew the contagion of liberty. As his predecessor President Bush may have wished to do, with maybe a different definition of liberty. But Liberty Enlightening the World has a book and a lamp, not a drone and an assault rifle.

Dialects of Driving

by Arlene Weiner

On September 21 a blog post here by Songyi Zhang complained of the habits of American (that is, U.S.) drivers, and contrasted them with Chinese and Canadian drivers. What Songyi Zhang doesn’t know is that there are considerable local differences in driving habits: dialects.

Pittsburgh, where I live, has been called “The city that lets you in.” Yes, generally speaking, if you are waiting to enter a long line of moving traffic, Pittsburghers will let you in. It’s also the habit in Pittsburgh, when cars are waiting at an intersection for a light to turn green, that the person going straight through will allow a car traveling in the opposite direction to turn left in front of him or her. After long residence in Pittsburgh, I lived in New Jersey for three years, commuting to work on heavily traveled two-lane roads. At first I would wave an opposing driver signaling for a left turn to turn in front of me. But they didn’t. They didn’t expect this opportunity and didn’t respond. So I gave up the habit.

I won’t make a moral generalization about this. Maybe it’s not that Pittsburghers are more polite. Maybe it’s that traffic is generally less heavy and drivers less frustrated. Other Pittsburgh habits are not so considerate. They are just cultural differences.

For example, there’s a phenomenon I call “the Pittsburgh glide.” When a light (and by the way, Pittsburghers call this a REDlight, accent on the first syllable, not a “traffic light” or just a “light”) turns yellow, Pittsburghers don’t stop for it—they go through. They go through if the light is yellow when they approach it. It’s my impression that they go through if they’ve SEEN the yellow from a distance. Recently I’ve seen people who simply follow the bus or truck ahead of them through the light. Since they can’t see that it’s red, it’s okay, right?

The dialect in New York City is, or was some years ago, in conflict with this habit. In New York, the culture was to “jump the light”—that is, to anticipate a light’s turning from red to green, to start through as soon as the light facing the perpendicular street turned red. (This habit started when there were no yellow lights, only red and green, and maybe is influenced by taxicabs.) This must be the origin of the phrase “a New York minute,” meaning no time at all.

I’ve driven through Pennsylvania and into New Jersey on interstate highways many, many times, and I think I could tell when I get to New Jersey just because cars zoom past me (in the middle lane) on the right-hand side as much as on the left-hand side, and I think they actually prefer to pass on the right. At one time many left-hand lanes in New Jersey were reserved for vehicles that carried more than two passengers, but I don’t think that’s the reason. Someone from New Jersey will have to explain it.

Based on her experience in Quebec, Songyi Zhang mentioned speeds in Canada versus speeds in the U.S. Some fifteen or so years ago my family spent a number of vacations in Ontario, and the speed at which those Canadians drove took our breath away. I attributed it then to it’s being a bigger country. Either Canadians have driving dialects too (and why not? many Quebecois think they’re a department of France—but French drivers are another story) or habits have changed a great deal since then—either ours or theirs.

Now, Massachusetts. I learned to drive in Massachusetts, but I am not, not, not a Massachusetts—at least not a Boston—driver. I hate to tailgate or to be tailgated. When I drove in Massachusetts, if I left a reasonable space between my car and the car ahead of mine, inevitably another car would insert itself into that space. I was an adult when I learned to drive and my driving instructor knew I came from New York City–one of the few places in the U.S. where people can never learn to drive without being or feeling deeply deprived. He said, “The difference between New York drivers and Boston drivers is that New York drivers don’t know how to drive, and Boston drivers know how they ought to drive, but won’t.”

When I moved from Massachusetts to California (long, long ago), even though I had a driver’s license, I had to take an over-the-road test to get a California license. And I failed! Why? The examiner explained: “Remember when you were going through an intersection and you slowed down? That wasn’t necessary. The other driver (opposite) was signaling for a right turn.” (“Ha!” I thought. “In Boston, the other driver might have been signaling for a right turn and turn left in front of you.”) “You know how to handle a car,” the examiner said. “You just haven’t learned our California style of driving yet.” Style? Style? I could have spit.


Theatre Review: Shining City by Conor McPherson

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Shining City. By Conor McPherson. Directed by John Shepherd. With Dennis Schebetta, F.J. Hartland, Karen Baum, and James Maschiovecchio. Off the Wall Productions. 147 N. Main Street, Washington, PA.

How come Shakespeare wasn’t Irish? So many of the classical English-language playwrights were: Congreve (though born English), Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw—not to mention those who took Ireland and her people for their subject, Synge, Yeats, O’Casey. And in our day Irish playwrights flourish: Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson. Perhaps it’s the relation of plays to, well, relations. Not just relationships but relating, storytelling. Not all modern Irish drama, but some, rejects the divide between presentation and representation—it shows by telling. In Friel’s play The Faith Healer, for example, the three characters never interact, they only narrate alternately, until their narratives become a braid, a noose that exacts a gasp.

So it is, in part, with Shining City. The two main characters are a therapist and his patient. How convenient, we think: for a therapist can be the confidant, that theatrical device into whose ear exposition is poured. But that’s not McPherson’s game, or not entirely. For the patient isn’t the main character and the therapist a sock puppet. There’s a kind of rhyme between the two. Each has female trouble. Each has his anguish.

Nevertheless a good swatch of this play is the tale told, in pieces, by the unhappy patient.

The patient’s wife has died, violently, and he has seen her since her death. He’s terrorized and at wit’s end. And the marvel is that in the telling, this story, its fractions, both these stories, move us to pity and terror. In intervening scenes we learn about the therapist’s past and present and doubtful future, and are moved by them as well.

The marvel is due in large part to the wonderful acting of F.J. Hartland and Dennis Schebetta, which must mean marvelous direction by John Shepherd. Karen Baum and James Maschiovecchio are also very effective. (All but Maschiovecchio are Equity actors.)

The night my companion and I went to Shining City we drove I-79 through thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain. We ascended to the theater (it unfortunately is not, unless I’m mistaken, handicap-accessible). I think it was worth the trip.

Shining City runs May 6-7, 13-14, 19-21 at 8pm, 5/15 at 3pm.


My First Sonnet

by Arlene Weiner

I must have been eight or ten when my mother’s friend Sally died, and Sally must have been in her thirties or at most early forties. After Sally died, my mother cut a poem out of “The Ladies’ Home Journal” and tacked it to the cabinet over our kitchen sink where she could see it when she was washing dishes.

I remember the beginning of the poem. It was called “Godspeed,” a word I didn’t understand, and began, “Wherever you have gone, we wish you well./Only our loss can give us cause for weeping./If death is but a rest and a last sleeping,/There is no blade of grass that cannot tell/The quiet you deserve.”

The poem was a revelation to me. I’d read poems, and my mother had read poems to me. I may even have written poems. But I expected poems to rhyme at the ends of sentences, and I expected the rhymes to come neatly in pairs, the lines closing firmly: like taking a step out and bringing the back foot up, then standing still a moment before stepping out again—in other words, in couplets, AABBCC. In “Godspeed” the second line had a little rocking motion (the two-syllable rhyme) and the next line had too, closing the rhyme—and then the poem unexpectedly (to me) rhymed with that first line and swept right on around a curve before the sentence finished in midline.

I don’t remember the rest of the poem. It was, I’m pretty sure, a Petrarchan sonnet. I read in the New York Times, December 25, 2005, that Elizabeth McFarland became the poetry editor of “The Ladies’ Home Journal” in 1948, that she published “some 900” poems, and that the magazine stopped publishing poetry in 1962. She was a poet herself; after she died, Daniel Hoffman, her widower, published a book of her own poetry, “Over the Summer Water.”

I learned something from that poem. Not only about enjambment, or ABBA rhyme, or Petrarchan sonnets. I learned something about my mother’s soul. And I learned that in a time of grief poetry can console.

Theatre Review: Superior Donuts

Superior Donuts. By Tracy Letts. Directed by Ted Pappas. Pittsburgh Public Theater, O’Reilly Theater. April 14 through May 15, 2011. With David Agranov, Sharon Brady, Donald Corren, Brandon Gill, Daryll Heysham, Joe Jackson, Wali Jamal, Antoinette LaVecchia, Anderson Mathews. Scenic Design by Michael Swhweikardt. Costume design by Amy Clark. Lighting design by Phil Monat. Sound Design by Zach Moore.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Tracy Letts is a smart playwright. He knows what we in the audience want. He’s a prodigy, too. I’ve seen three of his plays now: Bug, August: Osage County, and most recently Superior Donuts, in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production. They are all different from each other. Bug (which I saw in Pittsburgh’s barebones theater’s production) is a claustrophobic Sam Shepherd-like play: two no-hope characters in a seedy motel room: intense. And I thought it said or implied something about America. August: Osage County (which I saw in New York) is relatively sprawling: numerous characters, one of whom, whose long monlogue opens the play, disappears. Companies don’t like to waste an actor—played in that production by Tracy Letts’ father–like that! And August: Osage County is a rarity these days, a three-act play. Well-made, too, one surprise revelation after another. If we don’t like any of the characters, with few exceptions, it’s a ride.

Superior Donuts, like Bug, takes place on one set, a rundown doughnut shop in Chicago’s Uptown. The shopowner, Arthur, is stuck. Depressed, refusing to make any change in his life, he’s a regular pot smoker but he never has any highs. His toking just leads to ruminations about his past, which we hear. He had Polish immigrant parents. He ran to Canada to avoid the draft. His father died—right in the shop–and he couldn’t attend the funeral. Nobody in his life hears his stories—he’s a clam. His sentences trail like his gray ponytail, but they illuminate his current (in)actions, as when he says, “There’s a difference between a resister and an evader…I—evaded,” and we see him evade choice in the present.

Into Arthur’s shop come a variety of regulars: two cops, one a woman who’d like to date him; a bag lady; the Russian immigrant who owns the DVD shop next door. Most centrally, a new person comes in: an exuberant young African-American man who applies for the job advertised in the window. Franco (named, we learn, after Franco Harris) is the opposite of Arthur: a mile-a-minute talker, full of plans, and especially full of hope—hope that makes Arthur round on him with uncharacteristic energy: things don’t happen that way. Good things don’t happen, hopes don’t come true.

The play is full of comedy, and, finally, poignant. I can’t imagine it’s having a better production. The actors are fine. The set is perfect. Ted Pappas’ direction is broad in comic moments and effective in moments when deeper meaning must be gleaned. Brandon Gill’s and Donald Corren’s physicality as Franco and Max Tarasov may be a little exaggerated at times, but that serves the play, contrasting with Anderson Mathews’ stasis as Arthur—very difficult to pull off being the center of attention without moving. I noted particularly that Corren was persuasive both as a hard guy and a clown, not easy, and that Sharon Brady as the bag lady perfectly conveyed a pivotal speech, flat yet oracular, when she tells Arthur, “You know what to do.” Wali Jamal as one of the cops shows up in a Star Trek outfit and yet is able to deliver the tragic load of what amounts to a Messenger’s speech in a Greek tragedy.

Because something shocking and terrible happens. Arthur’s view of life would seem to be confirmed. Instead, there’s a transformation, one that we as the audience wish for. Heartwarming. And yet. There’s a flavor of sit-com about the play: the cast of eccentrics with funny lines dropping in. The menace that brings about the climax doesn’t seem organic, doesn’t speak to the condition of life in Uptown—and seems to be quashed more magically than realistically. Maybe unfairly, I recalled August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, in which sharply defined characters drop into a diner. That play—which arguably is not so well constructed as Superior Donuts—seems, like Bug, to speak to our social condition, not just to the individuals’ fates. This is a cavil, a hope that Letts will require more from us the next time. Superior Donuts in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production is an entertaining night in the theater.

Book Review: Burning of the Three Fires by Jeanne Marie Beaumont

Burning of the Three Fires
Jeanne Marie Beaumont
BOA Editions
2010. 96 pp.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s previous collection (BOA 2004) was called Curious Conduct, and curious this poet and her poetry are, in several senses. First, Beaumont is alert to various and sometimes obscure aspects of the world: arcane information from Wikipedia, art, etymologies, fairy tales told slant, slasher movies, magician’s tricks.

Then, the poems are curious in the older sense: subtly, carefully, and skillfully worked. Several of the poems celebrate art that is so worked. “Fancy That Does Not Do But Is” considers an exhibit of objects that are not only not useful but not entirely viewable. It asserts the value of, and the pleasure of, beautifully wrought but inaccessible objects:

           …an extravagance
                    that has no earthly use
        for us. 

The title of the poem recalls the famous lines from MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”:

     A poem should not mean
     But be. 

But “Fancy” isn’t Beaumont’s own ars poetica. In her poems the working—the wit, the verbal play, the formal invention, the pleasures of sound, sight, and insight—subserve feeling (longing, anxiety) that may cumulate quietly (“Totem”) or arrive like a slap. From a description of a backyard birdbath:

               …White flower frozen in full-out
     Bloom, liquid-centered like Belgian chocolate
          or a properly baked soufflé.
               Part baptismal font, part

      Giant’s goblet. 

Marvelous. Then the move, so characteristic, and with such a light touch, into pain:

                   Shallow as summer,
                           as neighbors.

That slap—the kind of twist someone can give when she has you in her grasp—as kids we used to call it an “Indian burn” —and Beaumont’s use of short lines and internal rhyme in a poem like “Recollections: Aviary” suggest an affinity with Kay Ryan and May Swenson.

Anaphora, metaphor, prose poetry, collage, puns—

						…a boy-
          man handles his scotch, the burn of its amber
          entrapping what bugs him..,

—allusion, mashup. My current favorite of these mashups—it may change as I reread this book again and again—is “Is Rain My Bearskin?” which conflates Goldilocks with Psycho.

		I’m the blonde in the shower
	water too hot		water too cold

This is one of several retellings of Grimm tales, and at the end of it you may laugh out loud. (Beaumont co-edited an anthology of poetry from the Grimms’ tales.)

Beaumont makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange, especially when she picks up the dull language of everyday and sets it alight, as in “Getting to Know You” and if “If You Wish to Be Removed from this List.” “If You Wish to Be Removed” uses a number of ordinary and even stale phrases to generate panic and sadness. I predict it will go up on bulletin boards and refrigerators. I recommend this book.

The White Book

by Arlene Weiner 

Somewhere among my effects—my stuff, my junk—there is a small book with a white cover, stiff and warped. It’s not a Bible, and I’ve not read it very much. It’s a copy of poems by Tennyson.

For the first twenty years of my life I lived in an apartment house in Manhattan, a five-story L-shaped building that abutted a twin building, so that together they formed a protective U around a courtyard. My neighbors were Irish (mostly: the Stewarts, the Harrisons, the Kirks, the Keowns, the Dwyers, the O’Dwyers), French (one couple, the Rollands, on the fourth floor), Greek (one family, the Armases, with a girl and a boy the same age as me and my brother), Jewish (a few: the Pages, the Weinglasses, the Pollacks, Martha Greisel), German (the Wankes).

Among all these nameable nationalities, there was one couple, the Cheadles (Dickensian name, especially since he was a lawyer), whom we called “English.”  They weren’t from England. They simply didn’t have a tag like the rest of us. They were, I guess, what people now call “WASP.” Mrs. Cheadle had a fluty Eleanor-Roosevelt kind of voice. She told me once that Mr. Cheadle had gone to Columbia Law School in the same class as Franklin Roosevelt. 

I think the Cheadles had come down badly in the world. No lawyer, doctor, or teacher lived in our building or in the near neighborhood. And while I was living there, they came down even more, because they moved from an apartment on the first or second floor to a three-room basement apartment, with half-height windows that looked out onto the feet of people coming and going—or playing—in the court. 

I commuted to college from that apartment house, for four years walking a block or so to the screeching elevated subway train that I took downtown. And then I married. My neighbors showered me with rice. Mrs. Kirk gave me two silver-plate serving pieces, a fork and pierced spoon that I still use frequently—out of her own things, because they were tarnished and my mother polished them. Mrs. Cheadle gave me the white book. I think it meant she had hopes for me.


These Self-Same Keys

by Arlene Weiner

Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

In the early 1980s I went to the Third Annual Conference on Computers and Writing. A well-known computer guru—can his name really have been Chip?—was the keynote speaker. Against expectation, he told us that across town they were holding the fifty-third annual conference on ballpoint pens and writing. He was wittily warning us, a roomful of writing instructors who were mostly enthusiasts for computers, against exaggerating the difference that “the computer” might make to writing.

And yet it has. Why not? Even the ballpoint pen made a difference, at least to this writer, who remembers the messy process of filling a fountain pen with ink from a bottle on her schoolroom desk—a desk that had a groove for pencil or pen and a vestigial brass flap that opened to a hole where previous generations had kept their ink, dipped nibs into it, and wiped them with penwipers. And had blotters! Even with a fountain pen, I’d often be left with ink on my thumb and middle finger. With the ballpoint pen, goodbye to all that—to the blots and the laborious care, the difficulty for left-handers—the beginning, no doubt, of the era of instant gratification.

Would Jack Kerouac’s On the Road have been the same if he’d written it by hand instead of typing it? And didn’t the typewriter affect poetry? Were e.e. cummings’ typographical experiments composed on a typewriter? I don’t know. But I do believe that the way typewriting and computing present a poem has influenced poets’ sense of form—the aim to have a visual form and less attention to aural form.

As we write, the instruments with which we write are our immediate environment, our experience, and so they can influence our metaphors. In Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him to “whet [his] almost blunted purpose.” I’d read or heard this many times before it occurred to me, aha! that Shakespeare wrote with a quill pen, which would wear down and need to be sharpened.

I had such an aha! thought about a poem of Wallace Stevens’. I remembered it as beginning, “Just as my fingers on these self-same keys/Make music…” Aha! I thought. Stevens was sitting at a typewriter “making music”—“feeling, not sound” and obscured this by titling the poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” I made some attempts to find out whether Stevens typed his own poems or whether he hand-wrote them and turned them over to a typist. I think he probably did not do his own typing. Still, isn’t it pretty to think so?

My Life in the Theatre

By Arlene Weiner

I’ve been trying to learn to write plays. It’s a craft, I know, not only an art. I’ve heard it said by someone in the theater that writing a play is like plumbing. I understood her to mean that things have to be connected up right or you have a spontaneous overflow of something you don’t want on your floor.

There’s a joke about someone who tried to fix a plumbing problem himself with ugly results, then gave up and called a plumber. The plumber came, heard the problem, went into the cellar, banged on a pipe, and presented a bill for two hundred dollars. The customer was outraged: “Two hundred dollars for banging on a pipe!” The plumber said, “Two dollars for banging on the pipe. A hundred ninety-eight dollars for knowing what pipe to bang on.”

As I watch plays nowadays, or on the way home if I’m really caught up by the play, I try to figure out where the elbows and valves are, where to bang. I saw my friend Tim at a performance of an August Wilson play. He’s an aspiring playwright too—a promising one. After the play Tim said, “How did he DO that?”

Recently I went to a reading of poetry and prose by Harold Pinter, playwright and screenwriter, winner of the Nobel prize, with a style so distinctive that the word “Pinteresque” was coined. One of the characteristics of his plays is that things aren’t all filled in, explained, the dots connected. And another is that the language is all. Pinteresque. At the reading I saw another friend, Jay Carson, who’s a poet. I said to Jay that I hadn’t known that Pinter wrote poetry but it made sense. “All great playwrights are poets,” Jay said. I just read an interview with Tony Kushner in which he says he’s not a poet. Maybe he’s an exception.

William Butler Yeats was one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, opened in 1904 and still in existence. He spent a good deal of time and energy writing plays and, I suppose, in theater business, and complained about it: “The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins…My curse on plays
/That have to be set up in fifty ways…”

I haven’t been writing much poetry lately.

No Window: Poetry, Memory, History

by Arlene Weiner

I recently returned from a trip to Greece, which has me thinking about Homer.

Years ago I was astonished but convinced by the argument that the Iliad was not originally written, but was composed orally. Part of the evidence was gathered by Albert Lord, who journeyed through the Balkans and found men singing long traditional narratives in taverns. (Singer of Tales, 1960.) These bards were keepers of historical memory. A good bit of the content of the Balkan songs, as of Anglo-Saxon verse and the Iliad, is the memory of old battles and praise of the ancestors’ honor. What’s more, they didn’t simply recite memorized pieces—they varied a song from performance to performance.

As individuals we sometimes remember through verse. How many days in November? Does S come after U? Many of us will quickly run through Thirty days hath September, or the ABC song. Even when normal memory is lost—when someone has suffered neurological damage—a person may be able to remember sentences set to a tune.

Oral composition is more than passive remembering. Verse forms enable the very skilled bard to compose, to improvise as he recites. (The bard in the Balkans was a he.) Actors in a Shakespeare play will sometimes be able to fill out a blank-verse line that they’ve partly forgotten. I’ve had, and maybe you’ve had, the experience of making up words to a folk song as I went along, or a line to a popular song I don’t remember. If you ever sing the blues (literally), while you are repeating your first line (Went to the grocer’s, didn’t have my bag/Went to the grocer’s, didn’t have my bag) you can think what your concluding line will be. (I’m sorry to say the ending feeling like a hag leaps to my mind.)

On the flight back from Greece to the U.S., I had no window, but I could follow the course of the flight on a map displayed on a screen in front of me. We headed north from Athens and in a very little time we were over Serbia, Romania, Hungary. So many countries close together (at least in the jet age), countries that have known much suffering and war, and recently. And I recalled that during the Bosnian War, I was horrified to realize that the tavern songs Lord heard memorialized the battles between Serbs and Muslims hundreds of years ago, especially the battle of Kosovo. Poetry may have inflamed the ferocity of that war.

Who Touches This Touches….an Algorithm

by Arlene Weiner

Ray Kurzweil is an innovator and futurist. He developed a number of widely used innovations, notably the Kurzweil Reader, which uses pattern recognition to translate printed material into machine-readable text and the text into speech. In 1976! According to Wikipedia, the Kurzweil Reader project developed both the first flat-bed scanner and text-to-speech generation.

Kurzweil’s interested in art, and while still in his teens he developed a software program that analyzed music by classical composers and synthesized pieces in their style. Similarly, Kurzweil developed the Ray Kurzweil Cybernetic Poet (RKCP), which analyzes poems by one (or more) poets and generates poems in their styles. Haiku included. (You can download the software free, at http://www.kurzweilcyberart.com/poetry/rkcp_overview.php3, but sorry, not for Macintoshes.)

There’s a history in literature of interest in automatism in the generation of texts. The surrealists and Oulipo developed methods for making texts collectively or with elements of randomness. For example, in the surrealists’ Exquisite Corpse game, each participant writes a section without seeing what the preceding sections are, and in one of Oulipo’s exercises, each noun in a passage is replaced by the noun that occurs a certain number of entries after it in a dictionary. Still, there’s something disquieting about an automated poetry generator. Doesn’t it call the value of poetry into question? or of poets?

One of my philosophy instructors in college, Judith Jarvis (later Thomson), gave as a topic for a paper “Suppose you found out that your best friend was made in Detroit?” Suppose you came across a poem by RKCP, and found it moving? Would you feel defrauded when you found out later that it was generated by a software program? Is the product, the arrangement of words on the page (or striking the ear), the only thing that matters, or is its origin important? Do we want a guarantee of contact with a mind, a man, a camerado?

Arguably the RKCP poem does carry the faint fragrance of the authors of the poems that are its model, just as poems made from a magnetic poetry kit (one of those sets of individual words that can be stuck up on refrigerators and shuffled into poems, or messages) are imprinted with the choices of the people who selected the words.

If you care to, you can assemble an electronic poetry kit based on one of a number of authors (including Baudelaire, in English; Bukowski; Ginsberg; Plath) at http://www.languageisavirus.com/electronicpoetry/index.html As with the magnetic poetry kits, the words are supplied, but you’ll have to bring your own syntax.

[Much of the factual material in this article from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Kurzweil, downloaded March 16, 2010.]


Biting off More Than I Can Eschew

By Arlene Weiner

“The trouble with you, Arlene,” a friend said, “is you can’t stay mad.” How right she was. Too much negative capability, I suppose—I begin to put myself in someone else’s shoes, see there might be another side to the story. As soon as I make a sweeping generalization, I think of an exception.

So though I once said, “If I ever write a poem about Icarus or Persephone, just shoot me,” I quickly repented. True, I’d read too many, in classes, workshops, and elsewhere. But now I began to think, “Why? Why those figures?” One reason is the emerging poets’ pride in knowledge, in taking possession of mythology, a knowledge not shared by everyone, but something discovered, almost private. But primarily because these are two young figures that are attractive to the (mostly young) poets writing about them: the ambitious young man wishing to soar, the romantic young woman imagining herself prized by the Dark Lord. In these stories the limbs of wish and fear are entangled, because they are warnings—Don’t stray from the path, don’t aim too high! Persephone is a Little Red Riding Hood in classical draperies, Icarus falls. I haven’t seen many contemporary poems about young men in myth whose ambition is satisfied,.like Perseus or Jason. (Well, if you know Jason’s whole story, you know he’s slime.)

I’m not the only one who issues prohibitions for poetry. Teachers say: No adjectives and adverbs! Show don’t tell! No ideas but in things! Just like my (now given up) ban on Persephone and Icarus, their bans probably come from reading a lot of poems, sometimes from, let’s say, passion fatigue. Sometimes the fatigue is more specific, a “not [that trope/subject/word] again!”

Once I showed a poem to a poet friend, and she said, “Not ‘shards’! Please don’t use ‘shards’!” It seems that she’d been judging poetry contests, and the word “shards” appeared over and over, a kind of mark of poeticism. And since she said that, I’ve seen the word many, many times, in workshops and, yes, in published poetry. Again I ask, “Why?” Why is the word “shards” so attractive? As with the allusions to the myths, one reason is that it displays a little learning: it’s a word out of the common, a discovery. It also has a sound that is quite close to “sharp,” which pleases because it means something sharp. Most of all, because it means something fragmentary, and fragmentation is the great subject of modernism.

As my friend understood, I’m easy. I wouldn’t deny myself the pleasure of Jack Gilbert’s Falling and Flying, a perfectly fresh use of the Icarus story. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=177687, and I’m still willing to entertain a poem with adjectives, adverbs, Persephone, or “shards,” even Persephone and “shards.”