‘Pinteresting’ Pair

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The set for “The Dumb Waiter,” part of a Harold Pinter doubleheader with “A Kind of  Alaska,” through Feb. 12. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Review: ‘A Kind of Alaska’ and ‘The Dumb Waiter’ at Lamar University

Harold Pinter is an acquired taste. The Nobel Prize winner draws on the the absurdist tradition of Samuel Beckett to give us plays that offer us questions but rarely any answers. For a nerd like me, that makes for a lovely evening at the theater.

For the uninitiated, Lamar University’s theater department’s doubleheader of two short plays, “A Night in Alaska” and “The Dumb Waiter,” directed by Joel Grothe, which opened Feb. 9 in the Studio Theater, is a nice introduction to Pinter’s work.

First up is “A Kind of Alaska,” written in 1982. It begins with middle-aged Deborah (Iza Scott) in bed, watched over by her doctor, Hornby (Michael Saar). After a long pause — pauses are the order of day in this play — Dorothy wakes and begins a stream of consciousness, meandering conversation with no one in particular as Hornby writes feverishly in his notebook. Dorothy has been asleep for a long time — a long time, Hornby emphasizes — and Deborah is forced to come to term with not only her surroundings, but the loss of almost 30 years.

Pinter was inspired to write “Alaska” after reading neurologist Oliver Sacks‘ “Awakenings” (made familiar through the movie with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro), about Encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness which leaves its victims in a state that is, as Hornby says, “Not asleep, but not awake, either.”

17-001 Poster-PinterScott does a fine job of conveying the confusion of teenage girl waking up as a woman in her 40s. Saar is solid as the doctor who has his own secret. Rounding out the cast is Maddie Hightower as Pauline, the no-longer-13-year-old sister, who excellently conveys the double loss of her life. The sense of loss hangs over the proceedings and the pauses add to the mood. However, it is not without levity, especially when Deborah, unsure if this woman is really her little sister, asks where Pauline got her breasts, incredulously.

What will happen now Deborah knows the truth? We know where her physical body has been, but where has she been in her mind? She alludes to halls, but where or how? Why? and what’s next? are also left unanswered.

Where “Alaska” slowly moves toward discovery, 1957’s “The Dumb Waiter” crackles. Sure, the pauses are there as Ben and Gus wait for the next next job, but the tension and humor whisk the action along. The two characters are in a run-down room with a couple of rickety cots and little else. Ben (Sydney Haygood) sits reading a paper as Gus (Austin Jones) wakes from a nap. The pair are a team, but different. Ben is the older laconic veteran, while Ben is the fidgety, talkative junior partner. They are killing time before a job (one wonders if Quentin Tarantino was inspired by this play to write the characters Vincent and Jules in “Pulp Fiction“).

When the dumb waiter door creaks into life, the pair find a note for a food order, then another, then another. The mystery of who is ordering the food ramps up the tension, causing cracks in the teamwork.

Jones is well cast as the impatient Gus, constantly questioning what is happening. Who, what why and when? — the questions never stop. Haygood is, once more, a stand out. Regular LU viewers know she is consistently strong and as her Lamar career progresses, her flexibility and confidence grows. If you have yet to see this fine actress, now is the time to start.

“The Dumb Waiter” is lauded as one of Pinter’s finest early works and this production does nothing to diminish its reputation.

Theater lovers should rush — without pause — to see fine young talent interpret one of theater’s true writing giants.

There are three more chances to see the shows, Feb. 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15, $7 for LU students, and $10 for faculty and staff. The Studio Theatre is located on the MLK Parkway feeder road on the Lamar University campus. For more, visit www.lamar.edu/theatre.

Balancing Acts

The Art Museum of Southeast Texas is hosting an exhibition of sculpture by Steve Murphy and paintings by David Aylsworth through Feb. 26. Here is my review for the February 2017 ISSUE magazine.

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Sculptures by Steve Murphy and paintings by David Aylsworth are on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through Feb. 26.Sculptures by Steve Murphy and paintings by David Aylsworth are on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through Feb. 26.

Picasso and Calder

The exhibition, alas, is over, but this is a nice write up. Click here for the article.

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Bernard Ruiz-Picasso and Alexander S. C. Rower. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh, courtesy of Almine Rech; Alexander Calder / Constellation with Diabolo. 1943. Wood, wire, and paint. 24 1/4 x 18 1/4 x 16 in. © 2016 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Pablo Picasso / Woman. June 8, 1946. Oil on plywood. 51 1/8 x 38 1/8 in. Zervos XIV-175 (Figure) © 2016 Succession Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Eisenstadt drawings

As I seem to be incapable of writing articles that are brief, I end up not posting as much as I should. This is a failing I aim to rectify. It occurs to me that I should post interesting articles here, not just stuff I write. After all, it’s not just about me. This is a fascinating piece about an exhibition  of the great Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein‘s drawings. It is exactly this type of thing that I try to teach my students when writing a feature story — find the unexpected. Eisenstein’s films are the stuff of legend, but who knew this side of him? Click here for the link.

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Review: Tudor twists and turns

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Joel F. Grothe, center, plays Thomas Cromwell, Ruherford Cravens, left, plays Cardinal Wolsey and Joel Sandel plays Thomas More in Main Street Theater’s productions of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” through Dec. 18. Courtesy photo.

MST’s ‘Wolf Hall,’ ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ a theatrical feast

HOUSTON — Political machinations, a social climber using her feminine wiles, alliances, intrigue and scandal. No, it’s not a post-election wrap up, it’s the 1520s in the court of Henry VIII.

Main Street Theater’s production of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies,” adapted from Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels by Mike Poulton, is a sumptuous feast fit for a king.

The play follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell (Joel F. Grothe) as he rises through the ranks of the court to be Henry’s most trusted fixer. Cromwell’s rise is built on loyalty and cunning scheming.

The play begins with Henry VIII (Blake Weir) frustrated by the inability of Katherine of Aragon (Kara Greenberg) to provide him with a male heir. Let’s be honest, most people have at least a cursory knowledge of the tale of the Tudors, but these plays, set in the round in Main Street’s intimate theater, make it feel as though we are in the room with these historical figures, seeing their strengths and weaknesses in the flesh, getting up close with the doubts, fears and ambitions that drive their motives.

A notorious womanizer eventually turns to Anne Boleyn who, with the help of her (very close) family, manipulates Henry into seeking a divorce. Anne, played with devious deliciousness by Lisa Villegas, dominates the men of the court, while inserting herself between Henry and Cardinal Wolsey (Rutherford Cravens).

The hub around which the plays revolve is Cromwell. In “Wolf Hall,” he is the loyal protégé of Wolsey, helping him grease the wheels of power for the king. When Wolsey is undone by Boleyn and her supporters, Cromwell shifts to become the invaluable hand of the king. “Bring Up The Bodies” follows Cromwell’s consolidation of power — and the perils that come with it — as he helps Henry with his quest for an heir.

Grothe’s Cromwell is on stage for almost every scene of the two plays. In “Wolf Hall” our sympathies are with the lower–class boy made good — “The Grim Blacksmith” — as he watches his mentor, Wolsey, buried by his enemies. Grothe plays the part with solid good grace as a loyal friend and family man. In “Bring Up The Bodies,” we see Cromwell for the skillful operator as he gradually eliminates his political enemies. It is in the second play that Grothe really shines. He becomes more animated as he puts his plans into action and his confidence in his abilities grows. It is an assured performance worthy of the material.

whMain Street is not afraid to test itself with epic material, and in most cases, such as this one, the audience is rewarded by their bravado. The play, directed by Rebecca Greene Udden, is set in the round, with only minimal set pieces. The dialogue is crisp and often humorous within the deep historical events.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV says “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” and Weir’s Henry VIII excellently reveals this to be true. Far from the one-dimensional blustering womanizer of some portrayals, Weir gives us a king that is truly worried about the country in the event of a fight over succession. Is he a “good” man? Not particularly, but he is thoughtful and, to the extent his upbringing allows, loving — though monogomy doesn’t really play into that.

Villegas is superb as Anne Boleyn. She is fully aware of how to use her sexuality to her advantage, and her rise and fall covers the full range of emotions.

The large cast of 24, many of whom play multiple roles, are admirable, with kudos to Joel Sandel as Sir Thomas More, and Will Sanders as Cromwell’s protégé Rafe Sandler.

“Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies” are a must see for any theater fan or history buff. Sharp, witty and intelligent, it is theater at its best.

The plays run through Dec. 18. There are two more “marathon days” where the two shows will play back to back. It is an experience worth doing.

For more information, visit www.mainstreettheater.com.

So long, Leonard

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When I was around 10-years old, I remember visits to my cool, left-leaning uncle and loving his record collection. Aside from the usual hits by the Beatles, etc., the one artist that stuck in my mind — and, honestly, not necessarily in a good way — was Leonard Cohen. I couldn’t quite understand why my uncle wanted to listen to this miserable voice singing miserable songs. But there was obviously something memorable about him.

As I got older, my tastes shifted from ska and reggae to soul and punk, but I never forgot Leonard. And strangely, the songs began to make sense. By the time I was in art college, the love songs began to hit home. “So long, Marianne” and “Suzanne” all played into my artistic sensibilities. “Famous Blue Raincoat” had the gorgeous lines:

Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?

After all, aren’t we all trying to go clear?

It also helped that liking Cohen was a bit pretentious, which suited me perfectly. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” or “Bird on a Wire” were great additions to mix tapes, interspersed with The Pogues, The Clash, The Temptations and various obscure reggae tracks that showed how eclectic I was.

Then, in 1988, he released the album “I’m Your Man.” By this time his voice, roughened by alcohol and cigarettes, had a world-weary quality, which perfectly matched the realizations of my 28-year-old self (ah, if only one knew then how much more wearying life could get). But the lyrics had a wry humor. “First We Take Manhattan,” “Everybody Knows” and “Take This Waltz” (his translation of a Federico Garcia Lorca poem) became staples of my listening routine.

Tower of Song” was a slyly self-deprecating piece that still makes me laugh, especially the older I get:

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

These were songs not of despair, but observations of the human condition. Finally, after being exposed to his music for 20 years, I got it.

Here was a man simply trying to figure things out. Going back through his catalogue, one could hear all the questions that we ask ourselves. The beauty of his lyrics is that there are no answers, but I don’t really think that is Cohen’s mission.

His wordplay was superb. Part of the appeal of, arguably, his most popular song, “Hallelujah,” is its ambiguity. For some, it is a spiritual piece, for others, it is an exploration of sexuality. For example:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

One could argue that sexuality and spirituality go hand-in-hand with each other, but that’s just my view.

leonard-cohen-leonard-cohen-37242370-1024-768Leonard certainly had a way with the ladies. Maybe it was the voice. Maybe it was the sensual wordplay — “Light As The Breeze” is one of the most erotic songs ever recorded. Whatever it was, it certainly worked for him. And through him, maybe us a little bit — it certainly didn’t hurt.

Cohen disappeared for years, retreating to a life as a monk in a California monastery until he was forced to return to the world after his manager embezzled his savings. The return gave us several more great albums, such as “Popular Problems,” whose track “Slow” gave us the lines:

I’m slowing down the tune
I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon
I want to get there last

His final release in October, “You Want It Darker,” meditated on age and death. The title track featured the lines:

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

We kill the flame

Once again, he was just allowing us to listen in while he asked a few questions.

There was always a song or lyric that suited the occasion. I even use his song, “Dance Me To The End Of Love” as a vital element of my short play “Trash.”

Cohen died Nov. 11, at age 82. He was witty, thoughtful, and a magnificent wordsmith — more than that, he was cool. Not cool in a superficial, celebrity way, but cool in the come-with-me-on-the-journey way — or not, it was always our choice.

I started the journey too young to understand. But he dragged me along, despite my protestations, until I came to love and understand my traveling companion. And he left the music for the rest of the journey so we can continue the conversation.

Thanks for the talk, Leonard.

Sincerely, A Coughlan.

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Leonard Cohen and his long-time muse Marianne Ihlen

Post or Post?

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Cultural, generational language differences lead to confusion

Some time ago I had asked my father for some family details as I had been messing around on ancestry.com. A few weeks ago he sent me an email which read:

Yesterday I posted a Flag to you and the details I had managed to find regarding my Grand Father and G.G.F. I got these details rather a long time ago, but could get no further.

I immediately went to Facebook to check on his post but there was nothing there. I went to ancestry.com to see what information he had flagged. Still nothing. I checked emails, messenger and even Skype. Nothing anywhere. I sent him an email reading:

What’s a flag? I haven’t got anything from you.

This was his reply:

Andrew: A flag is a piece of material which is normally found on a stick or a pole called a flagpole. Post is something you do with a letter at the post office after you put a stamp on it and send it off to someone like you. Love Dad.

I literally laughed out loud when I read it. I had forgotten that I had asked him to find an English flag for my soccer-watching experiences. I had also forgotten, after 30-plus years in America, that the English “post” things not “mail” them,

But, more importantly, it really said more about shifts in language.

Who, nowadays, does not immediately think of Facebook, Instagram or some other social media when one “posts” something? And I often “flag” a post or email when I want to remember where it is.

I constantly talk to my students about being concise, being aware of possible misinterpretation of words. I could not make up such a perfect example.

So thanks for the flag and the info, Dad. I hope you read this blog post. No stamps required.