[Originally published at Coming to the Edge.]
Category: Writing Samples
Writing What You Don’t Know
[Originally posted on Book-It’s Blog.]
Review: Disney’s “Frozen”
[Originally published on Coming to the Edge.]
I rang in the New Year by going to see Frozen with my big sister the glaciologist, who is obviously the optimal person to bring along to a movie that’s about a) ice and b) sisters. Really, though, if you’re going to see Frozen, I highly recommend bringing a glaciologist if you have one handy. I’m assured that the snow and ice was really well done.
(Sidebar: I have bragged to some of my friends before that Gina is, or at least has been called, the unofficial poet laureate of the International Glaciological Society on account of how her poems and songs have been requested by the president of said IGS and won awards. Click those links and marvel at her ability to rhyme words like “callipygian” and “cryosphere” without even blinking.)
Okay, moving on to the movie.
First things first: I liked Frozen quite a bit. I don’t think it was Disney’s best movie ever, and I’ll delve into that a little more deeply, but I thought it was an enjoyable movie with AMAZING music, beautiful production design, and a core of something very important: a story about women who save each other and save themselves.
not a pretty girl, pt. 1
[Originally posted on Coming to the Edge. This series of posts has been viewed over 2000 times since its publication in Oct. 2013, and was picked up for classroom use by several teachers, including a professor at Duke University.]
Review: Book-It Rep.’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored”
I should say at the outset that I’m simultaneously a biased and an unbiased reviewer for this show. Biased because my roommate was the dramaturg for the production; unbiased because, well . . .
When the house lights came up for intermission, I leaned over to tell Alex how much I was enjoying it and congratulate him on how good the show was. “And now we come to the second act,” he said, “which I like to describe as being like if the Mississippi suddenly ended in Niagra Falls.”
“So is this the part where I confess that I’ve never actually read Huck Finn?”
“I kind of figured judging by your reactions.”
So yes. This is the problem with having gone to a weird alternative secondary school (and to a lesser extent a weird gifted elementary school where Jerry Spinelli and Lois Lowry were required reading): I may have read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in eighth grade, Howard Zinn and “By the Waters of Babylon” in tenth, and Black Elk Speaks senior year, but I only read standard novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when we got a new, older, more conservative teacher who clearly desperately wanted to inject some established order into the school and realized she could only get people to sign up for her class by making it about books that had been adapted into movies. And then I went to college and read Elizabethan/Jacobean plays for four years. In short, for someone with an undying interest in the written word, I’m kind of hilariously illiterate, and my exposure to a lot of classics is more thanks to Wishbone than anything.
So I went into Book-It’s production of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored prepped to enjoy it, because my friend had worked on it, and with almost no idea of what I was getting into.
Here’s what I did know: I knew, thanks to Fred Clark, that I wanted to hear the line “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” And I knew, of course, that Huckleberry Finn is a perpetually embattled book due to the word “nigger” and the book’s alleged racism. It’s one of the most frequently challenged books in the American school system. In 2011 a new edition of the book was published in which the racial slur was changed to “slave” so that teachers would feel more comfortable teaching the book.
If I had to guess, I’d say that that edition, specifically, answers the dramaturg’s question of “Why this play now?” Huckleberry Finn is evidently a passion project for director Jane Jones and adapter Judd Parkin, but it seems clear that NewSouth’s “slave” edition of the book served as the impetus to get the play into the season. Given that the controversy over NewSouth’s edition sprang up in spring 2011, Book-It might have been better served from a marketing perspective to put the play into their 2011-12 season rather than producing it two years later — but a) I know season decisions are usually made way too far in advance to take advantage of unexpected controversies like that, b) better late than never, and c) it’s not like Huckleberry Finn isn’t always being challenged somewhere and isn’t always going to be controversial.
And here’s the thing, the wonderful thing, the surprising thing: Book-It’s Uncensored title doesn’t just apply to the language. Jones and Parkin, along with their talented cast, highlight all kinds of things that make us uncomfortable as a society, things we don’t like to think about, from religious hypocrisy to governmental hypocrisy to domestic violence to racism to — most uncomfortably and fundamentally of all — every person’s own tendency towards cowardice. And it’s amazing.
The play opens with the shocking sound of a slap in the dark. The lights come up on Huck (Christopher Morson) being thrown around the stage by Pop (Russell Hodgkinson); Pop grabs Huck by the lapels and hits him several more times, threatening him with worse and demanding that Huck turn over his money. It’s a starkly, darkly theatrical scene, made all the more jarring by a sudden transition to the cheerful and familiar opening lines of the novel: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
The play moves along at a pretty good clip, aided by Andrew D. Smith’s effective lighting design and Andrea Bryn Bush’s brilliantly simple set design; the central platform of the stage transforms from the stable floor of Pop’s cabin into a freely rotating, wobbling raft when the actors remove the supports, then back into dry land, houses, and stages. Like you’d expect — if you’d never read the book, like me — a lot of the play is taken up with episodes along the river, most of them comedic.
But there’s a current of seriousness and darkness running throughout Huck and Jim’s adventures, even the funny ones, a current that grows stronger in the second act. There’s an extended scene where Huck spies on the crew of a riverboat as two men — styling themselves as the Child of Calamity and the Corpse Maker — bellow and roar and stomp around the stage spoiling for a fight that, naturally, never actually happens, because their captain smacks them both upside the head and calls them out as cowards.
And its this theme of cowardice and bravery that provides the two strongest moments of the second act. Huck bears witness as the ensemble threaten to lynch Evan Crockett’s Colonel Sherburn — and as Sherburn disdainfully, matter-of-fact-ly tells the mob:
You didn’t want to come. The average man don’t like trouble and danger. YOU don’t like trouble and danger. But if only HALF a man — like Buck Harkness, there — shouts ‘Lynch him! lynch him!’ you’re afraid to back down — afraid you’ll be found out to be what you are — COWARDS — and so you raise a yell, and hang yourselves on to that half-a-man’s coat-tail, and come raging up here, swearing what big things you’re going to do. … Now the thing for YOU to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching’s going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion; and when they come they’ll bring their masks, and fetch a MAN along. Now LEAVE — and take your half-a-man with you.
(The play unquestionably belongs to Christopher Morson’s Huck, and much is made of Peter Jacobs’ hilarious turn as a wild pig, but this speech by Crockett gave me shivers.)
The second moment, of course, is Huck wrestling with his conscience. Jones has three members of the ensemble act on and off as what she calls Huck’s “Underground Railroad,” a chorus that shares his monologues, offers advice, and physically assists in pantomimes. But this speech is Morson’s moment. He struggles to pray, bouncing nervously between throwing himself on the ground to write his letter to the Widow Douglas, pacing and thinking out loud, kneeling center stage and trying as hard as he can to pray. You could’ve heard a pin drop in the theater on Saturday afternoon as he built up to the line I’d been waiting for: All right, then, I’ll go to hell!
I am told by people who, you know, have read the book, that the rest of the play deviates significantly from the novel, mainly in that Huck rescues Jim without Tom Sawyer ever making an appearance. They make their way home and the loose ends are all neatly tied up: Pop is dead, Miss Watson is dead, Jim is free, Huck is richer than ever and ready to light out for the territories. The play ends with the cast leading the audience in a rousing rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” which The Stranger didn’t like very much but whatever, I’m a sucker for that song and I don’t care who knows it.
The play left me itching to talk, as you can tell by the fact that this review is about to break 1500 words and still hasn’t hit on all my incoherent thoughts about the production and the story, and the wonderful discussion with three renowned Twain scholars that followed the performance only whetted my appetite.
More importantly, the show left me itching to read the book. Because hey — better late than never.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Uncensored runs at the Center Theatre through May 12 and tickets are going fast. For more information, visit Book-It’s website.
“One Flea Spare” Program Note
by John Donne (c. 1635)
MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.
O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,
And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
‘Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
In Donne’s “The Flea,” the speaker tries to convince his lover to sleep with him, even though they’re not married. He argues that the flea has already joined their blood and their lives within itself. Nevertheless, she callously kills the flea and points out that neither of them are any weaker for having lost the drops of life within the flea. He triumphantly replies that just as killing the flea did not harm her honor – even though it had bit her and taken a little bit of her life from her – sleeping with him will not harm her, either.
Londoners in 1665 found themselves brought together in crisis, just like Donne’s lovers, by the tiniest ofcreatures: fleas. These were not the innocent nuisances of Donne’s poem, though. These fleas spread bubonic plague through the city as fast as fire, forcing the king to impose a state of quarantine. Riches and titles were no protection against the rapid spread of the disease. High-born or low, willingly or not, the people of London were bound together through the city’s fleas by the tenuous bonds of blood.
One Flea Spare is set against the dual backdrop of the Great Plague and the English Restoration. The English monarchy, ruled at the time by King Charles I, was overthrown 1649 by Oliver Cromwell and his group of Parliamentarians, who wanted to give parliament ultimate control over royal executive authority. The monarchy was replaced by the short-lived Commonwealth of England. After Cromwell’s death in 1658, though, the Commonwealth soon dissolved due to a lack of strong leadership. Charles II returned to England from his exile in France and was restored to the throne, but the relationship between the monarchy and the common people remained uneasy. The divine right of kings was no longer unassailable, and economic class issues were coming to the front of many people’s minds, both on land and sea.
“I chose to place it in a period in which I have never lived so that I could create this world that is not bogged down by political rhetoric – I could make things strange. . . . The more history I read, the more hopeful I become. Reading history, you find out about times wherein there was more resistance and hope than you believed possible . . .” -Naomi Wallace
Class in the 17th Century
During the Renaissance, the merchant class – families like the Snelgraves, who earned their money through trade rather than inherited it – gained power. In the 17th century, the lower classes began to rise as well. The toppling of Charles I proved that traditional social distinctions like inherited titles were not a protection from the displeasure of the common people.
Members of the working classes, like sailors, ditch-diggers, servants – the people historian Marcus Rediker calls “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – were empowered by the upheavals in England. Merchants and nobility, on the other hand, were feeling threatened. On land, labor riots sprang up as commoners fought to take land and rights back from the upper classes; on sea, sailors who tired of being exploited by merchants and cruel captains mutinied and became pirates.
Restoration England its growing empire consisted of the rich and the titled building on the backs of common people – but such foundations were as changeable as the sea, and just as inclined to storm.
Naomi Wallace’s literary roots are in poetry, and her work has been published in both England and the US. Her stage and screen works include the plays The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, The Inland Sea, and In the Heart of America, and the films Lawn Dogs and The War Boys. She has been the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Award” (1999), the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (1995, 1996), the Obie Award for Best Play for One Flea Spare (1997), and many others.
Bad Hamlet (excerpt)
Dr. Tennant: Now it should probably be noted that Ophelia’s onstage for the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
Prof. McCoy: Which makes it not a soliloquy if he’s talking to her. Or if he’s performing for Claudius and Polonius’ benefit.
Dr. Tennant: He’s really quite the manipulator. You know, it makes a certain amount of sense for Hamlet to be an action star.
Prof. McCoy: Do tell.
Dr. Tennant: Well, even in the later versions he’s the man’s man.
Prof. McCoy: I wouldn’t go that far.
Dr. Tennant: Why not? He’s always running around stabbing people through curtains, jumping into graves, having swordfights . . .
Prof. McCoy: Yeah, but I don’t see why we need to call those inherently manly traits. There have been plenty of people who claim Hamlet is actually really feminine.
Dr. Tennant: Right – he’s indecisive, languid, emotional, passive–
(A skull is thrown onstage, more flashy than the rest. Everyone stops and looks at it.)
Sarah (off-stage) :
Now I could drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business, as the day
Would quake to look on!
(SARAH BERNHARDT, costumed as Hamlet, enters and strikes a pose.)
Review: Athens’ National Theatre’s “Titus Andronicus”
Titus Andronicus at Athens’ National Theatre
People unused to Shakespeare sometimes complain that his plays are so hard to understand, he might as well have been writing in a different language. With practice, Shakespeare becomes easier to follow, but the National Theatre of Athens’ production of Titus Andronicus would have stretched even the best-read Shakespearean connoisseur’s comprehension. In spite of some promising moments of clarity and power, this Titus from director Angela Brouskou and translator Giorgos Depastas ended up in as many disconnected pieces as the characters of the play do.
If you don’t know Titus Andronicus, here are the very basic facts: Titus is a Roman general with lots of sons and one daughter. He has just conquered the Goths and brought some of them home as party favors, including one that he sacrifices to the gods. He helps elect the young Saturninus as emperor of Rome. Saturninus marries Tamora, the captive queen of the Goths. The two of them, with a little help from Tamora’s bit-on-the-side, Aaron the Moor, proceed to systematically ruin Titus’ life, at which point Titus turns around and systematically ruins theirs right back. Everyone ends up dead, generally in horrible ways: the ones that just get stabbed with swords are the lucky ones.
Yes, this is the play with the chick who gets her hands and tongue cut off after two guys rape her (offstage), after which her father executes her rapists (onstage) and serves them to their mother in a pie (onstage). You might be familiar with Julie Taymor’s cinematic version, Titus.
I bring up Taymor’s version because the National Theatre’s Titus often reminded me of the film’s aesthetic. Both featured mishmashs of costume styles, highly stylized violence, and incongruous comedy. And let’s be clear: there’s a way to use broad performances and even comedy in a tragedy in a way that works. Revenge tragedies like Titus lend themselves especially well to that approach because the amount of blood spilt becomes almost farcical. The problem is that if you’re going to take that route, you need to commit to one of two choices: either make the play into a parody (as when the Reduced Shakespeare Company makes Titus into a cooking show), or figure out how to make the audience laugh in horror (as when Taymor presents severed heads like sideshow attractions).
This Titus couldn’t decide whether it was taking itself seriously or not. The production opened with a beautiful and promising tableau: A long table dominated center stage, covered in red flowers, while microphones on stands stood downstage just left and right of center, framing the table. Downstage left stood a TV with tape over the screen, silently playing something appropriately violent and Roman. Andronicus’ family and Bassianus entered from one side dressed in white suits; Saturninus and the Goths entered from the other dressed in black. They laughed and talked with each other, approached the table, and all lifted glasses of red liquid in a toast. Saturninus (Kostas Vasardanis) seemed wry, Tamora (Maria Kechagioglou) looked bitter, Bassianus and Lavinia (Dimitris Agartzidis and Parthenopi Bouzouri) glowed with earnest fervor. Moments later a fight broke out between the brothers Saturninus and Bassianus, and they strode downstage to the microphones to lambast each other and argue their claims for the throne.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long after that for things to start falling apart. Demetrius and Chiron (Petros Malamas and Ilias Kounelas) were mere caricatures of sociopaths, more ridiculous than frightening. Tamora spent the whole play slinking around the stage in pants that looked uncomfortably tight. Aaron (Kostas Falelakis) chewed so much scenery I expected to see toothmarks on the set — almost literally in a few moments. By contrast, Lavinia became mute and passive long before her tongue was cut out. Had I been watching the play in English, though, I would have been appalled at the lack of nuance. (In fairness, though the bizarre overacting generally helped me follow the plot in spite of the language barrier.)
Overall, in spite of the strong beginning, the production simply didn’t hold together. The first act’s few strange moments were easily accepted or ignored in favor of the production’s very effective gore. Over time, though, horror turned into plain weirdness that seemed to aim for laughs without ever getting them. In one particularly baffling scene in the second act, Lucius (Ippokratis Delveroudis), clad in a suit of armor, orated while doing robotic semaphore-like moves for a good ten minutes; people in masks hissed and growled into the microphones the entire time. At least one American audience member I attended the show with gave up on trying to understand and fell asleep.
The leather-and-lace punk-military aesthetic of the costumes — Lavinia in particular looked like she’d escaped from a Dresden Dolls album – and the stark lines of the set pieces were effective, but there was a lot of unnecessary stuff onstage. Six taxidermy seagulls sat in the down left corner of the stage, just hanging out giving the whole affair a faintly Wild Dada Ducks air. Nooses descended from the flies as Titus pled for the lives of two of his sons, which would have worked just fine as an indicator of the gallows atmosphere without the plastic mannequin hanging from one of them. Performers donned masks, sometimes to make the double-casting work but just as often for no apparent reason except to make themselves look creepy.
And don’t get me started on the sound design. Underscoring music ran through much of the play, much too loud and repetitively to be anything but annoying. One or two scenes had me wanting to cover my ears so I wouldn’t have to hear Carmina Burana any more.
To be honest, I have trouble deciding whether or not the production was successful. I found the choices made incomprehensible and unjustified, and as a result didn’t enjoy the play. But was I, an American student with limited Greek, the audience Ms. Brouskou wanted to reach? Probably not. What seemed pointless and weird to me may have made perfect sense to the Greek audience members. The fact remains that I found it pointless and weird. I had hoped to be moved by the tragedy of the Roman general gone mad; instead I was bored by the tragedy of uneven production design. As the Greeks say, δεν καταλαβαίνω — I don’t understand.
“Odin’s Horse” program note
[From the 2009 Pittsburgh Eco-Drama Festival, sponsored by the Carnegie Mellon University Center for the Arts in Society and the School of Drama.]
NOTES ON THE PLAY
Odin’s Horse was the winner of the 2004 Ecodrama Playwright’s Festival in Oregon, one of the first festivals of its kind in the United States. Set in the redwood forests of Northern California and the mythic, treeless landscape of Iceland, the play is fiction – but the issues it tackles are as solid as lumber and mountains.
Here’s a truth: In 1993, one study found that of California’s 2.5 million-plus acres of old-growth – that’s slightly more than 2,500,000 – only a little more than seven hundred thousand acres were protected from logging. Put that another way: the total area of old-growth forests in CA is 3,945 square miles, which is about a thousand square miles smaller than the state Connecticut. The area of that that’s reserved and protected? 1,134 square miles – just a little bigger than Rhode Island.
The total area of virgin forests in the world, including old-growth forests, is about 5,057,938 square miles. That’s a little bigger than the continent of Antarctica. (Well, as Antarctica is currently shaped – but the breakup of the ice caps is an issue for another play.)
According to the National Park Service, 96% of the original old-growth coast redwoods – trees like Astra’s – have been logged. We’re never going to see them again – although a little bit of one of them might be woven into the paper this program is printed on.
“She’s Making Movies” (excerpt)
[Excerpt from “‘She’s Making Movies’: The Blair Witch Project and Mulvey’s Theory of the Gaze,” written as the culmination of my critical writing studies at Carnegie Mellon.]
Mulvey’s three gazes and The Blair Witch Project
Mulvey’s theory of the three gazes relies on traditional cinematography, because her analysis of film’s scopophilic pleasures is predicated on the way that traditional cinematography subordinates and collapses two gazes into one and makes them reliant on the third. The characters gaze at each other; the camera gazes at the characters; the spectator gazes at what the camera captures. Traditional cinematography encourages the spectator to lose his awareness of his own gaze and the camera’s gaze, to identify with a character on-screen, and therefore to subordinate the camera’s/his own gaze to the character’s gaze.
The Blair Witch Project resists collapsing the three gazes in the same way. The spectator is made constantly aware of the camera and its gaze, for a start. One of the earliest scenes in the movie is Heather and Josh filming each other filming each other, Heather on the 16mm and Josh on the Hi-8. The characters constantly reference the camera throughout the movie, particularly as things become more tense and Heather insists on continuing to film events. The shaky camerawork—the inconsistent and sometimes obscured gaze of the camera—also makes it impossible to forget the camera’s presence. However—with a few exceptions, such as the documentary-style shots near the beginning of the movie—the camera also functions as the characters’ gaze throughout the film. When the trio runs through the woods at night, the cameras provide light for them, metaphorically acting as their eyes. Heather seems to do the bulk of the filming, and her footage is the last that we see, so the events of the movie are primarily shown to the audience the same way she sees them. Often, the gazes of camera, character, and spectator are all collapsed into one—but at times, particularly moments of high tension, the three gazes are fragmented. The characters are looking elsewhere, ignoring the camera so that it only captures confused glimpses of the woods, and the spectator cannot help but be aware of the fact that he is watching a movie (albeit one that he may think is a documentary, not fiction). The movie drags the spectator back and forth between making him acutely aware of his own voyeurism by fragmenting all three gazes, and making him identify strongly with a character without the comforting ability to look at his on-screen self by unifying all three gazes.
Changing the way the gazes are prioritized opens up new possibilities for analysis. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the way The Blair Witch Projectcomplicates the gender of the spectator. Mulvey’s analysis of narrative cinema assumes a male spectator. That is not necessarily to say that every spectator that watches a movie identifies as male in everyday life; rather, the way traditional narrative cinema guides and manipulates the spectator’s gaze constructsthe spectator as male by privileging the viewpoint and story of an active male protagonist, a subject, and de-emphasizing the viewpoint of a passive female counterpart, an object. In The Blair Witch Project, though, the privileged story and viewpoint belong to Heather, and all of the characters on-screen, male or female, are more acted-upon than active. Heather tries to be masculine and in charge of the excursion, but she is very quickly rendered powerless once the trio is lost in the woods. Yet she remains a subject in the film by staying behind the camera most of the time. When Heather turns the camera on herself for her tearful, terrified (and much parodied) confession near the end of the movie, the spectator can see her as an object, as Mulvey would have us believe the camera always does; she is a distorted fragment of a face, all eyes and comically prominent nose, and she is abject and paralyzed with fear. At this late point in the movie, though, the spectator can also uneasily view her as a reflection of self, having been with her—indeed, been her—through so much of the movie.
Identifying with a female protagonist happens rarely in mainstream cinema, but happens more often than most people would expect in horror films. In “Her Body, Himself,” Carol J. Clover argues that the female protagonists of slasher films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the Thirteenth—the character that she calls the Final Girl—is uniquely situated as a figure adolescent boys can identify with:
The Final Girl 1) undergoes agonising trials, and 2) virtually or actually destroys the antagonist and saves herself. By the lights of folk tradition, she is not a heroine, for whom phase 1 consists in being saved by someone else, but a hero, who rises to the occasion and defeats the adversary with his own wit and hands. (Clover 244)
Heather is indeed the final girl in The Blair Witch Project, which bears many similarities to the kinds of slasher movies Clover deals with, but she is not a Final Girl because she does not save herself. The Final Girl’s trajectory is from passive, victimised female to active, powerful male; Heather’s trajectory is from masculine director to feminine victim. In this way, The Blair Witch Projectis fairly unique in narrative cinema, then, because it ultimately constructs its spectators as female.