July 5th, 2011

Milwaukee Art Museum: Summer of China, Part One

On Sunday, June 26th, we went to the Milwaukee Art Museum, in particular to see the travelling exhibit, "The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City."

This exibition includes ninety objects from the Qianlong Garden and the Forbidden City—murals, paintings, furniture, architectural and garden components, jades, and cloisonné. The Qianlong Garden is named for the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from 1736 to 1796, making him the longest reigning Emperor of China, and one of the most influential. A devout Buddhist, the Qianlong Emperor decided that, if he reigned for sixty years, he would then retire and spend the rest of his life in contemplation. Accordingly, he had the Garden complex built as a "retirement home". Regrettably, although he did reach the sixtieth year of his reign, the Emperor died before going into his planned for retirement. The Garden was closed off and remained unused to the present day.  The Palace Museum and World Monuments Fund are in the process of restoring the site, which makes these items temporarily available to travel.

The Emperor supervised the entire project, and it reflects his deep learning in Buddhist and Confucian doctrine, his exquisite taste, and his pleasure in innovation, including newly introduced Western concepts such as glass-glazed windows, perspective painting, and tromp l'oeil decorations. No effort was spared in the preparation of the Emperor's sanctuary, and it is evident that the finest crafters were employed. However, there is almost nothing that is gaudy or overblown.

I must say that seldom have we seen a more beautiful collection of objects, and certainly never anything like as many from one source. In particular, the botanical themes which are used to unify the garden exteriors and interiors, are particularly gorgeous. These inlcude three-dimensional window frames carved to represent tree branches, 'rootwood' settees and tables, thrones with flowers picked out in pearl and precious stone, and a wonderful series of screen decorations that were only rediscovered in preparation for the exhibition to travel.

In addition to the "Emperor's Paradise" exhibition, the MAM's "Summer of China," includes five other exhibits. We also looked at "Warriors, Beasts, and Spirits: Early Chinese Art from the James Conley Collection" which occupies the adjacent galleries, and features more than forty ancient Chinese tomb artifacts, including carvings, ceramic sculptures, and architectural fragments.  "On Site: Zhan Wang" is an installation of one of the artist's stainless steel "scholar's rocks," which was very impressive.

"Way of the Dragon: The Chinoiserie Style, 1710–1830" was not set to open until June 30, so we will be going back to see that and "Emerald Mountains: Modern Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection".

"The Emperor's Private Paradise" continues through September 11, 2011.
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American Players Theatre, "The Taming of the Shrew"

On July 2nd, we went to American Players Theatre, and enjoyed the most remarkable production of "The Taming of the Shrew" that we have ever seen.

This version was done without the "Christoper Sly" framing story, which was appropriate and not missed due to the naturalistic presentation. The company chose to forgo putting the play on as the knockabout comedy it frequently is done as, and instead make it what Georgie deemed a domestic drama, altough still with much humor.

The keys to the new interpretation are the principals' performeances, Tracy Michelle Arnold as Katherina,"the shrew", and James Ridge as Petruchio, who has "come to tame her."

Arnold plays Katharina as a vulnerable woman, deeply hurt by her father's spiritual abandonment, and angry at her powerlessness which gives her "acting out" as a sole outlet for her frustration. The scene of the first meeting between "Kate" and Petruchio was different than any I have seen. Instead of being presented as a hard shelled person who volleys wisecracks, we see that she is confused by Petruchio's protestations, both wanting and not wanting to believe in him. Ridge takes Petruchio at a slower, gentler, tempo also, insistent but not at first demanding.

This balancing of the two characters continues throughout the play. When the newly married couple arrives at Petruchio's house, we see very real misery on Kate's part, but also, in Petruchio's Act IV solilloquy "Thus have I politicly begun my reign," we see that he is tired as well but determined to continue his program. In the scene traveling back to Padua it is partly understanding Petruchio's weariness with her contrariness that causes Kate to make peace.

The one part about this interpretation that troubled me a bit was that Kate's last act speech,"Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow," was done with perfect sincerity, with nothing ironic or suggestive of collusion with Petruchio, although somewhat lightened by, when delivering the line, "put your hands beneath your husband's foot," making the hands-joined gesture of "giving a leg up." However, Georgie and her avowedly feminist friend who joined us for the show both found Kate's speech quite good and not too submissive, so perhaps I was reading too much (or too little) into it.

The interpretations by the supporting cast were more tradional and added a lot of the humor to the play.

Production values were up to APT's usual standards, with a clever modular set including a tromp l'oeil door that I would have sworn I saw used. Costuming set the play somewhere in the middle 1800's, with lots of yummy top hats, frock coats and fancy vests on the Paduan men. Petruchio and his men were soldiers with double-breasted shirts, and hats that made them look like early American Indian Wars veterans. The women's dresses were hoop-skirt period, with the striking exception of Kate's distinctly Edwardian last-act gown (which may have been intended to show how she had progressed?). The performance was interrupted in the first half when the audienced noticed a plume of smoke rising from a lamp housing above the stage. It was evident that something inside was on fire. The show was stopped while the chief electician climbed the light tower, extinguished the flames, and disconnected and removed the lamp. It was rumored that a partially constructed bird's nest was the fuel. There was a bit of grumbling from some audience members, but the play picked up without a hitch.

This was absolutely the best and most thought-provoking presentation of this play in my experience, and highly recommended for anyone interested. "The Taming of Shrew" continues in repetory through October 2nd, with tickets available for most performances.

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Game of Thrones, episodes 6-8

Sunday, July 3rd, we met with friends to playback Episodes 6, 7 and 8, of HBO's adaptation of "A Game of Thrones." We were pleased to see that production values, acting, and presentation of the increasingly complicated plot all remain excellent. By the end of Episode Eight, the doo-doo is getting deep for the Starks, the Lannisters' villiany is coming into full flower, and warfare is breaking out across the Seven Kingdoms, while ominous things are rising beyond The Wall and overseas, Daenerys Targaryen is rising to power in her adopted tribe of barbarians.

Again, my one quibble is that HBO seems to be working too hard to maintain the "adult" rating (as though the violence weren't suffcient--). This sequence includes a protracted scene in one of Littlefinger's brothels that I didn't recall from the book. As previously noted, all the prostitutes in the TV show are improbably good looking, so that's not too hard to take. On the other hand, there are some characters of whom we really do not need to see the 'full monty'--.

Looking forward to catching up the remaining two episodes of this 'season'--not looking forward to the inevitable delay until the next parts are released. At least "A Dance With Dragons" (now officially "Book Five" will be out in a few days--.

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"Green Lantern"

July 4th, we spent the afternoon at the movie house, seeing "Green Lantern," the latest comic-book adaptation to the big screen. We enjoyed it more than most of the critics did.

I've been a fan of Green Lantern in his various incarnations in DC comics since I was a kid, although I've often been frustrated by how the power ring was used. (Giant green mallets, come on--.) As with a lot of the comics out there, the incessant reboots of the DC Universe have put me off reading them, but I still have a fondness for the character.

We thought that what was done with the character and the milieu was far from perfect, but still pretty good. The 1960's Hal Jordan was of course an "All American hero". Eventually, he evolved into rather a jerk in the famous "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" series, which has kind of been part of the character ever since. The movie starts off with a reasonable modicum of jerkiness which is intended to make the character (played by Ryan Reynolds) more human and likeable. At least he acknowleges that he is an "asshole" and shows some self-knowlege of his collection of issues.

The movie follows the classic origin, wherein Jordan receives the Power Ring from the dying alien, not knowing what it is. However, he soon recieves an initiation notice from the Green Lantern Corps, which is, in my opinion, one of the weakest parts of the picture. I don't know why an ancient and galaxy-spanning group like the Corps should have to rely on Marine boot-camp movie cliches as a training regimen, but apparently the writers couldn't come up with anything better.

Much more interesting is the development of the local villain character, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who goes from being a friend to a monster, and seems actually to be getting "high" on his alien inspired power, despite the grotesque transformation it causes. The big-bad boogeyman of the film, Parallax, is largely devoid of character or sensible motivation, and exists only to be defeated. I really question the judgement of introducing and so cavalierly destroying one of the major villains of the Green Lantern canon so early on, which would make one wonder what they will do for a sequel, were that not telegraphed at the end.

The visualization of the planet Oa, home of the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians of the Galaxy, was nicely done as were the many alien members of the Corps, in particular well-known characters such as Sinestro (Mark Strong), Kilowog (Michael Clarke Duncan), Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) and Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). It was also a bit interesting to see the character of Amanda Waller (Angela Basset--I would have cast Queen Latifa, myself) introduced into the Green Lantern canon as the front woman for a "man-in-black" agency. In the comics, Waller is one of the DC Universe's master manipulators and back-room-dealers, which makes me wonder if Warner Brothers has a role in mind for her similar to the Samuel Jackson "Nick Fury" character in the Marvel movies leading up to "The Avengers"--. "Justice League," anyone?

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