October 30th, 2012

"Last night the moon had a golden ring--"

Last night (October 29th) the moon was full and visible, initially through a light overcast, which then cleared a bit, revealing a very marked ring around the moon, at least twenty times the moon's diameter. I was a bit chilled by that, recalling:

"Then up and spake an old Sailòr,
Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
"I pray thee, put into yonder port,
For I fear a hurricane.

"Last night, the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!"
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he."

Which is from Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus " where indeed a hurricane is in the offing. And, we have had a sailing ship go down in the great storm, the Bounty, sunk off North Carolina with one crew now confirmed dead and her captain still missing. At least most of the crew were saved, unlike the unfortunate Hesperus, which, in the poem, was lost with all hands.

The ring around the moon was due to ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, which were quite likely outriders from the collision of Hurricane Sandy and cold air masses riding down the jet stream. It's rather sobering to think that we in Wisconsin are feeling the fringes of an Atlantic storm, but that is the case. Wind gusts of up to 45 MPH are predicted, with 15 foot waves on the Lake Michigan shore and possible 30 foot waves in the center of the lake. Both lake ferries have wisely canceled trips for today.

Gusty winds are nothing new to us here, of course, and we all expect to be safe and snug. Here's hoping that those in the more direct path of the storm can be as safe.


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Milwaukee Ballet, "La Boheme"

On Friday night, October 19th, we went to the Marcus Center to see the Milwaukee Ballet's production of "La Boheme." This was a world premier of a new ballet, set to the music of the opera of the same name by Giacomo Puccini, with choreography by Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Micheal Pink.

The story of the ballet mostly follows that of the opera, which was based on the play by Henri Murger, which in turn was derived from Murger's novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème. (Poor old Murger doesn't get much love, and isn't even mentioned in the ballet program notes. Puccini essentially stole the play--such were copyright protections in the 19th century--.)  For all that derivation, the basic plot is a simple one, and translates well to the ballet idiom.

The story opens at the apartment of Rodolfo, a struggling poet, and Marcello, an equally unsuccessful painter.  It is Christmastide, and bitterly cold. They sacrifice a canvas and pages of Rodolfo's novel manuscript to the stove for warmth. Their friend Colline, a philosophy student, enters, but declines to feed any of his books to the furnace. Then comes Schaunard, a musician, who's actually had a paying gig, and brings cheer of food and wine.  As each new man enters, the dancing changes, from a pas de deux, to trois, to quatre, but also with each character's addition to the dynamics of the scene. After fobbing off the rent collector with a glass of wine and a lot of badinage, the party makes to go out to the cafe. Rodolfo stays behind to work on an article that is due, so he is still home when the upstairs neighbor, Mimi, a poor seamstress already in the grip of "consumption" comes to the door to ask for a light for her candle. Enchanted by her etherial beauty, Rodolfo lingers with her, and eventually persuades her to come out to the cafe with him.

At the Cafe Momus, the party encounters Marcello's former lover, Musetta, an "entertainer", in company with her current sugar daddy.  Musetta behaves badly, flirting with every man in the Cafe, and ditching Alcindoro in order to invite Marcello and the other to a late-night party at her place.

Here, Pink adds in a scene not done in the opera, which helps clarify what happens later. At the party, Musetta takes Mimi under her wing, and loans her one of her couterier gowns. Her beauty set off by the dress, Mimi attracts admiring attention from other men, which touches off a strong spark of jealousy in Rodolfo. This scene also gives Pink the opportunity to do one of his "party pieces" wherein there are a couple of secondary narratives going on in the background. Will the scantily-dressed Moulin Rouge dancer go home with some one? (In very Parisian fashion, a male and female couple are the leading contenders--.) Will Schaunard, who gets unfortunately coarse when drunk, hook up? (Evidently not--.)

The in the fourth scene,  it is late winter. Relations between Rodolfo and Mimi have been rocky. in a confession to Marcello, which Mimi overhears, Rodolfo admits that he can't deal with the fact that Mimi is dying and there's nothing he can do about it. When Mimi reveals her presence, they recall the joy they have had together, and detemine to stay together and see what the spring will bring.

The last act is a warm day. As in the first act, Colline and Schaunard drift in to hang out with Rodolfo and Marcello. Musetta arrives, bringing Mimi, who is too weak to go upstairs to her rooms, and near death. The men do all they can to comfort and revive her, including Schunard going to pawn his overcoat to buy medicine. in a few minutes of privacy, one last dance recalls the lovers' first meeting.  The others return with their offerings, but nothing can be done, and Mimi slips away.

We saw Nicole Teague and Alexandre Ferreira in the principal roles of Mimi and Rodofo, and they were excellent. Annia Hildalgo as Musetta,  Timothy O'Donnell as Marcello, Ryan Martin as Schaunard, and Marc Petrocci as Colline also danced to the highest standards, with great skill and expression. As the ballet is very romantic and somewhat low-keyed as befitting the subject matter, there isn't a lot of "bravura" dancing, but there were many strong character dances: Musetta's tango-esque number at the Cafe Momus, Schaunard's farewell dance with his coat (technically a pas d'ane, but almost a pas de deux--), and Petr Zahradnicek's agile dancing as Benoit the landlord, surprising in his skinny-cut suit (which we suspect had some alterations by the costume department).  The dancing given to Mimi tends to be soft and languid, although not entirely enervated, and shows her level of spirit as well as physical energy. Rodofo's choreography harks back to the classical danseurs' role of lifting and supporting, but with a modern energy and dynamic. Marcello, Celline, and Schunard were all distinct characters with individual styles.

This version of the story is updated to 1950's Paris, another great time for la vie de boheme, but not so modern that Mimi's plight is unlikely. The costumers splashed out on a mixure of reproduction and vintage  clothes, which looked wonderful, especially the Dior-inspired party dresses. The settings looked much like any setting of "La Boheme", but had some nice touches such as the glazed windows in Rodolfo's flat, which reflected ghostly images of the dancers behind them. 

Pink's "La Boheme" was a lovely ballet, well produced and mounted. Pink is a marvelous story teller in stage direction as well as dance.  One expects to shed a few tears for Mimi. i was holding up well in the last scene until the moment when Rodolfo is trying to light the stove for Mimi, fruitlessly striking sparks from his lighter, not noticing, as everyone else has, that it is already too late. I didn't just tear up, I absolutely wept.

If this ballet is revived anywhere, I strongly recommend it for fans of the dance.

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Miwaukee Youth Theatre, "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe."

On Thursday evening, October 25th, I went to "The Lincoln Center for the Arts" (Milwaukee's arts magnet middle school) to see the Milwaukee Youth Theatre's production of "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe," adapted from C.S. Lewis' book, by Joseph Robinette. I went specifically to see our young friends, James and Brianna Sullivan, perform, but, hey, it's Lewis!

Robinnette's adaptation isn't at all bad. Even though the Narnia books are short, it's still work to cram it all into a bit less than two hours, so it is a rather talky script with a lot of stand-there-and-declaim to get out all the exposition. That said, the story comes across clearly, and much of Lewis' language is fortunately preserved.

The play was well cast, with Anna Arenas being very good in the pivotal role of Lucy. I think that Jack Hake, as Edmund, must have been the smallest boy in the cast, and seemed younger than Lucy, which gave a very interesting different dynamic to the story. Edmund's failings seem much more the errors of innocence than the spiteful perversity Lewis portrays in the books, but this made Aslan's willingness to save him more believable. Hake handled the demands of his role very well. Casting for the other major parts was also successful. Kristina Webb ranted and menaced well as the White Witch. Ian Walls was strong and noble as Aslan (although in the suit and tie that was his base costume, at this time, I couldn't help feeling he seemed more "presidential" than "lordly"--). Abby Thompson as an appropriatly nervous Tumnus and Julian Green and Lindsay Lecus as the Beavers got over a lot of the "expository lumps" nicely. About all the script required of Paul Preister as Peter is that he be stalwart, and Priester met that challenge with style. The script unfortunately makes Susan out to be rather a wet blanket to start, but Rori McKechnie got well over that part and, with Arenas, was very good in the dramatic scenes where the girls witness Aslan's martyrdom and ressurection. James and Brianna were spear-carriers for Aslan's army, but they and everyone in the cast performed well and with enthusiasm, and I noted no missed entrances, flubbed cues, or dropped lines at all.

The production made effective use of a minimal set enhanced with lighting. Costumes and makeup, combined with postures for the talking animals, were likewise more suggestions than depictions, but worked well and it was always easy to tell who was who. I liked touches such as Fenris Ulf's balck lipstick, the fur collar of Aslan's coat, and the hornlike curls of Tumnus' hair. Fight choreography for the battle scenes was basic and safe as appropriate, and done in slow-motion, which worked OK. The one quibble I had was that the White Witch's death, by falling on her own sword in the battle, seemed a bit of a cop-out. Lewis makes it clear that Aslan kills her, but I can see how that might have been difficult to work out in this setting.

I really enjoyed this performance. Milwaukee Youth Theatre appears to have a good and serious program for young actors, and I thought everyone showed lots of promise.

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Carte Blanche Theatre, "The Masque of the Red Death"

We began our Halloween holiday on Friday the 26th, by going to see the Carte Blanche Theatre company's production of "The Masque of the Red Death," based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe with inclusions from several other Poe pieces.

In his adaptation, the playwright, William W. Jackson, has taken the spare narrative of Poe's mood piece and built on it a story of social collapse, humanitarian crisis, and failure of leadership that is quite dramatic and effective.

As the play opens, we meet Dr. Kilgore (David Kaye) and his daughter Sangrid (Emily Craig), traveling across Prince Prospero's plague-ravaged kingdom in order to speak to the Prince about plans to combat the pestilence. They encounter a family on the road, homeless, and in need of food and medical care, whose attempt to petition the Prince has been brutally repulsed by his thuggish bodyguards.

After succoring the travelers, the Kilgores arrive at the castle, and the Doctor succeeds in bullyragging his way past the guards "nobuddy sees da Prince" stonewall to gain an audience.

As we are introduced to Prospero (James Dragolovich), we find the spoiled, selfish, and spiteful Prince terrorizing his advisor into finding a way for him to loot the people's "social security" trust fund, Prospero already having closed down and diverted funds for medical care and education. Kilgore attempts to appeal not only to Prospero's better nature, but to his economic sense. There follows a lengthy and intense debate, in which Prospero vents his issues. His mother died at his birth. His father, King Victor, never got over it, and spent most of his remaining life travelling. He died of the Red Death after assisting the sick, for which reasons Prospero hates and despises "the people." He perceives that Victor cared more for "the people" than for his own son, and that exposure to the people's "filth" brought about his death. (Throughout the play, characters' ignorance and fear of contagion is a repeated theme.)The argument ends with Kilgore unsatisfied, but, as he leaves, Prospero smirks that he will take one of the Doctor's suggestions--he will quarantine himself in the castle and wait for the plague to burn out outside.

This sets up the second act, which begins with the completion of Prospero's heartless preparations, and the arrival of his guests. These include other Poe characters such as "Rodrick Usher," and the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," whose soliloquies reveal that the gathering is already beginning to decompensate into despair, debauchery, madness, and murder. When Prospero announces his intention to take Sangrid as his unwilling bride, the "blood wedding" becomes the climax in which "Darkness and Decay and the Red Death (hold) illimitable dominion over all."

At nearly three hours, the play is long, but literate. There are some indulgences that could have been cut. A scene that serves only to have some Poe-named characters (Metzengerstein, Annabel Lee, William Wilson) walk through does nothing to advance the plot. "Milo Rudge's" drunken ranting goes on too long. And, at the climax, there is a bit more running and screaming than strictly called for.

Quite a bit of the acting called for melodramatic acting of an over-the-top sort, but that's Poe for you, and largely enjoyable. Dragolovich as Prospero gave the most nuanced performance, ringing the changes of anger, arrogance, humor, determination, and willfulness. We were reminded favorably of Peter Dinkage as "Tyrion Lannister" in "Game of Thrones." He was well supported by Kaye and Craig as the Kilgores; by Jerome Maywald as Rudge, and by Samantha Paige as Mortdala, Prospero's sadistic and disdainful chief of guards.

The Carte Blanche company made excellent use of their small space, managing some ambitious set changes quite handily. Costumes and props had a timeless appearance, combining both Renaissance and Steampunk elements with some characters having netbooks and cellphones, which worked.

We enjoyed this performance very much, and we will be looking at upcoming productions. Although by no means all of their shows are in the "Grand Guignol" mode of this one, their handling of the material makes me very interested in the production of "Sweeney Todd" slated for next April.

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