Emmanuel Ax, Beethoven, Shakespeare

Last week, I cashed in one of my birthday presents – two tickets to see Emmanuel Ax play Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto at the Kennedy Center, followed by a Shakespearean themed program.

This was my second time hearing Ax play and, of course, he’s good; and he really seemed to enjoy playing such a youthful piece. I’m not a music expert and can’t even play the triangle, but it did seem to me that he had some rough moments during the first movement, but then really hit his stride, especially of the middle movement.

When they have stars like this, I wish they wouldn’t put them first, because, after hearing a great pianist play Beethoven, pretty much whatever follows is going to disappoint. I like Berlioz, but if one of his pieces immediately follows Bach’s Passion of Saint Matthew, well… it’s going to be a bit of a letdown, isn’t it?

The three pieces that followed were Erich Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Richard Strauss’ Macbeth, and Antonin Dvorak’s Othello Overture. I liked Dvorak the best, but the Korngold was fun. Also, I found out that Korngold wrote the scores to two of my favorite Errol Flynn swashbucklers: Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood!

One of the cool things they did was have two actors who feature a lot locally come out and perform bits from the relevant Shakespeare. I lost the paper that told me who they were, but the man was someone I had seen in many, many plays at the Folger Shakespeare Library (off the top of my head, I’ve seen him in District MerchantsTwevlth NightRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Mary Stuart. He got a great presence and a delicate comic touch that works even better, because he himself is such a big guy.

‘District Merchants’ At The Folger

DistrictWIDE2Written by frequent Folger production director, Aaron Posner, District Merchants is new take on The Merchant of Venice which seeks to tackle to elephant in the room: Shakespeare’s unforgiving and cruel and anti-semitic take on Shylock, the titular merchant.

Posner keeps the names, but shifts the action to Washington, DC and the time to the months just before and just after the Panic of 1873. He mostly keeps the original names, or else uses something very close (which sometimes seems jarring – especially the continued use of ‘Shylock’), but plays with race and ethnicity, making the majority of the non-Jewish characters black. This does create a more nuanced view of discrimination and prejudice (especially in the form of a young mixed race man who ‘passes’ as white), as does the addition of topics like the pogroms in Russia and war profiteering during the Civil War. Muddies the waters, those last two, though I’m not always sure to what end. I mean, I know to what end, but I guess that I’m not sure if it really succeeded.

But the play does succeed, sometimes, in spite of itself. But The Merchant of Venice, when it succeeds, does so in spite of itself, does it not? And, as a DC resident, references to places like Eastern Market made me smile with pride/recognition.


phaeton-300x300-catPhaeton, in this case, is a dramatic and allegorized version of the myth of Phaeton, the son of Apollo (which myth is already pretty allegorical).

This is the third production (though the first two were staged readings) I have seen by Taffety Punk in recent months that is based on a classical source of some kind (Shakespeare and the Bible, in the first cases).

What did I think? Excellent, enjoyable, and problematic. The play was written to sound explicitly like an English translation of an ancient Greek play, a la Sophocle, Aristophanes, etc. The program notes even said it was written in iambic pentameter (though I remember grasping a line in my head and the beats didn’t quite work out). For me, I would rather the playwright not have tried to write in the style of those great playwrights.

The titular Phaeton, in this case, is a secular, social justice reformer and his father (a disembodied voice, sometimes with the rest of the cast performing interpretative dance to embody him) an imperfect and non-omnipotent God, with a capital G, because the references to the Bible are frequent in the second act, so Apollo is definitely symbolic, representative, or whatever of a theistic, more or less Christian god.

Lines like (remembering as best I can), ‘You are my only son, with whom I well pleased,’ and phrases like ‘sacramental blood’ (after Phaeton dies) and ‘plagues of locusts’ drive the point him even further. Apollo is a flawed Christian God and Phaeton is his son, the Christ, but a less spiritual and more political messiah (not that Christ wasn’t highly political, because he was, but you get my point, I hope). There’s even a sort of ‘new,’ sacramental act at the end, which, while not physically resembling the Mass, is also referencing the Mass, in that it is reinforcing Phaeton’s Christ-like role.

A few laugh out loud lines in the first act, but I felt that the Greek model straitjacketed the first act and the Christological revisionism made the second act feel too detached from the first.

It’s A #Poetrymonth Listicle!

Why not? I mean, that’s all people read anymore, right? Listicles? Thank you Buzzfeed for helping destroy western civilization. Probably other civilizations, too. Does China censor out Buzzfeed? Maybe they want to protect their civilization from what I’m about to do (which, perhaps ironically, includes translations of Chinese poetry).

Anyway, these are collections that I have read since the last year’s National Poetry Month.

Split by Cathy Linh Che. I read it earlier this year and it’s still my favorite poetry collection in recent memory.

Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara. Or maybe this one was my favorite. This book makes you happy.

Selected Poems of Li Po by [should be self evident, but if you’re curious, David Hinton translated it]. This is the Chinese one I was talking about. Contains more poems about being drunk than any other collection I have ever read.

Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel. You wish he wasn’t so good.

Dear Jenny, We Are All Find by Jenny Zhang. Also wrote a cool and devastating essay on… are we still calling it Poetry-gate? Anyway, should be better known for this collection.

Once in the West by Christian Wiman. Debated including this one, but still, a fine collection by an interesting, very talented and frequently delightful poet.

Antigonick by Anne Carson and also sort of by Socratis, but also not really or only inspired by Socrates. Is this poetry? It’s a play, certainly, but ancient Greek poetry was also performed and Greek drama evolved by the addition of additional voices to the performance of poetry. Whatever. Probably not, but I’m including it. Why am I including it? Because, awesome, that’s why.



The Sunday Paper – Kung Fu!

14.-D.A.-Jasper_Two-Champions-of-Death-652x1024Did you know that there was a tradition in Africa of hand painted posters for martial arts movies? Me neither. But now I want one.

Reinventing Shakespeare(‘s book covers).

The Etruscan language is nearly lost and much of their culture a mystery, so, while this stele is not a Rosetta Stone, it is something rather big.

On a related noted (in that it’s also a question of archaeology), some folks were tipped off on the location of a second Viking settlement in the New World by some photographs taken from outer space. Actually, I hadn’t realized we’d only found one Viking settlement. Honestly, because their presence in North America has been known for so long, I’d just assumed it was more widespread. And it might have been widespread, but this is the first evidence that were was more than one (semi-)permanent settlement.

The fine folks at DCist have compiled a list of the best used and independent bookstores in the District. Of course, with the closure of the downtown Barnes & Noble, there are only used and indie bookstores in DC: not a chain in sight. And I appreciate this list acknowledging the truly magnificent poetry selection at Bridge Street Books.


Staged Reading: ‘In The Belly Of The Whale’

This is the second, Taffety Punk sponsored, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop located, staged reading of a new play that I’ve seen. Like the first, it riffs on an existing (and canonical) work. In the first case, it was Shakespeare’s infrequently produced Coriolanus and in this case, it is the story of Jonah, from Genesis.

There’s no good way to say this, but I was disappointed. It’s a work in progress, but the flaws are so striking and, dare I say, intrinsic, that it’s hard to see it being a success.

It is a six person play: Jona (a woman, unlike her Old Testament namesake, and the protagonist), Astrid Overlander (a sculptor), Domino (a sort of frightened old man caricature who steals/collects junk that…), Jed (sells on the street; he’s also a caricature, but a more amusing one; a comic, street level entrepreneur who is alwasy optimistic about future business prospects), a parrot named Calliope, and the stage manager.

I assume the stage manager is a ‘character,’ because without her narration, the quantity of dialogue drops sharply and the quantity, elaborateness, and expense of the sets would become impractical for almost any theater (and it would turn the play into something more like a special effects extravaganza). But that ‘character’ also becomes a crutch and violation of the old writing adage, ‘show, don’t tell.’ She tells us what’s happening all through the play (and had, by far the most lines; more than the other combined, I wager).

The ideas picked up and dropped resemble a grab bag of late night, undergrad conversations. Jona writes to (explicitly stating so) fend off the coming (literal) end of the world. Astrid makes sculptures that are simultaneously cradles, cages, and arks. Domino collects the detritus of the world. They are Brooklyn bohemians and stereotypes, rescued, after a fashion, from a biblical flood by the surprisingly buoyancy of Astrid’s latest masterpiece. There’s a whale swallowing, there’s guilt overcoming (even though the origin of her guilt seems rather low stakes, especially for one apparently triggering both an apocalypse and a whale swallowing), there’s an ark, there’s that cradle metaphor, and that cage metaphor, and hypergraphia, and messages in a bottle, and on and on and the themes tangle and mix and never resolve and never cohere and I still don’t know what it was trying to say.