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.

The Social Contract

  I’m not going to explain Rousseau’s Social Contract. Frankly, if you’re reading this, you can look up what better folks than I have to say about the Swiss philosopher meant or should have meant or maybe meant. Also, you probably have access to a public library. And if that public library is poorly stocked in terms of Enlightenment philosophy and commentary, there are university libraries. Maybe you can’t check out a book, but there is pretty much no barrier to simply going inside and spending a few hours reading up on the subject.

What struck me was how some of his remarks are quite prophetic in their implicit criticism of some of the structural problems affecting the American (and global) economy.

Very early on, he criticizes what today we might call rentier capitalism. In The Social Contract, he is speaking purely about land (possession of agricultural still being the avenue towards wealth and the source of the aristocracy’s wealth), but the idea is easily transferable to modern financial instruments.

Possession of land, he says, must, in part, be justified by ‘labor and cultivation.’ Modern financial instruments do little to actually invest in production or innovation or much of anything (if I buy AT&T stock, AT&T does not suddenly have extra capital to expand broadband access; rather, I have simply given money to the someone who used to own the stock). In other words, they do not participate in ‘labor and cultivation.’

Later, he also explicitly attacks finance directly, as a destructive force that drives government away from the business of public service and which replaces ‘community’ (though he references the city-state, which shouldn’t be taken too literally, but rather as a reference to Greek philosophy and an idealized, Athenian-style polis) with money.

On economic inequality:

It is precisely because the force of circumstances tends continually to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance.

His distinction between ‘will’ and ‘force’ are in the context of the difference between the legislative and executive branches, which is less interesting and, in one sense, posits ‘will’ as the act of legislation and ‘force’ as the act of execution of said legislation (later, he also says that separation of the legislative and executive is necessary in a democracy). But he is pretty explicit that will is a moral cause (using ’cause’ in a loose, but not too loose, philosophical sense).

He gets what Machiavelli was trying to do in The Prince. Ostensibly writing for a prince, but actually writing for a future, restored republic.

Rather interestingly, he notes that, sometimes, slavery was a necessity for a form of democracy. He notes that widespread use of slaves in ancient Sparta might have been what allowed Spartan citizens to be free to participate in the government and direction of their city.

It’s interesting because, more and more, it is clear that American democracy was built on the economic back of slavery – that only the economic benefits (benefits for the white, male elite who created American democracy) of slavery allowed for the existence of America, both intellectually and practically.

The old copy of the book that I read had a slip of paper in it (actually, a piece torn from an envelope), with an address in my writing to the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles. It’s not far from my old apartment in Hollywood, though I don’t remember going there.

Staged Reading Of A New Play At The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop

I’d had a ticket for this, but then the blizzard came and it was rescheduled. It wasn’t a full on production but a staged reading of a new play titled First Citizen, presenting the little performed Shakespeare play, Coriolanus, from (mostly) the point of view of four ‘citizens’ who more or less represented different classes and different political viewpoints. Rather like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the play interspersed actual dialogue from Shakespeare with the new dialogue of First Citizen. Afterwards, was a talk back session; I had been expecting it to be more question and answer, but it was more like an open critique.

Some of the critiques I disagreed with, especially since most centered around historicity. Whether characters accurately reflected socio-economic realities of that time (late Republic) of Roman history. Whether we needed more background on Roman politics (what are the roles of the Consul and Tribunes?).

My personal response was different. As to historicity, first of all, it’s in dialogue with Shakepeare who, despite writing plays known as ‘history plays,’ should not be considered a historical source, so let’s not ask it to be historically accurate (but let’s do ask it to be presently relevant). Secondly, knowing some of the basics of the political system of one of the founding civilizations of what we know as western civilization is not, actually, too much to ask. I don’t want to get into (relevant) questions of euro-centrism in education, but knowing the barest minimum about the Roman Republic is pretty basic stuff (and does not preclude nor exclude also having a basic knowledge about Imperial China’s bureaucratic system).

On the positive side, the play handled political questions well. It was a political play about the best path for change that benefits the mass of people and it did an excellent job of not reaching conclusions, by which I mean, every point of view was challenged, so that the audience was denied a pat, self-satisfied answer and was instead given more questions.

On the negative, and it’s a small point, I thought that the non-‘direct from Coriolanus‘ dialogue was too much in the middle. It bounced a bit between colloquial and vaguely Shakespearean. Don’t try to compete, I say. I would have liked the original dialogue to be more colloquial and more modern in tone.

But really good and if it is put on around here, I would go see it.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ At The Folger


Loved it.

Went on a whim. Found some cheap tickets online, bought that day for the show that evening.

When I was a child, my mother took me to see this play, making it my first encounter with live Shakespeare. If I’m honest, I don’t really have any firm memories of it. Nor had I read the play since then, so, rather unusually, I was able to go into the performance with only the barest knowledge of the plot (star-crossed lovers, Puck, fairies, and a donkey).

The production was befittingly playful, with some fun, extra-textual touches (a lovelorn Helena introduced singing a sad song by Adele). Puck was played by Erin Weaver as less a trickster, than a pan-sexual cupid (actually, all three fairy characters were pretty hypersexed). Lovers Lysander and Hermia were twenty-something, backpacking travelers; Helena as a stylish young woman (except that when first seen, she’s wearing the sweats of a depressed and jilted lover); but Demetrius was merely… I don’t know… millennial? He didn’t really get the kind of identifying costuming that the others did.

And it ended with an onstage dance party by the cast.

There’s still time. Absolutely worth seeing. Arguably, the second best production I’ve seen at the Folger (number one has to be their amazing Richard III).

Also, because of all the extremely valuable primary documents in the exhibit hall, they opened up the library itself for wine, water, and snacks (not wanting to risk a priceless letter to Shakespeare being wine-stained). Unless you’re a legitimate scholar, you don’t get much chance to wander back there, so that was exciting.