Thursday, August 22, 2013

British Wit and Wisdom: Dry and With A Twist

In April 2010, the Library of Congress announced plans to archive every single tweet publicly posted on Twitter's social network. With nearly half a billion new tweets being generated each day, the Library of Congress can now access nearly 170 billion tweets. But do 140 characters of text comprise a work of art?

The data contained in more than 85 terabytes may be a treasure trove for those whose professional duties include data mining, but does any of it constitute some kind of genuine literary output? I have no argument with word clouds (see below) being perceived as unique pieces of art. But tweets?

Like any form of artistic expression, writing is an acquired skill -- a craft, if you will, that takes patience, practice, and ruthless discipline. Writing requires more than merely vomiting words into a document in the hope that they will somehow make sense. It requires a command of vocabulary, sentence structure, and an awareness of the inherent musicality of language.

When my eyeglass frames broke during my recent convalescence, I could no longer read words on a computer monitor. Thankfully, if I positioned myself carefully in bed, I could still manage to read a book. The novel I chose (True Enough by Stephen McCauley) had been given to me by a friend several years ago. Although I'll admit to choosing it because it weighed less than some of the other books waiting to be read, it contained a delicious surprise. graceful writing.

Graceful writing goes well beyond the structural foundation of having an identifiable beginning, middle, and end to a story. It involves solid plotting, believable dialogue, the kind of character development that allows a reader to form a visual picture of each person in his mind, and the ability to keep a reader wanting more.

In McCauley's case, the ease with which his writing delivers tons of detailed information without ever becoming oppressive (and the style that so easily allows his words to flow through one's mind so that his storytelling seems as natural as the act of breathing) was, in a most charming way, revelatory.

Cover art for Stephen McCauley's novel, True Enough

Once my post-surgical catheter was removed and I was free to explore my cultural landscape again, I was extremely fortunate. The first two fully-staged productions I attended turned out to be extremely well-written plays whose graceful writing had handsomely survived the passage of time. Although one play is more than 120 years old -- and the other nearing its 40th birthday -- both works displayed a wealth of wit and wisdom while maintaining an economy of verbiage that demonstrated a far greater command of the English language than will ever be found in a tweet.

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Born in 1854, Oscar Wilde has become so notorious for his biting wit that quotes from his plays are freely sprinkled into new works such as Chance: A Musical Play About Love, Risk, and Getting It Right and Being Earnest. The irony is that, because Wilde was such a remarkable playwright, these quotes become much richer when heard in their original context.

If one considers that Wilde premiered The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, Salomé, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest within a five-year period, his output seems astonishing. The California Shakespeare Theater's new production of Lady Windermere's Fan reminds audiences that Wilde's writing skills went far beyond the witty lines for which he is often quoted. Not only is his sense of structure remarkably strong, there is almost no fat that could be trimmed from his script.

Using Annie Smart's elegant sets, director Christopher Liam Moore has managed to infuse Wilde's play with a rare level of humanity, transforming the sexual politics of Victorian England into a much deeper lesson about the dangers of being an overly romantic fool. From her very first entrance, Emily Kitchens' wide-eyed portrayal of the proud and prudish Lady Windermere sets up the 21-year-old wife and recent mother for a dangerously misguided slide toward disillusionment.

Nick Gabriel (Lord Darlington) and Emily Kitchens
(Lady Windermere) in a scene from Lady Windermere's Fan
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Whether being toyed with by the dashing Lord Darlington (Nick Gabriel), feeling horribly betrayed by her adoring husband (Aldo Billingslea), or tolerating some ridiculous lectures by the caustic Duchess of Berwick (Danny Scheie), Lady Windermere never realizes how much trouble she is in because almost everything she has been taught about love has been the counsel of vain and moralistic fools.

Her suspicion that her husband is having an affair with the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross) matched with her naive belief that Lord Darlington genuinely wants to be her friend could have tragic consequences were not the stakes much higher for Mrs. Erlynne who, as Lady Windermere's supposedly deceased biological mother, desperately wants to prevent her daughter from following in her unfortunate footsteps.

Stacy Ross (Mrs. Erlynne) and Emily Kitchens (Lady Windermere)
in a scene from Lady Windermere's Fan (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The skill with which Wilde paints Mrs. Erlynne as a ruined woman who prides herself on having no compassion (yet is shocked to discover in a real crisis that she does, indeed, have a heart) delivers some extremely poignant moments while revealing who holds the real power in the battle of the sexes. With a group of talented local actors in supporting roles (L. Peter Callender as Mr. Dumby, James Carpenter as Lord Augustus, Dan Clegg as Cecil Graham, and Tyee Tilghmann as the Australian, Mr. Hopper), the CalShakes ensemble delivers some touching portrayals of smug, ridiculous Victorian men.

However, it is Wilde's women -- ranging from the fierceness of Mrs. Erlynne to the foolishness of Lady Agatha (Rami Margron) and the hilarious quick change work of Danny Scheie as he switches back and forth between portraying the Duchess of Berwick and the elderly Lady Jedburgh -- that dominates the stage action. Decked out in Meg Neville's lavish costumes, Stacy Ross and Emily Kitchens becoming riveting women coping with incomprehensible levels of stress. As always, Danny Scheie steals the show.

Aldo Billingslea (Lord Windermere) and Stacy Ross (Mrs. Erlynne)
in a scene from Lady Windermere's Fan (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Performances of Lady Windermere's Fan continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through September 8 (click here to order tickets).

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The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently enjoying a box office hit with the pre-Broadway tryout of Harold Pinter's 1974 play, No Man's Land, featuring a quartet of superb actors. Directed by Sean Mathias, Pinter's script focuses on four men of questionable integrity:
  • Hirst (Patrick Stewart) is a renowned British poet whose acquired wealth underwrites an insatiable thirst for liquor as he heads into his senior years with an occasionally fuzzy memory and a growing sense of isolation and loneliness. As the play begins, he has invited another man back to his estate for a drink.
  • Spooner (Ian McKellen) is also a poet, although less well off than Hirst. A man who revels in his inability to be noticed in any room, Spooner is more than happy to drink at Hirst's expense. Despite his tendency to be a Peeping Tom in an area where gay men go cottaging, he claims that his interest is purely clinical and that, at this age, he's too old to really care about sex.
  • Briggs (Shuler Hensley) is Hirst's bodyguard/manservant, a hulking figure of a man who has much less to say than his younger partner.
  • Foster (Billy Crudup) is an aspiring poet who was recommended to Hirst by Briggs to fulfill the duties of an amanuensis or male secretary.
Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup in No Man's Land
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While No Man's Land bears many of Pinter's dramatic trademarks (gloomy silences, implied threats, the revelation of dark secrets from the past, fear of loneliness, and the kind of jockeying for position which is determined to upset the status quo), I found it surprisingly more enjoyable than other Pinter plays such as The Homecoming and The Caretaker. As I tried to figure out what secret ingredient made this work so much more palatable, I was shocked by some of the possibilities:
  • Even if Spooner seems like a crumpled old intellectual, none of the characters in this play is threatened with or terrified by poverty.
  • Whereas the characters in The Homecoming and The Caretaker seem to have become emotionally crippled by their socioeconomic status, the four men in No Man's Land are living in physical comfort.
  • With the possible exception of Briggs, all of Pinter's characters in No Man's Land have keen intellects which they have relied on in their attempts to write poetry.
Patrick Stewart is the wealthy Hirst in No Man's Land
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

By the second act, it appears that Hirst and Spooner may not be strangers after all. Indeed, they may have shared the same women during their Oxford days. As Spooner starts to reveal one after another of Hirst's misdeeds, the audience witnesses an airing of old wounds and humiliations. But, considering Spooner's constant posturing -- and the large amounts of alcohol consumed by Spooner and Hirst -- can anything be taken as proof positive of past events?

Ian McKellen is Spooner in No Man's Land
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

It would be easy to approach No Man's Land as an opportunity to see two acclaimed superstars performing live in an intimate venue. But the truth is that this four-man ensemble is comprised of a quartet of top-notch actors whose acquired skills make them master craftsmen. While Ian McKellen's Spooner garners the most attention because of how the insults of old age are so fully integrated into his physical performance, there is no denying the intense physical and dramatic appeal of Billy Crudup as the alternately beguiling and threatening Foster.

By contrast, Patrick Stewart and Shuler Hensley's performances seem a bit subdued until one remembers that one of the greatest and most difficult parts of good acting is to listen and react to the other characters onstage. Working on the simple, elegant unit set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, director Sean Mathias has done a masterful job of shaping the musicality of Pinter's silences, the body language of four remarkably different men, and pacing the evening with a combination of drunken grace and black humor that is irresistible. Tickets for remaining performances are justifiably scarce.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

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