Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tuesday Night in Williamsburg: John Porcellino and "Map of My Heart" at Desert Island Comics

On our way home from work tonight we stopped off at Desert Island, Williamsburg's wonderful store filled with comics, graphic novels and related stuff, for an event featuring John Porcellino, whom Entertainment Weekly has correctly called "a master at miniature poignance."

His new full-length book, Map of My Heart, celebrates the twentieth anniversary of John's seminal and influential comics zine, King Cat Comics, which he started self-publishing in 1989. As the Drawn and Quarterly website states:
In this collection, while Porcellino is living in isolation and experiencing the pain of divorce he crafts a melancholic, tender graphic ballad of heartbreak and reflection. Known for his sad, quiet honesty rendered in his signature deceptively minimalist style, Porcellino has a command of graphic storytelling as sophisticated as the medium's more visually intricate masters. Few other artists are able to so expertly contemplate the sadness, beauty, and wonder of life in so few lines.

We find his work low-key, sweet and melancholy and were not surprised to learn during the slide show and talk that began around 8 p.m. that most of his comics begin as poetry. He captures the little moments of life, the profound small details that never make it (thankfully) into Facebook status updates but whose signifance is much less empheral and which may haunt us for years to come.

Desert Island was crowded with his fans and some of his friends, and when we got there, John was signing books - both Map of My Heart and some of the issues of King Cat and other books and zines.

He had a lot of trouble with the computer during the slide show. The technical difficulties, which necessitated starting over, let him talk without any visual presentation for a while about the events of his life that were the fodder for the new book, which covers the years from 1997 to 2002, or King Cat numbers 51 to 61.

It was a pretty dark time in John's life. He suffered from a hearing disorder, hyperacusis, an extreme sensitivity to sound which made everyday noises intolerably loud and painful: "God forbid I heard a fork on a plate."

Before this, John had played in a band and was an avid punk rock aficiando. Indeed, it was the DIY ethos of the punk scene which had inspired his zine and its deceptively simple, unadorned line drawings. The ear disorder forced him to stop playing and listening to music and to isolate himself somewhat to avoid harsh sounds.

Then he got even sicker, spending a long time in the hospital and losing a lot of weight. The crazy rock 'n' roll life he knew became a quiet, reflective existence. Previously agnostic, he became more spiritual and eventually a serious practitioner of Zen Buddhism, involved in meditation and yoga after, as he described it, he had a kind of mental breakdown (John said he "went crazy") after his physical health rapidly improved.

During these years John and his wife were forced to leave Denver and return to the Chicago area to stay with her family. Later, they got a divorce that was very painful to him.

A lot of his physical, emotional and spiritual changes are reflected in the work in the book: "Ghost Eyes," "The Weight of My Bones," and other pieces that started as poems or prose poems.

We especially loved some of the sequences like "Hsueh-feng's Spiritual Light."

It was really a pleasure to see John Porcellino and hear him discuss his work, the interaction between his life and his art, and to take questions from people who were obviously longtime fans. We look forward to reading Map of My Heart and are grateful to the fabulous Desert Island, as always, for being close by.

If you live in Williamsburg and haven't checked out the store, pay them a visit.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Afternoon in Park Slope: "Look Back in Anger" at the Old Stone House

We headed over to the Old Stone House in Washington Park on a dreary fall Sunday afternoon to see a first-rate production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

It was precisely the play needed for a dreary Sunday, as it has three crucial scenes set on dreary Sundays. But this drama's effect is the direct opposite of dreary. It's explosive.

We bought the Bantam paperback edition of the play from the old Bookworm Bookstore on Flatbush Avenue near Church when it came out in 1967.

We stayed up one night and read the play in one long gulp.

The book had amazing drawings of the scenes by Lee Gregori. But of course it was Osborne's words, even a decade after they caused a revolution on the London stage, in the mouth of his "angry young man," Jimmy Porter, that so excited one 16-year-old boy in Brooklyn:
I've an idea, why don't we have a little game? Let's pretend that we're human beings and that we're actually alive. Just for a while. What do you say?

The contemporary reaction to Look Back in Anger is more respectful than enthusiastic. It's impossible, given the past forty or fifty years, to recapture the response its got back in the day when it seemed urgent, an emancipation of drama from the restrictions of past generations, particularly in pre-Beatles, pre-mods-and-rockers, pre-"cool-Britannia" Britain, but also in fifties America.

Even by the time we read it, we'd already digested - devoured - Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which the emotional outbursts are even more extreme than the ones that are Look Back in Anger's most compelling moments.

The second floor of the Old Stone House is a great space for talks and the Brooklyn Reading Works but it's not ideal for theater. Yet this production, directed fluidly by Thomas Mulhare, managed to employ the space to maximum effect, effectively using the intimacy; at several points, sitting on the aisle, we could have reached out and touched the characters. Scene changes, which could have been jarring, were handled adeptly in an understated way with a character simply announcing them: "Two weeks later."

The cast was uniformly superb. The dialogue written by Osborne (for some reason, the program misspelled the author's name four times, adding a superfluous U, as if it were labour, honour or colour - but we guess it's great that that was our biggest quibble with the production) contains a number of monologues that could lend themselves to scenery-chewing. But here everything was controlled, restrained - even at the moments of highest rage and passion.

Alex Mills played Jimmy Porter with a vulnerability that made his sneering and sadistic tirades directed at his wife Alison and the other characters understandable. Mills' performance also emphasized Jimmy's high intelligence and educated background, which serve only to feed his frustration and bitterness and make him strike out at the world, including those who - almost unaccountably but not quite - love him. But he's also delighted with his own fury.

Yet it's hard in 2009 to take Jimmy's long, vicious riffs - like those against his despised mother-in-law - with the kind of shock that it generated decades ago. Look Back in Anger is one of those artistic works at the vanguard of so triumphant a revolutionary change that its innovations are impossible to discern for an audience who didn't live through its initial reception.

Today it's hard to imagine how some of us were affected by Osborne's plays - we also loved The Entertainer - and other groundbreaking British novels, dramas and films of the time: Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, John Schlesinger's Billy Liar, anything by Alan Sillitoe.

Our dad once came in as we were viewing Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for about the seventh time one week on Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie and said with a chuckle, "No matter how many times you watch it, he's never gonna finish that damn race." So we were thrilled to have this production come to the Old Stone House this weekend and delighted to get this kind of quality theater for just a five-dollar donation.

There's a tenderness in this Jimmy Porter that makes his unpleasant egotism understandable but doesn't veer into mawkishness. Alex Mills perfectly captured Osborne's stage directions' description of his antihero as "a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty."

In the squalor of Jimmy's Midlands flat - subtly suggested by a minimalist set, lots of newspapers scattered about (we admit being distracted by their being New York papers; maybe they could have gotten some London ones?) and a few stuffy furnishings, including an old record player from which very low-key background music which served the action of the play well - Alison, his upper-class wife, at first seems out of place.

Played by Katy Foley, who also was the producer here, this Alison seemed less Jimmy's punching bag and doormat than someone who's somewhat willingly taken on the role of wife as victim as a way of protecting the man she loves from turning his anger on himself. That is, Alison here appears very vulnerable but not bewildered; she's made her choices deliberately, even though she may not be aware of it. In Foley's portrayal, you can see why Alison is the squirrel to Jimmy's bear in their stuffed-animal avatars on a side table.

As Helena, Ruby Joy at first is outwardly brittle and somewhat manipulative, but in Act Two - there was a ten-minute intermission - it's obvious that she wears a protective armor and is also a lost soul, drowning slowly in what she once thought were safe waters. She doesn't lack compassion, but for Joy's Helena, everything else takes a back seat to self-preservation.

Daniel Kemper excelled as Cliff and was in some ways the pivotal character in this production. Jimmy's most ardent passion is devoted to his loyal crony Cliff, who's fiercely protective of him despite the mutual insults. Cliff is even more protective and tender toward Alison, whom he's so affectionate toward - the choice made to begin the play with Cliff and Alison in an embrace, as if they're having a furtive affair, was brilliant - that it would arouse the jealousy of any husband except Jimmy, who's incapable of jealousy.

Tolerant, patient, self-deprecating, funny, acutely aware of his limitations and lack of education, Kemper's Cliff is also quite needy, and we don't quite know how to respond to his perfectly-delivered speech announcing that it might be time for him to move on from Jimmy's sweet shop business and his friends' menage; this character's motivations are in some way the most complex in the play.

Like Jimmy's working class English accent and the posher accents of the other characters, Cliff's Welsh accent was effectively unobtrusive and unaffected.

Dan Odell as Colonel Redfern, Alison's father, gave an affecting performance as the representative of the establishment, no caricactured Colonel Blimp but a man plagued by self-doubt and second-guessing, as vulnerable as the young people, distracted and bewildered by the ground shaking underneath Old England's feet. In the way he muddles through, there's a sense of decency about him, and Odell struck all the right gestures for a man of his time and place.

Look Back in Anger is a period piece today, and this production emphasized not its blazing fury but the melancholy underlying the characters' lives. Osborne's words, even the ones that seemed vulgar and brutal in 1956, now seem elegaic and wonderfully poetic.

The sun was shining as we left the Old Stone House and we were really glad we got to see this production.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Saturday Afternoon in Hudson River Park: A Reading of "Two Noble Kinsmen" at Clinton Cove

This afternoon we had the pleasure of going to Hudson River Park's Clinton Cove, a beautiful spot on the river at 55th Street, and watching a staged reading of Two Noble Kinsmen, the tragicomedy written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

The only one of Shakespeare's works never produced for movies or TV - the Public Theater's New York Shakespeare Festival has put it on only once, in 2003 - The Two Noble Kinsmen is, at least in Elena Araoz’s and Nate Art Productions adaptation that we heard today, actually surprisingly entertaining and resonant.

Scholars using textual analysis generally can pinpoint which parts of the play are Shakespeare's and which are Fletcher's, with some passages uncertain. But it's almost universally believed that Shakespeare did co-author about 40% of The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Even to our untrained ears some of the language is unmistakeable. We've never read the play, but at the end of the excellent reading, presented by a really talented cast of seven actors (three males, two females) in a somewhat abridged version, we felt a catch in our throat at the play's conclusion when Theseus, king of Athens, says
O you heavenly charmers
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh; for what we have are sorry; still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let's go off,
And bear us like the time.

We weren't surprised to read when we got home that Harold Bloom called these "as far as we know, the last lines of serious poetry Shakespeare ever wrote."

Here's the plot summary, courtesy of the Shakespeare Rescource Center:
The Two Noble Kinsmen is essentially an adaptation of Chaucer's Knight's Tale. In this story, the two kinsmen are Palamon and Arcite; they are captured while fighting for Thebes against Athens. While imprisoned, the two cousins find themselves attracted to Emilia, who is the sister of Hippolyta, wife of Theseus. Their professed "eternal friendship" takes a beating as the two vow to woo her. Theseus exiles Arcite from Athens and leaves Palamon in jail.

Arcite has other ideas once he is freed; he disguises himself as a peasant in order to keep an eye on Emilia. Meanwhile, the jailer's daughter has fallen in love with Palamon. She helps him to escape and aids him once he's hiding in the nearby forest. There Arcite encounters him. The two men resume their argument over Emilia and finally decide to duel for her that night. However, as they prepare for the duel, the two are discovered by Theseus. At first he condemns both to death; at the behest of Emilia and Hippolyta, however, the duke attempts to banish them both. Both Palamon and Arcite refuse, so Theseus asks Emilia to choose between them, with the loser being put to death. Emilia, however, can't decide, so Theseus declares that the matter will be settled by combat after all—in one month, Palamon and Arcite will fight for Emilia's hand, with the loser to be executed.

In the meantime, the jailer's daughter has gone mad as a result of her unrequited love for Palamon. Theseus absolves the jailer, who had no part in Palamon's escape, and gives a pardon to his deranged daughter. A doctor attempts to help her by getting the man to whom she's engaged pretend to be Palamon in order to restore her sanity. The time for the contest comes about, and Arcite defeats Palamon. However, fate twists dramatically as Palamon awaits execution; a messenger arrives bringing news of Arcite's mortal wounding suffered in a horse riding accident. Arcite gives Emilia's hand to Palamon before he dies.

The cast - James Edward Becton, Donte Bonner, Alexandra Cremer, Joseph Franchini, Jenny Greeman, Carrie Isaacman, Jonathan Periera, and Paul Singleton - were uniformly excellent in playing multiple parts. They employed the bound scripts in a manner that soon we didn't notice them much and instead concentrated on the words, the actor's line readings, and some physical gestures.

Stage directions were read by the actors taking turns, and we never had a problem distinguishing when an actor was playing one part and when another. Given that they were wearing their regular clothes, this was quite an accomplishment.

An audience of maybe a dozen, including a couple of little blond kids who were amazingly well-behaved, sat on the grass in front of the actors. It was kind of a shame that this reading didn't have more people to appreciate it, but maybe the crowd was larger last Saturday.

We did see a couple of joggers or strollers in the path behind stop to listen and watch for a scene or two. Clinton Cove, by piers 95 and 96, is a pleasant setting, and the ambient noise was minimal; we kind of liked the few times a ship's horn bellowed.

It couldn't have been easy to turn pages deftly on a cool, breezy early fall afternoon - it started out overcast but then became somewhat brighter - but the cast managed to do this unobtrusively, and the one time an actor read another's lines, it was handled gracefully.

Really, we were impressed with how well Two Noble Kinsmen worked in this format. This reading smartly emphasized the comic aspects of the play - the scenes with the love-mad jailer's daughter and the doctor's plot to disguise her anxious suitor as her beloved Palamon were laugh-out-loud funny and bawdy - and we suspect the cutting in this adaptation was a mercy.

We didn't have a cast list, but we think that it was Becton and Bonner who were the two kinsmen of the title, and they were excellent. But so was everyone else, even when playing such distinct roles as both Hippolyta and the Doctor or both Theseus and the Wooer of the Jailer's Daughter.

This reading was so good, it makes us wonder why The Two Noble Kinsmen hasn't been produced more. The tragicomedy has echoes of A Midsummer Night's Dream (where Theseus and Hippolyta also appear) and other Shakespeare plays. Anyway, we're really grateful to the Friends of Hudson River Park, the actors, and everyone responsible for this afternoon's event.

Afterwards we walked around Clinton Cove a bit.

We especially liked the sculpture Private Passage by Malcolm Cochran. a 30-foot long, 8’6” diameter wine bottle resting on its side.
was It was our first time visiting Clinton Cove, but it won't be our last.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Morning in Coney Island: Breakfast on the Boardwalk

We never liked Coney Island in the summer and never went to the beach there. It was too crowded and seemed tacky in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Our family, and when we were older, our friends went to the much-nicer Rockaway beaches or if we stayed in Brooklyn, to Manhattan Beach. Both seemed like real beaches outside of a city.

But Coney Island was really nice early this morning. We got the G train in Williamsburg at 7:45 a.m. and changed for the F at Church Avenue. At the West 8th Street/Aquarium stop we changed for the Q to Brighton Beach, where we got iced tea and oatmeal at Starbucks and brought it back to Coney Island, at the boardwalk near Stillwell Avenue.

It was a gorgeous morning and very few people were up and about. The boardwalk food stands and restaurants were all closed. This was really the first time we went to Coney Island in the morning. If we're staying in Brooklyn, we usually go to Brighton Beach, which seems more homey and friendly. And Russian.

We always knew about the Parachute Jump, the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, etc., but even as a kid, we hated rides. Although we never got carsick, the thought of going on rides and getting dizzy and nauseated didn't appeal to us, especially when we saw other kids getting sick.

Coney Island always seemed scuzzy to us as a kid. We lived not that far away, just a couple of exits on the Belt Parkway - yeah, our Brooklyn was car-oriented since there were no subways in our neighborhood - but we didn't come here often.

Rockaway was closer, and since we grew up in the Arverne bungalow colonies and then later both sets of grandparents lived in beachfront apartments, we always gravitated to Rockaway, which was where we got our first apartment. That's where we went on good beach days this summer. One Saturday our friend and former Nova Southeastern University Law colleague Mark, now director of academic support at Pace Law School, came down from Westchester with his 5yo son Josh, and we went to Beach 116th Street in Rockaway Park. Mark, who grew up in the Bronx, was there for the first time and also thought Rockaway was a much nicer beach than Coney Island.

When we did go to Coney Island with our family, usually on fall or winter Sundays, we went to Faber's - not the Faber's Fascination but next door. We think it was called Faber's Playland (Faber's Sportland was at Rockaways Playland, which seemed to us a nicer amusement park although we really didn't like any amusement parks. We actually preferred the little Faber's on the Rockaway boardwalk in Edgemere, which we used to walk to with our friends from our bungalow on Beach 56th Street in Arverne.)

Faber's had skee-ball, which we loved to play, and some pinball machines and other games we liked.

Our memories of Stillwell Avenue are mostly of being there on dark, cold winter Sunday afternoons when there were only a handful of cars parked in the middle of the street. It seemed kind of depressing.

Around the time of our Memorial Day 1964 bar mitzvah in nearby Sheepshead Bay, the Loews Coney Island Theatre became the Brandt's Shore. Before we turned 20, the Shore played only X-rated porn films.

We liked Nathan's well enough. As a kid, we liked the french fries, and it was the only place where we would put mustard, not ketchup, on our french fries. But by the time we got to high school, the Nathan's on Long Beach Road in Oceanside was a cooler place to go: it felt (and was) suburban, our uncle lived nearby, and kids from Midwood High School would go out to the Oceanside Nathan's rather than the Coney Island one.

We do like Keyspan Park, of course. Today was the second day of the Great Irish Fair and we would have liked to check it out, but the $12 admission fee didn't fit our potato-famine budget. We went once or twice to Ebbets Field but barely remember it. Jackie Robinson was our god and Pee Wee Reese a saint. The statue of the famous gesture is really great, especially the way the base explains it so effectively. Our favorite Brooklyn Dodger was Duke Snider; at age 6, we knew he wasn't really royalty but did believe that Snyder Avenue was named for him.

Sometimes on off-season weekends, we'd just take a Sunday ride and go down Surf Avenue from one end to the other, by Sea Gate. It always seemed desolate in cold weather. Later we associated with friends and family members who lived in the big apartment houses. So Coney Island never seemed like a fun destination to us, and we suspect that's true for a lot of kids who grew up in southeastern Brooklyn in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The beach was almost deserted early this morning. One of those vehicles that make the sand smooth and even was going up and down the beach. Of course the lifeguards disappear after Labor Day.

This is looking east from part of the boardwalk that goes in a little, by the foul-urine-smelling public bathrooms at Stillwell Avenue. You can make out the Marine Parkway Bridge faintly at right.

Same location, only facing west. We still have weird problems with "east" and "west" on the Belt Parkway, which was the first highway we drove on by ourselves. When we got home from school on the day when our driver's license came in the mail (we'd failed the road test, then given around Rockaway Avenue and Avenue B, near Brookdale Hospital), we decided to take our first ride on the Belt. We got on at Flatbush Avenue and took it one exit west to Knapp Street, probably less than a mile. It gave us a panic attack.

According to Wikipedia, the Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue subway station is "the world's largest above-ground terminal facility, and notable as the most energy-efficient mass transit facility in the United States." Because we were car people, we never entered it until a few years ago, after its reconstruction and reopening in 2004.

It's the only train station in New York City with that European train station "look and feel."

We like that the station exterior still says BMT. We are so old that we automatically say we are going on the IRT or BMT someplace and nobody younger than 45 seems to know what we're talking about.

We spent a couple of hours reading the Sunday Times after eating our oatmeal and as we drank our iced tea. It was really lovely to sit on a bench by the beach and watch the ocean.