High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Monday, October 17, 2005


Warning: This is likely to be boring in the extreme for anyone who is not me (and that's optimistic).

It's hyperbole to say that I was born loving baseball, but it feels like that. My sisters were 7 and 8 when I was born. The first memory I have of real interaction with them was during a White Sox game. They were glued to the black-and-white television in the back of our kitchen. It was nearly dinner time, and I knew there'd be a fight when my mother made them turn the game off. I knew which side of the fight I wanted to be on. Mom made her move and probably for the first, last, and only time in my life, I got a word in before Trish [1]: "But Mom! 30's up."

I don't remember how they deciphered my code. Probably it was Terry[2], who always paid more attention to me than the average family member. I couldn't really read (or at least not much), but I knew my numbers. In the earliest manifestation of what my good friend D. would later call my "photogenic memory," I'd memorized the batting order by uniform number. Number 30, Bucky Dent. He was Trish's crush and she cried when he was traded to the Yankees. Number 16, Brian Downing, the one Terry liked. I don't think she ever forgave me for my passion for Bill Nohorodny, a later rival of Downing's, but I was obsessed with his name.

I only needed to hear the announcers list the batting order once before I had it down pat for the game (probably there wasn't a whole lot of variation, in truth). But I had one quirk. I would always add number 28 in at a random position, giving the Sox 10 hitters. I felt it most unjust that they never let number 28 up. Number 28 was, of course, Wilbur Wood, a knuckleball pitcher. To me, he was that man who threw funny, but that was no reason not to let him bat. If the numbers in my brain are to be trusted, that was 1975.

That seems about right, because in 1976, I made my famous choice of my baseball boyfriend: Ralph Garr. My sisters laughed, but let me have his picture from a set of cardboard 5x7s we got from Shop-N-Bag by pasting hundreds of greenstamps (or something like them) into books. And when I say "we" I mean "I" on the pasting front. I suppose it's appropriate that my first exposure to racism in the family was accompanied by my first exploitation as cheap labor.

I didn't win any more friends in the era of the South Side hitmen by failing to see the charm of Richie Zisk. A part of Trish died to me when I asked for the picture of Oscar Gamble from the 1977 set. Garr continued to be my favorite, but Oscar had his place by his side. Filling out my unlikely trio was Lerrin LaGrow, a giant red-headed pitcher. By this time, I was memorizing the number of homers and RBIs each batter had. Batting average was frustrating to me, because it seemed to change at random. By the end of that season, though, I'd worked it out through trial and error and was doing something that approximated fractions in my head. (Naturally, this would come back to bite me on the ass when I was dumbstruck by the utterly bass ackward way in which they taught fractions in school.)

I don't remember my first game at Comiskey. I feel certain it was probably a frigid spring day. I know we would have sat along the right-field line, dozens of rows deep. One of us, but probably not me, would have smuggled in a greasy paper shopping bag full of popcorn. It's unlikely that this would have been my task, because, despite early training in deceit, I could not have achieved plausible deniability under the pressure of interrogation by Andy Frain [3].

When I got older and understood why my choices of baseball boyfriends were funny (sisters) or alarming (parents), I would also understand the shame of this[4]. By that time I was old enough to be entrusted with the duty of Popcorn Bag Man. My skin would crawl as I made my way through the turnstiles. not just at this tactic. My face would burn with shame everytime a vendor came by and pop and beers and popcorn and peanuts and cotton candy sailed through my hands and over my head to the people around us.

When Trish got old enough to be in her really nasty years, there was worse hell. She'd hail a vendor and buy something (often several somethings) for herself, ostentatiously peeling bills off and passing them to me or my dad to hand over. I know how I would have reacted during this phase. I hated her. I hated her for making a day at the game not enough. I hated her for making me aware that we really couldn't afford it in the first place, let alone any extras, and I hated her for making my dad feel bad.

Poor Trish. That's a lot of baggage for a 14-year-old minimum-wage earner. Especially when I've probably made up the part about my dad feeling bad. It's far more likely that he yelled at her for wasting her money on overpriced crap. In any case, I owe Trish. My own nasty years took on a very different tone, thanks to her example. Nasty in oh so many creative ways of my own, I was adamant about not asking for money from them, or even making them aware that there were cases in which I genuinely might have needed money. I probably owe several hundred dollars to LZ who spotted me money for lunch virtually everday in high school.

The hangdog-dad expression that still makes me tear up even now would've come later, when we got home. My mother almost never came to games with us. One could argue that this stems from her complete disinterest in any sports. Given that she particularly seemed to dislike baseball, it would seem sensible not to stretch the cash any further by buying a ticket for someone who didn't want to be there. Is it likely that every single trip to Comiskey resulted in a fight? Statistically, there were probably one or two times when it didn't, but I don't remember those.

Usually, it would start out being about the money. Practically, I suppose this was the best place to seek the argumentative high ground. But it always devolved into a patented mom mix of jealousy and conspiracy. Baseball was a way of taking her daughters from her (where my older brother was in all this, I couldn't tell you, but he was decidedly not part of the Clan!Og fandom). Baseball was a way for her daughters to gang up with him against her. The very sport had been designed in advance of her birth, paving the way for her, once again, to be left out.

But I'm getting well ahead of myself. The first time I went to Comiskey, I didn't know about shame anymore than I knew about the difference between white people and black people. I didn't know we couldn't really afford to go to the game. The big popcorn bag was a treat, because my dad made the best popcorn in the world: stovetop, corn oil, a little butter melted in the steaming hot lid of the pot, which you'd then turn over on to the popcorn and shake it through.

My sisters took me on the long hike down from our seats to those right behind the dugout and I knocked on the roof, looking skeptical when Terry told me that all the numbers were inside. I have a vague memory of a young man noticing me watching over his shoulder as he kept score in his own book and showing me how to do it. That must have been well after my first game, though, because I remember him letting me write, a huge, wobbly KO in the box. I still love the intricacies of keeping score, though probably no one does it by hand anymore. I love the diamonds and layered information available if you just know the code. I haven't done it in years, and I miss it.

I think it was all down hill for my sisters after Bucky left. They would move on to where I dared not follow: Shaun Cassidy, the Hardy Boys, the Bee Gees[5] and shiny satin pantsuits. But there are a few scattered memories of "Us" as a reality. I know I was a right pain in the ass one day when they took me to Ford City Mall with them (coerced or out of the goodness of their hearts, I don't know, but they certainly would rue the day). We stood in a huge crowd of screaming teenage girls for hours. I couldn't see a thing except the nightmare of polyester bellbottoms that made up the view at my eye level. Shirley this isn't where Og was born, but it was one of hir formative experiences.

I was truly working up to a tantrum when the somewhat bewildered guy on stage called my name. Say what you will about Trish (and I obviously have here), but she's an excellent woman in a bulldozer situation. Using me as a shield, she plowed through us through to the stage. The man knelt down, holding an LP with ornate cover art, and looked at me dubiously. He asked me my name. I turned and buried my face against Trish's leg. I could've sooner dug the Panama Canal than talked to him. This suited Trish just fine as she told him to sign it to her. Somewhere out there, probably still mouldering in a Salvation Army store is an autographed copy of CREAM VOLUME TWO---To Trish: All the Best, Ken Kravec.

Without my sisters, the fandom was hard to maintain. I wasn't old enought to reliably keep track of when games were on, and had no power to command the TV when they were. The lineup became unfamiliar to me. There were games with my dad, most courtesy of Straight-A tickets from school when I could pester my mother enough that she'd send in the paperwork for them. Less frequently, my sisters would come. From time to time, my friends from next door would come with us or I'd go with them. I didn't like those times as well. I wanted to watch and keep score. C would want to explore the park or torment her brother.

In 1982, I was 10 years old and a complete fanatic. It wasn't just about the Sox anymore. I would watch any game I could. I ate up the strange rules and rare occurrences. I'd tell anyone who would listen (a very small audience, consisting primarily of my grandmother, who probably couldn't hear a word I was saying) about balks and dropped third strikes and the infield fly rule. I'd been an American League fan by birth, but now I had a justification: My sense of empathetic shame went into overdrive watching pitchers try to bat.

My friends with children and grandchildren tell me that kids will inevitably sort their dinosaurs into good guys and bad guys. I did the same with teams that year. The Sox weren't doing much of anything, and the Brewers became my second favorite team. In the National League, it was the Cardinals, whose line up consisted of names to rival Nohorodny: Willie McGee, Joaquin Andujar, Ozzie Smith. Milwaukee had a pitcher named Bob McClure who turned aaaaallll the way around, facing second base as part of his wind up.

I'm sure the members of my household were grateful that, in those days, there was one 5-game round of playoffs in each series, because I was relentless. For the first time in my life, I held my ground about the TV. I went on and on about the evils of the Braves and the Angels. It was imperative that the World Series be the Brewers and the Cardinals and that the Brewers triumph. They didn't---a taste of disappointment that would prepare me for the 1983 ALDS.

It's late now and this is long enough for the moment. I regret to inform anyone who has made it this far, though, that this will likely be at least a two-part series.


[1] I'm not changing their names to protect the innocent because: (a) they're not; (b) the bitches have the same first initial; (c) most of you know them anyway, and I trust you're not going to ruin their political aspirations by revealing their child enslavement and poor taste in music and fashion.

[2] See note 1.

[3] Def. Security firm providing underskilled, underpaid bodies to block the exits when sporting and/or cultural events get out of hand in Chi Town. UsageThe dude just downed three urinal cakes, then took a dump in the trough in the men's room. Better grab that Andy Frain.

[4] Shame about stupid things that were beyond the control of me and my family. Shame regarding my very favorite baby blue and orange plaid flare pants (which, I felt, were set off to their best advantage when paired with a velour vest in a different shade of blue worn over a polkadot peasant blouse with Holly Hobbies around the bottom) was a long time in coming.

[5] In case you have doubts about their innocence, they are entirely to blame for the fact that I knew about the Bee Gees Sergeant Pepper long before I'd ever heard of the Beatles.


Sunday, October 16, 2005

Don Q. Parameters

First up: a treat for those of you in the Black Helicopter Brigade. A while back, my pal M attended a picnic thrown by the Future Overlords of Her Grandchildren. Part of the noblesse oblige-y goodness was, of course, doorprizes. She raked in a pair of tickets for Court Theatre's production of Man of La Mancha. Swallowing her bitterness at those who had gotten iPods and flatscreens, she informed me that in the likely event that the First Daughter exercised her right of first refusal, the second ticket was mine.

This did come to pass and we began to trade e-mails in an attempt to narrow down dates. At some point, I told her that I'd cleverly deleted the e-mail containing her Don Q. Parameters. Shortly thereafter, she received a spam with this very subject line.

Wackiness in getting to the venue was only very narrowly missed. I had e-mailed my benefactress earlier in the day proposing that I pick her up at the Storey. By the time I left the Painful Acres, I had not yet received a reply. I figured I would just call her as I approached Hyde Park. And thankfully, I did. We had a moment of:

M: Where should I stand?
C: Uh . . .
M: Well, will you be coming North on Woodlawn?

C: Er . . . [C is pretty sure that the Storey is not on Woodlawn]. No? South on Greenwood?
M: [A Pinterian Pause in celebration of his inexplicable Nobel]. I'm at work?
C: [Counterpauses]. Ah. Yes. North on Woodlawn. There in a trice.

Had you chanced to ask if you'se would be dining, you would have found us at La Petit Folie, quite a nice little French place surprisingly located in the Co-op shopping center. We'd been urged to make our reservations for 5:45 for our 8:00 curtain and walked into a completely empty restaurant. We both opted for the pre-theatre prix fixe (Goat cheese tart and berries with chantilly cream for both of us, chicken for her, skate for me). Despite quite a bit of downtime between courses, we still found ourselves at the end of dinner with vast acres of time in which we could grow crops. We lingered over coffee and then enjoyed the lovely night air in front of the theatre before making our way inside to get the maximum exposure to the Ushers on Deathwatch (disappointingly understaffed by those with one foot in the grave, if you ask me).

We had fabulous seats, smack in the center, row C. These were particularly excellent as they were a perfect vantage point from which to appreciate the totally cool set.

Court's space is a terrifically versatile one. Several years ago, we saw Nora (one of the umptibillion variations on A Doll's House) in the round, although I wouldn't count that as one of my favorite sets. And then, of course, I was a big fan of the staging and set design of Guys & Dolls last year.Although I asthetically appreciated the fact that this amphitheatre-style set used the fuck out of every last inch of vertical space, I must admit that people climbing down rungs into the set from 25 feet up with a freaking GUITAR on their back took years off the life of my internal stage manager.

Basically, the upstage half of the circular set had three sets of stairs. At stage right, these were truncated, ending in the aforementioned heart-stopping rungs up to the window that provided the lone entrance into the prison. Both the sound and lighting design made the most of the creep factor when this would open to either admit or summon one of the condemned. The set of stairs slightly stage right of center went all the way up to the back wall, but also ended in another set of rungs leading up to another window barred window in which one of the prisoners would occasionally lurk. Most of the props and costumes (such as they were) for the play-within-the-play came from this area as well. Up and slightly left of center the back wall had a large, grated arch cut into it. The landing at the top of these stairs was curtained off into a couple separate spaces, including the niche from which Aldonza conducted her business.

The downstage portion of the set was a circular pit fronted by a ramp and lined with a stair leading down into it. The stage left wall had a small, low hearth within it for local prop storage. The pit was probably 10-12 feet across and most of the floor was taken up with a grate. This had a small hinged portion giving access to the "water feature" (as M dubbed it) underneath throughout, and the entire thing (probably 8 feet across) lifted up at the critical moment near the end. With some lovely lighting work, the water was thus turned into the mirror that brings Quijana back to himself (really nicely done).

The finishing touch on the set was the circular ramp at the foot of each set of stairs and continuing on between the audience and the pit. The upstage section was set a step up from the downstage half. Altogether, the verticality, the depth (yeah, yeah, I know), and the circularity gave the actors not just a tremendous amount of space to work with, but also gave the whole production the dynamic feel needed to sell the play-within-a-play without any set changes.

Uh, as wonderful a set this was for acting, I must note that it had to be the special hell for the musicians. The conductor (and pianist) was tucked into a niche deep downstage right with the guitarist and the flute, clarinet, and trumpet were clear across the stage, wedged in at downstage left. This didn't seem to much hinder the, though, for which I was thankful. The last production of this I saw was at UT, probably 7 or 8 years ago, now, and though they had a wonderful cast, their orchestra had been dredged up from some unspeakable place.

Performance-wise, there's not much to complain about. Herbert Perry was quite The Man as the titular man. Given that he's sung Figaro (Mozart's) at the Met, vocal expectations were high, and he came through. If I had to complain about him, I'd say that he tended to treat dialogue as recitative, which came across as nerves (or inexperience at this acting thang) in the opening. But that's a small quibble and I could find no fault with the emotion he was able to drum up while singing and throughout the rest of the play.

Neil Friedman as Sancho was also a total delight. He's a burly cutiepie and both the director and the actor wisely avoided the James Coco route. He's a saner, mother hen of a Sancho, rather than a slightly imebecilic child along for the ride. This came across well in his two main songs ("I Like Him" and "A Little Gossip"). Although he certainly had the vocal chops to sing them all the way through, they wove in a bit or recitative to make it clear he keeps one foot in reality all the time.

I see that Hollis Resnick (Aldonza/Dulcinea) is credited with several serious singing roles. That surprises me a bit. I'd pretty much pegged her as a singing actor, rather than an acting singer. First of all, they'd sped up "One Pair of Arms" to, I kid you not, something like quadruple time and stripped it of the more operatic passages. "Why Do You Do the Things You Do?", strangely, had been turned into "Why Does He Do the Things He Does?" sung to the audience with all the other actors turned to face upstage. Once again, this had been arranged firmly into "musical" territory, rather than operatic. I mean, I know that number is nothing but a hategram for whoever created that role, but the extent to which it was ratcheted down was extreme.

Now seeing her street cred, though, I have to assume that the arrangements and the direction of the character were deliberate choices, rather than born of necessity. When I commented afterward that I was not wild about Resnick's Aldonza, M commented that some distance would have helped with her, which was an excellent point. You might notice in the photos that she's constantly pulling a face or striking a melodramatic pose. That's not because they've caught her in a high note or the aftermath of her gang-rape. Her performance is constantly BIG, jerky, and jagged at every moment. Both the Trib and the Sun-Times seem to have liked it, but it largely didn't work for me.

The supporting cast were uniformly terrific, but I have to give two singing shout outs. Stephen Wallem as the Padre is shaved bald and sports a beard of which the M, even in his Zombie Groomsman phase, would be jealous. This transforms the mild-mannered dude into someone you really wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley. The voice that came out of this thug is difficult to describe. It was positively angelic and, although I wasn't wild about the halting arrangement of "To Each His Dulcinea," I could have listened to him sing it over and over and over again.

Susie McMonagle as both the Inkeeper's Wife and Quijana's housekeeper was also outstanding. She kept reminding me of Miranda Richardson (never a bad thing), and they'd arranged the group numbers to make great use of her voice.

Although this is certainly a well-loved play for me, I must admit that it's difficult to answer the M's well-made point that an author is never going to win her to his side with lines like "Facts are the enemy of Truth." The aphoristic and slightly corny tone suggest that Wasserman, Darion, and Leigh were really digging their heels in against the 60s.

I'm not sure that some of the choices in this production don't complicate that cornyness. Taking Aldonza's portrayl as a deliberate choice, I got to thinking about the 31 flavors of insanity in the characters. Resnick is accompanied on the "nobody outcrazies Ophelia" front by, George Keating, the prisoner who ends up playing the Barber. Aldonza is more coherent, but both are out on the crackhead-in-withdrawl end of the insanity spectrum. The Duke/Dr. Carassco, the Governor/Inkeeper, and Scorpion/Pedro are altogether more likely to lash out in anger, rather than to break out in hysterics. In their downtime, they're composed and despairing, rather than frenetically active.

Don Quixote's insanity is, of course, supposed to be a "good" insanity, allowing him to se "the world as it should be" rather than accepting it as it is. Unfortunately, there's already a classist/sexist subtext in the play itself, and some of the choices made in this production tend to highlight those, rather than remedying them. No slight intended toward Keating at all, but he's so boyish already that kid with a serious behavioral disorder is a superior metaphor. I withdraw the crackhead analogy. Given that he's the most similar to Aldonza, though, that places her on the receiving end of a hunka hunka burnin' condescension.

That point isn't helped out of craw stickage by the approach to sex in this production, either. Most frequently when the issue is raised, Aldonza shrinks from it in a very childlike way. It's worth noting that my 1965 recording sanitizes many of the lyrics (e.g., "One Pair of Arms" should end with "I'm only Aldonza the whore"), whereas this production does not. But one example of the, perhaps, overly timid approach to Aldonza's job (and I feel somewhat unfair citing it, given the thankless task that is staging a gang rape) is the violent, angry reprise of "Little Bird" during which the men at the Inn take turns raping Aldonza. First of all, it's done in slow motion with slow pulses of life (I have to hand it to them, they pulled off slow motion on stage pretty well, and that usually makes the Baby Scott cry [see, e.g., UT's horrible production of Oliver Stone's Julius Caeasar]). The women are also vocally included and the distinction between participation and failure to intervene isn't made strongly enough.

It winds up coming off like simple physical violence (to the point that M wasn't entirely sure what had happened). That and several other directorial and acting choices end up giving the feeling that Don Quixote his saving Aldonza from sex (which, after all, nice girls don't like) than from the routine sexual brutality in her life.

It's a testament to the production and to the actors, though, that most of these points of dissatisfaction are only occurring to me in deep retrospect and with the benefit of reading some of the playnotes and actor bios. Speaking of the playnotes, although the brief essay on the Inquisition (complete with gory line drawings) seemed a bit gratuitous, the quotations on imprisonment were well chosen and added to a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the the-ah-tah.

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