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

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Da. Octopusss

In searching my logs, I find that it has been just under 2 years since we last faced The Buffet. If you have to ask, 'What Buffet?' you're not ready for The Buffet.

In August of 2004, the fillum under consideration was Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, and we had no excuse for heading to the all-you-can eat chocolate buffet beyond "Because it was there and some bitches didn't tell us until now."

Tonight, Luc Besson's District B-13 (Never heard of it? You're not alone. They appear to be taking a stealth marking approach to the US release) was on the movie menu, and we had two birthdays to celebrate (mine and the much, much older L's). When you add in the fact that L is a chocolate buffet virgin, I think you'll agree that we couldn't NOT go.

Finding out that District B-13 was playing at River East was a bonus relatively late in the game. M had sent me a link to a trailer for it a long while ago. Because I was only half paying attention, and because Vin Diesel and Jason Statham have a love child I didn't know about, I thought this was actually a Vin vehicle. Since I learned that it's not, I have been referring to it as "That non-Vin French Vin movie."

It is all that that implies and so much more. For starters, it also stars Kyan Douglas from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. And if that doesn't tempt you, it's got French rap by Da. Octopuss. (No, I'm not making that up---in fact, it challenges "Street Fabulous Bounce" from Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior as my favorite French rap performer [I'm still mulling over my entries for greatest anti-Pol Pot songster, but get back to me]).

Seriously, it's a thoroughly enjoyable movie in the grand tradition of Besson/Morel collaborations (e.g., The Transporter, Unleashed): Big with the grit, action, and kicking, not so big on the plot. Believe it or not, though, this is actually distinguishable from those. All things considered, District B-13 is much more about acrobatic chase scenes (Kyan's specialty) than it is about martial arts ass kicking in unlikely settings (although Not!Vin brings that, because Not!Vin knows what the ladies like).

Even for a plotless movie, it's a bit oddly paced. Basically, we get Leito's (Kyan's) story first as almost a novella. Then we find out how badass Damien (Not!Vin) is, et voila! We have improbable plot development that brings them together. From there on out, the fighting is rather minimized, giving way to chases (both car and on foot), tense stand offs, and a late-in-the-game-not-very-twisty-rather-preachy-plot-twist. Still, it's not like we forgot about a shipping container full of illegal immigrants for 81 minutes and resolved their storyline in the last 90 seconds. But who comes to Luc Besson for plot anyway? Nuts, that's who. Crazy nuts.

Well aware of our primary mission, we walked from River East to the Peninsula, which at the time entailed dodging the scads of people who were gaping at the fire that appeared to be on or near a construction crane high above the new construction at Illinois and Columbus. In defense of the gapers' block, though, the Chicago FD seemed to be taking it pretty seriously as well, as we saw many engines screaming in that general direction on our way to the hotel.

We had 10 PM reservations and had planned to lay down a very light layer of dinner-like things atop the already-established popcorn layer. We thus made our way to the Shanghai terrace where we were among the brave few who sat out on the rooftop overlooking Michigan. It was a nice night, though somewhat nippy when the wind blew. Our extremely capable, extremely polite waiter offered me a shawl, which I took as solicitousness and not as "Bitch, button your top."

I had a berry mojito (sooooo very good) and "peeky toe crab wontons" (because I had to know). M opted for the East-West (also good, but not berry mojito good) and the kobe beef noodle rolles. L rounded things out with another East-West and pork dumplings. M received instructions on how to use chopsticks (after not hearing the waiter offer him silverware about 8 times), and then tried to pour his own warm sake, which caused the waiter to teleport from somewhere and politely, but firmly, insist on pouring it for him.

Soon it was onward to the buffet, though. We girded our loins with orders from the chocolate martini menu: L and I had the "orange peel" martinis, and M had the "Mexican Chocolate" martini (I think that was its name anyway), which involved tabasco and Absolut Peppar. That probably sounds gross to those of you whom it would not kill, but I assure you it was really REALLY good. so were the orange peels, though, too.

In looking at my review from last time, I realize that there was not really a lot of overlap with tonight's offerings (in fact, much less than I'd thought). There was a bowl of dried pineapple and apricot slices dipped in chocolate (YUM), an encore for the chocolate-covered strawberries of DELICIOUS DOOM, chocolate and caramel lollipops (OMFGWTF yum), a bowl of crispity, crunchity, chocolatey things called Royalties (I think? Think a very light, delicious chocolate-coated rice crispy treat with a hint of amaretto), almond butter covered in milk or white (ptooey) chocolate, pretzels ditto, violet creme brulee (I was too stuffed to try), mocha pots de creme (whimper), Entrements in chocolate caramel or chocolate malted (so good, so heavy, so sadly deferred until the second trip), a surprisingly light chocolate souffle-like cake, chocolate mousse over berries (mmmmm, although I admit to spelunking for berries by that point), chocolate ganache in a shortbready shell (fine, but a repeat from last time), a white chocolate and brie cheesecake (left to to try---he reports it to be "cheesecakey" without further comment), a truffle with a caramel/toffee center (aIYEEEEEE! so good), cookies (which I didn't try), a chocolate cheesecake that I think I missed, and a pretty straightforward two-layer brownie with a bit of amaretto flavoring. A big improvement was the straight dark hot chocolate, which had no hint of asstastic cinnamon this time around. It was also crazy awesome with the homemade strawberry marshmallows.

So when we'd wound down to sipping at the hot chocolate, when we'd stared down the things on our plates and decided that the single bite would have to do, when we were thinking about coffee and taking turns rolling one another down Michigan Avenue and, hopefully, in the general direction of our car, they---and I shit you not---brought out two pieces of birthday cake. Chocolate icing, a yellow layer and, I think a peanut butter mousse with raspberry sauce and HAPPY BIRTHDAY written in chocolate. Chocolate at the Peninsula carries a whip, my friends. A whip for whipping.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Dinner and a Mutie

Tonight, we ventured to Koda, Beverly's new French bistro and thence to see X-3, in which all concerned failed to convey moral ambiguity.

Beverly is a lovely neighborhood with a lot to recommend it. Upscale dining isn't really one of those things, so the announcement that this restaurant was opening was met with nearly as much excitement as the news that we're getting a brew pub.

When we pulled up, the parking lot was full. Fortunately, however, there were tables available. They've done a nice job with the space inside. You enter through a side door (the front is on Western Ave.). The bar is directly in front of you and is quite chic. It has a half-height wall topped with a series of glass boxes atop that. I'm not sure if they actually allow smoking in the bar or not, but the set up gives nice separation from the dining room, while still allowing all parties to see in and out. (And since the light on the actual liquor shelves changes color, you don't want to miss the Oooooooh.)

To the left of the door and across from the bar are about 3 or 4 banquets and the restrooms, staging area, and kitchen are at the far end of the restaurant. Most of the dining room (maybe 30 tables all told, mostly 4 tops, a long booth with about 6 tables for two and a handful of 6-8 tops in the corners). The windows looking out on to Western and into the parking lot are heavily curtained about 3/4 of the way up, letting light in the tops. They've taken a lot of trouble with a subdued brown/bronze treatment on the walls, and a 24-inch-wide strip of ceiling is a warm toasty color. The rest of teh ceiling is acoustic tile with recessed lighting, which brings the stylishness a notch down, but the place is LOUD so the tile was probably a good and necessary move.

Fortunately, they also keep up the tone of the place with the furnishings and settings. The chairs have elegant wooden backs and comfy seats. I coveted the deco-esque silverware, with its nifty handle-piece joins, and the asymmetrical saucers. Glassware was distinctive and nice quality.

And just in case one might've worried that one had been transported from the Sout' Side to somewhere classy, the first question our waitress asked us was "Can I get youse somethin' to drink?" (Ok, so it wasn't quite "Will youse be dining?", but it amused me nonetheless.)

The menu isn't huge, but there was more than enough to tempt us. There were three soups, one chilled, one chowder, and classic french onion. I didn't do more than glance at the salads, but there were at least five. They then offered one of three "french style" pizzas, several cold appetizers (leaning heavily toward the seafood), and about the same number of hot appetizers (again, heavy on the seafood, but also including escargot). In terms of main dishes, there were three fish (plus the special was soft-shell crab), probably 6 meat (including the always safe steak and frites), and two pasta dishes.

Desserts were not on the menu, but there were probably 5 options, which may or may not shift from day to day. Today's were: Berry shortcake sandwich; chocolate tart with hazelnut sauce and coconut sorbet; chocolate bread pudding with walnuts; lemon creme brulet; and french vanilla profiteroles with chocolate and caramel sauce. The wine list was overwhelmingly by the bottle, but the by-the-glass choices were good ones. (However, they pour the by-the-glass at the table. The first swallow of my pinot noir suggested that the the bottle had been open too long.) They also know their audience, because they had a pretty large selection of "off-dry" whites (aka pink wine, which is the drink of The People).

I got the tuna tartare with avocado on the grounds that it was among the few appetizers that M would be interested in sharing. He got the fromage blanc, onion, and bacon French pizza thing. Both were good, but I'm unsure about the presentation of the tuna in very small cubes atop a mound of greens in a martini glass. I suspect that this is to stun and disorient the unadventurous into eating raw fish for the first time. Taste-wise, it was A-Plus. The pizza thingy was on a very thin, crisp crust, and it was not hopelessly overcheesy. As a result, despite its size, it was not actually an appetite killing starter for two.

Although the soft-shell crabs had tempted me, I wasn't in the mood for the polenta that came with them. I opted for the skate wing with garlic mashed potatoes. M went rib for the second time in as many weeks, also with garlic mashed. My fish was excellent with a pleasant lemon butter sauce. The mashed potatoes might have been a bit less runny and a bit more with the garlic (again, I imagine that this is a complaint that most local people are not lodging). I did not taste the ribs on the grounds that it was covered in disgustingness, but I can visually verify that it fell off the bone and M seemed quite happy with it.

For dessert, we ordered coffee and shared an order of the profiteroles. The French Vanilla ice cream was extremely delicious, the pastry good, and the presentation on a lake of chocolate sauce sluiced with caramel was rockin'.

The review we've seen mentioned that the kinks haven't quite been worked out on the service. I concur that this is a persistent problem. There was nothing really make-or-break horrible, but the rhythm just wasn't there. Our water didn't show up until well after our drink orders had been taken, our drinks took quite a while to show up, and we were never asked if we wanted another (for my wine) or a refill (M's iced tea). There were other little things, like the fact that they never did take my appetizer dish away, but the waitress for some reason decided no more bread for me. Likewise, they didn't come to remove the additional settings from our four top until our entrees arrived. Nonetheless, everyone was pleasant, which is the most important facet of good service.

As for X-3, I'm afraid that the movie didn't live up to the trailers. We saw: Nacho Libre; Ghost Rider (Donal Logue and flaming skulls? I am there. Plus a chain whip. For whipping.); MOTHERFUCKING SNAKES ON A MOTHERFUCKING PLANE; The Fast and the Furious: Hello Kitty (tm my pal C and co.; also BLEGH, but the only BLEGH); PIRATES 2 (and have I mentioned that I need the in-theater promo with Cap'n Jack running right toward me, screaming?); The Omen (I'm pretty meh on that, but it's not actively bad); and My Super-Ex Girlfriend, which as dumb as the premise is, looks to be hilarious. Spoilers for X-3 follow, if you haven't seen it.

I didn't actively dislike X-3, but it lacked oomph overall and the script felt really scattered and never quite came together. Certainly I think it's the weakest of the three. It's like someone had gotten into the "actual adult themes" box long before they were ready for them. I admit that there are pretty much no circumstances under which Patrick Stewart being ripped apart wouldn't give me a movie-gasm, but seriously, would that not have been a lot more powerful if he hadn't been a complete and utter jackass throughout the entire movie up until then? "I don't have to answer to anyone. Least of all YOU" Dude, WTF? Wheels certainly could've given Magneto a run for his elitist money, but if that was deliberate, it didn't come off that way.

Again with the, "Uh, who are our heroes again?" Magneto's tent city was an exercise in affirmative action compared to the Xavier school, which is pretty much a WB show ("Pretty White Mutants with Problems"). But of course it's all ok, because Magneto's just using them as canon fodder (wait . . . when did this turn into blacksploitation?), so he's evil after all (sorry, that's way off script for the Magneto of the movies).

But there was the good. Hugh Jackman, first, last, and always, sells whatever he's called upon to sell, even if it's the cheesiest dialogue plucked straight from Harlequin romances. And I salute Mr. Jackman for taking one for all females in all scifi everywhere who have found their garments reduced to skirt the edge of pr0n. I also liked Kelsey Grammer as Beast and loooooooooved the Beast effects in the final battle. That's mah beast, that is. I also found that I really liked the actress they cast as Kitty Pryde, and I was quite annoyed when they revealed that she's dumb as a sack of wet hair and hadn't really thought about how the hell she was going to get this generations go-to-creepy-kid, Cameron Bright, out of the room.
Juggernaut was another good newbie, although I kept seeing Titus Pullo from HBO's Rome in the role.

On the down side, did Callisto learn her lines phonetically or what? And how stoned was Famke Janssen? Phoning it in doesn't begin to cover it. It's tempting to say the same of Anna Paquin, but they really gave Rogue fuck all to do in this, other than to reveal that she'd been spending lots of time in private snotty bitch lessons with the Professor. (Seriously, "You're a boy. There's only one thing on your mind"? Bitch, please. I think Marie and Logan should've offed the two of them in a Strangers on a Train criss-cross.

One other unintentitional (I'm sure) upside in the script: They did learn that the only way to generate any sympathy for or interest in Cyclops in this viewer is to kill him off screen and NOT HAVE ANYONE NOTICE OR ASK FOR LIKE 20 minutes. Poor, boring, lame-powered Scott.

Still, don't take the negative review too seriously. It's good summer brain candy, and Hugh Jackman gets pretty naked after revealing a distressing mutant power to heal not just his 6-pack abs, but the wife beater they rode in on.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

By the (Little Red) Book, II: Electric, Communist Boogaloo

Ok, I did not bring my A game to the first act of Nixon in China. You know it. I know it. But I've had my 42 minutes of sleep (41 minutes of which appear to have involved me dreaming that the M was urgently trying to wake me up, saying that L had showed up an hour early, and my brain insisting that this was not possible, because that would mean he had arrived before I tried to go to sleep), and now I'm rarin' to go.

I should back up to scene III of Act I momentarily, both because it deserves it and because I forgot to note a few things important to the second Act II. So, remember how I remarked on Alexander Platt's mad love for Adams and for this opera? He could and did go further: He placed it with Porgy & Bess and West Side Story as the great American operas---the operas that, as an American opera apologist, one didn't have to insist that it would be perfect if only you could cut the S&M orgy aria from the second act. (Ok, I made up the S&M orgy part based on a play I once accidentally suggested for Shoestring, not having read it all the way through. Never did I feel more that the Best Brains were of my kind when they told essentially the same story about how they wound up doing Sidehackers.)

Leaving aside quetions of the greatness and operaticness of West Side story for the moment, why does this comment matter in particular and why, for the love of the most tentacly of the eldergods, am I backtracking to Act I, rather than getting on with it? It's worse than that, because I've just realized that I am actually going to back up to Act I, scene ii, ever so briefly. So my brain was dribbling out my ear, I was bitter about it, and trying to drag you all along for the ride. That sensation, born of the linguistic barrage in Act I, scene ii, is almost entirely, but not quite unlike Sondheim. Sondheim's lyrical complexity is almost entirely concentrated in unusual rhymes and whacked out cadences. It's incredibly difficult for cast and musicians, but the highwire act looks effortless from the seats. Contentwise, Sondheim is smart and witty, but it's not, you know, all that deep. Goodman's libretto, in contrast, go head to head with the layered nature of Adams' music. Nonetheless, West Side Story (Sondheim's lyrics, Bernstein's music) certainly fits on the same knick-knack shelf as Nixon in some sense.

In Act I, scene iii, Nixon's place within Platt's troika is more explicit. The banquets in honor of the Nixons are, of course, crammed full of things the Chinese think will appeal to them. Pat and Dick dance cheek-to-cheek to a slightly off big band song. The choreography for the servers (still in their vintage (PLA uniforms) is more or less directly lifted from the requisite big dance numbers of Hello Dolly, My Fair Lady, and other works from the golden age of big flashy musicals. Musically, there are brief hints of homage to Bernstein, Rogers and Hammerstein, and so on. Adams takes this a brilliant step further, and as the night wears on and the toasts flow more and more freely, Pat's vocal line turns into an unending of stereotypical cadenzas and vocal flourishes, completely without content, the perfect model of a stereotypical, operatic soprano. By then end, she is no longer Pat, or even Mrs. Nixon, she is simply The First Lady and a society wife.

Basically Adams goes a long way to turn me into a hypocrite. See, I'd rather eat bees made of broken glass than listen to Copland for any length of time, because the relentless repetition of superduper Americanness just fills me with rage. And yet scene iii's buffet of Americana suited me just fine. Again, I have to credit Platt with opening up a part of this view to me, as he'd mentioned in his lecture that Nixon was a half decent pianist (and the fact that he and Pat met when they were working on a play) who sincerely enjoyed the music of the WWII era and after, so the increasingly American tone of the music throughout this act made good emotional sense.

At long last on to Act II, though, which belongs to the women. Another point that Platt hit on in his lecture was the fact that the original 1987 staging by Peter Sellars was extremely literal. This proved something of a problem in moving the opera to its ultimate conclusion, which is firmly fantastical. That transition has to be well established in Act II. Platt felt that COT's staging of this act, under James Robinson's direction, accomplished that much more smoothly, and I have to agree.

Scene i opens with snow falling over China. The snow plays on the televisions, but the "Chinese Woman" is also upstage right on a platform, dropping handsful of flakes as members of the chorus frolic on the stage and sing of their delight. Half of the TVs are downstage on the floor, and the other half are still overhead, suspended from the grid. In between these, the arced banquet tables are set up to form a serpentine path betwen them. Pat Nixon, in her cheery red coat and neat black fur hat travels along this path as she visits with the simple folk. She is constantly flanked, if not outright mobbed, by the chorus on the ground, some of whom have donned chefs hats, aprons, and other items reflecting their professions. She is also accompanied by Mao's three secretaries, who are charged with "spinning" the visit.

Platt waxed rhapsodic about "Pat's Aria," as they call it in house. Knowing his fondness for it made me more open to enjoying it, which I'm glad about. However, although I was able to appreciate it musically, I wasn't particularly on board with its content. She sings that she is a simple woman, not concerned with trivialities, who treats "everyday like Christmas." It hearkens back to the beginning of Act I, scene iii, musically. But whereas there she genuinely seemed to be trying to express her hopes (however indirectly) for America, for China, and for the historic visit, here she simply ruminates on the prefabricated middle American dream.

I guess I felt like Adams was trying for an emotional connection between Pat, the former poor farm girl, and the peasants. For me, though, it falls somewhat flat. After all, she is sleek and neat, physically above the rabble. That much, I suppose you could blame on the staging, but I think the way Robinson lays out Act II is one of only a handful of possible ways to stage when I remember that this is where the fantastical elements start to be incorporated. However, the opera also indicates (in the libretto, I believe) that the players should include a prototypical nuclear family that appear with TV trays in Act I, scene i, watching the historic meeting on the tarmac. I know they appear again, but I'm having trouble recalling the timing of it. (That's a shame, because they're again huddled before the warm glow of the television, eating Chinese out of take-out cartons.) And ultimately, Pat's song continually places an American gloss on everything she experiences among the Chinese. It's rather like someone trapped for 45 minutes in the elevator at Saks saying they understand the Japanese experience in internment camps.

Still, I enjoyed it very much musically and I really did love the staging. The best part---the absolute union of the music and staging---had to be the pigs. So, remember, Pat remains physically above the peasantry, standing on the tables as the chorus members reach up to her, handing her a "one of a kind" glass elephant (the symbol of our party!) that can be "produced by the thousands. As she moves further stage left, they are now in the countryside and nothing says countryside more than a dozen fat, pink pigs mounted on red poles. The chorus runs in with the pigs (which swarm around her, above peasant level), singing "Pigs! Pigs! Pigs! Pigs! Pigs!" for a good 20 bars. It was awesome.

The scene ends with Pat at the Ming tombs, which are represented by a handful of apparently guilded buildings, again mounted on the poles. This brings Pat's aria around to ruminating on mortality and immortality. It also somewhat redeems the content of the scene emotionally as her reflections on America are more serious, bittersweet, and tinged with homesickness. So even though she's literally stepping on the peasants (male chorus members bridge the gap between the tables and tv tops with their hands) as she sings, it seems that in her private moments, she's not so sure where she, Dick, and the country will wind up, or even if they're going in the right direction.

She is so turned inward, that the shift to scene ii works particularly well. Here, the President and First Lady are attending a performance of a ballet/opera written by Madame Mao. They sit in the center of the first row of seats (the "audience" is placed upstage left) with footlights separating them from the downstage area. Immediately behind them, the secretaries, once again, "spin" the elements of the performance for their benefit. And behind the secretaries, a dozen or so chorus members, now dressed as school children, stand at attention. To Nixon's left is Chou En-lai, and to Pat's right is Madame Mao herself. (This is the first time we see her [I think, now I'm wondering why she wasn't at the banquet, but then again, the Chairman isn't at the performance], and I admit that I was confused as to her identity for a good long while.)

The performance centers on a peasant girl who has been captured by an evil feudal lord. And the evil lord happens to be played by the guy playing Kissinger (Seriously. Pat gets a sotto voce line to Dick "Doesn't he look like You Know Who?) in a ridiculous fu-man-chu 'stache, strutting around with a whip. For whipping. The girl's sisters try to rescue her and the evil feudal lord sets his three minions on her. There is a great deal of dancing, but the three are apprehended and the girl is sentenced by the lord to be whipped to death.

Throughout the performance, Pat has grown more and more agitated, despite Dick's assurances that this is simply theater. When the whipping begins, she loses it, leaps the footlights, and breaks into the action. The actor playing the lord is befuddled, but orders them to continue. The dancers try to pick up again, but the performance is jerky, uncertain, and devoid of its previous rhythm. She's eventually led back to her seat and the performance continues, only to see her rushing on to the stage again when the girl lies dead downstage. The "Chinese Woman" also moves to the body and hands Pat a cloth, which she uses to dab ineffectually at the girl's back.

From here, the setting of the opera shifts from the distant (preimperial) feudal past to a pro-Maoist allegory. The classic propaganda image of the head of Mao, surrounded by rays of red sun is projected on to the back wall. The sisters reemerge in over-the-top, semifetishized PLA uniforms (searingly bright blue and red, tight breeches) and launch into a rifle-twirling routine (one of them dropped hers at some point, but recovered with admirable alacrity). Their dancing not only appears to revive their sister, it banishes the male dancers (each dressed as a caricature from China's pre-Communist past) and turns one into a tall, strapping young man clad in a pure red version of the PLA uniform. At some point Dick leaves the seats and joins Pat. They look on in confusion and horror as the music and dance reach a fevered pitch.

Pat and Dick look as thought they might interfere again, Madame Mao leaps to her feet and enters the opera on oh-my-fucking-god-I-have-no-idea-what-note-that-is, but it makes the Queen of the Night's entrance sound like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. If anyone was wondering who might want to spank coluratura sopranos like the bad, bad donkeys they are more than Mozart? It's John Adams. Madame Mao (here played by a woman who MIGHT be 5 feet tall) seizes control of the scene by sheer force of music and will. Challenging does not begin to describe both the vocal and musical lines here, but both were astounding. At the end of Act I, the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause, pulled into the slightly drunk energy of the party scene. At the end of Act II, I think we were all stunned by the ferocity, both of the role and of the performance.

By Act III, things have shifted completely into fantasy. A half-height scrim painted with a stereotypical (American's eye view) Chinese nature image is flown in at the depth of the proscenium. Six squares of light are projected on the apron in front of the scrim, and one by one, the six main players enter and take their places within one of them. Kissinger arrives first with his briefcase and takes the rightmost square. The Chairman shuffles in and takes his station next to him. Nixon enters, claiming the centermost square and Pat follows him to hers, just right of him. Madame Mao slips in next to Pat, and Chou En-lai is stage left.

When everyone has arrived, the televisions visible behind the scrim switch on, featuring a garish, technicolor parody of the nature scene on their screens. The music, in turn, shifts into a parody of the dance music from the first night, and everyone begins their own, twisted version of busting a move. Kissinger, with his days at a Chippendales having served him well, incorporates his briefcase into the routine. Mao shifts his weight from foot-to-foot arthritically. Dick does a junior-high-school dance foxtrot (that's actually quite sweet, especially given where things go with him in Act III). Pat channels Kitty from That 70s Show, and Madame Mao does a resentful, too-militant-for-school fingersnap. I have little memory of Chou En-lai's dance, sadly. Maybe he has no sexy dance.

As Dick and Pat come together in the dark junction between their lights to dance, the music takes us back beyond the first night parties to their earlier relationship. The others turn their backs, giving them their privacy. However, Madame Mao can only countenance this for so long, before she tells the audience to "hit it boys" and suggests to Mao that they show them how this is done.

The scrim is flown away, and the lights change, illuminating a harsh square in front of each of six televisions that are staggered up and downstage of one another. Kissinger's televsion is quite far upstage right and Madame Mao moves to the position just downstage right of her husband. Nixon is about dead center, Chou En-lai is down left of him, and Pat's is extreme downstage left.

Each of their televisions bears a different image, some static, others shifting. Madame Mao's literally morphs among images of Chinese women, one of which may be her in her Hollywood days, and the more modern of which may actually be Ziyi Zang. Mao's image is a static pen and ink mountain scene (again, pretty stereotypical American's eye fare). Nixon's television shows a shot of him as a serviceman in WWII (where he flipped illicit burgers at a refueling station for fighter pilots); for the most part, this is a static image, although later, a camera pans and zooms over it. Chou En-lais cycles through images of everyday peasant life, and on a similar note, Pat's flickers through images of their life as the First Family. But the best part is Kissinger's, which has nothing but grayscale static.

Throughout the rest of the act, Mao and his Madame revisit their past, jaded and not always with fond feeling. Madame Mao has her turn as a shiny vocal accessory, working her way through a series of pointedly feminine cadenzas and flourishes as she reenacts the days when she still charmed him. In the American relationship, the focus shifts back to Nixon. Shell shocked, exhausted, he tells Pat stories of his time in the Pacific. Pat listens fondly, but with a very human undertone of having heard everything umpteen times before. Kissinger goes through his briefcase and nods off by turns. Chou En-lai hits the ground of the present painfully and with great resonance.

Eventually, the conversations and ruminations wear themselves out. The "Chinese Woman" brings each player a stack of clean, creased nightclothes and places them on top of each television. As their thoughts and vocal lines wind down, they each change on stage. Kissinger falls asleep over his folder, sitting on the televison. One by one, the others steal a final word or caress, then turn to face the TV. Chou En-lai, too seized by doubt and regret to sleep, realizes that his ideas may very well die with him, as he has dedicated his entire life to the vision of a China that may have been the worst mistake in its history. Among the last of his lines one finds a beautiful bit of poetry that is quite typically sandwiched in amongst the allusions and wordplay: "Just before dawn the birds begin,/ The warblers who prefer the dark,/ The cage-birds answering: To work!/ Outside the room the chill of grace/ Lies heavy on the morning grass."

I've kind of hit a few performances as I went along, but is that ever enough for Captain Verbosity? As much as Orth's voice was not always audible, when I could here him, it was pleasant, technically on the mark, and sufficiently emotive. Duffin, as Mao, had few vocal problems to match the uneven physicality. He really shone in Act III with his Madame. As far as Kissinger went, Kyle Albertson was a wonderful buffo character who was able to bring vocal depth to the scene when appropriate. I feel like he's capable of a lot more than is showcased in this role. Any issues with him lie pretty squarely with Adams' uneven attention to characters. Chen Ye Yuan, as Chou En-lai, was amazing. His voice is pure and powerful, and he knows how to use it as an actor. I would love to see more of him and to receive his newsletter.

Of the minor players, the chorus was good for the most part, but there was a glaring fuck up in the opening number that made me gasp. (Basically 6 or 7 singers at stage left were unclear on their measure and ended "grace' about three beats after the rest of the chorus---the kind of error I expect on the Oscars, but whatever problems Lyric has [and they've got them], one doesn't really see that kind of thing there.) Also, during the opening number, there was a single female chorus member who participated in the choreography, but never sang a note. If this was purposeful, its import passed me by. Mao's three secretaries seemed more important in the synopsis than they played out in this production. I'm unsure of where to place the blame for that, though. Certainly they were physically well conceived, and even vocally they seemed to match well, but I felt there was more potential than was realized.

As for our first ladies. Both Maria Kanyova (Pat Nixon) and Kathleen Kim (Madame Mao) are Lyric alum, and I've seen both perform. At least I think I've seen Kanyova as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. I have definitely seen Kim in minor roles as recently as this year. Kanyova's Pat Nixon was unassailable vocally, and for the most part her acting was ejoyable and made sense. However, her Pat was ultimately a shallow one. As much as I enjoyed Act II being all about the ladies (an unexpected move, frankly, and one that is not exactly dear to opera), I wondered if an actress with greater presence and depth might not have redeemed the "Beef! It's what's for dinner!" undertones of her elongated aria.

About Kathleen Kim, I have a much less reserved, qualified opinion to express. Go. Find her. See her. To misquote , she sang a smoking hole in the stage. My only fear is that she will kill herself with this role before she has the chance to gain the recognition that she deserves. In Act II, she seriously scared the crap out of me. All 98 lbs of her. In Act III as she chased after Mao's affection, she was heart breaking. If Lyric doesn't use her more in the future, I shall be very cross.

As you might have gathered, I enoyed both the opera itself and the production, but it wasn't perfect. As I've noted along the way, there are certain types of mistakes that I can't imagine seeing at Lyric. There was also a lack of polish in some respects that's born of not having contributors being extruded from every orifice. I'm not generally too hard on that, being the white trash theatre queen myself, but there were corners cut that detracted unnecessarily from the production. I also wish I could have seen the images on the televisions more clearly (or, alternatively, a reiterate my wish for real-life TiVo that does not involve Adam Sandler in any way), because I get the feeling that a lot of care went into the selections of clips for them. On the underside of that though, is the fact that if I with my pretty posh seats couldn't see too clearly, it's not really appropriate to use them as shorthand. Furthermore, there was some pretty massive interference and/or monitor failure on some of them for the first two acts that further compromised the extent to which they could be depended upon for meaning.

For Adams' part, I think there was more in his head that didn't make it explicitly enough into the opera. Kissinger is a great character, but there's little written for him (in Act III, in particular, his presence is kind of a WTF?). In the theme of couples that rises to the level of text in Act III, Kissinger becomes the photo negative of Chou En-lai, for whom he apparently had great respect. I know that because the adept lecturer/conductor told me so, but I'm not sure that comes across in the opera, as Chou En-lai is underused as well (a real crime, given the talented Chen Ye Yuan in this production). Even Madame Mao is problematic, given her sudden, searing introduction in Act II. I know that characterization is a problem in most operas as major players come on in whirl of activity, then disappear for an act and a half, but given the striking personalities, that flaw is even more evident and irksome in this.

But I hate to end on a negative note, because I really had an electrifying time watching this, despite the permanent damage to my brain through overuse for two days. I am resolved to intake both more Adams and more Chicago Opera Theater productions at my earliest convenience and at every opportunity.

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