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

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Radio . . . off? High Tea @ 103 and Radio Macbeth @ Court Theater

I recently inherited a very fancy Franklin Covey day planner from my sinister sweetie, who ditched the big 3-ring arrangement in favor of the spiral bound incarnation. Since I've begun to use it, I've double booked myself at least 3 times. And yet my gänger has remained stubbornly undöppeled.

The worst part of my double booking yesterday morning was the fact that I didn't feel like going anywhere at all. I recently incurred the rage of the karmic keepers of migraines by telling my doctor (at my long-overdue annual visit) that I hadn't had one in a long while. She didn't rewrite me a prescription for my medication, and thus I have had at least 2 since then, one of them yesterday.

Despite feeling pretty awful, and despite the fact that I should have been attending my song-writing class, I was determined to attend the high tea at Cafe 103, which had been arranged by the superexcellent owner of my beloved, doggie-friendly local yarn shop, My Sister's Knits.

As I was pondering my wardrobe for such an occasion on Twitter (I suppose it is possible to clothe oneself without recourse to cannabis [so far removed from Texas THC am I that it took me 4 tries to spell that correctly], government hand outs, and Twitter, but I don't recommend it), pointed out that high tea was definitely a hat-wearing occasion. I located the MPage Memorial Hat and finished it off with a skirt, tights (which definitely squish), my insaneoid (but oh-so-cute and oh-so-conveniently-mammoth-calf-fitting) boots, a black top, and my newly blocked dragon-scales scarf, and dived into my trusty Corolla with about 5 minutes to get me to the tea on time.

Foolishly considering the Bears' interception of the ball deep in their own territory to be some kind of good omen, I headed in and slotted myself into the Matilda axis. (The Cafe can seat 30, 3 of us were named Matilda, and we happened to be sitting next to one another.) My hat was widely complimented until someone turned up in a tiara. (Let the record show that I, of course, HAVE a tiara, but I had not gotten the memo that this was a tiara-wearing occasion.)

The tea was lovely. We started with a basket of miniature scones and various breads and cakes (lemon-poppyseed, pound cake, etc.) served with jams, lemon curd, and so on. Next up were mimosas (Carol providing the champagne) and the first course of finger sandwiches, which included open-faced cucumber-dill on rye, turkey with an apple-cranberry chutney on a whole-grain pita, and something else my sleep-deprived brain cannot recall at the moment. The second course of sandwiches included spinach-walnut minitarts in phyllo, classic egg salad on white roles, and chicken salad with smoked grapes and walnuts on a croissant. I was a huge fan of everything, despite the fact that both the chutney and the chicken salad are things I normally would have shied away from trying.

There were various door prizes from the shop. Winning seemed to be a function of proximity to her majesty with the tiara (although the last person picked her own name out!). In addition to the prizes Carol had arranged, the owner of Cafe 103 (who, as usual, had on perfectly beautiful jewelry) announced that everyone should check the bottom of her saucer, because one person at each table would find a sticker indicating that she had won the centerpiece, which was a lovely antique cup and saucer filled with unique and gorgeous arrangements from the Blossom Boys, the super-excellent florist's shop (and more) just 2 doors down from MSK.

Before we could to anywhere, there was, of course dessert. First up, both by choice and necessity, was ethereally delicious orange mousse served in a chocolate tulip cup: One million times better than the average dreamsicle in part because of the spot-on evocation of all aspects of the dreamsicle experience. Next I tried the caramel-apple square, which was a little over-cinnamony for my tastes (almost any cinnamon at all has this effect on me, though, so take that in context). The chocolate walnut brownie was a marvel of brownieosity: Chocolatey, rich, and wonderful without being at all overly sugary. I kept telling myself that it was so rich I could only eat a tiny portion, and yet the whole thing disappeared. The final dessert had (presumably in error) described to us as something strawberry based. It was, in fact, a kind of chocolate cream cheese brownie. The slightly sour topping was in perfect balance with the chocolatey goodness underneath. Oh, there was a lemon bar in there, too, and I am a failure because I did not try it.

They owners opened the Beverly pantry to us as well, and I did lumber over there briefly. (My crazy!boots proved to be particularly ill suited to conveying my post-tea bulk around a shop filled with fragile and expensive things.) Many of us headed back to Carol's shop, which she was opening to us for an hour after the tea. Of course in our eagerness to get some food-coma-combatting fresh air, we arrived at the shop well ahead of her. I had parked in front of the Blossom Boys shop and noticed that they had a picture of Barack and Michelle Obama on their door (a specific picture of the two of them going to or coming from the kids' parent-teacher conference right after the election), and I stopped to examine it. (Turns out that the lovely arrangement that Michelle is holding in the picture is one of theirs.)

In my food-induced haze, I failed to note that there was someone inside the shop, even though it was close. Naturally, my mug pressed to the screen door was sufficiently alarming that he came to see what was up. He immediately recognized our gaggle as having been at the tea and invited us to come in until Carol arrived to open her shop. I narrowly escaped buying a number of pieces of jewelry and some other things. I did not escape buying yarn, however.

In the car on the way home, I discovered the awful truth about the Bears game. We have no wish to discuss it.

In the evening, we were scheduled to have dinner chez Editrix, as she was eager to cook dinner in her new and improved kitchen, and thence repair to the theatre to see Radio Macbeth. We were of the impression that RM was not, you know, The Scottish Play, given the different title and all. In fact, we were under the impression that it was a play about a group doing a radio version of TSP, which would be interesting. Sadly, it is not. Not about a group doing a radio version of TSP and, really, not interesting.

It's important to note that the performance was by a group called SITI. Although this seems once to have stood for Saratoga International Theater Institute, it seems now to be SITI forevermore. SITI is dedicated to training actors in a combination of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training (which, apparently, has no relationship to the Suzuki Method of Musical Instrument training, although I think a foot-based approach to musical instruments will soon be sweeping the globe) and the Viewpoints method .

It is further important to note that Kate Bredeson, the dramaturg for RM says:

In the world of SIT, the Scottish play is a 1940s radio drama in rehearsal . . . the company tells the story of the play through the ebbs and flows of sound. As in the most masterful classic radio dramas, the focus on sound in lieu of sight creates a world in which chatter is heightened and screams are more devastating — a world where silence creeps and menaces. In this stylish take on Shakespeare's tragedy, SITI gives us a full, albeit subdued visual terrain as well. The resulting crash of sight, sound, and a classic, iconic text is pure SITI: grounded, full, stylish, smart, raw."

Um. Sure.

There's almost no set for the show. Which is fine. The black cinderblock wall is exposed from floor to ceiling, except where a single, paint-splattered white drape descends from the ceiling to puddle on the floor up left. An upright piano is against the back wall up right. Other than that, at the top of the play, a small table is down left with two folding chairs in front of a microphone upstage between it and the aforementioned drape. A long boardroom table is set diagonally, running from down right to up center, and a handful of mismatched folding chairs are around it.

As the audience filtered in, a lone individual was visible slumped in a folding chair at about center stage. As a crowd of people was heard off stage left, he jumped up and ran off stage as the lights went completely down.

Four people seemed to enter in the dark with only a lighter's flame to guide them. As the lights came back up, two women were revealed. One was a young Japanese woman in black plastic-framed glasses and a convincing 40s-era skirt suit, another was a young woman in high-waisted, wide-legged trousers and a blouse and scarf. The former bustled around helpfully, the latter sat at the small table, seeming to concentrated on spiral-bound script. Also on stage from the moment the lights came up was a small, dark man in an argyle sweater.

Shortly, a man (apparently the one with the lighter) entered from the right-hand wings, presumably having been responsible for getting the lights working. He wore a cap and flannel shirt and had a pencil tucked behind his ear. This group was soon followed by a man and woman, also entering from the right, who were altogether more flashily dressed. The man had a pin-striped suit, the woman a red wrap dress, very 40s hat, and a fur coat.

Probably close to 5 minutes elapsed during which the Japanese woman continued to bustle, the woman in the red dress stalked about giving people the hairy eyeball, the woman in the trousers continued to focus on her script, and the men seemed to wander around whispering to one another and making "whaddaya gonna do?" gestures at one another.

It did seem as though relationships among these people were being subtly established during this time. For example, it seemed to me that Trouser!Woman and Red!Dress Woman were being contrasted: T!W was clearly a METHOD! actor, whereas R!D was a soap opera diva type who relied on histrionics. The Japanese woman was a Girl Friday type intent on convincing everyone of her indispensibility. There wasn't much to go on with the men other than perhaps a class difference between the two men who had entered first and the man who entered later with R!D.

With little obvious impetus, W!T launched into "When shall we three meet again?" reading all parts with very little differentiation between them. She moved more into characterization as Macbeth (the richly dressed man in the pin-striped suit) and Banquo (the guy in the newsie cap) entered the scene. From there it seemed as though the players were established: Pinstripe = Macbeth; R!d = Lady Macbeth; W!T = witches (and later the Porter, Lady Macduff, and Lady Macbeth's maid); Newsie guy = Banquo, Malcolm, and a handful of other characters; Argyle guy = miscellaneous characters; Japanese skirt-suited woman (who turned out to have a very heavy Japanese accent) = Various characters.


Right around Act I, scene iv, when we see Duncan for the first time, the pinstripe guy started to read the part, pulling out one cheek and doing a very distinct voice for him.


When Macbeth is next set to speak, the guy who was on stage before the lights when down appears at the top of the house left audience, starts to say Macbeth's lines over pinstripe guy, and does some directors' notes type dialogue about what the play is about.

So, thought I, we are finally, after four scenes, getting into what this play is about! Sort of a leisurely pace for self assertion, but now we're cooking.

Yeah, not really. The second guy just read Macbeth for the rest of the play, while pinstripe guy moved into playing Duncan and then Macduff, and no attention was ever paid again to this godforsaken mid-performance improv freeze tag. In fact, there seemed to be no further acknowledgment of any other identity for or interactions among these players. They just . . . did an abridged staged reading of the play. And lo! We were mightily confused in an apathetic way.

Certainly, they used those mics to good effects sometimes! There were person-created storms. To be sure, there were a handful of radio foley techniques—slapping the big table with a piece of 2 x 4 to simulate the knocking at the gate before Duncan's murder is discovered, for example. Yes, there were some coffee moments among the players, but they seemed reducible to nothing more than a minimalist way to stage the various banquets. But other than that it was just sort of Speed!Macbeth. Why the 40s? Doesn't matter. Why the markedly different styles of dress? Who knows? WHY GOD WHY DO WE HAVE 2 MACBETHS? This question is as elusive as the truth about the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

The performances weren't bad. In fact, I thought Barney O'Hanlon (newsie cap guy) was quite good in particular, and once I realized that nothing interesting in the way of interpretation was going to happen, I clung to hope that I'd at least get to see some of his Macbeth. The Editrix did forcefully question whether Elizabethan English is really the best medium for a non-native speaker with a very heavy accent. M and I were divided on whether Akiko Aizawa's accent was real or part of her character-not-really-within-a-character. (I gave up on this idea toward the end, but the ZK still thought he'd heard her making some accentless witch contributions.)

In terms of the text presented . . . I'm not sure why one would include the bulk of the extended witches scene that most agree was not written by Shakespeare and not performed by the company in his lifetime, especially if one is going to cut "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" down to about five lines, delivered in painfully flat style that cashes in on none of the possible readings of that speech.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not at all a Bard purist, but the shaved down play, as presented, did little to make me think. The additions, which included random stage directions (more frequent toward the end), the aforementioned replacement!Macbeth entrance music and pyrotechnics, and W!T ending the Macduff/Macbeth confrontation with a whimper as she yelled "Enough!" (This last was particularly snicker-inducing for M and me, as the two men were facing one another with folding chairs raised in menacing fashion. Been there, done that, bought the Luchador mask.)

RM would probably have been disappointing to us on the grounds that it was not at all what we thought it would be, and I think that SITI bears some responsibility for creating those expectations and not delivering. Observe:

“A great ghost story is best heard in the dark or by the shadows of flickering candle light. Darkness plays tricks on the mind and the ear; the smallest rattle will make our imagination churn. Macbeth—in my mind the ultimate ghost story.”
–Co-Director Darron L. West

But despite being doomed to disappoint, it needn't have . . . bored . . . to the extent that it did. Perhaps if we'd arrived a little earlier (we were enjoying QUITE TASTY chicken with potatoes and kale chez editrix until sauntering theatre-ward quite late), the boredom would have been prophesied in this from the OTHER director:

In the heat of the shared theatrical experience, an audience becomes its own society. You are here with a roomful of other people. Can you handle that? We are a community of people dealing with one another and challenging one another. The theater is about social systems and how individuals in communities function in concert. Can the planet be shared or does it just belong to me?

Why I do believe those are the second worst director's notes I ever did see. I'd have said they were the worst, but I presume that they are directed toward agoraphobic virgin theater-goers from Mars, rather than, you know, normal people like us.

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