Monday, March 30, 2009

Once upon a bus

Once upon a time, when you rode the Chinatown bus from Boston to NYC or vice versa, it was a real experience. We're talking aggressive people shouting for your business on the street, persuading you that it was fine to wait around for an hour or two to catch the next bus amid the crowds on the sidewalk. We're talking crazy drivers shouting into huge cell phones (it was a long time ago). We're talking people carrying live chickens onto the buses, people.

The good times no longer roll. Boston swept the Chinatown buses off the street and into South Station, there's no more livestock, and you can buy tickets online (horror!). As a matter of fact, I no longer see why you would take the Chinatown buses at all, because for about the same price, you can take the Bolt Bus, which is immaculately clean, offers free wifi and power sockets, and drops off in Manhattan next to Penn Station (far more convenient for most than Chinatown).

Bolt is great. But part of me misses the old days.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Grey's mentality

An extremely popular book last year was Alex & Me, the story of a Grey parrot -- think Polynesia in Doctor Doolittle -- and his scientist. Like Polynesia, Alex was wise beyond a parrot's common lot, and talked a great deal; like Dr. Doolittle, Irene Pepperberg had a great many adventures, but the love of her work kept her afloat during all of them. I'm not sure, frankly, if the book reads more as an entertaining and incredibly intriguing look at animal intelligence and language use, or a cautionary tale about academia and women in science. Either way, it is excellent, if a little prosy at the end, and I highly recommend it to everyone as a great short read. It is alternately painful and hilarious, and if you don't tear up at Alex's last words to Irene, "Be good. I love you," you are dead inside.

Coincidentally enough, the same day that I finished this, I took a fantasy novel to the gym for reading, the new Valdemar book by Mercedes Lackey. I almost never look at her Valdemar stuff, and wouldn't you know, I noticed that this one is dedicated to Alex and Irene. Lackey is a big bird lover herself, and works with wild birds.

You can find out more about Pepperberg's work via the Alex Foundation.

Esteban! Zia! Tao!

Did anyone else watch The Mysterious Cities of Gold on Nickelodeon as a child? It was a cartoon, and to my great shock, I find that it was anime. (I just remember thinking of it as a cartoon, like David the Gnome or any other Nick favorite.) I'm happy that it's finally coming to DVD. As you can probably guess, it's about the Spanish exploration of the Americas and the legend of the cities of gold (and it has some vague resemblance, at least in the use of character names, to Scott O'Dell's wonderful YA novel The King's Fifth). I really liked that show, and so did my brother. I still remember that we were watching an episode, and they advertised that the three-hour finale would play that weekend... when we were being hauled off on a car trip of some kind, maybe for a piano recital or something. In any case, I can't believe that our parents would have let us watch it, but I've always remembered it. I can barely remember how the series went now, so the urge to find out how it ends is dimmed, but I'm looking forward to it all the same.

I am a bit nervous, though, because the intro theme is nothing like I remember:

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Had a flashback today to a bus transfer I took once between Heathrow and Luton airports in London. I think that was when I was flying to Dortmund for a conference, and the cheap flight was out of Luton. The ride was actually reasonably scenic for a good part of it, and at one point we passed a pasture, and as one, people all over the bus squealed, "SHEEP!" All in American accents, of course. There's something about fluffy sheep grazing in England that makes you feel like you landed right in the tourist brochure.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Magnolia flowers, roots, trees, scents...

I went to see Regina Taylor's new play Magnolia at the Goodman Theater in downtown Chicago this past weekend. It was my first time, I must confess, at the Goodman, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a nice simple theater, well laid out and not overwhelmingly huge. A normal proscenium stage.

The play is about the last days of a family plantation near Atlanta in the '60s; the black branch of the family has risen as the white branch has declined into frustration and alcoholism. It could have been a tense character-driven drama, but the playwright was evidently determined to make the play a survey of the sixties, referencing everything from hippies, the space race, Martin Luther King, Jr., the still-popular Gone with the Wind, the urge for women's liberation, Peyton Wall, Birmingham... I don't even know what else. I could have forgiven this if it hadn't also been for the sledgehammer metaphors about magnolias that were constantly repeated and mixed up with other metaphors about looking down on earth from space. Most of the characters turned into types rather than people, but were splendidly acted (and sung). They made the most of their few snappy lines, which drew laughs from the very appreciative audience. Excellent staging, and certainly an enjoyable evening, but I don't think this play is destined for big things.

ETA: I forgot to say, in case it wasn't already obvious, that the play is a takeoff on Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. I seem to have seen quite a lot of these ethnic updates of classic dramas lately.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I meant the good kind of travesty

I got a ticket off craigslist for the sold-out live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's new production of La Sonnambula yesterday. I was not previously familiar with this opera, but Bellini is always a safe bet, as is Nathalie Dessay, and the new production is by Mary Zimmerman. Who is not always a safe bet. I didn't have time to read about the production till I was googling for running time before bolting out the door, and the first thing I found was a review that had the word 'travesty' in the headline. At that point, I figured I was better off reading nothing.

Starting from that benchmark, it was not as bad as I expected, but Zimmerman decided to do a rehearsal-style production that lent absolutely nothing to the opera. In the first place, while this might be novel for the Met, it's far from original, and it's been done better. The earliest one I can think of was a Cosi fan tutte at Glyndebourne, around when all the Peter Sellars-type modern settings, deconstructions, etc. started to appear. For Mozart's opera, in which everyone is in disguise and being farcical to begin with, rehearsal highlights the artificiality and dramatic qualities of the piece. In a melodrama about true love in a village and maidens' purity, etc., the modern setting doesn't work quite as well, and I can't figure out what qualities the rehearsal was supposed to emphasize. What is more, it wasn't quite a rehearsal of La Sonnambula; it was Sonnambula set in a rehearsal, so the actual characters were opera singers, stage managers, etc. Yet it then breaks into full Swiss village dress at the end, as if rehearsal had moved to stage. It wasn't painful; it just didn't do anything particularly well.

Zimmerman was booed on opening night at the Met, which is stunning -- so rarely happens. This ain't La Scala. But I understand that one or two major tweaks have been made, and a conservative audience might well have just been driven over the cliff by the original business.

Nonetheless, there were some hilarious touches in the direction. A real highlight was when Lisa, the second-best gal, is shunning the touch of the second-best guy and goes for the bottle of Purel. That got a big laugh.

The Met did a very nice job again with the broadcast, complete with Deborah Voigt hosting and interviewing the stars, Dessay and Juan Diego Flores, and the prompter, a nice behind-the-scenes look. Flores was a little pitchy on the high notes yesterday, but has an extremely bright, pure tone that appeals to me (though it blasts through movie speakers really loudly). Very few opera stars look like good actors next to Dessay, though, who is like a tiny charm machine. She makes up in vocal technique and intellect what she lacks in sheer power, and is utterly convincing in a ridiculous ingenue role. Beautiful singing that overcame a pointless production.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Four people, three walls, two cans

I went to Boston recently and had the chance to go to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, one of the best theaters (so people say) in the U.S. My friend and I saw a staging of Beckett's Endgame, a one-act play about... well, about postwar despair, or personal devastation, or something equally Beckettian and cheerful. The main character is blind and in a wheelchair; he keeps his crippled parents in garbage cans; his smelly, sulky, limping servant is the only one who gets to move around to look out the windows and see... not much. The sea out of one, the earth out of another, clouds... you get the idea. There's no describing an absurdist play, but the actors had exquisite timing, and the set was brilliantly simple.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hail to the late-night chief

As a devoted late-night hound, how could I miss Obama's appearance? I'm watching it even as I type. Leno's actually doing quite well at both asking questions and being entertained, and it's actually striking to me how little Obama's demeanor has changed. To me, it makes perfect sense that he should be the first president to appear on a late-night show; there's nothing wrong with it. If it's good enough for the candidate, it's good enough for the president, and lord knows other politicians make use of them often enough as entertaining, safe means of communication.

Remember how Rachel Maddow said very early that Obama had not perfected the art of the sound bite? He still tends to take the long intellectual view. When Leno asked Obama about the AIG bonuses, he began his answer with the structure of AIG, rather than the bailout. A small but interesting insight into his approach, I think.

ETA: I knew the second I heard it that he was going to get in trouble for joking that his current 120 bowling average was like the Special Olympics. Yup, I was right. And justly so, I suppose. I don't doubt that Special Olympic bowlers could probably kick his butt, and it's only right that people know that these athletes are formidable.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

And we think we have problems

Another Irish-themed post: a historical mystery series I've enjoyed lately is the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne, set in 6th-century Ireland. Sister Fidelma is the red-haired nun, dalaigh (roughly a cross between a judge and a detective in their court system), and sister of the king of Cashel. As she navigates these social circles, she's naturally in a position to take charge of some intriguing cases with the help of her sturdy Saxon friend, Brother Eadulf, decidedly the Watson to her Holmes. As a matter of fact, he gets a little too Watson-like in the comic film tradition; sometimes when he wants to sit and eat, I'm pretty much with him and against the annoying perfect Fidelma, but things balance out later in the series.

The series is well written and will interest Ireland buffs with its inclusion of mythology and real history. What lends it that dash of contemporary reference is the bitter strife between the more flexible Irish Christianity and the Roman Christianity attempting to take over. The Irish want to keep their law system, which rarely invokes any kind of death penalty, let the clergy marry, etc. The incoming Romans or Roman-trained clerics want to establish the Penitential system and enforce celibacy. Fidelma naturally provokes their wrath on an almost daily (and certainly bookly) basis. Although Ireland is portrayed as a little too utopian, particularly in contrast to Eadulf's rough Saxon ways (less washing, less law), the clash between fundamentalism and tolerance is an open commentary on our current dialogue, complete with divergent attitudes towards homosexuality.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sue me again

You all know I'm addicted to late-night, so how could I fail to watch Jimmy Fallon's first night? I presume he's going to be just fine, if not exactly revolutionary. Technically, however, you'd think they could have figured out some things in the YEAR they had to prepare. He's got the old-fashioned setup where he walks out and does jokes in front of the curtains, and the curtains are too bold a blue. Plus the folds form vertical stripes, and when Fallon bobs around, it gets kind of dizzying. Maybe as he gets less nervous, he'll bob less, but I'd change the damn curtain. I'd also like to see him look more at the camera. They've got to move his teleprompter to a better focal point, or else he has to memorize more.

On the other hand, the collage-like set where his band, The Roots, plays, is pretty cool, with fake brick and windows. God knows they're a welcome addition to late-night music (Craig Ferguson still has no band, just some canned library music). Fallon did a reasonably funny and charming 'slow jam' of the news before popping over to a cookie-cutter interview set, with the desk and couch in front of the obligatory skyline backdrop.

Well, that's all he's done so far, nothing egregiously terrible, and I might check in on him later, but for now I'm either switching over to Ferguson or else going to bed early. Over and out.

ETA: I checked back in on him, and was kind of sorry I did. His interview with Robert DeNiro was breathless, incoherent, and overscripted. However, 1) nerves and 2) interviewing is a skill that CAN be learned (cf. Conan).

So sue me

OK, I just watched U2 perform a new track off their new album on Letterman, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it.

I can never understand anything Bono sings, but it had a fun kind of pulsing beat. And I just realized that this counts as an Irish-themed post!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Luck of the Irish

Since St. Patrick's Day is this month, I should offer up at least a few Irish-themed posts, right? Well, here's one for you: a little-known, overlooked b&w film that uses "luck of the Irish" as a catchphrase.

It's called Go for Broke!, and it's a film about the 442nd, the all-Japanese American army regiment of World War II that was the most highly decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history -- multiple Purple Hearts per man, and so forth. This heroic regiment was made up of men from Hawaii and from the internment camps, and they were most famous for rescuing the "Lost Battalion" -- a somewhat controversial mission, in which a whole regiment was sent to rescue a hundred trapped men.

The film itself is surprisingly good, actually, with a lot of funny and heartwarming scenes and a message of tolerance and overcoming prejudice. It reminded me quite a bit of the more famous film Stalag 17, about a bunker of diverse POWs in Nazi Germany. Naturally, there are some un-PC elements as well, like the focus on joking about the struggles of the short Japanese Americans, while blithely ignoring the ones who are as tall as their commanding officer, played by Van Johnson, the versatile leading man who died this year. Many of the soldiers were played by real-life veterans of the 442, which just makes it even more satisfying.

"Go for broke!" is their motto, and apparently they were the ones who made it famous; they also use a number of Japanese phrases, and there's a truly hilarious scene when they start speaking Japanese on the communication lines at the front, throwing the Nazis into total confusion. As for "luck of the Irish"? Well, in what is practically a staple of Japanese American lit or film, there's a character named Ohara.