Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Helmand Restaurant

As of tonight, I've declared a moratorium on eating out in Annapolis. We ventured into Baltimore this afternoon, partly to catch the end of "The Repeating Image" exhibit at the Walters Art Gallery and partly to find some decent food. We were delighted to discover that The Helmand, an Afghani restaurant on North Charles Street, was as good as its reputation.

We started with two appetizers, kaddo borawni, lovely chunks of spicy-sweet pumpkin topped with a yoghurt sauce, and banjan borawni, a stewed, aromatic eggplant dish. Both were excellent, nor did our entrees disappoint: aushak, best described as an Afghani ravioli (and sooooo good!); seekh kabob, marinated lamb tenderloin; and a vegetarian dish comprised of rice, mushrooms, and spinach.

Service was prompt and courteous and dishes came quickly out of the kitchen, which seemingly runs with military efficiency. The decor is pleasant: white walls, punctuated by the occasional textile, and tile floors. It feels open yet intimate. I was pleased that the temperature inside the restaurant on this frigid night was toasty without being stifling. In short, management had clearly seen to the comfort of their guests: it was the utter opposite of Bebo Trattoria the previous weekend.

So far, we have yet to experience a bad or even lackluster meal in Baltimore. We've only tried half-a-dozen restaurants, ranging from a casual Irish pub down at Fell's Point to a couple of brilliant French inns. All were priced fairly for the quality of food, and service was invariably professional. After two-and-a-half years of indifferent (or downright poor) food and spotty service, we've given up on Annapolis and are now looking north to Baltimore, where a seeming cornucopia of culinary delights awaits us.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Aqua Terra

I'm beginning to think that restauranteurs in Annapolis haven't got an iota of common sense. Last night we ate at Aqua Terra in downtown Annapolis. My lovely step-daughter (the professional chef) had come to town; it was too late to cook at home; and we wanted a nice meal to celebrate her arrival. We settled on Aqua Terra because a) they do small plates; and b) they gave us a nice meal two years ago.

In part, the fault was ours: we should have scrutinized the menu more carefully before sitting down. We were all dog-tired, and we failed to notice that most of the small plate offerings were fried. Not until dishes actually came to the table did we realize our mistake, and so we had small plate after small plate of fried fare: coconut shrimp; asparagus in a tempura batter; scallops wrapped in bacon. Only the mussels and vegetarian spring roll were spared a fate of sizzling fat.

As so often happens in Annapolis, seafood was woefully overcooked, the scallops chewy and the shrimp tough. Even the mussels were overdone, nor were they terribly inviting--a far cry from the heavenly mollusks I enjoyed in Bend, Oregon.

Our waitress was pleasant and attentive, and she good-humouredly indulged our finicky selection of wine, bringing Meg and me various reds to taste (we nixed all of the Pinots) until we settled on a decent Zinfandel.

I like the concept for Aqua Terra--hardly any restaurants in Annapolis offer small plates--but I wish the owners would diversify the menu. They should also consider the following changes:

❅Cut back on the fried food
❅Include dishes that are sautéed, steamed, or baked
❅Quadruple the number of vegetables and grains
❅Use low-sodium soy sauce in the Asian-themed recipes
❅Halve the cooking time on shellfish

Maybe I need to quit academe and open a restaurant . . .

Monday, January 21, 2008

Bebo Trattoria

With our friends, Michael and Susan, we tried Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City, Northern Virginia, the latest in Roberto Donna's culinary ventures. According to the web site, the restaurant fulfills "Chef Donna's life long dream of having a restaurant that allows guests to enjoy an Italian family dining experience." That statement puzzles me. Bebo Trattoria, while an attractive space, is anything but familial: large, modern, almost semi-industrial, it blends well with the impersonal hotels and high rises in the area. On this particular Sunday night, Bebo was nearly empty, probably due to the bitterly cold weather, but I suspect most of their clientele comes from the local defense industry. It's hard to envision Zia Sophia or Papa Guido merrily downing Montepulciano and risotto in that cavernous setting.

More to the point, the food, with a couple of notable exceptions, was a far cry from memorable Italian dining experiences I've had in the past, whether familial or professional, here or abroad. We started with four appetizers. Our waiter recommended prosciutto biellese, which was unavailable, so we tried speck, a nice smoked prosciutto. Thin slices of guanciale--cured pork cheeks--were not to our liking. Greasy and tasteless, they looked liked uncooked bacon. Far better were the caprese, a lovely combination of fresh mozzarella and homemade sun-dried tomatoes, and the bruschetta. Our entrees were equally mixed: the guys had agnello (lamb chops), which were unevenly cooked, a result of poor heat management according to my husband, the grill guru. Seasoning was applied with a heavy hand, overwhelming the flavor of the lamb. My risotto was the sorriest of the lot: lukewarm and glutinous, it was so salty as to be almost inedible. Susan hit the jackpot with the meatballs. Light, airy, and delicately flavored, they were nothing like the dense golf balls I remember eating as a child.

After hearing our complaints about the food, the maitre d' sent around dessert and glasses of Prosecco, a nice gesture. He apologized for the new chef in the kitchen, but I couldn't help but wonder why a chef that inexperienced (or unskilled) was learning his craft on paying customers. Susan's meatballs evidently had been prepared by Donna himself, which explained the marked contrast in quality. I am still shaking my head over the risotto, a dish that demands some skill but is not difficult. I make very good risotto at home regularly, and I know that stock and cheese can be salty, so I exercise restraint. As Susan noted, saline levels in cheese can vary markedly from one batch to the next. At the very least, taste the dish before flinging in salt with abandon!

If Donna really wants his Tuscan fantasy to work, he needs to get a decent assistant chef and a warmer, more intimate space. Giving his staff some additional training would help too. Our waiter, while pleasant, seemed distracted and never bothered to check on us after serving the food. I would have sent the risotto back to the kitchen, but we had a curtain to make, and I didn't have time to wait for a new preparation. Bizarrely, the maitre d' fiddled with lighting throughout much of our meal, taking us from darkness to glare and then back again. When Susan protested to our waiter, he muttered something about the maitre d' trying to master the lighting panel. Again, shouldn't the staff straighten out problems before the restaurant opens to paying guests, say, early in the morning? If you're going to market a chimera, then you need to tend to the atmosphere as well as the product itself, something Ralph Lauren learned long ago in his showroom displays. The same principle is at work, whether it's cannelloni or comforters.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Modest Proposal for a Solution to Excess Barn Cats

As friends and family know, I'm not that fond of cats.  They're great aesthetic objects (especially Siamese and Burmese) but lousy pets, as far as I'm concerned.  Given my passion for dogs, horses, and open fields, I probably should have been an 18th-century lord of the manor, someone like Squire Western in Fielding's splendid read, Tom Jones.
I admit readily that cats provide a useful service in barns, limiting the rodent population and keeping other small critters at bay.  No argument there.  The cat population at Southwind farm, however, has exploded exponentially.  We have decrepit cats, who have outlived their ability to mouse; badly behaved cats, who piss on saddle pads and foul the tack room; and stupid cats, who don't know the first thing about horses. Several boarders are placing bets on one particularly gormless feline.  She lands on horses' backs--claws extended--and gets underfoot.  Before long, we will be scraping her off the roof or picking her remains from a horse's hoof.

To be fair, several of the cats do their job, behave fairly well, and comport themselves sensibly.  I have no quarrel with them.  Regarding the badly behaved cats, though, an idea of Sweeney Todd proportions did occur to me after seeing this photo . . . 

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Musings on Marlowe, Part II

Audiences in Washington, D.C. had a rare opportunity this fall to assess the playability of Marlowe's scripts. To inaugurate the new Harmon Arts Center, The Shakespeare Theatre Company played Edward II and Tamburlaine in repertory. Queer Theory has been largely responsible for the several revivals of Edward II since the early nineties. The story--about a weak English monarch who neglects his kingdom for his male lover--obviously lends itself to contemporary debates over sexual identity. No mystery there. E2 also happens to be a pretty good play: the last complete script Marlowe produced, it suggests he was beginning to learn something about dramaturgy. For good reason, Brecht chose that one script out of Marlowe's oeuvre to rework.

Tamburlaine, however, is an entirely different matter. Wildly popular at the time of its premiere, the titular role gave the bombastic Edward Alleyn a chance to showcase his histrionic style of acting. So big a hit was the play that Marlowe went on to write Part II, supposedly at the behest of audiences. After that brief flash of popularity, the play moldered, unknown and neglected until after WWII. By 1595, whatever had initially appealed to audiences no longer spoke to them or, for that matter, to anyone subsequently. Tamburlaine became the plaything of bibliophiles, critics, or the casually curious, but it was no longer welcome in the theatre.

That began to change in the twentieth century when the Yale Drama Club Association staged the play in 1919, more as a historical curiosity than anything else. Since WWII, revivals have had more to do with directorial desire than literary merit. Directors with an agenda (and who does not these days?) rub their hands gleefully over the script, hoping either to revive the Shakespeare/Marlowe debate, resuscitate Marlowe's reputation, or prove his neglected theatrical genius. Michael Kahn, the artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre Company, called Tamburlaine a "great classic" in his notes to the company, observing the play "could be a lot of things. . . . a tribute to empire and colonialism, or a criticism of empire and colonialism." It is both "a critique, and yet also a celebration, of individualism and drive, with both its good points and dangers." Kahn's notes, much like Park Honan's claims for Marlowe's "artistry," try to make a virtue out of deficiency, elevating poor plotting to the level of thematic ambiguity. I don't need to invoke William Empson or even Derrida to point out the difference between an aesthetic density that allows for multiple readings and narrative holes so large you could drive a rig through them.

Undoubtedly, Tamburlaine, with its myriad Central Asian locales, and story of a despot who conquers, enslaves, and kills untold people, speaks to our current interest in colonialism, just as Edward II lends itself to Queer Theory. In that sense, both plays are "timely." Does timeliness make for good theatre, though? Is "relevance" enough?

Several students last semester wrote reviews of this production of Tamburlaine; not one was laudatory. They reported disgruntled conversations and people fleeing during intermission. Three students admitted they too would have left had not the review required them to stay. All of them liked how Kahn and the production team underscored the exoticism of the play, and for the first hour, the swirl of gorgeous costumes, innovative staging, and original music (vaguely Asian and electronic, with intermittent drumming) held their attention. They appreciated, as did I, Kahn's mastery in cutting and merging Parts I and II, and providing at least one creative solution to the rapid succession of unrelated scenes. It's almost impossible to follow Tamburlaine's progress through Central Asia, Egypt, and Africa, so disjointed is the plotting. Thus the projection of place names on an electronic screen above the proscenium helped immensely to locate the action. At least, one could sit back and say, "Ah, now he's slaughtering the inhabitants of Alexandria, not Carthage!"

Timeliness will only get you so far if the plot--even with electronic assistance--and language are unplayable. Even having read the play, my students complained bitterly about their inability to detect the spine of the story. The plot essentially boils down to this: conquer; meet future wife; conquer; conquer; conquer; marry wife; huge elapse of time (between Parts I and II), in which three sons are produced; wife sickens and dies (now we're really pissed!); conquer; conquer; conquer; conquer; kill one son for his lack of manliness; conquer; conquer; and die, instructing remaining sons in final moments to carry on legacy of conquest. Gee, we haven't learned a thing! Scenes of abject humiliation (e.g. bridling human conquests as if they were horses) provide some leavening to this tasteless mass.

The company of actors did their best with this mishmash, trying hard to compensate for the lack of narrative tension with energy and physicality. Avery Brooks played Tamburlaine as a street thug, mugging, laughing maniacally, and leaping all over the stage. I wasn't surprised that he busted three ribs well into the run, given that Kahn had him doing everything short of swinging from the rafters. The jittery, hyperkinetic blocking was augmented by the constant swirl of movement onstage, with carts and beds rolling on and off, objects rising from traps, and bright swatches of material unfurling. Whether consciously or unconsciously, director and actors reacted to the lack of story, the paltry motivation, and the thinness of character. I think the logic was that if you run around enough, the stage picture will compensate for the thin narrative, a ploy that film, an essentially visual medium, can pull off. It doesn't work in straight theatre.

Most of the reviews and blogs I looked at didn't like the play, but they proceeded to trash the production, not Marlowe's writing. I'm not sure the actors could have done much more. Avery Brooks came under fire for not finding his character, but Marlowe doesn't give him a break. Speech after speech reads as a perverse resume, with Tamburlaine announcing his latest "accomplishments" as he subjugates one realm after another. He taunts his conquests, fawns over his wife (another conquest), and belittles his one unmanly son before running him through. Never does he express regret or doubt. In other words, this is a character focused exclusively on exterior events, which is great if you're writing a Restoration fop, but not so good in a tragic hero. In part, this might explain Brooks's decision to play Tamburlaine as a comic character since the script (with the exception of one speech) doesn't give him occasion for introspection, motivation, or growth. What else could the poor guy do with the role?

That Marlowe didn't care much for actors or theatre is most evident in his dialogue. He was a freelancer, not a member of an acting company, and the difference shows. The language is relentless, a torrent of noun- and adjective-heavy lines that trip the tongue and strain the diaphragm. I saw the production a good six weeks into the run, which meant the actors had worked with the language for at least three months, giving them sufficient time to build up breath control. Even so, they wheezed and gasped their way through speeches, slogging through endless clauses with nary a caesura in sight. Additionally, Marlowe never learned what all good dramatists know: you have to give actors something to do onstage. Overwritten language reduces actors to talking heads, whereas artful porousness gives actors the opportunity to use their voices and bodies--in effect, to act.

Marlowe, though, was all about Marlowe, which is why he was a superb poet but an incompetent dramatist and spy. Accomplished dramatists yield up their narrative voice, just as spies forego a stable, uniform self. Marlowe couldn't let go of either one, and his solipsism cost him theatrical and mortal longevity.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Asian Restaurants in Annapolis

A town with so many frangible restaurants is hardly going to care about interesting Asian food. You can't go twenty feet in downtown Annapolis without bumping into yet another surf 'n turf eatery offering the usual crab cakes, grilled steaks, or gussied up free-range chicken. Even the desserts are interchangeable: tiramisu, lemon cheesecake, creme brulee, and some sort of "death by chocolate" confection. For most Annapolitans, culinary innovation is not a high priority.

It was with considerable foreboding that we made our way to a modest Vietnamese restaurant in Edgewater called Saigon Palace. The food, I am pleased to say, was tasty and unpretentious and the service excellent. Food came piping hot from the kitchen (an obsession of mine), and the waitress was prompt and attentive without being officious.

The dumplings were a bit tough around the edges, probably from sitting too long in a steamer, and I would have liked more flavor in the mixture of vegetables and tofu, which arrived as a plain and not terribly appetizing mass: large, unadorned chunks of tofu surrounded by steamed vegetables. Everything was fresh and crisp, but the dish needed a sauce. Far more inventive were the Vietnamese pancakes, which were filled with shrimp and vegetables. The waitress showed us how to scoop up the pancake with large leaves of lettuce, and the juxtaposition of textures was pleasant indeed. We especially like the lemon and pepper chicken, although we puzzled over the name since freshly grated ginger, not lemon, was by far the predominant flavor.

As the lemon chicken suggests, Saigon Palace could use some help with labeling. Their web site claims they offer "the most authentic Vietnamese cuisine in the Bay area." As far as we know, they offer the only Vietnamese food in the area, which once again leads to the question of scarcity in Annapolis. Common sense dictates that communities with healthy Asian populations produce an abundance of good restaurants, as NYC, L.A., S.F., or even Northern Virginia attest. When I first moved to Washington twenty years ago, I was told that the best Vietnamese food was to be found within a 10-miles radius of the Pentagon, courtesy of the Vietnamese who fled the fall of Saigon and then followed the brass back to that imposing edifice. While the story seemed implausible, I had to admit that Northern Virginia boasted by far the best Vietnamese food in the greater metropolitan area, in addition to respectable Chinese, Korean, and Thai restaurants (who apparently followed in their wake).

The causal relationship between population and food is not axiomatic. I have been in overwhelmingly white towns that have excellent ethnic restaurants: witness our terrific lunch at Typhoon in Bend, Oregon.  The best Ethiopian meal I've ever had was in Madison, Wisconsin, hardly a bastion of ethnic diversity.  Ultimately, I think the desire to experience different textures, ingredients, and flavors perhaps balances (or at least mitigates) the question of population.  Having an educated, affluent citizenry who are well traveled or at least curious helps considerably, although here again I have found surprising exceptions in redneck towns boasting culinary gems.  It does not speak well for Annapolitans that they are seemingly content with boring "American" fare, indifferently prepared and woefully overpriced.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Teaching in Prison

We all know the figures: we rival China and several Middle Eastern countries in the number of prisoners we execute; we jail Black and Hispanic men at alarmingly high rates (they make up 62% of the prison population despite comprising only 25% of the national population); we incarcerate Black women at rates anywhere from ten to thirty-five times higher than White women; and we throw the book at drug users.

There's knowing and knowing.

For the past year, I've been teaching plays to a group of female prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, known informally as MCI-W. It's not a weekly gig, although I would like it to be. At the moment, I show up every ten weeks or so, books in hand. I can't bring cookies, candy, or handouts, just my paltry insights and what I hope is a pleasant smile. My first couple of sessions weren't as trying as I expected. Another faculty member who volunteers asked if I was horrified by the setting. I wasn't, I told her, affecting something of a tough girl demeanor. And, truth be told, the institution could be far worse. Yes, it's stolid and overbearing, and doors clang alarmingly as one is buzzed through successive entries. The halls and rooms are well lit, though, and there are plenty of inviting public spaces: rooms for sitting and watching t.v., a library (sorely in need of more books), and a gym. One night I arrived early and witnessed a line-dancing class in session, the prisoners enthusiastically grooving to silly music. Some of them whooped and others smiled. It didn't seem bad at all.

Last night got to me.

We were to discuss Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, that old standby. I haven't taught the play in a long time, and frankly it was never one of my favorites. Rereading the script over the weekend, I had one of those, "so that's what I was missing all these years!" moments (the reverse of "what the hell did I ever see in that book?"). The artistry of Miller shone through every page, from the plebeian poetry to the kinesic gestures, such as Linda's constant mending of nylons and jackets, effecting with her hands what she can't repair in her family. Miller's formal solution to the problem of representing double time on stage (i.e. objective reality unfolding alongside Willy's reveries) is brilliant, a synthesis of expressionism and good old realism. I also read a terrific production history of the play, Brenda Murphy's study in Cambridge UP's Plays in Production series. Boy oh boy, what I would have given to see the original production! What a talented ensemble: Elia Kazan's classic Method direction, Jo Mielziner's minimalist design, and Alex North's plangent score.

Then there's the story, as perfect a vehicle for exploring the shortcomings of the American dream as ever devised. Even if you have only half a heart, you can't help but think about a society that throws aside a 63-year-old man who is used up. So I sit down to spend 90 minutes discussing the inequities of 1948 with women in 2008 who experience firsthand the gap between what we profess to be as a society and what we too often are. Don't get me wrong: some of these women undoubtedly deserve to do time. There are murderers and embezzlers in my group: women who did away with their husbands (or at least tried) and women who had good jobs but nonetheless helped themselves to a little extra. One of the more eloquent prisoners, a soft-spoken, sweet-faced girl in her twenties, quietly shared insight after insight, the result of careful, thoughtful reading. She pricked my interest, and after the session I asked the officer manning the visitor's room about her crime.

"She killed a man when she was fifteen. Thirty years."

This particular officer has a heart as ample as her figure (she qualifies as a "traditional woman," in the words of Precious Ramotswe). Not all of the correctional staff are that kind. The officer clicked her tongue in sympathy and related her own story: alcoholic father; brutal beatings; one brother already dead from heroin. Several times in her youth, her fingers tightened around a kitchen knife. She doesn't know what kept her from stabbing the miserable s.o.b. "There but for the grace of God . . ." and her voice trailed off. "I could be wearing a uniform in there instead of a different one out here," she added thoughtfully. As to why a teenager would stab a man, she can't provide details, but she suspects the girl was defending herself. To my successive questions--why was she tried as an adult? why didn't she have a decent lawyer?--the officer shrugged.  It's as much a mystery as her decision not to stab her father all those years ago.

I drove home, happy for the substantial Irish whiskey Rod placed in my hands. I luxuriated in the smoky sting of the liquor while listening to Rod's attempts at consolation.  He pointed out that for a few hours, I've given the prisoners something else to think about. Have I? Do they really need to read what they experience firsthand?

Monday, January 7, 2008

On Studs and Studs

This is one of several reasons why I can't seem to pry myself away from Southwind Farm: one of the boarders, a good pal, recently put up a wall calendar in the loo called "Studs 'n Spurs."  Now one has the pleasure of um, sitting, and reflecting on, as the ad says, "handsome faces, sculpted bodies and surly smiles."  Sheri Thornley, owner and resident camp counselor (that is, if you consider Southwind as some sort of recreational institution for slightly deranged, mainly middle-aged women), has claimed Mr. January for her very own . . .

Speaking of studs, my adored Mr. Beau managed to lose several from his right-front hoof, thus "throwing" his shoe.  Of course, he hung onto the shoe for jumping with Meredith on Saturday.  Then he overheard my plans for a dressage coaching session with Susan on Sunday and decided, "well, I'm going to put a stop to that!"  Anything to get out of flat work.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Musings on Marlowe, Part I

While visiting my beloved Uncle Steve in Bend, Oregon over the holidays, I finally finished Park Honan's biography of Christopher Marlowe. Well-written and thoroughly researched, Honan draws upon Queer Theory and Cultural Studies while avoiding some of their methodological pitfalls. Honan's Marlowe comes off as a brash young man, brilliant in poetry and learned in the classics but a naif in regard to the treacherous world of Elizabethan spy craft.  He was a lousy spook, although he probably put his clandestine activities to good literary use.  Among other disasters, Marlowe managed to get himself arrested in the Low Countries for sharing a room with another spy who was blithely counterfeiting coins, a treasonable offense.  Ironically, utter cluelessness probably saved his life: Sir Robert Sidney (brother to Sir Philip) interrogated Marlowe, deduced his innocence, and then despatched the feckless lad back to England.  Oh, youth!

Naivete and good connections will cover only so many missteps, and Marlowe, as is well known, met an early and particularly grotesque end.  Honan's interpretation of the events leading to Marlowe's stomach-churning death (dagger plunged two inches into the bony orbital plate housing the eyeball) seems right.  Conspiracy theories abound, and it's tempting to chalk up Marlowe's demise to homophobia, religious fanaticism, or court intrigue.  He was, after all, given to "atheistical" outbursts while in his cups, and he was undoubtedly a liability to the spymaster, Thomas Walsingham, especially by 1592 when witch hunts for Catholics and atheists intensified.  I tend, however, to be skeptical about conspiracy theories.  As history teaches us, assassinations more often result from petty jealousies, political indignation, or mad musings than carefully orchestrated plots involving shadowy operatives and orders from on high.  In Marlowe's case, he probably provoked a minor operative, Ingram Frizer, not so much because of what he did, but for what he was: charming, flashy, brilliant, and possessed of a lightning wit that could pun equally well in Latin or English, much to the delight of his patron Walsingham. Marlowe's worst crime was to be everything Frizer was not; and the assassin, like most shabby little men, thought his rise depended on the poet's decline.  And the ambitious Walsingham, eyeing James VI of Scotland as Elizabeth's likely successor, didn't need to be saddled with a half-assed spy mouthing off in taverns around town.

While I find plausible Honan's account of the poet's short and violent life, I disagree with his assessment of Marlowe's artistry.  Inevitably, Marlowe is coupled with Shakespeare, and the tired literary game of "had Marlowe lived, would he have surpassed Shakespeare" continues to be played.  They're such wildly different dramatists that it seems foolhardy to compare them; they just happened to write at the same moment.  Honan, though, behaves like Frizer toward Marlowe, concluding that the rise of his biographical subject depends on the fall of his putative rival.  So even though it's a tired game, piqued as I am by Honan's assessment, I can't help but weigh in: Marlowe, a terrific poet, was as lousy a dramatist as he was a spy (and probably for many of the same reasons--John Le Carre is especially eloquent on the more literary aspects of spy craft).  

My fabulous former teaching assistant, now at Harvard pursuing a M.A. in Dramaturgy, did a first-rate guest lecture last year in Theatre History comparing Marlowe and Shakespeare from an actor's perspective.  As Sean noted, Marlowe has little feeling for the taste of words in the mouth: he's miserly with caesuras and profligate with monstrous, run-on sentences.  Worst of all, he rarely gives his actors anything to do on stage: they're passive mouthpieces for large scale, gorgeous speeches in which either nothing happens or everything happens too quickly and without any motivation or even sense.  Speeches rarely provide insight into the characters. His sense of dramaturgy is laughable, and here Honan tries to make a virtue out of ineffectual plotting, arguing that Marlowe's genius burst the trussing of dramatic form.  Thus his bitty, fragmented succession of loosely related scenes becomes evidence for some sort of proto-modernist experimentation in dramatic form.  Sorry, Honan, but I don't buy it.  Brecht's creation of an epic theatre--an aesthetic response to dialectical materialism--is a far cry from Marlowe's choppy, half-realized dramas.  The former brilliantly weds Marxist theory to practice, using a non-organic form to explore, thematically and coherently, modernist preoccupations with alienation, mechanization, politics, and aesthetic experimentation. Brecht's redaction of Edward II stands head-and-shoulders over Marlowe's original.  

I'm going to make an inflammatory statement here by asserting that Marlowe's scripts are pretty much unplayable, interesting to watch in their disjointed weirdness and flights of poetry, but unconvincing as drama.  Witness the Shakespeare Theatre Company's recent production of Tamburlaine, to be explored in Musings on Marlowe, Part II . . .

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Eating in Bend, Oregon

Question: why does a town of less than 60,000 have over one hundred restaurants, most of them quite good?  Superb espresso bars on every block and delectable baked goods?  My adored Uncle Steve, who now resides in Bend, chalks up the good food to the influx of California money in recent years, but I'm not sure that entirely explains the phenomenon.  

I get the good joe; put politely, the Pacific Northwest obsession with coffee borders on the unhealthy.  True to form, Bend espresso bars, each one more exquisite than the next, feature organic beans and rarified roasting techniques.  It goes without saying that they observe fair trade practices and pay their mellow hippie employees a living wage.  This is Oregon, after all.

I even get the good bakeries: those cold, snowy winters invite consumption of chunky loaves of fresh baked bread and oversized muffins.  Skiers and snowboarders need their calories, as do the mountain bikers who swarm the region in the summer (Bend also has a ludicrous number of bicycle shops).

What I don't get are the many, very good restaurants in Bend.  I too reside in a moneyed town where pleasure figures significantly, although I'm beginning to suspect that a life of boating--the local pastime--dulls one's taste buds.  Maybe it's all that cheap hooch the yachties consume.  In my nearly three years of living in Annapolis, I've had one very good meal (more about that in future posts) and one excellent meal, although we had to venture over the Bay Bridge into Easton to get it.  Am I jealous?  Hell, yes.

So here's a brief paean to Bend, where we had a lovely Christmas Eve dinner at Ariana's.  Yes, the waiter was a little young and inexperienced, and, yes, the Dungeness crab was a tad overcooked, but the restaurant was warm and inviting, and the holiday menu was inventive and tasty.  I'm still dreaming of the plump, juicy mussels I ate at Merenda's, the best I've had since dining in Kinsale, Ireland three years ago.  Perfectly prepared and lightly seasoned to preserve their briny flavor, these mollusks were a culinary marvel (and I consumed an embarrassing number--only shame prevented me from eating more).  I would kill to find an Asian restaurant in Annapolis that came close to the Thai treasures at Typhoon.  And then there was all that coffee, crusty bread, and--oh yes, did I mention the gourmet chocolates flown in from Belgium?   Life ain't fair.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year's Resolutions: Ten Professional Goals

  1. Produce a working draft of book on Restoration playwrights by the end of the year
  2. Finish article on performance theory and Restoration drama for Literature Compass by April
  3. Write and submit another article (Noel Coward? Canonization and the theatrical repertoire?)
  4. Learn more about David Mamet's "practical aesthetics" for Fundamentals of Acting 1
  5. Deliver papers at two professional conferences, perhaps ASTR and ASECS
  6. Master one new classroom technique
  7. Improve Keynote lectures (mantra: more image, less text)
  8. Begin researching and thinking about possible future course in dramaturgy 
  9. Develop a better sense of humor about the foibles of students
  10. Acquire Zen-like detachment about colleagues (think Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius)

New Year's Resolutions: Ten Personal Goals

  1. Learn to knit (really well)
  2. Learn to crochet (fairly well)
  3. Attend at least one dressage schooling show with Beau by April
  4. Get comfortable jumping a 2'6" course by fall
  5. Do a little unrated hunter show with Beau this summer
  6. Attempt a baby novice course by fall?
  7. Master puff pastry!
  8. Improve veal and/or beef stock
  9. Finally learn those blasted nautical knots
  10. Practice man (or dog) overboard maneuvers