Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Thoughts about Spring Theatre in Washington, D.C.

After a lackluster fall, I was pleased to see several fine productions this past spring in Washington, which continues to be a first-rate town for interesting and provocative theatre. By far, the best three productions were Synetic's Romeo and Juliet, the Folger Macbeth, and The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Major Barbara.

Macbeth was a delight. Aaron Posner, who typically directs one show every season for the Folger, brought his usual flair for originality to the Scottish play. With the help of Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), he created the bloodiest Macbeth this side of Jacobean stagecraft. Banquo's ghost spews disgusting clots of blood; the three weird sisters drop glistening entrails into their cauldron; and Lady M. spontaneously bleeds from her hands during the sleepwalking scene, a sort of grotesquely hilarious stigmata. So covered in blood was the stage by the curtain call that actors were slipping all over the place. Peter Marks in his Washington Post review called the production a "popcorn Macbeth, surely as good a description as any. There were lots of smart touches too, not just magic tricks and buckets of blood. Kate Eastwood Norris, one of my favorite Washington actresses, was by far the sexiest Lady M. I've ever seen, and she used her considerable wiles to seduce Macbeth into murdering Duncan. Too often Lady Macbeth is done as a steely, cold-hearted bitch who dominates and ridicules her husband into submission. I've always found it hard to square Macbeth-the-warrior with Macbeth-the-henpecked. Norris' interpretation made sense of Macbeth's rapid capitulation: their body language conveyed the hot intensity of their relationship, and one could understand entirely why this powerful warrior would do anything, including murder, for this undulating babe. Ian Merrill Peakes did a fine job with Macbeth, displaying pathos and regret that was genuinely heartfelt, not simply recited.

I liked The Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Major Barbara just as well, but for different reasons. First, I was relieved to see a STC show that I really liked for a change; second, I loved how Ethan McSweeny's direction made me rethink the script and appreciate how Shaw's penchant for Nietzsche drives the characters and the script. Vivienne Benesch burned, wild-eyed and impassioned, with Dionysian fevor. Truly she is the counterpart to Adolphus Cusin's Apollonian professor of Greek; and their marriage signifies the happy union of opposing but complementary philosophies, both necessary to a balanced life. Too often actresses play Barbara with a reserved hauteur, making her emotional abandonment of the Salvation Army at the end of Act 2 as hard to fathom as her sudden conversion to her father's war-mongering credo at the end of the play.

Although McSweeny's was by far the most intellectual Barbara I've seen, it was also the most enjoyable, with lots of lovely physical business and superb comic timing. The opening scene between the termagant Lady Britomart and her feckless son Stephen featured an especially superb piece of stage business, with a pillow cushion functioning metonymically for the battle of wills between the generations. The set was gorgeous and put to good use by McSweeney and his actors; happily, he avoided the fussiness of many contemporary directors: give them a revolve and they use it ad nauseum! All the performances sparkled, and the actors did justice to Shaw's quicksilver dialogue. The actor playing Stephen overdid his performance a bit, the one flaw in an otherwise superlative production.

As good as these shows were, they simply could not compete with Synetic's Romeo and Juliet. For good reason, this brilliant, truly innovative company blew everyone else out of the water this year at the Helen Hayes Awards. Another entry in their series of "silent" adaptations of Shakespeare, this dance- and movement-based version boiled down the story to 55 minutes of intense, explosive kinesis. Tired as I am of the play, I loved every moment of Synetic's version. Paata Tsikurishvili, the brilliant Georgian artistic director, went for an especially bleak interpretation, surrounding his young lovers with cogs and wheels (largely formed by bodies) as they are ground up by the blood feud between the families. The unremitting electronic score additionally propelled the action forward, making for an exhilarating, compressed dramatic action that sped toward its catastrophic conclusion. I really can't get enough of this talented company, and their achievements are all the more impressive given how they started from scratch a few years ago. I'm pleased to see they're finally getting some decent funding.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The New Bolton Center

I've concluded that equines get better care these days in the U.S. than humans, if the New Bolton Center at the University of Pennsylvania is any indication. Barbaro went there for good reason: the care and professionalism is unparalleled.

Laurie and I arrived, our respective mounts in tow, to be greeted by a wonderfully efficient and kind staff. No waiting for paperwork; no pause for admission: our forms were already prepared and waiting to be signed, while two kind young women stood by with lead ropes. Beau and Tommy were escorted to their immaculate stalls, heaped high with fresh straw, and their culinary preferences recorded. Did Beau want orchard grass hay or a mix of timothy and orchard? Would the occasional flake of alfafa mix be alright? It was not the usual alfafa, mind you, but a special import from the west. "The horses love it," I was told. "They gobble it down like Godiva chocolates." In the meantime, a perky third-year resident fluttered around Beau, taking his vitals and inspecting him closely.

Once the horses were settled, Laurie and I went to clean up from our long, hot trip before meeting with Dr. Busschers, the energetic Dutch surgeon overseeing Beau and Tommy. Patient and thorough, she examined both horses and talked through their respective treatments with us. She promised to call me immediately after Beau's surgery, and this morning she proved as good as her word, explaining the results and subsequent follow-up care.  These days I'm lucky if a M.D. returns my call within a week--and only if I leave countless e-mails and voice messages.

Little things caught my attention, from the area where we could leave the horse trailer to the trash bins for the content of muck buckets. Another (cute British) resident advised us not to eat at the cafeteria because of the "mean" chef. We took his recommendation and dined at a bistro up the road to very happy results.

On the way back, Laurie decided it was high time I learn how to drive a truck and horse box. She handed me the keys and sat back, ready to relax on the way home (the horse box comes later). So here we were, two middle-aged broads in a big-ass Ford truck, blasting country western while we tooled down highway 95 back to Maryland. I loved every minute of it.

As the picture shows, all I need is a beer and a hound dog by my side.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Mortality of Pets

Unbelievably, Maggie is still with us--and thriving.  Rod and I never expected her to make it past July, much into September.  Her bladder is still compromised but improved: she makes it through the night and doesn't need to wear a diaper unless we're gone for several hours.  Best of all, she's enjoying what's left of her life.  Mags cavorts outside with Chloe, cuddles with us in the morning, and barks indignantly at the crows, her particular nemesis (nemeses?). She gobbles her meals greedily and looks at me expectantly when I'm cooking, knowing full well that eventually a little taste of something will come her way.  From a dog's perspective, life is pretty good.

Several months ago, I questioned Rod's sanity in giving chemotherapy to a pet, a much-loved pet, mind you, but still a pet.  I have since questioned my views.  If Maggie lives until Christmas, we will have extended her life by 9-10 months, nearly 6 years in human terms.  She has endured some discomfort during that time, but overall the quality of her life has been pretty good.  The extra time has given Rod a chance to come to terms with Maggie's impending end.

If it had been my choice, I'm still not sure I would have opted for chemotherapy. Tomorrow I trailer Beau up to New Bolton to have a melanoma under his tail removed.  It's ulcerating and could become infected.  There's also a chance it will be malignant. 80% of grey horses have melanomas by the age of 15, a strange genetic abnormality; most are benign, if sometimes unsightly.  In some instances, though, a small, harmless black bump will grow exponentially, exploding into a huge, cancerous mass.  Further testing usually reveals cancer spreading through internal organs.  

Beau seems his usual cantankerous self to me, but I am bracing for the worst: what was a little knob has suddenly morphed into an oozy, repellant mass.  I have already decided that if the melanoma is malignant and has already spread (or is about to spread), I will have New Bolton put him down before pain sets in.  Brutally, disposing of a horse is quite a different matter from euthanizing a cat or dog: the logistics of burying, rendering, or cremating an 1100 pound animal requires forethought, planning, and considerable expense.  New Bolton is set up to euthanize large animals in a humane manner.  There's nothing I can do if Beau's melanoma has metastasized; unlike Maggie's lymphoma, it cannot be treated with chemotherapy.  Even if treatment were an option, I would not subject Beau to the regimen.

So I hope for the best.  Losing one of our pets to cancer is bad enough; possibly losing two out of three is just wrenching.