Friday, October 12, 2012

An Upstart Crow Undergoes Theatrical Therapy (Theatrapy?)

“I am not a politician. I am a musician. I care about giving people a place where they can go to enjoy themselves and begin to live again. To the man you have to give the spirit, and when you give him the spirit, you have done everything.”
-Luciano Pavarotti

Okay, here it is. Here’s the gushing Globe entry. I might do another one after my Shakespeare performance final, but that’ll be an entirely different situation. But coming on the heels of a disappointing experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the evening I just had is indescribable. In the interest of the blog, though, I will try.

You’d Think the Queen Could Do Better
Last weekend, our class was taken on the holy pilgrimage to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Hilariously, most of us had been up the night before doing things that are very characteristic of college students, so we enjoyed very little of the famously picaresque British countryside on the way up.

The town of Stratford itself is incredibly quaint. It reminds me a lot of Port Jefferson, the town on Long Island where I was born and where my grandparents still live. It’s large enough to have a good amount of little shops and pretty parks, but not so big that these things are all seedy. The river Avon has a waterfront that feels very much like a miniature version of the docks in Port Jefferson, complete with boats you can rent all of which are named after Shakespeare characters.

It seems kind of counterintuitive to name a canoe after the character in The Tempest that causes shipwrecks.

And, just a short walk from the town are lovely open fields that make you feel very much like getting a flock of sheep and taking up the pan pipes.

Why are you reading this? You really think I have anything to say that more entertaining than that picture?

We spent a good amount of time in between our two performances just wandering about. We saw the cottage Shakespeare was born in; we visited his gravesite; we marveled at the full English breakfast that we got for only £5 (including tea). But none of that, except perhaps that last one had quite the effect on me that I expected. For a Shakespeare dork like me, I expected that visiting Shakespeare’s hometown would be like a major religious experience. The thing is, while the town is nice, it doesn’t feel markedly different from your average east coast small town back in the U.S. And it certainly doesn’t feel overly Shakespearean. And then there was the show.

We saw The Comedy of Errors and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Pericles was an amateur cast with the RSC providing the technical and design aspects of the production. As such, I don’t feel right critiquing it too critically. Also, it did not provoke as strong a reaction from me as Comedy of Errors. So, that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Let me just say up front that Comedy of Errors is easily my least favorite of all the Shakespeare I’ve read. I have a distinct problem with mistaken identity as a comedic device, but in a play with many other things going for it, like Twelfth Night (Which has a special place in my heart, since a local college production I saw back when I was in high school is what first turned me on to Shakespeare), I can forgive it. The problem is that mistaken identity is what drives the plot entire of Comedy of Errors. To me the notion of a character being able to clear up all of the problems in a story by simply stating one fact (i.e. “I am not from around here. I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”) is not comedic. It’s the definition of tragic irony.

And tragic definitely seems to be the problem here. Comedy of Errors is being presented alongside Twelfth Night and The Tempest (Both of which are undisputedly far superior plays, in my opinion) as the “Shipwreck Trilogy.” The problem is that out of these three, Comedy is the lightest. There is very little that is philosophically troubling about it. The trouble is that this production, which sets the action in a Central American police-state, is so completely at odds with the source text that I got the impression watching it that the team behind it were more interested in their concept than with Shakespeare’s words, which is a problem since that’s what makes Shakespeare good. His settings are shallow and his plots are nearly all recycled from other sources. His language and his characters are what made him immortal.

I don’t have a problem with conceptually driven Shakespeare in general, but if a concept is put on a play, it had better be for a textually supported reason. For instance, the film version of Richard III with Sir Ian McKellen (whom, incidentally, I saw in the audience of another play this past week) sets the story in an alternate universe of the 1930/40s in which England is a fascist state. However, despite the extremity of the concept, it works because it uses the audience’s knowledge to emphasize the inherently vile nature that McKellen’s Richard exudes. By associating the character in the play with a period and figure in history that is cultural shorthand for wickedness and frightening power-lust, the director is able to use his concept to draw out things in the text. In contrast, this production of Comedy of Errors was hindered by its concept by the simple fact that the play contains a great deal of slapstick, which is less funny when the play begins with the Duke of Ephesus water-boarding Egeus. The audience is left unsure of which violence is okay to laugh at.

Granted, this is only one production out of many in the RSC’s season, so I’m not eliminating the possibility that there aren’t much better productions being mounted at Stratford, but if this show was any indication, there’s much, much better Shakespeare being done in London by other companies. Speaking of which…

Mark. Effing. Rylance.
I write this having just come back from the last production I’ll see at The Globe (Hopefully not forever, but at least this year). Technically speaking, it should have been Twelfth Night, which was the last one included in the money we paid for the London program, however Richard III was not included in that program. Luckily, one of my classmates and I were lucky enough to snag tickets for the second-to-last performance before the show transfers to the West End. In short: it was awesome.

The cast of Richard III is the same as Twelfth Night, minus Stephen Fry, who is not missed in the slightest, but are obviously more at home in this show. It’s understandable, given that Richard III has been running since July while Twelfth Night only opened a few weeks ago. Also, from what we’ve heard, the night we saw Twelfth Night was an off night, which happens to even the best of productions. I think that even discounting this variable, though, the thing that makes this Richard III easily the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen performed can be summed up in three words:

Mark. Effing. Rylance.

He was undeniably good as Olivia in Twelfth Night (Both that and Richard are “original practices productions” which recreate the music, design, and casting as closely as possible to Elizabethan/Jacobean standards), however Richard is a star vehicle that a great actor can let his talent run wild with.

I already talked about Ian McKellen’s Richard III, which was the extent of my experience with the work walking into the theatre. I was surprised and incredibly moved by the immensely different route Rylance took with the character. McKellen’s Richard is cold, ruthless, and manipulative. We enjoy him because he is so clearly smarter and bolder than those around him. Rylance’s Richard is almost the exact opposite. His physical deformities are far more pronounced, making him physically unthreatening. These are coupled with a pronounced stammer and an almost childlike disposition. The audience is with him because they truly pity him. He does not know how to deal with the world and when he lashes out he does so with the same attitude as a child flipping over the Monopoly board. This comes off as darkly comic for much of the play, however by the time we reach Richard’s monologue right before the climactic final battle, the audience sees how Richard’s actions for the whole play have been an attempt to cure his deep-seated self-loathing, which he only now realizes is doomed to failure. It’s one of the absolute most amazing pieces of acting that I have ever seen. Not just on a technical and dramaturgical level, but because it genuinely touches the audience.

For much of my life, I’ve struggled with low self-esteem. Even now, as I’ve found myself slowly shedding the problem, I still from time to time suffer from spells that are frighteningly similar to Rylance’s choked, frantic delivery of that soliloquy. The scene was able to stimulate me not only as a scholar who recognized the literary implications and validity of the choice, not only as an actor who recognized the excellent use of voice, movement, and drawing upon motivation and personal experience, but also as simply a human being who understands what its like to be in that position.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the philosophy behind theatre. For a while now, at least in intellectual circles, it’s been what I’d call the “Political Philosophy” which holds that theatre should leave the audience unsatisfied, questioning what they just experienced, and thinking about their society. It’s a very Brechtian approach and I’m not saying it’s necessarily entirely without merit, but to me it seems there’s something to be said for the alternative, what I call “Therapeutic Philosophy,” when it’s done well. Let’s face it; modern life is complicated and chaotic. It’s also intensely political. People in America tend to strongly identify with their political party and their views on issues, which create deep social divisions. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like to be reminded of that fact when I go to the theatre or the movies. There is such a lack of compassion in day to day living that I think we’re only just starting to feel how savagely it affects us. I think that the ideal theatre, therefore, should not foster our feelings of uncertainty and alienation. We’ve got plenty of those just from being in the world. Art should try to provide the audience a safe space to deal with those internal ambiguities and help them come to terms with their realities, thus preparing them to face them with strength and confidence when the play has ended. That’s what I experienced tonight watching Richard III. I recognized my own insecurities in the character and in doing so saw the logical conclusion of dealing with them in an unhealthy manner played out dramatically on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe. And when I left, I found myself excited to tackle my anxieties in life, because I was sure that I could find a better way of dealing with them than killing a whole bunch of my relatives in a power grab and then using that power to silence everyone I perceived as any sort of threat to me.

Well, I’m rambling now and it may or may not be making any sense. I guess that what I’m saying is tonight was a profoundly moving artistic experience for me which was well worth paying £5 to stand in one spot for three hours. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

An Upstart Crow Tries Burger King's Rodeo BBQ Extra Long Beef

“And you know what they call a… a… a Quarter Pounder with cheese in Paris?”
“They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?”
“No, man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.”
“Then what do they call it?”
“They call it a Royale with cheese.”
“A Royale with cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?”
“Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big Mac.”
“Le Big Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?”
“I dunno, I didn’t go into Burger King.”
-Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction

It’s no secret that the United States as a country has a bit of what you might call a “weight problem.” On various lists of fattest countries made over the last five years or so, the U.S. tends to fall in the 7-10 range, while the U.K. is somewhere in the 26-30 area. So, with that stereotype in mind, imagine my surprise when I passed a Burger King here in the United Kingdom to see this advertisement:

I feel like I'm gaining weight just looking at it.

In case you can’t make it out (my camera doesn’t do well with glass), that is a poster for Burger King’s Rodeo BBQ line of products, available for a limited time only and, as far as I can make out, only in the United Kingdom. And, while one of the sandwiches looks like a standard Burger King Chicken Sandwich that someone plopped some onion rings and barbecue sauce on, the other looks like something out of a fast food exec’s fever dreams. It’s the same bun as a chicken sandwich, but with three burger patties, cheese, barbecue sauce, and onion rings on it. To top it all off, thanks to stricter laws in this country concerning the display of nutritional information, the poster proudly proclaims that the whole affair contains a modest 734 calories. As soon as I saw that sign, my first thought was “I must try that.” And today, deciding to take a day off from my diet, I finally did.

Why Don’t You Put Bacon On It?
So, I ordered the Rodeo BBQ Extra Long Beef as well as four chili cheese bites which make up the side dish aspect of this product line (I could have gotten six for a half quid more, but that would’ve just been unhealthy) and deeply hoped that the order combined with my accent would not be taken by the man behind the counter as a confirmation of all of Europe’s stereotypes about Americans. Upon arriving back at the flat with this bounty, I immediately laid it out to compare it to the promotional image.

Fast food is like nightclubs: exciting and fun in theory, but lonely and depressing in practice. 

As always, the poster had greatly exaggerated the size of the sandwich, which for once was probably a good thing. The sandwich on the poster looked absolutely terrifying. It was certainly comforting to note that the patties were not, in fact, the size used on the ordinary burgers but instead the ones used for sliders. So, picture taken, I took a deep breath and took a bite.

It wasn’t that bad. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the numbers don’t lie and this is certainly not something I would recommend anyone make a staple of their diet, but at over 700 calories I was anticipating it to be absolutely dripping with grease. It was incredibly salty, but the meat was definitely of a higher quality than at a Burger King back in the states. However, something was definitely off, and I didn’t realize quite what it was until I had finished eating it.

The sandwich is intended as a longer version of the barbeque burger, which is my regular if I have the calories to spare when I go to a burger joint. It generally consists of all of the ingredients in the Extra Long, except for one thing. It usually includes bacon.

I’m still not sure why they didn’t put bacon on this sandwich. Many of the other burgers available in UK Burger Kings include bacon, so it’s not an issue of availability. I highly doubt that a person who is okay with eating a 734 calorie sandwich is going to not eat a 900 calorie sandwich with bacon on it, so it’s not an issue of health. The standard barbecue burger formula of bun, patty, bacon, fried onions, and barbecue sauce is time honored and delicious, so it’s not an issue of taste. A few weeks ago I had a meal at a Gourmet Burger Kitchen, a chain of sit-down burger joints here in London that, incidentally, make one of the best barbecue burgers I’ve ever tasted, use bacon, so it’s not an issue of regional preference. The only conclusion I can reach is that someone at BK’s headquarters royally dropped the ball.

Come on, guys. If you’re going to make unhealthy food, at least do it right.

Why Bother?
That’s all I have to say about the chili-cheese bites. First off, are “jalapeƱo poppers” not a thing in the UK? Because that’s what they are.

And not only that, they aren’t particularly good ones. While taking a bite out of one for the purposes of taking a picture of the inside (which ended up not turning out for various reasons related to my inability to work a camera effectively), half of the filling went spurting out the other end, usually the mark of an inferior fried food. Not only that but they taste incredibly bland. There is neither a strong flavor of cheese, nor of pepper. After my first one, I had resorted to dunking them in ketchup just so there would be a flavor.

I’m still at a loss as to why they didn’t release this product in America. It seems like something we’d be all about as a culture. The only thing I can think of is the consumer watchdog backlash concerning health, but that’s the name of the game in the fast food industry.

Based on this and a few other experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that while fewer preservatives and higher food quality standards may play a part in the UK’s lower obesity rating, the difference is the attitude the British have towards unhealthy food. A sandwich with two meals worth of calories can be released in the UK because the British consumer is less likely to eat at Burger King on a regular basis. The street that I live on has both a Burger King and a McDonald’s, but there’s hardly ever anyone in there except for after midnight, which makes sense because if your late-night drunk food is a salad, I’m sorry, but you are a strange individual. In contrast, I was at this place right at dinnertime and there were maybe three people eating and no one but me in line for food. This is why a British person can be trusted with the option of ordering the Rodeo BBQ Extra Long Beef: he’s not going to do it as often.