Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ricky's Wiki Googled

Who comes up with these names anyway?

Resuming my genealogical research, I googled (yes, it can now be used in lower case because it is an "official word" and no longer just a proper name) my paternal grandfather's hometown in the Ukraine.

Prominently featured were a Wikipedia (this one's still a proper name) article to which I had contributed. There I noted a mistake I had not yet corrected--the year that the Nazi Einsatzgruppen (death squads) followed their advancing German army across the Russian Ukraine and rounded up and shot Jews in every locality, including those relatives of mine who had not emigrated to the U.S. or Israel. A family tree I had stated it was 1942, but during my visit to Yad Vashem, I discovered it was really 1941.

Anyhow, after fixing that, I searched for a couple of other topics in Wikipedia, adding some edits to another article I had previously contributed to.

It's quite amazing that this open encyclopedia exists and that everyone in the world can contribute information to make it as accurate (possibly, also, as biased) as possible. The site does have some controls, and I've read some interesting articles discussing how they function (most notably locking most people out from controversial subjects). Wikipedia articles I've read on subjects I know fairly well have turned out to have a high degree of accuracy.

The other Google (gotcha!) listing for the town happened to be a Google Earth placemark I had set online to mark it geographically based upon latitude & longitude coordinates I received from a reliable source (OK, he's a distant cousin). I guess I wasn't sure I was posting it correctly for the world to see, but it's there.

What amazed me the most, however, was that my previous blog post mentioning the town, Staro Zakrevsky Meidan, also appeared when I googled (gotcha again!) the name.

So, be careful what you blog--once it's posted, you will have been published in perpetuity by the siliconopoly!

Until next time...

Rick

Friday, December 28, 2007

Rick Stein's War

If there is such a thing as a just war, Charlie Wilson may have been correct in identifying the attempts by the mujahedeen against the invading Soviets in their last hurrah in the 1980s as such a beast.

At least that's what I come away with from watching the film "Charlie Wilson's War," a highly entertaining and engaging look at an unlikely hero, a publicly obscure Texas Congressman who, nonetheless, was owed a lot of "chits" by his colleagues since (the film claims) he never sought pork barrel projects for his own district and could bank his political capital instead.

There are farfetched elements to the film which make it even more entertaining than it probably was in reality, but this boozin' cruisin' womanizin' Texan was in the right place at the right time to tilt American policy towards active covert support of the mujahedeen through back channels involving the unlikely cooperation of Israelis, Pakistanis, Egyptians and Saudis. And that support tipped the balance of the 1980s Afghani war to become a Soviet Vietnam from which the Russians retreated, tail-between-their-legs (and, in the view of many, the ultimate downfall of the Soviet Union).

Of course, casting Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson makes him a lovable scoundrel...it's in the opening moments, as he's cavorting naked in a hot tub with Las Vegas beauties that director Mike Nichols seals his party-boy image, and then directs his (and our) attention to a Dan Rather-in-the-field report on the mujahedeen that captivates Wilson and (we are expected to believe) begins his conversion to the cause that will dominate his future time in office. Yes, a little suspension of disbelief is required, but after all, it may be "based on a true story" as the opening credits inform us, but it's also Hollywood.

No better example of that is the casting of Julia Roberts as a friend of Charlie's, a superrich former beauty queen, turned born again Christian and now rabble-rousing to do something about Afghanistan. It strains credulity to see Roberts in that role after some of her working class roles, but even rich, educated Texans, perhaps, should not be expected to possess a savoir faire that belies their true nature regardless of economic status. After all, we learned that thirty years ago during the heyday of "Dallas," didn't we?

Stealing the show (as usual) is the metamorphic Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a scorned CIA operative who becomes the key functionary of Charlie Wilson's war. He borders on the cartoonish--but then again so do the other lead characters--yet he has a couple of really astoundingly funny scenes worth the price of admission alone.

Nichols is a seasoned (read: slick) director who peppers the film with remarkable details, like when Wilson's aide-de-camp, a beautiful young woman, is found sitting forlornly at the bottom of the stairs with mistress Roberts' dogs, drinking the martini Roberts directed her to obtain, while Wilson & Roberts are upstairs, er, mixing their own martini.

Ultimately, we are instructed to take from the film the lesson that our abandonment of Afghanistan after the departure of the Soviets led to 9/11 and our belated, half-hearted return there afterwards. That's a sobering thought in a film that includes a few heartrending moments that build our sympathies for the Afghani people, but what the viewer is left with is an indelible portrait of an unremarkable man who, for all his amusing personality flaws, wound up playing a critical role in this moment in history, and just about persuades us that not only can war be just--it can be a helluva lot of fun, too!

Until next time...

Rick

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dawnhawks at the Diner

We were treated to the early morning subculture in our little town of San Juan Capistrano (not so little, actually, at 35,000 "peopulation") as this frosty day broke and we headed to Mollie's, you know, the place by the railroad crossing.

It was 7 a.m., when we thought they opened, but the sign says 6 on Sundays, 6:30 the rest of the week. We've only been going there for 17 years.

Two sheriffs cars parked outside, but no sign of them when we entered. Just an old guy sitting at the counter with his travel coffee mug and the perky old hostess, thin as the toothpicks on the cashier's desk, greeting us and asking "Two for breakfast?" Nobody behind us and no supper menus in sight, ah well, we followed her anyway to a booth immediately behind the man at the counter.

Garrulously, he greeted another geezer who arrived steps ahead of us, launching into a barrage of commentary on topics I took no notice of, but that were punctuated frequently with "bullshit", echoed by his companion. He passed a half gallon E&J brandy container from in front of him to his neighbor who sniffed it, saying he stopped drinking long ago and resisting Mr. G's goading to go ahead and taste it.

He wore a building materials sweatshirt and shorts, sported a crew cut and boasted of plans to take the "sled dogs" to the beach this morning, when a third denizen rolled in, semi-consciously, plopping down on the end seat, taking a load off his puffed up ankles lightly covered with flipflops. Number three, cap pulled down to keep the fluorescents out of his stupored eyes, asked Mr. G if he was planning to go down to Calvary today, but Mr. G demurred.

Young blonde waitress responds to Mr. G's inquiries "did she like the Christmas gift he gave her" to which she replied, "see how tight these are" pointing to her sub navel jeans, "can't you see how tight these are? I ate four candies yesterday and three today."

By 7:30, new faces started arriving, all old, obviously regulars, in festive wear, bearing gifts, and the aging surfer types bundled up against the cold except for the shorts-and-flipflops uniform they never doff--not even for weddings or funerals, since among their crowd those only take place on the sands.

The only conclusion is that there's a world I've somehow been missing in my own burg until now.

Until next time...

Rick

Friday, December 21, 2007

On Imagination, Fantasy and Verisimilitude

I often characterize the difference between film and theatre as being a choice between verisimilitude and using one's own imagination. In film, nothing need be left to the viewer's imagination--and rarely is, making it a more passive experience. Live theatre depends upon each audience member's own camera lens, which doesn't always focus on where the director has chosen--the lens is always wide-angle without closeups even though there are theatrical conventions and the use of lighting to draw one's attention.

So, you can consider yourself an auteur when you attend the theatre.

These thoughts came to mind when we saw Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street this morning--the film musical, not the stage musical, directed by one of the world's greatest fantasists, Tim Burton.

Having seen previously only the televised version of the original production with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, directed by Hal Prince, with its seemingly deliberate staginess underscoring the Grand Guignol bloodbath it portrays, I wondered if I'd be entering "nighttown"--the cartoonish underworld of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride.

Yup.

It makes the streetlife of Victorian London in the film Oliver! seem positively Disney-esque by comparison. And while the film medium's ability to produce vividly realistic imagery with no detail unillustrated is exploited to the fullest in Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton's hallmark fantasmic excesses always provide little reminders that what we're seeing is not real, but imagined.

Take, for example, his use of blood in the film, of which there is much spilled, dripped, drained, splattered and squirted. Redder than the makeup lining the underside of Johnny Depp's eyes, shinier than the gleaming mettalic orbs in a pinball machine and more viscous than the oil pooling up under my 15 year old car, this is not something anyone would mistake for "real."

How about the real cockroaches crawling amidst the filthy counters in Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop? They look like real bugs to me, but the frequency and timing of their appearances are as choreographed as an Agnes de Mille number from Oklahoma. Ditto the rats on the streets and in the sewers.

One of the most telling exampes, early in the film, was after he arrives at the garrett above Mrs. Lovett's and the camera pulls back from the window to a wider aerial shot of London rooftops and forbidding, black cloudy skies, the scene goes dark entirely for a moment and as the camera continues to pull back we realize we've just passed through thick black smoke from a chimney across the street (symbolically foreshadowing the smoke from the basement crematorium Todd & Lovett later set up?).

This is not using the film medium's skill at verisimilitude to achieve perfect naturalism but rather to paint an unreal world, a world in the imagination of its creator--and ultimately a mechanism that provokes a little more than just a passive response from its viewers even if we are not using our imagination exactly the same way as we would in the live theatre.

It's exciting to experience, not least of which is the Stephen Sondheim musical it envelopes.

Until next time...

Rick

Monday, December 17, 2007

Isolationism

When attending an international theatre festival, as I just did, even one whose purpose is to promote a specific nation's theatrical output, it was illuminating to meet theatre practitioners from so many other countries.

I became friends with artists and producers from Hong Kong and Kenya, Serbia and Nigeria, Hungary and Sweden, Germany and Slovenia, Estonia and Turkey, Australia and the U.K.

Many of our concerns are the same: how to keep live theatre relevant in an electronic entertainment age, how to prevent government support for the arts from disappearing, how to balance programming that fills the seats with work that is meaningful and substantive.

America is famously ignorant about the rest of the world, and I'm afraid that as much as I have prided myself on keeping abreast of what's going on abroad, I was shocked to discover how little I really know and how provincial I truly am.

The festival was a refreshing wake-up call that has prompted my interest in the world of theatre beyond the U.S., and I'm working to broaden my knowledge of what's being produced beyond our borders.

At a time when, thanks to globalization, we are perfectly willing to embrace the awareness of brand names we'd never heard of previously, I think it's time for us to welcome warmly other nations' cultural "products" as well.

Until next time...

Rick

Saturday, December 15, 2007

My 15 Minutes of [Israeli] Fame

A week ago, on Friday, I was prominently featured in an article about Israel's growing exports of culture that appeared in Yedioth Ahronot, a daily newspaper.

I told my friend, playwright Shmuel Hasfari, that I was disappointed it wasn't in Haaretz, the liberal paper I read daily online, but he laughed and said "are you crazy?, Yediot Ahronot is the largest paper in Israel, that everyone reads it, so I should be very pleased." In fact, with a circulation of about 600,000, I learned that about 2 out of 3 newspaper readers in Israel read it.

Because it's in Hebrew, and my reading skills are a bit spotty, I can't understand everything in the piece, nor every quote from me. But there is a top of the page headline quote that roughtly translates as:

"Richard Stein, American theatre producer & director comments: 'I want to direct and produce more Israeli plays. If I found here an Israeli Neil Simon, who writes comedies that don't address the political and social life of Israelis, I wouldn't direct that. But something in Israeli theatre that exposes Americans to the Israeli way of life and gives us a perspective
than we don't get in America, that's what I'd like to see communicated.'"

And there's another two paragraphs of the reporter's conversation with me, citing my American premiere production of Hasfari's "The Master of the House" last spring.

So, I guess, for 15 minutes, I was the best known American stage director in Israel!

Until next time...

Rick

Friday, December 14, 2007

Culture Shock

Having spent the last two weeks in Israel, and finding myself quite at ease living in Tel Aviv for that time, it was quite a shock to return to the United States of Christmas.

For so long I've taken it for granted, particularly in Southern California which is nothing if not over-the-top when it comes to gussying up for the holiday beginning as early as the day after Halloween (some enthusiasts up the hill from us keep their decorative lighting illuminated year-rouond).

But having been out of the country, residing temporarily mere minutes away from where the celebrated event actually took place, I saw virtually no evidence of Christmas.

And Hanukah, which in the U.S. has come to be touted as a sort of Jewish Christmas, rivalling the Christian holiday in garish decorations and commercialism, is a minor religious holiday in the Jewish state. Hanukah menorahs may be visible in shops, the ubiquitous Chabad proselytisers conduct public candlelighting ceremonies accompanied by song and families do gather (like my own cousins did), but a stranger would never conclude that he's arrived during some important holiday.

With my home neighborhood lit up like, well, you know, I felt like an alien. And it now being rather late to begin our own process of Christmakah/Hanumas decorating, Alison and I opted to forgo it this year.

At least her mother's care package came on time, with nutballs, gingerbread men, date nut loaf and garlic cereal snack mix, to give our home the slightest tinge of festivity. And I'm still being expected to fry up a batch of potato latkes even though, by now, Hanukah's eight days and eight nights have passed.

Until next time...

Rick

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"I Can See Clearly Now" Redux

Three months after my left eye cataract was removed and replaced with an implant, my right eye was done yesterday, and again the Johnny Nash song is prevalent in my mind:

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.
I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin' for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day.
Look all around, there’s nothin' but blue skies
Look straight ahead, nothin' but blue skies

Until now, I have not seen clearly through my eyes. Now there's no excuse for any inability to see clearly through my soul.

Until next time...

Rick

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Yad Vashem

Israel's memorial to the Holocaust is both a place of remembrance and an extensive museum about pre-Nazi Jewish life and how that changed during the war. I had not been back since 1973, and in 2005, the place reopened its new facilities designed by architect Moshe Safdie. Beautiful yet overwhelming, solemn but not morbid, comprehensive yet human are how I would describe the place.

Today, I browsed their website to see if they had in their database three of my father's first cousins whom we know were shot by the Nazis in 1941 when the Einsatztruppen followed the frontline troops to massacre Jews in village after village. I saw similar names from within the region, but no exact matches, so I added a Page of Testimony for each one: Zushe, Jacob and Shaindel Fogel. We know little about them, only their parents' names and that they died in 1941. Perhaps I will find more about them eventually to add.

If you are interested, the website is www.yadvashem.org.

Until next time...

Rick

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Final Night in Israel



Deborah from Australia & Tom from New York, new friends from the IsraDrama 2007, and of course "moi".


Though Hanukah is not a major religious holiday in Judaism, it is an especially festive time in Israel. Right now, as I type this, I am hearing from my window a band on Dizengoff Square performing Hanukah songs.
Last night I enjoyed Hanukah at the home of a cousin of mine. It is a time especially for the children, and the little ones dominated everyone's attention. Gift giving to children is customary, but it is not at all like Christmas (or how Hanukah now tends to be celebrated in the West) with many gifts and substantial gifts to all.


This morning, playwright Hasfari picked me up early and took me to breakfast in the town of Ramla, an ancient town located near Ben Gurion Airport (not to be confused with Ramallah on the West Bank). There we went to a restaurant called Halil, where we ate masabcha, a breakfast hummus that is warm, slightly liquidy and filled with whole chicpeas, with sides of pickles, olives, pita bread and a side order of falafel balls (also good to dip into hummus). This is a locals place that's not easy to find, so it's the kind of thing that an Israeli friend you know or meet while here might be willing to take you to--it's about 20 minutes from Tel Aviv.


Then we drove into the Judean hills, where the coastal plain begins its rise toward Jerusalem's mountain tops. In the Beit Shemesh area, Samson lived and fought the Philistines, who were actually from Santorini but migrated to this area after the great volcano eruption & earthquake there, according to Hasfari.


In this area, too, there are the caves of Lu-Zit, natural caverns that are 50 to 100 feet high, and have been enlarged by ancient residents of the area. Hasfari theorized that they might date back as far as to when the Midianites were pillaging the Israelites, shortly before Samuel was approached by the elders to give them a king (Saul), but little archaeological work has been done here yet, and the place is also off the beaten track to the extent that there are few signs.


Then we visited Bet Gemal, which is today a Catholic monastery located on a site that dates back at least to the Byzantines and probably Biblical times. From there, you can also view the city of Beit Shemesh, which has had an influx of religious Jews settling there in recent years.


Back to Hasfari's place where we had cholent and other great things for lunch, and then it was time to say good bye.


Tonight is my last night here, and I plan to visit the bar Silon on King George that has been my watering hole now for 2 weeks, where I have gotten to know the owners Shugon & Orren, bartenders Michal, Shay and Yael, the waitresses Yael, Talia and Naama, and patrons Yoav, Dan and Eitan. Great music there, very "heimisch" as they say in Yiddish, patrons are mostly age 25-35, but at 54, I felt welcome, comfortable, and made friends.


A final day tomorrow to stroll the streets before heading to the airport.


L'hitraot, Tel Aviv!


Rick

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Day in Tel Aviv-Jaffa



With the conference now concluded, I spent the morning walking amidst three unique shopping areas in the older section of Tel Aviv. All three begin at the same intersection, branching out from there: the tony Sheinkin Street for more traditional fashion shopping (clothing, accessories, jewelry) and the highly-regarded Orna & Ella restaurant (which I didn't sample this trip); the Nachalat Benjamin, an area of wide pedestrian-only cobblestone streets lined by historic buildings housing mostly textiles, fabrics, home furnishings and jewelry shops, and where you can enjoy a quiet cup of coffee outside without the noisy sounds of traffic drowning out your thoughts; and Carmel Market, the chaotic narrow lanes of vendor stalls hawking everything from some of the most fabulous looking produce I've ever seen to cheese, meat, fish, olives, spices, and also including household items, casual clothing, fashion accessories, etc.


From there, I walked 30 minutes to Jaffa (called Yafo here), and found myself buffeted by gusts of winds as I overlooked the Mediterranean's swelling waves and gathering clouds. Jaffa is a city about 4000 years old, and is a walled enclave on a promontory above the sea, today home to theatres, galleries, a museum and restaurants. Its stone-clad charm is irresistible.


Until next time...


Rick

Friday, November 30, 2007

Israeli Drama in Focus

One of the things that strikes most of us from around the world attending IsraDrama 2007 in Tel Aviv is that Israel's theatre community addresses head-on the tragic occurrences and implications of the national stalemate with the Palestinians. Nowhere is it more evident than in yesterday's "In Spitting Distance" by Tajer Najib.

"In Spitting Distance" is a monodrama (another term for one-person show) written by an Israeli Arab who is primarily known here as an outstanding actor. Though he wrote this over a 4 year period with himself in mind as the performer, it is being brought to live by another very talented Israeli Arab actor.

The protagonist is a Palestinian actor and the setting is first Ramallah, a few miles north of Jerusalem, in the West Bank territory. The play opens with a description of how, when and why Ramallah men constantly spit, and this becomes a powerful metaphor in the drama's exploration of the untenable position faced by this man.

He takes a vacation from it all in Paris, where he is totally free, and when it is time to return, refreshed, he is stopped at the airport by French authorities over the fact that his name appears differently on his Israeli passport and his airline ticket (explained as being due to his having a birth name and an official registered name), so he returns to town, gets his ticket reissued to match his passport so he can fly the following day, finds romance with a Parisian woman and is tempted to remain. He also realizes to his horror that his new travel day (in 2002) is September 11th, and that a Palestinian attempting to fly to Israel is the brightest red flag any security authorities could possibly be looking for and that this misfortunate coincidence is just another in a long string of ironies in his life.

Artfully directed and performed, it's a stunning piece of theatre; tour bookings around the world are piling up, but it has had only a few performances in Israel.

Why is that? The director, an Israeli woman, and the author agreed they feared it might be exploited for political purposes as an example of Arab-Israeli friendship and cooperation. (It also appears that at least one major institutional theatre passed on producing it even though they offered a reading of it.) That fidelity of purpose has limited its ability to find venues.

Written in Hebrew by this Arab writer, it certainly was intended for an Israeli audience; but recently, Najib created an Arabic version and performed it in northern Israel. (I asked if it had been performed in Ramallah, since that is the home of the character, and while the author and director did not answer specifically, it appeared clear that it has not been seen in Palestinian territories.)

What is remarkable is the high degree of humor in this piece. The man is so endearing, his agitation so pronounced and his observations of the world around him so keen that "In Spitting Distance" is powerfully entertaining. The audience I was part of certainly laughed and engaged fully, but the director said that when it played in Switzerlard, there was nary a laugh, as audiences there took it as deadly serious, which the artists found disconcerting.

Until next time...

Rick

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Shakshuka

Last year, Alison and I discovered a little bar/bistro on Bograshov Street near Ben Yehuda Street, just a couple of blocks from our seaside hotel in Tel Aviv. It was called "Mr. Greenbush," and its 20-something pair of owners were charming, the food was excellent and the atmosphere comfortable. They admitted they were struggling, having opened the place just before that summer's Lebanon war, which killed business.

I returned there last night and it looked the same, but alas, I learned it's been under new ownership for many months and it has a new name..."Pub Lo Bar," which in Hebrew means, "pub--not a bar." Its focus is alcohol now, though it has a small menu for food, and I sampled one of two Shakshuka dishes.

If you're not familiar with this, it's a popular Israeli dish (not sure where it originated) of tomatoes and cheese and eggs. Though it is baked, the eggs are not scrambled or folded in like a souffle, but instead sit in the dish, so you enjoy the wonderful separation of white and yolk. They had an alternative version I will try next time, a Shakshuka with spinach and cream sauce.

Israeli playwright Shmuel Hasfari and I finally connected, and he told me he will take me today "for a plate of hummus." When I mentioned this to Alison, she was shocked: he always said that HE makes the best hummus. Hmmm. We'll see.

Until next time...

Rick

Monday, November 26, 2007

A City That Never Sleeps



A good thing for my jet lag, too!


Arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday via Delta Airlines from Atlanta, and all went smoothly. I checked into the Hotel Cinema, where the Institute for Israeli Drama is accommodating me. It's the former Esther Cinema on Dizengoff Square, built in 1939 in the International (Bauhaus) style, like much of this area of town. When I first visited Israel forty years ago, Dizengoff Square was a street-level traffic circle with cafes lining it. I'm not sure when it happened, but they raised the pedestrian plaza above the street (good for vehicle traffic flow, I'm sure) and placed a colorful Yakov Agam sculpture/fountain on top. There's more pedestrian activity a couple of blocks south, near Dizengoff Centre, the main center-city shopping mall.

The weather here is similar to what I left in California--warm, sunny days and cooler nights (actually not as cold as San Juan Capistrano over the Thanksgiving weekend, which dipped into the 40s).

So, last night, I took full advantage of this city's fame for burning the candle at both ends, and dined out, then visited a bar and chatted with the locals there, and finally retired at about 3 a.m. (Of course, that was only 5 p.m. California time!)

Up at 8:30 a.m. and ate a light breakfast (included) in the bright dining room. A full report on today's adventures later.

Until next time...

Rick






Saturday, November 24, 2007

Tel Aviv Bound

As Middle East delegations arrive in Annapolis, Maryland next week for the Bush-Rice-engineered parlor games, IsraDrama begins in Tel Aviv, sponsored by the Institute for Israeli Drama, the International Theatre Institute-Israel and the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv.


There will be performances of about a dozen plays, the first of which is The Master of the House by Shmuel Hasfari, at the Cameri--the play I directed at the Laguna Playhouse last spring, and about which I will be delivering a talk entitled "Lost & Found in Translation" immediately following the Tel Aviv performance at the opening session of the conference on Wednesday.


I feel honored to have been asked to attend and to speak to the representatives of English-speaking nations from around the world, assembled to be exposed to Israeli drama and encouraged to produce more of it in their own theatres.


As time permits, I'll be sharing with you regular reports on the performances I attend, the people I meet and the sights and sounds of Tel Aviv.


Until next time...



Rick

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"The Secret Order"

One of the most interesting dramas I produced at Laguna Playhouse was Bob Clyman's The Secret Order. It was about a researcher at a midwestern university who discovers the cure for cancer, is seduced into leaving for "the big cancer institute in New York," where he finds himself out of his league politically as well as utterly and inexplicably unable to replicate his earlier results.

The play was very well received in Laguna in our 2003 West Coast Premiere, by audiences and critics alike, and as it already had a commercial producer attached to it at the time, we had high hopes it might make it to Broadway. There were celebrity readings in LA and New York, directed by Milton Katselas, featuring the likes of Stacey Keachand Martin Landau (in LA) and Eli Wallach and Richard Dreyfuss (in NY).

Producer Norman Twain then lined up a theatre and actor John Spencer (of West Wing) for Broadway. Spencer's untimely death delayed the project until Ed Hermann said yes to Twain, then had to back out for a more lucrative film or tv project. Twain got busy with film projects and the play couldn't make it into the 2006-07 New York season.

At that point, author Bob Clyman requested that the Merrimack Theatre Company in Lowell, Massachusetts, be allowed to produce it. There, directed by Charles Towers, it was also well-received by audiences and critics.

Well, that production came into New York this week, Off Broadway at the 59E59 Theatres, and today earned the best New York Times review any Laguna Playhouse-related play has ever garnered in that publication. Here's the review.

On the strength of The Secret Order, and my continuing relationship with author Bob Clyman, I secured the World Premiere rights to his latest play last year, Tranced, which will have its debut in January. Having sent it to my friend and colleague Timothy Near at San Jose Rep, she got equally excited by it and programmed it for their season immediately following the Laguna premiere. I have not doubt more productions will follow.

Bob is an intelligent writer whose craft has been recognized by many in the theatre world for some time. Indeed, he was a writer in residence one summer at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference, one of the premier springboards for writers (e.g. August Wilson).

Kudos to Bob on having a New York hit, and here's to many more!

Until next time...

Rick

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Day Without Art?


I'd like to call your attention to this article in today's New York Times, entitled "Who'll stop the ring tones," about the third annual "No Music Day" in the UK this coming Wednesday, invented and promoted by Bill Drummond.
Though it's unrelated, it made me think about the World AIDS Day December 1st "Day Without Art" in the U.S. to commemorate the many artists lost to AIDS. Though noble in intent, this is something that I never quite bought into as the best way to contribute to public awareness of AIDS or to generate funds for AIDS research and victims. One particular LA Times reporter tried to beat up on the Laguna Playhouse when we said we were not cancelling performances on the "Day Without Art," but were providing literature about AIDS and conducting an event to raise funds; we could only satisfy her if we closed down for the day, and we never believed that was in the best interests of anyone. Today, "Day Without Art" is still observed by some arts organizations, with museums hanging black cloth over sculptures and paintings as a sign of mourning and respect. For me, I think Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has the right idea--for a set period of time, they pitch the audience during their curtain calls and then the cast members (including major starts) stand at the exits to collect any donations people are willing to make.
The show must go on, and it's sad that many friends and loved ones did not survive this disease to be on stage and behind the scenes, but I am quite certain that this is how they would prefer their memories to be honored.
Until next time...
Rick

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"


Alison DVRed this, which neither of us had ever seen, and we watched it tonight. This 1964 movie musical featuring Catherine Deneuve and the music of Michel Legrand is a novelty. All of the dialogue is sung a la opera recitative. There are two signature tunes in the film that you will recognize, most notably "If it takes forever, I will wait for you." The boy-meets-girl-boy-gets-her-pregnant-on-his-last-night-before-going-into-the-army story is bland and predictable. The production design presages the psychedelic colors of the later 60s. Deneuve looks like she is the 17 year old she is playing--almost unrecognizable from the actress we have come to know and love. I wouldn't suggest that you run out and rent it, but if you ever have the chance to sample some of it, it's a most unusual experiment that is very much of its time, and worth taking a taste of even if you ultimately don't have the patience to sit the whole film out.


Until next time...


Rick

Suzanne Vega




Last night, we went to San Juan Capistrano's Coach House, an intimate concert venue that's been around for many years, to experience Suzanne Vega.


We've been fans of hers for about 15 years, and I think we first discovered her when we were in England and saw vivid posters of her newly released album "99.9 Degrees." Upon our return, we visited a favorite place of ours, the CD Listening Bar, where we sat at a counter and freely listenened to any CDs they had in stock, many of which were used and inexpensive. After hearing her work, we stocked up on several of her albums and have kept current with them ever since.


Last night was the second time we saw her perform at the Coach House--she paid a visit there 5 years ago. But I think last night's performance may have been the better of the two. Her new album, "Beauty & Crime," came out in July, and is characteristic of her eclecticism while at the same time exploring a theme: life in post-9/11 New York City.


The concert was bookended by two versions of her signature song, "Tom's Diner," which is about Tom's Restaurant on Broadway and 112th Street. Most people know it as the place where the Seinfeld gang congregate, and the TV show frequently included an exterior establishing shot of the place. When I attended Columbia University, I ate there hundreds of times -- mostly for their 99 cent breakfast. Vega wrote and recorded the song in 1981, long before Seinfeld came on the air, by the way. Upon her entrance, she launched into her solo a cappella version of the song, inviting the audience to join in humming between the verses--which we all did. At the conclusion of the concert, she offered a juiced up take on it with her band, ambushing us all--then chastised us at the end for not having sung along.



Vega has a comfortable, breezy on stage persona, and fielded with great aplomb the numerous song requests called out to her by attendees (only one of which she played, as an encore). She said she was flattered to hear the suggestions and that, yes, she actually "remembered" some of those songs. One suggestion surprised her; she said there was no way she was doing it, but promised to offer it the next time she came back to the Coach House--after rehearsing it!

The concert was a fairly equal mix of songs from "Beauty & Crime" and her previous work. Most of the older songs were delivered in new renditions; for example, "Left of Center," her famous song from the film "Pretty in Pink." Instead of leaning on its sing-songy quality with full back up as it appears on the recording I have (a live album), Vega sang it accompanied only by her skilled bass player. She imposed an unnatural staccato syncopation to it, demonstrating it's just as great a song when played against "type."


She left us wanting more, which isn't a bad thing.


Until next time...


Rick

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Aloha


Hanalei Bay at sunset


Wailua Falls



Spouting Horn


Kalalau Overlook



Waimea Canyon

Hanalei Bay
Alison & I just returned from paradise--a week's stay with our generous host friends, Dick & Betty Schweickert, in their new condo overlooking Hanalei Bay in Kauai.
This was our first time visiting Hawaii, and we often hear people say Kauai is the island to visit. We soon learned why.
The spectacular sheer cliffs of the Na Pali coast and the Kalalau valley, the Waimea Canyon (Hawaii's own "Grand Canyon") and the idyllic Hanalei Bay on the north shore are surreal.
Snorkeling several days in the reef about 50 feet from the beach, we encountered the famous Humuhumunukunukuapuaa, also known as the triggerfish, and I swam further out in the reef where I coasted along with four-foot long sea turtles! We figured we had seen at least 30 different varieties of fish in the reef.
Dining was superb everywhere we went, from the casual to the fine.
But most of all, it was just a relaxing place to be--80 degrees air and water temperature with gentle trade winds blowing, the occasional shower passing through and providing a great canvas for sunsets, and the vast sky of twinkling orbs and the Milky Way at night.
We also dodged the chickens that roam freely on the island, an always amusing sight.
Great to be home, though, after a week away.
Until next time...
Rick






Monday, November 5, 2007

Film Binge Continues

"The Queen," "Knocked Up," "Pan's Labyrinth:"

"The Queen": Having lived through the Princess Diana years and shared most people's fascination with her, this film about Queen Elizabeth's handling of Diana's death held great promise--and delivered on some of it. The raves about Helen Mirren's portrayal of Her Majesty are not undeserved, though it appears mostly to be a strongly studied imitation of a real, living person. The film drags occasionally in its attempt to recapture those days in great detail, though the actual footage has been merged seamlessly in Stephen Frears' imagined account.

"Knocked Up": I'm generally skeptical of films like these that tend to pander to a 20-something male audience, and in fact it does deliver the expected coarseness and crude behavior that makes stunted adolescent guys gleeful. That being said, it's a far more sensitive and acutely observed comedy than I had anticipated, with a sweetness that's sincerely played. Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl share a believable chemistry as somewhat mis-matched lovers whose drunken one-night stand has resulted in an unplanned pregnancy they both opt to work together to raise.

"Pan's Labyrinth": After months of goading by brother Bob to see this, we finally watched it. This is a film of substance and artistry that often surprises and shocks. A young girl with an active imagination who immerses herself in fairy tales finds herself in dangerous circumstances when her widowed and pregnant mother moves them to a remote village to live with the unborn infant's father--captain of a regimental outpost at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War in 1944. He is a brute whose mission is to eradicate the smattering of rebels who still occupy the nearby hills and forests, and that plotline runs parallel to one concocted purely in the mind of the little girl--in which she is a lost princess from an underworld kingdom who must perform three difficult tasks to prove she's worthy of returning to immortality. That director Guillermo del Toro was able to make these two startlingly different worlds coexist within this film while also carefully constructing the fantasy world to be symbolic of the real is a remarkable feat. It's a fascinating tale. (Note that there are moments of violence so graphic one must turn away.) P.S. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles, and the real title of the film is "The Faun's Labyrinth," and no "Pan" character exists in the film!

Until next time...

Rick

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Be My Guest


We finally got around to viewing "For Your Consideration," the latest film by Christopher Guest (above, as seen in the film). Once again, he's rounded up the usual suspects of his acting ensemble, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, Parker Posey, etc., whom we've become familiar with from his other films, like "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," and "A Mighty Wind."
While "FYC" isn't a side-splitting film (are any of his others, really?), it retains that naturalistic quality that comes out of improvisation. The basic premise is a send-up of Hollywood centered on the creation of a film called "Home for Purim," about a WWII-era Jewish family in the South who speak Yiddish-isms with southern accents and whose daughter returns for Purim dinner (a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar) with her lesbian lover. Most of "FYC" takes place behind the scenes, revealing the egos and insecurities of all involved, and Catherine O'Hara's "veteran actress" character becomes obsessed with winning an Oscar.
Guest plays the director, looking a bit like Albert Einstein. Ultimately, the film is renamed "Home for Thanksgiving" because the distributor, played by Ricky Gervais, thinks it's too Jewish for popular success.
It's not as tightly executed a film as "A Mighty Wind" or "Best in Show," but it's still characteristically "Guest," and we really enjoyed watching it.
Until next time...
Rick

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Will-o-Lantern


Pumpkin carved by & photo courtesy of brother Bob...
Until next time...
Rick

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Black Sheep Candidate

When I was little, on the few times when we visited New York from the various air force bases my father was stationed, I'd meet a lot of old people who were "relatives," but I had not idea how. There was an Aunt Fannie and an ancient Sophie, and my cheeks always hurt whenever I saw them. (Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey should be asked if pinching children's cheeks could be considered torture!)

Sophie Worth was 100 years old when she died in 1977, and I knew nothing about her except that she was one of the cheek-pinchers. I recently heard stories about her that make her a viable candidate for "black sheep" of our family.

She was married to a Louis Wortikovich, who changed his name to Worth, but I have no idea when or where or how long he lived.

She is rumored to have been a call girl and to have had an abortion.

At the time I knew her, she certainly seemed to adore little children, and I assumed it was because she had none of her own. After hearing these stories, though, I wondered if she had become unable to conceive as a result of the abortion.

She was as lively a character as any old lady can be in the memory of a child who only saw her a few times, and then only briefly, so I guess she was somewhat of a "hottie"!

Other "black sheep" candidates tomorrow.

Until next time...

Rick

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dark Side

I first learned about the suicides on the Israeli side of the Zinshtein family after my first visit there in 1967. They were all cousins and aunts and uncles of the same family, a family I had spent time with at the age of 14 while attending high school in Israel.

Later I heard it said that there was a relatively high suicide rate in Israel, and took it as a truism until I sat down to write this post and decided to verify that. It turns out that Israel's suicide rate is actually among the lowest in the world and half that of the U.S.

The Israel Zinstein I mentioned previously (the one with 7 wives) had a son named Max Siegel who came to American in 1900. He became estranged from his wife and daughters and eventually committed suicide.

I had never heard that, but when I mentioned it to my mother, she remembered that she had heard about it from my father.

The Zinshtein descendents in Israel who died by their own hands included one of my own generation. There were at least two--with two additional family members whose accidental deaths appear to have been suicides as well.

Fortunately, I know of nobody else in my extended family who took their own life, nor do I know of any friend or acquaintance who did.

I never knew any of those Israeli cousins well enough to know what possibly motivated them nor has that information ever been shared with me.

My next quest is to identify who is the real "black sheep" in our family, and you can be sure when I do it will appear here (though, perhaps, with the name changed to protect the innocent!).

Until next time...

Rick

Juicy Bits

As promised, from the Zinshtein history...

My grandfather's uncle Israel, born in 1837, is reputed to have had 7 wives. Not sure if they were concurrent; unlikely they all were, since so many women died during childbirth in the old days. But, it is said that he took young wives even when he was quite old. An explanation: the Zinshtein family are "kohens," that is, of the priestly class. We have the privilege of being first to be called to the reading of the Torah and the obligation of conveying the priestly blessing during prayer services ("May the Lord bless you and keep you, etc."). Kohanim (the actual plural) are forbidden from contact with the dead, from entering cemeteries even, and are only permitted to wed virgins. Israel had at least 5 children from 4 of the wives, but little else is known of him.

One of Israel's grandchildren, Boris, was an assistant to Leon Trotsky. He was killed by bandits in his home region of Podolsk.

Another grandchild of Israel's, named Esther, married Alexander Zazulinsky, who was posthumously awarded the Order of Lenin for crashing his plane into a squadron of German tanks during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942.

The husband of a first cousin of my grandfather was accused by Soviet authorities as being a "kulak," a sort of uppity, bourgeois, farmer who overlorded peasants. Velvel Testzer and his sons were sent to a notorious "gulag" near Archangel, called Solovki. At some point they were returned to a prison camp that was apparently in their home region of Podolsk. Eventually, they were able to return to Staro Zakrevsky Meidan, their village--just in time for more bad luck: they were shot to death by the Nazis & Ukrainians in 1942 along with all the other Jews in their village.

My next segment will be about another dark aspect of my Zinshtein heritage.

Until next time...

Rick

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Genealogy

Last year, a cousin provided me with a handwritten family tree of my father's side of the family, and recently another cousin sent me a history of the family. I've been compiling the latter into the former and attempting to update and reconcile some differences.

Because the family name is Zinshtein (also spelled Zinshteyn and Zinstein), a rather unusual name meaning in Yiddish "sun-stone," it's been easy to Google-up references, and I've discovered several who must somehow be related but I don't yet know how. One, in fact, is a somewhat famous artist in Russia today.

Here are a few tidbits about my family:

The Ur-Zinshtein, our earliest-known relative, our "primogenitor," so to speak, was born in Felshtin in a Tsarist-controlled province called Podolsk (aka Podolia) which is now Gvardeyskoye in present-day Ukraine. His name was Ber and he is believed to have been born in 1770, and died in 1844. Like most Jews there at that time, he did not have a surname, but was probably known as Ber ben ??, or Ber, the son of ??.

His son Mordechai, born in 1787, was the first to carry the name Zinshtein. He and his wife Blima (born in 1788) had three sons, Aaron, Moshe and Srul (probably short for Israel). In 1846, the three men moved about 75 miles away to Staro Zakrevsky Meidan, a Jewish agricultural colony on land that was purchased from local owners/authorities with the approval of the Tsar, and had been established two years earlier. It was the first, largest and, reputedly, most prosperous of such colonies.

Aaron's youngest son, Abraham, was my grandfather Joseph's father. Joseph came to the U.S. in 1918 after his older brother Charles had come here. And grandpa returned in 1920 to Staro Zakrevsky Meidan (literally "Old Zakrevsky's Farm") where he married my grandmother. By the time of their voyage to America in 1921, she was pregnant with my father, Bernie, who was born in New York that year.

Those Zinshteins who emigrated to the U.S. (and there were several) or to Palestine (primarily one branch) were lucky--most of the remaining family and other Jews in that community were rounded up by the Nazis and Ukrainians and shot to death in 1942.

More details on my discoveries in a future post--some juicy stories to come.

Until next time...

Rick

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Can I sell you some land in Syria?



Don't know if you've been keeping abreast of the evolving story about the site Israel is not saying whether or not it attacked in Syria a month ago that the U.S. is not saying whether or not it knows anything about and that the Syrian government is not saying it hasn't dismantled since the non-attack in order to escape further scrutiny over possible international law violations.

Today's NYTimes carried the blue-ish photo from 2003 showing it under construction, stating:

The long genesis is likely to raise questions about whether the Bush administration overlooked a nascent atomic threat in Syria while planning and executing a war in Iraq, which was later found to have no active nuclear program....The new image may give ammunition to those in the administration, including Ms. Rice, who call for diplomacy. If North Korea started its Syrian aid long ago, the officials could argue that the assistance was historical, not current, and that diplomacy should move ahead....Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the New America Foundation in Washington, said it was surprising from the photos how little progress had been made at the site between 2003 and 2007. But Mr. Lewis said it was ironic that Syria might have been trying to build a nuclear program just as the United States was invading Iraq in the fear that Iraq was developing nuclear arms.



The other photos are from August of this year (with building) and September of this year (after the Israeli attack & Syria's deconstruction). All of these satellite photos are from independent sources verified with other independent satellite companies and published this week for the first time.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Having one of those days?


As an added benefit to his clients, my brother offers an opt-in listserve for jokes. Post-them or read them, and caveat emptor!
This photo came over the wireless today, titled
"Another Chinese toy recalled."
That was certainly funny, but I thought there could be a lot of different titles for this same picture, such as the title of today's blog.
Feel free to suggest your own by posting a comment below.


Until next time...


Rick

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Breathing Easier

I'm not just talking about knowing the immediate danger is over, but also the fact that we went from dust-storm air to smokey-air yesterday, with flecks of ash landing on our patio (and undoubtedly in our lungs), to what feels like cleaner air today--relatively speaking for Southern California, of course.

My cousin Eve lives very close to some of the fires, near Magic Mountain, and I e-mailed her to find out how they are doing. This was her reply:

Yes it's been pretty scarey around here. My mother in law and sister in law had to evacuate the other night with their pets. The fire went up to their side yard. Our house is fine, just smokey ashes everywhere. People at work were evacuating so Monday was pretty empty at the office. Our favorite pumpkin patch burned down. Ive gone there since Andrew was a baby.

Andrew has just completed his freshman year at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, by the way.

When I read in the Orange County Register that the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego had canceled performances, I added a comment about the 1993 Laguna Beach fire that came very close to destroying my theatre, which you can read here.

Until next time...

Rick

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I Spoke Too Soon




This morning's view shows that we are now enjoying a ceiling above us of smoke. In the close-up, you can see the plume of smoke to the left. That is from the Santiago Canyon fire in Orange County, about 15 miles from us. The winds pretty much died by last evening here, which helps the firefighters, but sticks us with bad air.
This brought back memories of the 1993 fires, which came a matter of feet from my theatre in Laguna and about 3 miles from our San Juan Capistrano home. We feel fortunate that we are safe from it all today, but the news reports that 1,500 homes in Southern California have been lost and the many of the fires are still far from being contained.
Until next time...
Rick

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What a Difference a Day Makes


The winds died down last night, but have just started to come up again this morning--they predict a few days of this. Fortunately for us the nearest fire is Lake Forest/Irvine area, which is about 12-15 miles away. Quite a different view today, isn't it?


Until next time...


Rick

Monday, October 22, 2007

Desert Storm


I'm not referring to Iraq, here, but to the fiercest Santa Ana conditions we've experienced in 20 years of living in Southern California. What you are looking at is the view from our patio across the valley, golf course, foothills and 5,000 foot Santiago Peak. What do you mean, "I can't see them?"


Precisely.


Until next time...


Rick

Saturday, October 20, 2007

TripAdvisor Incident Becoming Revolution

In the past few days, there's been a flurry of e-mails among frequenters of the TripAdvisor.com Israel Forum and the management there regarding the incident I wrote about here previously. My discussion of dealing with issues when visiting the Western Wall are, apparently, just the tip of the iceberg over TripAdvisor's overly zealous policy of removing posts and topics. The thought is that there may be some disgruntled customers or political or religious activists who click on "Report post as inappropriate" whenever they see something remotely connected to certain topics or to exact revenge on some posters whom they feel have bad-mouthed them. It is, after all, supposed to be "self-policing," but one of the key Forum participants points out that she's observed commercial posts and posts promoting prostitution in the Bulgaria Forum, and suspects that the Israel Forum is being singled out for greater scrutiny.

This week, the TripAdvisor management is again discussing the issue and we'll see if there is any relaxation of its removal of posts or in its policy of what are acceptable topics. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, the OC Register recently changed its posting policies, too, in order to eliminate anonymous hate posts to its blogs and in reaction to its articles.

I read Haaretz, the Israeli daily paper, and you should read some of the anonymous responses posted there--from virulent anti-Semitic, anti-Israel diatribes to knee-jerk, Israel is perfect, Judaism is the only way responses, and everything in between.

Is that no-holds-barred kind of forum of greater value? Not in my opinion. There's got to be a middle-ground between overly strict censorship of such forums and offensive commentary.

Until next time...

Rick

Friday, October 19, 2007

Evolving online resources

Yesterday, I was thinking about the growing depth of online resources that were simply unavailable even just a few years ago, and how dependent upon them we've become.

Some of us are still just getting used to the computer age.

I was reminded, too, that I obtained my first computer back in about 1984. Though I already had one at work for about a year, my brother had connected to a guy who helped people assemble their own PCs at considerably less cost than purchasing retail. He guided us through this at a community college classroom one evening. It was easy and de-mystified the "guts" of the hardware.

Of course, software was a whole other matter in those days, and one actually had to learn at least a little DOS to make one's PC function. And, ah, those monochrome screens, weren't they delightful? (I opted for the "new" amber color over the hideous, ubitquitous green.)

OK, so that was over 20 years ago--eons in technological time. But how about the internet?

Most businesses posted sites beginning about 10 years ago, and they were often crudely built, with little interactivity. The fact that today we do everything from investing and banking online to networking with strangers is amazing.

Much of this is self-evident, of course--in other words, we now take it all for granted.

In preparing for my upcoming trip to Israel, though, there are definitely some tools on the internet that weren't around even a couple of years ago. Trip Advisor has become the site to visit for anyone preparing a trip anywhere--the Zagat's guide to travel, so to speak, driven by user reviews and forums. It even allows you to map the places you've visited and place that into your profile, which I have done. (Search for me as rictheater to find it there.)

That led me to a site I had visited about a year ago, but forgotten about: Google Earth. It's more sophisticated now, having added views of space (!), but its basic attraction is still there: the ability to zoom down from satellite views of any place on the planet to fairly detailed aerial views of most of them. They now have a wiki-community that posts photos and links identified by little dots on their relief maps. Some sites are quite detailed, like Washington, D.C., while the city my brother lives in, Winchester, Virginia, is a total blur. I can't imagine it will be for very long, as Google conquers the world (and it will).

I've begun mapping significant places in my life -- placing pushpin icons on them and saving them as My Places in Google Earth. Alison was teasing me about spending time doing this, but I told her I thought it was no different than doing crossword puzzles, which we both do, and she agreed.

So, for now, I'm crafting a map of my life. Mine has locations around the world, but even if someone has lived his entire life in one town, it's possible to pushpin every building one has entered on Google Map, and that says a lot (what it says is another matter, however.)

Until next time...

Rick

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bob the Cat

A neighbor of ours was on a cruise to Mexico with her brother, tripped over an unsecured photographer's cable and broke her hip. She's been in the hospital this week and moved yesterday to a nursing care facility. Her physical therapy is going well, she's quite fit for her age, so the prognosis is good.

We've been looking in on her, taking her the mail, checking on her house, etc. We brought her some photos of Bob, our cat, too, which really cheered her up. When we first adopted Bob (from other neighbors who were moving to Hawaii and didn't want to put him through the quarantine), this neighbor also knew Bob, but wasn't very fond of him. He is an outdoor cat during the day (nighttime, too, if he can get away with it--but coyotes live in the 'hood, so we do our best to prevent that) and he used to wander into her yard, which she didn't like. Actually, he used to have a pretty big territory, but now that he's almost 12 years old, he's content to stick closer to home. Still, he continues to believe that both neighbors' yards are his territory--one is where he originally lived, the other he has laid claim to on his own.
We asked our neighbor to feed him when we went away a few years ago, and despite her feelings about him she agreed. After that, she was "hooked" on Bob, and always looks forward to caring for him when we travel.

We sometimes refer to him as "Bob the cat" to distinguish him from "Bob the brother." We didn't name the cat (or the brother) but opted not to change it after we adopted him. Of course, we have many sickeningly cute terms of endearment for him which I'm too embarrassed to share with you!

Until next time...

Rick

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Another "Mondegreen"


Alison reminded me this afternoon that I have another "famous" mondegreen we always laugh at--also by Joni Mitchell and also from the Hissing of Summer Lawns album.

It's in the song "Harry's House/Centerpiece," which is sort of a diptych or medley, with "Centerpiece" sandwiched into "Harry's House" in a daydreamy diversion from the main song.

Anyway, here are the lyrics of this section:


The more I'm with you, pretty baby
The more I feel my love increase
I'm building all my dreams around you
Our happiness will never cease
'Cause nothing's any good without you
Baby you're my centerpiece

We'll find a house and garden somewhere
Along a country road a piece
A little cottage on the outskirts
Where we can really find release
'Cause nothing's any good without you
Baby you're my centerpiece

Well, folks, I used to sing "Baby you're my centipede"--mostly because I couldn't understand clearly what Joni was singing and I hadn't taken the time to check the lyrics!

How's that for a mondegreen!

Send me yours.

Until next time....

Rick




Thursday, October 11, 2007

International Incident Provoked

I started a topic in the Trip Advisor Forums on travel to Israel that provoked quite a response.

Titling it "The Western Wall Experience - Be Prepared," I started off by saying that this happens at many religious sites in the holy land, but that my experience visiting the "Wailing" Wall, Judaism's holiest site in 2005 was pretty much ruined by being approached insistently by religious men wanting to take me up to the Wall to pray and expecting me to pay them for this. I would be happy to pay an entrance fee or make an obligatory donation that helps preserve the site, but this felt smarmy.

The first responder in the Forum questioned why Trip Advisor had allowed my posting, as he saw it as malicious, and several others posted rebuttals. But one brave soul, a Trip Advisor "Local Expert on Israel" defended me, verified that he had similar experiences at the Wall, and that the Forum should be a place for all to learn the good & bad of the travel adventure that is Israel.

Anyway, 18 postings later, I feel good about raising the topic. I think that anyone visiting the Wall who knows this in advance will be better prepared to enjoy their visit.

Causing an "international incident" runs in the family--but I'll leave that story for another day.

Until next time...

Rick

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Blue Cards

It's been a while since I played James Lipton.

Whenever we had guest artists at the Laguna Playhouse, I was called upon to engage in an onstage conversation with them for an audience of donors. (On a lark, I taped my notes onto blue index cards a la From the Actors Studio.)

With some artists, it was a true conversation. Like David Rambo (author of The Ice Breaker) or Bernard Farrell (perennial Playhouse favorite from Ireland).

With others, I often joked, it was like "press the button" and they became the Energizer bunny, with nary a chance to fit a word in edgewise. Richard Dresser (whom I introduced to the Playhouse when I directed Gun-Shy) was like a stand-up comic who, once he had the floor, never relinquished it.

When I had Israeli playwright Shmuel Hasfari here last March, we had an especially large and engaged audience. Self-conscious about his facility with English (as a native Hebrew speaker), he paused far more frequently to find just the right word--and then came out with something especially erudite. Oh, yes, I had plenty of opportunity to ask questions and make comments, but they rather paled in comparison to Hasfari's insightful remarks.

Well, the Stein and Hasari show will reprise in Tel Aviv in November.

I was first invited by the Israeli Drama Institute to attend their IsraDrama conference when I visited Israel last December. By late spring, they had settled upon dates, and in the summer, a tentative schedule arrived. It then occurred to me that Hasfari and I ought to speak at the conference about the experience of bringing an Israeli play to a U.S. theatre and audience.

No good deed goes unpunished (one of my favorite phrases), and we've been asked to have another on stage conversation for dozens of theatre producers and directors from throughout the English-speaking world.

I'm looking forward to it, and though it will be in English, I'm brushing up my Hebrew so I can at least ask "where is the men's room?"

And I'm bringing blue index cards.

Until next time...

Rick

Monday, October 8, 2007

There's Always Next Year

What a difference 5 years makes...

That came to mind as I witnessed live and in person the taking apart and sweeping up of the Angels by the Red Sox yesterday.

All the excuses in the world (top players out of play due to injuries, the failure of the coach to place more importance on gaining home field advantage by winning the concluding games of the regular season, the lack of any long ball hitters on the team and a strategy that justifies that instead of admitting we could use at least one) cannot deny one thing: the Red Sox are a better team than the Angels, and have proven it fairly consistently in the past few seasons.

All of this brought to mind how different a picture it was in October 2002, when a friend who had once held a key position in Major League Baseball, was able to get me tickets for the home games of the playoffs and World Series in which the Angels surprisingly found themselves.

I was a johnny-come-lately Angels fan--I only started following them upon my residence in Orange County in 1987. I had been a lifelong Dodgers fan (much to the consternation of my Brooklyn-bred father who, like all true Brooklynites, referred to the team as "dem bums" for having abandoned home for sunny LA).

I would have been excited enough just to attend a World Series game, but I was surrounded by people who had been loyal Angels fans for 40 years without so much as making it into the series. The longing from such a drought is not to be underestimated, and it created an atmosphere in the stadium unlike any other I've experienced.

All the more so when the Angels forced a seventh game, bringing the San Francisco Giants back to Anaheim, and delivered the victory. Pandemonium is too subtle a word to describe what took place, and combined with being indescribable, its fleeting nature made it one of those moments in time that underscore the thrill of participating in a live audience event.

Until next time...

Rick

Sunday, October 7, 2007

August Wilson

In today's OC Register Artsblog, Paul Hodgins wrote about receiving the newly published complete works of August Wilson. I'm looking forward to getting it, myself, and I posted the following comment:

I had the pleasure of knowing August. We first met in 1984 when I was running a theatre company/performing ars center at the University of Hartford.

Earlier that year, Lloyd Richards, artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre and dean of the Yale School of Drama, asked if I thought Hartford and New Haven were too close for me to consider bringing up one of their productions for my audience. I thought not, depending upon the play.

A play we had planned became unavailable, and so, on short notice, I called Lloyd, who sent me a script called "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." He told me he wasn't sure it was something I'd consider suitable, but it could move up to my theatre immediately following its Yale Rep run.

I read it, and was overwhelmed by its powerful story and poetic style, and told Lloyd we'd be honored to have it there.

During its week-long run at my theatre, August came up and had dinner with me. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man, clearly unaccustomed to any light being shined upon him. No need...he was the one shining the light.

We were invited to the Broadway opening night, which was a great occasion. In fact, it might not have made it to Broadway had the play not come to Hartford. Important backers were unable to get to New Haven to see it before it closed, and so we accommodated them at my theatre.

I saw August only sporadically after he was "discovered." That summer, at the O'Neill Center's Playwrights Conference, where I also ran into Charles S. Dutton, who starred in "Ma Rainey" and became a famous actor as a result. We saw August during the readings of "The Piano Lesson" at the O'Neill, and I also had lunch with him in St. Paul, Minnesota, (then his home) during a visit to the Guthrie.

The last time I saw him was at a TCG Conference at Princeton. I was surprised he even recognized me because of how far he had come. In the room were so many others who had so much more to do with his career success than I.

It was at that Conference that Wilson gave his landmark speech about his opinions on the lack of black theatre in America and laid down some sharp criticisms of the American theatre establishment. Mild-mannered he might have seemed, but underneath it all was a fiery spirit.

Regretfully, we never produced one of his plays at Laguna Playhouse--but how could we have hoped to produce one as well as the Center Theatre Group in collaboration with Seattle, The Goodman and other major U.S. theatres who banded together to debut his work?

In the early 1990s, I was offered the position of Executive Director of the O'Neill Center, which I agonized over whether or not to accept. It would have been an opportunity to spend more time with August, and the O'Neill was such an important institution within the American theatre establishment.
Ultimately, I felt I had much more still to do at Laguna, and decided to remain here.
Until next time...
Rick

Saturday, October 6, 2007

A Priest on a Mission

Today's New York Times carries a front-page story about a French priest who has spent a considerable amount of time researching and documenting the killing fields of the Ukraine, where the Nazis rounded up whole Jewish farming villages and shot them in mass graves.

Father Patrick Desbois is speaking with local eyewitnesses and gathering their accounts--gaining access to information that Jewish visitors and researchers have often been unable to obtain. His work is being exhibited now in France, and his organization, Yahad in Unum, has a website.

Several years ago, a cousin of mine (Ben Weinstock) and a friend of his (David Chapin) wrote a 2-volume account of the Jews in the Letichev region of Ukraine. Entitled The Road from Letichev: The History and Culture of a Forgotten Jewish Community in Eastern Europe.

It contains photos of my grandparents, who emigrated to the U.S., and my grandfather's parents, who stayed behind and were eventually shot by the Nazis. There are maps of their village, showing where their home was located, lists of residents, and other detailed information. The book is mostly an assemblage of of original source material, with little edited out--accounting for its length. While that makes for dry reading, it's a great book to flip through.

I can't see a visit to the Ukraine in my future, but it's nice to know that a family member made the effort to document some of our history, and that Fr. Desbois is contributing to the effort to keep the memory alive of those who lived there.

Until next time...

Rick

Friday, October 5, 2007

The "Blowup": Chapter Two

Errol Morris returned from Sevastopol, where he visited the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" depicted in the mysterious photographs. Here is the next installment of his tale (he promises a third installment and then suggest he may write a fourth solely to respond to the many hundreds of blog post comments he's received.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

"Black Water"

I had an Emily Litella moment.

"What's all of this I hear about Blackwater?"

Besides making me smile, it made me remember a great song of the 70s by the Doobie Brothers by that title. It was from the album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, and was #1 on the charts for awhile in 1975 (their first top single). Here's a sampling of the lyrics:

Well, I built me a raft and she's ready for floatin'
Ol Mississippi, she's callin my name
Catfish are jumpin'
That paddle wheel thumpin'
Black water keeps rollin' on past just the same
Old black water, keep on rollin'
Mississippi moon, won't you keep on shinin' on me



Wikipedia points out an interesting facet of this song, by the way:

The song is characterized by the melodious a cappella section, with lyrics that are perhaps the most well-known in the entire song: "I'd like to hear some funky Dixieland/Pretty mama, come and take me by the hand."


The Wik-meister also says the song introduced a bluegrass sound to traditional rock, but I'm not sure I'd go that far.

So when you hear all the yadda yadda yadda in the news about that private security firm in Iraq, singing (or humming) this song is an appropriate diversion.

Until next time...

Rick

Friday, September 28, 2007

My Favorite Mondegreen

Googling something the other day, I came upon the word "mondegreen," and it rang a bell. Looking it up, I remembered why: it's the term for "misheard" song lyrics.

That reminded me instantly of the Bernard Farrell play I produced at the Laguna Playhouse a few years ago called Lovers at Versailles, the title for which (one learns in the play) is a mondegreen of the Frank Sinatra lyrics "lovers at first sight" in the song Strangers in the Night.

A local donor to the Playhouse, Nina Brice, sent that in to the LA Times daily columnist who displays errors in signage and other such gaffes, and he wrote about it.

However, it makes me think of a dispute I had with Alison the first time we heard together the Joni Mitchell song In France They Kiss on Main Street, from her 1975 album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Here are the lyrics from the stanza in question:



Downtown
The dance halls and cafes
Feel so wild you could break
somebody's heart
Just doing the latest dance craze
Gail and Louise
In those push-up brassieres
Tight dresses and rhinestone rings
Drinking up the band's beers
Young love was kissing under bridges
Kissing in cars kissing in cafes
And we were walking down Main Street
Kisses like bright flags hung on holidays
In France they kiss on Main Street
Amour, mama, not cheap display
And we were rolling, rolling, rock 'n' rolling



Alison heard me singing aloud the following lyrics:


Feeling the breeze
In those push-up brassieres



Hey, it made perfect sense to me--so I had never bothered to check the printed lyrics on the album jacket!

Anyway, mondegreen has an official entry in Wikipedia (well, as "official" as you can call anything on that site!), and there is another website I discovered called Am I Right - Making Fun of Music, One Song at a Time.
Both provide additional examples of mondegreens.

Feel free to share your own in comments to this post. I'd be interested to know what you've misheard! (And don't tell me there haven't been any!)

Until next time...

Rick

Comments on Yesterday's "Blowup" Post

Alison pointed out that one of the comments posted on Errol Morris' NY Times piece was a .gif file flashing on and off the two photos for easier comparison. Click here to view.

She pointed out to me that not only are cannonballs missing from the On photo, but some rocks as well.

My brother, Bob, wrote me from a business trip in Alaska:

"Funny you should write about it. I was captivated by Morris's piece as well and thought about it intermittently throughout the day. I loved the mystery of whether Sontag herself overblew the issue of the photographer commandeering the locals to move the rocks. With digital photography becoming ubiquitous, in a few years no one will ever believe in the authenticity of a photography."

Comments to this and my other blog posts are always welcome. Just click on the Comments link at the bottom of each post.

Until next time...

Rick

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Blowup" (Redux)

Who can forget the recently-late Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blowup?

It starred David Hemmings as a photographer during the heyday of London swings (like a pendulum do) who comes to believe that an innocuous photo he shot reveals something more sinister, and seeks to uncover the mystery. The story came from the pen of Julio Cortazar, a highly regarded for his book Hopscotch. (In 1981, Brian DePalma made a film called Blowout that was loosely based on the concept of the original Blowup.)

Today's New York Times carries a piece by filmmaker Errol Morris about a truly fascinating Blowup-like mystery surrounding two photographs taken in 1855 during the Crimean War by a historically-important photographer, Roger Fenton. Though it's a bit lengthy, I highly recommend it.

The gist is that Fenton shot two photos of a road in what soldiers referred to as The Valley of the Shadow of Death--a place where the Russians routinely rained cannon fire. One photo shows this lonely road littered with cannonballs, the other shows only shells in the gulleys alongside the road. Writer Susan Sontag suggested in a book that Fenton faked the photo with the cannonballs in the road, and cited expert opinion on that in order to address the inauthenticity of artists who seek to alter photos for greater dramatic effect.

Errol Morris isn't quite so certain, and investigates further, uncovering more questions along the way.

It's a sort of brain-teaser worth taking the time to read.

Until next time...

Rick

Monday, September 24, 2007

Fuhrer/Furor at My Alma Mater: Jihad on Ahmadinejad

Raucous times have returned to my alma mater at last!

It only took 30+ years for everyone to get really riled up on what had once been renowned as the most politically outspoken of the Ivy campuses during the Vietnam War era.

And what was the catalyst? That pipsqueak from Iran who used this opportunity to verify that women are full citizens there, that his country has no homosexuals (neglecting to say why: they've executed them all), that they love Jews but the Holocaust was just a big figment of everyone's imagination to justify creating Israel on Palestinian land, that he is not interested in developing any nuclear weapons and has no intention of attacking America--even though it's evil incarnate.

I'm glad he got to speak because it only strips away any illusions people might have about whether what is being reported is what this guy really thinks. Ironically, he isn't the real power in Iran: that belongs to the Ayatollah--which is why so many of Ahmadinejad's election promises and post-election statements have never come to fruition. The ultraconservative clergy are determined to keep Iran an Islamastan, but they let their president perform their clerical duties.

Ah, well, free speech is a great thing, and detest him as I might, Ahmadinejad was humilated and derided during his appearance and in the introduction by Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. It only goes to show how stupid the Iranian president is that he didn't anticipate he was actually being "framed."

Bring on Hu Jin Tao of China to speak about the Olympics--and then nail him. And there are plenty of other despots out there who should be put on the dais at Columbia to reveal their true colors.

Until next time....

Rick

Angels Win AL West Division Title

Not having attended many of the games this year due to work and travel and lethargy, we've nonetheless kept close tabs on the Angels season and watched many of the games at home.

Yesterday was the final home game of the regular season, and the Angels had lost two straight games to Seattle, failing to wrap up their Division title as neatly as everyone seemed to expect.

They were just waiting for us to be in the stands when they did that, I'm convinced!

It was an exciting game, too. Even though there were no lead changes, the Mariners threatened several times, but we kept adding "insurance" runs.

The mood was ecstatic at the end, but now comes the tough part--playing against the 3 best American League teams in the playoffs--Boston, Cleveland and New York.

You can bet we'll be at those home playoff games!

Until next time...

Rick

Friday, September 21, 2007

Today's Addendum: "Scarcity"

Very mixed reviews for Lucy Thurber's Scarcity, and while I appreciate some of the criticisms, I find myself resenting their antagonism to what is an intelligent, visceral and highly entertaining piece. Here are links to the major reviews.

Flat Bunz

Whoever has directed Carl's Jr.'s advertising in recent years has been having his cake & eating it too, especially with the latest TV commecial for their patty melt.

It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission, as they say, and that's Carl's Jr.'s motto.

They opted to go forth with a sexy teacher in a high school class room, wearing a tight skirt that proves that she has, well, flat buns, which is then celebrated in a hip hop musical number by her (seemingly all male) class.

It was funny, clever and the tune was catchy--just what you want your TV commercial to be to get attention.

They got some unwanted attention when educators and parents objected to the depiction of the teacher.

What did Carl's Jr. do?

They edited out that part of the commerical--in fact, conveniently located at the top of the spot, it almost seemed like they had planned it all from the beginning, that is, anticipated the uproar, but moved forward anyway because the controversy would only get them more attention. Then they swooped in like heroes by eliminating the offending images in the blink of an eye, demonstrating how responsive they are to parental authority.

Their website Carlsjr.com has the edited version along with interviews with the artists.

However if you wish to see the unedited version, watch it here on YouTube.

Until next time...

Rick

Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Streamers"

Thirty years ago, David Rabe's play by that name, was being produced and it was quite a sensation. Rabe had already made a name for himself with The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones--the latter production was broadcast on network television as I recall. All dealt with life in the military and its consequences during the Vietnam War era, as well as larger social issues America was facing at the time.

Well, the title came to mind because I was actually marveling at how great it is to be able to listen to my favorite jazz station on my computer through what's called "streaming." Reception in the Capistrano Valley for the Long Beach-based KJAZZ 88.1 is spotty, but it comes in loud and clear via the internet. I also discovered another jazz station I'd never received over the airwaves: KSDS 88.3 in San Diego.

The age of streaming is also making it possible to watch video clips a la YouTube and on theatre websites (in my blog yesterday about 100 Saints You Should Know, producer Playwrights Horizons' website carried a link to a streamed interview with author Kate Fodor and members of the cast as well as selections from the play in performance).

Thirty years ago, though, Streamers had nothing to do with internet technology of course. Rabe's title referred to the phenomenon of a parachute failing to open--an important metaphor in that play.

Until next time...

Rick

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"100 Saints You Should Know"

Kate Fodor's new play, 100 Saints You Should Know, which I mentioned here that I saw at Playwrights Horizons in New York last week, has opened and the reviews are out. (You can link to many of them via American Theater Web.)

I found some of the reviews harsh, but was pleased to read Linda Winer's praise in Newsday and Michael Sommers's in the Star-Ledger.

I found 100 Saints You Should Know a thoughtful play with modest ambitions that it mostly achieves through believable characters sincerely played. It's biggest failing, I thought, was that it needed to be trimmed a bit.

Anyway, the playwright has already been declared by many to be one to keep on eye on, and I suspect she's already got commissions she's working to fulfill on myriad subject matter.

Until next time...

Rick