Blind Date

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Lucky for me my friend’s husband isn’t a theater lover. That’s how I got invited to see Blind Date at the Goodman Theater. Blind Date shows us how Ronald Reagan convinced Mikhail Gorbachev to attend a summit meeting to talk about the weapons race. My understanding of this page of history was foggy, but the performances brought clarity and interest. The play opens with a monologue by George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State. Due to his education and experience in economics, Shultz was able to figure out how Russia would struggle and what the consequences would be. Thus he realized this was a key time to contact Gorbechev, Russia’s youngest General Secretary.

Next Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, shares his thinking with the audience before sharing cocktails with Shultz. (In their conversation, which begins awkwardly Shultz tells Shevardnadze about a cocktail called The Kangaroo, which most of us know as a vodka martini.

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We see a lot of negotiating and one step forward, one back action as the two governments and two men figure out whether they should meet and where. It’s quite a chess game and quite interesting. Both powerful men are married to driven women. Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev have some of the plays best scenes and lines. These women know their minds and masterfully can read situations.

The play has humor but adroitly manages not to canonize or lampoon Reagan. The playwright Rogelio Martinez was born in Cuba and lived there till he was 9 and came to the US. Hence Martinez is fascinated with the ideologies of democracy and communism and has written a series of plays about events like the ping pong competition between China and the US where communism and democracy intersected. It would be easy to make a play that bored or had the wrong tone, but with Blind Date Martinez entertains and enlightens. The play’s pace is good and I could see this show on Broadway. I could see watching this again, which I think is the ultimate goal of a good play.

Kudos to Director Robert Falls and all the performers. Bravo!

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South Shore, Most Violent Neighborhoods

The Seventh Most Violent Neighborhood in Chicago is my father’s old neighborhood, South Shore. All of these are tough to watch because but this is the one neighborhood I have memories of. My grandparents lived here up till the 70’s and we’d visit often. Their apartment was near Rainbow Beach.

By the way, Barak and Michelle Obama held their wedding reception at the South Shore Country Club.

Victoria, Week 2

Warp & Weft

There was plenty of sadness in the first hour of Victoria this week. The episode began with Lord Peel talking with a phrenology expert, i.e. someone who measures a person’s head to determine by its size and shape his personality. The subject of this study is the guttersnipe, Boy Jones, who snuck inside the palace on several occasions. (Boy Jones’ escapades are based on history.)

This tomfoolery alarmed Albert who began complaining about how poorly the palace is run. There’s poor plumbing, poor budgeting, etc. and Victoria told Albert he could direct his energies on this and so he starts examining the cleanliness of the windows or any waste from the wine cellars, which makes that annoying Mr. Penge think twice.

Though she’s with child Victoria is not going to let that hinder her carrying out her duties, much to Duchess Buccheuch’s dismay. The duchess is particularly shocked that Victoria granted an audience with the silk maker who made her wedding dress. The silk maker wanted to present the queen with information on how the import of cheap silk is putting him and his colleagues out of business. To help the silk makers, ignoring Lord Peel’s and Albert’s advice, Victoria decides to throw a ball and require that her guests come in silk costumes.

Word gets out about the ball and the high price of Victoria’s gown (64,000£) and parliament and the poor are outraged.

Yet the ball starts out wonderfully. Lord M comes and shares a nice moment with Victoria, whom he’s been avoiding since he’s become ill and doesn’t want to worry her. There’s plenty of flirtation and dancing, but also a broken heart. Miss Coke, who’s recently come to the palace with the duchess, has eyes for Prince Ernst, Albert’s brother, but he’s still sweet on his paramour who’s now faithful to her husband.

However, when all the guests are dancing in their finery, the poor are out front of Buckingham Palace screaming for just since they don’t have enough to eat. Coincidentally, in front of the angry mob is Mrs. Skerret’s cousin, who doesn’t care for royalty. I’m not sure whom she left the daughter Skerret financially supports with.

When Victoria sees them she’s shocked and no doubt thinking of Marie Antoinette, who didn’t realize that if you can’t afford bread, cake is not within your price range either. Victoria simply tried to help and it backfired. She’s guilty of poor planning not indifference. There’s a scene with Victoria staring at all the left over food the day after the ball. While I do believe she’d give the remainders to the poor, I don’t think all this food would be left out over night and into the morning.

The episode ends with Victoria learning that Lord M is terminally ill. She visits him in the country bearing a gift of a mechanical musical bird that sings Mozart. It’s a touching scene where their sorrow is communicated more through looks and actions than through words. Bravo.

Finally, to make things worse, Dash, Victoria’s beloved dog is dead. Victoria finds him spread out on the floor when she returns from seeing Lord M. As the Armchair Anglophile points out, a servant should have noticed a dead dog, given that the palace is full of servants. Poor Victoria is distraught. Who can blame her? We’ll all miss Lord M and Dash.

Sins of the Father

Victoria gives birth to her first son, Albert. We’re presented with the typical labor scene and soon Vicki is getting around in that stroller for new moms. As with her daughter, Victoria finds it hard to find pleasure in her newborn. She thinks babies look like frogs when they’re first born. She falls into postpartum depression and there’s little help available. I was glad that they didn’t just give her some drug that knocks one out. As queen, the courtiers urge her to buck up, but she wasn’t removed to an asylum as was sometimes done in the era. (See this article.)

The big event in this episode is that Prince Albert’s father died. Hoping to lift her spirits, Victoria asks to go with Albert, but he thinks the journey is too exhausting for a new mother so he goes solo.

In Coberg, Albert sees his troublemaking Uncle Leopald, who can’t resist the temptation to make things worse for Albert so he plants the seed that Albert is illegitimate into his nephew’s head. Since his parents were estranged for much of his growing up, Albert believes this. It sure makes for a sensational story, but according to this article*, it’s impossible. Albert also worries that his children would be illegitimate. Well, no. Since Albert and Victoria are married they wouldn’t be, but a checkered past wouldn’t help Albert with the gossip-mongers.

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Albert, hist mother and brother Ernst

Back in London, Lord Peel tries to get Victoria back into action. With her first child, she couldn’t wait to be out and about, now she’s so languid and depressed. It’s not till a bomb explodes at the Tower of London and the Queen should visit and console the injured. She realizes she must, so Victoria forces herself out and does cheer up the wounded. It does them all a world of good. Is this an oversimplification of depression? Perhaps, but I found it plausible and can still offer sympathy to those suffering with it.

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London 1841 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

J.M.W. Turner’s Fire at the Tower of London, 1841

To get an idea of the scope of the fire, I did some research. It was bigger than I imagined from the program. There was a fatality and some injuries. The fire raged from 11:30 pm till about 4 am the next day. J.M.W. Turner made several sketches of it.

Albert returns and matters turn to the poor run of the household. Rumors have gotten out about the royal family and the servants are suspected. The scandal is about Boy Jones, the guttersnipe who’s wily enough to somehow get into the palace. This was a real historical event. Heads may roll.

Since the chef Francatelli is spending freely and buying some luxuries he’s the prime suspect. However, Mrs. Skerret is sweet on him and confesses that her no-good cousin, who’s now drinking too much and continuing to just sponge off Skerret has been selling stories to the tabloids. I’m not alone in thinking this storyline has been week. Victoria felt she had to fire Skerret, though she admits the ladies’ maid has done a better job than any before her. It seems the norm, even today. However, upon his return, Albert insists Skerret gets a second chance, which was nice, but hard to believe since Albert is so concerned about security.

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Anyone catch the breed?

Victoria gets a new puppy from a royal in Muscat, who originally thought of sending something like a tiger. Really? Check with people, even royals, before you send them an animal. The puppy does seem to work wonders for her mood. I love the program so I’m not going to analyze whether animals are that therapeutic. I know in many ways they are.


* The article appeared in The Sun, which is a sensationalist paper. My take is if they don’t think Albert was illegitimate, he wasn’t.

State of the Union

While watching my MasterClass in Dramatic Writing by David Mamet, I got curious about Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, whom he mentions. So I found the DVD for State of the Union, (1948) a film adaptation of their play. I found it delightful, even though there’s plenty of jokes that you just couldn’t say today.

State of the Union stars Spenser Tracy as Grant Matthews, a successful business man whose young mistress, played by Angela Lansbury, is a newspaper owner with political savvy in spades. She sees that he’s got the background and charisma to become President. She convinces Jim Conover, her partner in political maneuvering to take on Matthews’ campaign. The one problem is Matthew’s wife Mary, played by Katharine Hepburn. Viewers know when they see Hepburn in the credits that the newspaper owner’s met her match.

Grant and Mary haven’t been together for four months. Mary’s aware of her husband’s affair and has kicked out the mistress the one time the hussy visited her home. Mary still loves Grant and does believe that he’d be a good President — if he stays true to his beliefs. Mary leaves her home to travel the country so that Grant is seen with the loving wife the public expects. His first speech is a doozie and reaps accolades from the common voter. However, Conover & Co. only care about political movers and shakers who can deliver delegates. They know how to game the system by making the right promises to key people. Mary is leery of Conover’s tricks and the mistresses manipulations. Still she sticks with the campaign hoping for the best, hoping Grant doesn’t slide all the way down the slippery slope.

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I will say I was surprised by some of Grant’s political ideas. For example, he foresaw and believed in a world government. He thought that since the 13 colonies banded together and made the USA, that a bunch of countries should band together and create a world government. Well, the EU is somewhat like what he proposed, but Grant envisioned a more far reaching confederation. I wasn’t surprised that Conover practically blew a gasket.

The film has wonderful banter and some rousing speeches. State of the Union examines our political system which is corrupted by campaign financing. (Sadly, such films don’t have much effect because money still taints the government.) Tracy, Hepburn, Lansbury and the rest of the cast offer delightful performances and a bold look at infidelity. Yes, there are jokes about gender stereotypes but I was able to forgive those venial sins of another era.

It was odd to enjoy a film that promotes fidelity knowing that the stars had an affair for 27 years. It’s a troubling issue. On the one hand, it’s acting and what’s presented is the better scenario. On the other, many in Hollywood have made bad choices and tried to glamorize them. It’s a question well worth discussing.

Red Velvet

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Dion Johnstone as Ira Aldridge, CST

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented an excellent production of Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. The story of the first African American to play Othello on the London state in 1833, the story explores racism. As we know, abolition was a hot issue in the mid-1800s. In England there were protests against the slave trade.

When Ian Keen, who starred as Othello, fell ill the manager of the Covent Garden Theater chose Ira Aldridge, a black actor from America to play Othello. Some in the cast were excited and supportive, but Ian’s son and another actor were strongly opposed.

Aldridge was a fine, thoughtful actor, whose goal was to work in London. He takes his art seriously and gives a passionate performance the first night. However, the critics were shocked to see an actor of African heritage on stage and their reviews were venomous. The manager, Pierre LaPorte is a good friend of Aldridge and he counsels the actor to tone down his performance. Yet we can see that Aldridge can’t rein in his perfectionism. His desire to bring Othello to life as he reads the play leads to disaster. A consummate professional, Aldridge pushes the edges of his performance.

The performances were all pitch perfect and the play was compelling as it showed a chapter of theater history, I wasn’t aware of. The play has been produced in London and New York. If it comes to your hometown, I highly recommend you check it out.

Fires on the Plain

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Years ago I read an absorbing, horrifyingly moving novel called Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka. It was a look at WWII in the Pacific showing aspects of war that left me stunned. When I saw the DVD in my library, I had to check it out.

Directed by Kon Ichikawa, who switched careers from graphic arts to film, Fires on the Plain was a powerful, timeless look at war, particularly World War II in the the Philippines. The main character is Tamura, who’s got TB, and returns to his unit after the hospital sent him away. They’re only taking patients with food and curable diseases at the hospital. Back with his comrades, who don’t want another mouth to feed, his superior shouts at him, gives him a few yams and a grenade. His orders are to return to the hospital and convince them to take him. If that doesn’t work, and it’s unlikely that it will, Tamura is to use the grenade to kill himself.

Like the other soldiers, his clothes are beyond tatters, his shoes are falling apart and he has little to eat. He knows his orders are impossible. So he leaves and wanders. He’s not sure where to go, and he doesn’t have any valor or philosophy or loved one’s to live for, but he’ll evade the fires the Americans (or is it the locals) set off before they attack. His desire to live is as thin as a razor’s edge, but he’ll trudge on. Along the way he meets a Filipino brother and sister in a deserted village. He winds up shooting the girl. Her brother runs off and in the distance black smoke rises from fires. It’s best for Tamura to make a run for it.

Tamura continues to flee. Along the way he meets fellow soldiers, all soldiers for an army that’s all but lost. There’s no food, no plans, no leadership, and no trust of each other. The only person Tamura can trust, sort of, is Yasuda who said he was going to surrender, but towards the end of the film is still psychologically tethered to a mean, unpredictable older soldier who’s probably lying when he says he can’t walk and he has no weapons. This trio stays together, but not only does Yasuda sleep with one eye open, he sleeps in a hiding place far from the old man.

The film is filled with beautiful and poignant scenes. One I’ll never forget is when it’s pouring rain and Tamura is with a group of soldiers planning to go to a city where the Americans are to surrender. When they come to a soldier lying dead in a puddle, another soldier whose shoes are full of holes, removes his shoes and takes the dead man’s. Then Tamura reaches the corpse with the shoes beside it. He picks up the discarded shoes and looks through them. Eighty percent of the soles are gone. They’re useless. So are the shoes Tamura’s own pair, which he removes and proceeds barefoot. Later when Tamura encounters another corpse. As soon as he establishes the man is dead, the takes his shoes.

The film has no ideology or message. It simply shows the affects of a particular war, which is unique in some ways and not in others. The soldiers know they’re losing and they trudge along. They keep going without having the least idea why. The lack of morale or trite reason to live, makes the characters all the more heroic in a very modern sense.

The hardship the characters experience was hard to watch and I had to take several breaks. I think I saw the film over three days. Still I’m glad I did. I’ll definitely look for more Ichikawa films.

If you’re interested, I found the film with English subtitles on YouTube.