27 May 2006

Storybook Theater

Last week I saw Tony Kushner's adaptation of the Czech children's opera Brundibar and his original one-act curtain raiser But the Giraffe at the New Victory Theater. The New Vic books in some of the world's most sophisticated children's theater. And Kushner's work certainly qualifies as sophisticated. Some of that sophistication is more borrowed than created and not merely borrowed from Maurice Sendak's lovely and astonishing sets.

Brundibar comes laden with historical baggage, which But the Giraffe tries to elucidate relatively sweetly for the tween set. Originally written to be preformed at a Czech boys' orphanage, Brundibar would become almost exclusively linked to Terezin, the Nazi show camp used to trick members of the media and international community into believing the concentration camps weren't death camps. And Terezin wasn't. The various casts of child performers would die instead at Auschwitz.

The irony (apparently lost on the Germans, or perhaps not lost, but layered again with sadistic irony) is that the story is about the weak overcoming bullies. Our brother and sister protagonists are trying to buy their sick mother milk, but they have no money. Deciding to raise money by singing, they are bullied and forced out of the town square by Brundibar the organ grinder. But then with the help of some animal friends and rest of the town's children the brother and sister outsing and humiliate and banish Brundibar.

Like most operas (when you finally hear them in English), the libretto is repetitive and the rhyme scheme strained. There's a reason opera is traditionally in Italian: everything in the bloody language rhymes. But Kushner's attempt is as good as English translations I've heard of Aida or Magic Flute. (Pamino's songs in that - lovely in Italian TERRIBLE in English). So no faulting the man there. But he did write, in its entirety, the one act play But the Giraffe.

Like other writers (Carl Hiaasen's Hoot, Michael Chabon's Summerland, and Joyce Carol Oates' Big Mouth and Ugly Girl are just a few examples) Kushner's playing in kiddie-lit land here. Unlike them, Kushner's been solidly in the realm of "issue" (what school teachers everywhere consider the valuable part of children and YA writing) since the anarchist wrote Angels in America. In fact if you took the four and a half hour epic and cut the sex, drug use and foul language you would pro'bly end up with a one-act children's play.

The play is, for the topic, charmingly slight. A literate, verbose family rushes packing only things they can carry. The uncle wants desperately to bring an opera score with him, while the precocious girl wants only to bring her toy giraffe. Adults waft in and out reasoning, explaining, cajoling, everyone rushing off in a thousand direction. It boils down to the girl (the astonishing and extremely self-possessed young actress Danielle Fried) deciding to selflessly give up the space needed for the toy giraffe to instead carry the score. Threaded through with music from Brundibar and facts about the opera to follow (the Prague orphanage, etc.) it links well with the opera.

Then the banging on the door, the orders barked in German and the family pulls on their yellow starred coats. (No need to worry that the symbols will be lost on the audience -- it was almost entirely people over 60 without their grandchildren in tow.) Kushner's giraffes and Jews comparison (giraffes, like all mammals, have seven vertebre, but they're special because their necks are so different; Jews are just like everybody else except, etc. etc -- but he said it more poetically) is also perhaps a bit much for the age of the supposed target, but worked perfectly for the people who did show up.

But for all of But the Giraffe's sweetness, and for all of Brundibar's clunkiness, history won out over art. From the overture 'til the final curtain call of Brundibar I wept.

23 May 2006

Cosmos With a Twist

I'm waiting to read Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, until I can get some of my own thoughts straight on the subject. Reviews and the dust jacket describe it as a philosophical treatise about counteracting modern fundamentalism (an unfortunate oxymoron) with the ancient Greek concept of the Cosmopolitan: the citizen (polis) of the world (cosmos).

I think the real question of the moment (and the one I hope Mr. Appiah answers) is where does the cosmopolitan draw the line against the non-cosmopolitan. Obviously we accept them , as we do not desire either homogeneity or conformity, but what do we do if they do not accept us? Is there a place where the cosmopolitan not only draws the line, but draws the sword?

More thoughts on this later as I read the book.

19 May 2006

Can you tell me how to get to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip?

An introductory primer on the finer points of Aaron Sorkin.

I love Aaron Sorkin. I love Sports Night. I love Dave. I love The West Wing. I love the play A Few Good Men, and I heard they even made a movie of it.

Spotting Aaron Sorkin's writing in the general television schedule is like spotting Hemingway on shelf full of Poe (which is a bizarre comparison, since I don't like Hemingway, and current television is as like Poe as farming the Yangtze River Valley is like Poe, which is to say one is underwater and impossible and one is a dead guy). But if you've somehow avoided that small sector of pop culture that is smart and funny and not overly simplistic and not British you may not recognize it out of hand. So as a public service, I offer my imaginary audience a guide to the writing, styles, obsessions and some rumours of Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin's writing is like great vaudeville patter: snappy, quick, repetetive (in a good way), and sharp. Jokes are circled, rather than pounced on, and the punchline is often the sort of stuff you smile at in real life. Characters repeat lines back to each other, like tennis players adding intonation like spin until "okay" is the funniest word you've ever heard.

The writing doesn't just mirror the good old days in speed and snap. Sorkin writes some of the best parts for smart tough women on the since Rosalind Russell graced the screen in His Girl Friday. Dana (Felicity Huffman in SN), Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd in SN), C.J. (Alllison Janney in WW) and Abbey (Stockard Channing) are the sort of capable, brilliant women who are unfazed even in the faces of emergencies. Even the more traditional romantic interests like Donna (Janel Moloney in WW) are smart. Donna's assistant/naif is far more competent than similar characters in one-hour dramas; women who are supposed to be doctors or lawyers, but who are basically the same girlish stereotypes over and over. But what else do we expect from a guy who's tough enough to date Maureen Dowd and survive?

My favorite thing about the Sorkin's characters is that everybody's a geek. Sports geeks, policy wonks, fact junkies, and information hoarders abound. Jeremy (Joshua Molina in SN) was a weather geek, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe in WW) was a map geek, and everybody else is (in some reversal of a teenager's view of the world) smart as hell. And not merely smart, but passionate. These people's jobs are their lives. Anything that comes between their jobs and their lives (except for the minor possibility of children) will get put on back burners (or simply moved off the stove).

Aside from the absurd-to-life dialogue and people in their 30s comparing their SAT scores what do I predict we'll see in Studio 60?

Competent people struggling with addiction. Sorkin's comments on his past cocain addiction are as controversial as they are well-known, and I expect we'll see characters carrying on the battle.

Very tall women.

Guys who write to impress women.

Guys who do stupider things to impress women.

Idealists in a non-ideal world.

People who hide from their problems in work.

People who hide from relationships in work.

People who hide from each other in work.

People who work together becoming family.

Women who work in the sex industry.

Women who are smart and make active healthy choices and still work in the sex industry.

People who read books.

People who read books and talk about them with each other.

I guess basically we can expect another brilliant show about smart people who live in a funny tragic wacky world. People who care and are basically decent, but still have work/life balance issues and throw themselves into things when walking in might be warranted. And I can expect to have to find more shelf space in my Brooklyn apartment for the boxed DVD set.

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