Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Shakespeare Day

We had a very good three-day holiday weekend.

On Friday night, my parents and Joshua and I ate out—we had a quick, simple meal at Edina Grill, where we ordered meat loaf, mashed potatoes and green beans—after which we did some serious food shopping.

For three hours, we visited food stores and specialty stores, and we stocked up on practically everything, including special October items such as pumpkins, ciders and Indian corn. When we got home, it took us almost an hour to store all the food we had picked up.

On Saturday morning, everyone came over early in order to eat breakfast at my parents’ house. I had alerted everyone that I was going to make waffles on Saturday morning, and apparently no one wanted to miss out.

We ate shredded wheat, bananas and cream, and tomato-onion-green pepper omelets before getting the waffles underway. I made waffles with walnuts, and we ate the waffles with fresh ground sausage. No one had cause to be hungry when breakfast was over.

We spent most of Saturday doing yard work and other outdoor tasks. My nephew and niece spent much of the day outside with us, observing and supervising our activities. It was a beautiful autumn day, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

For lunch, my mother made Norwegian fish chowder, a type of chowder made with assorted fishes and vegetables, all cooked in a cream base seasoned with several spices. My mother had not made this particular chowder for quite some time—Saturday was the first encounter with the chowder for Josh and my sister-in-law as well as my nephew and niece—and everyone loved it. The chowder is filling but not heavy, with subtle and refined flavors that belie its undoubted origin in ancient Norwegian peasant food (probably emanating from Bergen, where—owing to the town’s membership in the Hanseatic League—non-native spices would have been available).

We completed our outdoor work by the time the kids woke from their afternoon naps, at which point we all had a snack of poached apricots and gingerbread men warm from the oven.

After our snack, it was time for the main attraction of our day: preparing pumpkins.

First thing, we carved out four pumpkins, trying not to make too much of a mess in my mother’s kitchen. When we were done, my mother immediately began to cook the pumpkin pulp with spices in order to preserve the pulp, while the rest of us began to create Jack-O’-Lanterns from the pumpkin carcasses. For the sake of my nephew and niece, we tried to make the Jack-O’-Lanterns as interesting and as elaborate as possible while still maintaining structural integrity (after all, we do not want the pumpkin carcasses to collapse until Halloween has come and gone). Two Jack-O’-Lanterns were to remain at my parents’ house and two Jack-O’-Lanterns were to go home with my nephew and niece. The intended result: my nephew and niece will have personal Jack-O’-Lanterns at their grandparents’ house as well as at their own home.

We tried to make two Jack-O’-Lanterns look like males for my nephew, and we tried to make two Jack-O’-Lanterns look like females for my niece, but I doubt that anyone outside the family, seeing the results, would have a clue that we had tried to make such a differentiation. Nevertheless, we all had a ball with the pumpkins; there had been a purpose to our activity.

We had a major dinner Saturday night: homemade tomato-cream soup; grilled thick-cut pork chops, stuffing, escalloped cheddar potatoes, steamed lima beans, steamed parsnips, steamed white corn, red cabbage baked in cream and butter, and homemade applesauce; and blackberry cobbler with ice cream.

On Sunday morning, after church, we all had breakfast at my parents’ house: bacon, scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes. We were saving pancakes for Monday, a holiday—and, because we had afternoon plans, we had wanted a breakfast that involved very little preparation time.

After breakfast, my brothers took the kids (and the dog) over to my older brother’s house, while my parents, my sister-in-law, and Josh and I headed downtown to catch the 1:00 p.m. matinee at The Guthrie.

“Much Ado About Nothing” was on the bill. Directed by Artistic Director Joe Dowling, The Guthrie’s “Much Ado” was mostly a traditional production, with two wrinkles: the setting was updated to the 1920s; and the ages of the primary characters were greatly advanced. In this “Much Ado”, Beatrice and Benedick were in their late sixties while Hero and Claudio were in late middle age.

If Dowling believed that “Much Ado” would gain new perspective by advancing the ages of the main characters, he was mistaken. No new insights into one of Shakespeare’s best comedies were revealed. There had been no real purpose in making the two pairs of lovers much older than Shakespeare intended, any more than there had been a real purpose in updating the play’s setting to the 1920s (other than as a gift to the production’s design team).

The actor portraying Benedick had been imported from London, and the actress playing Beatrice had been imported from Dublin. Both were perfectly fine, but neither was in any way remarkable.

No one else in the production was remarkable, either. The Guthrie “Much Ado” was very much a standard Guthrie presentation: everything on a high level, nothing genuinely distinguished.

The physical production was lavish (and costly), but it was neither appealing nor elegant. In fact, I thought the physical production was outright unattractive, perhaps one of the least attractive Guthrie productions I have ever encountered.

Dowling has been Artistic Director of The Guthrie since 1995—he came to Minneapolis from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, where his guidance of that famed company had been greatly acclaimed—and I have concluded, after sixteen years, that Dowling is a better administrator than stage director. The Guthrie has a reputation for being phenomenally well-administered under Dowling, but Dowling’s own productions have not, in my experience, been particularly stylish or penetrating.

I cannot name a single Dowling production I have attended that has been memorable. I cannot recall a single Dowling production that has caused me to rethink or reassess a play. There has not been a single Dowling production I have wished to see a second time.

Dowling is nearing retirement age. In my view, The Guthrie should allow Dowling to remain Artistic Director as long as he wants, but the number of productions Dowling personally directs should be sharply curtailed.

After the matinee performance, we returned to Edina. On our way to my older brother’s house, we picked up an early dinner—we stopped at Boston Market for the second time in a week and bought chickens, stuffing, mashed potatoes and vegetables—and, once at my brother’s house, we were all able to sit down to a decent meal without expending any effort.

As soon as we finished eating, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Josh and I said “Good night” to everyone, and got in the car and headed back to downtown Minneapolis. We had another Shakespeare play to see, “Hamlet” at Jungle Theater, and there was a 7:30 p.m. curtain.

Knowing we would have a rest day before and a rest day after, we had deliberately set aside the middle day of a three-day weekend to see the two current Shakespeare productions in town, both lengthy and both requiring the viewer’s full attention. By design, we had chosen to see comedy in the afternoon and tragedy in the evening. It was, as we called it, “A Shakespeare Day”.

The Jungle Theater “Hamlet” was odd. Set in the present, the Jungle production was a high-technology “Hamlet”, with cell phones, laptops, iPads, video cameras, large-screen televisions and other assorted technological devices always present onstage—and always in use.

Elsinore Castle had its own security center, where security personnel monitored movements throughout the castle on video screens. The theater performance of the visiting theatrical troupe was replicated in real time via giant digital images on digital screens. Ophelia used a microphone for one of her monologues. Hamlet’s soliloquy was supported by a PowerPoint presentation.

Some of the reliance upon technology was clever, but most of it was not. It was possible for me to enjoy the performance only by ignoring the nonstop barrage of technological gadgets and by pretending that I was seeing a bare-stage “Hamlet”.

The production was not a disaster. The play, more or less, came across—and this was so despite the fact that the production was totally bereft of ideas (technological gizmos are not the same things as ideas). I had never before seen a production of “Hamlet” in which the director exhibited not a single thought about the play’s meaning. I did not think such a thing was possible—until Sunday.

The young actor playing the title role did not embarrass himself. His name is Hugh Kennedy. In each act, there was a ten-minute stretch in which Kennedy was quite good. Alas, in each act, there was also a ten-minute stretch in which Kennedy was quite bad. All night, Kennedy veered between being captivating one moment and inept the next. It was very vexing. However, without Kennedy, the entire performance would have been unendurable.

The rest of the company was unimpressive. The ladies fared worst, with a truly dreadful Gertrud and an even worse Ophelia. Indeed, the young woman playing Ophelia was so bad, I felt sorry for her.

In hindsight, I am surprised I was able to make it through the evening. However, while the play was underway, my attention was mostly held. Bad production that it was, the Jungle “Hamlet” was not a waste of time.

We caught the closing performance of the six-week run. Although an hour of text had been trimmed, the performance nonetheless ran almost three-and-one-half hours.

Josh and I had last seen “Hamlet” in April 2006, over that year’s Easter Weekend. Josh had come to Minneapolis for the first time that weekend, and he and I had gone downtown that Saturday to see “Hamlet” at the old Guthrie. “Hamlet” had opened the old Guthrie in 1963, and “Hamlet” had closed the old Guthrie in 2006. I had wanted Josh to experience the old Guthrie before the building was demolished, and that 2006 “Hamlet” was Josh’s only opportunity. (The razing of the old Guthrie was a disgrace—it was probably the only occurrence in world history in which a state-of-the-art theater facility was deliberately destroyed after only 43 years of use. Once The Guthrie moved into its new complex, The Guthrie should have turned over its former theater to another of the repertory theater companies in the Twin Cities instead of calling in the wrecking-ball crew.)

My parents had last seen “Hamlet” six months ago, when they had attended a performance of “Hamlet” at Theater In The Round, which had presented a four-week run of the play in March and April. According to my parents, the Jungle production we attended Sunday night was superior to the Theater In The Round production they had attended in April, a prospect I find rather frightening.

My sister-in-law had last seen “Hamlet” in 2000, when she had seen the National Theatre production by Sam Mendes, a production featuring Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet. That 2000 production is recalled by some with fondness, but my sister-in-law insists that Beale was seriously miscast and seriously misdirected. She says that Beale virtually rewrote the character of Hamlet in order to get by in the notoriously difficult part, and that Beale’s conception of the part involved playing Hamlet not as prince but as down-market dip.

Our “Shakespeare Day” was fun, but I would not want to repeat the experience anytime soon. It was almost midnight by the time we arrived home, we were exhausted, and the productions and performances truly had not been fine enough to justify our significant expenditure of time and trouble.

Monday was a happier day for us. Everyone came over for breakfast. We ate Eggs Benedict followed by buttermilk pancakes.

After breakfast, we took the kids (and the dog) to the park. Otherwise, we did nothing but stay home and play with the kids (and the dog).

We had a lunch of grilled tuna steaks, homemade egg noodles and peas. We ate strawberries and cream and fresh scones in the middle of the afternoon. We had a dinner of pot roast, homemade stewed tomatoes, homemade macaroni-and-cheese, baked butternut squash and fresh green beans, followed by apples baked in pastry with cinnamon sauce.

We did not intend to starve on Columbus Day.

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