Friday, September 24, 2010

"Ooooh, Sticks!"

Some people like to take casual strolls in Milwaukee's lovely parks and along its waterways. Others go for a jog near Bradford Beach at the Lake Michigan shoreline. Civic-minded volunteers pick up trash and litter in public areas, working together toward the laudable goal of urban beautification.

My Beloved Spousal Unit and I pick up sticks.

Not just any sticks; dead sticks. Burnable sticks. Burnable-in-the-fireplace sticks. Burnable-so-that-even-a-former-Boy-Scout-who-never-made-Second-Class-can-start-a-fire-with-two-matches sticks.

Last winter was our first season as domestic fireplace operators. Our large firewood supply held out fine, but we ran out of sticks. They sell firewood by the face cord; who sells sticks? So, we fetch sticks.

The other day I voted in the Primaries. On my half-mile walk to the polling place, I saw an eight-foot fallen branch, an inch-and-a-half or so in diameter, the late mother-limb of several baby limbs of useful dimension, sitting at the side of the road; an obvious casualty of the prior evening's thunderstorms. A veritable treasure-trove of sticks -- for free! -- merely three blocks up from our place.

The calculations began: If I pass it by, walk the three remaining blocks to vote, and walk back, will the branch still be there? Should I haul the branch home first, and then restart my trek -- a gambit which might tempt this proud but lazy citizen to say the hell with voting? Or do I claim the branch, drag it to the polling station, leave it outside with the slogan-sign mules and pamphleteers -- they'll surely know better than to mess with a branch-wielding loony, won't they? -- and then drag it all the way back home? This is how the branch-addict thinks.

I'm not sure who was more thrilled: I, when I saw that my branch was still waiting for me on the way back, or my Beloved Spousal Unit, when she saw that I'd actually performed a useful act of hunting and gathering.

          When a poor man came in sight,
          Gath'ring winter fue-ue-el!

I asked a timber-owning friend, The Tin Woodsman of Upstate N.Y., whether my wonderful branch and its many sublime sub-limbs would air-dry in time to use in our fireplace this season. Taking pity, he provided remedial education: "Some species such as oak take more time to dry because of their grain (xylem cell) structure, beech is fairly fast drying, and maple is sort-of average." He further advised me, in a kind voice -- or would have, had he not been responding via email -- that my splendid prize, which I'd spent a highly inefficient 45 minutes dismembering and cutting to length with a dull pruning saw, "may not amount to much volume."

Hmmph, I thought. The Tin Woodsman may know his xylem and phloem, but I say he knows nada about sticks.

Today, the autumn wind is howling. Returning from errands, my Beloved Spousal Unit and I stepped out of the Silver Zloty in front of our home. Instantly, our eyes fell upon a cornucopia of future kindling on the street and sidewalk. "Ooooh, sticks!" said the two highly-educated professionals, in unison. We can hardly wait for the first ice storm of the season.

The General Election is a month-and-a-half away. In six weeks, I'll walk six blocks to vote for the candidate who promises us the most sticks.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

To Say Nothing of Wade Boggs

Once again, the Idiot Spirit has visited us. The following were my seriously sorry entries in last night's trending meme on Twitter, #MLBnovels (MLB = Major League Baseball):

1. A Confederacy of Bunnings
2. The Guns of Ausmus
3. Lonesome Glove
4. 84, Charing Cross Rhodes
5. I, Lopat
6. The House of the Seven Gaedels
7. D'wight Stuff
8. Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of Wade Boggs)
9. Midnight in the Garden of Gooden Evil
10. How Stella Got Hargrove Back

Granted, the source material behind 2 and 7 was nonfiction rather than fiction, but when the Idiot Spirit speaks, we do not ask questions.

Hundreds of others had, of course, already plumbed the depths of the obvious, as in The Island of Justin Morneau. The rest of us had to dig a little deeper -- go down the Dusty Rhodes not taken, as it were.

This gives me the opportunity to recommend a terrific web site for baseball fans, especially those who can't quite recall the name of the St. Louis Cardinals' shortstop they saw when their Dad took them to a Brooklyn Dodgers game in 1937. I've lost entire afternoons careening around, and endorse it wholeheartedly for anyone who loves the game more than they remember it.

(By the way, the Cardinals' shortstop for that 1937 game was either Leo Durocher or Frenchy Bordagaray. Answer found in four clicks.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cabaret, Revisited

My disclaimer in an earlier post about not being a professional theater critic turns out to have been well-founded. I've just read Tom Strini's colorful, comprehensive review of The Milwaukee Rep's season-opening production of Cabaret in Third Coast Digest. It seems that if you immerse yourself in the performing arts for nearly 30 years, you get pretty good at writing about it. My hat's off to the true Schreibenmeister!

I now want to go back and see the show again, if only to look for and absorb all the wonderful movement, musical, and staging elements that Tom Strini identified and I'd failed to see beneath the surface. I'm also curious to see if I'll be able to discern any further sculpting and shaping of the production by The Rep's Director Mark Clements since the Preview Night performance that I saw. No doubt, Strini could tell me where to look -- and Clements could tell me where to go!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Empress Gladys

Is there anything wrong with America that more Pips couldn't fix?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cabaret dell'Arte

(Disclaimer: I am not a professional theater critic, nor do I have any business trying to be one.)

Another production of Cabaret, I thought -- until I heard that the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's own Lee E. Ernst would star as the Master of Ceremonies (and Preview tickets were cheap!). Ernst's dynamic portrayal of the frenetic, improvisational masked clown and show-stopping centerpiece Harlequin in The Rep's 1998 production of Servant of Two Masters, an 18th-century classic in the Commedia dell'arte tradition, had been one of the most distinctive, physically expressive, exhausting stage performances that I'd ever seen. Now the Emcee role; perfect casting. "I am your host!"

Twelve years on, Lee Ernst is nearly as spry as before, and his unmasked facial expressions are priceless. As the events inside and outside the Kit Kat Klub progress from light entertainment to ominous foreboding, building ultimately to tragedy and terror of historic proportions, Ernst centers the show. With the exception of the stage-whispered song "I Don't Care Much", which I guess is meant to be haunting but seemed underwhelming, Ernst's musical numbers were spot-on, faithful recreations of the original versions with touches of his own manic style.

That a long-time Milwaukee Rep favorite actor should be the one to animate the 2010-11 season opener is ironic, as The Rep's new Artistic Director Mark Clements cast dozens of outsiders and interns as part of a purported fresh blood/new energy movement for the company. Some fit their roles well, most notably supporting players Linda Stephens as Fräulein Schneider and Angela Ianonne as Fräulein Kost. Those recalling the movie version, expecting scintillating lead performances from the actors playing the Liza Minnelli-Michael York couple, will be disappointed, however -- not in Kelley Faulkner's powerful, pitch-perfect singing of the title song as Sally Bowles, but in her rigid affect, a seeming disqualification for playing a headlining showgirl. I got the sense that she hadn't quite warmed to the role yet. I also thought Ianonne, a more expressive actor, might have made a more credible Sally Bowles. Geoffrey Hemingway, as the closeted American naif who becomes enamored with Sally, is also either miscast or misdirected, coming across as a refugee from the cast of Our Town whom one can never quite believe is a promising writer.

Director Clements is more successful in the overall stage direction, including his collaboration with Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink as Choreographer. It's evident that exceptional effort went into the dance and musical direction of the show, particularly the show's classic opening number, "Willkommen!" I had a sense that Clements wanted to make both a statement and a memorable splash with his first production number of the season -- not to mention his nascent tenure as Artistic Director. While this production seems "safe" -- PG-13, if you will, and not at all edgy by today's standards (what were those odd costumes Lee Ernst was wearing?) -- Clements is quite unsubtle in presenting the signs of impending doom in the Nazi era. With a spotlight narrowly focusing on a significant, symbolic crystal bowl, and the ensemble's coalescing into a folk chorus singing the nationalistic anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" -- not to mention the openly, unabashedly displayed swastika armbands on the sleeves of partisans -- the show leaves little doubt about the horrific trajectory that awaits German Jews and Germany itself in the 1930s.

One side note: I very much appreciate the preliminary talk given by Milwaukee Rep cast member Jonathan Gills Daly, who appears in the show moments later as the middle-aged, Jewish-German fruit merchant, Herr Schultz, tragically smitten with Fräulein Schneider. His description of the events and mindset of ordinary Germans in 1928, based as they were on German national ambitions and humiliations of the prior seventy years, covers familiar ground but is, perhaps, useful for younger audience members who may not yet have been introduced to the lessons of history -- and stands as a stark warning for those among us who may have forgotten them.


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