30 December 2013

'How I Learned What I Learned'

In June 2005, when the Signature Theatre first announced its 15th Anniversary Season, a two-year celebration ending with productions of August Wilson plays, I was excited for two reasons.  The Wilson portion of the series, 2006-07, was to include a new, unnamed play and, most intriguingly, a solo performance by Wilson of something called How I Learned What I Learned, described by the New York Times as recounting “his experiences growing up in Pittsburgh.”  Then Wilson died at 60 on 2 October 2005, and the Wilson season at STC was, first, canceled and then reinstated in a different configuration.  Gone were the new play and, obviously, the monodrama.  Revivals of three of Wilson’s plays were scheduled at Signature, but How I Learned looked to be lost forever.  I didn’t even know if Wilson had written the monologue, and even if he had—who could perform it in his stead?   

But now, the Signature is presenting How I Learned, which began previews in STC’s Alice Griffin Jewelbox Theatre on 5 November and opened on 24 November.  (It was scheduled to close on 15 December, but it was twice extended for a week before it even opened and actually closed on 29 December.)  So, on the evening of 18 December, my friend Diana and I met at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row to catch this once-elusive performance I’d long given up on, a melancholic sidelight to the great loss of the playwright whose work had thrilled me every time I’d seen it, no matter on what stage.  (I’ve managed to see all but two of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle—also known, as it is at STC, as the American Century Cycle: Jitney, 1982, which covers the ‘70s, and Radio Golf, 2005, set in 1997.  There are ROT reports on two performances: Seven Guitars, 18 January 2013, and The Piano Lesson, 14 December 2012.)  Wilson’s stand-in, if that’s not too much of a put-down, is his frequent interpreter as a director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. 

The actor shares Wilson’s personal stories about his encounters with racism, music, love, violence, and life-changing friendships as a young poet in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  How I Learned What I Learned chronicles Wilson’s maturation in an antagonistic society while “becoming and defining” what it means to be a black artist in America.  Along the way, he reveals truths about his first jobs, a stint in jail, an early relationship, his first kiss, and the friends he’s had his entire life.  Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, who designed the costumes for the memoir, says, “How I Learned is about what the world held for [Wilson] once he stepped out of his mother’s house, what he found in his community, and what lessons he had to learn to become the future playwright.”  According to Santiago-Hudson, there was a lot of material on which to draw for the monologue.  “I build a lot of characters, I don’t just build him,” the actor reports.  “I build the people who surrounded him . . . .”  And set designer David Gallo, another long-time Wilson collaborator, asserts, “This piece exists on so many levels because of its origins, as its own genre with a unique theatrical approach and style that tells the stories theatrically and also autobiographically.”  In the New York Observer, Harry Haun quipped, “By any other name, the play is August Wilson: The Early Years.”

It seems Wilson had completed at least a version of How I Learned as much as a decade ago.  The solo piece premièred at Seattle Rep in May 2003, also under the direction of Todd Kreidler (who staged the STC version), in what turned out to be Wilson’s sole foray into acting.  Wilson was living in Seattle then and according to the Seattle Times, the playwright created How I Learned as a “kind of gift to the Seattle Repertory Theatre.”  Wilson, according to Kreidler, whom the playwright had met at Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1999 when the director worked as Wilson’s assistant on King Hedley II, had a trove of stories he told “when asked to speak at an opening night or donor dinner.”  He was already talking about a solo show in 2002, and Seattle Rep artistic director Sharon Ott suggested, “Why don’t you develop it for our Hot Type Festival [of readings of new works]?”  Wilson called Kreidler to be his director.

Completed only weeks before the performance, the monologue had the working title of The August Wilson Project, and later, a more facetious name, I'm Not Spalding Gray.  The script went through a couple of more incarnations as the focus shifted, with titles such as Move Over Chris Rock, which featured Wilson telling jokes, and Sambo Takes on the World, with the writer “flipping” clichés such as making Little Black Sambo a figure of admiration, until Wilson began to get more personal and center on his life as a young poet.  (The original final title was something out of the ’60s: How I Learned What I Learned (and How What I Learned Has Led Me to Places I've Wanted to Go. That I Have Sometimes Gone Unwillingly Is the Crucible in Which Many a Work of Art Has Been Fired).  Santiago-Hudson asserts that the text is actually a transcription from an audio recording of one of Wilson’s early performances.)  At the time of his Seattle début, Wilson confessed, “I never wanted to be an actor. I don't like getting up on stage. I don't like people staring at me.”  The writer reportedly asked advice from veteran solo performer Whoopi Goldberg, who had starred in the Broadway revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in February and April of that year.  (She apparently told him not to look at the audience!)  Wilson had planned to perform the show around the country, including New York City, but never got the chance, as we know.

Directed again by long-time Wilson collaborator Kreidler, who co-conceived the original memoir, the one-man show runs a scant hour and 20 minutes.  Santiago-Hudson, director of the acclaimed Signature production of The Piano Lesson last season, has also staged Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer (2008) and Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! (2012; reported on ROT, 11 June 2012) for Signature and Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean for Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in 2005; he won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his role as Canewell in Wilson's Seven Guitars.  The actor’s other Broadway credits include Wilson’s Jelly's Last Jam (1992-93) and Gem of the Ocean (2004-05) and Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly (2011-12).  Santiago-Hudson’s TV work includes Low Winter Sun, Castle, Law & Order, and Michael Hayes, among other shows.  In August and September of this year, he served as the artistic director for the readings on New York Public Radio and archival recording of all ten of the American Century Cycle plays.  Santiago-Hudson’s promised Wilson to bring Jitney, the playwright’s only work in the cycle not to have played Broadway or won a Tony nomination, to the Great White Way.  In the meantime, the actor-director staged a version of Jitney last February at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, which also commissioned his own play, Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine.  He’s scheduled to workshop the new play in March and then he hopes to mount a production at Two River next season before moving it on to New York, but in February 2014, he will direct The Happiest Song Plays Last, the final play in Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Elliot trilogy, at Second Stage. 

Santiago-Hudson began his enamoration with August Wilson’s work back in 1984 when he second-acted Ma Rainey at the Cort Theatre.  He tried to get parts in the next American Century Cycle plays as they came to New York and finally got to audition for Two Trains Running (1991).  He lost the part to Laurence Fishburne (who won a Tony for the part), but the next time around, Santiago-Hudson got a call for Seven Guitars, and his own Tony followed.  His personal association with the playwright began and after Seven Guitars, Wilson didn’t write a play about which he didn’t call Santiago-Hudson either to be in it or to just read it. 

Santiago-Hudson says he first heard Wilson deliver parts of How I Learned at a 2004 appearance at Boston’s Roxbury Community College, “A Conversation With August Wilson.”  In the writer’s presentations, the text “would change nightly,” the actor says, but since the stories aren’t his own life experiences, Santiago-Hudson, who’s three years younger now than Wilson was at his death, doesn’t “have the luxury of doing that.”  “[W]e took what we thought we needed to make this particular production,” explains the actor.  “I’m learning a word-for-word, if-and-or-but play,” he says.  Nonetheless, Santiago-Hudson says he feels Wilson taking possession eventually:

He takes the reins from me and eventually drives the show himself. . . .  We had a similar voice, and I don’t mean cadence—although we did share the rhythm of Northern colored people.  We had similarities—not identically, but we had a lot of the same thoughts about our people and our art, and that’s what made us kindred spirits: the revolutionary in me and the revolutionary in him, the vulnerable person in him and the vulnerable person in me, the mama’s boy in him and the mama’s boy in me.

Reportedly, though Wilson had originally written How I Learned for himself, he changed his mind and asked Santiago-Hudson to do it instead.  (The actor believes that “it was out of desperation to keep the play going that he chose somebody else to do it, and I was just blessed that he chose me.”)  He confirms that it was Wilson’s last request that he “do my play”; Wilson told Kreidler the same thing—to do the play with Santiago-Hudson.  After Wilson’s death, however, it took the actor almost eight years to gain the distance to attempt the performance.  We’ve put his death into perspective,” says the actor, “and now we want to honor him in this way.”  (Romero thinks “August would be getting impatient with us if we didn’t tackle it now.”) 

Although the actor recognizes that he and Wilson “had a lot of connections,” he insists that he’s not doing an impersonation of his playwright friend.  “I want this to be an experience of a man's life, told by someone who loves him,” the actor explains. “We had similar backgrounds,” notes Santiago-Hudson, including a family connection to Pittsburgh.  “The lessons we had been taught were taught by the same storytellers, the same people in the black community,” he adds.  For people who knew Wilson, those mentors and their stories were legendary: Wilson could cast a spell when he recounted them, and How I Learned is about Wilson telling his stories.  “I want people to have the kind of experience I had on all those street corners and hotel rooms” when the writer turned storyteller himself, says Kreidler.  The director admonishes, however, “I don’t want any pretense that we’re going to create this kind of spell,” then admits, “But secretly, between you and me, that’s what I want to happen.” 

In an interview, Santiago-Hudson mused about what he looked forward to in these performances:

I’m just excited about having a date with my friend again, you know?  Every night I can come to work and hang out with my buddy.  And  I can never imitate him but I can tell his stories.  I don’t want to impersonate him.  Because that would be like everybody’d be watching an impersonation and that’s not right.  But what is right is that a man who was dealing with his mortality looked at a friend and said, “I’m gonna trust you with my stories.  Tell them.”
Indeed, this is what made How I Learned something of an odd experience in the theater.  Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed this intriguing and funny-moving performance, but it’s still odd.  Santiago-Hudson does not, in fact, imitate his friend—this is not an impression of August Wilson in any way like, say, Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain or James Whitmore impersonating Harry Truman (or for the film-oriented, the more recent Daniel Day-Lewis doing Abraham Lincoln).  And yet, the actor is presenting the playwright.  These are Wilson’s stories and Wilson’s words, and Santiago-Hudson refers to himself as “August” (or, once, “Freddie Kittel,” the playwright’s birth name).  He names people who were real figures in Wilson’s life, real places in the Hill district where Wilson lived and grew up, actual incidents from his history.  But Santiago-Hudson wasn’t doing Wilson’s voice or his walk and he wasn’t wearing August Wilson make-up (in fact, Santiago-Hudson has no beard, which Wilson always wore, and is shaved bald).  Except for possibly the T-shirt the actor wore at the start of the play (I’ll get to this shortly), he didn’t seem to be dressed as Wilson, either.  “I think I’d do a disservice if I try to be him,” asserts Santiago-Hudson.  “You’d come in and do a study of my impersonation as opposed to listening to a man’s life and journey.”   

What I say happened on stage at the Griffin was that Ruben Santiago-Hudson was playing a character who’s name is August Wilson.  The stage persona the actor developed for this character was wholly invented by Santiago-Hudson, the way he might have created Canewell in Seven Guitars or Captain Roy Montgomery in ABC-TV's Castle.  “I put you in the hands of a very familiar person . . .,” says Santiago-Hudson, “I get you comfortable with me.”  Except for the words he said (and maybe a few personality traits—after all, Santiago-Hudson and Wilson knew each other pretty well for a long time), the character the actor played wasn’t the iconic dramatist with whose public persona most of us around the theater were familiar.  What Santiago-Hudson says is: “I’m witnessing for him.”  That’s not “being” Wilson, but it’s a sight more than just playing Hamlet or even Troy Maxson (which the actor longs to do).

But, of course, it was Wilson.  It was the playwright’s stories—both what he lived and witnessed and the words in which the writer composed them, the amazingly poetic prose that’s the language Wilson’s characters speak in his plays—that the actor was telling.  It was Wilson’s experiences that Santiago-Hudson internalized to create the character he played on stage.  August is in me,” declares the actor, “and he will reveal himself.”  So where are we?  Ruben Santiago-Hudson was playing a character called August Wilson but wasn’t that August Wilson—but was that August Wilson.  (I’m so confyooooosed—which, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it . . . well, twice.)  Well, I did say it was odd.

As mind-boggling as this situation is (at least to me, anyway), it turns out to be an advantage.  What we got is the magnificent storytelling and prose of playwright August Wilson, who wasn’t an actor regardless of how good a raconteur he may have been, and the superb acting of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, certainly one of the best we have on our stages right now.  Yes, it’s unfortunate that Wilson had to die for this alignment to occur (though apparently the playwright had wanted to turn the memoir over to Santiago-Hudson anyway), but the result is that we got two outstanding artists contributing the talent that’s uniquely special to each of them.  Unlike Burton doing Hamlet or McKellen doing Lear, this playwright-character-actor relationship is much more intimate and personal—and we benefitted from that.  “I approach it with the tools that God gave me,” says Santiago-Hudson.  Drawing an analogy to conducting a piece of music, the actor asserts, “If you release it to me, let me have it and let me be the conductor, then I’ll play the symphony.”  Wilson composed the symphony, but now Santiago-Hudson got to interpret it.

I mustn’t fail to add that director Kreidler contributed hugely to the outcome of this performance.  Aside from his obvious staging services, which worked to keep Santiago-Hudson in motion in a way that never seemed artificial and arbitrary nor hyperactive, the closeness to his subject and his material, probably every bit as intimate as the actor’s, clearly helped select and shape the performance text, including both the words and stories, and the approach Santiago-Hudson presented to us.  In Kreidler’s eyes, How I Learned didn’t require an actor but a “special storytelling sensibility,” which the director saw in Santiago-Hudson, as evidenced, he noted, in the actor-writer’s own autobiographical one-man play, Lackawanna Blues (Public Theater, New York, 2001; broadcast as an HBO movie in 2005).  “[I]t’s Ruben’s voice” Kreidler insists we heard in the Griffin, though Wilson “showed up in the rehearsal room.”

Constanza Romero, as the costumer for the one-man performance, had an interesting, if personally daunting task.  She describes her job here as dressing Santiago-Hudson as August Wilson “within this show,” which I take to mean that the costume had to fit not only the play’s circumstances and the actor’s physiognomy, but Santiago-Hudson’s sense of the character called August Wilson.  “I have a duty to be as truthful and accurate as I can be,” says Romero.  “But, you know, this is also my husband.”  As I said, I didn’t see that Santiago-Hudson was outfitted to look like the playwright, but he was correctly dressed for his “character,” a considerably older man than the one in the stories, now having gained some prominence and public stature, looking back.  For the most part, that meant a plain pair of dark trousers; a black, open-collared shirt, a sports jacket which he removes or puts on from time to time; and a brown snap-brim fedora (the real Wilson favored either a flat cap or a dark homburg).  When he arrived on stage, Santiago-Hudson sported a black T-shirt, one which Wilson apparently also wore (I’ve seen photos of him in it) with white lettering that read I Am An Accident / This Did Not Turn Out Right on the back and, when the actor turned around, I Am Supposed To Be White across the front.  It became a watchword for the performance—because, as “August” explains, the facts of his birth were not an accident.

David Gallo’s unit set was dominated by the back wall of the Griffin stage.  Completely covered with manuscript pages, resembling a 2004 photo (by David Cooper) of Wilson standing in front of just such a wall.  Onto this background, titles are projected letter by letter as if a giant, invisible typewriter were in use (accompanied by the sound of typewriter keys being struck), to identify the episodes of “August’s” tale.  (Gallo also designed the projections and the sound effects were courtesy of designer Dan Moses Schreier.  The lighting, which subtly established the shifting locales of Wilson’s stories and shaped their moods, was designed by Thom Weaver.)  The action of the performance took place on a raised platform in the center of the Griffin’s acting area (which has a removable raised stage, not used in this production) so that Santiago-Hudson moved about the platform from the coat rack up right, to the desk—really a wood plank set on two stacks of crates—up left, to the steps to the floor down right (where the actor occasionally perched on the top level).  Santiago-Hudson looked back to the projected titles and even dismissed one “August” decided wasn’t appropriate.  (At the end of the performance, the ten titles of Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays were “typed” onto the manuscript wall as Santiago-Hudson looked up in admiration, as if to say, This is what the life you’ve been hearing about led to.  Black out.)

How I Learned What I Learned is a storyteller’s memoir—the playwright was a great raconteur in real life, engaging listeners for hours during rehearsal breaks or standing at a street corner.  It’s not a play, strictly speaking (though, as I said, Ruben Santiago-Hudson plays a character).  It has a great deal in common with monologist Spalding Gray’s work—which is apt considering that Wilson first chose to model his piece on the performance artist’s elaborate stories.  As I reported, the first title of Wilson’s work-in-progress was I'm Not Spalding Gray.  Wilson’s voice is still distinct, but the remnants of Gray’s influence could be seen in the meandering, free-flowing structure of the stories Santiago-Hudson related, which aimed at a conclusion, but took their sweet time to get there.  One principal difference in Wilson’s piece is that, first, it’s made up of discrete episodes, separate stories announced by those projected titles, whereas Gray’s monologues ebbed and flowed, wandering off into sidings, but seldom changed track blatantly.  A second difference is, as I noted, Wilson’s prose, which is uniquely his. 

In fact, I think How I Learned isn’t so much about the stories Wilson tells, but the way in which he tells them.  It’s the insight, the perspective, which reveals a remarkably sensitive mind and heart, but more than that, it’s the diction, the language.  Young Frederick August Kittel, Jr., was an incipient poet, but the mature August Wilson was a poet of the theater, who used language on so many levels that it made even the most mundane, generic experience soul-soaringly unique.  For Wilson, language was action: to think is to be, but to speak is to do!  (Drama is from the Greek to act or to take action.  It means an act, a deed, a thing done.)  A third difference between How I Learned What I Learned and the monologues of Spalding Gray is in the content—or perhaps intent—of the stories.  Gray’s were almost entirely personal tales with little impact beyond his own life.  They may speak to us, but his experiences filming Apocalypse Now (related in Swimming to Cambodia) or struggling over his first novel, Impossible Vacation (the subject of Monster in a Box), are not really experiences most of us will ever share—but they amuse and intrigue us from a distance.  Wilson’s stories are about experiences lots of people, especially minorities and African Americans in particular, will have seen first-hand and many others will have had friends or colleagues who have.  As Diana observed, some of the stories are almost generic—but Wilson, unlike Gray, is speaking for everyone in his community, so it’s not the experience the details of which he communicates so pointedly that’s significant, but his perception of it, his insight, the lesson he took from it—and the words he uses to relate it.  (Santiago-Hudson and Kreidler know this and that’s part of the reason, I think, that they didn’t try to develop an impersonation of Wilson but to focus on telling the stories for maximum impact—in Santiago-Hudson’s own voice, not a borrowed one.)

There’s another difference between Wilson’s stories and Gray’s.  Wilson’s are more pointed, angrier, more painful.  He’s made them into art, which is what an artist does, of course, but the bitterness is there and palpable.  Another alternative title for How I Learned could be The Angry Black Man in America.  Right after revealing the sardonic T-shirt, “August” declares:

My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job.  But since 1863, it’s been hell.  It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche.

That sets a tone for the performance, though it does lighten up a bit.  (There’s considerable humor, sometimes dark—I won’t say “black” because Wilson has serious problems with that metaphorical use of the words ‘black’—outrageously wicked, dishonorable, connected with the devil—and ‘white’—outstandingly righteous; free from blemish, moral stain and impurity—reading the definitions from Webster's Third New International Dictionary—but it’s not a comic piece.)   Wilson’s anger is righteous, but there’s also an element of being a hammer and seeing everything as a nail—all bad behavior from white America, every slight and insult, is not only racial, but malicious.  (Believe me, I know where that comes from because I’ve been there in a slightly different context.  Encounters with racism leave a bitter legacy; so does anti-Semitism.)  If Wilson hadn’t leavened his anger and resentment with considerable humor (or had Santiago-Hudson not had such a light touch—what USA Today characterizes as “a mix of indignation and cheek worthy of an expert standup comedian”), the evening could have quickly become oppressive.  It’s a testimony to the special talents of the writer, the actor, and the director (who’s white, by the way) that this didn’t happen even as Wilson and Santiago-Hudson hit their marks squarely. 

The music that opened the show was the theme from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, beneath Santiago-Hudson’s entrance until he hung up his jacket Fred Rogers style.  This struck me as ironic at first—the relentlessly cheerful Rogers and his children’s show juxtaposed with the gritty and often mean streets of Wilson’s Hill District—until, that is, Santiago-Hudson related that Wilson encountered Rogers, both Pennsylvanians, and the TV personality told the would-be writer, “You’ll always be welcome in my neighborhood.”  This launched the story of the neighborhood Catholic church where the monsignor announced one Sunday that African Americans would hencefsorth be welcomed in their congregation, only to see that on the next Sunday, the pews were empty.  (That monsignor, Santiago-Hudson informed us, was fired by the Vatican.)  This set up the dichotomy of Wilson’s life: the world where he wasn’t welcome, where he was suspected, hated, vilified, and the one where he was embraced, nourished, and nurtured. 

The stories in How I Learned What I Learned show how Fred Kittel, who took his mother’s name as an adult, learned from his neighbors and mentors how to become the writer August Wilson who could make plays about the world he knew with both perspicacity and generosity.  How I Learned is about growing up—one man’s very special growing up.  Not just a boy growing into a man, but a wannabe becoming a distinguished artist.  The lessons he learned in the Hill District, that “amalgam of the unwanted,” included Something is not always better than nothing, which his mother taught him; Don’t try to push your spirit out through a horn that you don't know how to play, which he learned from his friend, would-be jazz saxophonist Cy Morocco, and which convinced Wilson to learn his craft; and the final lesson, How do you know what you know?  That’s the question Wilson’s exploring here, and he takes us along in his search.

Music, by the way, is important both to How I Learned and to Wilson.  He’s often acknowledged his sense of connection to the blues, a music that suffuses his plays both as subject matter (Ma Rainey) and as undertone.  A selection of blues or blues-influenced music preceded the show and there was a powerful anecdote at the center of the memoir about the playwright’s eye-opening introduction to the music of John Coltrane.  “It remains one of the most remarkable moments of my life,” Santiago-Hudson said for Wilson.  In a later anecdote, Wilson relates that when he was in a school auditorium rehearsing a play, a man came in and asked to use the piano.  The unknown musician sat down and began playing the most “incredible” music the stunned listeners had ever heard, then he stopped in frustration and screamed, “The limitations of the instrument!  The imitations of the instrument!”  “I think that’s where every artist wants to go,” “August” said: “That’s where I want to go.”  To make art until the “instrument” just can’t go any further, to reach the limit of human creativity.

The reviews of the STC production were generally excellent, which is unsurprising given Santiago-Hudson’s performance and Wilson’s eloquence.  Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called the show “a genial ramble through Wilson’s early days” but praised the portrayal of Santiago-Hudson, who “embodies Wilson with an ease surely born of longtime friendship.”  The Times reviewer states that the actor’s “silk-smooth voice and warm presence help animate the evening, so that even when the stories seem haphazardly assembled (or, on a few occasions, trivial), the flow of the narrative is held together by his focused, fully engaged performance.”  In USA Today, Elysa Gardner declared that How I Learned “reflects the generosity and wisdom of Wilson's writing” and that Santiago-Hudson’s performance “does evoke the humor, compassion, grace and righteous anger” of the playwright’s later work.  Describing the memoir as “a fascinating if rambling chronicle of a young writer’s coming-of-age” on the TV news channel NY1, Roma Torre said, “The material tends to come off as random, and from almost anyone else, it would seem disjointed.  But August Wilson is special.  And in the words of another great playwright, attention must be paid.”  Santiago-Hudson, Torre pronounced, “is an inspired interpreter.  He captures the many dimensions of this self-described rascal.” 

“The anecdotes [of How I Learned What I Learned] teem with humor and muted anger,” said the New Yorker in “Goings On About Town,”  “and Santiago-Hudson tells them as if they were his own.”  The actor, the unidentified reviewer wrote, “plays [Wilson] expertly, under the direction of Todd Kreidler.”  Adam Feldman of Time Out New York described the monologue as “an evocatively literary collection of detailed personal anecdotes, weighted by eloquent outrage at racial discrimination but lightened with folksy humor” which “is a worthy reminder of what we are missing.”  In How I Learned, we have been gifted what seems like a new Wilson drama [which] plays like an epilogue to the Century Cycle,” declared Entertainment Weekly’s Melissa Rose Bernardo.  The EW review-writer then warned, “Don't be surprised if you find yourself stunned into silence . . . .  Wilson's words have a way of doing that.” 

Among on-line reviewers, Andy Propst on AmericanTheaterWeb described How I Learned as a “freewheeling, episodic glimpse of life in the 1960s and 1970s in Wilson's native Pittsburgh that's laced with poetry” which “pulls back the curtain on some of the experiences that informed” the American Century Cycle.  Santiago-Hudson, wrote Propst, “delivers the monologue with grace and charm,” and with the direction of Kreidler, “keeps at bay” the “bitterness and anger” that are an expected part of the evening, “a feat,” the cyber reviewer insisted, “that only enhances the show's overall power.”  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer called the memoir a “scattershot cross between lecture and comic riff” which “falls short of being completely satisfying.”  Nonetheless, the director “couldn't have wished a better actor than Santiago-Hudson” who Sommer observed maintained a “rapport” with the audience from his first entrance through the 80 minutes of the show, or “a more perfect set than David Gallo's.”  Calling her complaints “quibbles,” Sommer acknowledged that the memoir “does give audiences a picture of what shaped Mr. Wilson's beliefs and the brilliant cycle of plays.”  More of a collection of remembrances than a structured play,” said Michael Dale of How I Learned on BroadwayWorld.com, the presentation was “intriguing, despite its episodic nature.”  “Santiago-Hudson's captivating presence and attention to verbal detail,” asserted Dale, “keeps the evening intriguing” as the performance “provides audiences with a living portrait” of the playwright.  [A]bsorbing, if predictable” but also “speedy, satiating” was the way Matthew Murray described the memoir on Talkin’ Broadway.  The anecdotes, said Murray, are “all briskly composed and awash in the sense of music.”  Nonetheless, “[d]espite Santiago-Hudson’s unflagging energy,” the cyber reviewer asserted, “the actor can’t keep each subsequent scene from feeling like a rewind of what’s come before” because of Kreidler’s “simple and static” staging, with the result, “especially towards the end, [that] you may as well be spinning in the middle of a white-hot hagiography.” 

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart sounded one of the few sour notes, offering that he’s “not sure what . . . August Wilson learned in his twenties, and judging from the hasty and facile conclusion of How I Learned What I Learned, I'm not sure he did either.”  The production “feels half-baked,” wrote Stewart of the “well-acted, beautifully designed, but ultimately unsatisfying” presentation that he characterized as “a loose collection of anecdotes told in no particular order.”  Santiago-Hudson, however, “is a captivating storyteller.  He draws you in and you quickly forget that you're listening to an actor.”  Stewart continued, “My BS detector pinged more than a few times while listening” to the “flimsily constructed” anecdotes “presented without reflection.”   The TM reviewer concluded, “How I Learned What I Learned is a museum display of an unfinished work, an echo of a man and his words frozen in amber for all eternity. . . .  [D]on't expect any prescient insights on race in modern America.”

I can’t agree with any of Stewart’s complaints, but I acknowledge that How I Learned What I Learned isn’t a perfect theater piece.  I presume that the pleasure in seeing Wilson perform the monodrama would have been in listening to the playwright tell his own stories, and seeing Santiago-Hudson do it creates a critical distance the material may not be able to support.  Nonetheless, I wouldn’t have missed this production for anything.  I wanted to see it since it was announced in 2005 and have had it in my mind ever since, and I couldn’t have been more pleased with Signature’s presentation all around.

25 December 2013

'The Last Two People On Earth'

In a crowded month of theater for me, as well as a somewhat varied one (one straight play—plus another one at the end of November—one monodrama, one dance-theater piece), comes now a self-described “apocalyptic vaudeville” presented by the Classic Stage Company (in association with Except For This LLC, executive producer Staci Levine; and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts).  Aside from the theater’s own promotional blurb (“It’s the end of the world as we know it.  A flood of biblical proportions leaves us with only two people on Earth, who discover their common language is song and dance”), I had no idea what to expect when Diana, who shares the CSC subscription, and I went down to the Lower East Side to the Abrons Arts Center, the performing and visual arts facility of the renowned Henry Street Settlement, on a snowy, blustery, and cold Saturday, 14 December, for the evening performance of The Last Two People On Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville co-conceived and performed by Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac singing a mix of music by Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, R.E.M., The Pogues, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, and others.  (The two remaining co-conceivers are Susan Stroman, who choreographed and directed, and Paul Ford, the show’s musical director.)  It was the opening night of 18 performances which are scheduled to end on 31 December. 

The Classic Stage Company was founded by Christopher Martin at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on West 73rd Street in 1967 and has made its home on East 13th Street in the East Village since 1985.  (Martin, who focused the theater’s repertory on European classics, was forced out in 1985 when the company’s board insisted that the theater shift direction to more popular American fare.)  CSC still maintains a commitment to “re-imagining the classical repertory for contemporary audiences.”  Over the years, I’ve seen quite a few productions there, including a fascinating two-part revival of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in November 1981 (and a less fascinating original play by David Ives—better known now for Venus in Fur, 2010, also at CSC—about Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish philosopher, entitled New Jerusalem, 2008).  (I have a report on a Washington, D.C., revival of Ives’s Venus in Fur on ROT; see 11 July 2011.)

The Abrons Center, at 466 Grand Street between Pitt and Willet Streets, was originally built as the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1915.  (The Henry Street Settlement, a not-for-profit social service agency, was founded in 1893.)  The Abrons has been a performance venue continuously, but under various names, starting with the Neighborhood Playhouse: Henry Street Playhouse (1927), Harry De Jur Playhouse (1967); from 1970, Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre occupied the De Jur.  (NFT has moved its administrative offices, but it still produces at the Abrons, among other venues.)  The current building, incorporating the 1915 theater, opened in 1975 and was landmarked in 1989; a complete renovation occurred in the 1990s.  The facility houses the 350-seat Playhouse (the original Neighborhood Playhouse), the 75-seat black-box Experimental Theater, and the Underground Theater which accommodates 99 patrons.  Over the decades, some illustrious performers have appeared at the Abrons, from contemporary figures like the late Lou Reed, Philip Glass, and Rufus Wainwright, to artists out of performance history like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Aaron Copeland, Eartha Kitt, Orson Welles, and Agnes de Mille.

The 65-minute “workshop presentation” of Last Two People is “fully staged” by Stroman (Crazy for You, Tony – choreography, 1992; Show Boat, Tony – choreography, 1995; Contact, Tony – choreography, 2000; The Producers, Tony – choreography and directing, 2001) with live music performed by a trio led by Ford (Mandy Patinkin in Concert: "Dress Casual" – musical director, 1989; Mandy Patinkin in Concert: "Mamaloshen" – musical arranger, 1998; Celebrating Sondheim – musical director, 2002; An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin – conceiver and musical director, 2011).  Stroman was also the director and choreographer of the short-lived Broadway movical Big Fish which opened in October and will close this month and she will do the same services for the upcoming Bullets Over Broadway, another movical, scheduled to open next April.  Diana believes the producers are thinking Broadway ultimately, which may be so, but my guess is Last Two People is headed first for ART, the co-producer.  (When Diana called to find out where the Abrons is and how long the show runs, the CSC announcement said it’s 100 minutes, considerably longer than it actually is.  I suggest that, as a workshop—a program note even warns that the songs may change without notice—this incarnation of The Last Two People On Earth is still being tweaked and developed and may end up longer than the version Diana and I saw, which is probably wise if a Broadway or commercial Off-Broadway run is under consideration.  I guess we’ll find out.)

The New York Times theater writer Charles Isherwood called the pairing of Patinkin and Mac a “startling matchup” because “they come from radically different worlds.”  Patinkin is, of course, a Tony-winning Broadway actor and singer whose credits include Evita (1979 – Tony, 1980), Sunday in the Park With George (1984), The Secret Garden (1991), and The Wild Party (2000), as well as several concerts on Broadway (produced by Except For This and Staci Levine).  He famously starred on TV in Chicago Hope (1994-2000) and Criminal Minds (2005-2007), both of which shows he left precipitously; Patinkin currently appears in the Showtime series Homeland (2011-present).  Mac is a playwright, actor, singer-songwriter (one of his songs, “Fear [Itself],” is in the show), cabaret performer, performance artist, director, and producer who often appears in drag.  His past projects include Good Person of Szechwan at the Public (2013); A Midsummer Night’s Dream at CSC (2012); and The Lily’s Revenge (book, lyrics, and concept by Mac based on Noh plays) at HERE Arts Center, New York (2009); The Magic Theater, San Francisco (2011); Southern Rep, New Orleans (2012); and ART (2012).  The Village Voice crowned Mac the “Best Theater Actor” in New York for 2013.

Patinkin and Mac (the “characters” don’t have names—which works out fine since there’s no dialogue anyway) are survivors of a global flood that has wiped out everyone on earth except the two of them.  They find that their only common language is song and dance.  Sort of like Gogo and Didi of Waiting for Godot (coincidentally on stage uptown starring another intriguing pairing of performers), Patinkin and Mac keep each other company, entertaining one another by recounting the history of humankind to “chronicle the rise and fall and hopeful rise again of humankind, through music.“  (Ironically, the CSC illustration for the show depicts Patinkin and Mac in bowler hats, making them look like some portrayals of Estragon and Vladimir in Godot, including the current Broadway version.  The illustration also brings to mind René Magritte’s surrealistic paintings The Son of Man and Man in the Bowler Hat.)

As for the performance itself—well, who’da thought Mandy Patinkin, whom Jesse Green calls a “shvitzy warbler” in New York magazine, could be a clown?  Okay, he’s not Bill Irwin or David Shiner, but he does mime and sight gags in baggy pants—his are “dad” jeans, but what the hey!—and a bowler hat and carries—wields is perhaps a better word—a cane!  Who knew?  I don’t know Mac’s work at all except by rep, but I gather this is right in his wheelhouse.  Hell, from the evidence of this brief encounter, I’d guess not much isn’t in Mac’s wheelhouse!  If I had to characterize this pairing, I’d say, in a very loose sense, that Mac (an “adorable genderkind”) is a postmodern Stan Laurel (he even vaguely resembles Laurel) and Patinkin is a sort of grumpy, stern Oliver Hardy.  (Well, they are in a fine mess, though Mac didn’t get them into it.)  I still don’t think clowning comes naturally to Patinkin—this is a character he’s playing, and it’s still a little studied and controlled—but Mac is a natural buffoon.  Neither his body nor his face are as rubbery as either Irwin’s or Shiner’s, possibly the best clown-mimes working this side of the Atlantic today (I saw them in Old Hats last spring and reported on the performance on ROT on 22 March), but he’s immensely flexible nonetheless, and apparently endlessly inventive and imaginative.  The program doesn’t say who came up with the idea for Last Two People, but I suspect that Mac contributed most of the gags that punctuate the narrative the songs and dances lay out.  (My guess: Patinkin and Ford, who’ve collaborated a number of times, together came up with the song selections.) 

The teaming of Patinkin and Mac, of which New York’s Jesse Green says “an unlikelier duo” is “hard to imagine,” is not only surprising, it’s not a natural fit, either.  Mac’s organically goofy and silly—his face is changeable depending on things like where he’s facing and what he’s wearing on his head.  Patinkin’s a classically-trained actor-singer (he went to Juilliard), not an improvisational performer (from what I can tell), and being loose and unfettered doesn’t seem to come instinctively to him.  While Mac is comfortable in his role in Last Two People, enticing Patinkin to stay when he threatens to leave after a disagreement or devising ways to feed themselves or pass the time, Patinkin is more studied, rehearsed, and planned out.  This was the opening performance—there were no scheduled previews—so I presume Patinkin will loosen up some as the work progresses before an audience, but Mac’s already there.  It’s a small distinction, perhaps, but it makes the match-up uneven in some performative aspects and unbalances the production, as if the two singers were in different shows with the same script.  Again, this may be the consequence of the first night plus two actors with different kinds of backgrounds and it will even out subsequently.  (Then again, maybe it won’t, either.)

The physical production holds some little pleasures and even a couple of surprises.  William Ivey Long’s costumes, since there’s only one for each performer, are the easiest to handle.  Mac is dressed as a traditional vaudeville clown: baggy pants, threadbare cut-away, bowler—all in black.  He also carries a cane and has various props (including a full dinner setting plus three apples) stashed in his pants or in his coat pockets.  He also wears a vest, but it’s not a once-elegant black one, it’s an olive-drab, canvas commando’s vest.  (He is a survivor, after all, of a global flood and washed up on the stage—we never learn where the two are: it’s up to our imaginations—in an orange inflatable boat, like some kind of clown-universe SEAL.)  Patinkin, beardless here in contrast with the hirsute Saul Berenson on Homeland, wears work clothes: the baggy jeans I mentioned, flannel shirt, kerchief  (or bandage) tied around his forehead.  Mac provides the bowler and cane from the rubber boat (which somehow also holds a host of other useful items like two bentwood chairs and an inflatable, life-sized naked female doll).  Like Didi and Gogo, they are Nobodies and Everymen at the same time. 

Beowulf Boritt’s scenery is also simple but highly effective.  It’s been a long time since I saw a show with a front drape, but upon entering the Abrons auditorium, a traditional proscenium house of the early 20th century, we’re confronted with a curtain, painted to depict an apparently endless, dark blue body of water with what looks an immense, gray cliff beyond.  Two empty, round spotlights are side by side rising from the stage level in the center.  When the main drape rises, the stage set is revealed: a decaying, free-standing proscenium arch (the theater’s actual stage doesn’t have an arch), circa 1910-ish, blue with gold maple leaves or medallions; there’s a huge steamer trunk up center left.  The lighting by Ken Billington and sound design by Daniel J. Gerhard, which included piping the live music by Ford on piano, Tony Geralis on keyboard, and Paul Pizzuti on drums into the house from behind the scenery, helped establish the apocalyptically vaudevillian atmosphere physicalized by Boritt’s set.  There were also some wonderfully low-tech special effects, which I presume were developed by technical supervisor Aurora Productions.  After Mac flings the inflatable lady off stage lest Patinkin see it, it comes sailing back during a windstorm a few minutes later, flying across the stage above everyone’s head on an obvious harness and pulley like a tiny zip line!  (Eat your heart out, Spider-Man!)

The show starts with the sound effects of a great storm.  I don’t know how someone would interpret this without having read the promos for the performance; maybe it’s obvious to the uninitiated, but it seems ambiguous to me.  (Unlike some vaudeville-inspired shows, like the Irwin-Shiner Old Hats I mentioned, Last Two People doesn’t use title cards or captions for the scenes.)  Though I had expected two people to emerge through the curtain to stand in the light spots, that doesn’t happen and when the curtain rises, Mac is revealed arduously pulling his rubber boat on stage from the right wing.  Singing an English translation of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” (“Yo heave ho!  Yo heave ho!”), he’s pulling from a seated position with his back to us, scooting a few feet to the center of the stage after each successful tug until he manages to get the boat on to the platform.  Then he unloads the accouterments for a picnic, taking the dinnerware out of his pants and setting them all carefully on a table cloth he’s spread out next to the large trunk.  When he pulls an apple out of his pocket, shines it up, and places it next to him, right by the trunk, a hand snakes out surreptitiously and snatches the fruit.  Finding it mysteriously missing, Mac takes out a second apple and repeats is action, only to lose it again the same way.  The third time Mac repeats this business, he watches the apple and grabs the hand and Patinkin emerges from the trunk, to the great shock of Mac that there’s another survivor of the flood. 

We know from publicity that the two don’t understand each other (though there’s no dialogue, so we have to take on faith that this is so), until one of them starts to sing and the other picks up the song and they realize that this is how they can communicate.  This leads to a rendition of Thomas Haynes Bayly’s 1833 composition “Long Long Ago,” a song about love.  The rest of the story unfolds through song and some dance and pantomime, as the two last people on Earth go through friendship, conflict, near breakup, and reconciliation. 

The score covers songs from the 19th to the 21st century, from traditional tunes to show music to pop and rock numbers, including comic pieces and serious and even melancholy ones, but the styles are all mixed and no thought seems to have been given to matching or blending them.  That’s not actually a fault, but I did wish that so many of the songs weren’t so familiar, especially the show tunes.  Songs that well known, at least for me, arrive pre-stocked with a lot of context and Patinkin and Mac don’t necessarily intend for that meaning to carry over into Last Two People.  Rogers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (South Pacific, 1949), for instance, is given an ironic and mocking rendition which fights with the straightforward, sincere plea against bigotry that I know from the musical.  Sometimes, of course, the familiarity helps in this new setting, as with the closing number, the children’s camp round “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  In the end, though, this is a small quibble.

Now, right at the outset, the narrative of Last Two People gets a little sticky if you don’t take it on a metaphorical level.  The premise of the vaudeville is that the arc of Patinkin and Mac’s developing relationship relates the story of humanity and, potentially, its revival.  The songs are often about love and one early number is E. Y. Harburg and Burton Lane’s “The Begat” (from 1947’s Finian’s Rainbow), which is about . . . well, procreation (“Sometimes a bachelor, he begat”).  Ummm, how does that happen with two guys?  (Parthenogenesis, anyone?)  Before I got to the show, I wondered if Mac would be doing one of his drag roles (as he did in the Public’s Good Person, in which he played Shen Tei, the title character—as well as her male alter ego, Shui Ta, roles usually played by a woman), but he doesn’t.  (I recently saw an e-card with the text, “I'm not saying you’re not my type, I'm just saying if you and I were the last two people on Earth the human race would die out,” but that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here.)  The characters Mac and Patinkin are playing don’t seem androgynous or genderless, and maybe I’m being too literal once again—but when they sing about love and, let’s face it, sex—a late song is “Real Live Girl” by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh from Little Me in 1962—well . . .”I’m so confyoooosed!” as Vinnie Barbarino used to say. 

All told, for 65 minutes, even on a miserable evening on the New York streets, The Last Two People On Earth is an entertaining, intriguing, and provocative piece of theater.  The theme is a little daunting if taken seriously, but the form is unusual and engaging and seeing Mandy Patinkin in an uncharacteristic role and getting the chance to see Taylor Mac for the first time was more than worth the price of the ticket.  There’s some opinion, it seems, that Last Two People has intentions of being more than an off-beat cabaret comprising a peculiarly eclectic selection of songs accompanied by rudimentary vaudeville dances like the cakewalk.  There may be plans for a more performance-art style presentation with more physical acting, something more postmodern, which could account for the missing 35 minutes.  I have no idea if this is correct, or where it comes from (I saw it in cyberspace, and we know how accurate that is), and I can’t evaluate what isn’t there, of course.  But it’s thought-provoking.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens next with Last Two People and how it ends up when the team’s finished workshopping it and they decide it’s ready for prime time.  I’ve only seen one report about that future and that only said that Mac and Patinkin plan to tour the show to theaters around the U.S. before returning to New York for an Off-Broadway run in 2014.  My guess about an ART visit is just that: a guess, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

[At the time I composed this report, no reviews of The Last Two People On Earth had appeared, either in print or on line, and that may be because the performance is billed as a workshop, so there won’t be any coverage.  That makes it difficult to do my customary survey of published notices, so readers of ROT will just have to go with my assessment and see what else they can find on their own.]

20 December 2013


I’ve only seen one of Martha Clarke’s movement plays up to now, a revival of Vienna: Lusthaus at the New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village in July 2002.  Though I could recognize Clarke’s special talents and appreciate the skill and cleverness on display in the performance, I never became a fan of that kind of work.  Nevertheless, Diana, my usual theater partner, and I had taken a subscription to this season’s mixed assembly of plays and performances at the Signature Theatre Company and Clarke’s Chéri, part of the company’s Residency Five program, was one of the performances we selected.  So on the evening of Wednesday, 11 December, I made my way up to the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row to catch Chéri on the Irene Diamond Stage.  (Diana was unable to make this performance at the last minute and will have to arrange a later one on her own.)

(STC’s Residency Five is a program that guarantees each playwright, usually an emerging artist, three stagings of new works over a five-year residency.  In addition to Clarke, this season’s Residency Five writers are Annie Baker, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan, and Regina Taylor; Chéri is Clarke’s first Residency Five production.  The Legacy Program revisits the work of a past writer-in-residence, including this year August Wilson and Horton Foote.  Signature’s main playwright’s program, the expansion of the former single-writer seasons, is Residency One, a one-year residency during which the dramatist sees the production of a series of her or his works, usually including the première of a new work.  This year’s Residency One is an extension of David Henry Hwang’s stint from last season and the company will stage his new play, Kung Fu, in February and March, postponed from last spring.  My other ROT reports from Hwang’s previous STC presentations are Golden Child,” 9 December 2012, and The Dance and the Railroad,” 17 March 2013.  I’ve already reported on Foote’s The Old Friends, 10 October on ROT; Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned, a monodrama he was supposed to perform when STC first planned a season of his work in 2006-07, began previews on 5 November and I will see it on 18 December.)

Inspired by controversial French author Colette’s 1920 novella, Chéri, which some think is Colette’s masterwork, and its 1926 sequel, Fin de Chéri (The Last of Chéri), the performance is Martha Clarke’s latest multidisciplinary work.  A fusion of theater, music, and dance, with text by playwright Tina Howe, STC’s Chéri features American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Herman Cornejo, Italian prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri, Obie-winning and Oscar- and Golden Globe Award-nominated actress Amy Irving, and pianist Sarah Rothenberg.  (Ferri’s designation is the highest rank among female ballet dancers.  The latest in that line, she shares the title with only 11 other dancers, past and present.)  This heartbreaking tale of forbidden love between a young man (known as Chéri, which means “Dear” or “Darling,” played by Cornejo) and an older woman (Lea, played by Ferri) over a seven-year span in Belle Époque Paris is an examination of sensuality, love, and aging.  It’s told almost exclusively through dance and movement.  Irving plays Charlotte, Chéri’s mother and Lea’s best friend—and the only character who speaks.  Colette’s story has been adapted for the stage (in 1921 by the author herself and, among other times, for a short-lived 1959 Broadway run), twice for film (1950 in French and 2009 in English), and twice for TV (1962 for French TV and 1973 by the BBC); it was made into a ballet in 1980.  The 65-minute world première production of Clarke’s adaptation began previews on 19 November in the Diamond, opening on 8 December; it was originally scheduled to close on 22 December but has been extended now to 29 December.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, universally known simply as Colette, was born in 1873 in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Provence and died in Paris at 81 in 1954.  Accorded the status of a national treasure, she received the rare honor as a civilian of having a state funeral.  She published 80 volumes of fiction, memoirs, essays, plays, criticism, and reportage, and appeared on stage as an actress, dancer, and mime.  (A few months after her stage adaptation of Chéri opened at the Théâtre Michel, she appeared as Lea for the 100th performance.)  Her best known work is Gigi (1945), but her first publication was Claudine à l'école (1900; translated as Claudine at School), serialized, as most of her early works were, in Parisian journals.  In 1949, she was the first woman to become president of the Académie Goncourt and the second to be made a member (Chevalier) of the Légion d’honneur in 1920 (and the first to become a Grand Officier in 1953).  Colette was married three times (at 20, 39, and 62), but she had numerous affairs, including several with women, and not infrequently caused scandals in Belle Époque Paris.  Clarke says she was attracted to Colette when the choreographer-director was in her early 20’s because, “besides loving her writing, she  loved animals, like me.  Dogs and flowers and the countryside.”  More importantly, I suspect, Clarke confesses, “And as a woman she had a very tempestuous love life.  I was very drawn to that as a young woman.  . . . I was drawn to her joie de vivre, her freedom, and her extraordinary perceptions of nature.”  I imagine that Clarke saw the same traits in Charlotte and, especially, Lea as well, making her choice of Chéri a compelling one for her.

Clarke, 69, is a Baltimorean by birth and she began studying dance there at the Peabody Conservatory.  After continuing her studies at Juilliard, she began performing with the Dance Theatre Workshop and later helped start Pilobolus Dance Theatre before beginning her solo career as an innovative choreographer and director.  She has choreographed for a number of important dance companies around the world, but she is most famous for her highly individual movement-theater pieces that fuse dance and theater.  Beginning with The Garden of Earthly Delights (1984), inspired by the early Renaissance triptych of the same name by Hieronymus Bosch, and continuing with Vienna: Lusthaus (1986), The Hunger Artist (1987), Miracolo d’Amore (1988), Endangered Species (1990), An Uncertain Hour (1995), and Vers la Flamme (1999), Clarke carved out an essentially new form of performance which emphasizes the visual and aural aspects to create emotionally evocative pieces.  Though she may be inspired by many sources, such as the novel in Chéri, most of her ideas come from painting and visual art.  Even Chéri, though based on a book, has visual elements in the production drawn from painting: Clarke has acknowledged that she looked at the work of Post-Impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard for inspiration.  The movement artist even uses images of painters when speaking of acting (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera) and music (Mark Rothko).  (She says she’s drawn to the turn of the 20th century—“I think one of my previous lives must have been in 1900,” she declares—and loves the romanticism of the music and the literature of “the dawn of the 20th century.”)  In addition to visual artists, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, and, obviously, Bosch, the director-choreographer says she’s been influenced by other artists whose work is largely imagistic, such as filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, and Luchino Visconti, European directors whose “use of light and space” she admires.

Angel Reapers, with a text by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry, Clarke’s last new work, had its New York premiere in 2011, but she’s said she wants to rework an older piece, Alice’s Adventures Underground, a collaboration with playwright  Christopher Hampton she did at London’s Royal National Theatre in 1994.  Angel Reapers is an impressionistic 70-minute dance-theater piece on the struggles of the Shakers drawing on their simple hymns.  Alice, based on the writings of Lewis Carroll and employing Carroll as a character in the play, uses passages from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as well as Carroll’s poems and letters to explore the relationship between the Oxford don’s relationships with little girls.

Clarke is neither the composer of the music in her pieces nor the writer of the text if there is one—but she is nevertheless the creator of the work as the conceiver and the originator of the overall idea as well as the director of the performance.  With backgrounds in music, dance, and theater (plus lifelong interests in art and literature), she herself declares “rather gleefully” that “in the dance world, she is thought to be a director, in the theatre world, a choreographer, and in opera, a misfit.”   She puts together the team—and essentially wrangles them.  Clarke says she found Cornejo when she happened by a studio where he was working and was “caught like a deer in the headlights of his brilliance.”  She had “pursued” Ferri (whom Clarke calls “the Anna Magnani of ballet”) “for years” because “she’s an amazing actress” and finally the Italian dancer was ready to work with Clarke.  Rothenberg came through Clarke’s association with Lincoln Center and the choreographer-director approached Howe because, both artists having used the same hair dresser, they’d known each other for a long time.  (Clarke also finds significant that Rothenberg speaks French and lived in Paris and that Howe’s “a Francophile.”  “Selecting the right collaborators and cast creates the DNA for a stimulating process and hopefully a finished product,” believes Clarke.)  She shapes all the elements of the performance—the music, sound, text, lighting, sets, and costumes—and unifies them along with the movement, dance, and acting to convey her vision.  She says she works “completely instinctively,” even though she does “a lot of research.”  She “fall[s] in love with a subject, and with collaborators,” but she doesn’t “try to recreate the ‘reality’ of the source.”  Among her many awards (a Drama Desk, two Obies, and an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award, to name a few) and honors, she received a 1990 MacArthur “genius” grant. 

I feel as if it’s become something of a litany, saying that I’ve never been a fan of some artist whose work I’m seeing—Terrence McNally in November, Richard Nelson earlier this month (see my reports on And Away We Go, 5 December, and That Hope Changey Thing, 15 December)—but that’s the case again with Clarke, as I noted at the outset of this report.  To be honest, I’m not a great dance enthusiast to start with, so perhaps I’m just not equipped to evaluate Clarke’s work.  On the other hand, though, she sees her movement pieces as a kind of theater; even the New York Times calls Clarke’s work “dance-theater” and a “hybrid of dance and theater” and sends a theater writer to review it, not a dance reviewer.  The main reason I don’t follow dance isn’t that I don’t find it beautiful as an art form or that I don’t recognize the immense skill and talent that’s displayed when it’s performed, but as a medium for telling stories I find it lacking.  Dance (and it’s ally “movement”) is essentially an emotional medium—it portrays feelings and engenders emotions—but it needs a lot of help to deal with narrative as far as I’m concerned.  On the blog The Dance Enthusiast, dance writer, choreographer, and teacher Erin Bomboy states, “Dance, which uses the language of metaphor to explore internal states, is not always well suited to complicated narratives.”   It’s great with the grand emotions like love, lust, passion, delight, sadness, anger, and hate, but when it comes to the subtler states, the nuances, it needs acting, speech, or singing, and a lot of back up.  The music, of course, helps a lot, but most story ballets provide a synopsis (unless it’s such a familiar tale, like the Nutcracker or Cinderella, that everyone’s expected to know it beforehand).  (Okay, now, all you balletomanes and dancers out there, let’s not get exercised.  I’m talking about my perception.  I know lots of folks hold other views.)  To be fair, however, Colette herself, as Clarke pointedly quotes her in a program note, advised young writers, “No narration, for heaven’s sake!  Just brush strokes and splashes of color, and there is no need for a conclusion . . . .  Liberate yourself!” 

So, even at an hour-and-five-minutes, I found my mind wandering at Chéri.  I’m not competent to evaluate the dancing of Ferri or Cornejo or the choreography of Clarke from a dance perspective, but I can tell you how I think it all worked as theater, which is to say narrative.  Except for about four monologues by Charlotte (salted—or perhaps I should say salé—with French phrases like “ça suffit” and “quelle horreur”), which don’t so much advance the plot as fill in gaps as Clarke’s Chéri skips over time, the piece is entirely presented in dance.  (Clarke and Howe adapted the story by presenting the year-long romance of Chéri and Lea in 1912 before Charlotte arranges her son’s marriage to a “suitable” and wealthy 18-year-old.  It then picks up again in 1919, with The Last of Chéri, after the young man has returned damaged from World War I.)  The first pas de deux (see, I do know the words!), depicting the grand passion of the young Chéri, 24, and the older Lea, 49, just after they’ve arisen in the morning, is evocative of the love, both physical—she’s in a négligée and, sometimes, a dressing gown (when Chéri hasn’t removed it) and he’s in pajamas, often shirtless—and emotional, shown in lifts and embraces and a lot of gazing into each other’s eyes, is effective.  If I hadn’t heard the story beforehand, I wouldn’t have known what the context was, but I could tell that these were two ardent lovers still in the throes of discovering their passion for each other.  There’s a lot of repetition of gestures and movements, some with variations, but the idea gets across clearly. 

But that’s where the problem develops: the dance scenes never get beyond this, and later ones are very generic and almost clichéd.  Expressing the lovers’ passion for each other, and later the disappointment that it seems to be waning, never gets more specific, never really varies or changes.  There are some interesting moments, as when Ferri has her back against the wall and Cornejo, facing her, lifts her by the waist as she essentially climbs the wall as her raised arms sort of claw the plaster.  Some of Chéri’s despair in the final scene, when he’s alone after returning from the war, where Charlotte explains he lay for a long time under the body of his best friend, evokes both agitation and despair.  (I won’t spell out the ending, though anyone who’s read the novel will know what happens, but I will hint that Le Fin de Chéri can also be translated as “the end of Chéri.”)

I said I can’t assess the dancing of Ferri and Cornejo, except to say that they both seemed good, with expressive bodies (of which we get to see quite a bit from time to time).  As 49-year-old Lea, Ferri (who’s 50 herself, so it’s appropriate) looks wonderful enough that it’s not hard to believe that a young “playboy” (that’s how Chéri’s described in the novel, I gather) might be attracted to her.  Lea (and also Ferri) is “still turning heads as she approaches the half-century mark,” observes Charlotte, not without a tinge of envy.  (Dancers just don’t seem to age like the rest of us.  Both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire looked like much younger men right up until they died at ages 83 and 88, respectively.  When I saw Gwen Verdon in Chicago in 1975, when she was 50 and a grandmother, she was as beautiful and sexy (!) as she had been when I saw her in Sweet Charity  when she was in her early 40’s or in the film of Damn Yankees when she was the same age as Cornejo is now, 32.) 

Cornejo, though I can’t fault his dancing, handed me another problem—although I may be too literal.  Chéri is 24, and while eight years isn’t much of a difference (especially given what I just said about dancers and aging), the character’s also portrayed as beautiful, a magnet for women of all ages, and the dancer’s no matinee idol.  He’s rather rough-looking, more gaucho (Cornejo’s Argentinian by birth) than Adonis.  Of course, charm and charisma make up for a lot of deficiencies in appearance for both men and women, but I didn’t get a read on that aspect of the characters from the performance.  (Some comes from Charlotte’s narration—but she’s the doting mother of one character and the best friend, who cops to not a little jealousy, of the other, so she’s not necessarily impartial.)  Furthermore, Clarke asserts that Ferri’s “an amazing actress” and that the partnership with Cornejo exuded “real chemistry and enormous generosity,” but I found the relationship as expressed in the choreography largely symbolic and objectified, not passionate and organic.  I can’t say whether this is the fault of the performers or the creator-choreographer, but it strikes at the very center of the story and the performance.  These are people who can’t stay away from each other: when they’re apart, they pine and languish (especially Chéri), and when they’re together, they can’t stop touching.  I didn’t sense that compulsion in the performance.  (I can’t judge either Ferri or Cornejo as dancer-performers because I don’t know either’s work, but I’ll make the general statement, arguable as it is, that they’re dancers not actors, and I’ve written a critique about “Dancing & Acting” for ROT, posted on 9 June 2010.)

As for Amy Irving’s Charlotte, the character is sort of a ghost.  I said her speeches aren’t so much plot-advancing as gap-fillers, but she’s also not “present” for the other characters.  It’s very presentational as Charlotte passes through Lea’s apartment, the set for the dance-play, without engaging either her friend or her son.  She may look, even stare, at them, but they don’t see her; she reaches out to touch Chéri—on one occasion like a kind of half-image of Michelangelo’s God giving life to Adam—but the touch isn’t completed and it isn’t reciprocated or even acknowledged.  Charlotte says Chéri—even his mother calls him that, which seems a little precious today (his actual name’s Fred, though that’s not used in Howe’s script)—always returns to her life (which could be a little creepy, too), but we never see them together as mother and son.  (One incident in Colette’s eventful life, by the way, is her seduction of her 16-year-old stepson, a relationship that went on for four years.  Chéri and Lea’s relationship begins when he’s 17 and she’s 43.  Chéri came out before Colette’s affair started—life imitating art, perhaps?—but she wrote Le Fin de Chéri after it had ended.)  I can’t say anything adverse about Irving’s performance—her scenes are set pieces, essentially soliloquies with little connection to what’s been going on around her—though it may have been technically hard for the actress to do.  Fortunately for Irving, however (though not necessarily the rest of us), the character, at least as staged by Clarke, is remarkably dispassionate anyway, as if this were all a kind of experiment in social and romantic manipulation reminiscent of Choderlos de Laclos (author of the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses). 

The music to which Ferri and Cornejo dance and which underlies the entire piece is played live from the stage by pianist Rothenberg.  Dressed formally like a concert soloist (which I suppose she is more or less), her grand piano is in a slightly dimmed  quadrant of stage right.  The accompaniment, though that’s a wan description of what Rothenberg provides here, is nearly a fourth character—there are several piano solos along with the music underlying the choreography—and though sometimes I felt that her playing was too muscular (I wondered what the performance would have been like with a viola or cello, or an oboe playing the score instead of the insistent piano), she helped create the environment in which the lovers’ passion unfolds.  Rothenberg doesn’t interact with the characters at all—she’s not a personage in the drama even at the disengaged level of Charlotte—as she plays music from various classical composers, largely French from the era (Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy) or a little after (Francis Poulenc, whose work here is dated 1959) with pieces from German composer Richard Wagner from a generation earlier, and an American, Morton Feldman, from the middle of the last century (whose piece is from 1987).  The majority of the music is from the 1950s and ’60s by Spaniard Federico Mompou, a little-known composer Clarke first choreographed to when she was 17 and whose work she describes as “extremely spare and deceivingly simple, but very emotional.”  Clarke characterizes the score as “a little bit like a Rothko painting.  It’s this kind of color field that begins decoratively [with parts of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, 1911] and gets more and more spare till there’s a last chord [from Mompou’s Musica Callada XXVII, 1959-67].”  As I suggested earlier, music can help a great deal in adding nuance to movement- and dance-dominated performances.  (Mime and acting are more helpful, of course.)  Clarke’s description of the progression of the musical accompaniment, which is more than just background music like a movie soundtrack (justifying Rotherneberg’s billing and her curtain call alongside Ferri, Cornejo, and Irving), is accurate with respect to its impact on the dramatic, if not the narrative, arc of the performance.  As that final chord approaches, you can tell something dramatic and momentous is about to happen.

The physical production is fine visually.  I’m not entirely sure about its dramatic contribution, however.  David Zinn’s costumes, meaning mostly Charlotte’s gowns (and one enormous, wonderfully period hat) and Chéri’s suit when he wears it, evoke the period perfectly.  Lea never wears anything but a peignoir and Chéri’s in pajamas a lot of the time, and I don’t know how much consideration has to go into selecting those.  Zinn, however, also did the set, which is a little more provocative.  Lea’s apartment is essentially a large, sparsely-furnished open room (there’s probably a kitchen off somewhere, I suppose, and perhaps even an indoor privy, but where is anyone’s guess) with a dining table at stage right and the double bed in an alcove up left.  (It reminded me a lot of a dancer’s loft: no rugs on the wooden floors and lots of open floor space to move and dance.)  The walls are covered in a teal-blue paper and there’s a door to a corridor up center and French doors to a balcony or terrace up right.  Now, the walls all look as if they’re perfectly straight and plumb, but the doors are all slanted, giving the whole set an expressionistic feel.  There are two large wall mirrors, one hung at stage left and the other standing on the floor against the wall up center.  (This helps make the room look like a dance loft—there always seem to be lots of mirrors there.)  The leaning mirror is also askew.  (I can only surmise that the walls, too, have to be slanted, otherwise the stage floor would have to be raked off to one side or something, and that just doesn’t seem likely.)  I’m not sure what the expressionistic design element is meant to convey—that the world of Chéri is askew?  That the lovers are somehow unbalanced? Or, as the Times’s Isherwood suggests, to illustrate “the disorienting force of sexual obsession”—especially considering that nothing else is in this vein, neither the costumes (which are perfectly realistic) or the dancing, which, if anything, is a kind of muscular romanticism.  (I guess it can be said that the music in the latter part of the play, particularly near the end, which is more contemporary than the early pieces, might be called expressionistic—though I’m not entirely certain what expressionistic music would sound like.)  Whatever Clarke and Zinn had in mind, however, the set worked well as an environment for the choreography, especially as lit by Christopher Akerlind’s romantic design, which is what it seems was its principal purpose. 

The press on Chéri is mixed, the responses depending, I imagine, on how the writer generally feels about dance plays or Martha Clarke’s work.  Charles Isherwood, at one end of the spectrum, describes the production as “dramatically muted but gorgeously danced” and declares the dancing “entrancingly luminous.”  “For dance aficionados,” says the Timesman, “‘Chéri’ offers an irresistible chance to encounter beloved performers in a new context and to view their artistry with a new intimacy,” but adds that there are moments where “Ms. Clarke’s choreography comes across as generic or trite.”  In New York magazine, Jesse Green goes even further, writing that “the dancers are reduced to the level of illustrations—woodcuts, I’d say, to judge from the acting.”  The New York writer sums up with, “It’s a case of diminishing returns . . . so much agony and ecstasy, so little fun.”  On the website Talkin’ Broadway, on the other end of the continuum, reviewer Matthew Murray declares of the choreography that “each movement that does occur lands with maximum force” and that “Clarke has not wasted or misused a single second or inch of stage space.”  In the end, Murray concludes, the dancers’ “evocation of love, loss, and everything in between is so total that you intimately understand their every nuance.”  Calling the production “compact and compelling,” Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News asserts that “Clarke’s staging is lush.”  Though Dziemianowicz does feel that it’s “uneven,” he observes, “Her work has rightly been described as moving pictures.”  Occupying the middle ground, Hayley Levitt on TheaterMania laments that “while ambition and artistry shine through, the whole picture that these converging mediums paint is ultimately less than the sum of its individually striking parts.”  And the New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli writes, “Clarke has a fantastic eye, and she comes up with some striking visuals,” but demurs that “‘Chéri’ struggles to create drama.”

In other details, the reviews were all over the field.  In Time Out New York, David Cote says bluntly, “I wish I’d had a fraction of the fun that Chéri (Cornejo) seems to be having” in the play, which Cote calls “a schematic setup.”  The man from TONY complains that the “choreographed steps melt into steamy clinches” and that “Clarke’s moves are too generic (lots of lifting and twirling) and Howe’s speeches too abbreviated and faux arch to involve us,” concluding, “Everyone looks quite stylish and sexy, but this is not an affair to remember.”  The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column avers, “Martha Clarke makes movement that’s meant to work in tandem with text, but her real interest is in the look of her stage pictures” and remarks of the production that “one wishes there were more of Irving and less pantomime,” putting down Clarke’s choreography.  New York’s Jesse Green, who seems to have a serious problem with the French-ness of the material and the set decoration (the acute accent in the title, the croissants on the breakfast table, the “neatly folded copy of Le Monde”), finds that from “Clarke’s earnestness emerges hours’ worth of longueurs—a neat trick for a show that runs only 65 minutes.”  Green explains, “It’s not that the different information-delivery modes of dance and drama can’t profitably be joined or contrasted, but here, words and movement are equally trite.”  (He characterizes Howe’s text as “mortifying.”)   In Show Business, the theater trade weekly, Sydney Arndt declares that Clarke has “re-created a style akin to the Impressionist era of France in the early 1900s by fusing ballet, theatre, and live music into a full sensual expression of longing.”  Arndt finds the dances created by Clarke “pure expression of romance and unbound heart-break” and the dancers’ work “chilling as they are committed to every physical movement and internal shift.”  The Show Biz review-writer sums up the experience by proclaiming, “This ballet theater is for anyone who has ever loved or even hopes to love full-heartedly without restraint.”

The News’s Dziemianowicz feels that the dancers presented “are a whirl of sensuality, grace and muscle,” and that Clarke’s images “resemble classical paintings.”  The News reviewer acknowledges that “the show isn’t just a pas de deux—there’s drama, too,” though he complains that while Irving “is an elegant presence with a creamy voice,” her monologues “are intrusive.”  In the Post, Vincentelli asserts that “Clarke has a fantastic eye,” but that the production’s “burner seems stuck on simmer—not quite the right setting for a show about passion.”  “The rapture of sexual love and the disorienting pain of parting are viewed as through frosted glass in ‘Chéri,’” observes Isherwood in the Times, but that while the  choreography “sometimes falls into patterns of swooning sameness, ‘Chéri’ also contains passages in which fleeting emotion is captured in precise, illuminating movement.”  “The production,” he writes, “has a hypnotic visual beauty,” including Zinn’s “ingeniously tilted” set.  Trying to amalgamate dance, narration, and musical recital, laments Tom Sellar in the Village Voice, “this time, these elements don’t mix well if at all.”  Sellar complains that the lovers “are left with too little to do, for too long.”  Chéri, the Voice reviewers concludes, “ultimately gets too bogged down in its awkward composition to convey the story, much less the epoch behind it.” 

The on-line reviewers are in the same vein.  On AmericanTheaterWeb, Andy Propst simply announces that Chéri “very well could be the most beautiful looking production audiences will find onstage between now and the end of the year.”  “Everything,” says Propst, “. . . glistens with elegance,” except that the designers and the performers have been “somehow let down by director/choreographer Clarke and by playwright Tina Howe.”  Howe’s text, the reviewer feels, is “perfunctory” and “repetitiveness creeps into” Clarke’s dances so that even the dancers’ “fine work and the designer's lavishness ultimately are not enough to fully pull theatergoers into Colette's tale.”  Dubbing Chéri an “arresting new dance-theatre piece,” Talkin’ Broadway’s Murray reports that “in its limited time,” the production “describes, depicts, and deconstructs every imaginable component of romantic affection—all without ever resorting to either cynicism or unchecked sentimentality.”  Clarke’s direction, says Murray, is “so precise . . . that it pierces even through the only elements that don’t fully satisfy: the speeches.”  The cyber reviewer finds the monologues unnecessary, insisting, “Neither Clarke nor her dancers need the help,” since “[r]eal feelings and real fears are given such searing form” by the performers.  “A gorgeous Amy Irving to provide a modicum of text, a pair of the American ballet theater's premier dancers to execute Martha Clarke's sensual as ever and literature inspired choreography!  What more could one wish for?” asks Elyse Sommer on CurtainUp.  “As it turns out,” she answers her own question, “quite a bit.”  After listing everything that’s right with the STC presentation of Chéri, Sommer explains: “It would seem that this spare new production once again demonstrates the old saw about less being more.  However, in this case, the spareness of text and cast, and the single piano presentation of similar sounding and feeling musical selections (mostly Ravel) are a case of less really being less.”  She finds that the musical selections “have a repetitive ring,” which she suggests may be intentional since the action is cyclical, but concludes, “Unfortunately this repetitive motif falls into the trap of being rather monotonous.”  Clarke’s choreography suffers the same fault, says Sommer, “in that it doesn't seem to have enough variety,”  rendering the whole experience “not as satisfying as I'd hoped.”  On TheaterMania, Levitt explains, “The story of Chéri, unfortunately, gets lost in this heated spectacle.”  The piano score “soon veers into lulling monotony” and the dancing “remains similarly stagnant throughout.”  In addition, though both Irving and dancers Ferri and Cornejo give excellent performances, Levitt feels “we can clearly see the seam that joins these two theatrical mediums” of speech/acting and dance because, even though the performers execute their individual arts well, “they have yet to flow into a communal reservoir where each art form can build on the power that the others have to offer.” 

[In an aside, I have to mention a line in Jesse Green’s New York notice—not because it’s so apt with respect to the STC production, but because it’s reminiscent—and redolent, to boot—of my very own youth.  In reference to a line in one of Charlotte’s monologues, in which she recounts that Lea has “let her hair go grey and has gained a few pounds . . . .  Well, considerably more than a few,” Green quips that “you look at the spectacularly beautiful Ferri, who at 50 has the body and line of a teenager, and wonder what Clarke was smoking.”  His answer: “Gitanes, presumably.”  (The man really is a Francophobe—but anyway . . . .)  Now, frequent readers of ROT will remember that I spent part of my teens in Europe, going to high school in Geneva.  American cigarettes, though in great demand, were expensive if you had to buy them on the local market, so when I ran out of both PX-bought butts and ready cash, I resorted to French cigarettes—either Gauloises or Gitanes.  (Gauloise is, of course, the adjective from Gaul; Gitane means ‘Gypsy woman’—the illustration on the blue box is a female flamenco dancer.  The cigs are strong, unfiltered, kind of stubby . . . and they stink!  They’d make my head spin—which I presume is Green’s point—and they’d drive many of my friends out of the room!  Later, during my freshman year at college when I pledged a frat and we had to carry cigarettes and a light to supply any brother on request, I had the idea to have those French ciggies on me—and my upperclassmen bros soon stopped bumming butts from me!  After my senior year, I went with a student group to London to kill some time before reporting for military service and we spent a night in Paris on the way over.  A couple of friends and I spent the evening playing “American ex-pat,” bar-hopping, drinking Pernod (real absinthe wasn’t available then), and smoking Gitanes and Gauloises cigarettes.  This all has nothing whatsoever to do with Chéri, but Jesse Green’s passing comment conjured it up.  It’s not Colette—but it is Proust!  (I’m very susceptible—as my friend Kirk will attest.  I once wrote him a 5-message e-mail series about my time in Berlin off of a few incidental scenes in an old movie.)]