“Howl, howl, howl, howl!”

14 December 2015: THE MERRY WIDOW(er)

Although I had seen the Metropolitan Opera’s energetic new production of Franz Lehar’s THE MERRY WIDOW in its Live-in-HD series in movie theaters last year, I could not bypass the chance to see the same production live onstage this past weekend at the Lyric in Chicago.

Instead of Renee Fleming and Nathan Gunn, this time we had a more age-appropriate Nicole Cabell as the wealthy young widow, and Thomas Hampson as her reluctant lover.  It’s hard for me to decide who’s better, Gunn or Hampson, having been a big fan of both for a long time. But, comparing the two in the same role in the same production, I think Hampson was perhaps having more fun with the part.  The real winner, however, is Susan Stroman’s refreshingly innovative direction and choreography. She brings Broadway glitz and pizazz to this beloved operetta, and everything old is suddenly new and young and vibrant again.

Just as a side note, in the Metropolitan Opera production (now available on DVD and Blu-Ray), the non-singing comedic part of Njegus was played by University of Kansas graduate Carson Elrod, who stole every scene he was in with his rubbery face, his pitch-perfect line delivery, his clown-like agility.  In Chicago, the part was played by Jeff Dumas, who seemed to be channeling the fey and mincing spirit of Truman Capote.  Funny, yes, but the caricature was also vaguely disconcerting.

Finally, I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about this past weekend in Chicago.  The last time I was in the Windy City was in March of 2014, with Grant Goodman, my friend and colleague for nearly 50 years.  We saw three operas at the Lyric on that trip, and also two concerts.  It was a wonderfully memorable trip, but Grant died unexpectedly a month after we returned to Lawrence.  I was afraid that, this time, without Grant, Chicago would be sad.  It also rained the whole time I was there.

In life, Grant Goodman took good care of me, always looking after my well-being.  In death, he continues to do so.  I think he would have been as disappointed as I was by BEL CANTO Saturday night, as rejuvenated as I was by THE MERRY WIDOW Sunday afternoon.  When I was sipping my complimentary glass of Proseco by the fireplace in the lobby of the tony Allegro Hotel yesterday evening before dinner, watching the bartender and all the subsequent uniformed waiters dancing in attendance around me, I could hear Grant guffawing because I was playing the part of “the merry widow(er)” in his absence, at his expense.

Here’s to you, Grant.  Thanks for all the memories.  Long may your archetypal laughter and joie de vivre remain in my collective unconscious!


13 December 2015: No Bel In My Canto

I read Ann Patchett’s BEL CANTO shortly after it came out in 2001.  The diva in the novel was said to have been inspired by opera star Renee Fleming.  So when Fleming announced nearly five years ago that she had optioned the novel for a new opera to premiere at the Lyric in Chicago (music by Peruvian-American composer Jimmy Lopez, and libretto by Pulitzer-winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz), you could almost taste the excitement in the air.

And then, when it was revealed that Danielle de Niese had been engaged to sing the part of the diva at the Lyric during its 2015 holiday season, I could no longer contain my excitement.  Just as Mr. Hosukawa in the novel had fallen in love with Roxane Coss from the first moment he heard one of her recordings, I have been in love with Danielle de Niese ever since I saw her on DVD as Cleopatra in the Glyndebourne production of Handel’s GIULIO CESARE.  With no hesitation whatsoever, I reached for my wallet, deciding this would be my extravagant Christmas present to myself this year.

I loved Ann Patchett’s novel.  One reason is that, in spite of the large cast of characters, because the narrative is told from the omniscient point-of-view and we are privy to everyone’s thoughts, we feel as though we know each one of them intimately.  I wondered how Nilo Cruz would handle this in his libretto.  Sadly, in my opinion, he didn’t. Except for two arias given to two secondary characters in the second act of the opera, we are mostly just outsiders observing the action, and we remain mostly unmoved. Danielle de Niese looked petulantly beautiful, but I thought she was otherwise completely wasted.

Sometimes I wish I weren’t a writer or a playwright. If I voice any negative opinions about somebody else’s work, I risk being accused of having pen envy. But, truthfully, last night at the Lyric in Chicago, I did not enjoy my Christmas present to myself. There was no bel in my canto.  Be that as it may, the opera will probably go on to win the No-Bel Prize in Music.

11 December 2015: The Ladies and the Trump

Donald Trump’s mother was a Scottish immigrant.

To date, he has been married to three lovely ladies, two of whom are East European immigrants.  First there was Ivana Zelnickova from Czechoslovakia, who gifted him with three children, one girl and two boys.  Then came Marla Maples from Georgia (in the United States, not the one in the former Soviet Union), who produced only two children, a boy and a girl.  Finally, there’s Melania Knauss from Sevnica, Slovenia, who has narrow hips and has yet to reproduce.

Thus far, as far as we know, Donald Trump has seven grandchildren.  His first-born, Ivanka, converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner, and together they have two children, a boy and a girl, but a third is on the way.  Donald Jr. has outdone Ivanka by having five children, two girls and three boys. So there is no danger of the line ever dying out.

Since we already have one Trump progeny converting from their father’s Presbyterian faith to Judaism, let’s hope that, in future, none of the other Trumps and Trumpettes ever become Muslims, radicalized or otherwise.


9 December 2015: “I am Spartacus!”

When I was applying for a visa to visit the United States in the late 1960s, the many forms I had to fill out were full of questions like, “Are you a communist?”  “Have you ever been a communist?”  “Are you a homosexual?”  “Do you intend to become a homosexual?”

Then, in the early 1980s, friends visiting from overseas report that they were asked additional questions like,  “Are you a drug addict?”  “Are you an intravenous drug user?”  “Are you HIV-positive?”  “Do you have AIDS?”

And now, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to stop all Muslims from entering the United States because they might be terrorists.  This he intends to accomplish by simply asking, “Are you Muslim?  ‘Fess up!  Are you a Muslim?”

One of the essential freedoms guaranteed all Americans is the freedom of worship.  Those among us who are horrified by Trump’s stigmatization of an entire religion, who see inevitable parallels to the persecution of Jews by Adolf Hitler, ought not to sit idly by and do nothing.

Remember Spartacus?  At the end of that movie, when the frustrated Roman soldiers demanded to know where Spartacus was hiding, his many followers all stepped forward, one by one, each one proudly declaring, “I am Spartacus!”  If it should ever become necessary, those of us traveling abroad, upon returning to these United States, in solidarity with our non-Christian brethren, we too can proclaim, “I am Muslim!” 


8 December 2015: Trump Card? Trump Crud!

Why do I make sure my house is clean before the cleaning people come?

Why do I throw out things in the refrigerator before their expiration date?

Why do I brush and floss my teeth before visiting  the dental hygienist?

Why do I shower and clean every orifice in my body before seeing the doctor?

Why do I watch and listen to a card like Trump on TV before going to the toilet?

Because it always feels good to get rid of crud—any time, any where—even before next November, in the polling booth.

6 December 2015: What Have They Done to Roses and Pine Trees?

For many years now, I’ve wondered why roses no longer smell as sweetly as they used to, that they frequently have no smell at all, so I looked for answers on the internet, and here’s what I learned from my smart phone.

There are at least three reasons why, these days, a rose is not a rose is not a rose, and why a rose by any other name no longer smells as sweet.  First, roses are now being “cultivated to last longer in a vase, and the rule of thumb is, that the stronger the smell the lesser the vase life.”  Second, horticulturists have been breeding roses with larger flowers, and “one side effect of this breeding is that the larger roses don’t have the smell that the smaller roses had.”  Third, when two separate species of roses are hybridized, you get a new species and “this often takes the scent out of it.”

Naturally, this started me thinking about human beings, and how many among us spend a lot of money to make sure we don’t offend others by our smell.  Can we learn anything about ourselves from what’s happened to roses?  As science keeps us alive longer, do we begin to smell less as nonogenarians than when we were toddlers?  Does the same thing happen when we outgrow our scrawny teenage selves and blossom out to our full physical potential on the buffet line?  Finally, do the children of mixed marriages have no use for underarm deodorants?

Here’s one more thing.  With Christmas fast approaching, there is no shortage of pine trees for sale in front of hardware and grocery stores.  Have you noticed that, as you walk by them, none of these antiseptic evergreens exude any hint of pine or camphor?   In the late 1960s, there were popular protest songs which asked questions like “What have they done to the rain?” and “Where have all the flowers gone?”  Sad to say, “The answer is blowing in the wind.”  Nuclear arms continue to proliferate; and deadlier wars are now killing more people than ever—in schoolyards and college campuses, in movie theaters and shopping malls, in bars and restaurants, in health clinics and convention centers, on the very streets of the cities where we live.

Yes, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” but it doesn’t smell or feel like Christmas.  Not anymore.


4 December 2015: Sweet Smell of Success!

Somewhat optimistically, we set up 50 seats for the December 3rd staged reading of Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris at the Lawrence Public Library.  To my astonishment, as the crowds poured in, we had to add another ten chairs to accommodate everyone.  I was thrilled, not for myself, but for the actors, whose wonderful work after only three short rehearsals truly deserved to be seen by as many people as possible.  Herewith, my personal note of thanks to each and every one of them:

Benjamin Good (Young Frank) is new to me.  I ran into Margaret Kramar, his mother, at the local farmer’s market a couple of months ago.  I had worked with Margaret before. When I asked if she would like to participate in the upcoming staged reading of my play, she not only said yes, but also introduced me to her son, saying he had done some acting as well.  After speaking to him briefly, I cast him on the spot.

Will Averill (Middle Frank) was one of my earliest playwriting students in the English Department at K.U.  He wrote a delightfully nightmarish play called The Sea, which English Alternative Theatre (EAT) produced in the early 1990s.  The play called for a grotesque 9-foot tall articulated female puppet, so we constructed one, and brought her with us to a fancy cocktail party Chancellor Robert Hemenway was giving at his residence on campus.  Since then, Will has also appeared as an actor in innumerable EAT shows, including his star turn as a nerdy young Hugh Hefner who accidentally hits on the idea of publishing a girlie magazine called Playboy.  Our production of Bunnies by Michael O’Brien was subsequently invited for performances at the national festival of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C.

Dean Bevan (Old Frank) is another one new to me.  I don’t know why we haven’t had the opportunity to work together before, but I am so glad he was available for this reading.  He commands attention on stage with his powerful voice and presence, and his line readings are absolutely spot-on.  He kept asking me for notes after each of our three rehearsals, but I really had no notes for him.  I hope to work with him again, and again.

Jeanne Averill (Nita Harris, Helen “Nellie” O’Hara) was in the original 1980 production of the play at the Lawrence Community Theatre when it was still in the old Carnegie Library building.  Back then, Jeanne played Frank’s timid illegitimate daughter Frances Congden.  For this production, she has graduated into the part of Frank’s shrewish second wife.  I first saw Jeanne in an experimental production of a play called Telemachus Clay sometime in the mid-1970s.  I remember very little about the play itself, except for one line Jeanne uttered:  “I’m not crying.  It’s the rain on my face.”  It was heart breaking and, to this day, I still hear echoes in my mind of how she uttered that line.

Kitty Steffens (Laura, Young Kate Stephens, Yolande) is someone whose work I had been impressed by, in various Card Table Theatre productions. I first worked with her earlier this year in the staged reading of Collected Stories, the prize-winning play by Donald Margulies, also at the Lawrence Public Library.  There is something luminescent and magical about Kitty on stage, and I am so happy we got to work together again on this one.

Cynthia Evans (Anne Harris, Mrs. Lorna Mayhew, Mr. Scully, Princess Alice) is another one who goes all the way back to early 1990s with EAT, sometimes as a scenic designer, more frequently as an actress.  Among her most memorable performances are Ruth, the enigmatic siren in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming; and the cranky old ax-wielding backwoods woman in Topple the World, an original script by Ken Willard.

John Younger (Thomas Harris, George Bernard Shaw) is a god-send, someone who can do no wrong in whatever role he undertakes on stage.  For me, he has been Creon in Antigone, and also the Older Tom Wingfield in my production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, in which I decided to split Tom into a younger and an older self, in much the same way I split Frank Harris into three different selves in Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris.  Besides being a Classics professor, John is also an archeologist who has been digging at sites in Crete for many years.  He plans to retire soon, to move to Crete to be among his beloved ruins. which will leave a big hole in the local theatre scene.

James Carothers (Mr. Kendrick, Oscar Wilde) is a distinguished professor in the English Department at KU, who has also distinguished himself as an actor in various EAT productions through the years, appearing in almost all our Labor Day staged readings, most memorably with colleagues James Hartman and the late Bernard “Bud” Hirsch in our presentation of Art by Yasmina Reza in the auditorium of Spencer Art Museum.

Shawn Trimble (Byron Caldwell Smith, Reporter, Masked Man), like Will Averill, was one of my earliest playwriting students.  He was a Religious Studies major when I first knew him, and he wrote a deeply philosophical Nietzschean play called The Abyss, which EAT produced.  Since then, Shawn has appeared as an actor, not just with EAT, but also with EMU and Lawrence Community Theatre in all its incarnations.

Stephen Moles (William Harris, Rev. Verschoyle, Priest, Policeman, Reporter, Servant) is another one of my playwriting students.  After graduating from K.U., he left for New York and attended Columbia University, where he discovered his true passion for creative non-fiction.  I’m delighted he hasn’t abandoned theatre altogether.

Margaret Kramar (Mrs. Emily Clayton, Old Kate Stephens, Baroness) is a lecturer in the English Department at K.U.  In 2010, when we lost an actor in EAT’s production of What Really Happened, an original script by Benjamin Smith, she gamely stepped in and learned the part just days before we opened.  She was a joy to work with then, and she’s a joy to work with now.

Amy Devitt (Frances Congden, May Congden, Erika Lorenz) is another distinguished professor in the English Department at K.U.  Like Jim Carothers, she has participated in a long list of staged readings for EAT, and was Amanda Wingfield in our full production of The Glass Menagerie.  I’ve always thought she would make a terrific Mary Tyrone in Eugene Oneill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I retired before we could do that one.  Maybe I can talk Card Table Theatre into mounting a full production of this one with her in it.

Karl Ramberg (Mr. Sumner, Prince of Wales, Judge) was in the very first EAT production back in 1990, a double-bill of Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now and Terence McNally’s Andre’s Mother.  Karl reprised the part he played in a staged reading of the same double-bill when I retired in 2010.  In between, Karl has appeared in at least half a dozen other EAT productions, most notably as a homeless man in Upright, an original script by James Hilburn.  He also frequently composed original music which he performed live for many of our productions—cello music for Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, and piano music for Susan Sontag’s The Way We Live Now, as well as Loraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

I’ve been blest, to have been served by such fine actors.  I am so glad there was an enthusiastic audience to see their marvelous work in our staged reading of Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris on December 3rd at the Lawrence Public Library.  Thank God for family and relatives, for Facebook friends, and for social media.  In the waning days of fading print, it is social media that’s helping us to get the word out to potential audiences for theatre.

3 December 2015: The New Lord’s Prayer

Our NRA Father, which art in America,

Hallowed be thy Second Amendment.

Thy Kingdom come.

Thy will be done in schoolyards and college campuses,

As it is in movie theaters and convention centers.

Give us this day our daily massacre.

And forgive us our assault weapons,

As we slaughter them that trespass against us.

And lead us also into abortion clinics,

To deliver unborn babies from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

The fire power, and the shooting glory,

For ever and ever.


30 November 2015: Spawns of Ron Willis…

There’s a wonderful profile piece in the Lawrence Journal-World this morning about the indefatigable Ric Averill, founder of the pioneering local theater group called the Seem-To-Be-Players from the 1970s, and current director of performing arts at the Lawrence Arts Center.

In the article, Mary Doveton says this about Ric:  “He’s like any of us that are working in the creative arts.  You get an idea and you run with it.  It’s exciting and exhilarating, and you gather people around you that are like-minded, and everybody feeds off everybody.  Rick’s a really creative guy, and he’s always got a positive attitude, and he makes people feel good about themselves.”

Mary Doveton is, of course, herself “The Force” who founded the Lawrence Community Theatre, also in the 1970s, an organization which, in its early days, nurtured original scripts and produced three of my plays:  Hatchet Club, Chambers, and Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris.  Mary encouraged me to direct the first two, but undertook to direct the third one herself.  And now, 35 years later, I am myself directing a staged reading of Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris.  We are presently in rehearsal for just one performance at 7 PM on Thursday, December 3rd at the Lawrence Public Library.  I have 14 very fine actors in the cast.  When they ask me for notes, all I can think of is Mary back in 1980 telling the original cast they must “SPARKLE! SPARKLE! SPARKLE!”  I don’t know how to top that, so I’m just telling my actors to “twinkle… twinkle… twinkle…” like the little stars that they are.

Today’s article about Ric Averill reminds me of another piece in the Lawrence Journal-World from (I think) the late 1990s, in which Prof. Ronald A. Willis was being interviewed about the theatre scene in Lawrence.  By then, besides Ric Averill’s Seem-To-Be-Players and Mary Doveton’s Lawrence Community Theatre, there was also Jackie Davis at the helm of the new Lied Center; my own English Alternative Theatre (EAT), which I founded primarily to produce the original scripts being written by my students; and Andy Stowers’ EMU Theatre was also waiting in the wings.  We had all studied at one time or another with Ron. In that article, Ron in his characteristic way laughed and said that attendance at theatrical events being presented at Murphy Hall was dwindling because the K.U. Theatre Department had “spawned its own competition.”  He named the organizations, but not the names of the students he had spawned.

Ronald A. Willis died at home at age 79 on March 6, 2015, of congestive heart failure.  A wonderfully celebratory memorial service was held at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall on Saturday, March 14, at 3 PM.  I could not be there because I was not in Lawrence at the time, but I have now watched the entire 79-minute tribute several times on YouTube.  Two of his three sons spoke, two of his granddaughters spoke, a sprinkling of colleagues and former students spoke.  Among the latter, lots of other spawns, but none of them from the local theatre scene.


29 November 2015: Flesh Yesterday, Flash Today.

We rehearse Act Two of my play Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris this afternoon, for a free staged reading at the Lawrence Public Library at 7 PM on Thursday, December 3rd.

After having been the toast of London society in the 1890s, Frank Harris at age 76 is penniless and finds himself living austerely in Nice, France, where he reminisces about his life and loves with two happier representations of his younger self.  His reveries are interrupted at one point when he is visited by George Bernard Shaw.  In the scene that follows, the two old writers argue heatedly about the way women are depicted in their respective works.

SHAW:  You give your women no minds or souls, not even arms legs, just breasts and vaginas and assorted orifices!

OLD FRANK:  What about your women?  They all lack divinity and grace, mystery and charm, allure.  Their bodies are as dry and hard as their minds, and even where they run after their men, the pursuit has about as much sex appeal as a timetable!

MIDDLE FRANK:  Where are the Noras and the Heddas in your plays?

OLD FRANK:  Yours are the sexless dolls which Ibsen threw out of the doll’s house!

SHAW:  Why not also blame me for the current femininity in men and virility in women?

OLD FRANK:  Any attempt to destroy the womanly woman can only succeed in equally destroying the manly man.

SHAW:  Frank, why must the human race consist entirely of Frank Harrises and women of the sort you idealize?  Don’t you realize that there is only one Frank Harris in the world, and that the sort of woman you idealize never completely existed except in your imagination?

OLD FRANK:  I tried, in my autobiography, to show women as creatures with sexual passions, just like men!

SHAW:  The fleshly school of art, my dear Frank, is the consolation of the impotent.

OLD FRANK:  Oh? Then why are masturbating schoolboys its greatest patrons?

SHAW:  I know nothing of masturbating schoolboys.  They do not soil my books the way they do yours.

YOUNG FRANK:  What a pity.

OLD FRANK:  The whole world would be far happier today had less blood and more semen been spilled between 1914 and 1918!

SHAW (laughing):  Why are we bickering?  I come to praise Harris, not to bury him.

At the staged reading at 7 PM on Thursday December 3rd at the Lawrence Public Library, Young Frank Harris is played by Benjamin Good, Middle Frank is Will Averill, Old Frank is Dean Bevan, and George Bernard Shaw is John Younger.  Other actors include Jeremy Auman, Jeanne Averill, James Carothers, Amy Devitt, Margaret Kramar, Stephen Moles, Karl Ramberg, and Kitty Steffens.