Friday, November 27, 2009

Denis Lipman at Politics & Prose 11/30

A year or so ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with D.C.-based author and playwright Denis Lipman at an intimate soiree organized by publishing guru Carole Sargent. (BTW: Sargent's indispensible blog has recently changed locations... Snazzy new look for snazzy publishing coverage!)

Lipman was full of enthusiasm for his latest project -- a travelogue/memoir called A Yank Back to England -- which was starting to attract attention from agents and publishers.

The book's premise was simple: Lipman and his wife Frances and his family went back to England after decades away. Lipman was originally from Dagenham, but the England that he and his wife really poked into was the village and town life -- pubs and cottages and local customs and all the quirks and eccentricities.

Well, Lipman's book is finally out and -- for those of you in DC --you get a chance to hear the author read from it at D.C.'s most prestigious indie book venue, Politics and Prose, on Monday November 30 at 7 p.m.

Can't make that? You can buy the book here. You can also check out Lipman's blog -- which is terrific fun. (And full of recipes!)

Bonus: The book also has a blurb from Michael York, star of The Three Musketeers, Smashing Time and Logan's Run: “A perceptive, engaging and informative take on contemporary England as seen through the eyes of a fellow expatriate who writes with humor and affection. The cast of characters has an almost Dickensian vivacity.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Frank Wedekind in DC

One of the most welcome trends in American theater is a recent spurt of revivals of works by fin de siecle German playwright Frank Wedekind.

The most notable of these revivals of course is the adaptation of Wedekind's astonishing 1891 play Spring Awakening as a rock'n'roll driven musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik. (The play swept two arms' full of Tony Awards in 2007.)

But Wedekind's masterpiece of sex and violence, Lulu, has also received a number of productions lately, and Washington Shakespeare Company is the latest to have a go at it. Their version opens Tuesday, November 17 at Clark Street Playhouse.

There isn't much information on their site about the production as of yet, but then link to buy tickets is here. I'll definitely be going and will have a field report soon after I do.

One can only hope that this is the start of a Wedekind season in Washington. Anyone game to do his other masterpiece, The Marquis of Keith?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Big Weekend for Balkans Football/ New Soccer Rankings

Let's just say it's a pivotal Saturday for Balkan football. Bosnia-Hercegovina plays the first leg of a two-match "winner-take-a-World Cup-slot" against Portugal in Lisbon. (Return leg in Zenica on Wednesday.) And Slovenia takes on Russia in Moscow on the same day, with the final match taking place in Maribor on Wednesday.

Jonathan Wilson has a terrific preview of the latter pairing here -- including YouTube links to some of Slovenia's astounding international giant-killing antics. (Milenko Acimovic's stunner against Ukraine in 2000 is still a wonder goal for the ages.)

As far as the other match, Wilson also notes that Bosnia's coach Ciro Blazevic "has promised an aggressive approach, which given Bosnia both scored more and conceded more than any other team in the play-offs, makes sense." Especially against a Ronaldo-less Portugal.

My prediction is that Slovenia will likely need a Maribor miracle, because I don't see them winning or even drawing in Moscow. Bosnia? Well, if they leave Lisbon with a tie (and even better, a tie with an away goal), they have an excellent chance to go through with other Balkans via Bohemia nations Serbia and Slovakia.

Zenica will be a cauldron on Wednesday night if Bosnia has a World Cup slot within its grasp.

Football fans of any stripe will also be interested in checking out a new soccer ranking system -- the Soccer Power Index -- devised by statitstical guru Nate Silver for ESPN.

Silver has won renown for his excellent statistical work on baseball and politics. (His website FiveThirtyEight is a daily pit stop for Balkans via Bohemia, both for Silver's work and the political analysis of my UMBC colleague Tom Schaller.) Silver's new SPI is sure to spark heat and light. He's got a general explanation here, and a more detailed breakdown of his methodology here. Extrapolating from Silver's data, here is a cobbled-together Balkans via Bohemia power ranking -- by region and by actual SPI ranking and whether they qualified for South Africa 2010:

1. Serbia (15) Qualified
2. Croatia (19) DNQ
3. Czech Republic (25) DNQ
4. Bosnia-Hercegovina (29) Playoff
5. Slovenia (40) Playoff
6. Bulgaria (47) DNQ
7. Romania (48) DNQ
8. Slovakia (50) Qualified
9. Poland (52) DNQ
10. Hungary (55) DNQ
11. Austria (66) DNQ
12. Macedonia (70) DNQ
13. Montenegro (74) DNQ
14. Albania (92) DNQ

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Up Against the Wall: Woolly Mammoth's Full Circle

Tomorrow is Europe's most celebrated 9/11: 9/11/1989. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (It's date then month on European calendars, so November 9 is 9/11.)

Theatergoers in Washington, DC have a special treat to celebrate -- a new production of Charles Mee's 1998 play, Full Circle. (First produce by Steppenwolf as "The Berlin Circle.")

Mee's play takes its starting point from the Chinese Yuan Dynasty-era play The Chalk Circle, which was the primary source (via the German poet Klabund) for Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle. But he manages to capture the chaos and uncertainties of post-Wende East Germany -- its shifting politics, the mad grasping toward capitalism as a solution, and the dark truths of collaboration and retribution in totalitarian societies.

Woolly's production of Full Circle is very strong and I unreservedly recommend it. The acting is bold, joyous and full of vigor. The decision by director Michael Rohd to break the play out of a traditional setting and use various corners and levels of Woolly's wonderfully modern space in downtown DC (including its lobbies and rehearsal space) is executed wonderfully. It was a smart and fun evening.

But what had me thinking the most after seeing the show on Friday was how skilfully Mee as a writer -- and, in his direction of this production, Rohd -- manages to echo and exploit the energy of German and American experiments in theater in the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the main characters in Full Circle is German writer and director Heiner Muller -- one of Brecht's intellectual heirs at the Berliner Ensemble and the author of influential plays including Die Hamletmaschine, Der Bau and Mauser. (Woolly Mammoth's artistic director Howard Shalwitz does a terrific Muller.)

Muller was a key figure in the tumult of German theatre in that era, with all the complexities and contradictions that fueled the ferment. It wasn't only the era of Muller, but the era of Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade and The Investigation), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Katzelmacher, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Bremen Freedom) and Peter Handke (Offending the Audience, Kaspar). It was time of energy and experiment, where big plays grappled with big history. With the exception of Mee and a few others (Tony Kushner comes to mind), it's a sort of theater that's out of favor in America today.

Tackling big issues in a big way invites the inevitable quibbles. I don't think Mee is totally fair to Muller in his portrayal of him as a symbol of GDR-collaboration. I also left the production feeling that if a playwright steps onto the land mine-ridden turf of Brecht, the twist and the payoff need to be as strong and vibrant as Brecht's subversions.

But Woolly's production of Full Circle is invaluable not only in how it reminds the audience of the vitality of this "epic theatre," but also the strengths of that form in breaking down complex historical and social issues and humanizing them. The exchange below between a husband and wife from Dresden in 1989, which Mee sets at a wedding banquet, is as wonderfully constructed a debate about the fallout from the Wall's sudden crumbling as one might wish for:

URSULA: Yes. Yes. On a serious note
I say, let us pray that we find a third way
neither communism nor capitalism
but a third way

[another guest passes out]

some middle ground
to get rich, like in the West
and to share like in the East
Because the choice that we are being given
this should not be our only choice.

[another guest passes out]

HELMUT: Bullshit
This is bullshit bullshit
in life you have to choose
one thing or another
do you think you can become partly pregnant?
Life is not like this.

URSULA: What do you know what life is like
you've never been out of the village you were born in
"we must choose"
"we must choose"
the truth is:
the world will choose for you

[another guest passes out]

HELMUT: Okay. You want a different world?
Go to Mars! Go to Mars!

URSULA: You mean you think it's OK
to go through all this
living like this for forty years
and settle for no better place than this?

Tickets for Full Circle here. The play runs through November 29th.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Remember Remember: Gunpowder Plot as Early Modern Terrorism?

Today is November 5th, and many of us know what that means. Guy Fawkes Day. Gunpowder Plot. 1605 and all that.

But were the plotters (right, in a contemporary engraving) terrorists -- especially in the sense that we know that term?

The Folger Institute held a terrific seminar on that topic four years ago -- one that I was lucky enough to attend as a reporter.

I wrote this article about it for The Chronicle of Higher Education. It used to be free -- and live on my links column to the right of this post. But CHE changed up its website and put everything that once was free back behind the paywall.

No worries, however. At least for a few days. That temporary link lets you read it. Happy bonfires and fireworks, everyone.