Monday, November 30, 2020

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

Source of book: Audiobook from the library. 


For the last 7+ years, since I started traveling and camping throughout the western United States with the kids - trying to see as many of the national parks as we can before the kids grow up and move away - we have also been using audiobooks to make the miles pass faster and keep me awake. As part of this, we have been listening to many of the Newbery Award winners and honor books, not in any systematic order, but as they seem interesting and as they become available in our library system.



Criss Cross won the Newbery Award in 2006. We haven’t read or listened to any of the honor books from that year, so it is hard to compare the competition. I would say that Criss Cross was fine, but not the most memorable book. It had some good points, and some interesting plot lines, but it mostly didn’t seem to go much of anywhere. It was almost like a vignette that captured a particular moment in time, but was then expanded into a whole book. The book is apparently a sort-of sequel to the author’s previous book, All Alone in the Universe. I am not alone in this judgment - the book never really sold well either. (That’s not my only criterion, obviously, as I really love Richard Peck, even the ones that didn’t sell for whatever reason.) 


Anyway, Criss Cross is set in the fictional (and presumably Midwestern?) town of Seldem, sometime when bell bottoms were the rage, and features in turn four friends: Debbie (who is in the previous book), Lenny, Hector, and Phil. Debbie and Hector get the most time. The characters are all in Jr. High, and essentially have their coming-of-age moments during the book, perhaps as the result of Debbie’s necklace, which she loses after making a wish on it. 


Hector and Debbie almost, but don’t quite fall in love, although they have crushes on other people at other points in the book. Debbie spends time caring for an elderly woman, a German immigrant, in her house, which is actually one of the more compelling episodes. She meets and falls for the woman’s grandson, Peter. Hector, on the other hand, goes to a concert (dragged by his elder sister for the purpose of having an excuse not to go out with a boy afterwards), and falls in love with the guitar. His discovery of his talent at singing and playing (and his budding talent at songwriting) becomes his story arc. For Lenny, he is trying to find his place in the world as a smart, mechanical, person who never seems to be respected as academically capable, and is instead put on the “trade school” track, so to speak. Phil gets the least space on the page, and the least interesting story arc. 


The stories, with the exceptions noted above, seem pretty standard internal drama for tweens and teens. Who am I, and who do I want to be? Why do the pretty and/or popular kids only date people like themselves? Will anything important or interesting ever happen to me? It isn’t bad as far as it goes - the author handles the issues in a gentle and nuanced manner. But it doesn’t feel particularly deep or compelling somehow. There isn’t enough development to make it a good psychological drama, and there is little action. As I noted above, perhaps the book suffers in comparison to Richard Peck, who manages to find a way to make things humorous, or otherwise dramatic and fascinating. 


Also not helping - for me at least - was the fact that the narrator (Danielle Ferland), while competent at the reading, had a voice that annoyed me. It was just the timbre of the voice that I found irritating. Sorry about throwing shade - I know audiobooks are not easy to make - but the voice quality grated on me. 


In summary, not a bad book by any means: it had its moments. But not one for the pantheon either. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


For the last 7+ years, since I started traveling and camping throughout the western United States with the kids - trying to see as many of the national parks as we can before the kids grow up and move away - we have also been using audiobooks to make the miles pass faster and keep me awake. As part of this, we have been listening to many of the Newbery Award winners and honor books, not in any systematic order, but as they seem interesting and as they become available in our library system. 



Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon was an honor book in 2013, losing out to The One and Only Ivan, which we listened to last year. Unlike that book, which was kind of based on a real story, Bomb is straight-up nonfiction, very real and based throughout on primary sources. 


The story is the development of the atom bomb, but also the cloak and dagger stuff surrounding the attempts to keep Nazi Germany from building a bomb first, the work by the Soviets to steal the technology, and and the spy versus spy games surrounding all of that. Sheinkin built the book on hundreds of pages of now-declassified interviews with the various persons involved, court transcripts, investigatory records, and other official documents. In fact, one could say that the book consists in large part of the actual words of the people involved, tied together by the author’s narrative to create a story that is compelling and flows surprisingly well. And all told at a level that tweens and teens can readily understand. (True story: my youngest turned 10 the day after we finished this book, and she loved it. My older kids, particularly the 14 year old science nerd, appreciated the high level of scientific detail, and expectation that kids can grasp advanced concepts. 


The book starts with the last moments before the capture of Harry Gold, a chemist who turned spy for the Soviets, and was the contact for Klaus Fuchs, the British physicist who passed much of the crucial atomic bomb information to the Soviets. (As the book brings out, the Soviet Union was an ally of the United States at the time, so it wasn’t - at least under British law - as serious of an offense as selling secrets to the enemy.) 


From there, the book goes back in time to the first discovery of nuclear fission, the attempts to create a chain reaction, and so on. Obviously, the Manhattan Project and the Los Alamos program feature prominently in the book. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, and Niels Bohr get a lot of quotes, particularly Oppenheimer, whose ambivalence about nuclear weapons, his Communist acquaintances, and the suspicion that led to his repeated vetting before, during, and after the project led to the most extensive documentation of personal statements of anyone involved. The testimony of Gold and Fuchs are also used throughout the book, giving an alternate perspective. Plenty of other secondary characters are quoted as well, though, and the result is a strikingly multifaceted picture of the events.


At the same time the atomic bomb was being developed, the Nazis were trying to do the same. Crucial to their effort was the production of “heavy water” to use as a moderator for the production of plutonium. The plant that produced this was located in occupied Norway, and the series of commando raids  that eventually crippled the Nazi atomic program are also featured in this book, and are surprisingly exciting stories. (Particularly since the official reports are quoted so much - Sheinkin does a great job of building suspense out of dry narratives.) The two successful operations first temporarily crippled the plant (which, combined with less effective but repeated bombing, convinced the Nazis to abandon the plant), then led to the sinking of a ferry carrying nearly all of the remaining heavy water. Although in retrospect, it seems the Nazis were further off from a successful bomb than believed, these operations pretty much killed the possibility. (Also, now I want to go read Knut Haukelid’s memoir of the campaign - he was a total badass, surviving on lichens and participating in all of the operations.)


The spy versus spy episodes are pretty fun too, reminding me in a few ways of the old Mad Magazine comic, which I enjoyed as a kid. 


Along with the adventure, though, the book really brings out the central problem with nuclear weapons. By now, we can destroy all higher life forms on our planet in a few minutes, which is clearly not an optimal outcome. As it is, the United States killed a few hundred thousand civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever one thinks about the unfortunate options where a country was determined to sacrifice millions for the sake of “honor,” the tragedy, even if one considers in necessary, was still a tragedy. Sheinkin quotes a few of the victims interviewed by John Hersey in Hiroshima, which I think should be mandatory reading. I love that Sheinkin takes the time to write the book, not as a mere paen to American technological triumph, but with the realism that the ability to destroy ourselves isn’t an unmitigated blessing. On the one hand, as Raymond Aron (another author everyone should read) put it in The Last Years of the Century, “In the course of the last forty years, the only part of the world that has enjoyed peace is the continent divided between two zones of political civilization both of them armed with atomic bombs.” But on the other, it is only that cooler heads have prevailed both in the United States and the Soviet Union (and its successors.) The worry now is that a nuke might be obtained by a group that believes in an apocalypse and thus doesn’t view the annihilation of humankind as a bad result. And this goes not just for Islamic Wahabbist groups, but for Dispensationalist Fundies here at home, to say nothing of erratic narcissists around the globe. Obviously, it is way too late to turn back the clock to swords and daggers, but mankind’s ability to destroy itself isn’t a particularly comforting thought. One homes that Aron’s observation continues to hold. 


In summary, this is an excellent book, both well written and full of primary sources. It has a delightfully mature nuance and ethical depth, which never condescends to its young intended audience. Honestly, I’d recommend this book to adults without reservation. 


The audiobook was read by Roy Samuelson, who I am not familiar with, although he apparently has a bunch of television narration credits. I give him high points for the narration, particularly the careful work on the pronunciation of names, using the original (not Anglicised) versions of foreign names, including Adolf Hitler - with the short “a.” (Also, amusing moment when Sheinken explained diplomatically the correct way to say “Fuchs,” as well as the fact that it got pronounced in a non-family-friendly way by many in England….) I will also note with approval that Listening Library did a good job on the compression for this volume, which is a common complaint I have when listening to audiobooks while driving - keep the overall sound level consistent, and I don’t have to fiddle with the volume knob while propelling 12,000 pounds of truck and trailer over curvy mountain roads. 



Personal note: Back in the day, when I worked for Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance doing basic legal stuff for senior citizens, I had a client who told me his story of loading a really funny looking giant bomb into an aircraft named the Enola Gay. 


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Einstein: A Stage Portrait (BMT/Stars 2020)

I didn’t see the promotion for this production until after I had written my summary post for fall theater productions, or I might have included it there. However, at least a short post on it is warranted. 


I have previously noted that I will try to see certain local actors in anything, because they are so outstanding that even a play that isn’t on my favorites list can be worthwhile simply because of the superb acting. One of those actors is Kevin McDonald, who I first saw in the role of Malvolio, and have since seen in stuff all the way from The 39 Steps to most recently A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. So, when I saw he was doing a one-man production of Einstein: A Stage Portrait, I knew I had to see it. This was a pre-filmed stream, but done on a real set without a mask. (Safe, given the fact he was the only actor…) 

Stars/BMT credits William Simms for the play, but I am pretty certain this is actually Willard Simms. Whatever the case, the play is essentially a dramatic monologue by Einstein, reflecting on his life and work and celebrity. 


The play attempts to humanize Einstein, who all too often is reduced to a caricature or even a stock comedy character, the antisocial genius who is odd and amusing and anything but fully human. But Einstein was indeed human, and had all the complexities and frailties we all have. That he was a genius and revolutionized physics is indeed true. But so is the fact that Nazism and the Holocaust haunted him and led to some emotionally consistent yet outwardly contradictory political views. His first marriage failed, yet he was devoted to his second wife and regretful at the effect the split caused his children. 


Central to this play is Einstein’s belief that the press, while a necessary part of a free society, has latched onto single quotes or ideas and made them into the complete picture of who he is. Which leads to misunderstandings in both directions. For example, Einstein was a pacifist. He also believed that Germany was about to develop an atomic weapon, and urged the United States to do so first. When it turned out that the Nazis were defeated before they could build a bomb, and the United States was (and still is) the only country to use atomic weapons against people, he regretted his former stance. The thing is, these are all consistent in a way. As a Jew, Einstein had to flee the Nazis, and he believed that a fascist takeover the world was a great evil. But so was nuclear weaponry, which cast a pall over the second half of the 20th Century and still poses a risk of annihilation of humanity. 


Along with this conflict come rambling musings on the nature of reality, how relativity works, creativity and discovery, and, of course music. 


I can’t decide if it is a good thing that McDonald never did play the violin on stage. I noticed the instrument in question appeared to be a half size, which was not a good start. So maybe it was better for all of us that he never made a sound with it. On the other hand, I might have gotten to razz him about it later. Violin was an important part of Einstein’s life, and was his connection to art and transcendence every bit as much as his beautiful theories. As he puts it in one of many actual quotes used to good effect in the play, “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” 


That is just one way that I see my own belief system in Einstein. I’m certainly no genius, of course, and our religions are nominally different. But I too have rejected a fundamentalist and literalist view of the divine. For example, this quote, which I had heard before, but struck me yet again:


“I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.‎” 


In other words, a god who is really just a more powerful - and more psychopathic - human. Einstein also believed in a universe to be explored and understood, and science as a means of doing so. This is in contrast to the fundamentalist goal of protecting dogma against the onslaughts of reality that threaten it. 


I had my kids watch it with me, and, although there were some slower moments in the play, they enjoyed it. Particularly the limericks, puns, and other jokes. Also, McDonald’s acting is just straight up compelling. He hit a wide range of emotional notes, and truly inhabited the character. Given the run length of the play, with zero other lines to trigger the memory, his ability to commit this complex work to heart and deliver it fully in character is amazing. It takes a true artist to pull something like this off. 


The play runs through December 9th, and I strongly recommend seeing it. You can purchase tickets at

Monday, November 16, 2020

Authority by Jeff Vandermeer

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


One of the first books I read with my current book club was Annihilation, the first of the “Southern Reach” trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. It was, to put it mildly, a puzzling and frustrating book. But also oddly compelling. The problem was, of course, that it is a trilogy, and reading one book is hardly the best way to understand the whole work. I intended to continue the series, but got busy with other stuff, and never returned to it. I felt like a weird, shorter read, and ordered the next book from the library.

Authority feels very different from Annihilation in many ways, but it still is a frustrating read, because, although we finally find out some answers to questions in the first book, we still lack a LOT of information - well, so does humanity, so...I guess we are in the same boat. 


The second book picks up soon after the events of the first book. This time, however, the setting is the “normal” world, outside Area X. John “Control” Rodriguez (hey, names this time!) is a failed CIA (called “Central” in the book) agent from a family of brilliant and successful spooks, who is sent to the Southern Reach - the agency that manages Area X and has sent the various expeditions into it - to reform and fix it, as it seems to be failing. Control realizes soon after he arrives that he has not been given anywhere near the necessary information to do his job, the assistant director is furious that she didn’t get the job, and his mysterious boss at the CIA seems increasingly unhinged and alienated from the rest of the agency. This is obviously not the best work environment, to say the least. 


It becomes clear very early on that everyone is withholding information. Nobody is being honest, although at least the facts aren’t as murky as in the first book, where it is pretty nearly impossible to figure out what the hell is going on. 


A few things are cleared up. First, as the pile of journals at the lighthouse hinted, there were indeed far more than the twelve “official” expeditions. Many more. And generally, they did not end well. There is video from the first one, where a single survivor managed to escape, and then ended up in conflict with the director of the Southern Reach. Oh, and that director? That would be the woman known in the first book as “the psychologist.” And how she ended up on the expedition, who she was, and all that is one of the major mysteries that Control has to figure out as best he can. 


We do find out that three of the four members of the expedition featured in the first book (officially the 12th Expedition), have, after a fashion, returned. Like the Biologist’s husband, two of them are not right. It is as if they are replicas of the humans sent in to Area X, but without the presence that makes them human. The book doesn’t tell us if they get cancer and die like the zombies returned in the previous book. 


There is an exception, though. The Biologist is found in a vacant lot, and seems to have something different about her. While she gives the same lines about no memory and stuff, she seems to have memories she refuses to disclose. Even weirder, she insists that she is not the Biologist, but calls herself “Ghost Bird.” I won’t spoil it, but we get an idea of why she says this at the end of the book. The book, by the way, ends with a pretty good cliffhanger, with Ghost Bird and Control apparently traveling to Area X. I shall definitely have to read the last book. 


One of my complaints about the last book was that it was short, yet cost as much as a full length book. That complaint does not apply to this one, which is twice as long. So, I guess maybe it would have been difficult to have made them all into one book. Still seems like a money churn, though. But I read 800 page Victorian novels, so I might be biased. 


It is certainly true that this book is a compelling page turner. Particularly after reading the first book (which you must do or this one makes no sense.) I am beginning to doubt that we will ever know if Area X is some sort of alien invasion, a mutation, or simply Gaia reclaiming Earth from humans. It doesn’t become clearer in this book, even though we learn a lot more about the humans in this drama. We also get a few names, but they are rarely used, so people are again reduced to their roles. In the case of Control, this makes sense, because he has little life outside his job - something true of many of the characters. The general feeling that information - indeed truth - is impossible to come by remains from the earlier book. It is frustrating to read for that reason, but also compelling. Every reveal is a treasure, and also a twist of the knife. 


For the most part, like the previous book, I didn’t write stuff down, but just immersed myself in the world Vandermeer creates. There is one exception, and that is a line from Control’s father. He is the polar opposite of Control’s hyper controlling and competent mother. He is an artist (although he has died by the time of the book’s setting), and better embraced the idea of chaos than she ever did. 


“We live in a universe driven by chance,” his father had said once, “but the bullshit artists all want causality.” 



In some ways, this is emblematic of the world of the book - and the world we live in. At my age, I am realizing that anyone who promises otherwise is selling something. While I do not believe in an entirely random universe - and I believe in human free will - I also believe that most things are best understood as “shit happens.” A spouse dying of cancer isn’t divine retribution, part of some greater good, or (usually, at least) the result of human factors. It is random chance, a bad roll of the dice. 


For the Southern Reach, one of their recurring mistakes seems to be to try to understand - and therefore control - Area X, which has led to recurring catastrophe. Control keeps trying to gain, well, control both at the Southern Reach and in his work interrogating Ghost Bird. All he gains is defeat and pain. 


Likewise, in our own world, the bullshit artists sell the idea that pain and suffering comes from “those people.” It’s a convenient causality, but also a false - and hateful one. 


I am really curious to see where Vandermeer goes with this, and if we ever do discover the truth about any of this. Perhaps Control and Ghost Bird (and everyone else) will have to evolve and adapt to survive. Or maybe there isn’t a future. It is hard to tell at this point, but clearly status quo isn’t going to be possible. 


I have intentionally mentioned only a few of the answers - and questions - this book provides. Like the first book, it is best experienced by immersion rather than analysis. Vandermeer’s writing is good without being noticeable: it serves the story and creates the world without distracting the reader, which is perfect for this kind of a story. The labyrinth doesn’t need wallpaper. Definitely read these in order, and let go and enjoy the ride. 




For those who are curious what other stuff I have read with our book club, here is the list. Most of these I read along with the others, but a few are ones I went back later and read based on recommendations.


Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


A couple of years back, I read my first Ishiguro, The Buried Giant, which was one haunting book, a parable about the legacy of genocide which underlies “civilization.” I put The Remains of the Day on my list, and picked up an audiobook for what I thought would be a commute on a court case. Covid and other events turned that series of appearances virtual, and I ended up listening to this mostly while driving for a music gig. 

The Remains of the Day won a few awards, and was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, which sounds interesting. (Although the book is usually better in my experience…) It is easy to see why it became Ishiguro’s best known work - it is iconic and nuanced and memorable. 


Pretty hard to improve on that casting, honestly.

The English butler is as much of a stock character these days as the Fool used to be in Shakespearean times, and I believe that this book along with P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves books are responsible for that. While Jeeves is played for comedy, albeit as the straight man to Bertie and his friends, Stevens is very serious indeed. He is perhaps the quintessential English butler, perfect in his professionalism. But at what cost?


The book opens with Stevens working for Mr. Farraday, an American who has purchased Darlington Hall after Lord Darlington’s death. Stevens came with the property, so to speak. Farraday tells Stevens to take a vacation (for the first time in his life) and take the car. Stevens visits the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton, now married and Mrs. Benn. Along the way, he reflects on his life and career, most of which was devoted to serving Lord Darlington. 


Darlington is largely based on Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Lord Londonderry. In the interwar period, Londonderry engaged in “amateur diplomacy” with Nazi Germany, becoming part of a group, the Anglo-German Fellowship, which played a dubious role in trying to bring England and Germany together. Historians consider the AGF to have been enthusiasts for the Nazis, rather than pragmatic appeasers. In the end, Hitler was able to manipulate British politics through Ribbentrop’s close relationship with the AGF, going behind the backs of the official diplomatic channels. 


Stevens is fiercely loyal to Lord Darlington, and refuses to question any of his decisions, until near the end of the novel. After all, his role is to be a butler, and someone like Lord Darlington has certain aristocratic values which make him better able to understand politics, right? 


So, that is the political context, and a significant theme of the novel. The other main plot revolves around Stevens’ personal life. He, like his father, has chosen to devote himself completely to his career, making no room for personal relationships or even a separate human existence. As a result, his father dies without him, while he serves guests.


Even sadder, he and Miss Kenton clearly have feelings for each other - she knows this - but he is unwilling to acknowledge that part of himself. Eventually, she leaves Darlington Hall to marry. The marriage isn’t bad, but she doesn’t really love her husband, and wonders (as we find out at the end) what might have been had Stevens allowed himself to be human. 


The book unfolds at a maddeningly slow pace, mostly because Stevens is unable to get to the point. He is avoiding being honest with himself (although he at least admits his memory is unreliable), and so keeps circling around to avoid emotional pitfalls. He gets off on rabbit trails numerous times, mostly musings on the nature of “dignity” and what that means as a butler. (Hint: it means failing to be with your dying father because some rich prick wants his port right now. And showing no emotion about that.) 


The thing is, Ishiguro does pace the book in a deliberate manner, revealing the truth so gradually, and then letting the final pieces fall exactly where you feel you should have seen them falling from the beginning. He also messes with the reader, because Stevens is both clearly a not-entirely-reliable narrator, but he also is convincing. You really do feel sympathy for Lord Darlington’s desire for decency and generosity toward other nations. At least until he fires the Jewish house staff. It is, like many issues, complicated. Personally, I think that looking back, the time to have been more generous was immediately after World War One, not once Hitler gained power. Perhaps Hitler would have died in obscurity had the Allies not tried to brutally punish Germany for the war. But once Hitler came to power, he was an existential threat to the rest of the world. 


The relationship between Miss Kenton and Stevens is superbly done. Although, to be honest, one does wonder what Miss Kenton sees in Stevens - he is so maddeningly unable to leave his “playacting” as a butler (as Miss Kenton puts it to him.) If he would just once act like a human, not a Butler™! But Ishiguro writes a tremendous amount of sexual tension into an outwardly excruciatingly formal relationship. 


One could spend time analyzing each incident in the book, including the contacts that Stevens has with “normal” people during his trip. Nothing Ishiguro writes is unimportant. All the rambling, all the delay and sidetracking - it all means something, and despite the seeming plethora of redundant words, nothing really is superfluous. It all is part of the complex understanding that Stevens needs to make of how he is and how his life has been. It is excellent writing. 


Ishiguro hasn’t written a particularly large number of books, but their combined excellence led to a Nobel Prize in 2017. I have a couple of his other books on my reading list for the future, and look forward to experiencing them in good time. 


I can’t forget to mention the narrator of the audiobook, Simon Preeble. Who was simply outstanding. His range of British accents was wide, of course, but his renderings of the American, French, and German characters was spot on. If you experience this on audiobook, look for this version. 


Monday, November 9, 2020

Five Fall Covid-safe Theater Productions

I definitely miss live theater these days, and look forward to when we can attend in person safely again. 


In the meantime, many theater troupes have found ways to keep the arts alive. It shouldn’t be a surprise that creative sorts can...get creative, and that is exactly how they have been. 


Within a two week period, I experienced no fewer than five different productions, so I decided to combine them into a single post. With one exception, these are all small non-professional groups, which tend to have greater financial flexibility along with realistic expectations. No diss to the big guys, but the little guys are killing it right now. 


The School for Wives by Moliere (Moliere in the Park)


First up is a production by the fairly new Brooklyn professional theater Moliere in the Park, which combines two things that need more visibility: Moliere, and African-American actors. I wrote about their splendid rendition of Tartuffe, the play that made me fall in love with Moliere back in high school. This time, they tackled one of the less-known plays, The School for Wives. This one is in many ways a companion piece to The School for Husbands, and shares many of the same themes. 


The thing about Moliere is that, despite living 350 years ago, his plays are shockingly relevant and fresh. Comedy often ages poorly, particularly when it is dependent on the pop culture of its time. Moliere avoided this by writing about universal human foibles. From hypochondria to misanthropy to religious hypocrisy, some things never really change. 


In The School for Wives, Moliere applies his satirical genius to gender stereotypes of the time, particularly the belief that women were best kept stupid and docile and taught to devote their lives to pleasing their husbands. (This is actually pretty much what Christian Patriarchy teaches…and not much different from a lot of the beliefs of conservative Christianity in general.) Even 350 years ago, Moliere isn’t having any of it. 


The chauvinistic and middle-aged Arnolphe has raised his ward Agnes (believed to be an orphan) since infancy, and she is finally coming of age. He has deliberately kept her uneducated, “ignorant of life” so that she will be prepared to be a faithful devoted spouse to him. He is convinced that his “training” will keep her from desiring other men, and thus he will not be cuckolded like so many of his friends. 


His friend Chrysalde isn’t buying it, and informs Arnolphe that he disapproves of the whole thing, including Arnolphe’s decision to change his name to Monsieur de la Souche (basically “Lord Stump”) so he has a “title” to go with his wealth. Furthermore, Chrysalde opines that getting cuckolded isn’t a particularly big deal: after all, men step out all the time, right? So why not women too? [gasp!] 


Meanwhile, Horace, the young son of Arnolphe’s friend Oronte, has fallen in love with Agnes, not knowing she is Arnolphe’s intended. Horace confides his love to Arnolphe, and asks his advice for seducing the lady. It is after giving this advice that Arnolphe is stunned to hear that the lady in question is affianced to...wait for it.... Lord Stump. 


For her part, Agnes is a lot smarter than Arnolphe thinks, and is madly in love with Horace. And just who IS Agnes anyway? With rapier wit, Moliere makes the case for equality and self-determination for women. 

The production was a bit more technically polished than the last one, with better backgrounds and fewer glitches. It felt a bit like a Zoom meeting, which is, well, what theater is right now. It was quite enjoyable. 

I had to look hard to find a screenshot from this one. Moliere in the Park, you guys could stand to put some pictures on social media from time to time so people like me can promote the hell out of your shows!

The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare (Bakersfield College)


It has been impressive to see what educators have been able to do under extremely difficult conditions, with very little time to plan. While it hasn’t been a completely smooth transition, and online learning is less than ideal for many, I have nothing but respect for the teachers and administrators who have come up with ways of making it work. 


In the case of Bakersfield College, they were able to find some wonderfully creative ways of putting on their fall plays without putting students and teachers at risk. 


In the case of Comedy of Errors, they created an adaptation of the story for a silent movie, Charlie Chaplin style. With very little dialogue (in the form of subtitles), and some simplification of the plot, the length was reduced to under an hour. The actors all wore masks, and filmed the scenes outdoors - at various locations downtown. The cinematography was delightful, in sepia tones. The cast was all female, and featured some of the usual local suspects: Lindsay Pearson, Shelbie McClain, Vanessa Beltran, and the always-delightful Nancee Steiger. The gestures fit the theme so perfectly, the jazzy soundtrack was perfect, and the humor unmistakeable even without “sound” - or even seeing the actors’ full faces. Bravo. 

BC is finally doing great publicity photos. This gives an idea of how awesome the aesthetic on this show was. There is also a trailer on the BC Theater facebook page. 


Dracula the Radio Play by Philip Grecian


This adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic work of necessity cuts out a lot of the original. I mean, otherwise, you would end up with a play that took all day. But it gets the basic elements of the plot in there, and tells a compelling story. 


Bakersfield Community Theater has had to cope with Covid in a creative manner. For this production, the actors all did their work from home, with a green screen. The performance was then done live on Zoom. The technical work was actually really good, with no noticeable glitches on sound or video. Because it was in real time, the actors were able to play off each other pretty well. 


I can’t find a cast list for some reason, but credit to the actors whether I remember the name or not. I know local theater regulars Al and Julie Gaines, of course. Perrin Swanson (no relation) was particularly electric as the mentally ill Renfield. A quite enjoyable performance, very well done. 

 Not sure why BCT didn't have publicity photos this time. So I stole this one from Perrin.


Tales From the Vault of Fear (California State University Bakersfield)


I have enjoyed radio dramas since I was a kid. Growing up in Los Angeles, we could listen to the KNX radio hour in the evenings, when they would play all the oldies. Once my brother and I built little AM radios, we used to listen to stuff without our parents knowing (our bedroom was in its own wing…) - yeah, we were rebels. Usually, we listened to stuff like Dragnet and The Shadow and stuff, but I remember one time we scared ourselves stupid with a really creepy episode of Lights Out. Good times. 


CSUB presented three spooky dramas as old time radio shows. Actually, these were radio shows back in the day. These were professional quality dramas, with full sound effects, music, and perfect pacing. 


Of the plays in this post, this is the only one the kids didn’t watch/listen to, because we ran out of time. I stayed up late on the last day this was available and listened to it on my own. I am glad I did. 


The first drama was Zero Hour, a classic by Ray Bradbury. The kids in this town are all playing a game called “invasion,” which turns out to be true: there really ARE aliens coming to invade. This drama was chosen in part because 2020 is Bradbury’s 100th birthday. A fine time to experience his delightful writing. 


Second was The Shadow People, a classic horror/supernatural drama. The idea is pretty common, finding its way into horror for the last couple hundred years, at least. (Similar in some ways to Ghost Story, our last book club read.) Great atmosphere in this production, which is based on an old Hall of Fantasy radio episode. 


Finally, Robert Sloane’s classic, The Voice on the Wire, combines the ghost story with a crime drama. The actors created great suspense with this one, and kept the secret twist at the end, well, secret. 

 CSUB does need to do better at publicity photos. At least the poster is cool.


The Tempest (Bakersfield College)


This particular production is dear to my heart, because it is the college debut of a longtime family friend, Marina. When our families first met, Marina was less than a year old, and my eldest was a newborn. Our family friendship has been a huge blessing to me, and one of the things that kept me sane(ish) during our break with organized religion. Marina performed as Ariel, and was outstanding. 


The Tempest is, hands down, the weirdest of Shakespeare’s plays. In some ways, it seems like it was written by an entirely different author. It is rather as if at the end of her career, Jane Austen had suddenly written a fairy tale. The closest Shakespeare wrote to this one was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but even that isn’t that close. There may be fairies in both, but The Tempest is far more serious than the other, which is clearly intended to be light and often silly entertainment. (Don’t get me wrong, I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Mendelssohn’s delightful music for it.) 


The Tempest is, in tone and theme, far more related to the late romances, All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Or even better, The Winter’s Tale. We have essentially a tragedy that manages to end well, despite everything. But, with fairies and a god with a staff. Like in the others, Shakespeare ends with a call for mercy toward the offenders, once they have been revealed in their perfidy. It isn’t all heaviness, however, as the comic subplot involving a jester, a drunk, and a monster, who walk into a bog, not a bar, is one of Shakespeare’s finest. 


A full discussion of the play is beyond the scope of this brief writeup, so maybe I can return to it the next time I see a production. After all, this was, I believe, the fourth time I have seen it? It does have some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines - ones that have made it into the cultural fabric. 


“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” 


“My library was dukedom large enough.” (That’s definitely me…) 


“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”


“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”


“O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,

That has such people in't.”


“As you from crimes would pardoned be,

Let your indulgence set me free.”


“Thou dost snore distinctly. There's meaning in thy snores.”


Some of these are so familiar that we don’t even realize where they came from. 


For the BC production, the play was produced as...wait for it...a LEGO stop motion video. And yes, this was pretty cool, and very well done. The scenes were, I am guessing, shot in someone’s backyard, from the seashore to the jungle. The audio dubbing was recorded at the BC indoor theater (very familiar to me, as I have performed on that stage many times), with distancing and shields over the mics. (The outtakes at the end are hilarious, but also informative, because they show the recording process.) The only drawback to the technique is that for a couple of the actors, the layers of protection meant less crispness on the voice. Let me be the first to say that Marina’s was exceptionally clear, so whatever she did to project and enunciate worked well. It didn’t sound forced either - she’s a legit actor, even as a freshman. 

Marina doesn't really look like this - less jaundice, for one thing...


Again, kudos to everyone in these productions for fine work, and for creativity in difficult times.