For the remainder of the month, I’m taking a short class from Mitchell Hébert through Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s education program. My scene partner Michelle and I are working on the gentleman caller scene from Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Part of the assigned prep work is journaling the process: we’re writing both about the life of these two characters, as well as what’s going on with us as we do the work—what barriers and fears are we fighting through? So most of my introspection about the class is going into the paper journal, rather than into the blogosphere. But that’s okay: the point of this journaling exercise is to get at messy stuff, stuff not for public consumption. And, considering reactions to some earlier posts of mine, it’s probably just as well that I keep most of my rehearsal hall thoughts to myself.

That said, I’m enjoying the class. With the exception of vipassana meditation, most of the techniques are familiar to me. What I’ve been missing for a while is the imposed structure of applying them to the preparation of a role.

Watching an invasion

David A. Fahrenthold updates the status of the local population of northern snakeheads in the Potomac River and its tributary creeks, where the fish is an alien species.

…Snakeheads are thriving. Virginia state scientists who use electric current to stun and capture fish in these creeks used to catch one snakehead every five hours. This year, they got 6.9 fish an hour, nearly 35 times more.

But the snakeheads don’t appear to have had a serious impact on the river’s largemouth or smallmouth bass, which are also top predators in the river. Scientists say they believe this might be because the snakeheads prefer shallower water or different prey.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Plays that trade on the theme of Marilyn Monroe (Oates’s Miss Golden Dreams, Russell’s Blood Brothers) are rarely successful, though I can’t articulate why. Perhaps they mistake icon for import. Simon Bent’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany likewise fails to impress.

Despite some highly theatrical technical elements—a flying actor; basketballs dropping from the sky; and an overwhelming set piece in the third act that involves revealing the back wall of the theater, painted as the Stars and Stripes three stories high while Vietnam War dead are delivered home by forklift—Irving’s black comedy of faith leaves us wondering why this story had to be told. It is the story of diminutive Owen, a “boy with a wrecked voice” who has premonitions of his own death and a heroic sacrifice. In a setting of New England grotesques out of Thornton Wilder, and told in tightly cued overlapping scenes, preternaturally spiritual Owen takes on the role of a wise child. The trouble is that Irving, Bent, director Blake Robison, and actor Matthew Detmer have given Owen a comically squeaky voice more appropriate to Burr Tillstom and Fran Allison’s clown puppet Ollie. Owen’s pronouncements of wisdom against the tradition-bound clerics of his hometown are flat and trite; he comes off as a grating smartass more at home on Saturday morning television. Maybe the idea worked better in the book.

The play picks up some momentum in the third act with an unsettling visitation by Lenny Bruce and Owen goes off to war. Too little, too late.

  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, novel by John Irving, adapted by Simon Bent, directed by Blake Robison, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Maryland

At the Park: 1

We went out for a short morning to work on the nest boxes at the Park. Since we forgot to bring a drill so that we could mount new boxes, all we accomplished was tearing down box 60. This wasn’t too hard to do, even without tools, because 60 was pretty ramshackle.

Paul spotted a couple of tail-bobbing Palm Warblers (Dedroica palmarum) and there were some lingering phoebes and swallows over the wetland. Or should we say, soon-not-to-be-wetland: lots of grassy vegetation and small willows and maples are springing up along the boardwalk.

slime moldI found several silvery masses of a slime mold in a rotting tree down along Barnyard Run. The lowest such mass (in the image) was a few feet over my head, about the size of my fist.

Some links: 7

Advice from Buster MacLeod on choosing and achieving goals. As you might expect, the tip most resonant with me is the low-tech one:

4. Talk to friends about your goals. You can write a thousand entries on your blog about your goals, but real accountability and a surprising amount of support comes from simply talking about your goals in social settings. Relationships are strengthened by people helping each other, and good friends want to help each other. Also, find ways to help them with their goals too.

Devil Guts

Justin Runyon et al. from Penn State demonstrate that dodder (Cuscuta pentagona), a parasitic orange-stemmed vine, uses chemical scents to find host plants. We see a lot of dodder in the Huntley Meadows Park wetland, and I think it’s a fascinating creation. Not for nothing is it called “Witches’ Shoelaces.” But I would no doubt feel differently if I were this tomato plant.

A new coffee connection

Via, a new site dedicated to Coffee & Conservation. Recent posts include a precis of research by Armbrecht, Perfecto, and Silverman on ant communities in coffee plantations (with the interesting speculation that the caffeine in coffee-based mulch depresses ant populations), and the obligatory (alas) story of kopi luwak.

Yes and no

Washington Theater Review interviews Washington Post critic Peter Marks:

WTR: Do you feel like the popularity of movie reviewers such as Siskel & Ebert has made people view critics and criticism as more of a “thumbs up/thumbs down” concept?

PM: There’s a sea change in what the world expects, not only because of Siskel & Ebert, but because of the internet, the bloggers. There’s a thumbs up/thumbs down mentality in this country but it goes beyond criticism. We are that way about people’s careers, their lives. It’s who’s up and who’s down. We make lists about everything. Who’s hot this year; who’s not. You’re in, you’re out. And if you’re in now, you are going to be out. You can’t stay in. We are constantly metering everything that way. So the natural thing is it’s going to bleed over into the arts.

When critics have to thumbs up/thumbs down — and the marketing departments of movies, theaters, and art museums all use those measures as well — it certainly dampens down the amount of nuance and subtlety in criticism. People want to know yes or no.

Most of the time the answer isn’t yes or no, most of the time it’s ‘OK’ or ‘Well, I don’t know if I would spend the money,’ or ‘That was sort of interesting in the second act.’ Those issues are hard to balance with the demands an audience has for yes or no. By some measure, the audience does want nuance and subtlety. I try and fight against the thumbs up/thumbs down mentality as much as I can. With some critics you’ll read a review, and you can’t tell what a person thinks. That’s not good either. Even if it’s 60% in favor, you have to leave a person with an impression of whether or not this is worthwhile. I work at a newspaper. I’m not at the ‘Journal of Internal Technical Lighting Skills’ or something like that. I am at a newspaper, and I have to abide by that service aspect.

We have met the enemy

Wyatt Mason takes his time getting to the point, but it’s a good one, well made:

“Does it concern you,” the [reporter] asked, stuttering, “that the Beirut airport has been bombed, and do you see a risk of triggering a wider war? And on Iran, they’ve so far refused to respond. Is it now past the deadline, or do they still have more time to respond?”

“I thought,” [George] Bush replied, “you were going to ask about the pig.”

Try to ignore, if you can, the image of the carcass of a pig, Bush poised, knife in hand, ready to carve. Consider instead that when asked on an international stage about real carnage—about spreading violence in the Middle East, about a constellation of worries suggesting a world at the brink of war—the president’s reply did not take the questioner’s inquiry seriously but, rather, sarcastically. His rhetoric sounded less like that of a steward of state—one addressing serious matters with sobriety—than that of a smartass. And this was not Juvenal’s sarcasm, or Twain’s, or even [Stephen] Colbert’s: it was not elegantly tuned to a point nor artfully part of a formal design. It was, instead, almost perfectly inappropriate and, of course, not unindicative of the president’s normal rhetorical mode. For it is not, I think, as is so often said, that the president is as much inarticulate as he is too clearly articulate, in a way: his tone, consistently condescending, betrays his sense of being, like a satirist, above those he calls down to. And that tone—carelessly sarcastic, thoughtlessly ironic, indiscriminately sardonic—that is the very one you now find everywhere. Bush is us; Bush is me: his is the same sarcasm I employ when I tell my father, once again, that of course I didn’t read today’s op-ed.