Saturday, October 31, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

5 Thoughts on a Thursday

1) Our roommate, B-, and his girlfriend will be hosting a Halloween Party this Saturday. It is one of three parties that R.A. - whose social card is quite suddenly filled up these days - has us attending this weekend. One of the other two is a get together of her fellow Library students, while the other is a party hosted by a group of graduate students that I met for the first time at a screening of the latest Micheal Moore movie; that's right - they're all filthy, filthy Socialists. In fact, it's going to be a Socialist Party! (Get it?)

Actually, I am incredibly fond of R.A.'s Red friends, even if I do give her guff about it. Their political views certainly seem to be much more sound and sensible given the events of the past 18 months or so. But what I am really interested in is whether the Socialists or the Librarians will be wearing better Halloween costumes. Because they're going to have a tough time topping my costume....

2) A Duck-Rabbit.

You can also buy Duck-Rabbit beer from North Carolina. Seriously. If the guy had been smart at all, he would have copyrighted this shit.

And speaking of Ducks...

3) changed my entire perspective on things last weekend. Apparently, we get a subscription to this website now because we use Comcast as our internet provider, and so last Saturday I got to watch, on my 14-inch laptop screen, Illinois vs. Purdue, Florida vs. Mississippi St. Oregon vs. Washington, and USC vs. Oregon St. It was awesome. At one point, I was actually jumping up and down in the living room, swearing at my computer, with no one else in the house except for me and the cats. This weekend, I'm going to try to fanagle my way into watching the USC-Oregon game during the various holiday festivities. I don't think that R.A. approves, but at least then, if I were sneaking away from the party every five minutes to go and stare at my computer in our bedroom or office, my costume would make some lick of sense.

And speaking of, um, Oregon sports...

4) Go Blazers! Not that I have given up on football, or even baseball even, (Go Phils), but, man, am I excited about basketball. The Blazers are going to be good. Heck, they might even win a playoff series this year! But maybe I am the most excited about having something new to talk to some of my students about that they're actually interested in. This week, for Trivia Tuesday, I wrote up some trivia questions about Kobe and LeBron, and, man, did those little eyes light up. Much more interesting than questions about Washington Irving.

Now if only I could convince them that Kobe sucks, and that Brandon Roy is much better when you consider the team as a whole.

5) And finally, sadly, I want to say that one of the kindest, funniest, and smartest people that I ever had the pleasure to know, Abe Jellinek, died last weekend in New York. It is one of the saddest events I could have ever imagined. Here is a link to the Boston Globe obituary and guest book. Here is a link to one of Abe's notes, that, I think exemplifies his brilliance and his talent. The world is a darker place without him.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mr. Joel Explains It All

Fall has Fell here in central Illinois, and the leaves cover the sidewalk, making everything rather yellow and orange and pretty, but also getting stuck to the bottom of my shoes at 6:24 am when I am sprinting in the dark trying to catch my bus.

There have been a few queries from our readers as to what the actual nature of my job is, i.e., what is it that I actually freakin' do??!! (A uniquely American concern, as Henry James has taught us.)

Well, as a teacher's aide, it's my job to, um, aid the teacher. This entails, everything from making copies of handouts and running down to the attendance office for band-aids and hand sanitizer to grading papers and leading the class when she is busy. Most of my time, however, is spent patrolling the aisles of the classroom while Mrs. R teaches, helping the students with spelling questions, catching the kids who have fallen behind up, and saying over and over and over again, "Sit down please. Please sit down. Eyes on Mrs R, now, please sit down. Please be quiet. Put that away, it's time to read. Be quiet now. It's time to sit down. Sit down please. Please sit down." There's a lot of repetition.

Most of my day - actually, exactly 75% of my day - is spent in what is called "pull" classes, which are reading and math classes designed specifically for students identified as either learning disabled or cognitively impaired. These are generally smaller classes, with students who I know well and am learning how to assist on an individual level. However, these are also the classes that require the most time on social and disciplinary issues. These are the classes that I spend the most time in, and, therefore, I have the greatest amount of my sorgen invested in them. I get to be an active member of these classes, and I like being able to get into the "groove" that is provided by the repetition, that is, by knowing what we're doing each and every day and being able to work with the kids on such a regular basis that I can clearly observe the changes that are happening within them.

The rest of my day is spent following some of the students from these "pull" classes as they go to their science and social studies classes. These other classes are "standard", which means that they have at least 30 kids each and of varying skill levels. I am less involved with the execution of these classes, but rather spend most of my time helping the students from the "pull" classes stay abreast of their assignments and, basically, get everything done on time so they can pass. These periods are nice because I get exposure to students who are working at different levels and I get to learn cool things about ecosystems and Ancient Egypt.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Three Criteria of Knowledge: A Play in Two Acts

ACT I: Discount DVD rack at the Schnucks supermarket in Urbana. R.A. and Joel have stopped to peruse the selection.

Joel: Oooh! We could get Ghostbusters 2 for $5.99!
R.A.: meh....
Joel: "Pirates of Treasure Island"? Starring Johnny Mepp?
R.A.: It can't be nearly as good as Transmorphers.
Joel: Good call.
R.A.: Here we are. Heathers. We should get this, because Ted Hughes is dead.
Joel: Don't you mean John Hughes?
R.A.: Oh, yeah, John Hughes. Who's Ted Hughes?
Joel: I don't know. Maybe he's dead, too.

ACT II: 15 minutes later. R.A. and Joel are walking with their groceries and new copy of Heathers towards the bus stop.

R.A.: Ted Hughes is dead!
Joel: What?
R.A.: Ted Hughes. He was married to Sylvia Plath. And he is dead.
Joel: Oh. (pause) So you were right when you said "Ted Hughes is dead."
R.A.: Right.
Joel: And you believed it when you said it.
R.A.: Right.
Joel: But you still didn't know it when you said it!
R.A.: Exactly.
Joel: Oh, snap!


*Saturday was a weird day for R.A. and names. She also managed to mention the great novelists "David Pynchon" and "George Hemingway" that day. Something about manly dude writers. How odd.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Theater Cricket: Richard III

About a year ago, R.A. and I were hanging out around Bryn Mawr on the North Side when we saw a flyer advertising a local production of Marlowe's The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus. It was playing just around the corner, in about an hour.

"Do you want to go?" she asked me. "But that's one of your favorite plays."

"No," I said. I was hungry and cranky and kind of just wanted to go home, but I had another reason for not going, too: "They'll just do it wrong, anyways."

Dr. Faustus is one of those pieces that I like so much that I'm really an ass about anyone else's interpretation of it. Mephisto is always played either too coy or not enough. Faustus is always either too much the sadist or way too much the martyr. I like to think that lots of people feel this way about certain plays or books or movies; one has such a relationship with the text that you become almost jealous when someone else dares to claim it as their own.

And so another play that I'm going to have to add to this list besides Dr. Faustus is Shakespeare's Richard III. I attended Barbara Gaines' production of this play last week at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, and I couldn't stop thinking during the entire performance, "You're doing it wrong!" And, although my opinion of the play may be colored by my otherwise unreasonable biases, the CST's unfortunate performance has inspired me to compile a brief list of dos and don'ts for would-be productions of Richard III:

1) DON'T try to make Richard III into Macbeth. It's not. Last winter, I saw Macbeth at the CST, and thought that they did a great job of it. However, all of the tricks that made their Macbeth exciting - a stage shrouded in darkness, strobe lights representing flashes of lightning, a loud and intimidating soundtrack, long and elaborate battle scenes - proved only to be distractions in Richard III. Richard is not a tragedy - it's a history. And while it shares many of the same themes as Macbeth, themes of power, greed, and madness, these are not the driving forces behind the play. Richard III is about politics, and how even kings and queens can be swayed by gossip, by insinuations, by appeals to their vanity. In short, if Macbeth's weltanschauung is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," Richard III's is that it is "subtle, false, and treacherous," and that it "hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale..." Gaines' production sought to gloss over this important element of subtle falsehoods and treacheries by filling her Richard with sound and fury and, therefore, meaninglessness.

2) DON'T try to make Richard come off as mad or weak. He's not. For the most part, I really liked the casting in Richard III, and thought that most of the actors did an excellent job. Two of my favorites were Phillip James Brannon as Richard's brother, Clarence, and John Lister as Richard's court rival Lord Hastings. Brannon was Malcolm in CST's Macbeth, and here he has another good performance in giving "simple, plain" Clarence an edge of quiet patience and resolve. Likewise, Lister's Hastings is a good but flawed man who deeply cares about the future of England and yet also loves his wine, women, and song. Hastings is a worthy foe for Richard, and the scene in which he is finally caught by Richard's trap is one of the most rewarding in the entire play.

Which brings us to the star himself. The part of Richard is played by Wallace Acton, and almost every line he delivered made me cringe. Acton plays Richard somewhere between a schizophrenic and an ugly caricature of a gay man. He always seemed to be pawing at the other characters on stage, often literally, and with a limp wrist, coming up into their space from below, like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. The most horrendous examples of Acton's overacting is in one of Richard's final and most powerful soliloquies, when, on the eve of his final defeat, he says, in what could be a moment of sobering Realpolitik: "I shall despair. There is no creature loves me; and if I die no soul shall pity me: nay, wherefore should they, - since that I myself find in myself no pity to myself?" Rather than playing this scene as a kind of dark revelation, Acton delivers his lines almost exactly like Andy Serkis' Gollum from The Two Towers, all hissing and animal panic. Finally, Acton, like Feldman's Igor, is constantly glancing over his hunched shoulder at us, rolling his eyes and smirking, trying to get us "in on the joke." Which brings us to the last edict:

3) DON'T play Richard III as if it were a comedy. It's not. While there is a lot of humor in Richard III - especially in Richard's wit and in the absolute gall with which he goes through his schemes and manipulations - Baines' production often overplays its hand in showing this kind of perverse humor. The result is that I kept getting the impression that I was watching a political satire rather than a drama. And the secondary result is that the characters therefore come off as buffoons, as mere caricatures of people and not as the actual people themselves. This kind of lampooning of the political would be appropriate for something more modern or Brechtian - I did think of Jean Genet's Le Balcon more than once during the performance - but it then loses a certain sense of power that I think the play ought to convey. It is important for the audience to remember that Richard's foes and rivals - Lord Hastings, Elizabeth Woodville, Rivers and Grey - are very powerful and competent people. They are not mere dupes, and humiliating them as such, or letting the audience share in Richard's smugness at their being manipulated, cheapens Richard's ability to triumph over them. And this, in turn, further alienates us from the character of Richard, and makes us unable to appreciate how he rises to the power and why, once he is on the throne, he is unable to retain that position.

The CST's performance of Richard III seemed to not understand that the play works because it is about ordinary humans placed in extraordinary situations. Instead, Baines sought to substitute spectacle and symbolism for subtlety and realism. Richard III is a great play that signifies a great many different things. It symbolizes nothing.

Richard III
by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines
September 23 - November 22, 2009
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Acton as Richard. Wendy Robie as Elizabeth. Demetrios Troy as Rivers, Juan Gabriel Ruiz as Grey, and John Reeger as Stanley.

The Chicago Tribune was equally unimpressed.

The Sun-Times seemed to like everything about the play that I disliked.