Monthly Archives: April 2014

Modern management, foretold

Ma and Pa Undershaft discuss the fate of the family business…

LADY BRITOMART. It would be most unnatural and improper of you to leave it to anyone else, Andrew. Do you suppose this wicked and immoral tradition can be kept up for ever? Do you pretend that Stephen could not carry on the foundry just as well as all the other sons of the big business houses?

UNDERSHAFT. Yes: he could learn the office routine without understanding the business, like all the other sons; and the firm would go on by its own momentum until the real Undershaft–probably an Italian or a German–would invent a new method and cut him out.

— Shaw, Major Barbara

Watch this…

Particle physics is sometimes described as crashing Swiss watches together, looking at the fragments, and then trying to figure out how the watches were put together in the first place. It is a spiffy analogy. (Photo courtesy of Fermilab)

But, how are watches actually put together?  First up, a gem of a film issued in 1949 by the Hamilton Watch Company.  The big watch model is a marvel and the stop-action sequence of a pocketwatch disassembling and reassembling itself is a delight.

 

And here is Prof. Bill Hammack of the University of Illinois explaining the common quartz-crystal watch of today.

R_{\mu\nu} - \frac{1}{2}g_{\mu\nu}R + g_{\mu\nu}\Lambda= \frac{8\pi G}{c^4}T_{\mu\nu} made simple(r)

Einstein’s Special Theory of relativity is capable of being responsibly taught in early undergraduate physics courses. It’s not easy but the mathematics is accessible and the concepts amenable to interesting analogies and occasional paradoxes.

The General Theory is an entirely different mountain to climb requiring substantially more preparation, focus, and stamina. Physical chemists such as myself have to have a very solid foundation in several branches of physics but GR has left many of us at Base Camp Motel 6 saying, “Someday…”

And then comes this beautiful 2 hour video by Dr. Physics A of the UK; “Einstein Field Equations – for beginners!” He takes the famous field equations as shown in the Subject and explains where each of the terms comes from and how they work together to describe space, time, and matter affecting one another. The Doc is refreshingly honest about what he is doing – basic introduction, not rigorous, covering only the essence. He’s understating a marvelous accomplishment. Having watched this handcrafted lecture, I now think that I might, in time, be able to make another attempt at the classic text/doorstop of Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. It will still be an hell of a climb but there’s some idea of the destination and a path towards it.

For the full treatment, he recommends Prof. Susskind’s 2008 lecture series at Stanford:

And who is this Doctor Physics A who prepares so many videos for British high school students? Turns out he’s a nuclear physicist by training and an entertainer by avocation. Impressive!

Creepy, Spooky, Kooky, Ooky – The Ghost Sonata in workshop at the Actor’s Gang

Some art forms and authors are known better through satire than in the actual. Few who’ve seen Bugs Bunny can ever take opera seriously. 1999’s Resa Fantastiskt Mystisk by the Burglars of Hamm lampooned Strindberg and his like in unforgettable fashion. Sam Shepard took it in the shorts from the Future Stars of Hollywood and their Go True West. A problem arises when one unfamiliar with such an artistic legend takes in a production of a well-known work to make up for large gaps in one’s knowledge. By one, I mean me.

Brian Finney, an actor capable of great depth, tries his hand at directing Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata at The Actor’s Gang Ivy Substation space in Culver City. It isn’t until the curtain speech that we’re alerted to this being a workshop production, not reviewed, and asked to tell our friends if we happened to like it.

This is an acceptably uneven experiment best enjoyed by those who’ve seen a lot of Strindberg, who understand why he’s a big deal, and who are interested in theatrical experiments. Those people need to move quickly, it closes in a week. Finney and his large, uneven cast apply the Gang’s well-known Style and a lot of effects including a fully lipsynched first scene to a stark and rather depressing work. It is hard for the uninitiated to understand why this play is so highly regarded. There are several flashes of promise when a pairs and trios of characters get in gear and the production begins to take wing. And then it abruptly porpoises and crashes when the broadly-played commedia yanks the air out from under it.

It is the rule in technology that prototypes and breadboards need a lot of extra components and structure to provide flexibility and diagnostics during development. Further, that these are progressively and ruthlessly discarded as an idea becomes a product. It will be interesting to see this play again after the team considers it fully ready – to understand what they considered vital and what were detours. I’m not confident I’ll like the answers, though.

The Ghost Sonata
Wed-Sat 8pm until 26 April 2014
The Actor’s Gang at the Ivy Substation
9070 Venice Blvd. Culver City, CA 90232
$34.99/$30 Seniors and students
Purchase tickets online

UCSF’s Mini Med School

The University of California system has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Budget cuts and the general demonization of anything public have taken their toll. Still, there’s great research being done throughout the campuses and somehow, the educational mission continues. My alma mater’s online courses are a great way to get quick refreshers on any subject. Across the bridge, UCSF even offers a Mini Medical School where Professors explain important topics, in detail, to interested non-specialists.

Here’s Prof. Tracy Fulton of UCSF’s Biochemistry and Biophysics department delving into cholesterol, what it does, what the body does with it, and how it all works at the subcellular level.

Space… is Big

Douglas Adams said it and he was right. Gene Rayburn and the Match Game gang might ask, “How big IS it?” There are some notable answers. Angelenos Charles and Ray Eames created Powers of Ten, a short film narrated by the legendary Philip Morrison.

Now, retired computer programmer David Butler has created the video book ‘How Far Away Is It?’ to look across time and space through the eyes of the Great Observatories. Eighteen segments cover the Solar System, our Milky Way, and then other Galaxies. Educated as a physicist, Butler set the field aside to work with computers, and upon retirement came back to it to see what had happened while he was away. This labor of of love with well-known classical music in the background is another dandy answer.

It’s a RocketCam

It’s been a good couple of weeks for earth-observing satellite systems. The USAF has just launched a DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) bird and ESA has placed Sentinel-1A into orbit.

Ecliptic Enterprises makes a series of rugged little videocameras that can handle the stresses of launch. The Ariane booster containing Sentinel-1A had a couple of them on-board and they returned this terrific footage of the launch, solid-rocket ejection, fairing release, and spacecraft separation. The time index in the lower-right-hand corner shows that the video is speeded up in general, more in some places than others.

Ecliptic has a YouTube channel with more. One of my favorites is of the 2001 launch of the Mars Odyssey mission. This is older RocketCam technology but towards the end it shows the payload being spun up prior to release. This is not usually done but was required for this mission’s objectives. It’s still in orbit around Mars and still working.

Notes on Bulgakov/Molière at City Garage

The anticipation is mostly justified in City Garage’s sumptuous Bulgakov/Molière.  This is a monster production in a small venue, in need of some trimming, but expertly performed and playing – in all senses of the term – to the company’s strengths.

It is a daunting story for the uninitiated.  The difficulty is of a different stripe than many of the company’s shows. There isn’t as much abstraction and it is not a dance- your-dissertation exercise in Po Mo Lit crit. There is, however, a lot of material, its associated context, and a large cast. More than passing familiarity with Russian history and literature is required. An equal exposure to the conventions of commedia, Tartuffe, and The Imaginary Invalid will help.

We start with Mikhail Bulgakov in limbo in 1930 USSR.  He’s not (yet) in a labor camp but his plays are either savaged or silenced.  He writes a letter through his mistress’s husband to the theatre-loving Comrade Stalin, requests exile, and consigns his manuscript of The Master and Margarita to the fire.  He’s visited, Dickens-like, in his drunken  sleep by the characters he’s burned and they transport him to America where they enact his forbidden Cabal of Hypocrites.  That’s only the first of the nesting dolls.  Duncombe has Cabal hop through the Louis XIV into the smartphone eras and back again as he examines all manners of Faustian bargains and whether an artist can accomplish anything without being subverted by the forces around him. The intrigues are depressingly fresh with parallels to St. Joan and The Life of Galileo.  Patronage, public or private, comes at a price.  It makes little sense to speak of politics and religion separately.  Men of the theatre are philandering jerks in any century and in any country. Neither the political left nor the right are spared in the process. In a sweet tip to the topical, we’re reminded that even when administrations change, little changes for the arts either in the paltry amount of funding or the immense and mutually conflicting expectations against that funding.

The cast, many new to the Garage, is mostly topnotch under Frédérique Michel’s direction.  Nathan Dana Aldrich is terrific as the Satanic Woland and a sleazy Baptist Reverend.  He moves easily between funny and frightening, no moreso when he offers false absolution to Mme. Bejart (a fine Kat Johnston) Molière’s long-suffering, dying consort.  Renee Ulloa-McDonald lights it up in multiple roles including a Hollywood agent and the Reverend’s lieutenant.  George Villas delivers as Moliere and Alex Pike gives Louis XIV unsuspected depth when required in addition to all the flightiness.  David Frank is a bit of a cipher as the titular Bulgakov, spending much of the evening in his smoking jacket watching Cabal unfold.

By plan or by accident, City Garage’s actors are typically above the 99 seat average in voice quality.  Combine that with a compact, acoustically live space and the vocal pyrotechnics can be dazzling.  Andy Fitzgerald owns the stage as Louis’s Chief of Staff.  This is the guy we all know from work – he might have had a core of good within him but then he got his MBA and planned his rise.  There’s no metric he won’t track, no deal he won’t cut, no fact he won’t spin.  Fitzgerald plays it just without overplaying it.   With his Vanilla Ice haircut and red suit, he is more than a generic Woland minion.  The evening might even have belonged to him if it were not for the resonant R.J. Jones, especially in a dynamite turn as a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher – part James Brown, part Little Richard.  It gets dangerously close to stereotype here but he’s got much more to do than this and he does it all very well.

There’s yet another Valentine to the Theatre subplot, suprising because City Garage is not known for sentimentality.  Early on, the authoritarian Moliere gets patronage American style.  He has to go to funding meetings, gets unwanted help from arts administrators, and is told à la Coriolanus to ask the plebs their opinion.  He has to deal with his actors who are incited to demand pay, respect, and a voice in the company.  The opening night audience, well aware of the Garage’s charismatic leadership and the small theatre world in general, got every little bit of it.  But it is here that Duncombe’s Mahlerian ambitions work against him.  There’s too much of it.  No matter how tight the ensemble or how wonderful the playing, when the subsidiary theme comes around for the umpteenth time, those with watches glance at them, the moreso when the magnetic characters are sidelined for long stretches.  The expected two hour and fifteen minutes run time stretched to nearly three to a rather conventional ending.  The Lucullan feast could stand to lose a few items from the groaning board.

The stage, staging, lights, and sound surpass expectation and Josephine Poinsot’s costumes are especially fine.  There were the usual opening night hiccups including what appeared to be an actor playing on through injury right around the time Molière gives his “the show must go on” speech.  Despite its length, this is still a show worth seeing and a worthy addition to Duncombe’s repertoire.

As an aside: It’s unfortunate that Bergamot Station’s galleries close between 5pm and 6pm when City Garage’s curtains are usually at 8pm. I understand that there is a vast gulf between those that buy art and those that attend small theatres. It would nevertheless be pleasant to look at some of the installations before a performance.

Bulgakov/Molière
City Garage
Bergamot Station Arts Center
Building T1
2525 Michigan Ave.
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm
Sundays 5:00pm
Admission: $25
Students w/ID & Seniors (65+): $20
Sundays “Pay-What-You-Can”
(at the door only)

Box office: 310-453-9939
or via
Brown Paper Tickets

Anticipation – Bulgakov/Molière at City Garage

Santa Monica’s City Garage has mounted overtly political, unabashedly Eurocentric work for over fifteen years. They have a strong commitment to ensemble, a flair for the physical, and a unique visual style. It is hard to describe a City Garage production but you know it when you see it. Spare yet layered, every light and shadow in its place, and always, always a trace of red.

Bulgakov has been “in” among LA’s artzsche-fartzsche types for the past several years. Michael Franco’s 2000 adaptation of the sprawling Master and Margarita was a highlight of the late lamented Zoo District Theatre. The Garage’s last production was yet-another take on this story. Charles Duncombe, responsible for the company’s hallmark production design, also creates

Photo: Paul Rubenstein via citygarage.org

work and on Friday we have the opening of his adaptation of Bulgakov/Molière or The Cabal of Hypocrites at Bergamot Station. According to the synopsis, M&M is woven throughout this exploration of politics, mass-culture, and subversion. My first experience with City Garage was an over-the-top Duncombe and it wasn’t a good one. It took a few years before I darkened their door again. But his subsequent work such as Patriot Act and Caged snuck up on me and have stuck in my mind. He does nuance very effectively. I’m curious to see whether he takes – or if he even can take – that tack with such in-yer-face themes and established, vivid characters.