Our last encounter — I remember it well. Pavilion at Lord’s in ’39, against the West Indies. Hutton and Compton batting superbly, Constantine bowling, war looming.
— Hirst to Spooner in ‘No Man’s Land’
Pinter, cricket fancier, named his “No Man’s Land” antagonists Hirst and Spooner after two well-known players. The play nicely mirrors the game – stretches of groundwork and moments of attack, usually ending in a draw. At one time videos of the 1978 tv adaptation with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were available on the web. I downloaded a full version without knowing why. The characters are unlikeable, their purposes unclear, and the author famously, contemptuously, refusing to answer any questions about his intentions and denying meaning to any of it. Like a lot of Pinter, it is hard to like yet it tends to stick. I’ve seen three different stagings in person and this grainy recording from the videotape era is more vibrant and three-dimensional than any of them, even the overpraised Stewart/McKellen effort from 2013. It works surprisingly well without the visuals. I’ve taken the two Sirs on walks, cellphone in my pocket, headphones in my ear. Their poetry made time and distance disappear for me as the Pinter does to their characters.
Here is a gem of a short film about the sport narrated by a younger Richardson. The Pavilion at Lords features prominently as do Hutton and Compton, although not batting as superbly as in ’39. England’s hope for the Ashes fell to ashes at the hands of Australia’s legendary Donald Bradman. A short clip from the tv production still on the web follows and then the author himself reading one of the most mournful and beautiful passages from it.
Gina Jaimes and Jhon Alex Toro in ‘Miss Julia’. Photo by Federico Rios courtesy Vueltas Bravas Producciones
With ‘Dance of Death’ still running at the Odyssey, Encuentro de las Américas 2017 brings another Strindberg to Southern California. Vueltas Bravas Producciones slices, dices, transposes, and dances the battles of wills and wiles in the foundational ‘Miss Julie’ as adapted by J. Ed Araiza. Nineteenth century Sweden gives way to twenty first century Colombia where wealthy, nutty, and bored-out-of-her-gourd Miss Julia (Tina Thurman*) forces herself on servant Juan (Jhon Alex Toro). The casual hookup has not percolated to this part of South America and there are emotional attachments and expectations a-plenty. Julia sees Juan as a way out, he sees her as a way up, and his fiancée Cristina (Gina Jaimes) isn’t having any of it.
The audience surrounds the narrow alley of a set (Andrew Thurman) nicely conveying the claustrophobic society in which the hapless characters are embedded. Thurman is outfitted as a cross between Miss Havisham and a hapless ballerina. Her Spanish, sounding more learned than native, adds a hint of North and South American political tension to the more obvious class and power struggle. Jaimes’s Cristina is both earthy and mesmerizing as Juan’s social equal and moral superior. She spends a good part of the show asleep or sleepwalking. This is a shame as she commands the stage when on it and she and Toro have palpable chemistry.
This is highly physical theatre with movement, dance, and symbolic props all adding their dimensions while condensing the story. A wheeled table serves pre-show rum and also serves as the cursed magic carpet taking these broken souls to their fates. Julia is frenetic and angular in marked contrast to the sweeping and fluid Juan and Cristina. All switch seamlessly between English and Spanish with dim supertitles available to the eagle-eyed monolingual. Helen Yee (violin), a fine but uncredited percussionist, and a Mac notebook add off-stage sonic color although the balance sometimes overpowered the small space.
Tina Thurman and Jhon Alex Toro. Photo by Federico Rios courtesy Vueltas Bravas Producciones
If this all sounds oddly familiar it is because it is the kind of work that Tina Kronis and Richard Alger have been doing at Theatre Movement Bazaar for twenty years. Wheeled furniture and athleticism also feature prominently in La Razón Blindada soon to be up at this same festival. ‘Miss Julie’ is said to be about social Darwinism – the replacement of a weak, stagnant, older order by a vigorous, aspirational, newer one. So, we may well ask if there’s a last common ancestor to this style of work. Vueltas Bravas does not have much of a web presence but the Australian Thurman (here identified as Mitchell) explains in a Youtube video their origins at a SITI Workshop in New York City some ten years prior. ‘Miss Julia’ is making the rounds of the festival circuit having played at La MaMa and the Chicago International Latino Theatre Festival prior to its Los Angeles engagement. Kronis and Alger are said to have some SITI influence to their work as well. ‘Miss Julia’ is well-made, well-performed, and enjoyable but if the purpose of the festival is to bring new and distinct theatrical viewpoints (ha!) and styles to the forefront, it is jarring to hear Latino voices filtered first through a canonical text and then through a U.S. theatrical school of thought.
Nota bene: Many of the Encuentro productions are performed without intermission. ‘Miss Julia’ is one of them and clocked in at about one hour. Those interested in festival productions should consider seeing multiple productions in a day to take advantage of ticket packages as well as to minimize ticketing fees and the notoriously larcenous downtown parking lots.
*Credited as Tina Thurman in the program, Tina Mitchell elsewhere on the Web
Chemist Robert Burns Woodward – Courtesy Harvard Archives
Robert Burns Woodward (1917-1979) is as well known to chemists as his namesakes are to poets and journalists. His contributions to the synthesis of organic compounds cannot be overstated and a staggering number of now-famous professors passed through his labs at Harvard.
My education was in physical chemistry, far removed from organic synthesis. I scarcely recall seeing any of faculty members from that area when I was in graduate school – the field is that fragmented. Unlike many others of my stripe, I enjoyed my undergraduate organic chemistry classes although I struggled in them. Legions of students have been told that the subject is to be endured, not enjoyed, and requires only memorization. This is utter claptrap. If taught well, and Berkeley did (at least back then), it is like learning a language; alphabet to words to grammar, sentences, literature, and interpretation. Those with an artistic bent also find a lot of fun in the complex three-dimensional structures that are represented out of necessity in two-dimensional drawings. You can’t speak this or any other language by memorizing a dictionary. Organic’s problem is that the material has to be presented and assimilated in such a short time.
Woodward’s generation of chemists didn’t have the modern arsenal of apparatus to determine the composition and structure of what they had made. In fact, they helped develop – or at least drive the need to develop – x-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance, optical and mass spectroscopy, and a variety of other methods closer to physics and physical chemistry. Deduction and inference played a starring role. E.J. Corey, only a few years younger than Woodward, later developed retrosynthetic analysis into a fine art leading to his own unshared Nobel in 1990. Corey looks at complex molecules as assemblies of successively smaller molecular fragments. Some of these might exist as stable compounds, others as hypothetical fragments that could be prepared with the right hooks for further use. Any molecule may be disconnected in several ways and the chemist has to use physical laws, experience, and intuition to decide which approach makes the most sense. Repeat recursively and it is usually possible to get to a relatively simple path from a desired product to commonly available starting materials – a common examination question and a standard tool in the modern chemist’s repertoire.
Some thirty two years after my undergraduate degree, I find myself using the retrosynthetic approach far from its original use. I try to look at problems as a nested collection of subproblems, going down the tree until they become relatively tractable. At the end of this, I have a plan that has traded off time, cost, and risk ending up with a list of materials, procedures, checks and crosschecks, time and personnel estimates, and a good idea of which step or steps pace the effort. In engineering, these map to schedules, risk analyses, bills of materials, assembly, test, and reporting plans, quality control, critical path analyses, and cost although in no particular order. People who do this are called System Engineers in my industry and many companies have claimed to have invented the concept.
Looking backward is how organic chemistry students are encouraged to approach problems if they want to succeed in their courses. The temptation is of course to apply it everywhere and that’s not quite so appropriate. It works if there’s a clear idea of what needs to be done. What sets Woodward, Corey, and their equivalents in other fields is knowing what to go after and what to set aside. That can be done many ways but it helps to be brilliant. If the computers can be taught to do that as they have been taught to do systematic decomposition, it’s over for us. A second temptation is to over-romanticize. These accomplishments in synthesis are usually the result of large research groups implementing a plan and doing the long, often tedious bench work which, when complete, is associated with the group leader’s name. This is where chemistry and high-energy physics intersect. This method of chemical training is imperfect and is periodically questioned when things go horribly wrong at the human level. The scientific and artistic merits of the work have to be assessed in that light.
There are not many films or recordings of Woodward and his equally legendary multi-hour lectures. He transcended his field and his institution, given leeway to do what he liked how he liked it. Dylan Stiles has unearthed a gem from the Harvard archives – a rare departmental seminar from 1972 where Woodward presents the 15-year collaborative effort between his group and Albert Eschenmoser’s lab resulting in the total synthesis of the large, unwieldy, and beautiful Vitamin B12. The introduction by Prof. David Dolphin is itself thirty minutes long with insights into the departmental culture of that time. The main event is a brutally clear and patrician exposition while the speaker chainsmokes in-between sips of his daiquiri. The grainy black-and-white visuals are charming but somewhat hard to read. Nathan Werner’s slides from a 2010 seminar are a very useful supplement.
Twenty years ago, Dr. Frasier Crane urged his listeners, family, and friends to use February 29th as a “free day” to take chances. It didn’t end well. Here’s the famous clip of Crane trying to sing his “signature piece” for a PBS Pledge Drive.
21 July 2015 Update: Astro Boy has extended through 8 August
It’s a marvel that the current West Coast Premiere at The Fools takes on so many issues so successfully in the space of seventy minutes. On its surface, ‘Astro Boy and the God of Comics’ is a retrosynthetic look at Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka, legendary within a circle, but poorly known outside of it. Natsu Onoda Power has crafted twelve tight vignettes starting with a cartoon character flying off to save the world and working backward to the early years of the man who created him. The steps in between make us ask where exactly the lines between culture and sub-culture, high art and pop art, and science and society are drawn – pun intended. Director Jaime Robledo and an exceptional cast and crew pull it off much like they did with ‘When Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ a couple of years ago.
This is a tech-heavy show blending live performers, puppets, projections, and real-time art. It is all required – this artist’s life can’t be told without his creations and those creations have to move. Tezuka came from a happy childhood, lived through World War II, and watched his art take off into commerce thereafter. His success in comics fueled an animation empire that generated the beloved Astro Boy cartoon but that ultimately couldn’t sustain itself.
The preshow visuals warmup the neophyte, hinting at why the man was and is such a big deal. Small projectors discreetly hidden in the light grid shine on two gauzy screens and the back wall as needed. It’s ‘Dry Cleaning’ quality work with the added complexities of a large cast living in this half-real, half-animated world. Matt Richter and Anthony Backman transform a small physical space into a city, a world, a solar-system with tricks of perspective, light, and shadow all without being overtly clever about it.
In an evening of tech done right, it’s live art that vaults ‘Astro Boy’ into tour-de-force. Performers in Los Angeles are adept at some combination of acting, dancing, singing, and backstage work. Art Director Aviva Pressman has her ensemble drawing the scenery in jaw-dropping synch with the rest of the business. It’s no gimmick, its not mere doodling, and must have presented substantial headscratching in casting. The actors draw characters and scenery in pens, ink, and charcoal onto large tearaway sheets on the back wall. The choreography is mesmerizing especially in the Guernica-for-Hiroshima roughly halfway through the work. Each sheet is ripped down at the end of a scene, crumpled, and hauled off stage. It’s a damn shame – they’d make fine auction pieces for a theatre in the midst of a capital campaign. West Liang and Heather Schmidt nimbly represent Tezuka and Astro Boy although the short span of the play doesn’t and can’t fully explore their Gepetto Pinocchio relationship. There are allusions to Clarke, Dick, and Asimov as the rights, roles, and responsibilities of superhumans bump up against the anxieties of their human creators. Liang and Schmidt manage to imbue their re-enactions of cartoon scenes with surprising tenderness. Among the uniformly excellent ensemble, Megumi Kabe stands out with a wistful portrayal, in Japanese, of Tezuka’s utterly loyal but shamefully neglected wife.
Graphic novels, anime, manga – call them what you will. At their best, they can take us into worlds orthogonal to more common forms of storytelling. This intersection of cartoon and stage beautifully serves both and is a tribute to the art of possibilities and the possibilities of art. Time is running out. Don’t miss it.