Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't call me Shirley

I'm taking mortality much more personally these days.

I don't think it really has much to do with being over 50. On the whole, I like being my present age way more than I've liked any other age, especially considering the alternative. Maybe part of it is that I already know the way I'll shuffle off this mortal coil—broken neck, tripped on stairs by cats—I just don't know when. For whatever reason, it hits harder when someone else runs up the curtain.

I spent much of Thanksgiving thinking about the departed. My dad has been gone for 10 years now, and I miss him badly. But I was more in mind of a couple of more recent passages.

When looking for a wine to go with Thanksgiving dinner I came across a 2005 Burgundy we'd purchased through the  collector's club at West Seattle Wine Cellars. I looked up the notes on the wine from long-time owner Bear Silverstein, which said to keep our mitts off of it for a few years. Always obedient, we stashed it in our own cellar. Bear was right, as usual. It was great this weekend. Bear had been ill for several years, and died in January. But he still brings joy to all of us West Seattle Winos and even sober people who were touched by his generosity and gentle, kind spirit. Thanks, Bear!

George Shangrow. Photo: OSSCS.
My Sweetie, the official scorer, put a bunch of classical music on our Sonos shuffle for the day. One of the tunes that came up at random was the "Amen" from Handel's Messiah, a recording by Orchestra Seattle and Seattle Chamber Singers, led by George Shangrow. I think the Amen, as envisioned by Shangrow, is one of the most beautiful recordings ever made. Most conductors zip through it, but Shangrow reasoned that Handel wouldn't have written this three+ hour masterpiece and then rushed through the end. Shangrow's version as done by the group is meticulous and joyous and soaring, a fitting exclamation point to a marvelous composition.

Shangrow was killed in a car crash this summer near Winthrop, but continues to bring joy to many who knew his music. Thanks, George!

Long-time Mariners' announcer Dave Niehaus died a couple of weeks ago. We managed to get his narration of Peter and the Wolf to come up on the system this weekend. I expect my Sweetie rigged it so that would happen. It's funny, when we first heard that recording, in the car on the radio, we couldn't place the voice. He wasn't doing baseball! Thanks, Dave, for making Mariners baseball seem interesting when it usually just sucks.

Now today comes the news that the great actor Leslie Nielsen passed away at age 84. The Police Squad movies were a scream; you had to love Nielsen's umpire dance, and appreciate that he prevented Reggie Jackson from killing the Queen. But I especially loved him in Airplane!, which included two of my all-time favorite jokes. I love the bit where Nielsen's Dr. Rumack explains that people need to go to the hospital. Flight attendant Elaine asks, "The hospital? What is it?" Rumack responds, "It's a big building with patients, but that's not important now." The other is the great "Surely, you can't be serious." "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley" routine. I spend most of my waking hours looking for a way to slip one of those in during the day's discourse. I wish I knew more people named Shirley. I love the Shirley joke so much that my Sweetie and I made it, along with the Marx Brothers' rendition of "Everyone Says I Love You", part of a video we made for a wedding shower back in the olden days. We used to get all of our video on VHS back then, and we LIKED it that way! Gotta get those converted.

Anyway, thanks, Leslie! I'll be doing your jokes and thinking of you right up until the time some cat sends me on a fatal tumble down the stairs.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hamlet remains undecided

Two fictional characters and a renowned theologian walk into a bar. Two acts later, despite much witticism, nothing is decided, though some thought is provoked, by the Seattle Shakespeare Company production of Wittenberg by David Davalos, directed by Rita Giomi.

Luther (Michael Patten), Hamlet (Connor Toms), and Faustus
(Chad Kelderman) in Seattle Shakespeare Company's production
of Wittenberg by David Davalos. Photo by John Ulman.
The story of the show is that Martin Luther, instigator of the protestant reformation, and Dr. John Faustus, fictional seller of his soul to the devil, are on the faculty of the University of Wittenberg, and Hamlet is a senior there though, not surprisingly, he still hasn't settled on a major. Luther (Michael Patten) and Faustus (Chad Kelderman) spar over the age-old debate of faith versus reason, their discussion spurred in part by recent writing by Polish scholar Nick Copernicus that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of it all. Hamlet (Connor Toms), true to form, tries to see both sides and is indeed helped by both. As it turns out, Luther's 95 theses were written in response to something of a bar bet. Faustus challenged Luther to come up with 100 things wrong with the church.

It seemed like Hamlet was about to get all of the answers when word came from Denmark that his father was dead, and he had to skedaddle for Elsinore.

It's a pretty damn smart play, though by coincidence a friend who is a Lutheran parson was at the same performance we attended and had a few quibbles with Davalos' version of Luther's theology. That aside, Davalos has clearly seen the inside of a church and a theater, and weaves scores of Hamlet references into the text. There must have been eight or 10 takes on the to-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy alone.

A few quibbles with the performances. This is a heavily wordy play, and there were a few obvious stumbles along the way. And an otherwise wonderful scene, in which Hamlet plays tennis with invisible off-stage foe Laertes, fell a bit short when Toms' swings got out of sync with the sound effect of racket smacking invisible ball. My Sweetie, the official scorer, missed most of that scene, as spectators Faustus and his floozy Helen (Michelle Chiachiere, who was wonderful as all the women in the show, from barmaid to Holy Mother) were essentially seated in her lap on the front-row aisle for the match. She did, however, get a close look at the costumes!

All in all, though, this is a marvelous play and a great partner to the other production Seattle Shakes is running at present, a straight-up Hamlet that is spectacular.

Go see. Both run through Dec. 5. There's great stuff happening at Seattle Shakes.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dial M for Metro Mayhem

This is the tale of the sixteenth of an inch of snow that paralyzed a city, one man's quest to return home, and the Twitter conversation and now-legendary hashtag, #snOMG, that immortalized the event forever.

It all happened November 22, 2010 in the city of Seattle, Washington, once a virtual oasis of moderate, maritime climate, but now a desolate arctic wasteland. A sixteenth of an inch of snow was all it took to gridlock the metropolis and turn the city streets into a frigid nightmare. This is my story.

This was the scene from outside my office at about 2:30 p.m. on the fateful day. The streets were relatively bare, and mainly just wet. But snow had started to fall, mostly obscuring the Space Needle. The National Weather Service had been warning about snow and a cold blast for several days. A TV truck was in my West Seattle neighborhood that morning, waiting for something, anything, to spin out and crash. Alas, nothing. The morning commute went off without a hitch.

But in mid-afternoon things started to go sideways. Schools closed early. People started heading for home. At Independent Colleges of Washington, we've tied our weather closure schedule to that of Seattle University. If SU shuts down, so do we.

Shortly after I snapped this photo, word went up on the Seattle U website that they were closing up shop at three. Vamoose, they said, and so did we. Most of my colleagues had enough sense to make a bee-line for home. I, on the other hand, had an appointment for a haircut at 4:30 p.m. with Julie down at the 4th & Madison Capelli's. I figured I'd head on down and see what was up. Maybe they'd be closed, too, or maybe some snow chickens would have canceled out, and I could get an early ear-lowering and be on my way. Sure enough, Julie's 3:30 was a no-show, I slipped into the chair, and by 4:15 I pulled my wool cap down over my fresh haircut, smooshed it down, and headed down to the bus stop at First and Marion.

It was here that it became apparent that there was trouble afoot. Traffic wasn't much moving, and a police car was blocking the Columbia Street on-ramp to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which was closed due to excess slipperiness. Any West Seattle-bound buses would have to trundle down First Avenue with everyone else.

If there were any West Seattle-bound buses.

4:48 p.m. My Sweetie, the official scorer, sent me a text message that she was worried, mainly due to all of the stories of mayhem she's reading on the Internets, including the local news source West Seattle Blog. I text back not to worry, that I was at the bus stop, and that a route 21 was approaching. I decided to pass that one up and wait for one that might bring me a little closer to home.

5:03 p.m. Sweetie texts: "I'm really worried. Maybe u should find some place warm to hang out for a while? Apparently no WS buses are getting through." Don't worry, I replied.

5:51 p.m. "Just boarded the 57," I texted. "It's much warmer than the street corner." It was a long wait, but I could still feel my toes. Later I learned much of Sweetie's worry-wartiness was because she didn't realize I was wearing wool socks and sensible show footwear.

6:47 p.m. Sweetie texts that lots of people are trying to walk home to West Seattle. My response: "It's warm on the bus. Almost to the ballpark." This after nearly an hour on board.

8:08 p.m.

After a little over two hours on the bus, our driver took a vote on whether it would be OK to pull over across from Krispy Kreme and dash over there for a bio break. Who knows how long he had been on the bus at this point? The proposal was approved, a good half of the riders, and the driver, dashed over to pee, and several came back with donuts and coffee. The break lasted about 20 or 25 minutes. I don't think we lost a lot of ground to others who stayed in their vehicles. I'm doing fine, despite throwing extra r's onto Krispy Kremer.

9:14 p.m. "Where u at?" Sweetie texts. "Home Depot. But moving more quickly, not that that would take much." I tweeted about the milestone, too. Three hours, 20 minutes, nearly two miles covered. Being at Home Depot, I wondered if we needed any covers for our outdoor water faucets, or if they're hopelessly frozen already.

Indeed. Plus, unfortunately we started to get further and further away from our intended destination. Seeing a big, non-moving line of traffic on the detour to the West Seattle low bridge, and not knowing if we could traverse the bridge should we ever get to it, our driver opted to plow on down First Avenue, past Spokane Street, destination, unknown.

10:16 p.m.

The good thing was, traffic wasn't so heavy down there. But we weren't sure there was a plan. Orionp thought the road trip aspect was intriguing, and I responded that I hoped the driver was headed for Cabo. Sweetie texted "Where u at?" My response: "No idea anymore. Somewhere on First Avenue South of Spokane."

Interestingly enough, we moved well enough on First for a while until we reached a bottleneck approaching the First South Bridge. Once through the bottleneck, though, something amazing happened. We zipped across the bridge, swung back northbound and rolled up West Marginal Way at a high rate of speed (something topping 20 mph, I think), slipped into West Seattle and shot up Avalon Way. There was one last scary moment; a brief bottleneck forced us to stop halfway up Avalon. Dang! We're on a hill! So close and now we're doomed! Fortunately, the bus was chained up and handled the hill with no problem. We dropped off some folks at the Alaska Junction, then made a few more stops along California Avenue SW until we got to Admiral Way. I hopped off, went to Metropolitan Market, picked up the provisions I'd been expected to bring home around six, and walked the last half mile down the hill and home. By the lack of footprints in the snow, I was the only idiot who had walked by in some time.

11:16 p.m. Made it! A bus trip (blue line in the map) that was expected to be about five miles and maybe 20-25 minutes wound up being 11.5 miles (orange line) and taking more than five hours. The strange part was the fact that the trip down First Avenue took the bulk of the time. Though I didn't time it precisely, I think that once we made the turn and headed back north along West Marginal, it didn't take much more than half an hour or 40 minutes to get all the way to Admiral. Throw in a little grocery shopping and a 10-minute walk home, and you've got about a 5 hour, 15 minute commute.

Hats off to our driver, who was great, and all of the passengers, who were mostly in good humor and happy to be warm.

With the advance warning we had for this storm, it doesn't seem it should have been such a disaster. Yet a couple of facts remain. Seattle is not ready for winter weather, and a significant number of Seattle people have no idea how to drive in icy conditions. Until they promise to stay home, we should just button up the city until it all blows over.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My, oh my

The no-crying-in-baseball rule has been suspended until further notice. Dave Niehaus, voice of the Seattle Mariners since their inception in 1977, died today of a heart attack at the age of 75.

Dave Niehaus in the Kingdome broadcast booth.
I could not have imagined what a sock in the gut that news would turn out to be. Nor could I have imagined, in our everyone-is-a-journalist world, that I'd first learn of the news through a Facebook note from the United States' alternate representative to the United Nations, a guy who used to live around the corner from us and was, in headier times, mayor of Seattle.

This was my third weepy Mariner moment. The first, and hardest, was at what was correctly assumed to be the last game for the great Alvin Davis as a Mariner in 1991. (Yes, I've been flaunting the no-crying rule for a couple of decades.) The second, Edgar's last game. Niehaus' passing is really tough, though, because mortality seems so gawdawful permanent.

On the surface it seems a little strange to get all worked up over the passing of someone you don't know. I actually met Niehaus a time or two, in a  pass-the-mustard (and rye bread) sort of way, a few lifetimes ago when I was a cub radio reporter and was at virtually every M's home game in the mid-80s. We would occasionally rub shoulders in the press box. Then again, it also seems strange to say you don't know a guy who turned up in your house, your car, or your back yard every night between April and October for 34 years.

With the exception of the aberrant years from 1995 until about 2002, the Mariners have always sucked. In the early days, while still in college, my friends and I formed the Dave Niehaus Fan Club. We had a big "My Oh My" sign, my friend Chuck played the "charge" call on his trumpet, and the broadcast team talked on-air about how Dave must have paid some college kids in the right field bleachers to form a fan club. (There was little to cheer or broadcast about between Rupe Jones and Ken Griffey, Jr.) So we latched on to the king of rye bread, mustard, grand salami time, fly away, and my-oh-my.

But oh, that glorious year of 1995. We nearly missed it entirely. My Sweetie, the official scorer, and I were celebrating our first anniversary in 1994 and on vacation in California's Bay Area, with tickets to Giants and A's games, when Major League Baseball went on strike. We found that we could have fun in San Francisco without baseball. So in '95 we said the hell with 'em, and didn't go to a single game. That is, not until the M's went on their improbable run. We started to go to games in August, and even when we didn't go, on walks around the neighborhood we'd hear the voice of Dave Niehaus coming from radios on every porch, in every back yard, in every car. Refuse to Lose fever was with the entire city right up to the all-time pinnacle of Mariners baseball: the double. The M's could win the World Series 10 years in a row, and it wouldn't be as good as that amazing three days of baseball in a big concrete garage.

This year was the first since 1976 that I did not attend a single Mariners game. We gave up our cable TV several years ago, upon the realization that mostly what we watched was M's baseball, and that this was too painful to pay for. This summer we seldom even listened on the radio after June or so as the club worked to get its photo placed into the dictionary next to the definition of "pathetic." It is with a tinge of regret that I missed much of Dave's last season, even though it seemed, in the last few years, he wasn't really watching the games closely any more. But, given the team he had to cover, who could blame him?

As I think of Dave Niehaus and his untimely death, I think of a great song by Steve Goodman called "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request." I modify one of the lines of the song for what could be the dying M's announcer's last request:

"I've got season's tickets to watch the Angels now, and that's just what I'm going to do. But you, the living, you're stuck here with the M's, so it's me who should feel sorry for you."

Rest in peace, Dave Niehaus. Thanks for bringing hope and optimism and excitement and tall tales to our summers.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pass the yellow pages

"I'd pay to watch those guys read the phone book."

That's our code for seeing really great performers in a so-so production, and I found myself thinking of looking up a few numbers after seeing Seattle Rep's October production of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage. Director Wilson Milam landed a super cast for this show—Hans Altwies, Denis Arndt, Bhama Roget, and Amy Thone—but in the end it didn't add up to much.

L-R: Hans Altwies, Denis Arndt, and Bhama Roget in Seattle
Rep's production of God of Carnage. Photo: Chris Bennion.
Arndt and Roget's kid had whacked Altwies and Thone's kid in the face with a stick and knocked out some teeth. The play is the parents' discussion of what they're going to do about this playground altercation. You just know it's not going to go well. They're all pretty much irredeemable, and the booze doesn't help. But they all have their venomous strengths. Roget proves great at theatrical projectile vomiting, and Altwies proved his comic chops cleaning it up. Arndt is an attorney for a drug company, and his cell phone buzzes constantly. The relationships head straight down the drain.

Still during it all I couldn't help thinking about Arndt in a much better play on the same subject, when he teamed up with Elizabeth Huddle under the direction of Warner Shook for a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Intiman in 1994. Sixteen years later the spark and fire of that great show is vivid in my memory. By comparison, God of Carnage was a soggy phone book left out in the rain.

I'm not sure where to lay blame. Reza is all the rage these days. Was it her play? Christopher Hampton's translation? Milam's direction? (He really nailed Glengarry Glen Ross earlier this year, and I notice our Weisenheimer review has a phone book reference in it!)

I love these actors, so let's go get them some better material.

Monday, November 8, 2010

GreenStage Macbeth is a fun splatter-fest

GreenStage is really onto something with its "hard bard" indoor shows for Halloween. Last year's production of Titus Andronicus was a laugh riot drenched in theater gore. This year's Macbeth, directed by Ken Holmes, wasn't quite so bloody as Titus, but there were still plenty of gashes and gags to keep the audience in stitches.

Amelia Meckler, left, and Ryan Spickard as Lady Macbeth
and Macbeth. Photo: GreenStage.
Ryan Spickard and Amelia Meckler were marvelous as Macbeth and Lady M. Though one had to feel a bit for Spickard, who was often upstaged by the antics of the rest of the cast. He was doing a pretty straight Macbeth, or at least as straight as could be given the circumstances, while everyone else really hammed it up with over-the-top performances.

Every once in a while we lament that some folks take their Shakespeare way too seriously. GreenStage does not have that problem! Holmes and company are skilled at re-imagining these plays as so violent they become humorous, and finding countless little touches in the text that take on a whole new meaning given their interpretations. The Banquo (Sam Hagen) haunting-the-king scene was wickedly funny. My favorite touch: having the "minor" thanes do all of their lines as a barbershop quartet. Inspired! They're not making fun of the plays at all, just pushing them to their limits. They're smart interpretations that tell the stories incredibly well.

GreenStage plans to produce Antony & Cleopatra and The Tempest for their outdoor season next summer. We hope they'll be back with another bloody good hard Bard show next fall.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hamlet at Seattle Shakes: Wow. Just. Wow.

Hamlet must be one of the most produced plays in theater. I bet I've seen a couple of dozen productions on stage and screen, from Laurence Olivier to Mel Gibson to Kenneth Branagh to Shawn Law in 2008 with GreenStage to a stirring performance by Dan Donohue at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year. But even though (spoiler alert!) everyone dies, I can't remember crying at the end of Hamlet until Mike Dooly's Horatio bade "Goodnight, sweet prince" in a cracking voice during the final scene of Seattle Shakespeare Company's production last Friday.

"Goodnight, sweet prince." Mike Dooly
(right) as Horatio bids adieu to Darragh
Kennan's Hamlet in the Seattle Shakespeare
Company production. Photo: John Ulman.
Director John Langs has molded a triumphant Hamlet out of an amazing cast that starts with Darragh Kennan in the title role. Many a director has fallen to the temptation to make the Melancholy Dane a prince paralyzed by grief and indecision. Kennan, however, plays a sharp Hamlet who mourns his father, yes, but is smart and funny and altogether with it throughout. Local treasures Charles Leggett (ghost, gravedigger) and David Pichette (Polonius) are fabulous. Richard Ziman is cold and calculating as King Claudius. Law is Laertes this time and delights, especially in the closing-scene swordplay. Brenda Joyner is sassy but obedient Ophelia, at least until her father dies and she goes off the deep end herself. Dooly, of course, is a favorite on these pages. After the show he told us that during previews they were having trouble making the audience care about the outcome. This is no longer a problem! Kudos, really, to Langs and the whole cast. The performances were solid throughout and the results spectacular.

The set was fairly minimal. A couple of castle walls and two low tables that could be anything from a bed to a grave were about all that was needed. Langs came up with an interesting way to keep the ghostly King Hamlet present throughout the play.

It's always interesting to see the same play performed by different companies during the same year. We had just seen a marvelous production of Hamlet in September at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Donohue was great and Hamlet may rank as OSF's best this year, and while we haven't written most of our Ashland reviews yet (we've been busy!) I would venture to say that the Seattle Shakes version was a touch better! That may be fodder for a whole other post once (if!) we get the OSF Hamlet review written. In the meantime, while OSF has wrapped for the season, you have almost another month to see Hamlet at Seattle Shakespeare Company, where it plays through Dec. 5. I recommend it highly.

Boho's last brunch

Our weekend routine has been utterly disrupted with the disappointing news that today was the last day for Sunday brunch at The Bohemian in West Seattle.

We wrote back in June that the Boho's marvelous brunch had become a weekly routine, and it had continued to be so. We'd missed on a few occasions in September and October, mostly because of travel, but when we're in town my Sweetie, the official scorer, and I almost always go there.

That is, we almost always went.

Chef Jason told us today that brunch in West Seattle has become a pretty competitive game. They gave theirs nearly two years, but never were able to achieve the brunch customer base they needed to make it pay off. So, after agonizing over the decision for several months, he says they're throwing in the towel on Sunday brunch in order to focus on their dinner service.

Go see them. In addition to marvelous food and drink, the Bohemian supports local artists and musicians, too. Good food, great folks, and a nice spot. Thanks for brightening our Sundays for the last year or more. We'll see you around in the evenings.