English theatre scenes

Between my travel and reviewing schedules, I decided not to be involved in the Ludwig Maximilian University English Drama Group’s fall or spring productions. But when fellow American expat (and excellent actress) Jessica (who was in a 24-hour play with me earlier this year) planned an informal collection of scenes, I knew I had to participate. I’ve been missing the stage! Rouven, another member of the group, posted an open invitation to do something from The Revenger’s Tragedy, and of course I jumped at the chance. (I performed a scene from this absurd Jacobean revenge tragedy in my Advanced Scene Study class in undergrad, and the play is so much fun.) We picked a scene between the Duchess and Spurio. The Duchess, angry at the Duke for failing to interfere and save her son (who is on trial and facing capital punishment for rape), plots revenge. Spurio is also bitter towards the Duke for making him a bastard—if he had been “cut a right diamond,” he would be next in line for the dukedom. The Duchess happens to be in love with her stepson Spurio, so she decides to seduce him (and thereby cuckold her husband) to both satisfy her lust and get her revenge.

We performed the showcase on April 18, and I think our scene went pretty well. The showcase itself was quite varied. Some scenes were carefully rehearsed and directed; others were more thrown together. Azey directed a fabulously modern and physical Petruchio-Kate scene from Taming of the Shrew. Other pieces came from Midsummer, Richard IIICyranoAlice in Wonderland, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. We also got a musically questionable but undoubtedly enthusiastic rendition of ‘Agony’ from Into the Woods. It was all good fun!

Group photo of the performers, directors, and organizers
Group photo of the performers, directors, and organizers

Holland: The Hague and Amsterdam

The last leg of my journey: Holland. This is a refrain I keep repeating, but I wish I’d had more time! Two days each in two cities was not nearly enough. I didn’t get to explore the Dutch countryside, or even see all the museums I wanted to see in the cities. I guess I’ll just have to return someday…

The Hague

The Hague seems to be a hugely popular destination for Dutch tourists and a relatively ignored one for international tourists. On one hand, this is a shame, because it means tours of most attractions are only offered in Dutch (with significantly shorter written or audio-guided English summaries). But it means the locals don’t roll their eyes at foreign tourists, so that’s nice! There are a lot of museums in The Hague, and I drove myself a bit crazy trying to get to all the major ones. I failed—in fact, I missed the city’s two biggest sights: the Mauritshuis Museum (home of “Girl with a pearl earring”) and the Peace Palace. But I saw a lot anyway. I arrived in the afternoon on Saturday in time to take a tour of the Hall of Knights, the ceremonial hall where the King delivers his speech from the throne on budget day. The room is impressive without being flashy. Its ceiling is made as an inverted boat, and the walls are lined with handwoven tapestries celebrating The Netherlands’ provinces. Little imps sit on the wooden rafters—a relic of the days when it was a courtroom, and the imps carried defendents’ and witnesses’ words to St. Peter, who would recall their truthfulness (or lack thereof) when he judged them for admission to heaven. In the center of the room is the still-used gold-and-velvet throne.

I started Sunday with Escher in the Palace, a museum I found doubly attractive because it’s the only palace open to the public (and it contains some of the original furnishings and details about the royal family’s life) and because it hosts a permanent exhibition of artwork by Escher. I’ve seen Escher exhibits before, but this one had more of an emphasis on his earlier landscapes and nature drawings, which I found interesting. (You could already see how he was playing with repetition and perspective, but it was subtle.) There was also a kitschy top floor with optical illusions and photo opportunities inspired by Escher prints. Continue reading Holland: The Hague and Amsterdam

Medieval Belgium

Brussels was all shiny and wide-boulevard-ed like the European capital it was built to be, but small-town Belgium is very different. Much more like small-town Germany, in fact: very medieval. I spent a day each in Gent and Bruges, looking at pretty old buildings (though most of them in Gent are reconstructions), climbing far too many stairs to reach the top of belfries, and watching lace be made.

Gent

Gent is not exactly a tourist destination, except during its annual music festival. The town history explanations in the belfry, for instance, are only in Flemish. (Yes, German speakers can decipher Flemish with sufficient effort. But I didn’t want to give myself a headache in the morning.) So I took a tour, which mostly focused on old buildings, plus the occasional off-beat sight (check out a grafitti lane and the Design Museum toilets in the photo gallery below). I learned that Gent was once the second-largest city in Europe (in the 13th century, that is) because of its textile industry. I also made a friend from Mexico. (Credit for any photos with me in them goes to Nora!) At our guide’s suggestion, we went to the House of Alijn museum, which offers glimpses of life in past centuries and decades. It was kitschy but cute, though I thought there was too little about past centuries and too much about the different decades of the 20th century.

Gent had two highlights for me other than the views. One was Quetzal, a chocolate bar near the university that is decidedly not for tourists. (Sign of this: no English menu.) They don’t do fancy pralines, just chocolate. Pure melted chocolate at the darkness level of your choice, mixed with milk and spices. (I had super-dark chocolate with chili.) Fondue with bread or fruit. Brownies. Pieces of chocolate. I had all of the above. It was amazing. The other highlight was my lovely Couchsurfing host, Nadia. She took me to a salsa club and ensured that some of the leads she knew there danced with me! It’s been a long time since I danced salsa, and she showed me up because she was amazing. But I had fun anyway, even though my legs were tired from all that stair-climbing. Continue reading Medieval Belgium

Beautiful Brussels, Belgium

I had two complaints about Cologne: that the city wasn’t very pretty, and that all the museums were closed. Fortunately, I headed to Brussels next. Mostly just because it was there—I didn’t really know what to expect. As it turns out, Brussels is gorgeous, with wide avenues, tons of public green spaces, and lots of old buildings. It’s reminiscent of Paris (not coincidentally). Most of the beautification of the city was done in the nineteenth century with money gathered from exploiting the Congo, so it can be a little jarring to think about history and take in the views at the same time. Nonetheless, for the combination of architecture, sights to visit, and food to eat, it’s one of my favorite cities I’ve visited.

My planned host had a conflict arise at the last minute, so Ashley, a fellow Fulbrighter I met in Berlin, agreed to put me up at the last minute. She also took me to an outdoor concert (at the university) on Tuesday night. It was not at all my scene (dubstep music and lots of alcohol, smoking, and weed), but it was interesting to people-watch. The students were surprisingly casually dressed (silly hats and pajamas, in some cases), but this was the French university. Ashley assured me that the Flemish university students dress up. Which brings me to another point: languages. I was ignorant going into Belgium, but it turns out there are three official languages: Flemish, French, and German. Most people in Brussels defaulted to French. Surprisingly, no one switched to English when they heard my execrable French, so I got more practice in my two days there than in my week in Paris! Bonus points for persistence (but also negative points for creepiness) go to the man who tried to pick me up on the street and who listened to me answer his questions in broken French for twenty minutes. (I’m at least perfectly clear on how to say, ‘Je suis désolée, mais non. Je ne te connais pas’ in response to repeated requests for a date, my number, etc.) Continue reading Beautiful Brussels, Belgium

Cologne in a day

Germany is wonderfully centrally located in Europe. One of my travel strategies this year is visiting the major Germany city closest to the border of the country I’m on my way to. For my current Belgium and Holland trip, that’s Cologne (or Köln, in German). I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s not a pretty city. 90% of it was destroyed by bombs in WWII, so the Altstadt is essentially non-existent. But there are a lot of interesting things in the city, and I could easily have filled several more days with sightseeing. I was unfortunately there on a Monday, so most museums were closed. If I go back, I’d love to visit the National Socialism Documentation Center, the Ludwig Museum, and of course the Chocolate Museum. I’d also like to see the botanical gardens and the Melaten Cemetery.

That said, I don’t have any regrets about how I spent what little time I had in the city. I got in Sunday evening, so I quickly dropped off my luggage and queued for student tickets to a play. This wasn’t just any play; it was the first-ever stage version of the famous 1920s German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (No, I haven’t seen it either.) The theatre company employed a lip-reader to transcribe what dialogue s/he could, then built a script around that. The result was extraordinarily strange. Its monochrome sets recalled its black-and-white origins. It seemed uncertain what balance to strike between talking and silence—the main character (Cesare) often told stories as expressive dances. It was decidedly non-naturalistic, with exaggerated movements and extreme make-up. It was intentionally alienating, with video close-ups of actors’ faces offering alternative reactions to onstage events. A heavy metal band provided sound effects and filled in the transitions. I’m glad I saw it, because I felt like it taught me a lot about German expressionism, a movement I previously knew nothing about. It lacked the emotional punch of the best psychological horror, but it definitely had suspense. The actors executed the strange style well. I don’t feel qualified to review it more than that, because I suspect much of the interest of the production lies in its imitation versus innovation of the original source material. I’ll need to watch the film before I can form an opinion on that score. Continue reading Cologne in a day

An 80s Rossini romp

In preparing to review Le Comte Ory as performed by the Opernstudio of the Bayerische Staatsoper, I discovered a new operatic delight. There’s nothing serious about Rossini’s short opera of disguises and mistaken identities, and the music can be almost Gilbert-and-Sullivan-like with its patter and call-and-response choruses. It’s wonderful fun. Unfortunately, while the 80s setting for the Opernstudio production showed promise, the slapstick direction by Marcus Rosenmüller often undermined the comedy rather than adding to it. The young cast was generally quite good, though, especially mezzo-soprano Marzia Marzo in the trouser role of Isolier. My full review (for Opera Online, a French website I will be writing for more in the future) is here.

A Strauss opera in a dress?

Yesterday in Stuttgart, I saw Der Rosenkavalier for the first time. It was very confusing. Musically, it was my favorite Richard Strauss opera so far, but Herheim’s very psychological production was probably not the best choice for the previously uninitiated. I’m not even going to try to make this a proper review—that would imply that I had some clue what was going on. I didn’t. Even the (in retrospect) most obvious part of the conceit—that the entire opera was happening inside the Marschallin’s dress—wasn’t clear to me until some kind Twitter opera-goers answered my plea for help. Intermezzo has the best description and analysis of the production I could find, so read that post if you want an understandable account of what I saw. (And go there regardless for more photos!) What follows will be extremely speculative.

I speculatively offer you... a mirror-rose. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer
I speculatively offer you… a silver rose. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer

As the dress setting (which we were really hit over the head with; I’m kind of embarrassed not have grasped that sooner, on my own) implies, this whole production is a sensual fantasy of the Marschallin’s. You get the sense that it’s a regretful fantasy—Sophie (whose costumes match hers) is her younger self, whom she wishes an Octavian had rescued from a marriage of convenience, just as he ultimately rescues Sophie. And “rescue” is the right word: to emphasize the drama of salvation, Octavian fights off a herd of lustful satyrs who attack the Marschallin in the overture. The satyrs will be back, though, as the attendants of Baron Ochs (and sometimes also the Marschallin). I’m still fuzzy about exactly what function they’re fulfilling; traditionally, satyrs onstage underscored (and allowed for) the nobility of the other characters because they were the separately embodied base aspects of human nature. Here, they (with in-your-face rubber genitals always hanging out) seem to merely contribute to a world that is full of debauchery and cupidity wherever you look.

The setting for Ochs's and Mariandel's Act III rendezvous
The setting for Ochs’s and Mariandel’s Act III rendezvous. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer

Other animals appear, too, as predictable instantiations of various characters’ personalities. There’s even an ostrich (Strauss) to represent the composer. Ochs nearly strangles him, trying to prevent the end of the opera in which youth and innocence triumph (and the satyrs retreat). But, of course, the opera must end. The Marschallin (who is also Europe) descends from the skies, wielding the opera’s famed silver rose as a magic wand with which she sets all to rights. At one point, Pan (who is on the also-horned-like-an-ox Baron Ochs’s side) steals the rose, replaces it with a version he has made from the shards of the Marschallin’s smashed mirror, and hands it to Ochs. It seems like debauchery might triumph. But Ochs has been discouraged by his recent humiliation. He smashes the rose and shoots off the stage in a shower of sparks. Octavian and Sophie help the crying Pan gather up the pieces of the rose, and Octavian tosses them into the skies to form the stars. He and Sophie sing their final duet in a beautiful, starry dreamscape, while the Marschallin and Faninal comment from the side boxes of the opera house (where they sit wearing modern opera-going outfits) that youth is thus. Pan upstages the ending by eating a remaining shard of broken glass and dying bloodily. Presumably, this is Herheim’s rather tasteless comment on the opera’s outcome. Continue reading A Strauss opera in a dress?