Wind in the Willows Notes

Hello All,

Following is a short program note I wrote for "Wind in the Willows" at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, recently closed. I include it here for nostalgia's sake, and to shoehorn just one more Polyform entry through before yet another New Year. I do miss this show.


Kenneth Grahame began telling the story that eventually became The Wind in the Willows as a bedtime story to his son, publishing it in 1908, a time and place offering significant parallels to our own. Great Britain had just experienced the long and divisive Boer War, fought halfway across the globe at a strategic artery of her empire. The nation was confronted with the impossible task of disastrous and increasing military-imperial expenditures crippling the national economy. Figures and themes in his rambling book echo those of his day: the newly ascended King Edward VII was an indulgent, headstrong dandy famous and beloved for his whimsical devotion to fun. The elegiac English countryside had given way to industrial wastelands, abandoned mines and the desperately poor. But in many ways, the paternalist sensibilities of Badger and Ratty still prevailed, in political leaders like Lord Salisbury, thrice Prime Minister and the last to govern from the House of Lords, who was slow to rouse and decisive in action; and his brilliant nephew Arthur Balfour, who sparkled in society, drifted through life and was ever loyal to his friends (as Foreign Secretary, he crafted the Balfour Declaration, presaging the modern State of Israel). As Secretary at the Bank of England, Grahame experienced firsthand the noontime of Britain’s imperial career, and he could glimpse the fragile underpinnings soon to come catastrophically undone. Grahame’s work is an artifact from this lost but enduring world.




From the Lighthouse Suite

It's like a Stephen King novel. It's the Odyssey with fewer booty-hungry Greeks. I'm just trying to get back home, that's all.

I started off Tuesday afternoon with a full tank of gas, sunlight and ocean streaming across the horizon and a clear Rte. 1 leading north from Santa Cruz all the way up to Eureka. The highway is littered with gorgeous little coves and beaches looking out onto myriads of clashing rocks, breathtaking waves, precious little parking lots hedged in by rusting permanent barbecues, chained up picnic tables and precarious little goat-path trails, and then dunes that swell and dive as gracefully as frozen mirror-images of the waves lapping the cliffs. Pomponio and San Gregorio are my favorites.

But then I got snarled in San Francisco traffic, I missed the Rte. 1 turnoff from the Golden Gate Bridge and I ended up stranded in a logjam several hours long, from Novato all the way up to Santa Rosa. After three hours' crawling up the 101, I pulled over at a Motel 6 for the night. But I remained undaunted.

Wednesday I saddled up and rolled north again, finding my way across to the 1, weaving through redwoods and myrtlewoods. I bought coffee in Fort Bragg, ate pancakes, listened to NPR, rather enjoying myself. But shortly after the sun went down, my battery warning light started flashing. My headlights dimmed noticeably when I accelerated, and the battery gauge drained, too. But when I eased off the accelerator, or when I idled at full stop, gauges and lights returned to normal. Concerned, I called my Dad, discussed plausible causes (I thought it was the alternator, Dad thought the timing belt or corroded battery stems), then I pulled over at Rio Dell for the night.

I spent the night at Humboldt Gables Motel, which was where I spontaneously started muttering "RED RUM" to myself. I waited over an hour for a scrumptious and heavy little pizza. I spent some time staring sadly at my driver's belly. I was recommended to a parts store next door to a mechanic's shop, first thing in the morning.

Whereat I practically walked into an Andy Griffith episode. Of the seven or eight variously disheveled, heavyset or rail-thin John Deere trucker-capped gentlemen who unctuously opined on my scrappy little Ford Explorer's symptoms, I would guess only one of them actually worked at the parts shop. I nodded sagely, exchanged knowing gutteral utterances, laughed appreciatively at what I thought were jokes. Sometimes they laughed with me. Sometimes they didn't.

Mike the Mechanic ("you do theater, huh? I'm an investor in B-movies. Last month my wife and I both won stock car racing trophies, no kidding! God bless!") replaced my alternator in record time, and without swindling me, which was nice of him. I got back on the road, ever northwards bound. Satisfied that I was right and my father, in this case, wasn't, I took this for a good omen and continued north.

Throughout this saga, glowering snowy clouds gathered above the crashing, roiling water, and the trees shook and swayed over the thin ribbons of asphalt I clung to. By the time I'd purchased a new alternator, hail and snow showered in great driving drifts. Eureka and Crescent City were very wet. Harrowing switchbacks folded the road sharply into the wind. It was epic. In the late afternoon, I indulged a walk in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove of Redwoods in the Redwood State and National Parks. (Towering, silent, hollowed out by fire and bereft of heartwood but still sprouting living burls that themselves grow to tower high overhead...)

But after I crossed the Oregon line, the weather grew steadily worse. And worse. I drove with only a meager stream of fellow travelers: semis gingerly creeping through fog and sheets of hail, and lonely little sedans that similarly hoped to avoid the mess on I-5, but lost beyond knowing in the soaring bridges and the blinding rain. A bowl of chowder and some coffee in Bandon, and then I stopped in Yachats for the night, even though I'd hoped to make it to Portland already.

In Yachats, I'm staying at the Dublin Motel. Which has. A Lighthouse Suite. The only available room, an ersatz lighthouse with bunkbeds. It's tall and narrow, like what you imagine a lighthouse to be, and the falling hail rattles resoundingly. This is the best roadtrip ever.


Letter to D., 25 Nov 2008

Dear D--

I just saw an extraordinary piece of theatre last night. Mary Zimmerman's "Arabian Nights" is running at Berkeley Repertory Theatre until 4 January, and belive me when I say it's worth its own trip to the Bay Area.

I used to read Hadawy's translation of the Arabian Nights back in high school. It's an intricate, fantastical, obsessive and chaotic compilation of endless stories, brought together by the framing motif of Scheherazade, a newlywed queen whose tyrannical husband kills his brides on their wedding nights after sleeping with them. But because he can only kill at night, Scheherazade contrives to tell him stories so compelling that every night, the king delays the killing until the next night, until the story properly ends. But Scheherazade nests stories within stories, weaving characters and ideas from one into the next, so deftly that the king loses track of the passage of time, loses himself in the endless stories, and gradually--howsoever improbably--the two genuinely fall in love with each other, over the course of 1,001 nights.

The performance I saw had an enormous cast, an ensemble of fifteen, with everyone playing at least three characters. Most were accomplished singers, Chicago actors from Zimmerman's Lookingglass Company who easily handle rhythm and movement and intelligence and voice, all as a matter of course. They literally tumbled through their stories and characters, catapulting each other into costumes, desires, sorrows, carpets. 22 different lamps and lanterns flew through the air (I counted at intermission). Pillows became turbans, prayerbeads became cowbells, a shabby rug and a low coffee table--hoisted on four shoulders--became a magical flying carpet. It was erotic, hilarious, cruel, cacophonous, and breathtakingly simple.

Seeing that show gave me hope--much needed--in theatre performance. It reset my default intake mode as a theatre-goer--a default that had repeatedly been compromised, bypassed and patched together since the last truly compelling work I saw; a default diminished by having been made to allow for budget constraints or lack of training or poor craftsmanship--in short, by having experienced so much bad theatre.

It's given me a new reason to continue in theatre: I now overwhelmingly desire to work in the same tradition as Zimmerman's company, if perhaps a bit less pretty, more juicy.

Thank you for holding down the fort back in PDX, and for keeping me in the Forgery loop. Strange to say, but having the Forgery simmering alongside this show I'm running has been really, really valuable to the process. The mechanics of "Wind in the Willows" lend themselves quite easily to a broad-minded, meta-conceptual exploration of ideas, images, and even the practical nuts-and-bolts of effective performance design.

The vantage point from within the very depths and fulness of 'Willows' is quite apt and far-reaching: it's like working on the construction site of a skyscraper, and being able to see all the way across the city, to that other (bigger! lovelier! more ambitious!) skyscraper we're working on.

The things I like about 'Willows' are not coincidentally the same things, or many of the same thigns I liked about 'Arabian Nights,' albeit with substantially less acumen. In 'Willows,' I'm enchanted by the little, simple, graceful gestures that effectively signify much more profound things: dyed silks that are held to be rivers and snowscapes; characters found in puppets, objects, thin air. The passage of time conveyed by the bare minimum of movements and beats (and some excellent light work).

It has also been useful to realize how all of this works only when in concert with some kind of destination, a cause or mission that drives these 'effortless' things--for the truth is that it is effortless only because you don't have time, or indeed anything at all to spare dwelling at a single moment. In that sense, all the great epics are essentially road movies: Odyssey, Don Quixote, the Divine Comedy, Grapes of Wrath, Batman Begins. All of these narratives have at their core a compulsion to arrive in some vision of a place, person, or state of being, and in each case the compulsion will ride roughshod (quite literally) across any obstacle in their path.

All of which is yet another facet of my ongoing preoccupation with the deeper nature of violence...

Of our three major sources, I'm not quite sure what that compulsion is in "Harold...," and "Rabbit..."'s is also murky, though no less evident in effort.

Aside from the thoroughly magical world of 'Willows,' I spend my time here in Santa Cruz reading, biking about, indulging insomnia at a 24-hr. diner, and eavesdropping, as it were, on the college existence all around. Grateful as I am, and fortunate, to be here, I much miss all things Portland. The wanderlust grabs hold of me from time to time, and I find myself looking for an excuse to drop into gear and drive, as when you were a mere six hours away. More and more I look to the sea.

Know that your lovely presence and friendship are much missed. More soon,