Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fun Home

I've been curious about Fun Home since it beat out Something Rotten! for the Tony last year, but knowing that it's a musical about "butch lesbians, a funeral home, closeted gay men, and suicide" (as one of the creators put it) didn't make it a priority for me.  Still, the TKTS booth had availability and it's at Circle in the Square, the company behind The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (still one of my favorite musicals); so what the heck?

It's a good show, yes.  It's not one I'll need to see again - angsty family dramas usually aren't.  The direction and design are solid, the singing lovely, and it was fun to see a musical done in the round.  Was it worth best musical that year?  Maybe.  I liked Something Rotten! better, but I get the popularity behind awarding the "edgier" show.  I spent a lot of it wondering if it should even be a musical, though.  The songs didn't add anything to the story or the characters.  I think I would have liked it better as a straight play (unintended pun), actually.

Also, if you're wondering whether it passes the Bechdel test - it does, despite focusing so much conversation on, to, and about a male character; which I found ironic.

Breuer and Golem

The Breuer is a new part of the Met Museum.  It just opened in March, so it was on my list of Things to See while I am here.

It was smaller than I expected, and from what I can tell doesn't have a permanent collection.  The second floor held an exhibit of photos by Diane Arbus, while the third and fourth floors were dedicated to an exhibit about unfinished art.

That exhibit was actually quite interesting.  It was set up chronologically and included pieces that were disrupted in their process (usually by the death of the artist or the subject) as well as pieces that the artist deliberately left unfinished.

I enjoyed seeing the different methods of painting artists employed - some painting in minute detail one space at a time, others doing general washes and background details first:

It was also fun to see such familiar artists' styles in progress:

The focus of the Breuer is on modern and contemporary art, and my favorite piece of the "Unfinished" exhibit was "Portrait of Ross in L.A.":

This piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres is indeed a pile of candy. Here's the description: "Decay and erosion play an integral role in Gonzalez-Torres's unconventional portrait of his partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991.  The work consists of a pile of candy whose combined weight, 175 pounds, corresponded to Laycock's ideal weight.  The otherwise static, enigmatic mound is animated by visitors, who are invited to sample the sweets.  As the candy disappears, the pile loses its integrity as well as its regularity, shrinking in mass and weight.  Its transformationover time reenacts the debilitating effects of Laycock's illness.  Before it vanishes altogether, however, the museum replenishes the supply of candy.  Suspended between disappearance and renewal, the work exists in a liminal state of perpetual process.

In the evening I took the bus to the Gerald W. Lynch theater for my next viewing of the Lincoln Center Festival.

The only thing I knew about this production going in is that it's advertised as "a giant graphic novel come to life!"

And, oddly, that is exactly the right description for it.  The set, most of the props, and even some of the characters are all projected onto the cyc or onto carefully placed flats.  The actors are thus limited to a two-dimensional playing field, since they can't move too far downstage without ruining the illusion, but the staticness just enhanced the graphic-novel feel.

The best way I can think of to describe it is as if "Blue's Clues" was run by the Shockheaded Peter people with an anti-Apple message.

Here's a video with some bits:

It was weird, vaguely creepy, and clever enough that I'm adding 1927 to the list of theater companies to keep an eye on.  In fact, Jason - want to go to Pennsylvania next year to see Opera Philadelphia do their version of The Magic Flute?  Or, even less practically, want to go to Berlin to see this company do a double-billing of Petrushka and L'Enfant et les Sortileges at Komische Opera?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Introvert Monday

I was sore, exhausted, and pretty dehydrated when I got home after the theater last night.  The unrelenting heat wave and the stress of travel (albeit a minor and welcomed stress, but a stress nontheless) made me head-achy and a bit tired of people.

So, I asked myself what would make me happy today.  Then I had a serious talk with myself about the fact that what makes me happy is totally fine and it's perfectly alright for me to do it.  Then I did a small load of laundry in the bathtub, fixed their leaky showerhead, and repacked my suitcase to help convince myself that I've earned the right to do what makes me happy.

Then I got a big glass of ice (glorious ice!) water, put a chair directly in front of the air conditioner, and read.  I did a good yoga session in the livingroom, then returned to the chair and read some more.

I thought about looking inot discount tickets for whatever shows' are not dark on Mondays, but found that I just wasn't especially excited about any of the prospects.  Instead, I took heed of the fact that I haven't been able to fully drop my shoulders or keep my jaw unclenched in a few weeks.  So, I decided to take my ticket money for the night and put it towards a massage instead.  Conveniently, there's a massage literally next door to this apartment building.  That was especially handy when a big, thunder-clapping rainstorm hit just as I was paying my bill.  I returned to the apartment soaking wet, but feeling better able to relax than I have in a while.

So, no show or photo or food recap today (although it was pretty great to get to have my cereal-with-fresh-blueberries-and-banana-slices combination again).  Still, it was a very nice day.

Sunday - Movin' On Up

I checked out of Founder's Hall in the morning and hauled myself and my stuff up to Midtown.  I rented an apartment for myself through AirBnB, and I was really looking forward to a non-shared place with a kitchen.

After unpacking, I headed to the nearest grocery store, was appalled to find cereal costing $6 a box, and got the bare necessities, reminding myself that it's still cheaper than eating out for every meal.

I spent the afternoon in Soho, exchanging a dress I got in May and walking around the Sunday afternoon bustle, then back to the apartment to take a cold shower and change for the theater.

Lincoln Center's Summer Festival is going on, and my first show with them is a production of "Merchant of Venice" from the Globe.

The show was at the Rose Theater at Colombus Circle, a venue I hadn't been to before.  It's actually attached to a high-end mall, and it was a little strange to walk past clothing stores to take an elevator to the seventh floor for the balcony section.  I arrived early to pick up my ticket from the box office, grabbed a slice of pizza from a shop on the corner, and settled into my center-but-total-nosebleed seat.

The show was fine.  The more I see of their work, the more I recognize the Globe's distinct acting style.  It's hard to explain - classical, with a certain vocal cadence, I guess.  The set was gorgeous and the lighting made good use of the cut-out Moroccan-style wall that made up the backdrop.  Jonathan Pryce was by far the best at delivering his lines - he was surprisingly skilled at articulation and delivering the lines with clear meaning and understanding.  The actor who played Lancelot Gobo was very well cast and did an excellent job on his "fiend/conscience" scene, mixing well improv with the scripted lines.

Aside from that, the show was unremarkable.  It played up the tragedy of Shylock's forced conversion, ending with him sobbing through his heavily-Catholic baptism ceremony.  They didn't shy away from the racism of the time, and played up Portia's bias most of all.  I haven't seen that choice before - she's usually played so likeably that her prejudice is buried under her cleverness.  Here, though, her scorn for Jessica and the pleasure she took at punishing Shylock in the court scene were obvious.

The production we saw last summer in Stratford was much better - more nuanced and interesting. 

Also, the suitor from Arragon did not have a Pomeranian; tight-shirted, muscular attendants; or a guitar accompaniment.  I find every production that does not have those things in it sorely lacking.

Saturday - Institute Finale

For our last official day of the NEH institute, we met outside Sahadi's Grocery store in the "Little Syria" part of Brooklyn.

We had a tour of the store from the current Sahadi who's running the place (she's the third generation to do so).  It's a pretty cool store, actually, with a variety of Middle Eastern foods.  The kind of place I'd shop at if it was at all convenient.

Afterwards, a woman who is a local historian/genealogist took us on a tour of the neighborhood.  Honestly, it wasn't too interesting - just a lot of "You see Building A there?  It's where Building B used to be, which was where Locally-Prominent-Guy-Not-Known-At-All-Outside-Of-The-Neighorhood used to live."

Remember how the ward I went to last week met in a chapel-wthin-a-normal-building?  Here's a mosque doing the same thing:

I'm guessing they use the upstairs windows for the minaret.

It was hot, hot, hot, so we were ready to get inside and get cool drinks by the time the tour ended at noon.  Sahar had arranged for a lunch for our entire group at Tripoli's.  We took over the basement restaurant and they brought us plate after plate of delicious food.

We students had written a group ghazal as a thank you for the directors of the institute, so as seems fitting we recited our individual couplets over Turkish coffee and baklava; then said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

I picked up a discount ticket for "An American in Paris" at the TKTS booth.

The main comment I've heard about this new-ish production is that it's beautiful.  And it really was lovely visually.  Christopher Wheeldon directed and choreographed the show, with an entirely rewritten book and several "new" songs.  The "new" songs actually just affirmed why they were so less well-known that the Gershwin standards, but the show reminded me just how much I like Gershwins' music.  I became quite the fan after seeing "Crazy for You" in high school, and Rachel and I have enjoyed many a Gene Kelly movie.

The set and lighting designs were effective, but also very reminiscent of a ballet set, relying mostly on the backdrop and a few flats to create the atmosphere to allow for a lot of empty stage floor.  They relied heavily on projected sets, most of which worked very well.  I want to have a word with all of the designers who think that projecting a giant blossoming flower is an okay thing to do because no.  Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should, and it ruins the moment.

What I really loved was seeing a musical where all but one of the dance numbers were done in the contemporary ballet style.  It was... not jarring, but something like that... to see "I've Got Rhythm" done without tap shoes.  I really liked the change, and it reminded me why I extended this trip just so I could see Wheeldon's new ballet Thursday night.

However, dancing and visuals aside the show was just so-so.  It got boring at times, the plot is dated, the characters are flat, and there's nothing that feels new in it anymore.  When Lise declared solemnly that she has to chose between following her heart and doing her duty (a decision which was spelled out very clearly for the audience at least five times), I wondered if there's been a show where the answer to that question is to do your duty.  I'd like to see that Disney movie or comedic musical.  (And I don't think "Pirates" counts.)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday - Untermyer Gardens

Field Trip!

We all met at Grand Central Station today to take a train to Yonkers, home of the Untermyer Gardens.  Despite the 95+ degree heat, we were there to see the Persian walled gardens.

The president of the gardens gave us the tour, and his pride in the place was obvious.  Given the state of disrepair we saw in some parts, I can only imagine how much work he and others put in to get the gardens to the state they are.  Still, as he waxed rhapsodic outside the walls about how this garden rivals the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra, I wondered if he might be a bit too biased.

The answer is yes.  Yes, he is.

The gardens are pretty spiffy.  They're definitely one of the better ones I've visited in America.  I'm just an annoying travel snob who couldn't help but compare it to the Alhambra, the Taj Mahal, Versailles, and Peterhof.

I kept it to myself, though.  I didn't want to be that annoying.

What I enjoyed the most about these gardens was how dang American they felt.  In other words, these were feats of art created and cultivated by a particular group of people.  No, these were put together by people who traveled a lot and, as they did, picked out what they liked best about each place and stuck it all together at home.  The president may beam as he talked about the "Grecian-inspired columns that offset the Persian geometry," but come on.  It's a collage.

Interesting Things:

Actually, I learned quite a few interesting things about Chahar Baghs, including that this type of garden is called "Chahar Bagh."  Here are a few highlights:
  • One reason the tessellating pattern is so prevalent in Islamic art is because of it's eternal nature.  The endless pattern is an homage to Allah's endlessness.
  • The number four is highly significant in these gardens (notice how they're divided into quadrants?).  This symbol probably came through the Zoroastrians to the Persians to the Muslims.  It refers to
    • The four seasons
    • The four elements
    • The four winds
    • The four cardinal directions
    • The four "rivers of life" (milk, honey, wine, and water)
    • The four rivers that walled in the Garden of Eden
    • and more!
  • Also, the 4-sided shape is a representation of earth, while a circle represents heaven.
  • "Paradise" has a Persian etymology - pairi = "around" and diz = "to make/form."  Which means that "paradise" is a term that meant the place that is surrounded by a wall.  Which is super-interesting to me philosophically and is definitely something I'll be looking for a chance to tease out in a future Sunday School lesson.

Photo tour!

The intrepid tourists.  It was hot and sunny - just right for visiting a place inspired by ruins in other hot and sunny places!

Entrance to the Persian gardens.  Looks good, right?  You can't even see the giant hospital that looms over it to the left.

The entrance to the gardens.  There's a bas relief of Artemis above the door because... nature?  Hot divine chicks? 
Because why not.

Reverse side of the entrance.  The president said the triangle is an homage to the Lion's Gate at Mycenae.  Because why not?  He also said they have no idea what the vent above it is for.  "Maybe fire?"

When you walk through the entrance, you immediately face this classic Persian lineup.  If it looks familiar, it's because they designed it after a trip to the Alhambra.
The addition of the weeping beech trees on either side was nice both for their framing and for their shade.

Our group spreading out.  I think this may give you a better sense of the (small) scale of the place.

Halfway down the central path.  You can see two sphinx statues on top of columns at the end.  Because why not?
The sphinx columns provide the backdrop to a small outdoor stage.  On either side are Greek-style porticoes.  Because why not?
And outside the Greek porticoes are Chinese lions.  Because why not?
The flowers were really lovely and well-tended.
Just like the Taj Mahal, this garden only has three walls.  The fourth side is open to a terrific river view (the Hudson, in this case).  Also on the fourth side is a Greek temple.  Because why not?

The temple had a mosaic Medusa on the floor, which is in the midst of restoration.  "Our climate isn't so great for mosaics," the guide explained.
Apparently, the owners went to Lake Como at one point and really liked the cyprus tree-lined path to the lake there.  So they told their builder to give 'em one just like it when they got home.

Outside of the walled garden is the "Temple of Love."  Apparently it's a thing because John Lennon was photographed there:

The teachers in our group who are over 45 were lining up to recreate this pose.  Because why not?
The rest of us admired the view.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thursday - Institute Logistics

We didn't have any official lectures/seminars today. Instead, the day was devoted to discussing some of the questions that have been raised (such as: What is the difference between Islam and Muslim?) and planning for the project we are each required to complete as a part of the NEH grant.  I have more than a few ideas for ways I can apply what I've learned, so I'm not anticipating this being a difficult task.  They also brought in four teachers from the last institute to share what they've been doing in their classrooms with the materials since then.

Food of the Day:  The "Street Treat" taco from Tac and Roll, an Asian/Mexican fusion restaurant.  That particular taco was Thai-inspired and included grilled chicken, a "Wang Alley" marinade, sweet chili sauce, pineapple, jalapeno, and cilantro.

Photo of the Day: Lavie, one of my fellow participants, teaches at the University of Hip Hop in Chicago and is a graffiti artist.  He offered to paint the outside of the City Lore storefront, and did so over lunch today.  Here's the end results:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Wednesday - The Schomberg Center

We met at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture up in Harlem today.

Morning Lecture 1: Dr. Sylviane Diouf
Topic: The Call to Prayer and the Blues
Interesting Things: Dr. Sylviane has been researching the links between those two types of music.  She presented mainly on the history of the slave trade.  In all of the units on slavery I remember from my school years, I can't think of a one that addressed the significant number of slaves who were and who remained Muslim.

Check out this comparison, though.

Here's a bit of a call to prayer, if you aren't familiar:

And here's a "holler" recorded in the 1920's:


Morning Lecture 2: Imam Konate
Topic: Umm... Basically whatever he wanted to say.
Interesting Things: Imam Konate spoke to us about his work with African immigrants in Harlem.  Especially striking was his comments on the impact of accents.  For example, he speaks four languages, but has been treated as incompetent because his English is accented.  Here's an article from the New York Times about him, if you like.

Afternoon Lecture: Kewulay Kamara
Topic: In Search of Finah Misa Kule
Interesting Things: We screened Kewulay's documentary, In Seach of Finah Misa Kule, about his return to his village in Sierra Leone to document the storytellers there; then heard a bit from Kewulay about the process, his thoughts, and his hopes.

To me, the most interesting part of his speech was when he addressed the nudity in the film.  The nudity comes in the form of women in the village dancing topless.  It's pretty mild, actually, but he is talking to a group of public school teachers who are all to familiar with issues of censorship in the classroom.  "In my culture," he said, "in many cultures, to take off your clothes is the biggest form of protest."  He explained, "No African man wants to see his mother naked," so when the women have something serious that needs to get done, the women take off their clothes and the men get moving.  He talked about a protest held by a hundred or so women to encourage the leaders in the government to sign a peace accord.  He said that when the women took off their clothes and began dancing, the documents were signed "right away."

Food of the Day: Pulled pork sandwich from a Cambodian spot near the dorms

Photo of the Day:  Langston Hughes did a lot of work with the Schomburg Center.  They have most of his archives, and a "significant part" of his ashes are interred underneath this piece of art based on his poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers:

Tuesday - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Today's excursion was the part of the institute I've anticipated from the very beginning - a tour of the Islamic Art wing by it's curator, Maryan Ekhtiar, followed by a session with one of the museum's educators-on-staff, Deborah Lutz.

In keeping with the institute's theme, he tour focused on "the art of the word."  I appreciated this in the end because the information focused more on pieces that I tend to pass by for the bigger, flashier objects in that section.  And for the rugs.  You know my weakness for beautiful rugs.

At one point, they gave us a handout with examples of different types of calligraphy.  Our task was to take five minutes or so too browse the collection to see how many of the different fonts we could find in the art around us.

The first page certainly looked doable: 

It wasn't too hard to spot them on objects like:


But the fonts on the back were a lot harder to distinguish between:

It was a great exercise.  Because I can't read the text, the calligraphy tends to blend in with the other designs of the object - a series of loops and lines rather than letters.  By hunting for particular details, I suddenly noticed the calligraphy on many pieces I've admired before, such as:

Maryan told us that this bowl had six different calligraphic fonts on it.  I've only found three so far:

Here's a link to the Met's better image of the bowl, if you want to hunt for the fonts yourself.

I had assumed that the writings on these pieces would all be quotes from the Quran.  Not so!  They often included proverbs like "planning ahead will help to avoid regret" (which is what the white bowl in the first photo with Maryan says) or pieces of poetry.

My favorite inscription is on this 13th century dish from Iran depicting a wedding processional:

Around the rim it says:

If the reflection of your cheek had fallen into the darkness,
Immediately (a hundred suns) would have been checkmated. 
If Alexander had put a kiss on your lip, 
He would have been free from the search for the Water of Life.

How great is that?

Maryan explained that most of the inscriptions are very difficult to decipher - that dish took an expert several hours to transcribe and translate.  Moreover, it's only recently (relatively) that attention has been given to the inscriptions.  In the past, if it was too hard to read they would simply catalogue it as "inscribed on the rim," etc.  Now, much more effort is put into detailing what, exactly, each piece says.

Also, because I can't resist, look at the pretty weavings!

Food of the Day: The Arroz con Pollo dish I had at a Colombian restaurant for lunch.

Photo of the Day:  There are three.

Found this in a display of student artwork.  Embroidery done by a 12th grader.  Very cool!

It seems a tree enveloped the fence, but when they cut down the tree they left this chunk behind.

I did laundry at a laundromat!  How cosmopolitan am I?  The last time I did this was in Rome after the hostel Emily and I stayed at gave us bedbugs.  We spent an evening bleaching and hot-washing all of our bedding in a laundromat run by a guy named Cobra.
This laundromat did not have a guy named Cobra.  Alas.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fire Drill

I was just finishing dinner in my room when the fire alarm went off.  Oh, goody.

I grabbed my purse/key electronics and headed out my dorm towards the stairs to join the stream of late teens/early 20s coming down the stairs.  Five stories later, we opened the emergency door to the outdoors to find ourselves face to face with a gate.  A locked gate. With an RA standing on the other side who explained that he "doesn't think that door works."  "Go back up to the second floor, then down the other side."


I turned around and discovered that the door we had just exited through didnt allow reentry, as in didn't have a handle on the outside.

This does not seem like smart planning.

Another group of evacuees tried to exit through the non-exit just then, and we grabbed the door before they got stuck between the door and the gate as well.

Back inside, up to the second floor, across the building, back down the other staircase, and through the lobby and we were free.

Since that was hardly an optimal escape, at least it was a drill?  I guess?

I'm lined up along 12th Street with all the excitable yutes, waiting to be let back inside.

So that's fun.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Islamic Institute Day 6 - Music in Central Asia

Morning Lecture: Introduction to the Music of the Middle East  
Speaker: Dr. Stephen Blum  
Interesting Thing: Mostly, I was reminded that being an expert in your field does not make you a great teacher/speaker.  It was clear that Dr. Blum knew quite a bit about his field, but it was rather tricky to follow, let alone make stick.

Afternoon Lecture: Poetry and Musical Imagination in Central Asia
Speaker: Dr. Theodore Levin
Interesting Thing: Dr. Levin kicked things off with a lesson in geography.  Boy, I am ignorant about that region of the world.  Did you know that there's a Muslim population who speak Turkic in western China (Uigher, also named Xijiang)?  And that they recently found a bunch of Caucasian mummies in that same region?  I didn't.

Most of his talk was about Shamanism.  The part I actually found the most interesting was his description for how he got the videos he showed us of several rituals during the early 90's.  "The Soviet Union did this," he said.  "They prohibited religion and made it into theater."  In other words, these rituals were performed in public and he, as the foreigner, could film them even in incredibly remote villages in places like Kyrgyzstan.  When he returned to similar places after the fall of the USSR, he was told he couldn't film, that these ceremonies/rituals were too sacred.  Interesting, right?

Food of the Day: Lunch went wonky and I wound up just grabbing a banana.  For dinner I tried a local version of Chipotle.  It was fine, but not outstanding.  Honestly, the best thing I ate was probably the pineapple chunks I bought at Trader Joe's.

Photo of the Day: Speaking of Trader Joe's, the one at Union Square is crazy popular.  As in, they have 24 cash registers running in the middle of the afternoon on Monday with at least designated employee whose only job is to tell the next person in line which register they should go to.

Sunday in New York

Sunday was fairly simple - I went to church (which, aside from taking an elevator to the chapel on the fourth floor, looks exactly like an LDS church on the inside), got a gyro from a street vendor for lunch, went to a movie because air conditioning, and found some dinner at Le Pain.

Photo of the day: