Monday, January 28, 2019

Play: Ghost Story

Last of the Boys by Steven Dietz, Directed by Braden Abraham, January 18-February 10, Seattle Repertory Theatre.

You know you're in trouble when you start doing math while watching a play. You start off thinking - you know, it these guys served in 'Nam, they'd be in their late sixties now, if not older. OK, hang on, the young woman is 35, and she never met her father, who went missing in '67, so I guess we're looking at the play being set in 2002 or so....

Yeah, when you get distracted like that, the center is not really holding, and that's the problem of Last of the Boys. The play is getting portrayed in adverts on KING-Classic radio as being a play of male friendship, but it's really about 'Nam, and how as a national and personal event overwhelmed everyone in its path.

Everyone in the cast is a casualty of the war. Ben (Reginald Andre Jackson) and Jeeter (Kevin Anderson) are vets, their friendship forged in the crucible of Southeast Asia, so that now, thirty-five years later (we figured), Jeeter stops in (from his life of teaching Sixties studies and following the Stones on tour) to visit Ben, who has a trailer on an old superfund site in Northern California. Their friendship is by turns relaxed and prickly, built on things that they cannot and will not talk about. This time Jeeter brings Salyer (Emily Chisholm) , his younger girlfriend (who lost her father to the war). Salyer is followed by her mom, Lorraine (Kate Wisniewski), who didn't even tell Salyer's father she was pregnant when he shipped out. And Ben is literally haunted by the spirit of the war itself (Josh Kenji), as Ben casts himself as Robert McNamara and gives press briefings standing at his ironing board to defend the war.

And conversations occur. Secrets are revealed. There's a lot of chatter and grand statements. But it doesn't seem to go much of anywhere. There's no real rise of tension - just incidents and accidents. An intermission occurs, it seems, just because you can't go on for over two hours without one, not because there is any dramatic need. But the play seems to circle the central subject, much like conversations among men, but doesn't get as much to the meat of the situation.

The actors are all fine. The set design captures the flavor of Northern California in the Central Valley. The Lovely Bride's sister and her husband live in Corning, and we've spent our time when visiting sitting on their broad porch overlooking the valley beneath (and watching for wild fires).

But the play feels like it is being sold under false pretenses, and does not live up to its supposed goal. I just don't buy that Ben and Jeeeter are still friends after all these years, in particular when we finally understand Jeeter's connection to Ben's father.Are they friends simply out of habit? Out of the fact that there's nobody else left to share, but not talk about, their experiences?

And here's the thing that bothered the Lovely Bride - Ben and Jeeter kept throwing their empties into a dumpster. California gives you a five cents rebate on your glass - you don't toss them. Yeah, and that's the problem - you get easily distracted because there isn't much to hold you to the center. And I spent some time figuring out where this was set, an hour and half outside Modesto. You go north, that's Sacramento, you go south, that's Fresno, West takes you into the Bay area, so maybe we're talking around Sonora?  Again, this is stuff I should not be thinking about when the actors are still on the stage.

As for 'Nam itself, I missed the bulk of it, and I am no young man anymore. The war was already well in progress when I first started paying attention, with older (male) cousins going into the services and talking about draft numbers. And by the time I had to worry about the draft, we were gone from there, with our helicopter taking off from the embassy (You know what worked better on the stage? Viet Gone. And I didn't mentally math-check that show). But for Viet Nam itself,  I missed that particular horrific bonding moment, and Last of the Boys doesn't really fill in much of the blanks.

More later,




Sunday, January 27, 2019

DOW Breaks 24,000!

Actually, this happened a while back, but I've been busy. Suffice to say that after a horrible, horrible December, the ship of industry righted itself and returned to is normal course. Which, in these besotted times, is various degrees of upwards. Right now it is hovering in the mid-24ks, with the occasional wide swing upwards or downwards which quickly is discounted as because of particular good or bad news - trying to fit the facts to the narrative.

What is interesting is what is happening that is NOT having much affect on this market. Supposedly the stock market is sensitive enough to pitch itself off a cliff over a single event, a rumor of change, or a rogue tweet. Yet over the past few weeks, the DOW has been amazingly stolid in the face of such things as:
  - The Federal Government shutting down for thirty-five days. This was an make-no-bones-about-it lockout. with people furloughed and those who were deemed invaluable forced to work without paychecks. Didn't seem to hurt the market.
 -   The House has put some honest-to-goodness progressives on major committees that have the teeth to investigate the shenanigans in our economic sector. Yet that did not offend the markets.
 -   The British Government failing to make good on its suicide pact to Brexit the rest of Europe, having not plan B, but leaving the same bunch in charge that failed to come up with first plan. This is globally huge, but didn't seem to hurt the market.
 -  Ongoing trade war with China, which has cut off a number of its US Imports,, while we've chosen to make it more expensive to buy theirs. Not only hasn't hurt the market, but the fairy-whisper thin rumor that things may get better drives it upwards.
 -  Continuing evidence and indictments on the Executive Branch which pretty much confirms the venal, illegal, and probably traitorous nature of an entire administration. Doesn't hurt the market, such that the dude is the White House tweets out that actually finding him guilty of his crimes WOULD hurt the market.

Yet these things have not had much effect on the markets, which seem to indicate that they are even more disconnected from not only the national scene, but from the world itself. And this will last until they make another "correction", which the buzzword for a sudden plunge, at which point the wise heads will point some piece of economic minutia, like the Fed Chairman not ruling out a rate hike over a lunch date, as a reason for the sudden tailspin.

More later,.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Daisey History Seven: Captains of Industry

Yeah, this is going to take longer than expected. Part of it is because the work load is tightening up, and part of it is because OTHER things are coming along that I should talk about (like, um, other plays and ... economic stuff).

In episode six we talked about how change really happens from below as opposed to being awarded from above. So now we flip to the other side with the seventh installment of Mike Daisey's "A People's History", switching from the renters seeking redress to the elites of the system, the giants of industry, the wealthy.

Carnegie. Industrialist. Philanthropist. Mutant.
Daisey comes in the basic assumption that "Rich People Are Bad" and he has more than enough examples of that. These elites come from success and just get richer. And there are a lot of good examples of this. JP Morgan was the son of a financier. Andrew Mellon was a banker's son.  Rockefeller's dad was literally a con man.

And then there is Andrew Carnegie, the exception that tests the rule. And it is pronounce Car-NEG-ee, as far as native of Pittsburgh are concerned. CAR-neh-gee is something New Yawkers talk about when talking about Carnegie Hall. Yes, some Pittsburghers call the museum complex that houses Car-NEG-ee's dinosaurs the CAR-neh-gee. But they're just wrong.

Andrew Carnegie is Horatio Alger as written by Stan Lee. He was an immigrant from Scotland. Came here as a child because his father's handmade lace business was destroyed by the arrival of high-production industrial methods. He comes to the States and became a bobbin boy, working at the very type of mills that destroyed his father. He got breaks - access to the libraries of the more successful (hence all the Carnegie Libraries around the country). He was diligent, and never forgot a fact, a name, or an opportunity. He claimed to be able to read a teletype by the sound it made making each letter. Yep, he's a mutant, suitable for Prof. Xavier's School for Exceptional and Privileged Children.

Instead of Money Comes from Money, I would propose that what really happens is "Learn the Game, Play the Game, Change the Game." And those born into positions of power are more capable of seeing the game and have access to it than most of the rest of our bunch. Because the nature of wealth does change over time, and we've seen agricultural fortunes flounder while industrialists come to the fore and then they are overtaken by financial managers and tech lords. But the wealthy, while not guaranteed success, have both table stakes to get into the game to begin with, as well as the cushion for when they fail. And they have the ability to, once they make their pile, pull up the ladder behind them to keep others from doing the same thing they did.

Nope. Not letting CaNEGie off the hook, here. Just looking for a broader pattern.

More later,

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

DOW Breaks 23,000! No, wait 22,000! No, wait ...

OK, this is interesting.

I love charts. This one, from Wikipedia,  is lying to you.
 Can you spot the problem?
So, for the most of the life of this blog, I have been following the Dow Jones Average, as it has become increasingly disconnected with most of our lives, if they were even initially. Literally an estimate of 30 large publicly owned companies,. It is a rogue's gallery of corporations, the big boy's table if the titans of industry, the whales of corporate life. It tends to be a little conservative, moving slowly over time to move aside old corps (like General Electric) in favor of newish blood (like WalMart and Apple). Amazon, it must be noted, is not on the list.

At best, it is a snapshot, but it is a snapshot that we all know about. We may be befuddled by S&P and NASDAQ and know that our retirement funds are in some business-level melange of stocks that may or may not be on these lists. But the Dow (named after a real person who created it), is something instantaneously recognized as the heartbeat of business.

And that heartbeat has picked up a bit of arrhythmia. Over the past fifteen years, this blog has seen the DOW soar upwards and crash mightily, only to regain its footing and push on to even greater heights. I use this as an example of American Optimism at its finest - if we all clap hard enough, Tinkerbell will pull herself off the tarpaulin and we will start again.

And the past ten years or so have been pretty indicative of this. It has been an even-growing increase in value ever since the last time a GOP administration crashed us into the pavement. And yeah, I'll put it on the various incumbent administrations for things, since they are more than willing to take the credit when things are going boffo. Until recently, the White House has been pointing at the DOW as indication of how strong the country is economically. Until it isn't.

The first year of an administration has to deal with the successes and failure of the previous admins, for good and ill. The Obama administration had to dig out from the Great Recession, and the current administration of Individual-One benefited from a strong economy coming in. This was made even better, as far as the big boys were concerned, by tax policies that put a lot of loose cash into their pockets.

And some of them used this sudden infusion to reward its workers, to update its equipment, and to compete better in the marketplace. But the vast bulk of them used it to buy back shares (making the shares controlled by the company worth more through scarcity) and to use the sudden liquidity to get rid of ailing sectors (closing down factories and costing jobs) and seeking better markets (closing down factories and costing jobs). And since there were no strings on the governmental largess, they took the money and ran.

And the market has seen amazing swings upwards and downwards, depending on the mood. It raced past 24k and 25k is long, looping arcs, and kissed 26,000 before retreating again. Now, the news is bad - trade wars, instability, the government being currently shut down, increased interest rates from the Federal Reserve, and, oh yeah, massive investigations of the inherent corruption of the current administration that could at any moment result in a congressional investigation of your particular industry. So things are not looking particularly rosy?

Well, then we the treasury secretary calling the major banks from his vacation and yelling at them - "Whatever you do, Don't panic!" So naturally things take another dive.

And what does this all mean? For those that have gold, it means they make less gold for a while, they hunker down, make safe bets, and wait for Tinkerbell to get back off the mat. For the rest of us, it means that things are probably only going to get dicier for a while. Factories get closed because there isn't enough demand, as opposed to just boosting the bottom line. Those mutual funds? Yeah, they're not going ever onward and upward. And more than a few rich people to come demanding other people pay to keep them rich.

Of course, with a volatile market, it could switch gears just as violently and return to "normal" (which is to say, going ever upwards). Or it could just sink again, returning to a more rational level.

Whatever happens, it will be interesting. Buckle in.

More later,

Saturday, December 22, 2018

And To All A Good Night ...

Grubbstreet wishes everyone a safe and sane holiday season, and a New Year filled with promise and hope.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Luc Olivier Merson (1879), MFA, Boston.
More later,

Monday, December 03, 2018

Theatre: North Side Story

In The Heights, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Concept by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Directed by May Adrales. Seattle Rep through December 30.

So there is such a thing a performance being too large for the hall that contains it. I've always thought of the venerable Bagley-Wright Theater as being a large venue with a lot of space on stage. Yet, for In The Heights, it is seriously too small, both on stage and as far as sound quality is concerned.

Let me deal with this bad news first before pushing on to say how good the cast is. The sound quality from the performance pitched the on-stage band against the miked-up actors, and the result was an unsatisfying tie. Often the words got lost in the upswelling music, and the audience was at times blasted by the resulting combined volume. It took much of the opening number for my ears to adjust and actually hear the words. The touring stage was a great design of multiple levels and exits, but it cramps the forward part of the stage, and I found myself marveling at the dancers not getting in each others' ways as much as their superior choreography.

And yes, the dancing is fantastic, the music is ecstatic, and the actors are all superior both in acting ability and the power of their voices. There isn't a weak singer in the lot (By way of comparison, you can give the role of the tailor in The Mikado to someone who does not have a huge amount of vocal range). This is an incredibly amazing cast from the leads to the ensemble who do their darnedest to sell the story.

And the story is, well, it is not the selling point. I can't give you a good summary without tipping my hand to spoilers, as you can see where everything is going from the get-go. It takes place over the 4th of July weekend in Washington Heights, a strong Hispanic community at the northern tip of Manhattan. Poor but proud, its people are second and third generation, both American and loyal to their family heritages. They've made something of themselves, and can make a bit more, but it may mean moving away from the Heights.

There is the bodega owner that wants to go back to his family's homeland. There is the student coming back from college. There is the father who has hopes for his daughter. There are the girls who work in the beauty shop. There is the neighborhood matriarch. Everybody gets their moment, everybody gets their song, everybody aims for a showstopper. There are revelations. There are fireworks. There is a power black-out. There is a winning lottery ticket. And by the end of it all, every character has their arc resolved in time for the finale.

The stakes in all this, however, are pretty low, and it is more of a slice of life with strong Latin flavor and a hip-hop beat. The threats are pretty mild, and when one of them seems about to rear its head, it diffused and lets all the air out. There are no real surprises. As I said, so much of what is good about this performance are the performers. Ryan Alvarado, Sophia Macias, David Kaverman, Alyssa Gomez, Stephanie Gomerez, Tony Chirolders, Karmine Alers and Yassmin Alers (yes, sisters), heck yes, even Henry Gainsa as the Piragua Guy engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Mr. Softee. All great.

I want to say that this is riding on the coat-tails of Lin-Manuel (Hamilton!) Miranda - they promote that angle heavily, and it was his first work. But the original show (pre-Ham) pulled down all manner of awards both on and off Broadway, has had some serious national tours (It was here in Seattle at the 5th Avenue in 2010 - probably a better venue), and will become a movie in 2020. There is something here that engages and delights, but it doesn't have that much foundation to it. This is one of those plays where I look at 4 Tony Awards (as opposed to a single award for the clearly superior Come From Away), and wonder what I am missing about the tastes of Modern American Theatre.

More later,


Friday, November 30, 2018

Daisey History Six: Renters

Mr. Daisey has moved on to his next gig, but still, we persist.

Daisey's sixth entry into his  People's History talks about the imbalance between those with power and those without. He talks a great deal about his personal experiences renting in Brooklyn, but the historical entry come from the Anti-Rent War.

What, you've never heard of it? The ANTI-RENT WAR. 1830's? New York State? No?

Hey, it got a historical marker and everything!
Yeah, this falls in the hole between 1812 and 1860, but it is extremely instructive as to how change gets made from below, as opposed to being granted from above.

Not-so-short version: The Hudson River Valley ran for a couple centuries on a feudal-style manor system run by patroons, who were the major land-holders. The inhabitants were effectively tenant farmers, who did not have control over the land they farmed. The patroons held a lot of the power, including control of the local courts and law enforcement, getting a big chunk when leases were sold, and a serious taste of the gross productivity.

In 1839, the tenant farmers revolted and refused to pay. The ruling patroons sent in tax collectors - they were tarred, feathered, and run off. They sent in a posse of 500 men. THEY were surrounded and run off. An agent of the patroons was killed. Finally the State itself declared it was an insurrection, sent in the military, and made arrests. Eighty-four anti-renters were arrested, thirteen was convicted, two were condemned to the gallows.

But the anti-renters transformed into a political force in NY State, a faction that contributed to vote out the then-current governor for a more progressive one. The convicted anti-renters were pardoned, and the feudal patroon system itself was disassembled in the New York Constitution of 1846. So, ultimately, the anti-renters won. Long fight, but they won.

It is an interesting story, and generally forgotten.

And what's interesting is that there as SO MANY stories like this that are sidelined, sidebarred, forgotten. Whiskey Rebellion. Shay's Rebellion. Pullman Strike. Haymarket. Occupy. They get moved off to the side, treated as exceptions to the rule as opposed to how things really move forward around here. Particularly if they have long-term results as those involved get a place at the table.

Wikipedia, interestingly enough, soft-pedals the Anti-Rent War in its entry. They blame the previous patroon for the uprising, who was too easy on the tenants, so that his heirs roused their anger by adhering to the established feudal laws. It ignores the Panic of 1837, which put the economic pressure on the patroons to demand their money and on the inability of the tenants to pay. It mentions but does not explain the "Calico Indians" (not Native Americans, but rather white dudes dressed up as false Indians, much like the Boston Tea Party). There is a mention how the soon-to-be-ex governor tied to get disguises outlawed, echoing the modern complaints again the Black Block protesters. Oh, and two of the anti-rent ringleaders would go on to help found the Republican Party. Howboutthat?

Yet this is a pattern we see again and again - Rebellion, Violence, Repercussions. Accommodations, Change. It doesn't always go through the full cycle, and does not always represent forward progress. But it is a theme that is showing up again and again in these discussions. And perhaps the real narrative that we're looking at in our history.

More later,