After his conviction for “sodomy and gross indecency,” Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) served two years in Reading Gaol prison. Following his release, he lived in exile, wandering the streets of Paris drunk, broke and alone. None of these hardships, however, made Wilde any less funny. “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” the playwright allegedly remarked on his deathbed. “One or the other of us has to go.” The dark comedy in “Airswimming” (1997) has echoes of Wilde. Dorphea and Persephone, the play’s protagonists, get locked up in a mental ward for deviating from the sexual norms of early 20th-century Britain. Like Wilde, they both see the funny side of their harsh lot: Throughout the play, the two women chortle about topics ranging from Doris Day’s virginity to Joan of Arc’s burning. “Airswimming” — which played at the Hepburn Zoo from Thursday, Nov. 14 to Saturday, Nov. 16 — was masterfully directed by Zachary Varricchione ’21. The play starred Madeline Ciocci ’20 and Gabby Valdivieso ’20 as Dora and Persephone, respectively. The production was also Ciocci’s senior thesis acting project for her theater major. Gutsy musical numbers, raw performances and clever staging turned a moderately fine script into a fun evening at the theater. Anyone over the age of 12 can direct a half-decent production of a masterpiece like “Macbeth.” Good directors like Varricchione, however, can make plays from the “Troilus and Cressida” league seem like varsity material. I’m definitely excited to see more productions from Varrichione, who is a junior theater major. “This was actually the first show I’ve ever directed, so I was met with a lot of challenges that were mostly personal,” Varricchione said. “I think the biggest challenge was creating the characters of Porph and Dorph. They are still Persephone and Dora but they are living and coping with the trauma they’ve endured.” The show’s exploration of sexism was brutally honest. “[Getting locked up in a mental hospital] was a reality for so many women all over the U.S. and the U.K. for a really long time,” Ciocci said. “The play is actually based on a true story about three women who were all put in a mental hospital in Ireland for 50 years for having children without being married.” “Airswimming” begins in 1924. Dora’s been in the insane asylum for two years, locked up for partaking in unwomanly things (namely, cigar smoking). Persephone’s the new inmate in the ward. Initially upper-crust and stiff, Persephone helps Dora’s straightjacket years become more endurable with a decades-long friendship. When asked about the protagonists’ relationship, Varricchione suggested that their friendship has an element of self-preservation. “I would say it’s a story about survival through friendship,” Varricchione said. “The love between [Persephone and Dora] is very genuine in my eyes. They are what they have to live for.” The reparté between Ciocci and Valdivieso was notably sharp. “Gabby and I were actually freshman year roommates, so we had a great jumping off point to go from,” Ciocci said. Since the play only features two characters, the connection between the two actors was essential. “It’s a totally unique and awesome feeling to be working on the same mental wavelength as another person,” Ciocci said. “In shows like this, unless you can get to that level of mental symbiosis, the show doesn’t work…Gabby and I have worked really hard to develop that parallel.” [pullquote speaker="Madeline Ciocci '20" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]The only thing that gets these women through this horrific experience is their relationship.[/pullquote] The play’s musical numbers, set to jazz hits by the singer Doris Day, also highlighted the two students’ impeccable dance moves. The two actresses made washing tubs and sweeping tiles look like something out of “Singin’ In The Rain” (1952). But despite Varricchione’s use of Great American Songbook standards like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” the production was a far cry from a Rodgers and Hart musical comedy. “In musicals, there’s often specific choreography and movement for the songs,” said Ciocci, who sings several songs in the play. “Whereas in [‘Airswimming’], every time I sing each song, I do it differently and do movement that feels right in that moment for that specific performance.” Ciocci and Valdivieso pulled off impressively convincing English accents. Each actress did a good job at distinguishing the social class of their character through dialect choices. Valdivieso’s Dora had a subtle Cockney accent, while Ciocci’s Persephone sounded like she had just wandered off the set of “The Crown.” “I was definitely not the dialect coach,” said Varricchione. “Thankfully, the department had dialect tapes that I was able to distribute to the two of them.” Tech director Cooper Kelley ’22 made a set that channeled dread. On stage there was only a bathtub, a ladder and some steps. Outside the Hepburn Zoo, small paper notes marked important events in 20th century Britain. One of these placards marked the premier of “Waiting for Godot (1953),” a production that Varricchione paid homage to by using a minimal set. But the main takeaway from this weekend’s production of “Airswimming” was gloom. Dora and Persephone eventually get happy endings, but Ciocci’s thesis project never lost sight of its main focus, exploring the cruelty that men have inflicted upon women throughout human history. “To me, the play is about what we have to do to survive in dire circumstances,” Ciocci said. “The only thing that gets these women through this horrific experience is their relationship.” I walked out of the Hepburn Zoo thinking of a sad line from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (1922): “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
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For the bookish among us, Halloween is a perfect time to revisit some of the spookiest tomes ever written. Brace yourselves for my top three fear-inducing books of all time. Don’t read this article alone. I’m giving third place to Ford Maddox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” (1915). The novel tells the story of four early 20th-century couples: two hopelessly naive Americans, and two world-weary Brits. John Dowell, the American narrator, tries to make sense of his shattered world after discovering that his wife had a long-term affair with Captain Edward Ashburnham, Dowell’s only friend. Meanwhile, Briton Lenora Ashburnham schemes against her philandering husband. In a sinister plot twist, Ford even adds one or two possible murders. I write “possible” since Ford’s protagonist is a confused, laughably unreliable narrator. Consider this rambling passage: “I don’t attach any particular importance to these generalizations of mine. They may be right; they may be wrong; I am only an ageing American with very little knowledge of life.” Beneath Dowell’s bumbling language lies unnavigable darkness. Psychological horror does not often feature in romantic novels. The most heart-stopping scene in “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), for instance, is when Jane Bennet gets a bad cold. But “The Good Soldier,” despite its lusty beginnings, slowly becomes an utter nightmare. “I know nothing — nothing in the world — of the hearts of men,” relates Dowell. “I only know that I am alone — horribly alone. No hearthstone will ever again witness, for me, friendly intercourse.” Note the use of the word “intercourse.” Ford writes about sex in the same way that horror writer H.P Lovecraft characterizes the cosmic entity Cthulhu in the eponymous short story: as an ominous, primordial reckoning. “The Good Soldier” ends with Nancy Rufford, the Ashburnham’s ward, descending into madness. After Nancy falls for Captain Ashburnham, the four main characters unite in banishing her to India. She spends the rest of her days in a madhouse, murmuring “Credo in unum Deum omnipotentem” [I believe in one all-powerful God] over and over again. Like Nancy’s recitation of the Nicene Creed, “The Good Soldier” will haunt you long after you have reached the story’s end. My runner-up is “The Woman In White” (1859) by Wilkie Collins. T.S. Eliot wrote, in the introduction to a 1928 edition of the book, that Collins’s other great novel, “The Moonstone,” is “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels in a genre invented by Collins and not by [Edgar Allen] Poe.” “The Woman In White” has even more sleuthing than “The Moonstone” (1868). But while the latter book has a comic tone, “The Woman In White” invokes pure dread. The novel’s opening scene is simple, but spooky. Walter Hartright, an impoverished drawing teacher, walks through the streets of London late at night. From out of the fog appears a young woman clad in pale tatters. She asks for some directions, but then suddenly flees. We learn that her name is Anne Catherick, and that Anne has recently escaped from a ward for the criminally insane. Some months after this strange encounter, Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie, a wealthy art student. All is well for a bit, but developments arise. For one, Anne Catherick is stalking Walter. For another, Laura gets engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, an old rake who values his fiancée’s dowry a bit too much. I shall divulge no more of the novel’s plot; “The Woman In White” is too good a book to be spoiled. Let us suffice to say that identity theft, mail fraud, false imprisonment and a nationalist Italian spy ring all feature in Collins’s blood-curdling narrative. What makes Collins’s novel truly terrifying, though, is its main villain, the plumply evil, wickedly charming Count Fosco. The Count likes to sing church hymnals, drug unsuspecting heiresses and murder for money. In a weirdly funny scene, he even talks to his pet mouse. “...And then, Mouse, I shall doubt if your own eyes and ears are really of any use to you. Ah! I am a bad man... I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.” Cynical and sadistic, Count Fosco raises the novel’s stakes to a fever pitch. Move over, “Rebecca” (1938) — “The Woman In White” easily dwarfs all other English country-house thrillers. I’m giving some honourable mentions before I unveil my top winner. “The Raven” (1845) by Edgar Allen Poe has not lost its neurotic punch over the years. Try reading the poem aloud for optimal spookiness — Poe’s jumpy style suits the spoken word perfectly. Another great scary read is Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” (1992), a bleak character study about six students at a liberal arts college in Vermont. (If you are a fan of Vermont horror stories, I also recommend our article on the vandalism at Atwater A and B). But Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” gets my Spooky Story Gold Medal. Unlike my third and second place winners, Christie’s sparse novel can be read in one sitting. It tells the story of ten perfect strangers who are stuck on an island vacation resort. One of the guests, we discover, is a psychopathic murderer. Who could the bad guy be? Phillip Lombard, a dapper gun-for-hire? Thomas Rogers, the creepy butler? Just when you think you know who the murderer is, Christie kills off your prime suspect. Christie gives a ghostly aura to “And Then There Were None.” In particular, the novel’s dream sequences are unsettling: they contain flashbacks that foreshadow the grisly fates of Christie’s characters. In an eerie scene, an old woman speculates that the murders are a divine judgement. She is right, in a sense: all the people trapped on the island have their own demons to confront. Even before the novel’s climax, it becomes clear that Christie’s characters are all going on a one-way ticket to Hell; the murderer merely expedites their journey. Read “And Then There Were None” once for the scary bits, and then read it again just to marvel at Christie’s athletic prose. So that’s my list. And, yes: I am aware that I have neglected some of the horror genre’s usual suspects. Stephen King, Mary Shelley and dozens of other fine writers did not make my final cut. I suppose that is because I don’t find fantasy a particularly exciting genre. “It” (1986) and “Dracula” (1897) have fangs galore, but the mundane wickedness of “The Good Soldier” is to me much more terrifying. The books that get under my skin understand the demons of the human condition; true scariness confronts the monsters of everyday life. The horror, dear Brutus, is not in our Count Draculas, but ourselves.
At the intermission of the Heath Quartet’s concert on the night of Friday, Oct. 11, I was chatting with my friend Henry Ganey ’22 outside the Mahaney Arts Center’s Robison Hall, and mentioned a certain Shakespeare phrase. “‘If music be the food of love, play on,’” I said, quoting the opening lines of “Twelfth Night.” Ganey’s eyes lit up. “I would say that the standing ovation at the end of [Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet no. 8 in E. Minor] would be the quintessential example of the aforementioned quote,” he said. He was not exaggerating. Despite the unspoken rule that an audience can give a standing ovation only after a program’s end, the crowd went bananas at the end of the British ensemble’s first act. Throughout the last week, the Heath Quartet — comprised of violist Gary Pomeroy, cellist Christopher Murray and violinists Oliver Heath and Sara Wolstenholme — performed three times for students on Saturday, Oct. 5, Tuesday, Oct. 8 and Friday, Oct. 11. They also co-taught three classes: two music theory courses with Christian A. Johnson Professor Emeritus of Music Peter Hamlin and Professor of Music Larry Hamberlin, and “Sensation and Perception,” a neuroscience course taught by Assistant Professor of Psychology Mike Dash. Allison Carole Coyne, performing arts series director, sent an engagement survey about the Quartet’s visit to all students in the above classes, and the responses were glowing. “Thus far, 100% of student responders have said the quartet’s visit was relevant to their coursework and that they’d highly recommend such visits to their professors in the future,” Coyne said. The first class I attended to see the Heath Quartet teach was Introduction to Music with Hamberlin. One student asked the musicians why they only play works by other composers as opposed to writing their own music. Heath Quartet Cellist Murray compared the group to “a traveling theater troupe,” suggesting that a cellist who interprets the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is similar to an actor personalizing a role. The foundations of the work stay the same, but the performer brings a unique understanding of the piece to make good art. [pullquote speaker="Christopher Murray" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]As a musician, you have this little monkey inside of you that’s doing music all the time. This little guy is always working out stuff.[/pullquote] At the lecture for students studying sensation and perception, the quartet’s playing invoked conversations about the scientific nuts-and-bolts of classical music. Murray told the class that being a cellist has its cerebral quirks. “As a musician, you have this little monkey inside of you that’s doing music all the time,” Murray said, smiling. “This little guy is always working out stuff.” When asked about their vigorous movements while playing, violinist Wolstenholme referred to the importance of visual elements to a performance. After jokingly pantomiming a violent wave of her bow, she explained that the group also uses more subtle body language such as eye contact to communicate with each other on stage. “How much of our auditory experience is visual?” Professor Dash asked. This question prompted a neuroscience experiment. Dash asked Heath and Wolstenholme, the Quartet’s violinists, to stand apart on Robison Hall’s stage and play some Beethoven. While the violinists fiddled away, I heard the instruments more individually. But seeing the musicians spread apart so far made it harder for me to concentrate on their music. My sensory experience was vexing; I wanted to see these musical Avengers assemble. The four musicians also examined more contemporary classical music. They showed Dash’s class “Memento,” a string quartet by the Scottish composer James Macmillan. Murray’s cello dominated the song — you could almost hear the misty peacefulness of the Highlands as his cello strummed a dissonant, airy theme. The Heath Quartet’s classes were thought-provoking, but their concerts stole the show. The group’s performance on the night of Saturday, Oct. 5 was quite good, and from what I’ve gleaned from an audio recording, the matinée on the following Tuesday was just as lovely. But the Heath Quartet saved their best night for last. At their final performance, they delivered Beethoven string quartets like nobody’s business. Heath’s team began with Beethoven’s Quartet no. 2 in G Major, op. 18, no. 2 (1799). The opening theme was done gently — the violins scintillated back and forth in bright scales. The two instruments sang to each other, as if courting. Of particular interest during Quartet no. 2 was Murray’s cello playing. While other Heath members looked at their music with intense concentration as they strummed their solos, Murray gazed up at the ceiling during his, smiling serenely. His playing had a similar quality. It was reminiscent of the elegant cello parts in the “Swan” movement of Camille Saint-Saën’s “Carnival of the Animals.” Murray’s calm playing guided the rest of the ensemble through this charming reverie of a piece. Next up on the program was Beethoven’s Quartet no. 8 in E Minor, op. 59 no. 2 (1808). During the piece, Pomeroy’s viola parts accentuated harmonic counterpoint. It is not often that one gets to fully hear a violist, but Pomeroy’s subtle playing kept the quartet grounded in the melancholy key of E Minor. The final movement showcased Oliver Heath’s virtuosity. Great violin music is never a given — some violinists have a habit of caterwauling during crescendos. Thankfully, Heath stayed away from such theatrics, subtly guiding the music with uncannily fitting dynamics. It was easy to see after the “Presto” movement why the Heath Quartet begins with “Heath.” The quartet’s end was absolute dynamite. The highlight of the evening was Quartet no. 15 in A Minor, op 132 (1823-1825). The quartet is late-period Beethoven; it lacks Hayden-esque time schemes or grace notes. Quartet no. 15, rather, is a Romantic vision of grace and majesty. The performance’s best music was during the “Molto adagio” third movement. The four musicians played the same notes for the first few minutes. The instruments’ synchronization yielded a natural ambience; harkening white waves splashing onto a beach or a horse walking through a field. Suddenly, the movement became a heart-stopping aria. The quartet’s third movement shocked Madison Middleton ’22.5. “During that movement, I… I thought, ‘This is changing me...'” Middleton said. The Heath Quartet triumphed during their week at the college, and I look forward to the continuation of their residency next January and May. As I left the Mahaney Center last Friday, a thought occurred to me. For many Americans, 2020 means another grueling election cycle, an uncertain beginning to a new decade. For all we know, the 2020s could get more hectic than the 1920s. But life, sometimes, is really quite good. I am grateful that my New Year beckons the Heath Quartet’s return from across the Atlantic, eleven other Beethoven string quartets, and more enchanting music at Robison Hall.
If you were not a fan of lighthearted fluff like “No Country For Old Men” (2007) or “Manchester By The Sea” (2016), then “Joker” (2019) is the movie for you. Directed by Todd Phillips, “Joker” has zero levity. There is only one scene that does not immediately turn you into Eeyore of the Hundred-Acre Wood, and that segment is still really creepy. In it, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) — who becomes the titular Batman antagonist — dances with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). Arthur grins while he sways his thin frame, leading his mother across the living room of their dingy apartment. Happy times. “Joker” is irrefutably an artistic success. The movie seamlessly acts as a comic book film and art house character study, and Joaquin Phoenix gives a gut-wrenchingly committed lead performance. “Joker” is also the third best film of 2019 so far. (In my opinion Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” still towers, closely followed by Nisha Ganatra’s witty, woefully underrated “Late Night.”) But one cannot entirely recommend “Joker.” Watching the film is like sitting through Richard Wagner’s 15-hour “Ring Cycle.” Yes, Wagner’s music is beautiful, but such an ordeal drains the body and soul. To appreciate the undeniable power of “Joker,” one has to watch two hours of sadness, gore, topsy-turvydom and rage. Take it or leave it. “Joker” is set sometime in the 1980s. In the first scene, we see Arthur working as a clown-for-hire at a garage sale. He holds up a sign that reads “Everything Must Go.” A green wig and pale makeup envelop his face, giving him a vampiric mein. Cars, rats and floating garbage dart across the screen. Arthur’s “Everything Must Go” sign gets stolen by some teenagers. He rushes after them in his large clown shoes, panting. The teenagers then attack Arthur and leave him lying in an alleyway. He laughs while crying, seemingly amused by his own torment. Everything Must Go. Phillips thus establishes his protagonist: Arthur is one of Gotham’s meek who have not inherited the earth. He also has an odd mental condition — uncontrollable laughter. This tick proves to be a challenge for his career in stand-up comedy. Another problem is Arthur’s sense of humor. “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” asks his mother. Arthur worships talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whose show he hopes to one day appear on. His sick mother stays at home, rambling all day about how she used to work for Gotham billionaire Thomas Wayne. Mother and son have spent their whole lives looking up to television icons. Arthur now wants to become a star. So he gets a handgun. After that, “Joker” gets quite gory. Arthur’s first murders are in self-defense, but his crimes slowly escalate in their moral dubiousness. In becoming the Joker, Arthur gives away his soul, losing the audience’s sympathy. Phoenix has always liked to play things large and loud, projecting emotions with body language rather than diction. His over-the-top style works perfectly in “Joker.” When Arthur takes a long drag of a cigarette after a shockingly violent deed, Phoenix contorts his stomach and cheeks. The actor thus suggests a bleak metaphor: for Arthur, killing is an addictive stimulant. Subtlety be darned — Phoenix is a rockstar in “Joker.” The supporting cast and crew of “Joker” give solid performances. Robert De Niro shines in two scenes as Arthur’s idol Murray Franklin. The film’s best scene is when Franklin gives an unexpected rebuttal to Arthur on live-television. One cannot look away from two great actors like De Niro and Phoenix trading barbs, clearly having a ball. Despite her limited screen time, Zazie Beetz deftly plays Sophie, Arthur’s love interest. Her role highlights one of “Joker’s” most unsettling motifs: the female characters are really cursory. Arthur’s mother and his two female therapists scoff and complain, but only the men in “Joker” interest Arthur. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography highlights the grunginess of Gotham. In a particularly stunning shot, we watch in slow-motion as Arthur dances on a city street puddle, splashing water onto his emerald hair. He leaps up and down, playing an imaginary guitar. Sher portrays this silly jig like a war dance. Aside from Phoenix, the best contributor in “Joker” is Hildur Guðnadóttir, who composed the film’s mournful score. We always hear a cello strum lightly, even while carnage covers the frame. Arthur might start out as a petty loser, but Guðnadóttir’s score suggests an underlying logic to his evil. Filmgoers will inevitably compare Phoenix’s interpretation of the Joker with Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight” (2008). In that film, the Joker blows up buildings with chaotic glee, turning Gotham into a smokey rubble. Ledger’s villain is a terrorist. A decade after “The Dark Knight,” Phoenix gives us an equally timely interpretation of the Joker. Arthur is an unreliable narrator — the last act of the film might be “fake news.” All we know for sure is that Arthur starts and ends the story as a thin-skinned, media-obsessed narcissist. “Joker” is based off of an antagonist created in 1940, but the movie focuses on the villains of 2019.
“Downton Abbey” is a fantastic time at the movies. The film — a sequel to the hit PBS period piece of the same name — showcases sharp dialogue, fine acting and deft period-design from director Michael Engler. From start to end, “Downton Abbey” (the movie) remains frothy; Engler’s film definitely lacks the cinematic aspirations of “Boyhood” (2014) or “The Revenant” (2015). But “Downton Abbey,” unlike those films, is actually fun to watch. The Downton Abbey movie opens in 1927, two years after the show’s end. Robert Crawley, seventh Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) raises his eyebrows upon receiving a letter. “The King and Queen are visiting Downton,” he murmurs. Soon enough, we learn that the Earl is not referring to Elvis Presley and the “Bohemian Rhapsody” guys; instead, Downton must host King George V of England and his wife, Mary. Complications ensue. The current head butler (Rob James-Collier) cannot quite manage the royal visit, for one. To make matters worse, the royal household’s domestic staff will conduct the king’s luncheon and dinner, undermining Downton’s own staff. To solve this mess, the Crawleys reach out to their butler emeritus, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). “Leave this to me,” Carson snarls. He puts on a tabby striped suit and walks down the road to Downton Abbey, his stern physique silhouetted by an English sunrise. This shot, like many others in this film, envelops the screen with the rich beauty of Northern England. Yorkshire essentially becomes a character in and of itself. Other storylines come up in “Downton Abbey,” but a Downton layman should not worry — none of the subplots particularly matter. There is some business about an ingénue/maid (Tuppence Middleton) who catches the eye of Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the earl’s son-in-law. Meanwhile, the future of Downton must be decided by the household’s matriarch, Lady Violet (Dame Maggie Smith). Maggie Smith’s acting alone makes “Downton Abbey” worth watching. The Scottish actress throws around zingers like nobody’s business. “Machiavelli is frequently underrated; he had many qualities,” Lady Violet quips at one point. Is Smith’s performance a rehash of her role as Professor McGonogall? Well, sort of. But Smith still rules. Despite its strong acting and dialogue, “Downton Abbey” has a few parts that rocket beyond the stratosphere of the silly and into the cosmos of the misguided. There is a story arc wherein Downton inhabitants must foil a plot to kill the king (Simon Jones). The section reaches a climax when two men brawl over a pistol while, only five yards away, an unaware George V inspects his troops. Thankfully, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) emerges from behind a hedge and karate-chops the would-be assassin. “Downton Abbey” is not “John Wick” (2014). The gunplay scene was so incongruous with the rest of the film that one wonders if Engler added the assasination storyline to simply beef up the movie’s runtime. Even stranger is when the Downton staff must go to war with the royal domestics. The household’s cooks and maids use sleeping pills, fake telephone calls and outright abduction to ensure that only Downton workers can serve the King’s soup. When Lord Grantham learns about all the trickery from downstairs, he expresses his gratitude. After all, his staff is defending Downton’s honor — or something. If “Downton Abbey” took place on Earth, Lord Grantham would probably demand resignations, or maybe even go so far as to call the Yorkshire constabulary. But these are minor quibbles. In what other film does one get to hear: “The day has dawned and the weather proves conclusively that God is a monarchist?” What other movie currently running in theaters features a kleptomaniac dressmaker? “Downton Abbey” might be a guilty pleasure, but the film is undeniably well-done. Give the movie a shot — you will feel quite at home during your stay at Downton.
World-renowned cellist Sophie Shao and her sextet performed at the Mahaney Arts Center’s Robison Hall last Saturday evening, Sept. 21. The concert, “Sophie Shao and Friends,” featured works by Arnold Schoenberg, Orlando Gibbons and Johannes Brahms. “Sophie Shao and Friends” also marked the first concert in the centennial of the Middlebury Performing Arts Series. The evening began with three small pieces by 17th century English composer Orlando Gibbons. “Fantasia a 6, no. III” kicked things off. Shao and cellist Fred Sherry grounded the sextet’s tempo, using a call and response scheme that allowed violinists Jennifer Frautschi and Zachary DePue to let their instruments sing. The two other Gibbons pieces, “Fantasia a 6 no. IV” and the song “Go From My Window,” featured more from violists Che-Yen Chen and Paul Neubauer. In “Go From My Window,” the sextet’s violists acted as a firm harmony to the showier violins and cellos. “I still hear different things in the Gibbons,” Chen said. “There’s a simplicity to his pieces.” These musical vignettes shined in their simplicity, but they also highlighted Gibbons’s veddy British pith. Each cello riff conveyed no more or less than Gibbons’s gist, and the dynamics remained crisp, somewhere between piano and mezzo forte. “Some might call Gibbons the English Palestrina,” Shao said. Gibbons might write like the Italian Renaissance composer Palestrina, but Shao’s group played Gibbons with earnestness, as if they were playing Scarlatti. Their interpretation had swagger. The program moved on to “Transfigured Night” by Arnold Schoenberg, a 20th century Austrian-American composer. If you know your classical music, you know that Schoenberg is a hot-button issue. In “Debussy: A Painter In Sound,” musicologist Stephen Walsh writes, “Schoenberg may be the first ‘great composer’ in modern history whose music has not entered the repertoire almost a century and a half after his birth.” Poor Arnold. I asked Shao about Schoenberg’s trickiness for listeners. “[The music critic] Donald Tovey said something like, ‘It’s not a matter of whether you like Schoenberg’s music or not. It’s great no matter what.’” At “Sophie Shao and Friends,” the beauty of “Transfigured Night” brought some audience members to tears. “Transfigured Night” started with a two-note whisper from the cellists, followed by the same motif from the violas and violins. Robison Hall felt sad and lonely for a few minutes. Then suddenly, the strings went in dissonant directions — the cellos sung gaily; the violins whined ambivalently. Shao’s ensemble hurled arpeggios left and right, descending the audience into the chaotic middle section of the piece. “It’s a psychological portrait,” Shao said, referring to the Richard Dehmel poem that Schoenberg based “Transfigured Night” on. The poem deals with a conversation: a woman tells the man she loves that she got impregnated by someone else. The man takes this news rather well and says that he will raise the woman’s child anyway, attributing his forgiveness to the mystique of the night sky. Such a cerebral work requires transparency, Shao argued. When I asked her what she meant, she said, “[Transparency is] allowing the melody to play so quietly that you shiver.” The conclusion of “Transfigured Night” suggested less atonal glum than it did the calm euphoria of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” Despite a murky beginning in D-minor, Shao’s sextet allowed the closing measures to sing a bittersweet farewell. “The piece invokes a dream,” violinist Jennifer Frautschi declared, adding that “Transfigured Night” offers a more accessible take on the infamously atonal composer. “[The piece] acts as a great introduction to Schoenberg.” During the first two pieces, I was struck by how the sextet moved together. When cellist Fred Sherry cocked an eyebrow, the violins burst into pizzicato; a nod from Shao yielded a key change. “I think you learn what helps and what doesn’t help,” Shao said when asked about the group’s signals. The six musicians worked together like clockwork. [pullquote speaker="Sophie Shao" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Music can be like a complex sudoku.[/pullquote] For lovers of the avant-garde, the Schoenberg piece provided the most enjoyable part of the evening. But “Sophie Shao and Friends” ended with a seminal piece of classical music: Brahm’s “String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major.” In “What To Listen For In Music,” Aaron Copland characterizes Brahms as a musical conservative, a reactionary who fought for “a lost cause” when he rejected the chromaticism of Wagner and pyrotechnics of Liszt. Brahms comes off as an old-fashioned guy. Sometimes, however, the old ways really are the best. The Brahms sextet dominated the night. The first movement of the Brahms struck home with its melody. It was refreshing to have a consistent theme after the tonal skulduggery of “Transfigured Night.” The audience never got lost in a jungle of notes; Shao patiently led us through the music. “Sophie Shao and Friends” absolutely killed the “Andante ma moderato,” the second movement of the sextet. The Andante drummed out a slow, haunting chant in D-minor. One heard the folksy motifs that Brahms later capitalized on in his “Hungarian Dances.” The last two movements of the sextet charmed the audience with unabashed Romanticism. The cellists especially owned the rondo movement, holding their own with lightning-quick ostinatos that zoomed to the piece’s end. After the last chord of “Sophie Shao and Friends,” the audience roared in approval. After the concert, I joined the musicians for a late dinner at Two Brothers Tavern. Over onion rings, Shao told me about the grueling effort it took to pull off “Sophie Shao and Friends.” “There were long days,” Shao admitted. “Music can be like a complex sudoku.” I responded by quoting my favorite Sergei Rachmainoff proverb: “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.” The cellist nodded, smiling.
At one point in “Chosen Family,” a dancer depicting the ancient monster Geyren commented, “It’s all too unpredictable.” Season 8 of “Game of Thrones” is unpredictable. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the NASDAQ and novels by Daphne du Maurier are unpredictable. “Chosen Family,” — the senior dance thesis that Caleb Green ’19, Lucy Grinnan ’19.5 and Maggie Phillips ’19 put on at the Dance Theater in the Mahaney Center for the Arts on the nights of May 3 and 4 — however, rocketed beyond the gray solar system of human predictability. The stage flooded with Greek Gods, atomic bonds, erotic desires, twisting limbs, smoke machines and many, many somersaults. To be in the audience of “Chosen Family” was to witness an hour-and-a-half of choreographic genesis in a garden of pirouettes, a primordial landscape where every heel click, pivot turn and shimmey radiated with mercurial mystery and bold bizarreness. Let there be dance. The evening’s first half featured “Red Me,” a hard-nosed production choreographed and written by Green. The performance gave a 1960s take on the legend of the Greek monster Geryon (Christian Kummer ’22, Michah Raymond ’21 and John Camberfort ’21). All three dancers pulled off sensitive performances, highlighting Geryon’s developing identity and sexuality in three distinct periods of the monster’s life. Green’s choreography celebrated the spontaneity of the human (or, uhm, demigod) body: Kummer and Camberfort would interrupt a long silence by slamming their palms onto the ground or stomping in adolescent angst. The dialogue-heavy “Red Me” contained not only a lot of great dance, but high-octane drama. Green drooped her limbs while kinetically interpreting the legend of Geryon and Madeleine Russell ’19 played Geryon’s nicotine-loving Monster Mom with tragic heart. Ami Furgang ’20 energetically embodied a sculpture-come-alive; the junior film and media culture major zoomed to and fro, like a hummingbird that had been served one too many Red Bull Energy Drinks. The crown jewel of “Red Me” took place in the middle of the production. Seduced by the older Herakles (Haegan O’Rourke ’22), the adolescent Geryon (Raymond) wrestled his lover, using tricky lifts and heel spins that ranged from the somewhat flirtatious to downright erotic. O’Rourke and Raymond absolutely murdered it with high fives and jittery jumps, their writhing silhouettes bathed in crimson light. The floor-pounding duet perfectly captured the lusty anxiety of young romance. Throughout “Red Me,” but in this scene especially, Green’s uncompromising choreography conquered the audience. “Sentimentalia,” the second performance of “Chosen Family,” glistened in icy perfection. Its director, Grinnan, took inspiration from Ancient Greek poets. “The main poet is Sappho, whom I’ve loved since I was seventeen,” said Grinnan. “This text is not visible in the piece but shaped the movement vocabulary and relationships within it.” Although Greek poetry was its inspiration, the sweeping elegance of “Sentimentalia” also evoked the Romantic ballets of Tchaikovsky. Midway through the performance, Ariadne Will ’22 pivoted into the ether. She then landed on all fours and lightly descended into an upside down limb-crawl of sorts. In this scene, Will’s formidable ballet skills rocked the house. Had Russian ballet-legend Vaslav Nijinsky attended “Sentimentalia,” even he might have toasted Will’s dexterity with a respectful shot of Moskovskaya. “I dance because it allows an extension to beautiful moments,” mused Will. “There is something very raw about dance.” Dance may be raw, but the casting of “Sentimentalia” was quite well-done. Maia Sauer ’22 emulated Arctic cool with a poised grapevine near the end, and Maddie Stewart-Boldin ’19 pulled off some spry runs. Grinnan’s direction added to the thesis’ sangfroid. “In terms of my process, I tend to give dancers prompts and then edit their movement and set transitions, while other choreographers set movement directly on their dancers,” said Grinnan. “It is important to me that my dancers to feel agency over how they move their bodies.” “Sentimentalia” radiated with wit and grace, but the performance’s foremost quality was the sheer gentleness of its choreography and its dancers’ synergy. The evening ended jubilantly: Maggie Phillips ’19 presented “Double Take,” a frothy coda of science puns and kinetic interpretations of chemical bonds. Phillips, a joint chemistry and dance major, will be working for AmeriCorps next year. One prays, however, that she eventually considers working for The Daily Show; her atom-themed dance routine had the crowd in stitches. “The creative process and the scientific method are very similar processes, if not the same process,” said Phillips. “I approach my dance-making in a very scientific framework, viewing my creation as an experiment.” And experimental it was. Chole Zinn ’22 dazzled with a low-to-the-ground solo peppered by the occasional leapfrog over the backs of her peers. The dancers also contorted themselves into the pyramid structure of ionic bonds and disassembled in covalent pizzazz. After twenty minutes, the show ended with revelry when Phillips instructed the audience to hurl dodgeballs at her dancers. “Double Take” stood out with its unique scientific approach, giving “Chosen Family” a tonic levity that raised the audience’s spirits. A hundred and six years ago, Igor Stravinsky shocked the world with the première of his jarring but beautiful ballet “The Rites of Spring.” The equally quirky and stunning dance thesis “Chosen Family” could very well be considered “The Rites of Middlebury” — the show not only triumphed creatively, but also moved audiences with its brutal grit. Much of the choreography in “Chosen Family” was inspired by the classics. It is then a happy coincidence that the production’s three authors donned the role of The Graces, the trio of artistic gods who made the earth a jollier, smarter place to live in. Phillips, Grinnan and Green shined.
Junya Iwata ’19 plays badminton and studies psychology. He is not sure about his post-college plans yet. To an extent, he is an ordinary Middlebury student. But when Iwata plays Chopin, the angels sing over Vermont. Iwata’s senior piano recital, “The Finale,” took place in the Robison Concert Hall at the Mahaney Center for the Arts on the evening of Saturday, April 13 from 8-9 p.m. A crowd of almost 70 friends and community members came to see the performance. Sporting a crimson shirt and black slacks, Iwata took the stage to much applause. The pianist then sat down and began with “Ballade, L. 70” by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Playing impressionist music, and in particular Debussy, is sometimes tricky. There are swarms of enigmatic pedal schemes and painstaking dynamics to deal with, as well as digitally demanding key signatures and scales. A piece like “Ballade, L. 70” can be quite tricky. Iwata dominated the piece. He allowed the melody to sing clearly but also brought out the underlying jazziness of Debussy that would go on to influence Bill Evans. Iwata, a psychology major also explored the intellectual complexity of Debussy’s music. “I get so much into music that I lose thought about the real world,” mused Iwata. “The more artistic a piece is, the more it can give me a different worldview.” Next up was the “Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 664” by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). The energy Iwata used for Debussy’s clarity was reassigned to a Romantic whirlwind of grand scales, mountainous runs and daring chords. Iwata so effectively channeled the Austrian energy of Schubert’s music that one would not have been entirely surprised if mid-performance Maria Von Trapp jumped out of the piano’s soundboard, making happy circles around Robison Hall. Things took a bleak (but beautiful) turn when Iwata played the second movement of the “Sonata.” “I feel myself the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world,” wrote Schubert in March 1825 after a bout of a venereal disease. One could hear the composer’s underlying sadness when Iwata played the second movement. Even the sections that paid homage to church hymnals seemed a little mournful. Towards the middle of the Schubert Sonata, it became clear that “The Finale” was the work of a pianistic mastermind. One might have reasonably wondered, “How did Iwata become so good?” Middlebury College Affiliate Artist Diana Fanning, Iwata’s piano instructor, has some answers. [pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Iwata calmly pulled five double-handed scales during this six-minute whirlwind of mischief, cooly complementing loud block chords with small, pavane-esque trills.[/pullquote] “Junya is a very talented and serious musician,” she said. “However, music is a life-long study and there is always more to learn. A famous piano pedagogue once said that teachers are links in a chain of centuries of musical understanding.” The final movement of the “Sonata”, an Allegro, went back to the first movement’s levity but ramped up the pyrotechnics. Iwata calmly pulled five double-handed scales during this six-minute whirlwind of mischief, cooly complementing loud block chords with small, pavane-esque trills. Night may have fallen on the Mahaney Arts Center when Iwata finished the concert’s first half, but the “Sonata” left Robison Hall bright and sunny for the five-minute intermission. Vincent Falardeau ’22 was impressed by the recital’s first half. “I feel like all the keys sang together in perfection.” After the intermission, Iwata came out and played “Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61” by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). Chopin has always been an influence on Iwata. One of his earliest memories is of his mother playing the composer’s “Minute Waltz,”. Later, Chopin would become the most popular composer in Iwata’s repertoire. “The way [Vladimir] Ashkenazy plays resembles most the way I play Chopin,” said Iwata. “[Artur] Rubinstein is too harsh.” The above is critical in dissecting Iwata’s artistry. A Rubinstein interpretation of the Polonaise-Fantaisie would have been pinpoint accurate, but perhaps a tad icy (“too harsh”). The pianist instead paid homage to Ashkenazy by using a bolder, more epic dynamic range. Iwata played a work written for just the solo piano, but he executed it like he was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. This “go-big-or-go-home” interpretation of Chopin worked brilliantly. “[The Polonaise-Fantaisie] was very somber, but throughout the piece you heard light,” reflected Claire Moy ’22. Moy’s analysis was dead on. The Polonaise-Fantaisie constantly fluxed from pastoral joie de vivre to downright Armageddon — one moment things were George Eliot; the next, T.S. Eliot. Iwata played the last lines with unbridled passion, his quick fingers spiraling across the keyboard. After the Chopin, a standing ovation lauded Iwata. “Phenomenal!” roared Allan Lei ’21. An encore ended the evening with a dash of jazz: the pianist chose Prelude No. 1 in B-flat Major by George Gershwin (1898-1937). In under three minutes, Iwata’s playing transported the rural Vermont audience to a 1920s Manhattan teeming with car horns, traffic lights and skyscrapers. Middlebury resident Steve Butterfield left Iwata’s recital with a grin on his face: “You know how great the weather was today? The concert was just as great.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a mysterious rogue in possession of a dead man’s passport must be in want of a femme fatale. “Transit” (2018), the film most recently screened at the Dana Auditorium for the Hirschfield International Film Series, is set in a 21st-century German-occupied France. Sirens blare; jack-booted soldiers with automatic weapons harass undocumented immigrants. The film, based on a 1943 novel of the same name by Anna Seghers, tells the story of Georg (Franz Rogowski), a man determined to escape the Reich. German director Christian Petzold wisely sets the film in the present day: one cannot watch the rubber-stamp horrors and xenophobia in “Transit” without drawing parallels to Victor Orbán. Or Marine Le Pen. Putin. Et al. The first shot of “Transit” is a close-up of its protagonist, Georg, in a Paris café. Seemingly out of nowhere, an acquaintance approaches him with several letters and a commision. Georg is to fulfill the dying wishes of the resistance-writer Weider: he must travel to Marseilles and make contact with Weider’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer). Once Georg obtains the dead writer’s passport, he impersonates Weider in Marseilles so as to get political asylum in Mexico. Hitches ensue: Georg falls in love with Marie, who wants to stay in France, but Marie is also in love with Richard (Godehard Giese), a cynical doctor. Inevitably, the layered plot of “Transit” twists as Georg tries to simultaneously woo a woman, dabble in identity fraud and flee from fascism. “Transit” is not only the best film that was released in 2018, but also is one of the most dynamic pictures of the last several years. Petzdolm’s movie has all the epicness and dread of “There Will Be Blood” (2007), but is also laced with smart humor and plotting. The film’s shadowy fights in alleyways and white yachts floating across the Mediterranean perfectly captures the sheer fun of going to the movies. “Transit” is not a perfect movie; nor is “The Godfather” (1972). Both, however, are masterpieces. The finest scenes in “Transit” play out as Kafka-esque arbitrages between Georg and an assortment of bureaucrats who control the distribution of visas, tickets and IDs. Grey offices allow Petzdolm to ramp up tense dialogue. Shot by Hans Frommer, the cinematography highlights each nervous bead of sweat on the characters’ faces. Sharp wit oozes from the dialogue. Near the end, Georg is asked by a consulate-worker about the nature of romantic love (he wants a “writer’s opinion”). The tight-lipped hero shrugs: “Maybe you should be the writer.” There is a double-irony here: Georg impersonates the novelist Weider, but the audience also recognizes that by pretending to be Weider, Georg has authored a fiction of his very own. Beyond its cat-and-mouse twitchiness, “Transit” also has genuine romance. Georg and Marie spend much of the runtime strolling across the boardwalks of Marseilles, smoking cigarettes and flirting. An authoritarian state may be seizing Europe, but the South of France’s charm remains unstifled. Petzdolm’s tense first and third acts underscore the film’s Casablancan middle interlude. An assortment of characters pop up in small but poignant cameos: a gloomy woman with a dog repeatedly appears in Georg’s narrative. A man with a fedora is always seen waiting in lines, arguing with officials about passport photos. These brief performances give “Transit” an underworldly quality. Georg becomes an Orpheus of sorts, attempting to escape with Marie from a spectral Marseilles where nobody knows quite what is going on. The movie ends as it begins: a man drinks Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a lonely café as soldiers march in the street. Cyclical and bleak, the tone’s emphasis on déja-vu pays homage to Kafka. Like Josef K in “Der Prozess” (“The Trial”), the protagonist constantly duplicates his efforts to win the woman he loves and escape a totalitarian state, much of the time in vain. Characters die or disappear left and right, often without any explanation. There are chase scenes abound, but the movie’s most harrowing segments are absurdly mundane. “He knew that she was going to betray him,” observes the world-weary narrator at one point. The characters in “Transit” seem stalked by an omnipotent menace — each relationship in the film has an ulterior motive. To paraphrase “Casino” (1995): in a fascist state, everybody watches everybody.
The Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) once glumly wrote to a friend, “It is dreadful when something weighs on your mind, not to have a soul to unburden yourself to. You know what I mean. I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.” Such emotional power was put on full display on Sunday, Feb. 17, when Natasha Koval Paden, an Affiliate Artist with the Music Department of Middlebury College, hosted a piano recital in Robinson Hall at the Mahaney Arts Center. The free concert, “Connections: A Musical Journey With Debussy and Chopin,” had an audience of about 60 attendees, including locals and college students. The concert was comprised of two halves, one for each of the eponymous composers. The half devoted to the music of Frédéric Chopin was spectacularly Romantic with rich melodies and unbridled zeal. Paden then swept the audience into a forty-minute daydream with the concert’s enchanting Debussy portion. “My favorite pieces were spread throughout,” Jonah Edelman ’20.5 said. “(The music) made me want to let my mind wonder and imagine something different than the typical monotony of Sunday studying.” Assistant Professor of History Rebecca Mitchell, whose research explores musical metaphysics, illuminated the connections between the two composers. “Many of the musical textures that Debussy explores develop out of Chopin’s compositional style,” Mitchell said. “Chopin was a master of piano composition and helped to develop the full range of its expressive possibilities, something that Debussy continues to explore in his preludes for piano.” Paden began the Chopin segment with the Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. Composed in 1831, Ballade No. 1 is often considered a masterpiece, rivaled perhaps only by Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. Ballade No. 1 in G Minor is not for the timid. Paden delicately controlled the Ballade, accentuating the gloomy countermelodies in the opening “heartbeat” sections. Her controlled pace allowed the music to breathe. In the viruostic last sections of the Ballade, however, Paden shined with pyrotechnic glee. Her fingers zinged across the keyboard and lashed out the final, jaw-droppingly tricky coda of the piece. There are videos on Youtube of even Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of all time, struggling a little with the Ballade’s final bars. Paden held her own and conquered this pianistic Mount Kilimanjaro. Paden next played Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66. The pianist played the composition’s first and last sections with gusto, using soft dynamics to highlight the tenderness of the song’s middle. Fantasie-Impromptu is a dark and rebellious piece. Mitchell commented on the revolutionary aura of Chopin’s music: “Chopin left Warsaw just before the November Uprising of 1830 in which Polish nationalists tried to regain independence from the Russian Tsar. He never returned to Poland, but remained close to other Polish emigres. He glorified Polish nationalism in his compositions for piano.” The crowd heard Chopin’s exiled loneliness at the end of the concert’s first half; the final chords died softly. The music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is an enigma of otherworldly grace and polish. Paden expressed the strangeness of Debussy through subtle dynamic shifts and delicate color choices. She first played three preludes: “Bruyéres” (“Heather”), “Ondine” (“Mermaid”) and “Feux d’Artifice” (“Fireworks”). “Heather” offered a calm look at the titular flowers. Paden demonstrated a careful pith in coloring the musical landscape, offering fresh purples and exciting blues through each chord she played. If the first prelude was a pleasant detour into the French countryside, “Mermaid” was a splashy thrill-ride through Les Champs-Élysées. Paden nailed the work, cranking out Art Tatum-esque glescendos that rollicked up and down the Steinway D-274 in Robison Hall. The 2.74 meters-wide instrument is worth noting. The massive Steinway’s unrivaled power worked perfectly with these preludes: a listener first heard a Debussy arpeggio then its pedaled echoes, then a mixing lilt from the piano’s soundboard that floated through the hall like a ghost. The audience began to see why Debussy is often called an Impressionist in the vein of Monet. Paden melted and changed the sonic landscapes of these preludes, questioning the very form of classical music itself. The last prelude, “Fireworks,” if not a literal showstopper, certainly earned its explosive title. The pianist highlighted Debussy’s influence of Japonisme through her speedy rendering of the pentatonic scale in the her final prelude. Paden finished the evening with Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse” (“The Isle of Joy”). Debussy might have found this piece joyful, but it is first and foremost spectacularly weird. Abrupt shifts of time and tone abound. The sensation of listening to the piece is like reading Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness:” mysterious and draining, but often fun. “The Isle of Joy” ended with Paden crashing a tsunami of chords onto the archipelagos of the piece’s beginning, rejecting any sense of structure that the Chopin half tried to make. On the performance as a whole, Paden’s interpretation of Debussy and Chopin highlighted the two composers’ similarities in color and technique, but also their stark differences — Chopin’s restlessness, Debussy’s obliqueness. A proverb of classical music goes, “Bach is God’s word; Mozart, God’s laughter; Beethoven, God’s fire.” Mitchell expanded this analogy: “I think that you could add that Chopin is God’s poet and Debussy is God’s painter.”
Leo Tolstoy lacked a firm definition for his seminal work, “War and Peace.” “It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle,” wrote the Russian author. “‘War and Peace’ is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.” Tolstoy’s words aptly describe the enigmatic film-theater mashup of “Winter’s Cocoon,” the senior thesis project of Sabina Jiang ’18.5. The last showing of “Winter’s Cocoon,” which ran January 24 through 27 at the Hepburn Zoo, zigzagged fluidly through its duo medians. The play tells the story of Ida (Yachao Dai ’21), a young actress who begins a love affair with a big-shot film director, Will (Nick Jaccaci ’22). Ida’s dreams reveal an alter-ego: Tina (Linh Tran ’22), also a young actress, who represents Ida’s latent insecurities. Eventually, these vignette-reveries become more violent and unsettling, especially when it is revealed that Will is married to a femme fatale insect enthusiast, Christine (Amanda Whiteley ’19). By the end of “Winter’s Cocoon,” the characters Ida and Tina both go from controlled victims to avenging Valkyries, wreaking comeuppance upon all who have done them wrong. Jiang used both the screen and stage to tell a complex narrative through the relatively unexplored genre of the dream-based-May-December-romance-revenge-thriller-psycho-drama. From decorating a washing machine with Christmas lights to layering a room with used latex gloves and bloodied scissors, the director began with the macabre lever at a solid eleven, and turned it up higher and higher with every shocking twist. “A dream is a jarring experience,” Jiang said. “You are suddenly punched by someone; suddenly someone is chasing you. At a certain point, you just give in.” This deliberate mysteriousness allowed for some scenes to become darkly comedic. For instance, two chase scenes in the play involved an imaginary fish-headed man who craves “sushi and ketchup,” a delusion that might have had even Sigmund Freud drop a cigar in bewilderment. The play’s venue often transformed. At one point in the production, the audience followed the cast out of the performance space into Hepburn’s basement and were also encouraged to interact with the actors. The program even gave advice to the audience on how to fully appreciate “Cocoon.” In perfect alignment with the show’s eeriness, the instructions were from the protagonist’s perspective: “You are all free in my dream. You can move around, watch from anywhere … If you hear dance music, you DANCE.” Across the board, the cast was stellar. Jaccaci took dramatic risks to play a seedy and emotionally manipulative Hollywood filmmaker, leering at the camera in all the filmed scenes and snarling at the audience in the play. Jaccaci reflected on his role that “[Will] represents the worst of the worst in the entertainment industry.” In a smaller but equally great performance, Whiteley played the Scylla to Jaccaci’s Charybdis, taking on the role of his wife Christine. Striding across the stage in a Cruella de Vil-style outfit while condescending to the Asian-American protagonist with racial jabs, the role of Christine acted as a great commentary on the bigotry that still lingers in the entertainment industry today. As the dialogue became thornier and tensions ran higher, Whiteley’s Lady Macbeth-esque antagonist displayed a nefarious cool whenever on stage. Yanchao Dai powerfully portrayed the young actress, Ida. Her every look combined numerous emotions: grief and horror when her character was strapped to a dinner table and gagged, but also dominance and power in the blood-soaked third act. Ida’s imaginary alter-ego, Tina, was also characterized with sensitivity by Linh Tran. Jiang laughed when talking about the violence in her play: “Out of the plays and short films I have done, on the prop list there is always fake blood. I do not go into filming planning this, but it’s always red and there’s always blood.” She said, “We are all very aware of how the violence could be misunderstood.” The actor made the distinction that several of the murders in the play were with a “finger-gun,” implying a level of allegory to the violence rather than the realization of it; the play’s gore was more in the spirit of ‘Mulholland Drive,’ less ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ When asked about her plans after leaving Middlebury, Jiang said that she does not want to work in Hollywood, but would like to continue some sort of acting path. “You have to work in a place where you feel needed,” Jiang said. What exactly is “Winter’s Cocoon?” The director smiled: “I think it belongs to experimental theater, maybe immersive theater … One of my goals for theater is for people not to walk out of the play and say, ‘Hah! I’ve got this!’”
On the brisk night of Saturday, Jan. 26, the Middlebury Queers and Allies Organization hosted the college’s first drag show of 2019 at Crossroads Cafe in the McCullough Student Center. The show, which ran from 10 to 11 p.m., offered seven performances. The crowd of about 100 students was uproarious in its support: “To see someone in front of a room of people who they might not know perform drag and feel empowered, that was my moment. I thought, ‘I’m here, and I’m allowed to be who I am,’” audience member Hannah Deering ’22 said. Before the show began, an organizer of the event reminded students at Crossroads to be mindful of performers’ privacy and not to film or photograph the show. “Be respectful, be a good audience,” the spokesperson said. Then a cover of “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake started playing. Drag was afoot. The first performer, clad in black heels and a rainbow-colored pride ribbon, danced across the stage, giving the occasional shimmy. After five minutes, the drag artist bowed and Crossroads boomed with applause. Six more performances were received with equal warmth. “I was so impressed with the raw emotion that was felt on stage ... I felt like every performer put their heart and soul into every performance,” spectator Lucy Townend ’22 said. One performer could not have agreed more. “Dressing up and going to parties and taking photos [in drag] has been a great experience ... I can express myself in ways that I normally feel [are] socially policed,” said drag artist Lee Garcia Jimenez ’19.5, whose drag name is Veronica. “Drag is really hot right now!” The second act was “Miss Information,” who, in a blond wig and flowing pink dress, danced with chutzpah. Soon after, Christian Kummer ’22 and Regina Fontanelli ’22 performed the night’s first duet, a jumpy and energetic couplet to “Toxic” by Britney Spears. “Doing moves that were more raunchy or sexy really got the crowd going,” Kummer said. “I was playing up my femininity … whatever that is.” Kummer, a Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies major who tried out drag for his first time that night, highlighted drag’s importance for eroding gender stereotypes and roles: “You either dress masculine or feminine. The way you stand, how you walk … these are so ingrained in our culture.” His major was one of the reasons he tried drag: “[Being a Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies major] encouraged me to expose myself to things that have opened up my eyes.” Following Kummer was the night’s fourth act — a slow and subtle sashay to “Mama’s Broken Heart” by Miranda Lambert. Tights were worn; eyebrows, peeled; layers, discarded. After a brave (and bawdy) fifth performance, Garcia Jimenez came out with his drag partner, whose stage name is “Mickey D.” In a bold move, the two artists made the sign of the cross during a duet to Madonna’s “Like A Woman” and Ariana Grande’s “God Is A Woman.” After the divine imagery, Garcia Jimenez distributed Ritz crackers to the audience, giving a drag twist to the Eucharist. Garcia Jimenez explained the Christian imagery in his act: “Growing up Catholic, a lot of people use Christian rhetoric to villainize the trans experience or to name it as something immoral or unnatural, despite the fact that transgender identity isn’t even referred to in the Bible and despite the fact that many of the people who argue those things don’t even understand what being trans is.” When asked if his performance minimized or made fun of Catholicism, Garcia Jimenez objected. “I think people with bad opinions would find [my performance] in bad taste. I grew up Catholic, so it’s my tradition that I’m reclaiming. [I was] not being oppressive, but rather celebratory,” he said. Alex Bacchus ’21 finished off the night with the seventh drag performance. Bacchus, who is the social media chair of Middlebury Queers and Allies, was impressed with the night’s turnout, and also acclaimed how accepting the audience was of the drag show: “The [Middlebury] campus loved it.” Bacchus, an organizer of the event, was also enthusiastic on how the the drag show could help educate non-LGBTQ+ students at Middlebury about the queer and trans tradition. “Drag should be performed by all identities, but there should be limitations on drag too,” Bacchus said. Garcia Jimenez elaborated on this view: “If too many heterosexual and cisgender people do [drag], drag becomes indistinguishable from burlesque. That would be sad.” The evening ended joyfully, with cheers from the audience concluding the show. As Deering left the McCullough Student Center and walked through the cold night air, she was ecstatic: “It felt like freedom,” Deering said.