Thursday, June 30, 2011

THEATER: Zarkana (Cirque du Soleil)

Forget, for a moment, the sight of a man climbing and balancing atop an unsupported ladder, and draw your eyes -- if you can -- away from the woman who scales his back and places a second ladder atop his shoulders before ascending and doing a hand stand from those towering heights, an aesthetically pleasing/terrifying feat of human architecture. The act itself is no doubt impressive -- that almost goes without saying for Cirque du Soleil -- but what's truly astonishing about the talent in Zarkana is how much of it creator François Girard simply throws into the background without comment or spectacle: those who cross from one side of the stage to the other whilst balancing on an overly large ball or spinning a narrow hula hoop around their knees. It demonstrates what might as well be the company's mantra -- "This is not enough" -- in that every time you think you've seen it all, with the large ensemble hanging from the walls and spiraling upside down from the ceiling, the stakes and sights are raised.

From a storytelling perspective, Zarkana is a beautiful, well-intentioned mess, but unlike, say, Spiderman, Girard (who writes and directs) is under no obligation to make the threads cohere. Personally, I could do without quite so much sensory overload, with additional "cast" members filling out the ensemble on gigantic video screens, but then again, this is supposed to be a circus. Besides, it is in part all of that chaos that helps us to really focus on the death-defying stunts (after all, even as we hold our collective breath, time and time again, we all survive). When Maria Choodu floor juggles seven balls, ricocheting them beneath cabinets or while climbing a narrow staircase, the supporting players freeze in support; it's only when Carole Demers finishes her flips and lands atop the rubbery Russian bar (a two-man-supported springboard) that the rest of the cast resumes their own smaller-scale acrobatics. There's only one ill-conceived piece, involving Cyr wheels (which actors spin within) and aerial hoops, in which so much is happening that none of it has the opportunity to truly impress us.

On the other side of the curtain, opening Act Two, there's yet another example of what makes Cirque du Soleil stand out as a boundary-pushing ensemble. With both feet planted firmly on the floor, using nothing more than her dexterity and skillful hands, Erika Chen uses sand to paint over a transparency projector, quickly assembling scenes related to Zarkana's "story." It's a brilliant and measured demonstration of how true art comes both from space and the absence thereof, and a reminder of just how much there is to admire and appreciate beyond the stunt-for-stunt's-sake. The same can be said for Anatoly Zalevskiy's hand balancing, both a distilled feat of gymnastics and an astonishing show of singular strength.

That said, the heart- and showstopper in Zarkana revolves around a device that's so impressive it makes the solid trapeze work that precedes it look almost perfunctory. This so-called "Wheel of Death," in which Ray and Rudy Navas Velez perform in tandem, starts out simply enough, with the brothers each in their own wheel, using their weight and kinetic energy to spin the centrally-connected wheels high into the air and then back down to earth (like a man-powered Ferris wheel). But once the entire structure is spinning and the two climb atop the wheels, playing catch-up with the machine's rotational force and then taunting it as they do so blindfolded, or while jumping rope -- it's spectacular. It's even more impressive when you factor in the Velez's earlier work (joined by another brother, Rony, and Roberto Navas Yovany) on the high wire: some people, perhaps, are at their most comfortable suspended in mid-air.

So far as the audience goes throughout Zarkana, we, too, are at our most comfortable suspended in disbelief, marveling not so much at the magician Zark's addled quest to recover his lost love, nor the songs he sings to snake- and spider-women along the way (impressively attired as they all are), but at the scope of the work, work that -- most impressive of all -- manages to fill both the enormous Radio City space and our small, tightly wound hearts. This is full-frontal escapism, and amid the Banquine and flag acts (one with twirling people being tossed, the other with butterflying flags), the twirling rope dancers, and, yes, the obligatory clowns, I can't think of a better way to currently lose yourself at the theater.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

THEATER: The Germ Project

Photos/Jim Baldassare
It's generally a pleasure to attend something produced by New Georges: whether it works or not, it's fascinating. More importantly, it's always challenging and, in some cases, a literal roll of the dice, as with Lynn Rosen's Goldor $ Mythyka: A Hero Is Born, which tells the story of two middle-of-nowhere people, Bart (Garrett Neergaard) and Holly (Jenny Seastone Stern), who escape into the world of D&D and, later, bank robbery. Her play -- a mash-up of past and present, real and unreal -- is spun to an up-tempo beat by a DJ (Matthew-Lee Erlbach), the contemporary theater's version of a narrator, and Shana Gold's deft direction seems as fueled by love as the main characters do. But then their origin story ends, with a federal officer (Danny Wolohan) on their trail; Holly's mother, Gerri (Maggie Bofill), against them; and a mysterious Boy (Thomas Pecinka) potentially role-playing all of it . . . because New Georges hasn't produced a full play; instead, they're staging four hybrid workshop/excerpt premieres, which they call "germs."

It's a wild idea, but it feels more like an audition or a reality competition -- which of these will be American's Next Best Theatrical Experience? -- than a night of theater, less of what they've called The Germ Project and more The Germ Experiment. Why not mount all four plays in a small festival, as Clubbed Thumb does with their annual Summerworks series -- which also showcases daring, original works -- or have artists premiere their work in festivals designed for radical new material, like the Ice Factory, or the Incubator series? Yes, it's true that all four "germs" creatively use the same set (echoes abound throughout) and they probably save some money by double-casting the actors, but at the same time, that also means that each plays loses some of its exclusivity, its uniqueness, and moreover, its specificity. While there's still plenty of value in the project as a whole -- mainly in New Georges' unconventional commitment to staging these plays -- much of it goes unfulfilled.

Goldor $ Mythyka closes the evening, largely because its semi-episodic nature allows it to have a partial ending (one of those To Be Continued season finale sorts). But not so for Anna Ziegler's Evening All Afternoon, which focuses on an adrift Domanique (Bofill), who has come to America with Mickey (Juan Javier Cardenas) and their daughter, Luiza (Charise Castro Smith), but whose heart is still in the Dominican Republic, with her former lover, Ramon (Jorge Chachon). The man she's employed to care for, Mr. Esterman (Peter Levine), is lost in his own memories -- he once played basketball, he dreamed of being a poet -- and the play flutters gently between all the various defining moments in their lives, particular those of Luiza, who may be repeating her mother's "mistakes" by getting together with a poetic hoodlum, Fernando (Chachon). However, the kicker of poetry, according to Mr. E., is that "you have to focus on the beginning and end of the line . . . it's all about beginnings and endings," and due in part to Beatrice Terry's wonderfully calm direction, there is no ending to this germ.

The other two excerpts are more of a mixed bag. Kathryn Walat's This Is Not Antigone is insistent about something, but not its title -- while Anne (the terrific Anna Kull) may not be Antigone, her choice of tunic (albeit with an orange hunting vest over it), references to an oracle and the god Artemis, and initial disruption of a burial, suggest otherwise, and it's a mystery as to where the play is going, and why. Director Portia Krieger pulls out all the stops to distract us, working from Walat's hyperactive script, but even Anne's sister, Jackie (Jackie Chung), ends up interrupting her own dance-fueled monologue to bring the house lights up for a moment, reminding us that this isn't her story (and making us wonder whose it is). There are dramatic moments -- Anne's new guardian, Karl (Wolohan), getting into a drunken pissing contest with his son, Anne's boyfriend, Damon (Thomas Pecinka) -- but they don't go anywhere.

This aimlessness is even more visible in Kara Lee Corthron's drug-fueled Alicegraceanon, which attempts and fails to use its 60's setting as an excuse for this. Here, Corthon literally squeezes three plots into one space, running them in parallel (with occasional overlaps): Grace (Carolyn Baeumler) is the angry lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, who talks to a stuffed teddy bear that represents Jerry Garcia; Alice (Chung) is a young British girl from the 1860s who finds herself trapped in her pedophile friend Charles Dodgson's fantasy (you may know him better as Lewis Carroll); and Anonymous (an impressive Stern), a young runaway who keeps a diary of her many new drugged-out experiences. The characters have little in common, save for their sparks of rebellion, so when the excerpt ends with a reality-shattering earthquake that causes them to meet, it leads more to confusion than intrigue, and there's the sense that, as with The Germ Project's four plays, any single one of these narrative threads would have been stronger on its own.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Photo/Carl Skutsch
The moment we are born is the moment we start forgetting. It is our lot to walk through life unaware of what we've lost, or worse, as in the case of Stig (Paul Neibanck), who suffered brain damage and is now a wild, forever-fourteen-year-old adult, to remember our loss. In Kristin Newbom and W. David Hancock's engrossing memory play Our Lot, Stig, his two sisters Kathy (Joanna P. Adler) and Alice (Mariann Mayberry), have gathered to fumigate their childhood home and throw away the boxed and labeled memories hoarded by their late step-father-slash-uncle, Karl. As with many memory-driven plays, the homefront is steeped in a miasma of misplaced miseries, which is why the youngest, Kathy, is keeping up her steely all-business front, wanting nothing more than to be done with the past. On the other hand, the selfish middle child, Alice, who "escaped" the homestead, rubs salt in old wounds by dwelling on her more rose-tinted remembrances, as desperate to save her mother's old Instamatic camera as Kathy is motivated to destroy it. These two represent the future and the present, the superego and ego, while Stig, who has never grown up and cannot control his impulses, is the group's id and its past, the boy who neither condemns the mother for leaving (Kathy) or understands (Alice), but believes that she is just around the corner, living with a second family, ready to come home and collect him. Finally, there's Kathy's wheelchair-bound boyfriend, Toby (Nathan Hinton), who provides the audience with an outsider's neutrally "know-it-all" perspective.

This may seem too carefully structured, but Our Lot wisely takes a casual approach to its intellectual design: the play's philosophy comes madly scrawled on the inside of long-sealed plastic storage bins or as quotes from each bin's celebrity subject, from John Wayne to Lennin [sic]. Save for an ill-advisedly mystical ending (which only even bothers to wrap up one small part of this wide-open character study), the play alternates between the aggressive joshing of The Amoralists or Adam Rapp and the relaxed solipsism of Annie Baker, Adam Bock, and other hyperrealists. Instead of wrapping riddles in nutshells, Newbom and Hancock lovingly unwrap memories: a container labeled Jackie O. contains what's supposedly the black box from John-John's downed plane; instead, it's the family's long-lost copy of Back to the Future, which reminds Kathy of her divorce, and, in turn, this remembered rage summons an image of their mother's "Mister Misty" fits, which culminated in her throwing the kitchen table at her husband and abandoning them. Because Our Lot has such a strong central action -- the need to clean the house before the bank repossesses it and penalizes them -- it's able to go off on these thought tangents while maintaining its momentum. (Director May Adrales deserves some credit for this; the stage may be cluttered, but the action is always neat.)

As part of Clubbed Thumb's annual Summerworks series, Our Lot is a solid entry with a talented four-person cast, particularly Adler, whose measured tightness provides the show with much of its backbone and maturity. But as a part of the entire season, Our Lot's decidedly low-key approach and wide-netted structure may not be memorable enough to leave audiences with anything more than a warm impression, for while it's terrific moment to moment, those moments are, as we've learned, what we're constantly forgetting.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

THEATER: Any Night

Considering that the writers of Any Night are also its stars, the sleepy-eyed theatergoers who stagger out of the cavernous Laba Theater are bound to wonder if there's much of a line between the actors and their characters. Is Anna the sleepwalker who wakes up fondling knives, breathing ghost-movie-style into mirrors, and taking a medication that does nothing to keep her from stupid activities like driving or dancing while asleep -- or is it Medina Hahn, foolishly acting in her sleep? Is Patrick the intrusive upstairs neighbor/voyeur who wants to take her out on a date, or is that Daniel Arnold, hoping to exploit an embarrassing condition for financial and sexual gain? Massive plot holes aside, the fact that Hahn and Arnold are delusionally determined to tour this painfully flimsy show (and adapt it to the screen) makes them simultaneously perfect for these roles . . . and unwittingly awful in them. Here's a backhanded compliment: they're too earnest for the schlock they've written. They honestly seem to think that the mere use of Marilyn Manson's "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)" will deliver the suspenseful atmosphere they're aiming for.
At least the writers can chalk this up to a misguided passion project; what's the excuse of Ron Jenkins, who had previously decently directed Bash'd? Is it that he's so disgusted by the project that he does the bare minimum (so as to claim a paycheck), or is his spine currently on vacation? Evidence points both ways: he does nothing with Peter Porkorny's generic set (a bed bedecked by two giant curtains) and may even worsen it by failing to set out clear dimensions in which to have the action occur. And while David Fraser comes up with a neat single-strobe lighting effect in order to "blink" between reality and dream, Jenkins forgets to have this designer do anything else -- unless you think that Anna's basement apartment looks the same at daybreak as a Greek lip-synch parlor does at midnight. As for the actors themselves, Jenkins endorses their bad habits: Arnold keeps lapsing into his Canadian accent and Anna does far too much "interpretive" dance (which wouldn't be so noticeable if she were actually a good dancer); he does the same for Erin Macklem's costumes, which uncreatively and distractingly keep Anna in pajamas and keep putting Patrick in an evil-looking red hooded jacket.
In any case, and here there be spoilers, Any Night's most insurmountable problem remains its plotting. The play ambiguously opens in the future, the past, or a dream, as Anna lies bleeding in the arms of a stranger, whispering about how "One of you will die, and one of you will die inside," then immediately reveals it to be the future, for the play has now jumped to Anna's first encounter with Patrick, from whom she is renting an apartment. "Have I met you before?" she asks, strongly hinting at what the unshocking revelation that Patrick has met her sleepwalking self before, and long before Hahn and Arnold make the laughable choice to send her to a psychic (played, even more laughably, by Arnold), it becomes clear that Patrick is doomed. This, in turn, saps all the suspense from his diabolical schemes . . . schemes which, in fact, are just vouyeristic: he tapes and edits images of her "sleeping" and sells it on the Internet. (I'm going to take their word for this; I'd rather not dumb myself down any further by researching the sleep-porn industry.) If there's a twist -- and, as staged, that's debatable -- it's that it is Anna's "dream" personality who figures out Patrick's plan and that when Anna realizes "she" has killed him, it "kills her" inside, leading to her meaningless (but convenient) car crash, which all too neatly wraps around to where the play began . . . which is fitting, since Any Night never actually goes anywhere.
Unfortunately for the audience, the play is not merely a bad dream (though this unthrilling thriller may unwittingly put you to sleep): it's eighty minutes that you will never get back. In a world filled with far more entertainingly delusional people, this may be one of the rare cases where I can honestly recommend Charlie Sheen's Two and a Half Men as a better use of your time.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

THEATER: Ajax in Iraq

Photos/Isaiah Tanenbaum
Every year, there's a so-called exposé on the traumatic aftereffects of war, as if that grim fact were news. The truth is that as we shift from stones to clubs to spears to swords to cannons to muskets to machine guns to gas to bombs, we're only changing the type of destruction, not the results. The only difference between the stresses placed on Greek soldiers at the siege of Troy and those placed on American ones in Iraq is that the Greeks blamed insanity on the gods. In Ellen McLaughlin's Ajax in Iraq, Athena (Raushanah Simmons) gleefully brags to Odysseus (Mike Mihm) about the curse she's set against Ajax (a restrained Stephen Conrad Moore); when the script switches to its contemporary parallel, we're left to figure out what's reduced AJ (the excellent Christina Shipp) from a front-line hero, paving the way for her female peers, to a sleep-starved depressive: it's not until late in the play that we'll meet her abusive commander (Joshua Koopman), a man that we can all agree is crueler and closer than any "god" of war.

When focused on these not-so-distant echoes between wars, McLaughlin succeeds in showcasing the mental strain and suffering that all wars share in common. Unfortunately, as with many collaboratively written plays (the first draft was developed at the ART Institute in 2009), the concept is quickly overwritten and repeated. Instead of focusing on her characters and building out from their unique situations, she shifts into docutheater mode; six unnamed soldiers (Mihm, Chinaza Uche, Sol Crespo, Lori E. Parquet, Tiffany Clementi, and Koopman) go through a litany of familiar complaints about the Iraq War. Some of them are awkward ("It's this feeling of all of us, the Iraqis and the American soldiers, we're all being just hung out to dry"), while some of them aim for poetry: "What I can't get a handle on here is the time. It just doesn't go by. When you're being mortared, the seconds happen so slowly that they expand to where you can walk around in each one of them like it's a cathedral."

From a dramaturgic perspective, this is all interesting and perhaps necessary, given the lack of adult education and the steep divide between those in the military and those not; it may be useful to be hit over the head with how little America learned from the previous creation/occupation of Iraq, courtesy of Gertrude Bell (Anna Rahn) and a British captain (Matthew Archambault): "Military occupations go wrong, they just do. Even when they begin with the best of intentions." But it's not as effective as the less-direct, casual (and causal) scenes that focus on AJ's peers, particularly her best friend, Connie Mangus (Chudney Sykes). You can feel the tension when it's not being discussed, see it in the way that Mangus and her buddies play five-card stud with worn, sandy cards and bullets for chips. Ask yourself which is a more convincing argument against gender stereotypes: examples quoted in a professor's careful lecture or a sloppy group of soldiers sitting around in their fatigues, joking about their horrible childhood fashion senses (cowboy boots and a dashiki), laughingly throwing sexist jokes ("Gotta be a bitch, a whore, or a dyke") back at their male counterparts. 

Despite the erratic pacing and occasionally overwrought examples, Ajax in Iraq is potently directed by August Schulenburg, whose similarly styled The Lesser Seductions of History makes him particularly suited to this role. Likewise, Flux Theater's new emphasis on aesthetics -- which only really began with this year's productions (the cluttered attic of Jacob's House, the marvelous live-in cart of Dog Act) -- takes some of the emphasis off the script. Will Lowry's set effortlessly merges the two main eras of the play, with a bloody tent sandwiched by strong stone columns, some shattered, some standing. The floor is a map of the Middle East, in which sand has carefully been raked into a landmass, the Tigris and Euphrates furrowed through it, and this makes its arbitrary creation/destruction all the more blatant as actors stomp, crawl, and kick through it. Sandbags wave hauntingly from hooks in the ceiling, spare cots (and sleeping soldiers) line the visible backstage areas (Ajax, providing a peek behind the "facts" and the histories of war). It is timeless stuff: everything that has happened is happening again, and Schulenburg makes some marvelous pictures (using striking, jagged angles) when staging the overlapping scenes, such as when Tecmessa (Parquet), Ajax's wife, speaks alongside a therapist's patient (Clementi), both in fear of how the war has changed their husband. At the very least, scenes that feel out of place -- like a description of how NVGs (night vision goggles) make the soldiers feel like they're in a dream -- look good.

Facts and research have their place, and that's generally on a poster-board outside the theater or inserted in the program. (To Flux's and dramaturg Heidi Nelson's credit, they have both of these, too.) For McLaughlin, they keep getting in the way. The show's climactic Maori war dance climax is impressive, particularly as it stands in ironic contrast to Ajax's eruditely written rage, but these sequences are followed by what feels like a PSA: "I'm here to speak to you today on behalf of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans and the more than a million homeless veterans living in the USA today." AJ and Ajax aren't homeless (to the end they're pursued by their friends and family); they're depressed. The same goes for the overstuffed finale: instead of simply splitting the eulogy between Athena and Mangus, McLaughlin has two soldiers, Pisoni and Sickles, hastily debate the pros and cons of suicide. There's a great play in Ajax in Iraq, but as hard as Flux has tried, it's up to McLaughlin to chisel off the excess and polish it into the cautionary statue it longs to be.

Friday, June 03, 2011

THEATER: Standards of Decency 3: 300 Vaginas Before Breakfast

I'll bet you three hundred people click the link to this review before breakfast, whether they're looking for vaginas, breakfast, or both, the final choice being the pornographic Meal of Champions for John Mayer, whose words were the inspiration for this, the third year of Blue Coyote Theater Group's exploration of modern sex: Standards of Decency. Part of the cleverness of the title, beyond its Google-ratings (note, that's G-rated, not rated G), is that it speaks to the unspeakability of certain acts that, in the Internet age, are now ever more possible and (possibly) ever less satisfying.

The woman (Rachel Craw) of Jordan Seavey's futurist-titled "any one: seven or so touches in ten or so minutes" comes into contact with strangers all day -- be it her surprisingly straight hairstylist (David Sedgwick) or touchy female yoga instructor (Katie Hayes) -- but ends by blogging in her underwear, alone, about her desire to just be touched. In Adam Szymkowicz's "300," which directly riffs on Mayer's line, Minnie (Stephanie Willing) attempts to get her boyfriend Hal (Charlie Wilson) to talk about his sexual history by throwing a PowerPoint presentation of desensitizing vaginas at him, then tries to stay cool as he reveals an increasingly exotic past, from consensual bestiality to male-on-male group sex at the whims of his temporary slave-master or roadie-work for an all female ska band.

We can so easily get information -- and videos -- that it's literally changing the way we think about sex, or so a teacher (David Lapkin) learns when he finds himself defending a student that has written a book report based, erroneously, on the porn version of Wuthering Heights. (He gloms onto this after noting that one character is now named "Heathclit.") To the child's mother (Katherine Puma), whom he once awkwardly dated, he now finds himself trying to justify porn: "Sometmies you don't want 'challenging,' you don't want difficult or messy. You want a simple-non-reality that you can end or begin at whim." The name of this piece, naturally, is "Romance," and it's strongly written by one of the two female playwrights in the group, Jacqueline Christy. In a nifty and hilarious gender-reversed piece, Matthew Freeman presents "The Metaphor," in which a self-abusing masturbator, Rob (Matthew Trumbull), is the one trying to convince his female priest, Lori (a very comic Amanda Jones), that what he's doing is wrong. ("Jesus is a metaphor," she retorts, welcoming him to the 21st century; "God doesn't care about websites.")

Some pieces are less thoughtful than others: in "Camera Four," Cheri Magid takes the honorable role of the "serious" playwright in the group, and writes of a security guard, Osborn (Christopher Nunez), who catches one of his tenants, Ms. Langan (Lauren Balmer) engaging in some unhygienic outdoor activities. Sadly, the piece is filled with awkward pauses and a go-nowhere plot that only serve to emphasize the awkwardness of the moment. (Laughs were sorely needed.) The opposite goes for David Johnston's confusing "A Lesson," which favors ambiguity rather than explicitness, and features an out-of-control "vocal coach" (Jim Ireland). Stuck in the middle is David Foley's "Plato's Retreat," which creatively re-imagines Plato's famous cave as a basement with non-stop streaming porn flickering on the walls, but too tamely follows through, with a dry (and un-sexy) battle between truth-loving Sophia (Lauren Balmer) and artifice-obsessed Libida (Katie Hayes).

The strength of the evening, though, is in its openness to experiment. The two book-ending plays, "Bits" and "Date Night at Skintastic Dot Com" are polar opposites, but both get equal treatment. The first, by Bruce Goldstone, is an absurd, almost Beckettsian, number in which a computer's binary bits, bytes, and pixels hyperactively comment on their user's web browsing preferences. In under ten minutes, the four cells (Balmer, Willing, Wilson, and Alex Neher) go from enthusiastically crying "tit!" to questioning the gender politics behind Guatama Siddha's assignment of a circle to the concept of "zero." Meanwhile, Mac Rogers' "Date Night" is the most earnest and hopeful play of the evening, as Sam (Jeremy Plyburn) and Connie (Rebecca Comtois) vow to set aside their celebrity nip-slip e-business for one night, realizing that if they don't make time for their own relationship now -- if they live too much in the virtual fantasies -- they'll lose one another. Their plan? To have more-than-competent sex.  

300 Vaginas Before Breakfast doesn't always succeed at the more-than-competent part -- in fact, it's often sloppy, particularly when Gary Shrader directs (Kyle Ancowitz and Robert Buckwalter are notably smoother). But the Blue Coyote Theater Group finds enough truth to justify the more artificially stimulating entertainments; we can excuse the occasional moments of buffering.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Short-a-Day: Tessa Hadley's "Clever Girl"

Originally published in The New Yorker, June 6, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 7.

"I unbuttoned the skirt and stepped out of it, still staring at the book. Something had happened; I could see all of the elements of the problem differently now, as if they had arranged themselves naked under a bright light." A minute ago, the "sulky stepdaughter" Stella had been attempting to solve her physics homework, and Norbert had been attempting to help her. Though Nor doesn't particularly like Stella (he truly loves her "mum"), he recognizes, in the cool logic of the accountant, that the sooner she grows up, the more of her mother he'll have to himself. (This seems silly, considering that the mother's currently in the hospital, waiting out the high-blood-pressured final week of her pregnancy.) But that's not what this story's about: it's about building to this titular moment, the moment at which the girl, fed-up at being blamed for things she did not do, tired of this minor tyranny, decides to apply herself after all: to grow up.

And yet, I'll admit that there are long stretches in any Hadley story in which I'm not entirely sure what's going on, and I'm often too bored to attempt to suss it out. Here's the final paragraph:

At first this cleverness was like a sensation of divinity; then, after a while, it ate itself and I couldn't turn the mind-light off, couldn't stop thinking through everything, couldn't sleep. I saw Nor--and my mother and my school--as if they were tiny, in the remote distance. I believed that if I wanted to I could solve all the problems in the physics teacher's book. When eventualy sleep came, I seemed to hear the soughing of trees outside in the empty air. I understood all about those trees. I grasped what they were: how they existed and did not exist, how both contradictory realities were possible at once.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Short-a-Day: Kate Walbert's "M&M World"

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 30, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 30.

"The city erupts, oozes, overflows; everyone is outdoors, walking quickly or standing on the corner checking phones, dialling phones, speaking on phones." And there you have the rhyme and rhythm of Walbert's story -- quick, over-full sentences. Now, where's the reason? Showing the hustle and bustle of New York City isn't anything new, and gawking at the storefronts and people-seas, even from the perspective of Ginny's excitable children (Olivia and Maggie), isn't all that interesting.

The stylistic gist is that Ginny is swept away by the rapid-fire speed of the world, and Walbert spells it out literally, too: "But she is constantly out of time, losing track, forgetting. Sunday's Monday evening, then Wednesday disappears altogether. M&M World looms in the distance, the electronic billboard--'m&m's world'--as bright as a beacon." But Walbert's so insistent in her tone that she misses the opportunity to be a little inconsistent, that is, to show us the difference between Ginny's present pace and that of her calmer (and ironically actually at sea) past, when she traveled on a whale-watching trip through Patagonia. Instead, she winds up being inconsistent with the current character, to the extent that it's hard to define Ginny's actual priorities, particularly as the flashbacks attempt to turn this into a tale still haunted by the girls' father (who is absently noted as never more than "the girls' father").