Coping with stay-at-home: In praise of ‘Band’s Visit,’ Hanford actors get spooky, and my pandemic hair agrees to a sit-down interview
Welcome to the third volume of “The Quarantine Chronicles,” a compendium of items related to our extended relationship with the coronavirus. We’re no longer under shelter-in-place orders, but many of us are sticking very close to home these days, and months after we went into quarantine, the arts scene is still effectively stifled. With cases rising even as I type, I have a bad feeling we’re going to feel stuck for a long time to come.
So, to keep you informed (and possibly entertained), I get a little goofy, check in with a few of the wonderful artists in our midst, offer some news updates and provide entertainment tips for those who need some new digital diversions.
Jump to more ‘Chronicles’ below
Don’t miss the first two volumes of ‘The Chronicles’
AND: WE CAN BE THANKFUL FOR BROADWAY, CELLISTS, ART POSTCARDS, MEG CLARK AND FORGETTING THE MUTE BUTTON
As always, to start things off, I have a personal report to offer:
The longer it gets, the more tangled the plot
Over the past four months, I’ve become quite close to a certain someone. As this character grew in stature in my life, I contemplated whether I should attempt an interview. I finally gathered my courage. The answers were sometimes evasive and the subject occasionally wild and uncontrollable. But I persevered.
I therefore present to you an interview with my pandemic hair.
Donald: Look, I know you feel I’ve neglected you. But it’s been in the name of safety. First there was sheltering in place. That lasted forever. And then, when things started opening up and it was possible to make an appointment with Mikhaila (at Preen salon in Fresno), our stylist, I wanted to be extra careful. I kept waiting until the number of cases went way down. And then came this week, and, boom, numbers are rising. Second shutdown. No more hair cutting. I think I waited too long.
Donald’s hair: At first I was hurt, as if you’d abandoned me. I felt unkempt, even slovenly. But then I noticed how much company I had. I saw other hair freed from the tyrannical clockwork of pre-booked salon appointments. Impeccably groomed men started looking like 1980s college English professors. Your friend Jeremy’s hair is so long he could comb it forward and understudy Cousin It. Breaking free of the tyranny of expectations, society’s inner hippy got his breakout moment. I felt free.
Donald: Sounds like an exciting time.
Donald’s hair: Plus, something started happening with you. I’m sure you’ve noticed it.
Donald’s hair: Say it.
Donald: Don’t make me.
Donald’s hair: Say it.
Donald: The curls.
Donald’s hair: Yes, the curls. Aren’t they wild? They tumble and jangle from your hatline like the leaves of a spider plant. By the way, I love that jaunty little cap you’ve taken to wearing. You’re looking like the world’s oldest Newsie.
Donald: Or like I could audition for “Annie.”
Donald’s hair: I wouldn’t go that far. We aren’t talking about thick, luxurious, bouncy ringlets. I’m more on the frizzy, crumpled, just-came-inside-from-a-tropical-storm end of the spectrum. And I don’t think Annie had a bald spot.
Donald: See, this is exactly why I didn’t want to do this interview. Why’d you have to go there?
Donald’s hair: That’s life, my man. The good news is that while there is less of me on your scalp, there is much more of me overall thanks to your ever growing locks. Quantity, not quality!
Donald: This is the longest you’ve ever been, I think. And that’s counting when I was a freshman at San Lorenzo Valley High School and got the title role in “Oliver” in the fall and my director, the incomparable Ardeth DeVries, told me not to cut my hair until May.
Donald’s hair: That was a good call. Street urchins do not have hair above the ears. Come to think of it, your “Newsies” hat is reminding me a lot of your “Oliver” cap. Musical-theater coincidence?
Donald: There’s a two-”Newsies”-joke limit in this interview. Back then, I don’t recall quite this much, well, volume. What do you think?
Donald’s hair: That was so very long ago, in the pre-Stone Age era, when there wasn’t anything sharp around that could even cut hair, that it’s hard to remember. But I don’t recall quite this much volume, either.
Donald: Spare the age jokes. You’re the one who is firmly in the salt-and-pepper phase, after all. But I should expect restive behavior from you. I’ve cursed your cowlicks many times. And to think of all those desperate moments I spent plastering you down with water to present a semblance of ruliness to the world. But this amount of fly-away abandon seems unprecedented.
Donald’s hair: Look at your mom’s incredibly curly (and beautiful) hair. She obviously passed on some of some of her corkscrew genes. It just took a pandemic to realize it.
Donald: Do you think it looks OK? Be honest.
Donald’s hair (suddenly vague and distant): Um, sure. Yes, I think it looks just fine. (Coughs.) Rat’s nest.
Donald: What was that?
Donald’s hair: Yeah, it’s great. (Coughs.) Medusa.
Donald: I didn’t quite catch you …
Donald’s hair: It looks fine. (Coughs.) So much scarier than Jeremy’s.
Donald: Hey, let’s get one thing straight here. I call the shots. Sure, I might not be able to get you cut for a while longer. But I make one click on Amazon and hair clippers will be on the doorstep tomorrow.
Donald’s hair: You wouldn’t.
Donald: Yes, I would. I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I’m going to have to graduate from ball caps to fedoras. Or maybe a wimple.
Donald’s hair: I’ll make you a deal. No more curlicues. No more waking up looking like Jason Momoa without a shower. I’ll be good. I promise. No shear madness, please. We’re not ready for a buzz cut.
Donald: And for you, how about taking a look at that male-pattern hair loss thing and see what you can do about slowing it down, OK?
Donald’s hair: It’s a deal. But just so you know: If you even think about a man bun, I’m outta here. As in, literally fall out of your scalp. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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Quick picks: Hungarian lit, Russian empresses, searing docs and more
How am I spending my time at home? Consuming media, of course. Here are some of my picks.
Book I’m reading
‘The Door,” by Magda Szabo. This Hungarian novel landed on The New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of 2015” list even though it was published in 1987; the occasion was an acclaimed new translation into English. I am nearing the end of this stringent, delicate story of a prominent young Hungarian novelist (loosely based on Szabo) and an older woman who becomes her housekeeper, mother figure, crusty confidant and chief antagonist.
I’m in the closing chapters now, and sometimes I know I really love a book when I slow down because I don’t want it to end. Emerence, the old-woman housekeeper, is as complicated a character as you’ll find in fiction, and as Szabo tells the story of their relationship, the lucent, crystalline quality of the prose enfolds you in a tale that is about class, politics, shame and tenderness. I love Cynthia Zarin’s explanation in her New Yorker review: “To read the Hungarian writer Magda Szabó’s “The Door” is to feel turned inside out—as if our own foibles have been written in soap on the mirror, to be read when we wake up from the trance of our own self-importance.”
Show I’m streaming
“The Great,” streaming on Hulu. How could I pass up a period piece about the young Catherine the Great infused with au courant dialogue, farcical direction, a Romanov-meets-rave costume design and a throbbing, contemporary sensibility? I don’t much care that this 10-episode series plays fast and loose with the facts. (I didn’t slog through the 716-page Robert K. Massie biography for nothing, after all.) What matters is Tony McNamara’s witty and irreverent dialogue — he’s the guy who co-wrote the 2018 big-screen film hit “The Favourite” — and Elle Fanning (as Catherine) and Nicholas Hoult’s (as her spoiled husband, Peter II) connection on screen. Also, I adore Phoebe Fox as Catherine’s fed-up lady-in-waiting. If she has to clean her empress’s chamber pot, at least she can be put out about it. Watch the series for the fun of it, then look up one of those websites (“How accurate is ‘The Great’ in terms of history?”) to get the facts straight.
Movie I’m recommending
“3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets.” This powerful HBO documentary (available on demand on Amazon Prime) fills in the details about an awful incident almost everyone heard about, if only briefly: Jordan Russell Davis, a 17-year-old Black high school student in Jacksonville, Florida, was shot and killed in his car by a white man, Michael Dunn, for playing his music too loudly. Along with courtroom recaps and the expected interviews with Davis’ family and friends, the segments with Dunn in jailhouse phone conversations with his girlfriend are the most disturbing, giving us a glimpse of a man who ultimately feels justified in his actions. In doing so, the awfulness of Florida’s expansive stand-your-ground gun laws come into focus.
Technology I’m recommending
Aura digital frames. Sure, we’ve had the chance to put digital photos into frames for a long time now, and the quality of those images has become quite good. But the Aura’s great hook is in how easily you can send those images to someone else in seconds. Can you hold on a sec? I’m opening up the app on my phone, clicking “add photos,” selecting from my camera roll, and, boom, I just sent my mom the photo of my hair to her frame in her kitchen 150 miles away. Easy!
Singing lessons on Zoom? Debi Ruud and Gianna Riley have the vocal connection
It’s time for another installment of The Shelter Diaries, In which we check in with various Fresno-area arts folks (and former ones, too) and ask how they’re sheltering-and-placing.
For Debi Ruud, owner of Fresno Music Academy and Arts, the pandemic just keeps lingering. Lessons at the academy shifted to online Zoom sessions when the shelter-in-place restrictions went into effect in March. Months later, some businesses have been allowed to reopen, but performing arts schools haven’t benefitted. (It doesn’t help that the academy teaches such things as singing and blowing through instruments, both very good ways to spread the virus.)
But Zoom has turned out to work pretty well for individual instruction. “After a few months of trials, we’ve discovered that this method really works,” Ruud says. She invited me to sit in on a vocal lesson she was holding with star student Gianna Riley, a singer and actress who will be going into eighth grade at St. Anthony School. I caught up with Ruud, a noted local professional singer, to ask about her “shelter habits.” After that, we hear from Gianna.
What are the first three words Ruud thinks of when she hears the word quarantine?
This really sucks! Haha … How about …. Will this end?
I get up early, do my spiritual “stuff,” then usually sit at my desk and figure out what to do ….try to do some kind of exercise … Then I have to work. I do things for the shop, teach my students via Zoom, do my Zoom meetings with staff and Rotary and my choir on Wednesdays, and also family Zooms. I also usually still have a few errands to run. Then at 5 or 6 I start drinking. HAHAHA, just kidding. I have had a few gigs but not many.
Give a brief pitch for Fresno Music Academy & Arts. What role do you think it fills in the community?
I feel that FMAA fills a huge niche here in the Valley. There are SO many people, young and older, who love music and want to learn to sing or play an instrument, or get better at it. Our school reaches all genres of study. In terms of singing, we have teachers who can teach classical, musical theater, country, rock, pop, jazz, etc. All levels of talent come through the doors. Not everyone will become a “rock star,” so to speak, but we can help people have music as a part of their lives … to enrich their lives, even if they never become a professional.
Let’s say you welcome a hypothetical student who opens his mouth to sing, and out comes the most egregious, out-of-tune, worse-than-a-frog-croak blat of a note that you’ve ever heard. Can anyone be taught to sing? Or are there some lost causes out there?
Now there’s a question. Ya, there are people that will not ever really be able to sing very well. People that have trouble hearing pitch will struggle the most. In my experience though, these people are very few and far between. Now that being said, not every singer who can hear pitch will become a “solo quality” singer but, most singers can get better and can enjoy singing in a choir or going out and doing karaoke or even singing in the chorus of a show, say, at Roger Rocka’s.
What are you missing most during quarantine?
Seeing my grandmother, She is 101 years old. I have been having lunch with her every Thursday for the last 15 years, since my grandpa passed away. I did get to see her one time … and then we shut back down. She did figure out how to Zoom so we do try to do that, but it’s just not the same. I hate not getting to see her.
Fill in the blank: I would be most thrilled if ____________________ rang my doorbell, stood 6 feet away and said, “Happy quarantine, Debi!”
My Grandma and, well, let’s see … maybe James Taylor.
By the way: Fresno Music Academy and Arts is sponsoring a pandemic song contest. The theme is uplifting songs of hope. There are two categories: for songwriters 17 and younger; and those 18 and older. Songs should be a minimum of two minutes and a maximum of five minutes. (Keep the lyrics clean.) Winner of the adult category will receive $250, and the youth winner will receive $100.
Deadine is Aug. 26. Submit to firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions will be posted to the academy’s Facebook page as they are received. Writers will retain all rights to their songs, lyrics, and compositions.
For the Broadway-loving Amelia Ryan, A wonderful ‘Visit’
The listener: Amelia Ryan, veteran local actor whose performances over the years in such shows as “The Light in the Piazza,” “Cabaret” and “Mothers and Sons” remain indelible.
Cast album she’s hooked on right now: “The Band’s Visit,” music and lyrics by David Yazbek.
What the show is about: It’s based on an Israeli film from 2007, available for rent on Amazon. “A policeman’s orchestra from Egypt is in Israel to perform at an Arabic cultural center,” Ryan explains. “They accidently arrive in the wrong town and are stranded. There’s no bus out of town until the next day and no hotel – this is a desert town where nothing ever happens – so the local café owner recruits some neighbors to help her put the musicians up for the night. That’s it. The café owner, Dina, is an attractive, lonely divorcée with a brittle exterior but a soft spot for Egyptian culture. Although both Arabic and Hebrew are spoken in the show, it feels natural for the characters to communicate in English, a neutral language common to most of the Israelis and at least two of the Egyptian musicians: Tewfiq, the orchestra conductor, a quiet but appealing middle-aged widower; and Haled, a young trumpet player and ladies’ man.”
Have you been in the show? Or gotten to see it?
Ryan was fortunate enough to see the show on Broadway. “I didn’t get to see Tony Shalhoub as the conductor – he was taking a break to film ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ – but it didn’t really matter. It’s an ensemble piece, and the woman is the central character. Katrina Lenk was wonderful. She’s my girl-crush. I also got to see Ari’el Stachel, who originated the role of Haled. The show won ten Tony awards in all, including Best Musical and Best Score, as well as awards for Stachel, Lenk, and Shalhoub.”
Favorite songs: She loves the whole score, but her two favorites are “Omar Sharif” and “Haled’s Song About Love.” Ryan explains:
Dina sings “Omar Sharif” to Tewfiq, explaining how she and her mother loved watching old black-and-white Egyptian movies starring Omar Sharif – “he was cool to the marrow, the pharaoh of romance” — and listening to the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. (I looked her up and watched some YouTube videos from her TV show. She really was a remarkable singer.) In a way, it’s a song of seduction; this rather tough, independent woman shows her vulnerable side. Our taste in movies and music can reveal so much about who we are. Dina is letting Tewfiq know what makes her tick, what she finds desirable and moving — and that she appreciates Egyptian culture. It’s a truly beautiful song.
“Haled’s Song About Love” is also superficially about seduction. Haled is spending the evening tagging along – to a roller disco! – with the young Israeli boy Papi, who confesses that he gets too nervous around girls to talk to them. We know Haled is a pick-up artist right from the first scene in the show. At the airport, his response to seeing a young Israeli woman in uniform and holding a rifle is to tell her that she has “beautiful eyes.” That’s one of his standard pick-up lines, along with “Do you like Chet Baker?” His song is in a different genre from the already varied score; it’s a jazz ballad that he croons in the style of his hero. The song isn’t just about sex, though; it’s about love and finding a deep connection – two people losing themselves and melting into each other: “Your eyes, her eyes, and soon you’re looking in a mirror….” It’s a gorgeous melody and lyric and the jazziness provides a nice change of tone.
How this album makes her feel: Romantic and hopeful. She loves the way traditional Middle Eastern instruments – oud, riq, darbuka – are incorporated seamlessly into the magical score. On Broadway, there were world-class traditional musicians playing on stage along with the piano, winds, and more conventional Broadway instruments. “The music really carries you away and creates its own world. The show also has a compassionate and humanistic underpinning. These characters are all longing for connection. I’m reminded of a quote from Our Town: ‘Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.’ It also makes me think of ‘Howard’s End’: ‘Only connect!’ In ‘The Band’s Visit,’ music and love are the undercurrents that connect us.
My daughter Alice and I saw “The Band’s Visit” the same week that we saw “Come From Away,” which I also loved, and I was struck by certain similarities. Both plays are about hospitality and the importance of human connection, about compassion and community overcoming differences.
In addition, they both incorporate musical instruments that aren’t often heard on Broadway, and those instruments are played on stage. Some of the Middle-Eastern musicians in “The Band’s Visit” don’t have any dialogue, but they are on stage taking part in the action. In “Come From Away,” because the music of Newfoundland is strongly influenced by Irish music, the band is augmented by bodhrán, tin whistles, Irish wooden flute, and Irish bagpipe; the violinist is also an accomplished fiddler. Ben Power, a friend of my daughter’s, played flute, pipes, and whistles in the show, and he gave us a backstage tour. The musicians came on stage for the pub scene, but Power didn’t stay on stage for long because he had to get back to his battery of instruments in the wings.
I used to watch musicals with a special interest in roles that I might play, but there isn’t anything for me in either of these shows. To the extent that I still perform, there are more roles for me now in non-musical plays. I’ve aged out of most musical roles, though there are a few I’d still like to do. Now I just go to see musicals for the sheer pleasure of it. My Rogue Festival shows this year and last were mostly songs, though. I still have a lot to say about the songs I love, and in a cabaret-style act, I can sing songs I wouldn’t have a chance to perform any other way. Maybe one of these days I’ll sing a song from “The Band’s Visit,” just out of love for the song.
Get spooked with these innovative streamed episodes from Hanford’s Kings Players
As I’ve said before, one of the few positive side effects of the pandemic is how it brings out creativity in artists. The Kings Players theater company in Hanford isn’t able to stage any live performances this summer, of course. But director Hugh Munro Neely (what a fine name, by the way) thought of a different approach: a “Readers Theater” featuring the company’s actors performing a series of stories on video.
The result is “Spooky Stories to Keep You 6 Feet Apart,” eight classic short stories from the ghost/horror genre. The video productions, which run between eight and 15 minutes, debut weekly on Fridays. Two are already streaming on the Kings Players website: “The Open Window,” by Saki (aka Hector Hugh Munro — do you notice a theme here?); and “In the Dark,” by Ronal Kayser.
A total of 15 actors are participating in the series. Most appear in more than one story. The average size of the cast is about six.
Debuting this Friday, July 24, is Edgar Allen Poe’s classic “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
I was curious and impressed by the idea. Neely, who adapted the stories and directed, filmed, and edited the productions. answered a few questions for me:
What is the running time of the stories?
The stories run from 8 to 20 minutes in length. Our first one is 8 minutes…most of the others run between 15 and 20 minutes.
Are these like radio plays, or is there video involved?
Yes, there is video. As wonderful as audio books and radio plays can be, an actor’s performance is also revealed in his or her face. These stories are produced as “Readers’ Theater,” meaning that each part is read by an actor to the camera. Actors are not in costume, but are shot in an appropriately atmospheric setting. Mostly these performances are purely verbal, and only a very few sound effects or musical underscoring are used in some of the stories.
Each actor, whether character or narrator, reads her or his part to the camera. In some cases we use multiple narrators. The convention we are using works like this: third person narrative is read by one or more narrators; any dialogue in quotes in the original story is read by an actor performing that part; first person narrative is read by a single actor. If you’ll take a look at our Episode No. 1 you’ll see quickly how this convention works in practice.
Why did you decide to do spooky stories?
My original plan was to do classic stories set in California. However, because I wanted our first foray into this sort of presentation to be as inexpensive as possible (and as thus far Kings Players has chosen not to try to monetize the series either with a paywall or advertisements) I was seeking stories which are in the public domain. Finally, to keep the maximum length to 20 minutes or so, I felt we needed to limit ourselves to stories of no more than 3,000 words. Although it is probably possible to do this, I had trouble finding enough good stories that met those criteria … particularly stories that were that brief.
After consideration, I realized that by the time the entire series was complete we would be getting close to Halloween, and besides, with the works of Poe, Bierce, Jacobs and others, there would surely be enough short short stories that fit my needs in the ghost/horror genre. If this series is successful, we may well expand into other genres in the future.
I watched the first two episodes (which are available for streaming) and am impressed with the format and how quickly I got hooked on each storyline.
I’ve listened to plenty of radio-style dramas and always found the style highly effective in drawing the listener/viewer into the story. I love using my own imagination to fill in the blanks I can’t “see.” And, frankly, I was a bit leery of what the Kings Players format had in store for me: static shots of actors reading their lines. How would it compare to a regular radio drama?
But I was impressed how much those faces add to the experience. One smart thing Neely has done is broken up the delivery by assigning lines of dialogue and narration to different performers. (The average cast size is six.) The cuts come quickly. I found myself taking a half-and-half approach to the experience — half the time I’d watch the actors intently, locking eyes with them, and the other half I’d look away or close my eyes, letting my imagination do its work as the storyline progressed. It turns out I could watch the actors and imagine the story unfolding at the same time. (Brains are pretty cool in that way.)
The video looks great, too.
My one big distraction was the movement of the actors’ eyes as they read the teleprompter. I kept telling myself that I can’t expect them to memorize the script, especially doing one of these episodes a week, but it did have the effect of taking me out of the moment at times.
Overall, though, I think it’s a great concept. I think Neely is really onto something here.
Here’s the rest of the performance schedule:
July 24: “The Tell-Tale Heart” (by Edgar Allen Poe)
July 31: “The Monkey’s Paw” (by W. W. Jacobs)
Aug. 7: “My Favorite Murder” (by Ambrose Bierce)
Aug. 14: “The Ninth Skeleton” (by Clark Ashton Smith
Aug. 21: “The Cold Embrace” (by Mary Elizabeth Braddon)
Aug. 28: “The Masque of the Red Death” (by Edgar Allen Poe)
One more thing: Performances are free, but the company could use your financial help. In their words:
The Kings Players has been severely impacted by closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the theater has suspended live operations during this time, the Kings Players is facing a loss of income and financial uncertainty in the days and weeks ahead. As a result, the Kings Players is humbly requesting donations. The Kings Players is a non-profit 501 (c) . All donations are tax deductible. Thank you for your consideration and support!