A Year of Sunsets: 3/30/15

Okay so maybe this project has not been going the way I planned – it’s been weeks since my last sunset post. No real reason for the lack: overcast days, travel, the musical craziness, etc. March is always a really busy month.

  

But how can you worry about sunset pictures when your 8-month-old niece is the cutest thing ever and you just want to visit her every chance you get?!

Theater Review: Into the Woods

You wouldn’t think that an eleven person ensemble could manage to upstage an extravagant Disney-produced film with Meryl Streep in it, but the impossible has been done. The Fiasco/Roundabout Theater production of Into the Woods was everything the movie wasn’t: silly, bare bones, and not a single famous name in the cast.

And it was amazing.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually liked the movie, as evidenced by my review of it a few months ago. For a movie version of my beloved Into the Woods, they did a pretty good job. However, after having seen a full production again, it was made glaringly obvious what the movie was missing, and what it really needed.

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If I had to sum up the show in one word, it would be charming. I was charmed the whole time by everything I was seeing in front of me. There is no curtain, so when you walk into the theater you immediately see the set, the centerpiece of which is a piano. The sides of the stage walls are also industrial-looking piano tops, and the border facing the audience (do these things have technical names?) is broken down piano keys (if you’ve ever looked inside the piano and see what the keys look like, that’s what you should be picturing right now). The back wall of the stage has a series of intersecting ropes, which are also reminiscent of the inner workings of a piano. Mismatched chandeliers hung from the rafters as well as from the seating area of the theater. In addition to the piano, the stage had some seating, a dressform and a number of tables, all of which would be moved and used in various creative ways throughout the show. This ramshackle feel worked well and gave the sense that the actors were all playing in an old attic.

The actors come out on stage before the show begins, giving it an informal feel, as though they are inviting the audience in. This also gave me a chance to observe the costumes, and based on what they were wearing I was able to pinpoint, for the most part, who was which character. I was also excited to be sitting close enough to really see the details in the costumes. Each actor had a base outfit, somewhat resembling Victorian undergarments which they added to as the show went on to represent different characters. This added to the feel of the old attic – it read (brilliantly) as a bunch of children playing an elaborate game of dress up in the attic. Other details which added to this: the wolf was a stuffed wolf head on a plaque, the horses were hobby horses, and Milky White the cow was played by a person wearing a cowbell.

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It sounds kind of crazy, right? Yet it all worked so well. I wanted to play in that attic so badly, and be a part of the story that they were telling.

What made the production so brilliant was the cast. They each played multiple parts (with the exception of the Baker, Baker’s Wife and the Witch, who all merge with the other stories to much to make this plausible). They all knew their various roles so well, and were able to bring subtle differences in their mannerisms so that there was no point in which you didn’t know who was who. The same two men play both the princes and Cinderella’s stepsisters (you knew they were the princes because of their jackets and cockiness, and then the stepsisters because they held a curtain rod with two frilly curtains in front of them, and acted effeminate). Cinderella’s prince also played the Wolf (as is tradition, because it is supposed to represent two sides of his personality), and whilst doing so he held the aforementioned stuffed wolf head. It was all so delightfully creative, and imagination at it’s best. The characters were pretending, and they were acting the audience to do so as well. And while some may not enjoy this style, I find it witty and smart. It’s the idea that you can make theater – or games – out of practically nothing at all. (Though I am well aware that these sets and costumes and whatnot were strategically placed and purchased for specific purposes; but the idea that you can have fun with what’s around you was what struck me.)

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Being a big Into the Woods aficionado, there were parts of it that I was curious to see before going in. For example, how does the Witch transform? What do they do about the Giant in Act II? I’m sure these are all things that directors have to consider when putting on a production of the show – those familiar with it are expecting those moments and are likely as curious as I am to see how they are done.

The Witch first appears in a knit hat, a crocheted afghan and a gold mask. Her “ugliness” comes through her body language – hunched over, carrying herself a little more heavily. When she transforms, she takes on the look of a character from Cabaret; she is no longer in the long white nightgown but in a short black one, hair down and all over the place. Of course, with this minimal production, she doesn’t have the crazy transformation with smoke that one might expect. It’s a little more subtle – she disappears and then reappears in her new outfit. And her new outfit is so vastly different from the rest of the cast’s white clothes that she stands out, which is the purpose of the transformation. The giant was a little more simple, done with a megaphone and shadows. Again, it was this minimal quality that made the show so amazing.

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As mentioned earlier, the costumes were lovely. I think they rank among some of my favorites of anything I’ve seen. Each character wore a slightly different version of a similar outfit. All of them seemed to play on the Victorian era. Red Ridinghood, representing a child, had a shorter, eyelet dress with an ombre red affect happening at the bottom. Cinderella alternated between a regular long nightgown with a shawl and putting a gold skirt over it when she attends the ball. The Baker’s Wife had a blouse and gown, which she put an apron and shawl over. The men wore basic pants and shirts, with jackets that were interchangeable depending on which character they were portraying at the time. The details on the costumes were beautiful: eyelet trims, swiss dot fabric, little ruffles and whatnot.

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I have seen many productions of Into the Woods: the original Broadway, the revival with Vanessa Williams (which was TERRIBLE aside from the Baker’s Wife, by the way), a high school production, the Shakespeare in the Park version a few summers ago, the movie, and now the Fiasco version. By far, the Fiasco takes the number two spot (for number one will always belong to the original, which was not only my first Into the Woods experience but also my first Broadway experience), though I must say that is a VERY, VERY close second… it might even be a tie.

The show is only open through April 12, so if you want to see it, you need to act fast. There’s a very good chance I might see it again, just to experience the charm of it all again, and to spend a little more time in that attic.

Book Review: The Dress Shop of Dreams, by Menna van Praag

I started writing this book review as soon as I hit the third page of this novel by Menna van Pragg. It was the title that struck my interest initially, but the writing style, the language and the fact that this book was essentially about the power of dresses all captured me instantly. Case in point, in this quote from the very first page:

But when a different kind of shopper discovers the shop, they find that opening its little blue door is the very best decision they’ve ever made.  These are the women who aren’t really looking for the perfect cocktail dress, the jeans that’ll lengthen their legs or the skirt that will slim their silhouette.  No, these women are looking for so much more than that; they are looking for a lost piece of themselves.

As soon as I read that, I knew I had found a new favorite book (I have too many to have just one favorite, so instead I just have a group of favorites). And yes, many of those favorites involve stories about a dress shop – believe it or not, I’ve read at least three books that revolve around a magical dress shop. Realistic? Maybe not. But enjoyable, yes.

There are likely to be spoilers ahead, so please proceed with caution, though I will attempt not to give away major plot points.

Of course, the story is not simply about the dress shop, though it almost acts as a character and certainly has a lot to do with the fate of the main characters. The main plot of the story revolves around Cora, a young woman who lost both of her parents in an accident, and remains somewhat oblivious to those around her. She is repressing memories of them and is holding back any and all emotions – she is basically numb inside. It is her grandmother, Etta, who own the dress shop and works the magic into her dresses. It is Etta who takes it upon herself to change Cora’s life, and open her up to emotions – fear, anger and, of course, love.

As Cora’s feelings come back, so do her memories of her parents’ death and she comes to learn that it was not the accident she always thought it was. She suspects that there is more to the story, and is determined to figure it out. During her lifetime, she has been trying to salvage her parents’ scientific research and to “change the world” and it is into this project that she has poured all her time and emotionless energy.

While Cora and Etta are at the center of the story, their tale is rounded out by a group of minor characters whose lives all intertwine in one way or another. There’s Walt, the man who has been in love with Cora since they were children and who works at the bookshop he owns and reads books on the radio in the evenings; Milly, a widow who falls in love with Walt through a series of love letters and who Walt uses to try to get over Cora; Dylan, Walt’s boss at the radio station; Sebastian, a priest and former lover of Etta’s; and Henry, a police officer who agrees to reopen the case of Cora’s parents death, even though it has long been ruled an accident.

I have to admit that there was not a single thing in this book that I didn’t see coming from a mile away, but I enjoyed the writing style and getting to know the characters (however annoying and/or frustrating some of them might have been) so it didn’t matter to me. When it comes to various stories and whatnot, knowing how they’re going to go or having read similar stories before doesn’t matter to me so much as a writing style that catches and holds my attention. As I always say, because I’m so busy all the time, a book has to really draw me in and if it doesn’t, I just don’t have time for it. And I’m finding more and more that these simple stories with easy to figure out plot points are my preference right now. My brain uses reading as a means of escape, and therefore I don’t require Pulitzer Prize winning material. I just want to get lost in a story, not have to backtrack to remember what happened in the previous chapter.

Though it was clear throughout the story who the various characters would eventually end up with by the end, it was still fun to see how the author chose to get there. And even though any good reader knows that the two characters involved in the main love story will eventually figure it all out and get together, you can’t help but get delightfully frustrated at the obstacles along the way and wonder how these people could be so stupid!

One of the other major plot points of the story involved Etta’s sewing magic – by sewing a small red star into her clothing, she can make her customers go after what they need, whether it be love or courage or something else. It’s this magical element that I really enjoy about the story – that one little touch that makes the book a little bit of a fantasy (without all the magical creatures and worlds, although I do enjoy those as well) as opposed to completely realistic. I like to believe that this magic somehow exists in the world, even if you have to make it happen yourself.

A Year of Sunsets: 3/7/15

After another couple days of snow, I’m really hoping that’s it for this winter, at least snow-wise.  Next week it seems to be getting warmer.  Busy two weeks coming up, including my birthday and the play.  But for right now, I need to figure out why my kitchen sink is leaking – a very uninteresting story not really worth going into!

SO Tired…

I’ve overextended myself again this year.  After months of swearing this year would be different, that I’d work less and spend more time on me, I have found myself in a period of constant work.  The play is coming up soon, and it’s a big job this year.  Granted, it’s a fun job but the time crunch to get everything done by showtime is stressful.  The real problem is that I decided to also teach afterschool test-prep which, aside from eating up my costuming time is also mindnumbingly boring.  And because it’s so boring, I think about the show a lot and what I could be doing with those hours that I’m not using for making costumes. 

On top of that, the weather’s been terrible and it’s preventing me from going to kickboxing class.  Have I mentioned I go to kickboxing now?  It’s pretty awesome and great for stress, but snow and ice and sleet have kept me from actually getting there.  Tomorrow promises to be almost warm – a whole 45 degrees! – so I should be able to muster the energy to make it.  I hope so – I don’t want this money to go waste!

But it’s only for three more weeks.  I can survive that, and my birthday’s coming up which promises a whole weekend of fun!  The exhaustion will all be worth it, I think!