Thursday, September 30, 2010

Culture with a Side of Tie Dye

Standing outside last night, waiting for my ride, I admired my blue and purple tie-dye socks. They look great with my sturdy Mary Janes (thick soles, padded toes) because so much of the socks show. A vision drifted through my mind’s eye, a vision of black Merrell pumps with a little heel, actual grown-up lady shoes. Not slut-on-a-stick shoes, to be sure, but grown up all the same, Merrell pumps with a little heel that I had found for 75 percent off at Dillard’s one fine July day.

Where are those shoes?

Not that my tie-dye socks would go all that well, but I could use shoes here like that from time to time. I gave away a lot of shoes before I moved, but surely I wouldn’t have parted  with Merrell pumps that had cost so little. Later, when I got home, I found the shoes in a box high in the closet. Once I had determined that I needed sturdy shoes, shoes with a strap, shoes that would get me on and off buses and trains, I must have stashed the Merrells up high.

I sit on buses and trains, making my way around San Francisco, and I look at shoes. Young women wear flip-flops and flirty sandals and grown-up lady shoes and stylish boots and yes, even slut-on-a-stick shoes. On the buses and the trains. Women my age wear sturdy shoes. I’m fine with that. But now, especially if I get a ride and lots of walking is not required, I can wear my Merrell pumps with the little heel. Maybe I’ll even pair them with some tie-dye socks. No one here cares what you wear – you are free to be yourself. Love that!

In truth, shoes have not been much on my mind this week. No – this is Theater Week for me, a culture spree. Tuesday night I saw “Compulsion” at the Berkeley Rep with Mandy Patinkin. On its way to Broadway, the show is based on the life of Meyer Levin, the man who helped get “The Diary of Anne Frank” published and who had a gentlemen’s agreement with her father, Otto Frank, to write Anne’s story for the stage. The agreement went sour, Levin grew bitter and lived much of the rest of his life in a litigious rage. Powerful stuff.

The cast -- three people, two of whom play several roles, was terrific, and it was great to see Patinkin in this meaty role, displaying so much emotional range. I am a fan. I’ve seen several of his concerts, the one-man shows and also a wonderful concert with Patti LuPone. I even met him once. Steven Woolf took me to a concert at Edison, and to the reception afterward. Steven said to Patinkin, “I’m Steve Woolf. I knew you at Juilliard.” Patinkin nodded in recognition and they spoke a moment. I was next. “Hi, I said. “Steve Woolf knew you at Juilliard and I know Steve. I am delighted to meet you!” Patinkin laughed.   

Last night I attended a performance by Word for Word, a performing arts company founded in 1993. The company stages works of fiction, old and new, with simple sets and full costumes, using the author’s words. All of them. If the line in the story reads, “Laura laughed merrily,” the actor laughs and adds, “Laura laughed merrily.” It not only works, it reveals depth in the text that a reader may miss.

Last night’s show was two stories from Elizabeth Strout’s book “Olive Kitteridge,” a series of stories about people’s lives in a small town in Maine. The buzz on the book has been great – it won a Pulitzer Prize – and I’ve been meaning to read it. The Word for Word actors brought the people to life beautifully, poignantly, acerbically. As they drew me into the action, I also found myself captivated by Strout’s writing, writing full of emotional honesty and wisdom. Kindle, here I come! I must read this book.

Tonight at A.C.T., I will see “Scapin,” Bill Irwin’s riff on Moliere’s play. In October 1992, I reviewed Irwin’s show at Edison Theatre for the Post-Dispatch: “After watching Bill Irwin perform, you walk out of the theater acutely aware of your knees and your feet and your elbows and your mouth. Irwin has great flexibility in all those spots, and your own body starts to mimic what you've just seen on stage,” I wrote. “Suddenly your mind snaps the rest of you back under control. You pout a minute, and then decide to go home and play with cooked spaghetti - something else you've just seen on stage.''  I’m looking forward to the show.  

I’m also looking forward to “Howl,” the new movie about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity trial in 1957 that resulted after Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” I’ve been enamored with the beat poets since college, and now I live where it all happened – must see this movie! (Bonus: St. Louisan Jon Hamm is in it.) In my book “Eating St. Louis: The Gateway City’s Unique Food Culture,” Jack Parker, longtime owner of O’Connell’s, tells a great story about Allen Ginsberg. If you missed it, here it is:

One cold night in February, deep in the mid-1960s, business was slow at O’Connell’s Irish Pub, then at 454 North Boyle Avenue in Gaslight Square. A total of twelve people had dropped in over a four-hour period. Then the door opened and in came Russell Durgin, a professor of English and drama at Country Day School.

He brought a friend—Allen Ginsberg.

Ginsberg (1926–1997), should you be unaware—and you shouldn’t—was a man of many facets, among them an iconoclastic poet and activist. The Allen Ginsberg Trust defines him this way: “Spiritual seeker, founding member of a major literary movement, champion of human and civil rights, photographer and songwriter, political gadfly, teacher and co-founder of a poetics school.”

“Durgin had befriended Ginsberg in New York a few years earlier,” recalls Jack Parker, longtime owner of O’Connell’s and now proprietor of Jack Parker’s Fine Art and Antiques, located above the tavern. “This was when the Bohemians were fading out in the Village, when City Lights Bookstore was big in San Francisco, when people were talking about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—all that was going on,” says Parker.

“Ginsberg talked for a while about the old days in the Village. Then he sat down in front of the fireplace—we had a great fireplace—and took off his shoes. He sat in a lotus position, and he got out little bells, finger cymbals. And then—Allen Ginsberg recited from Howl.” (The famous first line goes: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .”)

Parker pauses, remembering. He smiles. “It was a wonderful evening.”

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