Land of Ashes

[Written Friday morning 8/17]

It’s cool this morning in Ashland – 70 dry degrees under the shade of the old ponderosa pines whose roots reach deep into the cheerfully burbling Lithia Creek. I’ve loved Lithia Park, and it’s eponymous creek, since I was a girl in the first flush of my coming of age (perhaps 15?), and thought the college boys here were very grown indeed. I fell head over heels in love in 1992 with the romantic lead of “As You Like It” (the ever dreamy Ted Deasy), and have returned often enough to watch him begin taking the elder’s parts, as I have begun paying for my own tickets. (It’s a sorrow to me that he is not here this season!)

Ashland has lived up to it’s name in this week, with the sun blood red at noon with the smoke from a hundred encircling fires. As the air thickens, the theater goers are shifted from the grand outdoor Elizabethan theater to the surprisingly nice for a high school Ashland high school theater. But you cannot watch the stars rise above the flags for comedy, tragedy and history from the high school. Walking down uncommonly empty streets, faces are obscured by masks. It’s been nearly a month of unhealthy air here, and the stitch-ladies have begun turning their handicraft to N95 masks. I see more and more of them that appear attractive, artistic… permanent. Even the bright waters of Lithia seems murky with ash and fire-trace.

We saw no plays here

But while the very air we breathe may be turning against us, the actual art of Ashland is as superb as I have ever seen. I’m extraordinarily fortunate in finding a mate who likes theater as much as I do (I swear I don’t drag him – I proposed we go backpacking). So in the four days we are here, we will be seeing seven plays. We’re through five of them on this cool Friday morning, and my belief in the importance of art to show what it is you would rather not see has been swollen, like my heart.

Sense & Sensibility
I’ve never been a great lover of the Austin era romances. I’ve read a few of them, and enjoyed them, but never with the passionate ferver others express. My favorite version of Sense and Sensibility was actually a sci-fi sendup when the unsuitability of the young ladies had to do with their telekenetic and other powers. But this play was masterfully frenetic. It was almost tiring to watch the energy and enthusiasms of the young ladies and young men and gossips – the still patience of that eldest Miss Dashwood stood in most abrupt counterpoint to the chaos around her. It was a costume drama and a continual joy to the eyes. And at the end, when all the wheel of fortune ends it’s turning for the afternoon, there were tears standing in our eyes.

Book of Will
This was our first shift from the grand Elizabethan theater to the tiled halls of Ashland High, but as soon as the actor took the long trumpet in hand to herald the coming play, I was drawn completely in. This may be one of the most loving plays I have ever seen – showing long and happy marriages. It was a story of how it came to be that we still have the words of the Bard, against all odds and habit of the era. It was a good reminder of how much we owe to our forebears for their preservation of what is good and lovely. It was also very much a story of loss, and of the meaning of life. Will himself was years dead at the time of the telling, and the King’s Men (who knew his words) were also dying. The characters wrestled with questions of living now versus creating legacy, of what is owed to the honored dead, and of how to claim the very value of our days, especially when those days grow scarcer. It’s hard to say, but this might be my favorite of the plays.

Snow in Midsummer
There’s nothing quite like a good ghost story, and this one was very fine. It was a very modern retelling of an ancient Chinese story. What would happen if the honorable dead had the ability to demand justice from those who have killed them, and those who benefited from that killing? It was a very keen play, cutting to the heart of expectations, first impressions, and questions of justice versus love. It also spoke to the great modern themes of the changing climate of the world, the inequality of resources and justice, and the Chinese practice of harvesting organs from executed criminals. This is the sort of story that stays with you, and haunts your quiet thoughts.

Love’s Labors Lost
After dining with a long-lost college friend, we once again negotiated the process of getting and claiming our tickets for the Elizabethan in the high school instead. It was easier once we remembered we had a car. I’m very fond of Shakespeare’s comedies. Love’s Labors Lost seemed to echo the last two plays, with it’s sudden turn towards sorrow which questions the meaning and worth of all the drollery that makes the early acts such a frolic. In this one, I particularly noticed the costumes, going from white innocent frills throught the red of charming, lustful deceipts to the black of full mourning. The play is both a laugh at and a lamentation for youth. How very very young and innocent those kings and princesses are in the beginning. How sorrowful it is to see such folly vanish as it’s brought of age – and yet how hopeful at the same time.

Thursday was our light day, with only one play (and that one only 90 minutes long!). But it was a remarkable 90 minutes. Our culture is full of the trope of cowboys and indians, the winning of the west, the conquering of savagery by civilization. But from the eyes of the conquered, killed and often-displaced the story looks very different. This play was a heart-piercing dual story of the theft of the homes and lives of the Lenape people to claim the island of Manahatta for the Dutch. The wall for which Wall Street was named was built to keep them from their own homes. The second layer of the story, seamlessly interwoven, tells the tale of a Lenape woman with the highest credentials returning to Wall Street as part of the derivatives group in Lehman brothers. We watch again, in eerie echoes, as home foreclosures chase out native folks from their homes as inexorably as did colonists a few centuries before. It was devastating. It is also strange to see presented as historic remembrance things that I easily remember as they were happening. I was no child in 2008, and I remember how it felt to wonder just how far the normal order of the world would slip (as I do now).

Before each performance, for the first time ever, the company has remembered that these theaters sit on grounds once belonging to the Shasta and Takelma people. I understood better why a company that has memorized the lines from this remarkable production would be conscience-bound to confess this.

The Way the Mountains Moved
Not every play can be the best you’ve ever seen, although the OSF sure tries. This one was well acted and well executed but perhaps overly ambitious. In telling too many stories, it failed to tell any enough. It threw together the wild mix of manifest destiny Utah with Mormons, escaped slaves, 19th century naturalists, Mexican war veterans, Native Americans and pioneers. I had high hopes, but this one was not my favorite.

Henry V
This is my favorite Shakespeare play, and this was a masterful performance. I’ve never seen a Henry so vulnerable and human. His night-before fire visits, when he talks about how the King is also just a man, really resonated with the sound of truth. It made his Crispin Crispian speech all the better, when you know that he’s fighting his own feelings, doubts and fears in order to make such a bold stand. I wish I’d gotten to see the full cycle of Hal plays with this lead actor – he was superb!

Taken all together, my heart, mind & conscience have been moved by my time here. We’ve been debating the role of art for a few hundred years now (if not longer). I find as most precious this kind of art – that makes me see things I cannot myself see from where I stand. It teaches me something of what I do not know. I have never found another place that does such art as well (or even nearly as well) as Ashland does it. I wish you could all be here, and watch these plays with me, and be moved.

What the Grownups Were Doing

So I’ve been giving you the Camp Gramp updates for the last week or so. Obviously, Adam and I were not with our children. So what were we doing? A quick litany, for my remembrance and your enlightenment.

Wellspring's new Sanctuary
Wellspring’s new Sanctuary

Friday night: Fly in. Very tired. Zzzzzz.

Saturday: Go to Seattle for family picnic and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. The family picnic was lovely. I got to see all my uncles & aunts on that side, if few of my cousins. The playground location meant that that kids had fun too. This was the first time my kids had gone to G&S. They were beautifully behaved, but a not-insignificant reason for that was because they were, well, asleep. Hard to fight the time zones, late hour, exercise and dark theater, I guess!

Sunday: Church (where I got to be the pianist) was followed by a quick lunch. Then Adam and I went up to Paradise on Mt. Rainier. It was snowy and crowded up there, but we had a nice hike. We came down and then went to Wellspring. It is such a glorious place she has built there for weddings. We hiked through her lovely grounds, got massages and sat in the hot tub with the best view ever.

Monday: We drove down to Ashland. We took the direct route instead of the ocean route, which made the 8 hour trip seem short by comparison.

Tuesday: We saw As You Like It. This is one of my favorite comedies, as beautifully executed as only Ashland can do it. (This was the play that initiated my celebrity crush on Ted Deasy back in 1997.)

Wednesday: We skipped our traditional three hour breakfast to go White Water River Rafting on the Upper Klamath. It was AWESOME. We saw tons of ospreys, quite a few bald eagles, and some adorable otters. The whitewater was fantastic. Seriously, those rapids are something else. It was awesome. However, we were TIRED when we got back that night, and we still had a play.

That night we saw Henry V, which I had just seen in London at that Globe theater. These were very different productions. That Henry had been downright funny, playing up the comedic aspects to the hilt. Ashland’s Henry V walked away from the humor and the funny lines, dwelling on the martial themes with absolute seriousness. As usual, I was ready to sign up on the dotted line after the Crispin Crispian days speech.

Thursday: We took our regular 3 hour breakfast. (I’ve been reading through Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga). That night we saw The Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, which was a rewritten version of Shakespeare’s. They held on to the blank verse and the plot, but the marriages in question were gay marriages and the jokes very topical. It was VERY FUNNY. (And hey! It had Ted Deasy!)

Friday: Our last day out. Only a two hour breakfast. Before we left, though, one more play. We, through luck and good fortune, were at the world premiere performance of All the Way. The audience was packed with actors and dignitaries – the theater sold out. It was absolutely amazing. Our favorite play last year had been a Ghost Light… this was our favorite play this year. It went through Lyndon B. Johnson’s passing of the Civil Right’s Act and reelection. If that sounds dry, it wasn’t. It was very entertaining, and extremely educational (for those of us who did not live through it). There were big laughs, and times of tears. It was fascinating to hear how the arguments have changed in the last fifty years… and how they have not changed one whit. Some of the same arguments being made around civil rights you can still hear being made today. It was amazing. I highly recommend you go see it.

And now we’re back in Mineral, surrounded by young people who are related to us and getting ready to fly back to Boston tonight.

It was a great week!!!!

A New England maid up to London has strayed

Imagine a scene:

A woman in a London flat. The flat is near the center of the city – between Moorgate and the Barbican. The flat is a nice one – it has a private porch, two bedrooms, a vast number of switches (including some she can’t find), a very large tv with cable and a well-stocked kitchen. She arrived early in the morning. She was met by a colleague who showed her the key attributes of the apartment, took her grocery shopping for perishables, showed her where she should present herself Monday and after assuring himself she was well established – bid her have a great weekend.

Yeah, it seems pretty unreal to me too, but here I am on a very European leather settee watching Germany vs Portugal on the BBC. There are even tea lights people. Tea lights.

The number one reason my husband wishes he were with me
The number one reason my husband wishes he were with me

A few months ago, my vp announced that he wanted to strengthen the ties between the UK office and the Boston office and called for volunteers for an exchange program. I wasted little time putting my name into the ring. Then I blinked, and all of a sudden it was time for me to go. I hastily shoved some clothing into a bag, verified that my passport was up to date, worked a full day Friday and flew out. That seems like a million years ago now, but in truth I haven’t slept since then.

I figured that as long as I had a free room (corporate apartment), and the company was paying for my airfare, it made sense to go a little early and grab a weekend in London. By myself. Doing stuff I want to do. (The hard part being, of course, winnowing it down to the the handful of things I would like to do well instead of the million things I could be doing.) So today I landed in Heathrow at 6:30 am local time… 1:30 in the morning according to my body. I’d grabbed a catnap on the plane, so didn’t feel too awful. However, when I went to get some cash out, I got re-jected!!! So I used my credit card at one of those currency places to get cash instead (it took forever – the guy was a trainee and had his manager standing over his shoulder and talking him through ever button click) and proceeded into Paddington station. Fast forward through a very lost cabbie (I thought they were supposed to take a really hard test? But then again, I suppose London has changed a lot since the Blitz, which is clearly when this guy started driving.) Then there was the aforementioned being-shown-around. I had just said farewell to my guide (who has spent the previous night in our flat) and went to Starbucks to buy some caffeine to keep me going.

“Hmm.” I thought. “Where’s my Visa?” Oh dear. I had left it on the counter at the currency place. Now, I have three credit cards: a Visa I use for everything, my debit card, and an American Express I have mostly for shopping at Costco. Well, my Visa was back in Heathrow and my debit card was being blocked. And you know those adds about, “But they don’t take American Express”? They were talking about London. I got back to the flat and attempted to reach my bank, someone. It took me 20 minutes to figure out why Google talk and Skype weren’t working (see also: hadn’t slept). When I finally could call out, everything was closed. At home it was 6 am on a Saturday. (Because of course my cell phone doesn’t work at all in the UK.) I finally managed to figure out how to call the currency place and verify that they do have my credit card, and they have put it aside for me. But now I have this, uh, creative tension. In some places, I have money. If they take Amex, I’m golden. I have money on my Starbucks card, which works here. And if I actually got in any sort of bind, I could call one of my UK colleagues and they would rescue me. On Monday the bank should unfreeze my account. But for tomorrow, unless its Amex or Starbucks, I have 20 pounds to my name (and a nicely stocked kitchen). Creative tension.

So what did I do with my day in London? Well, to my everlasting delight Shakespeare’s Globe takes American Express (for ticketing only, not for the gift shop). It was 11:30 by the time I was ready to leave the apartment and there was a 2 pm matinee of King Henry V – my favorite of the histories. I walked about a mile and a half across the Millennium bridge to the theater, walked up to the box office and asked if they had any tickets left. Sadly, the only tickets they had were the best in the house! So I ended up getting a front row, top balcony seat. With an hour and a half to to spend until it was time to be seated and the Tate Museum next door, I decided to check it out. My neighbor, a graphic designer, had abjured me in the strongest language to go see it. So I did. I decided to focus on one gallery instead of walking quickly through all of them, and found myself in a surrealist exhibit of dreamscapes. I liked some, didn’t like others, thought some were fascinating and others more about the artist statement than the art. But it was fun. I rarely go to art museums, and I enjoyed the experience.

My illicit picture of a cornettist
My illicit picture of a cornettist

Then – bliss! There was a renaissance wind band playing in prep for the show! Haut instruments! Cornetto and sackbutt, as well as recorders and lute. Huzzah! I got one illicit picture before being notified “no photography”. Then the play. This was the opening performance, I believe. There were a few moments when that became clear – one or two lines less expertly delivered than others. But it was a find production. The limitations of the Elizabethan in daytime are interesting. Many of the tricks of modern theater were unavailable. They did use some of the tricks of ancient theater, with smoke bombs for cannons. The only other note I had was how unbelievably distracting the helicopters that hover over the Thames like locusts are. One nice thing about Ashland is the town quiets down for the theater. The same cannot be asked of London.

I took the long way back, although fatigue was catching up to me after two and a half hours of Shakespeare. (Crispin Crispian day! If only you didn’t fall in the middle of October I would celebrate it as one of my fake holidays!) I walked the Thames down to London Bridge and crossed over there, stopping at the lovely Liverpool Station for Cornish Pasties for dinner.

Snapped on my walk home using my phone, which is currently only a camera and Bejeweled device
Snapped on my walk home using my phone, which is currently only a camera and Bejeweled device

And now, to bring things full circle, I’m watching Portugal vs. Germany and telling you about what I’m doing! I’m pretty sure this would be a better blog post if I had slept more than 3 hours in the last 30 or so, but I figure bad is better than none at all.