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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 13, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Christmas, Chocolate, and Bernarda Alba

When I was young, my parents had a strict rule: No Christmas decorations or Christmas songs until Thanksgiving.

This was easier to do than you might imagine, because in the 1950s, the commercial Christmas sales season began the day after Thanksgiving. Some decorations crept into view earlier and earlier each year, but most people decried the trend.

But as soon as I was living on my own, I defiantly made my own rules. I no longer ate vegetables unless I felt like it (which was almost never); I did not make my bed (what's the point? I'm just going to get back in it that night); and I began singing Christmas songs, buying and wrapping Christmas presents, and putting up Christmas decorations as soon as I felt like it.

And when did I feel like it? The first chilly day in fall.

In Utah, where I lived at the time, those chilly days began in mid-September, and therefore so did my Christmas season. By the time the stores took notice of the holidays, I had already listened to all my Christmas music twice through and most of my Christmas shopping was done.

You didn't hear me complaining about how early the commercial Christmas season began. I gloried in the fact that most American retail stores depended for their annual profitability on our extravagant spending at Christmastime, and I lived and shopped as if the entire American economy depended on my gift-giving.

So yes, it's October 13th, and to many people it might seem a bit early to be talking about Christmas shopping -- but there's at least one store in Greensboro that lags only slightly behind my inclinations.

Caryl's Christmas Shop -- which during the rest of the year is Caryl's Pool and Spa -- is located across Lawndale from the Target shopping complex, (2616 Lawndale, between Liberty and Independence -- those are cross-streets, not attributes of the store).

Caryl's is not only doing a brisk business already in Christmas decorations, they also have the best stuff I've seen at any Christmas store.

Not that I won't still shop at Smith's Fine Living (in the same complex as Harris-Teeter at Elm and Pisgah Church), where the Mark Roberts Fairies and many other decorations make it a Christmas delight.

But Caryl's is all about Christmas decorations during the few months each year that it exists; and within the category of dedicated Christmas stores, Caryl's is simply the best. Or I should say, if you want decorations that are in good taste, often subtle, sometimes even beautiful, this is the place.

My wife is not as insane about Christmas as I am, but she does indulge me by coming along with me, if only to suggest that perhaps we don't need to buy enough decorations each year to completely replace all the decorations from last year.

So on Tuesday I stopped pretending to work and we went and made some very modest purchases as a compromise between my wife's self-control and my utter lack of it. My favorite items: squirrels.

I know, squirrels are missing from most nativity scenes. But since my bird-feeding has inevitably included squirrel-feeding as well, we have become quite attached to our bushy-tailed tree-rats, and so we have a little artificial squirrel family indoors as well as out.

At the end of our shopping venture, however, a very strange thing happened. Instead of turning north on Lawndale to go home, the car turned left. This was quite disturbing. We did not know it was capable of self-direction.

But like a horse that decides it's time to head for the stables, or for water, regardless of the opinion of the rider, my little Ford 500 headed a few blocks south on Lawndale until it turned toward a parking lot and brought us to a stop directly in front of Loco for Coco, Greensboro's finest chocolatier.

What a wise and well-trained car. Like any good modern appliance, it knows its owner and takes good care of me.

Obediently we went inside and loaded up on dark chocolate non-pareils, half-dipped mints, Belgian chocolate fudge, and various truffles and toffee barks.

I showed self-control by not buying a cashew turtle to eat on the way home.

I'm a sucker for point-of-sale displays, and so I noticed a container of Bissinger's Pear Balsamic Salt Caramels. I love pears. I love balsamic vinegar. I have acquired a taste for salted caramels. But balsamic salt with pears, caramels, and dark chocolate?

I'm so daring. I came home with a little tub of five of them, and ... oh, Nelly! They're better than I hoped.

This information will do you no good, however. I went back the next day and bought their remaining stock to give as gifts. And, as long as I was there, I also got the cashew turtle I had bravely skipped the day before.

After all, I had exercised for 45 minutes that very morning. Surely I deserved a reward -- especially one that would completely undo the weight-loss potential of that much exercise.

We're planning to host a wedding later in the fall, by the way, and a few weeks ago we sent the bride and groom to Loco for Coco to choose truffle flavors to put into little two-truffle candy boxes to give away as favors to the guests.

It happens that the bride is determined not to be a do-it-my-way-or-die bridezilla. However, this meant that when she walked into Loco for Coco, and they asked her what color ribbons she wanted the tiny engraved truffle boxes to be tied up with, she had no idea -- she and the groom had not even thought about colors.

Well, they had thought this far: For years she had told her younger sister that she intended to have a sea-foam-green wedding dress. Naturally, when she got engaged, the sister assumed that longtime plan would be fulfilled. But when it was mentioned, the bride-to-be shuddered and said, "That's an absolutely terrible idea!" Which shows one of the side-benefits of the modern trend toward not getting married until one has reached an age of reasonable maturity.

At a previous wedding, we had ordered, online, M&Ms engraved with the names of the bride and groom, in the colors of their wedding, and they were a hit. We also over-ordered a bit -- they didn't finish eating their way through the leftovers until their first anniversary.

The individual truffle boxes, engraved with the names of the bride and groom and the date of the wedding, are comparable in cost, at three bucks a box (you can spend more if you're determined to); I say they're comparable because you know how many guests you'll have and so you don't have to over-order in order to be sure to have enough.

Caryl's Christmas Shop and Loco for Coco. Two local one-of-a-kind stores that you won't find in every shopping mall in America. It's a joy to shop at local businesses when they offer such high quality and good selection as these do.

*

For years I've been touting the excellent high school plays put on at Weaver Academy for the Performing Arts. I've been aware of Weaver Academy's drama program for many years, because my older daughter went there during the part-time-only days; then, when it became a dedicated performing-arts school, my niece attended there, until just before my younger daughter won admission.

Weaver Academy has an astonishing record of graduating 100 percent of their students. Though, as my daughter realistically pointed out, if your grade point average falls below a certain level, they boot you out and send you back to your regular high school, so it's hardly a surprise that Weaver's student body has very high grades, on average.

Still, it's important that these students, however dedicated they might be to their art, are required to do well at their regular high school subjects, with AP and honors classes available in a full array of subjects.

What about the quality of the plays? After all, North Carolina has a dedicated boarding School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, drawing the cream of the entire state. What's left for a mere county performing arts school?

Some very talented students, and -- after a long period of rather up-and-down quality -- a superb faculty, consisting of program director Keith Taylor and teacher Lindsey Clinton-Kraack. Both are excellent directors, truly dedicated to their students.

Just to show you how much progress we've made: When my niece played Juliet in my production of Romeo & Juliet, the Weaver drama teacher at that time couldn't be bothered to come and watch her outstanding performance on any of the three nights it was performed.

By contrast, not only did Mr. Taylor and Ms. Clinton-Kraack come to our recent production of The Taming of the Shrew, Mr. Taylor even played a small but crucial comic role in the last act!

But where they shine is in their work on their own stage. And nowhere is this better exemplified than in the production that is opening tonight at 7:00 p.m. at Weaver Academy. (The show continues on Friday and Saturday, October 14-15, at 7 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $8.00 for adults and $6.00 for students. Weaver is at 300 S. Spring Street; go around and park behind the building.)

The play is one that I bet you've never heard of, or at least never seen: The House of Bernarda Alba, by Federico Garcia Lorca.

Lorca finished writing the play in June of 1936, two months before he was murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. It was not performed until 1945.

The cast, which is entirely women, consists of Bernarda Alba, a 60-year-old widow whose second husband was just buried; her five daughters, all unmarried; two servants; Bernarda's senile mother; and a few neighbor women.

The action takes place inside the titular house, where Bernarda rules with an iron hand, insisting that by keeping rigid control of her daughters' lives, she can maintain the purity of her Christian and upper-class family.

There are men in their lives, most notably Pepe el Romano, who becomes engaged to the 39-year-old eldest daughter, Angustias. Not coincidentally, Angustias has far more money to bring into a marriage than any of her sisters, because she was not only the sole heir of Bernarda's first husband, but also received a much larger share of her stepfather's estate upon his recent death.

The trouble is that while Pepe intends to marry for money, his heart is bestowed elsewhere. Bernarda is sure that nothing evil can touch her house, but during the play she learns that purity and power cannot be maintained forever against the will of the people she rules over.

It's a powerful play, but several things make this production extraordinarily good.

First, there's the austere yet powerful set designed by Keith Taylor. The stage is nearly bare, with a backdrop that displays the horizontal lines of light that might come through blinds or shutters. A painting on the floor suggests the tilework of Mediterranean architecture, and then there's the absolutely brilliant touch of the chairs.

Taylor has created a group of chairs with extremely high backs that, against the backdrop, make them look like columns or stelae or the megaliths of stonehenge. Drawing the eye upward toward high beams suggesting a Spanish ceiling, these chairs give the room a cathedral-like appearance.

Then, in a dining-table scene, shown in the accompanying picture, the table descends from above, held by wires, again emphasizing the airy, vertical nature of the space. It's the kind of abstract-yet-realistic set that I love to work on as a director; I have never seen a better, more apt design.

Within this soaring space, Clinton-Kraack has created an astonishing blend of utter realism and highly theatrical abstraction. The women are dressed in the heavy black of Spanish women in mourning, except when, in the last act, they wear the ghostly white of their shoulder-to-ankle nightgowns.

Yet despite the realism, the action can be eerily abstract. When Bernarda strikes one of her daughters, all of them fall. As they chant their grief, each daughter in turn utters an almost inaudible scream, with pantomime that is like an excruciatingly restrained dance.

In forty-five years in theatre, I have seen only a handful of productions, anywhere -- including London, New York, and Los Angeles -- as brilliantly conceived as this one.

But it's still high school theatre, right? That means semi-trained actors who mumble and can't be understood, and who think acting takes place in the pauses between the lines, making for a ponderous pace. Right?

Wrong. This is not your typical high school cast. Oh, now and then there'll be a line you don't hear, but not often; and while one actress is an act-in-the-pauses amateur, most have followed the lead of the actress playing the title role, and the play moves forward with astonishing speed and clarity.

The whole thing takes barely an hour and a half. And when Bernarda Alba is speaking, you hear and understand every biting, savage word.

This is not a high school performance. The only problem is that, as I describe Bernarda Alba's acting, I run into a quandary: The part is played by my youngest daughter, Zina Card.

For three years, Zina has played roles ranging from semi-major, minor, and on down to chorus member; she has been a trouper of the best kind, doing every kind of job that needed doing.

During those years, I've been reviewing Weaver plays and have almost never mentioned her, while praising the best of the student actors.

Now she is playing a leading role, and she is magnificent. I say this without bias. As a director myself, I am ruthless in my evaluations of actors, whether they're my kin or not; I take each actor as far as he or she can go, and help them do as good a job as they are capable of.

But there are limitations, and I don't pretend there are not. Even in a rave review, my praise is measured: I say nothing but what is true.

Fortunately, if anyone should think that I praise Zina Card's performance because I see her through the eyes of fond fatherhood, I can offer this reality check: Go and see for yourself.

Zina Card, as Bernarda Alba, has embraced Clinton-Kraack's concept for the play completely and made it come to magnificent life. It is required that she be utterly austere -- the epitome of rigid authority, only breaking down, briefly, at a couple of moments of supreme suffering.

The austerity of the character is portrayed with both body and voice. Her posture is so powerfully erect, chin high, yet fluidly natural in movement, that she's like a tornado moving across the stage -- everything else is changed by her passing. (You can get a hint of this in the picture I took during a dress rehearsal, with a deeply crummy cellphone camera. Faces are smudgy, but the posture and placement of the actresses is clear.)

And her voice has both power and liquidity: Every line reading pierces to the clear meaning of the words, and yet also conveys all the hidden terror and rage of a woman whose life has been utterly contained and confined, and who has determined to make a virtue of survival under such circumstances.

This is not a high school performance. I would be speaking the same praise had I seen this play on a college campus, or in a professional company in New York, Los Angeles, or London. I make no allowances, in the case of Bernarda Alba, for the performer's age; I don't need to.

Whether the rest of the cast has simply absorbed Zina Card's whip-cracking articulation or the director worked with them on diction, most of them have risen as near as they can to her level of clarity and her quick cues.

Yet it remains obvious -- and serves the purposes of the play -- that the energy level onstage picks up in both speed and intensity whenever Bernarda Alba is there.

The play is bleak. In many ways it is tied to its era -- Lorca is commenting on the relations between the ancient rule of authority in Spain and the restiveness of the people forced to live under its grinding power. But in this production it also speaks to our time.

Whether or not you agree with me that this production transcends its high school setting, this much is certain: You have never seen and will probably never see a better-designed, better-directed, and better-acted high school production in this city.

And in case you think I worked with my daughter and am therefore praising myself indirectly, think again: Except when I'm actually the director of a play they're in, my children ruthlessly exclude me from their creative process, precisely because they do not want to depend on me, but prefer to see what they can do on their own.

I caught my first glimpse of this play during the dress rehearsal. I offered no suggestions to anybody, least of all my daughter. Even though she did a superb job in the title role of Taming of the Shrew under my direction a year ago, I had no idea she was capable of this.

As for the rest of the cast, they are well-directed, and those I have seen before give the best performances of their high school careers; all of them are excellent and well worth seeing.

As for the lamb that appears in the old grandmother's arms midway through the play, it comes from our living room.

The poor propmaster, a young student, was told he needed to come up with a lamb for the play; not understanding, he thought a live lamb was needed, and he came to the director to report, nervously, that spring is lambing season and so he could not find any lambs this fall.

Only then did anyone think to tell him that what was needed was a PETA-friendly lamb. And we happened already to have one. I taught it everything it knows.


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