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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 13, 2012

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


See's, Homeland, cards, tags, Macbeth

It started in 1973. Only two months returned from my LDS mission to Brazil, I was dating the girl who had played the lead in a production of Brigadoon that I directed the moment I got back.

With no money and no driver's license, my ability to come up with either gifts or dates was highly limited. So I hit upon the idea of giving her twelve ridiculously cheap gifts, one each day culminating with the twelfth gift on Christmas day.

It included things like eight bananas on the eighth day, and at the end I came up with a eleven baskets inside a big hamper-sized basket, making a total of twelve.

Even when the gifts are slight, the anticipation magnifies them. Let's just say that she noticed my romantic campaign. And even though it took four more years before she married me, I haven't missed the twelve days of Christmas in forty years.

Today, as this issue comes out, I begin that fortieth year. Nowadays I conclude the twelve days on the 24th, so they're finished before Christmas day; that's why I begin on the 13th.

I'm not sure if I'm telling you this because it was such a fantastically romantic idea, which you should emulate, or to warn you to avoid starting something like this because, if things work out well, it never ends.

You have no idea how hard it is to come up with twelve gifts a year, with as many of them as possible having the same number as the day, and without ever repeating a gift.

It helps, though, that I have a very cooperative audience: She wants to like the gifts. It's rather like watching your six-year-old dance. You're just happy that they're doing it at all; you're not very critical about the quality of the performance.

*

Maybe you've noticed that there's a See's Candy store in Friendly Center.

See's is a western chain -- they're all over California and Utah, but this is the first time they've appeared east of the Mississippi.

This is because See's is thinking of opening a candy-making factory in Tennessee, along with a bunch of eastern stores. So this Christmas, they've opened a bunch of temporary Christmas-season stores, where you can buy a limited selection of predetermined packages.

Caramels, candy bars, and lollipops are almost decorative compared with the real attraction: one-pound boxes of caramels, nuts and chews, and other standbys.

For me, the main attraction are the milk bordeaux. Covered with chocolate decors, these are See's signature candies. Of course the chocolate coating is perfect; the centers, however, are what make them so popular. Essentially, they're a "creamy brown sugar," which doesn't really begin to describe them.

If you've never tasted See's, then it's worth stopping by and picking up a box or two. (If you want to sample the bordeaux without buying a whole pound, they do have individual bordeau candy bars.)

But we're also taking part in something rather like a contest. If See's decides to go ahead with that Tennessee candy factory, they will open stores in the towns where these temporary Christmas stores do the most business.

That means that the more our Greensboro store sells, the better our chance of getting a permanent See's store here.

I don't think of See's as competition for our local jewel, Loco for Coco. After all, I've been ordering See's online during the entire time that Loco for Coco has existed. Their offerings are different, and they can coexist quite nicely, I believe.

But if we have our own See's store, we'll be able to go in and pick up just a couple of chocolates as an impulse buy, a treat, an experiment.

Think of it as your duty as a citizen of Guilford County to help bring See's here. It'll benefit a lot more people than, say, a baseball stadium or a performing arts center, and it won't cost us a dime of tax money.

It may, however, cause some of us to have to buy larger clothing. But that's a matter of private self-control.

*

My wife started watching Homeland on Showtime before I did. She sampled it when it was offered on a regular network, and so she wasn't aware, as she became involved with the show, just how much nudity and profanity it had.

That's because it was all cut out for the special promotional broadcast. Thus they proved that all that nudity was completely unnecessary and was there only for pornographic purposes.

Except that it's not even interesting as pornography. Just a dead spot where naked people bore each other and us as we wait for the story to resume. I always feel sorry for actors forced to set aside their art and offer themselves like slaves in a marketplace, with their bodies open for the inspection of strangers.

But such are the times we live in. The cast of this television series is brilliant -- some of our favorite actors:

Claire Danes, who began with My So-Called Life and performed brilliantly in Temple Grandin and Me and Orson Welles.

Damien Lewis, who movingly played the lead in Band of Brothers and The Forsyte Saga.

Morena Baccarin, who was unforgettable as the courtesan Inara Serra in Firefly and Serenity, and is always radiant in guest spots on TV series.

Mandy Patinkin, who has two acting modes: brilliant and ham. In this series, he's entirely brilliant -- restrained, realistic, magnificent.

And even as we move down the cast list, we find actors who are completely worthy to share the screen with these notables.

What makes the story work, however, is the writing. This is like a more realistic, more paranoid, deeper, personal version of 24. Damien Lewis plays Nicholas Brody, a U.S. soldier who was presumed dead during his eight years as a prisoner of a terrorist mastermind.

He was discovered and rescued during a raid on a terrorist stronghold, and now has returned to his family. But troubled (and marginally insane) CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) has reason to believe that he is a double agent -- that he was "turned" during his captivity.

We quickly come to know that truly terrible things were done to Brody by his captors, and that he himself was driven to do unbearable acts that wake him up at night. He is capable of terrible violence and he is an angry, lonely, frightened, bitter man.

But is he actually working for the enemy? Or are the "signs" of his being a spy for or agent of the bad guys merely Mathison's paranoia turning one man's pain into a vast conspiracy?

We are only a few episodes into the series, but, unbelievably enough, the shows actually get better, though the early episodes are so good that it's hard to believe that "better" is even possible.

What makes this better than most spy stories is the human relationships. Mandy Patinkin, playing Claire Daines's friend and boss, is morally complicated as he can't decide whether to back her up or shut her down. She is every bit as questionable as Brody.

And Morena Baccarin, playing Brody's wife, Jessica, is tormented by the fact that in his absence, she fell in love with his best friend -- who is now assigned to try to keep Brody as a sort of public mascot for the military. It means that she is constantly thrown together with her lover even as she tries to rebuild some kind of relationship with this tortured stranger who used to be, and thinks he still is, her husband.

All very complicated and fascinating. Add to this some extraordinarily good child actors as their children, and writers who know how to spin the story so it feels real rather than contrived, and we've got an hour at a time of television at its best.

Plus completely stupid passages of nudity that serve the function of really bad commercials, interrupting and distracting from the show. I wish the Naked Networks like HBO and Showtime would trust in quality and stop with the lowest-common-denominator time-wasting naked bits that are an insult to the artists and their audience.

*

For many years, after Hallmark stopped trying, we bought our Christmas cards from the Museum of Modern Art online store, which offered cut-paper cards of great ingenuity.

But there's a limit to how many cool things you can do with cut paper. And this year we discovered a way to create even more unusual and personal Christmas cards.

FineArtAmerica.com is a website that offers some of the best of contemporary illustrators and photographers -- and a lot of rather awful amateur stuff.

Fortunately, it's pretty easy to sift out the good stuff and blow away the chaff. And, best of all, FineArtAmerica.com allows you to buy much of the art in the form of greeting cards.

That is, they'll put very high-quality prints of the art you choose on the outside of a card. Then you can either leave the inside blank or put in your own message.

One of our favorite artists, Greg Olsen -- a more-realistic successor to Normal Rockwell -- has some wonderful family- and child-centered pieces at FineArtAmerica.com, and we ordered many of his pieces as Christmas cards this year.

We also sent out Jane Austen's Birthday cards -- and found appropriate photographs and art to go with those cards.

The prices are reasonable, considering the high quality FineArtAmerica.com delivers. I've seen prices as high as $10.95 for a single card, packs of ten cards at $7.95 each, and packs of 25 at $6.50 a card.

But Greg Olsen's lovely painting of Christ, called "Walk with Me," can be bought ten for $2.95 each and 25 for $2.50 each.

And FineArtAmerica.com also does a very good job with their art prints, on paper, canvas, and metal, framed and unframed.

*

Speaking of customized art, LuggagePros.com offers "MyFly Tag" personalized luggage tags. You have to have the art you want to use already on your computer. It can be a photograph or any other image.

You decide whether it goes on the luggage tag in landscape or portrait mode, and you can add a bit of text on the face, as well as your full address information on the back. There are several typefaces and a number of background and text colors available.

The result can be a set of completely unique luggage tags; or, if you want, a whole bunch of tags with a corporate logo on the face. If you order one, the cost is $6.95, but as soon as you order two, the cost drops to $4.95, with even more per-unit savings at higher quantities.

Check it out at http://www.luggagepros.com/myflytag .

*

Supposedly there's a superstition among theatre people, requiring that no one actually say the title of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Instead, they must call it "The Scottish Play."

I've been in theatre all my life and have never met anyone who actually believes in this superstition. We say Macbeth all the time. It's only an affectation to call it "The Scottish Play." You start doing it in order to pretend that you have connections among British acting professionals.

It's true that Macbeth is a violent play, and also it's macabre. There are ghosts and witches, madness and murders and atrocities. Women and children are murdered.

But there's just as much violence and as many atrocities in King Lear, and there's a ghost in Hamlet, and madness abounds in Shakespeare.

So it must be the witches. It must be the widespread belief that witches are Satan worshipers. Maybe the superstition arose because there was a feeling that saying Macbeth invited Satan.

But that sounds like a crock to me. If there's a group of people in the English-speaking world who don't believe in witches, it's theatre people.

I think it isn't a superstition at all -- or at least not a theatrical superstition. I think theatre people decided not to speak the title of Macbeth during a time when outsiders who believed in witchcraft were outraged at the presence of witches on stage during Macbeth.

I mean, if the depiction of witches in Harry Potter could get a bunch of fundamentalists all exercised about witchcraft in our time, how angry might similar religious groups have gotten about Macbeth two or three hundred years ago?

Avoiding the title was a matter of self-preservation. You just don't want those people to know that you might ever have appeared on stage with a witch. So you refer to "The Scottish Play" and they have no idea you're talking about that evil satanic play Macbeth.

So as I talk about Weaver Center's production of Macbeth, let's keep a few things straight. There are no actual witches on the stage. And the pretend witches are not sympathetically portrayed.

In fact, their supposed prophecies are actually incitements; they provoke Macbeth and his wife to commit vile crimes in order to fulfil them. (They also have nothing to do with the very modern reinvention of "witches" in the form of a nature religion.)

Set aside the superstitions, and what do you have? The story of a man who is intrigued by a supposed prophecy that he will rise from his current barony to the royal throne. His ambitious wife helps him to murder the current monarch and take his place. But others rebel against their usurpation and eventually they are ousted and killed.

In other words, politics as usual. Hitler. Napoleon. Many of the later Roman emperors. A good number of the Ptolemies. Absalom. It happens over and over in history.

Macbeth is thus one of those timeless stories that remains powerful because, despite the fantasy elements, it is truthful about human nature, politics, and war.

Still, Macbeth is a very difficult choice for a high school theatre program. First, there's the obvious problem with almost all Shakespeare plays. In Shakespeare's era, all the actors were male. The female parts were played by apprentice boy actors whose voices had not yet changed.

Obviously, some of these apprentices were powerful performers -- that's why Shakespeare could write brilliant parts like Lady Macbeth, Juliet, Katherine Minola, and Portia. (Some women's parts were played by adult males. The nurse in Romeo and Juliet, for instance, was certainly played by the clown; it would be surprising if Goneril and Regan were not played by adult men.)

Most female parts, though, are less demanding, and all of them have far fewer speeches and scenes than the leading males. Also, there are far fewer female parts in the first place.

Now, in most high school drama programs, there are three or four female students to every male. How, then, do you cast a Shakespeare play? Working in the opposite environment from Elizabethan drama, you have far more female students chasing fewer same-gender roles than the Elizabethans had apprentices chasing female roles.

The solution, of course, is to change some of the male roles to female. This often sacrifices major plot points, however, since they make no sense with females in certain roles.

In Macbeth, you would think the result would be disastrous. The play is thick with men in determinedly male roles -- soldiers, kings, thanes. Only Lady Macbeth, Lady Macduff, and the witches are female.

But in the Weaver production, which opens tonight (Thursday), director Lindsey Clinton and the designers have made some powerful and effective choices.

First, the set and costumes have a vaguely Japanese motif that gives a sense of abstraction to everything. This is followed by having all the battle scenes slowed a little, and dancelike in the movement, so we are not expecting realism. Thus we accept female soldiers and unrealistic sword-fighting without flinching.

Then, the royal parts are played by women -- as queens, rather than kings. The performers play these roles imperiously; they're quite convincing.

The result is a powerful, moving presentation of a play that should have been beyond the reach of a high school performing group. It helps that certain key actors rise above the normal high-school practice of reciting rather than acting Shakespeare's dialogue. DJ Gayles as Macbeth and Cara Farlow as Lady Macbeth have strong voices and make powerful figures on the stage.

It almost can't be helped, though, that Macduff walks away with every scene he's in. Kyle Kite is surprisingly mature as a stage performer, and his emotions are the most convincing in the cast.

The part is also written to be the real hero of the story. Even though Macbeth is the protagonist, the person whose decisions shape the play, it is Macduff who suffers most without actually dying, and it is Macduff who eventually brings him down.

Macbeth will be performed at Weaver (300 South Spring Street) on December 13, 14, and 15 at 7:00 p.m., and on December 16 at 2:00 p.m. The cost is $6.00 for students and $8.00 for adults; they accept cash only. It's by far the best high school drama in Guilford County, and the faculty make sure that productions are always innovative and illuminating. We're lucky to have this program!


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