SI: Shakespeare’s Kitchen

“Food & Feasting in Elizabethan England”
Francine Segan, lecturer
Smithsonian Institution
S. Dillon Ripley Center

Francine Segan is a cultural historian who has published a number of food-related books. The launching point for this evening’s was her book Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook. I was expecting the talk to be more Shakespeare oriented: there were a few quotes from Shakespeare, but that was about it. One of the most interesting Shakespeare observations came in the promotional material for the Elephant & Castle Pub and Restaurant (which has two locations in DC), which was one of the “sponsors” (read “providers”) of the post-lecture reception.

Shakespeare mentions the Elephant Lodgings in Twelfth Night. In Act 3 Scene 3 Antonio says “in the south suburbs, at the Elephant, is best to lodge.” Although the play is set in Illyria in the Balkans, Shakespeare often used local London references. The theatres were all in Southwark, so Shakespeare’s line may represent an advertisement for a local hostelry. “The Elephant” is a common present-day nickname for the Elephant and Castle.

So maybe one of the earliest examples of product placement?

I also was expecting a little more in the way of recipes. There weren’t any real recipes, but there was lots of interesting information about general cooking methods, ingredients, and the general practice of grand feasting.

Apparently pies were really big—meaning both popular and large. Some pies could be four feet high, and they contained everything imaginable: all sorts of game, fruit, even pasta. They often had highly decorated crusts, ranging from elaborate bas reliefs to fish heads poking out above a crusty surf. Yes, four and twenty black birds baked in a pie was a real thing: and if birds were too difficult to wrangle, you could also use frogs or garden snakes.

Segan talked about her experiences accessing rare book collections to do her research. (One such experience was getting to look at a book here at the Folger, which required all sorts of preparations.) She attracted a couple of librarians because she was laughing hysterically while reading an etiquette book. Concerned that they were going to shush her or kick her out, Segan was relieved to find out they only wanted to know what was so funny in an etiquette book that hadn’t been checked out since 1917. It turns out that the book had a chapter on how to be an entertaining guest, so it included lots of puns, jokes, riddles, and stories you could tell between courses to entertain your hosts and other guests. Joke #17: “A ship at sea was caught in a terrible storm, so the captain came up on deck to ask the passengers if they had anything heavy would be willing to toss overboard to lighten the ship. ‘Yes’, answered one of the passengers, ‘my wife!'” So apparently (she said) Henny Youngman’s material is even older than we thought. She also recited a riddle in rhyme, which, much like the old Anglo-Saxon riddles, led you to believe that the answer was X-rated, while the real answer was perfectly G.

Thus my riddle doeth begine;
A mayde would haue a thinge put in.
And with hir hand she brought it to;
It was so meeke, it would not doe:
And at the length she vsed it soe,
That to the hole she made it goe.
When it had done as she could wishe,
“Ah, h!” quoth she, “I’me glad of this!”

Or as worded in a more modern vernacular, “To make it stiff and stand it up, she rubs it. To make it slip and slide it in, she licks it. What is she doing?”

Get your minds out of the gutter: she’s threading a needle.

Segan also described the Elizabethan love for trompe l’oeil food, such as meatball appetizers filled with grapes and shaped like pears, with a sprig of herb for a stem. There was also a roll shaped like … something, I forget what, with a wine jelly center, so that when you cut it or bit into it, it appeared to bleed. Oh, the were really jolly, those Elizabethans.

Segan touched on Elizabethan cooking techniques for measuring time and temperature, such as cooking asparagus only as long as it took to recite the Pater noster (in Latin, of course), or gauging the the heat of an oven by being able to hold your fist in it for twelve seconds. She also explained some idioms, such as “upper crust” meaning the best part of the bread, because (due to the vagueness of oven temperatures) the bottom crust was often burned, and the loaf would be sliced horizontally, rather than vertically.

Cookbooks also contained recipes for home remedies, some of which actually had some merit. She asked an ENT about one remedy, which called for roasting an onion and squeezing its juices into the ear to cure deafness. Sure, the doctor replied, the onion juice contains an enzyme which would be good for clearing out ear wax, which would have caused degraded hearing for many people. And there were lots of recipes on how to build up “courage” (a euphemism for sexual prowess)—that is, the Elizabethan equivalent of the little blue pill. Prunes (and fruit in general) and sweet potatoes were considered aphrodisiacs.

Segan mentioned a number of spices that sound interesting, and she says they’re available cheaply on the internet: cubeb, long pepper (which isn’t really a pepper; it looked like a miniature pine cone), and grains of paradise. And she refuted the notion that spices were used to cover up the smell or taste of rancid meat. A lot of recipes included timetables, such as, if you’re going to serve dinner at three, then you need to butcher your goat at ten, and then marinate it for however long.

Apparently the Elizabethans were real jokesters, creating mugs with lattice sides, that could only be drunk from if you covered up certain holes and drank through a built-in straw. They also had pitchers like that; one, mad of glass, looked for the world like a Klein bottle. (The guy behind me had the same thought.)

Segan walked through the whole process of putting on an Elizabethan feast, describing the invitations and the cooking, and showing samples of the different courses. Such a feast would have been a multi-hour event, starting at 11:00 AM, and possibly lasting until 3:00 PM or 4:00 PM. Dessert would have included fruit, nuts, and cheese. And more pies: she described a spinach and almond pie which would have been considered a sweet dish. (I thought of the Indian carrot-based gajar halwa.) One of the recipes I want to track down is peatelli, made from just four ingredients: flour, honey, almonds, and pepper.

There weren’t copies of her book to buy and get signed, because it was published in 2004, and is out of print. But there are copies available online, so I may hunt one down.

In the atrium where the post-lecture reception was held, there was a curated photography exhibit of pictures taken by Smithsonian Institution employees. There were seven categories: SI places; non-SI places; selfies; SI people; non-SI people; SI objects; and non-SI objects. Pictures on display were the first through third places and honorable mentions in all categories, plus a best in show. Needless to say, there were some really interesting photographs.

Behzod Abduraimov

Behzod Abduraimov
Washington Performing Arts Society
Patrick Hayes Piano Series
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Behzod Abduraimov is a very talented pianist who shows great promise. He handled this challenging proram with great aplomb. My only complaint is that he tends to over-pedal, making the sound muddy.

It seemed clear to me that Abduraimov wanted to play the four Chopin scherzos as a coherent group. That was derailed not only by applause after the first scherzo, but also by a stream of stragglers taking their seats. The precedent set, applause followed the next two scherzos with Abduraimov nodding in acknowledgement, but remaining seated.

Abduraimov handled the scherzos’ technical challenges with ease, and they were very well phrased. There were, however, a couple of muddy patches, and a couple of balance issues between accompanimental passages in the left hand and melody in the right.

As the program notes said, it’s rare to hear the original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition. Even though I’ve played the piano version, my mind is still heavily influenced by the orchestral version (meaning the Ravel, of course, although I’ve heard others). Apparently, Abduraimov was influenced, too, because he omitted the Promenade after “Two Polish Jews”. That’s a shame, because that particular Promenade relfects Mussorgsky’s pride of ownership: he owned the two portraits which the preceding movement depicts.

The transition from “The Hunt on Fowl’s Legs” to “The Great Gate of Kiev” was a bit anticlimactic. That opening statement isn’t as grand as later versions, but it needs to be grand enough to absorb the energy of the pounding upward scales as Baba Yaga flies off. Just another couple of notches of volume would probably have sufficed.

There were a number of passages of great delicacy: “Tuileries” and “Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua”, for example. And there were some over-pedaled passages (“Gnomus”, and the Promenade after “Bydlo”, and the chant sections in “The Great Gate”). Finally, Abduraimov made the conclusion of “The Great Gate” convincing on the piano, no mean feat in comparison to Ravel’s idiomatic orchestration.

As an encore, Abduraimov gave a nicely delicate performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne in C# Minor (Six Morceaux, Op. 19, No. 4).


Frédéric Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38
Ballade No. 3 in A-Flat Major, Op. 47
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52


Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition<
  • Promenade
  • Gnomus
  • Promenade
  • Il Vecchio Castello
  • Promenade
  • Tuileries
  • Bydlo
  • Promenade
  • Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells
  • Two Polish Jews, One Rich, the Other Poor
  • (omitted: Promenade)
  • Limoges, The Market Place
  • Catacombae, Sepulcrum Romanum
  • The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba–Yaga)
  • The Great Gate of Kiev


Pyotr Tchaikovsky Nocturne in C# Minor (Six Morceaux, Op. 19, No. 4)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša, conductor
Sergey Khatchatryan, violin
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

I was tired, but I really wanted to hear the Sibelius, since it’s one of my favorites (and not just a favorite violin concerto). It’s demanding, and I’m afraid Khatchatryan just wasn’t up to it. It was a mostly respectable performance, but not one for the ages. There were passages of extreme delicacy, but they were perhaps too restrained. This concerto is supposed to teem with energy, but it was generally inert. And not always accurate: a couple of passages in the first movement where the soloist plays a duet with the principal viola weren’t flawless, and the winds were unsteady at times in the second movement. Khatchatryan would occasionally slide into high notes after large upward leaps, which he might have been doing intentionally, but I found it unidiomatic. And the last movement lacked fire in the high passages. Those were some lethargic polar bears.

As an encore, Khatchatryan played a solo work, an Armenian song which he didn’t announce very clearly. It seemed like a theme with variations: a statement in a high tessitura; a variation in harmonics; a variation in the violin’s lowest range; a variation in fourths; and finally a tremolo passage that faded away. Khatchatryan showed himself to be a very sensitive performer with excellent technique. I think he’s just not ready for the Sibelius, or maybe he’s not temperamentally suited for it.

As I said, I was tired, and I didn’t want to be disappointed by the Brahms, which is also one of my favorite works, so I left at intermission.


Leoš Janáček Jealosy
Jean Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47
  • Allegro moderato
  • Adagio di molto
  • Allegro, ma non tanto

    Sergey Khatchatryan, Violin


Variations on an Armenian song (NFI) for solo violin


Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98
  • Allegro non troppo
  • Andante moderato
  • Allegro giocoso
  • Allegro energico e passionato

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman
Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak
Based on a novel by Roy Horniman
Kennedy Center
Eisenhower Theater

The movie Kind Hearts and Coronets is also based on Horniman’s novel, but even though the musical follows the film very closely, it can’t claim the film as an antecedent because of rights issues. John Rapson gets the Alec Guinness role(s), and he does a phenomenal job. (In the program, his understudies are listed as “For the d’Ysquith Family.) His co-star Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro, the young, guileless heir to the title, who accidentally falls into a life of murder, is very likeable, but Rapson steals the show.

The orchestra had a sort of G&S operetta sound to it. I don’t know if that was intentional, but I thought it was appropriate. The set was a stage-within-a-stage, and in general, the show was presented as flashbacks while Monty writes his memoirs in prison. (Unlike the censored American version of the movie, Monty recovers his memoirs just before the curtain.) There were some clever stage bits. During “I’ve Decided to Marry You”, there is a nominal hallway with two doors—one to the room where Sibella has been hidden, and one where Monty is becoming engaged to Phoebe—allowing a touch of farce, as Monty desperately tries to prevent the two women from meeting. During “I Don’t Understand the Poor”, the family portraits in the backdrop move aside to reveal the bewigged company who sing backup to a befuddled Lord Adalbert. And, this being the 21st century, there are computer graphics, too. During “Inside Out”, as Henry runs back and forth upstage, he’s chased by swarms of CGI bees.

There are a couple of slightly cringey songs. “Better With a Man” has obvious homoerotic undertones, but I don’t think it crosses the line into homophobia. And “Lady Hyacinth Abroad” is funny, but it has some caricatures (Egypt, India, “Africa”) of the sort that Ed Dixon got flack for when Signature produced his Cloak and Dagger a couple of seasons ago.

In a nice touch, during the curtain call, Rapson is dressed as Chauncey, the last of the D’Ysquiths, currently working as a janitor, and Massey pulls a small belladonna blossom out of his jacket pocket (he put it there halfway through the first act) and hands it to Rapson—who pops it in his mouth as the two walk offstage.

Monty Navarro Kevin Massey
Miss Shingle Mary VanArsdel
Sibella Hallward Kristen Beth Williams
Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr John Rapson
Tour Guide Megan Loomis
Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith John Rapson
Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith John Rapson
Miss Barley Lesley McKinnell
Lord Asquity D’Ysquith, Sr John Rapson
Henry D’Ysquith John Rapson
Tom Copley Matt Leisy
Phoebe D’Ysquith Adrienne Eller
Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith John Rapson
Newsboys Matt Leisy, Ben Roseberry, Megan Loomis,
Kristen Mengelkoch
Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith John Rapson
Lady Salomé D’Ysquith Pumphrey John Rapson
Actors Ben Roseberry, Matt Leisy, Christopher Behmke
Lady Eugenia Kristen Mengelkoch
Mr Gorby Christopher Behmke
Chief Inspector Pinckney Ben Roseberry
Guard Matt Leisy
Magistrate Christopher Behmke
Chauncey John Rapson
Ensemble Christopher Behmke, Matt Leisy, Megan Loomis,
Lesley McKinnell, Kristen Mengelkoch, Ben Roseberry
Dance Captain Sarah Ellis
Fight Captain David Scott Purdy
Director Darko Tresnjak
Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer Linda Cho
Lighting Designer Philip S. Rosenberg
Sound Designer Dan Moses Schreier
Production Designer Aaron Rhyne
Hair & Wig Designer Charles G. LaPointe
Makeup Designer Brian Strumwasser
Orchestrations Jonathan Tunick
Music Director Lawrence Goldberg
Production Stage Manager Daniel S. Rosokoff
Choreography Peggy Kickey

Musical Numbers:
Act I
“A Warning to the Audience” Company
“You’re a D’Ysquith” Miss Shingle, Monty
“I Don’t Know What I’d Do” Sibella
“Foolish to Think” Monty
“A Warning to Monty” Ensemble
“I Don’t Understand the Poor” Lord Adalbert, Ensemble
“Foolish to Think” (Reprise) Monty
“Poison in My Pocket” Monty, Asquity Jr, Miss Barley
“Poor Monty” Sibella, Ensemble
“Better With a Man” Henry, Monty
“Inside Out” Phoebe, Monty
“Lady Hyacinth Abroad” Lady Hyacinth, Ensemble
“The Last One You’d Expect” Company
Act II
“Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?” Mourners, Lord Adalbert
“Sibella” Monty
“I’ve Decided to Marry You” Phoebe, Sibella, Monty
“Final Warning” Ensemble
“Poison in My Pocket” (Reprise) Monty
“Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” Lord Adalbert, Company
“Stop! Wait! What?!” Monty
“That Horrible Woman” Sibella, Phoebe, Inspector, Magistrate, Guard
“Finale” Company

Orchestra: piano, clarinet, oboe/English horn, bassoon, French horn, trumpet/piccolo trumpet, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass, drums/percussion

ICONS: of Dance

I had the opportunity to go to the second of The Washington Ballet’s “ICONS: of Dance” series. These are basically master classes for a couple of TWB’s principal dancers, given by some famous—iconic—dancer. At this session, Amanda McKerrow was coaching Maki Onuki and Tamás Krizsa in the duet from the second act of Giselle.

It was fascinating to watch the coaching process. McKerrow had already worked with Onuki and Krizsa earlier in the day, so they were already incorporating her advice into their performance. After running through the duet with the music, the dancers then went back to do short sections, while McKerrow made further adjustments, after talking to the dancers about their motivation. McKerrow told Onuki that she should feel Krizsa’s physical presence even when she wasn’t facing him, and that she should show with her body how she is pulled to him. She also had Onuki make subtle adjustments to her body position, like bending more at the waist when revolving slowly, to make the movement more organic.

You also realize how much work is involved when you see the dancers this close up. There’s one move where Krizsa is standing upright, holding Onuki by the hand, and she leans her whole body back, starting from the ankles. It looks effortless when seen in a hall, but this close you could see just how tensed Krizsa’s bicep was. Onuki is petite: she’s a head shorter than Krizsa, and she can’t weigh more than 100 pounds (well, maybe, I’m a bad judge of weight, but still), and Krizsa has a slightly more athletic build than his company mates. But you can see just how much effort is required for Krizsa to hold her securely, or to lift her over his head by the waist while Onuki strikes these elegant arched poses.

At the end of half an hour, the dancers had had quite a workout, and McKerrow was quite happy with the additional progress they had made.

The second half hour was a conversation between McKerrow and Septime Weber, the company’s artistic director, with a few questions from the audience. Weber began his conversation by asking McKerrow about her experiences with Giselle. McKerrow answered that her first Albrecht was Mikhail Baryshnikov. At 21, she was part of “Baryshnikov & Co.”, an ad hoc troupe that went touring around the country in the off-season. In the course of just under 50 days, they gave over 40 performances, about half of which included the second act of Giselle. She said they had their own private jet, like rock stars, and then she observed that “Misha was a rock star.” Her last Giselle was at age 41, twenty years later, and she felt she understood the role better. She went on these tours in 1985 and 1986, and her first full length Giselle was in 1987 (at which point she knew the daunting second act cold). Other Albrechts she danced with included Kenneth MacMillan, Robert Hale (?), Julio Bocca, Wes Chapman, Ethan Stiefel, and Patrick Bessell.

McKerrow started out as a “Mary Day” girl, dancing in the Washington Ballet school. She remembered Day as being demanding, but bright and cheerful. McKerrow and her parents had some doubts initially about a career in dance. One teacher said she would never be a good dancer. When Day was asked, however, she said, “Why, she’s already a dancer.” McKerrow was called by the ABT to audition at 16, but Day said “if they want you now, they’ll still want you in a couple of years.” She advised McKerrow to compete in the Moscow International Ballet competition, which was very good advice: McKerrow was the first American to win.

McKerrow talked about her experiences with Anthony Tudor, whom she described as being very hawk-like. (Agnes DeMill, she said, was very theatrical.) She danced for Tudor for her first five years at ABT, which she described as being very formative. She always enjoyed contemporary ballets, and she seemed to have a bit of regret that in later years at ABT, she was type-cast in classical roles. (While at TWB, where she started her career, she danced a number of works created by Choo-San Goh.) Still, she has become an expert in Tudor’s work, having danced Jardin aux lilas with her husband, John Gardner. (At least, that’s what I think she said. She and Weber mentioned the ballet several times, but that’s not what I thought they said.) The two of them are now repetiteurs of Tudor’s work, visiting dance companies around the country helping to prepare Tudor ballets, and to ensure that they’re performed the way Tudor intended.


By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
Based on the play by Carlo Gozzi
The Metropolitan Opera
Lincoln Center

As you would expect from Zeffirelli, this is a sumptuous production. Take, for example, the opening scene: a large sea of peasants in drab gray blue in front; courtiers in bright silver and white; Ping, Pang, and Pong in their loud signature colors (red, yellow, and green); the high court in gold, the emperor in black; and Turandot in ice blue. On the other hand, there is some superfluous movement thrown in to liven up what would have been static staging. In the opening scene, a handful of ninjas creep around the stage, as if looking for a lost contact. (Because it’s too complicated to choreograph the crowd surging and being held at bay by the guards.) And during Turandot’s big Act II monologue, the women courtiers kept flapping their extra-long sleeves, which was distracting. More effective was the movement of the three “Masks” (basically stand-ins for Ping, Pang, and Pong) during Calaf’s riddle scene.

I thought Nina Stemme was fine as Turandot. This is an unusually dramatic soprano role for Puccini; sopranos who sing Turandot frequently sing the heavier Wagner and Strauss roles. (Stemme, for example is singing Elektra at the Met this spring, and Brunnhilde in the WNO’s Ring.) Marco Berti’s Calaf, however, seemed a little strained: even in Act II, his high notes were still not secure. Ronald Naldi’s Emperor Altoum had a small sound, but I suspect that’s because he was so far back and high upstage. Leah Crocetto was lovely as Liù. This is the part that’s most like the typical Puccini heroine.

In this production, Ping, Pang, and Pong were nicely characterized—a touch of humor without taking away from the gravity of the situation. I’ve seen other versions (in fact, I think it was this production a few years ago, because the Act II, scene 1 set looked very familiar) where Ping, Pang, and Pong flitted around so flamboyantly during their scene that you lost sight of their homesickness and the horrors perpetrated by Turnadot. I’ve always seen this scene as laying important groundwork for Turandot’s character providing the context for her delayed vocal appearance in the next scene.

I was sorry that only the principals got curtain calls (after each act, no less). The chorus plays in important role in this opera, and it’s a shame their excellent work went unlauded.

Turandot Nina Stemme
Liù Leah Crocetto
Calaf Marco Berti
Timur Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Amperor Altoum Ronald Naldi
Ping Dwayne Croft
Pang Tony Stevenson
Pong Eduardo Valdes
Three Masks Elliott Reiland, Andrew Robinson, Amir Levy
Mandarin David Crawford
Executioner Arthur Lazalde
Prince of Persia Sasha Semin
Handmaidens Anne Nonnemacher, Mary Hughes
Temptressess Jennifer Cadden, Oriada Islami Prifti,
Rachel Schuette, Sarah Weber-Gallo
Conductor Paolo Carignani
Production Director Franco Zeffirelli
Set Designer Franco Zeffirelli
Costume Designer Anna Anni, Dada Saligeri
Lighting Designer Gil Wechsler
Choreographer Chiang Ching
Stage Director David Kneuss
Chorus Master Donald Palumbo
Children’s Chorus Director Anthony Piccolo

Noises Off

Noises Off
By Michael Frayn
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre

Noises Off (as in “noises offstage”) is one of the quintessential British farces. There are (if I remember correctly) eight doors on two levels and a landing, and there are the usual comings and goings and people passing unnoticed. Each act ends, of course, with a complex sequence of musical doors.

This is the ultimate in-the-theater play that was mentioned in the notes to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s double bill of The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound. In this case, a hapless theater company in the boondocks is preparing Nothing On, by Robin Housemonger—a typical farce involving a young woman in her underwear (“small clothes”), men dropping their clothes, unconsumated sex, and general miscommunication. Act I is the dress rehearsal of Act I of Nothing On (although it’s more of a technical rehearsal: there’s a lot of argument about that) at the Grand Theatre in Weston-super-Mare. Act II takes place a month later: it’s Act I of Nothing On again, this time seen from backstage at the Theatre Royal in Ashton-under-Lyne. Act III (following Act II without intermission) is, yet again, Act I of Nothing On, this time seen from the front.

In Act I, it takes the cast forever to get through Act I of Nothing On. They argue with the director (who makes his entrance through the orchestra seats, and occasionally appears in the balcony) over direction and motivation. Their romantic relationships get tangled, and the seeds of doom are sown.

In Act II (the backstage view), the complex relationships between the actors are deteriorating (Selsdon Mowbray’s drinking, for example, is out of control), and there’s a fair amount of backstabbing and sabotage going on. We get to see the petty fighting and bickering, which miraculously lines up the the play going on onstage (i.e., upstage of the set, partially visible through various doors and windows). The mathematical precision is comparable to a triple fugue.

In Act III, the performance has gone to pot. The complex movement of plates of sardines collapses in a mess on the floor that the actors slip on. There are blown lines and a flurry of improvisations at the end as the actors try to salvage the act and get it to limp to an end. There’s also a bit of collapsing set (a trope which The Play That Goes Wrong takes to unparalleled heights).

The cast is generally excellent, although in the second act it was hard to follow all the deteriorating relationships. A lot of the “conversations” are mimed—because they’re backstage, and they can’t make noise that would disrupt the action “on stage”)—and it wasn’t always clear just what messages they wanted to convey to each other. On the other hand, there was some wonderful business with an ax, and the classic prank of tying someone’s shoelaces together led to some seriously athletic movement.

It’s hard to believe that Noises Off is over 30 years old. Its comedy is timeless. Well, except for the fact that Frayn has been tweaking it to keep it from aging, most recently in 2000. But the core of the play, the mathematical precision of that second act, is one of the marvels of modern theater. I can’t believe it took me so long to see it for the first time.

Nothing On Noises off IRL
Mrs Clackett Dotty Otley Andrea Martin
Director Lloyd Dallas Campbell Scott
Rober Tramplemain Garry Lejeune David Furr
Vicki Brooke Ashton Megan Hilty
Assistant Stage Manager Poppy Norton-Taylor Tracee Chimo
Flavia Brent Belinda Blair Kate Jennings Grant
Philip Brent/Sheikh Frederick Fellowes Jeremy Shamos
Company & Stage Manager Tim Allgood Rob McClure
Burglar Selsdon Mowbray Daniel Davis
Director Jeremy Herrin
Set Designer Derek McLane
Costume Designer Michael Krass
Lighting Designer Jane Cox
Sound Designer Christopher Cronin
Original Music Tod Almond
Hair and Wig Designer Paul Huntley
Comedy Stunt Coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni
Dialect Consultant Elizabeth Smith
Production Stage Manager Linda Marvel

The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound

The Critic
By Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher

The Real Inspector Hound
By Tom Stoppard

Shakespeare Theatre Company
The Lansburgh Theatre
in association with Guthrie Theater

This was a fascinating pairing of plays. They’re both about the relationship between theater critics and the theater, and what happens when the line between the two blurs. In Sheridan’s play, the line is blurred when a critic decides he wants to jump the footlights and write a play. His colleagues take this opportunity to make a fool of him (which he, of course, misses completely). In Stoppard’s play, the boundary is crossed in a more surreal fashion, like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: the two critics get sucked into an Agatha Christie–style murder mystery.

STC’s Literary Manager, Drew Lichtenberg, elaborates on these similarities in his entertaining program notes. (Favorite observation: “Both plays stare into the abyss of theater history. The abyss stares back and calls for its line.”) Both plays, for examples, are responses to earlier plays. The Critic is Sheridan’s adaptation John Dryden’s The Rehearsal (written in 1672, a century before The Critic), while Stoppard’s play is a parody of drawing room murder mystery plays like Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Lichtenberg points out that, while earlier plays featured plays-within-a-play (“The Mousetrap” in Hamlet—I had forgotten that that was what it was called—and “Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Rehearsal is one of the first “in-the-theater” plays, where the production of a play is the main focal point of the action. (One of the crowning examples of this is Noises Off, which I will finally be seeing shortly.)

Compounding the meta-ness of The Critic is the fact that this production is actually an adaptation of the original. Its full two acts have been condensed into a single act: one scene for each act. And while some of the language has been modernized, it still captures some of the artificiality of earlier centuries’ theater practice (and it’s performed in full-on 18th-century costumes). The first scene/act is somewhat episodic, and serves largely to set up the second scene/act, in which the two critics, Mr Dangle and Mr Sneer, offer “helpful” criticism to Mr Puff as he directs a dress rehearsal (of sorts) of his play, “The Spanish Armada”. The sight gags are wonderful (the scene ends with a mechanical roiling sea backdrop which goes wonderfully awry) and there are plenty of verbal jokes.

Sheridan’s The Rivals gave us the eponymous Mrs Malaprop, but less well-known, The Critic gave us puff pieces, or puffery. Mr Puff isn’t really a critic so much as a shill, writing his reviews in advance of the play, often for a fee. He describes the various sorts of puff pieces: “Yes, sir, puffing is of various sorts. The principal are, the puff direct, the puff preliminary, the puff collateral, and the puff collusive, and the puff oblique, or puff by implication.” Mr Puff is the principal foil of the play, as he responds with slow-witted diligence to all of Dangle’s and Sneer’s recommendations for “improving” his play. Robert Stanton did an excellent job, as he also did with the critic Moon in the Stoppard.

I’m not saying too much about the Stoppard play, because it is, after all, a mystery, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. I will say, though, since the title is a bit spoilery, that I did guess who the real Inspector Hound was. But there was no way I could have predicted the plot twists involving the two critics (although I did figure them out shortly before they were revealed).

I had seen a technical rehearsal last fall: they were working on the second act of “The Murder at Muldoon Manor” (the play the two critics were attending). It was interesting to see how Kahn was working his way through some of the blocking issues. At one point, Mrs Drudge (wonderfully played by Naomi Jacobson) is serving tea to four characters who are playing cards. She offers them cream (“White or black?”), then she offers them sugar, and finally she offers them a buiscut. At first, she simply stood in place, reaching over the table to dispense each item. Then Kahn had her walk around to each player, offering from the right, which involved walking around a long divan, and squeezing between the divan and Major Magnus’s wheelchair. The scene took much longer, of course, but the slow repetition was funnier—as witnessed by the small audiences laughter. That was an easy decision for Kahn to make. Another bit of action presenting a problem was Hound’s second entrance. The one Kahn wanted simply involved too much time (Robert Dorfman had to make a mad dash behind the stage, and he just couldn’t make it in the time allowed). I think that would have been better, but in the end Hound made his entrance through a gap that wasn’t really an entrance (which I found distracting, even though the set was rather impressionistic).

It was also interesting to see the déjà vu version of the second scene—which gets repeated, with Birdboot (one of the critics) taking the place of another character. It’s fascinating—and typical of Stoppard, I suppose—how easily Birdboot takes over the other character’s words, or even substitutes his own, giving each conversation a completely different cast. And the second time around, the card game degenerates into something resembling “Calvinball” from Calvin & Hobbes.

Brit Herring is credited as the Radio Voice. I had to google him to make sure that was a real person, and not some sort of credit obfuscation (like in a couple of other murder mystery plays that I won’t mention because spoilers). But he’s real. I wonder if he also played the corpse that lies on the stage virtually unnoticed for most of the Stoppard. He’s also one of the locals. At the technical rehearsal, it was explained that this is a co-production with Guthrie Theater, and after it completes its run here, it will transfer to Minneapolis. By design, half the cast are Minneapolitans, and half are from DC or NY. But the corpse is hired locally, so he won’t transfer with the production.

The Critic
Mr Dangle John Ahlin
Mrs Dangle Naomi Jacobson
Servant / Prompter Hugh Nees
Mrs Buxom / Actress 1 Sandra Struthers
Signora Décolleté / Actress 2 Charity Jones
Mr Sneer Robert Dorfman
Sir Fretful Plagiary / Actor John Catron
Mr Puff Robert Stanton
The Real Inspector Hound
Moon Robert Stanton
Birdboot John Ahlin
Mrs Drudge Naomi Jacobson
Simon Gascoyne John Catron
Felicity Cunningham Sandra Struthers
Cynthia Muldoon Charity Jones
Major Magnus Hugh Nees
Inspector Hound Robert Dorfman
Radio Voice Brit Herring
Director Michael Kahn
Scenic Designer James Noone
Costume Designer Murell Horton
Lighting Designer Mark McCullough
Sound Designer Christopher Baine
Composer Adam Wernick
Fight Director Paul Dennhardt
Period Movement Consultant Frank Venturea
Assistant Director Craig Baldwin
Production Stage Manager Joseph Smelser
Assistant Stage Manager Elizabeth Clewley
Fight Captain Robert Dorfman

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop, conductor
Katherine Needleman, oboe
Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture is uncharacteristically sunny for the composer. He known to his friends to be a curmudgeonly joker, but this rarely surfaces in his music. In this “thank you” to the University of Breslau for granting him an honorary degree, Brahms cobbled together a bunch of college drinking songs into one of his most ebullient works. (The only other thing that comes close, that I can think of, is the third movement of the Fourth Symphony.) The BSO had rich, warm sound, with wonderful clarity. I enjoyed noticing the tuba line at the end, which was loud enough to be heard, but not overwhelming.

The Rouse concerto, played by BSO principal oboe Katherine Needleman, is a wonderful addition to a fairly small repertory. The first movement was energetic and fun. Alsop is a diligent accompanist for soloists, and the orchestra only briefly overwhelmed Needleman a couple of times. The opening had a very Vaughn Williams-style pastoral feeling, but with these interesting pulsing “wawa” sounds in the trumpets. The second movement was serene, with shimmering strings and solemn brass in the accompaniment. The last movement had a couple of balance issues again, but in general it was extremely well played. And it is a wonderful work. I gave it one of my rare standing ovations, and would have done so even if Mr Rouse hadn’t come on stage to acknowledge the audience’s enthusiasm.

The Beethoven Third was yet another Beethoven Third. I thought the sound was a bit muffled, and it wasn’t as crisp as it could have been. It was a good middle-of-the-road interpretation, nothing adventurous. Perhaps Alsop programmed it to lure in people who might otherwise have been frightened away by the prospect of hearing something new.


Johannes Brahms Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Christopher Rouse Oboe Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47

    Katherine Needleman, Oboe


Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Minor, Op. 55, “Eroica”
  • Allegro con brio
  • Marcia funebre: Adagio assai
  • Scherzo: Allegro vivace
  • Finale: Allegro molto

The Pearlfishers

The Pearlfishers (Les pêcheurs de perles)
By George Bizet
Libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré
The Metropolitan Opera

Bill Cerri, the longtime morning classical announcer on WETA, thought Pearlfishers was significantly superior to Carmen. This is the second time I’ve seen it (the first was an indifferent production years ago by the defunct Baltimore Opera Company), and I still don’t see what Bill saw in this opera. Yes, it has some lovely music, but it’s not packed with memorable numbers like Carmen. Basically, it has two, both in the first act.

This production, by Penny Woolcock, is opulent enough. But the opera is fairly static: it’s basically limited to the interaction among four characters. So the chorus fills up the stage, but their movement (such as it is) is not always clearly motivated. For example, in the third act, as Nadir and Leïla are singing their duet before being cast on a funeral pyre, there are two supers carrying a statue on a board across the stage. The entered stage left down stage, and circuitously wound their way stage right up stage. At which point they exited. What was that about? I thought maybe they were bringing the statue to place it on the altar as part of the ritual, but no, off they went. They transited solely to provide some small bit of movement to an incredibly static scene.

And there were some weird time period clashes. The set looked like it could have been on the other side of the island in South Pacific: there was definitely a 1940s vibe to the set. (All sorts of corrugated metal and barrel pontoons.) The crowd were all dressed in typical south–Asian peasant clothes, but at the beginning of the first act, there were three men dressed like Jehovah’s Witnesses, distributing … something. Pamphlets, encouraging the people to vote for Zurga as absolute leader, I guess? And at the beginning of the third act, Zurga is in an elaborate office, with bookshelves full of books (well, they’re painted on the backdrop), and he consoles himself by pulling a beer out of his mini–fridge and lighting up a cigarette.

The singing was fine. The audience applauded wildly at the end of “Au fond du temple saint”, arguably the best–known number, even though it wasn’t a knock–your-socks–off rendition. Matthew Polenzani’s performance of “Je crois entendre encore”, towards the end of the act, however, was really excellent: Polanzani sang those high phrases to softly and lightly, with absolute control.

I enjoyed the performance, but now, having seen a really good production, I don’t feel the need to see it again. Sorry, Bill, I’ll stick with Carmen.

Zurga, Village Headman Mariusz Kwiecien
Nadir, a pearl diver Matthew Polenzani
Leïla, priestess of Brahma Diana Damrau
Nourabad, high priest of Brahma Nicolas Testé
Conductor Gianandrea Nosedra
Director Penny Woolcock
Set Designer Dick Bird
Costume Designer Kevin Pollard
Lighting Designer Jen Schriever
Choreographer Andrew Dawson

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