A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The New York City Ballet on Thursday, April 27.

If I were to pick a composer to write music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, I don't think I would choose Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn, an early Romantic, had a sense of formality, a classical mindset, that doesn't really jibe with the fantastical nature of the Shakespeare comedy. A Midsummer Night's Dream is ultimately about sex and the psyche, and Mendelssohn's music is too prim, conjuring demure Victorian faeries instead of the ribald, sensual sprites of Shakespeare's imagination.

Then again, people commonly interpret A Midsummer Night's Dream as a benign farce instead of an earthy yet contemplative sex comedy, and Mendelssohn's music invokes the former perfectly. George Balanchine followed his lead in choreographing the work that has become part of the New York City Ballet's repertory since its premiere in 1962. It is blithe and breezy, thematically insubstantial but undeniably enchanting, featuring dancers of all ages and skill levels — from company principals to young children from the School of American Ballet.

This American Life

Weekly radio program from Chicago Public Radio. Heard on public radio stations nationwide as well as satellite radio. Check local listings.

When I first moved to Missouri for graduate school, I spent nearly a month alone without television, Internet access or even a DVD drive on my computer. Giving up one would have been difficult but manageable; giving up all three was agony.

Deprived of a flickering screen to distract me from my loneliness and anxiety, I discovered the joys of public radio. Not all of the programming was to my taste. I only tolerated Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me and absolutely loathed A Prairie Home Companion, but I fell rapturously in love with This American Life. Every Saturday afternoon, I curled up next to the radio for the hour-long program. Host Ira Glass would describe the abstract theme for the week and then introduce a few stories loosely related to that over-arching idea. Some stories were heavily reported, some were personal narratives, others were pure fiction, but nearly all had a distinct, individual voice and something meaningful to impart. The writers impressed me with their skill but, more than that, with their wit and insight and honesty. For that month, This American Life was a major highlight of my week.

I am an idiot.

Sean and I keep telling each other that we need to do a better job of looking ahead at what’s happening in the city so that we can take better advantage of what it has to offer.

Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 9.

Whenever I look back at history, I always have to remind myself that my own frames of reference usually don’t provide the most appropriate context for understanding centuries-old events. It’s tempting to take the isolated bits of information we have and extrapolate wildly, creating stories and heroes and villains with roots more in our imagination and contemporary values than in our maddeningly incomplete archives of the past.

One reason I admired the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit on Hatshepsut was that it gently reined me in whenever I was ready to leap into a flight of fancy. Such flights were tempting because Hatshepsut is a perfect subject for imaginative exploitation: She was a female pharaoh who ruled over a period of great prosperity during Egypt’s 18th dynasty. But even after the museum carefully acknowledges what we still don’t know about her, that which remains is fascinating.

Lucky Number Slevin

In theaters.

When I was in high school, I befriended a girl with untreated manic depression. During her highs, she was charming and energetic, always ready with an adventure to pursue, but her lows, which came totally without warning, left her despondent, paranoid and inconsolable. I had no idea how to deal with someone who was gregarious and vivacious one minute, morose and teary-eyed the next.

Watching Lucky Number Slevin brought back memories of those roller coaster times. The movie careens between spunky banter and utter ghoulishness with enough volatility to give me whiplash. It features some great scenes, snappy dialogue and appealing performances, but the erratic tone keeps the pieces from fitting together well.

Memoirs of a Geisha


Why did I rent Memoirs of a Geisha? I hated the book on which it was based. Ziyi Zhang’s breathily portentous line reading in the preview — “A story like mine has NEVER been told” — made me roll my eyes. The little I heard of John Williams’ score made me long for Tan Dun’s superior work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I suppose Memoirs made its way onto my Netflix queue because it seemed a shame to pass up the chance to see Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang on screen together, but I should have trusted my instincts. Memoirs of a Geisha is a dull, overwrought mess. I would have been better off holding my own personal marathon of the trio’s greatest hits, maybe Farewell My Concubine, Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers and 2046.

Saving Fish from Drowning

By Amy Tan. Published in 2006.

I adore the title of Amy Tan’s latest book. Her titles are usually more descriptive — The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Bonesetter’s Daughter — but Saving Fish from Drowning is a conceptual title, darkly funny and delicately hinting at one of the main themes of the novel.

Saving Fish from Drowning is about a group of American tourists who disappear while on vacation in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Narrating the story is Bibi Chen, the woman who organized the trip but who died under mysterious circumstances shortly before their departure. Bibi follows the group as a unseen spirit and relates not only what happens and what people say but also what people think and feel. Tan’s use of Bibi is brilliant; it allows her to employ an omniscient narrator while still telling the story — and commenting on it — from a single person’s distinct perspective.

Days of Heaven

In repertory at Film Forum through April 27. Also on DVD.

I always felt sorry for Abimelech, the king in the book of Genesis who takes Abraham’s wife, Sarah, into his harem. He doesn’t realize he’s doing anything wrong because Abraham and Sarah both insist they are brother and sister before Abimelech even shows any interest in her. But God still curses him, making all the women in his household barren until the poor guy realizes he’s been fooled.

Judging from Days of Heaven, I think writer-director Terrence Malick might share my sympathy for Abimelech. The beautiful film, released in 1978, echoes that biblical story in its tale of two Depression-era laborers and the owner of a farm where they find work during the harvest. Days of Heaven easily could have been a heavy handed metaphor of class war — I admit I expected something like that: the bourgeois screwing the proletariat literally and figuratively — but Malick’s work, as I should have realized, is far more nuanced than that.

Big Love

Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO. Six episodes into the first season.

People who worried that HBO’s twisted new family drama, Big Love, would create support for the legalization of plural marriage probably needn’t have bothered. Although the show is sympathetic to the polygamous Hendricksons, it certainly doesn’t make their family structure — one husband, three wives and seven children — look desirable. None of the children see enough of their father, who is spread thin between three households. The patriarch of the family, Bill Hendrickson, is constantly overwhelmed by the needs, both emotional and financial, of his large, segmented family. The sister-wives, unable to completely suppress their natural jealousy, feel neglected and isolated and develop awful passive-aggressive tendencies. But what makes a family dysfunctional and unstable makes a television show dramatic and entertaining. If polygamy created a healthy, secure family unit, Big Love wouldn’t be nearly so intriguing.

Le Nozze di Figaro

The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, April 15.

Le Nozze di Figaro is a soap opera, packed with disguises, infidelities, eavesdropping, improbable revelations and convoluted schemes. Figaro, Susanna, Cherubino, the Count and most of the other characters are content to live in a world of farce, but the Countess transcends the buffoonery of her peers. One of Figaro’s greatest strengths is the tension between the silliness of the story and the reality of Countess’ undeniable pain over her husband’s unfaithfulness. Mozart had the sensitivity to give the Countess dignity, and that choice elevates the entire opera.