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"Of Mice and Men" at the Magic Circle Theatre

“I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy,” a character remarks in Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s enduring novel adapted for the stage and currently showing in a riveting production at the Magic Circle Theatre, in Carmel Valley.  Lennie and George’s unusual bond stands in stark contrast with what seems to be the natural condition of man, especially man’s attitudes toward other men: suspicious, competitive, and separate.  But Lennie, a mildly retarded man with great physical strength and a hunger for tenderness, and George, the homeless “bindle stiff” who has chosen to look after Lennie, share an authentic connection that suggests the redemptive possibilities of friendship, as well as its potential for sorrow.

Directed with emotional clarity by Elsa Con, this Mice and Men unfolds in an atmosphere of intimacy that befits its subject.  The opening of the play evokes the velvety beauty of the Salinas Valley, where Lennie and George are en route to a job at a farm in Soledad.  (The gorgeous, ingenious set design is by Dani Maupin and Laura Cote.)  They have escaped from a troubling episode at their previous employment in Weed, and are looking to make a fresh start.  Lennie’s first action in the play is to kneel down excitedly before a pond and scoop water into his mouth.  He is like a child, brimming with enthusiasms he cannot control.  George is more rational.  He knows they are soon to begin another period of hard, poorly-paid labor, and decides to delay their arrival and spend a night in the open country, free men, if only for a few hours.

It is here, as they ready for sleep, that Lennie asks George to tell again the story of their dream, how one day they will have a place of their own, and “live off the fatta the lan.”  Lennie is obsessed with the idea of taking care of rabbits—small, fragile creatures he yearns to hold and cuddle and stroke.  But Lennie already has a history with such creatures, and George makes him give up the dead mouse Lennie has been carrying in his pocket—dead from the uncontrollable strength of Lennie’s hands.

The acting in this production is superb.  Avondina Wills masterfully inhabits the character of Lennie, portraying the vulnerability and swift mood-changes of a man-child, a sweet soul in a body capable of violence.  Richard Boynton is excellent as George, an intelligent, quick-tempered but ultimately compassionate man who almost does not dare to wish for a better life yet cannot help himself from dreaming.  George often complains what a burden Lennie is, yet even this talk is a form of affection.

At the barley farm in Soledad, the two are soon caught up in dramas not of their making; the action in Of Mice and Men moves as swiftly as a Greek tragedy to its wrenching conclusion.  Inside the workers’ bunkhouse, Candy (the sensitive Bob Colter) has an aging dog whose smell enrages Carlson (Ron Cacas).  The Boss (Alan Zeppa) is suspicious of Lennie’s reluctance to speak.  The wife (the compelling Taylor Thorngate) of the boss’s son is lonely and has a habit of lingering around the farmhands, hoping for attention.  Before long, Lennie’s propensity towards violence is exposed in a scene with her husband, Curley (Garland Thompson), a jealous and insecure man in a state of perpetual agitation.  Curley is yappy and ineffectual, played by Thompson in a dramatic, overheated style somewhat at odds with the more naturalistic proceedings of the production.

Although we never learn her name, Curley’s wife is a key player in the story’s unfolding.  Steinbeck once said of this character that “her craving for contact is immense,” and it is this quality of craving, which is shared by Lennie, that drives the story to its tragic end.  As Crooks (James Porter) says, “A guy gets too lonely, he gets sick.”  Crooks knows of what he speaks: as a black laborer, he is forced to bunk down in the barn, separate from the other men.

Other characters, such as Slim and Whit (Brandon Burns and David Norum, both first-rate), function as a kind of audience within the play—sympathetic witnesses who cannot prevent the bad thing from happening.  The sensitive, painterly lighting (by Dennis Randolph) and effective sound design (by Garland Thompson) also contribute to the atmosphere of tenderness surrounding Lennie, George, and their sorrowful fate.

Steinbeck continues to be celebrated for his focus on the lives of the lowly, the marginalized and the dispossessed.  Here, in a memorable production no one should miss, he elevates the story of two impoverished drifters to the level of myth and high tragedy, offering tearful catharsis to any viewer who has ever experienced the comfort of friendship, and the pain of loss.

Of Mice and Men, now showing at the Magic Circle Theatre, in Carmel Valley, through Sunday, March 31.  Call 831-659-7500 or visit the theater's website for tickets and information.

Chuck Close: Works on Paper at MMA/La Mirada

I think what I appreciate most about Chuck Close’s faces is the way they make eye contact with the viewer.  At the fabulous exhibit of Close’s works on paper at the Monterey Museum of Art/La Mirada, one has the sense of people who are “right there,” individuals whose presence, summoned up and transformed through an astonishing array of printmaking techniques, seems to hover in a space beyond art, a space of authentic human connection.  Close has endured all his life a condition called prosopagnosia, or the inability to recognize faces; his extraordinary career, which revitalized portraiture as a viable “post-modern” art genre, is a testament to art’s power to bring relief and healing to even the most acute forms of suffering.

Here are some of the techniques used by Close for the works in this exhibit: etching with aquatint and engraving; lithograph; silkscreen; linocut; stenciled handmade paper woodcut; spitbite etching; monochrome pigment print chine colléd on waterpaper; photogravure; silk tapestry.  Each of these different techniques produces a different effect; one senses the drive to experiment, to explore fully the process of creation.

Here are two more techniques, both self-portraits from 2007: In “Watermark Self-Portrait” (light and shade watermark, abaca and cotton fiber pigmented with carbon black), Close’s face seems to be simultaneously emerging and receding from an indeterminate shadowy space; in this rendering, the artist is a liminal, ghostly figure, at once solid and liquid.  In “Self-Portrait/Anamorphic” (engraving with embossment on white handmade paper, polished stainless steel cylinder and wooden box/platform), the steel cylinder gathers the dark engraved fragments and reflects them back to the viewer, who is an integral part of the piece, for the image is constantly mobile, shifting in size and position with the viewer’s own movements.  In this work, too, the face of Close seems both to recede and project.

My favorite work in the show is “Leslie/Fingerprint/Silk Collé” (carbon transfer etching on silk chine collé, 1986), a portrait of his now ex-wife fashioned from applications of hundreds of Close’s fingerprints.  The artist’s fingerprints—that iconic image and symbol of human individuality—overlap in repeating, layered patterns to create a powerful portrait of a woman’s face, as if through the application of touch he might find a way to recognize her face, to touch her in a way his brain cannot facilitate.  A deeply moving meditation on identity, connection and isolation, this mesmerizing print also takes on an aura of loss when one learns that Close and his wife have recently divorced after 42 years of marriage.

More than most print exhibits, this show is also a celebration of paper.  Several of the works are made of handmade pressed paper pulp, out of which the image seems both to dissolve and come into focus.  “People are clouds,” Proust once observed, suggesting the way that identity is always in motion, no matter how fixed or permanent we may think we are.  Close’s genius is to apply that idea in his art at the very basic level of material and technique.

Some of his works, like his photogravures, appear “photographic.”  Yet a photograph usually consists of an image that occupies a printed space but is not changed by it, similar to a movie being projected on a screen.  In most instances, the power of a photograph lies wholly in its image.  In Close’s “Self-Portrait/Photogravure” (2005), the subtle textural qualities of paper enable a play of softness and clarity—an ear receding into darkness, the tangle of his beard pressing forward sharply—placing the image in a dimensional field of uncertain proportions.  It is as if we are constantly being remade, in a constant state of becoming, of recognizing ourselves, now pulling away, now moving forward, but always moving, always reaching toward a better self-understanding.

“Chuck Close—Works on Paper, 1975-2012, from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation,” at the Monterey Museum of Art/La Mirada.  This exhibit has been extended through Sunday, March 31.  On Saturday, March 9, at 2 pm, the Museum will screen a documentary about Close by Marion Cajori.  (The film is also on continuous loop in one of the galleries.)

Vaudeville at the Golden State Theatre

The word “vaudeville” evokes a type of popular entertainment long ago replaced by various and sundry electronic media, but like canning, backyard chickens, and other once-quaint old-fashioned pursuits finding fresh hipness today, vaudeville is back.  On Thursday, February 28, a lively troupe of local performers will present Vaudeville at the Golden State Theatre—a fitting historic venue for launching vaudeville’s next chapter.

According to Scott Grover, the show’s producer, Vaudeville at the Golden State will be a fast-paced musical revue that harkens back to the traditional historic style of vaudeville. 

“There will be dance numbers and comedy bits, there will be a magician, and a ton of actors doing myriad skits” he says.  “Most of the material is written by the troupe, with a few other bits and pieces and gags incorporated.”

Grover, who has brought vaudeville to the Golden State from the Alternative Cafe, in Seaside, is excited about the wealth of local talent involved, from set designer Carey Crockett and Emmy-winning director Jim Dultz, to actors such as Michael Lojkovic and Michelle Vallentyne.  The show will be hosted by Brandon Blomquist and Tiffany Decker, and Juan Sanchez will provide musical direction.

After its most recent incarnation as a church, it is good to see the Golden State Theatre serving the public as a venue for live entertainment and a forum for the flourishing of local creativity.  But can this incredible building, built in 1926 and gorgeously restored in 2005, play a role in the renewal of downtown Monterey, a subject of seemingly perpetual discussion and debate?

“Absolutely,” Grover says.  “The Golden State is not just downtown, it is a part of downtown.”  As founder and president of the new Golden State Theatre Partners, Grover has been involved in meetings about Monterey’s future, bringing to the table his passion for the arts, and his belief in the value of live performance.

“Live entertainment is vital to a community and to the health and well-being of its citizens,” he says.

Vaudeville at the Golden State, Thursday, February 28, 8:00 p.m.  Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado Street, Monterey, (831) 324-4571.  Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at the door.  Beer, wine, and freshly popped corn will be available.

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