I want to talk about the Irish Classical Theatre’s production of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’

I want to talk about “Lady Windermere’s Fan” — the Irish Classical Theatre’s company’s last show show of their 2017-18 season.

Written in 1892 by Oscar Wilde and directed by Josephine Hogan, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” centers upon a prop piece, a beautiful and ornate white feathered fan adorned with bits of silver and engraved with the name “Margaret.”

The fan was a recent birthday present from Lord Windermere (Matt Witten) to his wife Lady Margaret Windermere (Arianne Davidow) and serves much of the narrative drive of Wilde’s two-hour and four act play. At one point, it’ll become a ticking bomb, which will cause social ruin upon its discovery — the wand which will turn gossip until scandal. But for the most part, the wand — I mean fan — is a symbol of goodness and love and favor and sacrifice, much like the reputation of the good Puritan woman who owns the accessory.

Lady Windermere has many fans. She’s a good woman of London’s high society and her admirers include the bachelor Lord Darlington (Ben Michael Moran), divorcee Mrs. Erlynne (Kate LoConti), the Duchess of Berwick (Colleen Gaughan), and her husband, Lord Windermere. But her and her biggest fans are dipped in scandal when Lord Windermere pays installments to social newcomer Mrs. Erlynne, whose quick social rise and number of male suitors, including Lord Augustus Lorton (Christian Brandjes), becomes a favorite topic of conversation. The gossip rises several octaves when Lord Windermere invites Mrs. Erlynne to his wife’s birthday ball as the play begins.

There’s much to love about “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Lise Harty’s costumes are beautiful, especially the shimmery off-the-shoulder gowns.

Wilde’s writing is witty and wonderful, drawing you in with gossip and humor, balanced with Puritan sensibilities and aphorisms like, “The difference between gossip and scandal is scandal is gossip with morality.”

But even though “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is tipped toward scandal, it isn’t a dull or fussy play. No, the actors remind you it’s a comedy. There’s the Windermeres’ butler (David Lundy), who’s wears such plain disdain on his face that you have to laugh as his expressions; and Lady Agatha Carlisle (Emily Collins), who parrots high and chirpy “Yes, ma’ms” until the words become meaningless and you have to laugh at the absurdity. Then there’s Brandjes, who resembles a human puppy that you can almost see his tail wagging as he reaches for a treat just out of reach.

The whole ensemble cast is excellent, but there’s no question what or who “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is really about. LoConti steals the show as the wickedly charming Mrs. Erlynne, whose wit and cleverness allow her to untangle herself from the knots of high British society. Like a magician, she escapes through a series of secret trapped doors while you watch, as transfixed as her male suitors who follow her around like puppies. By the end of the play, you know this: you are Lady Windermere’s fan, as well as Lady Erlynne’s.

 

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‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ can save your life

Meet Eleanor Oliphant, the almost-thirty-something-year-old heroine in Gail Honeyman’s debut novel “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.”

She’s the UK version of Ellie Kemper’s character in the Netflix original “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Eleanor isn’t as cheerful and bubbly as Kimmy Schmidt. And she wasn’t kidnapped by a man and forced to live in an underground bunker.

But Eleanor has survived her own traumas — ones that she drowns with weekend vodka binges in her apartment by herself.

It’s fine.

She’s fine.

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“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”
By Gail Honeyman.
327 pp. Viking. $26.  
2017.

And that’s been her routine for nine years. But then she sees this musician at a distance at a concert and she becomes convinced he’s going to become her boyfriend. This leads to a succession of hilarious and heartwarming firsts: first Hollywood bikini wax, first makeover, first haircut and first time she felt like she was pretty.

The reader is just along for the ride.

Honeyman’s novel is kind of funny and kind of sad — even if Eleanor doesn’t quite see it that way.

(Eleanor thinks she’s fine, remember?)

But the reader is like an extrovert peering at the habits of an extreme introvert, seeing someone who normally goes without seeing or speaking to anyone from the time she leaves work on Friday and returns to work on Monday.

Perhaps Eleanor doesn’t know how it feels to be anything other than lonely?

But she’s not alone.

None of us are — even if it may sometimes feel that way.

Honeyman’s novel is a call to action: to reach out and to be good to your neighbor.

It might save a life.

 

The trial of the ‘Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance’

At one point in Ruth Emmie Lang’s debut novel “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance,” one of her characters warns another to not try too hard while trying to impress someone.

If only Lang took her own advice.

Lang tries really hard to impress you — to get you to like Weylyn Gray, a boy who grew up with wolves.

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“Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance”
By Ruth Emmie Lang.
346 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $25.99.  
2017.

First, she kills off his real human parents in a freak accident. (Surely that’s got to score some sympathy points.)

If making Weylyn an orphan doesn’t do the trick, she gives him an awesome sidekick (a unicorn pig Weylyn names Merlin) and the ability to perform real magic. This is a kid who can talk to animals and start blizzards, stop tornadoes, revive plants and start downpours.

What’s more, Lang invents nine character witnesses for the sole purpose of trying to get you to like Weylyn.

Through Weylyn’s doctor Daniel Proust, teacher Mrs. Meg Lowry, sister Lydia Kramer, mayor Bobby Quinn Jr., boss Duane Fordham, neighbor Roarke, nephew Micah Barnes, butcher Nelson Penlore, and friend Mary Penlore’s first-person narratives, the jury understands Gray — a man who becomes more fantastical and extraordinary with each retelling that his feats almost read like a bunch of Chuck Norris jokes by the end.

Through their words, Weylyn Gray is a humble giant of a man, Lang’s own Paul Bunyan. (Like Bunyan, Gray was also a part-time lumberjack in one of his past lives.)

Weylyn made their lives more interesting, sometimes giving it color when it didn’t have any (One of Weylyn’s magical abilities is to create rainbows out of thin air).

But still, “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances” feels and sounds surprisingly ordinary next to Superman or the X-Men or Mowgli from “The Jungle Book” or Paul Bunyan or Boo Radley from “To Kill A Mockingbird” or Tom Sawyer — that the tall tales of Weylyn Gray may not stand the test of time.

The alternating prospectives, which all sound the same, make it hard to connect with a single character, but their attitudes color how you see Weylyn. Those who knew Weylyn treat Weylyn as a novelty initially (the boy who doesn’t sit in chairs, stops tornados with his bare hands, jars the light of fireflies or patches his roof with cobwebs). To them, Weylyn sounded like an alien — a person who didn’t really belong in their world even though he made their lives more magical.

To them, Weylyn was the best kind of human (like Boo Radley from Harper Lee’s book “To Kill a Mockingbird”) — the kind of guy who “don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.”

It’d be a sin to hurt him, Lang seems to be saying, just like it’d be a sin to criticize Lang’s young adult novel. Like Lee’s mockingbirds or the bird (I mean wolf) boy Weylyn, Lang created “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances” to be enjoyed. Who are we to shoot them down?

‘Circe’ stands up to those in power

Madeline Miller’s “Circe” is to Homer’s “Odyssey” as Jonathan and Lawrence Kasden’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is to George Lucas’ original “Star Wars” trilogy.

If you’re familiar with the canon, you know where these characters will end up (in Han Solo’s case, that means steering the Millennium Falcon with Luke Skywalker; while in Circe’s case, that means turning Odysseus’ men into pigs), but their respective origin story spinoffs answer questions you didn’t know you had — like where did the six-headed man-eating sea monster Scylla come from? Or how was the man-eating Minotaur of Crete born? Or why does Circe transform men into swine?

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“Circe”
By Madeline MIller.
393 pp. Little, Brown and Company. $27.  
2018.

Miller’s “Circe” gives these myths new life, weaving them together and giving them context. Circe, the witch exiled to the island of Aeaea, was the daughter of the sun god Helios and nymph Perse. She was the niece of Prometheus, the Titan who stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to humanity.

She was the sister of Pasiphaë, the queen of Crete who gave birth to the Minotaur.

She was the aunt of Medea, who helped the hero Jason steal the golden fleece from her father and Circe’s brother Aeëtes.

Miller’s Circe was also an immortal goddess, a powerful master of transfiguration, who fell in love with mortal men and was uncomfortable with praise.

Odysseus, the Greek hero who made Circe famous, said he “never met a god who enjoyed their divinity less.”

But that’s what mortal men liked about her — that she was giving and approachable and motherly.

Battling with an internal monologue filled with doubt, guilt, fear, loneliness and low self-worth, Circe was a goddess mortal men took advantage of — who has her own #MeToo story.

But she doesn’t let it or her sins define her. She punishes and atones and persists. All the while, time stands still as we listen to her story with rapt attention.

Unlike Circe, those familiar with the Greek mythology are the ones with the gift of prophecy, knowing things before the goddess does.

Icarus will fly too close to the sun. Theseus will slay the Minotaur. Odysseus eventually goes home. And everyone dies — eventually.

But despite what the fates have foretold, we dare Circe to defy it, standing up to those in power and speaking the truth.

She doesn’t disappoint.

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ is a work of art

Reading Donna Tartt’s novel “The Goldfinch” is to look through time, to glimpse a moment, memory and a noun — frozen and preserved in words or brushstrokes.

For Tartt’s 13-year-old protagonist Theo Decker, that’s the moment when his world blew up — when a bomb went off in the New York Metropolitan Museum and killed his mother.

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“The Goldfinch”
By Donna Tartt.
864 pp. Hachette Book Group, Inc.  
2013.

Days and years and decades after, Decker would run through the moments in his mind: the last words she said to him (a history lesson about one of her favorite oil paintings: Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch”), the last thing he ate with her (leftover Chinese takeout), the last Thanksgiving/Christmas/birthday/Mother’s Day/fill-in-the-blank he spent with her — playing the dangerous game of “what ifs” that might have prevented her death.

If Decker hadn’t been suspended from school that day, he and his mother might not have been together. If it hadn’t had rained, they might not have stopped in the Met. If they weren’t at the Met, she wouldn’t have been there when that bomb went off and she wouldn’t have died.

He wouldn’t have stolen that Fabritius painting of a goldfinch chained to its feeder from the museum.

He wouldn’t have walked away from the debris alone and in shock, assuming that she’d meet him back at their apartment.

He wouldn’t have called her cell over and over again, hitting voicemail ever time.

Child services wouldn’t have showed up at their New York apartment.

He wouldn’t have stayed with his best friend Andy Barbour or Barbour’s wealthy, attractive and distant Knickerbocker family. Or moved to Las Vegas with his absentee deadbeat alcoholic father and his father’s pill-popping girlfriend Xandra. He wouldn’t have met his friend Boris, or become a shoplifter, drug addict, thief, or bird chained to a million dollar painting that reminded him of this mother.

He wouldn’t have built his life around a self-destructive secret that could blow his life apart at any minute if discovered.

Or maybe Decker would have. Even if his mother had lived.

It’s impossible to know.

But Fabritius’ painting, Tartt’s book and other works of art serve a greater goal: to remind us to live.

“What teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair,” writes Tartt.

“The Goldfinch” does that, forcing us to think about our own mortality and the moments, memories and people who’ve shaped us.

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction in 2014.

 

The pieces to ‘Robin’ Williams life and death

Like most kids growing up on a diet of Disney movies, I first knew Robin Williams as the voice of the genie in “Aladdin.” Later, I grew to know him as John Keating in “Dead Poet Society,” Parry in “The Fisher King,” Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and Sean Maguire in “Good Will Hunting.”

After Williams died in August 2014, I binge-watched YouTube clips of Williams’ appearances on late night talk shows and watched “World’s Greatest Dad” on Netflix, searching the movie for clues to Williams’ depression. 

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“Robin”
By Dave Itzkoff.
544 pp. Henry Holt & Co. $30. 
May 15, 2018.

Why did a man loved by so many kill himself? I wanted to know. Williams’ death reminded me of that of Richard Cory’s from Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem (My “John Keating” had introduced me to this poem in my high school’s version of the “Dead Poet Society”).

We’ll never get the answer to this impossible question. But The New York Times‘ culture reporter Dave Itzkoff attempts to explain our “whys” in his biography “Robin.” A posthumous biopsy revealed that Williams had Lewy body dementia, a disease that “frequently presents with Parkinsonian motor symptoms and a constellations [sic] of neuropsychiatric manifestations, including depression and hallucination,” according to a surgical pathological report.

Itzkoff, who interviewed Williams previously (and remembers how Williams met Itzkoff at Williams’ favorite comic book store in New York City after the reporter expressed that he loved comics), is more interested in answering “who,” rather than “why.”

Who was this man that we loved?

He was a man we felt like we knew, who could make you laugh with his voices and characters, but “he was more like an illusionist, and his magic trick was making you see what he wanted to see — the act and not the artist delivering it,” writes Itzkoff.

Through extensive interviews with Williams’ family and friends including William’s son Zak Williams, ex-wife Valerie Velardi, half-brother McLaurin Smith-Williams, sister-in-law Frankie Williams, “Mork and Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber, comedian Dana Carvey, and “The Tonight Show” hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman, Itzkoff tries to chronologically piece together the mystery behind Williams’ public life and death — from his childhood playing with toy soldiers and moving from Michigan and Illinois to California to his marriages and rise in stand-up, television and film.

Williams emerges as a mostly tragic hero in Itzkoff’s book, one “addicted to laughter” and compared to “a giant puppy” — who was too eager to please and couldn’t say, “No,” even as it destroyed his career, health and relationships at times.

“If he could give you some of his time to help you enjoy your day or feel better about yourself, he would, and he gave pieces of himself to many people,” wrote Itzkoff.

But despite Williams’ kind and gregarious nature, Williams could also be an intensely private man that even those closest to him never fully knew.

“They believed there was some part of himself that he withheld from them; everyone got a piece of him and a fortunate few got quite a lot of him, but no one got all of him,” wrote Itzkoff.

Perhaps Itzkoff never gets to the bottom of who Williams was, but the book contains many pieces of Williams — pieces that you don’t want to end because once it does and you read through the last three chapters in tears, you feel like you just lost one of your favorite actors all over again.

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Robin” by Dave Itzkoff from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. 

Sarah Winman’s ‘Tin Man’ will break your heart

Ellis Judd’s heart is in a diary in a box in his father’s attic. It’s in a photograph taken by a wood merchant. It’s in line drawings he sketched as a child. By 1996, the subjects are mostly dead, lingering in these physical manifestations as well as in his memories.

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“Tin Man”
By Sarah Winman.
336 pp. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $23.
May 15, 2018.

Cancer, a car accident and AIDS took them from him. But love and loss hasn’t taken Ellis Judd’s heart. Instead, he buries it in a thin “tin armor” of whisky and work. But occasionally, the ghosts of his friend, wife and mother still get through the barriers.

Written in three non-linear parts, Sarah Winman’s “Tin Man” feels like a series of short stories about the same handful of characters. You’ve met Ellis. But there’s also his friend Michael, Ellis’ wife Annie and mother Dora Judd, who were all happy and alive once.

Now Ellis is lost and alone, sorting through time and memories without them.

Winman’s “Tin Man” is a beautiful, breathtaking book that reads like poetry — her version of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”

Michael and Annie and Dora have all fallen cold and dead, but Ellis still calls.

Why you need to read John Boyne’s ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’

John Boyne’s latest novel, “The Heart’s Invisible Furies,” is a tale of sin and shame, sexual repression, unrequited love and unspoken truths, full of the impossible and improbable, topped with a heavy helping of Catholic guilt.

This recipe makes for a highly entertaining and moving 580-page page turner, which will also fill you, the reader, with an immense longing.

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“The Heart’s Invisible Furies”
By John Boyne.
580 pp. Hogarth. $17.
March 6, 2018.

Take the book’s intro: “Long before we discovered that he fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the alter of the City of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”

Once you get past the fact that a baby in the womb of his mother seems to be narrating what’s going on, you want to know what happens next, right?

That’s how you fly through three countries and 70 years (1945 to 2015), the lifespan of an Irish lad named Cyril Avery (who isn’t really an Avery, as his adopted father constantly reminds him). Cyril (since he really isn’t an Avery) has secrets which killed a priest during confession: 1.) he likes boys, and 2.) he’s in love with his straight best friend and former roommate Julian Woodbead, who could never love him back the same way.

Since homosexuality doesn’t exist in Ireland or in the Catholic Church (no more than unmarried pregnant teenagers do), Cyril hides his existence through dark alleys, willing girlfriends (who don’t know that they’re this beard) and terrifying “doctor” visits to men who prescribe treatments from the pages of Anthony Burgess’ novel “The Clockwork Orange.” Meanwhile, Cyril’s constantly tortured by Julian (who talks a bit like Jay from the E4 TV series “The Inbetweeners,” but is better-looking, charming and more sexually active than Jay, based on Cyril’s descriptions).

You can probably guess how this relationship is likely to play out, but like Cyril, you torture yourself, devouring “The Heart’s Invisible Furies.”

It a hell of a read.

Disclaimer: I received a paperback version of “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” by John Boyne from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. 

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Clarissa Goenawan’s debut novel ‘Rainbirds’ feels like walking in the rain

Clarissa Goenawan’s literary debut “Rainbirds” is the book you read when you feel like walking in a rainstorm, knowing you’ll get wet, but not really caring. The coldness and soft pitter-patter is comforting in a way because it makes you feel beyond the numbness — drown without really drowning, and bleed without really bleeding.

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“Rainbirds”
By Clarissa Goenowan.
323 pp. Soho Press, Inc. $25.
March 6, 2018.

That’s what Goenawan’s hero 24-year-old Ren Ishida does — first after his older sister Keiko Ishida moves away from their home in Tokyo without warning and again after Keiko tragically dies years later. She was 33.

Ren loved his older sister, who basically raised him because their parents were both arguing and absent. She often cooked him his favorite dish, curry rice — always with a smile, even though she didn’t know how to cook rice and was also a kid. (Even when undercooked or watery, Keiko’s curry rice was the best curry rice Ren ever tasted.)

So when Keiko died — murdered in the quiet rural fictional Japanese town of Akakawa (which translates to “red river” in Japanese) — it was like the sky opened up and started downpouring.

It’s good that Ren always liked the rain (and its earthy smell).

Written in first person from Ren’s contemplative perspective, Goenawan’s book takes you through a journey. Ren follows his sister’s footsteps, pursuing an English and literature degree at a prestigious Japanese university; moving to Akakawa, where Keiko relocated after she turned 22; teaching English at the same college entrance exam prep school Keiko worked; and trying to live the life she lived.

But as Ren grieves, he learns that the sister he loves might have been grieving, too, when she mysteriously disappeared to Akakawa. She, too, might have also been walking through a rainstorm.

“Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurt you and those around you,” she once said.

Packed with staccato’s sentences, “Rainbirds” is a contemporary classic you can easily disappear into — the type of book you read when you want to retreat into a whisper of quiet loneliness. You can’t make someone love you. You can’t choose who you love. And some relationships are just cut too short without reason. But you have to keep walking, even when it rains.

The sun will come back tomorrow.

But today smells like hope.

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Why you want to hate ‘The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky,’ but can’t

Jana Casale’s debut novel “The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky” feels like reading the story behind a carefully curated Instagram feed. Between the entries about sitting in coffee shops, falling in love, moving to San Francisco, taking scenic road trips with her boyfriend, working on her novel and pretending to read Noam Chomsky to impress a boy she likes, Casale’s heroine Leda is insecure — obsessed with the concept of being “linear.”

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“The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky” 
By Jana Casale. 
368 pp. Knopf. $27.97.
April 17, 2018.

Leda was the type of girl who thought “salad for lunch was a distant notion she associated with mortgages and weddings,” orders clothing made out of tree pulp or vegan silk, “grown accustomed to drinking intolerable drinks at parties by holding her breath and taking small sips,” and builds her days around “tea and ice cream.”

She was the type of girl who apologizes all the time and forces herself to do stuff she hates because that’s what everybody else does and thinks its also what’s expected from her. The type of girl who shaves the pubic hair from her vagina even though it hurts and makes her bleed and her boyfriend tells her to stop shaving down there.

She’s the type of girl that you hate — who has her whole life put together and still feels insecure. She’s engaged by 25 and married by 26. She doesn’t have to go through the charade of mindlessly swiping on Tinder or OkCupid. She became a mother before she turned 30. And writes her first novel and gets it published*. (* I’m referring to Jana Casale rather than Casale’s heroine Leda in this instance.)

But the main reason you hate Leda: because she reminds you of yourself and you hate yourself and your indecision and insecurity. You want Leda (and yourself) to be brave and fearless and above pettiness, but even as you’re reading about how Casale describes the cattiness of women who constantly try to one-up each other, you’re just as guilty of this and “never reading Noam Chomsky,” comparing yourself to a fictional character and her invisible Instagram feed.