Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Layoff Week

Monday

The birthday girl slept in while Butley and I went on a nice long walk in the morning. Good to tire him out and to give her a chance to sleep in. Angie’s parents, Tony and Marianne had flown in for the soireé, and our friend BT McNicholl had come down from New York on Sunday for brunch, as he was going to be in San Antonio on business (for five hours – what a jet-set life he leads…). Angie, Tony and I went shopping for wine in the afternoon. Why, do you ask?

Well, it seems that a great many of Philadelphia’s restaurants are BYOB. This is apparently because there are a limited number of liquor licenses in the city available. (Someone lobbied for a good deal, I imagine.) As a result, they’re extremely expensive. So many, if not most, of the restaurants in Philadelphia allow you to bring your own alcohol. (We found one restaurant where they make different margaritas and you bring your own tequila.) This is good for the consumer in a number of ways. You pay much less for your wine, AND you know that the restaurant isn’t making any money on liquor sales – it’s all about the food & service – so the restaurants had better have some damn good food & service.

Thusly loaded up with liquor, we returned to the hotel to put the white wine on ice and to shower & lay low for a bit. Tony and Marianne went out for a pre-dinner cocktail of their own, while Angie’s friend Liz Morton arrived early from New York & came to hang out at the hotel with us. Dolled up & ready to go, Angie, Liz, and I went over to the restaurant.

Pumpkin is not a big place – in fact, it only has seating for less than 30. And it’s normally closed on Mondays. But Angie had made arrangements to have them open for us and we had the place all to ourselves. She’d also been in conversation with the owner & chef (a married couple with a pit bull themselves – loved the karma) and had planned an eight-plate tasting menu.
So, we had the kind of arrangement I’ve always envied when walking down Ninth Avenue in New York & seeing a sign on a restaurant window, “Closed for private party.” We had a very rustic-chic dining room all to ourselves, with a full staff in the back. And a word about the staff – they were terrific. From the presentation & description about the foods to the juggling of 16 diners moving about the table to visit with different groups, to handling little mishaps along the way, they operated smoothly, warmly, and without conveying any sense of stress to us, providing a fun, fun night.

So – the guest list. Angie, me, Tony, Marianne, Joy Franz, Carrie Kozlowski, Adam Natale, Adam’s parents Andi and Sal, Kelly Cruz, Liz Morton, Eva Kaminsky, Henry Stram, Marty Moran, Aaron Goodwin, Birgit Huppuch. Because it was down in Philly, we knew that lots of folks who wanted to come couldn’t for one very good reason or another, and because we had to have a solid head count by a certain point, to plan how much food was going to be prepared, we had to have an RSVP deadline. But in keeping with the goal of a low-pressure, fun, easy dinner, we gratefully accepted all the comers who could make it and counted each one as a lucky opportunity to see another friend.

Now, I am not enough of a gourmand to recount the details of the food, its preparation, the farms where the radishes were grown or the butter was churned, but I do know I was impressed with the debriefing before each dish. I am also not even enough of a gourmand, frankly, to recall all the dishes we had. But in a few words, they were light, tasty, and exactly right.

As was the evening. Our thanks to all who were able to make it, especially to those who came in from out of town. Angie spent her 40th birthday exactly how she wanted – with good friends, good food, good wine, and nothing to do but enjoy all three.


Tuesday

Tuesday was the day to do all the things in Philadelphia that we had wanted to do but hadn’t really had time for ‘til then.

Which wasn’t all that much, as it turned out. Angie got some Rita’s Water Ice, a definite destination, if you find yourself in the City of Brotherly Love of Frozen Desserts. We went for dinner with Aaron Goodwin at El Vez, a seemingly predictable Mexican restaurant which was happily not so predictable.

That evening, we turned in early. Maybe it was the fatigue of the last week kicking in, but I was a bit under the weather than evening. And with the drive ahead, I thought it wise for me to dig in & conserve my energy. Angie, having pulled off one of the more successful birthdays I’ve ever attended and faced with the necessary preparations for her impending duties as marriage maestro for Doug & Antonio's wedding to come, gave no resistance to the idea.


Wednesday

Off to Boston. We stopped on the way in Bethlehem, PA for lunch with my sister and brother-in-law Marisa and John, and my nephew Julian. And I have to say, the Waldorf school that Julian’s been attending has resulted in some pretty spectacular artwork and knitting. Marisa made a great salad, complete with salmon (Is salmon, fresh vegetables & tangy dressing “ok” with me? Like you have to ask?). Butley did his parents proud as he sat calmly by the dinner table. And we got a quick tour of the house which, because of all my travels hither & yon, I’ve hardly seen since they moved in. And from the ocean mural in Julian’s room to the skylight cut into the ceiling attic to the textile shop-cum-Pilates studio to the academician’s study, John & Marisa have made their house a home.

Hizzoner and I played a little soccer as Angie & I got as caught up with John & Marisa as the remaining 45 minutes would allow, and then my inner Mussolini kicked in. The trains must run on time. And so must we.

We continued on to Boston, where we arrived at Doug’s sister and brother-in-law Amy & Doug MacDougal’s place in Westborough, MA where they kindly offered to let us stay. Butley had a great time climbing up & down the stairs of their beautiful home, going from room to room. Having only recently been re-sentenced to hotel living, after his extended stay in Des Moines, it was a fun treat to have another full-on house in which to roam around. And a cosy one at that.

Doug & Amy have the kind of house that family sit-coms are written for. Where people come & go, they pop in and are immediately invited to plop themselves down on the sofa for a little television or to stand around the kitchen island for some neighborly conversation, to join for an evening meal if one’s being cooked (or to rummage through the fridge for leftovers, if not), and to spend the night if the drive home is too long. It’s the house that has the existence of life being lived at every turn. Which, by the way, is not a euphemism – it’s very handsome. And Angie and I were the lucky first guests in the new upstairs bedroom that Doug has been working on with such expert skill that I had to ask again to have it explained to me that no, they didn’t hire someone to do the attic renovations for them but in fact he did the plastering all by himself.

That night, the rain began to fall. And the sound of the rain falling like beads on leather lulled us to sleep – a lovely soundtrack, even if it gave us all the more reason to fear for the outdoor wedding that had been planned for the next day.


Thursday

Now, when people talk about lightning strikes, about the damage done to their homes & property, it’s usually not storming like the bejeezus right then and there, while you're hearing about it. Some element of imagination is required. You see the splintered trunk, the burn marks on the side of a barn, the shattered window of a car, and you think to yourself, “Yes, that must have been quite a thing to have happened.” But still, it’s hard to make it real for yourself.

But at 5 in the morning, when the lightning struck a tree a block away, my first thought was why would terrorists give a damn about setting Westborough, Massachusetts as the target for an explosive attack – because surely that is the ONLY thing that could have made such a frigging BLAST like the one that woke us up and drove an already anxious Butley, shaking and drooling, into bed and under the covers with us.

I mean, this was LOUD.

And it was at that point, in between paroxysms of canine terror, that Angie and I said to each other, as if describing the impossibility of unaided human flight, “Yeah, that wedding’s not happening outside.”

And so it looked at 10am, when the rain had slowed but was still falling pretty steadily. The backup plan was to use the library in the condominium building where Doug & Antonio live. They were planning to hold a pre-ceremonial greeting and toast there before the main event, and might use it for the ceremony as well.

It wasn’t optimal. Living in Jamaica Plain, directly adjacent to Jamaica Pond, Doug & Antonio have a special attachment to the pond where they often take walks. As dearly as I hold Inwood Hill Park, even after only having actually lived there for maybe three months, I can sympathize. But it looked like the die was cast. But they held out hope.

And by about 2pm, the rain had turned to drizzle, which was now beginning to turn to mist.

We arrived at the condo around 3, and the plan was to push on, perhaps with a few umbrellas, perhaps some delicate stepping, and to have the ceremony at a gazebo on Jamaica Pond, covered as it was, just in case. And after a warm reception where guests began arriving from points hither and yon, raising a glass of champagne and nibbling on some hors d’oeuvres, it was off to the gazebo we went, like a merry little parade.

As the MC, Angie was terrific, a hostess with the mostest. And the wedding was very moving. Doug’s mom and Antonio’s father have both passed within the last few years, and their absence was felt. Yet the good humor and general grace of all the participants, not to mention the mist and fog gently lifting over Jamaica Pond, kept everyone’s spirits lifted.

I could give you the blow by blow of the wedding. But I’m faced with the fact that, in order to do it any justice at all, I would have to write far more than I have finger strength to accomplish. And for most of our readers unfamiliar with Doug & Antonio, it would be interesting reading, no doubt, but a bit difficult to appreciate. However, as it turned out, Doug’s sister-in-law, who was to be the wedding photographer, was unable to make it at the last minute because of illness in her immediate family. And I, with my camera and relative anonymity from the large majority of guests, was easily able to hold myself at lens’ length and step in. The result, after I sorted through the photos, was a little slideshow which, I think, gives a better impression.




Friday


We rose, packed the car, and headed home.

No, let me write that again.

We rose.

Packed the car.

AND HEADED HOME.

Yes, it’s true. Ben & Carmen, who’ve been staying at our apartment, graciously offered to find other accommodations for the July 4th weekend, and we three weary travelers go to spend THREE DELICIOUS NIGHTS IN OUR OWN APARTMENT.

God bless you, Ben & Carmen.

We ate at the Indian Road Café, a lovely breakfast, lunch, dinner, nightcap place that had only just opened weeks before we hit the road at the start of this whole tour. In fact, the July 4th weekend was its one-year anniversary. I remember how everyone was reading the updates in the windows, as they were in the planning stages, that the owners posted occasionally, how everyone was peering in the windows during the renovations from the long-derelict former deli that was there before, and how all the neighbors we knew were so quick to mention that “Indian Road Café’s finally open!” once they opened their doors. And here it was, already at their one-year mark, and they're going very strong, I’m glad to say.

We at there three times, actually. I frickin’ love that joint. Right off Inwood Hill Park, with views of the common green area and the Harlem River Spuyten Dyvil bend, where it flows into the Hudson. A great wine and beer selection. Hardwood floors, genial staff, and owners who fully appreciate their status as anchor for a neighborhood community scene, with mounted photos from Inwood Hill Park ‘back in the day’, personal attention paid to every guest, and a menu that’s already being changed, to keep the regular clientele (who, given its location in the little cul-de-sac where it sits, surely makes up a large share of its business) coming back for more.

And on July 4th, as Butley kept to the bathroom, as far from the fireworks as he could be, Angie and I went up on the roof and – along with about 20 or 30 of our neighbors and their guests – watched the horizon behind The Cloisters light up in brilliant colors in a fireworks display that we couldn’t really see but which, no more than an elevator ride away from our little piece of the great American dream, we enjoyed with fine satisfaction.

We unpacked. We rearranged. We went through mail. We watched a video. We repacked. We slept. We walked through the park. We said “See you soon,” to our home once more. And on Monday, we …

…packed up the car and headed for DC.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Philadelphia, PA

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you: THE LAST WEEK BEFORE OUR FIRST LAYOFF SINCE CHRISTMAS. Which undoubtedly sounds like less to you than it does to us. Or did. And which frankly probably sounded like less to me than it did to Angie, who actually has to work for a living. And at that rate, less to Angie than … oh this is silly…

Philly. Filly, filly, filly. Phillayyyy. Filet…


PHILLY.

I don’t know why, I just like this town. A lot. Yes, the avowedly dog-friendliness of Philadelphia, from the poop bags in the park to the hotels that accept pets to the restaurants that don’t flinch if you ask to sit with your dog at the outside seating (listen and learn, New York City), doesn’t hurt. But it’s deeper, I’m sure of it. I felt this way the last time I was here. Let me tick off a few possible points worth mentioning, in no particular order:

  • outdoor art – tons of it.
  • A vital theater scene, in fact a vital arts scene all the way around.
  • Smart audiences, which suggests to me a smart population.
  • Lots of historical preservation (but then, oh home of the Declaration, you’d better…)
  • Enough ‘weird’ to offer lots of things-I-wish-I-had-done by the time I left.
  • Architecture which has managed to remain updated without losing a sense of its heritage.
  • Neighborhoods, lots of ‘em.
  • It’s flat – great for biking around.
  • It’s small – great for biking around.
  • Lots of people bike – so you don’t feel like a moron biking around.
  • It’s close enough to New York to make use of the city, but not so close you feel like you’re a bedroom community (I know several actors from Philly, some who stayed in Philly and would commute to NYC for the bigger auditions…)
  • A heartbeat which feels familiar – and this is harder to define, but I think it’s something about its being an East Coast town, with enough ties to New England, that the names sound familiar, people walk at a recognizable pace, stop at delis or flower shops at a familiar rate, go out with friends on the town, instead of visiting at each others’ homes, etc., so the downtown it vital all day long…in fact, and that’s its own thing:
  • Downtown ain’t dead.

Now sure, we were in a cool part of Philadelphia, probably pricier than where I’d find myself as often if I lived there. But I wonder how much pricier? Real estate offerings were pretty good, what I saw up on brokers’ windows. (‘Course, with the recent devaluation because of the economy, that may not be the best measuring stick…) And like a lot of bigger cities, you can live cheaply if you choose to. Eat in, shop on Craigslist, that kind of thing… Stuff we do in New York.

Philadelphia is a city that feels lived in without feeling rundown. Or at least, if it was rundown, it’s been given a very good facelift. Yeah… Philly’s cool.

We arrived and unloaded into our room at the Radisson Warwick Hotel. Very nice. We knew it was going to be a very busy week: we had a new male lead (Jake Epstein) being put in and there was a put-in rehearsal with him. We also had an understudy put-in which was going to eat up another afternoon. But even with a fair amount of rehearsal, we managed to get in some good walks around town.

Angie also went by the restaurant where she had planned to have her birthday dinner, Pumpkin. You see, the missus was due to turn … well, a big number … the Monday after our week in Philadelphia, the Monday of our layoff week, and the plan was to invite a bunch of friends in from New York and other places for dinner and have one very nice, very comfortable, and very personal dinner to celebrate. Some folks were able to make it, others had stuff going on, and some made their pilgrimage in other ways. But more on that to come in the next blog entry... The Layoff Week.

Rittenhouse Square was a frequent watering hole for Butley. Many fun concrete benches made for good practice on hopping up & down. And it’s kind of an anomaly as city parks go – smaller than the kind of park you get lost it, it’s definitely bigger than the kind of park where you can see one side from the other. Nicely carved up to give everyone a little plot of their own, but with more than enough benches and stoops for crowds to gather at lunchtime or such. You'll find your fair share of discoing rollerskaters, mobile-yoga-moms & prams, chess-playing seniors and pigeon-chasing juniors, as well as everything in between.

Parc was a restaurant just adjacent to Rittenhouse, and it’s a little piece of Paris in Philly. Kinda. OK, not really. But someone who built it obviously had at least been to Paris and liked it. The entire walls which open up onto streetside dining, the bamboo & red painted chairs, the predominance of the espresso machine… We had a good brunch there. Nothing toe-curling, but very pleasant.

The theater where we performed, the Academy of Music’s Kimmel Center, was be-yoo-tee-ful. It felt like an old, Austrian opera house. Tom Hulce could have shot his sequel to "Amadeus" there. “Mozart: the Farewell Concert.”


Angie went to a matinee to see her friend Joy Franz perform in a production of Grey Gardens at the Philadelphia Theater Company, on the one afternoon she had off. And me … well … I think I slept on my afternoon off.

And before the evening performance on Sunday, we had our traditional rendition of “Happy Trails” for Kyle Riabko, our Melchior, and Julie Danielson, our bassist, who were to be moving on to greener pastures from our little migrating gaggle. There were tears, Lord were there tears (this is a company of late teens and early twenty-something musical theater kids…), but I think a few of them may have even been mine. Foxholes make fast friends, and I’ll look forward to seeing them both anon. As I surely will. Because we all know how this business is.

But the real excitement of the week – at least for me anyway, having been planning it for a couple weeks prior – was a re-writing of the lyrics to one of our songs, “The Bitch of Living,” to be sung by all the boys in the cast (who sing “The Bitch of Living” in the show). We even rehearsed it a couple times, and Freddy Hall, one of our guitarists, and Marques Walls, our drummer, generously offered their talents. And so, before “Happy Trails,” (I’m no dummy), we rallied the company together and Angie rang in this latest milestone the best way I could think up – by having a group of cute young fellas singing, “The Bitch of 40.”

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Baltimore, MD

After awhile, the refrain becomes a bit repetitive. Another town I’ve been to before. Another couple weeks with a lot of rehearsals. Another downtown. Another set of cute parts to find. Another downtown that’s suffering from urban flight.

Interestingly enough – one thing I’ve been noticing is how the depressed downtown areas are often on the East Coast. Why that is, I’m not sure. Because we only went to tourist destinations on the West Coast? Because the East Coast is just more densely populated, and thus the suburb rules? Because the East Coast is older? Because the West is moving from rural to cosmopolitan, while the East moves from cosmopolitan to rural? I dunno. You tell me.

Fells Point: A great place to spend a lazy afternoon. Wide open streets and restaurants & bars with tables outside. Fun stores. The harbor nearby. Bikers of all flavors park their hogs along the street and take in an afternoon brew while plaid-short tourists wander through the open market.

Federal Hill: I like this area a lot. (A wee bit less, now that the Thirsty Dog Tavern (now simply Pub Dog) no longer allows dogs.) Lots of little shops. Restaurants. And the quirky home of Illusions Magic Bar and Lounge,where Spencer Horsman, the young prodigy magician son of Ken Horsman, a former Ringling Bros. Circus clown, performs his act on the weekends. And frankly, how that twenty dollar bill made it into that orange, I have NO earthly idea… But if magic isn't your style, there is still plenty of recreation to be had in looking at the old school furnishings, the masterly bartending, the pool table and couches in the back, or the museum of clippings and memorabilia that Ken has amassed of his son's nascent career.


Hampden: I’ve never been there, sadly. I had wanted to go for “Honfest,” but I had some other commitments. The website describes it as “a local tradition. The Bawlmer term of endearment, Hon, short for Honey, embodies the warmth and affection bestowed upon our neighbors and visitors alike by historic working-women of Baltimore. HonFest is an annual celebration in honor of these women. Since 1994, HonFest has grown from a tiny Baltimore's Best Hon pageant behind Café Hon, to a nationally recognized festival that covers four city blocks on Hampden's very own 36th Street.” Basically, if you put Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade together with Greenwich Village’s Gay Pride Parade and grind them both through a John Waters blender… you’d get Honfest.


American Visionary Art Museum: Wow. So cool. A museum which, at every turn, would seem to evoke the response, "I didn't know you could make art like THAT. Or use a material like THAT." Junkyard genius and backyard brilliance. Whatever credentials among the artists you find here are like so much honorary degrees - only acknowledgment of otherwise innate talent and experience-based training. It's art that simultaneously makes you think you could go into your crafts box and make something brilliant yourself, while simultaneously shaming you into thinking you could ever have an ounce of these people's creativity. And of late, they've added exhibitions that cross all sorts of boundaries, looking at the artistic experience itself from psychological, economic, cultural, anthropological, and historical perspectives. If there's one thing you do in Baltimore, make this it.

I think, by now, you’re getting the idea. Another town chock full o’ nuts. As for other towns that have to wage a campaign to 'keep XXX weird', Baltimore seemingly never actually has to even put that idea forth. The weirdness brigade seems fully and permanently entrenched.
But here’s the thing: I have never been to a town with so much personality but so little character. What is the essence of Baltimore? I couldn’t really tell you. Something about the town eludes encapsulation. For instance, Angie and I met a guy in this stationery store (I think it was Le Petit Cochon) who’s British and had been all over the world. He’d wanted to move to the US and, in making a careful examination of all the cities on the Eastern Seaboard, this fellow – a more-than-part-time sailor – picked the harbor city of Baltimore. He talked non-stop, even though he was very charming and literate, and he thought Baltimore was the bee’s knees, which is fine, but he was the last person you would ever have expected to end up in Baltimore, let alone as the result of careful forethought and preparation.

A town with one of the highest historical murder and crime rates in the nation. (More than New York and between 2 & 3 times the national average.) A town that has been steadily losing its population for years (2.2% just last year). An economy that … well … that’s bad everywhere, isn’t it? Anyway – somehow, in spite of it all – Baltimore manages to earn from its residents an undying loyalty. But even if you ask them, they can’t really tell you what it is that draws them to stay. Yes, the crime there is terrible. Yes, the city has been trying to rebuild itself, but it’s largely failed. And yet, Baltimore is, by all resident reports, a great place to live.

Obviously, there’s something I’m not getting…

And I don’t disbelieve it either. Civic pride can only take you so far. I’m only saying that I think you have to really spend some time there, getting to know the town inside and out, before you can make a judgment. More time, and with more assiduousness, than I apparently had. But after ten months on the road, if my intrepid tourist skills have begun to flag, well … can you really blame me?

One last item worth mentioning: we had a lovely 5th anniversary dinner at Sascha's. It turns out that I had been to this restaurant 2 years before, when I was on my last tour - and it was, in fact, the first time Angie had come down to visit me on the road. But I didn't remember that until we arrived at the place. They actually held the kitchen open a bit late for us, as we came there right from the show. Afterwards, we went for drinks across the street at Ixia (for which I would gladly provide a link, but it's now apparently closed - too bad, it was a very nice place). And tottering home, I could say it was the romance of the evening that was so intoxicating, but ... the dirty vodka martinis probably didn't hurt. The rain that began softly falling helped to sober us up, though, and as we arrived back at the hotel, I think it was all in all a perfect anniversary. So let that be my own contradiction. Yes, it was Baltimore. And yes, we had a perfectly good time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Louisville, KY

The Promised Land. The End of the Drought. The Beginning of the Future.

The Return of Butley.


Now, don’t get me wrong. Tag’s great. Some day, if I ever have need of a service dog, I’d love to have a pal like Tag to actually get things for me that I couldn’t get on my own, to open doors for me, to go with me to work and to the movies … and to bowling alleys!

But in the meanwhile, able-bodied, late-sleeping, and bearded (read: hidden cost of shedding) as I am, bring me back my boy.

Nicole and Eric had it all planned out: drive to Louisville, swap the dogs that Monday night, and spend the rest of the week riding bikes. It … didn’t quite work out like that. They drove to Louisville, we swapped the dogs, and … well … that’s where the plan went awry.

But let me back up – I have no photos of our reunion with Butley because a) it was literally at midnight, b) we were in a poorly lit park just over the river in Indiana, c) I knew I wanted to spend the time getting slobbery kisses and wrestling. So you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that we were nearly BOWLED OVER by the gleefully rampaging ball of muscle that Butley had become! Other people, in a dark park, late at night, in a strange city, with a pit bull charging them down, open-mouthed and snorfling like a rutting moose, might be afraid. Understandably. We, however, were thrilled.

And as soon as Butley saw the big red Forester he’d spent so much time in already this last year, he hopped right up and in the back seat. “Right, OK – on with the show!” he seemed to be saying. And while we stayed out in the park and traded brief Butley and Tag tips, bags of food, toys, beds, leashes, and the like for awhile longer, after a long day of travel for everyone, we were all just as happy to cut it short for the promise of a lunch tomorrow and to have the proper catching up when and where it would be a little more comfortable.

So – Butley’s back. All hail the big-head.

Louisville was another one of those towns where Angie and I had both worked, had a pretty good sense of where we were and what the place was like, and with Butley back in our care, we were pretty happy to spend the time just wandering the new Waterfront Park they have. It’s a great new development that is new since either of us had worked at Actors Theater of Louisville. Before, it was just an abandoned, industrial area. Now, it’s a place for the whole town to enjoy, and it promises to give a good shot in the arm to the downtown economy and quality of life.

We always knew there were good restaurants there, and while we only went somewhere other than the Einstein’s Bagels in the hotel lobby a couple times, it was never disappointing. Proof is the newest noteworthy addition to the downtown dining scene. While a few local cognoscenti resent all the attention its gotten and consider it a bit out of place, we thought it was terrific. Kate Hampton, Angie’s understudy, was practically drooling at the thought of their burgers. And I gotta say, it’s some seriously good eats; married with an off-beat design that straddles quirky and trendy without sacrificing too much of the just-plain-weird on which Louisville’s arts scene prides itself.

“Keep Louisville Weird” reads a slogan you’ll see on bumper stickers or posters here and there. It’s not the only city to herald itself thusly. I’ve seen “Keep Austin Weird,” “Keep Portland Weird,” I think there may be a “Keep Seattle Weird,” although I think it’s a little late for that place. But all of these cities are cities that – if I had a job that kept me there – I have no doubt I could find a very happy life for myself. Angie as well. Funky coffee shops, atavistic LP record shops, art galleries for self-taught artists, and local dignitaries that could only happen there. So, if New York ever gets too much (if I ever actually live there for any length of time), I think one of my chief criteria may be, “Is it weird?”

The one decidedly NOT weird, and frankly kinda depressing, thing about the downtown Louisville scene is the 4th Street Live trainwreck of the kinds of bars they must scout out for those “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Loud, typical, anonymous, and full of so many flashing lights, television screens, and gimmicky restaurants that you KNOW it’s going to be a drag just as you walk up to it. If you’re going to Louisville, I suggest you avoid it.



We did enjoy the street musicians there. Maybe because it’s a new thing, I don’t know, but it was more than some guy with a plastic pail drumming brilliant but piercing rhythms that echo off the buildings. It was 5-piece bands, acoustic guitarists who actually had a good voice, and … outfits. It almost felt a little like New Orleans.

Which would be appropriate, since Louisville shares the same municipal logo – the fleur de Lis. You’ll see it all over – in reference to King Louis, I imagine, the town’s presumptive namesake.


That and the orange fire hydrants.

But we also spent time with Nicole and Eric, going over some of Butley’s training. And our little foursome somehow has the proclivity to talk. A lot. And so we did. Among the topics were a couple ideas Eric and I have been throwing around for fundraising for Paws & Effect, their canine service program. And Tag also had to go to the vet – it seems the meds he was taking for flea and tick prevention only work … on fleas. And after his romp in the woods, he came back with – a LOTTA ticks. We thought we had gotten all of them. But a couple had to be handled by a vet. So, that took up one day. And then we had a little remedial work we had to go back over with Butley, and that took up one day. And we had to meet to give them Tag’s food. And that took up an afternoon. And … well … unfortunately they didn’t get a lot of riding in, during the break.

But they had a true vacation from work, and hopefully they won’t resent us forever. (Right guys?)

Angie and I both did a little perusing the Bardstown Road area, a favorite for both of us. Walking along, I thought back to the bike I bought at Bardstown Bicycles, the days I spent flipping through the music at Ear-X-Tacy, and getting Coffee at the Metro Café, back when I was working at the Humana Festival.

And, this being the home of the LebowskiFest, I did have to look to see if I could find a rug. You know. Something to tie the room together.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pittsburgh, PA


Driving the big highway near Toledo I had a conversation with Charley on the subject of roots. He listened but he didn’t reply. In the pattern-thinking about roots I and most people have left two things out of consideration. Could it
be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency?

- John Steinbeck, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY


Pittsburgh: Home of the Steelers. Home of the Pirates. Home of the Penguins. Home of…The Cerveris clan. (sorry, no weblink for that one...)

In 1905, my future grandfather, 11-year-old Michele Cerverizzo emigrated to America. Here's the actual manifest - he's passenger number 2:


In 1905, Michele Cerverizzo emigrated to America. He wasn’t the first of his brood. It all began with his brother. You see … well, I’ll spare the reader all the stories. And there are stories. BOY are there stories. Trysts with a neighborhood girl. A hunting accident. A mother on a mission. A father who refused to visit America. But among my favorites – the story of how my grandfather’s father repaired my grandmother’s father’s watch. And Michele Cerverizzo, around 10 years old at the time, and Mary Cost, around 4, met for the very first time.

It didn’t go well. He thought this little kid was kind of annoying, frankly. But he remembered her. And the watch his father repaired. Years later, meeting in the New World, they put the puzzle pieces together. Michele remembered Mary’s father’s watch. And generations since owe their existence to a chance encounter.

All the events between that time and this – wars, deaths, births, marriages, career changes, relocating, reuniting – it all plays out like one of surely tens of thousands of such stories. We are a nation of immigrants, all the way back to the founding fathers in Boston. But these events are my family’s. And to the degree that the stories are true, I am flummoxed. And to the degree that they are embellished, I am charmed.

I have provided the above quotation from Steinbeck for three reasons. First, it’s the latest book in our informal ‘book club’ which a handful of us, cast and crew included, have read separately and discussed together, as a way of having something to talk about on tour besides the tour itself. Second, its observations play into my observations about my own itinerant lifestyle.

Third, I am impressed with Steinbeck’s intelligent and frugal use of the comma, a lesson which I, with my asides, my occasional thoughts, my, how should I put it, flagrant, even immodest, employment of that simple, grammatical implement, would do well, even prosper, to learn from.

Travel certainly seems to be in the Cerveris blood. But if you travel the big, round world, you’ll end up right back where you started. And so it has been for my father, who now lives back in Pittsburgh, and at whose house, with his wife Jan, we stayed for our week there. Jan was no doubt the more relieved not only that we had a Labrador retriever in our charge, instead of a pit bull, and one whose fur matched the color of their carpets. But she was a good sport about hosting the traveling circus our family has become these days.

In fact, she daily concocted terrific meals in which we indulged with much joy. Hotel living has its advantages, sure, but the homecooked meal is not one of them. Count yourselves among the fortunate if you get invited to one of her dinners.

And Pittsburgh also brought the second opportunity I’ve had to perform on the same stage as my grandfather. Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony, was our venue – and straightaway upon arriving at the theater, I went to the green room to find the photo I’d discovered the last time I was there with TWELVE ANGRY MEN – a photo of the full orchestra from 1931, with my grandfather, the flautist, sitting upstage with the rest of the wind section.

Tag enjoyed the yard behind my dad’s place, where there was plenty of room in the clover for fetch. He also enjoyed having the rest of the family around to go for walks or just … of course … play fetch with when we were at work.


And later in the week, when my brother Michael, sister Marisa, and nephew Julian all came to visit, it was a full house. Henry Stram even took advantage of an oncoming cold to pair prudent infection control with his famous generosity and took Saturday night off, allowing my family who’d already made plans to come see the show that night to be able to see both Angie and me perform together.

Because we stayed at my dad’s place, there wasn’t much sight-seeing to do it Pittsburgh. I’ve seen most of the sights there anyway. And just being in an actual home was treat enough. However we did make it to the Sonoma Grill – great wine list, and very good food, although the traditionalists among you might find it a bit gimmicky, the kind of gimmicky where they serve things on strange looking plates, in unusual combinations, and with a needlessly complicated menu. Angie also spent an afternoon in The Strip, an old market district of Pittsburgh with lots of great cheap eats, clubs, shops, and the like.

We also had drinks at the Omni William Penn Hotel with our friend Adam Natale, who was in town for a conference. Adam’s been traveling almost as much as we have, although it’s out & back, not continually on the road. But the Omni had a good bar and I was reminded of how much I like the old fashioned style of places like that. Who needs televisions nattering on in the background and high-volume conversation around when you’ve got the feel of a weekend afternoon tea at 11 o’clock at night?

Packing up the car at night, I had an early morning flight to catch for an audition in New York, while Angie left later in the morning for the drive to Louisville. And on her way out, she proved her full indoctrination to the family lore as she called out the driver’s side window, “Chapter 997 – Angie drives to Louisville with the dog…!”

The more things change…

Monday, May 25, 2009

Boston, MA



The cradle of the revolution. The birthplace of American culture. The beginning of the New World. The home of the Red Sox.

Speeches. Battles. Flags. Ideologies. Tea parties.


I could naught but reflect on the steps which walked the very streets upon which my humble feet now trod. Well, the flagstones beneath the streets upon which my humble feet now trod. Well… the cobblestones beneath the flagstones beneath the streets upon which my humble feet now trod. Well… somewhere rather close by, to be certain.

Which of these narrow streets along which we drove, as we entered the city and drove to our Craigslist apartment, saw the carriages of John Adams, of Benjamin Franklin? Which of the cramped alleyways were ambled by Thomas Paine or Samuel Adams? Which of these incredibly narrow and god-forsakenly awkward little frickin’ passageways – oh, for God’s sake, where were we going to park the car to unload?!

Let it be said here and by me – our forefathers designed a brilliant Constitution. Their urban planning left a little something to be desired.

Where else, truly – in what other city, for example, can you turn left on Tremont street, a ninety-degree rotation, and end up on PRECISELY THE SAME STREET? This being one perfect example of a flood of such navigational nightmares that, in their entirety would be perfectly dismal to recount, I will simply say this – if you’re driving in Boston, get a GPS or a local Bostonian, and put them in the passenger’s seat beside you. Otherwise, I cannot be held responsible if you end up in New Hampshire.

Once you do find your destination, make a clear mental note of it, because you may never return there again. There are enough one-way streets to require fifteen minutes to simply go ‘around the block.’ And it you are nearing your destination, and you plan on actually parking, might I suggest you park at a garage a few blocks before you arrive? Because I can assure you, there will be no parking on the street. Wherever it is. There will be no parking. I believe it may be in their bylaws.

Unloading our gear was a bit trying – take out a couple suitcases – have the traffic behind you honk because there’s no way around you – drive around the block – repeat the cycle 3 or 4 times, and then find a place to park the car temporarily until you can grab a bite & take the car out to park at your friend’s place in Jamaica Plain for the duration of your stay.

You see, in some cities it was an advantage to have a car. Boston was not one of them. In Boston, having a car is a liability. And it can be a costly one. Fortune, however, provided parking in the form of Angie’s friend Doug Lockwood...

... who lives with his now-husband (more on that later) Antonio in a condo in Jamaica Plain, just outside of the downtown area. In Jamaica Plain, there’s street parking that you don’t need a resident permit for. So Doug offered to keep an eye on the car & move it from time to time, and that’s where it stayed for our Boston residency.

I say ‘now-husband’ because at the time they were living in sin. Engaged to be married, Doug had actually served as the officiant at Angie’s and my wedding, certified as he was – and legally so, I might add – by the Church of Spiritual Humanism Dot Org. (You see, the Universalist Unitarians, they’re just a sham. But the good ol’ COSH, that’s as kosher as matzoh, according to the State of New York. It’s the sanctity of marriage we’re talking about here.) Now, as Doug and Antonio prepared their own nuptials, Angie was to serve not as ‘pastor’ but as MC. Thus was the circle of life complete...

The place where we stayed - in Back Bay - was great. Greta & Hamid were our hosts. They owned the brownstone whose basement apartment we enjoyed. Greta teaches archaeology (anthropology?) at one of the 12,462 universities in Boston, and although he has a doctorate in robotics, Hamid now works in ‘finance’. Both are American, but Hamid is first generation Moroccan, and every year they have a Moroccan bash which – this year – was scheduled for the Saturday evening of our first week. In scheduling our stay, they had forgotten the date and told us about it only when we checked in, but it was really fine by us. We work Saturday nights anyway, and although they had invited us up to join them – an invitation of which we would gladly have taken advantage, had we not been out with friends ourselves – we got home only towards the end of the soiree, as the faux tent ceilings strung up inside the first floor and visible from the street were the screens for the shadowplay of guests making their departure, lit by warm candlelight and soft 40-watt bulbs. It sounded a bit like riding in an NYC taxi for a bit, with the tangy, Eastern melodies overhead, but it didn’t intrude on our rest at all. And the following day we were treated to an overflow of food from the party. Pastries and such with names that escape me but flavors like you’d find at an outdoor bazaar.

Boston had very enthusiastic audiences, and while they were on the slim side, they made up for it in cheers and shouts. I suppose May in Boston is Graduation Month, it being the education capital of the Eastern Seaboard, so perhaps that explained it. Whatever the reason, while our producers might have been a bit disappointed, the actors themselves were not. Always better to play to a 50% house of fans than an 80% house of dutiful husbands…

Boston was also the site of the first canine eye exam I’ve ever attended. As part of the Dog Swap, Tag – being the service-dog-in-training that his is, was scheduled to have an eye exam to ensure that, while not properly a seeing-eye dog, he nonetheless had properly seeing eyes. I am glad to report that Tag can clearly see every piece of dropped kibble, every roadkill carcass, every mudpuddle and tennis ball in his line of sight….as if we didn’t know that before…

Speaking of Tag, Boston was the home of the Boston Common. Which is, of course, home to much grass. Much grass. And flowers. And other dogs. And … FETCH. Tag is, of course, as excited by an impending game of fetch as anyone or any animal has ever been excited about anything – at all – in the world. Ever. He frickin’ LOVES fetch. Now, the Common has signs posted about ‘No Dogs Off Leash,’ but it didn’t seem to stop everyone and their uncle from letting their dog run off leash in this one field, away from the flowers, natch. And while we always kept an eye out for people with uniforms and badges and evil looks in their eye, we figured, “When in Rome…”

So – out came the Chuckit. Now, the Chuckit is an invention that harkens back to the days of Indians hunting buffalo. Or playing lacrosse. A long stick with a molded cup on the end that holds the ball perfectly and extends the throwing radius by a factor of two or three. It also handles the increasingly spit-laden ball for you, saving you the drool factor. So, every morning, Tag and I went to the Common, or maybe Blackstone Park, and I would HURL the ball a good hundred yards or more and Tag was off, dashing like a buck in the hunter’s gunsights. There are some lovely sights in the world. Sunset over the Grand Canyon, the Northern Lights in Fairbanks… But the sight of a young dog, in perfect health, tearing off down a field where every muscle, every sinew, is taut and purposed with the one intent of GETTING THAT DAMN BALL BACK FROM THE IDIOT WHO KEEPS THROWING IT AWAY ranks among them.


Dining in Boston was, predictably, an endeavor full of options. Among them of which we partook were the following:

Franklin Café – We went here a couple times. The first time was on a Thursday evening, after the show, and it was terrific. Great food, quiet atmostphere, the kind of neighborhood jewel you’d love to have with a very eclectic menu. The second time was a Saturday night, and it was packed, loud, and impossible to talk. So if you go, go during the week.

Trattoria il Pannatino – Fun little place in the North End. We had lunch with Henry Stram and Doug & Antonio. Who cares if there are gaudy, glass grapes hanging from the ceiling? And go in the afternoon, when they have the windows open. There are few pleasures to my mind than a glass of pinot noir with the afternoon breeze licking your shoulder.

The South End Buttery – Great café in the Back Bay, a few blocks from where we stayed. Really good pastries, outdoor seating, dog biscuits at the counter, and pleasant neighborhood regulars, especially on the weekend.

Locke-Ober – Actually, we only had drinks here, around the corner from the Colonial Theater, where we were playing. But if you’re looking for dark wood, old German artifacts on the wall, and a finely made dirty vodka martini, you’d be well-rewarded.

We walked the length of the Freedom Trail, over a couple days. Not that you couldn’t do it in a day, but we were there for four weeks, so why push it? You go to the Old North Church (“One if by land, two if by sea…”), you pass Paul Revere’s house, you go to the Old State House, where they first read aloud the Declaration of Independence to the Boston public (and where, centuries later, Queen Elizabeth stood to greet the Boston crowd in what surely must have been the single largest meal of ‘crow’ ever had in one sitting…) and a couple dozen other sites that do their darnedest to make real for you the events of the revolution – and if they can sell you a t-shirt or souvenir book along the way, so much the better.

The closest I felt to actually envisioning said events was standing at the Old Statehouse, looking out over the scene of the Boston Massacre. The plaques, posters, and displays do a pretty good job of painting a scenario where the issues at the time weren’t so clear cut: Was this a justifiable revolution? Was the people’s outrage simply misplaced rage and poverty? Were the British soldiers just defending themselves? Were they provoked? In the end, you have to … follow the money. Or follow the power. Who was in charge? Who had the most to lose? Or to gain? And what measures are defensible, or not, regardless of the provocation? Can provocation itself be ‘provoked’ – in other words, is repression its own kind of provocation? Whether you saw it as repression or justifiable enforcement, then, depended on where your fortunes lay, I suppose.

I recall the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. “When it becomes necessary, in the course of human events…” It was the Jeffersonian take on “By any means necessary.” The revolution was fueled by noblemen and guttersnipes alike. It made heroes and martyrs of both. The same is true of American and British. But from a strategic point of view, to my modern view, it seems like a mad gambit on the part of the British. Suppress a rebellion from across an ocean? Of course, British sympathies ran very strong here as well. There was reason for King George and his posse to convince themselves that they were liberators. If they had won, that would probably be the history we’d be taught. Somewhere in the Divine Handbook, there is a formula for Repression minus History, divided by Martyrdom, multiplied by the Spoils of Victory, equals Determination of the Righteous Party of Any Conflict. If we had access to such mathematics, perhaps we’d be able to avoid war altogether. “Look at the numbers: you don’t jut lose, you’re wrong.” And the Party in the Wrong, faced with his miscperception, would hang his head in shame, walking away, tail between his legs. Until such time, however….

Other Boston highlights include:

A visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art which has got to be one of the cooler museums I've seen in awhile. The building was beautiful, and they had great exhibits. One of my faves was the Shepard Fairey "Obey Giant" retrospective.


An amazing walk in the woods in Marlborough with Doug's sister Amy and her two dogs and two more that she was dog-sitting and Tag so ... five dogs altogether. And Tag had his first swimming experience!


A very tired Tag in Blackstone Park in Boston’s Back Bay.


A day spent taking pictures in the Boston Common with my new camera.


Tag indulging in the inverted power structure of taking hold of his leash and walking us home.


The opening festivities of Boston’s Little League season, immediately adjacent to Chinatown.



Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, the highest piece of land in the North End, where lie the remains of

- Capt. Daniel Malcom, Mercht. whose request that he be buried “in a Stone Grave 10 feet deep,” safe from British bullets proved prophetic, as his tombstone still bears the scars made by redcoat soldiers who singled out this patriot’s gravestone for their target practice.


- Prince Hall, a leader of Boston’s early free black community. A leather dresser and former slave, Hall went on not only to serve in the Continental Army but to sponsor Boston’s first school for black children and founded African Lodge No. 1, the first Masonic lodge in America and the first black Masonic lodge in the world.


- Mr. Hopestill Capen and his wife Mrs. Patience Capen, who had two of the loveliest antique names I've ever heard.

There was also Cotton Mather and his father Increase Mather. C'mon - someone nowadays, name your kid "Increase"! I dare you!

Upon leaving, you’ll pass a funny little oddity - a private residence which is no more than 10 1/2 feet wide – which the travel guide says is, “most assuredly the narrowest house in all of Boston.” Good guess.


And at the bottom of Copp’s Burying Ground is the site of the Great Molasses Flood. I will leave the details to those intrepid enough to follow and read this link, but in a nutshell – if you ever find yourself beside a 2,300,000 gallon tank of molasses, such as was apparently used to make munitions (who knew?) during World War I, walk quickly on. On January 15, 1919, 20 people and uncounted horses lost their lives in the stuff. It’s like they say – sugar can be deadly.

[All these and other juicy details of the sites along the Freedom Trail can be gleaned from Charles Bahnes' The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail, a terrific walking tour which I recommend purchasing at the information booth at the beginning, if you plan on making the walk – or if you just want to make the trip in your mind’s eye.]

There is also a moving Holocaust Memorial on which are etched the serial numbers of the millions who lost their lives in Hitler’s gas chambers. Thinking back on my earlier commentary about the divine historian’s formula of morality, there are some equations that need no further figuring.


The Freedom Trail ends at Bunker Hill Monument. The single, great irony of the Battle of Bunker Hill is that it actually didn’t occur on Bunker’s Hill. It was on Breed’s Hill, half as high and more of a threat to British forces. But lesser known by British and Americans alike, and misnamed by British mapmakers as Bunker Hill, Breed’s Hill is where one of the most victorious losses of the American cause occurred. Again, I’ll leave it to those intrepid link followers to get the full story, but our fathers’ fathers' fathers' fathers’ fathers gained the respect of their enemies in a fight that lasted far, far longer than the defending American forces has the right to enjoy and even the British had to hang their head in shame that it cost as much in British lives as it did to attain. The monument does a good job of setting the scene, and peering through the portals at the top of the structure, I couldn’t help but think the sight of Boston today, with all its condos and businesses, its Big Dig and its Hancock Tower, must not hold a candle to the image of the land these brave souls fought to preserve. Maybe if I lived there, it would be different, and I would be filled with the swelling pride of place.

But then that’s just it. I don’t live there, and fighting that hard to hold onto it is hard to imagine. Home. Family. Right or wrong, these things make all the difference.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

By way of explanation...

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a dispatch from our lives on the road. Gentle readers, all I can say is, Life Happens. I have made notes. I have had good intentions. And I am returning to my work with a new devotion. However, please accept my humble apologies.

In the next few days, I will be endeavoring to get ‘caught up.’ I put that in quotations, because that is, of course, an impossible task. ‘Catching up,’ no matter how thorough, would suggest that I was ever able to provide the complete experience. I am not. This journal is an artifact, as well as a record. It lives and breathes my downtime and constraints. My absence can be apologized for, but it cannot be removed. I thus leave it, like the miles on our car, as a piece of the Event. What now follows - from Boston to the Layoff - is filtered through memory and thusly shaped & altered.

To paraphrase Marcel Duchamp: Ceux-ci ne sont pas les deux mois.

A word of warning: if you have an uneaten meal beside you, a pot of your finest Columbian brew or a bottle of your favorite pinot, might I be so bold as to suggest that you enlist its company during this debriefing. Far be it from me to be the cause of a dish gone cold, of a white gone warm, or a favorite mug ring-stained by the caffeinated beverage left untouched in its care. Eat – drink – be merry.

And climb aboard.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

I'm comin' home soon...

... if I can just figure out where 'home' is these days... Louisville? Baltimore? Pittsburgh? Yeesh, it's hard to keep track of those two...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Providence, RI

Providence - “prä ´– vuh – dens: n., the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power. From the Latin providere, meaning ‘forsee,’ ‘attend to’.”

As in, "I suffered from a lack of providence when I bashed my right pinky toe on the hard plastic suitcase at the end of the week and it looked like I had dipped it into Tammy Faye Baker’s makeup kit."

But I get ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.

Providence, Rhode Island.

Home of Roger Williams. No, not the Welsh soldier of fortune (b. 1540) , the chemist at Du Pont (b. 1890), the biochemist (b. 1893), the aviator (b. 1894), the pianist (b. 1924), the organist (b. 1943), the UK politician (b. 1948), the US politician (b. 1949), the British liver specialist, OR the Welsh playwright (Roger Williams being such an uncommon name) but Roger Williams, the Puritan preacher and theologian who, among all his fellow clergymen, actually lived the doctrine of ‘all faiths equal before God,’ not ‘my faith’s a little more equal than yours.’

Home of John Brown, legendary progeny of a slave trader’s family who later became a galvanizing force in the abolition movement, and whose death by hanging, following his trial and conviction for John Brown’s Rebellion, was attended by none less than John Wilkes Booth himself.

Home of the art-rock band, the Talking Heads, from which sprang such 80’s high-school anthems as “Road to Nowhere,” “Once In A Lifetime,” “Stay Up All Night,” “Psycho Killer,” and other songs which never fail to bring to mind wide, wide, very wide shoulder pads …

Home of Brown University, the second largest employer behind Rhode Island Hospital, just ahead of the US Post Office, and the leading academic distribution point of Doc Martens shoes and Ché Guevara t-shirts.

Home of one of the largest LGBT communities in the United States, with a rate of reported gay and lesbian relationships 75% higher than the national average, named among the “Best Lesbian Places to Live", and whose mayor, David Cicilline, is the first openly gay mayor of a US state capital.

Home of the aptly named Raymond Patriarca, head of one of the largest organized crime families on the East Coast from the 50’s to the 80’s. Great at parties, but a little intense…

Home of …

OK, it’s a small state. Naturally, it’d be a small home.

Earlier, I’d made mention of a truism in touring that many readers of this blog will appreciate, those of you in ‘the business’ – that sometimes when you’re on the road, no matter how much you enjoy the traveling life and the getting-out-and-seeing-the-new-town-you’re-in of work on the road, sometimes a week is just seven days.

What with lousy weather, cold & rainy days, a relative lack of public transportation, the one-week visit coming off of a 5-week stay, the inevitable minor let-down that was bound to follow having completed one of the most anticipated stops on the tour – it was a little bit like that. Through no fault of its own, I must include, as Providence looked like a much cooler town than we had time, resources, or inclination to discover this time around.

And we also had a four-hour rehearsal that Friday, during which we were all called to listen to the band play. Because it was supposed to inspire us. To hear the music anew. And it was lovely, actually. Great to hear the music by itself, and all the intricasies in the orchestrations. Especially for the adults. Who don't sing, except for the big group number at the end of the show. Or for the adult understudies. Who don't sing at all. Who really could have used those four hours. Yeah…

One thing I can say – downtown Providence on a Saturday night looks a lot like downtown New Haven on a Saturday night. Be careful where you light your cigarette – the hairdos are highly flammable.


Oh yeah – Providence, Rhode Island – home of Haven Brothers Diner, one of the oldest restaurants on wheels in America, which began in 1893 as a horse drawn lunch wagon. Every evening at 4:30p. the diner car (the last time they ought a new one was 1949) is parked at the corner of Dorrance and Fulton & stays there 'til 5am, when it's returned home.

But let me add one more. Providence, Rhode Island. Home of two of the 500 Ritz Cameras closing their doors (out of 800 nationally) and having a-MAZ-ing sales on digital SLR cameras such as the early birthday present that yours truly bought himself while in temporary residence… (So yours truly, gentle reader, will be filing some lovely photos in the following Boston entry…)

The audiences were enthusiastic, for the most part. Odd town, though. You kind of got the feeling that there’s a lot of tension there boiling just below the surface. They say that violent crime has dipped in recent years, and that may be true, but in the seven days we were there I saw a full-on gang fight get busted up on the street in the middle of the day. Fortunately it was all very West Side Story, with fisticuffs only, but there were some serious punches getting thrown until the cops swooped in. There was some petty theft around as well, but then property theft in Providence is 50% higher than the national average for a town of its size. (That stat courtesy of Wikipedia, so don’t hold me to it…)

Roger, they hardly knew ye…

Monday, April 20, 2009

Toronto

Well, I know that no apologies are necessary, but nonetheless, dear readers, you have mine. Understandably, after the Cleveland Blowout, I found my literary creativity a bit spent. However fear not, good friends. I am back, with much to tell you.


DRIVING


On our drive to Toronto, I thought back to the second year of the Twelve Angry Men tour, during which we had two engagements, in the middle and end of our tour. Counting up the weeks, I realized that I’d spent a total of two months in 2008 in this city, the length of an average regional theater engagement. And here we were, bound for another five weeks in 2009. How surprising, with all my peripatetia (and no, I don’t even know if that’s a word, but dammit it should be), I should be on the way to 13 weeks in any particular city. Actually, when compared to the length of time spent in New York, my own home, it was nearly twice as long as the time I spent at home during the break between my last tour and this one. So – no surprise that I should fee so comfortable there, that I should feel like I know it as well as I do, and should look forward to it in such detail as knowing in advance what restaurants I planned to eat in, what attractions to which I wanted forward to bring Angie, what I felt like I didn’t need to do this time around because, well – been there, done that...

The drive from Cleveland went smoothly. At the border, Tag was quite a charmer, entertaining the children whose parents were otherwise busy with answering questions about passports and fruit in their luggage, or whatever. We handed the informational packet which our company manager had prepared for us – an inch of documentation from the company attorneys full of contract info, tour schedule, contact information, playbill copies, reviews, documentation about the origins of the show, and more redundant minutiae designed to get us into the country, in the event of customs officers’ doubts, by sheer blunt force of informational overload – to the poor little fellow behind the desk who made a game effort of trying to flip through the pages, more with the intention of looking like he was critically evaluating all we had to present, but it was apparent that what the Des Moines Register has to say about the lighting in our second act was not only useless information but confusing as to why we should even have been providing it in the first place.

“So…………No fruit?”

No officer… No fruit…

Quite soon enough we were loading ourselves back into our “Beverly Hillbillies” bus and clocking our mileage in kilometers (kilometrage?), Canada having taken seriously the initial high hopes in the 70’s of the US to make the switch to metric, before we realized we’d all have to buy new measuring cups, and now measuring its miles in kilometers, its gallons in liters, and its dollars in…well…dollars.

Loonies, actually, to be precise. In the continuing endeavor of all other countries to have cooler money than us (though we’ve recently made a good play with our rainbow bills), their own monetary standard has not only a nickname but a second nickname based on the first. The Canadian one-dollar coin is called the “Loonie,” specifically for the loon featured so prominently on the back (or is it the front?). And then the two-dollar coin is known, appropriately enough, as the “Toonie.” Seriously. Whatever Canada lacks in national pride it makes up for with a chronic sense of wryness.


PARKING

Loaded up with the ridiculous amount of coinage one gets in a coin-culture (it may be cheaper, ‘cause coins last longer, but lord, it weighs down your pocket…), we did notice our mileage – sorry, our kilometrage – suffering. So it was good that we were able to park our car in the garage of the house which four guys from the crew and the band had found to rent on Craigslist. It was a twenty minute walk from the hotel, but it was a perfect arrangement. They had a locked garage in the back, with a remote door opener that they gave us, and the only other car they had was a Jeep Rubicon owned by the Second Assistant Stage Manager that was just too big & manly to fit beneath its low-ceilings. However, roof-racked and bike-racked though it may have been, our little Forester was a perfect little fit, and we were able to leave the car there for the entire time, saving us all kinds of money in parking, tickets, possible break-ins, and the like…

So, God Bless You, Jason De Pinto, Brian Shoemaker, Ben Lively, and Alon Bisk.


HOUSING

I parked the car immediately after we unloaded the gear at Le Meridien King Edward Hotel. Ah, the King Eddie. Site of the first days of John & Yoko’s ‘Bed-in’ (before John decided Toronto was “depressing” – how he knew, spending all their time in bed, I can’t say, but… - and they re-located to Montreal). Host to multiple heads of state. Traditional Mother’s Day Brunch and High Tea for all of Toronto (I’ve never seen so may bonnets in one place – I thought I was at the Kentucky Derby). And, for the last two weeks of the Twelve Angry Men tour, our home. How well I knew its stately lobby, with slightly dusty oriental vases and Edwardian, bare-legged sofas. How well I knew the hallways, with the tastefully conservative carpet and faux-fabric wallpaper. How well I knew the modest, if well-tended, rooms that exists among the more opulent options, and the quirky design differences, from one to another, which resulted from the carving up of larger rooms, the change in functionality, and the multiple additions that come along with a hundred-plus-year history.

OK – so our first room was fine. Really, it was. Dim, yes, windowed as it was along the ventilation shaft, the kind that big hotels build so that all of their rooms can have windows, even if they really only open onto other windows from other rooms and the only light is what bounces down from twelve stories up. But if we weren’t a couple, if we didn’t have a dog, and if we weren’t traveling with enough luggage to last us through the year, it really would have been fine. Really.

That is, until four days later when another bunch of rooms opened up. At which point, we ever so gratefully moved to the top floor, to a room near the corner, with a view of Lake Ontario off to the side, much more light, and room for Tag to engage in a healthy game of tug. At that point, our previous room seemed like it would have been a truly taxing cell to inhabit for a full five weeks, and our new digs were only properly befitting our length of stay.

All hail the reception desk of Le Meridien King Edward Hotel!


EATING

The first night we were there, we went to a great restaurant that Kate Hampton, fellow understudy, had found. Osteria Ciceri e Tria. Owned, apparently, by the folks who also have Terroni, one of Toronto’s premiere Italian restaurants, Osteria is a much smaller, more informal place with an innovative (to me, anyway) menu that offers things like a dessert of chocolate pieces which is exactly that – chips, shavings, and chunks of different kinds of chocolate on a cheese board, very artfully arranged and accompanied by some light sauces & shortbread-y kind of cracker.

The folks at Osteria are very particular about their menu. While they appreciate that their style may not satisfy all palettes, they take a certain pride – stopping short of snobbery, fortunately – in what they consider the finest way to serve certain items. For example – don’t ask for parmesean with your seafood. They won’t give it to you. Seriously. They’re very nice about it. But they want their food eaten in their restaurants, not food made your way – a philosophy that would be off-putting if it weren’t put forth with a very friendly demeanor and a terrific sense of taste. It were Good.

Toronto offered some other great restaurants as well. Early on, Angie discovered a place way out in Leslieville, east of the downtown area, called Table 17. Again – small place, informal service, sacrificing none of the quality. And a BYOB Sunday prix fixe that suited our no-Sunday-evening-show schedule perfectly. Had a such a good time we went back with Henry Stram and Kate at the end of our run. We also went to Terroni, the parent of Osteria Ciceri e Tria, and shmancy as it was, it wasn’t uninviting at all.

But the nice thing about Toronto dining is that good food abounds, and we had cheap eats that were perfectly healthy. One place I looked forward to, which I knew was right around the corner from the King Eddie, is Fast, Fresh Foods. And it’s exactly that. Healthy sandwiches, hearty salads, savory soups, and no-frills dining. Also, Freshii – where you order your barley bowl or sesame chicken wrap by filling out a little form, listing all the various ingredients you’d like, and then handing it to the cashier. Three items from column one, six from column two, four from column three, and soup’s on. Why places like this don’t abound, in our current culture of supposedly health-conscious thinking & eating, and our can’t-wait-ain’t-got-time schedules, is beyond me. The price is pretty great. Lacking brand recognition maybe? Are we really that much creatures of habit and sheep to the folks in the marketing industry?


SIGHTSEEING

Flat as it is, Toronto’s hills were alive with the Sound Of Music. Ed Mirvish, Toronto bargain retailer and theater producer extraordinaire, was responsible not only for the most recent, long-running production of the Sound Of Music, he’s responsible for the television show, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” in which contestants competed, Idol-style, for the chance to be the Note-worthy Nun. Two contestants were chosen, ultimately, a winner, who gets six shows a week, and a runner-up, who gets two. Who got the better deal, exactly, it’s hard to say. But the evening we went, compliments of Mr. Mirvish’s organization, it was the runner-up we saw who was positively beaming.

I don’t know that I’d ever actually seen the show, or even the movie, but not twenty minutes into it I began to realize that – by now - the whole thing is kind of a ‘greatest hits’ concert. One after another. Talk about daunting. Like doing Hamlet. The difference, I suppose, is that at a production of Hamlet is something you go with the intent of comparing and critiquing. A production of The Sound of Music is something you attend with the goal of enjoyment. After all – does Hamlet sell ice cream in the lobby during intermission? Does Hamlet have a big mountain onstage that rotates 180 degrees, to allow eight singers to climb over its edge and escape Nazi persecution? And enjoy it we did, me especially not having anything to compare it with. I’m sure Julie Andrews is lovely – I’ll see the movie sometime.


Did we go to the top of the CN Tower? Nah. Been there, done that. We did, however, pass by on the way to the waterfront garden that was designed in cooperation with Yo-Yo Ma, in celebration of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Taking the first five movements as inspiration, the landscaping is meant to be a visual rendering of the musical experience. And it was…when I was there last June. ‘Course, in Canada in early April…. Not so much.

“Look, dear, how beautiful, the colorful shrubs which … well, they’re a little brown right now, but they’ll blossom right beside these … as-yet-unbloomed-flowers … which peek through the leafy … well, in the summer, they’re very leafy trees lining the walks, keeping views of the … ugly expressway on the other side … at bay…”

“Nice. Really nice.”

Like that.

There was much walking around, much looking in shops, much remarking on the subtle yet enduring differences between Canadian and American culture. The remaining sense of being part of the British Commonwealth. The funny kind of mayonnaise you see in the stores. The abundance and difference of candy bars in vending machines. The missing “ow” diphthong being the main difference in pronunciation, resulting in its replacement, “oo”, sounding so glaringly out of place to an American ear.


The really cool area of West Queens West, with a great bookstore, Type, and a good place to have lunch, with a sign outside on Easter Sunday that made you want to go in all the more. But all in all, part of the charm of being in Toronto was the ease with which we existed there. No pressure to go do things – things would come up or they wouldn’t, but our partaking of them or not wouldn’t define our appreciation of the city. I already had a sense of it, as did Angie from her brief visit and my travelogue description of it from time past. It was simply a very handy city, one in which you didn’t need a car, one in which we could eat well, easily, & cheaply, and one which had an urban tempo that felt very familiar to us, without quite the same kind of congestion or effrontery that often accompanies big city living.


NIAGARA FALLS


One thing which I’d done but Angie hadn’t, and which you really have to do, if you haven’t and you have the chance, is that honeymoon destination, that wonder of the natural world, that postcard-perfect icon that has become shorthand for barrel-riding daredevils and romantics alike: Niagara Falls.

Oh yes – Tag had never been there either.

So, you know. We HAD to go…

Here’s the deal. Niagara – it’s beautiful. Really. In an unparalleled kind of way. In a Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Northwest Redwoods kind of way. No doubt.

And I’m not here to say it’s been corrupted by marketing and merchandising. Because beauty that big, swamped as it is with Maid-Of-The-Mist tour boats and take-your-picture-in-the-barrel stands, is still wondrous. But, really – there just seems to be a limit, by the basic laws of physics, if nothing else, to the number of haunted houses, Hershey’s stores, and Hard Rock Cafés that can be put together in one place. I mean – didn’t Newton say something about the impossibility of two object inhabiting the same space at the same time? Or is it that Niagara-On-The-Lake, both the Canadian and American versions, have simply found a way to bend the laws of space and time? Is this the practical application of Quantum Theory?


MAY I BE OF SERVICE?

Another fun pursuit while in Toronto was the Continuing Education of Tag. Namely, the afore-stated goal of getting him to learn how to open doors. Now, I have heard it said by more than a few dog trainers that the actual training of dogs is the easy part. It’s the training of their owners that’s more difficult. Complicated a process as it is, fraught with issues of ego, language barriers, communication styles, and misinterpretations of species specific behavior (on the part of the canine’s and their own), it’s a far longer education of the human than the dog.

There’s definitely something to that – however, I am proud to say that I seem to be particularly trainable, as far as all that goes. Now, whether that means that I’m somehow devoid of all the evolutionary advancement which bogs down the process, or whether I’m just a good listener, I don’t know. BUT – I took the instruction pretty well, and – with Angie’s help in reinforcing the behaviors, we got Tag to:

Open doors...



Pick up the receiver on the phone...



...and push the button on the handicapped entrances. (video to come - trust me on this one for now...)

Now, I’m not exactly being modest when I say that, actually, this wasn’t all that hard to do. Armed with a clicker, a treat bag filled with pieces of sausage, and a very clever and creative service dog who’s already learned how to learn and that learning is fun and rewarding, I was basically just connecting the dots. You take what the dog is naturally inclined to do, and in any way related to what you’re trying to effect, and you reward it. The dog realizes, “Ooo – I did something right. Let me try to do it again. I’ll get more food that way,” and he/she keeps offering behavior until it’s doing something closer and closer to what you’re asking for.

It’s a long process. I was able to shorten it a bit by suggesting little steps along the way, and Tag is clever enough to have figured it out very quickly. And it’s not like I was asking him to do something very tricky – basically, he’s learning a variation on “tug” or “fetch”. Still, it’s fun to think that I had a hand in all of that.


NEVER SAY GOODBYE IN THIS BUSINESS

So, Kyle Riabko, our Melchior, the young Canadian phenom made good, whose triumphant return to Canada during our Toronto engagement was undoubtedly a centerpiece of the Canadian marketing strategy – got another job.

And off Kyle flew from Cleveland to Los Angeles to spend a month filming a pilot.

Soooo….. the producers – faced with contractual requirements which would force them to hire one of his understudies permanently, should they cover for him after a certain number of times, sought another option which would afford a little more flexibility. They brought in a ringer – someone who’d been in the Broadway production, who’d understudied the role before, and in fact gone on in the role several times – to serve as the four-week stand-in. Enter Matt Doyle.

I knew Matt from one of his very first paying gigs in New York, during the Summer Play Festival in a production of Michael Hidalgo’s The Butcherhouse Chronicles, directed by Tom Caruso and including yours truly as a knee-length shorts-wearing psychotic serial killer who still thought of himself as a British public school student and carried with him his own teddy bear which may or may not have had its own voice and soul, and who threatened Matt’s character with his a horribly, gruesome death from some unknown beast underground.

And yes, don’t worry – it was a comedy.

Needless to say, on Matt’s return it was much fun to catch up, and for me to see how he’s grown & changed. And then, when I went on for Henry one Sunday afternoon, to beat Matt into submission with a bamboo stick until he read the lines of Latin in the ‘correct’ fashion.

Some things never change.

So, four weeks later, Matt’s back on his way to New York, and his recurring role on “Gossip Girl,” Kyle’s back from shooting his pilot, and I’m training my dog to open doors.

Clearly, I’m the talent in the bunch…