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

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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...

video

Pick up the receiver on the phone...

video

...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…