Archive for the ‘Watertown’ Category

Plays Close, Kind of Close, Kind of Far

October 17th, 2011

We like theater. Three recent variations made us clearly aware of the range. We enjoyed them all, which may make us theater sluts or in kindest terms omni-viewers.

Consider, by proximity:

I confess here and now that despite terrible accents in one and niggles with all, we had a fine time at each. That surely puts us in the easily amused category. Far worse can be said of many people. Transient happiness lies in real-time enjoyment.

The fundamental difference among the experiences speaks to the range of stage available in cities and smaller places with colleges and artsy types. Here’s a pitch to find out what high-school, college, community and professional theater is within a walk or drive. Much like school sports can be exciting (and affordable), local plays often put you next to the action. Praise the intimate.

I got this Jones in my decade living in Manhattan. Then as now, there was more theater, Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Broadway as well as public and academic, than anyone could possible attend. It was from free to a few dollars to pro-basketball-game-seat cost. Some was wheezing repertory, staged for those who truly need the familiar. Some strained so hard at cleverness, vulgarity or innovation that they were unwatchable. The vast majority please this promiscuous play guy.

So it was here on a spectrum of those three, with professionalism climbing with increased distance and neighborhood density.

Nearly everyone has seen versions of Tennessee Williams’ Cat, likely on stage as well as screen. This was at a long-time, often struggling community theater in Logan Square, which itself has a history of stagecraft back to when this area was part of Dedham. A new managing director seems to bring a greater vitality and higher ambitions, but it still fits the mold.

Most of its repertoire is predictable and some old. That, frankly, suits most theater goers. They don’t want plays that will strain them culturally or intellectually, thank you very much. Like repeatedly visiting the same restaurant and wanting the green bean side to taste exactly how they remembered it, they don’t see theater for adventure, but more for familiarity.

Yet, Cat here was good. Big Daddy and Big Mama actors had lots of credits and the younger major roles like Brick and Maggie were acted by folk who’d been through BU’s drama school. No talentless child of a producer stunk up the stage.

With the Southern heritage in this house, we were distracted by the bad accents. Yankees often don’t get Deep South anymore than Midwesterners can do Revere or Southie sounds. In Cat, though, we found Nora Hassan as Big Mama to most credible here. Regardless, it was good theater. We also sat at a table a few feet from the center of the stage — like a command performance.

Praise the intimate

To Central Square, it is our plug-in replacement for NewRep and very, very different. Back when the Newton Repertory was in a church in the Highlands, we loved the adventuresome choices and staging. An early delight was Moby Dick: An American Opera of a decade ago. It was ambitious and challenging to the actors and audience, memorable theater. We tried to transfer our allegiance with our subscription when this one moved to Watertown. Alas, they are glossy suburban pap now, hiding anything innovative in a wee room downstairs.

We get our main theater fix now on Mass Ave near Brookline Street. They do avant garde, mix in an MIT-pleasing tech one, and have highly experienced Equity actors. Even the Hound was highly updated and played effectively for comedic value.

Here too, there are no bad seats in this small theater. It’s the size of many Off-Off-Broadway ones in NYC. It’s like a Spinners game where you’re practically on the field. Because they mix ’em up and do stretch, it’s as satisfying as NewRep used to be.

Then down to Broadway, that’s expensive (list maybe $150 instead of around $25 per seat) and it’s big in every sense — production, actors, even theater size. Of course, you can find hackneyed drama and particularly musicals in the three levels of New York theater. However, there are always dozens of innovative productions. Unlike the trial or retread runs cities like Boston get in their wee theater districts, NYC is like London in variety and newness. It’s big business there.

We got into previews of The Mountaintop. It was about 90 minutes of Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett non-stop. The young playwright, Katori Hall, created a fantasy of MLK’s last night alive, replete with a foul-mouthed maid who turned out to be a messenger angel. It more than stretched credulity. We went with the conceit and throughly enjoyed it.

By the bye, the 10/24 New Yorker will have a  John Lahr review. He loved the ending oratorical and visual extravaganza that I found the worst part. He called the angel premise “preposterous,” seeming not to understand the nature of fantasy. In this weekend’s NYT, already online, Ben Brantley wanted more end-tying-up. He concluded,  “I certainly bought Mr. Jackson’s Dr. King as an ordinary man for much of the play, and I felt a spark of Dr. King-like divinity in his rousing climactic oratory. What I didn’t feel was how one side made the other possible. That would require a fuller, more intricately developed play than Ms. Hall has begun to provide here.”

We must be easier to please. We appreciated Hall’s inventiveness. We applauded that play and the other two — each for what and where it was.

This is to urge you if you have forgotten the joys of theater, get with the program.

John Lahr in the 10/24/11 New Yorker preposterous. Well, it is a fantasy
Ben Brantley in the 10/13 NYT
Both sides of this dichotomy are presented, at least symbolically. I certainly bought Mr. Jackson’s Dr. King as an ordinary man for much of the play, and I felt a spark of Dr. King-like divinity in his rousing climactic oratory. What I didn’t feel was how one side made the other possible. That would require a fuller, more intricately developed play than Ms. Hall has begun to provide here.

Lamprey in Watertown

December 3rd, 2008

Slicker clad seamen bounding over my ankles in the dark on the way to the stage in just in front of us all is how I recall Moby Dick, an American Opera at the New Rep in 2000. To noobs who go to the far tonier Watertown incarnation, that used to be the Newton Repertory Theatre in, of all places, Newton. The small, sort of rundown church on Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands demanded much of the actors. You were on the damned stage with them, or very nearly by a couple of feet.santaland.jpg

Now the uxorial unit was booking five seats for the David Sedaris holiday thingummy, The Santaland Diaries.  The new all-business, all the-time theater was on her. In the stigma of true professionalism, they were plucking a buck here, twenty there — lampreys on the sides of the theater goers.

It’s the little bleeding that makes you ask, “Why do they do that? Don’t they want to sell me tickets?”

We subscribed for years when they were still in Newton and we didn’t see sneaky fees. You paid a set subscription, usually for five plays on given nights. They sent your tickets. If you couldn’t make that date, they’d gladly swap you with another. They were sweet and your price was your price.

In this new Watertown world, non-subscribers have three ways of bleeding:

  • Internet — $4 per ticket
  • Telephone — $3.50 per ticket
  • Box Office — $1 per ticket

To grind it in, you don’t see the hidden fees until you are well through the purchase cycle and screens. At the final total, they reveal the vigorish. Then, they put in a “tip” field, asking for donations. They don’t have the social skills of wolverines.

Grok that, stranger. Drive past the Arsenal Mall. Take your time and gas and effort to go to their box office. Still, you pay a per-ticket premium on top of the price…at their convenience, with no handling, no postage, no anything.

My wife asked about that dollar and got a weary sigh. The guy on the phone had been through that before. He told her that the attorney general says it’s legal.

It may be, but it’s wrong.

You might be able to say for tickets mailed that it does cost New Rep something, so like any retailer, they should be able to recoup the cost of shipping the goods. But unlike the book or MP3 player, there’s negligible postage or packing. Moreover, it costs no more to send four tickets than one, so the fee should be per order, not per ticket. In fact, a savvy strategy would be like Amazon’s with free delivery for a threshold amount, say $100 in this case.

If their web host or online store charges them per ticket, they need to switch vendors. If they are gouging simply because they can get away with it, bah humbug!

New Rep comes across like gonifs. They annoy with skimming a little here, a little there.

As well as the inconvenient spot, New Rep had already tried to drive us away. After subscribing for years, we quit two years after the move from Newton. Yeah, they have a free garage there — the post-bombing look — but it’s a royal pain to wade through traffic to get to the burbs. Far worse though is that they have been doing fewer and fewer challenging plays and more over-performed crowd pleasers. That may be why long-time Artistic Director Rick Lombardo is headed to where they don’t ski, San Jose, after this season. When we want predictable and clichéd, we can head to the Huntington.

We’ll still do the Sedaris play because the family will be together from several locations. Also, it’s Sedaris, not the umpteenth version of A Christmas Carol.

We liked the old New Rep. The new New Rep has a bad rep around here.

Bloggers as Reporters

October 24th, 2007

newspaper reporter sketchHow amusing it remains that some TV talking heads, as well as newspaper reporters and even columnists, continue to denigrate bloggers. They often phrase that disingenuously as a blanket assertion that bloggers are not reporters.

To those of us who came out of journalism schools and newspapers, that is to laugh a bloggy laugh. They might ask more reasonable and more easily answered questions, such as:

  • Do some bloggers do reporting?
  • Are bloggers’ analyses and comments any less worthwhile or insightful than a paper’s columnists’?
  • Do blogs fill in the ever widening news and reporting gaps that ever penurious newspapers leave?

Dummy Down

Let’s get real, boys and girls. Consider the TV news anchors. We pretend that the teleprompter blurbs they read are real reporting. Yet, the last major TV anchor who reported was Roger Mudd, over 20 years ago. While he later ran Meet the Press and did essays on PBS, his ouster tells us too much about mainstream media. He was the rational replacement for Walter Cronkite, but one of his networks chose the much inferior Dan Rather and another the very LITE Tom Brokaw.

I occasionally wonder if Mudd didn’t have such a long, horse face and had been more of a pretty boy, if he would have gotten his deserved spots. MSM news coverage would be much better off if he had.

When I interviewed Mudd while he was still on CBS, he stood out from his TV peers. He said that he would never report a story on the air that he had not done the original work on or vetted personally. He was a reporter and from doing that had the insight the rest of TV news lacked then and lacks even more so now.


Blog bashing is an amusing sport played by MSM. Yet, some bloggers are ignoring that and doing their business. As a result, you likely get coverage of events and ideas from blogs that either never appear in MSM or received the lowest-common-denominator treatment days, weeks or months later.

One of the most encouraging trends in the future of news and analysis is the increasing number and quality of how-to sessions for bloggers.

You don’t have to think too deeply to notice that the criticisms of blogs has a very defensive tone in general. Considering how newspapers and broadcast have decreasing staff and thus fewer and fewer meaningful stories, it’s not surprising that they knock the much more numerous bloggers who do report and do analyze. Increasingly, some bloggers have the interest and focus that strapped MSM lack to notice and cover local events and trends.

Die Hyperlocal!

That written, I confess that hyperlocal gives me the willies. I suspect this trend will play itself out badly and quickly, even though its intentions are good enough. The concept is that the bloggers go down to the neighborhood, block or house level with coverage.

The effect too often is to present trivia as substance. It resembles a facebook page or the far too common ain’t-my-kitten-or-boyfriend-cute blog. That kind of self-indulgence gets real stale real fast, and consequently drives most viewers away quickly. The Internet makes hyperlocal coverage possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile.

Doing It Right

In contrast, consider community journalism. If you don’t know what that is, click over to H2Otown and see it done right. There, dedicated and savvy bloggers and other volunteers do play Jimmy Olsen. Some want to grow into paid reporters elsewhere. Others have a passion for reporting the unreported news, what they want to see in MSM and local weeklies but don’t.

You don’t have to go that far or treat blogging as a separate career that burns all your spare cycles. Yet, for those who didn’t come out of a reporting background, some smart groups have recognized that:

  • Community journalism and reportage on blogs can only help us news-hungry sorts.
  • Knowing how to go about it makes it much easier and more effective.
  • You can teach the little that folks need to know.

In the past couple of years, I attended several such sessions, as conferences or seminars. I’ll do more when they appear. Even with my background, it didn’t hurt me and I learned things. Moreover, ye olde networking is great at these. I spoke with and have contacts with professional and blogger sorts from the commonwealth, region and country.

In particular, I cite the Media Giraffe/New England News Forum conferences in Amherst and Lowell, and last weekend’s Nieman Foundation seminar in Cambridge. The former blended MSM and new media sorts such as bloggers. The latter was mostly weekly newspaper reporters and editors. (I may have been the only blogger there.)

There’s a far amount of coverage of the NENF conferences in this blog, including this. I posted one personal view of the Nieman one here, and shall do one or two more on the sessions last weekend.

Meanwhile, the key concepts for those new to news is that you can do this. You don’t have to quit your day job or even stop your regular blog posting. You can pick a topic, do a little research and interviewing, and voila! you can be Jimmy.

Cross-posting: This also appears on Marry in Massachusetts.

Pestle Packing in Watertown

October 5th, 2007

Brass mortar and pestle

A pestle for the pistils. Bring on the stigmas, dude!

While I was lamenting the overly laid-back attitude of the Syrian Grocery Importing Company personages, I did check back (and they weren’t there) and I shall get in that store!

However, the pressing need of a round bowled mortar has found satisfaction. I can now grind saffron to powder and not lose any to a porous marble mortar or into my skin as I crumble the threads by fingers.

I had stopped at the Arax Grocery in near Watertown, not far from Mt. Auburn Cemetery before. It’s great for Middle-East foods and spices. However, I had not gone for hard goods previously.

I had noticed the phalanx of hookahs lining an entire wall, but that’s a little too Alice in Wonderland for me. Cheeses though…you won’t find a better selection than at Arax.

After faring badly in my spice-grinding quest, I have included stops at possible vendors on other trips. You might think that a housewares joint, like Pottery Barn, would have a brass or stainless steel mortar with a smooth round bowl. You’d think wrong. Likewise, the three Haymarket shops that sell herbs and Middle-East foods seemed likely. Honk. Wrong.

Searching the Boston area for little treasures like this has gone from annoyance to sport. I had homed in on Middle-East groceries and was failing there too. Clerks at three rolled their eyes and said they never carried such things.

In a shopper’s confession, I could have ordered an acceptable mortar and pestle set from for $17, plus $9 shipping. The combo passed my choke point in shipping/item ratio, I like to hold the object, free shipping doesn’t kick in until $100, and the vendor was, at least temporarily, out of stock.

The game was afoot. I could see a set in the Syrian Grocery window, but that clearly was one of those ill-designed ones that had a tumbler-style bottom that would catch the powder and be a royal pain to extract the goodies from the edges. They might have what I really wanted in the interior jumble, but I’d have to get inside and be lucky enough to be there when they felt like opening.

I didn’t have a lot of hope when I took the slow way to a business lunch in Waltham. I cut through Brighton by the Stockyards to head up to Mt. Auburn. My first stop would be Arax, which is an apt metaphor. That river is a key boundary in the Turkish regions and is a metaphor for travel.

The store was as I recalled and probably as it was 30 years ago. There is a pungency, almost an axilla (good way, good way) smell. The decades of herbs, teas and foodstuff seem to float off the walls. I think of the caves of Roquefort or the grand aromas of Sherman Tobacco, which I visited for an article about the time the Arax founders immigrated to America. The old wooden building there slowly had become permeated with powder from great tobacco and had a chocolate-like tastiness in the air. Even people who are disgusted by the idea of cigars and sickened by burning tobacco enjoy the inside of the building.

Back to Arax, it takes 10 minutes just to scan the interior of the store. There’s food on shelves and in coolers floor to high ceiling. Entire walls have herbs or tiny coffee cups for that great silt Middle-Easterners favor. Other than the cheeses and olives, nothing seems quite solidly grouped. There’s a lot of mixed product placements that seem illogical to us ignorant type or at least to folk who are not the owners.

I did not find my mortar set and ended up asking a clerk. He didn’t think they had them but did ask the older woman who seemed to be in charge. She led me to a small counter area behind other goods. There were three sizes of exactly what I wanted.

After consideration and examination (and silly joy), I went with the smallest, just over two and one-quarter inch inside diameter bowl at the top.

I paid $13 for it. I suspect I could have bargained a bit, but was too delighted by holding it at last. The clerk ringing me out held the unmarked set up and called across the store to the male owner. He seemed to make up the price on the spot. Again, I didn’t quibble.

I have a good marble set that is fine for star anise, cardamom seeds and other coarse herbs and spices. For saffron, smaller was definitely preferable. (Think Dune and the Spice.)

Getting the Most from Saffron

It is easy to embrace the mythology of saffron. Indeed, by weight it is the most expensive spice, but it can be easy and inexpensive to enjoy.

First, buy it by the ounce and buy high quality. The Kashmiris, Spaniards and all claim to have the highest quality and most intensely flavored/colored. In truth though, there’s lots of bad and adulterated stuff around. You want whole threads, never powder, and high-quality Spanish saffron is easy to find and order online by the ounce.

Such a tin will last a long time, even if you use it every few days. It should cost in the nature of $50. That seems like a lot until you compare it to the absurd little tubes or packets with tiny quantities.

Buy the damned ounce, don’t be afraid to grab a big pinch, revel in its glories. When you do it this way, a serving might cost a nickel to a quarter. Look at your dinner ingredients. You can easily spend $6 for the chicken. What’s another 11¢ or 27¢ to make it beautiful and sapid?

When you go with saffron, the general rule is to dry, grind and infuse it first. This one to two-minute preparation has great payback. Exposing the maximum surface of your thread treasures and letting liquid pre-extract the flavor and color makes all the difference.

Nearly any hot liquid will work. Depending on the dish, you may use water, white wine or milk. Heat a few tablespoons or up to two ounces in a coffee cup in the microwave (30 seconds on high). Meanwhile, in your smallest pan, gently and quickly heat the pinch or measure of saffron threads for 20 seconds or so on a medium low burner.

You just want to drive any residual water from the threads. If you discolor them to brown or black, toss them and weep. You destroyed the threads. You just want to heat them to brittleness.

Grind the threads to powder and scrape it all into the liquid. Cover for 30 minutes or hours if you have the time. This infusion will maximize the flavor and color potential. When it comes time to add the infusion, you’ll almost certainly rinse the residual from the cup with more of the water, wine or milk to get every delicious drop.