… and on the topic of pregnant women

April 9th, 2010

What is with all this Shakespearean nonsense about Macduff not having been “of woman born”? McSweeney’s puts that lie to the test:

MACDUFF: I was extracted surgically, in an operation.

MACBETH: Okay, but thou wast still born, right?

MACDUFF: No. Untimely ripped.

MACBETH: Okay, but after thou wast ripped, thou wast of woman born.

Theater ticket giveaway contest!

March 16th, 2010

I’ve got a fun contest on the boston.com blog to win two tickets to Central Square Theater’s brand-new production of “From Orchids to Octopi,” a play about Charles Darwin, running March 31-May 1. Go enter! I look forward to hearing what your oh-so-evolved brains come up with.

Theater ticket giveaway!

February 11th, 2010

It’s another theater ticket giveaway!

Not Enough Air” at Central Square Theater opens today and runs through March 14. Be the first to comment on this post, and I’ll give you two tickets, along with complimentary parking and drink vouchers. (Previous winners John H. and Elizabeth aren’t eligible; part of the reason I do this is to introduce new people to this wonderful theater.)

I can’t review the play, partly because I am on the board of the theater, but more to the point because I haven’t seen it. However, it sounds absolutely fascinating — a brand-new play about a playwright:

Drawn into the sensational 1920′s murder trial of Ruth Snyder, famed journalist-turned-playwright Sophie Treadwell finds herself compelled to give voice to Ruth’s story through her landmark play, “Machinal.”

And it’s being directed by Melia Bensussen, and that woman can direct the hell out of a play, I tell you what. She did Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Taming of the Shrew” this season and “Merchant of Venice” last, both of which were absolutely brilliant. So I think you’d be in for a good time at the theater — I know I can’t wait to see it on Sunday.

Who’s on first?

A handy visual distinction

February 5th, 2010

“The Lion in Winter”:

lionwinter

The terrier in winter:

terrwinter1

Most amazing political ad ever

February 2nd, 2010

In the epic discussion of rudeness on the boston.com blog, a number of people mentioned changes in the political/media culture as responsible for a degradation of public discourse. I don’t allow partisan politics on that site, but talking about general trends is fine, and I agreed with many of the commenters.

In that spirit, may I present the most remarkable political smear ad of all time. Yes, it is real; it’s for the coroner’s seat in New Orleans:

I’ll let you pause for a moment to take that in.

I majored in theater as an undergraduate. You know the actor who played Igor probably got his theater degree at Louisiana State or some such, dreamed of playing Mister Mistoffolees on tour, maybe getting to do the one-man version of “Santaland Diaries” someday, or even Shakespeare … I hope for his sake that his hopes and dreams were already crushed before this happened. It sounds harsh of me, I know, but I am cruel only to be kind.

Best “Miss Conduct” moment EVER

January 29th, 2010

So, last night, Mr. Improbable and I went to see “Indulgences” at New Rep. It’s a very good play, funny and sharp and well-acted, hip but not too knowing. Highly recommended.

At any rate, during intermission, I was in the lobby when the house manager came in through a staff-only door and almost bumped a couple of older women. “Oh, my goodness, sorry, guys,” she gasped. “We’re not guys, we’re girls,” one of them snippily responded. Neither of them acknowledged her apology.

So after my trip to the ladies’ room, I went to the ticket counter and asked to speak with the house manager. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Robin Abrahams, and I write the ‘Miss Conduct’ etiquette column in the Globe. And I want you to know that it’s colloquially acceptable to call more than one woman ‘guys,’ and that it’s not acceptable to criticize strangers for minor faux pas. Those women were very rude, and I think you’re perfectly fine.”

Well, she had been feeling bad about it, so she was was delighted, and so was I. I felt like some minor little superhero or something! I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed being “Miss Conduct” quite so much. (Actually, I sometimes find being “Miss Conduct” in public to be kind of a pain, but I’ll write about that some other day.)

But of course you don’t have to be an official etiquette columnist to do this. On the other blog we’re talking about rudeness, and how to respond to it. If the rudeness isn’t directed at you, but at someone else, don’t scold the offender — comfort the offended. Say, “That was unfair. What you did wasn’t wrong” or “You handled that very gracefully,” or even simply, “I’m sorry that person did that to you.” It can make a world of difference; really, it’s like you are taking a shamed person and leading them back into the light by the hand.

I mean, it’s a heck of a lot funnier if you’re Miss Conduct, but it’s just as kind no matter who you are.

Harriet Jacobs

January 15th, 2010

The death of Miep Gies this week, at the age of 100, reminded everyone of her heroism in sheltering the Frank family during World War II. Right now, there’s a play at Central Square Theater that is strikingly reminiscent of Anne Frank’s story.

Harriet Jacobs, a literate slave, hid in a crawlspace for seven years before making her way to freedom. Ms. Jacobs’ intelligence, verbal dexterity, and moral clarity are reminiscent of George Orwell. I’m a member of the board of the company that co-produced the play, so I can’t give an actual review … but I suspect you’d like it. If I could express an opinion. Which I can’t.

And I have two extra tickets! So if you live in the Boston area, be the first person to comment on this post, and I’ll give them to you, along with complimentary drink vouchers and parking validation. No contest, no need to create a haiku or parody or recipe — just get firsties, and I’ll get you two tickets to a show that I’d say is really good, if I could say that.

Today’s column

December 20th, 2009

… is online here.

I often have to edit questions for length, and the question from the woman who is often “accused” (her words) of being pregnant was one of them. The full question was as follows:

I am a petite female who has put on a little weight as of the last year. The problem with this, is that I get all my weight in the front, which is bad enough. However, the icing on the cake has been that every week, there is a new stranger asking me, “When are you due?” I have an identical twin who is a bit smaller than me, but gets the same questions (just not as often). I have no ring on my finger, and several friends and family say that I do not look pregnant, just “fluffy.” And with the most recent pregnancy accusation made by an obstetrician – I am angry. It was funny before (I joked that it was a cheeseburger I just ate – which I had ate the night before), but now it has gotten out of hand. My question is, since when is it okay to ask if someone is pregnant when they could very clearly just be a little bit overweight? Also, what is the appropriate reaction? I would love to point out their flaws (i.e. a big nose, hairy ears, whatever), but I just smile and say “no, sorry,” as if it is my fault.

First of all, I am in no way denying or minimizing this woman’s frustration, so let’s get that out of the way. I’m an advocate or ally or member or whatever you want to call it of the Fat Acceptance movement, which I’ve been quite public about, and if I put a foot wrong here, I hope my FA buddies will call me out on it so I can get my head straight.

I was bothered, although I didn’t address it in my answer, by the “I have no ring on my finger” statement. Not all pregnant women are married, and not all married women wear their rings during pregnancy, if they’re prone to gaining weight or retaining water in their hands.

Also, of course your friends and family are going to say you don’t look pregnant. That’s the kind of thing friends and family do. But if you’re being asked every week — and by an obstetrician, no less! — then, hon, you look pregnant. Which doesn’t make it any less annoying, I’m sure, but everything is at least a little bit easier to cope with when we’re not in denial about it.

Last week, I got my hair done, and my hairdresser looked … fluffy. Really fluffy. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and I knew she’d had a baby eight months ago or so. With this question on my mind, of course, there was no way I was going to presume anything, so I greeted her and said, “What’s new?” She looked down at her belly and then at me as though I’d grown two heads and replied, “I’m expecting again, obviously.” She thought it was pretty funny when I explained my trepidation.

So here’s a question: what are, and are not, appropriate comments to make on another person’s appearance? I’d say both weight gain and loss are off the table entirely. (I used to be more on the fence about weight loss, but both learning more about FA — and also having the unpleasant experience, recently, of being congratulated on weight loss that is the result of illness — has changed my mind on that.) Even if someone is losing weight on purpose, there is a chance they will gain it back, and yesterday’s compliments may make them feel even worse.

Deliberate changes in appearance — new hair color or cut, new eyeglasses, contacts — seem like fair game, as long as this doesn’t involve insulting the way the person used to look. “Thank God you’ve finally gotten rid of the grey!” is not how we compliment a good dye job.

But what other general principles are there?

I think this is an area of social behavior where my own parameters are a little bit skewed from the norm. As I’ve mentioned before, I used to be a theater person, and still am at heart. And theater people, because their body is their instrument, can be extremely straightforward about assessing their own appearance and that of others. You have to know what you look and sound like and what kind of persona you project, and if you’re getting it wrong, a good friend or mentor will tell you, in no uncertain terms. There isn’t time for tact and “everyone is beautiful” happy talk when careers are at stake. Sometimes, in fact, given that I hope to do more television and public speaking, I wish I could get that kind of unvarnished feedback again. Maybe I’ll ask my actor friends, if I can convince them to treat me like one of them, and not like “Miss Conduct.”

But outside the greenroom — what’s polite and what isn’t?

Shrew love waits

October 20th, 2009

More on ASP’s “The Taming of the Shrew” …

The big question with any production of “Shrew” is how to do Kate’s final scene, in which, at Petruchio’s command, she gives a speech about the obedience women owe to their husbands. I saw a brilliant all-female production of the play several years back (the women played the male characters as men, just as in Shakespeare’s time, female roles were played as women, by male actors) in which this monologue was very dramatic and clearly very difficult for Kate, and during which Petruchio’s attitude went from a macho boastfulness, to embarrassment, to complete shame and horror at what he had done to this woman and incredible gratitude and humility in the face of her extraordinary grace. It was a deeply Christian reading of the scene, reminding me of nothing so much as Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

Melia Bensussen, who also directed last year’s wonderful “Merchant of Venice,” took a much simpler tack with it, and yet one that I’ve never seen or heard done before. The three husbands in the room — Petruchio, Lucentio, and Hortensio — have all agreed to wager on their wives’ obedience. They send the servant Grumio to call their wives from the other room, and Kate is the only one who comes. (Given that it is well established that Kate hates her sister Bianca, and has already been gratuitously insulted by the other woman, her eagerness to join her husband speaks less of obedience than a wholly rational desire to escape the Mean Girls.) Petruchio then tells her to go get the other women, bring them into the main room, and TELL THEM.*

ohsnap

And here is the brilliant, obvious, perfect thing that Ms. Bensussen does: she puts the money on the table. This is a wager. The audience sees the pile of money, lying right there, and so does Kate. She knows the score. Does she believe what she’s saying? Oh, probably, partly. It’s hard for anyone, even someone as verbally dextrous as Katharina Minola, to lie convincingly and on the spur of the moment for 40 lines. But she’s doing it for the money — the same reason Petruchio married her. The fact that she swoops down on that pile of bills like the hawk she’s often compared to makes that clear enough. She and her husband jam the cash into their pockets and beat a quick retreat! (I must blushingly confess that this scene charmed me enough that I actually wrote Shakespeare fan fiction this weekend, imagining Kate and Petruchio on the way home to Verona, laughing at having pulled a fast one on their friends and family and deciding what to do with their winnings.)

So often, in productions of Shakespeare, the money is treated like a metaphor. Seeing Ms. Bensussen’s take on two of his most difficult plays — “Taming of the Shrew” and that which is often called “Taming of the Jew” — has convinced me that this is a mistake. It’s not a metaphor. It’s money. And people will do a lot for money. My God, what won’t they do for money.

More subtly, the production, though set in a vaguely defined present-ish moment, is staged with recurrent images of Queen Elizabeth — on the stage floor, on the cover of the pub’s dart- and gameboard. Which reminds those of us who know our Bard that he, too, was doing it for the money. Shakespeare, that great artist, was also a great mercenary. And he wrote by the leave and at the pleasure of a woman — his Queen — just as Kate speaks by the leave and at the pleasure of her husband. The Queen protected and supported him, too, as Petruchio protects and supports Kate. Shakespeare was no more free than Kate, and no more oppressed.

We all make compromises, which sounds very mature. We are all compromised, which sounds very dirty. But both are true.

*I’m delighted to report that the creator of the “Oh Snap!” flowchart, originally found here, bears the wonderfully improbable name Sharif Kellogg, and is a friend of a friend of mine. Say what you will, the internet can be a fun playground sometimes.

The Shrew event

October 19th, 2009

My talk for Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Taming of the Shrew” last week was terrific fun! We’d seen the production the night before — I’ll review that, too — and it gave me an idea for a great opening.

ASP is staging the play in The Garage in Harvard Square, which they’ve done up to look like a divey bar circa early 1980s or so. It’s the first play I’ve ever seen that incorporates the senses of taste and smell — an actor passes around popcorn during intermission (warning everyone who takes some “You can’t sue us”) and Grumio, Petruchio’s servant, cooks sausages on an electric fry pan, filling the space with their savory aroma. Shakespeare in Smell-O-Vision! Only ASP, I’m telling you.

Anyway, the dive-bar setting, and the extremely violent staging of the play, got me thinking about this year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner: a team of Swiss scientists who won “for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.”

So before the talk, I made sure Mr. Improbable had a seat up in front, right where I would be talking. And I got a bottle of Sam Adams and a mug. And this, more or less, is what I said:

“‘Taming of the Shrew’ teaches us that a woman should always put her husband before herself, so before I begin my talk, I’d like to ask my husband, Marc Abrahams, to stand up and take a bow.” (He did) “Marc is known in my column and blogs as Mr. Improbable — for many reasons, the main one being that he publishes the Annals of Improbable Research and produces the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

“When we saw the play last night, it made me think of this year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner” — which I then described as above. “Now, this is what might surprise you: you can actually do far more damage with an empty bottle of beer than a full one. An empty bottle is a better weapon. Counterintuitive, no? After all, a full bottle is heavier, by the weight of the beer.

“But here’s the thing. A full bottle of beer already has so much pressure inside it, from the thick, foaming, raging beer, that it takes much less external pressure to make it shatter. When you’ve emptied out all that beer” — and here I poured the beer out and served it to Marc with a dramatic “Milord,” and I must say he was an awfully good sport about basically being used as a prop — “you have a much more effective weapon.”

“Just like Kate, when she empties out all that rage, when she stops holding in all that pressure, becomes a much more strong and focused person. And a much more effective weapon, as her sister and the Widow can attest!

“And now I will stop being Mrs. Improbable” — turning to Marc — “and you can start being Mr. Conduct. Because as ‘Taming of the Shrew’ really teaches us, a happy marriage isn’t about one person being in charge, or about everything being equal all the time, either. It’s about knowing when to take the spotlight and when to give it up to your partner.”

It went over pretty doggone well, I must say. More on the play proper later, but in the meantime, here‘s a print interview I did for the ASP website.

The Lady with All the Answers

October 12th, 2009

… isn’t me.

It’s Ann Landers, at least according to the title of a play about her life, which is opening this week off-Broadway — and this spring in Cambridge’s Central Square Theater.

CST’s six-show season (three plays each by two separate companies, the Nora Theatre Company and Underground Railway Theater) started with Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker,” which is still running, and concludes with “The Lady with All the Answers” in the spring. Tickets to all six shows are $150 — quite a bargain! (Full disclosure: I’m on the URT Board. But I’m on it because I like it, not the other way around.) I hope you’ll think about subscribing.

And just for fun …

October 6th, 2009

What might it look like if Petruchio actually did have the good sense to write to Miss Conduct for advice? Maybe something like this:

Dear Miss Conduct,

I am a returning war veteran. Although every other donkey in Padua has a “Support the Troops” sticker pasted on its butt, the fact is, my benefits are running out and I’m going to be on the street soon. Also, there’s a long waiting line at the Padua VA for counseling, so my post-traumatic stress disorder has gone untreated for far too long.

Here’s my problem: I did meet a beautiful, rich woman whom I like a lot (she kind of reminds me of my old drill sergeant). But, as I said, I have pretty bad PTSD, and I’m afraid I used some inappropriate … let’s call them “enhanced wooing techniques” on her. Can this relationship be saved?

Signed, Love is a Battlefield.

What might it sound like if other famous literary characters wrote letters to an advice columnist? Leave yours in comments. (More fun if you don’t mention names, so we can guess!)

Miss Conduct Tames the Shrew!

October 6th, 2009

Next Thursday, October 15, I’ll be doing a special reading and signing for “Community Night” for Actors’ Shakespeare Project in conjunction with their production of “The Taming of the Shrew.”

From 5:45 until 7:15, I’ll be doing a reception, reading (from the relationships chapter, I think!), discussion of the play, and book-selling and signing at Upstairs on the Square. (In the Zebra Room, and do I have a fabulous zebra dress to go with it!) The play begins at 7:30 in The Garage, which is about a block away.

Tickets are a special price of $25, and can be gotten by calling Joanna at 617-776-2200 x 225. If you can only come to my (free!) segment, but not to the play, please call anyway so they can get a good head count. You will still be able to get the special Community Night price for any of the 3:00 pm matinees 10/24, 10/31, or 11/7. (Regular tickets are $47 and $38, so this is a good deal!)

I hope to see you there!

(This post will run at the top for the rest of the week. New content below.)

Good theater in Boston

September 17th, 2009

One of the things I look forward to every fall is the beginning of theater season. Tonight, we’re going to see “Mr. Roberts” at New Rep, our first show of the season.

I used to work in theater when I lived in Kansas City, and when I moved to Boston, it took me a long time to figure out what theater companies were good. As a grad student, I didn’t have a lot of money to play with–and let’s face it, theater tickets are expensive. Most folks will rent or go see a movie that they know they may or may not like, but if you’re plunking down theater money, you want more of a guarantee.

So if you’re new in town, too, or just don’t get to see as much theater as you’d like, here’s my recommendations. Mr. Improbable and I have season tickets to all three of these companies:

Central Square Theater. This is a new theater in the heart of Central Square, that houses two separate companies: Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theater.* (Yes, the inconsistent spellings drive me nuts, too. Personally, I’m a believer in “-er” style theater. We’re not British, a fact rather decisively established over 200 years ago.) Nora does more traditional plays, while URT has a more community-based, experimental approach — not in some godawful way where they’re going to make audience members come on stage and relive their birth or anything, so don’t worry about that. It’s perfectly normal theater, but there might be some puppets, and the script might have been written by someone who lives in your town. You can handle that, can’t you?

Central Square Theater also has an outstanding subscriber package this year: you can get tickets to all six shows for only $150, and they even throw in parking and a free drink! And their 2009-2010 season has wonderfully diverse offerings, from a Pinter classic, to a holiday combo of two one-acts by Grace Paley and Truman Capote, to a brand-new play about evolution, to a play about — an advice columnist! Oh yes, we’ll be cooking up some fun publicity events for that one, I assure you.

Actors’ Shakespeare Project. I’ve written about these guys before: they’re simply brilliant. This is Shakespeare the way I’ve wanted to see it done all my life. ASP plays in a lot of different venues, so that can be fun as well, seeing how the actors employ different, and sometimes quite challenging, spaces — ASP doesn’t limit itself to actual theaters to perform in. That would be too easy.

New Repertory Theatre. These guys used to be in Newton, and are now in the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. This means that before the show, you want to go get dinner at Casa de Pedro. (Isn’t it funny how much more classy that sounds than “House of Pete”? I recommend the “cod a la Ozzy Guillen.”) New Rep is the most conservative of the three companies I mention: they do a standard mix of old and new plays, comedies and dramas, and one musical every year. And they do them well, with great fidelity to the script and superb production values.

Season tickets are still available to all three theaters, and I have to say that if you can afford it, this is the way to go. It’s much easier to organize than buying tickets on a show-by-show basis. (And don’t worry about the fact that you don’t know what you’re going to be doing on the third Thursday in May yet, so how can you possibly commit to “Hot Mikado”? You can always exchange your tickets for a better date if it turns out you can’t go when you thought you could.)

*Full disclosure: I’m on the board of URT, which is why I recommend but won’t review their plays.