Friday, May 29, 2009

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

When I was a wee one, I loved Ghost Stories (with a capital G, and S). I had this crazy book called the Usborne book of GHOSTS, and I read it so often that it literally disintegrated in my hands. I went on a mad search for the thing several summers ago when I was home, but alas, it appears to have vanished.

The first story in this collection was one about "The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall." The story also included an accompanying photograph, reproduced below.

Now, as I'm writing this, I realize this photograph is most likely a hoax, and that the shadowy figure looks like a statue of the Virgin Mary. If you look closely, you can see the triangle feet, where her robes fall around her, and it appears as if her hands are in the praying position. In actuality, the perpetrator of this hoax probably figured out a way to superimpose a photograph of a statue over the stairs.

But when I was ten, man, I believed this. I believed it so hard. And the accompanying story makes you WANT to believe it. That's the fantastic thing about really great ghost stories. You want these spirits to exist, because their stories are so dramatic.

The deal with the Brown Lady was that she was supposedly Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726), the sister of England's first Prime Minister. She wanted to marry the second Viscount Townshend, but her father wouldn't allow it. Finally, after the death of Townshend's first wife they were finally married. Of course by this time Dorothy had started a love affair with this guy named Lord Wharton. When Townshend learned of the affair, he supposedly bricked Dorothy up in Raynham Hall, where she either

a) died of a broken heart
b) died of a push from Townshend down the stairs
c) died of boredom

And it it her ghost that haunts the halls. An extension of the same story is that guests at Raynham Hall have reported to seeing her walk towards them, a shadowy female figure who comes more and more into focus the closer she gets, and that right as she's face to face, you realize she has. no. eyes. Just sockets! And then, hoping you're sufficiently creeped out, she vanishes.

There is yet another caveat to the story, that, in hopes of getting rid of the ghost, the owners of Raynham Hall took to exploring the house to find the remains of one such woman. The story goes that the skeleton of a young woman was found, and promptly buried at a nearby nunnery. The Brown Lady hasn't been seen since.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Friendship is Miles Away

I hate that I'm writing this review the week after "Christmas is Miles Away," by English playwright Chloe Moss, has closed here in New York. Let's just say I was lucky to see it. Produced and Directed by my friend Geordie Broadwater, the play chronicles the breakdown of a long-standing friendship between two Manchester boys as they grow into men.

Unsurprisingly, the two are very different, and their differences only blanch and tighten with age. Christie's father dies, he falls in with a girl named Julie, which proves to be his first major love affair. Luke goes off to be a soldier while Christie stays at home to paint at the local art college. The New York Times review really says it all . . . Ms. Moss' dialogue is the shining star of this play, totally natural, and also wonderfully exotic with the nooks and crannies of the Manchester gab. While all three actors are talented, Roger Lirtsman, who plays Luke, is absolutely stunning. His total and complete physical commitment to the character outshines the other two actors, who still seem a bit young and inexperienced in comparison. Lirtsman's tics (Luke has an uncomfortable large and frequent smile) indicate there's more to him than meets the eye. His discomfort (again, that incredible smile) during an intervention Julie organizes is so palpable, I cried. I literally cried.

I had never heard of Chloe Moss, but you can bet your bottom dollar I'll be keeping my eye out to see more from her, and to purchase a collection of her plays. (Is there one? There should be). All I know, is that after I left the theater, I was still crying, thinking of my childhood friends (and even some current ones) and wondering if I'd done them wrong. It's so easy to let friendships slip through one's fingers as you grow and change. You find yourself seeking out that person when you were thirteen . . . but of course they've changed, and you have too.

What defines a friendship? Does it end when you no longer have anything in common? What about friendships that never had anything in common? I'm the first to admit that I'm too judgmental. If a friend mentions they voted for Bush or McCain, I strike them off my list. I say to myself, "We have nothing in common." Is that really true? Should I value my friends for the way they see the world differently than I do?

Who have I lost through my own immaturity, my quickness to judge, my mindless self-indulgence?

Can we, do we want to reconcile?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Exit the King

Last Wednesday, as part of my birthday present, I traveled uptown to see Geoffrey Rush's adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King. The play was a new production of the same Rush put on in Melbourne, newly cast with the devastatingly stately Susan Sarandon and blazing, childlike Lauren Ambrose.

In my experience, Theater of the Absurd can be cloying, or totally boring. But this production is exceptional in that it is brimming with life, unafraid to make fun of itself, and more importantly, unafraid to get serious when things need to get serious. King Berenger is over four-hundred years old. His kingdom has fallen into ruin. As days go by, it actually shrinks in size, people and places falling into a growing abyss. At the beginning of the play, his first wife, Queen Marguerite (Sarandon) calls Queen Marie (Ambrose), his younger, second wife, into the throne room to tell her that the King is finally dying.

Hysterically, Marie refuses to believe Marguerite, or the doctor, who verifies that the King will not live. Marie begs them to keep the information from him, but both insist that he must know so he can come to terms with both his life and its inevitable ending. As the King enters the throne room, Marguerite lowers the boom. Of course the King is in total denial, insisting he feels fine when he can barely stand. Near the end of the first act Marguerite cools informs him that he only has an hour and a half to live, at the end of which he will die and the play will be over.

As the play features a corrupt, impotent monarch, the play's director, Neil Armfield could have gone a very direct route:

And very nearly does, in a monologue given by the King's guard, during which he praises him for his efforts in "national security," and even quotes haphazardly from "O Captain, My Captain," much like a frat boy at a patriotic event might, moved by emotion (unsure of the poem's actual inspiration). Instead the production focuses on the King's loss of power in a generally human sense, which levels him and then grounds him to the point where he is totally alone. At first, he loses his capability to order people and things around. He commands rain, there is none. He commands the guard to walk two paces, he cannot. He demands Marie to come to him, she claims she's forgotten how to use her legs. His executive orders are lost.

In remembering his childhood, the King regresses, and is confined to a wheelchair. He makes a paltry attempt at bonding with his mistreated maid, in which they both celebrate the joys of stew ("Those lovely carrots!" he exclaims), but it's a lost cause. The damage has already been done. Queen Marie remains convinced that he will live on if he continues to love her, but the ravages of his disease prevent him from recognizing her, and she disappears. Soon he is left alone on the stage with Queen Marguerite, who has, it turns out, been right about everything all along.

This production's success is its ability to wax philosophically without being heavy-handed. Convinced that he would never die unless he "decided" to, the King is mentally and emotionally unprepared for his demise. His false confidence in his own immortality is the very cause of his downfall. Queen Marguerite says he has no excuse. You should have thought of this everyday, she says. The fact that death will come. Everyday, at least five minutes a day. It's not altogether bad advice.

While we live for others in life, the transition to death is one we must make alone. The superb set design, lighting, and of course the talents of this cast reinforce Berenger's metamorphosis from King to man, nothing but a broken down instrument, left in the wings. Even if one isn't quite ready to think about the prospect of death for five minutes a day, every day, Exit the King is not to be missed.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ghost Ship(s)

Could the icicle Godzilla monster be the cause of the Titanic wreck?

I have always been fascinated by shipwrecks, and various other secrets of the deep. In middle school, I was so obsessed with Titanic that I actually memorized the entire timeline of the wreck, and the number of people killed (fyi: 1,571). So fascinated am I, that I've even seen Ghost Ship, quite possibly the worst scary movie ever made, starring the lovely Julianna Margulies of ER fame. (Warning: clip below contains graphic content).

The movie, of course, is a spin-off on a much classier myth of "The Flying Dutchman," basically a bad-ass pirate who's doomed (in death) to roam the seas until he can find some poor lady to love him. Check out Wagner's opera version, it's pretty awesome. There's another little movie that's pretty much stolen the Dutchman's thunder, too. You may have seen it.

So I was pretty jazzed when I opened my issue of New York to discover an article called "Secrets of the Deep," about all the goodies lying in New York harbor.

  • Apparently there are over 300 wrecks in the lower Hudson, most of which remain a secret as they are archeological sites.
  • There's a freight train near Peekskill! It fell off the drawbridge in 1865!
  • Suicides. "When homicides and suicides end up in the river during winter, they often stay underwater until April, when decomposition speeds up, bloating them with gases . . . The worst I ever saw," says an NYPD scuba diver, "was half in the mud, half out. The skin was peeling back, the critters were eating it."
  • Lots and lots of cars.
  • A piano and a giraffe. "Another time, they found the corpse of a giraffe that had fled a circus." :(
  • 404 ice cream trucks. (Good Humor dumped them to build an artificial reef).
  • Dreamland: One of coney island's first theme parks. It burned down in 1911.

There's also a rumor that Lake Lanier, the man-make lake in Georgia houses an entire town under the water, including a race-track and movie theater. I once heard tell that a scuba-diver was even able to swim into the movie theater and sit in one of the seats. The Army denies that there's anything under the lake, but last year, when Georgia suffered a severe drought, a steeple from a church popped up and the speedway was exposed.

I love the idea that there's an entire world underneath the ocean. Like, what?!