Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Akaska Trip 4, after a slight detour

Fritz and I spent part of the weekend in New York City with a former student of his with whom we are very close. Theater, opera and good food were on the agenda; food and theater for the three of us, opera for me. We began with lunch at the West Bank Cafe on the corner of 42nd Street and 9th Avenue: excellent Cobb Salads for Elizabeth and me, Fritz opting for his beloved Quesadillas, and lots of verbal sparring with our charming gay waiter.

We then went to the Duke Theater for the matinee of Cock, the Olivier Award-winning 90 minute one act play by Mike Bartlett from the Royal Court Theater in London. Cock, although gay-themed, refers to far more than you might think: the play deals with a male couple struggling with their relationship after one of them, John, has been attracted to the point of having sex with a young woman and is seriously thinking about marriage and family. John is an eventually disabled bundle of denial and indecision as he spars with his lover, M; his sometime girlfriend, W; and M's father, F, who wants to reconcile the boys once and for all.  But John ends the play immobile, face-down in a fetal position, unable to answer a simple yes/no question -- speechless in an extremely verbal play.  Ironically, it is only John who has a name in this play, it usually being nameless characters who lack self knowledge.  

The set is an unpainted plywood replica of an ages-old design for a cock-fighting arena, going back to the Elizabethan period and beyond, in which spectators betting on the outcome watched fighting roosters tear each other to pieces.  There was no furniture beyond one small cabinet and almost no props.  An actor could leave the set by one of the two exits (above, left) or by simply walking up the steps (right) and sitting in the aisle until his or her next entrance.  Throughout, the proximity of actor and audience (enhanced by the all-enclosing seating unit) was very in-your-face; and there was virtually no "theatrical" lighting, either -- a bank of florescents mounted in a circular enclosure above the stage lit actors and audience almost equally.  We couldn't run and we couldn't hide.

The cast, pictured and named above, were outstanding under the play's original London director.

We had dinner at one of my favorite spots, Old John's, a lovely, small and blessedly quiet restaurant up near Lincoln Center, featuring excellent food and reasonable prices.  Fritz and Elizabeth went off on their own, while I went to the John Jay Theater for another long one act work, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's Emilie, an 80 minute monodrama for soprano and orchestra about a most extraordinary woman.   

 Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet

Born in 1706, Emilie du Chatelet impressed her father with her mind so early that he arranged astronomy tutoring by the President of the Academy of Sciences at age ten and by twelve she was fluent in Greek, Latin, Italian and German, allowing her to translate many scientific and literary works.

She was highly musical, playing harpsichord and singing opera; and athletic, fencing and riding.  Her skills had, by adulthood, encompassed higher mathematics and physics as well as philosophy, on all of which topics she wrote highly respected works.  She was a passionate advocate for female education.

Married as a teenager by parental arrangement to an older man who fully supported her accomplishments, she invited her lover, the philosopher Voltaire, to live with her at her husband's chateau with his permission.  The great work of her life was a translation of Sir Issac Newton's Principia Mathematica with her own notations and further development, the standard French version of Newton to this day.  Her equation E ∝ mv²  she developed when she realized that v for velocity had to be squared thus becoming a very major milestone on the way to Einstein's E = mc² as well as a perfectly valid breakthrough on its own

Her level of education and importance of her work were unheard of for a woman of her time, and she was never admitted to any of the great Academies of France.  Voltaire called her "a great man whose only fault was being a woman" in a letter to Frederick the Great.  She died in childbirth shortly after finishing her Newton translation at age 43.

Mme. du Chatelet is the subject of a dozen or more biographies, three plays, and the opera Emilie by Finnish composer Kaija Saariato that I heard Saturday night.  The setting is Emilie's library/laboratory a week before her death, where she races to finish the Newton book while overcome with forebodings of imminent death due to her pregnancy (historically accurate).

The gorgeous production framed American soprano Elizabeth Futral with transparent screens that took all kinds of projections, and behind which she could go to "write" on with her finger, trailing animated projected lines behind to form diagrams of her findings.  The vocal line was at times beautiful, at times dramatic and craggy, accompanied by an orchestra which often paired harpsichord and marimba to accompany her thoughts.  Of the work's 80 minutes, I estimate Ms Futral was singing for no less than 50, maybe 55, in a big, shining soprano, and possessing the stage with passion and intelligence -- exactly like the woman she portrayed.


Back to Alaska:  We took two tours of the workings of the boat.   The first was the engine room, a cramped, suffocatingly hot, punishingly noisy but immaculately clean and well-organized place.  Two massive diesel engines were roaring away and we learned a lot about the extensive electrical systems required to run a floating hotel.

The other tour was through the Galley just about all of which is visible in this picture where a highly coordinated staff turned out just over 100 meals three times a day.  From the Galley we went to see the freezers and refrigerators required to keep various foods fresh for an entire week as no restocking was possible between port of embarcation and port of disembarcation. 

A black bear cub on the bank of a fjord turned to look at us just before bounding into the forest.

 The main reason for proposing the trip was to celebrate Michael Rockwell's 50th birthday.  Galley provided a beautifully presented birthday fruit cobbler.

 We were taken out by skiff to explore frequently.  Among the main attractions were the breathtaking cascades, most of which originate in the snow caps up around 800 to 1000 or more feet in the mountains that loom above the fjords.  Our guide on this occasion said that this was his favorite cascade of all for the beautiful patterns in the rock.

A Polar Plunge was announced for one afternoon and three in our group decided to take it.  Depending on one's intestinal fortitude the plunge could be taken from the lower or upper deck -- Michael, Leon and David elected the upper deck in their brand new Sarah Palin Ts.

David, about half way down.  The plunge was taken very far aft so that the swim to the stern's boat docking platform was short and easy.  The crew and Captain, who had plunged first, were waiting to assist plungers up to the deck and into one of the boat's hot tubs if necessary.
 Michael, just surfacing.  There may not have been ice in the water in this location but the water was very cold indeed.  The entire cruise was filled with fun and the unexpected.

There's just something not quite right about jumping out of a perfectly good boat. ;-)
Jumping into ice water. Wow. Beautifully written...and I'd LOVED to have been on the galley tour.....FUN. I still want pictures of the cabin boy. THANKS for posting, Will.
That plunge looks like fun, but I don't know if I could do it. I like my pool water heated to 86F or above. The coastal waters of San Diego are too cold for me! That cascade photo is gorgeous.
I didn't have a copy of the birthday bit - thank you for posting it for now I do !
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