The Conical Glass

March 2006


Sue Trowbridge lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the co-owner of an independent record label, 125 Records, and web diva of interbridge.com.
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Human Rights Campaign

3.31.06 Octopus's Garden

Last night, we went to Bimbo's for a Noise Pop show. Noise Pop is an annual live music festival that basically takes over San Francisco's nightspots—the concert we attended was only one of ten shows happening yesterday. The headlining band was Oakland's Rogue Wave, who are a favorite of Joe's. Opening the show were Scrabbel (we arrived too late and missed them; sorry, Scrabbel!), The Octopus Project, and Aqueduct.

Seattle's Aqueduct is a one-man band on record and a three-piece onstage. The main dude looks a little like Jack Black and seemed very excited to be there, but I thought they were a snooze. A lot of the music was recorded, and live drums, guitar and bass are played over samples. After a few songs, we retreated to the bar.

The Octopus Project, from Austin, were amazing, if overly loud (the sound guy at Bimbo's had the bass turned up way too high for the entire evening; it literally made the floor shake). The quartet plays instrumental music, which is a rarity in the rock world, but really, who needs words? The three guys in the band wore shirts and ties, and the female had on a lovely satin evening dress. I always appreciate it when musicians make an effort to look good. The Octopi were incredibly high-energy, switching instruments with aplomb and transfixing the crowd with their complex and strangely beautiful songs. Bonus: theremin!

Rogue Wave may not be a household name yet, but they already have the moves to be playing much larger venues—their sophisticated light show wouldn't have been out of place at the Warfield. The sold-out crowd treated them like rock stars. After the joyful insanity of the Octopus Project, I found them a little too polished; I wished there had been a little more noise and a little less pop in their act.

Note to everyone who goes to shows in San Francisco: Please put your cell phones and blackberries away while the band is onstage. If you are on call, set your phone to vibrate so you don't need to check it every two minutes. All those tiny glowing screens are distracting, and the photos you take with your phone are going to suck. Thank you.

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3.28.06 Boycott!

Whether you are liberal or conservative, eventually, you find yourself having to boycott something. Left-wingers stay out of Wal-Mart stores, and some of us are old enough to remember being told not to buy grapes or Nestlé products (apparently the latter campaign is still going on—who knew?). Right-wingers may stay away from George Clooney movies or avoid purchasing Barbra Streisand albums; others refuse to vacation at Disney theme parks. In Berkeley, there are Boycott Berkeley Honda bumper stickers and signs all over the place.

A few months ago, I somehow wound up on a web site called "Fill My Pills Now!" The purpose of this Planned Parenthood campaign is to urge chain pharmacies to make blanket policies requiring their employees to fill prescriptions; the current focus appears to be on emergency contraceptives such as "Plan B." Some pharmacists claim these products go against their religious beliefs and therefore they refuse to fill these prescriptions.

Target is one of the chains that gets a thumbs down from PP. "We have spoken to representatives of Target multiple times. They are adamant in saying that, while they would like to ensure that every prescription is filled, they will not create a corporate policy requiring their pharmacies to ensure that prescriptions be filled in-store. Although Target says pharmacist refusals affect a very small percentage of its clients, we know it is not all right to make even one woman travel to another pharmacy to get her pills. This is discrimination. Moreover, if this involves only a few incidents, how hard would it be for Target to create a policy that protects these few women? CVS and Kmart have managed to do it!"

Considering how the Religious Right is taking over this country, my fear is that unless pharmacies put policies in place now, eventually we may wind up in a situation where pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control, or carry items like condoms. After all, there are some religions where all artificial birth control is verboten.

So, for five long months, I've been avoiding Target, despite the fact that I really liked shopping there and it's the only place that carries the full line of Method products. I've switched from Method's HE triple concentrated detergent to All Small & Mighty, for instance. Life is full of sacrifices. (Though actually, the All detergent is pretty good.)

I called my local Target to get the manager's name so I could send a letter, and was told it's "Brian"—just "Brian," like Charo or Madonna, I guess. Anyway, after putting it off almost half a year, now at least Brian and his corporate overlords in Minnesota know I'm spending my dollars elsewhere.

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3.27.06 Spiked

I go to the movies hoping to see something that will blow me away with brilliant performances, a fantastic story, and great visual panache. It doesn't happen very often. I'll admit that I can be nitpicky; perhaps working as a critic at a very young age ruined me. I'm the kind of person who sits in front of the TV complaining about the plot holes in "My Name Is Earl."

So when I say I have found a film that I love unreservedly, listen up, because it doesn't happen very often. But this weekend, I saw a genuine four-star movie. Its title? "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector."

Ha ha! Just kidding! Actually, it's Spike Lee's "Inside Man." From the very first seconds of the film, which follows a truck around New York to the strains of a propulsive Bollywood number, this movie hooked me. I am a fan of heist movies, but I've seen so many of them; is it possible to put a fresh spin on the genre in 2006? Turns out it is. "Inside Man," written by first-timer Russell Gewirtz, kept me guessing until the end.

Denzel Washington is funny and charismatic as the police detective trying to defuse a tense hostage situation, and Jodie Foster is perfect as a mysterious "fixer" who is called in by a powerful businessman to help him out of a jam. Foster looks incredible in her wardrobe of cream-colored suits and stiletto heels. I want to be a fixer when I grow up!

My only complaint, and it's a minor one, is that the film loses a bit of steam in its last 15 minutes. But I'm not going to dwell on it! "Inside Man" is a masterpiece.

One final note: Roger Ebert gave "Inside Man" thumbs down on his show this weekend, proof that he must be losing it. I mean, look at the stuff he's given thumbs up to lately: "She's the Man," "Eight Below," "Manderlay," "Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story," and "Rumor Has It." I find myself in agreement with Richard Roeper more often nowadays.

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3.25.06 They'll Be There For You

The new film "Friends With Money" was doomed before a single frame was shot. It was brought down by a casting decision: making 37-year-old Jennifer Aniston one of the friends in what we are to believe is a longstanding quartet of female pals. The other women are played by Frances McDormand (age 48), Catherine Keener (46), and Joan Cusack (43). I would have bought Aniston as someone's bratty kid sister, but not as a peer of these women. Distracted, I kept thinking who else could have been cast. How about Felicity Huffman? Marcia Gay Harden? Even Julia Roberts, who has, if you believe the tabloids, become positively haggard-looking since she had her twins. Heck, if you had to go with an ex-"Friend," 42-year-old Lisa Kudrow would have been a better choice.

Aniston's Olivia drifts aimlessly through life, working as a cleaning lady; her choices in men are so bad that she could be on the cover of Smart Women, Foolish Choices. The rest of her friends are all married with kids and all seemingly settled. McDormand's Jane, a fashion designer, is an outsized type A personality who throws such a fit when she believes someone has cut in front of her in line at the store that the manager throws her out. Keener is a people-pleasing screenwriter who is thrilled with the grossly oversized new addition being built onto her home, until she realizes all the neighbors now hate her for blocking their views. Cusack is an independently wealthy stay-at-home mom who tries to fix up Olivia with her personal trainer, a well-meaning action with disastrous results.

Even though I didn't particularly care for the film, it has some moments that are very sharply observed. For instance, we see the friends and their husbands all gather for dinner, and then, we follow each of them on the way home, in their cars, dishing about the other couples. One running subplot is that everyone seems to believe that Jane's husband, a mild-mannered Brit named Aaron, is gay; when he befriends a guy he meets in a coffee shop, also named Aaron, we think we know where the plot is headed, but it takes an unexpected twist.

I wonder if director Nicole Holofcener ("Walking and Talking," "Lovely and Amazing") realized that Aniston was miscast, and tried to account for it in her script: One of Olivia's downfalls is her addiction to a pricey face cream she can't afford on her housecleaner's salary (she constantly visits cosmetics counters, angling for free samples). Perhaps that Lançome replenishing cream really does make you look 10 years younger, and that is supposed to explain Aniston's fresh face.

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3.23.06 When Bad Albums Happen To Good Bands

Hearing Talking Heads' "Blind" on the radio this morning reminded me how much I hate their last album, Naked. Since I'd been such a big Heads fan, for years considering Remain in Light my favorite album of all time, its awfulness almost felt like a personal betrayal. Talking Heads, qu'est que c'est?

In my copious spare time today (i.e. while I was in the shower), I thought up this brief list of my least favorite albums by my favorite bands:

Roxy Music, Flesh and Blood: Listening to the insipid "Oh Yeah" is almost enough to make you wish they'd never reunited after their '76 breakup, but miraculously, they pulled it together two years later and released the classic Avalon.

Beck, Midnite Vultures: It especially bugs me that Beck's record company made a big deal out of how the allegedly uncommercial Mutations was "not the official follow-up to Odelay," when Mutations was so utterly superior to Vultures' half-baked funk. Good news: last year's Guero is what Vultures should have been.

The Loud Family, The Tape of Only Linda: I hesitate to add this to my list because it has such a reputation as "the sucky one" among the band's fans, but, well, it kinda is, especially since it's sandwiched between the glorious Plants and Birds and Interbabe Concern. Redeemed by the epic "Marcia and Etrusca," which sparkles and charms just like Paris in the spring.

David Bowie, Tonight: The disappointment I felt when this one came out still stings, since I'd really enjoyed Let's Dance, along with pretty much every single thing Bowie did during the 70s. I actually know people who are apologists for Bowie's post-Let's Dance work, even the widely derided Tin Machine era, but my Bowie collection comes to a halt in 1983, thank you very much.

R.E.M., Up: The downward spiral.

The jury's still out on the White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan. I keep hoping that one day I'll put it on and its hidden genius will be revealed to me at last. Or maybe it is just kind of weak.

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3.19.06 How Clean Is Your House?

I was watching HGTV while ironing and noticed numerous ads for a franchised cleaning service called The Maids. At first, I thought the Merry Maids had dropped the "merry" from their name—how merry would you be if you had to scrub floors on your hands and knees all day?—but no, the Merry Maids are still out there, and The Maids are a different outfit. Joe pointed out that "The Maids" is also the title of a Jean Genet drama:

In the 1930s, two maids—Christine and Lea Papin—murdered their employers by tearing out their eyes and then mutilating the corpses and bathing one another in the blood. This horrific scene and these images must have intrigued Jean Genet because, in the 1940s, he wrote "The Maids." Genet colored the bizarre psychology of women who may be capable of murder with the improvisation of a child's game of dress-up and make-believe, and shrouded it all in the veil of ritual and ceremony. What we are left with is not only a chilling tale but a compelling journey through the moments that lead to destruction.

"I told you... I don't... do... windows!!!"

Personally, I agree with writer and NPR commentator Sandra Tsing Loh, who once said that she would never hire a cleaning lady for fear that she might turn out to be Barbara Ehrenreich.

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3.17.06 Push/Pull

A clarification: A couple of people suspect that I was "push-polled," based on the examples I provided below. But I actually heard pro and con statements about both candidates during the interminable 15-minute call. My guess is that the poll was conducted by one of the candidates—I'm honestly not sure which one—to test various messages, and see which possible negatives may have the strongest detrimental effect on his campaign. Sorry if I misconstrued it.

A few days ago, I heard a 10-second snippet of interstitial music on "All Things Considered" that piqued my interest and led me to do a Google search, landing me on this page. I wound up downloading several of the tunes, and I'm particularly fond of Tom Vek's hypnotically beautiful "Nothing But Green Lights," which I've listened to over and over again during the past couple of days. (Especially recommended for fans of Remain In Light-era Talking Heads.) Scroll down a little further and you can also hear "Anthem for the Earnest" by the Bad Plus, the song that caught my ear in the first place.

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3.16.06 Whistling Dixie

Because I'm usually home to answer the phone, I seem to have gotten on several pollsters' lists. I get calls regularly, wanting to know my opinion about the issues of the day. Sometimes I say I don't have time to talk, but often, I get suckered into it. Yesterday, I received a phone call from a pollster who wanted my opinion on the two Democratic candidates for governor of California. At the risk of sounding uninformed, I must confess that not only was I not aware of the candidates and their respective positions, but I had no idea when the primary would be held. I do know I've fast-forwarded through some campaign commercials on my TiVo recently, though. (I just checked, and Californians will vote on June 6.)

The pollster read me a couple paragraphs about the candidates; thanks to his phone call, I now know that they are Steve Westly and Phil Angelides. This is roughly how his script went:

"'Phil Angelides is a multi-billionaire real estate developer who has run roughshod over the environment. He has personally snapped the neck of several endangered spotted owls, and he drives a Hummer that gets two miles per gallon. In his spare time, he enjoys going to the beach and kicking over children's sandcastles. In addition, not only is he a close personal friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he has participated in a threesome with Arnold and Maria.' Would this statement make you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to vote for him?

"'Steve Westly drives his Prius around city neighborhoods, looking for burning buildings so he can run in and save small children and their pets. If elected governor, he will personally come to your house and bring you a plate of brownies baked by his mom. If you prefer chocolate chip cookies, that's OK—just let him know. Steve's hobby is performing scientific experiments in his basement lab, and he has figured out a way to make gasoline out of dog droppings, something he estimates will bring the price of a gallon down to 56 cents, but he'll only share this secret if he's elected.' Would this statement make you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to vote for him?"

I tried to tell the guy that this was complete bullspit, but he kept saying, "We only want your opinion," or in other words, just tell me something, anything, so I can do my job. I decided to answer "somewhat more likely" to everything he said. Keep this in mind next time you read poll results in the newspaper.

In other news, we went to see the film "C.S.A." last night. I guess it is of the "mockumentary" genre, but it's definitely not a Christopher Guest-style laugh-fest. "C.S.A." is an incredibly disturbing film that posits an alternate history of the United States if the South had won the Civil War, and slavery had been legalized permanently. The conceit of the film is that it's a long-censored British documentary that's finally being shown on TV in the Confederate States of America, and it's interspersed with fake commercials for various products (like "Contrari," a prescription drug you give your "chattel" so they won't feel stirrings of disobedience). After a while, I thought the phony commercials got a little too over the top, especially the one for "Niggerhair Tobacco" brand cigarettes. But filmmaker Kevin Willmott had the last laugh; the film's epilogue informed me that Niggerhair actually existed! Check out this listing from an online auction.

The film effectively uses a blend of the real and the fake; for instance, we actually see clips of John F. Kennedy talking about slavery, and it fits right into Willmott's storyline. "C.S.A." is probably a little too subversive to play in many markets (not surprisingly, it seems to be doing well in Berkeley), but its TV-show format will make it a natural for DVD, and would be an excellent, discussion-provoking film to show to thoughtful school-aged children.

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3.14.06 Bombs Away

Is America ready for a light-hearted musical comedy about suicide bombers? I say no, and predict that when "American Dreamz" opens next month, it will be a big ol' flop. Of course, if I'm wrong and it makes $50 million in its first weekend, I reserve the right to tamper with this entry in order to make myself look prescient. "I knew all along it would be huge!" Ha ha!

Anyway. "Dreamz" interweaves several stories in an attempt to send up "American Idol," the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. The utterly charming and likable Sam Golzari plays Omer, the world's most inept would-be terrorist, who doesn't want to blow stuff up, even though his mom was killed by a U.S. bombing raid in Iraq. Omer just wants to sing and dance! He loves American show tunes, and whiles away his nights in terrorist training camp listening to old LPs of Broadway hits on a toy turntable. Eventually, he is sent to live with some cousins in L.A., and told to await further instructions from a sleeper cell.

Through an incredibly convoluted series of machinations, Omer winds up as a contestant on "American Idol," I mean "Dreamz," and soon becomes a star. Meanwhile, the coldly ambitious Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) is also battling for the top prize, using her hapless boyfriend, an Iraqi war vet (he was shot on his first day there, winning him an early discharge), to gain sympathy votes. Presiding over the broadcast is the smarmy, jaded host of the show, a combination of Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell played by Hugh Grant. The faux Bushies—Dennis Quaid as the prez, Willem Dafoe as the veep, and Marcia Gay Harden eerily channeling Laura—connect up with the "Dreamz" storyline when the president, in an attempt to bolster his sagging approval ratings, agrees to appear on the hit show as a guest judge.

I did enjoy the music, not surprising since most of the songs were written by the brilliant Stephen Trask ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"). There are hilarious send-ups of Bo Bice and Clay Aiken. (I must note at this point that I have never watched a single episode of "Idol," but for some reason—my Entertainment Weekly subscription, maybe?—I know an awful lot about it.) Sally's big number on the show is a Carrie Underwood-style country ballad called "Mommy, Don't Drink Me To Sleep Tonight," and she also croons the song's uplifting theme: "It's American Dreamz.... 'Dreamz' with a 'Z'!"

Good satire is incredibly hard to pull off, which is why so few do it well—"The Daily Show" most nights, "South Park" and "SNL" when they're at the top of their games. Despite a great cast, Paul Weitz's often-audacious script just isn't consistently sharp and funny enough to make "Dreamz" a winner. If it had been up to me, I would have left most of the Bush plotline on the cutting room floor. Regular readers know I'm not a W fan, but the "Bush is the dumbest man alive" schtick felt tired to me. I'm surprised they didn't go back and reshoot a scene to stick in a Cheney hunting joke or two.

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3.13.06 Saving and Spending

I have a weird fascination with this weekly newspaper column called "Love and Money," by Wall Street Journal reporter Jeff Opdyke. It's sort of like a soap opera that purports to be about an average family and their issues around finances. However, almost every Sunday, I wind up marveling at the choices they make.

Opdyke and his wife, Amy, seem obsessed with saving for retirement, but they are definitely not tightwads. (I wasn't able to find archives of all of his columns, so most of this is from memory; a selection of them is available here.) Amy spent $600 to have their front door—yes, just the door—decorated for Christmas. They also bought their son a $5,000 jungle gym which they admit he probably won't use much. To cap it all off, Amy insisted on giving both of their children $100 bills in their Christmas stockings, along with the usual bevy of toys. Keep in mind that their children are nine and two. Amy reasoned that if the 2-year-old didn't get a $100 bill too, it would set their kids up for a lifetime of sibling rivalry and animosity.

Now, I will admit this was a while back, but I was overjoyed any time I received a crisp fiver tucked into a letter from my grandmother—when I was in college.

Yesterday's "Love and Money" column was one I could actually relate to. Jeff disregards Amy's admonitions not to set foot in the dangerous, money-sucking Whole Foods supermarket and sneaks into the gourmet paradise:

I dropped more than $70 on what were largely basics—stuff like chicken breasts, garlic, onions, bacon, potatoes, tea bags and a fennel bulb. As an informal survey, I stopped at an Albertsons and Winn-Dixie near my home to compare prices. I could have purchased the same basics for about $40. An example of the disparity: The chicken I bought for $15 at Whole Foods would have cost me about $6.50—on sale that day—at Winn-Dixie.

The reason I could relate is because I have a serious Whole Foods habit. I visit the Berkeley store an average of twice a month, always at night, because it's the only time you can find a parking space there. I allow myself to spend around $40 per trip on things like fancy cheeses, samosas, cut-up fruit, scones, and organic russet potatoes. Because I'm a cheapskate at heart, however, I stick to things that are only available at Whole Foods. Most basics are purchased at the much cheaper Trader Joe's. And I do have limits; for instance, the panini sandwiches always look delicious, but I can't bring myself to spend $6.99 on a sandwich.

While I enjoy the over-the-top yuppie angst of "Love and Money," I see it more as a cautionary tale. For real money news you can use, I prefer Michelle Singletary, whose column appears on Mondays in the West County Times. Singletary is the type of gal who would sooner eat her shoe (purchased on sale, of course) than buy a $5,000 jungle gym for her kids. Every year, she runs a tightwad contest so readers can send in their most extreme penny-pinching tips.

However, Singletary has loosened up a little bit lately; she was even able to let go enough to buy a new car recently, instead of a used model. You may be a fanatical saver, she says, but if you're doing well financially, don't forget to enjoy the fruits of your labors.

I have an elderly aunt who saved and scrimped on stuff all her life. Now at 83, she has a large nest egg, enough to last her until she's 103. Yet she still won't buy herself or anybody else much of anything, not even during the holidays.

My aunt has been stuck in the saving mode for so long she can't spend. She can't be generous. Some might call her a miser. I think she's just scared.

I don't want to be like her. My husband and I are good stewards of our money. I shouldn't be afraid to spend on a "want."

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3.10.06 From Pittsburgh to England in Two Nights

Went to see "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" last night, and didn't find it as amusing as 9 out of 10 critics did, despite the fact that I'm a big fan of British humour. I did enjoy the fact that Michael Winterbottom cast hottie Jeremy Northam as "Michael Winterbottom" in the film within the film. Heck, why not? If I were given carte blanche to cast any actress as "Sue Trowbridge," I'd go with Natalie Portman.

We had to reschedule our season tickets for August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" at ACT, and finally got to see it on Wednesday (it closes Sunday). The actor who plays the lead male role, Owiso Odera, was apparently indisposed, so his understudy, Aldo Billingslea, filled in. Now, considering that the role of Citizen Barlow is an incredibly demanding part in a 2 1/2 hour play, you might worry that having an understudy step in would detract from the experience. However, Billingslea did an amazing job. If they hadn't made a pre-show announcement, I would never have guessed he was the understudy (I hadn't had time to look at the program before the show started).

I must comment upon what I think is a welcome theatrical trend—adding a sense of playfulness to the inevitable "turn off your cell phones/unwrap candies" announcement. My all-time favorite is the pidgin German announcement before "I Am Your Own Wife," but the "Gem" rendition, featuring Gregory Wallace in character as Caesar, a constable, also added a nice touch to the evening. However, I must implore audiences, no matter how clever the announcement is, do not applaud it. Oh, and show up on time. Thank you.

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3.8.06 All Mashed Up

I was interviewed by an Associated Press reporter about "mash-ups," based on my Mary Worth "My Humps" cartoon. The story ran over the weekend in numerous newspapers, including the North Andover, MA, Eagle-Tribune, the Washington Times, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, and the San Jose Mercury News. Here's a link to the story; in case it expires before you have a chance to read it, you can Google "Michael Hill" (the reporter's name), "Mary Worth" and "My Humps" and you should be able to find it.

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3.6.06 Eff You, Hollywood

Naturally, I was all psyched for Jon Stewart's Oscar-hosting gig, but on the whole, the evening just ticked me off. Number one: the montages. Will someone please take a sledgehammer to Chuck Workman's editing bay before he montages again? Number two: the hectoring about how movies have to be seen on the big screen. I'm sure the Hollywood folks who see everything at the ArcLight or in private screening rooms are all into that, but most of us live in the real world of AMC megaplexes where they play 30 minutes of ads and previews before the actual movie starts, and you have to endure crappy projection and chatty teenagers—it's no wonder it's becoming a Netflix world. (Plus, a one-month subscription costs less than a single night at the movies.) The "magic" of the movies is deader than Ben Affleck's career.

The whole concept of the Oscars is ridiculous, pretending that they're all about movies like "Capote" and "Good Night and Good Luck" when that represents a teensy percentage of Hollywood's output in comparison to the "Big Momma's House 2"s and the "Final Destination 3"s. What the best picture nominees usually have in common is how much the filmmakers had to struggle just to get them made.

As for Jon, I thought he did a fine job under the circumstances. His monologue wasn't great, but he had some very funny lines throughout the night ("For those of you keeping score at home, Martin Scorsese, zero; Three 6 Mafia, one"). But if the evening was supposed to make me all swoony about the glamour and excitement of the movies, it had the opposite effect. My very favorite moments were the fake attack ads for the best actress nominees (the anti-Judi Densch commercial was sponsored by "Dames For Truth"), voiced over by none other than Stephen Colbert. It just reminded me that I get far more laughs from an average hour of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" than from pretty much any Hollywood comedy you can name.

My choice for the most beautiful woman at the Oscars? Meryl Streep. She is in her mid-50s and is just stunning.

Final proof of just how ultimately fleeting it all is: When Nicole Kidman came out to present the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Joe and I had the following conversation:

"Why is Nicole Kidman up there? She didn't win last year, did she?" (The previous year's Best Supporting Actress traditionally presents the Supporting Actor award.)

"No, I don't think so. Who did?"

"I have no idea."

"I'll go Google it." (Moments later) "Cate Blanchett."

"Hmm. I wonder where she is."

Turns out she was in New York, starring in "Hedda Gabler."

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3.3.06 Under Your Spell

Considering how much of my disposable income goes into the coffers of the Bay Area's fine arts organizations, I have to admit that when I won two free tickets to "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" in an online contest, I felt like, yeah—I deserve this! As an old Bee hand myself, I had wanted to see the show anyway, and since tix are in the $50 range, it was a very sweet prize indeed.

"Bee" has been playing in New York in one form or another (it's currently on Broadway) for about three years now, and I suspect it'll be a hit in San Francisco, too. It's a big, crowd-pleasing show, with lots of laughs. If you ever competed in a Bee, of course the musical will have special relevance to you, especially songs like "Pandemonium," which deals with the random nature of the competition—you know, how the speller before you gets an easy word like "cow," while you're stuck with "phylactery."

The one quibble I had with "Bee" is that the songs aren't quite up to par with the ones in other new musicals like "Avenue Q" or "Urinetown"—sometimes, I felt they went on a bit too long. But maybe I was just anxious for the spelling to resume. You know the audience is into it when people applaud wildly because characters in a scripted play spelled their words correctly.

Yesterday, we headed back out on our own dime to see "Strange Travel Suggestions" at the Marsh Berkeley. What a wonderful concept for a show! Jeff Greenwald, author of numerous books on travel, has dozens of anecdotes to share about his globetrotting adventures—far more than could fit into a standard 90-minute time slot. So in an idea he admits he cribbed from Elvis Costello's "Spinning Songbook" tour, audience volunteers go up on stage and spin a big wheel of fortune. The wheel stops on one of 30 symbols, keys to categories like "Meals of Misfortune," "Rites of Passage" and "The Kindness of Strangers." Each symbol has a story to go with it. So every performance is a unique journey for Greenwald and the audience.

The stories can be long; last night, we only got three of them. But what marvelous stories they were, taking us from Greece to Kathmandu to Iran to Nevada's Black Rock Desert. The small (roughly 100 seats) theater and interactive nature of the show makes you feel like you're listening to anecdotes told by a particularly fascinating friend. "Strange Travel Suggestions" closes tonight, but if Greenwald stops traveling long enough to bring it back again someday, I'll gladly return to hear more of his tales.

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