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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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June 22, 2014

What Light In Lincoln Park Breaks

A classic tale of teenage delinquency performed outdoors, a visit to Art On Lark and more Shakespeare In The Park to come starting July 18

The first Saturday in June was sunny and warm, a day for the kind of light, genteel outdoor activities that urban communities like the City of Albany do best. At ten in the morning the sky still looked threatening when The Wife and I walked over to check out Art On Lark, the art-themed festival on Lark Street that has become an annual June event. But by afternoon the sun was blazing in a blue sky with puffy clouds when we caught an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Lincoln Park.

We couldn’t miss seeing a Shakespeare play put on practically across the street from our house in our beautiful park. I can’t recall ever hearing about a play being performed in Lincoln Park, so at the very least we had to dig our portable chairs out of the closet and walk over to show our support for the production. To our surprise and delight the whole performance was done quite well by a well-prepared cast of young thespians, who handled the acting with confidence for an audience of only about 50 people.

And what could be more entertaining than this timeless story of delinquent teenagers, underage sex, drug use and of course, the ever popular pointless violence and multiple murders. It’s full of great pointers for kids, such as how much fun it is to run around with swords and stab each other. And of course the great message of the tale (Spoiler Alert!) is that the most noble and important thing one can do in life is to die stupidly over a case of teenage lust and to leave a trail of bodies in your wake.

Pointless Violence In Lincoln Park: The First Swordfight Of Romeo And Juliet
Pointless Violence In Lincoln Park: The First Swordfight Of
Romeo And Juliet

This performance, the second of five over two weekends, was produced by Steamer No. 10 Theater, the well-established theater company operating out of a converted firehouse at The Point, the triangle shaped bit of land located a ways uptown where Madison and Western Avenues meet. The chosen spot for the performance, the hillside between the still-vacant Sunshine School building and Martin Luther King Boulevard, worked very well with the stage located downhill from the audience. The executive director of Steamer No. 10, Rick Chesser, was very much in charge of the production and acted as emcee.

Rick Chesser Of Steamer No. 10 Makes The Introduction
Rick Chesser Of Steamer No. 10 Makes The Introduction

I have to admit that when we saw the excessive youth of the cast we became alarmed, thinking we might be about to see a glorified elementary school play rather than a serious acting performance. Indeed the opening chorus was recited by some really little kids, but they handled it well. The main parts were performed by much older kids, or perhaps some of the cast was older than high school age. Perhaps. In any case, it’s a play about out-of-control teenagers, so a young cast made perfect sense.

he Opening Recitation
The Opening Recitation

Romeo was played by Miles Keefe, and Juliet by Annie Crisafuli. As the story goes, Romeo, a 17 year old street thug who is quite handy with a sword, crashes a party with his bros where he meets 13 year old Juliet, and they hit it off immediately. As we have all heard, teenage pregnancy is a multi-generational problem. By my calculation, Juliet’s mom, Lady Capulet was all of 26 years old herself.

"You Kiss By The Book."
"You Kiss By The Book."

Romeo’s two main bros are a relatively reasonable fellow named Benvolio (played by Sean Baldwin) who likes to party but tries his best to be a helpful friend to Romeo. The other bro is Mercutio, who in this production was played by a female, Anna Dempf, a most extraordinary bit of casting. And yes, they dared to alter The Bard’s sacred poetry to refer to the character as “she.”

Benvolio And Mercutio Complain That Romeo Seems Distracted and Doesn't Want To Party
Benvolio And Mercutio Complain That Romeo Seems Distracted and Doesn't Want To Party

I found this interesting description of the character Mercutio in a high school English class crib sheet called Spark Notes:

Mercutio overflows with imagination, wit, and, at times, a strange, biting satire and brooding fervor. Mercutio loves wordplay, especially sexual double entendres. He can be quite hotheaded, and hates people who are affected, pretentious, or obsessed with the latest fashions. He finds Romeo’s romanticized ideas about love tiresome, and tries to convince Romeo to view love as a simple matter of sexual appetite.

All the more extraordinary to cast this character as a female, but Ms. Dempf handled it impressively. She played Mercutio not by pretending to be a male or by acting like a tomboy, but rather as a strong female who was quite accustomed to hanging with the boys. Ready at any moment to mouth off and draw her sword like any respectable male street thug, Ms. Dempf’s Mercutio made a strong contrast with the helplessly feminine Juliet, a budding flower in a gown begging to be picked and left to wilt in a lovely vase.

The Results Of Underage Drinking: Mercutio And Benvolio Cavort Drunkenly
The Results Of Underage Drinking: Mercutio And Benvolio Cavort Drunkenly

I admit that I was much taken with Ms. Kempf’s Mercutio. I like how Ms. Dempf emphasized her femininity with a big old feather in her hair, and used feminine gestures even as she carried on like a roughneck male. I think a lot of guys would like to be friends with a gal like that, totally self assured and one of the boys but still unmistakenly a girl you wouldn’t want to mess with.

Ms. Dempf's Mercutio Used A Lot Of Feminine Gestures
Ms. Dempf's Mercutio Used A Lot Of Feminine Gestures

I would go so far as to say that her performance could be a model for the young ladies of today. I’ve known all too many females who profess equality and who say they wish to be treated equally. But too many women who demand equality cannot even conceive of how to go about claiming equal status with males, only to end up profoundly unhappy with themselves and with the world. Perhaps here is a feminine ideal worth studying, but then again, perhaps a fearless young female who isn’t afraid to stab people with a sword for fun may not be the best model for youth.

Oh Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou?
Oh Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou?

Ah, but while Romeo’s bros were carrying on, Romeo was sneaking through the brush stalking his barely pubescent object of lust. But hey, sometimes stalking pays off, and the victim wants to be stalked. Sure enough, Juliet begs for the kind of excitement that only Romeo can bring to a closeted little decoration like herself.

Stalkin His Innocent Victim: It Is The East, and Juliet Is The Moon
Stalkin His Innocent Victim: It Is The East, and Juliet Is The Moon

Okay, so Romeo’s bros and Juliet’s relatives don’t get along too well and out come the swords at another public function. How else should young people behave? For no particular reason, Mercutio and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Robert Willard) battle it out.

More Pointless Violence
More Pointless Violence

Shakespeare’s depiction of Italian youth running around the streets with swords looking for fights is an accurate depiction for the time. Consider the painter Caravaggio, a celebrity whose artistic skills were very much in demand by the wealthy and by the churches, a regular rock star. Yet he never grew out of being a youthful street thug with a sword and expired in the year 1610 at age 38 of accumulated sword cuts, hounded by creditors and wanted by the law, but sought after for his painting skills to the very end.

More Pointless Violence

Mercutio beats Tybalt at the swordplay, but Tybalt is a total dick and stabs Mercutio in the gut with a shiv when her back is turned. That’s it for Mercutio and she goes off to die rather quickly of her gut wound, condemning Romeo for his mindless devotion to teenage lust.

"A plague o' both your houses!  They have made worms' meat of me…"
"A plague o' both your houses! They have made
worms' meat of me…"

Well now Romeo is pissed, so he does the only sensible thing and starts a deadly brawl with Tybalt. So Tybalt gets a shiv in the gut and now Romeo is an outlaw and Juliet’s relatives want to aerate his guts. Intermission!

So Much Violence In Lincoln Park
So Much Violence In Lincoln Park

Okay, so after the intermission and some more talk to cover the plot, Juliet decides to do what plenty of young folks facing the angst of relationships gone sour do as a solution to their troubles, she tries drugs. Her rationalization, such as only a 13 year old would come up with, is that she wants everyone to think she’s dead. Sure enough, she passes out from her substance abuse so thoroughly that her relatives lay her out as a corpse.

The Dangers Of Drug Use
The Dangers Of Drug Use

Romeo catches wind of Juliet’s apparent demise and comes to see her body, and at the same time so does this nerdy guy Paris (Tristan Strasser) who who was under contract to marry Juliet. Naturally the two teenage boys pull out their swords and go at it. What could be more rational when confronted with a dead girl.

One Last Pointless Deadly Swordfight Before Double Suicide
One Last Pointless Deadly Swordfight Before Double Suicide

Romeo manages to shish kebab Paris. Remembering that he is in seriously deep crap which just got crappier, he pulls out a vial of fast acting poison, which he slugs down. Then he lies down next to the drugged-out comatose object of his lust and dies for real. Eventually Juliet comes down from her high and discovers an all too familiar dead body in her bed. What a buzzkill.

Drug Use Can Be A Slippery Slope
Drug Use Can Be A Slippery Slope

So Juliet does the only thing a privileged and protected 13 year old could do, she samples some of Romeo’s drugs and this time she really is dead. The end. The grand enduring moral lesson of this story for the youth of past centuries and most certainly for today is... kids, don’t try any of this at home.

Art On Lark, June 2014
Art On Lark, June 2014

That morning before the Shakespeare performance we checked out Art On Lark, the annual street fair on upper Lark Street put on by the Lark Street Business Improvement District (or Lark Street BID.) The fair has grown over the years, the first ones put on in the 1990s featured a few dozen artists and crafters on the sidewalks displaying their art for sale. In recent years the street is closed off, and the event more resembles a regular street fair with food vendors and a soundstage.

Actually there were supposed to be two soundstages. The one near State Street mysteriously disappeared along with the scheduled acts. At the remaining soundstage located in the parking lot at the center of the fair we caught a few songs by a three person blues band called Charm Boy. They sounded great, particularly the guitarist who was astounding. Unfortunately I didn’t catch his name and the band doesn’t seem to have any videos online.

Charm Boy Plays Some Killer Blues
Charm Boy Plays Some Killer Blues

The crowd was mostly older and somewhat sparse when we arrived early before 10 AM, the weather warm but looking a bit like it might rain. Soon the sun came out and the crowd got thicker and younger. But with most of the college kids gone for the summer this event doesn’t get anywhere near the attendance of Larkfest in September, which is exceeded in attendance only by the Tulip Festival in nearby Washington Park in May.

The overall quality of the art at Art On Lark this year was so-so, there is more impressive work and finer art on display at the art competition at the Tulip Fest (in the Art Ghetto section.) At this event the art for sale tends to be more commercial and whimsical. For example we found a booth for an art concern that we were once very familiar with, Stinky Dog Art.

Stinkydog artist Samantha McCullough (Back To Camera) Selling Stinky Art
Stinkydog artist Samantha McCullough (Back To Camera) Selling Stinky Art

Stinky Dog sells nothing except depictions of the Stinky Dog, basically a silly little doodle of a dog with big round eyes. We knew artist and proprietress Sam McCullough from her former storefront in Northville, NY, which sold framed art, t-shirts, cards, hats and all kinds of other stuff emblazoned with the Stinky Dog, and nothing else. The wife bought a t-shirt as a college graduation present for a certain young lady we know, who as a young teenager was an enthusiastic visitor to the Northville shop when it was open.

We heard a few complaints about how the BID handled Art On Lark this year, some organizational problems, complaints from vendors that the streets weren’t cleaned as well as they could have been and of course the disappearing sound stage. We actually heard some established Lark Street merchants complain about how the missing sound stage cost them customers. I suppose there are always going to be last minute problems and mistakes, but overall I saw very little to complain about and I expect to see it again next year.

Shakespearian Thespians Take A Dour Bow
Shakespearian Thespians Take A Dour Bow

One final thing about the Romeo and Juliet performance. When the actors came out at the end to take a group bow, they didn’t preen and smile ecstatically as the audience clapped and cheered, which is the usual. Instead the actors stood there with dour concerned looks like they had all just experienced a tragedy! Well, yeah. I guess with all that bad behavior and the resulting dead bodies, I mean, how could anyone smile? Must be method acting, for sure.

More Shakespeare is scheduled this summer for Lincoln Park courtesy of Steamer No. 10. Starting July 18 Friday through Sunday until August 3rd, the play to be performed is Comedy Of Errors. The location is the east side of the Sunshine School. The easiest way to find it is to go to the Martin Luther King statue at Morton Avenue and S. Swan Street, and look up the hill.


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Posted by:Roger Green
Posted on:06/24/2014
Comments:
We saw R&J opening night. we liked, though the wind was quite problematic.


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