Macbeth, performed at Fort Point

This was my third experience with We Players, an utterly fantastic theater troupe that brings theater to sites in the Bay Area. After missing out on the Hamlet performance on Alcatraz, I joined their mailing list and jumped on tickets to The Odyssey on Angel Island, Twelfth Night at the Hyde Street Pier, and tonight’s Macbeth at Fort Point.
Fort Point is a four story brick fort built in the 1850s that now stands under the shadow of the southern part of the Golden Gate Bridge. After sunset, it’s windy, foggy, and you hear the waves crashing against the pilings. It was the perfect place to stage Macbeth, using the courtyard for scenes to introduce the Weird Sisters and placing Macbeth and Banquo on their path. Like other WP performances, the audience & stage shifted constantly. This was the first time I’d experienced being assigned groups based on mobility options; Crescent group were supposed to move fast, the Diamond group needed more time to navigate the winding staircases of the 160 year old fort. Which is actually an ingenious approach to accommodating a larger group within the fort– they sent us on separate paths a la Choose Your Own Adventure, and were able to act out scenes in front of smaller groups in cozy quarters.
The courtyard was the go-to scene spot, but there were several intimate spaces created within smaller rooms in the fort: Lady Macbeth’s boudoir, MacDuffy’s house interior, the scene of the feast (a long table we grabbed figs, cheese, apples, grapes from), the spot with the dialog between the Prince and MacDuffy. The top story was the scene of the final swordfight that vanquishes Macbeth, and some muted hooting issued from the audience when he finally died.
You’re encouraged to get very close to the action, and I found myself in the path of actor spittle quite frequently, almost hit by daggers after they were dropped after Macbeth commits the murder, nearly slapped when Lady Macbeth hauled off and tried to restore Macbeth to his senses in the feast scene.
An incredibly beautiful visual performance, it still needs a bit of work in terms of auditory– the actors competed with the waves crashing loudly, and if they perchanced to turn their head a bit, their words were inaudible.

Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger

Timothy Pflueger, the largely unknown architect who shaped some of the loveliest buildings in San Francisco, was actually well-known during his working years. He left school as a 13 year old, entering into apprenticeship in a drafting house to help rebuild the city after the 1906 devastation. He joined his mentor, James Miller, and was encouraged to attend the evening classes of the SF Architectural Club that embraced the academic style of the École des Beaux Arts. It was through this program that he prepared for the California Architects Board license exam.
Some of his major hits:
* Paramount Theater, Oakland (gorgeous lush Queen of movie palaces)
* Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Building (140 New Montgomery)
* 450 Sutter Medical Building
* San Francisco Stock Exchange (now a gym)
* Castro Theater (the original theater was in Cliff’s Variety Store building)
* Alhambra Theater (Polk & Union, now a gym)
* 155 Sansome St. (which houses the City Club and the Rivera mural)
* El Rey Theater (Ocean Ave, now Voice of Pentecost Church)
* New Mission Theater (he renovated a previous design, added the marquee which is now being taken down)
* Alamo School (23rd Avenue @ California)
* Roosevelt Junior High (Arguello @ Geary)
* George Washington High School (32nd Ave @ Anza)
* SF City College (Science Hall. Home to much of art done in the 1939-40 World’s Fair at Treasure Island)
* Bay Bridge (long story, his influence was somewhat destroyed by a lesser architect and the cost conscious engineers who drove the project), any of the nicer elements (Yerba Buena tunnel entrance)
* Transbay Terminal (now destroyed)
* Bal Tabarin (the bar at Bimbo’s 365 Club)
* The Cirque (at Fairmont hotel (murals done by Esther Bruton) – now only open for special events
* Top of the Mark circular bar
* I Magnin building on Union Square (now Macy’s, all that’s left is the marble 6th floor bathroom)
Influential in forming SFMOMA. Died unexpectedly early (54) of heart failure after a nightly swim at the Olympic Club. Encouraged his artist friends by giving them commissions in his buildings. Close to Stackpole, Rivera, etc.

When We (And California) Were Young

I’ve been doing a lot of non-literary reading lately, researching early California life. This afternoon at the California Historical Society, I read the (thankfully) typed memoir of Harriet Thompson Palmer Dundas, called When We and California Were Young. In short, it’s terrific. These were the words of a 80 year old woman who then went back and revised them in her later years. Selfishly, I’m listing out the bits that were interesting to me.
She describes moving from Los Banos to Tehama County. Her mom wanted to go all the way to Oregon, but her father insisted on buying some land in Tehama. The journey in 1880(?) via wagon involved the family camping each night, approaching Sacramento (which was called Washington at that time!), finally making the last leg of the journey to Tehama from Sacramento in a week. They found a rambling old barn and a three room shack waiting for them. Much was made in the account about how absolutely poor they were, how amazed she is that her mother was able to provide for the 8 person family, and how they ate a lot of beans and cornbread.
At a friend’s house, she observes a friendly Chinese cook who makes amazing cookies and desserts. As an offhand, she notes:

This same Chinese cook like many others of that day saved all his kidney excretions, carefully, in bottles to be shipped back to the mother country and there to be used as fertilizer. These bottles were kept lined up under the kitchen sink or in his bunk house until enough had accumulated to warrant shipment.

She watches her brother and his friends flirt with fate as they wait until the last possible second to jump a train track while a train was steaming at them, and follows along, feeling the heat of the engine on her legs.
A massive storm comes in, clapping open the door during a sudden burst, her parents both wrestle the door back on its hinges and hold it there, but the front porch dances away in the wind. The flooding post-storm was fun to behold, and the author appreciates growing up poor in this section (and many others) because otherwise she wouldn’t have delighted so much in the epic swelling of the creek, etc.
A man comes looking for a young girl to care for his wife while he’s away, and the author heads over, tending to a baby and doing the washing. Her father can’t get work, borrowing credit from the grocer for the winter, then he sent away for baubles to peddle across the countryside from a kit. Eventually he gets a job in Oroville in a mine. While he’s away, the mom and children buy vegetables from the Chinese gardens, and collect elderberries from the woods. Word comes from Oroville of an accident his father broke his back, legs, and arms in, and the family moves there to be closer. The $190 cash that was hard-earned with turkeys and alfalfa is stashed at the bottom of a stove that is in the bottom of the wagon with all their belongings piled atop it. While dad is recouping, the kids do odd jobs, and the author scavenges for dirty towels from barber shops to clean for $0.01.
They move to Thompson’s Flat, a near-ghost town that was an old mining town. That summer, they camp 3 miles from Oroville for her mom’s health, and then camp across the river from Oroville. There is a big rush in the river in the spring, with the snow melt-off, and the family spears salmon as they flop upriver. The author heads off to pick berries for a farmer in the summer, earning $4.
The family rolls further south, headed to Carmel Valley. After local Indian boys make moves on her, the author is sent to work for a banker in a city so she can earn money and get schooling. Her father lands a carpentry job in Santa Clara County, and the author and her sister follow for a summer of fog in tents. There is an upswirl around religious revival in San Jose that her father briefly participates in. “The beach, church, and post office were the main places for young people to mingle with the opposite sex.” Kids would wait in line at the post office without the vaguest idea of if there is a letter waiting for them either then or ever.
The author begins to feel like she is an attractive woman, and starts going on walks with boys to Lover’s point. She always makes it clear that kisses are NOT in the picture, and eventually finds out about “Summer Girls,” e.g. those away from home and not as strictly behaved as if they were at home. The author then bemoans the fact that it’s hard to distinguish good girls from bad girls nowadays (1950s?).

Gentleman Overboard

A delightful quick read from 1937, a powerhouse book from a virtually unknown author. Our hero, Henry Preston Standish, slips from the rail of a boat steaming him and 8 other passengers from Honolulu to Panama, dropping him into the placid waters of the Pacific where he undergoes hours of mood changes believing then disbelieving in his rescue. The remaining passengers on the Arabella don’t discover his departure until several hours later, upon which they turn around. There is minor drama in the scene where the missionary couple lies to Mrs. Benson about Standish’s whereabouts in order to get her dripping wet red bathing suit quickly away from them. Standish’s immediate response upon slipping on the grease spot is to ensure he doesn’t become maimed by the boat propellors, and then he says (not shouts) “Man overboard,” because the Standishes don’t shout. He laughs, he rehearses several versions of his story as imagined to be told over dinner with scotch and soda in his Upper West Side apartment. He becomes frustrated that the boat doesn’t turn back because he desperately wants someone to tell this crazy story to. For hours he watches the sun’s relentless march, then dip into the sea, utter blackness. He realizes the despair that pushed him from the warm embrace of wife and children was that he’d always gotten whatever he wanted in life, had never suffered hunger, thirst (oh but now!), always smoked when he wanted and drank what he pleased. And now that he wanted most in the world to LIVE, and to know he was going to be disappointed by this desire, he could finally appreciate the things he took for granted. Everyone on board the ship assumes he jumped overboard as a suicide, murmuring their recollections of his semi-brooding ways. The 73 year old New England farmer who turned a great potato crop into a trip to see the world decided that Standish had left a clue a week ago when he told the farmer, “A pity a man can’t live like this forever, just feeling happy without having to think for a reason.” We bounce between the ship and Standish throughout the book, not quite sure until the last sentence how it will end.

The Known World

[amazon template=image&asin=0061159174]

Historical fiction so realistic it seemed painstakingly catalogued, but Jones did little research for the book, instead relying on what he’d gathered through life on this topic. A small segment of the Southern population was comprised of blacks who owned other blacks, and Jones explores characters on both sides of the ownership line. The central figures are Henry and Caldonia, free blacks who have slaves to tend their plantation. Henry’s father, Augustus, was a talented woodworker who earned enough money to buy his own freedom, then his wife Mildred, then son Henry, who had to be wrested from Master Robbins’ side after years of being a dutiful valet. Much to his parents’ dismay, Henry begins to purchase slaves once he has a leg up in the world. Moses, the overseer on Henry’s plantation, leads us through the book from start to finish, bits of his story sprinkled throughout as foreshadowing to his ultimate hobbling, cut down a notch (literally). He orchestrates the fleeing of Alice (woman who pretends to be crazy in order to wander wildly around the countryside), with his wife Priscilla and son, in order to chase a harebrained scheme to turn his affair with the master’s widow into her purchasing his freedom and marrying him. (Caldonia marries Louis, the black son of Master Robbins instead). Throughout, there are both good and evil characters, black and white. Augustus is ultimately snatched up by a patrol that eats his free papers, then sells him into slavery in Florida. The racist cousin of the county sheriff turns up on his doorstep, bedraggled from a failed attempt to flee to California after he lost his plantation to smallpox and creditors (Counsel, the cousin, has a bizarre experience in the Texas wilderness where hoards of nonwhites march past him, vaguely threatening.) Caldonia’s twin brother Calvin has a complicated unrequited love for Louis.
Jones seeds the story with fictitious historians like the Canadian, Anderson Frazier, who interviews Fern Elston for a 1880s pamphlet (Curiosities and Oddities About Our Southern Neighbors), which talks about black slaveholders. Fake census data is referenced, to give the characters a sense of weight, of reality. I enjoyed this method of inventing sources that seem real; the challenges would be incredible to get an accurate primary source from this time (the challenge of time and also subject matter, no one was going around recording freed blacks’ thoughts).
*** Update ***
After digging into some research, I found some actual statistics that are pretty mindboggling. 20% of free black households in Georgia owned slaves in 1830… Source: “The Known World” of Free Black Slaveholders: A Research Note on the Scholarship of Carter G. Woodson
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