Outside Looking In

By Faithful Friar

Sometimes it’s funny to be on the outside looking in. For several years now – ever since overlapping events left no one else to ask – I have been privileged to participate in a succession of Elements Theatre Company productions, either at home in Paraclete House at the Community of Jesus or on the road to points between Boston, New York and Philadelphia. But here I was last week filing in to the audience for a summer theater performance of 3 dramatic monologues written by Alan Bennett for his “Talking Heads” BBC series some years ago. Totally unfamiliar with this material and contributing virtually nothing toward the set, stage, technicals or properties as I usually do (not to mention costumes, makeup, publicity, catering, directing or acting!), here I was on the outside looking in.

Talking Heads x 3

And what a spectacle it was! The best analogy I can make is that of the pleasure and enjoyment one might experience of a fine Tuscan dinner. In fact “delicious” is the adjective that came first about the experience in that theater. The stage was set with comfortable house lighting and welcoming string-based background music. The stage itself was open, fairly vertical, composed of 3 or 4 playing areas sectioned off with bright spare metal work. The opening monologue – prima piatti – was a hot risotto, rich and flavorful, accompanied by a light white wine: the character of a clever but somewhat bewildered elderly son who reveals more than even he can understand about both himself and his mother in the recounting of recent events. Delivered with nuanced expression in proper British RP (received pronunciation), one could savor the complex signals of a close (closed?) family relationship as it becomes tested.

The secunda piatti was a more complex, brooding and spare piece, yet complete and totally satisfying in its parts. It could have been a serving of wild boar or sausage prepared following ancient methods, with a mouth-watering polenta and 2 or 3 local vegetables fresh-cooked and savory, all imbued with a fiery mystery by a fine Chianti red. This one told by a younger woman from within the confines of social strictures and crisis of faith subsumed in the ancient wrestle of marital relations and self-remedies of ironic humor, alcohol and sex. Heady fare, affairs of the heart.

So on to the final piatti, the Dolce. A word that comes out it English as “sweet” – appropriate enough in its confectionary capacity. But the sheer effervescence of Italian desserts and of this closing monologue transform each from saccharine to sanguine and give each an inner glow quite beyond their subject matter. The ices, gelati, sweet lemons and creams could all stack up against this well-meaning but impulsive letter-writing maven who makes enough public nuisance that she lands herself in jail. Then without changing a beat (other than a lightning-quick costume change) she transforms herself into a loving, affectionate friend to all her new sisters in the cell- block. The whole thing is so joyfully and limpidly creative. And it wraps up a production whose lighting, sound, movement and text – both spoken and subliminally expressed – are “just so”. Dolce!

So please join me in a toast of sparkling prosecco to this wonderful theatrical feast. May there be many more to follow (with or without my help)!

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Taking down from a great run!

Quiet Reminder

By Renaissance Girl

Tucked behind the set of our theater production of “Julius Caesar,” I have had the unexpected privilege of hearing comments from the audience as they return to their seats after intermission. The set is outside in the atrium of The Church of the Transfiguration — the stone paving and imposing columns setting a believable scene for this historic tale. Inside the side aisles, the roof gives way to open air — the moon and stars add to the elemental thread through the play.

As I stood there two nights ago in silence and out of sight, I heard two women walk by, heading back to their seats. One of them said “I just can’t help but look up to the heavens now and again — it’s so beautiful” and her friend replied, “I know, and to see that huge angel looking back down on us — amazing!” I smiled to myself at the reminder to look up to the heavens now and then, and know there are angels looking back whether we see them or not.

The Community of Jesus

 

Transfiguration

By Renaissance Girl

Yesterday was the feast day of the Transfiguration, the name day of our church. Our Sunday Eucharist was enlivened with movement and brass fanfare and ribbons streaming from the west wall depicting the Transfiguration story. But what’s on my mind is transfiguration in its broader sense — most likely prompted by the combination of yesterday’s service, and the impending opening night of “Julius Caesar” this Friday by Elements Theatre Company. It’s a big word for a concept that is both basic and immensely mysterious — change.

A word most of us both long for and avoid. I easily focus on the little changes of my daily life — an updated rehearsal time, a cancelled event, a new living situation — and I overlook the fact that life itself is one big change, and one we can’t measure by time or distance. Like St. Paul says in the scriptures, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  Degree by degree, moment by moment, becoming who we are meant to be.

What eludes me sometimes is the fact that God can use anything to bring about this change. It’s not about me trying to become different — it’s an action God does in me when I say “yes.” Which is where “Julius Caesar” comes in. Isn’t part of what draws us to theater — or any art — is the potential for change? To see something a little differently, experience life in someone else’s shoes. I wonder if theater/art is one of the few places we humans are actually open to having our minds or opinions changed — maybe we even long for it. The “Julius Caesar” I read in high school, held at arms length, is quite different from the “Julius Caesar” I am living now. And sometimes just the willingness to engage (to consider that what seems like an old story from history, actually has something to teach us now) is all it takes to start the change.

I have a quote on my desk that I love and says it far better — it was said by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Director of the Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage in Florence, Italy. He says the role of an artist requires him or her to give to others and therefore inspires us to look to him/her as a giver of spiritual life and “by doing that, we acknowledge art’s potential to nourish our craving for richer, deeper, more meaningful life, and we are already changed.”

The Community of Jesus

 

Chestnut Stuffing: Recipes From A Monastery Kitchen

 
Last month Elements Theater Company presented two memorable weekends of Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol in our church. Favorable comments were made about each little detail of the production, including one delightful feature that added much to my own enjoyment of the experience. This was the roasting of chestnuts out in the cold night air over an open fire in the church atrium before and after each performance.

 I think of Christmas time as chestnut season and since childhood chestnuts, along with pomegranates, have to me always been as essential as holly and ivy to its celebration. Not only did we enjoy eating the nuts warm out of the shell, but at our house they were always considered a necessary ingredient to our holiday stuffing. That’s what made it so special and different from the stuffing we had the rest of the year.

The combination of sausage, chestnuts, apples and savory herbs still remains in my memory as a most extraordinary culinary Christmas experience. But there’s no reason it can’t be enjoyed, even after the holidays while chestnuts are still available. Here’s my  suggestion for a cold winters night……stuff a nice crown or loin of pork and roast it for an unexpected, out of the ordinary dinner. I guarantee you rave reviews.

Chestnut Stuffing

1 pound crumbled sausage meat
4 ounces butter
1 cup diced onions
1 cup diced celery
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 quarts bread, cut or torn into 1-inch cubes
4 ounces chicken stock
4 ounces cider
1 cup diced apples
1 pound roasted, peeled, and cleaned chestnuts cut into quarters
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Put sausage meat and butter into a hot casserole. Add onions and celery and cook until soft, but not brown. Remove from heat and add marjoram and thyme. In a bowl combine bread, vegetables, hot stock, cider, apples and chestnuts. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Place in covered baking dish and bake for 30 minutes or stuff into roast. Add a sprinkling of pomegranate at serving time for a touch of color and extra flavor.

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“Will you let me in, Fred?”

By Renaissance Girl
 
Elements Theatre Company is performing “A Christmas Carol” right now. Such a classic Christmas story — I look forward to seeing some version of it this year. But something different is striking me about it this season. It doesn’t feel like just a heart-warming Christmas story any more. It is a challenging and hopeful story of daring to say yes to a journey that takes you places you don’t want to go – so that you can emerge someplace you never thought you could be.
 
We’re presenting it in the style of Reader’s Theatre — so there are no sets or costumes or props to draw the attention — just the words. The line that grabs my heart is towards the end. After years of hardening his heart, treating people like dirt and closing himself off to any conviction or change, Scrooge says yes to a wild ride through his past — looking at every painful memory and bad choice he made and facing it. No one has he treated worse then his nephew Fred, who valiantly tries to invite him to Christmas dinner each year.
 
Having found himself alive Christmas morning and overwhelmed with gratitude and joy, Scrooge makes his way to Fred’s house, shows up on his doorstep and asks “Will you let me in, Fred?”
 
Total vulnerability and willingness to shed all pride — in the risk that Fred could turn him away. Such a simple sentence — and so powerful — the story of Transfiguration in six words.
 
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Seeing Through

 
I was in Boston this past week with Elements Theatre Company.  Four members of the company performed “God of Carnage” by French playwright Yasmina Reza.  In short, it is the story of two sets of parents who have met to discuss the fact that one of their sons has smashed the other in the face with a stick and broken two teeth.  Through the course of the play, each parent is stripped down to their raw-est self and what seemed a clear cut case left me with more questions than answers.
 
It was a unique opportunity to see it almost four times.  I learned things about myself I wasn’t completely prepared for.  Like the fact that I make a hard and fast judgement based on surface facts.  It seemed clear to me that the boy with the stick was at fault and should be punished – until the rest of the story started to come out and I found myself questioning the “victim.”  Or that I, too, have a “public persona” I put on to ensure that I am well-received and liked, when what’s really underneath would rival any nine year-old.  When I get uncomfortable with a situation, it’s easier to fixate on something else — like a tragedy in a foreign country — than to lean into what’s right in front of me.
 
Isn’t that partly (or mostly) why we go to theatre?  To see ourselves and what we truly are – or could be?  To see that maybe we don’t have to live our persona — maybe it’s possible to just be ourselves. 
 
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Recipes from a Monastery Kitchen

 by Gourmet Nun

Last weekend Elements Theatre Company performed Henrik Ibsen’s “Pillars of the Community.” Each production we fed the cast and crew meals and snacks. This year I was feeling homey, so made some really good comfort food for them — what I like to eat, and what I know a number of them really enjoy. So it was meatloaf (a great recipe by Emeril Lagasse), macaroni and cheese, a really meaty lasagna, fried chicken (Ina Garten’s oven fried – my favorite)…you get the picture.The last night we decided to “pull out the stops,” making up big platters of antipasti, salad, home made bread with some of the lasagna, and as an afterthought, deviled eggs. Now I think I make a pretty mean deviled egg, and guess it’s true, because they were all gobbled up to rave reviews in the first wave of diners. I did this pretty much by “add a bit and taste.” I’ve tried to give you some measurements, but it’s really best if you make this to your level of devilishness.

Deviled Eggs

6 eggs, hard-boiled, cooled, peeled
1/2 cup Hellmanns Mayonnaise
about 1/2 teaspoon of  Worcestershire sauce
about 1/2 teaspoon of dry mustard
onion salt, to taste
ground pepper, to taste

Cut eggs in half lengthwise, remove yolk to a small bowl, set aside whites. Mash with a fork, adding mayonnaise, Worcestershire, and mustard, mixing until creamy. Add onion salt and pepper to taste. Spoon or pipe (with a star tip) mixture into egg white halves. I found that I had just enough to fill all 12 halves. Garnish with paprika if desired.

 

Marta

by Renaissance Girl

I met a new friend about 6 months ago.  She wasn’t someone I would normally cross paths with, but there she was — to become an intimate part of my life for the next 6 months. We had a lot in common, and our first chats were easy. But as it turned out, we had some things that were quite different, and the chats got more personal and challenging. We talked and worked and moved together, walked through history over and over, each time with a new result, or more questions. I realized along the way, that I couldn’t imagine my life not having met her. I had the chance these past two weekends to tell her story. She went from being a character on paper, to being a real flesh and blood person — my flesh and blood.  We talked a lot, and for the last time last night, I let her story tumble out for whoever was at the performance of the play to hear it.  Her youth and heartbreak, patience and sadness, love for the child she raised and the heart-wrenching sacrifice of giving her up. Last night I had to say good-bye and I have an ache inside me this morning. She was a “good friend.” She cried with me, laughed with me, and laid a challenge before me with her final words which I hope I can learn to live: “We all have things we think we need, when really we don’t.” Thank you Marta.  I hope we will meet again.

Memory

by Renaissance Girl     

I read a fascinating article in the Boston Globe.  It was talking about new discoveries in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. “A growing body of research is confirming the anecdotal evidence that the arts can improve quality of life, reduce stress, and allow the person to better connect to the world.”  I watched my grandfather struggle with the disease. He would search for the right word for a simple sentence and give up in frustration, yet he could pull out a memory from long ago that would make him laugh. I found the article encouraging. Who has never had a moment where a particular piece of music brings back a memory, or a painting or sculpture touches something in us that makes us cry, or watching a play gives us the feeling we’ve just been to another century and learned something about ourselves?  How extraordinary that these creative artistic expressions teach us things that the mind cannot rationalize, but our bodies store the experience away until something calls it up. With such a power to heal, should we not then pour our hearts and efforts into every opportunity we have to share them?

Stability

 
Sometimes people come to visit the Community and comment on things that I take for granted or just plain don’t pay attention to. Two of our teachers from Chicago were here to work with Elements Theatre Company as we prepared for Henrik Ibsen’s “Pillars of the Community” at the end of November. After two full days of working, one of them stopped and said to us how impressed she was by our commitment to each other. She had been working with three actors, and then sent two to go work on their scene, but they asked if they could stay as she worked with the third person, both to learn from her, and to support their fellow actor. She said how much this meant to her — to see our common commitment to each other, and to the process of doing our personal work which would allow us to be truthful in telling the story. Both teachers agreed that this is a special thing when you find it in a company. I was pondering this today because my first thought was “this is just what we do.”  But the truth is, we don’t have to. We could show up, learn our parts, and leave. But it’s not that we are so special — it’s actually a “by-product” of our commitment to God — our vows.  Our Rule of Life in the Chapter on the Vow of Stability says “Stability also involves a commitment to persevere with others in this place…we are promising to bear with one another at all times and to be always present for one another in the pursuit of God.”  Whether that pursuit is in our work, our artistic endeavors, or cooking a meal — we are not in it alone.  And that is special.