Thursday, July 31, 2014

a good jest for ever

Day two of Stratford. I slept like a rock. Tim put me in the attic room way at the top of the Virginia Lodge and I slept under an open window. Felt like sleeping under the stars. It was great. After the college dorm beds of our flats in London, a real bed felt real great.

We all met up again and went to the Shakespeare birthplace. For some reason the birthplace introductory tour, a multimedia presentation along a long stretch of wall, didn't feel so ostentatious this year. Maybe I still had the Blenheim palace house of horrors on my mind from yesterday. Once everyone entered the birthplace I sat in the garden and caught up on messages from home and did a little reading. They've added a giant wall in the garden with cartoon descriptions of all 37 plays; I know it's for kids, but I loved it, too. And then we watched a charming little presentation of the Pyramus and Thisbe scene on the lawn, with Topher and Rachel pulled from the crowd to play the lovers. I rode a hobby horse and shot suction cup arrows at a target.

Miles and I snuck off to get the birthday cake I was dreaming of yesterday: a raspberry tart from Patisserie Valerie. I tried to make it last, but it wasn't in the cards. I have no patience and I scarfed it down. So did Miles. It was awesome.

We walked to Holy Trinity Church and Topher and I had a great chat on a bench outside. The students eventually re-emerged and they laughed on the lawn and hopped the tombstones until an old lady told them to stop. Topher, Alex, Miles and I had some Pizza Express. We sat in the back garden and talked about worms. And quoted The Room.

We watched a matinee of Henry IV part One, which is my favorite Shakespeare play. That always seems to surprise people, but if you see a good production of the show you'll see why. The characters are interesting and likable, it's funny and exciting and poignant, and it's full of people doing things instead of talking about doing things. This production was fine, but not nearly as great as the Henry IV I saw here back in 2007, or the solid production I saw at the Globe in 2010. It needed a little more fire and pacing. I know I'm in trouble if I have to drink a Red Bull at intermission. But the sword fights were spectacular!

We boarded the coach and headed to Oxford. We seemed to hit Oxford at just the right time tonight; the sun made everything look golden. The weather had threatened to rain all day but ultimately never did; triumph of the sun. We had a quick tour through town - as much as time afforded, but I think it was just about right. I love wandering among the colleges and backstreets. Topher played Iggy Azalea on his phone and they grooved to it. We all split for a few minutes to grab something to eat on Cornmarket Street and then gathered to eat together again on Martyr's Memorial. Great way to watch the sun go down.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

forty two

For as many years as I've celebrated my birthday abroad (and I think this makes eight of the last nine) I've never done it where it seems most fitting: Stratford-upon-Avon. I'm a massive bardolator and I'm never happier in England than I am out in the country. So it was great to be in Warwickshire this birthday. I love London, but sometimes I need to breathe, too. I'm 42. Grandpa needs a nap!

We picked up our coach on Queen's Gate; our driver was Kelvin and he drove, I kid you not, a Mercedes Benz bus. This thing was posh. The seats reclined. Reclined! There was a hidden toilet on board - tucked away discreetly, like the lamppost to Narnia. And big, beautiful windows. Never has the M40 looked more verdant or glorious. And never have my students fallen asleep so quickly. Kelvin was clearly crop dusting them all through the AC vents with some kind of narcotic. I loved it! I got a lot of reading done.

Our first stop, sadly, was a disappointment. Downton Abbey was closed. A toothless gentlemen stood guard and wouldn't even let us close enough to take a picture. They're filming today, he said. No Americans allowed. So we did the next best thing: Blenheim Palace.

Blenheim looked fantastic in the sun, as always. We were daring and went directly to the new exhibition, a multimedia tour called "Blenheim Palace - the Untold Story". You move from room to room with a ghostly tour guide as interactive animatronic characters from the history of the house jerk awkwardly and breathe in sporadic puffs. You might think this sounds exciting - we thought it might, too. But it was kind of a flop. The stories are hard to follow and you stay way too long in each room. Fortunately, in my case, I went on the tour with a bunch of theatre majors. You can bet they made it twice as funny through sarcastic comments and witty retorts. At one point Kailey launched into some parkour.

But the gardens of Blenheim are always spectacular. We walked out into the secret garden and lay under a large tree for a few minutes. We also spent some time at the koi pond. Everything was quiet as the grave.

Then we boarded the coach again and headed to Mary Arden's farm. I'm not sure how many times I've been to Mary's farm; I just don't get sick of it. Naturally we attended the bird show, which is performed with substantial energy by the same man every afternoon. He's been doing it for years. He really, really loves birds. Caleb and Amber held hands and an owl swooped over them. Now they have to get married! We also spent time in the willow house, which every year grows taller and more mysterious.

Next stop was Anne Hathaway's cottage. Also beautiful and quaint, and barely anybody there this year. They've constructed a giant half-moon wicker chair just outside the cottage. I sat in it and took a little sun in; the students poked in and out of the house. We also hung out in the sonnet willow and braved the lavender maze, which was chiefly scary for the bees. The apples are in bloom in the orchard. It feels like Fall over here. Can you spot Miles in the picture above?

We checked into the Virginia Lodge and Aidan House B&B's, changed for the show, and headed into town for dinner. Per tradition, I had fish and chips at the Dirty Duck pub. Miles and I decided to save my birthday cake for tomorrow, since the Dirty Duck only had ice cream on the menu. Oh, we also had ice cream. Afterwards, we played Downton Abbey on the steps of the pub. Though in some ways, I sort of look like Henry VIII. Can you see it?

Tonight we saw the RSC's Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare's first, and possibly lightest comedy. They gave it a contemporary spin; elements of it looked and felt like The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was just ok, though. It didn't feel like a comedy - it felt like they were trying to make it more resonant and deep than it is. Two Gents has never been high art, so there's no point in trying to make it that. We want to laugh at the dirty jokes, mock the protagonist, and watch the dog. Save your tears for Hamlet, RSC. Make us laugh!

We ended the day in two ways: I affixed this giant button to my shirt, and we played several rounds of ghost in the graveyard at Shakespeare's church. Is there anything more thrilling than playing ghosts in the graveyard in a Tudor graveyard? Under a moon? And then telling scary stories? Happy birthday to me.

Also: Topher found a bone in the graveyard. Looks suspiciously human. And yes, those are his fingernails.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

immortal longings

I've had a pretty special relationship with St. Paul's Cathedral since I played the man himself in the LDS church's New Testament series. We visited St. Paul's today and, in a stroke of serendipity, the first installment of the series premiered today as well. Right now it's on the homepage, or you can see it here.  There should be a few more exciting Paul installments over the next few weeks. The beard is real, by the way. I was proud of that thing. The wig, not so much.

I let the students wander for a minute around the cathedral. It's always so overwhelming - the second largest in Europe after St. Peter's in Rome. I just sat in the chairs and looked up into the dome. There, on several panels, were scenes from Paul's life and ministry. I knew every story. Somehow he looks a little more epic in those murals than I did.

We climbed to the top of St. Pauls, which I haven't done in a few years. It's 528 steps up, but somehow they didn't feel as long or as tiring this year. Still as claustrophobic as ever. Word to the wise: if you don't like corrugated, spiral staircases that groan as you mount them, or if you don't like squeezing through walls of just a few feet, avoid this one. It's nice just to stop at the whispering gallery, if you want. A nice guide up there (unheard of, I'd thought) demonstrated how the gallery works; she walked to the other side of it and began whispering things like "Christopher" and "I hope you have a nice day" and "will you marry me?"

The view from the top was beautiful, mostly because the weather was beautiful today. We've really lucked out. You're 280 feet up there, and you can walk around the golden gallery and see London from every angle. It's fun to people watch up there, or bus watch. What you will. It's also fun to take pictures and hide from the guides up there who are always trying to get you to move along and ultimately head back down.

We walked a few blocks to see the Guildhall Art Museum, but it was closed for repairs. There are ruins of a Roman amphitheatre under it, which we were excited to see. And sad we couldn't. Shawn was excited anyway.

Next we got some Greggs (oh yes! chicken bake! I sing to thee!) and sat in the courtyard of Somerset house and had late lunch. A few of the ladies ran through the fountains with many, many children, one of whom was naked and hilarious. I followed them in there and got my feet wet but not much else, which was fine by me. We also took a moment to create this short masterpiece:

Tonight was our second Globe show, Antony and Cleopatra. I've never seen this play, which is always an added bonus. Especially when you trust a tough play like this to the Globe. They completely embraced it and gave it fire - I can't believe it took me this long to study or watch it. What great characters and beautiful language! The lead, Cleopatra, was played by Eve Best. In America she's best known for a role on Nurse Jackie, but I've never seen that before. She was also in The King's Speech. I wasn't that familiar with her work. But she was absolutely spectacular. Warm, funny, and connected with the audience in ways I haven't seen Globe actors do in years. She touched them, she spoke to them, she even acknowledged the rowdy hoots from the party bus floating past on the Thames. It was just a beautiful, present performance full of commitment and verve.

Final note: I ran into Jeff Morain today, randomly on the street. And then we met up again tonight at the Globe. Jeff was a production assistant on the New Testament videos. He used to bring me donuts while they painted blood all over me. Seeing Jeff, on today of all days, was a reminder of what a fantastic experience filming that was. And will be: I'm bearding up for another round of filming St. Paul in October!

Monday, July 28, 2014

mystery and magic

Today was day two of our treks around England. This time, westward ho! We were going to Stonehenge.

We caught the train at Waterloo Station and passed quickly through some beautiful countryside and a lot of purple clouds of thunderstorms. But by the time we arrived in Salisbury, everything was cleared up and dry. Stroke of luck. We climbed aboard the Stonehenge tour bus, which claimed that "you'll enter a world of mystery and magic" as soon as you step on. We didn't encounter that, exactly, but there were some exciting moments careening down windy country roads in the top of a double decker. At some points, Chris Curlett raised his arms like he was on a roller coaster. It felt like that.

Then, we were at Stonehenge. They've completely redone the visitors area, and it looks great. First of all, you can't drive right up to the stones anymore. They are shrouded in mystery beyond a hill. The new visitors center has some definite architectural merit; it looks like it was built from the magical bluestones and it has a state of the art cafe and exhibition center. But even more interestingly, they now shuttle you to the stones in a series of wagons, not unlike Jurassic Park. We crowded into a shuttle and hummed the Jurassic Park theme song.

In a few minutes, the stones were in view. And you know? They're pretty great. It's hard to explain them, really. I've seen them before and I'll see them again - but there really is something special about them. Your brain can't really process how old they are (4000 BC, by some estimates) and you have no idea what they are, or what they're for. They're just so permanent. They feel so determined. And they stand on a windy plain of chalky earth and fields of grain; you can see clouds and rolling hills for miles. It's just a perfect spot of earth with no other explanation. I didn't get weirded out, but I could let that happen if I wanted to.

We sat in the fields for a few minutes. Some of lay down for a nap, others sat and talked. The sun poked in and out of the clouds. The colors and shapes of Stonehenge seemed to change in the light. I pulled my umbrella out for a little shade, and the wind inverted it.

We decided to walk back to the visitor's center. It's only 30 minutes, and the weather was perfect for it. We bought cherries and strawberries and ate them along the way. The path took us through a long field called "the Avenue, " which is clearly an early landing strip for space aliens. Back at the Exhibition Center we watched an interactive projection system of Stonehenge round the year, and then looked at the discovered bones and reconstructed cave huts. At one point a man, dressed as a witch, cornered me with his/her devil stick and started talking about how "curiosity doesn't always kill the cat" and how need to "let the fear go" and started talking about Schrodinger's cat - who can be both dead and alive. This was the creepiest part of my year, and I got right out of there.

We boarded the coach and headed to Old Sarum, mostly because it was on the way back to Salisbury, and also because the signs kept saying "Why not visit old Sarum?" and there were hundreds of them. Why not? Why not? So we did. I visited Old Sarum back in 2006, but don't remember much other than a mound of rocks and grass. And guess, what? That's exactly what it is. But we still had fun there. There weren't many people around, so we had races and took funny pictures and then...then...we played the most exciting game of Jenga ever recorded in human history. Our Jenga was at least five feet tall until Kacey (or, as he claims, "the wind") toppled it. There were tourists watching with bated breath and taking our picture. Old Sarum is beautiful. Peaceful, quiet, and fascinating to roam around.

I did a brief photo shoot, demonstrating my acting skills. The students shouted out different emotions, and I acted them out. See? I'm always teaching.

This one is "hope."

We call this "anger"


Then we were back in Salisbury. We stopped for a few minutes at Salisbury Cathedral. We pretended to be there for the Evensong so we could get in, but then we got busted for that. The Magna Carta was closed, unfortunately. But the cathedral is just as epic and daunting as ever. Tallest cathedral spire in England!

We finished the day eating at Bill's. If you're keeping score, that's two days in a row. Ah, you only live once! Unless you are Schrodinger's cat.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

in brighton

After a nice start to the day at the Hyde Park Second Ward (which is a fantastic ward and very friendly but seriously needs to work at starting on time,) Miles and I headed to Brighton. Along came Maddy, Rachel, Brenna, Angie, and Chantel. We had a great day there.

The train to Brighton takes about an hour, and once we got there we headed to the Unitarian Church on Jubilee Street to meet Carlo, our bike tour guide. I've done bike tours in London, Paris, and Versailles now, so I can add Brighton to the list with much approval and satisfaction. Carlo was great. Very funny and clearly loves what he does. His job would stress me out. Getting a string of college kids across busy streets on bikes? That's ulcer town. NBD for Carlo.

We hit several of the Brighton hotspots, including St. Peter's Church in Preston Park, a Gothic-Style Anglican church with original murals of Becket on trial all over the walls. It was really intimate and cool in there. Here are photos.

We also explored a secret garden which doubles as a pet cemetery. I had to take a picture of the tombstone of Pickle the dog, because it dearly reminded me of Pickles the cat back home. (Not actually a cat, just a 6 year girl who thinks she is one.)

We climbed in the Preston Twins - the oldest surviving Elm Trees in England. Do you see how jaunty I look up there? Do you see that?

Later we walked through a field carpeted in poppies and cornflowers. Two more weeks, Carlo told us, and we'd miss it. It's all about the timing. Maddy and Rachel kept making up a musical called In Brighton. They created lyrics as we biked. The musical is about lonely American girls who fall in love with their bike tour guide (not Carlo) and they sing "In Briiiiiiiiightoooooon!" in an operatic style.

Here is the Royal Pavilion. Once home to Victoria and Albert, but for me it's way more famous as the Indian Palace the Snowman flies over in the Christmas cartoon.

Finally, we rode our bikes along the seaboard. Brighton was busy today with visitors from all over England, but the bike lanes were free and easy. It felt great to ride along with the breeze off the English Channel.

We said goodbye to Carlo around 5:30. He was a lot of fun, and there really is no better way to capture the essence of a city in a day. Nobody's feet hurt, and everybody looked and felt alive.

We ate dinner at Bill's, my favorite restaurant in Brighton. ("In Briiiiiiiiightoooooon!") I've only ever been there for breakfast, and the place is always packed. But early dinner is perfect; we were alone in there for a good chunk of time. And the dinner menu is fantastic. The food is always fresh, always hearty, and the ambiance is always colorful and energetic.

And then we walked to the seashore, making our way through the little lanes of Brighton. The sun was starting to set and the lamps were coming on all along the intricate maze of twisting alleyways. Eventually we found our way out and sat on the pebble beach as the sun went down. We were brave enough to get our feet wet, but that was just about it. That water was cold. Who were all those people swimming in it? Eskimos?

We sat for the rest of the evening on the rocks and had a great chat. Miles and I threw rocks at a can. Some seagulls watched us with interest. The waves came in and out and the night lights of Brighton came on.