Thursday, July 21, 2005

Underground Bombings: Why Spain's to Blame

Suicide bombers struck the London Underground on July 7, killing more than fifty innocent Britons. Earlier today, a wave of attempted bombings led to a mass evacuation of London's transit system. Naturally, mainstream journalists latched onto the most convenient scapegoat: Tony Blair's support of the war in Iraq. These bombings were proof -- or so the Left assured us -- that America's war on terror had made the world less secure, that Britain and other U.S. allies were more vulnerable to terrorist attack than ever, that we are fighting a war we cannot possibly win. Their inescapable conclusion was that we must pull out of Iraq toute de suite or face even more devastating actions in future.

It was a simple game of connect-the-dots -- except that the most important dot was conveniently missing.

Remember Madrid?

Terrorists do. So far, the March 2004 attack on Madrid's subway system has been their only unqualified success in the Western world. Granted, 9/11 was far more lethal than "3/11," but because the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. led to massive U.S. reprisals across the Islamofacist world, they couldn't really be construed in the long run as a victory. Alas, Spain's response to the realities of global terrorism couldn't have been more different from America's: Within a few days, voters had replaced a pro-U.S. government with a full slate of appeasement-minded socialists, after which the nation promptly removed its military from the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. Thus, with a relatively small investment of time and capital, a small gang of Islamist extremists frightened an entire nation into swift surrender.

On the surface, the modus operandi of the London attacks was so eerily similar to last year's Madrid bombings, that investigators began to look at a possible connection between them. As in Madrid, the bombers struck during rush-hour commutes, and positioned their explosives to inflict maximum damage on innocent Londoners. That the bombers in London didn't succeed to the same extent as the ones in Madrid (56 killed in the London Underground, as opposed to 191 dead in Madrid) doesn't rule out conspiracy.

However, there's an even more disturbing alternative: Perhaps those Madrid bombings -- and, more importantly, the Spanish reaction to them -- inspired the London attacks. Once terrorists in the U.K. learned that a wealthy European nation (and staunch American ally) could be brought to its knees with a single, well-timed act of mass murder, other terrorist cells might have begun planning an "incident" or two on their own. The only question was how soon they would strike.

Terrorist cells require years to plan a lethal and well-coordinated attack; U.S. officials are learning that al-Qaeda's preparation for the 9/11 attacks could have begun as early as 1995. The London subway bombings were far less precise, and fifteen months -- from shortly after the Madrid bombings to the day of the London attacks -- seems like a reasonable gestation period for such an action. Of course, unlike their counterparts in Madrid, the London terrorists failed to influence U.K. elections directly; Blair was safely re-elected to a third term before they could bring their plan to bloody fruition. Still, they may yet succeed in their ultimate goal, to persuade a wavering British Parliament to behave like the Spanish electorate.

Whether the Madrid bombings and the copycat explosions on the Tube will spark attacks on mass transit elsewhere is anyone's guess. But these particular tactics have led Islamist terrorists to victory before. It would be folly to say they won't be used again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

LiveArts Summer Theater Festival

Despite my habit of procrastination, I've come in just under the wire with this post. If you, gentle reader, happen to live in the Charlottesville area, run immediately to LiveArts and catch the final few days of their Summer Theater Festival. According to LiveArts organizers, this year's festival will be the last: The festival's low-budget, avant-garde productions have always lost money, and they seldom draw much attention from the local media.

Granted, it makes solid financial sense to scrap the Festival and replace it (as LiveArts will do next year) with a big musical. All the same, I'm sorry to see it go, because for me, the edgy and adventurous Summer Theater Festival is the highlight of Charlottesville's crowded "summer stock" scene. Last year it introduced me to Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, which is still the only play I've seen twice in the same week. The playwright is better-known for his Tony-winning Take Me Out (currently playing in Washington, D.C.) -- the first drama to feature Gay baseball players since Damn Yankees, one suspects -- but I don't think he's ever topped this meditation on architecture, inspiration and all the ways we misinterpret the past. Last year, I wrote that "This tiny, three-character play can stand proudly beside the best of Tom Stoppard as unabashedly brainy theater with a heart of gold." It might sound like hyperbole, but I stand by that judgment.

As it turns out, two members of the Three Days cast, Jill Antonishak and Allen Robinson, are also participating in this year's festival. (I bumped into Todd Fletcher, the third member, last week, and learned that he's training in New York for a professional acting career. With the smoldering good looks of an authentic Southern-fried hunk, and plenty of talent to accompany them, he's an absolute natural for the stage. I suspect we'll hear more from him.) Antonishak is directing Annie Weisman's Be Aggressive, while Robinson is a supporting actor in David Ives's The Polish Joke. Both acquit themselves quite well, though Antonishek is working with lackluster, problematic material.

Be Aggressive, an alleged satire of Southern California life, seems cobbled together from two radically different plays -- one of them a shallow send-up of high-school cheerleading and suburban sprawl, and the other a trenchantly observed family drama about the realities of loss and death. You've probably guessed which I prefer, but alas, playwright Weisman can't make up her mind: Aggressive wobbles through a mediocre first act, comes to life briefly in the second, then flies apart at the very end. Given the play's ramshackle construction, its plot holes should come as no surprise. Still, director Antonishek gets excellent performances from her cast, especially Rachael Pickering as the high-school protagonist Laura, Jared Kassebaum as a grieving father, and Stephanie Hess as a Southern divorcee. They can't save the play, but they can at least make this production worth a look.

Earlier this year, UVA presented The Ives Have It, a collection of one-acts by comic playwright David Ives. Ives's Polish Joke, perhaps the most audacious offering at this year's festival, is every bit as funny as his short plays. The play ostensibly tells the story of a young Polish man who comes to grips with his ethnic identity -- though as always with David Ives, the story isn't exactly important. Polish Joke utilizes all of Ives's best-known devices: The "Polish gong" sound effect recalls the ringing bell of "Sure Thing"; his puns, linguistic games and dialect jokes are worthy of "Universal Language"; and the use of geography (especially Poland and Ireland) to represent psychological states is reminiscent of "The Philadelphia." These plays run for about fifteen minutes each -- which, parenthetically, seems about as long as Ives can sustain action. But Polish Joke is a two-hour play (counting intermission); and although Ives's surrealism, metaphorical action, and insistently motivic writing work marvelously in small doses, they can be a bit tiresome if extended to a full evening.

Under Mark Valahovic's direction, Polish Joke offers plenty of sharp one-liners, wild characterizations, and (as you might expect) Polish jokes. Trevor Paradis plays the protagonist Jasiu Sadlowski, who ages convincingly from nine years old to his mid-thirties. Allen Robinson (from Three Days of Rain) gives yet another brilliant, wide-ranging comic performance, serving up Polish accents and Irish brogues with equal aplomb. (Once again, Robinson gets the festival's best line, a priceless throwaway that does to Shakespeare's Hamlet what Greenberg's Three Days did to Oedipus Rex.) Pamela Sabella and Jen Hoffman are more than up to the challenge of Ives's writing (Hoffman has a few deliciously smutty one-liners as a randy Irish maid) -- and even Valahovic gets into the act, playing characters ranging from an elderly uncle to 18th-century general Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

For the title of flat-out funniest play of the festival, Polish Joke should be a shoo-in, but this year it faces fierce competition from A.R. Gurney's Sylvia. This four-character comedy, about an affluent married couple who adopt a stray dog (or does the dog adopt them?), is little more than a glorified New Yorker cartoon; it's funny and keenly observed, but lacks depth or dramatic heft. Still, thanks to brilliant casting and solid staging, this LiveArts production works much better than it has any right to.

Bill LeSueur may be best known for playing Joe Pitt during LiveArts' production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America cycle, and he brings the same intensity and sense of longing to Greg, a heterosexual husband undergoing a rather mundane midlife crisis. Admittedly, Sylvia gives LeSueur somewhat stronger material to work with than Angels did -- Kushner's characters are cartoons in the worst possible sense of the word -- but by playing this character earnestly, he gives the production a rich humanity that the play itself lacks. Emily Marston is no less honest or remarkable as Kate, a repressed, career-oriented schoolteacher, and Todd Patterson gives three sharply observed character turns (two of them in drag). The star of the show, however, is Priya Curtis, in the role of a dog (!) named Sylvia. On paper, the stage device of a talking dog played by a human being is too cute by half; Curtis makes it believable, and fires off the funniest lines in the show. (She's also a good singer.) Director Nathan Beatty makes terrific use of LiveArts' downstage space, giving the play some much-needed intimacy.

Theatrical spaces don't get much more intimate than the LiveArts upstage area, and The Complete History of America (Abridged) is so frenetic, so over-the-top, that the tiny stage threatens to explode. This revue-like evening comes from the same people who gave us The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and in some ways, I wish they had stopped with the Bard of Avon. Unlike Shakespeare, which showed considerable affection for the material they parodied, Complete History simply drips with contempt for the United States and everything it stands for. One sketch set during World War Two actually states that the US was morally indistinguishable from Nazi Germany: The Nazis had death camps for millions of Jews, Roma, political prisoners, homosexuals, and so forth -- and we incarcerated a few hundred thousand Japanese-Americans. Get it? That makes us the same, according to the creators of this revue. (Of course, all those European Jews who fled Hitler saw things somewhat differently: America was their number-one destination.) A rap number (always a feature of these revues) features several verses in praise of the leader of the anti-America movement, Noam Chomsky -- though one doubts that the creators of this revue would agree with Chomsky's well-documented anti-Semitism and Holocaust denials.

But other than that -- as the old Lincoln joke goes -- how was the play? Well, the young trio of Cissy Perez, Jacqueline Ross and Nick Shea are talented, intelligent and relentlessly energetic; they carry the show over the weak spots, and interact well with each other and the audience. Until the finale, an extended, dead-in-the-water film-noir parody that leaves them stranded, these three actors carry the show and take the audience along. Too bad the revue's primary object is to cover America, its history and its people with foul-smelling, postmodern slime: These performers deserve a much better vehicle than this.

If this is the last Summer Theater Festival from LiveArts, at least it will end on a high note. But the festival might go on in a slightly altered (and downsized) form: According to a few LiveArts veterans, it could become a showcase for local playwrights. I'm not sure if this is necessarily a positive step, though it makes sense in terms of LiveArts' official mission to "forge theater and community": For the past few years, LiveArts has hosted a writing workshop, and at the moment there's an sbundance of unproduced and royalty-free material to choose from. Two short one-acts at this year's festival, Scott Dunn's Under Cover of Night and Elizabeth Rose Fuller's Unacceptable Reality, give some idea of what the future might bring. Alas, the plays themselves are pretty weak (Unacceptable Reality is, frankly, unacceptable), though Under Cover features two very smart performances from child actors Sylvia Kates and Jake Vaughn.

The LiveArts Summer Theater Festival runs through July 23. Tickets to all productions are $10, and go on sale one hour before curtain: It's still the best entertainment bargain in Charlottesville. For more information, call (434)977-4177, or click here.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Photo of the Week: Hatteras-Ocracoke Island Ferry, North Carolina, 2004

Most of the time, the Outer Banks of North Carolina is crowded and expensive -- precisely the sort of vacation spot I try to avoid. Still, it has a few scenic, relatively unspoiled areas. My favorite is Ocracoke Island, once a hideout for Edmund Teach (whom you probably know as Blackbeard the pirate). The island is only accessible by ferry, which keeps tourist traffic to a minimum, but it has some of the loveliest beaches on the Outer Banks.

The Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry is the most popular way to get to (or from) Ocracoke Island. I took this particular photo from the boat at sunset. These birds are seagulls, the original beach bums, and they're circling the ferry in search of a few treats from the tourists.

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