The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

MASH Revisited: S 1, Eps 7-8: "Bananas, Crackers & Nuts"/"Cowboy"

This idea of pairing up episodes has (so far) been fortuitously effective.

In the Beginning, there was the Deluge.

No, I don't mean the biblical one, but rather a portion of "Richard Hooker's" MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors that depicts the 4077th MASH under siege, a two week push pushing the doctors to their breaking points.

Episode 7, "Banana, Crackers & Nuts," gives us a taste of such a period, and despite the limits on 1970s television, manages to get across the fatigue, irritability, and sheer frustration of watching patients die quite well. (It also makes clear that Chief Surgeon Pierce and Chief Nurse Houlihan are extremely good working together. Swit and Alda do a marvelous job of conveying their characters rapport in the OR, however at odds they are outside of it. Houlihan is quietly supportive of Pierce in surgery, and seems solicitous of Pierce's well-being as the strain increases.) Burns is fractious, and Margaret flashes an impatient glare his way.

But when the Deluge is over, at least for now, Hawkeye needs a change, as does McIntyre. They try to get a pass for R & R in Tokyo--but Henry takes his own break, leaving Frank Burns in charge (to be fair, Henry tries to warn Frank not to push his authority too far, but Burns, of course, is sure he knows better.)

So Pierce decides to convince Burns that he's cracking up, and needs R & R. In full scrubs, Pierce enters the mess hall with liver on a surgical tray--and liver is not on the menu. Burns and Houlihan are at first perturbed (Alda is hilarious as the allegedly cracking Hawkeye, but he manages it by deftly underplaying the scene--he's dark, and a bit macabre, and he's far more convincing than the benign Corporal Klinger ever will be). If that's not enough, Pierce picks a fight with Lt. Margie Cutler--whom he'd just successfully wooed away from Trapper in the last episode.

Margaret, with her nose for fraud, calls in Cpt. Philip Sherman, a psychiatrist who is infatuated with her, and he quickly works out that Pierce's alleged infatuation with Burns (yeah, he's desperate) is fake.

All might be well, if Blake didn't describe some of Pierce's crueler pranks on Burns, trying to get the Majors to laugh with him, and reassure Capt. Sherman that it's all just fun and games. Sherman, who has not experienced a war zone, thinks these "exculpatory" stories evince real mental illness, and not releases of intolerable stress, and margaret and Frank play the moment perfectly. (Linville's sad face, and Swit's murmur of "poor, poor, Hawkeye" are classic--without breaking character, their eyes are gleeful.) Sherman resolves to take Pierce to Tokyo for further testing the next morning.

Pierce and McIntyre come up with a plan, having radar lead Sherman to the "visiting officers tent" as night falls, and, in the absence of a light bulb, the psychiatrist goes to sleep in hat is (of course) Margaret's bed. When she comes in, cursing the "burned out" bulb, and undresses, Sherman awakes and--

--OK, this part doesn't hold up well. Sherman basically tries to sexually assault Margaret. The show wants us to find it funny, and the fact that within seconds Swit is pummeling Stuart Margolin quite mercilessly helps, but her cries for help and Pierce's and McIntyre's insouciant air until Henry arrives are pretty disturbing.

So it's Sherman who is despatched from the 4077th, and Henry gives Hawkeye and Trapper passes for leave, and as they get ready to go--the next Deluge is upon them.

The episode is a mixed bag; the "liver" scene is classic, the OR sequences really convey the exhaustion and frustration of the doctors and nurses--but that scene in Margaret's tent, though a reworking of many French farces, is a bit too true to be good.

"Cowboy" is a very different type of episode. A heroic chopper pilot, known only as "Cowboy" is bringing in wounded--including himself. Not for the first time He is fuming at being helpless to get back home, because he's afraid his wife is cheating on him. Pierce and McIntyre try to get Henry to send Cowboy stateside, but Henry, who is himself in an incredibly tetchy mood, just doesn't think his condition is serious enough.

A series of highly comic attempts on Blake's life ensue, a jeep running through his quarters (A shocked Henry: "Jeep. Tent. Boom"). The latrine detonates with him in it, and he stumbles trgoug the wreckage wearing the toilet seat as if it were a ceremonial collar. (Henry, blankly: "Boom.)

Radar goes to absurd lengths to avoid being near Blake, as does the mess tent server (not Igor yet, folks). Finally, Blake agrees to go to Tokyo--and accepts a ride from Cowboy.

Too late, the Swampmen realize that Cowboy is the one trying to kill Henry (this is good example of what TV Tropes calls grabbing the idiot ball, because it's pretty obvious from the midpoint of the episode.) But by the Hoary Hand of Hoggoth, the long awaited letter from Cowboy's wife arrives just as Cowboy is pushing Henry out of the chopper. When he hears that his wife still loves him, despite being tempted to stray, Cowboy relaxes, and Henry, suddenly calm again, simply says "Let's go home, Cowboy." He doesn't press charges, but makes sure Cowboy gets the care he needs--stateside, with his wife.

For all of its farcical elements, "Cowboy" has some very serious character beats. Unlike Hawkeye's feigned madness in the last episode, Cowboy is really falling apart. His anxiety is turning him into a killer, and Blake escapes with his wife due to simple good luck. Cowboy's increasing mania works because Billy Green Bush plays the character straight--laconically heroic when we first meet him, unraveling as the episode progresses.

McLean Stevenson's Blake is just the sort of man who would turn his attempted murderer into a patient, and his "let's go home" is reassuring to the man who just tried to kill him. What makes henry different from anyone in the show is that for all of his incompetence as a commander, he is a first rate doctor--and that's how he treats Cowboy the minute he understands the sutuation. He's not heroically brave--Stevenson projects real fear--but he's concerned not just for himself, but for the pilot whose symptoms he'd misjudged.

Theres a little moment in "Cowboy" I want to mention, because it'll come up in the next post. Father Mulcahy, as he goes from wounded man to wounded man, sees that the next patient is named Goldstein. Without missing a beat he says from memory the Mi Shebeirach, a Jewish prayer for healing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

MASH Revisited: S. 1, Eps 5 & 6: The Moose/Yankee Doodle Doctor

Yung Hi apparently got off lightly.

It seems that the "moose" (a corruption of the Japanese word "musume" ("Girl") was a real phenomenon. (There's a singularly unedifying section on the relationship in Japan during the Korean War in a Korean War veteran's online memoir, which asserts that the relationship was generally sexual in nature.)

So Sgt. Baker, who is perhaps the most unsympathetic character in the series to date, is not as abusive as the reality would have allowed, as Yung Hi insists that Baker has not taken advantage of her in that way.

The Swampmen--Hawkeye, Trapper, and Dr. Oliver Harmon Jones (Oliver Wendell Jones, in the original novel--don't make me put his nickname in print; it hasn't aged well!) recoil at this young woman being sold by her family into servitude. After a failed effort by Captain Pierce (in full uniform for a change) to bully his subordinate officer into releasing Yung Hi, the Swampmen set up a rigged poker match, with Radar spying on Baker's cards, and a receiver in Hawkeye's ear allowing Radar to transmit the information. Hawkeye wins the poker game, and Yung Hi.

Happy ending?

Not quite yet; Yung Hi now seeks to serve Hawkeye as well as she served Baker. Pierce tries to teach her how to enjoy freedom, but she keeps trying to be a good worker. Hawkeyes tries to send her to Seoul, but she returns.

When they try to return Yung Hi to her family, as a free woman, her baby brother Benny--an Americanized young tough of the Damon Runyon variety, with a heart filled with larceny--who explains that he will just sell her again, for even more money.

In a lovely moment, the Swampmen are downcast at her leaving with Benny, only for her to return, having learned who to tell to "shove off!"

So the Swampmen try to "de-moosify" her, teaching her self-respect, having her work around the hospital, and discover that she's capable of more than serving American soldiers. She finds a home at convent school in Seoul, and the episode ends with Pierce, McIntyre, and Jones celebrating her freedom, and her new attitude, as revealed in a happy letter from Yung Hi.

The episode is funny--Benny is a comic monster who uses Korean tradition to exploit his sister, while ignoring tradition himself--and poignant. The censors in 1972 would hardly have let the show show Baker as the sexually exploiting Yung Hi, but by having her allude to Baker's not having done so, the possibility of it is underlined for the audience.

But even absent the specter of sexual exploitation, the fact is that Yung Hi has been treated by her family, by Baker, and by who knows who else, as a commodity--a thing, not a person. Pierce, McIntyre, and Jones are genuinely revolted by this, and their efforts to free Yung Hi are comic, but increasingly urgent.

Timothy Brown is another alumnus of the film, but as Corporal Judson, not as Dr. Jones, is very good--he's warm, confident, and holds his own in his scenes with Alda and Rogers--in fact, he's memorable when he gets to mock Alda's Pierce for not living up to his high principles. His anger at Yung Hi's position is equally authentic, and his rapport with the two leads is convincing.

Brown's part is especially visible in this episode in part because the cast is so shrunk--this is the episode where he is most directly involved. "The Moose" is something of a "bottle episode" as, part for a brief scene in Henry's office, the story really exclusively belongs to Yung Hi, the Swampmen (minus Burns) and the guest stars.


Alan Alda is clearly enjoying himself in "Yankee Doodle Doctor," and his enjoyment is infectious. He gets to do a long--really long--impression of Groucho Marx (its first appearance in the series), with Wayne Rogers as Harpo as they subvert a ridiculous propaganda movie (starring Pierce, scripted by Burns, and sponsored by yet another of Margaret's general rank conquests--Herb Volland as General Crandall Clayton).

While Alda's is the star turn, Larry Linville's pompous narration--absurd, but just this side of plausibility, only a little more over the top than Don La Fontaine--is as funny as any of Alda and Rogers's antics. Though the unveiling of the narration to a mocking Pierce and McIntyre is possibly the best comic beat of the episode, as Frank tries to impress, and Loretta Swit does a great slow burn:
Frank Burns: [practicing reciting for upcoming film] "A group of brave men are at work in a make shift operating room struggling to save your sons and brothers while outside the dogs of war bark at the door of this sanctuary."
Trapper: [Hawkeye barks like a dog] Down, boy, down, down! Roll over. Jump through that.
Frank Burns: "These are the saints in surgical garb, dedicated surgeons, all volunteers. Every red-blooded American knows, if he is wounded, he will be in the strong, capable hands of a Yankee Doodle Doctor."
Hawkeye, Trapper [singing]: A Yankee Doodle Doctor? Stuck a feather in his nurse and called her macaroni.
Hawkeye and Trapper destroy the film, and make one to their own taste--Groucho and Harpo impressions, slapstick, and a sober finale from Captain Pierce:
Hawkeye: [Recorded at the end of the film Hawkeye and Trapper made] Three hours ago, this man was in a battle. Two hours ago, we operated on him. He's got a 50-50 chance. We win some, we lose some. That's what it's all about. No promises. No guaranteed survival. No saints in surgical garb. Our willingness, our experience, our technique are not enough. Guns, and bombs, and anti-personnel mines have more power to take life than we have to preserve it. Not a very happy ending for a movie. But then, no war is a movie.
It's a good ending. Even General Clayton agrees--he intends to keep it in the new version, that will open with his intro, and end with Pierce's musings. But the General wants a copy of the Pierce/Mcintyre version, too. He needs a good laugh, every now and then.


*Major Houlihan seems particularly irresistible to Generals Hammond and Clayton.

*In a nice call back to "Requiem for a Lightweight," Hawkeye manages to reverse Trapper's winning the affections of Lt. Margie Cutler (Marcia Strassman), and walks off with her at the end of the episode.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Struggle and Survival: A Sermon on Luke 18:1-8; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5 & Genesis 32:22-31

When I was at college in the mid-1980s, I was a member of not one but two theater groups. The well-established theater group, the Fordham Mimes and Mummers, was where I got to act in Rostand’s The Romancers, play a campy Bob Cratchit (by way of Eric Idle) in A Christmas Carol, and play supporting parts in The Tempest and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (Yes, I was the murderer. Why do you ask?)

The newer, smaller one was the Fordham Experimental Theater, where I got to play the primary guard in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone—which meant I got to be the main collaborator with Creon, who Anouilh casts as the Nazi regime.

But the play that comes to my mind in respect to today’s reading is one we didn’t do, in either group: Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. We didn’t do it, but this story of a World War II era acting troupe led by an aging Shakespearean actor and his wife, propped up by the backstage employee who props up the troupe by keeping the leading man functioning, was one that struck home with one of my friends.

What touched my friend most in the play was how, whenever disaster befell—or they were about to go on stage, which is not the same thing, the long-married couple would turn to each other, and one would say “struggle” and the other respond: “survival.”

Struggle and Survival.

Bear them in mind, because the appointed readings for today may seem ill-assorted, but if you look at them through the lens of “struggle and survival” you may see the common thread linking them all.

Jacob, wrestling with an angel, refusing to let go until he receives a blessing.

Paul, writing his protégé Timothy, urging him to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”
And Jesus telling the peculiar parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge.

These three stories give us the same advice, in very different ways, and I think in these chaotic times, it’s one we—us, gathered tonight in this chapel, need:

Endure. Don’t give up. Don’t leave before the miracle happens.

We are living in historic, if perverse, times. Impeachment of the President is stealthily brewing in the background, the United States House and Senate ring with denunciations of our abandonment of our Kurdish allies, and, all the while, we drift further apart from our fellow citizens, divided by clouds of distrust, and, all too often, of increasing dislike.

It’s a grey and cold time, this era of ours, whatever the weather. A time in which anxieties about our country’s very nature are muted, but always present. A time when we feverishly look for a solution, an answer, a way to find our way back to normal. We search the blogs, the tweets, hoping for something to resolve this long, tedious and yet fearful waiting process.


Or maybe you’ll like Churchill’s version better: Never give up, never give in, never surrender.

Persist, says St. Paul, and despite the dreariness of these times, we are called to persist.

Jesus’s parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge teaches us that persistence is necessary to gain justice. He describes for us an unjust judge, a man who fears neither God nor man, and has respect for nobody. A judge who rules by his own self-interest and profit, his own whim, who doesn’t care a bit for justice. And he rules in just that way until one day—poor man—he meets a certain widow.

Now, remember that in Jesus’s day, to be a widow was to helpless and vulnerable—not quite an outcast, but relegated to the margins of the community.

At first, the unjust judge ignores the widow with his usual contempt, and dismisses her cries for justice.

But, nevertheless, she persisted, and her loud cries of “give me justice against my opponent” began to grate on him. She got under his skin, and became a burden to her. Finally, simply to be rid of her, he grants her the justice she demands, and to which she is entitled—not because it’s his duty (though it is, of course), but because he can’t bear not to anymore. Even though he fears neither God nor man, and has no respect for anybody, he simply can’t go on.

So he does the right deed, for the wrong reason—which T. S. Eliot tells us is the greatest treason.

But is it?

Just why can’t the unjust judge bear her complaints any more?

It can’t be because she’s offensively loud—he could have her thrown out.

It can’t be because she’s yet another litigant who keeps pestering him, because the story only makes sense if it’s this one widow who keeps coming back.

And what about that? In ancient as in modern law, you normally only get one chance with any one claim. However it comes out in the first case is final, and forbids any further claims—what in Latin lawyers call res judicata—the thing has been decided. So just toss her out. As many times as it takes.

No. he doesn’t even try.

So what is it?

Isn’t it likely that she keeps turning to him as the just man he is supposed to be, and that her perpetual cries refuse to let him be the lawless, selfish man he has become?

Isn’t she calling to the depths of his soul, trying to awaken the younger judge, the man who wanted at some point to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with his God?

And doesn’t the shadow, deeply buried within him, of that idealistic younger former self, once awakened, call him back to himself ?

In other words, the widow won’t let the old rascal off the hook. She won’t accept the venal man he has become.

She won’t give up on him.

Jesus uses this parable as a metaphor for prayer, and the need to persist in prayer. He tells us that, unlike the unjust judge, God will grant us what we ask without long delay. God will grant justice to God’s children—those who choose to walk with God, who answer the call to become partners in the ongoing creation of God’s world.

And then Jesus hesitates—after assuring us that God will swiftly grant us justice, Jesus muses, asking quietly “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the Earth?”

What he’s really asking is can we—you and I—refuse to give up in the face of the silence of God, in the face of disappointment and loss. Can we trust in God so much that even as we wait, we refuse to believe that God can or will ever abandon us.

And if we can put our trust in God so firmly that we do not allow even for the possibility that God will break faith with us—as the Psalmist often accuses God—then our prayers return to us. Not with easy answers and wish fulfillment, but with the conviction that, just as we won’t entertain the concept that God will fail us, so too neither will God entertain the thought that we will fail God. That God will never doubt that we—yes, you and I are capable of persisting with the widow, and never accepting that those who oppose us are not worthy of love. That we are capable of wrestling with the angels, and finding that we are renamed, no longer merely Jacob, but the new creation Israel, maybe only a drop of water in the eternally rolling sea, but a drop that sparkles with the sunlight, and changes all around it.

We can, like Paul and Timothy, pray, act, teach and do what comes to hand, knowing that our work is never in vain.

In Susan Howatch’s novel Absolute Truths, the sculptor Harriet March—an avowed atheist—teaches Bishop Charles Ashworth, our narrator, a lesson about creation. Charles applies Harriet’s lesson to God’s creation, and realizes:

“Harriet had touched that sculpture with a loving hand long ago, and in that touch I sensed the indestructible fidelity, the indescribable devotion and the inexhaustible energy of the creator as he shaped his creation, bringing life out of dead matter, wresting form continually from chaos. Nothing was ever lost, Harriet had said, and nothing was ever wasted because always, when the work was finally completed, every article of the created process, seen or unseen, kept or discarded, broken or mended – EVERYTHING was justified, glorified and redeemed.”

We have to remember that, and be like the widow. It’s not enough to cry out for justice for ourselves. We have to recall oour opponents to their best, truest selves. We have to fight our own demons, our own anger, our own prejudices, and cry out for justice for all—even—no, especially for the other, the one we fear, the one we hate.

Our struggle, our survival, only comes with a blessing if everyone is included, if everyone is justified, gloried, and redeemed.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

May we go forth and do likewise.

Monday, October 14, 2019

A Tiny Story, In Memory of a Tiny Cat

(Picture by Kerin F.)

La Caterina and I have been feeding the feral cats in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for--my, it must be getting on for ten years now. At least 9, I'm sure of that. We first joined a long-standing friend of both hers and mine when she generously placed three cats we had located in the back yard of our Queens digs which la C called the Dutch Kills Orchard and Cattery (we had two fruit trees in the back yards). When, perforce, we moved to Brooklyn, la C (and thus me, in a non-executive, "Thog lift!" capacity) became volunteers at our friend's large feral cat colony spanning both Steiner Studios and the Annex of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

We made friends with the other cat ladies and the cats. The Steiner cats flourished in the studio's parking lots, while the Annex cats had the run of the sprawling, overgrown Victorian buildings and the grass sward between them. In those halcyon days, the ruined buildings were a feline domain, and the cats themselves an attraction on the public tours that ran through the annex on buses.

Alas, now the Annex is closed and we feed the cats at certain designated points. Still, they let us do it, and even allow us to use the studio water supply to refill the water jugs we use to provision our furry charges. Over the years, we have lost a fair amount of the original cats, but a core cast has delighted us over the years.

We lost one last week. Tiny Cat, pictured above, was one of the original Steiner cats (at least, she has been there as long as la C and I were serving the kitties food and beverages). Years before Hurricane Sandy, this small, petite black cat would demand a separate bowl of food, or jump in the hatchback opening of our Saturn Vue and help herself to some of the large wet cat food stock filling la C's Tupperware boxes. Tiny was, well, tiny, but she was funny in her aggressiveness, and a beautiful, trim cat with luminous eyes.

I remember on my first visit, la C warned me, "Don't pet Tiny. She scratches. For real."

Now, la C is the Cat Whisperer, but I too have had cats for many years--getting on for 20, now. So, recklessly, I dared to approach Tiny, and to tentatively pet her. Remarkably, she took to me, and the cat that you could not approach allowed me to pet her for what has been a long service in the Navy Yard/Steiner Studios. I loved the little beast from the moment she accepted me, and petting Tiny was one of the highlights of a Navy Yard visit for me. She was as silky as a pampered house cat could be, and as sleek as anyone could hope for their pet to be. She was feral but friendly, made her own rules, but had favorites.

More so than I, la C's colleague at the Yard Kerin was a Tiny Cat adoptee as well. The little thing was ok with la C, loved Kerin and was unaccountably fond of me. In all our years there, Tiny thought about scratching me once, and then changing her mind, head-butted the hand she had moved to attack. She was always painstakingly gentle with me.

According to the ASPCA "community cats", that is, "outdoor, unowned, free-roaming cats," have short lives: "If a community cat survives kittenhood, his average lifespan is less than two years if living on his own. If a cat is lucky enough to be in a colony that has a caretaker, he may reach 10 years." So if you wonder why busy professionals like Kerin, la C and their friends and colleagues burn a helluva lot of their scant spare time nursemaiding these cats it's that 8 year difference. They give these cats a good life, love, and stability. Which is why so many of them have lasted a decade or longer.

Tiny Cat made her decade (and in fact Tiny was probably a bit older) but we lost her tragically. She died, as I said, but not of sickness or old age, but of--misadventure. I'm not sure just what happened, because her body was found post-mortem. Not a natural death, as she deserved.

CORRECTION: Kerin writes to inform me that Tiny was found injured but alive, and that she was mercifully st free from pain with Kerin comforting her. She didn’t die alone, and that is a comfort.

I miss her. In her memory, John Keats's "To Mrs. Reynolds' Cat":
Cat! who hast past thy grand climacteric,
How many mice and rats hast in thy days
Destroy’d?—how many tit bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green and prick
Those velvet ears—but pr’ythee do not stick
Thy latent talons in me—and upraise
Thy gentle mew—and tell me all thy frays
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists—
For all the wheezy asthma,—and for all
Thy tail’s tip is nicked off—and though the fists
Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
In youth thou enter’dst on glass-bottled wall
Tiny Cat's fur was ever soft, her velvet ears had only the nick that warns Animal Control that this cat has a place, and is cared for, her tail may have had a nick or two, but her affectionate, slightly sardonic spirit aways delighted me--that I was accepted, for no real reason, by the sharpest cat of the lot.

May she rest in peace.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Cyrano--a New Adaptation by Erica Schmidt at the New Group

I'm delighted to report that Cyrano, director Erica Schmidt's bold adaptation of Rostand's classic, is an innovative, compelling reworking of the original. As a lifelong fan of the original (José Ferrer was my first Cyrano, and until now my favorite), I've always loved the play, and when I hear it was to be adapted into a musical, I was. . . concerned. (Wrongly; the score by Aaron Deesner and Bryce Dessner is admirable; the lyrics by Matt Berlinger and Carin Besser are as well). Then I heard that Peter Dinklage was to take on the part, I was...intrigued. I thought Dinklage could be a great Cyrano--if the script let him.

It did, and he is.

From his first bellowing denunciation, to his sharp pull of the heartstrings at the very end, this is a Cyrano to remember. He's as witty as Ferrer, but exceeds his in the emotional nuances. Cyrano's fear, his self-loathing that motivates his heroic feats--all these feel organic and fully realized. Cyrano's bravura is a defense mechanism, as Dinklage plays the role--in part. Because Cyrano's repugnance at time-serving, compromise, and lack of gallantry--these are deeply held views that define the gallant man he has created himself to be, despite the world's disdain. And these views put him on a collision course with the Duke de Guiche (A first-rate Ritchie Coster, in a nuanced performance, at turns a comic monster, an ogre of exploitation, and a dangerous foe. But also a man in love, and one who comes to have a deep admiration for Cyrano).

Cyrano's love, Roxanne, played by a luminous Jasmine Cephas-Jones is stronger than in most versions of the story and neither Cyrano nor Christian (Blake Jenner, a strong, solid performance) can refuse her anything.

But the surprise of the show is that Ms. Schmidt has made some risky directorial choices, and they all come romping home successfully. First, she severs the link between Cyrano and the 17th Century in which Rostand set his play and the real man (no, really!) lived. Rather than unmooring the play, it sets it in a non-specific but nonetheless concrete world adjacent to ours, in which in the first act the soldiers evoke heroic musketeers (d'Artagnan, a character in Rostand's play, does not appear in Schmidt's adaptation), but in the second act evoke the American Civil War. Rather like Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, this Cyrano is all of a piece, sealed off from our time.

The choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman--which is superb--compresses Cyrano's battle against 100 men into a shadow dance, music and rhythm depicting Cyrano's strikes again his many foes, and their gradual defeat. Similarly, the workers at the pastry shop heighten the emotional resonance of Cyrano's critical conversation with Roxanne, and then with Christian.

The last scene--Roxanne at the convent, de Guiche visiting her, and Cyrano's newspaper--begins softly, and ends with the tragic ending we knew was coming. As the leaves fall, Dinklage poignantly asks, "Can they rest, now?"

Cyrano finally can, as well.

The whole production has a feel of--appropriately enough--Cocteau's magical Beauty and the Beast (1946), and like it, is suffused with enchantment, in this case, through the brilliant staging and the music and choreography which take us away from the mundane world, even that of the 17th Century, and into the magical worlds created by artists like Cocteau, Fry--and Erica Schmidt, whose vision for Cyrano is fresh and challenging (this production censures Cyrano for his pride, instead of applauding it) and yet feels as old as tragedy itself.

A sublime evening at the theater, and one that lingers.

Monday, October 7, 2019

"Requiem for a Lightweight"/"Chief Surgeon Who?": MASH Revisited, S. 1 eps. 3 & 4

No, no; I don't intend to force episodes together into mini-reviews. It's just that these two go together so naturally that it's hard not to look at them together. That's partially because the first focuses more on Trapper John, while Hawkeye is the focus of "Chief Surgeon Who?" We start seeing some differences between the two Swampmen, and each has a moment in the Sun.

For Trapper, in "Requiem" it's winning the affections of Nurse Margie Cutler (Marcia Strassman) because "you fought for me." And indeed Trapper does--albeit a little reluctantly. Still, the good doctor (he fights under the name "Kid Doctor" against General Barker's large and loutish "Killer."

For Hawkeye, it's being appointed Chief Surgeon of the 4077th by Col. Blake, over the vehement (if shrill) protests of Major Burns, and the more formidable objections of Major Houlihan, relayed to General Barker (Sorrell Booke), another of the Major's amorous conquests. (General Hammond in the pilot and "To Market, to Market," was as well. He's also one of the very few actors from the film to recreate his part for television, as did a considerably more important character, Gary Burghoff's Radar O'Reilly. More on Radar a little down the road).

In "Requiem," we see both doctors are infatuated with Margie. When their infatuation offends Margaret, she transfers Cutler to another unit. In Trapper and Hawkeye's effort to persuade Henry to countermand Houlihan's transfer and get Cutler back, Hawkeye puts aside the venery for a moment, and appeals to Henry's best side; the man is a good doctor, and Hawkeye urges him that "Real talent in the operating room is hard to find." Henry glumly agrees, and offers to do it if either Hawkeye or Trapper will participate in the inter-unit boxing tournament. Hawkeye claims shoulder damage, and wheedles Trapper into agreeing to fight.

We get several training scenes that are pretty amusing, including one in which Father Mulcahy reveals that he is an experienced trainer for CYO boxers, and, asked to give Trapper some advice says "Prayer. I don't think he has one."

But let's take a look at a moment when Trapper is working the bag (Frank's bag, if he did but know it) in front of the Swamp. Trapper is, as mentioned, working the (Frank's) bag. Hawkeye is resting comfortably in a chair sipping a martini when Margaret walks by. Hawkeye gives her a cheery "Oh, Good morning, Major," and Margaret's response is--well, I find it interesting. Loretta Swit gives a brilliant, happy smile, and responds with an even more cheery cheery "Good morning, Captain." It's a well acted moment; Hawkeye in a good mood, carelessly being polite, Margaret's persona unfolds a little bit, she allows herself to be warm. Even when Hawkeye decides to get rid of her, he does so in the same friendly tone, saying "'Im afraid I can't ask you to stay. My boy's in training, and he's not even supposed to look at a women until after the fight." Margaret, still friendly, answers, "Oh, I understand." Swit plays the moment as Margaret enjoying being friendly with Hawkeye and Trapper; she seems genuinely happy. Then of course it shatters. "Just a minute," the Major almost growls, "isn't that Frank's bag?"

Trapper answers, pretty brutally, "I thought you were Frank's bag." It's rather nasty. Alda plays it quiet, almost as if Pierce doesn't quite know how to react to Trapper's dig. Margaret, angry, but hurt, storms away. It's a moment when, for just a minute, you can see Margaret and Frank's side of things.

When the boys discover that Trapper's opponent is, apparently, a killing machine, it's John Orchard's "Ugly John" Black, the anesthesiologist, who comes up with a plan (based on his own experience): douse the boxing gloves with ether, get in a "lucky shot" (and hold it to the face of the other fighter), and declare victory. And it's likely to work except that Frank--in a moment of surprising acuity--swaps out the ether for an ether bottle filled with distilled water. At the end of the first round, the somewhat battered Trapper is holding on, but the switch is found out--Hawkeye gets fresh ether, and the day (and Margie Cutler's affections) is saved.

"Chief Surgeon Who?" contains some resonance of "Requiem." As in the earlier episode, General Barker is drawn to the 4077th, this time based on a complaint from Major Houlihan, about the inappropriate behavior of the newly appointed Chief Surgeon, Hawkeye. Ironically, it's Frank's own complaint about Hawkeye's behavior in the OR that gets Hawkeye the unsought post. In particular, Hawkeye offends by countermanding Frank's recommendation dealing with pancreatic injury. Frank, relying on "the book," says "drain it." Pierce belays that order, imperiously saying "resect it." He criticizes Frank as "a year behind in your journals," and Hawkeye's advice is taken.

With Frank demanding charges against Pierce, including failure to salute a superior officer, Henry has him brought into the room. Watching Burns and Pierce spar, Henry makes a decision: "What I obviously have to do is appoint a chief surgeon...He'll be in charge of all surgical situations. In addition to his own work, he'll assist each shift to help with the tough cases. The job will be a killer." Burns assures Henry that he can adjust, only to find that Henry has given the job to Hawkeye. Burns protests, but, as usual when it comes to medical matters, Henry knows what he's doing. Pinning Frank with his eyes, he raps out "Face it! Pierce is the best cutter in the outfit. He's certified in chest and general surgery. In case you haven't read the papers, there's a war on. We're here to patch guys together. We can't be so G.I. we lose patients." Frank plaintively asks "Are you implying he's a better doctor?" Henry saves Frank's face a little, answering "Yes, when the heat's on."

Burns resorts to Margaret for comfort and passion, although his effort to be brave at the slight leads to him weeping against her torso. Meanwhile, at the Mess Hall, a coronation of the new Chief Surgeon is under weigh. (The scene, in a nice use of source material, is a toned down version of a similar scene in the novel and the film.) Radar leads Hawkeye in while bestrewing his path with confetti. Hawkeye, when urged to give a speech that starts off funny, then changes: "But let me say this, honestly, when you live in a cruddy situation like this long enough, you get to love a few people and even hate a few. I guess outside of our families we'll never be closer to anybody than we are to each other."

Trapper then asks, "You finished?" and Hawkeye responds "What did I get on the humble meter?," to the annoyance of those who thought Pierce was moved. The mood lightens when Radar runs in with Hawkeye's orb (a volleyball) and scepter (a plunger).

Burns and Houlihan have lured General Barker to the unit, where he is confronted by Corporal Klinger (first appearance!) in a WAC uniform. Barker is unimpressed. Concerned that Pierce is neglecting a patient, he's infuriated to find him playing poker. When he returns, Hawkeye is gone. But then, wandering the camp to find Blake, he runs into a series of romantic trysts including, to his intense annoyance, Margaret (whom he had hoped was waiting for him) and Frank. Several hours later, he finds Hawkeye scrubbing up, and goes in to watch. Pierce's delay has given the wounded soldier time to receive blood and fluids and to stabilize. In surgery, he finds additional injuries that Barker did not, and performs coolly and calmly. On their way out of the OR, Henry challenges Barker:
Blake: Well, sir, what do you think of my chief surgeon now?

Barker: I'm not very good at apologies, Pierce, but forgive a rusty old doctor, will you?

Pierce: I think you're very good at apologies, General.

Blake: Major Burns is probably going to continue to complain to you about the promotion.

Barker: May I make a suggestion about Major Burns?

Blake: Yes, sir.

Give him a high colonic and send him on a ten-mile hike.

Pierce: With full pack.

Barker: Good touch.
The next scene bookmarks Margaret's brief rapprochement with Hawkeye in "Requiem." In a busy OR, Trapper asks Hawkeye for an assist. But Burns has a tough issue, and asks "Can you give me a hand with this resection? " Hawkeye makes sure Trapper can keep his patient's situation stable, and goes to assist Burns. Calmly, respectfully, he looks to Frank, and says "I'm ready, Doctor." The two start working. Hawkeye says to Frank, "We'll split the fee, right? After a second, Burns answers, matching Hawkeye's tone, "right."

Beneath their masks, both doctors smile.

Transcripts of the episodes:

Requiem for a Lightweight

Chief Surgeon Who?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

“To Market, To Market”: MASH Revisited, S. 1, ep. 2

The surrealism of Henry Blake’s “handmade American antique” desk sailing through the air as the dazed C.O. watches from below (while still recovering from the disappearance of the entire back wall of his office) is all the more irresistibly funny for McLean Stevenson’s surface calm through the whole sequence. He underplays it beautifully, leaving the audience to fill in what Henry is thinking, with only his darting eyes to provide a clue. Stevenson’s contribution to MASH is sometimes under appreciated, because he’s so good at playing confusion overlaying panic, which is itself desperately suppressed, that you could miss it. Hawkeye and Trapper are more pyrotechically funny, but Stevenson makes you empathize with Blake, who just wants some normalcy.

Jack Soo (of Barney Miller fame) comes close to walking off with the episode as the perversely likable Charlie Lee, a black marketeer who is willing to sell anything to anyone, and from whom Hawkeye and Trapper John try to repurchase the 4077th’s stolen hydrocortisone. Trapper is more bewildered by the bizarreness of having to give money to the guy who has their drugs because his agents stole them than Hawkeye is, but he’s game enough to join Hawkeye in convincing Charlie that his desire for “only the best” mandates a finestkind desk. And the boys know just where to find him one...

An interesting character beat takes place when, prior to the realization that the 4077th’s drugs have been stolen, Hawkeye and Trapper accuse Margaret of making a mistake in the inventory. Her anger at having her professionalism questioned is volcanic, and when she can’t explain the discrepancy, Loretta Swit plays Margaret’s bluster as frustration that she genuinely can’t account for it. Even this early, the dichotomy between Margaret’s hardline persona and her professional perfectionism is being thinly sketched; Major Houlihan is a consummate nurse who doesn’t tolerate errors—especially her own.

Frank and Margaret are unexpectedly effective in their efforts to thwart Pierce and McIntyre (they unknowingly trap Hawkeye and Trapper in Henry’s office, thinking they’re barring the captains’ entrance, and go off for some, er, private time). Their escape requires toppling the back wall to Henry’s office, and Radar improvising a quick desk lift from a chopper pilot.

The whole thing has the feel of a Damon Runyon story, with con and mark changing places swiftly throughout. Hawkeye and Trapper prove to be as quick thinking and fast talking as Charlie is. Their goals are laudable—to save lives by replacing the stolen drugs—and if they don’t feel guilty toward Henry, well, they do care about the wounded.

MASH hits its stride in its second episode, humane, funny and surreal (I kept expecting the desk to hit a rock, a tree, or just to fall, but it sails, as Henry mutters, “up, up, up.”)

The series has achieved liftoff.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MASH Revisited: S 1, Ep 1: Pilot

Our friends at Hulu having provided, I watched the first episode of a show that I was a fan of from childhood through high school, until it vanished, as 70s and 80s TV shows did, prior to the modern age of video, MASH.

Not having seen the pilot in--30 years? Probably.--it was not entirely what I remembered. The casual 70s sexism, the intrusive, studio-mandated laugh track, the crassness the scripts sometimes showed (some left over from the original film)--I'd forgotten those defects.

But even 47 years later, there's a lot to admire and enjoy. First, that the series had the sheer guts to be squarely anti-war in the middle of the Vietnam War. Second, Alan Alda's Hawkeye has a wounded, cynical tone in his voice over letter to his father, and the seeds are already sown of the man who will break in the last days of the war. Wayne Rogers and Alda have a casual comfort in their roles, and in riffing off each other.

No-one sulks like Larry Linville or glowers like Loretta Swit. The casting seems inevitable now, but that's an illusion--this is, after all, only two years after the original film, and it's inspired that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds didn't try to echo the performances of Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman. If Linville lacks Duvall's underlying menace, he's a lot funnier. (Swit was pretty menacing though; don't mess with her!) Alda doesn't have Sutherland's faintly amused air of detachment--he's fully present in every moment.

One thing I'd never liked was the too cheery, slightly brassy theme music; I'd always preferred the film version. But in the pilot, we get a little of the original theme's controlled wistfulness, with the orchestra rising as the choppers descend on the second verse. The way the chopper rocks a little as the titles begin is a nice touch, too.

The story was slight--Hawkeye and Trapper throw a raffle to send a young Korean man to college in the United States (Hawkeye's alma mater)--but the jokes (mostly) worked, and the performances were strong.

The patient has a heartbeat...