The Curator of Schlock #193: The Perfume of the Lady in Black

The Curator of Schlock #193 by Jeff Shuster

The Perfume of the Lady in Black

It ain’t CHANEL No. 5!

We’re in week four of Giallo Month here at The Museum of Schlock. Tonight’s movie is The Perfume of the Lady in Black. And it makes no sense. I watched a Fellini movie once. It featured a large, naked Italian woman singing opera in a cemetery in the middle of the night. I think. My memory is fuzzy on that. I remember the movie not making any sense. Kind of like tonight’s movie. I got to break this up to keep my own sanity.


The Basics

1972’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black was directed by Francesco Barilli. It stars Mimsy Farmer as a chemist named Silvia.


Mimsy’s credits include movies such as Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Hot Rods to Hell. The movie also stars Maurizio Bonuglia as her boyfriend, Roberto. Oh, he starred in The Fifth Cord. I don’t remember what that movie was about. I think it involved Franco Nero dancing on some giant piano keys a la Tom Hanks in Big. I liked that movie. Whatever happened to Penny Marshall?

Witch Doctors

Silvia, the chemist, has cocktails with her boyfriend and some engineers from Africa. A Professor Andy (Jho Jenkins) points out that his ancestors used to eat their enemies. Andy goes on about how witch doctors in Africa still practice black magic, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. It’s just done in secret now. He laughs maniacally, making everyone, myself included, very uncomfortable. He then says it’s all a joke, but this does nothing to ease my suspicions.

Foppish Neighbor

Silvia has a foppish neighbor named Mr. Rossetti (Mario Scaccia) that likes to take pictures in the park on sunny afternoons. He runs out of tea frequently, knocking on her door at odd hours for a spoonful or two. He also feeds his cats ladyfingers as in fingers that belonged to a lady. Nope. I’m not talking about the sweet British biscuits. Why do the British call cookies biscuits? Maybe they don’t have biscuits in the UK. No biscuits? No biscuits! No biscuits! No biscuits! No biscuits!

The Woman in Black

She’s not really wearing a black dress. It’s black, but it’s covered with polka dots.


Sylva keeps seeing her everywhere. It might be the spirit of her dead mother. She also keeps seeing a young blonde girl running around that may be her as a child. She goes to a sweet shop and buys out their stock of blackberry jam. That’s the little blonde girl’s favorite.


Why am I watching this movie?


So Sylvia falls to her death at the end of the film. Roberto, Andy, and Mr. Rossetti bring her body to a morgue where they cut her open and start feasting on her organs. You’d think they’d at least cook them first. Other characters from the film wait in line, each dining on a little piece of Sylvia. This is a sick movie! You don’t see The Way We Were ending with a cannibalism scene. Not as I remember it, anyway.

Jeffrey Shuster 3
Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.


Buzzed Books #54: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Buzzed Books #54 by John King

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Al Franken has given me great solace over the years. I still buy and drink Ovaltine because the company sponsored his radio show from 2003-2007.

For creative people, one intriguing lesson to be drawn from Al Franken’s career is that he was a successful entertainer and writer working for SNL for fifteen years, but didn’t find his deeper calling until the mid-1990s, when he creatively changed his focus to politics. Basic professional success is not necessarily about doing one’s greatest work.

In 1996, he published Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.

Rush Limbaugh

I come from an academic world whose chief article of faith is in the power of critical thinking, and Al Franken delivered critical thinking with a powerful clarity that made the possibility of functional governance seem plausible even to my cynical eyes.

His follow up analytic work, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (2003), was equally brilliant.

Lies and the Lying Liars

Franken chronicled our governmental shortcomings in the War in Iraq, including strategic errors, profiteering, and corruption. Franken trusts his readers to not be bored by looking at the facts and trying to make sense of the statistics, and what the experts have to say about them. Or he trusts himself to tell enough jokes to keep us entertained while delivering such political analysis.

In 2003, Al Franken started a radio show that put such funny, analytic effort to work five days a week. For those too young to remember, the administration of George W. Bush attempted to gaslight the populace by continuously suggesting that incompetence was better than competence, that cause bore no relationship to effect, and that those who disagreed were part of the inferior “reality based community.” I am not making that up. The show was originally called The O’Franken Factor (in order to troll Bill O’Reilly), but later assumed the more coherent nomenclature of The Al Franken Show. The goal of the program was to provide a progressive alternative to the hate-ins offered by conservative talk radio, and to defeat the re-election of President Bush. The Al Franken Show at least succeeded in the former.

From 2003 to 2007, Al Franken and his team preached to their liberal choir, something that liberals had avoided before then as if the choir should always be ignored, as if reaching out to liars to try to persuade them of your position was the only mission of public discourse. Al Franken didn’t just preach to the choir since he did often reach out to those who disagreed with him, but what his preaching to the choir did was to reveal how much different his choir was from conservative ones. There was an emphasis on analysis and understatement. One of his habits was to begin the show by reading a piece of hate mail calmly, interjecting with some commentary on the style of the letter, and then to not rebut the claims of the letter, but to move on to deeper discussion.

In 2007, Franken campaigned to become the junior senator from Minnesota, and (after a prolonged, contested recall) won the race. While I was glad for him, since I knew from listening to his shows and reading his books that he had a shrewd and deliberative mind and could likely serve well in Congress. On the other hand, I earnestly wondered if his influence on public policy and the larger national conversations about American governance and policy would have been more influential as a liberal pundit.

Over the last decade, I have not had much information with which to try to answer that question. With the publication of the memoir, Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, though, I now feel like I do.

Giant of the Senate

One peculiarity of Al Franken’s latest book is that it must serve paradoxical purposes:

  • Tell the optimistic redemptive narrative one expects from the genre of political memoir.
  • Avoid the cloying, glib optimism one expects from political memoir.
  • Offer comparable analytic insight to what gained him a readership with Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and The Truth (With Jokes).
  • Be entertaining.
  • Be funny.

Giant of the Senate accomplishes all of the above. Franken had to somehow stay true to his Senatorial persona and his comic pundit persona. One of the great surprises of this memoir is how much insight Franken provides into how the Senate works (and doesn’t work). For example, in his conversational, yet precise style, he discusses the way that Republicans hamstrung the Affordable Care Act:

we’d anticipated … that the people signing up for insurance might be sicker than expected. So we built into the law several programs to mitigate the risks that insurers faced when they entered this new market, helping to make up for initial losses and keep them in the insurance market. One important program was called “risk corridors,” another example of Democratic messaging genius. But Republicans, led by the wilier-than-you-might-have-expected Marco Rubio, snuck a rider into a spending bill that killed off risk corridors, which meant insurance companies wound up only getting compensated for about 12 percent of what they were owed. Thus a bunch of insurers waltzed, premiums shot up, and Rubio and his friends rubbed their hands together while cackling gleefully.

The early chapters of Giant of the Senate cover his childhood through his SNL years and are meant to make this book align more comfortably with political memoirs—his origin story with some redemptive arc. One of the great things about this memoir, including these chapters, is how often Franken invites us to be critical of his indiscretions as a child, and manages to let enough real humanity enter these narratives before they become saccharine. Another thing that comes across is his real affinity and pride for his state of Minnesota.

Giant of the Senate hasn’t made me much more optimistic about the state of the US government, but it has given me solace, in letting me see the conscientious work of an intelligent person who is letting me see more clearly how the government is working. There is some comfort in that clarity.

Plus Al Franken is still damned funny.

1flipJohn King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

Pensive Prowler #10: Honing in on Audrey Horne

Pensive Prowler #10 by Dmetri Kakmi

Honing in on Audrey Horne

Twin Peaks was a revolution — a revolution that spawned an icon: Audrey Horne.

Audrey Horne

Viewers who experienced Twin Peaks when it first appeared were touched for life. It was like a sickness or a revelation. They never saw the world through the same eyes again. Many couldn’t move on from the oneiric power, the dread and the uncanny weirdness. They lived the rest of their lives in Twin Peaks, population 1,201, where the streets were populated by incongruous teens and skew-wiff adults who behaved as if they walked out of a daytime soap straight into a Luis Buñuel opus.

What took place in Twin Peaks encompassed life, the comedy, the romance and the tragedy of it all. Things were slightly askew, overripe, hyper-real, like a soap opera on too much coffee and cherry pie.

The space was ideal for characters who made a virtue of being unconventional, to put it mildly. They weren’t real people so much as archetypes or symbols of themselves. Yet we cared about them and invested emotional mileage in their woes.

The triumph among them, as I say, was a schoolgirl with a penchant for pleated skirts and saddle shoes. Her name was Audrey Horne, and she did not behave like any pupil we had seen before. She was more like a screen goddess — Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner — fetishised within an inch of her life and gliding wistfully, hither and yon, like a nymph, through her father’s hotel as she sought an outlet for the youthful longing that burned a hole in her heart.

And, just like that, Audrey Horne became an icon, inseparable from Twin Peaks. With the Elizabeth Taylor hair and mole beside her left eye, Audrey Horne was a fox in vintage-inspired garb; and she tipped the scales when she dispensed with conventional job interviews and proved her worthiness for the oldest profession by tying a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue.

The pre-internet world went berserk. It was all anyone talked about for days, even as we tried to emulate her astounding and decidedly salacious feat. Who’d have thought working in a brothel could be so glamorous?

In the second season, as ratings slipped and the world found out who killed Laura Palmer, Audrey Horne handcuffed herself to a bank vault and blew up. It was a nasty, undeserved end. The collective outrage caused a ripple in the stratosphere.

We had to wait twenty-five years to find out what happened next.

Audrey Horne enters the scene exactly thirty-six minutes and four seconds into episode twelve of the return. I am not a patient man. This put all my reserves to the test.

The cut from one scene to the next is abrupt. Nothing led us to expect Audrey Horne in this episode. Other than a slight mention in the previous episode, there had been no mention of her.

When she appears, she is a good deal older — fifty-two to be precise. Gone is the fresh-face girl with the supple skin and liquid eyes. Instead, we are presented with an adult who carries a hint of the younger Audrey Horne in her bearing. She is a palimpsest, altered by time so that you can detect a suggestion of the younger Audrey in the eyes and beneath the skin of the older woman.

She stands in profile in a medium-long shot, wearing a black dress. A crimson coat is draped over an arm. The dark hair is in keeping with that of a sensible mature woman who makes an effort. The eyebrows, however, are as eloquent as quills.

The scene lasts eighteen minutes and fifty-six seconds. It’s a mini-play set in a study, complete with crackling fire and a desk crammed with paperwork. There’s a stilted quality to the acting, as if the words spoken, the gestures performed, the reaction shots, and the room the actors occupy is divorced from even the shifting reality context of Twin Peaks. The weird thing is Audrey Horne doesn’t move from her allotted spot. It’s as if she’s nailed to the floor or perhaps, in an echo of Boxing Helena, her legs have been removed to prevent escape.

When it was over, I thought, that’s it? That’s how you reintroduce an iconic character after an absence of a quarter century? A ridiculous domestic in which ugly words are exchanged and we’re expected to believe Audrey Horne is married to a bald midget? She even calls him a milquetoast. (Who uses the word ‘milquetoast’ nowadays?) It was like a dropped scene from Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I pulled myself together and called Audrey Horne on FaceTime; we’ve kept in touch over the years. Her face popped up on the screen almost immediately.

‘What did you think?’ I said, cutting to the chase. I knew she’d be watching.

She arched an eyebrow. ‘Someone should tell Lynch I’d never say milquetoast.’


‘And I’m not married. If I were I’d do better than that. Although having a short man for a husband has certain advantages.’ She flounced her hair and wiggled the famous eyebrows.

I was glad her sense of humour was sharp as ever.

‘Why portray you as an embittered housewife who is having an affair? It’s so…’

‘Commonplace,’ she finished. ‘And what about that house? It’s a tomb. I’m so embarrassed. People will think that’s how I live.’

‘Everyone knows you keep suites at the Great Northern.’

Audrey has been in charge of the newly refurbished Great Northern Hotel and Horne’s department store since her father Benjamin Horne died a decade ago. His brother Jerry lives in the forest with a blind hermit. Audrey also bought The Roadhouse, or The Bang Bang Bar, as it’s now known, from the Renault brothers ages ago.

‘The problem,’ Audrey said, ‘is that David can’t handle women who have their own lives. Look at the female characters in the show. Agent Tammy Preston is a freak, an empty vessel in tight skirts and stilettos. And Lucy Brennan is … let’s face it … a moron.’

‘Is she really like that?’

‘Fraid so, honey. She and Andy deserve each other.’

‘Lynch is a misogynist,’ I said, getting on my high horse. ‘Look at that embarrassing scene with Gordon Cole and the French escort.’

‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ she said, her loyalty for the director coming through. ‘It’s too simple to say he’s a misogynist. What did that film critic say?’

‘Which film critic?’

‘Jack Bilson.’

‘Jake Wilson.’

‘Yes, him. He said, “Lynch is not afraid to tap into the place where misogyny comes from.” That’s more accurate.’

Wanting to change directions, I asked Audrey if she’s seen Shelley Johnson. It was a touchy topic.

Audrey shrugged on the screen and brought a cigarette to her mouth before saying, ‘She’s gone quiet on me.’

‘I keep hoping you two get back together again.’

Audrey and Shelley had a fling two years ago; it meant more to Audrey than it did to Shelley.

Audrey laughed. ‘You just want to see two lipstick femmes getting it on.’ Then she got serious. ‘She’s gone for good this time,’ she said, bringing the cigarette to her mouth again. ‘Shelley likes cock too much. Besides, she’s going out with that new guy… what’s his name?’


The mouth twisted into a wicked little grin on the phone screen. ‘He’s cute. I would not kick him out of my bed.’

After we stopped laughing, I said, ‘I wonder why Lynch didn’t put all that in the new series. It’s more interesting than a frustrated housewife having an affair with someone called Billy.’

‘Truth is complicated,’ Audrey replied. ‘Tell it like it happened and it never seems true. Organise, simplify and it will seem truer than life.’

‘That’s what Lynch has done. Made you all seem truer than life.’

Audrey seemed tired all of a sudden; the strain showed around the eyes and mouth. ‘I’ve got to go. Someone’s coming over.’

‘One question.’


‘How do you feel about Sherilyn Fenn, the actress who plays you?’

Audrey’s face immediately lit up. ‘She’s gorgeous. I never looked like her. Even in my younger days. But I tell you what, she’s starting to look a lot like me now.’

‘Can I write about this conversation?’

‘Go ahead. But no one will believe you.’

‘Goodnight, Audrey Horne. Glad you survived the explosion in the bank.’

dmetri-kakmiDmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.

Episode 274: Litlando Memoir Panel with Lisa Roney & Kristen Arnett

Episode 274 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

Kristen Arnett & Lisa Roney

Kristen Arnett & Lisa Roney at Litlando 2017, at The Gallery at Avalon Island.


Consider donating to The Drunken Odyssey’s indiegogo fundraiser here.

Learn more about the nonprofit Page 15 here.

Follow Kristen Arnett on twitter here, or check out her website.

Check out The Florida Review here.

Go here for details on the 60th anniversary party for On the Road at the Kerouac House.

On the Road

Go here for details about Functionally Literate’s next event with SJ Sindu and Kristen Arnett on September 23rd at the Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts.

Episode 274 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #192: Crimes of the Black Cat

The Curator of Schlock #192 by Jeff Shuster

Crimes of the Black Cat

There should have been a clown in this one. 

Okay. I’ve got a beef with whoever is streaming these Italian movies on Amazon. Stop cropping the picture. I know some of these movies were shot in scope.  Knock it off! HBO does this too. Drives me crazy.

Crimes of the Black Cat

It’s a shame too because tonight’sfeature is 1972’s Crimes of the Black Cat from director Sergio Pastore, a pretty damn good Giallo. If this ever gets released on Blu-ray, the distributer can put “A pretty damn good Giallo”—Jeff Shuster, the Curator of Schlock right on the back of the box. Just send me a free copy of the Blu-ray. I like free stuff.

Crimes of the Black Cat is about a psycho serial killer who murders fashion models. How does the killer accomplish this? By dipping a feral cat’s claws in curare and setting them loose on his victims. In a way, this murderer isn’t really a murderer. It’s the black cat that’s committing these crimes, but the local police don’t see it that way.  I guess getting a cat to do your murdering for you won’t absolve you of the crime. 

Crimes of the Black Cat 5

Our sleuth this time around is a blind pianist by the name of Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen), a dapper English gentleman who gets involved when he overhears a conversation in a swinging nightclub. What’s the conversation about? Can you guess? It’s about MURDER! The killer is instructing his assistant on where to deliver the cat. Peter hears the assistant walk past him and presses one of the waiters for a description. The waiter saw a woman covered in a white hood and cloak leave the club, but he couldn’t see her face. 


Another murder happens. While being chauffeured around by his butler Burton (Umberto Raho), Peter hears the footsteps of the exact same woman from the other night. He orders Burton to tail the woman, hoping he’ll get a photo of her. Burton loses track of her. She gets on a bus. Burton races across the street, but gets stopped by a traffic cop for jaywalking.


Wouldn’t it be interesting if the mystery ended there? The murders stop and they never find the mysterious woman again. They never catch the murderer. Peter spends the rest of his life in self-doubt, his career as a pianist in ruins. Burton leaves his side, unable to deal with Peter’s addiction to cocaine. One day Peter befriends a neighbor kid, a gifted prodigy, another Mozart. He gives him piano lessons for free. Though his encouragement, the kid enters a piano playing tournament and wins! Cue the Rocky theme! It’s at this point Peter meets the kid’s mother, the same woman who committed those cat murders so many years ago! Duh duh duuuuuuuuuuuh!

Okay. That’s not how this movie ends. I think Peter uses his deduction skills a little too well, spooking the actual killer. At gunpoint, he’s driven to a bottle making plant. We watch as Peter maneuvers around trap after trap, his walking cane his only guide. The whole scene is quite chilling, a reminder why I take risks and watch obscure Italian Giallo movies on Amazon Prime. 


Jeffrey Shuster 3

Photo by Leslie Salas.

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Episode 273: Jason Croft!

Episode 273 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.


On this week’s show, I catch up with Jason Croft about the continuing evolution of pin up and burly-q culture, Bunny Yeager’s legacy, the awesomeness of Medusirena, writing for pulp magazines, the joys and struggles of editorship, and the 10th anniversary of Bachelor Pad Magazine, where some of my work has been published.




If you can contribute to my indiegogo fundraiser, please go here.

On Sunday, August 13th at 3 PM, join me and the other authors of Other Orlandos to celebrate its book launch!

Other Orlandos

Episode 273 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.


The Curator of Schlock #191: Black Belly of the Tarantula

The Curator of Schlock #191 by Jeff Shuster

Black Belly of the Tarantula

Another score by Morricone? He’s the James Patterson of film composers!

Did any of you ever watch The Wonder Years, that stupid Jean Shepherd wannabe reminiscence show about three kids growing up in the 1960s, a time of turbulent change. There was the everyboy, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), girl next store, Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), and dorkus malorkus, Paul Pfeiffer (Marilyn Manson). There was one episode where Kevin Arnold befriended some weirdo named Margaret Farquhar only to throw her to the mercy of their cruel middle school classmates at his earliest convenience. Before that happens, Margaret told Kevin a story about how the tarantula species got its name, something to do with them being named after a dance. Fascinating. Rolling Stone ranks The Wonder Years as the 63rdgreatest TV show of all time so I guess that would make it the winning loser.


Speaking of tarantulas, this week’s movie is called The Black Belly of the Tarantula, a 1971 giallo film from director Paolo Cavara. Get this: the killer in this movie sneaks up behind women, sticks them with a needle dabbed in wasp venom, temporarily paralyzing them. He then proceeds to carve them up with a knife while they’re conscious of what’s happening to them, but unable to move. That’s pretty sick! I mean, come one. We learn later that it’s a sexual thing for the killer, driven by the fact that his wife ridiculed him over his impotence.


That is sufficiently disturbing. This time around, the police are actually trying to solve the case! I think the serial killer’s first victim was smuggling cocaine so that piqued their interest. Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) is leading the investigation, a world-weary cop with a young wife named Laura (Claudine Auger) who wants to sell the old furniture in their apartment so they can buy new furniture. There’s a hilarious scene where the furniture movers show up right as she’s about to serve dinner. If the movers take the furniture away, she and her husband will have nothing to sleep on that night. Laura tells the movers her husband is a detective and they’d better come back the next day to pick up the furniture. The movers acquiesce to her demands. Mr. and Mrs. Tellini sit down to a tasty roast chicken dinner.


But yeah, there’s a killer on loose. Again, we have a killer wearing a black trench coat, fedora, and latex gloves instead of black ones. You know, if a guy walks around in a black trench coat, fedora, latex gloves, and an optional tarp over his face, he still may not be a serial killer. Maybe it’s just a fashion statement. Maybe that sharp knife in my front pocket is for scraping the gum off of trees in the park. Uhhh…I’m getting off track again. What’s left?


There’s an awesome 70s rooftop chase scene where the detectives are chasing after a suspect. Someone falls to his death. Detective Tellini lays a beat down on the killer at the end of the movie. I was jumping up and down in my seat as Tellini repeatedly bashed the killer’s head against a wall. You never saw anything that awesome on The Wonder Years. Sigh.

Jeffrey Shuster 1
Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.


The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #60: King Lear (1983)

Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

60. Michael Elliott’s King Lear (1983)

As I suggested when I reviewed Kurosawa’s Ran, King Lear is an epic fucking bummer. It begins with a heartbreak that destroys a family, and then the plot degenerates until the very notion of integrity and decency and nobility, along with a kingdom, is destroyed.

The essence of the horror of Lear is expressed by Edgar, the son of an earl who assumes many disguises when his half-brother frames him for treason: “And worse I may be yet. The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” (IV, 1).

The characters in Lear never stop talking about their worsening, dreadful fates.

Despite the presence of a clown, who will eventually be hung, offstage, this is not one of those tragedies leavened with comedy. At least it doesn’t feel that way. It’s like Game of Thrones without the wit of Tyrion Lannister or the dragons or the sex.

Hamlet is somewhat likeable, as is Othello, so we can root for them despite knowing how tragedies end. But the folly of King Lear, who decides to retire as king and divest his power between his daughters in a ceremony in which he invites them to out-boast one another in their love for him, feels like too big a burden to bear as viewers. Normally, at least.

Laurence Olivier, in his final performance of Shakespearean work, is another matter

Lear 3.png

It took me about 15 years of being a Shakespeare junky to appreciate Olivier. At first, he seemed like the epitome of the unhip, pre-method actor who seemed little more than a vocal instrument. As a result, I don’t worship Olivier, nor do I worship the idea of Olivier (some purist notion of Shakespearean presentation). When I praise him, I do so without nostalgia or sentimentality or Anglo-philia. Generally speaking, he is a bold interpreter of Shakespeare.

Olivier successfully threads the needle of this difficult part: he persuades us that he has been a strong king, but one who is not Machiavellian enough to foresee how the Machiavels in his own family might undo him. He can remind us of a grandparent of advanced age who is emotionally unprepared to deal with the sturm und drang of the world he lives in. The dialectical emotions involved—pride, anger, shame, sorrow—can simultaneously appear in a single line of Lear’s, as delivered by Olivier. And in terms of his gestures, Olivier enacts Lear’s sense of melodrama when his self-image will be denied by his daughters. We see a strong man grow weaker and madder throughout the play.

In the opening scene, Olivier wears a crown so large that it seems commensurate with his grandiose ego. Tanya Moiseiwitsch seemed to have too much fun with that choice.

Michael Elliott’s film was made for television, but we shouldn’t hold that against him.

One of the oddities of this production is the sparse set, which is only one or two notches above minimalist. There is a Stonehenge for the more fateful scenes, and some castle exteriors and a few medieval interiors and one silk-flower forest that may have previously appeared on The Muppet Show. But the lighting is very dark, so that a black background gives the largest color impression on the viewer, and that certainly fits the mood of the story. Because the set is mostly not there, the cheapness of the set seems of little importance (unlike the elaborate, yet unpersuasive sets of [the BBC versions]). Sometimes Shakespeare’s language is quite well-served by placing the work in an abstract imaginary space, as indeed was the case on the Elizabethan stage.

Lear 4

Dorothy Tutin as Goneril and Dianna Rigg as Regan.

The other actors of this production are also excellent, including the divine Dianna Rigg as Regan, and Leo McKern (Bugenhagen from The Omen!) as Gloucester.

Lear 2

John Hurt plays the fool, but this is not a memorable performance, but that may be because the part is so disappointing. Feste, in Twelfth Night, now there’s a fool!

The yang to Lear’s ying is Cordelia, and Anna Calder-Marshall accomplishes with Cordelia what Olivier accomplishes with Lear.

Lear 1

Her Cordelia can foresee the doom that will follow her inability to express her sublime love for her father, and especially to have it counted alongside the purely rhetorical expressions of her older sisters. There is a certain loopy innocence to her performance that makes the performance complexly layered and makes this difficult character rather likeable.

Lear 5

Lear is not an easy play to watch because it is not an easy play to like, unless you are into S&M without the sex or cool clothes, but Michael Elliott’s version of the play makes such a dire spectacle about as enjoyable and entertaining as can be and offers some unforgettable performances.

John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

Episode 272: Henry Hughes!

Episode 272 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

Henry Hughes

On this week’s show, I talk to the poet and memoirist Henry Hughes about how to get over rejection, poetry, the freedom of ekphrastic work, memoirs, and fishing,

Plus Todd Boss reads his poem, “One of the Joys of Dry Fly Fishing.”

Todd Boss


Hughes 3

Hughes 1

Hughes 2Tough Luck

Episode 272 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

Shakespearing #47: The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespearing #47 by David Foley

The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park Production of

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The cult of the Fairy Queen has fallen into disuse, reduced to a remnant of aging votaries who follow her through the woods dressed in white. They serve her gently and lovingly, and why wouldn’t they? She’s not like those other fairy queens, vain and foolish divas, throwing their fairy might around. She’s regal and wise, alive with the sensual poetry of nature. (She’s played by Phylicia Rashad, so that helps.) When she discovers she’s been “enamour’d” of a monster, she’s philosophical, as if acknowledging that love’s madness, even this late in life, can still bite you with an ass.

Midsummer Night's DreamShakespeare in the Park

Phylicia Rashad and Benjamin Ye (center). Credit: Joan Marcus.

Maybe because the fairies are the hardest thing to pull off in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, director Lear deBessonet has reimagined them like this for the current Shakespeare in the Park production. Their fey chirpiness is tamped down, and their joints are too stiff for going “swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow,” as Puck puts it. Even Puck, though still up for mischief, gets a little grumpy when asked to go zipping around the world at her age. (There are few more pleasurable sights in New York right now than Kristine Nielsen as Puck clumping around the Delacorte in white pajamas.)

Midsummer Night's DreamShakespeare in the Park

Kyle Beltran, Kristine Nielsen, and Shalita Grant. Credit: Joan Marcus.

When a production works it can be hard to say why. (Easier to say when it doesn’t.) It helps that Midsummer is a sturdy vehicle. Once that purple flower starts wreaking havoc, the thing practically plays itself. Maybe what this production reveals is that, despite the slapstick reversals, there’s something delicate in the play’s mood, and through her understated choices, deBessonet lets that mood sink slowly in. The trees of the forest at first appear Disney green and garish, but there’s a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse above them, from which a jazz singer streams knowing love songs into the night. It’s as if a child’s storyland has been invaded by adult rue and mystery.

Annaleigh Ashford and Alex Hernandez in The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Lear deBessonet, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through August 13. Credit: Joan Marcus.

Midsummer Night's DreamShakespeare in the Park

Annaleigh Ashford and Alex Hernandez. Credit: Joan Marcus.


We’re not drenched in melancholy, though. The squabbling lovers are as much fun as ever: sexy and bewildered and ready for a brawl. Funniest is Annaleigh Ashford who plays Helena as, well, a spaz. (More thematic reinforcement: doesn’t unrequited love make spazzes of us all, clumsily dislodging us from the world?) Hermia is small and feisty, as we want her to be; Lysander sweetly romantic; and Demetrius kind of a dick, but a sexy one. None of this messes with the basic formula, and you don’t want it to. You want it served up as pleasurably and entertainingly as possible. The rude mechanicals do their usual shtick, winding up with what is essentially a parody of the ending of Shakespeare’s previous play. No one is going to take the pain of love seriously this time out.

Midsummer Night's DreamShakespeare in the Park

Patrena Murray, Robert Joy, Jeff Hiller, and Danny Burstein. Credit: Joan Marcus.

Instead, Titania and Oberon, trailed by those aging fairies, suggest not so much that it gets better as that it never ends. The pain and craziness and mistakes, the feeling that you’ve been pulled inside out, can happen at any time. So you’ll probably need some moonlight and poetry and jazz to get you through it.

NOTE: The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs through August 13th.


David Foley

David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the GreeksParadiseNance O’NeilThe Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.