August 18, 2012

When Football Defined the American Dream

Thoughts on Lombardi, presented by the Harbor Lights Theater Company

Last night I attended the premiere of Lombardi, performed by the Harbor Lights Theater Company. The venue was the Veteran's Memorial Hall Playhouse, located on the grounds of Snug Harbor, and offered an intimate portrayal into the life of Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Greenbay Packers during the early 1960's. I was a bit skeptical as I took my seat, as I would much rather a Greek tragedy to a play about sports. I have little to no interest in football but decided to throw myself out of my comfort zone to see what all the talk was about.

The set design by Marija Plavsic offers a modest but realistic portrayal of the interior of the Lombardi home and office. On the stage-left side, we see the infamous chalk board with strategic game outlines. To the stage-right side, we see the Lombardi living room with a cocktail bar at the center of the stage. The set remains the same throughout the play, leaving minimal changes in scenery. A projection screen hangs overhead, showing the games as they were happening, which adds a nice effect to the show. It feels as though we are watching the game from the bleachers.

The play's premise is thoughtfully simple. A young writer, Michael McCormick, travels from New York City to Greenbay, Wisconsin to write about the obnoxious, loud football coach that has captured plenty of media attention during his tenure. After being the subject of several scathing articles, Lombardi tries to turn over a new public image by giving McCormick (portrayed by the lively Benjamin Katz) scarce details on his life. The most important thing is to win; to keep trying until one wins. Losing is not an option.

This sentiment is at the heart of the play. Vince Lombardi's outspoken abrasiveness is rooted in the philosophy of perseverance. Beneath his hotheaded exterior, Lombardi preaches some radical ideas within the game of football. Most notably, in 1965 Greenbay, Wisconsin he makes sure that all of his team members are treated equally. Dave Robinson, the only black-American character in the play, states that the coach does not allow them to stay at hotels or frequent bars that do not allow all of the players inside. This was definitely an important, albeit radical, stance during the height of segregation. 

While I found the dialogue dry at times, the actors really embodied their characters. Susan Cella, portraying Marie Lombardi, was comical as the wife. Underneath the rough, New Jersey accent was a woman who reveled in her role as the wife. Yet, there was also a sadness to her character as she lived under the iron fist of her husband and his career. She was suffocated beneath his overbearing persona and temper. I had wished that Vito D'Ambrosio would have delved deeper into the character of Vince Lombardi. At times, his portrayal seemed one-dimensional. He certainly commanded a large presence on stage, I just wish he would have let the subtle insecurities of Mr. Lombardi surface in a realistic way. I think this could have been achieved had the script been a little stronger.

The most engaging scenes are those that feature the narrator and the football team. They are the most animated group and the dialogue flowed naturally between them. The football players moonlight as masochists, as most athletes are, in that they take a beating daily (verbally and physically) but love the game so much they want nothing more than to please the coach. I thought Erik Gullberg, Israel McKinney Scott, and Bruch Reed added some comedic relief to their characters while shedding light onto what it means to be an athlete: the daily suffering, the injuries, the harsh physicality, the training. They are the highlight of the show.

Benjamin Katz as Michael McCormick, the aspiring journalist from New York, sank his teeth into his role. He really afforded his character the struggle to stay convicted to his beliefs in the face of the monstrous Vince Lombardi.  He added a bit of drama to the play, as he did not wish to write an unrealistic story that glorified the coach. He had always loved football and seemed torn between reality and his love of the game. His deceased father was also a sports journalist, and McCormick aptly wants to distinguish himself from his father's legacy. This narrative arch held my attention throughout the play, as I wanted to see McCormick grow into his own as a writer and man. At the end of the play he accomplishes just this because he remained true to his beliefs.

Overall, I was impressed with the play's set design and the actor's character portrayals. The play itself was a little slow and the characters could have been more fully explored. At the end of the evening, I was most impressed with how many seats were filled in the audience. The Harbor Lights Theater Company is gaining much esteem on Staten Island and I applaud this season's programming which features something for everyone. Even as the least likely football fan in the room (okay, I have actually never sat through an entire game), I was completely invested in the play's action. 

What Lombardi does is take the audience to a time when football was America's most romantic sport. The early sixties was the time when football defined the American Dream, that mythological impetus toward upward mobility within the middle class. Lombardi captures the historical turning point of that time, the 1960's, when the sports industry was headed from a romanticized pastime into something more commercially branded by the media. Vince Lombardi goes down into sports history as one of the most prolific coaches. As I sat within the audience, I felt transported back to 1965, gathered around the television or huddled in the bleachers.

Lombardi runs this weekend and next weekend. The Harbor Lights Theater Company has some impressive shows coming up including Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I. I am excited by the company's professionalism and look forward to seeing more versatile programming this fall.

August 13, 2012

Tottenville, a historic town at New York's Southern Tip

The local Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island shared an article from the New York Times this morning. The article profiles the state's southernmost tip, the town of Tottenville, which is the home to the Conference House museum grounds.

Located at the southwest tip of Staten Island, The Conference House sits at the shore and features several historical houses which date back well into the the 19th century, some even dating back to the Revolutionary War. The site often hosts walking tours and concerts by the Staten Island Philharmonic. 

A reenactment of the historical 1776 meeting of members of the Continental Congress (including Bejamin Franklin and John Adams) with the British Admiral Lord Richard Howe will take place on the grounds on September 15 2012. 

This article also profiles the historic Public Library on Amboy Road (the first to be built on Staten Island and the first NYPL to be funded by Carnegie) and Egger's, a vintage counter-top ice cream shop with homemade ice cream and soda fountain. 

The trip is guaranteed to take you out of the fast-paced city-vibe of New York for a little while. 

The Conference House

298 Satterlee St.
Staten Island, NY 10307
Phone: (718) 984-6046


Photographs courtesy of the Conference House website

August 11, 2012

The Island of Staten

One of the reasons I am sad now to leave Martha's Vineyard is because I romanticize Staten Island to be as beautiful as the winding roads and old oak trees of this island I have come to visit each summer since 2010. Here, the islanders and travelers come to let go of the fast paced nature of contemporary daily life. They leave their cellphones for the beach, the leave their computer desks to hike an uncharted trail, they turn off the television (in fact, some houses probably do not have one to begin with) to see a live theater performance or visit an art gallery. 

This is the Staten Island of the early 1900's, the one my father even remembers from his childhood--- the Staten Island I will never see, though there are things that are faintly reminiscent. For instance, there is Snug Harbor which has the maritime museum and many acres of farmland and art galleries (well, we also have two of the only working farms in New York City, something I think is astounding). We also have a long boardwalk and beach which has seen a lot of revitalization efforts over the past twenty years. 

The arts are growing and remind me of Martha's Vineyard in that small town support the arts community (aspires to) give one another. Dancing at the Staten Island Dance Jam each Saturday reminds me of my mornings taking dance class at the Yard with many retired dancers and artists as my classmates. 

Sure, we have streetlights and many cars on the road (although there are no street lights, Martha's Vineyard has plenty of cars on the road, something I wish was not the case) but there are traces of that summer beach feeling in the island that is Staten. There is a long history of the naturalist, the artist, the vacationer here that reminds me of my summers on the Cape. The vibe is a bit more contemporary, a little less elitist, but the real face of both islands is the small niche communities that are open to welcome travelers and those passing by.

While I am really sad to leave (I think another week would suffice to do all that I want to do), I can say that this week I performed what has come to be a truly emotional dance inspired by the memory of Jenni Jenkins; dipped my feet in the cool but completely soothing Nantucket sound;  revitalized my soul beneath the sunset at Menemsha Beach and met such amazingly interesting travelers at the Martha's Vineyard International Youth Hostel.

Dear reader, I encourage you (implore you, even) to venture out into the world. Take a trip (even a short one) to gain some perspective, see some culture, and meet some people. Have a conversation with your neighbor; people are not always scary. And please: the next time you step on the Staten Island ferry, get off and walk around once docked. There are a lot of interesting, creative places and people just waiting to share a bit of Staten Island with you.

Traveling onward,

A Note on Hostels

So, as I type this from the common room of the Martha's Vineyard Youth Hostel I want to encourage people to safely use this mode of travel due to its affordability and convenience.

However, I think the most important part of a hosteling experience is the amount of wonderful, interesting folks that you will meet. While I am here I have met folks from England, Sweden, Massachusetts, Connecticut and many other places. It is easy to get bogged down by the anti-social vibes one can receive whilst living in the city. Sometimes people just aren't that friendly.

But I want to encourage you, dear reader, if and when you decide to do some traveling yonder, make some friends at a hostel. This one in particular is a fantastic model of a place to stay that offers affordable beds, amenities, pancakes every morning, and many interesting people. They also promote educational outreach on sustainability and feature a compost bucket and bike racks galore.

I am off to the West Tisbury farmers market. I intended to catch the sunset tonight but the rain may make that impossible. But I will find my way nonetheless.

August 10, 2012

Notes from the Performance Underground

Last night I had the sincere pleasure of performing A Dance on Yeats but not to at the Oak Bluffs Union Chapel on Martha's Vineyard. This is the second season I have performed at the festival but this year seems aptly special. I had made the trek out in 2010 to perform with my then partner, Joshua Sotomayor. As I performed last night, I had traces of that experience etched deep within me. This year, though, was a performance dedicated to the memory of Jenni Jenkins, the beautiful filmmaker who passed away late last year. 

Every time the warm lights slowly come up, I feel the warmth of the sun. That is when I start the mourning but that is also when I start the reverence. I dance this dance to carry with me the memory, the nostos that ancients wrote about in epic tales. This dance, which I will post as soon as I return, has a natural trajectory that begins quite subtle and gradually progresses until it reaches the pinnacle of feeling and emotion, the closing section is set to the music of Roy Orbison. 

Whenever I hear the drumbeats of Roy Orbison's Crying, my hair stands on end. I always feel like this is the moment I dance for memory and for feeling and yet the moment is what I encompass. I am the moment when that song comes on. I suppose that is the feeling all dancers aim for--- to feel so alive within their flesh and bones that there is nothing but this one moment. And that is the heart of Jenni Jenkins' memory, to me. I want to feel so alive that ultimately the moment is all that is.

And with this dance, I feel that.

Last night I drove through the winding roads of West Tisbury and listened to the the sounds of trees rustling in the wind. That is all. The sound of the car piercing through the air and hissing as the darkness encompassed me. I was nervous prior (and even throughout moments) to the late night drive. As I was driving on the beach roads that lead into the dark woods, I felt as though the ocean would amass me. I kept quiet, telling myself "You will be okay" in as soothing a tone as I could do. Putting on the radio helped. Somehow Led Zeppelin gets you home. Once I got the hang of the speed and the high beam lights, I was okay. I still had moments where I feared a deer would pummel my car or that a ghost would stop me in my tracks. But I saw the hostel sign not too long after and felt a minor victory within the narration of Melissa West's life.

I arrived because I put myself in the car.

This morning I write after eating peanut butter and jam on some toast. I love the slowed energy of a place like this. I go to sleep at ten or eleven in the evening and wake up by eight in the morning. This is all natural, I may add, because there are so many things to do one gets tired naturally. 

Tonight I dance again. My muscles are quite sore this morning but that is after taking a Horton technique class yesterday morning and after running my dance about 4-5 times. I have to remind myself to take it slow here. I planned to go on a run but I think that will have to wait. 

After having a conversation with an exceptionally cool fellow traveler, I have realized that I hold a lot of motivational blocks over myself. When I return to New York City, I have choices to make about what it is that I want from myself, how to better organize my time management, and how to make the most of my time here on this constantly moving planet.

I arrived because I put my shoes on (or took them off, depending on the perspective).