One of the most popular restaurants in Reykjavík is a Hotdog stand called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur: Reykjavík Iceland

 

On any day in the historic part of Reykjavik (adjacent to the countries only flea market), you’ll find a LONG line of people braving the elements for a taste of one of the country’s favorite street foods. Bæjarins beztu pylsur (which in English translates to the best hot dog in town), first opened in 1937, and offers up what Condé Nast declared the “one dish to eat in Iceland“; this is a hotdog that is unique because it is made from a combination of mostly lamb/mutton (mixed with some beef, and pork) that is then covered in ketchup, sweet mustard, remouladecrisp fried onion and raw onion.

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The stand was made world famous in 2004 when former US president, Bill Clinton stopped there for a meal. Its a dog is considered so good that 2006 the UK’s Guardian newspaper declared it to be the best hot dog in all of Europe, and in 2014 Forbes Magazine noted that it was the economically successful hotdog stand in the world. And as such you’ll find a constant flow of visitors from all over the world lining up to get a taste… and even such famous foodies as Anthony Bourdain (RIP) make sure to go there when visiting Iceland.

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This Icelandic hotdog is unique in large part because it is mostly made of lamb/mutton (for those not in the know, mutton is what you call the meat of an adult sheep, while lamb is … well from lambs). But of course, this is Iceland after all, where sheep are the most commonly farmed animal and lamb/mutton is a staple of the local diet in the same way Americans eat beef.

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Now I’m from Chicago, where we take our hotdogs VERY seriously. Not only are we the former meat processing capitol of America, but we hold a claim to fame as the pivotal location for the developments of the dish. While the frankfurter began in Germany (although some dispute this and say it goes back as far as the Roman period) it was a dish traditionally served on plate that you ate with a knife and fork. It is generally accepted that the concept of serving said sausage on a soft white bun with condiments, as a roadside food that you can eat as you walk, is an idea that originated in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — sometimes known as the White City — when a guy by the name of Antoine Feuchtwanger, came up with the idea of serving it on a soft white bun — rather than a crusty roll that would leave crumbs all over your shirt … and even gave his customers white gloves (which were kept as souvenirs) to keep their hands clean. New Yorkers however dispute this and claim the idea of serving it on bun started in Coney Island, but we Chicagoans reject this. That said, the Chicago hotdog is deeply influenced by the Jewish community of the town, and is as such, 100% beef… and more than a few of the brands are also kosher certified.

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From that perspective, I found the presentation of the dog horrible (seriously, look at the thing) and taste of the dog to be a bit bland, and the texture a bit soft (the dog SHOULD be the star of the show) … when compared to a Chicago style hot dog. The selling point for ME (my opinion) was the toppings were amazing. The remoulade is sort of sweet (it tastes like there might be apples in it) and the mustard which is also sweet and brown … and then that is topped with these amazing fried onions which the locals call cronions, and were WAY crunchier than any fried onion I’ve had before so that at first I thought they were crumbled up fried pork rinds — because I was tasting pork, but now I think they are just onions fried in lard — but I’m not sure… which is then combined with raw chopped onion. The combination was REALLY tasty.

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London’s West End production of: Waitress (good, but not better than the movie)

Waitress has, since the movie version first came out in 2007, been one of my very favorite films — as in I bought the DVD and have watched it repeatedly. So when I heard that someone had revamped it as a musical I was both hopeful and skeptical. Back in its good old days, Broadway would turn books into plays, which then might be turned into musicals; nowadays its successful movies that tend to get the musical treatment. When I saw that it was playing in London (and pretty much daily available at a discount at the TXTS booth) I knew I had to see it.

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During this trip I saw more than a few shows that were based on movies… which seems to be the new broadway trend …. and for the most part while they’re all enjoyable… in pretty much every case … with the possible exception of maybe the production of Disney’s the Lion king … I think it’s safe to say that you should probably consider saving your money…

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For me, London is kind of like a second hometown to me. It was my dad’s hometown, and we used to spend most of summers there until I was about 12 years old…  and always for me, London has always been about going to the theater! My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three. So rather than posting a lot about seeing the town my posts from here are for the most about the shows I’ve seen. The second show I saw this trip saw: Waitress, a musical remake of one of very favorite films (I own it on DVD and have watched it repeatedly)…. but that said, while it’s a cute piece of fluff… the movie was MUCH better…

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That said … first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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Kind of a cute thing: restaurant order slips were used for patron’s feedback after the show

In the movie starred Keri Russell as the waitress the show centers on, who is dreaming of trying to escape a horrible marriage, who finds solace, self esteem — and a possible exit strategy — in her love of and brilliance at inventing pie recipes.

[Going MASSIVELY off topic here… but bear with me]

Russell, for those who don’t know her, began her career as a child actor, and was one of the many members of The Mickey Mouse Club ensemble during the 1989 to 1994 years (alongside other such stars of today as: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, etc.). However, she is to this day most highly identified, not for that but rather, with her breakout title character in the US TV show Felicity, (which played from 1998 — 2002, 4 seasons, just like 4 years of university) a coming of age story about a top student who had her whole life planned out for her by her parents, and in an act of rebellion she at the last minute refuses to attend Stanford U. as a premed, in California, and instead chases cross country after a high school crush who is going to University in New York City, who when she gets there turns out to not even know her name. So of course the following four seasons were all about her growing up and finding herself, until she finally leaves University and begins an adult life. [If you do watch the TV show, pay close attention to the side characters. Whoever the casting director was, this person had a keen eye for talent; there’s a LOT of actors who would go on to be famous who had their first tiny roles in this Felicity.]

In it Russell became almost more famous for her hair than her acting, which based on the scuttlebutt of the day, if it is to be believed, bugged her to no end. At the time there were constant gossip stories coming out about how much she was wanting to be considered a serious actress, and hated the superficial fixation on her hair rather than her acting, to the extent that while the official story was that the producers came to her about cutting it… the leaked gossip was all about how she in fact had BEGGED the producers to allow her character to change her look.

This resulted in something of a NATIONAL SCANDAL if you can believe, and a bit of a dive in the ratings comparable only to the effect on Veronica Lake‘s career in WWII when she changed her signature peek-a-boo hairstyle in support of the war effort.

I’ve looked, and if you follow Russell’s relationship with her hair, since Felicity (1998– 2002), she’s never worn it natural again [link includes a hairstylist talking about how the first thing you down when working with Russell is to straighten her hair], all of which tends to support the leaked versions over the official ones (Russell hates her own hair) … To this day she’s ALWAYS straightens it. Seriously, am including LOTS of clips of her on camera and her curls are at the minimum relaxed in every clip; and its her refusal to wear it natural that in my opinion is what continues to make it a topic of discussion 17 years later. In the Waitress role (2007), a role that to be honest wasn’t ALL that different from her Felicity role — in fact she’s pretty much type cast (the sweet but super serious girl next door who’s seriously lost and trying to find herself), if you look at her hair you can sort of see a compromised semi straightened look. And if you look at all her roles between 2002 and 2013, she had a heck of a time shaking her Felicity type casting.

That said, its a look and character you’ll almost NEVER see in the role that currently has made her famous again, the long running FX spy thriller (2013-2018), which has won 18 Emmy nominations and four Writers Guild of America Award for Television: Dramatic Series award nominations for its writing (this is a GREAT SHOW, definitely a must see)… where Russell plays one of the co-leads of the The Americans, two deep cover Soviet KGB officers who pose as happily married couple living in the Virginia suburbs (near D.C.) by day while working as Russian operatives at night.

[Note in this 2019 Youtube compilation of her interviews for a famous US morning show, the editors STILL in 2019 focus on discussions of her hair and her Felicity character!!]

Her Felicity/Waitress character is almost completely absent from her role of Elizabeth (Nadezhda) Jennings, as in she only shows up in scenes of the character’s early life in Russia before she was trained to be a spy.  Russell’s character’s husband, Philip Jennings (whose Russian name is Mikhail, but goes by Mischa); in this new show is played by Matthew Rhys – who in real life is Welsh (with a thick accent) and is now Russell’s real life husband – they became involved (2014) and then married (2016) during filming

Returning to the film version of Waitress:

Alongside Russel was a woefully miscast Nathan Fillion in the role the obstetrician her Waitress character goes too when to her horror she discovers she’s pregnant. Their both married, but find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other and begin a torrid affair. Or at least that’s the story of Waitress. While I love Fillion, he just wasn’t right for that role, at least not when cast with Russell. In order for the story to really work, his character and Russell’s needed to have overwhelming sexual chemistry that was palpable even on screen, even if their sex scenes were supposed to be funny verging on ridiculous … but they just didn’t have that, so it all felt horribly forced. But for Russell’s performance, she was perfect in the role, the movie might have not done anywhere near as well.

[That said Fillion was PERFECT as Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds on the cult TV show Firefly along its followup film Serenity,– a character which made him a nerd G-d!!!! Although cancelled after only one season there’s isn’t a nerd I know who has not watched it so many times that they have bits of it memorized.

One of the show’s major problems was the TV executives couldn’t figure out how to pigeon hole it. They sold it as drama, Notice the really dark feel of the preview above, when in fact had more of a dark sardonic comedic feel to it, along with a real sense of a tight knit and loving family among the crew-members of the ship — all of whom were led by Fillion’s character.

Like I said it was such a cult favorite that they were able to get the funding for the big budget film called Serenity, which finally put some closure on the story lines. Unlike Russell who seems to have spent a lifetime trying to escape Felicity, Fillion has described Firefly as the best acting job he ever had. He is also known to non-nerds as the title character Richard Castle, a modern day version of his Mal character, on the long running TV show Castle — which offered up A LOT of inside jokes for Firefly fans who all realized he was playing the same character again, just to prove that point of what a cult classic it was and how much Fillion loved that role.]

—> RETURNING TO THE LONDON PRODUCTION!!!!!

Initially part of what drew me to wanting to see the stage show in London was the fact that it was starring Katharine McPhee in the title role — a woman was the runner up on the 5th season of one of my favorite shows, American Idol,

who went on to be central character of another of my favorite shows, the ensemble series Smash (about the making of a fictional Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe),

where she plays an unknown… the epitome of the sweet and modest ingenue, who through sheer talent and stage presence becomes the co-lead in a musical when the producers ultimately can’t choose between a more experienced actress and the ingenue (spoiler: it’s a predicament they ultimately resolve by using BOTH actresses — who we come to love — to play different aspects of Marilyn — the character she created for the screen vs her internal more human reality)

HOWEVER, McPhee was only playing the lead during my first three weeks in London, a period where I was busy with stuff like getting re-acclimatized to being in London after many years — I have this weird relationship with rapid transit systems where it seems to take me a few weeks of being in a place before I’m willing to use them, and was focused on MUST do tasks, like renewing my British passport, catching up with family, etc., before want to do ones…

… BUT by the time I finally dragged my ass down to the TXTS booth the first time, her final performance in the role was already over — and when she left so did most of the other leads (in the video above). I’m someone who watches TMZ‘s podcast nightly (if it starts off with the Kardashians I’m asleep in minutes), so I knew that McPhee had quit the show in order to marry one of the world’s most powerful music producers, David Foster (who’s a good 34 years older than her) — they literally got married like the next week (it was all over the gossip news). So I didn’t get to see her on stage after all…. other than via the above videos.

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That said, when I first got into the theater, all excited to see the show, the level of ‘kitschy’ things going on in the waiting area for the show was kind of overwhelming, there were the aforementioned restaurant customer order slips displayed with comments from former patrons of the show

 

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And at the obligatory bar where there’s normally a variety of snacks and drinks, they had mini pies in glass jars for sale… I tried the chocolate and salted caramel pot which the girl working the counter said was the favorite of the staff… but I thought it was actually pretty nasty tasting… very super sweet and chemicals even though the ingredients promised it was all natural (except for the Oreo cookie bits)

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And then once inside the auditorium the fire-curtain had been designed to look like a cherry pie lattice and along each side of the stage were those rotating pie displays like you see at diners (imagine them rotating). Like I said, sort of kitschy overload.

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That said, my day of show purchased tickets offered me amazing seats, three rows from the stage and smack in the middle of the auditorium. The show was, as I said before, not AS good as the movie (although I think the guy cast the lead’s love interest was a way better choice than Fillion had been) but that said it was a fun little piece of fluff with a few good songs.

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At the end of the show they did something I had not seen before or since, they had staff members standing at the edges of the stage actually TELLING us we could go ahead and take photos of the standing ovations.  Other shows do NOT allow it, and some will even try to stop you from taking pictures of the stage before the show has even started…

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And then after the show was over, they provided an even MORE opportunities for taking photos as we were leaving, with staff posing as waiters at a diner alongside us… and … as you can see in the photo, were explicitly asking us to PLEASE post those photos to social media after we had gone home. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f46.jpg

All that said, while it was a good time… I’m sorry to say that if you LOVED the movie you’ll probably enjoy the musical, but I doubt you’ll love it. If on the other hand you’ve NEVER seen the movie (and hold it in a warm fuzzy place in your heart), than you might enjoy the musical more than I did.

Bucket list item achieved!! Northern lights viewing: Reykjavík, Iceland

To paraphrase my friend who stayed with me for part of this trip, while people may come to Iceland wanting to see all the gorgeous geography, for those of us from more southern climates, what we are most hoping to see is the dancing lights of the Aurora (green lights) Borealis (Northern). In this post I’m sharing what I learned about your options for seeing them, if you’re based in Reykjavík. Firstly, unless you have a proper camera and tripod, you’re going to want to look on line for an app that tricks your smartphone’s camera into taking long exposure photos (I used an app called NorthernLights) unless you own one of the newest phones that already have that function built into them. And then you’re going to want to find a way to get away from the light pollution of Reykjavík at night — if you can’t see most of the night stars, you won’t be able to appreciate the Northern lights.

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Taken with my iPhone on my 2nd time out — during a solar storm

Over the course of my one week stay I went on two different $100 tours to try to see the lights. The first time, my first night in Iceland, was a total bust. This was partially because of partly cloudy skies — the nights before and after all the northern lights tours were cancelled because of rain. But also, and almost more importantly, because there was in fact barely anything to see that night — even if the skies had been clear. No dancing light, no brilliant green stripes. At best all the sun was offering up that night was a bit of light green haze that just lightly lit up part of the northern sky… it was there (enough that the tour company felt no necessity to follow up on their guarantee or a 2nd trip or a full refund if it had not been), but realistically it really wasn’t what anyone would have flown all the way to Iceland in hopes of seeing.

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Look closely, See the slightly greenish spot on the right side of this image? That’s it — taken with my iPhone

In fact, the high price tag we’d paid felt a bit like a rip off. When initially researching the prices for these tours, the prices kind of boggled my mind and initially I’d contemplated that it might just be cheaper to just hail a taxi and ask him to take us someplace dark… but in reality, as the week progressed, and after discovering just how insanely expensive taxis are in Iceland, the $100 round trip on a minibus seemed like a bargain. There’s nothing like Uber or Lyft in Iceland (i.e., more affordable taxis), so your choices are rent a car, take a bus tour (of varying sizes), or hire a taxi — which could easily run you $250 or a lot more by the time you’re done.

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“Go to Joy Iceland” was the name of the first tour company I took

The group shot above was taken of the 17 of us in the minibus on my first trip. I’m posting it as proof that the problem had not been because I was trying to take pictures of the Aurora with my iPhone… that’s me in the front row in the green coat/red hat, my friend who flew up to see Iceland with me is standing next to me wearing the purple coat and scarf … This shot was taken by the tour guide using his TOP of the line camera with a fancy lens, on a tripod, using a long exposure and with about 2 seconds of bright fill lighting flashed at us … see those slightly lit up patches on the right side of the image … seriously, that’s IT! That’s all we got that night. The Driver did his best and went to about 3 different locations, drove us around for about a full hour there and back — headed towards the middle of the island on the Golden Circle road, and we got to see lots of stars as he dogged the cloud cover, but mother nature just wasn’t helping him out with regards to the Aurora lights.

This is why, pretty much EVERY Northern lights tour you sign up for will start with a very LONG and detailed apology from the guide. This includes a lot of trying to explain scientific realities as to why you might not see anything that night and it’s not their fault. Be prepared for the fact that your fellow tourists may or may not grasp said science, and that they’ll end up wasting precious time asking questions that the guide has already explained, but they just didn’t grok it; the smaller the group, the less time wasted on said questions being one of the benefits of not taking a big bus. In fact I think half the job of the tour guide is to … if you get a night like we did that first night … make a really big deal about ANY Northern lights, no matter how pathetic, that might show up that night, just so that the company doesn’t have to take you out a 2nd time as promised in their guarantees.

As such, be prepared for the reality that you MIGHT have to go out more than once during your trip before you see anything. There is a cheaper $40 option, which means taking a huge passenger bus along with 120 other people. The major difference between opting for a minibus (20 passengers) over a full sized one (other than the aforementioned time wasted on explaining science to folks who have difficulty grasping it) seems to be that smaller vehicles are allowed to take dirt roads and take advantage of small concrete parking areas (big enough for about 2 cars max) that the Icelandic government has created for tourists on the sides of the roads. It’s important to remember that in Iceland the ring road wasn’t completed until the early 1970’s and even the ‘heavily’ traveled highway from Reykjavík to the international airport in Keflavík is only ONE lane in each direction… and not even a very wide single lane. AND NONE of these roads have large shoulders built into them to allow for pulling safety to the side. According to one of our tour guides, who spent a lot of time explaining how to drive safely in Iceland to us (while he was driving), the roads are so narrow that if a tourist stops anywhere other than one of these designated areas, trucks might just barrel through and run them off the road — and under the law, its the fault of the person who parked so as to partially block the road.

The big busses (clearly) can NOT take advantage of either dirt roads, or the tiny concrete lots on the sides or roads, and are by necessity relegated to taking you ONLY to locations that have big parking lots AND are out in the middle of nothing… of which there’s only a few within an easy drive of Reykjavík. If the sky is clear of clouds and the solar winds strong enough, the reality is that it doesn’t matter which option you take, you’ll see the show. HOWEVER, if that’s not the case — and the sky in Iceland is rarely clear of cloud cover, the smaller the vehicle you book the better the chance they can find a legal place to park that is both away from any light sources and where there’s a lot of visible stars, i.e., the best place to see the lights.

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That said, while we were waiting for our tour (the first one) this Minibus showed up, which was unlike any other we saw. It’s big wheels, and stood much higher than normal, and clearly was designed for off road travel. For myself, while I could see wanting one of these for a daytime tour, but I’m seriously doubting that the extra expense (I’m guessing it cost a lot more than our ~$100 per person), was going to be worth it… for all the reasons previously discussed.

The first time we went out (my friend and I together) was on the first night of our trip, a Monday night, and like I said … nothing. My friend didn’t stay as long as I did, and left on Friday at around noon. By that evening I found myself to be SO exhausted by the previous three days of tourism that I pretty much collapsed into my bed at around 3pm and couldn’t even go to get food. I survived on what was left in our fridge, some Icelandic yogurts (called Skyr — similar to greek yogurt, but with a milder flavor), and smoked lamb and traditional bread that had been gifted to us by our Airbnb host.

The next morning as I was touring around town, I kept hearing everyone raving about how intense the northern lights had been the night before, that the sky had been cloudless for the first time all week, and how the event had been so intense due to a massive solar storm, that you could have seen it from town if you just walked over to the bay and looked North. Let’s just say I was kicking myself. I went right back to my room and tried to book a tour for that night, but the company I had used the first night was fully booked, as were the next two companies I tried. So I got an idea and walked over the Aurora center (a museum near my rental, where you can see a fake Northern lights display and learn about the phenomena), and with the help of the staff found a ‘good’ (according to them) tour group that still had available seats for that night for about the same price I paid the first time.

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With the 2nd tour, which was led by a company called “BusTravel Iceland” we got picked up, taken to a parking lot, and then transferred to a 2nd bus of the same size (???) — this group killed about an hour of my time for no purpose, which I was not happy about, before finally hitting the road to our destination. Because of how intense the light show was expected to be that night, they only took us on about 15 minutes away from town on the road southwest towards the airport, and then only about three minutes along a dirt road on to the adjacent lava field (so that the headlights of cars wouldn’t bother us). Once there, lets just say that not only did I get to see the massive green stripes I’d been dreaming of, but even dancing lights were seen, where the you can see the strips moving around. We even got to see multiple colors as the lights danced, with bits of purple and pink flickering along the edges (unfortunately this wasn’t something my camera could pick up).

[Time lapse video of the Northern lights found on Youtube]

Initially my camera was failing me and causing me a lot of frustration. It would initially work, but then after a shot or two would stop. There was an Indian woman in our group who’d read something about how the automatic night shift feature in the iPhone interfered with the app’s software, and when we went into settings and turned that off sure enough my phone started working well. I had to restart the app after changing the settings, but then it was working again and continued to … the light show kept coming and going for about a half hour, and then stopped… we waited a bit just to be sure it was done… and then the driver said they probably wouldn’t be back till about 4am

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The next morning my friends who work in the computer industry were all complaining about the interference from the solar storm, and one of them posted this image, which shows what I’d been watching the night before.

London’s National Theater’s reimagining of the play “Top Girls”

Top Girls is a play in four acts written by Caryl Churchill who is considered by some to be the UK’s leading socialist-feminist playwright. Her works tend to explore topics such as gender construction (a topic that I’ve spent a lot of time teaching), sexual politics (a political theory named after a book that is obligatory reading for anyone studying feminism) and abuses of power. The production I saw was put on the London’s National Theater, and took some research to try to understand because of choices made by the director that resulted in confusion for people (like myself and my cousin) who had no knowledge of the play in advance.

First produced in 1982, and is set in 1980’s Britain, it is the type of show that tends to be done in smaller venues — or in US parlance, it’s the sort of off off broadway type of show that is intentionally NOT intended to be commercial, and as such in general will only appeal to hard core theater aficionados who like their shows to have a political message, and the actors performing the parts.

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Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I advise everyone to check out the Txts booth in Leicester Square as a matter of course. One of the exceptions to this rule is anything put on by the National Theater. Their tickets should be purchased either online or from their box office, because they’re already government subsidized and are never discounted further.

Sadly, I completely forgot to take any photos for this play or of the theater… not even my obligatory one of me holding the ticket. There are however no shortage of press release images of the production on google (follow this link). In my defense, at the time I was suffering a serious case of the dizzies, was staying at my cousin’s (from my dad’s side) place way out the suburbs, when a cousin from my mom’s side informed me she was in London and suggested I buy tickets for this play and we could meet up there. I knew NOTHING about the show going in. Because of the dizzies, going there alone from his place out in the suburbs was not in the cards, so I convinced him to come along and he drove. As luck would have it, my other cousin was nowhere to be seen, and didn’t bother returning any of my txts till well after the show when we were well on our way back home.

The first scene of the play I found quite compelling. It involves the central character of the play — a modern British woman, Marlene, who’s just been promoted to the head of her office at a job placement agency, who is throwing herself a celebratory dinner party and has invited as her guests famous women of antiquity. (One is forced to wonder if maybe she has no real life friends to turn to because she’s been so focused on her work.) So not only did the play delve into issues of gender construction and feminist issues, but did so on a backdrop of women from different points of history, and different cultures… so RIGHT up my alley so to speak.

Her first guest to arrive is Isabella Bird, a woman out of history that would be familiar to most of Churchill’s British audience members, as they’re most likely the sort of highly cultured and educated sort who watch history shows on the BBC and probably attended University (like I said, off off broadway). This second character in effect is setting the scene for all of the following characters that might be less familiar to the show’s audience. For those who don’t know her (lord knows I did not, but my British cousin claimed he sort of remembered who she was) Bird was an independent woman traveller, writer and photographer from 18th century England. She was a prolific travel writer with 28 titles to her name, which include: The Englishwoman in America (1856) — her first hit book which was based on all of the letters she’d written home about her travels, and was followed by other like works such as Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: Travels of a Lady in the Interior of Japan (1879), and Among the Tibetans (1894) — that were again based on her letters home. Most of Bird’s titles are still in print, and her A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is even available as an Audiobook! This tells you relevant her works still are. Since her death, she’s had numerous biographies written about her, and has even has a series of Japanese manga about her called Isabella Bird in Wonderland, which focuses on her visit to Japan.

Her arrival in the play is shortly followed by the arrival of another historical figure, who is much more obscure, Lady Nijo, one of the Japanese Emperor’s concubines from 1271 to 1283, who later became a nun and wrote her autobiography. The book wasn’t a hit but had historical value, and as such one remaining copy (a 17th century printing) was discovered in the Emperor’s family library in 1940 and then republished under the titles The Confessions of Lady Nijo and also Lady Nijo’s own story; the candid diary of a thirteenth-century Japanese imperial concubine.  I searched Amazon and found these both of these titles still available for sale there, but no one biography.

The third guest was one I HAD heard of, Pope Joan. YES, you heard me, Pope JOAN (we don’t know what her actual name was)…  While the church denies that she ever existed, and to this day many historians discount her as myth, her story is well known and her possible existence helps to explain some weird things. Such as, there’s a VERY odd part of the Pope’s swearing in process — the existence of which makes no sense whatsoever, UNLESS she had existed. The story is that a woman fell in love with a priest, and was convinced by him to dress as a man and to join the church during the Middle Ages, so that they could stay together. Apparently she was so smart and capable, that she managed to rise to the top position (top girls anyone?), but had the bad luck to go into labor in the middle of religious procession. According to the character in the play, the robes helped hide her condition and folks just assumed she/he’d gotten fat. Her gender now discovered she either died in labor or was put to death, the play opted for killed. As a result, the whole path of that procession has been changed to avoid the street where she supposedly went into labor (one thing explained).  But the oh so odd part of the popes ritual swearing it helps explain, is that he has to sit on a contraption like a toilet seat with no bowl underneath, while he has his genitals inspected, to make sure they’re there… and more importantly, are of the right sort. Many people believe she was Pope John XX, which explains why this title is sometimes referred to as the missing pope (there’s nothing about that pope in the books, but the church has come up with a rationalization for the discrepancy)…

The fourth guest to arrive is, Dull Gret (also known as Mad Meg), a woman from Flemish folklore, who doesn’t have much to say, which makes sense as she’s a character from a 1563 oil-on-panel painting by Pieter Bruegel (the elder). In fact his painting of her, Dulle Griet, is one of his most famous works. Here she is depicted as a woman who is leading an army of other women in an attack on hell itself.

The final guest is another character from European folklore, Patient Griselda.  She was first written about by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his famous and influential work (I had to read it for a history class, it actually helped to spark a revolution) The Decameron. The story is by our perspective horrific. All British audience member should be somewhat familiar with her tale as one of the books Boccaccio’s work helped to influence was Chaucer‘s famous work, The Canterbury Tales, where she also appears. The basic story is that she’s a lower class woman married to an upper class man, attracted to her beauty, who over the years puts her through a series of horrific and mentally abusive tests of her patience and devotion to him… all of which she passes. At the end, her sufferings are rewarded. (It’s enough to make a modern woman gag.)

Once the dinner is over we are taken to the employment agency where Marlene works, and we meet her co-workers and some of the girls who are there applying for jobs. This scene is so incredibly different that it seemed like we were almost in a completely different play. It felt VERY disconnected. Later, after me and my cousin got home, I started researching the play and learned that in the original version, all the new characters that are introduced were SUPPOSED to have been played by the same actresses who had done the previous characters.

At this point the curtain comes down and the audience is released for an intermission. When we returned the next act, which at first seems to have nothing to do with what came before, and as such feels utterly disjointed. It’s two girls talking. And therein lays the problem with this production… Initially it was written so that the women who played the historical characters are then ‘re-cast’ into the modern day as other characters, and the fact that it’s the same actresses playing them helps to link the characters of the women we met before into these new modern day characters… Marlene is the only character that stays the same through the play.

In the later scenes we learn she is completely disconnected from her family. She and her sister no longer speak, and her sister’s child is biologically Marlene’s, who she had abandoned in order to become a “Top Girl.” All of which helps to explain the focused determination that got her there, but how that success had a cost in her personal relationships… which may be why when it was time to celebrate her achievement, her only companions were women from books and history.

However, because this production chose to expand the number of actors used, all of that subtext got lost. Both my cousin and I, who had never seen the original productions and knew nothing about the show going in, left the theater more than a bit confused. We debated it’s meaning the whole trek home to his place, and the next morning again over our breakfast. So if the point was to make us think, it was successful… but we both found ourselves independently going on to the internet to try to comprehend what we had just seen, because it was FAR from self evident based on the production.

To that end, while doing additional research for this article I found a BBC online University video that includes not just the entire play, but a preamble discussing it and an interview with the playwright. The downside of this video is that you don’t really get to enjoy the play and then hear a discussion of it, rather the ‘instructor’ inserts commentary right over the actors speeches…. which are hard enough to make out as one of Churchill’s favorite techniques is to use over-speaking…  multiple actors talking at once (the fact that she has the Japanese character doing this as well shows how little she understood Japanese culture, in my opinion).

I then found THIS 2nd rendition of it on Youtube, put on by a theater group in Seoul South Korea made up entirely of English speaking expats, of the ENTIRE play… all two hours of it.

But in this case it was recorded in a very low tech manner, so that you’ll need to strain to hear the actors … again.

Theater in London’s West End, The production of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Sweat” and accessibility issues in the Gielgud Theatre

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). One of the many shows I saw this year was, Sweat (2017, Pulitzer Prize Winner) staring Martha Plimpton of the Carradine theatrical royalty family (getting to see your favorite actors live on stage is always an added treat).

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So… I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again … first rule of London theater is, as taught to me by my parents… unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase). This show for instance had great reviews, but I was able to get the tickets at a discounted price, even buying them 2 days in advance.

Sweat: The Play — GREAT play, but in a bad theater space for anyone with mobility or hearing impairments 

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f27.jpgSweat, the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was my first non-musical this trip. Its a fictional play based around economic dynamics in the town of Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011, when the United States Census Bureau, declared that because of the loss of heavy industry to offshoring, it had become one of the poorest cities in America. It is a show that is both funny, and highly disturbing.

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I was looking forward to seeing it in large part because it was a chance to see Martha Plimpton, live on stage. I’d had the good luck to meet her (as in have an actual conversation with, back in 2006 while sitting on a tram at Disneyland waiting to go back to the parking structure — YUP, once again at a Disney park, there’s a trend here), and seriously enjoyed a lot of her large and small screen roles, but this was going to be the first time to see her on stage. That said, she did NOT let me down… granted, its the sort of role she tends to get cast into fairly regularly, a course working class girl or woman — so she’s had plenty of practice. This typecasting is ironic as she’s third generation acting royalty; her paternal grandfather was one of the best known character actors in Hollywood starting back in the 1930’s, the GREAT John Carradine. He was one of John Ford‘s go to actors, but was also in classics like the Grapes of Wrath and the Ten Commandments). Her dad is Keith Carradine (whose IMDB of roles in major films is as long as your arm) even those she chooses to go by the less known last name of her mother,  Shelley Plimpton (who is also a well respected actress in her own right) — probably to be better able to try to stand on her own merits. And, even her uncles, Robert Carradine, who was best known for his  Revenge of the Nerds series of movies, and the late David Carradine, who was best known for his lead role in the 1970’s TV classic Kung Fu, (and his ignominious death by autoerotic asphyxiation in a Bangkok hotel room’s closet in 2009) are/were both well known working actors. Even her aunt, Ever Carradine, is one of those actresses you instantly recognize even if you can not name her, and currently can be seen in Hulu’s major hit, The Handmaid’s TaleSo, like I said, Acting royalty.

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I won’t spoil the play for you other than to say its got the kind of juicy roles in it actors love, and even though I tend to prefer comedies or musicals over serious plays with a political message, and a really disturbing ending.  I genuinely enjoyed and was moved by the performances. I was lucky because the play (which has bounced around a bit) was in the middle of a six week scheduled run at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. Even though it was was very well reviewed, I suppose its serious nature turned away most London tourists, and as such I was able to get pretty good tickets at a discount. HOWEVER when I got there I found that the salesperson had screwed up a bit… I’m always clear about wanting to be in the stalls in FRONT of the balcony-overhang. When I got there I found I was well behind it, towards the back of the stalls. I HATE this because there’s almost always a slight reverb effect as the actors voices bounce off the walls, and you often end up listening to sound from speakers in addition to the actual sound from them… so I complained (the advantage of arriving to the theater early). I was HOPING they’d move me up in the stalls (there were plenty of better empty seats) but the Manager said if I wanted I could move to the balcony where they had some open first row tickets (at same price point), so I did that.

Two things about the theater the play was being shown in … Firstly… like a lot of old things in London, while the Gielgud is very beautiful, it’s also a complete disaster for anyone with severe mobility issues. While the UK has disability rights legislation on the books, implementing them has been a major issue as a result of the historic nature of most of the buildings. This one, for instance, was built back in 1906. It was originally called the Hicks theater, and then the Globe, before receiving its current name in 1994.

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There are stairs everywhere, not an elevator in sight (there might be some backstage)… and they’ve NOT installed ANY ramps — not even where they reasonably could have, and GET THIS… the disabled bathroom is just through the doorway in the picture above, and you have to negotiate THREE steps to get to it… like I said, NO RAMPS … While there is a ground level door off to the side of the theater… even if you in through those side doors you STILL have to negotiate stairs to get to the handicapped bathroom!!! It’s absolutely imbecilic, and handicapped are relegated to the balcony as the stalls demand you negotiate a lot of stairs. The most recent refurbishment … when I assume the aforementioned bathroom was installed was in 2008, so you would THINK they’d have come up with a better work around for the disabled, but I guess not.

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That said, while the theater offered a sound system for those with hearing issues, the sound coming out of it was actually WORSE than the sound from the stage. The Actors in the show aren’t wearing microphones, so they’ve got those hidden around the stage, and by the time the actors voices reach them, they’re distorted by reverb far worse than what you hear live.

Come From Away: The Musical based on the happier events of 9/11 … LOVED IT!!!!

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). The third show I saw was possibly my favorite. I LOVED Come from Away!!! Honestly I saw a LOT of theater during this trip and this was my favorite show so far. I loved it so much that I not only bought the entire album (and listened to it a few times) but I went on to  social media and told all my friends they HAD to see it, and am considering seeing it a second time.

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If I can’t see it again in London I MIGHT even try see it in Toronto (where it’s also showing as an extended stay because — well how many hit musicals are about Canadians?) if I can swing a trip up there. The show was originally a conceived of by the Associate Dean of Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. He contacted a husband and wife writing team who had already done a show he knew of, and sent them to Gander, Newfoundland, where a ten year reunion was about to take place for the 7,000 airline passengers — who had been diverted there during the events of 9/11 (because US airspace had been closed to all commercial traffic) — and the locals who hosted them on a moments notice.

The intent was to interview them, collect their real life stories and from it to construct a show about the what happened during 9/11 from a different point of view, a more uplifting one. (The above video is the writing team and the Dean talking about what they created and why.) The show was first produced as a college production, but then was quickly picked up various small but influential theater groups, working up the food chain so to speak. However, before it opened on Broadway on March 12, 2017, and became a critical and box office success, the cast and crew brought the show to Gander itself.

Come from Away came to the London stage in February of 2019… and I saw it in July of that year.

With only a few exceptions all the actors in the above performance were the same ones that I saw. As this next video shows, the show which only won one Tony award, after being nominated for seven, including Best Musical in New York, the show went on to win FOUR Olivier Awards for its London production.

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My ticket, which was purchased the day of show was pretty spectacular… I was in fact almost sitting TOO close, but it was wonderful. As luck would have it two Canadians were sitting besides me, and since I’ve spent more than few months in Canada at this point, we were able to jointly laugh at a lot of insider jokes that you won’t quite get if you don’t know Canada.

While I loved pretty much every song in the show, although hands down my favorite one was this one (again the video shows same actress I saw perform it)

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So… I’ve said this before, but in case you’ve not read that post… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

London West End’s production of: Matilda, the Musical – not my favorite

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). Matilda is a show I’ve been wanting to see for a while, so I was excited to see discount tickets available there. Its based on the Ron Dahl classic children’s novel, I’ve read it more than once, and the songs were written Tim Minchin who I’m a huge fan of and have actually written about before, AND its award nominations and wins are as long as your arm… so I was seriously looking forward to this…. but … not so much, sadly.

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So… I’ve said this before, but in case you’ve not read that post… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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So, like I said, the second show I saw was Matilda, a hit broadway show based on the Ron Dahl story — that was also made into a movie — of a scary brilliant little girl born into a family that that places no value on being educated, especially with regards to women. Matilda not only has taught herself to read by the time she’s able to walk and talk, but by the time she’s old enough to attend school she’s already reading Dickens and Tolstoy in the unabridged versions. I really wanted to see this show because the music was written by one of my favorite comedic singers, Tim Minchin, who wrote the song I referenced in my other post about the Loud Fence in Ballarat (a protest against the Church’s sexual abuse scandal).

All of that said, I none the less found myself getting a bit bored and irritated while watching this show… It does have some VERY good songs… good enough that I downloaded them (the good ones) from iTunes, in particular I loved this song:

but on average I wasn’t thrilled by the rest of the show (quite a let down because like I said, huge Tim Minchin fan). This song for instance really didn’t do it for me, even though it is in fact better (in my opinion) than some of the other ones….

That said what really annoyed me the most was when the show went completely off book, creating a new storyline that didn’t fit and added little to the story — which is kind of a children’s classic. This was a series of vignettes of Matilda making up a story for her favorite librarian. In fact the ONLY justification for it I could think of was that MAYBE they were concerned about the child employment laws and how many minutes the child actors (other than Matilda — I have got to think there’s some special case written into the law for the leading character) would be on stage.

London’s West End production of the “BOOK OF MORMON: The Musical” — Totally worth it!

I love London. My dad grew up there and my family spent so much time there during summer vacations — not to mention my semester at London’s Royal College of Art — that I feel it’s my second home. So, growing up we did most of the MAIN tourist things… so when I go there I tend not to aim towards those sorts of things any more than I would in home Chicago. For me, London is and always has been about theater! (My mom loved theater so much that she often took us to two shows a day, and occasionally crammed in three). The first show I saw this summer was the Book of Mormon, a show I’ve been wanting to see for years and have watched as much of it as I could find on YouTube… not to mention listened to the album.

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So… first rule of London theater, as taught to me by my parents…  is, unless there’s a specific show for which you’re willing to pay full price, you’ll want to start out by going to the Tkts Booth in Leicester Square…. London has a very competitive theater scene, just like New York, so anything showing in a major theater is most likely very good. On the way there you’ll pass any number of store front ticket booths advertising them as THE half price ticket booth… keep walking. None of them are. Their What’s on Sale screen, behind me in the picture above, will tell you what tickets they have that is on deep discounts (usually 30 to 50% off). You can also buy tickets for two days out… so tonight, tomorrow and the next day… but not farther out than that. You can check their website to see what’s available, but you can only buy the tickets at their booth. Half price tickets for the top shows are ONLY available either at the box office doors of each individual theater, where you stand in line on the day of up to time of seating, but with no assurance of actually getting a seat … or here at the TXTS booth. (How do you want to spend your vacation time?) Personally I haven’t got that much time. This way is easier, and profits from the ticket sales at this venue rather (than ending up in corporate or private pockets) go towards the Society Of London Theatre, which supports the theater community in a myriad of ways. (So you can feel good about your purchase).

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The First show I attended this summer was Book of Mormon, a show that I think pretty much everyone has heard of already… its been on stage nonstop since 2011, and was written by the same group of guys who do the cartoon series South Park. This of course was a show that at this point I’d listened to the album a few times and seen so many clips of bits and pieces of the show already… such as the following

… that I knew pretty much what I was paying for well in advance, but… all that said, I STILL wanted the experience of seeing it live on stage (because there’s no substitute to the energy of a live performance.

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MAJOR theater girl SQEEEE! 2017

That and I have (ever so briefly) MET the actor who played one of the lead characters in the original broadway performance of BOM a few years ago…The picture above is me at Epcot in 2017, where I had the mind blowing experience of recognizing these two HUGE stars of the Broadway stage as they walked right past me (oh my G-d! is that? It can’t be… IT IS!!!). On the left is Andrew Rannells, who played one of the aforementioned leads in the original cast of Book of Mormon (the guy singing in the video above), and on my right is Christian Borle.
[Slightly off topic: but if you don’t recognize him, Borle (the guy on my right), is a two-time Tony Award winner and is actually the bigger star by far. He is probably best known to non-Broadway nerds for the TV show Smash … [Note: if you watch the video pay note to Katherine Mcphee, the central girl in this video, as she’ll come up when I discuss the show Waitress]

where he played the long time writing partner of the character played by Debra Messing. Also I have to flex my theater nerd knowledge by mentioning Borle is also the ex-husband of Sutton Foster who is possibly the BIGGEST star on Broadway these days, as well as the lead in her own hit TV show, Youngerwhich was just renewed for its 6th season. (Borle actually had a small part on her show playing a romantic prospect)

Rannells (the other guy in the photo, and more on topic) has been nominated for, but has not yet won his Tony. (I really enjoyed his recent small but pivotal role in the movie A Simple Favor, with fellow theater nerd Anna Kendrick). All that said, Borle only allowed the picture of the three of us to be taken on condition that I didn’t post it to the internet for at least one year. This made me sad, but it was a request I found utterly reasonable as stars have stalkers and people posting real time photos of meeting stars to the internet can lead said wackos right to them. ]

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Returning to the Book of Mormon, in spite of buying the tickets THAT DAY, I managed to swing tickets in the stalls in row F (6th row), just a bit off the center of the stage. And although it wasn’t discounted, it way cheaper than it would have been in the states. I really liked how they made the edges of the stage look a bit like the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake, which I had the pleasure of visiting back when I was in my 30’s (for some reason I don’t have any pics of it). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2f3b.jpg

One of the funniest things about Book of Mormon is how they are able to mock the Church of Latter Day Saints without having to tell any lies about them. They really do believe this stuff (that said none of it is any more ridiculous than any other religious beliefs, if you really think about it). That said, the show really lived up to my expectations and there were all sorts of nuances to the show I had missed because the record albums and the clips I had seen don’t cover the WHOLE show… bits and pieces are always missing unless you see it live.

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One of the “cool” things about the British Theater, pun intended, is at intermission they ALWAYS bring out little things of ice cream in multiple flavors that you can eat in your seats rather than being forced to finish it down in the lounge. This place also had water in recyclable and resealable cans, which I thought was pretty good.

The Agrodome Farm Show, Rotorua, New Zealand

If you’re in Rotorua, New Zealand, and looking for a low exertion activity (with air-conditioning) that’s entertaining for the whole family — and a bit educational, I STRONGLY suggest a visit to the Agrodome. This 40-year-old “award-winning” Farm Show takes place on a 350 acre farm, that you can also pay to take a guided tour of (mostly a riding tour rather than a walking one, so also good for people with mobility issues). The attraction is really geared towards families, and their family priced ticket is a bit of a deal, as it costs the same as two adults and a child, while allowing three children. And if you check their website, they sometimes offer on-line ticket discounts. The show lasts an hour, and only happens three times a day, so make sure to time your arrival accordingly.  It’s a highly entertaining show, that’s in my opinion, and worth the $36.50 (NZD) [$24.03 USD] — even though the price seemed a bit steep to me at first.

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We arrived at the Agrodome pretty much first thing on our arrival into Rotorua, which I now know is one of the major tourism meccas for both for folks who are road-tripping through New Zealand and locals. As in, pretty much anyone who does the trip is going to be spending a day or two here taking in the sites, which include geysers, and other geothermal activities — mud pools, i.e., mud so hot it bubbles and is utilized for things like high-end full day spa treatments, etc.,. In addition, other attractions of interest to tourists have developed in the area, including multiple Māori cultural daytime and dinner shows, etc., rides of various types, and attractions like the Agrodome.

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To put it in perspective for Americans, Rotorua is a bit like the Wisconsin Dells area north of Chicago, the Gatlinburg area in the great smoky mountains, or the Canadian side of Niagara Falls (which is all casino’s, etc.). All of these locations began as places that people came to in order to appreciate the natural wonders of mother nature… but tend to have devolved over time into decidedly working and middle-class tourist traps, as the majority of their day-to-day customers tend to be nearby locals who can’t afford travel further afield. In ANY town like this, all the attractions tend to be a bit overpriced, I suppose this is done partly in order to make the customers feel like they’re buying something of value. (‘It’s expensive so it must be good’, being a pervasive misconception by the average customer that marketers utilize when positioning a product.)

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Again my favorite quote from American Gods by Neil Gaiman comes to mind

“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”
“Come again?”
“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”
“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.
“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a giant bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

That said, IF you get there early (before the final show — which is the one we attended, off to the left side (as you’re facing the stage) of the theater there’s a petting zoo type area with baby animals and ducks

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…they will be taking part in the show later…  However, if you wait till after the final show… they might not be there, as its sort of a holding area (I’m guessing they go back to see their mom’s afterwards).

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The show begins with a sort of “fashion show of sheep” beginning with the local star, the Marino. In case you’re unfamiliar, this breed produces the finest and softest wool of all the varieties. While expensive it is AMAZING, and any item made of it is utterly worth the investment. MOST my socks, with the exception of my compression stockings  (edema runs in my family) are merino wool — and have been since I experienced my first pair. First time I saw them was in shop catering to outdoorsy types, and I was like “$20 for a pair of SOCKS?!! Are you MAD?” but the staff members assured me that they were entirely worth it. They challenged me to buy one pair, wear them for a full week without washing, and then sniff them. Seriously… not only do these wick moisture from you feet, but they also naturally kill foot oder issues… AND they are incredibly sturdy and last way way way longer than any other socks I’ve ever owned (and never stretch out over the course of a day).

Each is led in individually, introduced to the crowd, and its particular attributes described… so for instance the breeds like Merino, that produce wool that’s great for clothing, while others are desirable more for their meat than their wool.

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In the above image he’s introducing the Drysdale breed; this New Zealand created breed is raised primarily for its wool. It was developed in the 1930’s by crossbreeding a genetically freakish Romney ram with unusually coarse wool another Romney and a Cheviots resulting in a new breed of genetically modified sheep. One of the freak attributes is that both genders have horns, and its wool grows so quickly that it has to be shorn twice a year…. and the wool it produces is coarse and sturdy, so it is great for things like rugs…

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The full selection of “beauty sheep” on display

Once all the sheep have been led in and introduced, that is when you’ll get to see, the thing I was most hoping to see…. a sheep being sheered

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You, or more likely your older kids, might be chosen from the crowd to come up on stage and experience the joys of milking a cow

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or the excitement of feeding baby lambs and alpacas (who are ridiculously cute)

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and then you’ll be able to watch demonstrations of sheep dogs showing off just how smart and capable they are.

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Initially, a single dog is asked to herd around the stage a small bunch of ducks, the ones from the petting farm area, proably because there simply wasn’t room to do it with sheep. But then a different dog is asked to displayed something far more impressive, the ability to jump on top of the sheep’s backs, running across them like stones in a stream …

something the dogs need to be able to do in order to get a better vantage point from which to view of the entire flock, and be able to protect them from possible threats

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such as wolves, AND then they do it as a pack, multiple dogs run on stage and they do it together… even running past each other without falling off. I was impressed, having not known they could do it.

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After this highpoint of the show, the audience was invited to come up on stage, pet the dogs and take their pictures with the sheep…. and folks didn’t need to be invited twice…

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people raced up there really quickly and competed with each other for the best photos and to pet the animals

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we took our time and I waited for the crowds to clear off….

After that, I of course insisted that I have a chance to check out the gift shop. For the most part it was pretty much the same stuff you see in almost every other gift shop in Australia, so not really that big of a deal. That said…

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I had spotted this toy, which was a stuffed animal with actual sheep’s wool as the coat and thinking I might want to buy it looked at the tag to do my normal “look but don’t buy” then…. go home and find it on-line for probably less money than at an impulse driven shop (like this one). While doing so I definitely noticed that it doesn’t actually SAY made in NZ anywhere on the tag … but in way that sure as hell would lead the less trained observer to assume it had been… and I was like, “HEH, their gift shop is selling NZ stuff not made in NZ!” (and knowing what that told me about the politics of the owners) …. and then when I got home and googled it, sure enough! There was actually a legal suit brought against this souvenir company for misleading tourist into thinking they were buying NZ goods.

The Powerhouse museum in Sydney Australia, and the STAR WARS Identities touring exhibition

If you are in Sydney Australia, have seen all the outdoor options, and/or are at a loss of what to do on a rainy day, I suggest visiting the Powerhouse Museum of applied arts and sciences housed in the converted Ultimo Power Station at 500 Harris Street, especially if you’ve got young kids.

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Initially commissioned in 1899, and opened for use in 1902, the building used to house the power station for electric trams, and was a functioning power plant till 1963.

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An interior shot that gives you a sense of its industrial nature

The Museum’s collection, began with the contents of the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 (the first World’s Fair to be held in the Southern Hemisphere), and then grew over time… and has been bounced around a number of different locations before finding its exhibition space in this building in 1988, although it is no where large enough to exhibit the entire collection.

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Another interior shot of the Powerhouse Museum

I learned this when blogging about Harry’s Café de Wheels, a 70-year-old Sydney pie-shop chain (as in meat pies) considered so iconic to Sydney that its original food cart is kept on mothballs by the Powerhouse, but not displayed… because they simply haven’t got the room.

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This steam engine train is parked inside the Museum

The first time I was in Sydney, back about a month after my massive concussion, one of my traveling buddy’s girlfriends came to Sydney. One rainy day he took her to the powerhouse, while I stayed in bed resting — the post concussive syndrome was still intense at that point. He had been really excited about taking us because it was one of his favorite memories from having grown up in Sydney, and he wanted to share it with us. When they got back I asked her, out of his ear shot, “so how was it?” And she was like, “it was ok, but not great. I mean it was nice doing it with him cause he got all excited with childhood memories… but … you know…”

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Overall, I have now spent three months total in Sydney, and have deemed it to be on the whole …. underwhelming; and this museum held true to that trend. To borrow a quote from Toptenz.net, “the fact that the Sydney Opera House is such a focal point of the city’s depictions might hint, to the analytical mind, that perhaps this is the case because there is really little else that is all that remarkable in Sydney.” And, as that article also points out, while said Opera House looks amazing from the outside, it has no shortage of design/acoustic flaws on the inside, so you’re not going to want to travel all the way there to enjoy a show when there are so many other better venues, acoustically. That said, while I thought the Powerhouse building was really neat, and I’m a big fan of retrofitting historic buildings to new purposes, the reality is that this building’s layout really isn’t conducive to exhibiting the kind of things they’ve got on show.  And the lack of useful floor space means much of what they own is left sitting in storage, where visitors and locals can’t enjoy it.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bc6e.jpgThat, and what they have on display is kind of underwhelming. Overall, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Science and Industry museums in Manchester, UK or Chicago, IL … nor to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. If it were in some small town somewhere it would have been a LOT more impressive, but in the middle of a major international city like Sydney, I expected better.

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Maybe the only part of the museum that really excited me in any way was their Mars Lab (a friend of mine actually is the head of designing the experiments that go on the Mars rover so I feel a connection to it) … but otherwise it really didn’t do it for me.

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At the base of the escalator are interactive physics things for kids to play with

HEY, if you’re already there, and you’ve got the kids, and it’s not a good day to go to Bondi Beach, or any other sort of outdoor activity… it’s something to do…There are more than a few areas of the museum that kids will enjoy, and of course its an indoor activity for rainy days

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The playground/cafe area of the museum draws a lot of local birds

Like I said, Sydney, in NOT just MY humble opinion, after a few days quickly becomes kind of a major let down — there are other places you’ll probably want to go BEFORE the Powerhouse. Start googling “overrated cities of the world”, and Sydney shows up on quite a few of those lists.  But the reality is that after about a one week stay, if you’ve been maximizing your time and not just hanging out at the hotel room (like I tend to do) you’re going to start finding yourself so desperate for things to do, and so willing to start scraping the bottom of the barrel so to speak … this is the point when you might want to consider taking the kids to see the Powerhouse Museum…

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One of these things is not like the other… personally I was kind of miffed … I mean WTF?!!!

For the most part, what motivated me to drag my ass to the Powerhouse, — after the bleh review from my friend, was that during my second stay in Sydney it was hosting an exhibition that utilized The Star Wars Movies …  as a platform for educating viewers about how our characters develop overtime as a result of multiple influences including genetic, environmental, choices, mentors, etc., but let’s be real, they had me at Star Wars… anything after that was just icing on the cake.

Rather than being an exhibit which you passively experienced, it was set up like a video game. The educational components utilized characters and paraphernalia on loan from George Lucas’ museum collection, i.e., STUFF that he has that’s left over from the making of the films. In all likelihood it’s part of what would have been housed in a museum in Chicago, had the city (i.e., my people) been willing to stick a museum dedicated to him and his creations in what is a claim to fame public park land that runs the length of the city along the lakefront, but in a location right between the middle of downtown and the water (he refused all other spots, even one along the lake front on the far south side of the city, where development is needed — nope he wanted to be RIGHT in the middle of downtown, where we’ve already got way to much traffic). San Franciscans likewise rejected his demands, which were equally ridiculous, and ultimately he ended up breaking ground in Los Angelus (where he had NOT wanted it to go).

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I’m guess that since it does not yet have a HOME, his collection had been broken up into multiple traveling exhibits, and this is one of them. If it comes to a town near you, you can come and either enjoyed the lesson (which I found a bit boring, and at times questionable in what it was preaching), on how we develop as individuals…. or you can just enjoy looking at all the costumes and stuff… which is what I did.

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Like I said the exhibit was highly interactive. On arrival each of us was given a bracelet, and an audioguide unit, which has a sound-wave dish on it, that we wore on a lanyard over our chests with the dish facing out; each of which came with an earpiece. They then tried to explain to us as a group, how to use it — but that explanation was actually very rushed and confusing (whoever came up with this system deserved a spanking). 

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The source of the sound waves, and you had to stand right where the light was aiming to pick it up

With this system, where you’re standing and what you’re facing determines what you hear — assuming you’re in range of a transmitter, and the audio device you’re wearing is working right… which a lot of the time it wasn’t. If you weren’t listening to individual narratives in your earpiece what you heard was soundtracks from various Star Wars movies playing in the background. That said, it wasn’t one of those systems where you key in a number and a track plays, rather you had to stand exactly where they wanted you to (these sound areas were clearly marked, see below) where your unit would then pick up the audio signal. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a08.jpg

But there was any number of issues with the sound devices themselves. The first one they gave me didn’t work, as in it was on and I was standing where I needed to be, and I STILL wasn’t hearing anything. They first switched out the earphones, still no good… So they replaced it with a second device … Which worked, but as I walked through the exhibit I was noticing that my sound was glitchy and realized that the wires in the earphones were shorting, so I had to futze with that, wiggling it this way or that… or no sound.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_29d5.jpgSo the devices had issues, AND the attached earphones were also having issues. This was particularly problematic for folks with small children a few of whom were complaining…. VERY loudly, “DAD I can’t hear anything!!” which was annoying the parents — and every one else.

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From what I saw, most parents never really took the time to figure out why their kids could not  hear– as in, “well mine works, so you must be using it wrong.” But of course it wasn’t the kids fault, it was the technology.

IMG_5293What I couldn’t understand was, WHY did the show’s designers went with this old fashioned system of individual units with ear pieces, each of which can break down for a myriad of reasons, rather than a sound system like I saw at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. That one was customer proof and cheaper in the long run because of no issues of wear and tear on the individual units.  If you look carefully at the picture above you’ll see a woman watching a video in the middle of wide open space…  and not wearing any sort of audio device. Where she’s sitting the sound is completely loud, clear and as distinct as if she’d been wearing headphones … YET, from where I stood taking the picture, I heard barely a whisper of that sound. If you look above her head, in the photo, you’ll see a white square hanging from the ceiling… That’s a speaker that produces highly directed sound waves. As in, she can hear it loudly and distinctly from the assigned seating spot (the padded bar) without it annoying someone a few feet away… and NO need for individual units which customers can break.

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The wrist band is placed into the Hexagon (6 sided shape), the shape lights up when activated

As previously mentioned, it was interactive… and to that end we were also all given wristbands similar to what they have at the Disney parks for tracking fast passes. Actually, as I thought about it I realized that these bands were probably exactly like the technology at Disney, which made a lot of sense as the big black rat now owns the Star-Wars franchise, and was most likely deeply involved in the designing of this educational exhibition.  As first you entered the exhibition space you “checked in”

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And then after seeing the intro movie, you’re given a chance to create your character within the Star Wars Universe, picking a race, gender, skin tone, and some basic abilities (like creating a character in role playing video game).

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I chose to be a Togruta, whatever that is

….and then as you walked through the exhibit at each location you were able to customize the character’s development as you made choices about its personality, abilities, and cumulative lifetime experiences

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Among the choices were what occupation your character had

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…. your planet of origin, the abilities you wanted to develop (so for instance you might be born with musical talent, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t work on learning music), the parenting style of your parents, and experiences your character has had that influenced who you become… AFTER each choice, you stand and listen to a video with explanations of how the decisions you just made might impact your identity over time (using star wars characters as examples). And you keep doing this till you get to the FINAL decision….

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Come to the Dark side, we have cookies

 And then as you were leaving the exhibit, as is the case with Epcot’s Spaceship earth, you could have the results of your character’s development emailed to your home address, as a free souvenir of your visitUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2995.jpg

Not to mention you could shop the gift shop, for even more stuff…

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That said, as a social scientist, Ph.D in cultural anthropology, yadda yadda, I didn’t agree with some of the twabble they were pushing in terms of identity development … it was seriously over simplistic and at times more concerned with political correctness than truth…

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But… let’s face it… while how they put the thing together was interesting to me in a technological sense, NONE Of this is what I came for. I came to see Star Wars stuff!!!!

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Some of the kids who came to the exhibit had totally dressed for the event, including the little boy above wearing a brown Jedi robe that was clearly purchased for him at a Disney park. Other kids were wearing their Star Wars T-shirts. Of course I was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt AND my Star Wars jewelry (my AT-AT necklace and death-star earrings).  

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