Der fliegende Holländer

Robert Bolanek as The Flying Dutchman. All photos by Otak Jump.

Richard Wagner is most noted for his exceptional Ring Cycle, with over 12 hours of brilliant music spread over four operas.  But years before he embarked on his Unbearable-Lengthiness-of-Being-Teutonic mode, he had emerged as a force in opera, the most notable auteur in the opera canon, composing music and writing his own librettos.

His breakthrough came with “Der fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”) in 1843.  In many ways, it anticipates his grander work with the beginnings of his use of leitmotifs and rich orchestration that often imitates nature.  And while this opera is sing-through in format, its strophic lines repeat, creating memorable melodies.  Blessed with soaring romance-style music and a dramatic source from Heinrich Heine’s take on Celtic mythology (influenced in turn by stories of the Wandering Jew), Wagner produced his first operatic masterpiece.  However, he shifted the venue to a Nordic locale more compatible with his desired social iconography.  The composer was particularly empathetic toward the title character as he identified with the isolation and persecution suffered, creating a highly engaging opera centered on this desolate soul.

Salvatore Atti as Steuermann (standing, center), Joshua Hughes (far right) as Daland.

In this fable, The Dutchman is punished for having invoked Satan – condemned to sail a ghost ship on the seven seas eternally, except that he is allowed one port visit of one day every seven years.  If he can marry a faithful wife on one of his landings, he will be redeemed and granted amnesty from his perpetual purgatory.

West Bay Opera has taken on this piece with a handsome and successful production full of fine staging and strong principal voices to conquer the composer’s vocal challenges.  Wagner’s facility with orchestration comes through from the opening notes of the beautiful overture which reflects the resolute power of the sea and wind, while introducing the motifs of The Dutchman and his possible savior.

Laure de Marcellus as Mary (standing, in black), Meredith Bloomfield as Senta (standing, upper right).

Many stage offerings demand a dominant and charismatic performance from the central character to succeed, and this is no exception.  Even with this expectation in mind, the audience at opening night was blown away by Robert Balonek’s role debut performance as The Dutchman.  His 10-minute opening soliloquy “Die frist ist um” (“The time is up”) was delivered with such high-wire potency that one wondered how he could sustain the performance.  Even at full volume, he retains uncommonly crisp melodiousness and clarity of diction.  This, despite having to cover the Wagnerian bass-baritone range and tonal variety which he accomplishes with great agility. In answer to more intimate moments, he demonstrates another gear with a mournful, more cloaked vocalization.  Incidentally, he did maintain his vocal and emotional intensity throughout to give a remarkable performance.

Combined chorus.

At the time of the Dutchman’s periodic shore leave, he insinuates himself upon a ship captained by Daland, whose home is in a nearby Norwegian town.  The Dutchman is laden with riches, which he offers Daland in return for his daughter’s hand.  Joshua Hughes, a bass with warm tone and vibrato, portrays Daland.  His delight in the transaction is uncontainable in his fine duet with the Dutchman, “Wie? Hört’ ich recht?” (“Did I hear it right?”), which the contrasting voices handle to pleasing effect.

Daland introduces The Dutchman to his daughter Senta, who was already enthralled by the legend and image of the pelagic sailor.  Played by Wagnerian dramatic soprano Meredith Bloomfield, her first aria, the ballad “Johohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff im Meer an” (“There is a ship that sails the seas”) is delivered with meticulous authority, exquisitely negotiating its many vocal leaps and dramatic pauses.  Bloomfield also matches up well in the bombastic duets and trios with Balonek and clarion tenor John Kun Park as her betrothed, Erik.  Park also demonstrates great clarity and power in his angst over Senta’s betrayal.  Ultimately, the straight forward plot resolves in a transcendent manner.

Robert Balonek as The Dutchman, Meredith Bloomfield as Senta.

“Der fliegende Holländer” relies on only six principal singers.  The score presents an unusual bi-modal tessitura, as the two leads on the male side are written for low voices, but the female side is almost all soprano.  With fewer than 30 musicians, José Luis Moscovich’s orchestra admirably produces big supporting sound given its size.  Lack of orchestral precision that often occurs in smaller budget opera companies occurred more than desired, but not enough to detract from appreciation of the music.  Men’s and women’s choruses filled the stage while enhancing and rounding the overall musical sound.  The most satisfying outcome came when the men benefited from joining with the women in a combined chorus.

Director Ragnar Conde creates a satisfying stage experience. Company Set Designer Peter Crompton’s hand is evident in the production.  Central to his style are multilevel stages with steps, vertical framing fixtures such as columns or trees, and back wall projections which appear in all three sets for this production.  While the first act set is nautical with a profusion of ropes, the second contains an attractive array of spinning wheels worked by women at work with thread.  Callie Floor’s costumes also enhance the sense of place and time.

John Kun Park as Erik, Meredith Bloomfield as Senta, Conductor José Luis Moscovich in pit.

Overall, strong performances in key roles enhance the production and result in a rewarding experience.

“Der fliegende Holländer” with music and libretto by Richard Wagner, based on Heinrich Heine’s “Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski,” is produced by West Bay Opera and plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through June 4, 2023.

Let The Right One In

Diego Lucano (Oskar) and Noah Lamanna (Eli). All photos by Kevin Berne.

Some people would argue that one can’t reach potential unless willing to leave their comfort zone.  This reviewer has little taste for the vampire genre and less for violence, but what better time to break out of the shell than to witness a production of noted author Jack Thorne’s “Let The Right One In,” produced by the estimable National Theatre of Scotland and presented by the estimable Berkeley Repertory Theatre?

Let it be said that the opening night crowd, younger and more fashionable than a typical graying Berkeley Birkenstock crowd, fairly gushed at the performance, and most colleagues who I spoke with enjoyed it.  So, take this not fully enthused critique as a minority opinion.   The good news is that even a detractor can find much to like.  One particular strength of the play is that it opens many avenues for symbolic interpretation and post-hoc discussion, which is worth the price of admission.  Another is that the production values show well.

Jon Demegillo (Micke), Michael Johnston (Jonny), and Diego Lucano (Oskar).

Rather than a simple blood-sucking horror, the play focuses largely on the relationship between Oskar, a bullied teenage boy from a broken home with a drunken mother and a largely neglectful father, and Eli, a new neighbor – who possesses an androgynous look; acts mostly like a girl; but insists that she’s not a girl, with no further explanation.  Eli sometimes moves with tomboy athleticism and other times with the hunched wobbling of a grounded bat.  Of course, she’s a vampire and in this telling, without gender.  Despite appearances, Eli is several hundred years old.

Noah Lamanna (Eli).

For all their differences, the relationship between these two oddities can be seen as a teenage love story.  Another overarching theme is that of coming-of-age for Oskar, as he embarks on his first romance and screws up his courage to fight back against the bullies at Eli’s urging.  More broadly, the story signifies the pervasiveness of teen angst.  Finally, a strong undercurrent of co-dependency is evidenced, most significantly between Oskar’s mother and Oskar; Eli and “her” “father” figure/”boyfriend;” and the bully boys.

Erik Hellman (Kurt) and Diego Lucano (Oskar).

As vampire stories go, this one doesn’t particularly frighten, though one incident with sudden shrieking sound and bright light gives a shock.  And while the opening scene is gory and would seem to portend more of the same, the plot offers more intelligence and depth, dealing with numerous relationship clashes among the characters and suggesting the friction that we all confront in life.

Nicole Shalhoub (Oskar’s Mom) and Julius Thomas III (Halmberg).

A certain eeriness does derive from the staging, starting with Christine Jones’s scenic design.  Although most of the action could be presented in conventional homes, schools, and hospitals, Jones’s fixed stage consists of a forest of birch tree trunks shorn of all but stubs of branches.  This setting of nature’s overwhelming power induces a sense of tension and fear of the unknown crucible.  Moveable props such as a bed, a couch, or a steamer trunk are brought in as needed to represent interiors, but always with the foreboding forest as a backdrop.  A seeming anomaly in the forest is a large metal contraption that operates mostly like a jungle-gym for Eli but has a surprise and meaningful use near the conclusion when Oskar is trapped by bullies.

Chahine Yavroyan’s low lighting with generous use of spots adds to the unsettling ambiance and a sense of isolation, while Gareth Fry’s sound design also disturbs.  Director John Tiffany has integrated all of these creative elements into an effective whole.

Cast dancing.

So what elements might be less satisfying in this reviewer’s opinion?  As an action story, “Let The Right One In” lacks driving pace. Tension is allowed to slack too often, especially with the several choreographed dances, which on their own are very artistically designed and executed.  However, they disrupt the dramatic tone and impede the action.  Several main characters are teenagers, and they are played with teen affect.  While these depictions may be an appropriate representation of reality, the effect is that they give an impression of being less professionally acted and less convincing.  This is despite the fact that Diego Lucano aptly portrays the anxiety and gawkiness of Oskar, and Noah Lamanna beautifully conveys the contrasts and ambiguities of Eli’s bimodal personality – as an ersatz youth with a need to fit in as a human and as a voracious vampire with a need to survive.  Finally, there is no doubt that the author could explain how each scene contributes to the vital force of the narrative, but some appear to be a stretch and don’t add to the plot engine.  For instance, the candy store scenes may depict compassion and lead to demonstrating how vampires can’t eat people food, but they seem superfluous.  Oskar’s beating his father in checkers may demonstrate competitive dominance behavior, but it seems strange having Oskar as the dominator.

Julius Thomas III (Halmberg) and Richard Topol (Hakan).

All told, this play possesses an abundance of quality and some interesting aspects.  It will appeal to a broad audience that can appreciate the vampire genre being lifted to a higher intellectual plane.

“Let The Right One In” is written by Jack Thorne, based on the novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is produced by National Theatre of Scotland, presented by Berkeley Repertory Company, and plays on its stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through June 25, 2023.

Feria de Sevilla (Seville April Fair) – A Most Spectacular Festival You’ve Never Heard Of

Karin and Vic (the ones not in flamenco dresses – though Karin’s comes close) in front of the gateway to Feria.

As Karin and I crossed the Guadalquivir, our locum guide and host for several hours pointed down river and intoned – “The Gateway to America.” Indeed, all of Columbus’s voyages launched from this storied corner of Spain’s Andalusia. The riches from exploration, its own natural bounty, and the cultural admixture of peoples have resulted in a city of immense interest.

Feria from above.

Riding on a bus in Seville, we had struck up a conversation with a man in a royal blue suit – Carlos, a tall, gregarious 50ish man with a balding buzz cut above a big face with big smiling features and a belly that had seen too many beers. An accomplished classical musician, he was on his way to a repeat piano gig at the elegant and historic Hotel Colon (of course, named after Columbus). He invited us to stop into the hotel for a drink with him before our visit to Old Town. We agreed. But on arrival he found that because one of the world’s greatest bullfighters would have a splashy departure from the hotel to the Corrida (bull ring), that Carlos’s performance was cancelled, as the hotel arranged at the last minute to offer flamenco music. When booking our trip, we didn’t know of Feria, a one-week celebration of community and Seville’s history with livestock markets and flamenco that began in 1846. But when Carlos then invited us to join him in going to the fair, we jumped on it.

A cavalcade of horse drawn carriages.

Feria takes place one week in April each year on 25 urban blocks that lie mostly barren except for preparation and celebration of Feria. Imagine the value of the property designated for this one event. The fairgrounds are imposing. 1,200 adjoined casetas (literally – little rooms or stands) comprise the temporary buildings, owned by companies, families, and associations. The standard is maybe 10×60 feet, but important ones are several times larger. The fronts are open to the walkways and streets, and each has a gaily painted pediment. All 1,200 contain a rudimentary kitchen, bar, and toilet and are filled with tables and chairs for eating and drinking, except maybe some space given to live performance and guests’ dancing. There is also a carnival for action rides and gaming. Each year a unique gateway to Feria is constructed, only for the week of festivities. The hardy partying goes on until 3 a.m. or so.

Well-dressed visitors in front of several casetas.

Needless to say, thousands of people flock to Feria every day and night to join in the reverie. But what makes it distinctive? There are several things you will never see as much of. Scores, no, hundreds of beautiful black lacquer horse-drawn carriages of various designs ply the streets, carrying revelers. Several times as many horses as carriages will be seen – sleek, chestnut Arabians and sturdy, dappled white Camargues, all decorated, most with manes and tails plaited in knots – each carriage being drawn by matched teams of two to five horses. Plus, a large number of steeds are ridden independently. Many riders wear Andalusian caballero costumes – fitted, fully-buttoned bolero jackets without collar or lapels; riding breeches; and round, flat-brimmed, flat-top hats.

Karin with two riders in traditional garb outside the gates of Feria.

A vast number of females aged 2 to 92 are stunningly bedecked in a wild array of gypsy flamenco dresses, often doing impromptu foot-stomping turns with graceful hands reaching to the sky as they feel the music coming from the many casetas. Less thematically, and more surprisingly is when slews of teenage boys arrive in the early evening, attired in tight-fitting dark suits, solid white or light blue shirts, ties, and tightly-coiffed, brilliantined hair. What planet do they come from? They look like they’re going to a 1950s social or appearing on American Bandstand! In any case, a fun time is had by all.

Carlos was interested in the woman in red, but check out the boys on the right also dressed for the festivities.

Unexpectedly, Carlos took us to a caseta of which he is a member. He generously arranged and paid for a scrumptious repast of traditional fare – prized iberico ham (cured like prosciutto, but from special acorn-fed pigs), calamari (as fried seafood is de rigueur for Feria), and a breaded rollatini of meat and cheese. It was washed down with a pitcher of rebujito, a refreshing drink of sherry mixed with lime or lemonade. Thanks, Carlos, for sponsoring and sharing with us this unplanned pleasure.

Heavy traffic at Feria.

We also returned for closing night, when the crush of the crowd extended beyond the fairgrounds to both sides of the river. A glorious blast of fireworks at midnight marked the end of this year’s festivities. Disassembly of the grounds would begin in the morning.

Darkness falls and the real partying begins.

In our many travels, we’ve been fortunate to happen upon special events in numerous places – for instance both Kulturnacht and Oktoberfest in Stuttgart in one 24 hour visit. Feria was a similarly wonderful experience for us, especially because of being escorted by a friendly and knowledgeable local. It is recommended to all who can make it to Seville in this special week of April. Otherwise, this city rich in history is always a great place to visit, with the long, elliptical palatial Plaza de España; by some measures, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world; the gold and silver towers; an old town; and much more.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Full cast. Above (men) Jared Lee as Anatole, Corey Bryant as Balaga, Nicholas Rodrigues as Dolokhov, Stephen Guggenheim as Pierre, F. James Raasch as Prince Andrey. Below (women) Juanita Harris as Hélène, Annie Hunt as Sonya, Susan Gundunas as Marya, Paloma Maia Aisenberg as Natasha, Osher Fine as Princess Mary. All photos by Scott Donschikowski.

In a generic sense, the apotheosis of the 19th century’s Romantic Age occurred in Russia.  Passionate, dreamy love prevailed in the higher social classes, not just in courtship, but in highly popular illicit relationships.  Heroic individualism, evidenced by bold actions such as dueling and suicide, were admired.  Poetry was sublime and emotional, dominated by Pushkin, whose death exemplified romanticism as he happened to be killed in a duel by his wife’s lover.  Lush melodiousness infused serious music, led by composers Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Into this socio-intellectual environment, one of the greatest minds of that or any age emerged – Leo Tolstoy.  His epic novel “War and Peace” is noted as one of the most profound, respected pieces in world literature.  Contemporary author and composer Dave Malloy took Part 8 of the great tome, which offers considerable insight into Russian culture of the time, as the basis for an award-winning musical “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.”  It is now given a handsome, ingenious, and entertaining production by San Jose Playhouse.

Annie Hunt as Sonya, Paloma Maia Aisenberg as Natasha.

The simple storyline centers on Natasha, betrothed to Prince Andrey, who has been sent to fight against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  But when she visits Moscow, Natasha is taken with womanizer Anatole, and decides to abandon Andrey for the more glamorous option.  Things don’t go as planned. The end.

Of course, events occur along the way.  We meet a number of friends, relatives, and social acquaintances.  In fact, the composer uses a clever device at the outset with a jaunty song in which characters introduce and give brief summaries of themselves.  Later, there is a duel, an attempted suicide, intrigue, betrayal, and everything you would expect from a 19th century Russian novel.

Osher Fine and Corey Bryant as harlequin dancers.

The cast is talented and spirited, imbuing their characters with distinct personalities.  The principal role is that of Natasha, portrayed by Paloma Maia Aisenberg, who invests it with smiling, youthful charm, though she will suffer angst from her choices as the narrative progresses.  She sings with great confidence and skill for the greater part, but does sag a bit at times.  Stephen Guggenheim exhibits a strong singing voice and a reserved countenance as the solid but stolid Pierre.  The other key role is that of Anatole, which Jared Lee plays with the appropriate strut of a peacock and smirk of a seducer.  He displays great vocal range but sounded thin in parts at this performance.  In the ensemble, Corey Bryant deserves recognition for his bright showing in several roles from troika driver to harlequin dancer in an appealing pas de deux.

In the operatic manner, this play is sung-through, though there is a fair bit of talk-sing and lyrics that are asymmetric to the music.  The music is appealing throughout and highly gemischt, in keeping with the quick changes of mood and players as the scenes whiz by.   To give a period feel, there is plenty of mournful Slavic/gypsy/klezmer influence, led by wailing woodwinds and accordions.  But contemporary genres dominate, with the composer drawing on indie rock, Broadway, and even bluesy forms.  The score mostly invigorates and brightens the tone, including some spontaneous clap-along, but the house was conspicuously hushed for the sensitive and lovely duet by the title characters at the climax.

Stephen Guggenheim as Pierre, Jared Lee as Anatole.

The impressive production, adeptly directed by Scott Evan Guggenheim, is full of moving parts requiring extensive effort and coordination.   A large number of vignettes are performed by an ensemble cast, with over two dozen musical numbers (Musical Director Stephen Guggenheim), many of which are choreographed with energetic dance by Shannon Guggenheim.  The action takes place on Jon Gourdine’s attractive and versatile stage design, with dramatic lighting by Gourdine as well.  The stage itself includes staircases and a catwalk, but action is further extended by a runway that goes into the seats and tees to the side aisles, facilitating considerable movement, dance, and intimacy with the audience.  Finally, Julie Englebrecht’s costumes complete the look – women in Empire-waist dresses and men in military-styled tunics and cutaways, many with gold buttons and piping.

So, you might wonder about the title.  If Natasha’s love interest shifts from Andrey to Anatole, where does Pierre fit in?  Good question.  Pierre is an older man who married Anatole’s disreputable sister, Hélène.  Her interest in Pierre was for money and stability, and Pierre’s relationship with Natasha is as a consoler, so it is unclear why his name is linked in the title.  Similarly, reference to The Great Comet occurs only at the very end of the play and can symbolize both destruction and renewal.  It seems to appear in the title simply because it is catchy, and to give more gravitas to the play.  Incidentally, the very real, spectacular comet was visible from earth for 260 days, but all within the year 1811.  Possibly 1812 sounds more impressive and provides stronger historical connections because of Tchaikovsky’s popular “1812 Overture” and the War of 1812 between the U.S. and England.

Corey Bryant as Balaga and cast.

“Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” with book, music, and lyrics by Dave Malloy, is based on Part 8 of the novel “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, is produced by Guggenheim Entertainment and plays for San Jose Playhouse at 3Below Theaters, 288 South Second Street, San Jose, CA through May 28, 2023.

Tosca – Opera San José

Maria Natale as Tosca. All photos by David Allen.

Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” seems to be the most produced opera in the Bay Area these days, with at least four versions playing within six months in 2023.  It has been one of the most performed operas in the world for over a century.  There is a good reason for that.  Beautiful music delights from curtain rise to fall, starting with the resounding orchestral chords of the Scarpia theme, and punctuated by memorable arias and powerful ensembles. Opera San José offers a beautifully staged and performed rendering that sears with passion.

The verismo-styled drama about real people is intense, and the stakes could not be higher.  It is no secret to opera lovers that the four critical characters in the action will die separately and violently.  To readers less familiar with the genre, let it be said that there are no spoilers in opera. 

Kidon Choi as Scarpia.

Puccini’s fascination with women and with their singing voices is evident in his oeuvre.  Of his eight full length operas, the title character is female in six.  The title is sometimes symbolic or metaphorical, as in “Madame Butterfly,” “La Rondine,” or “Girl of the Golden West.”  In the case of “Tosca,” it is not only bold and direct, but she displays an unusually broad array of thoughts, motives, and behaviors.  Has Puccini endowed any other heroine with the full range of emotions and the corresponding singing styles, which run the gamut from tender lyricism to scorching drama?

Into the role of Floria Tosca steps Maria Natale, and her time has come.  Although young by opera standards, she demonstrates that she can do it all.  From her entrance into the San Andrea della Valle church and her duet with lover Mario Cavaradossi, who is painting a Madonna portrait for the church, Natale reveals a sweet and mellifluous lyricism, which aligns with her perky mien.  Concerned that her lover may have another relationship on the side, even her pixyish jealousy is represented by lighthearted entreaties and coy little smiles.

Maria Natale as Tosca, Adrian Kramer as Cavaradossi.

It is hard to believe that in the following act, she will become a hardened, brazen murderer.  But Chief of Police Baron Scarpia has had Cavaradossi imprisoned and tortured. Scarpia’s price for granting his release is that he has his way with Tosca, so when she sees the opportunity to stab the villain to death, she avails herself.  In her Act 2 duets with the male principals as well as in their trio, Natale’s high wire singing shows the opposite end of her versatile voice.  At high range and full volume, with the piercing voice of the kind expected of a Wagnerian soprano, she is nonetheless smooth and listenable.  Very impressive.

Puccini wrote only one memorable aria for Tosca, but “Vissi d’arte” is one of the touchstones of any soprano’s canon.  Natale delivers it with exquisite skill.  However, the artistic decision was made to sing with full emotion from the first note.  Stylistically, it benefits from starting as a plaintive lament with a crescendo to full throttle.

Maria Natale as Tosca, Kidon Choi as Scarpia.

Cavaradossi is portrayed by Adrian Kramer, and his voice suits the role well.  Hardly has the music begun when he renders the lovely “Recondita armonia.”   Some opera afficionados, particularly those who lean toward the German repertory, may find his Italianate manner that corresponds to a country twang in American music, a bit emotive, but it is highly expressive and melodious.  The tenor’s other highlight, handled with great conviction, comes as he faces execution.  “E lucevan le stelle” exudes sorrow with the interplay of the condemned man’s voice and the mournful clarinet.

Kidon Choi portrays Scarpia, a cruel and vindictive official on the opposite side of the political divide from the other principal figures.  At the start, Choi’s baritone voice seems a little choppy, and he doesn’t display the lecherousness of Scarpia as broadly as he could.  But by the time he sings his signature piece, the powerful “Te Deum (Va, Tosca)” at the end of Act 1, his voice is in full flower and remains so until his death.  A final singer to recognize is bass, Robert Balonek, who plays Angelotti, a friend of Cavaradossi and an escapee from political incarceration.  Though the part is small, this character has profound impact on the proceedings, as his breakout and hiding in the church triggers the downfall of all of the principals.  Balonek sings the role with unfailing power and accuracy.

Adrian Kramer as Cavaradossi.

Some of Director Tara Branham’s artistic decisions in this “Tosca” that fall outside the constraints of the libretto are unconventional.  Cavaradossi is shown actually having a tryst, presumably with the model for his Madonna painting.  Scarpia’s office includes a bed, which will play a role in the action.  Also, some of the singing is done in a stand-and-deliver concert version style, from the front apron and facing the audience rather than characters facing one another.  This benefits sound projection but at the price of dramatic realism.  Nonetheless, the production excels.  The singing sizzles; the action compels; and the staging impresses.  Steven C. Kemp’s scenery depicting the church includes beautiful arched colonnades and expansive murals, while the Act 3 parapet of the execution includes an imposing statue of the Angel of Death that commands the scene.

“Tosca,” composed by Giacomo Puccini, with libretto by Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa and based on the play “La Tosca” by Victorien Sardou, is produced by Opera San José, and plays at California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose, CA through April 30, 2023.

Poor Yella Rednecks – Vietgone 2

Jomar Tagatac as playwright Qui Nguyen (He also plays Bobby, an Anglo hayseed who speaks broken Vietnamese); Jenny Nguyen Nelson as the older Tong, being interviewed by her son to tell the retrospective family story. All photos by Kevin Berne.

With his highly successful “Vietgone,” playwright Qui Nguyen, told the beginning of his family’s immigrant story, following the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War.  His equally thoughtful and humorous sequel, “Poor Yella Rednecks,” continues the family’s saga.  Amusingly, he writes himself in as a character in the play and facetiously disavows to the audience that its characters are real.

The overall narrative of “Poor Yella Rednecks” appeals, and the situations seem genuine.  Although the members of the family reveal considerable flaws, they elicit empathy, and are portrayed by a crack ensemble.  The playwright has become expert at using actors in multiple roles, and this highly talented cast rises to the occasion, showing their versatility.

Hyunmin Rhee as Quang, Jenny Nguyen Nelson as Tong.

Like many immigrants, Quang finds that American streets are not paved with gold and that foreign training and experience often don’t translate.  A helicopter pilot in the South Vietnam Air Force, he now works menial jobs in the redneck town of El Dorado, Arkansas.  His wife, Tong, is attractive, but lacks education and English language competence.  Each has trigger traits that will cause division in their future.  Quang suffers vulnerability to a sin of the flesh.  Tong’s tripwire results from her own integrity and assertiveness.  She finds it hard to hold a job for long, as she tends to slap customers and bosses when they take uninvited liberties with her.

Quang and Tong face normal immigrant challenges caused by loss of prestige and inability to speak with confidence in the new language.  But we witness not only the effects of how the “natives” feel about the newcomers, often with different religion, food, race, and more, but there is also a bite back.  The Vietnamese family complains about the local yokels’ bad manners, bad food, racism, and ignorance.

Christine Jamlig as Huong, Will Dao who manipulates and voices Little Man (He also plays Nhan, the cowboy-fied former subordinate of Quang).

Because their refugee camp was in Arkansas, the couple have settled nearby, but a former military subordinate of Quang’s, Nhan, moved onto Houston, with a large Vietnamese population, and thus many of the amenities of their homeland.  Quang is tempted to make the move and even makes a visit, but Tong demurs, saying that it would only offer more reminders that they are no longer in Vietnam, the country that they love.  It is similar to the decisions that minority immigrants have faced for generations, for instance, whether to live in the social comfort of Little Italy or move to a white bread suburb.

Cultural isolation has its price, and one is that Tong’s mother, Huong, who speaks no English, is virtually limited to their home, other than for grocery shopping.  She’s feisty and raucous, and acts as built-in day-care and baby sitter for her six-year-old grandson, who also speaks no English.  That grandson is called Little Man and is none other than Qui Nguyen (unless you accept his denial that the play is not autobiographical).  The family faces the dual traumas of the boy being bullied at school and the threat of his being forced to repeat first grade because of learning deficiencies caused by lacking language.

Christine Jamlig as Houston bar fly, Hyunmin Rhee as Quang.

A splendid device used in the play is that rather than using a child to play the part of Little Man, a wood-colored, segmented, life-size puppet is operated and spoken by an actor.  The effect charms.  Although the puppet’s face lacks moving parts, its subtle tilts and movements effectively depict emotions.  And the slow movement of the puppet’s hand toward another character’s arm perhaps draws more attention and conveys more meaning than if Little Man were a real child.  The puppet even gets into a fight, and the audience cheers him on as if it were a sentient being.

Director Jaime Castañeda ensures that production values meet the highest professional standards.  Tanya Orellana’s tiered stage is at once appealingly austere, yet changeable and suggestive enough to let the imagination fill in the blanks.  Ambient lighting as well as generous use of various types of lights embedded in the set, designed by Yi Zhao, provide another visual layer, while Jake Rodriquez’s in-depth soundtrack adds to the overall effect.

Jenny Nguyen Nelson as Tong, Christine Jamlig as Huong.

“Poor Yella Rednecks” was a hit with the audience at its San Francisco debut, though the impact of friends and family can be distorting.   Two aspects of the script may reduce the pleasure of this otherwise excellent production for some of the audience.  First is the considerable use of rap/hip-hop, sometimes organically, other times just plopped into the dialogue.  Although the origins of these talk/sing forms predate the period of the play, their popularity didn’t really emerge until significantly later, so their use feels anachronistic.  And to some listeners, the vocal stylings are simply harsh and unappealing.

I’m no prude, but the other detraction is the gratuitous and puerile overuse of vulgarity, which doesn’t fit to the situations depicted and is aesthetically unpleasing to some.  Is the playwright making a freedom-of-speech statement or what?  In one rap, Tong uses the “f” word every few seconds, and in another, she repeats the phrase “I don’t give a s**t” what must have been 20 times.  The excesses parallel the political strategy of appealing to the base, but with the risk of losing usual supporters who reject the resulting extremism.

Will Dao, Christine Jamlig, Jenny Nguyen Nelson, Hyunmin Rhee, Jomar Tagatac.

“Poor Yella Rednecks – Vietgone 2,”is written by Qui Nguyen, produced by American Conservatory Theater, and plays at Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA through May 7, 2023.

Grand Horizons


From the darkened stage, the upbeat recorded sound of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” plays.  Lights up.  Decrescendo music.  An elderly couple sits alone, passive and silent at first. 

She (matter of factly): “I think I would like a divorce.”

He (matter of factly): “All right.”

So begins “Grand Horizons,” a funny and serious and delightful look at fractious family life, from playwright Bess Wohl, wonderfully produced by San Jose Stage.


Bill (Julian López-Morillas) and Nancy (Lucinda Hitchcock) have been married for 50 years, and on the surface, they have been happy, or at least content.  But when they dispassionately announce their decision to divorce to their visiting adult sons, Brian (Nick Mandracchia) and Ben (Johnny Moreno), the boys are flabbergasted.  As expected, they have questions like “What happened?” but worse, they have answers, like “We can fix this,” as if the breakup could be within their control.  And when they finally realize that it could actually happen, it’s “Why couldn’t you get divorced when we finished school, like normal people?”

Problem is, kids often see parents through a restricted lens, only for their parental roles and not as complete people, especially not as people before they became parents.  In the equivalent of yelling “too much information” and covering their ears, the sons hear their mother’s unexpurgated account of a sexual experience of hers in candid language – and it wasn’t with their father.  Needless to say, the revelation is disconcerting.  Ben’s reaction is uncompromisingly severe and juvenile, screaming that their whole lives have been lies, BS.


As with many relationships, there are things that are said and things that are unsaid.  In Bill and Nancy’s case, one was having a current affair, and the other had maintained a relationship with a pre-marriage lover.  Each thought that their liaison was secret, but in both cases, the other spouse knew.  But more important than the transgressions, they suffered from the “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” syndrome, wanting to communicate and understand one another but not always knowing how.

Younger son, Ben is suffering such stress that he’s broken out with eczema.  His wife, Jess (Ashley Garlick) is with child.  As a marriage counselor, she maintains a professional cool and tries to get the older couple to open up with their feelings, while the sons have gone ballistic over the state of affairs.  But she finally cracks and joins the hostility when she concludes that the men treat Nancy like she’s nothing.  Nancy verifies that this feeling has been a cause of her building resentment.  She relates a confirming metaphor about being belittled, which her father had taught her while rowing on a lake.  Meanwhile, cracks in Ben and Jess’s communication appear.


But that’s just the beginning.  Many incidents enrich the proceedings – a chance meeting that Brian makes with a young man, Tommy (Matthew Kropschot); a visit from a ditsy foot-in-mouth friend Carla (Judith Miller), who shares advice about good vibrations; and an accident that causes further disruption to the chaos.  Wohl’s excellent script explores many aspects of character and family relationships that ring true, particularly those that create fissures.

Under Allison F. Rich’s direction, action and interaction are crisp.  The only hesitations are intended pauses that are used to great effect.  The acting corps could not be better.  An ensemble of seven actors from the first tier of the Bay Area’s outstanding acting pool are at the top of their games, extracting every drop of value from the playwright’s words.  They are supported by high quality production values.  Steve Schoenbeck’s outstanding sound design includes a pop and rock soundtrack that relates to the action and will leave the audience humming, especially those in the same age group as Bill and Nancy. Maurice Vercoutere’s lighting enhances the dramatic incidents and Robert Pickering’s scenic design.


Two final points to note – one is that I totally enjoyed the play, and the second is that its nature is farcical, which I often don’t like.  However, it is fair to say that viewers not disposed to broad humor will find some characters, particularly the sons and Carla (though in a brief appearance), to be one dimensional and overwrought and elements of the comedy to be sophomoric.  Most of us will find it a fun ride that also has significant meaning.

“Grand Horizons,” written by Bess Wohl, is produced by San Jose Stage, and plays in their theater at 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA through April 30, 2023.

A Distinct Society

Kenny Scott as Bruce, James Rana as Peyman (both foreground), Carrie Paff as Manon, Daniel Allitt as Declan (both center rear). All photos by Kevin Berne.

Between the United States and Canada lies not only the longest international border in the world but also, by far, the longest unprotected one.  The two countries share language, history, alliances, overlapping culture and food, and much more.  Until the evolution of the European Union, movement of people was the most unobstructed between two countries anywhere.  That has changed somewhat in the 21st century.   Broadly, differences in immigration policy for the undocumented and the Covid pandemic began to inhibit people flow.  One specific restriction enacted by the Trump administration in 2017 also stood out – the Muslim Travel Ban and its aftermath.

Playwright Kareem Fahmy taps into the American unease with Islam in his clever dramedy, “A Distinct Society,” but he introduces other dimensions to the storyline as well.  The TheatreWorks world premiere production, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, possesses superb stagecrafting and wonderful acting.

Carrie Paff as Manon, James Rana as Peyman.

Politically, northern New Hampshire is most noted for Dixville Notch, which is the first precinct to announce its vote for the U.S. Presidency every four years.  But 20 miles north exists the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, straddling the border between the U.S. and Quebec Province in Canada as a result of a surveying error that occurred before the library was built.  A line on the floor designates the border.  The playwright has deftly used this real-life anomaly as the crucible for the play’s conflicts.

A kerfuffle arises as a result of a social media posting which suggests that the library is a good crossborder meeting place.  The message is not lost on Muslims, particularly families with members on both sides of the divide.  Peyman (played by James Rana) is an Iranian-Canadian physician whose daughter Shirin (played by Vaneh Assadodurian) lives in the U.S.  Although they both live hours from the library, efforts to meet his daughter are central to the action.  To begin with, they suffer poor timing, but then Homeland Security steps in with the restriction that meetings cannot exceed five minutes and that no gifts can be given – even food.  And not only is Peyman a good chef, but Shirin has not been eating properly, and her father is sure that home-cooked Iranian cuisine is the solution.  The challenges of meeting will go from bad to worse.

Vaneh Assadourian as Shirin, James Rana as Peyman.

Two subplots complement the central action.  The more direct concerns Manon, the library manager, who is Quebecois, and is played with consummate skill by Bay Area veteran Carrie Paff.  She dances and sings tracts from the opera “Carmen” and speaks with a charming French accent.  Manon sympathizes with those trying to meet up, but she has her own rules that she enforces, and she is obligated to follow DHS rules as well.  They are reluctantly but emphatically enforced by Bruce (Kenny Scott), who also has a crush on Manon, though their backgrounds and interests differ vastly.

In another thread, Daniel Allitt, in a commanding first professional role, portrays Declan, an Irish-born, 15-year-old who comes to Haskell regularly from an hour away.   His pretext is the library’s graphic novel collection, but we later learn of his desire to escape the ridicule he faces in Quebec.  He often reads aloud from the novels, which focus on good and evil and distract at first, but ultimately the purpose comes through.

Daniel Allitt as Declan.

As disparate as these three substories seem, they make subtle but profound connections through their subtexts.  Fahmy shows in multiple contexts how the rigidity of rules can subvert humanity.  He also plumbs the importance of family and various dimensions of discrimination, trust, and ultimately, the power of love to stop people from destroying one another.  Finally, issues are expressed and implied about society and country, including the not always clear categorization of patriot versus terrorist.  His clay in molding these lessons and moral questions is comprised of five characters who we care about but who are flawed like real people.

Surprisingly, the play’s title does not refer to Islam.  In the Quebec separatist movement, climaxing in the 1995 vote for independence, the thematic appeal of the separatists was that Quebec was “a distinct society.”  And though the legal issues that pertain to the play are national level, U.S. to Canada, the sociocultural issues that derive from Quebec being French speaking, loom large.

Kenny Scott as Bruce, Carrie Paff as Manon.

“A Distinct Society” is highly involving.  With its complexity, many issues are broached, resulting in a number of denouements.  The actors are well cast and convincing in their roles.  Jo Winiarski’s scenic design is stunning in its overall look and detail.  Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting and Elton Bradman’s sound equally impress as they complement the set.

“A Distinct Society,” written by Kareem Fahmy, is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA through April 30, 2023.


Mehry Eslaminia as Elham, Christine Mirzayan as Goli, Sahar Bibiyan as Marjan, Amir Malaklou as Omid. All photos by Alessandra Mello.

English has gained the distinction of being the world’s most sought-after language.  It is the official language in more countries with advanced economies than any other.  It is the dominant lingua franca and sometimes official language of international business, international law, diplomacy, tourism, air traffic control, post-graduate educational materials, international conferences, global entertainment, and more.  English-speaking countries are the most desired targets for immigration – legal and undocumented.

Born to immigrant parents, Iranian-American playwright Sanaz Toossi looks at a part of the global industry that has derived from the ubiquitous nature of English – teaching English to non-native speakers.  Calling upon her own heritage to generate a narrative, her incisive dramedy “English” won both the Lucille Lortel and Obie awards for best new play in 2022.  Berkeley Rep presents a nicely produced and acted version of the work, intelligently directed by Mina Morita, that is worth seeing.  Yet, as well-crafted and revelatory as the script is, it lacks a wow factor.

Christine Mirzayan as Goli, Mehry Eslaminia as Elham.

Set in Karaj, Iran in 2008 at a private facility, four adult, advanced English learners comprise a class designed to prepare attendees for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, which is used as a benchmark by over 11,000 institutions worldwide.  The teacher is Marjan, who had spent nine years in the U.K., but she has returned to Iran.

The students vary in age, gender, and motivation for taking the course.  Some have more specific reasons, like an older woman, Roya, who plans to join her son and his family in Canada and a younger woman, the sometimes fractious Elham, aspiring to medical school in Australia.  The bubbly Goli simply wants to open new doors, while the goal of Omid, the only male and an accomplished English-speaker, is a mystery.

Classroom exchanges provide many humorous moments as students stumble along with fractured language.  Activities provide fun as well – imitating Christiane Amanpour in a role playing interview; a recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb;” a show-and-tell of a pencil; and a recurring tossing of a ball in a categories game.

But the dark underside has two elements.  One is that characters begin to clash.  Personality and behavioral differences arise in addition to open questioning about why individuals are there and whether they will be able to accomplish their goals.  Self-searching sets in.  The other and more intriguing aspect is the unearthing of the many unsettling issues of learning and speaking in a new language.  At the tip of the iceberg is inability to express oneself as precisely as in the mother tongue, and the effect that has on self-confidence and personality.  As Roya notes, her son, with the Anglicized name Nate, seems a different person from one language to the other.

Sahar Bibiyan as Marjan, Amir Malaklou as Omid.

Toossi’s text is malleable, and for that reason demands adept actors.  Although the playwright doesn’t intend it, it is easy to imagine the whole script being acted without a laugh.  But this cast cleverly extracts humor from everyday conversation, especially in the early going before conflicts among the characters emerge.

Because of the nature of the topic and setting, the script requires that a fair bit of Farsi be spoken.  One solution is that the actors could speak those lines in Farsi.  The drawbacks are that actors need to speak Farsi or be able to learn enough to mimic it; that the audience would have to read supertitles; and that some humor might be lost when spoken in a foreign language.  The somewhat confusing solution chosen is that when a character is supposedly speaking Farci, they speak in unaccented English, whereas, when speaking English, they have Iranian accents.  This solves the drawbacks.  Dialect Coach Ana Bayat has done a wonderful job, even coaching stronger and lesser accents among the characters.  However, it is sometimes difficult for the audience to know which language is being spoken, especially early on, before the device is understood.

Sarah Nina Hayon as Roya.

Perhaps the greatest thematic weakness of the piece is that the stakes are small, which diminishes the consequences of dramatic situations that occur and possibly the viewer’s emotional involvement with some characters.  Although the TOEFL exam represents a significant hurdle, not all students take the course or the exam with a specific purpose in mind.  What’s more, it can be retaken.   The applicant to Australian medical school had already taken it several times previously.

The single set staging is very effective, while the ensemble acting is solid. At the center is the almost always smiling Sahar Bibiyan who skillfully conveys her empathy as Marjan, yet she displays subtlety in her wariness and does have her limits. Mehry Eslaminia excels in the juiciest role as Elham. The most assertive and candid of the students, she jokes and whines and faces big obstacles in reaching English proficiency. In all, “English” engages for its full 100 minutes.

“English,” written by Sanaz Toossi, is produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and plays on their stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through May 7, 2023.

Our Trip to Antarctica (a real experience, not a play or opera!)

Vic and Karin landing in Antarctica – zodiac on the right, midsection of the ship behind us.

NOTE: I’ve circulated this travelog among friends and gotten positive feedback, including multiple suggestions to publish it. Included in the distribution was the owner of Berkshire Fine Arts, who is a friend and who also publishes my reviews. He asked if he could publish it, which I agreed to. So, given the encouragement, here it is on Cordell Reports as well.


Several friends have asked for reports about our Antarctic cruise, so here it is.  Given the 2,500 word length, it may be of more interest to us for our own external memory than for other people, but I have broken it into categories for picking and choosing.  It was a 9-day journey on Atlas Ocean Voyages, a new luxury brand, on the World Navigator.  We had previously decided to give the Antarctic a miss because of the potential misery of four days on the Drake Passage.  Then we learned of “Fly the Drake” (i.e., launching the cruise from South Georgia Island rather than Argentina or Chile) and became interested.  But we came upon a deal that included the Drake that was too good to pass up.

The voyage started inauspiciously with a 12-hour departure delay because of high seas in the Drake.  Our itinerary was unaffected, but the first day in the Drake was sheer misery – just what we feared. Motion sickness pills held our nausea at bay, but I was totally wiped out from a combination of conditions and slept any time I wasn’t eating or at a lecture.  If that wasn’t bad enough, on the return, the cruise truncated the Antarctica portion, skipping two landings because of heavy winds and seas.  Then we endured 92 mile an hour winds (i.e., hurricane force) on the Drake, which the ship’s captain had never witnessed in 10 years in the region.  We also confronted 35-foot waves, some of which T-boned the ship, while head-on is preferred.  After passing through the heart of the storm, I asked what height of waves might be cause for concern for structural damage or capsizing, and the navigation staff said that they were concerned.  For this, we waited 40 years before visiting our seventh continent!

“The Skinny” – Visitation Facts First

There’s no denying that visiting the White Continent is a special experience.  The pristine, austere, chilling environment has still been visited by very few people.  With the foresighted international treaties and practices that protect its character, it is a privilege to enjoy this extreme environment.  For those interested in Antarctica, note that currently, only ships with pax capacity of under 200 are allowed to land passengers.  Larger vessels cruise by only with no up-close and personal.  Depending on the specific destination, we sometimes had the choice of specified short hikes, milling around the landing site, or zodiac cruising.  Kayaking and standup paddling were available where safe for a fee.

Far more than most, Antarctica is a tourism crap shoot. Though the Expedition Leader plans an itinerary, the Ship’s Captain is the final authority, with weather playing the determinant factor.  We had four days scheduled for the Antarctic, and the first three were good to beautiful, with temperatures around freezing, some sunny patches, and modest winds. The fourth was the beginning of the epic struggle.

For those who are most interested in the wildlife, Antarctica offers a deep dive into a narrow range of animals.  One of the biggest highlights was seeing our first penguin colony on the continent, though we had seen temperate-climate varieties in South Africa, New Zealand, and the Galapagos.  As with all species, visitors are to remain 15 feet away from the animals, but it doesn’t seem that the penguins got the memo.  They often intruded on our space recklessly!  We saw beaucoups of penguins in rookeries (as it was the season) and beyond – mainly gentoo and chinstraps, but a couple of out-of-place kings as well. They are charming and fun to watch, with many chicks in their baby fuzz.

The observations were virtually all smiles, except that one of the staff did capture and share a video of two predator brown skuas snatching a penguin chick from under a parent with no resistance from penguins around (chickens!).  Then the skuas ate the carcass right there in the rookery.  When you think about how species adapt to their environments, perhaps a lot of species seem odd.  But among other factors, penguins need flatish, rocky areas without snow to incubate eggs, which would seem to make an Antarctica residence a stretch.  And unlike, say, Rocky Mountain Sheep who gracefully bound and navigate treacherous rocks, penguins look like fish out of water in their chosen terrain with their wobbly gait and flailing wings.  But they sure are cute!

A key factor in the distinctive fauna of Antarctica versus the Arctic is that the latter attaches to lower latitudes by continuous land, so that you get a continuity of animal species.  Antarctica is separated from other continents by the vast Southern Ocean, so that the species found there are water migratory or pelagic, which is why you don’t see wolves, antelopes, and such.  We did see several other types of birds from the gull, albatross, and cormorant families, as well as the graceful Antarctic and Arctic Terns (yes, they migrate the length of the globe).  We saw only two mammal types.  There were onesies and twosies of three types of seals that were pretty lethargic.  But the biggest excitement apart from penguins was numerous sightings and breechings of humpback whales, both from the ship and from zodiacs.  Among the citizen science projects that pax could engage in was a humpback identification project.  Each humpback has a unique tail fluke, and any photo captures can be shared with a research data base to learn more about family association and migration.

In addition to the wildlife, the white wilderness is striking.  The only other natural colors to be seen are the gray of the rocks and aqua blue in glacier crevices which results from great depth of ice and pressure over time.  Many glaciers come down to water.  We had seen calving, when ice sheets sheer off glaciers into the water in Alaska but did not experience it here.  We did however see icebergs with stunning blue striations as well as auto-sized, clear, egg-shaped ice rocks with honeycombed surfaces that come from pressure forcing air bubbles to the surface.

The most interesting panorama was Deception Island.  It is a large active volcanic caldera with a live vent and enough of a gap in the circle of mountains to allow capable vessels to enter the caldera.  It’s quite a sight to be in surrounded by a circle of white mountains lurching up from the sea.  We were scheduled to have land and zodiac excursions there, but our disappointment was that conditions didn’t allow getting off the ship.  Although the water surface was pretty flat, it was covered with mini-whitecaps from 50 mph winds.

Our connection with civilization was seeing a couple of people on the deck of a wreck-hunting vessel.  We passed two research stations, one Argentinian and one Spanish, but we saw no people outside.  We also saw a rusting shipwreck from over a century ago.

Shipboard Experience – For Those Considering the Voyage

Probably all carriers that offer landing privileges in Antarctica fit a similar profile.  I can only speak specifically to Atlas’s World Navigator and say this.  The experience is luxury quality.  Staterooms are large and well appointed.  Dining offerings are aspirational, and it’s remarkable how they can keep the quality up for nine days without reprovisioning.  They offer the obligatory afternoon tea but have no specialty dining venues.  Internet was spotty and slow, and while I could sometimes surf, I couldn’t use email at all for almost the full voyage because the Yahoo server is so slow loading.  General shipboard service is high quality.  You won’t get entertainment that is on offer from the Obesities of the Sea.  Piano bar, torch singing, amateurish staff performances, and guest dancing can be expected, along with voyage-relevant movies.  We were disappointed that they didn’t have competitive name-that-tune and trivia kinds of activities.   Bridge, anyone?  No.  There are two “biggest d***” activities – the polar plunge, a few seconds spent in the Southern Ocean for anyone and for free, and camping, an expensive overnight with small capacity and a wait list.  One of our usual meal companions, retired Iranian-American architect, Raheem, did both – at a healthy age 82.

At our age and condition, we passed on both extreme activities.  For me, the condition was that I had severe cold/flu/covid symptoms from early in the cruise. Karin followed by a few days.  We’ve both gone through periods of voluminous phlegm production, hacking coughs, total enervation, and in my case, limited appetite for food and drink (what timing!).   Each of us tested negative for covid, but my guess is that we either tested too late or had a variant that wasn’t captured.  It’s also noteworthy that while covid was mentioned in various staff presentations, it was only in historical context, never with concern for normative behavior.  We wore masks when not eating or drinking to protect other people, but only a few other passengers did, and we know that others had some symptoms.

You quickly begin to appreciate why these cruises are so expensive – high staff to guest ratio; small guest capacity and thus little financial leveraging of resources; special facilities and special equipment.  And then there is the expedition staff.  We had 12, of which at least three had polar station or expedition experience.  One was on the force that located the sunken Endurance, lost over a century ago (see below for more specifics).  They were a highly skilled team that led excursions and gave briefings and lectures on all aspects of polar exploration.  I was very impressed that Atlas had assembled such a team and offered such a flawless experience in their very first season in Antarctica.

In the seventh continent, we had two scheduled excursions per day.  Each activity involved one hour off the ship and required probably an hour-and-a-half of combined preparation and winddown.  So when you think about it, the financial expenditure relative to the essential experience is even higher than you might suspect.  Pax get to keep the cozy parkas but not the provided boots.  The only real cold we felt was on the face (Balaclavas or the like would help) and fingertips (battery-powered hand warmers come in handy).

In a sense, this is similar to a repositioning cruise in that there are no days off the boat investigating various cultures.  Here, the only culture pertains to the stories of the brave people who have spent serious time on the continent.

Antarctic Exploration and Lore

It’s hard to be not totally awed by the unparalleled courage of the early Antarctic explorers.  You can’t imagine any exploration having more risk, more sacrifice, more painful conditions with chronic frostbite and gangrene among the concerns.  Two names associated with successful Antarctic exploration are Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who won the race by leading the first expedition to reach the South Pole in December, 1911, but who was criticized for seeking only personal glory and serving no societal purpose.  The other in pursuit was Britisher Robert Scott, who did have research objectives.  His expedition launched in the same season, but facing particularly adverse conditions, Scott reached the South Pole a month later.  In one of the great “what-ifs” in history, Amundsen decided to return from the Pole with a tank of kerosene that his party would probably not need.  The alternative was to leave it behind in the expectation that Scott’s party would find it and might need it given the worse conditions that Scott would have faced from the late start.  Sadly, Scott’s men could have used Amundsen’s excess fuel to unfreeze food on their return.  Scott and all of his men perished instead.  You can only imagine the unfolding tragedy.

But ask anyone steeped in Antarctica, and one man is revered above all as a leader, despite the fact that he never accomplished his exploration objectives.  That was Englishman Ernest Shackleton.  No expedition leader put the safety of his men before his own glory like Shackleton.   To lighten load when weight was essential, he dumped precious gold memorabilia and a bible given him by the Belgian royalty.  When a man’s gloves were lost, Shackleton threatened to drop his own fur-lined gloves into the sea if the man didn’t take them.

His expedition in 1907 would have been the first to reach the South Pole, but calculating that a shortfall in provisions from continuing would result in the deaths of one or more men, he turned back only 90 miles from the goal.  On another expedition, his vessel, Endurance, was strangled by trap ice in the Weddell Sea and eventually forced by the relentless ice down into a watery grave.  The description of the inescapable, constant whining and grinding sounds of the ice imposing its will on the wood was chilling.  Shackleton and a few men improvised an escape from Antarctica in a powerless, rudderless lifeboat, and in a heart-stopping adventure they were lucky enough to make landing at South Georgia Island.  Had they missed this spec in the ocean, sure death would have followed.  Not only did Shackleton return to rescue the rest of the force which wintered in Antarctica, but he also led another harrowing rescue mission that would add nothing to his resume or marketability for financing future expeditions but showed his dedication to his men.  I believe that he never lost a man in spite of overwhelming challenges and hardships. I’m a little dubious about self-indulgent, high-risk adventurers, but I find Ernest Shackleton to be the most admirable expedition leader ever.

Travel Tie Ins

Many people simply did the cruise, which did include air charter from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia.  We figured that if we went that far, we might see other stuff in the area, so we spent a few days each in Buenos Aires and Santiago, both of which we had been to before.  For having many parallels, they are very different.  I won’t go into that except to say that we like BA which architecturally has a vibrant mix of Parisian formality with an organic naturalism.  Santiago is similar to Johannesburg, dominated by suburban communities that look like fairly prosperous South Florida – many high-rise residences surrounded by lush greenery, but with a downtown that is graffiti-ridden and dangerous.  However, there are interesting excursions from Santiago.  For the nature types in either country, Patagonia is the best bet.  Both also have nice wine regions, but Santiago’s is much more convenient.


Waffling is us.  Of course, whether Antarctica makes sense for you depends on you.  On the good versus great distinction, it was good for us, though I admit that the reflection involved with writing this piece raised my appreciation level.  Reasons – For us, we were mostly wildlife driven, and after eight or so wildlife-dominated vacations with huge variety in animals in most, we would rank this among our less interesting.  It is very expensive relative to alternatives.  If you take a traditional cruise, you have four pretty dead days on the Drake except for any lectures.  If you’re subject to motion sickness, it is a big gamble, but the yet more expensive option is to Fly the Drake. 

Most people rave about Antarctica, but you have to wonder if there isn’t a little cognitive dissonance in operation for some people.  However, for those with a special interest in the area or for the bucket-list driven, it is the brass ring.  Go for it!