Saturday, September 22, 2018

Review: Spring Awakening Musical (Blank Theatre Company)

There is good news and there is bad news about the inaugural production of the Blank Theater Company.

The good news is that their first show, Spring Awakening, (playing through September 30 at the Frontier Theatre in Edgewater) is beautifully performed, choreographed, and directed in an intimate blackbox theatre that showcases the excellence of some promising young actors.

The bad news (at least for you) is that every remaining seat of their next set of shows is completely sold out (and they don't have the ability to extend.)  There is a waiting list, and you should get on it. Pronto.

My wife and I attended the show as a date night.

The play has extra meaning for us, because we saw it on Broadway in New York, with Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in it, before they were television stars and household names.  While I knew the theatre was small (approximately 50 seats), and I was expecting it to be good, I really had no inkling that the performers would shine so brightly.

Get the Broadway Soundtrack to
Spring Awakening  on Amazon


The play itself is a musical adaptation of Franz Wedekind's first play, written in 1891, and first performed in 1906 in Berlin.  The show, set in a 19nth century German school, is about sexual repression and tension and both the rise of sexual desire (hence awakening) and the lack of knowledge that kids have about sex and their own bodies.    In today's snapchat, bikini-wearing, pornhub universe, these teenagers seem unspeakably naive and unknowledgable.

A great scene is the opening one, where Wendla, a young girl appears before her mother in a short skirt that she has outgrown.  Her mom complains that she should put on more proper clothes.  Wendla says, "But this dress makes me feel like a fairy princess among the flowers.  The mother says, "You are in full bloom, dear."  She later demands to know where babies come from, and her mom tells her a man and a woman have to love one another.  This serves her in poor stead later when [SPOILER ALERT!] she has sex with the main character Melchior, gets pregnant, and then dies from a botched abortion (or in German code, anemia.)
Wendla (Haley Bolithon) comforts Melchior (Jeremiah Alsop) photo by Nick McKenzie

There are many great performances in this show, with special shoutouts to Jeremiah Alsop as Melchior and Sam Shankman as Moritz.  Moritz is a D student on the verge of failing his classes who is so addled by his thoughts of girls and breasts that he can't concentrate on the classics, and Melchior is a young brilliant intellectual who knows more about sex than all his classmates combined, but has no practical knowledge to back it up.  These young men have great chemistry as friends, and both of them bring great intensity to their work that makes a lot of their stage time mesmerizing.

Herr Knochenbruch (Mike Weaver) and Fraulein Knuppeldick (Lisa Savegnago) question Melchior (Jeremiah Alsop)
about the author of an inappropriate essay.  Photo by Nick McKenzie
 Also great were the adults (who played all of the parents and teachers) Mike Weaver and Lisa Savegnago.  They bring a great priggishness to the show and unwittingly set up a lot of the tragedy that occurs during the show.  They play a lot of characters and do a good job differentiating them.  I also want to shout out Haley Bolithon as Wendla and Claire Latourrette as Ilsa, both of whom do great justice to their characters.  I have called out these people, but the whole cast was top-notch.  There was an understudy on the night we saw the show (I know, understudies in a 50 seat theatre!) and I truly couldn't tell who it was.
Ilse (Claire Latourette) surprises Moritz (Sam Shankman)  photo by Nick McKenzie.

The set design was simple, as were the music orchestrations, played by a company of 4. They are constantly present, but not part of the scene.  (At one point I got a little thrown off, because the drummer seemed to be asleep, although I am pretty sure that they just had their eyes closed and were concentrating.)  But I started to wonder....

I also need to point out the choreography, which is avant-garde but filled with appropriate tics and sudden movements.  The choreography from the original show as by Bill T. Jones, and I remember thinking it was amazing how the avant-garde has become commercial.
The cast of Spring Awakening sings "Touch Me."  You can see some of the choreography here.  photo by Nick McKenzie


See on Amazon.

There is a lot of tragedy in the show, including a suicide, a botched death, an expulsion, bullying, etc.  Somehow, they manage to end the show on a promise of hope rather than in the tragedy of youth.  It's a good message, and especially timely for today's era of #metoo, #itgetsbetter, and #grabherbythepussy.

I spoke briefly to the director after the show, who said that they would explore the possibility of a remount or an extension if they could, but they are also focusing on their next show, Blackbird by David Harrower, which will come out Spring 2019. If you want to find out more, or to support his new theatre company, visit them online at

Friday, September 21, 2018

Resources for Grieving Students

A recent tragedy afflicted our school just before school started this year.  A father murdered his two kids and then killed himself.  The kids were a year ahead of my son, and I don't think he knew them, but terrible things happen.

The school is providing counselors, but I started looking for some resources to put together for our PTA web-page, and while there are a lot of resources available, I didn't see any that compiled a lot of resources, so I'm doing that here as a public service.  (In the end I decided to publish this private, because I don't think the school wants the PTA to provide resources like this, as they should be referrring to CPS. But I'm a rogue, and I think more information is better than less, and perhaps this work will be beneficial to the larger community than just our school.)

God willing, you will never have to utilize the books and resources on this page, but just in case, here they are.

Articles and Resources

Michele Borba reprints a great article from Dr. Harold Koplewicz from the Child Mind Institute:

Education World, an online publication, has information from a school administrator's perspective. When Tragedy Strikes: What Schools Should Do

 This NY Times article, although written in 1992, has some pretty good advice, and shows that this is not a problem that started overnight.

This Washington Post article from 2015 also has some valuable tips.

Five Tips for Supporting Grieving Students from Edutopia.

Do's and Don'ts from the Dougy Center

One of the best resources I found was  The Dougy Center:  The National Center for Grieving Children and Families which has a lot of information.

These Do's and Don'ts are especially valuable, from their web page When Death Impacts Your School  They also have a number of tip sheets, and ways to start support groups.  If you need them, you should definitely check out their website.
  • DO listen. Grieving students need a safe, trusted adult who will listen to them
  • DO follow routines. Routines provide a sense of safety which is very comforting to the grieving student.
  • DO set limits. Just because students are grieving, doesn’t mean that the rules do not apply. When grieving, students may experience lapses in concentration or exhibit risk taking behavior. Setting clear limits provides a more secure and safer environment for everyone under these circumstances.
  • DO NOT suggest that the student has grieved long enough.
  • DO NOT indicate that the student should get over it and move on.
  • DO NOT act as if nothing has happened.
  • DO NOT say things like:
    - “It could be worse. You still have one brother.”
    - “I know how you feel.”
    - “You’ll be stronger because of this.”
  • DO NOT expect the student to complete all assignments on a timely basis.
I've also compiled a list of books that might be helpful.

Books for Kids about Tragedies and Grieving.

(Grades pre-3) A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret Holmes A gentle story for children who have witnessed any kind of violent or traumatic event, including homicide.
(Grades 1-8) After a Murder:  a Workbook for Grieving Kids by The Dougy Center This hands-on workbook helps children learn that they are not alone and how other children have coped.  Activities and word games normalize intense feelings and explain confusing actions of police, the media and the courts.
(Grades 3-7) The Boy Who Sat by the Window:  Helping Children Cope with Violence by Chris Loftis The story of a community’s shock after a random drive-by shooting of a small boy, told through the eyes of a classmate.
(Grades 1-5) Children Also Grieve:  Talking about Death and Healing by Linda Goldman  Children and adults will read this together.  Discusses loss and grief in general.  Includes excerpt on homicide.
(Grades 6-12) Just One Tear by K.L. Mahon The author, a 14-year old girl, created this short novel.  Written in diary format, it covers a two-month period of time in the life of a 13-year old boy whose father is shot and killed in front of him.
(Grades 3-8)  Reactions by Alison Salloum A workbook to help young people understand common reactions to the experience of trauma and grief.
(Grades 6-9) When Someone You Know has been Killed by Jay Schleifer An exceptional resource that speaks directly to youth who are suffering traumatic loss.

   Books for Adults about Grief and Children Grieving

A Grief Like No Other:  Surviving the Violent Death Of Someone You Love by Kathleen O’Hara The author shares her personal account of the murder of her college-age son and offers practical steps and stages for healing and overcoming grief following a violent death.
Breaking the Silence:  A Guide to Help Children with Complicated Grief by Linda Goldman This book provides specific ideas and techniques to work with children in various areas of complicated grief.
Coping With Traumatic Death:  Homicide by Bob Baugher & Lew Cox This book was devised to help you understand some of what to expect following the murder of a family member or friend.  It’s divided into sections – the first days, the first weeks, the first months, the first year and beyond.
The Forgiving Place:  Choosing Peace after Violent Trauma by Richard R. Grayton & Amrianne Williams The author’s wife was murdered in their home during a robbery.  This book concentrates on handling the emotional legacy of intentional violence.
No Time for Goodbyes:  Coping with Sorrow, Anger and Injustice after a Tragic Death by Janice Harris Lord This book offers understanding and insight into violent death.  Includes comments from survivors and offers practical information with legal and financial issues.
Retelling Violent Death by Edward K. Rynearson Offers a strategy for therapeutic retelling following the homicide, suicide or accidental death of a loved one.
What to Do When the Police Leave:  A Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss by Bill Jenkins A book filled with factual guidance vital to families suffering a traumatic loss.
When a Child Has Been Murdered:  Ways You Can Help the Grieving Parents by Bonnie Hunt Conrad A resource for those suffering the homicide of a child supporting an adult whose child has been murdered.
When Father Kills Mother:  Guiding Children through Trauma and Grief by Jean Harris-Hendricks, Dora Black & Tony Kaplan This second edition book shares information about the effects of psychological trauma and bereavement on children who have experienced the death of one parent at the hands of the other.

As I said above, I hope you never need these resources. But if you do, here they are. The final thing I'd say is that from my reading on this topic, grief hits different kids in different ways. If you think your kid is impacted by grief, consider talking to them or bringing them into see a professional.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Crying over Kol Nidre: NYPD Blue Edition

Last night was Erev Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and I spent most of it crying.  I wasn't in synagogue listening to the beautiful Kol Nidre service (although that had been the plan)  Instead I was at a different altar (the television set),  weeping over a fictional made up tragedy.   I'll tell you about it in a little bit.

As I have chronicled here before-- I have a difficult time with my Judaism/going to synagogue  I want to not go, but I feel guilty about not wanting to go, and feel like I should go.  On the other hand, I rarely have a spiritual moment when I'm there.  Yet, still on another hand, if I want my son to have a chance at a Jewish life, I should suck it up.  Yet, I feel like I'm doing it out of obligation to my dead mother.  I've got so many hands on this, I'm clearly a Jewish octopus.

[SIDENOTE : OMG!  I had no idea when I googled Jewish Octopus that it is a major anti-semite theme!  It makes perfect sense.  Here's an image of a Jewish Octopus from 1891
F.T. Richards, “Our Old Friend to the Octopus,” from Life, December 9, 1891. via Haaretz

and here's a Nazi version of the Jewish Octopus

I had no idea.

Back to the story:  My wife was unequivocal.  She wanted to go.  So we made reservations and paid for our High Holiday tickets.  We split our ticket this year-- Rosh Hashanah at Mishkan, Yom Kippur at Tzedek.  Both of them are progressive Jewish congregations in our area.

Except, come last night, and my wife has a headache and we end up not going.  I feel slightly off the hook about going, but also slightly guilty, and kind of relieved (see Jewish octopus comment above)  I make dinner, and my wife didn't like what I made, so I made her something else, and she didn't like that either, but that's grist for a different mill.

After dinner, and after the bear goes to bed, we retreat to our different corners of the house to watch television.

I start watching my latest binge watch show.  I'm watching NYPD Blue, which was the show that first got me hooked on television.  In the 90's I didn't own a television at all, and then I bought one so that I could watch videos, and it got some stations.  One of them had NYPD Blue on reruns.  I was sick one day, and tired of reading, so I watched a dumb cop show on TV, and lo and behold it wasn't dumb, it was so good, and the acting was great.  I started watching them all, and then used that VCR to tape NYPD Blue twice a day.  When TIVO came around, it was a godsend for my worn out videotape.

The three hours of NYPD Blue I watched were pretty momentous, and I started weeping in the first hour and wept pretty continuously throughout all three.

WARNING:  THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.  But since this show premiered 20+ years ago, get over your own self.

The first hour was Season 3, Episode 19, "Auntie Maimed." 

S3, E19, "Auntie Maimed." 

If you don't know the show at all, I am not going to explain the plot for you.  But basically, the protagonist is Andy Sipowicz, a former drunk/blue collar cop who manages to pull himself together after being shot in Season 1, and has married a D.A. He's a fantastic character, both bullheaded and mean and with the proverbial heart of gold, but it's hidden.)  It's now Season 3, and he's made a lot of progress.

In this episode, Andy's wife Sylvia is very pregnant, and he ends up getting beeped in the middle of a case that she's on the way to the hospital.  Andy drops everything and goes to meet her, along with his son Andy Jr..  He had been a terrible father to Andy Jr. his whole life, because of drinking, and it was only recently that he started having a relationship with him after ignoring him his whole life.  Andy Jr. is going to become a cop in Hackensack, and his dad has been showing him the ropes, finally able to contribute meaningfully.

Andy goes to the hospital to meet Sylvia, and she's on a stretcher, she has the baby, and there's a touch and go moment where it looks like she might bleed out, but she's okay.  Andy comes out to greet Andy Jr. and hugs him, telling him that this little guy is going to need his attention, but he doesn't love him any less.  It was a touching moment.
Andy, Sylvia, and the baby.  The moment before the tragedy starts going.  And the moment I started weeping.

But I was weeping once Sylvia is saved because I already know the story of this tragedy.

Andy Jr. gets killed in a bar shooting, trying to save somebody, and Sylvia will be killed a little while later, in another shooting at the courthouse.  Andy will lose his sobriety over both of these things. But right now, here is Andy at the top of his game, seeming like nothing is going to go wrong.  The happy hero at the start of his adventures.  And I started weeping for what is to come.

S3, E20, "A Death In The Family."

And then very next episode (S3, Episode 20) is a Death In the Family.  It's the episode where Andy Jr. dies!  It's directly after the baby gets born!  Once I realize that,  I am bawling throughout the episode.  There's a genius moment when Andy goes on a hospital run and he realizes that the victim's effects are his son's effects, and he can't quite put it together.  He spends the rest of the episode desperately trying to hold it together, and failing, and you are watching him fail, and I am sobbing uncontrollably.  He also asks his partner Bobby Simone (the infallible Jimmy Smits) to kill the guys who did this, and he almost does, except he doesn't and thank God, because it's not the right guys.)

The episode ends with Andy drinking, and the squad hasn't solved the case, and it is doom and gloom.  And I am still sobbing.
End of episode, Andy is about to succumb to drinking.  I am yelling at the screen, and sobbing "Don't Do It."

But I can't not watch the next episode, (S3, E21, "Closing Time") and Andy is drinking and gets kicked out of the house.

S3, E21, "Closing Time"

There are a number of genius moments in this episode:

Sylvia kicks Andy out of the house until he stops drinking and lying and acknowledging his actions, and he's drunk, and he says "Do you mind if I touch the baby."  And she says no, and then yes, sure.  And he touches the baby's crib, just a little, and that's enough, because he knows he's wrong, he just can't admit it.

Later he goes to his job, and he's cracking wise, and falls asleep during an interview, and nearly gets himself fired.  He gets sent home to deal with it by his boss Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel), who tells him "I haven't canned you yet out of respect for what you've gone through and what you can do, but next time I see you you are sober or you are out of a job."  Andy's anger and his sarcasm in this scene are intense.

Bobby shoots the skells who killed Andy Junior in a slow motion shootout.
 Later in the episode, Bobby and Diane (Kim Delaney) manage to meet a prostitute that leads them to the two guys.  In a street shoot out, Bobby kills them both.  (But it's a clean shoot, they were gunning for him. So ethics crisis averted.  The squad trys to tell Andy, but he's in a bar when he finds out.  He's drunk off his gourd, and tries to move three young black men off their stoop where they are hanging out.  (He had told Andy about how to do that when he was giving lessons, and Andy has been blaming himself for Andy Jr.'s do-gooder streak that got him killed) The three boys challenge him, and then beat him, taking his gun and breaking his ribs.  This was in 1996, and obviously still resonates today.

Now Bobby and Greg and Officer Shannon and Lt. Fancy manage to find the gun with some brilliant police work.  They find the guy whose name is Knowledge Islam, and Lt. Fancy tells him if he brings him to the gun he can walk away from the five years for assaulting a police officer.  Knowledge says, how do I know you won't kill me once you have what you want?  Fancy says, "You know where your mom is at?  You, me, and your mom go get the gun, and you walk home with her."   Genius moment and keeps me bawling.

Andy, beat up.
Fancy finds the gun, and asks Andy, "What's left on this job for you?"  And Andy, bullheaded, says, I can help people.  I can do good if I can stop drinking.  Fancy says "Next time this happens, and you are drinking, you could get killed, and your wife won't have a husband, and your baby won't have a father, and some guys will go to jail for something that didn't have to be."  Andy accepts that , and Fancy believes in him and lets him keep his job! He says, "Don't make me sorry."  and Andy, says "I won't boss.  Thanks."  Pedestrian, but the way he does it kills me.

But what kills me is Andy, in the hospital.  He's all beat up, he's sobered up some and he's realized how much jeopardy his future is in. He thanks Bobby for putting up with his crap, and Bobby sticks it to him.  He says, Partner, do you want our help?  Andy says yes, help me.

It's the moment where he truly recognizes that he is powerless.  At the end of the episode, he knocks on Sylvia's door and asks her to please take him back.  "The key for me is I can not drink" The acting is so powerful, and she says "we love you" and takes him back.

By the end of this, I have been weeping for a good two hours, thinking about how when you screw up you have to ask for forgiveness, and start with a clean slate.  That your tragedy unfolds before you, but you still have to go on.  Which is exactly what Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur are all about.  So I didn't go to services, but I was right there in the thick of it, at least emotionally.

If services were more like NYPD Blue, maybe I'd go more often!