Saturday, January 31, 2009

Day 115/365 - Support Group

Today was the January weekend meet-up of the DC Social group on Flickr. As an aperitif, a dozen or so of us braved the cold to go on a photowalk around the Dupont Circle section of Washington, DC led by the inestimable Mr. T in DC, who proved to be an excellent guide. Then we joined the rest of the crew at Buffalo Billiards to eat, drink, and be merry (and get warmed up).

I often wonder just what people think when we get together like this and start photographing every thing in sight. We're like a support group for camera geeks, although it's not an addiction we're looking to kick.

"Hi, my name is Kevin and I'm a photography junkie."

(Taken with my Nikon D80)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Day 114/365 - The Miserable Ones

Unlike yesterday, today I actually remembered to go on the Ticketplace website and get myself a half-price ($53) ticket to see tonight’s production of ‘Les Miserables’ at Signature Theatre in Shirlington. There’s no Metro station in Shirlington, so since I don’t drive I had to catch a bus at the Pentagon. I hate riding the bus, but it’s a non-stop, ten-minute trip there from the Pentagon so it’s not that bad. Arlington County has talked about building a street car line that would run out to Shirlington, but there are no signs of that actually happening yet.

Before heading over to the theater I stopped in at Aroma, an Indian restaurant, and had dinner. I opted for the vegetable sampler (pakoras, samosa, and aloo tikki) and the Murgh Korma Mugulai (mildly spicy chicken curry with almonds and raisins over rice pilaf) and both were quite good. I timed things perfectly for once and got to the theater just in time to check my coat and get to my seat without either having to rush or being stuck waiting around.

This was not a national touring company production of Les Mis. Recently, the corporation that owns the rights to the play chose to license it to any local theaters who wished to stage their own productions. Signature Theatre took them up on their offer. There is no gimmicky turntable stage in this production. The play is performed in three-quarters ‘theater in the round’ on a low rostrum stage. It’s a good choice and lends the play an intimacy and immediacy that you didn’t get with the touring company staging. The orchestra, set design, and costumes are quite good as well, although there are certainly some bad wig choices (think cheesy, androgynous ‘80s rock rather than dirty, downtrodden 19th century rabble).

The cast, however, is one area where Signature’s production clearly suffers in comparison to the national touring companies. I place the blame squarely on the primary scourge of modern theater – amplified sound systems that lead to the casting of singers with thin, weak voices. Microphones and speakers have no place in musical theater. If you cannot project your voice to the back row of the theater then you need to find a new avocation because you’re not qualified to be on stage. Several of the actors in this production fall into this category: Valjean (acting – adequate; singing – very limited range and struggles with the higher and softer notes), Thenardier (a stand-in for this performance)(acting – poor and caricaturish, evidently the Child Catcher from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ served as the inspiration for his performance; singing – dreadfully weak, he may as well have whispered his lines and songs), and adult Cosette (acting – unremarkable; singing – shrill and nasally).

The unforgiveable sin of this production is the inadequate casting of Eponine. Although the part is small, I believe Eponine is the heart of Les Mis. She connects the various demi-mondes in the play and links all the characters to one another, plus she sings the two best songs – ‘On My Own’ and ‘A Little Fall of Rain.’ Signature’s Eponine is unfortunately not up to either acting or singing the part. She mugs her way through the role with a permanent, plastic, quasi-maniacal grin on her face that is horribly misplaced. Note: Eponine is tortured and tormented, not giddy and gleeful. And it would be nice if she didn’t frequently sing off-key. Thanks.

It’s not all disappointment with this cast, though. There are some strong performances: Javert (acting – tough to know given that the part is hammish by nature, but he seemed quite good and he made me wonder if the actors playing Valjean and Javert should have swapped parts; singing – good strong voice), Fantine (acting – good, singing – quite good), Enjolras (acting and singing both quite good), and particularly Marius (all-around excellent). In addition the child performers do admirably well with young Cosette and Gavroche. The director’s decision to substantially cut Gavroche’s highly entertaining ‘Little People’ song was a bit puzzling, however. If cuts were needed I’d have recommend targeting Javert’s ‘Stars’ instead, which bears the double burden of being not a particularly good song and adding nothing new or meaningful to our understanding of the character.

Taken as a whole then I believe that Signature’s production of Les Mis is worth seeing, although I’d certainly recommend taking advantage of the availability of half-price tickets rather than paying full fare. It’s a noble experiment and a fresh, imaginative staging of what had become a weary workhorse of the theater. And it still features a great story and great songs. It’s just a shame Signature didn’t do a better job with the casting.

(BTW: the secondary scourge of modern theater is the knee-jerk standing ovation. It’s the dramatic equivalent of grade inflation. Audiences should reserve standing o’s for truly outstanding performances and not hand them out like candy at Halloween to every production that comes along. End of rant.)

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Day 113/365 - Dinner at Johnny Rockets

I had originally planned on getting a half-price ticket to see Signature Theatre Company's production of "Les Miserables" tonight. I got busy at work though and didn't remember to buy the ticket until after Ticketplace had already closed for the day. Phooey.

So I swung by the Pentagon City mall instead to pick up a new coat to take to Venice with me next month. I didn't want to lug my overcoat or peacoat with me, and I wanted something heavier and dressier than just a fleece. I found a dark grey jacket that I think will work pretty well. Should keep me warm and keep me from looking too much like a bumpkin. And it was on sale for half-price -- bonus!

After buying the coat at Macy's I popped into the Johnny Rockets at the mall for dinner (tuna melt on rye, order of half-rings, half-fries and a vanilla Coke). I like Johnny Rockets, but I try not to eat there too often. Pretty much everything they have is fried and I'm not trying to die anytime soon.

Although their chocolate-peanut butter shakes are pretty much to-die-for.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Day 112/365 - All Bundled Up

For this week's self-portrait we have me all bundled to brave the cold. From the looks of things you'd think I was going to mush a team of huskies across the tundra, but I was just ambling down to the Corner Bakery Cafe to grab some breakfast and read the paper.

Today was an 'unscheduled leave' day for the Federal government. That means you can just up and take the day off if you want on account of the icy weather (and the fact that nearly all the local school districts are closed), but you'll get charged for a day of vacation time. Seemed like a fair trade to me today, so I decided to play hooky.

Between now and the end of the year I have to use up approximately 115 hours of vacation time or I'll lose it. Even with the Venice trip next month I'll still have over 70 hours of annual leave to spend. My niece's wedding in Texas in May will take some of that, as will the Alaskan cruise my bro wants to go on in June, and the rest I'll probably squander in dribs and drabs like today.

Now I think it's time to pop my fireplace DVD in the player, settle down in my big comfy armchair with a mug of hot chocolate, listen to my Time-Life Big Band CDs, and read some old "Terry and the Pirates" comic strips from 1939.

It's good to be the king.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Day 111/365 - Snow Day

Today we got our first real snow of the winter. It was only a couple inches, but that's more snow than we've seen around here for the past few years.

I'm still trying to shake my cold so I took a sick day today, but then when it started snowing I had to go out and take some photos. This might be my only chance to take pictures of snow this winter so I figured I'd better make the most of it, cold or no cold.

(Taken with my Nikon D80)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Day 110/365 - The Winter of Our Discontent

Only one more month to go until the Washington Nationals play their first Spring Training game. Even though it won't count for anything, hopefully they'll win it. Anything they can do to help get the bad taste of last year's 102-loss season out of my mouth would be welcome.

This is my collection of Opening Day baseballs dating to 2005, the Nats first season in DC. Last year's model was pretty drab and ugly, not unlike the season. Despite that fact, it was the hardest to get given that Opening Day 2008 was also the inaugural game at Nationals Park. Hopefully this year they'll go back to the cooler style of commemorative baseball for Opening Day. My other hope is that before this display case is full the Nats will win the NL East.

One of these hopes is more likely to come to fruition than the other.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Twice on Sunday Bonus Photo - Iron Horse

This week's extra shot from my archives is a picture of an old steam locomotive I took when I visited Dodge City, Kansas last fall. I love old trains.

(Taken with my Nikon D80)

Day 109/365 - Busy Making Big Plans

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, exactly five weeks from today I will be on a flight to Venice, Italy. For several years now I've been aching to visit Italy in general and Venice in particular. Originally the plan was to take three weeks off and wander the length, breadth, width, depth and height of the country. Last year, however, I decided that I'd like to carve Venice out and make it a separate and exclusive trip. No other cities, just Venice.

I was fortunate enough to see New Orleans and Mardi Gras pre-Katrina and now I'd like to experience Venice before it's oft-predicted demise comes to pass. So after several years of dithering, last week I finally made flight and hotel reservations for a six-day stay in Venice. I depart from DC on the evening of Sunday February 22nd, arrive in Venice the following afternoon, and don't come back until Sunday March 1st. I've heard both good and bad accounts of Venice -- it's beautiful/it's filthy, it's romantic/it's smelly, it's a delight/it's a hassle, etc. Time to find out for myself which it will be to me.

It's all very exciting and intoxicating. I've been going through guidebooks, looking at maps, checking websites, and digging out the Italian language CDs I purchased several years ago when I first considered traveling to Italy. I think I picked out a great hotel, but you never know for sure until you get there. I'll be staying at the Hotel Abbazia in the Cannaregio sestieri, a neighborhood in the northwestern section of Venice. It was built as a monastery in 1379 but has since been converted in a small, 50-room hotel. Although it's only 100 meters from the train station, it's supposed to be in a very quiet and peaceful neighborhood.

This will be a bit of a different style of trip for me. Normally when I travel I spend no more than two to three days in any one city and try to squeeze in as many things to see and do as I possibly can. I've never spent six straight days in one city before. My tentative plan is to cover one or two sestieri per day and try to traverse every canal, street, and alley in Venice by the end of my stay -- all the while taking absurd amounts of photographs. I'm also considering setting one day aside for a train trip to Verona or Padua, both of which lie relatively nearby.

This morning I ordered a Venice tourism card that will cover my admission to a host of museums and churches, as well as allowing me to make use of public transportation and pay toilets. I also ordered myself a pair of galoshes so that I'll be prepared for the Acqua Alta -- the high tides that can partially submerge areas of the city for a few hours a day during the winter months. That takes care of the basics. With regard to the luxuries, yesterday I purchased a ticket to see the opera Romeo et Juliette at Teatro La Fenice on the night of my birthday. Should make for a memorable evening.

My trip to Venice coincides with the last two days of Carnival, but I haven't decided yet whether or not to attend one of masked balls going on in the city during that time. Between the cost of admission to a ball and costume rental it would be more than a little pricey, especially after splurging on the opera. On the other hand, it's Carnival in Venice -- when will I get another chance to experience it?

Decisions, decisions... it's something I may not make my mind up about until I get to Venice. The other big decision -- whether or not to buy a Nikon D300 before I go. I already know the lighting conditions in Venice will be challenging, especially if I want to take photos of the costumed revelers afoot in the city at night during Carnival. The D300 would certainly work better under those conditions than my D80. Hmm, this is not shaping up to be a trip for the budgetary faint of heart.

(Taken with my Nikon D80)