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Through the Eyes of Cromwell

Divorce, intrigue, religion, sex! And did I mention monarchy? Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two books in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, retell the history of Henry VIII, his various wives and the fixers around him, particularly Thomas Cromwell. The son of a drunken blacksmith from Putney, Cromwell becomes a master manipulator who insinuates himself among powerful people. Though his upbringing places him firmly outside the world of monarchs and popes, he quietly makes himself essential to them—a rare ability that renders Cromwell the perfect narrator. Until the third book is published later this year, Mantel fans will have to settle for a TV adaptation (or, you know, Broadway). The BBC2 miniseries (now airing on PBS) is filled with authentically candlelit scenes, which can make it hard to see the action. But Peter Kosminsky’s direction and Peter Straughan’s script pleasantly illuminate all the juicy historical dirt Mantel originally brought to light through the sharp and careful eyes of her Cromwell. I was surprised in the initial scenes by the joviality of Mark Rylance’s Cromwell, but then I remembered: He’s still untouched by the death of his beloved wife and daughters, as well as the downfall of his master, Cardinal Wolsey. Those changes come fast. Long powerful in Henry VIII’s court, Wolsey has been unable to secure an annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon—sought due to her inability, after 18 years of marriage, to produce a male heir to the throne. These machinations, discussed at length in the book, are skimmed over in the miniseries, and perhaps rightly so—the usurped queen is more sympathetic but not nearly as fascinating as her successor, Anne Boleyn. Wolsey is the first, though certainly not the last, to fall to the conniving Anne. Nor is it the last time Cromwell will roll with the punches to keep his head from rolling—at least for a time. Wolf HallMantel’s somewhat sympathetic view of Cromwell has its detractors, but so far few have faulted Rylance’s portrayal of him. “Cromwell—formerly thought of as a ruthless Machiavellian who would stop at nothing to give Henry precisely what he wanted—has been transformed into a hard-nosed but ultimately sensitive soul,” writes Gregory Wolfe in The Washington Post. Far from backing down from her interpretation of history, Mantel seems happy to continue playing the provocateur. In a recent controversial speech entitled “Royal Bodies,” she pointed out that monarchs, particularly female ones, are often used to promote the ideals of a culture. “It’s no surprise that so much fiction constellates around the subject of Henry and his wives,” said Mantel. “Often, if you want to write about women in history, you have to distort history to do it, or substitute fantasy for facts; you have to pretend that individual women were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do. But with the reign of King Bluebeard, you don’t have to pretend. Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story.” And yet the eyes through which Mantel chooses to tell this story are those of a man. If Mantel is correct that our fascination with monarchy reflects current obsessions, then it makes sense that the Tudors are particularly popular at this birth-obsessed moment, when mommy blogs proliferate, celebrity baby bumps are zealously analyzed and The New York Times runs a new story on childlessness and related anxieties each week. Perhaps it’s for these reasons—call it womb fatigue—that I so appreciate Mantel’s choice of narrator. During the time about which she’s writing, only a man as innocuous yet genius as Cromwell could dwell so fruitfully on the border between inside and out, essential and inconsequential. Photo courtesy of Ed Miller/Playground & Company Pictures for Masterpiece/BBC

by Emily Burns Morgan

Apr 17, 2015

Ecotourism or Greenwashing?

The main drag of Chiang Mai—at least, the main drag for the 14 million tourists who visit the city in the north of Thailand every year—can feel like a modern-day Silk Road for travel services. Sandwich boards for zip-lining adventures, cooking classes, weeklong muay thai fighting camps and guided shopping excursions line the crowded sidewalks. One type of outing stands out amid the waves of advertising: “long-neck tour,” in which groups visit a village inhabited by the Karen ethnic minority, the star attraction being the women who famously have metal rings placed around their neck and collarbone, creating the appearance of an ultra-long neck. But it’s not so much the photos of the long-necked women that grabbed me upon a recent visit to the city. What drew my attention was the term used to advertise the tour. Etched beneath a handful of laminated snapshots of various smiling women was the word ecotourism. Ecotourism, or the practice of environmentally sustainable and culturally sensitive tourism, exploded in the 1990s along with general environmental awareness. Today, it’s the fastest growing segment of tourism worldwide, jumping 20 to 25 percent each year. (This month brought news that even Leonardo DiCaprio is getting in on the action.) It makes sense that ecotourism continues to grow in popularity: By marrying environmental awareness with international travel, it allows anyone with a passport to embody a certain kind of globalism. But it’s also particularly prone to greenwashing—the practice of exploiting now-popular environmentalist and sustainability concerns to sell products and services without actually contributing much to those causes. Other industries have deflected some forms of greenwashing through the most obvious defense: regulation, which ensures that labels like ecotourism and organic actually mean something. Regulation also helps demystify goods for the average consumer. For example, organic was once an essentially meaningless term (legally speaking) that any company could use, regardless of its farming and production methods. (In that sense, it’s much like the word natural on packaging today; that term, unregulated by the USDA, legally means zilch.) Only after 22 states had developed their own ideas for what organic meant did the federal government create a standardized definition. Certification and oversight soon followed, and today when you see organic on a package, you have a basic assurance of what it means. Ecotourism_connects_sideEcotourism has no such guidelines. It is most commonly understood as travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, includes an educational component and supports the well-being of local people. But even this raises questions. Can “natural areas” include urban locales? Must “conserves” mean low-impact forms of transport and accommodation, or can agencies simply make a donation to ecological societies and call it a day? What exactly constitutes “education”—are we talking about posting a flyer in the agency’s office, extensive training for staff members or supplying clients with local residents’ oral histories? Lacking firmer definitions, oversight and regulation become difficult to navigate. How can best practices be enforced if nobody knows precisely what those practices are? One ecotourism firm may partner with accommodations using renewable energy and low-impact building methods, and meanwhile work closely with local residents to ensure visitors get a comprehensive view of their culture. Another may simply agree to pay a national park full-price entry fees instead of accepting group discounts. At this point, both firms can use the term ecotourism with impunity. None of this, of course, has escaped the eye of good-faith workers in the industry, many of whom have attempted to self-regulate. A number of professional organizations, such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and International Ecotourism Society, have even drawn up criteria for membership. And some differentiate between ecotourism and sustainable tourism, which entails more comprehensive standards for conscious travel. If such standards were adopted throughout the industry, it could make the idea of ecotourism a lot more meaningful. ChiangMaiStreetInset Chiang Mai. Photo courtesy of aschaf/Flickr As a visitor to Thailand, I was wary of joining a tour of the Karen people. It seemed more like a human zoo than a chance to understand the local beauty culture. But that handy buzzword—ecotourism—made me curious enough to walk into the agency. I looked at the poster featuring photos of beaming white folks like me standing next to petite, long-necked women. “Karen village?” I asked. The Thai travel agent, in fairly good English, launched into a description of the neck rings. I asked how it was ecotourism, hoping to hear something about support for the villagers, education for the women we’d be seeing or even something about the fuel mileage of the van we’d use to get there. Instead, all I received was the infamous Thai smile. Feature photo courtesy of dgmckelvey/Flickr Ecotourism_connects_bottom

by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano

Apr 16, 2015

“National Pastime” at the Bucks County Playhouse

I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, not far from one of the most famous regional theaters of the mid-20th century. The Bucks County Playhouse opened in 1939 in a converted 1790 gristmill, and during its heyday its boards were trod by Helen Hayes, Grace Kelly (pictured), Walter Matthau, Liza Minnelli, Robert Redford and countless other Broadway and Hollywood stars. Over the years the status of the Playhouse declined, and in 2010 it shut down. But, much to the delight of this hometown girl, the Playhouse is back! Since it reopened in 2012, the Playhouse has regained its role as a try-out house for new Broadway-bound shows. Both last season’s production of Mothers and Sons and next season’s Misery, an anticipated adaptation of the Stephen King novel, were incubated at the Bucks County Playhouse. This month, just in time for baseball season, the Playhouse premieres a perky new musical, National Pastime, sporting a riotous tongue-in-cheek book by Tony Sportiello and a toe-tapping, derivative score by Albert M. Tapper, each song blatantly recalling a classic show tune. ROBERT REDFORD 1959 TIGER AT THE GATES Robert Redford in the Playhouse's 1959 production of Tiger at the Gates. Photo courtesy of the James A. Michener Museum Set in 1933 Iowa, National Pastime follows two well-meaning co-owners of WZBQ who fall in love while scheming to save their struggling radio station by broadcasting fabricated games of a fictitious baseball team. With the exception of Sportiello’s wife, the lackluster Kelli Maguire as the love interest in a comic subplot, the cast is uniformly terrific. Carnegie Mellon graduate Andrew Kober is particularly side-splitting in a dual assignment, playing an intimidating Chicago gangster as well as an over-the-top Texan whose outsize patriotism inspires the brilliant production number “We Are America,” a send-up of every American symbol from the Statue of Liberty to baton twirling. The show’s funniest scenes are when the station’s duo of ill-suited announcers—one a baseball ignoramus (Will Blum) and the other a vainglorious mama’s boy (Michael Dean Morgan)—call the imaginary play-by-plays. My favorite moment in the show, however, was when Matthew Bauman acts out an entire ball game in a 60-second dance solo. NationalPastimeInset Production shot from National Pastime. Photo courtesy of Mandee Kuenzle Bucks_County_connects_sideAs directed by Hunter Foster and choreographed by Lorin Latarro, the polished production features slick, imaginative staging. A trio of Jingle Girls (above) supplies attractively choreographed crossovers, suggestive of old-time radio commercials, which cleverly underlines the show’s Depression-era setting. But when the cast breaks out (only once) into a full-fledged dance number, the movement doesn’t reach that heightened level of stylized expression expected from theatrical choreography. Of particular interest was Jason Sherwood’s handsome and realistic set, which moves the actors efficiently among different locales by means of a special—and historical—turntable stage. A gift to the Playhouse upon its opening more than 75 years ago, the oak turntable sat dormant under the stage floor since the 1960s and was refurbished specifically for National Pastime. Overall, this old-fashioned musical needs more baseball comedy and less romance to be a raucous, original offering that might have legs beyond Bucks County. But bravo to the Playhouse for rounding the bases and taking us home again! See National Pastime at the Bucks County Playhouse through April 19. Feature image courtesy of the James A. Michener Museum

by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Apr 15, 2015

Weeknight Hookups, Weekend Husband

At first reckoning, the premise of Robin Rinaldi’s Wild Oats Project seems playful and titillating: On the book jacket, a naked woman bounces happily toward sexual exploration and pleasure, and bold red lettering announces her self-confidence and empowerment. But delving more deeply into the memoir provides a different picture. It’s a thoughtful, intricate and altogether darker perspective on what drives relationships, sexual yearning, happiness and fulfilment. It’s easy to think that sexual adventure within the confines of a staid marriage must end in disaster. But putting snap judgments aside, Rinaldi’s experience reminds us of the prudence of fully exploring our own relationship requirements and presenting those needs to our partners. Rinaldi’s account begins in a bar. Out with friends one night, she receives a text message from a younger coworker looking to hook up. The scene is complete with communal should-I-or-shouldn’t-I banter, and the attendant nerves that come with such a proposition. We learn that Rinaldi is 43, ostensibly happily married and has been entertaining the prospect of an extramarital relationship ever since she and her husband, Scott, were unable to come to terms about having a child. (He didn’t want one; she wanted one desperately, but only with him.) Crucially, there is no awful or abusive husband here, only a treasured relationship in which both parties deeply love each other. While the initial hookup is a one-off affair, Rinaldi and her husband, on her insistence, soon hash out a detailed and well-considered agreement for an open marriage. As she tells him, “I won’t go to my grave with no children and four lovers.” Per the arrangement, Rinaldi gets an apartment to live in during the week, and returns to spend weekends with her husband. Both pursue their own interests alone during the week, practicing safe sex and not sleeping with friends and acquaintances they have in common. It seems rational and manageable, until it isn’t. Wild_Oats_largeThe Wild Oats Project is a fascinating look at relationships, and how they are predicated. Its most striking effect is Rinaldi’s deep insight into her own history—though, in perfect hindsight, this kind of self-scrutiny may have been more useful in the early stages of her marriage. Rinaldi’s renderings of sexual exploits are frank and explicit, without being tasteless. But it is her searing portrait of the person who met and married Scott, and the nature of their relationship that provide the context to understand how their decisions—both separately and together—led their marriage down its ultimate path. The trick with this book lies in separating your own personal experiences, inclinations and feelings from those presented by Rinaldi. There are details she boldly relates that are fairly relatable—even while they’d be unpalatable if heard from a friend, and unfathomable with regard to our own relationships. But she makes the point that these things can be hard to know in the midst of making life choices. Healthy relationships, she argues, depend on our own self-knowledge and how we use it. Photo courtesy of Robin Rinaldi

by Nicole Bonia

Apr 14, 2015