Category: NYC

Photo Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson.

“Don’t tell the Americans.” I sit laughing in the seat of the Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center as I watch actors portraying different leaders discussing how to keep the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians a secret from the Americans. Now certainly, political plays can be a hit or miss, especially because bias can permeate the play, leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth. “Oslo” is far from this. “Oslo” presented the issue completely fairly, allowed for both sides to display their anger and wishes, and truly showed the magnitude of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The play is about the secret meetings that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians. Whether you are a history buff, you are active in discussions about the conflict, or you just want to know more, Oslo does the story complete justice, and I highly recommend it.

Photo Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson.

Photo Courtesy of T. Charles Erickson.

The actors were superb — giving every inch of their being to the emotional narratives both sides of the conflict feel. The pain they voice, the struggle they capture through every yell that reverberates through the theater makes you remember how very real and challenging this conflict is — for both sides. In the play, the 3rd party interventions and negotiations were referred to as “Dialogues of the Deaf.” Outsiders are painted as hardly being able to understand or alleviate tension that prolongs attainable peace, which is why Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegian Director of the Fafo Institute who was a key figure in the negotiations, claims the method of “gradualism” must be used. This means that both sides are in one room negotiating and then go to the other room as friends, where they talk about their families and lives over food. The parties gradually make progress through human-to-human connection and understanding.

The audience is immersed in both rooms at various points of the play, but more often than not we see the negotiations spill over into the room where they are supposed to be friends. The conflict runs deep and emotions on both sides find their way into the smallest interactions, but at the end of the play you see how the men negotiating not only warm up to each other and recognize the need for peace, but see each other as men and not just an “Israeli” or “Palestinian.” “Oslo” ends with a poignant scene of the actors and actresses listing out some of the events that followed the signing of the Oslo Accords, such at Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination, several terrorist attacks, the deaths of men involved in the process of the secret negotiations, etc. The audience is left wondering if everything we just witnessed was worth it. Was there ever really a chance for peace? Did those secret negotiations move us forward or backwards? These questions don’t seem to matter. Now matters.

Peace is right through the negotiation door. Do you see it?

 

Tickets to OSLO can be purchased here. For more information on how to get rush tickets to the show, message LionBot “How can I get rush tickets to Oslo?”

Photo Courtesy of Puffs

“Some people are born with the capacity to do great things. Some people change the world. Some people rise from humble beginnings to defeat the forces of darkness in the face of insurmountable odds. ‘PUFFS’ is the story of the people who sit in class next to those people.”-“PUFFS” Press Release

“Puffs,” “Puff” singular, is the fond shorthand of “Hufflepuffs,” the lovable magical misfits of the Harry Potter world, and also the title of the recent Off-Broadway retelling (for avid fans) of the Harry Potter story from the Hufflepuff House’s perspective. While the familiar story starts with a scarred baby dropped on the doorstep of Number 4 Privet Drive, this adaptation takes another orphan all the way from England to America.

Catchy music and strange (magical) P.A. announcements usher the audience into the richly-curtained, dimly-lit theater; the positive side of Elektra Theater’s small size is that every seat is “a good one,” as one man exclaims. Each member of the audience feels intimately connected with the recessed stage. The closely assembled gallery of spectators  are close enough to gawk over  the 1990’s style slide projecter that opens the set. “PUFFS,” it declares, in sketchy letters cast at an awkward angle across the badger-yellow curtain. The theater is complimented by an equally small, but well-selected, staff of actors and actresses, one of whom throws in an April Fool’s Day joke over the P.A. – using a perfect McGonnagal imitation – to lighten the atmosphere.

This is not the only loving nod to the original series. Just after the set opens, an iconic Harry Potter line, in the style of all things “PUFFS,” is cleverly repurposed:

“You’re a wizard, Wayne.”

The Uncle of our young protagonist declares this in a thick drawl, having regained his wits after the unexpected arrival of a British post owl. Soon enough Wayne is ushered away to Hogwarts, where he contemplates the miracle (and the mess he makes) of magic with his fellow Hufflepuff friends: the previously Oxford-bound eleven-year-old mathematician Oliver (played by Langston Bell) and the angsty Death Eater fangirl Megan Jones (played by Julie Ann Earls). With Harry Potter’s arrival headlining Hogwarts’ gossip chains, however, the good-natured (except, perhaps, for Megan) Hufflepuff clan and their charismatic leader Cedric Diggory, who has wonderful theme music, must fight against the odds to recover the Hogwarts House Cup.

And inevitably fail.

The overbearingly optimistic group continues to strive for success, or at least mediocrity, with the often-chanted phrase “Third [place] or nothing,” fully aware that their final takeaway from the year’s events will likely be fourth place (or nothing) in the House Cup.

Through the (mis)adventures of Wayne, Oliver, and Megan, “PUFFS” follows their attempts to gain house points and a sense of what it means to be a Hufflepuff, with guest appearances from characters like Hannah Abbot, J. Finch, and a marvelously acccurate rendition of Professor Severus Snape.

The vocal dexterity of the cast cannot be denied, as Snape and others take the stage, or even before the play starts, in the half-hour of seating as the actors take turns creating clever and ridiculous school announcements over the P.A.

The chairs are wide and comfortable, and peeking over the edges of the seats, black and yellow scarves and ties make their presence known in every row. Among the Hufflepuff gear, one head stands out in blue and silver. A Ravenclaw sits alone in this out-of-the-way Puff Haven.

…Which takes us to the question: Is “PUFFS or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic” a play for everyone, or just those marginalized and hardcore (or at least as harcore as they can get) Hufflepuffs? After all, we’re not all cut out to be Hufflepuffs, are we?

The main message of this strange Harry Potter sometimes-parody, which bounces between hilarious and heartrending, is what makes a Puff. Gryffindors tout bravery, Ravenclaws treasure intelligence, and Slytherins anthropomorphize snakes, or blonde-haired “assholes,” depending on which “PUFFS” definition you prefer.  But what did Helga Hufflepuff seek out in her students? A Puff is loyal, hardworking, and, when it comes down to the four houses of Hogwarts, the Hufflepuffs are, well, the “everyone else.”

“Lumos!” Dumbledore may be dead, but the Hufflepuff squad appears to all have mastered the first year curriculum. Photo Courtesy of ?

“Lumos!” Dumbledore may be dead, but the Hufflepuff squad appears to all have mastered the first year curriculum. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

But aren’t we all sometimes the “everyone else?” The narrator, played by A.J. Ditty (featured in Hufflepuff colors above), offered a final assessment that yes, everyone can be a Hufflepuff. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides rooming closer to the kitchens (and the whole hard-working/loyal aspect of the Puffs), the Puffs have one other major advantage: they all fail, and, as Cedric Diggory reminds us before his untimely death, “Failure is just another form of practice… as long as you just keep trying.”

Ditty, of whom a fellow audience member claimed “[He] deserves his own Oscar. Perfect inflection, delivery, and interaction with [the] audience without feeling cliché,” offered a parallel to a quote from the possibly-Hufflepuff Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, whose career A.J. Ditty also shares.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Beckett

Ditty adds to the question of who a Puff is, “Oh, I learned a lot by doing the show. The Puffs are the kind of people you want to be friends with.” Possibly referencing one of the more lighthearted scenes of the play, wherein Butterbeer makes its first appearance, he adds, “the Puffs are the people you want to have an adult modern beverage with.”

A Hogsmeade scene possibly only outmatched in perfect comedic timing by Cedric Diggory in the bathtub. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

A Hogsmeade scene possibly only outmatched in perfect comedic timing by Cedric Diggory in the bathtub. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

When asked what advice he has to share with modern-day muggle (and magical) Puffs, the “extras” and “outcasts” who are increasingly feeling the pressure of today’s society, Ditty offers, “Keep failing— because it only means you’re going to do better. Even if you fail, it is a key part in growing.”

If Ditty sounds a bit like a Hufflepuff himself, it shouldn’t be surprising. The entire cast seemed cheery and approachable in their interactions with the audience attending the show.

Coming forward to greet me and discuss the performance when the play was over, Ditty paused in his tracks at first.

“Did I high-five you during the show?” He sounded both amused and surprised.

Due to fortuitous seating arrangements, my answer was a definite and mirthful “Yes.”

Later, as I was leaving my interview, I passed by some other cast members signing scarves and programs. The enthusiasm of the crowd had left them one pen short. Reaching into my purse, I pulled out my fountain pen and handed it to Eleanor Phillips, who played Hannah Abbott (and Others).

She paused while signing the first program.

“This writes beautifully!”

The waiting fan laughed, leaning toward me. “Good luck getting that back.”

Eleanor looked confused. “I wouldn’t steal a pen.”

In that moment, she was the epitome of Hufflepuff. Something a “normal person” might not think twice about just seemed absolutely impossible to her. She would never steal a pen.

It was my turn to laugh.

Sure the play is often satirical, but the reituration of Harry Potter’s story from the Puff perspective was cleverly genuine to the smallest detail; even the outside of the theater was decorated with contrived Harry Potter posters and references, papers and designs. There is a whole Harry Potter Hufflepuff world within the walls of the Elektra.

The young woman watching beside me offered her opinion on the “Wayne,” or Neville-esque (Hufflepuff) character’s appearance: “the retelling… was very convincing and tasteful… instead of trying to force the whole ‘Neville should’ve gotten a whole 7 volumes, too!’ Puffs instead faithfully reproduced much of the plot of the series without making it an explicitly different story.”

When the “Yellow Trio” (“Golden Trio” was already taken) come in for a hug. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

When the “Yellow Trio” (“Golden Trio” was already taken) come in for a hug. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

The idea that the play was true to the series and yet introduced a new twist – a story within a story – corresponded with what Ditty offered as clarification during his interview:

“I think there’s a misconception about the show that it’s strictly a parody. It may wink at the Harry Potter series, but it really does tell its own story. I think it’s a really good one. It’s about heroes, and how not everyone is one conventionally, but everyone can be a hero to someone.”

Who needs to be just a hero, or just brave, just intelligent, just an “asshole” anyways? As one of the play’s Puffs questions, “Why be one thing when you can be everything?”

That perhaps was the biggest issue that I hold with “PUFFS.” “90-ish” minutes is not enough time for everything.

In only ninety minutes, the quick pacing and clever utilization of fun props and rapid-fire transitions made the play dynamic and drew the audience in as much as the Dementors did in the third act, but they left little time to go deeper into what playwright Matt Cox crafted as incredibly interesting and multi-faceted characters.

Ditty introduces the third year arrival of the dementors, who are really quite terrible school safety officers. Photo Courtesy of???

Ditty introduces the third year arrival of the dementors, who are really quite terrible school safety officers. Photo Courtesy of Puffs.

The play leaves its crowd of Harry Potter fans wanting seven more volumes.

Kristin McCarthy Parker who directed Cox’s “PUFFS” was clearly aware of this. Her spacing and designation take full advantage of the time the actors do have.

Indeed, the whole play seems very self-aware, sometimes crossing the fourth wall, often nodding to the movie series (“I’m telling you guys, the headmaster looks different this year” and “HARRY! Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire?”), and often parodying scenes that otherwise require suspension of disbelief (like the lake-watching in the second task of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” or “The Puffs and the Year They Matter”) in a manner which performing artist and Columbia College student Cindy Liu claimed is “delicious.” With full-grown adults playing eleven year-olds (which Mr. Ditty points out with a quirked brow), these are a necessary and graceful concession to the “magic” of theater.

Altogether, “PUFFS” is the Ferris Bueller of Harry Potter reproductions. It is clever and unexpected, with corny humor and philosophical moments; it is an instant classic and has an endearing cast that leads you to question:

“Am I a Puff?”

And after “PUFFS,” you’ll want to find the Puff in yourself.

The Hufflepuff house comes together (and the “PUFFS” Mac & Finch ship finally draw their wands). Photo Courtesy of ??

The Hufflepuff house comes together (and the “PUFFS” Mac & Finch ship finally draw their wands). Photo Courtesy of Puffs

“PUFFS” is not a sixteen hundred seat “Lion King” style, heart-stopping production, but instead an intimate show built on inside references and energetic acting that at least deserves its motto of #ThirdorNothing on the list of shows for which Harry Potter fans should keep an eye out for tickets in the coming months, notably until the end of its extended run by popular demand (July 30th, 2017).
*As a final note, there is definitely a reason for the PG13 rating, so be cognizant of the “PUFFS” sense of humor when deciding who to bring with you.*
Tickets to Puffs can be purchased here with tickets starting as low as $29.

 

 

 

Made by Meghna Gorrela, SEAS’20

 

If you took Music Hum last year, you likely remember going to the Met Opera to see Madama Butterfly. Currently, “Miss Saigon,” a musical based on this famous opera of Puccini’s, is dazzling audiences on Broadway. The storyline is the same: A doomed romance filled with abandonment and despair. However, Miss Saigon does something a little different — it highlights the harsh realities of the Vietnam War and emphasizes human despair in times of love and war.

Through the heart-wrenching storyline, audiences are immersed in a narrative that is far from happy. An American soldier finds romance in a war-torn country, but he is forced to leave without his lover Kim. He promises to come back, and the woman waits for him while living in shambles for three years. Little does he know that he has a child waiting for him in Vietnam. The soldier, Chris, returns to the U.S. and marries an American woman, only to find out  three years later that Kim is alive and has a son. He goes abroad to Bangkok, where Kim was living after escaping Vietnam, and brings his wife to show her what his nightmares were about. Instead of a happy ending, the audience is left with questions about whether Chris really loved Kim or was trying to find something to keep him going during the war in Vietnam as well as questions regarding the ending. Something to note is that revivals of both Miss Saigon and Madama Butterfly usually include different interpretations of the ending. In this revival, Chris shouts with grief and Kim’s son is wrapped around Chris’s new wife. Does this mean he really loved her? Or was he finally letting go of the past?

The musical highlights choices and how the choices we make shape the rest of our lives, with or without our control. Kim chooses to do something drastic in order for her son to have a better life, something she had hoped would happen with Chris. One is left asking themselves: How far would you go for a better future for someone you love?

“Miss Saigon” not only tells a story of risking it all for love and devotion, but it also explores the naiveté of love and relationships. The incredible staging of the set portrays not only how love can be found in a hopeless place, but also how war destroys any semblance of happiness one can have. Through incredible effects of wind and helicopter sounds, one feels as if they are on stage with the actors who are desperately trying to enter the U.S. embassy. Through a song about the American Dream, humor is slyly incorporated to ease audiences into the difficult ending. The dancers, often times scantily dressed in the “Dream Land” strip club, remind us that everyone just wants to live a good life and have their dreams fulfilled. Unfortunately, this is a reality for few, especially Kim. The stage sets of Vietnam, Bangkok, and America are truly magnificent, and though the story is challenging, “Miss Saigon” is not a show to be missed.

Tickets to “Miss Saigon” can be purchased from here. For more information on how to get rush tickets to the show, message LionBot “How can I get rush tickets to Miss Saigon?”

Image Courtesy of Clara Apostolatos, CC’20

In this modern climate, times are extremely hard for dreamers. Motion pictures released this past year, such as La La Land, have emphasized a level of escapism that is natural for us  to succumb to in such troubling times. Similarly, Amélie not only resides in a fanciful tale necessitated for this plight of escapism, but it also instills a lasting message of kindness and “doing the right thing”: a message that the cast wishes to impart to their audience and one that is more important than ever.

In this whimsical retelling of the Academy Award nominated motion picture of the same name, the life of the titular Amélie Poulain is catalogued from her secluded childhood in the outskirts of Paris to her eccentric yet isolationist adult life in a small apartment in the heart of the City of Lights. Amélie speaks to the shy introvert in us all who is bursting at the seams to try and make life a little easier each and every day.

Stellar performances are exhibited by Savvy Crawford, who plays Young Amélie, and Adam Chanler-Berat, who plays Nino Quincampoix. Nevertheless, Tony nominee Philippa Soo, who achieved fame through Hamilton and now plays the role of Amélie, stole the show as she delivers a radiant performance as the protagonist of this production. As soon as she runs onstage with the characteristic smirk of Amélie, she mesmerizes the audience member with her bubbly, mischievous portrayal of the character. Although Ms. Soo’s interpretation of Amélie is not as reserved as Audrey Tautou’s in the film, she does not have the luxury of a scene-by-scene narrator to illustrate her inner thoughts like Ms. Tautou did. Therefore, Ms. Soo relies on the company of Amélie to exemplify whatever odd thought strikes her.

In some instances, I found this incorporation of the acting ensemble into the mind of Amélie helped elucidate the scope of her inner motives. For example, the ensemble’s mimicry of heartbeats and their reveal of glittery hearts in dull briefcases gave the audience a taste of the tacit love that Nino and Amélie share. At other times, however, the ensemble’s participation was unnecessary and even awkward. For instance, different supporting characters would lose the identity of their own characters to narrate a life event of Amélie and then resume their individual nuances. I’ve seen some musicals that succeed in this aspect, but Amélie’s use of this tactic was a bit clunky, especially in comparison to the exemplary narration utilized in the movie.

With these differences, fans of the movie might gawk at the artistic liberties taken in regard to how the movie has been adapted for the American audience, including the absence of a narrator as well as the notable omission of the French language. There are some hints of this Romance language on the various set pieces, but barely any of the dialogue possesses any semblance of French. Some of the choices actually complement the musical experience extremely well. For example, the two cabines de télé that adorn the opposite ends of the stage mimic the experience of witnessing the telephone conversations in the movie Amélie perfectly. Nevertheless, the changes Amélie the musical utilizes make the musical its own.

Even with these small critiques, when comparing and contrasting the movie and the musical, the creative licenses the musical takes to tell the story of this eclectic heroine culminate in a pleasurable experience that the audience can enjoy.

Tickets to Amélie can be purchased from here. For more information on how to get rush tickets to the show, message LionBot “How can I get rush tickets to Amélie?”

Image courtesy of freshNYC

How would you describe yourself?

Most people can immediately come up with at least a few adjectives to summarize their personalities, and when these people are asked how well they know themselves on a scale of 1-10, the answers are overwhelmingly above 8. When asked to estimate if their ‘core’ personalities have remained consistent over time, the majority agree that while they have indeed changed, certain fundamental aspects of themselves remain the same.

People make important decisions based on the idea that personality continuity often underlies individual growth. You believe that person you choose to marry has essential qualities  which will remain good, that criminals have essential qualities which will remain bad, and that the people in your life all have dependable qualities. When attributing the incredible successes or failures of CEOs, celebrities, or pro-athletes, most tend to credit or blame their personalities.

While this convincing story pervades our culture, modern research indicates that this idea of an individual’s consistent personality is just a myth. A few months ago, the longest-running study on personality was published. Begun in 1947, teachers were asked to rate their fourteen-year old students on six personality traits. Sixty-three years later, researchers tracked down as many of the original participants as they could and analyzed their personalities.

Upon analysis, none of the six traits showed any significant stability across the time-span. While ideas about personality and experimental methods have changed drastically in the intervening decades, more modern neuroscientific research backs up these sorts of long-running surveys with fMRI studies of the changing brain.

While many ‘tests’ of personality exist on the internet, almost none of them hold any neuropsychological weight. This includes the famed Myers-Briggs model, which sorts individuals into sixteen distinct personalities according to four to five traits, each with a corresponding letter. If you have ever had someone tell you they are an ENFP, or INTJ, that’s the model they’re referring to. Though certainly entertaining, such tests have long-been discredited for being too myopic and binning people into binary categorizations.

Although many scientists disagree, the generally-accepted model of personality these days is the Big-Five, which gives individuals a rating from 1-100 on five distinct traits — Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. If you are interested, this is the best way to take it online.

Recently, neuroscientists have begun to examine how high scores on various factors in the Big Five might map onto brain structure. Using structural MRI, one team examined brain volume as it varies with brain region size, finding that extroverts had a larger medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region which processes reward. This area is heavily implicated in response to social reward, so it is  possible that extroverts enjoy social interactions because they supply them with a ‘hit’ of dopamine.

Increased scores on neuroticism correlate with bigger brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative behavior. It is possible that neurotic people feel the potential threat of a negative event more powerfully than those with smaller cingulate cortices, and therefore are more concerned over potentially troubling events.

Agreeableness correlated with a larger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region that loosely corresponds with planning and higher-order processing. Though they did not find a significant association with Openness, neuroscientists found some possible correlations with parts of the parietal cortex associated with integrating sensory stimuli.

While this study did not use functional MRI to tell us what regions are activated when exhibiting behaviors associated with these traits, there does appear to be some association between the sizes of these brain regions and an individual’s personality.

If psychology research tells us personality changes drastically over time, and neuroscience research indicates that our brains reflect our personalities, what underlying mechanisms in our brains are underlying these changes?

Some potential clues lie in memory research. A large body of evidence tells us that each time a memory is ‘accessed’, it is altered, sometimes dramatically, before going back into storage. As experiences pile up in our lifetimes, the memories we make are incorporated into the ways we face new information, and change the ways we make decisions.

The other massive factor in our decision-making comes from our surroundings — specifically, our social surroundings. The cultural norms which permeate a place can strongly influence how a personality changes over time, as new experiences permeate the neural wiring. With that in mind, it’s hard to think of a more distinct social environment in the U.S. than our home, New York City itself.

When asked what made a person a New Yorker, former mayor Edward Koch put it most succinctly: “you have to live here for six months, and if at the end of the six months you find you walk faster, talk faster, think faster, you’re a New Yorker.”  I have certainly found that a few years here have changed me in more ways than knowledge gained in the classroom — parts of my personality seem fundamentally altered by my time living in Columbia and in adapting to the the unique social norms such a city carries.

In a place as hectic, stressful, and sometimes isolating as New York City, the unconscious effect of environment likely affects us all. Combined with a student population of high-achieving and hard-working Columbians, it’s possible our particularly potent stress culture might be drawing heavily from the city itself for fuel. While we often talk about the culture-shock of NYC on many of our students during orientation weeks, we rarely take the time to analyze how exactly our city might be changing us.

Maybe the pressures of Columbian sub-culture paired with tough-it-out mentality of the city makes us feel busier and more focused, and therefore primes to think faster and act smarter. Maybe some of these changes are positive, learning how to ‘tough it out’ certainly has its benefits. But I’m more worried about the negatives, about how a city so known for indifference may be affecting our compassion and human integrity.

Luckily, any negative characteristics our brains may be picking up from the city aren’t permanent. The same neuroplasticity which hardened us can prioritize compassion again, if we make a conscious effort to make others as important as our busy schedules. We have the ability to change our own culture of Columbia and only let the positive aspects of the city in.