Thursday, October 23, 2014

Top Chef Boston - Episode 2 - Boston’s Bravest & Finest

Last night on Top Chef, the fourteen remaining contestants cooked for some folks in the Boston police and fire departments, which added a nice feel-good element to the episode. At this early stage in the season, we're still getting to know the contestants, and a few, shall I say, "intense" personalities are already emerging. (Thank goodness Michael Patlazhan was eliminated last week; I shudder to think how his ego would have fit into this week's elimination challenge.)

The Quickfire

For the Quickfire challenge, Padme and guest judge Todd English asked the chefs to cook on the fly, invoking Paul Revere's "one if by land, two if by sea" quote to signal the chefs when they needed to choose an ingredient from the "land" table or the "sea" table. The ingredients were eclectic, to say the least, including as pretzels, Velveeta (does that even count as food?), mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns (I had no idea they were edible), boar bacon, skate cheeks, sweetbreads, and more. I liked the concept of the challenge, although the idea of pretzels as a "land" ingredient seems a bit silly. I can live with that, though; my only real issue is that they made the chefs run to get the first-come first-serve ingredients, which in my opinion is dangerous, demeaning, and non-representative of the reality of professional chefdom.

In any case, the chefs had to pay attention to when the lanterns were lit, because only then could they visit the main ingredient tables. Padme indicated there would be no immunity, but the winner would get $5,000. Considering that the elimination was based on a team challenge, I'm glad there was no immunity; too many good contestants go home because someone with immunity screwed up the team's dish.

Not surprisingly, the assortment of ingredients led to some slightly odd results, but there were several dishes that seemed fairly successful. Melissa King used mushrooms, pollock, and razor clams to make something that Padme likened to a tempura platter and that Todd English called delicious. Katsuji Tanabe made poached sweetbreads and uni with a quail egg and hot pepper jelly, a combination that Todd English loved. Padme was impressed that James Rigato's dish was not overwhelmed by the boar bacon. On the other end of the spectrum, they did not like Joy Crump's combination of buffalo strip steak and veal, calling it an odd combination, or Stacy Cogswell's pork chop, which was underseasoned and not properly cooked. In the end, it came down to Katsuji and James, with James taking home the $5,000 prize.

Elimination Challenge

To announce the elimination challenge, Padme introduced the Commissioners of the Boston police and fire departments, and made a point of calling them "first responders." (May I just say that their accents would have given away their Boston roots even if we hadn't know where they were from!) The chefs drew knives to divide up into five teams, and were told they would have two hours the next day to prep and cook at il Casale, an Italian restaurant located in the former Belmont fire department. The teams would not be doing their own shopping, but instead would have to "respond" to boxes of ingredients already in the kitchen.

If there's one thing I dislike about Top Chef, it's the drama that goes with the cooking. I understand it's inevitable to a degree -- the idiom "too many chefs" exists for good reason. At first I thought this challenge might be overwhelmed by team friction, when Mei Lin and Katsuji immediately butted heads over who would make the sauce for their dish, but they settled down nicely once they got cooking. As the first team (red) to compete, Mei, Katsuji, and Katie Weinner got first choice of ingredient boxes, and ended up producing a pea coconut puree with sautéed halibut, pickled rhubarb, and a cherry and grilled fennel slaw. Mei tasted Katsuji's sauce and admitted to the camera that it was really good (I only hope she told Katsuji that as well). She also said that everyone on the team pulled their weight and that she was proud of the dish. The judges agreed; Padme praised the sauce, while Tom Colicchio said the fish was cooked perfectly and the dish was cohesive overall.

The blue team, consisting of Gregory Gourdet, Adam Harvey, and Rebecca LaMalfa, went second, and unanimously chose a box containing filets and scallops. Their dish was a surf & turf: filet mignon and pan-seared scallops with a parsnip puree and marcona vinaigrette. Tom felt the vinaigrette really tied the dish together, and the beef and scallops were both perfectly cooked. He later said that a surf & turf was perhaps a little too obvious a choice, but that it worked.

The gray team, which went third, had only two members: Doug Adams and James Rigato. By their expressions when they drew knives, I thought they didn't look happy at ending up with each other, but I must have been wrong because they seemed to work together smoothly and produced a dish that the judges seemed quite happy with. Padme had remarked that they would have to see whether having only two team members would be an advantage or disadvantage. This wasn't brought up again in the episode, but I suspect that's due to time constraints and editing, and that Doug and James probably found it to be an advantage. Their dish was a grilled pork chop, grilled stonefruit salad, morel mushrooms, and walnuts. Padme thought the chop was nicely seasoned well, Gail loved the apricots, and Tom commented that the dish was flavorful.

The yellow team, which was fourth, consisted of Joy, Ron Eyester, and Melissa King, and this is where we ran into trouble, after three successful dishes. At this point, there were only two ingredient boxes left to choose from, and the one they picked had both salmon and veal. They decided to go with the veal, and Joy agreed to cook it, but she noted that the chops were large and that she thought they should take them off the bone. I cringed at that point, remembering more than one occasion when chefs have been dinged for losing flavor by taking meat off the bone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the veal was undercooked to the point of being unappetizing. I don't have enough culinary experience myself to know whether Joy could have simply started the chops a little earlier, or whether that wasn't possible within the two-hour cook window. That wasn't the only problem, however; the judges found that the vanilla flavor that Roy had wanted to add to both the veal and the celery root puree was overpowering.

The last team (green), made up of Stacy, Keriann Von Raesfeld, and Aaron Grissom, was a disaster from start to finish. The elimination challenge took place the day after the Quickfire, so the chefs had overnight to discuss their strategies, although of course they could only do so much without knowing what their ingredients would be. Keriann and Aaron managed to start fighting immediately. Because they would be serving last, they were worried they'd be stuck with dessert ingredients, so Aaron asked Keriann, who has been to pastry school, what ingredients they might expect and what they might be able to do with them. Keriann, in my opinion, was deliberately obtuse. Instead of saying, "well, if we get A, we might be able to try B, or if we get C, we could try D," she simply kept saying "we don't know what the ingredients are." Surely, surely she could have said that if we get a lot of fruit, we might be able to do a tart of some kind, or if we have a lot of eggs, we could do soufflés. Aaron understandably became frustrated, but he was also a sarcastic ass. Keriann also kept insisting that they not do anything "molecular," and Aaron insisted that he had no intention of doing anything molecular.

So what did Aaron do the next day, when they found a box with chicken and short ribs? He tried to go at least semi-molecular by making an onion marmalade that was intended to be served on top of Stacy's chicken. The arguments continued when Keriann put onion in her corn salad, which Aaron thought was redundant due to his bourbon onion jam. The only thing the two of the managed to agree on was that Stacy was "in the weeds" and could not possibly get her chicken done on time, which turned out to be completely wrong. At the last minute, Aaron decided that he needed to warm up his jam and try to re-set it; Keriann told him not to but he did it anyway, and put it on top of the corn salad instead of the chicken.

The first comment the judges made at the table is that Stacy's chicken was not only the best thing on the plate, it was the only good thing on the plate. Padme disliked the raw onion and the starchiness / scratchiness of the raw corn. Tom said he didn't know what the jam was meant to be, but whatever it was, it was terrible. Padme asked how they had worked together as a team, and Keriann lied through her teeth by saying that they “came together pretty good in the kitchen.” Aaron started out with honesty by saying that he and Keriann had very different styles, but then he began equivocating by saying that Keriann was erratic towards the end, implying that she kept changing her mind. It seemed to me that whatever bad decisions Keriann made (the onion in the corn salad especially), she was at least consistent about it. In response to Aaron's remarks, Keriann pointed out that Aaron's marmalade was supposed to be cold, but then he changed his mind at the last minute by warming it up and putting it on her cold salad.

Back in the kitchen, Keriann said the challenge was over and she was done discussing it, then joined the others in the stew room and called Aaron a lying sack of shit. When Aaron started to respond, she again said she was "done." So she didn't want to talk about it, but kept talking about it, but didn't want to talk about it.

Suffice it to say that I was pretty disgusted with both of them by this time.

There were no surprises at the judges' table. The red and blue teams were on top, and ultimately the blue team (Gregory, Adam, and Rebecca) won. Tom noted that it was due to the precision of the dish and the nice details, such as the unifying vinaigrette and the way the parsnips were prepared. Here's where it surprises me that the judges didn't choose an individual winner as well as a winning team, because it's clear that Gregory contributed the most successful elements to the dish. There have been individual winners of team challenges before (think "Restaurant Wars" in past seasons), but maybe they only do that when a sponsor has offered a prize to award.

The yellow and green teams were called to the center for the bad news. Tom noted that the yellow team's downfall was both conception and cookery, and Padme asked a pointed question: had any of the three chefs on the yellow team tasted the complete dish? Not one of them had -- they'd only tasted the separate components. Top Chef 101 here, I think.

When the attention was back on the green team, which Tom stated was "doomed to fail," Aaron tried to wiggle away again; Tom asked how much time they had, and Aaron said about an hour and 40 minutes. Tom corrected him: two hours. Tom also noted that "tricks" (molecular!) were not going to get Aaron through Top Chef. Keriann came in for criticism too; Tom said that bad corn and raw onion are not what he expects from Top Chef. Padme pointed out the harsh truth, that Aaron and Keriann needed to thank Stacy, because her nicely cooked chicken kept their team from being on the bottom, and therefore kept one of the two of them from going home.

Ultimately, Joy was asked to pack her knives and go. In her little post-interview snippet, Joy said she should have spoken up more, and that she regrets not having a chance to share her style. I'm sorry to see her go, but I can understand that you're not going to get very far on this show if you cook meat improperly.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Hmmm, this is actually difficult. Mei's ego is a little large for my taste, but I suspect it's actually somewhat justified by her skill and experience. Although that may be a problem in and of itself. Last week, when hunting around on the Top Chef website, I came across a post in which Tom Colicchio called Paul Qui, who won Season 9, "the most talented chef we've ever had on the show." In fact, Tom said that they had to "dumb down how good he was" because it would have been "pretty obvious that he was running away with everything." That may happen this season with Mei. A friend and fellow Top Chef enthusiast told me that Mei has been on Top Chef alum and winner Ilan Hall's Knife Fight show already, so she's had some experience with cooking celebrity (although maybe she appeared after filming Top Chef Boston? I can't find her listed on it at IMDB). I can't say it's inappropriate for her to be on this show, exactly, but I think I preferred it when most of the contestants were at earlier stages in their careers.

Which means I still haven't figured out who I liked this week. I can't quite say Katsuji; he showed restraint in both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges, but I think he may well revert to type and go a little crazy later on. I was happy for Katie's success this week but still feel like she may be a little out of her league. I guess I'm going to have to go with James and Doug. They didn't get much attention in this elimination challenge, falling squarely in the middle of the pack during the elimination challenge, but I liked the lack of drama, and think they deserve some credit for putting out the same amount of food with one less person (they all served a larger group, not just the judges), and doing it well.

The Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: I was actually not that excited about the elimination challenge dishes this week, so I'll go with James's winning Quickfire dish: the mussels with boar bacon broth. I've never had mussels and am not sure I'd like the texture, but this would probably be a great way to try them for the first time, and how could I resist trying fiddlehead ferns?
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Friday, October 17, 2014

Top Chef Boston - Episode 1 - Sudden Death

I have watched every season of Top Chef since it began airing in 2006, and what's most amazing to me is that after 12 seasons, I still love this show. They've managed to keep it fresh (no pun intended) with new locations, some new recurring judges, and lots of fun guest judges. But I think the show's basic format and the fact that the judges aren't there to scream at or ridicule the competing chefs are what has given the show it's longevity. Plus I find host Padme Lakshmi and head judge Tom Colicchio to be appealing. Over the years, I've also watched some of the spin-offs: Top Chef: Just Desserts (2 seasons); Top Chef Masters (5 seasons); and Top Chef Duels (1 season). That's a lot of Top Chef!

This season, I plan to blog each episode, starting with this past Wednesday's episode titled "Sudden Death." First, let me say that Richard Blais is a nice addition. I liked him during Season 4 and I liked him even more when he won Top Chef All Stars. He just seems like a nice guy, and as a former competitor, I hope he'll be a little more sympathetic to what the contestants go through. Second: wow, the playing field is getting ... incestuous these days. One of Michael Voltaggio's sous chefs, Mei Lin, is competing. Another chef, George Pagonis, is business partners with Mike Isabella. Several of the contestants already own their own restaurants (one of them, Ron Eyester, owns three). I remember the days when the main reason they came on the show was so that someday, they might eventually own their own restaurant.

The QuickFire

Third, while I'm not sure I'm a huge fan of the "it's the first episode, let's send someone home right now" mentality, there's no way the chefs can be surprised by it at this point in the show's history. I definitely would rather this kind of quick elimination happen based on the chefs making what they think is a suitable dish to present on the show, rather than a mise en place challenge, and definitely rather than anything to do with a team challenge or relay. I just think the viewers lose out when someone goes home because his team was slow and he didn't do great shucking clams.

So here's how the challenge ran: the chefs were divided into four teams of four and had to decide among themselves who would prepare lobsters, mackerel, oysters, and clams. There were a couple of disagreements, of course. I always wonder why the chefs never insist on rock-paper-scissors in a case where they both really want to do the same thing, but there you have it. Padme explained that the slowest chef on the slowest team would face sudden elimination, which I took to mean would not be sent home just on that basis. Different teams held the lead at different points, but George Pagonis ended up on bottom. His task then became to pick any other chef in the room for a head-to-head showdown; if George lost he would go home, and if he won they would both stay. Here, I would have rather had the slowest person on the slowest team go head-to-head with the slowest person overall in an individual leg of the relay, since they wouldn't necessarily be the same person. The way this was constructed, the absolute slowest person in the room may have gone completely under the radar because they had a superstar on their team, and in fact I suspect that may have happened. Another option would have been to have the four slowest in their given tasks (slowest on lobster, slowest on clams, etc.) all compete in a sudden death challenge and have the worst go home. This would have ensured that someone relatively weak on prep and on competing in actual cooking challenges would be eliminated. As it is, George challenged Gregory Gourdet and lost, and now we don't get to know what kind of a chef George is. Boo.

Onwards to the elimination challenge, but first a short PSA: enough with the "Coming Up" snippets, already! Maybe they do lose a few viewers at each commercial break, but I find it insulting that they assume my attention span is so short that I need a commercial for the show I'm already watching while I'm watching it!

Elimination Challenge

The elimination challenge was pretty exciting, I thought: Top Chef put on its own food festival, and the contestants had to create a dish, for 250 people, based on the first dish they ever remember cooking. Personally I thought that was too limiting, since likely the first things a lot of kids cook is maybe eggs and toast; I have to imagine that many of the chefs didn't go quite as far back down memory lane as they could have. I also thought 250 servings was a little daunting, but maybe that was the right way to go, since the contestants these days generally are more experienced. The chefs had three hours to cook, and then each served at their own table at the festival, alongside booths with other Top Chef alums and celebrity chefs.

I have to say, I wish I had been there, because there were a lot of dishes I would have liked to taste. On the other hand, I'm a spice wimp, and a single sliver of hot pepper can wipe out my tastebuds for an entire day. The dishes that excited me included Joy Crump's grits, greens, and chicken skin; Mei Lin's congee (new word for me); Adam Harvey's fish and chips with tri-color salad and mustard mayo; and Stacy Cogswell's pulled chicken salad. The judges also liked Gregory Gourdet's Haitian stewed chicken with bananas and scotch bonnet peppers. I'll have to take their word for that, because I certainly couldn't have handled it. There were some disasters (and Padme and Richard especially weren't shy with the criticism): Katsuji Tanabe's "petroleum shrimp", which was a mess; Aaron Grissom's pork belly, which was so fatty that Padme spit it out; and Michael Patlazhan's chilled corn soup with sriracha caviar, which the judges found overly fishy and texturely off-putting. I have to say, if Katsuji has ever watched the show before, he should have known that any dish with that many ingredients is going to get reamed. He put everything but the kitchen sink in there.

When it came time, the judges called in the entire group; I wonder if they plan to do that every episode. It's not a bad idea, because then everyone gets the chance to learn from all the critiques. The top three picks, which made good sense to me, were Mei Lin, Gregory Gourdet, and Doug Adams, with Mei Lin taking the top spot. She's very accomplished, and there's a danger that she may absolutely dominate the show from beginning to end.

Then came time for the bad news, which is the part I hate. It's necessary, but I feel terrible for them. The bottom three were Michael, Katsuji, and Katie Weinner, who had served a broccoli salad with bacon powder. Richard had dinged Katie for the dish not being terribly appropriate for the event, and for using bacon snow, which he called one of his least favorite modern cooking techniques. While I agreed with the judges that Katie's execution of the dish lacked refinement, I don't particularly agree that a side dish is inappropriate for a food festival. It just has to be a really good side dish. The comments about Michael and Katsuji's dishes echoed what we'd already heard earlier from the judges, and I definitely agreed in those cases.

In the end, Michael was eliminated. I already disliked him, due to a couple of things he'd said. The first was "I got the personality, I have the look, I have the style. I think I will definitely win this competition." Yeah, but can you cook? Get over yourself. The second was in reference to Tom and Gail saying, at the festival, that the salmon eggs in his dish were too fishy, and they didn't get the sriracha heat. Michael said (not in their hearing) that he was "not sure what went wrong with their palettes." Yes, I'm sure both of them had a simultaneous, complete breakdown of their very experienced palettes! Then, when he was eliminated, Michael showed a moment of graciousness, when he said that sometimes you have to fail. And I thought maybe I was too hard on him.

But then he blew it, saying that maybe Tom should be more open-minded, and "sometimes you gotta grow with age, or you maybe get left behind." I'm sure Tom would be interested to learn that he, with his wildly successful career, is completely behind the times. Jeez Louise, I hate that kind of arrogance.

Chefs I Particularly Liked This Week: Mei Lin, for her confidence and competence, Joy Crump for her ability to put together a great-looking down home dish and for her humility.

My Pick for the Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Stacy Cogswell's pulled chicken salad with sweet pea "green goddess" and cranberry on a homemade potato chip. I really want to see what those flavors taste like together.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Authors Anonymous

When I heard about Authors Anonymous starring Kaley Cuoco, I suspected it might be a surprise little charmer of a movie, and it was. The premise is that a writers group becomes the subject of a documentary that begins filming just as one of its members, Hannah (Cuoco), lands first an agent, then a book deal, and then a big movie deal in quick succession. Not surprisingly, the other writers in the group have no idea how to handle Hannah's success, even as she remains down to earth and interested in their honest opinions of her work.

Hannah's fellow writers include the earnest, talented Henry (Chris Klein), who was already infatuated with Hannah but had not yet quite worked up his nerve to ask her out; Tom Clancy-wannabee "John K. Butzen" (Dennis Farina), who refers to himself in the third person at every opportunity; young pretender William, who walks the walk but doesn't actually write anything; Colette Mooney (Teri Polo), who's as highstrung as a racehorse and about as good a writer; and Colette's doting but clueless husband Alan Mooney (Dylan Walsh). Also sneaking in with an adorable cameo role is Tricia Helfer as John K. Butzen's German mail-order fiancee, who eventually hopes to become Mrs. John K. Butzen the Fourth.

What's fun about this movie is that it takes writerly cliches that really are based in reality and exaggerates them to a ridiculously funny degree. But there is still poignancy. Hannah is sweet and we want her to succeed, but it actually is sad that she's hardly read a book in her life. Henry, the one with the real talent, is unsure of himself and stuck in a rut that Hannah helps him out of, even though it's painful for him and not necessarily the path that he's hoping for. And even the obnoxious John K. Butzen, who quickly rushes his crappy Vietnam novel to a Chinese vanity publisher in order to have it come out before Hannah's book, is worthy of pity when he's sitting alone in a hardware store at his first so-called book signing. (One can picture him twenty years later, still insisting that the corrupt publishing industry is why he hasn't made the riches he deserves.) And for me, one of the most touching characters is Sigrid (Tricia Helfer); she really, truly believes in and tries to support John, until she finally has to face reality because he's incapable of doing the same.

The movie's not perfect; it tends to forget the documentary format for long stretches and then clumsily reintroduces it every once in a while. It doesn't have the brilliant biting wit of the black comedy faux documentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, for instance, and there's simply no way anyone would want to make a documentary about such an unproven group of writers anyway. But at the same time, I'm not sure if another format would have worked as well for this movie, because having the characters speak directly to the camera really adds a lot of humor. For instance, Hannah can't remember the word "metaphor" when she's trying to explain that her novel, Sleeping on the Moon, isn't really about people sleeping on the moon, and her mother has to prompt her to remember the name Jane Austen as someone who is doing really well and should "keep it up." Teri Polo is the real comedic standout as Colette, who unsuccessfully pretends to be happy for Hannah while desperately trying to draw attention back to her own presumed brilliance. She has one of the movie's funniest lines; when asked about her favorite writers, she shares that "Joyce Carol Oates has been known to bring me to actual orgasm." Dennis Farina and Dylan Walsh are also spot-on. In fact, there's not a single false note in the acting as far as I'm concerned.

Ultimately, this movie isn't at all realistic, but I didn't care one bit. The over-the-top exaggeration of "those writer types" mixed with just the right amount of sweetness made this movie a lot of fun. This probably went direct to DVD (which I note doesn't even have subtitles in English), but it's absolutely worth seeking out. And it's also worth mentioning that this is the only thing I've seen Kaley Cuoco in other than The Big Bang Theory, which I adore, and at no time did I see her as Penny instead of Hannah. She's also the executive producer on this film, so kudos to her on both counts.

Edited to add: I'm mortified that I'm a writer, this is a movie about writers, and I forgot to mention the person who wrote the movie! His name is David Congalton.
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Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Week

This week I immersed myself in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, starting with the Houston Ballet performance on Saturday, September 6. It was an amazing ballet, about which I'll write much more below. It was so wonderful, in fact, that I immediately wanted to see it again (and not just because I'd had a coughing spell that made me miss fifteen minutes of the first act -- that was just a convenient excuse to go again!). So I went to see it again on Friday, September 12, choosing that night because I wanted to see the same cast. In between the two performances, I also watched the 1999 movie version of this work (starring, among others, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Stanley Tucci). I also listened to the story contained in the audiobook Shakespeare for Children by Charles and Mary Lamb.

And I have to say, knowing the story as well as I did by the time I saw the second performance really made a difference for me. By the time the two pairs of lovers get to the woods, there is no mistaking what is going on, but during the opening scenes of the ballet, it can be difficult to understand who loves whom, who is indifferent to whom, and who is outright annoyed by whom. This is through no fault of the dancers or choreography, but simply because it's not possible to watch all of them at once, especially when different things are happening on opposite ends of the stage. When I saw it the second time, I caught many things I'd missed the first time around, in large part because I had a better idea what to look for.

In my mind, the ballet was beautifully cast. I was thrilled to see all three female prinicpals in the leading roles, and thought they each had the right one. Melody Mennite is particularly good at comedic roles (although also a beautiful, romantic dancer), and so made a wonderful Helena. Sara Webb was the lovely Hermia, and Karina Gonzalez transitioned perfectly between Hippolyta and the otherworldly (almost alien) Titania. The ballet underplays Hippolyta's role as Queen of the Amazons, making Hippolyta instead a girlish and reluctant bride-to-be without the overtones of conquest, but considering how much the ballet has to convey in such a short time, I thought this was a wise choice.

Not enough can be said about Connor Walsh as Puck. I sat in the Loge Boxes in the first performance and the balcony the second; I could have kicked myself for forgetting to bring opera glasses both times, but I could see Connor Walsh's comic facial expressions even from the balcony. My husband and I always hope to see him in the lead the nights we attend, because we think he is easily the best male actor in the company, and that doesn't come at the expense of athletic and dancing ability. He is incredibly powerful.

In the other leads roles, Aaron Robison played Theseus and Oberon. Like Karina Gonzalez, he made the transition well, looking alien and freakishly angular as Oberon, but romantic and dreamy by the time he reappears as Theseus in Act II. Linnar Looris conveyed Demetrius' arrogance and self-importance well, and was a great counter to Helena's ludicrous attempts to hang on to him. Ian Casady was appealing as Lysander. James Gotesky, one of my favorite dancers in the company, played Botton, and Christopher Coomer also stood out as Flute, who in turn must play the female role of Thisbe in the play presented by the Mechanicals at the wedding.

The comedic elements of this ballet are terrific. Instead of having to listen to Helena in the play as she literally tells Demetrius that she will be his spaniel, and he can kick and beat her without changing her love for him, we can watch the more lighthearted interpretation in which Helena hangs on Demetrius in a pathetic manner that yet manages to be more funny than sad. By the time Demetrius and Lysander are both fighting for Helena's affections, and poor Hermia is trying to figure out what's going on, it's hysterical. And when Puck finally has to unravel the disaster he's created, his clumsy attempts to physically put the right couples together are laugh-out-loud funny. I don't think this ballet misses a single opportunity for physical comedy.

There were only a few minor things about the production I would have changed. I loved the fairy costumes, but would have liked to see the primary fairy roles (Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth) just slightly distinguished in their dress. I'm not sure how they could have done this precisely, because the usual trick of a sash or a ribbon or a slightly different color would not quite have worked with their flesh-colored, slightly metallic skin-tight leotards. There was one point when I could tell that two of these four characters were dancing, but only because I recognized the dancer, Katherine Precourt, and knew her to be in that particular role. (It says something in itself that I could recognize her without opera glasses, from that far away, while in identical costumes with her hair completely covered, but I believe I would recognize her shape and her dancing even if she had a paper bag over her head. She's intense and powerful.)

Similarly, I would have liked to see a tiny bit more to Puck's costume. I wanted something just slightly twiggy or leafy. Puck is a lot different than the fairies, and I wanted that represented a bit more.

I had one moment of disconnect when Demetrius and Helena have their spotlight dance at the wedding, in this case because of the music. I could not tell from the program what piece of music they danced to, and it's possible it was still the main composer (Mendelssohn), but out of nowhere the music for this couple because almost Asian or eastern, and slightly exotic, and somehow completely out of keeping with the comedy of Helena and with the pageantry of the rest of the scene. I have a vague idea that this music was supposed to represent Demetrius' culture or something -- in ballet, you get a lot of prospective grooms, or fathers presenting their daughters as prospective brides, with exhibition dances that clearly represent their particular ethnicity or culture. But I didn't get any hint early in the ballet that this was meant to be the case with either Demetrius or Helena.

I wish I could have also seen the alternate cast, in particular Jessica Collado as Hermia and Emily Bowen as Helena. I'd also love to see how Aaron Robison danced Bottom the Weaver, quite a different role than Thesius/Oberon.

Later this season, Houston Ballet will perform The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet. I'll be brushing up on both works in other media before seeing the ballet performances. The more you put in to Shakespeare, and to ballet, the more you get out of it.

[Top and bottom photos are Aaron Robison as Oberson and Katrina Gonzalez as Titania; middle photo is Linnar Looris as Demetrius and Melody Mennite as Helena. Photos are property of the Houston Ballet].
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