OSF 2018 Part 1: The Promise of the West

This year, several of the shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival begin by thanking not only the subscribers and members in the audience, but the Native American tribes who once lived on this land in Southern Oregon, the Shasta and the Takelma people. It’s fitting that the Festival’s commitment to inclusion has at last brought them closer to home, to considering the role of their home state in a long history of injustice. But onstage, this season’s plays that look westward propose a different, intriguing vision of what the American West can mean: they propose a lost, brief moment of promise. There was an instant, these plays suggest, when everything might have been different– when westward expansion might have been the beginning of something new, not the repetition of something brutal and as old as the idea of America itself.

This idea finds cheerful but surprisingly nuanced expression in Bill Rauch’s production of Oklahoma!, which changes the genders of two of the leads to turn Laurey and Curly into a lesbian couple (played by Royer Bockus and Tatiana Wechsler, respectively) and cowboy Will Parker’s (Jordan Barbour) beau into Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens), a boy who just can’t say no. Lyrics and pronouns are altered accordingly throughout, but nothing else is changed, including the other Oklahomans’ cheerful acceptance of these young couples– and of Aunt Eller (played by Bobbi Charlton and is not, according to Rauch, a trans performer playing a cis character, but a trans character). Wechsler and Barbour are both black, and the ensemble is diverse as well, including Native American actor Román Zaragoza (who, delightfully, also played a gay man in the early American West last season).

This idyllic setting is described by Rauch as “an alternate utopian community that reflects progress and acceptance for our time.” It is, obviously, a fantasy– though no more a fantasy than the original Oklahoma!, a vision of Western expansion that saw the fundamental conflict over the land as one between ranchers and farmers. Rauch’s fantasy of radical acceptance, however, lends a very different tenor to the show’s probing of the odd liminal space inhabited by people who will “soon be living in a brand-new state”– but aren’t yet. That in-between status that allows for Curly’s abrupt and highly dubious trial for murdering his rival Judd, a sense that they aren’t really, fully bound by the laws of the country they’re soon to be part of. For now, they can still handle things their own way– and when the crime they’re adjudicating is a black lesbian murdering a white man in self-defense, given what we know about the country they’ll be joining, it suddenly seems for the best that Curly isn’t hauled off to answer to an official United States judge and jury.

Idris Goodwin’s The Way The Mountain Moved, a gorgeously messy new play, does not tie off its threads so neatly. Exploring the intersection of various characters in the deserts of what will someday be Utah, Goodwin’s west is diverse and chaotic: Mormons, Mexicans, scientists, and soldiers collide and cross paths and force one another to question their purposes and desires. There is violence, and death: the play begins with a Native American man (Christopher Salazar) insisting he cannot continue to help guide the military forces of westward exploration despite his initial promise to do so, and ends with a woman (Shyla Lefner) clutching a rifle and insisting that only the weapons of the enemy can save them. And yet, as director May Adrales writes in the program, it is “a moment in history where America might have changed its course.” In the railroad he has been sent to help plan, a botanist (Rex Young) sees hope for a country united, for the triumph of the scientific rationality that argues that all races are equal, all cultures nuanced and worthy of study and respect. A pair of runaway slaves (Rodney Gardiner and Christiana Clark) steadfastly maintain their Mormon faith despite their church’s tacit tolerance of slavery, and use that faith as a bridge of understanding. A mother chooses loss rather than vengeance on the Native American tribe that may or may not have kidnapped her son. A soldier is transformed by an experience with the wilderness that he cannot explain. Suppose, Goodwin seems to ask, these people had shaped the future of the West?

Both of these plays primarily focus on white and black people– the play of the season that is centered on the Native American experience is partly set (fittingly) in Oklahoma, but partly tells the history of the Lenape in New York, and focuses on a much earlier stage of violent conquest. Perhaps the potential alternate future that these plays tentatively suggest is irresponsibly naive, and only able to be imagined when the Native American perspective is erased. Perhaps it’s impossible to do better the second time, once a country’s hands are stained with slavery and blood. I find myself thinking of the common liberal refrain these days, that this– (insert absurd and cruel action by our government)– isn’t who we are. Which can seem laughable: hasn’t xenophobic cruelty long been exactly who America is, exactly what it’s done? But maybe that statement is really a way of saying, this isn’t who we want to be. We can be better. And by that token, can it be a good thing to look backwards and say, we could have been better?

And yet, tellingly, both of these plays are set in a moment before the land they take place on was American land. It is, as Adrales and the characters of Oklahoma express, a mere instant of in-between– just a flash before, in becoming the United States, they become the worst of the United States, too. But first, maybe, there was a moment when it could have been otherwise.

Tyranny is a Red Hat: Caesar at The Bridge

I have two responses to the Bridge Theatre’s Julius Caesar, and that they are only tangentially related is both a strength and a weakness of the show. Which will make sense by the end of this post, I hope.

First: I liked it! I am desperately in love with Michelle Fairley’s spiky, besuited Cassius. Though I implied otherwise in my last post, I do love a well-done female Cassius, and this is one of them, especially because she was not the token woman in the group of conspirators. The mid-storm conversation between Cassius and Casca (Adjoa Andoh) happening between two very smart, grimly determined women was really great.

Ben Whishaw’s deeply nerdy Brutus turned the character into a caricature of the much-mocked liberal elites, a highly intelligent, passionate scholar who seems to be turning his philosophy into direct action for the first time in his life, and doesn’t see why the rest of the world isn’t as fired up by complex philosophy as he is. He can’t break his nuanced, convoluted thoughts down into crowd-pleasing sound-bites, just as he can’t compromise his principles to raise money for his legions or to give ethically-dubious but necessary allies a pass. In Brutus, the play becomes about the ways in which the loftiest, most well-meant philosophy is no match for empty rhetoric that rouses the spirit.

Which is what leads into point two: I was startled to find myself not just annoyed, but actually offended by the production’s Trump-related imagery. The red hats with CAESAR embroidered on the front in a white serif font are the most obvious example; they were worn by characters, and were also available for the audience to purchase.

It offends me because the play is incapable of seriously entertaining the actual, contemporary questions that attend the potential death of an actual, contemporary figure like Trump. Reinforcing the already classist, sexist, and racist media tendency to limit discussions of Trump’s danger to hypothetical questions about American identity when there are people whose literal lives are at risk because of things he has already done and will do is shallow and counter-productive. I don’t blame Shakespeare for not raising these issues, but for a play now to insist on direct contemporary relevance and yet leave no room for considering the arguments of the people who would be/are most immediately impacted by such a leader’s policies is irresponsibly narrow. Shakespeare isn’t always the right vehicle for saying what needs to be said.

Because people have died because of Trump. More people will die because of Trump. His presidency is not a political abstraction about the powers of populism, it is a presently threatening fact. Trump and his stupid hats are not just punchy imagery to use to decorate your performance and give it some contemporary resonance, they are the banners of a movement which, within the past year, has caused innocent people to die.

This is all particularly uncomfortable when it comes to an immersive production, and raises interesting questions about immersive productions in general: what happens when you are being asked to immerse yourself in an experience you actively oppose? I refuse to even imaginatively participate in a pretend Trump rally under a symbol (that is, the hat) that, in the United States, has become an explicit emblem of prejudice and hate. I did not clap for him, and I did not cheer. I wasn’t standing in the pit, so I was able to enforce that distance for myself. I’m not sure how I would have done so down there, or if I would have been allowed to.

It is both damning and a saving grace that the Trumpian ideas basically disappeared after the play’s first three scenes. It’s proof that it’s not a particularly effective concept: it doesn’t map well onto the language the characters actually use about the political situation, and thus becomes difficult to sustain (unless you slap some novelty wigs on various characters, I guess). Fortunately, this meant that my distaste for the enforced parallel didn’t ruin the show for me, and I was able to set that soon-irrelevant imagery aside and enjoy what was actually happening.

Review: The Knitting Pattern

I keep waiting for the French Revolution to come into fashion. Interest occasionally seems to flicker into being—Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, David Adjmi’s 2012 play of the same name, the National Theatre’s 2010 production of Danton’s Death—but it never breaks into the full-fledged fad I hope it will. The tensions seem so relevant and obvious: an ever-growing wealth gap, crushing poverty in a world with the resources to permit others to have lives of unspeakable luxury and decadence, a chaotic reshuffling of the world order with traditional powers scrambling to find their new places. But it’s what those tensions explode into that makes us so nervous—though I guess by us I should clarify the Anglophone world, which can’t quite make itself comfortable with the concept that sometimes, systemic violence from above will be answered with physical violence from below.

Much like broken windows and riots provide a handy excuse for dismissing the concerns of protesters today, the French Revolution’s swerve into extreme violence has long been cause for assuming that there was no possible logic or justification to what the revolutionaries did. Yes of course the monarchy and aristocracy were wasteful and oppressive and corrupt, but then all those poor people died for it? And was it really their fault?

The poster child for this insistence on innocence is, as the list above suggests, Queen Marie Antoinette—and that is who, at first glance, it seems like The Knitting Pattern, Deborah Nash’s new play at Theatre503, is going to centre on. That quavering falsetto, those panniers, that giant pink hair—who else could it be? But this play is not so realistic.

The woman in the pink wig is Purl (Julia Tarnoky), and she has wandered into the hilltop lair of three fate-like figures (in fact identified by the names of the Fates in the program, though these names are never said in the play) played with appropriate spookiness by Candice Price (the nice one, who spins the threads), David Flanagan (the uptight one, who measures the threads), and Elliot Keefe (the chaotic one, who cuts them). Purl wants her life unwound, or maybe remade, or maybe just remembered. Despite repeated choruses of ‘why are you here, my dear?’, we spool back to relive patches of Purl’s life without ever really understanding why, or needing to. Nash’s poetry is so dreamy, and Michael Hunt’s direction so artfully and aggressively divorced from anything like reality, it’s made plain very quickly that mundanities like linearity and motivation are beside the point.

The fantastic set and props are created by students at the Chelsea School of Art, and their precision—the gage numbers on a pair of giant knitting needles, the matching giant thread, a lumpy, tattered tricolour hanging in the corner—complement the precision of the knitting metaphors, the repeated choruses of counting stitches and interludes of instructional voice-over.

I began to think of the play almost like a collection of poetry—or maybe like a pointillist image rendered in knitting. Something that coheres in part into a concrete narrative, but leaves plenty of gaps for one’s own interpretation.

Purl speaks of feeling like she is made of glass, and Tarnoky embodies this with careful, stylized gestures and a high, twittering voice, speaking like she is afraid of shattering crystalline vocal cords. Is Purl pure artlessness, or only art, with nothing at the centre? Can she really be blamed for shielding herself with the privilege she was raised to, for being offered no other options?

One interlude suggests yes: a cameo by the lone historical figure, the Chevalièr(e) d’Eon, the soldier, spy, and diplomat whose gender was a source of scandal and gossip during and after her life. She spent the first part of her life as a man (though evidently sometimes spied as a woman), then insisted that she had in fact been born a woman and asked to be recognized as such. After her death, she was found to have both breasts and testes. Nash’s d’Eon insists on feminine pronouns, and suggests that there is more space to seize control of one’s own destiny than Purl has been trained to recognize. But this flash of challenge vanishes, and Purl slips into a narrative that, were it not for Nash’s language and Tarnoky’s quaveringly strange and beautiful performance, might feel familiar: constrained by her sex and her class, unhappily married, valued only for her womb, while the revolution rumbles in the background.

It seems that the only site of fascination and tragedy we can find in the French Revolution is in its aristocratic women, with those cagey crinolines and tottering hairdos as ready-made metaphors. Sometimes I think that we’ll know the world is really on the brink of changing, the systems really about to collapse, when someone produces a big, bloody French Revolution play that beheads the aristocrats and says they deserve it. The Knitting Pattern is not that play. It is smaller and stranger, more conservative and more outlandish, a weird, winding web.

Review: Young Marx

Yesterday, after having come under fire for an all-white, all-male written and directed opening season, The Bridge Theatre announced another production: a new Martin McDonagh play to be directed by Matthew Dunster. As exciting as it should be to have a brand new, well-funded theatre company in the London scene, The Bridge isn’t offering much hope yet that it is actually going to make a radical difference in the landscape.

But what about the actual plays? The first, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s Young Marx, directed by company artistic director Nicholas Hytner, feels like the company as a whole: yes, of course it’s fine to have fairly traditional plays created by white men and cast with token diversity (but never so blindly that you actually have an actor of color as one of the leads, of course). You will come up with some pretty good– maybe even great!– plays like that, and obviously no one can stop you. But Young Marx and the Bridge Theatre would be so much better if they weren’t.

Young Marx is about Marx when he’s young. He’s impoverished, living in London, and struggling to write Das Kapital. He feels alienated from his revolutionary group and from his family. This is the kind of play where the long-suffering wife of the man of genius is told, “But he needs you!” and she replies, “But what about what I need?” and no one ever answers. It’s the kind of play where every named adult female character is in love with the man of genius lead.

The most intriguing parts of the play center around the Marxes’ community of radical political refugees, devoted to spreading communism through the world. They turn out to be somewhat beside the point, but watching them, I found my mind drifting to Hamilton. Now, I will argue for the fundamental conservatism of Hamilton all day long, but the casting is a pretty brilliant dramaturgical device, and one that would strengthen Young Marx in the same way as it does the musical. How much better would it be if all the play’s jabs about immigrants and refugees, its air of mistrust and paranoia, its running jokes about police brutality, were being enacted on people of color, people whose foreign accents were real, not (mostly) white British people? As with Hamilton, we would understand the uncertainty and danger of Marx’s position so much more keenly and viscerally. Any other consideration aside, diversity would lead, quite simply, to better storytelling.

And then, too, we might have more than one-line references to the women’s importance to the movement (“She’s a founding member!”) and an understanding of history that admits them as full, genuine participants in the politics and lives of its central characters, not just nagging wives, devoted baby vessels, and cheeky contributors of famous lines in famous works the men are writing (though this sensibility would certainly not be derived from Hamilton). There’s an awareness that in this day and age, women must be acknowledged– they must be present at the radical meeting, even if they’re never given a name– but there’s still no genuine understanding that a sense of history that shunts them to the side and consistently sexualizes them is not actually objective or inevitable. That announcing that you’ll be doing some plays by female writers and directors eventually, but sticking them all under “future projects” and then adding yet another show created by white guys to your inaugural season is not the same as committing to diversity.

But, you know, I get it. If you get offered the new Martin McDonagh play, you don’t turn it down. Rory Kinnear and Oliver Chris are talented and charming, and they put in good shifts here. It’s exciting to see ambitious new work, and I love history plays. The view from the cheap seats in the back is actually pretty good, and it’s awesome to leave the theatre and see Tower Bridge right there, all lit up. Several people stopped to take pictures as they were going out.

But it’s just… it could be better. 

 

 

Thoughts: King Lear & Much Ado

Over the weekend, over the course of two productions, I had my first chance to see the Globe Theatre’s controversial new lighting rig and sound system, which it has been all but confirmed will be departing the space along with artistic director Emma Rice. The shows were King Lear, directed by Nancy Meckler, and Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Matthew Dunster. Both were matinees, which turned out to be a key element of my experience.

I could tell that both Lear and Much Ado had a lighting design because I could see the bulbs flashing on and off, see them changing colors, but I couldn’t actually see the effects of the lighting onstage. Because of course, in the daytime, the Globe’s only possible lighting plot is… the sun. You can’t see lighting design without darkness to contrast against. Neither show was noticeably harmed by this omission. If there was something important or particularly interesting that I missed because of the daylight, then frankly, that’s bad design. Because nearly half the performances at the Globe are matinees, and if nearly half your performances are missing an essential element, that’s a problem. And on the other hand, if the lighting matters so little that matinees aren’t materially harmed by not having it… then why have it? Why should the full experience of a show only be possible in half the performances?

This is an element of the controversy I haven’t seen discussed, and which hadn’t occurred to me before I experienced it firsthand. But having seen it, it feels essential. In many respects, the Globe is best approached not as a normal theatre, but a site specific performance space. If a show isn’t going to work with the physical conditions that the Globe imposes, then there’s not really any point in performing that show there. Similarly, if a design is just going to attempt to erase or fight against the facts of the space, then it doesn’t belong. A fact of the space is that matinees will take place in natural daylight, mostly during the summer. Yes, it’s England, and I was blessed with two particularly sunny days, but there aren’t that many summer afternoons where it’s going to be as dark as nighttime at 2pm.

Theatre is unpredictable, and every performance is different. But a design that demands such a fundamental difference between daytime and evening shows can’t really be waved off as merely a quirk of live performance. I don’t think any lighting designer would accept an argument that their work matters so little that it’s just fine if a large percentage of audiences just don’t see it. Setting aside questions of authenticity or historical accuracy or popularity, the simplest fact is that the lighting rig at the Globe Theatre, in the very literal sense of functioning correctly in order to perform its intended artistic role in a production, actually doesn’t work.

 

 

Review: Ink

Politics and analytics website FiveThirtyEight recently came out with the conclusion of their series evaluating the role of the media in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. There have been similar analyses and reckonings regarding the role of the press in the outcome of the Brexit vote, all pointing, like the FiveThirtyEight piece, to one question: how did all of this happen? 

James Graham’s new play Ink, transferred to the West End from the Almeida, proposes that our world today is nothing but the natural culmination of a shift in media culture set into motion a long time ago.

It’s an indirect connection, however. The play doesn’t directly address anything about the present day: it’s all set in 1969 and 1970, and concerns the purchase of failing newspaper The Sun by an Australian upstart named Rupert Murdoch, who woos Larry Lamb, a working-class former reporter with a chip on his shoulder, to be its editor. Murdoch’s goal: to embrace capitalism, not any lofty notions of journalistic responsibility, in order to crush the narrow-minded elites of Fleet Street. Most of all, he wants to surpass the circulation numbers of the most popular newspaper in the world, The Mirror— which just happens to be Lamb’s former paper, where he never received the editorship he felt he deserved.

Though Murdoch is the more internationally famous name, Lamb, played with slouchy Northern charm by Richard Coyle, spends most of the play as the guiltier party in the game of dragging the ideals of journalistic integrity into the populist, lowest-common-denominator mud. Murdoch is the distant, awkward money man, prone to fits of scruples and prudishness; Lamb accepts his mission to give the people what they want, to do whatever it takes to beat the Mirror, and (almost) never wavers from it.

Though his role is the smaller of the two central characters, Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch begins the play, and is magnetically fascinating. Carvel is an improbable chameleon. His voice is incredibly distinctive, his choices in physicality and characterization all similarly strange, and yet every character he plays seems completely different and completely human. He is always himself (or at least whatever version of that appears onstage), but he can always seem to shift that same essence into something different. Murdoch is no exception.

Rupert Goold finds the perfect staging language to complement Graham’s not-quite-naturalistic script. This, along with Graham’s sparkly dialogue, help elevate what is otherwise a fairly standard structure and recognizable Fleet Street Faustian story arc. Clever movement sequences and even a bit of singing create cinematic-feeling montages, most of which are recognizable from any movie about young upstarts: the “getting the gang of misfits together” montage, the “spitballing new ideas” montage, the “look at our successes” montage. Even if they follow a slightly familiar pattern, they are– much like the newspaper this band of outcasts is trying to build– cheeky and fun, and thus mostly avoid cliche. As the play moves into its darker second act, the pace grows even more driving.

The protagonists’ moral downfall (and it’s surely not a spoiler to say that there is one, since both the play’s structure and actual history make this obvious) hinges on two crises, both of which center around women: one murdered, and one naked. The latter subplot introduces a laudable, if not wholly integrated, attempt to include the perspective of a woman of color in this very white, very male world and play. It also somehow comes off as seeming more depraved, more scandalous, and more heartless than the murder. Graham’s script seems generally uncertain about how to draw the moral lines around what Lamb and Murdoch are trying to do, when to suggest they have gone too far. Though it’s clearly intentional that the play lacks a clear right and wrong, the characters lack a clear moral compass, too, which is a detriment when telling the story of men selling their souls for success. Lamb and Murdoch trade off moments of hesitation, only to be seduced once more by their own power and success– but these waverings don’t always come off as totally logical. They seem to swap capitalist ruthlessness for scrupulous reticence as needed to balance the other’s state of mind, not out of their own convictions.

Lamb and Murdoch’s rivals are relentlessly painted as stuffy, snobby, and elitist, with only glimpses of sympathy for their position. Given that all the weight of our present media crises falls firmly on their side of things, perhaps the play can stand to stack its cards– at least at first– in favor of the broad-minded populists. But with hollow protestations of working-class solidarity on the one side and ivory tower elitism on the other, Graham certainly presents two dispiriting poles, with very little hope for what could come in the middle.

But, as Murdoch says in the play, it’s a writer’s job to hold the mirror up to society– it’s not their fault if we don’t like what we see.

 

 

Review: The Wildness

According to The Media, my generation is supposed to be all about sarcasm and irony. But the best work I’ve seen in the past couple of years created by self-identified millenial artists has been deeply, achingly sincere. And another perfect example is Sky Pony’s The Wildness, playing at Ars Nova as a coproduction with The Play Company.

A rock opera meets fairy tale meets cleansing ritual, The Wildness is a metatheatrical blend of fact and fiction as characters named after the actors present a fairy-tale play about combatting doubt, supposedly a tradition the enact every year under the auspices of their collaborator Michael, who recently vanished without a word. Taking his place in the evening’s festivities, presided over by his best friend Lauren (Lauren Worsham) is his sister Lilli (Lilli Cooper).

This blurring of fact and fiction– characters who are named for their actors, who are both real (Lauren Worsham is indeed pregnant and married to co-writer and fellow performer Kyle Jarrow; real audiences members give real ‘overshare’ confessions), and not-real (Lilli Cooper is not really the sister of the fictional Michael; cast members give fictional ‘overshares’ about him)– creates a delightfully sticky and engaging immersive experience.

The fairy tale they embark on telling, about a princess burdened with a prophetic destiny and her devoted, besotted handmaiden, is studded with folk-rock musical numbers and has a DYI burlesque aesthetic, the remnants of your childhood attic on a slightly higher budget. And this tension between yearning for childish things and the irresistibly frightening embrace of the adult– of desire and independence on the one hand, and fear and loss and jealousy on the other– likewise defines the soul of the show. As with many of the genres its mashing up, from fairy tales to confessionals, the point isn’t necessarily subtlety, and this isn’t at all a bad thing.

In Ben Brantley’s review for the New York Times, you can sense his bafflement: why is this all happening? Why is childish nostalgia the aesthetic of choice here? You sense the word ‘cozy’ is not wholly positive. But this show, Ben, is not for you. To him, the soup of comfort and pain seems contradictory (and it’s plain which aspect he values most)– to the target audience, the ones to whom the actors’ reassurance that “we are just like you” is directed, this is the agonizing tension in which we are living. Maybe it looked and sounded different when Ben Brantley was young, but The Wildness taps successfully into the sound and feel of the millenial sense of seeking and alienation. And it doesn’t sound like irony, and it doesn’t feel cold. It’s giddy and confused and hurt and welcoming– and we’re all welcome, too.

It’s Commonplace

When I first was getting really into Shakespeare, I bought a bracelet that said ‘this above all: to thine own self be true’ on it. When I got more into Shakespeare, I was embarrassed by this and got rid of it as the most obvious example of faux-profound Shakespeare being taken out of context by people who don’t understand it.

And then I learned about commonplacing.

When Hamlet cries ‘My tables! Meet it is I set it down…’, he’s participating in a hot Elizabethan trend: carrying around little books (called, that’s right, a commonplace book) to write things down. Things you heard, things you saw, or things you read. As commonplacing grew increasingly, well, common, printers started getting in on the act by marking out phrases in their books that might be ripe for commonplacing. They were indicated with little quote marks like this: “.

Here’s an example from Internet Shakespeare Editions:

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And here’s another:

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Yes, ‘to thine own self be true’ was being held up as an inspirational quote out of context even in 1603.

I admit that at first, I found this practice more than a little odd. If you’re meant to be collecting quotes and ideas that appeal to you, why would you want them pre-selected? Isn’t half the point choosing your favorite lines for yourself? But then I started noticing that we’ve created a contemporary version.

Here’s an article from n+1, one from Medium, and one from HowlRound. They all have something in common: the pull quotes all come with a Twitter button underneath them. You can automatically tweet those phrases without even having to open a new tab. I don’t know if this necessarily makes commonplace marks make more sense to me, but at least it shows a consistent impulse. And, to be fair, the guesses of both commonplacers and pull-quoters about which gobbets will be appealing are usually right.

So really, I should be regretting getting rid of that bracelet…