Monthly Archives: May 2020


(Philip Oltermann’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/29.)

Extra legroom and no interval: Germany plans for post-lockdown theatre

Berliner Ensemble unveils auditorium with most chairs ripped out, but some left in pairs, for a socially distanced audience who can visit the toilet during the play

Going to the theatre after the coronavirus lockdown could be not just a novel but a more pleasant experience, if the plans of Germany’s leading theatres are anything to go by. There will be generous legroom for spectators and a more casual attitude to toilet breaks.

As Germany continues to relax social distancing restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, playhouses in most cities are still waiting for an official date when they can reopen their doors to the public. The Berlin senate announced on Friday that open-air cultural events will be allowed from 2 June, but theatres are likely to remain shut until September. Venues such as the German capital’s Berliner Ensemble, however, are already providing a glimpse of what drama could look like in a world of social distancing.

The theatre by the River Spree, founded in 1949 by Bertolt Brecht, has spent the last week uninstalling 500 of the 700 seats in its main auditorium, to allow for a viewing experience that adheres to government requirements of a 1.5m safety distance.

“We simply could have blocked seats or taken out only entire rows, but that would have looked ghostly,” said artistic director Oliver Reese. Instead, the theatre went with an arrangement resembling a gap-toothed smile, with 70% of seats arranged in pairs. “We want to create an experience that is special, that will anchor itself in people’s emotional memory.”

When the first production opens, which is likely to be on 4 September, there will be no interval, to avoid a crush at the toilets where social distancing would be hard to guarantee. Instead, spectators are allowed to dash to the loo whenever they need. “It will be a new experience, with new rituals.”

Ticket prices, Reese said, would stay the same since they are already subsidised by the state. “If we were to put up ticket prices, that would send a fatal signal to a society in which a lot of people are struggling for their livelihoods at the moment.”

Private Berlin playhouses such as the Grips youth theatre, which could only fill 70 out of 360 seats under new distancing rules, said they were hoping to make up their losses at the box offices with expanded subsidy schemes from the city’s education senate.

There is a striking contrast between subsidy levels for theatres in Germany and theatres in the UK, where it is more difficult to reduce capacity and still make enough income to cover running costs. According to the British producer Sonia Friedman, most theatres need to sell 60% of seats just to survive. 

In Germany theatres were among the first establishments forced to close their doors as the spread of the pandemic accelerated in mid-March, amid fears that crowds of people crammed together in a closed space made them the perfect environment for the virus to spread.

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Times Newspapers/Shutterstock (219454a)

(Gordon Cox’s article appears in Variety, 5/27.)

Larry Kramer, the writer and influential gay activist who pressed the U.S. government and the medical establishment to respond to the AIDS epidemic, has died. He was 84.

Kramer died Wednesday from pneumonia, his husband David Webster told the New York Times.

Earlier in his life, Kramer was a screenwriter with credits including “Women in Love” and the 1973 musical “Lost Horizon.”

Spurred by the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, Kramer became a fierce activist and an impassioned writer, and one of the earliest and most vocal advocates for AIDS research, treatment access and institutional recognition of the gay community so hard-hit by the disease. He is best known not only as one of the founders of both Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, but also as the writer of novels and plays including his 1985 work “The Normal Heart,” his urgent, agitprop depiction of the early days of the AIDS crisis.

A prominent and contentious voice in the gay community, Kramer fearlessly put forth hard truths and controversial opinions, as when, in a 1983 editorial, he urged gay men to stop having sex until more was known about AIDS and how it spread.

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(Cathy Park Hong’s article appeared in The New York Times, 5/21; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

The cast and crew of “Wolf Play” were on their third day of tech rehearsals at Soho Rep in Manhattan in mid-March. “We were doing this complicated boxing scene, and we had the smog machine and the costumes, and it looked awesome,” said Hansol Jung, who wrote the play.

It was just days before the opening, and as the scene ended, the company’s three artistic directors came in and announced the production was closing. “They were crying as they told us,” Jung said. “It felt so weird saying goodbye to something that didn’t yet exist.”

Jung’s “Wolf Play was one of eight productions of works by playwrights of Asian descent that were cut short or canceled in New York City this spring because of Covid-19. Just as these playwrights were finally ascendant in downtown theater, the pandemic not only aborted their moment but unleashed a wave of anti-Asian discrimination across the country.

As a Korean-American poet and essayist, I have witnessed a thrilling renaissance of Asian-American literature in the last few years that has kicked aside conventional tales in favor of stranger, more uncharted narratives. When I began writing in the early 2000s, the publishing industry mostly seemed to look at Asian stories as if they were testimonials of tragic immigrant lives. We were condescended to or treated like content farms.

Now I’m reading books by Asian-American authors that are as varied in style as much as content, and I was eager to see how this experimentation has spread to theater. But because of Covid-19, I didn’t have a chance to see any of these productions. I had to make do with their scripts.

Jung told me in a phone interview that she was used to a scarcity model. If a major theater programmed a play by an Asian-American, she used to joke that her chances were shot for a production there the next season. What a dream then that for a few weeks in 2020 so many Asian-American plays were up.

Subjects ranged from a Cambodian band to Korean divers; from international adoption to a Hitchcockian murder mystery. The plays are bold and often outrageous (I detected Young Jean Lee’s acerbic influence in a few scripts). From noir to porn to rock musical, these playwrights deploy genre to pickax their way into the nebulous inner lives of characters traumatized by migration, racism or genocide.

Favoring Brechtian devices over conventional realism, many of these playwrights write Asian-American characters with a self-conscious knowingness that they’re centering Asian bodies before a white audience. Often, they break the fourth wall or use multimedia — like Christopher Chen’s LCT3 production “The Headlands” — to unseat any preconceived notions thYESe audience may have of the Asian race.

“I think a lot of playwrights who want to get into the meat of racial issues use experimental theater to get underneath reality,” said Chen, whose noir-inspired play delves into the mysterious death of a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco.

Sometimes, just as the audience identifies with characters, the playwright unmasks them, exposing the scaffolding of the plot. The goal is not to please, or to entertain, but to provoke.

An influential playwright who uses avant-garde techniques to explode racial myths is Young Jean Lee. Following on the heels of Reza Abdoh and Suzan-Lori Parks, Lee projects her own prickly unease about her race onto her audience through scathing satire and bait-and-switch plotlines.

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(via John Wyszniewski at Everyman Agency.)

2020-21 R&D Group: All applications must be submitted by June 22nd, 2020 for consideration.

The Civilians (Steve Cosson, Artistic Director; Margaret Moll, Managing Director), the award-winning New York-based theater company, presents the ninth annual R&D Group FINDINGS Series. The R&D Group is comprised of writers, composers, and directors who worked with The Civilians for nine months to develop six original pieces of theater through the creative investigation of a pre-selected subject.  

The members of the 2019-20 R&D Group are Gabriel “Gaby” Alter, Michael Alvarez, Matt Barbot, Kathleen Capdesuñer, Rachel Dickstein, Kate Douglas, Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Grace McLean, Whitney Mosery, Crystal Skillman and Jason Tseng

Projects this year investigate a wide range of topics that share a common thread of how humanity perseveres and seeks out joy through adversity. They include stories inspired by an Arizona House Bill that banned Mexican Studies programs and confiscated a number of books from classrooms, our country’s gendered expectations about those who lead, our complex relationship to money, the role citizens can play in the immigration detention and deportation system, and more. The projects’ creative processes include interviews, community engagement, research and other experimental methods of inquiry. Led by Artistic Director Steve Cosson, previous R&D Program Director Megan McClain and current R&D Program Director Ilana Becker, the cohort shared and discussed their processes, examined artistic choices and provided a community of support for one another. 

Applications are now open for the 2020-21 R&D Group. The Civilians seeks writers, composers, directors and generative theatermakers to join the tenth class of its R&D Group. Participants will have the opportunity to create their own investigative work of theater, contribute to bi-monthly meetings, and present a work-in-progress showing as part of the annual FINDINGS Series. The application for the 2020-21 R&D Group can be found on The Civilians’ website or All applications must be submitted by June 22nd, 2020 for consideration.

The ninth annual FINDINGS Series will run from May 29th-June 22nd and will be streamed online. Five of the six projects will be shared at this time; the sixth, a wholly immersive and interactive experience, will be presented when we can gather in person again. All of these works-in-progress readings are free and will require a reservation. To RSVP, please fill out this form:

Presentations include:  

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It is no little task to carry over to the stage those principles which were created in painting, music, and the other arts that had gone so far ahead of us. Will the speaking voice ever be able to express those delicate nuances of emotion which are heard in the orchestra and its instruments? Will our material and definite body be able to take on the unexpected contours and lines we see in modern painting? (MLIA)


(Lanre Bakare’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/21; Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA.)

Sonia Friedman calls for rescue package to save more than 1,000 theatres from permanent closure

British theatre ‘on brink of total collapse’, says top producer

Sonia Friedman calls for rescue package to save more than 1,000 theatres from permanent closure

British theatre is on the “brink of total collapse”, according to one of the industry’s most successful producers, who has called for an urgent government rescue package to prevent more than 1,000 theatres from permanently closing.

Sonia Friedman, the producer behind West End hits such as The Book of Mormon and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, made the prediction in an article for the Telegraph , in which she said the performing arts faces “the real possibility of complete obliteration” without substantial government support.

“Without an urgent government rescue package, 70% of our performing arts companies will be out of business before the end of this year,” she wrote. “More than 1,000 theatres around the country will be insolvent and might shut down for good.”

The producer said the loss would be “irrecoverable” and said that without intervention the country would watch as over the next six months “our arts and cultural organisations will have to spend their reserves until there is nothing left”.

She added that many will have no alternative but to enter administration.

Friedman is the latest arts figure to call for more support from the government as theatres begin to make redundancies and enter into administration. On Wednesday, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum announced it was going into “hibernation”, with staff being notified their jobs were at risk.

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(Ronald Bergan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/18; Photo: The Guardian; via Adam Sullivan)

For more than half a century, there seemed to be one constant in French cinema – the actor Michel Piccoli. With his death at the age of 94 something vital has disappeared from the screen.

Never young looking – he was prematurely bald – Piccoli grew in maturity and power over the years, with directors such as Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc GodardClaude ChabrolMarco Ferreri and Claude Sautet seeking his services more than once. He also worked for directors of the stature of Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jacques Rivette, Costa-Gavras and Louis Malle.

Even when he was a big name, Piccoli was never too proud to play small supporting roles or even bit parts if he liked the screenplay. But whatever the size of the role, whether playing a goody or a baddie, Piccoli would bring to the character a gravitas (with a tinge of humour) and an ironic detachment, simultaneously revealing a real, recognisable human being beneath the surface.

Piccoli was born in Paris to a French mother and an Italian father, both of them musicians – his mother was a pianist; his father a violinist. At 19, he made his screen debut in a walk-on part in Sortilèges (1945), directed by Christian-Jaque.

After several roles in the cinema and theatre, he met Buñuel. “I wrote to this famous director asking him to come and see me in a play. Me, an obscure actor! It was the cheek of a young man. He came and we became friends.” Piccoli appeared in six of Buñuel’s films, usually cast as a silky, authoritarian figure.

His first performance for Buñuel was as a weak, compromised priest trekking through the Brazilian jungle in La Mort en Ce Jardin (Death in the Garden/Evil Eden, 1956). In Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), he was the idle and lecherous Monsieur Monteil, sexually obsessed with Jeanne Moreau as the maid Célestine.

Just as louche was his smooth bourgeois gentleman who persuades a respectable doctor’s wife (Catherine Deneuve) to spend her afternoons working in a high-class brothel with kinky clients in Belle de Jour (1967). Piccoli reprised the role charmingly almost 40 years later in Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours (2006).

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Khaled Nabawy writes: “What a sad day, Michel Piccoli dies, for the industry and the audience he is a great actor; for me, he is my greatest father ever on screen in The Immigrant!  Through you I learned early how a great human being can be. . . . RIP MY greatest father on screen.”  


(Via John Wyszniewski, Everyman Agency)

The Ars Nova Forever Telethon Features Over 100 Artists with Hosts Freestyle Love Supreme, Ashley Park, Lilli Cooper, Dave Malloy, John Early, Rachel Chavkin, Sakina Jaffrey, Jason Tam, Isaac Oliver, The Story Pirates, Larry Owens, and Natalie Walker

Ars Nova, under the leadership of Founding Artistic Director Jason Eagan and Managing Director Renee Blinkwolt, announces The Ars Nova Forever Telethon, a 24 hour livestream featuring over 100 artists celebrating Ars Nova’s past and present while raising funds to propel the organization into its future. The online event will begin at 6pm EDT on June 12 and run non-stop until 6pm EDT on June 13 at

Taking inspiration from classic TV marathons, The Ars Nova Forever Telethon will feature segments spotlighting some of Ars Nova’s most beloved shows, artists, and alums. Hosts include Rachel ChavkinLilli Cooper, John EarlyFreestyle Love SupremeSakina JaffreyDave MalloyIsaac OliverLarry OwensAshley Park, The Story PiratesJason Tam, and Natalie Walker. Highlights include deep dives into the worlds of KPOP and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; a special edition of Showgasm, Ars Nova’s signature variety-show-meets-party; the world premiere of Isaac Oliver’s Lonely Quarantine; a late-night dance party; a kid-friendly Saturday morning special; and more.

Additional guests and performances to be announced soon with a full schedule to be released on June 9.

Ars Nova’s Founding Artistic Director Jason Eagan commented, “When Ars Nova made the big commitment back in March to keep paying our artists and staff throughout this necessary closure, we knew it would take an even bigger idea to pull it off. We’ve been missing our community so much while working from home, so when the slightly insane idea for a 24 hour telethon arose, we all perked up, as it seems like the perfect way to connect with a slew of our artists and audiences all at once – and we’ve always loved a challenge! New York City needs culture to thrive so we hope folks will rally around this campaign and make sure Ars Nova can flourish into the future.”

The Ars Nova Forever Telethon is the marquee event of the recently launched #ArsNovaForever Campaign to provide a foundation for Ars Nova’s bright future, and fuel the company’s recovery after the cancellation of the remainder of its 2019-20 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, during which it committed to pay all artists, staff, and hourly workers. The #ArsNovaForever Campaign aims to raise $685,000 before the end of its fiscal year on June 30, 2020, of which they have secured $395,000. The upcoming 24-hour Ars Nova Forever Telethon is the centerpiece of the campaign and Ars Nova’s most ambitious benefit to date.

Please visit for more information.

About Ars Nova

Ars Nova exists to discover, develop, and launch singular theater, music and comedy artists in the early stages of their professional careers. Our dynamic slate of programs supports outside-the-box thinking and encourages innovative, genre-bending work. Dubbed by The New York Times as a “fertile incubator of offbeat theater,” Ars Nova blurs genres and subverts the status quo. With our feverish bounty of programming, we are the stomping ground and launching pad for visionary, adventurous artists of all stripes. By providing a protective environment where risk-taking and collaboration are paramount, Ars Nova gives voice to a new generation of diverse artists and audiences, pushing the boundaries of live entertainment by nurturing creative ideas into smart, surprising new work.

Ars Nova has been honored with an Obie Award and a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle for sustained quality and commitment to the development and production of new work. Notable past productions include: The New York Times critic’s pick Dr. Ride’s American Beach House by Liza Birkenmeier, directed by Katie Brook; “Outstanding Musical” Lortel Award-winner and The New York Times’ “Best of 2018,” Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, created by Andrew R. Butler and directed by Jordan Fein; “Outstanding Musical” Lortel Award-winner KPOP, created by Jason Kim, Max Vernon, Helen Park, and Woodshed Collective, directed by Teddy Bergman; “Best New American Theatre Work,” Obie Award-winner and “one of the best new plays in the last 25 years” (The New York Times), Underground Railroad Game by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard with Lightning Rod Special, directed by Taibi Magar (now on international tour); “Outstanding Musical” Lortel Award-winner FUTURITY, by César Alvarez with The Lisps, directed by Sarah Benson; The New York Times’ and New York Post’s “Best of 2015,” Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl, directed by Rachel Chavkin; Time Out New York’s “Best of 2014,” JACUZZI by The Debate Society, directed by Oliver Butler; the Tony Award-winning smash-hit Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 by Dave Malloy, directed by Rachel Chavkin; Jollyship the Whiz-Bang by Nick Jones and Raja Azar, directed by Sam Gold; the world premiere of the 2009 season’s most-produced play boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, directed by Alex Timbers; the show that put Bridget Everett on the map, At Least It’s Pink by Everett, Michael Patrick King, and Kenny Mellman, directed by King; and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail’s first New York production, Freestyle Love Supreme by Anthony Veneziale and Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail (Broadway 2019).



(The post appeared first in The New York Times, 5/15; photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

Before my scheduled preview performance of “The Present,” a new show from the Geffen Playhouse (rebranded as Geffen Stayhouse) in Los Angeles, I received — via FedEx, after a failed delivery from the Postal Service and a series of increasingly panicked emails — a letter with strict instructions. I was to download Zoom and join a meeting 15 minutes before showtime. There would be, bold type informed me, “no late seating.”

On Wednesday, just shy of 11 p.m. (the perils of seeing a California show on New York time), an enthusiastic stage manager checked me in and I took my seat — a rickety Ikea chair in kicking distance of a teetering pile of laundry. My husband sat nearby on the edge of an unmade bed strewn with children’s toys. I had meant to pour a glass of wine, but we’d emptied the last bottle days ago.

“The Present,” created by the Portuguese conjurer Helder Guimarães, is a magic show, and I struggle to imagine a setting and sobriety level less conducive to enchantment. But this is a pandemic. As with bandanna masks and homemade hand sanitizer, we make do.

David Copperfield disappearing the Statue of Liberty and the peculiar success of Criss Angel notwithstanding, magic has always struck me as particularly dependent on liveness — a duel between the nothing-up-my-sleeves hand and the watchful, untrained eye. Put a camera between them, and the odds no longer seem fair. (Video sequences in live shows can feel miscalculated, too, a wrongheaded attempt to scale up what should be intimate, a tryst dressed up as an orgy.)

But last year, while researching the psychological illusionist Derren Brown, I lost several nights, happily, to his old TV series. And routines by the card assassin Ricky Jay — that watermelon! — bear watching on repeat. Knowing remote prestidigitation could work, I spent the two weeks after booking my ticket to “The Present” lurking and squinting and nervously participating online and on the phone, exploring how. The magic word of the moment? Your Wi-Fi login.

I began with Noah Levine, a familiar face beneath a quarantine beard. In “the before” (is that what we’re calling it?), I had twice seen his “Magic After Hours” show at Tannen’s Magic. With the help of the Atlas Obscura and Airbnb platforms, he has now developed “Backstage With a Magician,” in which he promises to perform tricks from his “secret lair,” which looks a lot like a Brooklyn apartment. At showtime, he greeted us in front of a credibility bookcase — “Gravity’s Rainbow,” manuals on card and coin magic, a crystal ball. He has taken to wearing a Nehru jacket. We cope however we can.

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(Alex Ross’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 5/11.)

He’s a political activist. His repertory is vast. And, during Germany’s shutdown, he streamed more than fifty performances from home. It’s made him question what a concert can be.

On March 10th, the German pianist Igor Levit played Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Piano Concertos at the Elbphilharmonie, the hulking concert complex in Hamburg. It was his thirty-third birthday and, it turned out, his last public concert for many weeks. The next day, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, delivered a dire warning about the scope of the looming coronavirus pandemic, and performance spaces began closing across the country. At the time, Levit had a full schedule before him. He had recently issued a boxed-set recording of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, and was playing Beethoven cycles in several European cities. He was also preparing to tackle an arcane colossus of the piano literature—the seventy-minute Piano Concerto by the early-twentieth-century composer-virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, a hero of his.

“That next day, the eleventh, was kind of a shock day,” Levit told me recently, in a video call from his apartment, in Berlin. “On the twelfth, I was shopping in a grocery store, and I had this thought: What if I live-streamed a gig?” He peered into his phone with a grin. He is a trim young man with sharp features, a high Mahlerian hairline, and a thin growth of beard. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Love Music Hate Racism.” He speaks rapidly and incisively, his English nearly as good as his German. Sometimes he seems more mature than his years, poised and oracular; at others, he comes across as an antic, restless member of his digital-native generation.

Levit went on, “When I got home, I did what I usually do, which is to throw a thought into the public arena without thinking about any consequences. I went on Twitter and said, ‘O.K., I’m going to play for you guys tonight at my place.’ After having tweeted that, I realized, Hang on—I’ve never streamed anything, I know shit about streaming, I don’t even know if Twitter allows thirty minutes of streaming, I have no camera stand. I had a total panic. I was sending messages to friends: ‘Do you know how streaming works?’ And this tweet was already out there. It was a catastrophe. I ran to the last electronics store that was still open, and got some stuff for twenty-four euros.”

I saw Levit’s tweet and tuned in. The setting was familiar, because I had met with him there the previous summer. He lives in a spacious, airy, sparely decorated apartment in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, with plate-glass windows overlooking a park. His instrument is a 1923 Steinway B that once belonged to the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. At 7 p.m., Levit pressed the Record button on his smartphone and trotted in front of his newly acquired home-Webcasting equipment, dressed casually in a black-and-gray pullover shirt and black pants. He gave a brief introduction, in German and English: “It’s a sad time, it’s a weird time, but acting is better than doing nothing. Let’s bring the house concert into the twenty-first century.” He then tore into Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, in a fashion typical of him—precipitate, purposeful, intricately nuanced. It was an imposing structure aglow with feeling.

Other pianists of Levit’s generation may have achieved wider mass-market fame—Lang Lang and Yuja Wang come first to mind—but none have comparable stature as a cultural or even a political figure. In German-speaking countries, Levit is a familiar face not only to classical-music fans but also to a broader population that shares his leftist, internationalist world view. He has appeared on mainstream German TV shows; participated in political panel discussions; and attended the annual gathering of the Green Party, playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union. It was no surprise that Levit’s inaugural live stream attracted attention, though I was taken aback when the number of viewers climbed into the tens of thousands.

In the following weeks, as Levit kept Webcasting each night, a convivial online community formed around him on Twitter and its Periscope app—a self-described “Igor Familie.” Periscope includes a chat-room sidebar, with hearts floating up the screen like bubbles. Most comments were in German, but there were salutations from Nairobi, Tokyo, and Montevideo. Some viewers made musicological points—“New harmonic structures become transparent,” one person wrote when Levit tackled Brahms’s arrangement of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor—while others discussed the pianist’s facial hair, T-shirts, and footwear. “Hard rock fan from Düsseldorf is thrilled,” one commenter said. Levit delivered short talks, usually focussed on the music at hand. He never spoke at the end, though emotion sometimes surfaced. Once, halfway through Schubert’s sublime Sonata in B-flat, he buried his head in his hands, hiding tears; he did the same after Morton Feldman’s solitary, unearthly “Palais de Mari.”

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