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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014 12:01 am

Being there

Recalling Nixon, being with John Malkovich and a grand party

Former president Richard Nixon

 

The passage of the Civil Right’s Act 50 summers ago has gotten lots of media attention this year, and rightly so. But there’s been little – at least that I’ve heard – of the 40th anniversary of another milestone in American history. I’d forgotten that Watergate and Nixon’s resignation happened in 1974 until I recently saw a replay of his resignation speech. Watching brought back memories that only peripherally recalled political dirty dealings.

On that steamy August night during Nixon’s speech, I was drinking my first French champagne, sitting beside celebrated actor John Malkovich, who has appeared in more than 30 films and received Oscar nominations for two of them. He’s even played a fictional version of himself in the quirky fantasy Being John Malkovich.

But in 1974, I didn’t know that he would become famous. In fact, I hadn’t even made the connection between the guy who’d played my stage father in the Kurt Weill musical ThreePenny Opera and the famous actor until years later when, sifting through boxes of memorabilia, I found an old program.

The reason for the champagne wasn’t politics; it was to celebrate the season’s end of the repertory company in which John and I had been performing. The reason the champagne was French was the company’s French director, Guy Romans.

Ebullient, energetic, and Gallic to the core, Romans wasn’t tall, but often he seemed to be with his leonine shaggy gray head and larger-than-life gestures. He had a battered blue Citroën, three children who could with enviable ease switch from unaccented English to French, and a wife, Fabien, who was as Gallic as he. She was a perfect foil for him: tiny, dark, sweet, yet opinionated and capable of quick flashes of temper. She was also a marvelous cook.

Romans had assembled a somewhat motley crew of actors for the summer: college drama students who for their efforts received a small amount of money and a much larger amount of experience and an interesting item on their resumés. There was Glen, a Cajun from Louisiana, complete with accent (though toned down for the stage); Monica from New York, dark and unattractive with heavy black glasses and a whiskey voice; and Sherrie, who attended the elegant Fontbonne Women’s College in St. Louis and had the manners to match; and, of course, Malkovich, aloof, but not unfriendly, undoubtedly realizing he was a cut above the rest of us.

My participation was a fluke. They’d put on several shows during the summer, but the finale was ThreePenny Opera, a darkly caustic German musical, most famous for the song Mack the Knife. Most of the company could carry a tune well enough for the demands of the show. But the lead role, Polly Peachum, required a soprano capable of handling a showpiece aria. I’d signed up for an acting class Romans taught at Sangamon State to fulfill a requirement for my vocal performance degree at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When Romans realized I was a singer (and soprano at that) my “class” became the part of Polly Peachum.

Romans quickly realized that though I’d acted in several conventional musicals and opera, I was completely out of my depth with the stylized French farce method he wanted. I realized just as quickly that he had no musical knowledge and was oblivious to the staging needs of singers.

John Malkovich
It wasn’t pretty. I’ve never been a temperamental diva, but as Romans harangued, scolded and pleaded, I alternated between tears and defiance. That the performances were in a 360 degree theatre-in-the-round (on the Old State Capitol Square), only aggravated the problems.

Eventually things improved. I came to appreciate that the extravagant delivery and gestures fit the play and grew comfortable with them; Romans accepted the reality that it was impossible to perform difficult vocal numbers while on one’s hands and knees, pretending to scrub floors.

The show was successful. Glen, as the amoral Mack, was cheerfully sinister (think John Travolta in Pulp Fiction). Malkovich brought to his role as Mr. Peachum the same unique combination of intensity and cynicism seen in his movies. I did an adequate job acting, and a better one singing, even managing to recover and “go on with the show” the night my low cut, can’t-wear-a-bra-with-it dress split wide open down the back while flinging my arms in one of those extravagant gestures; especially awful because it was theatre-in-the-round.

When it was over, everyone came together one last time for a picnic at Guy and Fabien’s – a picnic like no other any of us had seen. Heaping platters of garlicky herbed pork, huge bowls of ratatouille, salad, homemade baguettes and ceramic pitchers – pitchers! – of red wine. Romans led us to where an entire case of Piper-Heidsieck was waiting on ice and handed us a glass. Revelation! As budding wine enthusiasts, my husband, Peter, and I delightedly inhaled the toasty, yeasty nose that had so much more depth than the New York state versions to which we’d been accustomed.

As we finished our picnic/feast, toying with the remains of luscious fruit tarts, Romans poured the last of the Piper-Heidsieck. Someone called from the house that Nixon was on TV. Reluctantly we trooped inside. The flickering screen’s dreary sad scene couldn’t have contrasted more with the warm conviviality that had enveloped us for hours. The evening’s magic mood had been spoiled, but thankfully our memories of it weren’t.

Sometimes it seems as if the lessons that should have been learned from Watergate – that dishonesty and lack of integrity have terrible consequences not only for the perpetrators, but also for all whose lives they touch – seem to have been forgotten by those who should most remember them. But the lessons I learned that summer from Guy and Fabien – that sometimes you have to be dragged, kicking and screaming to a new level of performance; that food and wine are best served with a bountiful generosity of spirit – have stayed with me and become part of my life.

Fabien used a loin for that wonderfully garlicky herbed pork, roasted slow for hours. This recipe – one of my all-time favorites for a quick meal, uses lots of herbs as a sort of crust. It requires thinly cut or pounded meat; otherwise the herbs may be burnt by the time the meat is done.
 
Grilled pork with an herb crust

  • 6 butterflied pork chops, pounded to about 1/3-inch thickness, 12 thin-cut pork chops, or 6 thin pork steaks
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3/4 c. finely chopped parsley, preferably flat-leafed
  • 1/3 c. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1/4 c. finely chopped fresh sage, savory, or marjoram – either singly or in combination
  • 6 T. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. to 1 T. minced garlic, optional

Sprinkle both sides of the meat well with the salt and pepper. Combine the herbs together, then sprinkle them evenly over both sides of the chops or steaks, pressing them into the meat with your hands.

Mix together the olive oil and minced garlic. Divide the garlic oil between two or more resealable plastic bags big enough to accommodate the pork laid flat in a single layer.

Carefully put the meat in the bags, squish out as much air as possible, and seal the bags. Gently turn the bags a few times to distribute the oil, keeping or rearranging the meat in one layer. Press the herbs again into the meat from outside the bags. Let marinate for at least 1 hour and up to 24, turning occasionally. If the meat marinates for only 1 hour, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated; if marinating for longer, refrigerate, then remove and let stand at least 1 hour at room temperature before grilling.

Prepare a hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill. Grill the meat until browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Serve immediately. Leftovers make wonderful sandwiches. Serves 6.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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