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On the Dench

TheaterMania reports on Dame Judi Dench's new memoir, And Furthermore, and other recent books.

By New York City
To certain audiences, Dame Judi Dench is best known for her Oscar-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth I or for playing a certain monogrammatic spy chief in the James Bond series. To others, however, she is -- and will always be -- one of the stage's greatest actresses. Those readers will truly appreciate her fascinating, hilarious, and sometimes dizzying new memoir, And Furthermore, which follows her career from her early years in community theater in York to her later award-winning triumphs.

As might be expected, where other celebrities might go on endlessly about love affairs and backstage scandals, Dench has none of it. Even when writing the chapter about the loss of her beloved husband Michael, she is remarkably tight-lipped. Dench prefers here to talk of her film work, which served as a distraction in the aftermath of her husband's death.

Fortunately, Dench is not all business. In fact, Dench (along with several of her contemporaries) turns out to be an avid practical joker, and the book serves as a record of many of her more infamous exploits. For example, she details how Roger Rees invented a game called "Rabbit in the ruff" in which she and all of the other Royal Shakespeare Company actors would try to flash animal-themed playing cards at each other during the last scene of Twelfth Night without the audience noticing; and details how she and Tim Pigott-Smith have engaged in a decades-long back-and-forth involving a black leather glove being smuggled onstage during their respective performances.

Reading these stories and others -- all told through wickedly clever narration -- Dench makes it clear that while she considers acting her job, it's also the most fun job in the whole world.

Dennis Milam Bensie is not only the staff wig designer at Seattle's Intiman Theater, he is also a paraphiliac -- a man with a sexual fetish for cutting men's hair -- as he details in his new memoir Shorn: Toys to Men. While Bensie's writing style is occasionally clunky and awkward, featuring bizarre and slightly hokey stream of consciousness breaks, he more than makes up for it in the fascinating content of his story and the sheer candor with which he shares it.

The book -- which was recently adapted for the stage as The Cut at Seattle's Open Circle Theater -- details Bensie's lifelong journey with hair, which began with military haircuts being forced on him by a father worried that his son looked "too much like a girl" and eventually led to him cruising the streets of Seattle, looking for long-haired male hustlers to shear.

Bensie reckons that in his lifetime he has paid over 300 men for the privilege of cutting their hair, and his compulsive behavior left a noticeable mark not only on his bank statement, but on the Seattle street scene itself. Indeed, Bensie recalls vividly how, thanks to his fetish, there was a suspiciously large number of crew cuts wandering downtown Seattle during the height of the grunge rock scene of the 1990s.

Even more interesting is how Bensie used his fetish to further his craft -- after he buzzed the hair off of his tricks, he often recycled it for use in his wig-making. Many an actor may have a second thought about what's on his head after reading this book!

In the latest edition of Building the Successful Theater Company, Lisa Mulcahy profiles 12 thriving American theater companies as examples for today's aspiring impresarios. While the book is brimming with good advice that would well serve any business -- theatrical or otherwise -- its greatest value is in the historical realm.

Mulcahy gives her readers a peek at the largely unwritten history of some of America's most noteworthy theater companies, including Steppenwolf, L.A. Theatre Works, and La Jolla Playhouse. The anecdotes offered up by her subjects are illuminating, comical, and at times tragic. Particularly striking is the story of Berkeley Rep founder Michael Leibert who died three years after being fired from his own company by the board of directors as a result of his alcoholism.

While Mulcahy presents her book as a practical guide for starting and maintaining a modern theater company, all of her success stories delve from another era -- and one is dubious about their practical value in a radically altered landscape of augmented media distraction and dwindling government funds for the arts.

ON THE SHELF: Oxford has released a new edition of Gerland Bordman and Richard Norton's American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. This massive tome explores the past 250 years of American musicals and has been updated to cover the first decade of the 21st Century. Simon & Schuster has re-issued Shepherd Mead's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to coincide with the Broadway revival of the eponymous musical starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette. TCG has recently added a plethora of new American plays to its catalogue, including Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts, Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play and Young Jean Lee's The Shipment and Lear. Pianist Byron Janis explores another side of his personality in Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal. Finally, in celebration of the acclaimed playwright's centennial, The Library of America offers a new collector's boxed set, The Collected Plays of Tennessee Williams. The most complete collection of Williams' work ever published, this item is a must-have for any true fan.


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