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Loney's Show Notes
By Glenn Loney, February 3, 2005
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
Plays New & Old— *
August Wilson’s GEM OF THE OCEAN [*****] *
Quasi-Repertory Theatre-Time in NYC— *
Wm. Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT [****] *
Brin Sheridan’s THE RIVALS [****] *
Elmer Rice’s COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW [****] *
David Rabe’s HURLYBURLY [****] *
Willy Holtzman’s SABINA [****] *
Plays With Music— *
Stephen Temperley’s SOUVENIR [*****] *
Dickstein & Wharton’s INNOCENTS/HOUSE OF MIRTH [**] *
Paul Zimet’s BELIZE [****] *
Musicals Old & New— *
Georg Frideric Händel’s RODELINDA [*****] *
Knee, Howland & Dickstein’s LITTLE WOMEN [***] *
Other Entertainments— *
Monologues & Monodramas— *
Gareth Armstrong’s SHYLOCK [****] *
MacLeod & Paterson’s THE SHAPE OF A GIRL [****] *
La La La Human Steps’ AMELIA [****] *
Richard Foreman’s THE GODS ARE POUNDING MY HEAD [****] *
Plays New & Old—
August Wilson’s GEM OF THE OCEAN [*****]
Wilson’s new drama—in his panoramic series tracing black history in terms of very human people in Pittsburgh—is truly a gem. It is both poetic and deeply moving, and its poetry is generated not only by Wilson’s powerful imagery, but also by the distinctive speech-rhythms of his various compelling characters. This is the ninth in his projected ten-part series.
Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1904, it reveals how beleaguered black men and women cope in a still racist white society. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is often amusing as an Uncle Tom law-officer, but the character is finally tragic. Phylicia Rashad is powerful as the visionary Aunt Ester, leading a confused young black man through a voodoo-like Ritual of Initiation & Passage, to prepare him for a possibly sacrificial role in winning basic rights and freedoms for his people. The spiritual journey to the mythical City of Bones—the resting-place under the seas where lie the bones of all those who died on slave-ships in the Middle Passage—was a haunting epiphany.
Kenny Leon staged the strong cast which includes John Earl Jelks, Lisagay Hamilton, & Anthony Chisholm. David Gallo, Constanza Romero, Donald Holder, & Dan Moses Schreier designed. Music by Kathryn Bostic.
Quasi-Repertory Theatre-Time in NYC—
Wm. Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT [****]
For those who already feel they have seen enough productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, & As You Like It to last a life-time, there’s always yet another new staging by a famous director which demands to be seen and, if possible, reviewed. The Theatre Royal Bath AYLI production, recently seen at BAM, had two attractions—in addition to Shakespeare’s Seven Ages set-pieces. They were its director, Sir Peter Hall, and his Rosalind-daughter Rebecca Hall. [His son Edward’s work was recently seen in Manhattan in Rose Rage!]
Ms Hall is lovely and lively, as befits the daughter of the opera-star Maria Ewing. But some acting-experts felt she was not quite yet in command of the techniques needed to command the role of Rosalind. Near me, Sir Peter was making assiduous notes, so she may grow into the part. Gordon Davidson—immediately in front of me, next to BAM’s Joe Melillo—had come to check out the staging as it was to be playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Center. He must have had red-eye jet-lag, for his head nodded forward on occasion.
I stayed wide-awake, even though I knew all too well what was coming. I had seen a magisterial RSC Peter Hall production of the comedy in Stratford way back in the 1960s. His evocation of rural English pagan rituals was a revelation at the time, and some vestiges of it surfaced in this reprise.
What was distinctive, however, was the decision to make Touchstone and Jacques the two powerful philosophical poles supporting the production: The Comedic and the Melancholic Philosophers. Michael Siberry and Philip Voss dominated the stage whenever they were in full voice. It was a nice touch to have Rosalind’s chum, Celia, also played by an actress with the first name of Rebecca!
This was essentially a bare-bones production: Bath’s Theatre Royal is, after all, rather a small venue in a rather small but historic spa-town. John Gunter’s stage-environment was minimal: mistily and gradually filled out with the leafy projections of Peter Mumford. The Sierra Club would love his trees!
After being Artistic Director of London’s Royal National Theatre—about which tenure his published diaries ruffled a lot of feathers—it is good that Sir Peter keeps busy in the theatre. As does that other RSC Peter, Peter Brook. [A year’s Residency at BAM by Brook is being hinted.]
But who now remembers the third theatrical talent in the Triumvirate that founded the Royal Shakespeare Company? Michel St. Denis, anyone?
Brin Sheridan’s THE RIVALS [****]
Bath was very much on stage in January. It was physically recreated at Lincoln Center in The Rivals.
This handsome revival of Sheridan’s 18th Century Sentimental Comedy at the Vivian Beaumont was most notable for its monumental Georgian setting by John Lee Beatty and the lavish period costumes of Jess Goldstein. My spies tell me the Times’ critic, Ben Brantley, didn’t like either the play or the production. Unfortunately, in retirement, I no longer have time enough to read the Times, so I don’t know the truth of that.
Certainly, in a time of Tsunamis, Iraqui Quagmires, and four more years of Bush, the dated social niceties and delicate deceptions necessary for winning the hand of the hyper-romantic lady, Lydia Languish [Emily Bergl], may well seem inconsequential. Still, this play is an approved classic in the Sacred Halls of Theatre History. And audiences still laugh lustily at the Malapropisms of Mrs. Malaprop—a delightful Dana Ivey.
As Sir Lucius O’Trigger—Comic Stage-Irishmen, anyone?—Brian Murray seemed to be doing a Sir Peter Ustinov impersonation. This is not at all a bad idea: Sir Peter would have been charming in this role.
Mark Lamos staged at a brisk pace.
Elmer Rice’s COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW [****]
Half in jest, leaving St. Clement’s, I said: "They don’t write plays like that anymore!" Several people enthusiastically agreed. Elmer Rice’s carefully plotted script still holds the audience’s attention, and his effective slice-of-life character-sketches evoke on stage a Depression Era New York long forgotten .
They also do not write plays like this anymore as it requires at least 21 actors! With pre-World War II costumes and wigs to match. In the current and very attractive revival at St. Clement’s, John Rubinstein is outstanding and a whirlwind of energy as George Simon, a kid from the Lower East Side who has become one of Manhattan’s most successful lawyers.
But there is a problem in his legal past that "white-shoe" WASP juridical enemies could use to destroy this aggressive Jewish dynamo attorney. He has also married "above his station and out of his class" to a brittle, calculating Waspy beauty [Beth Glover], who doesn’t really love him. Unfortunately for his adoring and protective secretary [Lanie MacEwan], he barely notices her devotion.
Dan Wackerman has deftly & tautly directed this intriguing revival for the Peccadillo Theatre Company. Frankly, I’d never heard of them before, but the program says they are in their second decade of producing forgotten American Theatre Classics! If this staging is typical of their work, not only theatre-history buffs, but also those who enjoy a good play very well performed will want to be on their mailing-list!
David Rabe’s HURLYBURLY [****]
I didn’t much like Hurlyburly when it was first produced, although the production itself was perversely powerful. After seeing the current revival, I have much the same reaction.
Could this play be a West Coast version of Maxim Gorki’s slice-of-life drama, The Lower Depths? Hurlyburly’s two cocksmen casting-directors certainly do provide Lodging for a Night—an alternative Gorki title—to some hapless or hopeless young women.
After three hours of watching dim and doomed Hollywood hangers-on self-destruct—with a lot of help from their friends—I wondered once again: Why are we watching this? What is the point of the play? To experience David Rabe’s disillusion with Hollywood, after his New York successes, inspired by the Vietnam War?
Nonetheless, this production is a must-see for the powerful performances of Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale, Josh Hamilton, Wallace Shawn, Parker Posey, and their colleagues, in Scott Elliott’s riveting staging. After Hawke’s less than compelling performance in Henry IV, it’s bracing to see how fierce he can be in a contemporary role.
Willy Holtzman’s SABINA [****]
Until I looked at the program for Sabina—produced by Primary Stages at the 59E59 theatre-center—I had no idea I’d already seen it some time ago at Primary Stages over on West 45th Street. At that time, I thought it a curious, but compelling drama, although somewhat clinically academic.
Its titular heroine—and she is indeed a heroine, even a martyr—is a Russian Jewish beauty. She is raving mad, but her ravings are madly poetic and romantic: she, like Wagner’s Brünnhilde, awaits the Hero who will awaken her and save her from the Ring of Fire that engulfs her. Her family has sent her from Rostov to a Zürich Clinic in hopes of a cure.
In the event, she becomes Dr. Carl Jung’s first important healing, bringing Jung and Dr. Sigmud Freud together—initially by correspondence between Burghözli Psychiatric Hospital in Switzerland and Dr. Freud’s famed apartment in the Berggasse in Vienna.
Seeing Sabina again, this time in a much more impressive production—staged by Ethan McSweeny—I find the play much more poetic and imaginative than before. Jung becomes Sabina’s Siegfried, in a sense, but their mutual attraction threatens to doom the future of Psychoanalyis, or at the very least Jung’s career. They have to give each other up—Sabina quite unwillingly.
Cured, she becomes herself a psychiatrist, inspiring both Jung and Freud, even after their decisive break. With a successful practice in Berlin—but Nazis in the wings—Sabina returns to Rostov with her two daughters to practice. They are all murdered by German troops in the Rostov Holocaust.
Marin Ireland was once again wonderfully moving as Sabina, strongly supported by Victor Slezak as Jung and Peter Strauss as Freud.
Plays With Music—
Stephen Temperley’s SOUVENIR [*****]
Judy Kaye deserves even more awards than she has already won in previous shows for her bravery in recreating Florence Foster Jenkins. It takes both talent and style to use a wonderfully trained voice to sing badly!
Mme. Jenkins was a wealthy society-lady who seriously believed she had vocal talent, especially for major roles in Grand Opera. She gave concerts for her friends—who were either so appalled or bemused that they did not disabuse her—and gradually the word got around that her recitals were a real hoot. Her audiences grew, so she augmented her repertoire, as well as selecting distinctive costumes appropriate to the arias and characters.
Eventually, hotel-ballrooms weren’t large enough for her following. So she booked Carnegie Hall.
At that time, there was a World War II song-hit celebrating a badly damaged US bomber making its way back to base with one wing shot off: Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer.
For one of her recital songs, Mme. Jenkins had donned an angelic costume with two large wings. One of them fell off in the wings, so she came on wearing just one wing. Music critics couldn’t resist the obvious jest.
Florence Jenkins’ great good luck, however, was to have engaged a struggling young composer—he dreamt of Broadway musical triumphs—as her accompanist. To protect his professional reputation, he adopted the name of Cosme McMoon, almost as camp as Mme. Jenkins’ recitals.
Initially, he was appalled at her lack of talent and even more at her total obliviousness to that fact. But he needed the money. In time, as Souvenir amusingly and even tenderly reveals, he became both protective and supportive of her work.
On the surface, this charming two-hander play-with-music could be seen as a musical farce, but it’s much more than that. It is the celebration of a partnership, ripening into a friendship, between two needy human beings with artistic aspirations. Jack F. Lee, at the keyboard, is an able Mr. McMoon. Vivian Matalon directed this eminently tourable show.
Dickstein & Wharton’s INNOCENTS/HOUSE OF MIRTH [**]
Rachel Dickstein had the idea to adapt [freely] Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth as a kind of dance-drama. As performed in lovely white costumes at the Ohio Theatre, it was certainly elegant and attractive. But, as "dramaturged"—is that now a verb?—by Emily Morse, it bore little relation to the spirit and meaning of Wharton’s best-selling novel.
Mrs. Edith Newbold Jones Wharton was both a member of—and an incisive commentator upon—the High Society of Turn-of-the-Century New York. In her novel, she noted that some societies can only acquire significance through what they destroy. Just as her heroine, Lily Bart, is destroyed.
Had I never read House of Mirth, I suppose I might have found Innocents—not to be confused with Mrs. Wharton’s The Age of Innocence—an interesting diversion.
Unfortunately, I have not only read the novel a number of times, but I also tracked down the various scripts of the Detroit and the Manhattan productions of the play of the House of Mirth, by Mrs. Wharton and Clyde Fitch, the Neil Simon of his day.
I did this initially for my Stanford University Theatre PhD dissertation: Dramatizations of American Popular Novels: 1900-1917. Among such gems as Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch and Pollyanna, this play stood out, although it was an immediate failure on Broadway. It was ahead of its time. As William Dean Howells told Mrs. Wharton at the time: "What the American Public really wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."
Subsequently—with the encouragement of Edmund Wilson—I prepared an acting-version and an introductory essay for publication: The Play of The House of Mirth. This was published by Associated University Presses and is still in print! It inspired Jonathan Bank to stage this excellent play at the Mint Theatre.
Paul Zimet’s BELIZE [****]
This unusual production, staged by Paul Zimet at the La MaMa Annex, retells in fractured narrative—with voodoo interludes—the tragic tale of an 18th century British officer, Edward Despard [John Keating]. He was posted to Jamaica, Nicaragua, and finally Belize, where he married a beautiful Creole and fathered a half-caste son. But it was not the miscegenation which undid him so much as his championing the rights of native peoples against British who had seized their lands.
Matters came to a head for him—he was in fact hanged for treason—in this troubled time of Revolutions, including the French, the Haitian, and the Irish Rebellion. Although probably innocent, he, as an Irishman, was implicated in an Irish plot against the Crown.
His story—and that of his brave wife Catherine [Eisa Davis]—is beautifully recreated in this Talking Band production, with music by Ellen Maddow and stunning costumes by Kiki Smith. The Mardi Gras mummeries of the Caribbean Mummies are also colorfully evoked.
Among added historical attractions are William Blake and his wife naked in their garden and Emma, Lady Hamilton [Maddow herself], performing her celebrated Attitudes for the King & Queen of Naples. David Greenspan was notable as both Blake and the cuckolded Lord Hamilton. There’s even an appearance by Emma’s lover, Lord Horatio Nelson, an old comrade in arms of Despard. Will Badgett was outstanding as the Orator and in a variety of other roles.
Although Belize is now the official name of that tiny country in Central America, not so long ago it was called British Honduras. The only time I visited there, it was still effectively a British territory. You could get a good cup of tea…
Musicals Old & New—
Georg Frideric Händel’s RODELINDA [*****]
This is a stunning production, and Renée Fleming is superb—both acting & singing—in the title-role. Not to neglect the brilliant counter-tenors David Daniels and Bejun Mehta.
Although this is an Italian Opera, it was composed for a London audience, and its wonderfully gifted composer was in fact a Hanoverian with a German name: Händel that could mean "Little Hen."
When I was writing regularly for Opera News, Dance, After Dark, and other arts-publications, I always got press-tickets to both the Met and New York City Opera productions. Unfortunately, Press-Chief Francis Guiliani—No relation to you-know-who—doesn’t regard websites as worthy of the Met’s largesse.
So I won’t take time to describe the glories of this handsome production, nor of its vocal and orchestral delights. Nonetheless, conductor Harry Bickett is a master with the Handelian repertoire and other Baroque gems. Martin Pakledinaz’s splendid period costumes ably complement the 18th century settings of Thomas Lynch. The Met’s amazing under-stage machinery is seldom used, but this production provides wonders with them. Including a marvelous Library that could be the envy of any Baroque Monarch. Stephen Wadsworth staged.
Knee, Howland & Dickstein’s LITTLE WOMEN [***]
It cost so very much to produce a new Broadway Musical—even revivals are not cheap—that one always hopes that the latest one to open will exceed all expectations. Unfortunately, the word-of-mouth about production-problems during rehearsals of Little Women didn’t inspire much confidence. A new musical team was brought in when work was already underway.
Of course, one could very well ask why anyone would want to make a musical out of Louisa May Alcott’s celebrated novel? There have been more than enough cinematic versions—and they didn’t need to sing. Still, it has long been a tradition of the American Musical that adapting a well-known literary Brand-Name should have built-in box-office appeal.
That may prove to be the case with this awkward staging by Susan H. Schulman. Several colleagues told me they liked it "in spite of everything." Some others said they "didn’t hate it."
Nonetheless, I did not walk out humming the Hit Tunes of the score. They all sound derivative of Frank Wildhorn—not even of Andrew Lloyd Webber. And certainly not of Stephen Sondheim—especially in the lyrics-department. At the end of her life, Alcott observed that she had wasted her talents "writing moral pap for children."
Dereck McLane’s barn-like setting serves as a frame for a 19th century stage as well as the Alcott/March attic. It is wonderfully busy with various scene-changes, and Catherine Zuber’s period costumes certainly suggest the genteel Concord poverty of Bronson Alcott’s family.
It is quite a regression for Sutton Foster to march backward in time from Thoroughly Modern Millie to the March/Alcott household. But she gives Jo March her considerable All, in terms of energy, concentration, and belief. In fact, she is often so ferociously Jo that she seems to be willing the show to succeed. She is admirable, but there is too much effort that shows.
Unfortunately, the Jo March character—as imagined by book-writer Allan Knee—often seems a willful, hyper-active, pain-in-the-ass.
Maureen McGovern plays Mother March as a sentimental greeting-card, just right for Mother’s Day.
At least Little Women has a lot more plot than the Beach Boys musical, Good Vibrations…
Monologues & Monodramas—
Gareth Armstrong’s SHYLOCK [****]
Gareth Armstrong introduces himself, not as Shylock, but as his friend—"his only friend"—Tubal. Unfortunately, Tubal has only eight lines in The Merchant of Venice, so Tubal likes to imagine himself onstage with Shylock as a silent friend in some other crucial scenes.
This permits him to give vent to some of Shylock’s most potent speeches, demonstrating what Tubal could be doing, or simply narrating—and providing pertinent commentary on—the actual drama. But this interesting show is not just a one-man Merchant.
Armstrong also provides an illustrated survey of Jewish characters onstage in English theatre, as well as demos of how Britain’s greatest tragedians over the centuries have played Shylock. This is a very provocative evening in the theatre, and Gareth Armstrong is a very compelling performer. This is a production that every theatre-student should see!
Frank Barrie staged in a period setting by Russell Parkman. It’s like being backstage at the Duke of York’s.
MacLeod & Paterson’s THE SHAPE OF A GIRL [****]
Joan MacLeod was inspired to write this work by the senseless killing of a teen-ager in Vancouver. What made the mindlessly cruel crime even more notable than the indifference with which it was apparently performed was the fact that many other teen-agers—acquaintances of both the victim and the perps—knew about it but said nothing to parents, teachers, or the authorities.
A Conspiracy of Silence. But how was this possible? MacLeod decided to explore contemporary teen-attitudes about peer-pressure, conformity, and violence, especially in the light of recent television programming.
Jennifer Paterson is thoroughly believable as Braidie, a Canadian island-dwelling teen, who looks on helplessly as one of her popular and aggressive girlfriends holds the unfortunate and unattractive Sophie underwater. Braidie is herself astonished at her inability to step in, or even to say something to protest.
This is a show that should be seen by parents, teacher, and teens alike. But it is so well conceived and performed that anyone who savors theatre will want to see it. Patrick McDonald staged.
Billy Crystal’s 700 SUNDAYS [****]
The 700 Sundays refers to the number of weekends Billy Crystal was able to share with his dad before his untimely death. His father, Jack, produced concerts—and recordings, as well—with some of America’s Jazz Greats—at a time when major record companies could not see what they were missing. Crystal’s formative associations with such stars as Billie Holiday inspired him to make a career in Show Business.
Crystal is charming, self-deprecative, and often very funny in this show. But what would it be had there never been home-movies and, later, video? Actually, the photos and footage of the Crystals at work and play—often with musicians who are now legendary—make this a valuable documentary as well.
Every performance on Broadway was sold-out for the limited run. Des McAnuff staged the show originally for his La Jolla Playhouse—not far from Hollywood.
La La La Human Steps’ AMELIA [****]
Édouard Lock’s fantastic Canadian troupe have dazzled BAM audiences with their Dance Frenzy in black & white. It is called Amelia, after a transvestite Lock knew as a teenager. But it’s not about cross-dressing.
Instead, it demonstrates the tremendous movement possibilities of human bodies in partners or in groups: four men & four women. All the dancers and the four musicians are garbed in black & white, and the dancers move in a stygian environment that is stabbed from above by brilliant white spotlights. Indeed, the dancers seem at times to be led by the sharply defined pools of white light that suddenly appear in front of them. The show’s lighting has some 600 cues! Kudos to lighting-designer John Munro!
Most impressive are the rapid-fire movements of arms, hands, and fingers, sometimes caught in the light as multiple motions seen virtually at the same time. Much of the work is pas de deux, notably one sequence with a man en pointe and his female partner dressed as a man.
The music by David Lang uses Velvet Underground lyrics by Lou Reed. The only elements of color in the 90-minute piece are drops and wings of "lace" that is so complicated in its patternings that it looks computer-generated. As does a projected dance-sequence by what could be a Steve Madden dancing-doll. Shown in Prague in October 2002 and again in Tokyo in June 2004, this brilliant work was specially recreated for BAM and will never be danced again.
The Flying Machine’s FRANKENSTEIN [***]
It’s a bit discouraging for would-be poets to realize that millions more people know Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—although they may not know who she was—than have ever heard of the poems of her genius-husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. There is even a new play on the way, dealing with that strange summer when the Shelleys stayed with George Gordon, Lord Byron, in his Swiss villa. And Mary wrote her strange masterpiece. [Reports on that in the next column!]
Unfortunately, it is now too late for you to rush down to Soho Rep to see The Flying Machine’s unusual production and adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s classic Gothic horror-story. In that tiny space, the ensemble had mounted a set made up of old, abandoned doors and windows—which actually opened, although hinged to one-another.
The transformations of the set were almost as interesting as those of Victor Frankenstein’s Monster. Yes! Dr. Frankenstein is not the Monster. He is the misguided scientist who creates the misshapen miscreant. [Just as Antonio is the Merchant of Venice, not Shylock—who is the Jew of Venice. Not to be confused with Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta—who is Barabas!]
Joshua Carlebach directed, with the connivance of the entire company in the project—originally conceived for UCCS/Theatreworks in Colorado Springs.
Richard Foreman’s THE GODS ARE POUNDING MY HEAD [****]
Foreman has given his latest absurd extravaganza the dual title of Lumberjack Messiah. A more feckless pair of Lumberjacks than Dutch [Jay Smith] and Frenchie [T. Ryder Smith] would be difficult to imagine. But then, real lumberjacks for, say, the Georgia-Pacific Lumber Company would never get themselves involved in such strange shenanigans and decorative environments as Foreman has conceived for his annual tribute to the Gods of Surrealism.
Nor would real woodcutters be apt to find themselves fatally in thrall to the whims and wiles of the capricious blonde Maude of Charlotta Mohlin.
The bizarre imagery of the productions of Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre are unique. They are always different for each new production, but some object-ideas recur, notably the Passage of Time.
In his production-notes, Foreman indicates that initially he envisioned a totally metaphysical orientation. But, as he proceeded, he became increasingly aware that the current glut of information, instantly available, is changing the kind of people we were and are. He sees the Avant-Garde as "multi-faceted personalities [which] did not hesitate—especially during the final period of ‘Romanticism-Modernism’—to cut down, like lumberjacks, large forests of previous achievements in order to heroically stake new claim to the ancient inherited land…"
Whereas Foreman’s ideal has been "the complex, dense, and ‘cathedral-like’ structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves [sic] a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West," he now wonders whether information at the touch of a button will produce a new kind of enlightenment or "super-consciousness."
[Well, of course it won’t, but no matter…]
Foreman concludes: "This play speaks to that anguish. The lumberjacks suffer, in secret, from a broken heart [sic]—which may indeed be the heart of the world. But, in the end, hope still springs eternal…"
Onward and Upward with the Arts! [Loney]
Copyright Glenn Loney, 2005. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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