Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Famed stage and film director Ingmar Bergman, seen here
directing Liv Ulmann in his last movie, Saraband, in 2001.
An obit and my posts on Bergman from a few years ago.
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First Principles

This Petty Pace

Performance on a stage occurs in space, and directors these days are obsessed with that space: what does the stage look like, where to move and position actors to make the best stage pictures.

But performance on a stage also exists in time, and that I find is where many directors fail, mostly by paying insufficient attention to this crucial fact. Just as important as the movement in space is the movement through time. Which aspects of the performance, which parts of the play, should go faster or slower? This is also important for actors. How do the actors handle particular moments, to emphasize something? Gestures, reactions, even small movements, take place in time, and can focus attention on an act, a word, an emotion.

These days, it seems to me, directors mostly ignore pace: the manipulation of time. They seem much more interested in speeding along as fast as they can go, so the attention span of the audience isn't tested. They want to keep the thing moving, or get from one stage picture to the next.

But slowing down and speeding up are crucial tools for the director and the actors. They are essential for the audience. They can help create tension or exhilaration, suspense or release. Above all they focus moments. Performance in time is about flow, but also about focusing attention to emphasize something or create an effect. Moments ask and answer questions for the audience. These moments work best when the pace is designed, with the proper contrast.

Yet directors who work their design and production people hard to create arresting visual and aural effects, neglect to work with actors to create arresting effects by sculpting time. Just as the stage can be divided into areas where physical objects are placed or not, the two or three hours of a play is a stage made of time, where individual effects can be created and placed within an overall scheme. Performance may take place visually in space, but drama and comedy are created mostly in time.

Pace is also important for handling language. It's as crucial in Mamet, Pinter and Beckett as it is in Shakespeare, where the meaning is as much in the rhythm of speech and the words themselves ("creeps in this petty pace from day to day") as in the literal definitions.

Stage directors can make pictures, but they don't have the film director's tools of closeups, two-shots, medium and wide shots, to focus audience attention. They sometimes have to do it partly by risking the creation of a little anxiety in the audience by making them wonder what will happen next wherever it is they're supposed to be looking. And sometimes that effect is created by doing almost nothing, but small gestures and movements. From slow to fast, from one speed to another, creates contrast, which is what we as human animals pay attention to. Contrast makes meaning.

I'm going on about this because I've noticed that in my reviews, and in my conversations about plays I don't review, I often complain about pace. So this is what I mean. And I find the problem in regional, university and major city theatre as well as community and local theatre.

I can only speculate on why pace is given short shrift. Partly I suppose it's because of rehearsal periods that are too short before a play must be mounted. There's the cliche of this being a visual age, which is questionable. Perhaps also it's about the rise of the director versus the star actors, who took charge of their time on stage and gloried in making effects, and eventually overdid it. Perhaps it takes very confident actors to command the moment. And there is the nervousness over audience attention span.

It takes a lot of time and effort just to get a play on its feet. If actors keep active during a run of the play, they may find moments to emphasize, or patches to speed through. That's why I'd rather see a play after it's been up for awhile, but that's not often possible if I'm writing about it. Still, if directors paid more attention to pace as they map out their production, they might see that they've got a pretty handy tool for improving it.

Time is as important--or more important--than space on stage in another way as well. Actors talk about being "in the moment": being alive to what's happening in the scene, between characters, for instance. It is the ability to be in character and yet to be in that moment that often provides the audience with the most riveting and real theatrical moments--moments when time seems to stand still. It's a vital part of the magic and the mystery of live theatre.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


The world is a comedy to those that think,
a tragedy to those that feel."

Horace Walpole

Thursday, July 26, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Doug Anderson and Queenah DeLany in Larry Shue's
The Nerd, opening at NCRT in Eureka this weekend.
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This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Repertory Company opens The Nerd, a comedy by Larry Shue Thursday. It runs weekends until August 18. Betti Trauth's preview is at the T-S and there's an unsigned preview in the E-R. Expect my review next week in the North Coast Journal.

Dell'Arte has added an all-ages cabaret, Movers and Shakers, on Saturday at 8PM in the Carlo Theatre. All proceeds go to buying a new touring van, replacing the venerable one that broke down on the 299. The van is used to bring Dell'Arte's free holiday shows to outlying communities.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe brings their latest show, Making a Killing, to Sohum, at the Mateel Community Center in Redway on Saturday, July 28. Betti Trauth previews at the T-S, as does Bob Doran in the newsprint version of the NC Journal.

Laura Provolt reviews the Arcata Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It in the E-R.

Here's some photos of the Harry Potter party at Northtown Books last weekend.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


"As a dramatist and a poet, he was simultaneously the
agent of civility and the agent of subversion."
Stephen Greenblatt of Shakespeare in Will in the World.
Photo portraying Shakespeare in 1599 from "The Shakespeare
Code," episode of Doctor Who. Courtesy: BBC.
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Friday, July 20, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Arcata Shakespeare in the Park opens its production of As You Like It in Redwood Park on Friday. It runs weekends until August 11. Wendy Butler has a skeptical but thorough preview in the E.R., Maxwell Schnurer effuses at the T-S, and Bob Doran essays on it in the print version of the NC Journal. Not that I was invited to preview or review it anyway, but it doesn't sound like my cup of tea. Beyond the NASCAR concept, when the actor playing Orlando describes his character as "needy" it does not bode well. Josh Switzer, who I know as a capable and enthusiastic actor, is directing.

I'm opting for some participatory theatre late Friday night at Northtown Books, as the seventh Harry Potter book goes on sale at midnight.

On Sunday afternoon at 2, the Ferndale Rep production of Taking My Turn will be presented at the Eureka Senior Resource Center.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Mad Cuckoo Clock: On the Razzle at OSF

 Playwright Tom Stoppard, who turned 70 on July 3, is having quite a year. After a triumphant run at Lincoln Center, his epic 9-hour trilogy, Coast of Utopia, won more Tony Awards than any drama in history. And his newest play, Rock ‘n Roll, is Broadway bound.

 He’s had other great years (it was his fourth Tony for Best Play) but in a recent interview Stoppard reiterated that as a playwright “you don’t succeed unless you’re writing something that will be revived.” In a 1994 interview Stoppard named his 1981 farce, On the Razzle as the play he most wanted done again. That the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of On the Razzle is one of their current season’s triumphs must add to this year’s satisfactions.

 Beginning with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the late 60s, Stoppard’s string of witty and intelligently madcap plays for stage, television and radio made him an international phenomenon. By 1981, this former theatre reviewer for provincial publications was living in a fashionable London district, in a house older than the United States.

 But his plays were about to change: first with a new infusion of emotion and more recognizable characters (particularly women) in The Real Thing (1982), and then combining this with historical depth and delicately rendered explorations of meaning in the subsequent plays (Arcadia, Indian Ink, The Invention of Love, etc.) leading to his most recent.

 But before he let go of the frenzied verbal gymnastics and headlong comedy, Stoppard powered those energies into the basic plot and characters from the 19th century Austrian playwright Johann Nestoy, and went On the Razzle—that is, on a heedless spree, a wide-eyed adventure—at full throttle: Stoppard running Wilde.

Which is not to say that this play is just a bag of puns and pratfalls. The puns and double entendres are certainly there (“Unhand my foot, sir!” “I love your niece!” “My knees, sir?” etc.) but there is no more exacting form than farce. It is a deceptively simple mechanism—you wind it all up in the first act, and let it spin wildly to its conclusion in the second—but it’s not easy to do.

 In all his plays Stoppard explores revelations from structure, so he was well equipped to create a classic farce. The OSF production, as directed by Laird Williamson, understands this mechanism. Late in the play, a character complains of people running in and out of her house like a “cuckoo-clock gone mad.” This is the image the play begins with, as the actors take the stage with the jerky motions of cuckoo-clock figures in procession.

The image also fits the place and period: 19th century Austria, where a pompous provincial shopkeeper (played with a touch of W.C. Fields by Tony DeBruno) leaves his grocery store in the hands of two clerks while he goes to Vienna to propose marriage, but the clerks (Rex Young and Tasso Feldman) go to Vienna as well for a last youthful adventure.

 There are other complications involving a niece (Teri Watts) and her suitor (Shad Willigham), a comic servant (G. Valmont Thomas), the fiancĂ©e (Suzanne Irving) and her widow friend (Terri McMahon) and other characters. There are disguises, mistaken identities, role reversals, mis-communication and of course lots of coincidence in this good-hearted, fast-paced farce that relocates some of Nestoy’s satire (as in a brilliant speech about merchants) but basically provides one funny surprise after another.

 This is a sumptuous production, a delight to the eye and ear. I suppose my only slight disappointment was in not hearing an English cast perform it. Though Stoppard translates easily to American idiom, the rhythms of language are very English, as the very English title suggests.

 Here’s a tidbit of its history that illustrates that happy accidents are not just part of the story, but were part of creating the play: its first production was in technical rehearsal (which is very near the end) when a “flaming pudding” Stoppard wanted in a restaurant scene was nixed because of fire regulations. Since Stoppard involves himself in the process, he was there to suggest the alternative: a birthday cake with electrically lit candles. But then he had to decide whose birthday it was. This involved rewriting many scenes back, and added another layer of the comic cake in the restaurant pay-off.

 Last time I wrote about the roots of theatre in ancient festivals. As formal theatre became part of festivals with summer productions outdoors, some began to specialize: mostly in Shakespeare.

 Another summer theatre tradition began in the early 20th century, when people fled hot cities like New York for the cooler countryside, and indoor summer theatres like the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut were born (there’s a fascinating book about it from Yale Press called An American Theatre.)

 Many country theatres featured lighter entertainments, but others experimented with new plays and challenging productions, as Westport did and does, joined by newer theatres like the Wellfleet on Cape Cod.

 The two traditions merged in indoor Shakespeare festivals, like the one I used to attend in the Elsinore-like stone Stephen Foster Memorial theatre at the University of Pittsburgh, or in the most successful all-season venues like Stratford, Ontario and of course, Ashland, Oregon.

 There the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is now in full swing, with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, As You Like It and August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean as well as Stoppard’s On the Razzle in the main Bowmer Theatre, to be joined by their Tartuffe later this month. Lisa Loomer’s Distracted has just opened at the New Theatre, where the musical Tracy’s Tiger continues.

 Here on the North Coast, there are two productions this weekend. Based partly on a story by Italian playwright Dario Fo and partially created as a thesis project last year at the Dell’Arte School, The Greatest Story Never Told is described as a farce involving the meeting of two tramps and the Christian Holy Family, as brokered by angels.

It’s up next at the Mad River Festival, July 12-14 in the Carlo Theatre. It’s the work of the Virginia-based Independently Creative troupe, composed of Dell’Arte alums. The production is supported by an alumni fund to commemorate a Dell ‘Arte classmate, Nancy Lafrenz, who died of cancer. “Her class raised a bunch of money,” Michael Fields explained, “and so did her parents. We’ve invited them to the opening, and the production is in her memory.”

 Also this weekend, Ferndale Rep opens Taking My Turn, a musical revue about and by seniors. It plays at the Rep on July 13 at 8 PM, and July 14 and 15 at 2 PM. Then it goes on the road later in the month to the Senior Resource Center in Eureka, and the Garberville Theatre.

This Week's Column

Going Stoppard

Extending this week's review of Tom Stoppard's play, On the Razzle, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, with more musings on Tom Stoppard--in particular, his comedy...

Tom Stoppard is known for the content of his plays--the historical and political themes, the erudite riffs on aspects of science, philosophy, literature. Especially in the first half of his career, up until The Real Thing in 1982, he consciously pursued the goal of combining "a play of ideas with farce." He did so in big productions (Jumpers at the National Theatre, Travesties for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and both on Broadway) and in small (Dirty Linen at the Inter-Action's Almost Free Theatre, After Magritte for the Ambience Lunch Hour Theatre Club, and Dogg's Troupe Hamlet, which was first performed on the Fun Art Bus.)

Stoppard has also always been known as an innovator in structuring plays, and making the structure and the narrative dependent on each other. (This continues throughout his career.) All of this made his work very attractive to me from the moment Stoppard became known for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the late 60s, when I was in college. I felt an immediate connection--to the Samuel Beckett rhythms of that play, to the academic philosophy in Jumpers (I'd studied analytic philosophy some in college) but most pervasively, to the 60s influences we had in common.

There are many other sources of his comedy. His debt to Oscar Wilde's epigrammatic wordplay is overt in several plays, especially Travesties, the plot of which involves a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. He was also not above a slightly more sophisticated form of rude and sexual humor, including sight gags (especially for instance in Dirty Linen) that have a long lineage but are most recently familiar from Vaudeville. At times Stoppard seemed to just about provide for all four Marx Brothers in the same play. He often uses a familiar comic device from Vaudeville and the movies, of verbal misunderstandings that wind up sounding like double talk. (Groucho and Chico's set piece dialogues were often based on this.) That style was lingering from the entry of many Vaudeville (or British Music Hall) stars into television (via radio and movies, too.)

As for later influences, in some of Stoppard's lines I hear an echo of Steve Allen, who emerged in the 50s as the first host of The Tonight Show in the 50s,and was at the height of his zany comedy in his late 60s late night show. For instance, in On the Razzle: "I worked for a tailor once. I cooked his goose for him. Everything went well until I got confused and goosed his cook." Steve Allen (to a 1990s audience aboard the now stationary Queen Mary, which by the way Stoppard sailed on when it was active): "I'm limping because of an old football injury. I tripped on an old football."

But for other 60s influences, particularly British, I saw a lot of evidence that my guesses are pretty good in Ira Bruce Nadel's biography of Stoppard, including one amazing long shot. For the influences (or at least echoes) I heard in his humor were the ones I cherished, especially those that came through America from England in the 60s. Moreover, the connections were often active: these people knew each other, saw each other's work and even idolized each other.

In reference to Douglas (Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy) Adams, I once traced a basic lineage back to Cambridge and Oxford in the 1950s, to Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, who burst on the American scene in the Kennedy 60s with their revolutionary revue on Broadway, Beyond the Fringe. This very English grouping of original comic skits had of course played in London earlier, and made them all stars.

There's also a particular influence on their comedy that flowed through to Monty Python and Douglas Adams of the Cambridge and Oxford ordinary language philosophers--Wittgenstein, Russell and in particular G.E. Moore, who was a towering figure at Cambridge for a half century. These and their disciplines dominated philosophy on both sides of the Atlantic for generations. We were studying it here in the 60s.

Their close analyses of language and logic was not only fodder for comedy (Beyond the Fringe has a gem satirizing Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore directly) but their attention to language revealed its comic potential in skewering all kinds of pretense. Though Stoppard did not attend university, he did spend time with students at Cambridge on an early production of Rosencrantz, and his feel for the Cambridge School of philosophy--the philosopher he satirized in Jumpers was named George Moore--may have partly come from this comedy lineage.

Stoppard's career intersected with the Beyond the Fringe quartet in a number of ways. One of his early journalism jobs writing about theatre in London was for a magazine co-owned by Peter Cook; as a playwright, Jonathan Miller was suggested to direct one of his plays, and to star in another. Alan Bennett was by then a fellow playwright whose work was said to be an influence on Stoppard's. They were all part of the same milieu, knowing many of the same people, and working with them in theatre and film.

But even before, the resemblance was palpable and remarked upon, as when a reviewer wrote that Stoppard's R& G Are Dead was the funniest parody of Shakespeare since a famous skit by Beyond the Fringe.

 There were others in the Oxbridge line who added to the new comedy atmosphere--David Frost and his remarkable That Was the Week That Was brought bracing, intelligent, witty and overt social and political satire to British (and later American) TV. ( It was a later Frost show, and one of the comedians on it named John Cleese, that inspired Douglas Adams to write in that comic vein. Cleese of course would become part of another Oxbridge-educated group, Monty Python.)

There was a more physical lineage of comedy in the late 50s and through the 60s, personified by Peter Sellers and fellow madcaps of the Goon Show. The physical and verbal wit were combined in, for example, the films of Richard Lester (including A Hard Day's Night, which gave the Beatles physical comedy and witty lines--and not just the already verbally witty John Lennon.)

 By the late 60s, such a combination was turning up in the most popular TV series in England, especially with children: Doctor Who. Douglas Adams wrote for a few of Tom Baker's best years as the fourth Doctor, and he brought John Cleese and Eleanor Bron (a fine stage actor who appeared in the Lester/Beatles' film Help! and the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore comedy, Bedazzled) in for a funny cameo. Another example would be the cult 60s/70s film, The Ruling Class, which starred Peter O'Toole--a particular friend of Tom Stoppard.

This was the atmosphere that Stoppard was breathing in the London of the 60s particularly, and afterwards as well. I cherish that era and all these figures, but there is one more group I would add as being part and parcel of the kind of humor they represent. Including them I thought was a little bit of a stretch, since they aren't English but American. Yet their highly sophisticated verbal humor, its political and social application, all at a breakneck pace, became a countercultural if not cultural phenomenon in California on the radio in the 1960s, and then nationally in the early 70s with their series of LPs. They were (and are) called the Firesign Theatre.

There's a stylistic, perhaps a inspirational connection, just as the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield were inspired by the Beatles--and so, by the way, was Stoppard, who famously played pop songs when he wrote, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; Stoppard was also known for his resemblance to Mick Jagger, which he reputedly enhanced with his 60s wardrobe. Inspiration from popular music and music figures is another common connection to many of the 60s/70s comic influences. This again evolved into personal connections and working relationships: the Pythons parodied and worked with members of the Beatles, and Stoppard himself eventually became friends with Jagger.

But beyond this sort of "something in the air", there was one tiny revelation in Nadel's biography, which clearly he didn't realize might lead anywhere: Tom Stoppard wrote his first version of Rosencrantz in 1964 while he was in Berlin for five months as part of a Ford Foundation project that brought together a small group of young theatre writers from the UK and the US. They all lived together, and each wrote for a project to be staged in Berlin with German theatre artists. Stoppard's was this early Rosencrantz. The kicker is that one of the two Americans was Peter Bergman, who returned to the US to become a founder and one of the four members of Firesign Theatre, creating topical comedy full of wordplay and wildness on stage but especially in a series of LPs that fans across America literally memorized.

Nadel apparently had no idea what Firesign Theatre was, but the sympathy of its comedic style with Stoppard's is apparent, at least to me. And now there is this tantalizing biographical connection.

This North Coast Weekend

The cast of Taking My Time at Ferndale Rep: Trudy Barton,
Evelyn Wunderlich, Mary Ellen Norton, Ray Sanders, Bob
Wells, Tania Jewel, Iroza Burns, Homer Harlan, Tommie
Stanley and James L. Geth. Photo by Dan Tubbs.
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This North Coast Weekend

While the blues revival of the late sixties heats up the Bay, two theatre productions appear on North Coast stages this weekend. At the Mad River Festival in Blue Lake, the Dell'Arte-born and Virginia-based company called Creatively Independent present a commedia-style original work, The Greatest Story Never Told, about two bums meeting up with the Christian Holy Family. It plays at the Carlo Theatre tonight (July 12) and tomorrow at 8PM, and again at 2PM and 8PM on Saturday. Silas Knight provides a holy night preview at the T-S, as does Wendy Butler in the E-R. There's a bit about it in my North Coast Journal column as well.

Also this weekend, Ferndale Rep opens Taking My Turn, a musical revue about and by seniors. It plays at the Rep on July 13 at 8 p.m., with matinees July 14 and 15 at 2 p.m., then goes on the road for a July 22 show at the Senior Resource Center in Eureka, and one on July 29 at the Garberville Theatre.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Books on Stage

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Hot Towns, Cool Theatres

This is a review from a companion blog (Books In Heat) of a book I mention in my upcoming column...

An American Theatre: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse
by Richard Somerset-Ward
Yale University Press

Cities were hot, the country was cooler. This condition before air-conditioning led to summer theatre in America, beginning early in the twentieth century. Later on there would be other incentives for the tonier summer theatres, especially near enough to New York City: summer reruns meant television stars could headline on the summer stage. It was part Straw Hat Circuit, and part tryout venue for Broadway.

But the Westport Playhouse in the affluent Connecticut town also began with high artistic purpose. Its fascinating founder, Lawrence Langner, had already begun elevating the quality of New York theatre by the example of his Theatre Guild productions. He divided his time between theatre and a very successful patent business, scrupulously keeping them separate, but he did transfer at least one idea from one to the other. "All my [patent] clients have research departments to develop new products," he said. "The summer theatre must serve the same function for new plays and for playwrights, for actors and technicians, for directors and stage designers."

Though this large format book is liberally illustrated and generously sprinkled with celebrity names, the text is substantial. With this informal, almost conversational history of some 75 years of this unique theatre inevitably says a lot about American theatre in general.Readers may absorb insights into the business of theatre, its dependence through changing economics on remarkable individuals (many briefly profiled) and other lovers of theatre, who create shared experiences that include the risk that audiences share with everyone in the production every night.

There are the famous names---early productions and world premieres by Eugene O'Neill, George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, appearances by theatrical legends from Eva Le Gallienne, Laurette Taylor, Ethel Barrymore and Paul Robeson to film stars like Dorothy Gish, Gene Kelly, Jean Arthur, Henry Fonda and Joan Fontaine, and famous entertainers like Sid Caesar and Groucho Marx. But what may surprise some readers is the importance of theatre to the actors, directors and others they may know only from the movies and television. At the height of his Hollywood stardom Tyrone Power insisted on a three week run in a now forgotten play, which required some high stakes legal bluffing to keep 20th Century Fox from suddenly recalling him to Hollywood. This phenomenon remains true today.

Westport experimented with various formats and seasons, hit its stride in the 30s and 40s, had great years and not so great through the 50s, 60s and 70s (and the author doesn't pretend the misses were hits), nearly closed in 1989 and stumbled through the 90s, until its latest rebirth began in 2000 when Joanne Woodward became Artistic Director. Westport's 2002 production of "Our Town" with Paul Newman was seen by additional millions on television. Newly renovated, Westport continues to nourish theatre in its many forms with a mix of classics and new plays. Even out there in the country it fulfills a basic element of civilization: to bring live productions together with live audiences in as ancient and as human an experience as we have.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

the all-ages Vaudeville cabaret this weekend at the Mad
River Festival in Blue Lake. Photo: Dell'Arte.
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This North Coast Weekend

The fireworks are all over, so it's theatre: the Mad River Festival continues with a series of performances under the umbrella of GENnEXT ON STAGE (speaking of umbrella, we hear a torrential rain which apparently centered only on Blue Lake forced one performance of Tartuffe indoors.)

But we digress. The Dell'Arte Teen Ensemble reprises their Bollywood-based comedy, But We Digress, tonight and Friday at 7 PM in the Carlo Theatre. Another teen company, Hit and Run Theatre of Eureka presents an original play, Fate & Fruit Punch on Saturday at 2 PM in the Carlo. The story involves "a teenager who discovers how to use his voice in the tumult of adolescent existence while exploring the dynamics of relationships within a circle of friends over time."

Then on Sunday, there's an all-ages, family-friendly but nevertheless funny Vaudeville Nouveau Cabaret in the Carlo at 7 PM.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


"Theatre satisfies my capacity for safety and risk."

Tom Stoppard
(who turned 70 yesterday)
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