Why aren’t you at the theatre right now?

No, really…why?

You can’t say it’s because you’re “too busy,” because, really, who isn’t?

You can’t use the tired line, “It’s too expensive!” because there are a myriad of ways to obtain deeply discounted tickets (I personally rely on my youthful demeanor and pristinely conditioned student ID).

You could say that “there’s nothing good out there,” and I might humor you for a few minutes, but then I’ll tell you exactly why you should be going to the theatre — regardless of quality, cost, or time-related issues.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re involved with the theatre in some way  (and if you’re not, bless you for reading anyway) — and you don’t go to the theatre, or if you do, you do so rarely.  I know precisely  two people who attend theatre as often as I do (about twice a week) and yet I’m surrounded by those who claim theatre as their chosen profession. So what’s the deal?

As an actor, isn’t seeing others’ work a form of training? You can take as many classes as you’d like, but one of the best ways to learn is to watch others at work — to see and understand their inspired choices, to learn from their misguided mistakes, to expand your own knowledge or experience of a play into something more informed, more complex, more fully-realized.

For directors, isn’t it similarly beneficial to discover others’ view points and visions? 

As a designer, doesn’t one need to see others’ designs at work within a production?

For playwrights, isn’t it absolutely necessary to be aware of other writers’ techniques, styles, and topics? And not just on the page — but to see how the written word translates (successfully or not) to the stage?

It baffles when I don’t see my peers at the theatre. Because as much as we moan about and belittle the critics and what they say about any given production, the reality is that they are attending productions night after night. They may not have been trained in the theatre (and we can certainly argue about the definition and value of formal training), but their perpetual status as audience members has allowed them to develop sharp, critical eyes for what does and does not work, and yes, their attendance and consideration have awarded them the right, in turn, to voice their opinions. As much and as frequently as they may infuriate me, 9 out of 10 times I’d rather hear what a critic has to say about a piece of theatre than any one of the theatre professionals I know, because the critics possess up-to-date awareness of where the theatre is in this exact moment, who the artists are, and what they’re trying to accomplish.

Years ago, I worked under an artistic director who informed me that not only does he not attend theatre, ever, but he doesn’t even like it. Any day of the week, he casually divulged, he’d much rather watch a football game than see a show.

Recently, while expressing my excitement over a writer-friend’s good fortune with Playwrights Horizons, an actor-acquaintance casually responded with “what’s Playwrights Horizons?”

When I raved about the recent production of Blasted at Soho Rep, another artist nonchalantly revealed that she’d never heard of Sarah Kane.

No, we cannot create art in a vacuum.

Even beyond that: how can we ask others, in this time of economic hardship, to support our art and attend our shows if we’re not supporting and attending theirs?  How can we be alarmed or frustrated when theatre attendance is down if we are not doing our part to raise it?

It’s time we start supporting, and learning from, each other. It’s time we start going to the theatre.


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Hollywood longs for Broadway…sort-of.

I’m going to be honest: I was giddy at the prospect of Hugh Jackman hosting the Academy Awards last night. Hugh and host go together like song and dance, and I knew that I would get equal proportions of both. Happily, Mr. Jackman did not disappoint.

In case you missed the fantastically fun opening number, here it is in all of Hollywood-mocking glory (fast forward to about 2 minutes in to bypass  the non-musical portion):

Who knew Anne Hathaway could (kind-of) sing? (Give her another few months, and I’m sure we’ll see her starring in a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady or something equally ill-fitting).  But the real joy here is Jackman: the consummate musical theatre performer (Oklahoma! and The Boy From Oz are among his theatrical credits), is utterly charming in his spirited and jokey medley of the Best Feature Film nominees.  It was all in good fun, and even Kate Winslet had to laugh at his space-agey and robotic admission: “The Reader…I haven’t seen The Reader. I was going to see it later but I fell behind; my Batmobile took longer than I thought to design..” No, not the most sophisticated of lyrics, but who said the Oscars were…sophisticated?  (Yep, that’s the joke there.)

Clearly Jackman didn’t come up with this all on his own; the masterminds behind this strangely theatrical ceremony were none other than the  director and producer of the 2006 film, Dreamgirls: Bill Condon and Laurence Mark.  Depending on your view of last night’s festivities — and I’ve been hearing both high praise, as well as venomous “this was the worst Oscars EVER!”– you can thank or blame these two in kind.

In a year of the stage play-turned-big-screen-blockbuster (Frost/Nixon, Doubt), it doesn’t seem all that strange that Condon and Mark should wish to showcase the film year’s largely theatrical roots. What started off as a clever and stylish way to showcase nominees, however, quickly turned into one embarassing theatrical joke:


Jackman follows up his enthusiastic declaration that “The musical is back!” (I wasn’t aware that it had ever left) with awkward  staged snippets from such artistic gems of the musical theatre cannon as Grease!, Hairspray, and Mama Mia! (basically, if it has a “!” in the title, it was covered).  Joining him in this baffling spectacle were Beyoncé, High School Musical sweethearts Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, and Mama Mia! stars, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper, in what amounted to one of the most baffling and uncomfortable spectacles of the night. (Does it surprise anyone that Baz Luhrmann was behind that messy display of nonsensical song and dance? No? I didn’t think so). Why was this number necessary?  Did someone really think that the cinematic adaptation of Mama Mia! was reviving (musical) theatre in some way? How and why did this number even happen?

It still surprises me that in a time when film stars are flocking to the stage — such as the likes of Mary Louise Parker, Jane Fonda, Jeremy Irons, and Hope Davis, many of whom have respected theatre backgrounds —  that theatre is made such a blatant joke of —  and so often, and even by those who make theatre. What’s even more startling is the performers’ unawareness of the joke. Alas, the joke was entirely on them:  the camera’s quick sweep of the Kodak’s starry audience showed that the majority wished the musical to have stayed wherever it had presumably disappeared to before Pierce Brosnan’s painful yodel (as one of Streep’s three love interests in Mama Mia!) recovered it.

While a logical explanation for the night’s second musical number will probably never surface, Mark and Condon thankfully had one inspired idea for the evening: if theatre ever is actually in need of saving, the charming Hugh Jackman is just the top-hat-sportin’, toe-tappin’ man to do it.  Even if he has to awkwardly grind against the world’s biggest — and most sequined — pop music star while doing it.

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‘Tis the Season to Theatrically Indulge…and to Detox

It’s been long — far too long — since our last posting here on the ol’ EPP blog, but that’s not to say a plethora of interesting and exciting stuff hasn’t happened in the meantime.  We opened and closed our provocative production of The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents quite successfully, if we do so say so ourselves (but hey, we’re not the only ones who say so: check out nytheatre.com for Jason A. Grossman’s thoughts on this “daring new play”), and like you, we’re gearing up for the holidays.  Let’s also not forget we’re ringing in the New Year with our ever highly anticipated and ridiculously fun Trivia Night on January 15th.  Suffice to say, we’ve been keeping busy.

As always, yours truly has been trekking from theatre to theatre, consuming as much of Broadway and off-Broadway’s offerings as she can (afford).  To gets us back into the swing of things, and since you’re probably still nursing your tryptophan-induced hangover from all those pounds of glorious turkey you’ve consumed over the past couple days, I thought I’d keep the convo theatre-lite.  The pumpkin-pie-with-whipped-cream variety of discussion, if you will.  Actually, that’s not the lightest of desserts, but you get my drift: let’s keep it fun and fluffy until the recovery process is complete, and Broadway has shed that extra fat that’s been building up over the past few months (or even years).  To get you up to speed if you’re not already: set to close just after the over-consumption and consumerism of the tourist-heavy holidays are 13, Hairspray, Spamalot, Spring Awakening, All My Sons, Dividing the Estate, Young Frankenstein, and American Buffalo.  The last of which has already closed, quietly and rather gracefully vacating the Belasco on November 24th, just a week after its opening.  It goes without saying, but I literally ran to the theatre the day I heard of its premature closing so as to catch the child-star-cum-theatre-thespian, Haley Joel Osment, in his rather lackluster and abbreviated Broadway debut.  The show and its star weren’t nearly as wickedly fun as I had anticipated (thanks to the critics who would have you believe the production was much worse than it was), but all were exemplary of the kind of fare Broadway offers us this holiday season.

Clearly audiences weren’t all that thankful for the bland Buffalo:  Osment, John Leguizamo, and Cedric the Entertainer failed to spice up director Robert Falls’s unflavorful offering of Mamet’s usually peppery speech and sharp energy.  After that rather drab provision, I couldn’t help but crave just the opposite:  something so saccharine that it would send me into sugar shock the moment the orchestra hit its first sweetly satisfying note.  If American Buffalo was the tasteless, rubbery green bean casserole that Aunt Gertrude force-feeds you because it’s “good” for you (and which you promptly spit into your napkin when she’s not looking), The Little Mermaid (which I finally, and gleefully, saw last night) is my confectionary revenge, chock-full of guilty pleasures and empty calories that filled me up in an instant, only to leave me feeling even hungrier than I was before.  

All this is to say that Broadway, just like us, overstuffs itself every year, and also like us, is aware that some detox will be required come the New Year.  Maybe it’s the infectiousness of the season and the holiday spirit, but I honestly delight in the more saccharine of its current offerings.  I’d rather have a production that unabashedly knows what it is and has fun doing it (thank you, Sierra Boggess), than one that attempts significance and intellectualism only to fail in successfully offering either.  But hey, that’s me, and before you indignantly accuse me of being a philistine, just remember that whatever your preference and thoughts on the current state of Broadway, we can all rest assured that the machine that is the Great White Way will eventually offer more filling, rich, and complex fare (or at least we can certainly hope so). Until then, there’s nothing wrong with a little theatrical indulging.   Just be careful of those long-past-their-shelf-date fruitcakes out there (Yes, Phantom and Mama Mia!, I’m talking about you); as our stomachs have limits, so do our theatrical tastes.

Happy splurging.  The New Year will be here soon enough.

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Dreary Aussie Import Disappoints at NYMF

For all of its ridiculously talented actors who migrated to Hollywood, garnering fame and accolades along the way, Australia’s theatre scene is a bit quieter and a little less flashy than its celluloid counterpart. Sure, there are a couple of Aussie playwrights who you may vaguely remember hearing something about or perhaps even managed to see one of their rare and usually short-lived New York appearances:  maybe you caught Laura Linney in the Broadway production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour back in 1998, or even more recently, Van Badham’s The Gabriels at the 2007 Summer Play Festival.  

Or maybe not.  Perhaps you can’t name a single Australian playwright off the top of your head.

Unfortunately, Aussies Peter Rutherford and James Millar’s new musical isn’t going to change any of that.  Despite the gushing quotes from Aussie newspapers splashed generously across the New York Musical Theatre’s program for The Hatpin, this serious-minded megamusical wannabe isn’t going to bring the Land Down Under to the forefront of daring innovation in contemporary musical theatre.  And that’s just too bad, because bookwriter Millar’s premise is full of frighteningly real and intriguing history.

The Hatpin concerns the true story of Amber Murray, a young girl trapped by sadly not atypical circumstances (ditched by boyfriend and disowned by family upon discovery of pregnany) that forced her into giving up her child for periodic payment to what she believed to be the vastly better care of another family.  Baby farming, as this practice was often referred to, was fairly common in the UK, US, and Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Millar therefore set his musical in what he calls “Every City” (though there were some peculiarly inconsistent accents present amongst the cast), and unfortunately, in Amber’s case, the Makin family that at first appeared exceedingly loving and nurturing, soon betrayed hints of being not exactly on the up and up.

As Amber Murray, Alexis Fishman effortlessly portrays a quaint plainness and steadfast spirit similar to beloved Victorian fictional heroine, Jane Eyre.  Her strong and compelling voice easily masters the forgettable sentimental pop ballads and nearly successfully distracts from Millar’s mostly insipid lyrics that equal only Rutherford’s musical composition in their generality of subject and embellishment of emotion.  Also like Jane Eyre (the musical), The Hatpin is much in line with that European pop opera megamusical tradition of showcasing vague lyric, yet unmistakable emotion.  Hatpin‘s songs, however, are neither lush nor darkly romantic like Jane‘s fittingly are, nor do they possess the sinister chords or persistently foreboding motifs necessary to make convincing and engaging this sad and deeply disturbing tale.  While more than half of The Hatpin is composed of song, each time a number begins, and despite the great efforts put forth by the immensely talented cast (The Add1ng Mach1ne‘s Cyrilla Baer’s creepily saccharine murderess proves the best of the best), the musical always loses its entrancing grip on the audience due to its tendency toward emotionally manipulative, swelling chords and lyrics lacking specificity.  One number, which occurs during the murder trial of Amber’s son, does manage to stand out as deliciously detailed and grippingly theatrical.   Drumming up a comparison to Leo Frank’s pseudo-testimony (“Come Up to My Office”) in Parade, we witness the Makins’ only biological child, Clara (a captivating Gemma-Ashley Kaplan), manipulates both us and the jury by sordidly and satirically  designating her parents “Good People,” while simultaneously depicting them as tremendously disturbed and criminal.

Young Clara’s revelatory moment is but a brief, shining light in an altogether too dreary and unmemorable musical that takes itself much, much too seriously.   With a cast costumed in black and grey hues and only supported by a starkly sparse backdrop (thanks to set and costume designer Mark Thompson), director Kim Hardwick’s contributions further stagnate the production with “This is the Moment”-esque staging of Amber’s overwrought solos and the strangely detached and awkwardly choreographed movements of the ensemble.  Millar and Rutherford’s joint theatrical effort most certainly and unfortunately will not be upping the profile of Australian theatre, but perhaps like the recent influx of Aussie film actors, it will have provided the vehicle for some very talented thespians to make it big some day on the Great White Way.

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When Words Aren’t Enough

Michael Weller is one of those supremely busy playwrights who swiftly churns out a play before the previous one has even completed previews, as though fearfully intuiting that if he didn’t, the second work may never get on its feet at all.  This hastiness is more than apparent in both of Weller’s productions that are currently running Off-Broadway.  First, there’s Beast, a puzzlingly uninspired piece that revolves around the traumatic psychological and physical effects of the Iraq War on two veterans, which began previews at the New York Theatre Workshop in early September.  Poorly utilizing comedy (do we really need another satiric impersonation of our soon-to-be past president that depicts him as completely moronic and incompetent? Is that actually still funny?), this so-called dramedy makes no statement against the war, nor its number one supporter, that hasn’t already been made ad nauseam.  It does this with ridiculous stunts (and strange bursts of unrealism in an otherwise realistic script) like the “Teeexaaas”-chanting and humorlessly didactic Mount Rushmore that ludicrousy inspires the two men to pay our country’s leader a psychotically induced and decidedly absurd afternoon visit to his country ranch.  Soon, in 2009, we’ll witness Weller’s musicalized Dr. Zhivago (with music by The Secret Garden composer. Lucy Simon), but even sooner — concurrently with Beast — we have MCC’s production of Fifty Words, another dramedy of a more domestic nature that, thankfully, more effectively and certainly more realistically, centers on the intense dissolution of a New York marriage.

The title, Fifty Words, refers to wife Jan’s fervent wish that there exist fifty words for “love,” much like the Eskimos’ varied verbal selections for “snow.”  This is a rather fitting designation for a work that attempts to explore the infinite depth, complexities, and limitless kinds of love that exist, both realistically and idealistically within marriage.  The kitchen sink dramedy (Neil Patel’s über-realistic set incorporates a working sink and all the other state-of-art trimmings – as well as a fully stocked fridge – of an upper-middle class couple’s home) opens as it closes with the unhappily wedded couple, Jan and Adam (Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz), calmly and evasively discussing the mundane routine of their lives in a superficial attempt to avoid recognition of the tenuousness of their swiftly deteriorating relationship.  The notable change that occurs over the course of director Austin Pendleton’s energized and intermissionless production is that there is no real change.  What does happen, though, is a blunt and rather violent recognition of the myriad problems that have been festering to a boil in Jan and Adam’s not exactly atypical go-through-the-motions American marriage.   And boy, oh boy, the marathon catfight erupts in quite the cathartic explosion midway through the production.  Infidelities are revealed, of course, but there’s also vegetable slinging; glass shattering; angry-but-disturbingly-triumphant, throw-down-on-the-table sex; and yes, even a slap and beating or two (this marriage swings both ways on that account).  While there are some genuinely insightful and moving moments, these are disappointingly outnumbered by the script’s various inherent problems. 

At its core, Fifty Words does not offer an illuminating dissection of marriage, therefore failing as a thoroughly engaging piece of theatre.  Because it takes place over the course of one evening, we are never allowed to know Jan and Adam as they were in the early, wondrous relationship stage of over-the-top affection, or even as they, blissfully content and unknowing, slipped into the happy routine that naturally develops over the course of the first months of a young marriage. Nor do we witness their playful interactions with their (only talked about) son, and we are also denied a single entirely pleasant and affectionate conversation between the two.  Instead, we are proffered two selfish individuals who each possess moments of generosity and heartbreak, but these moments are so few and so brief that we have no time to grasp unto them and offer up our sympathy.  We don’t fully understand what drove them to this breaking point, or even if they were always on this path of self-destruction; the necessary back story and/or exposition simply doesn’t exist in Weller’s text.  We are kept at a distance, watching a marriage viciously breakdown before our eyes, and we never fully engage.  It struck me that Weller’s work here creates a similar effect as much of Neil Labute’s repertoire: an intriguingly difficult situation that ideally challenges one philosophically, but lacks the necessary character likability to create an emotional dimension to the work.  Such an emotional void is particularly significant problem when the work is all about relationships.  After all, what is a relationship if, at its essential core, it’s not based in emotion?

Luckily for Weller and for MCC, Telsey & Company possessedthe fantastic foresight to cast Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz as the emotionally inept and doomed couple.  While the noticeable age gap between the two creates a rather awkward picture of a couple upon first meeting, the clever and incredibly game actors infuse fiery spirit, zany charm, and yes, even some genuine warmth into what could easily verge on caricatures of the brutal George and Martha of Edward Albee’s imaginings.  With two lesser actors, the potential failure of this work seems high, and though it’s still a play about relationships from an obviously male perspective (reminiscent of The Last Five Years, another Butz vehicle attempting an unbiased view of a marriage on the rocks), and is therefore inherently problematic, it is also an exciting 90 minutes of theatre.  If nothing else, this current production is worth the price of admission if only to witness the fierce commitment and sexually – and violently – charged interplay between Marvel and Butz.  Few things are more rewarding than watching the power of a performer to translate a merely average play into a riveting production.  While offering a tighter and overall more engaging piece of theatre than Beast, Weller’s work here demonstrates that sometimes Words just aren’t enough.

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Unclear Changes: Nicky Silver’s Newest Never Hits Its Mark

To be entirely honest, I wasn’t familiar with Nicky Silver’s work before rather bashfully entering Playwrights Horizons last Thursday night.  I, of course, had heard of the prolific playwright, but Mr. Silver and I merely have shared the theatrical equivalent of a Craigslist Missed Connection: we had gazed at each other not uninterestedly, however vaguely, from a distance on more than one occasion.  I unthinkingly missed a production of Pterodactyls; he eluded me on holiday despite his persistent presence on my Amazon wish list.  

And so it was that finally, and quite literally, we met on Thursday – and it was not at all what I expected.  

Change #1:  

At the moment, the aesthetic and the culture have changed, and I’m out of fashion.

– Nicky Silver, 2008

Mr. Silver suggests that family dramas like his are out of fashion, but how can that be, when August: Osage County has garnered multitudes of accolades and night after night plays to sold-out (or nearly sold-out) crowds?  He claims that family is the most basic human relationship and that it is the one thing that unifies all human beings, which August assuredly suggests (and most would argue, proves) as well.  So why then does his family-centric Three Changes come off as muddled and lethargic as a muggy summer afternoon in rural Oklahoma? 

Laurel (Maura Tierney) and Nate (Dylan McDermott) are an unhappily married couple, though they would never admit it if ever they fully realized it.  Hal (Scott Cohen) is Nate’s eccentric writer brother who suddenly reappears in the couple’s life after an inexplicably prolonged absence slash not-so-highly respected sojourn in Hollywood, writing for television.  When the mooching Hal, in the midst of writing a new novel — the contents of which he steadfastly refuses to discuss with anyone though it’s clear they’re inspired by his new surroundings and the people that inhabit them  — brings home a cheeky, younger chap (Brian J. Smith) who is as equally disinclined to work for a living, the two begin ingratiating themselves with the prudish Laurel, all the mercilessly harassing the adulterous yet clearly sympathetic Nate.  Consequentially, the already faltering marriage steadily goes from bad to wretchedly worse. 

The problem is not the basic conceit, nor the, for the most part, solid performances: Tierney does her best to play the straitlaced, formal wife who has always suspected her husband’s affair, but would never dream of confronting him, and McDermott is necessarily handsome in that classic movie star-way, while simultaneously vulnerable and standoffish in his dealings with both his infidelity and his marriage.  But Cohen’s Hal lacks the unconcealed sinister quality necessary to justify the violent breach of the traditionally unspoken love and admiration between brothers.  And Smith’s boy-toy Gordon flitters around the edges like the incessantly irksome mosquito that is never seen but whose incessant buzzing can always be heard: while Gordon never actually joins the action – nor the family – he certainly isn’t lacking in his commentary about it.  

So what is this play about, really?  Sure, we have the staples of loneliness, guilt, and unhappiness within familial relationships.  We’re also presented with the idea of the artist as a brutal and uncaring being who destroys in order to create.  And there’s something also to be said about God, but whatever it is, that notion never comes to fruition.  And, like Mr. Silver has eloquently admitted, these are not exactly novel themes for our time.

Change #2:

You really can’t shock an audience any more.  … But what you can do, is you can surprise them in subtle ways by constantly shifting the terrain, and I think it keeps them awake.

– Nicky Silver

While it may be true that theatre does not retain the shock value that it once proudly and unabashedly experienced with, Three Changes does not, in fact, manage to surprise us.  When Mr. Silver mentions “shifting the terrain,” he refers to the characters’ direct address to the audience, as well as each individual’s looking in on action which s/he is not, nor could be, a part of.  At various points throughout the production,  Wilson Milan’s uninspired direction indicates a character, or at times, the entire cast, to step to the edge of the stage and divulge their innermost thoughts.  In accordance, Ben Stanton’s lighting alters dramatically to pinpoint the various solo speakers where they stand on the edges of the stage (as well as the edges of despair and isolation, presumably).  Yes, these moments jar the audience back into a state of cognizance, but they never seem justified or necessary, and at some points, they just appear oddly out of place.  Take, for example, the moment in which Nate’s mistress, Steffi (Aya Cash), observes Laurel and Hal’s first flirtation.  Nonchalantly entering stage left, Cash hovers over the scene, shamelessly conjecturing to the audience, performing as though an immature schoolgirl giggling and elbowing her BFF and whispering salacious stories in her ear.  She eventually concludes to us that yes, she will assume that “they fucked.”  Why this is essential to her character, the scene, or the play as whole, I’ll never know, but moments like this infiltrate and never illuminate (the) Three Changes.  Such narrative techniques appear to be used solely for the purpose of mixing things up, as though a dramedy could not otherwise succeed in maintaining the spectators’ attention for two hours.

Change #3:


In the end, we are meant to believe that Nate’s demise allows him release from his pain, and that Laurel and Hal’s union is right in its allowance of a new family beginning.   But instead of feeling redemptive, it feels pathetic.  Laurel and Hal’s happiness, because it rests solely on Nate’s ruin, appears selfish and uncaring, rather than revelatory and ideal, and borders on absurd.  Because it’s never made clear why the two are drawn to each other, their impending happiness seems grotesque and Nate’s ending is neither tragic nor revelatory.  Each character only appears to be going through the motions, as though unsure of themselves; no one seems to feel very much, and as a result, neither do we. The entire event felt like a preview rather than a performance near the end of the run: I could make out the silhouettes of vaguely intriguing characters, the potential of interesting narrative techniques, and the spark of genuine notions of the artist, God, and the family, but nothing was as of yet fully formed or connected.  The three title changes, whatever they are, had yet to occur.  

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