September 24, 2014
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Inspired by the Underground Railroad, this mural can be found behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center, where it was completed by artists Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae on Sunday, September 14. Both artists are members of the S.A.G.E. Coalition. For more information, call (609) 924 8777, or visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Inspired by the Underground Railroad, this mural can be found behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center, where it was completed by artists Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae on Sunday, September 14. Both artists are members of the S.A.G.E. Coalition. For more information, call (609) 924 8777, or visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

It’s not visible from Witherspoon Street, so you’ll have to look behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center building to discover the brightly-colored mural that was painted there on Sunday, September 14.

The mural’s clandestine positioning speaks directly to the subject that inspired the artwork. Titled Underground Railroad, the mural commemorates the historic web of routes and safe houses that escaped slaves from the south followed and found refuge in on their harrowing journeys to freedom.

The routes covered thousands of miles and ran through New Jersey. Sections were known as “stations,” and Station A ran through Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. The mural thus serves as a reminder of Princeton’s historical involvement in the Underground Railroad.

“Those viewers who choose to wander in and explore the ‘hidden’ wall will experience the clandestine nature of the Underground Railroad as well as that of contemporary urban art,” said local curator, writer, teacher and photographer Ricardo Barros who conceived of the work.

Completed in one day by Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae of Trenton’s S.A.G.E. Coalition, the mural also pays homage to the tradition of quilt-making. According to a press release following the event, “the alternating diamond patterns and geometric shapes that can be seen throughout the mural are directly inspired by African-American quilt patterns, bringing to mind their importance in telling the story of the Underground Railroad.”

As members of the S.A.G.E. nonprofit organization formed in 2012 to initiate, plan, and execute inner-city beautification projects, both artists are used to being watched by the public as they work, in this case to the music of OLD SOL, a Trenton-based funk, hip-hop, and soul band. The arts coalition is a diverse group of visual artists, engineers, fabricators, musicians, and teachers who create everything from murals to 3-D models. Kasso and Luv 1 have already created a series of public art projects in Trenton, including a depiction of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Barack Obama. The Gandhi mural generated a strong, positive, public response, and led to the transformation of an abandoned lot into a public urban garden, known as Gandhi’s Garden.

The ACP abstract mural, which took 10 hours to complete, interweaves symbolic images such as lantern, sailboat, sun, moon, and star. The project brings together the art communities of Princeton and Trenton, which is exactly what Mr. Barros, a resident of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and ACP Exhibition Committee member, had in mind.

“This day will go down in history. Not because of what we painted, but because of the connections that were made and the new bridges that were built,” said Kasso in a recent blog post on the ACP website, where comments and perspectives on the mural can be viewed.

For more on the S.A.G.E. Coalition, visit http://sagecoalitionnj.com/. For more information, visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org or call (609) 924-8777.

 

On paper it probably sounded so simple: a narrator reads from literature while a string quartet plays music suitable to the text. This type of concert fits in well with Princeton University Concerts’ aim to engage larger audiences in chamber music and emphasize the connections among art forms through interdisciplinary performance. But things are not always what they seem. What made last Friday night’s Princeton University Concerts presentation in Richardson Auditorium unique and not so simple was the caliber of performers engaged — the narration of Philip Roth’s Everyman was read by multiple Academy Award®-winner Meryl Streep, accompanied by the renowned Takács String Quartet. This concert of simplicity became the event of the month to attend to open Princeton University Concerts 2014-15 season.

Ms. Streep is no stranger to Princeton; she has given at least one lecture on campus in recent history. The text Ms. Streep read as narration in this concert was a set of four scenes from Philip Roth’s novella Everyman, a literary meditation on death, the “common experience that terrifies all of us.” The Takács String Quartet provided a musical backdrop in the quartet music of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose sparse, yet rich music perfectly matched the narration of loss and regret. Friday night’s performance was the second time this music and fiction had come together — the first performance of this combination was in 2007, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as narrator.

The Pärt-Roth pairing was divided into four parts, with the Takács playing a movement of music followed by Ms. Streep reading 20-25 pages of text. The opening sections of Pärt’s Fratres for string quartet were hymn-like, and easily depicted the cemetery scene with which Roth’s work opens. The members of the Takács String Quartet (violinists Edward Dusinberre and Károly Schranz, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér) kept the musical atmosphere dry, playing without vibrato but still staying very much in tune. A master of voice and character, Ms. Streep held the audience in rapt attention when reading the opening pages of Roth’s text.

The music of each section seemed to perfectly complement the subsequent text; the second Summa was musically more upbeat, as if walking away from the grave and onto the next thing in life and the third and fourth sections brought peaceful reflection into the mix. Pärt’s music, including the entire Fratres, the one-movement Summa and his Psalom for string quartet, was marked by a great deal of repetition, but with different colors among the instruments. Particularly sensitive were the sonorities between viola and cello and viola and second violin. Mr. Dusinberre’s first violin playing was darker than one might hear in Italianate music, and the overall effect from all four players well fit this musical commentary on death. Despite the lengthiness of some of Roth’s passages, the full house at Richardson Auditorium had no trouble staying with Ms. Streep’s captivating narration and spoken exploration of the characters in Roth’s writing.

The Takács String Quartet paired the multidisciplinary Pärt/Roth work with a piece seemingly on the same theme. Franz Schubert’s 1824 string quartet Death and the Maiden was considered Schubert’s testament to death. Closely related to an 1817 song Schubert composed of the same name, this four-movement work came about at a time of great personal struggle for Schubert, and contains the same graceful melodic style for which the composer was known. The Schubert quartet was a chance for the members of the Takács to play full out, and the piece was well in the ensemble’s wheelhouse. The overall musical character was more uplifting than Pärt’s chamber music, and the Takács ensemble took full advantage of the ample room for intensity within the music. Mr. Dusinberre’s delicate cadenza-like passage at the end of the first movement complemented well the unity in speed and transition from the others in the Takács Quartet. As one would expect from a significant Schubert work, the second movement “Andante” was songlike, even while in a minor key — homophonic and hymn-like, with collective unison in dynamics, as the musicians’ bows never seemed to leave the strings. Mr. Dusinberre demonstrated a particularly rich tone in the lower register of the first violin part, and the cello melody in the second variation of the theme was elegantly played by Mr. Fejér. The rollicking closing “Presto,” full of quick dotted rhythms, showed the uniformity of the Takács String Quartet which comes from years of playing together, bringing the high-powered evening to a close.

 

THE BEGINNING OF HECTOR’S QUEST FOR HAPPINESS: At last Anjali (Veronica Ferres, back to camera), one of Hector’s (Simon Pegg) patients summons up the courage to tell him that he is not helping her at all. (Photo by Ed Araquel,  © 2014 Egoli Tossell Film/ Co-Produktionsgesellschaft “Hector 1” GmbH & Co. KG/ Happiness Productions Inc./ Wild Bunch Germany)

THE BEGINNING OF HECTOR’S QUEST FOR HAPPINESS: At last Anjali (Veronica Ferres, back to camera), one of Hector’s (Simon Pegg) patients summons up the courage to tell him that he is not helping her at all.
(Photo by Ed Araquel, © 2014 Egoli Tossell Film/ Co-Produktionsgesellschaft “Hector 1” GmbH & Co. KG/ Happiness Productions Inc./ Wild Bunch Germany)

Hector (Simon Pegg) is a funny duck. The eccentric neat freak is lucky to have a girlfriend like Clara (Rosamund Pike) who’s willing to put up with his odd requests, such as arranging everything in perfect order, from his socks to his sandwiches. He’s even more fortunate to have a thriving psychiatric practice, in spite of the barely contained contempt he feels for his patients.

A moment of truth arrives the day one of them (Veronica Ferres) finally tells him to his face that he’s transparent, inauthentic, and just going through the motions. Conceding that he’s become so jaded and unhappy that he isn’t helping his patients anymore, Hector decides to embark on a globe spanning spiritual quest for the fulfillment and happiness that has escaped him.

After all, how could he not be happy, when he is surrounded by all the trappings of success? Hector’s plans have Clara concerned about whether their relationship is on shaky ground, because she’s been reluctant to start a family and she’s also aware that he has a former girl friend (Toni Collette) whom he still cares about.

Hector and the Search for Happiness is an introspective travelogue played mostly for laughs. Simon Pegg exhibits an endearing naïvete as the peripatetic protagonist, whether misreading the flirtations of a prostitute (Ming Zhao) in China or not realizing that his cab has been car-jacked by the underlings of an African crime boss (Akin Omotoso).

Such perils notwithstanding, our hero persists in asking his pressing question “What is happiness?” at each stop as he circumnavigates the globe. Taking copious notes on a writing pad, he records the answers he receives, like “Being loved for who you are,” “Answering your calling,” and “Feeling completely alive.”

Eventually, Hector experiences the epiphany he’s been searching for, and revitalized, rushes home to Clara, his career, and his clients, who might not be so annoying after all.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity and brief nudity. In English, French, and German with subtitles. Running time: 114 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

September 18, 2014

Princeton University is steeped in tradition, as is classical music, but music is a continually evolving medium. Well into the second decade of the 21st century, the University’s department of music has established a new residency collaboration with one of music’s most innovative ensembles. So Percussion, a quartet of four human rhythm machines who have been performing together for 15 years, opened its residency with a concert in Richardson Auditorium last Friday night. Following the former Edward T. Cone Performers-in-Residence — the mufti-faceted Brentano String Quartet, So Percussion may have had a big job introducing their repertoire and style of music to the Princeton audience. However the four musicians of So Percussion (Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting) are no strangers to the Princeton community and quickly made themselves at home.

The New York Times recently called the percussion ensemble the “string quartet of the 21st century,” and attendees at orchestra concerts can easily make an evening out of watching the percussion section. It is therefore no surprise that the percussion section has stepped out of the orchestra on its own as a performing ensemble. Melodic line and sinuous melodies may not always be present in the repertoire of percussion ensembles, but Friday night’s concert showed that great variety could be found in the diversity of instruments and rhythmic intensity of the music.

So Percussion presented three works from the 20th and 21st century, one of which demonstrated that music for this genre goes back further than one would think. American composer John Cage composed Third Construction in 1941, surely before anyone thought this medium would be popular. Cage wrote this one movement work for both traditional instruments and objects found around the house. So Percussion set the stage with a collection of drums, as well as tin cans, South American and Northwest Indian instruments, and some of the lesser-heard instruments of the orchestra. Composed for a very early percussion ensemble with which Cage was involved in the 1940s, Third Construction required each musician of So Percussion to play at least five instruments. All players demonstrated exacting rhythm and communication with one another. Among the more unique instruments played were Northwest Indian rattles, claves, a conch, and a “lion’s roar” — a membranophone bringing of a sound from the depths.

As an ensemble, So Percussion not only focuses on music of the past century, but also creates its own repertory. In 2006 founding member Jason Treuting created a series of short pieces entitled amid the noise, several of which were performed in this concert. Again, each musician played multiple instruments at once, and especially in the first “life is (blank)” the rhythm and percussive action were so fast it was difficult to tell who was playing what instrument when. The second and more improvisatory “June” contrasted pitched percussion instruments with an electronic drone carried through the audience and to various parts of the stage. The “noises” of amid the noise are sounds of both traditional classical music and sounds of the concert hall in which the piece is played. Audience involvement is another component of So Percussion performances, and the audience at Richardson was more than willing to participate.

So Percussion likes to devote the second half of the ensemble’s concerts to a single work, and Bryce Dessner’s 2013 Music for Wood and Strings showed innovation both in compositional style and instrumentation. Dessner composed this work for four “chordsticks,” a newly-invented instrument which was a cross between a guitar and hammered dulcimer. Resembling a zither and played with sticks the size of pencils, the “chordstick” was fretted as a guitar, yet also bowed with a violin bow at times. The four members of So Percussion each played one of these instruments throughout Dessner’s piece, creating a more mellow sound than one would hear from a dulcimer. The music appeared to be notated on cards (with Mr. Sliwinski impressively playing without any apparent written score) and the overall effect built in intensity as the piece went on.

Music in the 21st century has entered a new era of evolution, and Princeton University has placed itself in the thick of it with the appointment of So Percussion as performers-in-residence. Much of the ensemble’s responsibilities will involve working with students, which will no doubt open up new avenues of creativity within the department of music. Princeton audiences as well will surely enjoy hearing music at its evolutionary best through this unique ensemble.

September 17, 2014
“BAYOU” (egg tempera on panel 18 x15 inches): This work by Mavis Smith can be seen in “Think Again,” at Monmouth University’s DiMattio Gallery, through October 17, with the opening on Friday September 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. The artist will be giving a talk at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday October 2, at the gallery, 400 Cedar Ave West in Long Branch.

“BAYOU” (egg tempera on panel 18 x15 inches): This work by Mavis Smith can be seen in “Think Again,” at Monmouth University’s DiMattio Gallery, through October 17, with the opening on Friday September 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. The artist will be giving a talk at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday October 2, at the gallery, 400 Cedar Ave West in Long Branch.

Mavis Smith, the “honored artist” at the Phillips’ Mill 85th Annual Juried Art Show, has new work on display at Monmouth University’s DiMattio Gallery. Titled “Think Again,” the exhibit will run through October 17, with the opening event set for Friday September 19, from 7 to 9 p.m. The Phillips Mill show will run from Saturday, September 20, through Saturday, October 25 from 1 to 5 p.m.

Mavis Smith will be giving a talk at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday October 2, at the gallery, 400 Cedar Ave West in Long Branch.

An American Arts Quarterly review of “Hidden Realities,” the 2012 exhibit at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., describes “an accomplished tempera painter” who “depicts calm, stylized figures, often young girls, in quiet interiors” and “whose implicit scenarios suggest contemporary fairy tales.”

According to the artist herself, “It’s not so much specific people or events, but the general sense of unknown depths that intrigues me. It does not have to be dark heroic acts toward total strangers; simple people rising to extraordinary occasions are equally in the mix.” About working with egg tempera, she said she has “a love/hate relationship …. It’s a labor intensive medium, but the luminous effects you can achieve makes it seem worth it to me. I build up layer upon layer of thicker paint, alternating with sheer washes of pigment — back and forth, back and forth. The actual process is very meditative, and I believe it contributes to my subconscious imagination coming into play.”

art lead 2

“RED ROOM” (egg tempera on panel 16 x12 inches): According to the artist, “We come into contact with dozens of people on a daily basis, catch their eyes for a brief moment and move on, never knowing the intricate accumulation of experience that forms their reality. My work is about that moment — hinting at a narrative, yet remaining intentionally elusive.” Mavis Smith’s new exhibit, “Think Again,” will be at Monmouth University’s DiMattio Gallery through October 17, with the opening on Friday September 19, from 7 to 9 p.m.

Mavis Smith studied at the Pratt Institute in the 1970s, and in addition to her solo show at the Michener, has exhibited her work in Holland and Switzerland as well as Santa Fe, New York City, and several venues in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She is also an illustrator and author of children’s books, having authored 10 and illustrated some 75. This exhibition samples a range of work from years past, as well as several new pieces, including both paintings and works on paper as well as some recent sculptural works incorporating egg shells.

“Hidden Realities” was reviewed in Town Topics, February 22, 2012.

“LET ROME IN TIBER MELT”: Mark Antony (Esau Pritchett), general and co-ruler of Rome, romances the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Nicole Ari Parker), as civil wars rage throughout the Roman world, in William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 5.(Photo by T. Charles Erickson}

“LET ROME IN TIBER MELT”: Mark Antony (Esau Pritchett), general and co-ruler of Rome, romances the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Nicole Ari Parker), as civil wars rage throughout the Roman world, in William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 5. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson}

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07), written after the great tragedies of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, is seen by scholars and theater practitioners as a “problem play.” Despite the fame of its protagonists and the richness of the plot and poetry, the play is seldom produced, and assessments of its text and its characters diverge widely. Emily Mann’s current production of Antony and Cleopatra at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre in Princeton is an exciting theatrical event and a bold, engaging endeavor to present and overcome the challenges of this perplexing masterwork.

The problems start with the play’s genre. Is it history, tragedy, romance, comedy, or something else? (The McCarter website, mccarter.org, gives you an opportunity to vote on this question.) The historical detail here is extensive — Plutarch’s Lives (translated into English in 1579) is Shakespeare’s principal source — as Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar and others engage in the civil wars, after the death of Julius Caesar, which eventually lead to the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. The grandeur of the two protagonists and the sense of loss and waste in their devastating fall certainly evoke the thoughts and emotions of tragedy. But there is also a spirit and tone here that is lighter than that of the great tragedies. The romance here — both in the love between Antony and Cleopatra and in the contrasts between the stern, efficient reality of Rome and the exotic, emotional, sensual attractions of Egypt — is a powerful element of the play.

The problems, both practical and theoretical, multiply for producers of this play. How do you stage a script that includes 42 scenes, as the action of the play shifts rapidly back and forth between Rome and Alexandria in Egypt, from palaces to battlefields and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean, and calls for more than 40 different characters? And how do you interpret these heroic, larger-than-life, even mythical main characters with their fatal flaws, their moral ambiguity, and their destructive actions?

Ms. Mann has made judicious cuts in the original script, eliminating several short scenes and merging or eliminating a few minor characters, in order to focus the action and bring the running time to just two and a half hours. Only 11 actors here play 21 different roles. Audiences are not likely to miss the deleted lines, characters, or events. Also streamlining the action and enhancing pace, continuity, and dramatic tension are Daniel Ostling’s unit set design, finely coordinated with Paul Tazewell’s striking costumes, Edward Pierce’s lavish and varied expressionistic lighting and Mark Bennett’s original music and sound, mostly performed onstage by percussionist Mark Katsaounis.

The simple set, following the principle of Shakespeare’s bare platform stage without curtains, consists only of three large panels — like three huge sails? — golden in color and origami-like in their texture and folds. The actors and their lines, aided by costumes, music and lighting, splendidly and clearly delineate the shifting locales and contrasting worlds of this play. Individually and in finely coordinated collaboration, the clothing, the soundscape, the colors, and the nuances of light reflect the clashing of the cold, martial efficiency of Octavius’s Rome with the warmer, less rigid, more mysterious allures of Egypt.

An even bigger challenge with this problem play lies in the two monumental protagonists and their troubled, intense relationship. Again Ms. Mann has risen to the challenges in her casting of Esau Pritchett and Nicole Ari Parker. Mr. Pritchett played the leading role of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences at McCarter last January and last spring performed as a younger Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599) at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. The imposing character of Troy, albeit in mid-20th century Pittsburgh rather than first century B.C. Rome, shares a number of Antony’s strengths and flaws, and Mr. Pritchett, with numerous other Shakespearean roles on his resume, is superbly qualified to don the mantel of Antony here. He is physically and vocally able to command the stage — convincing as the great, aging military and political leader and also fully believable as the lover of Cleopatra. As he moves back and forth between Rome and Egypt, Mr. Pritchett’s Antony vividly embodies the noble, admirable qualities and the morally ambiguous, flawed qualities of both worlds. He is convincing as both mighty warrior and infatuated lover, in grandeur and in human weakness. He is both “the triple pillar of the world” and ”a strumpet’s fool,” as he is described by one of his followers in the opening scene.

As Cleopatra, Ms. Parker, star of films and Showtime’s Soul Food series, is, in many ways, a worthy counterpart to this Antony. Dazzlingly beautiful in an array of stunning costumes, she brings the character to life with a contemporary flair that works effectively in portraying Cleopatra in many of her more human moments of worry, of anger, of cattiness, of bantering affection with Antony, of jealousy when she hears of Antony’s arranged marriage. She is less adept than Mr. Pritchett with the poetic lines, however, less clear in communicating the rich language and less able to rise to the grand stature of this mighty queen and last reigning pharaoh of Egypt.

As Antony’s friend and follower Enobarbus, Michael Siberry creates a sympathetic character, torn by central conflicts of the play. He also provides a valuable, often ambivalent perspective on the proceedings and delivers, most eloquently, some of the Bard’s finest poetry. For example, he describes Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,/Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold;/Purple the sails, and so perfumed that/The winds were lovesick with them … Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.”

As Cleopatra’s eunuch Mardian, the incomparable Everett Quinton, bedecked in bright orange with appropriate nail polish and shimmering handbag, creates a character — fascinating, extravagant, at times comical, yet believable too — to embody the gender conflicts and ambiguities of the play. Mr. Quinton plays a second very different role, also convincing, in the final scene of the play as he delivers the basket of deadly asps to his queen.

As Octavius Caesar, the cold, calculating, consummate leader, nephew, and adoptive son of Julius Caesar, soon to become the triumphant Caesar Augustus, Tobias Segal, not large in size but mighty in authority, delivers his part with imperious command.

The first-rate supporting cast is impressively strong, well-rehearsed and consistently in character. Mairin Lee in two roles as Octavia, sister of Octavius, betrothed to Antony in an arranged political marriage, and also as Cleopatra’s servant Iras is on target and affecting, as is Zainab Jah as another attendant on the queen. Tom Sesma in a variety of roles, Philippe Bowgen as Octavius’ stern lieutenant, Keith Eric Chappelle as a mesmerizing soothsayer and other roles, and Warner Miller as Antony’s faithful right-hand man–all lend credible, invaluable support.

Mr. Katsaounis, the percussionist, ensconced on stage left but emerging at key moments with an enormous red, war drum, rightfully joins the cast list, as a significant dynamic player in the drama.

“Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have/Immortal longings in me,” Cleopatra tells her attendants as her end approaches in the final scene of the play.

Despite all the “problems” of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the play is undeniably one of the Bard’s greatest poetic masterpieces and a brilliant study of two of the most fascinating, memorable characters in all literature and history. The theatricality here is brilliant. Ms. Mann and the McCarter company successfully bring Shakespeare’s colorful, transcendently poetic vision to life in this stirring production.

 

BUT THIS WAS YOUR FATHER’S DYING WISH: Mort Altman’s (Will Swenson, not shown) dying wish was that his family observe shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days, in spite of the fact that he was not an observant Jew, and in fact was an atheist. During this period of mourning, the problems of each of the children, from left Judd (Justin Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Tina Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver) are revealed in this dramatic comedy.

BUT THIS WAS YOUR FATHER’S DYING WISH: Mort Altman’s (Will Swenson, not shown) dying wish was that his family observe shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period of seven days, in spite of the fact that he was not an observant Jew, and in fact was an atheist. During this period of mourning, the problems of each of the children, from left Judd (Justin Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Wendy (Tina Fey), and Phillip (Adam Driver) are revealed in this dramatic comedy.

When Mort Altman (Will Swenson) passed away, his children returned home expecting to remain in town for a day or two. After all, despite being raised as Jews, they had no reason to expect to sit shiva (the traditional seven day mourning period), since their father was an avowed atheist and their psychologist mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) is a gentile.

However, after the funeral, their mother informs the children of their father’s dying wish that they mourn him for a week in accordance with religious tradition. And then she announces that they’re all grounded for seven days.

This development doesn’t sit well with any of them, since they don’t get along with each other and this is the first time in years that they’ve all been sleeping under the same roof. Furthermore, their father’s death couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment, since each of them is in the midst of a midlife crisis.

Judd (Jason Bateman) has just learned that his wife (Abigail Spencer) is having an affair with his boss (Dax Shepard). Meanwhile, brother Paul’s (Corey Stoll) marriage is in jeopardy because his wife (Kathryn Hahn), whose biological clock is ticking, has been unable to become pregnant.

Then there’s the playboy baby brother, Philip (Adam Driver), a narcissist with unresolved oedipal issues, and is dating a psychologist (Connie Britton) who is old enough to be his mother. However, he’s such a womanizer that he doesn’t think twice about shamelessly flirting with an old flame (Carly Brooke Pearlstein) right in front of his mortified girlfriend.

Finally, although their sister Wendy (Tina Fey) seems to be the most stable of the four, who is a mother of two with a devoted, but emotionally distant, husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) who is also a great provider. However, Barry’s obsession with his career on Wall Street has come at the cost of losing the passion and intimacy in their relationship. So, the last thing Wendy needs now is the temptation of an affair with Horry (Timothy Olyphant), her high school sweetheart who is still single, still in shape, and still living right across the street, even if he’s brain-damaged and lives with his mother (Debra Monk).

All of these situations serve as fodder for sophisticated humor in This Is Where I Leave You, a droll dramatic comedy directed by Shawn Levy (Date Night). Adapted to the screen by Jonathan Tropper, author of the best seller of the same name, this witty film features funny repartee as it explores themes ranging from religion, mortality, love, and betrayal.

Excellent (****). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and drug use. Running time: 103 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

GROVER’S CORNERS: Mary Barton, shown here with Richard Kondras in the 1995 production of Philip Jerry’s “Our Town” by American Repertory Ballet, coaches current dancers by relaying the late Mr. Jerry’s direction “almost word for word.” “Our Town” is being presented this weekend at Rider University.

GROVER’S CORNERS: Mary Barton, shown here with Richard Kondras in the 1995 production of Philip Jerry’s “Our Town” by American Repertory Ballet, coaches current dancers by relaying the late Mr. Jerry’s direction “almost word for word.” “Our Town” is being presented this weekend at Rider University.

Nineteen years ago, American Repertory Ballet (ARB) debuted the ballet Our Town, based on the play by Thornton Wilder that won the playwright a Pulitzer Prize in 1938. Choreographed by Philip Jerry, who was ballet master of the company while earning his undergraduate degree at Princeton University, the affecting drama was made all the more poignant by Mr. Jerry’s death from AIDS not long after the premiere. He was 41.

The fact that the ballet company has continued to perform Our Town over the ensuing two decades is testament to its dramatic power. This weekend, it is one of four works on a program ARB is presenting at Rider University’s Bart Luedeke Center. Coaching the dancers are artistic director Douglas Martin and the company’s ballet mistress Mary Barton, who starred in “Our Town” at its premiere. The two, who celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last week, knew Mr. Jerry from when they were all members of The Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s.

“He was very clear about what he wanted,” Ms. Barton said, recalling Mr. Jerry before a rehearsal of Our Town last week. “We only had a week to learn the ballet. But he was so articulate and such a good actor that he got me to fully understand what he wanted. And I relay that today, almost word for word.”

Ms. Barton played Emily Webb, a central character in the story of Grover’s Corners, an average, early 20th century New England town as depicted through the simplicity of everyday life. Emily’s childhood, her romance with George Gibbs (played by Mr. Martin), her death giving birth to her second child, and her wrenching return to Earth for just one day are the crux of the three-act play, which Mr. Jerry condensed into one act.

“Philip had done a first draft of it elsewhere, but not on professional dancers,” Ms. Barton continued. “When he set it on us, a professional company, it felt like it was real to him, I think. This was his first drama. He had done some ballets for Joffrey 2 [the Joffrey Ballet’s second company] that were strictly just movement. But this was what he was really great at, in my opinion. The music, by Aaron Copland, really sweeps you along. Philip arranged it beautifully and set it in such a way that it just flowed from your body.”

Mr. Jerry was first accepted at Princeton University in 1972, but he deferred to pursue a dance career in New York. He was a member of the Joffrey Ballet until 1991, when he left to enroll at the University. He graduated with honors in art history and a certificate in French.

“Philip was very well read and very intelligent,” said Mr. Martin, during a rehearsal break last week. “He understood what artists of the early 20th century did, and he was so smart at understanding character.” As a younger dancer with the Joffrey, Mr. Martin remembers following Mr. Jerry into several roles. “I spent a lot of time with him in the rehearsal hall,” he recalled. “I mean, he had learned the role of the Chinese Conjurer (in the revival of the historic 1917 ballet Parade by Leonide Massine) from Massine himself. He was my role model.”

The local connections with Our Town go back to Mr. Wilder’s day. He taught French at The Lawrenceville School between 1921 and 1928. While there, he earned a master’s degree in French from Princeton University. Mr. Wilder won his first Pulitzer, for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, before resigning from Lawrenceville in 1928. When Our Town premiered a decade later, it was at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.

The ballet Our Town was also given its first viewing at McCarter. “We performed it with the scrim up, as the play had been done,” said Ms. Barton. “Then we did it again during Douglas’s first year as artistic director.”

Monica Giragosian and Cameron Auble Branigan play Emily and George in the current version of Our Town. Jumping up during rehearsal to demonstrate Emily and George’s loving glances at each other and the baby in Emily’s arms, Ms. Barton and Mr. Martin look completely believable as the young couple. “After I learned the ballet, I felt like I had become Emily,” Ms. Barton said. “It was very powerful.”

It’s all about simplicity, Mr. Martin tells the dancers. “When you do it right, you feel the righteousness of this New England town. It’s about community. It’s almost like a Capra film. It’s a day in the life of everybody, and people are doing so much. If the people in the background aren’t doing their job, it doesn’t work.”

The ballet “is more about the story than the steps,” Ms. Barton said. “The way Philip felt about it — and I’m sure he knew his situation — imbued you with how important a piece it was. You felt entrusted with something very precious.”

American Repertory Ballet performs Our Town, Confetti, Fantasy Baroque, and Dreams Interrupted Friday and Saturday, September 19 and 20, at 7:30 p.m. at Rider University’s Bart Luedeke Center. Tickets are $20; $10 for students and seniors. Call (609) 896-7775.

 

September 10, 2014

book revOur tuxedo cat, Nora, was not named for James Joyce’s wife. She and her brother Nick got their names from Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) of The Thin Man movies. That said, it wasn’t until I was curled up with her early one morning reading Joyce’s Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago this June, that I made the Joycean connection. In addition to her name, Nora the cat shares Nora Joyce’s no-nonsense disposition. Just when she’s nuzzling and purring most blissfully, she’ll abandon me without so much as a farewell meow, and though she doesn’t expect breakfast in bed like Nora Joyce’s fictional alter ego Molly Bloom, she wakes me at 6 a.m. with a poke of the paw and down I go sleepwalking to the kitchen to open the cat food for her and her big brother.

Fighting for His Art

My Nora stayed within cuddling range right through to the end of “Two Gallants,” a slice of Dublin street life that evokes the moment when Joyce approached Nora Barnacle of Galway (“a tall young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride”) on Nassau Street in Dublin, spoke to her, and set things in motion for a meeting that took place on June 16, 1904, the day Joyce singled out for Ulysses, thereafter known and celebrated as Bloomsday. My reason for reading “Two Gallants,” however, is that it was the story “destined to precipitate disaster” for Dubliners, according to Richard Ellman’s James Joyce (1959). An English publisher, Grant Richards, had accepted the book early in 1906, a contract had been drawn up and signed, and all was well until the printer had issues with “Two Gallants” and then went on to mark passages in other stories he deemed objectionable. The result was a domino effect, with Richards taking a closer look and finding more to object to, including the use of the adjective “bloody” in various stories and numerous suggestive sexual nuances, not to mention unflattering references to Edward VII. Joyce argued that these details were crucial to the stories, that cutting them would leave Dubliners “like an egg without salt.” Richards not only stood his ground, he asked that “Two Gallants” be dropped altogether, and eventually decided against publishing the book, putting Joyce off with a vague promise “to do the stories later.”

In 1912 Joyce fought the good fight even more doggedly than before, this time with an Irish publisher, who came to the conclusion that the book was “anti-Irish” and whose demands for cuts and changes were even more excessive and peremptory than Grant Richard’s (a key problem was Joyce’s persistent use of real names for various pubs and places of business). In the end, though the book had been typeset, the publisher refused to publish it. Fortunately Joyce managed to obtain a complete set of the proofs before the printer destroyed the lot. Thanks to the proofs Joyce rescued, thus bypassing another fretful printer, the first edition of Dubliners was published in June 1914 — by Grant Richards.

Heroic Joyce

As can happen with geniuses as witty, eloquent, and indomitable as Joyce, the flap occasioned by Dubliners was almost worth the long delay, given the colorful blowback it inspired. In one letter on the first go-round with Richards, Joyce makes a Cyclops of his nemesis: “O one-eyed printer! Why has he descended with his blue pencil, full of the Holy Ghost, upon these passages?” He then urges Richards to join him in elevating English taste, reflecting on whether English literature “deserves or not the eminence which it occupies as the laughing-stock of Europe.” In another letter, the self-exiled author becomes a moral and spiritual patriot in the cause of salvaging the threatened passages: “If I eliminate them what becomes of the chapter of the moral history of my country? … I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country.”

Richards chides Joyce, telling him he “could not afford to be so heroic about his art.” Of course one of Joyce’s most characteristic qualities is his heroic vision of himself, his struggle, his art, and the sordid poetry with which he makes his case: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

Joyce’s Range

Joyce shaped the order of the stories to reflect the movement from childhood to youth to adulthood and old age, from solitude to society to death. In the opening paragraph of the first story, “The Sisters,” a boy inhabited by the author gazes up at the lighted window of the room where the old priest who had been his “great friend” lies dying, and says softly to himself the word “paralysis,” which sounded “like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.”

After the Joyce who can expand on the word “paralysis” in the style of Walter Pater describing the Mona Lisa, there’s the Joyce with an ear for the street talk of Lenehan and Corley in “Two Gallants,” which I read aloud with Nora the cat throatily ruminating at my side. Who could resist giving voice to Lenehan’s reaction to Corley’s tale of conquest: “Well …. That takes the biscuit! …. That takes the solitary, unique, and, if I may so call it, recherché biscuit!” And when Lenehan asks about a second pick-up, Corley says, “One night, man …. I was going along Dame Street and I spotted a fine tart under Waterhouse’s clock, and said good-night, you know. So we went for a walk round by the canal, and she told me she was a slavey in a house in Baggot Street. I put my arm round her and squeezed her a bit that night. Then next Sunday, man, I met her by appointment. We went out to Donnybrook and I brought her into a field there …. It was fine, man.”

It was poetry, man. Especially when you recall how James Joyce picked up a girl from Galway on Nassau Street and later “met her by appointment,” an everyday Dublin liaison that changed the course of 20th-century literature. When Joyce spoke to Nora Barnacle, she was not “a slavey,” just a chambermaid at a “slightly exalted rooming house” then called Finn’s Hotel. Had there been no Nora in Joyce’s life, Ulysses would be without the Molly Bloom who performs the long and lusty night song that brings the book home to the essence of its humanity, a sexually active woman saying “Yes.” When Nora claimed not to have read a word of “that book,” and said that “nothing would induce her to open it,” Princeton native Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company and publisher/savior of Ulysses, knew Nora had no need to read it since she herself was “the source of the book’s inspiration” and one of the luckiest things that “ever befell” its author.

Michael’s Song

Nora Barnacle was no less vital to “The Dead,” the masterpiece that brings Dubliners to its moving conclusion. For the first 40 pages of the 57-page story the scene is a holiday party hosted by two elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, where numerous characters, themes and motifs are kept in play, interacting with and accompanied by a subtle recognition in the prose of a “death in life” undercurrent of disembodied sounds and voices,

At the center of the story, which Joyce conceived in Rome in 1907, is Kate and Julia’s nephew, Gabriel Conroy, whose wife Gretta is from the provinces like Nora (“country cute” says Gabriel’s mother). Though there are some distinct differences, it’s clear that Gretta and Gabriel are modeled on Nora and Joyce, who had only been together three years and thus were still in close proximity to the incident that inspired the story’s justly renowned conclusion. As Ellman recounts, Nora had been courted by a tubercular boy named Michael in Galway the year before she met Joyce. Michael “stole out of his sick room in spite of the rainy weather, to sing to her under an apple tree and bid her goodbye.” Shortly after this happened, Nora went to Dublin, where she learned that the boy had died.

If you read Ellman’s biography, you know how sensitive Joyce would have been to the idea of a wife haunted by the thought of a boy who might have died for love of her. He himself was so haunted by the notion that he wove it into the fabric of “The Dead.”

As the party ends, Gabriel is in the entry hall making conversation with the departing guests when he sees Gretta at the top of the stairs, “listening to something.” All he can hear is “a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.” When Gretta comes down she’s so deep in the plaintive mood of the music, she seems unaware of the talk going on around her. Back in their room at the hotel, she’s still abstracted, still in the music. He asks what she’s thinking about. She mentions the name of the song and bursts into tears. Asked why the song makes her cry, she says, “I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” Almost in spite of himself, he wants to know more, and every word she says harrows his heart — “I think he died for me …,” “I was great with him at that time …,” “Poor fellow … he was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy …,” “O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!”

The rest of the story defies paraphrasing. There’s no way to do justice to the extended coda that begins with a single sentence — ”She was fast asleep” — followed by five paragraphs resembling movements or themes in a sonata with the title, “One by one, they were all becoming shades.” As Gabriel’s soul approaches “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” James Joyce enters “that region where dwell the vast hosts” of English language and literature, which he will in time meditate upon, explore and exploit, unmake and remake, but never again quite so simply and beautifully as he does here with “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

———

Nora’s looking up at me as I write, not unlike Leopold Bloom’s “pussens” as she stalks (“Prr. Scratch my head. Prr … Mkgnao!”) over his writing table.

“Mr. Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.”

What do you know, “the pussens” is a tuxedo.

 

MURAL ART COMING TO PRINCETON: Shown here is a mural by artists of the S.A.G.E. Coalition that was created in Hopewell. This weekend S.A.G.E artists, Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae will create a mural for the Arts Council of Princeton. Inspired by the Underground Railroad, the mural will take shape behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center throughout the day, beginning at noon, on Sunday, September 14. For more information, call (609) 924 8777, or visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

MURAL ART COMING TO PRINCETON: Shown here is a mural by artists of the S.A.G.E. Coalition that was created in Hopewell. This weekend S.A.G.E artists, Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae will create a mural for the Arts Council of Princeton. Inspired by the Underground Railroad, the mural will take shape behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center throughout the day, beginning at noon, on Sunday, September 14. For more information, call (609) 924 8777, or visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

The walls may be small, but the subject of the mural that will cover them is large. And the artists who will carry it out are the larger than life Will “Kasso” Condry and James “Luv 1” Kelewae of Trenton’s S.A.G.E. Coalition, the Trenton-based nonprofit organization that was formed in 2012 to initiate, plan, and execute inner-city beautification projects.

The two artists will create a mural that will span two small brick walls behind the Arts Council of Princeton’s (ACP) Paul Robeson Center for the Arts on Witherspoon Street. The work will be carried out and completed throughout the day on Sunday, September 14, beginning at noon.

The mural is inspired by the Underground Railroad and quilt-making tradition. The Underground Railroad was a web of routes covering thousands of miles, several of which ran through New Jersey. Sections were known as “stations,” and Station A ran through Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.

According to an ACP press release, “members of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, spoke out against slavery as early as the 1840s and assisted escaping slaves in their passage north.”

The father of Princeton’s Paul Robeson, after whom the ACP building is named, was a slave who escaped a Southern plantation and eventually settled in Princeton’s Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, where his son Paul was born. For a time, Paul Robeson’s father was minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Paul was born on April 9, 1898, in the church parsonage nearby. He graduated from Rutgers University and Columbia Law School and went on to international acclaim as an actor, singer, and humanitarian. He was an uncompromising champion of black civil rights.

Conceived by local curator, writer, teacher and photographer Ricardo Barros, the mural project will be one of several carried out by members of S.A.G.E., a diverse group of visual artists, engineers, fabricators, musicians and teachers, who create everything from murals to 3-D models.

“The mural will present a stylized, interpretive take on the Underground Railroad, reflecting the S.A.G.E. Coalition’s urban roots,” said Mr. Barros, a resident of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and ACP Exhibition Committee member. “The mural will not be visible from the street, but those viewers who choose to wander in and explore the “hidden” wall will experience the clandestine nature of the Underground Railroad as well as that of contemporary urban art.”

Kasso and Luv have already created a series of public art projects in Trenton, including a depiction of Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Barack Obama. The Gandhi mural in particular generated a surprisingly strong, positive, public response, which led to the transformation of a derelict, abandoned lot into a public urban garden, known as Gandhi’s Garden.

The artists are accustomed to completing their murals in one day and welcome a public audience. They also enjoy working to music, and live musicians and DJs will add to the festive occasion. It’s been rumored that a few break dancers may make an appearance as well.

“The ACP is proud to support the S.A.G.E. Coalition and bring their unique urban vision to Princeton,” said Executive Director Jeff Nathanson.

Founded in 1967, the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP), is a non-profit organization with a mission of building community through the arts. Housed in the landmark Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, designed by architect Michael Graves, the ACP fulfills its mission by presenting a wide range of programs including exhibitions, performances, free community cultural events, and studio-based classes and workshops in a wide range of media. Arts Council of Princeton programs are designed to be high-quality, engaging, affordable, and accessible for the diverse population of the greater Princeton region.

The Arts Council of Princeton is located at 102 Witherspoon Street. The creation of the mural will coincide with the ACP’s Free Fall Open House, from noon to 3 p.m. and its annual Members’ Show, from 3 to 5 p.m. All events are open to the public and free of charge. Parking is available in the Spring and Hulfish Street Garages and at metered spots along Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place.

For additional information about the S.A.G.E. Coalition and to see photographs of previous work, visit http://sagecoalitionnj.com/. For more information about this event, please visit www.artscouncilofprinceton.org or contact Alyssa Gillon at agillon@artscouncilofprinceton.org or call (609) 924-8777 x110.

 

IS THIS RYAN OR HIS TWIN BROTHER DREXEL?: Elvis impersonator Blake Ryan portrays the identical twin babies Ryan and Drexel, one of whom grows up to become the King of Rock and Roll. The twins were separated shortly after being born and Drexel grew up to become a national singing sensation, but Ryan’s fate is less certain.

IS THIS RYAN OR HIS TWIN BROTHER DREXEL?: Elvis impersonator Blake Ryan portrays the identical twin babies Ryan and Drexel, one of whom grows up to become the King of Rock and Roll. The twins were separated shortly after being born and Drexel grew up to become a national singing sensation, but Ryan’s fate is less certain.

What if Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin had survived his mother’s pregnancy instead of dying during the twins birth in January, 1935? That is the alternate reality presented in The Identical, a musical that is the directorial debut of Dustin Marcellino.

Unfortunately, Dustin chose an Elvis impersonator to star in his revisionist version of events, a dubious decision that becomes obvious when Blake Rayne isn’t singing and shaking his hips on-stage. The first-time actor plays both Ryan Hemsley and his identical sibling, Drexel (Elvis), in this fictionalized account of the life of the King of Rock and Roll.

The movie’s point of departure is in Decatur, Georgia during the Depression, which is where we find poverty stricken sharecroppers Helen (Amanda Crew) and William Hemsley (Brian Geraghty) trying to figure out how they’re going to provide for their newborn twins. The answer arrives at a revival meeting that is being held under a big tent by Reverend Reece Wade (Ray Liotta), who is a Pentecostal preacher with a soul full of hope and a barren wife (Ashley Judd).

The Wades desire to start a family dovetails with the Hemsleys having one more baby than they can afford. So, with God as their witness, Reece and Louise secretly agree to adopt Ryan before going back to Tennessee. Meanwhile, Helen and William announce the missing boy’s death to friends and relatives, and stage a faux funeral, complete with an empty casket.

Reece proceeds to raise Ryan in the church with a career in the ministry in mind although, because of his singing talent, he is more comfortable in the choir than the pulpit. He finally rebels in his teens and enlists in the military, leaving his domineering father and a sweetheart (Erin Cottrell) behind. By contrast, Drexel, who was also blessed with a great voice, is allowed by the Hemsleys to pursue his passion, and blossoms into a singing sensation.

Will the twins ever learn of each other’s existence? If so, will they be able to forgive their parents for separating them at birth? And will Ryan ever get his own shot at fame and fortune?

These questions are posed by a production so flawed in terms of plot, dialogue, and acting that it is unintentionally funny. Regrettably, The Identical lacks plausibility, such as its farcical reimagining of race relations in the Jim Crow South and its silly staging of car chases that are straight out of The Dukes of Hazzard.

Fair (*). Rated PG for smoking and mature themes. Running time: 107 minutes. Distributor: Freestyle Releasing.

 

September 3, 2014

book revWhen I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, … it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.

—Mozart, from a letter

My ideas flow best when I’m driving a Honda CRV named Moby, preferably with music on the stereo. For more than a month now it’s been all Mozart, the piano concertos, with a loving emphasis on the slow second movements generally referred to as andantes. I try to keep the volume at a reasonable level, but Mozart will have none of it, and if you’ve been walking on Patton Avenue, or Ewing, or Mount Lucas Road, or Harrison Street, north or south, in recent days, you may have heard your friendly Mozart Mobile driving by, scattering fragments of Amadeus on the ambient air, all from the concertos I’ve been listening to, namely numbers 9 (“one of the wonders of the world,” says Alfred Brendel), 20 (Stalin’s favorite), 21 (remember Elvira Madigan?), and 27 (the last one). Imagine a Good Humor truck without the ice cream, that’s me.

Another recent event that has improved the flow of my ideas, such as they are, is that after coming from behind to win three games in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals have taken sole possession of first place in the Central Division of the National League for the first time this year. What has this got to do with Mozart, you may ask? Not a thing, except that I think were he given the opportunity, he would have liked watching baseball almost as much as he liked playing billiards.

There’s even a hint of the notion of “coming from behind” in the dynamic of the andantes. What would you rather have, an easy win, as clear cut as a 10-0 shut-out, or a hard-fought victory against odds? True, baseball, unlike billiards, is a team sport. But then so is the concerto, where one person sits at the piano surrounded and supported by a community of musicians. Keeping in mind that andante is the present participle of andare, to walk, meaning that the music should be played “at a walking pace,” this puts the pianist in the role of a single lonely thoughtful figure not unlike a pitcher working his way through a tough inning, his job being to allow no further scoring. Keep in mind as well what Mozart said in the letter, that the ideas “flow best” when he is “entirely alone.” Of course when the crisis comes, the lonely pitcher needs his teammates, and nothing, not even a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, can equal Mozart when the orchestra swoops down and takes full possession of the melody. Then it’s as if the lonely, onward-striding human bravely sustaining the melodic line, seeing it through to the end, looks up to behold a sky that is to all the skies ever seen as Mozart is to all the music ever heard and Shakespeare to all the words ever read.

Stalin’s Olga

Driving past our former residence on Patton Avenue with Stalin’s favorite piano concerto on the stereo, I thought of the spring morning when I was invited over by our musician neighbors Bill and Janis to meet little Olga, who was having a piano lesson with Janis. This was no ordinary kid, this was Svetlana’s Olga, Joseph Stalin’s granddaughter. At the time of my visit many Aprils ago, I didn’t know how strongly Olga’s grandfather’s felt about K. 466, Mozart’s no. 20. So this drive-by was my way of celebrating a memorable Princeton moment. While Svetlana seemed shy, quiet, and pleasant, her Olga was a six-year-old life force. I thought again of all the energy bouncing off the living room walls of that little house while watching Valentina Lisitsa play K. 466 on YouTube. As she attacked the keyboard, swaying her head, all but singing the andante to herself, did this Ukrainian pianist know how close Joseph Stalin was to the music she was giving herself to so passionately? Did she know that the man responsible for the deadly Ukrainian famine had a recording of the same concerto on a record player in his room the day he died?

A Mount Lucas Moment

Driving toward town on Mount Lucas Road one recent sunny summer day with another Mozart andante on the car stereo, I pass two people walking in the same direction, first a woman in her thirties, in untucked blouse, jeans, and sandals, her brown-gold hair tied back, and in the next block a teen-age girl in shorts, halter, and sandals, her blond hair in a ponytail. The woman walks thoughtfully, the girl lightly, carefree; both are smiling to themselves. Neither looks up as the Mozart Mobile passes, releasing the chillingly beautiful slow movement from Piano Concerto No. 21 into the morning air, the music merging with the moment, the day, the light, the woman and the girl, each walking in her own way, no longer visible, gone with the coda, the piano ending its own promenade, note by simple note.

Some Passing Impressions

After listening to Mozart’s String Quintet in G-minor, in June 1816, 19-year-old Franz Schubert tells his journal “The magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me …. Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence.”

In February 1903, 41-year-old Claude Debussy observes that Mozart’s E-flat symphony is “full of a luminous lightness, like a group of lovely children laughing joyfully in the sunshine!”

Michael Kelly (1762-1826), an Irish tenor who knew Mozart well when both men were in their twenties, says that though Wolfgang could be touchy, “like gunpowder,” he was “lovable,” and when his face was “lighted up with the glowing rays of genius,” it was as impossible to describe “as it would be to paint sunbeams.”

Billiards and Dancing

Of all the biographies, critical studies, and books of letters I’ve consulted in this spell of mid-to-late-summer Mozart madness, the most rewarding has been Paul Johnson’s short but densely informative Mozart: A Life (Viking 2013). It was thanks to Johnson that I found Michael Kelly and his first-hand account of playing billiards with Mozart, who spoke fluent English, picked up during 15 months spent in London when he was a boy. “Again and again I played with him at billiards,” Kelly recalls, “and I always came off second best.” As Johnson tells it, when Mozart entered a public billiards room, he had music paper in his pocket “and composed while waiting his turn. He calculated a long break as twenty or thirty bars. ‘Right! Three pots in a row! Now what key was I in?’ ‘Oh, come on, Wolfgang, it’s your turn!’”  Once he moved to Vienna for good in 1781, he had a billiard table of his own in his apartment. According to Johnson, “He had a fetish about smooth, rolling objects. He liked to handle them while thinking and creating. Billiard balls were perfect for this purpose.”

It’s not clear how Johnson knows that Mozart actually rolled the balls in his hand while thinking, but if you don’t push it too hard, the compositional connection makes sense. What better discipline for a musician than playing a game that puts the harmonic dynamic in action as the chiming collision of one rolling object with another sends it spinning toward its sublime, shining alter ego?

At this point, after declaring that “God, music, and billiards were the main components of Mozart’s life,” Johnson adds a fourth — “dancing” — which “probably explained why he was so eager to make his home in Vienna,” at that time “the dance capital of the world.”

Johnson’s next line deserves a spot by itself:

“Mozart danced all his life, virtually to his deathbed.”

Phrases like that one are what make Johnson’s life of Mozart so engaging, You sense that rather than laboring, he’s enjoying his subject, even if it means spinning that sentence about a man who once called death “the best and truest friend of mankind, the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness.”

A man who can dance to his death bed can surely appreciate the emotional significance of coming from behind. A great composer with a fondness for handling smooth, rolling objects like billiard balls while thinking and creating, might also appreciate the brilliantly executed things players on a dusty diamond can do with a small shiny white ball.

The letter quoted at the top is from the introduction to Hans Mersmann’s edition of the letters (Dover). The letter was to “a certain baron” who had made him a present of wine. There is a more detailed account of my encounter with Stalin’s daughter and granddaughter in Town Topics, July 19, 2006.

 

FLIGHT PATTERNS: Work such as those shown above by award-winning artists Jennifer Cadoff (left) and Beatrice Bork (right) will be on display in an exhibition, titled “Flight Patterns,” at the Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville from September 4 through October 5. An opening reception will take place Saturday, September 6, from 5 to 8 p.m. and there will be Coffee and Conversation with the artists on Sunday, October 5, from 2 to 4 p.m. The gallery is located at 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville, and is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by appointment. For more information call (609) 397-4588, or visit: www.lambertvillearts.com. For more on the artists’s work, visit: www.beatricebork.artspan.com and www.jennifercadoff.com.

FLIGHT PATTERNS: Work such as those shown above by award-winning artists Jennifer Cadoff (left) and Beatrice Bork (right) will be on display in an exhibition, titled “Flight Patterns,” at the Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville from September 4 through October 5. An opening reception will take place Saturday, September 6, from 5 to 8 p.m. and there will be Coffee and Conversation with the artists on Sunday, October 5, from 2 to 4 p.m. The gallery is located at 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville, and is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by appointment. For more information call (609) 397-4588, or visit: www.lambertvillearts.com. For more on the artists’s work, visit: www.beatricebork.artspan.com and www.jennifercadoff.com.

Works by Beatrice Bork and Jennifer Cadoff will be showcased in an exhibition at the Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville, from September 4 through October 5. Titled, “Flight/Patterns,” the exhibition explores rhythms, flight, textures, and patterns inspired by the natural world. There will be an opening reception on Saturday, September 6, from 5 to 8 p.m. and Coffee and Conversation with the artists on Sunday, October 5, from 2 to 4 p.m.

The show will include the latest paintings and drawings by these two award-winning artists and is their second collaboration in as many years.

Ms. Bork is an internationally-recognized wildlife artist whose watercolors capture animals, often, but not exclusively, birds, immersed in their natural habitat. The signature of Beatrice’s art is an ability to balance the intricate details of her animal subjects with loose brushwork, splashes of color, and unusual compositions that make her paintings thrum with life, said Ms. Cadoff.

Ms. Bork has won the prestigious Don Eckleberry Award for outstanding bird art from the Society of Animal Artists, of which she is a signature member. Her paintings have been published in a variety of books and magazines and acquired by collectors from around the world.

Ms. Cadoff makes intricate abstract ink drawings that suggest her close observation of natural patterns such as tree bark, rain, even cells under a microscope. She incorporates into some of her compositions the outlines of leaves, pine cones and other natural detritus that she collects on her walks, mesmerized by the infinite variations of their simple forms. Other work includes striking collages that play with dimension and form through combinations of patterns and textures.

“Jennifer creates thousands of small, simple marks that transform into wonderfully complex organic patterns that let your imagination take flight; they draw viewers in to discover and interpret — and each can see something totally different in her work,” said Ms. Bork.

The Artists’ Gallery has been a fixture in the Lambertville art scene for nearly 20 years, showcasing established local artists with regional and national reputations whose work is sought after by art lovers who visit the town from across the country and around the world. Each of the current gallery roster of 18 artists has work on display at all times. New work is hung every month, so there’s always something fresh and exciting for collectors to discover.

The gallery is located at 18 Bridge Street in the heart of historic Lambertville, and is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by appointment. For more information call (609) 397 4588, or visit: www.lambertvillearts.com. For more on the artists’s work, visit: www.beatricebork.artspan.com and www.jennifercadoff.com.

HOW CAN YOU KILL THIS INNOCENT BABY: Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) desperately clutches the baby, with whom he has become attached. The infant will be euthanized solely because he was born with a birth defect, and therefore cannot be allowed to become a member of  the society in which everybody is perfect.

HOW CAN YOU KILL THIS INNOCENT BABY: Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) desperately clutches the baby, with whom he has become attached. The infant will be euthanized solely because he was born with a birth defect, and therefore cannot be allowed to become a member of the society in which everybody is perfect.

Despite being born in the same year and having overlapping careers, Oscar winners Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and The Iron Lady) and Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) never made a movie together until now. However, the collaboration is well worth the wait in this haunting science fiction adventure set in a dystopia that masquerades as being heaven on Earth.

The film is based on Lois Lowry’s bestseller of the same name which won the Newbery Award as America’s best children’s book of 1994. The adaptation, approved by the author, was directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) who chose Brenton Thwaites to portray the young hero, Jonas.

The picture’s point of departure is the young protagonist’s graduation day, when he participates in a coming-of-age ritual in which 18-year-olds are assigned an occupation by the elders of their community. Jonas’s best friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan) and Fiona (Odeya Rush) learn that they’ll be trained as a drone pilot and a nurturer, respectively.

Jonas, however, who has been recognized as being special because of his ability to see things differently, is designated as the “Receiver of Memories,” and becomes the protégé of the “Giver” (Bridges). In that capacity, he soon realizes that the whole society is a charade which shields its citizens from the fact that there is suffering in the world by injecting them once a day with a drug which keeps them naïve, obedient, and blissfully content.

However in truth, evil does exist in their midst, although it is veiled; such as how the sick and the old are “released” in a way that gives no hint that they’re actually being euthanized. As a result of his revelation, Jonas experiences a crisis of conscience and must decide whether to obediently follow in the Giver’s footsteps or to upset the society by revealing how everybody’s minds are being controlled.

Among the factors influencing his decision is the unexpected pleasure he feels from the “stirrings,” the formerly suppressed sexual awakening he suddenly feels for Fiona. Another involves the impending euthanization of a baby who was born with a birth defect (Alexander Jillings), and with whom Jonas has formed a strong bond.

Besides the historic pairing of Streep and Bridges, the film features excellent performances by the three actors playing the leads, as well as Katie Holmes and Taylor Swift, who have supporting roles. The film is a thought provoking look at mind control and gives a valuable lesson about the virtue of challenging any totalitarian authority.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for action, violence, and mature themes. Running time: 94 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.

 

August 27, 2014
The light at the end of Dark Passage— Bacall sees Bogart

The light at the end of Dark Passage— Bacall sees Bogart

Look at that face of hers. There you’ve got the map of Middle Europe slung across those high cheekbones and wide green eyes …. As a woman she holds all the cards. She’s beautiful, a good mother, a good wife, and knows how to run a home.

—Bogart on Bacall

It may not make a lot of sense if you look at it closely, but Bogart’s description of Lauren Bacall (1924-2014), which I found in Stephen Bogart’s book about his father, puts the geography of attraction nicely into words, along with hints of her style and his.

Bacall’s debut in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) was one of the most spectacular in Hollywood history. But the screen time that made her a star amounts to less than half an hour at most, and it helped to have the medium’s most charismatic antihero as the witness to her allure. The homemade Bacall montages on YouTube come mainly from scenes with Bogie: The Look, which accompanies her opening line (“Anybody got a match?”); the endlessly quoted “all you have to do is whistle” line; the first speech, the second kiss (“It’s even better when you help”); and the third and most serious kiss (“I like that … except for the beard”), evidence that a real-life romance is underway.

Agee Spreads the Word

Writing about To Have and Have Not in Time, James Agee neatly nails the star (“one of Bogart’s most edged portrayals of Nietzsche in dungarees”) on his way to putting Bacall into orbit in a stop-the-presses-worthy notice, hailing her as a “sensational newcomer” with “cinema personality to burn.” After comparing her to Garbo and Dietrich, he concludes that, even so, she’s “completely new to the screen.” He singles out her “born dancer’s eloquence in movement,” “fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness,” and a “stone-crushing self-confidence” that helps make her “the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.” Even in mandated Time-speech, Agee can swing a line like that, along with the one describing the film as “a loosely painted background for a kind of romance which the movies have all but forgotten about — the kind in which the derelict sweethearts are superficially aloof but essentially hot as blazes, and seem to do even their kissing out of the corners of their mouths.”

Agee’s review turns into a mini-profile of Bacall. Born in the Bronx in September 1924, she’s “part Rumanian, part French, part Russian (she thinks),” an only child, her idol was Bette Davis; she worked as an usherette and did some modeling for Harpers Bazaar, where a photo of her caught the eyes of Mrs. Howard Hawks, who showed it to her husband, the director; he signed her to a contract and, as Agee puts it, began a “shrewdly contrived campaign of artificialized naturalness” that produced the voice Agee compares to a trombone in Time and “a chorus by Kid Ory” in The Nation. For the better part of a year, Hawks “worked her out mainly in a vacant lot, bellowing anything from Shakespeare to odd copies of shopping news,” his purpose to turn something “high and nasal” into something “low and guttural.”

Agee includes an anecdote to show that Bacall was sometimes allowed to do things her way: “After a highly charged few minutes with Bogart, late at night in a cheap hotel room,” she “reluctantly retires to her own quarters. At this point in the shooting, she complained: ‘God, I’m dumb.’ ‘Why?’ asked Hawks. ‘Well, if I had any sense, I’d go back in after that guy.’ She did.”

To Whistle or To Smile

For the readers of The Nation, Agee offers a shorter, more cynical response, calling To Have and Have Not “a leisurely series of mating duels” between Bogart and “and the very entertaining, nervy, adolescent new blonde,” suggesting that whether or not you like the film will depend on what you think of Lauren Bacall. “I am no judge,” he writes. “I can hardly look at her, much less listen to her … without getting caught in a dilemma between a low whistle and a bellylaugh.”

I don’t have any sort of dilemma with Bacall. She leaves me smiling. So does the whole picture. Hawks has a genius for community; his ensembles are dreams of sweet disorder, like impromptu parties where everything falls into place. The story behind this film is that it was born from a bet between Hawks and Hemingway about whether Hawks could make a good picture from Hemingway’s worst novel. Out of that bet came romance and marriage for Bogart and Bacall. And only in Hollywood could you have the convergence in one film of two major American writers, however benighted the merging, Hemingway in tatters (a solid 90 percent of his “worst” novel having been “jettisoned”), Faulkner hacking out a wartime screenplay with Casablanca overtones that transforms Havana (to placate FDR) into Vichy Martinique and puts Faulkneresque charm into Walter Brennan’s lovable lush Eddie (“Was you ever bit by a dead bee?”).

And don’t forget the pride of Bloomington, Indiana, Hoagy Carmichael as the hip, laconic piano man Cricket, who asks Bacall are you happy when she comes over to say goodbye before she and Bogart head into the Caribbean sunset; “What do you think?” she says: she’s beaming. So he sends her on her way with the song he composed in her presence, “How Little We Know,” the lyric by songwriting legend Johnny Mercer (a direct descendent of the General Mercer who died at the Battle of Princeton), and as she shimmies happily off, wiggling her scene-stealing hips, she joins arms with Bogart and gives him a smile that says their adventure has only begun.

Looking Back

In the coda to the updated portion of her memoir By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment), Bacall looks back from 2005 to 18-year-old Betty riding west alone on the Super Chief, too shy to leave her compartment, ordering ginger ale because she didn’t drink except for the rare Orange Blossom when she wanted “to feel grown up.” She finds an apartment in Beverly Hills, which she’s sharing with her mother when the affair begins and from which she will escape at odd hours of the night, like the time Bogart calls after midnight and asks her to meet him on a certain street corner. Writing in 2005, she remembers “running down Beverly Drive … arms held wide, green three-quarters coat flying, toward Bogie, waiting for me”); another time it’s four in the morning and he’s a little drunk, says he’s walking to town along highway 101 (“Come and get me”), it’s raining, her mother is “furious,” thinks she’s completely mad, “but I didn’t care, I was in love, I was on my way to meet my man,” and she drives for an hour in the wind and the rain on Highway 101, “hugging the right side of the road, looking frantically for Bogie. At last, as the sun rose, I caught sight of him — unshaven … and with a large sunflower in his lapel …. I don’t know how he got there. I slammed to a halt, rushed out of the car … and into each other’s arms we fell. It was the funniest, craziest thing I’d done so far.”

Heaven in Paita

In 2005, remembering, she calls it “the headiest romance imaginable,” seemingly beyond anything Hollywood could dream up for them. Until, perhaps, the closing scene in Dark Passage (1947), the third picture of their four films together and the first as a married couple. Without going into detail on the complex noir plot, suffice it to say that Bogart’s character is in hiding and on the run from the moment the film opens. Bacall takes him in, not as a lover but a sympathetic friend. Rather than the standard film noir femme fatale or the moll or the tramp, she’s a well-off young artist with a spacious apartment in San Francisco, and she appears strikingly close in style and manner to the real-life Bacall. During the time she’s hiding him out and taking care of him as he recovers from identity-disguising plastic surgery, they become chastely intimate, and the interlude of embattled domesticity they share leads to love; the song playing when they finally embrace is “Too Marvelous for Words.”

As the police close in, his only option is to get out of the country, she wants to go with him, he refuses to expose her to the risk. After he gets a ticket on a bus to the Mexican border, he phones her to tell her where he’s headed, Paita, in Peru, a little town on the coast, he makes her repeat the name, tells her “There’s a little cafe right on the bay, I’ll be there,” and in the last scene he’s sitting at a table with a drink, people are dancing, a live band is playing south-of-the-burder music, which suddenly gives way to a familiar melody. He looks past the dancing couples to the entrance, and there she is, smiling at him. It’s been three years since the smile she gave him as they walked off together in To Have and Have Not, two years since they were married. It’s a “Look at that face of hers” moment for Bogart. Lauren Bacall is smiling at her husband; no one else, no mere fictional character, would be worthy of such a smile. In the aftermath of Bacall’s death, more than one blogger sees this luminous moment as an image of a reunion in the afterlife, and why not, it makes a heavenly ending as Bogart, who has ten years to live, gets up from the table, and Bacall, who has 67, approaches. He takes her in his arms, and they begin to dance, moving among the other couples, as the orchestra plays “Too Marvelous for Words,” with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.


Bogart’s quote is from a 1953 interview in the London Daily Mirror, included in Stephen Bogart’s book
Bogart: In Search of My Father (Dutton 1995). Lauren Bacall’s By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment 2005) is distinguished by a brave, unstinting account of the ordeal of Bogart’s illness and death, in January 1957. Both books are available at the Princeton Public Library.

 

BROOM AND LUDLOW: That’s the title of this 18 x 24 inch oil on canvas by Hopewell artist Ken McIndoe, who will have a one-man show of his paintings in the Silva Gallery of Art at the Pennington school from September 3 through October 3. A reception with the artist will be held on Friday, September 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Pennington School is located at 112 W. Delaware Avenue in Pennington. For more information, call (609) 737-4133, or visit: www.pen nington.org/arts/silva-gallery-of-art.

BROOM AND LUDLOW: That’s the title of this 18 x 24 inch oil on canvas by Hopewell artist Ken McIndoe, who will have a one-man show of his paintings in the Silva Gallery of Art at the Pennington school from September 3 through October 3. A reception with the artist will be held on Friday, September 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Pennington School is located at 112 W. Delaware Avenue in Pennington. For more information, call (609) 737-4133, or visit: www.pen
nington.org/arts/silva-gallery-of-art.

Hopewell artist Ken McIndoe will exhibit his work, in a solo exhibition entitled “Paintings,” at The Pennington School’s Silva Gallery of Art. The exhibition opens on September 3 and continues through October 3. A reception with the artist will be held on Friday, September 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

An intense observer of life, Mr. McIndoe can capture and interpret an object, a scene, a person in a way that makes one pause with curiosity. In “Paintings,” Gallery Director Dolores Eaton has chosen to focus on Mr. McIndoe’s city scenes in an effort to highlight the enormous range found in the artist’s marks and use of color. The work ranges from painterly to almost completely abstract. Painted on-site in oils, the paintings capture what is happening in the moment. The artist has not reworked these paintings back in the studio.

Born in London, Mr. McIndoe lived his early childhood in Liberia and spent his schooling years in English boarding schools. Soon after his arrival in the United States in 1957 he enrolled at The Art Students League to study painting. In 1981 he became an instructor at The Arts Student League and continues to teach there today. He has conducted landscape workshops in Ireland, South Korea, Alaska, New York, and New Jersey.

Mr. McIndoe has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in New York and New Jersey, including the State Museum in Trenton. He is the recipient of two, New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowships in 1987 and 2000.

The Silva Gallery of Art is the gallery of The Pennington School, 112 W. Delaware Avenue, Pennington, NJ 08534. Gallery Hours are Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; or by appointment.

For more information, call (609) 737-4133, or visit: www.pennington.org/arts/silva-gallery-of-art.
———

 

DIDN’T YOUR MOTHER EVER TEACH YOU TO KNOCK?: The head of a CIA team of assassins David Mason (Luke Bracey) makes a dramatic entrance into a room as he chases down the person he has been assigned to kill.

DIDN’T YOUR MOTHER EVER TEACH YOU TO KNOCK?: The head of a CIA team of assassins David Mason (Luke Bracey) makes a dramatic entrance into a room as he chases down the person he has been assigned to kill.

Director Roger Donaldson is probably most closely associated with No Way Out, one of the best espionage thrillers ever made. Here he revisits the genre with The November Man, although this picture pales in comparison to his 1987 classic movie.

Nonetheless, Roger has managed to craft a labyrinthine cat-and-mouse caper that keeps you on the edge of your seat despite an often incoherent plot, slapdash action sequences, and an inscrutable cast of characters whose motivations are difficult to discern. Overall, the adventure amounts to a dizzying head scratcher that takes you on a roller coaster ride, even if you might need a scorecard to keep the players straight.

Based on the Bill Granger best seller There Are No Spies, the movie stars Pierce Brosnan in the title role as Peter Devereaux, an ex-CIA agent whose code name was “The November Man.” Although he had retired to Switzerland five years earlier, it didn’t take much to coax him to help extract Natalia (Mediha Musliovic), a Russian double agent, who is ready to come in out of the cold.

Peter and Natalia share a secret past which resulted in their daughter Lucy (Tara Jevrosimovic), a love child whom he misses terribly. However, the prospects of a father daughter reunion are reduced significantly when Natalia is shot in the head by a team of assassins led by David Mason (Luke Bracey), Peter’s former protégé in the CIA.

What’s up with that? Did the Agency really want Natalia dead? Or did David go rogue? These are the questions left unanswered as Peter accepts another dangerous assignment, namely, the exfiltration of Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko) from Moscow.

It turns out that Alice is a pivotal witness for the prosecution who is scheduled to testify at a war crimes tribunal that is about all the atrocities committed in Chechnya by Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski). However, Federov is Russia’s ruthless president-elect and he isn’t about to let some social worker interfere with his plans.

Peter quickly realizes that Alice has many angry adversaries, both Soviet, such as Federov’s henchwoman (Amila Terzimehic); and American, such as the CIA mole who is giving David his assignments. Not surprisingly, the pair leave a messy trail of bodies behind them as they pick up Lucy and make a daring escape to the West.

Very Good (**½ stars). Rated R for rape, profanity, sexuality, nudity, graphic violence, and brief drug use. In English and Russian with subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes. Distributor: Relativity Media.

 

August 20, 2014
Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

—Robin Williams as John Keating

In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (1989) a prep school English teacher played by Robin Williams crouches like a quarterback in a huddle with his students, only John Keating’s not calling plays, he’s quoting Walt Whitman after telling the boys, “We read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And business, law, medicine, and engineering are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.” Then he brings in “Uncle Walt,” whose portrait hangs above his desk: “‘… of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’” After repeating the last line with quiet passion, Mr. Keating looks around at the faces of his students and asks, “What will your verse be?”

Of all the parts Williams played, John Keating may be the most purely inspirational, and, in the aftermath of his death on August 11, one of the most poignant. In Dead Poets Society the plot turns on the suicide of a student whose “verse” had been his dream of becoming an actor. As the reaction to Williams’s death last week makes clear, he had already contributed more than his share of passion and poetry to “the powerful play” when he decided that he could give no more.

Over the Top

The death of Robin Williams at 63 was a media event of remarkable magnitude. According to several reports in the New York Times, the news led to a 370 percent spike in mobile traffic, and hit website readership harder than any breaking story anywhere last week. In the immediate aftermath, the number of tweets about Williams spiked to about 63,000 a minute, and Steve Carrel’s 10-word tweet “Robin Williams made the world a little bit better. RIP” had been “retweeted” 63,276 times, and “favorited” by 84,710 people.

With numbers like that, there’s no doubt that the online hits on Williams highlights reached or exceeded the same level, from live full-length performances in theaters or night clubs, to appearances on Johnny Carson, to excerpts from his film career. All this instant fragmented access is in keeping with the nature of things in a brave new world where services like Twitter and Instagram and YouTube favor the parts over the whole. I’ve adjusted to the Age of Moments, which comes with the territory when putting together a weekly column with all the resources of the Net at hand. If you don’t own or can’t find DVDs of favorites like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, you can still zero in on special moments.

Stand-Up

Watching Robin Williams’s stand-up routine can be exhausting. There’s a life-or-death desperation in the way he goes at it, as though laughter were oxygen and if he doesn’t breathe in enough of it, he’ll be in need of immediate medical attention. You can almost hear the adrenaline. Charlie Rose or Johnny Carson are lucky to get a word in with Williams firing off one-liners like a man possessed. When the venue is live, in theaters and clubs, all bets are off. The drunken Scotsman-inventing-golf routine bellowed with obscene in-your-face gusto in live performance gets toned down for Parkinson, England’s most popular talk show, where all is civil and conversational and guests are expected to go through the usual motions (say your piece, get some laughs, be charming, plug your latest). Unfortunately, you can’t mention “Parkinson” now without reference to the part the disease with that name may have played in Williams’s suicide. The fact that he’s already been posthumously linked to Parkinson’s indicates the scope of what he’d have been up against; in addition to the patronizing display of sympathetic head-shakings, knowing glances, and sad smiles, there would be wisecracks, sick jokes, and worse, notably in the blogsophere where the venom already being spewed on his daughter Zelda’s Facebook page was so vile that she had to shut it down.

The Poetry of Improvisation

Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam (1987) is the Robin Williams film I remember particularly enjoying, the one where his comic spirit could soar within the confines of a plot. It’s also a reminder of his USO visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he’d performed for 90,000 troops by the time of his final tour in 2010.

Williams talks frankly about keeping his improvisational genie at bay in a 1982 interview with Dallas talk show host Bobbie Wygant about his first film role as the title character in The World According to Garp. Asked if it’s true that director George Roy Hill discouraged him from improvising on the set, he admits as much, saying that it was good for him: “you settle into yourself and find things you wouldn’t have found when you’re going out.” One day Hill allowed him to let go, to make the point, “and then we had to get down to some serious work.”

Norman Lloyd, who plays the headmaster in Dead Poets Society, observed that Williams wasn’t his usual “manic” self during the filming: “He was very serious during this piece. There was no horsing around, none of the Robin one-man-show stuff. He was just an absolutely serious dramatic actor.” Even so, the subtext of the lesson John Keating is so passionately teaching celebrates the spirit of improvisation that’s at the heart of Williams’s comic genius, which is put into instructive action in the scene when Todd Anderson, the painfully shy student played by Ethan Hawke, is forced to free-associate a poem in front of the class, with Keating circling him, coaxing him, making him close his eyes, giving him no room to escape from a plunge deep into his subconscious for something spontaneous and striking (it’s free verse in action). The sequence is launched by a rapidfire interrogation about the picture of Walt Whitman above his desk. “What does he look like?” “A madman.” “What kind of madman? Don’t think about it.” “A crazy madman.” “You can do better than that. Free up your mind.” “A sweaty-toothed madman.” “Good God, boy, there’s a poet in you, after all.” And on it goes, teacher and student moving in a kind of dance with elements of incantation and hide and seek, until finally the overwhelmed student is improvising on a madman mumbling about truth and “a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.” Keating persists, “what about the blanket?” until actor and poet come to life in Todd (and, you would think, in Ethan Hawke): “you push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it will just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.”

At this, the class that had been laughing at Todd’s discomfort cheers and applauds him. What you’ve witnessed isn’t just the frenzied creation of a free-form poem but an exercise in acting, with Weir as teacher behind the scenes, Williams as coach, and Hawke as student.

The Princeton Connection

Dead Poets Society was a memorable debut for Ethan Hawke, who graduated from the Hun School in 1988, the year before the film was released. And Hawke isn’t the only Princeton connection in Robin Williams’s life; one of his closest friends was PDS graduate (class of 1970) and fellow Julliard student Christopher Reeve. According to last week’s memorial statement from Reeve’s children, “He and Dad made each other laugh, and they stood by each other to the end. The world knew Robin as a comedic titan, but to our family, he was simply one of our Dad’s dearest friends. From the moment they were classmates at Juilliard, their friendship transformed into a brotherhood that was built on a mutual admiration for the theater, the arts and, most importantly, laughter. After our father’s accident, Robin’s visit to his hospital room was the first time that Dad truly laughed.”

In Reeve’s memoir, Still Me, he recalls, “I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. … Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

At Heaven’s Gate

When James Lipton, host of the interview series, Inside the Actor’s Studio, asked the ritual question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates,” Robin Williams’s answer was, “There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at five, it’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and someone of your choosing …. Or just to know there was laughter. That would be a great thing.”

After Williams’s death, Lipton said, “Great comedians have to be great actors. And what does an actor do? He reaches deep inside his soul … and brings out something deeply mysterious, a total surprise …. One of the greatest gifts he gave us was to spare us his suffering and to give us his joy …. In the end the one person he would not spare was himself.”

 

SHOULD I CHOOSE LIFE OR DEATH?: Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz, center) after a car accident that left her severely injured, miraculously steps out of her body on the gurney behind her, and learns that she has 24 hours to choose between living or dying.

SHOULD I CHOOSE LIFE OR DEATH?: Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz, center) after a car accident that left her severely injured, miraculously steps out of her body on the gurney behind her, and learns that she has 24 hours to choose between living or dying.

Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a bright 17-year-old young woman full of the bloom of youth. Between playing the cello for pleasure and dating the boy of her dreams (Jamie Blackley), the happy high school senior considers herself truly blessed.

She is lucky enough to have the perfect parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) who support her decision to major in classical music, whether she gets into Juilliard or simply sticks around Portland to attend Lewis & Clark College. Mia is also very close to her only sibling, Teddy (Jakob Davies), who absolutely adores his big sister.

However, fate intervenes one snowy day during a family outing when a car coming in the opposite direction veers across the highway’s double lines. In the blink of an eye, their fortunes are irreversibly altered by an unavoidable head-on crash.

By the time the ambulances and paramedics come to the rescue, all four passengers are in grave condition, and there is a chance that none of them will survive the tragic accident. Mia, who has a collapsed lung, a broken leg, and internal bleeding, slips into a coma.

At that instant, her spirit miraculously separates from her body, and she is suddenly able to observe situations and eavesdrop on conversations as if she were an invisible ghost. While a team of doctors struggle to stabilize her vital signs in the hospital, she watches a nurse (Aisha Hinds) lean over and whisper into her ear that “Living or dying is all up to you.”

This suggests that Mia must choose between dying and ascending to heaven or returning to earth where she will face a host of challenges on her way to recovery. Suspended in this state, she’s afforded the unusual opportunity to reflect and reminisce during the next critical 24 hours before having to make her decision.

That is the surreal setup of If I Stay, a bittersweet flashback movie based on Gayle Forman’s young-adult novel of the same name. Although this sentimental tearjerker will undoubtedly resonate with teenagers, the film’s sophisticated thought-provoking exploration of such themes as family, friendship, love, and spirituality should appeal to audiences in general.

Directed by R.J. Cutler, the movie is about Mia’s contemplation of her future while considering her family’s grim prospects, nostalgia, and the bedside manner of visitors like her grandfather (Stacy Keach), boyfriend, and best friend (Liana Liberato). Although reminiscent of The Lovely Bones (disembodied teen narrator), The Notebook (love story with a syrupy finale), and Twilight (star-crossed romance set in the Pacific Northwest), If I Stay is a unique adventure with a tale all its own to share.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for sexuality and mature themes. Running time: 106 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 13, 2014
Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?

—Walton Goggins

You may think you’re delving into the past when you sort through old interviews and reviews online, but the “ever present present” is always there, as it was last night when the news of Robin Williams’s death kept popping up on the pages of otherwise ancient information. I didn’t have time to read the details until I saw David Itzkoff’s obituary in Tuesday’s New York Times. I was writing about a gifted actor named Walton Goggins (imagine the fun Robin Williams would have riffing on that moniker), and didn’t want to stray from the subject. Reading the quote from Williams reassessing himself as a performer — “how much more can you give? Other than, literally, open-heart surgery onstage?” — I realized there’s no disconnect when you’re talking about actors.

In an interview on collider.com about the conclusion of The Shield (2002-2008), the extraordinary FX series about rogue cops in the LAPD, Walton Goggins complimented the show’s creator, Shawn Ryan, for ending it “the way that he began it, from the heart and from a place of passion.” Speaking of the “many threads in this story,” Goggins refers to the complex relationship between his character, detective Shane Vendrell, and the strike team leader Vic Mackey, played by Emmy-winner Michael Chiklis. “It’s the disintegration of that friendship and what it has done to these two men that were inexorably tied to the original sin of this show …. To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?” What Goggins goes on to say about his character tells you a lot about how much of himself he gave to that role: “I’ll never get to play Shane Vendrell again. For me, it almost broke my heart when that happened because I love him very much, not from a friend standpoint. I just want to hug him. I just want to go up to him and just kind of hug him and whisper in his ear, ‘Buddy, you’re okay. You’ll be okay. If you can start from here and try to live your life differently, you’ll be okay.’”

In the same collider interview, Goggins, who was born in Atlanta in 1971, recalls walking into the local casting director’s office at the age of 14, with no acting experience, saying, “‘I have a lot of emotions. I’m a young kid, and I want to get these emotions out in a constructive way, so I think I need to become an actor, and I need you to help me do that.’ That was kind of my trajectory. I don’t think there was another option for me, really.”

A Great Ending

In view of Shane’s devastating fate, his actor buddy’s advice about living “your life differently” is wishful thinking on the grand scale. Certainly no one who ever stayed with The Shield to the finale will ever forget a show that closed out its seven-season run with what television critic Alan Sepinwall, writing online, called “the most satisfying end to a great drama series that I’ve ever seen.” In his book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever (2012), Sepinwall suggests that from a Shield fan’s point of view what ultimately made the show great “was that it ended great.”

In the beginning, Shane was merely the lone witness to the “original sin” moment when Vic Mackey shot dead a fellow detective who had been planted on his deeply corrupt strike team in the fictional Farmington Division of the LAPD. The FX brass wanted Ryan to fire Goggins after the pilot was filmed, according to the chapter on The Shield in Sepinwall’s book. Ryan refused, and by the time Season 5 ended, “Goggins had more than justified his boss’s faith.” Up until then, the show needed infusions of star power from name actors like Glenn Close in Season 4 and Forest Whitaker in Season 5. Once Shane became “the center of the storm,” the series no longer needed “a Very Special Guest Star” because Goggins, as Sepinwall puts it, was playing “at Michael Chiklis’s level, and there was no conflict the show could create that would be bigger, or hit harder, than Vic vs. Shane, mentor against protégé, brother against brother.”

Sepinwall’s title for the chapter was “The Shield takes antiheroism to the limit,” and it’s a tribute to Chiklis’s relentless performance that you’re pulling for Mackey, the ultimate antihero, even as you’re thinking what an obnoxious brute he is. Whether he’s taking his cut, setting up monumental heists, bullying or beating on everyone in sight, he’s also doing his job. Every time the powers that be are about to come down on him, he pulls off a major bust. As a viewer, you give him credit for loving his kids, two of whom are autistic, but you never see him engaged as a father the way you do Tony Soprano with A.J. and Meadow and Walter White with his disabled son in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. 

Other Endings

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

People are still arguing about the ending of The Sopranos. Thanks to series creator David Chase’s decision to leave the final episode unresolved, with Tony Soprano sitting for all eternity over a plate of fried onion rings, many diehard fans of the show insist that what should have ended with a bang ended with worse than a whimper. A cop-out. An insult to closure. A cheating of fans who had invested almost a decade of their lives in the HBO blockbuster.

In The Revolution Was Televised, Chase tells Sepinwall that he never intended to play “head games” with the audience. “It just seemed right …. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”

As Sepinwall points out, the ending “almost feels bigger than the show it dropped a curtain on.”

The first I ever heard of The Shield was on Sepinwall’s blog, “What’s Alan Watching” in September 2013, amid the analytical back and forth following the finale of Breaking Bad. While fans furiously weighed in on the subject of Walter White’s fate, the program they cited as the standard when it came to superior endings was The Shield.

As endings go, to use T.S. Eliot parameters, Breaking Bad went out with more  bangs than any comparable endgame situation this side of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. At the time Sepinwall interviewed Vince Gilligan for his book, Breaking Bad had not yet finished its run, so the ending was up for discussion. In reviewing the possibilities, Sepinwall presciently wonders about the machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car, which became, in fact, the primary component in the ingeniously, if improbably, fashioned machinery of the denouement (Walt was a mad genius, after all). At that time Vince Gilligan’s thoughts about a finale didn’t go much beyond a wish “to do justice to the characters,” to “satisfy the audience,” to make sure everyone feels “that this trip was worth taking,” and to end “in the best, most interesting, most breathtaking and ultimately satisfying way possible.”

No surprise, many of the Breaking Bad bloggers were dissatisfied. Some felt the denouement was too neat, with too many loose ends left unresolved. Compared to the ambiguous finales of The Sopranos and The Shield, however, Walter White’s self-devised demise lived up to Gilligan’s promise. Lifted by the rock and roll euphoria of Badfinger’s song, “Baby Blue,” Breaking Bad ends on a high.

Losing Everything

The Shield ends in a darker place, one that moved Slate’s Mark Peters to term it “a Shakespearean tragedy in which the antihero’s sins, spinning out from a fatal decision he makes in the pilot, slowly destroy everyone around him. The main character insists he’s doing it all for his family — but he’s lying, especially to himself. There’s a lot of collateral damage, but this murderer’s worst crime might be the corruption of his vulnerable younger partner.”

As for Vic Mackey, rather than going down in a blaze of machinegun glory or landing a life term or Death Row, he sells his soul for immunity, which means a three-year sentence confined to desk duty in a cubicle, duties befitting exactly the sort of paper pusher he has for so long been the fire-breathing man-of-action antithesis of, and what would be a routine act for an ordinary employee — the displaying of photographs of his wife and children — carries a lead weight of irony for one who has lost his family, friends, coworkers, everything but his life.

Unguilty Pleasures 

Let’s face it, the stuff we’ve been watching since the millennium is gruesome fare. People do terrible things to one another on Game of Thrones, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Luther, True Detective, and on and on, not to mention some recent horrors like Penny Dreadful and The Leftovers. While not all the abovementioned can be called works of art in a class with The Shield or The Sopranos, Deadwood or The Wire, they provide enough intensity and visual imagination to keep us from watching real-life atrocities like Congress, the Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other Usual Suspects. We can read about all that in the New York Times, along with the untimely death of the actor who asked “How much more can you give?”

This seems as good a place as any to quote Henry James from The Middle Years: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

 

FACES OF THE NIGHT: This photograph by Wendy Paton will be part of an exhibition of 70 gelatin silver prints in the exhibition “Wendy Paton: Nuit Blanche” opening in the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown on Saturday, August 23. It is part of the artist’s “Visages de Nuit” series of 51 black and white candid night portraits, shot over a six-year period from 2006 to 2012. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org.(Image Courtesy of the Michener Art Museum).

FACES OF THE NIGHT: This photograph by Wendy Paton will be part of an exhibition of 70 gelatin silver prints in the exhibition “Wendy Paton: Nuit Blanche” opening in the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown on Saturday, August 23. It is part of the artist’s “Visages de Nuit” series of 51 black and white candid night portraits, shot over a six-year period from 2006 to 2012. For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org. (Image Courtesy of the Michener Art Museum).

An installation of 70 gelatin silver prints by Wendy Paton are on view in “Wendy Paton: Nuit Blanche” at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown from Saturday, August 23 through December 7 in the Commonwealth and Pfundt Galleries.

An award winning fine art photographer, Wendy Paton was in the throes of a successful, ground breaking career training and driving Standardbred race horses in New York, when in 1981, her interest in photography emerged. She studied at the International Center of Photography in New York, learned the intricacies of night photography from Michael Kenna, and darkroom printing techniques from her mentor and collaborator, master printer Chuck Kelton.

The Michener exhibition consists of two bodies of work: “Nuit Blanche” comprises a premiere selection of Paton’s Visages de Nuit, complemented by a collection of her latest series, Reclaiming Dignity.

Visages de Nuit, is a collection of 51 black and white candid night portraits, shot over a six-year period from 2006 to 2012 in various international cities. The series of nocturnal images explores the mystery of the night and brings the viewer into her subject’s nighttime world. Ms. Paton’s dark and gritty images purposely convey her interpretation of the surreal quality of life at night, and what is hiding behind what we normally view as reality.

Reclaiming Dignity is a portfolio of the photographer’s vision of “abstract portraits,” faces and bodies of neglected cars, once coveted for their style, beauty, speed, and grace, left unattended and ignored for years, then given a chance to once again be admired and coveted; an opportunity to “reclaim their dignity.”

Both Visages de Nuit and Reclaiming Dignity share the common thread of a strong desire to visually document a contemporary vision of “portraits,” a creative portrayal of what the artist observes through her camera’s lens.

The execution of this work, size of prints, the choice to use black and white film, and the conscious style of printing in a traditional darkroom, were all vital in allowing Paton to produce this exhibition of gelatin silver photographs with the desired strong, emotional impact.

This exhibition is curated and organized by Lisa Tremper Hanover, Director and CEO of the Michener Art Museum and is supported by an anonymous friend of the Museum in honor of Padmini and Rajan as well as by Jay and Barbara Belding and Sandra and Conrad Leon. In-kind support is provided by Brilliant Graphics and Paris Framemakers.

Ms. Paton will speak about her work at the museum on September 16; she will conduct a weekend studio workshop, “Making Photograms/Darkroom & Cyanotype Technique,” from October 18 through October 19.

The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, Pa.

For more information, call (215) 340-9800, or visit: www.michenermuseum.org.

 

SCAMMERS AND THEIR PREY: Subtle (Bruce Cromer, left), posing as the all-knowing alchemist, foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” (1610), playing through August 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison.(Photo by Jerry Dalia)

SCAMMERS AND THEIR PREY: Subtle (Bruce Cromer, left), posing as the all-knowing alchemist, foresees business prospects for Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) in New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Ben Jonson’s “The Alchemist” (1610), playing through August 31 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre in Madison. (Photo by Jerry Dalia)

“O Rare Ben Jonson!” reads the epitaph on the tomb, in London’s Westminster Abbey, of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean poet and playwright. Though Jonson is considered, along with Shakespeare, to be one of the two towering figures of English Renaissance drama, his “rarity” is most clearly manifested today in the unlikelihood of anyone reading or producing his plays.

Undaunted, Bonnie Monte, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director, has painstakingly and lovingly adapted and staged Mr. Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610), a wild, irreverent satiric comedy, one of his two most famous plays (along with Volpone from 1605). Even in this streamlined, artfully directed, skillfully acted, impressively fine and funny production, the reasons why you may never have had an opportunity to see a Ben Jonson play are obvious.

While Shakespeare may have been, as Jonson himself described him, “not of an age but for all time,” Jonson lived in the moment and was decidedly a man of his time. The Alchemist, for example, takes place in Jonson’s present-day Blackfriars, a suburb of London, during the Plague. Firmly rooted in the corruptions of the real world, Mr. Jonson’s comedy is satiric, holding the mirror up to human beings and their actions, showing us our folly and foibles so that we can make amends.

Heroism? Idealism? Admirable characters? True romance? Not likely in Jonson’s world. Money takes priority over love here, and these characters, all driven by greed and ego-centrism, are not easy to warm up to, despite an enormous, boisterous energy, a vitality and even grandeur emanating from the sheer cunning, creativity, and enjoyment in their out-and-out knavery. And there may also be particular resonances, some lessons to be learned by contemporary audiences, engulfed in the relentless self-promotions, aggressive marketing, and offensive sales pitches of our materialistic world.

Ms. Monte’s adaptation of The Alchemist, including “at least 1000 changes to Jonson’s original text,” deletion of “various minor characters and locations,” “hundreds of cuts and word changes,” and many lines rewritten is helpful in clarifying or eliminating eccentric and incomprehensible syntax, topical allusions, obscure vocabulary and colloquialisms. Those changes, along with some superb performances and a fine sense of comic timing throughout, help to ensure that the humor comes across here. At three hours running time, however, with sustained close listening a requisite and some comprehension challenges remaining, even this new, more accessible Alchemist will not appeal to all tastes.

Jonson follows a classical dramatic structure to frame what looks like almost a celebration of anarchy in his plot. The Alchemist respects the three unities of time (one day), place (the Blackfriars’ house of Lovewit who has left town), and action (Lovewit’s servant and two friends take over the residence as a headquarters for operating their “alchemy” business, involving various fraudulent enterprises that thrive on the gullibility and greed of their victims).

The elaborate unit set, artfully designed by Jonathan Wentz, is rich in detail and scores top marks for functionality and aesthetics. Representing the interior of Lovewit’s house and offering twelve different entrances and exits on two levels, this setting, like a 17th century version of the interior for Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off, puts us squarely in the realm of farcical comedy. The action to take place here is bound to be fast and frenetic.

Nikki Delhomme’s bold, wildly creative costumes, are just sufficiently extreme to enrich the characters’ over-the-top behaviors and personalities. The colorful, memorable wardrobe choices greatly add to the spirit and comedy of the world of The Alchemist. Lighting by Steven Rosen contributes to the relatively clear staging of the chaotic action of this play and also enhances the energetic, buoyant tone, and mood of the piece.

At the core of the action in The Alchemist are the three ‘dirty rotten scoundrels’ — Lovewit’s butler Face (Jon Barker), Subtle the “alchemist” (Bruce Cromer), and a prostitute, Dol Common (Aedin Moloney) — who take over the house while the owner Lovewit (John Ahlin) is away. Although the house is supposed to be kept closed to guard against spread of the Plague, the clever trio entertain a steady stream of eager customers.

First comes Dapper (Jon Sprik), a naïve young lawyer’s clerk seeking a “familiar,” a fairy queen summoned through Subtle’s magical powers, to assist Dapper’s gambling ventures. Then Abel Drugger (Jeffrey M. Bender) appears, begging supernatural assistance for his tobacco business. Next to arrive is the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon (Brent Harris), voracious in his appetites for money, food, and women, and determined to enlist Subtle’s alchemy in acquiring the legendary philosopher’s stone, that turns all metals into gold. Accompanying Sir Epicure is Pertinax Surly (Kevin Isola), a voice of reason and skepticism, who quickly assesses the fraudulence of Face and his cohorts, but, of course, is ignored and scorned by all.

Two Anabaptist religious figures, an angry Ananias (James Michael Reilly) and his colleague Tribulation Wholesome (Raphael Nash Thompson), also prove ready victims in their greedy scheme to see their money turned into gold. Drugger returns and introduces a rich, alluring young widow, Dame Pliant (Kristen Kittel) and her brother Kastril (Seamus Mulcahy) into the mix.

As Face and Subtle battle over the affections of Dame Pliant, Dol, in the guise of a “royal lady” who has gone mad, romances Sir Epicure. Dapper is gagged and blindfolded and hustled off to the privy, where he spends most of the rest of the play. Drugger and Surly, who is now disguised as a Spanish nobleman, join the heated pursuit of the comely widow, and a huge explosion from the alchemy laboratory, offstage left, adds yet another layer to the madcap confusion.

The unexpectedly early return home of Lovewit finally brings the chaos and increasingly feverish, creative machinations of the three con artists to a head, and a hilarious final scene ensues, where Face, back to his actual persona as Jeremy the housekeeper/ butler, must sort out the insanity and explain the bizarre situation to his bewildered master.

The ensemble of thirteen, all experienced Shakespeare Theatre professionals, take on this challenging work with energy, intelligence, and finely honed comedic style. The characters with their particular quirks and vanities come across clearly and memorably. The actors successfully communicate the difficult language here and, under Ms. Monte’s careful direction, the wild convolutions of this zany plot become mostly coherent.

In this summer of darkness for Princeton Summer Theater, New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre’s highly entertaining production of Ben Jonson’s classic The Alchemist is well worth the hour-long trip north to Madison, especially for aficionados of Ben Jonson and classic English theater. Ms. Monte has composed a remarkable adaptation of a masterpiece and staged it brilliantly to win over contemporary audiences. This is a production to garner appreciation and enjoyment of the rarity of “rare Ben Jonson” and to offer hope that his plays will grace 21st century stages more often in the future.

 

THIS REALLY IS THE MOTHER OF ALL TORNADOS: The tornado predicted by meteorologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies, not shown) touches down with three funnel clouds in Silverton and disrupts the local high school’s graduation ceremony.

THIS REALLY IS THE MOTHER OF ALL TORNADOS: The tornado predicted by meteorologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies, not shown) touches down with three funnel clouds in Silverton and disrupts the local high school’s graduation ceremony.

The skies are serene over Silverton, Oklahoma, with no reminder of the fact that four people recently perished in a deadly tornado that touched down in a neighboring city. So, we find the townfolk blissfully unaware of the rough weather that is bearing down on their area and threatening to ruin the high school’s graduation ceremonies.

Vice Principal Gary Morris (Richard Armitage), who is in charge of the commencement, has told his sons, Trey (Nathan Kress), a sophomore, and Donnie (Max Deacon), a junior, to film the ceremony in order to preserve it in a buried time capsule. His younger son complies with the request, but the elder is distracted by an opportunity to assist an attractive classmate (Alycia Debnam Carey) salvage her own video project.

Meanwhile, a team of storm chasers is rushing towards Silverton under the direction of its meteorologist, Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies), since her data has predicted that the next funnel cloud is likely to form somewhere in that vicinity. However, she’s a single mother with a 5-year-old (Keala Wayne Winterhalt) back home, and as a consequence she’s less enthusiastic about taking risks with their safety than their leader, Pete Moore (Matt Walsh).

Moore is maniacal in his quest to capture what appears to be the mother of all cyclones on camera. So, he exhorts Allison and the rest of the crew to risk their lives in order to capture that elusive dream photo that will be taken from inside the eye of a storm.

However, they have a couple of vehicles that are specially outfitted for severe weather, including a glass turreted tank that can withstand winds up to 170 m.p.h. However, two local residents, Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (John Reep), are daredevils who have decided to try to capture films of the storm by riding around in a pickup truck with a hand-painted sign that reads “TWISTA HUNTERZ.”

Allison’s dire forecast proves uncannily accurate as ominous clouds form overhead. That’s when the action begins in Into the Storm, a disaster film reminiscent of such classics as Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974).

This movie benefits immeasurably from state-of-the-art computer generated images, and is worth seeing for the eye-popping special effects alone. The movie is a campy, cheesy, yet visually captivating roller coaster ride.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexual references, and scenes of intense peril and destruction. Running time: 89 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

 

August 6, 2014

BeatlesWhen the closing credits of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood came on the screen at Princeton’s new community cinema Friday, people applauded. The Garden was full to overflowing, an extraordinary turn-out on a midsummer night, with the students away. The applause suggests that Princeton finally has a place where people go to share movies, not just to see them.

Fifty years ago this month, when the lights came on at Manhattan’s Trans-Lux East on 58th Street after a showing of A Hard Day’s Night, it wasn’t the clapping and cheering that told the story: it was the smiling. Wherever you looked there were happy faces. People were glowing, all ages sharing the euphoria, smiles here, there, and everywhere, a sense of unbounded excitement, such a surge of good feeling you thought it might be powerful enough to conjure up a personal appearance by Paul, John, George, and Ringo.

Not a Fan

At the time of that first viewing I was not a fan. It would be two years before I even owned a Beatles album. My heroes were Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. The Indiana couple I talked into seeing A Hard Day’s Night with me that first time weren’t into the music at all, even at the Top 40 Cousin Brucie level, but when we walked out of the theater, they were beaming like everybody else. By now I knew this was a film I didn’t want to see on my own; such joy had to be shared. I’d been living in the city just six months and my only other friend was a tall, super-talkative poet who had zero interest in popular music. She, too, had to be talked into going. So we went. As the picture ended, she said, “Let’s see it again, okay?” and we did. Next up was my best friend, who lived in New Haven, I paid a visit, stayed over, and he and his wife and I went to A Hard Day’s Night, and came out smiling in the afterglow, everyone giddy and loose, the same as the first time in New York. I was beginning to feel like a tour guide for the Fab Four.

Even people predisposed to hate the film loved it. Like that stodgy Elmer Fudd of film reviewers Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who begins his review by saying, “This is going to surprise you — it may knock you right out of your chair — but the new film with those incredible chaps, the Beatles, is a whale of a comedy.” Who could believe it! The chronically buttoned-up Bosley who had scorned “the juvenile madness” afflicting “otherwise healthy young people” found the “good humor” and “rollicking, madcap fun” created by those incredible chaps “awfully hard to resist.” You had to think, “Something special is going on here,” something, you might even say, magical.

Liberation

Whatever you call it — serendipity might be preferable to magic — A Hard Day’s Night would not have been possible without an expatriate Philadelphian named Richard Lester, who had directed The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), a surreal 11-minute short starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan that was admired by the Beatles, and key to their comfort level with Lester and their own ideas about the zany ambience of the film being created around them.

If anything, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film looks labored and limping compared to the pace and fervor and comic spirit of its rocking running jumping offspring. Take the romp in an open field scored to the full-tilt frenzy of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” where the film picks you up and runs off with you. Poet/critic Geoffrey O’Brien remembers walking into the theater “as a solitary observer with more or less random musical tastes” and coming out “as a member of a generation sharing a common repertoire with a sea of contemporaries, strangers, who suddenly seemed like family …. The world became, with very little effort, a more companionable place.” O’Brien’s response to the romp in the field was that “the effortlessness” of it “began to seem a fundamental value. That’s what they were there for: to have fun, and allow us to watch them having it …. The converted choose the leap into faith over rational argument. It was enough to believe they were taking over the world on our behalf.”

Charmed, I’m Sure

Imagine how it felt for first-time audiences when A Hard Day’s Night came rushing headlong at them on the wings of the iconic chord producer George Martin considered “the perfect launch,” the four lads pursued by howling teen and subteen furies, diving onto a train at Marylebone Station, driven by a breathtaking display of cinéma vérité virtuosity, genius editing, and dazzling interplay between a group of gifted non-actors from Liverpool and old pros like Paul’s grandfather, the “clean old man” played by Wilfrid Brambell, a leering embodiment of mischief straight out of an Alec Guinness Ealing-era comedy.

Everyone interviewed for the Criterion DVD, from the United Artists and EMI brass to the players of small parts, from Richard Lester to George Martin, is reduced to gushing wonderment at how splendidly the Beatles handled the challenges and demands of making a film on a tight schedule and how well they worked with professional actors. The qualities that charmed the world — the style, wit, sense of fun, sheer energy, not to mention the singing and playing — clearly also charmed the people on the set.

Speaking of charm, there’s the first song after the title number, the only one that grows naturally out of a situation unrelated to the television special the group is seen rehearsing for and performing. Composed and sung by John Lennon, “I Should Have Known Better” is delivered with such joyous force and feeling that your spirits, already high from that opening rush, are lifted even higher, and when John and Paul go up the scale to maximum euphoria singing “Can’t you see? Can’t you see?,” you’re up there with them. Every time I see the baggage car sequence I find more to admire, partly because of being at first so intoxicated by the music that I took the visuals for granted. Another of their great escapes, though not as acrobatic as the zany freak-out in the field, this one has the Beatles taking refuge from the madness on the train, much of it stirred up by Paul’s trouble-making grandfather, the old rogue having been “jailed” for the duration of the journey. Shot through wire mesh giving the impression of a cage, the scene begins as a game of cards until you hear the sound of John’s harmonica as cinematic sleight of hand turns the cards into guitars and the players into musicians, a music video decades before MTV, with close-ups of John, Paul, George, and Ringo interwoven with shots of their small, formidably cute schoolgirl audience. When John sings, “I never realized what a kiss could be,” you’re realizing what a song could be, everything’s meshing, life and music in motion, then back to earth you come, the cards once again in play, Ringo’s won, and so have we all.

“If I Fell” is another infectious song written and sung by Lennon and marked by movingly unexpected harmonic nuances.  “My first attempt at a ballad proper,” John has said. As usual in A Hard Day’s Night, plenty is happening in the background, no one stops to listen, people go about their business, everything coming together, music and life once again subtly, spontaneously interacting.

Smiling Through

Of all the songs from A Hard Day’s Night, the one that has the most personal resonance for me is “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” which John wrote for George to sing. What a gift. Maybe John felt generous, maybe he thought it too light (“I couldn’ta sung it,” he claims). What a gift for the world. In Istanbul, feeling lonely and strung-out on my way back from India, I heard the song playing over a loudspeaker at a park near Hagia Sophia. It was a lovely afternoon and as I walked among the people, families, couples, all ages, it was the first time I hadn’t been made to feel like an alien being, the object of hard stares on all sides. People were actually smiling at me, and I realized they associated me, the shabby westerner, with the music that was making them feel good. It was reflected glory, the Hard Day’s Night effect all over again.

Half a year earlier in Katmandu, sick and alone since Christmas Day, I pulled myself out of bed and staggered down the road to the nearest cafe. As I walked into the warm, bright room full of strangers, most of them from the west, hitchhikers like me, Germans, English, Dutch, Japanese, Americans, familiar music was playing. The Beatles, who else, and the song was “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You.” After a week of fever and nothing to eat, I sat down at a table with some people who seemed to know me or maybe they knew me through the music. They could tell I’d been under the weather. This was the first day of the new year. Happy New Year someone said. Happy happy happy, said the music. People were smiling as the song filled the room. It took no effort to feel that the world had become “a more companionable place.”  The Beatles had taken it over “on our behalf.”

“Boyhood”

Whenever my son, who was bathed in Beatles from day one, moans and groans about the break-up and at how disappointing the solo output has been since 1970, I keep reminding him that between them John, Paul, George, and to a lesser extent, Ringo, made enough great music in their solo careers, that if you felt inclined, you could put together at least two or three great Beatles albums using the best songs. Over the years, I’ve made provisional selections, thinking one day I might take the time to put together a tape for my son. One of the many reasons I was applauding Boyhood at the Garden the other night was the scene where the father (Ethan Hawke) proudly presents the son (Ellar Coltrane) with “something that money couldn’t buy,” his own CD creation, The Black Album, a “secret Beatles record” he’d meticulously assembled from the solo work, complete with liner notes and playlist. The father’s overkill of presentation as his laid-back son fails to come up with a response worthy of the effort, was among the truest moments in an unforgettable film.

One of the first features to play at new Garden, by the way, was the re-released version of A Hard Day’s Night. This community theatre is the best thing to happen to Princeton in ages. You can find out about joining at www.thegardentheatre.com/membership.php.

The quotes from Geoffrey O’Brien and Ned Rorem are from articles in the New York Review of Books. I also quoted from William J. Dowlding’s ever-useful Beatlesongs (Fireside 1989). You can see the playlist for The Black Album at http://blogs.indiewire.com.

 

DOGPATCH, USA: Pappy (from left, Pat Parton), Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft), Daisy Mae (Amber Payne), and Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) enjoy a pause amidst the pandemonium in M&M Stage’s production of the 1956 musical comedy “Li’l Abner” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre through August 10.

DOGPATCH, USA: Pappy (from left, Pat Parton), Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft), Daisy Mae (Amber Payne), and Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) enjoy a pause amidst the pandemonium in M&M Stage’s production of the 1956 musical comedy “Li’l Abner” at Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre through August 10.

It’s “a typical day in Dogpatch, USA,” which means that the menfolk are doing a lot of sleeping, fishing, swapping lies, making Kickapoo Joy Juice moonshine and collecting unemployment, while the women are doing all of the work and looking forward to the Sadie Hawkins Day race when they hope to catch and marry the men of their dreams. The beautiful young Daisy Mae declares her “one aim in life is to be a good wife, and marry Li’l Abner someday!” The “mystical” and pugilistical” Mammy Yokum is “sassiety’s queen,” who “heads the local machine.” Meanwhile her tall, handsome, good-hearted son Abner, a model of innocence in a corrupt, scheming world, spends most of his energy running away from Daisy and other marriage-seeking young women.

Currently playing at Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County College in an M&M Stage production, the 1956 musical Li’l Abner is based on characters created by Al Capp in his long running (1934-1977) comic strip. It features an array of larger-than-life stereotypes of the rural South, of male-female relationships and of heroes and villains in the world of the 1950s.

The original production, with lyrics and music by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul and book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, ran for 693 performances on Broadway in 1956-57, followed by a nationwide tour and 1959 movie. The show has remained popular in schools, colleges, and community theaters, though there has never been a major professional revival. The show includes an assortment of amusing, appealing characters, some memorable musical numbers, and some mostly mild satire that often, in the style of Mark Twain via Al Capp, hits home, even six decades after its composition. Despite this worthy, spirited Kelsey production, however, Li’l Abner does suffer from a bit of creakiness and corniness in the plot, seems a bit dated in its 1950s subject matter and traditional musical comedy style, and, at two hours and 45 minutes, goes on about half an hour too long.

Under the skillful direction of Matt South, the capable M&M (Mike Almstedt and Mike Dilorio, producers) ensemble cast of 26 successfully brings the world of Dogpatch, USA to life. Strong voices and experienced actors in most of the leading roles, along with lively, sure-handed choreography by Laura Murey-Ghaffoor and the capable pit orchestra of 15 under the baton of Charlie DeMets ensure a smooth-running, engaging evening.

The “Typical Day” in Dogpatch, with Li’l Abner (Glenn Kraft) and Daisy Mae (Amber Payne) at an enamored yet uncommitted stand-off, quickly spirals into pandemonium when Senator Phogbound (Chuck Denk) arrives to inform the town that the government plans to turn Dogpatch into a nuclear testing ground. Even worse, the evacuation of the townspeople is scheduled to take place before Sadie Hawkins Day, when the local young ladies were all counting on catching their desired mates. Marryin’ Sam (Del Howard), of course, was looking forward to the resulting boost in income.

The only way to save the day is to find something necessary about the town. Could the secret lie in the Yokumberry tonic that Mammy Yokum (Kathy Kutalek) has spoon fed to Li’l Abner every day since he was a baby? Li’l Abner courageously heads to Washington D.C. with the secret formula, but General Bullmoose (Tom Bessellieu), a consummate businessman, plans to trap him into marrying Bullmoose’s secretary Appassionata Von Climax (Kristina Lunetta) and acquire Yokumberry tonic for his own purposes. Meanwhile Daisy Mae has agreed to marry Earthquake McGoon (Evan Bilinski) if he will help her to rescue Li’l Abner, and they, along with an animated contingent of Dogpatchers, descend upon General Bullmoose’s mansion and the government testing laboratory, where the eccentric Dr. Finsdale (Joe Zedeny) and his colleagues are working assiduously to use the Yokumberry formula to create a “brave new world” of superior human beings (“Oh Happy Day”). How will Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner ever get together? How will Dogpatch ever survive?

Mr. Kraft and Ms. Payne in the starring roles are a convincing, attractive romantic duo. In duets (“Namely You” and “Love in a Home”) and other individual and ensemble numbers, they present harmonious, beautiful singing, on-target character work and fine chemistry.

Ms. Kutalek’s Mammy Yokum is suitably feisty, energetic, even acrobatic, strong-willed and entertaining, while Mr. Howard, as Marryin Sam, slick and dapper in black hat and suit with blue vest, provides a vibrant character and a dynamic catalyst for several of the best numbers in the show. A polished dancer with a strong singing voice, Mr. Howard leads the ensemble in the hilarious and rousing “Jubilation T. Cornpone,” in praise of the bumbling Confederate general whose statue graces the Dogpatch town square (“Stonewall Jackson got his name by standing firm in the fray./But who was known to all his men as good ol’ ‘Paper Mache?’”), and also in the sharply satirical, and timely — some things never change, at least not for the better — “The Country’s In the Very Best of Hands” and “The Matrimonial Stomp.”

Mr. Bessellieu’s General Bullmoose delivers a forcefully dramatic caricature of “the military industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned against, and his two signature numbers, “What’s Good for General Bullmoose” (“is good for the USA”) and “Progress Is the Root of All Evil,” help to reveal and develop this charismatic villain.

Other colorfully striking characters populating the production include Mr. Parton’s laid-back Pappy Yokum (with interesting resemblance to Jerry Garcia), Mr. Bilinski’s powerfully threatening McGoon, Ms. Lunetta’s alluring Appassionata, and Mr. Zedeny’s zany Dr. Finsdale. The supporting ensemble, representing a range of experience and talent, displays fine vocal accomplishments, simple and appealing choreography, and amusing characterizations of the eccentric, zealous Dogpatchers and others to keep the evening moving with energy and focus.

Mr. Almstedt’s brightly-colored set design is functional and effective in helping to create the several different locales in Dogpatch and Washington, D.C., though more speedy set changes would be helpful in driving the plot forward and keeping audience focus. Robert Rutt’s lighting, Louisa Murey’s costumes and Nick Mastalesz’s sound all coordinate together smoothly to bring Al Capp’s wacky world to life on the Kelsey stage.

All in all, M&M’s Li’l Abner — though a bit corny, a lot dated, occasionally tiresome — nonetheless delivers an enjoyable evening of lively music, captivating characters, witty satire, and entertaining humor.

M&M’s production ofLi’l Abner” runs for one more weekend, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, August 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 10, in the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Call (609) 570-3333 or visit www.kelseytheatre.net for tickets and information.